Lifesaving Poems: Gwen Harwood’s ‘Cups’




They know us by our lips. They know the proverb
about the space between us. Many slip.
They are older than their flashy friends, the glasses.
They held water first, are named in scripture.

Most are gregarious. You’ll often see them
nestled in snowy flocks on trestle tables
or perched on trolleys. Quite a few stay married
for life in their own home to the same saucer,

and some are virgin brides of quietness
in a parlour cupboard, wearing gold and roses.
Handless, chipped, some live on in the flour bin,
some with the poisons in the potting shed.

Shattered, they lie in flowerpot, flowerbed, fowlyard.
Fine earth in earth, they wait for resurrection.
Restored, unbreakable, they’ll meet our lips
on some bright morning filled with lovingkindness.

Gwen Harwood

Poetry Exhaustion is not a pleasant phenomenon in any poetry-lover’s life, but it is, I suspect, more common than most poets will admit to.

Its symptoms are a general, hard-to-specify lack of concentration for and energy towards poems, including, and sometimes especially, those poets and poems which have previously seemed vital and essential. Personally speaking, I know if I pick up a book of Jaan Kaplinski, say, or Marie Howe, and find myself turning the pages without interest, I am surely in a period of Poetry Exhaustion.

Sometimes I bring this on myself. For reasons I do not fully understand I can, on occasion, be too ready to follow every whim of interest that I foster, reading up on poets that were previously unknown to me and buying their every book before breakfast, a process that, ten years ago, would have taken several trips to the library and to bookshops to set in motion.

Sometimes there is no reason for the exhaustion: it just happens. In these cases it is best to practice what Ken Smith once called ‘absolute patience’, for example by going to places where English is not spoken, or explicitly seeking out silence, until the poems begin to return. As a kind person once said to me: return to the last place you heard it speaking to you.

One of these places, for me, is Gwen Harwood’s miraculous poem ‘Cups’. Bookended in its first and final lines by mention of the ‘lips’ that they serve, the poem is a marvellous example of what can be achieved through the power of a single-minded concentration that merges religious language (‘proverb’, ‘scripture’, ‘flocks’, ‘resurrection’, ‘restored’) with the technique of personification, moving with apparent ease between the ‘gregarious’ and ‘quietness’.

There is nothing in it I don’t immediately say ‘Yes!’ to. As Seamus Heaney would say, it stays true to the facts of the matter, while lovingly doing nothing of the kind, inventing for these everyday artefacts the possibility of wisdom, holiness, marriage, death and even eternal life. That is quite an achievement for such a poem so transparently ‘filled with lovingkindess’.


  1. Thanks for introducing me to a new poem, new poet… yet again. Balance is key in all matters of life, including writing. Space is a necessity and I find if I don’t give space, space will find me out. PS, my go to poem is Seamus Heaney’s Field of Vision. Thanks again for sharing my breakfast table, today it’s poached eggs and toast and “cups”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. just loved the poem…was right there in the potting shed and the flour bin,and have some in display cupboard beautiful in their brokenness. Waiting for the post and `your book` which I ordered the other day. Cant wait!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. it`s the morning for reading `The Black wet`on my balcony, first coffee of the day to hand, when I hear the distant sound of the dust cart….Bala, Baikal, and Balalaikas, no one has but out the bins!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thoughts on cups I have known and loved…the chipped blue cup leftover from a broken relationship- too beautiful to toss-, the awkward grey cup gifted from a teenager’s pottery passion – is there a statute of appreciation-, the tall red cup on my work desk offering solace between appointments -cups of compassion- …. your cups ?


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