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Poet on the Green

When Covid is but a distant memory, Piers Plowright looks forward to quizzing poet Bill Sherman

25 September, 2020

Bill Sherman. Photo: Anabela Lopes

In a side street off South End Green lives a much-travelled poet. American-born, Hampstead-based for many years now, Bill Sherman – his name can still be awkward in the American South – has been writing his tough, uncompromising poetry for over 60 years.

Friend of Leonard Cohen – he wrote the sleeve notes for the UK edition of his first album – he’s a wanderer and searcher around the Mediterranean, Pacific, the Americas and the Indian sub-continent, and, for a while, a lecturer at Hull and Aberystwyth Universities.

At the latter he taught American literature and modern poetry, introduced a course on film studies and wrote two books on film, one on the cinema of Orson Welles, a genius he sees as a tragic hero, stranded in and by the commercial pressures of Hollywood. As Sherman puts it in his terrific poem Orson Welles, Are You Listening?:

Von Stroheim dies; you become
rogue elephant in the sausage factory
man from Mars on CBS radio.
But I have questions to pose:
Why have you dissipated your energy?
What remains but an obese ego,
limp carcass stuffed with roast lamb.
What betrayal do you keep silent?
cast that tab collar
as Joseph K?
But let it go. You need
a touch of evil – confidential reports
written by strangers, distorted
in halls of mirrors. You
flee forever through Vienna sewers.

The sadness in this poem underlies a lot of Sherman’s poetry. On his travels he notes the damage done by Western colonialism in the name of “improvement”.

In Samoa, for example:

It was only after
At the behest of his favourite wife
The old King broke
The kapu against
Man and Woman eating together
A tabu still observed by choice
in certain families
Thousands of miles south)
that the missionaries first came.

Bill Sherman connects much better with the drifters and old-timers he meets than with the do-gooders. Old Ben, a man who’s seen many wars, for example, in his poem The Confederate:

Now old Ben sits on a Polynesian isle
& slowly sips his beer…
in the childhood foxhole dream
I always run out of ammunition
you take it off the dead
he said
say I’m not sorry I killed many men
I’d do it again
& again, & again
& old Ben he drinks it all in
down in Polynesia.

This respect for old-time American toughness goes side by side with horror at what America’s disastrous foreign policy has done in the last 20 years:

“I wanted to be a doctor”
the child in the Evening Standard had said
”but how can I be a doctor now
I have no hands?”
Blown away by Americans
Who, as a whole, deceive ourselves
That we do good in the world.

A world that Sherman observes with a sharp and compassionate eye and ear. He’s particularly drawn to great rivers – the Amazon and the Ganges – and the people and animals that live in and alongside them. In a poem called I Was Never So Happy As To Be On The Amazon he writes:

Some pets people have at Pacoval:
armadillo, baby jacaré
turtles, dogs, monkeys, I
didn’t see any cats
Birds, largish beaked ones, beautiful
little green parrots for the children
a small white baby water buffalo –
just beginning to be pressed into service
young boy hammering yoke with wood block
young girl asking for a dollar
Schoolchildren dancing for tourists of course
Post Office closed for the day.

Sherman doesn’t romanticise the poverty but he’s struck by the dignity and equanimity of the people who live with it. His poems often celebrate small-time people who’ve faced and overcome the difficulties of life. Like Pierre from Albania, who, against the odds, has established a successful café business in Margate, New Jersey, or – another New Jersey man – “Tony the Barber”:

Always a pleasure
To have a cut from the Maestro
Came in 2nd in the first
Barbering Olympics
Back in the ‘70s
Would often wrap me gratis
a bit of the best quality smoke
Before I split
could also say who to see
If you needed to take out
a contract on someone.

The sting in the tail is typical Sherman. Something that seems so homely suddenly glints with danger.
He’s certainly not an optimist either about himself or the world but, in a way, that’s what makes his work so intriguing. Something I want to tease out when we meet to read and discuss his poetry, when Covid allows, at Burgh House in 2021. Watch this space.

GULIELMA MARIA [First wife to William Penn]
I hope it will go well for you in the New World
Though I doubt that any world is truly new


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