On the use of names in poems

I often write poems which tell stories, in either an overt narrative or in a purposefully less obvious manner, so naming characters is something I give a lot of thought to. What I’ve concluded – though this isn’t any major revelation – is that there’s a balance to be struck between names which have an element of nominative determination (e.g. when I first had a bank account, the bank’s manager was one Mr Money) and those which have no such connotation but somehow feel appropriate.

Out walking this morning, I was thinking about this again, and how the names of characters in other art forms might give some pointers about that balance. I mulled over highly successful TV comedies which feature flawed yet likeable (in degrees) lead roles. I could have written about the names of characters in Shakespeare’s plays or Dickens’ novels, but that would be too obvious; so bear with me, please, as I consider why characters were named as they were in three famous programmes and then think about how that might apply in poetry.

Take, for instance, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s timelessly brilliant, often Absurdist, sitcom Steptoe and Son. ‘Steptoe’ sounds like a surname they invented, but it isn’t; it’s an old name, of Anglo-Saxon origin apparently. What it does have is an allusion, intended or otherwise, to the father and son metaphorically stepping on each other’s toes, especially Albert, the father, on those of his son, Harold, as if irritation and argument are their perpetual way of life, which of course they are. It might also be an allusion to the sense that however much Harold dreams of escape from his father’s repulsive, leer-gurning, emotional-blackmailing behaviour, the movement of his feet from their yard and rickety house in Shepherd’s Bush will never result in anything more than a few steps away and then a few steps back to the place which he knows, in his heart, he can never really leave. For all that, the name isn’t one which spells out those connotations. By contrast, the name of the horse – Hercules – which pulls their rag and bone cart has a more obvious allusion.

David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s joyous ensemble comedy Dad’s Army has a ream of characters so the quality of the names is vital in establishing them. Captain Mainwaring’s surname is as subtly perfect as that of the Steptoes: pompous and pretentious like the character himself, it’s pronounced as ‘Mannering’, as though the character spends his whole time in an activity – putting on appearances – as a gerund all of its own. Yet, it’s a name which gets mispronounced, much to the character’s chagrin, as ‘Main-wearing’, mostly by his superior officers and sometimes, in an exaggerated, professional-Welshman fashion, by an occasional character, Mr Cheeseman – a name which itself was delicately chosen: not obviously Welsh but lending itself to heavy Welsh-accented stressing on both its syllables by the character himself, and which is mildly amusing to boot. Both Sergeant Wilson and Corporal Jones have simpler, more common, more patently British surnames than Mainwaring, with its Norman origins, and also have plain first names, Arthur and Jack respectively. Those choices work effectively in part because Captain Mainwaring sees himself as the embodiment of Englishness (reinforced by his first name being infrequently revealed to be George), standing resolutely against ‘Jerry’, and because he sees himself as being socially superior to them both, despite Wilson having been privately educated in contrast to himself. (A great deal of the comedy in the programme derives from class differences, principally between the social climbing of Mainwaring and the social descent of Wilson.) Private Godfrey has a surname which is more commonly found as a rather quaint first name, its feyness wholly in keeping with the character’s doddery eccentricity, and its first syllable maybe letting the viewer know that this is a good man. Private Frazer, a stereotyped, Scotch-soused Scotsman who’s mean with money and ever keen to connive against Mainwaring’s authority, has a surname redolent of ‘freezer’, which is appropriate for his doom-mongering undertaker persona. Private Pike’s fierce-sounding surname ironically suits his personality as a scared-teenager who has aspirations of being a strong, brave warrior. Mainwaring’s nemesis, the ARP Warden Hodges, is largely known simply as ‘Hodges’, a name which, like Mainwaring’s own, has a playful determinism to it, because he constantly budges in to try and thwart Mainwaring’s plans – i.e. the name becomes a verb. Of the major characters, only the spiv, Private Walker, has a surname which appears to be throwaway; maybe Croft and Perry felt that it would be excessive to bestow upon him a surname which was in some way associative of his wheeler–dealer traits.

The names of more peripheral characters in Dad’s Army are also carefully coined. Mrs Pike, has a first name, Mavis, which alludes to her busy, sparrow-like nature. The rather affected vicar’s full name is the Reverend Timothy Farthing, though he is usually referred to only as ‘Reverend’. His belligerent verger is called Mr Yeatman, with an aggressively-sounded first syllable subconsciously reminiscent, perhaps, of ‘hate’. Jones’s fur-draped, saucy-postcard-like love/lust interest is more directly-named: Mrs Fox. Godfrey’s sister Dolly, whom he frequently refers to, has a name which fits like a counterpart to him. One character named just for the fun of it, presumably, is the largely non-speaking Private Sponge; and the never-seen and barely-heard Mrs Mainwaring has a first name of Elizabeth, which Arthur Lowe, as Mainwaring, enunciates like an elocutionist and never shortens, implying that she comes from a higher class than him. What’s evident is that Croft and Perry devoted time and effort to getting the character’s names right in order to elicit as much additional shade as possible.

In Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, the anti-heroic monster David Brent has a common first name and a surname which is a place-name that isn’t a place – although it’s named after a tributary of the Thames, Brent is an administrative place-name only, for a London Borough. Nobody, surely, would describe themselves as coming from Brent, in the same way that nobody would say they are from Elmbridge, Spelthorne or Tameside – or indeed Merton, which became the stage surname of Paul Martin, comedian and writer, and, unforgettably, of Caroline Aherne’s comedy talk show host, Mrs Merton. The very artificiality of the name Brent therefore adds a certain something to the vacuous, tyrannical self-centredness of the character who wants everyone to love him. In contrast, the more heroic character Tim has the surname Canterbury, a ‘real’ place, with all its historical associations. It can’t be a coincidence that the lead female character, Dawn Tinsley, with a cheery, sunshine-bringing first name, has a surname which is so close to that of Gail Tilsley (as was), a character in Coronation Street who, over many years, has endured a series of difficult relationships, reflective of Dawn’s own predicament with the dreadful sexist skinflint, Lee. The status-driven character Gareth Keenan has a first name which somehow fits him, with his terrible haircut, and his surname puns on ‘keen one’: the TA soldier at the weekends who is ever anxious to play his part. Finchy is a perfect moniker for a gregarious, loquacious gobshite. Neil Godwin, like Tim Canterbury, has a reliable Anglo-Saxon solidity to his name, and his surname subconsciously puns on ‘good one’. I wasn’t the greatest fan of The Office, but its integrity, over just 12 episodes and a Christmas special, was surely helped by using names which gave the characters universality and relatability.

I could go on and on with other examples: Detectorists, Dinner Ladies, Fawlty Towers, etc. Dramatists of all types must think long and hard about their characters, from every angle, and that will always include the names, unless of course they make them anonymous, which is another matter altogether: not every story needs any, or all, of its character(s) to be named, but unless the story is very short, there will almost always be minimum requirements in order to provide clarity for the viewer (or reader).

So what, I hear you ask, is the relevance of all this to poetry? In essence, well-chosen names can augment the sense of a poem well-made. Specificity, as in other ways, adds colour and nuances, both explicit and implicit, but, as with all things, a balance needs to be achieved. If every poem had a whole host of characters, that would probably be too much.

Sinéad Morrissey’s bravura poem ‘Display’ (from Parallax, 2013) concerning the Women’s League of Health and Beauty (WLHB), lovingly draws out the bizarre qualities of a mass demonstration by WLHB groups in Hyde Park in 1936 and makes an obvious comparison with the League of German Maidens – the girls’ equivalent of the boys’ Hitler Youth – from which the WLHB founder Mary Bagot Stack gained her inspiration. Bagot Stack is name-checked, perhaps for slight comic effect, towards the end of the poem, but it’s the way in which Morrissey gives names to some of the otherwise anonymous “fifteen thousand women’ and their local groups which grabs my attention:

                      It could be snowing, and they of Bromley–Croydon, Slough
Glasgow, Belfast, would don no more than a pair of satin knickers
and a sleeveless satin vest to spin and stretch and bow
the body beautiful. Athens in London, under a sodden sky,
and Winnie and Molly and Doris metamorphosed.

This is superb, detailed and utterly compelling poetry, not least the repetitions of “satin” and their similarity to “sodden”, but how much more so because of the names? “Bromley–Croydon” has an honest, neighbourly south London conurbation-ness to it. Since the poem is set in the year of the Berlin Olympics which celebrated the Nazis’ perverted love for ‘Aryan’ ideals of fitness and bodily perfection, that hanging “Slough” is neatly associative of something else of which the Nazis were overly fond: the “friendly bombs’ in John Betjeman’s poem ‘Slough’, written a year later. (Coincidentally, Slough is also the setting for The Office.) “Glasgow” and “Belfast”, used as synecdoche for Scotland and Northern Ireland, widen out the WLHB as a nationwide movement in the reader’s mind. “Athens” then takes the poem to a much different time and place: to those of the original Olympic ideals which the Nazis twisted for their own means. The poem might be implying here that the Nazis’ imitators in Britain, whether Bagot-Stack, Mosley or whoever, were slightly less fanatical fascists, but still dangerous ones, and the ordinary women – here the working-class forenamed and non-surnamed “Winnie and Molly and Doris’ – who represent the WLHB membership as a whole might either be members for those dark ideological reasons or for the fun of the exercise. (As the end of the Phoney War showed, by Christmas 1940 more than a thousand Blackshirts and other Nazi sympathisers and assorted anti-Semitic fanatics and cranks were rounded up and imprisoned under Regulation 18B of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939. It’s a digression, but worth noting that even Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, was a prominent member of the BUF – had the Nazis successfully invaded, one wonders if he would have become the British Hamsun or Céline.) There’s also a nice musicality between “Winnie and Molly and Doris”: between the second syllables of “Winnie and Molly” and then the first syllables of “Molly and Doris”. It’s fair to say that without the admirable specificity of these everywoman names, and without the place-names too, Morrissey’s poem would have been substantially weaker and markedly less interesting. (Incidentally, the poem has an added relevance for me, as my mother was an active member of the WLHB, or ‘League’ as she called it, for 50 years, from not long after my birth onwards. For most of that time, even when she was approaching her eighties, she was among the younger members.)

A better-known example is Philip Larkin’s poem Mr Bleaney’, from The Whitsun Weddings, 1964, which features not just the well-named titular character but also “the Frinton folk/ Who put him up for summer holidays,/ And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.” Would the naming of the “Frinton folk” or Mr Bleaney’s sister have added more interest or over-egged the pudding? (I wonder, too, if Mr Bleaney’s name inspired Mr Bean, or perhaps it was just a nod to another everyman, Mr Benn.)

In her taut and exceptional collection, Noir (2016), Charlotte Gann skilfully deploys names in several poems. ‘Mrs Coulter’s Scissors’ is neatly titled – does ‘Coulter’ remind the reader of ‘cutter’? ‘Her Publisher’ doesn’t name the ‘her’ of the title, but features “Malcolm”, whom we gather is the eponymous character. The penultimate line of the poem is beautifully memorable: “Malcolm’s eyes are the colour of clear sky.” The extraordinary poem ‘In the Classroom of Touch’ features “Mr Farnham” demonstrating “‘how you hold a person’”, with the help of two pupils in turn, “Lydia” and “Giles”. The scene’s power and unsettling wonder – either more than a little creepy or rather lovely, or simultaneously both, depending on your point of view – are indisputably enhanced by names which are entirely believable.

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