by Mike Fox
Kip Jenkins has died. Fred Oublensky, more recently, has gone too. Marion Parr-Elyson, I suspect, has died, though I have seen no obituary.
But I am still alive.
An involuntary cohort. We were “welded together in prolixity,” as one reviewer suggested, and others deemed fit to repeat, year after year. Personally I could see no similarity, except for certain linguistic tics attaching to the decade in which we were born, and the not unreasonable accusation that our poems tended towards the epic in scale. There was a time when I resented any comparison. But now, alone and barren, I confess I feel their absence.
I remember reading, in the freedom of my youth, a character created by that great subversive Kurt Vonnegut. The character, some sort of mystic, is hidden in the narrative until he makes an unspectacular and anti-climactic appearance at the end. Such is the fate of enigma when scrutinised. But the character describes a phenomenon he calls a “karass.” The term has stayed with me. It refers to a seemingly arbitrary grouping of people who are in fact linked through fate or karma. Those I have named, without doubt, were part of my karass, and as each took their leave of it I was weakened, until inspiration, like a soul that tires of mortal flesh, inevitably went its way too.
Now I am left only with the habits that attended it. Although, if I’m honest, even these have dwindled. The pencil, the biro, the fountain pen, the sheets of A4, blue lined and red margined—friends of my fingers and mind—somehow fell in the course of their duty, and on my desk is a screen whose sole function is to rebuke me for each new hour of indolence.
The first clue—that we were something more than contemporaries who shared a vocation—passed unnoticed. I have no further need to dissemble—what would be the point? But never trust writers when they speak of their working methods. You might as well ask a squirrel where it hides its nuts. However, there was something about old Fred’s astonishment that rang true when I told him, quite truthfully, I had always written in one hour segments, punctuated by a ritual brewing of Lapsang Souchong, a change of at least one item of clothing, and an impulse to wash the last session from my hands and face, slavishly obeyed. This, I continued, occurred unvaryingly between the hours of seven and eleven each morning. Then a walk, then lunch, then a snooze, then a single hour of revision.
‘Bloody hell,’ he said. ‘That’s exactly what I do. Exactly.’
‘Surely not the Lapsang?’ I queried.
‘Well, no,’ he admitted, ‘not necessarily. But otherwise it’s identical.’
In vino veritas. Or whatever the phrase might be when you’ve shared a convivial amount of Guinness. Perhaps not the most fulsome of disclosures, but still an unusual admission from a man who normally guarded his regime as a moat guards a castle.
At that point, despite the first true hint of fates entwined, I intuited no greater significance. After all, by then we had accumulated twenty-five years of acquaintance, and over such a period the ice of rivalry is bound to thaw somewhat. And, of course, the “performance poets” had started to cavort and declaim all over YouTube. Looking back, perhaps it was the moment we felt driven to turn our guard towards a greater threat.
In fact, I suppose the potential between the four of us for some sort of deeper alliance had always been there. Fred and Marion, it goes without saying, had known each other in many a sense since their undergraduate days. They kept marrying other people, but somehow meandered an oblique path back together after each relational catastrophe had run its course.
And Kip, though mostly adrift in his own thoughts, was somehow part of it too. The most retiring, the most introspective, and, dare I say, the most talented? I’m sure we all thought that—it showed in our reluctance to embark on the ritual character assassination that was our default for any successful contemporary, even if we found it impossible to release from our hearts the praise we knew his work deserved. His readings, apologetic and mumbled as they could be, were inevitably redeemed by the rarity of his gifts. Truly a man whose words could move philistines.
And of all of us, I must admit, he looked the poet. The intriguing asymmetry of his features. The jacket and trousers that you could guess had been passed down the male line since the nineteen-twenties. The hair that, although whitened, had never lost its abundant chaos. More than once I saw a dreamy gaze in Marion’s eye when his name was mentioned. And I even heard—however…
We all felt the irony when he was offered the laureateship. Never was a man less suited to the burden of public office. Of course, the four of us met to pass on, or in his case receive, congratulations.
‘I feel I have to do it.’ His hands shook. The poor fellow could hardly meet our eyes.
A strange understanding, I might even call it empathy, arose in me. Fred, Marion and I, I have little doubt, were feeling much the same thing: a mixture of envy, relief, compassion, and even a certain elation. The latter, perhaps, owing to the muted glow of vicarious achievement. One of us had at last found a place on the great ducking stool of poetry. We were not sadists, far from it. But despite the default sentiment of any poet that he/she would be more deserving and could do it better, we believed we were glad the most doubtful honour in literature had fallen to Kip.
And I see, in the clarity of retrospect, that the moment was a further drawing together. We knew what it would mean. The unwanted bombardment from every part-time scribbler in the country. The need to park one’s discernment in a psychological tram shed in order to conjure bland phrases of encouragement to the linguistically challenged. And, even worse, the mandatory chiselling out of grovelling cadences to the twelfth in line to the throne.
We were all wrong, of course. At first, at least. Kip suckled on the milk of publicity like the runt that at last finds its teat. And, to be fair, in his understated manner he made sure that the rest of us shared his nourishment.
In short, being the person he had always been, he continued to do things much as he’d always done them. And oddly it worked. To be sure there were times—the “Quadrille for Three Voices” read with Sister Wendy and Jeremy Clarkson was one of them—when he spilled into the demotic. But then Kip, as a reader, was an omnivore, and as a man, an egalitarian.
Marion was the first to broach the subject of a knock-on effect. She, Fred and I were having an early supper of fish and chips in her flat, a ritual of many years standing, by this time, alas, a call to lost youth. Kip, with the new demands on his time, was unable to join us.
‘Could I ask, have either of you found that your sales have gone up?’
I was refreshing her glass from one of the bottles of cut-price Sauvignon it was my habit to add to the occasion. Fred and I looked at one another. Normally there could be only one motive for this question. I took the plunge first.
‘Strange you should mention it, but yes they have. Even “The Web of Samscara” has attracted new attention.’
Prior to Kip’s elevation, sales of “The Web of Samscara,” my first collection and drawing perhaps too much on an early esoteric dalliance, had been utterly moribund for as long as I could remember.
‘Me too,’ Fred added. ‘Funnily enough my older stuff has started to shift as well.’
Marion inclined her head. ‘That makes it a quorum. “Vignettes in Dark Corners” has sold more copies in one month than for the last five years.’
It shames me to admit we went to one of Kip’s readings incognito. Probably this was unnecessary, as he often lamented that he could barely see the front row, even in varifocals. But there the truth became evident. He read a poem by each of us, admittedly all shorter specimens, and spoke about them with such quiet erudition that we hardly recognised ourselves.
We shuffled out of the hall with complex feelings. Would any of us have been as generous? Would anyone have taken notice if we had? If we’d previously given credit to Kip’s poetry, could we honestly say we’d been as just regarding his character?
To add to our shame he had also read from several unsolicited manuscripts from members of the public. We could only admit they were full of merit. His own poems had been sprinkled in like an afterthought. He had been elected to represent poetry, and he was doing it with undeniable magnanimity.
And the fact that he hadn’t mentioned any of it just made it worse. To the list of virtues we had overlooked in him could be added diplomacy: the old pals act done with quiet consideration. This, I think, is when we at last began to realise that we were, in truth, old pals.
I would not describe what followed as a crescendo of self-disclosure, but undoubtedly the mists of wariness began to clear somewhat. And in this too, Kip, joining us again for supper, became our role-model.
‘Whenever I get a manuscript from an aspiring poet, I always remind myself how I started.’ He cut a chip into three segments, prodded each symmetrically onto his fork, paused as if deciding the next step, then transferred them to his mouth.
‘And how was that?’ Fred, more robust in all things, had already cleared his plate.
Kip looked down at his food again as though it had suddenly become a pageant of all the loss in his life. He was a methodical but anxious eater. I’d heard it said that he’d gone without in childhood.
‘I put together lines from five or six poems I admired,’ he said eventually, ‘then rewrote them until I felt they coalesced.’ He paused, and for a moment I saw an adolescent self flit across his features. Then he added hastily. ‘It was only an exercise—I never tried to publish the result.’
Marion blanched. She looked astonished. ‘That’s what I did,’ she said. ‘The very same thing, over and over again. That was my apprenticeship. Until now I’d imagined I was the only person who’d thought of such an idea.’
‘Perhaps that’s why your poems flow so beautifully,’ Kip said. ‘There was a time when I hoped I might emulate your lyricism.’ He looked sorrowful again but then his brow cleared, and he began to quote. The moon draws fallow stripes on plough-hewn fields, and shimmers in January’s arthritic branches, knowing more than any hour of daylight. How I wish I’d written that.’
Marion gazed at him, her dark eyes moistening. ‘Oh, Kip!’ she said.
Personally, I had always read this line as bilge, but now felt forced to question myself. There was something persuasive in the imagery, perhaps?
And then, suddenly, I became aware of a strange phenomenon. It was as if a collective unconscious, somehow personal to us, was hovering above the table like ectoplasm, trying to make itself known. I remembered Fred’s reaction when I described my writing day. Small things it might seem, but I was forced to suspect they evidenced some form of psychic entanglement that was only just becoming apparent.
I should say that neither Fred, Marion nor I had felt able to come clean about our clandestine attendance at Kip’s reading. I suspect however, being the human antenna he was, he had discerned a new frisson of warmth from us, and in fact amongst us. It might even be that the renewed public interest in our work created a certain disinhibition, because we began to talk about our writing with a freedom entirely unknown in the past. Marion, who had embraced social media earlier and with more relish than the rest of us, admitted that she often based the characters in her poems on avatars.
‘That’s not so different from what I do now,’ Kip admitted, rather shamefacedly. ‘I sometimes keep swiping on Tinder until I find a face that inspires.’
‘You’re far from alone in that, Kip.’ Fred reached to pat his shoulder in a fraternal way. ‘Though I doubt it usually ends in a poem.’
‘Certainly, in my case, that’s the most likely outcome.’ Kip inclined his head sadly.
And there it was: the loneliness of the poet’s life laid bare. Hours spent on one’s own at a desk, involved in a task of which few can see the point and fewer still understand, dredging one’s sensibility for the rare and elusive line that might lend even a hint of transcendence to the trudging, splay-footed waddle of the human condition. “The muse,” no more than a term for psychological and emotional subjugation, will descend and take control of your life. And when it leaves you, as it surely will, you will go on searching for it. Because in rare moments you have glimpsed it for what it truly is: a more enticing seductress than you could ever hope to meet in the world you see around you. Innisfree, Fern Hill, Adlestrop. Go to these places and be disappointed. They existed only in an elevated moment of someone’s mind, a mind that doubtless paid much for what it saw.
It seems ridiculous now that when Kip became too ill to carry on, the rest of us fell out over who might take his place. As if it was our choice to make. Youth, or at least something like it, must always flood in. In this case Kip’s successor was, and I quote: “edgy, sexy, her own woman, and certainly no arse-lick.” It hurts me to admit that all of this was undeniably true. Good poems are timeless, but poetry bends with the wind of the moment. Neither Fred, nor Marion, nor I could honestly describe our work, or personality, in those terms. Although, to be fair, Fred never to my knowledge behaved like a sycophant.
It hurts even more that this happened at a time that should have been a fruition of all those years of effort and—yes I will say the word—friendship. I suppose it could be seen as inevitable: perhaps vanity is the last flimsy disguise of desperation, the desperation to be loved by readers we would probably never meet, and might not even like if we did.
And as for Kip, my perception is that he simply faded. What I think I missed at first is that the role of laureate took to him better than he to it. After five years he was in danger of becoming that ghastly, nebulous phenomenon, a “national treasure.”
‘They smile and laugh irrespective of anything I do,’ he told us wearily. It was rare to see him at our little suppers now, and when we did he was often silent. ‘It’s as if I’m their favourite cartoon, or at least as if a cartoon is being projected immediately in front of me and that’s all anyone sees.’
Kip, the most idiosyncratic, original poet of our generation, had become, in the public consciousness, an everyman.
Ironically, his collected poems had only recently been published, and now these too were tainted by his unwanted success. Although most had been written long ago, the critics somehow managed to sniff the stench of previously undetected populism. Poor Kip, doing his best to be a man of the people, was accused of dumbing down.
Then, when it all finally got to him, our only wish was to replace him. I know what you’re thinking—three people who coveted what we professed to despise. In our defence, it’s not that simple. If I could offer one piece of advice to any young poet, I would say define what you mean by success, and then, if success comes, accept it for what it is. I can assure you that it will not be what you thought, but at least you will be able to say you got there. And, if you’re really lucky, that will stop you hoping for more. Success is not love, neither is it happiness, but at least it’s success. But, of course, I can only admit, Kip deserved better. From us, from everyone.
Poets, historically, have rarely been good at self-promotion, although undoubtedly the likes of Byron and Donne had a way with the public in their day. And of course someone more recent, whose name I refuse to commit to paper, once wormed his way into the public gaze to such an extent he seemed omnipresent on television for what felt like decades. We should have realised it would be futile. We should have consolidated our late alliance. But alas, for a few fervid months after Kip’s health forced him to stand down, we all chased fame as a stag in rut chases his herd, though, I fear, with even less dignity.
So there you have it. Kip, suffering from what was once euphemistically known as “nervous exhaustion,” except in his case it was not a euphemism, died, quietly I hope, in his home. His rediscovery took no time at all. Look at any English language syllabus and you will find Kip. Fred, as near a bon viveur as his royalties would allow, succumbed to a dicky heart. Marion, after a windfall inheritance, migrated to the Ardeche. Perhaps she’s still there now. And I sit and write this, because poetry itself has gone, and because these memories are all that it has left me.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Connect at www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2