Workshopping Michael Laskey
You, who have borne three sons of mine, still bear my weight routinely, transporting me.
An odd pair: your classic spare
lines – elbows, bony frame – and me, bearlike, cumbersome,
nosing tangled coils of air
you cut through with your pure purposeful geometry.
With you it’s feet off the ground,
a feat passing unremarked though in full public view.
Keeping each other’s balance.
Our talk slow recurrent clicks, companionable creaks.
Through you I’ve come to know
winds inside out and raw weather ignored before;
and nuances of slopes,
the moving earth, green tracks for blackberries and sloes
for gin, for jam: the tug
and tang of fruit pulling me clear of the wheel of myself.
I have been reading Michael Laskey's poems for a long, long time. 'Bike' is one of my very favourites of his, though saying this puts me in mind of the joke about the Buddhist greengrocer who was reported to have said 'All my vegetables are my favourite vegetables!' I have been workshopping it, on and off, for a decade or so. Reading it freshly through other people's eyes, it never fails to surprise me.
This was no less true than ever at my final event of Tonbridge Talks, a few weekends ago. Billed as 'a festival of the environment', the purpose of the weekend was to bring together activists, teachers, authors and families in an atmosphere of mutual sharing and enquiry about our climate emergency. I packed a bunch of poems I felt sure would 'work', 'Bike' among them.
But it's funny what a different frame can do to your perspective. This was the first time I had asked participants to look at it through an environmental lens. Previously I had used it to talk about family; about solitude; as a model of how to praise something. As it happened (phew!), we ended up talking about all those things. One participant was convinced of the sexual nature of the poem. Another talked about the bike addressed as a lover. 'I'm not sure how I'd feel if someone compared me to one,' she said. Warming slightly more closely to the environmental theme I had anticipated, another spoke of the feeling of walking and cycling round the lanes where he lived, disappearing into spaces he had never seen before.
We did a bit of 'compare and contrast' (I didn't call it that) with another poem I had brought along, Mark Strand's mysterious and haunting 'A Morning'. People liked it, but not as much as 'Bike', which they found much more relatable, less abstract. We pass through a lot of different spaces, I heard myself saying, nearly always without taking much notice of where we are. Take notice of where you are, I said. Then praise it.
Then I told them the story of sitting in a car once with Michael, as he pounded the steering wheel, shouting 'Praise, Anthony, praise! That's what we have to do as poets! Praise!' One person took exception to the word 'praise'. He was convinced that poetry was about something else entirely. I disagreed and told him to read Adam Zagajewski's 'Try to Praise the Mutilated World'. He still wasn't having it. One thing I do know, he wrote a corker of a poem in response to Michael's. He had been pulled clear of the wheel of himself.