An occasional blog provoked by the idea that poetry might be good for the soul. As with everything else in my life it’s actually prompted by guilt. I have shelves of poetry books and never seem to read them any more, which is a shame. Or maybe it isn’t. Either way last year I decided to choose, entirely at random, a book from said shelves and allow it to fall open upon a poem. This I would read, inwardly digest and then share my thoughts. If I had any.
I have no formal education. You can’t count a handful of ‘O’ levels obtained despite the best efforts of a pretty dreadful 1970s comprehensive so any analysis will be, by definition, amateurish and half assed. I stopped doing this last year when National Novel Writing Month came around and never got back into it. Being the kind of man who once he stops finds it incredibly difficult to start again I wondered if that was that for poetry and me.
Last week Tim Head quoted a line of Ted Hughes which I entirely failed to recognise. Then yesterday I was in a church contemplating an elaborate tomb and Philip Larkin floated into my thoughts. Never one to allow such omens to pass without reading far too much into them I decided to treat my poor neglected soul to a verse or two. Here we go.
The first thing you notice about The Fire Gap is the fancy presentation. The poem folds out from its slim card cover and insinuates itself hissing down either side of a sinuous line created from the space between the first and second half of a poem. This line or gap cunningly creates the shape of a serpent. At the bottom of the page is a little poetic coda beneath a charcoal sketched Christ figure.
I have a few issues with the poem and all that clever snake shape mularky. These probably reflect more poorly on me than they do on Tony Harrison though so any TH fans out there please don’t be cross with me. Firstly all that fancy layout is just silly affectation and distraction. I know whenever I go overboard in photoshop or with multiple key and time signature changes in a song it’s just disguising the fact that there isn’t much of substance in the original work. Therefore I’m instantly suspicious when others do the same. Unfairly suspicious? Yes of course. Some people are true artists and the presentation is carefully thought out and an integral part of the work, here it’s just a gimmick and makes the thing awkward to read.
Anther problem stems from the constant changes to line length and the persistent rhyme every line thing. The two pulled and pushed against each other all the way through. Never allowing you to get into a rhythm but constantly suggesting you should.
So much for style. What about content? Well, the poem has a very well communicated sense of place. The curious (at least to my British mind) concept of a Thermos with ice in it, fire planes in the sky, the fire gap at the border of his land and the suggestion that his neighbours grow pot in the open on a large scale all tell us we are in a hot, hot country.
He describes his part of the US as ‘half cultivated, tame and half left wilderness’ and it is this division between the wild and the domesticated which runs throughout the piece. The writer heading to his writing shed with his flask and squeamish refusal to kill the snake and the violent, primitive murderous lust of his neighbours who inhabit the wilderness beyond his tilled fields. The fire gap a physical representation of this division is only once bridged in the poem and then by the snake, ‘the wild touched by its rattle tip, the tilled field by its snout’, but never crossed.
There is a strong religious flavour with the serpent of Eden getting a few mentions and the red necked, Trump supporting, firebrand, right wing religious fervour of Harrison’s neighbours coming in for a particularly venomous treatment. In his postscript he speaks of them blessing Cruise missiles and then uses a rather clumsy pun on tale and tail to make a point which doesn’t really work for me.
All in all I could have done with more place and less repetitious ‘ There’s a snake and I’m really scared of it but I don’t want to kill it’ stuff, but that’s just my personal taste. And I suppose, on reflection, that snaky space through the poem with the fire gap motif does kind of work.