Part Four of A Writer’s Life
I became intoxicated by poetry in my teenage years. At school, we plunged deep into the Metaphysical Poets, were thrilled by D.H. Lawrence, and learnt to love Wordsworth. I also craved more recent poets untouched by the exam syllabus. I managed to put together enough money to buy paperbacks of poetry with titles such as Beat Poets and Jazz Poems, and by authors such as e.e.cummings and Laurie Lee, and Liverpool Poets like Roger McGough. Diving into these chimed in with our growing sense of the new freedom of the 1960s.
This is, I admit, a prelude to talking about my own poetry. Of course, writing heartfelt poems is what teenagers do, and of course I was influenced by all the above poets, leading to some cringe-making lines. But nevertheless, some of those poems did come good, and two have stories attached to them, which I am about to tell. I still have my ‘Poems’ notebook with its marbled hardback cover and I find I can bear to read most of those written down there. And the earliest poem I have on record is far distant enough to be entertaining – we were instructed at school to write something epic about the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s my effort, aged about twelve – the only thing I’ve ever preserved from my school exercise books.
Those of you who’ve read my blog before may remember how I began writing for Jackie magazine while I was still in the Sixth Form at school. That was in October 1966, and emboldened by this moderate success, I decided to try my luck with poems. Not to Jackie, of course, but to the prestigious ‘Poetry Review’. I’m afraid I don’t remember how or why I came to choose that august publication, but it was certainly a daring move. I had the naivety to give anything a shot, and – I suppose – thought I might as well aim high. My diary of Jan 7th, 1967, records: ‘The other day I sent off some poetry to Poetry Review for criticism (took great courage!!)’.
To my astonishment, I had an encouraging letter back from the editor – which, sadly, I haven’t kept – saying he’d like to publish the one called French Boy, for a fee. I think it was around two guineas. And so it was duly included, in Autumn 1967 issue. He also asked if I could send him further poems in future. But, with the carelessness of youth, I didn’t get round to doing that. Life was opening up at a rapid pace – I was at Cambridge university by the time it was published that autumn, and was distracted by a myriad of other exciting possibilities. I even lost or threw out the edition of Poetry Review containing the poem. (Here are a couple of others from around the same era, which I discovered on the internet.)
Fast forward to 2005, when I visited my daughter in Australia, while she and her boyfriend were living in Sydney for a few years. I’d rented a studio flat nearby, but as it wasn’t available for the first few days, I had to look elsewhere for a bed. Two old friends of mine from astrology circles, Derek and Julia Parker, had emigrated to Sydney not long beforehand, and when I contacted them, they said they’d be delighted to put me up for the interim. Julia is an astrologer of repute, and Derek a man of broad literary accomplishments; together they’d written the best-selling ‘The Compleat Astrologer’.
Below: Derek and Julia Parker during my visit to Australia, and their best-selling treatise on astrology
Somehow, during one of our delightful catch-up conversations, I mentioned the Poetry Review and how I’d had a poem published there as a teenager.
‘But I was the editor at the time!’ said Derek.
I had completely forgotten the name of the kind editor but, yes of course – it came back to me now! ‘I don’t suppose you have a copy of that issue, do you? I no longer have mine.’
‘Of course,’ he said, and pulled it down from the shelf.
I took the photocopy he made me, and vowed never to lose sight of it again. Yes, I can criticise it – but it did make the pages of a worthy poetry journal. And how foolish I was not to take that further. I still occasionally write poetry, but the chance to really build it as a craft has passed now.
The poem is one of a group I wrote about a rather miserable French exchange with an uptight family whose holiday home was in an uninteresting area of sand dunes and summer villas, full of moderately wealthy bourgeoisie and their offspring. Appearances and conformity were the rule of the day. The visit inspired a number of complaining poems on my part – which I won’t bore anyone with – and this one was about a lad who was a little too good to be true in appearance, and a little too vain to be likeable.
French Boy Zut he said neatly And opened two rows of white teeth to grin charmingly. His slim brown fingers plucked the strings precisely and his blond hair was oh so shiny, trimmed with an enchanting touch, a casual touch. The golden Apollo muscles Rippled beneath his blue shirt. The careful notes flickered and broke. Zut because this, too, was part of the flawless brown shell Poetry Review – Edited by Derek Parker Vol LVIII, no. 3, Autumn 1967.
The Albert Hall
At the same time that I submitted the poem for Derek’s attention, I also sent one off elsewhere. The diary tells the tale – here’s the full entry:
Diary entry for Jan 7th 1967
Most extraordinary thing happened today. Yes actually HAPPENED!!! Well the other day I sent off some poetry to Poetry Review for criticism (took great courage!!) I was typing some poems out and came across the ‘Folk Club’ one which is rather frivolous to put it mildly. Typed it out then thought I’d better not send it with the rest cos it wasn’t really the same kind of thing. So I sent it off to ‘Sing’, one of the folk song magazines – didn’t even know if it was still in print. Expected it back with a note saying ‘What the hell did you send us this for?’ Well today the phone went for me, and a voice said, ‘This is Eric Winter, Editor of ‘Sing’’. He said how much he liked my poem and said they would print it next issue, and also he showed it to Pete Seeger last night who also liked it, and gave a recital of it at his concert in the Royal Albert Hall! Complete with actions – and apparently the audience loved it! Then E. Winter wanted to know if I’d written any more poems, prose, songs etc and if I’d send him some, and come and see him if I was in London at all. V. Flattering! Great – it’s a big laff, but that’s made my day.
Eh? What? Pete Seeger read out my poem? I had almost forgotten about it, or assumed it was a distorted memory – but the diary doesn’t lie. (Truly, it doesn’t!) Again, I can only blame the casualness of youth. And perhaps an element of not enough self-belief. As I’ve said since to other budding writers, you have to take your achievements seriously. Surprisingly, it is too easy to assume that a success – maybe in a competition, or in getting a story published – was a fluke. That anyone could have done it, and that it doesn’t indicate any real value. But this shrugging off of success is as much of a trap for a writer as is being too conceited about one’s chances. So, please take a lesson from me in this respect. Cherish what you achieve, and build on little successes.
Here’s the poem – it’s based on the folk club in Birmingham, which I’ve written about in ‘Singing at the Holy Ground’.
Folk Club (March 1966) Fred plays the guitar brrm brrm brrm brrm and we all say well done Fred what was that you played? and drink our beer. And Fred says this song is called and it comes from well actually I learnt it off a fellah named sorry if I forget the words I only worked it out last well here goes – brrm brrm brrm brrm clap clap clap well done Fred because everyone likes Fred and we drink more beer and say o look here comes Clive, but which Clive is it? well tonight it is big Clive and he has had all his long black curls CUT OFF. Gasps. Well they were an institution you could laugh or rave or scream or maybe even tell the time by them if you tried hard enough. you please yourself. but now he looks like a new shorn sheep well I suppose he is in a way. brrm brrm brrm brrm sssh - tell me later. he’s out of tune and i don’t like his voice and brrm brrm brrm brrm brrm ALL JOIN IN THE CHORUS tOOralay tOOralay tOOralay o! and haul away Joe cos we’ll all kill Paddy Doyle for his boots would you all take your glasses downstairs please. singing whackfoldedaddyo and we’ll all go together Brrm brrm brrm.
And no, I didn’t keep a copy of ‘Sing’ magazine where it was published. And no, I didn’t follow up by sending Eric Winter other contributions. Sigh. As I said, please don’t take a lesson from me.
But if you’d like to read one of my more recent offerings, here’s a selection: