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Timetable

We all remember school, of course:
the lino warming, shoe bag smell, expanse
of polished floor. It’s where we learned
to wait: hot cheeked in class, dreaming,
bored, for cheesy milk, for noisy now.
We learned to count, to rule off days,
and pattern time in coloured squares:
purple English, dark green Maths.

We hear the bells, sometimes,
for years, the squeal and crack
of chalk on black. We walk, don’t run,
in awkward pairs, hoping for the open door,
a foreign teacher, fire drill. And love
is long aertex summers, tennis sweat,
and somewhere, someone singing flat.
The art room, empty, full of light.

Kate Clanchy, from Slattern (Picador, 1995)

I first read ‘Timetable’ in the Times Educational Supplement in the early Nineties. I was sitting in a primary school staffroom, on a coffee break.

The poem was part of a feature-length article and interview with Kate Clanchy, the main construct of which seemed to be her ‘progression’ from school teacher to poet.  It was absolutely clear from the first word, both article and poem, that this was a person who knew exactly what she was doing.

At the time I had been sending out poems to magazines, doing the odd reading and open mic, and trying to feel less alone in my quest to get a book out into the world. The poem in front of me fused perfectly both the world I was sitting in and the one I wanted to  enter. The recognition was sudden and delicious. I took it as a sign.

I loved the poem’s plain diction (‘We all remember school’; ‘It’s where we learned/to wait’; We learned to count’), seduced at the same time by ‘dreaming,/bored’ and the longing contained in ‘hoping for the open door’. I wanted to say to the poem: ‘How did you know? That’s me exactly!’ The possible worlds on offer felt tantalisingly within in reach.

Looking at the poem again now, all these years later, I am struck again by the deliberate placing of key words on line-ends: ‘expanse’, ‘dreaming’, ‘now’, ‘crack’, ‘run’, ‘door’, ‘love’, ‘sweat’, ‘light’. The plainness, even the flatness, of the some of the lines leads thrillingly towards these moments which open the poem up beyond recall and into vision.