30 November -0001
I was listening to Poetry Please on Radio 4 a few weeks ago. The poems were chosen by Don Patterson, a poet whose work has often taken the top of my head off. One of the poems he chose was ‘Wedding’ by Alice Oswald. I was surprised. The poem had always felt bland to me; the closing couplet especially, ‘and when luck begins, it’s like a wedding / which is like love, which is like everything.’ didn’t satisfy. At a point in my writing development I was drawn to, and looked for, fast rules. One of these was, ‘Never finish on a simile’. I don’t know where I picked the rule up, or why it took hold. There are many, many tremendous poem that finish on a simile, but they always felt like a card trick, like the poem was dealing from the bottom of the deck.
Still, here was Don Patterson, talking about Alice Oswald’s raw instinct and natural grasp of musicality. I’m paraphrasing now, but I was interested in his opinion; maybe I was missing something. He called the poem a riff. Riffing has connotations of improvisation and the repeated phrase, both of which are very useful in a creative writing workshop. I revisited the poem and looked again. Reading the poem in terms of an improvised riff freed me from my judgements; where once (wearing my Spectacles of Writing Rules) I’d seen a list of wishy-washy images, I now saw leaps and subtle changes of angle. The poem was allowed to be itself, and seemed to celebrate the fact.
From a workshop exercise perspective the poem is a gift. Oswald uses a simple but elegant formula. She begins with an image, changes the camera angle on that image, and then employs a simile which provides another image… and the process begins again. Here, perhaps, is the riff - a little engine for change that allows for improvisation and expansiveness. I brought the poem to our workshop. We had a read, followed by a chat full of leaps and connections, followed by a creative response.
My life as a bat is for hearing the world. I can hear an ant rustling. An elephant is a big animal with big, flappy ears which can hear the slightest thing, but their sight is poor. When he trumpets it is really loud like a drummer beating his drum. I am like a mouse which is really small and scurries through the grass which makes a rustling sound, which also squeaks like the brakes of a car, which is going too fast and slowing down to stop. I am like a horse rearing up on my back legs and whinnying and snorting and stamping feet which sound like thunder when the clouds clash together. My life is like a frog with long back legs and I can jump high in the air almost touching the clouds.