Tagged: Geoffrey Summerfield

Lifesaving Poems: Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Goodbye’

2013-09-08 08.34.10

As I said the other day, Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds is one of the most important books in my life.

As I also said, I got just as much pleasure from looking at the photographs in it as from the poems themselves. Implicit was the message that poets were people who lived in and interacted with social worlds of their own and others’ making. There were photos of meals, of pubs, even of children. This was a revelation to me. Until I looked at them, I had thought a poet sat alone in a room all day talking to no one.

I was particularly struck by the photos of Adrian Mitchell, taken by Fay Godwin. He seemed to move between worlds of great good company to sudden solitude and quiet. I thought it was possible to detect this in the poems as well.

On one page, next to a photo of his study there are two photos. In one he is teaching his daughter to use a cassette recorder. It is beautifully intimate and still. In the other he is sitting on the edge of an armchair, leaning forward, two piles of A4 paper at his feet, a copy of the Guardian slightly to the side. The expression on Mitchell’s face is one of surprised delight, as though Godwin has just that moment asked him to look up at the camera. Next to his right foot there are a couple of biros lying parallel on the floor. I guessed this was what editing or sorting poems looked like, and knew I wanted to do the same one day.

Above all I loved this mixture of homeliness with art and the world. The photos (as much as the poems) seemed to argue that engagement with one’s surroundings, its people and its news was not an optional extra. This also had the force of a revelation.

When I first came across ‘Goodbye’ I did not know who Charlie Parker was. Situated at the bottom of a page of other short poems (including a nice take on William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow), I was not sure if the poem had more to say or not. I turned the page. It did not. I went back to the poem and read it again. I felt a little disappointed.

But I kept going back to it over the next few days, trying to understand why I found it compelling. The poem was in the past tense (‘brethed’, ‘was’), so I guessed it was about a dead person, probably Charlie Parker. This also explained the sadness of the title: ‘Goodbye’. It dawned on me: I was reading an elegy. The odd thing was the poem did not feel sad at all. It rhymed.It had rhythm. And the rhyming words were so full of life and energy (‘light’ and ‘delight’). Finally, it was clear there was some kind of transformation taking place: ‘He breathed in air, he breathed out light.’ Things were not the same after hearing this person, it seemed to me.

I vowed to live in the poem’s energy for as long as possible, hoping some of its force and simplicity would one day rub off on me. I went round the house muttering it under my breath for days.

Goodbye

He breathed in air, he breathed out light.

Charlie Parker was my delight.

Adrian Mitchell, from Worlds

Lifesaving Poems