I have been inspired by Ros Barber’s post, “Words You Should Never Use in a Poem,” to out myself as someone who ought to be on the hit list of the Poetry Police. It isn’t long ago that I sat above a pub at a poetry workshop session having a bit of a hard time on account of including Virgin, Moon, Rose and Heart (I didn’t capitalise them) all in the one poem. Poetry surgery is a dodgy business and I’ve been the one with the scalpel as well as the one on the receiving end; and though I like to think my bedside manner is impeccable there have been times when the knife has slipped a little here and there. I try to leave the heart intact. There, I’ve used that word again. The heart of the poem, I mean. It can happen, and I’ve seen it done, that a piece of work is perfected to within an inch of its life and gives up the ghost.
But I’m a tough old boot and I can take it, especially when there is a bar downstairs selling good beer and one hasn’t yet given up smoking Camel cigarettes. The funny thing was, I thought to myself as I rubbed beer into my wounds, that there I was with Art Garfunkel on the jukebox singing Are The Stars Out Tonight, and outside the sky was clear and full of them shining. I went back upstairs and a great big moon shone through the window and looked at us as we tried to edit her out under the light of a 40 watt bulb.
I know, of course you need to work at a poem, pruning is a part of the work and no-one likes to murder their darlings. It’s because words are so powerful that one pretentious or overblown word in a poem can bring the whole thing down, and I can’t help sympathising with the miserable John Osborne who held it against his mother that she said “lemon” instead of naming the colour yellow. But we also have a duty to put a custard pie in the face of the Poetry Police and reclaim the Virgin and the Rose. You can say Condom and Pisspot any time you like - oh yes, they won’t do you for that, and nor would I come to that. They are good words. But so is Moon – and I have been told in all seriousness that you can’t have it any more because it’s been used too often. Ditto Heart. Carol Ann Duffy can’t have minded this when she wrote “Rapture”.
Anyway, I left in Moon and Virgin and the poem was published. This doesn’t prove anything other than when push comes to scalpel you should go ahead and use the words you feel in your soul (ouch) are the right ones, and let the Police go whistle.
I'd give the moon for a Camel.