“Are you, or have you ever been,
Thus spake the coroner
And I replied, behind a screen,
When I went to see my Auntie Bess
He hissed to his sidekick Damien:
“Emergency! We’ve got an alien!”
And died of heart failure.
Perhaps there’s a degree of similarity in the humour, but I wanted to take a chance to promote (I would have said “plug”, but it might have been understood in the American Western sense) another dead poet not enough honoured – Louis MacNeice. He was a contemporary of W.H.Auden and Stephen Spender (and part of their “set” though said to be “irredeemably heterosexual”), but although his poetry has perhaps survived better than Spender’s, he’s far less well known than Auden. I think he should stand at least with Auden. Born in Northern Ireland but spending his adulthood in England, MacNeice had a strong sense of history, of surviving things and of the particular, whereas some other poetry of that time and group seems general and unrelated to time. He had an ear for the vividness and absurdity of everyday speech, an earthy sense of humour (earthy in two senses because his poems often convey a sense of land, country, soil and growing things), at the same time an ability to imply through his windows, mirrors, social oddities and hourglasses that things are not quite as they seem and a marvellous ability to drop an unpalatable truth in like a depth-charge. He wrote brilliantly about ageing and approaching death – though he himself died in his fifties, his ability to fight pneumonia reduced by long-time heavy drinking.
His first lines or sentences often catch the attention:
Inside, the tang of a tiny oil lamp (“House on a Cliff”)
The precise yet furtive etiquette of dogs (“Dogs in the Park”)
but here are the depth-charges:
“The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever
But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.”
(Bagpipe Music – that sounds especially effective in a Northern Irish accent).
“It came to me on the Nile my passport lied,
Calling me dark who am grey.”
(Can’t trace that one – I remember it quoted).
He should be cherished.