Sunday, 24 February 2013

Nevermore



There's been a flurry of interest in the British newspapers recently about a 'raven-haired' poet called Clare Foges who is behind the Prime Minster's speeches. Foges (below, left, with Cameron) is 31 years old and paid £63,000 a year (which seems quite a lot to me). She is known as 'the Prime Minster's larynx' and wrote his much-reported (entirely anodyne) speech on Britain's future role in Europe last month.

Foges is described as a 'respected poet', although all this appears to amount to is her winning the second prize in a low-key poetry competition a few years ago. That 'respected' seems a bit desperate - respected by whom, other than the judges who gave her that second prize? If she'd won the first prize would she now be 'highly respected'? Of course the phrase 'prize-winning' and the slightly classier 'award-winning' are terms applied willy-nilly to poets, mustard, pork pies and lager. 

I'd never heard of Foges and I have no idea how her second name is pronounced - does it rhyme with Stoke Poges? I've decided all the same to dislike her intensely, and for several reasons.

She is a devout Christian who worked for a while for Boris Johnson but still found time to design and market her own range of 'Christian jewellery'. Coincidentally the crucifix at the centre of a recent court case (Eweida v British Airways plc) involving an airline employee arguing for her right to sport a religious symbol (a practice banned under BA regulations) was one of Foges' products. I smell a rat here. 

What about the poetry for which Foges is 'respected'? This is a subject close to the dark heart of Salvēte! The first prize in the 2011 MAG Poetry competition (in which Foges came second) went to one Francesca McMahon with a poem entitled Ruby and Me at Baby Clinic, which begins:

    We dig an escape route 
    underneath the sink, 
    tunnel across the road . . .

But enough of that. Let's skip the rest, open the window, take a slug of GIN and read the opening lines of Clair Foges' poem, which is all about the day her dad said he was leaving the family:

    That was the day you said you were going away. 
    Ranged us on a bench like a jury, spread 
    the evidence of your dreams before us like brochures,
    sounded the syllables of your new home – Aus-tray-lee-ah –
    made it sound like a fantasy for the four of us. 
    Even stuttered at the edges of what love is, 
    what grown-ups have to do... Panicking, 
    you conjured up kangaroos and in that moment 
    were not the sharp-shooter, goldfish winner, 
    but a man fumbling over his escape clauses, 
    hand fluttering to the pink spot on your crown 
    as the little ones asked how many sleeps til we got there 
    and would we have suitcases like Paddington bear. 
  
It's not just that this is bad, although it is very bad indeed - it's also entirely typical of what passes for poetry these days, or at least what passes for poetry in the sort of competition won by Ruby and Me at Baby Clinic. (Another slug of GIN.) It's sincere of course, although that certainly doesn't make it truthful, or worth the effort of having written, and it's studiedly artless in its ignorance (or in its 'principled rejection') of what poetry can be. Sincerity in this approach being incompatible with form, technical competence and eloquence. It's also all over the place.

What is the reader to make of Foges' protean father, who is depicted in quick succession as a court usher and/or judge, lawyer, travel agent and fantasy-weaver, all in the space of four lines. A mixed metaphor? Clumsily mashed up, more like, or ineptly pureed. Brochures are not the evidence of dreams, and 'for the four of us' is aurally inept. The language throughout is childishly simple but not child-like, so there's no sense of a child's wondering incomprehension or of a later adult wisdom and understanding. 'A man fumbling over his escape clauses' is meaningless - and surely 'over' should be 'with' or 'for'? 

Of course the dad is a hopeless (and balding) inadequate, because that's what dads are these days. Adequate dads aren't the stuff of poetry, not now. Nor, to be fair, are straightforward and good, untroubled mothers. Dads, and come to that men in general, are feckless, selfish, lumpen, unreliable and emotionally costive. And these are just our qualities - wait until we get started on the flaws. Men can't be heroes any longer, and the opportunities for noble self-sacrifice are few in peace time. Commonplace gallantry is seen as outmoded, sexist and condescending. Even eloquence is suspicious and - the final insult - we have Jude Law on our screens instead of Robert Mitchum.

Thomas Hardy said that 'the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own', but this is not a pretext for mere candour. Forges' poem is not just about vengeance, but is an act of vengeance in itself. It's technically negligible of course - maundering confessional free verse peppered with dim and incoherent 'poetic' images. No concentration, no feel for the potentials of language or of thought; plenty of loquacity, but no eloquence.

From writing this sort of stuff to propping up Dave's gormless parliamentary rhetoric is a small step. It  goes some way to explaining the pervasive infantilism of the PM's public statements - he's the mouthpiece for a callow young woman with a cloth ear for language who is paid handsomely for supplying an oafish Old Etonian with what they both imagine is the common touch. They deserve one another.

Postscript: Foges appeared earlier this month in a BBC poll listing the 100 most powerful women in Britain. Oh Gawd.




Extracts © Francesca McMahon; Clare Forges.

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