William Oxley: Letter to Elizabeth

(for Barry also)

    In my beetling hand of battered prose I write
My letters as a rule, but can this be right
For one who claims to be a poet? As word-adept,
In corresponding has your father's talent slept?
Or is the truth that writing metre well will slow
And damn the thought to a trickle not a flow?
Well, let us see just how I now can do
Sending this verse-epistle out to you
In the steamy Shangri-la of Sierra Leone
That is so jungle-green and far from home.

    When last I wrote we were just off to dine
With Dannie and Joan, those friends of mine,
To gobble pizzas, guzzle Chianti, and swap
The latest literary chat -- ie. `talk shop'!
But do not think it all undignified back-biting
For out of anecdote, however slighting,
Ideas and insights can often emerge
(Pop up above the mind's miasmic verge)
After years and years of trying to explain
The muddled thoughts within one's brain.
And so it was that mention of politics --
Which I maintain's a bag of monkey tricks --
Gave clearest definitions yet to come to me
Of what it means to be a Socialist or Tory;
And for what it's worth, which may not be much,
(Or you may think it Double Dutch!)
But I hope is more than half-truth or a lie
That: Toryism's `the politics of property'
And Socialism `the politics of envy'.
At least, that's how it seems to one who's spent
A life amazed at what prejudice'll invent
For `the People's good' (that's you and me)
But which at best seems close to treachery;
At worst beyond the scope of decent word.

    But of all this before I'm sure you've heard,
So enough of that. Yet still on prejudice,
Of student life now let me tell you this
About a student who, unfortunately, is blind.
Now, of the disabled one shouldn't be unkind,
But Blind Paul (such his private name among
The swots, and semi-swots and not-swots who throng
These Groves of Academe where we now are)
Is the most biased student of any by far.
He, for instance, thinks Chaucer a poor poet
(Which shows a critic of more idiocy than wit);
And writes off novelists like Joyce and Dickens
As the merest amateurs or literary chickens;
And it seems, too, Shakespeare's much at risk
Compared to Wordsworth, that `stone-faced moralist'
As my father dubbed the Lakeland Master
Thinking his humourlessness a disaster.
So, all in all, disadvantaged student Paul
Compensates his disability with much gall.
More serious still he set up home together
With a blind girl, lived in a flat with her
Long enough, or so it seems at any rate,
To learn (as couples do) how to fornicate.
(Though, of course, Cupid, as you'll find,
In ancient pictures is anyway depicted blind!)
Naturally such a close cohabitation
Led eventually to parturition
As the sightless spouse gave birth bye and bye
To a bonny babe with sight in either eye.
Whether such proved too much for Dad I cannot say
But think it dastardly he's gone away
And left both wife and child behind:
It makes life seem a sickness so I find
And sick jokes of such easy manufactory,
I cry: `Why can they not see eye to eye?'
Or, thinking of that wife and child, grow unkind:
`With him it really is a case of blind leading blind!'
But then perceiving my thoughts just as cruel
As those I attribute to student Paul,
I feel remorse and must reject
What I've said and change the subject.

    Though stick with student life awhile
Whatever it may do for my verse style
For I am bent on somehow conveying
This life for which the taxpayer's paying:
Depicting and recording a paid for learning,
But more an exercise in sloth and vice
Revealing, even early, human nature's rarely nice.
Of course, this is the fogey view I must confess
But for young and old life's still a mess,
And the best that most can hope to do
Is `hold on tight and see it through',
As my dear dad, that pessimistic joker, would have said.
However, I take a different view instead:
Like our Prime Minister an educational fool,
Having played the perfect ape at school,
I try to see beyond all systems ever
And for myself the truth discover --
Thus curing what it is in life that's sick
By understanding how things tick.
A tall order, you'll say; and `What an ego!' think;
Or `Why doesn't he shut up and have a drink?'
In a sense you'd be quite right
For history's brightest weren't so bright
(Though many brighter than me for sure)
As to make more than the smallest aperture
In the huge black veil hung over our eyes
Making Life both a Vale of Tears, and Lies.
For do we not at every turn find people
Perplexing, wonderful, evil or just incapable?
And nowhere more than amongst those who hang about
The Tree of Knowledge, eat its fruit and shout
The least and lowest, stupid, hypocrite things.
Yes, most student tyros think they're academic kings
And like many asses bray for their success
Making broadcast their addition to history's mess.
But ... alright, alright, let's cut the cackle,
Dad, stop your sermonizing prattle:
If there's an answer tell it straight;
If not, bang shut your face's gate!

    Okay, we'll take a break from seriousness
And avoid my old man's charge of humourlessness:
Yesternight, without the kisses but not the wine,
We visited The Cheshire Cheese, an occasion for rhyme
(It was, after all, home of the Rhymers' Club,
And still does a good line in beer and grub),
Which is to say for the launch of a veteran's book:
In a dimly lit and beery upstairs nook
A work in English penned by an old Young Turk.
Where the shades of Wilde and Dowson lurk
Yet another clique was in its infancy
Devised, it seems, in the canteen of the B.B.C.
By a genial squire from the town of Ware
Once famed for the biggest bed of anywhere
(See Twelfth Night or was it Henry Four?
Looking up quotes for a poet's a bore!)
And his right-hand help was a pretty face
From where, dear Liz, you entered the human race
That is to say, a blonde-haired poet-physician
Who at the Gower Street Hospital holds some position.
As for the rest, they were the usual literary crew
Whom we did not know save for one or two,
Though they knew us by the spread of the word:
I because I'd written the two-page foreword
To the old Turk's book being launched that night,
And Patricia who shines well by her Acumen light.
A party then, and part of the merry-go-round
That spins forever on literature's ground,
Where people jaw and yap and praise or blame
In order that works and poets should `get a name';
And no-one comes to earth again until
They wake next morning feeling ill;
Or in my case when pain joins feeling
Sooner, having banged my head on some low ceiling
On the creaking stairs when I had descended to
The subterranean and mediaeval 'loo
That once, I cannot doubt it, was a cell
In the Fleet Prison, that debtor's hell.

    So that, dear daughter, was an interlude
Forced on me in the middle of these crude
Numbers; and now, next day and feeling better
I can conclude this mixed-up letter.
But for me `the answer' has always been poetry
Since in childhood's chestnut trees I climbed so high
I felt I could touch the skin of the sky.
But for anyone else to be happy in life
As Baudelaire said you should be `drunk on life';
And to be so drunk it's always necessary
To join the long pilgrimage of beauty
And learn to praise the world's wonders --
For the world is full of wonders
Whether you look from your African `hut' just now
To see on every leaf and branch a glow,
Love's phosphorescent magic on everything --
Or whether you hear inwardly murmuring
The secret image-making truth of breath
That's more than breath: and is, dear Elizabeth,
The essential identity of one and everyone
In times future, present, and in times gone.



Rhyming sincerely, if not over well;
Next time in prose my tale I shall tell.