JOHN WHITWORTH, Girlie Gangs, London, Enitharmon 2012, pp. 92, £9.99.
John Whitworth’s tenth collection is as enjoyable as the previous nine, and that should be enough to persuade anyone with any sense to order a copy straightaway. He is one of the most entertaining poets writing in English—along with Wendy Cope and R.S. Gwynn, both of whom profess great admiration for Whitworth. Like them he is a superb technician, and his new book reveals all his skills in the multiple forms that English verse offers. As Whitworth has said, in an illuminating interview with the American poet Walter Ancarrow («Kin Poetry Journal») : «I write in rhyme and metre because... because that is what I do. That is the way poetry presents itself to me. I can't write it any other way.» The poems in the volume are arranged alphabetically by title, and the apparent randomness of this system draws extra attention to the great variety of forms he handles with such apparently effortless skill, as we pass abruptly from what one might term «serious» forms (sonnets, for example) to clearly light ones (say, limericks) and back again in continuation, via pantoums, villanelles, haikus (rhyming ones, of course), ballades...
In the interview with Ancarrow he declares that he has «got out from under the shadow of Philip Larkin.» It would be unwise to take this too seriously, since shadows are not what one first thinks of when reading Whitworth’s early works; nonetheless there is some truth in the statement. Both Larkin and Betjeman (Larkin’s own mentor) clearly lay behind the various societal and satirical poems of his earlier volumes; what we find in this book, as in the one that preceded it, Being the Bad Guy, is a greater indulgence in the pleasure (and sometimes pain) of sheer nonsense. He has freely admitted being drawn to the works of both Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear—the two great Victorian progenitors of the genre; he claims that he is drawn more to the «hard-edged» dryness of Carroll than to the «Tennysonian romantic» wetness of Lear, but there are more than just «flashes of Wetness» (as he himself delightfully puts it) in his most imaginative flights. Such poems as Something Going On, with its refrain, «There’s something going on. You can feel it», are not just extremely inventive («I recollect at random / Grandmother’s trysts with Walter de la Mare / By moonlight on a tandem») but have a quality of genuine mystery that makes both the images and the sounds resonate long in the mind after reading. This is something that is also true of the best of Lear’s poems.
The most famous poem in the book, The Examiners, which won the 2nd Prize in the TLS Poetry Competition in 2007 and has since been anthologised, is a clear example of such eerily memorable works. Once again the poem has a refrain which could hardly be more simple («They are there, they are there, they are there») but which also, in context, becomes insidiously threatening. The comic rhyming in the poem does not detract from this sense of underlying menace but rather contributes a note of obsessive intensity (perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the book actually contains two poems entitled Obsessive Sonnets):
They can parse a Latin sentence; they’re as learned as Plotinus,
They are there.
They’re as sharp as Ockham’s razor, they’re as subtle as Aquinas,
They are there.
They define us and refine us with their beta-query-minus,
They’re the wall-constructing Emperors of undiscovered Chinas,
They confine us, then malign us, in the end they undermine us,
They are there, they are there, they are there.
In the interview with Ancarrow Whitworth says that as he gets older he finds himself «getting quite agreeably madder, like Blake and Yeats and Robert Graves». Larkin’s final poetic silence, he claims, was due to his inability to get madder, which «is why he ended with nothing new to say». There is no doubt that many of the most successful poems in the book have a streak of, if not actual madness, definite eccentricity. In some cases, as in The Examiners, the imaginary world has definite Orwellian undertones; in others, we see Whitworth simply granting unlimited freedom to his relish for word-music and word-play, and following wherever these tendencies take him—often to realms of oneiric enchantment. Some of the poems arise from phrases or slogans that have caught Whitworth’s ear in quite different contexts: a line from an essay by Chesterton («The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese»), a phrase uttered by the jazz-singer George Melly («Sometimes I think that people are dead and they’re not»), Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous description of Byron («For you’re mad, bad and dangerous to know»), the title of a biography («You cannot live as I have lived / And not end up like this»), a rude remark uttered by an Australian cricket-player… Whitworth allows the thematic suggestions and/or the rhythmical impulse of these often puzzling citations to dictate their own weird logic, which he then happily yields to.
As in earlier books ,Whitworth’s fondness for turn-of-the-century thrillers (turn of the previous century, that is) leads him to create imaginative worlds of surreal fascination, in which characters and situations from the works of such varied writers as Conrad, Conan Doyle, Buchan and Sax Rohmer mingle to extraordinary effect, as in the poem with the Sherlockian title: Murky Business at 221B (written, like another poem in the book, in the mesmerizing rhyming tercets invented by Browning for his Toccata of Galuppi’s):
There he lives in wicked splendour in a folly on a hill
With a score of dusky savages, alert to do his will,
An albino Kurdish butler and a mistress from Brazil.
or in the even more elaborate parody, Young Lord Falcon and the Scarlet Woman, in which with great wit and gusto Whitworth outlines the plot of a pre-Dan-Brown conspiracy novel, involving a wicked plot between the Roman Catholics and «the Bolshies and the Huns […] poisoning the notions of our daughters and our sons / With their cheap sophistication and allure…»
As these snippets indicate, one of Whitworth’s great gifts is for parody. A number of these poems were written for the literary competitions of such journals as «Literary Review», «The Oldie» and «The Spectator», which specialise in stylistic and technical challenges. Examples of his skills in such areas are the limerick-versions of the novels of Jane Austen, two Elvis songs re-written by Browning and Swinburne and—an obvious outright winner—Hamlet’s soliloquy as reshaped by W.S. Gilbert. Whitworth, in the interview with Ancarrow, acknowledges the debt he feels to Gilbert, declaring that «The Mikado is the greatest opera written in English since Handel» («admittedly,» he adds, «there isn’t much competition»). It is interesting that the poem of Gilbert’s he most admires is the nightmare song from Iolanthe, which certainly does seem to anticipate some of Whitworth’s more incongruous creations (Gilbert: «But this you can't stand, so you throw up your hand, / And you find you're as cold as an icicle, / In your shirt and your socks (the black silk with gold clocks) / Crossing Salisbury Plain on a bicycle.»). Here are some lines from the new Gilbertian version of «To be or not to be»:
For as everyone knows, Death is merely a doze
And the dozer is calm as a Saint, so
The sleep is quite seamless and painless and dreamless,
Except that it possibly ain’t so.
The poems, of course, will not all exert the same appeal on all readers; there are a few where it might help to share Whitworth’s own enthusiasms—for example, his acrostic eulogy for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, or the ones devoted to the world of cricket. One or two might strike some readers as setting up straw-men targets (So You Wanna Be Free, on free verse, for example). But this is just the flip-side of the variety that is the real strength of the volume. Although the Whitworth voice is unmistakeable, there is in fact a great range of tone in the book. It seems best to conclude by pointing to two of the most successful poems in the book, very different in theme and tone. One is the exuberantly anapaestic poem Walking the Dog, in which his gift for extravagant and unpredictable images and rhymes is applied to the traditional love lyric, as if Cole Porter had collaborated crazily with Edward Lear (there is perhaps also a touch of the hyperbolic Auden of Funeral Blues):
As the North loves a magnet or cops love a dragnet, I love you
In the darks of my heart, in the swells of the wandering wave.
As the Lady loves iron or Baptists love Zion, I love you.
You’re as pure as poitin of Knockeen, and as sure as the grave.
«Cops love a dragnet» just cracked me up.
The last poem in the book, Little, devoted to the death of a disabled child, brings the book to a masterly close. The poem’s success depends entirely on the delicacy and tact of its sounds and pictures. Using the traditional funereal associations of autumn («When Archie died the Year was dying too»), and a subtle combination of extreme monosyllabic simplicity («Some say when Archie died it was not much—/ A boy who did not walk or talk»), and occasional «ink-horn» flourishes («a dry, susurrant sound»; «a strong sufficiency of grief»), Whitworth succeeds in creating an elegiac music that is profoundly moving. I have paid tribute to his technical skills; in the best poems it is clearly far more than just craftsmanship that works its effect on us. In Little the network of sounds (in particular, a subtle weft of alliteration—see, for example, the play on the words «death», «die» and «do/did») evokes all the understated tragedy of this short life: that of a «boy who did not walk or talk» but who «Did love to smile and laugh and look and touch.» In the end it is we who are touched, even as we smile and laugh—and cry.
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