Thursday, 30 December 2010

Words of Mercury

   Loves Labours Lost, a play first "presented at Christmas", is perhaps the most disruptive and bittersweet of all Shakespeare's comedies. As a text centred on language itself - especially the "lover's discourse" of Elizabethan romantic rhetoric - the earlier scenes burst with comic brio as the conventional hyperboles of the four amorous would-be sonneteers (as well as the suspect gender politics their words enshrine) are pulled apart and parodied by their female counterparts.The pantomimish minor characters such as Don Armado "the braggart" and Holofernes "the pedant" are equally abusers of language who contort English into scarcely-intelligible but nonetheless amusing opacity (Shakespeare here joins the tradition of "mock-learned wit" ie. Rabelais, Swift, Sterne, Joyce, Nabokov).

   But the final scene is the play's master-stroke, undercutting and undoing all the erotic intertwinings that have developed before. The abrupt incursion of news of the Princess's father's death means the comedic resolution of the play will have to be deferred, and the tone suddenly veers from anticipated accord towards something more muted and provisional, something more perhaps like the disappointments and postponements of real life.
    The two ambivalent final songs of the Cuckoo and the Owl - seeming to question spring's promise of fulfilled desire in favour of the necessary acceptance of winter - modulate this tone into a beautiful wavering between loss and gain, tragedy and what's left of comedy. As one critic put it ( and with obvious resonance at this post-festive juncture, which is possibly how Shakespeare actually meant it): "It is a teasing thought, yet appropriate; perhaps the ending of Love's Labour's Lost is the more genuinely warm because it is more wintry, more real than the easier resolution that a fuller comic pact would have allowed."    
   The play's closing words, again equivocal in their meaning, are spoken by Armado: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo". Is Shakespeare saying that Apollonian poetry (eg. the elevated rhetoric of sonnets) always needs its counterpoint in the language of witty, subversive mischief? Or - more plaintively, and in keeping with all of Shakespeare's plays- that the ideals embodied in lofty poetry must always be brought down to earth by the "harsh" reality of what the two final, mercurial songs speak of?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Subsumed in a Narrative

'...this proliferation of fantasies from Tolkien through to the Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman and so on, is a curious sort of indication of the way in which we would rather just turn away from the world and live in pseudo myths and mythologies, and they are pseudo, they're not the real thing as they were in cultures that really had myths and really believed in them. And similarly I think straightforward realism also stops you actually recognising this mysterious thing that our lives are open, are not going to be subsumed in a narrative we can easily tell, but we are constantly going to come up against something which is much more mysterious, much stranger, much more un-inchoate than we imagine.' Gabriel Josipivici
   This chimes with what I was gesturing towards in the previous post on Vonnegut. I came across it in the consistently brilliant This Space blog (link in Blogroll). Josipivici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?(a question I've often asked myself over the years)  is definitely on my Books to Read list for 2011 - interesting to see the controversy it provoked among mainstream gatekeepers this year...

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

And So On

    Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions is as far as you can get from the polite, 'well-made', realist novel about middle-class family-life that still dominates our fictional landscape(I haven't read Freedom yet, but I just read quite a scathing critique of Franzen's bestseller based on just these terms in Danny Byrne Blog). In fact it's a trenchant, anarchic anti-novel which lays bare and satirises all the revered and elevated 'inner workings' of how a conventional novel is written - for sure, Joyce had already performed something like this autopsy in Ulysses back in the 20s (and in their own ways BS Johnson and Alain Robbe-Grillet made further scalpel-turnings throughout their own creative careers), but Vonnegut goes further in undertaking a running parody of himself as novelist apparently making it up as he goes in whatever haphazard order the story occurs to him, inserting ineptly-drawn doodles to illustrate certain points, taking narrative shortcuts wherever he can (the phrase "And so on" is used repeatedly to imply the hackneyed predictability of almost all storylines).
    In fact he is more like the 'diagetic' narrators of 18thC. novels (telling rather than showing  dramatic action) - like Fielding and Sterne, in fact - than the supposedly hidden, 'God-like' narrators of the 19th and 20th C. Realist tradition - in many respects Breakfast of Champions could be seen as a Post-Modernist Tristram Shandy, in so far as both novels continually and humorously expose their own shortcomings as fictional representations of the world.
    In the end, despairing of ever making the corrupt, absurd, debased world of 20th C. America cohere into a readable narrative, Vonnegut climbs into his own novel and has blackly comic fun meeting his own doomed characters, rescuing the one who is a kind of self-portrait - the science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout -  and playfully showing up how arbitrary and solipsistic a novelist's imaginary world really is.
     His final act of letting Trout free from the novel's fictional bounds is a last damning parody of the traditional novelist's self-apotheosis and vanity. We finish Breakfast of Champions thinking that all writers, no doubt, need their pretentions as omniscient creative geniuses pinpricked in this way, whereas it can only be salutary for readers to be reminded that literature should be a means for discovering challenging new ideas and perpectives, not for furnishing escapist fantasies that merely bolster everyday norms.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Ice River

That winter the bitter Thames froze over,
Our little Elizabeth could not endure
The cold. Ice seized the muscled river
So tight of grip, turned flow to deep-set stone,
The crammed city overran its banks: fair
And market jostled to the new-laid causeway,
Vying for land too perishable to rent or own.

Mornings I’d loiter there - landlocked boatman
Whose craft’s marooned ashore, cracking between
The frosty contractions. With current clenched
And stilled, my trade ran dry as a victualler’s
In Eden. Pinched fishermen and portly
Merchants alike would curse the chill, and pray
For swift reversal of this ‘miracle’.

A chained bear, prodded from his winter sleep,
Would stagger up in a parody of dance
Utterly morose and grudging; yet the traders
Would goad him on, roaring, as they haggled
And bartered, children between the stalls
Raising snowmen, conducting ephemeral wars.

There persisted everywhere such levity,
And carnival abandon, I could only
Attribute it to this: their stark want
Of time, pitched on slipshod ice, weighing
The imminence of certain loss with this
Chance turn of grace – as all do, God knows.

But their prospering was my penury;
My wife and infants bore the unhappy toll.
Our little borrowing could not outlast
The snow: her swaddling proved her cerement.
On the ninth day, hoisted from its winter sleep,
A gross, red, apoplectic sun swelled up
Over the spires and frost-sheened rooves of London.
None spoke: all moved in accordance with this sign,
And to hear – like eerie crow-song –
The faint creaks and fissures of the shifting ice.

Some dismantled the stalls and shelters
So lately improvised; some scrambled back and forth
Safeguarding wares. Chaos overtook them once again: fear.

Shuffling to my thawing skiff, thanking God
For His infinite mercy, I watched them
Butcher the unruly bear for coats, gloves,
Dogs’-meat. And in the ruinous sun
The snowmen, suddenly old: how they shrivel,
And hunch over, weeping until they are gone.


  I thought it was high time I posted a poem of my own. This fairly old one seemed to be timely in terms of the current weather as well as linking to the previous post about 'The Road' - the poem is also concerned with "the frailty of all things" (although obviously I make no comparison with Cormac MaCarthy's book in terms of literary quality).

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Chronic City

      In terms of contemporary novels that not only dissect and explore the complex disjunctive sprawl of post-Modern America but also attempt to embody it in their form and language, Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City inhabits a position somewhere between the ludic Pynchonesque multiplicity of Infinite Jest and the more coherent but no less reaching Bellow-Roth-Updike-type tragicomedy The Corrections. More than either of these recent forebears, however, it's a novel exclusively and obsessively focussed on metropolitan society and in particular, the peculiarities and paradoxes of living and surviving in post- 9/11 New York.
     It was Norman Mailer (one of the vast roll-call of cultural icons and celebrities who are name-checked in this book) who wrote "Reality is no longer realistic" and this could be described as perhaps Chronic City's major theme - where to locate a sense of reality or "the truth" in an environment dominated by politically-manipulated urban myth and viral rumour, complicit media spin, abounding conspiracy theories, a general atmosphere of social paranoia breeding a retreat into private worlds such as drug-use and virtual gaming.
     If New York in the aftermath of 9/11 - itself an event obfuscated by competing narratives and tropes about what really occurred and why – is caught up in a self-bolstering process of reinvention, a quantitive easing of its citizens' anxieties through a media drip-feed of spurious, glamorised optimism, a novel attempting to encapsulate this slippery layering of unrealities will surely discard any sort of realist paradigm and instead foreground the fictional and indeed fantastical nature of its genre.
   Jonathan Lethem, however, whose earlier cult novels often read like self-referential tweakings of different narrative-genres, has a subtler and even more fitting design in mind in Chronic City. On one level, in fact, it pursues the traditional moral trajectory of the 19th Century novel, a learning-curve from ignorance towards understanding for its main protagonist: elusive as this may often seem, Lethem still wants to tell a story, a New York myth of his own. What's so incisive about the plot-line of Chronic City - the passage of rites of its docile anti-hero Chase Insteadman, from complacent acceptance to a more disabused scepticism about what's going on around him -  is that it mimics the reader's own growing realisation that what might have seemed at first a broadly 'believable' novel, subject to roughly the same narrative conventions
as the latest John Grisham, is veering more and more away from realism and more and more elaborately undoing its own artifices, imploding its own illusory city (like the fake “Potemkin villages” one character refers to).
    It would be intriguing to trace other uses of what one might term “pseudo-realism” of this kind. Two fairly random examples spring to mind: the delirious impossibilities of Boris Vian’s L’Ecume de Jour, where an apparently normative, even clich├ęd story starts slyly wrongfooting the reader with features like a “pianocktail” (a keyboard which mixes you a cocktail according to which keys you play) and an ailing heroine who has a water-lily growing in her chest. Closer to home, early-to-mid Ian MacEwan often flirted with such ‘alienation effects’: The Child in Time has the disconcerting scene where a middle-aged politician reverts back into a tree-climbing, short-wearing schoolboy – there’s a kind of dream-logic to this, furthermore, as an image of male MPs' eternal puerility (what could be more naively public schoolboyish, for example, than Cameron’s ‘Big Society’?)
    Another perspective on a “pseudo-realist” approach was provided by Tom MacCarthy recently when speaking of his heterodox yet Booker-nominated novel C: “the mainframe rhetorical mode for C is a kind of 19th-century realism – but that's a kind of Trojan horse.” For Lethem, as for MacCarthy, the “Trojan horse” of surface realism can work a subterfuge to carry their intellectually-ambitious novels through the gates of general readership before setting off more ambivalent, subversive reverberations once inside.
    As previously noted, there is also something endearingly pre-Modern about Chronic City’s post-Modernist lineaments: the novelist it most reminded me of at first was Henry James, for the elegance and suave wit – couched in lingering, pensive syntax and often ornate diction – of its intricately-wrought prose. The glitzy Manhattan celebrity-circuit that Chase Insteadman inhabits (the consistently tongue-in-cheek names throughout the book seem signposts for “pseudo-realism”) is like a faded parody of the high society that so fascinated James, and Chase himself - a TV child-actor now “riding the exhaust of (his) former and vanishing celebrity” – seems the contemporary equivalent of the sybaritic, charming, moneyed faineant, except that, rather than inherited, his private income derives from royalties for re-runs of his popular sitcom.
     If Chase is one kind of delusionary, the crux of the novel is his “life-altering” friendship with the dandyish Perkus Tooth, an ex-music critic and maverick polemicist who now exists in a cannabis- assisted, migraine-beleaguered “ellipsis” of paranoiac obsessions constructed from a bricolage of cultural trivia, ranging from Herzog, Cassevetes and Mailer to Marlon Brando’s appearance in the “Gnuppet (sic) Movie”.
   Patrick Ness, in a misleading Guardian review, takes the novel’s title to imply that Chronic City is basically all about getting stoned, and that this renders it as “hazy” and “ambling” as a toker’s monologue. Firstly, the reference to weed is only one connotation of “chronic” – more subtly, Lethem seems also to be playing on the word’s precise, etymological sense –ie. pertaining to time(certainly one of the novel’s main concerns)– as well as the more current usage, to mean severe (as in chronic headache).
    Secondly, Ness fails to register that cannabis carries as much thematic importance in the novel as drug-use of varying kinds does in both Infinite Jest and The Corrections – a preoccupation that links them. Like Franzen and Foster Wallace, Lethem clearly delineates the seminal influence of psychoactive befuddlement in contemporary America as an agent for distraction and attention-deficit ultimately abetting political quietism and cultural myopia – it is Franzen, perhaps, who goes furthest in showing the blurring and overlapping between
prescribed and proscribed drugs (and the devious role of the pharmaceutical industry in this) now prevalent.
    Not at all, of course, that Chronic City (any more than the other two novels) is anti-drugs: Lethem is careful to dramatise both the positive and the less than beneficial effects of sustained spliff-smoking. For Chase, his stoned evenings with Perkus Tooth, the ghost-writer Oona Laszlo and their fellow in-denialist Richard Abneg – a former counter-culturalist who now works for the Mayor and has an aristocratic girlfriend but still likes to think of himself as a freewheelin’ dude (Jeff Bridges would make the perfect Abneg if they ever make a film of Chronic City) – make a compelling alternative to the vapid, gossipy functions he usually attends and grant him an insight into Tooth’s skewed, lateral perspectives on dominant culture, the weed loosening the preconceptions underlying the actor’s pampered indolence.
     To what degree Chase ever goes along with Tooth’s chimerae, however, is always open to doubt and again in this he stands as a surrogate for the reader. How far out of touch with reality Tooth has smoked himself is attested to in the image of the “chaldron”, a kind of New Age ‘Grecian Urn’ which he sees as an uncanny portal to enlightenment (“Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth” perhaps) but which eventually turns out to be nothing more than a hologram invented by a software-programmer.
    It’s significant that Tooth ends the novel weed-free, having undergone his own sort of negative enlightenment (in parallel with Chase’s later self-revelations) after his fixed-rent flat - along with his videos, books, CDs and PC - is destroyed by fire. Displaced from his paraphernalia and the obsessions that went with it, both physically and psychologically decluttered, Tooth finds a bathetic contentment in living simply in a borrowed apartment and looking after a three-legged dog. Could this really be a parody of the end of Coetzee’s dark, austere novel Disgrace, where the defeated protagonist ends up tending sick dogs? Given Lethem’s enthusiastic defence of plagiarism and recontextualisation (cf. his notorious Harpers and Queens piece: ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’, itself a cento of literary appropriations), we should hardly be surprised at this apparently irreverent remodelling of a heavy-going,Nobel Prize-winning source.
     If Chase’s status as the novel’s main narrator is consistently unreliable and impaired, his authenticity is further undermined by attempts at philosophising stymied by his own shallowness:

Often all language seems this way: a monstrous compendium of embedded histories I’m helpless to understand. I employ it the way a dog drives a car, without grasping how the car came to exist or what makes a combustion engine possible. That is, of course, if dogs drove cars. They don’t. Yet I go around forming sentences.”

    His window-view of a spire and its birds seems the one constant in an urban landscape which balloons further and further into the surreal. An escaped tiger is said to prowl the streets (or is this just a cover-story for a marauding urban-demolition project?), nesting eagles have supplanted Richard Abneg from his flat and the snowstorms never relent. A giant chasm on some wasteland (no doubt a reference to Ground Zero) turns out to be an art installation. When a hefty novel called Obstinate Dust is dropped into the gulf, an oblique tribute to David Foster
Wallace (who died while Lethem was writing the novel) is registered, one more gratuitous folly in a cultural landscape littered with them.
    Perhaps Lethem’s deepest achievement in Chronic City is to orchestrate a poignant and resonant denouement for Chase and his lover Oona out of this outlandish backdrop. Chase’s ultimate disenchantment, gained through a last stroke of metafictive retrospect that forces the reader to reflect back and revaluate much of what has gone before, leaves a powerful sense of the importance of seeing through the fictions that surround us - even as this outstanding novel itself argues for the equal and continuing importance of literary fictions.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

That Which Collected Itself

Lost in some confusion of integrity, I had to tell the truth, however unreal, and persisted toward its realization, even though unthinkable. So writing, in this sense, began to lose its specific edges, its singleness of occurrence, and I worked to be open to the casual, the commonplace, that which collected itself.'
    Reams of enthralling stuff in the Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, which Ron Silliman gave a link to last Tuesday (16th Nov). Creeley's prose is as subtly measured and elliptical in syntax as his poems, which I've always found startling and unprecedented despite mainstream disfavour.
   As well as generous writerly insights into both antecedents ( Whitman, Lawrence, Pound) and contemporaries (Zukofsky, Bunting, Olson, Dorn) , he perhaps writes most vividly about his own poetic processes, especially in the piece quoted from above ("Is That a Real Poem or Did You Just Make It Up?") The counter-academic sense of deep-felt integrity it imbues is inspirational.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Another Plaque

    I've inadvertently become a plaque-spotter myself. Chanced upon this the other day, just off High Street Kensington, trying to duck out of the rain (thus bleary phone-camera lens)- an exquisite little alley-way called Kensington Church Walk, which is itself rather like stepping back into Edwardian London  - 'quaint', in a word. I suppose it was far less well-to-do in 'the Pound era' (remember the "filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor")- but wonderful to think of that great one-man mission to rehaul English letters (Imagism, Vorticism, Fenellosa, Eliot, HD, Joyce, Yeats, Ford etc.) being launched from this little obscure corner of Kensington.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Rakes' Progress

 Last Wednesday I attended the unveiling of a plaque outside the flat where John Heath-Stubbs used to live (22 Artesian Road, just off Westbourne Grove, for plaque-spotters among you). There were readings of John's poems by some of his old friends: Alan Brownjohn, Eddie Linden, Dinah Livingstone and Oliver Bernard.
   The latter (translator of Rimbaud and Apollinaire, brother of Jeffrey Bernard) was the most appealing, both for his rakeish old-school manner and his choice of poem, which on account of its brevity he read twice, its urbane self-ironising romanticism summing up both John the man and the enduring charm and piquancy of his poetry:

The goddess Fortune be praised (on her toothed wheel

I have been mincemeat these several years)

Last night, for a whole night, the unpredictable

Lay in my arms, in a tender and unquiet rest -

(I perceived the irrelevance of my former fears)

Lay, and then departed. I rose and walked the streets

Where a whitsuntide wind blew fresh, and blackbirds

Incontestably sang, and the people were beautiful.

Alan Brownjohn

Oliver Bernard


Thursday, 21 October 2010

Eventual After-effects of Travel

    As I mentioned in a previous post, at the end of last year I went travelling through Asia and Australia for several months. With my usual elephantine gestation-period, poems based on those experiences have only just started to filter through and coalesce from journal-pages and jottings, hopefully to form a fairly heterogenuous sequence of linked texts. In striving for an equilibrium between the spontaneity or sketchiness of my original words and later redraftings (with their inevitable perspective of ruminative hindsight), what has emerged so far is a focus and enquiry into the act of ongoing observation and experience itself, the two-way traffic between the unfamiliar newness of travel and how a) to record this in appropriately fresh language/style and b) to relate it to previous knowledge and experience; esp. in my case, the grieving-process I was going through and seeking to move beyond (not, however, to labour this and lurch into confessional territory.)  
   This stint of travel also initiated numerous directions for subsequent reading. This year I've been attempting an overview of Australian poetry, chiefly through the hefty Penguin Book of Australian Verse and the heftier Collected Poems of Les Murray. The Penguin anthology throws up a lot of surprises. There seems to be a roughly parallel development with the historical lineage of American poetry, whereby the nascent culture is at first in thrall to Old World paradigms (in this case of course the Miltonic and Shakespearean traditions of English verse) and then gradually shakes them off and establishes its own themes and registers with an increasing sense of self-assertion and boldness, until it appears in more recent decades that its indigenous poetry has a greater diversity, vitality and adventurousness to it than that of its debunked colonial forebear (still perhaps too often hemmed-in by the past).

Kenneth Slessor
   After the first 50 pages of derivative 19thC material, the first really interesting Australian poet is Christopher Brennan, who apparently corresponded with Mallarme and attempted an intellectually ambitious kind of post-Symbolist narrative in texts like The Wanderer. I'm inclined to agree with the editor Harry Heseltine who (in the Introduction) calls Brennan "a great poet manque" and accuses him of "over-writing" - the failure, however, must be accounted a brave one, and Brennan very much (in pre-WW1 Sydney) "out of key with his time".
    The promise evidenced in Brennan's proto-Modernist work seems to reach a slightly later fruition in the poetry of Kenneth Slessor (1901-71), which is clearly immersed in early Eliot and perhaps early Stevens but at the same time has a marvellously vibrant, rich-sounding, wry voice that is all its own. In fact this poem of his, 'Metempsychosis' (the word or concept out of Ulysses perhaps), is something of a masterpiece, bristling with verve and imaginative empathy, what Eliot's 'Preludes' should have been like if they weren't engloomed by their author's contempt for everyday working-class life:

        Suddenly to become John Benbow, walking down William Street
        With a tin-trunk and a five-pound note, looking for a place to eat,
        And a peajacket the colour of a shark's behind
        That a Jew might buy in the morning...

        (  ) Wake in a shaggy bale of blankets with a fished-up cigarette,
         Picking over Turfbird's Tattle for a Saturday morning bet,
         With a bottle in the wardrobe easy to reach
         And a blast of onions from the landing...

    Slessor leads the way for a succession of other strong poets who both learnt from Modernism and forged a distinctive manner beyond it: RD Fitzgerald, AD Hope, Douglas Stewart, Judith Wright. What's also really interesting as the century moves on is the development of a tradition of social satire directed against the perceived philistinism of Australian culture. One could perhaps theorise about the formative historical juncture at which a nation's poets most vehemently question and castigate a recently-emerging state: in England and France this happened as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas such a young country as Australia seems to have experienced this robust self-analysis during the last century. If we think of Peter Porter's satirical poetry of the '60's, which seemed novel and fresh in the context of the limp post-Movement English scene, it looks less unusual alongside excellent contemporaries like Bruce Dawes and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, at least some of whose output was very much in a satirical vein. (The laudatory notices that met Porter's passing-away earlier this year attested to his ability to extend his range and in his later years write what was widely-held to be a compendious and far-reaching poetry.)
   Turning briefly to Les Murray, we see how he too has tapped into this tradition of social comment, although perhaps less happily. I'm only halfway through the Collected, but to me it's almost become a rule of thumb with Murray that when he writes of the natural /farming world, his poetry is almost always compelling and alive; yet when he turns to Australian society and history, it tends towards the cumbersome or dull. An interesting point of comparison in the anthology is between Murray and his near-contemporary and friend Geoffrey Lehmann: both have poems about pigs in the book ('Blood' and 'The Pigs' respectively). Murray's piece is evocative of the sounds and smells of farm-life, realist in a Heaneyesque sort of way; certainly a decent poem - but Lehmann uses the image of the pigs (we are never sure, since the poem's set in Tuscany and there's a mention of a toga, whether this is an imaginary scenario or based on memories or reading) both as themselves and as the springboard for a disturbing, gripping dream-poem eddying with dark currents and possible sub-meanings. Frankly it makes the Murray poem seem limited and one-dimensional.


Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Celan in London

    Very interesting Radio 4 programme yesterday about Paul Celan's links with London, centring on his poem 'Mapesbury Road' :


I had read the poem, but it was only listening to this programme that I realised I knew Mapesbury Road quite well, being fairly near my former college in Queens Park. It seems strange to think of Celan in such a familiar, local context - I particularly liked the story about him looking for an orange shirt for his small son in the London shops.
    However, one might question the whole process of regarding a Celan poem (as Toby Litt and the programme-makers seem to) as a "mystery" that can be teased out or perhaps even solved by biographical and geographical delvings. Surely we are lapsing back into the "intentionalist fallacy" if we try to explain away the elliptical resonances of Celan's work in this way. Does knowing there is a magnolia-tree in the garden of the house in Mapesbury Road where Celan stayed in 1968 bring us any nearer to an "understanding" of the lines about "the magnolia-hour's half-clock"? Worse, did we really need one contributor's wholly conjectural interpretation of the "black woman" at the beginning of the poem as the memory of a night-club singer Celan had seen in Antwerp many years before, singing the song made famous by Billie Holliday, 'Strange Fruit', which contains a reference to "magnolia blossom"?! (I guess some people make careers out of this kind of belletristic - and ultimately self-aggrandising - fabulation.)
   We should remember what Celan said when asked for an explanation of his poems: "Keep reading".

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Between Jobs

   I'm currently between teaching jobs and, while job-hunting in an unfavourable climate and waiting for a new CRB to come through, trying to knuckle down and make the most of this long-awaited opportunity for writing,editing and sending work out.
    It would be wonderful to make a living from writing, but I certainly don't seem to be one of these 'professional authors' who can knock out 1000 lines a day before lunch (even Martin Amis in Money mentions writing every morning between 7 and 12, then reading the rest of the day) . When the work is progressing well, you hardly notice time passing and the days seem remarkably brief and full. But on other, more restless occasions the physical inactivity of writing, as well as the prolonged retreat into your own mental cloister it involves, can leave you curiously at odds with social reality and - by its standards - often dissatisfied at the intangibility and perhaps purely subjective appeal of what little you've achieved.  And then at the same time of course there's the distracting, dispiriting question of "marketing", of viewing your work with an eye to it's possible commodity-value...
   Coleridge: "With no other privilege than that of sympathy and sincere good wishes, I would address an affectionate exhortation to the youthful literati grounded on my own experience( ): never pursue literature as a trade...Three hours of leisure, unannoyed by any alien anxiety and looked forward to with delight as a change and recreation, will suffice to realise in literature a larger product of what is truly genial than weeks of compulsion. Money and immediate reputation form only an arbitrary and accidental end of literary labour." (Biographia Literaria, XI)
    Mark E Smith: "If it wasn't for The Fall, I'd be at home right now trying to motivate myself to write, but probably doing every other thing possible not to write. Fucking around with this and that. Going to the pub. Watching TV. It's that old writer's dilemma." (Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith) 
    (Or in my case, looking up old music videos:)                                   


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

And A Russian Rilke

 For a contrasting perception of Rilke and his reputation, I've just reread Letters Summer 1926: Correspondence Between Pasternak, Tsvetayeva and Rilke (OUP), a remarkable circle of communication between three of the last century's most significant poets. At this time they were geographically and circumstantially distant: Pasternak stuck in Communist Moscow, trying to support his wife and child on what litttle money he could make from writing; Tsvetayeva struggling as an emigre housewife in France; Rilke in a sanatorium in Val-Mont, Switzerland, suffering from what was to prove irreversible leukemia.
   What's remarkable and refreshing about these letters (and so foreign to all contemporary discussion of poetry) is the rhapsodic, passionate, often ecstatic tone in which all three address and praise not only each other's work but each other as poets; a continual sense of the binding, almost religious importance they attach to poetry,a belief in its regenerative function all the more admirable within a context of pan-European discord and deracination.
    The two younger Russians clearly regard Rilke as a luminary and model for the ambitious Modernist lyric-poetry they were engaged upon: "For Tsvetayeva and Pasternak, Rilke's poetry was the highest proof that in this divided and distorted world there exist real and immutable values not to be measured by pragmatic standards" (Introduction). Tsvetayeva in one letter calls him "poetry incarnate". For his part, Russia had always held a totemic significance for Rilke: he travelled there as a young man, met Tolstoy and developed a huge reverence for the earthy humility of peasant life - he even attributed his experience of Russia as the starting-point of his mature poetry, that grasping of the centralness of "thingly utterance" ("sachliche Sage"), of the numinous within the quotidian, he always adhered to.
     The correspondence between Rilke and the Russian poets was in fact initiated by Pasternak's father, the composer Leonid, a friend from Rilke's Russian days - we recall the tantalizing childhood-memory at the beginning of Safe Conduct (Pasternak's superb set of autobiographical sketches, dedicated to Rilke) of seeing off on a train a vaguely-recalled German-speaking figure. Ultimately one feels a little sorry for Boris: he writes one reverential letter to Rilke on the back of his father's, in which he quite selflessly makes an epistolary introduction to Marina Tsvetayeva ie. can she write to you? Rilke replies to Pasternak, giving him his blessing as a poet - Boris is so over-awed he keeps the letter in his breast-pocket for the rest of his life. But Marina then rather takes over the correspondence and makes it her own, showering Rilke with compliments and breathless superlatives, while Boris - from diffidence and tact, knowing that the older man is unwell - holds back and in fact never actually writes to Rilke again.
    Rilke is obviously flattered by Marina's rapturous hyperboles and even writes her a poem - 'Elegy for Marina' - which Tsvetayeva later calls "the last Duino Elegy" though it hardly matches up to the quality of the already-completed cycle. The degree to which  - in their far-flung poetic prose - Rilke and Tsvetayeva seem to be flirting with each other in their letters is interesting to consider - certainly the photographs of himself Rilke sends her show him in some oddly coy or kittenish poses (were spats ever deemed attractive, one wonders!) Ironically, in her final letter to him, it seems that Marina might be trying to suggest an assignation ("Dear one, when at some point you really want to, you write to me - a little beforehand, for I have to find somebody to stay with the children - and I'll come") without knowing that Rilke was by then in the terminal stages of cancer. He died on December 29th of the same year.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The American Rilke

   Apparently - mind-bogglingly - Lady Gaga has some lines from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet tattooed on her forearm: "Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?" (in German, naturlich). While first acknowledging that this is Rilke at his hyperbolic silliest ( think of all the important writers who for political reasons have been forbidden from writing but haven't in fact acquiesced and died but have either carried on doing it in defiance of authority or bided their time or defected to other countries), my other instinct was the hope that Lady Gaga might be solemnly forbidden from writing any more of her execrable nonsense-rhymes and that this prohibition might even (taking Rilke to the letter) lead to her woeful, poetry-bereft expiry. (Must I wear preposterous hats? might have been a more pertinent cause for heart-digging chez GG.)
    This is the most laughable/deplorable example I 've encountered of what seems to be a prevalent misprision of Rilke in contemporary America, apparently based not on very much actual reading of his poetry but on an agglomerated welter of quotes, biographical cliches and yes - that slight, somewhat uncharacteristic side-work - Letters to a Young Poet. The grossly sentimentalising and distorting misapprehension that he should be regarded almost as some New Age 'spiritual guru' avant la lettre - I guess Rumi is so 2006 by now - not only buys into the whole flawed concept of poems, in the supposedly unprecedented climate of anxiety or desolation we find ourselves in post 9/11 (how anxious and desolate was, say, late 1945 for any of the survivors of Hiroshima?), as emergency safety-jackets to bulk out our frail beleaguered egos with, it also seems to perpetuate the Victorian nostrum about poets being elevated quasi-mystics with a privileged access to spiritual values, saintly savants whose work must be innately "improving".
    The self-disproving irony is that during his lifetime Rilke certainly played up to the image of himself as a rarified ascetic with such a burdening excess of soul that during his later years he could only sit in the castles and chateaux lent him by aristocratic admirers sniffing roses and nurturing his much-vaunted solitude (I presume there were servants in attendance, but they obviously didn't count as human company), incubating the poetry for which he was but the humble conduit. You can see why Adam Jagajewski calls him a"spoilt, selfish sycophant" but in another way this is only one viewpoint: without this concerted self-immersion and indeed self-romanticisation we might not have the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, those marvellous adumbrations of inner process metamorphosed into symbol and replenished myth.
    While the import of the Elegies is indubitably anti-materialistic and counter-capitalist in ways that remain potently resonant ( for example, in the weird Germanic humour of "The Sex-Life of Money/ Full Anatomic Description/...How Money multiplies: Its generative organs: Money in mating, at foreplay" Tenth Elegy), Rilke's spiritual concerns are consistently ballasted by earthier ones, angelic presences by trees, animals and lovers. Nor is the giddying fluidity of the imagery reducible to a unitary "message" (those who look to poetry for messages and lessons are looking in the wrong place, I would argue); Rilke was less a teacher or prophet than a highly self-conscious artist who knew that complex, many-sided truths can only be embodied in the volatile linguistic energy of hard-won poetic form. As his translator Stephen Cohn says, "the shape of the Elegies is above all dialectical: no sooner does affirmation seem to triumph over despair than the balance is reversed...All things are shown in terms of one another".
   Going back to the earlier Rilke of New Poems and the Books of Pictures, you regain more of a sense of meticulous lyric craft unencumbered by the later stage-machinery of symbol and self-mythology. At this time of year, for example, I always think of those two absolutely beautiful poems, with their 'dying fall' cadences, Herbst and Herbsttag:
           The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
           As though distant gardens withered in the sky;
          They are falling, with gestures that deny.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


The current buzz around Tom McCarthy and his recent novel C strikes me as fascinating. Here is a novelist who deliberately aligns himself with the Modernist legacy of Joyce, Kafka and Beckett and furthermore openly admits to the influence of continental Post-Modern Theory on his approach. As if this weren't heretical enough, in the conversation between McCarthy and Lee Rourke (another interesting novelist) in last Saturday's Guardian:

( http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/18/tom-mccarthy-lee-rourke-conversation#start-of-comments

he goes further in denouncing the traditions of "sentimental humanism" and its cult of the individual which still inform so much of our critical discourse, and in enthusiastically citing a whole raft of other coolly transgressive names ( Cocteau, Heidegger, Blanchot, Pound, Celan, Ballard, Mark E Smith) almost in the manner of an early 80's NME piece by Paul Morley - though needless to say with rather more substance than Morley ever managed.
    This is hardly an original stance, of course (one wonders in fact whether McCarthy has his tongue at least half in his cheek when making some of his more ponderous statements); the blanket demonisation of "liberal humanism",for example, is one of the corner-stones of any undergraduate Literary Theory course. Yet because of the scant credence ordinarily granted to such intellectually-weighty pronouncements, their very abnormality coming from the mouth of an English novelist - that endemic retroist and rester-on-laurels, staunchly averse to ideas, theories or formal experiment - McCarthy comes across as remarkably refreshing and forward-looking.   
     Moreover, the fact that C has not only been nominated for the Booker Prize, but is 9/4 Favourite to win, speaks perhaps of a groundswell of dissension among general readers, an inquisitive inkling that it might still be possible to do new and exhilarating things with the haggard old British novel.
    All this is immensely heartening for writers like myself who also invariably take their bearings from the cross-currents of international Modernism and its later forms. Within the sphere of poetry, Identity Parade seems to indicate a similar desire to challenge and redefine the parameters of mainstream taste, although in McCarthy's terms we might still point to out-moded tendencies - default realism, autobiographical disclosure, a belief in 'personal voice' - which need debunking in British poetry as urgently as in the novel.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Scribbled Form

   Received the new edition of PN Review over the weekend with my review of James Byrne's excellent volume Blood/Sugar within its pages.  It still feels an honour to see one's own writing within such a prestigious publication - and furthermore the contributor's cheque enclosed brought my literary earnings for the year to the princely total of £20!
   Michael Schmidt in his editorial makes a comparable point about US culture - the blatant erosion of religious tolerance and pluralism - as I did in the previous post although in a far more considered and eloquent way.
   Finishing King John the other morning - one of the most under-appreciated of Shakespeare's history plays - I came across this astonishing image:

             I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen
             Upon a parchment, and against this fire
             Do I shrink up.  (V, 7, 32 ff)

Is there a more resonant metaphor for death in all poetry, especially for the writer who at the end of the day might have hoped to embody his or her life in their writings - how imperfect this always is (only "scribbled") and how perishable is the medium of paper we have written on (especially when books - whether the Koran or a Salman Rushdie novel - can be deliberately burned).

Thursday, 9 September 2010

From Walt Whitman to Walt Disney in Three Easy Moves

 Arrived back from my first trip to the States last weekend, feeling rather bloated - physically and mentally - from the sheer supersizedness of everything in America: the theme-parks, the meals, the roads, the vehicles, the people, the egos, the skies. Not all in a bad way: it feels like there's so much room to manoeuvre, so much latitude for exploration, you inevitably gain a sense of expanded possibility out there. Whereas (I know this is very far from original) England does feel like Toytown in comparison when you return, all constricted, claustrophobic and undernourished.
  No wonder English poets like Auden, Thom Gunn, Christopher Middleton and Geoffrey Hill all started writing in freer, more expansive modes when they moved to the States: what was it William Carlos Williams said about American reality not fitting into iambic pentameters? (I touch on this in the piece on the Yale Selected Poems of Geoffrey Hill I've been working on for The Wolf - how does the early highly-wrought English Hill accord with the later prolific, looser-tongued American one?)
  On departing for Gatwick back in the middle of August, I somehow forgot to pack any books so had to buy one in a rush at WH Smiths at the airport. The only paperback that even remotely appealed was Martin Amis's Money - it proved fantastically apposite in the chapters where John Self hits America in a maniacal booze-fuelled pinball-bounce from comical disaster to disaster - the rambunctious, rambling, foul-mouthed prose is Amis at his best. Somewhat as I said in reference to Hoffman's Acrimony, how acidulously prophetic of our recent economic collapse is Money's narrative arc - remarkably though this is the late 70's recession John Self gets caught in, not even the 80's one. The boom-bust cycle really is ongoing.
   Didn't see many signs of recession in Florida, either among the Americans or our fellow Disney-worshipping Brits. But then the paradox is (and which Amis manages to show in Money ) in how apple-pie wholesome and 'have a nice day y'all!' America is on the surface and what a seething turmoil of social inequities and illiberal prejudices festers beneath. Did you hear about 'Burn a Koran Day'?!                                                                                                                                  

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Summer's Escape

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy  -

A Quietness distilled
 As Twilight long begun,
 Or Nature spending with herself
 Sequestered Afternoon—
 The dusk drew earlier in—
 The Morning foreign shone—
 A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
 As Guest, that would be gone—
 And thus, without a Wing
 Or service of a Keel
 Our Summer made her light escape
 Into the Beautiful.

Writing is in many ways a collaboration with time; a somewhat one-sided interaction, in fact, since whereas endless patience and deferral (and often attendant inaction) characterise the writer's side, time is always insistently chivvying the pen on. Thus Valery's exasperation: "A poem is not finished but abandoned".
   But reading is also contingent on time's ungraspable convolutions. I've never had so overpowering a sense of this magnificent Emily Dickinson poem as this week, when a palpable "downturn" in the weather - seeming to signal a lapsing away of summer sunlight and a premature return of autumnal bronze - coincided with the birthday of my mother, who passed away 18 months ago. The yoking of summer's end and the grief that re-emerged in me made a sort of astonishing epiphany of the poem in a way that lies at the core of why we - as the seasons ebb and flow - keep rereading and reinterpreting certain poems.
   This I think is what earlier critics meant when they called a poem "timeless"; but in fact (to paraphrase Roland Barthes) it's not that the poem means the same thing to thousands of different readers but that thousands of readers each find different things in the poem; and that, furthermore, each of those readers might find different things in the poem throughout the different periods of their lives. 

Saturday, 31 July 2010

In the Box

Pleased to see I have extracts from a sequence of short poems called Time and Motion Studies appearing in the new edition of the excellent 'online forum' Blackbox Manifold':


There's an exciting range of poetry on there with some quite distinguished names (Sharon Olds, George Szirtes, Susan Wicks). What marks Blackbox out from other e-zines/magazines is their unusual interest in "innovative poetry that has prose, narrative or sequences in its sights." In other words, a determination to avoid the prevailing dominance of what James Byrne (in a Wolf editorial a while ago) called the "postage-stamp poem", that short, neat, undemanding lyric-poem invariably autobiographical or anecdotal in nature with which we are all only too familiar and which indicates the habitual lack of ambition and imagination so much mainstream poetry is prey to. 


Thursday, 29 July 2010

Travelling with Rimbaud

   Towards the end of last year I was fortunate enough to spend time travelling with my partner and son through India, South-East Asia and Australia. The one poetry-book I allowed myself to cram into my rucksack on departure was the Complete Poems (and Selected Letters) of Rimbaud (the quite old Wallace Fowlie edition). Rimbaud has been among my favourite handful of poets ever since I discovered him as an adolescent, although I hadn't read him all the way through for awhile and thought he would be the perfect reading for a lengthy and revelatory journey halfway across the world.
   Although it was by no means the only book I read (the serendipitous method of picking up and abandoning novels and other volumes in guest-houses and hostels is to me one of the curious delights of travel), my dogeared Rimbaud stood me in good stead and did indeed illuminate many an hour of transit with the crosscurrents and tangents of the poems' restless diversity and inventiveness, the way their linguistic evolution tracks an itinerary as wayward and exploratory as the poet's own.
    With no other poet, perhaps, are writings and biography so inextricable. The year before, I had completed a radio-play (called A Poet No Less ) attempting oblique perspectives on Rimbaud's extraordinary trajectory, using for my main source the quite astonishingly brilliant Graham Robb biog. In an article in last month's Wire magazine, the musician Alex Neilson refers to it as "the good book", and I agree that it should probably be regarded as a kind of Bible for anyone with a serious interest either in modern poetry or the art of literary biography (only Richard Holmes' Coleridge and Richard Ellman's Joyce are in the same league.)
      I'm currently (rather reluctantly) rewriting the play after a representative of the BBC suggested "a more sober treatment" was called for (what, Rimbaud and Verlaine, sober?!) with this time Edmund White's 'Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel' as my accompaniment. You can tell from the crude title that this isn't very good; in many ways quite superfluous if you've read the Graham Robb. It has the feel of a pot-boiler about it: the prose is wobbly and White's attempts at translating the poems are riddled with errors and infelicities. But you can't really go wrong with Rimbaud, the story is always so enthralling and White manages to invest R and V's escapades with an appropriate mix of comedy and pathos. He also has some interesting observations to make from a gay standpoint, although at times labouring the point, given that it seems probable that Rimbaud's only homosexual relationship was with Verlaine.
   To return to my travels, I remember sitting on a train trundling through the suburbs of Sydney en route to the Blue Mountains and reading my way through almost all of Illuminations with that Dickinsonesque feeling of having "the top of my head taken off". In terms of freshness, it could have been the latest suite of prose-poems by a nascent young star of the American avant garde - it felt as though these texts written in the 1870s, far from being superseded or assimilated into literary tradition, were still in many ways ahead of us and in spite of attempts by successive generations of impressionable poets, still to be caught up with.
    More radically than any of the other inceptual locii of Modernism (Baudelaire, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins, Mallarme) the Illuminations initiate that rupture in the fabric of coherent, normative discourses whose implications and resonances we are still working through. Although Baudelaire is justly cited (eg. by Eliot and Benjamin) as the first important poet to take the modern urban environment as his subject-matter, how much further does Rimbaud take this in pieces like the 3 'Villes', 'Les Ponts' and 'Metropolitan', which enact dizzying detournements on the later-modern experience of finding yourself adrift in a foreign city - for me at the time, Sydney, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Mumbai; but for Rimbaud, Victorian London. His sense of bewildered, intoxicated anomie erupts in fantastical and excoriating perspectives which combine the brutal political insight of the Communist Manifesto (Robb conjectures that Marx and Rimbaud might have met in the British Museum Reading Room) and the fictive urban dystopias of Calvino's Invisible Cities or Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition.
   In a later post I want to look at some different Rimbaud translations, including perhaps my own.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Rabbit 2

   Finished Rabbit, Run last week with a sure sense that this is among the most important novels ever written - while disliking the contemporary fad for lists and charts as much as the next (grumpy old) man, to me any sort of critical enterprise involves making comparisons and distinctions and I haven't much time for the school of levellers who suggest that Eminem's rhymes should be read as poetry that stands comparison with, say, Wordsworth, Eliot or Muldoon.
   Locating Rabbit, Run within the lineage of other 20th Century novelists is intriguing. My reading is that as well as being benched in Joyce Updike is also setting up a dialogue with DH Lawrence and that in fact the whole novel could be read as a complex interplay between (and wasn't it Richard Aldington who originated the antithesis in the Intro to DHL's Collected Poems?) what Joyce represents (both stylistically and epistemologically) and what Lawrence (ditto) does. In some ways Rabbit is like a Lawrence character living off his impulses and the pull of sensual/sensuous pleasure: the familiar rhythm and diction of Lawrence's prose (as well as his questionable gender-politics) burst through in this sentence:
   " He knows only this: that underneath everything, under their minds and their situations, he possesses, like an inherited lien on a distant piece of land, a dominance over her, and that in her grain, in the lie of her hair and nerves and fine veins, she is prepared for this dominance." (p. 206, Penguin Modern Classics)
    But Updike (although he sees the appeal of this vitality when set against the moral staidness of small-town American society) shows what Rabbit's impetuous individualism can result in within the context of the Joycean priorities of family and social kinship: the tragic denouement is however saved from being the punitive comeuppance of a Victorian novel by an ambivalent ending unfolding (like that of Joyce's  A Portrait ) on a future to be returned to in subsequent fiction. As Updike says in his Afterword: "the book ends on an ecstatic, open note that was meant to stay open, as testimony to our hearts' stubborn amoral quest for something once called grace".
   One more example of the marvellously-precise, subtly-embedded poetry of Updike's prose. When Rabbit supports his toddler son to use the toilet at night, "wee-wee springs from the child's irritated sleep and jerkily prinkles into the bowl" - surely eliding the s here and converting "sprinkles" to the coinage "prinkles" (with its connotations of smallness and pinkness and its onomatapeic rightness) is an act of genius - it is absolutely the "mot juste".

Monday, 12 July 2010

Bizarre Connection


   One bizarre connection resonated for me in the peculiar story of Raoul Moat's "stand-off" with police and subsequent demise on Saturday. Barbara Ellen in The Observer wisely pointed to how "Moat embodied the almost-nuclear frustration of the failed male - ego-driven, soured, festooned with the trappings of cliched machismo". And talking of failed males, apparently a pissed Paul Gascoigne turned up during the evening with a fishing-rod and a can of beer to try a proper bloke-to-bloke talk with the gunman!
   Anyway, the watercourse that Moat lay and sat cross-legged by as he spoke for six hours to police-negotiators with a shotgun against his own neck was in fact the River Coquet, surely the same Coquet that Basil Bunting refers to in a line which has both baffled and enthralled me for years: "Stones trip Coquet burn" (10, Second Book of Odes).
    Bunting was, of course, born in Northumbria and lived there again during his latter years (this poem is dated 1970). The line is so intriguing because  - if you don't know that Coquet is a Northern river  - it borders on the opaque, gesturing towards a kind of "concrete" approach whereby phonetic language-properties are foregrounded over semantic ones. The fact that each of the four words can be read as having more than one grammatical function furthers this effect: for example, "stones trip" seems to echo the idiomatic collocation "stone's throw", whereas "burn" could be read as a verb. (If "trip" and "burn" were both read as counterbalancing verbs, one might detect a trace-memory of the syntax of Hopkins' wonderful opener: "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame".) The four stressed syllables (out of five)in a row like this is also unusual and emphasises the dense sound-quality of the line, dwelling on the interplay between sharp t-sounds and the long vowels of "stones" and "burn".
     The French loan-word "coquette" also has a meaning in English of course: a flirtatious or invitingly-playful woman. My former (tentative) reading of the poem was that it was about a girl or woman the narrator was following through a stream or river - I now see in a Damascene moment of illumination (afforded by Raoul Moat!) that Bunting is personifying the river ("burn" - a word also used in Briggflats - is more accurately a dialect-word for stream or brook but we''ll let that pass), playing on the near-homonymous link between "coquette" and "Coquet".
     In fact, the poem seems fairly lucid now, as well as being beautiful, and one wonders to what extent Bunting was aware of the ambiguities he was setting up in writing that amazing first line. My hunch is that, being a poet so attuned to the acoustic aspects of language and so keen for readers to "trace in the air a pattern of sound"(Intro. to Collected Poems), the effect was intentional: the line works in very different but equally valid ways according to one's recognition of "Coquet" as a geographical river. Not knowing this fact doesn't harm one's appreciation of the poem and in fact it could be said has kept me returning to it over the years. As Wallace Stevens wrote, "The poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully."
    I've also just realised that Bunting is doing the same in this poem as he did at the magnificent beginning of Briggflats - "Brag, sweet tenor bull,/descant on Rawthey's madrigal" - where Rawthey is another North-Eastern river, in this case personified as a singer.