Rhyme and reason – during an election?

More votes for poets? Not if they’re dead….

Gordon Brown called on ‘the great poet William Blake’ to support his campaign, as noted in an earlier post. Not to be outdone, the other contenders have brandished their poetic sensitivities on the National Poetry Day site. It looks as if this could be a coalition squabble, since Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg also wants to lay claim to Blake, citing ‘Eternity’: ‘it’s a fantastic way of saying “seize the day” and the perfect poem to read in times of trouble, really uplifting.’ It’s time to ‘seize the day’ yourself, Nick!

David Cameron chose Wilfred Owen: ‘I still remember the first time I read his poems and the incredible power and anger about the First World War. For me, they were literally an eye-opener.’ Literally, David? Were you normally asleep during poetry lessons at Eton? I can feel a Lear moment coming on:

Get thee glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.

This politician can hear Owen’s anger about about the First World War but is still happy to press ahead with buying Trident nuclear submarines, I recall. Alexander Pope in Rape of the Lock actually preferred a good drink, his politicians only pretend to be blind:

Coffee, which makes the politician wise
And see through all things with his half-shut eyes

Can we have both rhyme and reason at election time? See and hear Danny Chivers’ lively ‘Election Day’ poem here (and on YouTube) and decide where you’ll cast your vote!

Does Gordon Brown read this blog – or: would Blake vote Labour?

Prime Minister goes for the poetry (and nursing) vote

I suspect the Prime Minister has been reading this blog. Today he addressed the Royal College of Nursing Conference in Bournemouth. It seems that like William Blake he’s been seeing angels, for he said: ‘We feel like parents who have been in the presence of angels dressed in nurses’ uniforms, performing the most amazing works of mercy and care. And I will never forget seeing in real time every minute of the day that idea of service and selflessness summed up by the great poet William Blake:

Can I not see another’s woe?
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief?
And not seek for kind relief?

‘That is the spirit of nursing,’ he said, to (of course) rousing applause. Only last week this same William Blake was quoted on this very blog. He, being dead, cannot be canvassed (not that that stops politicians, of course). I haven’t checked but I doubt Blake ever had a vote (he died before the 1832 Reform Act, though would probably have been too poor to qualify even then). If he had, would he have supported New Labour? As I noted this morning, the Green Party has already laid claim to Blake’s own words in ‘Jerusalem’ about a ‘green and pleasant land’. Blake was a free spirit, unwilling to bound by the chains of a mainstream party – I suspect he would have sympathised with the Greens but probably fallen out with them after a while.

Next question: who would the following poets have voted for? Give chapter and verse – or at least verse, in support of your answers:

  • Keats
  • Byron
  • Dylan Thomas
  • Shakespeare

Further suggestions welcome!

At the hustings: more etymology – and Tory praises Beast of Bolsover

Today’s Word of the Day is inspired by attending an election hustings in Glossop last night. The Oxford English Dictionary (thank you Derbyshire Libraries – don’t let them say you never do anything for us) tells us that hustings is ‘from OE. hústing, a. ON. hús-{th}ing, house-assembly, a council held by a king, earl, or other leader, and attended by his immediate followers, retainers, etc., in distinction from the ordinary {th}ing or general assembly of the people (the OE. folc{asg}emót, FOLKMOOT).’

My own impression of the would-be MPs was that they were a rather less sophisticatedly fluent bunch that I fondly imagined the ‘kings, earls, or other leaders’ of yore. Perhaps a folkmoot is more in tune with our less heroic times? The Green Party candidate, Peter Allen, was the most articulate and passionate and seemed to have done more homework on the questions. Literary Connections has to warm to someone whose slogan, ‘for a green and pleasant land in High Peak’ echoes William Blake and who also strongly recommended The Spirit Level, a book already mentioned here. The Conservative candidate said that now he’s canvassing he doesn’t have time to read books (I pointed out to Andrew Bingham that, rather cheekily, David Cameron cited the book in his Hugo Young lecture last year – though the authors of The Spirit Level rejected the conclusions he attempted to draw). The Tory’s real shock, however, was his praise for arch-left MP Dennis Skinner, the fabled Beast of Bolsover who represents all that Conservatism, even in its new guise, is not. Unfortunately, he bracketed him in his commendation of independence of spirit with Sir Nicholas Winterton, the Macclesfield MP who recently described standard-class rail passengers as ‘a totally different type of people’ to persons of his ilk. Clearly Sir Nicholas is not a man for meeting folk or even a folkmoot.

Volcanoes, earthquakes – and etymology

 Eyjafjallajokull's outlet glacier
Eyjafjallajokull's outlet glacier: see below
A journalist commented a week ago that although we knew that the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was causing the cancellation of flights, we didn’t know how to pronounce it. Well, we do now! Chris Warren, whilst still delayed in Japan, has gained exclusive access to a top-flight linguist (his brother, Professor Nicholas Warren of Fukuoka University, Japan) and can reveal, exclusively, here that Eyjafjallajökull is pronounced AY-ya FYA-tla YEUH-kutl. Or, to put it another way: [ei.ja,fjatl.a’jœ.kʏtl]. It means, literally: ‘island mountains’ glacier’. Amongst other gems imparted by the learned Professor Warren is the nugget that, in English ‘the -s- in island was inserted because of folk-etymological association with isle from Old French from the Latin insula (compare this with the Icelandic eyja).’ Ever idiosyncratic, the English, eh?

Meanwhile, back in England, beside the fells (Icelandic fjalla, Old Norse fiall, fjall ‘mountain, rock, barren plateau’) of the High Peak, the political scene seems to be subject to earthquakes of its own, as the tectonic plates of two-party politics are all shook up. As Marina Hyde puts it in today’s Guardian: ‘For those of us perfectly happy to concede we haven’t a clue at the best of times, and merely hazard this sort of cobblers in exchange for beer tokens, the sense of discombobulation is delicious and thrilling.’ Furthermore, there’s an interesting account by Ian Jack of his visit to Somerset to meet the Rees-Moggs who featured in an earlier post.

Photograph by Andreas Tille from Wikimeida Commons, published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

St George, Blake and Shelley – and hang Parliament!

The Spirit Level
The Spirit Level
St George’s Day again and the High Street is festooned with flags. We must be proud of our local saint – though as Judith Maltby points out, he probably wasn’t local at all, at least not to England.

Perhaps this excitement is a sign of election fever? There’s certainly been some here; for the first time I can ever recall, a Parliamentary candidate has come to the door – the kind of good old-fashioned politics that makes you proud to be British. Actually, first to call was a canvasser who said ‘I’m looking for Tories: are you one?’ I vacillated but added that since it’s a very close race in High Peak, I’d love to talk about the issues. He responded: ‘I’m a messenger, not a missionary!’ However, he did then bring Andrew Bingham, the Conservative candidate, to the door – and I didn’t even inquire whether the non-dom Lord Ashcroft was funding their campaign.

I forgot to ask whether he agreed with Shelley that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ – that might have been an opening to ask his views of the current Poet Laureate too. (Should one select an MP on the basis of poetic preferences?) I did however have a question about inequality, prompted by my current reading of Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. I should have quoted William Blake:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

There are sharp questions about this in a letter from Rev Dennis Nadin in today’s Guardian: ‘Where is the voice of the poor to be heard in this election?’

And now I see that the same Andrew Bingham can be spotted walking past the famous Café Royston (of League Of Gentlemen fame) in a short video about the constituency by John Harris called Hang Parliament! on the Guardian site. It seems from this that although the Conservatives want us to ‘vote for change’ that doesn’t mean any change to the voting system. Perhaps, as Lord Curzon found out, it will all end in tears?

Even big boys sometimes cry

Not being made PM is a cruel blow, especially when you’ve gone up to London on purpose.

Lord Curzon in his robes as Viceroy of India, 1899-1905
Lord Curzon in his pomp as Viceroy of India (and dry-eyed)
Will Gordon, David or Nick weep on failing to become Prime Minister? I suspect they’d consult their image consultants first. Yet one noble Lord did, it seems, cry when his summons didn’t, after all, mean being asked to form a government – as I learnt during a visit last week to Montacute House. In addition to the portraits of Elizabethan and Jacobean worthies, the house has Curzon Room, named after the former Viceroy of India who rented the house with his mistress, the romantic novelist Elinor Glyn, ‘enduring,’ the National Trust poetically puts it, ‘Arctic temperatures to stay by her man’s side.’ Thus inspired, the NT’s writer continues: ‘But she couldn’t stop Curzon’s feelings cooling along with the weather, and knew the frost had well and truly set in when she read of his engagement to Mrs Alfred Duggan in the Times.’ This cruel treatment rather undermines the same writer’s claim that ‘We all suffer our disappointments in life, but perhaps not so acute as George Nathaniel Curzon.’ Really? Did they ask Ms Glyn about his sin or only care about hers?

I guess not becoming Prime Minister is a blow, especially when you’ve gone up to London on purpose. For although there was no telephone at Montacute in 1923, when a telegram arrived, ‘the supremely confident Curzon’ travelled up to London with great expectations that he would become the next Prime Minister, only to find that Stanley Baldwin had got the job. It seems the most prominent reasons were that Curzon’s character was objectionable (they must have heard about his treatment of Ms Glyn – or taken against him in person), and that it was inappropriate for the Prime Minister to be a member of the House of Lords. The noble Lord was said to have burst into tears on hearing the news. Or, to express it in doggerel:

Curzon cried when not selected
Trouble was he weren’t elected
Even Kings must succumb
To the voter’s rule of thumb

And so it will be on May 6th – unless, of course, we have a hung Parliament, a prospect that is causing the chattering classes great excitement.

Writing this, I came across this Balliol rhyme about Curzon, ‘a piece of doggerel which stuck with him in later life’:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.

And so it that I seem to have stumbled into an imitation of the form. Well, it’s bad enough….

Photograph, from US Library of Congress, taken from Wikimedia Commons

In praise of haiku – and silence

Poetic responses to the silent skies – and an election aside.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano plume 18 April 2010
Cloud of unknowing: Eyjafjallajokull volcano plume on 18 April 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)
Chris Warren, currently stranded in Japan by the volcanic ash you can see here spewing from Eyjafjallajokull, has sent another contribution to his haiku collection:

Raked temple garden
Perfect but for a dead twig
Fallen across folds

Outwardly, then, all is calm, even if his situation, trapped far from home, is less than ideal. Haiku, it seems, are of the moment, for Herman van Rompuy, the new President of the European Council, has just published his own volume. The Guardian comments that ‘his passion is for a form of Japanese verse that is the bureaucratic equivalent of the limerick’. The poet himself prefers to describe the form as ‘fun and frolicsome’. As I hope the examples here show, haiku can achieve far more.

Chris inspired a response of my own, after a visit to the Long Gallery at Montacute House last week. It contains Tudor and Elizabethan portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, including figures such as Essex and Francis Bacon, posing in their finery and haughty demeanour, whilst the roads outside are peppered with election posters – including many for Annunziata Rees-Mogg, who must surely also be from a family of ancient entitlement. She is (her father edited the Times) and just to make the point, her brother Jacob (‘the headline-prone 37-year-old banker’, says the Independent) is standing in the next constituency. ‘Economies of scale ought to be possible when it comes to printing the ‘Vote Rees-Mogg’ posters,’ quipped the editor’s daughter. She was right – the landscape was peppered with blue signs, with only a solitary yellow ‘Vote Tessa’ poster stuck, incongruously, at the edge of the beach at Burnham-on-Sea.

Outside in Spring sun
Annunziata seeks my vote;
Here cool statesmen stare.

[Update, 24 April: lovely article by Ian Jack on the Rees-Mogg candidacies in The Guardian: ‘In pursuit of Somerset royalty in the hyper-marginal hinterland: It’s hard enough for the Tories to demonstrate social inclusivity with one highly privileged candidate. But two?’]

Today’s Guardian carries a haiku from Patrick Curry on the silent skies themselves (I hope, Chris, it’s some consolation):

Glorious, the spring
skies thrumming with silence – and
no one had to die

The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, was also struck by the quiet. She apologises to those stranded (including, implicitly, our friends in Japan) then relishes the kinds of sounds ‘that Shakespeare heard and Edward Thomas and, briefly, us’ – for every cloud has a ‘Silver Lining’. Hear Carol Ann Duffy read it the poem on the BBC site or read the full text on the Guardian site. It’s not a haiku, though….

Photograph by Boaworm from Wikimeida Commons, published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Japanese whispers: in Basho mood

Japanese temple garden
Zen stone garden at the Komyozenji temple in Dazaifu by Chris 73: see below.
Poetic inspiration takes unpredictable, amazing shapes. In response to a recent post about poetry and sport, there was a question about how many feet would be required for poems about three-legged racers. Chris Warren, already on a trip to Japan, needed no incentive to write haiku but took this as a prompt to share some three-liners with me. Here are some tasters – though none are about sport. This was written ‘after a visit to a specially beautiful Zen temple stone garden’:

Raked gravel ripples
Spread out from the grey stone:
Wave-forms of silence

And these show Chris, as he says, ‘in full Basho mood’:

New-leaf-green maple
Backlit by sunlight … and one
tiny bird on the branch

A black crow cries ‘Wha?’
Outside my window. Without
Heeding my reply.

The last one was written ‘after an exotic trip with some Japanese Buddhist friends to a temple in the mountains’

Mountain temple bell
Hollow sound through green pine woods
The whisper of streams

Look out for more, either here or on our English and ICT site!

All poems here by and © Chris Warren. The photograph is a Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image from Chris 73 (not Chris Warren!) and is freely available here under the Creative Commons cc-by-sa 2.5 licence.

Reading: a Darwinian or an aesthetic activity?

Is Darwinian literary studies the next big thing?

Virginia Woolf: photograph by George Beresford from Wikimedia Commons
Hmm, I'm not so sure about all this, thinks Virginia Woolf

The Observer reported yesterday that literary critics are going to ‘scan the brain to find out why we love to read’. ‘The aim, Yale literature professor Michael Holquist says, is to provide a scientific basis for schemes to improve the reading skills of college-age students.’ Ah, it’s a utilitarian project, then? ‘Lighting up the right neurones is every bit as important as a keen moral insight or a societal context.’ Some hail this as revolutionary: ‘It is one of the most exciting developments in intellectual life,’ said Blakey Vermeule, an English professor at Stanford University. Vermeule is examining the role of evolution in fiction: some call it “Darwinian literary studies”.’ Or, as the journalists put it: ‘Forget structuralism or even post-structuralist deconstructionism. “Neuro lit crit” is where it’s at.’

Others protest: ‘It strikes me as just plain silly. The mind and the brain are two quite separate things, and nobody knows what the relation is between them,’ said Dr Ian Patterson, a fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. That old mind-body thing, eh? Now didn’t one Ludwig Wittgenstein, formerly Professor at Cambridge University, deal that some blows? Never mind. As he wrote in 1929: ‘A good simile refreshes the intellect,’ (Culture and Value, translated by Winch, p 1e) and no doubt the neurons will show that on the scans. He also wrote: ‘Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it read at the right tempo. My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly.’ (ibid, 57e). Will the machine be able to distinguish the different effects of reading quickly and slowly? Classics or trash? Since the Observer used the familiar, rather mournful picture of Virginia Woolf (as here) to illustrate the article, the paper seems to think this is about ‘high art’. Of course (as Wittgenstein might have pointed out) that is probably the product of the way her picture is read – with the knowledge of her high modernist works, tortured life and unhappy death.

Margaret Atwood loves Twitter

Yes, Margaret Atwood loves Twitter and writes elegantly about the process. Which is the least you’d expect – and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this article first appeared on the New York Review of Books blog, where you can see a photograph of her ‘tweeting aboard the Queen Mary’. She writes how Twitter users are merciless about typos, but also ‘sent me many interesting items pertaining to artificially-grown pig flesh, unusual slugs, and the like. (They deduce my interests.)’

So what’s it all about, this Twitter? Is it signalling, like telegraphs? Is it Zen poetry? Is it jokes scribbled on the washroom wall? Is it John Hearts Mary carved on a tree? Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do.

You can follow Margaret Atwood on Twitter yourself if you wish. And you can follow Literary Connections there too!