Tag Archives: Rack Press

The Title of Poet: praise word or description?

There has been discussion about what a poet is and whether one can confer the title on oneself. I was tentative for a long time about calling myself a poet. Many say a poet is someone who writes poems. But what makes something a poem? When I was a very young poet (13 or 14), I used to show my work to people and ask’ is this a poem?’ by which I meant ‘does it do what poems are meant to do, is it magic?’That is why I don’t believe in bad poems, if it’s bad, it’s not a poem. William Carlos Williams said ‘if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem’.
By calling oneself a poet, if one simply means that one writes poems, I don’t have an issue with that. But the secondary definition is that a poet is a ‘person with great imagination and creativity’. I don’t feel I could say that about myself unless other people said it about me first.
Matt Simpson always said poet was a ‘praise’ word. There is a tradition behind this assertion. So I used to call myself a writer of poems, or just a writer – which is true enough because I do write other things, such as critique books for Greenwich Exchange, chapters of books aimed at undergraduates, GCSE textbooks. But these are by products of my teaching career. I have written poems since I was very young, but when I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess’ at 15, I decided to dedicate myself to poetry. I read Auden’s essay ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ too, and from these texts gleaned that I needed to immerse myself in poetry and learn from the masters. I tried every form in Frances Stillman’s Poetry Manual. A poet needs to have the knowledge, to read, to learn from the best, and to keep on doing so.
I was almost 19 when I first met Matt Simpson. We gradually moved from mentor/ mentee roles into friends who commented on each other’s poems, a shift which evolved over a long period. I dedicated my first collection, Dandelions for Mother’s Day (Stride 1988) to him in recognition of my debt to him.
In 2009, he had a heart bypass operation. He was fully aware that he might not pull through and horrified me by describing it as ‘an awfully big adventure’. He had the operation on the Monday and it was a relief that it appeared to have gone well. I went to visit him in hospital on a beautiful June day. He hadn’t wanted me to go and see him in intensive care but I was so glad I did. It was to be the last time I ever saw him. This poem was written a few days later, after his death:

Hospital Visiting

I trace your steps
from hospital car park
in warm evening sun
impatient to see you.

A machine helps me find
a path to you through grey
shiny corridors, up stairs
and over bridges, through

protocols and passwords,
hand gels to sanctify me,
like holy water in church,
before I can touch you.

I have to ask where you are.
The medics have claimed you
though I’m allowed
to squiggle on to a high stool.

We think this is all temporary,
that soon we’ll have you home,
a new man. We’ve plans for you.
You say it’s kind of me to come.

As if I could stay away. You know
I love you. You introduce me
to your favourite nurse, the one
with the film star eyes. Tell her

‘This is my friend Ange, a poet too.’
Not a title to be claimed for oneself,
but you gave it freely, a last bequest
in your final days of life. *

Whether one subscribes to the notion of poet as a title conferred, as Matt did, or sees it purely as meaning someone who writes poems, what Matt said to me on that visit was a great gift, and I know he did it deliberately.

I read it as giving me that long-withheld title, out of love and respect, of passing the baton to me, of telling me to go forward with my poetry despite him not being there to critique and encourage me, as he always had done, his way of saying I was a fully-fledged poet, which indeed he had said in a review but not to my face.

And it is why I now feel able to call myself a poet.

*This poem first appeared in my Salt Modern Voices pamphlet I Sing of Bricks and was united with the remaining poems from the 17 poem elegiac sequence I wrote for Matt, from my Rack Press pamphlet Catching On in my collection Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012)

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Rack Press Launch

On arrival in London, I went to the publisher’s book-lined flat in Bloomsbury to sign and number the 40 copies of my pamphlet which are sold in the sets. The actual event started at 6.30, and the room was already thronged when I arrived. Nicholas Murray, the publisher,  greeted us and plied us with wine, and soon a friend who had come to hear me joined us. Christopher Reid introduced himself to me and we had a few minutes chat before he was drawn away by some fans wanting his signature.

The four readers sat all together at a table at the front of the room. Roisin Tierney read from her pamphlet first. Hers is called Dream Endings and contains delicate poems that deal sympathetically with difficult subjects. It was good to hear them read in her soft sweet Irish accent which suited the poems. She was followed by Christopher Reid. His pamphlet is by way of a libretto for a piece of music which will be performed at the proms this summer. He was commissioned to write on the difficult topic of the first world war, and he told me he spent three months researching and reading all the war poets, feeling very humbled. I admire what he has done. He achieves a lot by taking a captain and a sargeant, representing different classes. They are hanging dead on ‘the old barbed wire’ to quote the old song. Airs and Ditties of No Man’s Land’ is the musing and conversation of these ghostly voices. There is dark humour at work in these little songs, and I look forward to hearing them with Colin Matthews’ music. I would really love to write something to be set to music, combining my two passions. It must be wonderful to hear your words sung.

I was up next, and quipped that I couldn’t be like Cordelia and say ‘nothing’, as the others had thanked Nicholas Murray. So I thanked him for giving me the push to complete these new poems about Matt, which were hiding, fearful, in my notebooks. I had to fill people in on Matt before reading seven of the elegies from Catching On. I really enjoyed the reading and had some really lovely comments and messages later. It always means a lot to me when people say I read well or that they liked my poems.

Nicholas had decided to go last with Get Real, because he didn’t want the bitter and angry tone to interrupt the more delicate poems. It was an inspired choice as it ended the launch on an upbeat note, as even if the sentiments were not shared by everyone present, the verse form made the points punchy and witty in the metaphysical sense. The long poem is an argument and tour de force against the coalition government’s lack of logic and unfairness.

The pamphlets are £4 each. Limited edition of 150.

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