The front world, and the back

In The Girl Who Cried I have a poem about a ‘house with no door’. Tom Duddy’s wonderful poem ‘Doorways’ is very different – but, for me, it touches on related themes.

by Tom Duddy, from The Hiding Place, Arlen House, 2011.

I wrote recently about my sense of living ‘a double life’, or two lives running in parallel: the visible, and ‘the understory’. And Tom Duddy here – with all his characteristic gentleness – helps my thinking.

Such an intriguing layout – those three long lines representing the ‘three doors across / the middle of the old house’. I love the term ‘the old house’ – so many of us have one, and I think it instantly transports us, if not to our own, to some imagined place.

Tom Duddy often opens magical doorways in his poems. For me, this one works beautifully literally. But it also works as a metaphor. Just occasionally – and how ‘rare’ it is, and therefore precious – we see a system or person clearly, as they really are: both what’s visible on the outside, and what’s led to that, or is working away behind the scenes.

And there’s gentle comedy too, an empathic poking of fun at us all. So much we defend against needn’t be feared.

In this poem we ‘see framed / in the third doorway a back world / of hen-run, dunghill and dock-leaf clump, / far removed from the front world / of pathway, clipped hedge and rose.’

The lists he’s chosen are wonderful, and slightly absurdist. How can we not smile at all the human effort that goes into tending ‘the front world’?

At the same time, that final word, ‘rose’, pricks. And a ‘clipped hedge’ may make a great straight line – but ‘clipped’ itself is such a loaded word. Clipped wings. Clipped speech – which we deliver to each other when frosty and hurting.

It’s curtailing. While out back, there is so much of value. The ‘hen-run’ where we get our eggs, the ‘dunghill’ which nourishes the soil, the ‘dock-leaf clump’, which can calm a sting.

And I love those slamming doors. Whatever is seen here, it’s a fleeting glimpse – it happens rarely, ‘on a halcyon day’, and lasts only ‘for awhile’. One ‘draught’ and ‘without warning / from nowhere’ those doors all slam ‘shut in one go.’

It’s like the boundaries slamming closed inside us, and between us. We can’t help it: we all respond involuntarily to the subtlest currents. (Again, I think of my ‘house with no door’ – or with a door so closed it’s like no door at all?)

Which may make it ‘rare’ for us to catch sight of each other as we really are.

But once seen, we’re never forgotten, we never forget. And there is, at least, tenderness in that.

The Girl Who Cried is available from HappenStance – and on special offer for December.


Both my poetry collections – all three, if I include my pamphlet, The Long Woman – tell what I’m increasingly thinking of as my ‘understory’. There’s the public account we generally give of ourselves – the ‘how are you?’ ‘Coping, thanks’, ‘how’re the kids?’ version. The job. The family. The background. The how we look – ‘The smile I wore – my kind of clothes’ – as I put it in one poem in The Girl Who Cried. So, there’s this public face – our LinkedIn Profile. And then, well, for me certainly, there’s been a totally other story.

This is not to say the life people generally see is a lie: it’s not. Both are true. That’s the point. My family life, work life, social life – these are all crucial and crucially precious to me, and I’m honestly myself within them. BUT there is – and long has been – another true story. And this one isn’t so often told, and isn’t (probably, though what do I know?) nearly as visible.

It’s like my life has run along parallel lines. And I’m pretty sure this is more than the natural, and necessary, divide between outer and inner life. Noir, my first full collection, explores a time when that divide widened – when I was a teen and then a young and (yes, I now know) vulnerable woman. And The Girl Who Cried trawls right back to my very earliest difficulties, and then tracks their impact throughout my life. Both books attempt to surface and express the things I’ve found nearly impossible to say in other ways. Because I’ve felt I’m living this double life, of sorts, ever since I can remember.

I’m reminded of a strong image that emanates from childhood, when I suffered from double vision. One poem in Noir recalled the experience of repeated visits to Brighton Eye Hospital to attempt the seemingly impossible task of putting ‘the lion’ in one eye into ‘the cage’ in the other. I’d always wanted to write about this as it felt such an apt metaphor for my bigger difficulty: to bring my story and understory into the same frame, and hold them there, steady, together.

I, like millions, have watched and been moved by Brené Brown on her excellent evaluation of ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. I’ve taken on board, and taken seriously, her definition of ‘whole-hearted’ people being those who accept and acknowledge their vulnerability, know it’s ‘necessary’, and what makes them ‘beautiful’. And her insight that what stops us from managing this is, universally, shame.

Well, we can experiment with suspending shame, for a time. I really appreciated this review of The Girl Who Cried by Alex Josephy, on London Grip. She wrote: ‘Avoiding sentimentality and refusing shame, Charlotte Gann opens the box.’ And I’ve begun to wonder what it would be like to form writing groups – or be a companion, or critical friend – with others also curious about exploring their understories. Forge contexts where this stuff could be talked about – as naturally as what we’ve watched on Netflix recently, or what’s coming up in the garden. Where we write thoughtfully – with great care, and conversation – opening up (not blindly inhabiting) our understories. 

You may read this and recoil, think I can’t imagine anything worse. I, however, think this is a group I would like to belong to. A group where we explore what normally stays hidden and invisible: unsaid. Where we say it. And see where that takes us – and our writing.

A no-particular moment

IMG_20200726_111847006It’s funny isn’t it, how individual photos can really move us? A photo that’s in no way spectacular: an old blurred print, only 3½ by 4½ inches, taken at a no-particular moment. One we’d have discarded as uninteresting when the holiday snaps came back from the chemist.

Here’s one such, for me. Taken, I know, in summer 1981, when I’d just done my O Levels. We’re in Denmark: I’m standing; my sister Sarah (who was then in her mid-twenties and living in Amsterdam) is seated, in a white T shirt; her Australian flatmate Anne, in yellow beside her.

I’ve no idea why this photo so stirred me when I found it yesterday, but it did and does. Something about it looking like a film still? I really like the brown and yellow, almost sepia, colour scheme. I find it touching to catch this glimpse of us so much younger. (What am I even doing? Maybe putting a cassette into a tape recorder? Or opening a bottle of wine? Gawd knows…) 

A photo we just stumble on, in an old bag, stuffed between pages of a book, one of a bunch in a torn brown envelope, out of focus – not even taken in a place that means much to us. 

And no one smiling into the camera, not posed; just caught in some random moment. Three people. Being alive. Thirty nine summers ago.


I’ve been thinking about this phrase. It seems potent to me. A relief. Especially for someone who has hungered for resonance.

I think about how it says – on the back cover of The Girl Who Cried – ‘Gann’s poems, which tackle risky subjects, do so quietly.’ (John Challis, Poetry School.) And of how small some of those poems are, crouched there on the page.

Family b&wI think of growing up the youngest of a big family, and how my two earliest cherished memories are of being alone in the quiet: once, in our sitting room, watching a spider plant cascade into the dusty sunshine; another time, when I was very young, out on the pavement watching snow fall by streetlight.

I think of the relief I felt finally living alone in a flat in my twenties in London – after that full house of childhood, and multiple shared flats and houses.

Of how much I’ve sometimes talked as a way of coping with awkwardness and empathy. How instinctively I mistrust ‘social media’, at a visceral level. 

How much of my life I’ve spent invisible, and silent about the things that have really hurt and shaped me.

How difficult it is for me, at times, to trust silence – and not reach out across it.

But how the Quiet trusts me – with its pillows and cat and light falling through a window. And how I trust it back: the gentlest, safest thing I know. Where work gets done.

One Point of Interest

One role I have in life is as co-editor of the Sphinx site where we publish OPOI – or ‘One Point of Interest’ – reviews of poetry pamphlets. I’m really pleased that one of our new reviewers, Jane Thomas, has taken the same approach, and written an ‘OPOI review’ of The Girl Who Cried. I can’t post this on the Sphinx site, of course – that’s only for pamphlet reviews. But I love this as an approach to reviewing anyway: it means just focusing on one aspect that you’re particularly struck by, and that only briefly.

Jane said she was happy for me to share her review – so here is what she wrote:

TGWC coverThe child inside

The crux of this glorious collection for me is:

How can I wake at fifty
with the same pain I woke with aged five? (p45)

The realisation that we always carry the child we were within us, with its most basic fears and traumas. That the adult version is just a build of years and experiences, like the stream of poems we find here.

Each page has a small square instead of a title. I think they may be small empty frames relating to the frame references – ‘unframed photographs’ (p60), ‘Your frame is f***ed’ (p53), and ‘Jesus Christ Almighty, I’ve been lugging this thing’ (p41) – but for me they also look like tick boxes: every year survived and ticked off. All the time the poet is just trying to survive: ‘Can I float?’ (p35).

It also feels like a study of the alienation that we all feel (maybe even more so in recent times). And the oft held belief that it is ours to deal with alone:

Nobody wants to know about me, or this.
Nobody. You want ‘an easy life’. (p9)

But when you read this collection you do want to know about the poet and her experience.

I grabbed your sleeve. I slipped pebbles
in your pockets: weighed you down. (p11)

Each poem slips a pebble to the reader, some shiny, some rough but they make you feel lighter – the assurance of common human experience. Some poems make use of psychoanalytic language hinting that the poet is speaking to someone and by the end of the sequence there is hope. It feels like now that the little girl has had a chance to cry, grieve and speak she is less likely to ‘drown silently’. In the final poem the poet is both loving herself and another and is being heard in the wider world. I suggest you join the audience and the journey in this inspiring book for alienating times.

Jane Thomas


How to frame a Conversation?

new frame_1One of the things I love most about poems is how they’re like little frames on the page. A poem can be like a picture on a wall: here is a scene, often with a twist. A collection can be like a gallery of one person’s work (an anthology, or magazine, is a gallery of a range of artists’). Of course the pictures have been hung in a certain order, in certain spaces, and in conversation with each other, as well as hopefully with their reader (viewer, as she wanders through). 

By writing The Girl Who Cried I’ve taken a gamble: I’ve hung an exhibition that’s tried to frame something fundamental from my own experience, and see if anyone responds with recognition. There’s the gamble: on it not being just me who carries this intruding burden, which is a particular kind of severe, anxious loneliness.

And frames have been important in my thinking. The thing I’ve yearned for, or think I’ve felt myself lacking, has been a kind of ‘framing’: a wish for someone’s understanding to ‘frame’ me. Hold me together. (This is matched by an equally primitive terror: the fear that I’ll get trapped, perhaps inside that person’s ‘frame’. A space that’s far too small and confined. A space that’s dangerous.) 

So, frames play out in this drama I am also trying to find a frame for. (A drama whose very nature feels pre-word.) How to find words to frame my experience?

IMG_20200617_093840021 (1)

I’ve tried – in my book. I’ve tried to document a lifetime’s navigating. With its title-less poems, each their own shape on their page. I’ve even added drawings – the thing looks rather like a room in a gallery, as you come in through the door, into its frame. And there are a couple of notices at the entrance: two epigraphs, and opening poems that sound an alarm, and lay the ground: The work you’ll find in this exhibition, they alert, concerns the artist’s preoccupation. And there are two key poems in the book which make explicit use of the frame-image, and a number more that do so obliquely.

But… things don’t fit neatly into frames. It’s been a long work-in-progress, a to and fro. How to find words to frame these things, when the experiences are themselves without the frame of words?

Another thing I love about poems: that they can frame sensation, felt sense, bodily trauma, not just thoughts. 

I find my poems wear their frames quite closely. There’s a claustrophobia perhaps – well, that is pertinent. A confined space inside the frame I allow myself, (too fearful to expand and speak).

But the other thing is this book is a conversation. It’s trying to provide the frame as well as explore the search for it: to be, or provide precisely the kind of connection it seeks. At the same time as keeping safe.

Everything passes_1And actually, yes, in writing the poems I have been having that conversation with myself. Crucially. And attempting, eventually, to render my wordless experience intelligible: to frame it in words. 

These poems are also in conversation with each other: albeit separated by the white wall between their frames. And they hope very much to be in conversation with a reader. A conversation that has started now.

I’m taking part in HappenStances Conversations with Poets series (a Zoom webinar), on 2nd July. See here for details, and to register.

‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’

Red BookThis is one of my favourite lines from one of my favourite poems. I know Mary Oliver herself is said to have grown tired of everyone loving ‘Wild Geese’, but I can’t stop. It’s the unexpectedness of the lines that make that impossible. 

The first: ‘You do not have to be good.’ The first time I read that (a long time ago now) I couldn’t believe it. The relief. Then, before we get comfortable: ‘You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.’ The combination of depth of feeling, with ease of expression utterly compels me. I was thrilled at how extreme the situation was that she’s describing: that degree of shame and toil. The desert like the decades we live (walk on our knees) through. She’s saying we don’t have to, but with maximum compassion: there’s no doubt she knows we have, and we do, and that she has too.

Each line in the poem is a full, clear, simple sentence. There are so few adjectives – so the first that does appear leaps out: ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.’ That ‘soft’.

(I like noticing the adjectives in this poem: ‘soft’, ‘clear’ [‘pebbles of the rain’], ‘deep’ [trees – which is just lovely], ‘wild’ [geese, of course], which then allows the positive outburst of: ‘the clean blue air’ through which those geese fly high.)

And then there’s the line I started with:

‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’

The acknowledgment in this line. I like the fact we’re now together in this. There’s no room for doubt: you have your despair; I have mine. This poem (poet) meets us here: joins me on this vital similarity. That, in itself, is quietly marvellous: it leaves this (at times, despairing) reader so much less alone. It’s GENEROUS…

TGWC cover

The Girl Who Cried

So what brought me back to this line now? Sitting here, thinking how will I introduce my own, new, strange book, which just arrived for preorder in the HappenStance shop? And of course, in the midst of this awful, global situation – which none of us could have anticipated.

(Bloodaxe, by the way, chose Wild Geese as the epigraph poem for its famous anthology Staying Alive with good reason.)

My book. Why have I written it? Well, to start with, I couldn’t stop myself. I mean, if I was to go on writing poetry at all, these were the next poems that insisted on being written.

It is a(nother) quite brave book for me, detailing as it does the most basic, long-lasting and embarrassing inner struggle. This was the book that sat for me behind the first I wrote – Noir. I had to write that to get behind it to this – although once I did, I saw I had also, over some years, been writing them in parallel.

I carried on, writing poetry as simply and as clearly as I could. At one stage, I thought of these as ‘woodcut poems’. But there was something too thin or harsh about the book – as opposed to ‘harsh and exciting’ – and so I started introducing my drawings. I realised they were needed – to accompany these poems out into the world. 

They brought a bit of air, and together the poems and pictures lifted a little off the page. (Helena Nelson, publisher at HappenStance, also suggested removing each poem’s title – which helped lighten the pages further.) Something happened… The pictures, along with certain phrases in the poems (e.g. ‘I know / I shouldn’t walk on flowerbeds’ – phrases I think of as ‘human bridges’), HELPED.

‘Meanwhile the world goes on’, wrote Mary Oliver. And later:

‘Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.’

I could never have foreseen, of course, publishing in the midst of a global pandemic: the awful loss and pain and anxiety so many have suffered and are suffering and will suffer, and all of us gripped in this thing…

I guess some things remain human. I’m not certain why it is we go to such lengths not to tell the truth about ourselves: why the shame is so pronounced. This is my attempt to do something different – ‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine – and by doing so, too, perhaps to further discover my ‘place / in the family of things.’ 

Here is Mary Oliver reading ‘Wild Geese’.
Here is a link to The Girl Who Cried.

Occasionally a poem HELPS

Around any corner an amazing encounter may await. That’s what happened for me with Jennifer Copley’s poem ‘The Two Friends’. It just stunned – stuns – me. At every reading. A short piece – 13 lines. Set in three uneven stanzas. It’s irreverent, and concerned only with acceptance.

It’s a much happier poem than many I love. The title’s perfect – has a timeless, childlike quality. But the exclusivity of that ‘Two’, for me, coupled to its definite article and noun…  This pact is real. And sound.

The poem tells the story of the friendship between a small mouse and the corner of a field. ‘It’s his favourite corner / where he feels safe. / The corner is happy to have him.’ A good arrangement, then – excellent.

Although, of course, nothing is static, or perfect or permanent. The corner’s stuck there, the mouse comes and goes. (The mouse has legs and feet, the corner is a corner and has no choice but stay put: it’s in its nature.)

When the mouse is away, the corner frets – how can it not? And he doesn’t so much worry that something bad may have happened to the mouse; his worry is riddled with self doubt. ‘The corner worries he won’t come back, / that he’ll find a better corner elsewhere.’ And – indeed, because

‘A long time ago the corner’s mother did just that.’

But then this poor corner is reassured immediately, gloriously, compassionately. In bursts the poet, no less, and wielding an exclamation mark like a small sword. Breaking through convention, tearing down those paper walls.

‘Don’t worry, little corner! I am the writer of this poem
and I can reveal the mouse will always return’

In one last, exquisite twist, she also concedes that the mouse will age, and tire (though not of the corner) – life is tough, and gruelling; all the more need for that safe pact.

I love the fact The Two Friends are so different – in nature, size, strength – yet symbiotic. Of course they’re vulnerable – in completely different ways. The more physically robust corner is the more worried. Though that mouse’s fur is, increasingly, ‘bedraggled’, (and there’s that sting in the tail of the final word, ‘nettles’).

IMG_20190714_162929458 (2)Most of all I love the authorial authority – like a children’s book narrator – of this poet in this poem, including her necessary, wonderful, surprise appearance. I like the humour. I love the corner.

As a portrait of friendship – resonance – why it’s necessary – I’m not sure it leaves a thing unsaid.


by Jennifer Copley, from Some Couples, HappenStance, 2017.



Visibility versus invisibility

IMG_20190315_182112027 (1)‘… This book – which grew from the seed of the pamphlet – asks: what are we to do with the darkness? The things, and people, often left silent and invisible.

By some strange twist, I found myself at the British Library a week ago, taking part in an event organised to celebrate poetry pamphlets on the eve of the tenth Michael Marks Awards. Five of us had been invited to share reflections, and poems; I was very glad to have been included…

“My poetry pamphlet (The Long Woman, Pighog Press) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award six years ago – in 2012. This was a huge help. The pamphlet was a stepping stone to a full collection, and the book very much a continuation of work started there: it was encouraging to get that cheer along the way.

I decided I’d reflect a little on that, alongside some poems and thoughts about visibility and invisibility. But first, a short quote from DJ Enright – because it made me smile:

‘The poet is to give a reading from his new book… the dutiful publisher carries a dozen copies of the poet’s new book to sell at the reading… Now it is over, and the publisher gathers up the unsold books, counting them glumly… he trudges home, weary and puzzled – How can thirteen copies be left over from a dozen?’

Why do we write the things? 

Perhaps, considering many of us – most of us – can safely assume we’ll return home with more books than we left the house with, could writing poetry be a way of being safely ie invisibly visible?

Certainly, when I first started writing the poems that became The Long Woman, it was like a portal had opened in my skirting board for all the experiences and anxieties I’d never known how to process so had filed away, invisible and silent in my ‘normal’ life.

Here’s a short poem in two voices – the one who can, and the one who can’t, speak out and be visible:



Thank you so much for your invitation
I stand by my bed in the dark

I am very sorry but I have decided
I crouch by my bed in the dark

This is not a decision I have made lightly
I’m near the curtained window, crouched

I hope very much you don’t feel
I’m by the curtained window, trembling

All I really want you to know is how
I shake by my bed in the dark


That’s a person who, I think, is clearly hiding. But there are lots of ways of being invisible. Here’s a completely different one:



I love this time of year, time of day:
the light, pale-egg and misty; platform
almost empty. Malcolm says we’ll wander,
find somewhere nice for lunch. We always do:
Italian spaghetti, a carafe
of red wine. I’ll have to watch my frock.
I love all the bustle of Soho,
like another planet. The awards
don’t start till 6. And, do you know, I don’t
even mind meeting the Queen, the mood
I’m in. Plus I put the milk bottles out
already, and extra food for Saturn.

Malcolm’s eyes are the colour of clear sky.
I’m sure to make the 11.03.


Scan 2I was delighted when the poems I was writing were gathered together in a pamphlet – The Long Woman, published by Pighog. I loved the cover image (though they told me later this was arrived at inadvertently, photographing something like the shadows on a barbecue…).

Of course, I was thrilled when the pamphlet was noticed by that year’s Michael Marks judges. It was a lovely surprise. (I’d hardly thought of poetry prizes – it was a good time! I didn’t abide on Twitter; didn’t know about the ‘circus’.)

I failed to materialise for the awards evening – another reason I was grateful to be asked back now (and, maybe, another reason I was).

I enjoyed hearing a hero of mine, Tracey Thorn, on Desert Island Discs a few weeks ago, speaking about singing in a wardrobe: how she wanted a voice but not to be seen. 

I declined the invitation, giving my reasons – I am very sorry I have decided; this is not a decision I have made lightlyBut I was glad, truly – almost as if ‘someone somewhere may have seen me’:



All day I pad on bare cracked feet
nowhere, jug heavy,
in and out the kitchen door.

I’m with the kids: feed them
chicken, potato, ice cream;
hear the six-year-old say thank you.

But I can’t talk to any of the women who come:
I bear them orange mugs of tea, sit;
I am sealed.

I feel
someone somewhere may have seen me once;
now he’s thin as my dreams.
And my poor kids roll round their mattresses
in nothing but boxers and twisted sheets.

Until, finally,
just as heads the size of moons
sink into crushed pillows,
the sky blinks

and I’m gaping from my high window:
for miles and miles, I see the dark trees gather;
one moment fractures blue,
and then the rain comes.

One two three, drops big as bullets
(Andy downstairs pantomimes
he’s been wounded)
and suddenly every mouth turns upwards

and mine is the biggest
and the first

to drink and drink and drink.


Encouraged, I pressed on – writing these poems; building, as I thought of it, an alternative-version world from the inside out. One that had always been apparent to me, but sat just inside the visible world.

Another letter-poem. Again I think it’s about invisibility. About vulnerability not being seen, despite the apparent baldness of the scrutiny. It’s laid out like a letter on the page, so here’s how it looks in the book:




NoirEventually the pile of poems grew to a book: Noir (another cover I love!), published by HappenStance in 2016. 

It got a number of reviews I really enjoyed reading, and a strange kind of echoing silence – which I also found, in itself, interesting. 

The book is crammed with characters with visibility issues, most of whom are me.

One last poem: I enjoyed hearing the book’s publisher, Helena Nelson, talk about this one at a pop-up in Aldeburgh this autumn. (I even liked the pop-up aspect – blink and you miss it.) 

There’s plenty visible in this poem: all that surface cluttered with domestic detail; so cluttered, in fact, we may miss what’s been left outside the frame:



Once he’s done she makes him up a nice bed
for the night. Takes sheets and blankets, neatly
folded, from the linen cupboard outside
her bedroom and carries them down the stairs.
While he enjoys a final cigarette
and scotch in the small walled garden, she smoothes
the sheets out on the put-you-up mattress,
then tucks them tight in hospital corners.
Early next morning she cooks him breakfast:
tea, orange juice with bits in, soft boiled egg,
two slices of white toast and marmalade,
sweet black filter coffee boiled on the hob.
She walks him to the station, allowing
plenty of time for him to buy a bar
of chocolate and a newspaper, and still
be comfortably on the 9.23.
It’s only after his late train pulls out,
and a passing friend, concerned, touches her
back gently, that she bends double on
the pavement outside the station, and cries out.


I love poetry pamphlets. I review many of them for HappenStance’s reviews site, Sphinx; I know they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and voices. Maybe, for some of us, they’re an opportunity to peep over the parapet – and to be glimpsed.

Thank you for including mine in this evening’s celebration of them.”

‘I was much further out than you thought’

IMG_20180105_125224092_HDRThe poem ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ by Stevie Smith is only twelve lines long. Yet, the first time I read it, it created in my mind, for evermore, a whole world – and life story. Not the poet’s – or certainly not directly; no, ‘the dead one’’s:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

The poem paints a vivid scene. We see a man waving; drowning; overhear words spoken perhaps in a crowd – at least, I picture a small knot of people gathering on the shore; maybe, someone quoted in the local news – a witness. (And Stevie Smith did get her original inspiration from a newspaper story, she said.) But these aren’t just casual bystanders; they also know or knew the man, at least in passing. Maybe they’re neighbours, or townsfolk, or relatives. Or all of the above.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

My old Penguin copy.

Of course, it’s perfect: the lack of punctuation, that longer line, like voices speaking over themselves. And the choice of ‘his heart gave way’ (which, in another sense, it turns out, is what’s happened). The ‘larking’ also seems crucial: the front we put on to face the world…

It’s a very sad poem, of course. But also beautiful. Why? Because, of course, here’s the irony: by telling the truth about this poor ‘dead one’, the poet tells this truth for all who need to hear it (and, who knows, maybe that’s all of us?). And hearing a truth you need to, in and of itself, reduces isolation. That, at least, has been my experience.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

‘Oh, no no no, it was too cold always’

I’m not sure when I first read ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ – and of course the phrase and concept has so long now been absorbed into our language (surely the greatest evidence of the poem’s veracity and integrity…?) – but my Penguin copy of Stevie Smith Selected Poems edited by James MacGibbon (first published 1978) is inscribed to me from a friend in 1984. Today I turn yellowing pages…

Recently I found myself exploring my conviction that I might never have thought of attempting to write a poem of my own if Stevie Smith hadn’t written this one. (I’d always loved reading poetry – and, indeed, this little green book was given to me while I was studying English at UCL. In my second year, I even ended up living in Palmers Green, where Stevie Smith spent most of her life.) But I’d never thought seriously about trying to write a poem of my own. 

Perhaps it’s an odd thing to dwell on but it’s prompted this post: answering to myself the question why, then, is that so? What is it about this short poem that mattered so much to me?

Stevie Smith. Pic by Akshay Nagaraju B (Own work)

The power of this short poem

Here it is. The power of this short poem to tell a long and layered story. The power of this short poem to stun and move me. The power of this poem to trigger both empathy, and regret. Its power to point a finger, and highlight enormous sorrow without blame or manipulation or confession.

The power of this short poem to tell a truth about me. (And, maybe related, the realisation that my experiences of being alive might have relevance to someone else.) Beyond all that, the power to invigorate me, again and again, with the sheer brilliance of good writing. Of all that can be achieved by distilled crafted language – and the insights it carries. It’s not an especially clever poem (though of course it is). It’s not impressively intricate (although of course it is). It is emotionally true, and honest. It sticks its neck out – and says, clearly, the thing it has to say. And that’s something perhaps I value above all else.

Stevie Smith speaks about and reads ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ here.

‘…. A lot of people pretend, out of bravery really, that they are very jolly and ordinary… But sometimes the brave pretence breaks down and then, like the poor man in this poem, they are lost.’