Worth His Wit in Gold

(Adapted from “Reviews and Reflections” in Light‘s Spring 2010 issue, in which John Whitworth was the featured poet)

In contributor’s notes for magazines, John Whitworth likes to say he is “oldish, fattish, baldish.” What he doesn’t mention is that he’s also brilliantish, popularish, and very well reviewedish.

For more than three decades, his poems have won him fans in the United Kingdom, where he has spent most of his life; in Australia; and (increasingly) in the United States. They have appeared in such places as Poetry Review, Forbes, The Spectator, and The Times Literary Supplement. They have been aired, and sometimes commissioned, by the BBC. He has published nine books of poetry (most recently Being the Bad Guy)—earning praise along the way from Wendy Cope, Anthony Thwaite, Peter Porter, and Philip Larkin, who chose Whitworth’s second book, Poor Butterflies, as one of his books of the year in a Sunday newspaper. [Editor’s note: the final tally, in 2019, would be 10 books of his own poetry, plus anthologies, a textbook, and a children’s book.]

Whitworth has advanced degrees from Oxford. He lives in beautiful Canterbury. He and his wife, Doreen, a retired lecturer in English, take daily walks in the woods (“It’s GOOD for me,” he says) and have two grown daughters, Ellie and Katie, whom Whitworth plainly adores.

He is, in short, the sort of poet other poets might jealously hate—if only he weren’t so darned helpful.

At Eratosphere, an online poetry workshop frequented by some of the best metrical poets around, Whitworth provides the skinny on British comic-verse contests (which, unlike those in the U.S., are abundant and a bit lucrative). But he doesn’t stop there. With what appears to be a blatant lack of self-interest, he offers other poets promising ideas and helps them polish their entries. If they win instead of him, he even tells them they deserved it. Of course, Whitworth often does win (tally so far: at least 60 prizes, worth more than £7000), as he did when challenged by The Spectator to adapt a Shakespearean passage à la W. S. Gilbert:

It goes round in my head: am I better off dead,
is the game for a Dane worth the candle?
Suppose I should chuck it and just kick the bucket,
would that be the act of a vandal?
Is it better to go with the devils you know,
though they give you one hell of a buffet,
And continue to try with a ‘never say die’,
or to tell them succinctly to stuff it?
For, as everyone knows, Death is merely a doze
and the dozer is calm as a Saint, so
The sleep is quite seamless and painless and dreamless,
except that it possibly ain’t so.
Yes, the storm and the strife of an average life
may be something you don’t really much like,
With the going and getting and grunting and sweating
and bearing of fardels and suchlike,
But whatever comes after the tears and the laughter
(though laughter was never my pigeon)
You just didn’t oughter submit to self-slaughter
forbidden by Christian religion.
No, for God’s sake don’t do it, you’re certain to rue it.
How could it be prudent or clever
To burn on a bonfire, incessantly on fire
for ever and ever and ever?

Gilbertian rhythms spring up in many of Whitworth’s poems, as do hints of Gavin Ewart, John Betjeman, W. H. Auden, Lord Byron, and Larkin—along with such contemporary poets as R. S. Gwynn, James Fenton, and Cope. Like most of these writers most of the time, he eschews “that dreadful formless way invented by Walt Whitman and carried on by so many boring old farts (and young farts) who think they are God,” as he has called it. He sticks to the concrete and plain-spoken—though it’s true that the sum of his details sometimes takes more than one read to come clear, if ever. (Try his lively “Quarks,” reprinted in Light as “A Bowl of Soup,” on for size.) In “The Middle-Sized Poem,” from Tennis and Sex and Death, he describes his ideal audience as “commuters holding down a job …, sellers of soap, and space, and law.” He paints them as not-entirely-fulfilled men and women who, presumably, could use a little entertainment—something he is more than willing to provide.

“I don’t know that poets should strive to be deep and important,” he told an interviewer from The Chimaera in 2008. “I think [poets] should be interesting and user-friendly. In fact, as that old Oxford philosopher said, ‘Importance isn’t all that important. Truth is.’”

What subjects does he mine for truth? Family life, government, sports, death, publishing, teenagers, booze, insanity, murder, you name it. Linking his takes on these is a supernatural knack for rhyme; a bold, often incantatory sense of rhythm; and a puckish wit that gets his poems shared on blogs, listservs, and (to judge by the poem below) bathroom doors:

No Can Do

You can empty the Nile with a shovel,
You can climb to the moon up a rope,
You can bat in the nude at the Oval,
You can model Atlantis in soap,
You can share a cigar with the devil,
Then enjoy a blind date with the Pope
Where you sip aftershave from your navel
Sky-high on that Vatican dope.

But you can’t get your kids out the bathroom,
Though you grouse and you gripe and you mope,
If your kids are booked into the bathroom
You had better abandon all hope.

You can train your twin ferrets to answer the phone,
You can see that they do it in Greek,
You can drum on your bum with a dinosaur bone
If you think it improves your physique,
You can seethe like a haggis in eau-de-Cologne,
Then hang on a hook for a week,
You can moan all alone in a coffin of stone
(it’s an old meditation technique),

But you can’t get your kids out the bathroom,
Though you wail and you whinge and you shriek,
If your kids relocate to the bathroom<
Then your personal hygiene looks bleak.

You can drink ‘em as fast as they pour ‘em
And stand every time that you fall,
You can lose every sense of decorum
And behave like a bear in a brawl,
You can sing to the stars cock-a-lorum
From a perch on the nunnery wall,
Then finish the night with a jorum
And drop off to sleep in the hall,

But you can’t get your kids out the bathroom,
Though you yowl and you yell and you bawl,
Still your chances of using the bathroom
Are infinitesimally small.
No, you can’t get your kids out the bathroom,
There will always be kids in the bathroom,
When your kids are staked out in the bathroom
Then you can’t use the bathroom at all!

While Whitworth is probably best known for his humor, he isn’t always funny. “I think poets have to be able to do sadness,” he said in that same Chimaera interview—and he does do sadness, with affecting simplicity. He’s also a master of spookiness, malice, regret, and, especially when it comes to politics, anger. (Seen as conservative by many, Whitworth calls himself “a liberal of the George Orwell kind”—one who supports Britain’s new coalition government, doesn’t trust “climate-change scientists,” and thinks Tony Blair belongs in prison. “My flourishing of The Daily Telegraph (right wing paper of the middle-classes) is just TO PISS THE OTHERS OFF,” he writes in a recent email.) Sometimes, like a rock musician, he turns a grim topic oddly buoyant through the force of rollicking rhythm and word play. Other times, like Cope (whose spareness he admires), he does not. Many of his most moving poems—as in Landscape with Small Humans and Tennis and Sex and Death—are about childhood.

The Tower

I go on the big slide!
How brave it is, and right.
Each step she takes is half her height
Yet she is not afraid.

See Daddy, watch me when
I go on my tummy. Watch me.
I don’t need anyone to catch me.
Watch me do it again.

And, as she bobs above it,
This space from the river’s edge
To the underpass and the railway bridge,
She is the princess of it.

From her infanta’s hands
Road, rail and river fall
To Canterbury, to Kent, to all
The new found lands.

As if a stone should be
Lobbed into silent water,
As if the sun of a little daughter
Conjured an orrery,

Beautiful, like a ring,
Intricate, like a verse,
Canceling out the primal curse,
Ordering everything.

On to the News at Ten:
Rape of a three-year-old kid
Dumped in a ditch to die (she did).
On to the world of men.

On to the world of men,
On, as soon as you’re ready.
Watch me do it again, Daddy.
Watch me do it again.

At the opposite end of Whitworth’s childhood-poem spectrum—the playful, mischievous, outright goofy end—is his one book for kids: The Complete Poetical Works of Phoebe Flood. In it he channels a precocious 10-year-old who was inspired by his daughters, he says, but “is me of course, not them, though much more extrovert than I was.”

Whitworth claims he had no pedagogical aim in writing Phoebe Flood. Still, when his tween alter ego coaches readers on writing triolets and haikus, his affinity for teaching blazes through—as it does in his terrific how-to book for adults, Writing Poetry. No surprise there: Whitworth is a veteran instructor of English and creative writing (at the University of Kent, among other places), and has conducted scores of poetry workshops at elementary schools. In his view, teachers enjoy a reward similar to that of politicians—“that you have a PLATFORM, that you can show off.”

To readers of Phoebe Flood and Writing Poetry, Whitworth’s own platform might seem cleverly built to promote the survival of rhyming, scanning verse. He denies having any such goal, though. Thanks to the likes of Cope, Fenton, Gwynn, and Australian poet Les Murray, he suggests by email, metrical poetry needs no CPR from him. But hasn’t he given it a major hit of oxygen anyway? One look at his work, and the answer is plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face-ish.

~ Melissa Balmain