I didn't know you'd be at the lake
I thought should I pretend not to have seen you
5 stops on the Victoria line
Or I guess about quarter of an hour in your car
You know my love for you is like this lake
In um the sense that
It's strange how we both ended up here
When you think about it though maybe it isn't
Please don't say you were waiting for me to kiss you
Let's jump in the lake now dressed just as we are
Something we can remember with warmth in the future
Those fallen leaves you so lightly walk over
Are like leaves on the ground
This poem appeared in an issue of anything anymore anywhere, but I first encountered it in the Poetica group in Manchester library some time ago. I liked it then and I still do. But what makes it work for me?
This is a love sonnet, in the tradition of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare - well, just about anyone who's anyone in poetry. Except in another sense, it isn't. It takes the tradition of clever, highly articulate and persuasive poetry and blows it apart. A love sonnet is supposed to show you through its highly wrought imagery, through its rhetoric, just how strong the lover's feelings are for the beloved, and often, how awful it is that this person has rejected the poet.
This poem almost revels in its inarticulacy, its inability to say what it wants to say or to persuade by the cleverness of its image just how serious and deep the poet is about pursuing this relationship. Here, the poet is attempting to be clever: "You know my love for you is like this lake" but then can't follow through: "In um the sense that" and tries to extricate himself from the attempt with "It's strange how we ended up here," as if he's changed his mind about the attempt to be clever.
He makes another attempt at the heroic gesture: "Let's jump in the lake..." but she's obviously not falling for it. There's an ambiguity at the end about whether this relationship will go anywhere; the leaves are just leaves, after all.
This sonnet works because it seems to me to be about how things actually work, rather than an idealisation of a situation. Like the stutter in The Who's My Generation, it's about not getting the right words out, about trying to impress and failing. Its rhythms are the rhythms of ordinary speech not of poetry, it rejects the whole idea of clever imagery and there is no attempt to create the perfectly-formed sentences of so much of today's poetry.
In fact, if I have a complaint about today's poetry it's just that: one complete sentence after another. One complete thought after another, like nobody actually thinks in real life. In this poem, with its false starts and stutters, we get the idea of a mind in action, not one that has already decided what it wants to say and only needs to find the clever, articulate and 'interesting' words to say it. So many poems and poets out to impress you with their 'depth of feeling'; but this poem cuts through all that by not even trying to impress.
It's a small poem, and probably not the most important poem Richard Barrett will ever write. Nevertheless, it shows the strength of non-mainstream poetry at the moment. It's unafraid and honest and true in so many ways. I hope you like it too.