An unsettling meditation on the mental disarrangements of encroaching senility manages a rare balancing of poetry and comedy
As a poet, Clive James shares some qualities with the English "Movement" writers, and an intellectual affinity with his compatriot Peter Porter. Typically, James combines traditional, often stanzaic, structures with glitteringly modern diction. Like a new Augustan, he can spin a verse-essay to engage mental gears contemporary poetry tends to neglect. And, notwithstanding some Larkinesque melancholy, he can make us laugh. This week's poem, "Lock Me Away", reflects both his comic talent and his agility in free verse when the latter suits his purpose. It's from a collection I've re-read with inexhaustible enjoyment over the four years since publication, Opal Sunset.
Writing comic poetry is a rare skill. Performance poets (with a few honourable exceptions) seem to imagine their excruciatingly clumsy rhymes are all just part of the fun. There are beautifully-crafted comic poems-for-the-page, of course; Wendy Cope, John Fuller, Kit Wright and John Whitworth have written some of them. What's unusual, though, in English poetry, is a comic poem which doesn't depend on rhyme and metre to be funny.
"Lock Me Away" is not, of course, only comic but it fends off the potential sombreness of its theme – mental deterioration – by steady increments of the surreal. The style of delivery is anecdotal, in short, rhymeless lines shaped by the speaker's natural intonation and syntax. In structural outline, "Lock Me Up" resembles the extended joke of a highly inventive stand-up comedian – with the added connective tissue of poetry.
The inciting incident is that "NHS psychiatric test" we've all heard about, and hoped was an urban myth: the patient has to spell the word "world" backwards. I wonder how many people have failed it out of sheer panic? The rest of us should start practising now.
Taking things a stage too far, as comedy usually does, the speaker tries pronouncing the new non-word, and the phonetic mouthful (DLROW, in case you're still struggling) sparks a riff of name-association and palindromes. The test to prove mental clarity appears to shatter it. Verbal fun is never in short supply: in fact, the comic incidents themselves derive from the wordplay.
The "sudden flaring picture" of Danny La Rue as a school-boy, cheeks bulging with marshmallows, as he tries to articulate "his initial and surname" comes with sound effects which the reader is asked to imagine. (James never gives away too much information in this poem: the reader has to stay awake). Narrative and noise climax when the palindrome-maddened speaker finds the columns of a certain national newspaper are becoming "populated/By a thousand mumbling drag queens". The implication that the Guardian uses the word "world" a lot, perhaps more than other newspapers, is a flattering one, so I should make it clear that I wasn't coerced into this choice of Poem of the week.
The next DLROW-man, Georges Delerue, is treated more earnestly. There's a biographical snippet to enlighten the too-many of us who've heard his lovely melodies without ever hearing of him. The scene imagined for the composer, unlike that of the infant drag-queen, is grimly unfunny. Does it hint at the idea that medical encounters may bring humiliation or abuse?
An apparently subject-changing device, "Why do I never think/ Of a French film composer …", the rhetorical question sprouts a philosophical one: "But can I truly say I never think of it/ When I've just thought of it?"
This cleverly-confused conundrum links neatly to the fear of "going stun". The original expression, "going nuts", is an idiom that makes light of wooden-headedness, but the palindrome "going stun" is fierce and scary - like Delerue's beating-up.
The next line is the one that makes me smile out loud. A crazy gang of new signifiers emerges from the palindromic treatment of "mad, bad and dangerous to know". While "dam" might allude to dames and mild damnation, "dab" sounds fishy and limp. As for the wonderful transitive verb "to wonk", perhaps its meaning is best left to the imagination. Clearly, the Mr Bean-ish character evoked is wonk-years away from the sexy, swashbuckling Lord Byron of the original phrase. But it's the incongruous "dangerous" that makes the description so deliciously funny.
"Ward" in the ensuing line ominously resembles "word." The speaker has muddled up the two, perhaps. Now identified as the patient, he addresses, and blames, the doctor for his confusion, and the poem's distant lightning-play of dread comes closer. What "ward" denotes is obvious, but the palindromic "cloudy draw" of the Marty Robbins song seems no less sinister. Those ghost-cowboys were seriously damned souls, chasing "the devil's herd" across the sky. The "draw" (gully) they galloped through might have been a passage out of hell.
Finally, the speaker asserts his intelligence by quoting the extended palindrome sometimes described as Napoleon's shortest speech (it would have been, if only he'd said it). The association with Napoleon makes matters much worse. The patient might have attained real insanity, thanks to that sanity check earlier: he now thinks he's Napoleon. It's the stuff of mental health nightmares, but the comic muse prevails, with a punch-line that ensures the poet and his readers exit laughing.
Since Opal Sunset, Clive James has published a further original-poetry collection, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower (2012) and, very recently, a new Dante translation, The Divine Comedy. The latter's at the top of my summer reading list. Given James's technical command and powerful personal voice, I'm anticipating a virtuoso performance. In the meantime, this little purgatorial adventure in the consulting-room will brighten any spirits – even those ghost-riders in the sky.
Lock Me Away
In the NHS psychiatric test
For classifying the mentally ill
You have to spell 'world' backwards.
Since I heard this, I can't stop doing it.
The first time I tried pronouncing the results
I got a sudden flaring picture
Of Danny La Rue in short pants
With his mouth full of marshmallows.
He was giving his initial and surname
To a new schoolteacher.
Now every time I read the Guardian
I find its columns populated
By a thousand mumbling drag queens.
Why, though, do I never think
Of a French film composer
(Georges Delerue, pupil of
Darius Milhaud, composed the waltz
In Hiroshima, Mon Amour)
Identifying himself to a policeman
After being beaten up?
But can I truly say I never think of it
After I've just thought of it?
Maybe I'm going stun:
Dam, dab and dangerous to wonk.
You realise this ward you've led me into
Spelled backwards is the cloudy draw
Of the ghost-riders in the sky?
Listen to this palindrome
And tell me that it's not my ticket out.
Able was I ere I saw Elba.
Do you know who I am, Dr La Rue?