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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

Poetry workshop with George Gunn

Nineteen of us joined Caithness poet and playwright George Gunn last Tuesday evening for a superb and inspiring workshop on poetry and its place in our lives and community. George has a brilliant mind and strong opinions, and is quick to cry out if a king in the literary world has no clothes, but he is warm, approachable, and encouraging.

The event was chaired by Mark Williams, HighlandLIT Chair, and George was introduced by Sharon Gunason Pottinger.

George read some of his own poems in the course of the evening, said a little about the value of poetry, and then was at the centre of a lively and inspiring discussing. Three ‘themes’ were covered.

The essence of poetry

Poetry is central to art Poetry, George assured us is ‘the most important thing in the world, beyond all other art forms.’ The Ancient Greeks, he told us prized lyrical poems as the highest form of poetry, imbued with energeia a word whose meaning includes both energy and movement.

George was asked if, since the power of poetry seems to lie as much in the images used as in the linguistic skills of the poet, whether what George was telling us could be applied to novel-writing. ‘Exactly!’ said George. Prose writers often forget about poetry. What makes Les Miserables a brilliant story is the poetry in the prose.

‘If there isn’t energeia in your prose, it will fall over,’ George said. ‘and people won’t read, or won’t remember.’

And films too have poetic moments. ‘Every story is a poetic thing,’ George insists, mentioning the ‘beautiful language’ you need to tell a story. Earlier, he reminded us of Seumus Heaney’s words – poetry is about both the language you use, and the story you tell.

Poetry looks outward at the world Poetry is ‘no just about you,’ George insisted. It’s about opening your eyes, looking out. Scots poets are called to be ‘bards of the exterior.’ He mentioned the example of Burns whose poems revolve around giving out what he saw, reflecting the people he met.

‘Light is lyrics coming in the window. Just look out the f*cking window! Write about what you see. The world. Whether you like what you see or not – just write! Look at the universe and the stars. You’re looking at time, and things which have happened a long time ago.’

Poetry is democratic Someone commented that they struggled with poetry because of the way it had been taught in school. ‘Education tries to make poems complicated. People import stuff into the poem.’ George said. ‘Tyranny tries to complicate, freedom to simplify. Tyranny tries to confuse us. Poetry is like breath, simplifying things. The swallows at Thurso Harbour -that’s poetry, that’s poetry because it’s the joy of life.’

We are not writing for ourselves, but for the community. Scottish Literature draws on the tradition of the Bard or Skald, the guardian of the people’s stories, the singer at the centre of life, at the centre of society. It’s a literature about the whole village, the whole society. The Bard in Dunnet Hall.

It’s the love we give out which gives our lives meaning. ‘All we’re doing is writing round the big heart of love,’ George insisted. ‘We’re only poets if we celebrate the fact that we’re alive.’

Where do poems come from?

Given the truth of these principles we wanted to learn George’s thoughts on How? Where do poems come from? How do words and images fuse together in glorious cascades of meaning?

‘I don’t know,’ George said.

But he shared some practical suggestions. ‘I can’t give you tips to take away and incorporate in your writing,’ he told us. ‘A lot of stuff published is just sh*t because it’s written by rule.’

‘To write you have to be passionate about something.’ George mentioned the adage that to some people football is ‘more important than life and death.’ ‘That kind of involvement is necessary to be a poet.’

He advised us to record in our notebooks things which come to us, and then later revisit what we have written to see if it makes any sense. ‘It’s what’s deep inside you that comes out. Let it spew out of you without filtering – grief, love, whatever. You job is to take all this debris and make of it a poem.

‘I don’t know how it’s done,’ George confessed. ‘But I know when I have done it.’

One of George’s students, Meg reminded him that he was always saying ‘Dig deeper! Until you can’t, but still, dig deeper. You find there’s a place where you can go deeper, though you didn’t think you could. And when you write a poem that is perfect that’s because it comes from the deepest place; you’re down there in the depths.’

Said George ‘There’s no answer to “How to be a better poet.” Just work, work every day. Do more, do better. To me, poetry is like the weather. You need to believe in what you’re seeing, confident in what you see and in your ability to turn it into metaphor. The only way you’ll be remembered is by the poems you write.’

All of us at the event were impressed and encouraged by what we heard. Sharon, in sensitively introducing George and his work said ‘George has a great gift as a teacher. He gives would-be writers direction and encouragement.’ And another of us said afterwards ‘George reminds me of the beat poets in Liverpool and Manchester I grew up with. I struggle with poetry sometimes, but he really inspired and engaged me.’

Thank you so much George for spending an evening with us!

(There’s a fascinating essay by George Gunn, What are poets for? here.)


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