The Unbearable Lightness of Robert Garnham

I’ve been busy writing a lot during the last twelve months and the upshot of this is that I have a lot of material which doesn’t fit in with the any of the projects I’ve been working on. The idea came after a conversation with film maker John Tomkins to make a short mini web series.

The hardest part was coming up with a title, and after exhausting Plop, Whimsy, or just Series, and every other one word idea, I came up with the Unbearable Lightness of Brian. Humorous as this was, the main problem was that my name is not Brian. So I settled on the rather less colourful, but rather more meaningful, The Unbearable Lightness of Robert Garnham.

It was a joy to make the series and we’ve optimistically called it Season One.

And here’s the first one! There’ll be one a week now for the next seven weeks.

https://youtu.be/b4fTPDC4vwU
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My hero: Professor Zazzo Thiim

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I’ve been writing poetry now for the best part of ten years. Yet my foray into the world of ‘comic’ verse did not come completely by accident.

There is one man who came before who showed me that performance poetry was a real art form and worthy of investigation. Indeed, when people ask who my influences are, (which, come to think of it, has only ever happened once), I often reply ‘Frank O’Hara, but to a greater extent, Professor Zazzo Thiim’.
Who is Professor Zazzo Thiim? Notwithstanding several attempts by many in the Californian poetry community to attribute the invention of performance poetry to their particular clique, or the claims of those within the British poetic movement to assign invention of this genre to those from various diverse backgrounds both cultural and symbolic, there remains a theory within the English departments of some major university establishments that the invention of ‘performance’ poetry can be traved to the moment in June 1953 when Professor Zazzo Thiim accidentally sat on a harpsichord while reciting the works of Tennyson. Indeed, it was seen as the most whimsical and amusing moment of the Basingstoke literary season, mainly on account of the audience reaction – (sheer disbelief mixed with a fair amount of loathing) – and the apparent embarrassment not only of Thiim himself, but also the Mayor, and Arthur Miller, to whom the harpsichored belonged.

There were immediate appeals for a repetition of Thiim’s groundbreaking (and harpsichord-breaking) work. Indeed, he was asked to perform it on the radio (to general acclaim), and before the Ambassador to the United States, (who turned out to be just a man in a hat who was passing by). Performance poetry was born. Thiim was astounded by the fact that he had invented an entire new genre. He began writing his own verse, which he would perform either sitting on a harpsichord, astride a harpsichord, while playing a harpsichord, while lying on a harpsichord, and finally, while lying underneath a harpsichord. This lasted for six years, until a colleague is said to have inquired of him, ‘What is it with you and all these bleeding harpsichords, anyway?’ He turned up at the next poetry event with a mouth organ.

Throughout this time, not only did Thiim write poems to fit in with his harpsichord smashing regime, but he also began to dissemble and play around with the poetic form. Working in unison with the University of Staines, he looked at poems in more detail than any other literary practitioner until he acquired a reputation as a literary and poetic experimenter. Poems were shot from cannons. Poems were jumped up and down on. One poem was whispered to the Queen, who was asked to ‘pass it on’. (She didn’t). One poem, entitled ‘Frank (23 ½ Seconds of Silence)’ was performed as twenty three and a half seconds of silence. And another, ‘Frank (23 ½ Seconds of Silence with a Brief Interlude)’, was an extended version of the first but with a slight clearing of the throat in the middle. ‘Frank’ was a poem performed with a tambourine with the eminent professor repeating the word ‘scones’ over and over, finally ending the consuming of a whole scone live on stage, while ‘Frank’ consisted of the Professor shouting out the words ‘I do not believe in Aberystwith’ while pouring yoghurt over his head. One of his most famous poems, ‘Frank’, received some notoriety when it was discovered that it had been the last work read by Tony Blackburn before his debut on Radio One. And of course, who can forget the stirring moment when one of his better known poems, ‘Frank’, was included in the first space probe sent out by the Belgians?

There has been of course some question as to why the Professor should have entitled all of his poems ‘Frank’. But as the good professor has pointed out on numerous occasions, all titles are essentially meaningless and spoil the anticipation of a poem or a work of art. Just look at ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. ‘Frank seemed as good a name as any. Do we enoy the Professor’s poems today? Naturally. As the performance poetry scene goes from strength to strength, the work of Professor Zazzo Thiim has been cited by many, including myself, as their main inspiration for taking to the stage. In areas where performance poetry is popular, there has also been a marked increase in sales of harpsichords, and there can be no other reason why this is so than the enduring legacy of Professor Zazzo Thiim.