This week’s poem is by Brian Patten and I have chosen it for Nicola, for her father Lloyd and for my cousin Roger, and for all those who we have lost.
A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,Brian Patten (1946—)
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams
Poem 218. So Many Different Lengths of Time
How long does a man live after all?
A thousand days or only one?
One week or a few centuries?
How long does a man spend living or dying
and what do we mean when we say gone forever?
Adrift in such preoccupations, we seek clarification.
We can go to the philosophers
but they will weary of our questions.
We can go to the priests and rabbis
but they might be too busy with other administrations.
So, how long does a man live after all?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret and ask so many questions –
then when it comes to us
the answer is so simple.
A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.
His lover will carry his man’s scent, his touch:
his children will carry the weight of his love.
One friend will carry his arguments,
another will hum his favourite tunes,
another will still share in his terrors.
And the days will pass with baffled faces,
then the weeks, then the months,
then there will be a day when no question is asked,
and the knots of grief will loosen in the stomach
and the puffed faces will calm.
And on that day he will not have ceased
but will have ceased to be separated by death.
How long does a man live after all?
A man lives so many different lengths of time.
I first found this poem in the BBC Radio 4 Poetry Please Anthology. It wasn’t long after my cousin Roger had died and the poem struck me immediately.
It starts with the key question: what do we mean when we talk of somebody’s life? There are people who live short lives and yet those lives are filled with event and interest; others are longer but not so busy. How can somebody be gone forever when we remember them and the things they did so clearly?
The second stanza says that we can take these questions to those we think should be able to give answers, but we get none: the philosophers tire of us and our religious guides are preoccupied with other concerns.
The third stanza repeats the question, with a sense of urgency: “We fret and ask so many questions”—just as when Nicola died, I began asking myself questions: Why? How? What? The last two lines of the stanza begins to answer the question, promising that the answer is simple.
People live for as long as others remember them: in whatever way they remember them—it may be their scent, their familiar touch, or the things they shared. This is mirrored by Sir Terry Pratchett in his book Going Postal where a dead inventor’s name is continually signalled back and forth along the semaphore lines he created:
Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?Terry Pratchett, Going Postal
When Pratchett himself died, a movement began to have his name continually reflected around the Internet.
The last few stanzas tell us that knowing this fact, there will come a time when the grief passes, the emotions subside and we can accept that the person lives on (“he will not have ceased/but will have ceased to be separated by death”).
I like this poem because it expresses my feelings so well and because I found it at a time of need. I hope that whether or not it helps you should you be in need, you will read other poems by Brian Patten.
Brian Patten is one of the Liverpool poets (the others being Roger McGough and Adrian Henri): influenced by the Beat poets of the 1950s, they in turn influenced poets such as John Cooper Clarke and Benjamin Zephaniah.
Frank Skinner’s latest Poetry Podcast talks about The Mersey Sound, the seminal anthology of works by the Liverpool poets. It’s well worth a listen.
- Read more about Brian Patten at his website.
- Watch Brian Patten talk about the poem and read it at his friend Adrian Henri’s graveside on YouTube.
- Read about the GNU Terry Pratchett idea at the L-Space Wiki.
- Listen to Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast at Planet Radio.