Sunday, September 11, 2005

john skelton & night blue fruit at the tin angel



"For though my ryme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rayne beaten,
Rusty and moughte eaten,
It hath in it some pyth."

I recently discovered a poetry performance venue in Coventry, called Night Blue Fruit and hosted by the Heaventree Press. It's essentially an open mic evening at the Tin Angel - a small and intimate bar on Medieval Spon Street in old Coventry - and something about the night's atmosphere kicked me back into revisiting John Skelton's work, who was a self-styled poet laureate back in the days of Henry VIII. I was thinking of one of his poems in particular, the gloriously scurrilous and jaunty Elinour Rumming, a poem of some 620 short lines dealing with the landlady and clientele of a disreputable Tudor ale house.

All through the evening at Night Blue Fruit, through the windows of the Tin Angel, we could see girls in high heels, short skirts, low-cut tops etc., out on the razzle, some of them drunk, others grazing on chips and kebabs in between night clubs. They would yell at each other, laugh as they staggered across the road for a taxi, while inside the Tin Angel the poetry continued to flow. By the time I got home there was a long poem brewing away inside me, a modern-day Elinour Rumming about poets and drunken girls and the English language ... though, of course, these things never work out the way you envisage them.

I sat up well into the early hours to finish it; a dangerous policy when you've had a few drinks. But the poem was still halfway decent in the morning, which is a good sign that you haven't entirely wasted your time. I've tinkered with it since, cut some sections which weren't working, and inserted some additional sections which came into my head later. Naturally, it's a performance piece rather than what some might call a traditional poem. But would Skelton have considered that there was a difference between the two?

Over the centuries, many critics have dismissed poems like Elinour Rumming as not lyrical enough to be taken seriously or accepted into the mainstream. But I think their energy and the dynamic challenges such poems pose to the English language more than make up for a lack of formalism. That's what Skelton was about, after all; keeping English on its toes, constantly shocking and surprising us with what it can do when stretched and subverted. Some of his work is so modern, experimental and tongue-in-cheek that it's difficult to remember it was written in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.

Here's the beginning of Skelton's famous satirical epic Phyllyp Sparowe, parodying the Offices for the Dead:


Pla ce bo,
Who is there, who?
Di le xi,
Dame Margery;
Fa, re, my, my,
Wherfore and why, why?
For the sowle of Philip Sparowe,
That was late slayn at Carowe,
Among the Nones Blake,
For that swete soules sake,
And for all sparowes soules,
Set in our bedrolles,
Pater noster qui,
With an Ave Mari,
And with the corner of a Crede,
The more shallbe your mede.

Whan I remember agayn
How mi Philyp was slayn,
Never half the payne
Was betwene you twayne,
Pyramus and Thesbe,
As than befell to me:
I wept and I wayled,
The tears downe hayled;
But nothing it avayled
To call Phylyp agayne,
Whom Gyb our cat hath slayne ...

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