Poetry Masterclass

Warning by Jenny Joseph is, apparently, Britain’s best-loved postwar poem. It is said to be “life-affirming”. Pah! Who needs life to be affirmed when, as Dr Malcolm said, and as we all know, “life will find a way”? Anyway, let’s take a look at the poem, shall we?

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

Well, I am not a woman, but I am old, and I’m not wearing purple. I am not Erik Satie, for god’s sake.

With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.

The only people who habitually wear red hats are cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. At the time of writing, women, whether old or young, are not allowed to become priests, let alone cardinals, so there is some kind of cognitive dissonance going on here.

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves / And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

This demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of Bismarck’s domestic policy in late 19th century Germany. It was guns before butter, not brandy and gloves and footwear. What sort of nation state can you expect to build if everybody totters around in a stupor brought on by spiritous liquor, decked out like the most foolish of New Romantics?

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired

Actually, that’s fair enough. So that line can stand. But only that one, so far.

And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells / And run my stick along the public railings / And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

No you bloody well won’t, because you’re slumped on the pavement, or preferably in the gutter, remember? You’re far too tired to get up and start charging around the place as described here, because your tiny brain is exhausted from all that catch-up reading you’ve had to do to correct your misunderstanding of German history.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain / And pick flowers in other people’s gardens /And learn to spit.

Nobody learns to spit. You just spit. In any case, whether learned or innate, if you spit and steal you will get an Asbo, and so you should. Carry on, and you’ll be banged up in a large concrete building with iron bars on the windows and made to sew mailbags until you die, whereupon you’ll be buried in an unmarked grave over which quicklime will be poured to hasten your dissolution. (I may have an outmoded view of prison conditions, but a man can dream.)

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat

Oh, so all of a sudden this is about me? It’s all very well casting aspersions upon my majestic dress sense etcetera from behind prison walls, but I’m not the one forced to wear a rough sackcloth uniform covered in arrows and withering away on a bread and water diet. (See above re: prison conditions.)

And eat three pounds of sausages at a go

Yes, thank you, I will eat as many sausages as I like. That line can stand.

Or only bread and pickle for a week

You don’t understand German history, and you don’t listen. I have no idea where you get the idea there might be pickles on the menu. See above – bread and water, not bread and pickle.

And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

Stationery is fine, but you won’t need a beermat for your rusty beaker of water, and what in heaven’s name are these “things” in boxes? Lovecraftian monsters with suckers and antennae? You’ve got another thing coming if you think they’ll stay happily boxed up. As soon as you turn your back they will burst from their confines and latch on to your throat and drain the lifeblood from you, what’s left of it. And they will make an absolutely terrifying noise while they do so.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry / And pay our rent and not swear in the street / And set a good example for the children.

Pure wishful thinking, given that you are sprawled on the cold stone floor of your prison cell with a hideous alien being that defies all known organic lineaments wrapped around your neck sucking your blood and slowly, slowly crushing the last breath out of you.

We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

By “the papers” I assume you mean those academic papers about Bismarck that you ought to have been reading when you still had the chance. Too late, too late.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?


So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised / When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Yeah, yeah, and I’m Erik Satie. Get a grip, for god’s sake.

Thus we are left with two lines of clarity from all this delusional twaddle:

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired / And eat three pounds of sausages at a go

And that can be cut to make it more punchy:

I shall sit down  / And eat sausages

Now that is a poem the nation can be proud of!

3 thoughts on “Poetry Masterclass

  1. The spitting issue is not as straightforward as you suggest Mr Key. You may not need to learn to spit. But you need to practice a lot in order to spit well. I remember many a long hour hanging around street corners dehydrating myself through an incessant stream of expectoration: pellets, gobs, flumes, splats and so on. I can still hawk up an impressive specimen from time to time. However, for the main part my spitting days are over, left behind with the other frivolities of youth. I look to the next generation now and wait with anticipation for my sons to begin to show an interest in this much-misunderstood traditional past time.

  2. A masterclass indeed, thanks Frank. I think the title is now especially apposite for the poem.

    I shall sit down
    And eat sausages.

  3. Our second-class-post-modernist folk club runs a in ‘sing-a-round’ format so everyone will given the chance to perform a SONG of their choice to entertain the throng.

    Every now and then a new person will arrive at our club.
    They will sit there beaming and nodding until it is their turn.
    Then, rather than have the good grace to say ‘pass’, they will say something like ‘I don’t know any songs but I’d like to recite a poem’.
    It will invariably be ‘Warning’ regardless of the visitor’s gender.

    I shall post a link on the club blog to this deconstruction in the hope that the next performance maybe a little shorter.

    This won’t solve the problem of anyone who wants to recite a poem (God help me) they’ve written themselves of course.

    O.S.M. B:52

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.