Sunday, 4 September 2011

Doorways to everywhere

06:00:00 Posted by Lara Clayton , , , , 4 comments

By Jacob Silkstone

‘Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted,’ as Emily Dickinson once wrote (displaying both her customary eloquence and her customary fondness for dashes). It seems reasonable to add that all the best haunted houses are crammed with doorways: trap doors, concealed doors, doors to labyrinthine passages, doors to nowhere at all.

If a poem truly is a house that tries to be haunted, where do the doors lead? I imagine that the space behind the poem is similar to the hallway and the Great Hall in House of Leaves – a space which at first seems easily navigable and then, on further exploration, begins to seem infinite. The doorways opened by a poem frequently lead anywhere and everywhere.

In addition to doorways, haunted houses should also contain echoes, distant voices, voices which come and go and occasionally demand to be heard. T. S. Eliot believed that ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his [or, presumably, her] complete meaning alone’, and the doorways in a poem often lead to other poems and other poets, until everything seems interconnected. We work in different rooms, but we occupy the same house.

Reading a poem is partly a process of looking for doorways. If I pick a line almost at random (allowing myself to cheat slightly) from one of the collections on my shelf, I come up with ‘You’d tell it by the quicken and the pine...’ from Robin Robertson’s ‘At Roane Head’. ‘Pine’ opens doors to two other poems on the same shelf: a door to the first line of ‘Evangeline’ (‘This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks...’), and a door to the ninth of Neruda’s twenty love poems (‘Drunk with pines and long kisses...’, in Merwin’s English translation).

The doors associated with ‘quicken’ are harder (or slower, if you’re in the mood for a laboured pun) to open, but an endnote from Robertson explains that quicken is an alternative name for the rowan, and suddenly the poem seems haunted by itself: the quicken/rowan contains a faint echo of ‘Roane Head’. ‘Echo’ opens a door of its own – a door to Seamus Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’, the final poem in Death of a Naturalist, which ends:

... I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

I wonder whether, sometimes, it’s worth reading to set the darkness echoing. Moving through a poem can be like riding a ghost train (‘ghost train’ echoes too: it’s the title of Sean O’Brien’s fourth collection), passing door after door, always surrounded by the many-voiced dark. Entering the space created by a poem involves putting aside your fear of the unknown and being prepared to try as many doors as possible – even when, initially, they refuse to yield.

Read, explore, see where each poem leads and what each poem tries to be haunted by: if left unobserved, all doorways tend, over time, to disappear.



Lara Clayton said...

Hi Jacob,
Thank you so much for being our guest blogger, and for writing what is a truly wonderful, intelligent and considered post.

Ashley R Lister said...


illuminating and thought-provoking.

Thank you,


Lindsay said...

An element of the macabre brought to this weeks theme, great post :)

vicky ellis said...

"We work in different rooms, but we occupy the same house."

Your post resonantes very much with my experience of writing and reading. One poem very much leads to another. The path from one to the next can seem natural, as if it was there all along, but it is only our individual reading which determines which words we emphasise; in which direction we travel.

So, much like the labyrinths in 'House of Leaves' (which has been mentioned twice this week and therefore needs revisiting) the hidden passages do expand in all directions.

Great post :)