Before I get intp my post proper, a word of apology for my recent absence, and this particularly to any whose comments have not been responded to, the reason being that my hard drive gave up the ghost in the middle of a defrag. The "pooter buff" in whose tender care I laid my machine was initially sure that he could ressurect it; to me it seemed terminal. Alas, I was correct, he was too optimistic. So I now have a much larger drive with acres of empty space - and miles of re-installing to and tweaking and adjusting to do. Still, (Almost) Normal Service is Resumed.
The singer, the poet, the actor and the bard
I am not exactly a devotee of performance poetry and have not attended a vast number of poetry readings, so am probably not the person best equipped to write this post, but I do not accept the oft-stated opinion that performance poetry is related to pop culture rather than to literature, and I have always found it difficult to understand those who suggest that performance poetry is in some measure inferior to the printed form, to what has been termed 'page poetry'. Analysis of this latter attitude will show, I suspect, two basic misconceptions: that performance poetry is mostly produced by would-be "page poets" who feel - or have been made to feel - that there is something lacking in their work which prevents it from standing up to close examination on the page.
In which connection: there was a touch of public tut-tutting a couple of weeks back when the news broke that this year's Cambridge University Final Year English Lit Paper required the finalists to compare a lyric from Amy Winehouse, Love is a Losing Game (I ask you: what are our universities coming to?:
For you I was a flame
Love is a losing game
Five storey fire as you came
Love is a losing game
Why do I wish I never played?
Oh, what a mess we made
And now the final frame
love is a losing game
Played out by the band
Love is a losing hand.)
with a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, As you came from the Holy Land:
As you came from the Holy Land
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?
How shall I know your true love,
That have net many one,
As I went to the Holy Land,
That have come, that have gone?
She is neither white nor brown,
But as the heavens fair,
There is none hath a form so divine
In the earth or the air...
Extremely interesting to me were the reported reactions of the finalists. These ranged from: "I sat there looking at the paper in shock" and "I wouldn't consider a controversial pop singer a literary figure" (the word 'controversial was intriguing there, I thought: would a non-controversial pop singer have been fine and dandy? Should we avoid controversial poets as well?) through "It was really bizarr," to admiration for the examiner who had set the question: "I think it's cool, poetry doesn't have to be Keats and Byron". (I guess we can assume that he was one candidate who hadn't gone into the examination room with a stock of prepared answers.) I am not sure whether or not the paper asked for differences rather than similarities ( I have not seen the actual question reprinted anywhere), but I doubt it. That, I imagine, is just what the press has fixated upon - at which point my former professional involvement with intelligence testing reminds me that the ability to discern differences precedes that of spotting similarities, which is a higher cognitive skill. So an infant asked to say how a ball is like an apple will likely say "You can't eat a ball, but you eat apples" or "The apple is red, but the ball is blue". however, a year or so later s/he will happily tell you that they are both round. However, to give credit where credit is due, one journalist did spot a similarity, though as between the authors, not the works; he honed in on the fact that both had a penchant for mind-altering substances.
Is there any significance then, I wonder, in the fact that all the adverse comments I have read, be they from the finalists themselves or from the press, relate to teasing out differences, rather than any similarities, between Raleigh's poem and Winehouse's lyric. Typical has been: "The Raleigh poem is a lyrical poem, written to be sung or to be read aloud, whilst the Winehouse lyric doesn't have to exist without the music."
The Guardian made a couple of interesting points, the first being that the finalists were also asked to compare the Raleigh poem with Fine and Mellow, by Billie Holiday and Boots of Spanish Leather, by Bob Dylan, but no voices were raised in protest at their inclusion. It does begin to look as though the devil was in that word 'controversial', do we not think? The Guardian's other point was made by asking readers first to imagine that they had come to these lines blind, not knowing anything about them or where they were from:
"Self-possessed and profound,
'Till the chips were down,
Know you're a gambling man,
Love is a losing hand."
Would we, the Guardian asked us all, be able to say for sure whether these lines were written during the reign of Elizabeth 1 or whether they date from the time of Elizabeth 2? Easy-peasy, I thought: the word "chips" gives it away, but that, apparently is not so.
Quite possibly, I am in danger of making the introduction the longest part of the post, so I will tear myself away from this absorbing topic and move on to the more general one which has been a bone of contention for as long as I can remember, and which the Winehouse controversy revived for me: the question as to whether or not a lyric can be regarded as a poem with music added - and conversely, whether a poem is but a lyric stripped of the music that should rightly belong to it. I say it has been a bone of contention for as long as I can recall, but it is nevertheless a relatively modern dilemma Historically, of course, the song came first. Poems were set to music. Before even there was writing there were what today we might dub 'performance poems', by the recitation of which the history and mores of the tribe or community were passed on from generation to generation. By the fourteenth century (I speak of Britain, though the phenomenon was almost universal) these had become the ballad, an oral narrative poem with no stated author and often sung to a simple musical accompaniment. They relayed the tales and myths of the community and would very often contain a strong element of the supernatural. They had a simple stanza form, usually of four lines rhyming abcb(see here) and were usually characterized by much repetition and direct speech. The heyday of the ballad was the late Middle Ages.
There were national differences. Ireland, for example, was an intensely aristocratic society and as with all such, attached geat importance to the record of its past achievements. It was the duty and purpose of the poet to keep alive the details of its history and the genealogy of those who had made the history, thereby to enhance the reputations and value to the community of the ruling classes. Later, this mnemonic tradition met with the Latin writing tradition and adopted the fixed forms which gave it a greater permanence, with printed poems coming into their own in the sixteenth century as broadside ballads, being printed on one side of a broadside sheet. Both in England and Ireland, they survived until well into the twentieth century. It was Irish society's aristocratic nature that was responsible for ensuring its ballad tradition would be underpinned by a literary one. This was not so in Scotland, where the tradition was basically a non-literate one in which the vernacular (rather than the classical literary language) was used. It would seem that hundreds of songs must have been lost because of this difference, and what survives is mainly what was written down by a few educated Gaels, many of them clergymen, and mostly after the disaster of Culloden had brought home to them the likelihood that the Gaelic world was comng to an end, and that the fragments must be collected. However, bards would continue to exist and ply their trade in Scotland until well into the eighteenth century.
It was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that saw the appearance of the literary ballad. Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci are excellent examples, as, in Scotalnd, is The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. The U.S. and Australia saw the development of the popular ballad retelling old tales to fit changed circumstances.
What the history of poetry seems to tell us - and it should come as no surprise - is that all poetry, written or otherwise, is essentially a coming together of sound, rhythm and meaning. No doubt some bright spark will find the exception that proves the rule and come up with some poem in which one or more of these elements is missing, but for all practical purposes poetry is a form in which they work together. I would find it difficult to conceive of a poetry that was not, potentially at least, performable. Certainly the best performance poets are craftsmen who would want their work to stand up for itself on the page as well as on the stage. This would be true even when the performance was meant to incorporate theatrical elements, including acting, and it remains true even in the case of a work that is almost universally acknowledged to be more successful on the stage than on the page. \simon \munnery's Deadlines would be such a work:
I do nothing without a deadline.
Without a deadline I do nothing
Until the deadline is almost upon me, and then I panic
Which is doing nothing quickly!
Only when the deadline is past, do I begin work
On my excuses.
Personally, I think it works very well on the page. It is said that it brought the house down when it was performed.
Now, though, is the crunch time. I can put it off no longer. The $64,000 question is: what about the Winehouse lyric? Is it poetry? It had just won an Ivor Novello award for the best musical and lyrical song, but the Cambridge finalists had to rank it, not just against a poem by Walter Raleigh, but against the might of Wordsworth and Milton also. For our purposes, though, it does not have to be great poetry; it just has to qualify as poetry. Do sound, rhythm and meaning gel together? The meter is simple iambic (te tum - a beat or "foot" consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one) trimeter (3 such beats or feet per line) with some inversions called trochees (tum te - stressed, unstressed) and occasionally at the beginning of a line, something called a spondee (tum tum - two stressed syllables). So that's okay then, nothing wrong there, that would all pass muster - you can invert or tum tum at the beginning of a line! But there's more: the Winehouse lyric is written in rhyming couplets. Not fashionable, maybe (certainly not in the world of The Poetry Society, for example), but it's okay, they can't touch you for it. There is not a lot of assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) - so you want everything in the one poem?
It goes without saying, of course, that regular rhyme and rhythm schemes do not of themselves make a poem. They may produce a verse of sorts, a container to hold the poetry, as it were, but the last thing we want is to go te tumming to infinity with rhymes that dong their merry way the while. What matters is the poetry, which is more than rules and guide lines. Here, though, we have a verse which is simple - and appropriate, you might say - in that it purports to convey the thoughts and feelings of a person of simple, unsophisticated outlook. The comparison with the Raleigh is with a poem that gives the sixteenth century outlook and language of a sophisticated man-about-town, but to my mind the Winehouse lyric makes it as poetry on the page - and although I have not seen her perform - except on the t.v. - I am quite sure that, performed by Winehouse, it makes it as poetry on the stage as well! It maybe doesn't make it as intellectual poetry, which is perhaps why it set so many Cambridge hearts a'pumpin'.
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