He is a choir boy, Open mouthed, Singing a long slow note Of perfect pitch, perfect tone. His angelic face glows Like the full moon. He is a prisoner, Open mouthed, Crying out in pain - An agonising scream. His burning hate flashes Like the full moon. He is a drowning man, Open mouthed. Gasping for breath, Choking on swallowing waves. Only his head is above the darkness, Like the full moon. He is an omnipotent god, Open mouthed. Breathing out fire, Burning into the night. His spirit glows - He is the full moon.
This is not quite the first poem I ever wrote, but it was the first to get published. It appeared in Proof – a magazine of new writing published by Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts – in September 1984. I was eighteen years old at the time and was over the moon (pun intended) to see my name in print, believing back then that only publication could make me a true writer.
I began writing poetry when I was about twelve. If I remember correctly, my very first ever attempt was this…
Tom Thumb I met a man He was a midget, He was no bigger Than my digit. Tom Thumb, Tom Thumb, That was his name. Tom Finger, Tom Finger, Was just the same.
On reflection, perhaps I was younger than twelve. Anyway, over the following years I built on this dubious start with several other offerings – all of which I still have copies of because I carefully typed them out on A5 sheets of paper at the time and turned them into a collection.
I liked writing poetry. It was like playing a game where following the rules was a lot of fun, but where you could also choose to ignore them if you wanted to. Finding the perfect word or phrase to fit into a particular structure or rhyming scheme was an incredibly rewarding challenge, but so was writing free verse, where I could chop up my sentences however I liked, where I could scatter words about the page, or form them into a specific shape.
Most of this early work is terrible, but then most of my early attempts to ride a bicycle were also somewhat disastrous. The difference between the two is that when you ride a bike badly you tend to know it, because you fall off a lot, or only stop when you hit something. With my early poems, I had no idea whether they were amazing, or execrable.
In my final year at school, we had a visit from a local poet who came in to read some of his work and talk to us about the business of making a living as a writer. His name was Gerry Wells, and he was the first professional writer I had ever met. I approached him afterwards, told him I was also a poet and asked his advice. He was kind enough to let me send him some of my work, and then invited me round to his house to discuss it.
Most of my poetry, he told me, was very personal and while some of it was nicely written, it wouldn’t really mean much to anyone apart from me. If I wanted to start getting stuff published, I would have to look beyond myself, write about the world around me, rather than the world inside my head. Writing the personal stuff was fine, he said, but only for the purposes of catharsis (my introduction to the word). Write it, get it out of my system, file it away in a drawer somewhere and then write something that other people would more likely want to read.
So that’s what I did. I started looking around me and describing what I saw; other people, buildings, the countryside, even scenes I visualised from novels I was reading – anything I thought other people could relate to. And one night, while searching for inspiration, I found a full moon.
And I could clearly see the man in the moon. He had two big eyes, and a wide, open mouth. Was he howling? Was he singing? Who was he?
Most of my teenage poetry is dark and depressing, and this one began in the same tone – I wrote the drowning man stanza first, because this was the first thing that came to mind. I then decided to expand on the original idea and create several different versions of the man, and fit each one into a similar structure to the first, repeating the second and final lines.
The choir-boy came next, and then the prisoner (I don’t remember where those ideas came from) but having filled in their missing lines, I decided to re-order the stanzas so that the poem started off in a vaguely pleasant tone and got darker as it progressed.
But I needed a final stanza that brought the whole thing together, and my default topic at the time was religion. I’m not, and never was, religious myself, but I liked the idea of power that was associated with a god – particularly an Old Testament sort of god – and a lot of my early poems refer to god, or prayer, or damnation. I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but maybe this was my way of trying to relate to other people rather than staying inside my own head.
Gerry Wells had also recommended somewhere for me to submit my work – a magazine called Proof that was looking for work by local writers, including younger ones who might still be in school – and I thought I would make that my first attempt. I seem to remember spending days typing out the five poems I submitted, and probably as long again on the covering letter, but clearly all that effort was worth it as a copy of the magazine arrived in the post some time later and there I was, at the bottom of page 7, a published poet at last.
As for the poem itself, this is exactly how it appeared in print all those years ago. Looking at it now, there are a lot of things I would change. A lot. So many, in fact, that I doubt it would survive the editing process. And what would be the point anyway? To prove that I’m a better writer now than I was thirty-six years ago? If I’m not, then I’m doing something seriously wrong. If I am, then I’ve probably got better things to be doing than polishing an old turd.
So I think I’ll leave it just the way it is, thank you very much.