Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nursery rhymes

As Mr. Cohen said in his recent concerts...."But cheerfulness kept breaking out"

Article completed, space in head, time for celebrating. Even if wonderment is "child like' i could do with some. Sometimes I think I read too much, but only when I can't find the quote I'm looking for. I'm sure someone claimed that "Lavender's Blue" is one of the most beautiful love songs in English.

It is. The tune is beautiful, the lyrics do everything they have to do in a very short space.

Lavender's blue dilly dilly
Lavender's green
When i am King dilly dilly
You shall be queen

Call out your men dilly dilly
Set them to work
Some to the Plow dilly dilly
some to the cart

Some to make hay dilly dilly
some to make corn
While you and I dilly dilly
Keep ourselves warm.

I have been wallowing in both "the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" and the Broadside Band's "Old English Nursery Rhymes" Cd...

Flickering at the edges of all this enjoyment is the awareness that some of these songs worried me when I was little and I want to think about that, but later. The "nasty ones" like "three blind mice" and "ding dong dell" didn't bother me. But some of them created a vague feeling of unease: something had slipped and was unstable that should have been solid. For reasons I can't fathom, "Johnny's so long at the fair" (Oh dear what can the matter be) verged on the frightening and "Boys and Girls come out of play" was like listening to a nightmare, evoking shadowy images of empty lamp lit streets where bad things were about to happen. (The unease was part of the pleasure, but it was there).

Though I'm not sure why these songs should be the exclusive province of kids. "I had four bothers over the sea" (which I'd never heard before) is a clever lyric in the riddling tradition, a good tune and performed beautifully on the cd.
I'm sure I heard Mick Hanely sing a version of this one:

As i went over the water
the water went over me
I saw two little blackbirds
Sitting on a tree
One called me a rascal
one called me a thief
I took up my little black stick
and knocked out all their teeth.

He sang: As i went over Blackwater....I think...

"A frog he would a wooing go" would work as a straight "folk song" and reminds me of "Tidy Ann" on Maighread and Triona Ni Dhomhniall's "Idir an da Sholas" cd....which I will now go and listen to...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Teaching Poetry in the Qld School system

The image I have is from a zombie movie; the poems reduced to the infected undead. massing in the murk, they lurch forward, driven across the foggy graveyard by mindless appetite and the insatiable desire to destroy and infect every unprotected reader. So we are SUPPOSED to huddle in our bunkers, preaching literature’s version of totally safe sex: don’t touch the poem until you are wrapped tightly in the protective clothing of resistant methodology, smug ideological superiority and can spot a suspected infection at twenty paces and know how to destroy the poem before it has a chance to…..


Who knows.

I have the suspicion that most of the people teaching poetry in schools don’t read it. Don’t care for it and are quite happy to trash it because it’s far too difficult.

And I think anything that defines awe as childlike and something to be guarded against is such a small minded, weary, suspicious way of looking the world.

How did Saint Augustine get hold of the QSA syllabi?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hammering Le Fanu's Carmilla#2

‘The vampire lovers” does escape its own banality. Once. And it’s a scene not in the story. Carmilla is trying to escape with a dying Laura. The Governess, previously vampirsed, crawls to the top of the stairs and begs Carmilla not to leave her. Carefully putting Emma (Laura) out of sight she rushes up stairs and finishes off the Governess. Enter the (handsome?)sword waving (hero?) as she descends.

Laura has seen her eating habits and is obviously disgusted and terrified. Carmilla is stranded, literally and figuratively between the satisfaction of her desire, the fact that she is disgusting to the person she loves, and the immanence of her own death.
Oh where was Lacan when we needed him. If desire can truly only be the desire for the desire of the other, then Carmilla is the loneliest person on the planet.
But that moment is brief and it soon passes.
I’m not sure if it’s Carmilla or Le Fanu who gets staked and beheaded in the film. He deserves so much better.
Herzog? Of course. (See previous Herzog post re “The definitive love scene”.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Hammering Le Fanu's Carmilla

Having watched two films that claim to be based on Le Fanu’s marvelous story, one so bad I've erased its name from my memory, I finally tracked down Hammer’s “The Vampire Lovers’ which is the first of their Karnstein trilogy and supposed to be a reasonably faithful rendition. It’s a good example of what happens when form, style and content get separated.

The ambiguity at the centre of Laura’s written narrative was always going to be vaporized in a film unless handled with care. But to switch, mindlessly, the first person narration, with all its carefully constructed ambiguities, for the flat third person stare of the camera, was guaranteed to kill what made the story interesting as a piece of writing.

So let us consider the erotic potential of a predatory lesbian vampire. Didn’t take long did it? For those who respond to that phrase with the same excitement as they would to ”the mould on last week’s custard” the repeated sight of the leading lady dropping her clothes at every possible opportunity is unlikely to cover up the holes in the plot, the bad dialogue or the generally crummy acting. Though you gotta love those painted castles with their slightly wrong perspectives on the painted backdrop. Unfortunately someone decided “predatory lesbian vampire” was a free ride to the box office, without actually stopping to think why or if or how that could be made unsettling or frightening or even interesting. Carmilla isn’t a “horror Story” as such. But it’s not Victorian porn either. “The Vampire lovers” isn’t a horror story either, rather a series of events that provide opportunities for actresses to get undressed.

Give the scriptwriter his dues, having decided his focus, he follows what’s left of the story. But his next mistake is to set everything out in chronological order. Le Fanu reveals his plot like a modern Asian horror film, so that the exposition is part of the climax. In terms of simplified sequence the written story goes: C.B.A.D. Not the Hammer version. B must follow A and be followed by C. Straightening out the chronology is a mistake. It’s now obvious from the start that Carmilla is a vampire and preys on young girls (we get the general’s story, B, in full before what should be Laura’s narrative C), and so Carmilla’s arrival at Laura’s schloss is no surprise.

The written story gains its effects because of the narrator’s inability to understand what is happening, (even though the reader sometimes does), her paradoxical attraction and repulsion to Carmilla, and the equal ambiguity of Carmilla’s feelings for Laura. Because it’s told first person we are positioned to share Laura’s confusion and much of the story doesn’t make sense to her until the end. But in the film there’s no mystery about Carmilla’s actions. Given the obvious desire to run with the sexual element the disturbing slippage in the story, where it’s never really clear what’s happening, is dispersed. In the film it’s made very clear exactly what is happening.

There’s some minor plot tinkering, some of it to acknowledge perhaps at least a hundred years of Vampire fiction between Le Fanu and the film. The only major additions are the governess’s switch from fat and old and friendly to young and pretty, the disappearance of the nanny, the introduction of the idiot butler, (who plays the policeman in part two?). The father’s absence which provides the governess with some small moral dilemma…and the murder of the doctor.

Oh and the compulsory “good looking” young man who can "save" Laura and reassert the hetro-normative discourse.(I never thought I’d get to use that phrase). Though why they change Laura's anme to Emma is indeed a mystery.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

St. Augustine

The picture shows Leofric, kneeling and present at one of King Edward’s miracles. It’s not a portrait in the modern sense. More “Rich Anglo-Saxon male at prayer”.
Both Leofric and Godgifu were remembered as being pious and generous benefactors to religious institutions.

One of many great moments of researching Lady G was the discovery that she and her husband donated a reliquary containing the arm of Augustine of Hippo to their new foundation at Coventry. Good research opens up doors you didn’t know were there.

The idea that part of the writer of the Confessions etc ended up IN Coventry of all places is almost comic. The fact that Leofric may have been given it as his reward for his help in Edward’s raid on his mother’s treasury, given the status given to mothers and Grandmothers in Lady G, is my irony, not history’s.

Augustine is one of the great deniers. According to him four things vexed the mind and should be avoided: Desire, Joy, Fear and Sorrow. There were three sins: The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the ambitions of the world. Doesn’t leave a lot untainted. And you can see why people used to say that Catholics didn’t believe in life after birth.

The writings of a man who may not have been quite right in the head by modern standards had such an effect that over a thousand years later it was still shaping the way I was expected to behave from primary school onwards. That intrigues me.

Why is history the record of the followers of the great deniers and their attempts to impose their moral bleakness on the rest of us? Juxtapose a naked body and the long reach of a dead man’s withered arm. Why is the withered arm the default choice for so many?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Derrida talks about those moments of rupture when it’s suddenly possible to think about the unthought or the unthinkable… those moments when an issue becomes visible.

For me Race was invisible when I was growing up but I can pinpoint the moment when it suddenly reared its ugly head. I grew up surrounded by Irish voices. At home, at school, at mass. I knew I wasn’t Irish. I don’t even think it occurred to me as odd that my parents were paying taxes to a government that was using their money to pay soldiers to go hassle their relatives in Belfast.

But sometime in the seventies there was talk of “Sending the Irish Home”. I don’t remember if some tub thumping politician seriously suggested this or it was just one of those stories that circulate, prefixed with “they say…” But I do remember one evening my dad mentioning it. He was dismissive, it was obviously a stupid idea. (One of the great beauties of England is that ethnic cleansing is an obviously stupid idea. It wouldn’t be long before such ideas were touted in other countries, about other ethnic groups, and the stupidity of the idea was lost in the actual barbarity of its attempt.)

And that was the point of rupture.

I grew up in Coventry, I was born there. Home was a specific house beside a very specific park. When I wasn’t thinking I spoke with a west midlands accent. But if they sent my dad “home”, would my mum (who is English) be allowed to go with him? And if she didn’t (as if she wouldn’t) what would happen to my sister and me? If we went to Ireland we’d be foreigners, but then if they were sending “foreigners and their children” “home” were we actually native to England…????? Where exactly , if anywhere, did we belong?

The rumour died away. The question remains.

And it drives "Talking Nothing to the Stone", the second poem in Lady Godiva and Me. The answer offered there:

I know this place but wouldn't call it mine
Mine is the space between the rising and the falling foot.

works on a good day.

Monday, April 20, 2009

pre S.U.R.G thinking...

When Donovan sang:

Yellow is the colour of my true love's hair/
In the morning when we rise

it's impossible not to wonder what colour her hair was in the evening when they lay down?

It's not on the same level as:

Star falls from horse after snapper ambush

where if you knew snapper is a fish, and didn't know a snapper was slang for a photographer you could be forgiven for thinking that the world was even more interesting than it is.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Clancy’s Sunday set list

First and last in place, everything else anywhere or not at all.

Molloy Malone
Back Home In Derry
Dirty Old Town
Follow Me Up To Carlow
As I Roved Out
Arthur McBride
The Jolly Beggar Man
Red Rose Café
The Streak Through London (martin’s up tempo version of streets)
Bright Blue Rose
The City Of Chicago
Whiskey On A Sunday
The Drunken Sailor
Mountains Of Mourne*
When You Were Sweet 16*
Spancil Hill*
The Green Fields Of France
A Pair Of Brown Eyes
Fairytale Of New York
Fields Of Athenry
Galway Shawl
The Foggy Dew
Fiddlers Green
The Good Ship Kangaroo
The Irish Rover
The Leaving Of Liverpool
The Rising Of The Moon
Galway Bay*
Ride On
The Rare Old Times
The Wild Mountain Thyme
Only Our Rivers

The Waxies Dargle
Little Musgrave
Raglan Road
The Island
Song For Ireland*
Mary Mack#
The Batchelor’s Lament#
The Band Played Waltzing Matilda#
Now I’m Easy (Sung Only If Phil’s Around)
The Town I Loved So Well*
The Bold Fenian Men (has to be quiet)
Carrickfergus (ditto)
I Don’t Like Mondays
Seven Drunken Nights*
Paddy Works On The Railroad*
Plastic Jesus*
The German Clock Winder
The Parting Glass
Tim McGuire#
Why does it have to be me#
Whip Jamboree#
Maggie May#
Leave her Johnny#

Requests Only
Danny Boy
Whiskey In The Jar
Black Velvet Band

Unique one Off
Pub was empty. How many Leonard Cohen songs can we sing from memory not including Halleluiah.

The intriguing part of this is that apart from songs marked* which are Martin’s, (Songs marked # are ones sung when he’s not there) I know the words to all of these! (And more: Sundays exerts a gentle ban on English songs.) No wonder I write the way I do if that’s what’s in my head.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A visit to a famous west-Midlands poet

An Preost wes on leodan. Layamon wes ihoten
he wes Leouenaðes sone. liðe him beo Drihten
He wonede at Ernleye. at æðelen are chirechen
uppen Seuarne staðe. sel þar him þhute
On-fest Radestone. þer he bock radde.
(A second hand blue peter badge for anyone who can spot the misspelling forced by Word's lack of one character)(Answers on a post card to PO Box 1 Eagle Alasaka)

Sometime around the end of the twelfth century, Lawman (Or Layamon), began to write the history of the English. In an age when French was the literary language of England, he wrote in something recognisable as English. When most poetry was resolutely anonymous, he begins his poem by telling the audience his name, his job, where he lived, his father’s name, why he wrote this poem and how he went about writing it. For perhaps the first time in English poetry, a poet steps forward to claim the text as his own. (And was promptly ignored by his publisher, the scribe, who rewrote it, chopping out about a third of the poem and modernising everything botching the ‘poetry’).

His thirty two thousand lines (or 16,000, depends on the editor;is there a pattern emerging here?)begins with the adventures of Brutus, after whom he believed Britain to have been named, and continue until the Anglo Saxon conquest of the island.

Like so many medieval texts, instead of a poem, it remains an historical curiosity. A curiosity, and an academic gold mine. It's the first surviving appearance fo King Arthur in English. Here, for the first time, England is described in a language recognisable as English. Naming towns, describing natural wonders, giving the history of the roads, Lawman sang the landscape into literary being.

Eight Centuries later I wanted to see his place for myself. To hell with theories. I had spent so long studying the poem and its context that I wanted to know what the poet would have seen if he looked up from his work. After too many years of careful scholarship, where enthusiasm is bounded by a thorny hedge of carefully annotated footnotes and certainties recede down an endless chain of subordinate clauses, I wanted a direct and unashamed encounter.

I like this poem.(Or bits of it)

On a previous visit to England I had hijacked a family outing to visit the only Areley I could find on the road map. We drove through rain, down narrowing English lanes that dropped towards the river. There was a small red church in a small village on the banks of a flooded Severn.

I knew, instinctively, as I opened the door of the church, that this was the wrong Areley.

Seven years later, having given up searching, I found a road map that had Areley Kings marked on it, where I knew it should be. The new difficulty was finding someone willing to accompany me and read the map.

Our first stop was Worcester for three reasons. The first to pay my respects to King John, who was regal but silent about the local poet he may have known. The second, the monks of Worcester were instrumental in keeping written English alive when every one else was writing in French and it is logical to assume some sort of connection between Lawman and the monks here. The third... well, I'd bribed my mum with a promise of tea and cakes and a visit to the cathedral, followed by a pub lunch if she’d read the map.

A green winter landscape that can't have changed greatly since Lawman's time: the bare hedge rows and naked trees twisted into fairy tale grotesques; rain and muddy lanes leading to and through places with names like Piddle, Frogs Pool, Upton Snodsburry, Long Itchinton. We merged into urban sprawl, lost in new housing estates. This was nothing like my mental image. I was preparing myself for another disappointment when I saw "Layamon Lane".

First a glimpse of the tower, then a maze of winding roads leading to a view overlooking the river.

Like most English churches it was locked.

At first no one answered my persistent knocking on the rectory door. The vicar appeared.
"And why do you want the key."
The inside of the rectory suggested the presence of an elderly housekeeper: polished wood, lines of books, carpet. I had forgotten to wear my visiting Vicars clothes. Scruffy and road stained, I looked more like someone who wanted a place to kip than anyone's idea of an earnest academic.

I told him I'd come all the way from Australia to visit his church. (I didn't tell him I'd come via Siberia, on the train. I thought that might be too weird, even if it was true.)

He had heard of Lawman, the first known incumbent of the parish. He was even used to the occasional pilgrim like myself. An expert on early English history had been through recently and had told him Lawman was unreadable.

"I've read him," I said, determined to establish my credentials. "I've read him from start to finish.” I wanted that key. “Several times."
He was reaching for the shelf. "Where did you get your translation"
"I read the original."
He gave me the key, and told me to make myself at home.

(So I hope he didn’t watch me skipping though the graveyard brandishing the key. Very unacademic like.)

I didn't need the little guide book: I knew where the memorial glass was, in the twelfth century window discovered during a nineteenth century rebuilding. I knew all about the baptismal font with its fake inscription carved into the base.

I knew this place.

It wasn't difficult to imagine what the view was like without the modern houses and boats. It didn't take any great effort of the imagination to visualise a priest, struggling against the wind as he walked to the church, his mind full of an heroic world where the men were brave, the women beautiful, and it never rained.

(The picture is from the note cards on sale at the church. Some bits of this appeared in a much more serious article called 'Lawman Lived Here' in PNR.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Place

Row after row of terraced houses, obdurate, patient. The little gardens attempt the personal, resist the rubbish, the graffiti, the drunken louts who rip the heads off roses and leave them where they fall.

Chinchua Achebe tells a story about how, while studying English literature in Nigeria, one of his class mates suddenly jacked up and objected to the savages in the book they were reading. It was not, he argued, an accurate picture of him or his relatives. Achebe realises that the funny tribal savages in the book who he doesn't find funny, are supposed to be his people. And he knows they aren’t.

I’ve just had a similar reaction doing my homework and reading up on Marxist criticism. I suddenly realized “the working classes” and “the masses” weren’t theoretical abstractions but those men who used to drink tea and smoke in the front room. The patient bemused faces in the smoke watching Liam Groves and I attempt a world record for the time it took to clear one frame off a snooker table at the Chrysler Working Men’s club, those same men and women who worked hard and scrambled to save, whose best ideal was a two week break at Bognor bloody Regis, deck chair on the beach, kids playing in the sand and if you were really lucky, it didn’t rain…(my Dad’s version of this heaven was a deck chair, shade and a book). The annual trip to the Blackpool lights. Skeggy, Brighton. Coach trips to...

And the theorist talking about what’s good for the working classes. What they should be reading. How they should be addressed.

Like those educators preaching a hermeneutics of suspicion.

I’m so glad I grew up before people worried too much about ideology in education. At school no one said: you are mostly the sons of working class migrants, derided and distrusted ethnic minorities, marked by religious beliefs that cut you off from the powerbrokers. You have no need for art because it might infect you with values that are not yours.
Go home to your little working class fox hole and when you get to fifteen you can leave school and tighten wheel nuts on the production line. Or we’ll pay you to go “interact” with your relatives in Northern Ireland as part of a three year stint in the infantry.

They said: here it is, the past and all its treasures, the literature of the world, (well, English mostly but this is England and we are offering you what we have, not what we stole). It’s yours for the taking;if you want to work for it.

The books revealed that not everyone thought and felt the same way as the people around me. That was liberating thought number one. Liberating thought number two, the books suggested there was a world beyond the city limits and it was waiting to be explored: straight out of Coventry and all the way to Samarkand, via America, Europe, Australia, Indonesia… theorise that one.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Found Poem

(I'm not sure I believe in such things but.....)

Front page of paper.

Thugs Kidnap Bank Boss

Abducted in his car
Stabbed with Syringe
Threatened with gun
Mystery cash drop
Vehicle burnt out
Culprits on the run.

(each phrase above has a dot before it on the page)

I think this almost qualifies as a "found poem". I was wondering if it were deliberate but then I read, later on, in a totally different story:

Monty, a seven year old German shepherd, has twice rescued his friend Maurice Mackay from drowning......"The pair formed an instant bond about nine years ago...."

I think that qualfies as a mistake.....

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Caedmon, Him?

While you can play endless games with the packaging, the hymn itself seems to resist most attempts to deal with it. If this is the cornerstone of the anthology that is “Poetry in English” then it is rough hewn and refuses to be conscripted to the service of anachronistic reading practices or assimilated to later “schools of poetry”. Like the ruined abbey, it has an essential awkwardness that doesn’t see the need to apologise.

Approaches to Caedmon, whether to his story or his hymn, usually carry more than a whiff of anachronism. Older commentaries judge his Hymn by comparing it to what it isn’t. While not central to the “miraculous “ nature of the event, at the edge of most interpretations, the adjectives “illiterate’ and “unlearned/ignorant” are lurking, waiting for an invitation to attach themselves to “cow herd”. The assumptions that the literate have a monopoly on composition, or that there is something inimical to creating poetry in being a ploughman or a farmer, are both snobbery. In an oral society, literacy is an irrelevance, if not an actual impediment. And “learned” is a loaded judgment. Caedmon probably knew a great deal more about keeping cattle than most Anglo-Saxon scholars. He obviously knew a great deal more about Anglo-Saxon poetry “on the pulses” than they do. (One of the great exceptions to all this is Seamus Heaney’s poem Whitby-sur-Moyalla )

But then so much of our literary history and criticism is tangled with politics and snobbery. The reading practices and pleasures refined by reading what students were taught to appreciate, became an objective standard to measure something completely different. Readers who know no Greek or Latin will still accept, on a trust founded on nothing but tradition and snobbery, that there is something wonderful about a poetry they can only access in translation, no matter how flat and banal those translations appear. They are ready to believe that a tedious story in which a bunch of juvenile thugs, interacting with some “Gods” who wouldn’t pass a maturity test in a primary school, argue over a brutalized girl, before lots of people are killed, is an undying “classic of world literature” while Beowulf is an incoherent children’s story about monsters and Caedmon’s hymn is a poor poem.

Like some of the stranger places I’ve stayed in on a journey to somewhere else, Old English has rarely been more than a compulsory stop over on the high road to Chaucer and the Renaissance. These days it’s not even that. Where I work, the journey starts with Shakespeare, and you either take the ruined bypass to the Romantics or find all the road signs are down and no one seems to be able to give meaningful directions.

We had hired a car to drive to Whitby. For some reason we were ”upgraded’. It was the kind of vehicle I’d only seen behind plate glass. The hire company had kindly forgotten to include the driving manual. We got there and back, but I never did find out what all the buttons were for, or what I could have done with the beast. It’s the same with Caedmon’s poem. We simply don’t know how it was “read”. Whatever the original subjective experience, it is lost to us. Reading it like a modern poem, looking for balance and irony and paradox, may be one way of driving the beast, but I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t what its original operators did with it. Trying to use a chair as a bicycle is a frustrating experience.

Twenty years after I’d hurled Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer against the wall, I stumbled over Caedmon’s poem in a totally different context and learnt that spoken aloud, the original sings. Inveigled into reciting it as part of a concert to commemorate St Hilda’s day, I stepped up to a microphone, feeling incredibly stupid, and began to recite the hymn. Echoing back on the sound system, in that strange stretched pause that follows the end of a piece of orchestral music, I heard its music fill a packed concert hall. Something I had dismissed as trivial reasserted itself as worthy of notice. Translated, it doesn’t work. In the original it has a supple, carved resilience.

It is also a poem about something; a criticism that can’t always be leveled at modern poems. It reminds us that irony isn’t the only game in town, and to a modern reader used to the “post modern/post romantic” games poets use to hedge the lyric /I/, there’s something almost confronting about the total absence of self-effacement. There’s no knowing wink to the audience, no attempt to have it both ways by saying one thing and suggesting you don’t really believe it. If you were living in the seventh century, there would have been so many forces trying to efface you that not helping them was probably sign of a healthy survival instinct. Reading backwards, its easy to forget that Christianity was not the dominant hegemonic force it would become. People were still dying in Britain for belief. If we live in a relativist universe, then Caedmon lived in one where belief systems were clashing, not metaphorically, but on the battle field.

Perhaps the hymn’s only real ambivalence is that it is devotional without being denominational in any obvious way. There’s no sense here of a message hermetically coded for a small group of cognoscenti. Instead there’s something obdurate and durable. There’s celebration, but also the sense of someone leaning into the wind. Belief then, as now, was an act of exposure. Just as the Abbey sits on a hill top jutting into the sea, the poem forces itself forward to assert its presence. Not only does Caedmon use the first person, he uses the first person plural. There is the implicit assumption that he not only speaks for himself to others; he speaks for others as well. The poem is an invitation to express what the poet assumes is a sentiment his immediate audience can share. It has more in common with the compulsive rhythms of the old mass book; belief organised into metrical units of memorable words I can still recite thirty years later; than the introspective games of some modern poems.

At the top of the hundred steps (which aren’t actually a hundred) there’s a fake Celtic cross. Under Hilda, there’s a carving of a man with a harp of sorts and the words: ‘To the glory of God and memory of Caedmon, the father of English sacred song”. Given the quality of some Medieval religious lyrics, and of some of the hymns that have been written in English down the years, it’s not a title anyone could find embarrassing.

So perhaps, coming to Whitby wasn’t such a waste after all. (And yes, the fish and chips were very good). We were lucky. It was one of those rare winter days when the North Sea is a flat reflection of a deep northern-blue sky that looked like it would shatter if you touched it. You don’t need to be conventionally religious in any denominational sense to realise the “spirituality” of the place. You can imagine Caedmon here, watching spring, after the long winter, the first flowers on the headlands bringing colour back to the world, and see why you’d praise God the maker.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Poetry and power; Bede and Caedmon

An evening, sometime between 658 and 680 AD, near or in the abbey of Whitby (Streanaeshalch) in Northumbria. It’s a double monastery, which means that it contains both monks and nuns and is ruled over by a woman, Hild(a). After the meal everyone takes it in turn to sing. Embarrassed by his inability, Caedmon, the man who looks after the cattle, sneaks out of the room. Safe in the hay with his beasts, he’s soon asleep. In his dream a figure appears and the conversation, in OE, always sounded better than the poem to me:

"Cedmon, sing mē hwæthwugu."
Þā ondswarede hē ond cwæð: "Ne con iċ nōht singan; ond iċ for þon of þeossum ġebēorscipe ūt ēode ond hider ġewāt, for þon iċ nāht singan ne cūðe."
Eft hē cwæð, se ðe wið hine sprecende wæs: "Hwæðre þū meaht singan."
Þā cwæð hē: "Hwæt sceal iċ singan?"
Cwæð hē: "Sing mē frumsceaft."

And so he does. Waking up, he finds he remembers the song and rushes to find officials.

The next bit of the story is one I forgot, but it’s interesting in terms of mindsets.

Þā cōm hē on morgenne tō þǣm tūnġerēfan þe his ealdormon wæs; sæġde him hwylċe ġife hē onfēng; ond hē hine sōna tō þǣre abbudissan ġelǣdde ond hire þā cȳðde ond sæġde. [16] Þā heht hēo ġesomnian ealle þā ġelǣredestan men ond þā leorneras, ond him ondweardum hēt secgan þæt swefn ond þæt lēoð singan, þæt ealra heora dōme ġecoren wǣre, hwæt oððe hwonon þæt cumen wǣre.

At first they are suspicious; obviously not all dream visitors are welcome. They take him to the abbess who has him examined and then they give him a test. Soon they are mollified. The poem is written down. The story is told by Bede in the most influential, “A History of the English Church and People” and “Caedmon’s Hymn” enters English history. In Price’s translation, Bede describes Caedmon’s later productions as “delightful and moving poetry” and writes: ”Others after him tried to compose religious poems in English, but none could compare with him…”(Price 251) Although Bede says he went on to compose many more pieces, nothing else survives.

For a reader used to the maneuvers of modern poetry, it’s tempting to say that if this is divine poetry, then God has IF framed on the office walls and a complete set of Robert Service (leather bound) on the shelves. But leaving the poem to one side for a moment, the story of its composition, standing at the beginning of the history of poetry in English, offers a range of interpretative possibilities. There’s at least two ways of thinking about the packaging that is the story.

The first, most obvious, would be to lament all that Bede doesn’t tell us. He’s like a witness to a turning point in history who insists on telling you about the hat his mother was wearing. What kind of songs were sung at the table before Caedmon ran away? Were they songs in the modern sense, of composed texts which exist prior to, and independent of, a particular performance, or were they improvised pieces? It’s difficult to imagine being the tenth person at a table waiting for your turn to sing if the pieces were of the length of “The Wanderer” or “The Seafarer”. Does the story point to a type of “poem”, like the hymn, short, well known, but now lost? Did the women sing? Did they sing the same songs as the men? And how did the people at the table react to Caedmon’s song when they heard it? Did they agree with Bede about its quality? Were they astonished by the quality of the poem or by the fact it was Caedmon who created it? There’s nothing short of a time machine that could rescue the information.

Or, secondly, we can play the games I’m supposed to teach my students. Here, on the ground floor, we can watch the process of Canon Formation at work. Literature is an institutionalized art form. Quality is not the issue: power is. The text carries with it the validation of Caedmon’s name and the story of its composition: it’s not just any nine lines scribbled in the margins. It has the backing of one of the most powerful intellectual establishments of the age: the monastery of Whitby, with the added weight of it having taken place during Hilda’s impressive rule. The story is told by the most influential historian of early British history, the poem transmitted in a book that will dominate English historiography for centuries. And it is divinely inspired.

We can interrogate the story by asking the questions it won’t answer and reveal the bias at work. How many visions went unrecorded? How many divinely inspired bits of doggerel were forgotten? In the religious atmosphere of the seventh century, was Whitby the only abbey where this happened; Caedmon the only person it happened to? Did Bede know other stories and reject them because it didn’t fit his agenda? Or was Whitby’s PR simply more effective than that of its rivals?

However, when you’ve finished, when you’ve explored the cultural context, the power relationships, the gaps and silences, when someone has inevitably used the word patriarchal, you have to accept the given facts of the art form: It’s not fair. There must have been many poets who never had a John Taylor to stand beside them until their third volume made a reputation, and many Emily Dickensons whose families burnt the box of paper under the bed. There seems to be something faintly absurd, if not actually pointless, in showing that Bede wrote this “text” for his own purposes, not ours and that his story carries with it the values of its time. This seems a characteristic maneuver where I work; however, I live within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean. I don’t need to travel all the way to Whitby to discover that the North Sea is wet.

The reality, from Caedmon to the reviews in today’s journal, is that any art form requires power brokers. The poet needs patrons and partisans: publishers or editors or critics, people who will promote his or her work, first to an audience and secondly to avoid Hardy’s “second death”. The history of English literature is characterized by the way different groups have been marginalized; by fashion, by prejudice, by politics. The difficulty, however, is while the theorist and the poet might rail at this apparent injustice, a visit to reveals what happens when anyone can publish whatever they like. Why some writers receive support and others don’t is often unfathomable. The argument that quality will always rise to the surface is comforting but untenable. But so is the argument that power is the only factor in a poem's reception. Simply promoting the poem as divinely inspired is not going to make it popular if it didn’t fit in with existing ideals of excellence.

(Old English text from OE Aerobics)

Not all similes are good ones

In this morning’s paper the boss of the Gold Coast Titans says “they are beginning to smell like a football team.” Whatever figurative possibilities that phrase may have, are buried under the image of him sniffing sweaty jock straps in the locker room.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Caedmon and Bede

You could be forgiven for looking at the town of Whitby in Northern England and thinking someone had realised an ideal of a fishing village. It looks like a post card. The houses clutter the steeply rising slopes on either side of the narrow estuary. A ruined abbey stands out on the headland, refusing to be assimilated into the modern sprawl. The fishing boats still go out from the working harbour, passing the replica of the Endeavour and the boat rides, both closed for winter when I was there. Its tune is the rhythmic creaking of the wheeling gulls, punctuated by the venting brakes of tourist coaches.

What you look for in Whitby shapes what you see. For the lover of gothic fiction, this is where Bram Stoker brought Dracula ashore. Go up the “hundred steps” to St Mary’s church and you too can wander where Bram happily recorded names and dates from the grave stones that hadn’t been eroded by the salt gales. If you come from Australia, there’s Captain Cook and the Endeavour. There’s a whaling history and a boat building history. There’s the famous abbey where the synod decided when Easter should be and how monks should cut their hair. There’s even a Cafe that boasts the best fish and chips in Great Britain. But if you’re interested in English poetry, this is where Caedmon first sang his famous “Hymn”.

For the past ten years I have been obliged, professionally, to read, discuss, and teach a thing called “literary theory”. But perhaps perversely, I cling to the idea that real people write poems for reasons that are real to them. They often do it in specific places and there is something to be gained by going there.

On the day I went to Whitby, the Abbey was locked. According to the brochure, on the days the abbey is open to the public, there are actors dressed as historical characters who “interact with the visitors”. Twenty years ago, had I met Caedmon, I would have interacted with him by throwing him over the cliff. I would have probably been canonized by all those students who bruised their patience against the most famous piece of Old English Poetry besides Beowulf. Not that the hymn is long; at nine lines, it’s a mere doodle by OE standards. Nor is it difficult to translate. The frustration comes from the fact that nothing you can do will make those nine lines look “interesting” in modern English. “Professional” attempts at translation, Paul Muldoon’s for example, suggest the piece is little more than a list.

So this is a long winded story, in several parts, about how I gave up trying to translate and learned to love the thing itself.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Naked woman rides round city! (Shock! Horror! Sensation!)

If I read a newspaper from 1942 which says “’plane Crash in Laytown” chances are there was a plane crash in Laytown. I have no reason to doubt it. I know ‘planes crash, and they are dangerous both for their crews and the people on the ground. I know there is a Laytown (I’ve been there but even so, I can look it up on a map) and I suspect that there was a man called Sam Farrell and he died. I could import all the paraphernalia of the “Critical Literacy” I’m supposed to inflict on my students but the fact remains I have no reason to doubt that at 6.45 or thereabouts on Wednesday July 1st 1942 a ‘plane crashed in Laytown.
(And I did just check that July 1st was a wednesday in 1942

When I read..

Then the countess, beloved of God, accompanied by two soldiers, as it is said, mounting her horse naked, loosed her hair from its bands, so veiling the whole of her body, and thus passing through the market place she was seen by nobody (a nemine visa) except for her very white legs.

I immediately doubt the story.

But I do so because there was no academic discipline of history writing in the Middle Ages, and the chroniclers tend to record both what we might consider fact, and what we might think of as pure fantasy. By the time Lawman is translating Wace who was translating Geofrey the line between Romance and Chronicle is almost impossible to draw. But before we dismiss them as childish, there’s two things to keep in mind.

1) The writers lived in a world where miracles and wonders were everyday events. Miracles were the outward, public proof of an invisible reality. When Saint Augustine argues with the British Bishops over Easter, he proves his argument is better than theirs by performing a miracle. And when they refuse to change their practice, they are struck down as a sign of divine displeasure. Part of learning to be Christian and literate involved learning to “read” the world as a manifestation of divine love. To see through or beyond. One of the educational uses for Anglo-Saxon riddles. If you live in such a world, it’s difficult to switch off and say ”could never happen”.
2) Elvis isn’t dead. Lennon was assassinated by the CIA. The Twin Towers was a FBI plot. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays. You’ve only got to scan the internet to see that a willingness to believe in the totally improbable is not confined to people living before 1499.

However, that doesn’t explain why this story. The idea, delivered ex cathedra at the book launch by someone I’d never met before, was that this is a folk tale tacked on to an historical personage. That doesn’t work because there’s no independent evidence for the folk tale, nor does it explain why that tale and this character? And the idea that it was a pagan ritual being performed by one of the country’s most visible women almost five hundred years after the conversion, seems equally unbelievable.
Roger of Wendover probably believed the story as he wrote it down. But I doubt he checked his sources. How or why it was initially generated remains an unknowable but entertaining question.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Import and export

When I started "blogging",(it still sounds like something you'd do in a swamp) "Lady Godiva and Me' was in limbo, doing the now it's accepted now it's not, now we don't know who is going to publish it if it's going to be published quickstep and I was using a blog to keep notes for what is still work in progress.

As it was getting silly trying to decide what belongs where I have closed down the other one and imported it. But I've left the Lady G header up as sooner later, like any good Viking, I'll swing back to Anglo-Saxon England where parts of ye new project is situated anyway.

Porphyria’s Lover

I’ve been mired trying to respond to the ugsomest article about teaching poetry in the Senior school classroom I have read in a long time. It’s left me feeling like I need to scrub the inside of my head to get rid of the stench. So, I ask Mr. Liam O’Flynn if he wouldn’t mind playing, (stopping everything to enjoy The Golden Ring (twice)) before following it with Liz Carroll and John Doyle and consider Mr. Robert Browning. In a roundabout way because it's related with what I'm working on. (Not round the Wrekin as such as back to Dublin first.)

Iser on Joyce, discussing the use of Headlines in Aeolus: when the headline matches what follows, the reader experiences a sense of banality. When it doesn’t, the reader feels it could if only they thought about it enough and it’s this which involves the reader. What Iser also identifies in Joyce is surplus: an excess of detail that no one reading will ever wrestle into coherence but which gives the impression that if only you were to try hard enough you could . (It’s similar to Shakespeare’s habitual removal or multiplication of explanations from his source to his play). Because you can’t reduce the writing to a straight simple explanation, it haunts. And gets re read.

Which brings us to Porphyria’s Lover. On the semantic level, you have a string of words that are fairly self-explanatory. It’s a wild night, the narrator is alone. Porphyria enters, sits beside the narrator. N kills her and God doesn’t say anything.

But that semantic reading leaves so much unexplained. It proffers coherence, but it manages to avoid providing enough information for a final definitive reading that might exclude other possibilities. The pome almost insists the reader imagine what’s going on, but at the same time refuses to provide enough information. Which is why it doesn’t exhaust re-readings. (I'm talking about the poem as if it were a recalcitrant witness. Hurm)

Eg: there is no evidence that the narrator is male. There’s a whole set of cultural assumptions that it’s a “he”, but nothing in the poem itself excludes the possibility of the narrator being female. Read it that way, as what Eagelton calls the story of “a lesbian relationship gone horribly awry” and Porphyria’s hesitation takes on a new meaning.

Porphyria itself is a disease.

Readings that try to control the poem by shutting it down fail, not because they are “wrong” but because they cannot exclude other possibilities. There’s enough evidence to support them, but not enough to exclude alternatives. Ryals summarises the poem thus: The lovers of different social class, the girl forced against her will to marry someone of higher financial and social status, her feelings of guilt, her slipping away from her engagement party to the boy’s cottage during a storm, her giving herself to him sexually. It’s neat, but by pulling in the intertextuality of early nineteenth century fiction he creates what is essentially a parallel poem to the one on the page.

It’s not possible to argue that: she too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,/To set its struggling passion free/ From pride, and vainer ties dissever,/ And give herself to me for ever cannot mean she has been forced against her will to marry, nor it possible to claim it could only mean that.

Other parts of the Ryals reading are more tenuous. If “That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/ Perfectly pure and good:“ means she gives herself to him sexually it raises interesting questions about the meaning of “pure and good’. But you could read it that way. It’s not impossible.

The other factor which undermines the possibility of a finite reading is that this is first person narration. The Browning genius is to create a speaker who comes off the page and lodges in your head in such a way that you’re never quite sure of it. He offers no clue as to how the speaker should be read. And while it’s clear the narrator might not fit most people’s definitions of sanity, there’s a horrible logic to his words.

And to stop before this gets too long….that famous final line; And yet God has not said a word! is such a good trick. How do you read it? Regret, surprise, defiance, anger? To see if you got it right, you have to go back and reread the poem. Every time.

(If I have to do any more ugsome reading I may just take my Ipod, fall into “Childe Roland” and disappear forever.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Great Hunger

No, not something Freudian, Kavanagh’s poem which I have been rereading. Digression first and second.

If I ask the musicians I know who they listen to or admire, they recommend performers and performances. If I ask them who they think is the greatest exponent of their instrument, chances are they will give me a list. It’s a recognized part of the learning process.

Ask people involved in poetry the same question and a lot of them start hedging their bets. (I don’t mean the bizarre “I only write poetry, I don’t read it” crowd. I mean those well-read practitioners.) You want to know their idea of “Major poems”, well, first define major? “Great poets”? Define great. And so on and so froth. Yes, we know literary values are contingent. Thank you. But if you can’t admit to your enthusiasms and hang your hat somewhere, then something is amiss.

So ”The Great Hunger” has to be “One of the Twentieth Century’s Major Poems”.

I have met Maguires. They were the self-contained characters who sat in the corner of rooms. The guy who came into the bar and drank three pints, never four, never spoke to anyone other than a few words and a nod. There but distant. And I knew the married versions, those men and women who had traded isolation for the possibility of “Living alone in half as much space” (Ralph Mactell’s line that). Silent men home from work, hiding down the garden shed. Bedrooms glimpsed in friends’ houses where there were two single beds in the parents’ room. The sense, even as a child, that some strange negotiations must have gone on for the engendering of children.

So why isn’t it touted as such?
Is it that you have to read it several times to notice how good the imagery is?
Is it that it is so uncomfortable to read? Kavanagh focuses squarely on his main character and traces his inexorable slide towards age and loneliness. The unrelenting misery of that life is unnerving as we watch it get wasted by forces beyond its control. The contrast between the cycle of growth in the farm and the frustrations of Maguire’s sterility never let you slide into the comfort of abstractions. Reading the Waste Land there is the release of feeling you’re not really sure what you’re reading but it sounds good. The Great Hunger is inescapably about a human being and his life. And I think that’s what makes it grand. And maybe because Kavanagh was accessing his own fears and couldn’t get the distance on it for flippancy it has a clout that his other attempts at long poems lack. The verse flies like a tattered sack on a bit of rusty barbed wire.

And you can’t help but think: “there but for the grace of God…”.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


If we’re going to get Middling back can we also have ugsome?
I could do wonders with ugsome. “This article on English education is so ugsome I can’t even begin to write a response to it…..”
Middling. Well, yes, Midlands, Mercia. I wonder if I could solve the nationality problem by saying I’m a Mercian?

But back to the newspaper from 1942. How wonderfully naive they were in those bygone days, believing readers wanted factual news with a minimum of clutter. They obviously thought that not only could readers decide for themselves if something was terrible or horrific, but they also seemed to think that nouns could move around without several adjectives in attendance and verbs could do their work without adverbial crutches. How quaint.

Here’s the headlines from the five cuttings:


Only one "tragedy" in five. I like the way the Connacht Tribune highlights the injury of a man from Galway and leaves the actual fatality of the Dubliner, Sam Farell (77) out of the headlines. Please note every use of ‘plane marked by the apostrophe of omission.

I once heard an editor defend his journalists (when someone had the gall to point out that if you're going to slag the English teaching profession as semi-literate you might want to make sure your article was grammaticaly accurate) by saying that you don't care if the doctor can't write a grammatical sentence so why should you care if the journalist can't.

Obviously not an attitude that was popular in 1942.

And none of your TV witness: Ooh it was sooo terrible, it was just like, you know, like shocking, as if, and I just couldn’t like believe my eyes…(But I got it on my mobile phone and do you want to buy the footage). Or the dreaded TV reporter chosen obviously for his or her looks; Bob, I just can’t begin to describe the scene here.. (It’s your job you pillock! If you can’t describe it then go home and let the company find someone who is articulate and can…)

Here’s my grandfather, at seventy:

“Sam Farrell had just entered the caravan when I saw the ‘plane falling and I gave a shout and jumped back. I saw the ‘plane hit the caravan and split it in two, after which flames broke out. My son, Joseph, came along and with other men helped to pull out the occupants of the plane”.

I can hear the measured enunciation, the pauses, the slighty awkward syntax..and for some reason hear him spit at the end of it. But if I were wearing my hat I’d tip it to him. Let the words do the work. Like Humpty, you can always pay them extra on Saturday if they break into a sweat.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Middling #1

Grandmothers play a major role in Lady G and Me. After all, Godgifu was the grandmother of the last queen of Anglo-Saxon England and her grandsons played a major though negative role in William’s victory.

I never knew either of my grandfathers which might explain their absence. Or the fact that retired men tended to die off leaving their wives to rule the family. I always had the feeling my world was matriarchal. The Irish grandfather died long before I was born. There isn’t even a picture of him. The English one I did meet when I was very little. I watched England win the world cup with him which dates that memory. .... but my memories of him are of a distant, austere presence in the spooky London house they lived in, an impression which isn’t offset by his photographs.

Oddly enough I have records of their voices, which means more to me than their photographs or lack of them. Mr. Guilar was interviewed by a local paper as a witness to a plane crash in Laytown in July 1942. In passing, I learn that he had been doing labouring work that day (he was 70), helping a “life long” friend (who was 77) put up his traveling show. In the different paper clippings I have there is some understandable confusion as Mr. Guilar Senior was William, and he calls his eldest son Joseph, who then turns up in several other papers as “William Guilar’ who ‘heroically” dragged the crew from the burning plane. These heroics Number Two. There’s nothing special in what he says, except for one thing. The plane was “middling high”.

Grandfather White, for reasons un remembered by his daughters, took part in a dialect archive recording. I first heard him on a crackling 78, telling stories in broad Sussex and reading “A Three Part Song” by Mussa’ Rudyard Kipling. Today I have him on a cd and haven't cleaned the file. It wouldn't sound right without the hiss and pop. It gets a walk on part in the prologue to Lady G.

But he tells his story about the local fire brigade, in the days when they had to send a runner out to find everyone and then get the horse from the pub, which links the two testimonies. When the plane crashed in Bettystown its petrol tanks exploded "and the plane and the caravans at the show were reduced to ashes despite the efforts of the L.S.F who played a hose on the blaze."

But then he says ”law a mussy me, he were right middling upset…”

The word brings the two men together. I like that word. Middling. I want to bring it back. My dad’s reply to “how are you?” was either “still pulling the devil by the tail” or “mixed to middling, like belly bacon”. It sits neatly between high and low, tall and short, good and bad. Somewhere in the middle, which isn’t a bad place to be if you know what you’re doing. Extremism is fashionable, and it's easy to strike an attitude, but there's something solid about "middling"; reliable, like the seventy year old man who turns out to help you set up your travelling show because he's your friend and has been for long time.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The SHOp arrived with “These Heroics #2´in it.

It’s a very solid, well-presented journal with lots of good things in it.
So the year has started well, poems in the The SHOp and The Stinging Fly. Small victories, but it’s always so much better when the poems appear in journals I know I’m going to read from cover to cover.

Which does raise the question: why are Irish journals so good compared to Australian ones. I don’t mean, why do they occasionally publish what I write,which could be sued against them, when Australian ones never do, but why are Irish ones so full of good things.

Since I am a guest here, I should probably not follow that idea.

Instead, let us consider the fifty word Bio. I always read “notes on contributors”. Often to find if poet x does have a colelction I can track down. Sometimes, I find my name there and wonder who he is. The guy who sent the poem to The SHOp still believed Heaventree were going to publish Lady G, which we know didn’t happen and the nice people with great taste at Nine Arches did.

Does anybody ever feel comfortable with the request for the brief Bio? The subtext is: describe yourself in fifty words and make sure you remember to plug the latest collection.

I used to go for windswept and interesting:

Liam Guilar is the only poetry writing lute playing white water kayaking medievalist to have been smuggled over the Kazak border and then arrested and given twenty four hours to leave Samarkand.

But most people don’t know what a Samarkand is…

These days I wonder if I should go for blunt:

Liam Guilar lives in Australia. Or tries to. Some days he doesn’t do it very well. His last collection of poems was Lady Godiva and Me. Please go to this web site and order your copy, now.

Or honest.

Liam Guilar is an anagram. A three toed Nergle from the planet Zipthith. Exiled for incompetence, he does a very bad job as an undercover agent, studying the ritual behaviors of humanoids. His latest collection of poems, Lady Godiva and Me, (go to this website now and buy several copies) contains coded revelations about the mystery of the universe. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn how to teleport.