Songs and Sonnets
The Word on the Street
(Film directed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce)
To Do Wid Me
Penned in the Margins, £9.99
Peace, Love & Potatoes
Serpent’s Tail £9.99
‘A hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts’ is near the top of my all-time great pop lyrics list. While this dark matter at the core of the Jam’s ‘A Town Called Malice’ makes some sense on the page (it’s an image as resonant as a glass hit with a spoon, and there’s great work being done with all those H and L sounds), I’m not sure I’d call it poetry. Without the memory of its performance, without its musicians directing us to bite off that word ‘clutch’ and take the ‘empty milk bottles’ on a run of double-time semi-quavers, on the plain page the phrase reads a bit ‘off’ metrically. Genius pop lyricist though he may be, Paul Weller’s words don’t feature in my all-time great poetic phrase list; that’s kept in another notebook altogether.
Ever since the first caveman hit a dinosaur skull with a dinosaur bone, sang along and called it poetry, the argument has rumbled. The poet’s lyric versus the songwriter’s lyric – are they the same thing, and if they’re not, which is best? Who’s scored the number one slot this week? There’s more fuel for the argument in these two new collections of writings from Paul Muldoon, both published by poetry houses, both submitted to a poetry magazine for review. As well as an Eliot- and Pulitzer-winning poet, Muldoon is the lyricist from Wayside Shrines, a collective of musicians from Princeton, NJ. Track down the in-concert fan footage on YouTube, and you can see him on stage, singing and playing guitar. Both the Faber and the Enitharmon collections reprint lyrics, some of which have been set to music and recorded by the band – although Songs and Sonnets does include a few full-fat, guitar-free poems too. The Wayside approach is to take little snippets of familiar phraseology (in The Word on the Street, ‘Feet of Clay’, ‘Go-To-Guy’ and ‘Good Luck with That’; in Songs and Sonnets, ‘Same Old Same Old’, ‘If Any Of This Gets Out’ and ‘One-Hit Wonder’) and to tune them and turn them into refrain-fuelled commentaries on how the guy got the girl or – more often than not – rueful riffs on how the girl then got away. In last year’s Poetry Society Annual Lecture, also called ‘The Word on the Street’, Muldoon brought a referee’s balance to the Tin Pan Alley / Parnassus showdown, saying ‘The song lyric is designed to be heard once and understood almost immediately. The pressure per square inch tends to be a lot less than it is in most poems’. If you heard:
The word on the street
Is we’re quitting
Now our course is run
The word on the street
Is you’re splitting
The word on the street
Is you’re done
– with its melody and harmony, a rhythm section and a beer in a plastic pint glass, you’d surely dance along. On the page, lacking the combination of all those elements necessary to create a deep experience of a song, the words as poetry slip past without friction. They are comprehended immediately and fully, and there’s no need to revisit them in search of further riches. Muldoon the wild rhymer and free associator is recognisably at work here:
There are no gentlemen
In a gentlemen’s club
No room for nuclear families
In a nuclear sub
A flight may run from Reno
To a renal ward
A tall cappuccino
Turns out to be small
(‘Cleaning Up My Act’)
But he’s upstage of the mics and monitors, and fans of his poetry might want a closer view of him than these books afford. Both collections can be shelved next to Jarvis Cocker’s Mother, Brother, Lover and Paul McCartney’s Blackbird Singing, also from Faber. Pulp and Beatles completists read those books once or twice, but return to the records till their grooves are see-through. If you sign up to the Wayside Shrines mailing list via www.waysideshrines.org, they’ll send you a free download of The Word on the Street. Not the poem, nor the book of that name, but the real thing. The album.
Bloodaxe’s publishing solution for poetry that needs more than just a script on a page to live in the minds of its audience is to become film-makers. Benjamin Zephaniah’s To Do Wid Me is a film first and foremost: a feature-length portrait of Britain’s third favourite poet (a 2009 BBC poll had him take the bronze medal behind only John Donne and TS Eliot) comprising interview and performance footage. As a documentary, it’s a bit on the baggy side, clocking in at just over two hours long with the DVD extras – but it does what TV poetry doesn’t often do; it allows uninterrupted, untreated performances of entire poems.
Pamela Robertson-Pearce trusts our concentration spans where other directors don’t, and we are given the unedited versions of poems from the thirty-year span of Zephaniah’s career. ‘Rong Radio’, ‘Dis Policeman is kicking me to Death’ and ‘What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us’ and more are filmed in college classrooms, at festivals and at home, diary-cam style. The whoops of the audience are part of the experience. Zephaniah writes primarily for performance, the students he teaches at Brunel University cover stagecraft just as thoroughly as creative writing. In performance, he has a stand-up comedian’s timing, an actor’s memory for line-learning, and the charisma and cadence of a preacher – all inextricable components of his literary power. It’s the combination of poem and performance, text and delivery that conveys his message, whether it’s political commentary:
We call it economic war
It may not be de East an de West anymore
But de North an de South
Third World fall out
Coffee an oil is what it’s about
It’s economic war
Poor people hav de scar
Shots fired from de stock market floor
or writing for children:
Be nice to yu turkeys dis Christmas
Cos turkeys jus wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, an turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum
Strip one from the other, and the effect is lessened. Watch the film, and read the book as a souvenir of the performance.
Luke Wright is another hard-working performance poet, pounding the UK’s motorways touring six one-man poetry shows since 2006, programming the Latitude Festival poetry stage and contributing regularly to Radios 3 and 4 – but this debut collection demonstrates another dimension to his work. Without relying on a festival crowd’s roaring-boy power to keep them energized, Wright’s witty, satirical poems earn their place here on the permanent page.
The ballad form, the righteous ire of a Private Eye crusade and English idiom put in a gentle headlock till it concedes its rhymes: that’s the mix which fuels this book. Passengers on ‘The Drunk Train’ speed through the night:
Pull back the crimson curtain stained
with blood of dramas past,
on city clerks zigzagging home,
their Tie Rack ties half mast;
on London’s horns, on suet air,
on gummy pavement slabs,
peroxide Oompa Loompa girls
who dribble their kebabs …
But for every venal RBS exec, scandal-struck Tory, or other red-top chancer skewered in 80mph verse (‘Dear Dudley called for closing mosques: And why not burn them too! / but always made us giggle on Have I Got News For You’), there’s a poem which thoughtfully unpacks the contemporary relationship. There are no convictions in these slower poems, only questions. ‘The Ballad of Chris & Ann’s Fish Bar’ is a heart-breaking account of a failing marriage detailed in jars of pickled eggs and tubs of mushy peas; and Wright is particularly acute on the transition from lad to dad, from the character claiming:
I’m proud when announcing my feminist bent;
the well-rehearsed speeches I honed while at college
have got me in knickers from Kendal to Kent’
– to the ‘Weekday Dad’ negotiating the swings and roundabouts with his sidekick and son ‘Dribble Boy’:
It turns out that being a dab had at poesy
will scarcely equip you to wipe a child’s bum.
Being able to critique A-Ring-Ring-A-Rosy
will not mean he doesn’t just scream for his mum.
Everything I know about the political and personal texture of life in 1960s Britain comes from a pile of Giles annuals my grandpa gave me. Celebratory, mournful, critical and tender – Mondeo Man frames the stuttering start to the twenty-first century from
the same perspective as the Express cartoonist. No mean praise.
If some poems need a backing band to amplify their message, and some require the presence of their writer, some also demand the company of a live audience. John Hegley began his career in the 1970s as part of Interaction, the community arts collective, and has subsequently continued their interactive ethos in thousands of live gigs over the last four decades. Anyone who has seen him performing his ‘Amoeba’ song-poem with audience participation – ‘Let’s split the audience in parts to join in here. First part: this half of the room. Second part: this half of the room. Third part: you, madam’ – will have experienced that interaction directly. To invite comparable audience involvement from the book is a challenge. Hegley pulls off a neat stage-to-page conversion by asking us to extend his own illustrations to the poems in this new collection, his thirteenth. ‘Medusa, the loser’ is accompanied by a drawing of a serpentine hair-do. ‘Do sneak in a snake of your own’ the caption reads. ‘Kilburn, 2012’, an account of a school visit on St George’s Day which tackles a dozen definitions of Englishness, gives us a whole blank page on which to draw our own dragons. It’s a nicely democratizing touch.
If Dickens were alive today, he might not be writing soap opera, as the assertion has it, but he’d surely be sharing a bill with this poet at the Edinburgh Fringe. Hegley’s popular English literary ancestry is acknowledged with a tip of the hat to Dickens the showman in ‘At a public reading by an English hero’:
Tell us about Copperfield and Oliver
and his wishing for the dishing out of more
let’s hear about the optimist Micawber,
his persistent hopes of what lay up afore.
Do divulge of Mister Scrooge and poor Miss Havisham
that disenchanted woman who set all her world alight.
Tell us any of your stories that you fancy
but please don’t tell us Nancy’s tale tonight.
It’s the exploration of his own personal non-English ancestry, however, which sets the book’s emotional tone. Hegley’s father was French and his grandmother was a dancer in the Folies Bergère, a lineage not fully acknowledged during his childhood:
My dad, he was Bob in the office,
René was the way he began’ (‘Bob a job’)
Clearing the ivy off this family tree results in a series of compassionate autobiographical poems and imagined correspondence between family members. Some poems have audiences, some have readers. There is a difference, and Hegley is in absolute control of which poems are sorted into which category.