Poetry Journal

Issues / Volume 5 Issue 2 , November 2015


Don Juan done by Divers Hands

Julian Croft

There are fifteen divers hands (thirty if you’re a pedant) responsible for this continuation of Byron’s Cantos about the loves and adventures of Don Juan—all of them written in ottava rima, and all of them with the same energy and wit as the original, though not, perhaps, in many cases, with the same fluency and grace. It’s a remarkable undertaking, and something that, once dreamt up in the pub after a big session, might seem a fine thing to do, but oh my God, what are the chances of your fifteen mates delivering the goods? But they have.

When I say a continuation of the original, I mean in the stylistic sense, not the narrative. We don’t find out what happens with the ghostly Duchess of Fitz-Fulke where the original ends, thanks to Byron’s untimely death, but we do find out a lot of what’s gone on in the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first to our romantic hero. And there’s a lot of it: he’s been in outer space, in Budapest during the Velvet Revolution, in Hell of course, in Greece during its present crisis, even in Australia (thanks to Tim Thorne), I won’t list them all, but obviously the contributors were given a free hand to do what they will with their poor hero, and, as one of them recounts, the editor said Byron never worried about the plot, so why should you? So don’t expect the whole to run seamlessly from beginning to end, for like the original with its rabbit jumps of narrative, its long and sometimes tedious (am I allowed to say that?) digressions, this modern epic has a life of its own rooted (and the vernacular is also freely used in Byronic manner) in our here and now.

And while I’m on digressions, can I digress? That great master of digression Laurence Sterne figures as strongly as Byron as an example for Ian Duhig (despite Byron’s strictures on Sterne’s hypocrisy for whining over a dead ass, while doing nothing to get his mother out of debtors’ prison), in a great play on current reading and writing strategies in the opening two stanzas of his canto:

  If canto’s rooted in the Latin word for song,
     it harmonises here with English ‘cant’,
  so often wriggling on Lord Byron’s prong
     and target of the Tristram Shandy rant
  where he deems critics most display this wrong—
     forgive me if I play too much descant:
  digressive faults, like Byron’s, caught from Sterne,
  so to our tale directly do we turn:
  I—straight away some critic’s handbag flies:
     we’re in a fight about identities,
  my narrative presumptions, lyric Is …
     Considering the practicalities,
  I opt for ‘I’ here to ventriloquize
     my prejudices, whims or views.
  ‘Je’ est un autre!  Rimbaud said (I keep
  such quotes to hand to make myself sound deep).

But that’s OK, because we’re talking here about the epic, and not the lyric solipsism of twentieth-century poetry.

The tone of this passage is representative of several of the cantos: playfully contorted witty conversation straining against the corset of the form, echoes of Coleridge’s descriptions of Donne ‘wreathing pokers into true-love knots’. Byron solved the riddle of a discursive style in a serpentine syntax, and so did Auden in his Letter to the same Lord, though Auden’s is far more urbane and transparent (but in a seven line stanza!). Also, mid-century, Alec Hope’s ‘Letter from Rome’ had the same ease and fluency. It seems that in the early twenty-first century, the head of pressure, political, aesthetic, and moral, is far more difficult to contain.

But there are other cantos where plain style reigns. George Jowett tells a well-told story of a marriage undone by a philandering Donald Johnson in a remarkably elastic use of the stanza in which he conjures up convincingly two very different voices: the world-weary muck-raking journalist keen to get the dirt on Donny Johnny the incestuous, infamous Disc Jockey, and the injured husband Alf:

  And as for Donny, I despise his sort,
     Self-centred hedonists, you know the kind,
  Who’ll never spare even a single thought
     For the broken hearts they’ve left behind.
  It’s just a silly game to them, a sport,
     And once it’s done they put it out of mind.
  No, Donny’s never for a moment paused
  To think about the hurt and harm he’s caused.
  ‘Oh come on, Alf. You’re crying. Don’t take on so.
     I’m sure what you have been through has been tough,
  But really, there are limits Mr Jonso.
     It’s time to call a halt. Enough’s enough.
  It’s over, Alf. Forget it. Julie’s gone so
     There’s no point in dwelling on it. Yes it’s tough
  But just accept it now. Your ex is gone.
  What can you do? Get over it. Move on.

In a recent review in The New Statesman, George Szirtes, author of Canto 12 in the present work, wrote:

In the 1960s and the 1970s, form was generally considered an irrelevance to be jettisoned for something that could be extracted from it. Form was anti-modern […]. The contemporary counter argument is that form is not decoration but process, an aspect of meaning not to be detached from the whole.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Szirtes’ contribution here. His canto is an account of the summer of 1989 when suddenly the iron grip of communism on Eastern Europe was broken as floods of Ossies from Eastern Germany passed through the open border between Hungary and Western Europe. Restraint and freedom are the theme as Juan presses on with an affair with Heidi, party insider and ex-wife of an old aristocrat, but underneath it all an unreconstructed nationalist. The pull and push between the freedom of breezy unconstrained tale-telling and the restraint of the stanza neatly characterises the tensions in Eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the canto ends with the national celebration of the Revolution of 1848. Form is certainly process here:

  Explosion on explosion! Light for hours
     Of night! It’s dizzying and transformational.
  The human mind is in hock to the dark powers
     Of the grandiose and the irrational.
  Here is a symbol locked inside the showers
     Of red and white and green, the national 
  Colours of 48, the last great glorious
  Revolution that failed to be victorious.

What of the rest of the continuations in this collection? They’re all entertaining; in fact, the wit and energy of the whole is quite extraordinary, and very readable. It makes one wonder why long poems in traditional stanzas (loosely followed) are not more popular. I particularly admired Andy Croft (no relation, alas—I wish I had a modicum of his brio with his account of Don’s time in a writing group in prison), Claudia Daventry, Amit Majmudar, and Sinéad Morrissey. And it’s a triumph despite the humility of Andy Croft to Milord in the Prologue:

  Since we, who hang out with the pedestrian Muses,
     Could never hope to catch the winged steed
  Of your iambic metre as it cruises 
     (At eighty thousand feet!) we knew we’d need
  Some help to rouse your hero from his snoozes
     And bring him up to date and up to speed.
  You see, despite the catch that we’ve just landed,
  We still can’t match what you caught single-handed.

A Modern Don Juan: Cantos for These Times by Divers Hands, edited by Andy Croft and N. S. Thompson, Five Leaves Publications, ISBN: 9788-1091017005, £14.99