Jen Hadfield: poets on poetry

06 May 2014

by Jen Hadfield

My brain's processes seem to be the exact antithesis of the sound-bite. Dead-ends, round-the-houses, laborious not-very-brilliant digressions. Tricky for a human in the hasty world we live in, tricky for a poet, particularly anyone who is occasionally interviewed.

When I asked a group of school kids what they called poetry, they were generally in agreement on one matter: they didn't like poems that didn't get to the point. I've said often that I think many poets – particularly this one – write poetry because they find speaking difficult. A poem, for me, is often a way to work out why I think I feel what I'm feeling; a chance to get a thought out whole, more or less uninterrupted, rationalising digressions and cul-de-sacs and the difficult consonant clusters, hypnotised by rhythm. But I've also been looking for a poetic form brave enough to accommodate this inchoate world of feeling, sensing, intuiting, imagining.

'The Plinky Boat' is a poem from my collection Byssus about a physical metaphor in real life. In a typically Unst [one of the Shetland Islands] triumph of upcycling, a boat at the ferry terminal at the south end of the island has been refashioned into a xylophone. Everything's a shape-shift in this poem, as if we caught a flower blooming or a chrysalis splitting. It's an effort, as perhaps all my poems are, to catch a freezeframe of the here-and-now.

Formally, I'm trying to do this in my linebreaks. The reader should teeter at the line's end and fall into the next, or be carried over without a pause at all. In fact the lines should feel unbroken. At its most extreme, and this isn't a typo, an apostrophe is divorced from the noun it modifies:

the girls
' handclapping game

I was after something stretchy in the rhythms: a breathing space midline maybe, a rill of speech, overall, ending on a delayed rhyme, a feeling as if the conclusion, though improbable, was inevitable. Poetic form as a drop of water, perhaps: flexible but strong, coherent through its surface tension. 

The Plinky-Boat

‘the present is a fine line [...]a puff of air would destroy it’
– Gaspar Galaz, ‘Nostalgia de la Luz’

Something near to true
night-darkness. The children
are playing the Plinky-Boat –
a xylophone made
from a reclaimed yoal –
built for flexibility in a coarse
sea, you can tell it fledged
with ease, just blushed
from boat to instrument,
transpiring streams
of these hoarse night-
notes. For its copper pipes
are cut to breadth exactly
so the boat’s beam is
its sotto voce and two rills
of rising pitch run into
the harmonic of each
hinnyspot – where
the boards of gunwales
and stem flow together.
I don’t know what it is
about this place that things
metaflower so readily
into their present selves.

The instrument’s a boat,
the notes unresonant
and scales of thin light
swarm over the pipes
from the boys’ headtorches.
Perhaps we heard seals
broaching in the harbour
as they answered the girls
’ handclapping game –
I doubt they moaned
in their haunted wise –
here was everything –
words lost, as I’m trying
to say, their echo, that
yodel into past and future.
The poem wouldn’t exist,
but we couldn’t stay.

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