I wrote here a couple of days ago about my aversion to using war metaphor to describe cancer. Judging from the number of comments, retweets and blog stats this is an issue that clearly resonates with a lot of people, both those who have/have had cancer and those who have not.
Thank you to all of you who have retweeted my post and got in touch via Twitter.
I like a discursive argument as much as the next person. But sometimes the thing needs saying in the shape of a story or a song. This is what I have tried to do with the poem ‘I am Fighting’, below.
When my chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma finally came to an end in 2006 I slowly began to re-engage with reading and writing poetry again, not having been able to concentrate on more than the sports pages for six months.
Until I had and was treated for cancer I had unconsciously accepted the war metaphor so readily used in the culture. After six months of encouragement to ‘fight’ the disease my feelings changed.
I wrote ‘I am Fighting’ in the first batch of poems after I was officially told I was better. You can find it in my book of poems, Riddance, at the front of this website, and also at Worple Press, my publishers.
I am Fighting
I am fighting
we are talking
in a room
across a table
You are waiting
I am fighting
down a corridor
in an armchair
You are reading
in a ward
across the bed
where I am fighting
I am sleeping
I am fighting
I am waking
on the sofa
you are crying
We are walking
through a doorway
I am sitting
now I’m lying
I am sleeping
you are sitting
we are waiting
I am fighting
I came across Michael Symmons Roberts‘s ‘Ultramarine’ during a stint as poetry editor for Third Way magazine. Like nearly everything I have enjoyed in my life, I did not know what I was doing, and for the large part felt as though a) I was making it up as I went along and b) at any moment the quality police would bash my door down and tell me to stop or be shot.
Opening the email from Michael which contained ‘Ultramarine’ was one of the very few moments where I knew instantly (and briefly) that I was the right person in the right place at the right time.
As well as choosing a poem each month the editorial policy at the time dictated that I write a tiny twenty-word blurb to go with each poem. I used to lose sleep over this, partly in fear of getting it wrong and upsetting the poets whose work I had used and partly because I never really felt I did any of the poems justice.
Again, opening up Michael’s email I knew exactly what I wanted to say about the poem and how to frame it almost instantly. Which is not to say that ‘Ultramarine’ is particularly reducible, but more that it was one of those rare moments (you get them in bookshops or libraries or when a new edition of The North falls onto your doormat) when the place you are in at that time seems to chime chemically with a given poem’s content and way of saying.
This is rare for me. I learnt to read early and easily, but I still think of myself as a very nonlinear reader, needing to pause and notate and gaze out of the window and argue and go back to the text in rumination. If anything, and for these reasons, reading poems seems to appeal to me more than everything else. As I keep telling my book group, I am not lazy, just slow.
But I got ‘Ultramarine’ straightaway. I love its music, its deft handling of rhyme. I love its savouring of language, mirrored in Solomon’s scouring search for ‘the perfect blue’. There is nothing that should not be there.
It is about foolishness. Of Solomon, of yours and of mine. Why do we need poems, temples and ‘utter blue’, the poem seems to ask. Even if we find or make these things, when and how can we ever know our journey is complete?
At the time I wrote under the poem that it is ‘part of a sequence of poems whose concerns include the ‘wisdom’, in defiance of the passage of time, of the artistic enterprise’. I still hold to that. I’d go even further now and say the poem both enacts its questioning into art-making while providing, albeit tentatively, its own answer.
Poems such as ‘Ultramarine’ are rare, like gifts. They make you realise what is possible, and, if you are me, like giving up altogether. You can find the sequence the poem comes from in Raising Sparks (Cape, 1999), which, like all of Michael’s poetry, is essential reading.
for Philip Archer
Looking for the perfect blue,
water to swim in, not through,
to fill his sea, his massive bowl
of hand-thick bronze which should hold
more than light (its dozen
compass-pointing bearer oxen
braced in constant expectation)
Solomon scoured every nation
for a colour that was right.
Now and then he would catch sight
of utter blue as he bent down
in some remote spice-scented town
to wash a day’s heat from his face,
but when he moved the dish – no trace.
If water needed autumn’s slant,
the market traders’ daylong chant
a smell of orange, sandalwood
elusive as the blue in blood
then he would reproduce it all –
and this was wisdom. Some would call
it waste, a bad example;
some will never build a temple.
Michael Symmons Roberts (with thanks to Michael for permission to use this poem)
I first encountered Siân Hughes‘s poems sitting around a table with some talented teenage poets at the Arvon Foundation‘s writing centre at Lumb Bank. We were looking at her poem ‘Bear-Awareness and Self-Defence Classes’ (subtitled ‘Or Fathers and Husbands’). Like many of Siân’s poems it is short and made of words and sentences an eight-year old could read. But while its subject matter is about what happens to some children, it is absolutely not a poem for all children.
I will be honest, as I listened to the discussion of Siân’s poem I did wonder if I was missing something. I wondered if the poem was all it was cracked up to be, these plain words arranged over three ordinary quatrains, which suddenly just stop.
And then it hit me. Like being winded. Like waking up in a sweat. Like the air leaving the room.
The point of this poem about domestic violence (as I read it) is the control with which it is executed, through the simple-looking but deadly metaphor of wild bears. Painful subject matter has been rendered truthfully and (apparently) artlessly, with no poetical high flourish and certainly no moralising. The unstated words of comfort implicit in the poem iterate in nothing more than a whisper that by being truthful, by using song to describe our suffering we can overcome what threatens to overcome us.
Siân Hughes does this in poem after poem in her book The Missing (Salt, 2009). I nearly wrote ‘pulls off this trick’ in that last sentence. The reason I did not is because I do not think what is going on here is about literary artifice alone. I think it is a genuinely held moral position of the writer that she chooses tact and taste over coshing her reader with Misery. Choosing to make the poems appear slight is, therefore, one of risking being branded inconsequential, when they are anything but. In this way I think the poems share some similarity with the work of Hugo Williams.
This can illustrated by looking at the poem ‘Results’ in full:
Of course it was always going to be secret,
an envelope no one would know had arrived
that I’d lock myself in the bathroom to read.
Nothing like coming down late to breakfast
and you saying ‘How you failed history
I’ll never know.’ Or standing in a queue
in the only taverna with a land line,
the owner grinning between black teeth
while I ask you ‘How did it go?’ and wait
for a pause that might mean well, or not.
Out on the terrace the old dog gets up
and drags his chain two steps into the shade.
As I read it this poem is about three sets of results: those being read about in a locked bathroom, those concerning a failed exam, and
those being relayed over a bad phone line. By concentrating on the latter, the poem craftily moves our attention away from the main action, which is in the bathroom with the envelope. The clue to these results being the poem’s authentic subject is contained in the words ‘Of course’ and ‘always’, with their sense of prefiguring the inevitable.
What is actually described, though, is a queue, a waiter, a silence, and a dog. I love the owner’s black teeth. He has a two second cameo in Siân’s book and yet I will know him forever. (Siân would make a fine film director, perhaps). I love the placing of the word ‘wait’ at the end not just of a line, but of a stanza, emphasising the ensuing pause, the articulate gap between words we all know but would rather avoid. And most of all I love the dog.
I love the comforting-sounding chiming of two doom-laden words: ‘chain’ and ‘shade’. I love the undercutting of this comfort which the words ‘dog’ and ‘drags’ perform, their bare bones d’s and g’s contrasting with the ‘ch’ in ‘chain’ and the ‘sh’ in ‘shade’. We are not told any more about the envelope in the bathroom because we do not need to be.
As I say in my previous blog post, I owe my knowledge of ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ to the great Cliff Yates, specifically his marvellous book of teaching poetry and poetry writing Jumpstart (Poetry Society, 1999). Which means I took it seriously. He quotes the poem in full on page 6, in a section titled ‘What is Poetry?’
Cliff follows it up in the book with Ian McMillan’s ‘Sonny Boy Williamson is Trying to Cook a Rabbit in a Kettle’ and Wendy Cope’s ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ both of which, like Raworth’s, are playful with language, syntax and meaning. Not least among their pleasures is their explicit questioning of what a poem should do and be. (Jumpstart contains a great short piece by Raworth on his poem and the sequence it comes from which is well worth reading.)
Fool that I was and stung by Foal Failure I took in these poems to the class of nine and ten-year olds I was working with at the time. I had considered ‘Birth of the Foal’ to be a banker of a poem in the classroom. There was no way it could fail. It failed dismally. I had nothing left to lose.
The riot I expected never happened. I am not saying the lessons we did on ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′, Sonny Boy Williamson and ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ were comfortable or easy, but I will go to my grave knowing those children engaged with them in a way that surprised and delighted me, taking us all into a place of deep discussion and debate I would not have thought possible.
The poems they wrote arising from these discussions were some of the most challenging I have read anywhere, by anybody. Overnight they transformed themselves into the most avant-garde group of writers I have worked with.
I spend a lot of my time reflecting on what we mean by ‘signs of progress’ in the creative work of young writers. I spend just as much time reflecting on what this looks like in the work of beginner teachers. One of my very tentative conclusions goes something like this: it is about risk. Now we can debate for the next ten years what we mean by this, so I am going to use a very narrow definition here to explain what I mean by risk in this instance. I take it to mean the capacity to proceed along a line of action (teaching, writing) knowing at any moment the whole thing could collapse around you but proceeding anyway in good faith with resilience and joy and tenacity. The poets I am drawn to (Jean Sprackland, Peter Carpenter, Andy Brown, Siân Hughes, Ann Gray, Deryn Rees-Jones, Christopher Southgate, Michael Laskey) do this time and again in their poems. Like the geese in Raymond Carver’s ‘Prosser’, I have the feeling they will die for it, to get to the place where they do not wholly know what they are doing.
In simple terms ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ saved my life one spring afternoon in a classroom in Exeter because it gave to me much more than I had dared hope possible. But it was more than that of course. Everything was suddenly on the line. I had nothing left to lose.
8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970
Tom Raworth (from Jumpstart, ed. Cliff Yates, Poetry Society, 1999)