Saturday, 25 July 2009

On Poetry and Vacuum Pumps

I woke up bright and bushy this morning, played a game of wardrobe lottery and emerged a winner in a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a shirt with Gladstone collar and generous tie, all topped off with my favourite black beret. A quick look in the mirror and two snaps of my fingers later, I sloped off down the stairs, turned right at the weights room, went down the corridor past the swimming pool, arboretum, and tanning salon, and made a sharp left into the kitchen.

‘Morning Jude,’ I said to Mrs. M as I slid to a halt in front of the fridge.

Judy was sitting at the Formica work surface, her old vacuum cleaner dismantled before her and a vacuum pump held to her lips. When she replied, she made a sound not unlike a Clanger addicted to morphine.

‘I know what you’re saying,’ I said as I cracked open the Zanussi, ‘but Fate has ordained that I’m wearing a beret today.’

She gave another toot at the pump’s inlet valve.

‘You could say that but let’s see what the day has in store.’

Toot, toot!

‘Nonsense!’ I replied. ‘It’s not certain that Jeremy Kyle would ever say that, even if he did breed budgerigars...’

No matter how much you try to keep the small talk going with a person speaking through a dismantled dust manifold, there is only so much of it you can take. This is especially true of a woman whose lungs have been hardened by years of trombone practice. Some of the sounds Judy made were like a duck armed with a megaphone. It wasn’t long before I realised that eating breakfast in the kitchen was not for me or my beret.

Seeking a little P and Q in the garden, I took my toast, orange juice, and my copy of ‘The Guardian’ to the shade of Judy’s new trampoline. There, to the distant sounds of nozzle flushing, I ate my breakfast, read the paper, and tried to discover what the day had in store.

It didn’t take long to figure out why Providence had ordained that I should be wearing my beret on a Saturday. Once I was done with the Swine Flu update and cheering Jeremy Clarkson’s attack on Gordon Brown, I paged through to the arts section and discover a selection of poems about Iraq commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy. But don’t you worry, kind reader! I’ll mercifully quote only one stanza from ‘Big Ask’, the only poem in the selection written by our new poet laureate:

Guantanamo Bay - how many detained?
How many grains in a sack?
Extraordinary Rendition - give me some names.
How many cards in a pack?
Sexing the Dossier - name of the game?
Poker. Gin Rummy. Blackjack.

Now, as you know, I’m something of a poet myself; or should I say, I’ve been writing under the pseudonym, Gus Scrottee, for some months now. And by the time I’d finished reading Duffy’s latest, I’d stuffed my beret in my mouth to stifle the cries of anguish that would have otherwise ruined the quiet of the morning in our undisclosed part of North London.

I don’t mean to be pedantic or to criticise somebody trying their best but what sort of question is ‘how many grains in a sack’? Would that be grains of corn or grains of rice? And how big is the sack? Bigger than a gentleman’s sack, a swag bag sack, a sack of coal, the sack of Rome in 1527? Even when she has a chance to be clear about a detail, she waddles off, her pockets full of abstraction.

‘How many cards in a pack’? asks Carol Ann. Well, there are normally 52 but are we going to count the jokers? Or are we talking about Tarot cards (there are 78) or a deck of Italian cards which contain 40?

I’m often asked why the old book club hasn’t included any of Ms. Duffy’s work and this is the reason why. You won’t find this vague speculation in David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’, even when he’s talking about clouds at a very high altitude. And you certainly don’t find this kind of confused thinking in Kate Mosse’s ‘Labyrinth’, even if it was about David Bowie leading a Fraggle Army.

The rest of the commissioned poems were little better and made me realise how far poets are from ordinary, down-to-earth people such as ourselves and Judy. But why should poetry be something for the privileged classes? Why must it be highbrow and elitist? And why shouldn’t poetry be written by a handsome TV presenter wearing a black beret while sitting beside a trampoline as his wife plays tunes on the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner?

No sooner had I reached this conclusion than I moistened the nib of my pen and sat down to scribble my own poem inspired by recent events. It is my gift to you, this fine Saturday morning, and my gift to the world.

Uncle Dick Madeley’s Meditation On Responses To Tragic Events Across The Globe But More Specifically In Iraq By Contemporary Poets; Inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s Poem ‘Big Ask’ And Written After Eating A Slice Of Toast Whilst Sitting In The Shade of Judy’s Trampoline

I remember
thinking I should write
a poem about Iraq when
my wife told Englebert
Humperdink that she believed
he had the best horn section
in popular jazz. He
thanked her and I thought
I glimpsed mortality
in the damp spall cast from
his eye; the vague sense
that having the best horn
section in popular jazz
was to be his legacy,
like George W.’s legacy
was not a popular horn
section but the war in Iraq.

Oh Iraq! You have seen
the best and worst of us,
requiring the occasional
random italicising
as if to say this is
more meaningful
than any of the other
evils that the world
has to offer, such as
swine flu, recession,
the new series of
Top Gear on BBC2,
Peter Andre’s next
album or Real Madrid’s
transfer policy in the
summer of 2009.
Such terrors demand that
I randomly insert some
glib violence of mine:
the blood smearing my
hands from when I
butchered an onion.

Although the cut was little
compared to the blood in
Iraq, it was making my
italicised lunch that day
that first convinced
me that I understood
your suffering. From the
heart of NW3, I now see that
no war is exotic and all
wars taste of crimson cheese
and the bloody onion.

Oh! The brutality of America
that I like to attack because
they are not like we English
but powerful and full of evil,
except for ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’,
‘24’, and ‘Prison Break’.
However, quality TV comedy
and drama does not atone for
the B-52s (the aircraft not the
New Wave rock band) and
the evils done by your
helpfully rhyming hand.

And so Judy, the vacuum
bugle blows and
my poem ends
with some trite sense
of resolution, perhaps
written as though I’ve
left my elbow on the
keyboard, which conveys
the sense that I have
suffered because I know
how to strangely enjamb
a line, which is rather like
saying ‘we’ll see you after
the break’ or ‘in next
week’s show...’ before
eventually our season
ends and silently to writing
Daily Express columns we go.


Anonymous said...

Too often poetry fails to reach the deepest emotions of the reader.

Your writing has stimulated feelings within my soul that have not been exposed since that tragic day in 2001.


Uncle Dick Madeley said...

Thank you, Anonymous. It was Wordsworth who wrote that poetry is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Well, I believe in the shadow of Judy’s new trampoline, I found that tranquillity and powerful feelings plunged me into waters too deep even for the readership of ‘The Guardian’s arts section to appreciate. I am glad they were mere shallows to you.

Of course, I should confess that having read all the poems in The Guardian’s arts section this morning, I couldn’t make nor tail from them. Others clearly have trampolines which cause them feelings so powerful that they plunge into waters too deep for me.

banana_the_poet/Michele Brenton said...

Good one! I love your poetry!
Almost as much as I love my own poetry - which is a lot :)

Have one just for you and just for now:

How many poets does it take to write a poem?
As many dogs as in a doggerel.
How many old ladies were locked in a lavatory?
I think it was three in one particular boggerel.
How much longer can I write in this vein?
Not much longer if I want to stay sane.

Uncle Dick Madeley said...

Banana, I was moved by that final couplet. It is so few of us who are brushed with this gift (or in my case, doused in the stuff).

Keep on writing. Remember: you're only a few thousand rhymes away from having the next 'Waste Land' on your hands.

Dame Crusty Gusset said...

Uncle Dick, your poetry is sublime and I felt intense stirrings whilst reading.

I too can empathise with the lovely Judy regarding her vacuum problem. One once spent many hundreds of Her Majesty's pounds on a Kirby vacuum cleaner. The salesman assured me it had a 12" vibrating, deep-penetrating head ... alas, to this day one hasn't found it; well, at least the carpets are clean, so every cloud and all that... DCG x