Friday, September 22, 2017

Pretentious? Moi?

People find some curious ways to promote poetry. One strategy I've often noticed (and already complained about when journalists do it) is to flag up to the prospective audience that the poet or poetry promoter is already aware of their potential objections. No! It isn't like that usual poetry you've probably come across before - you know, the obscure, boring, pretentious kind! Ah, the p-word. How often have I seen it used to promote some poetry event. 'Poetry without the pretension', the flyers will say.

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man (Metropolitan
Museum of Art)
I'm not sure where the organizers get their ideas about marketing, but using a negative as an opening gambit doesn't seem like much of a winner to me. I realize there is a confectioner who promises 'a lighter way to enjoy chocolate', but offering poetry 'without pretension' is more like trying to sell me one of those slabs of fat and sugar by first reminding me about what they are likely to do to my waistline.

Of course, I'm all for those who try to promote poetry. More power to them. But there's something I find oppressive about that most English of put-downs: the accusation of pretension. To be pretentious is to pretend to something, to stake a claim on something to which you have no right. In the language of literary criticism, to be pretentious is to be showy, to make a greater claim for one's importance than is justified. But if we are all afraid of being pretentious, then how will we ever create anything?

Whenever an artist of any kind produces work they are making a claim for the importance of what they want to communicate to the world. They are also making a claim for the importance of the way they are communicating. As an audience, we may find form and content disappointing, risible even in their failure to persuade us of their importance. But that is just plain old artistic failure, which may in itself be bound by the tastes of the time.

Those bandying about the notion of the pretentiousness of poetry fail to see that poetry is trying to be important. I don't mean that it is always trying to be weighty or serious, but it is trying to be important to its audience: to move them and shift their perception of the world and their place in it. Most poetry, if we're honest, will fail to do that for many people, but that doesn't make poetry any different from other art forms. And we should see failure as something worthy, as an honourable attempt to be important. Sneering at so-called pretension does not embolden anyone to make better poems, but makes them more likely not to try.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Top ten poetry pop songs

Okay, this is a frivolous post, but there's nothing I like better than a pop song that gives a nod to the world of poetry. True, there's always the danger that songwriters will turn to poetry to add a little easy intellectual 'credibility' to their output, but poetry in song also reminds us that the medium still has the power to inspire work in other art forms. Some of these are silly, some of them profound, but all of them show poetry's influence in our culture.

1. Peter Gabriel - Mercy Street (for Anne Sexton)

Peter Gabriel's moving response to the life and work of Sexton, who struggled with mental illness, manages to engage obliquely with the poetry while taking on an existence all of its own. And the song also did the service of introducing Sexton's name to a new generation of readers.

2. Joni Mitchell - Slouching Towards Bethlehem 

Although basically a setting of Yeats' 'The Second Coming', Mitchell's adaption of the original text manages to make it work as a song lyric. Her impassioned delivery and the pounding percussion on the track give such a sense of urgency to Yeats' words that you can't help feeling that the crisis is a very real one and very much in the present moment. In the context of one of Mitchell's most political albums, Night Ride Home, the poem takes on a new resonance.

3. Talking Heads - I Zimbra

It may sound like David Byrne is singing nonsense on this track from 1979's Fear of Music, and in a way he is. But the song is also an adaptation of a sound poem by Dadaist Hugo Ball, founder of Zurich's famous Cabaret Voltaire. Talking Heads turn this into a great dance tune, but Ball's invented language also takes on a strangely sinister feel as Byrne and the backing singers bark the words at us.

4. They Might Be Giants - Hate the Villanelle

Anyone who has ever taken a writing class and had to write a villanelle will relate to this one. A catchy ditty about the difficulty of writing to strict form that manages to keep to the form as well.

5. My House - Lou Reed

Lou Reed was briefly taught by the poet Delmore Schwartz and dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground's first album to his former professor. Schwartz is euologized more directly on 'My House' from Reed's The Blue Mask. Critics rave about this album, which I'm not so persuaded by, and this song verges on the corny at times. Reed's singing is a little strained, too. Somehow, though, this manages to be a sweet tribute and a moment of genuine gratitude to someone who was a key influence on the musician.

 6. Iron Maiden - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I'm not sure I can entirely get on board with Iron Maiden's interpretation of the underlying message of Coleridge's poem, but this is a great big slab of rock bombast that wrings ever last drop of drama out of the original story.

7. Sparks - Metaphor

Maybe not strictly or exclusively about poetry, but a great reminder that, as every teenage poet in the tradition of Adrian Mole surely knows, 'chicks dig metaphors!'

8. Suzanne Vega - Calypso

Suzanne Vega re-tells the encounter between Ulysses and the nymph Calypso from Homer's Odyssey. In this version, however, Calypso is not so desperate to hang on to the Greek hero. She sounds like she might actually be glad to see the back of him.

9. Regina Spektor - Apr├Ęs Moi

I'd been listening to this song, one of my favourites by Regina Spektor, for years without realising that the Russian sung about half way through apparently quotes lines of verse by Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. I don't understand Russian, but if Wikipedia says so, it must be true. I'm not sure if it makes this surreal song any easier to understand and it maybe even complicates matters.

10. Suede - Heroine

Quite a tenuous one, given that the band start with stealing that famous line from Byron for their opening, before going off in quite a different direction. Still, I think the mood of obsession from the original poem gets carried over here, with a nicely decadent twist.

I'd be fascinated to hear suggestions for songs inspired by, referring to, or even adapting poetry. I'm sure I'm only just scratching the surface here...