Poetry in a time of data

Brains are amazing things. Far more so than we can yet fathom or understand. In Buddhist theory, the sixth layer of consciousness assimilates all the ‘data’ we receive from the five senses.   Thus, for example, in order to differentiate a strawberry from the white, china bowl on which it sits, or the table that supports the bowl etc we can access this realm of the mind which ‘understands’ the difference. But when we wish to describe what we see – to make textual art out of an emotional response – we have only language available to us. Language, words, pictures, images.

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Language vast and generous, all encompassing. Is it not the soil out of which civilisation grows? Perhaps. But like the soil, language is subject to erosion, both natural and unnatural. Words fall out of use or morph into new words all the time and in itself this is normal and not particularly sinister. However, it becomes sinister when this form of ‘language creep’ is extreme in sidelining an entire and vital aspect of human existence – in this case I am talking of the natural world.

In his superb book _Landmarks_(Penguin, 2016)  (p3) naturalist Robert Macfarlane relates the following story:

“A sharp eyed reader of the new edition to the Oxford Junior Dictionary noted that a considerable number of words used to describe the natural world had been deleted. The deletions included: _acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, mp3 player and voice-mail.

> When Vineeta Gupta, then head of children’s dictionaries at OUP was asked why the decision had been taken to delete those words, she explained that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood.”

How tragic this is. That contemporary children have no experience of acorns and buttercups so no point in using the words. This seems to be extraordinary back to front thinking. It is most likely that children will learn the substituted computer-style words by the daily dose of internet to which life is now exposed but if acorn, adder and ash are rarer commodities and not to be found so much in inner cities, it seems to me that is not a reason to delete the words but rather twice the reason to incorporate the words in the dictionary.

Chatrooms and cut-and-paste are now in our DNA. Sadly the OJD Editor was confusing the information function of language with the emotional engagement function of language, with its qualities of poetic inheritance, its assimilation of history.

Certainly there are aspects of human experience that defy articulation whether the vision of a sunrise across wheat fields language is not the be all and end all of communication but a poet will certainly struggle without it! If children are being deprived of language to describe the natural world they will in turn have no terms of reference to become nature poets.

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This decision was apparently not taken on the basis that such phenomena have physically disappeared from the environments – which thankfully they have not (yet) – but based on the fact that many children today live in urban environments which means they are no longer likely to come into contact with cygnet, beech or kingfisher and so don’t need to know about them!

How will tomorrow’s poets describe the natural environment if they have no language to do so? Tomorrow’s environmentalists are todays children – those very ones who the OUP editors don’t feel need to recognize beech, alder and adder. The question of how those concerned with loss of species and habitat destruction will recognise such losses without terminology for the natural world.     We need language for the existence of things, in order to recognise loss. It is not possible to save a buttercup if, linguistically, the little yellow meadow flower no longer exists.

Joni Mitchell famously sang ‘they took all the trees, put ‘em in a tree museum’… . Museum pieces can be overlooked, irrelevant things – perhaps less so post Neil McGregor – but still many are just things until they have a narrative attached to them. For this we need language, history, cultural references, comparative functions, analytical resources.

We hope neither the natural world nor the language we use to describe it will be relegated to the status of museum piece. No-one will knowingly pass a law putting trees in a museum, but the sidelining of the natural world is coming anyway; by urbanisation, by obsession with economic models of society, by addictions to technology, and by ‘language creep’. Or perhaps ‘language loss’ creep.   Did you notice how many hours of airtime, rhetoric, baby-bouncing-on-knee time were given over to discussion of climate change during the recent election campaign?

I believe the problem is not one of political will. Does any well meaning politician actually want the planet to disintegrate? Most will work out that they will naturally vanish along with the rest of us. But politicians are just human beings and the pressures of office must be huge. It is always tempting to think that someone else will deal with it, or somehow the problem will go away.

Young people feel alienated from the existing systems of representation and who can blame them since those systems of representation seem bent on excluding whole groups of our society, especially the young. It is these younger generations that are those most at risk of ‘language loss creep’. In a time of mass ‘data’ and ‘communications’, in a time of NSA surveillance and Edward Snowden when we all suffer from information overload, we actually seem to understand less and less.

The point is that writers are needed more than ever to keep the natural world in focus for potential readers. Prose writers yes, but I believe it will fall to the poets to guard the language of the natural world that is needed to give voice to the history of and need for continued work on preservation, and to fight, if necessary short-termism and vested interests. This is not just complaint about red, blue, yellow or green! It is about a universal spirit. If none of the parties are voting for the planet, the planet will not vote for the parties. It is left to poets to do so.

What other language is being or already has been lost through this form of abandonment? This is not a simple question when the term ‘language’ has many meanings? Even computer code is a magical language. It makes things happen.

But computers  cannot save the human habitat. Only humans can do that and in this poets have a vital role.

I posted this yesterday and this morning awoke to a review of a new book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris called The Lost Words on this very topic.  It seems the author agrees with me on the poetry aspect, as this is a book for young readers with poems and beautiful illustrations.  Although Mr. Macfarlane says they are not poems, they are spells:

 

When wren whirrs from stone to furze the air around her

slows,

 

Mmm! Sounds like poetry to me.  Ok, spells then.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thursday, 5th October 2017.

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017) Dir. Roger Michell

In appearance the settings for the film – Florence and Cornwall – the interiors of the house etc all seem pitch perfect as do the script and the finely judged acting from Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz.  We do not know what Rachel looked like but she could have looked exactly like this other Rachel. In short, it is beautifully shot with elegant Cornish panoramas, lonely rainswept beaches, impeccably clad gentleman on highly groomed horses, all laced with a liberal quantity of servants and picturesque stable lads.

So far so good. But Daphne du Maurier’s book is a complex work to bring to the screen; much of the ‘plot’ is internalized and much of it hinges on paranoia or suspected paranoia. It would be an achievement to pull off a film version without resorting to one or two little dramatic ‘interventions’ and those can easily upset the delicate ecological balance of the work.

While Rachel certainly has her own voice (unlike du Maurier’s other famous creation Rebecca de Winter) we do not hear much of it. The book is weighed down with the male narrative gaze, with male desire both sexual and for financial control. In so many ways Rachel appears not to have an opportunity to respond; or maybe she has opportunities but deliberately chooses not to take them. Or her responses appear ambiguous. It depends who you believe. Most of what we know about her we know from something a man has said. This is the master craft of the novelist.

This to me is where the film – despite strong central performances – errs. It tries to explain things which the book leaves open to the reader’s conjecture. What is the cause of Ambrose’s death? Brain tumour say the Florentine lot (of which Rachel is one). Poisoning, writes Ambrose in letters found after his death. So where are the instruments of poison? Laburnum seeds? Where is all the money going? Why does Philip mysteriously become ill after Rachel’s arrival. What the heck is she putting in those tissanes? All mysteries aimed at making us think Rachel is potentially wicked (fantastic cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ by sorry not sure who  played over the film trailer on the internet sadly doesn’t seem to have been used in the film).

But if Rachel is potentially wicked she is also a woman alone in the world who found herself ‘married to a stranger’ when Ambrose became ill and had to find her own way. As Sally Beauman points out in her introduction (Virago, 2003) laburnum seeds are a red herring. The real poison being examined by Daphne du Maurier in this novel are how whole lives, whole societies have been and continue to be defined by male authority. Perhaps the temptation to shout this from the rooftops overcame the film Director. Is it not 2017? Are there not thirty years solid of feminist literary interpretation coursing through the bloodstream of the land?

In the film although Philip hunts for Laburnum seeds in Rachel’s bedroom he does not appear to find any. In the book he does. There is no suggestion in the book that Rainaldi (Rachel’s lawyer, adviser and ‘friend’) is homosexual.   The fact that the film insists on this point makes us less inclined to suspect Rachel of an affair.  Was I being asked to consider Rachel a victim of a patriarchal gig? That is not I feel how the author would have seen her.

 

Poetry makes everything happen

A review of Larchfield

by Polly Clark

Not only do we have Terence Davies film of Emily Dickinson as well as a film about Neruda, the excitement of new letters by Plath making headline news and now a young W.H. Auden is brought compassionately to life in the pages of Polly Clark’s novel Larchfield.

The name is taken from a boy’s public school in Helensburgh on the West Coast of Scotland where the young W.H. Auden taught for two years in his twenties, after leaving Oxford. It is not a posting the young poet much relishes.

“It’s not his choice exactly. His trust money is about to run out, and he needs a job. His friend Cecil Day-Lewis has nominated him for this post of schoolmaster at Larchfield, though he has no experience of teaching and a severe mistrust of the school environment.”

The book covers his life during these two years partly on a fictional and partly factual basis, showing how Auden fares in the run up to the second world including visiting his University friend Christopher Isherwood in Berlin where the two have a frightening encounter with blackshirts.

 Christopher Isherwood and Wystan Auden
photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 6 February 1939

Alongside this historical narrative, is a modern story in which the protagonist is a young woman called Dora, whose life so far has consisted of a PhD, a job offer at a University publishing house as a lexicographer and the beginnings of a career in poetry, finds herself married, pregnant and moving to Helensburgh very near the school where Auden taught. As she unpacks her belongings in her new home, a divided house ironically entitled ‘Paradise’, she places her small volume of published poetry on the shelf and prepares to adjust to a very different life.

But that adjustment is hard

Things quickly fall to pieces as they can do when a new baby arrives. To add to her problems the neighbours in the flat upstairs start acting up horribly and Dora becomes isolated, stressed and depressed. Finding solace in Auden’s poems and in tracing details of his life she decides to pay a visit to the site of the old school at Larchfield and so the mystery begins.

The gate was tall and wrought iron, with the name Larchfield looped in gold. Ivy crept along the front of the building, and the tall windows looked out over a Helensburgh that was essentially unchanged in appearance since his time. She could imagine the poet emerging from the stone porch, the sounds of children.

The book is based on the author’s real experience. Indeed it is hard to see how this book could have been written without that experience so genuinely is the suffering of the young female protagonist felt.

The novel treads a high wire act between the real, the  possible and the imaginary; what is imaginary in the mind of an unhappy and isolated young woman with no visible means of support other than a well-meaning but absentee husband may be real.  As real as the feelings of loneliness and otherness which everyone can experience to some degree.  The book also – dare I say it – deals with the redemptive power of poetry.  That one can run and run.  But the only person who is qualified to say if poetry redeems is one who feels him/herself redeemed by it.

The author says:

“Some years ago I moved to Scotland. I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went, I couldn’t drive and became very isolated.

“When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read ‘The Orators’ by Auden — and this poem changed my life.

“It’s a thrilling meditation on paranoia and repression, set in Helensburgh.

“I set about recreating Wystan Auden, from his notebooks, biographies and artistic details in ‘The Orators’, and paired him with Dora, my modern-day woman losing her mind in the suburbs.

“Finding human connection to Auden in our shared place of Helensburgh saved me.

The theme of isolation continues in Auden’s part of the narrative.

“And the future? What of it? He cannot imagine a future where he fits.”

Auden finds himself alone, both as an Englishman and as a new school teacher. When he tries to protect one of the youngsters at the school form the routine and institutionalised abuse that was part of the public school system at that time, he finds that his compassion is easily and wilfully misunderstood.

Auden was a homosexual at a time when to be so was a criminal offence. He was also just another lonely young man. Lonely enough to cast a message into a bottle and toss it into the sea in the hope someone would find it. In the book someone does, but perhaps it is not the someone any of us expect.

As Dora is friendless, most of her story is internalised and the author occasionally makes us doubt her as a reliable narrator.  This acutely reflects how other characters around Dora are doubting of her. If enough people doubt us, then do we not begin to doubt ourselves? Is this kind of mistreatment an all too common form of abuse of women? And is it often perpetrated by other women in positions of power over new mothers?   One of the ideas lying behind the novel is to point up a general failure of society to even recognise let alone deal with the fact that the shock and trauma of childbirth – even a medically ‘normal’ childbirth which Dora’s is not – can last for years. Decades even.

Larchfield is at its most disturbing as a picture of the pressure placed on vulnerable young mothers to conform to some hypocritical health visitor’s idea of happy families, pointing up that the borderland between protection of the child and abuse of the parent is a line which is disastrously ill defined in modern day Britain.

However this is not at all a depressing book – quite the opposite it is a hopeful book – by a writer who thoroughly understands that life can be lonely and difficult, but it can also come liberally laced with snatches of sublime poetry.

 

 

Just about managing …

 

And on the first day we say:

He who told lies about Europe

shall be raised up, while she

who told the truth about

the cost of one’s trousers

shall be cast down

On the second day we shall

make a third runway; place

another million planes in

a toxic sky.

Minions shall chain themselves

to railings and lie down on

the M4 but we persist.

On the third day we shall

cross the big water to visit

the rooster that crows and crows

…and crows.

On the fourth day we shall not

Once more unto the breach or

close up the wall with our English dead

but take a different approach.

 

The fifth day we reserve

for mental health problems.

 

Now all the ditch’s tiny celebrations …

A Review of Spill Simmer Falter Wither. Sara Baume

I am miles behind everyone else in discovering Sara Baume. I was leafing through the Guardian reviews and came across a review of her latest book. It sounded appealing but still had a couple of weeks to go before publication date. I was so intrigued by this review that deciding I couldn’t wait, so downloaded the debut novel by the same author called Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither a book that had itself previously been longlisted for the Guardian first book award.  Back to ideas of what it is to be alone but this time not in the city.

The surface story of the book is a road trip – man and dog. So far so Steinbeck. But this journey is not just a restless road trip of self discovery – although like any trip it involves that too – but a journey of escape. What is extraordinary about this novel is the voice and how the pace is maintained without any substantial plot.

The protagonist is a man in his late fifties whose father has died leaving him in a pink bungalow in a seaside “village which hums”, the humming being the result of the location of the house near an oil refinery and power plant. The dog arrives after the man sees a picture on a re-homing poster pasted up by a local dog rescue centre.

Throughout this novel, man and beast develop an empathy which is cleverly – and poetically – built up and described that what the dog can see or smell, or feel or lick, seems to travel down to the reader through a reliable intermediary. When the narrator says ‘Come with me through the fields’ it is not the ‘Reader, I married him’ style of address of the omniscient narrator, but a direct address from man to dog.  This continues almost through, quite credibly.   Why would not a lonely man talk to his dog?  When the two are forced on the run:

‘You’re drawn on by your panic worthy scent, I’m drawn on by the sun winking through the scraggled branches…’

it suddenly becomes imperative that both should succeed.  But will they?

The road trip gives the writer a chance to vent her full talent for natural description of the passing seasons and Britain’s half-worshipped, half-abandoned countryside. These writings are poignant and elegant with the occasional intervention of death in the form of roadkill. There is a balance (as always?) between loss and finding and it is evoked beautifully here.

The man fears a world that he does not understand, but when he finds something to care for and love that brings an even greater fear of loss. It is a fear which communicates itself to the reader. What can help allay those fears? Can anything?

“Now all the ditch’s tiny celebrations and devastations proliferate and fill me, buoy me, and in this way, the fear subsides to some degree.”

I am much looking forward to reading the new book (A Line Made by Walking) by this author. From reading reviews of her second book I can see certain themes that are of concern to Baume. Again the impact of loneliness, again the presence of urbanization or more specifically industrialization, since turbines, oil refineries and power plants although urban by nature are often sited in the worst places, in previous beauty spots, sustaining of one form of life, while despoiling another

Can happiness exist in a despoiled environment? Since the bible said the answer was ‘no’ with the fall of Eve, writers and artists have been grappling with the question well, what then since Eden is no more? Buddhism puts a more positive spin on this – the environment changes to reflect an inner change in man’s heart.