Thursday, October 7, 2010

What words are worth

I went to a wedding once where the lead singer of EMF was a guest (it was a Forest of Dean wedding, natch. Everyone's related there, via sheep). After the wedding breakfast, he took the mic and informed the assembled crowd, 'Tonight I'm going to sing some songs about trains'.


And then, he did. I can't remember a single one of them (see again: Forest of Dean wedding. There were many old friends, and much booze), but I remember his set being (a) surprisingly great and (b) full of trains.

I've been overdosing on This American Life podcasts this month thanks to all the sodding running I'm doing. I'm sure there's a train of thought that says you shouldn't listen to something that makes you slow down in the driveway when you're training for a race, but I'm all about the endurance part of endurance running, and far less about speed. Hmm. Not at all about speed, that should probably read.

Anyway, This American Life has a little story before the main deal which sort of introduces the topic, but somewhat tangentially. And apparently the genius of Ira Glass has woven itself into my brain (if only), because that's what the wedding story is. A tangential introduction.


All of which to say; tonight I'm going to tell you some stories about poems. Well, just the one, really; but 'a story' rather than 'stories' would have knocked out the rhythm.

I got lucky at college. My first term in, I made friends who have, with very few shake-downs, been with me ever since. Theo (he of the flowers) and I were pretty much inseparable in those days, and for years after. We fought more or less constantly; huge, incensed arguments about the supremacy of language over science; huger, still more incensed arguments about whether it was OK for him to eat my food whilst I was still eating it too (Theo's point was that he always ended up finishing my meals every day, so he may as well eat it whilst hot rather than wait for it to be congealed). Theo was family from the outset; whatever we were bickering about at the time, the fact that we were friends always seemed obvious; irrevocable.

At the end of the first term, we met to exchange gifts - the vogue was for those hideous carved candles of naked people embracing that you could buy for a fiver in the market. In an Emperor's New Clothes way, everyone thought were unbelievably sophisticated (they were unbelievably ugly, more like). So I was expecting wax, and was pleasantly surprised when Theo gave me two envelopes. One was a Christmas card.

I opened the other one. That was a Christmas card too.

(To understand Theo, you have to think back to early episodes of Friends and imagine Joey mixed with Chandler in proportions of about 70:30. Right at this moment, he was all Joey).

Theo grinned at me. 'Read it!'

It was a poem. I don't remember much of it, though I still have it somewhere; congenital pack-rattage combined with a commitment to never discard other people's emotions means we have an entire sea-chest upstairs filled with randomata.

What made it so utterly brilliant, though, was the dedication that preceded the poem:

'Saz - I wrote this for X (whichever the latest of Theo's conquests had been)but she ditched me so I thought you'd like it'.

He was right; I did. And I especially liked that he knew me well enough, after only eight weeks, to understand that a poem written for me would've felt unbearable and inappropriate; but a poem written by Theo and given to me (proof that language wins! Ha! Except that we continued the language/science argument for at least another ten years) was a beautiful and touching present. And at least it wasn't a sodding candle.


There are lots of things I think I could usefully change about myself. I could be less verbose. Less twitchy. Less hopelessly optimistic in the face of life. But what I absolutely love about being me is that, for some reason, my male friends (never my female friends, and never romantic entanglements) have always felt comfortable giving me their poems to read. I think poetry's amazing, and I think my friends are amazing, so they know it's a safe bet. But it's still a total act of trust, and it blows me away every time.

Happy National Poetry Day.