Hell for Poets

Hell for Poets
It's Hell for the poet arriving for the gig
Off the five thirty three to meet the organiser
Who claps her in a car that reeks enough of dog to make her gag,
Tells her he's looked at her work but he was none the wiser.
Call him old fashioned, but in the 'little mag
He edits for his sins' stuff rhymes – oh, he's no sympathiser
With this modern stuff! Is it prose? What is it?
Perhaps the poet can enlighten him this visit?

– For which his lady-wife's made up a futon hard as boulders
In the boxroom. 'So much friendlier than a hotel!'
Will anyone turn up tonight? Shrug of his shoulders.
'Even for McGough or Carol Ann Duffy tickets have not been going well…'
Meanwhile: here's his stuff, each ode encased in plastic in three folders.

Publication? Perhaps she'll advise him where to sell
Over a bottle of home-made later? Oh shit. She can tell
This is going to be The Gig From Hell…

But it's real hell for real poets when love goes right
When the war is over and the blood, the mud, the Muse depart
Requited love, gratified desire 'write white'
And suffering's the sweetest source for the profoundest art.
Blue skies, eternal bliss, bland putti – Heaven might
Not be the be all and end all…? For a start
Hell itself's pure inspiration to the creatively driven.
Hell was (f'rinstance) Dante's idea of Hog Heaven.
Hell's best! Virgil knew it too before him. Heigh ho!
Man calls himself a poet? St Peter'll bounce him
(Unless he's maybe Milton – it's Who You Know.)
Could I end up in Hell with Burns (his rolling r's announce him)?
End up with Villon, Verlaine, the Rabelaisian Rimbaud,
With Don Juan, Don Whan – however you pronounce Him – 
Bunked up with Byron, still so mad, so bad, and so delic-
iously dangerous to know? Not a snowball's chance, but oh, I wish.
Liz Lochhead

from The Colour of Black and White (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2003)

Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Liz Lochhead

Appointed Scots Makar – the National Poet for Scotland – from 2011 to 2016, Liz Lochhead is both transgressive and popular; as Anne Varty wrote, ‘her work is that of one woman speaking to many,  and one person speaking for many’.


Read more about this poet
About Hell for Poets

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2004 was Hamish Whyte.

Editors' comment: 
Good illustration of Lochhead's strengths: her marvellous ear, rhythm, wit, verbal dexterity, the blend of colloquial and standard. Writers will recognise the Posy Simmondsish picture of 'the Gig from Hell'.

Author's note: 
I am amazed as well as pleased that this poem has been chosen, particularly as I don't think of it as a poem at all, but a piece of light verse. I do think light verse is a perfectly honest and honourable trade and I have derived much pleasure from reading a good deal of light versifying in my time - but when you know where you are going (more or less) before you begin, then it lacks the psychological imperative and mystery of even the simplest or most defiantly private proper poem coming about its own business. The fun for the writer is mostly in managing to say it within the form and rhyme-scheme, and generally one which draws attention to itself too (as in this parody of ottava rima, Byron's form in Don Juan, his apparently endlessly sustainable and wonderfully infinitely flexible one for his characteristic mix of high and low diction, something associated with him as firmly as Standard Habbie is to Burns). The fun for the reader is presumably in sharing the joke?

I often turn to something like this when (as in this case) asked to write something. I was given the title 'Hell for Poets' and the task of making something short and entertaining which I'd perform aloud at the vinous opening party of a poetry festival for which many poets (not me) wrote wonderful Dante versions. I must say it proved a conversation piece as many poets immediately started to share their lurid memories of the ultimate horror-gig...