A very warm welcome to customers joining at Bad, our next station stop will be…

Those of you who know roughly how my mind works – well, I say mind and (for that matter) works, but we both know those two words are operating well outside their respective comfort zones – will realise that this post will be about verse.  Oh yes, he’s brazenly attempted to gussy-up the hackneyed old “going from bad to verse” pun in the hope of creating some barely viable click-bait.  Then again, if you’re reading this, it may have actually worked.  Go me!

The regular reader will be aware of the start of my unfortunate poetry habit and I regret to inform you that matters have not improved.  I currently seem to be consuming collections of poetry at the rate of one per day.  This may not be entirely healthy and is starting to impact other areas of my life.  It has been good news of J Sainsbury’s plc as their store is more convenient for Octopus Books, where I can go for a new fix of any poesy unavailable from the library, than is Waitrose.  In consequence, they have increased their share of my weekly grocery budget – though oddly, this seems to have coincided with a fall in their share price (should they be paying me to take my custom elsewhere?).

At one point, my need for poetry led to me reading Thom Gunn in the checkout queue.  Not entirely wise as supermarket staff are not trained to understand why tears may be streaking a customer’s cheeks after only a fairly minor delay in the process of paying for his goods.  I have now reverted to stewing in my own thoughts as a more socially acceptable form of waiting.

I don’t claim to understand every line, or even every poem: but enough makes it through my semantic barriers that I can recognise some very compelling writing.  Reading some poetry can almost feel intrusive, almost like reading someone else’s diary (and I don’t just mean a list of appointments), so personal does some of it seem.  There are also some lovely turns of phrase available, one of my favourites is “her petal-bright coat” (by Mark Doty): not sure why, it just feels so good in the mouth.  Actually, along with Thom Gunn, Mr Doty is one of my favourite discoveries – he seems to share a little of my style, with his poems full of the sort of asides that litter GofaDM like spots of used chewing gum.  I’m also rather the fan of Michael Donaghy and Philip Gross – but my range is still expanding.

In an attempt to control the poetry, and very much using the same pest-management strategy that proved so successful for the old woman, I am now attempting to ‘swallow’ some short stories.  I presume I will then have to switch to novellas, followed by novels in an escalating chain of reading that will no doubt result in my eventual demise after trying to tackle the literary equivalent of a horse.  Following a sudden memory restoration, I decided to start this counterattack with some work by Jorge Luis Borges (who I’ve been meaning to tackle for some time).  His works proved tricky to find in the library, being filled under neither L nor B.  Reference to the catalogue revealed they did exist, but were held in the Central Library Stacks.

[Cue spooky music: I’m thinking thunderstorm, heavy rain and some solid work on the organ by someone with a pale complexion, dark clothing and maniacal laugh.]

The library staff were a little reluctant to visit the stacks which lie in the crypt (OK, the basement) beneath the library.  There is some thought that they are haunted after the civic centre (including the library) was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the last unpleasantness and a number of children lost their lives sheltering in what is now the stacks.  There has, indeed, been a strange miasma rising up from the lower floor of the library, but I think this has more to do with recent flooding than an imminent assault by the undead.  Still, they did brave the trip and its potential for spectral complications, returning unharmed from Hades antechamber bearing a copy of Labyrinths for my future enjoyment.

This future enjoyment will be somewhat magnified as my reading glasses have arrived – so if you have any small print which needs reading, I’m your man!  The additional clarity (at close range) is taking a little getting used to – everything seems to be shouting at me – but I’m rather enjoying the blurring effect on my distance vision.  It does give everything the feel of those close-up shots of the female lead in a forties movie – as though through muslin or a thin film of vaseline – which lends an aura of romance to even the most mundane of vistas.

The downside of the reading glasses is the ever-present reminder of the temporal transience of existence (and, in particular, mine).  Here, poetry can be a comfort (so I shall probably stick with it, albeit aiming for a lower dosage): in the words of the aforementioned Mark Doty, “that flower wouldn’t blaze if time didn’t burn”.

Pilgrimage: cancelled

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?