Sunday, September 02, 2012

Move over, CK

Aneirin was six months old yesterday. Soon after the lad arrived on the scene my friend Justin Taua congratulated us on Facebook, and suggested that 'a future editor of Landfall has been born'. I don't mean to make David Eggleton uncomfortable in his hot seat at the head office of New Zealand's most venerable literary journal, but Aneirin, who is named after a seventh century Brythonic poet, has begun to take a fierce interest in literature.

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...
Aneirin's current favourite poet, though, is DH Lawrence. In our ironic, postmodern age Lawrence's full-blooded Romanticism and earnest self-exploration are rather unfashionable, and most of his early verses were considered failures even in his own day. But thirty or forty of Lawrence's unmetred, umrhymed later poems, which rely on repetition and exclamation for much of their rhythm, and which investigate the world of birds, beasts and flowers, are very popular with Aneirin, and with other perceptive critics like Aldous Huxley and 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,
Why?...a bird!

A bird
Flying around the room in insane circles. 

In insane circles!
...A bat!

A disgusting bat
At mid-morning!...

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]


Blogger Richard said...

I haven't read Piers Plowman. You have always liked it I recall.

Aneirin will be responding to the sounds. He is a lovely little fellow for sure!!

Coincidentally I am reading Women in Love (I just read The Rainbow). I concur with Leavis (in fact I was reading him also as I hadn't done...also John Herbert (once MC and runner of Poetry Live) was big on Q. D. Leavis who was a great force in literature. But F R Leavis wrote a book about Lawrence Kermode has a good book about Lawrence which I was also reading. He reminds of a more disciplined Thomas Wolfe (or a novelistic Yeats) and his writing is superb, he is far from being "just romantic", he is one of the great 20th Cent. writers.

Also by chance I read "the Snake" to Victor 2 days ago. But he is about 40 years older than Aneirin!

C.K. Stead is a complex case. his essays are often excellent, he writes a great book about Eliot etc...but then he complains about Ashbery's "complexity" and "meaninglessness" while extolling Curnow and Smithyman! He is really a bit old fashioned and too restrained, although I enjoyed his book "I was Judas" and some of his poems (ones about Curnow and Frame are good for example), and some of the strange anecdotes he tells (sometimes factual) are like great short stories...well they are. He was always passionate about protesting injustice (he was on the field at Hamilton in 1981) but why the assault on The Bone People? The Bone People is a great novel (so for me I prefer it to anything by Frame (altho it's some time since I read her), Sargeson or Mansfield and I like those writers very much) as are the novels of Lawrence. Lawrence (like Hulme) deals with the truth, with death and life and love. Joyce does also but prettys it all up with his clevernesses* (Lawrence also knew several languages and was well read - but he was working class which was always a problem for many cirtics - but to his credit Leavis saw (rightly) that he was a genius.)

I like Lawrence's "We have a responsibility to live." from a man who died far too young of tuberculosis. Aneirin would understand that: he is Lawrenceian

*Of course HIS genius was really is Dickensian or Swiftean satiric power, and language innovation. In fact (say) in parts of Ulysses and his Wake both writers have meeting points I feel.

But Stead is wrong to critique The Bone People. He sees some things well, but is else blind.

But Aneirin might grow up and become a plumber or dentist or a truck driver. All are well paid, and important occupations, you know.

12:49 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I have conflicting feelings about Stead, too, Richard - I think he has written some brilliant essays as well as some obtuse essays. Sometimes he is brilliant and obtuse in the same essay!

I think Stead's at his best writing about members of his own ethnic group, gender, and generation. His essay on John Mulgan is, for me at least, the definitive treatment of the author of Man Alone.

I think that truck driving and plumbing would both be good professions for artists. Truckies see remote parts of the countryside at odd hours of the night and day, and plumbers get to see the hidden connections behind the facades of domestic life.

1:01 am  
Blogger Richard said...

The other thing about Lawrence is that he was also an innovator in form and content. His books were hardly published in his life (and Joyce had trouble getting The Dubliners published, which shows the times). Lawrence is someone one reads as an antidote or complement to the stern Heweian (as in Hamish) dicta urging one to read The Cantos 2000 times and Larry Eigner and (various of the Japanese and Chinese)& (such as) Wyndham Lewis.

I feel all these writers contribute, so for me it is not an either or. You could have a surfeit of the satirical Lewis as much as of the more intense Lawrence.

Yes, I was planning a novel (rather desultorily) and one main person was to be a truck driver. "Ice Truckers" is a favourite program for me each year on TV. I have often yearned to be long distance truck driver.

And as for crawling under houses or working on telephone cables, or poles, or in manholes or on microwave towers, etc and seeing things connected up I did years of that on the NZPO as a Lineman! All you need is a pair of overalls, a safety belt, a good ladder and a torch etc You also need to look as though you know what you are doing and carry a clipboard every where. Just as Comrade Trotter has his suit and his "Balzacian look of power and energy" ... thus his inevitable appearances on TV etc in order that the country is run properly.

The other one is to read from a medical report (as a bedside story for Aneirin) on the causes etc of heart disease as Doc Martin did in an attempt to get his own son to sleep!

But I think the (young man) Aneirin will drive women mad, he's already a fine lookin' fella!

3:56 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

C.K. Stead is the (living?) manifestation of Churchill's many folded enigma.

3:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm fairly sure there's no hound so hungry in the whole of *Herefordshire*, as opposed to that other place, somewhere north of London...

2:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Maps,

Your son might also enjoying having Dijuna Barnes 'Creatures in an Alphabet' read to him.


Michael Steven

8:21 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for that suggestion Michael! You ought to catch up with the brief/Titus crowd soon, if you;re in Auckland!

11:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:38 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Michael! Good to hear you're still with us and reading and writing?

I've read 'Nightwood' (Commissar Brett ordered me to read it, but
even under such duress and distress I found it quite fascinating). I see that book is mentioned on the cover of my book of her stories, but I have never seen it. Is it worth the bother?

"Just tell us what you don't know." used to say to one John Herbert (a polymath used to run poetry Live in the mid 90s).

Keep in touch.

12:40 am  

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