Words in Unexpected Places

Poetry can surprise you!


Poetry can surprise you!

I have a book on my desk, bought new, hardback, expensive. It stares up at me accusingly, shouting “Read me! Read me!” The book is Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden.

So, today I forget about writing, and read poems selected by one hundred prominent women — poems chosen because they make them cry.

I cry, too.

My coffee goes cold. The date slice remains unmade. Solar panels still face east when I should’ve turned them long since to face west.


Some poets I know: Rumi, T. S. Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Shakespeare, Shelley. And others I’ve never heard of, but their words give me a window into their soul.


What makes something poetry?

There are many answers to this question, but one definition I read somewhere which has stuck is that poetry is words in unexpected places.

Three examples I read today:

Rest in soft peace

I'm struck by the unexpected insertion of soft to extend a euphemism, and to emphasise a quality of peace, in the poem ‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson.

Something in His eye grabs hold of a tamborine in me

There’s a tambourine in me? From ‘Isn’t that something?’ by Rumi.

Coming close again by holding back

The paradox of that line from Zoé Heller in ‘Clearances 5’ holds me still.


My mother’s family name is Western. The Westerns are known to talk too fast. To forget to enunciate. To gabble. I’ve inherited the gabbling gene. I don’t talk like the Queen of England, with prim mouth and well-paced sentences. My words tumble out, tripping each other up before they fall into the space in front of my face. My tongue dashes between teeth and lips, almost getting bitten in the haste of me getting my message out.

But today I’m alone. There’s no one to talk to. Words sit inside me and I don’t let them loose. Even if I wasn’t alone I would still hold my tongue because this day spent with poetry has slowed me. It’s shown me what words can do, especially words in unexpected places.

When I was very young I worried that maybe we were only allowed to say a certain number of words, and then we’d have to be silent for the rest of the years left to us. So I asked my mother how many words we were allowed in a lifetime. She said there was no limit. 'But,' she added sternly, 'if there was a limit you’d soon run out because you talk so much!'

Now that I’m in my sixties, it’s an idea worth thinking about before I open my mouth again. Perhaps I should ask myself: 'If there was a limit, is what I’m about to say a waste of my hypothetically allocated number of possible words?'

Another idea spawned by this day with poetry is that instead of speaking in my usual jerky or rambling prose, I could switch to poetic form. It would be taxing, and I suspect the rhyming pattern would collapse under the pressure of time. It’s an option, but not a very workable one. I’d hate my family to be waiting around while I mentally form rhymed couplets before asking them who left toast crumbs in the butter.

But, at least, let some of my words be poetry. Let them fall from my lips pre-dipped in mystical syntax and golden meaning.

I’ll still say mundane things like 'Please pass the pepper,' or 'How come scientists can send men to the moon but can’t design a comfortable bike seat?'. But every now and then, when I’ve been quiet for a long time, dwelling in the space where deep and meaningful poetic thoughts thrive, I’ll come up with a gem worth sharing. I’ll speak it slowly, in ringing tones like the Queen, and people will clap. Or not.

Living with Mindfulness

I’ve decided that from now on I’m going to speak mindfully. I'll slow down my speech. Make each word count. And put some words in unexpected places — for my sake and for the sake of my listeners.

And I’m going to buy a copy of Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, also edited by Anthony and Ben Holden.


With love, Marlane


Original version published on Medium.com/Illumination


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