In my last post I mentioned the difficulty of finding a rhyme for ‘percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy’.
I was subsequently challenged, by the Miriam Rothschild Chair of Environmental Biology at the University of Cambridge, also known as my brother Bill, to produce a limerick on the subject. I believe he thought I would not be up to the task.
It is part of the role of an elder brother to provide an appropriate response to such insubordination. Hence the following (which may, as previously noted, be sung to the tune of the ‘Mexican Hat Dance’):
Percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy
I want it, whatever the cost to me
Then I want to have fun
Lying in the sun
But, alas, it still looks like frost to me.
Alternatively, in homage to a fellow-epileptic, I could adopt the Edward Lear style of limerick, with its repeated first line. That is often regarded as inferior because it doesn’t give the same snappy surprise at the end. I think this judgement is a little unfair to a more classic style.
In the case of sonnets. English poets have preferred the Shakesperian sonnet with its rhyming end-couplet. But many excellent poems have used the Petrarchan sonnet, including Wordsworth’s ‘On Westminster Bridge’. Should the Learian limerick not be accorded the same respect?
I’d place the Learian limerick with other verse forms that use repeated lines, including the villanelle (LINK: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villanelle) or the triolet (LINK: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triolet). Examples of the villanelle include Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night'.
The best known triolet is probably Frances Cornford’s ‘To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train’.
An example that shows there is still life in this verse form is Wendy Cope’s ‘Valentine’.
Which leads us, using the simpler rhyme, to:
There was a young man with a PEG
Who wanted a hard-boiled egg.
But no amount of lube
Would get it down the tube
Which saddened that young man with a PEG.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is recovering rapidly. She is currently being weaned off a tracheostomy, a process I shall probably not write poetry about just because it’s so difficult to find a rhyme. (This is a problem I’ve encountered before in trying to write about disability issues. My series of short poems about charitable organisations for disabled people came to a halt over the impossibility of rhyming ‘Blind and Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association’ and the like.)
In a couple of weeks she’s going to have a PEG inserted, so that she can be stomach-fed. PEG is the sort of word that’s much more helpful to a poet, rhyming with things like ‘boiled egg’ and ‘wooden leg’. I’m quite looking forward to writing that poem.
PEG stands for ‘percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy ‘. That’s not so easy to rhyme, though it does scan very nicely. My readers might be interested to know that, with a bit of practice, it’s possible to sing the words ‘percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy ‘ to the tune of the ‘Mexican Hat Dance’.
I haven’t yet informed the consultants of this fact, but I shall. I do think it’s valuable for the flow of information to go in two directions.
All that being so, I’m starting work with John again. I’ll keep you all informed how it goes.
I must apologise for my lack of new posts since before Christmas.
My partner has been in Intensive Care since New Year’s Day. John and I have agreed to suspend the mentoring process until I have a bit less on my mind.
Perhaps some work will come out of this. There’s certainly been plenty to write about: the long wait until five in the morning outside the resuscitation unit in A and E; the conversations with doctors anxious to explain the potential future; being, properly, told the worst that might happen and having to give a calm response; signing the forms giving permission for a tracheotomy; knowing, thanks to those serious conversation with doctors, what the worst might be but trying to retain a reasonably optimistic outlook, if only to protect myself.
Then there are all the sights and sounds of a busy ICU, including meeting, in the relatives’ room, other families, some of whom are doing the same as I, accompanying the long process of recovery, and some of whom are there waiting out what Dylan Thomas called ‘the dying of the light’; or the old lady all alone in a side ward, with a sign on the door saying ISOLATION.
But turning these experiences into writing is something that will come when I am able to look back on it all.
Wordsworth, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, suggested that poetry was produced from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Right at the moment, I’m going through the emotion. The tranquillity comes later.
‘Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.’ Alfred North Whitehead
One of John’s more surprising suggestions was that ‘Tattoo’, a poem from ‘Paddy: A Life’ could be turned into a pattern poem.
So I knew a bit about this stuff. John’s suggestion didn’t leave me completely baffled as to what he was on about.
John also mentioned Dylan Thomas’s pattern poems, such as ‘Vision and Prayer’ which I hadn’t come across before.
John’s initial sketch, scrawled on the corner of my manuscript, was an hourglass shape, like some of Dylan Thomas’s poems. In view of the subject matter - a tattoo based on naval signal flags - I felt a diamond would be more appropriate. With a bit of work, I produced the version included here (please click on the image to view).
When I showed it to Colin Hambrook, I suggested hopefully that its erratic edges looked quite like a flag waving in the wind. He disabused me rapidly, saying that if was going to do this, it needed to be done well and that the pattern must be clearly defined.
We then looked for help to Trish Wheatley, DAO Director, who used Adobe Indesign to turn it into a sharp diamond shape. It looked great at first sight, but I wasn’t happy with it. It lost too much of the emphasis that comes from well-chosen line breaks and stanzas, particularly as I wasn’t in control of the graphics and so couldn’t make experimental changes.
What is memorable when a writer like Herbert or Thomas tailors their words to create a shape which echoes the meaning becomes less impressive when it’s just a bit of text stuck through a graphics package. One loses too much of what turns the original words into transcription poetry, and gains too little in return.
So, reluctantly, my decision is that pattern poems are unlikely to be a productive direction to take in making transcription poetry. My most recent version of ‘Diagnosis’ follows another suggestion of John’s, that the first sentence (‘By the time I got to 60 I’d also got the terminal cancer news’) should be a single standalone line. (It took almost two in the original, and four in my pattern version.) The rest is now in quatrains.
Nevertheless, the journey has been an interesting one, and I’ve added one more element to my poetic toolbox. So I’ll be thinking about ways I could create a pattern poem from scratch.
A poem shaped like a wheelchair perhaps? Or a crutch? A poem where the words flail across the page like one of my epileptic fits?
Watch this space!
I talked in my last post about my found poems from NHS materials.
To be honest, part of the pleasure of this to me has been that I do like the dark attraction of medical materials. I enjoy old surgical textbooks with the frontispiece illustrations where you can fold back the skin to reveal the muscular structure underneath, and continue to reveal layer on layer of meticulously drawn anatomical detail. And when my partner and I visited Paris, the place I was most insistent on visiting was the extraordinary Musee Fragonard d’Alfort.
So how could I resist the opportunity to create poems with titles like ‘Gum Disease’, ‘Attaching the Leg Drainage Bag’ and ‘What is a Colonoscopy?’
But the project has also had a purely linguistic interest. There are some distinctive features of the way language is used within the NHS that make it particularly suited to this treatment.
The first is what one might call avoidance of the demotic, the lack of the way that ordinary people speak. Language is either Latinate, using technical medical terminology, or it is childish and patronising. Doctors talk about ‘faeces’, nurses and care workers talk about ‘poo’ or ‘Number Two’, but no-one in this curious world ever just has a shit.
We get given a lot of information materials, which tend to be of high quality. But they do have the slightly unusual feature that they talk calmly and clearly about things that no-one in the everyday world would feel at all calm or clear about. I’ve taken advantage of this peculiarity in poems such as ‘Diminished need for food and drink’.
Many letters within the NHS, particularly letters from consultants, have the function of creating a record to be added to the case notes. This gives them the curious characteristic that they are written for someone other than the person they are addressed to. So if you are the person the letter is addressed to, you will find that it tells you all sorts of things you already know.
A lot of NHS written material is quite banal. One has to search through a lot of purely functional material to find the nuggets of poetry. But not all that looks blandly functional is what it appears. There’s a particular pleasure in discovering, for example, how a poem can bring out the passive-aggressive undercurrent of an appointments letter.
I haven’t yet managed to create a poem exploring what might be called the ‘medical pop’. This piece of vocabulary is so widespread that students must get taught it at medical school: ‘Pop up on the couch’, ‘pop your shoes off’ ‘I’ll just pop this in your mouth’. (Someday I’d like to write a script about a doctor performing acts that get him struck off: ‘Pop your clothes off and I’ll just pop this in here...’)
Given that the same three letters provide nineteen different medical acronyms, you might think this betokens a certain lack of linguistic creativity. Unfortunately, it does seem to be purely a spoken mannerism.
I do sometimes create found poems from other sources. Unfortunately, Colin Hambrook, editor of DAO (who was present at one of my meetings with John) suggested that the NHS poems constituted such a unified group that other found poems would seem out of place. On reflection, I decided that he was right. So here’s a poem that didn’t make the cut.
(The hundred most common words in English, in order of frequency.)
The be to of and a
in that have I it
for, not on, with he
as you do.
At this but his
by from they, we say.
Her, she or an
will my one all.
So up, out,
Who get which, go me.
When make, can.
Like time, no?
Just him know.
Take person into year.
Your good. (Some could.)
Them see other than then.
Back after use two.
How our work first
Any these give day most us.
(Source: Wikipedia entry ‘Most common words in English’, which draws on an analysis of the Oxford English Corpus by Oxford Online, associated with the Oxford English Dictionary.)
Found poetry is the literary equivalent of collage. It takes pre-existing materials, generally ones which would not be seen to possess artistic merit, and uses the techniques of poetry to create fresh new works from apparently unpromising sources.
I have always enjoyed this process. In my student days I used to improvise live readings from the telephone directory. (Younger readers: ask your grandparents what that was.) That was partly about satirising the pomposity of a certain style of poetry reading, all hushed voices and reverence. But it was also straight enjoyment in the way that one could make something interesting out of quite randomly chosen material.
One feature of this book that will be new to a lot of people who are familiar with my work is a group of found poems drawn from NHS sources - a project which documents the range of written materials I encounter in my roles as disabled person and as carer for another disabled person.
This idea attracted me because of the way it reverses the power balance. The process takes materials that are about us, materials that are not open to discussion, turns the tables, and makes them the subject of an artistic enquiry. To take ownership of those words is a radical act.
Such poems take the words and add a different voice, that of the poet who is shaping them. The fact that the eyebrow being implicitly raised belongs to a disabled person gives strong extra meaning.
Interestingly, I’ve found that one of the results of this is that the poems are well suited to live reading. This is particularly the case if I am reading to an audience of disabled people.
One of the poems, ‘Suprapubic Catheterisation’ adapts a passage about how a catheter balloon, during insertion, may become passed down the urethra and then inflates outside the body. (Final stanza: ‘Obviously,/if this occurs,/you need to start again.’)
When this happened to some District Nurses attending my partner, they completely freaked. I then had the immense pleasure of being able to say ‘Let me explain; I’ve written a poem about this’.
Not that the nurses paid any attention to a mere carer; they called an ambulance instead, and we had to spend most of Christmas Eve in A & E. Which fact goes a long way to explaining what motivates me in creating these poems.
In my next post I shall discuss what features make NHS materials a particularly productive source for found poems.
One poem that John picked up on was the pastiche ‘Mary had a wheelchair’, a little poem about disability access:
Mary had a wheelchair
It rolled across the floor.
And everywhere that Mary went
She couldn’t get in the door.
I may have underestimated this poem. In live performance I use it to follow ‘What happens to old epileptics?’. Being the darkest poem I read live, all about drowning in the bath and the like, it tends to leave audiences a little shell-shocked. So I throw in a little humorous poem, everybody laughs and the tension is relieved.
I may as a result have assumed that any laughs the poem gets are the result of its context, and not given it enough credit in its own right. Admittedly, the poem was more bitingly satirical when I first wrote the poem twenty years ago, at a time when wheelchair access was a lot rarer than it is now. But John liked it all the same.
He suggested that I should produce a whole set of such parodies - a kind of crip Mother Goose. Well, I tried, honestly I did. But I can’t see it working.
For a start, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ does lend itself particularly well to parody, as seen in such examples as
Mary had a little lamb,
She ate it with mint sauce
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb went too, of course.
Mary had a little bear
To which she was so kind
And everywhere that Mary went
You saw her bear running along beside her.
(These two are taken from Arnold Silcock’s 1952 collection ‘Verse and Worse’.)
It’s very well known, which helps with a parody. It has a very simple structure and rhyme scheme. A quick change of ending to the first line, and off you go. And it’s also a bit twee, a characteristic which cries out for debunking.
Most nursery rhymes are not like this; they are folk poetry, whose originals are significantly more forthright than bowdlerised later edits. The earliest collection of nursery rhymes, the 1744 ‘Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book’ contains this gem
Little Robin Red breast,
Sitting on a pole,
Niddle, Noddle, went his head.
And poop went his hole.
The same source produces:
Piss a Bed,
Piss a Bed,
Your Bum is so heavy,
You can't get up.
And rhymes such as ‘Three Blind Mice’ and ‘Jack and Jill’ have in common with classic fairy stories that they contain a remarkable degree of physical violence.
But ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ is a different kind of work. Unusually, we know when and by whom it was written. It was an original poem by the American Sarah Josepha Hale, published in 1830. It’s never been part of an oral tradition, so it’s retained its nineteenth century prissiness.
Few rhymes lend themselves quite so well to parody. Obviously, you can shoehorn disability references into existing rhymes, to produce stuff like
Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John
Went to bed with his prosthesis on
One leg off and one leg on
Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John
But so what? For the exercise to have any point, it has to achieve some degree of wider comment or satirical statement. And that’s not so easy.
One of the things John first picked up on about my existing work was my liking for strict versification. Where possible, I like to write poems that have strict metre and rhyme, as in ‘Bite the Hand that Feeds You’ (‘Frank is a nice boy/He never makes a fuss’/Frank spends all his time at home/He can’t get on the bus’).
John suggested I should read Charles Causley. Causley was a twentieth Century Cornish poet, best known for ‘Timothy Winters’, a poem drawing on his own experience as a schoolteacher, which starts:
Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.
He is probably, like Betjeman, one of those poets who is underestimated because of the very accessibility of his work. (This does not apply to his fellow poets; Causley’s admirers included Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings.)
I’ve known Causley’s work since the 1960s, but I’m happy to make myself more familiar with it. That’s the kind of homework that won’t prove at all dreary.
But John was suggesting that I should concentrate on this kind of work. I was sceptical. What a poem lends itself to formally varies a lot.
The thing is that I don’t find that creating poems is a matter of thinking ‘let’s write about so and so’ and then whacking it into whatever form takes my fancy: vers libre, sonnet, ottava rima...
The idea for a poem always contains some sense of what its formal qualities will be. I’m pleased if that can have clear versification and rhyme, but it doesn’t always present itself like that.
For example, ‘What Happens to Old Epileptics?’ was well suited to four line rhyming stanzas. I remember drawing conscious inspiration from Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’. But ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’, a poem about seeing the world from a state of epileptic confusion, demanded something more free-form. If that poem had any formal inspiration, it was probably beat poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
As it happens I’ve since started writing new poems with strong formal qualities. But I’ll talk about them another time.
The late Dennis Potter once put forward the idea that each writer has their own field to plough. The nature of that field is determined by who we are - what lives we have lived, what we feel strongly about, what resonates for us.
The process of writing is about continuing to find new ways turn that soil over and produce work that is fresh and exciting.
For me that territory has long been about disability. I have wanted to speak out about my own experiences of epilepsy. I also sought to use writing and performance as a way of standing up for other disabled people.
And I have always tried to find ways to make heard the voices of disabled people. My first paid journalism, in 1971, was an article in Frendz 11 called ‘What Have They Done to My Brain, Ma?’, in which I interviewed a young man who’d been diagnosed as schizophrenic and given Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT).
So I’d started to write about disability issues before I’d even identified as disabled myself. (All that and an illustration by Barney Bubbles. The underground press was a wonderful thing.)
In my poetic practices, all this has produced several distinct strands of work, which I’m now pulling together for the book.
There are a set of poems, which I’ve been performing live for a couple of decades. This includes several poems about my experiences of epilepsy, such as ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’ and ‘What happens to old epileptics?’, plus some old favourites like ‘Bite the Hand that Feeds You’.
There’s a set of found poems based on material from NHS sources such as leaflets and appointments letters. This is a project I’ve been working on for a while, though the work has not previously received much public exposure. I thought it might be fun to turn the tables a little and take control of some of the language that more commonly controls us.
Those were planned specifically as cycles of poems, with each individual poem acting like a scene in a script, playing a part in the overall structure. But some of them do work as standalone poems, and John has been suggesting ways of exploring alternative formats for them.
That seemed to me, when I produced an initial draft, to create a neat structure. Three sections and an introduction. What could be more orderly than that?
I should have known better. I’ve never been great at ‘orderly’. The mentoring has provoked a rush of creative energy, and I’ve been turning out a load of new poems. Ploughing that field from a new direction, I’ve started to find some new ways of looking at my experience of epilepsy, and to make some work that springs from my current role as a disabled carer.
This is all very exciting for me, but I’m going to have to work out a new structure for the book.
I am currently being mentored by John O’Donoghue to produce my first collection of poems, ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’. I’m editing existing material and producing new work, and I’ll be blogging about the process. It’s perhaps a surprise that I haven’t done any of this previously.
I’ve been a mentor (to Colin Hambrook, now Editor of DAO - so that went alright) but never been mentored myself. I’ve been blogged about, but never blogged.
And I’ve been performing my poems for the last thirty years, mainly but not entirely at Disability Arts events, everywhere from Newcastle on Tyne to Chichester, from Cheltenham to Norwich, been published in magazines and anthologies and online. Yet I’ve never had them published in book form.
I’ve written books, of course, notably ‘Disabled We Stand’ (1981), which won awards here and in the US, and is still on academic reading lists as a classic radical text
That didn’t sell well enough to make it into a second edition, perhaps because in 1981 books editors didn’t have disability on their radar, so it didn’t get reviewed much, but over the years I’ve met a succession of people who’ve told me that my book changed their lives. That’s not a bad thing for a writer to have achieved.
I’ve written a fair bit for radio and television, ranging from children’s radio to EastEnders. That included ‘Inmates’, the first ever (and still, nearly 25 years on, pretty much the only) mainstream sitcom pilot commissioned by the BBC from a disabled writer for performance by disabled actors.
I also edited ‘Hidden Dragons: Writing by Disabled People in Wales’. I enjoy editing, and wish I’d had the chance to do more. I think I do it well. I have lots of experience copy-editing my own work, but I’ve come to realise that one thing I’ve gained from all that scriptwriting has been a good grasp of structure.
I’ve been a writer in residence, funded by Leverhulme, at the Center for Citizen Participation, Brunel University, which is where I produced ‘Neglected Voices’.
All that, and now I’m writing my first blog. Exciting, isn’t it?