Saturday, November 2, 2013
Number 327: James Fenton "God, A Poem"
God, A Poem
A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,
A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get underground.
Oh he said: 'If you lay off the crumpet
I'll see you alright in the end.
Just hang on until the last trumpet.
Have faith in me, chum-I'm your friend.
' But if you remind him, he'll tell you:
'I'm sorry, I must have been pissed-
Though your name rings a sort of a bell. You
Should have guessed that I do not exist.
'I didn't exist at Creation,
I didn't exist at the Flood,
And I won't be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud-
'Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is
In soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.
'You're a nasty surprise in a sandwich.
You're a drawing-pin caught in my sock.
You're the limpest of shakes from a hand which
I'd have thought would be firm as a rock,
'You're a serious mistake in a nightie,
You're a grave disappointment all round- That's all you are,
' says th'Almighty, '
And that's all that you'll be underground.'
James Fenton may be the richest poet in the world, which is neither here nor there, really– he's won bushels of awards and is one of the most highly regarded poets in the world, and certainly Great Britain. He was just very clever in taking, as payment, 1% of the overall box office gross of a musical for which he helped write the theatrical "book": Les Miz. The total, and counting, is in the hundreds of millions world wide. I don't think his aim was wealth. But there you have it.
He also may be the poet who has entertained the most exciting life in the world. In college (Oxford, of course) he was close pals with Christopher Hitchens and maintained the friendship until Hitchens death in 2011. He is a close friend of Martin Amis. As a political correspondent he was there when the U.S. pulled out of Viet Nam, wrote about Cambodia and reported on the political upheaval in the Philippines. He was so close to the action with the Aquino-Marcos upheaval he is quoted as saying “I could even tell you what perfume Imelda Marcos was wearing.”He still has a towel from Imelda's bathroom which he took as a, what? Memento. Let's say that. He has written books about all this in addition to garnering the Queen's Gold Medal and the Whitbread Prize for poetry. Good Lord.
Today's poem is amusing, a bit Noel Cowardesque (well, it is, isn't it?) and quite a conundrum. How can an entity who doesn't exist have a conversation? What is the poet saying with this little twist. Who is creating whom in this?
I suppose you know that "laying off the crumpet" is about sex, "crumpet" being a slang term for a woman, girl, or any cute human you might have your eye on. Soteriological, if you'd rather I looked it up than you, relates to salvation. A drawing pin is thumbtack and the like. Pissed is the British term for drunk.
The mention of the diet of worms is clever– sure, underground you are worm fodder but also the Diet of Worms was an assembly, the most famous of which was the one in 1521 accusing Martin Luther of heresy. Interestingly enough, what the Diet was unhappy with (well, there was more that just this) was Luther's assertion that salvation comes from faith alone without reference to good works, alms, penance, or the church's sacraments. Just an interesting twist on the poem. And yes, I feel certain Fenton knew this- he's one of those big brain guys who comes by the title genius more accurately than most.
I say genius in spite of the fact that he has written of his love for the "Carry On" movies. If you've never seen one, they are kind of a Benny Hill like slapstick that is completely lost on me. But then, I' not crazy about the Three Stooges either and they have a few intelligent defenders, too.
I'm just enough of a Lutheran to have held on to this poem until after Reformation Day(Oct.31) and All Saint's Day (Nov. 1).
You can certainly see an amount of Fenton's Auden influence, and indeed, the apocalyptic nonsense poem (as Dana Gioia calls it) is Auden-like.
There is a great Telegraph interview with Fenton .here.
Dana Gioia has a well-written (as usual) overview of Fenton here.
You can find more Fenton here but don't expect it to be strictly light acerbic verse. His poetry ranges from devastatingly serious to touchingly romantic, too.
Here's a good Fenton quote:
'My feeling is that poetry will wither on the vine if you don't regularly come back to the simplest fundamentals of the poem: rhythm, rhyme, simple subjects – love, death, war."
"Production of a collection of poems every three years or every five years, or whatever, looks good, on paper. But it might not be good; it might be writing on a kind of automatic pilot."
By the by, I got the picture of the "ratburger" at (no kidding) ratburgers.com. If you go there be prepared - it's all ratty fast food. And that night gown in the masthead looks just like the awful ones I used to get for Christmas (they were scratchy, too, with cheap lace and sizing. Nasty things, really).