Remember The Name?
At a reading I recently took part in, I read a poem that concerns David Attenborough (his death, in fact – may that be many years away). In preparing what I would read I realised that this was at least the third time I had mentioned Attenborough in a poem of mine. When I reference the great naturalist I’m pretty sure readers of all ages will know who I mean and will be able to pick up the reference. However, that may not always be the case.
The use of a name in a poem can be a wonderful thing – but you never really know what your readers’ terms of reference are. At a workshop I had to explain who Martin Scorsese is, to whom I refer alongside Hitchcock and Jake LaMotta in my poem ‘Soundtrack’. By the time I’d explained the point about the film director the poem had grown cold – like explaining why a joke is funny. It was a reference that, to my mind, was pretty safe, but of which this reader had no notion of (they were well above the age of seventy if that helps explain the gap). However, references can work the other way too – a name can fade from public consciousness and a much younger reader might be unable to connect with the line.
James Hunt. Keith Chegwin. Dennis Norden. These are three names to be found in poems. To be able to understand these references, to know who the people are, you probably have to be over thirty and British. The names are of their time, they date the poems and, because of that, the reference becomes more obscure as time passes. Does that matter? Can an obscure reference to a figure in pop culture prevent a poem from having a long life? Of course much of the greatest poetry makes all kinds of classical allusions, but I’m not talking about figures that bestride the world like a Colossus.
In contemporary poetry I know there are references to Marilyn, to Elvis, to Darwin, but these are figures who transcended their age and whose names live on. The reality is, I’m sorry to say, Keith Chegwin’s name will fade out, the way kids tv has faded from Saturday mornings. A darker example is with Carol Ann Duffy who mentions Brady and Hindley, a reference that younger readers need help with. (“Brady and Hindley /
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.” ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’).
It is Paul Farley whose poem features Cheggers – and things get even more bizarre when you learn the poem concerns the time Keith appeared as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’. The chances are a reader unfamiliar with Chegwin will get the gist of the poem, but the full glory can only be enjoyed by those that are familiar with his oeuvre. The poem therefore, is automatically niche, and it is not going to be anything other than increasingly niche, playing to an aging reader. Does that matter?
Read Paul Farley’s poem here – https://poetrysociety.org.uk/poems/keith-chegwin-as-fleance/
It probably does not matter if the writer is aware that this brilliant idea, this knowing joke, will, with time, lose its impact, but it is an element of which I am very aware of as I write. David Attenborough and what he represents, will, I think, resonate for quite some time, but if I’d gone for Chris Packham the shelf-life of the poem might be shorter.
Our new Poet Laureate’s collection Seeing Stars features several names from poplular culture, some like The Beatles in ‘The Last Panda’, will last, others, like Ricky Wilson, already seem archaic and irrelevant. Then there is the poem ‘Hop In, Dennis’ which is built upon 1) knowing who Dennis Bergkamp is and 2) knowing he is/was famoulsly scared of flying and travelled to European matches by train, or whatever other means available. How many readers does this exclude? Should that be a concern?
See Bergkamp’s world cup wonder goal here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsZkCFoqSBs
Another danger lurks in what a person may turn out to be; somebody tells me they wrote a poem years ago that refers to Jimmy Savile –not a poem people will want to hear now. Any Kate Bush fan will know that ‘Aerial’ one of her finest albums has Rolf Harris speaking on a track (he’s on ‘The Dreaming’ playing the didgeridoo also). She later re-recorded the ‘Aerial’ piece and dropped Harris from it.
Finally, and just to clear up the James Hunt reference. The racing driver’s name actually appeared in a poem a year or two ago written by an 18 year old A-level student. I was struck by the reference, impressed at her knowledge of 1970s sport, and then concerned. Will anyone else know who you are talking about, I asked? Certainly no other student in the room knew the name. The writer reckoned that while it might deter more casual readers, those with any interest can easily find the name on Google, and, she reckoned, it is always good to add to what you know. This particular student also wrote a poem that mentioned Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage – so perhaps the fact that time makes all names obsolete is no bad thing after all.
Buy The Space Between Us – https://wordpress.com/view/neilelderpoetry.wordpress.com
John Hurt, Angelina Jolie, John Lennon, Janet Leigh also appear in poems of mine.
Many thanks to those who responded on social media to the question about names in poems – among the responses: Kurt Cobain, Brandon Flowers (surely set to be forgotten), Evel Knievel.