by Gillian Clarke
A long time ago I was asked to baby-sit for strangers. I’d never met them or been to their house before. I was bored, sorry for myself, and worried that the baby might wake up. What made me write the poem was suddenly seeing the baby in a new light. My thoughts shifted from the strange room described in verse 1 to an imagined world of human loneliness in verse 2.
There is room for your own response to the images in this poem, but don’t ignore the story the poem tells. Note the title. Note the first two lines. They tell you what the poem is about.
How to read the poem for its content:
The title and the first few lines will set you on the right path to understanding the poem. I am ‘Baby-Sitting’. ‘I am sitting in a strange room listening for the wrong baby.’ It’s not the right baby because it’s not my baby. Read the poem first for its story. Then ask yourself some questions.
- Who is telling the story?
- Where are the events happening?
- A poem is usually a combination of personal experience and imagination. Which do you think is personal experience? Which events are imagined?
- The scene shifts from the house to other scenes and other places in verse 2. Why?
Students often ask what a poem is ‘about’. It’s never about just one thing, but the whole point of writing this poem was the sudden realisation that a baby has a private inner world just as we all do.
There is a theory around that the poem is not ‘about’ baby-sitting, but ‘about’ postnatal depression! I have no experience of PND, and such a theory ignores the title and the ‘story’. There is no evidence for the PND theory in the language. So what are you to do if someone tells you the poem is ‘about PND’? If it makes some teachers and some students think of PND, they can of course say so, adding it as their own afterthought, a ‘maybe’. But don’t ignore the evidence of the language and substitute your idea instead.
How to read the poem for its form:
Form always has a purpose, though it’s often chosen unconsciously. This poem has two verses, each of ten lines. They look equal on the page, like, perhaps, two rooms, two moods. The first verse describes my anxiety that the baby might wake. I can’t settle. I listen nervously.
In verse 2, everything changes. I forget that I’m in a strange house. I begin to think about the baby. Who is this little person? What do babies think about? What do they dream? Struck by how little we know about what goes on in a baby’s mind, I try to imagine the baby’s fear if she wakes and finds a stranger at her side. Fear, rage, need, loneliness, frustration are huge feelings, and without words to express them, all a baby can do is cry.
The poem doesn’t rhyme*. If you read the poem aloud you’ll hear a relaxed kind of rhythm*, and sometimes a few lines of iambic pentameter*, as in lines 17-18.
‘As she rises sobbing from the monstrous land
stretching for milk-familiar comforting’
Read the lines aloud and stress the bold syllables to hear the 5 strong beats in each line. Because it’s a thoughtful, private kind of poem, I didn’t want to keep a strong rhythm like that going all the way through. A strong beat wouldn’t have expressed the halting thought, the change of mind, the slowly unfolding ideas. The two verses are there for a good reason. The first contains the mood at the start of the evening, anxious and a bit homesick, while the verse-break marks the moment when imagination kicks in and carries me away from myself and the strange house. It carries me far away to imagine other people, yet it also brings me closer to the baby and the baby’s world.
How to read the poem for its language:
- What does midnight rage suggest to you?
- What is the monstrous land?
- What do you think milk-familiar means?
- What do you see in your mind when you read the bleached
- bone, or the monstrous land?
I use ‘midnight’, ‘monstrous’ and ‘milk-familar’ as adjectives. ‘Midnight’ is an odd word to describe rage, but I want you to imagine the baby waking in the night, hot and screaming. ‘The monstrous land’ is the land of a baby’s dreams, a land populated by monsters, some of them friendly. I made up ‘milk-familiar’ because there wasn’t another word that meant exactly what I wanted to say. In the last lines of the first verse I suggest that I know the delicious clean perfume of my own baby’s breath by saying that this baby’s breath won’t have the same magic for me, and that I am not ‘milk-familiar’ to her. Here, and in other parts of the poem, I let the reader know that between the right baby and the right mother the magic works. Between the baby and a stranger it doesn’t.
The people in verse 2 are imagined. The lover is every abandoned lover. The woman in the terminal ward is every widow. ‘The bleached bone in the terminal ward’ is a metaphor* for the thin body of a man near death. If you’ve ever visited a hospital, you may have seen elderly patients under their white sheets, like driftwood on the shore, or bones cast up by the tide. These images describe how lonely an abandoned baby might feel. In the last four lines I think about the baby in a new and deeper way. Note the final two lines, and the repetition.
*Go to my A-Z of poetry terms for explanations of alliteration, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, simile etc, with examples taken from my work and from the work of other set poets.
In ‘Baby-Sitting’ an adult is looking after somebody else’s baby. She thinks about people who are with strangers, old people, and others. Compare this poem with Seamus Heaney’s poems about adults and children. ‘Mid-Term Break’, about a child, and ‘Follower’, where the poet remembers being a child following his father, and now, as an adult, sees his father follow him. Read his notes on his own poems.