Monday, 26 July 2010

Wandering Simon Armitage, Gandalf, Praise Singers and Zombie Haiku

So Simon Armitage is wandering the spine of England, living off poetry, kindness and reputation. He finishes in Edale today I believe. The old troubadours no doubt had regular halts from their travels at villages where a tale or ballad, full of assonance, rhythm and cliff hangers would ensure at least a mug of ale and some cheese. Poets these days may also require somewhere to charge up their GPS and iphone as well as a bed of straw. I always imagine a good stout stick a la Gandalf would not only be helpful out on the moors to test for bogs but somehow also endow the poet with some gravitas and slight magic.

Poetry and magic were always closely associated. The spell, the chant, the rhythmic naming of names was once seen as part of the deepest magic. Words were always seen as having the power to conjure. In Africa Praise Singers would recite the history of the tribe in such a way as, not only to be an earlier version of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, but also as an invocation of the power of the ancestors to remain a force within the present. When a Praise Singer died one tradition in West Africa dictated that their body was placed in the hollow trunk of a particular kind of tree. This was deemed the only way to contain their magical powers as the wordsmith that could summon the ancestors and spirits. Mind you the Praise Singer Zolani Mkiva, who officiated at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration is being used to advertise a bank in South Africa and the Football World Cup so perhaps even hard bitten capitalists take their power seriously these days.

Nowadays for our most famous of ‘Praise Singers’ we don’t resort to hollow trees but have Poets Corner in St Pauls’, an obituary in The Times and sometimes elegies written by others who also know the power of words to evoke and summon and have given their lives to it. However perhaps their power is contained not by trees but by paper when they are made the subject of GCSE’s and taught sometimes without vision and passion to the next generation who may be driven solely by the necessity to tick the boxes in order to get an A* grade.

I suspect that way back the early European wandering bard/poet was still imbued with a little of the mystery and magic of the spoken word. People may have felt that if you shunned them their words might rain misfortune on you, your family, the village, the crop. Perhaps now we rely on Arts Council Grants to keep the poets going, that as a community micro or macro we believe someone else will ensure we pay our dues to the power of those who make their living by the word. Now the Arts Council is less well funded maybe we have to find other ways of keeping the weavers of words and stories in cheese and ale.

Sometimes I think that despite the advent of the printing press and education that allows more people to read and access the word there is still a special kind of reverence reserved for those who can stand up before a group of people and hold them literally spellbound just by the spoken word. I am not necessarily referring to ‘performance poets’ but those few who can make the authority and beauty of words such a communal experience that you know something powerful has happened, not just in your own head but almost in the air the audience breathes. I think I have been to a few readings (not necessarily big well attended ‘posh’ or prestigious ones) where you feel something has happened. There must be a strange conjunction in the stars now and then when poet, poem, listeners and venue all converge at some point where everything is right, absolutely right and something bigger than the sum of the parts is created.

If I try to define or describe that rightness it is always elusive, neither can you or I as a poet or writer strive for it, it is a moment of unexpected grace. That may sound as if I am likening it to a religious experience but that would be to confine it to a particular small box. I am aware that many will say this is all mumbo jumbo nonsense and that a brilliant well written poem, well read before an attentive, open minded audience in a venue that allows the poem to be delivered clearly and without hindrance is a very definable and repeatable recipe. I think I would still have to say that there is something not mystical, not magic but ‘other’ that can happen now and then at a reading. It is probably this rare experience that keeps me going to readings, perhaps I am always searching for that ‘fix’ of rightness.

From the sublime to the ridiculous or just plain wierd. The Boo has passed on a link about a book called Zombie Haiku in which a man charts his experience of becoming a Zombie in the form of haikus. This may well rival the wonderful Spam (as in pork luncheon meat) haikus as the most bizarre and poor taste juxtaposition of form and content. I note that Billie Collins has contributed a Zombie haiku to the website and the section of Zombie haikus in the style of famous poets I admit had me come up with a Tennyson and Charge of the Light Brigade offering.

Half a brain, bad breath
into the valley of death
rode the six hundred

I am off now to buy a Gandalf replica staff on a website, a snip at $99 this may add something to my readings, a certain power, authority and je ne sais crois. However the staff might only work if the poems are worthy of it.

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