It was past midnight in Norwich. There was a keen wind rifling up London Street. It was dark and it was January. I was hoarse, my feet hurt and, more to the point, I was cold. I had been punishing myself for four-and-a-half hours reciting poems by Eliot, Larkin, Wordsworth and Whitman.
I stopped a pretty Hungarian girl and her boyfriend to ask for their favourite poem. ‘Anything by Pablo Neruda,’ she said. I told her I would recite some Neruda and offer my hat for a donation if they enjoyed it. It began well enough (‘Yo te he nombrado reina…’) but I can’t speak Spanish so I got stuck pronouncing the verbs in the third verse. The girl laughed and squirmed. I came to a halt. They backed away, saying thank you. I was left alone, shouting to myself. I felt like a mad tramp.
This was seven months into my career as a poetry performer. During that time I’d memorised 150 poems and taken them to the streets. I recited to young and old, black and white, male and female, in East Anglia and London. Rejection is my most common experience. ‘Do you have a favourite poem?’ I ask and most often all this elicits is a ‘Sorry’ or ‘You’re asking the wrong person, mate.’ I’ve had a few more menacing responses but I’m yet to be assaulted.
Somehow, though, provided I don’t forget my lines, I earn money. My rate works out at around £12 an hour — considerably more than the minimum wage. When I’m successful, my performances are appreciated like a magic trick. People are shocked and gratified if I can recite the poem they name. I can now do all the most popular ones: Kipling’s ‘If —’, Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ (‘Stop all the clocks…’), Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’, Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, Poe’s ‘The Raven’, Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. I built this list up slowly over months of practice simply by asking. If three people mentioned the same poem on three separate occasions, I learnt it.
As a result, I feel empowered to make a few statements on the poetic health of our nation. The first is that our tastes change — and fast. Twenty years ago, the BBC conducted a survey of favourite poems. Admittedly, it was compiled from a rather limited respondent-base: self-identified poetry lovers who listened to Radio 4. But it is already seriously out of date. No. 1 on the lit parade was ‘If —’. Which fits my experience: everyone loves Kipling. But No. 2 was Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’. That can’t be right. Only one person has ever asked me for ‘The Lady of Shalott’. She’s dead in the water. Many other poems in the BBC top 30 have also fallen from grace — such as Jenny Joseph’s once-famous ‘Warning’ (‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple…’).
In my experience, your choice of poem is a dead giveaway of your age. ‘Daffodils’ is mentioned with a deer-in-the-headlights grin by people over 55. This age group also requests T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’, ‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield and ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas. The 30–55 demographic is keener on Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and the Metaphysicals. Those in their teens and twenties tend to favour Simon Armitage, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Wilfred Owen and — to my initial surprise — Robert Browning. It turns out all these poets appear on GCSE syllabuses, so not so surprising after all. But young people also know about Spike Milligan, who seems to have hung on through sheer force of personality.
No one has ever — not even once — asked me for a poem by Andrew Motion. In fact, becoming poet laureate augurs very badly. When John Betjeman died in 1984, Philip Larkin was offered the job and turned it down because he ‘didn’t want to be “Mr Poetry” ’. It turns out he was quite right. The post went to Ted Hughes and what a poisoned chalice it proved. Neither of the two most recent poets laureate appears to be highly regarded by the general public. The current incumbent, Carol Ann Duffy, is actively disliked. This is despite her poems appearing on both the GCSE and A-level curriculum. The things people say about Duffy are really not nice so I won’t repeat them. It’s not her fault that Picador print the words ‘Poet Laureate’ in vulgar capitals on the covers of her books. A ten-year state-sanctified platform for one’s scribblings would be a terrible misfortune for anyone.
Poetry is strong stuff: sometimes I wonder whether I’m really licensed to deal in it. Words, the right words, can make people cry and laugh and fling their arms around you. If your aim is to get hugs in the street from complete strangers, you can do no better than recite Shakespeare.
I remember reciting ‘This Be The Verse’ (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad…’) to a boy of 20 smoking a roll-up outside a music venue. My delivery must have been too flippant, because after I’d finished he turned and looked at me and said: ‘Did you even understand that poem?’ Very cutting.
Oddly enough, younger people tend to be more receptive to poetry than older people. To my mind, they are generally nicer, politer and more manipulable. Instead of rushing past, they stop and give you the time of day. Unfortunately, they are also poorer: I remember reciting Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ to a young woman who then gravely paid me for my performance with a very beautiful and shiny two-pence coin. The ideal client, if you can pin one down, is an older bon vivant who has just come out of an expensive restaurant, who has lots of cash (preferably in notes) about their person, and who is astounded that you can recite ‘Leisure’ by W.H. Davies.
Every so often you come across savants who know huge amounts of English poetry. But it’s never who you expect. I remember one young man, about 22, with a scarred face who requested ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. He was standing right next to a portable sound system playing very loud music, in a haze of marijuana fumes, drinking beer from a can. All this made declaiming Eliot’s nine-minute-long poem difficult, but every time I paused to recollect myself he’d prompt me with the correct words. I wouldn’t have been able to manage that on half a shandy.
I have also discovered that there are a lot of English teachers living among us, wandering round looking like ordinary people. Some of my most memorable encounters have been with them:
ME: Do you have a favourite poem?
DRUNK ENGLISH TEACHER: Do you know ‘The Sick Rose’ by William Blake?
ME: Yes. [recites]
FRIEND OF DRUNK ENGLISH TEACHER: Was that right?
DRUNK ENGLISH TEACHER: I can’t remember. And I was teaching it this morning.
I may have made it my mission to recite great poems to the public but quite often I am compelled to stand and listen. When a punter recites his or her own verse to me I try to make a record of it. I was particularly taken by the oeuvre of one rather fogeyish-looking youngster I met at a wedding reception: ‘I saw the dawn’s first flush emerge and tint the lawn/ with colour like a boiled prawn/ after a night immersed in hardcore porn….’ Secret poets, you see, are obsessed with sex. But even so, I’m delighted to report that our age is not half so cynical as it seems. It can’t be if there is still so much surreptitious poetry-writing going on.
Gary Dexter used to write The Spectator’s ‘Alternative reading’ column. He recites at weddings, and also offers flute lessons: see garydexter.co.uk.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.