Saturday, 27 June 2009

Lives in verse

Chance by chance I've been working my way through a stash of BBC TV poetry season programmes recorded off the telly. This week (whilst my Mark was out winning a cricket match) I watched Sheila Hancock's 'My Life in Verse' (you can't watch the programme on the i-player any more but the Daily Mail, of all papers, has a lot of its content here). 'My Life in Verse' is a series where four famous people (one actress, one singer, one comedian, one children's writer) talk about poetry and what it has meant to them, how they've come across it and so on. It could, I the wrong hands, have been an abomination of a TV series but I think it has worked really well and I've enjoyed plenty in the shows I've seen so far (the Sheila Hancock, the Robert Webb and the Malorie Blackman). Yes, the programmes are focussed on the famous person at times but that is very much their starting point and on the whole (and from what I've seen so far...I've still got Cerys Matthews' one recorded to watch) the poetry and poets come to the forefront in a very impressive and often moving manner, accompanied by interesting interview snippets and plenty of expert help.

In Hancock's programme, for example, she introduced (or reintroduced) viewers and listeners to content by and about Yeats, Tennyson and Blake as well as a poem I really love called 'Time does not bring relief; you all have lied' by Edna St Vincent Millay (read that poem here). Hancock almost annoyed me a couple of times - the 'here's our beautiful house in France, here's our beautiful house in Wiltshire...oh, and we have a house in London...' business got a bit tiresome - but in the end what can you do...she is an actress...and I liked her quite a lot elsewhere in the programme so I made it to the end without falling out with her or anything like that. There was a jolly little segment on how Shakespeare's words would have sounded in his day and I liked her poetry choices very much too - in particular, a little section with and about English poet Wendy Cope.

I mentioned Cope in the last post (she was interviewed by Christina Patterson back in May 08) and also back in my '25 writers who've influenced me' post (here). Overall I would say that I am a Wendy Cope fan (though some of her best-known poems like 'Bloody Men' I can live without out...just not my idea of funny and, for me, a bit clich├ęd...she has much, much better poems than that). There is so much about her that is admirable though – her work is very clever and something like fashion-resistant, she can write with humour and/or piercing emotional detail, plus she has been hugely successful (in poetry terms – published by Fabers, sells lots of books) and she is even something like popular (quite an achievement for a living poet) as well as a respected editor of anthologies and so on. She is also English without being annoying (again quite an achievement) and I would say she is something like the Larkin of now. In fact if I could pick poetry parents I would have Larkin as Dad and Cope as Mum... if that's OK.

I liked the little segment with Cope in the Hancock poetry programme partly because of her very straightforward way of talking about poetry. This is such an unfashionable thing to say in poetry world but she said it:

"It (writing poetry) helps me deal with things, it helps me deal with difficult things."

We are not meant to admit things like that about writing poetry just is all about art and creation and craft and invention...but I'm with Cope here – writing helps me deal with difficult things. It doesn't always do that but it sometimes does and that doesn't mean I don't think about art and creation and craft and invention too (the processes are not mutually exclusive). I'm an even bigger Cope fan after seeing and hearing her on this programme - so much so that I am not linking to lots of her poems online because I know she doesn't like that kind of thing. See, I can be good.

The last poem in the Hancock hour was 'Try to praise the mutilated world' by Adam Zagajewski. Would you think less of me if I said I'd never heard of him before? Well, I hadn't. I loved the poem though – big and chest-beating and important and stirring....but gentle and thoughtful too (hurray!) and there's a blog post by someone else all about Zagajewski (including the text of the poem) here.

So thank-you Sheila and the BBC. Another fine hour spent thinking and listening and learning.

p.s. I watched both the Webb and the Blackman programmes very quickly yesterday as they were due to go off the BBC i-player and I had somehow omitted to record them via the TV. The Robert Webb one had some lovely moments (his old teacher, some Larkin, plus poet Don Paterson on trying to write 'more and more simply'...bless him, if he keeps going in that direction he'll end up writing like me). The Malorie Blackman was probably my favourite one so far though as it was just brilliant – political and personal, full of fine details and big issues. She squeezed in Grace Nichols, a psalm, Marvin Gaye, Benjamin Zephaniah, Emily Dickinson, Jackie Kay and several others. It was a fascinating mix and a heartwarming trip through Blackman's relationship with words, poems and a life in Britain. It had poems and this quote from poet James Berry too:

"Poetry's for everybody. It's like sunlight."

Let's hope we all get plenty of both.



hope said...

Very interesting!

I suspect on some level, all of us write to work things through. How else can you complete a thought without being interrupted? :)

Have a good weekend!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes and sometimes when I've written a poem it helps me realise what I think about something. Clarifying the thoughts in verse help me clarify things to myself. It's clever.
Then I go back out in the world and get confused again.
Nothing's perfect.

Niamh B said...

very good, am definitely going to check Cope out. In the teen writer's group I facilitate, today we were reading Orwell's reasons for being a writer - his were egoism, appreciation of aesthetic beauty, historical posterity, and politics. I asked them whether there were any other reasons that he'd left out - and one of the girls said that using writing to deal with emotions was a huge thing too - ie what Wendy said. - great minds eh? the girl in question is a brilliant poet too.

Rachel Fox said...

It would be interesting to see what really young readers and writers make of Cope. She is about 20 years my senior and there are some of her poems that appeal to me more than others (partly, but not completely, because of generational difference).

One of my favourites of hers is a villanelle called 'Manifesto' and that is really all about writing and emotions. I think of it often when people talk about a piece of writing as being 'too personal'. Obviously we need to see and hear lots of different kinds of writing but I think it is important that writing that is big on emotion is not looked down on and seen as intellectually weak as a matter of course. Women are always going to suffer from this more so I get very excited when I see women writers who have succeeded (in sales and critical terms) despite all the hurdles!


Deborah Godin said...

Yes, yes, writing is like holding up a big mirror to the writer, and perhaps, at times, to the reader.

Rachel Fox said...

It's certainly one of the many things in writing's list of possible accomplishments!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thank you for drawing my attention to Adam Zagajewski. I'd not come across him either. What a fantastic poem! It associated itself in my mind with a darker one, Walking Around by Pablo Neruda.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I can see why she chose to end the programme with that poem. What a belter! 'Choon', I might have said in another life about something with similar impact...

Rachel Fox said...

As for Neruda...Spanish is really the only other language I can read poetry in without I went and read a Spanish version (here). Or it's in ingles here.

deemikay said...

Unsurprisingly, I saw none of them. :os

But it's a good idea for a programme... just like "Who do you think you are?" is a good idea for a programme. But maybe next time (for both series) they could have "ordinary" people.

I can't remember the last time I saw an "ordinary" person on the telly...

Interesting read here. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Ordinary people...hmm, I believe Big Brother is still on...

I know what you mean but I think the famous people chosen here were good subjects in that they're not SO famous that they can't be seen as 'ordinary' people too. The Malorie Blackman one in particular...she seems a very down-to-earth person and she had a long time doing non-famous work (in IT) before success as a writer. Plus she had 82 rejections slips for her writing before getting anywhere (she said this on the programme) and there was really nothing silly-celebrity about her.

In the Webb programme too he, like many funny people, had me in tears about his own life (his Mum died when he was still in school). I think he presented all the material in his programme in a very non-silly celebrity way too. He talked about poetry and his life like anybody would...some good, some bad, some funny, some sad.

The Hancock one had more predictably famous people stuff (posh houses, celebrity pals..) but even so...there was still a lot of good in it. And one of her pals was Sandi Toksvig...national treasure and all that. I couldn't complain about her!

So all in all I don't mind them being centred on famous long as those people keep the poetry central in their minds and don't turn the programmes into 'adverts for me'. I think all of these programmes were well done...using, if you like, celebrity culture for good rather than evil.


deemikay said...

Big Brother, yes. Hmmm... Even my friend flamingo has stopped watching it here. She claims they're *not* ordinary.

I've no problem with celebrities on the telly, actually. But I'd just love to see more normal folk. 15 years ago? They were everywhere! Now... nowhere. I see them on the street, but I'm too anti-social to go talk to them. ;)

Rachel Fox said...

I'm sure they are (or we are...) still on quiz shows and things...and then of course there's that got talent thing...

I don't watch much TV these days though really so I have no idea (I watched enough as a child to last me a lifetime!). Mainly I watch programmes I've picked out and recorded (like these poetry ones) and films/special film-like series recorded or on dvd. I see some kids TV obviously (from a distance) but again we watch films with the Girl rather than just telly programmes.

I see enough 'ordinary people' at the school gates. They all think I'm weird and, somehow, wrong. I never thought I'd say it but I think perhaps ordinariness is overrated.



deemikay said...

But I think we're ordinary (and all other commenters here)... :os

On the talent thing and x-factor and BB - these are people who want to be celebrities. That's not ordinary.

Ordinary is people living lives that we might like to just land in sometimes. Did you ever see a programme on C4 in the 90s called "As It Happens"? (Andy Kershaw presented it sometimes. The idea: Take a camera into the street and see what happens. It was great.

Extraordinary is good as well. I like that.

But there's little of either... just a drab bit of gnuhgh in the middle. Thanks Scowell. :os

Rachel Fox said...

Now we're just going round and round on this ordinary thing!

I'm going out now. Got a picnic to go to...lots of extraordinary ordinary people to meet.


hope said...

It's funny but the only "reality" programming we've been watching lately is on Discovery or the History channel. It's like watching a human experiment: sometimes touching, sometimes good ideas gone badly wrong.

The most unintentionally funny is "Expedition Africa" where 4 folks are retracing Stanley's journey to find Livingston. They're comprised of a professional Guide [who throws temper tantrums], a Survivalist [who wants to stop and look at everything, then lecture], a female Wildlife Expert [who acts as if men are dumber than animals] and a War Correspondent [who ironically, is handling it all better than the rest]. Funniest line was the Guide snidely saying to the Journalist,"What do you know?" to which the guy replied with a smile, "About the same as Stanley...who was a journalist."

I think most people could be "interesting" if given the chance. :)

Titus said...

Sorry I missed the programmes now, thanks for the pointer to that blog on Zagajewski. A man interested in "the interweaving of the historical and cosmic world." Getting reminded of how Poland's territorial losses post WWII still have such resonance for that country salutary, I think.

Hands up. I have a reality TV problem. I am addicted to The Apprentice. Sorry.

Liz said...

Great write-up, Rachel. And some more folk to look up...liked what I've read so far, especially Zagajewski, who I'd never heard of either but no surprise there..cheers...

And as for ordinariness - one person's ordinariness is another person's_______
Strange lot is us folk. : )

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Titus...a problem indeed. But we all need our down time...

I've never, ever, ever watched the Apprentice...not even one minute of it! But I did watch quite a bit of one series of Celebrity Big Brother a few years ago...which must be about the same.

Sounds like there's quite a few of us who have met Zagajewski via this programme, Liz. So, TV is not a force for evil after all.


deemikay said...

Quite the opposite... tv is a great thing! It's just the good stuff (and there is a lot of it) is in amongst a lot of mediocre stuff.

I watch The Apprentice as well... and I shan't apologise. ;)

Ordinary is good. Ordinary that truly believes it's extraordinary is bad.

Now, I'm off to watch some ITV Drama Premier staring Martin Clunes! (Only joking...)

Marion McCready said...

Larkin as dad and Cope as mum - the mind boggles, lol!
I really liked the Sheila Hancock programme as well, plus she's the double of my stepmum!
I love Cope's parodies of other poets, esp. her Eliot rip-takes, they're just hilarious.

deemikay said...

Sorlil: I love the wasteland limericks! Almost better than the real thing... ;) (Depending on the weather, they're better...)

Rachel Fox said...

Well, I did just say 'poetry parents', Sorlil...nothing else!

Niamh B said...

So read a few Cope poems with the teens (ages 11-15) yesterday, they already knew her from school - Tich Miller is on the syllabus, they love that one. They enjoyed her nursery rhymes in the style of Wordsworth and T S Eliot as well, but didn't quite get the sarcasm in "Engineers Corner". Overall they enjoyed her immensely.