My father died about thirteen years ago. January 1996. He had a heart attack, his second. It was all very sudden and all over very quickly. When I was about thirteen he had his first heart attack and that was the day he started to grow old. He'd be about my age when that happened, maybe a few years older. Up until then there was nothing he couldn't do if he put his mind to it. Or at least that's how it seemed to me. He'd grown up in poverty and worked his butt off to become the man he was.
At that time he was an assistant manager in a cotton-spinning factory. Later on he moved and became an assistant manager in a wool mill. I know it sounds like there wouldn't be too much difference but apparently there is and I remember him sitting with books on the subject once he'd got the job and he taught himself the job from scratch. I was impressed.
The cotton-spinning factory was just over the hill from where we used to live and I used to go over and hang out there sometimes when he was working overtime. He had a wee office where he used to sit when not fixing some machine or other. All I remember about it was he had a set of precision scales in a glass cabinet up on a shelf. Really all he was was a glorified mechanic once you got down to it. If he owned the company then maybe I would have had real reason to be proud but I didn't know it then.
I remember when I was a kid the first time he came home with £100 clear in his pay packet. £100 for a week's work – now that was something to be impressed about. Another thing was that he never handed my mum a broken pay packet and usually walked around penniless. Once his car broke down in the next town to us and he had to walk home because he had no money for a taxi or bus.
As I got older I inevitably began to become more aware that my father had flaws. And, of course, as the years went on his flaws became easier to give names to. Not that he had changed. Actually that's not true. As he aged he mellowed but we refused to acknowledge that at the time; the damage had been done. I'm deliberately keeping this vague because I have no desire to slag off my dead dad. But since the poems that follow are directly influenced by him it's only fair that you know something about him.
When he was made redundant from the cotton mill he spent £600, which was almost all of his redundancy, on a brand new Yamaha organ for me because he saw I was becoming passionate about music. I wasn't even pestering him for a second-hand piano at the time. This is just before you get it into your head that my dad was a right bastard and I couldn't see it. He wasn't. He was just human and frankly I'm no better than him. I never became the man people expected me to become and while I was faffing around disappointing other people I also managed to disappoint myself. I kept losing or quitting jobs and then having to start at the bottom, making a bit of a name for myself and then allowing the whole shenanigans to begin again. A kid I used to hang around the streets with when I was five is now a professor of mathematics at one of our country's leading universities; he had an odd name so I googled him one day. And what have I ever done? I never even went to uni.
But this post is not about me. It's not even really about my dad. It's about poetry.
I have a question: Do you think you use too many words in your poems?
I used to. I used to write poems that were pages and pages long. I just waffled on and on and maybe I got to my point eventually but I never made life easy for my readers. I really just enjoyed the sound of my own voice. Well, that's part of it. The main reason was that paper was so cheap. I didn't have to ration my words. I could just grab another sheet and another. And that's fine when you want to get something out of your system, as long as you're not expecting anyone else to read it.
As I grew older I began to realise that less is more. There is no need to be explicit. In fact you can actually say more by leaving your reader to ponder what you might be on about. Beckett called the process 'envaguening' – he would strip away all the biographical details from his text so that rather than applying to one time, place and person it becomes accessible to a much broader audience.
When my father died I wrote two poems. One was called 'So?' and I wrote it the day he died. It's a bad poem and I don't want to share it. Writing bad poetry is easy. You don't need a master class from me to teach you how to do it. But four days later I came up with this one:
THE END OF ALL ILLUSIONS
Yes, even granite men
melt in the rain in time.
20 January 1996
I've posted it before.
First question: If I hadn't told you would you have known that this was a poem about my dad?
Second question: Is the poem any good?
Harry looked into the mirror thinking of Vincent Van Gogh
and with a quick swipe lopped off his nose.
And happy with that he made a slice where his chin was.
He's always wanted a dimple,
the end of all illusions.
You you can find the complete lyrics here.
"Dear child," she said, "I should have liked to spare such of your illusions as were not fatal. But there must be an end of all illusions now. You would soften me if I were not so old..."
But it's the relationship between the son and his father as laid out in Reed's song that resonates throughout this piece for me, the idea of a man disfiguring himself so he won't look like his father. I just grew a beard which he hated and was always going on at me to shave off. I actually look very little like him and although he was a major influence in my life, the irony is I take after my mother in more than just looks.
There's more going on here and you'd have to listen to the whole album to see that but for the moment let's just stick with the one song.
All our illusions die when the body dies, all our hope and fears. Strangely enough this is not really a poem about my father's death. I'm talking here about the death of my illusions and they died years beforehand. Frankly I can't remember a time when I wasn't disillusioned with something.
You'll note the poem begins with a 'Yes' and there's a reason for that. It is an answer to a question but what is the question? After death there's no time for any more questions. It doesn't matter what the question was. All we are left with is an answer. That actually is the theme to 'So?' the fact that I'd left it too late to ask all the questions I had to ask.
'The End of all Illusions' is a poem that's always pleased me. Everything about it works. Even its peculiar rhythm and rhyme scheme.
I have a poem in Right Hand Pointing this month. You can read it here. And it started me thinking about the short poetic form. Everyone knows the haiku but why should it be the only form where you can get by with maybe a dozen words or so? I've only written a handful of poems that have less than four lines and in every case I've known that what I said was all that needed to be said, there was no need to embellish or expand upon or frame. I said what I had to say and got off the page. If I was making a list of rules – which I may do one of these days – I suspect that that would be my rule number one.
The question I found myself faced with was: How do you prove to your readers that 'The End of all Illusions' is perfect in its compactness? My solution was to rework the poem so you'd have something to compare it to.
Here it is:
THE VIEW FROM HERE
(THE END OF ALL ILLUSIONS II)
My father was a very small man.
Since I was a smaller boy still
I had to look up to him.
I got to hate how it hurt my neck
though in time I got used to it
and just the hate bothered me.
Sometimes I used to stand on a rock
or a pile of books so that I
could look down on him and then
one day I didn't need to stand on
anything at all. It was then
that the hate stopped hurting too
because from there I could see
that if you are patient
even granite men
will melt in the
rain in time.
Thursday, 25th June, 2009
I think it's a fairly decent poem in its own right. It's a different poem. It has a different rhythmic structure. The first four stanzas are like tentative cuts of 9-8-7 syllables each before the last three where the count descends to zero with that invisible last line. It passed the 'Carrie Test' – my wife approved it (although she made me put the title on two lines – I originally had 'The View From Here: The End Of All Illusions II' all on one line) – and so it got its number and is in the big red folder for keeps but I'm still not sure about it and I suspect I never will be because it was perfect to start with. Why does it need to be set up? And, of course, because of the structure of the new poem I had to change both the layout and the text – the 'Yes' is gone replaced by an 'even', plus we have the final 'Goodbye / Dad' which I wanted to drop but I was told to keep it.
You can let me know what you think.