Fingers decurved I trv not to envision it

healed, it seems somehow disloyal;

I consider careers he can have with one-and-a-

half hands. When the doctor has stuck the needles into his forearm and unloosed the current, there is a crackling on the monitor;

a scribble of activity on the screen, my throat thickens as I hear the life of the nerve, and the doctor says, A healthy nerve doesn't sound like this at all, this nerve is dead. For a second I had pictured the muscle at the base of his thumb, flexor pollucis brevis, and the heel of his hand, risen again, like dough under a doubling-cloth.Years later;

I saw him in the album, holding his weak hand in his strong one, the way he used to hold it, as if carrying a sleeping marmoset, it was eighteen months after the accident, we did not know if the hand would come back or not—

that was the way we talked, then, as if the hand were on a journey, we chatted about the dead nerve, the tendon transplant they'd try later if the hand did not come back. All year he seemed happy, a boy with one hand curled up like a day-old day lily. What did he think of at night? He had no God, he had himself, a hand like a mouse to take care of, the way he took care of Cowboy and Tiger, cosying them against his clavicle.

He had what the day had brought him—as when he was a newborn he never cried, my mother wondered if he was alright, the way he always smiled.

Even before he was fully born, when he looked around him, he seemed content,

I saw him in the little birth-room mirror;

his bluish head turning, his shoulders and body inside my body, as if in this new life, from the neck down you wore your mother His eyes seemed even then to focus, as if he knew this place, or had not expected to know it.

In Chapter 1 I emphasised how important it is to open doors in a piece of writing so that readers engage with its world. 'The Hand' tells of the poet's reaction to her son's injury, and his possible long-term disability, but as many new writers and teachers of writing are aware, intensity of emotional content is no guarantee of effectiveness. Questions to ask include: does your writing take you and your readers to new places within that emotional experience? Does it convince? Or merely lapse into sentimental clichés and generality? Sharon Olds's poem heads straight towards an especially dangerous emotional subject, but with no cliché in sight, just her straightforward attention to the specific, her determination to mould each line and cluster of lines as closely as she can around the experience, to expose it, not protect it from view.


The way she takes us through the experience helps us to establish it as a story, one in full contact with objects, places, sounds. 'Fingers decurved... A crackling on the monitor'.

The poem's form—a single block of lines of similar length—establishes it as a series of moments remembered as her mind reflects on the injury: what it looked like, what she thought, but she includes no words for how she felt—shocked, worried, frightened. Like any good writer, she concentrates on the details of place and scene that produced those feelings, and by this method enables us to engage with them at a deeper, more physical, level of experience. This way of writing effects a convergence between poet and reader. The accident, the monitor screen, the photograph years later: her mind moves back and forth over signs of recovery, of failure, of consequences, but reaches no generalised understanding. All is located in the specific. As readers we feel a creative process is taking place there right in front of us in this act of searching and remembering, and that we can share in each of its stages. She thinks about her son. The meditation leads her to ask:

What did he think of at night?

with the following answer:

He had no God, he had himself, a hand like a mouse to take care of.

He had what the day had brought him.

The poet has taken us with her on a journey, and in her thoughts about the question: 'What did he think of/at night?' has brought us to a new place in her experience. Her own journey is towards the centre of this experience, however painful it might be to remember. Because of the way she writes the poem—gradually moving through detailed scenes, presenting her moment-by-moment response to certain events—we are also there when she reaches its central meaning, its images of the single, protecting self.

The word 'poetry' has shifted some way from the time when lines such as those below formed our idea of it:

Nature, and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be, and all was light.

Rhyme and regular metre lend authority to Pope's couplet from his poem Essay On Man, while in 'The Hand' we converge not with a shining, polished truth, but with the creative process as it happens.

Such convergence enables a closer acquaintance with the process of making a poem than we might gain from poems in other modes. Another type of reader-writer convergence comes about through the learning of poems, aided by a strong rhyme scheme and regular stress pattern, as in the style of Pope's couplet above. To recite from memory gives you control of all those amazing words. In free verse the sense of participation is achieved by other means, and one is by sharing the process of remembering exact thoughts and sensations, so that by travelling again with the experience you and your reader arrive simultaneously at the same point of insight.


Earlier I referred to dramatic effects in poems, and it might be worth looking at this more closely. Certain thoughts produce fierce currents of verbal energy. These become visible first as speech. The speaker may be the poet, a persona, or a character in a poetic drama. Momentum develops from mind through voice to action. Thought itself produces such agitation of mind that serious consequences appear to be inevitable. In Shakespeare's King Lear, Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, meditates on the word 'illegitimate', and on 'Legitimate Edgar', his fortunate brother. He starts in a formal mode that soon deteriorates:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law My services are bound. Wherefore should I Stand in the plague of custom, and permit The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? When my dimensions are as well compact, My mind as generous, and my shape as true, As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base? Base? Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take More composition and fierce quality Than doth, with a dull, stale, tired bed, Go to creating a whole tribe of fops Got between sleep and wake? Well then, Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund As to th'legitimate. Fine word 'legitimate'. Well my legitimate, if this letter speed, And my invention thrive, Edmund the base Shall top th'legitimate. I grow. I prosper Now, gods, stand up for bastards.

All this sounds like speech; moody, violent, sudden—as if he's having these thoughts for the first time. Thoughts simultaneous with their expression: this has been one of the vital springs of major dramatic poetry in our tradition. Once said aloud, thoughts are actions. Notice how voice qualities gather pace, how his speech bonds with the colloquial. The formal verse lines almost lose their structure. The closer we get to Edmund's moment, to his immediate excitement of thought, the more savagely he throws words about: 'base. Bastardy. Base. Base'. The five-beat iambic verse virtually collapses. We hear his words banging against the hollow walls of restraint. He, too, will break out and spread chaos. Given this immediacy of utterance, thought travels out like a tidal wave. Imagine someone arguing for legitimacy: it would have nothing like the same active consequences.

This speech teaches us something about all poetry, not just poetic drama, for all poems have more or less the same capacity—to be dramatic, tell a story, make use of a persona or adopted voice. These devices are there if we choose to use them. Audiences, too, witness that moment when a chaotic energy first emerges. Convergence is nothing new— just in case we thought we had invented it. This speech also teaches us something about the power of language—the power to restrict but also release. Maybe that's one source of Edmund's frustration. His life is ruled (and almost ruled out) by other people's words. He struggles to get back his control of words. Speaking his thoughts points the way towards expressive action. His words now have consequences, and this threat has to be instantly audible to the audience. There's no time to argue for this or that interpretation. To write in this way we must acknowledge that poetry has been given a job to do. It has to cross the street, to communicate, and this, too, is a lesson for all poems.

Poetry and Story

Among genres, poetry is perhaps the least resolved in its relationship with its readers, in some ways the least confident. One reason for this might be that other genres deal explicitly with narrative, while poetry as publicly perceived does not. We might be able to correct this impression, but first we must ask whether people who read poems do so in the same way, and for the same reasons, as they watch a film or a play, or sit for long intermittent hours with a piece of extended prose fiction. I recently put this question to a group of experienced poets during a meeting of The Poetry Business Writing School in Huddersfield. In their view, an element of reading to see what happens, for suspense, takes over in all story-like writing, and poems are no exception.

Yet if a poem only implies a story or shows us only a few moments of it, doesn't this cramp our enjoyment, or is that the very thing we enjoy, that is, story fragmented, with time gaps and limited information? It's often suggested, and exactly for these reasons, that poems and short stories are the two genres that have most in common. So what is it that narrative poems do? Are there the usual rewards or special ones (or perhaps both) in this type of narrative? Here are some examples of poems as narratives, two from Thomas Hardy's 'Poems Dramatic and Personative', and two by contemporary black British poets, Jean 'Binta' Breeze and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Hardy's 'The Curate's Kindness' involves a just-retired curate and his wife who travel by wagon to the poorhouse, their new home. A hard end to a life of honest hard work, thinks the curate, but there is one compensation. In the poorhouse, husbands and wives are forced to live in separate wings, 'The rule of the Board'. After forty dreary years of marriage (so he thinks), hell be able to get away from his wife at last! But just at that moment a young parson arrives on the scene with the news that the rule has been changed: wives and husbands can be together after all! The poem begins with this stanza, repeated at the end:

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