Well, it’s a grey rainy bank Holiday, and I’m writing this so it’ll be all ready when I come back from the Old Olive Press, and tempted to think…didn’t summer use to be, well, summery. But, as Raymond Williams usefully demonstrated * , nostalgias are infinitely regressive. Which is one way of explaining the oblique title of this Sunday’s post. Wasn’t radio supposed to kill reading, put an end to books? And so on. Anyway, I’m writing this in response to a post that Anthony Wilson** put up on his blog recently (I’ve come late to Anthony Wilson, as I come late to most good things, and so I’m relying on the golden oldies from his back catalogue). The one that caught my attention was one about why students say they don’t like poetry.
Now, I think, like he does, that what they’re saying is : they don’t like Poetry, and I think that there are reasons for this that could be laid at the door of teachers (including me), and, a long time before that, Literacy. When I was an English Advisor, I could guarantee that if I visited a Year 5 or a Year 6 class, sooner or later a group of girls (almost always girls) would want to perform something for me, and (almost always) it would be Alan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler. Nobody made them learn it, nobody suggested they learn it, but learn it they did, and performed it to anyone who stopped long enough to be an audience. I learned it, too: Please, Mrs Butler, this boy Derek Drew keeps taking my rubber, Miss what can I do? And then in comes the voice of Mrs Butler, in this brilliant rhyming call and response poem for two voices. I didn’t try to learn it; it just happened slowly, through repetition.
Another memory. When I was Secondary English teacher and form tutor I used to enjoy, enormously, the way (mainly) girls would copy the lyrics of pop songs from ‘Smash Hits’ into their journals and jotters. In coloured felt pen. Why? nobody made them. Why copy them? They could have cut them out and stuck them in. These were kids who would have been indignant if I asked them to copy out Poems. But, of course, these were poems. It’s just that nobody called them that, so it was OK. But why copy them out? Why, to learn them. We can all learn from that. I used to wonder why it was mainly girls. I think…I think it’s because then (and I don’t know about now) girls’ play was more collaborative than boys’, and that collaboration was sustained, in part, by poetry. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not pushing a nostalgic view of childhoood, but I was 16 when the Opies’ ‘Lore and language of schoolchildren’ was published in 1959, and a lot of the playground rhymes, for counting-out and skipping and ball-bouncing, were still alive and well in the 60s as my own children were growing up. I’m not too worried if they’ve been displaced by whatever advertising jingle or popsong has been appropriated and subverted by today’s children. It’s all part of the long revolution.
Literacy has a curious and occasionally disturbing history. For how long was it the monopoly of the church? And then a shared monopoly with the ruling elites? There was no universal literacy before the invention of cheap mass print technology and universal education. And even then, a peer of the realm in the 19th century, debating the education of the labouring classes, conceded that they needed to be taught to read, because they would need to read instructions (about the management of machinery, for instance), but there was no point in teaching them to write, because they would never issue any.
So where’s this taking us? This isn’t a scholarly affair…I’m just saying, without any originality, that poetry is older than prose because it’s older than reading and writing. Its heart and soul is rhythm, and the point about rhythm is that it’s patterned and repetitive. Children teach us this, but I wonder if we listen hard enough.What did rhythm help people to do for thousands of years before writing? It helped them, through songs and chants, to work collaboratively, to move huge loads, raise sails, keep straight lines in planting and harvesting fields. It helped them to celebrate with continuity the important things like birth and death and marriage. It gave them communal memories through the stories of victories and defeats, floods, fires, famines, and myths and legends. If these couldn’t be written down, then they had to be memorised. Stories had to be memorisable as well as memorable. Which is why we needed rhythm and repetition (just like times tables) and then the clever invention of rhyme that underscored rhythm and also helped the storyteller to remember the next line. The Odyssey, and Beowulf, had to be memorised. As did the parts of the Miracle Plays performed by artisans, not scholars.
Poetry was a creation of voice and sound and performance, social, collaborative, and democratic. At some point, in our culture at least, it became Poetry, and Private, and individual and exclusive. Of course, the original morphed through broadsheet ballads, and music hall songs, and pop songs and all the rest of the shared, popular, rhyming, repetitive languages we entertain ourselves with, and somehow stopped being poetry and became popular culture. Poets threw a white light on the obscenity of the First World War, while the soldiers subverted hymns and musical hall songs and sang ‘When this lousy war is over’ and ‘We are Fred Karno’s army’ and ‘Hush, here comes a whizzbang’ much as schoolchildren appropriated Charlie Chaplin and Tarzan into older song-patterns, and the Beatles into ‘We three kings’. And no-one wrote it down for them, or made them learn it.
All of this is taking me towards some of the ambivalence I have about my own writing and the things people have said about it, and to thinking about the relationship of Poetry, and stand-up poets, and performance poets, and written and oral poetry, and whether I should worry about it. Why should I bother about T S Eliot’s assertion that poetry exists on the page, when I didn’t understand ‘The Waste Land’ till I heard it being read aloud?
Maybe, here’s where I got conflicted. I started reading poems, publicly, in folk clubs, where poems are often called monologues. I didn’t read my own poems, because I wasn’t writing any. My heroes were John Cooper Clark and Les Barker. I plundered the collections of Pam Eyres and Roger McGough; I did McGonagall, John Hegley (especially Rowena), Marriot Edgar. So long as it was robust, had a narrative line and made people laugh it was fine. If it rhymed, then so much the better. I learned that it helps if there are repetitions and redundancies that give the audience a space to take it all in; ditto, places to pause and let the jokes and surprises work. When I thought I might write my own, it turned out to be a lot harder than it looked. There’s craft in these poems.
If you ever get to see the DVD of Evidently John Cooper Clark, you’re in for an eyeopener. Clarky is more than happy to say that he learned his trade from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury…and then does an impromptu performance of Henry Newbolt’s Vitae Lampada.…that fantastic piece of Kipling-esque jingo, the desert sand red with the blood of English soldiery, the Gatling jammed and the Colonel dead, and the only thing that will rally them is an English public schoolboy, exhorting the chaps to Play up, play up, and play the game!. This is John Cooper Clark, and he’s being entirely sincere. Think on that. Well, I gave up going to folk clubs because I started going to poetry workshops, and writing poems that simply didn’t stand up in the way that a folk club audience expect. Started going to poetry readings instead. And started wondering about what makes a poem work in an open mic. Because quite a lot of them don’t. You know the kind of thing I mean…when you don’t know if a poem’s finished or not, because there’s no sign off, like a couplet, or there’s a poem you simply can’t take in because by the time you start to realise it’s started it’s finished, or because there’s no resting place. And often because there’s no context. What I always like in a poet or a singer-songwriter is a bit of a story that places the song or the poem.
I’d love to know what your take is on all this. Somewhere along the line, I found I tended to write anecdotal/narrative poems, and that I had a default rhythm…which was iambic (pentameter). People started to say they recognized my ‘voice’. That was nice, but recently I was knocked sideways by a comment someone made in a workshop session. The criticism was that the poem looked too regular and predictable. It LOOKED too regular and predictable? What does that say about a way of reading poems. I didn’t think it SOUNDED predictable. I thought it had a rhythm any reader could hear. But I’m insecure enough to have spent the subsequent weeks trying to write non-narrative, irregular-looking poems. I’m still wobbly about it, even though the business of the ‘look’ of a poem seems important to some, as does the playing about with terza rima and sestinas which strike me as being akin to flower-arranging on the Titanic. The clever craft of coteries. Maybe I’m sour because I can’t do them, or if I can, I can’t say anything important that way. See what I mean about ‘conflicted’? Because I’m on record about my love of Metaphysical poetry and Tony Harrison. I think I’ve blogged myself into a cul de sac.
Tell you what. I’ll sneak away under cover of a poem I wrote for Mary Gauthier (it’s pronounced Go-Shay) who I first saw playing a dingy pub gig in Sheffield, and who has finally, years later, made the bigtime breakthrough, and this year played the Grand Ol Opry. And at least I wrote one poem that I can do without any qualms at folkclubs and poetry open mics. And Mary G. likes it. Sorry about the rambling…too many arguments going on. But let me know what you think about on-the-page/read-out-loud poetry. Please.
a cold autumn night and this cold Sheffield bar
smells of 60watt lighting and yesterday’s beer
and this lady of the shooting stars
is wondering how she came to be here
with her dreamers and thinkers, her junkies and drinkers
the lovers and dancers, the liars, the chancers
the outlaws and angels and whores
in gigs like this in a Thursday night bar,
where the spotlight shines in her eyes.
For a moment she stands there looking lost
or maybe just looking surprised.
Then she unpacks her old blue Taylor guitar
from its scuffed and well-stickered case;
she peers into 60watt distance,
and wonders aloud…says: is this the right place?
She fiddles with tunings, tries a couple of ch0rds;
through the mic. comes her quiet country drawl:
hi. I’m Mary Gauthier, from Louisiana,
come here to sing songs for y’all……
and we’re hitching a ride on a backcountry road
through the landscapes of Mary Gauthier,
a ride through another country.
well., they do things differently there:
bright lights and lost dreams, poets and drag queens,
trailer-trash has-beens, death cells and limousines,
and the angels are falling,
and there’s fire in the fields
and places flash by through the windscreen of songs
like phrases or rhymes half-heard in a dream
Juarez, las Cruces, Prairie du Chien,
Thibodeaux to Raceland…you know what I mean.
And you’re hitching a ride on a southern states voice
that sings cool and clear as the moon,
tho’ it isn’t exactly singing
but more like talking in tune,
one that lingers on sweeet and curdles on sour
holds on to a note like a child plucks a flower
lights on a phrase like a bee on a stem
lets the words run like water held in a cupped palm
or just fades to whispers like a moth in a flame
like the wind in the grasses, like the rain in the pines,
like the hushing of tyres when the wet blacktop shines..
so thanks for your leaving home stories
and the roads you travelled before
and the folks who’ve travelled them with you:
the poets, the dancers, the lovers, the chancers
the angels, the liars, the burned-out high fliers
the drinkers the thinkers the junkies the whores
yeah, thanks for the ride Mary Gauthier,
the journey was over too soon.
I’m still hearing your shootong-star stories,
still singing along to your tune.
There’s a lot of ‘ands’ in that. I get told that a lot, at workshops. Poems with too many ‘ands’. That’s me. There’s a lesson there, somewhere. But do go and listen to Mary Gauthier: especially Drag queens and limousines, and the album that followed it, Filth and fire.
* Raymond Williams: The country and the city [Chatto and Windus. 1973]
** Anthony Wilson’s blog…not to be missed http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/