When I wrote recently about his disengagement with poetry, and asked for your help (much appreciated!) I didn’t expect my next dalliance with poetry to be something quite like Calvin Trillin’s Deadline Poet. I have Thomas to thank for introducing me to Trillin, and Nancy to thank for mentioning Deadline Poet on this post back here. And now it has filled one of the tricky 1990s spots on A Century of Books.
Given my disinclination to read poetry, it was perhaps a surprising choice for me. Even more surprising is that it’s about Trillin’s time writing weekly ‘doggerel’ (his word) for The Nation about contemporary political figures. Contemporary being, in this case, the 1990s. Trillin always refers to his boss as ‘the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky’, whose one condition for offering Trillin $100 a week for his verse was: “Don’t tell any of the real poets you’re getting that much.” – “Your secret is safe with me,” I assured him.
Now, I know nothing about politics in 1990s America. Indeed, I know nothing about politics in any place, at any time, up to and including 2012 Britain… Thankfully Deadline Poet isn’t simply a collection of verse – Trillin knows that, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity. Light verse published in a newspaper necessarily relies upon topicality – so even those who know who Zoe Baird, Clarence Thomas, Robert Penn Warren etc. are (sorry, I don’t) might not remember the intricacies of various campaigns and speeches. So Trillin prefaces his poems with explanations – or, rather, the poems occupy a lot of a journalist’s memoir. The poetry and prose take up about equal amounts of page space, so it doesn’t feel like a collection with notes, nor like a traditional memoir, but a really engaging and funny combination of the two.
And the poetry itself? Well, Trillin probably isn’t being unduly bashful when he calls himself a doggerelist. There isn’t a lot of it that would make Wordsworth uneasy. Scanning and syntax tend to fall below rhyming in Trillin’s list of priorities (then again, that never did Tennyson any harm) and even there he prefers an abcb rhyme scheme, rather than abab, which is a little lazy – still, there is plenty of ingenious rhyming and wittiness throughout. Here’s one I enjoyed. (I should add, I have no idea who Ross Perot is. I don’t even know which is Republican and which is Democrat, since the words mean the same thing. So sorry if Perot is ‘your’ party… you probably know by now that I am not seeking to offend.)
The Ross Perot Guide to Answering Embarrassing Questions
When something in my history is found
Which contradicts the views that I propound,
Or shows that I am surely hardly who
I claim to be, here’s what I usually do:
I simply, baldly falsify.
I look the fellow in the eye,
And cross my heart and hope to die –
I don t apologize. Not me. Instead,
I say I never said the things I said
Nor did the things that people saw me do.
Confronted with some things they know are true,
I offer them no alibi,
Nor say, “You oversimplify.”
I just deny, deny, deny.
I hate the weasel words some slickies use
To blur their pasts or muddy up their views.
Not me. I’m blunt. One thing that makes me great
Is that I’ll never dodge nor obfuscate.
I imagine those of you who were politically aware in the 1990s will enjoy Deadline Poet greatly (especially if you agree with Trillin’s views, which I think are liberal). It is testament to Trillin’s humour and drollery that even I, entirely ignorant, found Deadline Poet a really entertaining read. Perhaps it isn’t quite how I saw myself engaging with poetry, and political verse certainly isn’t an avenue I’ll be exploring further, but as the memoir of a weekly journalist and light verse writer, I found it a whole heap o’ fun.