Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Taking a poem apart

As I say in my Self Portrait, I believe that writing poems is, or ought to be, a literary act (ie the application of critical thinking and reason) rather than primarily a creative act. I am aware that my poems run the risk of becoming bland and cerebral from lack of extravagant language, and so I thought it would be interesting to recount from the inside how a poem ended up in its final form.

Here's the poem:

Going back 1

The gate hangs open 2
I walk the mossy path 3
To the door: its paint is blistered
Blotchy with mould 4
The windows are cracked,
The chimneys nested 5

No fire warms the hearth: 6
The guardians have departed 7
They left the gate
Hanging open. 8

1 The title had started out as "An orphan returns to his childhood home" and the poem described the changes in perspective and scale, from a bereaved standpoint. This seemed both melodramatic and over-specific, and so I shifted the focus to the physical location, leaving the context more open and ambiguous. The new title derives mainly from the traditional advice "Never go back". It's a slightly odd bit of advice, and presumably could be clarified as saying "Never go back expecting things to be the same", reflecting the mental jolt that returning expatriates feel when they find that they are no longer 'at home' in their homeland, and therefore are cut adrift, and which everyone, to a lesser degree, feels when they realise that they are now officially grown up and that nobody will kiss their knees better when they fall over. The implication is that the adult is returning hoping for some form of shelter, support, or guidance (and therefore is currently in a damaged state).

The title also echoes two songs, on a similar theme: Goffin/King's Goin' Back ("I think I'm going back/ to the things I knew so well in my youth") which contrasts the troubled adult with a simpler younger self, and Neil Young's Going Back from Comes a Time (1978) which contrasts a happy past relationship with current distance and loss ("I used to build these buildings/ I used to walk next to you/ Their shadows tore us apart/ And now we do what we do/ Driven to the mountain high / Sunken in the cities deep / Living in our sleep/ I feel like going back /Back where there's nowhere to stay").

So although going back may be a physical journey, there are clear reasons for expecting it to be a mental journey too.

2 I used to visit a lot of derelict and deserted houses which were due for demolition in advance of development, and they seemed unbearably sad. The last occupants, knowing that there would be no successors, often left the building in a strange state, either in haste, in protest, or in laziness. Leaving a gate open is an admission that no visitors are expected or that there is noone to visit. This line is intended to create a feeling of unease as well as the straightforward image of a physical gate.

3 This line surreptiously imports agency and the writer/reader into the action: there is an I that is walking (the rest of the poem is passive description). The mossy path implies disuse, reinforcing the implication of lack of human traffic, and introducing evidence of neglect

4 The door confirms neglect and pushes towards actual decay: the house is no longer maintained, and perhaps hasn't been for some time.

5 The other details, as the visitor looks up at the house, confirm not only that there is neglect and decay, but that it has been active for some time. Cumulatively, this evidence leads to the suspicion that the house is deserted.

The first stanza is intended, therefore, to present a sequence of snapshots (you could film it precisely) of someone walking up to a house, but by the accumulation of details creates a lonely, distanced feeling. It seems unlikely that the visitor will get what they came for.

6 On a practical level, this follows directly on from the blocked chimneys. However, the use of the symbolically-loaded word 'hearth' moves the poem from observation into a more conceptual realm. "Warming the hearth" is a very different thing to "heating the fireplace": its neglect implies a failure to perform the key duties of familyhood, and thus focuses the unease of the first stanza on the absence of people in general and parents in particular.

7 The visitor realises the implication, and can no longer evade it. They are no longer there. (Departed is of course a euphemism for death, although simple absence could be meant)

8 In departing, they were presumably, as noted above, either rushed, reluctant or no longer interested. This is an abdication of their role, effectively their farewell to the visitor. There is a contrast with the expression 'leaving the door open' which means that a return is expected. The line is also an echo of the opening line, so that the poem can be read as a never-ending loop, a sort of limbo.

Thus without at any point describing the emotional state or history of the visitor it tries to imply very specifically the combination of unease, dread and despair that damaged adulthood encounters when trying to solve its problems by returning to what is remembered as a simpler, happier time. This meaning is compressed into 10 short lines. I'm sure it is poetry - whether it's good poetry is another question.

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