Wednesday 11 February 2015

A gentleman and a poet

A number of times recently I have found myself acting as The Spouse at my wife's formal events.  It is not hard.  I can do it.

At one such event, a young woman came and sat next to me and said, 'Are you the gentleman who is a poet?'

Where to begin?  With John Ball, perhaps, and William Morris:

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?

Is a gentleman simply some man who has stolen our assets?  Or, another introduction to the delicate weave of English culture around that word, Elizabeth Bennett, during that walk in the wilderness, confronts Lady Catherine de Bourgh, on rumours of an engagement:  'He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal.'  Would I, by accepting that word, be claiming equality with Colin Firth?

Many times in the day, of course, I am relieved to accept the categorisation.  Recalling, then, Jonathan Miller on that 'unpunctuated motto', 'Gentlemen lift the seat'.  'Is it a sociological description - a definition of a gentleman which I can either take or leave?'

(Kate Bassett, In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller, 2014, reminds us that the quote comes from the monologue about trousers lost on London's railways.)

Moving along, to the second part of the question...  It is true that I have written and do write poetry.  For example, I did write an elegant villanelle when I was wooing my wife.  These things are unavoidable.

And it is true that I have published Love Death And Whiskey, a book of my song lyrics.

In my own world I make a distinction between my song lyrics and my poems. Simply put, a song lyric is a thing of gaps, gaps for other creative people to fill.  But people have chosen to speak of my song lyrics as 'poetry'.  Terry Jones, on Amazon and on Twitter, said of my book, ' a great book for those nervous of poetry. They are simply wonderful lyrics...'   If we analyse this deeply (everything said by Terry Jones can be analysed deeply...) there seems to be some sort of problem around 'poetry' that my work addresses.

Sometimes people have said to me that they like my 'poems', and I have tried to explain my song/poem distinction - thereby, absurdly, quarrelling with people who like my work.  Some have fought back, gamely, reading out loud my own work to me, in order to prove to me that my song lyrics are 'poems'.  At this point it is clear that I have misunderstood the argument, and should just shut up.

Yet, readers of this blog will know that I am uncomfortable with some of the exercises required of a 'poet' - see below, by way of contrast, my happy encounter with Laurie Lee.

Would I be happy, then, to be called a poet?  I am, I suppose, happy with the word, a doer, a maker, a Makar - as the Scots have it.

And so, after what you might well think was insufficient consideration, I did answer the question.  'Are you the gentleman who is a poet?'  I said, Yes.

Patrick O'Sullivan
February 2015

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