Monday, March 21, 2016

poetry and staying alive

'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

Sound Barrier
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

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. 


  1. Love love love. Those two you shared are wonderful. For me, my heart belongs to Wendy Cope, but I also loved It's Hard to be Hip under 30 by Judith Viorst, from Persephone press. Spike Milligan wrote some beautiful poetry too - funny stuff but also some sad, soulful stuff. There was one that my mum wrote in a recipe book she gave me when I left home that has stayed with me all these years. I lost the book but remembered some lines of the poem, but couldn't find it anywhere. Eventually tracked it down through some intense Google searching and bought a whole anthology just for this one poem:

    Go, my divine daughter, go!
    Tall and lovely like morning light
    With the seeds of love
    still sowing
    Why then is she going?
    Is it release or is it escape,
    Must she breast some distant tape?
    The empty room - a doll on the floor -
    Is that what I was waiting for?

    1. Might have gotten a bit a bit teary at this. X

    2. me too. *sniff*

      god love google for leading us to the books we need.

      And yes, Wendy Cope - I love her work.

  2. Recently I've been really wanting to get into reading more poetry, as I haven't really read any properly since school. I've definitely never bought a poetry book, and this year I really want that to change. Here's one I have stumbled upon recently that I love:

    being to timelessness as it’s to time,
    love did no more begin than love will end;
    where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
    love is the air the ocean and the land
    (do lovers suffer? all divinities
    proudly descending put on deathful flesh:
    are lovers glad? only their smallest joy’s
    a universe emerging from a wish)
    love is the voice under all silences,
    the hope which has no opposite in fear;
    the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
    the truth more first than sun more last than star
    – do lovers love? why then to heaven with hell.
    Whatever sages say and fools, all’s well

    e.e. cummings (1958)

    Jas x
    Jas Poole Blog | photography + lifestyle

    1. EE Cumming forever. I love him.

      I would highly recommend Staying Alive for your first poetry book, it is so accessible and I particularly love the reading guides to each section which make it all make just a little more sense.

  3. I love love love hearing your thoughts on this - it seems crazy to me that you don't think you know anything about poetry! Which makes me think that we all just presume others know more. Which they often don't.

    I know I said on twitter, but I cannot tell you how much Thoughts after Ruskin meant to me at such a shitty time. So much so that even now I find it a little hard to read it back without feeling a little sting.

    Weirdly I love Tumblr for young female poets, it's where I found Darshana Suresh who's book looks beautiful -
    And I still need to seek out the Ariel Plath poems; after reading how and when she wrote them I think I'd really connect to that.

    Off to pin everything you've suggested, obvs.

    1. Thoughts After Ruskin is breathtaking, that Elma Mitchell's book is so hard to find pains me. I'm so glad that it helped when you were going through such a hard time, poetry is magical in how it can do that.

      Thank you for the tumblr suggestion, I would never have thought of that which is silly, because tumblr for everything!

  4. I have great love for Poetry as it describes the emotions and love in words which directly hits the walls of the heart. Thanks for this fantastic post on world poetry day.

  5. I love Staying Alive too (and Being Alive). I bought it on a whim in Borders in Glasgow years and years ago and have returned to it so many times when I need some help to understand the world.

  6. Thank you for sharing - really there ought to be a global rule about reading/sharing and creating poetry when applying for a passport, business loan, research grant, marriage license ... Seriously the world would be a better place.
    One of my faves ...
    Some people, told of witness trees,
    pause in chopping a carrot
    or loosening a lug nut and ask,
    witness to what? So while salad
    is made, or getting from A to B
    is repaired, these people
    listen to the story
    of the Burnside Bridge sycamore,
    alive at Antietam, bloodiest day
    of the war, or the Appomattox Court House
    honey locust, just coming to leaf
    as Lee surrendered, and say, at the end,
    Cool. Then the chopping
    continues with its two sounds,
    the slight snap to the separation
    of carrot from carrot, the harder crack
    of knife against cutting board,
    or the sigh, also slight, of a lug nut
    as it’s tightened against a wheel. In time,
    these people put their hands
    under water and say, not so much to you
    but to the window in front of the sink,
    Think of all the things
    trees have seen. Then it’s time
    for dinner, or to leave, and a month passes,
    or a year, before two fawns
    cross in front of the car, or the man
    you’ve just given a dollar to
    lifts his shirt to the start
    of the 23rd psalm tattooed
    to his chest, “The Lord is my shepherd,
    I shall not want,” when some people
    say, I feel like one of those trees,
    you know? And you do know.
    You make a good salad, change
    a wicked tire, you’re one of those people,
    watching, listening, a witness
    to whatever this is,
    for as long as it is
    amazing, isn’t it, that I could call you
    right now and say, They still
    can’t talk to dolphins
    but are closer, as I still
    can’t say everything I want to
    but am closer, for trying, to God,
    if you must, to spirit, if you will,
    to what’s never easy for people
    like us: life, breath, the sheer volume
    of wonder.

    Bob Hicok

    Also Mary Oliver - luuuuurve Mary Oliver



play nice.