Poetry, play and the struggle for breath

I’ve been inundated with a request to fulfil my rash promise to reveal one of the ‘lines that changed my life’. I had a mind at the time to talk about ‘There is no future in England’s Dreaming’ - but come the Jubilee weekend I didn’t want to encourage my own shallow negativity, so let it pass. (In case you don’t know it, the line comes from the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, life-changing stuff to a 12 year old in the Silver Jubilee.)

Thinking of other lines though, I remembered two poems that shaped me, from the same book, the Penguin Book of Post-War Polish Poetry. I found this in the rather neglected library of my university halls of residence in Liverpool in 1984. (In fact, to be entirely truthful, I borrowed it and never gave it back as University Hall and its library were turned into flats at the end of the year.)

The two poems were ‘Dedication’ by Czeslaw Milosz and ‘The Deposition of the Burden’ by Tadeusz Rozewicz, and both – and the whole book, which also introduced me to Zbigniew Herbert – have been touchstones for not just my writing, but what you might call my cultural ambitions, if not achievements, at various points in the last 28 years. (I just had to pause after typing that number…)

Milosz’s poem includes these lines, which speak for themselves:

‘What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.’

Rozewicz’s poem I often think of when I hear writers or artists say they want nothing to do with the social or the political or the climate, and ‘just want to make their work’.  It’s so short it’s hard to sensibly quote except whole:

‘He came to us
and said

you are not responsible
either for the word or for the end of the world
the burden is taken from your shoulders
you are like birds and children

and they play

they forget
that modern poetry
is a struggle for breath’

Now, of course, D.W. Winnocott’s Playing and Reality later confirmed ‘scientifically’ what having children and doing poetry workshops in schools taught me, that play is an intensely serious and useful business, and that the playful space of art can be used to work out significant personal, political and social issues in ways direct address cannot. But these poems had a powerful affect on me. Catch me in the right (or wrong) mood and ask me what art of any kind is for and I will still answer ‘the struggle for breath’.

In some ways the impact of this book was restricting – as strong influences often can be – and it took me many years of writing and reading to work out how to begin to integrate the minimal, no-fuss, ‘anti-poetry’ of the post-war Poles into something truer to myself, that used more of the tools available to me – rhythm and sound especially. I fell into the trap Milosz warned of in his introduction, that his book, published by Penguin in 1970, might ‘help the present tendency to write ironic or sarcastic poetry’.  As he says ‘We should not forget, however, that irony is an ambivalent and sometimes dangerous weapon, often corroding the hand which wields it.’  It was probably only when I got to grips with New York Poets like John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara - and my contemporaries influenced by them - that I started to loosen up and write like play and pleasure need not be betrayals, after all.

(The other great thing this book did for me was introduce me to the fantastic, world-changing, Penguin Modern European Poets series and related anthologies. The sight of one - and their great covers  - in a secondhand bookshop still sets the pulse racing a little.)