The Ephemeral

W.N. Herbert

1. The Psychopathology of Everyday Poetry

A while ago, I wrote a manifesto/apologia for The Poetry Review about a number of issues that fascinated me to the point of needing to talk about all seven of them – despite being constrained by wordcount to the point of gnomic utterance because I couldn’t bear to leave any of them out. One which might benefit from slight unpacking here was the concept of The Ephemeral.

What I thought I meant by this was and, I hope, is exemplified by two projects: New Boots and Pantisocracies, and the Dundee Renga. One was a daily blog of political poems, which we published (with rests) from the 2015 General Election until the lifting of the first Lockdown.

The other is, as it says on the tin, an ongoing collaboration centred in Dundee, arising from my role as Dundee Makar, or city laureate. Each month twenty to thirty writers send in a haiku every day for twenty days. Every day I choose one, and we thereby assemble a nijūin, or twenty verse renga. So far we’ve done twelve.

Each of these projects share key characteristics we might consider as Ephemeral: they’re topical and/or occasional, civic and/or collaborative, and, primarily, online. When describing this in the beforetimes of 2017, I put it like this: 

‘Ephemerality induced diversity, dialogues began between the days. Simply to keep going, we became editorially polystylist.’

(By this I meant we published free verse, formal stuff, found poetry, light verse: whatever we thought worked in the sense of reflecting the theme – not too on the nose (those poems never work), but at its own distinct angle.)

‘Some poems were absolutely of their moment, and will represent it for years to come. Others had their whole meaningful life, like mayflies [or Theresa May herself], in that day’s publication. Others still stood apart, testifying through their slewing away from expectation.

‘Here was the psychopathology of everyday poetry, exposing us in all our fixations and failings, our eloquence and interdependence. Here was poetry, not lauded by media nor pushed by funders; not aloof from the anxieties of these times, but fully invested in them.

‘It led me to imagine a poetics of the Englishes, subversively peripheral, alert to everything the authoritative dismisses as epiphenomenon, seeking in it solidarity and the incremental seeds of change.’

That gesture towards a poetics is what might qualify this piece for the category of “Defence”, so, what happens to The Ephemeral in Lockdown?

2. Not Languishing, But Dormant

‘It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions.’ This remark by Austin Kleon was a cogent summation of a topic I suspect many of us have been discussing: not what has the pandemic called forth from any individual imagination, but what has it done to the imagination itself?

In a chat with a writer pal, we shared the disorienting sense of our creative processes slowing down, and discussed whether this Slow Thinking movement we had inadvertently joined meant that something deeper was being processed, or if we were just witnessing the actual speed of these deeper currents?

I’ve long tried to realise that I have to take however long I think a creative task will take and multiply by three. And then multiply that by three. Usually, it takes longer than that to realise it’s going to take longer than that. Then, as is happening with this article, I forget all about that and make exactly the same mistake again.

So, if this strange stumbling along is really these processes regaining their true speeds, almost free from the pressures of “real life” (AKA various authority figures yelping at us to hurry up and pretend we’re just “working from home”), could we maintain this when the new illusion is that things have returned to normal?

Many of us feel under huge pressure and so have worked across evenings, weekends, holidays. I wonder how much of this pressure is “only” corporate panic, and how much is managerial anxiety that the nature of work might have changed, and that, once changed, nothing can ever go back to how it was. I’m not sure many events ever have this effect of Absolute Reset, but I do believe that more glimpses behind Capital’s moth-eaten curtain might just facilitate that slippage into new paradigms which we appear to be undergoing.

The thing that fascinates me about this is what Frank Zappa described as xenochrony: that sense we make of two overlain rhythms: whether they appear to us to be clashing or harmonious. If you approach your job from the perspective of your creative life, most times the latter definitely feels like it is being controlled or negated by the former. From this viewpoint, working weekends and holidays is just our attempt to keep in step with both.

The enforced home life of Lockdown has destabilised the work part of this imbalance, so, while that responds by moving into overdrive, the resulting wobble means we’re all seeing through the spokes, as it were, into that other world of Creative Space. It may seem stuck on Pause, but is it really?

Might it help to think about this ongoing doldrum as a type of creative procrastination, reconnecting people with the underlying rhythm of their creativity as the forced rhythm of the workplace is itself forced to, ever so slightly, weaken its grip?

3.i. The Unfixed Collage

I recently had occasion to note it had been a year since I’d begun a highly ephemeral artistic practice:

Essentially, I’ve been happily filling those weekends I haven’t been Wurking-with-a-capital-Urk with clueless n glueless collage. That being: images torn and snipped from recent newspapers and magazines put together with half an eye and half a mind, so that elements of the unconscious might gather close and peer out of them, the resulting image being photoed rather than fixed.

This unfixity seems to have been key in releasing a certain dreaming aspect, though of course these things can never be completely unfiltered, nonetheless the wish that image could drift into juxtaposition with image and text somehow reassemble itself has become more and more “important”. Though, equally of course, part of the point here is that these are unimportant.

In other words these are instances of The Ephemeral as one use of social media, i.e. not Publication with a capital P, but publication with a petit pois. Playful not point-filled. Sharing rather than declaring. Not harkening to the hierarchical.

After working pretty solidly from January 2020 to February 2021, I went on research leave. And creatively collapsed. As Wurk retreated reluctantly, and research proper began, I gradually found my way back to research improper – that is, the Ephemeral.

I’d contend that this sort of daily practice is what keeps things going between poems, and in the longer spaces between projects. That ‘proper’ writing and imagining may well go on any old how it can down in the Blue Crevasse, and not very much of that is shared – indeed most is shredded:

I heard the telephone ringing deep
Down in a blue crevasse.
I did not answer it and could
Hardly bear to pass.

(Graham ii.19-22)

But this stuff and nonsense too plays its part, particularly the nonsense. Because attention to ephemera is, for me, the miss-it-at-your-peril link between collage, haiku, political or occasional poetry, and that ongoing practice. It’s slightly more than practice, the Couch to 5K app replayed as Collage to 5 dreams per day, and so talking about it is a bit like, finally, gluing things down – something I’m not sure about doing, but am sure at least that it is right to be ambivalent about.

3.ii. Logging the Ephemera

My other regular non-alcohol-related weekend practice is going through all the newspapers from that week and cutting out anything at all that interests me. I don’t think about why it interests me while selecting – it might be subject matter in terms of an ongoing obsession or sudden curiosity, or a matter of phrasing, or an image (or image/phrase combination) – I just cut it out, then separate the spoils into two heaps: one a word-hoard, the other an image bank.

The latter, as you might guess, feeds into the collages, but the other mostly just sits, amassing, until it merits being transferred into a cardboard box, then it gets stacked with the other boxes in a vast imaginary warehouse like a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Andy Warhol’s habit of regularly boxing up ephemera and thereby aestheticising units of time. So, although I do read the papers, and these articles in particular, assiduously, I could just file online links to them, and that makes this a curious cross between a meditative practice and an obsession.

I’ve done a version of this all my lives, in the sense that tea-chests of papers from my twenties were stored in the attic of my first partner’s family home and never retrieved; while the black plastic bags full of TLSes and New Yorkers from my thirties ended up in my mother-in-law’s garage, now sold; and boxes of manuscripts and “memorabilia” from my forties ended up downstairs in the cellar of a friend’s hundreds of years old haunted pub – I say “ended up”, but when he moved on, the boxes were…forgotten about.

In other words, I very much respect the need of matter to reform itself eternally, and there’s just this short (5-10 year) delay in my practice of non-attachment.

What comes out of this snipping and clipping is a sense of what my recurrent underlying engagements might be. So archaeology and natural history, particularly insects, feature heavily, then there’s art history, industrial history including model villages and utopian communities – anything about dovecots – Scottishness, Dundonianness (naturally), and “local matters” in general, libraries/archives, manuscripts and incunabula, old maps, translation, astronomy, public art, robotics, chimeras, samurai, comics, and cartoons.

Noticeably, two key interests, contemporary politics and poetry, tend not to feature much. I suspect this is because these are the two poles around which all these other elements are gathered, the ideology you are always already inside, using those ideas you grip onto to extract yourself from it however briefly, to find some angle at which you can look back at where you are. Perhaps they are the two mirrors between which Flann O’Brien’s de Selby strains to see his past (or future) self.

4. When translated, the inscription read, ‘I Would Prefer Not To’

In an interview in The Route as Briefed (1999), James Tate says:

‘A poet friend recently told me that he hadn’t written a poem in a year and a half and that he thought he might never write again. I told him, and I believe it, that he hadn’t stopped writing, he was just going through a period of growth. You can’t have something new to say all the time. You have to become a new person periodically, and this isn’t done by sleight of hand. This growing is what every poet cares about, and it takes time… I try to believe that anything is possible. I will write drivel rather than be totally crippled by the realisation I haven’t written A Poem in months. This drivel I write during these droughts I don’t call poetry. I shuffle a box of that to the dump every year. It’s just exercise. I don’t believe in the genteel kind of poet who waits around for four months for a line to strike him.’ (62)

The Ephemeral is a way of inhabiting that space between Tate’s ‘A Poem’ and ‘drivel’ – effectively rejecting binaries of this sort, and, mindful of Delia Derbyshire’s 267 tapes found after her death in cereal boxes, keeping the box.

I think of ephemeral “publishing” in the between-space of the internet as shared poetry, whether actively collaborative or politically reactive, and that work seems to me to be necessary practice, particularly in terms of metrical or other technical proficiencies of the craft – keeping limber or in tune, in the way that Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of flowers were rehearsals for his portraits, so that there is a sense that, as with the ground and the figure in a good metaphor, one might suddenly swop roles with the other.

This becomes a form of civic engagement and certainly of address, i.e. it must consider the society of readers as well as authors. It is categorically different from work as it is defined and measured whether by our employers or our politicians – culture’s time and efficiency gatekeepers.

5. Conclusion: the Defense Wrestles

This has not been a defence of poetry, which doesn’t really seem to need it – like a sensible rat, poetry will get by despite us. Poets may find things a little tougher now and then – after all, the academy can’t always be there to catch them. But it’s certainly not a defence of them.

What I’m more interested in standing up for is the time to write poetry, or more precisely not to write it – not quite or not yet or at least not with a capital P – since the failure to do so might prove to be as important as the success. Really, it’s a defence of time, or rather of a type of time: that space in which the hope of a poem – and the poem as a hopeful thing – arises. As Shelley puts it:

And the prostrate multitude
Looked – and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien…

(‘Mask of Anarchy’ 126-29)

At this point I must own up to my long-term failure to understand what Aristotle meant by the rhetorical property καιρός. He opposed it to clock time (χρόνος), but meant this in terms of timing and timeliness, whereas I misunderstood it as non-clock time in the sense referred to by Peter Maxwell Davies when describing his life in the Orkneys:

‘The extraordinary thing is there that one begins to live on another time scale, that clock time, time divided into hours and minutes and seconds, has no meaning… For instance, when I’m working and it’s going well a whole day will go and it’s like five minutes and one is not conscious of clock time having passed hardly at all, and you feel marvellous having done that kind of work in that amount of time. And this kind of fluctuating time where you feel time accelerates and retards…it’s a dimension which has got as much perspective and as much richness in it as space… And a musician – you’d think it would be obvious to him [sic], working with time as he does, creating his artwork in terms of time, but the lives we live where we’re governed by clock time you very often become unconscious of this.’

Moreover, I associated this non-clock time with the expanded sense of time generated by meditation and the expanded consciousness of exercise-released endorphins, alcoholic intoxication, and other such enhanced states. This category of zonal or distilled time simply isn’t the same thing as “the weekend” or “leave”, and though it very much is something they can inadvertently or otherwise deny us, it is not in our employers’ or political masters’ power to grant it. It is not therefore enough to demand, with Paul Farley’s speaker in ‘The Lapse’, ‘Give us back the giant day’ (25).

Those of us who have neither time-travelled to the late 70s and early 80s to be on the Dole, nor are already retired, nor sufficiently successful not to have to worry, must exit from Lockdown having internalised a few insights along with the agenbites:

Our time is not their time in the specific sense that it is not the same kind of time. It is our job not theirs to maintain this distinction, indeed it is how we do our jobs for them and for ourselves.

It is the exercising of the imagination which enables us to preserve this difference, and therefore whatever it takes to balance this with our rights and responsibilities as employees/members of an University and citizens/family members, that’s good enough and it’ll have to be good enough long term – we’re not going to have the luxury of perfection any time soon, nor is the very idea of perfection our friend.

Although we will feel guilty for every procrastinatory fugue state and each pushed deadline, we just have to own it and carry on – the dominant ideology will have its way with our conscience, but it doesn’t have to rule our creativity.

What are we aiming for, if not this weekend, then the next? Something like Adorno’s aspiration in Minima Moralia, though without the requirement to become quite as Christ-like, for Christ’s sake:

‘The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would appear from the standpoint of redemption… Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.’ (247)

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. Verso, 2005.

Davies, Peter Maxwell. ‘Radwick: The Valley by the Sea’. Hoy Heritage Centre, 30 June 2017. Accessed 05.06.2021.

Elmes, Simon. ‘The Secrets of Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules’. BBC, 10 September 2014. Accessed 05.06.2021.

Farley, Paul. ‘The Lapse’. London Review of Books, 20 October 2005. Accessed 05.05.2021.

Graham, W.S. ‘Malcom Mooney’s Land’, in Malcolm Mooney’s Land. Faber, 1970.

Kleon, Austin. ‘I’m not Languishing, I’m Dormant’. Austin Kleon, 26 April 2021. Accessed 05.06.2021.

‘Robert Mapplethorpe: “Tulips,” 1988’. Huxley Parlour, n.d. Accessed  05.06.2021.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, in The Major Works. Ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill. Oxofrd UP, 2003.

Tate, James. The Route as Briefed. University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Zappa, Frank. Interview by Bob Marshall, 22 October 1988. Internet Archive. Accessed  05.06.2021.

W.N. Herbert
was born in Dundee and lives in a lighthouse in North Shields. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, mostly published by Bloodaxe Books, who brought out his latest collection, The Wreck of the Fathership, in 2020. HIs work has been shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot, Forward, and McVities Prizes, and has won numerous Arts Council awards. He is the recipient of a Cholmondeley Award, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches poetry at Newcastle University, and was until recently Dundee’s first Makar, or city laureate. (In his head he still is.)

He has worked on collaborative translation from languages including Bulgarian, Chinese, Dutch, and Somali, editing A Balkan Exchange (2007), with Yang Lian, Jade Ladder (2012) and The Third Shore (2013), and, with Said Jama Hussein, So At One With You (2018).