Wednesday, December 30, 2009

More joys of dictionaries of slang

The arguments justifying dictionaries are almost as entertaining as the dictionaries themselves.
The first is from the introduction to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

We need not descant on the dangerous impressions that are made on the female mind , by the remarks that fall incidentally from the lips of the brothers or servants of family; and we have before observed that improper topics can with our assistance be discussed, even before ladies, without raising a blush on the cheek of modesty. It is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of ‘twiddle diddles’ or rise from the table at the mention of ‘Buckinger’s boot’.

Unless of course she got fed up with her smarmy bothers, stole their book and looked up the words they were using. Then she might wonder why they were discussing such things in her presence. But I suspect the intro is not meant to be taken entirely seriously.

On the other hand: The first English Dictionary, Cawdrey’s: A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words published in1604 contained no more than 3,000 words and spelt words two ways on the title page. It was published:

For the benefit and help of ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskilled persons. Whereby they may more easilie and better understand many hard English wordes, such as they shall heare or read in the scriptures, Sermons or elsewhere and also be made to use the same aptly themselues.


According to Simon Winchester “…fantastic linguistic creations like abequitate, bulbulcitate and sullevation appeared in these books alongside Archgrammarian, …there were words like necessitude, commotrix, and Parentate…”
The latter apparently means to celebrate ones parent’s funeral.

However, none of my slang dictionaries have “To go round the Wrekin” or any variation on this phrase.

I am disappointed.

The joys of (West-Midlands) Slang (dictionaries)

Slang dictionaries have a seductive subversive irresponsibility. Some, especially Australian ones, are dangerously funny and achieve a ribald poetry; others like the canting dictionaries of the renaissance are relics of an alternative universe peopled by rufflers and upright men, jarkmen, bawdy baskets, doxies and kinching morts .
So I have been wallowing in Chambers new Dictionary of Slang; the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and some Tudor and early Stuart “Rogues Literature” surfacing occasionally to cross check words in the OED or Brewer’s. It’s far too enjoyable to call research.
I’ve come to the unexceptional conclusion that at some stage in the history of English almost every common word has been press ganged from its standard usage to do service as a term for something completely different. In fact, in the wrong place and time, the most innocuous sounding phrase would probably be interpreted as obscene or as evidence of membership of some kind of illegal or secret society.
But while I enjoy slang dictionaries, I remain sceptical. Even the huge Chambers leaves out terms I grew up with. How is standard usage of a slang term established? How many people have to use it and for how long before it gets recorded?

Soon after I came to Australia I read an article in the travel section of a national newspaper which purported to be the results of the journalist’s interest in West Midlands slang. I thought I’d grown up speaking it fairly fluently, or at least playing rugby with people who were experts. So it came as some surprise to learn that in the west midlands a “shag” is a type of bread roll.

The young lady journalist told her readers that if they went into a bakery in the region and asked for a “hot buttered shag” they would be offered a warm bread roll with toasted cheese on top.

So here’s my dilemma about slang dictionaries. Where I grew up, in the west midlands, and where I went to uni, still in the west midlands, if you went into a bakery and asked for a hot buttered shag they would have assumed a) you were nuts, b) into some really weird kind of perversion or c) taking the mickey. But does that mean that nowhere in the wide west midlands this term wasn’t used? Does this mean that somewhere some poor guy was wondering why his girl friend had stopped talking to him after he’d innocently offered her a bread roll?

If you lived in Coventry you knew that people in Wolverhampton spoke a strange and mysterious language. Even the move to Birmingham was fraught with incomprehension. (ok, not so bad as being English and arriving in Australia and hearing the phrase “shag on a rock” or “look at that hunk of spunk over there”..but still enough to make you wary.)

I imagine two codgers in a pub, reluctantly accepting free drinks and earnestly answering the young lady Journalist’s questions. Everyone knows the English are serious unimaginative literal minded people (unlike the Irish) and so they can be trusted to tell the God’s honest. I can also imagine two said codgers pissing themselves when she left having told her to go ask for a hot buttered shag in the local bakers. Maybe things have changed. Maybe there is such a thing, (after all you can go into a shop in Qld and ask for a Gaytime) but in the world I grew up in I’d love to have been there to see the baker’s face, and his customers’, if she did….

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bright Star

Bright star

So instead of the usual grumbling, something positive.

I wasn’t going to go.
1) I don’t like films that claim to be about “historical characters’ . Usually the writers take liberties with the truth in the name of entertainment. It really doesn’t matter if you give Beowulf and African father, he’s fictional. But a film that pretends to be about about William Wallace, the real human being, might as well be about a character called Jock McJockstrap.
2) There's a trend to write biographies of the partners of famous people. Who'd remember Gilbert Imlay if he hadn't been involved with Mary Wollstonecraft? Isabel Burton was the subject of a huge biography which couldn't avoid the fact that if she hadn't married Sir Richard no one would have remembered her outside her family and friends. All the evidence suggests Fanny Brawne is only memorable because her boyfriend was one John Keats.
3) I’d read a review of Bright Star that discussed Campion’s career in terms of making films about strong women struggling with patriarchal oppression. There’s no way, given the evidence , you can interpret Fanny Brawne in those terms.

However, who wouldn’t want to meet the Keats of the letters, or the hero of Gitting’s biography? Or see the settings made real.

So orf I went.

And bloody good it is too. For once I don't have to worry about possible fall out in the class room. (No dotty, there were no Female actors in Shakespeare's time, yes, i know you saw a film with one in but it wasn't true....)

It looks beautiful. The script is good (Keats’s lines are often taken from his letters) and although after an hour I was wondering how it was going to end (Please god don’t let him make a miraculous recovery, please god do not let them go to bed) she pulls it off beautifully.
So she exonerates Fanny a little. Brown and Keats accuse of her flirting but you don’t see her doing this. She does catch the lighter side of Keats’s character; this was no brooding tortured Romantic parody but Junkets, the man who delighted in company and playing silly game. The acting is very good. From the two main leads all through the cast, especially the moppet who plays toots.
And if it makes people pick up the letters or the poems to find out more, it can only be good.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

with all due respects your Honour

I’ve been reading “The Mad Woman in the Attic”. I feel guilty because it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it, and I’m impressed by the readings of the Brontes. (and a little embarrassed to have missed some of the things they point out.)

But the general sections are getting harder to read. It’s not that I doubt the truth of their argument, I’m just getting put off by the way they are making it.

The real problem seems to be their use of “women”. As if “women’ in 19th century England had the same experience regardless of race, rank and personality. When they write about women being encouraged to be passive, to adopt a role of almost willing invalidism, and how anorexia and agoraphobia were almost de rigueur, they seem to have forgotten that to be the pallid angel in the house you had to have robust servants to do all the hard work. They seem to have forgotten that the majority of the population (regardless of Gender) would quite happily have swapped the problems of economic survival for the conditions that allowed writers (male for female) to agonise about their role in the literary tradition.

While Anne Finch, countess, was writing sonnets (and fine sonnets they are too) about the problems of being a woman who wrote, men and women denied her education and her leisure were living a life one step up from slavery to keep her household running and allow her the time to worry about such things. Virginia Woolf had leisure to ponder the problems of having a room of ones own because people bought up in houses where the whole family lived in one room were running around doing the housework for one.

My other problem is that they buy into Bloom’s fantastic version of literary history and then use it as a touchstone. What they don’t so is show how the spectre of Milton, for example, which in the 19th century cast a long shadow over a certain type of poet, was different for men and women. They quote Woolf’s response at length, but I don’t see how that response is particularly “a woman’s”: it reads like an intelligent response to the complicated work of art that is Paradise Lost and there is nothing in it to gender that response. Present it clean, without the author’s name, and I defy you to identify the gender of the writer.

I suspect they don’t try to differentiate because since all women are the same, and would obviously share Woolf’s response, then all men must be the same and any male poet would simply acquiesce in Milton’s rank misogyny while girding up his loins to kill Milton’s ghost in the boxing ring of Bloom’s Freudian mishmash. Woolf’s contemporary, Robert Graves, who last time I checked was male, hated Milton. Personally.

Given the serious problems facing women in the 19th century: an invidious legal situation, lack of access to formal education, exclusion from careers and the vote, the fact that a small group of leisured ladies worried about their literary role doesn’t seem that important. And I’m not sure that the Brontes, or Emily Dickenson, are any more representative of their gender than Coleridge Robert Graves or Tiger Woods.

I don’t doubt their case your honour, and I know this was a brilliant pioneering work that's been argued over and developed in subsequent years, but with all due respects, I think they are calling the wrong witnesses and spoiling the argument by asking some wrong questions.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The truth about them Anglo-Saxons

This is from "Young Folks' History of England" published in 1873.
Its the final paragraph in the chapter about the Normans.

In the end, the coming of the Normans did the English much good,
by brightening them up and making them less dull and heavy; but
they did not like having a king and court who talked French, and
cared more for Normandy than for England.


The Book depository is offering over 11,000 titles as free ebooks. They download as small PDF files. Which I where I found this, as well as several 19th century deportment manuals I'd been looking for. Of which much more later.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

stupidity and the cliche generator

New Moon star Ashley Greene thinks vampire sex is 100 times better than human sex.
The 22-year-old actress plays vampire Alice Cullen in the hit movie series The Twilight Saga. Asked what vampire sex is like, she said: "Take the best sex you've ever had in your life and multiply is by 100, and that's vampire sex.

End of quotes.
Ok, so it was a stupid question. It would be like asking Harrison Ford what it was like to dine with Ewoks or Sean Connery to reveal what Robin Hood was really like. And if either actor had started talking as though either meeting had really happened the men in white coats would be on standby.
So let us assume that the young lady was talking in character, and/or not expecting to be taken seriously. There is also the possibility that this may be a quote from the book.
Irrespective of this how can something with no numerical value be 100 times less than a similar experience also with no numerical value? Even if there was such a thing as “vampire Sex’ (and the bad puns and ugly jokes queue up) what could it possibly mean to say it is one hundred times better than anything else? And why did a journalist think repeating such a dumb statement was a career move?
It’s about as sensible as some of the vomit inducing political statements being made today after far too many people hit the cliché generator and left it running. Spewing out endless tides of nothing.
Why isn’t there a prevention of cruelty to language movement?

Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr (1932)

Unlike Nosferatu, which tried hard to pretend it wasn’t based on Stoker’s book and failed because it obviously was, Vampyr claims to be based on Le Fanu’s “In a Glass Darkly”. The beautiful Criterion Collection DVD version even comes with a print copy of ‘Carmilla’. But even if Le Fanu’s descendants were as finickity as Joyce’s they’d be hard pushed to prove any breach of copyright.
Dreyser’s film ghosts the stories: an image here, a piece of plot. There’s a vampire, and she’s female (though old and ?blind?), and there’s a young female victim, but that’s about it. You could track other allusions. But even the obvious reference to the Dragon Volant, or the mysterious stranger in the bed room from …which story was that…. are not exclusive to those particular stories and all the allusions remain like occasional snatches of familiar music in an unfamiliar soundtrack.
The fact the story is not tied to any sources is an obvious advantage. There’s no primary text to provide easy answers to the obvious puzzles. So, a recognisable version of Carmilla this is not, although Laura’s habitual ”it appeared to be’ “it seemed” has been taken to the limit. A conventional horror story this is not and even the vampire element, which is explained by the old book, is muted.
Shadows move, some separate from their bodies, some return to them. Scene and time shift abruptly without causal linkage. Characterisation is missing. Narrative discontinuity starts to seem perfectly sensible. Images seem weighted with significance that is never explored or explained. Light becomes a character just as the old book does. In a fog bound, physically realistic landscape (Dreyser shot the whole film on location) which it would be impossible to map. All this and the editing and camera work create a beautiful film which explains very little. It’s what surrealist poetry could have been. A tribute to the time when film was still regarded as an experimental art form.
What we do get is the subjective experience of the inexplicable. If such things happened, and you were caught up in them,remembering them would, I suspect, feel a lot more like this than most modern “horror films”.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why Le Fanu was a genius.part two

Stoker pretends his heroes have altered nothing in their journals.
“there is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.”

There is to be no retrospective rearrangement. This is one of the ways he ‘guarantees’ the “authenticity” of the story. Laura, however, is writing eight years after the facts she relates. The game allows her to tell us what she knew at the time as she unfolds the story, but it also allows her to have the benefits of hindsight.

And that’s exactly what she avoids. ‘Carmilla’ is in many ways much more opaque than ‘Dracula’. Exactly what her relationship to Carmilla was remains vague. It’s vague because Laura keeps it vague, but why she does so is what leaves the text open. The vagueness gives the story its slightly dream like or out of focus quality.
After eight years, what are her final words on the subject?

The following Spring my father took me on a tour through Italy. We remained away for more than a year. It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations-sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.

“The light step of Carmilla” is suggestive; not only of familiarity, but of someone who listened eagerly and cared enough to distinguish footsteps so she could identify the ones she wanted to hear. ‘Ambiguous alterations’ are an apt description of her portrayal of Carmilla’s behaviour and her reactions to it. Throughout the story she alternates between fascination and repulsion. And then there’s “reverie” and ‘fancy’. A reverie is a waking dream but without negative overtones. What does she dream that leads to the sound of those familiar footsteps. And is she frightened or hopeful? It’s impossible to tell.

Something very strange happens towards the end of the story. For most readers it’s become obvious that Carmilla is a vampire, and she is the same young woman who destroyed the general’s ward. The general tells Laura what is obvious to everyone else:

"She called herself Carmilla?" asked the General, still agitated.
"Carmilla, yes," I answered.
"Aye," he said; "that is Millarca. That is the same person who long ago was called Mircalla, Countess Karnstein.

However, that night Laura can still record:
and I was glad, being unspeakably fatigued when we reached home. But my satisfaction was changed to dismay, on discovering that there were no tidings of Carmilla.

The story wraps itself up in a sudden orgy of explanations which might signal that Le Fanu had lost control of his material. But there’s enough evidence to suggest that Le Fanu knew he could play his narrator off against what she was narrating. When the Countess Karnstein’s tomb is found and opened and the body destroyed, Laura’s language becomes uncharacteristically factual. What she doesn’t say is louder than what she does.

The next day the formal proceedings took place in the Chapel of Karnstein. The grave of the Countess Mircalla was opened; and the General and my father recognised each his perfidious and beautiful guest, in the face now disclosed to view.

What follows is a series of declarative sentences with subjects like, the face, the body, her eyes, the flesh, the head. But who is this happening to? “The vampire”. A “guest” perfidious and beautiful. Nowhere in the description is Carmilla’s name mentioned. Either the thought of her friend being hacked , burnt and scattered is too much, or she is simply refusing to accept that the body in the box was Carmilla’s. It’s no wonder she’s still waiting for her step at the door.

In The Conclusion that follows Laura reverts to being vague.

I cannot think of it without agitation. Nothing but your earnest desire so repeatedly expressed, could have induced me to sit down to a task that has unstrung my nerves for months to come, and reinduced a shadow of the unspeakable horror which years after my deliverance continued to make my days and nights dreadful, and solitude insupportably terrific.

That “It” floats. What is the unspeakable horror? What happened when Carmilla stayed with her, or what was done to the Vampire’s body? ‘My Deliverance’ suggests she is saved, but from what? From Carmilla the vampire, or Carmilla the devoted friend? From being vampirised or from being in love with a vampire?
Before the reader can stop to ask, she breathlessly rushes on piling up bits of vampire lore and quaint antiquarian details. Hidden in the pile:
The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victim. But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent. In ordinary ones it goes direct to its object, overpowers with violence, and strangles and exhausts often at a single feast.

Is that the unspeakable horror? That what she took as genuine was something “resembling love”, “an artful courtship”; that the predator wanted sympathy and consent. Is Laura appalled at how close she was to being consumed or appalled that she was seduced by something that saw her as a meal? OR did she offer sympathy, consent, love even and regrets that Carmilla was taken from her?

She babbles on and “tidies up”, explaining the already obvious, but the narrative suspends the real questions and leaves them unanswered.
Would the sound of Carmilla’s “light footsteps” at her door terrify her or make her happy?

The story lives in an artful refusal to close.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Le Fanu was a genius.part one

In writing Dracula as a series of journal entries Stoker set himself two problems.
The first is that in a journal which has not been retrospectively tampered with, you can’t have prolepsis. Stoker handles this impressively and I think there’s only one place in the book where he slips up.

His other challenge is that he has focalised his story though the limited perspectives of the participants. Along with the problems of creating separate voices with differing attitudes and characters, he still has to find a way to give the reader essential information so the story can move forwards. When Harker records that Mina is growing languid and pale, and Mina records bad dreams and bad sleep, the reader knows Drac’s got to her, but since this is ‘revealed’ in a dramatic sequence later, the heroes seem slow in noticing the obvious significance of what they are recording. Stoker's clumsiness makes his heroes seem dim witted.

Le Fanu, on the other hand, exploits the problems a first person narrator creates for the writer, to create a character, Laura, not only in what she does in her story, but in the way she tells it.

We play the game: Laura, the narrator of Carmilla, is a real person, telling us about events that happened to her eight years ago when she was nineteen.

We know nothing about Laura except what she tells us. The paratext sets up expectations which the story seems to frustrate. All we are told about Laura is that she was: “a person so clever and careful ….. Much to my regret, however, I found that she had died in the interval.” Her narrative of events is described as being told with such conscientious particularity.

The Laura of the story does not seem clever. She goes out of her way to show she isn’t. I’d argue she is ‘careful’ in what she reveals. If the story exhibits “conscientious particularity” it does so in what the narrator hides and fudges. 8 years have passed since the story ends. We are explicitly told this is being narrated retrospectively at someone else’s request. But from the start of the story Laura exonerates herself and muddles the issues. She does it surreptitiously but consistently. She has two strategies that can be described as characteristics and once established are then exploited by Le Fanu at the very end of the story.

The first, used to exonerate herself and excuse her lack of comprehension, is her insistence on how isolated she and her father were. The isolation of the schloss is partly the trappings of the gothic story and serves its own function in the narrative but the geographical isolation bleeds into racial isolation, (her father is English) which exonerates her from not knowing the local stories about vampires, which would have rung the alarm bells much earlier. (Not that Laura has much to do with alarm bells). The geographical distance from “society” allows her to repeatedly tell her addressee that she has to accept Laura’s naivety as the result of her upbringing in such an isolated spot. Carmilla’s behaviour, beliefs, etc would be judged differently by a more worldly wise person. Though how such a person might have judged her is never clarified.

Her second habit is that when reporting what happens she relies heavily on phrases like “It appeared” or “apparently” or ‘what looked like” where straight description would be justified. For Laura, things aren’t simply what they are; they are always potentially something else. However, she never seems to want to cut through “appears to be” and reach “was”. Her description of Carmilla’s behaviour is therefore nebulous. Laura insists on its ambiguous nature. And given the fact that she has had eight years to think about it, she’s either very confused, or out to obfuscate.
Part two later.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Free advice for anyone wanting to film Bram Stoker's Dracula

Dracula
(2002: “starring” Patrick Bergin. Here after “Dracula the Dumb version”)
This film is awful. Moved to Budapest and translated into the twentieth century, it dribbles along, trying to be some kind of fable about moral choices and moral strength and blah blah blah. The dialogue is awful, the special effects are comic and the acting stilted. The central characters are unlikeable and the ending is just naff. Whoever wrote it must have known it didn’t work. They must have looked at it and thought, gawd, what a mess.
You know something is wrong when one of the selling points for the film, the triumphant climax of the blurb on the box, is that in this version Dracula is played by an Irish actor, and according to the blurb this is significant because Stoker was Irish. (The fact that Stoker lived most of his life in London, and Bergin is done up to look like Billy Connolly doesn’t help their case.)
Actually the fact that the music was co-written by one Thomas Wanker doesn’t help either.
So, for all those people out there who are thinking of making yet another film of Stoker’s Dracula, here’s what you need to know before you start. If you want to film the book, there are some problems. They should be obvious, however, here, in protest, on behalf of all those people who keep thinking that someday someone (other than Herzog) will do the story justice, and who keep forking out good money for dross, is a list. It’s yours for free.
If you can’t solve them yourself watch Herzog’s version. Following Murnau, he sidestepped them.
Thesis statement:
Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is “unfilmable”. There are problems of narrative logic, there are nineteenth century assumptions driving the plot, and while bits of the story are memorable and dramatic, lonnnnnnnnng stretches of it aren’t. Most people who try to read the book don’t finish it. It has to be adapted, and adapting it requires solutions to these problems:

1) If Dracula is a threat to the world as we know it, why is he beaten so easily by such a bunch of hearty dim wits? Drac in his castle at the beginning of the book is frightening. Drac in London is just out of place. What “powers” does the dead Lucy have? She nibbles children and is easily staked. Drac only preys on women and runs away at the first resistance from the boys own heroes. So first choice. Is Dracula a genuine threat to the world? Or just a deluded anachronism. You could write him either way. You could even see his anachronism as a reason why he’s a threat. But you need to decide.

2) Exactly what is evil about Stoker’s Drac apart from his dietary habits and the fact he’s “undead’? Stoker’s version of evil is based on a comfortable binary resting on a Christian framework. Since he wrote his book the binary has been dissolved. We’ve had the ugliness of the twentieth century: the first world war, the holocaust, the atomic bomb “ethnic cleansing”. Compared to this, sucking someone’s blood doesn’t seem that bad. If your Drac is evil then he has to be based on a modern understandings of “bad”. Read American Psycho first. Then imagine an undead Bateman with a political agenda.

3) There’s a lot of nineteenth century stuff in the book you should ignore unless you’re going to set it in the nineteenth century; the misogyny that runs through it, the way Stoker uses his female characters to denigrate women etc etc. but in ignoring it you need to alter the story. Mina is the most intelligent person in the book, but she stays at home while her dim witted husband and his band of brothers race around doing the heroic stuff and leaving her in danger. In a modern film this just makes the band of brothers look even more dim witted. If you haven’t woken up to the fact that there your average intelligent, resourceful modern women would be far more useful than Stoker’s male heroes, then you might want to leave your crypt and walk around in the daylight a bit.

4) It’s really about time the vampire brides were liberated and got to do something other than simper and hiss. Equating female beauty with stupidity and female sexuality with evil is a ……limiting….. view point and the fact that Drac seems to want to spend eternity with the lead characters in a blonde joke is another strike against him. I vote they eat Van Helsing, who should die screaming: Stop it I like it!

5) Van Helsing is another problem, but you can work that one out yourself. Also, in a twenty first century film, there is something deeply incongruous if not actually risible about characters who are obviously not in any way religious defending themselves with religious symbols. If you don't believe in a Christian soul, being a vampire wouldn’t be that bad either.

6) What you cannot ignore is that at the heart of the novel is a perverted eroticism. Bram stoker was pushing his own buttons. What ever that first note book recorded dream of the vampire brides meant to him, it drove the best part of the novel: a darker, disturbed and disturbing version of sexuality. You can ignore it. Or you can run with it. But you must choose and stick with your choice. If you ignore it you may as well not make your film. If you run with it, then for god’s sake, having actresses in night dresses pulling faces while some aging actor gums their throat is funny, not disturbing. In Dracula the Dumb Film I just watched Harker says, ”he seduced me”. Mina replies “in what way?” A sexual seduction it wasn’t; but it should have been.

7) This is a supernatural story. Please carefully consider any special effects. Tod Browning’s film demonstrated that a sparing use could be…effective. The first few minutes of Suspiria which are so unsettling don't use any. For an audience bought up on Star Wars and beyond, cheap special effects, or ones that don’t work, are embarrassing. Relying on them instead of good acting and a good script makes for a silly film.

8) You need good actors. Not famous names (see the Keanu Reeves as Harker disaster for proof) but competent actors who can play characters the audience can care about and believe in.

9) Casting Drac is your main problem. No matter how you envisage him (see point one) the actor has to carry the film. Even if you follow the novell and leave him off stage Drac has to be WRONG: terrifying, mysterious, powerful, sexy, attractive, repulsive, and disturbing. Above all he has to be convincing in all these roles. Playing Hamlet is probably easier, I’d go for one actor to play old Drac in his castle…and then a cast of several Dracs: Lucy’s lover is not Mina’s seducer, nor Jonathon’s, nor Van Helsing’s nemesis.

10) You have to scare and disturb us. (And we have seen so much faked blood and dismemberment that it really doesn't shock anymore). That means you need a good script. Characters in horror films, especially the characters we’re supposed to relate to, should not be more stupid than real people would be in that situation. Would you really go exploring the spooky castle after dark? On your own? Without a torch? When someone tells you “it’s not safe, stay in your room” would you go for a wander to find out why it’s not safe? “Threats to the world as we know it” should not make statements that would cause embarrassed giggles at a dinner party and twentieth century heroes should not be expected to say “Vampires. They are just a myth” in a vampire film. On the other hand, being ignorant of vampire lore in a film set in the twentieth century is also unbelievable.

11) It would be both terrifying and disturbing if the heroes did what seemed absolutely logical, having intelligently considered their course of action, so the audience thinks, I wouldn’t have thought of that but what a good idea, and THEN bad things happened to them.

12) For the length of your film the audience has to believe that this is the real world. What makes Harker’s Journal so effective is that he’s a drab, unimaginative clerk, and his flat factual account of what happens at Drac’s castle is, while you’re reading it, credible. That’s what makes it scary. One of Stoker’s successful choices was to situate the rest of the story in the world his readers knew.

Unless you can solve these problems please leave the book alone. Should you be thinking of filming it, I volunteer to read your script, for free, and will comment on it to prevent yet another waste of time from making it to the screen and into my DVD collection.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Under the Radar ))

There's multiple levels of irony in that title, but I have two pieces in issue four. Grandmother's Story and Presentment of Englishry
Both are 'English pieces'. The latter a record of the irritation I feel every time someone asks me if I'm English, the former a favourite ghost story. I'm not sure Gran ever revealed what was under the floorboards.

What the poem tries to catch is the absolute conviction of her delivery. She wasn't trying to entertain us, she was reporting something she really believed had happened. The poem is an 'Outtake' from Lady G, as i couldn't cut it back to the necessary twelve lines.

There's other fine things (finer things) in Issue four: poems and reviews,and Jane and Matt are developing a good looking and content rich magazine that rewards rereading.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats.

This film was made for no cost to raise money for the American and Norwegian cancer societies and it feels cruel to be looking at it critically. On the other hand Herzog with a camera and a group of volunteers would create Aquirre. A herzog film it ain't. But neither is it Plan Nine from Outer space

It does claim to be a version of Beowulf.

And Yes, Beowulf is played by an “African –American” and if you can’t deal with that then don’t buy the film, otherwise for less than twenty dollars it’s a donation to a good cause and the outtakes are hilarious.

The director said his model was “high school movie on steroids” and the film does feel like a grade ten production. Though most grade ten art classes I know would have done a much better job of the graphics, some of which are simply bad. It’s a pity they didn’t go the Todd browning route. When his budget for Dracula was slashed the extravagant outdoor sets and props were cut out and the story focussed on the human interactions at the heart of the story. (Ok, so there are some bad flying bats and drac’s death off stage “urgh” isn’t good, but the scene with Dracula on the stairs with the cobwebs is spooky even now.) In Beowulf Prince of the Geats the three fight scenes, especially the one in the mere, are embarrassing. However, there are moments in between, when the actors act, and the film works as a watchable film.

As a version of Beowulf?

The questions with any adaptation are: better than, less than, equal to? Does the version send me back to the original to look at it in a new light?

The second of those questions might be irrelevant here as the I’m not sure how well the writer knew the poem. In the documentary on the Dvd he keeps referring to Vikings, and the story itself begins in “Southern Denmark AD 866”. There are lots of minor changes, some of which are driven by the logic of earlier changes, some of which simply seem random.
There are two significant changes to the story. The first is the frame that explains why Beowulf is African We’ve had Beowulf with a Scots accent and Beowulf with a cockney accent, and neither is “authentic” so why worry about the actor’s “colour”. A few racists will jump up and down but so what?

Instead we get the story of how his father travels from Africa to Denmark (in his outrigger canoe?) The map suggests he came down the Nile. There’s nothing impossible about this. To celebrate the five hundreth anniversary of Columbus’ landing a lone sea kayaker paddled from Spain to America. It’s just unnecessary, and it forces the film into places, like the “African Village”, which are the more cringe inducing parts of the film. The film begins with Unferth finding his way back to the village. Somehow he knows their language well enough to tell the whole story. This all seems to be a mistake. We could have done without it.

The other major change is to Beowulf’s character. We have an older Beowulf who has “pacifist” stamped on his forehead. When the obvious usurpation attempt occurs (itself a logical consequence of the way the character is written) he isn’t strong enough to defend himself and has to be rescued. What’s worse is he doesn’t seem that interested in defending himself. He’s too nice. In fact he’s downright cuddly. This is hardly the admired war hero who batters his enemies into submission and goes off boldly to take on the dragon “most eager for fame”.

But the biggest change is that we have yet another self-doubting Beowulf. Here the self doubt is expressed in Beowulf’s slightly puzzling mantra “not a risk to the tribe’ and the fact he seems to be attempting suicide at one point… In the story world of the poem when the monsters are beating down your door and winding up to rip off a few heads and feast on a half dozen freshly Killed family and friends the last thing you’d want is a hero who wants to analyse his motives, question his self worth and speculate about the ethics of his actions. (or get suicidal after every victory).

Why this insistence on the flawed and or self doubting hero ? A modern distrust of heroism? We’ve been conned by the metaphor of the enemy at the gate so that we can’t see that in Beowulf’s story world its not a metaphor. There really were bad things in the darkness. For us there was either no enemy at the gate or if there was, we were left with the nasty suspicion that our own actions brought him there. In the world we live in now, unthinking military heroism makes us profoundly suspicious (until the enemy really is at the gate and then I think we’d prefer our military not to need counselling before they can operate).

But in the story world of Beowulf, a hero who went in for endless self analysis and doubt wouldn’t be a hero for very long and would be worse than useless. Ironically that means the hero of the thirteenth warrior is probably the closest of all the versions to the Beowulf of the poem.

Anglo Saxon poetry has several examples of reflective speakers who analyse themselves and their actions, but you don’t find these in “heroic verse”.

So go to the web site and buy the film. You’ll laugh you’ll cry and it might save a life.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Staffordshire Hoard.

"You're not going out trudging fields with that machine of yours are you?"
"One day I'll find something really impressive"
"Fat chance"

The "staffordshire hoard" was found this year by a man with a metal detector. The Anglo-Saxons come to life again.
The slide show on flickr is stunning:

The staffordshire Hoard

And the excitement round the traps is palpable.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

medieval films continued:An African Beowulf

An African Beowulf:


There's a trailer

here

and a discussion of the sadly predictable response in some circles

here


With any adaptation there is little point in leaping up and down because something has been changed..whether it’s an African Beowulf or the “president’s big push” and “holocaust’ in Jane Holland’s “Lament of the Wanderer”. The interesting question is what do these things do with the original? Do they invite us to go back and rethink our assumptions? Or do they diminish the poem by making it something lesser?
So I have shelled out pennies for a copy, knowing that the money is going to American and Norwegian Cancer research (or so the story goes). And I will report back… It cannot be any worse than the animated version.

Monday, September 21, 2009

set questions for "For all We Know" and "Quiver"

Questions for Quiver as a way of answering why I think it doesn't work.
(WHich I will try and answer later)

1) what is the narrator’s name
2) who is Mara and what is/was Mara’s exact relationship to Will and Nate?
3) Why has Mara been killed? In fact is it Mara or her twin who has been killed?
4) Who is the woman who looks like Mara (Twin or clone)?
5) How did Mara or the woman who looks like her have access to the narrator’s poems? What is the point of her having access to them?
6) What is the point of the long mythological piece?
7) Why was Mara/clone/Twin killed?
8) Who tries to Kill the narrator?
9) Why does mara/twin/clone kill Nate?
10) What is the point of all of this?

Why does my inability to answer these questions in any satisfactory way affect my response to the poem adversely when my inability to answer equally many questions raised by “For all we Know” is part of the pleasure of (re) reading that text?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

lunatics, critics and beautiful music

One of the criticisms levelled against Lady G was that sections of the sequence were "unconvincing". Recently I read a review of a novel which used the same strange criticism.

Here’s a true story. Decide for yourself if it’s “convincing”….

Carlo Geusaldo 1560 -1613 is remembered today, if at all, as composer of music that seems far ahead of its time. It’s beautiful, or at least I think so. He has also been suggested as one of the prototypes of Browning’s Duke in “My Last duchess”…

His life however….

Made Duke on the death of his older brother he was already a respected musician and composer. His marriage was a grand affair; two thousand oysters and 120 roasted goats in a banquet of 120 something courses. His new wife was one of the leading beauties of her day, possibly Leonardo’s model for the Moaning Lisa. Married at fifteen her first husband had died “of an excess of Connubial bliss’. Her second hubby went the same way.

Soon after her marriage to Guesaldo one of his relatives makes a pass at her and learns he has been beaten to it in the extra-connubial bliss stakes. Rebuffed, he tells Guesaldo about her affair. Guesaldo now plans the murder and catching the lovers together kills the man (who is dressed, rather oddly, in a woman’s night dress) and stabs his wife. Running out the house he is said to have stopped and said..she can’t really be dead..so ran back inside and stabbed her over twenty times. He then dumped, or had dumped, the dead bodies on the steps to his palace…where they were randomly “molested” by a passing monk.

G flees the scene of the crime for the family home, where he spends the next couple of months cutting down all the trees.

Convinced his second son isn’t his, he decides to get rid of it. He does this, so the story goes, by sitting him on a swing dangling from a balcony and having his attendants keeping the swing going for three days and nights. Being a noted musician and lover of music of course, he hires a choir to sing while the swinging is going on: they sing madrigals about the beauty of death.

It seems he was not prosecuted for the murder of his wife and her lover.

He remarries but treats his new wife so badly so runs away. He spends the last dozen plus years of his life in seclusion, making sure his servants beat him regularly. HE also employs one of them to sleep with him to keep his back warm.
He dies..doesn’t everybody…and apparently you can choose your version of his death. He dies of asthma...or he dies of infections caused by the severe and repeated floggings administered by his servants.

I didn’t make any of this up. But how convincing would it be if I did?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Abelard

Abelard.

As a kind of side track to the FIlm conversation.
( I should confess I find him fascinating. The relationship with Heloise I always thought was a minor issue that wasn't that interesting. Oh well.)

If he has any role in History it’s as “the invincible arguer” (the phrase is Kenneth Clark’s). At a time when faith and a willingness to bow to authority were all that was required, no matter how daft they seemed, along comes Abelard and argues that reason must be used to support faith. (Come to think of it, the Bernard’s still rule the world.Or at least the educiational one).

The one thing he couldn’t do was avoid an argument. Castrated, publically humiliated at the council of Soisson, and in no position to do anything but keep his mouth shut and attempt invisibility, he still managed to offend almost everyone, including those looking after him, by worrying away at the truth.

There’s a debate about when our idea of “individuality” first appears in European art and literature. The 11/12th century being one candidate. Abelard appears as an individual, not because of the letters, but because of the Historia Calamitatum and only because the genre cracks under the pressure of the story the writer is telling.

He claims that:

“Since therefore I was wholly enslaved to pride and lechery, God’s grace provided a remedy for both these evils, though not one of my choosing; first for my lechery by depriving me of those organs with which I practised it, and then for the pride which had grown in my through my learning-for in the words of the Apostle “Knowledge breeds conceit’-when I was humiliated by the burning of the book of which I was so proud.”

So there are to be two stories: the story a relationship (lechery) and the story of a scholar’s pride in his own reason.

His version of their relationship can be read then not as a honest confession of the facts but as his conscription of the events to fit his stated moral and narrative design. When he decides to seduce someone (and the decision is presented in those terms) he first describes Heloise as ;” In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme.” He then writes:

“I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at the time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love”. Which I think puts the mockers on the idea that this is a great love story. It’s either painfully honest in its arrogance…if you have decided it’s time to seduce someone, why settle for less than the most intelligent best looking woman available ?…or it could be read it as simply the topos of pride coming before the fall?

His castration and separation from Heloise are his first punishment (for the sin of lechery) and he accepts it in keeping with the overall aim of the Historia.

It’s the second castration that breaks the plan and gives us a sense of Abelard as a man. He can tell the story of his affair with Heloise to fit the pattern; he is proud and vain; he seduces her; he is punished. But he cannot subdue his outrage at his treatment at the council of Soissons to his stated purpose. Accused of Heresy he attended the council ready to argue his case. And the stacked “jury’ knew that no one was going to win an argument with Abelard. So they basically castrated him again: his book was burnt and to prove he was a good Christian he was forced to read the creed. He wasn’t allowed to state his case in his own words; he was forced to read a formula. For a man whose career had been based on the essential role of individual reason in support of faith, and on his ability to verbalise that reasoning in public, it must have been terrible.

He was outraged. You can still hear it. He may have set out to write about his punishment for pride, but you don’t show that by proving the Judge was theologically unsound, or comment after the council:

“all the grief and indignation , the blushes for shame, the agony of despair I suffered then I cannot put into words. I compared my present plight with my physical suffering in the past and judged myself the unhappiest of men. My former betrayal seemed small in comparison with the wrongs I now had to endure and I wept much more for the injury done to my reputation than for the damage to my body, for that I had bought upon myself though my own fault, but this open violence [the burning of his book] had come upon me only because of the purity of my intentions and love of our Faith which had compelled me to write”.

That last, long sentence, doesn’t sound like someone accepting a justifiable punishment to me?


(I can’t read Latin so quotes are taken from Betty Radice’s translation. I also know that it’s quite possible that both the Historia and the letters are forgeries…)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Medieval films continued

My thanks to Linda M. Davies for pointing out that both the story of Abelard and Heloise and "The Song of Roland" have been filmed.

The first is called "Stealing Heaven" and stars someone called Derek de Lint as Abelard.

The second is called "The Song of Roland" and stars Klaus Kinski as Roland. It would be Kinski without Herzog pushing his many buttons, but still, it would be Kinski.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dr. Johnson on Milton... thoughts on obscurities

This is from Johnson's "Lives of the Most Eminent English poets with Observations on their Poetry". Like Hazlitt's "Lectures on the English Poets" it is still thought provoking (and enjoyable) reading. (Though my copy has no notes and Johnson's habit of throwing out Latin tags which are meaningless to me is a good reminder of how definitions of literate and educated have changed. )


"Paradise lost' is one of those books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look else where for recreation; we desert our master and seek for companions.

There are so many poets alive and dead you could replace Milton with in that paragraph if it stopped at the final semi colon.

The index to the "Lives' is an interesting lesson in the realities of fame and reputation. The "Most Eminent English Poets" include Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Rochester, but also Wentworth Dillon, John Phillips, George Stepney, John Pomfret, and the marvelously named Thomas Sprat amongst many other names I'd never even heard of before, let alone read.

William Walsh is another name I'd never heard before, but the index does say of him "known more by his familiarty with greater men than by anything done or written by himself".

You could probably replace his name in that sentence with many others others as well.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Name a good film made from a medieval story

other than Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Arthurian cycle has taken a miserable hammering, from the banal idiocy of “First Knight’ to the pretentious silliness of “Excalibur”. (It’s true, Uther manages to rape Ygraene without taking off his full body armour….which may explain the lady’s facial expressions). There’s a twee film of Gawain and the Green Knight which conflates it with some of Chretien’s tales and misses the point of the story. I saw it on tv in the 1970s. The reviewer said: the author of the medieval poem is anonymous. If it’s anything like the film that’s totally understandable.

Beowulf has recently been butchered by two very different films (see previous posts.) neither of which seem to have a firm grasp on what’s happening in the poem.
Robin hood has become a smiling bandit leaping around in tights, (and we can discount any film where they describe King John as a Norman.)

Has the Tain ever been filmed? That would be a superb subject for a three part epic.. Deirdre first, then the youth of Cuchulain to lift the mood a little before the The Tain proper. Except it wouldn’t have the furry loveliness of that other pseudo medieval three part epic. It’d be a bitter story about jealousy and greed and all those other adult things that don’t happen much in fantasy world. With the hero doing what medieval heroes do ..dying..at the end.

I’m sure I once saw a very low budget but weirdly excellent Gaelic film of the story of Finn, but this was on late night tv back in the early eighties… there’s also an excellent stop animation series of the Canterbury tales that was doing the rounds recently…but that’s hardly mainstream cinema. El Cid with Charlton Heston is ok though painfully long…and not as good as The War Lord which I don’t think is a medieval story but a story set in the middle ages?

Has the song of Roland ever been filmed?

So…any takers?

Monday, August 10, 2009

maldon 991:the Anglo-Saxon art of defiance #2

Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.

Says it all really.


Rebuffed by the English(see part one) the vikings try to force the causeway but are stopped. The messenger returns. No flowery speeches this time. Let us across and we’ll settle this. Byrthnoth agrees. Then,

Wōdon þā wælwulfas (for wætere ne murnon),
wīċinga werod west ofer Pantan,
ofer scīr wæter scyldas wēgon,
lidmen tō lande linde bǣron.

I know it’s a fantasy of mine, but I can hear the “hateful strangers” wading silently, purposefully, across the bright water. You can feel the rustle and clatter running through the East Saxon lines as the “sailors come to land, bearing shields”

The battle goes wrong for the English. Byrthnoth, who is old enough for a free bus pass, is killed, and our poet says, with characteristic economy:

Hī bugon þā fram beaduwe þe þǣr bēon noldon.
(They turned then from the battle, who did not wish to be there)

Seeing someone riding off on Byrthnoth’s distinctive horse, many think he has fled and run after him. But not all the army flees. Byrthnoth’s closest friends and retainers decide to stay. They have boasted they will not leave their lord, their ring giver, dead on the field, and now they keep their promise. Making good your boast, is a theme that runs through Anglo-Saxon poetry. When Beowulf arrives in heorot he makes his boast that he will kill Grendle, without weapons, knowing the consequences of failure.

The poem orders and tidies. We’re reading about a group of men hacking away like lunatics in an abattoir; but their resolution is shaped by the poem’s formal movement. The narrative breaks down into a series of individual vignettes as each man speaks, then steps forward.

But the old retainer's words are still the most succinct definition of resolution that you could hope for:

"Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.
(Thought shall be sterner, heart harder, courage greater, as our might lessens)
Peter Baker suggests; ...because our might lessens)

Kipling states something similar in a very different poem:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

which may have lead to Pink Floyd’s,

“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”

But there is nothing quiet or desperate about the retainers at Maldon. They are at the point where, as Peter Baker points out, physical ability is now largely irrelevant: they know they are not leaving. They are not “hanging on” because there is nothing to hang on for, what matters to them and to the poet, is the will-power to make good a promise.

In the win win world of negotiate and counsel, I’m sure someone would tell those who fled that it was ok really, they were expressing themselves. The value system that might condemn them is merely historically contingent and culturally defined and therefore not necessarily objective and worth worrying about. In fact the ones at fault are the blind fools who weren't critical enough of the dominant hegemonic discourse to see through the way in which ideology had conditioned and manipulated them to behave like obedient puppies serving the self interest of the ruling elites.

But I think there may be something to be said for holding to a considered line, if you’re willing to accept the consequences.

The problem being to find a line which, after long and serious consideration, might be worth holding.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Maldon 991:the Anglo-Saxon art of defiance #1

Ok, so it's August, any excuse to trot this one out. In August 991 an English army under Ealdorman Byrthnoth was defeated by a Viking army at Maldon in modern Essex. The poem, or what's left of it, describes the defeat. It begins as the English army arrive on the banks of the Pant and line up facing the Vikings who are on an island in the estuary.

The vikings send a messenger over who basically says: we don't need to fight, you just give us treasure and we'll trot back to our ships. Under Aethelred the English had been buying them off. Byrthnoth's reply, or a scrambled version of it, has been in my head since I first read it way back in 1980.

A translation won't catch the bitter humour or the absolute resolution of the reply but anyway. What he says is:

"Gehȳrst þū, sǣlida, hwæt þis folc seġeð?
Hī willað ēow tō gafole gāras syllan
ǣttrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þā hereġeatu þe ēow æt hilde ne dēah.
Brimmanna boda, ābēod eft onġēan:
seġe þīnum lēodum miċċle lāþre spell,
þæt hēr stynt unforcūð eorl mid his werode
þe wile ġealgean ēþel þysne,
Æþelrēdes eard ealdres mīnes
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hǣþene æt hilde! Tō hēanliċ mē þinċeð
þæt ġē mid ūrum sceattum tō scype gangon
unbefohtene, nū ġē þus feor hider
on ūrne eard in becōmon.
Ne sceole ġē swā sōfte sinc ġegangan;
ūs sceal ord and ecg ǣr ġesēman
grim gūðplega ǣr wē gofol syllon."

Roughly:
D’you hear, seafarer, what this folk say? As tribute they will give you spears, poisoned points, old swords, war gear that will avail you little in the battle.
Messenger of the seamen, go back and tell your people a far more hateful message: here stands, undaunted, an earl with his troop, who will defend this homeland, the land of Aethelred and my elders, both folk and fold. Heathens shall fall in battle! It would be shameful if you should go back to your ships with our treasures or come any further into our homeland without a fight. Not so softly will you win our treasure. First point and edge in grim battle play will reconcile us before we will give tribute.

There are some grim jokes that don't translate, but there's something magnificent in the defiance. The OE works aloud (he confesses to trying it on a river bank) alternating between tub thumbing heroism and sly humour.

The viking messenger offers him the easy option and he flatly rejects it. At this stage there is no suggestion that if it does come to a battle he can't win or won't win.

There are times such attitudes need evoking...if merely in private situations that are intolerable; a kind of this far; no further and to hell with the consequences.

Later in the poem, in what is usually described as one of the most succinct expressions of the "heroic ethos' in OE poetry, the choice will be much more limited; the consequences far more obviously grim.

But that for later.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

what a difference a word makes?

I thought he said:

give you guitar lessons?

but what he really said was:

Do you give guitar lessons?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

milton and the Nipple nazi#2

If Milton is rendered into prose, does that mean, somewhere, there is a Finnegans Wake for dummies? Even now is someone plodding through Ulysses reducing it to “Everyday English”; the literary equivalent of “Rory Gallagher for Easy Guitar” or “Jimi Hendrix in Three Chords”.

The thought of a prose version of Milton has been nagging at me all day. It’s like studying Jane Eyre by watching the BBC version and thinking the book is then unnecessary. (There are times when the Eyre Affair or the awful film version of the Dumas Club are entertaining in their own right. There are times when Meatloaf the band is essential listening. So I’m not saying that we should only have the most difficult and the rest is dross. There are filmed versions of Jane Eyre which are excellent films. But the novel they ain’t. )

In Thom Gunn’s poem “Expression” the narrator has been reading “The poetry of my juniors”. “It is very poetic poetry” says our narrator, who heads for the art museum, not knowing what he’s looking for until he sees “an Early Italian Altar Piece’.
“the sight quenches, like water
after too much birthday cake.”

Which is a what Heaney calls, somewhere else, a “mind clearing simile”. Listening to Bach’s partitas for solo violin, or his Cello Suites. Or reading Joyce after listening to the Tv/radio presenters…Like wading though so much “poetic poetry” to find the pure drop.
In Zbnigiew Herbert’s “Why the Classics.”
3
if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self pity

what will remain after us
will be like lover’ weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall paper dawns.

As Mr. Cogito says in his envoy:

repeat humanity’s old incantations fairy tales and legends
for that is how you will attain the good you ill not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those who crossed a desert and perished in the sand.

A literary education should be about creating choices. But I don’t see how you can explain why some people think poetry is worthwhile if you turn it into prose so they can read it like a newspaper. How does anyone develop generic competence (in this case the skills, knowledge and reading practices called on when reading poetry) if they don’t engage with poem as poem?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Milton and the Nipple nazi

Milton and the Nipple Nazi is an article on the rendering of Milton's paradise lost into prose. You can read it

here

I agree with her, about the Milton. I'm no in a position to comment on the nipple nazi. If you need a prose gloss for a poem, you aren't reading the poem.
(I'm Old! I'm allowed to say things like that. I can grumble about people who feel the need to "modernise" medieval texts to "make them relevant' and laugh rudely at people who say traditional songs have no "contemporary relevance". ) It's funny how certain texts get an off putting reputation. I was put off Milton by having to read Samson Agonistes for A level. It wasn't difficult: it just wasn't interesting for a seventeen year old. Satan in hell would have been a very different proposition.

But what's frightening (he grumbled on in his old man grumblings) is the idea that instead of saying to an undergraduate: make the effort, it may hurt, you may fail, but you're not going to learn anything unless you make a sustained effort, someone goes to the lengths of writing a prose translation to save the poor darlings the trouble.

Milton might be boring; like Wagner, there are great moments lost in hours of sludge; he may make your teeth ache ideologically and theologically; his god is smug and unloveable and his devil fascinating; but difficult to read? Compared to what?

Monday, July 13, 2009

oronyms and mondegreens curiouser and curiouser

‘…The columnist Jon Carrol has called a mondegreen, after his mis-hearing of the folk ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’Moray”;
oh ye hielands and ye lowlands
Oh where ha ye been?
They have slain the earl fo Moray
And Laid him on the green”
He had always thought the that the lines were “they have slain the earl of Moray, and Lady Mondegreen”. (The language instinct. Pinker 1994)

However, at :
http://www.wordinfo.info/words/index/info/view_unit/3347

I find the following:
mondegreen

A series of words that result from the mishearing or misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric; for example, "I led the pigeons to the flag" for "I pledge allegiance to the flag."
The term mondegreen; representing a series of words resulting from the mishearing of a statement or song lyric, is generally attributed to Sylvia Wright, who is credited with coining the neologism in a 1954 Harper magazine column. Ms. Wright was not pleased to discover that for many years she had misunderstood the last line of the first stanza in the Scottish folk ballad "The Bonny Earl of Murray", which is written as:
Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh! Where ha'e ye been:
They ha'e slain the Earl of Murray,
And they laid him on the Green.

Ms. Wright misheard this stanza as:

Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh! Where ha'e ye been:
They ha'e slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

From the disappearance of Sylvia Wright's tragic heroine, Lady Mondegreen, came the term for describing many unconventional interpretations or understandings of oral repetition, usually in the form of song lyrics.

Bard Of Erin #2(Thomas Moore, Leofric, Godiva etc)

Like all good biographies, this one exposes the problem of the art.
At its heart, there is an assumption there is a knowable subject and certain sources can reveal it. A literary Biography has to be more than a chronology. We want to know the links between life and works, what drove this writer, what made him or her who they were. But what does it mean to recreate a character? What does ‘who they were” mean? Was the Thomas Moore Byron knew, the same as the one known to Powers or Bessy? Was one version any more “authentic” than the other?
How much of a life leaves any kind of public trace? Imagine your life reconstructed from the available evidence? How revealing would that evidence be?
Since a biography is based on the availability of certain types of records and certain assumptions about them, it’s why there are fine biographies of the Romantic poets, many nineteenth century writers, and then up to about the end of the first half of the twentieth century. It will be interesting to see how or if the literary biography will survive the death of print culture. Will future biographers cull face book for information?
Letters, journals, press cuttings, comments by and comments about, gossip in print: the nineteenth writer lived in a torrent of printed words. But where these are missing, even literate subject s fall into a black hole. Kelly ruefully points out that in the early years when Moore is in Ireland, and not writing to his mother and friends who lived there, it’s difficult to know what was going on. We still don’t know why Byron did a runner, though each generation is ready to offer a possible solution. Even so short and so scrutinised a life’s as Keats has blanks in it that raise tantalising questions about the type of person he might have been.
The further back you go, the harder it is to find anyone. The less they are royalty or involved in “the major events of the day” the harder it gets. There are numerous biographies of Shakespeare, but little is known about him. Go beyond that and you’re in the dark ages in more ways than one. The trace that even royalty left in the Anglo-Saxon period is slight; it takes decades of devoted research through charters to find a signature in a witness list to say that (if the charter is genuine) x was in Y on this particular date. With royalty there’s an outside chance that a chronology is possible. But character? Personality? Their thoughts about what was going on? To answer the question: what were these people like? Forget it. Step off the royal podium and chances are they are just a name. Godgifu, wife of Leofric of Mercia. Leofric is almost absent from the chronicles; a few events, a few signatures, some donations, a role in someone else’s miracles. His wife gets her own entry in Domesday Book, is remembered for her generosity to some religious houses and as the woman who rode naked round Coventry.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

a bad attack of rabid punes

In Disc World, Death is fascinated by humans, and one aspect of humanity he’d like to participate in but consistently fails is the ability to make puns, or punes as he sometimes calls them.
Shakespeare loved Punes, in fact he’s been criticised for never passing up on the opportunity to make one. Punning taken to the limit is called Finnegans Wake. And if it was good enough for those two, I don’t need to apologise for liking them.

One type of pun now has a name: an oronym. Strings of sound that can be carved in to words in different ways. Dictionaries are silent on the matter but the example everyone seems to give is:
The stuffy nose can lead to problems
The stuff he knows can lead to problems.

However, my favourites are bilingual..the famous Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames
Even if you don’t speak French reading the following in your best fake French accent and thinking of well known nursery rhymes should make the joke obvious:

Un Petit d’un Petit
S’etonne aux halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! Degres te fallent .

So the challenge is to write something in English that has one sense and yet its sound creates another…

A lisp oak “Hein he Dead you
Too old Me Four Play sure
After six You will Act if it
He’s leaping.”

Hurm…might take some time here.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bard Of Erin

Bard Of Erin
(The life and times of Thomas Moore: by Ronan Kelly).
Kelly’s first book, and an enviable start. It’s unfair to compare him to Holmes, but apart from the absence of a bibliography, he’s done a fine job. (Why would anyone publish a biography without a bibliography? How can someone like me plunder it for further reading if it ain’t there to plunder. And yes, there are pages of notes and their sources but that is not the same thing!)
Names accumulate their own bits and pieces and Moore is linked in odd ways to odd things in my memory. I had to wade though them while reading.
1) Primary school singing lessons, when we listened attentively to a radio broadcast with our “Booklets”, learning to sing “The Meeting of the Waters” and “The Minstrel Boy”. My introduction to The Irish Melodies. Their plastic paddy element makes me uncomfortable, as does the overt sentimentality, reinforced by what of think of as the John McCormack style of singing they induce. They are drawing room songs and the distance between the ugly realties of history and the glossy words is perhaps too great. But I like some of the lyrics he wrote. Like Campion’s or Dowland’s lyric writer’s, they work as song lyrics in ways they can’t on the page.
2) The Muldoon reading Byron’s “My boat is on the shore/my bark is on the sea/but before I go Tom Moore/ Here’s a double health to three”. While this is one of the great friendship poems, since I heard it, Byron has an Irish accent. This does weird things to Don Juan and seems beyond incongruous.
3) Bloom’s Joke about Tommy’s roguish statue wagging its finger over the meeting of the waters…the urinal is gone but the statue hasn’t. Nor has Kavanagh’s poem about it.
4) His roles as both the recipient of some of Byron’s best letters and as chief villain of Byron biographers for his participation in the burning of the famous autobiography, and his fudging some of his sources in his own, equally famous biography.
5) Martin Simspon's arrangement of "Believe me if all those endearing young charms".

Kelly writes well. The narrative keeps going, the discussion of the works, most of which I knew very little about, is enough to make me think I should read Lalla Rookh and maybe find a copy of the Byron Biography. He can turn a phrase neatly, with what his subject would have described as wit.
He doesn’t fall into the trap of expecting his subject’s politics to be either easy to label nor does he feel obliged to hammer Moore or to sit in judgement on him. He records his opponents’ comments and leaves it to the reader. There’s enough information for a range of reactions.

Why people expect a man’s political opinions at seventeen to be unchanged at forty seven is something I don’t understand, but it belongs with the school of commentators who would damn Galileo’s cringing from the instruments of the inquisition from the safety of their computer screens.

Given the lack of drugs, scandal or an early death, Moore's not a dramatic subject for a biography. Given his almost complete disappearance from the poetic canon most readers are unlikely to be familiar with his poetry either. So it’s worth being reminded of the huge advance for Lalla Rookh ($3000 pounds) and its popularity. Or that he could be spoken of as being equal to Byron (as well as Rogers, Bowles and Scott at a time when no one was bothering too much about Shelley and Keats). (I confess to being jealous of his advance for Lalla Rookh. 3,000 pounds. Forget fiddling with relative prices and calculations for inflation etc …3,000 pounds today would be more than acceptable as an advance for a poetry book. Please.Thank you)

Moore appears as a hard working, professional writer though obviously a bit vague at the contractual end of the business. Like Coleridge, he knew he had to worship the giants bread and cheese, and while he lacked STC’s brilliance he certainly outdid him in terms of work ethic and, perhaps more painfully, in finishing projects. The fact that he was a happily married man and took his family responsibilities seriously almost counts against him . A kind man, a nice man, a good fellow. Far better to be mad bad and dangerous to know. Of all the romantics he sounds like one of the few I’d like to have round for dinner on a regular basis.

Part of the strength of the biography is the way it effortlessly evokes that strange world of talkers and scribblers. The poets, many of whom have been forgotten despite their popularity, dining out on their reputations, gossiping about lady d-, trading epigrams and insults which lead to farcical duels with unloaded pistols at dawn, journalising and letter writing, taking off on grand tours to see the appropriate sights and have the appropriate reactions, keeping the local whores in business, while sloshing the local wine and dashing off another three volume poem for the lady readers at home. It’s the sheer volume of words that is astonishing. Byron's letters take up twelve. And that's the ones that survived.

This is getting too long. Moore later.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

shake hands with the devil#2

Blues Guitar players in the delta went to the crossroads at midnight and traded soul for the ability to play. If you were poor and desperate it seems like a reasonable deal. Though I’d stipulate that I had to sound so good people didn’t say: hey, you sound just like Martin Simpson….

The folk story versions usually have the clever peasant or the dumb peasant’s clever wife outwitting the devil. (Martin Carthy’s “devil and the feathery wife” being a fine example) http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/martin.carthy/songs/thedevilandthefeatherywife.html

But the literary paradigms are less interesting. Faust is simply greedy and we all know he’s going to get screwed at the end. He simply isn’t likeable and his actions are petty. There’s something adolescent about his bargain: Gimme Everything: NOW! (and why Helen of Troy? Leaving aside the problem of whether ideals of beauty in 13th century BC Greece are yours, after the novelty wears off how is Helen of Troy in a penthouse in Paris any better than Helen of Totnes in a bed sit in Brixton?) Anyway.

Enter Maturin. Another Irishman. The names dominate 19th century gothic: Maturin, Le Fanu, Stoker. The latter is the best known but the other two are as good as he is and Le Fanu is easily the better writer. Which raises the question: Why is Dracula so popular: the Wanderer is a more interesting character and Carmilla the better vampire story? And why did th eirish get so drawn to this genre?

There’s phds in there somewhere.

Anyway, Melmoth. The twist; the Wanderer can save himself if he can find someone else so desperate that they will take on his bargain. So Melmoth haunts mad houses and prisons, the starving and desperate, the love lost and forlorn… and everybody turns him down. Like stoker’s Dracula he is “off stage” for most of the narrative, and like Dracula, he gains in mystery and force from that. Like Dracula, the end is anti climatic.
The narrative progresses through a series of nested stories.

So first some attempt to set them out.
The frame itself is straightforward.
A) John Melmoth goes to his uncle’s house.
B) Uncle dies.
C) Jm inherits house. Stays there. Reads garbled narrative.
D) One stormy night watching a shipwreck he is rescued by the Spaniard, Moncada
E) Who tells him his story over a number of days.
F) The Wanderer appears, cuts short the story telling, and dies.

But in this are embedded other stories, each of which obviously pre-exists the main time frame.
(E) Moncada tells his own story up to the point where he is saved by the Jew and is asked to read another story.
E1Moncada beaks his own story, which is never resumed, to tell John Melmoth this story of Imalee up to her first death on the island. Then the story appears to break but actually continues. Imalee, now Isadora, re-encounters the Wanderer and their story continues up to the night of their “marriage” when the story once again breaks.
E2 Moncada, still narrating the story he read, introduces the story of Imalee’s father, Don Francisco’s, journey. Although ostensibly the same story as E1, the break is such that it becomes a separate sequence. This story is itself broken:
E3 The stranger at the inn tells Don F the story of Guzman and the Walbergs. The Don continues his journey, gets lost and meets the Wanderer..
E4 The Wanderer, in an attempt to save Imalee from himself, tells her father the story of the Mortimers, which itself is broken by
E5 The narrative of the priest who tells of Melmoth’s first death and hints at a Faust like bargain.
E4 finishes with the father missing the point.
E6 Because Imalee’s father is dense the Wanderer now tells the father the father’s story.
E1 resumes the night after the marriage and continues until Imalee’s death in the hands of the Inquisition.
F) Cuts short the story telling. The Wanderer tells in the present something of his story and the book comes to an end.

In terms of narrators and audiences it is superficially complicated; John Melmoth is Moncada’s audience, but in e2, 3, 4 and 6 the audience is her father. In e5 the story is told by the priest to Elaine in a story told by the wanderer to the father which is being told by Moncada to John Melmoth in a story written by Maturin to me……

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

1st of July 1916

If Gallipoli is the troubled centre of the foundation myths of Australia, the First Day of the Somme has a far darker place in British mythology. When I was at school we learnt the statistics: 60,00 casualties, 20, 00 of them dead. One morning, between 7.30am and “lunch time”. By the end of the battle, which got them nowhere, when the snows closed it down in November, British, Empire and allied troops had suffered over half a million casualties.

So I once met a man who claimed that the history of Europe in the twentieth century could be read as that culture’s inability to come to terms with the first world war. And the first day on the Somme seems like a fault line, that makes it difficult to see across to the nineteenth century, with its values and assumptions.

It’s trendy today to talk about “a patriarchal discourse” in terms of the terrible way the nineteenth century ideology of gender treated women. Or Homosexuals. But gender binaries crucify in both directions. We tend to forget the ideology that drilled it into young men that when the time came to step over a parapet and walk into machine gun fire, they should do it to prove their manhood.

Historians rewrite history: it’s their job. They do it to be accurate, to reinterpret in the light of new material, because they see the past through the lenses of their own cultural assumptions and ideological bias. They do it, cynically, because it’s how to make a career as an historian.

So Peter Hart (2005) gives the statistics as 57,470 of which 19,240 were killed which are repeated in Carlyon’s “the great war”.

Carlyon states categorically: “The Somme didn’t ruin a generation”.

Hart claims: “Yes, It is equally inane to adopt the morbid sentimentality of portraying the men who took part as helpless
victims mere stooges in a titanic battle, that somehow engulfed them unawares.”

They lined up and walked steadily into machine gun fire. They didn’t have a choice. Not even in the act of joining up. You can’t strip away the ideology of your upbringing for one moment of pure logical clarity. And a society where men signed up because war was preferable to their work in mill and mine, is irrevocably wrong.

Blame is pointless. Was Haig an idiot? Should Rawlinson have stood his ground? Was the Somme necessary so the British army could learn how to fight “modern warfare”? These are Military questions.

In human terms, a system that asks its young men to do this is intolerable. It’s not a class thing. The well-educated public school officers walked out first, because it was the done thing to lead from the front. They died. The rest of the army went after them; to prove itself “as warriors”; not to let its friends down, to be ”men”; to be there, to show willing to make the “ultimate sacrifice’ for King and country. They died. Fathers, Husbands, brothers, lovers, sons.
The statistics are awful. But it’s the personal that still hurts.

Lieutenant Noel Hodgson, 9th Battalion, Devonshire regiment:

Before Action 30/6/1916

I that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of they sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice
‘Ere the sun sheathes his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this.
By all delights that I shall miss
Help me to die, O lord.

(qtd in Hart, Peter The Somme cassell 2005)

Monday, June 29, 2009

what are the odds...

This story has been running in the local papers.
Man decides to murder wife so he can be with his mistress. [He hasn’t heard of divorce?] So he steps into a public phone booth, presumably not trusting his mobile, to tell the mistress that he is planning to take his wife for a walk along the beach, drown her, and make it look like an accident.
So far so Agatha Christy.
And then the unbelievable bit.
The police have bugged that particular phone box as part of an ongoing investigation in that area. So the officer listening to it hears the man telling the mistress the plan. They are arrested, tried and found guilty .
The wife is alive but what are the odds? Of all his options in communicating the plan, why did he choose that one? And of all the phone boxes he could have used, what made him step into that one? Chances are if he hadn’t made those choices, she’d be dead.

I don’t like the odds.

Old English Poetry: Seamus, Wulf, Eadwacer and me



In stepping stones, Heaney is asked why he was attracted to translating Beowulf: admiration for the poem or a love of Anglo-Saxon as a language?
“More the latter. I didn’t in truth have any special fondness for Beowulf before I started work on it.….The more elgaic poems “The Wanderer” “The Searfarer” were the ones that gave me a feel for the language , voices shaken by the North Sea wind, as it were, voices crying under the ness. I’m still not sure whether Anglo-Saxon was a heard melody for me or an unheard one, a music I imagined for myself.” (p436)

I’ve been wondering about this ever since I read it before Christmas. My feelings about Beowulf are damn near schizoid. But as sound system; as a spoken music Old English sings or it does in my head. I’ve never known if it’s an imagined music either. I’m sure some expert somewhere would haul me over the coals for the way I speak it.

But there are phrases that just sound good. Unweder sounds right in a way “bad weather” can’t and Byrthferth’s description of winter ”and he byð ceald and wæt” evokes a whole world of grey rain and people huddling by a smokey fire in a way "and it is cold and wet' doesn't. I think it's something to do with the vowel sounds.

But there are also individual poems that are part of the anthology that defines “poetry” in my head.
Wulf and Eadwacer is one of them. It’s often presented as an intellectual curiosity: it is. It’s notoriously difficult to translate. As is often pointed out the first two lines:

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.

could be translated:

Is to my people as if one might give them (a battle/sacrifice/gift/message/game)
Will they (receive/consume/oppress/relieve) him if he comes (with a host/in violence/in need).

The assumption is that if we only knew the back story; who the speaker is, who Wulf and Eadwacer are, it would make so much more sense and we'd know which choices to make in the brackets above. Most translations work on the circular argument of deciding what the back story is first, then translating to fit it.
But it's fun to play with the idea that the creator of this poem was not some hairy rugby player quaffing too much mead in between beating the billy be damned out of his neighbours, but a skilled artist who knew exactly Hwaet! he was doing.

Ambiguity is everywhere in Old English. In the first line of “The Wanderer”

Oft him ānhaga āre gebīdeð

the verb means to hope for but also to experience. The translator is forced to choose: does the speaker expect mercy or experience it? The original audience was under no such obligation: they could hold both options open. Yearning for it he experiences it?

So imagine the creator of Wulf and E enjoying the polysemic nature of the language and deciding to push it to the limit.
In one sense the speaker is saying in those first two lines, “who knows what they’ll do if he turn up, lots of things most of them bad”. Which sounds awful put like that but as

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.

are a model of compressed meaning.

It's true the lines sing. All poetry is spoken music but Old English more so than others. Wolf, my wolf just doesn’t have the melody of: Wulf, mīn Wulf

wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð

spits its message, the first half running smoothly, the second tripping over itself as if she is retching at the memory..

So the music is important.

But it’s the sense of a voice speaking, the irony of the words, the meaning pulsing along the lines. The odd combination of the very physically real: she sits by the hearth in rainy weather, it is not the lack of food but his infrequent coming that makes her ill and the mythic vagueness of the situation. Like folk tales before Walt and Co got to them.



Graves, God bless’im, argued that the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon poetry grew out of the creak of the oarlocks. You couldn’t prove that if your life depended on it, but it’s a great image and the sense of the poem, pulsing and pausing along the fetch of the line like a rowed boat, works for me.
That terse epigrammatic ending:
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.
raising the specific into the general without becoming vague or wishy washy.

Not just a heard music then, but a love of the made thing.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Shake hands with the devil#1

I’ve known about Melmoth the Wanderer for what seems like centuries. I’m sure I bought a very old and yellow paperback copy in the second hand bookshop in Acock’s green. Bu I’m also sure I never read it.
So it’s strange to enter its world and feel that odd sense of familiarity. It’s the tug and wash of intertextuality at work. Orphan son travels to dilapidated house of rich but miserly uncle. Kidnapped. Change the gender: Uncle Silas. The old house with its mysteries; Wuthering heights or the Jonathon Harker journal opening of Dracula . The servants sitting round the fire, with their alien natures and elliptic talk that hints at mysteries and superstitions: paintings I’m unable to name, but the plays of Synge, Jane Eyre, etcetc. Mystery and secrets in an old house: the turn of the screw, Le Fanu’s stories.
So in a good book you get that odd feel that it’s both familiar but unknown. The references in your personal reading history ghost around the edges giving it a depth it would otherwise lack, which somehow allows it freedom to operate in its own particular way. Whether one could do that deliberately is a different matter.
The thing I had forgotten, having spent most of my time recently reading things I had to read, is how novels like this require a commitment on the part of the reader. Not just to play the game, to enter the story world and accept its rules, but to be willing to give up large chunks of time to reading it and to take it at its own pace.
The gothic fear is that those who should be morally beyond reproach aren’t. Those in power are corrupt, selfish, vicious and have the will and the ability to persecute those who are genuinely innocent for the pleasure of it. The innocent are helpless.
Odd that what we take for granted was seen as perverse and horrific.

Anti blurb wars part two

this was sent to me, it's a non Australian Press's blurb:

The press locates itself an as intellectual space where forms and intuitions make writing a process of risk and otherness—a space where the high stakes of creative inquiry make self-effacement impossible. @@@@ fosters work that investigates the dimensions of place, whether construed as location or situation. Such work is... able to survive in swamps and sandhills, to thrive in salt and heat, to occupy an imaginative landscape that is raw and abrasive and to expand its territory toward the interior. Neither cynical nor rhetorically meek, the work is concerned with but not limited by the map; its logic is global, written against the grain of history and biography.

what does that mean? The press locates itself an as intellectual space where forms and intuitions make writing a process of risk and otherness—a space where the high stakes of creative inquiry make self-effacement impossible.it could mean so many different things. If an over surplus of possible meanings results in meaninglessness, then this can mean whatever the writer wants it to mean on any given day depending on how hot the coffee is.

I expect waffle in art galleries. You've had the experience where you're standing there looking at a photo of a dead rat with two burnt twigs shoved up its arse and you need that a4 page "artists statement" beside it to tell you that (once you've waded through the inevitably turgid, tautological and almost hilarious swamp of perverted syntax and thesaurus spew) that this is actually a shattering indictment of the patriarchal discourses of post something capitalism. You need it because if you're stupid and visually illiterate like me without the 'artist's' statement you'd be thinking you were looking at a picture of the mutilated corpse of a dead rodent. You might even start thinking that the thing was indeed an indictment of the system; a system that allowed people to do that and think they were doing something worth your attention. You might even start thinking that it is indeed an indictment of capitalism that people can make money out of such bolloxs.

But isn't poetry supposed to be about the precise use of language? When we read yet again that poet x is "reinvigorating the language" or "exploring the possibilities" or "using the resources of language in a unique way" when the blurb hails yet another unique voice, I think we have every right to ask "How? Be explicit"
Post Joyce, Beckett, Eliott, Pound et al.. what hasn't already been tried?
Perhaps the one thing that doesn't get tried that often is the making of sense when talking about poetry.
Neither cynical nor rhetorically meek, the work is concerned with but not limited by the map

Monday, June 22, 2009

Coming down the mountain.

Though not wearing pink pajamas we were coming down the mountain in a downpour, going the long way round to avoid the rising creeks which were red brown and frothing at the bottom of the bridges on the way up the hill three hours earlier. The mist came down, the wipers twitching helplessly under the flood, the headlights smudged and useless.
Following the curve of the central white line, thanking someone for the indicators on the sharp bends.
"Where the creeks run dry or ten feet high/and it's either drought or plenty".

So this morning for the first time, driving to the offices of SURG. Odd not to walk in. So very un Bloom like.
Realising the question, as we follow Bloom in his search for lunch, though one of the best and ugliest descriptions of the uglyness of people eating, through my own memories of trying to feed the sea gulls on the bridge and eating in Davy Byrne's, how much of literature is about aberrations and marginal activity? How much of it is a willful playing with and pandering to the perverse?

How much of it is playing the game so that someone else can tell you how well you did it? (so you can do them the favour in return.)

Beyond the fog the road open outs into familiar landscapes. We have escaped the flooded roads, the possibility of swift water ruin the fog distorted views. The world is clean and cold and the pure view is clear from here to the coast.

A cleared head. A renewal of conviction. The destination suddenly obvious after a long time waiting for the view to clear.