IMG_3031For many years, I’ve been obsessed with a poem by Hugo Williams called ‘The White Hair’ which appears in his 1979 collection ‘Love Life’ as a page-length meditation on lost love. The narrator of the poem is taking a late night walk ‘through streets I know too well for walking in’, reflecting on how ‘the days / Lap one another’s memories’ and how ‘days cannot return / Forgiveness’. It is a poem framed around absence, a search in vain:

Not day by day
But line by line I live, not seeing you..

The poem ends with the arresting image of someone in front of a mirror, trying to remove a white hair. By the time ‘The White Hair’ appears in Hugo Williams’ ‘Collected Poems’ (2002), it has been pared back to two short stanzas, foregrounding the image of the hair:

…The hungry hours of the earth grope through me
In their search for images.
I wish I could pluck you out of me
As easily as the white hair I saw in the mirror,
Though even then I noticed my searching right hand
Start moving in the wrong direction.

I came back to ‘The White Hair’ again recently after I heard the term ‘ghosting’ for the first time. ‘Ghosting’ means one person suddenly and completely cutting contact with another (refusing to answer calls, texts and emails) in a friendship or relationship, without ever articulating the reason. A friend referred me to ‘ghosting’ as a term to describe something I’ve been experiencing in a friendship recently.

ghost showAs a writer, I’ve always been intrigued by ghostly terminology (I wrote and published a whole sequence of ghost poems in 2010) and found the word instantly captivating. Returning to Hugo Williams’ poem, I started thinking about how technology makes it easy for us to pluck people out of our lives as easily as the pale hair in the poem. Block. Delete. Unfriend. The mirror of the screen shows no evidence, reflects us as we want to be seen. It’s easier than ever to deny someone’s existence.

What’s interesting to me is that the later version of ‘The White Hair’ is clearer, more precise, stripped back, yet – for anyone who has read ‘Love Life’ – it contains the ghost of the longer poem, it remains haunted by the expansive 1979 version. Perhaps all poems contain the traces of former drafts and versions, even when we cut them brutally. Thinking about ‘ghosting’ and how hurtful it can be, I ended up reflecting on my own writing process and how I might use a poem as a way of editing my own experience, imposing a new, partial reality in the way somebody might through ‘ghosting’. Perhaps through writing and editing, we ‘ghost’ aspects of the past, deciding what to leave unsaid, what to remove, what to replace. I recently wrote a piece for the Young Poets Network about the power of the unspoken and the negative in poetry, thinking about Andrew Waterhouse’s poem ‘Not An Ending’, a piece framed around denial.

Of course, what I love most about ‘Not An Ending’ is its ironic conclusion:

….He may
have shrugged, but never shook.
He had no regrets and would not think
of her again. He would not think of her again.

The narrator of ‘The White Hair’ stands before the looking glass and finds his hand ‘moving in the wrong direction’. The poem forgets and retains, destroys and preserves.


5 thoughts on “Ghosting

  1. I found a signed copy of Love-Life in a second-hand shop in 1989, 10 years after publication. Weeks later Hugo Williams was reading in Oxford at Magdalen College. I arrived at the venue to find the room locked. Then two men arrived in motorcycle leathers, Hugo and a friend. John Fuller rushed up with a key.
    Row upon row of chairs, Hugo’s friend sitting in the middle with the helmets, half a dozen others in attendance.
    I went up after the reading, Hugo astonished to see my copy of Love-Life, ‘Where did you get this?!’
    He opened the title page to see he’d signed it, “To Charles with love from Hugo, 22.x.79”. Then he giggled, suddenly got up and rushed into the chairs to confront … yes, you guessed.
    He returned to his table, still grinning and wrote ‘Greg’ above the crossed-out ‘Charles’.
    I supposed Charles was ghosting Hugo’s poems!

    Thanks for posting this, Helen, and sending me back to Love-Life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an amazing story! Someone brought a copy of my first book to a gig recently that they’d bought 2nd hand and it was already signed and dedicated to someone, so I had to do the name crossing through thing too. I’m still thinking about who it was that gave the book away…ghosts indeed. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting blog, Helen. I was ghosted quite dramatically spectacularly by a male friend about five years ago. We were very close, so I think ghosting has something to do with mirroring and near-identification with another. I think my friend saw in my failings his own failings and couldn’t bear the double weight, the double mirror effect. In ghosting me he shed himself of some of the weight of (a sense of) failure. So perhaps when we ghost our early drafts, we edit out our worst faults (failings) as writers?


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