A young man wrote a poem about a rat.
It was the best poem ever written about a rat.
To read it was to ask the rat to perch
on the arm of your chair until you turned the page.
So we wrote to him, but heard nothing; we called,
and called again; then finally we sailed
to the island where he kept the only shop
and rapped his door until he opened up.
We took away his poems. Our hands shook
with excitement. We read them on lightboxes,
under great lamps. They were not much good.
So then we offered what advice we could
on his tropes and turns, his metrical comportment,
on the wedding of the word to the event,
and suggested that he might read this or that.
We said Now: write us more poems like The Rat.
All we got was cheek from him. Then silence.
We gave up on him. Him with his green arrogance
and ingratitude and his one lucky strike.
But today I read The Rat again. Its reek
announced it; then I saw its pisshole stare;
line by line it strained into the air.
Then it hissed. For all the craft and clever-clever
you did not write me, fool. Nor will you ever.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2004 was Hamish Whyte.
It was difficult to choose a poem from Landing Light, there were so many strong ones, and I suspect the family poems will be much anthologised. Instead, I’ve chosen a chilling (and honest) piece about writing (and much else).
I suppose I think of ‘The Rat’ as a not very good poem about a very good poem. It’s certainly the only one I’ve ever had come out of my job as an editor, which must be about the most unpoetic trade imaginable. Beyond that there’s not much to say about it – it’s about the poem being bigger than the poet, and the humility we should feel before the former and the indifference toward the latter – which at the end of the day is a pretty odd designation, useful only as a way of identifying a reliable source of good poems. But sometimes unreliable sources produce astonishing things.