I’m such a constitutional lightweight lately that I’ve started looking on the website What’s On in South Devon for things to do of an evening that don’t involve total annihilation. What’s On in South Devon is surely one of those ‘shortest book in the world’ contenders. Weeknights it’s mainly the same local musicians playing the same deserted pubs; or some functioning psychotic preaching new-age nonsense in a church hall to folk whose gullibility gives one a rough idea of the infinite; or bingo. Listening to functioning psychotics in church halls is fun at first, but soon palls. I’d go to bingo if I didn’t already own a life-sized ceramic cheetah. Which usually leaves Receding Diagonal at the Turk’s Head or bloody Silhouette at the Feathers.
An unexpected listing for a poetry group discussing ‘the Sonnet’ on Tuesday leapt out at me, therefore, as a night out without the prospect of a maiming hangover. The event was held in the comfortable book-lined drawing room of a Georgian mansion. I walked in to find about 20 poetry lovers of all ages already seated in a wide circle. They were sitting perfectly still, oozing mindfulness and gentleness from every pore. You could have knocked most of them down with a feather. (Closer inspection showed that the books were secured behind elegant security bars.) The group leader, the award-winning poet Alice Oswald, was describing what a sonnet is (sonetto is Italian for ‘little song’) and who invented it (Petrarch) and who popularised it in England (Sir Thomas Wyatt). Sir Thomas was her all-time favourite sonneteer, she said. She read one of his out. It began ‘Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind’. The hind, apparently, was Anne Boleyn, the minx. Wyatt was sentenced to death for daring to dally with Henry’s Queen, but Thomas Cromwell engineered a reprieve. Apparently, this Thomas Wyatt, poet, is the same Thomas Wyatt that’s been on the telly a lot lately in Wolf Hall.
Next she read us one of John Clare’s sonnets. It was written while he was losing his mind in the village of Northborough in Northamptonshire. His most picturesque delusion during this period was that he was a boxer. The sonnet had no title and no punctuation and was sliced neatly into couplets ‘like bread’, said Alice Oswald. I couldn’t take it in, even though the language was surprisingly modern. But I liked the sound of it and I was very taken by the idea of a nervous breakdown neatly expressed as a collection of sonnets. That Thomas Wyatt sounded like an excellent fellow too. I looked eagerly forward to getting hold of Clare’s desperate Northborough sonnets and Wyatt’s priapic ones and settling down for a good read at the next opportunity. Ten minutes gone and I was already glad I’d come.
But I should have stood up and left clutching my booty there and then, because after Alice Oswald’s modestly presented, inspiring introduction, we went around the circle of local poetry-lovers to hear contributions, either of sonnets they had written themselves, or of much-loved favourites, and from that point on the evening took a tailspinning nosedive. We went around the circle in an anti-clockwise direction and one person after another whispered with excruciating diffidence, ‘I’m just here to listen.’ Finally we came to a woman who, with pantomime reluctance, like a child at a Christmas party asked to sing, read out one of Shakespeare’s famous sonnets. And after her a chap seemed pleased to read something of his own. When he had finished there was an uneasy silence until it seemed relatively certain that the thing was over, at which we disguised our puzzlement with the groans and whimpers more often associated with deep sexual satisfaction.
Then the nightmare began in earnest.
The next bloke we came to had been sitting quietly, rather too conscious of his overwhelming genius to lower himself to speak. He reminded me of a young Hitler glowering in the corner of the Viennese hostel common room while the other bums talked politics. Now he spoke. Now it was his turn. He had brought with him a volume of his own published poetry. He riffled tantalisingly through the pages, basking psychotically in what he imagined was our delighted gratitude and delicious expectation, and randomly read an infantile poem that definitely wasn’t a sonnet about someone smiling at him in a supermarket. And from then on he took the floor and it was all about him. What he liked about poetry and what he didn’t like. What he’d done today. His life story. His deep love of nature. If ever there was a candidate for the bores’ self-help group On and On Anon, this guy was it. I slipped out while he was in full flow and went down the Feathers, and to my great surprise had a super night tripping the light fantastic to Silhouette.
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