By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Twas a blith Prince exchang’d five hundred Crowns
For a fair Turnip; Dig, dig on, O clowns!
—Richard Lovelace (“On Sanazar’s being honoured…”)
A definition of satire:
Heinsius, in his dissertations on Horace, makes it for me, in these words; “Satire is a kind of poetry, without a series of action, invented for the purging of our minds; in which human vices, ignorance, and errors, and all things besides, which are produced from them, in every man, are severely reprehended; partly dramatically, partly simply, and sometimes in both kinds of speaking; but for the most part figuratively, and occultly; consisting in a low familiar way, chiefly in a sharp and pungent manner of speech; but partly, also, in a facetious and civil way of jesting; by which, either hatred, or laughter, or indignation is moved.“
—John Dryden, (A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire; 1694.)
BACK IN 2015, TONY WHITE and I thought it would be a great idea to do an evening of satire in poetry and prose at The Room, my venue for events in Tottenham. We called the occasion A Beast in View: an evening of satire in poetry and prose. Tony would read, and Holly Hopkins and Courttia Newland, and I would read myself. It was a great line-up, but nobody came to hear us.
If ever an age needed its satirists it is now, when a divided country with its knickers positively knotted is fast becoming the laughing stock of the world. Such divisive times have usually provided satire with a breeding ground. The Civil War brought with it the sharp rejoinders of Richard Lovelace who is, unfortunately only remembered for his lyrics today:
You that do suck for thirst your black quil’s blood,
And chaw your labour’d papers for your food,
I will inform you how and what to praise,
Then skin y’ in Satin as young Lovelace plaies.
Beware, as you would your fierce guests, your lice,
To strip the cloth of Gold from cherish’d vice;
Rather stand off with awe and reverend fear:
Hang a poetick pendant in her Ear.
Court her as her Adorers do their glass,
Though that as much of a true Substance has,
Whilst all the gall from your wild ink you drain,
The beauteous Sweets of Vertue’s Cheeks to stain;
And in your Livery let her be known,
As poor and tattered as in her own.
(On Sanazar’s being honoured with six hundred Duckets by the Clarissimi of Venice, for composing an Eligiack Hexastick of The City. A SATYRE)
Though so impoverished after the Civil War that he was obliged to eat his own boots, this former Colonel in the Royalist army is not above ridiculing himself in this poem mocking poets and poetry competitions – which happens to be one of the greatest satires in the language. Later, the Restoration brought with it the incorrigibly obscene John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and John Dryden, of course, while Alexander Pope was born in 1688, the year that Dryden died. Today, I miss the brilliant portraiture of overweeningly powerful contemporaries such as we find in Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, with its brilliant take on Charles II and his relationship to his illegitimate son, the insurrection-seeking Duke of Monmouth:
Of all this numerous progeny was none
So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom:
Whether, inspir’d by some diviner lust,
His father got him with a greater gust;
Or that his conscious destiny made way,
By manly beauty to imperial sway.
Early in foreign fields he won renown,
With kings and states alli’d to Israel’s crown:
In peace the thoughts of war he could remove,
And seem’d as he were only born for love.
Whate’er he did, was done with so much ease,
In him alone, ‘twas natural to please:
His motions all accompani’d with grace;
And Paradise was open’d in his face.
With secret joy, indulgent David view’d
His youthful image in his son renew’d:
To all his wishes nothing he deni’d;
And made the charming Annabel his bride.
What faults he had (for who from faults is free?)
His father could not, or he would not see.
Some warm excesses, which the Law forbore,
Were constru’d youth that purged by boiling o’er:
And Amnon’s murther, by a specious name,
Was call’d a just revenge for injur’d fame.
Thus prais’d, and lov’d, the noble youth remain’d,
While David, undisturb’d, in Sion reign’d.
And then, there is this famed portrait of the Earl of Shaftsbury, leader of the Whig party that encourages the rebellious Duke:
Of these the false Achitophel was first:
A name to all succeeding ages curst.
For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:
Restless, unfixt in principles and place;
In pow‘r unpleas’d, impatient of disgrace.
A fiery soul, which working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy-body to decay:
And o’er inform’d the tenement of clay.
A daring pilot in extremity;
Pleas’d with the danger, when the waves went high
He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit,
Would steer too nigh the sands, to boast his wit.
Great wits are sure to madness near alli’d;
And thin partitions do their bounds divide:
Else, why should he, with wealth and honour blest,
Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?
Punish a body which he could not please;
Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?
And all to leave, what with his toil he won
To that unfeather’d, two-legg’d thing, a son…
It’s true that Dryden needed to disguise his invective as a Biblical cautionary tale, and that this works to his advantage. It has been suggested that writing behind the Iron Curtain was made stronger by the need to express criticism through analogy and metaphor, so does our society’s vaunted permissiveness actually weaken our creative attempts?
LOVELACE, ROCHESTER, DRYDEN and Pope lived in turbulent times, as ours are increasingly becoming, and yet it seems that everyone these days has become too earnest for satire. Feeling has returned from its lush heyday in the nineteenth century, and a belief in the truth of feeling dominates the bourgeois bohemian society that ties the arts to its apron strings. For all that, I find in myself a thirst for critical comment, mockery, even invective; and I look back to TW3 – That Was the Week that Was – and Spitting Image, saddened that the stand-up comic is the substitute for these programmes, though rarely dealing so savagely with the current affairs and conventional mores that constitute a satirist’s material (and often obliged to sign a contract listing the subjects prohibited from a mention before stepping out onto the stage). My 2017 book of poems – From Inside – tried to take satire in poetry to a new level, and to find a trope more cruel than irony. My efforts weren’t exactly recognised. Satire seems to have no place — it’s considered inappropriate. What matters now is representation, identity, avowal.
Recently, in a second-hand bookshop I picked up A Vein of Mockery: Twentieth-Century Verse Satire, chosen and introduced by James Reeves and published by Heinemann in 1973 – only three-quarters of the way through that century. It is an eye-opener, since it demonstrates just how much satire was written then, and had been written, during and between the wars. But the problem for the first half of that era was how to emancipate poetry from the clichéd metrical vehicles of the century before, while at the same time managing something with a bite. All too often, however, the clinching qualities of a couplet, or the ridicule that a grandly galloping rhythm seems to engender, proved too tempting to the Georgians. The wit might have been there, but the satire falls flat, to our ears, because the form feels out-of-date. Siegfried Sassoon can sometimes bring off an authentic sense of satire, as can e. e. cummings, D.H. Lawrence and Stevie Smith. But all too often the taste of John Masefield prevails (a brilliant novelist but a hopeless poet), and the rhyming lets the writer down. Meanwhile, “versification” would confuse the poet, who would substitute pastiche for strongly original lines. Mind you, pastiche was in the air, in order both to kill off Victorian bombast, by mockery, and to take digs at rivals — there’s William Empson’s “Just a Smack at Auden”, for instance, and, better still, Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow” (Mr Eliot’s Sunday evening postscript):
As we get older we do not get any younger….
With his “Lessons of War”, Henry Reed comes over as one of the most compelling poets of his generation, as W. B. Yeats recognised by including him in his anthology of modern verse, in preference to most of the other “war poets” — (see my article which first appeared in The London Magazine, Spring 2003). However, I do like this poem by Walter de la Mare:
Dry August burned. A harvest hare
Limp on the kitchen table lay,
Its fur blood-blubbered, eyes astare,
While a small child that stood near by
Wept out her heart to see it there.
Sharp came the clop of hoofs, the clang
Of dangling chain, voices that rang.
Out like a leveret she ran,
To feast her glistening bird-clear eyes
On a team of field artillery,
Gay, to manoeuvres, thudding by.
Spur and gun and limber plate
Flashed in the sun. Alert, elate,
Noble horses, foam at lip,
Harness, stirrup, holster, whip,
She watched the sun-tanned soldiery,
Till dust-white hedge had hidden away –
Its din into a rumour thinned –
The laughing, jolting, wild array:
And then – the wonder and tumult gone –
Stood nibbling a green leaf, alone,
Her dark eyes, dreaming. . . . She turned, and ran,
Elf-like, into the house again.
The hare had vanished. . . . ‘Mother,’ she said,
Her tear-stained cheek now flushed with red,
‘Please, may I go and see it skinned?’
Despite some old-fashioned inversions, the poem works. There’s a powerful torque to its conclusion, and it’s worth noticing that we have to go eight lines back to find the rhyme to its final line, so it doesn’t close itself down in too pat a way. There’s a wry quality to “out like a leveret she ran” — considering the subject.
ONE ALSO NOTICES how the targets for satire differ from age to age, in terms of what may deemed correct or incorrect: William Plomer’s “The Playboy of the Demi-World: 1938” will probably be considered in poor taste today, in this regard, and it also suffers from the New-Statesman-competition texture of its pastiche:
Aloft in Heavenly Mansions, Doubleyou One –
Just Mayfair flats, but certainly sublime –
You’ll find the abode of D’Arcy Honeybunn,
A rose-red sissy half as old as time.
Peace cannot age him, and no war can kill
The genial tenant of those cosy rooms,
He’s lived there always and he lives there still,
Perennial pansy, hardiest of blooms.
There you’ll encounter aunts of either sex,
Their jokes equivocal or over-ripe,
Ambiguous couples wearing slacks and specs
And the stout Lesbian knocking out her pipe…
Another mind-boggling problem with this anthology is that Stevie Smith is the only woman in it, out of some forty contributors! So where are the likes of Elizabeth Bishop, Edith Sitwell, Laura Riding, Jean Garrigue and Marianne Moore? All of whom had their waspish moments. I guess this serves to emphasise another problem with satire: it reflects the prejudices, and the prevailing issues, of its time; and these may well change, rendering much of the verse ephemeral.
The best thing about getting my hands on this anthology was that I discovered Gavin Ewart, who is represented by just one poem — “Cambridge”:
Imagine all the dons in the attitudes of buggers
With their complicated neurotic simplicity of learning,
Something comfortable, something not quite real,
The life of the tea-table, the book-scattered study,
The manuscript under the magnifying glass
In that white, cultured hand, deserving of pity.
Dons live on with occasional satisfaction,
Hand on the shoulder of a promising pupil,
Attracted but envious of the coming young men,
Middle age has caught them and the night comes on,
No soothing books and no charming companions
To quieten those nerves that cry for satisfaction.
What was their desire? Was it known and never realized,
Behind the lines and bathed in yellow lamplight?
In the world where their young men fight and are wounded
They suffer neglect like a curtain or a picture.
Pitying themselves they are never wounded,
Suffering quietly with a book in hand or smoking.
I find in this poem an integration of form and intent, modernism fused with satire. It is clear to me now that during the seventies I was too engrossed in establishing my own modernist credentials to notice what Ewart was doing. Now I consider him the satirical voice of his century. Stylistically speaking, his range is vast. He experiments with writing pentameter in prose — as in “Dickens and I” — with concrete poetry and doggerel, with sestinas and with many elaborate forms of his own invention. His verse is immensely stimulating: one is happy to turn the page and to return to the page. Of course I am a trifle miffed to discover that a score or so of years ago there was someone doing what I am trying to do today, and doing it terribly well. Worth getting hold of are The Collected Ewart 1933-1980 and Gavin Ewart – Collected Poems 1980-1990 and Penultimate Poems —all published by Hutchinson, together with Anvil’s All My Little Ones — the shortest poems of Gavin Ewart, which came out in 1978. In his writing, at best, there is a quality of elusiveness as well as commentary. Take “Striptease”:
They sit round us, hot from the Motor Show, these imagists.
They’ll carry home a pack of coloured snaps
To be fingered over when the wife is lying asleep.
The young pink nipples, not yet stained dark
By maternity. The small patch of fur
That brings the eye down, makes long legs seem short,
Disturbing the centre of gravity.
The frantic metal music
Slices our head-tops like a breakfast egg.
Young girls. Old routine. A business
Like any other. Everything shakes like a jelly.
Oral or phallic, here the law keeps us visual.
The eyes devour – but are soon satisfied.
After a time you can get very tired of chicken
(Though they’ll never believe that, back on the farm).
IN THE LATTER HALF of the twentieth century, other poets took up the challenge of the satirical in diverse ways. Christopher Logue led poets into the arena of protest and activism with his poster poems, such as “I shall vote Labour”. Alan Brownjohn reintroduced the notion of the cartoonish persona. He also brought fiendishly meticulous observation into this arena, and, to my mind, he remains one of the truly significant poets of his time. Certain younger poets seek to engage with the impulse to protest, James Byrne being one, with his pamphlet appropriately titled Soapboxes, and, in his chapbook The Death of a Clown, Tom Bland explores giving offence in entertaining ways, adding a dash of psychoanalysis to the abuse, which seems partly confessional and self-orientated. Nicki Heinen has a chapbook called Itch that is courageous in the way it takes the reader into the brutality of how society deals with mental illness, while Amy McAllister has brought intense and very funny satire to the “slam” scene — and she now has a booklet out from Burning Eye, Are You as Single as that Cream? — but with all these writers, assessment could be better done if larger collections of their work were available.
Two significant writers emerging are Lorraine Mariner and Emma Hammond. Mariner extends the territory opened up by Brownjohn, I feel, with her slim volume Furniture (Picador, 2009), making use of characters to create sardonic scenarios that prove troubling, as in “Heart”:
Then there was the night leaving the pub
where she lost her heart by slipping it
into his pocket as he did up his overcoat.
On the bus going home he bruised it
when he sat on it, thinking My seat seems
to be ticking? When he found it,
feeling for his door key, it was still warm.
After sleeping with it on his bedside table
he placed it next to his computer at work
until his boss pointed out it was upsetting
the other members of staff; No plants . . .
In the evening he went back to the pub
to show the landlady, who pointed her out
slumped in the corner, blue in the face,
barely breathing, to which he said Fancy,
giving your heart away so easily! The landlady agreed,
so the kitchen staff cooked it,
and he ate it, with a pint of Guinness.
Emma Hammond manages to combine a modernist, experimental verse with a brilliant grasp of contemporary argot and life as lived in Walthamstow. As well as tunth-sk (Flipped Eye, 2011) and The Story of No (Penned in the Margins, 2015), she has brought out a whole booklet of poems inspired by Walthamstow Mall. She trusts the reader. By that I mean she won’t give you more words than are needed to deduce what she may be referring to:
over the concourse,
in edges of sunshine,
and tentative Davids.
macs, a flourish of
chest. Luminous gloved
in windows, WH
Smith with her globes
the half-echo of
escaping children. Jimmy
in the news again. March
offering up the warmth
of a Mall.
She has a brilliant, and very funny “Poem for Carol Ann Duffy” who got stuck on a big telly in Selborne Square — I think a glitch caused the screen poem to suspend the image of our laureate for several days:
is stuck behind the glass,
a fish of gold, guppy,
filming us for no one.
on the edge
of a thought, froze
to fixation, to thought,
regent dreamings of
a caged sprite.
our lady of unwritten
the space between
the words, aether,
specs in the fridge,
4’33, 8.48, projected
of the public sphere,
of the market place,
flogging a dead horse-
But the writers mentioned above are exceptions. What is more in vogue is emotion, as I’ve suggested. Perhaps we should call it emotionalism: it’s often confessional, aimed at the niche market of some particular identity, and political only in its correctness. It owes much to Sylvia Plath and to Marilyn Hacker. Allied to this tendency is representationalism. This is based on the uneducated notion that taste in poetry and art is “all subjective”, and therefore what matters is to include a refugee, or someone impaired or from some ethnic minority in your reading list/list of readers/faculty members. It’s an argument for poetry ad hominem – not what you write, but who you are. However, John Ashbery told me once that he’d never agree to be in an anthology of gay poetry, and Fawzi Karim considers it an insult to be invited to read because he’s an exile.
Another trend is for culture-airing poetry: the poet inspired by a twelve-tone composer or a notable Cubist, and proving to us what an aesthetic individual he or she happens to be. Again, it demonstrates an anxiety about identity. And then, proudly pontificating over the margins of the poetry scene, there are the remorselessly material poets, worshippers of Oulipo, drowning in undiluted language. I must confess that, to an extent, I empathise with this movement away from conventional “making sense” — but only when, ironically, a ghost of a meaning, or some magical resonance, emerges. As for absence of meaning as a dogma, adhered to with a rigid dismissiveness of everything else, well, I’ve been there, done that. In visual art, abstraction now shares the stage with figuration; so, in poetry today, materiality should share the stage with narrative. Adherents to either position weaken their own work through intolerance. Complicity makes for better writing. Now I want more waspishness, more bite, though I may still allow chance to turn the poem whichever way it may choose to take. Be warned, though: tolerance of the other view may lead to rejection by both camps. Et voila, the scene, as it is today. Add in a chorus of novices, enrolling from one creative writing workshop to another, churning out pantoums for dear life and led by the nose into shelling out in order to enter competitions adjudicated by their tutors — and you take in the spectacle of today’s rash of turnips. Lovelace would have a field day.
IT’S NOT JUST satire that I find lacking. It’s critical realism, such as may be found in the fiction of Jerome Robbins, whose novel The Carpetbaggers (made into a terrific movie by Edward Dmytryk, starring Alan Ladd and George Peppard) offers a sardonic put-down of the ruthlessness of Howard Hughes, the rise of the one-percent, and what Chomsky now calls the plutocracy, which exploits the exploitable wherever in the world it may be found, and transforms the proletariat into a precariat — so scared of losing the job that it does more and more for less and less. In the McCarthy era, Dmytryk was named as one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of blacklisted film-industry professionals who refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the “Red scare”. They all served time in prison for contempt of Congress. Poets may risk prison in Iran or Pakistan, but not here in the UK. Is it because we are so securely assured of our freedom of speech, or is it that so few risk sticking their necks out? Certainly both liberal and neo-liberal approbation is entailed should one suggest a revision to the figures for the holocaust, or praise fox-hunting or the fur trade, or suggest that a fourteen-year-old might gain from some pleasurable acquaintance with an older mentor.
But self-censorship can take the barb or the bite out of a satire. William Plomer’s poem quoted earlier might be deemed in poor taste, but with an art of invective there is no reason why we should not admire the passage whilst deploring its sentiment. James I would preside over “flytings” — verbal competitions in which the participants vied in heaping abuse of all sorts on each other, such as that flyting between William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy, execrating each other’s verses. Here is one verse flung at Kennedy by Dunbar:
Cuntbitten crawdon Kennedy, coward of kind,
Ill-fared and dried as Danesman on the ratts,
Like as the gledds had on thy gules snout dined,
Mismade monster, each moon out of thy mind,
Renounce, ribald, thy rhyming, thou but roys.
Thy treacher tongue has ta’en a Highland strynd,
A Lowland arse would make a better noise.
(version with text normalised by Michael Murphy)
Perhaps as a result of the Jacobite rebellion, which led to many Scots being shipped off to slavery in the West Indies, the spirit of flyting lives on in contemporary rap. Anger has an energy; an energy art can use to its advantage. As the critic Janet Kardon puts it, in an essay written to accompany the catalogue to a show by David Salle:
Illusions are being removed, and not gently. The work subverts the viewer’s desire to look away; it returns one constantly to the harsh task of looking and feeling. A perception of the viewer is more or less implicit in every artist’s work. Catherine Millet has called Salle’s ‘a fallen viewer’, and I agree. To the idea of art making one feel better – one of the most offensive of art education’s constructs – is counterposed a set of images that can almost be interpreted as a string of curses.
(Quoted in my essay on Immoralism, here.)
For a “fallen viewer” substitute a fallen reader.
One of today’s most significant satirists is Kathryn Maris, a writer who is unafraid of writing “unpleasant” poems. Initially from New York, her view of London life, and indeed her view of us Brits, can be entertainingly jaundiced, as in “Here is the Official Line on Attire”:
Gentlemen must wear lounge suits,
ladies must wear dresses with a
hemline below the knee, no trousers
of any description. Hats are customary
but not essential. Cash and cards
may be used for refreshments.
This extraordinary spectacle is one
of the best things Britain has given
the world: civilised conduct on land,
absolute brutality on the water.
This is from The House with Only an Attic and a Basement, a very powerful collection. Maris has an understanding of psychoanalysis, and this lends resonance to the satirical intent. She can also hone-in on uncomfortable targets. Easy enough to make mock of humanity’s “abiding concerns”, its deep subjects, grandiose emotions and war-mongering rhetoric, as demonstrated by the disgust expressed during the “Great War” by Wilfred Owen. But Maris picks on subjects such as embarrassment, superficial competitiveness, thoughtless remarks and the throwaway lines of shallow conversation. Take this prose poem “It’s not Her Story to Tell”:
The famous novelist and not-so-famous poet, long time colleagues in the same English department, never had a real conversation until they both landed a residential course in Rome, during which the famous novelist, who had just finalised a bitter divorce, felt fragile enough to talk about her life, and the poet, who was feeling chatty himself, told his autobiography over grappa and ice. The next year the famous novelist published a book in which the main character was a not-so-famous poet who had the same life experiences as the not-so-famous poet in Rome. Outraged, the not-so-famous poet texted an even-less-famous poet who had never been to Rome but who had once complimented the famous novelist on her leather jacket at the departmental Christmas party. ‘Can you believe she wrote my story?’ he typed. ‘It’s not her story to tell.’ The even-less-famous poet replied, ‘Isn’t that awful!’
Maris maintains a precarious equilibrium between perception and elusiveness. One of the weakening characteristics of Georgian satire was that it was too willing to bludgeon the reader with its trenchant point-making, rounded off by galloping rhythms and vice-like rhyme. But ever since the modernist challenge to the meaningful; to considering the moral significance of what is said as of primary importance — as Leavis would advocate — which modernism casts doubt upon by arguing against persuasion, verse has been obliged to acknowledge the material out of which it is made, that is, the reality of the words. The dull, Leavisite view so often translates into mere “worthiness”, narrated in a traditional way. Instead of a sermon (aided and abetted by an out-of-date vehicle), we need to be “bemused”; that is, the muse must play hard to get.
THERE’S A POLITICS to this. Compare line-of-sight perspective with Cubism. Line-of-sight, with its all-seeing eye, gazes towards a vanishing point, and what is offered is a coherent hierarchy, the near dominating the faraway. It’s a hierarchy appropriate to a masterful Renaissance. Add four views and you get the panopticon, a brainchild of Jeremy Bentham, the perfect system for overall surveillance in a jail. Cubism inverts the panopticon. Instead of one centre controlling all views, we get many views of the same subject. There is now confusion. A possible cacophony. A clash of meanings. But seriously interesting contemporary writing acknowledges ambiguity, allows the possibility of alternative readings. This is to be felt in the work of writers such as Maris or Hammond, even when the impulse is towards mockery. Maris, for instance, makes use of oxymoronic sentences, contradictions. Take the first verse of “Break-up Letter”:
First of all, I’m 59. I am unable to love in my life as best I can.
I loved you often one time. I was very scared: intimacy
meant forever. From May 2009 to December 2010
I was married to eggshells. (I am still working on that able love.)
But I woke up at that point, I tried to make promises I couldn’t keep.
I’m not sure what you said: Work on this while being with me or Go.
You were trapped with times of great happiness, so I walked,
scared of your trust. Irrational and unreasonable, time terrified me.
I wasn’t happier with the relationship than I was. If I told you
I loved you, you would think I wasn’t sure I could love you.
The oxymoron is Lovelace’s favourite trope. It signposts upheaval, civil strife, as opposed to the coherence of the chain of being that John Donne could take advantage of in his “Ecstasy”.
Philip Memmer’s recently published Pantheon (Lost Horse Press, Idaho 2019) may seem to go along with the chain of being, since it comprises a number of satirical views of God. But which God are we dealing with? The God of Masks, the God of Error, the God of Driving Alone in the Middle of the Night, The God of Sky, of Doubt, of Sand or of Wisdom? Those are just the gods in Part 1. There are twenty more gods in the collection, and here is the start of “The God of Sky”:
Because you have always been
a model passenger,
pretending to watch
the pre-flight safety instructions,
always willing and able
the duties required of those
in exit row seats,
I leapt into action
and removed you from your crashing plane.
It was a small thing—
the exit door
already blown away ,
by the smuggled device, your lap-belt
despite the fact (your only sin)
the fasten seatbelt sign
was clearly lit—
I forgave you and brought you here,
the freezing air
of 20,000 feet.
Whether you’re better off than those inside
is yours to say—
I’m not the god
of safety or soft landings….
Memmer’s work is expertly crafted, and very finely presented by Lost Horse. Each god is an epitome. Perhaps that is what God always is. But there’s a tart, crisp tone that mocks the supposed worshipper as much as it does the spiritual entity. Take “The God of Shrugs”:
If I were to answer the prayer
you’ve not yet decided to say,
you’d be disappointed. Maybe not.
That would depend,
I guess, on whether
you heard my answer . . . and
on whether I heard you pray.
Memmer has devised a neat form for the semi-gnostic pronouncements of his various divinities. Each verse is almost a haiku, generating a poem which strings the nuggets of his thought together in a monologue rather than a renga (which would be closer to an eclogue). Rhythmically, it is very satisfying, with a pithiness which is apt for the intention of his book, which I find very enjoyable.
NOTHING WEAKENS THE BITE of Keith Hutson’s verse, whose first full-length collection, Baldwin’s Catholic Geese, has just been published by Bloodaxe. Hutson has had a career as a script-writer, working for Coronation Street, and he’s also written material for Frankie Howard and Les Dawson. But in more recent years he has decided to write for himself rather than to be commissioned. He rarely writes about himself, and has focused his attention on the bygone stars of music-hall. He is acutely conscious of the need for a form and has written many sonnets. Here is “Coming on Strong, i.m. Joan Rhodes 1921-2010”:
Three and in the workhouse, ten when you ran,
missing till twenty then, as lean as luck,
in fishnets at the fair, you tore a phone book up,
bent iron bars, broke nails, took four men
on at tug-of-war and won, which led to
lifting Bob Hope while Marlene Dietrich
loved a woman tough enough to keep
refusing King Farouk, who wanted you
to wreck his best four-poster bed with him
still in it. Joan, I’ve seen your photograph,
fab in a basque and tan, that cast-iron bath
held high, before you disappeared again,
found in a care home where, I understand,
greeting the manager, you broke his hand.
Hutson is aware of the chestnutty pong of paying too much attention to pat scansion and perfect rhyme. With care, he calibrates the voice of the poem, so that it speaks in a conversational way, turning the trochees of the first line here by the sudden use of a dactyl leading to a final stress. Sometimes he places a stress on a minor word such as a preposition, sometimes takes the stress out of a strong word – such as “book” in the third line. The rhymes are half-rhymes or make use of assonance, but, to my mind, this is another aspect of the contemporary muse playing hard to get. That Wendy Cope neglects to consider this, either in terms of elusiveness of meaning (as with Maris) or in terms of verse technique (as here, with Hutson), may make her popular, but it also makes her writing obvious, and relegates her to the second division; that of “light” verse. Meanwhile Hutson can turn up the satire beyond the mark of “entertainment” – as is clear from “Hostilities, i.m. Lew Stone 1898-1969”:
Bandleader Lew was called our little Jew
by toffs who saw the war out in the bomb-proof
Dorchester where concrete, castle-thick,
ensured the jazz played gaily on, despite
Luftwaffe night-attacks, flicked off like specks
of dust from concierges’ overcoats.
What larks the fortified progressive set,
safe under girders, braced by glitz, got
up to through our darkest hours to keep
their peckers up: the arse-and-fanny club deep
in the private crannies of the reinforced
gymnasium. No Yids allowed, of course –
Dame Chandelier-Earrings Granville,
flame-haired Hitler fan, made that the only rule.
In other rooms and on the dance floor,
Cecil Beaton saw expensive squalor —
even Ernest Hemingway, no less,
trying, at least, to look androgynous.
The press reported that a rich old Hebrew
was bamboozled by a clever whore;
Duff Cooper and Lord Halifax behaved
like rations don’t apply to the depraved,
sniggering to silk-pyjama’d mistresses
about Blanche ‘Duffy’ Dugdale, Zionist,
whilst table-talk would often turn to
what we think of incest, which didn’t do
a thing for Orde Wingate, whose preference
for bonhomie dished out as violence
once forced him to slap Lew on the back
so hard, Orde wanked about it for a week.
And what of Lew, who had to entertain
these washed-up Riviera sweepings when,
outside, they wouldn’t be seen dead with him?
Well, his baton waved its thanks each time
they paid for a request in cash Lew sent
to friends fleeing from worse imprisonment.
Back in November last year, Kathryn Maris invited me to the launch of the first issue of a new magazine called Mal, Mal being a bimonthly journal linked to Feeld, a dating platform for innovative relationships. The magazine is very loosely themed around sexuality. Each issue, which appears online and also in a print form available for free at launches, is minimal: one story, one or two essays, and poems by one poet. The first issue contains poems by Eileen Myles. The magazine is edited by Maria Dimitrova, and Maris is the poetry editor.
At this launch, Hannah Sullivan gave a reading. Allow me to fall, briefly, into the ad hominem trap, to say that I was impressed both by the reading and by the demeanour of this woman with the air of a fashion model reading from her Three Poems, recently published by Faber. After the reading, I went up to Sullivan and, hoping to strike up a conversation, I made some remark which I thought had some relevance to her reading but was in all likelihood not in the least relevant (I simply cannot remember what it was). With Nefertiti poise, Sullivan looked through me. There was no acknowledgement of my presence. I was obliterated by her eyes. I went home impressed and ordered the book from Amazon.
Three Poems is beautifully designed, and finely typeset by Hamish Ironside. It feels lovely, with its extra width (which poetry sometimes requires) and is enhanced by its fashionable French folds. It is on the Costa book awards short-list, a sticker tells me, and now I realise it has won the 2018 T. S. Eliot Prize. I take a dim view of this. Surely Marmite employees are not eligible to enter Marmite competitions? Considering Eliot (and Hughes) are both published by Faber — and both have their names attached to hefty awards — why should Faber poets be any different?
The title pays homage to Ashbery. My preference is for the first poem — “You, Very Young in New York”. This employs a far longer line than is customarily considered by versifiers — a line that was pioneered by the brilliant young poet George Pitts, deceased, to whom Ashbery introduced me, back in the eighties. Before he died, Pitts published one 60-page book with five poems in it. The book was called Partial Objects (Jerk Poet, 2016). The title poem, which Ashbery thought ‘truly extraordinary’, is by far the longest in the book, and is dedicated to the mother of the poet, who was a fashion model. Sullivan take this longer-than-usual line and makes it her own. She maintains the “very young” persona well, clearly aware, as a trend-setting teen or twenty-something can be, of the terminology of baristas and hipsters:
As the bartenders figure out the winter cocktail lists, telling each other
That Cynar, grapefruit bitters, and a small-batch Mezcal will
Be trending in the new year, even though guests are still going to be wanting Negronis at weddings, gin and tonics on first dates, Manhattans before
Moving upstairs, away from the camera phones, on illicit business …
Schramsberg ’98 is working well for Caitlin in the nouveau Bellini.
Jed crafts a drink from porter, coffee rum, and Brachetto d’Acqui,
It can only be written in Chinese but is ordered as ‘the vice grip’,
Its taste is whipped cream and kidneys, beer bitter and honeyed.
He makes it for the girl in leathers with a face like the Virgin Mary.
You are listening to Bowie in bed, thinking about the hollows
Of his eyes, his lunatic little hand jigs, longing for Berlin in the seventies.
You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries are low
And the plasticine-pink stick rotates leisurely in your palm,
Casting its space-age glow into the winter shadows.
Here her vocabulary mines the wealth of contemporary, or, by today, perhaps not-so-contemporary, usage that I also find in Emma Hammond’s work. Sullivan, it seems to me, plays mischievous games with the reader. Why do I think of Bloody Marys at the end of the second verse?
I’m not so sure of the last poem in this book — “The Sandpit after Rain”. It seems to run out of steam. By page 60 there is a tendency to rely on a single verb to start a host of hortatory sentences — “Think” in this instance. I’ll admit to a personal antipathy with hortatory syntax: it ruins a lot of Geoffrey Hill for me. And then there’s a reliance on cadences and lists, in this last poem, that is not the case in the first poem which keeps up its remorseless superficiality with admirable control. Though her bio note tells me that she lives in London with her husband and two sons (why does she tell me this? It’s such a downer. Would I begin a bio note, “he lives in London with his cat”?), it also says she got her PhD from Harvard and has taught in California for four years, so she seems steeped in American literature which, from Whitman to Ginsberg, has placed a far greater reliance on cadence — an essentially biblical trope — than we Brits tend to do. Americans have a tendency also to rely on more exuberance and less drafting than many of their British counterparts. From her academic work, it appears that Sullivan may identify instant and indefatigable correction with the invention of the computer. I should note here, that Browning believed that Tennyson’s obsession with correction was evidence of a certain weakness of intellect, so perhaps I should allow Sullivan some slack.
Ginsberg, incidentally, was also left out of James Reeves’s anthology of satire: an omission as glaring as that of the dearth of women in his selection. So it seems appropriate to end this tentative survey with Howl – tentative in that I am well aware that in the plethora of contemporary verse I am sure to have left out a number of writers others will see as indispensable:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
Starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up
smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw….
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).