Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A Note on 'Song', a poem for Helen Suzman:
2.The Lever

The poem consists of three parts. The first and the third parts are reflections of each other and contain a repeated quatrain, one at the beginning the other at the end. The shapes and rhymes of the second verse are echoed but not fully reproduced in the second-from-last.

The first verse, a quatrain, is about activism itself, how an idea or movement begins with relatively few people who don’t seem to be accomplishing much until their activity reaches a break-through point when it becomes fully effective. The quatrain expresses admiration for such people. It uses the same rhyme with one repetition. Such repetitions are typical of song and I was aware from the start that a common song-like quality was the way to go.

From the buzzing of the first verse to a series of instances in the second whereby small, apparently insignificant acts lead to great unexpected effects, especially in the case of the feather and the sinking ship. The sinking ship has some relation to the old image of the state as a ship, in this case one about to go down.

The third verse looks for precedents, suggesting that this is how change has always come about. The misery of the poor and oppressed reaches a critical mass articulated by spirituals, anthems and rebel songs.

The fourth verse uses the example of the lever. The source is Archimedes who said: ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’ He was referring to physical reality,  the laws of mechanics,  but the phrase has often been used in a metaphorical sense. The idea appeared in the middle of the poem and I decided to run with it. It wasn’t going to be there from the start.

The fifth verse (a partial mirror of the second) joins the image of hands applauding to that of the lever and fulcrum and refers to the sense of encouragement, the physical raising of the heart, which is the point of the verse as a whole.

Funnily enough I think it is the curious notion of the heart as a physical object that may be raised by levers and fulcrums is what makes the verse a poem. It is a faint echo of the Metaphysical poetry of Donne and Marvell.

The last verse is simply the chorus restated.

The poem aims to avoid the heavy-handedness and predictability of dull verse by leaning as fas as possible towards poetry, so that despite having an apparently strict form and firm rhymes, ideas should arise and develop organically. I genuinely didn’t know where the poem was likely to go (think of Robert Frost’s idea of surprise) but I did know what I think. 

I was recently asked in interview what the message of my poems was. My answer was that I don’t have a message and that (to echo someone else’s answer) if I did I would write a letter not a poem.

In the case of Song however there is a pretty clear message: persist, act together, you can do more than people think, you can change the world. Indeed I could just have written that. But by introducing form and imagery (an improvised imagery) I hoped the message might carry some of the freshness of discovery. Rhyme, stanza, imagery and wit can lend freshness. They can turn a message into an anthem or at least a kind of inner music. But it is the physical raising of the heart that is the discovered truth of the poem. It is the poem’s ‘nightingale’.

Nevertheless, I still feel slightly uncomfortable with it because I distrust simple messages. I began as a poet by distrusting the broad and simple, hoping instead to discover more complex, more contradictory truths, truths that actually were true. I wanted the nightingale in the middle of the dark wood not the rhymed prescription.

This poem is not about a dark wood: it is about people putting their shoulders to the wheel. But above all it is about levers that raise hearts.

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