I began reading poetry aloud to my friends when I was about sixteen. This reading aloud often contained a slight edge of coercion: often, it was unannounced, I would simply begin reading and expect to be listened to. By the time I was eighteen, I had formed my reading voice into a drawl with a certain archness, something akin to T.S. Eliot’s. What I aimed to do was, with as little input as possible, allow the words to be presented ‘simply’.
Of course, such a drawl, in my rather RP (though eccentric, oddly formed) accent is very far from neutral: really, it’s quite arrogant. This is how one is supposed to read, the same as liberal neutrality says ‘this is how one is supposed to see’ and so on.
At grammar school, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, I met friends who shared this passion for verbalized poetics, and who shared a certain violence in their delivery too; a not-quite-self-conscious boyish masculinity, a very male poetics. A poetics, moreover, twinned strongly with large amounts of alcohol, generally very cheap red wine, and cigarettes - Rothmans and Embassy, mostly. Thinking of this still gives me a slight sickness – remembering those crushing hangovers of adolescence, which, though quicker to depart, are – in my memory at least – redolent of much greater sadness. I do not know if I drink less now, but I certainly drink better (in a better manner; not, sadly, better wine). Also, I rarely wake in strange places.
There were two friends who were most important to this boyish poetics, and I’ll talk about one: X. I met X in a lunchtime literature class, given by the school’s head of English. It was a very good class, with four or six boys, and one or two teachers, sitting drinking coffee and discussing poems, novels, criticism. It was here I learnt about F. R. Leavis, for instance - what use that has been. Here too I gained a slight suspicion of over-cleverness in writing, found that the discipline of Literature was a middle-class invention. The latter was important, briefly, because I too was a middle-class invention and thought it might be something to pursue. However, I also learnt to find the analysis of writing dull and circular, and fell out with it. Perhaps leading to my general and not at all original suspicion of middle-class invention.
I saw X again after the first class, at the end of school, by the buses. He had an odd stance - which I later put down to his love of boxing - messy hair, a rumpled suit, old shoes and a strong animal smell. His face was very appealing: he was very good-looking, very attractive, and quietly self-assured. A year older too, and he had a car. His voice was flat and quite gentle, not posh like mine. Simply - educated. Through time I would learn that his mother was a television journalist and his father built boats, that he loved his mother a little too much and that his father had beaten him past an age he viewed as acceptable, or was, indeed, acceptable in the small (sometimes large) ‘c’ conservative, rather poor, town he was from.
I imagine I asked him what he was reading, though I cannot remember. I do remember him saying that he was mainly reading poetry and short stories, because he could not concentrate on novels. He was a year older than me, taking exams that would see his entrance into Oxford or not. This was not, however, the real reason. His concentration did not pick up the next year, when he’d graduated and decided not to go to university; when he would sit on the back of country buses all day reading novels like Lolita and The Secret Agent.
We would talk at the bus shelter often, but never during the school day. X was the first friend I’d made at the school, where – during the first year – I had a terrible time. The first thing was my suit. On the brochure it had said: Boys may wear black or charcoal grey suits. It is, I think, somewhat suspicious to wear a black suit outside of a formal event, and so I bought a charcoal grey suit. And found myself the only boy not in black. I was also posh, and, having moved from a school that was mixed, where my only friends were girls, did not know how to ape masculinity. I learnt, though, and aped it well enough, and am still ashamed by this. I was not sporty, either, and most of the boys were. I did not care about the culture most of the boys cared about. I lived in the deep country rather than the town. I did not smoke weed so did not fit into the school’s vibrant stoner subculture. I was not one of the weird awkward boys – the drama freaks, the computer kids, the just plainly socially awkward, the religious. I hated the place, because it was petty bourgeois and, though the teaching was good, it was anti-intellectual. I was excitable in lessons because I loved to learn, and loved more dearly (a habit, sometimes unfortunate, that I have not given up), to show what I knew. I was wearing the wrong suit.
And so, I loved talking to X. Finally, a kindred spirit. I was excited to tell L, my girlfriend then, fiancée now, about him. After a while I invited him to my house. I did not like to go out, was too young for pubs anyway. So he drove. It was raining. My bedroom was in a converted coal shed and semi-detached from the main house. I took him in there and we sat on my leather sofa and talked. He had bought wine. I had wine. Cheap and red. We smoked cigarettes and talked. I showed him books. I would go into my mother’s study and take, from her shelf, books of poetry I had been curious about. Or my own books. That night, we read Baudelaire and numerous others, I remember the stack on the sofa when X left.
But, there, we began forming more certain attachments. For Larkin, Eliot, Pound, sometimes Spender; for Sylvia Plath. He liked Hughes more than I did. We laughed at Andrew Motion. Rochester also figured highly in my esteem, less so in X’s. He liked contemporary lyrically driven music more than I did, I loved jazz. Most important, though, was The Penguin Book of English Verse, a book from my mother’s shelf, with a hard black cover and embossed gold lettering. A book that was heavy, too heavy to lift, and heavy with possibility and history, with excitement. A book that ended, in that edition at least, in the late 80s with Thom Gunn, or so I remember. A book that was responsible for the oddly English rather than Anglo-American or British flavour of the poetry I knew and felt for until I finished university.
This book was an education in itself. We would sit next to each other, our wine balancing on our knees, the book between us and open it at random. And then: we would read to each other. We fell into the habit of alternating verses: it happened naturally, without thought or reason. We would read softly or loudly. Drunkenly, always. Alcohol and poetry are forever twinned in my mind, as is opera. Such emotional expressions of humanity are rarely enjoyed sober, when one’s faculties of reason or whatever hold you back so firmly. Is this an issue that springs from being English or, from my particular background (in which I appreciate art but feel guilty for doing so) or is it a class thing, more broadly related to the middle class? Or, is it because poetry is a little dull or silly? As opera is, actually. Unless, maybe, one understands music.
Whatever the reason, we were always drunk. There is a poem by Larkin, ‘The Card Players’, from High Windows which is based upon a 17th century Flemish painting, which always stuck in my mind
Jan van Hogspuew staggers to the door
and pisses at the dark. Outside, the rain
courses in the car-ruts down the steep mud lane.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more,
We would stagger. L, on the occasions she watched us, would remark that after a certain point our drunkenness would turn us almost mute, uttering grunts and incoherent sentences. And yet, this did not seem to make us any less excited by what we were saying, it just made us less exciting. But what was most redolent was the rain, pissing at the dark – the door of my bedroom, remember, opened onto the garden. And the rain seemed eternal, and the near-mud lane behind the garden wall. And so on. Just our exploit was books rather than cards: but maybe books enjoyed in the same manner? Certainly the rush of playing poker, which I love and lose money at, is similar, the leaning back drunk and allowing one’s mind to flow into something so outside of oneself, so complicated. The communing.
The central experience of those nights, then. I think we had been drinking and poeming together for a month or two. We were getting into T.S.. Indeed, we would talk feverishly about him. Loved ‘Prufrock’, and the others. But had been scared off of ‘The Waste Land.’ Both of us. Instinctually. It was monumental. I seventeen, he eighteen. And one night I turned to him, almost shyly, and asked if he’d like to read it too. We were solemn. I might have asked him to bed, though if I had, it would have (was, later) much less timid. And so, we drew close, and I opened the copy – what was it in? In a collection of Eliot’s, in the Penguin? I cannot remember. It was on paper. We drew close and filled out glasses to the brim, lit cigarettes.
I broke off. I had dropped ash onto my leg, or something.
“Would you like to read first, or should I?” and “Let’s skip the Latin, We can’t understand it and we can’t pronounce it.”
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land
That is all I remember. Well, I remember more but it is wrong and corrupted. Though most of the poetry I read at this point was read aloud, I can remember little of it. I must have read The Waste Land, aloud or otherwise, fifty or so times, and yet I have the first two lines and “So many, I had not thought death had undone so many”, which is Dante anyway.
After we had conquered The Waste Land, no other poems worried us. It wasn’t as odd or esoteric as we’d been led to believe. Poetry opened itself up.
- Jago Rackham