I love poetry but I’m no good at writing it. I have tried from time to time and probably will again but I’m just smart enough to know that I have no talent for it, in the same way as being a glutton isn’t enough to make me a chef.
The ability to write poetry is one of those qualities actually possessed by a tiny minority of the people who claim it (like rapport with dogs and children or a capacity for independent thought). Nevertheless the poetic gift does appear in odd places; you never know whom the Muse will choose to go home with. An exploration of this topic gives me the opportunity for a quick run around some of my favourite things: poetry, history and being a smartarse.
What do the following people have in common? Field Marshal Wavell, Britney Spears, the Marquis of Montrose, Henry VIII and George Orwell. Yes, they all wrote poetry: not equally well (in fact not necessarily well at all) but they did it and we’ll look at a few samples in a minute.
Some uninspired poetry has a certain historical interest but, like the proverbial Chinese takeaway, it soon fades even from memory and certainly has no lasting effect. Britney Spears, for example; she is one of those people who are famous, allegedly for singing, whom I have never knowingly heard sing. However she has written poetry. Now I don’t think it’s very good and I can’t help but quote Samuel Johnson’s remarks about a woman preaching:
” (It) is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Here is an extract from Britney’s poem “Remembrance of Who I Am”:
“…The guilt you fed me
Made me weak.
The voodoo you did
I couldn’t speak.
The phone is ringing.
Resurrection of my soul
The fear I’m bringing.
What will you say
And what will you do?
She’s not the same person that you’re used to.
You trick me one, twice, now it’s three.
Look who’s smiling now
Damn, it’s good to be me!”
Sometimes, however, the work of a writer who is not a great poet has that indefinable something that makes it memorable. “Bellerive” was the pen name of Joseph Tishler, born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1871, died in Melbourne in 1957. His verse is distinguished by misspellings, odd grammar, odder rhymes and unconscious hilarity. I will reproduce a couple of examples here because they’re short. If you don’t like them I’ll never speak to you again.
The Stage Villain
To and fro he
Did pace the stage
And cursed the hero
In he’s rage.
“I’ll foil the hound”
He did egaculate
“By heaven I will
Seal he’s fate.
He robbed me of
My sweet Totlinda.
I’ll throw him out of
He’s top room window.”
While driving a nail I
Failed in the nack
Missed the head and gave
My finger’s a smack;
I did groaneth and writh
For the pain it did throb
And out of pity the Missus
Did finish the job.
The Side Show
In a country town
One boxing day,
Into a tent show –
I made my way,
There was a congurer –
Trying to spin a hat,
A performing dog,
And a acrobat,
While an eccentric clown
To evoketh mirth,
Was banging a drum –
For all he was worth.
Bellerive has certain claims to modernity, not least his total ignorance about the apostrophe.
James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (1612 – 1550) was described by John Prebble as “one of the most skilful and intelligent of the world’s great captains”. His life and early death are impossibly melodramatic. You know the sort of character Errol Flynn used to play? That was a pale imitation of Montrose. Naturally, in the snake pit of Scottish history he is still seen as a villain by some factions. He was also a bit of a poet. An extract from his best-known work “My Dear and Only Love” has been quoted ever since by generals seeking to inspire their troops and also by mug punters making their way to the betting ring:
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all.
Archibald Wavell was a high-ranking officer in the British Army during the Second World War (having lost an eye during the First) and the second-last Viceroy of India. He never got on with Winston Churchill who found Wavell boring and likened him to “the chairman of a golf club”. Yet in 1944 Wavell published Other Men’s Flowers, an anthology of his favourite poems. Since then the book has never been out of print. These were not poems that Wavell had written himself; they were part of a fairly conventional canon for an educated Englishman of his generation to have known, loved and, often, memorised. Yet there was a creative side to Wavell’s poetic interests: the ability to write light verse commentary on the events of his life. Field Marshal Alan Brooke’s wartime diary includes the story of an uncomfortable flight from Moscow to Egypt after a conference at which Churchill had faced the unenviable task of telling Stalin that, contrary to previous assurances, the Allies would not be invading France for at least a year. Brooke and Wavell were sitting on the floor of the aircraft (there were no seats) and Wavell began scribbling. After a time he tossed Brooke a piece of paper on which he had written the following:
MOST PERSONAL AND VERY SECRET
BALLADE OF THE SECOND FRONT
I do not like the job I have to do.
I cannot think my views will go down well.
Can I convince them of our settled view?
Will Stalin use Caucasian oaths and yell?
Or can I bind him with my midnight spell?
I’m really feeling rather in a stew.
It’s not so hot a thing to have to sell:
No Second Front in 1942.
I thought so: things are stickier than glue.
They simply hate the tale I have to tell.
Stalin and Molotov are looking blue;
If they give in an inch they’ll take an ell.
I wonder if they’ll put me in a cell
And deal with me like Hitler with a Jew.
It’s not so hot a thing to have to sell:
No Second Front in 1942
Come, things are taking on a rosier hue;
The whole affair has got a better smell.
I think that after all we’ll pull it through.
Though not as merry as a wedding bell
The sound is now less like a funeral knell.
Another vodka? Here’s to Fortune! Phew!
I’ve got away with what I came to sell:
No Second Front in 1942.
Prince of the Kremlin, here’s a fond farewell:
I’ve had to deal with many worse than you.
You took it, though you hated it like hell:
No Second Front in 1942.
George Orwell, one of the great masters of English prose, acknowledged that he wasn’t a very good poet. His best known poem is the one about the Spanish Civil War that ends
“No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit”.
Worthy but platitudinous. His other well-known one begins:
A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;
Both of those are uninspired. My favourite Orwell poem, one with a genuine bite, dates from his time as a colonial policeman in Burma:
When I was young and had no sense
In far-off Mandalay
I lost my heart to a Burmese girl
As lovely as the day.
Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,
Her teeth were ivory;
I said, ‘for twenty silver pieces,
Maiden, sleep with me’.
She looked at me, so pure, so sad,
The loveliest thing alive,
And in her lisping, virgin voice,
Stood out for twenty-five.
The poetic impulse can occur at any social level, even royalty. Talking about any king or queen as a legitimate ruler is, of course, nonsense. A monarchy is a protection racket, pure and simple. It’s as if you started an argument about whether Lucky Luciano’s regime was more legitimate than Joe Bonanno’s. The Tudor family, for instance, came to power in England in the late 15th Century after a series of dynastic wars in which the various contending parties all had highly dubious claims to “legitimacy”. The one stone-cold certainty was that, whoever might have had the best claim to the throne, the Tudors certainly had the worst. Several members of this sordid crew fancied themselves as artistic and I admit that they had more of a claim to that adjective than either Bonanno or Luciano. Here is part of a poem (in modernised spelling) by Henry VIII:
Though some saith that youth ruleth me,
I trust in age to tarry.
God and my right and my duty,
From them I shall never vary,
Though some say that youth ruleth me!
It’s tempting to say “Don’t give up your day job, Harry” until you remember what the old degenerate’s day job actually was.
Did you ever have an interaction with an insurance company that left you feeling … poetic? I thought not. You probably haven’t dealt with the right company. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive as well as a poet. A lot of his poetry is “difficult” but he was a genuine poet despite the tendency of his eloquence to outrun his meaning. I’m inclined to forgive him a certain amount of waffle: if you’ve ever read an insurance contract you’ll know that pointless obscurity was an integral part of the poor man’s working environment so we can’t be surprised if some of it leached out into his poems. Sometimes, though, he hits one right off the middle of the bat: “Death of a Soldier” for instance:
Life contracts and death is expected,
As in season of autumn.
The soldier falls.
He does not become a three-days personage.
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.
Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
Again, how much poetic sensibility did you encounter at your last appointment with a medical practitioner? No, me either. Well, William Carlos Williams was a paediatrician but he was also a fine poet. I particularly like “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime”
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.
The link between medicine and poetry takes me to the best general history of the Second World War in Europe: Europe at War by Norman Davies. Here are the last words of that very fine book, published in 2004 (the cardiologist referred to is John Martin):
“… despite the arrival of the twenty-first century, many thinking people are still trying to grapple with the aftermath of the Second World War. A leading British cardiologist with a flair for poetry expressed the problem perfectly:
My patient lay in the hospital bed
Unshaven, smelling of urine
And bitten by lice,
Of no fixed abode,
Living on the street
Without family or friends.
In his Slavic accent he declared
“I fought at Monte Cassino.”
And my junior doctors in their ignorance
Remained unmoved by man or history.
And I turned to them
With my hand on the shoulder
Of my patient,
To address them on the greatness
Of the Second Polish Corps
And the infinite value
Of all human beings.”
Those may not be the greatest lines in the English language but only a fool would say there’s no poetry in them. May none of us ever be unmoved by man or history. Or poetry.