2013-07-18 17.50.52

Sometime In the early Nineties BBC 2 did a very wonderful thing; it showed a film, an hour and a half long, of poets reading and talking about their poems. There was no commentary and a little additional music. The voice of the interviewer was not heard.  Each poet was interviewed and filmed reading in a setting that was in keeping with their work. During the reading of each poem there were no cutaways or special effects.

What made these performances even more intense and intimate was that the film was all about love poetry.

There were some lovely cameos: Carol Ann Duffy reading ‘Adultery’ in an upmarket restaurant; Joseph Brodsky trying to play down his reputation as a ‘lothario’; Alan Jenkins waxing lyrical about the variety of shampoo bottles and cleansing products now overtaking his flat. There was an unintentionally funny set-piece of Tony Harrison reading to camera a sonnet about the opera singer Jenny Lind. A poem of great tenderness, it was hard not to be distracted by Harrison’s furious expression, which looked as though he wanted to put an axe through the camera.

My own personal highlight was Simon Armitage’s reading of ‘To His Lost Lover’, below. I had been an admirer of Armitage’s work for some time, but this was the moment I really got him, in the way people speak about finally getting jazz or the blues when they least expect it, as it were without trying, out of the blue, because of one performance.

Leading up to the reading was an interview with Armitage, with shots of his house and surrounding area. There was sunlight and laughter. Cups of tea were cradled in a kitchen.

The film of his reading could not have been more different. Perched beside a crag of ancient magma on a Yorkshire moor, Armitage read his poem through a plastic wallet in slanting, icy rain. Wet through in his anorak, he looked fantastically cold and pissed off.

I found the combination of grim circumstances and slow outpouring of grief in the poem mesmerising and moving. Not only did I admire his professionalism for getting the job done beautifully, it seemed as though the poem had to be read there, its exposed and exposing circumnavigation of a ruined relationship enacted in the elemental downpour of the day. In its stripped back couplets infrequently connecting by force of full rhyme it is a tour de force of control and of love, both of which are as icy as the film’s setting, and all the stronger for it.

To His Lost Lover

Now they are no longer
any trouble to each other

he can turn things over, get down to that list
of things that never happened, all of the lost

unfinishable business.
For instance… for instance,

how he never clipped and kept her hair, or drew a hairbrush
through that style of hers, and never knew how not to blush

at the fall of her name in close company.
How they never slept like buried cutlery –

two spoons or forks cupped perfectly together,
or made the most of some heavy weather –

walked out into hard rain under sheet lightning,
or did the gears while the other was driving.

How he never raised his fingertips
to stop the segments of her lips

from breaking the news,
or tasted the fruit

or picked for himself the pear of her heart,
or lifted her hand to where his own heart

was a small, dark, terrified bird
in her grip. Where it hurt.

Or said the right thing,
or put it in writing.

And never fled the black mile back to his house
before midnight, or coaxed another button of her blouse,

then another,
or knew her

favourite colour,
her taste, her flavour,

and never ran a bath or held a towel for her,
or soft-soaped her, or whipped her hair

into an ice-cream cornet or a beehive
of lather, or acted out of turn, or misbehaved

when he might have, or worked a comb
where no comb had been, or walked back home

through a black mile hugging a punctured heart,
where it hurt, where it hurt, or helped her hand

to his butterfly heart
in its two blue halves.

And never almost cried,
and never once described

an attack of the heart,
or under a silk shirt

nursed in his hand her breast,
her left, like a tear of flesh

wept by the heart,
where it hurts,

or brushed with his thumb the nut of her nipple,
or drank intoxicating liquors from her navel.

Or christened the Pole Star in her name,
or shielded the mask of her face like a flame,

a pilot light,
or stayed the night,

or steered her back to that house of his,
or said “Don’t ask me how it is

I like you.
I just might do.”

How he never figured out a fireproof plan,
or unravelled her hand, as if her hand

were a solid ball
of silver foil

and discovered a lifeline hiding inside it,
and measured the trace of his own alongside it.

But said some things and never meant them –
sweet nothings anybody could have mentioned.

And left unsaid some things he should have spoken,
about the heart, where it hurt exactly, and how often.

Simon Armitage, from The Book of Matches (Faber, 1993)

Lifesaving Poems

If you liked this, why not try Geoff Hattersley’s ‘The Only Son at the Fish n’ Chip Shop’ or Peter Sansom’s ‘K563’