Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Four Corgis of the Apocalypse


I was talking to my friend Alice the other day. She's the woman who does stand-up poetry readings to evening audiences. She writes her own stuff, of course, and the themes centre around the difficulties of being trans (personal and public acceptance, family identity conflicts), the diverse human condition, and the meaning of life - that kind of thing. She was once a senior psychiatric nurse, so she has professional experience to draw on; but her essentially hectic lifestyle constantly throws emotional and relationship situations in her face, and I don't think she is going to run out of inspiration any time soon.

For myself, this sort of treadmill existence has no appeal. It really does seem to be hard work, converting scraps of poetry that pop into one's mind - or just the barest fleeting notion of something that might be turned into verse - into a finished, polished product measurable in minutes that can be delivered with authentic passion to an enthusiastic audience. And she has so many commitments - promises made, actual bookings, reasons to appear at some venue - that place an onus on her to keep on creating and crafting, and fixing the result into her tired memory, for performances largely done without looking at anything written down. Hence my mention of treadmills.

I ought to make it clear that although I respect poetry as a medium for expression, and have in my time penned the odd poem, I am not very keen on it. Yes, I have poetry books on my shelves at home - let me see: Francis Thompson, W B Yeats, T S Elliot, R S Thomas, Dylan Thomas, John Betjeman and several anthologies, modern and old, including one on medieval poetry. But so what? That doesn't 'prove' that I must be a poetry fan. It's just that some poets speak to me, or have written a particular poem that resonates with me, and I value them for that - but it doesn't make me a slave to the genre. And although I also admire Alice for her creativity, and her ability to stand up in front of an audience (I wouldn't want such exposure), there is no way I want to make poetry readings part of my life.

And I'm not quite sure that a poem written for a listening audience is the same thing as a poem written to be read alone, just you and the words on a page. There is such a performance element in the stage experience. The personality of the reader - her voice, her expressions, her gestures, the fact that she composed this herself from the heart - contribute so much towards the impact and effect of the poem. So much that the individual spoken words may be less important, less essential even, than the general effect. And certainly not as important as words presented in a slim volume for silent study and digestion - where such things as punctuation, how separated into lines, and how lines are grouped into verses, reveal the way one should read the piece and understand it. E E Cummings, for instance (sorry, I mean e e cummings) used exclusively lower-case letters as a device that would be utterly ineffective if the words were spoken and not read. I'm saying that a poem written for recital is different from a poem written for the eye alone. But, as I say, I am not a poet, and my opinion is hardly worth having.

One of the problems Alice has is inventing a compelling title for each of the works in her repertoire. They can't simply be called Ma Vie en Grise or something like that. An audience wants something more recognisable. So we tossed some suggestions to and fro. Something arresting was needed. Eventually I came up with The Four Corgis of the Apocalypse, as the title for a four-poem collection about modern society, with an obvious reference to the Queen. I said to Alice, you can have this title as a gift. I promise not to write a poem myself bearing that title. She laughed heartily, accepted my present of a ready-made title, and for all I know she may use it.

I certainly can't now, not for a poem. I hope a blog post title doesn't count. It's probably OK - I don't imagine that the kind of people who make poetry readings their drug ever read blogs like mine!

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