Last night, Howard Jacobson won the coveted Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction of the year published by a Commonwealth author (hence the exclusion of Americans), roughly the UK's equivalent, in prestige, to the Pulitzer. Jacobson was not the bookies favourite, but he has been on the radio and in the papers all week over here, arguing for the importance of comedy in fiction (he is a very funny writer).
This morning, on BBC 4, he explained how he felt that all novels should be funny, always. I am not convinced by this claim, yet at the same time recognise the many comedic contributions to the form by British writers of the last century, such as Waugh, Wodehouse and Amis (pere). Light verse in England, as I intimated on Sunday, is itself a noble genre - what would British poetry be without its Copes, its Smiths? Auden and Larkin were often at their best when funny. Poetry couldn't cope without its humourists. I thought about following the "New Seriousness", in all seriousness, with "The New Comedy", but that seemed a bit wide of the mark.
Establishment poetry in the UK sometimes seems a bit shy of laugh-aloud humour in poetry. When comedy appears in British poetry it can tend to be either pub-stand-up funny (and a bit crass) or rather po-faced (very few Cambridge school poets are funny often). Not very precise, really, but maybe it helps to imagine what the middle-ground of poetry humour might be - not so much wit, or comedy, as the willingness to perform, in some way, one's work - a generosity towards an audience.
The idea that poetry can entertain, can delight, as well as inform, is vital for many poets in the UK, and so today I wish to welcome three poets, who, in a variety of ways - either through music hall tradition, or sheer musicality, staging plays, or simply slamming them, have explored the ways poetry can reach wider audiences, without sacrificing quality or vision. Each is respected, published, and admired for the way their language works on the page. Yet each has one ear on the stage, as well. They might be surprised to find themselves linked in this way, but for me, these are some of the rising best of the UK's poetic Entertainers.
A.F. Harrold is based in Reading, England. He was born in Sussex in 1975. His publications include two full poetry collections, Logic And The Heart (Two Rivers Press, 2004) and Flood (Two Rivers Press, 2010), and one limited edition collection in collaboration with artist Jo Thomas, Of Birds & Bees (Quirkstandard's Alternative, 2008). Also, two collections of comic prose and poetry, Postcards From The Hedgehog (Two Rivers Press, 2007) and The Man Who Spent Years In The Bath (Quirkstandard's Alternative, 2008), and a book of poetry for children I Eat Squirrels (Quirkstandard's Alternative, 2009). He has performed poetry, comedy and cabaret around the world, at many festivals. In 2008 he was the Glastonbury Festival's Official Website's Official Poet-in-Residence. This year he is working on a poetry commission for Cheltenham Festival of Literature using suggestions gathered on Twitter to write a brand new suite of poems which will be unveiled on stage towards the end of the Festival.
I am almost always a helpless killer of houseplants.
When my obituary gets written it won't read -
the poet, who died peacefully in the bath last night,
is survived by three aspidistra and a succulent.
No - they will have gone on long before me.
I'm led to believe it may be an inherited trait -
my nan never received flowers for long.
She gave away growing gifts as soon as
the generous givers were out of the room.
My mother took them in - they grew for her.
I suffer an addictive personality - in short bursts.
Sudden enthusiasms erupt and wither with time -
what filled my days, mind and hands soon goes -
the love affair runs out of steam, the steamer sits
filling a corner of the kitchen dry and silent.
Poor plants though - taken in always in good faith
and overwatered liberally for a few quick weeks -
they wilt with my indulgence, my diligence, my care,
but how else, I ask, can I show them my love?
Like flannels they droop, look sick, and I feel guilt,
promise to give them space, and soon do just that.
Passing through the living room one day, I notice
a stick drop its last yellow leaf into a pot of dry earth -
and I apologise, feel the guilt twist, but run outside
to where my new friend sits waiting in her new car.
Jacob Sam-La Rose is a London-born poet, educator and editor of Guyanese heritage. His work has been published in several anthologies, including Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (2010), Penguin's Poems for Love (2009), City State: New London Poetry (2009) and Michael Rosen's A-Z: The Best Children's Poetry from Agard to Zephaniah (2009). His debut pamphlet collection, Communion (2006), was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice. He has undertaken a broad range of commissions and projects and has worked with organisations such as the National Theatre, The Barbican, London Open House, Glyndebourne, The Roundhouse, The Royal Festival Hall and Apples & Snakes, and as Poet-in-residence for BBC London, Raffles Institution and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. He has served as the Artistic Director of the London Teenage Poetry Slam since 2003.
How to be Black
There's a little of you in everything,
and always someone trying to muscle in
on the act, trying to be the new you.
Mostly, you're cool about it, but
all the attention gets tired real quick -
eyes peering in, eager to strip you back,
layer by layer, until there's nothing left.
Deep down, there's a lot of people scared
that there's more of you around than they
can swallow, but by the same token
there's always someone trying to ape you
like a bad fax. Go 'head you say,
shine as hard as you like. See if I don't
ball my cheeks n' blow your light bulb out.
That ol' shadow gig's just a day job.
Mostly, you work nights.
Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985 and is currently living in Grasmere as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust. She studied Social and Political Science at Christ's College, Cambridge, where she was involved in running the 'CB1 Poetry' reading series. A previous winner of the Foyle Young Poets competition, Helen received an Eric Gregory Award in 2007 and won the Manchester Young Writer prize in 2008. She has published two pamphlets with Tall-lighthouse press, the shape of every box and a pint for the ghost: a Poetry Book Society choice for Spring 2010. In 2010, she published Parallax (for Justin), a limited edition pamphlet with Forest Publications. Helen also writes drama for stage and radio, and her short play about climbers Careless Torque was performed in London in 2009.
Bacardi in a Beer Can
Those were the Bacardi-in-a-beer-can days,
the pizza-in-a-graveyard afternoons, our mornings
written off by late shifts in a night club so sedate
the bouncers turned to stone outside. Days
tripping drunk over other days, months lined up
like cans of beans in supermarket aisles.
Our evenings of imaginary football in the park,
each free kick landing in Bejing, your shirt-off
victory lap before the swaying crowd of trees
until the day we jumped towards the knackered
tyre swing, came down winded in the garden
of a house too neat for us. These Sunday service days,
these stripped-wood-floor days that we don't
have names for anyway and share a nightly silence
cradling our pints, still as two ex-miners on a bench
beside the flattened village green
who watch cars crawling up the motorway,
and pass a cigarette no different from the last.