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Pessimism for Beginners
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Pessimism for Beginners

by Sophie Hannah

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Full of enchanting humor and intimacy, this inventive collection of poems is designed to engage and delight. Rhymed metrical forms are masterfully handled to produce highly amusing effects and traditional prose is manipulated in order to handle contemporary subjects. Moving yet lighthearted, these poems are a complicated brew that poetry lovers of every stripe will


Full of enchanting humor and intimacy, this inventive collection of poems is designed to engage and delight. Rhymed metrical forms are masterfully handled to produce highly amusing effects and traditional prose is manipulated in order to handle contemporary subjects. Moving yet lighthearted, these poems are a complicated brew that poetry lovers of every stripe will enjoy.

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Carcanet Press, Limited
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Pessimism for Beginners

By Sophie Hannah

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Sophie Hannah
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-802-4


    On Her Tiredness

    after 'On His Blindness' by John Milton

    When I consider how my night is spent,
    Either awake or waiting to be woken
    From my leased sleep, and never an unbroken
    Ten solid hours, I wonder: was I meant
    For gigs like this? Somebody should invent
    Sleep substitutes, maybe a sleep gift token.
    Suddenly it's as if a voice has spoken,
    As if this next advice were heaven-sent:
    'It's not essential to be sleep-deprived.
    Everyone has her limit; you've reached yours.
    To struggle on would not be right or fair.
    The Lord is quite impressed that you've survived
    This long. Invest some cash in a good cause:
    They also serve who hire a Swiss au pair.'

    Mary Questions the Health Visitor

    He never seems to close his eyes.
    All night he wants to feed.
    If I give in each time he cries,
    Will that encourage greed?
    How much, exactly, bottles-wise
    Does a Messiah need?

    I've read Your Child's Sleep Problems Solved
    And wonder what I've done
    To make things worse. Now I've resolved
    To cut night feeds to one,
    But are more calories involved
    In being God's only son?

    They say a mother's milk is best.
    I'm sure it must be true,
    But this one wouldn't take the breast,
    Screamed till his face was blue.
    Gabriel says it's not a test
    And Cow & Gate will do

    And I should simply smile and nod
    At all the smug and trite
    Advice I get. My child's not odd;
    He's full of love and light,
    But how soon will the son of God
    Start sleeping through the night?

    No doubt you'll think I've got a cheek
    For nagging but, dear Lord,
    I bore your child – I didn't freak –
    Sleep is a fair reward.
    And if this lasts another week
    I'm phoning Gina Ford.

    'No Ball Games etc'

    sign outside a London block of flats

    Honestly, do we have to spell it out?
    No tents, space-hoppers, orgies, Brussels sprout
    enthusiasts, no sponsored squirrel fights,
    no Ayurvedic quacks, no woolly tights,

    no weeping for the joy you think you're owed,
    no winking at the house across the road,
    dividing rainbows into seven strands
    of single colour, no quick show of hands,

    no pastry-cutting, origami, chess,
    no taking pleasure in your own success,
    no sand, no shark impressions, no culottes
    no Christmas pantomimes, no liver spots,

    no lurking in the shadows by the shed,
    no improvised salutes, no olive bread,
    no weightless floating with an auctioneer
    in the small pond. No ponds. Hope that's now clear.

    Round Robin

    Dear Distant Friends,
        Surprisingly we've still got your addresses,
    So here's a list of all our latest triumphs and successes.
    This year we've been as busy as a family of beavers
    (Though they're just furry animals, while we are high achievers).

    We've bought a big new house (my wife corrects me – it's a mansion).
    Emily's verses won a prize for prosody and scansion.
    Timothy got his partnership and Claire her PhD
    Which all reflects extremely well on Dorothy and me.

    Our trips abroad (for which we didn't even have to save)
    Prove that we're cosmopolitan, cultured and fit and brave:
    Kilimanjaro, Venice, San Francisco and Belize.
    (Sorry if you can only dream of holidays like these!)

    We're thinking of you, humble friends, in terrace/semi/hovel.
    We'll be in touch this time next year, but only if you grovel
    And say you wish that you were us so much it makes you sick.
    Happy New Year to all of you!

          Love, Dorothy and Mick


    after George Herbert's poem of the same name

    Throw away thy fag.
    Throw away thy match.
        Full-scale drag.
    Wear a horrid patch.

    Banish heart's desire.
    Think of dying young.
        Must aspire
    To a cleaner lung.

    Not a Marlboro Light
    I affect to own,
        But live right,
    Work on muscle tone.

    Though I fail, I weep,
    Neither fit nor slim,
        Yet I creep
    To my private gym.

    Tony Blair, remove
    Ashtrays from the pubs.
        Bars must prove
    They are fitness clubs.

    Cigarettes are spokes
    In the wheel of death.
        (Snog more blokes
    If have wholesome breath?)

    Nice new healthy law.
    Stars of box and screen
        Smoke no more,
    Just eat lima bean.

    Throw away thy fag.
    (Hurry, Blair might catch!)
        How hours drag.
    Throw away thy match.

    The Plan

    Take any mind. Open its doors.
    Remove all news, all views on wars,
    The thought of censure or applause,

    The ratio of slights to cheers.
    Peel back the clutter of the years,
    Paranoid doubts, ungrounded fears.

    Evict the hearsay, then the fact,
    The wondering how you should react,
    The dream of what your life has lacked,

    Smugness for all you have achieved.
    Banish whatever you've believed –
    All doctrines, proved or preconceived,

    All shopping lists, tasks underway,
    The papers piled in your in-tray,
    Tomorrow, ditto yesterday.

    Take your own mind. Knock down the walls.
    Let wind gust freely through its halls.
    Empty the grand tier, circle, stalls.

    Then, with the view completely clear,
    Real life as far as it is near,
    Sit back and have your best idea.


    This poem is about language itself.
    It uses words in the way it uses words
    to demonstrate how those words might be used.
    It sends itself up. It is hilarious.
    For instance, the line, 'I am a gibbering fool'.
    The line, 'Fuckadoodledo'.
    It is hilarious.

    The first time I read it I hated it, but the second time
    I found more in it, more still on the third reading.
    I wondered if it might not be about
    not finding something easily,
    or maybe not, ingeniously not.

    I think it's about feeling inadequate
    in highly charged emotional situations.
    I think it's about time
    and how we exist in time,
    though when he says 'shuttlecock', of course, he means just that –

    Fifteen per cent of goodbye...

    ...doesn't take us much further than g.
    It's the edge of a cloud in the sky.
    It's the curve of a wave on the sea.
    It's the opening bars of the sigh
    of a leaf as it falls from the tree.
    It's the last thing you'll get from me, that's all –
    the last thing you'll get from me.

    Deferred Gratification

    I am so looking forward to leaving
    That I don't want to leave quite yet.
    I'll stay put for a few days longer
    And delight in how bad things get.

    Please neglect me a damn sight harder.
    Undermine me and I'll exalt
    As I add to my growing collection
    Of things which are all your fault.

    You've gone back on your word? That's perfect.
    Lost your patience with me? Ideal.
    My departure, a rolling snowball,
    Grows and grows in its cold appeal.

    I have lined up a fearless saviour.
    I'm rehearsing my freedom dance
    So don't stint on your skunk behaviour.
    I shall savour it in advance.

    I've recorded your every failure
    Stretching back to the distant past
    But to read you the list of charges
    Is a treat that I know can't last,

    So I'm saving it up for the weekend,
    For my birthday, for Christmas, New Year,
    Bonfire Night, Halloween, Thanksgiving.
    If there wasn't a loyal, sincere

    And intelligent hero waiting
    To replace you, I don't suppose
    There would be any need to hurry.
    I might not leave at all, who knows.

    Silly Mummy

    What's Mummy doing, Sweetie-Pie?
    What's silly Mummy doing?
    Let's read a story. No, don't cry.
    Look at the cow. She's mooing.

    Has Mummy come to spoil our fun?
    Does she think you need feeding?
    Well, isn't she the silly one?
    We don't want milk. We're reading.

    Look at the rabbit in his hutch.
    Look at the horsey neighing.
    Oh yes, we like him very much.
    What's silly Mummy saying?

    Look at the piggy in his pen.
    Oh, isn't Mummy silly?
    She's made your milk too hot again.
    I know – you like it chilly.

    Who's a big fool? Mummy, that's who!
    So easy to offend!
    Look at the smiley kangaroo
    Go bounce, bounce, bounce. The end.

    One Little Wish

    One little wish slips through the bars,
    Flies past the landing strips on stars,
    Too light to fall, too high to stand –
    A flower launched from a closed hand.


    I tell the girl at Name a Star of course
    I know it's rare, I know she hopes she won't be asked again.
    Requests like mine are hardly likely to become the norm.
    Most people will continue to conform,

        but I am not most people. I've read the rules. I know what's fair
        and I want to name a star,
        as the blurb says, to show someone I care.

    The name I have chosen is David Shithead Stubbs. Now, can we talk
    certificates, star lists, gift sets? Oh, go on, let's.

        I've sent my cheque for fifty quid. I have consumer rights.
        She doesn't even ask me what he did.

    Do you know how long it took, I say, to choose a slur?
    Wanker and arsehole sounded somehow wrong.
    Shithead was good but couldn't stand alone,
    since how would David Stubbs or anyone have known
    the star was named for him? You see, this means
    a lot to me. It isn't just a whim.

    I need to know that every night, for ever,
    he'll trawl the skies, wondering: is that the one?
    Feet on the ground, he can repent, appeal, achieve, endeavour
    but every twinkle of the star I've named
    will show him he is blamed
    permanently and hard for what he's done.

        So, David Stubbs, let's see how tough you are.
        I am the customer. I've paid. You can't un-name my star.

    The voice I'm speaking to sounds tired. I know
    I sound hysterical, a mess,
    a shrew it would be foolish to say no to. Well, so be it.
    There will be a star called David Shithead Stubbs.
    I will lean over balconies to see it.

    I give her the address
    I want the framed certificate to go to.

    Pessimism for Beginners

    When you're waiting for someone to e-mail,
    When you're waiting for someone to call –
    Young or old, gay or straight, male or female –
    Don't assume that they're busy, that's all.

    Don't conclude that their letter went missing
    Or they must be away for a while;
    Think instead that they're cursing and hissing –
    They've decided you're venal and vile,

    That your eyes should be pecked by an eagle.
    Oh, to bash in your head with a stone!
    But since this is unfairly illegal
    They've no choice but to leave you alone.

    Be they friend, parent, sibling or lover
    Or your most stalwart colleague at work,
    Don't pursue them. You'll only discover
    That your once-irresistible quirk

    Is no longer appealing. Far from it.
    Everything that you are and you do
    Makes them spatter their basin with vomit.
    They loathe Hitler and herpes and you.

    Once you take this on board, life gets better.
    You give no one your hopes to destroy.
    The most cursory phone call or letter
    Makes you pickle your heart in pure joy.

    It's so different from what you expected!
    They do not want to gouge out your eyes!
    You feel neither abused nor rejected –
    What a stunning and perfect surprise.

    This approach I'm endorsing will net you
    A small portion of boundless delight.
    Keep believing the world's out to get you.
    Now and then you might not be proved right.


    Something and Nothing

    If you had known how little
    you would have had to give
    to drum into this brittle
    hope the desire to live,

    would you have changed the venue,
    your greeting or your tone
    or planned things better when you
    knew we'd have hours alone,

    and if you heard a hollow
    voice spit these ill-advised
    questions, would nothing follow?
    I wouldn't be surprised.

    Telling Strangers

    I'm telling strangers how I feel.
    I simply blurt it out.
    I tell them that my love is real
    And pure, and free of doubt.

    Some blush, while others beam with pride.
    Yesterday, in the queue
    At Sainsbury's, I terrified
    A lanky youth or two.

    My heart is running wild, I say,
    With need I can't conceal.
    I find it easy to convey
    To strangers how I feel.

    I'm sure it can't do any harm.
    They're flattered; I've confessed.
    They're entertained; I'm spent and calm.
    I've got it off my chest.

    To you, I'd never dare express
    The truth. I care too much.
    There's no way round this, not unless
    You fail to keep in touch,

    Ignore me, join the ranks of men
    From whom I am estranged.
    I promise I will tell you then.
    My feelings won't have changed.


Excerpted from Pessimism for Beginners by Sophie Hannah. Copyright © 2007 Sophie Hannah. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sophie Hannah is the author of four previous collections of poetry, a book of poems for children, and four novels. In 2004 she was named one of the best poets to emerge in the last decade by the Poetry Book Society.

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