Poetry is escape.
The bloke at the desk there, not moving at all, not even seeing us as we step into his room now, but staring into space, tapping perhaps his pen against his teeth, or leaning now to squint closely at a sheet of paper, alive with these squiggly, wriggly marks which contain all there is of magic, of madness, is doing some work. He is doing the work of the desperate prisoner, tunneling at night by the light of a single candle, his rickety tools vigilantly tapping, on his determined way from Alcatraz to Acapulco, from a life sentence to liberty. It is dirty work – look at the blackness on his fingers – but the result is that joy, there on his face, as he shifts that last bit of earth, emerges into the world a different man, knows he can be anything now, struts or slouches off into town for a drink.
Poetry is escape. This is the magic chair, here, the blank piece of paper in front of it. Sit down in it now and open your eyes as a jellyfish, an octopus, swimming in miles of ocean, your body trailing somewhere behind you, the fish in front of you gleaming, suspended. Weave in and out of them now, bob for a bit, doing backstroke. Can-can the long skirts of your body. Reflect on your octopus memories, your jellyfish loved ones, your stinking or watery past. Blink again and find yourself in a tavern, a boozer, start of the last century, the bell for last orders ringing, a cloud of pipe smoke there in front of you, which a man – sideburned and waistcoated, your own great grandfather – is walking towards you through now, holding a tray. Lean your head, listen closely, make out his words through the bubbling bravado of the gold-tinged tap-room. Blink again and open your eyes in an aeroplane. Night. Stars right there like you could reach out and touch them, blow them from your palms like so much dust. The plane’s engine hums. 1959. A young man with dark curls and distinctive glasses in the next seat over, whistling something catchy. He leans across, says Ritchie. The stars move faster.
The joy of self-less-ness is there in so many poems. The voice of the other person, the place, the animal, the thing, that opens its mouth and says whatever it wants to. Writing to Richard Woodhouse in 1818, John Keats put it this way:
‘As to the poetical Character itself…it is not itself – it has no self – It is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade;it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated…What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet… A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity –he is continually in for and filling some other body. The Sun – the Moon – the Sea, and men and women, who are creatures of impulse, are poetical, and have about them an unchangeable attribute; the poet has none, no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures… he has no self…’
Poets sit there like secretaries, like court reporters, frantically scribbling, manically nodding, struggling to keep up. Poetry is escape, but it is also empathy. New feelings, new thoughts, new words, new memories.
Monologues offer a new approach, new life. If, in ‘A Song for Occupations,’ Walt Whitman finds ‘the eternal meanings’ in ‘the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields,’ poetic monologue allows us to pick up a pen and instantly be zookeeper, scientist, astronaut, corner shop owner. Matthew Sweeney’s ‘Guardian of the Women’s Loo in Waterloo’ gives us the voice of a woman who’s seen the lot left behind in the public toilets, up to and including ‘a lipstick-smeared photo of Brad Pitt.’ In ‘A Week as my Home Town,’ one of the best poems I know about place, Carol Ann Duffy gives us not one but seven monologues, writing each day of the week from the point of view of a different place in the town. On Tuesday, the park stretches its arms,wakes, yawns, runs through its morning routine. On Thursday, the main road announces, unforgettably, that ‘My heart’s a roundabout/in love with the next town.’ Alan Gillis’s ‘In These Aisles,’ meanwhile, gives us an unforgettably energetic shelf-stacker’s song:
From an ASBO to Asda
I’ve come a long way, they say,
as if stacking shelves was a
big dream of mine, like ‘wey-hey,
it’s Spreads and fucken Preserves today…
Place and occupation are just two of the magic areas that monologue can let us explore. Think of the possibility of inhabiting animal bodies – there so brilliantly in the work of Ted Hughes and Jo Shapcott – or of the use of pop culture figures in the work of writers like Shapcott and Paul Farley. Shapcott’s ‘Superman Sounds Depressed’ gives us an insight into what it might really be like to be the big man, while in ‘Not Fade Away,’ Paul Farley is a Buddy Holly who survived the wreckage of the air crash in 1959 and walked away:
You don’t crawl free from crashes every day.
In celebration of that windchilled night
I’ve pissed the intervening years away
in dark corners, doorways, and come so far
from all those screaming girls, the cold limelight
winks back faint as a star.
Similarly, in ‘Kid,’ Simon Armitage gives us a Robin who has a thing or two to say about Batman, and poems like Armitage’s ‘Ten Pence Story’ offer another possibility, the chance to inhabit inanimate objects – a Kit Kat sitting on a supermarket shelf all day, say, the steering wheel of a driving tutor, the pen in the hand of a writer. What do they think or feel? What can they tell us about ourselves?
But arguably the category of monologue which generates the most exciting and ambitious poems is monologue based on historical figures and original research. One of my own favourite examples of the genre is Nick Laird’s astonishingly powerful ‘Lipstick’ from his collection On Purpose. Based on the diary of a British soldier liberating a concentration camp in 1945, the poem dwells on the baffling arrival at the camp of boxes and boxes of lipstick, and the ghoulish impact this has, the camp victims ‘wandering, vampiric, red flecks on their teeth.’ Returning home and attempting to dislodge the memory, the poem’s speaker:
found my wife’s cosmetics, wrapped them in a parcel
and flung it in the tip; though I still see that shade at times,
on hoardings or the high road, young mums, some skinny girl
who’s coloured in the colour of her screams.
Sinéad Morrissey’s astonishing ‘The State of the Prisons’, the title poem from her 2005 collection, takes a similar approach, its voice giving us the whole life of the eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard, focusing movingly on his relationship with his son, making clear the richness of monologue when dealing with the subject of family.
So: place, occupation, animals, pop culture figures, objects, historical characters. Pick up a pen and you can be anyone, anything. Ultimately, though, however many voices we take on in a poem, we might find one thing: that they are all various ways of interrogating the self. In a very different context, Hugo Williams writes, ‘God give me strength to lead a double life,’ and those of us who are writers know a thing or two about living a double life, of balancing the demands of a day job, say, against the wonder of writing. A central part of that wonder, I would argue, is the possibility it gives us to move into different head spaces, live other lives. As Don Paterson argues in his recent book The Poem, human beings are verbs, not things – something which is freeing and something which we often forget. Yet in writing in other voices, in being other selves, we might find also, that we return, as this article is returning now, to Whitman: ‘I celebrate myself, and sing myself…’
Expand your voice with the thoughts, lives and feelings of others on Jonathan’s new online course, Someone Else’s Shoes: Poetic Monologue. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.