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What Makes a Great Poem Great: Poem #1

Now that my stonemasonry apprenticeship is over, I have time to focus on the element of the craft I can see myself making a career out of.  The two weeks I spent at a letter carving workshop in Oxfordshire was the very first of my placements.  All the other placements were all excellent in their own way, but there was something about letter carving - something about the huge expanse of creative possibilities that exists within it - that pulls me into that world.   

For one, there's the meditative aspect of letter carving.  Before any letters are carved in stone, the traditional letter carver will first set out the letters onto paper.  Two horizontal ruled lines will be drawn according to the height of the letters, then these letters are drawn by hand.  And by hand I mean freehand.  No stencils, no rulers - no other tools apart from a pencil.  Just the hand and the eye.  It takes a lot of practice to accurately copy something as delicately shaped and weighted as a letterform.  Many stonemasons get letter carving jobs every now and then, but relatively few set out the letters in the traditional way.  Rather than refer to a letterform that's been designed specifically for stone (usually slightly thicker than a typical calligraphic letterform to withstand the British weather), the non-traditionalist would type out the letters onto Microsoft Word, print it out and trace the font onto the stone and then start carving.  Many, many stonemasons do it in this way and I know of a college that even teaches this method.  But to my mind, traditional is best.  The traditional way is more considered, more thoughtful and while it may take a little longer, the end result is far superior to anything that could come off Microsoft Word.  

I've spent most of this week in the garage drawing my way through an alphabet.  This has given me a lot of time to listen to a lot of music, radio and poetry podcasts.  I've been encouraged by the amount of poetry podcasts are out there.  I'm already an avid listener of Paul Muldoon's monthly podcast he does for The New Yorker, but I discovered many more podcasts.  I was particularly impressed by The Scottish Poetry Library's podcast series, and also The Poetry Society's regular podcast, in which a poet featured in Poetry Review is interviewed and invited to read one of their poems.  Then there's arguably the best resource of them all, at least for American Poetry: The Poetry Foundation, a place where you can read some of the greatest American poetry and do so while listening to the poet's original recording of it.  Soundcloud is also a great place to find poetry podcasts.  Then you have the might BBC iPlayer Radio App and programmes like The Verb, hosted by Ian MacMillan, probably the greatest man on earth.  The search facility on that app allows you to find specific things, and I regularly type in poetry, poet or poem in the hope of finding a gem of a programme, which I quite often do.  To my mind, the BBC iPlayer Radio App is worth the TV licence fee alone.  It's such a wonderful thing.  Then there's YouTube, with its infinite recorded poetry performances all over the world.   I'm sure this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of poetry podcasts, but I've found over the course of this week that these podcasts and recordings have really allowed poetry to come alive. In short, there is no greater time to be a lover of poetry than now.  And what's more, it's all completely free.  

As a result of so much listening, I discovered a poem I hopelessly fell in love with straight away.  After a week of so much discovery, it would be wrong to ignore it.  So this is poem #1:


Very Late, But Not Too Late
by James Tate

I was the last one to leave the party. I
said goodnight to Stephanie and Jared. They were
already in bed. In fact, they were making love,
but they stopped and thanked me for coming. Walking
down Kellog Street, with the full moon lighting my
way, I wondered who those people really were, and
why they had invited me. I had felt like a spy
all evening, absorbing useless bits of information.
It’s amazing what people will tell a complete
stranger. At the end of Kellog I turn right on
Windsor. A woman was standing under the streetlight.
She looked frightened. “Do you need help?” I said.
She was hesitant to speak, but finally said, “I’m
lost.” “Where are you trying to go?” I asked
“Richards Street,” she said, “my aunt lives there,”
“That’s not far from here,” I said. “I’ll walk
you there,” And so we walked. I could tell she
was still a little apprehensive. Her bus had
gotten in late, and she had expected her aunt to
meet her, and no one answered the phone when she
tried to call her. When we got to her aunt’s house
there were no lights on. I waited while she knocked
on the door. She knocked harder and harder, but
the aunt didn’t answer, “Listen,” I said, “I live
close by. Let’s go over to my place and we can call
the police. They’ll figure this thing out.”
She hadn’t much choice but to agree. We walked
in silence, a smooth, rich flow of it. And when
she reached out and held my hand, I felt as though
my life had begun.


I found this poem on the Poetry Foundation website after James Tate's name was mentioned in an interview I listened to with a contemporary British poet.  A reference was made in that interview to one of his poems in which Tate describes a baby walking down a motorway.  I've yet to find that poem, but my interest was piqued sufficiently to explore further and get a taste of his work.  I've since listened and read several more James Tate poems, but this one is by far my favourite.

Tate's poems have been described among other things as surreal and absurdist, and further reading clarified these points.  The poems of his I read afterwards were much more surreal and overtly dream-like than "Very Late, But Not Too Late".  A dream or a dream-like sequence seems to be a common theme among Tate's work.  There are certainly dream-like elements to this poem, but to call it a dream poem is too simple a term to attach to it. It has enough quality to transcend the is it/isn't it a dream argument, because its surrealistic elements blend well within the narrative of the poem.  And  the themes within this narrative are big: within the poem's 30 lines, Tate puts a magnifying glass up to  loneliness, identity, trust and love.  The dream - if it is a dream - is secondary to the themes contained within it, and the surrealism that's there isn't there for surrealism's sake.

There's something very cinematic about "Very Late, But Not Too Late" and that's probably why I like it so much - my love of film and cinema has clearly influenced this decision.  There's the character-driven narrative, the pinch of humour and surrealism, the dialogue - everything about it would sit well in a film, or sit well as the voice-over in a film. It makes me wonder what type of directorial style it would best suit.  A mix of Charlie Kaufmann, Michel Gondry and Noah Baumbach?  I hand that question over to the film lovers who might be reading this.

I have so much time for poems like this.  There is a lot of very boring poetry out there - both classic and contemporary - but that makes a poem like this all the more valuable.

More information about James Tate can be found here.


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