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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

12 October 2018

Malcolm Guite ponders the paradox of blowing smoke rings

THE art of blowing smoke rings, like all true arts, has at its heart a paradox. Poetry finds its freedom in the constraint of form, music suggests the timeless by keeping time, and smoke rings are blown by not being blown at all.

If you try to blow a smoke ring you will find that your breath is nothing but eddies and disturbances in the air, disturbances that will pull your ring to pieces before it is even half-formed. The secret is not to breathe out, but to keep the smoke in your mouth as still as the air outside, and then to pop the smoke out gently with your tongue so that your ring floats out whole and pristine, still expanding and gently turning on its own momentum.

But it’s hard, at first, not to breathe out when you push, so you must be completely relaxed — indeed, you must attain a Zen-like calm. And that, of course, is the whole point of pipe-smoking and blowing smoke rings. So I wrote in the opening verse of my poem “Smoke Rings From My Pipe”:

All the long day’s weariness is done
I’m free at last to do just as I will,
Take out my pipe, admire the setting sun,
Practice the art of simply sitting still.
Thank God I have this briar bowl to fill,
I leave the world with all its hopeless hype,
Its pressures, and its ever-ringing till,
And let it go in smoke rings from my pipe

In fact, this poem got me into trouble, when a reviewer of my last poetry book, Parable and Paradox, having approved in general of the whole collection, and praised the phrasing of one or two poems, singled this poem out for reproof. How could I spoil a devotional volume with this reprehensible hymn to tobacco, and to the pernicious habit of smoking, which we should all now be leaving behind? I felt like the boy who has been caught smoking behind the bike sheds — probably because I once was the boy caught smoking behind the bike sheds.

And, yes, I know that times have changed, and gone are the days when we gathered in the little snug at the back of the pub and smoked our pipes together; when the layers of smoke in the room were so dense that our smoke rings would gather more to themselves as they rolled above the table between us and then suddenly gleam silver in a shaft of sunlight.

Gone, too, are the days when C. S. Lewis could write: “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

Although I cherish those old memories, I am genuinely glad that the smoke has cleared from the pubs, and I am content that my pipe should become more and more a solitary pleasure, confined to the shrine of my writing hut, the Temple of Peace.

Nevertheless, I am still bold to pray the prayer with which I ended that poem:

Prince, I have done with grinding at the mill,
These petty-pelting tyrants aren’t my type,
So lift me up and set me on a hill,
A free man blowing smoke rings from his pipe.

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