‘Tiger, Tiger’ from my pamphlet A Handbook for the Afterlife is my longest and perhaps most ambitious poem, abandoning the strict notions I held of what a poem is or can be. For a long time it was in my head rather than on the page as a draft because the idea of it – that I wanted to try to contain a novel in a poem – was such a perfect idea that I was very reluctant to tarnish it by failing. I didn’t want to write a ‘narrative poem’, but rather somehow pack a full story with developed themes into a poem, doing this through depth rather than in a linear way. I felt very frustrated by the expectations most lyric forms place on ideas, probably because at the time there was a direct correlation with my lived experience. The poem was conceived some years ago, when after childbirth and marriage I quite simply vanished as an authentic person in the tsunami of roles that now overwhelmed me. I felt stripped back to idea-flotsam, unable to be properly real because of the sheer force and weight of my life. My ideas needed new forms to exist, just as I did myself.
Although I have written about zoos before, and about animals, the poem comes from a different place. Notions of captivity and freedom had new resonance at this time, and the sensation of my own invisibility had a curiously liberating effect. The poem began to occupy my thoughts at the same time that I was also beginning to write prose seriously, galloping chapters which would eventually become my novel Larchfield.
The first departure from my previous way of writing poetry was length. ‘Tiger, Tiger’ is the longest single poem I have published. Competitions and magazines generally only accept poems of 40 lines and I had almost always stuck to a personal rule of one page for a poem, internalising the idea that nice woman poets don’t go on too long. ‘Never be boring’ is a good tip for writers, but, I found myself asking, why should 40 lines be the limit of my ideas? Bobbing about in the wreckage of the tsunami I stopped caring about how interesting I was being and just told the story I had to tell.
So the form of ‘Tiger, Tiger’ is also a departure for me. It follows the intertwined story of a girl, a man and a tiger and reads like a fairy tale, as it is subtitled. Perhaps I was simply a frustrated storyteller, but other poets – women exclusively at the time of writing – have also mentioned to me that poetic form is a constraint that can work against our experience, which is often disconnected, ahistorical and wordless. To be a proper poet, one must pay attention and deference to tight forms which are made for something else. In my life and in my writing I had reached a point of resistance and just thought: no one cares what I am doing, so I may as well do what I like. I remember thinking, even through my despair, that jumping into this was the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
The relief of expressing the full complexity of experience in the way you need to without regard for consequence is perhaps the greatest (only?) consolation of art. Once I had decided that the poem could be as long as it needed to be and could take whatever form I needed it to take, why stop there? The middle section of the poem, the point of greatest action in the story, consists only of dictionary definitions. It was exactly the right way for me to show the breaking down of experience, of narrative – and of a person – into constituent elements, and this is the turning point of poem, for the person and the story are then reconstituted differently: girl into tiger, tiger into girl.
It was important that the fairy tale really did work as a narrative, even as it was a commentary on how narrative disintegrates in the face of inexplicable experience. In earlier drafts it ended simply when the girl becomes a tiger. But I realised there was more: there is a circularity to violent experience that I had curtailed. It is passed on. So I continued the story, so that both the tiger and the girl have their resolution.
‘Tiger, Tiger’ is a turbulent poem about violence. Cruelty defies normal organisation. In fact, tidying it into tight form can amplify it, and pervert it further. My poem was not published for a long time because it was too long and unrestrained. Then Neil Astley selected it for his guest edited edition of the American journal Ploughshares and I received many positive responses to it. Having written an actual novel now, I don’t believe I have embedded an entire novel in 61 lines, but I have shown myself a new possibility. ‘Tiger, Tiger’ enabled me to express something inexpressible, and it taught me a great deal about the capaciousness of language, how it can hold more ideas and more contradiction than I had thought possible. Most of all, ‘Tiger, Tiger’ tells a bloody good story.
Once upon a time a girl ran away to join the zoo.
She was only herself in the company of animals.
Their smell and their wordlessness drew her.
Their silence was not a lack, but a better dimension.
At the zoo was a tiger, untamed and deadly…
– to read more, get a copy of A Handbook for the Afterlife from the Templar website.
Polly Clark is the author of three collections of poetry. Her work has won an Eric Gregory Award, been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and twice been selected by the Poetry Book Society as a book of the year. Her pamphlet, A Handbook for the Afterlife (Templar) is shortlisted in Michael Marks Awards 2016.
Larchfield, her forthcoming novel, is about two poets, one of whom is W.H. Auden, who meet across time. It is published by riverrun March 2017 and won the 2015 MsLexia novel prize. Polly Clark is Literature Programme Producer for Cove Park, Scotland’s International Artist Residency Centre, and lives in Helensburgh on Scotland’s west coast. Her website is www.pollyclark.co.uk