Poetry saves my bacon by Sandra Horn
Long years ago, we were at a party and there was a comical-but-irritating man, like someone out of The Fast Show or Monty Python, who kept butting into conversations, saying ‘I wrote a poem about that,’ no matter what the topic was. I may be turning into him, although I don’t go around interrupting people about it. I’m just finding more and more things to poetify. Why? Perhaps my age has something to do with it (think trombones leading A Big Parade).
I saw you from a distance in those days
The days of carefree, self-regarding youth
The days when ‘how I want it’ stood for truth
Your world unfocussed in my shortened gaze
What were false teeth, what walking sticks, grey hair?
What was a ‘span’ of three-score years and ten?
Beyond a fleeting frisson now and then
Your presence was ignored: not my affair.
But since I have long passed the given span
My vision is corrected, no short sight
Can help me to avoid your company
You’re here now. First you crawled and then you ran
Swift as a well-fletched arrow in its flight
I’m caught and you will have your way with me
Now there’s an increasing need to capture a memory, a moment, an incident, a thought and to create something from it. To get hold of something that’s too big, too transient, too frightening, too overwhelming, and transform it into words, get it on the page. It’s odd, because while the act of writing makes whateveritis somehow manageable, as if it has shrunk, it can also give it a special kind of life; the transformation both shrinks and magnifies it. I have it, quivering, in my grasp. There’s too much world out there, which makes a need to catch at least some parts of it and bring them safely home. I don’t know how many sheep there are on the planet, but the thought of them all together at once is impossible. Shearing, carding, spinning, dyeing, skeining, though, and there’s something knittable. It’s a bit like that, this urge to make things into poetry. OK, so the metaphors are getting a bit tangled…
I’m stung into writing this after a conversation I had yesterday with a dear friend. Not for the first time, she said, ‘I don’t like poetry; I don’t ‘get’ poetry. Why can’t they just say it like it is?’ There is no arguing with her, but I am sad that she has cut herself off from so much power, so much joy. I do not know where I’d be without reading poetry, writing it - trying to tell it as I want it to be or hope it might be, or to celebrate or memorialise something, someone, in words chosen with as much thought and care as I can muster – the work of the mind on what might otherwise be chaos.
Example: I had a somewhat troubled relationship with my Dad. There were things I didn’t know about him, and wish, desperately, that I had, until after he died. Struggling those things and my feelings about them into words has, at least, stopped them flying round manically inside my head. They have become a series of poems, most not to be shared, but the latest – and perhaps the last – is about the rowan tree I planted over his ashes:
I can only see you in my mind’s eye; hope is all I have.
Hope that you took root, grew tall, are berried now,
a feast for the wild birds he loved; blackbird in the branches,
pheasant on the ground; that sunlight
casts your rippled shadow on the ghyll,
where fox and badger drink; that you have drawn
his essence from the ash that once was him,
transformed it into soaring trunk and branch,
flower in spring, burgeoning leaf. That by your grace
he’s free, part of the wider universe,
at peace now, healed.
I don’t know how it would stand up to analysis as a poem by those who know about these things. It has served its purpose for me. I have sometimes told people in poetry workshops that there is no such thing as a bad poem if it says what you wanted it to say. This is only true if it is not meant to be shared, but is only to satisfy one’s own need. Once it’s out there in the world, everything changes. The irritating/comic man at the party just wanted us to know that he had crafted something from the swirling chaotic mass of things around him and in him; that such a thing is possible, is poetry.