Today I am turning to the poem The Straight and Narrow by British poet Simon Armitage. It is such a fun poem, yet if we are not too fast, and read it carefully, and over and over again, possibility emerges beyond the first thought of nostalgia. The poem begins by recalling those “school career nights” when the school welcomed experts in certain fields to talk about the possibility of such a career. The poem begins with the story of an X Ray of a 10 year old girl who swallowed a toy car. However, the poem doesn’t stay there, rather it opens up illuminated possibilities. I quote from The Guardian newspaper who printed a review of the poem – Beyond nostalgia, it evokes an essence of a pedagogical truth, that more is learned along the mysterious lanes winding off the slip roads of a subject than on its pounding motorways. The thing that “clicks” with the students is often not what the instructor expected. It’s not testable by examination. But it might be tested over a lifetime; it might shape that lifetime. “The X-ray plate of the ten-year-old girl / who swallowed a toy” suggests a possible double meaning: humans swallow all kinds of “toys” (including educational ones) which they’d be better off without. There is here an epiphany waiting for you to embrace. On a warm summer afternoon or cool evening take a moment to ponder this telling poem. Let the clouds open up, and follow the star within you from past to future. A little like the star of the Magi.
The Straight and Narrow
When the tall and bearded careers advisor
set up his stall and his slide projector
something clicked. There on the silver screen,
like a photograph of the human soul,
the X-ray plate of the ten-year-old girl
who swallowed a toy. Shadows and shapes,
mercury-tinted lungs and a tin-foil heart,
alloy organs and tubes, but bottom left,
the caught-on-camera lightning strike
of the metal car: like a neon bone,
some classic roadster with an open top
and a man at the wheel in goggles and cap,
motoring on through deep, internal dark.
The clouds opened up; we were leaving the past,
drawn by a star that had risen inside us,
some as astronauts and some as taxi-drivers.
long ago the Magi followed
a star, high in the sky.
And in their following
to and from
they were changed as
new possibilities drew them
to travel a different road.
O Holy God
help me to find that
not up there somewhere
but deep within me.
May it continue to give birth
to ever new possibilities
which shape the present as it becomes
both past and future. Amen.