On the Train
by Gillian Clarke
Q Which train crash was it?
A The Paddington train crash of October 1999
Q Did you write it at the time of the crash?
A My poems try to be truthful as well as accurately factual. I find the best way to make the poem live is to begin with the here and now. The poem was written, as you see from the details, on a train at about 8 in the morning as the crash was being reported on Radio 4’s Today programme. I was travelling from Manchester to Wales, not, as I often do, from Paddington.
Q What is ‘the blazing bone-ship’?
A The coach which was on fire, containing an unknown number of passengers.
Q Was it an image for a place of death? The station, maybe? A charnel house?
A I wasn’t thinking of a charnel house, though I agree the words suggest it as a possible image. I was thinking of the burning funeral ships the Celts used to push out to sea, containing the bodies of their heroes. I wanted to suggest something noble, tragic, heroic, because real people would be grieving, and deserved no less than the dignity of the noblest image I could conjure.
Q Why do you mention mobile phones? They’re not very poetic.
A I hope I’ve made them poetic. It’s a poet’s job to use real things and make it into poetry. The mobile phone is the modern messenger of love and tragedy as well as chat. They featured too in the tragic events in New York on September 11th. At the time of the train crash the mobile phone’s favourite cliché, ‘I’m on the train’, was suddenly the most important message in the world.