NaPoWriMo 4/4/16: The Soft Shoe Shuffle

Here is the lady whose teeth are always lost.

They’re wheeling her in through the door in a scarf and nightie.

Did they take her outside in April dressed like that?

But she seems joyous: she’s seen real flowers this morning;

Not the crêpe-made sort set down amid cotton-wool sheep

And a splash of cobalt blue.

When I get older, losing my hair… she sings, in passing,

And I’m catching that evil glimmer in her eye.

Many years from now… I hear someone-like-me reply.

The mouth folds in for a smile, a purse lacking coins.

Will you still be sending me a valentine…

Outside I don’t do singing; I do in here, it seems.

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

old woman

I don’t dance either: she’ll have me doing the soft-shoe-shuffle next

And I really don’t want to fit into this land of dreams.

O Rose, thou art sick…

I’ve just wasted three quarters of an hour trying to decide what Philip Larkin meant when he said, famously: Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth. I mean, what does that even mean? Larkin himself didn’t seem to be deprived of much. For thirty years or so he had a good job, admittedly in a grim Northern town (Hull). But then he did choose to stay in the grim Northern town in spite of having a good enough degree (a First from Oxford in Language and Literature) to have taken him anywhere he wanted to go, and the library was part of the University of Hull. And he didn’t seem ill-fed. He had as much booze and as many fags as he wanted and no fewer than three mistresses, who attended at his death-bed in a complicated shift system. It’s not the traditional picture of a poet, starving in a freezing garret and eventually poisoning himself with… arsenic, or  whatever.


Arthur Rackham: A Crowned Merman

Larkin was certainly quite glum and dissatisfied, but then that’s English. We don’t do jollity. And he seemed to thrive on it; his best poems came out of it – which is perhaps what he means. Wordsworth’s daffodils were an inner treasure-trove of inspiration, a dancing, golden image to recall in those moments when he was feeling a bit down or there wasn’t  a lot else worth thinking about. Golden… treasure… etc. And possibly Larkin, in his gloomy English way, was careful never to become at all happy in case the ability to write poetry deserted him – as indeed it did, later in life. Only then did he allow one of his long-term mistresses to move in with him. After all what did it matter, now that there was nothing for her to distract him from?

I can’t think of one happy poem (at least, not one that’s any good). Can you? But gloom is so fruitful:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake: The Sick Rose

Call her once before you go.
Call once yet.
In a voice that she will know:
‘Margaret! Margaret!’
Children’s voices should be dear
(Call once more) to a mother’s ear;
Children’s voices, wild with pain.
Surely she will come again.
Call her once and come away.
This way, this way!
‘Mother dear, we cannot stay.’
The wild white horses foam and fret.
Margaret! Margaret!

Matthew Arnold: The Forsaken Merman

 Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin: This Be The Verse

Wordsworth’s Little Holiday (2/4)

“My dear, it’s positively minute!” Aunt Irene exclaimed as we turned the Yale key in the lock for the first time.

Someone had nailed a sheet of hardboard over the frosted-glass window in the front door, and chicken-wire over that, presumably to keep the neighbours out. The door gave onto a graffiti-daubed concrete balcony where people stored pushchairs and half-dismantled motorbikes, or left bits and pieces of washing out to dry on plastic airing-frames.

Inside, thankfully, the apartment was clean enough. The walls had recently been decorated in a mushroom sort of colour, but it was almost impossible to tune out the swirly magenta and gold patterns of the carpet, which must have been in situ since the seventies. Aunt Irene took a deep breath, pulled back her shoulders and did her courageous best to convert negatives into positives.

“I’m fortunate to have a roof over my head at all, my dear,” she said. “Think of all those poor homeless people we passed on the way here. I could be underneath the Embankment in a cardboard box – or worse, relagated to a dead old man’s room in Rose Mere, plonked down in a high-backed armchair in front of endless repeats of Antiques Road Show and not allowed to go to the loo without two walking sticks and a care assistant.”

But as I feared, the upbeat mood didn’t last. The apartment had a distinctly depressing effect on me, and for Aunt Irene, who had had her own, four-bedroomed house in an upmarket city street, with a small, secluded garden, it was disastrous. The estate seemed to be the sort of place where, especially if you were getting on in years, it was best to keep your head down and avoid drawing attention to yourself. Nothing could have been worse for a joyously loud, extravert personality like Aunt Irene.

Every time I visited her she seemed to have shrunk a little more. Eventually she would still be in her bedroom slippers when I came to visit. The vivid titian-red hair dye was growing out, showing inches of white roots. And she hardly said a word. That was what worried me most of all. Aunt Irene had never stopped talking – she could have talked for England – and now here she was slumped on a grubby chintz sofa, glaring at yet another repeat of Cash In The Attic, and scarcely looking up when I came in. She definitely needed someone or something to talk to.

I had a sudden inspiration.

“What about a budgie, Aunt Irene?” A little dog would have been better but the Local Authority didn’t permit cats or dogs.

“A bird? What would I do with a bird?” she queried, with a touch of her old majesty.

“Talk to it, of course. Shall I look out for one for you?”

“No. But I will think about it, my dear. I promise I’ll think about it.”

I should have known better. When had Aunt Irene ever done anything by halves? The budgie turned out to be a parrot, a great yellow-orange beastie with a wickedly curved been and a green and yellow tail. His name, it seemed, was Wordsworth.

Daffodils, my dear – I wandered lonely as a cloud? – Wordsworth’s most famous poem? I mounted an expedition to the local shopping precinct and spotted Wordsworth in the window of Nazir’s Pet Emporium, between the Chinese take-away and the building society. He just caught my imagination – reminded me of that long-ago sea of daffodils fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

Aunt Irene gazed rapturously at her new companion.

“Salaam alaikum, and what can I do for you today?” Wordsworth enquired, inclining his crested head and fearsome-looking beak to one side, as if considering whether he might interest her in an angora rabbit – or possibly a gerbil.


James Elroy Flecker made a huge and unexpected leap of the imagination when he wrote ‘To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence. It’s such a well known poem, it’s easy to take it for granted. Oh, that old thing. It’s a bit like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. I remember having to learn this off by heart at Junior School, then being forced to chant it in unison with the rest of my class for some competition or other. Oh, that old thing. Yet when I came across the poem years later, it suddenly struck me – this is really good. Sometimes we need to approach the hackneyed poem, the school-teacher’s favourite, with fresh eyes, and ears.

Why not try it:

It set me thinking, what might a poet think of us, looking back from a thousand years hence. Would there be any record of us at all, or would all trace of us have been buried in some apocalypse? What would it be like, the world he was looking back from? Would it be some kind of technotopia, busy and prosperous, or might he be the last, the only one?

Assuming he had records – that electronic records, books, pictures and music had survived, even – he would be interpreting what he saw through the lens of his own society, and who knows how alien that society might seem to us, or what outlandish conclusions he might draw from such a distance in time.

But supposing he was more or less like us, and his society had at least some common points of reference with our own, what might he think? I am guessing he would be horrified on some counts.

He would be disgusted that we reared other living creatures only to kill and eat them, when our digestive systems were designed to cope with either a vegetarian or a carnivorous diet. You had the choice, he would exclaim, yet you still killed and you still ate. I suspect he would be appalled at our use of animals in experiments and at some of our ancient sports, which involved the hunting and slaughter of wild creatures – the fox and the lion for example – not even for food, but for the thrill of ending a life, the thrill of looking at another creature, in all its living, breathing glory, and in an instant snuffing that glory out.

He would be appalled by our shallow-mindedness. He would wonder how we could possibly be entertained by game shows and talent shows, computer games and social media generally. What were they thinking? Were they thinking?

He would be bemused by our politics – at the never-ending diplomatic games between one country and another, at the never-ending lies, evasions, fixes and deceptions perpetrated by Governments on their own people.

He would be aghast at our inefficiency. How can it be that someone is 15% more likely to die in a British hospital at the weekends because of some ridiculous rota issue? How can it be that old people die alone in dilapidated, underheated houses that nobody ever visited? How can it be that a young woman can die in a ditch beside her dead partner several days after a crash several people reported and nobody attended, because of some computer system malfunction?

He would loathe our perpetual violence against one another, the way we send warplanes to bomb other people’s countries and refer to any man, woman or child who happens to get in the way and be killed or displaced as ‘collateral damage’.

And yet he might find a few things to love.

He might love the way, while Governments bicker and hold endless meetings over how few refugees they are willing to take in, ordinary people go out to meet them with sweets and sandwiches, water, clothing.

He might love our courage in facing a range of appalling diseases that, hopefully, by his time will have been eradicated, with sad reluctance, sometimes, and sometimes with calm resignation.

He might love the way we took to the streets to protest against perceived wrongs in our societies, knowing nothing much would change, whatever we did.

He might love the way we occasionally managed to forget, when faced with the real ‘other people’ in own neighbourhoods, what colour they were, what gender, what religion, and think of them just as people.

He might love our foolishness, the way we liked to dress up for the occasion, our jokes, our weird and eccentric customs, our rituals. He might like the way we wept, watching television, to witness a foreigner’s distress, cheered on the underdog in a tennis match merely because they were the underdog, covered our eyes when the wildebeest was about to be eaten by the lion – again. He might like the way we opened doors for one other, gave up our seats for one other, shepherded old ladies across the road and went to great lengths not to offend one another, even by accident.

He might love our music, and at least some of our art, and be grateful for those few scraps of music, art, architecture, literature and poetry we thought to preserve from those who lived before us.