Sunday, 7 June 2009
Launch and Coming to Grips with Masefield, Eliot and Censorship
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.