Poetry is a creative art that allows the poet to paint pictures using words in a unique way peculiar to them. It is similar to sculpture or painting in that each individual exponent or artist has their particular style. For example the artist John Constable whose most famous painting is arguably ‘The Hay Wain’ painted in what is termed the English Romantic style which is idealistic but the subject is recognisable and in Constable’s case was usually of landscape scenes. His work is completely different to that of, say, Pablo Picasso who founded the cubist movement. Such paintings in this cubist style often used geometric shapes and were not instantly recognisable as relating to physical reality. Both Picasso and Constable are artists with totally different styles.
They must have been inspired to create their work, artists are. But what is it, what force, what inspiration is there that empowers one man to originate a work so powerful and unique that it captures the imagination of the world. So it is with poetry and poets. They too have their inspirations, their genius, their own originality that is capable to captivating the minds of many. But what is it? What really can it be that enables one very special person to be an artist or a poet?
One frozen morning in the month of January, year 2011, I decided to attempt to discover what it took to make a man a poet. I myself write poetry, I know what makes me do it but, I wondered, is it the same for other poets who write in their way about their own subjects. Why, I asked myself, would a grown man spend long periods of time and much effort on creating something that is very, very unlikely to generate money and will certainly make one appear somewhat eccentric. I started my search for the answer to this impossible conundrum in the misty moorlands of Yorkshire at a wonderfully remote location called Foster Clough high above the old mill town of Hebden Bridge. The poet living there was Michael Haslam an ex-Peterhouse College, Cambridge University, English Literature graduate with a beard and a fondness for real ale and Jazz music.
Michael told me that he had been writing poetry since he discovered the works of William Blake and Wordsworth when he was a boy of fifteen living in Bolton, Lancashire his place of birth. Inspired by the metaphysical poems and images they conjured up in his mind Michael decided that he would try. There are no records of his early attempts but his determined interest in literature served him well and he went to the highly prestigious Peterhouse College at Cambridge University. Peterhouse is the oldest of all Cambrige colleges and was founded in 1284 during the reign of Edward I. Its famous graduates include the Poet Thomas Gray (1716-71) whose best known work is The Elegy which contains the phrase: ‘Far from the madding crowd’ which was used by the author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) as the title for one of his novels. The hugely successful writer and actor David Mitchel (Mitchel and Webb. Peep Show etc.) is a Peterhouse graduate and so too is the subject of my investigation into the nature of poetry Mr. Michael Haslam BA.
Michael explained that following his graduation, the year was 1967, he made an almost serious attempt at starting a career in teaching. Having found a position at a Polytechnic college in the Birmingham area (these were where the less academic students went to study mainly skilled and semi-skilled trades) he taught General Studies. Michael very quickly lost the will to survive in such an environment, teaching literature to butchers apprentices was not what the man from Peterhouse saw as an acceptable occupation. So Michael entered into the spirit of the age and in the swinging sixties he adopted the highly popular hippie lifestyle, tuned in, turned on and dropped right out. He hasn’t really, not really, ever dropped back in. You see, Michael is a poet, he thinks life should be enjoyed, how poetic is that!
During Michael’s forty months exile in the London wilderness he managed to get himself involved with an anarchist group infamous in its time and known as The Angry Brigade.
However he escaped that strange anti-establishment group unscathed and went back to Cambridge where he leased part of a property owned by the best selling author Tom Sharpe (1928- ) (Blot on The Landscape. Porterhouse Blue etc.). At the time Michael was attempting to complete a novel, but his fastidious nature and complex attention to minute detail, making every word count, created a big problem, it could never be poetically perfect prose and so he would rewrite this book over and over again. Asking Tom Sharpe’s advice was perhaps a mistake as he laughed so much at the mess Michael was making instead of helping him Tom Sharpe used his dogged but futile attempts as the basis for one of his characters in his own comedy novel ‘The Great Pursuit’. Then, without explanation, Tom Sharpe evicted the poetic Michael and so a fine friendship ended.
Time passed and Michael drifted along from hippie commune to shared housing, doing odd jobs and factory work along the way. But mainly he indulged himself in his own great pursuit of happiness. Women, beer, the occasional magical mystery mix and whatever else rang his bells. Then in 1970, on a whim, he decided to visit Yorkshire and was invited to stay with a friend in a virtually derelict stone cottage on the moors overlooking the town of Hebden Bridge. There was something about this area that appealed to the poet within Michael, the high sweeping lonely moorland landscape, the misty valley, the very grit-stone itself captured his imagination. He has been there ever since.
Michael bought one of the near derelict stone cottages from the farmer that owned them, then he set about rebuilding it. Years later, with help from various local acquaintances and friends his house was inhabitable. On the way Michael enjoyed a number of interesting experiences, as one might expect living the alternative lifestyle can attract unwanted attention. Early one bright summer’s morning Michael woke to hear what he thought were sheep bleating outside his door. Thinking this was strange he opened it to look and saw before him the big hat and dark blue uniform of a policeman. ‘You lot have knocked all these houses into one..haven’t you!’ said the huge officer of the law who was now glaring at Michael with an accusing stare. Michael was puzzled..’No that is not so, you can have a look’ he replied at which point the policeman pushed past him and was quickly joined by at least half a dozen others. It seems the real reason for this early morning visit was not an inspection of the adjoining walls but a search for substances that may be of interest to the enforcers of Her Majesty’s rule of law. Michael’s friend who lived next door lost the pass the parcel game and ended up being marched off to the lock up.
Despite Michael’s continuous search for happiness, which saw him getting married and moving his wife in to his stone cottage at Foster Clough, things just didn’t go smoothly for him. Eventually the marriage broke down, due perhaps in part to Michael’s unfettered appreciation of booze, well it wasn’t working and again Michael found himself evicted. He left the house but didn’t go far, just a few yards up the road onto a patch of moorland where he had an old caravan and it was there he lived until his wife left and he could return to his beloved home and the beer etc.
During the years Michael Haslam has had many books of poetry published and he is well respected in the intellectual community as a poet of emotional profundity. His work, he says, centres upon love stories, passion and desires of a natural if not carnal nature. His images are drawn from the wild Yorkshire landscape that surrounds his home and within his lines he uses the place names that identify the area. I interviewed Michael on the 29th January 2011 at his Foster Clough cottage hoping to discover what inspired him to write his poetry.
JGS: What inspires you to write poetry.
MH: I take my inspiration from love situations and I like my poems to tell a story. I use the images of Yorkshire and this place here lights my imagination. I feel something within me for this area. Some time ago I went to the local library and was given access to the National Census Reports for the early 1800s, when the stone cottage I lived in was the home to hand loom weavers. Those reports made me think of the people that lived here almost two hundred years before I arrived. They too would have loved and I have tried in some of my poems to tell their long forgotten stories. This whole area, the moorland, the misty valley, the distant hills to me it has an unwritten history within its fabric, its being, its millstone grit and I want to be a part of it and free those ancient passions and I do that, I hope, in my poetry.
JGS: Do you walk into the moorland and commune with nature, that is do you talk to the trees, the stones, the land itself in your search for inspiration.
MH: I am usually a happy individual, but like everyone else I suppose there are times when I am down, not actually depressed but under emotional stress. It is at such times that I feel a need to walk on the moors, not so much in search of inspiration but to clear my mind. I have experienced many incredible things, what I would term inexplicable more than supernatural. For example I was once really stressed out with worry and concern, could not seem to think straight so I decided to walk up onto the moorland though it was really misty, more of a fog. I was there wandering around deliberately trying to lose myself in the mists and did not know exactly where I was when I stumbled upon a series of standing stones set into the moor in a circle. I could not see them clearly but went from one to the next and noted that they did form a kind of circle. Now this was an incredible discovery and I determined to return to examine these in detail once the fog had cleared. However, I have been back onto that moor many times since, the stone circle is not there. I have asked all the long term residents and they say that there is no such stone circle.
I also get messages from animals. This is I realise very weird but often Magpies and other wild birds will fly close to me and I get an incredible sensation that they are telling me something that just comes into my mind. I once encountered a wallaby on the moor, there is no doubt in my mind it was a real living wallaby. Now I know that wallabies are natives of Australia looking like a small kangaroo, I know all that but I met one on the moors above Hebden Bridge one misty afternoon and it hopped up to me. (NOTE: in 1940 a group of five wallabies escaped from a zoo in the peak district of Derbyshire and it is believed that they survived and sightings were being reported as late as 2009).
I also believe that this universe, this world that we live on is a benevolent place, I do not feel that the world is out to get me, I am not a manic-depressive but I sometimes become stressed. I find that it is at such times that I encounter the unknown, the inexplicable and these encounters amaze and inspire me. So yes in a way I walk into the landscape and though I do not stand around conversing with trees or stones etc. they seem to get a message to me. Let me tell you that the message is always one of hope and each time it happens I come home feeling inspired.
JGS: Do you ever find inspiration whilst you are asleep, as in dreams.
MH: I have many times woken from my sleep with fragments of the most wonderful poetry in my mind but can never recall it clearly enough to write it down. I do have one regular dream in which I am being given advice and guidance on how to write and the words are spoken to me by a goat. That is in my dreams I see a goat, this creature seems to know me and will look directly into my eyes and speak the most profound language that has a message within that brings an urge within me when I wake to write. But as for being able to dream my poetry, no I can not do that and though I have heard poems in my dreams can never remember them.
JGS: When you write your poems do you at any time feel that a force external to you is interacting and in a way guiding you, inspiring you in effect.
MH: I have tried many times to stop writing poetry. I just can not seem to manage to do so there is an irresistible urge that comes over me and I find myself writing I call this ‘IT’. That is IT is two thirds wit and the end of Spirit. When I write IT is on my shoulder and seems to almost dictate the words. This IT is my genius, in the true meaning of the term. (NOTE: “tutelary god (classical or pagan),” from Latin. genius “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation, wit, talent;” also “prophetic skill,” originally “generative power,” from root of gignere “beget, produce” .” Sense of “characteristic disposition” is from 1580s. Meaning “person of natural intelligence or talent” and that of “natural ability” are first recorded 1640s. In the philosophy of Immanuel Kant genius is the ability to independently arrive at and understand concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person. For Kant, originality was the essential character of genius. This genius is a talent for producing ideas which can be described as non-imitative. Kant’s discussion of the characteristics of genius is largely contained within the Critique of Judgement and was well received by the Romantics of the early 19th century.) I cannot deny my genius as ‘IT’ will not permit me to I simply have to allow myself to write the poetry and so I am inspired with the spirIT and wIT of ‘IT’ that sits on my shoulder as I write the words down that become my poems.
I am not only, in effect, supervised and guided by ‘IT’ I have another less helpful none physical entity or elemental being that I believe misleads me into trouble, I call this The Imp. This imp is a perverse and elusive phantasam that is there goading me on to say have that last few pints of beer and grab the blonde at the bar, but when I have done this and things go wrong that little imp has gone. In my experience blaming an invisible imp for ones troubles impresses no one.
JGS: I have asked many writers and artists in the past so let me ask you this final question. What do you Michael Haslam believe is the real meaning of life, for you that is.
MH. I believe in happiness, that is I am an hedonist, I enjoy life and I live each day intending to do that as I feel that when it stops it stops. The end is the finish and I do not believe we live after death so pursuing happiness is, I feel, the meaning of life as we are here just this once so may as well enjoy it. I like a quiet pint of beer in a comfortable pub. I love jazz music and playing my piano. I have delighted in the company of ladies, though my ability to do so is somewhat waning these days. I enjoy conversations and discussions with good friends. I am happy walking these wild moorlands and as long as I am able to will so continue. You ask me about the meaning of life: happiness.
MICHAEL HASLAM READING ONE OF HIS POEMS AT FOSER CLOUGH 29th January 2011.