Today, after a leisurely breakfast and some great coffee, I found myself ignoring the call of the birds in my garden who were busy celebrating yet another sunny day and reaching instead for a poetry book.
I was hungry for something but I didn’t know what.
I searched through the pages of the ‘The Nation’s Favourite Twentieth Century Poems’ in a way that felt less like browsing than stalking, as if my subconscious knew the prey I hunted.
These are poems I know well, some of them have been my companions for decades, yet I still turn the pages in expectation of finding something new in words I’ve already read. Poetry is like that. It stays the same but we don’t.
Today, the poem my subconscious pounced on was Brian Patten’s ‘A Blade Of Grass’
You ask for a poem. I offer you a blade of grass. You say it is not good enough. You ask for a poem. I say this blade of grass will do. It has dressed itself in frost, It is more immediate Than any image of my making. You say it is not a poem, It is a blade of grass and grass Is not quite good enough. I offer you a blade of grass. You are indignant. You say it is too easy to offer grass. It is absurd. Anyone can offer a blade of grass. You ask for a poem. And so I write you a tragedy about How a blade of grass Becomes more and more difficult to offer, And about how as you grow older A blade of grass Becomes more difficult to accept.
‘Why this one?’ I asked my subconscious. It remained disdainfully silent, leaving me to figure that out for myself.
Sometimes I pick up poetry books to find solace or beauty or to make me laugh. Sometimes I’m looking for recognition: truths told in ways that say I’m not alone in how I see the world. Sometimes, like today, I open the book because I’m unsettled and I need to be given a space to think.
‘A Blade If Grass’ did that. On the first read-through, I found myself shaking my head, taking pleasure in my smug disapproval of the one who demands a poem but can’t see the poetry in a blade of grass. ‘Not me.’ I thought. ‘I’m smarter than that.’
Then I realised that I wasn’t. I remembered how I’d sneered or snorted in disbelief when offered sharks in formaldehyde or unmade beds or white on white canvasses as ‘art’ and knew how closed my mind could be.
I thought about the offer of a blade of grass as a poem and how, over time, that offer became harder to make and harder to receive and wondered whether that was true and, if it was, was it a tragedy?
An image came to me, long unrecalled but it seems never forgotten, of dew-dressed spiders’ webs on hedgerows, glinting in the early morning sun, silver snood stretched around the dark wet leaves.
I was nine or ten and doing my first ever job, delivering newspapers to rows and rows of Victorian semi-detached and detached houses: tall dark buildings that hid behind hedges and small patches of grass. Each gate had to be opened. Each path had to be trod. Each paper pushed through the often too small slot in the front door. It took time and focus. I misspent both. Instead of rushing from house to house, I stood caught in the spiders’ webs, awed by the sight of them. I’d never been out so early, alone before. This was all new to me.
I think, at nine, I would not have blinked at asking for a poem and being offered a frost-covered blade of grass.
Now, I’m much more sophisticated. My tastes have been educated. Spiders’ webs no longer have the power to capture me.
Which means I’m missing out. It means I’m less well-equipped to listen to poets who have retained the ability to see what I saw at nine years old.
Next time I open a poetry book, I’ll try not to make that act into a challenge to poets to entertain and dazzle me but as a challenge to me to unlock my ability to see poetry for what it is.