‘The (New) Merchant’s tale’, or ‘How Not To Perform Poetry’

Tonight, convinced by a student who is rather a fan of my writing, I went to a poetry open mike night.

I just want to leave that sentence hanging there for a while, as I’m still staring in wonderment at it. While I’ve been to many readings, performances and book signings of poetry, and even technically run several, and while I do ‘nine shows a day’ at school, without phase or fail…it turns out I’ve never read my own poetry – or, I think, any other writing of my own – out loud, to an audience. Not since I was about twelve, or maybe even earlier. I’m perfectly happy to read for hours from others’ tomes, and often do… Thus, this was the MOST NERVOUS I HAVE EVER BEEN IN MY LIFE. Aside from my two driving tests. And obviously I failed both of those.

Although I didn’t fail my driving tests for going too fast, I felt like I’d rather failed my first poetry ‘outing’ for that reason. This was a rather parochial affair, a somewhat different atmosphere to the – let’s face it – mostly drunken and jolly readings I’d been to before, but it was still pretty varied and interesting, and everyone coming up gave it their all. However, having got there a bit early, I had been signed up to read third, which is frankly a bit mean for a first-timer. I had a few poems ready, but, completely overcome by nerves, I thought it would be a good idea (as I said to the blurry crowd in front of me) to, as I’d been invited by my students (of whom there were now four in the audience), read something I’d written when I was their age. I pulled out a copy of something I’d found, in my hastily-grabbed ‘poetry folder’, that hadn’t seen the light of day since it was marked by Miss Johnson circa 1998. The MC balked – it was long. I convinced him. Why? “Because I got an ‘A’ for it.”

Yes, I said that. But it was ok, because the crowd laughed. Thus elated, I began, not seeing a single face in front of me but at least keeping my hands from shaking. However, probably because of the combination of it being long, it being about Chaucer (yes, we’ll get to that), the MC’s face when he’d seen it, and the metre which, as I’d mumblingly apologised to the audience for in advance, got longer in each line as the poem got long… I read it veryveryfast.

In class, I never speak fast (aside from hurling nimble, witty retorts that apparently ‘own’ the retortee, of course). In class, I am positively t o o s l o w on occasion. Here though, I was roadrunner. As I finished, despite the applause and, I’m grateful to say, a few cheers, I scrambled back to my seat like a scared child.

At the interval, I became the pupil. Although several lovely people said very lovely things about my reading, and my poem, a herd of friendly advice also came my way, advice which I really, honestly thought I’d never have to take again after delivering my one and only line on stage in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at school in about 1996: speak more slowly. Don’t rush. Don’t I even teach Cicero, whose rhetoric style included pauses for effect because he knew people needed time to take what he’d said on board, and, in the crowded senate, pass it on to their neighbours? Chastised and feeling pretty told off, I spent the rest of the evening blushing and biting my thumbnail, my signature nervous trait that not many people have seen in the last decade.

I’m glad to say that I took the advice humbly, and watched with awe some of the more performance-competent members, and indeed the excellent guest ‘professional’, the delight that is Mab Jones , did it properly, and really taught me a thing or two (to which I’d clearly not been paying attention to the other umpteen times I’d been to poetry readings as I hadn’t just made a prat of myself. Arrogance, be  thou my folly.) I’m fully intending to go back and give it another go. I shall perfect my classroom deadpan drawl for the spotlight yet.

The (New) Merchant’s Tale:

The poem itself though I have to say I’m rather proud of. It was written for my GCSEs (I think – possibly A-Levels?) and was for an assignment on The Merchant’s tale by Chaucer. Everyone knows The Merchant’s Tale, right? No? Ok, well it’s one of the rude ones, and it cynically lampoons the age gap between many marriages in Chaucer’s time, and the practice of Courtly Love. Here’s a precis.

My version transports the action to the modern day, makes the Knight instead an Irish Garda (as it scanned better than ‘Policeman’) who wins the Lottery, has a gorgeous young wife (May) found for him by his new manager, Placebo (Ha! You didn’t get that, did you Miss Johnson? You said: ‘remember, January finds his wife himself’. But Placebo’s actually a placebo in my poem! He just makes the suggestion to get married, and Jan does it himself! See what I did there? What a clever 16-year-old am I…*burble burble conceited nonsense*), but his man Damian falls for her…and hilarity ensues.

So, retyped (for Mab, who very sweetly admitted she’d had to nip out half way and missed a bit and was exceedingly lovely and polite and asked me to email it to her), here’s

The (New ) Merchant’s Tale, by Laura, aged about sixteen.

(And I’ll forgive you if you’ve seen ‘The Guard’ and start picturing Brendan Gleeson as January – I did too.)

When this old Garda, January,
Retired from the constabulary,
He spent his pension at the pub
On Paddy’s and stout and simple pub grub.
He’d never married, but had enjoyed strings
Of women, but only casual flings –
His appetite for sex was boorish,
No one woman was so moreish
To keep his interest for longer
Than a draught of average porter.
But now, as Jan got into age,
Appeal wore off this wise old sage.
The only way he spent his nights
Was slamming shots and picking fights.
He thought at last his end was near
(He’d almost had enough of beer!)
Until, from picking numbers, blotto,
Jan won millions on the Lotto!
Soon enough he’s moved from shack
Into a splendid country stack.
He filled its largely empty halls
With jars and jugs of Lotto balls,
His indoor pool he filled with Guinness –
Not a pool he used for fitness –
And in the grounds he’d built a bar –
‘The Pear Tree Inn’ – to drink his jars.
Jan also found himself with manager,
To ward off all unruly a scavenger,
To manage his wealth, health and affairs,
And conduct PR from deep armchairs.
This man, named Placebo, had to make Jan happy
In a way that’d benefit Jan – and the Company
Who’d given our man far too much money
For him to live alone with and not go funny.
Placebo had noticed Jan’s lack of a ring,
And also how, when drunk, he lewdly would sing
Of his once-full love-life, now empty with age,
And to Jan this man made a proposal – Marriage. (Nice Chaucerian rhyme there 😉 )
“It’d be good for a man like yerself,”
Said Placebo, “all that nookie’d be good for yer ‘ealth!”
The Company’d benefit too, he could see,
If they made a, once-lairy, drunk to respectable be.
“We could find y’s a wife who you’d really adore –
A young one, too. Pretty, I’m sure.”
One shrewd and desperate woman, named May, said “Yes”–
She needed, now longed for, the money you’d guess.
The agreement all made, her future was set;
For the time he endured, her disgust she’d forget.
The wedding took place in that dusky October.
Jan was excited, frankly bowled over –
Placebo, the genius, had got him a wife,
The fairest, no less, who would share in his life,
And had been one of many to apply for the post!
(Placebo’d not relayed the price to his host –
Jan was ignorant of the Cash Prize Bonus
Lure, a reward for a job so odious.)
Now in their six-page Hello! spread
Was the fresh young beauty who’d soon share his bed.
What a wedding it was! The pomp and the fayre!
It put to shame others before then who had dared
To put on a show that they hoped was amazing:
Compared to Jan and May’s, theirs were debasing!
Petals and orchids were strewn everywhere!
Silver and gold gilded every chair!
To the beauty of the bride, the maids paled in comparison
(Though some found the hole affair rather embarrassing.)
The priest told the Bride to act just, well and true,
The priest told the Groom to…well…just to be you,
The the Groom kissed the Bride, holding her near,
And held up his prize to the congregation. A cheer
Arose and grew from the back of the halls,
But the jeers mixed in were succinctly ignored.
Of course, the Groom was soon bored of the party
And wanted some privacy to see just how tarty
His new wife could be when put under the covers.
The throng soon left alone the lovers,
And, let’s just say, the meat was so tough
It left May red-faced with gristle enough.
Time passed on quickly, though slower for May,
Who realised her main purpose, day by long day,
Was to please the old man with strange acts of a nature
More befitting a whore of the Karma Sutra.
He even planned to take her often to that private pub
To drink, then engage her in more rumpy-pump,
And to do this every day – as only he had the key,
No one, but the dismissable barman, would see.
However, adding an unseemly twist,
The dismissable barman would do as he list,
And, one day fulfilling his voyeuristic urge,
Realised his excitement was an energy surge
From the sight of his mistress (or rather her bust)
And this barman, named Damian, realised he was in lust.
From then on, in protest, he took to his bed,
Resolved to wait ‘til the old man was dead,
When he’d comfort the widow with his ample service –
But until then the sight of them made him too nervous.
Jan was disturbed when he noticed the loss
Of his favourite pint-puller. A temperate boss,
But too tired that day (from having his way with May),
He sent chocs with his wife and a message to say
‘Hope you’re well soon: here’s a treat from me.
My wife’ll take care, whatever your needs be.’
Confronted by his dreams, Damian got cocky,
And handed fresh May his darned up socky,
A secret pouch containing his writ innermost feelings –
A pretty sick chappy on several good readings –
Which May then took, hid, and read in private.
Instantly flattered, she took pains to drive it
Right into her heart (and, in case, down the bidet,
That her ardent admirer she would not betray),
And so, instead, to inject enjoyment
Into her dull, joyless life, more akin to torment,
She decided to plan a small rendezvous soon,
And fulfill the man’s longing as a dutiful boon.
It just so happened that circumstances arose
In which such a meeting’s possibility froze
And yet also became possible: a one-of-a-kind
Even happened to January – he was made blind.
The fine, wealthy doctors he saw blamed the drink,
or too much of it, and made all his hopes sink
Of it ever returning. This made January witless,
Fumbling around, even more now than listless,
And scared to death of losing his hold
On the woman he now prized much more than his gold.
These plain fears of his would soon be confirmed,
As with his even tighter grip, May somehow squirmed
From between grasping fingers, her date to invent
With the newly-well Damian, every penny well spent.
Though his grip was much more, May saw this her chance
To finally lead January that merry, harmless dance
Up and down the garden path, and then into that pub,
the decided place where his ‘love’ she would snub.
‘What he won’t know can’t hurt him,’ the crafty maid thought,
‘And I can’t believe he’d not expect stuff of this sort
From a woman of youth not well paired with his age;
Fresh green herbs are much better than Sage.’
Saved thus from her own light, empty guilt,
May and blind January began their morning lilt
From their warm, cosy mansion to the warm, cosy bar
As they usually did when they didn’t take the car.
once inside, old blind Jan sat down, begging of his wife
“Now dearest, so as not to cause me any more strife
As a blind man should have, will you come and sit close?
(If you can, while you’re at it, do pour me a dose?)”
Though May would usually, unspeaking, submit,
Today she thought she’d try and win a little bit.
“Lover, do allow me to please pour my own draughts
As today I am chilly because of the draft.
Let me be at the bar, by your elbow,” she whined.
Jan was quite clement, her want not declined,
Even thought the barman himself was quite there –
He was a-hid quite well under a chair –
And which was our May’s real reason for drinking –
It was with Damian she wished to be ‘clinking’.
Looking out, blankly, Jan helped his wife over
The bar, and into the arms of the drover.
The scene that followed, maybe funny to those
Walking in, not knowing that Jan did not know:
Jan propping up the bar, talking rubbish as right,
While his wife and the barman looked high as a kite
Right in front of the (blind) man – silent, you see,
They did not want him to hear what his eyes could not see.
For a minute or so it coninued in this way;
January ignorant, the couple in full sway,
Careful not to knock bottles onto the floor –
As careful as they’d been not to lock the front door:
Wind blew; whiskey fell – smash – the couple didn’t notice
But in Jan’s eyes the whiskey was poultice.
Suddenly he saw that his sight was recovering,
Suddenly he saw his wife and man shuddering
With carnal pleasure together. He roared,
And away from each other the shocked couple’s arms soared.
They turned round to face him…and May, unabashed,
Poured him a shot from a bottle not smashed,
And said “Darling! Sweetie! My January’s cured!
Thank heaven, Mister Damian, his eyes have inured!
Who’d have thought that…um… old wise man’s words would be right?
For his sight to be restored, we’d have to…fight!”
Oh my dear, my Knightie, is it not a wonder as such
To have two good friends who do love you so much?”
With may’s sweet smile winning his immediate mind,
Jan was too confused to have thoughts of the kind
That told him he knew what had been going on
Just before they’d been stopped by his monstrous song.
But, soothed by a shamed wife’s overdid embrace,
Left alone (Damian having scarpered that place),
He thought, ‘What the hell? If she down’t think I can tell,
Let her have the affair but feel guilty as well!’
Thus, lost in grievance for sight found and lover gone,
May’s guilt for Jan kept them wed, on and on,
In a suitable fashion for January; no bout,
He just kept the benefit without the doubt.

And, just to prove it, here’s my teacher’s marking:



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