‘Poetry is indispensable – if only I knew what for.’ Jean Cocteau.
It’s funny how readily random instances, like Saturday evening Hen Parties, can collide. Synchronicity mixes ingredients, throwing them together like a prospective Masterchef contestant, with equally unpredictable results: 49% tastes great, but looks awful; 49% looks great, but tastes awful; 1% both looks and tastes great but is served by a chef having at least one finger swathed in bright blue plaster and encased within a vinyl glove, and 1% consists solely of sliced finger and blood. It would be almost two years ago, and certainly recalled only by those of you of very long memory and very forgiving nature, in an occasional thread of poetry (The Haphazardly Poetical) that I wrote a poem called ‘An Appreciation of Poetry’ (reproduced below) in the realisation that I had none. Or very little, anyway. Outside of Wilfred Owen, Emily Dickinson and John Betjeman – all of whom I love – I have never fared well with any poetry outside of the scattergun genius that was Spike Milligan. It has always felt like a bit of a hole in my soul: something I really should attempt to fill, but frankly can never be bothered.
Yesterday I was reading a piece written by Alan Bennett about the poet Philip Larkin, with whom – like sashimi – I am totally unacquainted. Alan Bennett is a great fan (of the poet, not the raw meat – although I would not presume to pontificate on his attitude towards uncooked protein): such a great fan that he is happy to cast aside Larkin’s overt racism and misogyny as an irrelevance. I realise that this has the potential to close many doors on me, but I am unable to do so. I cannot admire one aspect of a person whilst I despise another*. Most people must, I suspect, have some redeeming features, but are they sufficient to actually redeem them? How saintly would Chris Evans need to be in order to make up for the fact that he is still Chris Evans**? The point is that despite his private opinions, what Larkin wrote for publication – exposed only what he felt would be acceptable to those who knew him only through his work: he laid bare his soul, but only the part of it he wanted the reader to admire***. I think to some degree we all hide – or at best disguise – pieces of ourselves that we fear others will find distasteful: I, myself, will never be seen in public without socks. Most writers will accept that they will be hated by some, but will not be happy to find that the haters hold the majority view, especially when all they have ever done is to read a first draft to their mother. Nobody – except for Mick Hucknall – wants to be Mick Hucknall. Everybody wants to be loved: perhaps viewed as fragile but plucky; best of all to be understood as misunderstood.
The third little thread of my crocheted blanket of fate was accrued yesterday when I stumbled onto a little hard-sleeved collection of poetry anthologies by (in alphabetical order) W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and W. B. Yeats, at the back of a shelf filled with photographs, mugs, microscope, grey felt hat, knitted chimp, shells, fossils, and an empty Marmite jar. Why these particular six scribes had been assembled I do not know, but my hastily constructed plan is to read them all. Not all at once of course, that would be plain foolhardy, but I will as time goes by, let you know how I have progressed in reading them one at a time, although if I’m honest, this entire enterprise may result in nothing more than a short-course monthly footnote e.g. ‘Didn’t get on with Plath’. Certainly it would be as well not to expect an informed critique from me – that will not happen – the ramblings of an ill-informed oaf will not shine any light upon the works of literary giants, perhaps far more upon how wrong an ill-educated old fart can be. Just be assured, I will do it and I will let you know each time I finish a collected nosegay. You may learn about my heart-felt reactions to the collections, or, far more likely, what I was eating whilst I read them. I will consume the poetry, but what will subsequently emerge is anybody’s guess. Auden will be first. Wish me luck – as I do you…
*Not, I now realise, completely true. Spike Milligan himself had, by all accounts, a very questionable attitude to the women in his life (albeit one I was unaware of until relatively recently). I would love to tell you that this knowledge will lessen my opinion of his work, but it will not. Reading his books was, after all, the first thing my wife ever banned me from doing in bed – laughter, apparently is not conducive to sleep. Eating crisps dipped in Marmite – should you be curious – was the second.
**I refer here to the British Radio and TV personality Chris Evans, and not Captain America – whom I certainly would not choose to annoy. If you are at all familiar with the former, you will get the joke. If you are not familiar with the former, I can only point out that if you were, you would.
***‘The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.’ Jean Cocteau (who was, himself, a poet, so Lord knows what he actually meant.)
An Appreciation of Poetry
The gilded art of polished phrase
That punctuated schoolboy days
Where words of love and joy and rage
Lay lifeless on each dog-eared page.
Majestic lines so flatly read
Drummed into every schoolboy head
And arch displays of erudition
Locked in brains by repetition.
Where verses raised in cool élan
Are lost to empty rhyme and scan,
Forget the words, but keep instead
The rhythm sounding in your head.
Observe the faithful paradigm
The rumty-tum of metred rhyme
That void of all emotion drips
Unthinkingly from idle lips.
And then recall a line or two
Of the poem writ by you-know-who
That told a tale of daffodils
And wand’ring over lonely hills.
Who said we should Stop All the Clocks?
And what on earth are Jabberwocks?
Why do I smile when I stumble upon
A Subaltern’s love for J. Hunter Dunn?
‘Come [something] bombs and fall on Slough’
(I must recall that word somehow)
And memorise a verse from Pope
Now… who had feathers – was it Hope?
Chorus: Though I know the lines and it sounds absurd
All I ever learned was a string of words.
My mind is full of couplets I can only half recall,
Which maybe makes them monoplets – if they’re anything at all.
© McQueen 2019.
P.S. ‘Hope’ (by Emily Dickinson) ‘is the thing with feathers’.