Poetry 82: A poetry reading at West Point by William Matthews

Chapel

I read to the entire plebe class,
in two batches. Twice the hall filled
with bodies dressed alike, each toting
a copy of my book. What would my
shrink say, if I had one, about
such a dream, if it were a dream?

Question and answer time.
“Sir,” a cadet yelled from the balcony,
and gave his name and rank, and then,
closing his parentheses, yelled
“Sir” again. “Why do your poems give
me a headache when I try

to understand them?” he asked. “Do
you want that?” I have a gift for
gentle jokes to defuse tension,
but this was not the time to use it.
“I try to write as well as I can
what it feels like to be human,”

I started, picking my way care-
fully, for he and I were, after
all, pained by the same dumb longings.
“I try to say what I don’t know
how to say, but of course I can’t
get much of it down at all.”

By now I was sweating bullets.
“I don’t want my poems to be hard,
unless the truth is, if there is
a truth.” Silence hung in the hall
like a heavy fabric. My own
head ached. “Sir,” he yelled. “Thank you. Sir.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

4 thoughts on “Poetry 82: A poetry reading at West Point by William Matthews

  1. Interesting. I can’t quite put my finger on why but I find the last line – “Sir,” he yelled. “Thank you. Sir.” – very moving.

  2. I guess what may be moving is the generosity of the cadet in recognising that the poet was really trying to offer him something from his experience – although the cadet’s response could alternatively just be read as sarcastic. What I related to most was the silence hanging in the hall, which I read as the frosty atmosphere when people don’t get something or don’t relate to it, even if they are trying to be polite about it. It’s all the more painful if you’ve put a lot of your own experience into what you have offered them.

  3. Both of those interpretations are feasible given the ambiguous nature of the poem and the cadet’s response. However, I think on reflection it personally moves me because I interpret it as the speaker connecting with the cadet and the cadet’s yell of thanks a reciprocation and appreciation of that understanding. It’s the fact that he yelled his response so emphatically that somehow gets me! It’s very interesting how you have interpreted it quite differently through the prism of your own experience. I think that to me that’s a sign of great poetry.

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