On the list

Sumer is icumen in entirely, and with it all the social functions sun can raise. Important questions have emerged. On Twitter, someone asked the heat-crazed crowd what is appropriate attire for literary parties. We neither validate nor snub some popular responses: “satin, pearls, white flannel trousers, rolled”; “bluestocking”; “A smug expression”.

Whether at the Algonquin Round Table, the Black and White Ball or the Paris Review‘s niche knees-up at George Plimpton’s, well-read types have always had a taste for dressing up (as well as dressings down). Some inspiration for the moderns might be found, as ever, in the past. We have to put the kibosh on any attempted resurrection of the Dreadnought hoax, which saw Virginia Woolf dress as an Abyssinian royal for a Navy flagship tour in 1910. Susan Sontag’s bear suit, which she wore for New Year’s Eve in Paris once, is more acceptable, though these days any reveller arrayed in fur might have to exit pursued by heatstroke. Then there is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s take on drag in 1916, pictured right. He may just have been the prettiest (and tallest) chorus girl in all New Jersey.

For our money, though, the best sartorial productions are the most incomprehensible. See the young Vita Sackville-West dressed as “a basket of westeria” [sic], c.1900, pleached in foliage from petticoat to diadem, or the young WH Auden as a silken-breasted, extra-legs-akimbo beetle, c.1912. (His brother John dressed as a linnet – second prize.) Thrill your friends this summer by arriving at the garden party wearing a bit of their garden, or by arriving at the bookish dinner dressed as a literal bookworm! Photos to our inbox, please.

The progress of the year instils in everyone a finicky chagrin, particularly now the clocks have so unanimously struck thirteen and every city’s grasslands have unraveled into sand. Allegedly a bit of novelty can slow time down. So why not read a poem every day? We all remember Gaby Morgan’s Read Me: A poem a day for the national year of reading (1998), Read Me 2: A poem for every day of the year (1999) Read Me and Laugh: A funny poem for every day of the year (2005), although these seemed to be primarily for children; Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery’s Poem a Day: 366 poems, old and new – one for each day of the year (1998), and Poem for the Day Two (2003), which concluded Nick Albery’s project, with a foreword by Andrew Motion, were the more grown-up Parnassian almanacs.

The “poetry boom” of the past half-decade has enabled a resurgence of the theme. Allie Esiri, one co-founder of the iF Poems app, offers up a panoply of titles: A Poem for Every Night of the Year (2016), A Poem for Every Day of the Year (2017), Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year (2019), A Poem for Every Autumn Day (2020), A Poem for Every Winter Day (2020), A Poem for Every Spring Day (2021), A Poem for Every Summer Day (2021) and, inevitably, A Poet for Every Day of the Year (2021). “What next?”, we hear you cry. Some JH Prynne for every morning, noon and night, perhaps? There’s plenty of it.

Esiri’s not the only editor at large in this domain, though. There is also Jane McMorland Hunter, who has up to now provided A Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year (2018), Friends: A poem for every day of the year (2019) A Nature Poem for Every Night of the Year (2020), as well as Nature Writing for Every Day of the Year (2021) Bedside Companion for Gardeners: An anthology of garden writing for every night of the year (2021). Don’t dare to hope she’s stopping there. A Happy Poem to End Every Day just blew into our office like a deflated satanic balloon, and will be followed in October by A Nature Poem for Every Winter Evening and Bedside Companion for Book Lovers: An anthology of literary delights for every night of the year.

If we’d the time and stickability to look for longer at this neverending advent calendar, we’d overlay the contents pages and uncover which 365 scraps of language find a place in every kind of year, to then agglomerate them in an urtext: A Poem for Every “Poem for Every Day of the Year” of the Year. But there aren’t enough days in the year for that sort of thing.

Long-time NB devotees will remember our discussing marginalia, the penned-in persiflage and grotty commentaries in the margins of meek, unassuming books, last year (April 9). There’s been some correspondence on the topic.

Robert Potts writes, from his desk across the room, with a note from a Bodleian copy of Astrophel and Stella: “around the fiftieth or sixtieth sonnet, someone had written in the margin ‘Perhaps she just doesn’t fancy you'”. Another time, when reading Rosemond Tuve on George Herbert, he walked in on this three-headed academic panel:

1: You insufferable old bore.
2: Oh, I think she’s sweet.
3: Yes, but she remains “on the list”, so to speak.

Speaking of lists, Tristram Fane Saunders says that in the library of King’s in Cambridge is a volume also corresponding to NB columns from April 2 (TS Eliot’s sins) and April 30 (Anita Loos), 2021. In Eliot’s copy of the short anthology Oasis (1951), “Old Possum’s pencil has given each poem a sinful new subtitle, inspired by Loos’s first novel”, starting with Yeats’s “For Anne Gregory” (“Or, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and his own “Journey of the Magi” (“Or, Gentlemen prefer Silken Girls”):

WH Auden’s “Culture” (“Or, Gentlemen Prefer Cricketers”)
Stephen Spender’s “Regum Ultima Ratio” (“Or, Gentlemen Prefer Apprentices”)
C. Day Lewis’s “Newsreel” (subtitle sadly illegible)
Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music” (“Or, Old Gentlemen Are Tired”)
Robert Graves’s “No More Ghosts” (“Or, Ghosts Prefer Ghosts”)
Dylan Thomas’s “Among those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged a Hundred” (“Bards Prefer Centenarians”)
Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts” (“Privates Prefer Parts”)

And speaking of Loos, etc, Bernard Richards writes that back over in Oxford,

You get a high class of graffiti in the lavvies in the Bodleian, sometimes in Greek. My favourite, from years back, is “My mother made me a homosexual”. Someone wrote below, “If I sent her the wool, could she make me one?”.

Our own best-loved Oxonian graffito is doodled in the famed Turf Tavern’s draughty outhouse stalls – or was, ten years ago: “Toy Story 2 was OK.” As sublime an In Brief review as any in these pages.

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