Friday, 3 April 2009

On Making - Katherine Langrish

In Chaucer’s time, the word for a poet or author was ‘a maker’ - as witness the Scots poet William Dunbar’s luminous ‘Lament for the Makers’, in which he lists poet after poet taken by ‘the strong unmerciful tyrant’, death:

‘He has done piteouslie devour
The noble Chaucer, of makers flower;
The Monk of Bery, and Gower all three:
Timor mortis conturbat me.’

(In fact, damn it, go and read the poem first, and come back and read this after you’ve done.)
‘Maker’: I’ve always liked it. It’s less high-falutin’ than ‘author’ or ‘poet’: it links us inextricably – as we ought to be linked – with every other sort of human creativity. People make furniture. They make paintings, musical instruments and gardens. They make brain scanners, television programmes and films. They make homes. They make love – which as Ursula K Le Guin once wrote in the ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (go and read that too), ‘doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.’
None of these things (furniture, gardens, brain scanners etc) just happen. You can’t make anything worth having without a lot of effort. I should know, because my bones are currently aching from having spent three days digging bindweed roots (thick, white, snappy coiling things) out of my flower beds. But what a difference it will make come the summer!
Writers are makers. Creativity is toil. But it’s also wonderful, and as I read Meg Harper’s last piece, about getting the frightened writers in her workshop to get something down on paper, I was sad that children are frightened of using words.
My brother and I were part of the Blue Peter generation, and he was fantastic at making things out of Squeezy bottle and cornflakes packets. He went on to construct balsa wood planes that really flew, and can now turn his hand to just about anything, including boats, house extensions, and beautiful, glossy musical instruments like mandolas. He’s also an accomplished folk musician who can compose his own tunes.
Me, I tried. I longed to own a model sailing ship, so I made my own very ugly one out of balsa wood, and painted it yellow. It had so many holes in the hull, it would have sunk like a stone, but I made it and loved it till it was squashed flat in a house removal by heartless, careless men from Pickfords. I wanted to own an exquisite piece of Chinese embroidery I’d seen, smothered in birds and flowers – so I got a bit of frayed blue satin and laboriously stitched away at a puckered, lumpy, clumsy bird.
I wanted a miniature Chinese garden like one I’d read about in a book – so I borrowed a tray and arranged gravel and stones and moss around a tin lid (for the pool) and stood some china ornaments around it till the moss dried and the tray got knocked over. Oh, and I wanted an eighth Narnia book, so I got an old blue notebook and wrote my own. (You can see it on my website if you want.) And though none of the things I made may have been any good (by some ultimate critical standard), it was the making of them that counted.
For me, the writing is what has lasted. I’m not an embroiderer or a woodworker (though I would still love to be). But it’s all making, and any child who hammers a nail in straight, paints a picture or bakes brownies knows how good it feels.
Here’s a poem by Robert Bridges that I learned by heart when I was about nine.
I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them.
God hath no better praise,
And Man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.
I too will something make,
And joy in the making,
Although tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream,
Remembered on waking.


Mary Hoffman said...

Lovely post Kath and both the Dunbar and the Bridges sent shivers to my spine (actually left leg to be more precise and less cliched.)

Timor mortis conturbat me too.But I try not to let it stop me making.

In fact I often think of Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be ..."and feel so sad that he died young before all those unwritten poems saw the light. The only consolation is that he might have written his best by then anyway.

Not so people like me who take a long time to find their stride.

Meg Harper said...

I love the Bridges, Kath, and will add it to my book of quotes! Yes, I so agree with all this - a Blue Peter child myself and did loads of other 'making' as a child and then, before writery type stuff took over, as an adult - clothes, curtains etc. And, of course, there's still cooking and baking - and I endlessly make theatre with kids - and, I suppose, as a trainee counsellor, I'm engaged in trying to 'make things new' with my clients. But whereas to make seems as important as to breathe for me, for many people it seems to matter not at all - or am I wrong and we're all 'makers' in some sense or another?

AnneR said...

That is my favourite Dunbar poem, Kath. And Mary, I'm with you on the Timor mortis conturbat... (and still waiting to hit my stride!). I'd add 'Do not go gentle into that good night' (though it's a bit late by then).
I came home from Borders to find Small Daughter had been making in my absence - lemon and coconut jelly, pasta bake, chocolate chip cookie dough and a tadpole refuge (in the front room). And I'm making dinner downstairs and re-tellings of Anglo-Norman stories upstairs. You're so right, Meg - making is everywhere and in everything :-)

Katherine Langrish said...

But for this time of year, one of my other favourites by Dunbar is: 'Done is a battle on the dragon black' (forgive modern spelling, haven't got the book to hand) and the amazing sonority of the refrain: Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
wow could that man handle a Latin tag.