I hope you’ve all been keeping well over the past month! I’ve missed sending you poems and hearing from you, but I’ve also enjoyed having some more time for myself. For the next month or so, these posts will be fortnightly – to allow for some silence between each poem.
In this week’s poem, the poet sketches out a fantasy poem – the perfect poem, the poem that says everything that needs to be said in the most beautiful way possible, the poem that our narrator cannot write. What follows is a stunning work of imagination – something that takes us to the heart of poetry itself.
Thanks to Anthony Wilson’s blog, where I found it!
The Missing Poem, by Mark Halliday
It would have been dark but not lugubrious. It would have been
fairly short but not slight. It would have contained a child
saying something inadvertently funny that was not said by my daughter,
something strangely like what your daughter or sister said once
if you could remember. The child’s voice flies across
a small parking lot where, in one of the cars,
a man and a woman sit listening to the silence between them.
The child’s voice probably hurts them momentarily
with a sense of beauty apparently very possible
yet somehow out of reach. In the missing poem this is
implied, conveyed, transmitted without being flatly said.
And it does a dissolve into the look of a soccer field
after a game—the last three or four players walk
slowly away, their shin-guards muddy, their cleats caked,
one player dragging a net bag full of soccer balls—
the players seem to have known what it was all for
yet now they look somehow depleted and aimless there
at the field’s far end; and a block away on a wood-grainy porch
the eyes of a thin woman sixty-three years old search the shadows
in each passing car, as the poem recalls what she wants to recall.
Hours later the field is dark
and the hills are dark and later even Firehouse Pizza has closed.
In the missing poem all this pools into a sense of how much
we must cherish life; the world will not do it for us.
This idea, though, in the missing poem is not smarmy.
Remember when you got the news of the accident—
or the illness—in the life of someone
more laced into your life than you might have thought;
the cool flash of what serious is. Well,
the missing poem brings that. Meanwhile not seeming like
an imitation of Mark Strand or Mark Doty or Mark Jarman!
Yet not like just another Halliday thing either.
Instead it would feel like a new dimension of the world,
the real world we imagine. With lightness!
With weight and lightness and, on the hypothetical radio,
that certain song you almost forgot to love.
All writers have a missing poem – a poem that is overwhelmingly beautiful, that says everything that must be said, and, crucially, that they cannot write. Here, Mark Halliday imagines that perfect poem. From the outset, the repeated ‘It would have been’ (an unreal perfect conditional, for all you grammar buffs) makes clear that the perfect poem is one that does not exist in the ‘real’ world. It exists in the half-light, the would have been, the unfulfilled possibility. This means the whole poem is a paradox, a logical impossibility: how can you write the poem that cannot be written? That doesn’t stop Halliday from trying, though. He begins in tentative conditionals, sketching out the perfect landscape both for the setting within the poem (‘It would have been dark but not lugubrious.’) and for its external form (‘It would have been / fairly short but not slight.’) Soon his fantasy poem takes us deep into the heart of poetry itself – for by sketching out the perfect poem, Halliday is reflecting on what makes poetry perfect.
At their best, poems find words for things that are otherwise inexpressible – for strange moments of melancholy, or poignancy, or joy. The boldness of this poem is to plant these arresting moments directly into its narrative without any explanation. In ‘a small parking lot, in one of the cars, a man and a woman sit listening to the silence between them.’ But who are they, and what has happened between them? ‘On a wood-grainy porch / the eyes of a thin woman sixty-three years old search the shadows / in each passing car’ – what is she thin from? What is she searching for? Halliday never tells us. That is precisely the power of poetry – with words it carves out silences, into which we can pour all our own particular experiences and anxieties. Thus Halliday’s fantasy poem, with its masterful selection of particular moments, can become universally meaningful. But it is tinged with a dream-like melancholy, a sense of the impossible, a sense of regret – for the whole poem is written in the space of what might have been, but actually isn’t. That’s why it is able to reach towards the impossible: written ‘with weight and lightness’, it recalls what we want to recall, playing ‘on the hypothetical radio, / that certain song you almost forgot to love’.
For anyone interested, Ben Lerner’s recent article in the LRB is brilliant and relevant. Called ‘On Disliking Poetry’, it argues that all poems exist in a place of non-reality. Enjoy!
All my love,