No one told me..
I didn't know, until I read it in the paper the other day, that this is The National Year of Reading Shakespeare on behalf of which a national survey was commissioned to discover the preferred reading matter of 11 to 14 year olds. And guess what? Shakespeare did not come top. Not only that, but the bard escaped bottom spot only by the narrowest of margins, with homework pushing him up one place. First and second places were taken by Heat and Bliss, celebrity gossip magazine and teenage girls mag, respectively.
These unsurprising results were followed by the disconcerting "news" that most serious theatres are concerned that there is no source from which to replenish their existing audiences when, from one cause or another, these fall by the wayside.
All this led up to a consideration of how to interest the teenage youth in the Sweet Bard of Avon. (Why do we insist on referring to him as the bard, by the way? The one thing he never was, was a bard.) Putting him back in the school curriculum is ruled out, Tom Stoppard having been asked what he had thought of his first encounter with Shakespeare (which, as it happened, was Laurence Olivier's Hamlet), and having received the reply that it had bored him "shitless". (Not sure of the connection there, but I do know that I was put off Shakespeare at school, mainly by "The Merchant of Venice" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream". What wouldn't I have given for Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet"!)
There was much discussion of the various media available for communicating Shakespeare these days: opera, dance, radio, T.V., film, music, musicals... no mention was made of puppets or X boxes... but the most likely saviour, it was thought, was cartoons, particularly the Manga series, which are Japanese in style. Particularly, it was thought that the Japanese style of the Manga comics alongside Shakespeare's "funny English" would appeal to teenager Gothic tastes. The Classic Comics series was also thought to be a runner as these come in triplicate with a complete text, a "plain" text and a quick text". (There is also a no text version.)
I don't think the comic approach would have tempted-in many of the adolescents I have taught, though many of them, I am sure, would gladly have read them. But maybe the present teenage population.... maybe I am not well-placed anymore to judge. I would be interested to hear what others might think.
The comic page is from Richard III "plain" text.
Click on it to see larger size.
A Change of mind?
This is a follow-up to my post One man's meat is another man's Haiku, and has been occasioned by my discovery of a recently-published book by Maryanne Wolf, "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain". In my post I touched on the changes to a brain's structure that result from the process of learning to read, and how those changes vary enormously according to the type of reading matter being mastered. The example I took concerned how the structures resulting from learing to read an alphabet-based text such as English will differ from those in the brain of a person learning to read, say, Chinese, a visual encoding whose method is based upon the ideogram. One of my illustrations involved fMRI scans of the two brains. Wolf has a more powerful image which I would certainly have used had I been aware of it at the time: she tells of a bilingual man, a fluent reader in both English and Chinese, who suffered a disasterous stroke which destroyed parts of his brain, such that he could no longer read a word of English. His ability to read Chinese, however, was undiminished. She makes the point that reading is an unnatural activity, or as she puts it: "Our brains were never wired for reading." Reading was only ever made possible by the capacity of the neurons in the brain to forge new links in response to new demands being made upon the brain. This allows the language form being used to write a particular structure to the brain. Or as Wolf puts it: "We are what we read." I think that sums up quite succinctly what I was struggling to express in my original post.
A Subaltern's Love Song
Sad to hear of the death of Joan Hunter Dunn. I am sure many thought she was a fiction. As many as those who think John Betjeman was too light-weight or too jingly to be considered as a serious poet. Much of his work was maybe too light-weight and too jingly to have made of him a likely Poet Laureate, yet Poet Laureate he became. And there was more: he has been called parochial and passe and has been faulted for not doing the big themes - except for death. All of which is fair comment. He was not a nature poet, not a Wordsworth certainly, but perhaps his biggest crime has been that of becoming known for the wrong poems. A Subaltern's Love Song, would, I suppose, be regarded as typical Betjeman. And it is, but if that is to summarise what he achieved, it sells him short. He was best known for his nostalgia, his sense of place and of Victorian architecture in particular, even for his melancholia, but to my mind he was, above all, a poet of landscape, nearer to Crabbe than to Wordsworth. For me his best works are the poems from and of Cornwall and Ireland:
Stony outcrop of the burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe's Stone Age race.
He was also a splendid writer of blank verse and was happier with it than with prose. And what an incredibly lucky poet! How many others have been lucky enough to find a muse with a name like Joan Hunter Dunn? You couldn't even hope for it, could you? To what extent she was his muse, I am not sure, not in the same way that Maud Gonne was Yeats's muse, I think. To the best of my knowledge Joan Hunter Dunn inspired only the one poem (though I am happy to stand corrected on that), but Betjeman's muse is what she is, and I guess, will remain.