Lifesaving Lines: Why We Must Write, by Mark Halliday

I thought of it before I knew I had remembered it. Just the word ‘then’. Rereading and searching at speed for a single word which might not have been there after all. Then. I had thought – misremembered, it turns out now – that he had written the entire poem in thens: a list poem is what I had thought I had remembered and was now looking for. Just one line, in his astonishing ‘Why Must We Write’ in the final section at the very end of the book. ‘Then came the dead streetlamp’. It’s line 7 (or so) in a poem that goes over the page, about why we must write and get it all down. Now. You should buy the book and look it up and copy the poem and stick it to your wall. It’s that kind of good. I had misremembered the poem’s construction entirely, but the poem is so good, it survives even my mild misremembering this cool, late September evening.

Then came the dead streetlamp. It was the rhythm that I had remembered, not the content, except for the word ‘then’. I had no memory of deadness or of streetlamps or the connection between the two. The poem is not a list poem after all (or is it?) in the way I had remembered. It is not one thing after another (or is it). Initially I was disappointed to have remembered it all -the line, the poem, the entire book- so incorrectly. In my skim read search I was looking for thens. Thens followed by more thens. I was sure there was a then following the then I knew I was there, lurking in the book’s back pages. But no.

‘Then came the dead streetlamp’. The poor streetlamp has to do its shining all on its own (as it were), without the help of other sentences starting with then to prop it up. It’s a kind of one-line list poem (within a list poem?) with no safety net. My (faulty) memory has stored it as one Then after another, but there it is glaring up at me in black and white, no extra thens and no endless listyness of listing lists (or are there). It’s a great line. It moves me. And it’s not even the greatest line in the (great) book!

I had not thought about it in years till yesterday, doing other things, when memory of it took me back to the book and got me rereading at speed for the list-that-wasn’t-there, a pleasurable twenty minutes in an otherwise long day (do I put the heating on yet?) of talking and sitting and thinking and rereading things, a line that took me back years (thank you, Naomi, for the recommendation!), to a simpler time but nevertheless one where I had misread the original cargo of the magnificent container ship of the poem while still holding onto the essence of that missing something, something passing (or passed?) of the poem’s original words in my mind and yet still recognisable to me as poetry, having survived.


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