A Falling Star (Or, A Poem In Which Everything Nick Laird Believes Should Not Be Done In A Poem Occurs At Least Once)

31 Mar

Jo Bell recently posted a link to Nick Laird’s Guardian article, It is necessary to spell your poetry correctly (29 March, 2013), in which the Faber poet and National Poetry Competition judge set out the many faults he saw removing poems from contention during his time on the panel. “If the title is a ready-made phrase such as A Falling Star, the poet already has a distance to claw back. So scrap the cliches”, he writes. “The register has to be controlled, and preferably not helplessly imitative or archaic. Be careful with words such as whence or din or guffaw or russet. Also, contorted or caress or ochre. Or clad or crave or pale or engorged. Or gossamer. Don’t write about things frosted with dew. Don’t write about a true gent of the road or heroic fragility”, he adds. Also, says Laird, no footnotes or illustrations. No well-known Sylvia Plath lines or philosophical quotes in German as epigraphs (how about both at once: a well-known Plath line in German?). All this got me thinking: I know of exceptions to all these rules, individually. But can one poem break all of them, every single one, one after another, and still be made to work, more or less? Laird’s advice suddenly felt like an irresistible challenge. Or, as I’d prefer to say, in the spirit of using blatant cliches: Nick Laird has thrown down a gauntlet and this poem is a response. Sadly, I couldn’t work in a decorative border to the page but I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything else. And, having done this, I’d recommend taking Laird’s list of no-nos as a set of instructions: the need to include so many specific words and phrases, so many artless concepts and scraps of Victorian ‘Poeticky’ chintz, makes the poems that might result something like a new strict form: the ‘Laird’, perhaps? Try it yourself. It might take you to places you’d never otherwise have thought about going.


A Falling Star (Or, A Poem In Which Everything Nick Laird Believes Should Not Be Done In A Poem Occurs At Least Once)

“Ich, ich, ich, ich.”

Sylvia Plath: Daddy (1962)

‘Whence the nesessary revolution? Revolute NOW!’
So says the white spray-paint drizzling
from exhaust-stained brick beneath this railway arch,
its letters carved, clean as milk through soot,
where a fibre-optic gossamer frost of dew
gleams upon the spiders’ webs stretched taut, contorted,
as a CCTV camera turns to trace your shadow
on some distant screen. You are static, a shape
in a city engorged with its own held breath,
know somewhere a solitary watching security guard
shifts his weight in a plastic seat, his arse clad in overalls,
his blue shirt collar turned down to ease
the cotton rubbing against an ochre bruise,
the russet itch of a shaving rash. You are not alone
however that guard’s eyes crave to close.

Beyond the dark glass that defines his room
you imagine a din, guffaws, coughs and air conditioning,
muffled as your mind drifts, steers a course
through YouTube clips from silent films you only half recall:
a true gent of the road, stumbling forward, monochrome
in his patched-up coat, his broken shoes,
to reach a house, take a rose, caress the hand of a pale girl…
Is this Chaplin, Keaton or Harold Lloyd?*
You only know there is heroic fragility in the face of chaos,
old currencies seen just as they were,
a coinage of human decencies no longer recognised
by any bank or store. So you’ll stand,
read these white shapes sprayed on the wall again,
while a camera pans back and forth, zooms in then out:
‘Whence the nesessary revolution? Revolute NOW!’

You pull tight focus on these points where lines cross,
slice clean through shadows’ mascara darks
to spell something else: ‘Why speak of Falling Stars?’
It’s only when we float outside ourselves
things come to us, as Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill**
streams into a laptop eighty years too late
to seem less than strange. Streetlamps flicker, engines chill,
footsteps echo on terraced streets. Nothing moves
but security cameras, horse chestnut leaves
and this part-recall of some footage not seen for years:
whole houses rolling down flooded streets,
dogs braced on wooden ironing boards, tied to porches
by washing-lines where bloomers flap
like national flags among white socks and shirts.
We know cities, like stars, could still be otherwise.


* Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977); Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966); Harold Lloyd (1893 – 1971). Early Hollywood comedy actors best known for their work in silent films.

** Steamboat Bill, Jr, silent film by Buster Keaton, released in 1928.


“Please note that Prizes are ineligible for consideration by the author without receipt of advance administrative fee (£10 per poem, or 3 poems for £25) alongside payment for the books or manuscripts required for the submission process (minimum £6.99 per copy). Written proof of having read the contents thoroughly at the judging stage must be provided by all involved before any shortlisting can be accepted…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: