In the last few weeks I’ve been picking my way through the undergrowth of words. 26 Words uncovered some obscure specimens, and now I’ve just returned from the latest Dark Angels course where the participants randomly selected words from a dictionary, and came up with their own favourite words.
Our course was in Highgreen, a Victorian country house in a remote part of Northumbria where there are more sheep than humans. As Katch put it “I speak sheep” but her writing showed that she had an individual voice that was not at all sheeplike. Everyone’s writing was suffused with a sense of this place with its ragged grass, birdsong and rock hewn out of the landscape. Being here. I never have a greater sense of being present, feeling what it is to be alive, than on a Dark Angels course.
Surrounded by interesting words, I decide to use the dictionary to find out what it says about the most ever-present word. Be. The OED tells me it’s an ‘irregular, defective verb’ and I feel like springing to its defence. Be is not defective, it’s the essence of existence. And our course is about writing as one human being to another.
At Highgreen we visit the next-door offices of Bloodaxe, the UK’s leading independent publisher of poetry. Neil Astley, the inspiring founder of Bloodaxe, tells us the story of the company and how it came to be here in this place. He talks to us about the Staying Alive trilogy which includes poetic anthologies entitled Being Alive and Being Human. The sheep go ‘baa’ and we go ‘be’.
Be is such an essential word that it sneaks into sentences unnoticed, you hardly know it’s there, but the sentence would collapse without it. Imagine if – like Georges Perec who wrote a novel without using the letter ‘e’ – you tried writing without using be in any of its forms (is, are, was, being etc). your writing would come close to being dead.
Be is ubiquitous, sneaky, mellifluous, it gives our thoughts flow, is part of every exploration we make, it stops us getting bunged up. A wholesome word. The mortar between the bricks of all the other words.
I’m particularly aware of this because of the work produced by our writers. Even those, or especially those, who arrived on the first day and said bashfully “Well, I’m not really a writer”. By the final evening the evidence was clearly there – you are all writers. Be: to have place in the realm of fact, to exist, to continue, to remain. Be a writer, remain a writer. Some extraordinary collaborative pieces were written, their starting points the combination of two individual words. Fantastic constructions were made, building from these small beginnings of random words yoked together, bringing dreams into reality, ideas into being. The extended exercise made clear how words are fundamental to our human existence and experience, they are the way we express our individual identity. Words are alive, we need to sustain them.
If you find any of this a little strange, all I can say is this: you just had to be there.