The Silence of the Poet

Something strange happening with my reading.  Old books that I read long ago fall out of the bookshelf into my hand and I find that I need them and I need them now!

The latest to do this is George Steiner’s  ‘Language and Silence’ a book of essays printed in 1968.  I don’t remember them but there are a lot of under-linings that I must have made and they still make sense.  The essay on Silence and the Poet I am about to re-read; how important the poet becomes if language is debased and no longer used as a tool for understanding but to bludgeon and manipulate meaning and response.  Odd to be living in this predicted world where so much language (also so many poems, poets, competitions, books, pamphlets) surrounds us and where words have taken on   a curious kind of animal with a life of their own,  leaping about on phones, Ipods ,  tablets and screens demanding response but most of the time not waiting for a considered answer.

I read that John Agard had received the Queen’s medal for poetry – here is someone who has made words curl around, sing loudly, beat the drum, thunder in onto far oceanic shores, and all in such a way that the small children I used to read his poems to, loved them and became inspired to write themselves.   How important poetry seemed in those days – integral to the English and Literacy curriculum, and read, referred to and sourced as  part of the teachers’ in-service experience.  I remember Danny Abse coming to read and talk about his writing to teachers; he told us that at first he thought poetry was all rubbish about violets and such like, then he fell in love and realised what it was really about.      And then the moving moment in a course I ran for Deputy Headteachers where a man was able to write out his recent grief at the death/suicide of a close friend.  I read poems to infants and juniors, to special needs children and tough boys and girls in the secondary school.  If the poem was honest it would hit home and there would be a real empathic response from the listeners – they were good critics, particularly those students you might not expect to respond to poetry..

I just read a quote from Shonagon, over a thousand years ago and he is saying how depressed we would be if we could not write.  There’s the heart of it I think – that impulse to make something into an artefact – a poem or story, painting or sculpture, a house or a palace – whatever it is it tries to nail down a moment of understanding, a feeling or a desire to communicate something or make it understandable.  In my head are all the journeys I have made, the people I have met – the wonderful moments of sharing, of experiencing something extraordinary. 


Writing On the Road from Skardu to Gilgit helped me to try and be clear and honest about a journey and I want to try to get that clarity and sharpness into writing about other places. 

Spring coming to the Ishkoman Valley

The road went higher, bend after bend

pulling at the skirt of rocks, where the glacier

gnaws its edge with brown, deep-set teeth.

A woman in a red shawl

walks down a path under trees;

that glimpse of red, it fires,

so we notice snow melting along the branches.


At the moment lots of editing to do preparing poems for submission to an anthology about being a child in the Second World War.   It’s something I had already started to write about in the course of thinking about memory and realising how much we lived through as war children, although I never experienced real deprivation there were contexts we grew up in that shaped us in a different way.  I once wanted to make a book of interviews – in the style of Tony Parker – about people I knew who had been born at the same time as me – towards the beginning of the war – so that we grew up not knowing anything else.  How much did it de-stabilise us as adults I wonder?  Now I guess I am approaching the same ground but in a different way and a long time after.  Still – the life history approach does appeal to me and I think that a part of that is beginning to infiltrate my poems.


Well I managed this new entry within a week.  I have, I hope, learned how to put in photographs.  A bientot and a Bonne Annee.



Filed under What's happening?

4 responses to “The Silence of the Poet

  1. What an absolutely fascinating post! Your efforts with children and students make me think of you as a (successful) poetry missionary.

    Do you have any more about the Skardu journey? My daughter was part of an expedition which started from Skardu, in 1993/4. I’m sure she would be interested to read of your experiences.

  2. You met Danny Abse?? Wow. What co incidence. there is a chart and map shop here run by the vicar, with a book table outside and I saw Danny Abse’s “Ash on a Young man’s sleeve” autobiographical, being a Jew in South Wales, the depression and the war years and how as a boy, it was almost subsumed by the daily fights and making up with his best friend and the family. I’m ashamed to say that I do not know his poems. Add to must do list! June

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