The HyperTexts

John Whitworth "Thinking the Unthinkable" ... Free Verse?




John Whitworth is a Traditional/Formalist poet who says he has no use for free verse, "that dreadful formless way invented by Walt Whitman and carried on by so many boring old farts (and young farts) who think they are God." During my Interview with John Whitworth, he made it clear that he disapproves of free verse, saying, "There's shedloads of it everywhere you look and I'm definitely against it." But then, to my wonder and surprise, I discovered that Whitworth has actually written free verse himself, with surprisingly good results for someone doing something he despises! (I have offered a few of his free verse poems below, by way of evidence, intermixed with some of his more traditional work.) As I worked on this page, it occurred to me that the title of one of Whitworth's  poems, "Thinking the Unthinkable," might provide a nicely ironic title for this unveiling of his free verse. I have also taken the liberty of commenting on his poems. My ultimate conclusion? While he hasn't convinced me that there's anything "wrong" with good free verse (including his own), I like the man's poetry, which is what really matters. In at least two genres, which we might call the "musical madcap comic romp" and the "giggle-inducing horror story," John Whitworth is at the head of the class, and stands to be commended. He is also very good at touching reminiscences about childhood and early love. I think poems of his like "The Examiners" and "Them There Out There In Here Right Now" compare favorably with the best musical romps of Poe, Kipling and Louis MacNeice. In "Love & Sex & Boys in Showers" and "Thinking the Unthinkable," Whitworth does a wonderful job of capturing and communicating the jumbled emotions and thoughts of boys contemplating girls (and other boys), sex and love. "The Fall" is a bittersweet fairytale, nicely and movingly told. If Whitworth's argument with free verse is really that he hasn't received his just due, I would respond that the fault lies with the Literary Powers That Be, not with the art and its techniques. Hopefully I have helped tip the scales a bit more toward poetic justice.—Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts



Thinking the Unthinkable

I like playing football because I'm a boy and
When I'm a bit bigger I'll like drinking beer because
Drinking and football are stuff that a boy does
And I do what boys do because I'm a boy I

Like shoving and pushing because I'm a boy I like
Shooting off arrows and shooting off guns I like
Shooting my mouth off and shouting and fighting
Because I'm a boy and you've gotta act right and

Say I were a girl I'd like dollies and teddies and
Talking for hours on the phone with my girlfriends and
Trying on clothes and then trying on clothes and
Then putting on make-up and talking for hours and

Then cuddling and crying and touching and trying
On charm arm-in-arm and then laughing and chatting
And batting my eyelids and doing the girl stuff and
Not just being tough which is never enough and then

Being a girl might be stuff that I'd like if
I wasn't a boy who does football and fighting
And shouting and shoving and pushing and (shush!) then
I might be a girl just as easy as winking
                                                              I'm thinking

I find this poem refreshing because it is unabashedly chauvinistic, but with a nice "twist" at the end, starting with the surprising insight (for a young boy, which the speaker seems to be) that "just being tough" is "never enough," followed by the even-more-startling conclusion. While the poem is "free" in style and perhaps even "liberated" (vers libre) it still contains elements of formal poetry, such as quatrains and a closing couplet.—MRB



The Examiners

Where the house is cold and empty and the garden’s overgrown,
They are there.
Where the letters lie unopened by a disconnected phone,
They are there.
Where your footsteps echo strangely on each moonlit cobblestone,
Where a shadow streams behind you but the shadow’s not your own,
You may think the world’s your oyster but it’s bone, bone, bone:
They are there, they are there, they are there.

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.

They assume it as an impost or they take it as a toll,
They are there.
The contractors grant them all that they incontinently stole,
They are there.
They will shrivel your ambition with their quality control,
They will desiccate your passion, then eviscerate your soul,
Wring your life out like a sponge and stuff your body down a hole,
They are there, they are there, they are there.

In the desert of your dreaming they are humped behind the dunes,
They are there.
On the undiscovered planet with its seven circling moons,
They are there.
They are ticking all the boxes, making sure you eat your prunes,
They are sending secret messages by helium balloons,
They are humming Bach cantatas, they are playing looney tunes,
They are there, they are there, they are there

They are there, they are there like a whisper on the air,
They are there.
They are slippery and soapy with our hope and our despair,
They are there.
So it’s idle if we bridle or pretend we never care,
If the questions are superfluous and the marking isn’t fair,
For we know they’re going to get us, we just don’t know when or where,
They are there, they are there, they are there.

This is my favorite "Whitworth," a musical inquisition into modern paranoia, as if Ogden Nash showed up in a Tim Burton take on Lewis Carroll. (That's a good thing in my book.)—MRB



Ten Bad Things

What's the worst thing you can think of?
The baying of a hound.
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
The pounding of a heart.
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
The muttering of a crowd.
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
The white face of a child.
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
The red robes of a judge.
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
A reek of burning petrol in a trench.
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
A devil suckled at your mother's breast.
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
A bloody murderer hanged up in chains,
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
Life plus ninety-nine years in this place.
That's bad, that's very bad,

But what's the worst thing you can think of?
A man's immortal soul,
That's the worst thing I can think of.

This poem also employs one of the hallmarks of traditional poetry: repetition. The first and third lines of each stanza are repeated, until the pattern is modified in the final stanza.—MRB



Love & Sex & Boys in Showers

A free book enclosed with Bliss magazine is Love & Sex & Boys in Showers.

Wishing, wondering, thinking, talking,
Is it Medicine? Is it Smarties?
Difficult, like tightrope walking?
Easy, like a broken heart is?
Where the sea along the shore moans,
Hear the humming of the hormones,
Messages of meeting, parting,
Is it worth the grief of starting?
Can the sweets outweigh the sours?
Love & Sex & Boys in Showers.

Suppose I let him go too far, but
Just how far is that precisely?
Suppose we do it in the car, but
After will he treat me nicely?
Everything I want's illicit,
Adult, sexually explicit.
When he stuns me with his kisses,
Sweet as Sugar, bold as Bliss is,
Will I savour them for hours?
Love & Sex & Boys in Showers.

Steamy dreams of saltlick shoulders,
Peach-fuzz thighs and silky bottom.
Hearts have reasons. They're as old as
Time. I swear I think I've got 'em.
Shy and shyer, fond and fonder,
There, where ocean meets blue yonder,
Skinnydips on desert island,
Wisechild wideness of his smile and
Lotus blossoms, passion flowers,
Love & Sex & Boys in Showers.

Princesses are racked and gloomy,
Fated, dated, triste and tragic.
Lose a few and draw a few my
Life's like football. Football's magic.
Choose the time, the place, the weapons.
Karma's just the shit that happens,
Everything we have is ours,
We've got paranormal powers,
Princesses are shut in towers,
Love & Sex & Boys in Showers.

This is another of my favorite "Whitworths." It has great rhythm and some exceptional lines like "Easy, like a broken heart is" end-rhymed with "Smarties" [a British candy] and "Everything I want's illicit, / Adult, sexually explicit."—MRB



The Fall

Our secret games. They never understand.
Oh she was delicate and she was fine.
She smiled at me. I took her by the hand.
I took her by the hand and she was mine.
So small she seemed, curled like a child asleep,
Curled like a fairy in a flower bell.

So small she seemed I could not see her dead,
For how can there be death in fairyland?
Yet she was dead and it was just as well.
God sees. God knows. God knows they always tell.
Though looks like hers would make the angels weep,
She had no part of Heaven or of Hell,

She had no part of pity or desire.
What could I do but put her to the fire?
The fire made tongues about her golden head,
Made tongues of flame and this was what they said.
They never understand our secret games.
God sees. God knows. God knows they always tell.
What was her name?


                                  Her name? They don't have names.

This poem is very close to formal poetry, except that it rhymes esoterically: ABABCD EADDCD FFEEGDGG. This is a very nicely-written fairytale that reminds me a bit of Wordsworth in the first stanza and Blake in the second. But the third stanza is unmistakably Whitworthian.



The Language of Owls

Hoo. Hoo. It's half-past-two,
The owls are out and they're calling you.
Who are you? Who are you? Hoo. Hoo. Hoo.


Gone funny in the head, gone funny
Not all the money in the world, not all the money
Can buy it back, what's gone, gone funny,

Funny in the head, but it's out of the head
Now the brains are out and what's in instead
You don't want to know; you'd be better dead

Than funny, wetting yourself and forgetting it's Tuesday.
Forgetting Tuesday? Forgetting your own name.
You're Gerda, dearie, Gerda. Say it.

GERDA. Hoo. Hoo. How everything goes.
You can't wipe your bottom. You can't blow your nose.
Strange places, strange faces and strange, strange clothes

And wise as an owl, but the owl's not wise.
The stare of the owl is a daft surprise
And the head of the owl is all eyes, all eyes.

Hoo. Hoo. Doctor of something they say,
Six languages you knew in your day,
Though what you know now who knows? Hoo. Hoo.

Now there's nothing you know but the night birds' call
And the language of owls where the trees are tall,
There's nothing you know, no there's nothing at all.

Hoo. Hoo. And the owls are weeping,
Hoo. Hoo. And the day is sleeping,
Hoo. Hoo. And the night comes creeping.

This poem starts off with three end-rhymed tercets, abandons end rhyme in the fourth tercet, resumes end rhyme in the fourth and fifth tercets, end-rhymes two of three lines in the sixth tercet, then finishes with two more end-rhymed tercets. It qualifies as free verse while managing to be quite traditional as well.—MRB



Them There Out There In Here Right Now

There’s a tickle in your nostrils like the turning of the milk,
There’s a swish across your fingers like the whimpering of silk,
Like the flutters of a death’s head, like the squitters of a mouse;
You can feel them in the lobby, you can feel them in the house,
There’s a flickering of faces, there’s a bristling of hair,
At the elbow of a passage, at the winding of a stair,
       Till you feel them everywhere
              In the air.
                     Yes, you feel them everywhere.

Pitter-patter like the creeping of the waves across the stones,
You can trace the gothic filigree of tiny little bones,
Trace their frettings with your fingers on the velvet of the dark;
Trace their restless to-and-froing like the swimming of a shark,
To-and-froing in their going like a prowling picaroon
In a wilderness of starlight on the deserts of the moon,
       And they’ll be here very soon
              How they croon 
                     They’ll be here so very soon.

They are swarming in the dawning, there’s no turning of the tide.
They are homing through the gloaming and you’ve nowhere left to hide.
They are swinging from the cornice, they are sliding down the sill.
Have they come to do you good or have they come to do you ill?
As they whisper at the window, as they mutter at the door,
With a scrabbling down the chimney and a squeezing through the floor,
       Till you’re theirs for evermore;
              It’s for sure
                     That you’re theirs for evermore.

This "Whitworth" is another favorite of mine. The poem reminds me of Burns, Kipling, Nash and Poe, in good ways. I like the wild rhythms of this musical ghost story.—MRB



Love You Madly

Air: 'Rapture! Rapture' from 'The Yeomen of the Guard' by Gilbert and Sullivan

Love you madly, love you crazily,
Love you eagerly, love you lazily,
Love you everly, leave you neverly,
Daft or cleverly, daffy-down-daisily.
Love you everly, leave you neverly,
Daft or cleverly, daffy-down-daisily.
Pippety-poppety, down to Scarborough,
Market Rasen, Market Harborough,
See the Acropolis, then Minneapolis,
Indianapolis, Santa Barbara.
See the Acropolis, then Minneapolis,
Indianapolis, Santa Barbara.


Care's a rough, resorts to thuggery,
Care's a tough, employs skulduggery,
Care's subliminal, care's buliminal,
Care's a criminal blown to buggery.
Care's subliminal, care's buliminal,
Care's a criminal blown to buggery.
Pippety-poppety, down to Scarborough,
Market Rasen, Market Harborough,
See the Acropolis, then Minneapolis,
Indianapolis, Santa Barbara.
See the Acropolis, then Minneapolis,
Indianapolis, Santa Barbara.


Love is sweet and indestructible.
You're complete and ineluctable,
Toast and honey and fine and funny and
On the money and tax-deductable.
Toast and honey and fine and funny and
On the money and tax-deductable.
Pippety-poppety, down to Scarborough,
Market Rasen, Market Harborough,
See the Acropolis,then Minneapolis,
Indianapolis, Santa Barbara.
See the Acropolis, then Minneapolis,
Indianapolis, Santa Barbara.


I can say, without mendacity,
Love waylaid me with audacity.
Cupid's dart in a vital part, in a
Hungry heart, in a grim mordacity.
Cupid's dart in a vital part, in a
Hungry heart, in a grim mordacity.
Pippety-poppety, down to Scarborough,
Market Rasen, Market Harborough,
See the Acropolis,then Minneapolis,
Indianapolis, Santa Barbara.
See the Acropolis,then Minneapolis,
Indianapolis, Santa Barbara.


This poem reminds me a bit of "Kokomo" by the Beach Boys: a word-romp.—MRB



Life at Eighty

This world of dew is but a world of dew. And yet. And yet.
                                                                             — Basho.

I like to loaf, I like to laugh; I like to read the Telegraph;
I buy it at the student rate, it tells me of affairs of state;
And on the state I meditate: I am a wise old fellow.

I potter in a world of prose; grandchildren tell me how it goes.
They drink and disco at the club; I soak for hours in the tub,
Careen my carcass, scrub-a-dub: I am a hale old fellow.

I mutter when I do not shout; in welly boots I splash about;
I walk on rainy afternoons; I dine on cauliflower and prunes,
And never mess my pantaloons: I am a clean old fellow.

A television haruspex; I like the violence, hate the sex;
I comb the Oxfam shops for togs; the country’s going to the dogs,
I chart it all in monologues: I am a stern old fellow.

The doctor gives me coloured pills to cure me of my various ills,
My smoker’s cough, my writer’s stoop, my lecher’s eye, my brewer’s droop,
My belly like a cantaloupe: I am a sad old fellow.

A world of dew. And yet. And yet a world not easy to forget;
I cannot let it pass me by; I stop and look it in the eye;
And, as you see, I versify: I am a game old fellow.


It takes a poet of considerable verve (and nerve) to invoke Basho while claiming to like violence and hate sex!—MRB



Faith Zone

We hurl the homosexuals from cliffs,
Being enjoined to do so by religion
That scours our souls of maybes and what ifs.
Such wanton decadence is not our pigeon.
The Word is firm and clear and unambiguous.
Knowing and doing at every point contiguous.

We flog the godless traffickers in booze.
We stone to death the vile adulteresses.
Our sisters shall not marry where they choose,
Nor flaunt themselves in lewd, immodest dresses.
Such conduct is displeasing to the Lord
Whose Truth is sharp and gleaming like a sword.

Forgive our carnal trespasses in youth.
(Boys will be boys — we meant no harm at all.)
That was before we heard the voice of Truth,
That was before we answered to the call,
That was before the blessed Scripture spoke
And told us who to spare and who to croak.

The knife, the lash, the scaffold and the jail
Prevent believers from behaving oddly.
The Holy Word shall everywhere prevail.
It drops from Heaven like manna to the godly.
Our singleness of Faith is true security.
Its flame shall burn in everlasting purity.

While my favorite "Whitworths" are his madcap comic romps and giggle-inducing horror stories, this poem proves the poet is by no means a one-trick pony.—MRB

The HyperTexts