John Whitworth's "God Squad" Interview
John Whitworth is a British poet who has been widely published at home as well as Down Under. Anyone interested in reading
his poems and/or buying his books can
are also readings of his poems on YouTube.
by John Whitworth
A toast to God the Daddy, a toast to God the Son,
And one more toast to God the Ghost, the Holy Three-in-one.
We are the sheep the blessed sheep the Shepherd has selected.
We walked the walk and talked the talk and got ourselves elected,
And now we stroll the holy hills, Eternity before us.
The Heavens ring as angels sing a Hallelujah chorus,
While, miles and miles below us, yawn the smoking pits of Hell
Where Satan and his horrid band in deep damnation dwell.
We are the blessed sheep, the blessed Bible-bashing winners,
And Paradise is twice as nice when you can see the sinners.
My brother writhes in agony, all chopped and charred and chewed up.
It serves him right the little shite. He had his chance and screwed up.
I told you so, I told you so, I told you so in spades.
You can't succeed; your bum will bleed if you don't get the grades.
It ain't no fun, relig-i-on, no drinking, smoking, whoring,
All Sunday suits and creaky boots, respectable and boring.
We paid the price, said no to vice, which tested our endurance,
And now we get the pay-off and collect on our insurance.
Hell glitters like a carousel that's turning, turning, turning.
The fate of goats who got their oats is everlasting burning.
I am a saint, who says I ain't? And every saint in bliss is
Embraced by virgin martyrs chaste, who smother him with kisses.
So here's to God the Daddy, God the Son and God the Fairy,
The Cherubim, the Seraphim and Holy Mother Mary.
The "God Squad" Interview
interviewed by Michael R. Burch
MRB: John, first please allow me to compliment you on your audacity. It takes
courage, or perhaps a degree of divine madness, to write poems like your "God
Squad." After all, the true believers might return to power and hunt you down.
Not so very long ago, they would have been preparing to torture you, and if you
didn't recant, to burn you at the stake. According to the fundamentalists, right
now the fires of hell are being stoked for your arrival, and you can never be
forgiven because blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the unpardonable sin. Do
you worry that they might be right? If not, can you share the highlights (or
lowlights) of your personal story with our readers, so that they'll understand
where you're coming from, and what led you to write such a poem?
JW: No I don't worry at all. My personal story is this: My father was a
Church of England Christian and I've always assumed my mother was too, though
she didn't go to Church as often. We children, my brother, me and my sister,
went to Sunday School on Sunday afternoons for the time-honoured reason of
giving our parents some peace. The family moved from a North London Suburb to
Edinburgh when I was nine and we continued to attend Church, the Scottish
Episcopalian Church just down the road. I believed in God totally until I was
about twelve and said my prayers every night. After that it just sort of slipped
away, though I continued to go to Church because I liked my father. When I was
fourteen my mother died and after a year or so my father remarried, one of my
mother's friends. She did not believe in God, not a thorough-going atheist but
an agnostic as they said in those days. Church remained a part of my life,
mainly, I think, because the Church Youth Fellowship was where you met girls and
you could play badminton on Saturday nights with those same girls.
At my school I came across the Scottish Presbyterian Church which I found
rather ranting and ridiculous. They sat down to pray for a start. How silly was
that? And they made the prayers up as they went along. Catholics? I never met
them. They had their own schools. There were forty Jews at my school but only
one Catholic, an Italian boy called Capaldi whose father made ice-cream or kept
a cafe, I can't remember which.
My father was an administrative grade Civil Servant, that's a high grade
government official. In his fifties he got a job as the Lay Secretary to the
Archbishop of Canterbury and moved south again to work in Lambeth Palace, which
is the Arch's place in London. I had a bishop for a Godfather too. I remember
going to the Cathedral at Ely where he was the Dean.
I was fairly lefty in my teens, read George Bernard Shaw, most particularly
his 'Black Girl in her Search for God' and took the
New Statesman, a Labour
weekly of the intellectual kind. I never had much truck with fundamentalists for
sound class reasons. I was middle-class and educated. They were neither.
I don't think I believe in God, but lots of people far cleverer than I do, and
militant atheism, lacking Shaw's wit, seems so utterly dreary. And as you get
old ... well you know. Why not?
The poem is really a sort of dramatic monologue. One obvious source is Robert
Burns. I mean his 'Holy Willie's Prayer', a splendid piece. I can't imagine God
(not any God I could possibly conceive) being at all bothered by it, or even
offended, though I can see some people might be. If you are going to have a
religion then I think Church of England Christianity is the best one going, all
those old churches surrounded by squelchy fields and much too big for their
congregations. I'm genuinely not sure why I wrote it. It just came to me, as
MRB: John, I can't imagine a good God, if there is such an entity, being
offended by your poem either. Unfortunately, the "god" of the fundamentalists
seems to be more like the Devil, especially when he sends people to hell for
thinking independently and not believing things that can't be proven. I tried to
believe in God and prayed frequently (and passionately) until around age twelve
or thirteen, at which point I concluded that the true believers were wrong about
God, because he wasn't talking back and obviously didn't want a "personal
relationship" with me. When I went to Sunday School, I would fantasize about
making love to the pretty girls, and it seemed dishonest for me to pretend to
"confess" and "repent" when I had no intention of changing. I seem to remember
Mark Twain saying that any red-blooded man would give up God and an eternity in
heaven, for a few moments of bliss with the Eve of his dreams (or perhaps his
Adam). Do you agree with Twain, and to what extent do you think puberty and
sexual desire influenced your childhood "slipping away" from belief in God?
JW: Well, they may have done, but I think the death of my mother had a much
greater effect. Up till then I'd asked God for things and in the main he had
given them to me. But I asked him VERY INSISTENTLY not to let my mother die, and
yet she did. I didn't think, 'Oh, so it's all a fraud then!' but it must have
had an effect, mustn't it. A little later, when I was fifteen, I fell in love
quite unexpectedly, and very fiercely, with a boy of twelve. We were in a play
together. (Beware of an interest in the drama; it is extremely sexually
stimulating!) It lasted for, oh about two months, and then seems to have abated
as rapidly as it had arisen. He wore sandals and socks to the play rehearsals,
was very sweet, and had no conversation at all. His name was Ernie. As I said,
the whole thing was very surprising. About a year later a badminton-playing girl
affected me in much the same way. She had lots of conversation. In fact she was
an incorrigible gossip and the girlfriend of somebody else entirely, a chap I
thought had about as much sex appeal as a snail. I loved Fanny for years, not
exactly from afar, but from quite afar enough. I spent a week with her in Paris,
entirely by accident, and kissed her passionately in a Ford Cortina crossing the
Forth Bridge after someone else's wedding. An early poem of mine is about her.
[Two poems, one addressed to Ernie as "Lindsay" and the other to Fanny as
"Jenny," appear at the end of this interview.]
Neither of these 'affairs' seemed to have much effect on my belief in God. I
did not think sex was wrong, or that God thought it was wrong. I just thought it
a pity that I wasn't getting much of it. My God seems to have been a very cool,
right-on sort of a guy, even if he was fading away.
These days God seems a more tenable hypothesis than I once thought, but that
is often the case with old people, isn't it? Science promised me when I was
young that it would explain everything and has singularly failed to do so. The
Big Bang may be a useful myth, but it is quite fatuous to take it literally.
What happened before? Ah, well you see there wasn't a before. You have to be
joking. I'd sooner believe in God in three persons than rubbish like that.
The main trouble with Christianity is that so many of the Christians are so
dire. Though the divine Fanny was a Christian (I suppose) she didn't let it
influence her life much. She was naturally charming. And beautiful. And funny.
If God hasn't a place for her in heaven then he is missing a trick.
Confession and repentance are Catholic things. The Church of England doesn't
set much store by them. I don't think it does. Confessing TO YOURSELF is the
thing, isn't it?
Yes, I think I agree with Mark Twain. Though it doesn't have to be Eve, does
I don't think I am by nature passionate. Not a John Donne. More of an Andrew
Marvell. 'To his Coy Mistress' is a wonderful poem, but entirely inefficacious,
I would have thought. Dig that marvellous Marvell sound.
MRB: John, I can certainly understand how losing your mother could change
your views about God, and I am so very sorry for your loss, especially at such a
young age. No, it doesn't have to be Eve, and the modern world seems to be
coming to that conclusion, despite the aggrieved cries and resistance of the
fundamentalists. Do you agree with Auden that poetry makes nothing happen, or do
you think the work of poets like Sappho, Burns and Blake and singer-songwriters
like Dylan, Lennon and Madonna is helping the world become more open-minded and
JW: I do not agree with Auden. I doubt if Auden agreed with Auden on mature
reflection. He was really talking about the public school (private school to
you), Oxford Communist poets of the thirties. Most of them were no good—even
Auden wasn't good with his red hat on. But poetry, literature, certainly makes
things happen. Don't you think so? Orwell (I know he wasn't a poet) made things
happen with his two great books, 'Animal Farm' and '1984'.
The thing to do is to introspect. Has poetry made things happen for you? And
if for you, then for other people too. And although not all poets are tolerant
(I don't think Milton would win any tolerance prize), in the main I think what
you say is true. I might have felt guilty about the Ernie thing (though nothing
happened, except that everything did) if I had not already read Shakespeare's
sonnets, and certain parts of Marlowe and love songs by Auden himself which our
English teacher told us were not about girls. Shakespeare is an amazingly
tolerant man, don't you think? He made a tragic hero of a black man and he gave
Shylock most of the good lines as well as speaking up for murderers like Macbeth
and Claudius, and a libertine like Mark Anthony. And a dreadful fascist bigot
like Coriolanus. He never writes anyone off. Well maybe Iago (I played Iago in a
school production) but at least he understands why the man is like that.
Shakespeare makes more things happen than Rousseau or Marx. Unlike Bunbury he is
never quite exploded. And the same is true of all the people you cited (I'll
have to take Madonna on trust). I want to add Philip Larkin who spoke so
tellingly for all sorts of unfashionable people.
MRB: John, I firmly believe that poetry makes lots of things happen here on
earth, by influencing the way people think, and thus changing the nature of
human culture and societies. And, yes, I think poetry has made many things
happen for me personally, most of them highly positive. During my readings and
study, I have learned a lot from my favorite poets: Sappho, Blake, Burns,
Housman, Whitman, and others.
Larkin is another poet I admire, and his "Church Going" is a great poem, in my
opinion, which is certainly germane to our current discussion. Like you, Larkin
seemed to be skeptical about the claims of religion, and yet he would "often"
enter churches in "awkward reverence," where it pleased him to "stand in
silence" and consider grave matters amid the surrounding graves. A major
difference between Larkin and the fundamentalists seems to be honesty about what
we know, and what we don't. Larkin strikes me as a very honest poet.
I think Shakespeare was like Whitman in the way he accepted human beings as
they are, without moralizing. Both poets seemed content to "tell it like it is"
and let readers form their own opinions. And this leads me to my next question,
which has to do with what we might call "poetic truth." I am surprised to hear
some of the worst ideas of modernism being parroted in formalist circles:
"Poetry makes nothing happen." "Art exists only for the sake of art." "Poems
need be nothing more than ornate urns: the contents don't matter." "Poems can
not only be fictions, but outright lies." And so on. Let’s take the last
assertion. Do you agree that poets can be bald liars, saying literally anything
for the sake of the poem, or do even works of imaginative fiction require
fundamental truthfulness on the part of the author?
JW: Of course. All art requires truthfulness. (But what that word truly means
is another question.) I think everybody who makes art knows the answer to that.
It is not difficult. We know why we do it and we know when it is good. We are not
interested in ideas about it. If we were we should be philosophers and we are
not. We are makers, not thinkers. If we tell the truth we think thinkers are all
very well, but we do not trust them. They really are playing. We are working.
My daughter is a painter. At Brighton where they taught her how to paint
better, she said there were three kinds of students. There were the pattern and
the print makers who were interested in and expert at the different ways an
image can be made. She respected them and enjoyed the admirable things they did,
but she was not herself very good at print-making and such. There were the
painters who spent all day, well, painting. I mean when they were not chatting
or smoking or being waitresses in pizza restaurants. And there were the art
theory people, the ones who loved ideas about art, the conceptual artists. And
what were they good at? 'Bullshit!' she said succinctly. I was relieved to hear
it. She told me what Matisse had said. That he wanted to make art that the
ordinary man (and woman of course) could relax into, because it gave him
comfort, made him feel better. He wanted to fill a canvas according to THESE
Poetry is the same. The poem has a shape, a form. I need to fill that form in
such a way that the artefact produces pleasure in the beholder, initially me and
afterwards other people. Because I am human, because I have a life, I will not
fill the form in a contentless way. Language has to MEAN by its very nature.
Words are not Christmas tree baubles. My poetry will mean what I mean. What is
the meaning of me? I am not sure. I need art to explore it. But I know I have a
meaning. I know, in the language of religion, that I have a soul, and if you say
that you do not, I say you are a poor sort of person. 'Oh' as Sir John Gielgud
used to say, 'I don't mean YOU!' I mean all those others, the swine before whom
we may cast our pearls in vain.
Of course this fundamental truthfulness, this 'aboutness' of art, has
nothing to do with literal truthfulness. In fact the messiness of life means
that often what actually happened needs a bit of tweaking. You know what I mean.
Sometimes we do warts and all. Sometimes we do inner truth and scrub round the
warts. Shakespeare writes one sonnet to tell us that his mistress's eyes are
nothing like the sun, but then half a dozen which say that they are. Marlowe
wrote 'Whoever loved who loved not at first sight', and we all know that that is
fundamentally true. But we also know that the first sight does not mean the
first time we saw her, but the first time we saw her properly, the first time we
saw her as she really was. Without her glasses.
Is it possible that Romeo never saw Juliet before that night? Verona was a
small city and Juliet was not immured like a poor Muslim girl. She went out with
her nurse and Romeo had seen her. But he hadn't SEEN her if you know what I
Anyone who reads 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' and doesn't see that he/she
is reading about life, is reading with his head up his arse, as a colleague of
my wife's said in high-voiced exasperation at a dull class of know-nothings.
'A poem should not mean but be.' Nonsense, Mr. MacLeish. If it IS then it
MEANS. It must. It does.
I will try to send you one of my daughter's drawings. [The drawing appears
at the end of this interview.]
MRB: John, thanks for sharing your daughter's drawing with us.
I can't agree that poets are not thinkers and are not interested in ideas
about their art. Some of the great poets were deep, insightful thinkers and
philosophers who wrote essays about poetry: Shelley, for instance. Shelley was a
deep feeler and a deep thinker. Many other talented poets wrote essays and
letters that demonstrate "deep thinking" about their art: Frost, Wilbur, Eliot,
Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Poe, Swinburne, Jarrell, just to name a few. But I
think there are obvious problems when poets and artists subscribe to wildly erroneous
theories, which means not thinking well. Perhaps your daughter has seen the
strange results of artists subscribing to strange theories. Tom Wolfe wrote some
hilariously funny books about what he saw happening when modern poets and
artists leapt like herds of lemmings to their doom, in pursuit of irrational
theories. I think poets should read Wolfe's The Painted Word and try to avoid
becoming lemming-like true believers in things that make no sense.
I agree with you that we can use art to explore ourselves. In one of my poems
I said, "And what we mean, we write to learn." Shakespeare strikes me as an
explorer of humanity through poetry. Confessional poets like Plath, Sexton,
Lowell and the formalist Richard Moore explored themselves through poetry.
I also agree with you about the MacLeish line. I think poems by definition
must convey meaning, because poems are constructed of words and the primary
purpose of words is to convey meaning. If I write gibberish, it may be highly
"original," but no one can understand it. And as you pointed out, words are not
baubles. But then poems, being constructed of words, cannot be meaningless
baubles or mere decorative urns whose contents don't matter, as some
contemporary formalists have suggested. I enjoy your meter in your best poems,
for instance in "The Examiners," but if you were singing in an alien tongue, should I even bother to listen?
Do you think that true believers in bad ideas may have damaged poetry and art
in much the same way that the true believers in bad ideas have done so much
damage to organized religions? If I remember correctly, that's a parallel Wolfe
draws in his criticism of modern poetry and art.
JW: In answer to your last paragraph, yes I do. As I have perhaps said
already I think artists of all sorts are encouraged to 'do' philosophy when they
should be encouraged to make art. I in no way denigrate philosophy. It is an
important discipline. Some great poets were of a philosophical turn of mind.
Others, most notably Shakespeare, were not. It is just another fact about them.
Shelley was quite a good chemist. Larkin liked cricket. The philosophers I like
and find congenial to me, Hobbes, Hume, Michael Oakeshott, obviously have some
influence on what I write, but it is, well I hope it is, indirect. Versified
philosophy is never the real thing, either as verse or as philosophy. My least
favourite poem of Pope is the 'Essay on Man' and I have no desire at all to read
Blake's Prophetic Books.
Yeats said a good thing about that stuff he professed to believe in about
perning in gyres and such. He said he didn't exactly 'believe' it, but it helped
him to write poetry. Perhaps so, but I must say that the more he imports the
less I like it and I like it best when he does not import it at all. It is,
after all, spiritualist claptrap, very fashionable in the 1920s. Conan Doyle
believed it, though fortunately he had written most of his great work by then.
Can fascists (or communists) write good poetry? Well, yes they can, but not
AS fascists and communists. Once Jewish usury gets into the Cantos (and it gets
in remarkably fast) the poetry goes out of the back door.
Of course fascism and communism are not the thing today. The bad ideas come
(mostly) from certain linguistic theories, not well understood—if they are
indeed susceptible to understanding at all. There are also the -isms, aren't
there? There's racism (bad), and there's feminism (good). Not that they aren't,
by and large, bad and good, but if you are pushing an agenda your art becomes
crude and a caricature. But this is old stuff. Perhaps it just needs repeating
again and again.
I have never read Tom Wolfe. Perhaps I ought. Perhaps I will.
MRB: John, I think you'd enjoy Tom Wolfe's books on poetry and art. They're
quick reads, and wonderfully funny. As I read his books, I noticed that many of
the things I'd been hearing contemporary formalists saying were just as
nonsensical as very similar things modern painters had been saying, around the
time they became nonentities to most of the world. For instance, just before I
was banished from Eratosphere, I was told not to use the word "love" in poems,
not to use abstractions, and not to mention the South because some Southerners
are bigots. If Shakespeare had followed such "advice," we wouldn't have his love
sonnets or his greatest plays, since the soliloquies of Hamlet, Lear and Othello
are abstract philosophical musings. Nor could Shakespeare have set any of his
plays anywhere on earth, since the whole world was rife with racism up to his
Was Shakespeare not a philosopher? It seems to me that only an insightful
philosopher could have written the ideas expressed in his soliloquies. Perhaps
Socrates and Shakespeare were the wisest of philosophers because they understood
and accepted the limitations of human knowledge, and thus posed more questions
than they attempted to answer.
Like you, I'm not a fan of Pope's essay-poems, which are too long and
didactical for my taste. And while I am a fan of William Blake, I'm not as much
a fan of his longer prophetic poems. But I think he was a wonderful and highly
effective philosopher in his lyric poems. Blake was one of the first great
artists to protest racism, slavery, sexism, child labor, the Satanic mills of
industry, religion gone mad, etc. I believe he was the spiritual and poetical
mentor of modern singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, both of whom
were fans of his. And I believe Blake's philosophy expressed in his lyric poems
is still working to help transform the world today, through his readers and his
many talented protégés.
You said, "if you are pushing an agenda your art becomes crude and a
caricature." I disagree. Burns and Blake had very obvious agendas. Burns had the
agenda of advancing the cause of the common man and woman. On the eve of the
French Revolution, he was already writing about the need for equal rights for
women. Blake had a very similar agenda: he wanted equality of the races and
sexes, without the false "morality" of irrational religion. Both poets opposed
the churches of their day that were deficient in compassion and reason. You said
that you admire "Holy Willie's Prayer." Well, that's a poem by a man with not
only a strong agenda against bad religion, but probably a vendetta.
Yes, communists can write good poetry: Pablo Neruda and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, for
example. And poets of other ilks come to minds as exceptions to the rule you
seem to propose. For instance, Robinson Jeffers didn't stop at despising people
of just one race; he seemed to despise most of the human race, and yet he wrote
some damn good poetry (even while expressing his revulsion with the greater part
of humanity, as in
"Shine, Perishing Republic").
As for Pound, it is my understanding that he helped Jews who were fleeing the
Nazis, and that his main problem with the bankers was usury, not their race, per
se. In fact, Pound spoke strongly against racism and antisemitism, saying "Race
prejudice is a red herring. The tool of the man defeated intellectually and of
the cheap politician. It is nonsense for the anglo-saxon to revile the Jew for
beating him at his own game."
Here is what William Cookson, a friend and protégé of Pound, wrote about
the accusations of antisemitism: "Those inevitably dwindling numbers
of people who had the privilege of knowing Pound personally remember him as
entirely without that meanness of spirit which characterizes the true
anti-Semite. The Jewish poet Louis Zukofsky put this well when he recalled: 'I
never felt the least trace of anti-Semitism in his presence. Nothing he ever
said to me made me feel the embarrassment I always have for the Goy in whom a
residue of antagonism to Jew remains. If we had occasion to use the words Jew
and Goy they were no more or less ethnological in their sense than Chinese and
Italian.' I close this letter on a personal note. When Pound was doing his best
to educate me by letter from St. Elizabeth's in 1957-1958 (I was an English
schoolboy and aspiring poet) he several times warned against anti-Semitism. I
quote three sentences from those letters: 'I am of course not anti-Semitic. I am
merely against irresponsible oligarchy.' (February 7, 1958) 'The enemy is
IGGURUNCE not jews or masons.' (January 10, 1958) 'One should not make the
battle line on the edge of race.' (April 11, 1958)."
So I doubt that anti-Jewish sentiment had much to do with how Pound wrote his
Cantos, since his main beef was with bankers who just happened to be Jewish
because of the historical Christian bias against charging interest. Pound also
castigated non-Jewish bankers, so he was an equal-opportunity despiser of
usurers. Thus, it seems to me that Pound has been unfairly tarred and feathered.
And this brings me to my last question. I recently became aware of a thread on
Eratosphere where it was said that dead poets like Edgar Allan Poe are "fair
game" for contemporary poets. It seems a poet had written a poem about Poe in
which she said or strongly implied that Poe was a necrophiliac who liked his
girls "inert." But Poe himself said that the death of a beautiful woman was the
most melancholy, and thus the most poetical, of topics. So it seems he was
saying exactly the opposite. Do you think poets of the past are "fair game" for
contemporary poets, or should poets like Pound and Poe be treated according to
the golden rule?
JW: Dear me, Mike. If I were banned from using the word 'love' in my poems
then rather a lot would bite the dust. And as for bigots, everybody knows that
almost the entire population of Scotland are murderous, drunken bigots with a
taste for the rape of underage girls on the tops of buses, whereas the people of
the South of your fair land are friendly, outgoing people who eat the most
marvellous food, or so I have found.
My love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by Despair
Poor Andrew Marvell wouldn't survive for long under the withering fire of
that sort of criticism, would he?
You are free to disagree with me, Mike. Where would discussion be without
disagreement? But the Burns I like is not the tub-thumper for Liberty, though
Liberty is an excellent thing, but the poet of the verse-epistles and that
wonderful comic poem, 'Tam O'Shanter'. And I suspect I am not such a fan of
Blake as you are, a great poet in fits and starts, but, for me, a greater
producer of drawings and paintings.
I accept what you say about Pound and I am sorry I accepted the general view
of him as an anti-Semite. You have convinced me he was not. He acted like a fool
and was seduced into treachery by his own vanity, but many good poets act
foolishly. In the end he was lucky. William Joyce, who was really an Irishman,
was shot. He had it coming, but it was probably a stretch as far as strict
justice went, but the same could be said of Hermann Goering. Pound spent some
time in a cage and it seems to have done his soul good.
As for his poetry, I like it more than I once did, though vast tracts of the
Cantos, including all the stuff about usury, seem to me ripe form the bonfire.
But I'd say the same of most of Eliot's later work, all those long dull plays.
'Fair game'? Everybody is fair game for everybody else. I have put up with a
bit of insult and I am still alive. The things that Dryden said about Flecknoe
and Shadwell were probably unfair. Shadwell, at least, wasn't as bad a poet as
all that. Empson was unfair to Auden.
Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end,
What is there to be or do?
What's become of me or you?
Are we kind or are we true?
Sitting two by two, boys, waiting for the end.
And so on for nine more intricate stanzas. Why should wordsmiths be exempt?
Surely they have the weapons to hit back. Not if they are dead of course. But
then they have friends alive and well who can sharpen up their knives. A squib
or two aimed at Poe may or may not amuse. Poe is still there. Sometimes a
reputation may indeed be shredded but then it probably wasn't much of a
reputation in the first place.
It used to be fashionable to scoff at the Georgian poets. If you produced a
good one, like Edward Thomas or Robert Graves, then he wasn't really a Georgian.
Or if he was Rupert Brooke then nothing he wrote was any good and if you think
so you are a fool. But Brooke is still in print.
What IS the golden rule, anyway? I think people should write what they want.
It seems, Mr. Graves, said Robert Graves's tutors at Oxford, that you prefer
some poets to others? So he did. He was unfair to Milton and sometimes to Yeats.
But his destruction of 'The Lake Isle' is funny. Or I think it is. And Milton
wasn't a very nice man, was he?
MRB: John, it seems to me that you are sometimes arguing against yourself. For
instance, while you speak dismissively of poets with agendas, you earlier
confessed to admiring "Holy Willie's Prayer" by Robert Burns, and I believe
Burns had as much of an agenda against bad religion as he did against bad kings
and lords. He wanted the common folk to be free of the injustices of the whole
kit-n-caboodle. And while I'm glad that you now have a higher opinion of Pound,
I find your comment about the cage hard to fathom, and it is also difficult
for me to understand your change of heart in light of what you just said
about Poe. If the poets of the past are "fair game," and if there is no honor
among poets as there is among thieves, pirates and gangbangers, we should be able to libel and smear
other poets without compunctions. But I think there is a big difference between
having opinions about a poet's work, and saying things about his/her character
and actions that are not true. For instance, I could write a poem about you
being a pedophile who raped a younger boy, by twisting what you said in this
interview, but I wouldn't do that because it would be wrong, and hurtful. I feel
the same way about Poe. I don't think Poe should be "fair game" for character
assassination, or you, or anyone. If pirates can have a code of honor, surely
poets can too. The golden rule is quite simple and easy to
understand: I shouldn't do to you what I wouldn't
want you to do to me. If you wrote about me, I would want you to be honest and
not suggest that I was a necrophiliac, rapist or pedophile. But in any case, I
enjoyed the poems you shared with us, and your daughter's drawing, and I thank
you for your time and equanimity. For anyone who is interested in Poe's
importance as a writer and/or the way he is sometimes abused by contemporary
writers and critics, I have written an essay on the subject:
Edgar Allan Poe:
"The Heresy of the Didactic" and "The Courtship of Poe."
Jenny Jefferey: A Topographical Love Song
by John Whitworth
Jenny Jefferey! I loved you with a lonely passion when
With our turned-up raincoat collars, and our Woodie packs of ten,
Our lot drank Skol Lager in Milne's Bar and hoped we looked like men;
Sixth Year Mafia out,
Ten o'clock demands a carry-out,
Quarter vodka and six cans of Stout.
Pies and puddings at the 'Deep Sea', Forty-four to Dickie's place and
Three-card-brag to Stevie Wonder, till the session with a basin,
Dizzy in the wee small hours, well hung-over but unchastened.
Merton College Freshmen's Photograph for 1963,
Front row, fourth left, with the little boy expression—Hey, that's me!
Who was randier or unhandier in the university?
Margaret got too pissed,
Big Anne was a therapist.
Chrissie Briggs was prettiest.
Sad, short-sighted Chrissie from Saint Anne's, I kept on having tea with,
Louche Drusilla with her super boots, I failed at getting free with.
Oh Jenny, Jenny, Jenny, it was you I longed to be with.
True Brit on the bum in Paris—bloody Frogs, no bloody fun.
'Viens au pub!' 'Le Winston Churchill!' 'Quat' bouteilles de Worthington!'
Dismal Welshmen in Montmartre canonise their Barry John.
Jenny on the steps at Orly,
Jenny but I miss you sorely,
Jenny now the wind bites rawly.
'Bien emmerdé!' where the third day scours our Boul' Mich' with its rain,
Where the harlequin umbrellas cruise about the Madeleine,
Where at Quai d'Orsay a grey September weeps along the Seine.
And the Bruntsfield 'Copper Kettle'—duffle-coated gossip gleaner,
And the Forth Bridge in the starlight—hiccupy in a Cortina,
And the brine-soaked dunes at Gullane, lissom as a ballerina,
Every Edinburgh view,
Jenny that I scarcely knew,
Every silly postcard redolent of you.
Mordant verse is my defence, sweet Jenny, so your ghost be laid.
Just your ghost, alas, your ghost, when I, from Waverley's soot shade,
Climb to morning's pallid hauteur, breaking on the Esplanade.
by John Whitworth
It was the age of O levels, acne and cig machines,
Girls strangely bare of body hair in Nature magazines,
Radio Lux on 2-0-8 with Buddy Holly on,
A razor twice a week, and Love, and Lindsay Paterson
It was that Summer Term I went most evenings to rehearse
The Dramsoc play, a fatuous burlesque in doggerel verse,
With cloak and tights, with boots and sword, with beard and Number 9,
And Export Ale in quiet saloons and heady Wild Woodbine.
And Lindsay, expert on Fresnals and Floods and Spots and Jellies.
He had a Fair Isle jumper and a pair of cut-down wellies,
And sticking plaster on his hands, and candour on his face.
I loved him for his innocence, I loved him for his grace,
I loved his slow simplicity, because he was not clever.
I wanted to be close to him for ever and for ever,
Just to be close. To talk. Or not to talk. Just to be there
With him. I touched his hand once, and once ruffled his hair.
JW: Well, it's done. And I half enjoyed typing the things up. I hope you know woodies and woodbines are cheap cigarettes. The other brand were Players
Weights, immortalised by Betjeman.
The drawing above is by John Whitworth's daughter Katie.