Tuesday, 23 October 2012

An Ear for Poetry

Has the noisy modern world drowned out our ear for poetry? I suspect not. While it may be true that contemporary society both fears and yearns for silence, it is also clear to me that performance poetry, poetry slams, and many other street manifestations such as that of griots and rapping, are alive and well. 

While traditional poetry presents a variety of obstacles to the modern reader, we should not forget the appeal of the ear that chimes so well with popular contemporary consciousness, and indeed constitutes a significant public domain for the exchange of ideas, thoughts, and feelings. These sentiments are leading me to reconsider one of our greatest but most neglected poets: Dryden.

In the Preface to the 1945 edition of his book John Dryden: A Study of his Poetry, Mark van Doren wrote 

"We have cults of sensibility and sincerity; we are marvellously responsive to ambiguities; we know how to plot the oblique course, to surprise words into revealing three senses when there was none before; we can find politics in metaphor, morality in syntax, and myth in minor parts of speech. But we do not act as if we had ears. Ears are not everything, but the absence of them leaves poetry dangerously dead. 

Dryden had a great ear. He attended to the craft of sound, and not vulgarly as Poe and Swinburne did, but with a man's interest in the muscle, the sinew, and the nerve of a poem that must be both heard and understood as saying something. He liked to say things, and in time perfected a verse instrument that could say for him anything he was capable of thinking or feeling. Poetry itself was an instrument upon which he spoke and played. The rhythmical organization of a poem got as much of his attention as the plausibility of its statement."

[T. S. Eliot's Selected Essays (p. 306) referred to Mark van Doren's The Poetry of Dryden, 1920, which was based on his Columbia Uni PhD]

I'm assuming that the 'masculinity' that Pope and many others associated with Dryden was associated with the public role of the satirist and dramatist? How would you reconsider that category from a 21st century perspective? 

If you are an English poetry scholar, let me say that I'm looking for any recommended polemical works published since the 1970s that provide idiosyncratic discussions of the critical relationship between John Dryden and T.S. Eliot.Ideally, I'm also seeking out any writings that are able to move from notions of 'difficulty' to 'accessibility' and perhaps open up these poets, and the enduring relevance or value of their prose works, to new readers.

Beyond the familiar - and much derided - emphasis on the 'exploded' notion of 'dissociation of sensibility' and 'reputation and traditions' school, I'm also interested in coming across studies by poets (perhaps working outside academia?), who have responded to the idea of finding a public voice, and to 'finding an ear' for poetry.

Can anyone help?

I think that this is quite a promising topic in terms of inclusivity, and hope to publish some more blogs on poetry as sound, and orality, in the near future.

Further Reading 

Edwards, Paul; Kool G Rap. How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC. Chicago Review Press. 

Kool Moe Dee; et al. There's A God On The Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs. Thunder's Mouth Press. 

stic.man (2005). The Art Of Emceeing. Boss Up Inc.. 

Krims, Adam (2001). Rap Music And The Poetics Of Identity. Cambridge University Press.

Alan Light; et al. (1999). The Vibe History of Hip Hop. Three Rivers Press. 

Jeff Chang; D.J. Kool Herc (2005). Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Picador. 

Sacha Jenkins; et al. (1999). Ego Trip's Book of Rap Lists. St. Martin's Griffin.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Your Practical Revision Timetable


Sample Revision Plan Template for students taking exams

Days to

Rewire your confidence – you are destined for exam genius by using skills

Write down your motivational factors and your reward-for-work system

Acquire copies of past exam papers and grade criteria

Decide how you will avoid distractions and gain by working in short bursts

Custom design a practical and realistic revision timetable

Ensure you have knowledge & understanding of the exam board's success criteria

Make a list of all key topics and themes

Make lists of key words for arguments, concepts & connectives

Finish re-reading key texts; finish any secondary/background  reading

Copy notes & any highlights from books to one source

Re-arrange notes to fit the key topics and themes that you will be tested on

Copy and paste essential quotes, facts, ideas; reduce notes by 60%

Re-read key sections of books & check anything you’re still unclear about

Using exam papers, start planning essays using mindmaps/spider diagrams

Cut notes further but also make more use of visualisation to aid memory

Practise writing brilliant opening and closing paragraphs

Practise writing exam answers under timed conditions; show these to teachers;
ensure that your timing is accurate minute-by-minute

Revise essays and reflect critically on relevant content, style and structure
Remember that you need to give yourself some leisure time

Share work with 'study buddies' and check best practice with teachers

Cut notes down by half to ensure you have essential information

Learn your cut down notes thoroughly and test yourself – employ key cards;
Remember that you need to give yourself some leisure time

Revise your practise essays and memorise key phrases; trial run timed essays again

Check your key words for essay writing and revise from memory cards daily

Check essay plans and cards – avoid stress and exhaustion


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The gentle art of reading and writing blogs

Because there are now millions of free blogs we have the opportunity to dip into lots of different kinds of writing and to sample quite different approaches to recurring topics or themes. Doing this kind of reading randomly can have wonderful results. It's called serendipity which involves surprise discoveries and unexpected connections.

Serendipity is, of course, an eighteenth century word (1754). While we may consider that the period of the Enlightenment was obsessed with reason, system, order and process, the variety of different kinds of topical, fictional and journalistic writing offered many opportunities for fluid expression by creative people and mercurial personalities.

Serendipity is also a useful strategy for broadening your interests and for avoiding the so-called writer's block.

I believe that all great writers are also intelligent critical readers. I despair when I hear people saying that they want to write, but then proceed to say that they are not interested in other people's work. Sometimes it's a good idea to imitate or parody writers that you like or dislike. (Imitation is not the same as copying.)

Part of writing is a craft, and it's good to learn the rules before you start to break them creatively. There are plenty of style and grammar manuals on the market.

In order to establish your own voice and style it’s essential to compose regularly. It is also correct to say, in my view, that improvements come slowly over a period of time. In the art of writing there are few miracles that manifest themselves overnight. And genius is 90% effort and training. Learning to write fluently and effectively can be as difficult as learning to play an instrument such as the piano, violin, or guitar,

It is crucial to be self-critical, but you should avoid becoming self-destructive. Think about how you would the improve blogs that you wrote 6 months ago. Reviewing past material should also build your confidence by giving you a sense of progression.

Also, ask yourself how you are responding to an issue, and think about the kind of reader that you have in mind - this is also something that you can research. These days, writers tend to know who they are writing for.

I would also say that blogging is a genre in itself. This means that you will need to write differently when you turn your blogs into a larger article, essay, or book. Typically, the most popular blogs are very personal, or they offer lots of tips in bullet points. That said, there are REALLY no fixed rules or expectations for this genre. My own blogs have a variety of styles, and I see them sometimes as experiments, and as work-in-progress.

Another positive aspect of blogging is that you can break a larger project down into smaller components, or event fragments that do not fit together as you compose them. After a period of time you start to see links between the pieces, and new patterns of significance are established.

Finally, one of the most valued aspects of blogging is the opportunity for dialogue and what we have come to term interactivity.

In our time, writing is a bit more collaborative and a little less solitary.

Quote from Wiki:

"Although not a must, most good quality blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and even message each other via GUI widgets on the blogs, and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites. In that sense, blogging can be seen as a form of social networking. Indeed, bloggers do not only produce content to post on their blogs but also build social relations with their readers and other bloggers."

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (2013) ... 
also available on Kindle, or to download

Monday, 8 October 2012

Witty Will-power and Bardic Gender Politics

Shakespeare in Love with Puns

The second part of my exploration of rudeness in Shakespeare couples Sonnet 135 with a discussion of his work written by Dr Samuel Johnson in 1765

In this poem 'Will' is punned in a variety of senses: (1) willpower; (2) Will Shakespeare; (3) a bequest; (4) the penis; (5) future/s. Sense (4) is the one that you are least likely to encounter in discussions that want to shield readers from the reality of the eroticised encounter with the male genitalia. 

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
More than enough am I, that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.

(As Michel Foucault pointed out, the erotic "gaze" resulted in "perpetual spirals of power and pleasure"...)

In Johnson's discussion below,  Shapespeare's tendency to pun (or quibble) is presented in sexualised terms as a undesirable temptation and procreation of meaning. Johnson then proceeds to deconstruct further the risk of vulgarity and triviality. There is the sense of a downward motion (stooping/falling) beneath bardic dignity. But Johnson's preface also plays on the idea of bulky and swelling wit/will and seems to me to provide a scandalous  reconstruction of the mine/treasure of erotic discovery and exploration. And so at every turn the witty willpower hints at a risky grotesque quality that offends decency.

Preface to Shakespeare

Samuel Johnson (1765)

  It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.        

  Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.          

  But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetick without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terrour and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.
  A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

   The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with shades, and scented with flowers; the composition of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity. Other poets display cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished into brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mass of meaner minerals.
  It has been much disputed, whether Shakespeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of scholastick education, the precepts of critical science, and the examples of ancient authours.     

  There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakespeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead languages. Jonson, his friend, affirms, that he had small Latin, and no Greek; who, besides that he had no imaginable temptation to falsehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquisitions of Shakespeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought therefore to decide the controversy, unless some testimony of equal force could be opposed.   

  Some have imagined, that they have discovered deep learning in many imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged, were drawn from books translated in his time; or were such easy coincidences of thought, as will happen to all who consider the same subjects; or such remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in conversation, and are transmitted through the world in proverbial sentences.

© Samuel Johnson,

© Dr Ian McCormick

Rude Shakespeare

For the British establishment Shakespeare occupies a central place in 'our' culture and heritage. He is our national bard, and he is a genius of global significance. His image is international; it is a global brand. His plays are perfomed everywhere, and as the recent international season at the London Globe demonstrated, the plays are constantly open to creative interpretations that resonate with multiple meanings for a diversity of contemporary cultural, geographical, social, and ethnic groups.

It's not surprising that his plays are complusory across most of English literary education in schools and in Universities. It is also why he was crucial to the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Olympics. It is also why we need to constantly remind ourselves that Shakespeare rightly belongs to the people - to a global community of ordinary folk - and not just to the British elite, to the middle classes, and to the commercialised heritage industry.

Working recently with a group of Birmingham homeless people I was delighted to hear from them in their own words how much they had enjoyed a recent performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of The Tempest (May 2012). In particular, they enjoyed the spectacle and the drama of it. Like me, they were enchanted by Caliban's poetic appreciation of his island, and even more by his laying claim to it.

Hearing the homeless people speak, I recalled my experience at The Globe several years ago. As a £5 'groundling' I was standing at the front of the pit, by the stage, as Caliban bent down and delivered his speech right into my face. The magical transformation of poetry, property and theft!

This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in 't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee
And showed thee all the qualities o' th' isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' the' island.

It was a wonderful moment, and a weird sensation, of being singled out. It also reminds me to say that the unique and individual perception of the plays is as significant as the discourses of shared values and imposed universality that we often used to encounter in Shakespeare studies.

This reminds us too that Caliban is also, in his own way, singled out, and the monstrous centre of the drama, and perhaps of the primal violence of the colonial project. He is one thing, but he is also all colonised peoples. As Shakespeare's playful rhetoric also undercuts its own creations, and cross-stitches them with multiple discourses, Caliban is also the No-thing, the castrated object of Prospero's triumphant Will (author-ity-stage-manager).

But as an oppressed subject it is also significant that Shakespeare/Caliban manipulate the oppressor's language, and throw it back in our faces. Shakespeare gave eloquence to the creature; he grave him the poetry of nature, but he also gave him rudeness and aggression.

It was specifically this mode of prickly rudeness (see below, in italics) that my school edition of Shakespeare would not allow (and expurgated/ cut-out); censorship is another mode of textual castration...

All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him
By inch-meal a disease! His spirits hear me
And yet I needs must curse. But they'll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin--shows, pitch me i' the mire,
Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid 'em; but
For every trifle are they set upon me;
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount 
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.

My choice of 'rude' as the antidote to establishment respectability and censorship also picks up on Othello's self-indictment expressed thus

Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace (I.iii.81–82).

A variety of racial epithets also underline and expose the victimisation of Shakespeare's violently jealous and tragic black character. He is known variously as  “the Moor” (I.i.57), with “the thick-lips” (I.i.66); he is “an old black ram” (I.i.88) and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113).  As with Caliban, there is a monstrous, sexualised and earthy quality about this presentation. But Othello, like Caliban, does not lack skilful eloquence; his mastery of rhetoric and sincere emotional expression is what makes him a noble and a tragic being.

So, I'm less inclined than ever to repudiate the bard's monstrous rudeness and I am more inclined to redeem its inclusiveness. In my view Shakespeare's downtrodden creatures are triumpant in their rude facility: they are far more than the stereotypical 'comic relief' suggested by the sub-plotting rude mechanicals. Our TV drama may hinge on a crude Upstairs/Downstairs world, but Shakespeare aesthetic and class interactivity is far more diffuse and complex to be reduced to an absurd high/low formula.

Instead, the varietry of rudeness outlined in this essay marks an ironic and upstart challenge to the official cultures that Shakespeare also displayed, and which the high cultural establishment still wants us to absorb as the civilizing truth of a Shakespearean world view that is ordered, harmonious, and happy but unequal.