With just a little more than two weeks to go before more than 40 poets descend on the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, the anticipation is splitting my seams. The dashingly bearded AF Harrold is one of the poets who I am dying to see take the QPF stage. To get a glimpse of the poetry that travels with him, I asked him which poems he would take to a Desert(ed) Island. So raise your anchor and let these poems carry you one sleep closer to QPF 2009.
I only give these ten poems on the understanding that if you asked me yesterday or tomorrow they would be ten different poems; that some of them are chosen because I love the poem, some are chosen because I like the poet and have had to plump, half at random, for one among many possible poems from them. Also I felt bound to limit myself to just one poem by any particular poet.
This list could be a hundred long without exhausting the poems I’d want on my island, and at that length I would still curse myself as I remembered such obvious choices which had vanished out of my mind when I made this hasty selection. There is nothing by Marvell, or Donne, or Auden, or MacNeice in here, no work by Stephen Sondheim (which I count as poetry), no novels by Kurt Vonnegut (which are a sort of poetry), nothing from my contemporaries on the performance scene in the UK, where there is much that I admire… so many obvious gaps.
Jenny Kiss’d Me
Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.
It’s such a simple lyric, and yet it seems to perfectly capture so many emotions – the weariness of age, the shadowy broad-wings of ‘time’s winged chariot’, combated by the simple warmth of memory, of a specific memory. In the poem there’s no back-story, no elaboration on this moment – maybe it only happened the once, but sometimes there’s enough light in a moment to sustain a heart far into the future. Oh, it’s beautiful, achingly so! Or it’s just a tiny simple lyric – simple enough to be a child’s song, but one written in advancing years raging, in its own way, against the dying light.
I’ll take it to the island with me, if only to remind me when I find I can’t get the coconuts down and my hut keeps blowing away and my sunburn is chaffing (like Woody Allen, ‘I don’t tan, I stroke’), that I too have, to use Hunt as a metaphor, been ‘kiss’d by Jenny’ once or twice. I won’t last long on the island, but life’s not been bad up to now.
There is no one beside thee, and no one above thee,
Thou standest alone as the nightingale sings!
And my words which would praise thee are impotent things,
For none can express thee though all should approve thee,
I love thee so, Dear, that I only can love thee.
Say, what can I do for thee? weary thee, grieve thee?
Lean on thy shoulder, new burdens to add?
Weep my tears over thee, making thee sad?
Oh, hold me not – love me not! let me retrieve thee.
I love thee so, Dear, that I only can leave thee.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This poem is almost unique in that it is one of the very small number of verses by other people which are lodged inside me head. By the time I went to school poems were no longer learnt by rote, unlike, perhaps, in my parents’ time – and in retrospect I think maybe this is a shame. However burdensome it is as a schoolboy to be made to learn poems, the presence of those words popping up in future years, I suspect, would be a tonic to all sorts of ills. But be that as it may, this poem is lodged in my head for no good reason.
There was a very lovely suede covered book of E.B. Browning in the house I grew up in, over a hundred years old and made beautiful by that soft delicate malleable warm cover. I read it, this old poetry full of thous and thees, with every stanza numbered, and somehow this miserable poem of self-inflicted unrequitability stuck itself like a burr in my brain and twenty years on it’s still there, recitable at any moment.
It’s certainly not her best poem, but it’s the one that that’s going with me to the desert island, because I have no choice about it, and even for its imperfections and self-pitying angsty maudlin nature, it is perfectly crafted, sculpted, formed and I do love it.
Jesus Is Not Just For Christmas
Down in the Bible
some of it’s tribal,
a tooth for a tooth
and eyeball for an eyeball,
some of it’s truth, some of it’s Gospel:
a man with a mission, a mission impospel,
a man with a tan, a man who liked a parable,
cast your seed on to land that is arable,
a stony field and the yield will be tarable.
Born in a manger, born into danger,
don’t take gifts from any old stranger
especially if it’s gold.
Especially if they say you’ve been specially selected
and they’ve found your address by following a star
with a couple of mates who’ve got gifts as well – unusual gifts:
just tell ‘em – ‘Thanks but no ta.’
Did he have a sweet tooth, did he have a sweetheart,
when he was a youth, did he do some street art?
Did he have a dog, was it a disaster,
breaking all its legs and going round in plaster?
Swallowed by the water, following its master,
sinking like a stone, only sinking somewhat faster?
He had his staff, to help him do the walkin’,
he had his staff, to help him with the talkin’.
He had his path, it never had a fork in,
he made a lot of sandwiches and none of them had pork in.
If you had a party he knew how to cater,
he could feed a party with the one potater:
‘Don’t go thanking me, mate, credit the Creator.’
‘The wine’s all gone, son’, ‘Don’t you worry, mater,
let me have that water for a moment, would you, waiter?’
Down in the temple, kicking up a rumpus,
money-lenders wondering, ‘Is he going to thump us?
He don’t like us, is he gonna lump us,
spilling our blood all over our new jumpers?’
Treated like a criminal, flattened in a hymninal,
what the men don’t do, maybe the women’ll
A proper dad, he never really had one.
It’s not on file if the child was a glad one,
no trial – for whatever it was the lad done,
if that’s a Good Friday, I wouldn’t want a bad one.
John is one of the UK’s leading comic poets, though of course saying that sounds like something of a back-handed compliment – through comedy he manages to say serious things, and there’s as much craft and love of the spirit of poetry in his work as there is in any number of more ‘respected’ books on the shelves of our libraries and bookshops.
This poem, especially when you see John sing/speak it live, is an astonishing bit of craftsmanship – the sort of thing that makes me want to give up trying to be funny and just walk away. When I think of the joy he must’ve felt when the line about the sandwiches, for example, appeared – oh, he must’ve known he’d won something when that popped into his head or onto the page – I know that joy, only too rarely. I’m jealous and I’m so very glad this poem exists.
I always loved Jesus Christ Superstar when I was growing up – this does the same (and a different) job, in a space about an hour and half smaller.
The Stolen Orange
When I went out I stole an orange
I kept it in my pocket
It felt like a warm planet
Everywhere I went smelt of oranges
Whenever I got into an awkward situation
I’d take the orange out and smell it
And immediately on even dead branches I saw
The lovely and fierce orange blossom
That smells so much of joy
When I went out I stole an orange
It was a safeguard against imagining
There was nothing bright or special in the world
This is the poem I read at my father’s funeral. I can’t be doing with any of that mawkish ‘He’s just stepped into the next room…’ twaddle, and so I had to pick something different. This summed up what needed to be done, how one could move forward after such a bereavement – by remembering that the world is still bright and special outside.
I count myself fortunate to know Brian Patten a little – having read and loved his work as a teenager, I later on met him out on the circuit and he was always kind when I was starting out. It’s good when you can meet someone you’ve known on the page for a long time and discover that they’re not an arsehole when you meet them. (Of course, I’ve had the other sort of encounter with other heroes too.)
Brian has a wonderful simplicity of writing, generally an aware sort of free verse, that cuts absolutely and astonishingly to the heart of the matter – of the moment, of the emotion, of the loss, of the love. He makes it look so easy, so much of the time.
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
Another one who makes it look easy, except where Brian usually opts for free verse, Larkin is usually tightly formal, and yet (although this particular poem is unrhymed) they read smoothly, the end rhymes on the page often vanish in the reading and they become like carefully balanced letters from a misanthropic uncle.
Except, of course, under the misanthropy beats the same heart that beats in all of us, once which is searching to say those words ‘At once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind.’
In this poems those two moments of enjambment (the ‘Killed’ and ‘Unmendably’) are dramatically balanced; the assuming simplicity of the third stanza – no need to try to explain or elaborate on what it is like, this ‘new absence’. It’s lovely, again it’s heartbreaking. And so simple.
You walk unaware
Of the slender gazelle
That moves when you move
And is one with the limbs
That you have.
You live unaware
Of the faint, the unearthly
Echo of hooves
That throughout your white streams
Of clear clay that I love
Are in flight as you turn,
As you stand, as you move,
As you sleep, for the slender
Gazelle never rests
In your ivory grove.
Peake is, of course, better known for his novels and his drawings, but his poems are interesting beasts. Often couched in ‘poetic’ language, there is something awkward and a bit gauche about many of them, but when he allows the simplicity (there’s that word again!) to shine through you end up with something as clear and light as this small piece carved out for his young wife in the mid-thirties.
It makes me think of the Leonard Cohen poem Beneath My Hands with its similar echo of nature – ‘Beneath my hands / your small breasts / are the upturned bellies / of breathing fallen sparrows.’ – written twenty years later. (And allows me to sneak the first stanza of an eleventh poem onto my desert island.)
Putting Down The Cat
The assistant holds her on the table,
the fur hanging limp from her tiny skeleton,
and the veterinarian raises the needle of fluid
which will put the line through her ninth life.
‘Painless,’ he reassures me, ‘like counting
backwards from a hundred,’ but I want to tell him
that our poor cat cannot count at all,
much less to a hundred, much less backwards.
Collins writes these typically conversational American poems – and does so with such felicity that it sometimes looks like you’re reading a first draft, as if you’re listening to him talk to himself. And usually it works – because that is what you want from any artist, from any actor or comedian, for it to look like this is the first time they’ve said these words, as if you’re the privileged party to be there when they said them, because they won’t be said quite like that again. Even though you know, of course, that they will.
The other great quality that Collins has is of being able to walk with you through a normal situation – making coffee in the morning, or the sad visit to the vet – and leading you down a path of thought that would never have occurred to you, past the fork in the road you never noticed or imagined was there, and without making any single step seem unreal, unlikely or forced. And so you end up with this great lump of sadness expressed perfectly and terribly for this poor cat and what could have been ‘yet another poem about a dead pet’ (God, haven’t we all heard enough of those at open mics – God, haven’t we all written one!) becomes, for once, something worthwhile, and unique.
In the hour before dawn, when the smallest
sounds are amplified by the stillness,
before the first jumbos have skinned the rooftops,
Mandy wakes me again with her moans
from over the way, my early-morning call
for dawn, when the gardens are pungent,
the sycamores flushed with an unreal green.
As I stand by the window, I can see inside
her room, the parquet floor, the legs
of her bed, her curtains blowing, like veils.
In the house next door, Maureen
is drinking her tea in a dressing gown.
She wanders the garden, smelling the roses.
When she sees me standing there, naked
in morning glory, she waves, and slips the robe
from her shoulders, and stands like a wrinkled
Venus risen from her flowery gown,
her old brown body knotted, and faintly erotic
at such an hour. She starts to dance to this early
music, to the grace notes of lovers embracing
at dawn. I stand there and watch, tumescent
and spellbound, one eye on her and one
on the bedroom where Mandy is raising the roof
with her cries, an incantation to love, and Maureen
is stroking a huge, imaginary phallus, entreating me
to join this strange suburban rite, so I move
to the rhythm and blues of my strange neighbours,
and Mandy and I climax like lovers do, together,
and I come from the first-floor window
into the herb garden, and Maureen stands there
laughing, and clapping her hands in the sunshine.
Well, don’t you just want to be there?
I was in a hotel bar, a few years ago, with Neil and John Hegley (see above), after John and I had done a reading at the Wordsworth Trust in the Lake District, where Neil was poet-in-residence, and the conversation turned to poetry and poets, and that old chestnut, ‘Who’s your favourite poet?’ Raised its head. Being immersed in the poet whose poem comes next I gave his name, whereas John, who answered after me, with great wisdom side-stepped the question, saying, ‘I don’t have favourite poets, but favourite poems.’ Of course he was right.
For now, this one of Neil’s is a favourite.
Blue Tit On A String Of Peanuts
A cubic inch of some stars
weighs a hundred tons – Blue tit,
who could measure the power
of your tiny spark of energy? Your hair-thin legs
(one north-east, one due west) support
a scrap of volcano, four inches
of hurricane: and, seeing me you make the sound
of a grain of sawdust being sawn
by the minutest of saws.
Such a perfect little sketch – surprising, astonishing in its way.
And yet again, it’s simple, there’s not a wasted word – nine lines, that’s all it needs, thank you. Done.
MacCaig remains as one of my favourite poets just because when looking through his collected poems he scores ‘hits’ with me – poems that I sit up and say ‘Yes!’ about – more often than most other poets I know.
I Live In Great Sorrow
Foweles in the frith,
The fisses in the flod,
And I mon waxe wod:
Mulch sorw I walke with
For beste of bon and blod.
anonymous later 13th Century
Like the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, this is another little nugget that is firmly lodged in my brainpan and that is ready to fall out of my mouth at any moment. The literal translation of this bit of Middle English is: Birds in the wood, the fish in the river, and I must go mad: I live in great sorrow because of the best creature living. It’s the blues!
It’s always encouraging and humbling to remember that even 750 years ago, when this language of ours was still turbulently forming, the concerns of the poets writing were more or less just the same as they are today – oh, my baby’s left me (or never even spoken to me in the first place)! People haven’t changed all that much, things don’t change all that much.
About AF Harrold:
A.F. Harrold is a poet and performance poet who does things that aren’t always normal. Having performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Cheltenham and Oxford Literary Festivals, Reading and Leicester Comedy Festivals, Essex and Ledbury Poetry Festivals and been Poet-In-Residence at this 2008’s Glastonbury Festival, he now brings himself to Australia, a place he’s never been before. Very exciting stuff for a poet. Comedy and performance poetry without shouting, rapping, issues or angst, but with a healthy dose of the surreal, the peculiar and the sanitary. Visit www.afharrold.co.uk for stuff, such as a book of poetry (Logic & the Heart), two collections of comic verse (Postcards From The Hedgehog and The Man Who Spent Years In The Bath), and a book of peculiar poems for peculiar children (I Eat Squirrels). What fun?
Catch AF Harrold at QPF 2009:
Friday August 21 – 7:30pm – 10:30pm
A Tangle of Possiblilties: featuring Elizabeth Bachinsky, AF Harrold, Neil Murray & Hinemoana Baker
Tickets now on sale!
Saturday August 22 – 8:00pm
A Million Bright Things: featuring a short set from every bright thing on the 2009 program plus a feature set from the awesome Neil Murray
Sunday August 23 – 2:00pm – 3:00pm
Proscuitto and the Pink: featuring AF Harrold, Paul Magee & Angela Costi
Sunday August 23 – 3:15pm – 4:15pm
Museum of Brisbane presents – A City Machine: featuring AF Harrold, Elizabeth Bachinsky & Rob Morris
Sunday August 23 – 7:00pm – 9:00pm
Just Kissed Goodbye: feat. Paul Magee, Janet Jackson, Angela Costi, Jane Williams, Neil Murray, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Geoff Goodfellow, AF Harrold, Hinemoana Baker and the QPF Committee
All sessions are held at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St. Fortitude Valley.
For full program details head to www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com