Friday, 9 October 2009

One (done)-Two-Three (and Four)

Three readings in three days, all different.

I have written about Poems on the Underground where among other things I learned that Wendy Cope's favourite poet is A.E.Housman (she read the poem I talked about a while ago, 'Into my heart an air that kills') and that Jo Shapcott's poem was banned for use of the word 'bollocks'. (She actually subjected the audience to the trauma of reading the poem with the 'b' word in it).

Yesterday at The Curve, which is part of the events section of the Forum in Norwich as part of Norfolk Poetry Week, a mixed bill of poetry read straight, poetry with music, and two splendid animations based on poems, one on a Nicholas Breton poem to a Berceuse by Chopin which was quite wonderful, and a very attractive short piece featuring Carol Ann Duffy's poem, 'Valentine'.

I kicked off as the family 'elder'. How odd it still sounds to be an 'elder' (and odder still that Norwich should be full of writers I have taught or worked with, so that I feel a bit like father to hundreds of rebellious shining illegitimate children of the Muse - and be wary, reader, it is not just Norwich). We all did ten minutes.

Following me was, mostly, youth: Sarah Roby who won the recent MsLexia competition, who seems a fine assured poet with a very good ear and a strikingly clear poetic intelligence, then Tom Warner (son, illegitimate etc) who is quite outstanding and will be on the Faber scheme next year; then the Breton film.

After the break it was music from Andrew McDonnell and his band, My Dark Aunt (Andrew, another of the brood, now three times over as I am part-supervising his PhD), then my colleague Andrea Holland, who is such a fine poet it seems to me a monstrous injustice that she is not better known, and lastly, illegitimate daughter-of-the-Muse, but entirely her own woman, Helen Ivory, who, someone says to me, writes haunted dolls' houses. Well, I think she does a great deal more, but that's a reasonable starting definition. The Carol Ann cartoon followed.

To which I should add that I heard CAD's new poem (listen for a few more days before link dies) on the Today programme yesterday morning and thought it a really good Laureate poem, the number of which, over the centuries, you can count on the fingers of one hand.

Suzie Hannah organised the Curve event. She is in charge of animation at the art school and has a deservedly international reputation. Good audience. I like mixed events. In fact, considering what I said about the Poems on the Underground event, I prefer them in some ways because they unite strands and unite people. They're not keeping it in the club or in the family. I would love to do more mixed events.

And yesterday the dialogue with Martin Figura (yet another illegitimate etc and shortly to be international poetry performance star) at the Norwich Arts Centre.

I was apprehensive about this event for two reasons. First, the usual reason that no one would turn up or that the turn-out would be so embarrassingly small that I would wish I had never done it (prophet-in-his-own-country syndrome); but secondly for a more fundamental reason.

The relationship between maker and thing made is complex. My general feeling is that - to use academic terms - text is text and that the author (as Roland Barthes said long ago) may as well be dead; that we don't read poetry (poetry above all!) to find out about the author or even about the intentions of the author, but to find out about: 1) the world, 2) language, 3) ourselves. I ten to think that, if the author has a message, he or she should just tell me what it is and I'll text back. If, on the other hand, the author has a personal complaint they should see a specialist, though if they would like to confide in me, I, as a human being, am ever sympathetic. It's just that I don't need it in verse. You fall upon the thorns of life and bleed (PB Shelley)? Are you asking for Elastoplast, PBS? No, I don't think you are. If I care that you fall upon the thorns of life and bleed, it is because you perceive such thorns and such blood to be an aspect of the human condition. We fall on thorns and bleed, and when the pain is intense, it feels like this. Saying so is not Elastoplast, it is simply giving that experience meaning and shape, which, in the long run (in the long run only) seems just as valuable as the Elastoplast. In the short run, Elastoplast is best.

In other words the personal condition of the poet is not the point of the poem. It cannot help but be somewhere in the poem, forming it in some way, but it doesn't precede or validate the poem. So, having an autobiographical first half of an evening, along with old old family photos, goes a little (in fact rather a lot) against the grain. You may be able to glean biographical material in my poems, but the poems aren't about me. I have no very clear idea of the 'me' they might be about. I rather fear that such a 'me', if it did insist on parading round the square, would be some false imitation that would eventually lead to psychosis and I'd start saying things like 'George Szirtes doesn't do things like that...' George Szirtes is no more interesting than any other collection of atoms in the universe. Nor am I.

And yet this much is true. In certain circumstances one may talk about life and the things one has seen. We do this all the time. What did you think of the film last night? How was the holiday? My back is killing me! etc. This is a natural part of human life and even as a poet I am not apart from human life. Nothing of what I say in this context is an inducement to read my poems ("I have always wanted to read the poems of a writer with two heads / with fifty cats / with a guilty secret"). I do not wear my heart on my sleeve or on anything I might wipe my nose with in an emergency. But we are people. We can talk. It is, after all, a person who has made these poems, fixed the plumbing, arranged the flowers etc. I hate mystification when one could be clear. About certain things it is impossible to be clear because we are too much involved or because language is simply inadequate to talk straight about them. Granted. But for the rest, let's try to say what happens as people to people across a table as well as in the more demanding, more concentrated, better shaped, vital house of art.

So, it was fun and well attended and enthusiastically received and I am not cringing with embarrassment at that photo of me as a two year old in a suit in the bare Budapest square where I was born. But look, he's so cute, you simply have to buy the book!

And tonight on The Verb, Radio 3, at 21.15, or so I am told, there is to be talk of the sixty-year old man's new book, The Burning of the Books. Go then, little book...

Oh, and this nice thing.


The Plump said...

Two things - the word bollocks should be enshrined in the pantheon of great English words rather than being banned for vulgarity. It says everything you need to know about er... bollocks.

And on the link - Cameron and Wilfred Owen? Clegg and Blake! And what are they doing talking about living people in the past tense. I hope that being the hero of Linda Grant does not turn your head.

Gwil W said...

Which poetry thought police banned bollocks then?
For our information today's word bollocks owes its popularity to the US Slang bollix which means to bungle, botch and make a mess of. The orig word for testicles was ballocks (dim. plural of ball).
I've wondered about the poetry thought police on many previous occassions. Best to ignore them and simmply keep away from them I feel. The are nature's bardic bully boys.

Gwil W said...

ps- Apropos 'Atlas' I enjoyed it - alternatively one could always try 'A for Atlas'. Nothing too heavy there of course :)

George S said...

My head has been turned to the extent that it's spinning like that kid's in The Exorcist, Plump. Scaaary!

I quite agree about the word 'Bollock'. Christopher Reid has a marvellously funny and biting state-of-England poem called 'Bollockshire'. Worth finding and deeply enjoying.

It wasn't the poetry police, or any kind of police that did the censoring (only for one week before they realised they were being silly), it was London Transport who took fright in case the horses did. Jo Shapcott is safely back from exile and only a few hairs have turned white with the ordeal.

Carol Ann Duffy's 'Atlas' was good. There is a habit she has of listing names as choruses, a habit shared with U A Fanthorpe and some rather fine poets, but it's a habit best treated with care. But as a Laureate poem it was up there with the best.