(Photo courtesy of Jenny Foggin}
I planned to start this post by reflecting on Anthony Wilson’s enthusiasm for/love of the poems of Thomas Tranströmer for one, and of James Schuyler for another. Schuyler particularly…you can sometimes hear Schuyler in Anthony’s poems in the way that Tony Harrison, and later, Norman MacCaig could, every now and then, make me sound like them, their rhythms and phrasing.
I’m thinking, for instance of a sequence from The four of us, a poem from The Afterlife.
From three gardens away
a lawnmower begins its drone
carving stripes we’ll never see.
A woodpigeon clatters above.
The great time we’re having
(or had) is not what’s really there.
Beyond the silent tripod we have
no idea what lies ahead of us –
futures of wild promise, snapshots of our own children
under this very willow.
We cannot grasp what we have
been given, or can give back
However, I was not very well for a couple of days and I missed my self-imposed deadline of Sunday, and then Monday. And on Monday, Anthony posted a poem on his blog which saved me a lot of trouble. Because he says it much better that I could. Here’s the link.
Before that though, I’ve been turning over in my mind what it is I mean by ‘my kind of poetry’. Because there was a time when I wouldn’t have thought that today’s guest was ‘my kind of poet’. Indeed, there was a time, not all that long ago when I would have been puzzled by the idea that poems could be ‘life-saving. Bear with me.
For years and years poetry was always on the periphery for me. There were exceptions. When I was 16 it was the Metaphysicals….sardonic, clever, witty, sexy. Everything I wanted to be and wasn’t. At 18 the Augustans spoke to me. Clever, cool and witty. And I like the craft of couplets. At 20, briefly, it was Hopkins. What they all had in common was visible craft. At 22 I heard Robert Speaight’s recording of The Wasteland’ and it opened my ears and mind to TS Eliot. You can listen to it via YouTube in all its melancholy thespian RP musicality. It jars in a way that it didn’t, 57 years ago. Our ears become accustomed to different vowels and stresses. It occurs to me that it also opened my ears to Shakespeare, for which I shall be eternally grateful. Try it. Here’s another link.
And so it went. As a teacher I liked the textures and evident emotion of Hughes and Heaney, but as a reader it was mainly documentary and revisionist history that spoke to me: ballads and broadsheets, social realism. The 19thC Novel, Orwell. When I was asked to read Robert Lowell I fought it. I wasn’t interested in introspective, reflective late Romanticism (as I saw it). It wasn’t for me. I thought it was self-indulgent. Which is ironic, now I come to think. Anthony notes something in his post that chimes :
“I have also been reminded of Seamus Heaney’s dictum in The Government of the Tongue
that ‘no lyric ever stopped a tank”.
I used to think that was an unanswerable argument to a question I never fully worked out. But now I say of course it can’t. And your point? No tank ever made me happy or illuminated a mystery. A wren landed on the window sill earlier today, and just for a second it stopped my heart. So it goes. The thing was, what I wanted in poetry was stuff that could fill a room, like Shakespeare, that was memorisable and memorable. Most poetry was never ‘lifesaving’, and what I wanted was unlikely to be understated and quiet. We didn’t match. I didn’t miss it. I just didn’t get it..or it didn’t get me.
Something changed, about 15 years ago. Something shifted and if you wonder about ‘my kind of poetry’ it’s what the great fogginzo’s cobweb has been sharing for the last eight years. What strikes me is that while I’ll never have the apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of/familiarity with contemporary and 20thC that Anthony Wilson shares with you in his wonderful book Life-saving poems I’ve gradually being made more open to voices that one time I’d have dismissed. Life changes us.
Anthony and I share more things than the things that ‘separate us’ (he’s not a fan of the 19thC Novel, for instance): teaching English to Post-Grad teacher trainees, writing about the teaching of poetry in Primary schools, an enthusiasm for a particular Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegon story, which is a story that begins with stories about snowfall, and a story about a man (who does not know that his father has died but whose story we shall learn something of)) telling the story of Hansel and Gretel to his children, and about how an author can, like god, change the events of a story to save his characters pain.
It occurred to me that I could begin with a story. Let me take you back to 1960. St Catherine’s College Cambridge. 17 years old and up for interview for an Open Scholarship in English. Everything was foreign, from the fact that there was no railway station, so you had to get a bus from March to the otherness of gated colleges and the bustle of insouciant young men in gowns who threw breadrolls at each other in the dining hall. The other candidates wore grey flannel suits and had partings. I had grey winkle-pickers, an Italian suit and a Tony Curtis hairdo. They had elegant drawls and asked me what I thought about Kierkegaard, and had I been to Heffers. I was interviewed by Tom Henn who wrote The apple and the spectroscope (no, I’ve never read it), who had an oar hanging on his study wall, and asked me my opinion of the prevalence of bee imagery in Shakespeare. I knew it wasn’t for me, or I wasn’t for it. I didn’t feel resentful or stupid. I was just in the wrong place. Later I went to Durham where I felt comfortable simply because it was in the north, was hilly and had my favourite cathedral. That’s how a lot of poetry has felt to me in the last few years.
But you learn from the company you keep, and it changes you so you can understand its language. That’s how I feel about Anthony Wilson, whose Life-saving Poems (along with Clive James’ Poetry Notebooks) have introduced me to new ways of thinking and new familiarities.
That’s a more than usually lengthy preamble…be thankful it’s not longer. Time for our guest. Who probably needs no introduction but still….
Anthony Wilson is a poet, writing tutor and lecturer at the University of Exeter. His books of poetry are The Afterlife (Worple Press, 2019), Riddance (Worple Press, 2012), Full Stretch: Poems 1996-2006 (Worple Press, 2006), Nowhere Better Than This (Worple Press, 2002) and How Far From Here is Home? (Stride, 1996).
The Wind and the Rain is forthcoming from Blue Diode Press in 2023.
In 2015 Bloodaxe Books published his bestselling anthology Lifesaving Poems after his blog of the same name.
He is also the author of Deck Shoes (Impress Books, 2019), a collection of essays, and Love for Now (Impress Books, 2012), a memoir detailing his experience of cancer.
Anthony has held writing residencies at The Poetry Society, The Times Educational Supplement, The Poetry Trust and Tate Britain. He has judged the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition, The Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and The Impress Prize for New Writers.
He is editor of Creativity in Primary Education (Sage, 2015), and is co-editor of Making Poetry Matter (Bloomsbury, 2013), Making Poetry Happen (Bloomsbury, 2015) and The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Poetry Society, 1998).
He blogs at www.anthonywilsonpoetry.com.
To put it in perspective, last time I looked, the blog had about 10,000 followers. This one has about 450. I’m in awe of it all. A few years ago I wrote about the poetry blogs that have influenced me and my writing, and here’s part of what Anthony said about how he started on Lifesaving poems
“ since I began it in July 2009 I have been copying out poems into a plain Moleskine notebook, one at a time, in inky longhand, when the mood took me. Allowing myself no more than one poem per poet, I wanted to see how many poems I could honour with the label ‘lifesaving’.
My criteria were extremely basic. Was the poem one I could recall having had an immediate experience with from the first moment I read it? In short, did I feel the poem was one I could not do without?
Copying them out into my book has not always been fun, but now that I am finished, I am in possession of a deeply satisfactory feeling of having learnt more about myself and about each poem that I copied.
Over the next weeks and months I am going to be blogging here about the stories behind the choices I made, the influences upon them, and what I learnt in the process”.
And what follows is a list of about 180 poems by 180 poets. That’s more than three years’ worth of blogposts sorted, at one fell swoop. Bloggers’ Nirvana. Shangri La. Provided, of course you know at least 180 poets, and you know their work well enough to choose one poem from each of which you can say, hand-on-heart: ‘this is lifesaving’. What I love about reading Anthony Wilson is the effortless erudition that is never exclusive or scholarly. It’s what great teachers do…like Bronowsky in ‘The ascent of man‘, or John Berger in ‘Ways of seeing‘ (and not remotely like Kenneth Clarke in ‘Civilisation’). It’s like the introduction to poetry you get if you regularly go to Poetry Business workshops. I’d not heard of half the poets Anthony chose. But I have now.
Of course, Anthony’s Lifesaving poems are not unconnected to another theme of his blog which was essentially a shared journal of his experience of the diagnosis, and subsequent treatment for a particular cancer which was, at the time, life-threatening. I’ve been treated for two kinds of cancer, and I’m currently being treated for a third, which is also life-threatening, so it’s going to resonate. “
And then I wrote:
But I doubt I’d have that kind of courage to share the experience
Well, since then as the treatments for cancer have become more radical, and suffer from the law of diminishing returns, it turns out that I can write about that kind of experience, obliquely more often than not, and the fact that I can write about personal mortality is at least in part down to Anthony, and lately in particular, to his book The Afterlife. It turns out that I can write introspectively and reflectively, so this post will be a thank-you as well as an appreciation.
The Afterlife hasn’t garnered the reviews or the attention it should have in 2019. A lot of good work’s gone missing in action during the pandemic. What’s the book ‘about’ ? Let me borrow from the publisher’s blurb:
…”the poems explore the borderline territory between grief and laughter, memory and forgetting, illness and health. His central subject is the way we live within family and community, questioning the roles we construct, both alone and with others. The Afterlife explores central themes: mortality, mental health, the relation between body and soul, and how to live fully in the present moment”.
I like that last phrase particularly, not least because I guess that’s what the best poems are doing at the moment when we read them. I’d add that they have a quality for me that chimes with the Serenity Prayer..the way we achieve cceptance of the things we cannot change in order the better to live with them. It’s not easy or comfortable. As Fiona Benson wrote in her endorsement:
“Anthony Wilson’s poems are often meditative and always very, very readable, but don’t be fooled; the avuncular voice belies a restless interrogation of faith, love and loss, and Wilson moves from moments of everyday comedy to a wounded reckoning with the afterlife of cancer survival (my italics) and poems of intense anger and grief.”
To which I’d add that believing you are going to die and coming to terms of a sort with that, and then learning that you are going to live, and coming to terms with that, is going to make anyone into a dark watcher. The opening lines of The editing suite (which will make you sit up and pay attention) describes it perfectly:
We turn back the film of our lives
and edit the past in rooms
where no one goes
Between two kinds of existence, not quite of this world. Liminal. This is my take on it, anyway. And now to the poems, and particularly to noticing that Anthony’s poems can seem plain and understated, which means that you can be ambushed by the moments that draw you in, the moments that mark language as ‘poetry’. Moments like these, which are often the openings of poems.
There are days I lose to knowing / it has come back
I have not felt desired by you / in years
I am telling my hands / to be still. They do not want /to be still
Now I am no longer any use to you /…..
and these lines in the middle of one that’s utterly unexpected
Death shelf, you said. You need a death shelf
In other words, for all the apparently plain language of many of the poems, walk carefully, and listen. Read them aloud. See if you can nail the ‘voice’. Especially in the apparent matter-of-factness of everything in the opening poem of the collection
Teaching Writing Theory
On Tuesday I discovered if my cancer
had returned. Later I discussed teaching writing
to six-year-olds. We spun our arms
like windmills, then made chopstick-motions
with our fingers mirroring the motor control
functions we daily take for granted
even less think about as we stare at the page.
We looked at motivational theory. Taxonomies
and heuristics jammed the white-board,
a cacophony of formulations we all wanted
to witness taking flight. During self-study,
I watched students tap-tapping at mobiles
and tablets, all the while sustaining complex
discussions about pedagogy, and dress codes
for their forthcoming Christmas parties.
If they were nervous of the outcome
of their assignments, none of them showed it.
I keep reading this, recognising how the ‘if’ in the first line undermines the matter-of-factness of ‘On Tuesday’ and the apparent confidence of “I discovered’. What follows is a flurry of polysyllables, of distracting activity and pretence of understanding. It keeps on giving, and I love it. The business of distraction is probably why I asked for the opening sequence from Part Three..a 14 page, not-quite-blank verse, sort-of-stream of consciousness poem called To a notebook which includes, among many other things, references to the poet’s love affair with particular kinds of pen and ink and paper, as well as a troubled relationship with Facebook. Above all though, I think it’s a poem about displacement strategies which have to do with dealing with intimations of mortality and also the urge to write. In the end I think it’s Cartesian. Scribo ergo sum. These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Just enjoy it.
from To a Notebook (page 1 and a bit)
All summer long the lorries have passed
My window taking earth from one end
Of the street to the other, an eternal quest
For silence and rest. Now Joe brings
His radio and sets up shop right outside,
All the hits I used to know and now resent
For filling this moment with noise
I did not ask for. The house that took till
October to build is now taking till December.
I sat for so long listening to trucks beeping-
Reversing I no longer hear them (not true).
It’s amazing I go to church: for a non-joiner
Like me, a miracle. I’m there to have my
Edges knocked off, plus knock those I slowly
Learn to love. After a week of people,
Silence. The breeze finding its voice
Like rain on apple leaves but without rain,
So prolific with windfalls this year,
We hear them thud and roll from the house,
The territorial robin that has sung all summer
Suddenly clearer than thought while I make
Lists for eggs and books I want to have read,
This paper, scratchy yet smooth, is the best –
Since when? – France, probably (maybe
All the answers are France). The worst part
Is starting, but then you know that already.
Twitter can’t keep up with me, nor I
With it: help me, someone, understand
Why I need to applaud your cake.
The delicious loneliness of staying
In a town where no one speaks English,
The rain never more alive than when
I lay awake listening to dawn inch closer
Through the fizzing traffic. Only a week ago
Automated hosepipes like cicadas sprayed
In sunshine (‘The Cathedral is not a happy place,’
Said -not telling). Then blue tits invaded
The apple tree after a summer away,
A silent V of geese arrows across
Ochre-orange clouds, my heart a shipwreck
To follow their progress. I sleep badly
And make others do the same. I try
To sleep in the day, but no.
Two more poems that particularly moved me, because of their clear-eyed dealings with the dying and the dead. Poems that make their peace with both, and need no commentary from me
The Last Time I Saw Mary
The last time I saw Mary
was in her kitchen, September sunlight, the door open to her garden.
She gave me a tutorial
on my book, warning me not to be meretricious.
Your faith, she said, don’t be afraid
of it. It is who you are.
She was skinny by then, her grey hair
in a bob, like a girl’s.
Shuffling in her slippers she made coffee
and brought waffles.
The Dutch balance these on their cups
and watch them deliquesce
into the hot liquid, she said. So sweet.
To an English person, their name is unpronounceable.
I said, I think you can buy them in Lidl now.
They cost nothing.
Sitting With Your Body
When the others had gone
we sat with your body for a while
and watched you pass over
from person to body, watched you
become blue, then grey, then ivory,
then grey again, the cave of your ribs
no longer heaving, and Tatty stroked
your shoulder as if comforting
a poorly child who hasn’t slept,
all the while watching your stillness,
finally you were still and ours,
then we kissed your ice forehead
and found our coats and walked
across the common to eat with the others.
Both of these poems bring me a sort of peace, and it’s a rare thing in these days of the sleep of reason. What can I say. The Afterlife was published in 2019, and it’s been overlooked. Go and buy it. In the meantime, thank you Anthony Wilson for being our guest, for your blog, for your Life-saving poems, and for The Afterlife [Worple Press. £10]