Thursday, 6 August 2009

Occasional verse

My father's 85th, almost seven years ago. My brother, his wife, our daughter (pink haired at that time), my father and our son.

My father will be ninety-two Saturday after next but we - that is to say C and I, as well as my brother and his partner, and my stepmother's daughter and her husband - are going down this Sunday to celebrate it in an Italian restaurant nearby. The grandchildren will come a fortnight later.

My father finds it hard to walk any distance now. He wants to show me photographs, many, if not necessarily all of which, I will already have seen. Like many people of his age he wants to know that things are where they belong.

As for me, I do what I always do on occasions like this - on birthdays, anniversaries - I write something. My father is not up to complex verse in complex language. For that reason most years I have written him a humorous rhyme with just enough seriousness in it to give it substance, and just enough in it for me too, so that I feel I am discovering something, however small, in the writing. I forbid myself doggerel. I am, after all, a writer, a poet, and what I write must be well written. It must be a kind of serious, proper light verse, with some pride in the making of it.

This year I have stayed with the rhyme and the simple song structure but have written something that is not funny but as true as I can get a simple song to be. In other words it had to carry me along. The truth of it had to take me by surprise. I had to believe in it as I was writing because any loss of belief in the process and the poem would just stop. So I think I have written him a good poem. Of a type, no doubt, a certain kind of good poem, but still a poem. Not a cliché. I will not allow myself to write clichés. I won't put the poem up now, but later, only once he himself has read it.

Two thoughts on this.

First, that it seems to me right, one of the proper uses of poetry, addressing each other in such a way on such occasions. Some poets feel it must be the worst kind of verse. Death of Princess Di stuff. The sentimental garbage of sentimental minds. Poetry is not for this, they declare. It is for itself. It is for a harder, drier, cleaner, more remote, more disinterested, more abstruse kind of purpose that is, in its own way, more real and more true. And, to some degree, I agree with them. I love Wallace Stevens. I appreciate John Ashbery. I love much of Pound and adore Beckett. I like experimental verse and all kinds of Oulipan games. I spring out of Modernist roots. But I have a certain idea of what it is to be human, and an important part of that is the belief that in most important aspects I am no different from other human beings. That part of humanity is a certain courtesy: that it is not patronising or degrading to address those you are talking to as they might want to be addressed. I am not an Olympian.

Secondly, that there are - that there must be- ways of keeping the human fresh. There must be registers, notes, verbal gestures, that are wholly new yet strike one as if they might always have been there, only hiding. Beauty is a strange, all but intangible term. By beauty I don't mean a superior form of prettiness. I mean exactly what Stevens and Ashbery and Beckett, and all that lot were aiming it. Some clean, unsmudged, pure verbal monument through which life seems to pass, leaving us breathless. Something that doesn't lie. So I want to make something beautiful in that sense.

Just this. A beauty that is only seen on Olympus doesn't move me. Mountain scenery is fine but I like the peopled valleys. I don't think Beckett and Pound and Stevens are up there. I think they are here, on the same ground I am trying to cultivate. I don't want to avoid getting my hands dirty. Almost all my best late work has been occasional. The hands dirty but still finding things.

Meanwhile, a new wrestling poem on the front.

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