Earlier this year my Lifesaving Poems blog enjoyed something of a milestone. Not as momentous as Jimmy Anderson taking his 600th Test wicket, perhaps, but important for me in a symbolic way nevertheless. If you want to know what I am talking about, scroll down to the foot of this webpage and look at the number of visitors.
It’s quite something, and I am proud of it. Not for the sake of a large number in itself, but what it represents: this is about community and connection, not stats.
When I started to blog around ten years ago, on Posterous, I had no idea what I was doing (I still don’t). I had this vague notion that I should be blogging about the intersection of poetry and education, because that is what I have spent the best part of my professional life researching.
I remember one particularly tired blog post, after a long day of teaching, about the phonics debate in England at the time. From nowhere, two very heavyweight commenters, from opposite sides of the fence, weighed in with their views on what I had written. Very soon, below the surface of each retaliatory point, it began to get a bit ugly and personal. As one slows down to look at at motorway accident, and against my better instincts, I watched in a kind of appalled fascination. I thought, there has to be a better way of running a blog than this.
Then one day I opened up a notebook I had been keeping in which I had copied out hundreds of poems which had meant something to me over my lifetime. I had begun this as I entered remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer, in 2006. During my treatment, which included both chemo and radiotherapy, the so-called double whammy, along with my hair I had lost my ability to concentrate on reading.
The notebook was a way of deliberately sending myself back to my shelves to see if the poems I had loved in Life Before Cancer still held their magic for me. Based on the system used by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes when they put together The Schoolbag, I restricted myself to one poem per poet.
It took a good few years to complete the project. But there, in my inky scrawl, was my own personal anthology of poetry that I could take anywhere. I called it Lifesaving Poems, because that is how I saw every single one of them.
After the phonics-blogpost-debacle I opened the book up one evening and found Fishermen by Alasdair Paterson (who I am pleased to say has since become a friend). I wrote a few lines about it, posted it on my Posterous blog, and waited.
No one wrote in to say how good it was. No one wrote in to complain.
This was exactly the reaction I needed. I felt as though the universe was giving me permission to carry on. A week later, I posted another ‘lifesaving poem’, this time with a bit more of a story attached about how I had first come across it. Again, the same reaction. No one appeared to be interested. Undettered, I wrote another. And another. And on. And on.
All the time I was learning what a blog post could be and how to say what I wanted to say. I also knew that I had discovered, after a false start, what I really wanted to blog about.
Years later, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books emailed me to say he liked my blog and did I want to make it into a book? As Seamus Heaney once said, this was like getting a message from God the Father. Things like that just didn’t happen to poets like me. So that I wouldn’t appear too desperate I made him wait a whole day before saying, yes, that would be great, thank you so much, doing invisible fist pumps while I typed.
According to my WordPress stats, the poems in the list below are the most popular Lifesaving Poems.
Thank you to everyone who has ever stopped by here, left a comment or even bought one of my books. There are times, I will admit, as Shawna Lemay recently said, that this feels like writing into the void, as when I started out. Well, lucky old void.
And lucky old me to have all of you along for the ride.
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice–
How should I not be glad to contemplate the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There is a kind of love called maintenance Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it; Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;
Now they are no longer any trouble to each other he can turn things over, get down to that list of things that never happened, all of the lost unfinishable business.
If suddenly you do not exist, if suddenly you no longer live, I shall live on.
This house has been far out at sea all night, The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills, Winds stampeding the fields under the window Floundering black astride and blinding wet Till day rose;
The smells of ordinariness Were new on the night drive through France; Rain and hay and woods on the air Made warm draughts in the open car.
When they say Don’t I know you? say no. When they invite you to the party remember what parties are like before answering.
Because you do not speak I know the shock of water encountering a rock.
This is a poem for someone who is juggling her life. Be still sometimes. Be still sometimes.
With thanks to Sarah Marks for showing me how to use the new Block editor.