This is our truth, tell us yours
A friend posted a link on Twitter to Patricia Lockwood’s Rape Joke.
I read it during one of those insomniac moments where once, awake at three thirty am, I would have sat by the window with a notebook and tried to sketch out a poem.
I gave up writing poems about the time I started self medicating insomnia with alcohol. When I gave up self-medication I never went back to the notebook method. Instead I keep a tablet and my reading glasses by the bedside. Twitter at three thirty am is a great way of persuading yourself that sleep is the better option.
I gave up performing poems though much earlier, and trying to get them published too. Performance was easy to give up. That night when I watched another poet scream his emotions at the suspended polystyrene ceiling tiles while a baffled but willing audience queued for the bar or tried to look elsewhere was more cathartic for me than him. I watched how his hands gripped the lectern that I’d stood in front of, and realised that while he wanted his words to mean something, I’d just been trying to make eye contact, to generate warmth and compassion for the flawed and broken people I was describing. There had to be better ways of doing that.
It wasn’t all about purpose, or meaning though. A curt and embarrassing letter from an editor of international reputation who didn’t do courtesy or friendly criticism reminded me how much I struggled with gatekeepers. I became a father, too, and there are only so many words anyone can consume about how wonderful a father’s daughter is, or how much she embodies all the living and all the dead who ever mattered to me.
I found other ways of telling my stories, explaining myself, being the person I was trying to be. I was liberated from the desire to use poetic structure to flag up significance; look, this one is a bastardized englyn, because I am a Welshman but only fluent in Wenglish. Look, this one is about the small kindnesses that make life possible, but written as a sonnet to make clear it’s a love song for the romantic notion of socialism.
Leaving that all behind was a liberation.
So what so affected me about Rape Joke? The part of me that used structure as a signifier that poetry was happening rebelled against its unstructured flow. Part of me recognised the people so clearly that they were stereotypes; I will post the link to my daughter, not as a piece of poetry, but as a reminder that this, too, is how rape happens. Part of me searched in vain for metaphor, for meaning beyond the bruising corrosive reality of how we are. I wanted it to reward me, to give me that moment of insight when we grasp the poetic device ad praise ourselves for being so clever as to spot it, like crossword addicts decrypting a troublesome three across.
Part of it too made me want to be a poet again, to cause a reaction. Except…
Except, in my head, unbidden came two lines of a poem I have yet to write about arguing on a church youth club coach trip, with my brother, about whether the sign at the end of the old Severn Bridge saying Welcome to Wales is really where the border is. As soon as the lines formed I realised that all the people who matter to me already know about my curious life as a borderer, the significance of real and metaphorical boundaries in my world view. They don’t need an imperfect poem to tell them that.
So I took the dog out for a walk. This blog began to form in my head. I crafted fanciful sentences that I dismantled and rejected in turn as too poetic, too flowery, too obscure and obstacles to comprehension.
I reflected, too, on why that night, that poetry reading should come into my head as I reflected on a poem about rape. I reflected too on a conversation about why I found it so hard to write a song about cooking for a family on £10 a week – not because the joky and mannered way I used a G/B chord sounded so mannered or trite, but because someone else had already said all that needed to be said in a blog, turning the attempted song into plagiarism with arpeggios and a bridge that didn’t quite flow.
It came to me as I turned for home, keeping a wary eye for the seagulls who don’t take kindly to the dog trying to herd them.
All the time that I was trying to get people to react to poems, I was mistaking what the poem is for. We use poems not to communicate, but to create a space in which we can listen. The poetic structure announces, this is not a dialogue, it’s about a space in which I tell my story, and you listen.
Sometimes, it fails miserably, and the poem hectors or preaches from a pulpit of poetic importance. Sometimes, we turn our back on the poet and order another round of drinks and a bag of peanuts because we’re starving.
Sometimes the poem, like Rape Joke, leaves us to reflect on what matters, and what doesn’t. The joke of poetry, sometimes, is that the space it makes is occupied by thoughts entirely unrelated to the story the poet has told us. Like the churches where my atheist heart can find peace and inspiration, sometimes poems are spaces where the author’s intention is only an accident of history.
Good poems, though, and Rape Joke must, by this definition, be a good poem, are the ones where the space in which to reflect is enhanced by the way the poet holds your attention, and diverts you inwards.
I am not the woman in Rape Joke. I am not the man. Reflecting on who and what I am, what I could have been, is a gift of the poet to me. I found my peace though, not in being the poet, but in being the best listener I could be. That was a gfit that trying to be a poet gave to me.