Move over, CK
I used to think that the most frightening literary critics were grumpy old bald men like FR Leavis and our own CK Stead. I have always been secretly afraid that Stead, whose vituperative treatments of books like the bone people are legendary, will be given the job of reviewing one of my books in a journal like Landfall, and will tear my saccharine lefty politics and gauche allusions to Polynesian history apart.
But Aneirin the literary critic has a directness which puts old CK in the shade. I read him poetry at seven o'clock each evening, before he goes to bed, and am amazed and discomforted by the speed and candour of his responses. If Aneirin likes a poem, he'll quickly smile, then giggle, then hoot so loudly that he drowns out my reading. If he isn't impressed he will frown, then scowl, then lean out of his mother's arms towards me and try to bite the offending book.
TS Eliot's Book of Practical Cats is one of the most famous collections of poetry for children, but Aneirin speedily decided it made better food than literature. I was grimly pleased by this judgement, because as a child I despised Cats, the flatulent musical that the frog-like Andrew Lloyd Webber made out of Eliot's verses. My mother made me go to see Cats during a visit to Melbourne late in the 1980s, and one of the dancers embarrassed me in front of hundreds of people by leaping off the stage and rubbing her detachable whiskers against my cheeks in a carefully choreographed act of exuberance.
Ted Hughes' Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth was also written for kids, and also failed to resonate with the kid in our house. I enjoyed the way Hughes moved his narrative poem forward in long controlled lines, and liked the conceit of a vampire bat who is afraid of blood, but Aneirin soon felt like sinking his gums into the book.
Tomas Transtromer may be the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature and a longtime favourite of this blog, but his light rhythms and mysterious images didn't impress Aneirin.
William Langland's fourteenth century epic The Vision and Creed of Piers of Ploughman was probably not designed for bedtime reading to babies, but it has been a seven o'clock hit in our home. By the Elizabethan era, at least, English critics were objecting to the crudity of Langland's style, with its heavy rhythms and obsessive alliteration. The sometimes preachy tone of the book has also rankled with many readers over the centuries. Aneirin, though, loved the thumping beats and loud plosives, and as I read him the section of Piers Ploughman dedicated to the Seven Deadly Sins* I realised that Langland was an earthy as well as a pious man:
...they laughed and they lowered and yelled 'Let's have a drink',
And sat there till Evensong, singing now and then,
Till Gluttony had golloped a gallon or more
And his guts began grumbling like two greedy sows.
He pissed four pints in the space of a Paternoster,
And blew the round bugle at his backbone's end
So that all who heard that horn held their noses,
And wished he had bunged it with a bunch of whins.
He could neither stand nor stir without his stick,
And then walked no better than a bar-fiddler's bitch.
Sometimes sideways and sometimes backwards,
His course criss-crossing like a man laying bird-nets.
And when he drew near the door, his eyes grew dim;
He thrumbled on the threshold, and was thrown to earth.
Clement the Cobbler caught him round the waist
To lift him a little, at least to his knees;
But Gluttony was a burly brute, and a bastard to lift;
And he coughed up such a caudle into Clement's lap.
There is no hound so hungry in the whole of Hertfordshire
He'd have lapped up those leavings, so unlovely they smelt...
the person who writes editorials for the Guardian. I've only appreciated their power since reading them aloud over the past few months.
I'm impressed and inspired by the sheer excitement with which the tubercular, increasingly enfeebled Lawrence beheld objects as apparently simple as a peach or a Bavarain gentian, and by the way that he was able to go so deep into his own responses to these objects, following one thought or feeling to the next, that he ended up saying something profound not only about himself but about the flower or fruit in front of him.
Aneirin may not care for Ted Hughes' winged mammals, but one of his favourite Lawrence poems is 'Man and Bat'. Here are some lines that get him hooting:
When I went into my room, at mid-morning,
Say ten o'clock...
When I went into my room at mid-morning,
Flying around the room in insane circles.
In insane circles!
A disgusting bat
Go! Go out!
Round and round and round
With a twitchy, nervous, intolerable flight,
And a neurasthenic lunge,
And an impure frenzy;
A bat, big as a swallow.
Out, out of my room!
The venetian shutters I push wide
To the free, calm upper air;
Loop back the curtains...
Now out, from my room!
...Let the God who is the maker of brutes watch with them in their unclean corners...
I admit a God in every crevice,
But not bats in my room;
Not the God of bats, while the sun shines.
So out, out, you brute!...
*I was reading Terence Tiller's translation of Piers Ploughman.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]