Signpost One (Updated!) : John McCullough’s ‘Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express’

[Please read the ‘about’ section, which explains the scope of this blog.]

I am starting with John McCullough because he was my inspiring, intuitive, tutor for my Open University ‘Creative Writing’ course. My personal journey began with him as the guide. One of the best things John taught me was about the “Talent Myth”: You can learn to write poetry. There is no such thing as innate talent. You can start off rubbish and end up good. You can! Yes, courses, workshops, books, tutors, yes to all those things, but the Big Fat Point is that you don’t need to worry about whether or not you have that magical thing called ‘talent’.

If you want to learn how to write poetry, John’s poem, ‘Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express’, is full of zingy ideas, movement and wonderful swirling interactions between the poet and the world. It made me cry. I was going to start blathering on about why it made me cry, but, you know, “show not tell” and all that, so – with the permission of the author (he’s cool like that) – here it is:

Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express

I might believe we are stationary.

It’s only everything out there kindly

hurtling past, the grey verticals of Clapham

revealed as bars of a song.  I might lend my ear

to catch cirrus chit-chat then touch down

at Gatwick and watch parked cars nuzzle

in tidy rows.  Which reminds me to sort

my manners out, to raise a hand to waving trees

whizzing backwards, plastic bags in their branches

brilliant flags announcing carnivals

in Balcombe, Wivelsfield, Hassocks.

I may trill like a starling myself, bless everything

outside and within this case of human fireworks:

the silver-chained lads probing Burger King bags

like lucky dips; the Tannoy woman who is Our Lady,

surely, with a mobile altar of Ribena and Coke;

the suits with Guardians hiding Heat magazine.

I may twig that Brighton is unreal,

is being made as we approach,

the shops plugged in, the prom laid down,

the new beach scattered with smiling pebbles,

there where buses have names

so we can get knocked down by Dusty Springfield.

I might conjure up crowds auditioning

for the North Laine, all dreadlocks and posturing,

benefits and big schemes, with different kinds

of queen walking different kinds of dog –

vital clutter that dashes or repairs

Brighton dreams, that brings death or a boon

for the West Pier, swaying over the surf.

It all glides on towards salt-caked houses

and the united panes of Betjeman’s station,

though it’s not him but you, Frank, who I picture

in the station café, coughing your lungs out

above a latte as you eye the black waiter.

In just a moment I shall pass the gates

of heaven and find you,

my memories of travel left in the ticket machine

as we stroll out down Queens Road,

the sun on our skin, the sea shining so whitely

that we stop and stare, and keep on staring.

 

A ‘follower’ (I have followers!) has asked me to be more specific. He wants to know why this poem made me cry. This will involve an in-depth analysis of the poem, which I am not qualified to give, so please note that what I am about to write is a personal opinion. Righty-ho:

The poet starts with “I might believe we are stationary”. Have you felt that? When the train is moving, but it feels as if the world is moving and not you? The fact that this statement appears in the poem gives you an immediate connection with the poet. You think, Yeah! I’ve felt that, too! It’s a good feeling. This connectivity excites me.

The poet then goes further with the thinking that the world is there unfolding for his pleasure: the “grey verticals of Clapham” are not just depressing old tower blocks, they’re “bars of a song” – the poet has added sound! Yeah! Then the clouds are “chit-chatting”! (Can you hear them?) At Gatwick, the cars in the car park are “nuzzling”. I mean, how gorgeous an image is that? The poet is showing us how to enjoy life, see? (What a guy!) The trees, the plastic bags (there are always plastic bags, aren’t there?) and the flags are all waving, so the poet feels moved to wave back: The poet is part of this friendly world.

The people inside the train become much more than they are: “silver-chained” lads, the “Tannoy woman” takes on a spiritual significance, the men in suits lose their, well, men-in-suitness and are, instead, lusting over Heat magazine. He’s added silver, spirituality and lust, all in this stanza. See how the poem scoops up life in armfuls?

The next stanza has the joyful feeling that Brighton (the poet’s home) is being laid down in readiness for him and he adds details to explain that: buses with names, colourful Brighton characters in the North Laines and the drag queens ( another reflection – along with the Heat  mag – of the poet’s own sexuality. These all help to explain why the poet feels so at home in Brighton and celebrate Brighton’s vibrancy.

I’m putting this in block font because it’s a hint for your own poetry: Pay attention to every image you conjure as you write. Every one will fire up thoughts and feelings in the reader’s mind. So I’ve been talking about the joy in this poem, right? Hang on a minute, there was a mention of being knocked down by Dusty Springfield (bus). Now, we have the West Pier swaying precariously and the possibility of “death”. The stanza about Betjeman and Frank O’Hara gives a feeling of history and some bare-faced joyous queer cheek, but leads us to the final stanza, which brings in Heaven (so, still death, but maybe happy death) and memories left in the ticket machine (ooo… nice image). Now the poet’s strolling with “you” down Queens Road. It could be that the “you” is Frank O’Hara. Or, it could even be that – as Frank O’Hara died in 1966 and John McCullough wasn’t born then – he’s talking about someone he loved who has died. It washes down you, the sadness when you realise. Then you are left, flooded with:

“….. the sea shining so whitely

that we stop and stare, and keep on staring.”

 

…and that, you see, is why I cried.

9781844713981_grande

This poem comes from John’s first collection, The Frost Fairs, which was winner of the Polari Prize 2012. It’s available from:

https://www.saltpublishing.com/products/the-frost-fairs-9781844713981

(John’s latest collection, Spacecraft, is available from:

http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2016/04/spacecraft/

I went to one of the Spacecraft launches! It was brilliant! If you’re learning to write poetry, go to as many launches as you can. It will give you a whole new perspective and make you feel all poety. Buy the book being launched and then bowl up to the launched poet and say something like; “I’m learning to write poetry. I have just spent X quid on your work. Please would you pretty please sign it and write something encouraging in it for me?” And s/he will!

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