Poetry and Patience (and no, that’s not a hitherto unpublished Jane Austen novel)

I do not love poetry. That’s a generalization. Most of it leaves me cold. If someone chooses to wax lyrical about figures on an old vase, then that’s fine; just don’t ask me to get all excited about his rhyme scheme and imagery. I quite like teaching poetry, mind you, for the simple reason that unexciting rhyme schemes and imagery are ludicrously easy to write about and students, so long as they refrain from panicking at the mere thought of iambic pentameter and villanelles, can generally do well in poetry sections of exams. And I don’t write it — my poetic genius amounts to a skill for composing limericks more or less on the spot (when I’m in the mood, that is).

Having said that, there are a handful of poems and a handful of poets that do absolutely speak to me. As I have said before, I do not consider myself a rampant, card-carrying, flag-waving feminist; so the fact that the poets whose works never cease to impress and delight me are, in the main, women is not some strange solidarity with the sisterhood; rather, it is an appreciation of brilliance in its own right. I cannot urge you strongly enough to read the works of Carol Ann Duffy (beautifully insightful and passionate, though perhaps a little lacking in humour); of Dorothy Parker (because she has a pithy, cynical verse to suit just about every situation a woman can find herself in); and of two less well-known Somerset-based poets, Thommie Gillow  and Melanie Branton (both of whom use their personal experiences as a basis for side-splittingly wicked and trenchant verse). Like I said, this isn’t some feminist rant — I’m not singing the praises of Sylvia Plath or Christina Rossetti or Victoria Whatsit — nor yet claiming that women are universally better poets than men. This is simply my opinion.

The poem is by Dorothy Parker; the portrait is of Joan Crawford, and I drew it because I wanted an image of someone who looked like she'd readily tell men to go to hell if they didn't live up to her expectations.

The poem is by Dorothy Parker; the portrait is of Joan Crawford, and I drew it because I wanted an image of someone who looked like she’d readily tell men to go to hell if they didn’t live up to her expectations.

So all that up there was a lead-in to all this down here. And all this down here is based on Dorothy Parker’s ‘Indian Summer’.

We’ve all encountered — some of us may even have been — those women who find their perfect man, and then set about changing him so much that he stops being perfect any more — and then leave him because he isn’t the man they fell in love with.  This happens a lot, though I don’t think I’ve ever been guilty of it (have I?). However, another trap that women, and possibly some men, fall into is to try and win their ‘prize’ at any cost. They’ll change their appearance to be more appealing to the object of their desires; they’ll alter their habits; they’ll re-enact Groundhog Day until their version of Andie MacDowell finally succumbs. But this is a mistake. Because they’re putting on an act, and eventually, the effort of keeping it up will be just too much. The real Bill Murray will eventually come out… and then where will they be?

But what that rather saccharine film overlooks is something else that can happen when what starts out as love degenerates into Machiavellianism.

I’m more familiar with this scenario from the female point of view, so let’s go with Billie and Andrew instead of Bill and Andie.  Billie loves Andrew to the point where she questions her own sanity. She is obsessed, addicted, fixated on him and only him.

When did your name
change from a proper noun
to a charm?

Its three vowels
like jewels
on the thread of my breath.

Its consonants
brushing my mouth
like a kiss.

I love your name.
I say it again and again
in this summer rain.

I see it,
discreet in the alphabet,
like a wish.

I pray it
into the night
till its letters are light.

I hear your name
rhyming, rhyming,
rhyming with everything.

(‘Name’, Carol Ann Duffy)

 (I really wanted to insert Branton’s ‘Everything reminds me of you’ here as it’s way more apposite and witty than the Duffy — but hey, copyright… though you will eventually find it online I’m sure.)

EDIT: Branton’s poem is now available here: https://melaniebranton.wordpress.com/performance-poetry/everything-reminds-me-of-you/
Read it — it’s brilliant.

In order to win Andrew’s affection, Billie manipulates — well, pretty much anything manipulable that comes within her reach. She plots and schemes. She makes sure she says the ‘right’ thing at the ‘right’ time; she’s so understanding and laid back; she’s fun and, oh, such a helpmeet and support to Bill in his time of need; when it comes to dedication to her cause, she makes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Secretary look like some light-weight flibbertigibbet. She swallows her pride, quashes her doubts, masks the hurt of Andrew’s indifference and continues in her valiant endeavours to win his love. And every time Andrew knocks her down, she gets up all the more determined that that prize will be hers. She doubles, triples, quadruples her efforts. So centred is she on her goal that she fails to see what’s really happening.

Eventually, Andrew can resist no longer. Maybe Billie’s gone away for a while to regroup and come back with new schemes under her belt (or wherever schemes are more appropriately kept) and he finds he misses her; maybe it’s just a slow dawning that his life would not be complete without her; maybe he even realizes all the sacrifices she’s made for him and is truly and sincerely touched that she’d do that for him. He looks at her, and he knows — just knows — that this woman is the love of his life.

Ah, but if only he’d wised up earlier — maybe a week earlier would have been enough; a month definitely would; and if the synapses in his brain could have made the connexion half a year ago… well… we’d have been playing the Eurythmics version of ‘Sweet dreams are made of this’ and not Mr Manson’s.

Because, you see, as Dotty observed:

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying —
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

(‘Unfortunate Coincidence’, Dorothy Parker)

Billie’s won her prize. She’s staked her all. She’s got what she wanted. Triumph is hers. Only… only now, she begins to wonder why she wasted so much time on achieving something so tawdry. This is not the priceless golden prize she yearned for; this is some baser thing entirely.

Remember a few paragraphs back I mentioned that Billie was so centred on her goal that she was failing to see what was really happening?  Well, every time Andrew knocked Billie down, his golden aura was losing some of its lustre. Every time she had to swallow her pride, some of her adoration was being ingested with it; every time she quashed her doubts, she was also stifling her passion; and every time she masked her pain, she was also throwing a veil over the rose tinted lenses that were causing her to think that this, this selfish, self-absorbed idiot was worthy of her attentions. And where once there was love and devotion, now there is resentment and contempt.

For you,
you poisoned opium,
a drug addicted life I led
and such constricted blood I bled.
But I’m through now,
I’m done.


You sad, pathetic, mind blowing drug.
To think I let you fuck me up.

(‘This is for you’, exerpts, Thommie Gillow)

So, boys and girls, don’t do it. Unto thine own self be true. By all means take things slowly; be patient (‘you can’t hurry love,’ The Supremes informed us half a century ago); but ultimately, if he (or she) doesn’t love you for who and how you are, be like Dorothy and shrug your shoulders, and damn him (or her) to hell before your endeavours pay off and you find yourself well and truly lumbered.

Buy books (and magazines)!

Branton: http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/index.asp?id=73

Duffy: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rapture-Carol-Ann-Duffy/dp/0330433911

Gillow: http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Stepmother-Tried-Kill-Me/dp/1909136255

Parker: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-Penguin-Classics-Dorothy-Parker/dp/0143106082


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