Lifesaving Poems: Catherine Smith’s ‘How It All Started’


During the Christmas period I am reposting some old posts from my archive. 

Wishing all my readers a very happy Christmas, and joy and fulfilment in the new year.


How It All Started


Do you know this dream? An exam room
full of neat, serious girls, your lucky gonk
by your fountain pen, the plop of tennis balls
through an open window. You’re here for
‘O’ level history on The Causes
Of The First World War but you’ve no idea –
too busy bunking off to watch Crown Court,
and the teacher says You may turn over
and begin and there’s a question
on the Algeciras crisis and all you can think is,
Algeciras sounds like a virus or a cloud formation,
your eyes blur, scanning for something
you understand, you wonder who Bismark was,
why his web of Alliances was so significant,
your throat swells like a new loaf, you watch
the girls who know the answers to these things,
and you think of the stutter of gunfire, a soldier’s
booted foot lying in a puddle, how the leather split,
how the rest of him wasn’t there, just a stump
of bone, and if you’d learned how it all started,
you might have known how to prevent this.
You should have known how to prevent this.

Catherine Smith, from Lip (Smith/Doorstop, 2007)

Sometimes life on Planet Poetry is not all it is cracked up to be. The endless buying of books none of your relations or work colleagues have ever heard of. The attending of readings with 11 other people, down a lane, in a thunderstorm. The feeling of being pursued by a cloud which flashes a ten foot neon sign above your head saying I HAVE WASTED MY LIFE.

Or maybe you don’t do the first two. Maybe that’s just me.

Sometimes, this is all worthwhile.

You open, as my children would say, literally open a magazine, and there it is, the poem you have been looking for all your life (the one you may even be secretly trying to write, badly), a poem so right, so here and now in the present moment of your breathing and longing, it is as if you hear it in your very own voice, the one you pretend you know and love.

Opening The Rialto poetry magazine, literally, at my kitchen table, and finding ‘How It All Started’ by Catherine Smith, was such a moment for me.

The recognition, the yes, that’s it exactly, please keep writing like this, of that one syllable time-bomb of ‘gonk’. The way this rhymes and chimes (but not quite! brilliant!) with ‘plop’, underneath it (but not quite directly underneath it, kind of to the side, slant). The repetition of ‘your’, ‘you’ and ‘you’re’, four times in four lines, taking you by the hand and immersing you in its dream-world. Those lines (but it does not say ‘lines’) of ‘neat, serious girls’. That ‘fountain pen’. You do not need to be a stationery-obsessive to know how devastatingly right that detail is. (But it helps).

And we haven’t even got to the content yet! Bismark. The Algeciras crisis. That ‘booted foot lying in a puddle’.

The heart-stopping brilliance (I actually —literally, I mean— think mine did) of ‘your throat swells like a new loaf’.

All of this… all of this life! I pounded, hit my hand till it hurt, the kitchen table in excitement. Never mind that my own (bad) dream-exam poem was now redundant,forever. Never mind all that.

Here it was. In my house. A living, kicking, screaming, working-perfect, controlled-raw thing-artefact-poem expanding my life and renewing my faith in poems and art and learning (ironically).

Every single one of the poems in Catherine’s astonishing book Lip is as good.

You know what to do.


  1. Anthony, I remember this poem and post from the first time around and am as moved by it today as I was then…From schoolgirls in class to a severed foot in a boot is an amazing, almost impossible leap, and yet she makes it. Wonderful all around.



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