Show Hide image

Taylor Swift’s poem for Vogue: a close-reading

This poem feels like it was written specifically to be quoted by the blonde lead in a Nicholas Sparks movie, which is also the most Taylor Swift thing I can think of.

Taylor Swift doesn’t do interviews any more. But she would quite like to be in a glossy fashion magazine if it’s cool enough. This presents us with a conundrum. How do you get into a big, high-status publication without having to be questioned in any way, shape, or form? The answer – write a poem and be done with it!

Yep, Vogue have allowed Taylor Swift to grace their cover in exchange for 31 lines of what some may call poetry! Or, in Vogue’s own words, they have bagged “the world-class lyricist’s stunning words on the timely subject of reinvention and moving on”. It’s called “The Trick to Holding On”, and you can read the poem in full at Vogue, or below, as we give it a full analysis.

We have four stanzas, all of eight lines except the second, which has seven. There’s no formal rhyme scheme to speak of, but we get a few random rhyming lines here and there, which is nice. The poem opens with quite a forceful metre that quickly dissolves into totally free verse. It’s message is: to hold on to your life, your sanity, and your sense of self, you have to let go of people who upset you, that drift apart from you, and that let you down. It’s a little defensive, nostalgic, faux-wise and trite, which is to say, it’s exactly as you’d imagine it to be.

Let go of the ones who hurt you 
Let go of the ones you outgrow
Let go of the words they hurl your way 
as you’re walking out the door 

Wow. We begin with some textbook anaphora, and in the imperative mood, no less. It’s a pretty sombre tone. It might remind you of some of the great funeral poems: Christina Rossetti’s “Remember”, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye, WH Auden’s “Funeral Blues” (“Stop all the clocks…”) and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas – if those poems were about getting mad at a pop star for stealing dancers or Kim Kardashian leaking recordings of private phone calls.

It might also remind you of the e. e. cummings poem “let it go – the”, if it were written in full sentences, with hearts dotting the “i”s. (That poem encourages the reader to “let go” of “the truthful liars, “the false fair friends” and “the oath cracked” – so, basically the most Taylor Swift phrases you’ve ever heard.) The difference, of course, is that this poem is more of an inspirational cross-stitch bookmark than a poem.

Anyway, classic Swiftian concerns from the start: haters, betrayal, doors (Taylor Swift loves doors, man), and a mysterious, tyrannous “they”, always out to get her.

The only thing cut and dry 
In this hedge-maze life 
Is the fact that their words will cut 
but your tears will dry 

Here Swift takes the common or garden expression “cut and dry” – final, decided, settled, definite – and is like, well, you know the only thing in life that’s CUT AND DRY??? The fact that words CUT but tears DRY. THE EXPERIENCE OF PAIN IS INHERENT IN THE HUMAN CONDITION – BUT SO TOO, IS HEALING. Oh, AND ALSO: LIFE IS A MAZE (or “hedge-maze”, because I’m a classy bitch), NOT A STRAIGHTFORWARD PATH!!! Words to live by.

They don’t tell you this when you are young
You can’t hold on to everything 
Can’t show up for everyone 
You pick your poison 
Or your cure 
Phone numbers you know by heart 
And the ones you don’t answer any more

We’re back to that “they” – which has now seemingly shifted from all the bad people who are trying to ruin your life, to adults who should be giving better advice. (Either way, they suck.)

We get our first little hint of a rhyme here, in cure/more – linking not answering the phone to toxic people with healing, and reversely framing the compulsion to remember a full phone number as a kind of poison.

Any sense of regularly or metre fully collapses here – instead we get these overlong lines opening and closing the stanza, getting shorter towards the middle, isolating “Or your cure” as the big – dun dun dunnn – dramatic moment of the verse. Guys, you can CHOOSE your cure! Choose healing! Let go!

This verse is one line shorter than all the others. I tried to find a reason for this (Seven numbers in a phone number? Uh…. It’s the most powerful magical number?!) but I really don’t think there is one.

Hold on to the faint recognition in 
the eye of a stranger 
As it catches you in its lustrous net 
How quickly we become intertwined 
How wonderful it is to forget 
All the times your intuition failed you 
But it hasn’t killed you yet
Hold on to childlike whims and moonlight swims and your blazing self-respect 

Possibly the weirdest section of the whole thing. I’m not sure if this is an actual stranger, or a long lost acquaintance who’s become a stranger, or whether the recognition is real or imagined. I also don’t know what a “lustrous net” is or would look like, or how an eye can have one. I don’t know how self-respect can blaze. I’m very confused, basically. Also, Taylor Swift has read Joan Didion, and she don’t care who knows it!!!!

There are lots of words here that it feels like Swift has chosen because they are “poetic”: “lustrous”, “intertwined”, “blazing”. Images, too: “the eye of a stranger” “childlike whims”, “moonlight swims”. The result is a tangle of mixed metaphors that feels like it was written specifically to be quoted by the blonde lead in a Nicholas Sparks movie, which is also the most Taylor Swift thing I can think of.

Meanwhile, we have the most rhyming of all here (net/forget/yet, whims/swims), and some of the most regular metre, as if Swift is really getting into it – or slipping back into the rhythm of song writing. The four lines that begin “How quickly…” would make sense as a little verse on their own, with a cute nursery rhyme scheme and metre (if it wasn’t for that irritating “it” in the fourth line) but then it dissolves again.

And if you drive the roads of this town
Ones you’ve gone down so many times before 
Flashback to all the times
Life nearly ran you off the road 
But tonight your hand is steady 

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that Taylor Swift fucking loves a flashback. “Love Story” begins with a flashback to a “balcony in summer air”, “Forever & Always” is about the “flashback to when he said forever and always”. There are flashbacks in “If This Was a Movie”, “Red” and, most recently, “Dress”. Other shit she loves: driving metaphors (“Red”, “Treacherous”, “Style”, “Getaway Car”). This might be both meaningless and cliché-ridden – but it sure is her.

Suddenly you’ll know 
The trick to holding on
Was all that letting go 

The dénouement! Who coulda seen it coming?! Not me. Someone typewrite this onto buff paper and tastefully lie some cigarettes on top of it – stat!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist