Poetry: Fan-Mail — Foreword | clivejames.com
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Fan-Mail : Foreword

I wrote the first five of these seven verse letters in 1974, between finishing Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage (a scurrilous mock epic, confected from rhyming couplets, which I have since revised and expanded) and beginning The Fate of Felicity Fark (another mock epic, equally reprehensible and also in couplets, which was completed early in 1975). Later in 1975 I wrote the last two letters, before beginning a third mock epic, Britannia Bright’s Bewilderment, which appeared in 1976 and turned out to be no more savoury than its predecessors.

Taken as a whole, the verse letters and the first two mock epics constitute a perhaps belated attempt, in my thirty-fifth year (with a few month’s latitude either side), to discipline technique by running the gamut of the set forms — or part of the gamut, anyway. A pious enough aim, which I hope cheerfulness has done something to mollify, since keeping to strict rules is a pleasure as well as a challenge. I need hardly say that the reader is meant to forge on unperturbed by technical considerations, but those interested in these things might like to know that apart from the letter to Tom Stoppard, which is written in my own adaptation of an Audenesque rime couée stanza, the forms are as close to standard practice as I can make them. The letter to Russell Davies is in rhyme royal; the letter to John Fuller in Burnsian rime couée; the letter to Martin Amis in Spenserian stanza; the letter to Pete Atkin in ottava rima; the letter to my wife, Prue Shaw, in terza rima; and the letter to Peter Porter in rhyming couplets.

I would like to thank Ian Hamilton for first printing the letter to Pete Atkin in the New Review; Anthony Thwaite for setting aside five pages of Encounter to publish the letter to Martin Amis; and especially Claire Tomalin, who generously made so much of the New Statesman’s exiguous space available for the letters to John Fuller, Tom Stoppard and Peter Porter.

Thanks must also go to my wife, whose fastidious ear ensured that my Australian pronunciation (which gives a word like ‘cyclist’ three syllables and, if I am not careful, a word like ‘admiring’ four) was not too often foisted on the public as English prosody. The letter to her, like the one to Russell Davies, is here appearing for the first time.

This collection is dedicated to Russell Davies for all the reasons set out in my letter to him, plus an additional one which had not yet fully become clear when that letter was written. In the recitals of my mock epics at the Poetry International Festivals, he has single-handedly incarnated all the scores of different characters, giving me the enviable satisfaction of watching my often meagre notions take on abundant life.

The film alluded to in the letters to Russell Davies and Pete Atkin rejoiced in the title Barry McKenzie Holds His Own. It was written by Barry Humphries and Bruce Beresford and directed by Bruce Beresford. Conventions of literary raillery ought not to disguise a profound debt to John Fuller, whose prize-winning volume Epistles to Several Persons first aroused my competitive instincts with its convincing demonstration that verse can still hope to be both public and exact.