Wednesday, November 06, 2013

`Old Shags Talking Piss'

In the Collected Poems (1979), they’re printed on facing pages, thus clinched forever in passionate embrace: “Shitty” and “Lovely.” The implied anti-romantic taunt is typical of Kingsley Amis. Here is the first poem: 

“Look thy last on all things shitty
     While thou'rt at it: soccer stars,
 Soccer crowds, bedezined bushheads
     Jerking over their guitars. 

“German tourists, plastic roses,
     Face of Mao and face of Ché,
 Women wearing curtains, blankets,
     Beckett at the ICA. 

“High-rise blocks and action paintings,
     Sculptures made from wire and lead:
 Each of them a sight more lovely
     Than the screens around your bed.” 

At least in his rejection of the tackier accoutrements of modern living, including avant-garde tchotchkes, Amis shares a sensibility with Nabokov and Waugh. The OED defines “bedizened” as “dressed up with vulgar finery” – the Jimi Hendrix Experience, for instance. The ICA is the trendy Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. We can forgive Amis the Beckett slight, understandable in the context. And here is the conjoined twin of “Shitty,” “Lovely”: 

“Look thy last on all things lovely
     Every hour, an old shag said,
 Meaning they turn lovelier if thou
     Thinkst about soon being dead. 

 “Do they? When that `soon’ means business
     They might lose their eye-appeal,
 Go a bit like things unlovely,
     Get upstaged by how you feel. 

 “The best time to see things lovely
     Is in youth's primordial bliss,
 Which is also when you rather
     Go for old shags talking piss.” 

The first line of each poem is lifted from the third stanza of Walter de la Mare’s “Fare Well,” suggesting that de la Mare is the “old shag” in question. Though the OED reminds us that “shag” as a noun can refer to “an act of copulation,” the more pertinent definition here is “a low rascally, fellow” -- hardly the way one thinks of de la Mare. When Amis edited The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse (1978), he included two of de la Mare's poems. If “Shitty” is a rejection of all things new and fashionable, “Lovely” is the confession of an aging man’s regrets and a simultaneous rejection of them. One reads Amis not for consolation but for a bracing gust of reality, which can be consoling in its own way.

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