Sunday Poem – George Szirtes

Evening folks!  It’s the holidays!!! Yippeee!  Yes it is slightly unseemly to rejoice so at two weeks off from the teaching that you all know I love – but still…yippee again I say.

So last week was a mixture of madness and things gradually slowing down – I did an all day music workshop on Monday with the theme of ‘Animals’ and honestly, if I never sing another animal song again it will be too soon.  I had no idea so many existed!

And then Monday night I had the last rehearsal with my band before our concert the next night.  It went terribly – and I went home with a headache, and hoping that all the parents were as tired as I was and wouldn’t notice the dodgy sounds emanating from the band.  It wasn’t the band’s fault – we’ve been rehearsing so hard for the music festival and we basically had a night to put together a 45 minute programme.

Anyway, as usual, the kids pulled it out of the bag and proved me wrong again.  We had a fantastic concert – one of our best ever I think so it all turned out well in the end.

Then Wednesday I managed to drive around ALL DAY to my six different schools, and was not needed at five of them.  Quite annoying, but this is the usual pattern for the end of term.

Thursday I went out on the first ever works do I’ve been on – seeing as I don’t actually have a work place I don’t normally get invited, but one of my schools that I work in invited me along.  This caused me to be in bed nearly all day Friday, as I didn’t react very well to the two halves of lager and the whisky and coke that I drank.

Saturday I went to Ann Wilson’s open mic night at The Brewery in Kendal – read a poem, but also got to listen to the lovely Mark Carson do a turn as star guest poet.  I had a cracking poem of his on the blog a couple of weeks ago as a Sunday poem.

And tomorrow I’m off to Halifax to read at Puzzle Poets – well more accurately Sowerby Bridge.  I’m staying with the lovely Gaia Holmes and then its straight from Sowerby Bridge to Leicester to read at the Y theatre – my own very mini poetry reading tour…

Writing news – I got the proofs through for a review that’s going to be in Acumen of Myra Schneider’s pamphlet, proofs through for the electronic pamphlet for the Penning Perfumes project, I’ve been working on an article that’s going to appear in Mslexia and I got a really exciting invitation to read later in the year that I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about yet! I also didn’t win the National, but I’m not too disappointed about that – it’s nice to see Patricia McCarthy winning.  I’ve had some dealings with her with an article that will be appearing in Agenda and she has always been very lovely by email, very approachable, and its great to see an editor getting some recognition for their poetry.  And the lovely Jane Draycott coming second as well – Jane was a mentor of mine  a couple of years ago and she really was fantastic.

And some very good poetry news is that George Szirtes has agreed to let me steal a poem from his new book ‘Bad Machine’ for the Sunday Poem.  I gushed about the reading at Headingley Lit Fest with George in previous posts and I am now an Official Fan.  So I am very happy to have one of his poems.

I’ve chosen one of his Canzones – he has quite a few in the book and I’ve found them fascinating.  I even had a go at writing one this week – it probably won’t ever see the light of day – but it was fun to have a go.  It felt like being in a dark room and following a thread to find out where you have to go.

He also has lots of poems that are not Canzones – just in case that is not your thing.  You should definitely get the book – you can order it here at

I don’t think George Szirtes really needs any introduction – he is one of most respected poets but just in case you’ve somehow missed him…

He was born in Budapest in 1948 and came to England with his family after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.  He was trained as a painter and has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature.  His other Bloodaxe titles include Reel, which won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2004  and well as The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009)

George Szirtes also has a fantastic website and blog where he writes about poetry, politics, art.  This is at

I chose this poem because I love the tender atmosphere that is evoked,  I like the way that the double meanings of words are brought to attention, I like it’s obsessiveness, it’s circularity and I think the form fits the content beautifully – they are both intrinsic to each other.  I like how this form forces us to slow down as readers – how the narrative unfolds slowly yet the meaning is elusive – it kind of dances just out of sight when you think you’ve grasped it.

Canzone: The Small of the Back – George Szirtes

He who has numbered the hairs on your head and knows
precisely the finite number of blades of grass
in the open field and the grove full of flowers, knows
to perfection each little part of you.  He knows
the elements, how they are composed, how small
and perishable they are and we are.  He knows
our limits, our beginnings and endings, knows
days and minutes, counting them forward and back
and forward again as in dreams.  There’s no going back
for us, but for him it’s the same either way.  He knows
about forward and back, has counted the grass in the field
that stretches forever, a closed yet open field

in which numbers alone constitute the field.
And what do we constitute?  The doctor knows
what lies within his own professional field.
I see his ginger hair, his black bag, the broad field
of his back as he crosses the street and over the grass
verge, up the drive with its gravel.  His field
is comprehensible, part of a bigger field.
He copes and prescribes for a body of small
disasters, for a self that has shrunk to a small
map of the world.  His numbers cover the field
entirely.  I only know the small of your back
in my hands, the hour of night that will not come back

to greet us.  I move to touch the small of your back
where it narrows before widening.  My field
of operations is narrow.  I stroke down your back
then up it again.  It is ageless.  As if time could look back
on itself while moving forward.  The body knows
time as movement: as rise, crest, fall, then back
to where it started.  So my hand knows your back.
It is marble and milk and summer and smooth grass.
We were stretched out together, lying on the grass.
It was summer in London.  You lay on your back.
Below us the hill rolled away.  The traffic was small
creases on a vast map, we ourselves distant and small.

He who has numbered the hairs on your head, the small
god we imagine moving through grass at the back
of our minds, counting the seconds, the god of small
comforts, of minutiae, of all the vast small-
ness of the universe that is this field and that field,
the god of the moment – that god knows the small
of your back better than I do.  He comprehends the small.
We want him to number us, want someone who knows
what number is and means, someone who knows
the time, who binds us to a world that is always too small.
We want him to number all the blades of grass.
We ourselves want to lie out on that grass.

We know the words.  We know all flesh is grass.
We’re handfuls of dust, breathing in dust.  Our small
numbers are divinities of dust and grass.
There’s nothing better than dust and the fresh grass
on which you lie – I feel the small of your back
smooth under my hand, the field of grass
rolling away.  Here is the image of grass.
The image of time lies somewhere in the field
where people are running beyond our visual field.
They are, like us, a movement in the grass.
They are familiar names that no one knows.
They are the moments everybody knows.

Grass is a cloud of green.  The god who knows
each blade is counting them up.  Beyond the field
lie houses and chairs and beds.  Still further back:
the road down to the coast, the beach, the small
waves nudging over the scree, the dunes, the grass.


2 comments on “Sunday Poem – George Szirtes

  1. Thank you, Kim! So beautiful and timely – not only because of the holiday but for me personally and what I have been going through. Happy Easter!

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