Making It Fresh: Poetry and the Toothbrush


In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle ponders the significance of the humble toothbrush in modern poetry

‘As a poet I would say everything should be able to come into a poem but I can’t put toothbrushes in a poem, I really can’t!’ Sylvia Plath’s statement – made in a 1962 interview with Peter Orr – has become well-known for its articulation of the supposed limits of the poem’s ‘paraphernalia’: what can and can’t be worked into a poem. But even before Plath, toothbrushes and cleaning teeth had become a common example of this purported no-go area for poetry. Poetry could, on occasion, venture into the lavatory, but it was not to trouble the beaker above the sink in the bathroom cabinet. Our teeth, it would seem, are off-limits to the verse-maker.

Or are they? The great paradox of twentieth-century poetry’s relationship with the toothbrush is that, as soon as a poet reached for it as an acceptable image or object for a poem, it ceased to be ‘unpoetic’ – or at least was nudged a little closer towards the edges of what is considered ‘acceptable’ or ‘proper’ subject-matter for a poem. And there were perhaps two poets who did more than any others in this direction.

The first of them was T. S. Eliot, whose ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ concludes with the nocturnal flâneur returning home to put his shoes at the door and hang his toothbrush on the wall. The real world is beckoning, telling him to go to sleep and ‘prepare for life’: ‘The last twist of the knife.’

Eliot’s toothbrush is clearly a symbol here for the workaday world, the mundane life led by many of us who live in a big city and have to go to work every morning, our more exciting ‘other’ lives lived only in the imagination, in occasionally flights of fancy, or in our dreams. The

very ordinariness and unpoetic nature of toothbrushes – their existence only as a functional item, their embodiment of daily rituals and conformity to what’s ‘good’ for us rather than to what feels good – is what gives them, paradoxically, their poetic power in the closing lines of ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. And to think that this is the same poem that Andrew Lloyd-Webber used as the basis for the song ‘Memory’ from Cats.

After Eliot’s toothbrush appeared in print in 1917, another poet picked up the toothbrush and worked it into one of his poems written in the late 1920s. His name was William Empson, and although he was very different from Eliot in a vast number of ways – he’s often associated with the Poets of the Thirties, like W. H. Auden – he also learned a great deal from Eliot’s work. I’ve written about Empson’s work here; I’d also argue, perhaps contentiously, that much of his best poetry was written in the 1920s rather than the 1930s, when he was still, amazingly, a student at Cambridge.

‘Camping Out’ is one such poem from this period. It was published in February 1929 in Experiment, the Cambridge magazine Empson co-founded with, among others, Jacob Bronowski. Empson was just 22 at the time. This poem (which sadly isn’t available anywhere online but is one of many gems included in The Complete Poems (Penguin Modern Classics)) shows the strong influence of John Donne’s metaphysical poetry on the young Empson (he always claimed he was essentially following Donne): it centres on a conceit whereby a young woman cleans her teeth over a lake (while camping out with the male speaker, modelled on Empson), and the droplets of toothpaste and spit fall onto the lake’s surface to recreate the stars in the night sky (which, until dawn arrived was reflected in the surface of the water). The poem’s opening line, ‘And now she cleans her teeth into the lake’, was branded self-consciously ‘anti-poetic’ by one of Empson’s Cambridge contemporaries, Michael Redgrave (of the Redgrave acting dynasty: he would go on to father several illustrious members of the Redgrave clan, including Vanessa and Corin). Certainly there’s something (characteristically) mischievous about Empson writing a poem about the constellations of the night sky, God’s grace, and the Virgin Mary – all of which come into this short poem – and likening or linking all of these grand things to a woman’s toothpaste-infused spittle. There was a freshness to Empson’s poem (a minty freshness we might say) which his use of traditional verse forms, particularly after the free-verse and fragmentary creations of his modernist forebears, tended to obscure. But looks can be deceptive here, too. ‘Camping Out’ is a fourteen-line poem but isn’t, as we might have expected, a sonnet.

Curiously, Empson went on to write another teeth-poem, one specifically about poetry: ‘Your Teeth Are Ivory Towers’ has a witty title that alludes to an old toothpaste advertising slogan, ‘Your Teeth Are Ivory Castles’. Empson joined this pop-culture reference with the idea of the ‘ivory tower’, in a nod to the (supposed) elitism of the kind of highly intellectual poetry he and others were writing. Once again, toothbrushes, or toothpaste at least, can be glimpsed in the twentieth-century debate about the function and proper ‘stuff’ of poetry.

Of course, something about the very idea of poems about cleaning teeth remains ridiculous and ripe for comedy, so it’s hardly surprising that one of the most enduringly popular poems by one of Britain’s most popular comic poets of the last half-century, Pam Ayres, is about the perils of not cleaning one’s teeth.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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