Sunday, 17 June 2012

Poetry Parnassus

Some weeks ago, I had desired to talk about the forthcoming Poetry Parnassus, an Olympics spin off, at the South Bank.

My response from the start was to the name: Poetry Parnassus. It's the Parnassian misconception of muses and inspiration that woke me up.

At some point, Simon Armitage spoke of how varied poetry is; and yet he and everyone else there at the South Bank has pressed on getting representatives from every or almost every country. Why? How will that reflect variety? With one person from each place...

And then they're going to have a poetry summit! Who will those present be representing? The muses? The other poets? The hangers on?

If it's the biggest ever gathering of poets, as they claim (and seem to think that is a good in itself), you can be sure it will also be the biggest ever gathering of poetry hangers on.

If they really do want to “help locate poetry's place in the world and revolutionise how we work” as they claim, why not call it, say Poetry Resistance. And I am sure a better title than that could have been thought up. Instead, they have gone for a worn and empty tag.

There will be “the world's most exciting poets” Yes? In what way? Were they chosen for their excitement or is that marketing? If they were, what are the poetics underlying that?

One poet is, I noticed, described as “highly regarded”. I won't dispute it; but I just ask: by whom?

There are a lot of predictable names.

Jobs for the boys and girls. I may well miss a lot of interesting stuff too but I am inclined to avoid conversations about inspiration among the girls and boys when they're in the mood to take themselves seriously other than as makers of poetry.

Some years ago, I had been away, constructing multiple fictions, no doubt. And on returning unwittingly met up with numerous people, some of whom I was pleased to see. So, like them, I gave an account of what I had been doing since we met last.

Then, days after that, I was at yet another gathering, probably wishing I could get on with writing, and found myself talking to some who had seen me recently. In each case, the same account must be repeated; no one had listened to anyone the first time; yet it varied; and yet, mostly, I sought to speak the truth.

One, surprised to see me, said "I didn't know you existed outside of London", which I found odd, seeing myself more as someone who is hard put to exist in London. And there I was away from the place and still suffering the wine and canap├ęs thing.

I was given an advertisement for some forthcoming event. Did they really think to attract me by asking "What are the sparks that kindle the creative fires...?" or by describing poets as "presiding spirits" (£12 incl continental breakfast, and that was years ago) (I made a notes.). There was, I read, even going to be a US giant.

I saw a strong man in Greece once. He was called Irakles or something of that sort and had a van with a chain breaking painted on it. He strutted around, quite like Charles I perhaps, though his shirts weren't so good as the God's anointed, and puffed and groaned a good deal as he worked his wonders. But his tricks were so obvious that the locals laughed at him and wouldn't pay.

I remember smelling of Vicks Vapour Rub. My bed in that village was extremely soft and my back slipped so that I came downstairs one morning and went through my landlady's garden like an old man. She came out to give me my morning coffee. This wasn't in the deal but she liked me, and she and her visiting Greek-Aussie sister were trying to marry me off to a Greek woman, any available Greek woman. In fact I have a feeling the woman her sister had most in mind was in Melbourne; but, she said, Greek women make the best wives in the world; and no man is happy without a wife.

You got no wife, Larry? She left me.

No one else?

She's in London. Didn't want to come?

No one else? She should get a Greek woman. She wouldn't leave you.

I said I didn't blame her; that we were a mismatch. She was shocked. I said she, my partner, was mentally disturbed – I do think that's how I expressed it. She was relieved.

I preferred my landlady's company. The conversation with her was limited to such Greek as I could understand: singular nouns, present tense verbs, and few of both. I liked the garden and she brought me plates of fresh figs, which I ate under a shady fig tree by fig-leaf-dappled light before I escaped to the hills or, in the evening, a taverna.

Our only disagreement was my habit of calling out to any cat which passed. And there were plenty of them. The Greek countryside is not that cat loving and cats make their own entertainment.

Cat garden bad? I asked.

Yes, she said, and a whole lot more.

Then, sometimes she'd say shirt, and a whole lot more.

Shirt? I'd say.

Yes, she'd say, and a whole lot more.

You shirt take? I'd say.

Yes, she'd say, and a whole lot more.

It's clean, I'd say; and she'd laugh a bitter laugh that would have done credit to Medea.

Concern over my shirts was always bad news: they came back starched so heavily one couldn't move.

Fridays and Saturdays were dangerous because she wanted me ready for Sunday. Festival eves were dangerous. She deplored the weekdays when I came back with my clothes soaking wet from all day hill walking. She laughed at me and my hand washing. Only her hand washing would do; but she let me win when I was only going among the sheep and goats the next day; it took me a while to realise there was a pattern to my victories.

But the coffee was worth it. 2 of those and I could walk all day, would walk, I might as well have been wearing red shoes. Actually, they were brown.

On this day, she looked at me more evaluatively and asked after my health. I explained all was well and it was only a matter of time. I have a defective back.

No, she said, you are on holiday. She said: Vicks! and rushed indoors. Before I could finish scanning the beta section of my pocket dictionary, she came back with a familiar bottle; and then began a struggle I could not win. The bottle was not in Greek so there was nothing for her to read which might make clear to her the error. Peace was only available by retiring to my room and making sure I smelt of Vicks Vapour Rub.

It was a smell I remember and dislike, taking me back to unhealthy London winters in the 1950s as I strove to learn from teachers who did not know much more than I.

I tried to learn Greek by what I found around me. I had first managed arithmetic by using the telephone dial as a visual aid. I can't quite remember what I did; but to this day I have a visual image of the numbers 0 - 9 in an almost joining circle, after which higher numbers sheer off in a dimensionless direction, forming circles of their own. The line containing 11 and 12 wobbles a little as it breaks free of the first circle, after which the curve is more circular, but I find 20 hanging out in space in relation to 1, 2, 3..., like the end of a bent paperclip; but 20, 30, 40... are on a circle with the circles of 21, 22, 23... etc spinning below or perhaps above - I can't quite see them till I am upon them.

Similarly with hundreds, thousands, not that I like puddings, and onwards upwards.

Push button phones do little for me, though that's what I have.

I bit my nails and once my finger tip was too sore to dial...

For some reason I can remember my mother's tone when answering the phone more than my father. That mode of domestic gate-keeping was her domain.

It was a mark of acknowledged maturity of some kind when I was permitted to answer the phone on my own initiative; and I recall my father being called from exhausted sleep to answer only to come back and say "It's for him, isn't it?"

I've lost myself. You wouldn't be able to wander round Mount Parnasus like that nowadays.

Lots of gate-keeping at the bullshit event I was recalling. I have forgotten the details. I remember: how will you get in without a key? have you registered? & you're not wearing your badge. But I can't remember what it was about except that I was mentally – alternatively -- registering for something without registering formally. Ah youth! Well, early middle age tempered by poverty.

At some point, tired of fake words and repeated stories, I walked for some hours, steadily up, through beech woods, eventually to over a thousand feet, remains of a hill fort, the trees thinned out; and there was a kestrel almost in the centre of the sky. How hot it was, for England, and bright, the susurrating trees around. Gates were open to me. Only sheep ran. The deer remained, a little nervous, but they stood; and the squirrels knew the benefits of being able to walk vertically.

Someone does that in Bergman's Wolf Hour

As I began this, a man on the radio said "scientific farming has created new fields in which people feel alienated". I recommend beech woods.

And I wonder if any of the people who will be at Poetry Parnassus have ever been to the mountain of that name.

It's interesting but it's fenced off, as I recall, for hotels and sports for people with money. And the rest of it is trashed, with great holes dug in it, to make money.

Now that is exactly the kind of place I'd go looking to make poetry; but I don't think that's what they have in mind on the South Bank.

I think we're back much where we were in 1964 when a teenage Lawrence Upton entered The Poetry Society and a woman asked me: Are you a bard?

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