Sunday 31 October 2021

Hotel Poems

 Lately, for various reasons, I've been spending quite a lot of time in hotels. This has led me to conclude that bland, low-price chain hotels are best for sleeping in, while older, more upmarket hotels are best for everything else, e.g. sitting around observing the passing scene. Here is Peter Porter doing just that, in the opening poem of his 1975 collection, Living in a Calm Country – 

At the Castle Hotel, Taunton

Today it's not scones but tea-cakes
   (And the sound of ambulances
   in the reconstructed streets) –

Rich voices are discussing the new Warden
   (The Show is the best for years,
   the Architects' watercolours outstanding) – 

Pearls and brogues survive, cashmere clings 
   (Is this the Ark of Adultery
   or two old friends killing time?) –

Interlopers must wait for their tea
   (There's only one waitress on today,
   her footsteps are masked on the stairs) – 

Hands want something to do, eyes won't idle
   (Country Life in a rexine folder:
   who buys, who sells all these houses?) – 

O impossible England under the modern stars
   (Mr Edward du Cann* thanks the voters
   of Taunton for their generous support) –

So much beauty, so unexpectedly preserved
   (And we two strangers have today
   honoured gentle Eliot at East Coker) –

Not only the pleasant eating by the road
   (And the cider factory, the industrial
   archaeology with the rural) – 

But the pattern of beauty changing in the air
   (Fields painted by history, a steam
   of seasons softening what lives) – 

Somerset for survivors and a good things too 
   (Seventeenth-century farmhouse,
   part-converted, owner abroad
) – 

Seen from Ilminster spire, everything is safe
   (It is being kept for posterity
   but where do the people of England live?)

*Edward du Cann was a rather louche Tory politician who was MP for Taunton. He was an Oxford friend of Kingsley Amis.
  In this miniature portrait of 'impossible England' at a particular time and in a very particular place, two distinct poems run in parallel, in a kind of antiphon, before they converge at the end – typically clever stuff, and in places beautiful (the last-but-two stanza, 'But the pattern of beauty changing in the air...'). 

Philip Larkin is also specific about place and time in his sonnet, 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel', a scene of dimly lit ('darkly' lit indeed) desolation. I am old enough to remember when provincial hotels at quiet times were like this – but this is not just a well made descriptive poem: the five lines after the break, and especially the enigmatic closing sentences, take it into another dimension. 

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.

The Royal Station Hotel survived to become the 'iconic' Mercure Hull Royal Hotel. 

  Here's another hotel poem – or one that begins in a hotel: Anthony Hecht's 'Lagoon', his 'version' of a Joseph Brodsky poem. The hotel is the Pensione Accademia, where Ruskin stayed when he was working on The Stones of Venice, and I know it because I stayed there a few years ago. In the poem it's Christmas time, and the place seems as desolate as Larkin's Royal Station Hotel...

Down in the lobby three elderly women, bored, 
Take up, with their knitting, the Passion of Our Lord
        As the universe and the tiny realm
Of the pension 'Accademia', side by side, 
With TV blaring, sail into Christmastide,
        A look out desk-clerk at the helm.

And a nameless lodger, a nobody, boards the boat, 
A bottle of grappa concealed in his raincoat
        As he gains his shadowy room, bereaved
Of memory, homeland, son, with only the noise
Of distant forests to grieve for his former joys,
        If anyone is grieved.

Venetian churchbells, tea cups, mantel clocks,
Chime and confound themselves in this stale box
        Of assorted lives. The brazen, coiled
Octopus-chandelier appears to be licking,
In a triptych mirror, bedsheet and mattress ticking,
       Sodden with tears and passion-soiled.

Blown by nightwinds, an Adriatic tide
Floods the canals, boats rock from side to side,
      Moored cradles, and the humble bream,
Not ass and oxen, guards the rented bed
Where the windowblind above your sleeping head 
      Moves to the sea-star's guiding beam.....

After which, something cheering is called for. Here is Frank O'Hara, as usual skipping merrily through whatever's bobbing about on the surface of his mind. 'Hotel Particulier' hardly seems to be about any particular hotel, but it's fun – and I've always liked the last sentence, which invariably springs to mind when I enter a new hotel, though I've yet to try it on the desk-clerk...

How exciting it is
                              not to be at Port Lligat
or learning Portuguese in Bilbao so you can go to Brazil

Erik Satie made a great mistake learning Latin
the Brise Marine* wasn't written in Sanskrit, baby

I had a teacher one whole summer who never told my anything
                                                           and it was wonderful

and then there is the Bibliotheque Nationale, cuspidors,
glasses, anxiety 
                          you don't get crabs that way,
and what you don't know will hurt somebody else

how clear the air is, how low the moon, how flat the sun,
et cetera,
               just so you don't coin a phrase that changes
can be 'rung' on
                          like les neiges d'antan
and that sort of thing (oops!), (roll me over)!

is this the hostel where the lazy and fun-loving
                                       start up the mountain?

* The Brise Marine is a poem by Mallarm√© – and, as it happens, the name of a hotel at Cap-Ferrat. 


  1. Reading the Larkin poem & also your note that the hotel it refers to is now a Mercure made me wish for a time before the internet, when there were many places where silence was laid like a carpet, Yet I wouldn't have been able to read the poem or your blogpost or do so many other things. I suppose in gaining new advantages, we rarely notice that we may be losing things as well, that change is not specific but seeps into everything around it.

  2. Quite so, Zoe. Where there is gain there is also loss – nowhere more so than on the internet. I guess we accept the gains (and are thankful for them) and try to navigate round the losses...