01 December 2010


I've written a poem.
My pen is in my hand;
My hand is in warm water. 

I'm sure you'll agree it's remarkable.

Actually, of course, it's rubbish, but the good thing about it is it's rubbish in two different languages. These are grammatically correct lines in both English and Afrikaans and have very nearly the same meaning (or lack of). So does it matter which language I claim to have written in?

A minor point would be that warm in Afrikaans is more likely to mean hot, so there's a slight change in surface meaning.

But in either language there is a familiar technique of poetry: the incompleteness of motivation in the words means the reader has to construct a meaning. It would be hard enough to understand why you would ever want to tell anyone your hand is in warm water. But what's all this about the pen?

Well, of course, now that I've said this is a poem, the first line is a fairly standard bit of poet's reflection. It's common for poets to reflect on the difficulty of writing poetry, of capturing elusive feelings in words. You could expect a neat inversion:
My pen is in my hand
But no words are in my heart.

Even so, you could only see that as the start of a longer poem (and, I'd guess, a pretty poor one). 

Here, though, there's no linking conjunction; the reader has to guess the relation between the two clauses. You could read a but in there: here I am, ready to write but because my hand is (literally) in warm water, I can't. Or an and: my pen is in my hand, and I'm cleaning it (them). You could try various literal interpretations, but I don't think you'd find any of them satisfactory. So then you have to explore various metaphorical interpretations of the second line. Because the poem is so short, any satisfactory interpretation would have to explain why the poem ends where it does, and would have to be adequate: it would have to be able to import a strong feeling in those few words. My poem fails as a poem because you can't do that. There's no way in which you interpret "My hand is in warm water" to give any tragic closure. I'm pretty sure that's true in any language.

Perhaps a poem has to be specific to a certain language to be able to carry a complex idea in a few words: the associations within the language enrich the bare text. (Incidentally, there is a slightly obscene reading of the English version of [untitled], which I won't go into. It's the kind of thing Leopold Bloom might have said. It depends on wordplay of course.)

Of course you can have completeness at the expense of complexity. I might have written:
My pen is in my hand
But it is out of in

which at least is slightly funny and does explain its own brevity. The 'poem' is complete, but doesn't have enough serious content to detain us. The reader has a fairly simple job of seeing the trick. And it probably doesn't work in Afrikaans.

So I've written (or more accurately, assembled) two things that look like a poem, but aren't. There are plenty of those out there. Here's another one, which I'll call "Guest List":
Tim Key, poet.
Rufus Hound, comedian.
Pope Benedict XVI, protestant.

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