Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A bit of night-poetry

Maybe it’s the coffee, but there’s something owl-like and night-birdish about tonight. A night for contemplating one’s mortality; your ghostly reflection in a window. When the summer began, it seemed to stretch forward limitlessly. Now there’s just a month to go and half of that will be spent abroad or with family.

In preparation for Michaelmas we’ve been attacking (or rather slogging through) our lists of Middle English romance & the Renaissance. My vote is all for the latter: I may have started off wrongly by reading the most exciting: the plays of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Kyd, and John Marston. That leather-and-sweat world of the playhouses and the pox, Walsingham’s spies, the censors and the uneasy hand of royal favour. Elizabeth & Mary, James and Charles. The age of cross and conquest, the stake and ship. (The best line so far goes to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: ‘I will confuse those blind geographers/ That make a triple region in the world…’) And now it’s on to Sir Philip Sidney. I’m afraid to say, Sir Sidney, that though your Defence of Poesy was spirited and colourful, Astrophil & Stella’s 108 consecutive sonnets seem a bit of a snooze.

The problem is that you can’t fly through poetry. And poets would be horrified, I think, by the suggestion you should. But perhaps one reads the Metaphysical poets at night. Love is present, yes, but it is always Death which pervades, the endless unravelling the alchemy of being.

And that dear pastoral clergyman George Herbert – who should be read in bits and not all at once, because he repeats himself – has near perfect poems:

Jordan (1)

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding star?
May no lines pass, except when the do their duty
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s lines?
Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envy no man’s nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

England in August

Friday was my first English birthday, my golden birthday, and the day was as thoroughly English as I could have hoped. It began in a shower of rain. Disappointment tempered with the promise of Wellies. A and I went up the road, clinging to each other beneath my gaudy umbrella, to the Jericho café for a delicious English breakfast. There is nothing like being indoors and eating beans on toast with hot coffee and seeing all the poor passersby miserable and beans-on-toast-less.

From thence we braved the buckets of rain on a dirge-march to the train station, our launching pad to the morning outing to Gloucestershire. A had been to Stroud for a wedding a month before and her praise of the Cotwolds village’s sweetness and many virtues made for an excellent excuse to get out of Oxford. And who can avoid the pleasures of a train? (So fast, so transportative.) And who can deny themselves the experience of waiting at Didcot Parkway? (Or Didders, as insiders assure.)

We arrived in Stroud at mid-morning to a brief cessation of rain, and were greeted by a market with odd teacups and saucers for which we’d been hungering. Inside the Shambles, the indoor market, I found two of Vita Sackville-West’s gardening books which have recently been expensively printed. The titles, In Your Garden, and In Your Garden Again, drew snickers (especially given the relationship Sackville-West had with Virginia Woolf). I’m not a gardener myself – in fact I’ve just killed the basil plant I had high hopes for – but gardening literature, like culinary literature, is addictive. (Perhaps because of the gnostic knowledge within?)

Stroud is a treasure trove of china, books, prints, and fresh produce. The streets are narrow and steep. Though we never reached a lookout, its position within a valley promised sloping views. And sheep are never far behind. Perhaps it is on one of these hills that Gloucestershire natives chase wheels of cheese. We hiked up and down the high street visiting bookshops and antique shops and print shops. Lunch was an investigation in British cuisine with Gloucestershire beef, gravy and bubble and squeak.

We returned to Oxford – A showing me true English culture from the inside by a commentary on Heat and Closer magazines - to find the city still under a deluge. By the time I set off for a walk to Port Meadow with the Other A the rain had stopped and wellies were only barely necessary (but still worn). Along the river we spent far too long trying to photograph the Queen’s favourite bird, and then to the Perch, a pub in the minute three-house village of Binsey, for coffee & Guinness & apple-thievery.

But the slow and steady late afternoon pace was all a ruse. We reached the house near seven and I opened the door to the lounge to an eruption of friends from behind sofas and out of crevices and under blankets and the surprise Birthday Barbecue (jointly arranged by the two A’s) commenced! We had no idea our Cranham terrace house could hold up to eight in the lounge, but we were all more or less coamfortable and spent the evening eating, drinking, and dancing. If you'll excuse my sentimentality: It's hard to believe you can move to a new country and within a year have such a group of people around you, on a night like this, that you can't remember arriving, and you can't imagine leaving. Went to bed, delighted and thankful.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


An apt diptych from last week: the mornings were spent teaching the elements of plot to German high school students; the evening spent indulging in HBO's new fantasy series, Game of Thrones (indulging my respect for stoic Sean Bean with a ponytail, and and my perving over the Northern English accent).

In brief, Game of Thrones is about a kingdom on the brink of internal war. Destined for conflict are those loyal to the King and his family, and those loyal to his right-hand man, Lord Stark, Lord of the North, and his clan. The King's wife's family, the Lanisters, are gold-laden schemers, and the King, considered a usurper by some, faces another family contesting his right to hold the throne.

Game of Thrones offers nothing to the viewer tiring of convention. There is little evidence of originality in the plot (aside from the interesting concept of a winter which comes not yearly but without much warning, and after years of summer, to devastating effect), and no 'realistic' character development. We are re-engaging a medieval approach to character where all is visible and emblematic. In medieval literature the reader knows the character of a knight, for example, because of the symbol on his shield or because of his actions. In Game of Thrones we know the character because of a knowing smirk, a toss of the hair, a killing blow, or the consumption of a bloody horse heart. Game of Thrones produces a cast which is a variation on a theme of archetypes: Lancelot and Guineverish illicit lovers (the Queen and her brother), the King's loyal retainer (Sean Bean's Becket-like Lord Stark to Mark Addy's Henry II-like King Robert), and the girl who wants to be a boy (Stark's daughter Arly).
The most obviously ambivalent character is Tyrian Lanister (played by Peter Dinklage). The dwarf, brother to the queen, is sassy and likes whores, and operates strictly in his own interests (reminding us perhaps of 'The dwarves are for the dwarves' in Lewis' Last Battle).

There are savage horse-lord people, beautiful albino-blondes with Elvish hairdos, and jousting tournaments, all accompanied by a combative martial opening theme with a celtic fiddle and hooflike counterpoint. (This musical theme has been stuck in my head all weekend and makes doing the dishes epic.)

So, despite all these obviously generic conventions, dressed up in armour and dirty leather tunics and sweeping hems and peaked cloaks, the question is why we - viewers not much hoodwinked by its familiar fare - become so involved in a well-worn plot which derives its energy, like a Victorian three volume novel, from its multiple plotting?

To be continued...