The poem always wins


You think it will be about your childhood. It turns out to be about an onion.

Or a night in the rain, or, not so much night, as just: rain. Except it isn’t about rain either.

Somehow your daughter has crept in there.

She is smiling at you, when she was six. It is breaking your heart.

So the poem has all these things going on in it, on and underneath its surface.

Mixed in there are the friendships with other poets, as they look over your shoulder frowning at what you have written.

The thing your grandmother once said to you about hardly being Wordsworth, darling.

Your desk. Its hardness, for you, now, under these words, and then, for the man who owned it before you.

So it is back to your childhood. A blazing summer playtime. Grass in your face and down your shirt. Nettles, the sudden realisation.

But the poem is not interested. Not really.

It wants to be about something you saw from the corner of your eye last Wednesday, a man helping his elderly wife from a bus.

This too breaks your heart. What would Carver do, or Olds, you ask yourself. Go figure.

The poem is a curled up ball, where it joins (yes! in off the wall) the others.


A walk.


The poem arrives at the house before you do, knocking over furniture on its way to the scrap paper bin (there is no scrap paper, only balls).

An envelope will have to do. It is very provisional.

But it is the real thing because you don’t understand it. It seems to come from nothing you can name or remember.

It may disappear by next week. It may turn into something else.

But for now you go with what the poem wants, what it wants to be, where it is taking you.

The faintest of radio signals, a cobweb between two weeds.

There is only this.


  1. Sympathise. The poem is always in charge. The poet is only holding the lead while it’s running off! Well, that’s what it feels like to me.


  2. Knockout, AW! re-runs the breathless joy of Fern Hill, for me. As Rilke pointed out

    O sage, Dichter, was du tust? – Ich rühme.
    Aber das Tödliche und Ungetüme,
    wie haltst du’s aus, wie nimmst du’s hin?- Ich rühme.
    Aber das Namenlose, Anonyme,
    wie rufst du’s, Dichter, dennoch an?- Ich rühme.
    Woher dein Recht, in jeglichem Kostüme,
    in jeder Maske wahr zu sein? – Ich rühme.
    Und dass das Stille und das Ungestüme
    wie Stern und Sturm dich kennen?:- Weil ich rühme.

    What do you do, poet? I praise
    But how do you cope, how do you process
    The fatal and the tragic? – I praise
    How can you possibly address
    What is unnameable, nameless? – I praise
    By what right do you take it upon yourself
    To be true in every costume, every guise? – I praise
    And how is it you are an intimate
    Of silence and chaos,
    Of starlight and tempest? – Because I praise.

    (In the Brian Ings translation!)

    One of my favourite poems, soon to be joined by yours! Love that ‘faintest of radio signals, a cobweb between two weeds’. That image will definitely stay with me as a definition of how it feels to write!


  3. I read this to members of a workshop and there was instant recognition! (Then we went out and practised the Philip Gross observation exercise which you talk about in another blog.) So, multiplied thank-yous!


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