Saturday, April 09, 2016

Muriel Spark the Poet

(The following is a brief piece I was asked to send to the BBC in January when the programme 'The Poetic Spark' was being devised.)

Muriel Spark stated: 'I write as a poet...my novels come under the category of poetics rather than fiction...' 
'Although most of my life has been devoted to fiction, I have always thought of myself as a poet.  I do not write 'poetic' prose, but feel that my outlook on life and my perception of events are those of a poet.  Whether in prose or verse, all creative writing is mysteriously connected with music and I always hope this factor is apparent throughout my work.'
(Spark, Tuscany, 2003: Preface to All the Poems, Carcanet, 2004)

Certainly, her novels carry the signatures of poetry: they are concise, allusive, elusive and open to a variety of readings and interpretations.

When I was asked to give a talk at the Tramway, Glasgow, for the National Theatre of Scotland's production of The Driver's Seat in 2015,  I emphasised the influence on her development as a writer of reading Scottish ballads at her school, James Gillespie's in Edinburgh.

Border Ballads were the real spark for Spark.  Aged ten, she called them her favourite reading material: 'In Edinburgh [they] are best read in the long dark winters...They were cruel and lyrical at the same time and I think they had a great effect on my later literary work.' ('When I was Ten', The Golden Fleece, ed Jardine, Carcanet, 2014)  She entitled one of her novels The Ballad of Peckham Rye, probably as homage to their influence.  The ballads are the very stuff of a Spark novel with their sense of the macabre, their time shifts, their violence, their short, sharp and enigmatic dark narratives written with a deceptively light touch.  The ballads are dispassionate and leave the reader to work out their hidden messages: why was the twa corbies' knight so casually abandoned?  Why was Lord Randall poisoned?

To conclude: in my opinion, the poetry of Spark is more self-revealing than her novels.  She described herself as 'a constitutional exile' and it is in poems such as 'Abroad', 'Communication', 'Standing in the Field', 'Hats' and 'Edinburgh Villanelle' among others that you find this sense of dislocation and exile but, importantly, not unhappiness.

The inscription on her gravestone, translated there into Italian, comes, appropriately, from her poem 'Canaan':

'Not a leaf
Repeats itself, we only repeat the word.'

Gail Wylie
April 2016


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