Skip to main content

LAYING DOWN THE LAW

Yesterday most of the world grieved on learning about the death of David Bowie - the extraordinary level of mourning marking a sense a figure as pivotal as Picasso had left the mortal planet.

Cue BBC Radio 4, and Front Row, on just after The Archers in the evening, which decided, rightly, to focus its programming on Bowie. Among the guests invited to discuss his life and work was Lavinia Greenlaw, a well-known and talented Faber poet, novelist, and professor of creative writing.

From the start, it was an odd affair - no one really discussed Bowie's work in film, for instance - and it felt a bit rushed, which, given the surprise announcement of his death, makes sense.

In retrospect, asking Greenlaw to speak about Bowie from a poet's perspective seems an error, but she was introduced as a "long-time fan" of his music.

At the very start of the Greenlaw segment, something dreadful happened - something so English in the worst sense of the word, I shudder at it. Not the Englishness of Bowie - daring, creative, strange and alert - but the Englishness of hierarchical thinking and decorum.

Greenlaw was asked to discuss Bowie's songwriting, and specifically what she thought of his words as poetry.

She immediately paused (as if this was not clearly what she had been asked to discuss) and then - and here I became physically ill with panic listening at home, because I knew what was coming (I have heard it before too many times from others) - she calmly and rather professorially explained that Bowie was not a poet, these were not poems, but that he was a lyricist, these were lyrics, and of course very good ones.  She talked then (admiringly it must be said) about how he used simple words at times, and discussed his song lyrics with some interest and enthusiasm.

The issue for me, however, and the wider world, is that this was not an abstract debate or lecture, but the first official BBC cultural discussion of the impact of one of England's greatest creative geniuses of the past 150 years, whose family may have been listening, on the day of his death's announcement.

Words have meaning, and impact.

This was meant to be a eulogy, not a cold and surgical summing up.

We wanted celebration, not academic discrimination.

In short, we didn't care what Ms Greenlaw thinks a poem is, and isn't.

To the world, David Bowie is a poet, an artist, of the first rank.

I know the general academic position in the UK is that song lyrics are not poems, because poems carry their own music within them. Morrissey, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, are not considered poets by most establishment poetry figures in the UK. For many, Ginsberg and Hart Crane are barely poets, let alone Whitman. Ashbery has no music to many, too. The English poetic ear too often connects to the heart through the Oxbridge mind.

I am not angry at Ms Greenlaw - she is perfectly entitled to her opinion, which she very calmly and professionally explained to an audience of millions on the BBC. But neither should she be surprised or cross that I, and many others, may take exception to the timing and expression of such sentiments.

As I have stated elsewhere, if David Bowie is not a poet, in the size of his vision, conceptual achievements, and compositions, then how dare I and others claim such a label? Poetry, seeking relevance in this age, needs heroes and outliers like Bowie to keep new audiences keen and curious.

We who profess poetry and practice it professionally need to take care to be inclusive, modest, and imaginative in how we lay down our poetic laws.  A canon without Bowie is a poorer place.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

DANGER, MAN

Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…

AMERICA PSYCHO

According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…

SEXTON SHORTLIST!

Announcing the Shortlist for the 2016 Sexton PrizeSeptember 13, 2016 / By Kelly Davio
Eyewear Publishing is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2016 Sexton Prize. The finalists are, in no particular order, as follows:


THE BARBAROUS CENTURY, Leah Umansky
HISTORY OF GONE, Lynn Schmeidler
SEVERE CLEAR, Maya Catherine Popa
GIMME THAT. DON’T SMITE ME, Steve Kronen
SCHEHERAZADE AND OTHER REDEPLOYMENTS, David McAleavey
AN AMERICAN PURGATORY, Rebecca Gayle Howell
SIT IN THE DARK WITH ME, Jesse Lee Kercheval

The shortlist was selected by Eyewear’s Director Todd Swift with Senior Editor Kelly Davio. Don Share of Poetry Magazine will select the winning manuscript, which will be released at the 2017 AWP conference in Washington, D.C. The winner will be announced in October. 
Congratulations to our finalists!