‘Pull yourself together,’ Messalina said to Henri Delacourt, as they sat in the Limehouse Water Bar. The ancient poet in the tatty blue corduroy jacket stared down into his vodka club soda. She could only see bushy grey brows where eyes should be. So irritating, she thought; if you’re going to ask my opinion at least have the courtesy to look at me. He looks like an elderly dog catching its reflection in a puddle and trying to solve the never-ending mystery of the mirror image.
‘I only said that we don’t need human artists now that computers can produce all the content we need.’ She absently clicked her long fuchsia nails. Henri flinched. Messalina shrugged. ‘I repost artificially created motivational phrases all the time on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr – you know? People give me bundles of likes. There’s this great artificial poet called Ibid and…’
‘Ibid?’ Henri looked up, his eyes wide, grey and red rimmed. ‘Content? Ibid? Clearly not Ovid… We are lost. Humanity is reduced to the consumption of repackaged rote!’
Messalina splashed her pinot noir in Henri’s face, and, caught off guard by her impulsive act, emitted several shrill hoots of laughter. Henri looked through her bleakly. A small silver robot zoomed over and started fussing at the carpet with brushes and suction tubes. God! Now he’d whine about ill-treatment to the ‘haven’ people and they’d tick her off. Taking out artists was frowned on, especially ones who had painted or, worse, written poetry. She’d be interrogated by that middle-aged busybody, Hubbard, who thought that every poet was mentally retarded and ‘so vulnerable in the modern world’.
They sat in silence. Henri’s eyes were glazed. He made no attempt to wipe away the wine. Messalina observed the water trickling down the walls. Half the world parched and there it was rippling down the very walls. She tried to touch it, but realised there was a barrier of glass. It was just a high definition holographic image.
‘Come on.’ She led Henri by the arm, pulled him from the Water Bar, and sat him on a wide deep curb by the side of Main Street. Electric cars slowly hummed past like contented metal bees. She dabbed at his wine soaked face and tie with her expensive cotton hankie, but the liquid just seemed to keep reappearing. She realised he was silently crying. Messalina had never cried as an adult; the need had not arisen. Crying was indicative of a lack of control, everyone knew that. There was something particularly shameful about an elderly person crying – like one should look away and pretend it wasn’t happening.
‘I’m dying for art,’ Henri said.
‘You’re just dying,’ Messalina said – more unkindly than she’d intended.
‘I wrote a poem for you when we first met, and you thought it unworthy. It was unworthy, it’s true. I’m sorry…’
‘It was embarrassing, not unworthy. It made my friends laugh, so it can’t have been that bad.’ She couldn’t remember it. She hadn’t paid much attention.
‘You prefer this Ibid’s ‘work’ to my poem?’ He made a strange strangulated gurgle from deep in his throat.
‘I didn’t say that. Please, let’s drop the whole Ibid thing… really.’ Messalina started rubbing her temples in little circular motions.
‘There was a time when I was the toast of Greenwich Village. I read my first canto, The Death of Dying, in ‘66 to those wonderful flower children. It took five hours… They loved me in Haigh-Ashbury. I orbited legendary literary circles. I was so very young back then, only a teenager… Did I ever tell you about the time I got drunk with Ginsberg in ‘67? All the Krishna chanting, it was just so…’
‘Yes, last time we met. How old are you?’ said Messalina.
Henri undid his tie and wrapped it round his upper arm, pulling it tight like a tourniquet. He ripped his shirt sleeve to the elbow. ‘I’m old as Methuselah,’ he said. ‘See! This is how it was done, and then you shot it into the arm, or wherever. Through a ‘pin’ and up a vein! Straight into the cerebral cortex where the poppy juice would flood the brain. It was like skydiving into soft pastel oblivion.’ Henri smiled and his tears ceased.
‘Yes, and there was always the possibility that the parachute wouldn’t open. You’ve told me that one too.’
‘I did? That one! I never tell anyone that one.’
‘Oh, well that’s dandy – as long as it was only you. I wouldn’t want just anyone knowing. I told you about Ginsberg, the way he would dance?’
Oh what a horrible mess, thought Messalina, he’s having some sort of breakdown and I caused it. I should have just agreed with him, humoured him. Why did I mention Ibid? As if he would want to hear about that! And now he’s raving about the 1960’s and ‘poppy juice’. She ran her fingers through her wavy auburn hair and looked up and down the street as if expecting help to magically arrive and whisk her away.
‘I’m glad you threw wine in my face.’ Henri patted Messalina’s hand gently. ‘You were wonderful my dear. What passion! You see, that’s what the world needs, that and boxcars…’ He appeared serene now, his tie tourniquet loosened and pooled in his lap. His face relaxed, his forehead creases smoothed and he looked ten years younger than… whatever age he was. ‘I used to feel bad that I wasn’t a homosexual, like I’d let the side down, but I came to terms with it.’
‘You took Mr Delacourt out and now he has become difficult!’ Hubbard’s left eyelid twitched involuntarily. Her blond woolly bangs were puffed up over her beige oval face, like an egg trying to imitate a poodle.
‘He’s not a prisoner,’ said Messalina.
‘No, he’s an artist and that means he has a temperament. You understand? It’s a recognised condition. It needs treatment and therapy. They find it hard to live in the modern world, which is why we keep the worst ones in havens like this – for their own safety. He’s not a prisoner, but he is a patient.’
‘I only took him out because he wrote me a poem and was rather witty and impressed my friends once. But this time he was quite boring and repeated himself. Still, I feel sorry for him. How does someone get into such a state? Staring into a glass for an hour and sullenly refusing to talk, then crying over modern content creators and artificial art! He even hates Ibid, and everyone knows Ibid produces only premium content.’ Messalina posed arms akimbo.
‘You clearly don’t understand much at all, you young people,’ said Hubbard. ‘The problems Mr Delacourt faces are far too complex for me to explain them to you at the level of a Ladybird Book of modern psychiatric conditions. Something like Ibid is a sure-fire way to upset any artist, and especially Mr Delacourt. You shouldn’t even mention Ibid to him. That’s an absolute no-no! Now he’s agitated and noncompliant.’ She pursed her lips. Then she reached into her apron pocket. ‘I disapprove, but he gave me this to give to you.’ Hubbard passed Messalina a small black and white booklet with the word Howl in large text on the cover. ‘I think this sort of thing is reprehensible – just look at Mr Delacourt and you can see how such writing causes a range of extreme emotional responses – but, it’s a free country I suppose.’
Extreme was the right descriptive! Messalina had never read anything quite so rude, comments on Tumblr about what certain cretins would like to do with her breasts aside, yet it was strangely compulsive reading. There was a lot of ‘in’ stuff she didn’t understand the finer connotations of, but the overall message of Howl seemed clear. It was a demand from a highly emotional, and clearly crazy, man to be freed from the restrictions of repressive society. Or was there something more? Certainly there must be, she thought, but it’s incredibly dense and I’d have to go through it line by line, very slowly, and I don’t have the patience. Far too much work! It would be easier if Ginsberg had just said exactly what he meant in as few lines as possible, like modern people do. All that repetition too; it’s so last century!
Messalina fished about in her handbag, and then turned the whole thing out onto her kitchen table… There it is! She picked out the crumpled paper on which Henri Delacourt had composed a poem for her. She smoothed the paper out. I should read it properly, after all it’s a poem written especially for me. It read:
Life is a precious and fragile gift
So never stop being all you can be!
Be strong and brave whilst ever adrift
On life’s tempestuous azure sea.
After reading Howl her poem seemed somewhat lacking. What has it got to do with me? This poem could be written for anyone. But it’s familiar. It’s strangely like… Ibid? Messalina typed the poem into Google and, sure enough, the same four lines came up attributed to Ibid. He plagiarised Ibid. And he calls himself a poet!
Messalina found herself dwelling on Howl and Delacourt over the next few days. The more she fixated the more impressive Howl seemed to be, and the charlatan Delacourt began to really bug her. She decided to Wiki him, on the off chance he was actually someone of note, as he had claimed. She found him quickly enough. The explanatory stub on Wiki stated:
Henri Delacourt, born Harrington Unwin (Boston, USA), 1949 to the present (age 85). Poet. He had a prodigious output from the mid 1960’s until the turn of the century. Not well regarded in literary circles or by critics, his work was overly sentimental and his style rather gauche. He claimed to have been inspired by Allen Ginsberg, in the sole interview he gave to the Newark Gazette in 1989, however his work bears no similarity whatsoever to that of Ginsberg. In 1999 the celebrated critic, Jefferson Nightingale (1956 – 2026) pompously proclaimed that Delacourt’s poetry was ‘only fit for get-well cards or those emotive, yet ultimately meaningless and trashy, so-called inspirational quotations on coffee mugs and the like – the sort of doggerel you read on newfangled Internet weblogs or find written on fridge magnets.’ The joke was on Nightingale, however, when in 2005 Delacourt’s entire catalogue, comprising some three thousand poems, was bought by a multi-media consortium for the sum of two million dollars. Ironically, Delacourt’s poetry now forms the bulk of the database accessed by the world famous A.I. inspirational quote and meme machine known as Ibid. Delacourt’s flouncy poetry is thought to be worth billions to the marketing industry.
Delacourt had plagiarised an A.I. which generated content largely based on his own past work. Messalina didn’t know how to process this riddle.
‘You didn’t write my poem at all. It’s Ibid’s work… and Ibid is you, sort of, but not really.’ She pointed a finger at Henri accusingly.
‘What wonders the modern world presents us with. What hideous reflections.’ He sighed. ‘You see, I wrote your poem by proxy. Delacourt is Ibid and Ibid is Delacourt. We are in the same place: a massive databank. I’ve had writer’s block for many years, yet Ibid goes on churning out reams of new Delacourt. It’s monstrous.’
‘Really? You couldn’t even write a few lines of unique poetry for me?’
‘Oh, I see. You’ve changed your mind then?’
‘Eh?’ Messalina gave Henri her most dignified side glance.
‘You hold unique personal poetry dearer than the artificial poetry you previously praised?’
‘I… Yes, I suppose I do. I hadn’t thought about it like that but, yes, I’d rather you’d written it… for me.’
‘Then there is hope! Ibid will be just a fad like any other. It will go the way of the Dodo.’ He grinned.
‘Think big chickens. Extinct. They ate every single one in a fortnight or, well, something like that. Look it up on Wikipedia. They’re all gone now. All gobbled up! Like Ibid gobbles me up. You see how I’ve been dying for art? I’m being reprocessed and cannibalised constantly.’
‘That’s terrible.’ Messalina shuddered at the thought of eating an animal.
‘Yes,’ said Henri, ‘but it will come to an end eventually. You’ve reassured me on that score.’
‘I’m not sure what to make of any of this,’ said Messalina, ‘but I think I need to read that Howl poem again. I think the answer is in there.’
‘It is indeed,’ said Henri, his face beatific. ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I got drunk with Ginsberg in ‘67? Oh, how he danced…’