Inside Lifesaving Poems 5

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An artist needs not so much an audience, as to feel a need to answer, a promise to respond.

Robert Pinsky, ‘Responsibilities of the Poet’

Now that it is out in the world, I have increasingly started to think of Lifesaving Poems as my answer. At first I thought of it as a hobby, very much a private one, as I put my mind back together after my treatment for cancer. Then, a year ago, with the manuscript in the bag and contracts signed I thought of it as a party, to which everyone was welcome, the great and the good along with the unknown and anonymous.

But now I think of it as an answer. Not of the rebuking, rebutting kind. But more in terms of a silent gesture, as one might to an old acquaintance on a busy market town high street. Nothing need be said, no explanations or life histories are necessary. Sometimes this is enough.

Or to the men and women who taught me English at school, and whom I name in my acknowledgements. Perhaps mostly them. I can still remember the shock of recognition, live in the classroom, of one of them, at Dylan Thomas’s outrageous pun on the word ‘kippers’ in Under Milk Wood. Not just the joy of learning communicated, but the notion that it could still go on, even in middle age, with the same level of excitement and power. Or spending a whole lesson discussing Stoppard’s image in Jumpers of two lorry drivers saluting each other on the A1 as they pass in opposite directions. What on earth could he have meant? Or the one word chapter in As I Lay Dying (later stolen by Graham Swift in Last Orders).

Influences.

Answers.

Puzzles.

They didn’t ask me to answer them (we were trained to give them, but not give them back) but here I am anyway, with a whole book of them, answering those minds and lives (I am their age now) from down the years, saying Look at what happened to those English lessons, they weren’t wasted, I remembered, it’s because of you, really (not that it’s about fault), it’s because of you, without you, well, it wouldn’t have, couldn’t have happened.

Thank you. That’s all.

Thank you.

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