Feature: Amy Key on Kate Bush and poetry

On to the page, into the sensual world

Kate Bush by Zoë Taylor. zoetaylor.co.uk
Kate Bush by Zoë Taylor. zoetaylor.co.uk

I’m going to make a rash assumption that you find the ‘are lyrics poetry’ debate as tedious as I do. In which case, that musicians P.J. Harvey and Florence Welch have both published books that feature their poetry may not have excited you all that much. Welch’s Useless Magic, published this summer, combines her lyrics and poetry with sketches and artwork. The Hollow of the Hand, a collaborative work of poems and photography by P.J. Harvey and Seamus Murphy, appeared in 2015. Now Kate Bush has published the first collection of her lyrics, How To Be Invisible. Unlike the other two books, Kate Bush’s is not explicitly positioned as poetry, though there is plenty to support the argument that that’s what it contains: list poems, blackbird song re-imagined in language, repetition and rhyme, even VisPo. My position is that lyrics need the music to reach their magic. My position is that Kate Bush has boundless magic.

I feel so deeply connected to Kate Bush’s music that my life is somehow infused by her. I first encountered her through my sister Rebecca. I was seven years old, Rebecca was fourteen, and she played the Hounds of Love LP on the record player in the bedroom we shared. I sort of envy my sister now, encountering that music with its highly concentrated feminine power at such a potent and bewildering age. I am also so grateful and I feel I owe my sister for being taken under Kate’s wing so early on.

A few years ago, I was asked to write a poem inspired by Kate Bush. At the time I was reading Katherine Angel’s book Unmastered (which is itself under Kate’s influence) and had found myself snagged on a line – “I wanted to plunge into my senses”. I submerged myself in Kate’s songs and knew that if I did so, a poem would come. “I wanted to plunge into my senses” seemed to slink around her work like a snake curling around a heart tattoo.

Plunge into provocation

How To Be Invisible takes its title from a song on Kate’s 2005 album Aerial. When the album was released, a review in the Observer described it as “an incantation to female self-effacement”, with the witches’ eye of newt speech from Macbeth rewritten as a spell for invisibility. ‘How to be Invisible’ was my spur: I took Kate’s “Stem of wallflower / Hair of doormat” lyric as the title for a woozy poem (published in The Poetry Review and in my recent collection). Kate’s incantatory lyrics became my own spell for super-heightened senses – a provocation for how you might experience the world free from a male gaze. More recently, Kate made her way into another of the poems in my book, where I found the lyric “Diving off a rock, into another moment” eking its way into the speaker of the poem’s mind. What might this “diving off a rock” be, if not a plunge into senses?

How To Be Invisible reveals the strange patterns of imagery and recurring motifs you’d notice in a poet’s collected works. One of my favourite of Kate’s lyrics, from the thrilling ‘Cloudbusting’, is: “You’re like my yo-yo / That glowed in the dark // What made it special / Made it dangerous / So I bury it and forget.” The invisible, the inexplicably arcane, is what scares, and delights, Kate most: in ‘The Ninth Wave’ sequence on Hounds of Love she’s “under ice”; on Aerial she magics herself invisible. There is the mercurial weather of her imagery: her sky and sea of honey, her fog, her thunder, her clouds busting into rain and a whole album musing on snow.

Then there is the role of colour in her songs. On the cover of Hounds of Love Kate is swathed in shades of violet (an almost glow-in-the-dark violet) which has my brain reaching for Sappho’s “violets in her lap”. The colours recall a scene from the film The Red Shoes (which inspired Kate’s 1993 album of the same name) in which ballet dancer Vicky Paige appears in a Hounds of Love-coloured jacket, her hair the deep autumn of Kate Bush’s. In one of her most tender songs, ‘A Coral Room’, Kate sings of her mother and her little brown jug: “Little brown jug, don’t I love thee?” she sings to a nursery rhyme melody. A popular poetry workshop exercise is to write a poem inspired by an object; I imagine a poem called ‘The little brown jug’. As I dream of a poet singing that line, the melody as an interruption to a poem, I feel a cascade of blood in my heart.

The pleasure of How To Be Invisible is to suddenly notice all of these hidden things. For instance, it hadn’t struck me how many of Kate’s songs seek the isolation (“loneliest city in the world”) and splendour (“up on the angel’s shoulders”) of a high vantage point. The desire is palpable in ‘The Big Sky’, ‘Running Up That Hill’, ‘Cloudbusting’ – in one song she even “could wear a sunset”. Then at the climax of the song ‘Aerial’ she near-wails: “I want to be up on the roof / I’ve got to be up on the roof / Up, up high on the roof / Up, up on the roof / In the sun.” Kate’s voice seems a bird in flight, crashing through the crystal drops of a chandelier, out of the window on a trajectory towards the sun.

Each year I hold a Christmas party, imaginatively called ‘Poetry Christmas’. Most years, once the punch bowl has been refilled for the third or fourth time, we segue into karaoke. Last year there was a moment where poet Kate Duckney sang ‘Wuthering Heights’ and the whole room sang with her in ecstatic communion. It was one of my life’s best “Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake” moments. Who better than Kate to encourage an abandonment of self-consciousness, who better to lead you into “moments of pleasure”?

Kate’s artistic ambition, her genius, is one of intense sensuality – a word I’d find unbearably embarrassing were it not for Kate desensitising it for me over the course of a lifetime. I suspect Kate will find her way into more of my poems yet.

How To Be Invisible is published by Faber and Faber. Amy Key’s latest collection, Isn’t Forever, is published by Bloodaxe.

This article was first published in Poetry News, Winter 2018/9. © The Poetry Society and the author.