Hewing words

The Festival of Writing at York University, organized by Harry Bingham’s Writers’ Workshop, was an illuminating and insightful event. Illuminating, because it laid bare the highly challenging market for book publishing: you have to write ‘dazzlingly well’, as Harry put it, to get published, and even then you might not succeed if publishers deem the market saturated. Insightful, because I learned so much about plotting (Jeremy Sheldon), character (Tim Murgatroyd), voice (Emma Darwin), and prose (Harry Bingham), to name a few aspects. I also learned what not to do in a manuscript (Nicola Morgan).

The Festival was stimulating right from the first moment, with encounters with other writers, through to the keynote talks by authors David Nobbs (Rise & Fall of Reginald Perrin) and Kate Williams (Becoming Queen, filmed as Young Victoria). And the whole event was fun, as promised by the organizers. Now I only have to put what I have learned into practice. (See Persistent Writer‘s blog for good review.)

But in my personal approach to the event, one thing is odd: I go to a writers’ conference where there are lots of books available, and I take my own reading material. Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason’s Graforpögn (Silence of the Grave in English, though I’m reading the French translation La femme en vert) and Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain. I love dipping into Seamus Heaney at regular intervals ever since I purchased Door into the Dark over 40 years ago. I did finish Indridason’s book at York, despite the competing attraction of other books and the bar.

Human Chain is a sparkling collection of poems addressing the human condition and transmission. It also springs surprises with Heaney’s version ‘A Herbal’ of Guillevic’s ‘Herbier de Bretagne’. Guillevic’s poetry first caught my attention when I was studying and working in Paris in the early 1970s: I was even planning to do a ‘maîtrise’ on Guillevic, but other things got in the way, and in any case, it seemed illogical to write at length on a poet who strove for brevity and juxtaposition of hard concise images (see The Independent‘s obituary). It is satisfying that his work is becoming better known in the English-speaking world – see Joseph Hutchison’s blog Perpetual Bird of 22 March 2011.

There are so many memorable Guillevic poems, but here are some of the first that struck me:

Église de Carnac
Qui est comme un rocher
Que l’on aurait creusé

Et meublé de façon
A n’y avoir plus peur.

[From Carnac, Editions Gallimard, 1961]
(Church of Carnac / Which is like a rock / That has been hewn / And furnished in a way / No longer there to be afraid.)

Or from Inclus (Editions Gallimard, 1973):


C’est poser,
Déposer sur la page,

Ce qui n’existait pas
Avant le sacrifice.

(To write, / It’s to pose, / Deposit on the page, / What did not exist / Before the sacrifice.)

And the very next poem in Inclus would seem to have a direct link to Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain and the Festival of Writing:

Certes, qui sacrifie

Ne donne pas
Que de lui-même
En se donnant.

Tout vient d’ailleurs,
De plus ancien que lui,
De plus enraciné,

Apporte les étapes,
L’origine parfois.

Lorsqu’il a su.

(Certainly, whoever sacrifices / Does not give / Only of himself / In giving himself. / Everything comes from elsewhere, / More ancient than he, / More deeply rooted, / Brings the stages, / The origin sometimes. / When he knew.)

No wonder Heaney likes Guillevic’s poetry. And as emphasized at the Festival of Writing, writers read writers – a lot. All writers have their roots, consciously or unconsciously, in the writings of their predecessors. It’s for the writer to hew the new from the granite deposited by the great writers of the past and present. I’m just happy to have met both Seamus Heaney and Guillevic, and got to know them through their poems.

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