What does this poem mean?
All over the country, English A and AS Level students are currently being asked to analyse poems in Forward Poems of the Decade and are worrying whether they are ‘getting’ what the various anthology poets have to say. Some of these students, alas, are worrying about my poem, ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’. Outside the walls of the examination system, I would quite happily argue that a poem ‘means’ whatever a reader thinks it means. But these examinations are important to the people who have to pass this hurdle before they can get on with their adult lives . It is therefore important to the students of my and the other poems to feel that they have at least a fighting chance to get things ‘right’.
Unfortunately, in the context of an important examination, a poem is not a fact. Getting it ‘right’ will be about intuitions, sensitivity to the hints and nuances that different words contain, picking up the little clues which poets scatter around their pieces, or leave lurking just underneath the lines. Fortunately, in the case of ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’, students can at least quiz the poet what she meant via the comments box on my blog. It has been quite enchanting to read the polite questions which have come in and I try to give the most helpful answers I can find.
I have happily tried to unravel the meaning of the word ‘chorus’ for David and tried to work out for Rebecca why I said that the chorus had twelve members, rather than eleven, or fifteen. But last night’s fifth question from Jeremy really went to the heart of the problem
What is the overall feel and idea of the poem?
My silent answer to myself, predictably, was that I had absolutely no idea. I was only the poet, after all. But then I reflected that Jeremy, and others, are being required to answer questions like this about a poem I wrote and allowed to be published, and it seemed very unkind to refuse to help. So here is my attempt. I don’t know whether it would be good enough to satisfy an A Level examiner.
Sue Boyle’s poem ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ is a dark poem with a deceptively alluring, perhaps even a rather too light-hearted exterior. Here is a beautiful young woman, on the brink of her adult life, looking forward dreamily to the physical pleasure of being loved. She has absorbed the advertisers’ messages that it takes the contents of a chemist’s shop to make her body acceptable. She has learnt that she must use commercial scrubs, and exfoliants, and scents, and moisturisers if she is to realise her dream.
Her idea of sexual love is romantic. She imagines someone kissing the lobes of her ears, stroking her hair, nuzzling between her breasts. These images are quite filmic. I think the poem is suggesting that she might still be rather inexperienced, and this idea seems to me to be reinforced by the prominent position given to the key word ‘younger’ as the poem draws towards the close.
she should look around
she is so much younger than the rest of us
Some people have suggested on the blog that the older women in this poem ‘envy’ the younger woman for her youth and beauty, but I think that the line ‘she is so much younger than the rest of us’ is actually anxious and protective. As she prepares herself so hopefully for love, the younger woman seems vulnerable and the ‘chorus’ tries to close round as if between them they could keep the dark possibilities of life at bay.
It might seem strange to speak of dark things when, on the surface, the poem is rather prettily (rather too prettily, I think) concerned with familiar, uplifting images and the more endearing aspects of the natural world. But if you turn the prism of the poem just a little, you realise that this beautiful young woman is actually preparing her body (in the metaphorical sense) to be eaten alive. She is making herself into a flower to be sipped by a bee, into ‘summer cream slipped over raspberries’, into a commodity to be consumed.
The older women can see this. And they believe that they know ‘what happens next’.
Well, actually, of course, they cannot ‘know’. This line is double-edged.
But between them they will have seen enough of the world to know the kinds of things that can happen to inexperienced and optimistic young people looking to find their way in a world where adult passions are not always gentle, and sexual encounters and relationships can lead people unexpectedly into dark emotional places, exploitation, unresolvable conflicts, real dangers and deep despairs. Think perhaps of Tess setting out so hopefully for her new life with Alec D’Urbeville. Then think how her life ends. By borrowing the idea of the ‘chorus’ from Greek drama, and reinforcing it with the word ‘temple’ in the title of the poem, I think I was universalising this young woman, subconsciously, and trying to say something about the hazard which is indivisible from human life.
So is my poem dark?
Actually, I think not. We are allowed to rejoice in beauty, and hope, and also, less obviously, in the tenderness the older women feel towards the young. The light and the dark are in tension, but there is no sense in this poem that the darkness will triumph over the light.
An Unexpected Postscript
One of the lovely ( and very vigilant) correspondents on this blog has discovered that there was a slightly longer version of ‘Leisure Centre’ in the Forward Book of Poetry 2009 than is now to be found in Forward Poems of the Decade, 2011. I did my best to unravel the mystery of this in my reply. Here is that longer version, with the lines that Julia missed. I wonder which version those of you following this conversation are going to like best? and why?