So You Want to be a Potter? Alice Beer
Close Reading by Michael Laskey
So You Want to be a Potter?
Here are some rules:
nose above the centre of the wheel
to find the centre of your pot.
The wholeness of your pot
depends on being centred.
Shape your pot from the inside.
It’s not what people see
but it’s what matters.
Once you have got it right inside
the rest sees to itself. Well, more or less.
Balance your hands, make them a team,
one inside, one outside your pot.
While one hand pushes up,
the other gives support,
one as important as the other.
And keep a steady pace,
although your speed must vary.
There should be nothing sudden
to upset the growth.
I wish you joy!
An immediately engaging title, both rhetorical and colloquial. It’s as if we might be overhearing part of an ongoing conversation, or it could be a question directed at us personally that perhaps has an edge of challenge to it – ‘Think it’s easy, do you?’
But the simplicity of the first line immediately counteracts any worry we may have that the poet is mocking us and it sets the tone – straightforward, expository, eye on the object – and indeed the structure of the whole poem – how to do it, four rules, one in each of the five-lined but clearly not exactly matching verses. It’s as if, despite the encouragement offered, the varied shapes of the verses simultaneously demonstrate how difficult it is to produce two pots that look identical.
The language is simple, unfussy, as ordinary as the clay she is working with. The poet isn’t showing off, just speaking plainly, trying to explain. There’s a lot of repetition, repetition that emphasises the concentration required, the balance of forces – ‘centre(d)’ comes three times and ‘pot’ twice in the first verse; in the second, ‘inside’ ‘what’ and ‘see(s)’ all appear twice. I love the quiet wit of her wry qualification – ‘Well, more or less.’ In the third verse we find another ‘inside’ braced against an ‘outside’, ‘one’ occurs four times and ‘the other’ twice. And there are unobtrusive rhymes, assonances and half rhymes too: rules/wheel/wholeness; pot/not/what/got; rest/itself/less; pot/support/important; keep/speed; sudden/upset; and although/growth.
And naturally from the outset we realise that the potter is not only a literal potter, but a metaphorical one too. The poet focuses so clearly on the process, on what is required, that the metaphorical meanings arise irresistibly. The reader can’t help but make the connections. Being a potter means not just being a creative person, a poet maybe, but something much more universal: a successful human being. We’re the clay we have to work: it’s being centred that counts, getting our inside right, balancing left and right, having patience, keeping steady, not rushing at things. It’s our own potential for growth that the poem explores. These are rules for life. And how wonderfully surprising the turn of the last line is: the poet addresses us directly again as she did in the poem’s title and lovingly dismisses us, the exclamation mark implying the difficulty of the task ahead of us, but the joy of it having the last word.
Michael Laskey, March 2006
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