Ballade of a Non-Starter

Read at the Funeral of Lister earlier this year.

This is not what I meant my life to be,
But, come to think of it, what did I mean?
I never had much heart to go to sea,
I did not wish to be a Rural Dean.
I might have been a layer, a marine,
A burglar, a theosophist, a spy,
If I had wanted; but I was not keen –
I could have done it, but I did not try.

I might have wandered over Araby
Or been a pirate in a Brigantine,
I might have held the universe in fee,
I might have been as fat as I am lean,
I might have played upon this earthly scene
A part most horribly and hugely high,
But who am I to mourn the might-have-been?
I could have done it, but I did not try.

The great and noble have not heard of me,
And in the gilded beds they sleep serene;
I claim my privilege, which is to see,
I leave to them the joy of being seen.
I often thought, when I was seventeen,
That I should start in earnest, by and by,
And make myself a pile in margarine –
I could have done it, but I did no try.

Prince you may make me work some great machine,
Or sit in this dim office till I die;
I never shall be King of Kensal Green –
I could have done it, but I did not try.

To Be Alive

This poem was read at the funeral of R. P. Lister earlier this year by a close friend, Meg Campbell.

Sometime this year I shall be 95
And still it is a joy to be alive!
To walk, to talk, to think, drink, to sneeze,
Is there, my friends, a great joy than these?
Sit by me, I will tell you a tale
There is, my friends, one joy that does not fail.
It is no sin, it ask for no forgiving
It simply is the simple joy of living.
One may be tired or hungry or in debt,
Any yet, my friends, do not forget
That whether we falter, fail or thrive
It is a privilege to be alive.
Do not be said, rather raise a cheer
For the peculiar face that we are here.
There is still time to laugh or cry in
And there is all infinity to die in!

R. P. Lister (2009)

Buses on the Strand – Poems on the Underground

This poem was originally published in The Idle Demon; a collection of verses (1958).

In 2013 it featured as part of TFL’s Poems on the Underground schemeappearing in Tube carriages all over London.

The Strand is beautiful with buses,
Fat and majestical in form,
Red like tomatoes in their trusses
In August, when the sun is warm.

They cluster in the builded chasm,
Corpulent fruit, a hundred strong,
And now and then a secret spasm
Spurs them a yard or two along.

Scarlet and portly and seraphic,
Contended in the summer’s prime,
They beam among the jumbled traffic,
Patiently ripening with time,

Till, with a final jerk and rumble,
The Strand tomatoes, fat and fair,
Roll past the traffic lights and tumble
Gleefully down Trafalgar Square.

Buses on the strand

The Idle Demon is for sale on Amazon and you can pick up a copy of the TFL poster from their web store. (For the avoidance of doubt, we don’t make any money from this).

Lazy Bones

The bones are not possessed of that crude vigor
That has distinguished bones of greater valor.
In winter, when the air is harsh and caller,
They flinch from its inhospitable rigor –
Not like the bones of cowboy, swift on trigger,
Crusader bones, or bones of Hospitaller,
Whose epidermis lacked this mournful pallor
Because their mesoderm was somewhat bigger

All right for men who, when they are dissected,
Turn out to be composed of iron and leather.
But, being insufficiently protected
Against the circumambient wind and weather,
These lazy bones are easily dejected.
I often wonder how they hold together.

Published in The New Yorker. January 12, 1952.

Lazy Bones

Dawn

The stars have left their last quadrille.
And heard the barncock’s warning;
The trees march up the somber hills
To meet the hungry morning.

The humped fog crawls athwart the stream
And lingers, hesitating;
The world is lost in a gray dream
And time stands silent, waiting.

Christian Science Monitor
March 17, 1952

Dawn

Into the Looking Glass

I shall look no more in the looking glass, that tells no courteous lies,
I am sick of the face in the looking glass, I am sick of its bleary eyes,
I am sick of the nose in the looking glass, it is such an enormous size.

For the face I see in the looking glass is always the same old face,
Where the heavy hand of relentless time has left its relentless trace,
And every mark that the years have made stands still in the selfsame place.

I can see the dent in my upper lip that was made by a piece of ice,
I can see the bumps where they dropped me as a baby once or twice,
I can see the slowly receding hair that the years have gnawed like mice.

I know that face in the looking glass, what aspects it may wear,
From the watery gleam of wan delight to the grin of gay despair,
And half-shut eyes of doleful dawn and the morning-after stare.

I shall hang a curtain before my glass that is heavy and soft and thick,
I shall blindly fumble with awkward hands at hairbrush and shaving stick,
But I shall not look in the looking glass at the face that makes me sick.

I shall go on walking around the world, and the world may look at me,
And the hardened ones shall hold their ground, and the little children flee.
But I look no more in the looking glass, I am sick of what I see. 

Published in the Atlantic Monthly, 1952

Into the Looking Glass