Whenever I feel like reciting a bit of poetry to myself, it's almost always the same verse which comes out. No matter how hard I pull the handle of my mental fruit machine, the same words appear in the frame, as follows:
I knew a girl called Alma Brent
Completely destitute of brains,
Whose principal accomplishment
Was imitating railway trains.
That's not the whole poem, of course. There are another three verses and it is, by my standards, a little long. But that first verse, the only I can remember of that poem by Beachcomber, is very lovely in its own right. I just wish I could remember the rest.
Because the whole trouble with poetry, apart from the fact that it is too damn poetical, is that it is far too long and far too unmemorable. That's why we only remember tiny scraps of poetry. “The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece!" we sometimes say, or "They also serve who only stand and wait " ... and then we stop. That's all we can remember. A line at a time. Can't even remember the next line. This is why I had the idea, some years ago, that all great memorable lines of poetry should be completed with another line and then left as it is. I'll give you an example:
What is this life if, full of care,
We gradually lose all our hair?
You see? That's all you need. You could rewrite the whole of world poetry as two line couplets. Here's another:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
So take these chips to Table Number Eight!
You see how it works? Here's another:
Do not go gentle into that dark night
Drink eighteen pints of beer - go roaring tight!
I actually wrote a piece in a paper explaining the idea with lots of suggestions, none of which I can now remember. But I do remember getting an enthusiastic letter from a man called, as I recall, Colin Pearson, who said we should do a book of these couplets together, and he sent me some suggestions of his own. One of them has stuck with me to this day. He had taken the line
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.
As originally written, it goes on:
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
Pretty dull mechanical stuff, eh? But this is how Colin Pearson - I think it was Colin Pearson - completed the poem.
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
They woke me up at 3 am and got me out of bed!
Now by any standard that is far greater poetry than the original. The original is often wildly disappointing. I mean, “The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece,” is a good start, but to go on: “Where burning Sappho loved and sung,” is, frankly, a monster let-down. How about this instead?
The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece
Are full of bottom-pinching police.
Ever since I got the idea back again, I've been trying my hand at improving great lines of poetry, and although it's damn hard work, I think I'm getting the knack back. Let's see if any of these appeals to you...
It was Rose's, Rose's, all the way.
And the occasional box of Cadbury Milk Tray.
What is this life if, full of booze,
We cannot bend and tie our shoes?
Tell me, where is fancy bread?
Next to scones, the salesgirl said.
But westward, look, the land is bright!
Arsenal's playing at home tonight.
What is this life if, full of woe,
We go to Jail and don't pass Go?
By the way in case you want to know more about Alma Bent, who imitated railway trains, you're in luck. I've just found the original. Here's the rest of the story:
When ladies called at 'Sunnyside'
Mama, to keep the party clean,
Would say, with pardonable pride,
'Now, Alma, do the six-fifteen'.
The child would grunt and snort and puff
With weird contortions of the face
And when the guests had had enough.
She'd cease, with one last wild grimace.
One day her jovial Uncle Paul
Cried, 'Come on Alma, do your worst!'
And, challenged thus before them all,
She did the four-nineteen - and burst.
By the way, if Colin Pearson is listening - what about it? I'm game if you are.
Fourth Column 1994
Eds Note: .....and not just Colin Pearson. If any reader cares to contribute a ryhming couplet based on a famous line of poetry, we will print on the website. (Over to You Page)