Sunday, 28 June 2009
I seem to have settled into a habit of Sunday blogging, this may be because Sunday has in the past few months offered up an hour or so when I have not felt guilty at not using it to write other stuff, stuff being poems, another novel and some first novel re-writes at the request of lovely agent (blessings be upon her brunette head). Plus there is finding time to read, the foundation of every literary endeavour. I read therefore I am. I have been an avid reader since I was able to read at three or four. Luckily I picked up how you cracked this code of visual symbols being put together to correspond to the spoken word quite early, before I went to school in fact. My mother always put it down to my reading packets and tins stuck on top of my pram and then push chair. Early exposure to Omo, Brillo Pad boxes and Bronco toilet paper balanced on my lanky long lap obviously allowed me to fathom that these marks held some long term significance . Talking to those, who as adults are still unable to read with ease, I have in recent years become more and more aware of how this cracking of the code was a gift that I never fully appreciated when young. A few years ago a woman once told me that every day she spent in school when young was a confirmation of her inability to join the club, to join what she thought of as the rest of the world about her. Luckily dyslexics and others with learning difficulties receive better treatment these days ( well hopefully they should) but maintaining your self esteem as an intelligent human being whilst struggling to read words and text that others skim through with ease is still hard going.
I often say to non-readers that I can’t ride a bike, I have to think very hard about riding a bike, I have no natural sense of balance, I cannot make the machine a simple extension of my body. I know that others don’t have to think about the process at all, it just flows in one kinaesthetic pattern.It is something I can improve with practice, determination and help but I will always have to work hard at doing it, it will never come naturally. Thankfully I can avoid any necessity to ride a bike whereas reading is a skill current western civilisation regards as important. If bike riding was deemed the skill necessary to be a successful and competent human being I would be sunk.Luckily reading and writing is the skill that is valued and thus 'hurray' nature has been kind enough to endow me with the ability to be able to read with ease; nothing to do with how intelligent I am, how creative I am, how hard working I am, indeed many dyslexics are highly intelligent, creative and lateral thinkers. I may need to think about the odd word when I read, what it means or how it is pronounced but essentially reading just happens for me. What a wonder the human brain and invention is, that the thoughts and words of one person can be transferred and encoded into these strange marks on a page and then decoded again perhaps hundreds of years later or miles away from the originator of the words. Of course publishing and the printing press have allowed this act of reading and writing business to become a global and historic phenomenon but even as I type this now if I really think hard about what I am doing, it still becomes a wonder. These curves, circles, straight lines all combining to convey meaning that you dear reader, however far distant can use to access what I am thinking, sitting here at my desk in the fens. If you think about it too hard, self consciously it almost slows you down. There is an old trick that has done the rounds a lot about the fact that so long as the first and last letter in a word is the same you can jumble up the letters in between and even miss out the vowels and people can still read the text, more slowly maybe, but in some strange alchemy that this embedded skill imparts to us, many are able to combine all the skills of symbol decoding, and syntax together to arrive at the meaning.
Ths bmcs qte aynnng bt mny pple fnd rndg jbmld wdrs and lrtts rlly esy ohrts fnd it mre dcflft.
So having cracked the code I read and read as a child and have never stopped reading. It not only allowed me access to the factual world but to the world of imagination.Imagination is a muscle that has to be exercised in order to grow and it is reading that has strengthened that muscle for me. The ability to read doesn't give birth to imagination of course, but what I can imagine, having read so extensively, would be significantly different, not better or worse but different nonetheless. So I continue to read and find in that experience something about myself, the world and about possibilities everyday.
I have just read Sarah Hall’s new book ‘How to Paint a Dead Man’ with relish, questions being asked of me as I challenge myself to connect all the varying threads and when I finished it, I read it all over again to lick out the bowl of all the rich mix I didn’t get first time around. I like books that demand something from me, the ones that give me the whole cake, iced and finished are great in a different way, so long as the story and language are exciting enough to keep turning the page. That there are different books for different times in our life or our different moods is the whole joy of the printed word. I am currently reading the poet Jacob Polley’s first novel, Talk of the Town, written in Carlisle dialect in the voice of a young teenage boy, it's is a real joy and has taken me into this boy’s world and head with ease. The rough council estate lads and the girls who are fifteen but sometimes going on thirty in their approach to life all resonate with my experiences of working and living in such places for years.I have laughed alot when reading it at the sheer rough puckishness of some of the dialogue and interaction.
I went to see two plays at the Hotbed Drama festival in Cambridge yesterday and saw two new and exciting pieces of work by Fraser Grace and Helen Mort, totally different but equally exciting. Fraser Grace’s piece, Events from a Forgotten War, is about the life and murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
It revealed a bleak world of corruption, torture, terrorism and murder but also an insight into real courage, born out of sheer stubbornness in the face of madness and cruelty and Anna’s unwillingness never to give into threat when she was faced with injustice. There has just been an announcement of the re-trial of her murderers. Her assassination occurred on Putin’s birthday.Putin when asked to comment on her murder at the time stated that he had nothing to say about someone so insignificant. Each birthday now ,of course, he is faced with the silent vigils of those thousands that mourn her death and demand justice for her. Assassination of those that publicly question those in positions of power is never the full stop those that may instigate it envisage, it just makes the question mark bigger and more noticeable.Who ever was responsible for her murder the questions she raised about the use of power won't just disappear
A Pint for the Ghost , the other piece I saw, by Helen Mort, was other worldly and delivered in such a way that the language of the poems became heightened but never over the top. The ghosts of the Peak District and Sheffield paraded before us, each different, each taking the stage to quietly assert their right to be heard. Poetry on stage can be mesmerising, it does not have to be the sometimes shouty, 'in your face' world of performance poetry, the sheer beautiful language of the great poem can always sustain the drama and hold you spell bound, even more so in some ways, for its quietness and intensity. Someone just being still and telling you the quiet stories of the dead using words so well, makes you feel you have experienced something special. This piece renewed my faith in the power of the poem as real drama in its own right (in the full sense of the word dramatic).
I note Iran is busy expelling foreign newspaper journalists, the government there understands the power of the written word. All governments understand the power of the written word. Politkovskaya always knew it. Which brings me back full circle to the power of reading. In a world that may seem dominated by TV and film, the written word is still able to move mountains and topple governments not just MPs with duck houses. Even great TV and theatre starts with the written word, a good script. The ability to distribute marks on a page to communicate something is not just a human right it is one of the things that helps us be more human.
Off now to make some more marks on page and look at some others and end up in somewhere else for a while in my head.I have not mentioned Michael Jackson there are thousands of marks on a page or computer screen that you can find elsewhere on his death.
Sunday, 21 June 2009
I seem to have gone through an arboreal phase this week and also discovered an American poet that I want to explore and read more of but more of that at the end. Last Sunday I went to a series of readings based on the theme The Birds and the Trees. One of the speakers was Mark Cocker, who writes The Country Diary in the Guardian, he spoke about trees and behind him flashed up a series of photographs of trees. You sit for long enough and look at stills on a loop of trees, bark, branches, crowns and leaves and you start to see other patterns and images emerging. Interestingly one of the things Mark spoke about was the concept of woods and forests as something impenetrable and mysterious in the human psyche. That sense that, in the woods, there are things which defy human explanation. How many fairy tales and myths have woods or forests as a back drop.
If humans disappeared the woods would start to take over again. As if to emphasise this point, I have a tree growing out of a tiny crack in the concrete outside my front door, it is now ten feet high and elegant next to my wheelie bins. It is undoubtedly burying its roots into drains, foundations, defying everything man made and I admire its sheer bloody tenacity. So given this talk, for the past week I keep noticing trees, even in the long low flat fens there are trees, I hasten to point out.
In my local park there is a horse chestnut tree that is magnificent, there is a photgraph of it I took in the winter at the top of the blog. It defies small school boys hanging from it, hurling sticks at it to bring down conkers, cricket balls, golf balls, footballs flying at it and through it. It presides over endless summer picnics thrown together by harassed mothers in an attempt just to get out of the house with small fractious children. It has dogs pee against it and has teenagers in hoodies leaning against it smoking cheap fags probably stolen from packets left out by their dads. It stands amidst brass bands and summer festivals; majorettes twirl batons around it and small children dressed as ladybirds or characters from Alice in Wonderland have been driven round it on floats. An orchestra and operatic arias have performed beside it. I have sat under it and watched as my three year old daughter played on the old fashioned slide that defied all health and safety measures, it was all brass and wrought iron with the exciting and endless potential for falls, broken bones and friction burnt bums. This tree has watched as that slide was replaced by smaller, safer, approved play equipment surrounded by impact absorbing surfaces. My daughter went on to hanging out near the tree at night in that particular stage with other teenagers, where they sat on the swings and talked of everything and nothing in the dark and lived through all the labyrinthine maze of how you grow up. This tree has seen all of those teenagers leave the town to find other trees in other parks and some of those have come back to sit under it on rugs with their own children in summer. It has watched the old ladies with swollen ankles and sensible shoes from the old peoples bungalows near by, sit on the bench beside it and get their breath on the walk back from the Monday market. This tree has seen a whole town drift by it at one time or other and has even had the ashes of the dead who once scrambled up it for conkers, scattered around it. It lost the odd branch in high winds, leaves every year, the company of other trees that have died of disease. It is not ancient but old enough to have a history that has consumed other much smaller histories, it is a part of my history as much as I am a part of its.
Even the gloomy Philip Larkin saw something hopeful in trees, a research study has found that hospital patients who can see trees from the windows of the ward recover faster. Hugging trees may be twee and clichéd eco-loving behaviour but there are worse things than hugging a tree to get a sense that just going on is better than giving up. I won’t hug the tree outside my front door, it is slender and has a rather standoffish decorum about it but it and I know it has its roots in the drains and loveliness and splendour sometimes need no qualms about getting down and dirty to survive. I am of course being overly if not entirely anthropomorphic about nature now, but it may be that deep mysterious thing again about woods coming back at me, there is a certain control in thinking of things in human terms. Nature has no mind, no knowledge of itself or sense of its own beauty or magnificence or usefulness, it just ‘is’ and we the observer endow it with such virtues. Having swung down from the trees and evolved we have the capacity to marshal such thoughts and unfortunately the capacity to use it for our own ends.
A tree pollarded tends to live longer than a tree left to its own devices, pollarding is of mutual benefit, it provided firewood etc for man and freed the tree from the weighty product of its own rampant growth so it could continue to grow. Man and trees once worked well together we had at one point in our history a fair bargain with nature, and then we built town and cities, needed cleared land to feed our growth, invented machines that created a need for more trees to counteract the side effects of such machines but still we needed to clear and to feed our growth, we just had to get greedy to service the machine of progress. We can’t go back, unknow, unneed, unuse, undo; I am sometimes dismal about the prospect of us ever remotely trying to get it right on a global level. Personally I could listen to Al Gore and others and not feel anything but intellectual worry and concern but when I cross the park and I look at that horse chestnut , one tree at a time seems doable. I ‘own’ a couple of replanted trees in the rain forest through a project, its not much and sounds very ‘Guardian reader' and worthy. I may not chain myself to trees but I might consider it if the one in the park was threatened, I am wondering what I’ll do if my neighbour says the tree outside my front door is damaging her foundations? Property is nine-tenths of the law, so they say, and I don’t think trees even make up the other tenth.I know I could plant another tree elsewhere to counteract its demise but I tend to think in the definite article which I admit is a failing but also a strength.
On Friday there was an interesting event that looked at modern American poetry in Cambridge University. The American poets, Ryan Van Winkle and Tamar Yoseloff, read their own work but also chose poems by other American poets. Amongst the usual suspects a poem by Wendell Berry was read, which I liked and this drove me to look up more of his work as I knew nothing about him. He now farms in Kentucky but his biography shows how deeply embedded he is in the concept of sustainable agriculture within the American system, he has been called 'the prophet of rural America'. From what I have read he has a strong sense of community and how the landscape and place have a massive part to play in the psyche of American. He has written books, essays, short stories and poetry. He is an interesting read, especially if you are interested in the dialogue between nature and those that farm or live in small rural communities. I kept being reminded of some of John Clare’s work as I read some of his poems. From what I have read so far he manages to stay just the right side of sentimental and nostalgic whilst still conveying the power of that need to connect with the land and the people that make a community. Here is his biog, which is worth reading and a couple of his poems, At a Country Funeral and The Peace of Wild Things. However I would strongly recommend a listen to this recording of a reading he gave ten years ago. It reveals his strong wry sense of human which salvages the prophet from being too grimly serious but stick with the essay he also reads, it has much to say about the land and man's relationship with it, of what things can be known and what can be told.
Saturday, 13 June 2009
How strange can life be sometimes, I was sitting in a local coffee shop in my little fen market town today and through conversation found I was sitting next to a relative of Sorley McClean, the famous Gaelic Poet, who was so influential in bringing about the renaissance of Gaelic poetry. The woman was born on the island of Raasay and her family still live there. She too had watched the BBC2 programme on Celtic Poetry last night and the role poetry plays in nationalism or as Cerys Hughes pointed out, questioning nationalism.
The woman I got into conversation with said that as a schoolgirl she was asked to critique McClean’s famous poem Hallaig, about the highland clearances on the island, she approached the whole thing in a much more personal way, this was about her family, her island. I came home and read Hallaig again using Seamus Heaney’s translation and could see that whilst I could take much from the poem someone who knew this landscape and who had lived there could take so much more. Raasay translated from the Gaelic means the island of roe deer so the use of the deer image in the poem is significant.
I have often wondered what would have happened if there had been a local fen poet writing during the draining of the fens for that too was a time of huge cultural, social and ecological change brought about on the local people by the rich ‘incomers’ and land owners, especially the Duke of Bedford. No poetry was written to eulogise the loss of the fen marshes and all that it meant to the local people apart from the angry and anonymous Powte’s Complaint. A marsh was land held in common, open to all to benefit from but drained land became property to be jealously guarded. People that once made a living from eel catching and shooting and catching wild duck and geese could no longer gain a livelihood from it. The parallel with the plight of the Marsh Arabs in Iraq is I think interesting and something I have researched for a project. These photographs by Tor Eigeland are well worth a visit to see how the Marsh Arabs lived. After the first Gulf War the marshes provided a haven for many of the enemies of Saddam Hussein and the Americans encouraged the Marsh Arabs to revolt against Saddam during that war but without aid from the Americans, which wasn’t forth coming despite promises, they lost and were forced to a pay a terrible price. Most of the marshes through various schemes were reduced to desert and a way of life was virtually destroyed.
In some ways it could almost be seen as a parallel to the Saxons (Hereward the Wake etc) retreating into the fen marshes to fight the invading Normans. The powers that be don’t like marshland, desert, wild mountains and hills or jungle it is too uncertain, it favours the local, it cannot be harvested, it breeds people who do not take to governance easily, eventually the powers that be usually make the inhabitants of such land who have a tendency to bolshiness pay the price for a their relationship with their land. Just as the highlands and islands like Raasay were cleared to make way for the rich English landlords and to ensure a political power base was destroyed. I find it fascinating the relationship between landscape and power and how those in power always seek to ensure that it can never be used against them, landscape and the love of it can be as great a weapon as a gun.
Read Hallaig with an eye to the Scots roe deer, the people turned out to starve, the Marsh Arabs in exile, the Fen men tearing down dykes in the dead of night in a futile attempt to preserve a way of life.
It may of course all be a wishy washy nostalgia, perhaps we are ultimately better off with acres of rich peat soil in the fens, with the clans and their genes spread across the globe. The Marsh Arabs led lives of poverty and hardship, who is to say that they are not better off with clean drinking water and schools. The old ways are not always the best, the ecological balance of yesteryear was often maintained at a terrible cost in hard grueling work, sickness and poverty. As Cerys Hughes said in the programme the poet does not only promote nationalism, part of his job is often to criticise it and question it.
Sunday, 7 June 2009
Sunday and it is raining and so the day is made for staying in reading and writing something down that has been buzzing around in my head and my notebook for weeks. It has now reached the stage of a first stab at it, although stab seems an overly violent term for it, a small nudge to see if it the thoughts have composted down enough to something that might be worthwhile. I am still reeling from the launch of my collection which was so much fun and did thankfully turn into the celebration with friends I had hoped for and not one of those marketing things you feel obliged to do, although I did sell out of books. I asked various other poets I know to read along with me so the night rolled along, filled with great poems and performances. Thanks to all who turned up to make it such a good night and to all those who weren’t there sorry you missed it, (that’s all my bases covered).
WH an old American friend and poet turned up unexpectedly from the West Country, where he is now resident, and when I asked if he had a poem he could do, delivered one of his longer poems by memory in his usual mesmerising way. HM a great young poet, currently working on a show using a series of ghost poems she has written, also delivered a poem without the use of notes or a net. I am deeply impressed by this act of memory and the confidence this requires. I probably do know many of my own poems by heart but am never quite convinced enough of my powers of retention to throw the book away.
Speaking of which, I have been following many of the BBC programmes on poetry over the past couple of weeks and last night watched the programme ‘Off By Heart’ which was basically children competing to win a poetry reciting competition. The makers obviously took a leaf out of the Spelling Bee type documentaries and we got to learn about the background of the twelve young finalists. It was a text book, made for TV ending when the young Iranian boy won and his father wept. His family had come from Iran and had spent two years living in a tent in a camp in Holland before finally being offered asylum in England. They were a wonderful family full of hope, and energy. They had arrived in England when their son was four years old but here was this young lad delivering Sea Fever, Hilaire Belloc and McCavity the Mystery Cat with a huge sense of performance and appreciation of the sense of the poem and its rhythms. The father said that in Iran everyone knew poems by heart and that phrases and quotes from poems were part of everyday language there. Reciting poetry in Iran was not an old and abandoned form of entertainment it was part of the fabric of everyday life. All the children in the final were astounding, they may have over hammed it up at times and some threw themselves into the various voices in Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood with such joyous abandon that you would have thought they were auditioning for Britain’s Got Reciting Talent. However the interesting thing was that all the schools that took part seemed to agree that for the children that took part, in the school, local and regional heats who had learnt poems by heart it gave them something; confidence and awareness that poetry isn’t just for the page, it is a living breathing thing. The schools also commented that it wasn’t necessarily the children they expected to do well who came to the fore ( probably by that they meant the natural show offs and entertainers) but some quieter, less confident children had found something in learning a poem by heart that had opened them out. Poetry in some ways wasn’t at the heart of the programme it was the children’s approach to it that was delightful and it was interesting that they all liked a poem with a good story and the roll of rhymes plus what child can resist the lines
The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
If I thought sometimes the children rather over egged the pudding I have to say that when I discovered a recording of John Masefield reading his own poem Sea Fever I think the children gave him more than a run for his money. Please close your eyes and listen as the animated face of Masefield is so contorted as to be nightmarish.
I thought I ought to find out a bit more about Masefield as I have to say that he is only the sum of his sea poems and being a boring old crusty Poet Laureate for years and years (37 years in all) to me but having read his biography he seems to have had a life packed full of experience and incident. He had a short-lived idyllic country childhood in Ledbury and was then orphaned at a young age when both his parents died and he was delivered up to the uncle and aunt from hell. He was sent as a young teenager to a school ship, to work the reading habit out of him as his Aunt regarded his love of books with suspicion and no doubt filling his head with ideas beyond that of earning his own living ( All rather like a Dicken’s plot thus far). He was thrown off a ship in Cape Horn because he had sunstroke at 16, and managed to get himself back to England despite malaria. He was then made to go back on board a sailing ship to New York despite his protests by the Aunt from hell where he promptly jumped ship and was on the road as a virtual hobo for two years in the States, working at one point as a bar tender in New York and then as a factory hand in a carpet factory in Yonkers before returning home to work as a bank clerk. He had his first poem published when he was twenty-one and soon after decided to try his hand at journalism and writing. He came to be a friend of Yeats and even had his long poem The Everlasting Mercy denounced from the pulpit as pure filth. He also wrote two children’s books that I loved as a child and that are still classics, The Midnight Folk and A Box of Delights. He volunteered as a medical orderly with the Red Cross in France in the First World War and went on to run a motor-boat ambulance service during the doomed and bloody Gallipoli invasion. His only son was killed in the Second World War so he was no stranger to physical and emotional pain and the horrors of war. I must say it sometimes does help to know something about a poet’s life to stop you approaching their work with huge assumptions and preconceived ideas about the nature of their work. He lived into the 1960’s and I think then was seen as something of a literary dinosaur but I found this poem of his ‘On Growing Old’ and it slid under my ‘ I’m going to dislike this old clunky rhymer with his head firmly turned to the past.’ radar, it may be that I am growing old so I can identify a tad more than in my youth.
I also watched the programme on T. S. Eliot but that probably needs more digesting on my part, especially the aspects of Eliot’s anti-Semitism. It was put forward that he was part of a mainstream European culture that stereo-typed Jews and presented them in an anti-Semitic way, whilst at the same time having many Jewish friends and being appalled at being seen as an anti-Semite. That smacks a little of the ‘some of my best friends are black’ defences when someone tells a racist joke. The old chestnut of divorcing who a man is and what he believes in from the work itself is always good for a meaty blog debate.
I note I have said that I accessed the work of Masefield slightly differently when I took a little time-out to know something of his life. Perhaps the reverse must also hold, does one view a poem you think the bees knees differently if you suddenly discover the man or woman holds views on some things that would horrify or disgust you? Understanding context always helps grasp at the meaning or allusions in a poem but should a poem and language have value above and beyond that context and the poet's ethical stance themselves?
Could you find any literary merit in a poem by Radovan Karadzic, currently being tried as a war criminal in the Hague? A debate was started back in April when the PEN Slovakia branch, condemned the publishing of a poem by him; difficult when you are an organisation that promotes free speech to be seen demanding censorship. Given that you could find a poem of his that you though possessed literary merit ( as if there were any way of knowing objectively what literary merit is), is the reading and publication of a poem by a man being tried as a war criminal, a bad thing. You can still buy copies of Mein Kampf but this is seen by some as an historical document rather than a literary one. The Karadzic poem may be in keeping with a culture that existed at a particular time in a particular place, albeit one of which we may disapprove. This may be old news but I find it strangely relevant to what was said in the T S Eliot programme last night. Eliot was a great man, a literary giant of the 20th century with a huge capacity to use the right word in the right place and dig deep into what he saw as the universal truths and dilemmas that haunt us; if he had cultural blind spots this is excusable. Shakespeare and many other great writers and poets had stereotypical views about Jews; we don’t have any hesitation in taking cultural context into account there. Karadzic could be accused of using his poetry to recreate myth and history in order to create a cultural context more suitable for his own political purposes rather than reflecting one but many a writer and poet has sought to change cultural context. Perhaps in the end it boils down to the nature of objective literary merit and if it can exist at all and if it does can it exist in isolation. From what I can tell Karadzic is not a very good poet. It’s more ignominious surely for a poet who has delusions of poetic grandeur to be told his poem sucks than that his beliefs are not just unacceptable but morallly repugnant; Karadzic is probably used to being told that.
Can publication of a poem inflame and incite unacceptable beliefs or does censorship of a poem entrench those beliefs and feed the paranoia of those who believe they are right. If Eliot wrote some poems that could be seen as anti-Semitic which he undoubtedly did, does genius excuse it, whilst poor or moderate ability would not? Censorship or lack of it by using some non existent yard stick of literary merit is a dangerous road to take. Personally I would not have anything of Eliot’s taken from the public domain, I would have people say, these are great poems but that sentiment or allusion leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. I would also have poems by Karadzic available to read so people might say , these are really bad poems and leave a nasty taste in my mouth given their purpose and context. However there will always be those who wouldn’t perhaps know how to tease out the difference between the poetry and some of the sentiments expressed. It was ever thus, do we trust people with access to racist, anti-gay or blatant misogynistic poetry or writing or does society deem that some literary works, no matter what their merit as literature are unacceptable. Are innuendo and subtext the same thing, covert incitement versus sub-textual inference, is a fine line to tread both morally and legally?
I am ashamed to live in a country where the first BNP County Councillor was elected on Thursday. Perhaps I should console myself by turning that on its head and say I am proud to live in a country where, even given the current hard recessionary times only one BNP County Councillor has been elected. Free speech and lack of censorship has to apply to all, we still live in a country where you can still write a poem and not worry whether its contents will mean a knock on the door by the police in the early hours. Literary freedoms have been hard won; I tend to think we tamper with the right to publish very, very carefully.
PS Stop Press Monday
Oh dear, oh dear two British nationalist party members voted into the European parliament to represent the UK, 6.3% of the vote. Can I now stop myself from becoming gloomy by remembering 93% of the vote didn't want them? I clutch at straws of comfort , I really do clutch.