Jon Stone takes a deep dive into ‘Swimmers’ by William Thompson to show how he approaches a poem and to illustrate what he thinks we need to do to broaden the readership of poetry
How do you play a poem? How do you ‘pluck and pry’ at it? I’ve just published a pamphlet-essay called Poems Are Toys (and Toys Are Good For You) with Calque Press, and in it I say that if we want to broaden the readership of poetry, these are the kinds of questions we need to answer.
That is to say: critics and enthusiasts would do well to shrug off our addiction to evaluative summation and instead give fulsome accounts of what goes on in our minds when we ‘enjoy’ a poem. Much of that enjoyment, I say, comes from the exercise of our own imaginative faculties – the poem becomes a partner in a dance. But Poems Are Toys … focuses on diagnosis; in the essay itself, I don’t offer any examples of how one plays – or plays with – a poem. One reason for that is I ran out of space. Another, more important reason is that I didn’t want to give the impression there’s only one correct method. I’m not suggesting that the way anyone presently enjoys poems is wrong; I’m suggesting that we misunderstand this experience as one of passive appreciation, that readers actually have much to teach each other about the different ways one acts upon different kinds of poem.
I think of it as analogous to the way we might watch someone doing tricks with some bit of colourful material or oddly shaped thing – an object we perhaps dismissed as worthless. When we see the satisfaction another takes in it, how they make a game and a feat of it, we want to perform the same tricks ourselves. Playfulness is infectious. That is why, after all, many of us become poets – we see the poet as player, as performer, juggling with the scraps on their plate, and know that we could do that too. If we want more readers, therefore, we must demonstrate that reading is as actively playful as writing.
If we want more readers we must demonstrate that reading is as actively playful as writing
To some extent, this requires that we feel our way towards new kinds of critical-expressive language – but it’s not like we have nothing to go on in this respect. I think the best and most resourceful critics already have a handle on it, that when we gain a new appreciation of a piece of writing from reading a critical piece, that critic has succeeded in teaching us a trick or two. It’s just that this good criticism is too often mired in dull judgement-casting and pronouncement-making, which we wrongly consider to be the crux of all criticism. What I find myself hopefully imagining is a more relaxed, tonally varied, curiosity-driven system of exchange, from which we learn just as much about each other as the poems in question. And if I’m to advocate for this, then I ought to try to get the ball rolling.
So here we go. I will try to show you what I made of ‘Swimmers’ by William Thompson, how I enjoyed it, how you too could enjoy it. Some of what I describe here occurred in a flash – a thought or feeling that had to be stopped and pinned down. Other aspects of the process required a little more fussing and finessing. Let’s go through it in stages:
Enjoyment of a poem begins before reading, at the point of selection. Anyone who sits down to work through a poetry book front to back cheats themselves of the chocolate box experience: where to start? Which one to pick first? Which one will surprise you the most? For this exercise, I confine myself to The Friday Poem’s own online selection. I click on the links, dip into the first lines of a few. I narrow it down to three, letting their titles conjure memories and associations. ‘Swimmers’ makes me think of another poem I like: Glyn Maxwell’s ‘Helene and Heloise’, sisters who “swim in the embassy pool in the tinkling breeze”. The first line, “Next time you dive”, reminds me of a trip to Bosnia: the Kravica waterfalls, people jumping 24 metres off the Stari Most, the rusted iron diving board I climbed for a better view. From there I get to thinking of underwater caves, octopuses, pearl divers. How much, if any of this, will feature in the poem? Probably none! But there is pleasure in lingering at the cusp like this.
2. THE FEEL OF IT
Another way I suspect most readers cheat themselves is to ask too urgently: what’s the poem about? What is the point of it? This is to set yourself up in an adversarial role, since almost every device we associate with poetry as an art form gets in the way of our reading poems as straightforward communiques. A poem is strange by design, and that strangeness is something to taste, to simmer in. Whenever you stop to feel the shape and weight of a word for a while, it becomes alien again, and most poems are arranged in such a way as to draw attention to the shape and weight of particular words, phrases or letter-groups. For instance, the third to eighth lines of ‘Swimmers’ all start with ‘th’. This repetition starts to look rather insistent, like an engine chugging into life.
‘Almásy’ and ‘Gilf Kibir’ are words I don’t know – odd clusters of sound that have my mind reaching for ‘amass’, ‘messy’, ‘gulf’, ‘girl’, ‘curb’, ‘kibble’. The vowel sounds in the word ‘swimming’ are lightly echoed throughout: ‘builders’, ‘skimmer’, ‘Kibir’, ‘ripples’, swimmers’, ‘sinking’. Like watching light play on the surface of the water, it’s at once distracting and suggestive of hidden depths.
More associations: the first line, again, is “Next time you dive”, and as my eye works its way down through the poem, I can pretend I’m diving. The lines are layers of water. The ‘th’, ‘th’, ‘th’, ‘th’ starts to look like depth markers, or bubbles bubbling up. I dive down to a cave – or rather, the word ‘cave’ in the third stanza. Then ‘darkness’ in the fourth. I get to the last line and can ‘come up for air’, as the poem suggests.
A poem is strange by design, and that strangeness is something to taste, to simmer in
Now I shall start to make sense of the poem, but not too aggressively; I can still drift off-course. ‘Swimmers’ begins by asking the reader to pause the next time they find themselves at the edge of a diving board and “think of the taxes, / the architects, the builders, // the water gushing through skimmer drains, / the tubs of chlorine …” So I do. I don’t know what skimmer drains are, and I have very little idea how swimming pools are made. But I can imagine some vast undertaking: spades and diggers, pipes and pumps, town hall meetings, blueprints, artists’ impressions, stacks of tiles, spirit levels, heaters and grills, stainless steel and rubber coating. The tubs of chlorine, in my mind’s eye, are vats of cobalt blue. Leaning over them gives you puffy red eyes.
In the third stanza, we’re teleporting to another time and place. Some character called Almásy is making a discovery in a cave, and I imagine he’s about to come across a ledge above a subterranean pool, strip off and make a big, muscular swallow dive. Maybe he hits the water; maybe he hits a rock. Maybe ‘diving’ equates, in this poem, to life itself, to the headlong journey from birth to death. The cave is Plato’s cave; everything there is figment.
But the poem takes a different turn. Almásy stumbles on a painting of divers. I imagine their various unaerodynamic positions, a second set of stick figures holding up judges’ scores. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, were our ancestors competing to impress one another?
3. TALKING TO THE POET
This is the stage we’re taught to jump to straight away: what is the poet trying to say? And as a component of that broader question: is the poet friend or foe? Are they with me or against me? Too much praise and dismissal hinges on the presumed answer to these questions, but at the same time, there’s fun to be had in asking and answering. What is it you want to tell me, William Thompson? What’s the significance of chlorine tubs, the divers in a cave painting? I have to mull on this. ‘Swimmers’ seems to want me to contrast the logistical complexity behind the creation of a public swimming pool with the revelation that an unnamed desert was once home to a large body of water. More specifically, it wants me to imagine myself weighing up these two things, to think of myself leaping off a diving board with all of this on my mind, then entering the water, then emerging with a gasp, so that my own breathlessness echoes Almásy’s as he exits the cave.
Is Thompson saying there’s an epic tale behind every dive, that even the simplest and most freeing movement of the body gestures at some underlying, sprawling ecosystem? Is he saying that the journey of the mind when it makes a discovery is very similar to that of the body when thrown like a spear into pool or lake? Did Almásy take a dive after all? Or is the poem using simple analogy to collapse time, space and identity? Am I at once the diver at the public pool, the ancient figure in the painting, and Almásy in the cave?
At this stage, I do a little background searching. I look up Almásy and the Gilf Kibir plateau. The setting is Libya. The cave is the Cave of Swimmers, named after those same paintings. I find out that the swimmers aren’t ‘arcing through a dive’ as the poem says, but swimming horizontally. There must be a reason Thompson has fudged this detail; the poem is fixated on diving, not swimming. I decide it must, therefore, be interested in a particular sensation, in the rushing and whooshing of air, water, thought, conception about the head and brain. A minute or so ago, I was fully prepared to say that Thompson has not drawn my attention to anything new or diverting. That’s no longer true. Now I feel that he’s unearthed a clue to some greater puzzle. Perhaps next summer I will try to find a spot to dive from, and think of this poem, and think of what the act of diving represents, why we do it.
4. PLAYING THE JUDGE
I’ve said that critical analysis is too concerned with evaluation, but there’s no reason to do away with it completely. We only have to understand it as another kind of play – a kind of roleplay. Is ‘Swimmers’ a good poem? To my mind, there aren’t any truly striking lines or metaphors, though I do like the torchlight that ‘ripples on the rock’. It’s not doing anything special in terms of voice – it’s a little too restrained. The form is fitting – tall and thin, so the eye drops through it quickly, in a fashion that reinforces its theme. But the darkness that seemingly ‘holds its breath’ is a misstep, since it steals thunder from the final image of Almásy coming up for air. ‘Remerge’ is a typo (fixed now – Ed). ‘Swimmers’ is an odd title considering the poem is really concerned with diving.
What does saying all this achieve? It won’t change the poem, and it may hurt Thompson’s feelings to know that I’ve taken these positions, written them down. There’s no reader out there awaiting my opinion, trying to decide whether or not they should buy a book. No; the point of it is to put myself in touch with my own critical apparatus, to temper those processes of judgement which like to hide away in the back of the mind, underdeveloped and poorly understood. The better I am at noting specific weaknesses in poems, the better I become at recognising (and enjoying) specific strengths. The more carefully I consider the reasons behind my judgement, the more likely I am to reflect on those reasons, to spot flaws and messiness in my thinking. I can then make adjustments which allow me to broaden my palate, to see more freshly and think more clearly. I’m using the poem as a whetstone.
The point of it is to put myself in touch with my own critical apparatus, to temper those processes of judgement which like to hide away in the back of the mind, underdeveloped and poorly understood
It is satisfying to come to a conclusion, of course – that’s why we rush to call things great or disastrous. One of the ways poetry so often fails to satisfy is by thwarting our efforts to draw conclusions. We come away finding our tools just aren’t up to the job, either because the poet is posing as someone cleverer than us – someone who is hiding something from us – or because the poem is positioned as somehow beyond criticism, in the way you wouldn’t criticise someone’s accent or the eulogy they delivered at a loved one’s funeral.
What to do? You can choose to keep exercising your powers of judgement anyway, to not be overawed by a poem’s mysterious or vulnerable air, accepting that you may change your mind more than once, and that you may commit to writing something you later look back on as ignorant or insensitive. Or you can keep your nose clean, say, “I like what I like and don’t like what I don’t like”, and in doing so deny yourself any real agency over how your tastes are tuned.
Right now I’d give ‘Swimmers’ 7/10. But that judgement is for my own benefit – it’s part of how I take pleasure in the poem, how I wrap up my time with it. If you disagree with my score, then that too is a dimension of your reading experience. You can set your judgement against mine, put into words why I’m under- or over-rating it. Then you and I can gain more from further discussion.
5. LETTING GO
You’ll notice I haven’t quite put my finger on what this poem is ‘about’. I don’t need to. I can set it aside for now. I could come back in a month, in a year, in ten years. I can wait for the poem to appear in a different context, or make up a different context myself by keeping my eye out for other swimming, diving and desert explorer poems.
It makes sense to leave things this way. It’s why most of the poetry books I own still have about them a glow, like a part-excavated rake of ore, while most of the novels I read become spent vessels the moment I reach the end. Poems aren’t much good for the part of your brain that likes to keep moving forward, ticking items off lists, shaking off the dust, totting up figures. They are good for the part of your brain that wants to circle back to the same spot, to keep prodding a bruise – the part that believes in connectedness, in a world is full of hidden doors. You don’t really ‘finish’ a poem; you warm it in your meddling hands, and then you add it to a drawer of odds and ends you’ll rummage in for the rest of your life.
That, at least, is the attitude I’ve learned to cultivate. That is how I understand my encounter with this poem and most others, since it’s just as true for those I find contentious and difficult as it is for those I find immediately appealing. Where would I be now if I instead acknowledged poems purely on the basis of appeal? Specialising in praise, perhaps, in the way present critical culture teaches us to, but more likely still I would not be reading new poems at all. I would be content with a few favourite books gathered early in life – maybe even just a few favourite poems – knowing I can always go back to these and drink in their familiar beauty. So in order for me to have any greater appetite for reading the stuff, an attitude of play is vital, and as far as I can tell, this is true for others as well. To give up this disposition is, I would say, to retreat into the total subjectivity of first impressions and fondnesses. If you do well enough out of this territory, good luck to you. For the rest of us, the way forward is to keep showing each other how we play.