Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Old man of the sea speaks
After a long hot day at the UEA, quickly home then out again to the Arts Centre -probably my favourite venue in the city - where Helen Ivory and Martin Figura were launching their new books. Penny Shuttle had come up from London for it, as had Sarah Law, and many of the poets in the area, as well as Matt Merritt from Leicester who was in the area for birding business. C and I had a quick pizza with Martin, Helen, Penny, Matt and Helen Birtwell who organises the Cley poetry events. This kind of post always begins to feel like a provincial anorak's version of Jennifer's Diary so I will avoid lingering descriptions of the qualities of pizza and dough balls, or indeed the attire of the various members of the party. (I was sporting a marvellously louche black T shirt of roughly 1996 vintage for the curious...)
The place was packed because Martin and Helen have the good sense to invite other writer friends and musicians, as well as their own considerable public, so everyone brings a following of some kind. The musicians included the band Olinsky, described as pop / minimalist / indie who perform a droll set that reminds me of The Incredible String Band, and Andy McDonnell's My Dark Aunt, who in this case is reduced to Andy plus one. Andy whispers his poems over mixed electronic backing.
The performing poet friends were Joanna Guthrie, Andrea Holland, Esther Morgan and myself in the second half as warm-up artist and singer of praises for the launching couple.
Having played father-for-the-occasion at Helen and Martin's wedding and having taught them both makes me feel considerable older than I generally do, like the old man of the sea in fact. But it is a very happy occasion and it occurs to me for the first time what an unliterary context the art school course drew on - and, better still, how good that was.
There are literary families - the families of the educated and, in their way, privileged - where books are the norm along with various other cultural expectations. They produce plenty of fine writers of course, and in many ways they themselves feel - and their work often feels - as though they were the responsible proprietors of literature, by which I mean more than poems or stories. They generally become the guardians of values, the guardians at the gates. They go to the best universities, find their way into journalism (often enough The Guardian), into publishing and literary institutions, and become thoughtful bestowers of patronage, editors, serious, sometimes grave people for whom literature has a natural place in academies. The idea of literature as a form of progressive, intellectual and psychological gymnastics - as, at best, comprehensive daring - is rooted there. Articulate radicalism is rooted there - only a bit pompous sometimes, a little snooty and sniffy and grandiose - and exclusive too, self-consciously, and often comfortably, doing things the contemptible vulgar wouldn't understand. A kind of aristocracy in fact. They'd never say this but it ghosts through their work at times, work that is, in other ways, genuinely exciting: exciting to people like me because part of me inhabits that world and senses the excitement. The excitement is not pompous, snooty, sniffy or grandiose. It is genuine excitement. They are, after all, genuinely intelligent and, often, very good people.
But poetry and stories as such don't 'belong' to them. As I have argued over and over, poems and stories are parts of human hard wiring. I don't mean this as a populist rhetorical trope but as commonplace, everyday realism: poems and stories belong to everyone. At gut level, people know what poems and stories are and that they are to do with them and their experience. They know that such things - as opposed to literature - belong as much to them as to anyone else. Usually they are cowed by the educated, by those who are literary and bookish from the start. They think poems and stories must be the province of the clever and, poems and stories being an aspect of literature, they leave them well alone.
This is not a political argument. It is most certainly not a dumbing-down argument. It is an argument for listening and taking people seriously. That is the key to everything. Never pretend to praise what isn't there. Be generous but be absolutely honest within the limits of generosity. Never soft soap anyone but make it clear that you are on the same planet trying your best to understand it. Listen sypathetically but never patronise anyone by assuming they are too dim or too weak or too unambitious to understand another person's view. Don't be supportive out of a desire to better anyone's lot or out of disgust with the literary classes. Be supportive because it is another human being you are talking to, someone you know next to nothing about, so best assume there is far more there than you can know. And in the end remember there is another view beside yours and say so. See what X or Y or Z say...
Everything good that came out of the art school was a product of that practice. Auden, Eliot and Wallace Stevens, and indeed much of the avant-garde, experimental and demanding, are not closed off from anyone. If you love Auden, Eliot and Stevens, or anything else considered 'difficult' you should be able to say why they are worth reading. Do that. Life is difficult. Any fule kno that.
This post wasn't going to turn out like this, but it has. Neither Helen or Martin came from bookish families: both have lives that are concentrated and distilled into real poetry. Their lives and poems are nothing to do with mine. The only thing I have ever done with either of them, or any others, is to pay them the respect of listening to them as hard as I would to Eliot or Stevens. The rest is entirely their own work, their own reading, as it has to be. Now go out and do it for yourself, is the idea. And there they are, doing it.