Poetry, it is assumed, is good for you and poets, who deliver this goodness with the bedside manner of Florence Nightingale, are revered as were the oracles of yore. Unlike novelists, say, who are obviously in it for the money and fame, poets toil in obscurity and penury, hopeful as they often smugly are of posterior deification.
How different the reality is. In her autobiography, Muriel Spark recalled her time at the Poetry Society, of whose magazine she was editor. When she took it on its pages were filled by its members, most of whom couldn't write the greeting on a Hallmark card and many of whom paid to have their effusions included. In attempting to improve the magazine's content, Spark drew the ire of a talentless cohort, the best-known of whom was Marie Stopes of birth control fame.
For several years Stopes had been living with Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover - "an arrangement," Spark noted, "which I imagine would satisfy any woman's craving for birth control". Eventually, Spark decided she had had enough and left, scunnered by too close contact with so-called poets.
I thought of Spark when reading Christopher Reid's Six Bad Poets. He is not averse to narrative verse, and nor does he shy away from humour. In The Song Of Lunch, for instance, he offered a mock elegy to bygone Soho, when the lunch hour was elastic and no self-respecting bohemian would ever order fizzy water.
Here, Reid revisits the same haunts, in a long poem in which all the main characters are poets. Alas, they are fictional, though I dare say that particularly paranoid poets will eagerly identify themselves. All are on the make, and often driven by a desire not only to succeed but to see others fail. Thus theirs is as cruel and petty a world as the one the rest of us inhabit.
Reid begins with Charles Prime, whose surname is well-chosen. If indeed he had a prime it was long ago and short-lived. He is now 77 and he has newly emerged from ten years in one of Her Majesty's writers' retreats, ie, jail. He makes contact with two former lovers. The first is Antonia Candling, "doyenne of London poetry", who is 60 and married to Bernard, he of the plaster-of-paris complexion, buck teeth and bandy legs. Then there is Bryony Butters, "poet, novelist and more besides" who has been commissioned to edit "a major new poetry anthology", about which she can't wait to crow to Antonia.
The supporting cast is no less self-centred. Jonathan Wilderness will doubtless live up to his surname. When he's not writing villanelles he hangs out with villains like his pal Baz, "a self-employed criminal". Young Jonathan has in his sights Charles, whose biography he hopes to write as a vulture seeks to gorge on carrion.
In the meantime, Jonathan goes to a poetry reading at the Old Knacker's Yard in Islington where he runs into Jane Steep. She is "a poet still in search of her voice" who, in order to make ends meet, tries pole dancing, which may no more be her calling than poetry. There's not much difference, one can't help thinking, between those who watch her gyrate and those who listen to the "mumblers and shouters,/shamblers and strutters" at the Knacker's.
Finally, there is Derek Dufton who can give a lecture on Tennyson literally in his sleep. Derek has hit a dry patch and lusts after one of his post-grads. "Can he really have been spouting on automatic?" he wonders. "If so, for how many minutes? Hard evidence/is lacking, but a sense of the slippery slope/that every superior intellect must fear/pierces him and has him inwardly shivering."
There is more than a hint of the sardonic, languid air of Anthony Powell's Dance To The Music Of Time roman fleuve about Six Bad Poets. Appropriately, there are six chapters, each of which has six sub-chapters comprising six, six-line stanzas. In due course, Charles moves in with Antonia, Jonathan sleeps with Bryony, and Jane throws herself at Derek who will inaugurate "the Non-/verse revolution" with The Silence Of The Ostrich/ Is More Terrible Than The Song Of The Parrot.
Reid has probably never had as much fun. "Is there any real difference between a launch/party and a lynch mob?" wonders Antonia. A poetry reading is a "free-for-all/of self-advertisement".
For a brief moment, Charles is more revered posthumously than he ever he was alive. He is "the English Rimbaud", "a lost Shelley", the subject of memoirs by Antonia and Bryony and a roman-a-clef by Jonathan, all of which help to keep his flame briefly alive and all of which will soon be remaindered - not, surely, a fate that awaits Six Bad Poets.