Dennis Beerpint’s latest poetry collection, a slim volume of twee verse entitled Groaning Minions, is an experiment in what the weedy ex-beatnik calls “fictional autobiography”. “Fictional”, note, not “fictionalised”. In a preface he makes his intentions clear:
By any measure, my life has been one of unremitting tedium. Nothing remotely interesting ever happens to me, nor do I cause anything of remark to occur. My motto can be encoupleted as “Neither a mover nor a shaker be / Just write verse relentlessly twee”. In my advancing years, however, rightly celebrated as probably the greatest poet ever to tread the earth, I am constantly beset by eager young whippersnappers beating a path to my door, clutching their notebooks and propelling pencils and tape recorders, desperate to hear me tell tales of my life so they might be the one to write the Life. It always amuses me to watch them doze off as I explain that, no, I never swapped beekeeping tips with Sylvia Plath, I was never declared insane like Ezra Pound, I never saw my work turned into a hit West End musical like T S Eliot, and I never even shared a Lemsip with Andrew Motion. Having scurried breathlessly up the path, the wannabe biographers trudge away a couple of hours later, their notebooks empty, their cassette tapes blank.
It has occurred to me that if anyone does ever succeed in writing my Life, the book will be so damned boring that nobody will ever want to read it. Thus I have taken it upon myself to invent a life of thrills and spills and adventures and extraordinary excitement, all of it chronicled in the form of twee and vapid verse. Let future biographers pick over the contents of the present volume, and rewrite it as prose. That will keep them occupied, and I will no longer have to heave myself out of my armchair and answer the doorbell to another panting whippersnapper, and parry a legion of pointless queries about the part I played in the Spanish Civil War and the Hindenburg Disaster and the Tet Offensive and the Orpington By-Election and the Relief of Mafeking and the Munich Air Disaster and the Kennedy Assassination and the Cold War and the Cod War and the Arab Spring and the Summer of Love and the Fall of Saigon and the Winter of Discontent and many another world-shuddering kerfuffle.
Beerpint appears to be teasing us here, because there is not a single mention of any of those world-shuddering kerfuffles in the forty-nine poems in the collection. Instead, we get a sort of Ruritanian fantasy, with the fictional poet born and brought up in an eerie and phantasmal castle, surrounded by the groaning minions of the title. Indeed, he gets rather carried away by these minions, whose incessant groaning he is at pains to account for. One, it seems, has a burst appendix. Another groans because he is overtired. A third is a minion of melancholic disposition whose groaning is
Both religious, like a tortured Christian martyr
And existentialist, like Jean-Paul Sartre
I was not going to quote directly from the book, what with Dennis Beerpint’s fondness for unleashing savage packs of wolves at any hint of copyright violation, but perhaps I can be forgiven just the one couplet.
The poet’s growing obsession with the groaning minions is apparent when one considers that, though they make only fleeting appearances in the first half of the book, from poem number twenty-six onwards they are increasingly dominant. In fact, the concluding set of six villanelles seem to consist of nothing but groaning, as if Beerpint’s very psyche has been invaded and overtaken by these minions of his childhood. This is both perplexing and worrying when we lift our eyes from the page briefly to remind ourselves that they are entirely fictional and never actually existed. The unrelenting focus on the groaning minions also means that, in terms of chronology, Beerpint never gets beyond the years of his youth. He thus undermines his own stated purpose of fobbing off the doorbell-ringing wannabe biographers, who are still left in the dark about the poet’s involvement, or otherwise, in such world-shuddering kerfuffles as the Spanish Civil War and the Hindenburg Disaster and the Tet Offensive and the Orpington By-Election and the Relief of Mafeking and the Munich Air Disaster and the Kennedy Assassination and the Cold War and the Cod War and the Arab Spring and the Summer of Love and the Fall of Saigon and the Winter of Discontent.
It may be that he has a second volume of “fictional autobiography” in the works, but quite frankly, let us hope not.