Friday, 31 July 2009

Duffy Unleashed

Taxpayers of Britain cannot complain - their money is not being wasted by the new laureate. Carol Ann Duffy has been reading poems on the BBC, and editing sections of "leading" poets for newspapers, of late, often with a war theme. I've been there, done that. Good to see someone else - belatedly - pick up the baton and run with the anti-war and poetry theme - Tim Kendall alert! Was it just me, or was Muldoon's poem particularly cryptic, even for him? The problem with writing poems about Panther's Claw, or any other part of the Af-Pak campaign, is that it isn't out of the fog of war yet - and such ambiguity, while good for at least seven types of poetry - may not be the best for anti-war verse. Owen, of course, knew what he was against. Douglas - that sublime sociopath - knew what he saw, and liked and loathed it. But they saw war.

In the case of Iraq, the initial attack was illegal - that was the point of contention. However, the current Helmand struggles, over or not, are not "illegal". They don't seem even to be immoral. It's war, sure, but more to the point, nation-building. I think the British government, if it wants to continue to have a war, needs to support the troops properly, and also care for them without being cheap, on their wounded return. A nation either supports its troops or not.

GB - and thus, Duffy - wants it both ways, I fear - wants to support the valiant men, and the idea of valour, especially in aged men of World War I - but also wants to question empire and imperialism and warlike behaviour. Lord knows, many of us do. We like the idea of just wars, and good soldiers - it's the power struggles and ideology that make us uneasy. So, the laureate's efforts are noble, and actively engaged - but what is the message? Is it that war is bad, but warriors, finally, decent chaps? That way lies Newbolt, not Hugh Selwyn M. But again, it is the English poetic tradition to opt for the idea of decency (Edward Thomas) not atrocity, is it not?

Meanwhile, this inquiry will be a whitewash with red tint. How can the establishment police its own in such a way? The head of the inquiry has told the BBC oaths are not required, since no one would be "wicked enough" to lie in public. I see, so they might be wicked enough to start an illegal war, lie to a whole nation, but not be capable of a mistruth? The presumption of innocence that attends such events would be laughable if not so pitifully inadequate.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Poetry London Summer 2009 & Eyewear

The editorial of Poetry London's Summer 2009 issue, by Tim Dooley, explores important issues relating to the death and rebirth of poetry criticism and reception in the UK. One of the points he makes is that there are as many new poetry collections out each year as there are film releases, and the possibility for proper engaged reviews of each of these is subsequently becoming limited, in some ways, partially simply due to the numbers; but also because newspapers, other than the Guardian, are less and less interested in reviewing poetry (I think the Times does a bit, too). On the other hand, he observes, there are new forums to read such works. He writes: "The Internet has created new possibilities like the discussion board Poets on Fire moderated by Jane Holland, or Todd Swift's blogzine Eyewear."

I am very proud to have Eyewear mentioned in this way, especially as it is an amateur pursuit without funding and fuelled only by enthusiasm. It is the second time this decade that Poetry London has mentioned an aspect of the Internet I helped to associate with poetry - in 2003, my political-poetry ebooks, edited with Val Stevenson, at Nthposition, were similarly discussed. I mention this because virtual reinvention is exhausting, as is cultural activism, and I am not sure I'll be at the forefront of whatever replaces blogging, in the next decade - it may be Twitter, or beyond - will be beyond, and beyond what we can currently imagine, surely. What I have tried to do, at Eyewear, and for all my projects, is place an ethics of engagement and interest and support, even tolerance, at the heart of the proceedings - as well as fun and surprise. I have aimed for the sort of "common pursuit" discussed at other recent posts, in the process.

Community as a unified thing is now perhaps a fiction. It may be a fiction of supreme value, worth creating. Excellent literary magazines like Poetry London and Poetry Review allow a conversation and a celebration of poetry to take place, and as such they are invaluable, and it is good if online publications, networks and actions can supplement this. I think the model may be of four: live events and performances + published or recorded works + broadcast material (radio, TV) + online activity = the full spectrum of poetic reception. Each of these four pillars of creation and reception requires a reader, listener, or audience. Poetry is not a zero sport of the single mind, but is a singular spreading of the laurel to many.

Et Tu, Bruno

The new film Bruno, along with Antichrist, extends the limits of artistic expression in the latterly commercial form of cinema - albeit arthouse or pseudo-documentary. Listening to a recent radio programme discussing Eliot's common pursuit, a la Leavis, of a moral base for a society, I came to reflect upon precisely the absence of such a ground, today, in Britain, in 2009. These films - hilarious or horrifying as they may be - achieve their effects against a backdrop that is post-humanist, as well as post-Christian. They may almost be even post-atheist, for atheism at least despairs at loss, or celebrates reason's triumph.

Instead, these are films of a generation, digitally modified, that has come to believe in absolutely nothing, for five minutes at a time, and which cares less and less, as reaction and feeling are thinned out - simply, there is too much to do and see to take anything too seriously, even life and death and the full moral struggle those poles represent. I've seen Bruno, and I feel it is a work of comic genius, if only because Sacha Baron Cohen's physical moves are so brilliant and risky. However, his attempt to mock Christians and hicks (basically due to their woeful homophobia) avoids the obvious hypocrisy at the hard core of the film, which is that almost all the jokes are themselves heavily based on gross-out homophobic stereotypes. More scandalously, the jokes at the expense of a human foetus, and the use of babies (in relation to crucifixion and the Holocaust) are beyond tasteless.

As for Von Trier, I won't see this film, because female genital mutilation is not something I particularly condone; nor do I want to see a blood-ejaculation. But others may well want to - and the risk, and challenge, for cinema, is - is it art or entertainment, or the glamour of evil, to show people a) what they desire; or b) what they fear? Film has near-immortal power to present images that can do incalculable good, or evil. Unfortunately, unlike atomic power, which generated a cadre of moral scientists who rebelled against the unleashed force, the art world of cinema has generated very few moral critics to resist and question the force of film. Horror, rescued from mockery by theory, now seeks to celebrate and study the mise-en-abime, and is a welcomed genre, so much so, that the torture-porn genre has entered the French film bloodstream.

European movies are now often either about brutal sexual murder or degradation, or feature harrowing scenes. The body is an apt site for interrogation of the moral - for the body is either the seat of the soul or mind, or it is, to be nihilistic, and to speak the language of the video game, a meat puppet. If the body is only meat, then we live in a world of unlimited pornographic potential, as de Sade anticipated. However, this potential has a limit of its own, for bodies, when used up, are discarded - one can transgress only so far until your meat is pulp. There will need to be a turn towards the limit again. Some control, some moral shaping, within art, lends beauty and even, yes, decency, to life. Art which descends to the level of the braying crowds, or the perverted private peeping booths, is not an art for humankind, but for the inhuman kind.

As a postscript, it should be added this is not a new issue. The Sunday Times Culture section features a story on Rupert Everett's celebration of Lord Byron, who in some ways is the original Antichrist figure. Byron, it is cheerily reported in this article "tried to buy a 12-year-old" child for sexual purposes, at one stage of his long sex-tourism jaunt. I don't wish to spoil the fun - after all, the Byronic hero is part of every aspect of rebel culture from Nirvana to Brando, but this man was a sexual predator. I am not sure that moral relativism should grant this poet total amnesty, since even in his times, it was considered wicked to buy children for sex. This is a troubling area to think through.

On Sunday, I had dinner with a missionary's daughter from Papua New Guinea, who discussed the practices of a tribe who killed and buried their firstborn child under their huts, for protection. Such magical thinking may be anthropologically intriguing, but should it be resisted, even punished? Can moral relativism finally forgive Byron, and send contemporary child-buyers to prison? Culture sends ambiguous, perplexing mixed messages, and poetry is not immune from these temptations, hazards, and responsibilities.

Mercury On The Ear

La Roux may win this year's Mercury. For those not based in Britain, the Mercury prize is a bit like a Grammy for indie musical artists. While a recent Eyewear post teased La Roux, it is true that her album has a number of catchy pop tunes, and, among all the recent acts paying pastiche-based homage to their more famous peers and earlier styles, she's actually very good. It seems a shame the White Lies album isn't included; as for the news that Florence and the Machine is a tipped favourite - well, it hasn't grown on me, yet, has Lungs. Both Lungs, and the new Bats for Lashes sound very much like Sarah McLachlan, who was one of the most influential indie acts of the 90s - and whose emotive portentous style has become deeply embedded in the DNA of so many acts since. McLachlan was great, but it's becoming a tired style. Or am I just really getting too old to maintain enthusiasm for pop? Today on the BBC, I listened to a very good programme on Eliot. At the end, when he read from The Four Quartets, the austere serious beauty of the words seemed more lasting, and more potent, and more genuinely good, than much music.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Julius Shulman Has Died

If I hadn't been a poet, I would have wanted to be an architect, and not just because of The Fountainhead. The 20th century's greatest American architectural photographer, Julius Shulman, has died - his Guardian obituary is well worth reading. I have a poem inspired by his Koenig House photo of fifty years ago forthcoming in my new collection, out this autumn.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Catholicism For Sinners

The news that the Vatican has accepted Oscar Wilde as a great 19th century thinker means his once-paradoxical title of Saint Oscar may one day be less ironic than all that. Wilde, on his deathbed, had time to complain about the wallpaper, and also raise his hand to accept entrance into The Church, an act alluded to at the end of Brideshead Revisted, that other supremely aesthetic achievement. Wilde saw the great beauty of Catholic ritual - Mass is one of the finest things a person can do, especially someone not talented enough to perform in Rigoletto. I agree with Wilde - sinners and saints do congregate meaningfully in a Church that comprehends the depths and heights of the human condition (the gutter and the stars). Wilde was a subtle extremist, how saw the pathos and passion in love and desire. His stories for children are the most moving in the English language, and utterly Christian. It is a great day for religious complexity when a mind as ambiguous and profoundly shallow, and utterly deep, as Wilde's, can be valued by the Vatican.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Hamilton Reviews The BBC Poetry Season

This is the 1,4001st post at Eyewear, btw. Hamilton's take on the BBC poetry season seems dead-on - the media is often the problem, not the poetry. How media luvvies tip-toe around poetry is how people get scared off.

High Summer, High Anxiety, High Fever?

July 15th has the right to consider itself smack dab in the middle of summer. High summer should be a time to relax - the fish are jumping. Instead, today's news is grimmer than day-old Eyewear. Depending on who you listen to, as reported by the BBC or The Guardian, death rates for previously healthy people are expected to amount to a) 25% of all cases or b) 20% of all cases. Worse, death rates are expected to be up to "1 in 200" of all who "seek medical advice from their doctor".

That rate seems higher than the current death rate of 0.28 per million the UK is experiencing at the moment, until one considers that most people don't have swine flu (yet). This 1:200 death rate means 5,000 for every million cases. Given that the government is predicting that 20% of the UK will (at a minimum) contract the H1N1 virus, and even before assuming the virus may mutate, that means, at a conservative estimate, 10 million Britons will get the flu. That's 50,000 deaths. Put another way, that's 10,000 deaths of otherwise young, healthy people, between the ages of 5 and 65, who, had this pandemic not happened, would've stayed alive, all things being equal. Since a predominant number of these are likely to be teenagers and twentysomethings, we're looking at maybe 6,000 young British people dying in the next 6 months.

The government clearly anticipates this - it is planning to cancel elective surgery this autumn, and to fast-track autopsies. Given that seasonal flu normally kills, in the UK, 5-7,000 people annually, this is, despite what some say, an alarming scenario.

Hopefully, the vaccinations can begin in October or November, which might manage (since there will only be enough for 50% of the population in 2009) to cut the death rate to 25,000 by Christmas. Unions are beginning to debate access to the vaccine - clearly, health care workers need it asap; but then, so do the police, and the army; and, I would argue, those also on the frontline - emergency workers. Lastly, teachers, who meet more viruses than anyone else but doctors, publicans, priests and news vendors, should be given access. Also, of course, children, the aged, diabetics, asthmatics, and those with other immune-system problems. In short - almost everyone but BBC executives, rock stars and real estate agents, will be legitimately vying for the first jab. Tough decisions ahead, and it may be something of a "post code lottery". Priests are suggesting we avoid Holy Water, so we know it is serious. I continue to be cautiously concerned.

Blair Overreach Project

The news that Tony Blair is the UK candidate for the position of EU president is a revolting development. Blair single-handedly made Labour both electable and unacceptable, spinning a rotten coalition of Guardian and Telegraph readers, that tried to fuse a social justice agenda with Tory takes on war, justice, banking, and privatisation of various sectors of society - in the process making Labour the most draconian, war-mongering, and pro-business government the UK has seen since, or before, Thatcher. Blair's cringe-worthy lies on weapons of mass destruction and dalliance with Bush-Cheney (themselves now staring at a smoking gun back at Langley that makes the Bourne movies plausibly undeniable) make him the least-likely convert to Catholicism since Symons. He is a dreadful politician and a duplicitous weirdo who grimaces artifice. He must not be allowed to run and ruin the EU.

Monday, 13 July 2009

In Conversation With Paul Blezard

The Hay Festival is working with Oxfam to bring writers to Oxfam shops across the UK during the Oxfam Bookfest Fortnight. I am glad to see this idea, which I long championed, coming to fruition - the development of a truly national literay series linking all the many shops and volunteers of Oxfam.

I myself, as the Oxfam GB Poet-in-residence, will be a guest of the fest. On Monday, 13th July, I will be appearing, as part of the Hay Oxfam events, at 91 Marylebone High Street, from 6.30-7.30 pm, in conversation with Paul Blezard, to discuss poetry and poetics, pop culture and pandemics. To book, email Martin at oxfammarylebone at hotmail dot come or call 02074873570.

The next night (14th July) sees seven fine poets, most from Paris, reading at the same venue, from 7-9 pm, including the new Nthposition acting poetry editor, Rufo Quintavalle, and the editor of Tears in the Fence, David Caddy.

And yes, that is Bill Nighy pricing books as a volunteer in the same shop all our reading events have been at since 2004, in Marylebone!


Six years ago, it all seemed so clear. I was against the Iraq invasion, and so were many (most?) American, Canadian, British, Irish, and Australian poets, from what I could tell. Anthologies, poems, events, and marches, ensued. The invasion happened anyway. The revolution was e-booked. Now, Western forces are dying daily, in relatively high numbers, and the public is beginning to ask questions. I'm a member of that public, not above it, and am asking the questions too. I tend to adore Barack Obama - he is so effortlessly stylish, apparently decent, and, within reason, left-leaning for an American leader - but he has made this campaign in Afghanistan his own. Curiously, there's been little poetic response to this war against the Taliban in the "Af-Pak" region, either from the soldiers on the ground, or the people back home who are sending them there, or underwriting their deaths with their support. What do the poets think about this? Does that matter? What is to be done? I am currently - and no doubt unwisely - on the fence about this, unable to yet make up my mind. For Eyewear, that may be a sign of maturation.

Friday, 10 July 2009

How swine flu kills

This article usefully, and frighteningly, relays how the swine flu virus can bind to either the respiratory system, or the intestinal tracks, in humans, and, if it binds higher, kill quickly through pneumonia, if the immune system reacts too strongly with inflammation. The current claims, to keep us calm, are that this is mild, but the latest science is that the virus can, and likely will, mutate and kill quickly (the 1918 version killed young people in hours, not days). London is now Swine Flu Central. This is a terrifying pandemic at the early stages, and, each step of the way, it has leaped to the next level, exactly as predicted. I for one remain concerned.

Are novels over-rated?

I've guest-blogged for the Oxfam Bookfest blog, today, on the over-valuation (maybe) of The Great British Novel.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Bastille Day Reading For Oxfam Bookfest

Bastille Day Poetry, Wine & Cheese Evening
Oxfam Book and Music shop
Tuesday 14th July 7pm

Featuring readings by:

Barbara Beck
David Caddy
Jennifer K Dick
Brentley Frazer
Rufo Quintavalle
George Vance
Jonathan Wonham

All the wine is being brought from Paris and a selection of cheeses
Hosted by Todd Swift our Poet-in-Residence
Admission free

91 Marylebone High Street, London, W1


Bios of writers appearing

Rufo Quintavalle was born in London, 5th January, 1978. He has an M.A. University Iowa English Literature and a B.A. Oxford University English Literature
2009- Poetry editor Nthposition; 2007- Poetry editor Upstairs at Duroc
Make Nothing Happen (AWARD-WINNING Oystercatcher Press, 2009)

Dr. Jonathan Wonham lives in Norway where he works as a geologist. Jonathan was born in Glasgow in 1965, but spent his childhood in Morpeth, Northumberland. He has been published in the book Poetry Introduction 7 (Faber) as well as numerous magazines and anthologies. A new book entitled Steel Horizon: North Sea Poems is forthcoming from Incline Press. From 2005-2008 Jonathan Wonham assisted with the editing of Upstairs at Duroc magazine while living in Paris. He continues this association today by e-mail. . He is an active earth scientist and has published several papers on aspects of sedimentology, stratigraphy and petroleum geoscience. From 2004-2008, Jonathan wrote a blog about poetry, geology and France called "Connaissances", notably featuring articles about the influence of geology on French poetry. The blog also features the work of many invited poets illustrated by Jonathan's own experimental photographs and collages.

Author of FLUORESCENCE (Univ of GA Press, 2004), RETINA/Rétine (Estepa Editions, France, w/art by Kate Van Houten, tr. R. Bouthonnier) & ENCLOSURES (BlazeVox eBook, 2007) she teaches at l'EHESS & Polytechnique; co-organizes Ivy Writers Reading Series with Michelle Noteboom in Paris, has a PhD in Comp Lit (Paris III) on Susan Howe, Myung Mi Kim & Anne-Marie Albiach's visuel use of the page, as well as a DEA from Paris III, an MFA from CSU in the States + a BA from Mt Holyoke College.

Brentley Frazer (born 1972) is an Australian poet/writer and artist.Brentley Frazer's poetry and other writings have appeared in many of the world's most reputable literary journals, magazines, anthologies and periodicals. His first book A Dark Samadhi - poems + microtexts was published in 2003 to critical acclaim. In 2001 Brentley founded the cult internet publication 'Retort Magazine'. In 2003 the Columbia Journalism Review and The Guardian UK placed Retort Magazine in their top 10 web based publications of its kind. In 2004 Brentley relocated from Queensland to the city of Melbourne. In July 2007 Brentley published a new collection of poems and 'microtexts' Memories Like Angels at a Ball Tripping over Their Gowns.

Ohio-born poet George Vance was most recently involved in experiments with word/image fusion, tags & street art. His hybrid language & image video installation, “Heights”, was exhibited in Brussels in 2006, & he recently designed a ‘totem’ sculpture with a Kanak artist. Author of Bent Time, a chapbook, his poems have appeared in Paris in Pharos and Upstairs at Duroc. Vance has lived in Liberia, Austria, Germany, France and the French Overseas ‘Country’ of New Caledonia/Kanaky.

Barbara Beck, originally from Minnesota, USA, is a poet and translator who lives in Paris, where she teaches and is on the Board of Directors of the educational and cultural non-profit organization WICE. She has been the Editor of the Paris-based English language journal Upstairs at Duroc since 2002. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Van Gogh’s Ear, The Chariton Review, Poetry Australia ,The Literary Review, Slightly West, In’hui, la dérobée and elsewhere. She has published several books of poetry translations, the latest of which is a collaborative translation done with French poet Dominique Quélen of Livingdying by Cid Corman, published as Vivremourir by L’Act Mem in 2008.

Poet, Writer, Critic. He edits the international literary magazine, Tears in the Fence. Most recent books are Man in Black (Penned In The Margins 2007), London: City of Words (Blue Island 2006) and The Willy Poems (Clamp Down Press 2004). He also writes the occasional episode of Middle Ditch, the internet drama serial. The first series of So Here We Are essays is due for publication in 2010.

Editor's note: there may be typographical inconsistencies in this ephemeral post, but time is a winged chariot at my back.

Duffy's Prize

The new poet laureate has met The Queen and announced a new UK poetry prize. It is named for Ted Hughes, is worth £5000, and will run for the next decade, using the annual fees she receives as its award money. My first reactions are mixed, though obviously money to support new work in poetry is a good thing. I suppose I wonder why the prize was not named for a woman poet - there is already the T.S. Eliot Prize.

However, that's not a major concern. What is worth thinking about is that the prize money situation somehow supposes that the fee for the laureate was a frippery meant for better use. It will be morally hard for a future laureate to dispense with this prize, if it does well, but the laureate may not always be self-sustaining or wealthy. The money, though symbolic, actually does allow the poet to pay for things they may want to do - like travel to various events. Andrew Motion, for instance, was all over the UK promoting events big and small.

Poetry tastes and opinions are widely divergent in Britain, and the terms "new work" and "innovative" may not actually join up. Finally, it is just a little puzzling that the very inclusive category - almost confusingly open (even one poem can be considered, as well as multimedia work) - includes books. Unless the judges are very daring indeed, it may be that collections tend to be awarded the prize, when the more refreshing and original idea behind the award, surely, was to prize work that usually falls between the cracks - performances for screen, stage and new media among them.

Ultimately, this prize is a very good thing, so thank you Carol Ann, but it does seem to have been announced very soon in the new laureateship - one which, all things considered - has been going very well indeed.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

I'm Not Your Toy

La Roux's been getting too much press. It's really just a synth band duo that's been thrown from a wormhole in a back to the future sort of nostalgia trip, giving us the sort of Speak and Spell sounds that I love, but probably make most people reach for their phasers. However, if you liked Vince Clark era Depeche, then this is your moment. For my money, the two best tracks are the infinitely catchy "Colourless Colour" and "I'm Not Your Toy" (which sounds as if it was written by Prince for Ms. Easton). Eighties pastiche and homage is well and good, but how long can it be mined, like Whitby Jet, before the cliffs are bare?

Humane Cinema

I've been catching up on films on DVD of late. I recently saw two that Eyewear recommends unconditionally for their take on the human condition - Milk and The Class. Milk recreates the gay struggle for freedom and respect in the American of the 1970s in the Castro district of Frisco, and all that was missing was poet Thom Gunn to make this one of my favourite movies of all time.

I appreciate gay culture and its achievements, and very much admire how lovingly the movie celebrates these men (and women) who were brave and out there. It really is a bracing socio-political portrait of the queer shoulder to the wheel, with some of the verve of Costa-Gravas. Easily the director's best since Elephant. Emile Hirsch as a swaggering young rent boy with curly hair and outlandish Swifty Lazaar specs steals the show, though Penn makes all the right moves as the giddy-yet-Republican midlife-crisis man who gets a new lease on life (twice) by jumping into love, then public life.

The Class, a french film, purports to be a fly on the wall drama of everyday life in a tough urban Paris classroom, where the teenage kids from multi-ethnic backgrounds contend against their mainly decent and tireless French teacher, who wants them to explore language, high speech, and self-portraits with dignity and ambition. Full of startling conflict, debates about football, the nature of writing and language, and the polity itself, the movie encounters more aspects of humanity and need than most novels or four-season TV series. When the teacher snaps and betrays his own values, the banal is elevated to the eternally vital. I am not entirely sure where fact and fiction met, but cannot keep thinking about the characters' fates. Wonderful stuff.

I wonder, sometimes, if poetry can do as much as film, to explore the humanity that we all share.

Wasn't nothing strange about your daddy

I wish to make something of a Jackson retraction. My post of yesterday was written before I had watched Michael Jackson's memorial in Los Angeles. In hindsight, it was no circus, but a very stately, and mostly classy event. I was particularly moved by Al Sharpton's pulpit rhetoric, and the phrase he coined - surely to go down in American history - "Wasn't nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what he had to deal with". As a comment on both racism and the hard road of African-Americans to achieve dignity, but also as a comment on the weirdness of ultra-fame, it is superb. But as a gift to the children, it is even more profound and generous. My own father was strange - and what he had to deal with was too; I am not sure it is always best to deny the strangeness of persons.

I suspect Jackson was, all things considered, not mentally well at all times, and had eccentricities and disorders of the personality that, at the least, led him to modify his body needlessly. However, he was also, on the basis of last night's celebration, a one of a kind guy - or, as the head of Motown (himself a legend) put it - the greatest entertainer of all time. Maybe.

There have been other African-American icons - and I think that Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ali all did as much or more for America, culturally and politically - not to mention the great Jesse Owens, my hero. Prince, also, musically, is a genius. Billy Strayhorn and Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes. What of the great black actors and comedians? Pryor, and Cosby?

Jackson - though - was universal - since song and dance reach all of the globe. He was honoured well and truly last night, with distinction. The BBC coverage was disrespectful, and filled with snarky asides - why were comedians involved? Jackson was not first and foremost a spectacle, and the constant urge to make him into one turned his life into a show that could not go on.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Jackson Ressurection

Is it just me, or do others expect a Michael Jackson resurrection? Part of me - no doubt the anti-Dawkins, credulous part - suspects Michael is not in fact dead, has faked his death, and that this is the most extraordinary hoax in human history. If indeed Jackson rises from his gold coffin, then he will fulfill biblical prophecy. He would be, I guess, the beast, or anti-Christ, a moonwalking evil twin of his former self. Jackson was large in life, vaster in death. I am impressed with his King Tut majesty. His name and fame will outlive all poets, and even the stars and sun, and moon. Music is great, those who express it perfectly, perfect and immortal. May he rest in peace, beyond all nonsense.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Robinson on Dylan

Peter Robinson writes on Bob Dylan's ‘Back in the Rain’

Protesting too much, the Biograph (1985) notes on the out-take recording of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ include twenty-four lines of irritated outburst from Bob Dylan about what interpreters (‘Stupid and misleading jerks’) have made of his work. Though he does get on to the question of whether he has been playing roles and reinventing himself over the years, the beginning and end of this passage both confront the notion that Dylan has at times been an autobiographical and a confessional ‘poet’ in his song-writing career:

You’re A Big Girl Now well, I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. I mean it couldn’t be about anybody else but my wife, right?

To clinch his point, and he does have one, Dylan ends by admitting that he did once write a song straight from life:

I don’t write confessional songs. Emotion’s got nothing to do with it. It only seems so, like it seems that Laurence Olivier is Hamlet … well, actually I did write one once and it wasn’t very good — it was a mistake to record it and I regret it … back there somewhere on maybe my third or fourth album.

That looks like a reference to ‘Ballad in Plain D’ from his fourth record, Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), a song only too plainly appearing to give a blow by blow account of his final break-up with Suzie Rotolo. Yet what’s wrong with ‘Ballad in Plain D’ is not that it is confessional, whatever we decide to understand by that slogan from the poetry wars of the 1950s and 60s, but that it is shamelessly vengeful, particularly towards Suzie Rotolo’s mother and sister: ‘Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day’ and ‘For her parasite sister, I had no respect, / Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect.’ Not surprisingly the singer announces that when she shouts ‘Leave her alone, God damn you, get out!’ he nails her ‘to the ruins of her pettiness.’ Such self-righteous gestures immediately rebound upon the singer and Dylan had the self-critical intelligence to note the fact. Yet, it is equally unsurprising that when he remarks on the idea that he might or might not be a confessional writer, he calls up an analogy from the most famous revenge tragedy of them all — one in which the protagonist spends much of his time on stage anxiously quizzing himself about the rights and wrongs of the revenge he has been ‘born’ to perform.

Dylan does have a point about his songs not being strictly or literally autobiographical, and we should not expect to be able to extrapolate emotional facts about his life from his songs. As he notes, even the emotions, however convincing and affecting, are being performed: a good singer is also an actor. Nevertheless, ten years earlier, speaking not long after Blood on the Tracks (1975) had been released, he made rather a different point about it: ‘A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that … I mean, it, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know?’ Here he seems to be announcing that there is a raw emotion about the record, that the tracks on the LP do have his, and not only his, blood on them. Looking back on this much-praised return to form from the mid-1970s, I find myself reflecting that this is where Dylan’s art and life became so deeply tangled up in blue that he found himself out of his own depth, going down in his own flood, or, as ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ puts it: ‘you are on dry land’ but ‘I’m back in the rain.’

The results of an artist being out of his or her own depth are likely to be mixed, showing glimpses of fresh profundity and insight buffeted by instances of helplessness and uncertainty. What reinforces this sense of a serious artist in serious difficulties is the fact that the released album — in the light of what has emerged about its recording and revision — reveals a decisive act of withdrawal, one not publicly acknowledged by Dylan (who may still believe that his judgment was right when in late 1974 he pulled six earlier takes from the running order and re-recorded them in Minneapolis). When the earlier version of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ was officially made public, some ten years after it had been widely bootlegged, the Biograph notes did tell a version of what happened:

‘Blood on the Tracks was another one of those records we went in and did in three or four days,’ Dylan commented. ‘I had the acetate. I hadn’t listened to it for a couple of months. I didn’t think I’d got this song off. The record still hadn’t come out, and I put it on. I just didn’t … I thought the songs could have sounded differently, better, so I went in and re-recorded them.’

The compiler of these notes does, however, notice that when ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ was re-cut ‘the lyrics and the mood of the song had changed.’ Dylan has also said about this album (in 1978) that ‘I didn’t perform it well. I didn’t have the power to perform it well. But I did write the songs’. To my ear and taste, the evidence doesn’t entirely support this remark. Of course he wrote ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, but during September 1974 in the Columbia studios, New York, Dylan also knew how to perform it well, knew that to perform it well he didn’t need power, but delicacy. 25 September is the date of the recording given on the Biograph notes; but Clinton Heylin’s researches tell a more complex story: the song appears to have been first recorded on 17 September with Dylan performing on acoustic guitar and harmonica, Tony Brown on bass and Paul Griffin on keyboards. 25 September is likely the day that Buddy Cage’s pedal steel guitar was overdubbed onto the earlier take.

The performance starts quietly with just Dylan’s guitar in what is probably an open-E tuning. Certainly the song is played in the key of E, and with changes different to the released album version. The bass comes in after ‘Our conversation was short and sweet’ and accompanies Dylan and guitar for the rest of the first verse:

It nearly swept me off-a my feet.
And I’m back in the rain, mm-mm,
And you are on dry land, mm-mm,
You made it there somehow
You’re a big girl now.

The first two lines of the song present an ambiguous situation, which is expressed by a shift from the securities of the tonic E to its relative C sharp minor: ‘Our conversation was short and sweet’. This is repeated for line two: ‘It nearly swept me off-a my feet.’ Then to an E (‘And I’m back in the rain’) and to A (‘mm-mm’) and to E ‘And you are on dry land’ to A (‘mm-mm’), then to C sharp minor (‘You made it there somehow’), then through a G sharp minor to B and from B back to E (‘You’re a big girl now’). The music then pauses back on the dominant B, before returning to its shifting predicament for another verse. The effect is one of floating the lyric situation between gently fluctuant modulations, with an overall uncertainty about how things will resolve themselves.

Though to be swept off your feet usually means to be falling head over heels in love, here it announces the beginning of a problem between the singer and the ‘you’ of the title. Whatever it was they said to each other has put her in a position of security while he’s ‘back in the rain’ — a phrase that reverberates through some of Dylan’s major songs of the sixties: being ‘lost in the rain in Juarez’ from ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ or where ‘Louise holds a handful of rain’ in ‘Visions of Johanna’ or, most relevantly, ‘Nobody feels any pain / Tonight as I stand inside the rain’ from ‘Just like a Woman’ — most relevantly because ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ signals a contrast with the final line of the last chorus to that song: ‘But you break like a little girl.’

The organ enters at the beginning of the second verse, as if singing the song of the ‘Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence’. The intimacy of this recording makes the use of the second person singular extraordinarily moving, and when he says that he’s ‘just like that bird, o-oh, / Singin’ just for you’, we, hearing him singing, can believe it. The overdubbed steel guitar doesn’t enter until the beginning of the third verse, and to get a sense of what the song sounded like when he recorded it, you have to try and imagine it without that high, swooping whine. Whatever Dylan came to think of the music that he achieved on this recording, one of his admirers clearly liked it and set about taking it as a model for what she might do next: the sound of Joni Mitchell’s single best album, Hejira (1976), adapts the open-tuned guitar tone, the bass turned up high on the mix, and, for some tracks, the swooping steel guitar.

The third verse, the one first accompanied by the overdubbed guitar is, in fact, the fourth verse as printed in the lyrics (and as sung on the Minneapolis recording):

Love is so simple, to quote a phrase,
You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days.
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh,
In somebody’s room.
It’s a price I have to pay
You’re a big girl all the way.

The printed lyrics are not very accurate in their attempts to represent the highly articulate sounds that aren’t words Dylan is singing on this recording. The first thing not represented is that he sings equivalents of that ‘oh, oh’ at the ends of the third and the fourth line. In the first verse, he sings two beautifully modulated ‘mm-mms’; in the second verse, he sings ‘o-oh’ followed by an ‘mm-mm’. In this third verse, he repeats this pattern, singing ‘where I can find you, o-oh’ and ‘somebody’s room, mm-mm’.

The pedal steel guitar’s coming in on these lyrics aptly recalls the idiom of Nashville Skyline (1969). Yet the development of this quiet opening, superficially like ‘Love is all there is, it makes the world go round’ from ‘I Threw It All Away’ leads to the painful recognition on the singer’s part that the ‘you’ of the song has always known that love is simple in the sense that it’s to be had quite casually, all over the place. He can find her ‘in somebody’s room’ because she is having an affair with one or more other people, and this knowledge is the price he has to pay, but to pay for what? In this original recording that hanging question is implicitly answered in the fourth verse he sings:

Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast
Oh, but what a shame that all we’ve shared can’t last.
I can change, I swear, mm-mm,
See what you can do, mm-mm-mm,
I can make it through,
You can make it too.

The printed lyrics give ‘a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last’, but Dylan sings ‘that’ in both officially available studio recordings: what they have shared can’t last, anyway, however they behave, because ‘Time is a jet plane’. But just as we might ask what the price is to be paid for, so we might ask why he needs to swear that he can change if there is nothing that she might think wrong with his behaviour. The implication is that he’s learning that love is so simple these days both because he can find her in somebody’s room, and because she can find him in somebody else’s room too. He can change, he says, suggesting perhaps that he can put such behaviour behind him; and he asks her to see if she can do the same. He can make it through, in the sense that the pain caused by her behaviour is not so much as to drive him out of the relationship altogether, and he hopes in the last line of the verse that the same is true for her. The final verse then begins with a question that is implicitly answered only by the style in which he inflects the song.

‘A change in the weather is known to be extreme / But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?’ Yes, there can be extreme changes in the weather, from warm to freezing cold, but the thing about the weather is that after a few years on earth we get used to the idea that the warmth will return after some months. However, ‘But what’s the sense in changing horses in midstream?’ looks like a question being asked out of Roger McGuinn’s ‘Chestnut Mare’ (alluded to on ‘Idiot Wind’, the next track in the album sequencing) but also from the middle of Heraclitus’s river — the one you can’t step in twice. Time is flowing like a jet plane, and they are in the middle of their lives together, so why change horses and, for that matter, riders? This is as near as we get in the song to a clear declaration that the singer doesn’t want the relationship to come to an end, but this feeling is underlined by the sadly-dropping pitch with which he sings the song’s final line: ‘Ever since we’ve been apart.’

The first version of this song is among the most delicately moving pieces of singing that Dylan has ever committed to tape and allowed, if belatedly, to be released. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the truths or falsehoods, of the situation upon which this song may or may not be based, the performance convincingly presents a person who is in a long-standing relationship with a woman, but one which has got into difficulties because of likely infidelity on both sides. The singer regrets that the possible consequences of this development could well be terminal for the relationship. The performance comes over as a message sung ‘just for you’, as if indicating that he would dearly like to get out of the rain and back onto some dry land with her. In ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, he sings ‘Maybe I’m too sensitive, or else I’m gettin’ soft’. For my taste, this performance of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ is neither too sensitive, nor soft; but it is possible that the overdubbed steel guitar adds a layer of country-style emotion to the recording that could be thought schmaltzy: ‘I was fighting sentimentality all the way down the line’, Dylan also said of this album in 1978. Certainly, when he came to re-cut the song on 27 December 1974 in Minneapolis, any trace of sentiment had been firmly pushed into the background.

In the case of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, the rewriting of the lyrics was minimal, but the reordering of the verses, and the change in the way the words are inflected partly brought about by the recasting of the chord sequences makes all the difference to the ‘mood’. Clinton Heylin reports in Behind Closed Doors: The Recording Sessions 1960-1994 (1996) that by the time Dylan entered the studio in Minneapolis he had already told CBS to ‘pull’ the original album, and as a result there was ‘no going back’. He had to release the new recordings. I don’t quite see why this would follow: couldn’t he have telephoned New York and simply said that the re-recording had not been a success and he now wanted to go back to the earlier takes? What seems most likely is that he had decided definitively against the original sound of half the album and wanted something harsher. The first thing to note about the later recording of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ (which Heylin describes, correctly, as ‘a mere reflection of the ghost of a pale shadow of its New York predecessor’) is that it begins with a studied, not to say pedestrian, play-through of an entire verse. Was Dylan rehearsing the band here, and then just decided to kick into the verse because it sounded together? But does it? There is a piano (Dylan perhaps playing), two guitars or more, a bass, and a drummer rather up front on the mix who is doing his level best to hold the rickety ensemble to a single time. Dylan sings the lyrics with much more aggression: the ‘you’ has been pushed into a role something nearer to the ‘You got a lot of nerve’ of the 1965 ‘Positively Fourth Street’. By the time we get to ‘hear me singing through these tears’, it’s by no means clear if these are tears of grief about what’s happened or rage at the ‘you’ he no longer seems to be ‘singing just for’. The deployment of the ‘angry’ Dylan voice presupposes the effect of his sound on the ears of other listeners out there.

The song is now being played in the key of G. It begins with a suspended minor descent from B minor to A minor (‘Our conversation was short and sweet’), which is repeated for the second line, and resolved onto the tonic G for ‘Now I’m back in the rain’. Then there’s the wordless wail again on a B minor descent to a C and G change for ‘you are on dry land’, repeated for the next line ‘you made it there somehow’, except that it shifts from C to Am, rising to Bm through C to the tonic G for ‘you’re a big girl now’, and the music then pauses for another round by slipping to the dominant D (a pausing between verses taken over from the September version in E). The effect of this musical rewrite is to portion out the parts of the lyric to more clearly articulated modulations, as if pinning the pointed shifts of attitude to more distinct musical positions. Instead of the lyric being floated equivocally across some melodic love-song changes reminiscent of 1950s pop standards, it is hung out to dry on harshly played sharply defined minor suspensions, resolving themselves in the position-taking would-be securities of the major chords. The effect is underlined by the harmonica chorus at the end in which Dylan is played a blues crossed-harp (using a D harmonica in the key of G so that you blow where you would usually suck and vice-versa). The effect is expressively harsh — quite at odds with the melodic playing of what seems like an E harmonica for a song in the key of E on the September take.

The note of anger and hurt is increased by the non-words he sings at the end of only the third line. Now there is nothing tight-lipped or intimate about the noises he utters; they are open-mouthed shouts of the ‘Ooooh-aargh’ variety. The change of the verse order also decisively alters the story that the song has to tell. By singing the ‘Time is a jet plane’ verse before the ‘I know where I can find you’ verse, the singer appears to make his conciliatory offer (‘I can change, I swear, / See what you can do’) before he announces that he can find her making love with someone else. The effect of this, in the angry tone with which he registers the fact, is to imply that he’s given her a chance but, you know, she’s incorrigible: you only have to turn your back and there she is going ‘all the way’ with somebody else. Now the last verse’s unanswered question rings rather differently. He still says he’s against the idea of permanently separating and changing partners, but his anger and bitterness indicate that however painful being apart is, perhaps it’s the only thing that they can do? A song delivered in a mood of reconciliation has been recast as one with an angry assertion of deep hurt. Rather than an attempt to ‘change’, the song now sounds as if it constitutes yet one more blow struck in the continuing battle.

Despite the existence of a low-key, regretful and curtailed version of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ from 1996 that includes, once again, a pedal steel guitar and swelling organ, this song may never have recovered from its conceptual reshaping. The Rolling Thunder performance of the song released on the live album Hard Rain (1976) has a similarly ponderous arrangement, with Dylan dropping down a full third for the final note of each verse — a sneering mockery of the ‘now’, the ‘tears’, the ‘make it too’, the ‘all the way’ especially, and the ‘apart’, which turns the song into an anthem of sarcastic rejection for a woman who may once have seemed to ‘break like a little girl’, but is now a ‘big girl’ to the point of inflicting the hurt that is supposed to have brought the relationship to this sorry pass.

A major weakness of the ‘power’ versions of the song is that they play down to effective disappearance the implication in ‘I can change’ — a confession that the singer has got some other people’s rooms to be found in himself. The first recording of the song is not vengeful, because in its conciliatory mood, it goes so far as to suggest that the singer might not be the only one hurt by all this. The remake of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ leans back on the cliché of Dylan the singer of tough, put-down music. The end result is that both the song and, as a consequence, the singer have to pay the price in a fatal loss of credibility. Of all Dylan’s albums damaged by misjudgments at the editing and assembling stage, Blood on the Tracks is the one that most cries out for a variorum CD edition giving both the album as released and the full set of outtakes and earlier versions, many of which have now been officially scattered on retrospective compilations. Still, in the absence of such an artifact, and grateful for all the oh small mercies, admirers of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ do have its 17 September 1974 version, with the overdubbed pedal steel, to remind them just how good he has been.

Peter Robinson is a leading British poet. He is also a musician and widely published scholar and academic.

Swine Flu Etiquette

Health Minister Burnham's announcement of yesterday, that there is a doubling each week of swine flu cases in the UK, that the pandemic is now out of control, and that there is likely to be 100,000 new cases a day by the end of August, is not good news. There are 8,000 cases, roughly, in Britain as of this Friday. That means by start of August, there would be over 128,000. That would be a million and rising by September, and, if the current model holds, everyone in the UK, more or less, would be infected by November. This scenario is terrifying. People with low immune systems will die, and there are not enough respirators to keep a fraction of oncoming pneumonia cases alive. Ask your friends in health provision about how many oxygen tents would be required to keep people alive.

Further, if large swathes of the total population are incapacitated, even for the 7 days or so that is required, civil society will bend if not break. A new etiquette, or some guidelines, need to be put in place. I have been speaking with intelligent people in positions of authority about this, off the record. The feeling is, by August, if not sooner, public gatherings may need to be avoided or cancelled - cinema, concerts, Mass, readings, and classes.

It may be that, in the early autumn, it will be morally repugnant to require healthy people to report to work, when they would be required to travel publicly and expose themselves to the disease. I understand the default reply is, this is a mild disease. Tell that to pregnant women, diabetics, and people with HIV, for which this is genuinely life-threatening. Also, indigenous peoples, and those with low immunity in the third world seem genuinely at risk. It is callous and glib to now avoid the conclusion that this is a convulsive, terrifying and challenging moment for the world. It seems to be absurd how people are still behaving normally. I suggest we stop shaking hands, kissing, and avoid activities which lower immunity - so, no more drinking or smoking.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Karl Malden Has Died

Sad news. Karl Malden has died. As Mitch in the stage and film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the priest in On The Waterfront, he was a key 50s character actor closely aligned to the method acting system, and its greatest figure, Marlon Brando. I love Streetcar, and consider it the best American play of the last century, after Long Day's Journey Into Night. He also starred in Fear Strikes Out, that weird 50s baseball film with Tony Perkins that remains one of my guilty pleasures. Malden was also great, in the 70s, in The Streets of San Francisco.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Poem by David McGimpsey On Canada Day

David McGimpsey (pictured) is one of the funniest and most brilliant of Canadian writers, popular as a poet, prose writer, and serious thinker on, among other things, baseball and TV. I've been including his work in anthologies for years.

This poem originally appeared in the special section on "The New Canadian Poetry" I edited for New American Writing in 2005. Eyewear is very pleased to reprise this self-reflexive blog poem on Canada Day, July 1, 2009.

Please Don’t Make Me Read Your Blog

I’d do anything
if I could have your love—
I’d give up strip poker
and my apricot facial scrubs

To see you smile I’d drink
30-day old egg nog.
But, please,
don’t make me read your blog.

I’m sure your mother
said some cutting things to you
and that sweater you lent your girlfriend
is not going to walk back home to you.

But, please, please, please,
don't make me read your blog.

To spend some time with you
I’d try your ham bits stroganoff
and I’d clip my toenails—
at least the biggest one

To show you how much I care
I’d give up my homemade rum.
But, please,
don't make me read your blog

I know the people you work with
say all these hilarious things
and your take on modern politics
has an unusual sting

But, please, please, please,
don’t make me read your blog.

by David McGimpsey

Pina Bausch Has Died

Sad news. Perhaps the most significant choreographer of her European generation - and surely the most visually strange and imaginative - Pina Bausch has died. I recall seeing her works on several occasions, in London, at Sadler Wells, and was always struck by the visceral and surreal brilliance of her ideas about dance and movement, and staging (often the stages were littered with flowers, or muck, or bricks, or other shattered remains).

Bausch saw the world, at least partially, as things to be moved around, often with transgressive force - desire and rage and natural disaster all colliding in the human body. I am not sure dance had ever been so existentially challenged before, so hurt - or so healed. I found her work bracing and laugh-out-loud funny - she gave me some of the abrasive pleasure that some of David Lynch's work does - she very much saw and showed the world in a new light. In her work about the after-shocks of an earthquake in Palermo, for instance, a young woman - increasingly aroused to the point of near-madness, pleads insistently to her lover to "throw tomatoes in my face!" - which he does. It's hilarious, upsetting, wrong but true.

Her inventive imagery and passion were stark, generous, and insightful - and weird. She will be missed. In the week that saw Jackson hailed as a genius, it is good to remember there were and are other forms of performance that are even more fraught and worthwhile. Bausch had genius, too.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...