I was very lucky growing up, but not in the way you might imagine. My mother died when I was five and the precise circumstances of her death are still a mystery. When my father wasn’t drowning his grief, he was masking it in anger. My brother and I were emotionally stunted for a long time, often resorting to overly violent outbursts towards each other. We had almost no money, keeping a tab open at the corner shop so we could at least have a loaf of bread and some milk. Benefits were doled out to us fortnightly and we’d pay off our tab then. I don’t know how many times my grandparents footed our electricity bills, but I do remember several evenings spent by candlelight not completely believing my father when he told us there was a power outage. Even so, I insist that I was an unbelievably lucky child for one simple reason; I was born with a love for poetry.
It began with music first. Something about the mingling of words with the melodies between them called to me as far back as I can remember. It was through lyricists I loved like Freddie Mercury, Jim Morrison, and Fish that I came to understand poetry. A world without them would be too cruel, too cold for my liking. The only trouble I had with music was that the pace of a song was already set. It was impossible to slow down, to absorb the words at my own tempo. This was when reading poetry first appealed to me. The thought of words pressed into a crisp page allowed me to savour them in a way I wasn’t able to before. I could read quickly, slowly, move forwards and backwards, creating my own rhythms and shapes with the lines in my head. Poetry sounds exactly like music to me. Even when I’m writing my own, I’m not just piecing words together, I’m composing melodies. Poetry brings a richness to my life that eases any pain, any difficulty I had growing up. It provides the soundtrack to all my days.
Of course, this soundtrack is a wild medley of a huge range of genres and styles, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few standout artists. T.S. Eliot starts my poetry playlist with ‘The Hollow Men,’ arguably my favourite poem and certainly the first piece I remember needing to sit down after reading. It was introduced to me in a high school literature class after studying Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Few poems have affected me in the same way as ‘The Hollow Men.’ The poem ironically fills me with a mixture of emotions, ranging from sadness to a sort of existential confusion, but no lines capture Eliot’s grace better than:
‘Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.’
I have dealt with terrible nightmares almost every night of my entire life. When I was very young, my mother would come into my room and sit on the edge of my bed. She would hold my hand and smile at me until I fell back to sleep. We never spoke, but her presence was enough. The feeling of her fingers wrapped around mine was the anchor I needed to keep me moored to reality. After she died, the nightmares continued, but nobody came to soothe me anymore. When I first read this passage from ‘The Hollow Men,’ it reminded me of this. I would wake alone, feeling more vulnerable than I’d ever felt, searching for my mother and not finding her. She was resting somewhere else, underneath a stone that bore her name. If there is an afterlife – if death’s other kingdom exists – I hope I will wake there and see her.
Grief is a theme that persists in much of the poetry I enjoy. It helps me determine my emotions and connects me to people I’ve lost. No collection does this quite as well as Forrest Gander’s Be With. In my second year at university, Gander visited and gave a reading from the book. He was a dynamic and entertaining reader, often moving his hands in the air so you could see exactly where words fell on the page through his gestures. The only poem that Gander fell still while reading was ‘Ruth,’ a piece about his ill mother before she passed away. He described her as ‘a splotched drama of mortality’ and, for the first time all evening, he didn’t have the will to dance. Later on, he revealed that she was a single parent and his interest in poetry grew from her reading to him. When Gander read ‘Ruth,’ he cradled the book in his hands and she emerged from the pages. I felt like I knew her too. The pure restorative power of poetry was never clearer to me. People continue beyond their lives in memories and, for those of us with the courage to write those memories down, they can go on indefinitely. ‘Ruth’ undoubtedly belongs on my poetry playlist.
While I could continue writing for thousands more words on poetry that I love, I will end with one final mention: Wilderness by Jim Morrison. This being the second time I’ve cited Morrison in this interview, I should say that I’m a massive (and I mean massive) fan of his work. I slept opposite a poster of him most nights in high school and must have read his biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, at least a dozen times. If there is a better example than Morrison of the way poetry and music marry each other, I don’t know it. My favourite Morrison quote is, ‘You should stand up for your right to feel your pain.’ I kept these words in mind when I first explored the dark and riotous adventure that is Wilderness. Morrison writes:
Soon enough we shall walk
the walls of time. We shall
except each other.
Reading this made me understand that the only thing that really mattered to me was the people in my life. I may think fondly of possessions and places, but I have never missed anything that wasn’t a human being. The absence of a loved one is a pain that never dulls. Eliot made me realise that missing my mother meant missing a part of me. Gander allowed me to see poetry as a way to access her again. Perhaps the cruellest part of grief is understanding that the world moves on whether I am ready to or not. Morrison reassured me that creating poetry to connect with people, living or dead, is important. This is the reason I write, the final track on my poetry playlist, and the most significant lesson I’ve learned. It’s the stubborn, stupid part of humanity that continues to persist in the face of eternity. It’s poetry.