The Plague Diaries and beyond



The Plague Diaries and beyond: Michael Bartholomew-Biggs looks at two poetry ventures involving John Forth & Paul McLoughlin


The Plague Diaries
Paul McLoughlin & John Forth
Paekakariki Press
ISBN 9789108133502
Price not quoted

Selected Poems
Paul McLoughlin (edited by John Forth)
Shoestring Press
ISBN 9781912524471


The Plague Diaries is an elegant outcome of what might have started as a way of passing time during lockdown in 2020. Between March and May of that year John Forth and Paul McLoughlin seem to have conducted a poetic correspondence – a bit like duelling banjos? – in which they challenged each other to produce a poem on some arbitrarily chosen theme. The resulting set of 30 poems has been painstakingly printed in the letterpress workshop of Paekakariki Press along with striking illustrations by Karina Gabner. (Although regrettably the craftsmanship that has gone into the production has not prevented a couple of annoying typos slipping through.)

The opening poem “Riddle” is a reflection on the careful placement of massive lion-man figures alongside the pyramid built by the Egyptian King Khafre (readers being expected to recognise that royal name without assistance). This reflection is ultimately undercut by the realisation that it’s also possible

                                  the ancients found
an ancient rock by accident, and took an age
carving a random cat with a human face.

There seems no particular reason why this poem should start the sequence; but one can see the thought processes that might have generated the poems following on from it. Forth’s mention of a cat in that last line leads into a McLoughlin poem beginning ‘There’s a dog out there that would befriend you …’ which evidently provokes Forth’s next offering whose opening lines are ‘There’s a microbe out there that would / befriend you …’ This may be a nod toward the Covid virus but the poem seems chiefly to be concerned with some of the Biblical plagues inflicted on Egypt and hence harks back to Forth’s first poem. You may begin to suspect that Forth and McLoughlin work according to a rather intricate poetic logic. And, indeed, the interconnectedness of things is the subject of McLoughlin’s “Of Course” which also points out the fragile nature of those interconnections:

Turning left or right made all the difference,
of course it did.  You’d arrive in Birmingham
or Bow and would or wouldn’t marry
Belinda in five years time. Alternatively
you could stand in your porch forever.
Except of course you couldn’t.

Here we see again a fondness for letting one part of a poem pull the rug out from under the preceding lines.

The mention of travel and destinations in “Of Course” leads the poets into a pair of poems about those indispensable ‘roadies’ who manage the travel arrangements for pop musicians and their equipment. Then comes a group which is very neatly held together by mention of President Kennedy alongside Robert Frost’s definition of a liberal as one ‘too broadminded to take his own side in an argument’. Forth’s poem “Politics” suggests that Kennedy – had he lived longer – might have proved to be a liberal who didn’t fit Frost’s classification; but it also offers the bleak view that no one should try to do good in the USA ‘because bloody Yanks/ will always find a way to put a stop to it.’

From here on it becomes harder to see a developmental thread running through the poems and there is less evidence of an actual dialogue. What matters however is that the poems should continue to be interesting in their own right – and for the most part they do. It is a trademark of both authors to work around an idea in tighter and tighter circles. Here’s McLoughlin in “The Overflowing Sonnet”

                            If what’s been 
laid out is itself a conundrum
leaving the reader wondering
or at least revisiting the account
the result might be a revelation
which it couldn’t be if the final
two lines explained what the sonnet
above had been telling them all along.

And here’s Forth, not to be outdone, in “Carpe Diem”

Huck was ultra-modern when he
prayed for a new fishing rod
but always knew he wasn’t about
to get one, those times being
what they were. No one’s fool,
he invented a wish-list, of things
he’d never persuaded others he
could live with living without.

Not everything demands such close attention as these tightly wrought examples however. There are youthful memories of things seen from car windows, a rueful reflection on the shortcomings of customer service departments and a reminiscence about taping 1960s pop songs on an old reel-to-reel recorder (which includes a mention of the ‘unfathomable tosh’ that was Wink Martindale’s “Deck of Cards”). Worth a mention too is Forth’s occasional but accomplished use of rhyme in “The Dawn of the Seventies”. Overall, this is an enjoyable slim volume – and one that, in its way, is a record of a strange time in our history.

The Plague Diaries is also memorable for the sad reason that it contains some of the last poems composed by Paul McLoughlin before his untimely death in 2021. Since then John Forth has devoted considerable effort to organising McLoughlin’s archive and one outcome is a substantial Selected Poems from Shoestring Press. Running to an impressive 140-odd pages it contains material chosen from seven previous volumes published between 1998 and 2021 together with a number of hitherto uncollected pieces (including a couple from The Plague Diaries). There is also a substantial and well-informed overview of the trajectory of McLoughlin’s poetic development in John Forth’s Foreword.

One can learn a good deal about this book by consulting reviews of the component volumes from which it has been assembled. Many of these are handily available on London Grip here,  here, here and here.

To give a flavour of the new selection therefore we simply to dip into a few of the most recent poems – particularly those which reflect McLoughlin’s often expressed view that words mean something and shouldn’t be used carelessly. In “Wanted” he imagines a job description for someone employed to market poetry. ‘Selling poetry’s a niche art … which best suits buoyant adjectives. So here’s a list of likelies:…’

         … poems and their poets are amazing, fabulous,
exciting, inspirational and always great. Depending on your
target audience you might find room for diverse, eclectic,
subtle, even imaginative…

… and if your brief extends to exegeses (though you shouldn’t
even think of using such a word) make sure they’re inter-
spersed with words like beautiful and brilliant without
straying far from anything learnable from the University
of the Bleedin’ Obvious.

Misuse of language is far more widespread than the small realm of poetry promotion. In “The Chill Pill” McLoughlin laments

that educated people went on wilfully
misrepresenting what others said
to suit themselves; or that suddenly
everything was iconic or robust or a scenario

One can imagine McLoughlin reading this poem aloud and putting air quotes around those last three words which get used so glibly as to risk becoming meaningless. But he does use explicit quotation marks around the word ‘free’ in a poem about the jazz trumpeter Don Cherry where he questions whether free jazz really justifies its jealously guarded label since ‘avoiding tonal centres sounds/ like a solid rule to me.’ (As an accomplished musician, McLoughlin was entitled to an opinion on such matters.)

In all the above McLoughlin might come across as an unduly severe critic of other people’s language. But he does not excuse himself or his writing from needing correction and modulation. In “Overnighting” he acknowledges the importance of having

a trusted editor, someone who knows
your foibles and can temper what you say,
can fire up what your passions froze

or dampen what it’s wise to have put out.

In assembling this selection, John Forth has acted as just such a trusted editor. It is not of course that he has urged revisions or suggested cuts to poems already completed; but rather that he has been a skilled curator who has chosen poems which sit well together and which give a full and fair account of McLoughlin’s remarkable and prolific poetic output.