Sunday, May 24, 2009

A poem about smoking

Poetry Please is back on the air on Radio 4 but I am still steeped in Scannell after the end of the last series

Although there are quite a few of his poems in my commonplace books, picked up from here & there over the years, I had not realised he was such a prolific poet until I managed to lay hands on his Collected Poems

Not poems ‘for all occasions’, but for all stages of life perhaps. Deceptively simple but, “This is the kind of writing that really stops one short … superbly integrated poems. It is surprising that Mr Scannell has not been made more of” to quote an anonymous TLS reviewer from 1961

Even doctors will tell you that depressives see the world clearly – that is why they cannot be perpetually sunny & optimistic; realism gets in the way. At least one of the poems from this collection made me weep as I copied it out

They are mostly poems of the quotidian, the language quiet but the words just right, even though individually they are not dense-packed waiting to explode into meaning as you read (I think here of Ruth Padell, as one I have been reading recently)

I like this one, about smoking. It was published in Epithets of War in 1965, the year I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on ‘The relationship between smoking & health’ & 3 years after the BBC, quoting the Royal College of Physicians, had told us in March 1962 that “There is now no doubt that smoking causes lung cancer

There are 13 introductory lines of history & Scannell’s first smoke, at the age of 9, behind the Sunday School, which I have omitted here

from Cigarette

I thought that I did wrong, & think so still.
They told us that tobacco-smoking would
Stunt our growth. They tell us now fags kill,
And I believe, though when I ruminate
I see that even smokeless inhalations
Are paces, if not quite so long & straight,
Towards the darkest of all destinations.

I take another, light it, noting how
The stained air holds no sweet reverberations
And that I have no sense of falling now

Vernon Scannell