By Ashley Lister
As many regular readers will know: I love poetry. I think poetry can be an effective tool for writers as it helps us get a better command over our vocabulary, and it makes us think more acutely about the way we use words. I also believe that a lot can be said in a poem that makes us reflect critically on the environment that allowed such a poem to come into creation. Consequently, this month, I thought I’d share one of my poems here and discuss the inspiration and execution.
Granny pulled on her surgical stockings
She put her false teeth in the glass
She took the Tena pad out of her panties
And said, “Grandpa, could you please fuck my ass?”
The idea for this one came about because I’d wanted to write something that presented the act of sex in an unfamiliar fashion. As writers, I believe, we’re always trying to show the world to our readers in a way that goes beyond the familiar. I could go on here to discuss Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization, but those who know about that, know about that. And those who don’t know about that know about Google.
Writing about old people having sex struck me as being a humorous idea because we normally equate the sex act as being the domain of the young and the beautiful. We can see this in media, such as the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, where Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann famously tells Private Pyle, “You climb obstacles like old people fuck.” I’m not saying I subscribe to this idea of old age and poor sexual practices being relational. I firmly believe that good sex has nothing to do with youth and beauty. However, societal attitudes suggest that we treat those over a certain age as being past the need or ability for sex.
“I got horny last month at the bingo
When I called house on a sixty-nine.
It’s been decades since I’ve taken one hard up the chuff
And you ought to be there this time.”
“I got horny last week at the library
Whilst reading an old People’s Friend.
I saw an advert for polyester trousers
And it made my arse want your nob-end.”
“I got horny tonight in the kitchen
As I tuned in to Woman’s Hour.
I could hear the rain dripping on my cat flap
And I thought let’s try a golden shower.”
So, as we can see from the verses above, I’ve decided to include lots of placeholders that put this in the category of old people. There’s mention of Tena pants (a product for those who suffer from urinary incontinence). There’s mention of bingo. I identify People’s Friend: a UK magazine with a readership who are primarily elderly, with an average reader age of 71 years and 45% of readers being in the 75+ age group. There’s also mention of Woman’s Hour, a BBC Radio 4 programme that has been broadcasting since 1946. The demographic for Woman’s Hour is not necessarily old but, because it’s been broadcasting for so long, there is an association of the audience belonging to a more mature age group. There’s mention of polyester trousers, and later we’ll see mention of brands targeted towards a mature consumer, such as Steradent, the denture cleansing tablets, and Horlicks, the sweet malted milk hot drink.
These are all thrown into the poem to help create the humorous juxtaposition between a glamorised version of the erotic act of intimacy, and the cold reality faced by today’s modern elderly consumer.
Also note the way the three verses above are working to the rule of three. “I got horny last month… / I got horny last week… / I got horny last night…” We’re building to the present moment in specifically divided increments, moving directly to now. We’ve had mention of an array of sex acts from mutually reciprocated oral sex, a suggestion of cuckoldry, anal sex and urolagnia. Again, the humour I was aiming for came from the unnatural coupling of these acts, which we associate with youth, and the trappings of being elderly.
“So I’m here and I’m hot and I’m horny,
And my teeth are in the Steradent glass.
I slipped Viagra into your Horlicks
So please do me now, up the ass.”
It’s worth mentioning something about the structure here. Each verse is a four-line stanza with an x a x a rhyme scheme (where x is an unrhymed line). I’ve not kept to a particular meter because my intention was to write this as a performance piece, allowing me to pause or force pronunciation in some areas. You will notice that the punchline for each verse comes in that final line of each stanza, and usually in the final word.
Well Grandpa, he did try to please her
As she lay there with her legs spread wide
He gave her a cuddle, and a bit of a kiss,
And then teased her piles to one side.
This verse was there to exploit the notion of humour that comes from disgust. Studies have shown that we are able to laugh at things that are disgusting, as long as the thing we’re laughing at is benign. Because sex is usually presented as the glamorous union between two relatively attractive individuals, this suggestion of a flaw as unglamorous as haemorrhoids is meant to amuse. This is not me saying that I think piles are funny. I don’t. But I’m sufficiently familiar with humour to know that bottoms are funny. Want to make a baby laugh? Blow a raspberry: the same sound that comes out of a bottom. Want to make a toddler laugh? Tell a fart joke. Whether it’s slapstick comedy, where Charlie Chaplin is getting kicked in the buttocks, or is kicking someone else in the backside, or whether it’s the scatological literary brilliance of Jonathan Swift in his poem ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, which contains the immortal phrase, “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”, we always have and always will find bottoms, and the things that come out of bottoms, amusing.
But poor Grandpa was having a problem.
Her desires had caught him off guard.
He rubbed and he tugged and he yanked and he pulled
But the old man’s old man wasn’t hard.
He imagined doing all three Beverley sisters
Trying to coax some life to his dick
He imagined doing Margaret Thatcher
But that made him feel a bit sick.
And Grandma was looking impatient
As she lay there consumed in her lust
He considered her bare flesh and liver spots
And her fanny: all grey curls and dust.
Apologies to my American readers. That final stanza includes one of those cultural anomalies that support George Bernard Shaw’s notion that ‘The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.’ In the US, fanny refers to buttocks. In the UK, fanny is a euphemism for the vagina. I used the word ‘fanny’ in this verse because it seemed playful and inoffensive. There are lots of euphemisms for vagina but, remember, I wanted to keep the content of this poem humorous and that humour comes from choosing the correct word.
I didn’t want to go with any of the usual expletives because, although the poem is written for an adult audience, there are some taboo words that can simply kill the mood of indulgent humour. Vagina is too medical and technical (and contains one syllable too many for this line). The idea of using potentially dysphemistic phrases such as ‘minge’ or ‘kebab’ or ‘flange’ might have worked, but there was the danger they would be seen as stepping away from the benign into something malign, which would impact on the humour.
It was true he still found her exciting
She’d take out both sets of false teeth to please
And whilst it sounds sick, he’d swear by his dick
Wrist jobs improve with Parkinson’s disease.
We can see the way the poem is starting to shift its focus now. Up until this point, the humorous final lines have all ended with vague or explicit references to the sex act. This stanza is replete with references to old people engaging in intercourse but the humorous sting of the final line comes from our limited understanding of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
There are three main symptoms for Parkinson’s which include stiff and inflexible muscles, slow movement and involuntary shaking. However, for a general audience, the symptom of involuntary shaking is usually perceived as the dominant symptom. When we’re discussing diseases for humorous effect, we rely on an audience’s simplistic understandings of medical conditions. For example, we perceive the main symptom of Anorexia Nervosa as being extreme slenderness or weight loss, rather than it being a serious mental health condition. We talk about Alzheimer’s as though it’s only a memory problem, rather than it being a chronic neurodegenerative disease with symptoms that include confusion and difficulty with familiar tasks.
The reverse of this simplification is when we contribute a single cause to the onset of a complex condition. There is more to the causes of diabetes than eating too many sweets. Not every cancer is caused by the sufferer smoking, or having being exposed to cigarette smoke.
But he stood there and looked rather sheepish
He said, “I’m sorry. I’ve just been with another.
I thought that you knew, when I put her to bed,
I always have a quick shag with your mother.”
Once again, notice the softening of the vocabulary. The innocuous word ‘shag’ is used here which is one of the milder euphemisms to describe sexual intercourse. Bonk was considered as a potential alternative, but the harsh consonant cluster at the end of that word, and the fact that it can be construed as potentially violent, made it seem a less palatable choice. It will also be remembered that the main character in the 1997 film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, used the word ‘shag’ repeatedly. I mention this because the film was released as a 12 certificate in the UK, which allows children below the age of 12 to view the material if accompanied by an adult, supporting the notion that this epithet is comparatively mild. The same certification was also applied to the film’s 1999 sequel: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Y’see, true love is based on two things
Forgive and forget say old timers
Grandpa knew she would forgive and forget
That’s the benefit of having Alzheimer’s.
This final verse was added a long time after the construction of the previous part of the poem. I’d performed the first eleven stanzas several times and, whilst I was pleased with the way the poem was received by audiences, I felt it was lacking the impact of a final punchline. I’m not trying to be reductive with this approach: I understand that poetry is not all about making rude jokes. But the piece is meant to be comedic and one of the essential elements in something comedic is the need for a punchline.
However, it was difficult to know where to go with a punchline. The sexual content had already contained some heavy-hitting variations from standard sexual proclivities, any of which would have been appropriate for the conclusion of the poem. I could have edited the content so that one of these subject areas was left as the conclusion but my worry was that the result would have looked like a patchwork at best, or cannibalised at worst.
Which is why I ended up going with the concept of the final verse: grandpa knows he can be unfaithful because grandma, conforming to the stereotyped dictates of our understanding of Alzheimer’s, is going to immediately forget his confession of infidelity.
I should point out that I’m not trying to suggest the poem is high art. I understand that this poem is little more than a rhyming collection of crude jokes, decorated with examples of poor taste and black humour. However, with the addition of this final stanza, it has been better received by audiences. Since this revision, it has often been the case that I don’t need to deliver the final line for audiences to groan, protest, or finish the piece for me.
To summarise, the poem came about because I wanted to entertain an audience with a poem that drew parallels between the expected positive conventions of describing the sex act, juxtaposed against the negative way our society perceives the elderly as being unattractive and prone to disease. The poem’s success, for me, lies in the way it is favourably received by audiences. Its main failing is that audiences dismiss it as trivial and crude, rather than seeing that it describes an inequity of standards and perception in our current society.