Thursday, 31 December 2015 at 12:06
(Originally posted on Frances Leviston’s Verse Palace site some years previously. I came across it while trying to organise old files. As Verse Palace was defunct by 2015, it seemed an appropriate end-of-December post to start the blog.)
Mid-winter and midday feels like dusk. Cold and wet outside; inside it’s dark, cavelike. Light seeps in around the windows, but not enough to blunt the glow from laptop, lamp, the radio’s digital display. It seems a good time to make soups, stews: have things simmering on the stove, hoping some sympathetic magic will help word-broths thicken through the dark afternoons. The days are not so much short as weak: half-hearted respites while the night gathers strength. A sudden snowfall overnight and the contrast is turned up loud. Night seems pushed back, the sun, as John Updike has it, “a spark / Hung thin between / the dark and dark.” It seems a good time to think about darkness.
In the city I miss star-thick winter nights. Something evocative remains in the first smoky weeks of the autumn: the bright-dark dusk as you notice the brake-lights stabbing on, the slow sulphurous warming up of streetlights. But soon it is all top-lit amber-grey which flattens the street and lids the sky.
The bright-dark encourages dreaming. The word “focus” is cognate with “fire”, the hearth which the family gathered round and stared into. Behind them, the flickering flames shifted the room’s perspectives. A little away from the family, a candle cast a cold halo over book or writing table. Imagine how that would seep into your writing. Now shadows are banished from corners. Central heating and screens in every room have left the grate unfocused. The gas fire may have retained some vestigial warmth, but, as Tony Harrison noted, sitting with his ex-coal miner father, it’s “Not as good for staring in, blue gas, / too regular each bud, each yellow spike.” The coal-fire simulacra cowling some gas fires settle for a bed of lumpy warmth rather than spooky rainbow-plumed updrafts and shape-shifts, though even that effect is defeated by electric light.
Darkness and light. Liminal / luminal. You need darkness to see certain lights: stars, sparks, glow. Heaney tells us that all he knows is a “door into the dark”. Inside “The Forge” is an “altar” where, in an “unpredictable fantail of sparks”, the blacksmith “expends himself in shape and music”, beating “real iron out”. The dark is sacred, mythic, magical, but also somehow more authentic than the contemporary world of traffic “flashing in rows”. In the dark we see a vanished world, like the one in which the Bard Schools nightly set apprentices themes to work on “the whole next day in the Dark, till a certain Hour of the Night, Lights being brought in, they committed it to writing”. The dark allows imagination to roam, feed on memory, conjure visions. Seeds grow in the dark earth, but they grow towards, and flower in, the light.
The archetypal poet Orpheus bears a name which is probably connected with “darkness” (Orphna). The Underworld is peopled with shades: these dead give wisdom which we can retrieve into the light. Following Orpheus, the Orphic Mysteries proclaimed a cycle of death and rebirth, darkness and light. The Orphics revered Phanes, the god of light, but also Persephone, seasonal goddess who wintered underground in Hades to be reborn each spring. In Hades, the dead may choose to drink from Lethe, forgetfulness, or Mnemosyne, memory: the latter guarantees rebirth with the knowledge of past lives. Mnemosyne is also the Mother of the Muses. The descent is only part of it; we must learn from the shades then reascend into light; to wallow in darkness is eternal death. Dante is guided through Hell by Virgil who had his hero Aeneas also descend. “Facilis descensus Averno”: it’s easy to slip into Hell, Virgil tells us: climbing out is what’s difficult. The inchoate and dreamlike beckons, but the gradus ad parnassum, the slow ascent to craft, requires perseverance and guidance from the shades.
Darkness is, of course, also a metaphor for depression or mental torment, the time of ashes. Roethke writes: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see, / I meet my shadow in the deepening shade”. This “darkness” is beyond seasons. Tennyson’s “dark and true and tender is the North” contrasts with the “bright and fierce and fickle” south. But fierce bright Spain gives us Lorca’s death-haunted duende: “all that has dark sounds has duende” – and St John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul. For Scott Fitzgerald “in the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’ clock in the morning”, while for Nathaniel Tarn the terrible thing about la noche oscura is that it comes about in broad daylight. A gloomy January afternoon, however, can make even “the long dark tea-time of the soul” seem more like Eliot than Douglas Adams.
Google “poetry and darkness” and you discover the vast goth subculture in which psychic darkness complements the subfusc dress-code. “Emo” poems peep out from behind stage-scenery that was already looking rackety by the time of Baudelaire and the druggier decadents. Some sites give tips on writing “dark poetry”: “think of dark things… death, blood, negative thoughts, depression, anger, hate, fear and the supernatural are good things to start off with. Add in anything else not listed here”; “If you cannot think of anything else, write about death.” Black has always been the new black, since melancholy or “black bile” was the admired mode on Elizabethan page and stage. Though Robert Burton claimed to write his compendious The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) in order to avoid the condition, later writers seem in love with it. “O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!” writes James Thompson in The City of Dreadful Night (1874), anticipating the ironically gregarious nature of the black-clad virtual brotherhood now baring their dark souls on the web. Dark fashion outlasts seasons by ignoring them.
Most of us spend our season in Hell and move on. “Darkness” is seasonal, or was. Traditionally haiku contained a season-word and were often grouped according to the four seasons. This system was robust enough to accommodate the bombing of Hiroshima [6 August] and Nagasaki [9 August], though the ancient lunar-based calendar meant that the first fell in summer and the second in the autumn. Since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by Japan in 1872, there have been problems reconciling lunar festivals with the solar calendar. This, and the diminishing influence of the seasons on modern urban life, have led to the growth of new categories: tsûki [“spreading through seasons”] and muki [“no season”]. Though western poetry traditionally mirrored the seasons and the ecclesiastical calendar, meaning has now effectively been banished from both. We have Kenyan green beans, Spanish strawberries, all seasons and none. Seasonal Affectless Disorder: our season-words become as incomprehensible as Shakespeare’s old measurements of rods, chains, furlongs, perches.
Darkness may signal the end of seasonality itself. From Biblical punishment to Milton’s “darkness visible” it has been also been retributive. In Byron’s “Darkness” “The bright sun was extinguished” and the world doomed to be “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless – / A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.” Not so long ago, the Cold War threatened us with a Nuclear Winter; today global warming seems more likely to banish seasons or twist them out of kilter.
In a way I’ve returned to where I began: dark skies. A bare-light bulb you can’t turn off is torture and now the American Medical Association warns of “light trespass”: “Many species, including humans need darkness to survive and thrive. Light trespass has been implicated in disruption of the human and animal circadian rhythms, and strongly suspected of causing depressed immune systems and increase in cancer rates…” Poetry adapts.
Nick Laird, for example, has a poem called “Light Pollution”, but it’s
difficult to imagine a genre growing out of the night-time glare and the
buckled seasonal wheel bewildering man and beast. Slowly we recognise that “Darkness
is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light
It may also be essential to our poetry.
 John Updike, “January”, A Child’s Calendar.
 “Book Ends”.
 1772 source quoted by Daniel Corkery in Hidden Ireland; also in Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: the Making of a Poet, p.79.
 Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time.”
 “O swallow, Swallow”
 In Lorca’s lecture “The Theory and Play of the Duende.” http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up.
 In, I think, the collection A Nowhere for Vallejo.