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The funny, thoughtful poems of Brian Bilston, the Twitter poet

You Took the Last Bus Home, by Brian Bilston (Hardcover: 256 pages, Random House UK, Jan. 1, 2017. Paperback edition by Random House UK, Feb.1, 2018). The poem of the same name is included in this collection.

Brian Bilston’s saucy, witty and insightful poems on Twitter (@brian_bilston) have made him famous. In this podcast (recorded in 2016, but recently re-aired), he says that it all started with the poem, You Took the Last Bus Home, below. He wrote it to fit into the 140-character limit of the time, tweeted it, and it went viral. I think the twitterverse exploded for him because he is so different from the traditional image of a poet. His poems will resonate with you and make you smile.

Of course, to write something succinct, clever and witty, but also meaningful, takes a considerable amount of talent and skill. (And a huge vocabulary.) Almost every time I read one of his poems, I am tickled pink. He is a poet who writes like a novelist, often ending his poems with a punchline. And also – though many people will miss it – the humour often hides poignancy and truth.

The name and the pipe are not what they seem

I just love his creations, and was amazed to discover how young (and a bit shy) he sounds on the BBC4 podcast. He has that thing you sometimes hear in British English speakers – a slight lisp, or just a sibilance. I expected him to have a deep, plummy voice like an old Oxford don. Perhaps because of the pipe he’s always shown with. But just like Rene Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe” – used in the header of this post) is not really about a smoker’s pipe, or how it is painted, so Bilston’s jaunty, eccentric image is not really who he is. Behind that façade is a very sharp mind.

“‘Brian Bilston is a nom de plume I hide behind,’ he says. ‘I shall stick with anonymity. I couldn’t bear the indifference that any unmasking might provoke.’”

Franz Lidz, Why Twitter’s “Poet Laureate” Has No Plans to Unmask His Real Identity, in Smithsonian Magazine
Brian Bilston on [BBC] Four Thought, 13 min., 27 sec.

Highlights from the BBC4 interview with Brian Bilston:

  • “I never intended to be a poet. A poet to my mind was someone of intensity, the serious type, the kind of person you wouldn’t want to get trapped in a kitchen with at parties – if poets received invitations to parties at all, that is.”
  • “My true heroes were Roger McGough and Ogden Nash.”
  • “I’d only joined it [Twitter] in order to understand what it was those people at work, invariably younger than I, would talk about so irritatingly at meetings.”
  •  “I started to talk to strangers on Twitter – and some of whom were very strange – and read about things that interested them, and made them laugh, or annoyed, or sad, or angry, and almost nothing it seemed made Twitter angrier than bad grammar. […] So I started writing poems about this heinous crime.”
  • “But social media shows us that a broader, more democratic appetite for poetry exists after all.”
  • “[Phillip Larkin’s poem The Mower that went viral] does what brilliant poetry does best, it moves us: it gives voice to thoughts and feelings that we ourselves may struggle to articulate. It’s personal, yet universal. But also, 37 years after it was written, it’s relevant.”
  • “The ways in which we consume content has begun to change. Any time spent wallowing in the mire that is social media show how visual the information is with which we now engage. Yes, there are words aplenty, but there are pictures and videos too.

    The barrage of information that’s thrown at us, means that plain words on a page are becoming less likely to be read. People struggle to find the time, inclination or powers of concentration, to wade through pages of dense text.

    Words find themselves in competition with pictures and less is often more.

    But poets should not feel threatened by this in a social media setting. Rather, it gives us the opportunity to think about form as well as content, and how the presentation of a poem might enhance or complement the words which accompany it.”

Next time: My review of You Caught the Last Bus Home, by Brian Bilston. Keep an eye out!
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