Friday, April 30, 2010

T.S. Eliot has a massive reputation that extends beyond poetry afficionados and into the larger world. Reading Adam Fieled's article, and re-reading Eliot's work recently, I can't help thinking that rarely has such a big reputation been built on so slender an achievement. I do value much of Eliot's poetry, and I wouldn't like to be without such poems as Prufrock, Ash Wednesday and Marina. But there are many other twentieth century poets whose work seems much more substantial, and some of Eliot's work, like the Sweeney poems, seems rather dated now. The concept of "The Waste Land" entered the popular imagination in the same way that the concept of "Waiting for Godot" did; but "The Waste Land" was co-authored with Ezra Pound, and, re-reading "Four Quartets" I can't help thinking that that poem would have benefited from Pound's red pen.

"The Four Quartets" has some striking images, and some fine passages, which are deservingly well-known: the passage with the thrush, the children and the pool in sunlight (forgive the paraphrase) in "Burnt Norton", or the opening of "The Dry Salvages":

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong brown god...

But much of the poem reads like a long-winded sermon, with way too much verbiage. "The Dry Salvages", following the passage just quoted, descends into line after line of this type of thing:

I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations - not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable...

I can't be persuaded that this is skillful writing; that last line reminds me of the unintentional bathos in some of Wordsorth's late poetry. Overall "The Four Quartets" reads like a series of
striking images and short, pleasing passages - usually when the poet uses concrete imagery - padded out with long sections that are simply verbose and badly written; including the version of Dante in "Little Gidding" which makes a mockery of Dante's fast moving and snappy dialogue. Is this a heresy? Or is Eliot's reputation not what it was in academia or elsewhere?


I re-read "Four Quartets" at the same time as re-reading Beckett's "Worstword Ho" - a piece written much later, but about the same length, and the contrast was marked. Beckett's poem espouses an outlook that's unredeemably bleak - no consummating final image ("the fire and the rose are one") for him; and yet, "Worstword Ho" is not depressing to read: the language is innovatory, and the poem, paradoxically, feels like a celebration of language, and thereby of human endeavour.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Discussing the way fairy tales have moved in and out of oral culture over time, Marine Warner cites the medieval story of Saint Dympna, which provided an archetype for a whole category of tales:

"this is a story which enjoyed a wide circulation in different languages and was directed at audiences of different social registers and occupations, from the tavern to the parish church. The migration, from the vernacular to Latin and back again, itself casts doubt on glib distinctions between high and low culture."

I mention this mainly to highlight that last point. I'd been reading an article on The Argotist by Adam Fieled: Century XX After Four Quartets. This article claims that T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" is the high-water mark of twentieth century poetry in English, and that nothing that came after measures up to it; a proposition so absurd that I'm still not sure it isn't a joke. Field's argument hinges around the notion that Eliot's poem is an example of "High Art", and that the motley crew of American poets who came after failed to achieve this level. What are we to make of such an argument? We could remind Fieled that the playhouses of Elizabethan England were regarded as vulgar entertainment by contemporaries. Plays were barely regarded as literature, and Ben Jonson was roundly mocked for publishing his collected plays in book form. Fieled would no doubt regard these plays as the highest of High Art. As for "The Four Quartets", more on that dreary sermon in a later post.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Alan Sillitoe - R.I.P.

Alan Sillitoe, 4 March 1928 – 25 April 2010.

Sillitoes's two great novels, "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", and "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" were influential for me; the former introduced me to Nottingham in the years before I settled there, and the movie of the latter had a big effect on me as a child. Having left school aged fourteen to work in the Raleigh factory in Nottingham, Sillitoe was able to describe working-class dialogue in a way that was convincing and which didn't patronise his protagonists.

"Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not".

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I arrived home today, 2pm, after what turned out to be a quite pleasant crossing; calm sea and a comfortable cabin. It cost me 223 pounds (one-way). The taxi driver at Newcastle told me that the normal price is 49 pounds return. That's capitalism.

My next-door neighbour drove me to Birmingham airport to pick up my car (by contrast, NCP car parks didn't charge me for the two extra days). The airport was deserted and silent. As I was about to get into the car, I stopped to listen to the silence. I heard a bird sing, and, from my bird-watching days, recognised it as a skylark. They're quite rare now, and I guess airport runway areas make a safe breeding site. But their song is normally drowned by jet engines.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I'm one of the lucky ones; it looks like I'm going to get home by tomorrow. A simple business trip to Frankfurt, from which I was due to fly back yesterday, has turned into an adventure. Realising there was no chance of getting home by air, I managed to book on-line (after much trying) a ferry ticket from Amsterdam to Newcastle. I hitched a lift with a colleague to Amsterdam (where I'm writing this) and today, all being well, I'll embark on the 16-hour voyage. Of course, I live in Nottingham, and my car's at Birmingham airport, but these are minor problems. All of this makes you reflect on how fragile our technological lifestyle is.

The hotel I'm in is full of stranded people. In Germany it was impossible to buy a train ticket for anywhere outside of the country, because the IT systems couldn't cope with the demand. People stuck at Frankfurt airport were unable to get trains to other places to try and continue their journeys, and the airport was laying out lines of camp-beds.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"The passage from the page (and the voice) to the moving image has profoundly affected the reception of the material; paradoxically, the visual becomes literal, imprinting the imagination and the heroine; the aural excites visualisation, giving the imagination semi-free play, with hallucinatory effects, especially among children. The domination of imagery over word in storytelling today has pushed verbal agility into the background; even the fast-talking, wisecracking, insult-trading entertainment of the 1930s thrillers like 'Double Indemnity' have ceded to almost wordless narratives. Deeds of fantastic efficacy and often extravagant violence have replaced cunning and high spirits in the most popular vehicles for revenge fantasies and triumphs over adversity."

Marina Warner, 'From the Beast to the Blonde; on fairy tales and their tellers'

Sunday, April 11, 2010

After a few pleasant weeks at home with the family - working, but working locally - I'm on the road again. Tomorrow at 4am I leave for the airport. I'll be away three out of the next four weeks; in Germany and Sweden, with a week in between in... Bracknell. I shouldn't be too rude about Bracknell; the locals are friendly enough, and I believe Shelley lived there once. But I'd still rather not spend so much time there. While away I'll finish the Marina Warner book, and start something new; probably 'The Thorn Rosary'. Business trips - on which I usually have plenty of spare time - are the only time I have leisure in the evenings to read; a sad statement, but a true one.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Eileen Tabios

Eileen Tabios kindly sent me a copy of her book The Thorn Rosary (see Aileen Ibardaloza's review below). I was impressed by the sheer scale of it; a large-format book of around 350 pages. I should have known it would be bulky, having previously recieved a copy of her book "I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved" (right) - another bumper offering which contains four substantial collections. The list of works at the front of The Thorn Rosary show that Tabios is an ambitious writer who works on a grand scale; one whose work I intend to get to know much better. Her previous work includes poetry, novels, short stories and essays; she has also edited numerous anthologies, as well as the Asian Pacific American Journal (with Eric Gamalinda). Cleary, a powerhouse. She has a ready-made subject and constituency in the Filipino diaspora and post-colonial experience. As a writer, Tabios is more than capable of doing justice to that experience. "I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved" is a varied collection of poems, ranging from experimental texts to quite traditional forms, and "The Thorn Rosary" is similarly wide-ranging. So far I've enjoyed reading the accounts of her childhood and family life in the Phillipines in "My City Baguio", and I'm looking forward to sampling the rest of the prose-poems in this book. I don't believe the UK has a significant Fillipino community in the way that the US has, so, for me, Tabios's writing opens a window on a new and refreshing world-view. The book Pinoy Poetics, which I've talked about here, was my introduction to this scene.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Using my newly-acquired Dreamweaver skills, I've refurbished the Leafe Press website. So far I've done the home page, as well as Submissions and About Us. The Catalogue will be next, followed, I hope, by Litter, though that will be a bigger project. For the technophiles among you, the new pages are XHTML 1.1.