And so then, almost without knowing what is happening to us, we begin to change. A poem becomes sing-spiel. We’re verging on song. Why is it that Susan and Angélique always ask Erik or Lulu to play guitar or piano subliminally behind them? Are the words not enough? Is there diffidence about projection? Or is it just inevitable that poetry, the most musical formation of words, ‘aspires towards the condition of music’? This is what the Symbolists ardently believed, and which of them ever dared to contradict the theoretical genius of Mallarmé? Not the Surrealists, who followed him. Not T. S. Eliot, who pretended not to, but did. And look where Eliot’s work ended: from poem to play to musical at last – the posthumous, money-spinning extravaganza Cats.
At the Society Club on recent Fridays, it is beginning to feel like that notorious moment in the 1960s when folksy Bob D. went electric. So are we leaving our figurative acoustic guitars behind? Are we becoming something other than a collection of aspirant poets/literature-lovers? Are we starting to be actors? Is ‘one from the heart’ morphing into a performance piece? – If so, why not? We can have words – pomes, prose, playlets – and we can have song. We can interweave one with the other. We can do ensemble. And nowadays with more and more participants crowding a small space, it is the braver reciter, the more dauntless singer who is needed to get a voice over exuberant din. Let them drink! Let them chat! But let them break off at the bell every fifteen minutes and listen. Words still matter. We’re not just a raucous rock bar. We love our artistes.
Why is this happening? Ah, the talent rising up out of the seats. If we have names, they are modest and local – Soho habitués old or new. Here comes Brock with his accordion so we can do Brecht. There is Lail taking up George’s guitar to send a billet-doux to that old charmer Leonard Cohen. Harry wows us with his boyish fantasy of what it might be like to be one of the girls. And then John Donald recites Wallace Stevens and Susan Neruda and yours truly dedicates ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ to San Quentin inmate #T20905. Remembrance, ever important. Steven cites a Ukrainian girlfriend and wonders how one might cope in present-day Donetsk. The sound rises, crescendos – tall barflies crowd in, we can’t see – but we must keep the words flowing, and just when it seems that Dionysus has taken over, our friend Adrian arrives to restore Apollonian sense with a wise fable about a bird escaped from its cage and whether it would not really prefer to go ‘home’.
Dear Babette, the true begetter of these revels, races behind the bar to keep everyone topped up. And Tom, soon to be famed as illustrator of our first publication, steadies us with a watchful eye as he works – little does anyone know what he could recite were he not posing as just a barista. Such talent there, here – and over in that seat. We have to turn ‘em away now, ask ‘em to come next week: Ann with another of her awkward excursions in Paris, Vince from Chicago with his ersatz porn verse. OK, why not? This is Soho: we can handle it. Macheath is our patron saint, and this time we were able to end with an anthem to him, thanks to the nicely strangulated warble which a hermit from Ireland was able to coax out of his traveller’s pearly instrument.