CATS upon the stage

cats the musical
The return of Cats to the West End stage has revived the old argument: Was T S Eliot a genius or a twat. This article may help you decide

On the back of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s successful revival of cats there was an article in The Daily Telegraph over the weekend about the poetry of T S Eliot. here’s a taste:

Fifty years after TS Eliot’s death, the beauty of his verse shows how poetry can be appreciated before it is understood, by Allan Massie

The record-breaking musical Cats is singing and dancing again. The run of the new production has been extended – and there are plans to take it to France, Germany and Broadway. Yet when it was launched in 1981, even the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber wondered if he were out of his mind. A musical with no plot and the cast dressed as prancing felines, the lyrics drawn from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, light verses written by the otherwise famously difficult poet, TS Eliot – what could possibly go right?

Of course everything did, gloriously. It ran and ran and ran, and it still works today. [ …] I find myself thinking I would have liked to have had some such explanatory aid available when I first read The Waste Land 60 years ago. That was more than 30 years after its first publication, and yet it still seemed strange and baffling. I understood very little of it and was puzzled by its abrupt transitions. Yet, on reflection, I am not so sure that my perplexity was such a bad thing. It meant I had to surrender to the poem.

The comment thread followed the usual pattern of any discussion on the works of Eliot and that other literary wanker James Joyce, both of whom admitted that they wrote with the intention of being understood by literary or classical academics.

The sheeple who will believe anything sombody who waves an academic qualification around tells them to believe came down in support of the dogma that Eliot was the genius who dragged poetry into the modern age.

The other camp consisted of those who love poetry and read it regularlyand generally thought Eliot a pretentious, condescending elitist snob and an all – round twunt. Here’s my favourite:

figurewizard

When I was at school Eliot’s Wasteland was part of our A level English studies. Many questions were put to our English master on it, one of which has stayed with me when one of my classmates asked; “Instead of writing this, why didn’t this guy just top himself”?

One reference that came up several times was to John Carey’s book “The Intellectuals And The Masses” which is an exposé of the new elitism of the academic class.

Here’s one comment that recommends it:
doctordyper

Eliot’s poetry is quite deliberately obscure; the dense allusions to, and quotations from, other literature are designed to encode into it levels of meaning that make it inaccessible to all but the most highly-educated. This was a reaction to the rise of mass-literacy common to many modernist writers; they actively wanted to preserve literature as the preserve of a small elite. I highly recommend John Carey’s book, ” The Intellectuals and the Masses” – it’s quite extraordinary. None of this makes The Waste Land and Prufrock any less masterpieces – but in context, they are the last-ditch fight by the literary set against paperbacks and the sort of people who think Kipling’s “If” is a great poem.

Are the spadefuls of praise for Heaney justified

Are we allowed to speak ill of the recently dead? The general convention is No, we are not and when the dead are darlings of the inellectual elite we are usually expected to shovel on the hyperbole in praise of their talents, real or otherwise. But Boggart Blog was never inclined to follow the crowd especially when the honest response is to say “let’s face it he was a bit shite”. So let it be with the late Seamus Heaney.

Over the past few days Heaney has been called “a colossus”. Liam Neeson, a man whose acting ability has often been compared to that of a plank said “he defined our place in the universe”. Andrew Motion (onetime British poet laureate) referred to him as “great”. Heaney’s local university (Queens, Belfast) asserted that: “His contribution to the world of literature has introduced millions of people around the globe to the enjoyment of poetry.”

Really? as someone who has seen my modest scribbling appear in print I would say Heaney, along with his late best mate Ted Hughes was the kind of elitist tosser who put people off poetry for life. Their was the generation of literature professors who believed poetry was something to be written by literature professors for literature professors. If ordinary punters could understand your verse or even worse enjoy it, you were a bad poet.

So what is this brilliant poetry that, according to the hype, has seduced “millions of people”? Can anyone spontaneously remember a single line of Seamus Heaney? When novelist Sean Thomas asked this question of Twitter he reports his laptop screen filled with tumbleweed while the speakers gave out the sound of a soughing wind punctuated by the funereal ringing of a single bell in the old adobe Mission Hall, until someone eventually suggested that Heaney’s memorable talent was, arguably, proven by this line: “Between my finger and thumb, the squat pen rests, I’ll dig with it.”

Well, yes, that line resonates in the memory doesn’t it? We hear it quoted whenever people gather to reflect on digging, thumbs, squatting, and pens that metaphorically resemble spades.

Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times, wrote a two page paean to the Nobel prize-winning bard. In that understated way so typical of the Irish he said “Seamus Heaney made us gasp in wonder that, for all its follies and terrors, Irish culture had such a person in it…” “The great maker of such phrases will not be lost, for he is among the immortals now…” Then he gave an example of an “immortal” Heaney phrase:

Two buckets were easier carried than one.

Well bugger me with the blunt end of a ragman’s trumpet, I’ve had it wrong all these years. Poetry is not about the magic of language, the ability of words to evoke emotions, it is about bland truisms. My doltish teachers always told us to avoid cliche and we, fools that we were believed them.

Forget lines like:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
look on my works you mighty and despair,

or

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

or

The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

or

And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

or

cold winds do shake the darling buds of May
and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

because it is all about carrying buckets.

But isn’t poetry supposed to be about love and loss, our relationship with the divine or the splendours of love FFS? OK, I can hear all the protests. Modern poetry isn’t about rising above the daily grind, it is meant to be awkward, dull, obscure, and forgettable, like the working class people elitist intellectual poets look down on. It is about people who sit in ivory towers and imagine the miserable, joyless lives, of drudgery and suffering lived farm hands, mill girls, rude mechanicals, webfoot cockle – women and tidy wives. The Hughes / Heaney school of poetry, for all the poets pretensions to working class origins never understood the sensuality and rich humour of working class life.

Some late twentieth century poets did and managed to write lines that were beautiful and memorable and made you sit up and go “Fuck me, that could be about my life.”.

I bet you know a few phrases of Philip Larkin. “They fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to, but they do,” Or “What will survive of us is love.”

And maybe a few people are familiar with these lines:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

or what about the poet of suburbia, John Betjeman, and the wit and irony of:

“Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun”

or

“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

And what about the gobsmackingly brilliant Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night“, which is so good it would be a crime to select one or two lines so I recommend you click the link and read it all.

Seamus Heaney is simply not singing from the same song sheet as these guys.

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The Bonnie Banks O’ Scotland Can Be Found Elsewhere

Not so much having a break today as a change of scenery. I have stated before that one of my favourite poets is William Topaz McGonagall, reputedly the worst poet ever published in the English language.

McGonagall had not appreciation of rhytm or meter, no understanding of metaphor and little feeling for language. But he loved poetry and he loved Scotland. So as the financial crisis juggernaut rumbles on it was a good time to open up my little used comic verse blog and post:

The Bonnie Bonny Banks O’ Scotland in the style of William McGonagall.

Enjoy.

The flame still Burns (Remembering Rabbie Burns)

It’s Burns night and as I’ve always loved Burns even more than I love McGonagall (Ian’s tribute to McGonagall in the poet’s own style) some kind of tribute was necessary. But what, an analysis of his poetry to offer an understanding of why he reamains so popular and why the popularity of the very Scottish poet is so universal is not really right for Boggart Blog where we proudly boast that we never take anything seriously. Then inspiration came to me.

One of my favourite jokes features the poetry of Burns so not because I think you have not heard it but because I enjoy retelling it, it is easily adapted to any political or religious leader who is in the news and we cannot have enough snippets of Burns’ verse today here is The Burns Joke.

On a visit to a military hospital where soldiers wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan were recovering from their injuries Barack Obama told the medics that he wanted to meet all the patients. Despite being warned it might not be possible, when the tour party came to a ward with a sign on the door that read: Absolutely No Entry except to specialist staff the President said he wanted to go in.

“That really is not wise Mr. President, these men have a terrible condition, it’s best they remain quiet.”

“Nonsense, everybody is uplifted by my message of hopeanchange,” the President insisted.

“In that case I can’t refuse but want it noted I’m, letting you in only under duress,” the Doctor said.

They went in. Everything seemed normal, the patients lay quietly on beds, read or watched TV.”

Then Obama approached the man in the first bed and said, “Hi buddy, how’re you felling.”

The man sat bolt upright, his eyes widened and his nostrils flared as he began to recite:

Fairrr fa your honest sonsie face
great cheiftain o’ the pudding race,
aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
painch tipe and thairm.
Well worthy are ye o’ a grace
as lang’s my arm.

“Oh jeez, that’s terrible, the poor man,” the President said to the Doctor. “I wish I had listened to you now. Still I must greet all the men now I’m here.”

With that he headed for the next bed.

“How you doin’ soldier and can I ask how do you feel about Osama bin Laden?”
Again the man’s demeanour changed as he began to recite:

Wee cow’rin’ sleekit tim’rous beastie
oh what a panic’s in they breastie,
why wad ye run awa’ sae hastie
wi bleth’rin brattle.
I wad be laithe to run and chase thee
wi murd’rn pattle.

Wow this really is terrible, is there any hope for these guys?” Obama asked the Doctor who sadly shook his head as they approached the next bed.

“Well,” said Obama, “maybe I’d best change my approach, anything that reminds them of the war seems upsetting.”

They came to the next bed where the President asked the occupant, “How re the feeding you in here son?”

The man lapsed into the familiar state and began to recite:

His knife sae rustic labour dight,
an cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch.
An’ then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm reekin’ rich.

“I’m sorry Doctor, We’ll have to leave now, I can’t take any more of this” said Obama, “What is wrong with these men, is it some terrible psychiatric affliction.”

The Doctor said, “No Mr President, it’s the Burns unit.

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You Can’t Keep Anything Quiet These Days!

The Yorkshire office of Boggartblog went out for its Christmas lunch today.
A spot of shopping then off to Cafe Rouge for a nice bit of Steak et Frites.

Dropped BBC somewhere round the back of Eccleshall Road so he could go and meet his bit of totty. He left us with the directions, “Head for the flats and you will come to Waitrose, then you’ll know where you are.”

Fair enough, headed for the flats, “Oh look, there’s Waitrose.” Indicator on, turn, “What the fuck am I doing, I don’t want to go to Waitrose.”

So we turned round and headed out of the car park, which tips you onto a short piece of road and then you come to a junction with a main road.

Stop at the lights, look up, there’s a large red brick building opposit-ish, a place of learning perhaps, with a poem on the wall, don’t ask, it’s something they do in Sheffield, there’s one on the side of Hallam Poly, sorry, University, just as you are heading up into town from the station.

“In this place the future is being forged,
Or perhaps Jez is getting trashed on cider…” I read out.

SezJez’s mouth drops open in shock!
How dare they? Who told them? Had there been a poetry writing competition won by somebody, probably the headmistress, of Jez’s former school?
Anyway it was vodka not cider, she is quick to point out.

But now all of Sheffield knows. You can’t keep anything quiet these days!