Gray’s Anomaly

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You’re a judge in a major poetry competition. How would you rate this entry?

In the construction of the human body
it would appear
essential,
in the first place,
to provide some dense and solid texture capable
of giving supportollins
and attachment
to the softer parts of the frame,
and at the same time to protect in closed cavities
the more important
vital organs,
and such structure we find provided
in the various bones
which form is called
the Skeleton.

Relax. It didn’t win. I think it came second, not bad for a piece of prose. It’s the opening paragraph of Gray’s Anatomy, with the words reset in fashionably irregular lines. It was submitted as a joke, although not by Gray (1827–61). But it changed my view of modern poetry. Whenever I saw verse that was ragged on the right, like this by Ezra Pound:

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
Wavering!

– my brain did a Reverse Gray’s, and got:

See, they return; ah, see the tentative movements, and the slow
feet, the trouble in the pace and the uncertain wavering!

Piece of cake. What’s more, if the key to success in modern poetry is a ragged right, I reckon I can zigzag with the best of them. Get a load of this:

A score of headstones
still stand.
Not in lines, and not chiselled
professional slabs; just natural stone
pointers
fixed here and there in the
ground.

I knocked that off in five minutes. It’s the ending of my novel Kentucky Blues, a lengthy work, so there’s plenty more where that came from.

For years, then, I skipped modern poetry – until I discovered Billy Collins. Cue thunder and lightning! Now I’d walk backwards across town in a blizzard to buy the latest book of Billy Collins’s poems.

His gift is to visit the familiar and reveal the outlandish. My lazy imagination wonders what lies behind that door, down that road, beyond that picture. Collins goes there. He’s a permanent trespasser on parallel worlds, making short expeditions and reach

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About the contributor

Derek Robinson’s fiction is about wartime aircrew or white-collar fraud. The picture on his website (www.derekrobinson.info) looks, his friends say, like a benevolent Balkans dictator, so it could be worse.

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