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In the years when I haunted jazz clubs in search of music and convivial company, the conversation–opener was a query about your favourite musician. I regularly rose to the bait, sparking off a lively discussion that was eventually drowned in the sheer volume of sound generated on the bandstand. The time came when I realised that these heated exchanges added little to the sum total of human knowledge. Thereafter I went to jazz sessions just to listen to the music.
This "favourite" gambit proved an inevitable accompaniment to other cultural activities. Conversation with the current light of my life on visits to the ballet centred on favourite dancers; a sibilant whisper in the middle of a poetry reading signalled the arrival of a favourite poem; at art galleries the question "who's your favourite artist of all time ?" was one to which natural modesty forbad me to give the obvious answer. I decided to haunt future cultural venues solo.
I run away when anyone raises the subject of favourites. The simple truth of the matter is that I don't cultivate them. The way I see it is this. Art is discovery, and one interesting experience always opens up others, so I never want to hang around too long in the same spot. Thus while early concert–going introduced me to the classical repertoire, a diversion to music of the Baroque opened my ears to the delights of improvisation. From there it was but a sideways step to jazz and, following an unexpected stay in India, to oriental idioms. After that experience my mind had limbered up enough to investigate contemporary music.
Exploring such a vast terrain, and fitting in occasional return visits at irregular intervals, doesn't leave room to single out one work as favourite. I'm happy to linger with some discoveries longer than with others, but am never tempted to erect a shrine for the worship of only one piece.
To me that seems an eminently sensible attitude. However I am uneasily aware of the many manifestations of society's obvious obsession with favourite things, like record displays that trumpet "Folk Favourites", "Favourites from the opera" or "All-Time Favourite Hits", and the sounds of radio music with "Your Hundred Best Tunes", "These you have loved" or "Jazz Record Requests", perpetually playing someone's favourite tune.
As with music so with the other arts — poetry even. There are many poems to which I return with pleasure, but there's no solitary monolithic favourite of a poem towering proudly over all others in my mental library. Some authorities might connect this with the trauma induced by the routine of Eng. Lit. classes at schools during the early thirties. Poetry appreciation meant memorising large chunks of the Treasures of English Verse, with the threat of an imposition or an angry cuff when memory stalled. I can hear those poems still in my mind's ear, unsummoned, gabbled and garbled:
The noise of battle still rolls among those mountains by the winter sea, Lynette endlessly nags good Sir Gareth, and the hosts of bloody daffodils persistently flash upon my inward eye, despite being buried by the accumulated memories of the ensuing forty years. These, decidedly, are among my unfavourite poems.
It was the fortuitous arrival of a teacher of less authoritarian bent that rescued me from this miserable process of brainwashing. (Are those people who cling so pathetically to a Palgravian Golden Treasure the unfortunates who didn't escape?). I had laboured under the misapprehension that the only good poets were dead ones, and their work was written in an archaic language that had little in common with the urgencies of everyday speech.
The new master introduced me to contemporary living here-and-now poets, opened my mind to the magic of words, and having roused my interest sent me off on a personal trip that promptly led to Eliot and Pound, to Auden, Spender, McNeice and Read. And they, in their different ways, guided me to wider fields, to other poets, to other cultures.
On my bookshelves there are still a few of the slim volumes of verse acquired in these years of teenage enthusiasm. Glancing through one recently I dislodged a yellowed cutting with some lines by Louis MacNeice that must have echoed my political preoccupations:
Twenty years forgetting,
We said "Make merry in the sunshine,
With war-clouds looming, I made merry in the sunshine, until I discovered that posts have the gift of prophecy. I found myself in the RAF and the sun was indeed setting behind the hangar. Then a few years later a posting to India brought me face to face with an alien culture.
I struggled with some of the epic poems - the Rigveda, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, but the translations proved to be as poor as the bindings of the books, which crumbled and perished with damp and mould during the monsoon rains. The ants finished off the remnants before I did.
One tatty volume has survived my stay, a paper-bound collection of work by budding poets serving in the forces in India. One piece in particular impressed me then and still leaps to mind when thoughts turn to India:
The railway stations in the blinding sun;
That evocative fragment from H.H. Tilley's The Indian Scene is a shared experience and attitude.
Most of my duty time was spent in isolated radar sites, on-peaks in the Western Ghats, remote from any form of civilisation. once on a rare foray into the bookshops of Bombay, I discovered an American edition of the collected works of Dorothy Parker. During the next few months I rose early each day and greeted the rising sun with a reading from this volume.
Should Heaven send me any son,
It helped to exorcise the resentment attached to Eng. Lit.
Essentially, I suppose I'm not a word-person: my mind copes more easily with visual rather than verbal imagery, and a poem does not always come singing off the page at first reading. I enjoy the typographical layouts of work by e.e.cummings, like the look of the jagged aggressive agit-prop rhythms and constructions of Mayakovsky, but poems really come alive, become an incantation, in performance. Performance, whether a personal reading, a broadcast or a recording, brings the words to life.
To hear the dry, lay-preacher delivery of T.S. Eliot or the friendly strangulated tenor of Richard Brautigan, the keening protest of Bob Dylan or the booming lyric rhetoric of Dylan Thomas the flatly-spoken wit of Dorothy Parker or the less-than-sober accent of Dominic Behan... that's a true poetic experience.
There are times when I have felt the urge to break through the bounds of mere appreciation and write some verse. The results have usually made me appreciate all the more the work of those with the requisite talent and skill. But the arrival of concrete poetry in the fifties, after a long trip from the work of Mallarme, Apollinaire and the Futurist Marinetti, brought together the artistic poets and the poetic artists.
Of course some cultures had been doing it a long time - oriental and Islamic poets had the advantage that verbal and visual meaning were inextricably linked in the unity of a calligraphic symbol. What seems an abstract design to western eyes speaks clearly to the faithful and hence the protests when a French manufacturer used a pleasing pattern as a trademark on underwear until it was explained to him that the design was an invocation of the name of Allah.
In western terms, concrete poetry stretched the boundaries of definitions, became a new way of playing with words and their meaning and associations. I joined in the fun and have a certain affection for one of my dabblings. It has no title, but on relection, if it had to have one, what better than:
M y F a v o u r i t e P o e m
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