Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dispatch from the Ghost of William Shatner

Last night, I took part in a unique event, The Ghost of William Shatner, in which people performed the lyrics to pop tunes without singing and without music. Did the lyrics work without musical backing? Well yes, they did, because they were being performed. Few, probably none, would work well as poems on a page, but that wasn’t the object of the exercise. The variety was impressive – everything from straight performances of Radiohead, The Smiths and Bob Dylan to mock-heroic renditions of Barbie Girl, Rocket Man, and We Are the Champions. The result was thoroughly entertaining.

Through every performance, the spirit of William Shatner brooded over the stage in the form of a cardboard statue (as you can see from some of these photos by Chris Scott), later won in a raffle by the Scottish Poetry Library’s Peggy Hughes, who also contributed a memorable version of Barry Manilow’s 'Copacabana'. I imagine carrying the thing at that time of night through the Cowgate would have won her considerable attention. As MC Gavin Inglis said, “the person most likely to get mugged on the way home” (she has posted on Facebook this morning, so I’m glad to know she got back safely). The stand-out performance on the night was Stephen Barnaby’s hilarious ‘Rasputin’ (the Boney M song) in the style of a university lecture by Professor Bobby Farrell, complete with academic commentary on the lyrics – one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages.

My contribution to the evening was Jacques Brel’s ‘Jackie’ – the version in English, as sung by Scott Walker

Monday, February 21, 2011

The 'Real Critic' and the 'Good Ordinary Critic'

I posted this quote to a Facebook thread yesterday. It’s from an essay in which Randall Jarrell argues that critics had become too central to literary discourse. He satirises the tendency, citing academics who had read thousands of articles about a poem, but had not actually read a contemporary poem in years. He talks of a PhD student who had read everything there was to read about Tennyson’s Ulysses, but had never actually bothered to read Homer’s Odyssey. Jarrell sees the role of the critic to help readers, to open up poems for them; not to maintain discourse with critics and academics, but to create interest among general readers of literary works.

He goes on to differentiate between the ‘real critic’ (who may not actually exist in a pure form) and the ‘good, ordinary critic’:

“...the real critic must speak ill of friends and well of enemies, ill of agreeable bad works and well of less agreeable good ones; must admire writers whom his readers will snicker at him for admiring, and dislike writers whom it will place him among barbarians to dislike. For it is the opinion he offers with trepidation, thinking, ‘Nobody will believe it, and I hardly see how it can be so; but it seems so to me’ – it is this opinion that may be all the next age will value him for; though in all probability it will value him for nothing...

“But I am talking about a ‘real critic’ who would have a very short half-life, one who may never have been on sea or land; let me talk instead about good ordinary ones...What is a critic anyway? So far as I can see, he is an extremely good reader...He is always many other things too, but these belong to his accident, not his essence.” (Randall Jarrell, 1955, ‘The Age of Criticism’ from Poetry and the Age).

I’m with Jarrell all the way here. I think we are very short of the kind of criticism and reviewing he’s looking for in our own age. Many reviews in newspapers speak well of “agreeable bad works” and pretty much ignore “less agreeable good ones.” There is a degree of dishonesty too: that need to watch one’s back, not to speak ill of the influential, to talk up those who've talked nicely about us and bat down those with whom we’ve previously disagreed. It’s all wrong.

Jarrell’s age was different from ours in other ways too. There was plenty of space for reviews and criticism. In fact, many of the top journals had little space for poetry and short stories and were dominated by criticism, and some critics obviously felt their art superior to the poets they criticised. Jarrell counters this and feels criticism is there only to serve the art of poetry.

I wonder if we have reacted too strongly to that generation and now devalue good reviewing and criticism too much. “It’s someone’s opinion, no more important than mine or anyone else’s,” people claim. And of course, that’s true. It is just someone’s opinion. But surely some opinions have to carry more weight than others. If not, then we may as well unpack our brains from our skulls and throw them to the pigs. We don’t have to agree with everything our favourite critics say (nor did we ever have to), but we can at least allow them to make us think, to challenge our received ideas. It’s a basic act of humility, to acknowledge that we have something to learn and that specialists in an art might have something to teach. To deny that strikes me as a form of arrogance peculiar to late-20th century and early 21st century western humanity, an attitude I doubt we will be commended for by posterity.

Friday, February 18, 2011

February 31st

Intriguing, this. Why would someone write a non-existent date on a gravestone? Unless the entire existence of Christiana, wife of John Haag, is fake, but the gravestone is in a genuine graveyard (the Old Mission Church Cemetery in Upper Sandusky, Ohio) and I wouldn’t have thought the authorities would have allowed a stone for a fictional person. Perhaps no one noticed? Or is it just trick photography?

(Image reproduced under a Free Documentation License)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mike Scott Meets WB Yeats

I first saw Mike Scott way around 1980 when he played for a band called Another Pretty Face, supporting Stiff Little Fingers at the legendary but long departed Apollo Theatre, Glasgow. I can’t remember much about APF’s set, but I do know they were eclipsed by SLF at the top of their game (although 'All the Boys Love Carrie', at the link, still sounds good to me).

I was listening to the radio one evening a few years later and heard a track called December by a band called The Waterboys. I liked it so much I bought the single on 12 inch vinyl that weekend and the albums that followed. I went to see The Waterboys at the inauspicious Heathery Bar, Wishaw. Intimate, yes, but it wasn’t a great gig. At one point, Scott broke a string on his already way-out-of-tune guitar but kept hammering away at it regardless. Hard going...

But the albums were good – from the big music of the first three to the classic Fisherman’s Blues and the much maligned Room to Roam, which was critically mauled at the time. I don’t know why, as it contains some fantastic songs, such as How Long Will I Love You? It was just different from Fisherman’s Blues and the critics couldn’t cope. There’s good stuff on all the albums which followed.

And now Yeats. Scott toured briefly this winter, including a date in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, to showcase songs he’s written using the poems of WB Yeats, and they are terrific, among the best material of his career. The live performance was great too, theatrical at times with its use of light and staging. His voice is strong, his diction clear, no doubt helped by the RCH’s fine acoustics. Unlike most gigs, it was possible to hear virtually every word. He talks to Ryan Van Winkle about it at this SPL podcast (about 25 minutes), which is well worth listening to. I hope we have a Yeats album soon but, until then, the memory of a fantastic gig will have to be enough.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Haiku Comes to Edinburgh

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been to a few live poetry events, none of which I’ve written about through lack of time, so here goes with the first one, an unusual event at the house of Japan’s consul-general in Edinburgh. It featured a lecture by Madoka Mayuzumi, a woman who has become one of Japan’s most celebrated exponents of the contemporary haiku.

She spoke for just over an hour on the haiku, with translation, and was really quite engaging. Her most memorable comment, for me, was when she compared haiku to Japanese flower-arranging. The combination of flowers isn’t what’s most important. Some flowers are given short stems and some have long stems, and the success of the arrangement is found in the distance created between the flower-heads. Haiku is like that, said Ms Mayuzumi – it’s the space created for the reader’s imagination, not the images in themselves, which really matters.

The other thing I found memorable is that she didn't read any of her own work, not until the question and answer time when she was coaxed by the audience into reading a single haiku. I guess this was out of modesty. I wonder how many poets could similarly resist...

Afterwards, there was wine and a magnificent buffet of Japanese food – simply outstanding hospitality. And time for a quick pint afterwards in the hotel bar down the hill before slinking off home

Monday, February 14, 2011

Farewell, Ronaldo

Ronaldo, one of Brazil's and the world's greatest ever football players, has announced his retirement at the age of 34. Hard to believe he is so young, as he seems to have been around forever, but he began his professional career at the age of just 16 and was knocking in goals for PSV Eindhoven as a 17-year-old. Just in case anyone has forgotten the level of his achievement, here are a few figures, courtesy of the BBC:

Cruzeiro 1993-94 - 45 games, 41 goals
PSV Eindhoven 1994-96 - 58 games, 54 goals
Barcelona 1996-97 - 49 games, 47 goals
Inter Milan 1997-2002 - 99 games, 59 goals
Real Madrid 2002-07 - 164 games, 98 goals
AC Milan 2007-08 - 20 games, 9 goals
Corinthians 2009-11 - 31 games, 18 goals
Total - 466 games, 326 goals

Add to that his international career with Brazil, where he scored 62 goals in 97 appearances, and shares the record with Gerd Muller for scoring the greatest number of World Cup goals (15).

And here are a few of his goals:

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

From John Tranter to Jennifer Aniston

February always makes me feel tired. It doesn’t matter whether the weather is stormy or simply chill, whether the sky is low and grey or high and blue. There’s just something about the month. It’s so relentless, a winter that lasts and lasts and lasts and has been lasting since last November and may well last until well into April if we’re unlucky.

Last night, I was reading John Tranter’s Selected, Urban Myths: 210 Poems, and was enjoying it, but there came a point when my brain wasn’t taking anything in and I did something I wouldn't have done at all if it had been summer – I switched on the TV, and there was Jennifer Aniston. As usual, she was playing Rachel from Friends, but in a movie about how some bride-to-be (Aniston) suspects that The Graduate had been based on her parents and goes around trying to find out whether the rumour is true or not. Somehow, I watched this for about half an hour. Complete nonsense. It’s hard to believe that so many millions can get poured into rubbish like this while virtually nothing is given to marketing and distributing poetry.

But this is the world and “we’re all in this together,” as Disney and David Cameron tell us, an alliance almost as unholy as the current coalition. Except we’re not in it together. There is plenty of room for opposition, for not playing. I switched off and went to sleep, wondering why it had taken me so long. There are worlds it’s best to have nothing to do with whatsoever.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The First Poetry Collection

Here’s a really brilliant reflection on first collections, part of a review written by W. N. Herbert, originally published in the autumn 2010 issue of Poetry London.

“There are two ways for a poet to be professional which first collections tend to throw into relief. The first is the orthodox career, in which, having acquired the necessary awards (and, increasingly, degree), then having wooed the correct mentor, residency and publisher, a debut volume appears — its voice already assured, its technique established, its unique subject matter clearly delineated. None of these are easily come by, especially at an appropriate level to make it worth acquiring them in the first place.

But the second involves a still-harder apprenticeship, following the obstinate, labyrinthine path that learning craft takes through such markers of esteem and our individual experience. Along this route concepts like ‘voice’ or ‘muse’ fall under perpetual critique and suffer challenging reform. Here the poem itself often has to be sufficient reward, one glimpse of theme must function as sustenance for years, and publication may be no more than an interim report, rather than a career-defining goal.

Our society encourages new writers towards the first challenge, while their instincts tend them toward the second. On the one hand the triumphant first steps of Eliot or Auden; on the other the initial sketches of Pound or Morgan. Publishers, in the business of second-guessing posterity, prefer the former; the media, too, is always drawn to the simpler narratives. “ (W.N. Herbert)

That sentence, “Our society encourages new writers towards the first challenge, while their instincts tend them toward the second,” is spot on, isn’t it? Or is ‘encourages’ too mild a word?