The Sunday Magazine

There's poetry for any occasion, even a pandemic — just ask Twitter's unofficial poet laureate

A few years ago, a man calling himself Brian Bilston scribbled a short poem and posted it on Twitter. He hadn't thought of himself as a poet, but three books and almost 70,000 followers later, he's become known as the unofficial poet laureate of Twitter and the Banksy of poetry. His poems are whimsical, serious, poignant, funny and, sometimes, visual. In these trying times, Bilston shows us that it is possible to find poetry for any occasion, including a pandemic.
Poet Brian Bilston has amassed a large following on Twitter. (Submitted by Brian Bilston)

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:

Serenity Prayer

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.

Bilston chose this Twitter avatar because it had "the right level of mock earnestness and smugness that I wanted Brian to have," he said. (Submitted by Brian Bilston)

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.

Refugees

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

Welcome here

We should make them

Go back to where they came from

They cannot

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.

Smoking Jacket

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."

Grammar Police

the grammar police got him

split his infinitive

removed his colon

 

left him there.

comatose

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. 

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