Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cringing At The BRIT Awards 2012

A few days ago, I sat through half the Brit Awards 2012 because my daughter wanted to see Adele perform. It was obviously a lavish, expensive production. How much does it cost to bring Rihanna over to perform a song and pick up a prize? I don’t know, but I expect we’re not exactly talking a hundred quid here! And she was only one of many huge stars at the gathering. Why, then, the show is so painful to watch, so overwhelmingly amateur, is a matter for conjecture. I know people may look back to the infamous 1989 awards ceremony MCd by Mick Fleetwood and Samantha Fox as one of the most embarrassing moments ever to grace live music television, but at least that was genuinely (if unintentionally) hilarious. The ceremony this year wasn’t hilarious. I was cringing with disgust and sometimes anger.

The awards themselves looked like discarded souvenirs from a bargain bin on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a primary 3 class had been responsible for the paintwork. Cheap, tacky rubbish no self-respecting person would want to be seen dead with. When James Corden enthusiastically pointed out the guy responsible for the design, the complete lack of applause was more than noticeable.

But this was symptomatic of the whole affair. So much money must have been piled into that show, but you would never have known. The “tributes” to Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse were hopeless, especially the former: it was as though someone, half an hour before the show, had shoved together a few powerpoint slides with a barely audible selection of Whitney tracks, just to fulfil a duty. The Amy Winehouse one wasn’t much better. So little thought and creativity had gone into these that doing nothing at all would have been a massive improvement. It points to a crass lack of imagination, human warmth and empathy at the commercial end of the pop/entertainment market, which may not be a surprise, but I still found it amazing that such inadequacy was displayed so brazenly and without apology.

This theme continued when Emeli Sandé won the Critics Choice Award. The camera switched to her for about two seconds and then shot over James Corden who began interviewing last year’s winner, Jessie J. “Do you have any advice for Emeli?” asked the fawning Corden, overcome by Jessie’s charming hairdo, and forgetting within a few seconds that Sandé had ever existed. “Oooh, I could sit here all night!” It was just excruciatingly embarrassing and dreadful treatment of Sandé.

I read afterwards that Adele was cut off 20 seconds into her speech for winning Best Album because the show had been allowed to overrun earlier. Doesn’t surprise me. For all the millions of pounds sitting round the tables at this event, the level of creative energy, professionalism, and basic good manners was astonishingly low, and that’s even before you get to the music itself: the ludicrous sight of Best Single of 2012 going to One Direction. I mean, even on the woeful shortlist, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who knows anything about music that Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ knocks One Direction’s pitiful effort out of sight.

But appreciation of the music at the BRIT Awards is hardly something you’d expect of a alternative pop person like me. My main point is the complete mediocrity (that may be too generous a word) of it all. NOT just the music but the lack of care and imagination that went into the presentation, the links, the timing, and everything else. It was hard to know whether James Corden was a part of that or if he himself was also inwardly cringing and couldn’t wait for it to end.

One final thing: I know poets sometimes argue and fall out, sometimes snub, sometimes aim words like ‘mediocre’ at one another, but watching the BRIT Awards helps me, at least, to regain a degree of perspective. Most poets I have met have been decent people. Some have huge egos, some have other faults – being human! – but most are people who have many admirable qualities too, and any level of mediocrity, amateurism or lack of ambition is still several cuts above that exhibited at the BRIT Awards. And that’s without the massive resources available to the commercial music industry. Maybe we should try to appreciate one another more.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Facebook, Blogging and Narcissism

I got into an interesting Facebook discussion yesterday on narcissism; whether or not poetry blogging was simply a narcissistic activity which stole time away from what was truly important – writing poems.

Well, the irony that this discussion took place on Facebook is not lost on me. Facebook is surely the most potentially narcissistic activity ever invented. Just as football matches may indeed help young males to scream away their latent aggression, Facebook can end up as an unbelievably massive pit of pent-up hubris. Do you need to say something about yourself, your opinions, products, beliefs or attitudes? Now you can throw it all up in public and no one will hand you a mop and bucket afterwards. In Facebook, self-reference is not only expected, it’s the entire raison d’etre – if you bypass those who use it only to hook up with old friends or get a date for Saturday night.

Facebook is a giant blog. Or rather, it’s a zillion different blogs all rabbitting on at one another endlessly. But even a poet’s most considered Facebook wall (is there such a thing?) or ‘Timeline’ will invariably lack the breadth and depth of the better poetry blogs, and will be a hundred times more narcissistic than most. If you went through this blog from beginning to end, you would find some entries I’d probably want to disown and one day I may delete everything I’d rather not leave future generations to snigger over, on the off chance anyone from a future generation actually stumbled in here – probably drunk and frittering away a research grant they got to study barbarian communication methods. But I wouldn’t delete everything.

Basically, saying that blogs are hubristic is like saying books are manifestations of mad egos or that songs are sung only by people who love the sound of their own voice. Anyone who publishes anything anywhere in any medium is saying, “I think this will interest other people.” The bad news is that most of it won’t. Some of it will for a few minutes, but almost nothing will last. Value resides in a tiny spoonful of this glutinous soup.

The argument runs that at least a book or album has been selected and worked on by publisher, editor, agent, producer etc, whereas blogs are mainly inane, self-driven ramblings of people who could have spent their time more productively. But most books are rubbish, most albums too, even despite this level of control and input. “Inane, self-driven ramblings” could describe many poems published today and I’m not talking about ‘confessional’ poems or any other kind of autobiographical verse (some of which is good), but poems which seem designed to offer the reader the promise of wisdom, insight, epiphany or joy and instead present him/her with an earnest exercise in cliché, or just scream, “Look how original I am! Look how fun I am! Look how clever I am! Look at this unique image/phrase/technique I created (and don’t realise has been used before by about five million other poets before me because I don’t read poetry so as to avoid being influenced by it)! But please save your applause until the end of my ninety-seven pages...” In other words, a blog is not necessarily any more self serving than a poem, even a poem that has been accepted by a magazine.

I suppose I could have written a poem in the time it’s taken me to slam down this article. But I see no reason to bring yet another poem into the world to join the millions of other poems no one wants to read just for the sake of it. I write a poem when it feels necessary to do so and I work hard on getting it just right. Every semi-colon of it. I write a blog post if I feel in the mood and people can take it or leave it. Leave it? Sure thing. Be my guest. Or don’t be. Facebook, after all, is waiting for your attention...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Supervielle and the Smoke

I enjoyed this review of Homesick for the Earth, a selection of poems by Jules Supervielle, 'versioned' in English by Moniza Alvi. I know of Supervielle but have read more or less nothing of his work, and this review has made me want to read more. Doing that will have to wait for a couple of months as I’m snowed under at the moment, but I’ve enjoyed reading even the short passages that Sean O’Brien quotes and the two poems quoted afterwards in the comments box. ‘Rain and the Tyrants’ (translated by David Gascoyne, and not included in this new book) is terrific, and the title poem, ‘Homesick for the Earth’ (an Alvi 'translation') closes with the astonishing lines O’Brien quotes:

We'd pick daffodils, collect pebbles, shells,
but we couldn't catch the smoke.
Now smoke is all we hold in our hands.

Just great. There’s a very solid memory combined with regret and then the terrible loss in the final line, which makes the previous regret all the more tragic. In addition, there’s a sense of recognition because in today’s cynical world, smoke is all we hold in our hands, all we are allowed to hold. Maybe good poems keep our eyes open and attentive in spite of the smoke.

I was intrigued by Sean O’Brien’s comment that “the world of objects, places and ordinary events, to which poetry in English is habitually so attentive, is rarely a secure presence in the poems Alvi presents; reading them feels at times like trying to drop anchor in fog.” That lack of a secure presence also speaks to a contemporary sensibility, I think, so these translations may be timely. ‘Homesick for the Earth’, for all its imagery, is indeed hardly an “ordinary” everyday event, even if it does speak into the world of everyday. I do like the idea of dropping anchor in fog. Perhaps that’s what reading a good poem ought to feel like. If you are already clear on where you’re dropping anchor, a poem may not feel so necessary.

(Homesick for the Earth by Jules Supervielle is published by Bloodaxe, 2011, £9.95)