Sunday, 7 October 2012

near the church/far from god

(Juxtaposition of poësy in the novel.)

with notes on works by Walter Scott, Anthony Burgess & JRR Tolkien.

 Go to it sonny, cigar-smoking agent swivels in office chair, stick a few pomes in next vol! Do more good than these poxy illustrations you've brought in. Cheaper, too. Pepper yr pages with lines from King James' Bible, Chapman's Homer, karzy's wall. Pomes give the page a proper look of integrity and depf, doncha fink?
Like hell and yr great marf!
Come again?
You heard!
Seriously, lad, many a noveliste has garnered great guns quoting poetry and but few have worsted their yarn with odd lines of well-cut verse. Why at its most canonical, old fruit, poetry offers yr novelist a well-sprung heel of common philosophy to turn on. Like classical scholars with Greek, Latin, Sanskrit or Arabic sources, novelizers with pomes at their tongue-tips invoke yer olde Sages & Soothsayers, yer Mytholgists & Mysterons. Yer oral trad, to which poetry is farzands of years closer than prose, innit, contains a kulcha's total eclipse. Moreover, poetry's inspiration, word-play, tones and rhythms can slip cockeyed into any scene-upon-scene of piddling narrative. I could go on...
Ice Cream Churchill

Y'Black Heart o'Midlothian

Good old Sir Walter Scott, polished rhymester if ever, frequently interpolated lines of verse - and not just bunged in chapter headers. In The Heart Of Midlothian, par example, both the narrator, Mr. Pattieson, and many characters marf off in pome or shanty. These rhymes would be familiar to contemporary readers from pulpit spoke, recanted round homely hearth or blathered on public stage.
How does the master tab his lines in? An example from the intro of that book: Hardie, a barrister, describes - in riddle - the dolorous prison of the title's name then segues into Dean Swift. BTW, the barrister is speaking to Mr. Pattieson (a school teacher), as one Edinburgh bloke to another,

“ must have passed, occasionally at least, though probably not as faithfully as I am doomed to do, through a narrow intricate passage, leading out of the north west corner of the Parliament Square, and passing by a high and antique building, with turrets and iron gates--

Making good the saying odd,
'Near the church and far from God--'...”

In a footsie, old Scottie attributes this 'proverb' to Swiftie; but might I suggest in 1818, when The Heart Of Midlothian was first run off, the “far from God” line was much older, and firmly in the pub. dom.. Furthermore, is he not quoting from the published text, but a manuscript draft of the Dean's 1736 A Character, Panegyric, And Description Of The Legion Club? Thus the satirical pome on the Irish parliament is hung like a pall of hypocrisy from the prison's baleful walls. The building in question, the Tolbooth, was in fact an early den of the by-then defunct Scottish Parliament (asset-stripped by Westminster in Act of Union, 1707). Though where exactly Hardie and his colleague Halkit are riddling of, is still not clear to the dullard Pattieson (progenitor of Dr. Watson),

“...Mr. Halkit broke in upon his learned counsel, to contribute his moiety to the riddle—"Having at the door the sign of the Red man"—
"And being on the whole," resumed the counsellor interrupting his friend in his turn, "a sort of place where misfortune is happily confounded with guilt, where all who are in wish to get out"—
"And where none who have the good luck to be out, wish to get in," added his companion.
"I conceive you, gentlemen," replied I; "you mean the prison..."

The riddle appearing to be solved, Mr. Pattieson (“replied I”) would be at liberty to continue with his introduction to the story proper; but beholden to the barristers (his hosts), must needs let them take their whole fun of the vernacular,

"...The prison," added the young lawyer—"You have hit it—the very reverend Tolbooth itself; and let me tell you, you are obliged to us for describing it with so much modesty and brevity; for with whatever amplifications we might have chosen to decorate the subject, you lay entirely at our mercy, since the Fathers Conscript of our city have decreed that the venerable edifice itself shall not remain in existence to confirm or to confute us...."

The building, a prison and place of public execution from 1640 on, was demolished in 1817 - the year before Scott's Heart of Midlothian was published. This pushes the narrator into his double-dip of comprehension,

"...Then the Tolbooth of Edinburgh is called the Heart of Mid-Lothian?" said I.
"So termed and reputed, I assure you."
"I think," said I, with the bashful diffidence with which a man lets slip a pun in presence of his superiors, "the metropolitan county may, in that case, be said to have a sad heart."
"Right as my glove, Mr. Pattieson," added Mr. Hardie; "and a close heart, and a hard heart—Keep it up, Jack."
"And a wicked heart, and a poor heart," answered Halkit, doing his best.
"And yet it may be called in some sort a strong heart, and a high heart," rejoined the advocate. "You see I can put you both out of heart."
"I have played all my hearts," said the younger gentleman.

These outpourings, to make plain my drift, are the direct result of juxtaposing Swift. The couplet sets up the wordplay that follows. Without which, the joke is a scurrilous bore. Scott, as Swift's editor, had seen drafts of the poem which he was later to include in vol. 12 of his annotated (1824) ed. of the Dean's Complete Works. Moreover, when the poem was first published, posthumously in 1750, a note by the then editor and biographer, John Hawkesworth, already suggested it had been altered or bowdlerised (pres. by Swift himself). Here it is,

Making good my grandame's jest,
"Near the church"*you know the rest.

*The nearer the church–the farther from God – Hawkes.

Quite a tone-down from the familiar lines, which are also excused (Wikipedia deserves the credit) as an old French proverb! And familiar enough to Swift's grandame (his grandma), who was born as Shakespeare was still running his tab down at the Swan Inn, the jibe must have been less sacrilegious in her day. By Swift's time – and wasn't the Dean a minister in the proddy Church of Ireland? - it was more a case of speaking your heart while minding your muckle. In this context, barrister Hardie, quoting the uncensored couplet both lifts and lowers the tone of his riddle and introduces, as if into a subconscious strain, two frequent recurrences in the novel: much shenanigans in Scottish politics and many ridicules of ye olde Covenanters. But fie! It seems inconceivable that Peter Pattieson, a schoolmaster of a parish not far from the city, should be unfamiliar with the nickname Heart of Midlothian; the joke is too tempting for Scott to miss and so the narrator, a foil in his dullness, must endure the merry barristers' exchange of hearts.
Ice Cream Thatcher

Not Enderby Land

The opportunity to do great things with verse, to strut ye cardboards in Shakespeare's chaps, has not deterred sundry auteurs from shedding much blood on the tea room floor. Anthony Burgess' Enderby, a crossword-puzzle poet, manages to become the hero of three-plus-one blockbuster vols. Playing surreal word-games, his verses reach dizzying heights of depth. Unfortunately, whenever quoted, the pomes themselves don't provide the mirth. They are neither easy to read at a steady pace, nor intrinsically drole, as in the genuine prod. of biggo ego and scanty talentti. Which is a great waste, because Enderby's manic indyisms lead to some hilarious scenes and touching stand-offs. Few readers, except perhaps pseuds of equal self-regard, could find much joy, soft touch or even tragedy about the pomes, which need to be psychoanalysed. Fortunately, and to the reader's delight, Burgess obliges us with much boffy head-shrinking.
Ice Cream Elvis
Bio the way...the author of A Clockwork Orange was a cunning linguist and no end-of-pier turn. But it ever piqued him that his orchestral music, poetry and the more laboured of his novels were not glittering successes. All the same, as fame and fortune buoyed his bravura, he was frequently invited on radio and TV to vent gasses at the literary world, baiting his demons (pseuds such as John Lennon!) and spouting provocative right-wing shite. Unnecessarily, in reality, when the books themselves contain all that is needed to understand his cacking. I can't help thinking, Burgess always had one green eye trained on Robert Graves' laurels for storybooks AND pomes.
“Inside Mr. Enderby”, the first of the original trilogy, kicks off one drunken New Year's Eve. Joyce Grenfell, ethëreal school ma'am to a class of future offspring, reveals the sleeping poet, who is both-ends a-snoring in his bier. One assumes the snotty varmits are the cocksters and bullocks of his dreams. Anyroad, they poke their fun and then fly off back to the never-never. In the next chapter, as if inspired by the aforementioned pantomime, Enderby attempts to write a Nativity version of the Minotaur myth. For inspiration, this jig-saws nicely into a post-New Year pub visit and the twisted Oedipal shanty below.
The chapter I'll quote at length is a dissolute charabanc, starting out with the poet's visit to the Freemason's Arms for his afternoon neck. He abides in a seaside town far enough along the South Coast to see the winking lights of France. It being the season of good chill, a chef and fellow alc, gives him a dead hare wrapped in newspaper, drowns three large brown bitters, and leaves. As Enderby drinks, more slowly than his working friend, a group of rowdy lesbians in the pub get him thinking of his stepmother. A stanza of poetry leaps into his head, built around the rhymes “meadow”, “widow” & “shadow”. He jots the verse down on in the empty stop-press of the bloodied newspaper. Thereafter comes an altercation with one of the inebriated women, and his muse is soon TDA'd. He quits the pub only to forget all about the poem outside in the bracing seaside air. Before entering his flat, he even dumps the bloody wrapping paper into a waste bin attached to a street lamp. He is inside, skinning the hare and cutting it up with a few vegetables to make a stew, before he recalls his flight of poetic fancy,

...He slapped the viscera on to a saucer, cut up the carcass, and then turned on the kitchen tap. Hangman's hands, he thought, looking at them. Soaked in blood up to the elbows. He tried out a murderer's leer, holding the sacrificial knife, imagining a mirror above the kitchen sink.
The water flowing from the faucet cast a faint shadow, a still shadow, on the splashboard. The line came, a refrain: The running tap casts a static shadow. That was it, he recognized, his excitement mounting again. The widow, the meadow. A whole stanza blurted itself out:

"Act! Act!" The ducks give voice.
"Enjoy the widow in the meadow.
Drain the sacrament of choice.
The running tap casts a static shadow." 

To hell with the meaning. Where the hell were those other birds? What were they? The cuckoo? The sea-gull? What was the name of that cross-eyed lesbian bitch in the Freemason's? Knife in hand, steeped in blood to the elbows, he dashed out of his flat, out of the house, to the rubbish-basket clamped to the lamppost. Others had been there while he had been gutting and skinning and quartering. A Black Magic box, a Senior Service packet, banana-peel. He threw it all out madly into the gutter. He found the defiled paper which had wrapped the beast. Frantically he searched page after crumpled page. THIS MAN MAY KILL, POLICE WARN. NOW THIS BOY IS LOVED. Most people Stop Acid Stomach with Kennies. Compulsive reading. He read: "The pain-causing acid is neutralized and you get that wonderful sensation that tells you the pain is beginning to go. The antacid ingredients reach your stomach gradually and gently - drip by drip. . ."
"What's this? What's going on?" asked an official voice.
"Eh?" It was the law, inevitably. "I'm looking for these blasted birds," said Enderby, rummaging again. "Ah, thank God. Here they are. Prudence, pigeons. Rooks, caution. It's as good as written. Here." He thrust the extended sheets into the policeman's arms.
"Not so fast," said the policeman. He was a young man, apple-ruddy from the rural hinterland, very tall. "What's this knife for, where did all that blood come from?"
"I've been murdering my stepmother," said Enderby, absorbed in composition. Prudence, prudence, the pigeons call. He ran into the house. The woman from upstairs was just coming down. She saw a knife and blood and screamed. Enderby entered his flat, ran into the bathroom, kicked on the heater, sat on the low seat. Automatically he stood up again to lower his trousers. Then, all bloody, he began to write. Somebody knocked - imperious, imperative - at his front door. He locked the bathroom door and got on with his writing. The knocks soon ceased. After half an hour he had the whole poem on paper.

"Prudence! Prudence!" the pigeons call.
"Scorpions lurk in the gilded meadow.
An eye is embossed on the island wall.
The running tap casts a static shadow."

"Caution! Caution!" the rooks proclaim.
"The dear departed, the weeping widow
Will meet in you in the core of flame.
The running tap casts a static shadow."

The injunction of the last stanza seemed clear enough, privy enough. Was it really possible, he wondered, for him to follow it, making this year different from all others?

"Act! Act!" The ducks give voice.
"Enjoy the widow in the meadow.
Drain the sacrament of choice. . ."

In the kitchen, he could now hear, the water was still flooding away. He had forgotten to turn it off. Casting a static shadow all the time. He got up from his seat, automatically pulling the chain. Who was this blasted widow that the poem referred to?

That Enderby needs to be sitting in the bog house in order to compose, the result of his work would be three nicely steaming bars of mellifluous cack were it not for the context only we, the readers of the novel, can guess at. Note that he composes with deliberate disregard to meaning, and only when he is done writing does he question who the widow is: a scorpion, weeping in the meadow whom he is urged by ducks to enjoy. As the drunken mood wears off, Enderby forgets that the poem got started in the pub, when the carousing of ageing lesbians reminded him of his loathed stepmother.
The poem itself would be as clear as a cowpat were it not encased in the chapter of this novel. In turn, the dynamism the poem adds to the narrative raises its lines from obscure to absurd. We peer into the boozed-up mind of the poet and snort as the crazy images are composed into strict verse , his cold bum juxtapoised on lavatory seat. In Enderby, Burgess mocks all poetry and poets; still we read him, read on and the scatological life and mind of the poet bring tears to our laughter.
Ice Cream Marilyn

Bilbo Baggins Style?

For many years I thought Tolkien ladled out great poems with his works, great spag bols of the stuff, unafraid of the hiccups they'd cause his readers' digestions. I saw the effects of his lyrical ballads at best as patchy; sometimes a half simulacrum of Celtic versus Tutonic folklore; too often just overlong, unlilting humbugs. I'd read and loved The Hobbit as a nipper, but not attempted The Lord of the Rings till close on a decade later; that is, during the mid-Seventies, in the first great wave of his notoriety. I failed to finish even the first vol. The poetry I thought akin to deciphering the runes on his maps. My brother Chris was deft at this, could write secret messages in the stuff. Good for him. Those were the days of idiot poseurs writing theses on the schizophrenics of Yessongs and King Crimson. Since then, fantasy writing has become a Leviathan and it's actually a bit of a relief to go back to Tolkien, behold the innocence of the original and admit it's not so badly composed after all. The Hobbit, that is.
While Middle Earth was still fresh and new enough in his imagination to remain light and cheerful, Tolkien used poetry to no bloating effect. Take the little song the dwarves sing as they scurry round Bilbo Baggin's house,

Thereupon the twelve dwarves - not Thorin, he was too important, and stayed talking to Gandalf - jumped to their feet and made tall piles of all the things. Off they went, not waiting for trays, balancing columns of plates, each with a bottle on the top, with one hand, while the hobbit ran after them almost squeaking with fright: "please be careful!" and "please, don't trouble! I can manage." But the dwarves only started to sing:
And of course they did none of these dreadful things, and everything was cleaned and put away safe as quick as lightning, while the hobbit was turning round and round in the middle of the kitchen trying to see what they were doing. Then they went back, and found Thorin with his feet on the fender smoking a pipe. He was blowing the most enormous smoke-rings, and wherever he told one to go, it went-up the chimney, or behind the clock on the mantelpiece, or under the table, or round and round the ceiling; but wherever it went it was not quick enough to escape Gandalf. Pop! he sent a smaller smoke-ring from his short claypipe straight through each one of Thorin's. Then Gandalf's smoke-ring would go green and come back to hover over the wizard's head. He had quite a cloud of them about him already, and in the dim light it made him look strange and sorcerous. Bilbo stood still and watched - he loved smoke-rings - and then be blushed to think how proud he had been yesterday morning of the smoke-rings he had sent up the wind over The Hill.

Since I read this long before 'studying' any poetry at school, to my untutored mind the verses were akin to “up the aëry mountain...” ie not at all off-putting or even sorely challenging. Now I look at the poem in context and I can see how and why it works so well. Singing a working song, the dwarves revel in what they do, and show us too, much better than narrator's description. We feel Bilbo's horror, and we delight in their teasing him.
So I looked back without anger at the first vol of LOTR to see how the poems rode in context and actually they weren't so bad at all. I qualify praise, though, because I think there is the same gap between Tolkien's writing... and my reading of it. In the decade - and more – between the publication of The Hobbit and the final publication of LOTR I am sure the man was struggling above all to recall and reproduce the sparkling innocence of the original tome. I think truly The Hobbit was a children's story; the Rings, however, is for grown-up children, for adults striving to unplug their ipods and return to a simpler, less critical viewpoint. Poetry, often verses composed by Baggins himself, provides a kind of folklore for the later hobbits to draw on as their pursue their quest crossing the big, bad Middle Earth. I'd dish out some examples, but everybody has their own. Yawn. Goodnight.
Sock it to 'em!

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