If it is possible to identify one poem which acted as a kind of gateway for me into the world of poetry, that poem would probably be John Logan’s ‘The Picnic’. I encoountered it first in an English lesson at school.
Our third-form English teacher Mr Borton entered without speaking and with his back to us wrote at the top of the blackboard ‘DO NOT REMOVE BOOKS FROM THIS ROOM’, before turning round, smiling and beginning the lesson.
All we had to do was read the poem and then talk about it, but it changed me completely.
The poem is a narrative of two adolescent children walking across fields one school lunchtime to eat their packed lunches ‘away from the rest‘. The poem evokes perfectly the ‘soft caving in [the] stomach/as at the top of the highest slide’ of giving and receiving a first kiss; and of the physical reactions to unexpected and barely articulated intimacy:
There was a word in my throat
with the feeling and I knew the first time
what it meant and I said, it’s beautiful.
Yes, she said, and I felt the sound and word
in my hand join the sound and word in hers
as in one name said, or in one cupped hand.
While the poem did not describe experiences I had actually had, it conjured palpably a world with which I was entirely familiar: that of school, lunch hours, fields, streams, games and a vague but undeniably real sense of longing for ‘something else’, of not wanting to conform, perhaps.
You could say I connected with it.
Other important questions about this poem arose during the course of the lesson. One was to do with the poem’s form, or what I would have then called the way it looked on the page. Oddly, the poem was laid out in one continuous stanza. Also, it did not rhyme, nor appear to have any regular rhythm. Indeed, if anything, it sounded more like someone talking. These were puzzling for several reasons. While the ‘poetry’ I had experienced as a young child had largely been oral, I had not been made aware that printed poetry in books could attempt to replicate the rhythms of speech and appear to sound natural. On one level, therefore, the poem did not conform to my early expectations of what a poem could look or sound like at all: I felt it was more of a story than a poem.
On another level, however, I was more than intrigued because the poem was about experience I knew little about but was keen to discover. Furthermore, while I felt that the poem was ‘like someone talking to me’ I also knew that lines like those quoted above were not the way that people spoke. There was a sense that this was language which was both real and artificial at the same time.
I now identify these feelings as being to do with the interplay of concepts such as ‘form’ with ‘content’, or, ‘voice and feeling’ with ‘structure’. But at the time I felt a combination of intrigue and puzzlement. To borrow another phrase from the poem, I now see that the poem enacted ‘talk in another way I wanted to know’. Whenever I read or hear a poem I like for the first time I still feel that same caving as at the top of the highest slide. It is a kind of joyous nervousness. I want the poem to talk to me in a way I know and yet have no knowledge of. I am in the business of wanting to be surprised. I am already falling in love with the words taking shape in my throat and under my breath.
It is the picnic with Ruth in the spring.
Ruth was third on my list of seven girls
But the first two were gone (Betty) or else
Had someone (Ellen had accepted Doug).
Indian Gully the last day of school;
Girls make the lunches for the boys too.
I wrote a note to Ruth in algebra class
Day before the test. She smiled, and nodded.
We left the cars and walked through the young corn
The shoots green as paint and the leaves like tongues
Trembling. Beyond the fence where we stood
Some wild strawberry flowered by an elm tree
And Jack in the pulpit was olive ripe.
A blackbird fled as I crossed, and showed
A spot of gold or red under its quick wing.
I held the wire for Ruth and watched the whip
Of her long, striped skirt as she followed.
Three freckles blossomed on her thin, white back
Underneath the loop where the blouse buttoned.
We went for our lunch away from the rest,
Stretched in the new grass, our heads close
Over unknown things wrapped up in wax papers.
Ruth tried for the same, I forget what it was,
And our hands were together. She laughed,
And a breeze caught the edge of her little
Collar and the edge of her brown close hair
That touched my cheek. I turned my face in-
to the gentle fall. I saw how sweet it smelled.
She didn’t move her head or take her hand.
I felt a soft caving in my stomach
As at the top of the highest slide,
When I had been a child, but was not afraid,
And did not know why my eyes moved with wet
As I brushed her cheek with my lips and brushed
Her lips with my own lips. She said to me
Jack, Jack, different than I had ever heard,
Because she wasn’t calling me, I think,
Or telling me. She used my name to
Talk in another way I wanted to know.
She laughed again and then she took her hand;
I gave her what we both had touched; can’t
Remember what it was, and we ate the lunch.
Afterward we walked in the small, cool creek
Our shoes off, her skirt hitched, and she smiling,
My pants rolled, and then we climbed up the high
Side of Indian Gully and looked
Where we had been, our hands together again.
It was then some bright thing came in my eyes,
Starting at the back of them and flowing
Suddenly through my head and down my arms
And stomach and my bare legs that seemed not
To stop in feet, not to feel the red earth
Of the Gully, as though we hung in a
Touch of birds. There was a word in my throat
With the feeling and I said, It’s beautiful.
Yes, she said, and I felt the sound and word
In my hand join the sound and word in hers
As in one name said, or in one cupped hand.
We put back on our shoes and socks and we
Sat in the grass awhile, crosslegged, under
A blowing tree, not saying anything.
And Ruth played with shells she found in the creek,
As I watched. Her small wrist which was so sweet
To me turned by her breast and the shells dropped
Green, white, blue, easily into her lap,
Passing light through themselves. She gave the pale
Shells to me, and got up and touched her hips
With her light hands, and we walked down slowly
To play the school games with the others.
John Logan from Touchstones 5