In this month’s blog, Lucy Mangan muses on her tumultuous relationship with rhyming verse, from her father’s lyrical outbursts to her teenage poetic epiphany.
When I was little, my exposure to poetry comprised the orange-spined anthology of comic verse that contained the story of the common cormorant, or shag, who – I believed quite sincerely at the time, because you require a decent sense of the world before you begin to locate the nonsense in it – lays eggs inside a paper bag (the reason why, you will see no doubt / It is to keep the lightning out), the boy who stood on the burning deck (feet full of blisters, ruined pants, has to wear sister’s), and the immortal tragedy of Billy, who in one of his brand new sashes, fell in the fire and was burned to ashes. “And now,” my father would intone sorrowfully, “although the room grows chilly / We haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy.” One of Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes, I would discover later, and not to be taken much more seriously than the bears who come along with buns and steal the common cormorant’s bags to hold the crumbs. (They all belong to Christopher Isherwood, by the way, a fact I was not expecting.)
But what of the poem that existed outside the book? The one that my father would suddenly draw himself up to his full four feet seven in height and declaim in a bloodcurdling fashion to which the paltry resource of the printed word can do no justice and which went thus:
“I do not like thee, Doctor Fell…”
[Inserts pause that rolls out to just short of the crack of doom while his six-year-old daughter whitens with terror.]
“The reason why, I cannot tell…”
[Why? Why not? Forbidden to utter it? Bound by the doctor’s illimitably evil powers? What was the reason? Imagination supplied a thousand unwanted possibilities during another lengthy pause as my knees buckled and I fell quietly to the floor.]
“But this I know…”
[Quivering daughter curls herself into the foetal position and dreams of a life a long, long way from here]
“And know full well…”
[Dad’s voice drops an octave and he goes full Olivier]
“I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.”
Hours later, Mum would pass me still gibbering on the floor and shout at me lovingly until mental equilibrium was restored.
Childhood is hard. But we mustn’t blame poetry entirely. (Martial epigrams translated by satirical poet Tom Brown in 1680 and weaponised by cruel fathers three hundred years later are a special case.)
Nursery then nonsense rhymes are how most of us first meet poetry. Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter (illustrations even scarier than Olivier-mode dads, poems themselves just slightly less bowel-loosening), Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, then on into more modern practitioners of the art of nonsense, or simply funny poetry – Dr Seuss, Spike Milligan, Shel Silverstein, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and that well-known lunatic Michael Rosen. And it all generally slips down a treat.
I hit a problem when I met non-nonsense, non-funny verse. I didn’t know what was going on. You could sit me down all day in front of anything from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses to Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes’ famous anthology The Rattle Bag and it would stir in me nothing but bafflement, hostility and, soon, fury. I wanted to beckon teachers over and ask them why, if this person had something serious they wanted to say, they didn’t write it down in proper sentences so that we could all understand it? “I don’t know the word ‘prose’”, my ten year old self would like to have said, “But that’s what I’d like to see here, you get me?”
And that was pretty much where my feelings about poetry remained until, during my A-levels, I came across the poetry from the first world war. Yes, I was a cliché – Rupert Brooke, so beautiful! Wilfred Owen, so doomed! Siegfried Sassoon, so nearly court-martialled, so brave, and so right! My resulting essay should have been shot for disservices to literature, but it was at least heartfelt. I saw, at last, what poetry is designed to do. It’s designed to evoke. To compress, distil and evoke where prose would explain, lay bare and dissipate. Poems can bear a greater load than prose. Sometimes they can help us bear the unbearable.
The fact that “light” verse does all this distilling and evoking too, along with twisting and refracting language until you see that anew as well, AND is funny, is a triumph and a measure of talent we shall have to come back and boggle at another time.
I’d love to be able to say that Sassoon et al were the beginning of a long and beautiful journey further into poetry. It wasn’t – largely because emotions frighten and disturb me and I put a lot of effort in life into avoiding them wherever possible. I accidentally came across Housman’s “He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?” the other day – four lines, everything anyone’s ever felt in unrequited love – and it nearly broke me. I’m happier reading the silly stuff to my four-year-old son and marvelling at the technique underlying the tomfoolery at the the moment than I am at seeking out the serious. Maybe as he grows up we can try it together. If he lives through Granddad’s rendition of Doctor Fell, of course.
The new set of Puffin Poetry books are out now.