Friday 6 October 2017

Poetry and the Climbing Press

'The Madcap Laughs'.Renaissance Man,Ed Drummond being led away by New York cops after scaling the Statue of Liberty in a political protest

"Poetry isn't where climbers are at," a climbing publisher said to me recently. When I mentioned this to another climbing friend he quickly got incensed at the statement: "I resent that kind of blanket censorship by the publishers of climbing writing. It's typical of the conservatism of the publishers playing safe. Their assumption that poetry won't interest readers and therefore won't sell, however good it may be, deprives ordinary people of ever seeing the best climbing poems and making up their own minds for themselves. I'm not a poet, so when I see a poem that I like by a friend, say one of David Craig's, I think, 'Now why can't I buy a copy of that in a well produced climbing magazine?' If anybody thinks that the majority of mountaineers aren't in the sport partly for the aesthetics of the experience, they're wrong."

So why is it that Jim Perrin was allowed only two poems amongst almost 700 pages of prose in Mirrors In The Cliffs? Why is the only collection of British mountain poetry, Hamish Brown and Martyn Berry's Speak To The Hills, sadly pleading for finance to even get published? Why do we hardly ever see a poem in the climbing magazines despite the fact that over 300 people sent poems in for Poems Of The Scottish Hills?The aesthetics of the visual arts are accepted as a major selling point of the magazines. High No 16 reproduced on a full
page a superb watercolour painting. Why is the full range of verbal arts not used to explore and celebrate the experience of climbing? And why does poetry make the gentlemen of the climbing press uncharacteristically nervous? 

"I don't know much about poetry," is a partly understandable Way of avoiding making a judgement about a poem. But academic mystique has never inhibited climbers much before. Fear of the unknown hasn't really prevented climbers from taking a risk, and instinctive assessment of the risk is not beyond climbing editors. A poem has got to work for the climbing editor, given a fair hearing. It hasn't got to work all at one reading. In fact to be worth publishing it ought to be a poem you want to read again. 

Terry Gifford: Image TG/Bath Spa University
The criteria for such an instinctive judgement should be that the poem catches the spirit of the sport in an original way. This is what Michael Roberts refers to in his essay in Mirrors as the difference between 'the poetry of mountains rather than the poetry of mountaineering'.

Poetry set in the mountains is not the same as what is recognisably a climber's poem. Michael Roberts is helpfully clear about the dangers in 'the poetry of the mountains', but makes the point 'the writers of sentimental poetry are seldom climbers'. Poetry that is concrete, direct and accessible, yet catches the experience of the sport is instinctively recognisable by climbing editors. But dare they trust their judgements? If there is not a community of climbing opinion upon which to test their judgements out, as there is for other climbing writing, this is because poetry is caught in a Catch 22 of their own making: nobody can discuss it because it isn't published; it isn't published because nobody talks about it. In fact the reasons for the non-publication of climbing poetry lie deeper than this. 

They lie at the heart of our present attitude towards the sport and its public image. British climbing writing has hardly emerged from the 'Rock and Ice' era. It was as necessary for the working-class climbers to ignore the climbing establishment in order to make their climbing achievements as it was for the writing of this era to reject the romanticism perhaps typified by Winthrop Young and his culture.

But although poetry was associated with an 'educated' class it was never dead in working-class culture. Patey recognised that it was vigorously alive in the form of songs and his own contributions were characteristically irreverent and anti-romantic. We must make sure that the baby has not been thrown out with the bathwater. But the strengths of the 'Rock and Ice' era were in prose that revealed a terse humour of understatement and an ironic narrative drama. You can see Mike Thompson's writing for example, continuing this ironic tale-telling in the tradition of Patey and Smith. This strength in understatement really represents a fear of risking overstatement, which is associated with poetry.

Poetry is regarded by some climbers, perhaps as embarrassing, as an outpouring of emotion, as uncontrolled self-indulgence. Here is the sad paradox of climbers who might regard themselves as a pretty uninhibited lot, adventurous, even wild at heart, being inhibited by poetry because of their inhibitions about an open expression of emotions. The present public image of the sport as physical and athletic, with its concentration on moves and their grading, seems to be a long way away from the pleasures which the modern Don Whillans neatly summarised at Buxton as 'being in this place with these mates'.

Don doesn't write poems as far as I know, but his typical aphorism indicates that the aesthetic and the emotional cannot be far away from any climber's experience. You've only to watch the slow motion title sequence of 'Rock Athlete' to feel that poetry can express even the modern wall-trained climbing experience. So why this inhibiting nervousness about climbing poetry? The key word is 'control'. It is a word which strikes at the heart of the sport. Testing the edge of control is what climbing is about. If there is no risk, no climbing can take place. In between is a matter of degree for each climber, his ability, her experience, the conditions, his companions, her judgement and so on. It is these kinds of experience that poetry is good at exploring —the subtle, intense, and complex experience. Poetry is the form to express the edges of experience and experience at the edge. Poetry is about the control of language under pressure. But fear about being out of control must not inhibit editors from looking at language that faces that challenge.

It is in this direction that American climbing literature is well in advance of the British. I tried to indicate in my review of Mirrors (High No 15) that some writing, most of it American, is exploring the total experience of climbing in visionary expression. The quality of these essays is poetic. I would now go further and say that until British writers accept the poetic our climbing writing will not move forward and develop from the 'Rock and Ice' era of expression. Jim Perrin wrote recently (High No 16) 'Most of the creative energy of mountain writing over the last 10 years is American in origin, and over here we seem almost to disregard it'. I agree that we ought to absorb its influence, but when we do progress it will be in our own way, not that produced by American culture. Jim knows better than anyone that there has also been another trail of British climbing writers resurfacing occasionally alongside the Patey, Smith, Thompson trail, and still apparently of popular interest.

Jim is himself about to publish a biography of the poet and essayist Menlove Edwards whose prose piece 'End of a Climb' is in many ways the most poetic in Mirrors. Bill Murray's two books of Scottish Mountaineering essays, which celebrate the mountains and mountaineering aesthetically, both with feeling and control, remain in print and selling. And the books of that reluctant romantic, Bill Tilman, have recently been republished.

Last year, Poems of the Scottish Hills showed how much poetry there is available set in Scottish mountains alone. Ed Drummond is apparently about to lay down the gauntlet to current British climbing writers by returning from exile with a new collection of poems. And now the answer? The signs are that in our culture the inhibitions about poetry are being broken down by writers of poetry coming out into the open. The proliferation of poetry competitions has revealed that thousands of people are writing poetry. Some of them must be climbers. Local workshop groups are increasing in numbers. Some of their members must be climbers. Ed Drummond taught for a while a 16-plus English course with a strong creative base, which is now widespread in the North of England. My home town, Sheffield, has its own 'A' Level English course in which creative writing is an important element. Some of these students must be present and future climbers. But editors can only reflect from what they receive.

Pat Ament says that in America, poetry is expected to be a regular feature of the climbing magazines, although he fears that since the sixties young climbers have become more interested in gradings. It would be a mistake to believe that the two interests are mutually exclusive. Climbers' poems ought to have a regular and natural place alongside the photographs, narratives, debates and news.  And in case you think that the material is not there I can now satisfy at least my irate climbing partner by quoting a couple of poems by David Craig. Of course two poems cannot carry the weight of all my arguments. It so happens that one poem was rejected by a certain magazine editor and the other can be found in Poems Of The Scottish Hills. You may not like either or both of them, but I believe we've got to start taking that risk if you're to have any choice at all in the matter. I'm grateful to David Craig for allowing me to do so with these two poems. So why do I choose these two? The first is an expression of sadness at the death of a friend that is controlled by a technique typical of poetry: the facts are faced through the extended metaphor of Ben Nevis as a great whale.

No self- indulgence, no lapse of control but the small sad details in original poetry. The second poem is a celebration of a climber's physical relationship with the rock, so concentrated that even the folds of the brain come to reflect the rock's strata. But the wit of the last line deflates any pretence to grand achievements or suggestions of mystical `communication with the rock'. Personal vision, in these poems, is rooted in the raw facts of the experience of the sport. 

David Craig:Image-Christian Shaw


(For Dave) 

The whale got my friend,
The big whale hull down in Loch Linnhe,
The big white whale ghosting under a
frore sky,
High snowfields windless, frozen
shoulders sheer.
The Cam Dearg buttresses reared their
shattered backbones,
Shadows skulked in the lee of the plateau.
My friend turned to see
His mate making a high step,
Their bodies light with relief
After the hours of tensed effort upwards.
He caught a spike in a lace,
Toppled, slid, plummeted off the edge,
Fell into one thousand feet of shadow.
The corrie gaped its whale jaws,
The great gut constricted,
A cold draught came from the depths,
Stiffening rapidly the torn skin,
Coagulating blood, limbs out of tune,
And my friend's face transfixed
In the tearing gasp of his last breath.

                           *                   *                  *

He stretched to fit the rock 

He crouched and eeled to fit the rock 
Thinned and flexed to fit the rock 
Spreadeagled on its burnished sheets 
Feeling his fingers hone to claws 
He chimneyed up the gigantic split 
Sitting in air like an ejecting pilot 
While the sky out there 
Blazed at him and the granite ground his spine 
Then he surfaced from the fissure like a mole
Bearing the chimney's pressure in his hunch 

Its rising in his springing tendons 
Its darkness in the gleam behind his eyes
Bearing the face's crystals in his fingerprints 

Its cracking torsions in his wrists 
Its drop in the air beneath his arches
It moulded him. He was its casting. 

His clay was kneaded to its bas-relief. 
His brain infolded, mimicking its strata. 
And when he called, and the echo heard its note, 
It parodied his language.

Essay: Terry Gifford. Poems David Craig

first published in High-July 1984