Poems as Cryptic Puzzles


“Airs!  Airs!  Look!  Airs!”
The dumpy woman next to me tugs my sleeve,
insistent.  I must turn in my seat;
try to follow her gaze.

What is this, now!  This nightmare journey!
Should have been home hours ago.
But I should have known.  To travel by train
in England, on a Sunday, is, simply, inane.

No trains, it transpires, just this ancient,
battered bus; trundling through towns, villages.
Stopping, incessantly, stopping . . .
Now, it trundles through open countryside.

“Look!  Look!  Airs!”  What on earth is the woman . . .
Airs?  Heirs?  Ayers? . . .  I look.  I stare.
Nothing.  But wait . . . There!  Stock-still; next second
a pale brown streak across the shimmering field.
Those ears!  Quicksilver motion; thrilling, so rare . . .

I chide myself.  Her shabby clothing,
garish earrings . . . but I have no right
to rank myself above this woman,
whose eyes shine with delight.

And I shouldn’t be so jaded!
The world out there is rife
with teeming, leaping,
misunderstood . . . life.

“Airs” was  written, partly, as a result of my frustration at being unable to decipher some of the poems I’d been reading in the anthology “The Best British Poetry 2012”.  I am irritated by the fact that some modern British poets seem to think that a poem should present a puzzle, as fiendishly difficult to crack as the most enigmatic cryptic crossword.  A feature of “The Best British Poetry 2012” anthology is that each of the poems has an “Afterword” – written by the poet – in which the poet explains what he/she was trying to achieve.  After being baffled by a particular poem, I would turn to the Afterword, hoping for elucidation.  What I often found was that the poet was explaining references in the poem that had particular, personal resonance for him/her – but these references could have no meaning for the reader, coming to the poem for the first time!  One of the poets, in his Afterword, described how he refined the poem over a number of versions, and his feeling that the earlier versions “. . . gave too much of the game away”.  I felt like screaming at him “It’s supposed to be a poem, to be enjoyed, as a piece of literature, by the general reader; not a Cryptic Crossword!”

Anyway, to return to my poem “Airs”.  It started off as an attempt to create a poem as puzzling as some of those I’d just been reading in the anthology.  After showing it to a few friends, for feedback, however, I realized – from the response of total bafflement – that I’d made it a bit too cryptic.  The version you now see is, I think, much more accessible.  If anyone is still puzzled by what the “dumpy woman” is trying to communicate to me, I can tell you that the word is “Hares”.


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