The novel “Inside Mr Enderby” (by Anthony Burgess, 1917-94) begins with the central character – Enderby the poet – fast asleep, in bed, in the middle of the night. Enderby is a distinctly unglamorous character: a middle-aged batchelor, balding, overweight, dyspeptic, flatulent; his false teeth glimmer in a glass at the side of his bed. . . Unbeknownst to him, he is being visited by Posterity, in the form of a school teacher and her flock of giggling children – an Educational Time Trip from the future. The invisible time-travellers observe Enderby’s unsavoury surroundings. The teacher tries, vainly, to enlighten her students on the values of Enderby’s poetry. As they are leaving, with Enderby about to wake up, the teacher tells her students to: “Look down on all those Victorian roofs, fishscaled under the New-Year moon. . . this town, in whose flats and lodgings the retired and dying wheeze away till dawn. Above us, the January sky. . . the planets of age and war and love. . . And that man down below, aroused from dyspeptic and flatulent sleep, he gives it all meaning.”
“. . . he gives it all meaning.” That phrase struck me, with a particular resonance, the first time I read “Inside Mr Enderby”. I was in my early twenties, and, although I was a voracious reader of all sorts of fiction and non-fiction, I had no liking for poetry. I had dropped English Literature after GCE “O”Level at school, where I associated poetry with incomprehensible Shakespeare and boring Classics of English Verse. Now, with Enderby, I suddenly started to see poetry in a new light. I have re-read “Inside Mr Enderby” many times since – a richly comic novel; the first of a series of four “Enderby” novels Burgess would write – but I remain indebted to it for the way that first reading awoke a new interest in poetry for me.
Poetry is now a vitally important part of my life, and I’ve tried to express this in my poem “Compulsion”.
“Publishing poetry is like throwing a petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear an echo.” Adam Thorpe.
Yes, it is. So true, I cannot deny.
So why do we do it? Why even try?
The urge within; the urge that compels.
Primitive linking with magic and spells.
To voice, to utter; encode a thought.
Innate, instinctive; cannot be taught.
To pare it down; enshrine it in rhyme;
hope it endures, ‘gainst ravages of time.
Alone, embattled, you let out a cry;
shaking a fist at indifferent sky.
Releasing core feelings, unshackling your voice.
You have to do it; you have no choice.