A meme has persistently popped up on my Facebook page recently. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Hmm. It occurs to me that my days have been defined by poets and poetry for the last few weeks. Residentials, a festival, readings, workshops, poetry blogs, planning programmes. A week ago I was given a guided tour of the stunning renovations of Halifax’s magnificent Piece Hall…an epic space that was once the centre of the European cloth trade. Merchants came from Russia to the Piece Hall. Easy to forget that in the 1970s it was saved from demolition by the casting vote of the mayor at a council meeting. A huge piazza surrounded on all four sides by classical galleries in (these days) golden sandstone. It wouldn’t look remotely out of place in a great Italian city. The Square Chapel that was a near ruin in the 1980s has now been stitched into the complex by very smart, visionary architects. My mate Bob Horne and I were being shown around prior to checking out a performance space…our very own Puzzle Poets Live are invited to put on two hours of live poetry as part of the re-opening day celebrations on August 1st! How do we feel? Gobsmacked. That’s how we feel.
Last Tuesday I was in Bradford to listen to Vicky Gatehouse and Ann Caldwell reading at The Beehive Poets. Wednesday, I was happy to be back in Halifax where Michael Brown and Maria Isakova Bennett were two of the four guest poets at Keith Hutson’s Word Play in Square Chapel. Thursday I was reading at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. The week before, a new and beautifull magazine, Strix, had its launch at the Hyde Park Book Club Cafe in Leeds. I think it’s fair to say that my world has revolved round poems and poets and poetry of late. Clearly, it’s very important.
And yet. Important to whom? Well, to thousands..but in my case, to a few hundred people I know or know of. There again, so is my beloved Rugby League team…but as far as most of the world’s concerned it barely registers, if at all. Poets, the unacknowledged legislators? it’s a big claim, isn’t it? Unacknowledged, yes. I get that. But if I had to select the crucial legislators…the layers out of laws that govern the world, I’d pick mathematicians. Put it another way. Ten years ago, or thereabouts, poetry was something I read from time to time. Poems were things I tinkered with, intermittently and irregularly, without any real conviction. The world of magazines, competitions, prizes, poetry reading groups, open mics., workshops, residentials, festivals were literally invisible. Poetry’s important to the people it’s important to; I have to pinch myself and remind myself that to a great extent it’s a bubble I’ve come inhabit in which I talk to like- minded people and sometimes forget that there’s a world out there that doesn’t give a toss. By and large, the people who buy my books are folk whose books I buy in return. Ditto, people who listen to me read and, probably, people who read my blog posts.
Before you decide this is altogether too depressing, I rush to say this is the bleakest version of a whole spectrum of shades of the truth about poetry and its place in the world. What I want to do is to tweak this a bit and to consider those poets who break out of the bubble, this hall of mirrors that multiplies and multiplies the image rather than the reality, and are heard by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry as such. Who are they, and how do they do it?
I’m going to stick my neck out…I guess I expect some brickbats…but what the heck. I started reading/performing poems in folk clubs, and learned very quickly that if I wanted to keep the attention of a room of folk mainly there for the tunes and the beer, then I’d better do poems that rhymed (probably) and were funny (certainly). I built up a big file of stuff that wouldn’t let me down. Poets like Matt Harvey and Les Barker. I used a lot of Marriott Edgar. And I came to respect what Pam Ayres did. She’s a crafty, clever writer despite her TV persona. I’m very fond of ‘Clive the fearless birdman‘. I learned a lot from watching Ian Macmillan’s live performances in libraries and other small venues…especially when he worked with Circus of Poets. And I think Roger McGough is frequently brilliant. McGough has always written lovely serious stuff along with stuff like the PCPlod sequence, and A lesson and Nooligan and the rest. But I think there’s no argument that what let him break out of the poetry bubble was the Penguin anthology that rode on the back of Beatlemania in the 60s. And I’d argue hard and long that Ian Macmillan and Pam Ayres owe a lot to their voices and associated personae that worked so well on radio and TV. In other words, they’re known beyond the poetry world as ‘entertainers’. I’ll come back to this.
And then there’s the collections/anthologies that sell lots and lots of copies, and travel well outside the niche poetry world. In the case of Staying Alive and Lifesaving poems you’re as likely to come across them in parts of bookshops that deal with ‘lifestyle’ and ‘self-help’ as in the less than crowded poetry shelves. I think the reason(s) for their popularity don’t need spelling out. They’re full of stunning poems, but I suspect they’re sometimes leafed through by people wanting something to read at funerals. In a sense (though not in terms of the quality and seriousness of their poems) they occupy the same kind of cultural space that Patience Strong used to dominate. The thing I’m focussing on is the fact that they’re bought and read by folk who don’t naturally buy poetry.
The world’s wife is a different case. For me, it’s one of the most important collections I ever bought. It gave me a whole new and liberating way into my own writing. And, I should add, there are a lot of poems in there that went down a storm in folk clubs. Robust, strong, forthright poems. Funny poems. Memorable poems. I loved performing The Kray Sisters…in a not very convincing Michael Caine voice. But there’s a lot more to it than the craft, the wit, the bravura quality of the whole collection….which it shares with Liz Lochhead’s Dreaming Frankenstein. I remember coming across it about the time I met the first of the feminist-slanted revisionist picture story books: The paper bag princess. Both appeared at what seems to me the exact right time…you might not be into poetry, but if you were into feminism, then this was a must-read. The message was just as important as the poetry. It was innovatory, brilliantly simple as a concept, completely accessible and absolutely politically right-on. (It’s also beautifully crafted. Little Red-Cap is stunningly written, full of internal rhymes, slant rhymes, assonance, texture..wistful and sardonic and finally triumphant by turns). And it’s gone on and on and on being popular.
I think I’ll nail my colours to the mast with that resonant word ‘popular’. Of and for the people. Lets’ be fair. A lot of poetry isn’t. It’s of, and for, coteries. But Macmillan and Ayres and McGough come out of a long proud tradition of oral poetry. Poetry that’s performed as much as, if not more than, it’s read. It’s accessible…and anyone who thinks writing accessible, entertaining, and (particularly) genuinely funny poetry is easy, well, all I can say is: they’ve never tried to do it. I’m also reminded of something that Ian Macmillan said in a filmed interview with Martin Wiley. He said that much of the stuff written for Circus of Poets was written collaboratively…something on the lines that it’s hard to write funny poems on your own because ‘you can’t make yourself laugh’. So, bearing those ideas in mind: popular, collaborative, public, entertaining, I finally get round to re-introducing today’s returning guest poet: Keith Hutson.
Keith was last a guest in February 2015. You can follow the link to that post here if you like: https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/02/28/stand-up-a-polished-gem-3-keith-hutson/
I finished that post by writing that I’d hoped “he might have let me have one his poems that draw on the world of the music hall; it turns out that Widow Twankey is currently seeking employment elsewhere, as is another I wanted …Frankie Vaughan at a lad’s boxing club in Ancoats.If you want a taste of the world of the music hall comedian in the dying days of the craft, you can find three sonnets in The North 53, and make the acquaintance of Sandy Powell,Tommy Trinder, and Robb Wilton who each apparently built a career on profoundly unfunny catchphrases. Keith’s uncle would take him, as a young boy, to see all the comic greats who appeared at Blackpool and other theatres in the North, and a lot of his recent poetry pays tribute to the performers he loves. He is working towards a collection of these poems, called Troupers. (Any offers anyone?)”
As it happens, he has done much more than work towards a collection, and as we shall see, he’s had offers. Let’s let him introduce himself:
“Since I was last on the Cobweb, I’ve had more poems published in journals, and some successes in competitions including the Troubadour, Mclellan, York, Cornwall, Canon, Rosamond, and Rialto Nature. [he’s understating again: the Poetry Business uses this endorsement from Keith on their webpage: ‘Since I began attending the Poetry Business Writing Days two years ago,[ie in 2014 or thereabouts] I have gone from having no poems published to forty, all in well respected journals. This is due to the encouragement and support of Peter and Ann Sansom and all the monthly writing day participants’
My debut pamphlet, ‘Routines’ (31 sonnets celebrating music hall performers) was published by Poetry Salzburg in October 2016 (I was subsequently invited to join the Poetry Salzburg editorial board). [Just let that last sentence sink in before you read on]
In February this year I read, as Carol Ann Duffy’s guest, at the Royal Society of Literature’s TS Eliot Memorial event at the British Library. Carol Ann has asked me to be a Laureate’s Choice poet for 2018, which will mean another pamphlet, ‘Troupers’, this time published by smith|doorstop, who have agreed to publish a future full collection too.
I tour the country with a one-man show, also called ‘Troupers’, next appearing on 28 September at Harrogate Theatre.”
So, let’s think about Routines and Troupers and the connection with my musings in the first part of the post. If you are going to break out beyond the bubble, you probably need a lucky break, some sort of special boost. I’d draw a parallel with a former colleage of mine, Gervaise Phinn. English teachers and English Advisers throughout the country knew all about his brilliant storytelling about the ups and downs of advising and inspecting schools in the North of England. No one else. Then he had a chance meeting with Esther Rantzen via his work for Childline..he made her laugh so much he ended up on TV, won a publishing contract, and became a bestseller of books about the life of a schools’ inspector in the North Yorks Dales. The stories were the same, but no longer inside the selfreflecting budbble of the world of English teaching. In a similar way, Keith Hutson caught the eye and ear of Carole Ann Duffy. That’s always going to help. More than that, though. He can tour his poems in a one man show that fills a theatre. Beyond the bubble. Brilliant. Let’s see just how.
i.m. William Paul 1820 – 1882
William Paul, with millions to waste
on battling boredom, wondered which place
in Blighty had the least discerning taste:
could he unearth a town where utter tripe
would be considered culture at its height –
silk purses not sow’s ears – night after night?
Two dozen hardened scouts were sent to scour
the land; five hundred flops auditioned for
his troupe; the ten most woeful went on tour
including long-abandoned novelties
like Lady Clock Eye, Baldwin’s Catholic Geese,
The Human Mop, Frank and his Dancing Teeth:
from Cumbria to Cornwall no one asked
them back, except the Palace, Halifax.
First thing I particularly like is Keith’s ear for the punchline. His sonnets take you for an eye-opening journey through the often bizarre world of music hall and variety acts from the the 19thC through to the late 1950’s when they were effectively killed by television. The big stars were enormously famous…think of rock stars and you’re not far wrong. The ones who weren’t famous were frequently bonkers. I love that list of B and C list performers that seem to come from a deranged surrealist. Or Monty Python. Except that they were real. Keith does an enormous amount of research. Equally, he’s adept at using the sonnet for its ability to hold a compressed narrative, to supply a turn and a closure.
Very often the stories of the really big stars have a familiar trajectory. Many of them came out of appalling poverty and deprivation, and many of them were destroyed by depression and drink, or just ended up, sadly and anticlimactically in care homes. Though not without being able, sometimes, to pack a punch, still. Like Joan Rhodes, the Strong Woman, the tearer of telephone books and bender of iron bars.
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.
As with many of the sonnets in his sequence, Keith can show a great tenderness and respect for his Troupers. This one starts with the beautifully compressed ‘early life’ that packs a huge unwritten backstory. And I love the economy of that ‘lean as luck’. And the schadenfreude of the couplet that does a slightly different job from the one in the previous poem. What’s clear is that the sheer fascination of these carefully researched subjects is what lifts them out of the world of poetry into a world of entertaining and informing. You just have to remember that these are also beautifully artful, crafted poems.
Two more poems (Keith’s been really generous. Thanks Keith). The next one is more kinetic…basically because the act it describes was a man standing on a stage miming the running of a fried fish shop. Night after night. The past was another country.
The Fish Fryer
i.m. Billy Bennett 1887-1942
The secret is to get the audience
to flinch with you: imaginary hot fat
should surprise them too. A shared experience.
But ration out the twitches, make every spit
and spatter count. Your elbow action should,
however, never stop. You’ve got to work
that non-existent haddock, scallop, cod
till they can smell the sizzling. You’ll look
a fool, standing on stage behind a range
that isn’t there, but that’s what they’ve all paid
good money for. Somehow it entertains
them – a ninny in a pinny plagued
by boiling oil. Don’t try to analyse
their appetites, though. That way madness lies.
The first thing to notice is that this is one block of 14 lines. There’s no resting place. Then you think about the speed of it from flinch to surprise to spit to spatter. The rhythm’s manic, staccato, nonstop like the act. And the couplet does something different this time. Because the poet finally gives up trying to understand just what made the act work. And, possibly, Billy Bennett, too.
Finally, because there’s a lot of light and shade in the whole sequence, I asked for on that illustrates the bittersweet, or pathetic or tragic, or just plain heartbreaking ends of so many of these stage careers. This poem’s about Hutch. It’s also about poverty, the class system and the rank racism of British society for most of the 20th C. A world in which the BBC were still showing The black and white minstrels into the 60’s, and Love thy neighbour and It ain’t half hot, Mum were still thought to be amusing.
for Leslie Hutchinson 1900-1969
Black. Baritone. Breathtaking, Coward said.
Now let’s diminish you with this instead:
Lady Mountbatten so adored your dick,
she got a jewel-encrusted cast of it
from Cartier, to comfort her when you
were entertaining Noel, Novello.
Prohibited from singing on a stage,
you did Cole Porter from the pit, to rave
reviews; received sweets from the royal box.
Received Cole Porter too. But when the facts
about how in demand you were came out,
Lord Louis sued the press and swore in court
No nigger fucks my wife. Cut down, voice gone,
you died selling yourself in Paddington.
I reckon this needs no commentary. But you’ll have gathered that here’s poetry that riffs on the sonnet form and makes it sit up and beg; poetry as social history; poetry that entertains. Poetry that travels outside the bubble. Thank you Keith Hutson for being our guest and sharing your poems. Next week, a slightly different take on the the theme I opened with. See you all then, I hope