Sunday, 10 January 2010

Sunday Night is... The Mills Brothers and a bad review

Let's have the Mills Brothers first, live on the Nat King Cole show in 1957, swinging the song a bit faster than in the recording I have.

And the lovely lyrics, please...

(Original words by Lilla Cayley Robinson, modern words by Johnny Mercer and Music by Paul Lincke)

Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Lead us lest too far we wander
Love's sweet voice is callin' yonder
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Hey, there don't get dimmer, dimmer
Light the path below, above
And lead us on to love

Glow little glow-worm, fly of fire
Glow like an incandescent wire
Glow for the female of the species
Turn on the AC and the DC
This night could use a little brightnin'
Light up you little ol' bug of lightnin'
When you gotta glow, you gotta glow
Glow little glow-worm, glow

Glow little glow-worm, glow and glimmer
Swim through the sea of night, little swimmer
Thou aeronautical boll weevil
Illuminate yon woods primeval
See how the shadows deep and darken
You and your chick should get to sparkin'
I got a gal that I love so
Glow little glow-worm, glow

Glow little glow-worm, turn the key on
You are equipped with taillight neon
You got a cute vest-pocket *Mazda*
Which you can make both slow and faster
I don't know who you took the shine to
Or who you're out to make a sign to
I got a gal that I love so
Glow little glow-worm, glow
Glow little glow-worm, glow
Glow little glow-worm, glow
Glow little glow-worm, glow

The third verse is genius! And because that is late Mills Brothers, a double dose - this one much earlier, 'Swing Sister' presumably pre-war:


The bad, or possibly bad, review is in The Sunday Times by Alan Brownjohn, reviewing the Eliot Prize shortlist:

Two other shortlisted books of comparable ambition similarly fail to show their authors’ talents to advantage. George Szirtes’s The Burning of the Books and Other Poems (Carcanet £8.95) bursts at the seams, grappling comprehensively with modern European ­history and culture, but it requires readers to be familiar with, for example, Elias Canetti’s horrific masterpiece Auto da Fe and the paintings of Howard Hodgkin. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Szirtes on Woolworths touches us more closely: “The infinite melancholy of small pickings /…firelighters, matchboxes, ashtrays. Cheap /  vanishings. Vultures.”

Well, I don't know - I'd sooner be hanged for ambition and bursting at the seams than complacency and living within my seams. Furthermore, if this is a hanging, then I hang with Elias Canetti and the others out in the darks of Europe. I hadn't thought the reader had to have complete familiarity with Canetti's Auto da Fe to get the poems - some people seem to get them without - and as for the rest of European history, I wrote an 'English' book back in 2001, An English Apocalypse, but maybe one can never be English enough for some. I am perfectly reconciled to that. Nor will any poet ever please everyone. Lucky to please a few. In any case, we write about what excites us and find it harder to write about things that don't. As to Howard Hodgkin, I plead guilty. But then I have always written about art, from the very beginning. Hang me high. Hang me high art.

The review doesn't actually say anything about the writing as such. So it's odd. I think it simply doesn't like the way I am, but as Prevert said, Je suis comme je suis / je suis fait comme ça. Damn, I see that is foreign too.


Pascale Petit said...

Alan Brownjohn did the same to me before my second TS Eliot shortlisting. Perhaps it's an English thing he has, but give me bursting at the seams any day and ambition and high art. I am thoroughly enjoying The Burning of the Books and your Collected, so rich.

George S said...

Alan is a younger member of the Larkin - Amis generation whose notion of value depended on firmly established, solid, no-nonsense, familiar feeling. It was part of the reaction against the 'myth-kitty' and entailed the assertion of a traditional English empiricism. It was,I think, a product of the post-war suspicion of the windy or grand, specifically - in Larkin's case, at any rate - of Dylan Thomas.

I interviewed Alan a long time ago for The Literary Review and remember him saying something about 'the Churchill rant'.

While I do see what this means and appreciate elements of it, in that it opposes rant and demagoguery, I do think it can hobble poetry. At least it would hobble me. I can't speak for you, of course, Pascale, but I am aware that some aspects of my own writing risk windiness and grandiosity. Nevertheless that is a risk I have to take and hope to avoid. One takes risks because there seems to be something of genuine value at the end of them.

And in any case, one simply can't help having a different central nervous system from someone else. Nor does the review do any harm, as it is perfectly clear where it is coming from - it arises out of temperamental difference.

Pascale Petit said...

I think that sums him (and things) up nicely. Traditional English empiricism and no-nonsense familiar feeling – I love it! As you say it's obvious where he's coming from. I've read the whole article now. Elsewhere I've seen excellent reviews of your book.

George S said...

Thank you, Pascale. I think I've seen some nice reviews too, and that is always cheering, as we all know.

I have nothing against English empiricism, it's just a bit too narrow in terms of poetry. And I can't completely identify with it. I don't think anything I have done of value - if I have - owes very much to it.

Luke Smith said...


Just a quick note to say that, in the case of the Howard Hodgkin poems*, I disagree that any pre-knowledge is necessary. I first read them without knowing anything about Hodgkin (other than that he was 'something to do with art' - I thought at first perhaps a critic), and I enjoyed them very much indeed. Enough of a sense of who he is (or who the Howard Hodgkin character in the poems is) and what artistic ideals he might have is present in the poems themselves. In my extrememly non-professional opinion, of course.

I did look him up once I had read the poems, though (sometimes I wonder how we survived before the internet - all that not knowing!), and I like to think that my first encounter with his art, informed by the poems, was better for it.

Best of luck with the Eliot! (Isn't this year's shortlist excellent, by the way? Very much looking forward to the reading next Sunday.)


* this is not to say anything about the title sequence, of course, other than that I have not yet spent the time with it that I have the Hodgkin poems.

James Owens said...

I agree - strongly - "bursting at the seams" is better any day than the rather small and ungenerous alternatives -- best of luck to you on the Eliot!

Re the Mills brothers, this line is a pure marvel: "Thou aeronautical boll weevil..." It would be so easy to imagine this in the mouth of one of Shakespeare's characters.

Emerging Writer said...

Just wanted to add my appreciation to the wonderful Glow Worm lyrics. Inspiring. Thanks

George S said...

Only fair to add that Alan rubbished everyone else on the list too, but I did not think it was for me to draw attention to that in my post. Let each mind his or her own rubbishing.

Luke, that is reassuring. I am glad not to have to bite my tongue every time I think of art.

And as to glow-worms! Ah, that third verse, James and the Emerging One! I think it's the run of lines that thrills, from the properly, straight poetic of Swim through the sea of night, little swimmer, through James's favourite aeronautical Elizabethan, the mock Romantic of yon woods primeval, then the shadows deepening and darkening, and finally, the guy and his chick getting to sparkin'.

Some glissando! So get sparkin' with that taillight neon.

James said...

I guess this says something unpleasant about me, but I've always been more familiar with Hodgkin and Canetti than Woolworths. Now that the grand old stores are all gone, of course, what I am is what everyone else will be tomorrow.

(Although, on the whole, I don't think AB meant that as criticism. Just as well seeing as he has that terrible poem about a trade union leader on his cv).

George S said... to show their authors’ talents to advantage...

That sounds like criticism to me. But, I quite agree, it's hardly lethal. It is the oddity of it - as though I should be writing about something different. I am also surprised AB doesn't see the contemporary resonance of The Burning of the Books...

equivocal said...

My god-- attacking writers for expecting too much from their readers-- that's like what happens in India!

Rob said...

I find AB's attitude strange in that elsewhere he's reviewed Geoffrey Hill warmly, and Hill's recent collections have demanded a great deal from readers in terms of literary knowledge external to the poems.

On the other hand, AB is being asked to 'review' 10 books inside a short article and it's probably impossible to do any of them justice under such conditions.

Brentorama said...

Any idea how I can get a copy of the whole episode - or even where this recording came from?