Sunday, 10 June 2012

Portsmouth Point Poetry – Kids

Commentary by George Laver

Spike Milligan

"Sit up straight" 
Said mum to Mabel, 
"Keep your elbows 
Off the table. 
Do not eat peas 
Off a fork. 
Your mouth is full- 
Don't try and talk. 
Keep your mouth shut 
When you eat. 
Keep still or you'll 
Fall off your seat. 
If you want more, 
You will say 'please'. 
Don't fiddle with 
That piece of cheese!" 
If then we kids 
cause such a fuss 
Why do you go on 
Having us?

While poetry’s potential to convey sentiment and meaning as well as historical, societal and personal learning makes it one of our most valuable art forms, it can often be easy to forget that some of its most enjoyable pieces were created not with any special depth or profundity in mind, but rather for the simple purpose of entertainment. Spike Milligan undoubtedly had this idea in mind when writing his most widely-enjoyed poems and the simplicity and charm of his unique style of “nonsense verse” has led him to be recognized as one of the most entertaining poets of his generation.

Milligan was born on the 16th April 1918 and spent his early life and education in his country of birth, India, before he and his parents moved back to living in England in the early 1930s, an experience he described in an interview as “like living under an inverted bowl of grey”. He was already a competent actor and amateur jazz trumpeter and vocalist when he was called up for service in the Second World War and frequently used his skills to entertain the troops, performing music as well as his own original comedy sketches in order to boost morale.

While serving in the Artillery, Milligan was hospitalized after being wounded in action and suffering shellshock. He was subsequently demoted to the position of Gunner by the unpitying Major Jenkins, by whom he believed himself to be held in ill favour due to his attempts at cheering his fellow troops. After his hospitalization, Milligan’s military career faded and he eventually became a full-time entertainer. He worked with the BBC following the war, co-writing the famous sketch show The Goons with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. In 1952, he suffered the first in a series of mental breakdowns thought to have been brought on by the pressure of the international stardom to which his writing had raised him and was again hospitalized following an attempt to murder Sellers, whom he had become convinced he had to kill. After his release, he continued to write and began a family with June Marlow, although he later divorced her and remarried the actress Patricia Ridgeway in 1966.

During the rest of his life he wrote prolifically. Most of his poetic work was comedic in nature, aimed in a significant part at children, but he did produce some serious pieces during stages of depression as well as a few novels and war memoirs. He campaigned for environmental causes and for animal welfare and, already admired by and acquainted with the Prince of Wales, earned an honorary knighthood in 2000. His life’s work is known to have inspired such figures as John Cleese and Stephen Fry, who both consider him a genius. He died on the 27th February 2002 at the age of 83 and was buried at St Thomas’ Church in Winchelsea, East Sussex.

I have selected the poem Kids because I believe it to exemplify the warmth, charm and familiarity of Milligan’s verse while showing an intriguing replication of an interaction between parent and child. The child’s simple logic is, in fact, pleasingly sound and it is from this honest and untainted form of reasoning that the serious moral question behind the poem arises.

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