Category Archives: audio

Paxman, Popular Culture and The Poem

In the UK we have a number of national treasures and Jeremy Paxman is one of these. He fronts the BBC Newsnight programme which tries to delve a bit deeper into the stories that politicians spoon feed lazy journalists with. We love Paxo because his interviews of the powerful are a mixture of disbelief and contempt: the humbling of the mighty is always good to watch.

Paxo has become the news this week with the stunning and prescient observation that poetry has lost touch with the public, that it is as remote from popular culture as it is possible to be. This is the gist of his argument as reported in the Grauniad:

“I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn’t happen, because it’s the most delightful thing,” said Paxman. “It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.”

He is of course correct, it’s a view that I’ve been known to express over the last four years and have made arduity as an attempt to bridge at least one of the gaps.

Ten years ago I would have pointed at the material that is currently produced as the main problem with work too often being chronically self-indulgent or inaccessible or both. I’m no longer entirely of that view but the problem is real, the same article reports a drop in the value of UK poetry sales from £8.4 million in 2009 to £7.8 million in 2013 yet the response of those poets quoted is largely one of denial.

I’d like to start with some basics; poetry in the UK is enclosed, it has conversations with itself and argues about things that nobody outside of poetry either relates to or cares about; poetry covers a wide spectrum with a variety of styles, genres and subject matter but most of it isn’t very good; poetry’s relationship with academia is not helpful.

There are comparisons to be made, fiction and music do remarkably well and both of these range from the ‘popular’ to the (much) more esoteric. Poetry does the same but very few people care about the Poem compared with those that care about either music or fiction. Unlike these two competitors, there are many more people that write poetry than those who read it.

I’d like to pay some attention to Paxo’s charge of irrelevance because I don’t understand the ‘leap’ from being incestuous and self-obsessed to relevance. At the ‘radical’ end of the spectrum there is certainly material that is pertains to and engages with most aspects of public life. Of course, the ‘message’ emanating from this material may not readily fit into what appears to be the current consensus but it certainly challenges the status quo. So, the material is relevant but some of the most relevant is wrapped up in vocabularies and formats that most people find challenging. Without naming any names it must also be said that most of the mainstream poems and poets (ie those that attract the ‘quality’ press and get awarded prizes) are appallingly bad in terms of skill, subject matter and relevance. There is still too much of the confessional and the observational and little or nothing that gives me any indication at all of what it might be like to live and act in these dismal times.

Then there’s the issue of what we want the Poem to do, a question that is clouded by the Image Problem. A recent and entirely random poll conducted by this blog would suggest that poetry either:

  • expresses strong eomotions or;
  • describes lyrical scenes or;
  • is profound

I must stress that this poll was less than objective and only involved about ten individuals but most people felt that the Poem had lost its way with Eliot and what they see as the descent into obscurity and inaccessible elitism.

Also, in my small part of the world, the only venue for poetry has been an open mic event attended exclusively by poets who read their material. I attended for a couple of years and then decided to produce a few gigs last year that featured a mix of poetry, music, storytelling and elements of the visual arts. We attracted a mixed crowd and managed to change some people’s minds about the Poem. As regular readers might know, most of my output is experimental but I was gratified by the strength of response and by the subsequent interest that was shown, especially from music fans. What surprised me was how the best reaction was to the most experimental aspect of my work rather than material that I considered to be more accessible.

For me, the best result from this is that I’ve been able to broaden my range of collaborators and now work primarily with visual artists, musicians and writers of fiction. I’ve found that I get a much more objective reaction to my work. One evening earlier this week I was working on mixing some multiple vocal / jazz material with a composer and he made the (gentle) observation that my more recent contribution wasn’t as strong as some of the earlier versions. In the past I would probably dismissed this as the response of a non-poet who didn’t fully appreciate the poetic subtlety of what I’m trying to achieve. In this instance, because he wants to make this ‘work’ as much as I do, I reviewed my various versions and am now in the process of radical modification- I need to do this quickly because I’m working with a guitarist tomorrow evening.

So, performance alongside other means of creative expression and collaboration with practitioners in different fields may be a couple of ways of addressing the Paxo challenge in terms of engagement and relevance. It can’t do any harm. Can it?

Claudius App Fortnight: Dionysus Crucified, Derivation and Noise

I may have to extend this particular fortnight by a week or so and then come back with some more during the summer, hadn’t realised how much there is that I want to write about.

I mentioned the derived traffic island as a problem for a listener without access to the text. I’ve been given some consideration as to what this strange description might involve. The relevant long lines are:

     I from a nylon jacket announce recombinance because it is unreasonable that my skin not also learn to survive in plastic consciousness of objecthood
So when I in congealed oil products may orange it to the top at the derived traffic island or at some other holy place as though some beacon were lit
    Then I precisely may not die and may not be killed but persist like toxins or persist like some unvanquishable god-component in e.g. chthonic

To those of us familiar with the Late Modern strain, this isn’t too tricky although it is convoluted. The only stumbling point is this piece of road accoutrement that is said to be derived. In the most commonly used sense, to be derived is to be based on or developed from something else which doesn’t make any kind of sense especially when the traffic island is described as a holy place which seems to bestow something along the way to immortality. Having alluded to this in the previous post I mulled it over and tried the usual bebrowed method of looking at the OED but nothing immediately clicked into place and then another possibility came to mind. The Situationists made use of ‘derive’ and Guy Debord defined it in 1958 as:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

Psychogeography has since gone through a variety of phases, permutations and (in the UK) moves from being in vogue to relative obscurity every five years or so. Without wishing to overread too much and acknowledging that I do want the Jarvis Project to at least nod towards Debord, it is possible to see this traffic island a a fixed point on a geographical contour. This point also is a place of safety from being knocked down and holiness might spring from what some see as the ritual significance of ‘sight points’ in the landscape, hence the reference to lit beacons.

Of course this is more tentastive and provisional than usual but I’m going to have to look at the other road bits in the rest of the poems to see whether this hunch can be supported. This might be timely because I understand the next long poem is going to relate a series of journeys through the landscape.

We now come to noise and its relationship to sound. Last year I did four or five gigs involving multiple voices speaking simultaneously and made a couple of audio-visual pieces using the same technique. Having spent many hours mixing and layering what people say in interviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that two voices saying different things at the same time is reasonably intelligible (sound) whereas three voices isn’t (noise). Having already written about the first use of two overlaid voices, I want to pay some attention to the other three:

The first of these starts at about 21.30 on the track and is a rendition of what I think of as ‘the cross page’ because its central feature is the figure of a cross over most of the page with the text interspersed in and around it. This is another section where the two voices follow each other. Listeners with no previous knowledge/familiarty will need to make their own mind about coherence but I have trouble following what’s being said even when I have the text in front of me. It can be argued that this is due to the apparently random setting out of the lines but it is more likely due to the speed of the delivery and the very short gap between the voices. I accept that some of the lines are quite a challenge in themselves (Ive so you can rip / Girlyboy up now / Peeping Non / Mummy hates him too) but read this way doesn’t help, unless the intention is to make noise rather than ‘sense’.

The second is more conventional and ‘works’, it occurs in three places on the Messenger section of the poem, the first two lines are:

    Were screaming for Cheryl and Ashley to get back together or else for essential supplies of fresh water                     impaled on the fir
So hard I could hardly remember the theme tune that Pen had reminded me made up the keycode which opened                        in matchless pain

So, the long lines are read by Simon with Justin providing the brief interjections and this ‘works’ because the pace is easier and the voices don’t seem to be in competition with each other. This has the effect of drawing the audience in rather than the previous bombardment.

The last piece takes up almost all of the Canticle page and starts at about 28.15 on the track. This was completely unexpected because I recognised that the setting out of the lines was unusual but hadn’t worked out that this was written for a singing and a speaking voice using different lines from the text. I’m guessing that most listeners will find these last few minutes very challenging indeed but I think it’s brilliant and an example of what can be done of the sound / noise boundaries. It’s not so much that the reading of Canticle makes the lines discernible, it is the impression formed by listening that seems to be important here. I’m reminded here of the many discussions I’ve had with friends as to the merits of free jazz which treads the same kind of lines but is completely alien noise to most people.

To conclude, Dionysus Crucified is a brilliant poem and Claudius App have provided a valuable service for us all by hiding this recording in the recesses of their site. Listen to it with headphones, buy it from Critical Documents and read it- you won’t be disappointed.

David Jones Week: Jones reads from The Anathemata

We’ll start with the obvious: Auden was right when he said that the above was the finest long poem of the 20th century. This is an incredible piece of work of sustained brilliance throughout and its once scary level of obscurity has been considerably reduced by the availability of reliable information to be found on the interweb.

Once again, these recordings are made available by the generosity of Nathaniel Drake Carlson and Dylan Lloyd.

For those who are not familiar with The Anathemata, it is a glorious exploration through time and place of Jones’ personal cultural enthusiasms. These include his Roman Catholic faith, his interest in myth, the nature of the Roman Empire and what I think of as Welshness.

There are many ‘depths’ to the work but an appreciation of these is not necessary to an appreciation of its stature and worth.

The first reading is from the second section which is entitled Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea:

These next two are from section VII, Mabinog’s Liturgy which manages to be both profound and beautiful:

The last of these is taken from eighth and final section, Sherethursdaye and Venus Day:

That’s the end of David Jones week, now I think I’ll have a Claudius App fortnight.

David Jones Week: Reading The Fatigue.

First of all,I need to than the generosity of Nathaniel Drake Carlson and Dylan Lloyd for their generosity in providing me with these recordings which have been an absolute revelation for me. This one is from Nathaniel and it is the longest (23 mins) and it jumps around a lot at about 19 mins, I’ve decided to leave this in rather than edit it out because it is how it is, if that makes sense.

Secondly, because of these recordings, I’ve realised that I haven’t paid enough attention to the shorter work and this has done Jones a great disservice because this material is staggeringly good and I’m very, very impressed by The Fatigue because of its elegance and deep humanity.

This oversight is even more heinous because I’ve had a copy of The Sleeping Lord collection for more than three years and have failed to give it the attention that it deserves. This is made worse by the fact that these ‘fragments’ are probably the best entry points for most new readers. Although Jones’ intro here is good, I want to quote something from the print intro where Jones describes an incised stone marking the site of a legion’s cook-house that he saw on a trip to Jerusalem in 1934:

The incised stone they showed to me was set up more than half a century after the Passion, for the tenth Fretensis was not I understand posted to Judea until the days of Trajan. None the less the sight of it brought the ordinary serving soldiers of First Century Roman Judea very close to one especially owing to its alleged domestic-regimental use. And at the same time it brought back vividly to my mind those ill-scrawled inscriptions of the Forward Zone. equally domestic and regimental, marking at the turn of a duck-board track, the flimsy shelter that served as the cook-house of B Coy, nth Batt. R.W.F. or the painted board, set askew, and pock-marked by stray bullet-holes, which read nth Field Coy. R.E. To gum-boot store. No loitering by day. But what a fall in the calligraphy.

Given that In Parenthesis was published two years later, I don’t think it takes too much imagination to suggest that this neatly expresses the shifting complexities of that long poem about life in the trenches. I don’t want to over-read (again) but this fascination with his personal cultural clutter talks to me of a strong notion of the past living and breathing in the apparent immediacy of the present.

This will take less than twenty five minutes of your life and hopefully will demonstrate to you just how important a poet Jones is to all of us.

David Jones reads from In Parenthesis

We’ll start with the obvious. In Parenthesis is the finest poem in English about WW1. This is not just my view, it is one shared by Sir Michael Howard, our foremost military historian:

David Jones’s In Parenthesis is the greatest poem to emerge from the First World War, and indeed one of the greatest to emerge from any war. It could have been written only by someone who had not only experienced the war in all its horror, but who was himself soaked in both poetry and history and for whom that war deepened his understanding of both.

What is perhaps most remarkable is the way in which Jones gives voice to a wide range of perspectives based on his own experience and those of his comrades. It is an account of one man’s progress from initial training in England until the assault on Mametz Wood as part of the Somme offensive in 1916. One of the most remarkable aspects of the poem is the interweaving of our cultural past into the present whilst not sacrificing the very real depiction of trench warfare.

I’ve written at length about In Parenthesis both here and on arduity so I don’t intend to repeat myself any further. The reason for this post is that, due to the generosity on Nathaniel Drake Carlson, I am now in possession of a number of recordings taken from one of those prehistoric vinyl things of Jones reading his work. These two are from In Parenthesis, the first is from Starlight Order:

The second is from The Five Unmistakeable Marks:

I think both of these illustrate the strngth of the work and the fact that it is uncannily beautiful to listen to. In the first track a tedious and very dangerous task is made almost magical and this is enhanced by the care that Jones takes in his reading. In his introduction, Jones has this: “……for I think that day by day in the Waste Land the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the emotions of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, Book iv, chapter 15- that landscape spoke with ‘a grimly voice’.” Of course, the idea of enchantment on the front line in 1916 is more than somewhat at odds with our modern perception of what this particular hell may have been like but both the text and Jones’ reading of it here make a more than convincing case especially if you consider enchantment with a ‘grimly’ voice.

The second track describes the moment of the initial assault on Mametz Wood and again conveys the otherness of this experience, our protagonist is moving forward in his ‘own bright cloud’ which then clears so that he can see the landscape before him. Again, Jones’ careful modulation and cadence transposes the event from something horrifically violent and bewildering into something quite specific, quite detailed culled from a memory that must have been etched on to the inside of his skull.

Neither Sir Michael or I were present at the Somme so we can’t vouch for the absolute authenticity of what is described here but it does appear to have a kind of ‘truth’ that is sharper and clearer, at least to me, than other first-hand accounts.

I intend to continue with the rest of these recordings because I think they provide valuable context for the work and may even encourage more readers to buy the book and read it. Once again my heartfelt thanks to Nathaniel for his generosity.