Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Have You Heard The One About Bishop, Marquez and the Whale

I have been busy researching in preparation for the series of workshops I am running for The Poetry School with Jane Monson. It is exploring the concept and practice of narrative in the poem. This subject has always fascinated me as the story is something that has been with mankind for as long as we have used language. I am sure the story was part of Neolithic man’s life. Cave paintings suggest that man understood the power of the imagination wrapped as it was in concepts of sympathetic magic. Perhaps all stories are forms of sympathetic magic a conjuring of the ‘what if’ for us to try on for size. Stories do have a purpose not necessarily as in a moral as such but as a playing out of scenarios. Are stories sometimes our way of being the kittens swiping away and a dangled piece of string in order to hone the skills of catching our prey? Do we unconsciously rehearse our own reactions to situations through the medium of a story? How would we cope with that eventuality, why is someone behaving in a particular way, do we think he or she should have done that. Of course the old great stories, the ballads pin us to our history, to where we have come from, what we owe, what we admire in ourselves and others. Beowulf told tales of monsters, what hides in the dark , what we fear and what we can aspire to in courage, how we can overcome fear. Such things were important in times when fear and death were constant companions. Fairy tales, even putting aside Jungian interpretations, hold universal themes, a certain kind of rough mirror up to our sophisticated faces.
Exploring poems for their narrative always seems to tempt me, what story do we create from the best of words in the very best place? I do not of course suggest that poems are always stories dressed up or cloaked from the reader but it is surprising how we cannot help but join up the dots sometimes; create a whole from the sum of the parts. There can be a ghost narrator in the machine now and then. I know a couple of well known poets who often speak about listening to what the poem has to tell them, sometimes that may be a story.

Here is a sestina by Elizabeth Bishop that manages to make that often difficult and boring form play to the strengths of what a story might demand; a series of events, a tantalising suggestion of who the ‘we’ might be, a switch of perspective from we to I and back, a beautifully described clear setting but with a surreal quality to it, gestures towards another story ( The Sermon on the Mount), the back history, if you care to investigate, of it having been written during the depression. What also sets this poem apart is that the sestina form can often just whirl around like an interminable carousel; this word, that word and here they come again, which can play against any sense of linear advance.

A Miracle at Breakfast

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
--like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds--along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
--I saw it with one eye close to the crumb--

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

This poem has always reminded me of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story. One of his quotes I have had in my journal for years is, “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” He also very famously remarked that fiction was invented the day Jonah got home and explained his lateness to his wife by saying he was swallowed by a whale.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Führer of the Streptococcracy

I have a cold, the Full Monty of a cold, pounding head, blocked nose, sore throat, sore eyes, temperature, cough, general weighty sense of self pity that usually descends with most colds. I stress this is a cold, not flu, Avian or Swine. It is just a common cold yet at the point of experience most colds do not feel at all common; they are uncommon, particular to you, always a cut above the average, run of the mill cold. I have long felt some sympathy for men when women mock their hypochondria, calling it ‘man-flu’ as if the fact that women bare children or have periods allows women the moral high ground on the cold. I think women may soldier on with a bad cold because of circumstances but secretly we would all like to take to our bed, be brought chicken soup, soft boiled eggs with soldiers, all the drugs the pharmacy can muster that purports to alleviate symptoms that prevent us raising our throbbing head from an unplumped pillow.

No one in Hollywood films seem to have colds, indeed the common cold in singularly absent form most movies. Would Norman Bates have turned out to knife Janet Leigh in the shower if he was suffering from a bad cold? Gary Cooper might have postponed his shoot out in High Noon if he couldn’t stop sneezing. John Wayne certainly couldn’t have held his reins in his teeth in True Grit if he was so bunged up with a cold, breathing was impossible except through his mouth. Kate Winslet would never have climbed out onto that prow of the Titanic if she was full of snot, indeed would she have ever managed an affair with Jack if she was confined to her cabin with a box of tissues and a hot water bottle. Arnie never has a cold, Rambo didn’t sneeze once, since 1988 John McLane in the Die Hard movies has never caught a cold from running around in just a vest in all weathers.

In literature, the odd women in Austen novels may take to her bed with a snivel so some gallant can angst or pace floors but indisposed never seemed to cover looking like shit and having a nose that can glow in the dark . No one seems to deliver their greatest speeches with a bunged up croaky voice, could Mark Anthony have got away with it if he had sounded like someone from Birmingham with acute adenoidal overtones? How would Lincoln have got away with the Gettysburg address if he had to stop to keep blowing his nose, would Elizabeth I have cheered on her troops before The Armada so well if she had to admit that she had the heart of a lion but with a bit of a bunged up nose? The common cold seems to have avoided the pivotal moments in history, if Arch Duke Ferdinand hadn’t gone to Sarajevo because he had a headache and couldn’t cope with his bunged up sinuses then World War I might have been delayed a little at least. If Lee Harvey Oswald had sneezed maybe his aim would have been off? The three hundred Spartans may never have fought so bravely and gone down in history or myth as brave men if they had managed to all have colds spread by their use of communal drinking bowls and shared washing facilities?

So I apologise dear reader that this blog is not the best blog I or anyone has ever written, it could have been if it weren’t for the fact that I had to stop to blow my nose, thence losing my thread amidst the grey cells that seem to be wrapped in a grey cotton wool at present .

I leave you with Ogden Nash, whose light humourous verse is sometimes dismissed by the poetry community. His surreal creation of rhyme by word invention has sometimes been under appreciated, I think a poet that understands my cold so well and can even invent the phrase The Führer of the Streptococcracy deserves some praise.

Ogden Nash

Go hang yourself, you old M.D.!
You shall not sneer at me.
Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
I contemplate a joy exquisite
I'm not paying you for your visit.
I did not call you to be told
My malady is a common cold.

By pounding brow and swollen lip;
By fever's hot and scaly grip;
By those two red redundant eyes
That weep like woeful April skies;
By racking snuffle, snort, and sniff;
By handkerchief after handkerchief;
This cold you wave away as naught
Is the damnedest cold man ever caught!

Give ear, you scientific fossil!
Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
The Cold of which researchers dream,
The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
This honored system humbly holds
The Super-cold to end all colds;
The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
The Führer of the Streptococcracy

Bacilli swarm within my portals
Such as were ne'er conceived by mortals,
But bred by scientists wise and hoary
In some Olympic laboratory;
Bacteria as large as mice,
With feet of fire and heads of ice
Who never interrupt for slumber
Their stamping elephantine rumba.

A common cold, gadzooks, forsooth!
Ah, yes. And Lincoln was jostled by Booth;
Don Juan was a budding gallant,
And Shakespeare's plays show signs of talent;
The Arctic winter is fairly coolish,
And your diagnosis is fairly foolish.
Oh what a derision history holds
For the man who belittled the Cold of Colds!

Despite the cold I managed to give out all my Seamus Heaney books for World Book Night and had some interesting conversations with people along the way. I also managed to host an event in the evening which was fun and brought back to me again how important the reader is, without them books are merely paper with marks on.

Off now to watch Spartacus on the TV, nothing like a cuppa and an old film on a Sunday afternoon to help your cold feel loved and nurtured. That’s another one, imagine the famous ‘I am Spartacus’ scene if everyone was unable to get the words out for sneezing or a sore throat.
If you want to hear Ogden Nash read one of his poems that always struck a chord with me you can find it here.