Saturday, 28 April 2012

Stop Your Sericulture

 Check out this early manifestation of the Human League, showing how their sound (so different on record) came out of the mid-70s proto-Industrial sound of Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and later Krautrock as much as out of the cleaner electronica of Kraftwerk.
     Martyn Ware still had a moustache and wore a shiny glam-shirt! They didn't have sequencers yet and playing one-handed synth-lines in time with a taped rhythm-track could be tricky! Phil Oakey looks a bit like Javier Bardem's psychotic killer in No Country for Old Men and furrows his brow singing one of the least sensical lyrics ever penned- Buddha protesting against the death of silkworms ("blameless victims") to make silk? 
  Granada TV's photo-inserts are also baffling - is the old lady whose face looms up an arch-sericulturalist or merely Oakey's nan? Is the mushroom-cloud image a suggestion that the "slaughter" of silkworms is an atrocity on a level with the bombing of Hiroshima or that nuclear destruction is what any nation that approves sericulture deserves?
     But somehow a brilliant track even so.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Etching On Perspex

Saw this today at the London Print Fair at the RA. Would you pay three grand for an interesting visual twist on Mallarme's Un Coup de Des?
    The show was enjoyable,though; a beguiling array of prints by everyone from Hogarth and Cruikshank up to Lucian Freud and Gilbert & George. I even spotted a print of the Durer etching of St Jerome which Josipivici interprets so articulately in Whatever Happened to Modernism? (Simon Turner wrote such a good post on this book recently that I felt I didn't need to.)
   I was lucky enough to meet Stephen Stuart-Smith of Enitharmon Books, who had a stall presenting their own selection of prints. Having lost their Arts Council last year, the good news is that this important poetry imprint is apparently now doing better than ever. 

Friday, 20 April 2012

Stumped by the Form

    Todd Swift wrote an interesting post recently about the new Penned in the Margins anthology Adventures in Form. A few people commented and I thought it was going to turn into a much-needed debate about the relevance and function of poetic form in a time when a kind of unpremeditated, invariably autobiographical free-verse enlivened with phrase-making and perhaps a few clever similes has become the norm for the majority of up-and-coming poets (although this anthology's emphasis on poems written under strictures and restraints suggests the resurgence of an alternative,Oulipan tendency.)
      Before I got round to contributing (and not, I hasten to add, that I'm advocating a New Formalist-type return to an inflexible use of rhyme and metre), Eyewear had moved on but this passage from a recent article (from a psychologist's angle) seemed highly pertinent, inferring how without a well-honed sense of form poetry can become facile and un-inventive:

"The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we've invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear those remote associations coming from the right hemisphere. Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clich├ęs and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process."
          (from 'The Neuroscience of Bob Dylan's Genius' by Jonah Lehrer, Guardian 6.4.12)
  Following this line of thought, poets who complain of writer's block should realise that the block is the writing and endless rewriting: it's what you must work gradually through to get to the poem inside, as surely as a sculptor chisels away at his or her stone-slab with a blind, intuitive sense of the shape he or she wants hidden within.
    Perhaps as gradual as the prisoner in The Shawshank Redemption who - day by day by day - chips an escape-route through his cell-wall with a teaspoon. Perhaps the sign of having written a genuine poem (where internal and formal compulsions finally meet) is this sense of breaking-through the very constraints you have set yourself.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Day of Hope

  My review of The Collected Poems of Hope Mirrlees edited by Sandeep Parmar (Carcanet,2011) is up on Eyewear today (link in Blogroll to the right). Good to see this important and excellently-compiled edition gaining the exposure it deserves - important in particular for making available the 'lost Modernist masterpiece' Paris.
   By a strange coincidence there is also a very good review of the same book today in the Guardian by Patrick McGuiness, in fact making some similar points to my piece:


Friday, 6 April 2012

A Kind of Assignment: Rabbit is Rich

John Updike, steeling himself for more metaphysics on the golf-course
   A couple of years ago I wrote a laudatory post about John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Now I’ve just got round to completing the third novel in the tetralogy, Rabbit is Rich. For one thing, it’s certainly a more successful, assured novel than the second book, Rabbit Redux, which – while having its own anguished virtues – is lumbered with such major problematics no amount of prose-brilliance can redeem Updike on this one: chiefly a jive-talking blaxploitation-stereotype of a black character he makes a calamitous (not to say tiresomely-longwinded) bodge of exploring race issues through, and an Edie Sedgwick-stereotype of a doomed female character who’s little more than a shared sexual puppet for the male characters, even it seems Rabbit’s 13-year old son.
      To be fair to Updike’s long-term project, however, we should be careful to read each novel within the context both of its preceding decade and of the stage of his life at which we find Rabbit each time, so that the sequence is as much a record of American social history as it is a biographical  narrative. As in Joyce’s A Portrait, shifts in maturity and world-view are reflected both in prose-register and the tenor and texture of Rabbit’s interior monologues: the first book, set in the optimistic 50s and the most poetic of the three, evinces a young man’s verve and impetuous unknowing; Redux parallels the failure of the 60’s hippy- dream with the falling-apart of the nuclear family, and is attendantly dark and troubled; Rich finds Rabbit a beneficiary of the prosperous 70s and settled into a complacent materialism which issues from his past conspire to undermine.
     Rabbit’s thoughts, then, in this third instalment are ostensibly never far from money and what he can buy with it: now a worldly, overweight car-salesman rather implausibly back on good terms with the wife who left him in Redux, there is a Leopold Bloom-like mundanity to his domestic musings which is often the source of rambunctious humour but also juxtaposes less well with Updike’s characteristic riffs of lyricism than in the previous books. Unlike Bloom, Rabbit has become prone to some fairly portentous metaphysical broodings, such as “ By the time they finally get out onto the golf course, green seems a shade of black. Every blade of grass at his feet is an individual life that will die, that has flourished to no purpose. The fairway springy beneath his feet blankets the dead...” Surely no-one has actually thought this while out playing golf; but of course this is no longer Rabbit, Updike has interpolated his own showboating prose-stylism (and writerly weltschmerz) in a way that jars against any sort of continuity of character we had previously believed Rabbit to possess.
    Although the family dramas of his son’s wedding and attempts to re-contact the daughter he’s never known are subtly, vividly handled, with throughout the familiar sense of muddling-through the big events of life, of “playing grown-ups”, my other reservation about Rabbit is Rich is its episodic, almost saga-ish linear narrative, keeping us updated about the characters we recognise from the previous books and moving them forward in not too resolved ways to prepare us for the next novel. Perhaps it is the relentless present tense Updike has chosen to stick with that doesn’t gel so well with Rabbit’s new preoccupation with memories and ghosts.
   But equally the main motor of the rather chugging plot is the  succession of sex-scenes the novel seems all too reliant on to hold our interest; not that they are not well-done for the most part, just that they seem rather gratuitous, functional rather than erotic in a way that lovemaking between a middle-aged husband and wife must often be - and ultimately reflective of an almost seedy and certainly sexist prurience on the part of Rabbit/Updike( there, I have finally conflated the two!), as when he pries into the bedroom photos of the couple he’s just had dinner with.
    By the time we get to the wife-swapping episode, weirdly positioned as the novel’s culmination, we find the two major problematics of the novel (incommensurate over-writing/ pervy phallocentricism) conjoined in one monstrously bathetic and unintentionally hilarious scene. Without giving the game away for potential readers, I will let perhaps the most jaw-droppingly awful sentence of the novel speak for itself: 

     “He dares confide to Thelma, because she has let him fuck her up the ass in proof of love, his sense of miracle at being himself, himself instead of someone else, and his old inkling, now fading in the energy crunch, that there was something that wanted him to find it, that he was here on earth on a kind of assignment.”
     Actually, no amount of prose-brilliance can redeem Updike on this one, either.

Youssou N'Dour as Minister

  Fantastic news that Youssou N'Dour has been elected Culture Minister for Senegal. Listen to this sublime tune from his earlier catalogue. 
   I was trying to think of an English equivalent and its possible consequences - Mark E Smith for UK Culture Minister? Linton Kwesi Johnson?