John Berger on Poems

“Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories.  All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat.  Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful.  They bring a kind of peace.  Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been.  Yet the promise is not of a monument.  (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?)  The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.”

– John Berger

John Berger on Poems


I met up with a friend who’d I’d not seen in a while recently.  He’d bought me a book for my birthday (Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century) and asked if I’d gotten round to reading it.  I admitted that I hadn’t – that the subject matter was too academic for my current mood.

“So what’re you into right now?” he asked.  “Homer” I replied – at which he proceeded to laugh his head off.

It was only when he started laughing that I realized that in a lot of people’s minds, Homer is THE CLASSICS in all their symbolic weightiness and impenetrability.  But I came to Homer, specifically the Odyssey, very recently and out of curiosity, not because I was ever compelled. And what drew me in at first wasn’t even the story, but the rhythmic, sea-thrumming verse of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.  When I was first reading it on the bus or train, I found myself book-marking pages so when I could get home, or got a chance to hide in a bathroom compartment, I could read the words out loud, letting the syllables roll around my mouth and off my tongue like stones thrown down a well.

The best way I can describe what I find so compelling in the Odyssey and the Iliad is the reality of it.

Odysseus, long after all of his friends have made it home from the war at Troy, finds himself stranded and imprisoned on Kalypso’s island, 20 years separated from his home, lost at sea.  And when he finally is granted his release, on his penultimate sea-voyage, he’s battered by storms, thrown from his wrecked raft and although he reaches shore, it’s almost too late:

“Then forth he came, his both knees faltr’ing, both
his strong hands hanging down, and all with froth
his cheeks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath
spent to all use, and down he sank to death.
The sea had soaked his heart through”

That moment where you feel you just can’t take it anymore, where it’s all just too much, how do you go on?  There it is.  Beautiful, brutal, real and life-affirming.

Odysseus is a war-hero, the man who engineered the Trojan horse, but he’s also a broken man, wrecked by years of toil and misfortune at sea, driven by bitter and resentful gods.  He’s a “master-mariner and tactician” but he’s also deceitful and manipulative – he draws comparison’s to the countless Trickster gods that litter the history of mythology.  And he’s a father longing to rejoin his family, but he’s also a completely ruthless and bloody murderer: on his return home, he not only slaughters the men who were trying to woo his wife, but the ladies of his household who slept with those men or were even rumored to have done so.

Homer makes no apology for the countless paradoxes and complexities that exist in the characters of his stories – he doesn’t simplify or beautify how messed up and how amazing people and the world can be – he simply presents reality in all it’s pain and glory.  And there’s nothing “academic” about that.

Postscript:  Nice synchronicity – I read the article below minutes after writing this:

“Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready.”


On Anger

“Always I turn away from anger as petty and mean, destructive of life, and so often it is, but not always.  There is another kind of anger, different in quality, in implication, in consequence; when one beholds it one sees nothing ugly but something grand.  Sviatoslav Richter strides on to the stage.  His face is grim; there is anger in the set of his jaw, but not at the audience.  This is a passion altogether his own, a force with which he protects what he is about to do.  If it had words it would say “What I attempt is important and I go about it with the utmost seriousness.  I intend to create beauty and meaning, and everything everywhere threatens this endeavour:  the coughs, the late-comers, the chatting women in the third row, and always those dangers within, distraction, confustion, loss of memory, weakness of hand.  All are enemies of my endeavour.  I call up this passion to oppose them, to protect my purpose”.  Now he begins to play and the anger I see in his bearing I hear in the voice of Beethoven.  It knows nothing of meanness or spite;  it is the passion of the doer who will not let his work be swept aside.  It hurts no one, it asserts life, it is the force that generates form.  Its opposite is not love, but weakness….If I have something to say and mean it I must stand behind it, must mobilize a dark and deep-running anger to protect it” – Allen Wheelis from How People Change

On Anger

Excerpt from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice

I wanted to write this out as I was having trouble finding this particular except of  MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal”.  As a poem in itself, this excerpt is one of my all-time favourite pieces of literature – it’s just the most romantic, beautiful, human expression of love I’ve ever read.

“September has come and I wake
and I think with joy how whatever, now or in the future, the system
nothing whatever can take
the people away, ther will always be people
for friends or lovers though perhaps
the condistions of love will be changed and its vices diminished
and affection not lapse
to narrow possessiveness, jealousy founded on vanity.
Septamber has come, it is hers,
whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
whose nature prefers
trees without leave and a fire in the fire place;
So I give her this month and the next
though the whole of my year should be hers who has rendered already
so many of its days intolerable or perplexed
but so many more so happy;
who has left a scent on mky life and left my walls
dancing over and over with her shadow,
whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
and all of London littered with remembered kisses.
So I am glad
that life contains her with her moods and moments
more shifting and more transient than I had
yet thought of as being integral to beauty;
whose mind is like the wind on a sea of wheat,
whose eyes are candour,
and assurance in her feet,
like a homing pigeon never by doubt diverted.
To whom I send my thanks
that the air has become shot silk, the streets are music,
and that the ranks of men are ranks of men, no more of cyphers.
So that if now alone I must pursue this life, it will not be a drag
from numbered stone to numbered stone
but a ladder of angels, river turning tidal.
Off-hand, at times hysterical, abrupt,
you are one I always shall remember,
whom cant can never corrupt
nor argument disinherit
Frivolous, always in a hurry, forgetting the address,
frowning too often, taking enormous notice
of hats and back-chat – how could I assert
the things that make you different?
You whom I remember glad or tired,
smiling in drink or scintillating anger,
inopportunely desired
on boats, on trains, on roads when walking.
Sometimes untidy, often elegant,
so easily hurt, so readily responsive,
to whom a trifle could be an irritant
or could be balm or manna.
Whose words would tumble over each other and pelt
from pure excitement,
whose fingers curl and melt
when you were friendly.
I shall remember you in bed with bright
eyes or in a cafe stirring coffee
abstractedly and on your plate the white
smoking stubs your lips had touched with crimson.
And I shall remember how your words could hurt
because they were so honest
and even your lies were able to attest
integrity of purpose.
And it is on the strength of knowing you
I reckon generous feeling more important
than mere deliberating what to do
when neither the pros nor cons affect the pulses.
And though I have suffered from your special strength
who never flatter for points nor fake responses
I should be proud if I could evolve at length
an equal thrust and pattern.”

Excerpt from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice

The live concert as a single, uninterrupted experience.

I went to see Sharon Jones & The Dapkings last night.  Among other things, it reminded me a lot of James Brown’s 1962 album “Live at the Apollo”.  I mean there’s the horns, the backing singers, the R&B.  It was an immensely fun experience and was the closest thing I’ve seen to what I imagine the “Live at the Apollo” show was like.

I’d been listening to the fantastic Sound Opinions podcast retrospective on the Brown album and one of the things that was raised was how Brown created the show that was recorded at the Apollo – but performed countless times before and after – with the aim to make a show that was absolutely arresting in every way, something that was absolutely seamless and completely engrossing and that would hold the audience in thrall throughout the show.  One of the key elements to doing that was having a show that was so polished, so perfectly performed, so well scripted that you simply had no reason or desire to look away.  Even the interludes in the show, short 15 second intervals where Brown was gathering himself, are tightly choreographed with music.

By now if you’re a music fan you’ll have heard the complaint that digital music has killed the album – that being able to pick and choose songs means we’ll never see an album that’s as seamless as, for example, Dark Side of the Moon, again.

And as an extension, it’s generally agreed that live performance is much more important today as a source of income for an artist.  But the way artists are performing live hasn’t really changed along with the shift, as far as I can see.  If live performance’s significance to an artist has increased, surely the amount of craft put into a live performance should increase accordingly.

I’d say about 99% of concerts I’ve been to have followed the format – song played by band, between songs the singer introduces the song/thanks the audience, band plays next song, rinse and repeat.  Perhaps there’s two songs in a row without the patter, but there’s always a break of some kind.  There’s always a pause where the audience can catch it’s breath and remember that they’re not elsewhere, that they are, in fact, just at a rock concert.  That seems like a missed opportunity to me.

So why not think of your live show as a single unit, with the aim of being totally engrossing throughout – what about aiming for 45 mins of seamless choreography, music, sound, light – relentless, uninterrupted entertainment?

I guess my point is that I know I’d spend serious money to have a concert experience today like the one James Brown rolled out in 1962.  And I know I’d be telling everyone I knew about a show like that – just like I’m telling everyone about how great the Dapkings were last night.  That kind of completely immersive escape is what everyone needs now and then.

The live concert as a single, uninterrupted experience.

Sean O’Boyle

Sean O'Boyle Recording Picture

My grandfather, Sean O’Boyle, died 35 years ago today. He was a sound archivist for the BBC in the 1950s during the advent of portable tape recorders, charged with collecting in recorded form “for the purposes of broadcasting, as much of the surviving folk music and local forms of speech as possible” from around Ireland.

The picture is from the summer of 1953 – Mrs Gallagher (over 90 years old) performed 30 songs from memory over 3 hours, 10 in English and 20 in Irish during this recording session.

Sean O’Boyle

And one day you’ll wake
long before the sun
with your ribs in tetanic contraction
lungs bruised from breathing.

and know you’ll spend the day
searching for the single wound that caused it all.  As if
breaking what’s happened
into hooded figures
was the answer.

You don’t want to know
that each black moment is made taut
in concert,
like the lugs on a drum skin.

You don’t want to know that tonight
dream-darkness will come again like winter
thick and lidded over the fields
and you’ll stand ice cold and mute
as the mice run away from your feet.