Six Bad Poets: Christopher Reid, Faber & Faber
Go to a gathering in poetry's metropolis, and it’s surprising how often you spot Christopher Reid there. Now there appears one possible explanation for his ubiquity: all the time he was gathering comic material for his rollicking narrative poem, Six Bad Poets.
I feared that I might not appreciate this book, on the grounds it would amount to a knowing insider’s tale of London poetry goings-on, from which I would feel excluded. Instead I couldn’t help but enjoy it, and found myself compulsively turning pages until quite soon, and disappointingly, I reached the last line on p87: “All titles mentioned above are quietly remaindered.”
Reid’s veteran knowledge of the poetry scene is always evident. A launch party is peopled, in one character’s eyes, by “nasties, nuisances, nincompoops, and nutters”. At an open floor night there is the recognisable, maverick compere, introducing a raggle-taggle army of spoken word performers:
The MC’s jokey intro goes on forever,
before the illest assortment of poets – mumblers and shouters,
shamblers and strutters – bring their variable
party tricks to the mic.
There are also deaths, violence, biographies, obits, and a surprising amount of generally ludicrous sex, often involving participants of fairly advanced years. An old, forgotten poet, a doyenne of the London scene, a young poet on the make, and a narcoleptic academic are among the six literary characters – three male, three female – who become ever more entangled in each other’s fates.
A boy poet wearied by the number of women who throw themselves at him nevertheless succumbs to the advances of a woman twice his age, purely in the interests of literary research. Reid’s sharp eye for poetic fad and fashion has his absent-minded academic credited with “changing the course of poetry” after discovering a new voice, following an encounter with a young poet still trying to find hers. He is suddenly assailed by poems that come “almost too fast to be typed”, and produces a book, that includes both an ostrich and parrot in its title, of 200 pages that “set out to reverse / almost every practice of an outmoded canon”. This career breakthrough has come after “thrashing and moaning” sex with the young poet that he had previously dismissed as “so like a mouse”. On the other hand, she is also a pole-dancer, of sorts.
In 2010, Reid’s narrative poem, The Song of Lunch, was made into a BBC2 film starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. With its faint echoes of cartoonist Posy Simmonds, both in the jacket illustrations by Elliot Elam and in the characters inhabiting poetry’s modern-day Grub Street, you can see the screen potential of Six Bad Poets, too.
Know a poet whose pomposity you would like to puncture? Send them this book for Christmas as an experiment – to see if they get the joke. Greg Freeman