I should warn you that during this post I will be writing about poetry. This may be uncomfortably similar to seeing a dog explain the Schleswig-Holstein problem through the medium of interpretive dance. Still, nothing ventured! (The saying does stop there, doesn’t it?)
My life (or at least some of it) is forged from the serendipity of discovered links, like a particularly flimsy chain. This is part of broader attempt to escape the surly bonds of solipsism that can inflict upon the single life an excess of self-programmed activity. Of course, the desire to follow links derives from the self, but its results seem suitably chaotic to satisfy for the time being.
On Monday I once again wandered up to the Common with my MP3 player to enjoy the autumnal sunshine (sadly, there was no soft ice cream to be had) and a little intellectual stimulation. I returned with a need to read the poetry of Zaffar Kunail and The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (the blame for which respectively lie with The Verb and John Gray’s Point of View). So yesterday, I visited the library to attempt to sate these needs (which, I imagine, lie at the very summit of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – probably perched atop a tall pole). Sad to report that the library could supply neither work and nor, this afternoon, could Waterstones.
However, having found and then entered the otherwise deserted poetry department of Southampton Central Library, it seemed churlish to leave empty-handed. Through Ian McMillan, I had encountered his son (Andrew) and I recently heard him reading from his first poetry collection on The Echo Chamber on Radio 4. I was impressed and acquired the collection, entitled Physical, though through sheer devilment bought it as an e-book so that it was anything but physical. I remembered that Andrew was a fan of Thom Gunn and so picked up a copy of his The Passages of Joy from the library as a little background reading. I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy this and thought it might be heavy going, so also picked up Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis by Wendy Cope which I hoped might provide some light relief. I thought I might alternate and so retain my current tenuous grip on the concept of joie-de-vivre. One was marked as a Poetry Society Choice and the other as a Poetry Society Recommendation: which, I wonder, is the higher accolade?
I have generally found it tricky to read much poetry at a single sitting – perhaps because it is rather too rich a broth for me or (more likely) because I am a very poor reader of poetry. In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “he don’t know me very well, do he?”. It was only by the application of iron self-control that any of the Thom Gunn was left to finish off this morning – and the last of the Cope followed very soon after. Wendy was the lighter of the two writers, though still capable of seriousness, and did highlight my serious lack of general knowledge in the field of poesy (luckily, I’m a good guesser and had acquired some vague idea of The Wasteland by osmosis).
Thom Gunn was a writer of amazing power and his work managed to overcome its dreadful recitation (by me) to bring the occasional tear to my eye. Against a very strong field, my highlights were probably Song of a Camera and Interruptions. The book was an old one: it has been with the library since autumn of 1982 (and was looking good for its 33 years). As a result, it still had a record of its early borrowings: a steady (if small) handful per year in the eighties but it went untouched from June 1994 to January 2002: were these dark years for poetry on the south coast? Some side-shoot of millennial angst? I don’t know its history since library computerisation, but I had been assuming mine were the first hands to touch it in a while. However, when I returned to the library seeking more of Mr Gunn this afternoon, I discovered that the only other of his works they held was “out on loan”! Moreover, this loan should have ended on 4 June – I can only assume the borrower cannot bear to be parted from it and is willing to risk appalling overdue fines (and worse) to indulge his (or her) love.
I had assumed Thom was an American, but he was in fact born on these shores – at the other end of the 326 bus route to where I spent much of my own childhood (though I never took the 326 to the end of the line: Gravesend always had such a terminal sense of finality about it). A sequence of poems recalled his time living in London as a young man and I had planned a pilgrimage to Talbot Road to see his digs. However, by the end of the sequence I discovered that he had done the same and they had been demolished (clearly, no later than 1982) and so my literary excursion has been put on ice.
Still, I was once again in the poetry section and remained unable to leave without giving at least one of the works a day out. The Andrew McMillan edition of The Echo Chamber was shared with Mark Doty, so one of his works (Atlantis) has come home with me (plus another Wendy Cope and a Helen Dunmore – well, the gaps in my poetry knowledge aren’t going to fill themselves).
It would seem that in avoiding the snare of my nascent short story habit, I have fallen into serious poetry addiction. Is there a vaping equivalent for verse? Or will I be reliant on poetry patches or Gunn gum?