Poetry: Fan-Mail — To Tom Stoppard: a letter from London | clivejames.com
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To Tom Stoppard: a letter from London

[Original version: italics, caps and punctuation as in ‘Fan-Mail’]

To catch your eye in Paris, Tom,
I choose a show-off stanza from
       Some Thirties play
Forgotten now like Rin Tin Tin.
Was it ‘The Dog Beneath the Skin’?
       Well, anyway

Its tone survives. The metres move
Through Time like paintings in the Louvre
       (Say loov, not loover):
Coherent in their verbal jazz,
They’re confident of tenure as
       J. Edgar Hoover.

Pink Fairies of the Sixth Form Left,
Those Ruined Boys at least were deft
       At the actual Writing.
Though history scorns all they thought,
The nifty artefacts they wrought
       Still sound exciting.

Distinguishing the higher fliers
Remorselessly from plodding triers
       Who haven’t got it,
Such phonic zip bespeaks a knack
Of which no labour hides the lack:
       A child could spot it.

And boy, you’ve got the stuff in bales —
A Lubitsch-touch that never fails.
       The other guys
Compared to you write lines that float
With all the grace of what gets wrote
       By Ernest Wise.

The Stoppard dramaturgic moxie
Unnerves the priests of orthodoxy:
       We still hear thicks
Who broadcast the opinion freely
Your plays are Only Sketches Really —
       Just bags of tricks.

If dramas do not hammer Themes
Like pub bores telling you their dreams
       The dense don’t twig.
They want the things they know already
Reiterated loud and steady —
       Drilled through the wig.

From all frivolity aloof,
Those positivist killjoys goof
       Two ways at once:
They sell skill short, and then ignore
The way your works are so much more
       Than clever stunts.

So frictionless a jeu d’esprit,
Like Wittgenstein’s philosophy,
       Appears to leave
Things as they are, but at the last
The Future flowing to the Past
       Without reprieve

Endorses everything you’ve done.
As Einstein puts it, The Old One
       Does Not Play Dice,
And though your gift might smack of luck
Laws guide it, like the hockey puck
       Across the ice.

Deterministic you are not,
However, even by a jot.
       Your sense of form
Derives its casual power to thrill
From operating at the still
       Heart of the storm.

For how could someone lack Concern
Who cared that gentle Guildenstern
       And Rosencrantz
(Or else the same names rearranged
Should those two men be interchanged)
       Were sent by Chance

To meet a death at Hamlet’s whim
Less grand than lay in store for him,
       But still a death:
A more appalling death, in fact
Than any King’s in the Fifth Act —
       Even Macbeth?

In South-East Asia as I type
The carbuncle is growing ripe
       Around Saigon.
The citadels are soon reduced.
The chickens have come home to roost.
       The heat is on,

And we shall see a sickness cured
Which virulently has endured
       These thirty years:
The torturers ran out of jails,
The coffin-makers out of nails,
       Mothers of tears,

While all the Furies and the Fates
Unleashed by the United States
       In Freedom’s name
Gave evidence that moral error
Returns in tumult and in terror
       The way it came.

But now the conquerors bring Peace.
When everyone is in the police
       There’s no unrest.
Except for those who disappear
The People grin from ear to ear —
       Not like the West.

Rejecting both kinds of belief
(Believing only in the grief
       Their clash must bring)
We find to use the words we feel
Adhere most closely to the Real
       Means everything.

I like the kind of jokes you tell
And what’s more you like mine as well —
       Clear proof of nous.
I like your stylish way of life.
I’ve thought of kidnapping your wife.
       I like your house.

Success appeals to my sweet tooth:
But finally it’s to the Truth
       That you defer —
And that’s the thing I like the best.
My love to Miri. Get some rest.
       A tout à l’heure.

— 1975