The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

NaPoReMo #10: Brian fever

A Blade of Grass
Brian Patten

You ask for a poem.
I offer you a blade of grass.
You say it is not good enough.
You ask for a poem.

I say this blade of grass will do.
It has dressed itself in frost,
It is more immediate
Than any image of my making.

You say it is not a poem,
It is a blade of grass and grass
Is not quite good enough.
I offer you a blade of grass.

You are indignant.
You say it is too easy to offer grass.
It is absurd.
Anyone can offer a blade of grass.

You ask for a poem.
And so I write you a tragedy about
How a blade of grass
Becomes more and more difficult to offer,

And about how as you grow older
A blade of grass
Becomes more difficult to accept.

[From Brian Patten: Selected Poems, Penguin 2007]


I believe in poetry as a means of connection, a kind of emotional battery which only works if the reader and writer each hold one end. The poet can give a dazzling display of word play, but if s/he doesn’t make contact with the reader then it’s wasted. The risk that we take in trying for that connection is that we can sound trite or emotionally manipulative.

Brian Patten connects every time, in a style so simple that I feel particularly exposed in putting one of his poems under the magnifying glass. Patten was one of the Mersey poets who caused so much kerfuffle in the 1960s. Lazy critics, then as now, assumed that poetry which is easy to access is also shallow. Lazy critics, then as now, tend to assume that everyone who writes in the vernacular is a bit thick. This poem is one answer to that snobbery.

There’s no rhyme, but there is structure. The poem is entirely made up of exchanges between two people. The repetition of ‘You ask for a poem’ and ‘blade of grass’ show the stubbornness of both. The title is obstinately plain too, as in most of Patten’s poems. The four-line stanzas all end with a full stop, and some of the sentences are very short so there’s a choppy, back-and-forth, argumentative feel – until the very end. Then at last the narrator relents, writing the damn poem in a form that his opponent will accept, precisely to make the point that a poem wasn’t necessary at all. Don’t worry so much about the poetry, he seems to say. The poetry isn’t the point. Looking at the world is the point; enjoying simple pleasures is the point; communicating wonder and love to other humans is the point. Ultimately, nothing we write about captures the importance of the thing itself. The signifier never quite attains to the power of the signified.

In writing these posts I do exactly what the person asking for a poem does. I analyse and interrogate poems which are sometimes as simple and strong as a blade of grass. These are works which can only be explained in their own terms; if they could be explained in any other terms, they wouldn’t have needed to be written. It’s like pinning a butterfly into a display so that you can see it more clearly. You only get to examine it by losing that which made it a butterfly in the first place. It needs to be done, so that we can learn from our predecessors. But for me, the lesson of Patten’s poetry is that conviction, humanity and kindness – simply expressed – are essential components of a poem with integrity.

I interviewed Brian Patten once, as part of an event at a literature festival. I asked him something like “There’s a great simplicity to these poems, is there a sort of Zen sensibility behind them?” He made a face. “No, there isn’t a bloody Zen sensibility,” he said, mocking my earnestness with a Scouse laugh; the poems basically say what they mean. Which made his point, and as it happens, mine too.


5 comments on “NaPoReMo #10: Brian fever

  1. Nina Lewis
    April 10, 2017

    Ultimately, nothing we write about captures the importance of the thing itself. The signifier never quite attains to the power of the signified.

  2. ann perrin
    April 10, 2017

    Absolutely brilliant thank you. x

  3. john foggin
    April 10, 2017

    the thing is, the thing, the moment, flashes by in the sensory sleet of experience; writing, painting, whatever, is precisely what captures the importance of the thing, its significance or meaning. Meaning is a construct, a thing is what it is. Arists point and say: look at that, look. If they didn’t who would point things out? Well scientists would. Geologists, botanists, biologists. Words to see things with, to find your own significance

  4. mgincscot
    April 12, 2017

    Love the “bloody zen” comment!
    And what the poem says, so true.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on April 10, 2017 by in NaPoWriMo: poems to read, Readings and writings and tagged , .
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