17 June 2008

In defense of verse or worse

Surprisingly, and interestingly, my remembrance of Hilaire belloc's Tarantella this morning has produced a bumper postbag - most of it (not all) deprecatory. I'll let reader "LF" represent the rest (it seems unfair to name her/him, since s/he didn't ask to represent a class action target):

"If you are going to quote a poem in full could it not be from someone of more stature than Hilaire Belloc, the doggerellist who gave us Matilda Who Told Such Dreadful Lies?"[1]

Well, now ... where do I start?

Let's begin here: I don't consider that a particular piece of work should be judged according to who wrote it. Whether or not you class Belloc as a "doggerellist" is irrelevant. Is Tarantella, itself, doggerell?

I happen to think that Tarantella is a fine poem. But whether it is or not, it had a profound effect on me. What matters is not where I, or LF, or general consensus, place it on the scale from doggerel to high art - what matters is the effect it has on me. There have been many poems (as, also, many other creative artefacts) which shaped me and my life in one way or another - and Tarantella is one of them. It played its part in making me who I am, and to deny it would be the worst sort of cultural cowardice

I am grateful to LF and the other correspondents who have thus prompted me to remember anew how important is this internal honesty. I shall, from now on, quote occasional poems which have been personal markers in the same way.

While I am fired up about the subject, here is the first one - defiantly low art and doggerellish. I heard it when I was five, delivered with verve and visual effects by primary school teacher Mrs Walker, and (whatever you or I may think of it now) it opened my eyes to the conscious realisation of how words, rhythms, delivery can work magic.

I don't, alas, know the author. I'll make a pale attempt to recapture Mrs Walker's delivery using text effects.

The little furry rabbits
Keep very very still,
And peep at me across the grass
As I walk up the hill.

But if I venture nearer
To join them at their play...
A FLASH of white and they are gone;
Not one of them will stay!

So there you go, LF and others. It's not Milton, but it shaped me - and is, therefore, de facto, important. "Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders"[2].

  • [1] Hilaire Belloc and Steven Kellogg, Matilda who told lies and was burned to death. 1977, London: F. Warne. 0723220530
  • [2] Martin Luther, Speech at the Diet of Worms. 18 April 1521.


Judith Ryan said...

This was the first poem I ever learned by heart. I have a visual image of it in a book that I had when I was a child, but I don't know the author either.

Felix Grant said...

Thank you, Judith – you've made my day!