Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Singer and the Song

The other day I was in Sèvres, at CIEP - the Centre internationale d’études pédagogique - giving a lecture entitled ‘The Singer and the Song’. This was the final session of a two-day training programme with colleagues from all over France and Belgium who teach English Language and Literature to students taking the OIB, the British option within the French Bac.

My starting point was to ask why students of all ages so often find poetry less appealing or accessible than fiction or drama, and I wanted to focus on what poets themselves have to say about what they think poetry is, what it does and why they write it. Too often, it seems to me, we take these questions for granted or we simply avoid asking them because the answers are too difficult. My title therefore celebrated the poet as well as the poetry: to help students see the point of poetry, we should listen to what poets have to say about themselves as poets and about poetry as a way of using the imagination with precision.

For a start, of course, poets sing. ‘Arma virumque cano sang Virgil as he launched himself into the Aeneid. W.H. Auden told his fellow poets it was their job to sing:

          Follow, poet, follow right
          To the bottom of the night,
          With your unconstraining voice
          Still persuade us to rejoice;

          With the farming of a verse
          Make a vineyard of the curse,
          Sing of human unsuccess
          In a rapture of distress ….

Robert Herrick famously listed all the subjects he wanted to sing about:

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all. (‘The Argument of his Booke’)

For Herrick, as for Auden, to write and to sing are synonymous in poetry. His subjects embrace the whole of human experience from the every day to the ever after. It’s important for students to learn that no subject is off limits for a poet: Yeats wrote in ‘The Spur’:

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance on my old age.
They were not such a curse when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

So what do poets say about why they write poetry and what poetry can do? Anthony Hecht first:

One of the things I think I learned from Elizabeth Bishop, from Thomas Hardy, from Robert Frost, concerned particularity and clarity of seeing. Seen with enough precision, things become wonderful, and one can see a world in a grain of sand.

Two things appeal to me about this statement. First, I like the way Hecht is eager to acknowledge what he has learned from other poets:  for poetry always involves a dialogue between writers past and present. I noted, for instance, in my talk how Seamus Heaney in a recent poem* echoes John Keats who in turn echoes Christopher Marlowe. This is the debt that poets of the present acknowledge to the poets of the past, and helping students to recognize or discover such links for themselves is one of the joys of teaching: it is what makes them and us part of the ‘community of literature’ – a community that involves readers as well as writers.

Second, those words ‘particularity’, ‘clarity’ and ‘precision’ lie at the heart of poetry and perhaps at the heart of all art that attempts to represent the world to us. John Ruskin had this to say (in Modern Painters, though he kept repeating the point throughout his life):

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this word is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.

This reminds me immediately of Matthew Arnold’s stress on aiming to ‘see life clearly and to see it whole’, an aim which in a later generation E. M. Forster was also to stress. Because Forster lived such a long life (he lived until he was ninety and died in 1970) it is easy to forget that he was the contemporary of the poets who lived and died in the Great War, that Rupert Brooke admired him and that he admired Edward Thomas, who wrote thus about poetry:

Concentration, intensity of mood, is the one necessary condition in the poet and in the poem. By this concentration something is detached from the confused immensity of life and receives individuality.

I tried to demonstrate this by picking up the reference to ‘the court of Mab’ in Herrick’s poem and recalling how Shakespeare first introduced Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet:

She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men's noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider web;
Her collars, of the moonshine's wat'ry beams;
Her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid …. (Act 1 Scene 4)

If ever there was a prime example of a poet ‘using imagination with precision’ (a phrase I heard used earlier this year by Professor Priya Gopal), this is surely it. And not just concentration: look how the fingers - the ‘finger of an alderman’ at the start of the passage and the ‘lazy’ finger of a maid at the end - both point us in directions that take us far beyond the simple idea that Queen Mab’s carriage is miniscule. These are not similes, and if they are examples of metaphorical language they remind us that poetry and metaphor are inextricable:

Poetry is not ‘writing about’, but exploring experience metaphorically. For poetry is a development of metaphor. Metaphor is not, as we were taught at school, a figure of speech. In language it is the means by which we extend our awareness of experience into new realms. Poetry is part of this process of giving apparent order to the flux of experience.

This comes from David Holbrook, author of that once-seminal book on teaching English, English for Maturity (1961). I ended my talk on ‘The Singer and the Song’ by suggesting we should encourage students to think of poetry as experimental; that the whole point of ‘exploring language metaphorically’ is to enable us to understand how words used with concentration, precision and clarity work for poets as writers and for us as readers; how they unlock the imagination and help to explain ‘the flux of experience’ - which I take to be the same as Edward Thomas’s ‘confused immensity of life’.  Seen in these terms, poetry comes quickly to have a purpose students grasp and value. And having done so, they approach the singer with a sharper ear and the song with a clearer eye.

*The poem is ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ (again, a song) in Heaney’s 2010 collection Human Chain. The poem by Keats that he directly echoes is ‘This Living Hand’ which in turn echoes a key line from the final soliloquy of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

[photo: Sèvres seen from the terrace of C.I.E.P.  early morning, 14 October 2011

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

'Bottom, thou art translated' (into Korean)

In Venice last week, I read of the plans to run a festival in 2012 at the Globe Theatre in London of Shakespeare’s complete works performed in thirty seven different languages. It’s a marvellous idea for a festival, but I confess my initial reaction was thoroughly parochial – won’t it just show what you lose when you don’t have Shakespeare’s own language? Won’t it be, I thought, a linguistic example of Hamlet without the Prince?

I used to admire Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as ‘what gets lost in translation’. I’ve learned better. It would be truer to say that literature is what survives in translation. As I stood in the Campo San Giacometto, near the statue of Old Gobbo the crouching hunchback, and thought of The Merchant of Venice and of Othello, I realized how inadequate Frost’s definition is. I remembered once finding myself in Berlin, watching a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters performed in German, a language in which I can just about order a currywurst without making an idiot of myself. Luckily it was a play I knew well, and the production was breathtakingly good, so I could concentrate on the acting and on the direction – in fact, on the play itself.

But how come I was able to know the play at all? Through translation, obviously, since I can speak and read barely a word of Russian. I’d first read the play, as I read all Chekhov, in the sixth form. Even before that I’d seen The Seagull at the Queen’s Theatre in London, with Vanessa Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft and Peter McEnery, when I was fourteen – my first experience of a West End play. Three years later I’d seen Olivier’s production of Three Sisters at the National Theatre. These were defining theatrical experiences for me, but without translation I would not have had them.

Shakespeare himself, of course, depended utterly on translation. Translation allowed him access to the Venetian stories that gave him Desdemona and Iago, Shylock and Launcelot Gobbo – to the plots of most of his plays, in fact. Writers are always crossing boundaries, borrowing from each other, translating each other’s ideas. It’s what they do. And actually it’s what we do as readers, too. You could push the idea even further and suggest that all communication involves an act of translating: decoding what someone else has said or written and trying to understand it in our own terms.

I like the brisk approach the Director of the Globe Theatre, Dominic Dromgoole, is taking to his new festival. As The Times reported,

Each company will get at least two performances of a maximum length of 2 hours and 15 minutes. There will be no surtitles because Dromgoole believes that they undermine the chance to “slip free” of the text and consider the play in a fresh light.

To keep a Shakespeare play to 2 hours, you have to cut the text. It cannot be treated too reverentially. It can of course be cut even further, right to the bone: Tom Stoppard did this memorably with Dogg’s Hamlet, where the play is reduced to 10 minutes and given a hilarious reprise in an encore lasting 90 seconds. Shakespeare himself refers to the ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’ in the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet (to be performed at the Globe in Brazilian Portuguese) but it would take you more than two hours just to read every word of that play.

Only one play of the whole Shakespeare canon is to be performed in English: Henry V. At first I thought this a too-obvious choice: could it really have been chosen because it is all about England and Britishness, a patriotic pageant to be used whenever national crisis requires a dramatic commentary on current events –  Olivier’s 1944 film, for instance, or Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version? I’m sure the answer is more interesting that this.

Almost uniquely, Henry V is a play in which Shakespeare explores and dramatizes issues of translation. These issues are political: at the start of the play, the Archbishop of Canterbury explains to Henry that he has a just claim to the throne of France because the French ‘unjustly glose’ [i.e. gloss] the Latin statement In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant to mean that no woman can inherit the throne of France. At the end of the play Henry forces the King of France to write in Latin and in French a statement declaring that Henry is his ‘dear son-in-law and heir to the throne of France’: Notre très-cher fils Henri Roi d’Angleterre Héritier de France.

This power politics is offset, of course, by two  comic scenes. In the first, Katherine, daughter of the King of France, is being instructed by her lady-in-waiting, Alice, in some basic English vocabulary:

Katherine: Comment appellez-vous le pied et la robe?
Alice: Le foot, Madame; et le coun.
Katherine: Le foot et le coun; O Seigneur Dieu! Ils sont mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d’honneur d’user.

It sounds almost like a snatch of dialogue from Blackadder. Then, secondly, after the Battle of Agincourt, when Katherine knows that she is the spoils of war and Henry has come to claim her, it is the language barrier that has to be overcome if political expedience is to be married to emotional reticence. I have seen this scene played entirely for laughs, and I have seen it played with a good deal of seriousness; but I know of no other play in which Shakespeare uses questions of translation as a powerful but ambiguous dramatic and thematic device. The play begins and ends with the unanswered question, ‘Do kings mean what they say?’ and Henry himself admits he and Kate speak each other’s language ‘most truly falsely’.

I should love to see some of the plays in the Globe Festival, and with luck Henry V will be one of them. And I think that in selecting this play, of all plays by Shakespeare, to be performed in English the Festival organizers have after all made a shrewd choice.

[illustration: The Campo San Giacometto near the Rialto, Venice, as painted by Canaletto. The statue of the crouching hunchback, Gobbo, is in the middle of the arcade on the far side of the square. At present it is under wraps and under restoration.