‘If he had been Spanish then maybe he would bave been valued more.’
-Xavi Hernandez (Spain and Barcelona) on Paul Scholes (England and Manchester United)
Writing on Tuesday about Alasdair Paterson’s wonderful ‘Fishermen‘ put me in mind of a wonderful favourite poem of mine by Martin Stannard. The Ingredient, below, is part of my Lifesaving Poems series, and here’s why.
I was thinking in my post about Alasdair that I love the sense of mystery at the heart of ‘Fishermen’; we never really know what is going on at the poem’s heart. I also love the sense that it does not seem to matter a great deal to the poet whether he has worked out what is going on either. What was it Keats said about living in ambiguities? ‘Fishermen’ is a good example of that.
Martin Stannard’s ‘The Ingredient’ also has that quality, though of course it is a completely different poem and works in a different way from Alasdair’s. I first came across it in the library at the Arvon Centre at Totleigh Barton in Devon. The then centre director was having a bit of a spring clean, and I picked up The Gracing of Days (Slow Dancer), where this comes from, and Denying England (Wide Skirt), for virtually nothing.
I couldn’t belive my luck. I had driven out there especially for a house warming for the new centre directors. Though I live in Devon I was new to the area and had got lost and was a bit frazzled on arriving. My children, who were young at the time, had accompanied me, and they were frazzled as well.
While they set about eating all the crisps I picked up Martin’s book at random, having enjoyed his work in magazines. I found ‘The Ingredient’. I have set about finding his work, by foul means or fair, ever since. I do happen to think he is a genius. Which is why I began this piece with a quote by a Spanish footballer.
Martin is a bit like Paul Scholes in that he has been plying his trade in plain view for ages now (at least the duration of Scholes’ 17-year career), but mostly unfeted and unloved, in contrast to Manchester’s finest. Had he come from New York, or Zagreb, we would all be calling him a genius by now. But he isn’t, and we don’t. I know virtually nothing about him, except that he lived in Notts for a bit, and may well now be teaching and living in China.
I can’t define my experience of ‘The Ingredient’ (and countless of Martin’s other poems), except to say that I love being and living while I am reading and experiencing it. The pleasure pulses through my veins, you might say. It makes me smile, even though I will go to my grave knowing no more of why teacups have it and mugs do not.
Teacups have it.
I don’t know why teacups have it,
but teacups do.
Horses turned out into a cold field have it,
as do the smouldering remains of a bonfire.
Mugs do not have it. That’s a certainty.
Sacks of coal at the back gate have it,
and jig-saw puzzles have it,
and a river meandering through life has it.
A canal seems to have it, but it hasn’t.
A bike has it, if it is a very very old bike.
Coloured pencils have it.
Leg irons are said to have it, but that’s a joke,
and a very cruel joke at that.
This hasn’t got it, but neither has a bottle of turps.
A Del Shannon 45 on the London label has it,
although a compilation LP of his Greatest Hits
doesn’t have it even though it’s tried really hard.
Ham salad has it.
Or rather, ham salad can have it but it doesn’t always.
Leather gauntlets have it, if they are brown leather gauntlets.
Discarded silk at the foot of the bed doesn’t have it,
although sometimes it’s worth pretending that it does.
Night has it, if it has been snowing.
The sea has it, even though it is saddened by oil,
and I am happy to live by the sea.
Aircraft do not have it.
Parks used to have it, but most have lost it
and are unlikely to regain that which has been squandered.
But ducks and swans have it. Especially swans.
And certain dreams have it.
Not all dreams, but certain dreams.
Some photographs have it.
Some photographs do not.
You do not have it, but not having it is not everything.
I rarely have it, and even when I do
it seems as if I am not quite myself.
Perhaps this explains how come teacups have it
and mugs do not.
from The Gracing of Days (Slow Dancer, 1989)