Today is National Poetry Day and to celebrate we invited local poet and teacher Alexandra Davis to share a bit about why she loves this form of literature…
National Poetry Day is for me something of a ‘stay-cation’ in that I have finally positioned poetry where it demands to be in my busy life. It is a patient friend, willing to adapt to whatever time I can offer it, ready to say something new and yet ever true about the world we humans wander through, trying to feel powerful.
It’s always been there really; A.A. Milne given to me by my Nan when I was a little child (“when I was Three, I was hardly me”), Spike Milligan’s baboons and of course the unfortunate Edser who, “in bed, Sir, was dead, Sir”. And then in adolescence I was introduced to a voice that really spoke to me in my awkward, posturing odd socks and tartan shirts: Philip Larkin. The cut-the-crap incisiveness of his tone in poems such as ‘This Be the Verse’ and ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, together with an unashamed desire to find something worth admiring in poems like ‘Solar’ and ‘Water’, “where any-angled light / would congregate endlessly”, showed me that poetry allows for the truth of the moment and the accommodation of the myriad feelings that we humans experience. In this way I could hear someone trying to make at least momentary sense of the world, or to capture the relentless complexities of being alive.
It’s unsurprising then that I’ve spent my life teaching English, always most comfortable when teaching poetry, in its compact beauty. Poems use language with all that is unnecessary boiled off, until the essence remains, all the more potent for its brevity. Lines like “tread softly, for you tread on my dreams”, “beauty is truth, truth beauty”, “the child is father of the man”, “the anaesthetic from which none come round” – they lodge in the mind, available for consideration and use as needed; they become part of you and yet they are not you, like still small voices of calm, anger, love or wisdom.
It was two years ago that I realised I needed to write; a mother to four boys, with two jobs, and yet the urge was overwhelming, not to narrate or plot as prose writers must, but to capture moments, tableaux, pieces of life and make meaning, art, from them. Writing poems is a transformative experience for me; it has a commemorative aspect to it, and I truly believe that anything can be the stuff from which poetry is made. The ordinary will become extraordinary in a good poem; this is what many modern poets prove in their work – read Naomi Shihab Nye or Mark Doty, Jean Sprackland or Fiona Benson. I am less worried now that the well from which I draw my inspiration is small – women, children, marriage, teaching; it is deep enough for the precious moments I can devote to it and it never dries up.
To prove the point, I will share with you my poem ‘Sprouts’, dedicated to my Nan, which I hope you enjoy. Happy National Poetry Day.
Whenever I peel them I channel her.
I remember her vast lap spread, like a proving bloomer,
over each side of the wheelback chair,
her warm body swelling between the spindles.
The grocer’s evergreen net would empty, sag,
next to a carrier bag set for peelings. Hands busy
with the stubby knife I see her slicing off the base,
adjust the blade, her curved forefingers always pointing,
made for knitting needles, pare away the papery leaves,
her nails neat and slender as a model’s,
each half-moon peeping. I didn’t inherit those nails.
Her mind elsewhere, each mouldering lump,
through some quicksilver handicraft, became a jewel
in her hands; finally carving its cross with artisan care.
So as I peel I smile; a task that always brings her close to me.
A tiny cabbage, no matter how mud clad,
will end as green as paradise.
Wrapped vacuum tight, squeaking against my thumb,
it sits in my palm like a ready brain, glossy and new veined,
painted with a single rat’s whisker, delicate as an eyelid.
Each Christmas he brings me, with high ceremony,
the Brussels Tree! I marvel at the object,
at its impossible rigidity, built like an alien colony.
Strong stalk, thick and perfect; each offspring pert
and perpendicular, gravity-mocking and jaunty,
locked on like a suckling baby, or ribs from off the spine.
Leaves within leaves, furled, waiting for my peeling hands.
My lap, now roomy, holds dusty curls and bright green pearls,
each marked with its cross, till heat will turn them yellow.