Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday 31 July 2008

The Joy of Libraries

Books and sex have a long and not especially illustrious history. This, however, is not going to be a blog about erotic literature nor indeed pornography. Maybe one day. What I want to waffle on about today are rooms full of books.

Currently I am not a member of a library. Neither is my wife. We haven't been for years. It's not that we have anything against libraries in fact there's quite a nice wee local library about a quarter of an hour's walk from here. We took a walk there once to see where it was but we never actually went in. I've never run across it since.

It's the first time I've never been a member of a library.

I have fond memories of libraries. I can't think of anything particularly special that's ever happened to me in a library. Unless you count seeing a girl in a see-through top. My first … and only now I think about it. That was on my first visit to Glasgow's Mitchell Library. I had never seen unsupported female breasts before, breasts that did not require support. The other thing about that first visit was my walking up to the counter and stupidly asking, "Excuse me but where are all the books?" The Mitchell Library is one of the largest public reference libraries in Europe. To see a book you needed to complete a request slip and one of the assistants would toddle off and get it for you. I kinda expected miles and miles of bookcases that I could wander around and drool over. I'd seen more books in a bookshop.

Talking about bookshops, it can't have been more than a few weeks earlier that I walked into John Smith's bookshop in Glasgow (founded in 1751). This was a book shop that had four or five floors. And my first thought on heaving that whopping great door open – you always had to give it the shoulder – was, "Orgasmic!" I've spent hours in that shop and been unable to buy a ruddy thing because there was so much choice. How do you choose? Sadly it's now gone, replaced by an Internet Café. Ah well.

The thing about libraries is that you can get it wrong; you can take a chance on someone you've never heard of. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first library I was a member of was our local town library. It was part of the town hall but it had its own entry at the rear. And that's where you'd find me on a Saturday morning waiting with as much patience as a prepubescent boy could muster for the librarian with her pneumatic bosom. (I have seen fit to mention her before – twin set, pearls and horn-rimmed glasses). She was the mother of one of my school friends. I suppose that's where my attraction to older women started but don't quote me on that.

Years later it moved to the council offices and the librarians multiplied – lots of pretty young things none of which were your archetypical librarian's assistants. I do have a clear memory of one particular girl with a fondness for low cut tops. I can picture her in my mind as some kind of proto-Goth. God alone knows what her face looked like. Sullen, I expect. I've never understood the female propensity to leave the shutters open and object when guys peer though the window.


You shouldn't look at women's chests;
           they mind if you look.
They know you can see
           but you're not supposed to look.

But you're allowed to notice;
           they expect you to notice.

It's hard to see why you can't look
           at what you've just seen
           but those are the rules
           even though they don't make sense.

21 October 1997

I suppose, the aforementioned taken into account, it's no great wonder that I had the protagonist in my first novel work in a library as a young man. And that's where he gets to meet the love of his life too. And, for those of you who’ve read the book, it's actually in the sequel we learn all about that.

I've only actually written one poem about libraries that I could find:


In my last year at school
I spent much time
in Central Library
thumbing though
encyclopaedias of modern art
and photography year books
looking for naked women.

Somehow their art
never reached me –
only their nudity.

28 April 1979

It is partly autobiographical I have to confess and my earliest exposures to the female form were first of all c/o the art books I would heave out of the Reference section and paw through with as much lasciviousness as I could muster.

I have no recollection of searching out erotica though, not even Lady Chatterley's Lover. I bought a copy for a girlfriend who wanted to read it but I've never been that interested myself. I don't recall seeing any dramatisations either now I think about it.

Nowadays, and this has been the case for a long time, I buy the books I want to read. It's not because I'm filthy rich because I most certainly am not. I couldn't tell you the last time I bought a full priced book. I buy books because my tastes have become refined and I'm fussy about what I read. For a writer I don’t read much but when I do read I like it to count. It's also so much easier these days to get books cheaply on the Internet and you can even sell them there when you're done or if you didn't like the thing.

It was an article in The Times by Jeanette Winterson that prompted me to write this post. She wasn't writing about sex and libraries although I have no doubt she could and far more eloquently than I. She was writing about the British Library and the changing governmental and social attitudes to libraries. She writes: "Change is inevitable and often for the best, but change always means loss…" and I have to agree with her. Not collecting my books together and trotting down to the library of a Saturday morning is something I find I actually miss. It was a part of a life I no longer live. And I wonder if maybe I should rekindle that love.

I'm still passionate about books although when I walk into Waterstones or Borders these days my first thought usually is, "Where's the gents again?"

Of course, now I'm older and I'm not looking at the world through hormone-addled eyes I can see that maybe what I was feeling in those libraries and book shops was a feeling of belonging. On one level I was a bibliophile surrounded by other bibliophiles. I could sit at a table with my nose wedged in the crevice of a book and no one thought me strange. But it was more than that for me; it was simply walking around a room full of books, being surrounded by books. There are plenty of photos on-line of some of the great libraries but I'm not so sure about them. I'd be afraid to touch the books. The libraries I've been used to were places where I was allowed to touch, there was no "Don't touch", "Keep your hands to yourself," or "I'll slap your face."

And then, of course, there're my experiences of record libraries (back when records looked like records). Our town didn't have one and I had to travel to the next one to use theirs. There I discovered Bartók's dynamic Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Khachaturian's stirring Second Symphony (The Bell) , Vaughan Williams' hairs-sanding-on-endish Fantasia of a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Darius Milhaud's jaunty Scaramouche, Stockhausen's electronically-incomprehensible Kontakte, Charles Ives' murky Central Park in the Dark and Duke Ellington's … well, jazzy New Orleans Suite … but this is supposed to be a literary blog so I'll keep all of that to myself for now.

Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

If you love photos of beautiful libraries check out the blog entry at Curious Expeditions. Lovely.

Monday 28 July 2008

This post is exempt from criticism

This is not my first go at this post. As you may or may not know my wife proofreads all my blogs before I post them. Normally all she has to fix are typos and "brain farts". Occasionally she'll highlight a sentence or a paragraph where I don't make my point too well and that's fine. However, my original version of this post came back to me in neon. She says if I'd posted it in its original form I'd start a flame war and, after a feeble defence on my part, I caved in. I'm not one to court confrontation.

Okay, let's backtrack to what got me going in the first place. There were a couple of instances where I offered up some opinion on bits of writing I found lying around, one was in a forum and the other was a blog entry. The first poem I did a decent enough job on, pulled it to pieces, said what worked, what could work if this or that was tweaked and what they might think about leaving out. The reaction was an emotional tirade saying that if I didn't like her work not to review it in the future. In the second instance someone posted a couple of poems, that I actually liked, but I suggested a couple of minor changes. The response this time was a curt one line e-mail pointing out that she had not asked for criticism and did not appreciate it. I replied, in apologetic terms, suggesting she delete my comment and we'd say no more about it. When I checked the entire post had been removed.

In the first instance the poem had been posted in a forum and she was soliciting comments. Now, I have limited experience of these forums tending to stick to Zoetrope, but I've been on sites where it's obvious that all people are wanting to hear are compliments and I stay clear of them; this site wasn't like that and so I critiqued the poem to the best of my ability, probably a good 700 words if I can trust my memory. I doubt this individual had ever had a poem dissected like that.

In the second case they were quite right, she had not asked for the poem to be critiqued but I didn't. I commented on a couple of lines and that was it. I could understand removing my comment but the whole post? That seems OTT to me.

There is a third example, on yet another forum, which is worth mentioning. This time the person misread a comment which was not directed at her and launched a tirade of abuse at humanity in general. Eventually one of the other members grabbed her by the lapels and calmed her down.

You might have noticed that the three instances I've cited all involve women. Over the years I've also seen men go off on one. I really don't think gender is an issue here. Of the three instances above I know that one was a mature woman so age is not an issue either. The one thing they have in common is that they were all poets.

Why do poets have hair-triggers?

I used to be like that when I was young and full of myself. I'd fight tooth-and-nail over every comma. I believed that everything I wrote when in an inspired state was sacrosanct and could not be looked at sideways let alone criticised. God, I was an ass.

Now, if we're honest, no one likes criticism and there was a time when I would have ended up rowing with my wife for picking my article to pieces like she did but she pointed out that I was doing exactly what I was criticising these people for doing. I had set myself on a pedestal and was looking down my nose at them. And she was right. I'm better than I once was but the bottom line is that I don't suffer fools gladly. I'm sure it's an age thing.

My justification, since I feel I need one, for saying the things I do is that I believe it's incumbent on those of us who know stuff to try and pass it on. My intention is to encourage not discourage. I tried to do that with my own daughter and met a wall of resistance. I was trying to change her. I was trying to stifle her true voice. All the same sort of stuff I would've come out with when I was her age. She wouldn’t even show me most of her poetry. To this day I've probably only seen less than a dozen although I do have the only one she ever gave me framed on my bedside cabinet.

I sometimes wish I was an old Romantic but I'm afraid I'm not and my sensitive soul has withered away to nothing.

Thursday 24 July 2008

Beckett's voice

Like George Orwell before him, Samuel Beckett had a strong aversion to being filmed or even having his voice recorded. Although he was nothing less than magnanimous in his own cantankerous way with his first biographer, Deirdre Bair, he did draw the line:

At this point in our conversation I pulled out a notebook and pencil out of my purse, intending to jot down some of what we were saying. He jumped up and demanded to know what I was doing. Were we not 'just having a friendly conversation, just two people talking?' Didn't I already know that he 'did not give interviews', that he 'never allowed pencil and paper,' and 'the question of the tape recorder is one which must never come up?'– Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990), p xii

And that is how the two of them proceeded over the next six years, friendly conversations in French cafés which she would endeavour to memorise as best she could and make a record of them as soon as she got back to her hotel room:

I told him at the beginning of these interviews that as soon as I left him, I would return to my hotel and spend the rest of the day … talking our conversation as I remembered it into the tape recorder, trying to capture every inflection of his every remark. He seemed particularly taken by the idea of my voice recording his remarks, and throughout the next several years, he frequently asked questions about it that I can only attribute to an interest in technique. – Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990), p xiii

You might imagine that Beckett's reluctance to be interviewed came as a result of the overnight fame he achieved after Waiting for Godot but this is not the case. It is a little known fact that an abridged version of the play was first broadcast on French radio. Beckett had the opportunity to say a few words before the play went out but preferred to send a polite note that Roger Blin read out on his behalf. I find it amusing that the opening words of that statement were: "I do not know who Godot is," something he continually had to restate for the rest of his life. (For more details see 'Ruby Cohn on the Godot Circle' in Knowlson, J. & E., (Ed.) Beckett Remembering – Remembering Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p 122)

Beckett never gave an inch. He refused to be interviewed on camera and did not permit recordings to be made of any conversations he had. He would tolerate photographers up to a point but most could only catch his serious side, a shame because when you read about his relationships with his friends a completely different man appears.

To the best of my knowledge the only 'official' recording Beckett ever made came about as follows: he had contacted the BBC about making a recording of Lessness and the producer Martin Esslin visited him in Paris to discuss the project. Esslin asked the author how he wanted the piece to be read so Beckett demonstrated reading with a mathematical precision in a voice devoid of colour or stress tapping his finger metronomically as he read: "Grey, everything grey, little body only upright, fallen over", etc. Esslin remembers:

And I said, 'Sam, allow me to record a little bit so that I can tell the actors to pick up the tone.' He said, 'No, no I never record anything'. I said, 'Listen, I swear to you I'll never use this, only to play it to the actors'. And he read a few minutes of it for me and I've got that on tape. – 'Martin Esslin on Beckett the Man' in Knowlson, J. & E., (Ed.) Beckett Remembering – Remembering Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p 150,151

Well, he did at the time. He's since donated it to the Archive of the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading.

Needless to say Beckett fans have always been curious how he actually spoke. Kenneth Brecher noted that after more than fifty years in Paris he had not lost his Dublin Irish accent. What is interesting though is that when he talked to the actress Billie Whitelaw about working on the radio play All That Fall in 1957 he explained to her that the character Maddy Rooney was ''full of abortive explosiveness,'' and, emphasized that Maddy had an Irish accent. She said, "Like yours," and he said, "No, no, no, an Irish accent." Whitelaw recalls: I realised he didn't know he had an Irish accent, and that was the music he heard in his head.''

Many years later, when he was directing her in Happy Days – a not all that happy experience for either of them as it happens – she talks about him explaining to her how to sing the Waltz from The Merry Widow and says his voice was "quavering, weak [and] reedy". I had always known he was soft-spoken. Alan Mandell describes it as a "wonderfully musical Irish voice with a slight lisp." Bud Thorpe also confirms that he "lisped a bit".

You can imagine my surprise when a friend of mine from India who I ran into onto on Facebook’s underused Beckett forum – told me about a DVD entitled Waiting for Beckett: a portrait of Samuel Beckett (1CV0001243) which included some shots of him directing. I was aware of the film but from what I'd read the dialogue had been erased and there was little else on the tape to interest me, nothing I'd not seen before anyway. So imagine my surprise when on Monday morning I got an e-mail from my friend pointing me to a short clip on YouTube of all places which he believes is from that DVD. It lasts only a few seconds; the quality is not great but the man is. It is a fascinating glimpse of Beckett in conversation. I won't say I've learned anything from it but it does underline so much of what I've read already.

Frankly I'd be more interested in his rendition of Lessness because I've read in several places how well in fact he performed his own material. Anyway, for those of you interested (and with $49.99 to spare) you can buy the DVD from Global Village. In the meantime, enjoy the clip.

Samuel Beckett talking about What Where, Paris 1987.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Novel-looking word clouds

One of the sites I frequent is Baroque in Hackney. Our Katy has just got a new book of poems out called Me and the Dead and she thought it might be a good idea to reduce it to a word cloud. Now call me a copycat if you will but I couldn't resist the urge and so here are each of my novels crammed into an artistic rectangle. If you want to join in, the site accepts shorter works too:

If you click on each one then you'll get to see it at a decent resolution.

Living with the Truth

Stranger than Fiction

The More Things Change

Milligan and Murphy

Sunday 20 July 2008

A genre-defying blog

Reality is above all else a variable and nobody is qualified to say that he or she knows exactly what it is. As a matter of fact, with a firm enough commitment, you can sometimes create a reality which did not exist before. —Margaret Halsey

The hardest thing I've found is trying to classify my writing. I'm not sure it matters to me that it is but when you're trying to sell something to someone else they usually have a few questions. I've tried describing it as a cross between Kafka and Douglas Adams, I've tried describing my first novel as The Cat in the Hat for grownups but neither really hits the spot; besides even if I could find a suitable ism, that's not how bookshops organise their stock.

So, let's consider my options:

Genre Fiction

Walk through any bookstore and you'll see the same ol' headings:

Children's fiction
Literary fiction
Science fiction

Actually I'm not sure the last time I did see 'Western' in a bookshop but I've certainly seen it in libraries.

We do love our labels don't we, but not everything is easily classifiable. If you don't fit into the big genres, where do you go? What if you dare to cross the line?

Example: On what shelf would you put Asimov's The Caves of Steel? Most likely you'd find it under Science Fiction but it's essentially a detective story.

What I'm leading up to here is cross-genre, slipstream, speculative and genre straddling fiction. Strangely enough the first two are generally negative terms but the third, especially if declaimed in a loud, enthusiastic baritone, somehow manages to get the thumbs up. Genre-defying fiction is even more enthusiastically received as if it was some kind of trapeze act.

Cross-genre fiction

Back in 2006 The Guardian listed author Kit Whitfield's top ten genre-defying novels:

Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Frost in May by Antonia White
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Island of Dr Moreau by H G Wells
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
Under The Skin by Michel Faber
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw

I like the introduction to the article by Whitfield who is the author of Bareback, a whodunit-cum-science fiction fantasy-cum-love story:

Genre is all very well, but it's a cage as much as a support. Who knows how many books a person who won't touch women's fiction or only reads sci-fi is missing out on that they'd otherwise love? But for a writer, the effect is more insidious. A work of art needs to be complete on its own terms: it needs to ring with internal rightness, never mind whether it makes sense in terms of genre. A writer who forces a trope in or leaves an idea out because they're worried about genre categories has mutilated their book. The best novels are those that are so effective in themselves that they let genre go hang: use what works, leave out what doesn't, and come up with whatever's fresh and vivid that serves the story you're trying to tell.

Now that's all fine and good but on what shelf would you put Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson which is "a vision, a fable, a satire, a love story [and] a ghost story" according to his publisher? Maybe on the Horror shelf?

Slipstream fiction

Bruce Sterling coined the term with Richard Dorsett and popularised it in his 1989 essay of the same name. He didn't really expect it to stick but it's amazing what the public latches onto, isn't it? The thing is, he didn't clearly define the term – not clearly enough in any case – and it has been floating around for a while waiting on a definitive drawing of lines.

In an article in The Guardian novelist Christopher Priest has this to say about it:

I'm often told I write "slipstream" fiction, a fairly recent coinage. Although I seek to avoid categorisation of my books, slipstream can be a useful identifier. It is the literature of strangeness, but not necessarily in its subjects. Slipstream is about attitude, or a different way of inquiring into the familiar. It includes rather than categorises – while not being magic realism, or fantasy, or science fiction, slipstream literature includes many examples of these.

It can also be without any fantastic element at all. Most readers who connect with slipstream know it when they see it, even if they don't recognise the name. In literature you might include Angela Carter, Steve Erickson, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, J G Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, some of John Fowles. In films, Memento, Being John Malkovich and Intacto are recent examples of pure slipstream

You can find a master list of so-called slipstream novels compiled by Bruce Sterling and Lawrence Person here.

A list doesn't really prove anything, especially one as long and diverse as this one. In this essay, On Slipstream, a couple of important points are made:

The reader doesn't know if the fantastic elements in a slipstream story are real or simply a figment of the viewpoint character's skewed perceptions and is not meant to ask.

Is slipstream a "real" genre? From a postmodernist point of view, that question is irrelevant – slipstream is as real as it's treated. Since more writers are self-identifying as slipstream, more zines declaring that they publish slipstream, and more academics digging through history to identify this novel or that story as slipstream, it is apparently real enough.

One of the novels in Sterling and Person's list is: Rupert Thomson's Dreams of Leaving which is an acutely realistic novel wrapped around a fantastic premise. The plot concerns the infant Moses who is placed in a basket of rushes and is the only person to have left the English village of New Egypt. Grown up and now living in London he begins his search for his parents. In other words, a "what if" scenario. But wouldn't that come under the heading Speculative Fiction?

Speculative Fiction

Simply put, speculative fiction asks, "What if…?" The term is often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein. It was coined in his 1947 essay 'On Writing of Speculative Fiction,' where Heinlein used it specifically as a synonym for "science fiction" but, as happened with all the other terms in this post, the definition has broadened over the years. It fell out of use in the seventies but has been resurrected. Good examples would be Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Vita Sackville-West's Grand Canyon, Robert Harris' Fatherland and Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night in all of which World War II doesn't run according to the history books.

To my mind all fiction is speculative since every book, every story ever written, starts off with a "what if" scenario: what if I put a man and a woman in a bed and what if he picked her up in a pub the night before and what if I only record their thoughts? That would be the starting point of my short story, 'Just Thinking'.

There is a lengthy article by D D Shade at Lost Book Archives which is worth a read and saved me a lot of research.

In his article he mentions an interesting point about "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which was marketed as plain vanilla or straight fiction." Now, why would they do that? Why not play the "genre-defying" card? Because Margaret Atwood is a real author and real author's write literary fiction. Of course they do.

Magic(al) Realism

In his newspaper article Christopher Priest mentioned magic realism. The first time I came across the term was in connection with the film, Northfork which I saw in the cinema a few years back and I've since bought the DVD. In the film the characters are presented with fantastic things, a guy living in a Noah's Ark and a church with an entire wall missing, and no one bats an eye; we also have a quartet of the most unusual-looking angels searching for a missing fifth. There was actually no magic in the film that I can remember.

You can find a dizzying array of definitions of the subject by Alberto Ríos here which shows how the definition is in flux but in the most simplistic terms magic realism is a fantastic situation treated realistically. It’s a term originally coined by art historian Franz Roh in 1925 to describe a visual arts movement emerging throughout Europe, but it only took a couple of years for the term to begin being used with reference to literary works.

A broader definition is given by "Mr. Magic Realism" himself, Bruce Taylor:

Briefly, the concept of Magic Realism has to do with the concept of "heightened reality" or the addition of another dimension of reality through a symbolic or metaphoric structure. It gives us a new way of perceiving the world, as if through a child looking at the world for the first time. (Italics mine)

Children are great at suspending disbelief. They watch shows like The Muppets and accept the "reality" they're presented with. I think the key here is explanation. In magical realism, the supernatural is not displayed as questionable. It's like the TV show Greg the Bunny where humans and puppets live side by side or the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit where we have a similar scenario only it's humans and cartoon characters this time. In both situations none of the characters questions the world they are in, however in a novel like K-PAX the true identity of the alien visitor "prot" is the focus of the whole book; K-PAX is science fiction.

Like most terms it has become debased over the year but to suggest something like Greg the Bunny is a magic realist work would have purists up in arms. They would argue that magic realism is always serious and would point you, I'm sure, to great literary works like Gabriel García Márquez's novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude and I'm not one to argue with that, but the essential element is unarguably there.

What is different is intent.

In Greg the Bunny and Who Framed Roger Rabbit the intent is to entertain. The literary equivalent would be escapist fiction. Which brings me to my problem.

My dilemma

Okay, so a guy wakes up one Tuesday morning and Truth is knocking on his door, not some long-lost parent or a kid he never knew he had, but the truth in human form. That's the premise of my novel, Living with the Truth. (Yup, that's a plug for my book but bear with me, I have a point to make). Truth appears on Jonathan's doorstep in exactly the same way as the cat in the hat appears: unexpected, uninvited and unwanted. He's like a superhero, he has one unique ability – he knows the truth about everything that's happened everywhere, everywhen – but that's it; he can't fly, he doesn't have x-ray vision and he doesn't wear Spandex.

What kind of novel is this? I could suggest Fantasy:

Fantasy … doesn't seek to ground its speculative elements in this world, but takes as granted either the existence of alternative worlds wherein the natural laws differ, or the existence of natural laws not yet discovered, such as "laws of magic." - Ashen Wings

but I'm not sure about the "takes as granted" bit because Jonathan was oblivious to the existence of Truth as anything other than an abstract concept; meeting him makes him question his whole understanding of the world especially when Truth confirms things like the existence of God and extra-terrestrials.

Or it could be Science Fiction:

Science fiction seeks to explain its speculative elements by extrapolating from science (mechanical, biological, cognitive). Science fiction is often plausible, if far-fetched or dependent on innovations and discoveries that have not yet been made and may be impossible. - Ashen Wings

because nothing Truth tells him is magical. He explains himself in terms of the physical universe.

Or it could be any one of the others. Does the fact that Jonathan needs to be convinced that Truth is who he says he is mean it isn't magical realism? Or how about the fact he's so easily convinced? I don't know and I'm not sure I care any more than Kafka did when he wrote 'The Metamorphosis', where a guy turns into a dung beetle and no one questions it; they accept that Gregor is now a beetle and don't call the police, the priest or the exterminators.

So what is my book? Slipstream? Cross-genre? Magical realist?

I would be interested in hearing what shelf you'd put it on.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Under Control

A few weeks ago, and a year late, I posted a review of Mark McNay's debut novel, Fresh, and I had no problem recommending the book. So you can imagine my delight when an advance copy of his second novel, Under Control, dropped though my letterbox a few weeks back. Like the first book it was a quick read – I finished it in three sittings – but it wasn't simply a rehash of the same characters and themes; McNay has moved on and in more ways than one.

One of the things that attracted me to Fresh was that is was set in Glasgow and the characters and their dialogue were very real to me. Under Control is not set in Glasgow; it's based in Norwich which I'm afraid had to Google to find its location. For most people that will be a relief. Personally I missed the Glaswegian setting. The language is different of course but I missed the familiar Scottish turns of phrase. I have no idea how they talk in Norwich. Sorry Norwich for being so ignorant.

Okay, let's look at the players: Gary is a junkie and a recovering psychiatric patient; Charlie, his girlfriend, also has a habit which she funds by selling her not entirely unattractive body on the street; Nigel is Gary's social worker; he is also responsible for Chris and Ralph, friends of Gary; Clive is their supplier and let's just say I wouldn't want to be his wife. Got that? Oh, and there's Galileo who is a French Legionnaire, his nemeses, Gaston and Betts, and Chastity the nun who miraculously saves him from death during the test of a nuclear bomb. Yeah, they don’t really fit do they?

Each chapter of the book covers a day. Each day is broken down into short sections. Sometimes it's Gary's story, sometimes Charlie's, sometimes Nigel's … and sometimes the Legionnaire who's sometimes a British soldier on the streets of Belfast. Yeah, I know. Oh, and Gary gets to narrate his own bits. All the rest are in the third person. It takes a couple of chapters to get into the swing of the book especially since during the first day when Nigel visits his clients they're all speaking in their the-system-is-really-working-for-me voices and we don't get to see the real characters till the second day. So expect a slow start. But it picks up quickly enough as this interchange from the start of Day Two between Gary and Ralph demonstrates:

           Have you been in at my dosh?
           Are you fucking sure?
           I never touched it.
           You fucking better not have.
           Ralph moved back to the door.
           Right, I'll go now, he stuttered.
           Fed up with me are you?
           Well why do you want to go?
           I thought you said I had to.
           Sit down you stupid cunt.
           He sat on the couch.
           Do you want some tea?
           He nodded so I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Then I grabbed a mug out of the cupboard and as I put it on the worktop it slipped and smashed on the floor. I shouted to Ralph.
           Do you still want tea?
           He shouted back.
           Yes please.
           Well get in here and clean up this mess.
           He came in and I gave him a dustpan and brush. He got on his knees and started to pick up the bits of mug. I got another one out of the cupboard and waited for the kettle. I looked at Ralph and had the urge to boot him to fuck and back…
           It was a strong urge.
           Ralph, I said.
           Best you get out of here.

You will have noted the strong language. If that wee bit put you off then the book's not for you. It's full of expletives. This is how these people talk. And there are no marks to indicate someone is speaking.

Since Gary gets to narrate his bits you might be tempted to think this is his story but it's not. Like any ensemble piece there is a focal point and that's what Gary is. He is by far the most interesting corner of a rather predictable triangle: his social worker takes an interest in Gary's girlfriend and goes to extraordinary lengths to get her into rehab and to keep Gary, who he regards as a bad influence, out of the picture. But Nigel is not only an overworked and unappreciated social worker, he is also human … and his wife is away with her work on a training course.

Charlie has been on the game for a long time. She's jaded and doesn't want to do what she's doing any more, especially since she blows the vast amount of her money on drugs. Nigel's offer is too good to be true. But a hooker, as you might imagine, has a fairly cynical view of the male species. Is Nigel the "guardian angel" the book's blurb would have us believe? Nah, I didn't think so either.

Are all junkies stupid? Yes, of course they are. Anyone who does that to themselves has to be stupid. But that doesn't mean they're not intelligent. Gary manages to be both. In his bedroom he's building a model of the human psyche – which he describes as a sphere – with bits and pieces stolen, with great ingenuity, from Homebase. If the model for McNay's first book was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (which it was) then I'm tempted to suggest that in the intervening months he's been dipping into Samuel Beckett's Murphy. In case you're curious, it ends up looking a bit like an octopus, his model of the human psyche. During a trip to the seaside Gary also displays the kind of insight into the human condition that I've only heard expressed more succinctly by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:

           Do you know when sometimes, for a split second, you think you know the answer to life? Then it all crashes and you realise you don't? he asked.
           Charlie nodded.
           I think so, she said.
           His hands mimed holding a sphere.
           Well that's the moment your thoughts are echoed and amplified around the emptiness.
           She didn't know what to say.
           He shrugged.
           Trouble with most people is they can't handle it, so they avoid facing up to it by trying to fill it up. It's like they're treating their most valuable possession as a fucking rubbish dump.
           He pointed to a fat man waddling down the street.
           I mean, look at that cunt, he's trying to fill it with doughnuts.
           But maybe he gets hungry, she said.
           Gaz screwed his face up with contempt.
           Nah, he said. The hole inside is making him feel that. Hunger's just how it looks on the surface.
           How do you know? she asked.
           He tapped the side of his head again.
           I just do right?

And then there's our little lost Legionnaire. To say he's out of place in the novel is to state the obvious. So, what's he doing there? It's a good question and not something I care to go into because his periodic appearances kept me turning pages even when a lot of the real action was taking its time getting where it was going.

The world of drug addicts is not a pleasant one. Just remember what went on in the film Trainspotting and you've got the general idea. Now, I'm not sure if it's because it's been done before and done very well, but even though McNay's descriptions are accurate enough I'm tempted to say these scenes feel just a little as if they were written by someone who had done their research well rather than someone who had been there. I could be wrong. I've not been there. Or perhaps, to use film parlance, this book is a 15 rating and that's fine – I have an imagination and I don’t need everything spelled out for me. The conversations bothered me a bit. I would have expected more euphemistic slang and just plain course language. But what do I know about how real junkies talk to each other?

Bottom line: would I recommend the book? It is a good believable story. Despite the fact I spent three days on it, I was keen to find out what was going on. What kept me reading was the Legionnaire's story more than anything and I also wanted to know what was going on in that damn bedroom. McNay drip feeds us information. He's wise to do this and it reminded me of Brautigan's approach to writing Willard and his Bowling Trophies where we have two completely different stories that seem to have nothing to do with each other but finally come together at the end. Well, this is like that and McNay does a good job grafting these disparate elements together. Of course, he knows what's going on from the jump but that's the writer's privelege.

None of the characters are especially likeable, not even the minor characters; there's no hero to root for and there's no especially happy ending. I could say that it didn't end as I expected and that's true but some of the things did pan out in a fairly predictable manner. There was a part of me that hoped something might turn out differently, that someone would grab a hold of the steering wheel and point the plot in a different direction, but like someone watching a car heading for a brick wall I found myself unable to look away.

I wouldn't rush out to buy this book but if you see it on a 3 for 2 table at Waterstones then grab a copy. It's available from 17th July 2008.

Mark McNay was born in 1965 and brought up in a mining village in central Scotland. After a failed electrical engineering course and fifteen years doing odd jobs, Mark joined the UEA creative writing course in 1999. He graduated in 2003 with distinction. In 2007 he won the Arts Foundation prize for New Fiction for Fresh.

Sunday 13 July 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 4

Maggie:  Ma! C'mere, Ma.
Aggie:   Whit is it? Ah'm tryin t fix yer faither's tea.
Maggie:   Huv ye seen these new reviews af Unca Jim's book?
Aggie:   Does yer da know yer usin his comptuta?
Maggie:   Ah wis daen skulwork.
Aggie:   Mare likely ye wis wastin yer time oan Bebo.
Shuggie:   Oy, wumman is ma tea no ready yet?
Aggie:   Haud yer horses. Ah'm jist lookin at a couple af reviews wi oor Mags.
Shuggue:   Reviews af whit? An who said yoos cud use ma comptuta?
Maggie:   Ssssh. Thur aboot Unca Jim's book.
Shuggie:   Ah neffer knew thur wur new wans up. An don't yoo shush me young lady.
Aggie:   Me neether. An will yoos two stap squabblin? Maggie fund them.
Shuggue:   How?
Maggie:   Did Ah no dae a search oan Google?
Shuggie:   Well shuv oar an let me see.
Maggie:   Da! Willya watch where yer shuvving me.
Shuggue:   Hey, any mora yer cheek an Ah'll gie ye a fat lip.
Maggie:   Aye right. Talk's cheap.
Aggie:   Hey, that's yer faither yer talking tae.
Shuggie:   Will yoos two wheesht while Ah'm tryin t'read? So wherama clickin?
Maggie:   Oan that link t' Gudreads. Sum guy name af Denis Taillefer.
Shuggie:   Gudreads? Whits that when it's at hame?
Aggie:   It's a site whir people say whits gud t' read, whidya think?
Shuggie:   Aw right wumman. Enufer yer lip.
Maggie:   He says Unca Jim's like Sammy Beckett.
Shuggie:   He disne.
Maggie:   Aye he dis, Da, an he says the book reminded im af Waitin fer Godot.
Shuggie:   Ye don't say … Aggie.
Aggie:   Whit?
Shuggie:   Are ye jist goanna staun thur peerin oer ma shudder or ahm Ah goan t'huv t'fix ma ain tea?
Aggie:   Aye awright. Gonna bookmark that page fer me so Ah cun read it later?
Shuggie:   Done. Rait oor Maggie, whir's the next wan?
Maggie:   It's thur.
Shuggie:   Whir?
Maggie:   Thur! BCF Book Reviews. It's starin ye in the face.
Shiggie:   Dae they say he's like Sammy Beckett?
Maggie:   Nah. They say he's mare like Charlie Dickens.
Shuggie:   Dickens, eh? Ah don't think oor Jim soonds like Charlie Dickens.
Maggie:   That's whit they say, Da. Mind yoo they've nae read the book.
Shuggie:   Whit? How cum they cun review a book they've nae read?
Maggie:   Ah don't know. Ye punced me aff the thing afore Ah goat t'read the review proaperly.
Aggie:   Well yoos can baith read it proaperly after ye've had yer tea. Huv ye bookmarked them pages fer me?
Shuggie:   Aye.
Aggie:   Baith af them?
Shuggie:   Aye. The Gudreads wan an the BFG wan.
Aggie:   Maggie, check t'see if he's dun it right.
Shuggie:   Ah did it right!
Maggie:   He did Ma. Ah wis watchin im.
Shuggie:   Whit's fer tea anywise?
Aggie:   Dead coo pie.
Shuggie:   Magic.

Thursday 10 July 2008

In the beginning was the sound… (part two)

Music is the very essence of what things are. – Eli Siegel ('Speech of Moon in the Heart of Ceylon')

Words and music (or Bob and Joe as they prefer to be called)

In 1961 Samuel Beckett wrote a number of radio plays that incorporate music: Words and Music, Cascando and Rough for Radio I all of which incorporated music. I have already written extensively about them so if you want to know the details please check out the various Wikipedia articles. I doubt they've been altered much since I first posted them. The main thing that's common to all three plays is that Beckett doesn't use the music as accompaniment; the music is a character in its own right. A theme running through all of Beckett’s writing has been the impossibility of meaningful expression through words alone and these plays were an experiment on Beckett's part to investigate the relationship between words and music.

If I can focus on Words and Music, in the play Words (Joe) and Music (Bob) play the part of two servants. They’ve probably been together for a great many years and rubbing each other up the wrong way has become a means of entertaining themselves when they’re not performing for their master. Bob is actually portrayed by a small orchestra who responds musically to Joe and his master, Croak. Beckett didn't compose the music himself. John Beckett, his cousin, wrote it based on instructions from the author, himself a more than competent pianist. Other composers have had a crack at it since.

When Katharine Worth asked Beckett about the relationship between the two figures in this radio play, he said: "Music always wins." Similarly, Beckett told Theodor W. Adorno "that it definitely ends with the victory of music". In what way though? Joe is certainly rendered speechless by the end of the play which really emphasises what Beckett was starting to realise, the limited power of words.

There is precedence for this: in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (1936) the different characters and animals which the narrator refers to are illustrated by the orchestra and in silent film, music has often been used as a substitute for verbal dialogue, so that we come to associate particular types of music with particular characters. This has carried on into modern cinema with the work of composers like John Williams who, notably from Jaws onward, reintroduced the use of leitmotifs, specific themes to go with major characters.

Beckett considered his writing as musical in both shape and sound. He was not alone in this either. This was something his friend, Robert Pinget, also had strong opinions on and this is evidenced most noticeably in his 1969 novel Passacaglia which is an attempt to transpose into prose that particular musical form.

Music was an essential part of Beckett's life and what I find interesting is my Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett devotes seven pages to 'Music' but only four to 'Waiting for Godot'. Beckett's works often have musical titles like Cascando, Ghost Trio (after Beethoven) and Nacht und Träume (after Schubert) and it is virtually impossible to read a description of one of his works, and that includes the prose works, without using musical terminology. Billie Whitelaw, who has literally had to work with a metronome clicking away while she rehearsed under Beckett, has described Not I as "like music, a piece of Schoenberg in the head" and Footfalls, she says is "a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting".

Anne Atik, the poet (and wife of the distinguished painter Avigdor Arikha) who first met Beckett in 1959, had this to say about him:

Our evenings consisted of music before or after dinner, and poetry in between.

His way of reciting poetry was at the polar opposite of the French school of declamation. In reciting, Sam sang, sometimes crooned; in Apollinaire's refrain "voie lactee," from La Chanson du Mal Aimed, he kept nearly the same line intervals as a blackbird's.

He recited other lines as though they were tone poems, Debussy with a burr, so to speak; or rather, like a lied, which, in fact, in later times, was the musical form he always came back to, those of Schumann, Brahms and Schubert, especially Schubert's Lieder – Beckett as Reader, The American Poetry Review, Sep/Oct 1999

What is interesting about the comment about the blackbird is the fact that the sound poet Bob Cobbing was famous for suggesting "that we should aspire to birdsong". In a lengthy article about Sound Poetry in the UK, Peter Finch begins by referring to Cobbing's statement and then continues:

I don’t think he meant that we should actually sing like birds but rather we should adopt the same attitude they have towards the making of sounds. Loosen the connection between word and meaning, let consciousness’s iron control slip back, allow the air back in. – 57 Productions

In Beckett's œuvre the most startling example of this is the fluttering, gabbling words that pour out of the voice of a disembodied mouth in Not I. In this piece, Beckett made an important point to Jessica Tandy: he hoped that the piece would "work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect," the words were not as important as the effect, as the sound.

I can recall nothing that I've ever read that says that Beckett wrote to music but I've forgotten far more than I can remember about his life and work. Which brings us neatly to the next topic:

Background music (What do composers listen to when they write?)

Probably the main way in which music comes into play with writers is at the time of writing. I think the simplest way to illustrate the various points of views is with a few quotes culled from the Web:

Margaret Mayo: I’ve been writing to music today. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s amazing what a difference it makes. Inspiration flows so much more quickly.

Sheyna Galyan: Writing to music helps the words flow, I've found, and eliminates the echoes of badly written sentences bouncing around in my head. The trick, however, is finding the right music.

Jeffrey Thomas: I very much like writing to music without vocals. It’s more like I’m writing the words to the song, then. It’s more like a real movie soundtrack to the action unfolding on the silver screen of my monitor. And I often listen to actual movie soundtracks while I’m writing.

Scarlett Thomas: Music tends to be what I do when I'm not writing, though. I can do academic writing to music, but I can't have it on when I'm writing fiction. I get over-excited and think I'm writing something great when it's actually shit.

Jason Lusk: [W]riting to music serves more than one purpose. If you use it for inspiration, music can help you relax, or it can put fire in the blood, depending on what type of inspiration you want. But music can drown out the rest of the world, helping you find the isolation you need to compose.

J.L. Murphey: Even with sadness, you follow the words and music through the piece. When I'm writing sadness, or depression or lost soul passages, it has to be Mozart's Requiem or Beethoven's Für Elise. To me there is nothing so downcast or broken. It will bring tears to your eyes. When I look at my writing of these scenes, I want my readers to feel what the character is feeling.

S.P. Somtow: The reason I was able to switch easily back and forth between writing and music was that I didn't really change the creative process. The basic structures of my writing are still musical structures. I see plot strands as musical themes, and develop them the same way. My writing is writing that I hear.

Willy Vlautin: You know I wrote a whole novel to soundtrack music but it didn't turn out so hot. I had to throw it out. So I don't let myself listen to music anymore while I write. It sure was fun though. It was a real blast, but the writing was slop – a real constant sloppy that had never happened before.

Stephen Clarke: If I listen to music, I can't concentrate on the words I’m writing. I play guitar and bass, so if I’m sitting at the computer trying to write, I’ll be playing the bass line in my head or working out the chords.

Gayle Brandeis: I have a hard time listening to music while I write, especially if the music has lyrics—the words from the song fill my brain and make it hard for me to squeeze any other words in or out. My husband is in two bands, and they sometimes rehearse at our house. For a while, I couldn't write while they played—there was just too much sound reverberating through the walls (and my husband plays pedal steel guitar, which creates a frequency that seems to cancel out thought for me, kind of like a dog whistle)—but I've become so familiar with their music, I can tune it out now if I have to get some work done.

Words and music and me (The soundtrack to my life)

I'm not sure where my love of music comes from. I have way more tapes and CDs than I have books. It wasn't from either parent. They both had no problem singing around the house (my dad thought he sounded like Bing Crosby, my mum like Gracie Fields) but they didn't own a record between them. When I was a kid we had an old gramophone but I was thirteen before we got our first record-player. Like I said at the start, I used to use an old reel-to-reel to listen to music before that.

For me, it depends what I'm writing how much background noise I can tolerate. At the moment I'm writing this to the dulcet tones of Top of the Pops 2. When I was younger I could write to anything; Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rick Wakeman were some of my favourites but you could just as easily hear Khachaturian, Rachmaninov or even Duke Ellington blaring out the Quadraphonic music centre's speakers; I was never out of the local record library.

Nowadays I can't write fiction if I'm listening to music with lyrics though I'll be honest I'm not sure how much I actually listen to what's being played once I start getting into my work. I have distinct memories of putting a CD on and discovering that it had ended without being aware of any music actually happening. To be honest, in the early days the reason for the music was to drown out the rest of my family. I was quite lucky to have a room downstairs that was effectively an office.

My favourite composers these days are the likes of Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt and Einojuhani Rautavaara though I also listen to a lot of soundtracks (James Newton Howard and James Horner are favourite composers). I have to say I've never put on music to suit what I'm writing or to put me in a particular mood. It's a thing that never occurred to me until I read on-line about people doing it.

That doesn't mean I don't think about writing in musical terms. I used to write music in my teens and early twenties and I work in exactly the same way, starting with the first note/word and moving on until the end. I mean that, there should be a natural flow from beginning to end, like a symphonic poem.

Conclusion (Hurry up, Jim, I'm reading this in my tea break)

There is a short essay by Timothy J. O’Shannassy – a Graduate School of Communication and Creative Industries, University of Westminster – called The Modern Novel as a Performance Event in which he discusses how we may regard contemporary fiction as a musical form. The example he uses is part of the novel Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo. I'll jump straight to his conclusion (it's a bit wordy but bear with him):

Upon identifying onomatopœia and audiovisual metaphor as performative qualities within the DeLillo text I have suggested the reader will more likely draw upon acoustic memory when apprehending this monologue. Thus I have noted the possibility of the reader being influenced by musical conventions when making sense of onomatopœia and the audiovisual trope. Hence we might understand how questions concerning musical form become relevant when reading particular literary works. I can thereby gesture toward musicology as a disciplinary means by which we may better understand what we hear when we listen while reading certain examples of the modern novel.

I told you it was wordy.

What is clear though from all the above is that writers cannot escape music. They may not work with it blaring in their ears but they can't get it out of their heads. It influences the flow of their words and the form they choose to use. Words and Music may, as Beckett presents them, squabble from time to time but like most of his other pairs, they're stuck with each and are going to stay stuck with each other for a long time.

Monday 7 July 2008

In the beginning was the sound… (part one)

Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance... poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music. — Ezra Pound

The relationship between words and music is an interesting one. Beckett referred to his writing as "sounds" and that is something that both words and music have in common, the sound, because even when you're reading silently to yourself you still "hear" the words in your head. He said: "My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible and I accept responsibility for nothing else." Because poetry has cadence, metre, and rhyme its relationship to music is immediately established. The question is: How well do these two distant cousins get on?

Michael Joyce: The musicality of words can't, I think, be divorced from the physicality of writing … I believe we carry language in breath and in depth and in our own sense of our movement in space. I hear words in movement, when I'm walking or my fingers are typing or writing with a pen, other movements as well. Otherwise I think I am largely dumb, in every sense of that word. Language comes at the instant of some motion toward and in myself. I think some of that has been lost, however temporarily, in current electronic arts. Not just the pure musicality, the surface poetry, but the sense of language as embodied action. – Trace Online Writing Centre

Narration and music (Oil and water)

I have a large collection of classical music, most of it from the 20th century. It's not that I've got anything against Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers it's just that I pretty much sickened myself when I was in my teens and studying music. I used to have Beethoven's Sixth Symphony on an old reel-to-reel machine and I played it over and over again while I worked on my various projects. I still own a copy but it has been years since I listened to it.

As far as the 20th century goes I have a very varied selection, something for every mood but there are four pieces that I very rarely listen to: Michael Easton's Beasts of the Bush, Peter Sculthorpe's The Fifth Continent, Joseph Schwantner's New Morning for the World: "Daybreak of Freedom" and Dan Welcher's Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun. The reason is that each of the aforesaid pieces is for narrator and orchestra.

Of course these are not the most popular pieces for narrator and orchestra. Most people will have heard Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra – they're often packaged on the same CD – I've probably even got copies lying around somewhere, or maybe not, either way I've heard loads of versions. An amazing number of people have had a go at them from David Bowie to Patrick Stewart though thankfully I've managed to avoid Dame Edna Everage's contribution to the genre.

I don't know what it is but words and music just don't seem to go together. Singing is fine. I have no problem with singing although I exhibit very little talent in that area. This does puzzle me because language is intrinsically musical. It's just with these narrated pieces the music never seems to go. I'm sure it's just me and I have to admit to hearing a couple of very stirring renditions of Copland's A Lincoln Portrait but I still prefer the Fanfare for the Common Man on its own and especially without the well-meaning-I'm-sure contributions by Messrs Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Poetry and music ("Oral messages")

What I find interesting is that so often poets have chosen to perform with a musical backdrop, one that normally has not been specifically written to accompany the particular set of poems. I'm thinking obviously of the caricature of the beat poet with the jazz quartet in the background. Ferlinghetti wrote seven poems published in his A Coney Island of the Mind with the intention that they be read with jazz. The introduction to the 'Oral Messages' section reads:

These seven poems were conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment and as such should be considered as spontaneously spoken "oral messages" rather than as poems written for the printed page. As a result of continued experimental reading with jazz, they are still in a state of change.

I once bought a copy of a CD of John Cooper Clarke reading – it was to be a present – and I was sorely disappointed to find that it had been recorded over a backing track. I've heard him read his poems many times without music and they work. I find that the music fights with the words, it demand a part of my attention and dilutes the power of the words. In my opinion.

Here's an example of what I don't like. It's of Allan Douglass Coleman performing from 'Big Yellow House' at the Café Verboten, Stapleton, Staten Island, NY, June 24, 2000 with musical accompaniment by Doug Principato and Ed Jackson.

Now here's an example of Kenneth Rexroth performing 'I didn't want it' to a jazz accompaniment from the LP Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk. It's a pleasant piece I have to admit but I was more impressed by his comments on the liner notes from which here is a short extract:

A few years back, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Lipton and I revived it in California. For a while it was a fad. The Beatniks took it up. Some pretty awful stuff was committed in joints around the country. Now the fad has died away and the permanent, solid achievements remain. The form is not going to revolutionise either jazz or poetry but it is going to stay with us, and both jazz and poetry are going to have one new way of expressing themselves, and so are going to be just a little richer.

How do we do it? We certainly don’t just spontaneously blow off the tops of our heads. Most of these pieces are standard tunes, carefully rehearsed many times with the poet until we’ve got a good clear rich head arrangement. We don’t write it down, because we want to keep as much spontaneity and invention as possible, but at the same time we want plenty of substance to the music, and, of course, we want poet and band to ‘go together’.

Why do we do it? No theories. We do it because we like to. It’s fun.

I'm not sure I'm convinced personally. I'm always impressed by an artist who takes their work seriously but his 'Nicholas, you ran away' is just a tad too So-I-Married-An-Axe-Murderer for me. My wife likes it though.

Poetry as song ("A song is a bastard")

There have been many occasions where composers have taken it upon themselves to take a set of poems and treated them as lyrics. Beckett's work has been very popular. You can get a fairly complete list on the Samuel Beckett: Apmonia website. I have to confess to having heard none of it, none with words in any case. I have, and love, Philip Glass's interpretation of Company. You can listen to a snippet from Company IV at but there an animation at YouTube that's quite interesting to watch while you listen to a longer selection.

A better known piece would be Copland's 1950 song cycle, 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson of which I've probably heard about a minute's worth. Copland's approach echoed Dickinson’s concise yet lyric language with abrupt leaps in the vocal line that matched her unique dashes and pauses. Vivian Perlis, an American music historian, expands on this: "The songs are unusual in style with irregular meters and stanzas, wide jumps in the vocal lines, and difficult passages for the pianist that present special challenges." All I can say is that it didn't work for me. Here's a clip of Phyllis Curtin having a go at of There Came A Wind Like A Bugle; you to make up your own mind.

Copland wrote in a letter to Verna Fine, wife of composer Irving Fine:

The songs went well with composer friends and audience but got roasted in the press … I’m pleased with them – and everybody seemed to think it was a real song-cycle – which pleases me also.

The extract I included appears on an album along with works by Copland's contemporary Ned Rorem. Ned Rorem's take of working with poetry is quite different to Copland's:

A song is a bastard. It is uniting two art forms that did not ask to be forced together.

It’s a question of taking a pre-existing lyric, often a lyric masterpiece, and then assuming that you can add something to it.

The list of texts that Rorem has thought he could add something to is long, ranging from the biblical psalms to poems by Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Theodore Roethke, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Thom Gunn, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery, among others.

What I did enjoy, and I really have no decent explanation for this other than the text is in German and I have no idea what they're on about, is Schoenberg's melodrama Pierrot Lunaire which is a setting of twenty-one selected poems from Otto Erich Hartleben's German translation of Albert Giraud's cycle of French poems of the same name. The narrator who is traditionally a soprano, although the score doesn't specify a voice-type, delivers the poems in the Sprechstimme style, which is a vocal technique that falls between singing and speech. The last version I saw had the dancers clambering all around a giant climbing frame, like the kind you would find in a kids' playground – weird but nevertheless captivating.

My own personal opinion, and this is probably best illustrated by the work of Bob Dylan, is that great lyrics quite often make bad poems and great poems aren't always the basis for great songs. The debate has raged for years. You can read an article about it on the website under the heading Dylan: "I'm a poet and I know it." The best, most straightforward answer, the article concludes with, may have appeared in the liner notes of his second album, 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, where Dylan said, simply: "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem."

Poetry at its highest has no need of musical accompaniment. Music itself, at its own highest, transcends entirely the spoken or written word. I'm not sure that that makes songs.

There are, of course, examples of poets who have become songwriters. Bradley Hathaway started off as a spoken word poet but has since progressed to writing songs. Simon Armitage has had a crack at song writing. As did Saul Williams. And then there's a certain Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, who is now far better known as a singer-songwriter than he ever was as a poet and he was pretty well-known as a poet.

Were the words not enough or what?

Poetry and sound (Words perched on the edge)

Always looking to push the boundaries, John Cage would incorporate sounds in his poems:

With the use of mesostics – compositions similar to acrostics, but with the initial set of letters placed in the middle, instead of in the beginning or at the end – he created poems from the texts of Henry David Thoreau and James Joyce.

For his piece Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, he wrote a long series of mesostics based on Joyce’s novel, using the letters J-A-M-E-S-J-O-Y-C-E as the starting point of each composition. Onto the text he superimposed sounds referred to in the novel, along with traditional Irish music.

His book, M: Writings, '67-'72, is a collection of mesostics inspired by Marcel Duchamp, music, mushrooms, Merce Cunningham - and other "M" words. – John Cage: The Roaring Silence

Michael Andre has written a couple of interesting posts you might want to check out: Mesostics I and Mesostics II.

Incorporating noise and poetry is still ongoing. I found an interesting example of this in a character called Euphoreador or possibly JunKBox. I quite enjoyed his piece entitled fear wandering helpless which you can hear on his soundscapes page.

There are examples on John Parker's page on particularly Quick There is a monster but do yourself a favour and take two minutes out of your life to listen to his song Claire Danes. It's worth it.

Poetry as sound ("That's just awful. And right before teatime too.")

Fundamentally all words are nothing but sounds. On the Wright State University site I found this list of sounds in poetry:

1. Onomatopoeia:--direct imitation of a natural sound (hiss, bang, slither, choke; "black flak")

2. Imitation of movement:
  1. Abrupt/sustained contrasts in types of consonants (plosives such as B,D,K, or P, as opposed to liquids and fricatives such as L,M,N,S,F)

  2. Acceleration and impedance: clusters of unaccented syllables speed up the line; clusters of accented syllables slow it down.

  3. High/low and open/closed contrasts: "throw ... slow" versus "swift ... skims")
3. Ease or difficulty of pronunciation: e.g., aspirated consonants imitate difficult breathing: “hoarse, rough verse”; "oh how shall summer’s honey breath hold out"; tongue-twisting combinations of consonants can imitate difficulty or precision of movement ("my stick fingers click with a snicker").

4. Imitation of music (euphony) or noise (cacophony): "lap me in soft Lydian airs / Married to immortal verse" is euphonious; "grate on scrannel pipes of wretched straw" is cacophonous.

Some poets have decided to literally work with sounds separately from words. In his statement Why I Am The Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry, the poet Henri Chopin, in 1967, wrote:

The Word today serves no one except to say to the grocer: give me a pound of lentils.

The Word is useful no more; it even becomes an enemy when a single man uses it as a divine word to speak of a problematic god or of a problematic dictator. The Word becomes the cancer of humanity when it vulgarizes itself to the point of impoverishment trying to make words for all, promises for all, which will not be kept, descriptions of life which will be either scholarly or literary which will take centuries to elaborate upon with no time left for life.

The Word is responsible for the phallic death because it dominates the senses and the phallus which are submissive to it; it is responsible for the birth of the exasperated who serve verbose principles.

It is responsible for the general incomprehension of beings who succumb to murders, racisms, concentrations, the laws, etc.

In short, the Word is responsible because instead of making it a way of life we've made it an end. Prisoner of the Word is the child, and so he will be all his adult life.

That puts paid to the word, now what about the sound?

I prefer the sun, I'm fond of the night, I'm fond of my noises and of my sounds, I admire the immense complex factory of a body, I'm fond of my glances that touch, of my ears that see, of my eyes that receive... But I do not have to have the benediction of the written idea. I do not have to have my life derived from the intelligible. I do not want to be subject to the true word which is forever misleading or lying, I can stand no longer to be destroyed by the Lord, that lie that abolishes itself on paper.

I would suggest reading the whole thing but it is a bit on the long side. You can listen to a selection of some of his pieces on the UbuWeb site. Some have sounds as part of the poems, one at least only had sounds (no vocals that I could hear at all).

In his essay Sound Poetry - A Survey, Steve McCaffery considers the roots of sound poetry:

The first phase, perhaps better-termed, the first area of sound poetry, is the vast, intractable area of archaic and primitive poetries, the many instances of chant structures and incantation, of nonsense syllabic mouthings and deliberate lexical distortions still alive among North American, African, Asian and Oceanic peoples. We should also bear in mind the strong and persistent folkloric and ludic strata that manifests in the world's many language games, in the nonsense syllabery of nursery rhymes, mnemonic counting aids, whisper games and skipping chants, mouth music and folk-song refrain…

A good example of this, which definitely nods its hat to sound poetry's roots, is Bob Cobbing's Alphabet of Fishes but, please, if you listen to nothing else, give ear to Various Throats: Volume One. Just pick a number, any number:


My wife said, "That's just awful. And right before teatime too."

Soundtracks to novels (I've bought the T-shirt too)

I imagine a lot of people read with some background music on. Personally I'm not that fond of it. It used not to bother me but I find concentrating on two things a bit harder than I used to. Actually I find concentrating on one thing harder than it used to be but let's not go there.

In Alan Warner's debut novel Morven Caller, the titular heroine listens to music constantly. She rarely goes anywhere without the Walkman left behind as a Christmas present by her dead boyfriend, and as she narrates this strange story, she takes care to tell the reader exactly what music she is listening to, giving the effect of a sound track running behind her voice.

What is interesting is that some novelists have taken this to the next logical step and are now providing actual soundtracks to their novels. Spanish Fly by Will Ferguson is a novel with its own soundtrack, featuring all-original tunes based on the characters, places and era of the book.

In an interview with the author had this to say: Where did the idea for the book's soundtrack come from and how'd you manage to collaborate with Tom Phillips (Calgary singer, songwriter)?

WF: I was having beer with Don Robinson, who's the head of sales for Penguin.

We were at the Ironwood saloon in Calgary listening to Tom play and I leaned over and I said 'This is the kind of music that Jack McGreary listened to.'

I said if this novel had a soundtrack that would be Tom.

All my best ideas come to me when I'm drinking beer... I said movies get to have soundtracks, why can't a novel have a soundtrack? It didn't seem fair.

So we grabbed Tom between sets and pitched him this bizarre idea.

This has never been done before... this is the first original CD based on a novel. It must have been interesting to see his perspective on the story.

WF: I have to say as an author I'm incredibly envious now of songwriters because what takes me 100 pages to set up for an emotional payoff -- Tom can get to in three minutes and 20 seconds.
Songwriting is like storytelling concentrated.

Wikipedia lists a number of examples where soundtracks have been created to go along with books but it doesn't include Spanish Fly. I did discover an original soundtrack to the book Candy in Action by Matthue Roth, a novel about supermodels who know kung-fu which is sure to find its way onto my Amazon wish list. On her website, author Mary Pat Hyland lists the tracks she would like to use as a soundtrack to her novel The Cyber Miracles.

I have to say I have no idea where I would start producing a soundtrack to anything I've written. The problem seems to be finding a piece that keeps the mood and goes with the pace at which I read. I have to say after thinking about this it amazes me how they get soundtracks to go with films, those that aren't specifically written for the programme.

Part Two

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