Simple, Clichéd Phrases can have Profound Meaning

World Wide Poetry Studio Interviews Michael Symmons Roberts

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was recently commissioned to write a poem for a bio-medicine and poetry project happening in the UK. As I set about writing and researching my contribution, I thought of the poet Michael Symmons Roberts whose most recent collection, Drysalter, is earning a tremendous amount of praise and has been shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize. We had a lengthy conversation, but here is an excerpt of Roberts and me discussing a couple of his commissioned poems.

RVW: You have a poem in a book called Wild Reckoning, a series of collaborations between poets and scientists, co-edited by John Burnside and Maurice Riordan. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

MSR: I asked if I could be put together with someone working in genetics. Because I was writing poems about the body, I wanted to talk about the intrinsic poetic beauty of the human genome, this sequence of letters, A, G, C and T, which had been completed … we didn’t know what it meant, exactly, but it had been completed. So I got to meet Sir John Sulston, the man who led the team who mapped the human genome and has since won the Nobel Prize.

You can read parts of the human genome, if you want—it’s not a great read, pretty repetitive. It’s only the sequence of letters that makes a difference between us and a blade of grass or a crab-apple. That’s extraordinary; that’s beautiful. So I expected to talk to him about that, but instead he wanted to talk about the scandal of gene patenting, in which huge companies with investments in pharmaceuticals, biotech, and so on put patents on parts of the human genome. It’s a way for them to make the numbers add up so that [there is a way of recouping] the huge cost of the development of new drugs.

Sulston’s sense was that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system where people have to, or are allowed to, put patents on the human genome, which is our common landscape. He started talking about landscape, landscape being enclosed (that was the metaphor he used), and he immediately put me in mind of John Donne’s great poem, “To His Mistress Going To Bed,” in which he describes her as a newfound land. I decided that was my way in and wrote the poem “To John Donne.” It ends by quoting part of the human genome that has a patent on it. I included a statement from Sulston about gene patenting as an epigraph: “Unlike an area of land, when you patent a gene, you are enclosing a part of me, the shared landscape.”

RVW: Have you done something like this before, working off a brief where you must create a poem? That would stress me out.

MSR: It always feels like an opportunity rather than a burden. Sulston said he was very much aware of the role of metaphor in science. As he pointed out, you don’t sit around and think, “What kind of metaphorical structure are we going to use for this thing we’re doing with the genome, this gene mapping?” It’s just that one scientist says to a colleague one day, “We’re mapping the genome,” and quickly a whole bundle of metaphors expand out of that, and you’ve created a working assumption that what this is about is a process of mapping a landscape, and all the landscape imagery starts to crowd in on it. But it could have been something completely different; there are any number of ways they could have talked about this process of computers crunching through data to come out with what is the human gene code.

RVW: I have no smooth segue for this. How do you introduce your 9/11 poem at readings?

MSR: I usually just introduce it, say it was a Radio 4 commission, to respond to the first anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 …. The only way in I found that had some authenticity was that the things that had really struck me powerfully on that day and the weeks after, the things that stayed with me, were the voicemail messages that people had left when they were in the planes or in the towers and knew they weren’t coming back. So the BBC sent me lots of these messages, which were hard to listen to, but once I did listen to them, they became somehow heartening, because of what they had in common, and what they had in common was that at this time—and people were scared—this might be the last chance they had to leave a message for the people they loved and the phrases they reached for were the most familiar, the most clichéd, the most sentimental, the ones we hear in songs every day as we’re driving in a car: “I love you, you know I do,” “Kiss the kids,” all these phrases. It made me think two things: one, that if you’re going to write about these things in poetry, you have to honor the fact that these simple, clichéd phrases can have profound meaning. At times of great suffering or great stress, we probably do reach for those because they’re so familiar, because they’re so deep inside us. It also said something about the human spirit, at a time when they could have been full of anger or fear—must have been full of anger or fear—the thing they wanted to distil into words was universally a message of love. So I wrote a series of short poems, which were, if you like, poems as messages, so each one is a voicemail, which includes some of the phrases that keep coming up.

RVW: When you read it aloud, can you hear the original messages in your head? Do you hear the chaos in the background?

MSR: I think there are two things to say about that. One is that, yes, the messages I have in my head are almost verbatim, not only because I listened to them a lot in order to write this. It also didn’t seem appropriate to use them verbatim in the poems. So I’ve changed them slightly, and as they repeat they change even more. I never feel like when I’m reading these that I’m directly quoting the messages. In the end, they’re private and the relatives chose to make them public, and I didn’t want to break their privacy by quoting them directly.

RVW: Did you listen to them on your own?

MSR: Yeah, my wife listened to them as well, and they are extraordinary pieces of evidence of human love and resilience.  

As is the poem, “Last Words,” which you can read here.

Also “To John Donne” 

See the rest of our conversation here.

Purchase Michael Symmons Roberts's latest collection, Drysalter.

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.