Keeping the Clay Moist

This event occurred in 1988, in the Chester Grosvenor Hotel bistro. Tony Harrison had been the guest presenter at the Cheshire County Council English Conference, organised and run by a team of English Seconded Teachers under the leadership of Mike Jones.

I was to take him to a further engagement in Wigan, and had spent the morning with him at an antiquarian bookseller in Chester. I got the job as chauffeur because my secondee’s diary was empty that day, and a lift to Wigan was part of the deal to get him to speak to us.

Actually, the brief encounter described should also have included mention of dinner the previous day, when he was in fine form over a beef wellington. On this occasion he thrilled both John Williams and I by talking about rhyme, a key feature of his verse making.

“I use rhyme,” he told us, “because it keeps the clay moist.” This remark is now enshrined in most conversation John and I have.

Rhyme is a great challenge, and makes the process of writing poetry more exhaustive, not to say exhausting. Comic verse is virtually impossible without it, and the rhyme frequently dictates the direction of the joke. It serves as raison d’etre for the piece, and anticipation of the rhyme is most of the pleasure.

In serious verse, the moisture required keeps the process going for longer, and also dictates the direction of travel. So it both makes the meaning and forces the writer to take care to ensure everything works, and that the ideas are fully understood, not least by him/herself.