Monday, 23 May 2011

On reading blogs

There’s always a twinge of hurt when a respected friend says they don’t read my blog -- ‘Are you still doing it? how’s it going?’ But they are people who have jobs, unlike me who am more or less retired. And I don’t even read theirs regularly, much though I enjoy them when I do.

It isn’t just a matter of people having the time, though objectively many people don’t. It’s also the sort of time we count it as. Certainly in my case, there’s a sense that while blogs (the sort I enjoy) are not frivolous or trivial, nor are they books and only books and substantial articles count as serious (still a live category in my old-world weltanschauung) and as contributing to my ‘getting on’ in the sense that was instilled into me at grammar school.

Blogs I classify along with serious newspaper articles, of which those in the Guardian, Observer and New Statesman exhaust the time I'm prepared to spend on keeping generally informed rather than seriously deepening my knowledge or understanding. Worthwhile, but only up to a point - time on them should be rationed, I feel. And when I add factual television programmes to that time budget, it’s more than full. So no room left for even friends’ blogs.

In order to justify watching and enjoying The Inbetweeners or Campus I have to put them into the ‘serious art’ category -- or else regard them as popular culture products warranting my ‘serious’ sociological attention.

Just listen to me -- talk about a relic of bygone times. Getting on! -- I'm nearly 70 for god’s sake. Getting on to where, do I imagine? which is the question I ask of Tennyson’s Ulysses and get no sensible answer.

So if you’re not reading this, you’re forgiven.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Getting stuff done before you die

In yesterday’s FT A.N. Wilson commented on someone’s death at 73 that that was a good age at which to die. For me, 73 is a bit too close for comfort; there are things I want to do before I die. Yet what sense does that thought make?

In rational, or do I mean rationalist, terms, none. It won’t do me any good when I'm dead that I've achieved an extra five things. I suppose I might die happier having achieved them, i.e. feel happier during my seconds, hours, weeks or months of dying, but if my death were sudden and unexpected, as I think would be best, I would simply have been happier for what I wouldn’t have been aware was the final stretch of my life.

But if I hadn’t achieved them and were still striving, that needn’t be an unhappy state. If I were cut off in the middle of it and had the odd moment to reflect, I don’t see that my feelings need predominantly be of unhappiness or frustration. I’d be dying in the course of, instead of at the end of, doing stuff like the stuff I do now and being in the state I'm in now, thinking what I do is worthwhile and enjoying doing it. Suppose I had to stop striving and submit to an extended period of illness while gradually dying: I agree that might be frustrating, though I imagine the frustration would be less to the fore in my consciousness than the experience of illness and decline.

Looking at it less rationalistically, though, Hannah Arendt, if I understand her, held, following the Greeks, that we are distinctively human in so far as we escape the sort of round of mere survival routines that all animals have to engage in, and contribute to ‘the human artifice’ (artefact?) that outlives us and constitutes the human world, as opposed to our mere environment. Thus it’s human to put into the world products that last longer than us and are used rather than simply consumed, which may be anything from tools to abstract entities: buildings, paintings, music, books, ideas and institutions. And she doesn’t say this, but I would add the moral and mental formation of the young -- what we leave in the minds of our successors.

It’s irrational to think that we survive in our works after death; the works may survive, we don’t. On the other hand living our lives as if that were the case seems to lend dignity and meaning to them. It seems inhuman not to care about how we will remembered, despite the fact that, being dead, we’ll never be aware of how we are.

Being old and able to contribute something to the lives of younger generations is satisfying, and even in terms of our own interest as opposed to that of others, seems - though it isn’t -- a good reason to be unwilling to die prematurely. Logically, it’s a bad reason because once dead we experience neither being dead prematurely nor missing the people we loved and liked and the fun we were having; being dead is no loss to us. So there’s no sense, logically, if we’re aware we’re about to die prematurely, in regretting it for ourselves: living a bit longer might have enabled us to make a crucial difference to a grandchild, but we wouldn’t have been in a state to regret that difference not being made. We wouldn’t have been in a state full stop. The logical or rational argument here doesn’t seem enough, though.

It’s clear I find this issue confusing intellectually -- if perhaps only intellectually.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Wm's swan: r to r to r

It's not a problem that I ever gave any thought to but you're probably right [Mark] we should be careful about giving free rein to adolescent turmoil -- amongst other reasons because what comes out ain't poetry.

I don't think I ever taught poetry writing well until I had undergraduates and then PGCE students when I did something a bit like your A level venture: I had them start by chopping up two different texts, scrambling them on the the computer and then using the bits as their raw material by making juxtapositions that might mean or suggest something.   I liked the way it removed 'expression' right out of it.  On the other hand, it may have been a cop out.

Wm's swan: response to response

This by email from Mark, for the very good reason that he...

...can’t be coerced into signing up to Google to respond on the blog, so here goes:

What does it tell us about teaching poetry?  Don't?  or 'can't'?  From my perspective, teaching poetry - the writing of - is about first, technique, or form (but really just drawing on a limited palette of features, so that much classroom poetry ends up sounding the same); and second, about the expression of feeling - which ends up with propositional statements, rhymed or alliterated, or metaphoricalised.  And feelings expressed being of a safe, conventional sort - no feeling murderous, horny, rapturous.

Is it possible, or desirable, to have teenagers meddling with the inchoate in a classroom?  Not a little too volatile, this letting rip?  But most of all, is a classroom a place where the un-sensical can be contained, handled, explored?

I think I taught two good poetry lessons when I was a teacher.  The first, on teaching practice at York, played with They Dream Only of America, by John Ashbery.  My mentor said she'd be in the staff room; I'd need her in about 20 minutes...

The second was on 'difficult' contemporary poetry with an A level group.  They weren't very academic, and quite perplexed by Pauline Stainer, John Ash (not bery), Robert Crawford I think.  A cruel and unusual set text.   Best way in was to let them have a go themselves - to write something arcane, obtuse, condensed, free-form.  Best work they ever did, and still in my attic somewhere.  To my shame and regret I'd said I'd get it published, but never did.  What liberated them was the permission to behave like wanky poets; to let rip.  It was playful - they weren't handling things that were out of their control, as I think William was; it was consciously a performance, which gave them a get-out, and an alibi.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Swans and pots of greed

On their mitchellreidamerica blog (April 27th) Mark reports of William (British teenager currently at school in America) -- and I now pass it on with W’s permission -- that

Wm’s class’s latest assignment was to each respond to a different photograph.  His was of two swans on a lake, and here it is, followed by his account of it:

Swan Song

A singing swan was on the lake

A bell ringing in the land forever the land of the swan
A singing swan was on the lake
Two hands clinging together in the partnership of the swan
A singing swan was on the lake
A man kneeling at the altar of desperation in the church of the swan
A singing swan was upon the lake
A cart wheeling eternally into the sunset that was of the swan
A man with a gun was on the lake
A pot of greed in the golden palace of the swan
A singing swan was on the lake
An innocent child blind to the outside world of the swan
A ringing shot was heard on the lake
A bird flying off the cliff of the mountain that was of the swan
A singing swan was on the lake
A ripple of terror among the reeds of the lake of the swan
A cry was heard on the lake
The last salute of the soldier who died in battle for his country, which was the country of the Swan.

Mark comments on what William was doing, and here’s my two penn’orth.

William evidently has the gift of letting his imagination rip -- uninhibited chains of association, one idea or word setting another off. What the association was isn’t always clear, probably not to him even. Where did the bell come from as early as the second line? how does a pair of swans on a lake suggest that, or how does the pair ‘swan’ and ‘lake’ suggest it?

What about ‘the land of the swan’? the photograph would have shown the lake, but the thought that the lake is in a land -- which means not our land -- has to have come from somewhere else.

Sometimes it’s language making its own connections: carts don’t wheel but there are cartwheels, so that says they do. That’s a poet’s gift, to have a sense of the original sharp meanings that have been muffled over time in composite formations.

Wittgenstein said that while most language has serious stuff to do -- ordering, informing, requesting, seducing, naming -- poetry is language that doesn’t. Instead it’s language idling, like a car engine in neutral, not driving anything, just doing its own thing. He also, I think, spoke of language on holiday, playing.

If that’s the case, then the job of the poet, or some sorts of poet, or all poets some time, is to stand aside and let the engine tick over, let language (associations, chains of thought) just get on with it and do its stuff.  The hard thing for most of us is letting that happen.

But the idling engine throws up things that work, are usable, remain of value. It’s possible that never before has any human uttered the collocation, ‘the altar of desperation’, but once one has we recognise what it’s saying and it will stay with us resonating. The poet may have been surprised when it came up, but once it was there, a fact of life out in the open on page or screen, he may have decided to buy into it: ‘Yes, I'll go with that -- it can be not just words twittering away but me saying it; I don’t mind meaning it; it can go out as me saying it.’ Or as the poem saying it, since a poem isn’t the poet speaking in any simple way.

Some poetry works by leaving gaps, creating holes with fuzzy edges. Thus, I have a strong sense that there’s a connection between these two lines:

A man with a gun was on the lake
A pot of greed in the golden palace of the swan

but it’s a great dramatic coup to get from the man having some mean and selfish motive to the concreteness of a pot of greed -- like a pot of gold in a (princess’s?) palace. [Later: Hmm -- W & M now tell me the Pot of Greed is a card in an anime game called Yugioh.]

Some of this poem is doing the sort of thing Rimbaud invented and that still seems like genius and just what was needed, tipping us out of Victorianism into modernness. If I was teaching English I’d give the kids a good dose of him.

But some of the good stuff is quite conventional, as poetry goes, but still original and vivid: ‘A ripple of terror among the reeds’ is great.

William protests that he wasn’t intending any deep meaning. That’s rather the point -- the process churns meaning up anyway.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Surbiton: the good stuff

A couple of posts back I was up a Surbiton side street looking at the nice houses and nasty (and less nasty) flats. Round the corner is one of the main streets, Claremont Road, and very satisfying it is too to walk along from Adelaide Road towards Surbiton Station (itself a classic -- I see I haven’t done a blog on it and I must). Satisfying because interesting in its variety and some of the buildings are good.

First, welcome to our wheelie bins but behind it is the sort of substantial house that was built when Surbiton started to be a commuter suburb with the coming of the railway (which nearby Kingston, the obvious town for it, was too snooty to admit -- to its great disadvantage ever since: it’s stuck on a slow branch line and we’ve got all the fast trains and loads of them.)

 Then this:

And -- a bit of a comedown:

But this I think is a gem:

Pity we then pass on to this, though I suppose it could be worse:

Surbiton doesn't have much more of that stylish 1930s architecture, still less good post-war, but plenty more 19th century villas.  It's been saved from ruination by having the Kingston By-pass (another 1930s wonder) nearby, so there's little through traffic necessitating road widening, one-ways, counterflows, giratories and all that.  It's a backwater with a great, well-served railway station -- about which more one day.