When poetry stopped me breathing in 2012


I have just been asked by Abegail Morley to send her a list of my poetry books of 2012 for her blog. You can read them here.

Abegail’s request got me thinking. While it is nice to make lists, and sometimes even be in them, it made me realise what I really value about poetry, about reading it and writing it and talking about it and sharing it is the social aspect of it.

I don’t necessarily mean going to tons of readings and meeting lots of people, though that has its place, I’m really talking about slow meandering conversations that are intimate and full of surprises and notes made on the backs of envelopes about who to read next. (If a good pinch of gossip is thrown in, so much the better, but this is not essential).

What do you mean, you don’t do this too?

My essential poetry experiences of 2012 all centred around long unhurried conversations with friends, sitting and talking across tables, with wine, coffee and in some cases food. One was in a cafe at the end of my road and was supposed to be  about a research paper. One was in a pub at the launch of a book, with the biggest glass of white wine I have ever seen (and no peanuts). One was in a Portuguese city square over fish. And one was in a supermarket, with shopping bags nestling at my feet.

I also saw Jackie Kay give a reading in a university classroom which I swear made everyone in the audience stop breathing; I took a lesson in writing my first slam poem (thanks, Joelle!); I swapped books with poets who are dear to my heart; I gave a book away when I shouldn’t have; I said goodbye to my favourite ever poetry magazine; and the most perfectly extraordinary thing of all: I read some new poems which also removed breath and brilliance from the day while illuminating those things even more splendidly.

The last of these occurrences (and therefore the one that is freshest in my mind) was coming across, at random, a poem of John Ashbery‘s, from his massive Collected Poems 1956-1987, which I had not seen before.

I’m talking about the poem ‘A Train Rising Out of the Sea’ (from As We Know).  I was Christmas shopping and had taken a detour through Waterstone’s on my way to somewhere else, but could not resist a peek at the poetry shelves. (What do you mean, you don’t do this too?)

I can’t really describe the feeling the poem gave me since most of these precious fragments occur at something way below pre-verbal levels (in my case, at any rate). John Logan in his poem ‘The Picnic‘ talks about a feeling like a ‘soft caving in [the] stomach/as at the top of the highest slide’: that is what reading John Ashbery was like for me, suddenly surprised whilst surrounded by Saturday shoppers, re-calibrating everything.

When I got home I realised the poem had been there all along, in my Penguin Selected. And that was the poetry that stopped me breathing in 2012.

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