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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


Jim Murdoch said...

Burns I was force-fed as a child to the extent that I'm not sure I'm not sure I'm capable of appreciating his genius any more. (I feel the same about Beethoven's Sixth). Luckily for me there are so many other poets I've never got to grips with it will be a long time before I'll need to go back to him but I wish you well. I did win a Burns competition when I was nine however.

I suppose I have a similar plan for next year, although I've never been one for anything as formal as a resolution, and that is to actually read more about poetry. I've always been frustrated by the number of poets who have failed to reach me. Being who I am I always feel the fault is mine but I'm not sure that's necessarily the case. The poet Basil Bunting advised fledgling poets, "Never explain, your reader is as smart as you." No we're not. I'm certainly not.

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