Saturday, 3 May 2008

Animal imagery overload

I have funny memories about how literature was taught in school. All that talk of themes and imagery and some of the kids not really giving a toss about it but taking the notes and thinking about something else all the time they were doing it (sex, food, sport, sex, food, sport). One of my older brothers was a prime example - he was not exactly a literary type (he would have been a jock in a US school) and one of my favourite mean-little-sister pastimes was to read through some of the texts he'd done at school and laugh at the notes he'd put in (usually in pen with lots of underlining). They were always really repetitive and pretty meaningless. 'Animal imagery' over and over, I remember him scrawling all over some poor book. How I scoffed....horrible little creature, I was...

Not too many years ago (but when I still lived in England) I did some GCSE tutoring and found myself working with boys a bit like my brother. It was a scheme in Dewsbury (now so famous for lots of terrible reasons) where Asian 15 year olds who were doing so-so in English classes got extra tutition to make up for the fact that most of them didn't speak English in the home. It was a good scheme and I met some lovely boys (and some very sulky ones) but of course most of them spoke and wrote very good English (much better than a lot of their white contemporaries). Still, being 15 year old boys most of them weren't at all interested in the books and poems they had to read (or if they were they didn't want to admit it)...they just knew they had to read them for the exam and yeh, OK, they kind of wanted to pass the exam, maybe, sort of, if it would help them get rich at some point. The work was a lot of fun (in the short-term) - trying to excite them about Carol-Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage - but I know I couldn't do it full-time and as a permanent job. Well, for a start I'm not a teacher (you didn't have to be for the scheme - just needed a degree I think)...then there's the fact that the exam questions all make me laugh (still). 'Describe the animal imagery in...' No, no, please make it stop!

Sometimes when I'm writing or reading through what I've written I like to imagine how my poems might be discussed by a class full of disinterested teenage boys. What themes do I come back to? What imagery do I use (not a lot..they'd be onto a loser there...although it does seem to be creeping in slowly through the backdoor, as it were)? I know I write a lot about music, about being female (much sniggering, be quiet at the back there), about life cycles, about being crazy, about being honest. Also I know when I do readings or shows that I come back often to the idea of facing up to weaknesses and mistakes...in you life, in your personality. I find it hugely liberating to tell groups of people how much I've messed up but hey, look at the poem I got out of it! I do think a lot of our current ills (all those millions on pick-me-up pills) are connected to our foolish attempts at living perfect lives (Alain de Botton is very good on similar subjects...and that annoying psychologist bloke...Oliver James).

One of the books I'm reading just now is 'The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry'. It's very interesting (although slightly strange in that its author is a mystery in a Banksy stylee) and one quote in its opening section is 'A poem is an arrangement of words containing possibilities'. I've seen that quote used elsewhere in pieces on what is poetry (and all that) and it's as good an answer as we may get. It's not a book to read in one go (not for me anyway) but I was glad to find on page 82 'The freedom of the poet, more precisely, is the possibility of erring. In erring begins possibility.' Well, exactly.

Essays to me by Monday please.

17 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

If there was one word that I think teachers need to keep in mind when producing a curriculum that would be 'relevance' – what has this got to do with me? I think that's why I remember my English classes with more fondness than many of my contemporaries. Billy Liar, Catcher in the Rye and Nineteen Eighty-Four were all excellent and I've gone on enough about 'Mr. Bleaney' I think. The thing is I know that I was the exception. It's the age old problem of matching the right author to the right reader. I write what I write without a second thought about pleasing anyone other than myself because you simply never know. I've just posted a poem on Zoetrope which three reviewers have absolutely gushed over and I was all for screwing the thing up and chucking it in the bin.

The book looks interesting. I've ordered a cheap copy from Amazon.

Rachel Fox said...

Now Jim...you nag me about links...link to the poem please!
I think you will like the enthusiast book. Famous last words. Well, I hope they're not my last words...

Jim Murdoch said...

When did I ever nag you about link? Don't answer. Anyway, here's the link: The Writing Nag It gives you the history of the poem if you read all the comments. It started off as a found poem called 'Power Cuts' and ended up as the poem I posted on Zoetrope as 'Paper Cuts'.

Sorlil said...

'In erring begins possibility' - I completely agree which is why I've got the Beckett quote at the top of my page. When I was at school us bloodthirsty children all loved Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce Decorum Est'!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I had noticed that quote on your page before. Don't tell Jim but I have yet to really go into Beckett world. I will...I will get to it...
But the quotes are good, both of them. For me too many people want to know best when it comes to poetry, they want to tell everyone else what to do with their writing and what is good and what's bad and what you should do and what you shouldn't and what fits here and what doesn't. I consider myself a fairly uptight person at times but...wow man, they, like, make me feel like the queen of the chilled-out laid-back hippies or something...Well, sometimes.

Sorlil said...

lol I've never read Beckett properly either - just nicked the quote from someone else!

Jim Murdoch said...

Right you two, stop giggling at the back or I've have the both of you write out, "The sun shone having no alternative on the nothing new." 500 times.

If you're new to Beckett then the best place to start is by watching him, not reading him. All his prose takes a bit of getting used to and it all has its difficulties only in different ways.

There are plenty of clips on YouTube and UbuWeb. The great thing about most of his plays is that they are fairly short. Waiting for Godot is the one people make all the full about but Krapp's Last Tape is probably a better starting point. UbuWeb has a full performance but in voice only. That said not much actually happens so if you watch a couple of clips to get the idea the radio version isn't too bad.

I would then suggest Billie Whitelaw's performance in Not I which will leave your mouth hanging. There's no teleprompter. Everything is delivered from memory. It's an astounding performance.

I've a series of blogs coming up which feature Krapp's Last Tape but I don't really discuss the play. I did that in my overlong-I-admit Wikipedia entry.

Colin Will said...

I'm with Jim on Beckett. Last time I saw Waiting for Godot I was with my German daughter-in-law, and it was interesting to compare our reactions. I couldn't get over how funny it was. Krapp's Last Tape with Pinter was incredibly moving. But the prose is amazing too. Murphy is superb, as is Molloy. Some of his phrases still resonate round my head after all this time.

Sorlil said...

I'm a fan of Pinter so I may start with that one.

Rachel Fox said...

OK...after I've watched 'I'll do anything - the results' I'll get to Beckett.
You think I'm joking...I mean....we all have our weak spots and...well, my Mum likes it...and small girl likes it...and have you heard that girl Jessie sing...my goodness she is a real natural...and am I making too many excuses?
Back to proper culture soon... promise...

Rachel Fox said...

Well, the excitement of the search for Nancy over for another week...I did my homework and sat and listened to 'Krapp's last tape' as instructed. I like listening to plays...you listen to the words more sometimes if you're not distracted by looking at faces and props and other people in the audience.

First off, I managed to stay awake (I have dozed off to Beckett on radio before). Also I managed to put out of my head the fairly posey ex-boyfriend of a friend who did a phd on Beckett and who put us all off him as a matter of principle. Instead I found myself thinking about bits of Virginia Woolf that I've read (piercing lines...floating about in...something looser). I thought a bit about how many diaries I've kept and how I reread them sometimes...maybe too often and yet I still do it. I liked the bit about singing (pretty much always do) and the bit about the ball...but some of the bits talking about women (in.. that voice that gets used in plays when men talk about things that went wrong with women) made me a bit disappointed (still it's old...bit before Germaine Greer).

Then I read some of the Wikipedia entry too (but not all of it - Jesus!) and laughed at the stuff about bananas and yawned at the stuff about heavy drinking (I have friends with heavy drinking exes...soooo dull and selfish and foul).
I'll try the 'Not I' next and look forward to the Krapp blogs.

Goodnight.

Jim Murdoch said...

Good girl. Don't overdo it. Beckett is like dark chocolate - a little goes a long way and it's easy to sicken yourself.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, I have always wondered what the fuss was about...I can see why some people make the fuss but am not sure I will ever quite be one of them. We'll see...
As for Pinter...I watched 'The Birthday Party'...maybe last year on TV. I hated pretty much every moment of it. Again I can see what it's doing (at least I think I can) but what it does does very little for me. There are enough long, boring, infuriating conversations in real life (I'll name no names here...too painful) - why would you want to listen to them in fiction? I'd rather go out for a walk or listen to some music or ...wash the skirting boards or anything! (Except in honesty I have only ever washed a skirting board if it was just too shameful not to). I meant to try his poetry but haven't been able to persuade myself to do it yet. He's fairly low on my 'to do' list.

Jim Murdoch said...

I struggle more with Pinter than I do with Beckett and there's a simple reason: the aggression. I'm not an aggressive person by nature and I avoid confrontation as much as possible. Pinter's plays, all that I've seen and that's a few now, have all been about these nose-to-nose situations and they make me very uncomfortable. I'm not fond of his interpretations of Beckett either. I know his Krapp was praised last year but John Hurt wiped the floor with him. Also Pinter has become increasingly political over the years and I have no time for politics. To be fair to the man I've never studied his plays the way I have with Beckett but I only have one life and it's half-done already.

I don't think much of him as a poet to be honest. They're interesting text pieces but I don't think poetic technique is high on his list of priorities. He's more interested in getting his point across and he's fine at that.

Rachel Fox said...

I was just reading an interview with Sheila Hancock in yesterday's 'Independent'. She's just about to star in 'The Birthday Party' and worked with Pinter years ago etc. She puts a very good case for him and the play (and it's an interesting interview all round) but I can't say I'd ever want to risk watching it again though...especially in a theatre (too tempting to shout...'oh please, get on with it!' and 'why is that anything but tedious?'). I went to a lot of theatre when I lived in London for 2 years over 20 years ago...since then I've completely got out of the habit and in all honesty I haven't missed it at all. Music, films, TV, exhibitions, poetry events (some of them), even musicals (sorry Mr Spacey), kids theatre...anything but dry, serious, grown-up theatre for me these days. Maybe I'll come back to it in older age...

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Going thru college I'd buy all my texts used if possible, 'cept when the only available copy was underlined and annotated by a prior student. A friend said she liked to buy that kind of book because the other student had done the work for her. After that I would stand in the bookstore trying to figure out whether the underliner had caught the most important passages and usually it seemed to me that they'd chosen weird boneheadedly off stuff or highlighted the words that were already in bold & italic.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes it can be very offputting. You spend your time wondering who wrote the notes and what they were thinking...what happened to them and what they are doing now...
I know where my brother is of course. And his life does not involve literature in any way. He spends a lot of time with horses though so he's got the animals... if not the imagery...