What sparks a poem? It’s a question those of us who write poetry will never tire of asking, because the inspiration we prize often seems so elusive. When we are not writing, we imagine we are out looking for it: people-watching, peering under rocks or manhole covers, scanning the sky for strange shapes of birds: gathering material for the next verse. In his letters to one aspiring poet, written at the start of the twentieth century, Rainer Maria Rilke set out the relationship between the writer, his muse and his environment in bold terms, arguing that for the true poet no small incident is unworthy of attention:
“Use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams and the objects from your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
No room for writer’s block in Rilke’s conception. It is a notion that is as pertinent now as it was in 1908, and we often praise or decry poetry for how well it succeeds in illuminating the everyday. I have chosen the work in this edition of Poetry International Web UK for the oblique perspectives the writers offer us on daily life. Whilst this preoccupation is nothing novel in poetry, there is a freshness in the way Greig, Daszkiewicz, Laskey and Pollard approach the familiar.
I like these poems because they aspire to celebrate the things that ground us in the everyday world, and how those same small rituals can lift us out of it. As in Andrew Greig’s ‘Routine Row’, these poems praise “the dog walked at dawn, coffee to the left / at the place of work, soaking oatmeal overnight, / short doze in the afternoon... praise them for they are most of our life”. It is through the celebration of the quotidian that they are able to take us beyond it, as in Daszkiewicz’s ‘Tiger in Waiting’, where rearranging a room becomes a metaphor for the narrator starting a new life.
The work I have chosen is far from domestic poetry: rather, it deepens our relationship with the objects and places that surround us, the things we become so used to seeing that we scarcely question them. In ‘The City Dweller’s Lament’, Clare Pollard rues the inadequacy of everyday things: “the park I must avoid after dark is not enough / the basil pot in its wrapper is not enough, / the organic cheese is not enough, / the raggedy fox is not enough”. Yet, ironically however, they fail to satisfy her; by writing about the banal trappings of urban life Pollard concedes to Rilke’s belief that no small thing is unworthy of attention.
The four writers I have chosen for this issue all explore our emotional relationship with the everyday, but do so in very different ways. Andrew Greig’s work is startling in its honesty, unafraid to examine the intimacy inherent in the commonplace, and heartfelt in its celebration of this. Kathryn Daszkiewicz writes poems that are rich in imagery and scrupulous in attention to detail, from a studied consideration of a mosquito trapped in amber to a striking account of a childhood classroom discovery. Clare Pollard is brutal in describing routines of a harsh life: “when you must wade for miles through ragged-robin, the rain knives / & bog-rosemary to beg alms, when the neighbours owe you oats, / then someone is to blame”. Her dark ballads offer a bleak view of the physical worlds their characters inhabit. Finally, Michael Laskey’s work urges us to look more closely at commonly encountered objects, from half-time oranges on the football pitch to the detritus of footpaths: “these are my tangles / of orange nylon netting my plastic bottles / and this is my guillemot with oil on its breast...”
I was particularly drawn to Michael’s poem ‘Terminus’ for the way it brings to life the resignation that can inhabit places, how the objects we surround ourselves with become accomplices in our ritual dramas. In it, the narrator is brought back to life as a faded pair of patterned curtains, kept drawn on the dismal interior scenes they “will have to keep facing”, day after day.
Moreover, Laskey’s poem seems to reveal something of the nature of this poetry of objects. When we personify things, we make them complicit in the narratives we recount. By writing about ordinary aspects of our lives, we change our relationship with them. The littered riverbanks are no longer just part of our morning walk; counting the birds in treetops becomes imbued with significance. These poems draw on the ordinary for inspiration, and through their reflection of it, transform it. The examined world is changed by the process of examination. As Laskey urges in ‘The Unexamined Life’, it is important that we keep looking at the world in this way, his narrator desperate to do “as I meant to, to use my eyes”. This is a rallying call that all four poets respond to decisively, uncovering the vital richness of life as they look through its rags and bones.