Kathleen Jamie – The Way We Live


The poem seeks to highlight the fragmented oddity of human existence. Its imagery is at times profound, seeming to strive for the grandeur and beauty of epic poetry, and at times mercilessly banal – making heavy use of bathos to make us aware of the dislocated nature of our lives. Just as the imagery seems to want to burst out of its surroundings, so too does the form, with deliberately conspicuous enjambement contributing to the rhapsodical, flowing style.

The poem is framed as a kind of hymn, recalling the Book of Psalms in its reference to ‘tambourine’ and ‘praise’. The exhortational, celebratory tone conveys an enjoyment of the oddities described. The reference to ‘Lord God‘ might be taken at face value, dedicating the poem to an originator of this chaotic beauty. Alternatively, the addition of ‘of movement’ might negate the religious element and suggest a more general celebration of the force governing human existence, or perhaps just life itself. Ultimately the poet doesn’t make it explicit whetherGod is present behind the poet, but we feel that the symmetry suggested by the return to ‘pass the tamborine’ in the final line implies a governing creative intelligence responsible for making order out of the chaos.

Descriptions of natural grandeur and emotional complexity are juxtaposed with the banal and the mundane to suggest the oddity of existence. The image that opens Stanza 2 encapsulates this variety. The mundanity of windscreen wipers, their ‘pulse’ echoed in the strong iambic rhythm through these two lines, is expanded and elevated to something majestic with the developed description of moorland. The place name ‘Rannoch’ lends an authenticity to the poet’s description, and the harsh consonance and ‘rock’ resemblance make the word seem suitable for a bitter, desolate place.  The lines that follow have the feel of a supressed epic simile, something better fitted to a narrative poem. The personified elements seem almost to be shaped to fit Classical allusions, and although of course none are given we have the sense of the poem trying to burst out of its meagre form. We can see the poem’s imagery as reflecting its message – humanity is simultaneously at home in the mundane and dreary, and yearning for more profound experience.

The poem implies deep and complex emotion without explicitly stating it. The line ‘Of airports, impulse, and waking to uncertainty’ develops a whole series of scenarios by implication. Combining ‘airports’ and ‘impulse’ we see a desire to escape, the idea of leaving one’s life behind and starting again. ‘Waking to uncertainty’ combines with the preceeding ideas to temper this excitement with fear, perhaps bringing to mind deportation; on its own it might represent illness or old age. The poem also offers itself as a profound reevaluation of life’s mundane aspects. The union of ‘Final Demands and dead men’ recasts the threat of unpaid bills from something serious to something absurdly minor in comparison with the threat of mortality.

In its striking contrasts and fluid movements, this poem aims to echo and to celebrate the complexity and curiosity of human existence. It tempers a recognition of the banal necesities of modern life with a suggestion that human beings might be capable of greater things, something echoed in the form and structure.

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