… to fresh woods

This blog has been dormant for a long, long time. Before I consign it to eternal slumber, I’m rousing it momentarily to offer a bit of explanation and some redirection.

First, the easy explanation is that for the last three years I’ve been overstretched between running a research project, writing a book and more besides. The honest reality, however, is that this was born and grew alongide my PhD, and as I shifted focus in my research and writing, it no longer felt like an inviting home, somehow.

Much has happened since what will now become the penultimate post. The PhD, the subject of many of these musings, has been transmogrified and is very soon to be published as a book: From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry.

Version 2

Pictures on the inside, too!

The Poetry and Memory Project has come to the end of its three-year funding, but the research goes on and I’m exploring a number of possibilities for further development and dissemination. News from this quarter will be posted on the project website and my own.

The lime-trees are still there, but I now look out onto a field, a whitebeam and row of poplars – a ‘sweet, especial rural scene’. 1

I’ve kept most of these posts here as an archive (save a handful that now seem very inconsequential). And my blog will now be on my own website in an attempt to twitch the mantle, and seek ‘fresh woods, and pastures new’.

1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Binsey Poplars’ (Hoping of course that these won’t be subject to the same fate, despite ever-present threats to the Cambridge Green Belt. )

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A room of one’s own. Or, facing in the right direction.

I’ve just started a new post-doctoral project: a three-year investigation into experiences of poetry learning. In other words, what’s the point of learning poetry? If you learn a poem, how does that change your understanding of the poem and your relationship to it. And how does your experience of it change over time? That’s the gist of it, anyway. More about what we’re trying to find out and how we’re doing it here.

In many ways, working as a post-doctoral researcher doesn’t feel that different to working on a PhD, but that may have something to do with my slightly unconventional way of doing a PhD. The biggest practical difference is having an office. Colleagues and friends all said how marvellous this would be for me. Real progress. But after 15 years of working at home, I was quietly nervous about it. At home I have a working space, worked out over the years, that works: an aesthetically agreeable environment, strategically arranged books, a nice big iMac screen, good coffee and food to hand, tranquillity, light household tasks that occasionally afford a few minutes’ mental freewheeling, green spaces nearby in which to run or wander  – and I get twitchy when any of these are under threat. I’m basically a Maslovian being.1 Even more alarming, there was the possibility of being allocated a shared working space. Share a thinking and writing space? Honestly, they might just as well tell me I have to share my bath.

Hence my boundless relief and gratitude at being given a little room of my own. And it turns out to be peaceful little space that I’m gradually making home, by means of a gradually filling bookshelf, plants, the wherewithal for making decent coffee, carefully selected pictures, and two newly begun collections: postcards of poets, and greetings cards of owls that, quite coincidentally and intriguingly, all face the same way.2 Contributions most welcome.3

Scops owl

This one is a scops owl. Since scop is the old English name for a poet, he arguably belongs to both collections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seems generally agreed that the desirable residences are those on the other side of the corridor, facing luxuriant College lawns and a magnificent spreading beech tree. On this side, we face the car park. It may be superficially less attractive; however, it also faces the south and the sun, and a row of towering lime trees. And these seem powerfully symbolic: like Coleridge’s lime-tree bower prison, it’s a view of nature that can be transformed by the power of the imagination to set the spirit free. I am looking forward to looking out the glowing leaves –  “pale beneath the blaze … the transparent foliage”.

The lime-tree bower, still wintery, and admittedly cage-like

The lime-tree bower, still wintery, and admittedly cage-like

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Maslow’s theory, his “Hierarchy of Needs” says that unless your basic needs like safety, shelter and food are met, you’re not going be interested in ‘higher’ things such as social or intellectual pursuits.

2 They all face to the right (the owl’s right, viewer’s left). The poets, as it happens, face in all directions.

3 I’m not really a natural collector.  Or rather, I like the idea of a good collection – indeed, am fascinated by it. As cultural historian Susan M. Pearce (1995) says, collections are a significant aspect of our complex and fascinating relationship with the material world of things”. So I begin collections that then fall into neglect. My largest collection is therefore a collection of incipient collections. (Best literary example of a natural collector: the Hemulen in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.)

Pearce, S. M. (1995). On Collecting: an investigation into collecting in the European tradition. London: Routledge.

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Post-PhD post

I have shamefully neglected this poor blog for several months, and quite a lot has happened. One big thing is that I’ve finished the PhD. The viva is done, the corrections submitted, the approval by the degree committee obtained, and all that remains is the dressing up and listening to mutterances in Latin. I’ll do all that when the English weather’s a bit warmer and the Cambridge lawns less waterlogged. By way of signing off the PhD chapter, I thought I’d round up a few of aspects of the whole experience that confounded expectations – mainly other people’s, but also mine. Which is why, in some ways, it was difficult to know how to respond to some of the things that people say (meaning only well, of course) on this sort of occasion. Here is a selection.

1. You must feel a sense of relief.
Sadly, no. Well, perhaps a tiny bit. I realise that I may not make myself popular saying this, but I genuinely enjoyed the entire process. I sat down to start writing the thesis on 1 March last year and finished on the last day of August, then submitted at the beginning of October, a gratifying three years and three days since I started. The final months of writing, especially, made for a rather tranquil existence. The PhD project trumped everything else and imposed its own sense of order; leaving the non-working radiator, the leaking windows, the overgrown garden and the lack of a pension plan was all completely justified. By contrast, I now find lots of rather overdue and uncomfortable tasks all jostling for attention.

2. You can have a nice rest now.
Again, doctoral research is a protected space. If anyone comes bothering you while you’re writing up or even preparing for a viva, you only have to mention the magic word “PhD thesis” and they tiptoe away whispering apologies. But as soon as word gets out that you’re done, it’s a different story. “Ah! You’ve finished your PhD congratulations now about this marking / book chapter / teaching …”

3. You can at least sit back and enjoy the moment.
It would have been nice, but it didn’t quite work out. Owing to an unexpectedly early viva date (is three weeks a record?)1 preparation had to begin pretty much forthwith. I’d also planned a big party – originally thought of to celebrate not the actual result but the achievement of handing in and, more importantly, to thank friends and supporters. Owing to the early date, however, the viva was only three days before the previously scheduled party – so no time to draw breath there, either. But the post-PhD party was great fun: recommended.

4. You should have this [a bottle of champagne / another cake]
People kept feeding me cake and opening bottles of champagne. This was pretty much all I ate and drank the week of the viva. None, however, quite surpassed the surreal moment immediately following the declaration of success when you are presented with a bottle of champagne by the Faculty – which is then handed round in those flimsy plastic cups that come with the water coolers. Further potential champagne/cake moments arise with correction submission, Faculty approval, University approval, hard-bound copy submission, graduation … but you have to call a halt somewhere.

Possible champagne opportunity

Possible champagne opportunity

And another

And another

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Ah!  Dr _____
Even after a torrent of cards thus addressed, jocular greetings (in the “Dr Pullinger, I presume!” style) and a fancy sign outside my new office door, I simply cannot get my head around the fact that reading a lot of things, having some thoughts, and writing them down magically changes your name. Maybe it just hasn’t taken. Or maybe you have to wait for graduation for the transformation. Perhaps that’s what the Latin is for. Not sure it’ll ever make me feel anything other than sheepish.

5. Are you going to turn it into a book?
Actually, this one is fine, and the answer is, definitely, yes. In fact it seems to me that this is the important bit and the real end of the whole process. If my work is going to make a contribution to the field in question (and I’m hoping it might), then I need to get it out and into circulation. And I feel I kind of owe it to the ESRC.

6. Do you know what you’re going to do next?
Again, yes. Being grown up with house and a mortgage, I had to do something as soon the ESRC had withdrawn their kind support, even if it was working in Tesco. Thankfully, I’m not working in Tesco, but as a full-time researcher on an exciting project on poetry and memory, on which more another time.

If some of this sounds a bit nostalgic, it probably is. I am happy to have finished, and I am very excited about my new research project, but there’s no doubt that life is now more complicated and demanding, and I seem to spend a lot of my spare mental time thinking about schemes to make it all fit together (e.g. doing both 5 and 6). Doubtless any fully-fledged academic reading this would just laugh and say, welcome to my world! The thing is, though, that I know that all the stuff of the thinking, writing life work best in my world when that world is a relatively peaceful space. And when I say best, I really mean only. So I’m hoping to figure out how to make it continue as such.

1. If you had a quicker one, then do let me know.

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A hare-brained scheme

I started writing the PhD thesis in March this year, much later than originally planned, and later than everyone else thought either feasible or sane. It had got to the point where, when I told people I had yet to start writing, they no longer smiled and said, “Oh that’s plenty of time”. They just said “Oh”, with expressions of scantily concealed concern. Even my brilliantly patient supervisors were beginning to send me anxious little notes. But yesterday I sent them a complete draft in fairly good shape.

I rather enjoyed it. I realise I might not gain much popularity for saying it, and whether the final product will pass muster clearly remains to be seen, but I did.  What I have learned from this is not that it is possible to write a PhD in less than 5 months; it’s that I should have trusted myself. I read various books and blogs about writing PhDs, and lots of them were full of tidy bits of advice. At one point, for example, I was very taken with Joan Bolker’s persuasive prescription for writing every day, from the beginning – the tortoise method, perhaps.1 But my resolve failed. And that was ultimately a good thing, because now, having held off writing till the end, I know it came from a very different place. It was a synthesis of two-and-a-half years’ reading and thinking; an improvised performance made possible by what went before.

Would I have got here with the tortoise method? I don’t think so. Not here. In writing, and perhaps in other areas of life, too, I’m a hare, not a tortoise.2  And I sort of knew this; I just wasn’t confident in what I knew.

Hare

I’m not advocating this hare-raising approach for everyone. It’s high-risk, and in any case my supervisors have asked me not to let on about it. However, mid-flow, I started making notes to myself, for next time.  Some may work for tortoises, or even other creatures, as well as hares, so here they are. Some of them contradict each other, but that’s how it is: thesis-writing is an art, not an exact science.

Planning

  • “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Brilliant quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower. I wrote schedules and timetables, with resolve, and adhered to none of them But they were part of the process, reinforcing my internal sense of the extent and scope of the work and the time available for the benefit of my internal manager – who knows best how to get things done.
  • Ditto chapter plans and word counts.
  • The plan last summer: hardly related to the finished article

    The plan last summer: hardly related to the finished article

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Care and maintenance

  • Look after your instrument. (I.e. me.) If writing is a performance, then it pays to create optimum conditions. For me, this means being fastidious about the basics: sleep, good food, exercise – and QUIET.3
  • Stay tuned.  I keep to hand a couple of writers whose lucid, stylish writing I really admire; a quick dip into one of these always helps to recalibrate my voice on days when eloquence seems to have deserted me.

Writing

  • Follow your instincts. Follow up odd leads and thoughts. Several important lines of argument came about because I started reading an article on a whim.
  • Indulge writing obsessions. One of mine is finding the mot juste, the word that snuggles in and brings out the intended nuances of meaning. As well as boosting the pleasure in writing, finding the word – far from being mere decoration – can sometimes put things in a new light.

Knotty bits

  • Persevere with the knots. Often as not, stickiness and knottiness conceal the makings of an important point. And anyway, it’ll have to be tackled at some point.
  • Leave it till the morning. I know that problems that seem intractable at 3 o’clock in the afternoon (and most things look pretty bad at 3 in the afternoon) will roll over and be tickled at 7 or 8 in the morning.4   I’ve learned this, but it doesn’t stick. It’s like The Silver Chair:5  however much I attempt to prepare myself, it makes no difference and things still look bad at 3 o’clock and I forget that they could and will be different. I still don’t know the answer to this.
  • Change the metaphor. Sometimes opens up new angles.

Boosting productivity

  • Know your carrots.  A popular bit of advice for long-haul writes is to reward yourself for reaching small targets. Sadly, incentives (aka extrinsic motivation) don’t work for me at all. Knowing I’ve done something as well I can is slightly more of a reward than chocolate/alchohol/new pair of socks, but even that doesn’t really help with getting started in the first place. Overall, then, not much of an aid, but good to establish. Saves money if nothing else.
  • Practise priming. I’ve recently realised that thinking in in a fairly relaxed way about what I’m going to tackle before I sit down at the desk in the morning means that I get into it much more quickly. A good use of shower or coffee-brewing time.
  • Use Imminent Interruption. If there’s a sticky bit and I know I’ve only got 5 minutes or so to work on it – because I have to go out, eat lunch, go for a run or whatever – then setting to for 5 minutes often produces unexpectedly wonderful results. There’s a lot of potential mileage in the imminent interruption.

Tools

  • Another unapologetic plug for my favourite bit of software: I couldn’t have done it without Scrivener. I won’t reiterate its winning ways; they’re all here. But for those who know it, here are some of the things which I kept in the Research section of the binder, along with all the useful articles and notes, which proved most useful.

Cuttings  – one folder for each chapter, for bits hacked out, in case wanted later
House style –  decisions spellings, hyphenations, citations, etc
Tasks  – odd tasks to do at some point, especially undemanding ones for 3 o’clock in the afternoon
Insights – ideas for articles, other projects, etc
Reading – self-explanatory

1. Writing Your Thesis in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Actually, despite the offputting title, it is still a helpful book with some good advice.
2. Perhaps not the best analogy, since the hare didn’t win. But the point is, if you’re a hare and you want to win, then you don’t spend early part of the race loafing around: Prepare, o hare!

3. I’m a little bit obsessive about this. Thankfully my office at home provides the necessary tranquillity, but I get very twitchy if people make noise in the road outside, and have been known to go and negotiate with council workmen.

4. Ten o clock at night is good, too. But this interferes with sleep, so only used in extremis.
5. As in the C.S. Lewis Narnia series.

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From the thesis bubble

View from the bubble

View from the bubble

Immersed in the thesis-writing bubble: that strange mode of existence where you eat, sleep, breathe, even become your thesis. That’s what inspired me to write this poem, performed last night at the end-of-year party. The reality is not nearly as awful as it suggests; I’m actually very happy.

Living Proof

I’ve been trying to write a thesis.
This, I thought, will be quite easy:
Got the brainpower, got the patience,
Yeah! I’m picking up good citations.
But now, alas, I weep and sigh.
My methodology’s awry;
My ontology and epist-
Emology are in twist.
However has it come to this?

Last night I dreamt my precious thesis
Had a metamorphosesis.
Every word had multiplied –
Three synonyms on either side.
“Oh no!” My supervisors cried,
(Forming, there, a useful chorus)
“It’s as we feared.” For there before us
Was my thesis, turned Thesaurus.

This sauropod, my former thesis,
Now a mass of catachresis,
Sliding scales, and terrible clause,
Most insubordinate, it roars
And rears its ugly headwords – so,
Then looking up, it turns to go.
And as it shudders through the door
Leaves muddy footnotes on the floor.

So,

Forgive me if I seem abstracted,
Spaced out – doubly – redacted,
Full of argument, an awkward type,
Or if my style is … not quite right.
I have not always been as now,
And it’ll pass, I’ll be bound.
“You’re in submission now,” they said.
“Oh yes,” I said. I’m easily read.

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The Complete Seasonal Terminology

As the last (and almost certainly final) instalment appears on this year’s Christmas card, here is the fully updated, complete Seasonal Terminology1 – again offered in the hope that it may prove useful over the Christmas season.

BRINKLOW – The sudden realisation, usually around 6pm on Christmas Eve, that you have omitted to buy a present for one of several relatives visiting on Boxing day; stow longa or a dundraw are now the only possible options. C.f. penge
COLDBACKIE  – Brave but gastronomically awkward attempt to disguise Christmas leftovers, e.g. Brussels sprout and brandy mousse, turkey scones
CRIFFEL – Any piece of kitchen or tableware used only on 25th December, e.g. nativity-themed condiment set, faintly risqué cook’s apron, knitted wine-bottle cover
CURTHWAITE  – Indeterminate Christmas-dinner serving delay, caused by a fatal error in venn ottery calculations
DUNDRAW  – Gift opened on Christmas morning and rewrapped in the afternoon following a instance of brinklow
ERISWELL–  Seasonal tendency to say nice things to complete strangers, which reaches a peak around 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and subsides completely by 27th December
ETAL – Striped tea towel used as headgear for a Nativity-play shepherd
GOWKTHRAPPLE  – In any given box of Christmas crackers, the one that refuses to crack. After much exertion, the mangled remains are dismantled and the contents recovered by hand
FRITHELSTOCK – The only remaining Christmas tree under 9ft in the shop; inevitably an overpriced, undernourished specimen with branches on one side but not the other
HAMSTERLEY – Feeling that occurs after having forced in too many Brussels sprouts
LOSTOCK – Parcel under tree whose label has become detached, thus no one has the faintest idea whose it is or from whom it has come

High risk of occolds

High risk of occolds

 

 

 

 

 

 

OCCOLD – An opened lostock, whose contents provide no further clue to origins or ownership
OSPRINGE  Shreds of last year’s tinsel, Christmas greenery, or root vegetable (see nether worton) discovered in a corner whilst putting up decorations
PENGE – Twinge of anxiety induced when friend/colleague/hairdresser says, ‘Are you all ready for Christmas, then?’, when you have yet to make a start
NETHER WORTON  – A roast vegetable that, following an incidence of curthwaite, has resisted an ill-advised attempt at dissection and now lurks beneath the dresser
RASKELF  – One who, having glimpsed the real Father Christmas as a small child, is now gifted with the unnerving ability to supply the answer to any Christmas-cracker joke
SCRAPTOFT  – Christmas decorations produced by the under-fives. Typically featuring copious quantities of cotton wool and sellotape, a really good piece of scraptoft remains slightly sticky to the touch and continues to shed glitter well into January
STOGUMBER – Particular type of Christmas Pudding, produced by kindly aunts and Cambridge College kitchens; boiled for several days, it is dense, black, and bitter as any gall. Scientists at Cern are running experiments on one example, made  by Mrs Lawson of Bagshot in 1978, believing it to be a likely site for the discovery of antimatter.
STOW LONGA – Generic gifts bought in January sales and kept in the bottom of a cupboard for emergencies

Possible swefling

Possible swefling

 

 

 

 

 

SWEFLING – Any cuddly toy – bear, dog, rabbit, etc. – taking the part of a sheep in a Nativity play
TEIGNGRACE  – Widespread phenomenon whereby an installed and decorated frithelstock appears strangely winsome, the perfect choice …
THURNING  – Frantic and ultimately fruitless search for stow longa, leaving a dundraw as the last resort
WASDALE HEAD – Dispute arising over custody of an occold
WIBTOFT  – Vintage scraptoft, annually displayed along with the other decorations, notwithstanding the fact that the artist is now twenty-two and working in software engineering
VENN OTTERY  – Branch of highly advanced mathematics concerned with the calculation of optimum turkey weight and/or cooking time. Variables include guest numbers, vegetarian converts, appetite form, oven idiosyncrasies, and stuffing density

1 With continuing apologies to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd

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A sense of place, anyone?

What pictures have you got in your mind right now as you read this?

Between thinking about cognitive responses to poetry for the PhD and preparing a lecture on e-books for children, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what actually goes on in our heads when we encounter texts, and how that differs according to whether we read or listen, and according to the kind of text. It seems to me that it’s one of those things, like breathing, of which we’re barely conscious until someone points it out.

Of course it’s generally accepted that when we read something like a novel, we have  images of the characters in our mind’s eye. We don’t have to deliberate about appropriate features or hairstyles; they silently slip in. Yet they may also be quite shadowy, lurking in peripheral mental vision – so that we might not really notice that we have a mental image of Mrs Bennett until we see Pride and Prejeudice on the big screen and realise with a jolt that Alison Steadman is absolutely not the Mrs Bennett in our personal cast list. Like pictures on radio, the pictures in the novel are better – because they are our pictures.

I’m describing here what happens for me, and I’m think it’s probably similar for lots of people, not least because of the heated conversations that arise about characters in film adaptations.

But what about non-fiction? It seems a funny question, but I ask because I’ve realised that, in my head, at any rate, there’s something funny going on.

When I read, for instance, an academic book, what I get in my mind’s eye are images of a very specific geographic location. It’s quite hard to convey exactly what this experience is like, but I’ll try. Earlier this year, for example, I read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, and every time I picked it up I’d instantly alight on the small patch of road at the end of Sidgwick Avenue in Cambridge. Not the whole of Sidgwick Avenue, just the junction by Ridley Hall, with occasional forays as far as the traffic lights to look down Silver Street and Queens Road. In fact, it’s really quite like being in street view on Google maps; I can look around but within boundaries.

The Master and his Emissary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And as I read, I keep going over and over the same bits of ground, the ideas in the text becoming woven into the various vistas. Moreover, if the text is relating a bit of a story, then that story will appear within the location. At the moment, for instance, I’m reading Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, and in one chapter he describes visiting one of his musician subjects in his home and listening to him play the piano. In my mental theatre, this little scene is played out, piano and all, on the grass in New Square, the top corner near Fitzroy Street.  And as with the oddities of dreams, nothing in this seems remotely untoward.1

I have absolutely no control over this process. As with the characters with which we furnish our mental fiction, there’s nothing chosen or engineered about location. Strange as it sounds, I only become aware of it when I’m well into the book, even though at that point I also know that I’ve been there for some time. And though the location is always tied to the book –  I can pick up a book read a year ago and instantly be back in the same place – there are no obvious links between the location and the subject of the book. Though I wonder if, as with the songs that spontaneously intrude into consciousness, if there isn’t often some oblique or punning connection at the back of it.

Over the course of the PhD I’ve read a lot of subject literature, and I’m not sure if all this has been a help or a handicap. Not that I can do anything about it, either way. But suddenly, I am struck by the oddity of it all. Suddenly, I’m very, very curious. Why does my brain do this? Does it serve some purpose? Is it a form of synaesthesia,2 connected in some way with my word–colour associations.3

And, most importantly, is it just me? I’ve mentioned this only to a few people, and all have been surprised, not to say incredulous. But I can’t imagine I’m really the only one. So I guess this is a bit of an appeal. If anyone out there knows anything at all, or knows anyone who knows anything at all … I’d be delighted to hear from you!

1. Though now I come to think of it, we have had pianos out in the streets of Cambridge recently. Very cool it was, too.

2. Reading about some other, more unusual forms of synaesthesia in Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia made me wonder if this was in some way related. A quick bit of research indicates that synaesthesia can take many forms, but I haven’t found anything quite like this mentioned.

3. I think it’s fairly mild: the sensations of colour and texture I have with certain words probably aren’t as strong as some people’s. But they’re definitely there, and absolutely consistent: what colour, would you say, is Wednesday? Well clearly, it’s a mottled mossy green, a bit lumpy in middle. Three?

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