This paragon of immaturity
by Bill Greenwell
At the outset of 2009, a new name started popping up in the winners’ boxes in a number of regular UK magazine competitions: those belonging to New Statesman, The Spectator, The Oldie, and— until recently—The Literary Review. New Statesman’s competition has a history stretching back to the 1920s; The Spectator’s also has an 80-year history; and both of them are descended from a Westminster Gazette competition in the first years of the 20th century, one that attracted, amongst others, Rupert Brooke and Rose Macaulay.
And now also, Chris O’Carroll.
If you’re one of the older lags who have been remorselessly entering these competitions since purple bell-bottoms were first in fashion, you notice the arrival of a newbie with patronizing pleasure. Of course, when he wins the third time, you suffer the quiet pangs of vicious jealousy. By now Chris O’Carroll, a regular winner of the extra £5 doled out to the best Spectator entry, has ridden out the years in which assassination plots have been contemplated, and is a regular who must now also be looking over his shoulder.
I say ‘he’. I have little or no proof of this, any more than I have of his age or gender, etc. etc. I have met some entrants in my time who had lived such extensive parallel lives in the quest for a weekly supplement of a few quid, that they had ceased to be sure of their own identity. Is the cinereous and mustachioed man who appears in online photos the true C O’C? Is he actually a native of Massachusetts? Can he have grandchildren, really? We have to take it on trust.
If you surf O’Carroll’s name, you turn up a huge cache of trump poems (be careful to distinguish him from his non-Irish cousin, Lewis). His trademark is a sort of beaming ennui. He knows that the world is parked in a gigantic hand-cart, and that the said cart is pointing hell-wards, but he is happy in himself and not afraid to blow raspberries at its follies. As he writes of himself,
At family get-togethers, who’s the grey
Uncle who shocks the aunts with ribald jokes,
Then asks the twentysomethings if he may
Join them outside for extra-legal smokes …
This foolish fellow who won’t act his age,
This paragon of immaturity,
Who thinks that all the world’s a panto stage,
Who’s this absurd relation? …
He seems to have nailed his public identity here. O’Carroll likes the way that jokes of any sort counteract the threat of being serious.
And – perhaps as a side-effect of years in stand-up – what he loves above all is an aphorism. He doesn’t like to chew the fat so much as to snap off some crackling and to eat it in a couple of quick bites:
Sweetbreads ain’t bread.
Sweetbreads ain’t sweet.
Sweetbreads ain’t fit
For humans to eat.
That has a jingly memorability about it, one of his strongest qualities. Or, try these:
Without leaving his house,
Lao-tse knew the entire universe.
Without knowing the entire universe,
I leave my house.
The pocket’s empty where it dwelt,
My heart’s filled with despair:
I’ve lost my comb, so I can’t pretend
I haven’t lost my hair.
Now in fact the first and third of these are extracts from a longer poem, but that’s often the way with O’Carroll. The instinct for an apophthegm is paramount. Here he is on Van Gogh, neatly paradoxical:
This is your great self-portrait, this
Tumult of doubly desperate art—
Desperate to hold itself together,
Desperate to fling itself apart.
The urge to come up with something pithy is even evident when he is in full parodic flight. Here he is as A.E. Housman (with a wonderful choice of verb in the second line):
I knew what would in time betide
Each muscular young lad I eyed,
And knew that I must lie someday
Beside them all beneath the clay.
And here is Chris O’Housman again: this time, The Shropshire Lad is changing a light bulb:
I climb the ladder, flex my wrist,
Apply an anti-clockwise twist,
Discard the old, insert the new,
Threading this time a clockwise screw,
Then flip the switch to spark the glow
That will not last for long, I know.
I love the way the lugubrious look to the future (“discard the old, …”) is undercut by the miserabilist note on the way the bulb will fade. There is a whole literature to be written, in proxy, on the light bulb and its short life. Dickinson and Lawrence would be my front-runners.
O’Carroll can be mock-grim about Spring:
Still worse, this season brings us Lent,
Time to abstain from everything.
We suffer winter’s punishment,
And then do penance in the spring.
And of course it goes without saying that he is a whiz with any competition that obliges him to be in any way proverbial. New Statesman competitors have often been faced with a request for meaningless proverbs; The Spectator recently issued its own demand. O’Carroll obliged with (amongst others) “When you don’t know where you’re going, every route is a shortcut,” “Success is a strategy not a tactic,” and the unforgettable “You won’t find your keys in a kangaroo’s pocket.” He could get a second job as a wayside pulpiteer or a T-shirt script-writer. And actually, he turned out some T-shirt mottoes for Shakespeare’s Marijuana, a collection produced in 2002—including this belter: “Honk if your beliefs can be summed up on a bumper sticker.”
And naturally, this instinct for the neat encapsulation leads him to admire the clerihew and the double-dactyl (he also likes limericks, but for me they need to be rhythmically exact, and O’Carroll cuts corners). In his early collection Take These Rhymes … Please (2000), he writes of the “near anarchism” of the clerihew, while admitting that its loose form places a responsibility on the writer to make sure every syllable counts. I think the clerihew is pretty hard, because its laconic tone has to come first. A smart rhyme can kill it. This one is O’Carroll’s best:
William H. Cosby, Ed.D.
Told her, “Take it from me,
This odd-tasting drink
Is what keeps me in the pink.”
There’s a lot packed in here. The dubious doctorate is smuggled in as a rhyme, the name is carefully formalized, and a whole slew of allegations are hidden behind “her” and “it” and the brilliant closer, “in the pink.” Maybe it doesn’t do to analyze a clerihew too much, but the tone here is brilliant. In this case it’s a reminder that O’Carroll isn’t a verbal poet, really. He has, it’s true, rhymed “cruciverbally” with “hyperbole” (five stars), and more dicily, “polyps” with “dollops,” but it’s the dry tone and the clear pace that make his poems work. Sometimes the facetious mood catches him, and he overdoes the cod-formality (words like clad, thrall, perused and dread creep in, perhaps especially in sonnets, which he regularly gets published). All the years playing and reading Shakespeare have taken their toll. But when he wants to hit the ball cleanly (as it were), he seems effortless. Here he is in the middle of a run of daft similes:
My love is like a day in June:
She makes me gleam with sweat.
My love is like a tattoo all
The rock stars want to get.
And here he is again halfway through a list of “dissenting views” (he plainly has a thing about Citizen Kane. He gives it another pasting elsewhere):
Orson Welles’s “masterpiece”
About that Rosebud sled
Is boring. Give me action films
With lots of guns instead.
And then, just as you despair of his doing anything other than cocking snooks, he produces a moving, unsentimental poem addressed to a robin that has piled, fatally, into a window. In the aftermath—
Another robin hopping on the lawn
This morning hardly seems to be aware,
Much less to feel unsettled, that you’re gone.
He’s not the one who put the window there.
This thoughtful, quotable verse needs perhaps to be set against another bird in another poem in another part of the forest. A badminton player has mis-hit his budgie:
The brisk, firm sound a racquet makes—
How bitterly that thwock! must mock
The heartsore slayer who mistakes
A birdie for a shuttlecock.
O’Carroll’s biggest “win” in the UK, at least in financial terms, was his deserved £300 prize in 2011 from The Literary Review. It seems likely that this was built on a Spectator competition earlier in the year, for a sequel to “The Owl and the Pussycat.” The LR asked for a poem answering another one: and here is O’Carroll, who has wisely filed his first shot, and now clobbers the opposition with a honeymoon poem for the happy couple. It opens with these sprightly lines:
“Our courtship was fun, now the wedding is done,
And we’ve issues we need to discuss,”
Said the Pussy. “Coition in any position
Is a knotty dilemma for us.”
O’Carroll is good with re-imagined endings. Here’s his coda to “The King’s Breakfast” (the childish glee of Lear and Milne are right up O’Carroll’s street, as their bubbly rhythms are the perfect foils for his drollery).
The Queen had
A word with
The King’s cardiologist.
“I fear my husband’s over fond
Of dairy foods,” she said.
“Butter can be
The doctor warned
“If Royal arteries get clogged,
The King could wake up dead.”
The key words are “over fond”—quietly dropped into the Milne jingle. Also taken down a peg or two by O’Carroll is Sylvia Plath. O’Carroll is a fan of Ogden Nash, and he gives Nash the task of undermining “Daddy”:
To put it bluntly, Daddy, you are an individual whom I
I would go so far as to compare you to a dark, sinister figure
from Hell or the Third Reich.
Imitating Nash also gives him a chance to revisit Shakespeare, and Hamlet (“also a great clown role,” as O’Carroll notes in an edgy poem about 9/11, “Seriously Though, Folks”). Nash is a good fit for Hamlet: the rambling lines suit the once and (who knows?) future prince.
My thoughts zag one way, and then in the opposite direction
When I contemplate whether killing myself would be noble or
And O’Carroll excels in making fun of the wordy. Wordsworth is represented as far-from-frivolous:
Again upon my couch I lay.
My mood was vacant, even pensive.
What blissful inward-eye display
Awaited? I was apprehensive.
“Not daffodils this time!” I prayed.
But like the Phrygian king of old,
I quickly found myself dismayed
By cloying quantities of gold.
Whitman drones on quietly about the London Underground:
I celebrate the Tube and sing the Tube,
And the gap I mind you shall mind,
For every station belonging to me as good as belongs to you.
And then of course there is Mike Huckabee…
You do the reproductive heavy lifting,
We do your thinking for you. We are gifting
You with a chance to raise your girlish voices
And cry, “Please, fellas, take away our choices.”
O’Carroll incidentally seems to have a love affair with Edgar Allan Poe. It is an on/off affair, but it keeps being revived. I particularly like the verbose and world-weary version O’Carroll makes Poe offer us on Little Miss Muffet and the spider—“No ejaculations suited to convey her deep dismay,/ Not a single word to say.” But his best Poe is an encapsulation of “The Raven.” The original is 108 lines long, but O’Carroll makes most of them somehow disposable. Poe is another whinger.
My mood is bleak, my girlfriend’s dead,
The bird sits on Athena’s head
And croaks the same word o’er and o’er.
Why did I let him through the door?
O’Carroll is a prolific and versatile writer, and after finding him over and over on the web, it seems to me that we are in urgent need of a decent selection. It’s true, I haven’t mentioned some of his most familiar subjects—hypochondria, medical procedures, centerfolds and penis size (“I wandered lonely as a cloud, / Being somewhat modestly endowed”). But there is just space to make good that deficiency. (What I’ve done here is to reduce a 20-line poem to its essential eight.)
Daily in my e-mail inbox
Cyber-salesfolk come to call.
My mortgage is too big, they tell me,
And my penis is too small.
This is why I got connected;
Now, thanks to the Internet,
I can wield a bigger johnson
And pay off a smaller debt.
(“The Size of Things”)
You can also find O’Carroll on making cocktails, the Three Bears (“we are the harmless ursine bourgeoisie”), Charlie Brown, Tweedledum and Tweedledee (a monorhyme, a trick he has enjoyed pulling off more than once), punctuation, Road Runner, and, oh, you name it. The restricted length of the UK competitions seems to suit him best—the tight fit brings out his expertise with epithets. Did I mention he was good at comic prose as well? I await the dreaded words, next week, and maybe every week, at the head of Lucy Vickery’s Spectator column: “Chris O’Carroll nabs the extra fiver.”
(The poems cited here originally appeared in The Spectator, The Literary Review, Lighten Up Online, The Melic Review, Snakeskin, Life and Legends, The New Verse News, Wordsmith.org., Eclectica, Angle, Per Contra, and Light—as well as the collections Shakespeare’s Marijuana and Take These Rhymes … Please.)
Bill Greenwell (www.billgreenwell.com) is from North East England. After teaching for 40 years, he retired in early 2015 (he was a creative writing lecturer at The Open University). He has published four collections of poetry and parody: Tony Blair Reminds Me Of A Budgie, Spoof, Impossible Objects, and Ringers. He was New Statesman’s weekly poet from 1994 to 2002, and still writes a weekly satirical poem on www.theweeklypoem.com. He’s entered the UK weekly competitions every week since 1978, and is researching the first 10 years of New Statesman’s competition. He also runs the online Poetry Clinic.