In the second of his essays on Poesie Brut John O'Donoghue poses the question: "Spike Milligan is well-known as a writer of children's verse. But should he also be seen as a serious poet?"
9 September 2011
Spike Milligan’s death in February 2002 brought to an end a remarkable, multi-faceted career: musician, actor, writer, comedian, activist, poet. In the general acclamation for Spike the clown two aspects of his career have been largely forgotten ten years after his death – poet and manic-depressive. I make no apologies for linking these aspects together – Spike was a champion of those who suffered from mental ill health, acting as patron of the Manic-Depressive Fellowship, having long acknowledged his illness at a time when many in public life were rather more circumspect. And it was often in his poetry that this side of his personality found expression.
Most people, perhaps, would prefer to see Spike as a poet who wrote poetry as a by-product of his comic effusions, the poet of ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’, of Silly Verse For Kids, a nonsense poet like Lear or Lewis Caroll, a Goon who could riff around and come up with ‘The Ying Tong Song’ in between dashing off a script and trying out a funny voice. But Milligan, to accord him a seriousness long overdue, was also the poet of Small Dreams Of A Scorpion (1972), Open Heart University (1979), and The Mirror Running (1987); a correspondent of Robert Graves; and a man who stressed the importance of poetry in his own life.
It is time, I believe, to countenance Milligan’s achievements as a poet, to look at the Milligan who doffed cap and bells to don the purple cloak.
In The White Goddess Robert Graves distinguishes between two kinds of poets: true poets and gleemen. He argues that after the decline of the Gaelic order, Irish poets, up to that point supported by their chieftains and afforded great status, had to go on the road and turn themselves into mere entertainers. As a consequence, many of these poets lost their ‘magic’, the ability to compose haunting, intricate, lunar poems that made the hairs stand up on one’s neck, that sent a tingle down the spine, amongst other, occult powers.
Now it would be quite easy to dismiss Milligan as a gleeman, one in a long line of disenfranchised Irish artists compromised by poverty into ‘clowning around’. But then this begs the question: why did Graves salute Milligan, recognising in him the ability to move in a ‘special dimension’? Why did he feel that he could admit Milligan to his charmed circle, rather than put him down as just another comedian? And, perhaps, most importantly: did Graves see Milligan as a ‘true poet’?