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Friday, 27 June 2008

Turner Prized: Simon Armitage Praises Alex Turner's Lyrics

The Guardian's been running a series, all week, of little pamphlet inserts, titled Great Lyricists (of what isn't made clear, but the mainly contemporary scene, apparently). Of the eight, two are Canadian, and one was born near the Canadian border (Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Dylan). Three more are entirely American (Springsteen, Patti Smith and Chuck D). Two are British (which is very international of The Guardian: the bitter genius Morrissey, and Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner). One wonders where John Lennon or Ian Dury are - and further back, the two undisputed heavyweights of song lyrics of the 20th century (in English) Cole Porter and Noel Coward.

Turner seems a little out of his league. What comes across - and this isn't the first time I have thought of this issue given I have been interested in spoken word poetry for the last 14 years or so - is how bare the lyrics mainly are. Chuck D's and Dylan's and Cohen's are the best, because they bring the music with them, into the words. Armitage admits that "songwriters are not poets" in his Introduction. He also makes big claims about British poetry: "Nothing, in my view, characterises British poetry of the last 50 years more than the 'sketch'. Modernism has sent up its pyrotechnics, but stories and scenes still fuel the hearth fire, and Turner is a storyteller and scene-setter."

This suggests a few of the problems with the current British "mainstream" approach to art and culture since 1950. Armitage's easily made differentiation between "modernism" on the one hand, and "storytelling" on the other, is not entirely useful. It seems to return us to the idea (that Larkin bandied about) that, on the one hand, there was something English, decent, and lucid (a la Orwell) about plainspoken poetry with nice stories in it - and then there was Picasso, Parker, and all that weird, indeterminate, and ultimately heartless jazz. Clarity is all.

Well, let's wheel out Adorno; or rather, simply observe that issues such as what the lyric does, and how it relates to experience, are problematic, and intriguing, precisely because the texture and materiality of text (and the complexities of the corporeally-based speaking voice) are rich and strange. What Turner does - very well - is replicate (or mimic) - how a certain kind of young British person speaks, usually among themselves, on a night out, in a bar, dance club, or in a cab on the way home. This mirroring of "nature" is impressive, and artfully, and wittily handled. But does Turner turn this reflection back onto the way of speaking, the mode of style, itself? What is Turner saying about saying it like it is on the dancefloor, or what his "regional identity" really has to do with his language? Tony Harrison, and Armitage, himself, among others, have written of, and through, their post-Butler Act poetic eloquence from intriguing regional perspectives. W.S. Graham, who was a modernist, but also proud of his regional identity, managed to speak something about whereof we can.

Well, see you later, innovator. Or hear you later, maybe. In the meantime, poems can and should move beyond the sketch (at least some of the time) or scene. TV and the novel do that better, anyway. What poetry "does" best of all is poetic, not ordinary, language. Artifice, not reflection, perhaps, of the way things "are". Says who?
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