Writing a poem ‘after’ another

One of Donald Hall’s later poems is called ‘Summer Kitchen’, an evocative piece recalling the mundane glories that two people in love sometimes share, in this case Hall and his much-lamented late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. It’s a very simple and lucid poem, three stanzas of quatrains in an ABAB etc rhyming scheme. The domestic scene it limns is that of a lover making dinner for their partner, the speaker of the poem. There are no tricks or linguistic pyrotechnics, it’s just a glimpse of someone making a meal under the poetic gaze yet the poem exudes pleasure and sensuality:

I watched her cooking, from my chair.

            She pressed her lips

Together, reached from kitchenware,

And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

The tableau we’re given as readers seems one of authenticity, we have all been in such a situation before. Donald Hall was a prolific poet and I must be honest in saying that not all of his poems speak to me that much, but I think ‘Summer Kitchen’ is a masterpiece of restraint. In fact, I loved the work so much that it triggered a poem of my own called ‘Circadian rhythms’ which featured in my third collection Summer / Break (Shoestring Press, 2022). I was proud to label this poem ‘after Donald Hall’ and it clearly shows a debt to the original text, the ‘verbal icon’. Here is Hall’s concluding stanza:

“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.

            “You light the candle.”

We ate, and talked, and went to bed,

And slept. It was a miracle.

The cynic may think that there is nothing numinous about an uneventful life but when I was writing my own poem, the effects of the Covid pandemic were already very much upon us and a quiet, forgettable day spent together in a copacetic way, was a blessing. Not being in the slightest bit religious myself, I struggled to hit any sort of spiritual or miraculous note in my own poem, in which I list our quotidian routines. Here are the closing stanzas:

You cooked lunch, and I did dinner.

You spoke Flemish online with family.

I stuck to English on the phone with my mother.

The cat sat on each of our laps. We went

to bed together, both asleep within minutes.

It was one of the best days of my life.

In all earnestness, it was one of the best days of my life. There was a time during the pandemic in the early stages, before the actuality of continued close living took its toll on partnerships, that a day spent in uneventful contentment was a victory. Since we’ve come out of Covid, it has shocked me to discover how many long-term relationships ran aground during the pandemic. My relationship was nearly 14 years, spanning my second year of university to June 2021. My poem ‘Circadian rhythms’, which I thought captured a sense of the solidity of our relationship, was in fact something of a swansong. This is not the case with Donald Hall’s poem that pines for a lover who is dead and a lover who, not being dead, would still be devoted to the speaker of the poem. In that sense, my poem lacks the emotional heft of Hall’s, but parting, especially when it is non-reciprocal, is undeniably a form of grief.

It is always a quandary, writing a poem ‘after’ another. There are few poems I know of that were written ‘after’ another poem that have eclipsed the original in the public mind. That said, most poets have poems in their collections that are dedicated to, or after, other poets. We seem drawn as poets to pay tribute to those who have gone before us, but also to mark our own little piece of territory. There is much to be said about the boundary between a poem that is respectfully ‘after’ another and a poem which is just a blatant plagiarism. A poem that plagiarises often paraphrases and dilutes what has already been said but presents itself as an original epiphany, independent of anything that has come before. Poems that mark themselves as ‘after’ another realise, to quote the Scottish poet Sydney Goodsir Smith, poetry is part of a tragic cycle, that:

            Aa this will happen aa again,

Monie and monie a time again.

One thought on “‘After’-life

  1. Lovely bit of comment on the ‘after’ genre. In this case, I think your poem DOES have an emotional impact equal to Donald Hall’s. I don’t say that lightly.

    Liked by 1 person

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