Thursday, 21 February 2013

Listening to poetry part 2 – David Gascoyne’s Night Thoughts

London - darker at night, in both senses

Last night I turned up with trepidation for a poetry reading, the blurb for which included the word ‘interactive’ – always one to make me nervous. My suspicions were increased by the inclusion of a free glass of wine in the ticket price, an indication of a need for loosening up.

This was not the kind of poetry reading I wrote about in my last post, as the work being performed was a poem for many voices called Night Thoughts, by David Gascoyne, who passed away in 2001.

I must have discovered Gascoyne’s poetry via a preoccupation with surrealist art some years ago. I loved the idea of surrealist writing, but much of it didn’t work for me – somehow the unlikely juxtapositions of concepts that I enjoyed in visual art seemed forced or just plain silly in words, leaving the reader frustrated and suspicious (again). But Gascoyne’s work had an urgency about it and a ring of integrity that made it gripping rather than trying. Not all of his poetry is surrealist by any means; he just happened to hang out with a fair few surrealists, influencing him alongside his addiction to amphetamines and precarious mental states that sometime put him in mental hospitals.

25 of us were handed photocopies with sections highlighted in fluorescent pink. There was no practice run; after a wonderful introduction to the life of Gascoyne by his biographer Robert Fraser and Roger Scott, we were off. 

The effect was magical. Despite the range of people in the group, which included poets, friends of Gascoyne, experts, actresses, arts reviewers, and the merely curious, everybody read with sincerity, humour and faith. The poem flowed and moved us; it spoke for itself and it is probably testament to the writing that it could shine in such an impromptu performance.

The poem was inspired by London at night, and conjures a dark (in both senses) megalometropolis, with eerie images of its inhabitants all asleep: ‘In double-beds or on divans, with lamps out, curtains drawn,/ Immobile many millions lie, all interchangeable,/ All horizontal humans out of use until next morn.’

Sinister passages in which we navigate the London underground and pass the slogans of advertisements – ‘Drink more drink! Wear more clothes! Don’t lose hope! Don’t forget!’ – mingle with pleas that we not lose ourselves in the noise we create to escape thought: ‘So endless noise/ We need to stuff our burning ears with, huge uproars/ Must keep on breaking out lest we should judge/ Unwillingly how far and near are all in the void...’

The visions of the poem, of a world distracting itself in carnival so as not to face the fact of human solitariness, could have been produced as a commentary on London in 2013.

There were some gorgeous lines. I got to read out one of my favourites: ‘Old oak’s slow taut-slack creak, clock’s slow quick-slow-quick tick.’ But one line in a prose passage stood out as summing up Gascoyne’s endeavour with this poem: ‘I cannot bear to hear myself repeating words of prayer that might be mumbled and not meant.’ There was something prayer-like in the poem itself, possibly conjured by dint of reading as a congregation, possibly in the rhythms of the language and the sense of an exhortation to consider the world and one’s lonely place in it. But the whole thing felt so profoundly meant, in contrast with anything familiar mumbled, that even those in the group who had never read any Gascoyne before were exhilarated and inspired by the end.

Thanks to the Saison Poetry Library for organising this unusual event, and I hope there will be more like it in the future.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Listening to poetry, discovering poets

A glade can be elevated to poetry by a 'browsing deer'

I don’t read enough poetry. I mean that generally, and as a writer, and as a lover of lyrical, poetic use of language. The best poetry for me finds utterly original ways of expressing or describing familiar things, and can unleash surprise torrents of emotion without a whiff of cliché or sentimentality.

That’s what I enjoy; obviously poetry is capable of many other feats, but it is always interesting to discover what does and doesn’t work for you in a form not regularly encountered.

In the past few months I have listened to much more poetry than I have read, by going to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in late 2012 and attending the recent T S Eliot Prize readings, an annual event where all the nominated poets read from their work the night before the winner is announced. This year Sharon Olds was triumphant with Stag’s Leap, a description that I’d apply to her reading as well as her actually winning. I was surprised to find myself enjoying her poem, about her breasts and their imagined view of her husband leaving her. I winced at the conceit, but was then carried away by it, something silly becoming profound but the transition so delicately done, resulting in a completely original expression of a common human experience.

There I also heard for the second time a poem by Julia Copus, which she also read at Aldeburgh, about a couple dining in a gastro pub after a round of IVF treatment. I was irritated by this poem because its surface plainness did nothing for me, and yet the images stuck and it would not leave me alone. There is nothing particularly unusual in the descriptions of sea bass and crème brulée, but the quiet reference to the eggs, lying far away down the road in the dark, works far better than I feel it should. I take this as an indication that Copus is cleverer than most at what she is doing, I just cannot see how she is doing it.

At the start of the T S Eliot readings I had set myself the task of transcribing just one phrase that I loved from each of the poets, hoping to use them in a sort of review on this blog. I admit that I struggled. Many of the poems, though not all, were more like prose than I expected, flowing in natural patterns of language rather than condensing images. I wondered whether this was an indication of a current fashion in poetry (and still wonder, being in no position to judge) or simply reflected the tastes of the T S Eliot Prize panel. Possibly I have an arcane notion of poetry myself.

Afterwards, looking back at the phrases I had managed to scribble down, I realised that listening to the poems rather than reading them, so that they wash through you once and you cannot go back to re-read a single line, alters perception considerably. The denser, more febrile poems – like those from Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal – were harder to process in this form and so did not stick so well. Those that were looser and less lyric-laden allowed the mind to wander into their scenes more easily whilst listening, making the odd incredible line stand out.

So, a few of those phrases I did love were Gillian Clarke’s house that ‘naps in the plush silence’; Kathleen Jamie’s ‘deer browsing in a glade’ (that word browsing is genius); Sean Borodale’s honey tasting like the ‘wild liquor of ecstatic work’; and the voice of Olds’ husband, ‘still pushed around the level bubble of his throat.’

I’ve since bought Kathleen Jamie’s The Overhaul, and found far more beauty than I remembered from her reading; but as a way of sampling different kinds of poetry side my side, like wine-tasting, a poetry reading is a good way to discover what you like, along with the pure pleasure of listening to careful words.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Bartok and folk music; fiction and folk tales

There are many ways of inserting the folk tale into the modern

 Recently on this blog I stumbled through an analogy between folk music and writing or tale telling, only to find, when reading an academic book afterwards (typical!) for my PhD that the author did exactly the same thing. Obviously his analogy was more eloquent and better thought out, but it is not hard to understand. The book is Cycles of Influence:  Fiction, Folktale, Theory by Stephen Benson. In it he describes Bela Bartok’s method of collecting folk songs and melodies and using them in various ways in his own new music. He picks out three ways of doing this that Bartok identifies in his own essays:

1. Taking an existing melody and either creating an accompaniment around it or using it as a motto in something greater
2.  Inventing a new melody inspired by originals
3.  Creating new music that, regardless of melodic links, is ‘pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music’

In the course of reading for my PhD literature survey I have come across many equivalents of these in the way contemporary writers use folk tales.
Fairy and folk tales have always been rewritten and retold, indeed that is part of their nature, but in the late twentieth century authors such as Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, Sara Maitland and Margaret Atwood took these tales, in the way Bartok and Grainger took melodies, and made something greater from them that spoke to their times with themes of feminism, sexuality and post-modern fragmentation. 

Likewise their literary inheritors of the fairy tale have written entirely new stories that use the templates, characters and motifs of the genre, notable examples being stories by Kate Bernheimer, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and Claire Massey

In the third category, writing new material that uses the atmosphere, or feel, of folk tales, I would place work by Margo Lanagan and Jess Richards amongst others.

So, I was already trying to explore this alignment between musical and fictional appropriation of folk materials, when I went to the Southbank’s weekend festival ‘The Rise of Nationalism,’ part of their  year long exploration of culture in the twentieth century, The Rest is Noise. There I found the Bartok analogy can be pushed much further in the details. One fascinating workshop (with Rachel Leach) picked apart the structures of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances and the folk songs underpinning them. Another (with Ivan Hewett) explored the transposition of collected folk songs into new works by Bartok, Grainger, Falla and others.

Ivan Hewett talked about the “common practice” – a kind of accepted syntax of classical music that had developed and existed from 1600-1900, and was suddenly challenged by the new folk interventions. Rachel Leach’s workshop backed this up, showing how Bartok moved away from our traditional scales to using modes, and introducing augmented and diminished intervals which instantly evoke exoticism to Western ears. This spoke back to Hewett’s idea that Bartok found that the journey away from and back to the tonic (or ‘home’) note in music could take unexpected turns.

All that might sounds obscure to someone not versed in music theory, and while I did learn about such things once upon a time, I can make much better sense of it all now as a writer. If we think about the engagement with psychological depth demonstrated by writers such as Henry James, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, then the pared down, one-dimensional, plot-driven narrative style of the folk tale is a shock to the system. And yet, just like a move from scale to mode in music, a shift to this kind of narrative style has come about in some short fiction. Likewise, there has been a resurgence in the ‘weird’ or the uncanny in short fiction in particular, with writers using fantastical elements to dig into inexpressible emotions and anxieties, rather as exotic and unfamiliar tonal turns did in Bartok’s music. These are ways of showing us our world anew.

There is clearly a rich vein here for thinking about fiction in terms of music, and so much more to say (which I will try to do in future posts). For now I’m happy to have found the vein and begin the digging.