It’s 1994 and I’m sitting in a cinema with tears on my cheeks. Gareth has just died and Matthew is at the pulpit, reading W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues as the eulogy for his friend. It wrecks me as few things have wrecked me, in my young life. John Hannah delivers a performance that makes me a fan for life. A fan that will follow him through the third Mummy film and Sliding Doors, professing an affection for both.
Three years later I see Auden’s poem on the page. I’m twenty years old, studying poetry, getting ready to spend two years writing an honours thesis about poetics and space and the city I live in. I’ve been published, as a poet. Performed my work at festivals. I wander the streets with notebooks in my backpack, writing draft after draft, hundreds of poems every year. I embrace the idea of quantity as a means of learning craft. It turns out, that’s not a bad way to learn.
I write some okay poems in those two years. I write a lot of bad ones. They were about girls, mostly. That’s why I started with poetry, why I kept at it for years afterwards. I was young and awkward and funny-looking. I didn’t know how to talk to people at all, let alone the opposite sex.
And I was foolish enough to believe that writing poetry would be my way of forging connection with the world around me. And foolish enough to happy, when that finally worked.
My favourite poem begins from a place of heartbreak and sorrow. Pablo Neruda doesn’t bother trying to hide it; everything is right there in the opening: Tonight I can write the saddest lines. He sets the parameters and everything progresses from there: the night is shattered; the immensity of loss grows larger; the inevitability of change is both a hurt and a solace.
I read Neruda as younger man, long before my heart was even bruised, let alone properly broken. I admired the exquisite longing of his words, back then. I craved the intensity of the feeling.
Years later, after my heart had been properly broken, re-reading Neruda’s poem wasn’t the same. I didn’t crave intensity anymore, could barely handle the feelings that roiled inside me. All I wanted was a release, the promise that the hurt would stop.
I read it again, very recently. It’s brilliance is dimmed, after all these years, but there is no doubt that it still shines.
In his book, Making Your Own Days, Kenneth Koch outlines a theory that explains poetry better than anyone else I’ve read. Poetry is the language inside language, he says, his analogy inherited from Paul Valery. It’s the language we turn to when words themselves are inadequate to the task.
It’s the language we turn to when I hurt is not enough. When I love, or I grieve, or I feel will not get the job done.
Poetry is the place we turn when words can no longer contain our sentiment, and we need the other elements of language to pick up the slack.
You can tell a good poet from a bad one by their ability to recognise more than this. To acknowledge that poetry conquers the immensity of feeling through more than the recognition of feelings.
A good poet see through the emotions and looks to the feelings, searches for ways to wring more meaning from words through tone and rhythm and language. They create structures, edifices that bolster the words and hold the weight of meaning upright.
A good poet works magic with all the diligence of a stage magician, utterly aware of how they’re directing the audience’s attention in order to pull off their trick.
And when they’re done, you don’t see the training. You don’t see the smoke or the mirrors or anything but the trick they want you to see.
It takes effort to love poetry. Books are hard to track down, and skew towards the classics. You spend more time reading the poets of yesterday than you do the poets of tomorrow. You trawl second-hand stores, breathing in the smell of dust and cellulous and lignin.
You find other poets and talk to them, because they talk about poetry in ways that other people do not.
My second favourite poem begins from a place of warning. Alice Walker states it clearly:
Do not give you heart
to someone who eats hearts
who finds heartmeat
I read that poem for the first time just before the end of a relationship. Right before my heart was properly wrecked, like a car driven over the edge of a cliff and left to burn in the chasm below.
That opening sucked my breath away, left me trembling as it dawned on me that things in my life were not good. The rest of the poem barely mattered, although I found myself reading it again and again as the years went by. Slowly, I saw the other verses, building to more than heartbreak.
Years later, it occurred to me that I had more in common with the carnivore in Walker’s poem than I ever had with the victim.
At twenty, I would have told you that I wrote poetry to meet women, and it would have been true enough that I would not feel like I liar. It’s easier to retreat behind true statements, even if they aren’t the whole of the story.
At thirty, I would have told you I didn’t write poetry anymore, and that people are reluctant to let you stop. For years after I gave up writing verse, people would introduce me using poetry alongside my name: this is Peter; he’s a poet. Poetry stained my life the way ink stains the fingers, and it proved even harder to scrub free.
Today, I sit on my couch and gather books around me. I re-read Auden, and Neruda, and Walker, and other poems I loved almost as much as those three. I think about the years I devoted to writing verse, pursing poetry with a dogged persistence I’ve never truly brought to any other form of writing.
Not because I wanted to meet women, or because I loved the poetry itself. Not because of the attention, although I craved that for a while. Not because I thrilled at the magic of poetry, or enjoyed the diligent study of form and structure that came with it.
Our motivations for doing anything are far more complex than any of that. I wrote poetry for all those reasons. I wrote poetry for none of them.
I wrote because I wanted to be heard and the discovery that I could be was heady as drinking my first glass of wine. I wrote poetry because I craved connection, and was not good at establishing it in any other way. I wrote poetry because it presented me with opportunities, gave me a way of navigating a writing degree that wasn’t quite sure how to handle my proclivity for writing fantasy, connected me with other writers I could not connect with any other way.
I wrote poetry, drew what I needed from it.
Then, I stopped. Acknowledged that I wasn’t a poet, not in any way that counted.
I regret nothing about that decision.
It’s one of the few I can say that about, with any degree of surety.
What I love about Neruda’s poem is this: there is nothing special about heartbreak and longing. We all want. We are all denied. Even before your heart is wrecked, you know what is coming. There is nothing interesting in the longing.
But we want it to be special. We want our pain to be unlike any other. We want to be unique. For the world to acknowledge that we hurt like no-one has ever hurt before.
That feeling is there, in Neruda’s work. For years, I adored that recognition, blind to the obvious irony.
It’s 2016 and I’m sitting on my couch, watching youtube. I’ve searched for John Hannah and Funeral Blues, revisiting the moment I first truly fell for poetry. I’m not crying, this time. The room is brightly lit. Hannah is still magnificent, and so are Auden’s words, but they don’t feel the same at thirty-nine as they did at seventeen.
What gets me, this time, are the words before the poem, the acknowledgement of poetry’s necessity. Matthew describes his friend through other people’s eyes, then turns to his own feelings: Unfortunately, he says, there, I run out of words.
There, I run out of words.
For nineteen years now, the words have been there. I make my living articulating things, making them pretty and comprehensible, arranging things so words do what I want them to do.
And I know that it will not last. It cannot last. Words have been adequate for the situations I find myself in, but there are situations coming where they will fail me. I have both parents. I’ve lost no-one close to me. The day will come when those are no longer true. A day when I need words to be there, and they will not bend to my will.
When that happens, it’s comforting to think that poetry will be waiting for me, ready to fill the gaps. And John Hannah, reading Auden, will no doubt make me weep again.