Voiceprints - Poetry on CD and
(continued from Part I,
published in our Spring 2002 Feature)
Bloodaxe's Poetry Quartets may be
rather mixed but their double cassette of Basil
Bunting reading "Briggflatts" and other
poems deserves unreserved praise. Bunting (1900-85)
is now acknowledged as one of the most important
twentieth-century British poets. He was regarded as a
major poet by figures such as Pound and Zukofsy but
then largely disappeared from view until the
mid-1960's when the publication of
"Briggflatts" brought him wide recognition.
The poem has five sections and a coda and generally
follows the order of the seasons. It begins in the
poet's native Northumbria with a portrayal of young
love, details the protagonist's wanderings in London
and Europe, and then returns to the poet's native
land via Persian myth and Northumbrian history. The
coda works through a series of questions which seem
to gesture simultaneously towards the smallness of
human experience and its vast incomprehensibility.
"Briggflatts" is quite unlike anything else
in twentieth-century British poetry:
Rain rinses the road,
the bull streams and laments.
Sour rye porridge from the hob
with cream and black tea,
meat, crust and crumb.
Her parents in bed
the children dry their clothes.
He has untied the tape
of her striped flannel drawers
before the range. Naked
on the pricked rag mat
his fingers comb
thatch of his manhood's home.
The Bloodaxe recording is the best way to meet
Bunting for the first time. To hear him read is to
understand the full force of his phrasing and rhythms
and to encounter something that is at once English
and something else entirely. This, one feels, is
perhaps how the Gawain poet might have sounded.
American readers new to Bunting are also directed to
a useful account of "Briggflatts" in Keith
By Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British
Poetry and American Readers
(Northwestern University Press,1998).
Poetry that is at once English and something else
entirely is also to be found on the CD The
Jewel Box / The Treisur Kist / Seudan: Contemporary
Scottish Poems. The Scottish poet and critic
Robert Crawford has observed that "In Scotland
we live between and across languages. Anyone who
stays here and is interested in the spoken or the
written word is constantly aware of being on the edge
of another tongue [...] Few Scottish people are
totally monolingual". The Jewel Box features
thirty-eight poets working in English, Scots, Gaelic
and Shetland dialect and comes with a booklet which
prints all the poemswith translations where
appropriate—and gives brief biographies of the
poets. The CD covers traditional and non-mainstream
work: everything from love lyrics to sound poetry,
from senior figures like Iain Crichton Smith
(1928-1998), Gael Turnbull (b.1928) and Tessa Ransford (b.1938), and the younger generation (born
c.1957-1966), like Richard Price and Kathleen Jamie.
I'm not sure it was a good idea to have so many poets
represented by a single poem, but The Jewel
Box is a pleasant way to discover the
variety of contemporary Scottish poetry and is an
excellent value at £8.99.
I'll conclude with some individual voices. Jim
Bennett's CD Down in Liverpool comprises
twenty-seven poems and four songs. The poems are
generally of the type called 'performance,' i.e. they
rhyme, are energetic and often very funny as in
"Loss, Age-ing and Hair Loss" with its
refrain, "you can't be a hippie when your hair
falls out". However, this track also highlights
the fact that although it was published last year,
the CD is a very self-conscious attempt to recreate
the 1960's. The style of the poems, their subjects
and their presentation inevitably evoke the famous
Liverpool Poets—Roger McGough, Brian Patten and
Adrian Henri —as well as other less memorable
British attempts to copy the Beats and Allen
Ginsberg. Down in Liverpool is
perfectly pleasant and amusing, but it's difficult to
imagine its target audience. Those who were young in
the 1960's will prefer the real thing and
have their own memories, while those born after that
decade will not have much grasp of what it was all
about. Down in Liverpool perhaps
reminds us that apparently historical types of poetry
and song never really go away and are still available
for those who want them.
Mouthpuller is a CD which features
Irish poets Maurice Scully and Randolph Healy who
belong to what the critic Alex Davis has called the
"neo-avant-garde tendency in recent Irish
poetry". Other poets in this so-called
"tendency" include Trevor Joyce, Catherine
Walsh and Billy Mills. These
writers may generally be said to take their bearings
from a cosmopolitan, "experimental" strain
in Irish literature which perhaps begins with Joyce
and Beckett but includes more neglected figures such
as Brian Coffey, Thomas MacGreevey and Denis Devlin.
To put this another way, this is poetry that is not
self-consciously Irish or even Oirish. The term
"neo-avant-garde" is not especially useful,
but I think that Davis just means to describe a body
of work which is innovative and experimental, but not
to the point of being impenetrable: innovation, in
other words, that does not take its eye off the
reader. Mouthpuller includes
generous selections from both poets. Healy is
particularly well-represented by the sequence
"Scales", which is also available from his
own Wild Honey Press as a beautifully produced
chapbook. Keith Tuma has spoken of Healy's poetry as
having an "overt investment in a discourse of
potentiality", and this is manifest in the way
"Scales" collages fragments of philosophy,
puns, mishearings, snatches of lyric, and even
lengthy quotations from an embalming manual. If, as
the Scottish poet Don Paterson has remarked, a poem
is "a little machine for remembering
itself", then what "Scales" remembers
is that it is all too easy to find oneself, in the
words of section I, "noticing the noticing but
not the means". "Noticing the means"
brings an awareness that no one form of
language—lyric poetry for example—can offer unique
insights into the world and our place in it. Maurice Scully's work I have
found less engaging on the page, but his reading here
really brings it alive. Scully once wrote that
"A poem is beautiful to the degree it records an
apt humility in the face of the complexity it sees
but fails to transmit, doubting its presumption to
exist in the light of that". What this means in
practice is that Scully's poetry is a mix of lyric
tunings, concrete-like riffs and patterns and plain
observation of the rural and the urban which is made
intriguing and compelling by his detached but
insistent reading style. The subject of this poetry
is perhaps a powerful sense of the world's
patterns—as in references here to crystals and
branch tangles—and the faithful recording of the
fact that perception is always being interrupted by
perception itself. Anyone who wants to know what is
happening in Irish poetry should buy this CD.
Neither the One nor the Other, by
Frances Presley and Elizabeth James, results from a
"collaboration [...] conducted by e-mail, during
the financial year 1998-1999". The recording is
accompanied and interspersed with piano music from
Williams Morris. The CD begins with a kind of
skirmish between two distinct voices—James, amused
and amusing always looking for the next pun, and
Presley, more measured and meditative, using a recognisable "poetic" discourse—but
quickly modulates into an explorative dance. There
are threads derived from cultural objects such as
Angela Carter's book The Sadeian Woman
and the recent film about Queen Victoria, Mrs.
Brown, as well as variations on phrases and
sentences and a return to ideas of the maternal.
These are serious concerns, but they are presented
here in a playful and often exuberant manner. Neither
the One... is a fine example of poetry as a
way of behaving in language and in the world.
Finally, a couple of rather unusual items: Interpoesia
is a CD-ROM featuring the work of two Brazilian
poets, Philadelpho Menezes and Wilton Azevedo.
"interpoetry" is a term invented
to describe both the fact that the work on the CD is
interactive and that it exemplifies an exploration of
what Menezes and Azevedo call the
"intersign", i.e. work that crosses and
combines genres. Interpoesia
contains manifestoes, graphics, video clips and
soundfiles. It is a kind of environment to wander
around in. I'm not sure it's poetry exactly, but it
does suggest one way in which art may be made in the
Thomas Lovell Beddoes: Poems & Songs features
Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk reading from an
almost-forgotten, early nineteenth-century poet who
can be said to represent the third and final stage of
English Romanticism. Beddoes was the author of an
enormous, unperformed Gothic tragedy called
"Death's Jest-Book", a revenge tragedy
whose central event is the raising of a body from the
grave. Beddoes's interest for the modern reader is
located in his emphasis on sound and rhythm and his
mix of the extremes of melancholy and humour. Like
Schubert's last symphony, "Death's
Jest-Book" was never finished. The comparison is
instructive because Beddoes's poetry, like Schubert's
musical language, is pushing beyond the limits of its
age and developing a new idiom without realising it.
It's not surprising, therefore, to find Beddoes
mentioned in Pound's "Cantos" or to learn
that he has influenced John Ashbery:
Lady, was it fair of thee
To seem so passing fair to me?
Not every star to every eye
Is fair; and why
Art thou another's share?
Did thine eyes shed brighter glances,
Thine unkissed bosom heave more fair,
To his than to my fancies?
In conclusion, I was surprised by the sheer range of
poetry available on CD and cassette and also
disappointed by how invisible most of it is. With the
exception of the Bloodaxe cassettes, everything
reviewed here was brought to my attention by excited
listeners or by the poets themselves contacting me.
The invisibility of recorded poetry is disappointing
because, in the case of Our Souls Have Grown
Deep Like The Rivers, for example, a wide
audience is being denied access to a wonderful
archive and resource. In the case of Mouthpuller
or Neither The One Nor The Other, the sheer
quality and originality of the work merit wide
attention. I hope this selective survey will set you
off in search of new sounds and new voices. We are
finally living in the future when everyone can have a
poet or two in their own home.
CDs and cassettes in this article:
[Note that where no running time is shown none is
given on the recording]
Going Down Swinging: PO Box 24, Clifton
Hill, Victoria, AUSTRALIA 3068 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
AUS$25 for two issues.
Voices: New Zealand Poets Reading. Auckland University Press / Atoll Ltd.
Running Time: 73 minutes. NZ$20.00. Available from:
Atoll Ltd, PO Box 99309, Newmarket, Auckland 5, New
Zealand and email@example.com. UK readers should
contact Harold Moores, Covent Garden, London and
Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands. AUS$15.00
plus postage and packing. Order from:
Souls Have Grown Deep Like The Rivers: Black Poets
Read Their Work.
Rhino WordBeat R2 78012. Distributed by Warner Music.
RRP US$29.98. USA distribution only or order via
Poetry Quartet 6: Moniza Alvi, Michael
Donaghy, Anne Stevenson, George Szirtes.
Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1 85224 5190. Running Time: 109
Poetry Quartet 7: John Burnside, W.N.
Herbert, Liz Lochhead, Don Paterson.
Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1 85224 5204. Running Time: 114
Basil Bunting. Briggflatts & other poems.
Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1 85224 528 X. Running Time: 121
The Jewel Box: Contemporary Scottish Poems.
The Scottish Poetry Library. ISBN 0 9532235 1 5.
Running Time: 48 minutes. £8.99. Available from
bookshops or via The Scottish Poetry Library at
Jim Bennett: Down in Liverpool. Long Neck Media
COMD2083. Available from the author at:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, the
whole CD may be accessed and purchased by visiting
Maurice Scully and Randolph Healy:
Mouthpuller. Coelacanth/Wild Honey Press.
ISBN 1 903090 23 7. Available direct from: Randolph
Healy, Wild Honey Press, 16a Ballyman Road, Bray,
County Wicklow, Ireland. £10 + £1.50 p&p,
although Randolph tells me this is highly negotiable.
So, to negotiate mail Randolph at email@example.com.
Readers interested in the 'neo-avant-garde tendency
in recent Irish poetry' should note that Wild Honey
Press publishes beautifully produced chapbooks by
many of the Irish writers mentioned in this article.
A useful critical introduction can be found in
several essays in The Journal no 2 available from:
Billy Mills, hardPressed Poetry, Shanbally Road,
Annacotty, Co. Limerick, Ireland.
Frances Presley and Elizabeth James: Neither
the One nor the Other. Available from: Form
Books, c/o Harry Gilonis, 86c Corbel Street, London
SW11 3NY, UK or firstname.lastname@example.org. Costs inc
p&p are £3.00 for the book or £5.00 for the
book and CD. Cheques payable to Harry Gilonis.
Interpoesia is currently out of
print but will soon be republished. Details may be
had from Jorge Luiz Antonio at: email@example.com.
Thomas Lovell Beddoes: Poems & Songs
can be purchased from Alan Halsey at:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 40 Crescent Road, Nether
Edge, Sheffield S7 1HN, UK. £5.00 plus p&p.