Saturday, 30 May 2009
Breathing, Walcott and Padel maybe Eating a Metaphorical Hamster
I spent some time at the Salt office this week recording poems for Poetcasting, an online archive of poets reading their work that is going from strength to strength. Recording anything always makes me start to wonder about how a poet reads to an audience.There are some that go for the grey armchair approach, no emoting, just let the words do the work. I noted on Newsnight Review last night that Simon Armitage, in reaction to the more in your face poetry performance approach, expressed the concern that sometimes the poet’s persona becomes more important than the poem and that the poem itself should contain all the drama necessary to sustain the listener’s interest. I tend to agree that in the end it is the poem that matters, no amount of dramatic egging of the poem pudding and posturing can in the end continue to sustain a bad poem and make it a poem that people want to read and re-read. If the total package of the poem and performer are an essential part of the experience of the words then in some ways perhaps it teeters on the edge of dramatic monologue, albeit packed full of rhythm, rhyme and metaphor. However I am all for anything which gets people interested in language and words in any shape or form.
Poems for the page and poems for performance are not mutually exclusive but all poets who do readings know that there are some poems you may not choose to do in a reading because they are better read on the page. AP ( the poetcaster) and I came to the conclusion that we both favour a poet who reads with some passion for their own words, if the poet does not show some desire to communicate this with an audience you tend to feel a little cheated. Mono-tonal, grey armchair delivery, feels a bit like wearing dark glasses to look at a Jackson Pollock, you may discern pattern and shapes and rhythms but the whole vibrancy and texture of colour is lost. You don’t have to ham it up to allow some colour and tone to thread through a reading.
In recordings of course we all start to hear the myriad of voice tics and bad habits. I don’t breathe enough and if not careful I end up feeling like Houdini submerged under water trying to get out of the strait-jacket of a stanza so I can gulp in some air. I have resorted to sometimes putting in breathing marks to make sure I don’t reach the end of a line tailing off because way back I forgot to take some oxygen on board. Breathing I have discovered is not the natural activity it is cracked up to be, I have been told breathing out is the key, shove it all out and the body will automatically take it all in. ‘We don’t breathe out enough’ I once heard an Alexander Technique teacher say, ‘stick to breathing out effectively and life will fall into place’. I can’t say that breathing out has been a life changing event, I sigh a lot but that isn’t the same, more a deep inhalation and a lingering exhalation.
I expect Ruth Padel and the wise men of Oxford have been sighing a great deal this week. Such a storm in a poetry teacup but the media love a good sexual slur in what they obviously regard as ‘the posh world ’plus a ‘caught you telling slight porkies’ moment. The ‘I know absolutely nothing’ approach Padel gave at first was revealed to be more of a ‘Well I do know a little about two e mails I sent in all innocence to a couple of journalists, inferring that there might be something in Walcott’s past that might make good copy.’ Any campaign that followed was not down to her. I am flummoxed, why she should have even bothered to point out something that was in the public domain anyway, any decent journalist could, with a few Google searches, have uncovered this same information. Perhaps the worry was that the election of a Professor of Poetry at Oxford was so stultifyingly boring and way off the media’s radar that no one would be bothered to cover it in any depth, it certainly wasn’t headline material but it is obviously amazingly important to those who would like to become it. I am not saying that sexual harassment of students is not an issue but I am not inclined to join the conspiracy theory some allude to, which states that any women candidate for this job would have been pillared for something. I think if a male candidate had done exactly what Ruth Padel had done he would be in the same position and it would not have been treated in some secret male Masonic way and swept under the carpet.
Who ever knows about motives, I like Ruth Padel, she would have done the job well; I like Derek Walcott’s work, he would have done the job well, now we are waiting to see if anyone will do the job well. It may be that poets are busy examining all the expenses they have claimed in the past few years as tax deductible or how they have spent their Arts Council grants as they think this may be up for public scrutiny, should they put their hat in the Oxford ring. How public money is spent is still big news at the moment. Sex and ill gotten gains have always made good copy and taking this particular lens and applying it to the poetry world could certainly throw up a few titbits but who would really be interested other than other poets. Poet spends a few quid of an Art Council grant on paying electric bill or feeding goldfish is hardly likely to shift many newspapers.
The one thing that irks me about this business is that people I know who are not that interested in poetry are just mildly amused by what they see as a slight spat between poets who they do not know and the discombobulation of Oxford academia. It confirms their belief that modern poetry is marginal and up its own posh posterior. I feel a little sorry that perhaps Ruth Padel, who is a fine poet, may be seen for a number of years as the woman who had to step down from the Oxford Chair. It’s a bit like Freddie Starr never living down the headline about eating someone’s hamster. Freddie may have been a consummate entertainer, a singer and comedian but in the public’s mind he ate that hamster (although actually he didn’t). I never thought at the start of this post I would be comparing the resignation from an Oxford Professorial Chair in Poetry to a mythical consumed hamster but then that’s what a blathering blog can do to you.
I’ve a poem in the online American based magazine Pirene’s Fountain this issue. There is a great poem there by Mark Doty, which really deserves a read. It’s an interesting magazine, with some good poems in it, enjoy.