poem in your pocket day

Today’s the day when we’re all supposed to put a poem in our pocket and share it with the people we see throughout the day. It sounds silly and saccharine; it certainly does! But there have been times enough when I’ve carried poems in my pocket. Sometimes you just need a sort of talisman. Or you want to have a poem on you so you can refresh your essential nature with it, as at a spring. Sometimes it’s even been one of mine.

When I was 20 I had a job at the Aetna, or was it the Hartford? Life Insurance company, doing a job so boring it wasn’t even filing. I was trying to raise money to come back to London. I had to take these files, some with up to 400 documents in them, and arrange the documents in order of type – which meant memorising this painfully boring material, the types of documents – removing all staples and paper clips, and unfolding any folded corners. I sat in a little room, on a chair or stool at a counter which ran along a wall, facing the wall. The room was in the basement of the building, and had no windows. In America the working day is eight hours PLUS your lunch break. I lasted three months, I think: I made absolutely sure that I passed through Mark Twain’s garden on the way there. I would pick up a leaf from Mark Twain’s tree and put it in my pocket. And I had The Lake Isle of Innisfree taped up on the wall in front of me, which was about a foot and a half from my face.

The guy who sat next to me in that job – the only guy to talk to, Steve I think – had recently done an EST course. Remember EST? Jesus. Well, it changed his life and it pretty much tried to change mine for a while, but let’s say I was impervious. The main change is that it was going to make me more violent.

Other poems:

I mean, when I was a teenager I had Ash Wednesday tacked to the wall above my bed. I cut it out of the book and hung it up. Srsly. I found that copy recently, with its thumbtack holes. God, you are all getting the real picture here! I couldn’t read it, because it was on the wall over me, so this was poem as pure talisman.

Wallace Stevens’ Anecdote of a Jar. “I placed a jar in Tennessee,/ and round it was, upon a hill./ It made the slovenly wilderness/ surround that hill…” This poem mystified me for a long time, & because Wallace Stevens’ house was another I often went past I tried to figure it out, reading and reciting it to myself. It’s just beautiful: like a painting it speaks through itself, rather than trying to convey something external through narrative. Stevens. Don’t let anybody tell you he’s not the greatest American poet of the 20th century.

Stevens again: I wrote my Diaspora of the Snail poem, and a girl in the workshop said it reminded her of The Emperor of Ice Cream. She was wrong, it’s nothing like – it was more like a sign that she hadn’t figured out the imagery in the Stevens – but it was still lovely to be told that, & I guess attests to some infiltration of the aesthetic – not surprising, given the years of poring.

From about 2003-2006 my screen saver at work was the scrolling marquee, “Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” I used to let my screen go still just so I could see the words come up. This came to have added significance, as it happened, with a synchronicity that attests to the power of the lines. It’s a story about Michael Donaghy. When he died, one friend said the last he’d heard from Michael was sometime during that summer when he had received a text, out of the blue: “Let be be finale of seem.” My friend immediately texted back: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”

Once on the way to work, years ago, I suddenly felt desperate, got off and jumped into a bookshop, where I bought the little anthology, Short and Sweet: 101 Very Short Poems, edited by Simon Armitage. You can read one in about fifteen seconds. But why is reading one so different from reciting one? I memorised poems as a child: particularly Millay – who I have often said is so perfect to give to children (Silver bark of beech, and sallow/ bark of yellow birch and yellow/ twig of willow”) – and EA Robinson. (Speaking of sounds, I loved his whole name: Edwin Arlington Robinson. Beautiful.) I could still recite you Richard Cory right now, from start to finish. Or Miniver Cheevy, which has my favourite opening stanza:

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn

Grew lean as he assailed the seasons.

He wept that he was ever born,

and he had reasons.

(Oh, let’s see! My Miniver Cheevy’s not so good.)

Miniver loathed the commonplace

something something something something

He missed the mediaeval grace

of iron clothing.

So why, with these amazing skills of being able to half-recite all these things – I can do Ozymandias, too, and “Oft have I travelled in the realms of gold” – do we want the poem in our pocket? Maybe to help with the lines we can never remember now matter how hard we try. Maybe for the visual pleasure of the words on the page, which for me I think is a big thing. Maybe because then it is an amulet, not “just” [sic] a part of us, something we know. Maybe we want the surprise of the object, maybe that is the magic that enables the flying

Even if you’re already at work and you read this, you can google something. Put it on your desk, or in your pocket! Why not!

The poem in my pocket today I think will be one I’ve been reading all week, by EA Markham, who died nine days ago. It’s rather stark: Night. I hate reading serious poetry on blogs, but as it’s Sharing Day I will give you some of it! It begins:

Teach me, nevertheless, not to be consumed

by regret: that voice on the phone

fractured from family, wish it good health,

long life and better music than I allowed

in support. I wake from screech and flare

of another man’s success and, hearing you,

forget the bafflement – left stranded

wrong side of the road – of that random woman’s

preference of partner for something more obscure

than human. Stop me, then, bullying

a small talent to confine itself beneath us,

to feet, well-hidden, the colour of clay.

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