Lifesaving Poems: Michael Laskey’s ‘Bike’

IMG_20120723_205154

It was a huge privilege to share poems in workshops I gave at the Greenbelt festival last weekend. Here is one of the poems we read and discussed, by one of my favourite poets -and people- in the world.

 

Bike

 

You, who have borne three sons
of mine, still bear my weight
routinely, transporting me.

An odd pair: your classic spare
lines – elbows, bony frame –
and me, bearlike, cumbersome,

nosing tangled coils of air
you cut through with your pure
purposeful geometry.

With you it’s feet off the ground,
a feat passing unremarked
though in full public view.

Keeping each other’s balance.
Our talk slow recurrent clicks,
companionable creaks.

Through you I’ve come to know
winds inside out and raw
weather ignored before;

and nuances of slopes,
the moving earth, green tracks
for blackberries and sloes

for gin, for jam: the tug
and tang of fruit pulling me
clear of the wheel of myself.

Michael Laskey

from The Tightrope Wedding

Lifesaving Poems 

Now that we in Britain have started to think of ourselves as the greatest cycling nation since dinosaurs roamed the earth it seems a good time to turn to those events in our lives which we perform daily and routinely and for which, as Miles Kington once memorably said, there are no gold medals: the moment when you catch that bus even though you are weighed down with shopping; or when you cycle to work, delayed by a puncture, and still make it on time. Richard Ford called this ‘the normal applauseless life’.

In the case of my hero Michael Laskey this relates specifically to living a good life that has immeasurably improved the quality of life and lives of poetry and poets in this country, and writing poetry of rare integrity and power.

Sometime in 1999 Michael gave me his book of poems The Tightrope Wedding (Smith/Doorstop, 1999). (If you do not own this, buy it now, via the link in the last sentence -you will not regret it). This wasn’t a I’ll-give-you-mine-and-you-give-me-yours exchange of books which sometimes happens between poets. This was a gift, pure and simple. I treasure it deeply.

It contains poems about ratatouille, batting for England by the back door, home movies and sports days. One of the poems is called ‘Small Town Life’ and this might have served as an adequate summary of the book’s concerns as a whole. But ‘adequate’ and ‘small’ are far from what a Michael Laskey poem is essentially about. The book takes its title (with a brilliant tour de force of a poem) from the photograph (photographer unknown): ‘Couple in Wedding Dress on Tightrope‘. From an image that records both recklessness and simplicity and which we have now grown used to misnaming ‘surreal’, Laskey celebrates the daring in the everyday.

‘Bike’ is a perfect example of what Michael Laskey is up to in poem after poem in The Tightrope Wedding. He makes the ordinary seem strange, and reinvents ‘routine’ experience as potentially pregnant with mystery. I do think the poem is up there with that other great poem of the bicycle, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Wheels Within Wheels’, which explicitly makes a link between pedal pushing and writing poetry in the phrase ‘an access of free power’.

Laskey’s poem, one of direct address to the bike in question, ends on a similar note of release as the speaker is pulled ‘clear of the wheel of myself’, the expectation of which is set up slyly and deftly in line 3. This may be the goal of all poems, to end in a place which is new from that which marked the starting out, the self and all its attendant concerns obliterated for a moment of self-forgetfulness, experienced paradoxically as one of completion.

First published August 3, 2012

 

12 comments

  1. andreaskevington

    Thank you for sharing this poem. I have memories of the support and encouragement of Michael Laskey, in a much smaller way. I was just beginning to take writing more seriously again, and attended a workshop of his at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich. He invited me to his writing group, which I attended for a while, until unable to do so any more. It was an extraordinary experience, and a huge spur to continue writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anthony Wilson

      Brilliant. So heartening to hear this. I am convinced there are countless others out there who have benefited from Michael’s teaching in exactly the way you describe. Thank you so much for commenting, as ever, Anthony

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Meg Cox

    I think I have told you before that M Laskey is my favourite poet too and that he has inspired my own poetry more than any other. On the one hand it is difficult because you know you can never quite achieve his heights, but that’s good, isn’t it? On the other hand it makes you try harder. When I lose impetous I can read through a pamphlet or collection or two and think – I can do that, that’s what I want to do. Try harder. And then you inspire me too, Anthony. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you as ever Meg for your kind comments. I aspire to be like him too. Not to write like him, but just to be open to the world and to savour it like him. What an exemplar. As ever, Anthony

      Like

  3. Jerry Cull

    Anthony, thanks so much for your blog. It gives me faith that modern poetry can indeed have merit! Beautiful… If you have a few moments, please check out this blog: irhymetoseemyself.wordpress.com

    All the best, Jerry Cull (Canada)

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Caro

    brought back freedom feeling of being on a bike, just loved his connection to it, and like you say in the last verse being liberated, uncoupling from his inner wheel. The skew of the end delicious, makes me sing. I loved your poetry workshop at Greenbelt – thank you!! And so rich hearing everyone poems. Inspiring!!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s