I confess that this tale casts poets in general and our art in particular in a poor light. Indeed I have wondered whether, for the sake of my muse, I ought to allow time to draw a shroud over the whole thing. But alas I cannot because the various implications of what was done still ripple through the poetaster community.
It all started with Malwit Needlehow. He called himself a poet, but frankly supported himself as one of those who writes the text for the advertisements one sees on billboards or in the cheaper newssheets. He produced such gems as, “Purchase Borrow’s laxative capsules and give your bowels the pleasure of a smoother motion.”
To be fair to Borrow’s laxative capsules, nobody doubts their efficacy, but honestly, is their description ‘art’? Is there any metaphor? Any subtlety? Any magic in the choice of words? Were you engrossed in the text when you read it?
Perhaps in self-defence Malwit called himself a poet. He wrote some verse that was occasionally better than mediocre. But he did something which is unforgivable in a poet. There are various words for which there are few perfect rhymes. Orange, silver, poem (perhaps ironically), and oblige. Obviously you can invent obscure dialect words or adopt strange pronunciations, but such tricks are unworthy of a true poet.
What Malwit did was worse than that. He named his daughter, Tilver Needlehow. Now some claimed that a doting father can be forgiven much, and given that his wife, even as a young woman, had long silver hair she could comfortably sit on; Malwit could have seen mother and child, framed with the hair and found himself faced with an image he had not the skill to describe.
Had it stopped there I suppose he could have been forgiven, but no, he must inflict upon us a whole series of poems about his daughter. Indeed it was a relief when his employment writing the text for advertisements blossomed and he no longer had time for poetry.
But alas the damage was done. As Tilver grew up, she was lauded in endless poems by a series of lesser poets. In all fairness she was a pretty girl and grew to become a not unattractive young woman. But nobody needs to inspire the sheer volume of frankly tedious verse that she did. Indeed it had a profound impact on her. After all, what does it do to the self-esteem of a girl who is approaching womanhood to discover that she is being metaphorically besieged by admirers who have only the poor standard of their verses in common?
Nobody should be sent as much second quality verse as she was. Even the editors of literary magazines have people to carefully read all material submitted, and these hardened individuals perform a brutal triage. All that is unworthy of consideration is cast into the bin from which papers are drawn for the lighting of the fire.
Tilver rather took against poetry, so much so that she took advantage of her family’s increasing prosperity and studied law. After a couple of years she managed to get a position as a drafting clerk to the Council of Sinecurists. These clerks are those who produce the final copies of the motions for debate. Thus their words will, eventually, become law. Into a particularly long and remarkably tedious motion laying down a lot of detailed technical specifications to be met by certain craftsmen producing items for use by the city authorities, Tilver introduced a section which banned the use of the name, ‘Tilver’ in poetry. The penalty for infringing against this ordinance was set at one alar.
It was at this point Tilver showed her genius. Had the ordinance been left at that, it would have become a dead letter. After all, who is going to pursue poets through the courts in an attempt to recover money? Given the fact that most poets would regard mere penury as an improvement in their condition, they are almost impossible to sue.
Indeed when the legal profession noticed the extra provision Tilver had inserted in the ordinance, they did discuss the legality of it, and indeed several expressed an interest in challenging it in the courts. But as no poet was ever going to fund such a case, the case never happened and the ordinance remained on the statute book and was not struck down.
But I mentioned Tilver displayed her genius. Yes, written in the ordinance was the provision for the one alar fine to be collected by the Society of Minor Poets, ‘for the alleviation of hunger and poverty.’
Obviously we in the Society were not going to go through the courts, but we’d use every other trick we could think of to get the money that was rightfully ours. We harassed and embarrassed the guilty in the street. We had the notoriously flatulent sit next to them in places of public entertainment. Elderly women exhibiting the signs of their poverty would harangue them at length, elderly gentlemen, leaning on their walking sticks, would express a desire to horsewhip them within an inch of their worthless lives.
Tilver herself retired from the law, having achieved her end. She rediscovered herself as a painter and proved to be quite a good one, much in demand for portraits and similar studies.
And now a brief note from Jim Webster. It’s really just to inform you that I’ve just published two more collections of stories.
The first, available on kindle, is ‘Tallis Steelyard, preparing the ground, and other stories.’
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.
The second, available on Kindle or as a paperback, is ‘Maljie. Just one thing after another.’
Once more Tallis Steelyard chronicles the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. Discover the wonders of the Hermeneutic Catherine Wheel, marvel at the use of eye-watering quantities of hot spices. We have bell ringers, pop-up book shops, exploding sedan chairs, jobbing builders, literary criticism, horse theft and a revolutionary mob. We also discover what happens when a maiden, riding a white palfrey led by a dwarf, appears on the scene.