Lifesaving Poems: the book


Photograph © Bloodaxe Books Ltd


I am delighted to announce that my Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts is going to become a book. Bloodaxe Books will be publishing the anthology in June 2015.

Readers of this blog will know how the project started and therefore what this means to me. Originally, the idea of Lifesaving Poems stemmed from a remark I once saw of Seamus Heaney, along the lines of an out-loud query about how many poems could affect a person over a lifetime. Was it ten, he said, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more?

To put this notion to the test I began copying out poems, in inky longhand, into a plain Moleskine notebook given to me for Christmas. My criteria for inclusion were as basic as possible. In the style of Heaney and Hughes’s The Schoolbag I allowed myself only one poem per poet. And I had to be able to remember the experience of first encountering it.

I didn’t write in the notebook every day. Sometimes weeks would go by without an entry, only to spur myself into action with several poems in one sitting of a rainy weekend, say. According to the inscription on the front page I began in July 2009 and finally filled the notebook in May 2011, shortly after which I wrote my first Lifesaving Poems post, on Alasdair Paterson’s ‘Fishermen’.

Readers of this blog, and of my memoir Love for Nowwill also know that, quite apart from the physical effort of copying the poems, the notebook and subsequent blog mean much more to me. This is because, during my treatment for cancer in 2006 I felt for the first time in my life that poetry was leaving me. By that I mean not just the desire (or ability, or concentration) to write poems, but the notion of reading and spending time with poems at all.

Lifesaving Poems  is therefore an attempt to say thank you, ultimately to poetry for not deserting me but also to the poets who wrote the poems, and the people -teachers, friends, colleagues, poets, anthologists- who have influenced my reading, and therefore my life, so richly.

I should say straight away that not every poem from the blog is included in the book. Partly this is for reasons of size, and partly I am hoping there will be a sequel! To find out who I have included you will have to do what I am always encouraging my readers to do: buy the book. It feels both odd and wonderful to write that sentence in support of something I have put together.

If the process of turning a notebook into a blog into a book has taught me anything it is that poems are needed by people. Which is to say not just that we reach for poetry in times of distress, joy and grief; but that a poem, lying dormant, only comes fully alive when this or that person comes along and reads it. That is what I have tried (and continue) to do with Lifesaving Poems: to stay true to the energy of first encounters, remembering as accurately as possible my debt to the friend or anthologist who put me in the poem’s way.

I am indebted to Neil Astley for suggesting and supporting the anthology from the start; and to Anna Clarke for her help with the manuscript.

I quit


I am at a thing. A historic thing. (An historic thing? I will never know).

Poets are there. Household names. (In my house at any rate.) Like a child who has never been warned about the dangers of staring, I move around the room grinning and gawping at them. These people, chatting in groups. Poets: my heroes.

To one I say : ‘I love your radio programme!’ To another I say: ‘Congratulations!’ To another I say: ‘We haven’t met yet, but now we have!’

To another I say ‘Thank you.’

I could blame the wine, but that would be lying. I may never get this chance again. I have spent too much of my life being English and not saying what I think. Or saying the opposite of what I think because I am English and want to look clever. Tonight is different.

To another poet I say ‘Thank you.’ And to another. And another after that.

There is no time to lose. I could be dead next week. We all could be.

From nowhere, a poet is at my side. A great poet. A seriously good poet. We worked together, once. Handshakes and how are you. I am half way through saying thank you when the poet says to me: ‘I’m stopping. Stopped, I mean. I’ve stopped.’

Sound goes dead in the day, the evening now a tad less glittering and full of thank you.

‘I’ve decided. I can’t do it any more. Why would I want to put myself through that again?’

The poet is serious (and good, and good). I protest this. I protest this again. ‘But you are a great poet! You are responsible for saving my life! You will never know the regions of my heart into which you have spoken and poured your healing. Please come back.’ But the poet will not be talked round.

‘I quit,’ they say to me, looking me in the eye.

It is clear they mean it. We part with another handshake. I resume my traversing of the room, this time with more of a shuffle than a dart in my step. ‘Thank you,’ I murmur. ‘You have saved my life.’

But sometimes saying thank you is not enough.