Saturday, 2 July 2022

Mike Dawes, poetry and complexity

Mike Dawes is a percussive finger-style guitarist. On a youtube clip he describes his work as comprising many simple layers (bass, vocals, etc). On a guitar there are several ways to play a particular note. Depending on how a guitar is tuned, the note may be available on a open string. By pressing on another string it may be available by conventionally plucking with the right hand or, more unusually, by plucking the other part of the string between the fret and the end - either with the left or right hand. The technical challenge is choosing the best way to play a note given the other notes that need to be played simultaneously or soon.

Maybe there's some gratuitous showmanship when both of his hands jump up and down the strings, but he has a clean style and metronomic precision. Sometimes it's not possible to play every note of every layer - missing items can be suggested (instead of a percussive beat, a note in the melody line is played more loudly) or left for the listener to fill in. Sometimes a single note may belong to more than one layer. Sometimes it's possible to add flourishes.

Now here's the analogy. In a poem the poet may try to convey multiple/layered meanings - reason and emotion, etc - while also giving physical descriptions or narrative. It can't all be done at once. The task is often compared to juggling - "keeping all the balls in the air" - but maybe Dawes' guitar playing is a closer analogy. Once the percussive beats are established, there's no need to play every one - the odd reminder will do. And even the deaf can see artistry in the dancing fingers.

The following poem isn't perhaps the best demonstration, but at least it's mine.

Crows' nests
Autumn's X-ray reveals them,
the trees suddenly old,
the crows gone, spreading.

The title could refer to birds or to the sailors' lookout. The first stanza wants us to see the leafless trees as X-ray images, which gives "spreading" a double meaning. So already we have 3 scenarios (birds, lookout, illness) on the go, none of them complex. Can all 3 be sustrained?

Through long summer evenings
you heard them but said nothing

This could refer to the birds, though it's more likely to refer to the person ignoring early signs of the illness

Now you want to hide away there,
sleepless nights alone waiting
This is about the illness, and wanting to hide in the lookout
for the first sight of land,
the darkness flapping
so close to you, so huge

The lookout again, hoping for good news, hearing the flapping sails, and the birds are back, the crows having their customary ominous meaning.

Monday, 27 June 2022

This month's signs

These are some signs that I happened to pass this month -

Hidden away in Chelmsford. I've a photo of another marconi plaque - London, I think.

This was a more interesting event than it may at first appear

At/near Welham Green. An odd event that isn't famous.

This was in the front wall of a house in Wisbech.

St Ivo, the Persian bishop who gave his name to St Ives (Cambs). Though I've visited the town often, I don't recall seeing this place.

Sunday, 12 June 2022

And now ... Instagram

I started using e-mail maybe 40 years ago. Now I've started using Instagram and I've bought a site which I'll gradually develop. Here's a list of where I am -

Names are a bit random - if I had my time again I'd change them. My usage of these facilities is rather haphazard too - my videos have ended up on Facebook, and my photos are scattered.

Saturday, 4 June 2022

CB1 poetry, May 2022

I did an open-mic slot last Tuesday at the CB1 poetry event in Cambridge. Real people in a real pub, with real poets in the audience (Anne Berkeley, Andrea Porter, etc). Jon Stone was the main act. He's now a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. He's hoping to organise some evening events at ARU in a venue with a computer plus projection facilities, making multi-media presentations possible. I might turn up for an open-mic slot there with my memory stick.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

The Dark Horse (Summer 2022)

That Gerry Cambridge guy is going to get himself into trouble one of these days. In his editorial he mentions new orthodoxies and tribalisms, and the risk of defying current trends, comparing the pressures to conform to those experienced by Milosz. He sees hope in reviews by Hofmann and Graeme Richardson - signs of independence of mind.

Maitreyabandhu's "Paid Patter: Is Poetry Worth Criticising" article continues the theme

  • "at least three trends are killing our assessment of contemporary poetry: fear and reputational risk; an overprotective poetry press unwilling to criticize new writing; and the substitution of socio-political concerns for artistic imagination"
  • "In the crowded marketplace of new poetry, a powerful theme - rape, violence prejudice - can take place of powerful poetry"
  • "A poet's work is increasing judged on whether it serves a function" which "turns poetry into versified political journalism"

He thought that "by Mahon's own standards ["Against the Clock"] is weak" though (for understandable reasons?) it was widely praised. He lists some unclubbable, independent-minded critics. He refers to Gioia's essays. In his interesting, informative introduction to "The Best American Poetry 2018", Gioia points out that in assessing the status of poetry nowadays, it's difficult to interpret the statistics, because "what they measure isn't what currently matters ... No one fully understands what is happening because poetry and its audience are changing too quickly in too many places". For example, poetry appears non-condescendingly in TV series like "The Simpsons", "Bones", "Elementary". He notes that some aspects of the poetry world haven't changed -

  • The most popular topics of the 10,000+ poems he read were, in order, Family, Childhood, Love, Poetry and Nature.
  • He notes an interest in the sonnet form - "The poetry wars of the late twentieth centry have been forgotten. Form and free verse are no longer viewed as mutually exclusive techniques".

Gioia's in his seventies so he's seen fashions come and go, seen how issues of quality end up being issues of taste. Grumpy old men (they tend to be men) may indeed be bitter and twisted because fame has passed them by, but alternatively they may be free to express their ideas because their poetry career isn't at stake. Now that younger poets tend to be creative writing tutors, they're in a particularly vulnerable position. When I write I realise I'm exposing my limitations and biases, knowing that I've nothing to lose. I try to calibrate my opinions so that half of what I read is judged to be better than average, and half is worse. For what its worth ...

  • "Sandgrain and hourglass" by Penelope Shuttle had much about her feelings for her late husband. I thought those were the weakest poems of an over-long book, but to say so would be insensitive to Shuttle and Peter Redgrove. Why take the risk?
  • "A portable paradise" by Roger Robinson gets top marks for compassionate subject matter (grief, injustice, etc) but what about the poetry? Yet it won the TS Eliot prize.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Old Cambridge

Not far from the city centre, down Mill Road, you'll find The Bath House. It was built in 1927 as an amenity for the poor who lacked their own facilities. In 1969 a sauna was added. In 1975 when it was about to close, baths cost 10p. It's mentioned in the odd biography and in literature - see for example Matt's Simpson's poem, "The Bath House". It became a community hub where I spent much time in the Friends of the Earth office.

From the Bath House follow Gwydir Street nearly to its end and you'll come to this shop front. The faded sign at the top reads "Roll on blank tapes". It must have closed decades ago because it sold blank cassette tapes. I think I might have bought a tape there. Whereas the concept of a bath house might be understood by the youth of today (from Roman history perhaps) the notion of tape may puzzle them. Part of my first job in Cambridge was to do computer back-ups onto a foot-wide reel of half-inch tape.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Pubs

In Oxford, where Tolkien and CS Lewis drank. And yes, the sign shows a giant eagle carrying a ... child.

I revisited Nottingham recently. This is one of England's oldest pubs, at the foot of the castle. Nottingham is where I first joined a writers group, and where I first (briefly) performed.

Me in Liverpool. Liverpool has some grand pubs. The pub nearest to where I lived wasn't grand. It claimed to have banned John Lennon. I recall seeing Carol Ann Duffy at the bar of the Everyman. My clearest drinking memories are of the Casa "nightclub" - its curries and soggy carpets.

Bury St Edmunds, not so far from Cambridge. In the city centre is one of England's smallest pubs - 15ft by 7ft. I did a tour of the nearby Greene King brewery.

I've never understood the Lennon fad. This is Prague in 2017.

A scene from a museum in Stoke. This is how I recall what some pubs were like. Saloon/Public bars have gone too.

A comedy club in London where a son was one of the newcomers. When all 3 lights above the stage come on, the performer has to go off. Suppose poetry reading were the same?

An advantage of having a son doing a degree in Edinburgh is that the festival accomodation isn't a problem. Here's the staircase of a pub on the Fringe

This is in Kiruna, the most Northern town in Sweden - 67°N. I didn't go there, but a son passed by.