#39 “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” (Stevie Smith)

And yet, the energy of “Kubla Khan” was limited by an accident. Coleridge said that the poem came to him in a dream (literary critics believe opium was involved).

On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

The “person from Porlock” has ever since figured, in literary history, as somewhere between the type of all importunate people who prevent academics from getting their “own work done” at best, and history’s greatest monster at worst. After all, if the Person hadn’t come barging in, Coleridge might have given the world the director’s cut of “Kubla Khan,” which might be all the way up at #20 on the Countdown today instead of the lousy #40 where I have it.

But every reaction brings about a counter-reaction. What if the person from Porlock came just in time? That is the suggestion of Stevie Smith’s wonderful “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock.”

This is the one tactical placement on my Countdown. I wanted to include Stevie Smith, and this is the poem of hers that I think most highly of. But it makes no sense to place it before “Kubla Khan,” and if I wait to include it much after, it’s not going to be as effective, either.

It’s a poem about work, and creativity, and rationalization, and excuses, and the wonder of language, and mystery, and depression, and people’s expectations of us, and a little bit about faith, and there’s even a cat in it. Of all the poems in the Countdown, it may be the most eclectic in style. It starts with a free-verse meditation; it continues with a lyric section in couplets; it meditates again; and it ends with a meta-meditation, almost in prose, about whether it was right to write the rest of it. As a poem about writers’ block and its attendant insecurities, it ends brilliantly with thoughts about such insecurities, and our guilt for even entertaining them.

But wait, my department Chair is at my door . . .

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10 responses to “#39 “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” (Stevie Smith)

  1. The way this poem is written is amusing. I enjoyed reading a poem that sounded like it was just written off the of Stevie Smith’s head. The randomness makes it seem as if I’m sitting next to Ms. Smith as she’s sort of venting and rambling on. Many people often have the sort of thought pattern where there is a sort of conflict in their own minds. The poem seemed to be a pretty happy poem, but oddly it turns a little gloomy at the very end, which I thought was a little odd. One of the things I enjoyed a whole lot about the poem was the personification of excuses. It seems this Person from Porlock is the Ultimate Excuse. I think the person from Porlock would be a blessing for me sometimes. I stress about everything way more than I should. I can be quite the perfectionist or over-achiever. It would be nice if this Person from Porlock would come by and interrupt me sometimes. So that I may have an excuse to leave things as they are and not worry about them. Hey, since this person could just be made up and the only one I need to please most of the time is myself , then I too can just say “I meant to _______, but I was interrupted by the person from Porlock.

  2. Sometimes, I feel like some of the people I work with are from Porlock. I could be sitting at my desk, working on something on my computer, when I have a profound idea about an improvement to make on a project that I am working on, when suddenly, a coworker will come to me and ask a question. They won’t even pause to see if I acknowledge their presence. I try to be polite, and do what I can to answer their questions, but then, my newfound idea is gone. Just like that. Sometimes it will come back to me, and sometimes it won’t. However, sometimes the interference is good. If I’m really stressing out about something, it is nice to have a distraction. It can actually make things easier.

  3. We are often people from Porlock. We often get interrupted by people everyday. Our family and friends interrupt us from doing things. I get destracted easily when it comes to doing things that I do not want to. I wish that I could blame Porlock for not getting projects done at work or school. This poem was kind of random and all over the place. It did not really have a flow to it. I The mood of the poem is sad but tries to motivate. I think Porlock is something the writer experiences a lot in his life and looks for something or someone to blame for it.

  4. andreamcginley

    I absolutely loved this poem; it is my favorite by far. Being a college student and a full time employee I completely understand the frustration of the appearance of the person from Porlock. There is always so much to do and so little time to do it. For example the other day I was at home writing a paper when the maintenance personnel knocked on my door to examine why the person below me had water leaking from their ceiling. I had to take thirty minutes of my precious time to answer their questions. By the time they had left I had completely forgotten what I was supposed to be writing. On another note this poem is just pleasurable to read because it has a comedic tone that lightens the air of frustration. Even though the poem includes the frustration of meeting with the person from Porlock it also gives a side that as people we tend to use others as excuses to mask our inability to finish what we’ve started. It is a tribute to pure laziness which I myself fall too every now and then after a forty hour work week. I sometime look for a reason to procrastinate. Not a good habit, but nevertheless a facet in everyone’s personality. Now the poem does start off lighthearted but towards the end it gets a little gloomy. It gives the sense that we do not have any say in what we do or who we are with the lines “To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting with various mixtures of human character which goes best All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us”. This thought can bring down ones aspirations, but this statement is not necessarily true. We do have tools that we can use to make us the persons we want to be.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this poem. I think that it was fun to read, but at the same time I found it a little depressing. I think we all occasionally enjoy having our own person from Porlock to take the blame for what are probably just our own shortcomings. But the part in the poem immediately following the cat (which was a nice touch) I found to be extremely depressing. I don’t know about everyone else, but I thought the poem got downright suicidal when she started talking about the person from Porlock bringing her thoughts to an end. I don’t know why, but it just felt so depressing. I think that the poet realizes that once you start waiting and praying for interruptions during some things, you open up the door to bigger and bigger things until finally you may get to the ultimate interruption. I don’t know, I’m just typing as I think. But that one phrase sticks with me, and it changes the way I read the rest of the poem. It’s suddenly not as fun, though still a little funny. I think that everyone at some point has longed for the person from Porlock to make an appearance for whatever reason. It’s a double win for us: we don’t have to try to finish whatever we were going to have to, and we have an easy scapegoat that will likely work again and again.

  6. I have to agree with the other writers I too am waiting on that person from Porlock. When you are a mother, wife, employee and student you have so much going on in your head. There are so many roles to play, list to make, projects to do and assignments to study. The poem is funny but deep as well with several statements to mediate on. It draws you into the poem wanting to know who and more about the person from Porlock. I must ask the question are we the person from Porlock, as he makes the statement “I think of him as a friend” because of our busy life? He is so close to that person but would like to know more about them. We become so busy with day to day living and taking care of others until we no longer know who we are and life has been taken away. I really like this poem especially the part of submitting with a smile, the One Above experimenting with various mixtures of human character and interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us. The first person and thought that comes to mind is God. We go through life submitting with great joy as he continues to make and mold us each day into become a person of purpose with integrity. It is interesting and exciting to him as he adds and subtract to our character, to us it can sometimes be painful but we continue to wear the smile. Personally the ending is saying once you know your purpose in life day by day you will embrace it. I know my comment was off from others but the end part really stood out to me in a different way.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” by Stevie Smith. I find it interesting how the Person from Porlock can be perceived in a negative or positive connotation. It all depends on the situation and who you ask. We have all at one time or another used “the person from Porlock” for our benefit. How convenient at times the arrival of our personal Porlock person could be. When there is nothing left to give but we feel there needs to be more, the person from Porlock steps in and saves the day. The blame is now on him or her instead of where it truly should be, with us. On the other side of the coin, sometimes we give all we have and it is more than sufficient yet we think more is needed. It takes a “person from Porlock” to awaken us and end our efforts before they become stale.

  8. I love things where you have to have an understanding of something else to get it, so it’s really no surprise, really, that this was my favorite poem Tuesday. In order to really get this poem, you have to know that the person from Porlock was an interruption. (I’d really like to know what those with no prior knowledge of Coleridge’s writing believe “Thoughts About the Person fro Porlock” is about.) I sort of feel bad for the guy, or woman, from Porlock because they will forever be the black sheep of thought interruption. Sometimes it’s true that great things can be lost this way, like if you have a vivid dream and you wake up to someone speaking and all of a sudden its lost, but other times couldn’t something better come of it? Also, people like to blame others for interrupting their work because it gives them the chance to take a break. I think everyone has probably had that moment where they wish something would come distract them from what they are doing. The speaker of the poem thinks this is irresponsible, though they have done it before, and say to themselves that they should not think that way. I say it is a part of life and just natural that everyone should want a break now and then.

  9. This is my favorite poem so far. I feel a sense of sarcasm coming from the speaker throughout the poem. Especially in the section that starts with, “Why do they grumble…” I understand that everyone wants a person from Porlock to come knocking on their door, but it is the ultimate excuse. I think the speaker feels strongly about that, especially that Coleridge used that man as an excuse. We all look for a way out of things and want to place the blame elsewhere for our unfinished tasks. Also, as discussed in class, the person from Porlock might not always be a bad idea. I think the way the speaker uses it in the poem it is an excuse, which makes the idea a bad thing. But it can also be thought of as a good reason to stop doing something. Maybe the man from Porlock is an act of fate that keeps us from messing things up. I know when I am studying at six in the morning for an exam I want to hear that knock on my door from the man from Porlock. That would be a bad way of using the idea, but if I were in a situation, an argument maybe, and I’m digging my own grave, then the man from Porlock wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The man from Porlock usually doesn’t come knocking on my door, so like the speaker from the poem, I too, “facilitate the people who have a person from Porlock.”

  10. I think the thing i liked most about this poem was not nesscesarally the subject matter itself, although intrguing in its own right, but the way in which it was written that made me like it so much. It is funny. Its the only one so far that has a bit of comedic value to it. theres something to be said for a poem that not only talks about an unusual subject ( the thing that makes it okay for us procrastonate or fail) and can also make you laugh. the last section reminds me of the way my brain works. ill start thinking about a subject like making a sandwitch, and all the sudden i am thinking about what it would be like to build a go cart with my ex landlord. ill jump from subject to subject with no real relation to each other. i also found it amusing that she chose to name the person from porlock “porson”. she had thousands of names to choose from and she pics the one that differs only by one letter. Laziness?? maybe she had her own “person from porlock” moment when she was trying to figure out what name she was going to use.

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