Sunday, July 27, 2008

Poets On Strike


For several months, I've been having a blast reading the Rumpole stories and novels by John Mortimer. They rival P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves narratives for pithy, hilarious writing, although because Rumpole is a barrister, there's also some underlying commentary about law and society. There's a very strong libertarian streak running through the books and Mortimer's worldview, but it's genuine libertarianism, not cloaked GOP politics (or Conservative politics, in Britain). Rumpole defends anyone with whom the State is unamused, including women, minorities, smokers, immigrants, persons deemed strange, and nonviolent criminals, including the Timson family. If you're looking for quick summer reading that will bring belly laughs, knowledge of poetry, and stylish British writing, go with John Mortimer and Rumpole. It doesn't matter where in the series you start, either. Just go to a used bookstore and pick one out.

The late actor Leo McKern played Horace Rumpole on the BBC (I've posted a photo of him), and you'll enjoy that video series, too.

In a story called "Rumpole and the Summer of Discontent," strikes or "industrial action" are featured. The clerk in Rumpole's firm threatens to strike, and Rumpole is sympathetic but reasons that the action in this case would be about as effective as if poets or pavement artists were to go on strike. Most amusing, and most certainly true.

Indeed, if poets were to go on strike, who would care? This is not to say that poetry is unimportant. It's only to say that society regards poetry as inessential. If you would test what profession, service, or vocation is essential, ask whether a strike by said profession, service, or vocation would be effective, would cause consternation if not chaos. Police, fire, emergency rooms, truckers, longshoremen, teachers, farmworkers: essential. (Teachers are essential in part because both parents work and even if both parents don't work, they want a break from the kids.) Poets, painters, interior decorators, stock brokers, philosophers, priests, rabbis: not essential. Of course, people might be wistful that such folk were on strike, but society would not grind to a halt.

Should Rumpole's observation (and remember, Rumpole loves poetry, especially that which appears in Quiller-Couch's edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse--it's just that, as a barrister, he must practice Realpolitik and even observes that knowledge the law only unnecessarily encumbers a barrister) be depressing to poets? Heavens, no. We poets (and philosophers) do what we do because poetry and philosophy are essential in ways that vegetable-produce, gasoline, and emergency medicine are not. There are different kinds of "essential," that's all. Oxygen is essential in one way; poetry is essential in another. Luckily for people and oxygen, people know right away when they are deprived of oxygen. Unfortunately, it may take the better part of a lifetime for someone to realize how much better life would be with poetry.

Rumpole regards employment, trial by jury, innocent until judged to be guilty, wine, small cigars, shepherd's pie, and poetry to be essential. Like Samuel Johnson, Rumpole is a dangerous person with whom to disagree. Therefore, I shall continue to read the Rumple stories and poetry, and I shall continue to write poetry, but I've decided not to go on strike, at this time.
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