Featured Poem: Across The Way by Rogan Wolf

This week’s Featured Poem comes from Steve Wasserman, founder of Short Story Book Club and supporter of The Reader Organisation, who has been embarking on a journey to engage with poetry on a deeper level – by learning it ‘by heart’. His endeavours have led him, along with Get Into Reading London Project Worker Megg Hewlett, to organise a very special evening of poetry read by heart in aid of our Apprenticeship Programme – details of which you can find as you read on.

When I was sixteen years old I learnt a poem by heart. This one by Philip Larkin.

I guess the reason I learnt it (I’m sure I’m not the only crabby teenager who did) was that I felt the poem gave me a way of voicing a “truth” I couldn’t voice by myself alone.

After ‘This Be The Verse’, I had the odd stab at memorising other poems, but it wasn’t a priority and no more verse went into my head (or my heart) for a couple of decades.

Until now. For the last few months I’ve been learning poems as if my life depended on it (and in some ways I’m starting to think it does).

I go for poems that unsettle me, poems that make me feel something quite intense like a blow to the solar-plexus, or a whomp to the chest from a defibrillator.

Even if I’m not always sure what this feeling is, I’ve realised that if I learn poems “by-heart”, that’s to say with my heart, through my heart, the learning of the poem acts like a kind of “medicine”, giving me something I didn’t even realise I needed, something I perhaps still lack.

Recently, waiting for an operation, I’ve been learning lots of poems about Waiting.

Here I am reciting one of my favourites by Rogan Wolf.

Before the operation, Rogan’s poem helped me to see the surgeon’s hands not just as scalpel-wielding, pain-delivering “trouble”, but something more altruistically human (albeit professionally altruistic), offering the gift of assistance; a lifebuoy thrown into choppy waters to help keep me afloat.

hands trained
to relieve me

hands to retrieve me
myself at sea.

Waiting in my NHS “nightie” to go into surgery, occasionally coming back to the poem as my mind darted this way and that, I also found in it a powerful reminder to pay attention to other people, those sitting around me, literally across the way, my fellow impatient patients, also awaiting their surgical fate.

Were we not all ‘in the same boat’: thrown into the embarrassment of our bodies in disrepair, our confounding and disturbing mortality?

I am sending

an SOS signal
from the eye
of my tempest

pausing here
across the way.

These moments can be very lonely ones. But in some way, we had each other, as long as we were willing in some way to acknowledge each other (“Welcome, wanderer…”). And I had Rogan’s poem.

Reading poetry can be a great pleasure, as well as bringing much solace, but learning a poem by heart takes one into an altogether more magical realm. It’s the difference between reading a book about rambling (peaceful, I’m sure) and then actually heading out into the hills and dales.

I would urge you to head (and heart) out into the hills and dales. There’s more information about how to do this on my website.

On the evening of National Poetry Day (October 4th) a bunch of avid by-hearters are gathering in Abney Park Chapel in London to recite our favourite poems. Just for fun, but also to raise some money for The Reader Organisation‘s Care Leaver Apprenticeship programme, a cause very close to our hearts. It would be lovely to see you there if you can make it. Tickets can be bought online from the By Heart website.

If you aren’t around on that evening, please still consider sponsoring our hearts and vocal cords by making a donation to the Fundraising Page: http://www.charitygiving.co.uk/poemsbyheart

Happy by-hearting.

Across The Way

Welcome, wanderer,
shadow-companion,
fellow-refugee.

I have seen you
across the way
and salute you.

Waiting
to place myself
in someone else’s hands

to place myself
in hands trained
to relieve me

hands to retrieve me
myself at sea.
I am sending

an SOS signal
from the eye
of my tempest

pausing here
across the way.

Welcome, wanderer,
shadow-companion,
fellow-refugee.

From across the way
I salute you.

Rogan Wolf

Steve Wasserman is a teacher, writer, podcaster, and person-centred CBT therapist.

Rogan Wolf is a poet and social worker. His Poems For… organisation supplies poem-posters and wall displays of work from leading contemporary poets for display in Anxious Spaces (GP surgeries, hospitals, dentists), as well as classrooms and libraries. Many of the poems are bilingual, with 50 languages presently represented. His personal website is: http://www.roganwolf.com/

Across The Way has been reproduced here with kind permission of the poet.

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