Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tom Pickard's "More Pricks Than Prizes'

I feel bad that I bought a second hand copy, but the press‘s website wouldn’t take my money for a new one and, frustrated, I went to bookfinder.com and they threw this at me.

Having apologized, it’s unusual to find a book, especially such a short one, which explicitly contains the criteria that should be used to evaluate it.

Both are quotes from Basil Bunting who has a staring support role in the story of Pickard’s arrest and trial. The first is from an essay Bunting wrote which criticised Malcolm Muggeridge: “It is agreeable to fancy that some day it may not pay a man who has material for an essay to swell it to the length of a half guinea book by verbose repetition and argument round and round…”

So perhaps the best thing I can say about “More Pricks than prizes” is that there is probably enough material here for a thick autobiography of Pickard and a biography of BB, and it has been compressed into 68 pages.

In a letter sent to Pickard while he was awaiting trial, Bunting wrote: “Keep objective; your own unhappiness is not capital stock but what your eyes see and your ears hear is...” The unhappiness is certainly recorded but there’s no wallowing in it. Pickard has “kept objective”.

In “Moab Is my Washpot”, Stephen Fry records a similar series of events. But in Fry’s version, being arrested for fraud and going on remand is all a merry jape, and while he calls attention to what a scallywag he was, there’s a sense of unreality about it all. I can’t be the only person who keeps thinking the title is really “Moaning, I’m a tosspot” (to the tune of tell them you're a womble). (And no, I don't know why I bought it or read it)

Pickard tells his story and still manages to step aside. Bunting’s admonition put into prose; emotions first-but nothing in the poem except facts or things. Which given this is autobiographical is no mean feat.

But it’s not a case of dumping the facts on the page and leaving them to the reader. (‘Nennius’ did this in the ninth century and it wasn’t even a good idea then). The facts and things have to be selected and manipulated. There’s a sequence which describes Pickard and his friends’ attempts to find enough second hand books to refill crates that had held “a ton” of Ugandan cannabis. It could have been a scene from “softly softly”: dodgy dialect lads, with flat caps, in a dark London alleyway filling a battered transit: it could be an episode from Black books: with Bernard perversely trying to stop them from buying his useless stock. Instead it sparks an alliterative riff, which threatens to run through the whole alphabet, about books and their writers. It manages to be funny; it manages to show off; it conveys the enormous amount of books they had to buy, and it puts the boot into types of books and types of writers and the publishing industry. It evokes “Sittin' in a sleazy snack-bar/ Snuckin' sickly sausage rolls”. But it never loses sight of the reality of what’s going on.

Art, in fact. Technique.

I think his description of crossing the iron curtain in a train is going to stick in my head for a long time.

Nuff said.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What the Chairman told Tom-the value of poetry

You can read the poem here

Finally a copy of Tom Pickard’s “More Pricks than Prizes” of which more later. And a very enjoyable rainy afternoon reading it. I assume, probably incorrectly, that he is the Tom in Bunting’s “What the Chairman told Tom”.

Anyone who is interested in poetry has met the Chairman at some stage. Part of the fun of the poem is the sense of revenge. His ignorant dismissal of the art and its practitioners, his self appointed status as judge of the merits of not only Tom’s work but of his person, is justly ridiculed. But lurking in the joke is an unanswered question: Why should the Chairman care for Poetry?

As far as I know Bunting never answered that explicitly. He offered possible, partial statements at different stages of his life about “the value of poetry” but he seems to have avoided the temptation (if he ever saw it as such) to be as emphatic as either Pound or Eliot on the subject. (if anyone can correct me on this please do).

There’s a paradox in the writing of the latter two on the subject. It’s partly an inability to reconcile two contradictory ideas about poetry and poets: the inheritance of Shelley’s over inflated waffle which elevated THE POET to a position of supreme human preeminence, and their own rigorously argued belief that the duty of the poet, as a poet, is to the poem. From the latter it might logically follow that the purpose of writing poetry is to write a good poem and as Pound said the public can (and will) do what it wants with the end product. There is the art, and there is its value in the market place, and Pound’s insistence was that one does not define the other. Discussing the function of poetry, Eliot takes it for granted that the primary function of poetry is to give the reader the pleasure that only poetry can give.

But to leave it there meant stepping down from the silly Post Shelley idea of the poet as someone of crucial importance and neither Eliot nor Pound seemed to lack a sense of their own cultural and historical significance. Rather than make claims for “The Poet”, they both made claims for the social, cultural, historical and linguistic importance of “Poetry” which implicitly elevates the poet and affirms his [sic] value. That their claims were untenable hasn’t stopped successive generations from repeating them, and acting as though they were empirical facts. They have fortified the Evangelists ever since.

Poetry is an art, and there are numerous art forms. It gives pleasure and it entertains. It offers a pleasure and a form of entertainment that are all its own. Not stand up comedy, nor song nor drama. But if you’re not entertained, and it doesn’t give you pleasure, that doesn’t mean you’re unrefined or in need of remedial help.

The chairman’s mistake, in the poem, is to assume knowledge and expertise where he has none. He sounds like those “experts” on education who are experts because they once went to school. And his arrogance, and his fault, is to bolster his self-importance by denigrating something he doesn’t understand. ANd he is justifiably ridiculed.

On the other hand the Poetry evangelicals behave as though they need to convert the benighted masses, if the world is to be saved. Like Eliot and Pound, they make claims for the importance of an abstracted “Poetry” that is far beyond the reality and capabilities of poems and their producers. Because they like “Poetry”, they feel they are an elect, and that everyone else should like it (and preferably the poems and poets they like as well. The evangelicals are nothing if not clubby). But if the Chairman is arrogant in his dismissal of poetry, it seems equally arrogant to act from the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong or ill educated with someone who doesn’t like your favorite art form.

Entertainment and pleasure have negative connotations; they can sound selfish and trivial. But ‘entertainment’ doesn’t have to be mindless and pleasure doesn’t have to be selfish, or self centred or trivial . If you’ve ever used an art to entertain anyone, ever created something which has given a stranger pleasure, you know there’s nothing trivial in the process. It’s hard work.

The final paradox of the poem is the last line. “Go and find work”. Poetry doesn’t pay. It won’t feed the family. It’s not work in the form of paid labor. However, as Bunting knew, and as Pound kept insisting, Poetry is not a hobby, but work. It requires “sharp study and long toil”.
But that doesn’t mean anyone owes you a living while you’re doing it.

Q: Why should the Chairman like poetry?
A: There’s no reason.
Q: Why should he care for poetry.
A: No reason.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

He said what?

'I want to come to a concluded view about the issues that I've raised, before I'm drawn on that particular point,' Mr Smith told reporters in Melbourne on Thursday.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Poetry in High schools: a parable.

You are an unwilling visitor to a country whose language you do not speak. You know very little about the place and don’t know if the part you are stuck in is characteristic of the country as a whole. You might be on an island the size of Bali or in a country the size of Siberia. Via and interpreter you are told that the only way out is to hire a car, but before you can do that, you have to pass a written test which shows you know the local road rules.

The test procedure is explained to you as follows:

Step outside the test centre and flag down any passing vehicle. You will see some disreputable types lurking near the exit. They will try to get your attention before you get into a car. You will ignore them; everyone else does.
The driver will accept you as his or her passenger, and take you on a circular route of his or her choosing and deposit you back where you started. During the drive, which may last up to one hour but no more, and which may go anywhere the driver pleases, you will not be able to ask any questions. Your task is to infer the whole country’s road rules from the little you observe.

When you return, ignore the scruffy people at the door. You will be given a written test. When you have finished your paper will be placed in a device which sends it randomly to one of three rooms. Depending on your results you are taken to one of three doors. Behind one of them your hire car is waiting.

What they do not tell you is that the test consists of one of two papers chosen at random. One is a blank sheet with the words “What are the road rules?” written at the top in your own language. The other asks: “You have two hours to explain why scrungeblobs are not allowed within fifty zorthopeks of the disfustilator. Give at least seven reasons why this is fair.”

There is no way out of the room unless you write on the paper. You will notice that the “random” device sends most papers to the room on the left. Through the frosted glass you can see it is has the most markers. What else they don’t tell you is that it is staffed by people who know as much about the road rules as you do. This is actually a good thing: if you sound like you know what you’re talking about, they will be too scared to call your bluff. Otherwise whether they tick pass or fail depends on the time of the day, what they had for lunch, how bad their night was, or how bored they are. Behind the other doors lurk those markers who think they know the road rules, and those who think the ones who think they know the road rules have got it wrong. They will both fail you.

Whether you pass or fail is also irrelevant. The first door, through which most people exit, leads to an airport departure lounge where you are flown home, never to return. Why would you want to? The middle door leads to a long tunnel which eventually leads back into the largest of the three rooms where you will find a desk with your name on it and you will be paid to mark papers. You will not have learnt what a scrunglebob is, nor will you have seen anymore of the country. The third door, through which very few pass, leads to the hire care.

And the last thing they don’t tell you is that it will only take you on exactly the same route you went on earlier. Endlessly.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Faber's promised new edition of Bunting goes missing, yet again.

It seems that yet again Faber have put off, or put back the publication date for Don Share's new edition of Bunting's Collected Poems. Given that two thirds of whatever they publish will be forgotten in twelve months it seems bizarre that they keep shunting the publication date of this one.
As the blurb on the amazon page says:
An important work of literary scholarship which highlights, for the first time, the achievement of a neglected modernist master
And for once it's not hyperbole. Anyone want to argue Bunting is not "A Master"? That his reputation may rest of one great long poem and a fistful of smaller ones, doesn't invalidate the claim. The Blood axe collected is nice, and does the job, but the new Faber one promises to have a scholarly apparatus. I don't need notes on the Northumbrian History in Briggflats, but I know zip about Persian literature and I would love to know what's going on in parts of The Spoils and in many of the Overdrafts.

It is revealing about the way the field works. Here we have a writer who is regarded (by some) as one of Britain's best poets in the twentieth century and twenty five years after his death there's still no thorough scholarly Collected. Or rather there may be one, but it looks as though Faber ain't publishing it any time soon.