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Friday, 30 January 2009

Odds and Sods

Last January The Arts Council axed its grants to 185 arts organisations. Sir Christopher Frayling, its chairman, was then endlessly pestered at home by irate telephone callers, even until the early hours of the morning, often being called "a shit" - and no doubt much else. At a meeting held at The Young Vic, Nick Hytner, director of The National Theatre, dismissed The Arts Council by saying that it talks bollocks and is bollocks. Sir Christopher Frayling has now resigned.

Frayling has since gone on record to say that the priority for his successor, Dame Liz Forgan, must be to sort out the the country's cultural contribution to the 2012 Olympics. It would seem that the organisation (if that is the most appropriate word) is currently in the hands of innumerable committees, and he has had no encouraging feedback, nothing to give him a feel of what it will be like when it all comes together - if, indeed, together could be said to be the right word! Sound familiar? He has described how watching the opening ceremony at Beijing one got the distict feel that it was the work of a single intelligence. (Is that an argument for autocracy at the expense of democracy, I wonder?)

Mention of Bollocks reminds me...
Commenting on my blog post Oh, Shit! Ken kinda challenged me to come out and say where I personally stand on the issue of swearing. As it happens I have no written policy on the subject - I trashed all such the day after I retired - but as clearly as I can formulate my stand-point, here it is:-

  • I do swear

  • Swearing, I believe, can have a cathartic effect, benefitting not only the swearer, but those around.

  • I swear only at or about situations, objects, etc. Not people - though I have to admit that at times it is difficult to draw the line.

  • I do not swear gratuitously or use obsenities as sustitute punctuation

  • I consider that any rationale there might be for swearing to lie in the fact of its taboo. That is to say that I try not to use it where another word will do, but solely where there exists, if only in my fevered imagination, such a depth or revulsion, anger or whatever, that no word by virtue of its meaning alone, could hope to express it. Nothing but the feelings aroused by the fact of society's taboo has the wherewithal to get within striking distance.

  • All of the above are the ideal to which I strive, but I am, alas, prone to the sins of the flesh... yawn, yawn.

  • I have no qualms about quoting swear words or using them in character in a piece of writing.

Interesting to learn that Sebastian Barry's novel, The Secret Scripture carried off the £25,000 Costa Book of the Year Award despite the judges having considered it flawed and with a bad ending. I find it somewhat cheering to think that they found it possible to make such a presentation whilst admitting the book's imperfections. But then perhaps I wouldn't have found it cheering had I been Adam Fould whose poetry collection, The Broken Word, was running neck and neck with it until the last.

The Secret Scripture was conceived ten years earlier, we learn, when the author was driving through Sligo with his mother. She pointed out to him an old hut in which his great uncle's first wife, a woman of great beauty, had lived before being consigned to a lunatic asylum by the family.

A while back I posted on the fact that the present Poet Laureate's ten year tenure (the first to have had a fixed term) is coming to an end and asking who might be in line for the vacancy. Now, it seems (hush! voice it not around!) that the cognoscenti (or some of them) are asking in all seriousness whether we have need of such a one among us. Perhaps because most of our best poets have made it known (truthfully or not, time will tell) that they would not consider such a position. Wendy Cope is the most recent to have removed herself from the arena, citing the example, among others, of Sir John Betjeman, a good poet who produced bad poetry as Poet Laureate. Others have said the same of Ted Hughs. Cope points out that there is no compulsion, either from The Palace or from Whitehall for the Lareate to produce anything, but there is expectation from the press and from the public. She thinks the post should be discontinued. Interesting, I thought, that The American Laureate was not chosen for the inauguration.

But now it comes to my notice that Andrew Motion's vacant post will not be the only top position to be filled; that the University of Oxford's Professor of Poetry, is also up for grabs. Together they represent Britain's top two poetry jobs. The Oxford chair has in the past been held by Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden and Seamus Heaney.

Try not to get too excited, though, reasoning that if you apply for them both you are bound to get one or the other, for it has been whispered that Andrew Motion is being considered for the Oxford job. If so, that just leaves the Poet Laureate and the questions: Do we need one, and if so, what should his or her role be? Raising the public profile of poetry, perhaps? Raising the profile of poetry in the world of Education? Surely not just exalting the celebrations of the royal family! Two Brownie points for a truly splendiferous and original suggestion!

Big news overnight: Birmingham Council has banned the use of the apostrophe on all its road signs. King's Square is to become Kings Square, etc. Is this the thin edge of the wedge, scream some, the beginning of the end for the most abused and misapplied mark?

Still thinking of the death of John Updike, I came across the thought that (quoting from memory):- The death of a favorite author leaves a peculiar kind of loneliness. Here, by way of consolation, one of his poems. (He always half-dismissed his poetry as light verse. Not in my book!)

Burning Trash

At night—the light turned off, the filament
Unburdened of its atom-eating charge,
His wife asleep, her breathing dipping low
To touch a swampy source—he thought of death.
Her father's hilltop home allowed him time
To sense the nothing standing like a sheet
Of speckless glass behind his human future.
He had two comforts he could see, just two.

One was the cheerful fullness of most things:
Plump stones and clouds, expectant pods, the soil
Offering up pressure to his knees and hands.
The other was burning the trash each day.
He liked the heat, the imitation danger,
And the way, as he tossed in used-up news,
String, napkins, envelopes, and paper cups,
Hypnotic tongues of order intervened.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

John Updike : Painter of Domestic Interiors

Not too long ago, though perhaps longer than it seems, I was rearranging my bookshelves when I came across my half-forgotten copy of Memories of the Ford Administration. Ever since that time I have been intending to read the book again, but, inevitably, have not got around to it. Now I will, of course, for there is nothing as motivating to readers as the death of an author. John Updike, as most will know by now, has died of cancer of the lung. He was 76. Memories of the Ford Administration was my introduction to John Updike, the man I once heard or read described as a painter of Dutch domestic interiors. The description fitted him well. You will know the sort of picture to which it refers: exact and clinically clean and detailed, yet warm and with a light that bathes everything and makes it seem luminous. It is the world of the common man, Middle America, I suppose, seen as a basically sad world, yet one that is beautiful in its sadness. And no matter what the source of this sad beauty (be it politics or patterns of domesticity) it suffuses everything, spreads everywhere. For me it is all there in Memories of the Ford Administration. Indeed, it is all there in the first paragraph of Memories of the Ford Administration:

"I remember I was sitting among my abandoned children watching television when Nixon resigned. My wife was out on a date, and had asked me to babysit. We had been separated since June. This was, of course, August. Nixon, with his bulgy face and his menacing, slipped-cog manner, seemed about to cry. The children and I had never seen a president resign before; nobody in the history of the United States had ever seen that."

He will no doubt be best remembered for The Rabbit Tetralogy, four great novels published at intervals of ten years, give or take a year, from 1960, which follow the life and times of Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom from youth to decline. These are the stories which won him the reputation of the man who kicked open the American bedroom door, and indeed, marriage, sex, divorce and adultery were high on his list of concerns, but so were feminism, the Vietnam war and much else. He painted his interiors, though, on a small canvas as the writing had that quality of beauty which made plot slightly peripheral. It is the writing you remember when you read him. But small canvas or not, as they used to say of The News of the World newspaper, "the whole of human life" was there.

His oeuvre was large, though; a dozen or so collections of poetry, plays, works of non-fiction and short stories. He was awarded almost every literary prize (some more than once) except the Nobel. Will his tetralogy prove to be the Great American Novel? Not for anyone on this side of the pond to say, but to finish with a cliche (which he would never have done), he will be sorely missed.
The Painter's Family : Matisse

All movement is first an idea

and only then

a property of life

Conversation : Matisse

Words heard and spoken

are more enthralling

than the beauties of nature

La Joie de Vivre : Pablo Picasso

The joy of life

expressing itself

most clearly in the feet

Snowstorm - Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth : Turner

Out in the turbulent trysting of tides

where the kingdom of chaos begins,

the currents much deeper, more secret than thoughts

and the murmurs are murmurs of sins

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Tonight is Burns Night

Another year-old, recycled and somewhat expanded post, following in the footsteps (or keypresses) of my Christmas one. Maybe I ought to design a small logo to flag up any that might come in the future. So, tonight is Burns Night (although, something I discovered only the other day: any night of the year can be Burns Night. But the official night, the preferred night is tonight, the anniversary of his birth.) Indeed, this year is a very special one, his 250th anniversary. What Burns Night conjures up in the minds of most people, I guess, is a certain conviviality, not to say rowdiness, associated with the eating of haggis and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne". The words known by everyone are:

For Auld Lang Syne!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

Also well-known is:
My Love is like a Red, Red Rose",
and less so, perhaps:
A Man's a Man for a' that, To a Mouse and Address to a Haggis.

At which point I think I will slip in this (somewhat edited)snippet from The Guardian last December:

His love might have been like a red red rose, but it turns out that Robert Burns may also have been suffering from a disease which made riding on a horse a painful experience.
Two previously unknown poems found with some letters cast a different light on the man known for his romantic verse including "Ae fond kiss and then we sever".

Their owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, found them in his mother's home a decade ago, but decided to wait until the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth (this Sunday) before putting them up for sale.

Burns writes in the letters about his relationships with two women, and describes a miserable journey to Glasgow in a sonnet:

I lately made a journey to Glasgow
O had I stayed and said my prayers at hame
Curst be that night as annual it returns
That led astray the luckless poet B
May thickening fogs by sickly east winds driven
Foul cover Earth and blot the face of Heaven.

The second poem is a paraphrase of one of the psalms. "It's not, what you'd call a fantastic piece of poetry," said the owner of the papers.

One of Burns's greatest achievements, which was an unpaid labour of love, was his songs for the Scots Musical Museum. He contributed over 300 songs, many of his own composition, and others based on older verses.

At about the same time he wrote his most famous long poem, 'Tam O'Shanter', completing it in a single day. 'Tam O'Shanter' is the story of a man who disturbs a coven of witches in the kirk at Alloway and has to flee for his life on Meg, his old grey mare. The fastest witch, Cutty Sark (cutty sark means short petticoat) nearly caught him by the River Doon, but the running water makes her powerless and though she managed to grasp Meg's tail, Tam escaped over the bridge.

Burns died at the age of thity seven from a bout of rheumatic fever caught as a result of falling asleep at the roadside (somewhat the worse for drink) in pouring rain. The last of Burns' children was actually born during his funeral service.

What Burns Night (and to a lesser extent Burns) conjures up in my mind are a few verses from Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle". This is a deep and complex poem, the conceit of which is that a drunk man finds himself lying helplessly on a moonlit hillside, staring at a thistle and meditating on its jaggedness and its beauty. Because he is drunk, the thistle can become a metaphor for anything he likes: the divided state of Scotland, for example. The meditations become varied and far-ranging. If you do not know the poem, but enjoy poems that combine humour with passion and great versification, then I think A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle would be for you.

This from a section in which he meditates on Burns and Burns Night.on Burns Night (though not Burns):

"You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o' a knock-knee
Chinee turns roon to say, 'Him Haggis - velly goot!'
And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.

"No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a'body's property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They'd be the last a kennin' haund to gie -

"Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And a' their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad - and Hell, nae doot - are voicin

"Burns' sentiments o' universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha's nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

"A' they've to say was aften said afore,
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate maks him the dumpin-grun
For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

"Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae's me for the Zietgeist!"

And here he is on the common folk:

"And a' the names in History mean nocht
To maist folk but 'ideas o' their ain,'
The vera opposite o' onything
The Deid 'ud awn gin they cam' back again.

"A greater Christ, a greater Burns, may come.
The maist they'll dae is to gi'e bigger pegs
To folly and conceit to hank their rubbish on.
They'll cheenge folks' talk but no their natures, fegs!"

Another Burns Link
And, very popular when I published them before, MP3 files of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistlehere

Saturday, 24 January 2009


My grateful thanks to Louise at The Carmine Superiore for presenting me with The Lemonade Award. I do know that these awards are variously regarded by members of the blogging fraternity (largely because of the rquirement to pass them on to a ststed number of blogs), but I am very much of the opinion that they should not be undervalued, either in terms of the traffic they can bring to a blog or - far more importantly - for the simple fact that someone has thought of you or your blog and thought it worthwhile to make the award. I am, therefore, extremely grateful to Louise and now happily pass on my heartfelt thanks to her.

Do go and visit her blog if you have not already done so. It is well worth a call.

The rules of The Lemonade Award state that you should:

* Put the logo on your blog or post.
* Nominate at least 10 blogs which show great Attitude.
* Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.
* Let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
* Share the love and link to this post and to the person from whom you received your award.

I have chosen the following blogs to receive the award

The Volatile Rune
Sarah Lawrence
Patteran Pages
Notes from a Glaswegan Immaturity

There were so many more I would have liked to reward, but maybe next time....!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Like what you're looking at, then?

You know how it is when something catches your eye and you just have to post on it... well, it was this headline in Monday's Independent:
To like a work of art you have to know something about it. That worries me.
And yes, it worried me, too. The article was the work of Rebecca Frost. Her worry, like mine, was the implication that in order to like a work of art you have to have background information about it, know a bit about its history or something of its creator, a bit of bio or a bit of context. As I read on I realised that she was echoing thoughts that I myself had been having recently. Like hers, mine had arisen in conversation with a friend. She had gone to The Rothko Exhibition with a pal from way back, probably one of the cleverest people I have ever met.

Frost most often visits exhibitions alone and so is not in the mental gear perhaps for talking about the exhibits. As she put it, her habitual response is a visceral one, but on this occasion her friend was so forthcoming about the exhibits that she felt some response other than a purely gut reaction to be called for. She was enjoying the exhibition, for she likes Rothko, and as a student had prints of his work on her walls, but she was feeling duty bound to comment. Alas, she was also feeling ill-equipped to do so, believing that she had not the wherewithal - not in the presence of her clever clogs friend, I presume. Or maybe there was something else: it's one thing to say that you just love a Turner or a Constable and to leave it at that, but if what you are saying you adore happens to be two slabs of contrasting colour, then maybe you could feel some compulsion to explain yourself. So she mumbled something about preferring the ones with smudgy edges - and then remembered that Rothko had said: The people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience that I had painting them. Emboldened, no doubt, Frost confided also that the orangey ones sort of zing out at you, before also recalling how Rothko had gone on to say: and if as you say, you are moved only by the color relationships, then you are missing the point. She liked the paintings, she protested, but there was Rothko telling me from beyond the grave that I'm not liking his paintings in the right way. I liked his paintings, but the way I liked them was wrong. She was not having the correct religious experience, it seems, not the one Rothko had, after all!

I know a little about those religious experiences. In my teens I had a good friend who was a Billy Graham convert. We went around for a bit with other born again Christians, all very earnest and extremely good people. A lot of needy folk benefited from knowing them, but there was one aspect that really killed it for me: their insistence that your experience had to be the same as theirs, or it was not a genuine experience. If it had not happened to you in just the way it had for them, then you didn't know their Lord. There were no alternative routes to salvation. I remember, too, some of the casualties of that: youngsters who had invested so much in what they thought (knew?) to be a genuine conversion, but who were devastated to be told that it was not so. They were like small lads who had saved up all their pocket money for one extra-spectacular firework on Guy Fawk's night, only for it to fizzle out in the rain.

So, Aha! I thought at this point, remembering Wallace Stevens's belief that when you finally give up on empty heaven it is poetry that steps in and offers the redemption that once was religion's to bestow. Aha! Rothko has trod the same minefield I thought. It all fitted as my mind ran on ahead making its usual unwarranted connections. Frost reined me in, making the valid and very telling point that novelists and poets do not make such demands upon their readers. Only the visual artists do that. I wonder why. Why should that be? Whatever, there was I shot down in flames.

(One naughty thought did occur at this point: for someone who professed to having no background knowledge of the Rothko's, Frost did seem remarkably well informed about their creator.)

And then she and her friend found themselves in the last room where were the overpowering (I would have said awesome had I not promised myself, a long time ago, not to use that word) Black on White paintings. I got the feeling that it was in some fear that she waited to hear what her friend would say of these mighty works. And what her friend said was : Let's go and have a cup of tea!

Ah, but what if they had been able to go back after the cup of tea? Going to a Rothko show is a bit like going to a prayer meeting - and there are prayer meetings where it is perfectly acceptable to stay silent, where it behoves you to do so unless you are given something to say. You can't though, not so easily, have a cup of tea in the middle of a prayer meeting. Not usually, though maybe you should be able to. To most, though, it would seem sacrilegious. Still, I have a feeling that, refreshed after their cup of tea... after all, man cannot live by prayer alone.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Oh, shit!

The other day I came across the results of a survey into attitudes towards swearing. You may have seen it too. For the most part the results did not strike me as particularly surprising, though some of the conclusions drawn from those results certainly did. I just wondered if it was me ploughing another lonely furrow or if they might strike others the same way.

Here are the basic findings - or as many as were reported in the article I read. I hope I have not misrepresented any, though some conclusions did strike me as a little inconsistent:-

90% of British adults admit to swearing every day.
Those who don't are too fearful to challenge those who do.
The average Briton swears 14 times a day.
90% of adults are no longer fazed by the use of expletives.
Only 8% of adults are offended by swearing in an adult context.
Nearly everyone of the 2,319 individuals polled has sworn in anger.

My immediate reaction was that there was (in the report I read) no indication of what was meant by swearing. It may be thought that this can be taken as read, but I know from my previous experience of talking to pupils' parents, for example, that there is often great division of opinion on this score. Complain about a pupil's language and father might say something like: Ow come on, that's not swearing! and mother might but in with: Of course it is! What did I tell you! There might be great division of opinion as between Damn and blast!, bloody hell! B****r! and F***!

Neither was any distinction made between, for example, swearing at another person and swearing at an inanimate object -This car's a bloody nuisance! and You're a bloody nuisance! This seems particularly relevant as many of the inferences were drawn by members of, or those associated with, the Campaign for Courtesy

The word Only before the 8% seems like an attempt to prejudge the issue. Here are few reactions:-

The influence of T.V. was cited by many critics (of what? Not explained) who want the government to intervene (community service or ASBOs for swearing, perhaps?)

Esther Rantzen (patron of The Campaign for Courtesy) said: Everybody would agree that there is too much swearing on television.

John Beyer (of Mediawatch U.K.): This sort of language is damaging our culture. Also: Children as young as four, five and six are copying it, and it is undermining our language.

My immediate reactions to these comments were firstly that I do not hear a lot of swearing on T.V. I know there is one chef who infamously rattles off the F-word like it's coming from a machine gun, but I do not watch that programme - as it happens. Maybe I just watch the wrong (or the right!) programmes.

The whole thing seems to be getting very close to saying that everybody swears and everybody agrees that nobody should.

During its long(ish) history there have been many attempts by Governments, committees and others to rein-in. improve or straight-jacket it by creating an academy, French style, to produce a (the) correct version of the English Language. None has succeeded. Neither, given the spread of English across the globe and the uses to which it is put, do I think any ever will. It has always gone its own way. Certainly just now I think the Government probably has enough to keep it busy for a bit.

What is and what is not a swearword is largely a matter of fashion. The F-word has been a perfectly acceptable word in its time, one used in polite company. Maybe by proscribing words as being socially taboo we encourage their use at the expense of a greater variety of vocabulary. It is very noticeable that those who swear a lot tend to have a much restricted word pool to draw upon. To that extent swearing impoverishes the language.

I think maybe that by setting out to react to the individual remarks I have over-complicated the issues involved. What we really need now is some of your laser-like comments to cut through the crap!

Before I leave the subject, however, here is a find I cannot resist including:-

BRITISH celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay almost made it through his first Australian press conference without swearing.

That was, until he dropped the large swear jar he'd just been presented with to help curb his potty mouth.

"Oh shit," he muttered, as the glass bottle smashed on the ground.

"F*** me."

The 41-year-old chef was the special guest at the launch of the BBC Australian Good Food magazine at the Sydney Convention Centre today.

He has come under fire from a senate committee which has proposed changes to broadcasting standards thanks to his expletive-ridden outbursts.

Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi complained one episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares contained "the F-word" 80 times in its 40 minutes.

His self-control came undone when food writer Lyndey Milan presented him a special gift.

"We're not all wowsers, we do sometimes swear," Milan said.

"So mate, this is a great Aussie tradition, it's a swear jar.

"Every time you swear, you've got to put something in there - money."

The swear jar lasted less than 20 seconds.

I have also, in my researches come across studies which conclude that swearing is a valuable way to relieve work place stress - though I must say that it doesn't seem to work for Gordon! If true, would that justify the practice? Does it even need justifying?

Friday, 16 January 2009

from the poet and the word.

From the Poet

How can I
put truth upon the page
in ways
that will not lie
when others
who will read it
read it in their other ways?

I am conscious
that the sun and moon
look down to see
the words I cast,
to ascertain if
those words cast
a shadow down the page.

They should not worry,
knowing that I use
words two-
not being skilled
to write in three.
(2-D is shadowless, i'm told.)

But does a shadow's absence
equal truth? - Sun's truth
or the moon's?
Truth of day and night?
And when I have more skill,
shall I then write
with less fidelity?

My words
are open to the night,
were written in the day
and by its light;
can be construed,
in either way.

From the Word

We find it difficult, these days.
There was a time when words like us
would know their given roles in life,
know their responsibilities,
what was expected - and demanded -
in a sentence or a phrase;
We knew exactly what we meant
(or meant to bring about)
and how we should behave.
I, for example, being I,
would know my place and place
myself befittingly
amongst my colleagues,
proud to represent
the author or the speaker to
the best of my ability.
It's true we've always morphed a bit -
I've done my share (we always called
it repositioning) across
the years. I've been a suffix, too,
and once or twice
a chemical abbreviation. Once I played
the part of a connective vowel.
A bit of fun, that's all. No one
got hurt. It's different now. Someone
the other day was saying how
we morph each time we go on duty.
Can you believe it? Reckons
he's postmodern (Like
that makes it right! Some hopes!),
reckons I could be a verb -
I ask you! Let them go
and I their egos!
- that was his
example, but what sort of talk
is that? And then we get
those darned compilers
of some dictionary, laying off a load
of my old workmates. Blokes
and girls I've known and
worked with over years. Good
folk, the lot of them:
you'll know them well enough,
but out they went like so much junk: monk,
followed by some flower names, bishop,
aisle and empire, carol, monarch...
for what? To let in some new tease
they've found around the web! Upstarts,
no more, like: broadband, google,
whatever makes the Oxford
seem sexy, I suppose.
Bah, Humbug to their sexy! Give
me back my frumpish friends! I'll take
them over Google any day!

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

It's Literature, Jim, but not as we know it.

Or: there's literary literature and then there's non-lit lit. Tolstoy's War and Peace and William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience fall into the former category. So does Shakespeare's Hamlet. The menu for a Royal Banquet does not. Neither does the manual for a Ford Focus. Ford may describe their manual as literature, but literary literature not even they would dare to call it.

But what about this from the Mills and Boon range?

She moved closer to him, her eyes intent on his face. "I never imagined such a thing could happen to Jean-Jacques Armentier of all people. Not when you used to laugh with me over the ridiculous claims in the tabloids linking me to this prince and that shipping magnate. Remember?"

Oh yes. I remember. How I wish I didn't. For the love of heaven, Nicole, don't look at me like that.

It was the same way she used to look at him whenever he tried to play hard to get. He did it on purpose to gauge her reaction. Her eyes would glisten over in pain and she'd go all breathless. Every time she responded that way, it would prove that she wanted him as much as he wanted her.

Something dark in his nature had always needed that proof because he couldn't believe that Nicole Giraud, the exquisite brunette men all over Europe fantasized about, the daughter of a family worth billions, would rather be with Jean-Jacques Armentier, a son of the soil who was very good at entertaining her, but could never be her equal.

No matter how many times he tested her, she still came after him, undaunted. In front of his peers her unswerving desire for him fed his inflated ego. In the privacy of night, with the taste of her mouth still on his, he felt his heart soar. Then the morning would come, when the harsh light of day brought reality, dashing every dream.

Have I yet sown the seeds of division among you, I wonder. I think probably not. But if that is not literary, why is it not? Is it just a bit of snobbery creeping in, I wonder? Are we equating literary with intellectual? One of my early English teachers did just that, or so I think now, looking back. Let's leave Mills and Boon for now. Which, if any, of the following do you think might be literary? An Eagle Comic, a Bat Man Annual, John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress. Easy that last one? It's a classic, is it not? So in what way(s) is the following superior as literature to the Mills and Boon extract?

Then Christian fell down at his foot as dead, crying, Wo is me, for I am undone: At the sight of which, Evangelist caught him by the right hand,
saying, All manner of sin and blasphemies shall be forgiven unto men; be not faithless, but believing. Then did Christian again a little revive, and stood up trembling, as at first, before Evangelist.
It is an allegory, of course, of the Christian Journey, so it could be said to be more intellectual than the Mills and Boon...

Perhaps it's time to define terms.. The adjective literary implies, as I understand it, some degree of artistic creation, an imaginative construct which can clearly be seen to be related to real life, but is not synonymous with it. It refers to something carved out of words which can only be known through the medium of those words. Furthermore, the track that has been laid is but a single track; it leads to no other reality or truth save the one which has been created by the author using the words of which it is composed.

So that is what it is - unless you disagree. But how do we recognise it when we meet it? By what authority can we say of one text, This is literary and of another, This is not?

One of the tried and tested tests, if I can put it that way, concerns the effect it has upon the reader. The literary text, it is said, will have some beneficial consequence, provide him or her with some additional experience which has not been forthcoming, perhaps could not be forthcoming, in real life. At second-hand, or vicariously acquired, the reader may be introduced to environments, situations or characters that it would not be practical to encounter in reality. Aristotle maintained that drama had a cathartic value, that by arousing terror or disgust in the viewer it purged the soul of such passions. Plato, though, distrusted the mythical aspects of poetry and in The Phaedrus he argued against poetry's use of persuasion as opposed to the pursuit of truth. In The Republic he stressed that in a perfect society the poet would have no educational role to play, not because he thought education to warrant no such power, but because he regarded that power as something of a loose cannon. The weight of opinion now would seem to be on the side of literary works having the possibility to affect the reader, not just at the time of reading, but for an indefinite period thereafter.

Traditionally, though, there are other tests that we might like to apply, two main ones, the first being the degree to which a text succeeds in presenting a truthful image of life. Here again to examine the roots of this belief we must go back to Aristotle. For him poetry was mimesis or imitation of life. The mimetic theory of literature survived, pretty much unchallenged, from his day until the late eighteenth century when it was replaced by the Romantics for whom poetry was very much an expression of the poet's inner world of feelings. Mimesis has made recurrent comebacks, though, and is still very much a force to be reckoned with.

There is still the third and final of my tests, one I have already mentioned in passing: the Intellectual test, my old English teacher's test, as part of which he would have included correct spelling and punctuation, grammar and syntax. Intellectual in this context implied a degree of difficulty and/or ambiguity. The text did not have to be impenetrably difficult, but open to interpretation. He also was very definitely of the opinion that there existed a literary language, a pool of words, phrases expressions and a syntax (for example the reversal of word order) that was permitted the poet and the elevated author, though not the prosaic writer. This literary language was somehow more refined than, and superior to, common usage. Dictionaries, of course, still do tag some words as poetic.

Perhaps there is, though, a specifically, if not exclusively, poetic language: the language of metaphor. It is this, after all, that most often allows the poetic method; allows, for example, the poet to crystallise an image having several facets such that future images may be refracted through them. The methodology of the language structures the poem. The method may not be confined to poetry any more than the metaphor itself can be, but both are found far more frequently there, and though the prose writer may adopt poetic language for this or that purpose, it is rare for it to be sustained throughout a work, if only because of the length of the text and the effort that would entail.

Saturday, 10 January 2009


I thought maybe it was time for another Digital Doodle post...

... suggested by the (too) numerous occasions spent in various waiting rooms.

We wait for them,

the words that form the play,

the words

themselves as yet unformed -

although the stage lights are turned on.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Three Women

An interesting news item in The Guardian this morning: Three Women, a play by Sylvia Plath never performed on stage before has opened at The Jermyn Street Theatre, London and is due to run until Feb 7th. It was performed on The Third Programme as a radio play for voices six months before Plath's death and was published posthumously as a poem, but that is all anyone has seen of it.

Here are some extracts from the play in its poem incarnation. First the opening verses:

Setting: A Maternity Ward and round about

I am slow as the world. I am very patient,
Turning through my time, the suns and stars
Regarding me with attention.
The moon's concern is more personal:
She passes and repasses, luminous as a nurse.
Is she sorry for what will happen? I do not think so.
She is simply astonished at fertility.

When I walk out, I am a great event.
I do not have to think, or even rehearse.
What happens in me will happen without attention.
The pheasant stands on the hill;
He is arranging his brown feathers.
I cannot help smiling at what it is I know.
Leaves and petals attend me. I am ready.

And, same setting, some verses from the Second voice:

And the man I work for laughed: 'Have you seen something awful?
You are so white, suddenly.' And I said nothing.
I saw death in the bare trees, a deprivation.
I could not believe it. Is it so difficult
For the spirit to conceive a face, a mouth?
The letters proceed from these black keys, and these black keys proceed
From my alphabetical fingers, ordering parts,

Parts, bits, cogs, the shining multiples.
I am dying as I sit. I lose a dimension.
Trains roar in my ears, departures, departures!
The silver track of time empties into the distance,
The white sky empties of its promise, like a cup.
These are my feet, these mechanical echoes.
Tap, tap, tap, steel pegs. I am found wanting.

This is a disease I carry home, this is a death.
Again, this is a death. Is it the air,
The particles of destruction I suck up? Am I a pulse
That wanes and wanes, facing the cold angel?
Is this my lover then? This death, this death?
As a child I loved a lichen-bitten name.
Is this the one sin then, this old dead love of death?

And the third voice:

I am a mountain now, among mountainy women.
The doctors move among us as if our bigness
Frightened the mind. They smile like fools.
They are to blame for what I am, and they know it.
They hug their flatness like a kind of health.
And what if they found themselves surprised, as I did?
They would go mad with it.

And what if two lives leaked between my thighs?
I have seen the white clean chamber with its instruments.
It is a place of shrieks. It is not happy.
'This is where you will come when you are ready.'
The night lights are flat red moons. They are dull with blood.
I am not ready for anything to happen.
I should have murdered this, that murders me.

Its theme, obviously, is pregnancy, but more generally than that, the emotions engendered in having or not having children (no surprise then, that it has been dubbed a feminist text), but the theatre director, Robert Shaw, maintains that it is even broader than that, that it has a universality that puts it above such limiting definitions. There is something magical about it, he says, that he has not tried to analyse too carefully.. People respond to it and find things in this piece that they understand and relate to; things that perhaps Plath was able to express in a way that no one else has.

I have to say that reading the poem version I find it hauntingly beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful of all the writings she has left.

The First Voice is the mother character, speaking at first as during the early part of pregnancy, but then later when the baby arrives. The Second Voice describes the horrors of miscarriage, while the Third Voice (the voice of the mother who gives up her baby) expresses the feelings that come with her conviction that she is not ready for motherhood:

I thought I could deny the consequence, but it was too late for that. It was too late and the face went on shaping itself with love, as if I was ready.

Plath has long been tagged with being a feminist writer, of course, but there is an interesting rebuttal of that title here

The lower picture is a scene from the play.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

And Death Shall Have No Dominion


Like autumn leaves
we change our colours when we die.
That's all we ever were:
a change of colour on a canvas ground,
one small fleck of difference
on an otherwise flat field
in a desert
of indifference.
Here death
is the death of all
the smudge of detail,
the erosion
of the figure by the ground.
Death is the perfect decorator,
a broad-brushed artisan
for whom the wall assumes
a perfect matt, flat hue.


lamplit and dying,
old men enjoying
the moonlight,
not expecting tomorrow.

Laughing they hang there,
fondling their age-old loved ones
under the branches,
hushing their rustling
into a silent cold morning.

lamplit and flying,
old men defying

Noisy with laughter,
shaking with lust
and hurrying after
a world that is dying,
moths straying
into a flame.

lamplit and trying,
old men in a rage
against time.

Freedom at last,
freed by the breeze
to chevy and be
free to explore this moonlit wonder,
free to flee to be trodden under.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Anna Akhmatova

To all my friends in the blogosphere I wish:

A Great and Good New Year.

Anna Akhmatova

A poet is someone to whom it is impossible to give anything and from whom it is impossible to take anything away: this a quote from Anna Akhmatova from whom an unbelievably vicious world had tried, at various times, to take pretty much everything away.

Nearly twenty years ago my son gave me a copy of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. I think maybe it had been on my wish list, but cannot remember for certain. For some considerable time I dipped into it, enjoying the dipping immensely, but without it really taking hold of me. And then I read:

The sky's dark blue lacquer has dimmed,
And louder the song of the ocarina.
It's only a little pipe of clay,
There's no reason for it to complain.
Who told it all my sins,
And why is it absolving me?...
Or is this a voice repeating
Your latest poems to me?

I had read it before, more than once. But this time it struck with more weight. It seemed more unusual and more exceptional in some way than it had seemed before. I found its impressionistic character charming, as I had from the first found most of the poems in the book. Perhaps it was just me, I thought. Perhaps it was the whisky I had been sipping... but in the morning I was still so hooked on it that I wrote it out and memorised it. Later I was to discover that Judith Hemschemeyer, Anna Akhmatova's translator, had also been struck by it - so struck, in fact, that she had spent three years learning Russian with the express intention of translating all Anna Akhmatova's poems. Which is how the book came about.

In the first poem of her first collection, Anna Akhmatova introduces what is perhaps the main theme of her work: love. I was reminded of this by a remark made by Rachel Fox at Crowd Pleasers to the effect that Some of the best poems are about love. Her post, then, was the inspiration for this one. Here, then is Anna Akhmatova's opening poem, Love.

Now like a little snake , it curls into a ball,
Bewitching your heart,
Then for days it will coo like a dove
On the little white window sill.

Or it will flash as bright frost
Drowse like a gilly flower...
But surely and stealthily it will lead you away
From joy and from tranquility.

It knows how to sob so sweetly
In the prayer of a yearning violin,
And how fearful to divine it
In a still unfamiliar smile.

As Hemschemeyer wrote: most of the poems in this first book show us two people bound together, grappling with their own and the beloved's emotions, struggling to get free, and once free, bewildered and empty. But Anna Akhmatova does introduce one more important theme in these first poems: her concern for her future place amongst the greats, and particularly her future place alongside Pushkin as his equal - and all that at the tender age of twenty two!

But there is another verse that is often interpreted in the same light, from years later, when she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize:

I would have crowned you myself, Fate!
Touched the immortal brow.
The Nobel Prize is not enough. Imagine
Coming up with something like this now!

The last line makes clear, I think, that the thought is not that the Nobel Prize is insufficient recognition for her genius (as I have heard suggested) but that the West's obsession with literary prizes is irrelevant beside the momentous things taking place in Russia at that time.

Under the Czars she suffered nothing worse than the complete bafflement of her compatriots by her poetry - and some condemnation from the women of Russia who were not too pleased about her effect on the men. After 1922, however, she was roundly condemned as a bourgeois - she came from a noble family, her real name being Anna Gorenko and Anna Akhmatova a pen name she had adopted at the request of her father, who had been much against her being known as a poet. She became severely restricted, allowed by the authorities to publish very little. Her family, including her son, would be hounded in the years to come, and some of her best friends were to die in the camps. Everything she had published under the Czars was condemned as remote from socialist reconstruction. In 1950 she was partly rehabilitated and allowed to publish a Collected. which, however, was not allowed to include Requiem. It was said that Requiem would never be published in Russia whilst the socialists were in power, and it never was.

Requiem (excerpt)

In place of a Preface:

In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison
queues in Leningrad. One day somebody 'identified' me. Beside me, in the
queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of
me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and
whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): "Can you describe
this?" And I said: "Yes, I can." And then something like the shadow of a
smile crossed what had once been her face.

1 April, 1957, Leningrad



Again the hands of the clock are nearing
The unforgettable hour. I see, hear, touch

All of you: the cripple they had to support
Painfully to the end of the line; the moribund;

And the girl who would shake her beautiful head and
Say: "I come here as if it were home."

I should like to call you all by name,
But they have lost the lists....

I have woven for them a great shroud
Out of the poor words I overheard them speak.

I remember them always and everywhere,
And if they shut my tormented mouth,

Through which a hundred million of my people cry,
Let them remember me also....

And if in this country they should want
To build me a monument

I consent to that honour,
But only on condition that they

Erect it not on the sea-shore where I was born:
My last links there were broken long ago,

Nor by the stump in the Royal Gardens,
Where an inconsolable young shade is seeking me,

But here, where I stood for three hundred hours
And where they never, never opened the doors for me

Lest in blessed death I should forget
The grinding scream of the Black Marias,

The hideous clanging gate, the old
Woman wailing like a wounded beast.

And may the melting snow drop like tears
From my motionless bronze eyelids,

And the prison pigeons coo above me
And the ships sail slowly down the Neva

This unbearably moving poem comes at the end of Akhmatova's great Requiem sequence, which she wrote during the oppression when her son was taken away by the police. It was for him that she stood in the lines outside the prison gates. Her husband, Nikolai Gumilev was executed in 1921 by the Bolsheviks. Changes in the political climate finally allowed her acceptance into the Writer's Union, but after WWII, she was thrown out of the Union and her son was arrested.

Because she did not abandon Russia during the terrors she became deeply loved by the Russian people.Her most accomplished works,Requiem and Poem Without a Hero, are reactions to the horrors of that time.

But the question remains: what did she achieve poetically? She broke with the vague constructions of the earlier Symbolist movement and adopted the style known as
Acmeism which lauded lucid, carefully-crafted verse. Within this she developed the impressionistic style which I have already mentioned.

So what did she achieve? I was asked this by a friend I chatted to recently about Akhmatova. In reply, I mentioned that she had lived through times as harrowing as any that humankind had managed to create or endure, that in spite of having had opportunities in plenty to escape she had refused to do either that or to forsake her poetry. Indeed, she had behaved throughout with the greatest heroism and had succeeded in encapsulating in her verse some of the most horrendous struggles and the deepest longings of her fellow Russians, as a consequence of which she was generally held in great love and esteem and regarded as one of the four truly great Russian poets of the twentieth century.Yes, my friend persisted, but what did she achieve poetically? I mentioned that she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and that seemed to satisfy him.

Here is another of my (many) favourites:

Somewhere there is a simple life and a world,
Transparent, warm and joyful. . .
There at evening a neighbor talks with a girl
Across the fence, and only the bees can hear
This most tender murmuring of all.
But we live ceremoniously and with difficulty
And we observe the rites of our bitter meetings,
When suddenly the reckless wind
Breaks off a sentence just begun --
But not for anything would we exchange this splendid
Granite city of fame and calamity,
The wide rivers of glistening ice,
The sunless, gloomy gardens,
And, barely audible, the Muse's voice.