Tuesday, September 30, 2008

versions of Beowulf

Ok, so I said I wouldn’t do it but I did. I watched the animated version. It was a dvd. It was free. I wasn’t doing anything else. (Enough excuses?)

I don’t understand why anyone would jump up and down and complain that “they’ changed the story. Every culture retells the stories of the past to make sense of them. Most people’s knowledge of Beowulf is through translation, or picture books, which are both retellings.

What’s interesting is that both the recent filmed versions have gone out of their way to reduce Beowulf, to make him flawed and fallible. (Okay, I left the ‘Thirteenth Warrior’ out, but as long as you ignore the Beowulf parallels that’s a mindless but entertaining piece. If you don’t, you get stuck wondering how something that sounds like Bulywyf can be a man’s name).

It seems odd in a society that worships physical heroes, pays them millions to kick or run with a ball or swim up and down a chemically infested pond, these films should seem so worried about a character who is famous for his courage and strength.

The one filmed in Iceland turns him into Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe in chain mail, the sea monsters he fights are your everyday eels that are still chewing his calves as he staggers out of the water. (At least the scenery was awesome.) In the animated version our Cockney hero lies about his prowess, lusts after his lord’s wife, screws monsters, begets dragons, gets cooked.

Why is that an industry which churns out films about totally unbelievable action heroes (Any Arnie movie, Die Hard, James Bond, Mission Impossible etcetc ) and has no problems with monsters (King Kong, Godzilla, Alien, Predator, Vampires, Zombies) is so determined to reduce the medieval hero and so blind to the fact that Beowulf is not really Arnie in his Predator role meets King Kong in the mead hall...but an argument about the costs and limitations of the values it celebrates?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Reading #3

The world is going to end in fifteen minutes. I haven’t read your favorite poet, but I’d like to. Which poems should I read?

Having had this sprung on me, I’ve been ticking off my possible answers.
I get to Anglo-Saxon, and you’ve only got fifteen minutes, but yes,no problem. Middle English; no problem.Anonymous;indeedy.

Even childhood friends like Yeats and Service and Kipling.

I can even do this exercise with poets whose work I don’t feel any affection for but whose poems I acknowledge as good.

But then what happens with Graves? My favourite poems may not convince you of his quality. “They Flee from me” followed by “Whoso List to Hunt” and “Blame Not My Lute” will sell Wyatt. But “Flying Crooked”, “Counting the Beats", “The White Goddess” Incident at …..and any of the moon poems may not work.

I know the theory, that my reactions to individual poets and poems are based on psychological and experiential factors but while that may account for the slide
from knowing something is good to it having a long term personal significance, it doesn’t account for the third move, where the poet and his or her work takes on the qualities of a long term friendship. With all the shifts and settling, the fallings out and fallings in, the baffled affection, irritations and love such a relationship involves?


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Reading #2

Wandering through Amazon...as one does, I was surprised by some of the reviews of Seamus Heaney’s work. One “reviewer” dismissed it as boring and pointless, another said it was good but irrelevant, another complained that the later poems in the collected are “difficult to understand”.

I wonder what the purpose of such “reviews’ are for the person posting them. Does claiming a poet is “difficult” mean anything? Or saying “I don’t like this” say anything about the work in question?

Coleridge said the mark of good criticism is that it points out, for intelligent readers, qualities in the work they might miss themselves. Stating the obvious: telling someone something is bad when it’s obviously bad, or simply giving an unqualified and uneducated opinion, are both equally pointless.

Which makes me realise how rare good criticism seems to be. There are reviews, and opinions, and critical theory, there’s blogs and customer reviews, but not much in the way of the kind of criticism that sends you back to the poem or the writer with renewed interest or understanding.

Having just reread Graves, Richards, Elliot and Cleanth Brooks for work, before launching into the various modern isms, I miss their attention to detail, their wide reading and their knowledge. (In Graves’ case I love his sense of being obdurately wrong-headed and reveling in it). Reading Hughes on Wyatt and Coleridge, or Heaney on any number of poets, I learnt something that made rereading the poems a renewed pleasure.

Good criticism can be generous, or weirdly iconoclastic (Graves), but it all stems from a desire to understand based on the assumption that revelation may not be immediate. That patience and revision are as much the critic’s tools as the poets. And that being a careful reader is just as difficult as being a good writer.

When Mathew Arnold claimed that without great criticism you don’t get great art, he may have been right. The informed discussion of the questions: is this good, in what ways, why; how does it relate to what is before it and around it, seems essential if poetry as art is to develop. But criticism seems to have been replaced largely by theorizing. And while I like theorizing, it asks different questions which don’t help me as a writer.

Literary Criticism was always a well-informed conversation about a shared fascination. Sometimes it sounded more like a brawl in progress, but I wonder if writers, looking back on the start of the twenty first century, will see the failure to produce outstanding critics, as the way this period failed the next generation of writers?

The love child of the lack of well-informed, critical judgment is the modern Blurb. It always surprises me that people with reputations in the poetry world will trot out the usual clich├ęs no matter how irrelevant. How many poetry books promise that in this new collection the writer redefines/renews language, will change/challenge the way you perceive the world, will reinvigorate/reinvent poetry, is a striking/startling new/original voice? You know the book does none of these things. Your disappointment is guaranteed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Two statements.

1) “Teenage Caveman” is a terrible film. The dialogue is awful, the plot is silly, its attempts to cover up its failings with pornography embarrassing, its costumes are ludicrous. All in all, it’s a bad film.
2) “Teenage Caveman” is a metaphor for the transformative nature of sexual activity. Adolescents must successfully negotiate this rite of passage from primitive superstition to enlightened self-awareness. Not all will successfully do so, and those that can’t deal with the experience will self destruct or be turned inside out.

The writer writes, but the critic performs. These days anything can be the subject of the critical gaze. What limits the performance? How do you know the real answer is One not Two. When do you know the stack of cushions in the art gallery is a stack of cushions and not a profound statement about the corrupt nature of modern society?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

WYatt #2: An approximate toxology of Pine

Wyatt may have written two or three of my favourite lyrics, but reading through his complete poems is not pleasant.

The pine simple.

This is a pleasant state of prolonged expectation in which the individual anticipates the Looked For Event (hereafter LFA) in the certainty that it will happen. Should the LFE eventuate, the pleasure thereof will be heightened by the spice of anticipation. Should the LFE not eventuate, the individual slides, inexorably into the next stage:

The Pine Extended:

The individual is now properly referred to as “The sufferer”. Doubt has eroded certainty and replaced it with hope, although it is a hope which is in itself characterized by certainty. The sufferer still believes in the LFE. Although this stage can continue for a long time, it is often characterized by the sufferer’s increasingly futile and somewhat strident attempts to bring about the LFE. If the LFE still refuses to eventuate, then there are two possible courses of progression: The sane sufferer throws his or her hands in the air and discovers something better to do with his or her time time. They may reflect with some bemusement upon the experience, the predicament they found themselves in, and some of the things they wish they hadn’t said or done…but there is no real lasting harm. On the other hand, the less sane sufferer slides towards stage three:

Terminal pine or the interstitial agony of non being.

This is a definable illness. By this stage certainty and hope are replaced by a paradoxical belief that the LFE will not happen which simultaneously exists with an increasingly profound desire that it will. The sufferer is strident and manic, and prone to violent shifts between the two mutually exclusive extremes. In the interstitial space created by this paradox the sufferer is trapped. Without professional help, unless of course the LFE happens, the suffer is on the slippery slide to

Post pine terminal sadness:
The sufferer at this stage has lost perspective, can appear irrational and is usually becoming prey to a terrible loss of self respect. Actions and words will cause great embarrassment to all concerned when viewed in the cold light of retrospective objectivity…or by any third party. This can either turn inwards to self loathing (which may be mild or require professional assistance) or towards resentment towards the other. While the modern piner irrationally accepts this, suffering is complicated by his or her awareness that such an attitude is totally unfair to the other person, accentuating the loss of self respect and encouraging a sense of self loathing. …… leading to

Tudor Pine;

The total abyss of pine. Diseased, irrational, pained and hurting. SOme fo Wyatt's poems are so confused that they announce that because he loves the lady, the lady is obliged to respond positively. Resentment when she avoids this weird illogic overcomes common sense and the sufferer ends up indentifying his or her self as the victim, assumes he or she has been deliberately victimised and requires both sympathy from everyone else and vengeance on the unsuspecting other. At which point I want to shake Wyatt and say: "She doesn't like you. Leave her alone".
WHich requires thinking about that /I/ yet again.

Wyatt: They flee from me

What intrigues me here is the pronouns. The poem opens with one, but there is no antecedent to tell us what or who “They” are. In fact, if you wanted to be deliberately obtuse, you could claim there is little within the poem to say that this is a poem about women in general and a specific woman in particular. ( Though I think it would be really obtuse to ignore the evidence in the second stanza: her “gown/shoulders/arms” and ‘her’ actions:’ softly said’ ‘sweetly did me kiss”. Could you read it any other way?) The juxtaposition of the unreferenced third person plural against the solitary first person adds to the ambiguity. Who is in control of the situation. And who is speaking to us.

The dream like dislocation of the first verse however is a product of the pronouns, and the odd slippage in the metaphors. “Wild, Seek and stalk/gentle/tame/ meek. ‘take bread at my hand” all seem more appropriate to animals. But ‘naked foot” is undoubtedly human.
If you ripped the first stanza out of context and called it “Cats’ you might wonder at ‘feet’ but it might not be too outrageous.
“They Seek Me” says our poet. (Incidentally there is nothing in the poem to gender the speaker but it’s really hard not to call it ‘him’.) The speaker is, throughout the poem, passive (or presents ‘himself’ as passive, which amounts to the same thing here) and that too adds to the dream like quality: things are happening to him which he registers but doesn’t interpret or understand. (or claim to understand). ‘Put themselves in danger ‘ raises even more questions than the poem answers. Is the speaker dangerous? There’s something not quite….well…there’s a lot of ‘not quite’ happening in this piece, which is why I think it works so well. Everything is not quite, but it’s quite enough to know in rough outline.
The contrast between verse one and two in what appears to be specifics, is one of the poem’s strengths. If we come into the middle of a vague recollection, and then we are given a very detailed specific picture(which on inspection isn’t that detailed: interesting how much info the reader is asked to supply). Like a genuine memory, we get a recalled moment which suggests so much but actually doesn’t.

The last stanza seems to falter. The obvious attempt at sarcasm doesn’t work because it’s undermined by the “they” in the very first line. Here is a speaker who claims he’s popular with the ladies, who then seems to want our sympathy because one has dumped him. Doesn’t work. In fact, its hard to see how you could sympathize with the speaker. I suspect you’re not meant to. More on the /I/ later.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ovid on Real and Implied

My morals, believe me, are quite distinct from my verse
a respectable life style, a flirtatious muse
and the larger part of my writings is mendacious, fictive,
assumes the license the author denies himself.
A book is no index of character, but, a harmless, pleasure,
will offer much matter to delight the ear.
Tristia Book 2 trans Peter Green