There's poetry for any occasion, even a pandemic — just ask Twitter's unofficial poet laureate
Originally published on October 18, 2019.
Something we all need more of these days is relief — from the relentless news cycle, from the frightening medical updates, from the general doom and gloom. Talented people of all kinds are finding ways to share their music and their art. Among them is Brian Bilston, known as the poet laureate of Twitter. He shows us it's possible to find poetry for any occasion, including a pandemic.
He recently tweeted two new poems about the very different world in which we are all living.
"There's an old expression: may you live in interesting times," said Bilston. "On the surface it seems like a pleasant thing to wish for. After all, who would want life to be dull and unremarkable?
"But the phrase actually gets used as a curse. And you'd be harder pressed to find a greater example of why than the last few weeks and months."
In these strange, unsettling and frightening times, Bilston said that it made him appreciate all those sweet, blessed, uninteresting days that passed by with barely a murmur. His yearning for normality spawned this poem:
Send me a slow news day,
a quiet, subdued day,
in which nothing much happens of note,
save for the passing of time,
the consumption of wine,
and a re-run of Murder, She Wrote.
Grant me a no news day,
a spare-me-your-views day,
in which nothing much happens at all,
except a few hours together
some regional weather,
a day we can barely recall.
As a writer, Bilston is used to working from home.
"To work effectively in the home environment, it really helps to create a to-do list with a set of clear achievable goals," he said.
To Do List
delay; defer; equivocate
make some tea; procrastinate
scroll through the news; stroke the cat
readjust the thermostat
dawdle; dither; hem and haw
fill the kettle; chew my jaw
write nine words; spin on chair
play six games of solitaire
observe the merry, dappled light
dancing on the screen of white
print out my words; paper scrunch
stroke the cat; break for lunch
prioritise new tasks to shirk
resolve myself to do some work
look at Twitter; spin on chair
make a brew; loiter; stare
scroll through the news; stare some more
reorganise the kitchen drawer
write nine words; cross six out
stroke the cat; stoke self-doubt
make tea; stroke cat; scroll news; stare
Twitter; chair-spin; solitaire
stroke tea; spin news; scroll cat; wallow
write To Do list for tomorrow
Original story runs below.
When Brian Bilston read poetry for the first time, he was a student and he says he found it to be "something of a chore." That was until he encountered the work of Philip Larkin.
"It had the right mix of humour and bleakness which, for any teenage boy growing up in 1980s' Thatcher Britain, was perfect," he told Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition.
Like his favourite poet (Larkin was a librarian) Bilston had a day job before becoming a full-time writer, in the world of academic publishing.
He decided to use a pseudonym when he first logged on to Twitter, where he posted spoof football (soccer) reports: "Brian Bilston struck me as the kind of exact name that a local football correspondent might have."
His avatar, of a middle-aged man with a pipe, "gave the right level of mock earnestness and smugness that I wanted Brian to have," Bilston said.
Gradually, he began to post poems about themes he encountered on Twitter, attracting thousands of followers who said his writing became their gateway to poetry.
"I sometimes wouldn't be quite sure how to take that news. People would say, 'Well, I never really liked poetry before and then I read your stuff and it's OK, isn't it?'" said Bilston. "I'm not sure whether that says something about them or something about my poetry."
One of his most moving, and most popular, poems is called Refugees. Bilston first posted it on Twitter and it appears in his collection, You Took the Last Bus Home.
The poem carries a double meaning, presenting one point of view when read from the top down and a completely different perspective when read in reverse.
They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way
(Now read from bottom to top)
Bilston borrowed the idea of a palindromic poem after he read a similar verse called The Lost Generation, then searched for a topic that might work in a similar way.
"It was when I was watching some footage on the BBC of refugees who had been drowning in the Mediterranean, and then I went onto Twitter. And Twitter, in all its glory, presented these two diametrically opposed points of view," said Bilston. "There were some people who felt extremely compassionate, who showed real humanity in terms of how they responded. And yet there were others who simply saw these poor people as economic migrants, who got nothing except what they deserved or were potential terrorists coming to our country."
Although many of his poems are poignant, Bilston also writes whimsical verse about the stuff of everyday life – folding a fitted sheet, drinking tea or boarding a bus. And he loves a good pun. Some call puns the lowest form of humour, but he says that on Twitter, they are one of the highest forms of currency: "Twitter is 'Pun Central,' really!" said Bilston.
His poem Smoking Jacket is a case in point.
He got himself a smoking jacket;
he thought it would amaze her.
But she just put a match to it
and it turned into a blazer.
He counts "grammar trolls" on Twitter as one of his frustrations.
"What I find difficult is when I post a poem and it contains a typo or a spelling mistake, and usually within about nought-point-two seconds of me sending it out, 12 people have already commented upon my elementary mistake."
the grammar police got him
split his infinitive
removed his colon
left him there.
next day he was pronouned dead
Bilston notes that social media sites have become popular destinations for poetry because they offer a democratic platform where anyone can post or discover a poem.
Sometimes, he has second thoughts about a poem he wrote. America is a Gun is one.
He created it in response to the repeated news of mass shootings in the U.S., but became concerned it might be seen as trite because "countries can't be summed up by these harmless images, and all countries have problematic aspects to them."
At the same time, Bilston says, "Poetry is a broad church and it can accept all sorts of forms."
America is a Gun
England is a cup of tea.
France, a wheel of ripened brie.
Greece, a short, squat olive tree.
America is a gun.
Brazil is football on the sand.
Argentina, Maradona's hand.
Germany, an oompah band.
America is a gun.
Holland is a wooden shoe.
Hungary, a goulash stew.
Australia, a kangaroo.
America is a gun.
Japan is a thermal spring.
Scotland is a highland fling.
Oh, better to be anything
than America as a gun.
Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.