I spend a lot of time (too much?) thinking about poetry, about what it is, or may be.
About what it’s doing, or might be doing. About what I’m doing making it, publishing it, playing with it, endlessly reading it, helping other people to make more of it (and sometimes less). There are wars going on. There is death and pain and work and money. Why poetry?
But maybe the question isn’t a real question, more another way of thinking about life. Thinking by question and counter-question. Whatever else poetry is or may be, it is language and the expression of human consciousness. Whatever I think and whatever I say about the stuff, poetry (whatever it is) is what it is. It sits in front of me in this book being its own self.
Which is not to say it has no needs. It needs a reader or two, and that can be difficult with poetry. Because with po-material you never quite know how to read, or how demanding it’s going to turn out to be. Each poem (or poet) is different from the rest as well as (sometimes) apparently similar. Poems look like pages of neatly arranged words, but they’re more than that. We throw a lot of words around in our lives, most of us, but we don’t call most of them poems. So when we do, we mean something special.
Yep. Not ‘special’ as in exclusive or expensive. Special as in specific to this text. But I don’t want to get into deep literary territory. I want to keep simple, because the poems I’ve been reading the last two days do that. They keep simple, though they’re not. Well, they are and they’re not. Both.
It’s easy to say (and I’ve done it more than once) that writing simply is the hardest thing to do. But it is hard to write simply and at the same time have layers, even though language itself draws on those layers, every minute, even while we’re hurling it around as though there aren’t any.
Here’s a phrase, for example—you could call it a cliché if you wanted to: ‘his days were numbered’. I said that last week when talking about a particular friend, and I shook my head when I said it. I meant he wouldn’t live long, and if I’d said it to you, you would have understood, I think. But what a strange cliché it is, when you think about it carefully. I’m visualizing a calendar with dates on it, and numbers. I’m connecting with another phrase (a happier cliché) ‘counting the days’. And ‘countless days’. But I’ll drag myself back into the context in which I found the phrase.
Which means coming clean about the book I’ve been reading—with such pleasure—this weekend. It is Peter Sansom’s Careful What You Wish For, a book worth wishing for, I’d say, and ‘his days were numbered’ occurs in one of three poems about Antoine de St Exupéry, whose name (if it is familiar to you) is probably in your memory because of his children’s tale, which is not for children, Le Petit Prince, or The Little Prince, for which the author also drew the illustrations. It’s the saddest book, but beautiful. And the author himself died at the age of only 44, and somewhat mysteriously, when his plane crashed somewhere and was not found. Not long ago there was another report of finding wreckage that may have been his: there have been several over the years.
Anyway, the author of Le Petit Prince lives on in his own literary work, as well as in three poems in Peter’s book, two of which began as translations of parts of St Exupéry’s 1931 novel Vol de Nuit. And here’s the cliché I was talking about, and how it is embedded:
His days were numbered but he understood them
and everything for a while, just having travelled
alone in all that sky, the blackness
of the bright heavens, not to mention
the dark side of the moon.
This isn’t even the poem I most wanted to write about in the book. Nonetheless, here I am with it, because the lines are doing something that connects with what I think about when I’m reading poetry and working out how to read it and at the same time thinking about what poetry is and what it’s doing. I know poetry has something particular to do with language, and the mystery of communication in and over time. But I only have language itself to express my thoughts in, so this is difficult.
‘His days were numbered’ is oh so familiar. But not in the context of ‘His days were numbered but he understood them’. How can you understand days? How does the concept of numbering connect with the understanding? How can I feel the same bland acceptance of this cliché ever again?
But there’s more. A line break and the sense continues. Actually, the sense and the sentence continues over five lines, and it’s trickier to read with line breaks than without. He ‘understood them / and everything for while’. It’s a simple and vast statement. He understood everything. But only for a while. And why? Something to do with ‘just having travelled / alone in all that sky’. Some insight to do with solitude. Some insight to do with ‘the bright heavens’ (glory?) but also the polar opposite: ‘the dark side of the moon’.
I’m beginning to get worried now because I want to say something simply, but already it’s complicated. It’s the cliché, and then the layers added to it, one and then another, and then another. None of the lines is hard. Each draws you gently after it. The ‘dark side of the moon’ can almost be another cliché, if it’s life we’re talking about. Is it? No, it’s literal. He saw the moon. He was up there in the bright heavens. All that sky. And then more lines follow, piling simple phrases, one on top of the next, layer upon layer:
He climbed down
in the end from the cockpit, larger than life,
though only a man, still a young man,
somebody’s son, and still alive.
It’s in the past. It’s the past tense. He was ‘still alive’ then but, we know, not now. He (not Saint Exupéry himself, but yes, also St Exupéry himself) is ‘larger than life’ (cliché) but the phrase has to be packed with irony in a poem where the word ‘life’ is key because the pilot (whoever and whatever he is) is certainly dead. The repetition of ‘still’ tells us this for sure, even if no other intuition is helping out. And then there’s ‘only’ (‘a man’) and ‘somebody’s son’: the connections of mortality and humanity. The pang of looking back to the past, the sense of aliveness in the context of knowing our days are numbered and some of our loved ones already gone.
Back to the start of the poem. A poem occurs in time, but it’s a circle. The end takes you back to the beginning, or it will if it’s any good (and this is good). The plane with the young man at the helm is ‘a plane / from another time’. He’s a sort of Time Lord before The Tardis was invented. And in this regard, he connects with an idea that runs through this whole book and its individual consciousness. ‘Careful what you wish for’ (another cliché) hinges on the future, on what was about to happen but hadn’t happened yet, seen in the past, from what is now the present (once the future). The poem in which the title phrase occurs (‘Sofa’, though it flickers as well in ‘Lava Lamp’) makes it clear that the wish resulted in walls of books—
of yellowed intent unread or forgotten,
and times’d by ten since, by fifty.
Such irony! Here I am reading a poem in a book I’ve just bought, and the poem is warning me about wishing for too many books of poems yellowing and unread (or forgotten) over the numbered days and years. I am sitting inside three walls of books reading a poem about the danger of wishing for walls of books. And my smile is broad, because I don’t regret the purchase. Not this time. Not one bit.
Poets are always writing about memories. Some say they do it too much. But others claim memories are, for better or worse, what we’re made of and what we make things out of. Here, Peter Sansom looks back and forward and round him: the many layers of time wrap themselves round the poems. It is eerie, and funny, and nostalgic and sad. It is full of loss, and yet offers such richness! It may be the saddest funny book of poems I remember reading ever. It contains at least two fabulous love poems, one of which is about a hat. I have walked inside its world and am still partly there.
I think the book discloses something crucial in a mild, careful, personable way, and you need to read the whole book to get the whole view. I learned from it, and was moved by it. It doesn’t say ‘I am a Great Poet’ anywhere (be careful what you wish for). The poet’s method (there is one) trips you up from time to time, so you have to smile at yourself just at the moment you’re taking the poetry too seriously or giving it a capital P. It deals with love and loss, and it’s alive.
Here’s the final stanza of ‘Hathersage, December Morning’, with all its layers:
A rusted barrow, grips perished so you’d burn
your hands, could be done something with
even at this end of the year. At this end of the year
a breeze through the trees and remembering
stops me where I stand. In the hedgerow the darkness
is decay that knocks at the day’s door
and what else is there to do but let it in.