The best ever poem in praise of the pub

I caught up with the episode of the Culture Show devoted to the pub just in time via BBC iPlayer (it’s gone now, curse you, BBC) and was very glad I did, not just for the brief glimpse of the marvellous Kathryn Tickell (pity it had to be because she’s on Sting’s latest CD, still …) but for the quite brilliant poem by Carol Ann Duffy, commissioned specially for the programme.

It’s called “John Barleycorn”, it was described as “A lament for, and a celebration of, the Great British Pub”, and Duffy, the current Poet Laureate, is worth her butt of sack for this poem alone. I’ve transcribed it below, with some shots from the almost equally good little video essay that accompanied Duffy reading the poem. My reproducing this undoubtedly smashes through copyright law like a scaffold pole through a pub window, but I thought it was so fantastic it deserved a continuing audience, and if you do borrow any of it, fair use only, lads, eh.

A few comments first: the start of the poem refers to the traditional folk song “John Barleycorn”, of course, which makes me believe Duffy has been a habituée of folk clubs as well as pubs. As far as I can tell, every pub name mentioned is a real pub – the Corn Dolly, for example, is in Bradford, the Flowing Spring is near Reading, the Moon and Sixpence (named for the Somerset Maugham novel and/or the film) is found in several places, the Wicked Lady (also named for a film) is in Hertfordshire, the Bishop’s Finger in London.

Considering how much time poets have spent in pubs, there’s very little poetry ABOUT pubs. This is one of the very best. Continue reading