Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Unrecorded Literary Past

The past is littered with them. My past is. Poetry readings, literary events, evening of live verse, of poets standing there expounding, shouting, declaiming, orating, performing, reciting, generating poetry into the thick book free air. Poetry live manages something that poetry dead, or at least poetry printed, simply does not.

The theory is that spoken poetry possess some sort of power that the stuff you experience silently by reading it from a book does not possess. Having the poet present adds value. The activity becomes an event, transcends itself, makes sparks.

Of course, as anyone who has been an habitué of the reading, and in particular the open reading, will know not all live lit is like this. There are the longeurs. The great spaces into which the untried and untested stumble. The spaces where the imperfect spout their material. Where the not that good spend time. Where the less than perfect flaunt their broken parts. Where the never to be really exciting try so hard to be something they are not.

But we’ll skip round that. It’s part of the territory. A necessary component of the great twenty-first century literary experience.

Hidden in this morass are the great readings. The outstanding events that happen once in a lifetime. The recitations by the great who are now dead. The sparkling performances by the rising and the recitations by those at the top of their games. I’ve been to these. Heard Sorley Maclean read with RS Thomas, watched John Ashbery smile, listened to Ed Dorn act out Gunslinger, bp nichol enthral a hard-bitten north London mob, Ian Macmillan make his audience laugh more than they knew was possible. I’ve listened to Yevtushenko electrify a stadium full of Russians, John Ormond thrill a Cardiff pub back room, Ted Hughes act like a great standing stone at the Sherman, and Bob Cobbing stun a room full of besuited businessmen. The great readings. The ones where something happens that’s out of the ordinary, where the poetry lifts and flies. Where the usual is totally transcended into something many thought it never could be.

And all of this goes unrecorded, the large part of it. Little is taped. Less filmed. The reading happens and then it’s gone. All that’s left is memory and mist.

When I began as a poet I sort of hoped that here in Wales at least we’d have our newspapers review literary performances. The one last night by Lawrence Ferlinghetti making a rare visit to the Oriel Bookshop, Jeff Nuttall falling off the stage at the Reardon Smith or Lily Greenham making truly amazing sounds at the Park Hotel. But no.

Soccer, running, fishing, horses, am dram, school pantos – all of that. But poetry readings? No. Never seen a one.

Julia Novak recognises this. Her Live Poetry – An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance (Rodopi) is the first study I’ve seen that sets about trying to provide academics with an apparatus with which they can discuss the poetry reading. Poetry readings have become an essential part of the writing and distribution of poetry during the past forty years. Why is it that “we know almost nothing about how specific poems, poets and types of poetry have been shaped by expectations of performance?”

The argument that performed poetry is somehow inferior to the printed kind or that the live reading is merely an extension of the written word no longer hold water. There are too many top end writers out there who make money from the circuit. They produce work specifically for those arenas. But it is their books that get reviewed rather than their performances. Check the Sunday papers. Gillian Clarke’s latest from Carcanet will get a complete discussion but not her full-on performance with Carol Ann Duffy at the Hay Festival. Barry MacSweeney at the Sandringham Hotel gets no mention but his great Wolf Tongue, that gets the full treatment.

Novak is nothing if not thorough. Her study encompasses not just the poet with a voice on the platform but offers a whole analysis of how arm gestures, stances, introductions, contexts and ways of actually mouthing the words can have an effect on the emerging poem. She offers ways of analysing the articulatory parameters of the poet’s verbal utterances. Pitch, movement, deviation from the printed text, body communication, accent, tone, range and context are all quantified. She concludes that there is a branch of artistic endeavour, of literature, being practised that has yet to be fully-engaged with by the academic community. She proposes that a start be made. She has something here.

Live Poetry gives us valuable insights into a reading scene that many know little about. The whole battle between street wise and studied, between black and white, between loud and quiet is explored. She says what she means. Live poetry “can be defined as emerging from the fundamental bi-mediality of the genre of poetry – i.e. its potential realisation as spoken or written word – as a specific manifestation of poetry’s oral mode of realisation, which is parallel to, rather than a mere derivative ‘version’ of, written mode.” It’s something different.

Back down at the Juno Lounge or Clwb Ifor or Chapter’s Media Point the latest open mic is in action. A cluster of newbies are there with poem in hand waiting for their slots. The main acts, the guests, brought there as the supposed reason for this night’s live event, have their audience swelled by the wannabes and the wannabe’s mates. In fact without the wannabes and their cohorts there may, on occasion, be no audience at all. It is how it is in the poetry world.

Sometimes someone will record something on an iPhone. Now and again there’ll be a camera on a tripod in the corner, its red record light winking. But generally the experience will sift off into the air once it’s done. We’ll talk about it for a bit in the bar. We might mention it when we get home. But after that it’ll be mostly forgotten. Poetry reading, gone.

The pic at the top is Ed Dorn reading at Buffalo

Friday, 2 March 2012

Literary Heroes

Do you have them? What’s it like when after the passage of time you go back and check? Are these guys still up to it? Do they thrill like they once did? Do they remain the ground breakers and the jet engined bodhisattvas you once imagined them to be? I’ve just got round to reading Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. This is a book I sold for decades when it appeared as a British Picador but never got round to actually reading. Until now. Johnson was Kerouac’s girlfriend in the fifties and one of the few women who made any sort of impression as a Beat. Minor Characters is her memoir of the period. “A young woman’s coming-of-age in the beat orbit of Jack Kerouac.” It was published in 1983.

Johnson, Jewish Joyce Glassman at the time, emerges as a writer to be reckoned with. The book is half beat memoir and half the story of Johnson’s own struggle to make it as a female writer. This was a time when, despite all the rule breaking, the masculine ethos still ruled. Ginsberg is there, the intellectual centre, the master of turn and spin. Robert Frank, the photographer, is the quiet genius. John Cellon Holmes is the man you can talk to. Michael McClure and Gregory Corso are tolerable outsiders. Kerouac comes out as a misanthrope, a drunk, a bore, a writer who perpetually let his friends down and was inconstant as the wind. All the qualities, of course, which made his writing as exciting as it was. But as a hero this wasn’t the sort of description I wanted to find.

I looked again at the Kerouac poetry. Mexico City Blues, Old Angel Midnight, The Book of Haikus, The Scattered Poems. Surface here was and still is everything. Depth barely exists. Everything seems to have been written instantly without a thought for revision. The beat way. Only in Trip Trap: Haiku On The Road does the poetry really fly and that’s probably down to the fact that these are collaborative poems made with both Albert Saijo and Lew Welch on a road journey from San Francisco to New York in 1959. Disheartened? I am.

I chase down another hero. Michael McClure. The San Francisco poet appears as Pat McLear in Kerouac’s Big Sur. His beast language as exemplified by some of the work in his seminal 1964 City Lights title Ghost Tantras was a big influence on my early sound improvisations.

McClure’s version went something like:

Grahhhhr. Grahhhr. Gahar. Ghrahhr. Grahhr. Grahhr.
Ghrahhr. Grahhhr. Grahhr. Gratharrr! Grahhrr.
Ghrahrr. Ghraaaaaaahrr. Grhar. Ghhrarrr! Grahhhrr.
Ghrahrr. Gharr! Ghrahhhhr. Grahhrr. Ghraherrr.

A mix of guttural and laryngeal sound that brings together lion roars, a touch of detonated dada, and emotional truths. I set up my BBC B computer with a data pool derived from McClure’s beast outpourings and let the machine randomly rip. Finch the sound poet as beast master. For a time I’d be there on stage, roaring at startled audiences who’d never heard of McClure and wondered what I was on.

Penguin have now reissued two earlier McClure titles, The New Book/A Book of Torture and Star in one set as Huge Dreams – San Francisco and Beat Poems with an introduction by Robert Creeley. Irresistible. And never read by me. In it McClure pours forth spontaneously. “I was twenty-seven. Writing these poems, I imagined it as one long poem. That was as coherent as I could be…..I imagined I was Shelley, sometimes I imagined I was Antonin Artaud.” He would have done better if he’d imagined he was Allen Ginsberg.

But I’m probably being Unkind. Spontaneity can succeed, as McClure’s Ghost Tantras so well proved. As a performer McClure went on to work with Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek and to take the results out on the circuit. You can see him reciting Chaucer in Scorsese’s the Last Waltz.

Two down. Where next? At the British Library recently I bought a postcard of the late J G Ballard. Taken by Fay Godwin in 1976 at Ballard’s experimental height. It’s on my notice board now, behind me. I take down High Rise and Crash and, for good measure, The Drowned World and check, gingerly, to see if they still hold their original exotic and innovative power. I dip and read. I needn’t have worried. Unlike batteries left alone in a dark room for decades these books are still full of spark. Ballard was the hero I’d never invite as a guest to the Oriel Bookshop for fear that he might turn out to be ordinary and not the genius I’d expected. But I need not have worried.

Yet I can’t give up on Jack, can I? I reread a slice of Dharma Bums, his description of the void and his wine-fuelled search for enlightenment. Still speeds, still crackles, still works. Not all lost.

Kerouac had already begun to fade as the fifties turned into the sixties, the time I discovered him. As Johnson has it, Kerouac “who retreated farther and farther from the centre of the stage into the dusty wings, out to the back alley, tunnelling backwards through decades toward the Lowell of his earliest vision, and – finding it in a narrow place, the wonder gone from it – making the desolate effort to assume its prejudices, its bitter suspicions, ‘The pure products of America go crazy,’ Dr William Carlos Williams had written.” So it all went.

I put the books back. All of them. Turn round and face the future. This is 2012. Move on. There’s a hell of a lot still to happen.