In his poem ‘Heredity’ Tony Harrison answers someone who questions how he became a poet with the wonderful line:
“I say I had two uncles, Joe and Harry
– one was a stammerer, the other dumb.”
It’s one of those poetic lines that I somehow instinctively feel is deep and full of truth but I probably couldn’t easily explain why. For me it says that poetry is about a struggle to communicate.
When I mentioned in one of my own readings that I had to see a speech therapist as a child I was surprised at how many other poets said that they had similar experiences and that they knew of other poets who had suffered from speech defects as children. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I know some excellent poets now who have a stammer and other speech problems and I know many poets, me included, who are naturally taciturn and often struggle to communicate in normal social situations.
Is it the difficulty in speaking that makes us poets or being poets that makes us struggle to speak? Perhaps a speech defect makes us all the more conscious of the importance of words, their weight and power or maybe knowing their importance makes us uncomfortable with using them lightly.
I love word-play, my favourite jokes are often puns or ridiculous uses of language. I love rhyme and rhythm, the careful ordering of words to give them power. I have written whole poems just to hold a single line that has popped into my head and feels too good to abandon. In some ways the rest of these poems are just an excuse to say that single line. Two examples spring to mind:
“The thick black blanket of night came up to cover your eyes.”
“A beautiful boiled sweet to sit at the cusp of a neck that must be kissed.”
Like many writers I find the misuse of language painful. I shudder to hear words such as ‘literally’ misused or to see ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ swapped around or when I hear my own children mangle a sentence the way children always will. Of course this sort of pedantry makes me an absolute joy to live with. I know it is pointless and fuddy-duddy and a kind of snobbishness that is deeply unpleasant. It’s just that words, for me, are important. Language is important and communication is difficult and it should be respected for that reason.
In my performance piece ‘I am not a poet’ I end by saying:
I play with words the way a toddler might,
stacking them, sorting them,
sticking them in the wrong holes,
chewing them up and spitting them out
onto a page to say : ‘Look!’
I carry words like
worn worry blankets
everywhere I go
I am not a poet.
I have struggled for a long time with the idea of calling myself a poet but given my speech defects and my silences I suppose I’m going to have to admit that maybe that’s all I can be and just keep struggling to make myself heard and understood.