Christopher Arksey chooses poems by Philip Larkin, Christopher Reid and U.A. Fanthorpe to take to his desert island
‘Sunny Prestatyn’ by Philip Larkin
For fuck’s sake, I say, the second I arrive. Would you look at that? There, raked into the sand at my feet, a ‘tuberous cock and balls’ welcomes me ashore. So this is Titch Thomas’s Island, is it? Perfect. It’s well signposted though, I’ll give him that. No sooner have I passed one set of directions than another graffitied dick arrows me the right way. Where to, I can’t say. I just hope there’s a cosy cave around here where – wait, is that a St. George’s flag?
I first read ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ as an impressionable undergraduate, and it instantly appealed to me. Or the little bastard in me, I should say. The same little bastard who religiously defaced his dad’s Daily Mail. The same who taped over the first lesson of a GCSE French cassette with Derek and Clive’s ‘You Stupid Cunt’. Who scribbled a bewhiskered knob and bollocks in the corners of a Geography textbook. And when he got caught, pleaded his innocence: “It’s just a bush, Miss.” To be fair, I was half-right.
Clearly, I could’ve been one of the young defacers in Larkin’s poem. Angry, eager to offend, trying to make my mark on the world in the only way I could think of at the time. But let’s be fair to them – and me. For all the many misfires of my youth, once in a while I aimed true. My protest at dad’s choice of news outlet, for example. Something honked here, and I could smell it, just as Titch & Co. knew what the advertisers were insinuating with their pure, kneeling poster girl, their hotel with palm trees which “Seemed to expand from her thighs and / Spread breast-lifting arms.” So I picked up a Biro and got to work. And in doing so, asked the unfortunate onlooker: What’s more grotesque – the Prime Minister’s new ‘666’ forehead tattoo, or the see-through spin of the headline?
There is another, not-so adolescent reason why ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ was so formative for me. Here was a poem full of permissions
There is another, not-so adolescent reason why ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ was so formative for me. Here was a poem full of permissions. It taught me that, yes, you can write poetry about stuff like this. Yes, you can get away with an overhanging rhyme or two: ‘poster’ / ‘coast, a’; ‘the sand’ / ‘thighs and’. Yes, there is such a thing as the right word – or at least a more interesting one: ‘tuberous’, ‘transverse’, ‘hunk’. And yes, you can cover a lot of ground in the space of only 24 lines. What starts off breezily …
Come To Sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand
In tautened white satin
… soon turns turbulent. Weeks after the girl is “slapped up” she’s “snaggle-toothed” and “boss-eyed”, with a “fissured crotch” that was “scored well in”,
[…] and the space
Between her legs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls
Autographed Titch Thomas,
Until eventually someone else had:
[…] used a knife
Or something to stab right through
The moustached lips of her smile.
She was too good for this life.
And then there’s that last line, swerving us into even darker territory. A reminder that many of us are heading for a fate far worse:
Very soon, a great transverse tear
Left only a hand and some blue.
Now Fight Cancer is there.
‘A Scattering’ by Christopher Reid
I was 21 when Christopher Reid won the Costa Book Award 2009 for A Scattering, a collection of elegies dedicated to his first wife, the actor Lucinda Gane. And by then in my third year of an English degree at the University of Hull, where Reid was coming to the end of his stint as Professor of Creative Writing.
At 18, I had no idea that I was about to fall arse-backwards into this community of poets and writers that also included David Wheatley, Cliff Forshaw, Simon Kerr and David Kennedy. These were the first people, aside from family and friends, who read my early efforts. They were generous with their time, and just the right blend of critical and encouraging. A rare and much-needed gift for a shy, spotty, college beard-sporting kid who listened to far too much Leonard Cohen. They saw something in me and my juvenilia. And they bit their tongues and helped me cultivate it. For that, I’ll always be thankful.
Of course, I hugely admired Reid’s work. The fact that a former Faber Poetry Editor was at the helm at Hull was inspiring too, if a little intimidating at first. But it was only years later, just after my mum died from cancer in 2016, that I truly began to connect with A Scattering.
That book was an education for me. A lesson in how to navigate the early days of loss, and learn to live with never ending grief. It lived in my work bag for a time, always at hand when I needed it. Later, I would study two other benchmarks: Thomas Hardy’s Poems for Emma, and Douglas Dunn’s Elegies. But it was Reid’s use of the elegiac form that I turned to the most. My now worn and wrinkled copy bears the stress of those first few weeks and months after my mum died. More than a guide to grief though, it taught – and still teaches me – how to write elegy well. With subtlety and dignity, charging each poem with feeling and revelation, without being overly sentimental. Still more, it teaches me how to write verse in general.
It was Reid’s use of the elegiac form that I turned to the most … it taught me – and still teaches me – how to write elegy well. With subtlety and dignity, charging each poem with feeling and revelation, without being overly sentimental
Among other skills, Reid is a master of delayed rhyme. Rhymes that are far enough away from each other that they elude you on first reading. But go back over and your ear picks up on those distant, half-heard echoes that deftly hold the form together: ‘there’ / ’air’; ‘course’ / ‘place’; ‘necessary’ / ’anatomy’; ‘elephants’ / ’arrangements’. And look at the title. Like most people who read it for the first time, I instinctively thought: ashes. Or maybe the scattering of flowers on a coffin. But no:
I expect you’ve seen the footage: elephants,
finding the bones of one of their own kind
dropped by the wayside, picked clean by scavengers
and the sun, then untidily left there,
decide to do something about it.
This sleight of hand demonstrates one of the many reasons we turn to poetry. Not just to nod along with a shared experience, but to be surprised, tripped up, humbled. And what do these elephants do? They:
hook up bones with their trunks and chuck them
this way and that way. […]
And their scattering has an air
of deliberate ritual, ancient and necessary.
And so the metaphor that wrongfooted us now clicks. Then it galvanises us with the realisation that the elephants’ great, grey, immovable mass “makes them the very embodiment of grief.” They do what they can when faced with such a loss. And so do we:
may their spirit guide me as I place
my own sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.
My debut pamphlet, a collection of elegies for my mum, is due out in January 2024 with Broken Sleep Books. (You can read one of the elegies, ‘The Laugh’, here.) It’s an odd feeling knowing I’m about to cast my private grief into parts unknown. Proud, thankful, excited to see it in the flesh, yes. But it’s not the book I ever wanted to write, and for her to never read. The consolation is in knowing someone I’ve never met, who has gone through a similar experience, might read it and connect with it. That said, I hope there are plenty of turns in there, too, for those who prefer to be shaken rather than moved.
‘Atlas’ by U.A. Fanthorpe
“Poetry,” U.A. Fanthorpe said, “has all the voices—wit, sincerity, pastiche, tragedy, delight.”Interview for The Poetry Archive. Cited from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ua-fanthorpe. By my reckoning, all five of those virtues are contained in one of her most famous poems. ‘Atlas’ is charming, astute, pithy and – dare I say it? – accessible. It’s accurate in its handling of what it truly means to live with and love someone from day to day. It’s a tribute; both to the titan who shares its title, and to the mundane but necessary upkeep of that love. It’s also cautionary, as Fanthorpe alluded to in one of her introductions to the poem: “It is a love poem. But I might remind you that Atlas was the chap who held up the world on his shoulders, and it was disastrous when he stopped.”
There’s delight, too, in sounds and wordplay: “dryrotten jokes”, “suspect edifice”, “knows the way the money goes”. It’s easy to see why it’s such a favourite at weddings. When the declarations are made and the honeymoon is over, the quiet machinery of marriage kicks in. And never is that more apparent and vital if you have kids. Your team of two becomes three, four … Sometimes they’re on your side, other times they form a splinter group and fight against you. Despite your best efforts, things often slip. You put the wrong bin out. You miss a deadline. You forget to pay that bill. You fall asleep putting them to bed, leaving their sopping school uniform in the washing machine. And – shit! – there’s only a dribble of milk left in the fridge for breakfast. Not quite as drastic as having to sweep up the heavens from your kitchen floor, but just as annoying.
While I’m shipwrecked, I’ll need a poem like this to keep me sane
While I’m shipwrecked, I’ll need a poem like this to keep me sane. I’ll miss my wife and two boys desperately, but at least I won’t have to sort out the car insurance. Or key the skirting boards. Or bleed the radiators. Or feed the plants. Or scoop the neighbour’s cat turds. Or tour the house and garden with WD40, greasing every hinge and hasp. No, I’ll miss all that too. But new burdens will arrive to keep me busy. The sand could do with sweeping. The palm trees pruning. And that driftwood needs repainting …
I was late to this poem, and to Fanthorpe. (Thank you to the poet Colin Bancroft, by the way, for sharing this poem on Twitter some months ago.) Which is fitting since I see that, after publishing her first book in her late 40s, she went on to put out nine collections during her lifetime. I’m 35 now, so not far off. I regret those years I spent barely writing after university. But, well, life happened. The usual: landed a full-time job, got married, had kids. When my mum passed, I started writing again – and I couldn’t stop. Then the Covid-19 lockdowns kicked in, and I started taking it seriously again. Digging up the elegies from 2016 onwards and editing them, writing more of them, submitting them, shaping them into a chapbook. If I can just get this published for her, I thought, that would be enough. I could even retire from writing, and I’d be content. But, of course, you always want more. And I hope there’s more to come. I hope this isn’t the end.
|Interview for The Poetry Archive. Cited from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ua-fanthorpe.