Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Courage




Sometimes I wonder what the hell the world is about. Here we are this tiny rock spinning around an inconsequential giant ball of hot gas with a few other rocks, some smaller some larger. We spin around just quickly enough to ensure most things stick onto the surface without floating off, including us. We inhabit this rock and organise ourselves roughly by geography, political, belief and monetary systems. Sometimes we decide that one of these systems is not fair or not working to meet our needs and we attempt to change it. Sometimes that attempt is successful through the ballot box, sometimes it fails because a fair and democratic system is not in operation but the interesting thing is we still keep trying. Those who are most invested in a current system try to ensure that those who want change are ignored, silenced or generally marginalised. Fear and bullets are the quickest way to silence those who want change but many still keep trying.

Change of course is not always good, sudden change can mean instability, more conflict, a situation that seems worse than the one people at first sort to change but in some circumstances people will still fight for change because there is no alternative other than to try and make something intolerable better; the cost of not doing so outweighs the huge price that might have to be paid in human life and dignity.Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain are moving towards change, some may succeed in establishing a fairer, better system, others may fail, but the thing that impresses me is that people are willing to still keep on trying.

I don’t know whether I would have the physical courage to go out onto the streets and face the forces of authority that may seek to humiliate me, beat me, kill me. I went on the march against the war in Iraq because I was fervently against that war but it didn’t require any courage on my part, there was no danger of having to sacrifice my life to protest against something. However I did feel part of something bigger than just myself on that march surrounded by those who felt like I did, as I did way back when I marched against the war in Vietnam and Cruse missiles being based at Greenham Common. This may just be a tiny fraction of what protestors in Egypt and Libya and other countries may currently feel. Some may cite phrases such as ‘mob mentality’ but if a sense that nothing matters more than achieving change and striving for something fairer and better is shared by enough people there is a group will that comes into operation that might just be strong enough to bring about that change. And if bullets, tanks and planes prove too strong some will still be willing to keep on trying.

Of course there are as many reasons for protesting and wanting change as there are protestors. There will be some protestors who act out the worst that humanity is capable of(looting, random acts of violence, rape) and there will be many who act out the best that humanity can aspire to. Just because you want change does not automatically make you a better person but maybe what it does do is make you a person who is prepared to believe that change can be brought about through the sum of individual actions.

I have been re reading Anne Sexton’s last Collection of poems, ‘An Awful Rowing Towards God’, published after her death by suicide. She is of course one of the great confessional poets. She was encouraged to write poetry by her therapist to help her through her bipolar mood swings. She struggled with mental illness and writing poetry helped her with that struggle and out of that came poems that won her prestigious prizes and huge international recognition. I always let this be a touchstone when some tend to see poetry as a form of therapy as somehow a 'lesser species'. Survivors Poetry can produce poems that demand to be heard not just for the witness of the content but for their use of language and craft. One poem by Sexton jumped out at me, as I was reading it just after another news update from Tripoli in Libya speaking of people still protesting despite the attacks made upon them by Security Forces. The second and third stanzas remind me of all those men and women in Libya willing to still protest despite the danger, to swallow that hot coal of courage to die for each other and a cause. They have felt despair for too long and perhaps now it can at last awake to the wings of roses and be transformed

Courage

Anne Sexton

It is in the small things we see it.
The child's first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you'll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you'll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

In the Closet Rummaging for a Vampire Villanelle




So I think I should come out of the closet, I like urban fantasy involving supernatural powers, vampires, werewolves, the odd Zombie, maybe a demon or angel or two thrown into the mix. Don’t get me wrong if it is poor writing driven by clich├ęd situations and the odd splash of gore and sex thrown into the mix just to titillate or tick the box then I can easily dismiss it as tosh …such a nice word tosh feels more rounded than rubbish. Yet written well and acted well it can be a real joy to watch or read (although I must admit I tend to watch it rather than read it).

I have always been intrigued with why the concept of the vampire can have such a hold on the human psyche. There are Jungian and Freudian interpretations abounding…young girls and blood is always a good bet for something deeply meaningful going on in involving the unconscious. Some deep seated concerns with menstruation and becoming a woman and growing older and then along comes a vampire than not only drains you of blood (that nasty monthly reminder that you can now be a mother) but here is this creature that does not grow old has all sorts of powers but yet put them in the clear light of day or near any religious paraphernalia and they can be vanquished. They can only enter a house if invited which could be a metaphor for the fact the events that they bring about are somehow colluded with. We invite our own destruction at times.

Vampires and werewolves are big business, the media abounds with such programmes which can easily be overlooked as the equivalent of moving wall paper but thousands tune in to see someone transform into something beyond our normal understanding with fangs or hair and uncontrollable feral urges. Over the years the genre has built up a whole universe of vampiric rules and regulations which many fans guard jealousy. They can do this but they can’t do that, they can die in only very specific ways, stakes, silver bullets, daylight. Sometimes the rules are broken to serve the plot, to make the genre just that bit more flexible but you do so at the risk of some hard core readers shaking their heads in disbelief at such liberties. What interests me is that there are some things that remain central to what is essentially only an imagined world no matter who the writer is. Vampires crave human blood, werewolves transform during the full moon( again another menstrual cycle allusion). Vampires can beget other vampires and werewolves other werewolves. Everything stems from these things, plots, character everything has certain fixed points in a shared understanding of how this world works. That is almost what I love about this genre writing it generates a huge investment by the reader in the details of imagination. You are asked not just to suspend disbelief and believe in vampires etc but you are asked to invest in the establishment of boundaries and rules and an intricate yet shared interwoven set of beliefs about how they can act. All fiction demands of the reader a certain leap of faith into the writer’s world but in this genre there are a myriad of leaps of faith that are almost choreographed into an intricate dance that aficionados are willing to join in. I don’t look down my nose at such lovers of the genre I just love that they are so engaged in serial acts of imagination. There are probably as many badly written urban fantasy novels, televisions programmes and films as there are badly written literary, romance, crime or thriller novels or films. Somehow it is a genre that is often ridiculed as Goth, geek and plain weird territory despite the fact that in the publishing industry such books are out selling almost every other genre world wide and is also attracting an increasing number of women of all ages where is has a strong fast growing market. This is a genre that is probably not going to go away and it is the genre that statistics are saying is attracting people who would not normally consider reading a book. So I think something that gets non readers reading it great, it builds a reading habit that might start to extend to other books. There has also been the Harry Potter phenomenon whereby readers of that series have naturally morphed into readers of urban fantasy. If you have consumed wizardry and dark forces at work at Hogwarts its only a short stretch to a werewolf in your garden shed and a charismatic vampire turning up at your book reading group. I feel I should be out and proud about my predilection, I watch Being Human and enjoy it , there I’ve said it, do I need a sponsor to ensure I don’t go on a Twilight Trilogy DVD bender one day?

One of the earliest vampire stories is Vampyr by Doctor Polidori written in that rain sodden holiday in 1816 at Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. Out of this came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or a Modern Prometheus and Vampyre. Polidori based it on unfinished extract of a story by Byron and did little to dispel the belief that the very famous and huge celebrity Byron wrote the story…it helped his sales no end. The vampire in the story Lord Ruthven is almost modelled on Byron who himself worked hard at his mad, bad and dangerous to know image and who flouted conventions especially sexual ones with great panache. His connection with Hell Fire Clubs did little to dispel his demonic persona that he worked hard at promoting. There had always been folklore tales bout vampire like creatures and Poliadori simply packaged it up for the dark gothic tastes of the era.

There are countless vampire websites containing poetry that quite frankly rivals Vogon poetry for craft and tone but let’s not get too snotty, Goethe wrote a vampire poem and whilst it may not have been his finest work he is hardly a poetic dullard. I think poetry draws heavily on myth and legends for subject matter or metaphor yet somehow the world of vampires and other supernatural beings is consigned to some fanzine ghetto. Such tales are almost regarded as too chavish, too ‘poor popular taste’, to write serious or even ironic poems about, other than perhaps the odd tasteful homage to a classic Dracula film. If any one knows of a modern poet who has written a good vampire or werewolf poem I’d like to know about it.

How strange that a topic that can be an enormous part of the cultural zeitgeist at the moment and sparks endless poems on fan sites can be virtually unrepresented in modern poetry. I typed that and suddenly stopped , what a snob I’m turning into, there I am saying there is a huge amount of vampire poetry on innumerable vampire, werewolf or Goth fanzine type sites and then saying it is not to be found in modern poetry as if real poetry was something only defined by a very narrow criteria. There is the argument about what is just taste and what is ‘good poetry’ ( whatever that is) but to discount it all in such a cavalier way is a bit harsh. I must go up to my room and write in blood one hundred times, I must not be a poetry snob, I must not be a poetry snob.