Catalysts : Paul Kingsnorth29 June 2020
When novelist and poet Paul Kingsnorth founded the The Wyrd School in 2018 it advanced a radical proposition - 'that art which focuses only on human concerns is art half-made' - but it was not one he was unfamiliar with; Kingsnorth was already long noted as a co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project - a collective that found international cultural reach based on a manifesto that emphatically rejected the worn-out stories our civilisation tells itself, including the notion of man exisiting apart from nature.
The Wyrd School offers courses and mentoring for writers and artists, with a deep ambition to 'rewild art, writing and the over-civilised modern soul, one human at a time.' Kingsnorth's own published work - whether prose or poetry, fiction, memoir or factual - attests to his long-term drive to achieve the same goal. If you are looking for an artist worth supporting in troubled times, then his Patreon page deserves your attention.
Given the task of picking three key cultural influences from the last ten years, Paul chose a disparate trio of writers who share a profundity of insight, and, putting his thoughts to paper in his West of Ireland home, used suitably luminous words to describe them:
Since I'm a writer, I thought I'd try and identify three others who have had powerful impacts on me over the last decade.
Starting with Annie Dillard, whose classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a religious meditation disguised as a piece of 'nature writing'. Rather than trekking the Himalayas barefoot or canoeing the Pacific, Dillard meanders around the small area in which she lives, observing life as it is lived by every creature she shares it with. Any writer could do this, most of them predictably, but Dillard's way of writing, like her way of seeing, is unique. Who else would attempt to describe the everyday beauty of a sycamore tree by interweaving a story of her childhood garden with a fictional narrative about Xerxes, King of Persia? For writers who love this kind of thing, her slim later book The Writing Life is a font of equally singular bloody-minded wisdom. 'The written word is weak', she explains. 'Many people prefer life to it.' Still, the writer must use the tools he has. Fate decrees it. 'You were made and set here', she explains, 'to give voice to this, your own astonishment.'
Speaking of astonishment, the poet Jack Gilbert is one of those best-kept-secret kinds of writers who was largely unknown in his lifetime and still is. Not that he minded: he lived his life, in many different nations, did his work and never seemed to seek anything else. Life and work: was there a difference? Not for Gilbert. I was pointed towards him three years ago and it's barely been worth writing poetry since. Gilbert zeroes in on love, lust, grief and beauty, and refuses at any point to be distracted by mediocrity or inconsequence. His narratives are set on fire regularly by images which seem to have descended upon them from the sky and taken them hostage. 'Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts / of long-fibred Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred / pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what / my body wants to say to your body.'
Finally, and speaking of narratives on fire, the Irish mystic and philosopher John Moriarty is a recent and life-changing discovery. I wonder if Moriarty only makes sense when you are in Ireland (though to plenty of Irish people he doesn't make much sense either). Moriarty's life's work was to dig to the depths of the spirit of his place, and seek spiritual redemption there from the growing terrors of modernity. Never an easy writer but often a profound one, his long prose works are best read like poems, cries sent up to God and the great mystery. Hugely erudite, hypnotically repetitive, often wound tight into itself, his writing is, like Gilbert's, regularly grabbed and shaken hard by imagery which seems to rise unbidden from the bogs and raths of his native Kerry or his adopted Connemara. Moriarty's desire, as he wrote in his autobiography Nostos, was to live, like the Native Americans, in 'a culture so sure of itself that it wouldn't ever need to become a civilisation.' The only place to start, he concluded, was home.
You can find out more about Paul Kingsnorth here, and about his projects here. In a further concession to modernity, he can also be found on Facebook. The next Wyrd School course - Rewild Your Words - runs this October at the Boghill Centre, County Clare.