Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Excellance Be Blowed!

I just read Tony Trehy's blog and, as we Quakers put it, it "spoke to my condition." The idea that art has to conform to some "standards of excellence" really gets my goat. There are lots of things that art can be, including messy, unruly and - actually - bad; and I think it should be allowed to be so, without interference from some jumped-up arbiter of taste.

"Excellence" targets and the like strike me as about that awful thing, the promotion of "good taste". I think it might have been the Futurists, or the Dadaists, or some such band of reprobates, whose slogan was, "TASTE IS THE ENEMY OF ART", and while the capital letters might be a bit much these days, it's still true. Taste is not something an artist should be worrying about. In fact, if we're always looking over our shoulders to see if our art will fit certain criteria of fashionable good taste, we will never produce anything that's any good. We'll provide the kind of art that looks nice on a wall, or the kind of books that sit nicely in a middle-class family bookshop, probably unread but with a nice coffee. But we won't produce anything that makes people think, or feel, or be disturbed, or feel like the top of our heads have come off.

I can still remember the way I say the world after I'd been to see the Patrick Heron exhibition in the Tate. Everything was more colourful and clear than it was. The same is true of the first time I read TS Elliot, or Frank O'Hara; or John Donne. Something that I couldn't explain was happening. I doubt very much that any of those people were thinking about whether their art fullfilled certain criteria of excellance. Was it accessible? No, it was quite often strange and inaccessible. Did it meet the needs of the local community for cultural product? Not in the least. It was elitist high art and it didn't pretend to be otherwise.

Art still can do that; but not if it has to fullfill certain criteria, if it has to conform to standards of taste, or appeal to certain groups of people. It can only take the top off your head if it surprises you, if it makes you feel and think differently from how you thought and felt a moment ago. Down with excellence!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jen Hadfield & Mick Imlah

I'm rather pleased that Jen Hadfield won the T.S. Eliot - she's only 30 so it shows great foresight on the part of the judges. She's also a little bit non-mainstream - or she is to some. Myself, I don't think she is very; but she's got a lot more going for her than some of the old warhorses that were also up for it.

I also heard of the death of Mick Imlah - very tragic - of motor neurone disease. A horrible way to die. I don't really know his poetry, and it doesn't seem like my sort of thing. But it's still a sad loss to British poetry.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Prog 2 (Tales from Typological Oceans)

To compare innovative poetry to prog rock is, perhaps, rather cheeky, and there's not that much in common really, apart from the fact that they both started in the late '60's. Prog bands that "made it" (Yes, Genesis & Pink Floyd basically) ended up as bloated shadows of their former selves and were not all that experimental really, except in their early days.

But the urge to step away from the norm, to explore new territories, new sound or wordscapes, is the continuity between all these movements. And I don't see much of it happening at the moment, except in isolated pockets. Tony Trehy's innovative Text Festival, groupings such as Oppened and The Other Room, aside, there's the constant need to try and sell books. And people do like to be able to hum the tune...

But there's always a tension between writer & audience. The writer wants to reach for some kind of (even if only temporary, provisional and fractured) vision of the world, the reader wants something to read. That challenges - if they're in the mood for it - but is approachable. But not too approachable - we want to feel that we are special for being able to understand this. Prog fans saw themselves as a breed apart - largely male, geeky and grammar school. Do readers of innovative writing feel the same way?

How much do writers consider their audience?

I've just read a poem that is very approachable - an elegy for Brian Glancy. A very traditional elegy in many ways. Not at all experimental. Bit like Pete Sinfield writing for Bucks Fizz?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Prog & Poetry

I watched the programme, Prog Britannia, on BBC 4 yesterday, and it was interesting that there were some of the same problems you get with people who are "non-mainstream" in poetry. In some ways, it confirmed my prejudices: a lot of them were public school boys or music school graduates who were often very good musicians, playing as many notes as possible and coming up with "concepts" to do with Tolkein and fantasy rather than real life. And its demise was as much to do with the bombast of its attempt at a Gessamptwerke (total work) involving overblown theatrics and lots of dry ice. But then one remembers U2's Achtung Baby tour...

But what struck me was that here again were a bunch of highly intelligent people being - well - highly intelligent. That old bugbear of English anti-intellectualism began to rear its ugly head. Though shalt not have any big ideas... And the other bug bear of not wanting to be bored. If you're capable of writing a work that lasts 20 minutes, involves several key changes and references everything from TV theme tunes to Schoenburg, why limit yourself to the 3 minutes blues/rock riffathon? Some of the people involved were not only considerably good musicians, but actually wrote challenging music that actually utilised new ways of working: Robert Fripp, in particular.

Others, of course, such as Caravan and the Canterbury bands, were plugging into a vein of English romanticism that includes Vaughn Williams and Britten, as well as utilising that peculiar ly whimisical strain of British surrealism that includes Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. And they were bringing this into rock music. Bands like that were, in many ways, the very opposite of the bombastic strain of Emerson, Lake & Palmer; which, frankly, even now just looks like a low-rent Wagner.

There were many things wrong with it, of course. Often, the ideas were not all that original: concept albums around the theme of Tolkein are a bit, well, jejune. Sometimes all the twiddly guitar and keyboard solos were less virtuoso and more self-indulgent posing. A little restraint would have avoided some of the pitfalls. But then, they were young, smoking a lot of wacky backy and no-one was actually stopping them.

It all reminds me a bit about the avant garde poets of England in the '70's: no-one was really stopping them do what they liked, because not many were actually listening. No doubt, if a non-biased way of reading such poetry ever happens, we would sort out the really good stuff from the not-quite-acheived and the overblown. But the fact that lots of people were trying things out, experimenting, making odd noises, going in wrong directions to see where they led, that wasn't a bad thing, was it?