Poetry Archive Scottish Launch : Parliament Hall: St Andrews
20th March 2006
I hope the old hall is quite comfortable with her temporary metamorphosis to a launch pad. I wouldn't want the old lady to worry over stones being launched from a medieval mangonel. Windows could be broken and old halls worry over such things ! Nor would I have her think of another submarine on the Clyde or an ICBM .. also known to break the occasional window .. no ! I’d have Parliament Hall think only of Pallas out of the Thunderer's head. For a flavour of the thing.
A flavour only. Please don’t misunderstand me. I can see by your glazed expressions an explanation is called for! STANZA has not developed a Jovian complex on the coat tails of the Poetry Archive. And not even on the back of the honour paid to STANZA .. a great honour it is too .. that the Poetry Archive should have chosen the occasion of the Festival to launch itself into Scotland and beyond .. not even on the back of such an honour is STANZA likely to thunder from a mountain top "now hear this all ye gods and lady gods"
Like a youthful Zeus on Ida !
KUKULIKE MAY ! PANES THEOI ! PANTES THEANAI !
But what a thing it would’ve been had the technology been available to the Bronze Age (the later stage thereof) that a poetry archive had been created by means of which today we could listen to the original singers of the Odyssey. And get to hear for ourselves great He - She - Homer's rich and multi faceted voice in the beginning of western literature in the Levant .. if only!
But this is I feel a felicitous contingency. This coming together of two organisations dedicated in different and complimentary ways to poetry. The one by way of festival. Poetry in performance. Viva voce readings. Conversations discussions exhibitions. All the many voices of STANZA, The other by way of the record. Poetry in text and context. Background stuff as an aid to appreciation. Film clips of poets. Interviews with poets. Readings by poets. Recordings. All the many voices of the Archive. I am delighted to be numbered among the confetti throwers at this coming together. An arrangement I am sure that has been fixed in a smoke free environment (as all environments now must be) on top of Ben Parnassus!
An archive is a precious thing to me. Precious as in buriedtreasure. When I was a small boy one of my tasks at school between getting washed in icy water and reporting for morning gruel .. the school was aka Dotheboys Hall but with a good library .. one of my tasks was to go down into the library into the college stacks (what the Masters called “The Archive ”) armed with a feather duster and a pan. And though my task was daily not a single spider perished. But over the period cobwebs were blown away from the mind of a small boy by way of the books in those stacks in that archive. It was like the coda to the Dunciad. But in reverse. For in my case all the stars one by one came out. Yes a most precious thing.
There will be many in the hall this evening familiar with the close of the Great Dunciad. When Alexander Pope towards the end of his days looked at the world about him. At the Arts. At the Universities. At the Law. At the Church. At the Court. At Politics. At public life and private. And envisaged all the stars one by one going out.
Thy hand dread Anarch lets the curtain fall And universal darkness buries all
A timely reminder to us all I feel no matter into which epoch we are born. Unless of course we'd been fortunate enough to breathe the air in Pericles’ Athens or drink in the backstreets of Verona when Catullus was a boy. But what a thing it would’ve been had the technology been available to the 18th century (the first half thereof) that a poetry archive had been created by means of which today we could hear for ourselves Pope's Twick'nam bitch and sparkle ! If a poetry archive had been put together in Catullus's day I rather think it would be censored in this hyper sensitive age. Lest the boy poet corrupt the lieges. Though I for one would’ve run the risk if only to know what he sounded like.
But by way of the present archive some three hundred years up the line those hungry generations forever tramping on will be able to listen to recordings of poets who will be as distant from them in time as Alexander Pope is from us. And by the same token all other things being equal .. some eighty hungry generations tramping on and presumably still tramping .. poetry enthusiasts will be able to hear the voices of poets who will appear to them to be as ancient as Homer is to us. And am I jealous ? You can bet your jingling boots I am ! For I can picture the scene in my mind's eye. A circle of close friends in a glass igloo. Winning heat and light from a teardrop in the comer or perhaps a crush of melted snow. Listening to recordings of poets from the Ancient World .. Andrew Motion as may be .. or as may be Valerie Gillies .. and with apologies to the thousands upon whom I have not conferred antiquity this evening .. I can think of no better way of getting through the Ice Age to come !
If I dwell upon one aspect only of the Poetry Archive .. the recordings .. I hope you' II bear with me. You see I have a fancy. Being based on the twin pillars of pure guesswork and speculation it is .. I grant you .. an airy fancy. To the effect that a poem any poem is to some degree and possibly as a matter of actualite shaped by the sound of the poet. By the poet's voice.
There are naturally exceptions to this fancy as there are exceptions to the rules. To any rules. Dante springs immediately to mind. His work for example (before the coming of the printing press) was embodied more by his skills as a calligraphist than by his voice. It is not to forget the “visionary thing" of course but those lovely round vowels and consonants with their rounded appendages and twirley bits would have been imbued with their own aesthetic as they flowed from his quill and on to the page ... nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita ..., which reminds me .. speaking of vowels. Whether John Keats had the flat vowels of Enfield or had picked up something of his father's west of England mode of speech we don’t know. But I think we can be pretty sure from the evidence of the poetry .. from the great Odes in particular .. that he wasn’t literally a cockney poet as he was described by milor Biron among others. To my ear the long vowels and rosy diphthongs of the odes do not fit well with the short sharp snatched syllables of the voices that chime with the Bells of Bow. Suck it and see. Read the Ode to Autumn aloud in a cockney voice and judge for yourselves. Laughter can be a very good critic. Of course by the same token Sam Weller in Pickwick (a huge poetic creation) would've been a nonsense had he been obliged to speak in the language of the Shires.
If only the technology had been available to the 19th century (first quarter thereof) .. we'd not only have Keats but Shelley's clear falsetto and Lord Byron's banter profundo .. Sam Coleridge (twittering perhaps like a miner's canary) .. blunt northern Wordsworth and Southey pompous to a syllable. If only the technology had been available ..
„ or to the Elizabethan period. Did the Shakespear of the Sonnets have a Brummie accent ? Or did Burns in lining up his satirical butts in the Holy Fair .. bringing them one by one to the rostrum that they appear ridiculous ipsa voce .. did he drop out of his own voice to mimic theirs ? Oh if only the technology had been available in 1784!
An airy fancy wants no proof. It has us at a disadvantage there. But I think I can bring a degree of support to my fancy even if only by way of reverse argument. Courtesy of what will be in the Archive one of these days. Which is to say readings of the Cantos by Ezra Pound.
Never one to go forward in a straight line Pound seems to me to be the perfect candidate for a reverse argument. For I have listened to such readings over the years and have arrived at the conclusion that so far from the Cantos being shaped by the sound of Pound it is they who have shaped him ! The poetry has given the poet his voice. And it is a bardic voice.
I have heard but one other bardic voice in my time and that belonged to Sorley, Sorley Maclean .. tha tim am fiadh an Coille Hallaig .. and I sometimes wonder if I am alone in detecting the extraaa-aw- rrr- drinary similaaa- rr- ty between Sam's voice (the voice of Maclean) and the sound of ooowld Ezzz !
Is there only one bardic voice rolls out of the clouds of Time ?
Someone was once asked whatdye think the bards in the Stone Age sounded like ? A speculative question if ever there was one. And the reply came back with a shrug of the shoulders I don t know! But I hope their words became them!
Their words became them. Ladies and gentlemen I can think of no more profound way of looking at poetry for I have found none more deep. On behalf of STANZA I wholeheartedly recommend to you the Poetry Archive.
Drew Clegg (chair)