Poetry News - Part One
With only twenty minutes in which to cobble together a front-page piece on the week's main event - the council's traffic-calming measures - Luke Harding, Special Correspondent had a raging hangover and was out of cigarettes. But without cigarettes he would never start the report, let alone complete it in time, and he was as a consequence faced with a dilemma that only a short nip from the quarter-bottle of vodka stashed inside the cavity wall of his cell might cure.
The problem was that Luke could not really buy the fags and write the story; but neither could he think of writing the story without the fags. Only a drink might solve the conundrum. Luke reached for the remedy.
Some years back he had punched a hole in the cardboard-like wall of his cell, and out of his fierceness had come as sweet a hiding place for your 'stash' as you could wish. As he reached down into the recess with his left hand, Luke fumbled in his pocket with his right for a twenty-pound note with which to buy the fags.
Unable to retrieve the bottle, and with his arm stuck inside the wall, Luke peered down at his other arm, his wrist bucking and twisting as the hand it was attached to writhed and squirmed inside the vile pocket, battling against a tide of loose change, sticks of chewing gum, entangled keys, used tissues and a gritty residue of tobacco dust. He could see his watch now said that he had 17 minutes in which to construct what was likely to be this week's main story (god help us). Wrenching both hands out of their respective niches, Luke determined to kill two birds with one stone - he'd head straight for the 'office' and compose the thing on the way.
"The Chief Executive, with customary - no - The Chief Exec., with customary wit - nope - With customary wit, the Chief Exec./remarked: "We do the sleeping police in dif - no, fuck - ironically noted that 'We/ do the sleeping police in different voices!' - that'll have to do." Luke scuttled across the last of the six lanes of the highway and into the off-licence.
"Good morning Mr Harding - how d'you do?"
"Voddie please Harun and twenty Bensons."
"Er, cheers." Luke was pulling all manner of rubbish from his trouser pockets, but there was precious little of the money he was counting on. "Er, could you do this one on tick, Harun? I've gone and left my wallet at the shop."
As Harun frowned momentarily and then turned with a condescending look to the battery of drugs installed behind him, Luke reviewed the few lines he'd composed so far.
With customary wit, the Chief Exec.
sardonically noted that "We
do the sleeping police in different voices!"
No wonder he was stuck in this shitty little town, with this shitty little job. Basically he was rubbish and readers quite often wrote in to point that out. Indeed, the letters page was rarely about anything else other than the quality of the writing in the paper, and it occurred to him that he was only kept on so as to give the readers something to complain about. They seemed hardly concerned at all with the actual meat and drink of local rags - fetes, council car parking, pub fights, and the like. Instead, they concentrated on the words themselves as if nothing else really mattered. As indeed so little of it did.
Equally, the national dailies - and with the world at their fingertips - also seemed more interested in their 'style' than what they reported, and quite often it seemed to Luke that their reports were hardly ever about anything at all. He began to reassess the value of his own work - it at least had content, a story to tell, however trivial…
"Here's the juice and here are the straws - enjoy!"
Luke handed over a £50 pound note he'd found in his sock, received the three quid in change, and turned to the door. With a shy glance over his shoulder, Luke cracked open the bottle's seal, and between his thumb and finger, set the top spinning.
With his other hand, Luke scraped open the cellophane and flipped open the lid of the carton. Pulling with his teeth, he retrieved a virginal cylinder of sweet-smelling tobacco and turned it into an exhaust pipe of vile and noxious fumes.
"Mr. Harding, not in here, I beg you…"
"Sorry chief, I'm in a rush, must go, ta-ta!"
By the time Luke had crossed to the central reservation, he had all but completed the rest of the report. Admittedly this had been at the expense of a good deal more of the vodka than he had intended drinking at this point, but it had done the trick and he was content to pull on another cigarette as the traffic screamed past. As he committed the words to memory, he savoured one or two of the better phrases.
"That wasn't so bad… that's quite good" he told himself.
He didn't like to write this way - little oases of grey prose in a sea of purple pentameters - he'd much rather the purity of an unfussy, unmetaphorical and even, unrythmical prose with a few bare facts, but the custom dictated that he at least write in a standard house-style. That meant strict iambic pentameter, no fewer than three similes per article and preferably forming the heart and lungs of an overall conceit, although this usually just amounted to stringing a load of clichés together to hang on the hook of an over-taxed pun.
A gap in the stream of cars and lorries appeared and Luke belted across the remaining three lanes in the time spared him. Tripping unaccountably on a road marking, he fell across the last two lanes in the sort of posture you might adopt if you were chasing an invisible rabbit with one hand tied behind your back. A number of vehicles peeped their appreciation and Luke heard cheering from one van as it red-shifted past.
However, he now only had three minutes to get back to his workstation and input the report. He'd just have to phone it in.
Luke held the phone a little further from his ear. Griffiths, the chief sub, had lapsed into disarticulated mono-syllablism, which usually meant that he was about to boil over into furious and frothy, polysyllabic invective.
"I'm on the ring-road - thought it'd be as quick t'ring it in."
"You're not the fornicating foreign correspondent Luke - but fuck it, what the hell - I've got no choice..."
Luke recited the hundred-odd lines of doggerel to Griffiths and tucked the phone back into his trouser pocket. He might as well go to the pub now, so turning off from the raging carriageway, he strolled down the quiet side street towards the Crow & Quill.
Julie Simpter was in there, sipping a large G & T and holding forth to a group of lesser mortals.
"She's got a job at the News, she has!" one of them fluted in a mock-Dylan Thomas intonation as soon as Luke appeared.
Luke's heart, lights, stomach and spirits sank as he heard this, and then lifted again as he realised that she would no longer be there as an admonishment to his own wasted talent and a torment to his trousers.
"Quelle est cette île triste et noir? - C'est Cythère,
Nous dit-on, un pays fameux dans les chansons,
Eldorado banal de tous les vieux garçons.
Regardez! après tout, c'est une pauvre terre."
"Well done Luke! Just who was that I wonder? And what can it mean?" Julie looked about her circle, beamed back at him, teeth flashing, and pink tongue licking at each word. "Well let us in on your little sécrét."
"Baudelaire, my dear - What is that sad, dark island? (This was for the boys - he knew full well she knew the quote.) It is Cythera, they tell us, a country famous in song, banal Eldorado of every elderly bachelor. Look, after all, it is a poor land!"
"They're not all like you at the News old boy!" one of them scoffed. Luke hailed from the News where he had eventually got the sack for his unorthodox style ("This is not a late-modernist paper Harding…" his then Editor had fulminated when he had presented him with a report on a meeting of the Royal Society in the style of J. H. Prynne, "…and this is an affront to art and sense!") He'd tried not explaining, but the editor was an essentially ignorant man and Luke had resigned in high dudgeon. He now roamed the prosodic wastes of local journalism like a downcast Bellepheron, despised or ignored by those few souls that noticed him. His favoured style was now more or less a reaction to his disenchantment with the world of so-called journalism.
"And flowers too - how thoughtful of you Luke!" Julie laughed. Luke managed a smirk and made his way to the bar. He had surprised himself with his rendition - he'd meant only to recite the first line, but in an upsurge of relief and good-will he had spotted that the rest of it was fairly apposite and he'd managed it without a trip.
"A voddie, vodka-tonic if you please."
"And which voddie-vodka would sir prefer?"
Luke did not smile but just pointed at the blue label and turned to look down the length of the pub. Silhouetted in the doorway was an enormous figure - Barrie the town crier.
Barrel-chested Barrie - extrovert, inflated and with a skill for listening only when he wanted to - was ideally placed to exploit his position. A rhetorical maestro, any audience that was without one or two strong-minded individuals within it, was essentially at his mercy.
"Heil Hitler," said Luke without prompting.
Barrie's bonhomonious smile was quickly overtaken by a frown, but collecting himself, he addressed the barman: " St George he was for England, / And before he killed the dragon / He drank a pint of English ale / Out of an English flagon. Pete? A pint of special please. And as for you Luke Harding…" Barrie turned all his antimagnetic charm on Luke, his face purpling and his eyes bulging with anger, "… I've just been speaking with your editor about some lunatic I nearly killed on the Boulevard! I'm pretty sure it was you my man, so you just watch your step!"
Luke blanched a little at the memory, but he was not so easily put off this morning. "I understand you're up for an honour. Sir Verses rendered?"
Barrie's demeanour had shifted slightly from anger to malevolent suspicion, but as Luke alluded to the oration that won him his Chevalier, his eyes began to glaze over as he relived the sounds and images that mention of his triumph inspired in him, and began to recite some stanzas from his formal announcement of the road-widening scheme: "... And of our ancestors' broad lanes may we /now say, that they have truly led the way." Barrie shuddered with pleasure as the orotund vowels went rolling around inside his head and bounced about in Luke's.
"What's that? You're mumbling."
Luke was reciting some statistics under his breath - he found that the numbers relaxed him, took him away from all this verbiage and cleansed his mind with their simple regularity. "I was just counting the feet - very good, Barrie, very good."
Barrie grinned and Luke smiled. "The oaf thinks I mean it…".
"What's that? You're mumbling again dear chap!"
As Barrie took a huge gulp from the quart flagon reserved for the Crier, Luke pulled a paper from the rack beside the bar, and then put it straight back, mulling over what his writer friend had been saying to him the other day:
"Luke, I ask you - the headlines in verse - rhyming verse! - it's absurd! It just means that if The Sun Times comes up with a snappy iamb with a memorable rhyme, it sticks in your head all day, like some ghastly old grey whistle-tested tune you find yourself continually humming." Tarbuck began to hum and whine 'Pop Goes the Weasel', until breaking into song with a few snatches from The Sun-Times past and present.
"Alright, I know some of its very poor and a bit pointless, but what would you rather have - just prose? I mean. It'd be like radio without the ambient vision, or films without sound for god's sake."
"We'd have the facts - or a version of them, instead of 'journalism' in fancy dress. You know I love poetry - I could hardly get enough of it, always there with my nose in a newspaper or reading the airport narratives, I was all up for it, loved it. Then I discovered The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner. It was the name at first - The Ryme - odd; kinda meta. Anyway - I've had an inspiration..."
Luke peered at Tarbuck, intrigued. In direct contrast to the general public (or at least in comparison with the readership of the Ridling Comet) Tarbuck was fairly self-contained as a rule, limiting himself to drink and poetic action, never giving much away about himself or his plans. But it seemed as if Tarbuck was about to give Harding a scoop.
The wayward poet intrigued but scared most people. Tarbuck was a regular attendee at council meetings and such a specialist at the ventriloquist whistle and the gallery murmur that security had never as yet been able to lay a finger on him, although everyone knew who it was. He and his fellow Donnés were quite liable to pull stunts at any moment that indirectly criticised the status quo - indirectly, since the group had foresworn direct statement as a viable political act. Establishment verse, Leisure Verse, Reportage were all mired in the tractor ruts of the formalist, diversionary language of the prevailing paradigm, and they would have nothing to do with it.
Instead, Tarbuck and his cohort would disrupt the staid tetrameters of council meetings with examples of Concrete poetry, mostly comprising spontaneous vocal outbursts. Taking the human voice to its limits, the strangulated whoops and squeals, the gargling and aspirating, whilst quite pleasing on their own, served not so much as to punctuate the councillors' speeches (although punctuate them they did, with squeaks and slowed down, sped up and backward voices), as to puncture the inflated afflatus. By Tarbuck's intercession, the dry and lugubrious role-call of parking spaces made available and car lanes broadened, drained of even the most superficial pretence of feeling, novelty or life by the clunking formal emphasis on rhyme and the dogged pursuit of Correct Expression, would be suddenly enlivened. The rest of the group would sometime engage in rounds with Tarbuck getting the ball rolling with a creepily resonant "Boom! Ooh! Yattata!" with the others gradually joining in. Some, identified by the guards, were thrown out, but once begun the rounds had a tendency to spill over into the general public (Tarbuck knew a hook when he heard one) and the meetings usually dragged to a halt.
"It was the figures for child deaths on the road over the last ten years that gave me the idea - if you were concentrating (and for once I had been), they were very painful to hear."
The Clerk of the Council had been reading them out in a monotone, and to try and cope with the rhyming, he'd ordered the figures so that those ending in the same number were read as a distinct unit. It gave the recitation some formal structure, but was essentially unelaborated, a minimalistic surface of functionality and efficiency, fulfilling the civil service strictures on versification and simultaneously rendering the data harder to interpret.
Tarbuck reached for his drink and took a sip of his Chuggs Primer Ale, and continued. "I'd been looking for a formal way to assert the primacy of content over form. I thought I'd found it in the quotidian and the informational; witness the immediacy of instruction, the galvanising effect of the imperative - even its wit - "Keep Away From Children" indeed! But it had been staring me in the face - where could we rediscover that noumenal world of objective fact, clearly rendered and readily communicated?"
Tarbuck looked down, as if he were contemplating something and then looked up again with a start. "Sorry, I was falling into a bit of reverie there." He looked a little guiltily at Harding, as if he were a country girl caught reading in the drawing room of a big house. Then he continued: "This is it Luke - I've cracked it - a whole new poetic language, a donné, perfect in its synthesis of form and content, Luke - numbers!"
Luke stared, "Numbers? What? The Bible?"
"No you idiot, just numbers pure and simple - related to facts, but not too obviously," said Tarbuck.
"Funny – I was just relaxing using a similar method," Harding replied.
"Method? What method?"
"Well, just thinking of numbers – any numbers. You don’t suppose that Bible book, y’know…"
"Yeh. I wonder if it’s got anything to say in it?"
"You know what I mean."
"No, bollocks, I don’t. Forget about the bloody bible, look at this."
Tarbuck produced a voluminous volume from under his seat, and then placed a paperback edition on the table.
Harding stared, twisted his head and squinted (Tarbuck was often less than co-operative even when it was in his best interests).
"You could make this a little easier for me by turning it round," but by then, Luke, who could read upside down when the fancy took him, had got the idea. It was a – rather, they were – railway timetables.
Luke stared again, but this time at Tarbuck. Thoughts occurred, feelings welled, understanding dawned.
"You’ve gone mad. I mean madder."
"Arse. Take a look. Look at the simplicity, the symmetry, the FACTS. Look at the – thing!"
Luke picked up the bigger version and nearly dropped it
"Careful, that’s precious – well, expensive."
Tarbuck with unexpected generosity handed Harding the slimmer volume.
"The Selected Numbers…" Harding intoned to himself, thumbing through the guide.
"Westing to Hardinghouse. Lincoln to Stratford. Stevenage to Newton."
Putting the pamphlet on the table, Luke took a seat and reached for the Complete works, opened it at random and began to read aloud:
“SUNDERLAND TO LONDON KINGS CROSS
Monday to Friday
" Eaglescliffe – like the sound of that. "
"Forget the bloody words – just contemplate the numbers!"
"Hmm, riveting ."
"It’s not meant to be riveting. Don’t you see the point? They are facts but not facts …"
"...as we it know it - Jim."
"Shut up. They are related to facts – indeed they are facts, but nothing you could get too worked up about."
"Unless of course you wondered what they were related to."
"But that’s the point! You’re either bothered or you’re not. You either take it as – er,…"
"Yes. Or it just drives you mad. Perfect. "
"Certainly sorts the sheep from the goats."
Harding stared at this troubling, troubled man. He had great affection for Tarbuck – he was subversive in a way that Harding, deep, deep down, truly approved of. He hated all the hidebound organs of the Estate: the Law, Government, and above all his profession with it’s absurd traditions, the florid, creaking verse it used to report the facts. It was true that some writers could pull it off, but too often it was, well, just creaked out and he abhorred it.
Tarbuck on the other hand had brought the literary and labial arts to a point of such aspergian regularity & lucidity that it often achieved the sort of luminescence that could guide the fog-bound voyager back to good sense and sound living.
Luke thought back to the article he had phoned in earlier. It could hardly be turned into numbers, but what about a piece of straightforward prose?
"The Chief Executive, with customary wit, alluded to The Waste Land when commenting on the proposal to introduce 'sleeping policemen' on certain designated routes." Hmmm.
Then he tried the Baudelaire he had quoted earlier:
"What is this island sad and black? - This is Cythera we are told, a country famous in song, an old boys banal Eldorado. Watch out!! After all, it is a poor land." Hmm, well that seemed to survive being prosified without losing much of its integrity and charm.
But numbers- was that going just that little too far?
Then Harding had a brainwave - how about replacing the words with just random syllables, but in perfect metrical form. It wasn't quite what Tarbuck had in mind, but nevertheless ...
"Tarbuck. I've had an idea."
Tarbuck gazed warily as Luke gazed back, as if enamoured – autist or artist, Luke began to suspect that the man might just be a genius.
to be continued ...