By STEPHEN WADE.
Third in a series.
ARGUABLY, THE WORST kind of rejection is having no-one interested at all. If this happens at a planned live performance, then the deflation is total. After all, this writing business is all about the ego. Orwell said that one of the main reasons for anyone writing was vanity. Yes, vanity: I have no problem with the word. All writers everywhere would agree: you want your name on the spine of that book, and you want to wander into the bookshop when it’s in print and stand around, peeping across to see if anyone browsing the shelves might just pick it up. Oh yes, vanity is at the core of the job.
It was a very famous poet who set me thinking about the sheer strangeness involved in a ‘reading’ of literary effusions. The man in question had won several national awards for fiction and for poetry. He was a quiet Scotsman, wearing a mac like that worn by detectives in old movies, and he pulled on a dead cig all the time, in between the sad story. He had come to town to read in a rugby club, and my Head of Department had organised it all. All I had to do was look after him – keep him in whisky and optimism.
‘Gigs can go wrong…’ He said this laconically, like Philip Larkin without the aid of a bottle of whisky and an old church. ‘Like the time I turned up… come down from Edinburgh for it… a poetry reading at this art centre. Didn’t work out.’ We were walking into the rugby club now, and I led him into a nice quiet room with all the cosy chairs set out ready, and a little stage made out of old crates that the Hon. Sec. had prepared earlier.
‘No, Stevie boy… there was this bloke standing there with a bunch of keys like you’d need in Alcatraz.
‘You the poet mate?’ He asked. I nodded.
‘Well, I’ve just locked up… not a soul in there pal. Cancelled.’
He walked off into the night, and I stood there, my invoice in my pocket and my little ragged book of poems. Tragic, Stevie boy, tragic.’
Then, half an hour and three whiskies later, he was reading his lyric meditations on the crates. The first few readings were fine, but then through a thin partition we (the audience of four) could hear the crash and grind of pin ball machines and drunken prop-forrards singing bawdy ballads. The poor man went on, courageous and cheery, resolved to bring his imagination and wit to bear on the benighted proles who could only manage a chorus of ‘Oh Mrs McLusky she had us all in fits/ jumping off the mantelpiece and landing on her….’
I’VE NEVER FORGOTTEN that, and every time I meet a writer who goes out on the circuit, I ask about gigs gone wrong. Since I started spreading words and collaring victims who might listen to my poems –in about 1975 I reckon – I’ve seen the lot, every shade of failure and every type of venue. I’ve stood up and read poems at Hull City Hall at Saturday lunch time when all the poor folk around just wanted to eat their pizzas in peace; I’ve read poems to an audience of three at a magnificent Tennyson celebration bash in Cleethorpes; I’ve read for an hour to one lady in a long, cold hall: a lady who fell asleep after my third sonnet. The absolute nadir of this was in Kirklees Central Library when I gave a talk on literature and three ladies walked into the room and started to wander around the shelves asking everyone where the Catherine Cooksons were? I carried on regardless, knowing that such absurdity was part of the baggage that comes with the trade.
So after reflecting on this experience, I decided to sit down and write a social history of my efforts to take words out into the middle of people’s gatherings. I became what one man called a ‘cultural shit-stirrer’ early in my teaching career, and as time has gone on, my desire to read poems, put on plays and tell anecdotes to anyone who would sit and listen has intensified. It’s all down to my certainty that literature will bring us together, although experience has taught me that it often makes a crowd disperse and run for the nearest bar.
I have been, over the last thirty years or so a Russian-Yorkshire poet, an aesthetic Wildean, a Nervalian flaneur inhabiting literary cafes, a stand-up embarrassment purveying Yorkshire dialect verse, and a writer walking the wings in prisons. All this activity springs from my love of the spoken word. I put it all down to hearing the great Irish poet W B Yeats, who ill-advisedly recorded his poem on some kind of early His Master’s Voice disc, chanting ‘I will arise and go now…’ in a tone somewhere between a guy eager for the loo and a vicar giving a sermon on a cold Sunday in Upper Swagdale.
Before offering the chronicle of word-mongering that has been the backdrop to my life, I end my prologue with the warning to anyone who might be considering planning and delivering a serious poetry reading. It was around 1980, and the young man stood up in a crowded student union gathering to read his poem. The general theme was an exploration of the question as to whether or not life was worth living.
He began solemnly and declined into maudlin distorted philosophy, quoted everyone from Sitting Bull to Emmanuel Kant. The audience visibly sagged. Chins were close to the floor and some bolder types actually yawned and muttered to themselves. Finally, a character braver than average, or merely desperate offered advice to the poet: ‘For God’s sake, yes… top yourself then!’
Reading and performing
IT WAS AROUND 1960 when the first bright spark had the idea of having a poetry reading that entailed proper, entertaining, planned delivery of the written word. Roger McGough told me once that he worked out a ‘set’ – an order of reading, meticulously conceived, with an eye on the best opening and the best closure. There was none of that when I started out. It was a case of standing up, shuffling a wodge of paper around and saying, ‘The first poem is…well, it’s about my dog. Well no, not exactly…about my first meeting with the disabled guy in Clapham…Anyway here’s the poem. It’s called “Opening Up.”’
My first efforts deserved failure. I tended to spend hours deciding which poems to read, then marking the sheets at the top in red ink, with a number. So that was fine. Then, just before standing up, I fell foul of the nagging voice, familiar to all poets who stand up to read, of Scheiss, the Wagnerian sprite of doubt and criticism whose voice tells you that what you have on paper is garbage and that reading it aloud will be the death of you. Scheiss, a whispering and insidious git who raps your nerves with his Sword of Silence, reminds you that it’s better not to read that… read something else. The result of all this? I shuffled, hummed, coughed, smiled nervously, and finally selected a poem, which I read as if I was a spotty kid standing up to read Shakespeare at a school event.
I had a poetic friend who used to talk for five minutes, explaining all the story behind the poem and then read a little haiku poem of three short lines. The general opinion of him was that he could leave out the poem and just tell the back story.
The greatest mistake, in those early days of serious readings, was to claim a philosophical expertise. We were all reading thinkers such as Marcuse and McLuhan, Sartre and Camus. So the average reading would begin with: ‘ Now behind this lyric is the uneasy dynamic of activism, and the undercurrent metaphor is struggling to express a dialogue hinged on the feminine in the author..’ This invariably brought a shout along the lines of ‘So it’s a gay poem then?’
If we trawl through time and try to locate the beginnings of the literary reading, the discoveries regarding gigs gone wrong are fascinating. For some cultures, reading aloud has never been a problem: the Romans always read aloud, even when alone. Consequently, when it came to your Roman poet doing a little reading to win over his wealthy patron perhaps, so that cash could be found for a neat little vellum edition of the poet’s odes, the performance was no problem. The only snag was that, with a glut of poets, there was heated competition. If we imagine our own poet from classical times, Marcus Pubic Lascivius, he may have held forth with something like this:
Oh once vestal virgin,
Fallen woman with gorgeous hips,
I was once surgin’
With a pash for your lips.
One long summer
You tormented my Roman heart;
It sure was a bummer
When I saw you were a tart.
Oh once vestal virgin,
Fallen woman with a queue of men
Whose poxy parts need purging
Because they lay with you again
And again and again and again.
Oh once vestal virgin,
We could love once more, it’s true;
Because my loins are surgin’
For one more night with you.
The debate following the reading may well have been a polite quiver of applause, but the back-biting and name-calling would have been rabid. After all, the mob of aspiring poets were fighting for the crumbs of patronage like sparrows after bread-crumbs. In the real world of Augustan poetry- the period under the Emperor Augustus, the poets around the great patron Maecenas, scholars have shown that there was a circle of poets gathered around the now famous names of Virgil and Ovid and that these lesser lights were either critics or targets of satire. But generally, the groups of poets lived by compliments more than criticisms, as in the case of Ovid, who called a poet called Rabirius ‘mighty mouthed.’
LITERARY GIGS REALLY took off with Chaucer and his contemporaries; the author of The Canterbury Tales, who read his work aloud to the court. At that time, the late fourteenth century, the traditional minstrels and their poems and songs were rather in decline, and along came the new breed like Chaucer, to entertain others (often at the table) with his contemporary stories. You can bet your last groat that even old Geoffrey had a few restless types in the audience. There would have been the odd heckler who asked when he was going to move on from Middle English and move into the modern age. There is no doubt that the last unfortunate minstrels had a tough time.
Being a minstrel was what Humphrey Bogart would have called a ‘bum rap.’ Here was a poet who was expected to deliver a set of around six songs in praise love, the Queen and the King, while avoiding the flying wish-bones and pigs’ trotters from the wine-soaked hearties at the trough in front of him. All the poor guy had was a mandolin or a lute: no backing track, no dancing girls, no sweet play of lights on the stage to add some mystery. No, merely the man and his strings – and his voice of course. Rejection for him was ‘get off, we’ve heard that before!’
As their art became a little more sophisticated, they thought that a new name would help their fortune, so they began to be called ‘jongleurs’ and then ‘troubadours’ but the repertoire was frozen in time and still the animal bones and offal were hurled at them, until some of them wised up and added a heavy to the band, a man who had been in a few scraps and could look threateningly at the mad blades crazed with lust and hock in the pit, down where the hunting dogs were rutting and the mice eating scraps. No knickers were thrown at them, as such undergarments were not known at the time; the only items thrown with a sexy intent would have been perhaps table napkins stained with blood or loincloths with unspeakable provenance.
The Old Entertainers
SIR WALTER SCOTT was intrigued by this decline in fortunes, and in his classic 1805 poem, The Lay of the last Minstrel, he pays tribute to these outmoded troubadours whose gigs started to go wrong when Geoff and his mates moved in. Scott’s poem is sad from the opening lines:
The way was long, the wind was cold,
The minstrel was infirm and old;
His withered cheek, and tresses grey,
Seemed to have known a better day….’
A more modern tale, circulated in manuscript until discovered by an obscure Victorian scholar, recounts the plight of one of the last of the breed in a more contemporary idiom, when a gig went wrong. Here is the relevant extract from the story:
Ned, The Broken Jester
… times were desperate in 1390, for any old bard who had lost his audience. Ned found that his lute and elegies to past romantic attachments were no longer In demand, and in the notorious affair of the Bone-Clattering stag party, his sad demise was confirmed. Ned, being always bold in spite of his shivers of agony and tendency to wet his hose before a gig, bravely waited behind the curtain at Bone-Clattering Manor as Lord Batty Bone Clattering downed his tenth flagon of Rhenish and threw a bottle at the minstrel gallery, shouting, ‘Bring on the the ragged old slack-arse poet!’
Ned, by this time alone in the world, with all kith and kin gone the way of all mortal beings (emigrated to Siberia to avoid his songs) gathered himself, tuned his lute and strode on, into view, above the revellers. At first, he had a dreg of hope, as he had chosen his most appealing poem to render- the first line being the epic ‘Of cutlery I sing…’
There was a nano-second of silence as the young louts absorbed the line, but what followed was the ultimate rejection of the jester, a man struggling beyond his time. ‘ Fire your crossbow at him Charlie’ screamed the drunken youngest son of ten, ‘I hate poets!’ Ned, about to sing his bawdiest song instead, saw the bolt being loaded and the string pulled back, and ducked out of view in the nick of time, as the bolt thudded into the head of the stag beside him, making the antlers fall on the hapless jester’s head.
Skalds, Bards and Storytellers
IN THE DARK AGES, the tribal bards obviously suffered mightily at the hands of the kings and heads of tribes. There are suggestions that reciting poems was a side-line of the poison-tester in the beer-hall, and that he also had to double as jester, which was always a tough cookie to crack. In fact, as in King Lear, the court comic’s destiny could be wandering the wild heath telling corny jokes and flat one-liners. But the toughest task was the bard or skald’s requirement to fulfil the job-description and provide a story in verse for the beer-swillers and roughnecks in the thane’s band of thugs. One biography which has come down to us is that of Swartwulf. His great poem-story on the Saxons begins with the memorable lines,
From the distant sea our people came,
Walking like lame seals, riding the water’s back;
The great thane Sidebottom did lead us,
Making that gert big shire of York…..’
One great advantage the tribal bard had over the modern writer is that he was mostly performing for drunks; his audience was therefore rarely in command of any critical faculties, although objects could no doubt be hurled at a bard who was falling below any perceived standard of quality entertainment.
Stephen Wade is a writer and historian. His latest books are The Justice Women (Pen and Sword), which is a history of women in all areas of the law, and No More Soldiering (Amberley), which looks at the conscientious objectors of the Great War. He has previously written for the Fortnightly on the subject of George Grossmith: see ‘Entertaining Mr Pooter‘.
Note: This essay is part of a series on ‘literary rejections’.