In which I consider what it means to be a poet, and what good poetry means to me.
Though I never read anything she wrote, my English teacher was the first poet I knew. I remember that she sobbed unashamedly as she read to us the ending of The Woods at the End of Autumn Street, and that she often told us anecdotes about her childhood. Once, she digressed for a whole lesson, telling us about how someone had broken into her car to steal her purse from the passenger seat. In a final flourish that was inconceivable to her, they’d opened her glove box, taken out her cassettes and pulled out all the tape. When she returned and saw it, great spools littering the car seats like used party poppers, she burst into tears. Not for the missing purse or the smashed glass but for the cruelty. She cried again in the retelling. ‘Why would someone do that?’ she asked us. ‘Why would someone want to destroy something just to be cruel?’ We were a sea of blank faces, apathetic and dreaming only of lunch. She was a poet, though of course I can only appreciate this in retrospect. At the time, we found her unnerving and laughed at her behind her back. But now I know that she was a poet.
Let me elaborate, by veering off on a digression of my own.
There’s a letter by Ted Hughes to his son, which I turn to whenever I’m feeling pathetic or weak or self-loathing. It’s an advice letter, written to reassure Nick Hughes, who had complained of feeling pathetic and childish in his inability to cope with his mother’s death. If you have five minutes I’d really recommend you read it – the ideas within it have been mantras to me ever since. For now though, I’ll summarise: Hughes suggests that we humans have a tendency to cushion ourselves from suffering. We use carefully developed defense mechanisms and safety blankets to ensurethat most of life is soft and pillowy; so that we can seem like competent adults, and avoid embarrassing ourselves by appearing unusual or vulnerable. When something truly awful happens then – that gets through our armour and jabs at the soft flesh of the child within – we feel pathetic and as though we have failed. But we also feel at our most alive when we suffer. It’s the real us, touching the real world. It’s the only time we can really grow; the only time we can really feel. In Ted’s words:
“At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in [us]. It’s [our] humanity, [our] real individuality. […] It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool—for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful.”
For me, this sentiment gets to the heart of what poetry is, and what it can do. The best poetry comes from that vulnerable, inner place, and transports itself to its counterpoint within a reader. It communicates what is real and honest, teleporting it from within one set of armour to another. It is in this sense that I consider my old English teacher to have been a poet: instead of writing off those car thieves – and the world with them – as cruel; instead of brushing off the fact that ‘shit happens’, she faced up to the feeling of hurt and questioned it. Instead of dealing with a group of surly teenagers by assuming authority and shouting commands at us, she stood at the front of the room, read aloud and wept. To refer back to Ted’s letter:
“And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. […] As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.”
This, to me, is the idea that swirls around my love of poetry – both in the reading and the writing. I want, always, to ‘live like a mighty river’. I want, always to ‘carry and tolerate’ a high ‘voltage of life’. I seek to read and write poetry that creates a jolt of feeling in me, and which reminds me that there are other humans out there, peering out from behind their armour, wanting to engage in the experience of living, too.
I wanted to include a poem now – well, a segment of a poem – which gives me that jolt of feeling. In fact, I can’t read this poem out loud without sobs getting caught in my throat.
Out Of The Blue
You have picked me out.
Through a distant shot of a building burning
you have noticed now
that a white cotton shirt is twirling, turning.
In fact I am waving, waving.
Small in the clouds, but waving, waving.
Does anyone see
a soul worth saving?
So when will you come?
Do you think you are watching, watching
a man shaking crumbs
or pegging out washing?
I am trying and trying.
The heat behind me is bullying, driving,
but the white of surrender is not yet flying.
I am not at the point of leaving, diving.
A bird goes by.
The depth is appalling. Appalling
that others like me
should be wind-milling, wheeling, spiralling, falling.
Are your eyes believing,
that here in the gills
I am still breathing.
But tiring, tiring.
Sirens below are wailing, firing.
My arm is numb and my nerves are sagging.
Do you see me, my love. I am failing, flagging.
I taught this poem for the first time in my teacher training year. I was being observed, still not fully qualified, and I couldn’t stop crying every time I read it. I cried when I prepared the lesson. I cried in the observation. I cried when I taught it to a new class, the year after. They were a naughty class, quick to laugh and slow to listen, but my sobbing seemed to act like a magic charm. It stopped them dead and they wrote in fervent silence about the waving man for half an hour. My English teacher taught me about that – the power of vulnerability – though it took a good five years for the lesson to sink in.
I’m not sure what it is that gets to me so much about Out Of The Blue: perhaps the meek desperation in the questions, perhaps the direct address in the final line. Perhaps it’s the way it taps into that collective memory, of that helpless man they showed on the news, waving his t-shirt helplessly. I was twelve, sat cross-legged on the carpet of my living room, when I first heard that news report. The world was changing, though I was too young, then, to understand human cruelty or that distant suffering. Students now are too young to remember it at all.
But I see in this poem now what I was too young to see in that news clip back then. Though his pain is more immediate, that man waving his t-shirt is, to me, a synecdoche for humankind. Because we are all standing – terrified and confused by the blazing danger around us – begging to be seen, begging to be rescued. Every poem we write is a wave: sometimes we are waving for recognition and sometimes we are waving for our life. Or perhaps, in the words of Stevie Smith, we are not waving but drowning. Either way, we are always hoping to be truly seen, hoping that someone, somewhere, will throw us a life ring. Or wave back.
p.s. If you click here you can hear a beautiful reading of Out Of The Blue, accompanied by the video footage which I referred to.
Not Waving, But Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.