Monday, 30 January 2012

Deadline Poet - Calvin Trillin

When I wrote recently about his disengagement with poetry, and asked for your help (much appreciated!) I didn't expect my next dalliance with poetry to be something quite like Calvin Trillin's Deadline Poet.  I have Thomas to thank for introducing me to Trillin, and Nancy to thank for mentioning Deadline Poet on this post back here.  And now it has filled one of the tricky 1990s spots on A Century of Books.

Given my disinclination to read poetry, it was perhaps a surprising choice for me.  Even more surprising is that it's about Trillin's time writing weekly 'doggerel' (his word) for The Nation about contemporary political figures. Contemporary being, in this case, the 1990s.  Trillin always refers to his boss as 'the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky', whose one condition for offering Trillin $100 a week for his verse was: "Don't tell any of the real poets you're getting that much." - "Your secret is safe with me," I assured him.

Now, I know nothing about politics in 1990s America.  Indeed, I know nothing about politics in any place, at any time, up to and including 2012 Britain...  Thankfully Deadline Poet isn't simply a collection of verse - Trillin knows that, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity.  Light verse published in a newspaper necessarily relies upon topicality - so even those who know who Zoe Baird, Clarence Thomas, Robert Penn Warren etc. are (sorry, I don't) might not remember the intricacies of various campaigns and speeches.  So Trillin prefaces his poems with explanations - or, rather, the poems occupy a lot of a journalist's memoir.  The poetry and prose take up about equal amounts of page space, so it doesn't feel like a collection with notes, nor like a traditional memoir, but a really engaging and funny combination of the two.

And the poetry itself?  Well, Trillin probably isn't being unduly bashful when he calls himself a doggerelist.  There isn't a lot of it that would make Wordsworth uneasy.  Scanning and syntax tend to fall below rhyming in Trillin's list of priorities (then again, that never did Tennyson any harm) and even there he prefers an abcb rhyme scheme, rather than abab, which is a little lazy - still, there is plenty of ingenious rhyming and wittiness throughout.  Here's one I enjoyed.  (I should add, I have no idea who Ross Perot is.  I don't even know which is Republican and which is Democrat, since the words mean the same thing.  So sorry if Perot is 'your' party... you probably know by now that I am not seeking to offend.)

The Ross Perot Guide to Answering Embarrassing Questions

When something in my history is found
Which contradicts the views that I propound,
Or shows that I am surely hardly who
I claim to be, here's what I usually do:

I lie
I simply, baldly falsify.
I look the fellow in the eye,
And cross my heart and hope to die - 
And lie.

I don t apologize. Not me. Instead,
I say I never said the things I said
Nor did the things that people saw me do.
Confronted with some things they know are true,

I lie.
I offer them no alibi,
Nor say, "You oversimplify."
I just deny, deny, deny.
I lie.

I hate the weasel words some slickies use
To blur their pasts or muddy up their views.
Not me. I'm blunt. One thing that makes me great
Is that I'll never dodge nor obfuscate.

I'll lie.

I imagine those of you who were politically aware in the 1990s will enjoy Deadline Poet greatly (especially if you agree with Trillin's views, which I think are liberal).  It is testament to Trillin's humour and drollery that even I, entirely ignorant, found Deadline Poet a really entertaining read.  Perhaps it isn't quite how I saw myself engaging with poetry, and political verse certainly isn't an avenue I'll be exploring further, but as the memoir of a weekly journalist and light verse writer, I found it a whole heap o' fun.

21 comments:

  1. Trillin's food writing is a hoot if you haven't already read it -- and his tribute to his late wife is also wonderful.

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    1. I would have been put off food writing, since usually it bores me, but if Trillin can make me want to read political verse, I'm sure he can make me want to read food writing! I think I have one more book by him somewhere - about his father.

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  2. This had me laughing out loud! I'm not familiar with Trillin, but a search of my library's online catalog shows a few titles (though sadly, not this one) that I will have to check out. Thanks for passing this one along.

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    1. Hurrah! He is probably more readily available your side of the pond than mine, Susan, so for once you might be in luck! It is such a fun little book - best to dip in and out of.

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  3. I've never heard of him but he sounds like lots of fun. Nothing wrong with a bit of doggerel (where on earth did that word come from, by the way?)

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    1. The novel I read by him - Tepper Isn't Going Out - was really good, and this is an entirely different kettle of fish, so I recommend you sample both!

      Your question is a good one, and the internet is not forthcoming with any answers... hmm...

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  4. Hi Si

    just to say the IE now lets me access your comments and, if this works, comment myself.

    Ross Perot was that strange American beast - a third candidate in a presidential election who essential funds a high profile proclaim without a chance of success. (Rather like the Liberals used to be here until the last General Election!)
    OV

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    1. I should have known me old pa would know the answers! I wonder if I could find a name in it that you didn't know... well, you're welcome to read it if you fancy(!)

      And hurrah for being able to comment! I suppose Google must be sorting out the problems.

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  5. how did "campaign" become "proclaim"?

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  6. Trillin has been on Charlie Rose several times. I think you can stream this interview from the UK (?) ...

    Give it a try if you have time: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/9847. Another favorite interview with Trillin is at: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/62 (about his late wife -- very touching, get out the tissues).

    I'm not interested in politics either. It never seems to matter who gets elected. One exception...I do get a kick out of watching Prime Minister's Question Hour which is shown on our C-Span TV.

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    1. Thanks so much for the links, Margaret, I'll check those out later...

      I get so riled if I see any parliamentary questions - they're all just little boys squabbling!

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  7. I love, love, love his food writing, but can't imagine him as a writer of verse!

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    1. Funny how I never even knew he wrote food stuff - what a versatile man!

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  8. Hurrah! I'm so glad you enjoyed this! Trillin is a favorite of mine. His food writing will have you laughing and About Alice, his tribute to his late wife is sooo wonderful. And his politics are decidedly liberal, most of his poetry ran in The Nation which is about as left-wing as you can get. I can't remember, did you read Tepper Isn't Going Out? The Great American Parking Novel.

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    1. I did indeed read Tepper Isn't Going Out, as my introduction to Trillin - and I loved it!

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  9. I feel as though I should be more familiar with the references to American political figures, given that I took a course called "American Politics" just last year. But, well, I'm not. Nothing stuck, I guess.

    Also, I found a short article on doggerel (www.word-detective.com/091801.html) which says that it first appeared in Chaucer, and that it probably derives from the word dog, used to mean "bad," as in dog Latin and dog rhymes. I don't know how accurate it is, but it seems plausible enough...

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    1. Thanks for the research! I would love it to be more complex than that, but I'll take it.. ;)

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  10. The book about his father is absolutely beautiful. A v. small volume that packs a big punch. It's funny, poignant, w/ keen observations about kids growing up -- in all their manifestations. Loved that he said, "The most conservative people on earth are kids." [paraphrasing].

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  11. Oh ... forgot -- He's written some wonderful travel books, too. "Travels with Alice" is very funny. E.g. -- When checking into Italian hotels, he would address his wife as "Principessa", whereupon the concierge would assign them to a more luxurious room ... at no extra charge.

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