Thursday 17 October 2013

Favourite snatches (14)

Here's another favourite snatch - an extract from Experience, the biographical memoir by Martin Amis, in which he recalls his father Kingsley's extraordinary talent as a mimic:

This is my father doing Lord David Cecil, the handsome, theatrical, effortlessly affected and above all aristocratic English don (who among other distinctions failed Kingsley's B. Litt at Oxford):

"Laze . . . laze and gentlemen, when we say a man looks like a poet . . . dough mean  . . . looks like Chauthah . . . dough mean looks like Dryden  . . . dough mean  . . . looks like Theckthpyum [or something barely recognisable as 'Shakespeare']  . . .  Mean looks like Shelley [pronounced 'Thellem' or thereabouts]. Matthew Arnold [then prestissimo] called Shelley beautiful ineffectual angel. Matthew Arnold had face [rallentando] like a horth. But my subject this morning is not the poet Shelley. Jane . . . Austen . . ."

Matthew Arnold

Amis fils goes on to say that whenever he thinks of what a poet looks like, he thinks of Robert Graves, whom he met in Mallorca as a boy when the Amis family visited DeiĆ , where Graves lived.

I saw Graves in person only once, at a poetry reading in the Royal Festival Hall in, I think, 1975. I was with a school group. He was almost completely gaga and looked terrific in a sand-coloured linen suit, yellow shirt and chocolate-brown suede shoes, his tanned and nobel head with a corona of snow-white hair. He hobbled suavely onto the stage with a sheaf of papers from which he began immediately, before reaching the microphone, to read. Once he'd worked through the sheaf he started again from the beginning, and got as far as the middle of the second poem for the second time when somebody gently ushered him off.

Here's a favourite Graves poem - one that I have read many times to my wide-eyed son. It's called Welsh Incident:

'But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.'
'What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?'
'Nothing at all of any things like that.'
'What were they, then?'
 'All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.'
'Describe just one of them.'
'I am unable.'
'What were their colours?'
'Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you'd like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.'
'Tell me, had they legs?'
'Not a leg or foot among them that I saw.'
'But did these things come out in any order?'
What o'clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?'
'I was coming to that. It was half-past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thrity-seven shimmering instruments
Collecting for Caernarvon's (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth's mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail's pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder
Did something recognisably a something.'
'Well, what?'
'It made a noise.'
'A frightening noise?'
'No, no.'
'A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?'
'No, but a very loud, respectable noise ---
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'
'What did the mayor do?'
'I was coming to that.'

 I'll admit I'm not a great admirer of Graves's poetry in general, preferring the work of his wife Laura Riding. But Welsh Incident is wonderful. How many poems leave you, desperately, wanting more?

Welsh Incident © The Estate of Robert Graves / Faber and Faber Ltd

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