Sunday, 14 September 2008

Death of Poetry Greatly Exaggerated

I’ve read a lot over the years about the death of poetry. People ament that no-one publishes poetry, that books of poetry sell such pathetic numbers that publishers won’t touch them, and that poets live on air, government grants and their day jobs.

Well I’m here to tell you that it’s not as bad as it seems. It’s just that we’ve forgotten what poetry is, and so we’re looking in the wrong place.

Poetry was originally an oral form, not a written one, and intended to be sung or chanted. For people who don’t read, poetry is a lot more interesting to listen to than prose – it has rhythm, it often rhymes, it uses repetition. If it’s accompanied by music it has an added emotional resonance.

The limitation of oral forms of communication, however, is that they require physical presence. The singer or reciter has to travel to his or her audience, or bring them in. The printing press made a big change in this, allowing mass reproduction of the verbal content of poetry – although much more limited reproduction of the music, since a musical score is only of interest to a trained musician.

The result of this is that over the centuries following the invention of the printing press, poetry gradually changed from an oral to a written art, and became divorced from its musical origins. Poets were able to spread their verbal wings, secure in the knowledge that their readers could go back and look again if they got lost. The form changed with less “musical” forms such as blank verse and heroic couplets becoming more popular. In the 20th century, even these gave way to free verse – not, as we often think, where there is no rhythm, but where the rhythm changes and becomes irregular.

However, why would you read poetry when you can read prose? Printing meant that poetry was much les necessary, indeed that prose was the easier form to read, with the various poetic devices serving more as a distraction than an aid. This being the case, poetry’s point of distinction was no longer its “musicality” – its rhyme and rhythm – but its beauty of language, it’s use of imagery and allusion.

What happened to poetry in the 20th century is that it was increasingly crowded into a narrow band of territory. The growth of the novel, and the development of artistic, lyrical prose, left less and less territory for poetry to call its own. The towering poets of the 20th century – Yeats and Eliot – are very different poets, but alike in their obscurity. Eliot’s masterpiece, “The Wasteland” is not a poem you read, it is a poem you study using extensive footnotes. Those that followed matched them – poetry became an art for an increasingly small literary class.

So far, we’re with the death of poetry, as widely announced. However, if the printing press turned poetry into a literary art, another invention has been restoring it to its origins. Sound recording (and its cousin, the recording of vision) is to the 20th and 21st centuries what the printing press was to the 15th. It has transformed the way we communicate, and created art-forms that were not previously imagined.

One product of the boom in sound recording is the boom in songwriting. Before sound recording was readily accessible, the creation of songs was largely a folk art, with songs performed in vaudeville and published as sheet music for other vaudevillians, or passed around orally between folk musicians. The development of recording technology, particularly since WWII, has allowed the massive expansion, and mass distribution, of recorded songs.

Of course, not all these songs are particularly “poetic” in the sense we understand it. When Chuck Berry sang “Roll Over, Beethoven” he didn’t expect anyone to be inspired by the lyric, he just wanted them to dance. There are plenty of songs like that. The Spice Girls made millions singing vapid lyrics for teenage girls. Nor was I surprised to download the lyrics of my latest favourite band, Fleet Foxes, and find that they were essentially meaningless.

The singer-songwriters of the 1970s are often credited with adding poetry to the world of song. As a teenager we had Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock” and “The Sounds of Silence” included in our textbooks, and I was very jealous when some of my contemporaries got to study Bob Dylan as their “modern poet” while my class had to “do” William Bloody Yeats.

However, I’d prefer to give you a few examples from my personal favourites. Of course we could debate their literary merits for ages – feel free to leave a comment, but I’ll just let them speak for themselves.

“Strange Waters” by Bruce Cockburn:

I've seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind
Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins
Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities
The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity

I've stood in airports guarded glass and chrome
Walked rifled roads and landmined loam
Seen a forest in flames right down to the road
Burned in love till I've seen my heart explode

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters

Across the concrete fields of man
Sun ray like a camera pans
Some will run and some will stand
Everything is bullshit but the open hand

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?

“Ruby’s Arms” by Tom Waits

I will leave behind all of my clothes,
I wore when I was with you,
all I need's my railroad boots
and my leather jacket
as I say goodbye to Ruby's arms
although my heart is breaking,
I will steal away out through your blinds,
for soon you will be waking.

The morning light has washed your face
and everything is turning blue now,
hold on to your pillow case
there's nothing I can do now,
as I say goodbye to Ruby's arms,
you'll find another soldier,
and I swear to God by Christmas time,
there'll be someone else to hold you.
The only thing I'm taking is
the scarf off of your clothesline,
I'll hurry past your chest of drawers
and your broken wind chimes,

As I say goodbye
I'll say goodbye,
say goodbye to Ruby's arms.

I will feel my way down the darkened hall,
and out into the morning,
the hobos at the freightyards
have kept their fires burning,
Jesus Christ this goddamn rain,
will someone put me on a train,
I'll never kiss your lips again
or break your heart,
as I say goodbyeI'll say goodbye,
say goodbye to Ruby's arms.

“Dimming of the Day” by Richard Thompson.

This old house is falling down around my ears
I’m drowning in the river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pulled me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart
Now all the bonny birds have wheeled away
I need you at the dimming of the day

Come the night you’re only what I want
Come the night you could be my confidant

I see you on the street in company
Why don’t you come and ease your mind with me
I’m living for the night we steal away
I need you at the dimming of the day.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Real Men

I really would like to write more often. Ideas pass through my brain and I think, “I should put that on my blog”, but I get busy and then I forget what I was going to say. However, part of it is my incompetence as a blogger, because I keep writing at such length. Most people’s blogs contain really short articles, just quick paragraphs. I guess having grown up in the age of the book, I’m used to going into detail so even the length I write at here seems over-compressed sometimes.

One blog cum chat site I recently joined in my local church’s new site ( It’s interesting because in the discussion you see a side of people that you don’t see on Sunday mornings. One of the guys started a men’s group off with a discussion about a book called “Why Men Hate Going to Church” by David Murrow. I haven’t read the book but I have visited his website

In a nutshell, he says the church has become “feminised” – it’s become a place which reflects feminine ways of thinking and doing things, and as a consequence most men hate it. Over 60% of church attendees are women, while the men who do attend often don’t get much out of it. Then they suggest various things which can help to make church more “masculine” – like getting rid of the flowers, making a more masculine church language by avoiding words like “precious” and “personal relationship”, being more “outdoors” and so on.

Of course this was all news to me. I go to church regularly although I’m not always very enthusiastic about it – so I can relate to that part at least. But I never though that was because I was a man – I thought lots of women felt the same, and in fact I know plenty who do. Furthermore, every church I’ve been to has been run by men. St Andrews is the first church I’ve been to with a woman minister – and even there she’s the assistant, the bloke is the one in charge! And his bosses, the bishops and archdeacons and so on, are all men. In our previous churches all the elders and deacons were men. So how has the church become feminised? Perhaps the d├ęcor ends up being feminine because that’s the only place women have any control.

Secondly the prescriptions were new to me. Would I feel more at home in church if it had a “tool time”? Or if we talked more about fishing? The picture of men drawn in this material was so stereotyped as to be almost funny – a bit like the Spooky Men’s Chorale or the Sensitive New Age Cowpersons. Nothing would be surer to drive me away. So here’s my entirely personal take on what would make church more useful and interesting for this particular man. Other men and women are free to differ.

1. We should be able to think for ourselves. Thinking differently from others and asking awkward questions should be encouraged, not frowned on.
2. There should be less sitting and listening and more interacting and discussing.
3. We should be able to go into something in depth, not just skim the surface then move on.
4. We should be able to play and sing music that wasn’t written and published by certified “christian” artists and labels. Why should the Devil have all the good music?
5. There should be a lot more laughing and mucking around.

I’ve always been one of those blokes that liked to hang around with the girls and so I ended up in community development not engineering. That means I’m not really qualified to talk on this subject. However my dad did give me a Y chromosome, so I assume there are other men who see things the same way – and probably quite a few women too although I know some who would come to church for tool time.