Tuesday, June 29, 2010

my literary life....

The long commute to my new job means that I've been listening to audio books borrowed from Frome Library. The choice is not enormous, but constraint is liberation (theory of the provincial hotel library, i.e. it forces you to read what you wouldn't normally read). So after the predictable Little Dorrit, I've since gone through John Le Carre's The Spy who Came in from the Cold, Buzz Aldrin's autobiography Magnificent Desolation, and now just coming to the end of Anita Brookner (The Rules of Engagement). These are all new authors to me. Though in another way "new" is the last thing they strike me as; more as parts of my own past life that I somehow failed to attend to at the time.

The last time I had a job with a long solo commute I employed it learning Shakespeare's sonnets by heart (and reciting them - aloud, but only to myself) . I was up to about Sonnet 52 before other amusements intervened. That was a fantastic experience, it brought out wholly different aspects of the poems. As did the art of honing my recitations. One day maybe I'll record them - (yeah yeah that's really going to happen..). I'm no kind of a trained verse speaker but I found this recitation of the Sonnets turning into a sort of dramatic performance.

[I was then unaware of, though not necessarily uninfluenced by, the delicious lines in "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", from Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (1948):

   Just recite the occasional Sonnet
   And your lap will have honey upon it.


I've just seen an obituary for Garry Shider of Funkadelic. As far as I'm concerned "One Nation Under a Groove" is the true American anthem, the one imagined by Whitman, whose America was not a nation but the end of nationality. And maybe Garry also played the guitar on "I call my baby pussy", from that fantastic dbl-LP America Eats Its Young.

I'm writing little pieces for Intercapillary Space. Most recently Lara Glenum and Rupert Loydell/Robert Sheppard, next will be Elizabeth Bletsoe.

As the reference to Buzz Aldrin may have already hinted, I don't really draw a line between literature (high) and literature (writing of all kinds). Some of my most intense literary experience recently has come from a Swedish Puzzle magazine. In the mere words of a language, especially a language I'm only semi-competent in, lie some of the discoveries I care about most. - uppifrån och ned, nyhetstorka, plastsandaler, augustimörker, kryss, bokstäver, avkomma, tävlingsord... It's the same in nature. National Trust reserves are full of things you can't find elsewhere, but nature is also outside National Trust land and is not just a pale shadow in these outsides but has strong, unexpected features. Just see, and a great, strange wilderness is here, in the business park, A-Roads, scruffy estates.

It was the language, too, that occupied a lot of my time with Anita Brookner's book. "as best we might" "such topics as I felt obliged to furnish the silence with". Some of the middle-class "one knew oneself to be one's own worst enemy" etc was terribly grating on me, because I could almost write like that if I wanted. That might have been just a personal thing. But the grating of the narrator's voice, Elizabeth Weatherall's, is a critical issue. To some reviewers her cold insights have seemed indistinguishable from Brookner's own, she is an all-too-"reliable" narrator. I am more inclined to recoil from her, to read her as an awful warning of what happens if you automatically don't "disclose" things, of making too many assumptions about other people's behaviour, of having nothing much to live for, etc. On my reading the "Rules" are in Elizabeth's mind, not in Brookner's. And surely her analysis is only at a Trollopian level, and is that Elizabeth or is it Brookner that I'm talking about? The style is sometimes slipshod, written in haste - this doesn't matter. The vision and the design are beautiful, the ending fabulously arrived at. Sometimes there's an air of something funny happening, of overwhelming movement at farcical speed, coexistent with all the bleakness and standing still. And this empty loneliness is an enormous and completely adequate subject.

I've also been reading: Romantic Women Poets 1770-1836 ed Andrew Ashfield. Like most people who go on reading poetry after leaving college, I generally have a distaste for books of poetry that are clearly aimed at a student audience - and I do take a malicious amusement in the knots that the title has tied itself up in, rendered tongue-tied perhaps by the uninvited headiness of romantic women. It's a grammatical peculiarity that "man" and "woman", as English adjectives, sometimes decline - e.g. "menfolk", "womenfolk". But that's the best I can say in extenuation.

Still, the book was irresistible when found in the charity shop, since I'm deep in Bronte absorption at the moment. At the moment I've read no further than Anna Seward (who's interesting) and Anna Laetitia Barbauld (no, not yet). AS had perhaps all the talent of WW, but not the opportunity. Greatness is not altogether something innate to certain poets, it is a social construct. Wordsworth was allowed to grow great, and he did, he was, he is. Anyhow. But it's wearying to encounter such poets either in gobbets or in single sonnets, in decontextualized chunks of close-printed text (a "generous" selection). I don't really meet A.L.B. . I hate anthologies, in fact. And I hate Selecteds. And I even hate Collecteds, come to that.

Once more these eyes with smiling pleasure hail
The vernal beauties of my native vale!

Well, maybe I lied about Anna Seward being the equal of William. Don't those lines sound worn out, as if the author supposes that poetry has nothing more to say about the spring? Yet they were written twenty years before Lyrical Ballads. But Wordsworth too was often ridiculous. Maria's tempting words to Malvolio - "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em" - are emphatically true of greatness in art, especially the last bit. For Anna Seward and ALB, greatness was not permitted. (Wordsworth himself thought that Charlotte Smith hadn't had her due. I can see why: she's the most exciting poet so far. But she led a difficult, constrained life and her biggest poem was left unfinished... that exemplifies how the social refusal of "greatness" comes about.)

Last night was devoted exclusively to grass books. One of my plans this year was to really get to grips with Agrostis (and so much more), but once again the deficiencies of Fitter and the severities of Hubbard defeated me (I didn't get on to Stace). So today I went to Amazon, took a deep breath, and bought Francis Rose's book, which I've wanted ever since I found out about it. I've spent far too much of my life reading grass books that I don't really understand, and deriving a starved though genuine kind of literary sustenance as a by-product. nb I have actually taken to growing Agrostis in my "garden" (an unattended part of the common land). This is actually a very revealing exercise, and a lot of fun. My plant (Creeping Bent, as I believe) has just come into flower.

The night before that I finished reading The Complete Fawlty Towers, scripts by John Cleese and Connie Booth. The two series (12 episodes in all) were broadcast in 1975 and 1979. They're still pretty funny - a lot funnier than The Meaning of Liff, and even most of The Little Black Bird Book. (Humour, especially British humour, goes off really quickly, because it's so founded on class distinctions, on snobberies that must constantly be replaced by the ruling classes in order to maintain effective class markers.) Fawlty Towers curiously survived its quite uninnovative format because the relationship between the author/actors shows through, in defiance of the plot. Polly and Basil are evidently on the same wavelength but no-one ever says so. In that respect Polly is the most important character. Basil is a better Mr Punch than David Harsent's, because he's so much more than Punch. Only the comedy around Manuel has faded a little - but that was always the broad, Corporal Jones, appealing-to-young-children, side of it. (When F T was first broadcast it sent waves of relief through middle England, because at first it was seen as a Python spin-off, but it wasn't surreal or rude, could be watched by the children, and was guaranteed to be funny all the way through.)

There's a summer sale at www.realitystreet.co.uk that poetry-loving skinflints shouldn't miss - lots of strangely wonderful poetry books for only a quid or two each.



At 4:08 am, Blogger rb said...

would love to hear you reciting sonnets! please record some?

At 1:17 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

well I need a decent mike and probably a new laptop first! I've often idly wondered if it would be a good business plan to record audiobooks of obscure out-of-copyright novels and sell them over the internet. Maybe some people are already doing this.

nice to read Amy Clampitt alongside the heart-rending strawberries..


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