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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Number 322 : John Whitworth "The Examiners"

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.

--John Whitworth

Hap Notes: John Whitworth (born 1945) is a British poet who excels in winning poetry prizes.  In his  book Being The Bad Guy (2007) fourteen of the poems won prizes. Today's poem won second place in a the London Times Literary Supplement's Foyles poetry competition. Poetry prizes in GB often have hefty sums and impressive judges (I believe Wendy Cope, whom we've mentioned before here, was a judge for this competition.) He is vocal in his defense of rhyming "formalist" poetry which is both refreshing and necessary.

In today's poem Whitworth is having fun with our paranoia (or is he?) and at the same time says some very grave things. His work is often the epitome of Shakespeare's comment in King Lear that "Jesters do oft prove prophets" and that the gravest things are said in jest.  

I'll let you decide who "they" are (you've probably already thought of "them") and give you a bit of info on some of the details of the poem. 

Plotinus was a Greek philosopher (205-270 A.D.) classified as a Neoplatonist and he had some interesting ideas that were influential to many religions but, really, Whitworth is mostly using the name as a marker for some kind of ancient, high-falutin', obscure philosopher.  Ockham's razor is statement by philosopher William of Ockham which states that simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones. Aquinas is the highly influential Dominican friar and philospher Thomas Aquinas.

The beta-query-minus is a grading system employed by traditional British universities using Greek letters (Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta for the American equivalent of A,B,C, D and the plus or minus accorded to indicate incremental differences). A Beta-query-minus is, I think, technically a B + (no kidding) but that isn't the point in the poem– it's about the act of grading itself.

The poem is both amusing and sinister, a very rare combination. Whitworth pulls people, objects and places that are at once random and calculated. In fact, it is this very calculated randomness that is deeply chilling; "they" are everywhere, in everything.

Whitworth is adamant about rhyming in an age when there are few poets (that are any good) doing it outside of rappers and Hip-Hop artists. The cadence and sound of rhyming is what often makes a poem remarkable and certainly makes it memorable. I daresay you could memorize this poem a lot faster than you could memorize something famous that did not rhyme, say for instance, the Gettysburg Address.

Whitworth argues (and I agree) that a poetically phrased statement is a wonderful thing but not necessarily a poem. Poems have cadence, rhyme, and form: try writing something decent in one of the forms of poetry, a villanelle or a sonnet, and see just how hard it is to make a point, turn a phrase, make an analogy without descending into forced Hallmark card cheesy sentimental territory. Just writing a poetic statement in a spiny, segmented way, is not writing poetry- it's cheating the form.

As far as unrhymed poems containing more "sincere" feelings, Whitworth argues that no poem is particularly "sincere",  the act of writing it is somewhat dissembling. I'd also argue that beautiful prose is something for which we all could strive in this day of text messages and tweets and blogs. But it's not necessarily poetry. Or rather, the world is full of poetry but this is not necessarily a poem.

Some poets have a gift for unrhymed free verse, no denying it. But in general, a good rhymed poem packs a much bigger punch. Don't you think this poem, The Examiners, explodes because of the form and the rhyme?

You can find more Whitworth here.

Here's a good quotation by Whitworth:
"I think a poet who never, or rarely, rhymes, isn’t much of a poet, just as I think that a painter who never draws figures, who very possibly can’t draw figures, isn’t much of a painter. And the same goes for a composer who never writes a tune. But then I am a reactionary old elitist. And probably not serious."

And another talking about today's poem:
"In the second stanza the rhymes lined themselves up: Aquinas, Plotinus, beta minus, which is an old Oxford and Cambridge method of marking using Greek letters with plusses and minuses. It produced wonderful marks like beta query minus, to be distinguished from beta minus query. How? God alone knows. So I've got these rhymes and I'm looking for others. That's how the Great Wall of China gets itself in. And last of all, the wall suggests an undermining of the wall. You see, it's not having a meaning and then looking for rhymes. It's the other way round. It was good enough for Poet Laureate John Dryden who admitted the rhyme had often 'helped him to the sense'. It's really a method of allowing your unconscious mind to work, or your Muse, to use an older terminology. It's the same thing. It's analogous to a method my daughter, who is a painter, uses. She sometimes lets the paint find its own way, and this suggests things to her. The rhymes and the rhythms are my wet paint."

1 comment:

  1. "The Examiners" was nicely put to music by John Wesley Harding (real name: Wesley Stace).