a heart-rending tale of missing poem parts
KUBLA ENIGMA CODE CRACKED: a hugely magnified sampling of Alfie Broughton's urinary tract, cryogenically preserved in a standard-issue baking tray widely available in all reputable hardware stores
The chance discovery of a cache of poem parts, stored on rackety open shelves in insanitary conditions at a Portakabin in West Wales leased to the University of Aberystwyth from a local hill farmer whose literary reputation is apparently based on nothing more solid than a brief appearance in the Forward Book of Poems of the Year (1979), has led to an astonishing re-evaluation in the field of Coleridge studies.
One of these fragments, we understand, is a continuation of 'Kubla Khan' (which is itself a great and maddening fragment) by the great English Romantic poet and blabber-mouth Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It seems that the story of the Man from Porlock was nothing but a piece of egregious mythmaking - in common with much so called literary history.
Once discovered, the entire stinking, curly-edged batch was spirited away in an unmarked van to Sotheby's Literary Depository in Shepherd's Bush. Within minutes of its arrival there, the Coleridge fragment was sold on to a manuscript collector in South Korea who owns a chain of supermarkets specialising in inflatables. This means that unless the owner chooses to permit us so to do, we shall never be allowed to read how Coleridge continued the poem - nor shall we be able to profit by his characteristically copious footnotes, hem, hem.
Fortunately, the Bow-Wow Shop was on hand on that wretched mid-morning in mid-Wales to discuss the entire matter with one of the security personnel dozing at the Portakabin just moments before the tranche of invaluable manuscript parts disappeared.
The story runs - more scampers than runs - as follows. You may remember these celebrated lines from Kubla Khan:
Where Alph the sacred river ran
From caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...
Many are those who have speculated on the mythical reverberations of the name of that sacred river. No more. We understand that Alfie Broughton had long been in the employ of Sir Lionel Coleridge, S.T.C.'s cousin, as sommelier and fish-gutter. There was no love lost between poet and retainer. One afternoon, Alfie suffered irreversible damage at the local blacksmith's shop in the course of a delicate operation to correct the flow of the urinary tract. Some might regard that as a tragedy - not so S.T.C. The poor man's situation was later immortalised in the lines of relentless lampooning which we have just quoted.
It is not only the literary community which is up in arms about the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of the manuscript. S.T.C.'s great-great-great niece, Steffi Coleridge, a socialite, smack-head, and amateur philologist who is currently said to live in a cold-water walk-up in Koblenz, describes herself as 'gutted' by the loss. Copies of Steffi's Trogs, Tricksters, Trannies and other Mobsters are still widely available from Amazon.
[Due to a brilliant feat of mediumistic intercession, we are privileged to read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's own words on the person and historical circumstances of Kubla Khan - see TOM LOWENSTEIN's page elsewhere in this issue.]
Solemn Anniversary of Poetry Paralympiad Announced
10 July 2072
Poets of every denomination and none will be gathering in London and elsewhere this summer for a service to mark the fortieth anniversary of the London Poetry Paralympiad which, you may recall, was last remembered here in late July of 2032. That event itself represented a significant attempt to mark the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy of July 2012, which is still etched, deeply and poisonously, into almost all our folk memories.
This year no participants will be required to travel at all. Dusty sackloads of Sweet Poetry Cakes will be delivered on lorries to designated collection points near art centres throughout the country. (A second generous sponsor - this one from Denver, Colorado - has provided thousands of shrink-wrapped, gallon-size buckets of freshly quaffable, hormonally-enriched Pome-ade). As before, inside each of the cakes a line from one of our favourite poems will be embedded. These too will be edible. Judges will be on hand to test the credibility of those versifiers who rashly claim to have ingested more than two dozen of these bloated hills of sheer gorgeousness. Only one Super-Size Poetry Cake will be made available at any given venue. Demand for it will be high. We recently discovered the reason for this disappointing decision. The woman (a part-time tour guide by profession), who had agreed to etch the entire first book of Paradise Lost into countless especially thin and shapely lengths of customised licorice, was recently savaged by a sweet-toothed pit bullock which, until that moment, had been browsing, perfectly harmlessly, close to the barbed perimeter fence of the disused colliery, whose custodian she had been since the sudden death of her late husband's favourite canary.
The Backyard Poetry Scene
Rainer Maria Rilke at Schloss Duino during the writing of his immortal elegies
Even the very best of us can spend our wretched days flinging out scraps of ill-formed - and ill-informed, it has to be said - information. Only the other morning, I was lovingly burnishing with the eye the last word of the last line of a sestet of a sonnet when a group of unsteady rowdies of a certain age came banging on the window with their cloth bags - all monogrammed The London Library, I noticed, irefully - weighted with the literary equivalent of a brace of house bricks.
Where is the poetry scene? they kept on baying and crooning, as they crunched the shards of the erstwhile Georgian skylight beneath their Cuban heels. Good question, I replied, pointing them in the general direction of Highbury Corner.
It is a good question though. Where in the world is the poetry scene these days? Is it everywhere or nowhere? Scousers say Liverpool, Mancunians Manchester... From recent evidence, I would suggest that the poetry scene is in a very particular place indeed: every poet's own backyard.
Well, where else would it be? No one creates a scene for himself but the poet himself. Who else would care enough? Who else even knows what he is writing about? It's not as though poets set out to write something attention-grabbing such as the illustrated history of the pencil. Frankly, when push comes to shove, there is none other available to do all the labouring and the shouting and the unseemly special pleading.
Each man is his own entrepreneur. They take delivery of their own books, blocking the hall, until that moment, two years hence, when the remainder lorry - oh, most blessed of sights! - comes chuntering along. They organise the reading at the cheapest semi-smart venue they can find within reasonable commuting distance of their oldest, semi-infirm groupie. They send out the invitations, and then send them out twice more. They fix the reviewer with a bottle of half-decent single malt - or its equivalent. And on the day itself, at that early-evening hour - it's always early because so many of the attendees have to get tucked up in bed fairly sharpish by their minders - they herd them in the door, tip the wink to the bored security man to smoothly turn the key in the lock, offer the first half-glass free, ear-bang for upwards of twenty-five minutes, and then, having swapped the biro for the duration with a generous friend's Mont Blanc, they sit at the heaped table (carefully blocking the exit) with the magic pen raised for the application of the blessed signature:Good luck to you, funsters all, make of it what you will! Enjoy all the white space!
What a game! What a wonderland to be alive in! The other day I was at a reading at the South Bank Centre. The place was packed. We all knew why. The first six pages of the long poem that the cheeky T.S.Eliot Award refusenik read from consisted of the names of one hundred and twenty-six Premier League Heroes, each one of them lovingly laboured over in the mispronunciation. There was not a dry eye in the house, especially when the images were flashed up on the big screen. Imagine what size the audience would have been if they'd been the names of some fuddy-duddy ancient Greeks.
So perhaps poetry is all about naming. But not just any name, of course. Your own. Those sparkling others. It's all in the kickabout showbiz really.
Riffing on Lear
Who in the world does not adore Edward Lear, that nonsensical poet who is celebrating his 200th birthday this year? Just a few weeks ago, a reading was held in his honour at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Lear was there in person, of course, shaking hands with John Donne and other two-faced prelates, and briefly nodding in the direction of John Milton, who looked as alarmingly poker-faced as ever. Speaking of various poetical Johns, readers of the interview with John Ashbery in this issue will discover that the Sage of Hudson can be numbered amongst that great company of admirers too. That is why the reference to chocolate shrimps has wriggled its sticky-fingered way into the title of the interview.
Speaking of sages, how old would Lear really have been at the age of 200? No, that is not a ridiculous question. Anyone who has looked carefully at surviving photographic portraits of the man will have noticed that he always looked far, far older than his years - such is the sad burden of uninterrupted laughter, as so many clowns will surely be the first to agree. Yes, if Lear looked as if he was pushing 75 when he reached the age of about 37, is it not beyond dispute that his face at the age of 200 would surely have resembled that of a man of at least 450...
Difficult to prove, of course, but certainly not beyond the imaginative reach of the many artists who recently mounted an exhibition of drawings and paintings in tribute to the great man at the Poetry Society's Cafe in Betterton Street, Covent Garden. The cartoon on this page by Glen Baxter is amongst them.
You can see images of a wide selection of them on our Lear page in this issue, and also a reminder of what Lear regarded as the real work, which was to strive to become a notable Victorian painter of landscape of a relatively conventional kind. Examples of some of these often rather stiff and sombre works - including a marvellous painting of two feathers - have recently been on display at the Fine Art Society in Bond Street.
Yes, Lear sits quite well, quite stolidly, within the context of Victorian landscape painting, but he soars far above it when he makes us laugh forever and a day. Don't you agree with me, you children of all ages, heavily bearded or otherwise?
The Thrill of Uncharted Waters
We always feel so pleased when we don't quite know where we are going with a poem. Don't you agree? There we are, rowing away pluckily, amidst an ever rising tide of words. Will we find yourself overwhelmed before we ever reach the farther shore? How much bucking and rolling can we tolerate? Quite a lot.
It would be so much worse, wouldn't it, if we knew where we were going, and how we were going to get there. Just to imagine the very possibility causes us - and you too? - to be overwhelmed by tedium. The thing is that you never really know until you arrive, and it is for this reason that you wake up with an appetite for the journey at all.
The worst thing in the world would be to write political poetry. You know its beginning, middle and end even before you set down the first windily exhortatory word. In fact, any particular word is neither here nor there. It's what you are due to say about the terrible gravity of the injustice of the world that really counts, the incontrovertible message upon which we know we all agree anyway. How marvellous to be a poet like that! How easy!
And yet perhaps, perhaps...it would not be easy at all. It might prove so difficult to wake yourself up from sleep, day after day, if you were a political poet. Yes, how terrible it would be to wake up from sleep, and know with such cast-iron assurance how the poetry day was going to proceed. Better not to have been born at all perhaps. Or not to have been born a poet anyway.
Once upon a time, dear old Ezra Pound - remember him? - seemed to be yawping and posturing in just about every poets' saloon bar in the land, editing this, pronouncing on that, telling us what to read, how to write, reminding us what a bunch of semi-educated idiots we all were. He never stopped until death tripped him up. That was in 1972. He was back living in Venice by then. The tussle between wife and mistress that had been grinding on for almost half a century had finally concluded with a decisive victory for the mistress, Olga Rudge. She even wangled a grave plot next to his, in San Michele, the cemetery island just across the water.
It all seems so long ago, all that kerfuffle. Remember when Donald Davie, some time in the middle seventies, referred to the Pound Industry? It's more of a cottage industry these days. So we thought it might be high time to re-open the file and take another look by asking ourselves such questions as these: what did we see in him? What was the fuss all about? And why aren't we reading him so much now? There's a great deal of him to encompass. He sprawled all over the place. It may take a little while. Look out for him in this issue - and in future issues. He'll be returning to haunt us all.
Ezra circled and circled the subject of money. You could say that money coursed in his blood. Not that he came from an especially wealthy family. His father was an assistant assayer of the Philadelphia Mint with a life-long fascination for coins and coinage. He would weigh coins in the palm of his hand, assessing their worth. Ezra himself was often quite short of money. In a letter of 1916, he told James Joyce that he had earnt just £45 that year. In spite of the fact that he himself was often in financial straits, he spent a great deal of selfless time raising money for others - writers, for example, who, in his opinion, should be free of financial burdens. In that same year, he was instrumental in persuading the British Government to pay a Civil List pension of £100 to an unpublished Irish writer who was living in exile in Trieste. That man was James Joyce.
Money was also an increasing source of torment to Ezra. Little by little the use and misuse of money came to dominate his thinking. The lyric poet went into deep freeze. The political spilled over into the personal. Ezra, like any right-thinking individual, knew that money underpinned everything, that every human being on earth needed money to stay alive, that there was no literary production without money, no free-floating aesthetic world that was not finally made possible by hard lucre. Writers were supported by patrons. There had always been an inextricable link between high culture and high finance. Picture frames came gilded at a price. The great patrons of the arts in Florence during the Renaissance had themselves been bankers. So money had its place. What troubled Ezra was the mis-use of money by those who saw the amassing of money as an end in itself. At that point the world begins to fall apart.
In Ezra's opinion, that happened during his own lifetime. The issue buzzed and buzzed inside his brain like a monstrous plague of flies. He could write and think about little else. His own world fell apart. He tumbled headlong into a kind of unreason. During the last ten years of his life, he barely said a word. Remorse for his errors and misjudgements sat on him like an elephant.
Carpe Diem: a free gift from Britain's greatest living painter
Sometimes readers of this online magazine strike gold. Today is such a day. Congratulations. The reason for this heartening development relates to the painting you can see at the head of these few words of tender explication. Let me describe the situation a little more fully.
The painter David Hockney recently found himself the beneficiary of an entire chorus line of praise from the press in the United Kingdom. He had mounted a huge show of recent paintings of the landscapes of East Yorkshire at London's Royal Academy. The show was a rollicking, no-holds-barred favourite with the general public - 600,000 visitors. Not bad for an old Royal Academician, he later told The Bow-Wow Shop. At this point of success, the British press crowned him Britain's greatest living artist. What an accolade! And what a remarkable comeback for a man whose latest London gallery show had received just one notice in the national press. Such are the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune. Now you too - all of you - are due to become the beneficiaries of Mr Hockney generosity. Here's what happened to make this dream come true.
In the late autumn of last year, just as the leaves were beginning to turn in every writer's notebook, Mr Hockney sent a gift of an IPad drawing to the editor of this magazine, courtesy of the Royal Academy's press office. We recently asked him whether we could share this gift with our readers. He said yes. As you will already have noticed, this is a drawing of traffic travelling North on one of our major arterial roads - in fact, our very first arterial road. Mr Hockney has given this drawing to us. We are now gifting it to you. You are free to download it at your leisure, and even to sign it if you so wish - though we do not recommend that you then try to pass it off as one of your own - or one of his. We would not want you, at the encouragement of this magazine, to stray into the murky world of criminality. This may be the first and last Hockney that you will ever own. Cherish it - and remember us for all that we have done for you.