A farce-in-verse about the japes of a bunch of hapless poetasters might not sound like the most gift-worthy of reads. Yet Christopher Reid's latest volume looks to have been packaged with an eye to the festive market. Or at least a readership bigger than that of your typical slim volume. A hardback with claret endpapers, its dust-jacket features sketches of the eponymous sextet, looking suspiciously like the gaggle of writers manqué in Posy Simmonds's Tamara Drewe. As the poet Alan Jenkins once quipped, where poets used to be mad or bad, now they're mostly just sad. But if Reid proves one thing in his versified tale of a poetry scene gripped by ambition, hubris, lust and stupidity, it's that there's life in the old (and not-so-old) dogs yet.
The leading light in this spoof is the aging Charles Prime. Back prowling the streets of Soho, he is an all-but-forgotten poet, fresh from a decade doing time for crimes undisclosed. "Weather eye tuned to the main chance", in "gingery hacking jacket and tight jeans", he cuts an effete, poverty-stricken and self-infatuated figure; when not trying to bed former lovers, he gatecrashes any event where free booze and nibbles are found: art galleries, poetry readings, even a funeral reception ("but be fair, a man must eat").
Like all of the poem's characters, Prime is as much a hackneyed caricature as he is utterly recognisable, especially to those who have attended a literary gathering or 10. Stereotypes, after all, tend to exist for a reason. The lives of Reid's five other bards gradually coalesce around his, lending the story cohesion, improbable as these chance overlappings can feel. Antonia Candling, one of Prime's exes, is the "doyenne of London poetry", happily editing an anthology of elegies in the wake of her husband's death, and appears as cheerfully mean and tritely middle-class as her friend-cum-rival Bryony Butters, "poet, novelist, and more besides", who never misses an opportunity to brag about her meagre achievements. Between them comes the arrogant Jonathan Wilderness, a young gunslinger who likes to "fly the flag of his own genius as conspicuously as possible", and fancies making his name as Prime's unofficial biographer. Meek Jane Steep, a waitress and poet "still in search of her voice", is the most underdeveloped of Reid's characters, but does act as ill‑advised love interest to the pitiable Derek Dufton, a poet and academic who we first find, in a comic masterstroke, dozing off in one of his own lectures.
The main thing to admire about Six Bad Poets is its readability. Eschewing the formalities of Byron and Pope that are the hallmarks of satirical verse, Reid pitches his lines between poetry and prose, though he is not beyond the occasionally brilliant end rhyme. Take one of Dufton's university colleagues, recalling a student's complaint: "Some second-year wants to blame her depression / on his lectures. I know he can be prolix, // though the term she actually used was 'complete bollocks'." Quite.
As a poet who first appeared as part of the weird-metaphor-toting and mercifully short-lived Martian school, Reid also puts his (now earthier) gift for memorable description to nifty use. Jonathan Wilderness comes in for particular flak, impressed with himself "like a puppy with his first erection", or else looking like "some new-fangled poncy kind of pirate". Doubtless a few paranoid and fresh-faced poseurs will half-suspect themselves the model here, but of course, half the fun is guessing just who Reid might be lampooning. "Does chopping / a person's head off in reality necessarily follow / from the menacing metaphors in some – / fuck, was it a poem?" worries Jane Steep, and while the image may seem naggingly familiar, Reid is also sending up our tendency – whether readers, critics or poets – to conflate art and life, and the grubby business of poets with the alchemical magic of an unforgettable poem. Without giving away the tale's ending, it is telling that the last scene finds the sensational memoirs of a minor talent being "quietly remaindered". Alongside the slapstick, wit and antics, Reid's playful tragicomedy often feels like a lament for all our modern fakery, self-obsession and celebrity-chasing, a situation far from unique to the world of literary affairs.
Entertaining and admirable as it is, then, Six Bad Poets makes for a strange sort of book. If Reid hopes that it will be more than sniggering schadenfreude for poetry insiders (and surely he must), for the intelligent, casual reader the poem too often and too easily confirms their worst suspicions about, as one of Reid's poets puts it, "this whole world of nasties, nuisances, nincompoops and nutters". Poets, agents and publishers (and, perhaps worst of all, a boozy gathering full of them) can be awful, but they are hardly a species apart from those in any profession where there are perennial tussles for power and influence. In a rare and unfortunate moment in which Reid elects to tell rather than show, he bids us to ignore the "minor peccadilloes" of an "author-editor / schmooze-session". Rather, he suggests, we should "seek out, identify and skewer / the world's more pernicious moral murks". Noble enough, you might think. But coming from a former editor, in a satire that persistently picks at the inconsequential wheelings and dealings of the London poetry scene, it is also a bit rich. In spite of these failings, though, Six Bad Poets shows Reid at the height of his mordant comic powers, and remains an ambitious, fun, and engrossing read. In an age beset by the cult of personality, it is also a very welcome one.