New Responses to the Brontës: Andrew McMillan on Branwell

Festival Poet in Residence tells us more about how Branwell Brontë is inspiring his specially commissioned piece.

There’s a great New Statesman piece, talking about Robert Erdic’s Sanctuary, which in discussing that famous portrait of Branwell Brontë smeared out focus, quotes Charlotte as commenting that there seemed to be an “emptiness” to Branwell’s “whole existence”. How interesting a concept for poetry to try to come into conversation with; an existence which was entirely ‘empty’ (though of course full, even if full of that emptiness), a page which is entirely blank, though of course with the potential to be filled.

I’m interested too in that other oft-mentioned cliche of Branwell; his insistence at failure. The idea of Branwell being forgotten, or ignored, or unknown, is perhaps as much of a cliche as anything else. But failure is central to poetry too, possibly to any art. All poetry fails. Each poem fails at what it sets out to achieve, in some way – it never quite manages to articulate what needs to be said, each poem always falls slightly short of the hopes that the poet had for it, and thus perhaps Branwell is the perfect subject for a poem.

Commissions are always difficult (but exciting) because oftentimes poetry comes from a line that appears in your head from nowhere and then follows you around; this line suggests itself, it hints at a rhythm, at a possible framework for a poem, and then, as you write, you discover more about what it is that line might have been trying to say to you. Commissions work slightly differently; they present you with the subject already, and you have to write around that. The easy, but wrong, way to do this would to simply say right, Branwell…. Branwell Branwell Branwell…. and sit twiddling my thumbs, reading up quick Wiki articles about him, before launching into something which would just end up being a narrative of his life, or a biography in miniature.

It has always seemed to me that when given a subject like Branwell, especially someone quite elusive, quite difficult, you simply have to put them to the back of your mind and try not to think about them at all. Getting a commission is like suddenly having a naughty child in the room when you were doing the housework – the child keeps shouting ‘look at me, look at me, give me attention’ and tries to distract you from the hoovering, or the dusting, or the poem, you were working on. The best thing to do (he writes confidently never having had children) is to ignore the naughty child, to let them sit in the corner and wait until they come back out, subdued, quiet, but with something startling to say. That’s what I’m expecting will happen here, Branwell is hidden away at the back of my mind, and one day he’ll stand up and say something remarkable.

Well, hopefully that’s how it will work. In the meantime I’ll be thinking of failure, of absence, of loss; and of the great poem ‘Branwell Brontë reincarnated as a vest’, which was written by a poet I know well, my dad Ian McMillan. So I’ll be thinking about family too, families who write, and the ghosts which can haunt through generations.

New Responses to the Brontës
7.15pm, Saturday 15 October, Ilkley Playhouse, £6/4
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Or you can see New Responses to the Brontës at Off the Shelf on Friday 14 October, including a special light projection created by Word Life, and Beverley Literature Festival on Tuesday 18 October.