The Bard of Devon
by Robin Helweg-Larsen
When you run across a poem by Jerome Betts, you can expect the whimsy and teasing, the snarky insights and frequent rudeness of all good light verse, but you can also expect another quality altogether: the casual embrace of history and tradition.
Betts is English, born and brought up in the rolling farm- and woodland surrounding the River Wye in Herefordshire. He began his schooling in a village elementary school, then progressed to cycling miles through the countryside to others. His preferred school sport was rowing on the Wye, and studies included excavations at an old Roman site; later came canoe-camping and enjoying riverside pub beer and skittles. The ways of the countryside and its history through the past couple of thousand years were what he grew up with. Throw in Modern History (and more rowing) at Oxford and then (after some experience of the antiques and secondhand books trades) settling into teaching English as a Foreign Language in Torquay, Totnes, and Exeter, and you can see what informs his verse.
And so his poetry, always playful, is punctuated with phrases from languages living and dead, with minor characters from Shakespeare, with the love of books as physical artifacts. But above all it constantly evokes the English countryside, lovingly or ruefully, as in his quatrain “Grim Harvester”:
Two walkers once, who left the path
With fleeting union in mind,
Were reaped—oh, tragic aftermath!—
And permanently here combined.
He loves eccentric place-names; one poem of his (with a nod to Morris Bishop) is nothing but dozens of them strung together:
Eccup, Bacup, Vobster, Trull […]
Beer, Wroot, Privett, Mucking, Mull,
and another laments the upgrading of a railway’s PA system, such that the announcement for the sequence of upcoming stations can no longer be misinterpreted:
Farewell Whiskered Codling Spa,
Sham-Prawn, Dead Youth, Hell and Dearth,
Shrunk to Liskeard, Bodmin, Parr,
Camborne, Redruth, Hayle, St Erth!
Some of his amused reflections are perhaps less accessible to North Americans than they are to his compatriots; but that just means you’re more likely to find those pieces in the UK’s Lighten Up Online or Snakeskin than in others of his main outlets such as Better Than Starbucks, The Asses of Parnassus, or (of course) Light.
His contributions to Light have been substantial: he has been actively publishing his poems here for only the past ten years or so, but in that time has had something in every online issue of Light, some 34 pieces altogether, plus another 60 in Light’s Poems of the Week.
His love of the English countryside is constant. Here’s a view of spring from “Mad March Air”:
Greet this month all effervescent!
Greet it brisker, blither, bolder!
March, when bird-song is incessant,
March, the daffodil-unfolder!
But that love is tolerant, not blind; the outpouring just quoted is immediately dampened by colds and fevers from a change in the weather:
Pass the pills and pour the potions,
Cosset me, and feed my fever!
Next year, no such false spring notions,
March, old serial-deceiver!
And that love of the countryside always has a literary aspect to it. He reads and writes histories of landscapes and villages, trees and architecture, finding inspiration and amusement in random texts. Here is a description of the curlew (regional name “whaup”) in R.S.R. Fitter’s 1952 Pocket Guide to British Birds: “Very varied vocabulary includes characteristic loud ‘quee, quee, quee, quee’ . . . and a rather rare whimbrel-like titter.” This inspired Betts to amused wordplay in a 16-line poem called “Fitter’s Titter,” beginning
Though waders are loud in the purlieus
Their performance is powerless to please—
Not even the garrulous curlews
With their quotas of quadruple quees.
Rich in alliteration and unusual rhymes, immersed in traditional English life, Jerome Betts became so much a regular in Lighten Up Online that when founding editor Martin Parker was ready to retire, Betts was his choice to take over running it, which he has done since 2015.
A couple of questions come to my mind about people in general, but about poets and editors in particular: what are their politics, their general outlooks? And what happens if there are conflicts within their positions? Reading Jerome Betts for answers on this, you’re not likely to see much conflict between love of poetry and love of the countryside. The most you’ll get is a “Circular Saw” (with at least two apologies):
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree—
That lovely tree, alas, (Sob! Gulp!)
Is long cut down and rendered pulp
For sheets on which to print, e.g.,
I think that I shall never see . . .
(First published by Per Contra, then republished in The HyperTexts). It’s a poetic version of “Do I fly to a Global Warming conference?”
And what of his politics? Right or Left? Fox-hunting, or animal rights? No, Betts is a staunchly middle-of-the-road lover of the countryside, quietly and ruefully active in commonsense Lib-Dem politics. For 25 years he has been a local activist, proofing newspaper columns for the local council leader, knocking on doors and hand-delivering pamphlets. His only idealistic streak seems to be the hopeful belief that a third party can be effective in a two-party system. He lamented the observation in the New Statesman that “English people form their opinions in huge inbred chunks—there is a reactionary set of views and a progressive set, with very little cross-voting. Whoever heard of a prominent nudist riding to hounds?” This naturally triggered his writing “The Muftiless Major,” a 32-line biography of an officer of the Indian Raj who, tired of the heat, retired to England in the nude for a life of fox-hunting… until…
Mourn the lot of a man with a wide open mind!
The straight Right and Left joined their forces
To get the poor fellow securely confined,
Alleging he frightened the horses.
[ … ]
Watch the skies after midnight, a whisky in hand,
Now the coverts grow bare, winter’s markers,
For a glimpse of a great ghostly galloping band
With its legendary leader, still starkers.
Somehow this image of a highly individual, tradition-rich lover of the English countryside who is out of place among the conventional forces of both Left and Right… well, it brings Jerome Betts himself to mind.
(Fully clothed, of course.)