Friday, 6 May 2011

What Does a Poet Look Like?

That was the question posted up on the nicest small bookshop in the world, The Book Hive in Norwich (see my previous plugs for this marvellous store, voted best bookshop in the country last year). The question was asked by the poet Luke Wright and I happened to be the first answer to it today. The second answer will be tomorrow, and so on until Luke's list runs out of poets daft enough to have agreed to be on it. It may of course be possible that some bookshop customers will have glanced at the first option and decided they have seen enough of poets to last them a few years. (Potential conversation: Who's that over there? - Him? That's the poet. - So what does he look like? Couldn't you have got a nicer looking one? - Not at the price... etc)

The minimum demand was to spend an hour in the shop looking like yourself. There was some suggestion on Facebook of velvet jackets, silk cravats and floppy hats but I prefer to be out of uniform. In fact I spent about five hours there from late morning into late-mid afternoon. The ancillary task was to write a poem to go in an anthology.

The first part is relatively easy since the bookshop is gorgeous and full of the most tempting books. I sat on a stool my laptop in front of me, under a shelf starring The Arabian Nights. Some of the time I was translating, and some of the time I was drafting a poem sparked by something in one of the books. Meanwhile Henry, the proprietor, was supplying me with coffee and tea and conversation. The bookshop was busy at times. I am not sure how many people came to look at me, but they were all greeted with affability, some of them enjoying a coffee on the house (Henry's coffee is quite strong). A few authors dropped by, a highly gifted undergraduate, a gifted graduate, a number of young and middle aged to whom the shop was a social port of call at which they might well leave with a book or two (I left with seven at the end.) The arrangement was that I would be picked up by daughter H once she was through at the hairdresser, while C babysat Marlie who will be one tomorrow. The sun shone, the shop was nicely cool, the rhythm of intense work - conversation - drifting - more intense work suits me generally and it suited me here.

At the end Henry asked if I wanted to suggest a table of ten books with some thematic connection for him to display, with a short note on each book. Why not?

This is the poem I was working on: an amateur photograph of a young woman in 1954. Clearly on holiday, she is standing by a door with her friend nearby. Her face is movingly beautiful in a perfectly ordinary way, the merest touch of inwardness, of apprehension or concentration, in her expression. I hang the poem out here to dry.

Our Beautiful Mothers
For Henry Layte

Our beautiful mothers are leaning against a doorway
with windblown hair and a girlish grin.
They are eternal and terrified and slim
with perfect skin.

Our beautiful mothers are clutching towels
on the hotel terrace in their sweet white shoes.
Their friends are tucking their hair up and smiling
with all to lose.

The air is acid and kind and ruthless.
Our beautiful mothers are stuck in 1954,
their hearts hovering, whole and broken,
in the draught, by the door.

I felt it a little like a popular song as heard through the door of a bar.


And daughter points out that Ten Poems About London, to which I wrote an introduction and contributed a new poem was third in the poetry bestsellers list in last Saturday's Guardian. The book appears under my name, but I didn't edit it. That credit is due to the publisher, Jenny Swann. It is a beautiful small book and contains work by Elaine Feinstein, Sarah Wardle, Elizabeth Bartlett, W.S. Graham, A W Stencl, two people called Blake and Wordsworth, and a certain Anon, who looks very like Everyman.


Julia said...

I shall look forward to your table of books at The Book Hive - it's such a good idea - I love to know what books inspire people.

Will Rubbish said...

"For much of male Oxford, especially undergraduate male Oxford, Lord David (Cecil) was a bit of a joke, one with a touch of lower-middle-class resentment often lurking in it. It was not so much the dramatic, Leslie-Howard good looks, nor even the clothes, which were not particularly extravagant, but the mannerisms, the mobile head and floating hands, and above all the voice. John Wain got a lot of both matter and manner with his imitation (appropriated by me without acknowledgement until now) of the opening of a standard Cecil lecture: 'Laze... laze and gentlemen, when we say a man looks like a poet...dough mean...looks like Chauthah... dough mean... looks like Dvyden... dough mean...looks like Theckthpym (or something else barely recognisable as "Shakespeare")...Mean looks like Shelley (pronounced "Thellum" or thereabouts). Matthew Arnold (then prestissimo) called Shelley beautiful ineffectual angel Matthew Arnold had face (rellentando) like a horth. But my subject this morning is not the poet Shelley. Jane... Austen..."

From Kingsley Amis, Memoirs London 1991 p.101

George S said...

I've sketched out a list, Julia.

Welcome, Will! Reading Kingsley Amis! The poem in the blog was originally titled A Bookshop Idyll: Our Beautiful Mothers.

'A Bookshop Idyll' is a good funny poem by Amis, asking the question:

'Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart / Or squash it flat?'

The question is the answer in this case.

Will Rubbish said...

Well, I went back and reread Amis' poems in response, and I agree with what Philip Larkin said about his Auden-succeeding compilation: with so many poets, the one good poem is so superb that you read the rest, hoping for more. But there's only one "winner".

"Bookshop" really is Amis's only winner. But what a poem to write, if you will only ever write one. It's so thrillingly close to the bone, so worth disagreeing with, so spare compared with more recent poems that are perhaps written for an audience rather than a readership. Modern poetry, as you know, is often composed to be spoken, and Amis was one of the last outright poets-to-read. It wouldn't work out loud.

George S said...

That's about the size of it, Will. The rest, as I remember it, is pretty well fribble.