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Jen Hadfield: poets on poetry

Jen Hadfield: poets on poetry

Tuesday, 06 May 2014

by Jen Hadfield

My brain's processes seem to be the exact antithesis of the sound-bite. Dead-ends, round-the-houses, laborious not-very-brilliant digressions. Tricky for a human in the hasty world we live in, tricky for a poet, particularly anyone who is occasionally interviewed.

When I asked a group of school kids what they called poetry, they were generally in agreement on one matter: they didn't like poems that didn't get to the point. I've said often that I think many poets – particularly this one – write poetry because they find speaking difficult. A poem, for me, is often a way to work out why I think I feel what I'm feeling; a chance to get a thought out whole, more or less uninterrupted, rationalising digressions and cul-de-sacs and the difficult consonant clusters, hypnotised by rhythm. But I've also been looking for a poetic form brave enough to accommodate this inchoate world of feeling, sensing, intuiting, imagining.

'The Plinky Boat' is a poem from my collection Byssus about a physical metaphor in real life. In a typically Unst [one of the Shetland Islands] triumph of upcycling, a boat at the ferry terminal at the south end of the island has been refashioned into a xylophone. Everything's a shape-shift in this poem, as if we caught a flower blooming or a chrysalis splitting. It's an effort, as perhaps all my poems are, to catch a freezeframe of the here-and-now.

Formally, I'm trying to do this in my linebreaks. The reader should teeter at the line's end and fall into the next, or be carried over without a pause at all. In fact the lines should feel unbroken. At its most extreme, and this isn't a typo, an apostrophe is divorced from the noun it modifies:

the girls
' handclapping game

I was after something stretchy in the rhythms: a breathing space midline maybe, a rill of speech, overall, ending on a delayed rhyme, a feeling as if the conclusion, though improbable, was inevitable. Poetic form as a drop of water, perhaps: flexible but strong, coherent through its surface tension. 

The Plinky-Boat

‘the present is a fine line [...]a puff of air would destroy it’
– Gaspar Galaz, ‘Nostalgia de la Luz’

Something near to true
night-darkness. The children
are playing the Plinky-Boat –
a xylophone made
from a reclaimed yoal –
built for flexibility in a coarse
sea, you can tell it fledged
with ease, just blushed
from boat to instrument,
transpiring streams
of these hoarse night-
notes. For its copper pipes
are cut to breadth exactly
so the boat’s beam is
its sotto voce and two rills
of rising pitch run into
the harmonic of each
hinnyspot – where
the boards of gunwales
and stem flow together.
I don’t know what it is
about this place that things
metaflower so readily
into their present selves.

The instrument’s a boat,
the notes unresonant
and scales of thin light
swarm over the pipes
from the boys’ headtorches.
Perhaps we heard seals
broaching in the harbour
as they answered the girls
’ handclapping game –
I doubt they moaned
in their haunted wise –
here was everything –
words lost, as I’m trying
to say, their echo, that
yodel into past and future.
The poem wouldn’t exist,
but we couldn’t stay.

Tuesday, 06 May 2014 by Rosanna Boscawen with 0 comments
Filed under: Poets on poetry


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