Tom Sutcliffe: A Titanic struggle to avoid cliché


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The Independent Online

I hadn't heard of Titanoraks before last week... but I suspect more of us belong to this grouping than actually know it. Titanoraks are Titanic obsessives. James Cameron is one and Julian Fellowes is, too. He cheerfully confessed as much in an interview about his forthcoming television series about the sinking, which was where I first came across the term. And it was while discussing Fellowes's series on the radio last week that the poet Paul Farley alerted me to an important and perhaps slightly neglected area of Titanorak studies, which is the poetry of that disaster.

Farley's point was that the central event of the sinking has been worn smooth by repeated imaginings. It has been written about countless times, it has been filmed, it has featured in cameo appearances (the sort of corny little detail where someone strolls away from a deck railing to reveal a lifebelt bearing that fatal name). And because the sinking itself is so familiar, the only fresh ground lies on either side of it.

Farley cited two poems, one very well known and one less so, which addressed themselves mostly to the preamble to the disaster and its aftermath. The famous poem was Thomas Hardy's "Convergence of the Twain", written in the same year as the disaster. Hardy's poem begins with a description of the ship lying at the bottom of the Atlantic and delivers what has become a commonplace vanitas: "Over the mirrors meant/ To glass the opulent/ The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent". But then he cuts between the construction of the ship and the unseen creation of the iceberg that is to sink it, deferring their meeting until the very last line: "And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres".

The less well-known piece was Derek Mahon's "After the Titanic", which folds its account of the disaster into an unexpected impulse of sympathy for one of the villains of the story, the White Star manager Bruce Ismay. "As I sat shivering on the dark water," Ismay says, "I turned to ice to hear my costly/ Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of/ Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches". And Mahon ends the poem with a plea from this broken man: "Include me in your lamentations".

Very few poets have been inclined to do that. Far more took the line that Ben Hecht did in "Master and Man", published in the Chicago Daily Socialist shortly after the disaster, contrasting the behaviour of the Titanic's captain with its corporate owner. "The Captain stood where the Captain should/ When a Captain's ship goes down/ But the Owner led when the women fled,/ For an Owner must not drown" he wrote. And that bitterness is echoed too in Hans Magnus Enzensberger's long poem "The Sinking of the Titanic", published nearly 70 years later: "We are in the same boat, all of us./ But he who is poor is the first to drown", writes Enzensberger, a stolidly agit-prop line that isn't really representative of a far more subtle poem. Enzensberger also writes this: "The sinking of the Titanic proceeds according to plan./ It is copyrighted./ It is 100% tax deductible./It is a lucky bag for poets."

The only problem being that the lucky bag turns out to be filled with a limited number of objects. Tellingly Mahon – who writes about a time long after the sinking – is drawn to the same terrible sound effects as Enzensberger – who writes about the night it happened. And reading Titanic poetry – good, bad and terrible – this keeps happening, however effortfully the writers struggle to find some untrodden ground in this crowded space. The same ironies of pride, the same cruelties of class and the same terrible abutment of complacency and shock keep reappearing – whether it's a street ballad or something more sophisticated. The moment the iceberg hit, the ship inexorably began to slide towards metaphor and there's very little any writer can do to prevent it happening.

You can temporarily pull free; Enzensberger has a fine section in which he catalogues the premonitions of disaster that were a luxury only survivors or bystanders could indulge themselves with ("We are dead. We had no idea", one line runs). But in the end the sucking pull of the ship's last slide defeats every attempt to pull away. Willingly or not poets end up as Titanoraks, too.

Underestimate John Carter at your peril

I think it's a pretty unlikely that I'll be going to see John Carter – Andrew Stanton's recently released space opera; time is short and alien tribes called the Zodangans and the Tharks just aren't my kind of thing. But I will be watching over the next few months, curious to see whether social networking can rescue Disney's film from the critical roasting it received on release.

To be fair it isn't just newspaper critics who have been giving John Carter a hard time for a perceived mismatch between its colossal budget (estimated at a quarter of a billion dollars by some) and the finished product. One tweeter, @wildaboutmusic, posted this tart but representative gag: "Disney has announced plans for a new #JohnCarter ride. It's a rollercoaster that goes straight down. Price: $175m per ride."

But also detectable, on my timeline anyway, are signs of underground resistance to the mass hate. Some of these are mild – some paraphrase of "Honestly, it's not as bad as everyone's saying and I really enjoyed it". But some are more passionate, making the case for Stanton's directorial vision and linking to longer counter-arguments (you can read one of the most passionate at

Given the financial mechanisms of Hollywood, and the inertia generated by these vast sums, I doubt there's anything these dissenting views can do to save John Carter from flopdom. But I wouldn't bet against Disney getting its money back in the long run if liking the film eventually comes to look cooler and more distinctive than hating it.

Bust a move for a life in verse

A hefty Jiffy bag comes through the letterbox. Nothing special about that, or indeed the letter which claims the enclosed book is "rather special", this being almost as fixed a component of publicists' letters as the date of writing or the address "Dear Tom".

Nothing special, either, about the celebrity endorsements quoted on the publicity release and the back of the proof. But the inside of Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers, a novel about the playwright Christopher Marlowe, did turn out to be unusual. It's in verse and, judging from a very hasty inspection, it's not doggerel either.

This doesn't happen every day. Vikram Seth re-imagined Pushkin in The Golden Gate, Craig Raine addressed his own family background in History: A Home Movie and John Fuller produced what you might call a verse-novella in The Illusionists.

But you would still be pushing it to get to two hands if you were to count off successful recent exercises in the form. That alone piqued my interest and my willingness to read on. But I confess also to being excited by one line in the covering letter, in which the publishers promise they "will be giving this the full song and dance treatment". It will be very disappointing if this turns out to be a figure of speech. If your author has gone to the trouble of writing an entire novel in verse, surely the least you can do for the marketing campaign is a bit of light choreography and composition?