Tribute to John Whitworth
with guest editor Jayne Osborn
Welcome to the John Whitworth tribute. This section is devoted to the memory of a well-known, well-loved British poet who, sadly, died in April this year.
photo credit Jemimah Kuhfeld
We put out a call for submissions to remember this writer of strictly metrical, rhyming poetry, and, as his long-standing friend and fellow British poet, I was asked to choose a few of them for this feature.
Together, John and I attended the West Chester University Poetry Conference in Philadelphia three years ago, for a panel entitled “Whitworth at Seventy,” where John delighted the audience with a reading of some of his “vigorous, accessible, and often characterised by a delightful silliness, poems” — that accurate description having appeared in his Telegraph obituary, which also went on to say:
“But a darker and more serious vein often runs beneath the apparently light-hearted surface tone as he explored more disturbing territory. The power of ritual incantation shines through one of his most popular poems, ‘The Examiners,’ which begins:
Where the house is cold and empty and the garden’s overgrown,
They are there.
Where the letters lie unopened by a disconnected phone,
They are there . . .
and continues with “rhythmic bounce and sheer glee,” ending with:
For we know they’re going to get us, we just don’t know when or where,
They are there, they are there, they are there.”
John had a very distinctive style and was an extremely prolific poet, covering all manner of topics — often irreverently — but always with skill and the utmost precision. He loved to enter, and win (which he frequently did) poetry competitions, in addition to having published a dozen collections of his own work. He will be greatly missed by family, friends, and the poetic community.
It was a privilege and a total pleasure to read the poems for this tribute to my old friend John Whitworth. My thanks to Vera for inviting me to do this, and to all the poets who submitted their entries.
It was a difficult task to limit my choice to just five, so my commiserations to those of you who didn’t make the final list. On a different day my selection might easily have included yours. I know all of your names now, but the poems were sent to me with no identification on them at all . . . so at least I can’t be accused of any bias!
John himself would have been most appreciative of everyone’s participation, and of the poems, which were . . .
“to him, in memory of him, or written in a style of his.”
Here’s a brief summary of my choices; I hope you will enjoy them as much as I did:
“Words” is my outright favourite, and Janet couldn’t have expressed it better:
“We ache for his presence, his absence is tragic.”
Karen’s and Ed's parodies of poems in John’s book, Joy in the Morning, are delightful.
Ann’s “Don’t Worry about Heaven . . .” is a funny response to an email she received from John one morning.
Beverley’s “Whitworth Was Here” is a riff on John’s well-known poem, "The Examiners." It ends with “He was here, he was here, he was here!”
He most certainly WAS! And John will never be forgotten, living on through the vast collection of his witty, wicked rhyming poems. If you’re not yet familiar with them — you have a treat in store. Read him online, buy his books . . . you will have not just “Joy in the Morning” but joy anytime you choose!
To John Whitworth
He can’t be defined, he’s a slippery cove
with a protean mind, he’s wet soap, dinkum oil.
An elliptical thinker, a tinker, by Jove,
who can roll up a sentence then watch it uncoil.
There’s beauty and badness and rudeness and cuteness,
some fruity allusions and moments more prayerful.
Hysterical puns and a blinding astuteness,
but reader, be warned! You had better be careful.
Just when you are laughing he says something moving
and tests your capacity, raising the curtain
on classical prosody, cunningly proving
he knows where his reader is rather uncertain.
When simple is wanted his simple eclipses
the sculpture of Arp and the sorrows of Werther.
A silence surrounds us. His uncanny grip is
as powerful as Browning and moving as Goethe.
His lists roll like thunder amassing insistence,
increasing their power as they grow in dimension.
Louder and louder they measure the distance
between the first word and his verbal invention.
His music is potent, his meter is magic,
we dote on his measure and treasure his laughter.
We ache for his presence, his absence is tragic.
I want to believe we will meet him hereafter.
“John Whitworth is loved in Australia thanks to Les Murray. John wrote a lovely blurb for my first book and a wonderful introduction to my second. He is alive for me every time I see my books. Thank you John.” Janet Kenny
Janet Kenny lived in Sydney but now lives in Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia. Her poems have been published in many journals, books, and online.
The first poem is by John and the second poem below is a parody of John’s poem.
The doorbell rang. I caught my breath.
I drew the bolt and it was Death.
He fumbled in his cloak and took
From some recess a little book.
He slid his glasses down his nose.
‘It’s Mr Whitworth, I suppose.’
A frosty smile played on his lips
That chilled me to my fingertips,
So I replied in breezy tones,
‘No Whitworth here. My name is Jones.’
Whitworth resides at forty-seven,
An ancient shag, and ripe for Heaven,
His mind long gone, his body bent.’
Death nodded, tipped his hat and went.
Jones passed away that very night.
I sent a wreath, as well I might.
The doorbell rang. I caught my breath.
I drew the bolt, and it was Death.
He wore trifocals, posh new clothes—
‘It’s Mr. Jones, my record shows.’
I stumbled back into the chair,
He eyed me as I floundered there.
In breezy tones, he told me straight
‘Your old friend Whitworth’s at the gate.
He holds a wreath and little card
Says you should meet him in the yard.
He’ll have a harp and golden cup—
And says to say the jig is up.’
Karen Kelsay is the founder and editor of Kelsay Books, a rapidly growing company that publishes poetry books written by mid-career poets. She lives in American Fork, Utah.
Seventeen More Secret Histories
Hieronymus Bosch favored painting by numbers.
The Marquis de Sade had a Siamese twin.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, unionized plumbers.
Socrates danced on the head of a pin.
Robert Frost died of acute nymphomania.
Einstein invented concoctions with limes.
Buffalo Bill wed Marie of Roumania.
Lyndon Baines Johnson wrote operas for mimes.
Gilbert and Sullivan colonized Venus.
Attila the Hun pillaged France on a goat.
Ralph Waldo Emerson tattooed his penis.
Kafka gave tours on a glass bottom boat.
Sigmund Freud’s mother enchanted Rasputin.
Dracula’s uncle affected a limp.
The Golem of Prague went disguised as a Teuton
and Voltaire impregnated Sir Isaac Newton.
Donald Trump fathered a child with a blimp.
Higgledy-piggledy, nimini-piminy. . .
Ed Shacklee is a public defender who lives in a boat on the Potomac River. His first collection, The Blind Loon: A Bestiary, was published in 2017 by Able Muse Press.
Don’t Worry about Heaven . . .
For John Whitworth
. . .What GOES ON in Heaven, that’s what I want to know. Do they have cricket and Marmite and public libraries?
John, via email. 8.20am. 8.4.07.
Oh, will there be cricket in Heaven —
The impact of missile on bat,
The sensation of play
Going on miles away
From the place in the grass where you’re sat?
But of course there’ll be cricket in Heaven
For isn’t it just what God meant;
Making poor flannelled fools
Follow mystical rules
For the promise of tea in a tent?
But will there be Marmite in Heaven?
Will I feel the familiar drouth
As it trammels the tongue
Like an ill-fitting bung
Till it cleaves to the roof of the mouth?
Well, there’s bound to be Marmite in Heaven!
Apart from its tasting divine,
They would need brewers’ yeast
At the family feast
Or they couldn’t change water to wine.
And libraries, are they in Heaven
Addressing the cultural gap?
Do they stand in the streets
Holding volumes like sweets
To enlighten the average chap?
Not libraries, dearest — but bookshops;
You can gaze at their goodies all day
But, just as on earth,
You decide what they’re worth
And you browse and you choose and you pay.
Ann Drysdale is an English poet living in Wales. She and John shared a publisher (Peterloo) and he was co-reader at the launch of her first poetry book. For many years they shared a cheerful correspondence.
Whitworth Was Here
When your prospects are as poisonous as Putin, don’t forget
He was here.
When your cat thinks you’re a tosser and your life’s a losing bet,
He was here.
When he gooses words and ideas they cavort and pirouette,
He can make you squirm with laughter till your underpants are wet,
Though he be on Mount Parnassus we can chuckle with him yet.
He was here, he was here, he was here!
Beverley Strauss, a former university employee and voluntary worker for Victim Support, lives quietly near the sea in retirement, maintaining a small sideline in light verse and enjoying the natural scenery on walks.
35 poems by John Whitworth are available to read on his page on The Hyper Texts. Click here.
Jayne Osborn is an award-winning British poet, well known for her sense of humour, which permeates her work, as well as her writing on serious topics. Her poems have regularly appeared in The Spectator and The Oldie magazines, as well as in The Literary Review, and in many anthologies and online journals.
Jayne is also a keen amateur magician, the only female member of the Northampton Magicians Club. She gives talks combining the magic of poetry with the mystery of magic tricks, which are entertaining and full of surprises.