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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'.


Ken Armstrong said...

I think Time is a factor as well, in the assessment of someone being considered 'acceptable' as a poet. Dylan probably always carried some level of authority but nowhere near as much, then, as he does now.

The defining of Amy as a legend-to-be already seems well-under-way. The most cynical observer might add that it will now only require her death to compound the deal.

I, for one, sincerely hope that she confounds the expectations of 'Legend' and goes on to lead a long, happy and creative life.

(Reading back on this, someone might say, "God, what's he on about?" I saw a programme recently about Winehouse which seemed to revel in her troubled nature and to anticipate with glee how great she will be - once she is gone. I hated it.)

Marion McCready said...

there's so many excellent young poets who are big names in the poetry scene today that I can't understand why they would use pop lyrics. I have nothing against performance poetry - I had my first experience of it at StAnza this year and was doubled with laughter at some of the pieces plus full of respect for the skill of some of the poets. But pop lyrics are just that - pop lyrics, apart from the seldom few that spring to mind, song writers are not writing poetry. Songwriting is a different skill, of course at times there is an overlap but generally I don't think this is the case. Nothing against Winehouse but is it really literature?

Dave King said...

I did fully understand what you were on about without the parenthesis. I do agree that time is an important defining factor, but in the meanwhile, where and how the line is drawn between pop lyric and literature strikes me as an interesting excercise, even if it is no more than that. Maybe that's how it struck the examiner. I am 100% with you in your hopes for Amy.

Dave King said...

I think most folk would be in total agreement with the sentiments you express. The difficult - and perhaps interesting - bit is trying to justify the gut reaction. There is overlap between the three disciplines (if you allow pop lyric writing as a discipline), but once there was no separation. Where and how did the three part company, is what interests me.

Jim Murdoch said...

There was, of course, a time when the Raleigh poem was bight and shiny and I do find it interesting now my life is stretching on a bit, what parts of my childhood have been adopted into popular culture. Who can imagine a Xmas without Slade any more? And only time will tell if Winehouse gets remembered or not. It's like the comment made by Lauren Bacall about Nicole Kidman to the effect that Kidman has no right – yet – to be referred to as a "screen legend" and, of course, she is right. Our standards have become diluted over the years. Now, if you've been on TV you have the right to call yourself a star. The point I am making is that I'm sure there have been as many great works forgotten as have been remembered. I just read a post yesterday about how many of Bernard Malamud's works are now out-of-print. Time may well judge Winehouse as a legend and only time can. Personally I see no problem with comparing any two works good or bad. There are lyrics and there are meaningful lyrics and not all lyrics make great poetry but that doesn't rob them of their meaning – the aforementioned Bob Dylan is a good example.

On the student's comment that Winehouse is a "controversial" pop singer, I don't think they were saying that a non-controversial pop singer's song would be more acceptable. I think they were underlining the fact; that she was controversial was adding insult to injury if you like. If they'd just been presented with two blocks of text and asked to compare them there would be no issue. I personally get tireded with the whole one-upmanship thing that revolves around poets – they need poetry to be acknowledged as the highest form of literary expression. You rarely hear novelists or lyricists getting on their high horse in the same way. It's all words. We're all writers. Can't we all just get along?

Rachel Fox said...

Oh Dave...this is soooo my subject!
I could write a comment that lasts forever...but I'll try and be brief...I may have to resort to bullet points to keep myself under control!
- I hate to be the cynic but...did the Cambridge exam setters perchance know this issue would get lots of press coverage? Did they think it might help them in the 'look we're not old fuddy duddies' war?
- Some Cambridge students are a right pain in the backside..anything that shocks them in their safe little closed-off worlds is a good thing. Hurrah for unexpected exam questions!
- If the questions had been more like this in my day (20 years ago...) I might have got a better degree! I did the avant garde literature paper and did very badly in it (I used a lot of pop culture references...I think I actually quoted that day's paper..was I too avant garde...or just lazy...?).
- the poetry/song lyrics debate will run and run....I just like words used in interesting ways...we all have different ideas of what is interesting and what is not. When snobbishness comes into it it causes nothing but trouble...I agree with Jim...poets are always a little keen to get up on what they think is higher ground. Is that to make up for the lack of attention and money..? Maybe...Or maybe they're right...
- Amy, Amy...that song is amazing because of how she sings it...because look at her - losing in love for us all to see (could she have picked a worse husband?). It isn't a particularly good example of song lyrics for me...Karine Polwart the Scottish singer/songwriter is a much more interesting lyric writer but is in the papers a lot less. If you want to get attention...Amy's the way to do it!
I could say lots more...like have you seen what my book's called...but I won't...

Ken Armstrong said...

Sorry about the parenthesis Dave - they were more for me than for anyone else - I was 'mixing meself up' there for a while.

Oops, 'did it again :)

Marion McCready said...

It is a bit of a tough one, I love music and find the lyrics of my favorite bands just as inspiring as poetry. I guess my point is the technical differences between poetry and song - why songwriters call themselves songwriters and not poets and why poets call themselves poets and not songwriters, are you saying there's no difference between poems and songs? This isn't an argument about high culture vs low culture, to my mind it's about the technical properties of a poem. Re the Winehouse lyric, I don't know the song but it seems to me that if you get rid of the line breaks its works as a good piece of prose, in fact it reminds me of Janice Galloway's writing.

Rachel Fox said...

For me some poems are also songs (and can take a tune if there's one around). Also some songs are poems (and can survive without the tune). Then there are lots of poems and songs that only work well as they are (i.e. as either a poem or a song)...but that doesn't mean that can't change somehow, some time. I've just been reading Lemn Sissay's blog...I love the way his mind works..he talks about the boundary poet 'who clings to boundaries without exploring the unknown'...You can spend time setting up boundaries between songs and poems...or you can just get on with playing with words, working with words...see where they're all going...

And I forgot to say on the Winehouse question...just because some students didn't like the choice of 'text' doesn't mean they couldn't write an interesting essay on the two pieces. Sometimes you can get a much better essay or article when you're pulling something to pieces! They could even have written an essay criticising the choice of the song lyrics as a text. A well-written essay of that type would probably get a good mark. Also examiners get so bored - it's no wonder they fancied a change. Most academics would rather be getting on with their own work anyway and only put up with students because they have no choice!

Marion McCready said...

Rachel, I take your point and I'm all for experimentalism in poetry but surely you have to know and even master the key components, 'rules'/'boundaries' of poetry in order to break them.

Rachel Fox said...

Some people do...some people don't. Some people can write great poems without ever being aware of the rules they are (or aren't) using. They may learn about the rules later...or they may not. I really do think it can be that open...that different for different writers. I don't think we should ever expect all writers to work in anything like the same way.
And now I must turn off the machine! See you in the morning.

Marion McCready said...

Fair enough, it's all opinions in the end innit :)

Unknown said...

Yes, that's true!

Dave King said...

Thanks for that. Nothing there I could disagree with. I remember back in my churchy days a lot of folk used to oan about the standard of modern hymns. Not a patch on the oldies, and it always seemed to me that they overlooked the fact that only the best had survived. Maybe there were as many duds around the "old days", but they'd been weeded out.
I heartily agree about poets claiming an elitist status for their art.
A helpful response. Thanks as always.

Dave King said...

What a great set of comments! Thanks. Two struck me particularly: the suggestion that press coverage might have influenced the examiners; and your espousal of any interesting use of words, wherever it occurs. I, too, must confess to a little cynicism where the first is concerned. As to the second, it was cheering to hear, some time back now, Seamus Heaney coming out in support of the rap singer for just that reason.

Dave King said...

I do so agree with you that the debate is not one of high culture V low (or shouldn't be), but a technical one, an attempt to tease out the differences. It is also, for me, an historical one. Thanks for that contribution. I do think it moves the discussion forward.

Rachel Fox said...

Robbie Burns is always interesting in amongst all this. I'm nowhere near a Burns expert (more like a Burns beginner) but one thing I loved about him straightaway was the fact that his songs and his poems are equally important to those who like his writing. And some of his works are songs and poems both, aren't they? Experts please advise!

Dave King said...

Also not an expert, but yes, I'd say a good point, Rachel. I do believe Jim is a bit of an expert; maybe he could help us out here.

Rachel Fox said...

ps. I love that bit about panic being 'doing nothing quickly'.It made me smile a lot as I walked out and about this morning!

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm certainly no expert on Burns but I think the point is that, at that time, the distinction between songs and poems was not as clear particularly because of the lyrical nature of the poetry of the time, it was so much easier to set these to music.

Dave King said...

Yes, I loved that bit, too - and the bit about getting busy after the deadline with the excuses!

Dave King said...

Yes, I am sure that is a good part of the answer. So, are we thinking that when poetry lost its lyrical emphasis song and rhyme moved away from each other? If so, what about song? Would it have been poetry then, had the music been removed, but that no longer applies to the songs of today? In which case, song has changed as much as poetry? I'm not sure I've expressed that very well. I'll go away and have another think!

Rachel Fox said...

Try and write a song about it!

Conda Douglas said...

Interesting post, Dave about making judgments on arts. How to be at all objective when any art is subjective? Sort of trying to hit a moving, jumping, changing target. Whenever I read about the struggle to define an art and what makes it good or even classic, I'm reminded that Mark Twain, during his lifetime, was considered only a newspaper man, humorist and writer of children's stories. One of which was Huckleberry Finn.

Dave King said...

Yes, a very good point Conda, but if you push it to its logical conclusion, then there are no boundaries, no contours. It is often difficult to draw a line, but that is not to say the line cannot or should not be drawn - ever. I am reminded of my former professor who used to talk about not be able to say exactly at which point a belt is twisted, but that does not mean the belt is not twisted. Thanks for the contribution - I would have said that I'll need to think about it, but I have a song to write.

Jon said...

I totally agree with Ken's comments on Winehouse and Dylan.
I regularly attend a local performance poetry night and have to say I thoroughly enjoy them. I must also say that the venom and exuberance of the performers/poets only adds to the overall atmosphere of these events.

Lucy said...

I read this the bother day and didn't really have time to make a comment to do it justice. Now I've got caught up in the comment thread discussion and it's so interesting I haven't really much to add to it...

I appreciate the clear, informed, well-thought-out way you write, and the amount of matter in your pieces; I frequently can't come up with a glib comment immediately and need to go away and turn them over. You, and your commenters, are a rewarding read!

I wnated to say thanks to for your regular visits to qarrtsiluni, by the way. Seeing your thoughtful and positive comments there often always cheers!

Dave King said...

Thanks for dropping by and adding to the discussion. I can quite see how the contribution of the performers/poets would add to the experience.

Dave King said...

I can only say that your comments have always been very much appreciated, as indeed they are on this occasion. They are always positive and to the point. I do know exactly what you mean, though; I find that I very often have to go away and think about a post before commenting on it. Thanks again.

Marion McCready said...

You know the more I think about this the less I'm sure of what I think, it's hurting my head!

Dave King said...

I do sympathize, it's a subject that has excercised me for a longish time now, and it seems I don't think the same way for more than a blink or two at a time. To me it all seems to depend on your starting point. Change it and you change where you end up.

Art Durkee said...

There was a big fight about this very topic coming out of Canada in the past month or so. It was initiated by a rant by Paul Vermeersch:


I contributed a few comments to that thread, which I shan't bore you with here. My basic point has always been:

The dichotomy is false. A poem has to succeed on the page AND when read aloud. I read aloud my poems after I write them. It's one way of checking them to see if they're just all head, and bodiless, or they have done what I want my poems to do, which is get into the body, and under the skin. Reading a "page poem" (terrible term!) aloud brings it into the body; so does copying it out in your own hand. That's a practice they used to do in school, pre duplication technology, which isn't taught so much anymore. It's also a great way to memorize a poem.

I have no problem with them using a Winehouse song; although I might have picked a better song by a better writer, for example, Sarah MacLachlan. Here's the thing about this controversy: there is a cult of of fans claiming singer-songwriters to be genuine poets, a cult which includes Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, others. (No one ever seems to remember Bruce Cockburn in these lists, who at his best is at least as good as any of these other.) The test here, which most songs fail, is to read the poem on the page, and see if it succeeds AS A POEM without the music's support. Most don't. Most wouldn't pass muster in your average poetry critique circle. The standards of composition for song lyrics are not the same as for (shall we say) "fine art poetry," especially nowadays, in terms of rhyme, use of cliché or stock phrase to fill out the line, etc. (Two of the small number that might possibly pass this test are, in my opinion, Joni Mitchell's "A Strange Boy" and Cockburn's "Tibetan Side of Town.")

The truth is (and I say this as a composer, not just a poet) that music and words synergize in songwriting (and if they don't, it's not a very good song): in a song that is well-written in both words and in music, the sum is greater than the parts, and the end result is a unified experience that can no longer be broken down into its parts. (Which is another reason the songwriter-poet argument is often flawed: I dare you to read the words without hearing the music in your head, too. In a good song, you just can't break it apart anymore.)