Friday poem

I’ve had a poem on my mind since I was about 12. Each year at my school, a selection of enthusiastic English students would take the English Speaking Board exam for no special reason. It involved making a short presentation, acting an improvised scene with another student, and reciting a poem of one’s own choosing.

One particular year, I recited a complex dense poem from a slim volume of contemporary poetry given to me by the first actual poet I ever met. I was extremely proud of my sophisticated choice, which clearly marked me as mature and interesting.

However, the student who brought the house down that day recited a hilarious poem about a gymkhana. I learned that cleverness is not always as entertaining, or even as instructive, as comedy.

I assumed the poem was written by Spike Milligan or Roald Dahl, but never came across it again until earlier this week when I stumbled on it in a selection of poems by…John Betjeman. Who knew?

So, I offer it up as Friday fun. Please don’t resist the temptation to read it out loud. You will need your best British accent.

Hunter Trials by John Betjeman

It’s awf’lly bad luck on Diana,
Her ponies have swallowed their bits;
She fished down their throats with a spanner
And frightened them all into fits.

So now she’s attempting to borrow.
Do lend her some bits, Mummy, do;
I’ll lend her my own for to-morrow,
But to-day I’ll be wanting them too.

Just look at Prunella on Guzzle,
The wizardest pony on earth;
Why doesn’t she slacken his muzzle
And tighten the breech in his girth?

I say, Mummy, there’s Mrs. Geyser
And doesn’t she look pretty sick?
I bet it’s because Mona Lisa
Was hit on the hock with a brick.

Miss Blewitt says Monica threw it,
But Monica says it was Joan,
And Joan’s very thick with Miss Blewitt,
So Monica’s sulking alone.

And Margaret failed in her paces,
Her withers got tied in a noose,
So her coronets caught in the traces
And now all her fetlocks are loose.

Oh, it’s me now. I’m terribly nervous.
I wonder if Smudges will shy.
She’s practically certain to swerve as
Her Pelham is over one eye.

* * *

Oh, wasn’t it naughty of Smudges?
Oh, Mummy, I’m sick with disgust.
She threw me in front of the Judges,
And my silly old collarbone’s bust.

18 responses to “Friday poem”

  1. Bryan says:

    I stumbled on it in a selection of poems by…John Betjeman. Who knew?

    maybe this betrays my ignorance of either british culture or 20c poetry, but i’d never heard of john betjeman. is he a household name?

  2. Bryan says:

    funny poem, too. i imagined 12-year-old stella seething at the little chick who brought down the house with this.

  3. Dave says:

    God, this post is so British. A poem-recitation competition — we don’t do that here outside of Andover. Then a child’s surprise at hearing a poem by John Betjeman, who is — who is that, exactly? And what’s a gymkhana? Something left over from the Raj, no doubt. And then the poem itself — “Prunella,” “wizardest pony on earth,” “silly old collarbone.” It’s like it’s a foreign country over there or something.

  4. A gymnkana, I learned when doing Equus in Directing I, is a contest place where they parade horses for show. They pretty them up with flowers and crap (because Alan was very disapproving of non-sweaty horses) and the best-looking horse wins.

    Like a dog show.

  5. Dave says:

    We’re still having problems with the Recent Comments plugin that runs that little section of the sidebar. Apologies.

  6. Dave says:

    Another test.

  7. AW says:

    Absolutely love this, Stella. Needed a poem and the chance to laugh this morning. Also loved the snippet of your childhood that starts the post. Thanks.

  8. Dave says:

    Will I have to go into the SQL tables to figure this out? Probably. But not while I’m at work.

  9. Dave says:

    Or maybe a complete re-install?

    The masochistic nature of running a blog has never been so clear.

  10. Bryan says:

    Sorry, Dave, that you’re burdened with this. Maybe Stella will post an addition poem to get you through the process.

  11. Bryan says:

    addition s/b additional

  12. AW says:

    And these poems and your post and all this banter has reminded me of the pleasure I got from memorizing poems for a couple of crotchety old professors in college. One of them had us memorize (in Middle English) the first 20 lines of the Canterbury Tales. Those sing-songy words and rhythms still can make me smile, as did the fun turns-of-phrase in your poem, above. Maybe we’ll meet someday and you can read it for me in your “best British accent,” since my own attempt won’t even come close.

  13. Ruben Mancillas says:

    I’ll own up that I had never heard of Betjeman before I read a Philip Larkin bio last month. Bejeman, a friend of Larkin’s, was Poet Laureate. Of course, I can’t name our country’s current laureate-we do have one, right?

  14. Dave says:

    Ha — I guessed right. Charles Simic.

  15. Dave says:

    By our poet laureate:

    My Shoes

    Shoes, secret face of my inner life:
    Two gaping toothless mouths,
    Two partly decomposed animal skins
    Smelling of mice-nests.

    My brother and sister who died at birth
    Continuing their existence in you,
    Guiding my life
    Toward their incomprehensible innocence.

    What use are books to me
    When in you it is possible to read
    The Gospel of my life on earth
    And still beyond, of things to come?

    I want to proclaim the religion
    I have devised for your perfect humility
    And the strange church I am building
    With you as the altar.

    Ascetic and maternal, you endure:
    Kin to oxen, to Saints, to condemned men,
    With your mute patience, forming
    The only true likeness of myself.

  16. Bryan says:

    that bit about oxen and saints is nice. b

  17. Stella says:

    John Betjeman is probably the only poet everyone in England would know and probably like besides Shakespeare. Dave, it’s a day too late but here’s an additional poem that is his most famous. Bear in mind that the original The Office was set in Slough, but obviously decades later.


    Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
    It isn’t fit for humans now,
    There isn’t grass to graze a cow
    Swarm over, Death!

    Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens
    Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
    Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans
    Tinned minds, tinned breath.

    Mess up the mess they call a town —
    A house for ninety-seven down
    And once a week for half-a-crown
    For twenty years,

    And get that man with double chin
    Who’ll always cheat and always win,
    Who washes his repulsive skin
    In women’s tears,

    And smash his desk of polished oak
    And smash his hands so used to stroke
    And stop his boring dirty joke
    And make him yell.

    But spare the bald young clerks who add
    The profits of the stinking cad;
    It’s not their fault that they are mad,
    They’ve tasted Hell.

    It’s not their fault they do not know
    The birdsong from the radio,
    It’s not their fault they often go
    To Maidenhead

    And talk of sports and makes of cars
    In various bogus Tudor bars
    And daren’t look up and see the stars
    But belch instead.

    In labour-saving homes, with care
    Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
    And dry it in synthetic air
    And paint their nails.

    Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
    To get it ready for the plough.
    The cabbages are coming now;
    The earth exhales.

    — John Betjeman