I enjoyed re-encountering this poem which I wrote quite a long time ago – it feels appropriate, with its retrospective feelings, mingled with vague thoughts about the future, at this time of year.
It’s quite simple, telling the story of an experience, but I hope it adds up to more just description. Keys are evocative, each with their personal story, like individuals in their own right.
At the same time though, they can be grouped into sets, well families almost…
But this is to tell the poem in prose, which undermines the whole point of writing the poem in the first place, so I’ll stop now, and give you the poem.
Though I did also want to say that sometime after I’d written it, I came across another poem about keys. I thought that was a very good poem; it started in a similar vein, but moved on into a very different area – you may well know it? It made me feel uncomfortable, because I thought other people might think I’d got the idea from her. But keys – heavy of course with potential symbolism – are a frequent item in all of our lives, so really it shouldn’t be surprising if more than one poet would have the idea to write about them.
More specifically, I know the discomfort was related to the unpleasant experience I had when I was organising a poetry competition and a significant episode of (in the event, clumsy) plagiarism was later discovered in a winning poem. I felt foolish, somehow responsible, out of my depth and completely unsure what to do. It did all work out in the end, but not without a lot of blood – several were wounded – on the carpet. And left me at least with a continuing vague embarrassment, a feeling of having been near something contaminating and a greatly increased fear of ever being thought to be unoriginal, let alone a plagiarist.
Which actually is rather silly, since we all borrow (if not steal) at times, draw inspiration from others’ work and must surely be allowed to imitate.
Well, the perpetrator had a good line in excusing himself, and he found a certain degree of support along the lines suggested above.
Much water’s flowed under the bridge since then. Sorry about the mixed metaphors – it’s just that a lot of all this is about time passing, the locks which so many of these keys fitted having long since disappeared, and dust has gathered.
Yes, it was all a long time ago now, and all of us – be we plagiarists or self-styled originals, borrowers or lenders, creators or literary detectives – have moved on too, and are different.
My bag of keys has got heavier, gathering more since then, but I still find myself occasionally tipping them out and…
Definitely time for the poem.
My Bag of Keys
The keys cascade out on my desk –
I stir them like a miser taking
pleasure in their metal smells.
Before me many promises –
Silver Chest, Small Blue Suitcase,
Old Green Box – on crumpled labels.
Some I know – the bent Land Rover
key called Wilmot Breeden Union
Made in England FP638
and Granny's Back Door Key
“the old one, now no good”
kept just in case, like all the others
from forgotten padlocks, long stopped
clocks, wind-up toys, the Mountain Gate,
AA Box and chests of drawers.
Here are handmade heavy keys
long shafted, flanged, heraldic
with no need for numbers;
others, proudly engineered declare
their name and number – Belfry Brand
Yale and Towne, or Empire Made;
but some are simply stamped out
from a thin sheet – small change,
cheap little Cheyney, Pifco, Plumbob
names spilt in dust from many places,
gathered over years. And now I add
my own odd keys to the collection
hoping one day something new
may be unlocked, or at least a child
or grandchild may tip them out
as I do now to smell their currency,
assemble sets in little families
and keep them safe, then pass them on.