Kevin Saving on
Forever and Anon - A Treasury of Poetry
and Prose from the Pen of Author Unknown
ed. Gerry Hanson (JRBooks, 2007)
Advantageously for potential reviewers, the multiple authors of this publication are highly unlikely to take collective dudgeon, nor to invoke punitive copyright-protecting measures.
Gerry Hanson's brain-child of anthologising anonymous poems, verses, ballads and doggerel is an excellent one. 'Anon' has been undeniably prolific over the years - 163 examples are reproduced in this volume and, as its editor admits,
it could've been many more. By turns funny, clever, wise and (occasionally) poignant, 'Anon' can be technically dextrous too, as 'A Reversible Love Poem' (whose verses can be read, line by line, either up or down and still make sense) and
'Susan Simpson' (written using only words beginning with the letter 's') amply illustrate. It is noticeable also that 'Anon' is a great formalist: the vast preponderance of his/her oeuvre - if one discounts translations from the Chinese, Gaelic, Apache and Welsh - is composed along formal lines, although (praise be) there is just the one limerick on display. Even leaving aside the insight from modern neurology which indicates that our hunter/gatherer brains are 'hard-wired' to recognise patterns above all else, it still appears probable that when ordinary, 'real' people pace the Poetry Society, want to be uplifted, consoled or merely diverted, they look to poetry which rhymes and scans.
Forever and Anon is subdivided into sections which deal with imponderables such as 'The Human Condition', 'Time', 'Love and Marriage', 'The Monarchy', 'Animals', 'The Natural World', 'London' and 'Christmas'. At times one could wish for more editorial guidance. Both 'Greensleeves' and that awful dirge best known as 'The National Anthem' are included -
though these have been tentatively ascribed to King Henry VIII and John Bull respectively. The haunting 'Do Not Be Afraid' - spoken at a thousand funerals - has an interesting back story which bears re-telling. It first came to light in a letter to his parents from British soldier, Steven Cummins, prior to his death on active service in Northern Ireland. Initially presumed
to have been written by Cummins himself, this seems now not to have been the case. Someone, somewhere is missing out on some serious royalties...
Do Not Be Afraid
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush
I am the swift, uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there - I do not sleep.
A tad maudlin, yes, but demonstrably it hits its target via a meticulous non-specificity in assertion of an immortality which mourners desperately want to believe in.
A potential problem with material which has often been passed down orally is that there may be a number of alternate versions. One poem/song reproduced here, 'An A.A. Gunner Lay Dying' (of Second World War vintage) is definitely a corruption of an earlier piece sung in their squadron messes by the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps in world war one.
With a few notable exceptions, 'Anon' tends to write more in the style of Pam Ayres than, say, John Keats. Passages of authentic, strongly sustained emotion are rare. Of wit and worldly wisdom there is an abundance. One little aphorism (from 'Make the Most of Today') which I'll continue to treasure is:
Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift-
that's why it is called THE PRESENT.
Inevitably there are omissions. The eternally useful jingle beginning 'Thirty Days Hath September...' was penned by 'Anon'. Personally, I would have found space for some of the marching-songs coined during the Great War by Tommy Atkins: mordant, sometimes grotesque, they warrant the same scrutiny which the more sophisticated outpourings of Owen, Sassoon and Robert Graves routinely get. Theirs is a worm's-eye, not an Olympian, view. Similarly, but two centuries previously, the observation that
The law doth punish the man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose
shows the enclosure movement through a rather different lens than that which it is customarily accorded.
Finally, and perhaps prudently, the following anonymous insight (from Eugenics Review, 1929) does not make the cut:
See the happy moron,
he doesn't give a damn.
I wish I was a moron.
My god! perhaps I am!
Quite wonderful just how non-PC one can be when one signs oneself 'Anon'.
Kevin Saving © 2008