'If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.' Emily Dickinson
Happy World Poetry Day people.
I love poetry, I have done since I was seventeen and walked into a bookshop, drifted past shelves and over tables and was arrested by a beautiful face staring out at me from the cover of an anthology that promised a lot. Staying Alive – real poems for unreal times quickly became my bible, my gospel, my helpmate. I poured over its pages, reading and re-reading and marking and remembering. I copied poems into my sketchbooks alongside my first moody attempts at black and white photography, I stayed up late into the night reading 'just one more' for hours and hours, I carried it with me in backpacks and suitcases and pinned handwritten copies of my favourites to the wall next to my bed, alongside photos of home and the people I loved.
I cried heavy salty tears into poems that spoke of death and depression and miscarriage and war and I held my breath through dizzying pages dedicated to love and sex and birth and joy. I found reassuring glimpses of feelings I recognised and tasted the smallest but most intense morsels of ones I hadn't even come close to experiencing. I learned that love and death could be the most mundane things and that a bulb pushing through the winter earth or a toad sitting on a river bank could be almost transcendent. I learned about being, and staying, alive.
Before I bought this book I knew no more about poetry than anyone who had just completed high school English, I was not and still am not knowledgeable about it and find myself embarrassed and mute around friends who know Poetry. I do not know Poetry and I likely never will but I know this book and I know a handful of poems from it and I know that my life is all the richer for it.
When I was eighteen I bought Staying Alive for a friend who was studying English at university. He went on to study poetry and many years later went on again to have his first collection Moontide published by Bloodaxe, that same publisher who brought me my bible. Inside Moontide is a poem dedicated to my girls, to Ella and Ammie, and when I read it I found myself crying tears into a poem for the first time in many many years. I think they call that 'full circle'.
Moontide went on to win a shit tonne of prestigious prizes and you should buy it immediately, because it's excellent. You should also read this interview in Poetry Spotlight where he talks about poetry its relevance and fatherhood and his new collection which is coming out at the end of the year.
I don't read a lot of poetry any more. In the last few years I've read Niall's book and the Emma PressAnthology of Motherhood, which I recently bought for myself and a friend - partly because poetry and motherhood are dear to my heart, partly because it's a bloody beautiful book - and that's it. It's fairly pitiful. But I'm tired and my kids ate my brain and I don't have a lot of time for reading anything any more. I have deeply loved listening to Dominique Christina's poetry, particularly her Period Poem, which should be required listening for every single person who has ever had a period or been born as the result of someone else's period (everyone, in case you didn't get that.)
I still carry Staying Alive and its sequel Being Alive everywhere with me, they were the first things I carried into our new home and placed onto the mantelpiece and when I'm feeling lost but still capable of reading I delve into them, searching for answers I've already found but forgotten or for ones that have as of yet escaped me - because I still haven't read every poem in those books, am still capable of finding something new. I haven't bought the third book in the Staying Alive trilogy - Being Human - because I know I can not read it, can not do it justice, can not love it the way that I loved that first one. Being Alive has never quite kindled the passion I feel for it's predecessor. Maybe one day I will be ready for it but these words from Niall's interview ring true and comforting to me;
'The dynamic between a reader and a poetry collection is completely different [to that of a novel] – there is much more ‘investment’ by the reader in a poetry collection – there is a reason poetry has never been accused of being escapism! I think that if you have ‘found’ yourself, or a space that might be yours, in a poetry collection then it would be a peculiar madness that would quickly put this aside to begin the search anew.'
I will leave you on this World Poetry Day with two of my favourites from Staying Alive and a shopping list of books that I have, that I love, that I want - starting points for current and future lovers of poetry.Thoughts After Ruskin by Elma Mitchell and What Every Woman Should Carry, by Maura Dooley are the poems I have copied and carried and reread the most, they lie within two pages of each other in a 500 page book and it is under them that the spine is creased the deepest.
Thoughts After Ruskin, by Elma Mitchell
Women reminded him of lilies and roses.
Me they remind rather of blood and soap,
Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,
Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places:
Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,
Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,
Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,
Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverising,
- All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.
Their distant husbands lean across mahogany
And delicately manipulate the market,
While safe at home, the tender and gentle
Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,
Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,
Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,
Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing,
Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,
Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners
Around the snags of furniture, they straighten
And haul out sheets from under the incontinent
And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,
Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,
Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,
Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,
Contorting wool around their knitting needles,
Creating snug and comfy on their needles.
Their huge hands! their everywhere eyes! their voices
Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,
Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,
Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,
Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!
And when all's over, off with overalls,
Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,
Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,
And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,
Their essences of lilies and of roses.
What Every Woman Should Carry, by Maura Dooley
My mother gave me the prayer to Saint Theresa.
I added a used tube ticket, kleenex,
several Polo mints (furry), a tampon, pesetas,
a florin. Not wishing to be presumptuous,
not trusting you either, a pack of 3.
I have a pen. There is space for my guardian
angel, she has to fold her wings. Passport.
A key. Anguish, at what I said/didn't say
when once you needed/didn't need me. Anadin.
A credit card. His face the last time,
my impatience, my useless youth.
That empty sack, my heart. A box of matches.
A poetry shopping list, for you, for me, for friends;
Being Human, all edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe
Moontide, by Niall Campbell
Her Birth, Rebecca Goss
The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm; A Coloured Girl's Hymnal
They Are All Me, both by Dominique Christina.
Life Under Water, both by Maura Dooley
The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood, edited by Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright
The Emma Press Anthology of Fatherhood, edited by Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright
Best Friends Forever, Poems On Female Friendship, edited by Amy Key
Further Reading; this buzzfeed list of twelve British poets sharing their favourite poems is wonderful and full of launching pads to the discovery of new poems and poets.
Happy World Poetry day lovers. I would love to hear about any poetry books you are reading / thinking of reading / once read a long time ago but still remember in the comments and you can find more of my favourite poems that I've blogged here by clicking the poetry tag below.