On writing the past

So many of my poems are concerned with the past that I sometimes wonder whether I will ever be able to write well about the present, about contemporary life. But then I say to myself that the past refracts upon the present, and the future, so I needn’t fret.

I do fixate on how the passage of time impacts, on today, on how say the amount of time since I started secondary school, in 1978, is now considerably longer than the period from then back to the end of the Second World War; and how some customs and values, in England/Britain in particular, have changed considerably whilst others have stayed relatively constant despite huge technological advances which would have been virtually unimaginable in the late ’70s, even on Tomorrow’s World. I realise I’m hardly alone in my obsession but when it materialises as narrative poetry it does, perhaps, mark me out as out of step with much contemporary poetry. I don’t worry about that unduly though, as fashions come and go, and I like to think that there will always be some readers who like poetry which principally deals with familial and local history in the Twentieth Century and who can read it at face value and/or refract its matter onto their own experience and times.

The temptation in writing about events which happened some time ago – even a long time ago, maybe even centuries before I was born – is to use the present tense to make the narrative more immediate, more exciting, more now. After all, the present tense in contemporary poetry, or poetry in English at least, does seem, well, omnipresent. Ten years ago or so, I went through a period, when I felt that the present tense was de rigueur, perhaps because of years of writing haiku. I believed that the present tense helps the reader, as it bridges the time gap and thereby makes the particular events and circumstances more tangible.

Take, for example, my sonnet ‘Sofas’, which is partly about the Guildford bombings of 1974: whatever impact the poem might have would, I’m sure, have been diminished if I’d written the sestet or the whole poem in the past tense, because, as is hopefully obvious, I’d intended the power of the poem to be sparked by the difference between the present-day scene in the octave and the historical scene in the sestet.

The other poem of mine in the same issue of The High Window, ‘Good Morning, Mr Gauguin’, written – during one of Pascale Petit’s ‘poetry from art’ courses, at Tate Modern’s magnificent Gauguin exhibition of 2010–2011 – in response to the 1889 painting Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin’, itself an allusion to Gustave Courbet’s 1854 painting, ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’, could have been rendered in the past tense, but the use of the imperative seemed somehow in keeping with both the style of the painting and Gauguin’s character (inasmuch as we can know him from his works and correspondence and from biographical matter about him). Typically, since the poem has been published I’ve revised it into what, I like to believe, is a better poem, but revision of poems is another matter entirely.

Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder whether sticking rigidly to the present tense does historical poems a disservice, as if one is implicitly saying that their contents couldn’t be of any direct relevance to today if they were written in the past tense. In some ways, the historical distance is as valuable and exciting as the relevance for our daily existence today. For me, it’s an interesting problem to grapple with.

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