Food for Thought / Bull / I Give Up / We Complete Each Other

Food For Thought

He was cannibal.
She was intolerable.
I was gladiator.

any door,
doesn't matador.
I Give Up

For Lent
I'm giving up
my new year's resolution
which was
not to give anything up
for Lent
We Complete Each Other

I gave ruth a present
of a nice big cup of T,
and in return an i-n-g
was what she gave to me.

A real treat this week – four poems. This is partly to make up for the fact that it’s been almost a month since my previous PotW, but also because they’re all short and all very similar in style and content.

I’ll look at Food For Thought and Bull first. These are both very old – mid to late 80s, I think – and as you can see, they’re basically one-trick ponies in which I was discovering the joys of word play for the first time.

Back then I didn’t really know much about poetry except for what I’d studied in school – which in my case was T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. I could appreciate the skill and cleverness of Eliot, but I preferred Lawrence because he was easier to understand and a lot more fun. Apart from that, it was just the odd poem by all the usual suspects; Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Heaney, Hughes, etc.

And then I went to university and discovered an entirely different sort of poet – Roger McGough, Richard Brautigan, John Cooper Clarke, to name a few. This was great stuff. This was saying what you wanted, however you wanted to say it, and it was exactly the kind of poetry I wanted to write. You could be funny, rude, irreverent, pointless, laconic, contemporary, relevant, but you could also be powerful and thoughtful and poignant.

Maybe I’m being unfair to the old greats, whose works were also many of these things, but at twenty years old, with the self-belief of a shark and the attention span of a goldfish, I knew which ones I would rather spend my time with and, ultimately, attempt to emulate.

So this was where I was at when I began to write little ditties like Food For Thought. I wrote dozens of them, and when people said things like, “oh, now I get it. But it’s not really a poem, is it?” I would simply dismiss them as Philistines.

But little word-play poems don’t generally make it into poetry journals, and they certainly don’t win competitions, and at the time I wanted to be doing both these things as often as possible, so I went back to writing more traditional stuff for a while. I binned most of the word-plays, or at least abandoned them to the bottom of some folder somewhere (this being before the days of home computing) but a few of the better ones survived and have remained part of the canon ever since.

Food For Thought has always been my favourite, and it even made it into my first published collection. It also made it into my third collection, along with several of the old guard including Bull and I Give Up, but as that collection was self published, I suppose that’s not such an amazing achievement.

I Give Up is a slightly different sort of creature, not so much a word-play as an idea-play. I don’t really have that much to say about it, except that the circular nature of the statement is exactly the sort of thing I love spending my time thinking about, and if anyone else had written it I would probably have printed out a copy an stuck it somewhere near my desk as a reminder to have fun when I write. It’s also, in its own way, part of the inspiration for a piece of flash fiction I wrote a couple of years ago which you can read here.

We Complete Each Other is much more recent. I wrote it last year as an entry for a completion run by National Book Tokens in celebration of National Poetry Day. It didn’t win, or make the short list, which is why it’s now appearing here.

The rules were that you had to write a poem of thirty words or fewer, on the theme of truth. There was nothing to say it had to rhyme, but the website did seem to imply that it should, as well as being humorous. The competition was to be judged by Pam Ayres.

Truth. That was the obvious place to start. What rhymes with truth? Tooth.

To tell you the truth
it hurt when my tooth
was pulled from my head,
now I've a gap instead.

It was a start. But not a very good one, it has to be said. So what about Ruth? There’s the old joke about being on a bike with Ruth. She falls off, but you ride on ruthlessly. Could I use that? What do you get if you make truth ruthless? T.

I ran with that for a while, but I couldn’t get it to work the way I wanted, because truth doesn’t actually rhyme with ruthless. But then I got the idea to give Ruth a T, rather than take the T away from truth.

I gave Ruth a T
and then she said to me,
I'm not sure what to do with it
but at least it came for free.

It started well, but then went off the rails almost straight away. Also, it didn’t really mean anything. So after a bit of thinking I came up with the idea that I give Ruth a T and she gives something to me. That way I had the rhyme of T and me to play with. And sure enough, out came this –

I gave Ruth a present
of a great big capital T
and in return BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH
was what she gave to me.

Getting there. I had to lose the capital R from Ruth, otherwise the idea of a capital T wouldn’t really work. Also, capital didn’t really fit with the rhythm so I made it a cup of T. But there was still the question of what she gave me in return.

At this point the silly little rhyming poem took on a slightly more serious tone and I gave it some depth of emotion. Now it became a serious poem about the nature of relationship and the idea of each person sharing something with the other. I would provide some truth, and in return Ruth would give my life new meaning. That’s what she gave me: meaning.

But she doesn’t give me meaning, of course, she gives me the letters I need to make meaning, just as I gave her the letter she needed to make truth. Sorted.

But would people get it? Probably. Possibly. Maybe not. So I made the joke a bit easier to spot by putting the donated letters in italics. Then, to kept the right rhythm, I added the hyphens to make sure people would read the ing as three separate letters, rather than a one-syllable sound.

Sadly, when I finally submitted the poem to the competition it was uploaded without the italics, which was a bit of a terminal blow really. Still, by that point I had a really nice little poem, which was silly and rhyming but with a slightly deeper meaning beneath the surface as well. If it won, great. If not, then it was certainly worth using myself at a later date, with the italics restored.

And so here it is.