Lifesaving Poems: Michael Symmons Roberts’s ‘Ultramarine’


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)

Lifesaving Poems


    1. Hi Nell. Thanks so much for your kind comment. I’ll need to check that one out. I may never read everything. Have just ordered Drysalter. Thank you for The Only Reason for Time. It’s wonderful.
      As ever, Anthony


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