A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 304

Poets who matter: No. 11 – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

FARMINGTON  - Much has happened since the last in this poetry series was posted back in March of 2004. A Rochester poet laureate was chosen and crowned, reigned for almost two years with scarcely a ripple of controversy, and was given an extension of a year in which to really make her mark.

Sadly, works like Ode to a Milfoiled Stream or Coronation of a Big Box Store, which could have put Rochester on the cultural map, just didn’t roll off her pen – but don’t despair. A brand new poet laureate search committee has just been formed with yours truly snuck on board to keep everyone in the loop.

The first thing I must share is that thanks to some sterling behind-the-scenes work from City Manager John Scruton and Librarian John Fuchs, an application form has been cunningly designed to eliminate carpetbagger poets from surrounding hamlets while ensuring that only the most upright of Rochester residents will make it to the starting gate.

All poet laureate applicants, for example, must be prepared to submit to a criminal background check, and just in case any search committee member has some misgivings about this brilliant security filter, I have already circulated my thoughts on the matter, thus:


No prison poets need apply

Our poets will be background checked,

To find out if they're stained or flecked;

Should they have broken any law,

Like giving constables some jaw,

Or if they've staggered out of bars

And babbled poetry at stars,

Their dreams will quickly come unfixed -

Those applications will be nixed.

Uprightness first and talent second,

Is how, these days, things must be reckoned.

We're living in litigious times,

And cannot risk lawsuits from rhymes.

If Shakespeare lived on Lafayette,

E'en he'd get tangled in this net.

So let the laureate search commence,

We'll check and choose a poet – thence,

If they prove less than lily white,

We vill censor what they write.


Yet, one of my favorite men of verse, Tennyson, is a bit wishy-washy on this score, and in A Vision of Sin, seems to suggest that we are all tarnished:


Virtue! – to be good and just –

Every heart, when sifted well,

Is a clot of warmer dust,

Mix’d with cunning sparks of hell.


My love for Tennyson dates to classroom days and an encounter with The Brook which, back then, was not choked with variable milfoil. Nor did it host a river walk. But it wasn’t until after I had joined Glasgow City Police, in 1966, and had been sent to patrol Easterhouse, a sprawling and drear public housing estate of 40,000 people, that I fully appreciated how Tennyson’s lines had the ability to soothe.

I was under the eye, at that time, of a much older policeman called John Ramsay. He was a poker-faced man with a quick and practical brain, and had a liking for whisky.

Scottish bars, in those days, had to close at 10 p.m., and the original village of Easterhouse, located at the very edge of the new waves of cheap housing, had a pub that Constable Ramsay liked to clear of customers at the end of lawful opening. After this raucous process he would be presented with a golden glass of Dewar’s by the bar manager.

One night he was plodding purposefully in the direction of the tavern when, crossing over the Forth and Clyde Canal bridge, he saw, in the moonlight, a dead body floating in the water below. Ramsay’s quick and practical brain began to whirr. If he stopped to deal with this tragedy, he would lose the chance for his nightly dram, but if he ignored it, someone might blunder along, spot the same drowned woman, and sprint into the bar to get official help. Then he would be obliged to respond, and get stuck with the sheaves of paperwork that go along with dead bodies.

So, Ramsay confided to me later, he quietly went into the drying green area of a nearby row of houses, and borrowed a long clothes pole with which he was able, from the canal bank, to nudge the body gently under the bridge and prod it slowly out the other side, with scarce a ripple. On the western side of the bridge, it was Glasgow, but on the eastern side, where the body now floated, it was the County of Lanarkshire … a different police jurisdiction. Stealthily replacing the wooden pole on its washing line, Ramsay continued to the bar nearby and, before clearing out the patrons and settling down to his Dewar’s, made an anonymous call to the police station in Coatbridge to report a body drifting in their canal.

I thought at once of Tennyson’s beautifully sad lines:


Under tower and balcony,

By garden-wall and gallery,

A gleaming shape she floated by,

Dead-pale between the houses high,

Silent into Camelot.


In 1966, barely a year before Easterhouse and its legions of futureless youth, exploded into the national consciousness via gang warfare, the signs of severe social stress caused by economic abandonment in an architectural wasteland 10 miles from the city center, were growing. Suicides were not uncommon, and one Saturday night police were called to a house on Errogie Street, where someone had tried to take his own life by swallowing the contents of a medicine chest.

No ambulance was available, so a blue police Land Rover arrived to help me convey the gentleman to the Royal Infirmary, which was almost half an hour away, in those pre-motorway times. While two experienced officers sat up front on the other side of a metal grille, I sat in the back of the vehicle with the patient. He was conscious but appeared to be suffering abdominal pain, and only 10 minutes into the journey made a frantic appeal to exit the Land Rover.

The hardened officers in front were about to ignore this plea, when he explained that he had ingested two bottles of laxative pills and that Nature was calling most urgently.

We screeched to a halt.

“What were ye trying to dae? Shit yersel tae death?” roared one infuriated officer as he raced to the back of the Land Rover and dragged the man out in the nick of time.

It was a dreadful situation, but there was Tennyson to soothe the ruffled breast with his lines describing how Lucretius “resolves to commit suicide to reassert his humanity,” as Prof. Barbara Gates puts it.


Why should I, beastlike as I find myself,

Not manlike end myself? – our privilege –

What beast has heart to do it? And what man,

What Roman would be dragged in triumph thus?

Not I;


And triumph there was behind the awful, soulless construction of isolated Easterhouse, with its 10,000 near identical houses, 40 percent unemployment and not a single factory. There was the triumph of new housing statistics flaunted by politicians, and the triumph of a safe return on bonds for the lending institutions. Hollow triumphs that are best addressed by poets. As we shall see …

September 22, 2007

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