Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Today Programme on OuLiPo Four

A rare outing in the wider world for OuLiPo this morning when the Today Programme, in between frantic middle-brow tabloiding about the Ross/Brand teacup squall, featured Canadian poet Christian Bok, whose book Eunoia has five chapters, each chapter using only one vowel ('Eunoia is the shortest word in English containing all five vowels - and it means "beautiful thinking"').

Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram - a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal - a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man's bath and wash a man's back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar - a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.

Not as unreadable as one might suppose - on the radio Bok talked about each chapter having quite a distinct tone - though I do quail at the idea of reading a novel's-worth of it. (Coward!) The R4 website tells us, slightly unnecessarily, 'It took seven years to write', before going on to ask, with all the gravitas of a world-famous institution, 'Can you write using only one vowel? Email us your attempts using the form at the bottom of the page.' Christ.

This blog post by David Morley is worth looking at, partly for the background information on OuLiPo but mainly for the magnificent photo of OuLiPeans posing as if for one of those jocular Oxbridge sepia photos where everyone is looking in different directions.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Titus Groan

Discussing reviewing the other day I repeated my preference for a niche market - a column called 'Esprit d'escalier', say - where you review books not weeks or months but years or even decades after publication, i.e. when you finally get round to reading them.

Which is as flimsy a way as any to introduce the following remarks (not a review) about Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, a mere sixty-two years after first publication. I'm barely a tenth of the way through, but so far I'm enjoying it a lot; here are a couple of reasons why.

There's a scene early on in which Flay the manservant goes to see Rottcodd the curator in his loft-hermitage, to tell him about Titus's birth. Rottcodd is largely unconcerned, in contrast to the revelry, sanctioned by tradition and owing to respect for tradition, going on elsewhere in the castle. When Flay thinks about this there is a moment when the fantastic world of the novel comes into contact with our world, a comparison pregnant with political, social and artistic substance:

Suddenly, for a moment, the memory of Rottcodd in his dusty deserted hall stole into his consciousness and he was shocked to realise how much he had really preferred — to this inferno of time-hallowed revelry — the limp and seemingly disloyal self-sufficiency of the curator.

What I find beguiling about this comparison is the way its near-theoretical lucidity is not achieved at the expense of muddy, concrete detail. It seems to express a familiar and substantial dichotomy, but not quite a commonplace or conventional one: between community and individual, tradition and the individual intellect (no, Eliot, no!), catholicism and protestantism - it suggests all of these things, but also personal temperament and the conflicts that can arise in a personality (Flay believes in tradition but dislikes the people who constitute it). It also bears on the role and position of an artist who places value in a society (real or imagined) while standing some way apart from it. I could go on, but probably without getting any closer to specifying just what it is that makes this sentence resonate, except to say that it has to do both with the text's interpreted (wider, social) 'meaning' and its 'narrow' concern simply to create the reality of its characters.

The other thing I want to talk briefly about is Peake's style - ostentatious, rhetorical, rococo, baroque - which is some ways is a prose analogue of one sort of poetry which I am increasingly interested in reading and writing. Thinking of it in terms of the last of those adjectives - baroque - Peake conjures the fantastic, cod-historical world to a large extent through his prose style. The most obvious means of doing this are the furniture of his world (the castle, for instance) and the choice of vocabulary (describing the painted ceiling of the Stone Hall, in a passing wordplay, as a welkin). But there is a danger that this sort of thing descends into hammy pastiche, a danger which Peake avoids by his un-idiomatic usage, for example in the delicious description of Prunesquallor's conversation,

... his insufferable laughter punctuating every other sentence whatever its gist.

'Whatever its gist' - to see the word 'gist' deployed so naturally and yet unfamiliarly to mean (something more precise than) 'meaning', is breathtaking and less easily done than may appear. This invigorating shaking-up of the language seems to me a baroque feature, and therefore one which supports albeit obliquely the setting and the tone and style of the book. The same sort of effect occurs in 'Lord Groan's menu was otherwise' - not 'different' - though here it is closer to the merely rhetorical. But then if you insist on the rhetorical being 'mere', you're failing to meet the book on its own terms.

This exuberant style is one whose flaws it is easy to forgive, such as the slightly distressing approach to punctuation. In particular there are clauses corralled off by a comma at one end and not at the other:

It is there, at the long table that he takes his breakfast.

He did not seem to notice the delicacies spread before him, nor when for a moment or two at a time his head was raised, did he appear to see the long cold dining-hall nor the servants at their tables.

In the latter example the first 'nor' is causing trouble - the punctuation looks sound because the comma after 'raised' appears to close a sub-clause opened by the comma after 'spread before him'; but the sub-clause actually begins after that first 'nor' - 'when for a moment or two at a time his head was raised' (notice too the clause-within-a-clause of 'for a moment or two at a time', an example of the deliberate complexity, which I'll come to below, of Peake's style). Then there's the theoretically clumsy repetition of 'nor' in the same sentence but not the same series: there are really two nor-constructions here ((1)didn't notice the delicacies nor did he see the things and (2), (expanding on 'things') saw neither the dining-hall nor the servants).

Yet such complaints are not really to the point. Peake's punctuation is irritating in places, but I think it is more Elizabethan (baroque) than modern in approach: the balance between clarifying sense and managing sound and rhythm is more weighted to the latter than most modern prose styles. In the description of Prunesquallor's mannerism it would be acceptable and even desirable on the modern system to have a comma after 'sentence':

... his insufferable laughter punctuating every other sentence, whatever its gist.

- but disastrous for the sound and feel of the line, introducing a slight prissiness to the narration in place of the headlong plunge of the original. And this takes us on to another feature of the writing which I take to recall the baroque, the indulgence of long, complex sentences for their own sake - an approach to syntax which mirrors the full, rich world being described. (Note how full, and rich, the worlds of Shakespeare and Donne seem - an impression almost totally determined by style and language, since they are substantially the same as our world.) Peake makes a virtue out of the sort of thing that Peter Gast called 'some such entirely insane piling up of words'. This quotation is made slightly tenuous by the fact that Gast was referring to a sentence from a Wagner libretto - except that the style of Titus Groan has a certain operatic quality - which is another way, like 'rococo' and 'baroque', of stealing from the vocabulary of other arts to describe its linguistic excess.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Unsorted books

Building work on the loft conversion finished about nine months ago, which means that it's about time for me to think seriously about getting all my books out from the boxes and piles where they're stacked and into some sort of availability and order on bookshelves.

The first of these is more easily achieved - as I pick up bookcases from here and there it's a simple matter to bung some books on, thus reducing the piles. Order, alphabetical or otherwise, is a little harder. I haven't the room or space or patience to sort through the piles for the As to Es, so instead I'm going to wait till they're all shelved and then start a second process of sorting them. My sister-in-law, who is a librarian, would be horrified. (And it's probably more time-consuming in the long run.)

In the meantime the shelves are in a fascinating state of disorder, with some fleetingly amusing, provocative, assonant and dissonant juxtapositions. It's tempting to give you a caseful, not least because the disorder allows me to boast obliquely about the books I've got (not read, necessarily...) without revealing the gaps, which an alphabetical ordering would do. But that would hardly be much fun for you. Still, it's somehow strange and refreshing to see Benn next to Sterne, Naipaul (Shiva) next to Naipaul (VS; I suppose they'd be adjacent anyway), Catullus/Skelton, Lowell (R)/Pushkin, Stendhal/Auden ('Deftly, admiral, cast your fly'), Yeats/Frost, John Stammers/Dylan Thomas, Eliot/Paterson, Fenton/Brodsky, Huysmans/Hofmann & inevitably O'Brien/Didsbury (the last two not accidents but the result of final thesis drafting), and a holy trinity of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Al Purdy (whose work I must blog about some time to anyone who'll listen).

All quasi-random and basically meaningless, like everything else in life.

It strikes me, looking at a selection of my books, how narrow my reading is: poetry from the English tradition, some, mainly twentieth-century German poetry, Russian prose fiction, some European cultural theory and other European nuggets, and the odd American. Everyone is or ought to be promising themselves to read more, and more widely, and both the promising and the reading are or would be Good Things; but I can't help feeling rather non-urgent about it most of the time. After all, there's plenty, lifetimes of plenty, more that I haven't read even within those narrow parameters. And there are also sometimes reasons to read more narrowly, more deeply — reasons which it isn't really possible to go into except by saying 'I want to.'

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Over in the Meadow

One of my favourite nursery rhymes on one of my son's CDs is 'Over in the Meadow' (a variant on the original version by Olive A Wadsworth):

Over in the meadow
In a pond in the sun
Lived an old mother froggy
And her little froggy one
Hop, said the mother,
I hop, said the one
So they hopped and were glad
In the pond in the sun

Over in the meadow
In a nest in a tree
Lived an old mother birdie
And her little birdies three
Sing, said the mother,
We sing, said the three
So they sang and were glad
In the nest in the tree

Over in the meadow
In a sly little den
Lived an old mother spider
And her little spiders ten
Spin, said the mother,
We spin, said the ten
So they span and were glad
In their sly little den

Viewed as poetry it's a nice piece of all's-well-with-the-world conservative pastoral (especially the verse with the spiders, whose spinning conjures accidentally or otherwise the historical textile industry). Of course it lacks both political sophistication (there are no contrary notes in the gladness) and structural sophistication (each verse simply recapitulates the theme, rather than developing it — a fact which is even more apparent, and slightly tedious, in the ten-verse original). These would generally be considered faults in a poem in the modern period — by which I mean, in English, anything written after about 1550 (Wyatt would have scorned the poem's static simplicity).

On the other hand, it isn't primarily a poem but a song or a nursery rhyme, for which different aesthetic criteria apply. And it also strikes me that these features I've summarised are common features of medieval poetry — reiterative rather than developmental verse structure, simplicity of theme and viewpoint — whose own roots in song and folk tradition should be obvious. If modern poets and critics demand technical and thematic sophistication from poems, this shouldn't blind them to values of simplicity and beauty — not least because a sophisticated reader supplies her own awareness of complications which prevents her giving full assent to the sentiment of a song like 'Over in the Meadow'; and that barrier to assent actually enriches and quickens the pleasure of reading it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Colour or black-and-white?

Plenty of room for doubt, controversy and endless, stultifying recounting of each other's dreams in this story about a researcher who has concluded that whether you dream in colour or black-and-white depends on which type of television you watched when you were a child.

But what I find most interesting is the fact that no one seems to have asked the most obvious questions here: what were people's dreams like in the days before television? Did Elizabethans dream in blank verse? If, as it appears, watching television changes the way our subconscious operates, shouldn't we be backing away slowly with our free hands scrabbling for the remote?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lists of words

David Briggs pointed out this N+7 machine, which automates the Oulipo game of replacing all nouns in a text with the noun seven entries on in the dictionary (actually it does all permtations between N+0 and N+15).

It's a gimmick, of course, like most Oulipo activities, but it does produce some interesting bits and pieces (which is why Oulipo can provide useful prompts). I put a poem in that I've otherwise discarded; here's N+0 and N+6:


Noisy Body

Can’t stop my tongue clicks, glottals, Welsh squelches,
lip-smacks, belches, brogue-stamps, twangs of braces,
teenage foghorns, crass brass stuff-my-faces. The tribe’s
rolling the drums for dinner. Accept my excuses
for the truffling, snuffling sound of me eating—

mash, slap, slurp, burp. Wheeze, sneeze and sniff.
Arms, legs, hands, feet, ankles click when I’m stretching.
I make two noises when I’m retching: strain and sick’s impact.
And when the orchestra sleeps off the performance,
trumpet bum-blasts punctuate raw sawing.


Noisy Boil

Can’t stop my tool climb-downs, glottals, Welsh squelches,
lip-smacks, belches, brogue-stamps, twines of brains,
teenage folks, crass brazier stuff-my-faces. The tribe’s
rolling the dryers for diploma. Accept my exemplars
for the truffling, snuffling south of me eating—

massacre, slaughterhouse, smart, bus. Wheeze, snigger and sniper.
Armfuls, legislations, handcuffs, feet, annoyances climb-down when I’m stretching.
I make two nonentities when I’m retching: strain and sick’s implant.
And when the ordinance sleighs off the period,
trust bum-blasts punctuate raw sawing.

(The machine has a few shortcomings, mainly an inability to deal with plurals.)

OK, basically tosh. There are some pleasing features, such as the happy accidents - massacre next to slaughterhouse (which becomes mass, slaughter in N+5) and legislations next to handcuffs. More generally the strings of nouns which I have in the original become new strings with their own internal relationships - including happy accidents but also contrasts of sense and sound. So mash, slap, slurp, burp. Wheeze, sneeze and sniff becomes, in various versions,

mask, slash, slushy, burr. Wheeze, snick and sniffle.

masochist, slat, slut, burrow. Wheeze, snicker and snifter.

mason, slate, smack, bursar. Wheeze, sniff and snigger.

masquerade, slattern, smallholder, bursary. Wheeze, sniffle and snip.

massage, slave, smasher, busby. Wheeze, snip and snippet.

masseur, slaver, smash-up, bush. Wheeze, snipe and snitch.

massif, sled, smell, bushel. Wheeze, snippet and snob.

mast, sledge, smelt, business. Wheeze, snitch and snog.

mastectomy, sledgehammer, smelter, businessman. Wheeze, snivel and snooker.

master, sleep, smile, businesswoman. Wheeze, snob and snoop.

masterpiece, sleepwalker, smithy, bust. Wheeze, snooker and snooze.

It isn't poetry, but it does do something which is fundamental to poetry: it presents a series of words and invites the reader to attend to them as words, with regard to sound and sense, in isolation from each other and in series. It's related to that thing where you repeat an everyday word till it becomes unfamiliar, and you start to doubt its meaning (or like the chap who read the dictionary for fun (link from Bill Herbert) and didn't recognise the word glove when he came to it). And poets do often use this sort of device, even if not so obtrusively or programmatically. 
There is perhaps a certain sort of word well suited to such incantations: not too obscure, but unusual enough to divide the world quite precisely; part of the pleasure involves recognising relatively fine differentiations of meaning. N+7 is rather random in that it is not thematic; one way in which a poet might improve on  its method is to choose words from a single area of life:
templar, hoplite, trooper, cossack, tommy, dervish, uhlan, zouave
borzoi, pointer, beagle, mastiff, pitbull, poodle, bandog, boxer

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Global financial crisis also pressurising my reading list

Huh! Browsing gormlessly I called in at Andrew Hammel's always entertaining German Joys, where he makes an apt quote from Robert Musil about the banks hoo-ha.

I've rather wanted to read The Man Without Qualities for some time - since I discovered how good late Austrian writers can be (e.g. Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth). But it's so loooooong, and time is short, so I've tried to ignore the urge, even the other week when I saw a copy in the local Waterstone's. But when I see wonderful sentences like this, my resolve crumbles.

Comments please on the correct spelling of hoo-ha.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


I'm delighted to say that Salt have accepted my manuscript for publication, probably in summer 2009, and probably under the title The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street. Hurray!