I had a moment today whilst teaching.
I was covering unseen poetry and using The Moment, by Margaret Atwood. Truth will out and it will declare than I don’t really like this poem, massively. It’s one of those poems that sounds like poetry and has lots of spaces that allow for deep and meaningful reflection. It’s okay in a satisfactory way and is definitely okay for writing about unseen poetry. If it was a choice, the poem would not be accompanying me to my desert island. I could not imagine endless moments of The Moment whilst the waves gently lap against the golden shores of my Time. What I want from poetry is not quiet words of wisdom but unquiet meanderings that haunt my thoughts for year after year.
“You really love poetry, don’t you, sir?”
“Yes, I suppose I do.” Non-intentional dramatic pause. “Yes, I do.”
There are poets that have been with me for years and years. Robert Frost was one of the first ones to take up residence. Birches, where the trees are bent over after ice storms, Like girls drying their hair before them, After Apple Picking with the unwanted fruits abandoned to the cider apple heap, and The Road Not Taken as a lament or celebration of choices people make in life. I am hearing the soft landing of a little horse as it makes its way though snowy woods and I am back there, not in the place I first read Frost but in his own land and mind.
Tony Harrison came along in my twenties and usurped others who would have claimed the throne. I first had his words thrust in front of me to read in a university seminar. I was asked because I was from Harrison’s neck of the woods, that soot covered piece of West Yorkshire that refused to scrub itself clean. My reading of his poem, Long Distance, fell flat on its iambic arse with my angst-ridden rendition. That moment became a source of personal embarrassment for many years. My reading aloud was dire. I stumbled over sentences unless I was in role and not ME. Once in the guise of another, I could make language take flight.
It took me no time at all to fall in love with the poetry of Harrison. It was my voice, although more educated, and it expressed my thoughts about a cultural past that would never go away. Harrison made my language grand. It wasn’t the hyperbolic extravagance of the theatre, nor the torturous stanzas of the comic. It was the language of my blood that stretched backwards whilst reaching ahead. It foretold of my oft times difficult relationship I endured with my Dad and family. The fact that my moving away was seen, by some, to be a betrayal of my culture. It mimicked my change of accent, change of interests, and change of self (whoever that may have been). For once, it was me speaking and standing, “agate, wondering about the world I was waking in and about my past all gone…”
That was when, as Dustin Hoffman would have said as Little Big Man, I went through my poetry phase.
“Poetry, you see, is the speech of kings, You’re one of those Shakespeare gave the comic bits to, prose.” Thanks to Mr Harrison.
It is true that I was a pauper. My education was blue-collared satisfactory but nothing more. Everything about me was second-rate, yet I longed to be a prince. That was when poetry threatened to save me.
I had always been writing poetry and most of it was quite bad. I wrote a sort of sonnet to a girl in sixth form which I turned into a sloppy song. I sang it to myself before going to sleep at night but it didn’t do the trick. She ended up going off with a dickhead who had a microphone for a head of hair. Still I persisted. I wrote another song/poem about Jack the Ripper which claims that it was society that was responsible for his crimes. I remember the clichéd lines to this day and am glad that I never put it out there.
“You never put anything out there.”
Guess which one of my wives said that. To stop you wasting valuable thinking time, I have to tell you that I have just the one. She was talking about this blog/book that I’m writing.
“Always up in your head and not down in red!” My poetry, berating myself.
Until you become accepted, all writing has the potential to be deeply embarrassing. Take this, for example. Here am I, hiding behind a screen of words, not even sharing what the digital world calls my profile with anyone. My wife and daughters are petrified that people will find out that it is me writing this self-interested drivel. Some of you already know who I am, but not everybody. Whenever I check the statistics for my posts, I am interested to find that many of you have checked out my ‘Profile’. There is nothing there, although it wouldn’t take that much detective work to discover the identity of the Masked Moaner. That to one side, I am now finding myself judiciously editing my posts in order to not embarrass or hurt anyone. My wife thinks that I could even be hurting myself and my ‘job prospects’ through my need to write and confess. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps the world has become so Big-Brotherly that everything is checked. Applications fall into three piles; Yes; No; Nut-Job. there is probably one dedicated to ME. Excuse me for a moment as I believe my own petard is calling.
“You are so brave writing that.”
I am losing count of how many times I have heard that. There is nothing brave in doing what I am doing. My everyday madness is just that, EVERYDAY MADNESS. It happens to almost all of us, yet for some, like me, it actually becomes a defining part of the individual’s psyche. I cannot say that it was one thing nor another, this nor that, nature or nurture. What I have is this view of the world and of me in it. Most of the time, I am just rolling along, appearing like everyone else, normal. Then it hits. I see myself as an outsider, somebody who doesn’t fit, somebody who is not meant to be there playing his role.
My counsellor asks. She has stumbled on the missing clue and sees that, if she pursues this, there may be an answer. My use of ‘Role’ suggests that I have a belief in some grand design, that my existentialism owes more to the Elizabethans than to twenty-first century philosophy. Perhaps the various manifestations I have seen along the way are only images of my own warped imagination and deeply embedded belief that I was supposed to do something special. Trainee psychiatrists will be having a field-day reading this.
‘Poetry’ the speech of kings. You’re one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!’
Them & (uz). Tony Harrison
Yes, there’s the rub! I was born into the comic classes. We had this essential stoicism that helped us to ignore or just put up with it. Perhaps, after years of trying to do whatever I thought I ought to do, I just gave up. And then I found myself coming back to all those things that I had grown from. And it is poetry that has brought me back and will keep bringing me back to that state when the world was still new enough to be discovered and savoured. And Harrison guessed it.
Read and committed to the flames, I call
these sixteen lines that go back to my roots
my Caher d’un retour au pays natal,
my growing black enough to fit my boots.
On Not Being Milton. Tony Harrison.
So, I live in a world that has not been created by some omnipotent being whose omniscience I cannot escape, but some bloke from Beeston in Leeds. My dad called them ‘Loiners’ (people from Leeds) and until Harrison I had never heard anyone mention that term. Now looking at the ‘Profile’ of said poet, I discover that he would have been of the same age as my father if my father had lived long enough. So, here’s to both of you!
We never really overcame our last obstacle
an argument, our favoured form of conversing.
I found it difficult to forgive. We argued,
a stream of frustration pouring over me
lava scorching my tongue as I spewed forth
Now, the eruption has passed.
The molten emotion has cooled,
but it was your ashes I would be
looking at. Your plaque, instead of tomb.
How do I ever speak to that?
Me to my dad.