So, Friday I armed myself with 70 poems, slightly less this time, and marched on the Bakerloo line. This poem was slightly shorter than the last and was called ‘My Name Is Crazy’. I’ve been thinking a lot about madness recently and thought I would exorcise some of those demons on paper…and the Bakerloo line.
I left the poems in four tube carriages, two tube stations, a bookshop, a coffee shop and Waterloo station. This time, I also handed some of the poetry to individual people to see how they might respond and this is what I would like to be the subject of this post.
I love the way people respond to gifts. It seems to be similar to facing death and seeing your whole life flash before your eyes, you watch a myriad of feelings pass across their faces in the space of ten seconds and, as if they were a slot machine, hope it will finish on ‘grateful’ or ‘intrigued’. Unfortunately, the first two people I offered poems too looked genuinely suspicious and a little bit hurt, as if I was preying on them. I think this is the problem with consumerism (here we go…) it stops us from appreciating the power of a gift for the sake of a gift.
Yes, alright, I suppose I hope people will read my poem. Yes, I even hope they will email me to tell me what they thought of it, even to tell me they quite liked it! But I hope also that the point in this project is that, for the people who find the poems, there is no obligation to take part. They can opt in, whether passively (by reading the poem) or actively (to email me with their thoughts) and it doesn’t matter if they choose not to do either of these things. The sad thing is that what is labelled as ‘free’ is often a covert expectation for exchange. You ‘give’ something and in return are rewarded with the ‘free’ thing, or in order to access said ‘free’ product, you must adhere to an extensive set of terms and conditions that completely alter the way you live your life and leave you wondering at the exact meaning of the word ‘free’. It doesn’t mean what it used to mean. So when I said to people, ‘It’s ok, it’s free!’ there came over their faces a wild and frantic terror, the kind you see on a small animal in the shadow of a hawk (fly for free! Small print reads: ripped to shreds and consumed by predatory bird’s offspring afterwards). Our capacity to give and receive gifts for the sake of it is becoming limited, and this is sad, because one act of kindness leads you to reach out in an attempt to engage in others. I offered more people help on the escalators on Friday than I ever have in my life. I was in no hurry to get anywhere and suddenly that lady with three small girls and a big pram seemed much more important (as she should!) than catching my train. Suddenly I was once again engaged in the minutiae of human contact, offer and acceptance with nothing else to it. There was no contract, no obligation, other than what was spoken or given.
This simplicity of exchange I did find with two people. The first was a mother in Waterstones with two children. The kids were desperate to take the lift and their mum said she’d meet them at the top and take the stairs. I caught her half way up and said, “would you like a poem?” The response was immediate and quite lovely; “Thank you! We’ve been talking about gifts of kindness today. That’s really sweet of you!” and the immediate excitement about the idea of sharing this real-life example with her children. In this case, the exchange was a lesson; a gift to the young, and therefore important in the gesture. It occurs to me that we demonstrate more humanity in front of our children (not that I have any) than we ever exhibit for our own sakes. And they will see that as children have a way of doing and only imitate it in their own adulthood. That old cliché of practising what you preach comes to mind here.
The second exchange was also in Waterstones. There’s something about bookshops. It was actually with the guy over the counter. I bought a book of poetry for my mum, with a particular poem I thought she’d like, and passed two of my poems over the counter, “would you like a poem?”
This was a lovely reaction; “aw, yeah! Thanks!” and then, as I turned away, him brandishing them in the air to the other two lads beside him, “hey guys! We’ve got some poems!” and the huddle of heads around the paper that resulted from this.
The simple power that comes from these gifts, completely outside of economics, expectation or trade, is not limited to poetry, of course. But I am a poet (or trying to be) and so it’s the only way I know how to do it. And because it was mine, my poem, the giving was a gift in itself. In the cheesiest, most sickeningly heartfelt way possible. I really hope the poems I gave them sparked some thought.
Here are some pictures I took of snippets of the poem around London. I hope you like them.
photo 5 looking into the skate park on the Southbank.
Photo 4 on the Southbank outside the Southbank centre.
Photo 3 outside the Roundhouse in Camden
Photo 2 at Chalk Farm Underground Station