When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Tag archive: Poetry

Poetic Remedy

Boris Pasternak, photographed in 1928

1960: The Soviet poet and novelist Boris Pasternak died at the age of 70. His fellow poet Osip Mandelstam once suggested that reading Pasternak’s poetry cleared the throat, reinforced the breathing and renewed the lungs. “Such verses,” Mandelstam added, “must be a cure for tuberculosis.”

Source: Osip Mandelstam, Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays (1977), p. 83

Red Or White?

1939: When John Betjeman unexpectedly brought Cyril Connolly home for dinner, his put-upon wife, Penelope, shouted from the kitchen, “I’m going out in ten minutes. I’m sorry, you can only have hard-boiled eggs.” Undaunted, the two men trooped off to the well-stocked wine cellar. Betjeman surveyed the bottles. “Now, Cyril,” he mused, “I wonder what goes best with hard-boiled eggs.”

Source: Bevis Hillier, John Betjeman: The Biography (2006), p. 195

Talented Bank Clerk

T.S. Eliot, photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1934

1917: The literary world regarded T.S. Eliot, after the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, in terms of his poetry, but Lloyds Bank, where Eliot commenced work in 1917, viewed him in terms of his clerical skills. A more senior Lloyds employee whom the literary scholar I.A. Richards bumped into offered an assessment of Eliot the bank clerk: “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why – in time, of course, in time – he mightn’t even become a Branch Manager.”

Source: Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971), p. 94

Genuine Applause

Anna Akhmatova, from a 1922 portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin

1944: Stalin loved applause, as long as it was directed at him. Applause for others made him jealous and suspicious. After the entire audience at the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow had spontaneously stood up to acclaim the poet Anna Akhmatova, Stalin reputedly asked, “Who organized this standing ovation?”

Source: Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned: A Memoir (1974), pp. 375–6

Cockroach Whiskers

NKVD mugshot of Osip Mandelstam

1933: The poets Osip Mandelstam and Demian Bedny landed themselves in trouble for injudicious comments about Stalin. Mandelstam described how
His cockroach whiskers leer
and
His fingers are fat as grubs
and Bedny wrote in his diary that books he lent to the Soviet leader came back with greasy fingermarks on the pages.

Source: Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir (1971), pp. 13, 26

Borrowed Verse

1923: In January 1927, a 12-year-old schoolboy from Swansea named Dylan Thomas made his first money from poetry. The Western Mail, which published “His Requiem”, paid 10 shillings for the work. Nobody else realised it at the time, but Thomas had plagiarised, more or less word for word, a poem by Lillian Gard that had appeared in the November 1923 issue of The Boy’s Own Paper.

Source: Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (1978), pp. 7, 41

Improving On Dickens

1921: T.S. Eliot wrote in May that he had “a long poem in mind and partly on paper”. This was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”. Eliot juggled the words, enriched the meaning, shaped the rhythm. And replaced the original title – a quote from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend – with another, better, title: “The Waste Land”.

Source: Marianne Thormählen, The Waste Land: A Fragmentary Wholeness (1978), pp. 28–31

Graves Gets Cold Feet

1915: “I only once refrained from shooting a German,” Robert Graves recalled. “While sniping from a knoll in the support line, where we had a concealed loop-hole, I saw a German, perhaps seven hundred yards away, through my telescopic sights. He was taking a bath in the German third line. I disliked the idea of shooting a naked man, so I handed the rifle to the sergeant with me. ‘Here, take this. You’re a better shot that I am.’ He got him; but I had not stayed to watch.”

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 112

Attractive Feature

John Betjeman, phototgraphed in the 1920s

1932: Penelope Chetwode met her future husband, the journalist and promising poet John Betjeman, for the first time. Asked shortly afterwards what it was she liked about him, she replied, “He has green teeth.”

Source: Bevis Hillier, Young Betjeman (1988), p. 373

Giveaway Vegetable

1942: The poet Robert Graves, living in south Devon, had his application to join the special constabulary blocked by the village policeman. Three reasons: first, because of Graves’s suspicious German middle name, von Ranke: second, because Graves had been heard “talking a foreign language to two disreputable foreigners” – refugees from Franco’s Spain, as it happened; and third, because someone had scratched the words HEIL HITLER! on a marrow in his garden.

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 281

Local Hero

Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney, photographed by Sean O’Connor

1995: The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the poet Seamus Heaney. The Irish Farmers Journal ran the story under a proud “Local Boy Makes Good” headline:
Bellaghy celebrates as farmer’s
son wins top literary award

Source: Irish Farmers Journal, 14 October 1995