Of Buses, Bombs and Bartholdy
I love allusions – can’t get enough of them. Put it this way, if allusions were gallons of bath water, I’d wallow in them up to my oxters and beyond. There’d be no stopping me: a passing reference to The Wreck of the Deutschland, an affectionate nod to Sea Fever, oh yes, splish splosh, pass me my rubber duck and bath bombs, honey, it’s going to be a long (and very enjoyable) night.
Maybe it’s the getting the reference (or even the joke) that attracts me; a kind of insider dealing that appreciates the relative merits of poetic shares before they are floated for public consumption. I must admit, though, there’s an undercurrent here that troubles me: if all this suggests illegality, there’s also more than a hint of elitism too. You can only be in my gang if you know the password. But if you develop that thought further, it perhaps reflects an attraction prompted by fear: a fear of otherwise being left out in the cold; of not knowing how to judge something and what to think.
When, as a young girl, I first began reading poetry, I did not know what to think or rather what I was allowed to think. I knew that some poems had a profound impact on me, so much so that I learnt them by heart, not because I was instructed to, but because I liked to hear their sounds rolling around in my head, or tingling on the tip of my tongue, while I completed tasks that were more painful or prosaic like the weekly cross country or waiting for a bus (the two often occurring concurrently as I have an appalling sense of direction). I couldn’t put into words how or why I felt so moved by this pattern of words as it washed to and fro across my consciousness. I didn’t really want to either; it was my shared understanding with the poet, a risky, heady, secret space, ring-fenced by allusions. So, the pattern of my public literary appreciation became an explanation of what the poet meant in line x; in all probability, an explanation so dull and dense that no one felt inclined to hack through the foliage to the real heart of my private response. Of course, it meant that I never really shared what I actually thought but that safe space of explaining the reference got me through and avoided embarrassment.
Safe? Did I say ‘safe’? Well, maybe. A local bus, when heading towards our pedestrianised market square periodically plays a little jingle to warn us of its presence. It’s all very allegro vivace. It’s in the key of A major. In fact, more than that, it offers an uncanny echo of the opening few bars of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 to passing shoppers. Time after time, as soon as I hear it, I start humming the rest of the phrase, with Pavlovian expectation, much to the confusion of those around me. A smile, a nod and “Ah Mendelssohn” butter no parsnips here. It may be his Italian Symphony but this is Red Hook, not Sicily (well, Boston, Lincolnshire, actually, but I couldn’t quite find an appropriate allusion). So, what of the composer of this merry bus jingle, did s/he have Mendelssohn in mind or was the similarity purely accidental? In other words, is it just me? Well, yes, maybe …
Of course, there is initially a safety in allusion-spotting for the young critic, but it only takes you so far. What happens when you turn the tables and you’re the one creating the message, whether in words, music or image? Take the title of this article, for example. Is the reference to Bartholdy, the surname so disliked by Felix and Fanny, a step too far for alliteration’s sake or does it emphasise that in giving something a title, we cannot necessarily guarantee that it will convey the associations we intended? How do we allude effectively? Do we endeavour to include while at the same time creating a sense of exclusivity to make that allusion seem hard-earned and therefore perhaps more valued?
At a meeting of a local writing group, when it came to my turn to share some recent work, I realised to my horror that my printed copies were still on the bus and all I had to offer was the crumpled original in the bottom of my bag. To fill the yawning silence, I mumbled something about the poem being “a comment on my relationship with poetry” (as I attempted to smooth out the creases), with “err, a little word play on current trends” (further smoothing of creases), “um and it’s shaped like a fountain pen” (lifting the tattered page aloft and smiling weakly), “err, old school, you know.”
Clearly preferring his parsnips plain, someone commented, “It looks more like a bomb.”
And on reflection, it did.
Clearing my nervous throat, I began to read:
She pitched her tent, that evening, in the field at the back of the Poetry Hotel,
where rooks, those sunset spell-weavers, wheeled widdershins above the bins,
and tried, as before, to sign in with Michael, the cherub-faced desk clerk,
who, for some reason, always made her feel nervous and forgetful.
Her fountain pen, purchased for the occasion, warm
with the promise of gentle verse in italic script,
hovered in hope.
Intoning the password, or so she thought, she asked,
“Can my rhyme chime in time in a line sublime?”
as her pen nib bored into her palm, mixing blue with scarlet.
“Such old-school stigmata raises no eyebrows here,” he sneered.
“Raise,” she countered. “Plural noun.”
The register open, Mike closed it with a slam,
bashed a door, shouting, “There’s too much allusion to muse on!”
She learned that she had no creditable currency to offer.
Back in her tent, the hotel’s neon light reflecting in her teacup,
she watched as sparrows perched on telephone wires,
like errant crochets in search of a stave.
She strained to hear their music
but struggled to beat
Did it bomb or go down like one? Well, I’ll leave you to decide.
I would be interested to hear what others think about how much or how little we should provide as background information but that’s for another day, I suppose. In the meantime, I must dash – I’ve an allusion – I mean a bus – to catch.
Thank you for reading.