The Range of Light
by Frank Osen
Bill Greenwell began a recent article on fellow poet Chris O’Carroll (“This Paragon of Immaturity,” Light, Summer/Fall 2015) with a comment on the history of regular verse and humor competitions in British publications. He traced a line extending from the Westminster Gazette, early in the last century (which included past contestants Rupert Brooke and Rose Macaulay), to today’s New Statesman, The Spectator and The Oldie where, he noted, one may still encounter “lags who have been remorselessly entering these competitions since purple bell-bottoms were first in fashion.”
That passage provides a good starting place for appreciating Greenwell. The reader who is unfamiliar with him may surmise that he is “one of the lags,” but it helps to have some further context. Greenwell’s parodies and light verse now appear in four print collections and over 40 anthologies. He served as New Statesman’s staff poet-in-residence from 1994 to 2002, when as he puts it, “the magazine agreed to ‘support,’ i.e., give no cash to a continuing weekly poem.” Since 2003 he’s continued to write a weekly satirical poem for them, approximately 600 to date.
Every week since 1978, Greenwell has been entering competitions, under either his own name or an alias. Greenwell’s first alias, “Will Bellenger,” was bestowed on him by Julian Barnes, and he has appeared since then as about 16 anagrams of himself, including Len Wellgerbil and Nell L. Wregible. He has won over 1,000 competitions in publications such as New Statesman, The Spectator, TES, Punch, The Oldie, and The Literary Review. If you consider that the average appearance in The Spectator or New Statesman pays 25 quid, plus a “bonus fiver” to the winner (The Literary Review’s now defunct monthly comp shelled out a cool £300 to win and £150 to place), you realize that’s serious lolly—especially to colonial lags remorsefully vying for refrigerator magnets from one of this country’s few weekly humor contests, The Washington Post’s Style Invitational.
“Lag” (which my copy of British English for American Readers defines as “a person who has spent much time in prison”) may, however, be an apt word for Greenwell’s durance. Most of the British comps afford poets a relatively narrow, 16-line cell in which to fret each week, and particular contest rubrics can be ridiculously constrictive. Wait a few days, however, and the following week’s instructions may turn maddeningly imprecise. It is an environment that requires an exceedingly nimble turn of mind, quick wit, and ready wordplay. In addition to the poet’s usual bag of tricks, successful entrants command a breadth of historic knowledge and topical minutiae ranging from the early canon to the latest meme, as well as the ability to summon a panoply of literary voices. Grant that your “regular” adept poet is a sort of Fred Astaire; by comparison, the successful comp-parodist is a figurative Ginger Rodgers, doing everything Fred does, only backwards and in high heels.
Effectively conjuring, say, William Blake doing T.S. Eliot or Sylvia Plath via Walt Whitman requires more than just hitting a few parodic touchstones. Hell, even discerning that Harold Pinter would do a wonderful Paddington Bear or John le Carré an excellent David and Goliath is genius enough, let alone actually pulling it off. There are some world-class lags in the Brit-comps, and it’s often tough to come up with an angle to distinguish oneself from the pack. Again the prison analogy seems apt, since the inmates are in turn overseen by strict judges who know their stuff and are themselves referred to by a variety of aliases—in one of his collections Greenwell acknowledges judges “Fatboy,” “Spiro Keats,” “Fat Jeff,” “Babe Bio,” and “Ms de Meaner.” One may gauge Greenwell’s stature in this landscape by the comments of The Spectator’s formidable judge Lucy Vickery. In The Spectator’s comp no. 2232 (“submit either a victory song or a loser’s lament composed by one who regularly enters this competition”), she noted that “Bill Greenwell, He Who Almost Always Wins, featured in many entries . . .”
But, enough. Listen to a few of Greenwell’s voices.
Dylan Thomas doing Edward Thomas’s “Adelstrop”:
There could I feel myself held in burlesque
Of burnished sky
Blackbird throating as the soloist
Echoed in hymnals and the psalms of lostbirds
All of them smoke-eyed, dewy, a great congregation.
W.H. Auden as a hapless quiz show contestant:
Over the ether my image flows,
I’m the weakest contestant on the trivia shows.
My brain is rattling but I must reply,
I’m a quiz show contestant, I don’t know why.
[“Quiz Contest Blues,” originally published in The Independent, reprinted from Ringers]
Stevie Smith on what really happened:
Oh, yes yes yes, it was deliciously warm
(Too hot for the attention he was craving)
He may sink I think the lifeguard said
When he starts drowning not waving.
[“Stevie at the seaside: the true story,” originally published in The Spectator, reprinted from Ringers ]
A World War I poet in the mosh-pit of the Glastonbury music festival:
If you have sunk, with every mud-mad step,
Into a chasm carved out by the rains,
All senses dulled as ditch, putrescent slop
Feculent as a midden where there churns
Some smelted hell invented by strange demons . . .
[“Wilfred Owen: Festival,” originally published in The Spectator, reprinted from Ringers]
And, finally, “Gerard Manley Hopkins writing Three Blind Mice“:
How hard is the farm mistress’ arm to their harmless kind:
For the fast-footed, fated field-mice, parlour-bent, were starving,
Thieving for a cheese, for a rind, yet ah! Were all blind!
[originally published in The Spectator, reprinted From Spoof]
Even those who are familiar with Greenwell’s verse only from the comps, know that being funny each week is merely one of the things he does. In addition to his competition work, he writes extra-curricular poems in which he stretches out and employs perspectives and narratives that display further depths of wit and imagination. There is a skewed, sideways manner to many of these pieces; their conceits veer in unexpected directions, many quite dark. A meditation on household products begins:
CTC: my mother kept it
at the back of a larder, in a snap-shut dark-green
Gordon’s gin-bottle, on the top shelf
with spiders. It was a problem solvent.
It removed stains from shorts and skirts,
from souls. It could lift gum, grease,
flies, lies. It was tick-toxic. It was sweet.
how my father could drink the stuff.
[“Cleansing Fluids,” from Impossible Objects]
Though Greenwell can be both delightfully and chillingly caustic, reading his printed collections, one is struck by the reverence for connections; not simply (though also) expressed in allusiveness and word-play, but in the importance of friendship, love, and the memory of those who are no longer here. Much as the work demonstrates bravura facility without ever seeming merely facile, it also manages all degrees of sentiment without falling into the trap of the merely sentimental. A mutual admirer of his work put it very nicely: he is “fearless about true sentiment, and thus entirely free of mawkish sentimentality.”
A romping, runaway reverie on a childhood friendship concludes:
is what we were, when we were ten, when we
were poetasters and imps and wind-chimes
locked in the pure, the perverse logic of paradox,
wild elder children who believed in saints,
in the harmony of lanterns, in the martyrdom
of childhood, in the lovely litanies of birdsong,
before there were brambles, before there were thorns,
sworn into friendship, fragile as psalters,
held in a perfect parentheses of now, before then,
when we were ten, ten years old, when we were ten.
[“Ten” from Ringers]
Here is a roadside idyll:
almost invisibly beside me
sharing the act, sharing the scene
in which we confide we
were scooped from the same earth.
Your mouth is cracked
as mine is. We are double-birth
in fiction, in fact:
faces blotched and blurred
by the dream we are sharing
like one paragraph, sentence, word,
unstinting, flinted, unsparing.
[“Roadside” from Ringers]
A reflection on a treasured, ordinary day spent with someone:
I hold my breath until my tongue’s in tatters,
and my lungs, arrested, pause inside my chest.
We had a great day: everything that matters
flowed between us, and never came to rest—
when we are in our spate, when clauses close
and open, when we play with punctuation,
the streets fade out, the sound of traffic goes
into the ether. It is a strange sensation
to hear our voices lift and lilt and shift:
to see them spiral, to sense that they’re in tune,
catching the wave, catching each other’s drift,
and never to falter through the afternoon.
[“Weave” from Ringers]
Though Greenwell’s work is scattered around the internet, there are the four print collections, and he has done a heroic job of organizing much of the rest on his website. The books are: Ringers, Cinnamon Press, 2011; Impossible Objects, Cinnamon Press, 2006; Spoof, Entire Photo Here Press, 2005; and Tony Blair Reminds Me of a Budgie, Entire Photo Press, 1996. Greenwell’s website, which contains all of Tony Blair and some of his New Statesman work, is www.billgreenwell.com. One may find his weekly satirical poems for New Statesman at www.theweeklypoem.com/index.php.
Finally, though, let’s circle back to Greenwell’s opening aperçu on the history of the British comps, for as it suggests, his devotion extends even unto their ante-bellbottom era. He maintains yet another website and a blog, where he’s chronicling the first 10 years of the New Statesman competition, beginning with the year 1930. There he posts old comps, which he enriches immeasurably with fascinating color commentary on the entrants, entries, and judges of the past. Trust me, everyone reading Light should bookmark it: https://nscompsandpoets.wordpress.com/. It is a service to humanity, it is the Mezzo Cammin of British humor and light verse; it is a hilariously readable historical treasure as well as an educational and endlessly entertaining mix of history, thumbnail biographies, and gossip (with helpful links, pictures, and anecdotes). Given the tradition of aliases, Greenwell’s work of unearthing various participants’ identities involves a good bit of sleuthing, which frequently lends the proceedings the intriguing air of a manor house whodunnit:
“Here are a couple of mysteries. Why does Elizabeth Bibesco say that it is unusual for ‘Gordon Daviot’ (the alternative pseudonym of ‘Josephine Tey’) to miss a competition, implying ‘he’ i.e. Tey is a regular, in 1933, when ‘he’ only appears once, in 1930 (does anyone know if Tey had other pseudonyms)? Who was Dorothy Avery, the judge in early 1933 (I’m completely stumped)? Why does Seacape seem to vanish and reappear as Black Gnat?”
This is certain to warm the heart of the most remorseless lag. Think this week’s rubric is arcane and confusing? See Greenwell’s comments to week 244:
“This one is every judge’s nightmare. On the same theme as 243, Gerald Barry, no less, asks for (a fragment of) an ode on the subject of Belisha beacons—’Ode to a Belisha beacon: that it be not cast down’, from which we get the information that they were much-mocked. But a slip in the process of getting the NS&N type-set has meant that the word ‘not’ had been omitted. Various familiar compers have set about an onslaught on the Belisha beacon, with only one or two spotting (and apparently with feeble results) that the opposite was intended (‘a sorry crop of the facetiously forcible-feeble’). It is to Barry’s credit that he gets an entertaining few paragraphs out of the debacle.”
Will Greenwell unmask the mystery of the elusive Black Gnat? He has temporarily called a halt to his blog while working on a book, but I recommend you add https://nscompsandpoets.wordpress.com/ to your RSS feed just in case. As with the rest of Greenwell’s work, you won’t be disappointed, and I cannot commend it enough.
Frank Osen‘s poetry has appeared in various journals. His first collection, Virtue, Big as Sin, was awarded the 2012 Able Muse Award. He is a member of the board of directors of The Foundation for Light Verse, Inc., which publishes Light.