Fancy getting stuck into a sonnet or cosy with a canzone but no idea where to start? In her new column, our poetry *doctor (*she’s not a real doctor) Hazel Burke walks you gently through some of her favourites.
by Kathleen Jamie
Here is the lighthouse,
redundant these days.
From the keepers’
– the sea, of course
a metallic seam
closing the horizon
– And gulls too,
uttering the same
as when you first imagined
hours spent hunched
against the wind-
abraded wall might yield some
species of understanding.
All those hours, gazing
out to the ocean.
Years ago now.
From The Overhaul (Picador)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away (Bristol) I used to read quite a lot of poetry but over the years I’d lost the habit. I’d occasionally wonder what I was missing and vow to get back to it but I never did. That was until last January, when I made a firm New Year’s resolution to read a poem a week.
And I was so glad I had. I fell in love with poetry all over again. The first week I read a bit of Kate Tempest (YouTube poets: who knew?) and got the same kind of rush I felt when I discovered Wendy Cope as a kid.
The next week I re-read what I would have described, until January 2015, as my Favourite Poem. I hated it. What had happened? I didn’t know if it was the poem, or me. Somehow we’d grown apart and what I used to find charming I now found irritating. I needed some space.
Sometimes, though, you find love when you are least expecting it. A few months later I was walking out of the library with a new book. Not watching where I was going, I clattered noisily into a kick-stool in the poetry section, almost tripping over.
Etiquette meant that I felt I needed to disguise my library fail by pretending I was going to use the kick-stool to reach a book on a high shelf. I climbed up and added a bit of realism to the performance by staring at the shelf pretending to browse. Then I pulled out two books at random and took them to the desk.
One of the books was The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie and I fell in love. We’ve been together now for a few months and I still feel the same way. In fact, I really can see us growing old together.
“In The Lighthouse there is a sense that all the hopeful, windswept person eventually learned was how little they really understood.”
This poem, The Lighthouse, is one of my favourites in this collection. Kathleen Jamie has a skill for writing places. There are people in The Lighthouse, but the power and energy is in the natural environment: the ‘metallic’ sea, the ‘torn-throated cries’ of the gulls and the power of the wind, sanding the wall away millimetre by millimetre.
The Lighthouse stretches out across the sea to the horizon, but it also reaches out into the fourth dimension to what I’m sure Brian Cox would call the time-horizon. There are onion rings of time in the poem: the hours of the walk to the lighthouse, the years of the lighthouse keeper’s life, the decades between the building and the eventual wearing away of the wall and the lighthouse and, beyond that, the staggering eons where the wind blows over whatever humans or building happen to be there.
I like how the people in the poem are dwarfed by these huge expanses of space and time. I get a feeling that Jamie is putting humans in their place a bit. The speaker in the poem reminds the person they are talking to about how they imagined that looking out at the waves for hours might ‘yield some species of understanding’.
Another poet might have written ‘kind of understanding’ but the neat use of ‘species’ echoes the human tendency to attempt to know nature through classification. In The Lighthouse there is a sense that all the hopeful, windswept person eventually learned was how little they really understood. There’s no clear steer on how the speaker, or Jamie herself, feel about this fact – there is plenty of room for interpretation and musing in the whole poem. I could imagine this being a melancholy idea for some folk but I find it strangely comforting.
The poem has the same effect as when you pick up a pebble or a snail shell and for a second feel the enormity of the world in your hand (this isn’t just me, right?). It’s just 60 words but from the pen of Kathleen Jamie, every single one of them counts.
Poem taken from The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie, published by Picador at £9.99
You can also download some of Kathleen Jamie’s poems, read by the author, at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/kathleen-jamie
Hazel likes seed catalogues, maps and toast. She lives in Manchester. @oxpecking