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Sunday 29 June 2008

All dolled-up and nowhere to go but home

I have had a busy week, mostly away from the computer and mostly for pleasure. We went to Wimbledon, for example, to see something of the tennis championships, and to The Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley. So not a lot of blog activity, I fear. Apologies wherever they may be appropriate. I will try to catch up. The poem comes from the Wisley visit. It probably needs putting away for a week or two and then some serious work to be done on it, but I post it now for reasons of topicality.

All dolled-up and nowhere to go, but home.

Scarecrows. A magic trail of them. People
are posing with them, photographs are being taken
of them arm in arm, embracing them
or smooching up to them, some
even feigning a meaningful moment,
all glad-eyed and gossippy, down on their knees
with them. Others not feigning, alive in
a fantasy: scarecrows are living;
we, the clockwork copies of ourselves.

"How fresh and original!" someone is saying.
(I think it must be one of the people.)
(Can you see in the figures
some ground-breaking trait?) I fancy
you'll find no unorthodox types.
They are all of conventional breed: punk,
vicar, court jester, spiv, banker, director -
and one Madam Chairman who thrills me to bits,
and looks like a dominant minus her whips.

Bamboozled by appearances,
we cannot resist
the subtle crudities of gaping hole for mouth
and earth-filled stocking for a nose. Like songs
or smells they are connecting us
to home, to where we most belong, where are
the china dog, long-legged doll and fluffy bear,
a place of lost relationships
found for this short while.

Monday 23 June 2008

A Question of Gender

The latest - and for a good while, probably the last - in my series on childhood.

The house was different that morning,
the shadows darker, highlights brighter,
people quieter, breakfast just a touch
more special, grandad toasting bread,
thick slices on a long wire fork, the fire
too big, the room too warm, dad not at work,
mum still in bed, and gran (who would have
felt a scandal coming on if she had guessed
how I knew - thought I knew - what lay behind
the fuss) with her large saucepan on the hob.
At which point he appears, the doctor,
in the doorway - and me but half-way
through my toast. His bag a disappointing
flat, looks empty - and too small to ever
hold a baby. Manfully I try
to play it like I do not care. Upstairs
a cry. "Good lungs on him!" my father says.
So now I care, with knees red raw from bed
times praying for a sister. Getting wind
of which, the doctor's ferretting for whys
and wherefores - though too subtle, not in
my face enough to break me down. I keep
my counsel, fob him off: "So we can call
her Sylvia," I lie. They all at this
time - doctor, family, the world at large -
are too ingenuous to comprehend
the full extent of that dark place within
my soul. He rolls himself a cigarette:
"Small problem, simply solved," he muses
to himself... "we call the little lad
Sylvesta." "Over my dead body!"
will growl my mother when she hears. It's all
a great distraction from what lies beneath
that off-white lie (mum always says there are
no truly white ones): my first craving
of the flesh, my first illicit itch,
my twice-repeated, horror-greeted plea
(the voice of old Beelzebub, gran says)
to add a dolls' house to the toys I own.
A sister, though, might bring the longed-for
object in her train, might be prevailed upon
to share it with outlandish beings,
dolls of different kind, long raised in
caves and tunnels underground, all sworn
to games of gross and most ungirlish play.

Thursday 19 June 2008

Comment with the experts.

The Times newspaper is running a weekly article under the title "modern art explained", which is actually claiming too much for it. The format is that each week (Tuesday) they reproduce a significant work of modern art, together with verdicts by readers and an expert. Interesting though these can be (and so far the readers' have had the edge on the expert), they have not, in my view, amounted to an "understanding" of modern art - or even of the works themselves. There have been two so far. This week it was the turn of the Jake and Dinos Chapman brothers to have their "One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved" put up for scrutiny. It is basically a desicration of a perfectly respectable portrait, such that it now depicts the inevitable decay which the body must suffer. Rachel Campbell Johnston, the expert, considers it the modern equivalent of the traditional image of St Jerome meditating on the skull beneath the skin . Last week's offering was Pablo Picasso's "Woman Weeping", an image which grew out of "The Greek Chorus of women weeping" in the aftermath of Guernica, one of the worst atrocities of The Spanish Civil War, involving the bombing of the Basque village. He produced a series of such images, all related to his great work of that name.

At any time the work for the following week can be viewed at www.timesonline.co.uk/modernartexplained, thereby making it possible to email your views in time for them to be published alongside the expert's. Next Tuesday's offering is to be a Robert Gwathmey print.

This week the views seemed to divide according to whether or not the person commenting considered that art should depict beauty. There certainly have been times when the universal view would have been that beauty was art's business first and foremost, and many even today would be inclined to ask what is art's business if not beauty in some form or other? Possibly a more productive talking point than the work itself?

Saturday 14 June 2008

The singer, the poet, the actor and the bard

Before I get intp my post proper, a word of apology for my recent absence, and this particularly to any whose comments have not been responded to, the reason being that my hard drive gave up the ghost in the middle of a defrag. The "pooter buff" in whose tender care I laid my machine was initially sure that he could ressurect it; to me it seemed terminal. Alas, I was correct, he was too optimistic. So I now have a much larger drive with acres of empty space - and miles of re-installing to and tweaking and adjusting to do. Still, (Almost) Normal Service is Resumed.

The singer, the poet, the actor and the bard

I am not exactly a devotee of performance poetry and have not attended a vast number of poetry readings, so am probably not the person best equipped to write this post, but I do not accept the oft-stated opinion that performance poetry is related to pop culture rather than to literature, and I have always found it difficult to understand those who suggest that performance poetry is in some measure inferior to the printed form, to what has been termed 'page poetry'. Analysis of this latter attitude will show, I suspect, two basic misconceptions: that performance poetry is mostly produced by would-be "page poets" who feel - or have been made to feel - that there is something lacking in their work which prevents it from standing up to close examination on the page.

In which connection: there was a touch of public tut-tutting a couple of weeks back when the news broke that this year's Cambridge University Final Year English Lit Paper required the finalists to compare a lyric from Amy Winehouse, Love is a Losing Game (I ask you: what are our universities coming to?:

For you I was a flame
Love is a losing game
Five storey fire as you came
Love is a losing game
Why do I wish I never played?
Oh, what a mess we made
And now the final frame
love is a losing game
Played out by the band
Love is a losing hand.)

with a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, As you came from the Holy Land:

As you came from the Holy Land
Of Walsinghame,
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?
How shall I know your true love,
That have net many one,
As I went to the Holy Land,
That have come, that have gone?
She is neither white nor brown,
But as the heavens fair,
There is none hath a form so divine
In the earth or the air...

Extremely interesting to me were the reported reactions of the finalists. These ranged from: "I sat there looking at the paper in shock" and "I wouldn't consider a controversial pop singer a literary figure" (the word 'controversial was intriguing there, I thought: would a non-controversial pop singer have been fine and dandy? Should we avoid controversial poets as well?) through "It was really bizarr," to admiration for the examiner who had set the question: "I think it's cool, poetry doesn't have to be Keats and Byron". (I guess we can assume that he was one candidate who hadn't gone into the examination room with a stock of prepared answers.) I am not sure whether or not the paper asked for differences rather than similarities ( I have not seen the actual question reprinted anywhere), but I doubt it. That, I imagine, is just what the press has fixated upon - at which point my former professional involvement with intelligence testing reminds me that the ability to discern differences precedes that of spotting similarities, which is a higher cognitive skill. So an infant asked to say how a ball is like an apple will likely say "You can't eat a ball, but you eat apples" or "The apple is red, but the ball is blue". however, a year or so later s/he will happily tell you that they are both round. However, to give credit where credit is due, one journalist did spot a similarity, though as between the authors, not the works; he honed in on the fact that both had a penchant for mind-altering substances.

Is there any significance then, I wonder, in the fact that all the adverse comments I have read, be they from the finalists themselves or from the press, relate to teasing out differences, rather than any similarities, between Raleigh's poem and Winehouse's lyric. Typical has been: "The Raleigh poem is a lyrical poem, written to be sung or to be read aloud, whilst the Winehouse lyric doesn't have to exist without the music."

The Guardian made a couple of interesting points, the first being that the finalists were also asked to compare the Raleigh poem with Fine and Mellow, by Billie Holiday and Boots of Spanish Leather, by Bob Dylan, but no voices were raised in protest at their inclusion. It does begin to look as though the devil was in that word 'controversial', do we not think? The Guardian's other point was made by asking readers first to imagine that they had come to these lines blind, not knowing anything about them or where they were from:

"Self-possessed and profound,
'Till the chips were down,
Know you're a gambling man,
Love is a losing hand."

Would we, the Guardian asked us all, be able to say for sure whether these lines were written during the reign of Elizabeth 1 or whether they date from the time of Elizabeth 2? Easy-peasy, I thought: the word "chips" gives it away, but that, apparently is not so.

Quite possibly, I am in danger of making the introduction the longest part of the post, so I will tear myself away from this absorbing topic and move on to the more general one which has been a bone of contention for as long as I can remember, and which the Winehouse controversy revived for me: the question as to whether or not a lyric can be regarded as a poem with music added - and conversely, whether a poem is but a lyric stripped of the music that should rightly belong to it. I say it has been a bone of contention for as long as I can recall, but it is nevertheless a relatively modern dilemma Historically, of course, the song came first. Poems were set to music. Before even there was writing there were what today we might dub 'performance poems', by the recitation of which the history and mores of the tribe or community were passed on from generation to generation. By the fourteenth century (I speak of Britain, though the phenomenon was almost universal) these had become the ballad, an oral narrative poem with no stated author and often sung to a simple musical accompaniment. They relayed the tales and myths of the community and would very often contain a strong element of the supernatural. They had a simple stanza form, usually of four lines rhyming abcb(see here) and were usually characterized by much repetition and direct speech. The heyday of the ballad was the late Middle Ages.

There were national differences. Ireland, for example, was an intensely aristocratic society and as with all such, attached geat importance to the record of its past achievements. It was the duty and purpose of the poet to keep alive the details of its history and the genealogy of those who had made the history, thereby to enhance the reputations and value to the community of the ruling classes. Later, this mnemonic tradition met with the Latin writing tradition and adopted the fixed forms which gave it a greater permanence, with printed poems coming into their own in the sixteenth century as broadside ballads, being printed on one side of a broadside sheet. Both in England and Ireland, they survived until well into the twentieth century. It was Irish society's aristocratic nature that was responsible for ensuring its ballad tradition would be underpinned by a literary one. This was not so in Scotland, where the tradition was basically a non-literate one in which the vernacular (rather than the classical literary language) was used. It would seem that hundreds of songs must have been lost because of this difference, and what survives is mainly what was written down by a few educated Gaels, many of them clergymen, and mostly after the disaster of Culloden had brought home to them the likelihood that the Gaelic world was comng to an end, and that the fragments must be collected. However, bards would continue to exist and ply their trade in Scotland until well into the eighteenth century.

It was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that saw the appearance of the literary ballad. Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci are excellent examples, as, in Scotalnd, is The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. The U.S. and Australia saw the development of the popular ballad retelling old tales to fit changed circumstances.

What the history of poetry seems to tell us - and it should come as no surprise - is that all poetry, written or otherwise, is essentially a coming together of sound, rhythm and meaning. No doubt some bright spark will find the exception that proves the rule and come up with some poem in which one or more of these elements is missing, but for all practical purposes poetry is a form in which they work together. I would find it difficult to conceive of a poetry that was not, potentially at least, performable. Certainly the best performance poets are craftsmen who would want their work to stand up for itself on the page as well as on the stage. This would be true even when the performance was meant to incorporate theatrical elements, including acting, and it remains true even in the case of a work that is almost universally acknowledged to be more successful on the stage than on the page. \simon \munnery's Deadlines would be such a work:

I do nothing without a deadline.
Without a deadline I do nothing
Until the deadline is almost upon me, and then I panic
Which is doing nothing quickly!
Only when the deadline is past, do I begin work
On my excuses.

Personally, I think it works very well on the page. It is said that it brought the house down when it was performed.

Now, though, is the crunch time. I can put it off no longer. The $64,000 question is: what about the Winehouse lyric? Is it poetry? It had just won an Ivor Novello award for the best musical and lyrical song, but the Cambridge finalists had to rank it, not just against a poem by Walter Raleigh, but against the might of Wordsworth and Milton also. For our purposes, though, it does not have to be great poetry; it just has to qualify as poetry. Do sound, rhythm and meaning gel together? The meter is simple iambic (te tum - a beat or "foot" consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one) trimeter (3 such beats or feet per line) with some inversions called trochees (tum te - stressed, unstressed) and occasionally at the beginning of a line, something called a spondee (tum tum - two stressed syllables). So that's okay then, nothing wrong there, that would all pass muster - you can invert or tum tum at the beginning of a line! But there's more: the Winehouse lyric is written in rhyming couplets. Not fashionable, maybe (certainly not in the world of The Poetry Society, for example), but it's okay, they can't touch you for it. There is not a lot of assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) - so you want everything in the one poem?

It goes without saying, of course, that regular rhyme and rhythm schemes do not of themselves make a poem. They may produce a verse of sorts, a container to hold the poetry, as it were, but the last thing we want is to go te tumming to infinity with rhymes that dong their merry way the while. What matters is the poetry, which is more than rules and guide lines. Here, though, we have a verse which is simple - and appropriate, you might say - in that it purports to convey the thoughts and feelings of a person of simple, unsophisticated outlook. The comparison with the Raleigh is with a poem that gives the sixteenth century outlook and language of a sophisticated man-about-town, but to my mind the Winehouse lyric makes it as poetry on the page - and although I have not seen her perform - except on the t.v. - I am quite sure that, performed by Winehouse, it makes it as poetry on the stage as well! It maybe doesn't make it as intellectual poetry, which is perhaps why it set so many Cambridge hearts a'pumpin'.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Intelligence Gathering

The light below,
which was always white in sitting room and hall,
but yellow from my post upon the landing,
could be a wedge to split a wall in two,
and then a horn or speaking tube that filled
the stairwell with a muffled drawl - deep speech

that might have come through water.
My great aunt and my mother speaking late
at night, their voices sounding foreign.
My great aunt's house. My sleeping
brother, five years younger, unaware
of how the world can change its shape and bare

its soul when darkness falls. Evacuees,
our world had changed uncannily; we'd seen
new images replace the old. And there,
in my mind's eye, on my aunt's bureau,
sat code books, two-way radio
and all the many trappings of the spy.

Sometimes above the gurgling, a sun-
lit phrase might leap in distant echo
of a half-forgotten sentiment once tied
to one of my first snapshots of the world -
now mis-identified. Inside my skull,
cold analysts, sifting the intelligence,

uncovered things I swore to carry to
the grave: an uncle whom I loved
kept skeletons in some dark kitchen closet;
my mother loved a man who wore a funny hat;
and, dying of an unknown illness,
I'd only days (or so) to live.

© David King

Monday 2 June 2008

Nearly! - True story 2

This is the true story I promised when I posted my poem "A Family Occasion". You may recall that a couple of posts on Ken Armstrong's blog had given me cause to stop and think: a true story in which Ken was himself involved, and a tale about the tale and how he came to write it, leading to a moral, almost a moral imperative, you might say, that this story of mine which I have had for some while asking to be written down, should get its wish. I hesitated long, partly because it reveals the slightly unpalatable truth that I have not always been the exceedingly likeable chap that I have become. So I worried about the details, how it would come out, the spin, if you like. But Ken made the issue clear enough: not to worry about getting it right; get it written. So with a thank-you nod to Ken, here it is:-

It is drawn from my days as an art student. I have mentioned before that sculpture was an ex-curricular activity engaged in at evening classes in a small, rather deep cellar which doubled as a pottery studio. We shared the sessions with further education students and inherited a long tradition of mild hostility between "them" and "us" - a bit like "town" and "gown" at university, I used to think. From our point of view they were not serious about the work, spending much of the time gossipping and fooling around. They also took too much of the lecturer's time. (Though in truth, two minutes would have been too much.) From their point of view we were Bohemian (just because we dressed that way), dismissive of them (can't argue with that!) and pretentious. (Pretentious, nous?)

Well, once upon that far-off time, I had arrived early for the session and was alone in the studio when a newcomer descended the stairs. It was obvious that he was another of "them". Who but an amateur would turn up for modelling or pottery in a lounge suit? Some of the sculptures, including my own, were on turntables or pottery wheels. He walked up to one, removed its cover, the purpose of which was to keep the clay damp and workable, and set it turning very slowly, leaning back to examine it as he did so, and making low, reflective mmmmmmm sounds. I found this very presumptuous of him and was beginning to get a bit hot under the collar when he turned to me and asked "Did you do this?" No," I replied., "not bloody likely!" The model was in point of fact the work of a friend of mine, and I thought very highly of it. It was a huge construction, based upon a motif of seashells, and had been painstakingly built up over a period of many weeks by the patient application of small pieces of clay. "Do you know the person who did it?" came next. "Sure, he's a friend of mine!" "Does he work like this a lot?" "Does he? He'll knock off five or six of an evening!"

There was no response to this last titbit of information, but instead he moved off to the next model, which happened to be mine, a plaster model, built on armatures, also over many weeks, an abstract, but loosely based on various skeletons I had sketched at the Victoria and Albert Museum. "Is this one of his?" "Nope. Mine." "Do you do a lot of this?" "When I can tear myself away from my first love." Which is?" "China dogs and long-legged dolls. Good market for them." At this point there came another figure darkening the stairway, and with it the voice of Mr Henke (not sure about the spelling) the lecturer, bellowing down the stairwell: "Are you down there, Mr Epstein?"

End of story? Nearly. Actually it wasn't the Mr Epstein, but his brother (Harold, I think), a highly respected sculptor in his own right. Later, Mr Henke caught up with me and asked "What the hell have you been saying to Mr Epstein? He asked me who the lunatic was down there!" So passed ingloriously my one (illusory? We'll - I'll - never know) chance of fame.