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Sometimes you do not get a poem, or what a poet is up to, straight away. In the case of Kathleen Jamie‘s wonderful ‘The Way We Live’ I needed three goes before it broke over me like an egg.

Not for one second do I think this the fault of the poem.

My first encounter with it was through Neil Astley‘s anthology Poetry With an Edge, published in 1988. As I have written before, this book came into my life at a time when reading and writing poems seemed as important as breathing. This was mixed with the giddiness of sleepless nights in the early stages of childcare, a heady cocktail, and not always conducive to optimal concentration.

This isn’t special pleading, this is just how it was.

Still in that phase of trying to find and create art in the cracks between working and late night feeding, I found The Way We Live (Bloodaxe, 1987) in a secondhand bookshop in Teignmouth in the autumn of 1995. We were living in London at the time, and, though we did not know it, had begun to feel the pull of the west country, where we now live.

If I am honest, ‘The Way We Live’ passed me by; I was more taken with the poems in the book’s first section, especially ‘November’.

‘The Way We Live’ finally came into my life in October, 1998, at the Arvon Foundation‘s Lumb Bank writing centre. With Siân Hughes, I had been asked to fill the ‘in loco parentis’ role for prizewinning young poets who were being tutored by Jo Shapcott and Roger McGough, for the first ever Foyle Young Poets Award (then called the Simon Elvin Young Poets Award).

As I remember it Jo led a workshop on writing poems of praise and curses. I will always be grateful to Jo that one of the models we worked from was ‘The Way We Live’.

I loved its energy and fusing together of disparate elements to make a coherent whole:

Of chicken tandoori and reggae, loud, from tenements,

commitment, driving fast and unswerving

friendship.

That seems witty to me, both deeply felt and light. What a masterstroke of control to place the notion of ‘unswerving’ after ‘driving fast’, and linking it, over the cliff fall of a line break, to ‘friendship’.

Book-ended with instructions to ‘pass the tambourine’, I don’t think it is overstating it to say the poem is Psalm-like in its intense cataloguing of experience. Creativity-theorists call this kind of openness ‘over-inclusivity’. The poem thus records and is a record of the necessary and sometimes extreme receptivity required to get a piece of work or project completed.

I suspect its lack of judgementalism played a key role in appealing to those young writers that day. The poem presents and accumulates details in a continuous present tense; it does not commentate. In this way I suspect it spoke to them of who they were at that time, as it were holding up a mirror to their lives: here is a poem by a young person: you can do this too! Watching them love it, I loved it.

You can read ‘The Way We Live’ here

You can find ‘The Way We Live’ in Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead: Poems 1980-1994

Read more Lifesaving Poems series of blogposts here