Monday, 20 June 2011

A Few Days of Ska: Lip Up Fatty / Influence, a beginner's guide

From YouTube note: Fronted by Buster Bloodvessel (born Douglas Trendle), the band was formed in 1976 while the members were at school together, and among their early incarnations were known as Stoop Solo and the Sheet Starchers. None of the members had any formal musical training, not even the ability to play any instruments. They were popular during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period when lots of similar ska bands filled the charts. Some of their hits include "My Girl Lollipop", "Lip Up Fatty", "Special Brew" and "Ne-Ne-Na-Na-Na-Na-Nu-Nu". One of the main reasons for their notoriety was because of their outlandish, larger-than-life, huge tongued & shaven-headed front man.


At UEA New Writing Worlds conference on Influence. Or is it Imitation? Or Infection? Or patrilinear possession? Or friendship? Do we hate those who influence us? Do we look to be influenced? Do we change tradition by influencing the reading of the past through the brilliant works of our present? Are we feeling Anxious?

Three provocations given, the first by C K Williams, the second by Christopher Merrill, the tird by Joyelle McSweeney. American morning. Since it will be my task to sum up at the end I won't even start trying to form a view on the discussions. I'll just take the personal line, if only because I am unlikely to serve it up in the conference itself.

As a child in Hungary there are two books I remember among the many I apparently had. One was an illustrated edition of the 1861 verse play Imre Madách's The Tragedy of Man, a work I went on to translate over twenty years ago and which then appeared with what I think were the same illustrations by Mihály Zichy, whose work somehow ran into my early impressions of Gustave Doré. (Note the early confusion and associations, typical of 'influence'.) The other was Sándor Petöfi's magical verse yarn János Vitéz (John the Valiant in John Ridland's translation), a book I did not look upon for some thirty years until I pulled the very same edition, heart in mouth, from the shelves of our closest friends in Budapest. There was also the bilingual edition of Now We Are Six, that I probably reeceived at the age of six, the Hungarian translation by the virtuosic humorist Frigyes Karinthy.

Three building blocks laid down. Three that I remember. Then England, and very little I would call a literary influence. Kids' stuff. Boys' comics. The Eagle. Dan Dare. The Beano. Biffo the Bear. Corky the Cat. Lord Snooty and his Pals. Dennis the Menace. Minnie the Minx. Simply saying the names is ever so comfy, as Auden said of something else.

The next decisive moment,c. 1967 or 8 when I pull a thin volume of poems from the shelves of the school library. The lines: "I was not born, mister / they mixed me up in a cement mixer'. The poet, Michael Baldwin, whom I was to meet by chance on the occasion of my one reading at The Athenaeum (of which I gave an account some time back).

So things tie up and tie in. Then the period of furious book buying and equally furious reading once I started to write. Includes all the cheap Penguins and whatever looked glamorous in the library (Death's Jest Book! by Thomas Lovell Beddoes). Falling in love with Rimbaud, weaning myself off Ginsberg (though I think I am weaning myself back on again). The Leishman / Spender Rilke. The Liverpool Poets. And once at art school, the first big important friendship: Martin Bell. And the poets I first read because of him.

So Alexander Pope grew glamorous, so Wallace Stevens, so John Crowe Ransom, Laforgue (whom I had already sipped at, and Desnos and Reverdy too). Marvell and Herbert. Eliot of course, the enormous figure flashing the ruins of Europe at me. And the slow onset of Auden. There was a stage when, in a half doze, I would write clutches of weak Auden lines. And the resistances. Resistance to Larkin, to Hughes and even to Heaney, who had nothing to do with me. And to Plath, so demanding and accusing. Even so, living in Larkinland. And Elizabeth Bishop and Louis MacNeice entering as welcome full voices. And Roethke and Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. And Berryman too. Louis Simpson. Brodsky.

It is not so much influence as a blend of noises in the head, the excitement of entering and passing through force fields and echo chambers. They still enter and lodge themselves somewhere or other. Even the people I teach: they get inside, some of them making me purr with delight and envy.

And actually reaching a stage where I seem to have added up to a Collected Poems, which as everyone realises when it comes to them, is only part of a story, a story that had better remain unfinished, so the only anxiety is about it being finished, though even that anxiety is productive. Because the world as it has been is embedded in us, as is the sense that its meaning can be approached as a sequence of human echoes and forces, but you haven't got the meaning because the meaning is always slipping ahead, elsewhere. Which is, after all the nature of poetry, it being, as Bishop wrote, historical and flown in exactly the same way we are.

And the moral of all this? The gradus ad parnassum of the beginner's guide? Read and listen and sing your speech. And theirs. Over and over again. It's a mess in there but keep stirring and adding.

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