Monthly Archives: September 2012

Reading Poetry in the Bath

Devoted followers of this blog (anybody out there?) will be familiar with my liking for reading anthologies of verse in the bath.  There’s something soothing yet stimulating about simultaneously immersing myself in great poetry and warm soapy water.  I’ve previously written two short poems inspired by this bathtime reading (See this blog: April 30), and I’ve now written a third.  This one was inspired by reading an anthology – “Short and Sweet”, edited by Simon Armitage – of 101 very short poems.

The Great Verses (3):

He reads the great verses, in the bath.
An anthology entitled “Short and Sweet”.
101 poems, all exceedingly terse;
no fiddling with complex metrical “feet”.
He’s never read such pointed, punchy verse.

He feels the urge, that old sensation;
is tormented, again, by the sheer temptation.
So simple, surely, to write, to complete.
Poems like this could be done in a heartbeat!

He reads on, entranced, enveloped by steam.
Dazed, deluded, still harbouring dreams.


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Larkin’s “This Be The Verse”

Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be The Verse” begins as follows:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

I have written, in previous posts in this blog, of my admiration for Larkin.  At times, I think it’s rather unfortunate that “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” is the most widely-quoted single line of Larkin.  Then again, I suppose anything that attracts a wide readership to Larkin’s poetry is better than nothing!  In my own poem “Damaged”, there is an allusion, at the end, to “This Be The Verse”.  “Damaged” is a recounting of an episode in my early childhood.  My mother became seriously ill, and a decision was taken to send me to relatives who could look after me until my mother was better.  It is well-know, apparently, that such an experience in early childhood can have long-lasting, damaging effects.  In my case, I have no memory of the event at all, and whether this is due to unconscious repression on my part is a question I cannot answer.  All I can say – without subjecting myself to lengthy sessions of psychoanalysis or deep hypnosis – is that I seem to have survived the experience relatively unscathed.


One day, when I was little,
my parents sent me away.
They left my life, for a few months.
I have no memory of that day.

Why do I not remember it?
Did it leave so little impression?
Or is the opposite the case:
a matter of wilful suppression?

My mother was seriously ill,
but regretted this step was taken.
I was sent to caring relatives;
she still felt that I was forsaken.

Years later, she would recall it;
would tell me she had no choice.
Yet she still condemned herself for it;
I could tell, by the tremor in her voice.

Did this event drop, unknowingly,
into the river of my life, like a stone?
Cause ceaseless, fatal ripples;
leave me damaged, unhappy, alone?

Was Larkin right, or was he wrong,
in what he said parents can do?
Do they, unwittingly, ruin your life;
or is your fate, really, all down to you?

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Watching the schoolkids trudging dutifully back to school at the start of term last week stirred unpleasant memories for me.  I had passed the “Eleven-Plus” exam, which entitled me to attend a grammar school – and there was a grammar school conveniently located only a fifteen minute walk from my home.  My father (who was not a religious man) had attended this school himself, and would have been quite happy with me following his footsteps.  My mother, however, was a devout Roman Catholic, and wanted me to go to a Catholic-run school.   After a number of intense discussions on the matter, my mother eventually won the argument.  Unfortunately, to get to the school in question entailed a journey of an hour and a half – by bus and on foot – every morning and evening.  Even worse was the fact that the school was run by black-robed “brothers” who wielded strap and cane with sadistic vigour (this was before the abolition of “Corporal Punishment”) and, frankly, frightened me to death.

As you’ll have gathered, the eight years I spent at that school were far from happy ones.  A few years ago I found myself writing a whole series  – or “cycle” – of autobiographical poems, in which I was re-living my schooldays.  I won’t inflict the whole sequence upon you now; just one of the early sections, remembering the horrendous daily journey I used to have.

School Bus:

The sad schoolboy, on the bus each morning;
staring through the window, weary, yawning.
Dreading the long hour’s journey ahead;
wishing he were still tucked up, in bed.
He saw the driver get in; heard the engine start.
The sound synchronised with the sinking of his heart.

The journey, now started, he wanted to extend.
He fervently wished that it would never end.
Gazing blankly through the window all the while;
the bus juddering along, mile after mile.
Trying to fight his slowly mounting fear.
Grim realisation: the school was getting near.
This journey he endured for eight years; fated
to travel, each day, to a school that he hated.

How he envied the pensioners, the housewives he would see,
occupied in their homely lives; independent, free.
No need for them to face infamy, and shirk
the dreaded obligation, each day, to go to work.
No need to submit to the universal rule
to leave home, each morning, to suffer at school.
So fortunate, these people!  No need for them to roam.
They had lives of comfort, and quietude, at home.
If only he could, by some chance, heaven-sent,
live like them, he’d be forever happy and content!



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“To His Coy Mistress”: A Pastiche

Time, I think, for another of my poetry pastiches.  “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell (1621-78) is one of English poetry’s best-known masterpieces.  Very few poems become so much a part of the national consciousness that they provide lines or pharases known universally.  In Marvell’s poem, you find: “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”; “The grave’s a fine and private place,/but none, I think, do there embrace”; and, of course, that immortal beginning: “Had we but world enough, and time,/this coyness, lady, were no crime”.

For my pastiche, I imagined that Marvell was being harassed by the attentions of a particularly persistent beggar.  Out of frustration, he writes an impassioned verse, beseeching the beggar to see sense and leave him alone.  Later on, he sees that he can use much of the form and sentiments of this earlier verse, when he comes to write “To His Coy Mistress”.  In other words, my pastiche is supposed to be an earlier version of Marvell’s masterpiece, which just happens to be addressed to an entirely different subject.

To a Persistent Beggar: (After Andrew Marvell*)

Had my brain been sunken and steeped in wine,
all my riches, varlet, would now be thine.
We would quench our thirst with beakers of gin.
Speculate idly on subtle categories of sin.
Wines of rare vintage would flow, like a river.
I would down them all, with scant respect for my liver.
Smiling wenches would ensure we were fulsomely fed.
Sumptuous cushions to rest on; soft pillows for my head.
Interspersing our carousing with games of chance.
Escorting young maidens, with merriment and dance.
My sense of well-being would swell, like a flood.
But such indulgent excess is too rich for my blood.
Follow such a course, and the poorhouse awaits.
I feel I am not destined for that unhappy fate.
My good sense may be lacking, but I am not yet insane.
I can reject such temptations; so, unhand me, villain!
Why should I grant you the means to an easy life,
in a world where rascals like you are rife?
You are far from feeble; you still have your health.
You may not discern it, but that is true wealth.
For you to seize upon me, then, leech-like, to cling,
is an affront to morality; a truly shameful thing.
So, stand away from me, sirrah!  Keep your back straight.
The value of my advice will, in time, appreciate.
Though we are not sprawled, in happily drunken daze,
we are free, at least, to wend our separate ways!

*(“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvel)

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