One of the most striking things about living in Charles Causley’s house is the quality of silence that inhabits it. It is not just the absence of noise that is remarkable, but the density of the quietness, the materiality of it. I can only put this down to the fact that for more than thirty years a poet lived in this house and for much of that time he was quiet – and by this I don’t just meant that he didn’t have the television or the radio on, I mean something else, something I can’t quite articulate at this point.
I think of the quietness in this house as being burnished. Like copper. Interestingly, this quietness does not preclude the presence of sound. Sometimes a car passes by. Sometimes the squirrels and foxes are so loud you think they’re in the house with you (this house has single-glazed windows – a very thin membrane between inside and out). Other times the church bells of St Mary Magdalene are blazing away, often for hours at a time.
The quietness here is not just about what can and cannot be heard. Perhaps what I am trying to talk about is a potential for solitude, the opportunity to sink into a space where there are very few distractions and where permission for this is wholly granted. Solitude is becoming more and more difficult to find – and even when we do find it, there is always the temptation to tweet or send a Facebook message about what it’s like. What of this other solitude though – the one where we can practice listening again, where we can haul ourselves up and out of the permanently available noise and step into something different?
It is significant to note that when you enter Cyprus Well, Causley’s house, you take two steps down. There is a stepping down from the front door into the front room, and this stepping down is both actual and symbolic. From the first moment I stepped down into this house, I felt something give way. Imagine being able to go one or two steps deeper into the earth. That’s what entering this house is like. It is about leaving one world behind and stepping down into another. As if my centre of gravity gently lowers and brings me closer to the ground; the ground of my being; the earthen place from which all things rise.
It is easy to forget the importance of solitude. There is never enough time to read all of the interesting articles and advices about how to write and how to improve our writing. Never enough time to do all of the things we have to do and then find time for the things we have to do but still haven’t done. In among this carnival of activity though, there is a need to still the swirl sometimes and settle into a quiet and lonesome place. As Rilke, that master of solitude, reminds us:
only be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you. What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.
(p.46/7 Letters to a Young Poet)
Rilke counsels us to pay more attention to what’s inside of us than outside – and although it’s easy to write this, easy to agree with it even, learning to put this into practice is another thing altogether. Part of being able to write is being able to hear when words bubble up inside of us. When they do, we need to be ready to catch them. Ted Hughes wrote about this as the kind of thinking that allows us to break into our inner life:
That process of raid, or persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn, and if we do not somehow learn it, then our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.
(p.37/8 Poetry in the Making)
When a poem rises into our minds, it is like a glorious new burst of oxygen. The trick is to be ready; to hear it; to seize it and follow wherever it takes us. For me, this is part of the breathing process of writing: the listening for what comes, the attention to small things that suggest themselves, the ability to be with these things or, sometimes, with the nothingness that precedes their arrival.
On bank holidays, I have been told that Charles Causley would sometimes hide in his study if he heard a knock at the door, and pretend not to be in. The study is a room that has no window onto the street. He could be a secret in here. He could exist only for himself and his work. The one window in this room looks onto the garden and his writing desk is in front of that window. The room is like a submarine. When I am in it, the focus is so intense, so singular, that I might as well be submerged deep under the sea. Or perhaps deep inside the earth – the place we need to go to find our best work. As Sasha Dugdale wrote recently:
For poetry to live it needs to follow its own internal growth and logic and it needs to come from the dark earth.
In Cyprus Well, I am finding space where I can be alone and listen. Be alone and listen. It’s probably not a very popular suggestion. It doesn’t tell you how to improve a poem, how to win a competition, how to market yourself or how to be more brilliant than you already are. What it may do, however, is give you a tool that will be with you all of your writing life – that will sustain you when things are going well, and when things are not going well. Solitude – however much you are able to find or bear – will be like a beacon. It will take you deeper into your heart, deeper into language and deeper into the place that will give you the poems you need to write.