Tuesday, March 02, 2010

February's ice and sleet...

...aren't in evidence in pleasant, sunny Lower Hutt. Book reviews ahoy.

A Mysterious Affair of Style, Gilbert Adair
And Then There Was No One, Gilbert Adair
Library books. The second and third parts of Adair's trilogy of whodunnits starring Evadne Mount (qv The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, two months ago). Book two is much like the first, a knowing but fairly straight pastiche of the Christie murder mystery style. Slight hint of diminishing returns. Book three, however, is remarkable. This is exactly the murder mystery novel I would have expected from Gilbert Adair. Pleasingly, Adair devises a perfectly good reason for Evadne Mount to appear in “real life” opposite himself as narrator; this means the expected literary hi-jinks aren't sprung on the reader in one almighty jolt, but are allowed to creep in at a more insidious pace. Not that I begrudge having read the first two books in the series, but I did feel the third volume was the “pay-off”.

Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, ed Mark Pirie & Tim Jones
Library book.

I'm not a natural born poetry appreciator.

Well, let me qualify that –
of the little poetry I read,
I tend to prefer the stuff that rhymes and scans,
and the more intricate it is,
the more I tend to like it.

Where I fall down is on the poetry that doesn't
rhyme or scan.

If you do like poetry
look away now:
I'm probably about to piss you off.

Poetry that scans but doesn't rhyme...
well, there's plenty of that in Shakespeare,
but is it exactly poetry, or just
rhythmic speech?
Poetry that rhymes but doesn't scan...
well, that way McGonagall lies
(best left undisturbed).
Poetry that does neither...
see, it's not that I don't like it
(I like a fair bit of TS Eliot, as it happens)
but I have to wonder:
what makes it poetry
and not just prose
that's been

Yes, I know,
I apply inconsistent criteria to different literary media:
I define prose by its content first and foremost,
whereas I define poetry primarily by its form.
Does that make me a bad intellectual?
It's just the way I've been taught to approach the matter.
If it's anyone's fault,
it's the fault of the bastards
who set the curriculum for GCSE English Lit
and everything leading up to it.

But so much of this free-form poetry
just comes across as aphorisms
or witty anecdotes
that have been presented to me
(the reader)
as poems.
What can I get from them –
what, indeed, am I supposed to get from them –
that I can't get by reading a philosophical treatise
or an entertaining autobiography?
And if I want to read
a beautifully turned
(even poetic)
phrase, prose can give me that too –
I need only pick up
a volume of Jeff Noon,
Cordwainer Smith,
or Steve Aylett, if the mood should take me.
And I hate to say it,
most of the non-anecdotal, non-aphoristic free-form poetry
that I assume is meant to illumine some deep-buried facet of the human soul
just leaves me

There, I'm a philistine in reader's clothing.
Happy, English professors in the audience?
For ignorant old me,
“poetry” is clearly nothing more than
an elaborate word game.

I mean,
I could cut this bit of blog up into chunks
and present it as though it were poetry,
if I wanted to.
It might amuse me –
it might even amuse you,
dear reader.
Does that make me a poet?
Do I want it to?
Are my words more meaningful if I arrange them this way?
Does it even matter, in the end?
(Just get off my back, man!)

Sometimes I like to imagine
that there is an as yet undiscovered
in which all of the free-form poetry,
if it were translated into it,
would scan and rhyme.
Or possibly that poets everywhere are privy to this language
and, having composed their works in it,
translate them into English
(or another language of your choice)
without bothering to retain the original form.
Sometimes I imagine
that we can hear
tantalising hints
of this language in recordings of famous poets
reading out their works
in what I like to call “Poetvoice”,
that regular, steadily rising monotone
that so carefully doesn't stress
any one word or phrase,
doesn't give away anything
of the jealously guarded
true meaning
of the poem.
This secret language of poets,
it must be accentless, uninflected,
utterly without emphasis,
so as to allow a maximum of possible interpretation.

So, here I am, reading a book of poetry
which I suppose I ordinarily wouldn't be reading,
had I not been introduced to one of the editors.
(Hello, Tim,
if by some freakish chance you're reading this.
PS – no offence intended.)
A lot of it is passing me by,
it has to be said.
Please see above –
blame me, not the book.

(You know,
it occurs to me,
as a sidenote,
that my approach to free-form poetry
has probably also been
strongly coloured
by Private Eye
and Douglas Adams' Vogons.
They certainly can't have helped.)

“Prose writers have had it their own way for too long,”
it says on the back cover,
which seems almost like a direct rebuke
to poetry-overlooking persons such as myself.
The range of material on offer is pleasingly wide.
“Something for everyone”,
I try to restrain myself from saying.
I can't quite muster enthusiasm for the
ode to a disintegrating clone of a Star Trek: Voyager crewman –
not exactly my thing –
but I did quite like, to name a few,
Meliors Simms' “Two Kinds of Time”
(which I understand is now an award nominee),
Tim Jones' “Good Solid Work”,
Fleur Adcock's “Gas”,
Harvey McQueen's “Return”.

But I'm not a natural born poetry appreciator.

I did try to liven things up
by rewriting a few pieces
using only those lines that were
justified over to the right of the page.
Seemed to work a lot of the time.
I assume that was intentional.
Damned if I know why else they might have done it.

The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin
Library book. This is another one that I got the library to order in, since they had On the Origin of Species and The Expression of the Emotions, but not this rather significant part of Darwin's oeuvre. I had planned to read all three in sequence, but I've been thwarted because Origin seems to be forever out on loan. Oh well. I'm actually glad, because this one volume was a bit of a slog. The first third of the book is the bit I was actually expecting, and it's good, but the dozen chapters of examples of sexual selection in animals (200 pages in the abridged edition!) got pretty tiring pretty quickly. It's put me off the idea of reading the other two – some sort of brief digest/commentary will do very nicely instead.
On the plus side, even when you allow for the age of the book, it's still an intelligent, coherent, very compelling scientific theory. It's surprising how well it stands up today – take out the stuff about offspring being derived from the entire bodies of their parents and replace with a spot of modern genetic science, and you're pretty much there. It's also nice to see how humble Darwin was in laying out his theory, and how he gives credit in advance to those he expected to come after and supersede him.

The Pilo Family Circus, Will Elliott
Library book. A young man is recruited by a troupe of sinister clowns from a subterranean circus apparently pitched directly above hell. The influence of low-rent '80s horror movies is strong in this one. A fair middle-of-the-roader.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith
An interesting one, this. Grahame-Smith hasn't simply bolted on extra scenes of zombie mayhem, but has carefully reworded most of the original text to support the inclusion not only of zombies at large in England but also of the martial arts rivalry between Mr Darcy's Japanese-trained family and the kung fu Bennets. Sadly I think he's reworded a bit too much. Some of the new text works out very nicely – there's an attractive symmetry to this part of the first chapter:
“The business of Mr Bennet's life was to keep his daughters alive. The business of Mrs. Bennet's was to get them married.”
that isn't in the original, and there's a definite appeal to having Elizabeth daydream about beheading Lydia to stop her prattling in a later scene. Lady Catherine now has a private army of ninjas, although fittingly they're nowhere near as good as she thinks they are. On the other hand, adding in a shoot-out between Wickham and his commanding officer in London or suggesting that Darcy broke both Wickham's legs in his youth complicates matters to no obvious benefit. The egg is of a curate-ish persuasion.
Also includes some discussion questions (“7. Does Mrs Bennet have a single redeeming quality?”) that may raise one final chuckle from the reader.

Too Many Notes, Mr Mozart, Bernard Bastable
It's Parallel History Murder Mystery! Writing under a pseudonym, Robert Barnard (whose books have made previous appearances on this blog) presents a world in which Mozart, visiting England while still a child prodigy, never went home again and now, neglected by musical history, makes what living he can in his old age as a piano teacher. He is hired to teach the young Princess Victoria and soon finds himself investigating an attempt on her life. There's no great surprise in the plot's resolution, but there's plenty of fun to be had in this light historical romp.


Tim Jones said...

I enjoyed your review of Voyagers - no offence taken at all! Glad you liked one of my poems from the anthology.

Also, that whole "blog post poetry" thing you have going may have legs. A year or so's blog postings, and you could have a fine blog poetry collection completed. :-)

John Toon said...

I knew it! I knew I'd get comments!

I liked a couple of yours, actually, but thought I'd better pick a representative one. Two might have seemed a bit too trowelled-on, y'know. But I might have mentioned the "Come and look at the stars, Natasha" one, which seemed like the sort of thing I might whimsically imagine happening on the ISS.

As for poem-form blogging, best not. I have as little gift for writing it as I do for reading it (notwithstanding the facetious example already provided). But am I right about Poet-voice, hmm?

Darrel Manuel said...

I don't know. I'm not sure if it's something about the nature of this kind of poetry that makes it easy, or whether you just have an inate knack for it, but I think that poem (or whatever) wasn't half bad.

Particularly the stanza starting "Sometimes I like to imagine" which I think might be able to stand on its own, with little rewriting.

BTW, how come your profile still claims you live in Bristol? I thought you left the country months ago. Or was this whole "moving to the other side of the world" thing just a lie. Just some big ruse to avoid people.

We demand to know. The truth will not be silenced.

It might be bribed though.

Strabec said...

Poetry as a form of prose
can pose a problem I suppose.
So if you care to take a seat,
I say poems must have a beat
or rhythm to each line
which if possible, might just rhyme.

But not just a waste of time
are poems with no rhyme.
They too deserve some space
and have a proper time and place.
For this comment I chose rhyme,
but if I had the time
I wouldn’t re-use rhymes of before
and bring a rhymeless poem to the fore.

Inspiration stikes in the strangest of places don’t you find?

Christopher Pittard said...

English professors in the audience - are you trying to goad me into response, Toon? On the subject of metrical regularity, there's such a thing as too much of it - try reading anything written entirely in iambs or trochees and you'll soon see why (and no, armchair critics, Shakespeare is not written in unvarying iambic pentameter, contrary to whatever the aforementioned GCSE English teachers might have told you). Anyway, if you like the delicious taste of experiment with the fibre of poetic structure, then you'll love Gerard Manley Hopkins (I suppose the fibre in Hopkins is really the catholicism, but anyway...). In the sonnets you've got a guy who isn't just using poetic ambiguity to offer one interpretation or another; he's having both alternatives in existence at the same bleedin' time. Now that sounds like SF to me...

John Toon said...

Darrel: I thought I'd fixed that profile already. Must be a problem with Blogger's elves. I shall beat my elf soundly later.

Strabec: I haven't much zest
To field comments in verse;
I fancy a rest,
And so - the pills, nurse!

CP: Yes. I grant you, line after line of tum-te-tum-te-tum-te-tum, te-tum-te-tum-te-tum doesn't appeal much, but then neither would an entire novel written in monosyllables. Got to have style as well as structure. I may have to hunt GMH down like the dog he is - can't recall ever reading any of his stuff.

Darrel Manuel said...

Beat your elf?

Is that a euphamism?

Darrel Manuel said...

"Euphemism", even.

And I see you have now successfully moved to Lower Hutt. Congratulations.


Are you coming to Microcon this weekend?

John Toon said...

A little unlikely, unless the Microcon programme includes a satellite link-up to NZ on Saturday morning (or, from where I'm sitting - tomorrow evening). Are you on Skype?

Re "beat my elf", the "s" is voiced but not written.