Ruth Yates

Slow Poetry: In Conversation with Jonathan Davidson about ‘A Commonplace’

Poems – my own and other people’s – are scattered across my life. They are in books and notebooks, folded in wallets and hidden in desk drawers; a few are memorised. They are as commonplace as food and drink. I wouldn’t want to live without them, although I dare say I could. They will be the last things I forget when everything else is gone. Some of these poems are gathered together in this book, A Commonplace. 

(Jonathan Davidson, Introduction to ‘A Commonplace’, 2020).

On Why Brownlee Left’ by Jonathan Davidson – read by Ruth Yates

Miss Balcombe’s Orchard’ by Jonathan Davidson – read by Ruth Yates

Jonathan Davidson’s ‘A Commonplace’ was released in 2020 by Smith|Doorstop. A winning combination of his own poems, poems by other writers, commentaries and footnotes, and even a gazeteer with the GPS points of reference for places mentioned, this isn’t just any poetry book. I wanted to share my enjoyment of this book more widely, and learn more about the story behind it, by interviewing author Jonathan Davidson.

I first read ‘On Poetry’ (selected as one of The Guardian’s Top 10 books about creative writing, see here), a couple of years ago. I enjoyed the engaging tone, the random but always interesting facts and the comments that helped to share the author’s enjoyment of poetry. So I was delighted when ‘A Commonplace’ was released. When I was working on this blog post a few days ago, I noticed a friend of mine who had come to stay was reading ‘A Commonplace’ avidly on the sofa. ‘I didn’t know you liked reading poetry’, I said. ‘Well, this is different’, she said.

Jonathan Davidson has kindly taken part in the following written interview:

What made you write ‘A Commonplace’?

Ah, I’m glad you asked. As with most poetry books, there was no bloody need. Well, some years ago my publisher Peter Sansom suggested I write a book on my relationship with poetry across my life and this became ‘On Poetry’ (Smith|Doorstop, 2018). I discovered, to my surprise, that I rather liked writing about poetry. Although a grade ‘C’ at A Level English is the extent of my academic laurels, it turned out I had things to say which were of interest to the general and even the specialist reader. It was the beginning, also, of my war against the Poetry-Industrial Complex, about which I have written more, for instance in this blogpost.

When I came to assemble another collection of my own poems, I started to write about them as I had written about other people’s poems in ‘On Poetry’. Looking back, that was a really rather radical thing to do, to break the fourth wall (using that theatrical image) and speak directly to my readers. But why would I not? I like my readers and I want them to like my poems. The aim is to share and to communicate, so I wanted to be as direct as possible.

Having begun to write about my own poems, it seemed natural to want to share poems by other people, poets and poems that I admired and that in some cases had influenced me. So, having included these poems, I naturally wanted to explain why, for instance, Roz Goddard’s poem is good or Zaffar Kunial’s poem means a lot to me. Again, why would I not? It cost me a bob or two in rights, but I like to share poems, always have done; it’s why the authorities discourage me from travelling on public transport. I’ve written more about this, for instance in this blogpost.

I then decided to re-live the ‘fun with footnotes’ I had had in ‘On Poetry’. With these I offer notes and queries, presenting an additional narrative, this one between the ‘me’ offering the poems and the ‘me’ chattering away about them. To be honest, it all got rather out of hand, but to be equally honest, many people have told me how much they appreciated being given all this back-story, hinterland, context and just plain old-fashioned information. A slim, austere volume of terribly serious poetry it is not, although the poems are short and most are serious.

In your Introduction, you say: ‘As there are things I want to say about my own poems, and about those by other poets, I have included an ongoing commentary. This isn’t something I’ve done before, but it has made me think about how poetry is released into the world’. In your book ‘On Poetry’, you write about how poetry is released and enjoyed. How does ‘A Commonplace’ relate to and follow on from ‘On Poetry’?

Poetry is trapped and our job is to release it. Initially it is trapped in our hearts and minds, and then it is trapped on the page, and perhaps later in the poet’s own voice. It wants, finally, to enter the hearts and minds of others. How we may make that happen should be our study. Having released the poems from my consciousness or subconscious, ‘A Commonplace’ was developed to find ways of releasing the poems to allow them to find their way into the hearts and minds of others – a sort of intellectual and/or emotional blood transfusion.

The commentary is part of that process. ‘On Poetry’ had talked of how I had personally discovered poetry – or rather, how poetry had discovered me – and therefore acknowledged that everything might usefully be contextualised. The commentary in ‘A Commonplace’ is a natural continuation of this; me saying a few words about the poems before or after the reader has read them. There’s nothing unusual in this at a poetry reading, but to do it in a book is considered rather risqué, it frightens the poetry horses who then canter off to the top field, defecating as they go. 

What further prompted me to add a commentary was the realisation that a typical slim volume is in danger of presenting itself as a series of ‘unseen comprehension’ tests. This phrase will strike fear into the heart of anyone old enough to have been offered such in ‘O’ Level English exams at school. Why would we torture ourselves thus, I asked myself? My view is: give the reader the ‘means of comprehension’ and they will enjoy the poem. Deny them that ‘means of comprehension’ and they will often slink away, feeling unloved and dumb. We should respect our readers more than we admire ourselves.

I don’t know if every poet should do this, or if I would do it again. However, looking back, the prospect of having had some commentary from, say, Elizabeth Bishop or the lad John Keats, is gorgeous. Well, in a way we do have their commentary, but they are scattered in letters, and only literary scholars have the time or inclination to really seek them out. Scholars, I have made your life easier by offering you a commentary, although don’t think that this won’t demand the same high quality of study, for it will. And anyway, for legal reasons my letters will be destroyed on my passing, so it’s my commentary or nothing. Yale, Harvard, etc., you have been warned!

I’ve been reading about the ‘prosimetrum’, or books which are a combination of prose and poetry. According to Wikipedia, examples include the ‘Mahabharata’, ‘Consolations of Philosophy’ by Boethius, ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, and ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Matsuo Basho; also ‘Vita Nuova’ by Dante Alighieri. I wonder if a ‘prosimetrum’ is similar to the concept of the ‘Commonplace’? Are there any examples of Commonplaces that you drew on while writing your book?

Goodness, I never knew this word, ‘prosimetrum’! It is a splendid word. And of course, I am happy to be keel-hauled by the splendid vessels that are Dante and Boethius and so on. In my case, I had remembered the word ‘commonplace’, checked that I roughly knew what it meant and then thought, it’s close enough, I’ll say that is what I am doing. So often in poetry, saying something makes it true. And it was what I was doing over my life, gathering thoughts and notes and poems. I wasn’t pasting them into a day-book like an Edwardian lady of leisure, although in so many other respects I am very much she.

What I was doing, early on in my life on earth, was writing out poems I liked. During the assembling of ‘A Commonplace’, I found the very notebook I’d been using in my twenties and it gave some credibility to the suggestion that I was a ‘commonplacer’. And now I use it again, writing out on average one poem a month that I have chanced upon and liked. Knowing I might write something out by hand if I like it enough adds the salt and vinegar to the fish and chips of reading a book of poetry or poetry magazine. I should really buy a big scrap book and start pasting in stuff, but I can’t be bothered. 

The combination of your own poems, other people’s poems, commentaries, footnotes, bibliography and gazeteer, sets your book apart from other poetry collections. Your role as writer goes beyond that of poet or critic, how would you describe it?

The combination certainly does set it apart, so much so that ‘A Commonplace’ was immediately ineligible for any and every poetry book prize going. This was a shame, as I had fully intended to win them all, and had instructed my turf-accountant to place half-a-crown on a fancy little accumulator which, had all gone well, would see me writing to you from the south of France and not Hockley-cum-Winson Green. However, how wonderful, to write a book for which no award can be offered. I have not lost the poetry-heptathlon as I was banned from entering. Three cheers for all us brave non-combatants – no medals for us, but no shell-shock or trench-foot either.

I would, therefore, describe my role as simply a writer who wants to be read. There’s a novelty. Not to win, to be praised, to be advanced, to be ennobled, to be deified, to be paid, even, but simply to be quietly read by those who might quietly find pleasure in such reading. To this end I will try various ways of presenting my work and welcoming readers. The choice, of course, is the reader’s. They can choose not to read me, fine, or to read only the poems, fine again, or to read what I offer by way of context. That seems reasonable. No harm in that.

You mentioned in your Introduction to ‘A Commonplace’, that Ted Hughes had thought about writing his own Commonplace. Why do you think he says ‘this is heresy’?

I assume, he called it ‘heresy’ because he also recognised that the poetry world – or more likely, poetry publishers – do not like anything that transgresses the norms that have been established. The early decades of Ted Hughes’ writing life were certainly the years of slim volumes on poor paper (perhaps a hangover from the Second World War and its rationing), but also of increasing numbers of young-ish people being encouraged to swot over poems in exams. Ted Hughes offering his own notes on his own poems would have spoilt the fun of those who like to watch people fail to enjoy poetry.

Now, Ted Hughes was no stranger to doing things his own way, but perhaps he was a little too steeped in the accepted ways of how poetry should be released. I really don’t know, but that he acknowledged that he might have offered a commentary is interesting. Would that have spoiled our enjoyment of his work? Probably not much, and purists could have averted their eyes and simply laboured with the text – much of which is released well enough without notes. But for the future, let’s have more prosimetrums, as I have frequently been heard to say. 

In the ‘Introduction’, you say that the footnotes ‘add afterthoughts and additional information’. I thought the footnotes acted as a kind of quirky conversation between the writer and reader. Like the footnote, ‘What is your favourite sea?’ Why did you include footnotes? Do any other poets that you enjoy reading include footnotes?

Well, as you’ll have gathered by now, I cannot be entirely trusted to tell the truth of what I am about. The footnotes do add afterthoughts and additional information, but I certainly did enjoy asking the reader questions and even disagreeing with myself. I am often inconsistent, and I am quite happy to reveal that through the footnotes. I’ve not come across this technique in others, but then most poets assume they are not allowed to have footnotes.

Thinking more about it, I do wonder if my poetic biography ‘Humfrey Coningsby’ didn’t start to suggest to me the fun that could be had with multiple voices in a collection of poems. My footnotes provide an additional voice, just as Coningsby was forever going off in various directions, often enough revealing himself to be a very unreliable narrator. In fact each poem in that collection is a footnote to his life. What a good idea, Jonathan, you are a clever clogs!

The whole book is rooted in a sense of place. What gave you the idea to give the reader GPS coordinates? Is this something you’d like to see in other people’s work?

You know, I honestly can’t remember. Perhaps it dawned on me that I had done quite a lot of travelling in and around these poems and it would be fun to be accurate about where I had been – a sort of antidote to the lies and half-truths that characterise the poems themselves. I have always liked maps, atlases and guidebooks, so here was a chance to sign-post people to some interesting places.

How did the book look during the process of writing it? Did it come out of your own notebooks or scrapbooks?

It was a mess. The poems by others came from my bookshelves, or I had found them written out by hand in the aforementioned ‘commonplace’ notebook. My own poems had largely found their way to final drafts, but many were re-written or at least given new drafts. The commentary developed in short bursts, allowing me to link together poems in little series, with poems by others. I had no model for how to do this, although I knew I wanted to begin and finish with poems by others, as an act of faux humility (although they are good poems, both). 

I would think it must be difficult to comment on your own poems: I think I might feel self-conscious, or that it was very subjective. What was your experience of this? And what are your number one tips when writing commentaries on your own and other people’s work?

Recently I heard a novelist say that she tried to look at her early drafts through the eyes of the cleverest person she knew who didn’t like her, which I think is a lovely idea. I certainly asked myself, what would a reader need or like to know about these poems in order to enjoy them quickly and without discomfort. A few poems proved to be just too feeble and had to be killed. Others revealed more about themselves as I started to see and hear them through the eyes and ears of others.

I would certainly suggest, when commenting on one’s own poems, not to assume that your carefully worked ideas will make any sense. Our relationship with poems is so intense – day after day spent considering no more than a few lines at a time – that we are very likely to demand enormous leaps of understanding from our readers. Not all our readers are good over the jumps. The result is ‘refuse the fence’, the page is turned and they never read the poem again. My notes at least give pause to the reader – either before or after reading the poem – and this is no bad thing. We should read slowly. I like ‘slow poetry’.

One of the most pleasing outcomes of this whole enterprise has been my invitation to others to record ‘cover-versions’ of my poems. I now have over sixty, with often multiple versions of the same poem, each read slightly differently depending on accent and manner. That has been such a revelation, to hear a poem as someone else thinks it should be read, and to see which poems can stand up to such use. You can hear them all at my website here and I am still happy to get new versions.

You can buy a copy of ‘A Commonplace’ here. You can listen to other people’s recordings of Jonathan Davidson’s poems in ‘A Commonplace’, and contribute your own, here.

With thanks to Jonathan Davidson for taking part in the interview, and to artist Anna Dillon who created the images used in this post.

More from Ruth Yates