Tracking my life through poetry

Today is National Poetry Day.  Apparently the nation’s favourite poet is TS Eliot, although I’m not sure how many of them have read The Wasteland, or whether any of them actually ‘get it’ (I certainly don’t.  I’m not sure TS did, either).

This got me thinking about the poems I love and the poems I’ve written in the past and the poems I don’t write any longer (I haven’t written one for three or four years) and whether I could track a narrative of my life through them.  I wrote an awful lot when I was younger – my mum always says that I took a long while to learn and then just wouldn’t stop – and there was a rapid change from my pre-pubescent style, which was very reminiscent of Allan Ahlberg, Brian Patten et al, I suppose.  Consider the following from when I was about eight:

Easy to make and fun to do
That’s what the instructions read
“Oh, this will be easy!”
I later wished I hadn’t said.

It was supposed to be a ship
But it looked more like a plane
And so I took it all apart
And started it again.

I used to have books and books full of the stuff, interspersed with pictures of unicorns and descriptions of what the people walking past on the street were wearing.  Amateur anthropology, I think, or perhaps just spying.  I think it was about the same time that I wrote my seminal work, Sammy the Squirrel. It was a tour de force and debuted at our school Harvest Festival to wide acclaim.

After moving house, school and county and feeling drastically uprooted, all of my poetry became very alienated angsty teen (read: inutterably cliche) with (illustrated) moans about being a jigsaw piece put in the wrong jigsaw box.   “Unfortunately” I don’t have any examples; they’re all in notebooks under my bed in Shropshire.  All very depressing stuff really; as was my oevre in college, although then it took on a Tim Burton-esque goth tinge.  As did I.  I think I wrote the latter after reading Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Falling Apart

a man lived on a hill
the man he was lonely
he dreamt of a girl who was
his one & only

he dreamt of the one who’d
take his pain away
his longing consumed him
by night & by day

his clothes were a mess &
his hair was a fright
his longing consumed him
by day & by night

one day he created
a girl of his own
her hair was of wool
and twigs were her bone

her eyes were two buttons
through which she could peek
her mouth sewn by needle
so she could not speak

for breasts he used padding
he padded them well
though one was misshapen
you hardly could tell

he named his doll sally
he loved her much more
than any possession
that he’d loved before

but cotton wore thin
and holes wouldn’t mend
he tried to ignore it
he tried to pretend

he caressed her hands
as her stitches came free
and watched as her leg
fell apart at the knee

he sobbed as her buttons
fell out of her face
her once sturdy skin
was resembling lace

and with her decay
went the last of his heart
he looked on in horror
as she came apart

so that old man’s loneliness
a rag doll can’t fix
with his grief and his longing
he had loved her to bits

Amanda Fucking Palmer would be proud.

After another uprooting and the loss of home I returned to the intraspective moaning, although to be fair my style was a little more controlled and I’d lost the illustrations of jigsaws and sad faces.  I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t enjoy my first year of university, and I still feel some of that same bleakness and student-rage around this time of year when all the freshers arrive:

Winter of the Disillusioned Student

There’s rain and brollies ten-a-penny
(Gouging eyes and catching hair)
Holes in your trainers and wet in your socks
And the Christmas lights went up early this year

Yes the Christmas lights went up early this year
Even though you can’t afford it
And you know that it’s the thought that counts
These days money’s all you think about

Money’s all you think about
And it’s gone down the drain
(With your hopes about the future
And the ever-drizzling rain)

And the ever-drizzling rain
Is matching your state of mind
In the seas of unknown faces
And the seas of “left behind”

There’s flyers in the gutter
Of “BEST NIGHTS OUT!”; now old
There’s girls in nonexistent skirts
Pretending they’re not cold

And all the jobs are Christmas jobs
(When you’re not even here)
And what’s the point of Christmas trees
When there’s no Christmas cheer

Oh what’s the point of Christmas trees
When there’s no Christmas cheer
And you’re far away from “left behind”
And the lights went out early this year.

That one was published in the School of English zine, and I will actually never ever forgive them for chopping off the final two lines.  Bad form!

Since then I’ve stagnated poetically; perhaps because I’ve been reasonably happy.  After this year’s shake up (another loss of home, both physical and metaphorical), I would have expected myself to sit in a corner writing some more whiney drivel.  Then again, I suppose I did.  Perhaps it’s just taking a more prosaic blog-form this time around.

Anyway. National Poetry Day! My favourite poem is anyone lived in a pretty how town by e e cummings.  Thank you lovely, nervous, marker-pen-twiddling Neil Church of Ludlow College for introducing me to ee (my other favourites by the same, in case you want to look them up – and you should – are gee i like to think of dead and yonder deadfromtheneckup graduate, and I love Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams)

anyone lived in a pretty how town

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
with by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

-ee cummings

I remember reading it through at 17 and thinking, well that’s quite a pleasing load of nonsense, and then re-reading and suddenly realising that – oh!  It’s about two people (the man, anyone, and no one, the girl; in case you haven’t been keeping up) and it’s a love story.  I also really like the cyclical nature and passage of time of it, life/death, spring/summer/autumn/winter, the almost folkloric heralding of the seasons.

But mostly, I love that moment of realisation you get with good poetry where you realise you haven’t looked closely enough.

What’s your favourite?


7 thoughts on “Nascitur

  1. I think my poetry fascination developed quite late. I remember being mind blown by Simon Armitage’s untitled poem in the GCSE anthology when I realised that poetry didn’y just have to be about extremely abstract metaphors and could relate directly to personal experiences.

    I am very bothered when I think

    of the bad things that I have done in my life.

    Not least that time in the chemistry lab

    when I held a pair of scissors by the blades

    and played the handles

    in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;

    then called your name, and handed them over.

    O the unrivalled stench of branded skin

    as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,

    then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,

    the doctor said, for eternity.

    Don’t believe me, please, if I say

    that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,

    of asking you to marry me.

    I think after this I went into a period of blueness and become typically fascineagted by Sylvia Plath, in all her forms. I got quite into historical references in her poetry, perhaps as I was studying war poetry in English at college at the time this seemed like a less pompous and less nationalisitic approach.

    You do not do, you do not do
    Any more, black shoe
    In which I have lived like a foot
    For thirty years, poor and white,
    Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

    Daddy, I have had to kill you.
    You died before I had time–
    Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
    Ghastly statue with one gray toe
    Big as a Frisco seal

    And a head in the freakish Atlantic
    Where it pours bean green over blue
    In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
    I used to pray to recover you.
    Ach, du.

    In the German tongue, in the Polish town
    Scraped flat by the roller
    Of wars, wars, wars.
    But the name of the town is common.
    My Polack friend

    Says there are a dozen or two.
    So I never could tell where you
    Put your foot, your root,
    I never could talk to you.
    The tongue stuck in my jaw.

    It stuck in a barb wire snare.
    Ich, ich, ich, ich,
    I could hardly speak.
    I thought every German was you.
    And the language obscene

    An engine, an engine
    Chuffing me off like a Jew.
    A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
    I began to talk like a Jew.
    I think I may well be a Jew.

    The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
    Are not very pure or true.
    With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
    And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
    I may be a bit of a Jew.

    I have always been scared of you,
    With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
    And your neat mustache
    And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
    Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–

    Not God but a swastika
    So black no sky could squeak through.
    Every woman adores a Fascist,
    The boot in the face, the brute
    Brute heart of a brute like you.

    You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
    In the picture I have of you,
    A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
    But no less a devil for that, no not
    Any less the black man who

    Bit my pretty red heart in two.
    I was ten when they buried you.
    At twenty I tried to die
    And get back, back, back to you.
    I thought even the bones would do.

    But they pulled me out of the sack,
    And they stuck me together with glue.
    And then I knew what to do.
    I made a model of you,
    A man in black with a Meinkampf look

    And a love of the rack and the screw.
    And I said I do, I do.
    So daddy, I’m finally through.
    The black telephone’s off at the root,
    The voices just can’t worm through.

    If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–
    The vampire who said he was you
    And drank my blood for a year,
    Seven years, if you want to know.
    Daddy, you can lie back now.

    There’s a stake in your fat black heart
    And the villagers never liked you.
    They are dancing and stamping on you.
    They always knew it was you.
    Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

    At the same time as this I was writing some pretty angsty teenage bedroom poetry, that for some reason I compiled into an anthology at school and gave to one of my teachers. Friends and me set up a creative writing after school group. Which spawned some pretty desperate depressing and appauling words:

    Precious Pill
    So white in purity
    Brought together as one entity
    Precious Pill
    Perfectly formed, embossed letter love poetry
    Helps to kill
    Your whiteness a wedding dress
    O of my open mouth a wedding ring
    So clean so peaceful
    Still as frozen breath
    As cold as blue ice snow
    As blank as memory
    Your whiteness is as red as seduction
    Persuasively innocent
    O happy pill
    Beautiful in its simplicity
    Cased in by your protective silver armour
    So easy to release
    Saturday Sunday Monday Tues Wed Thurs Die

    The anthology landed me with some sort of service to English prize at the school awards and then I almost stopped writing except for poems in the margins of uni notes, and the occassional piece here and there and also a conversion to blogging instead of poems.
    Today I wrote this about my relationship with my best friend after hearing Carol Ann Duffy perform her poem for National Poetry Day on R4.

    Together we packed up our bookshelves
    Nearly got stuck in the stairwell
    Found an Allan-key from a neighbour
    So we could take ourselves apart
    And our knowledge fell off the shelves
    Tumbled to the floor from three flights up
    Last time we did this
    You waved at me from a balcony
    Like an Argentinean ambassador
    And betrayal bestowed
    And trust fled
    This time we share tea
    And smile at each other lovingly
    You wear my socks sometimes
    But we don’t pair up these days.

  2. I read the latter on your blog, Bill, and I love the final line. Lizzie’s still looking for contributions for her zine on friendship if you fancy sending it her way?

    I also just lolled my face off at “Thurs die”, o god!

    Always love a bit of Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus is my fave I think

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