When I started this occasional series of stocking-filler poems, I’d sort of decided that they would necessarily all be the kind I knocked together to perform in folk clubs. I said, quite blithely that:
“They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. I discovered that writing your own stuff is a lot harder than you’d think, and I think I learned a fair amount about the trade from trying. Sometimes I’d try performing what I thought of as ‘real poems’, but they didn’t work, and once I decided I wanted an audience for them, I shifted my allegiance to poetry open mics. On the other hand, I’d assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence.”
You see that I made a distinction between ‘real poems’ and ‘stocking-fillers’ which, when I come to think about it, is as foolish as putting a capital P on Poetry or a capital L on Literature, and thinking that is a tenable proposition. For that, mea culpa. Because sometimes I’ve set out to write a bit of ‘entertainment’ and found that the poem has ideas of its own. I guess this is particularly true of dramatic monologues. There’s a long tradition of the dramatic monologue in music hall performance, and it sort of slips into the folk scene, via Marriott Edgar’s brilliant creations like ‘Albert and the Lion’ which were immortalised in Stanley Holloway’s recorded performances of them . You can hear their influence in some of the work of Pam Ayres and Mike Harding.
There’s the music hall at one end of the spectrum, and, I suppose, Shakespeare at the other, and in the notional middle, between the two kinds of performance art, there’s the printed poem. So many of them sink into your subconscious sense of how characters can be created, how they can be made to sound, from the appalling duke of Browning’s ‘My last duchess’ to Tony Harrison’s dead Iraqi soldier or David Constantine’s five monomaniacs in ‘Monologue’. If you were to ask about the appeal of the dramatic monologue for me, it’s the liberation of wearing a mask, and the genuine enjoyment of discovering the accent, the ideolect of the persona.
Discovery. That’s the thing. I was in a poetry workshop where we were asked to improvise on the idea of someone giving advice to another…a tradesman advising an apprentice, say, or a football coach, or a master thief, or a seductress, or…..well, you get the idea. The prompt poem was Emily Berry’s “A short guide to corseting”. Go figure.I wrote the poem that follows in about five minutes, and it didn’t need a lot of altering/editing.
*** see comment below
But as it went along, it surprised me. I thought I knew the voice of the older bloke; I was pretty sure I’d worked with lots like him. It wasn’t as funny as I thought it was going to be. I should have guessed, I suppose.
A proper job
There’s more to this than people think.
So listen. See, you want to get the build-up right.
That one I took you to last week. All wrong.
What’s the good of flogging a chap
till he can’t carry the thing? He only ends up
dropping it, spectators want to help,
military jump in. A bloody circus.
Take my advice. You want to keep them
fit and fed and fresh. They’ll not thank you,
but just think on. You’re not there to cheer them up.
Just to do a proper job.
Make sure you order oak
that’s been let to lie a year or two.
You need to cut a solid six by six,
one tight lap joint, nice and snug.
Four clean dowels.. olive;,
don’t get palmed off with pine…
If it does get dropped you don’t want
that cross-piece twisting.
Causes too much bother later on.
Nails? Get them from that blacksmith
by the market. You’ ll want clean-cut, well tapered,
a good nine inch.
Plan to use just the three, but get six.
They can break if you don’t catch them right,
and anyway a big lad might need
a couple in each wrist.
I’ll tell you all about the way
to lie them down, the knots,
the bones to get between,
the hoisting and the dropping in the slot
when we’ve had our snap.
But just one thing. You get it right.
You don’t want another carry on
like the one last week.
The one it turned out wasn’t dead.
Never hear the last of that.
[from Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016]
A Postscript: I was rereading this today (Monday) and deeply embarrassed by the apparent piece of throwaway showboating. “I wrote this in five minutes” indeed. I was driven to hunt down the original and found it in a notebook . Poetry Business Whitby Residential, December 2013. Here it is.
As it turns out, I was right about not needing to change very much so it looks like one of those gifted moments when you apparently write without thinking, and everything seems to fall into place without any effort at all. Which is, of course, nonsense. For a start I’d spent a lot of time that year struggling with a whole series of dramatic monologues based on the notion that statues can be brought to speak. I’d been investigating a whole debate about the nature of resurrection (in the body or in the spirit?); I’d been reading a lot of UA Fanthorpe. In short, I’d been unconsciously rehearsing my way towards this moment for ages. Sometimes you’re given the key that opens a door you didn’t know you’d been pushing against.
It turns out that, as we all do, I owe all sorts of debts to all sorts of writers whose work I’ve enjoyed and absorbed, and that I unconsciously/subconsciously exploit. If I had to single out one particular poet and one particular poem it would be Edwin Morgan’s ‘Instructions to an actor ‘.
Because of the intensity of the speaker, I’ve always imagined that Morgan had the idea of Shakespeare doubling as one of the actors in this production of A winter’s tale, explaining to a boy actor how to play one of the most problematic ‘moments’ in English drama. He must be, convincingly, a statue in the course of 80 lines, and then convincingly come to life. And, boy, how the speaker believes in this moment!! He knows just how wonderful and implausibly difficult it’s going to be.
What am I saying? It’s simple, I guess. You learn from the company you keep.
Next week, more voices from more occupations, but probably less serious. In the meantime, I’ll be working on the final ‘Catching Up ‘ post, and I want to do justice to the last poet in this particular sequence. Bear with me.