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Monday 31 December 2007

Belated and qualified thanks to The Guardian

My belated and qualified thanks to The Guardian for Saturday's book reviews by readers. Less jaded than the usual re-views from professional pens and not confined by genre or to books published in 2007, they somehow worked better than the ubiquitous five-to-ten-worders. I at least was able to arm myself with a virtual shelf of books I think I would like to read during 2008. A personal best was that for this time of the year.
"Qualified", because, although it was a nice try, it did not make up for what was lost. I would not willing have sacrificed the poetry review and the round-up of the blogs, for example. Why junk what is unique in order to tweak the merely fashionable?

Sunday 30 December 2007

A Tune's A Tune For A' That

I have never before made a new year resolution, but feel that this might be a good time to change the habit of a lifetime. I am resolved that in 2008 I will at last get to grips with three poets that I have, in varying degrees, neglected in the past. Three very different poets that have this in common, that they are each, in their own way, musical. The three are: Swinburne, W.S.Graham, Robbie Burns.

It may be true that Swinburne is an empty vessel making a great deal of (tuneful!) noise signifying nothing, but that is only 99% of the truth. He is the most musical of the lot - and I like a good tune. Okay, so there has to be more to a good poem than just a tune, but occasionally there is. Even so different a poet as T.S.Eliot has made the point. Here he is writing in "The Sacred Wood":

"There are some poets whose every line has unique value. There are others who can be taken by a few poems universally agreed upon. There are others who need be read only in selections, but what selections are read will not very much matter. Of Swinburne we should like to have the 'Atalanta' entire, and a volume of selections that should certainly contain' The Leper','Laus Veneris', and 'The Triumph of Time'. It ought to contain more, but there is perhaps no other single poem which it would be an error to omit."

With that endorsement ringing in my ears I feel emboldened to step into the wilderness of the unfashionable and to hack my way through the tangled undergrowth of Victorian sentimentality to see what might be hidden there... a lost garden, perhaps? More likely a single plot - or is it I who have lost the plot?. Here are some verses from the Chorus of Atalanta:

For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remember'd is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes
From leaf to flower and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofed heel of a satyr crushes
The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root.

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
The Maenad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal's hair
Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.

It is also true, even if Eliot did not mention the fact, that there are some poets with enviable and well-deserved reputations, which reputations rest, however, upon just one or two undeserving works. One such is Robbie Burns. Burns is known, here in Sassenachland at least, only for "Auld Lang Syne" and "A Red, Red Rose" - though these do not begin to do him justice. Listen to Hugh McDiarmid in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (and incidentally, if you do not know the poem, rectifying that omission would constitute an excellent new year resolution - if you happen to be looking for one.):

"No' wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But Misapplied is a body's property."

There's plenty more. I guess McDiarmid didn't think it was just in Sassernachland! We will leave him for now with The Wren's Nest".

The Robin to the Wren's nest
Cam keekin' in, cam keekin' in;
O weel's me on your auld pow,
Wad ye be in, wad ye be in?
Thou's ne'er get leave to lie without,
And I within, and I within,
Sae lang's I hae an auld clout
To rowe ye in, to rowe ye in.

Which leaves us with Graham, seductive in a poem like "The Bright Midnight"

"Beside this church underneath a saintly element
Once rested in my arms another midnight more
Miracled into early years and maze of pathways
Frosted between the grasses of the churchyard.
Once rested on the flying spire earlier eyes
In appearance likely mine but far and elsewhere
Gazing from. Under this midnight, beside this church
What greyhaired measures and infant measures advance
Between the stones and audience the time contains?"

Maddeningly, though, in something like "Over the Apparatus of Spring is Drawn"

"Over the apparatus of spring is drawn
A constructed festival of pulleys from sky.
A doormouse swindled from numbers into wisdom
Trades truth with bluebells. The result unkown
Fades in the sandy beetle-song that martyrs hear
Who longingly for violetcells prospect the meads."

It has just this moment occurred to me: two Scottish poets to one English is a fair reflection of my usual diet. I must investigate sometime what are the specific flavours of the Scottish fodder that so appeals to my southern palate

Friday 28 December 2007

A Romantic Story

Blame it on the weight of too much pudding, a fairly nasty chest infection, the soporific effect of wine or the general air of nostalgia that pervades everything at Christmastide, but whatever it was, there I was, doing a sleepy - Oh, so sleepy! - back flip over the years to that far-off time, my school days, when poetry had yet to come alight, being something to be learnt by heart for reasons that had nothing to do with the heart. It was a flat, prosaic plain, was poetry then, about which I have blogged before and will not do so again now, save to say that just once there was offered to me then, a glimpse, a vista of distant peaks, their foothills swathed in mist, and all far beyond my reach and understanding. I simply sensed their power and their importance, and could somehow understand that they represented another world, a mysterious, mystical, mythical world perhaps, certainly not at all like the one I knew. It was all very blurred - and very tantalizing.

And there was a story. It would have been the story that first drew me in, for it struck me as being a romantic story, and I was at an age - and no doubt in the mood - for a romantic tale. And there you have it: nothing whatsoever to do with poetry lessons. The viewpoint from which the ten peaks were seen and gasped at was an art lesson.

The story is set in 1912, sometime just after Christmas.Rainer Maria Rilke was visiting The Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe at the Castle Duino. (And can you think of a first sentence more calculated than that to set a teenage boy's romance cells a-buzzing?) Rilke suffered from depression and was in a critical condition. Then, walking beside some cliffs, his mind actually obsessed with various bookkeeping matters, some words came into his head as though from nowhere. (That did it for me: I firmly believed, back then, in the reality of artistic inspiration coming from out of the ether!) Those words must by now be among the most translated in German literature. The translation I like best (and not necessarily the most authentic) is:
"Who, if I cried, would hear me among the
angelic orders?"
Rilke was in awe at the words, and immediately knew them to be the key to something of rare importance. He wrote them down, and then, during the remainder of his stay at Duino, wrote the beginnings of most of his ten Elegies of Duino before completing the first two during the rest of that year, but did not finish the other eight until well after WW1.

For some reason, the best romantic tales are always the unrequited ones, and this, as it happens, is one of those. You know how it is that you sometimes glimpse a place you would like to go back to and get to know, perhaps on holiday, when you did not get the opportunity to explore fully? So it was with me. I promised myself that I would go back when I had more experience. And so I did. Often. But I never again saw what I thought I had seen back in those callow days. Eventually I decided it was something in me and let it go. I shall make it one of my self-appointed tasks to re-engage with them during 2008.

Funny, the things that can happen at Christmas!

Some facts that may or may not prove to be of use:

The theme of the elegies is the nature and the destiny of the individual.
He examines questions such as what kind of experiences must an individual undergo to achieve an intensity of being? and How can he reconcile that intensity with the transience of life, and with death?
Rilke is often portrayed as an intellectual poet, but many see him as coming from the spiritual. Where a Christian might speak of Truth that cannot be known but must be believed, Rilke would speak only of Being which, to a greater or lesser extent, can be participated in.
There is no sin or guilt, only participation or its lack. We do not meet sinners in the world, only failures.
Rilke constantly complained of his childhood having been stolen from him (at his military boarding school) and of his need to "re-perform" it in his poetry.
Almost uniquely among great writers (if you allow that he is one), he hardly ever speaks of Good and Evil.
Rilke's own life experiences were rather circumscribed, but the one through which he considered he most successfully achieved Being was in composing poetry and in the acts of perception and meditation preparatory to composing.

Sunday 23 December 2007

Traditional Christmas? Bah! Humbug!

It might help. I think, if I tell you where I am coming from: I love the traditional Christmas. Was brought up to love it. When I was a child we lived with my grandparents. They, especially my grandad, might have stepped straight out of The Old Curiosity Shop or A Christmas Carol. No-one was ever more Victorian than he. The first Christmas that I can remember was my fifth. I was in hospital. There was deep snow outside. At visiting times I could see, through the window behind my bed, my parents trudging through the snow to visit me. I was in a large children's ward. The nurses brought snow in from the grounds for us to throw at each other across the ward. There was a large, sparkling Christmas tree with presents, and on Christmas Day they carried into the ward a flaming Christmas pudding. The next few Christmases were trickier; the country was at war and the unavoidable austerities restricted what could be done, but my parents and grandparents still managed to create the illusion of a traditional Christmas. Perhaps it wasn't illusion. At Christmas everything changed, was different from the rest of the year. It began on Christmas Eve with the whole family going to church (for the rest of the year only we children went). Then on Christmas Day the house was full of people - adults, most of whom would sleep on the floor overnight. After we (my brother and I) had gone to bed and were judged to be asleep, the adults would engage in their adult things. like playing cards or Sandown, a horse-racing game with a large wheel like a roulette wheel, but without the ball and with horses instead of numbers. On this much money was lost and won, I think, "much" being a relative term, as none of them were wealthy. (And if all that does not sound very "traditional", then all I can say is that as a small boy I did not make such fine distinctions: the rest of Christmas was as traditional as could be, and that bit just made it even more different and more exciting, for I would creep out onto the landing and watch and listen and feel myself to be part of those adult activities.) It was the whole package that coloured my feelings towards Christmas, so, yes, I am for the traditional festival.

Even so, I see no point in trying to hold back the tide and trying to pretend that the traditional ways are not passing - indeed, have all but passed, as surely as has that more ancient tradition which has the manger at its centre. When I think back to my early Christmases - and it is not all due to the rosy tinted spectacles of memory, or to having been a child back then - and look around me now, I feel that I can say with Wordsworth, "The things which I have seen I now can see no more".

So why do I get so annoyed when the media try to play Canute on our behalf? Do they imagine that, it being Christmas, half the nation is waiting in breathless anticipation for yet another repeat or reprint of "Oliver Twist" or "A Christmas Carol" - or even one more analysis of why the Dickens stories are so important. And for that we are willing to sacrifice whatever of our favourite programmes or columns they decide to cut? Or are they merely trying to remind us of what recent origin these "traditions" are? No older than Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Not really traditions at all, then!

Even more difficult to see, is why they also find it part of their bounden duty to inflict upon us at this time of the year their worthless book lists: "Books for Christmas", "The Best Five Books of the Year", etc, in which fifteen or more authors or - worse still - celebrities, outline in eight column lines their five favourites and say why they have chosen them. These are often followed by same-but-different reviews for the new year. The Guardian is probably the least susceptible to this sort of tomfoolery, but even it succumbed this weekend, junking its usual roundup of the blogs and - worse still - the usual poetry review, for.... wait for it: another lesson on why the stories of Charles Dickens are so important! They are, but they now belong elsewhere. The babe in the manger, too, is as important as He ever was - or He could become so - but not if He is just being used to keep the tide at bay.

I shall not post again until after Christmas (probably), so whether yours is to be a traditional Christmas, a content-free Christmas or something inbetween, may it be the best of its kind and full of good cheer for you and yours.

Saturday 22 December 2007

Christmas Presents, Tracey Emin - and what she gave me.

Writing in yesterday's Independent, Tracey Emin confided the fact that Christmas and birthday presents are a great trial to her. In a word - or three - she cannot cope. "I get given thousands and millions of things that I don't want.... one year I just cried because of the avalanche of gifts... Sometimes at Christmas I don't open any presents at all. I leave them wrapped up until February or March." Then she had her "big, stupid idea": she asked people to either give money to The Terrence Higgins Trust or to give her a book. Consequently, she now has two hundred books she has not chosen.

That could have a big upside, I thought: amongst those two hundred books there could be numerous little gems that would have passed her by in the normal way. Of course, what I was really thinking was: if I tried that, I could end up with several little gems that otherwise I would have missed. But then I read on, to discover that among the two hundred were six copies of "How to Stop Smoking" by Allen Carr. Downside.

Among my friends and relatives there are those who prefer to buy presents that are entirely their idea of what I would like. Others ask for "lists". For them I write down suggestions. Some want these in case they "get stuck". The list will usually be heaviest in the book department, for books come most easily to mind. I began to wonder what would be the result if I simply said, as Tracey Emin apparently had, "Oh, just give me books", without providing any clues as to which books or even which genres. I think I know: some would ignore the suggestion completely, others would give me book tokens - good, but not a present to catch the ones that would get away from me. Mostly my friends and relatives do not like giving book tokens. Too impersonal. Not imaginative enough. Very well received by yours truly, though.

But then, just think what might happen if they took the suggestion at face value: a present that came entirely from the giver's intuitive grasp of what I need or would enjoy, might say too much about how the giver sees me. What a blow to the old self-esteem would be six copies of "How to Draw Landscapes", for instance! Okay, it's true that I might end up being able to draw landscapes, but who the heck cares about drawing these days - or have I missed it? is it perhaps back "in"? Has it made it back into the art schools, soon to hit the streets? (I have heard whispers, but you can't rely on anyone these days.) No, I will muddle along in my own misconceptions about my ability.

So I do not think I will change my practice, or ask my friends to change theirs, but if anyone does know of a method to net a few of those little gems that so easily slip through the fingers of reviewers - and thereby elude the likes of you and I - a comment, a clue, a pointer would do.

And what did Tracey Emin give me? Why, the idea for this post, of course.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Christmas Tipples from the Poets

To help the season along a little, I thought about the poets as though they were fine wines. What sort of wines would they be, with what sort of characteristics? Some of the following I found in a book when browsing. I cannot recall writing them, or why I might have done so, but I am happy on the strength of the crossings-out and redrafting, that they are, in fact, mine - and not infringing someone's copyright! A very happy, imaginary Christmas to you all.

Seamus Heaney
A strong, no-nonsense spirit with a distinctive, peaty flavour.

W.B Yeats
A somewhat grandiloquent wine, at times having more the characteristics of a slightly sticky liqueur. Ideal for the grand occasion, though be warned that this fine, slightly hallucinatory drink, has suggestions both of majesty and rebellion in its heady bouquet.

George Szirtes
An honest, slightly gritty wine that requires a serious meat dish to release its full authority.

Hugh MacDiarmid
The product of a robust grape that thrives in either of two soils, the one resulting in a refreshingly wild and unambiguous flavour, the other in a cloud of hints and associations.

W. H. Auden
A serious taste beneath a lively, jovial bouquet. A wine for either public or private occasions.

W. S. Graham
The punch with a punch. The first draught may be totally befuddling, but eventually - probably a day or two later - a cold clarity will hit. And you will never forget that you drank!

T.S. Eliot
One for the connoisseur, having in both taste and bouquet many associations to be enjoyed by the acquired palate.

R.S. Thomas
A severe wine with an enduring, uncomplicated flavour. A happy complement to simple fare.

Marianne Moore
Edith Sitwell once referred to this wine as "thick and uncouth", which is strange, considering its allusive and tantalising nature. Perfect with a light meal.

Robert Graves
A traditional wine, though with more than a touch of the free spirit. Ideal for the picnic hamper on a hot, sunny day, or to accompany a Mediterranean-style meal. A wine for lovers everywhere.

Monday 17 December 2007

Richard Eyre and The Great Divide

Richard Eyre in the Guardian Review 15.12.07 (Yes, still picking up on that; there is ever enough there to keep a body thinking well into the following week) is concerned about an issue dear to my heart and, I believe, of no little importance: what he calls "the great divide". No, actually his preferred word for it is apartheid. It is the seemingly unbridgeable gulf that exists between those with access to the arts and those who are, or feel themselves, excluded.

There are many issues at work here, and it does not do to over-simplify the situation. Eyre mentions class, race and gender, and indeed they all play their various parts, but behind them, and interacting with them and with many other issues in a continuous feed-back, is the individual's self-picture. The self-picture comes about from the ganging together of countless min-experiences. From, in fact, the ganging together of those mini-experiences whose effects tend to reinforce each other, from the thoughtless remark to, say, a ten year old ("You would say that, wouldn't you?" or "You're not a bit like your brother!"), through all the different levels of teen-age peer pressure and the attitudes of parents, to the mores of their particular sub-culture, to relative wealth ("relative" being the operative word), to their own successes and failures, to the successes and failures of their heroes, to what connects them with the pleasure centres of their brain, and many more. What is important to the individual, and what has contributed to that situation, a situation more complicated than the meteorological patterns that determine our weather, will vary infinitely, but each will, fairly early on, develop a self-picture that will largely determine their openness to life's various offerings. So any schoolteacher knows that it will be of no use to tell John that he could be the next Ted Hughes if all he wants is to be the next David Beckham.

But I am speaking here of something deeper than mere interest. Interests do not of themselves contribute to the self-picture in its final, more inflexible form. Eyre recounts an interesting episode from his own youth when he went to see "Hamlet". His interests had, until that point been largely confined to maths and physics. The play, he says "capsized me", and he quotes Berlioz's experience of the same play: "Shakespeare... struck me like a thunderbolt.... I recognized the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth". When I was at college one of the mantras was "Interests grow into habits". ( I forget the Latin! ) That is when the self-picture begins to take final form, for as habits they are but a hair's breath from becoming desires. There is no point, I guess, at which it becomes impossible to capsize us, but it is certainly easier before we have formed our life-determining desires. At that point even winning the lottery may not capsize us.

"Art," says Eyre, "is the expression of the voice of gifted individuals with a point of view." He grew up in a rural backwater where there was no easy access to anything cultural. I can relate to that, though my experience was different. I didn't actually get to many (there was a war going on) but I could imagine myself going to art galleries, plays, operas even, but ballet - never! There was an invisible curtain, as effective as any iron one, between me and it, which took years to break down. Correction: it took years for me to come to see that it did not exist. Maybe the great divide runs through the arts themselves.

Sunday 16 December 2007

Nicholas Lezard :To Prop or not to Prop...

Seven years ago, he tells us (Guardian Review 15.12.07) Nicholas Lezard thought Beowulf "brainless macho trash". I remember it well - I think. I certainly read something along those lines when Seamus Heaney's translation first appeared. Thank heavens, I thought, at long last some other occupant of planet earth thinks as I do! Now, though, with the appearance of what he calls the coffee-table edition of Heaney's version, Lezard has changed his mind. But it is not some new Epiphany wrought by a more careful reading of the text that has brought this about. No, his changed opinion is entirely due to the pictures. They have convinced him that Beowulf is "a serious and complex work of art". He gives an example:

"'Boar-shapes flashed
Above their cheek-guards'
and on the left there is a large colour picture of a carefully-wrought boar surmounting a helmet excavated from Benty Grange, Derbyshire."

I have not yet seen the new edition. I may well sport out the £13.99 being asked for it, but if I do so invest, then I think I shall be buying it for the graphics, not for the text, for they sound well worth the outlay. As to the text, the one fact that might have won me over to it seven years ago, the knowledge that Seamus Heaney had thought it worth his while to translate it, failed to do so. My world will be shaken to its foundations if it turns out that pictures (props, which ever way you look at them) achieve what he could not. I am sure it is a fault in me, but the issue I am hammering on about is whether we should require a work of art to stand alone, or whether there is a place for props, and if so, what that place might be. Should we be swayed in our judgements by external factors, however inspiring or enlightening? I can accept props as an introduction, say in school, remembering that we are going to journey beyond them for our final understanding. I can see them as they are used in this new edition of Beowulf to provide insight into the poem's background and the society that produced it, or to correct misconceptions concerning that society. That is why I might yet buy the new edition. But such pictures are at most guide book illustrations to give us a taste of what lies before us or to explain its history, its culture or its politics. If the terrain, when we visit it, turns out to be "brainless macho trash", the photographs in the guide book, however appealing, will not alter that. Not unless it is that we are seeing what we are told to see and not what is in us to see.

I shall visit my local bookshop and have a look. I may, as I say, even buy the book... but then again, don't hold your breath, for on the same page of The Guardian Review was a very enticing write-up on Paul Muldoon's translation of Neil O'Gallagher's "The Fifty Minute Mermaid". If the Virgin shelves happen to be carrying that, and if it's half as seductive as the review makes it out to be, then that's where my cash is likely to be going. Unless it happens that my foundations do get thoroughly rattled!

Thursday 13 December 2007

A Kind of Innocence

I bring this out at this time because it occurred at Christmas, and because it has become associated in my mind with Christmas - and with the anxieties that Christmas can bring for some.

Old pots, old bits of crackleware
you'd take them for, those heads she'd etch
and etch with the one trait that marked
them out as kin, their foreheads deeply

gouged by compass, pin or pencil-
sharpener blade as if a cat
had scratched repeatedly. Or then
again, more savagely than that.

All they ole hair roots dangle doon
and smothering us brains, she'd say -
and crackles too, from fir cones chewed -
and eyes tight-shuttered as she drew.

Some days I'd find her ruler nibbled
half away. It doss me 'ead in,
straight it doss, she'd say, all they ole
centimeters allus staring

up at I, givin' I the evil
eye. Sometimes I daresn't niver
even lift me desk lid up! Where'm
all us English inches gawn? All

bin eaten, az em? Her cousin,
mute, with felt-tipped plough, would furrow
pages into fields of corn, then
turn the plough into a wand, and

from the fields of corn bring forth
landscapes of magic realism,
while she, remembering, as he
did, Edens past, would commentate,

identifying features as
he drew - each one a property
of some past Heaven they had lost
but never left. The day their fathers

said Tomorrow we move on, he
mouthed or whispered with her: scroggs... now
spinney, Berts ole wilderness, dry
bunny, dummock, loff and lay. She

grinned: He know they country words right
well, he do, for they is soft and
tender like a mother - whiles town
words shout and hit out like a father.

D. A. King

Glossary (as far as I have been able to work it out):

scroggs : rocky ground covered with brushwood
bunny : a small stream flowing directly into the sea
dummock : a rounded hill
loff : a lake
lay : pastureland

Monday 10 December 2007

Wendy Cope on Copyright

I must confess to slight disappointment at the tone of Wendy Cope's remarks (Guardian 08.12.07) on the vexed question of copyright, the purpose of which, surely, is to ensure that poems, novels, photographs, whatever remain the intellectual property of their creator and that any financial returns from said creations are not creamed off by the more unprincipled among us. That said, the internet has, for good or ill, changed many things, not least the popular mindset concerning material that is in the public domain. Is it really likely that the publican who painted a verse on a beam in his pub would have done so had it been pointed out to him that it was going to cost? And how many surfers who will happily download a verse, perhaps as a rather more pleasant alternative to reading it from the screen, would be prepared to pay for the privilege? It does not follow that if such a surfer could not download the poem (let us say because conscience forbade it), then the author would profit from the sale of another book. So not every "illegal" use of copyright material is actually taking cash from the author's pocket. It seems a little naive to think that someone who so liked one of Cope's poems that she sent it to all of her friends would, deprived of that option, have bought a copy of the book for each of them, or that recommended by her to buy it, they would all have rushed out and done so. Surely they would more likely have been persuaded to invest by receiving a copy of the poem? I have more often bought a newly published book on the strength of a review containing extracts from the book than as a result of reading the reviewer's unsupported opinion.

I do not wholly disagree with the substance of Cope's remarks. It is, as I have said, with the tone of them that I would take issue. Perhaps we need a means of allowing a more relaxed attitude towards the uses that can be made of copyright material, and at the same time a means of tightening the defenses against the rip-off. A simplification of the laws might be a good place to start. Wendy Cope may be able to explain them with a smile, but they hold many a pitfall for the mind not legally attuned.

Of course, crediting the author is but a matter of politeness, as is asking permission. Most authors I have found are only too willing to give permission - they are a friendly, supportive lot - but politeness is not something to be enforced by the law. For the occasional user of copyright material, the hurdles must occasionally seem insurmountable, not the least of them being the question of whether a particular work (especially in the case of photographic images) is in or out of copyright. (I get the impression that Cope would like material to remain in copyright for ever!) Others problems may include: not knowing the identity of the author - easily remedied on the web, of course - or how to contact him or her. Replies often take a long time to come (authors are busy people with big post bags), and may arrive too late.

The music industry has organised things rather more efficiently - but the best of schemes, it seems, is no match for the internet. A registration scheme along the lines of that employed for patents might help in an ideal world - but then, in an ideal world there would be no need of copyright. No, I am sure there is no other way in the long run than to adopt a more realistic mindset.

Saturday 8 December 2007

The Big One : A Hunger for Books

"We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers."

My thanks to The Guardian for publishing Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, of which the above is an extract.

When I was a small child we, mother, father, younger brother and myself, lived with my grandparents. When I was eight years old, or thereabouts, I got the chance to explore in the cupboard, rarely opened, situated behind my grandma's chair. There I discovered two identically bound books, survivors or fugitives they must have been, from a complete edition of the novels of Dickens. Each of the beautifully tooled volumes contained two novels. Between them: A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. "Hello, are you interested in those?" asked my Grandad, suddenly reappearing. "These are the books I've always wanted!" I lied. He gave them to me, of course. The print was small, the words beyond my ability to decipher. I had never heard of Dickens, nor any of his novels. I was bowled over by the look and feel of the books, by the gravitas that they seemed to exude.

In a small - infinitesimally small - way that memory connects me to the hunger for books and the ability to read them, which Lessing describes so movingly in her speech. The hunger of which she speaks is in Africa, and she contrasts it with our addiction to the inanities of the internet. The passage quoted above is one of the most chilling I have read on the subject. I am not sure why it struck home so profoundly unless it was because of the connection between my memory and the whole tenor of what she was saying. But there is another contrast that I find chilling: it holds in one hand the incident that I believe started me on the path to serious reading and in the other an image of the future, the future as it is being predicted by some, the hand-held text-reading machines supposedly waiting in the wings to take over the world - i.e. to replace books, even paperbacks, to do for literature what the IPod has done for music. I just bet they will beep! The designers will not be able to resist. The mantra is: if it can be done, it must be done. No such gismo could have achieved for me what those once-boxed volumes of Dickens accomplished.

Read the speech by clicking on the title to this post.

Friday 7 December 2007

Learning about poetry

At last, Ofsted has got around to poetry. For years we have heard how poorly maths - and to a lesser degree - science is taught, but poetry has had to wait its turn, and being of less importance than almost all the other aspects of the curriculum, its turn was almost last. The main reason that poetry is taught badly - I would say, for the most part not taught at all - is surely the fact that most teachers were themselves taught badly. It has become a vicious circle, the same vicious circle that bedevils maths teaching.

I have said before on my blog that although I had the (dubious) privilege of a grammar school education, I suffered very much from a lack of poetry teaching. Poetry (reading, not teaching) was an opportunity to identify various figures of speech. I learnt to spot a simile at twenty paces and to distinguish it from a metaphor, but I learnt nothing about form or rhythm. (Other than that the rhythm used in "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent unto Aix" was intended to imitate the rhythm of a horse galloping. But nothing about how the poet had performed that particular trick.) We certainly did not write poetry, and like many of the classes inspected by ofsted, we did not study poets - any poet - only individual poems, none of which were lyrical, but almost all of which were of the public or narrative variety.

All that was a long time ago, but since then I have spent most of a working lifetime in classrooms, and the impressions gained there do not conflict with my memories of my own school days. However, it does surprise me to hear that half the teachers responding to a survey (by The United Kingdom Literacy Association) cited by the ofsted inspectors, could not name more than two poets. I would like further information on that. But it does not surprise me to learn that at the Primary level teachers knew too little about poetry to be able to teach it, and did not know how to respond to attempts by pupils to write verse.

The inspectors made much of the use of nonsense poems, but they and nursery rhymes have their place. The problems are two-fold: on the one hand, the narrowness of what is studied and the vastness of what is not, and on the other the way in which it is studied. Young children still enjoy poetry and still write it, it seems; older pupils do not write it, and at best learn something about certain poems, but they learn about the poems as though they were chopped-up prose, which for most pupils (and teachers?) is what they remain. There is very little of that engagement with the language which is at the very essence of poetry. There is no reason why they (pupils and teachers) should not at the very least be introduced to iambic pentameters, dactyls, trochees, uses of the various meters and rhyme schemes, the importance of ambiguity etc, etc, always with the proviso that such introductions come in the context of an enjoyable experience. They do not need to be au fait with the whole gamut of what is available. And if such introductions might be thought not appropriate for all pupils, I could live with that. But there are many for whom it would be appropriate, who would enjoy a more nutritious diet in the 'poetry lesson', but who are at present missing out. I know, I was one of those.

Read The Poetry Society on the subject

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Mark Wallinger Wins the Turner Prize - but then a rose by any other name...

Mark Wallinger's State Britain at Tate Britain in January

First the bare facts, though they must be known to all.

1. Mark Wallinger has won the Turner Prize for Art for his State Britain. (Okay,
we could argue about the technicalities of displayed work versus an artist's
output over a twelve month period, but State Britain is what he won it for.)
2. He won it for recreating 600 items from Brian Haw's peace camp protest in
Parliament Square.
3. Before that, Brian Haw won the Channel 4 prize for the most inspiring political
4. Then Parliament passed an act banning protests around the Houses of Parliament
- an area including part of Tate Britain, as it happens.
5. The police therefore raided the peace camp and confiscated every last item. It
took seventy eight politically compromised officers to carry them all off.
6. Enter Mark Wallinger to set about recreating the display, which he did, every
last item (600 of them) in faithful detail. The exercise took fourteen assistants
six months and cost a total of £90,000. The research effort must have been
7. N.B. What in Parliament Square had been a protest becomes, in the confines of
an art gallery, a work of art. We have heard something along those lines
somewhere before, have we not?

Last night on News 24 Wallinger struggled to explain his recreation in artistic
terms. No matter. There is no reason why an artist should be good at words - or
television. For the record, if it had been my decision, I would have handed the
prize to Mark Wallinger - and would have struggled to justify my decision in
artistic terms. But now is the time to sound corny, for it is not painting, is
it? Neither is it sculpture. It is not drawing or... or any recognized category
of art. If anything, it falls under one or both of those overworked umbrellas,
'Concept' and 'Installation' Art. Last night I did not hear Mark Wallinge,
talking about his success on News 24, mention either term. He spoke of his
work as an act of restoration. He spoke of preservation. Both laudable endeavours,
both having much to do with art, even requiring a degree of "art", but not
actually art. He has said that "art needs to engage the viewer and has to have a
hook that is not entirely cerebral." Fine, but it cannot be all hook.

It is the language that is inadequate, I think. The vocabulary is deficient.
Like our one word for the many forms of love. It is sometimes difficult to
draw distinctions and leads to many an unfortunate misunderstanding. It seems to
me that we might learn a lesson from the scientific community: whenever science
enters some new territory it coins a new word for a new area of activity. The
'concepts' behind some concept art are difficult indeed to determine. Others are
so superficial as to be laughable. Maybe we are looking in the wrong place. Like
looking for the wrong feeling when there is talk of love. It might facilitate
general understanding of what (some) art is about if we could expand the
vocabulary. When some new, broad area of activity (not just some new ism) becomes
the place to go, could we not enter it on our art map and grace it with a name all
its own?

see State Britain at The Tate