A Glass of Beer

Certainly, there is something particularly infuriating about a glass of beer denied.

To take one example from many… Once ten years ago, or maybe a bit longer, me and my mates went for a drink in a local pub, half of us to watch a match, and the other just for a drink – I forget which camp I was in. The pub had a good reputation among locals – it was considered an amenable place for a pint or ten. But the reputation was, as far as I could see, undeserved.

After the match was finished, the bar staff left the TV on, but changed the channel to the rather depressing UK Gold, which replays British TV ‘classics’, whose inane fare blared over the heads of the paying customers. The bar was staffed by two girls in their twenties, who lacked the buxomness and jollity of the traditional English barmaid, a role to which they did nothing to put themselves into- they were more interested in soaps, I think. Worse, they shut up shop rather early, paying heed to the letter, rather than the spirit of UK licensing law, calling last orders and time at the bar with undue haste and too quietly for most people to notice – too quietly for me to notice anyway.

And so my request for the proverbial one for the road was in vain. I went home mildly drunk, with the taste of sour beer and disappointment. How quintessentially British.

The protagonist in Irish poet James Stephens’ A Glass of Beer, however, has experienced an altogether worse denial – the withdrawal of the bar tab, resulting in something very like righteous fury.

A Glass of Beer

The lanky hank of a she in the inn over there
Nearly killed me for asking the loan of a glass of beer
May the devil grip the whey-faced slut by the hair
And beat bad manners out of her skin for a year.

That parboiled ape, with the toughest jaw you will see
On virtue’s path, and a voice that would rasp the dead,
Came roaring and raging the minute she looked at me,
And threw me out of the house on the back of my head!

If I asked her master he’d give me a cask a day
But she, with the beer at hand, not a gill would arrange!
May she marry a ghost and bear him a kitten, and may
The High King of Glory permit her to get the mange!

I wouldn’t presume to link the alcohol thirst of the poem with the poet’s Irishness (I’m half-Irish myself, and the English side of my family are much the harder drinkers), but there is a distinctly Irish feel to some of the language – that phrase ‘the loan of a glass of beer’ has a definite Irish ring to it. Stephens was in fact a good friend of James Joyce, who in fact asked Stephens to collaborate on Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which is also set in a pub, I think. In the end, Joyce wrote it himself – methinks Stephens dodged a bullet there. Joyce set himself the task of reinventing the English language – English professors still argue over whether he succeeded, but no one aside from academics or masochists actually reads it. In this poem, Stephen’s sets about the more modest task of recreating a drunken rant in three rhyming quatrains.

Our speaker releases a torrent of curses and abuses at those who denied him his drink, though not to their faces – he is a little way off the inn, on the street perhaps accosting an acquaintance or passer-by. The characterisation of the two objects of the would-be-drinker’s enemies is reminiscent of the ugly figures in those expressionist paintings that kept central European artists busy between the wars:the barmaid is a ‘whey- faced slut’, her boyfriend a ‘parboiled ape’. I think I’ve seen a few of those on the night time streets of Newcastle.

The speaker reminds me of a friend I had at university who was asked to leave a kebab take away shop for drunk and disorderly behaviour. My friend responded by saying that his rights were being trampled on and that he was going to call Tony Blair. This was odd – not the behaviour, which was unfortunately characteristic, but the way he invoked the then Labour Prime Minister: my friend was a blue-dyed Tory from the rural west midlands who loathed Blair and all he stood for. Stephen’s ranter invokes higher authorities still: first the devil, then God.

This is not to suggest that he is religious, though it gives him a graver tone than appealing to someone called Tony, I suppose, or it would if he didn’t mingle it with silly playground language like ‘lanky hank’. But this is all part of the way the poem mixes tones – vainglorious, polite, vulgar, violent, devout, devilish, grandiloquent and colloquial. It is just the tone of that kind of jokey ranting drunk who might at any minute turn a bit nasty, or – more likely – fall on his sorry face.



Filed under Poetry

12 responses to “A Glass of Beer

  1. I have read this Stephens poem under a different title: “Righteous Anger”, it was called. “A Glass of Beer” is a better title, I think, less summarizing and abstract. It really doesn’t matter, I guess, the poem itself is so rich in imagery.
    I genuinely like Stephens’ poetry for its easy, musical language and directness, its–generally–first-person voice and clear point of view. There’s a real person speaking it, unafraid to be who he is.
    With your commentary, I can almost smell the sour beer. Reminds me of those occasions when any two or more of my five brothers get together for harangues. (I usually leave the premises). One of my favorite Stephens poems is “The Coolun”. My Irish ancestry is only 1/4, but I think I’ll go and read Stephens for St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow. Sláinte!

  2. I have to admit I haven’t read a whole lot of Stephens poems. I read this a while ago in the Heaney/Hughes anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’ and liked it, so then skimmed through my other poetry collections to see if there were any other decent Stephens poems about, but none had any – not even my Irish poetry anthology. I had to fall back on Google. He deserves more recognition, I think.
    I looked up ‘The Coolun’ anyway and liked that too. A very different kind of poem. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day anyway. I’m staying in for a drink just as Irish as any glass of beer (or goat’s milk for that matter) – a nice cup of tea.

  3. When they publish that anthology of Men’s Poetry (or Real Men’s Poetry perhaps) let’s have this one in it!

  4. That would help redress the balance for sure. Nice idea for an anthology too. Definitely a drinking section (strictly beer and spirits though), sports, fighting and … mowing th lawn?

  5. Don’t forget grilling red meat outdoors….and, of course, lavatory humor….

  6. Grilled red meat is the perfect accompaniment to a glass of beer, of course. Who would write poetry about barbecues, though? Maybe Raymond Carver. As for lavatory humour, I’m at a loss…

  7. Definitely have Raymond Carver in this Manbook you and John envision…from the distaff side I’d say he is a man’s man (though also a sweetheart)

  8. Pierre LeDouche

    Bzzzzzt, wrong! The poem clearly refers to the woman herself as a “parboiled ape” not any unmentioned boyfriend, in what is for me the funniest line of a very funny poem. Re-read it. It clearly states “she” after the “parboiled ape” line and English rules state thAt the pronoun references the last specifically mentioned person. So unless her boyfriend is somehow inexplicably female, “she” is without doubt a “parboiled ape.”

    You don’t know how many years I’ve waited for the right opportunity to call someone a _parboiled ape_. So far no joy but I have every confidence that God will one day provide the perfect opportunity…. I’ve already enjoyed the occasion to call a person a “reactionary fish-faced louse” to much chagrin on the part of the person so named and joy on my part. Life’s too good! Slow me down!

    • Hello Pierre
      After consideration of your comment, I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re probably right. I guess I couldn’t imagine a barmaid throwing a grown man out of a pub – but James Stephens was 4′ 10″, so he certainly could have imagined such a thing.
      On the other hand, you were awfully obnoxious about it. Have you no web manners? You sound like a troll with a grammar reference book.

  9. Joseph LeDux

    Sorry for the tardy response. You’re exactly right, I was obnoxious, and I’m sorry for leaving such an ugly comment. I could certainly have made my statement on the gender of the parboiled ape without being snide about it. The only thing I can say in my defense is–since I don’t even remember leaving this comment–I had to have been blasted out of my mind on…beer, my beverage of choice. I choose it often, and at all hours. Which could almost make my rude comment oddly appropriate. But I’m still sorry. I’m just glad you didn’t toss me out on the back of my head. Cheers.

  10. Pingback: Where the wild thyme blows… | sweettenorbull

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