Thursday, 21 August 2014

Lady Lazarus

One poem leads to another. 

I meander through the volumes of poetry on my bedside table following a path that's sometimes obvious, often less so. From Ted Hughes' Wind I alighted on Dylan Thomas' Fern Hill, another poem that evokes a time long ago "when I sang in my chains like the sea". In my fifty-first year I understand that more than ever before. 

But Thomas was a a detour while I hesitated to take the step I knew I must. From Hughes to Plath.

Every few years I come back to Sylvia Plath. More often would be dangerous. Her poems are sharp as a scalpel, cutting directly to the truth, with the potential to cause deep and permanent damage.

Lady Lazarus is one of her finest, wielded precisely in her own voice in this 1962 recording by the BBC. But be warned:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air. 
 Click on that link and be careful.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

An interview with Ted Hughes

The Paris Review sends occasional tweets with links to old articles in its archive. A recent tweet brought this interview with Ted Hughes from (I'm guessing) the mid-nineties. It's a  fascinating thirty-minute read for anyone interested in poetry. Hughes talks about his life, how and why he writes, his influences, and about Sylvia Plath.

Here are a few of the many insights.

On why he writes with a pen rather than a typewriter or computer:
In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas.
 On the impact of poetry:
[...] the idea occurred to me that art was perhaps this—the psychological component of the autoimmune system. It works on the artist as a healing. But it works on others too, as a medicine. Hence our great, insatiable thirst for it. However it comes out—whether a design in a carpet, a painting on a wall, the shaping of a doorway—we recognize that medicinal element because of the instant healing effect, and we call it art. It consoles and heals something in us. That’s why that aspect of things is so important, and why what we want to preserve in civilizations and societies is their art—because it’s a living medicine that we can still use. It still works. We feel it working. Prose, narratives, etcetera, can carry this healing. Poetry does it more intensely. Music, maybe, most intensely of all. 
On why poetry might be more popular in wartime (he was speaking in the context of the Balkan wars in the 90's)
[...] we all live on two levels—a top level where we scramble to respond moment by moment to the bombardment of impressions, demands, opportunities. And a bottom level where our last-ditch human values live—the long-term feelings like instinct, the bedrock facts of our character. Usually, we can live happily on the top level and forget the bottom level. But, all it takes to dump the population on the top level to the lowest pits of the bottom level, with all their values and all their ideas totally changed, is a war. I would suggest that poetry is one of the voices of the bottom level. 

One of my favourite poems by Hughes is Wind. It evokes our awe and our fears when confronted by nature in the raw, we modern humans huddled around our fireplaces. It brings the shadow of a memory to my mind of a dark night in Inch, Co. Kerry, when a wild Atlantic storm brought down our tent in the early pre-dawn hours and my Dad carried my sister and I, two and four years old, through the driven rain to the shelter of a caravan rocking in the wind. And a sleepless night in another tent in Morriscastle, Co. Wexford when we listened to the wind screaming through the guy ropes and the radio presenter solemnly telling of the unfolding disaster in the Fastnet yacht race.

I'd like to hear Hughes read Wind but I haven't yet found a recording. So here instead is a pretty good reading that I found on YouTube.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

French Musical Impressionism at le Festival de Lanaudière

I hate it when people arrive late at classical music concerts so I was really annoyed at myself when I missed the first piece at the concert by the OSM on Friday. A programme of Ravel and Debussy held great promise but in the event it was a mixed bag for me, saved by my discovery of a wonderful composition by Ravel.

We arrived in time for Debussy's La Mer - a piece I love and the OSM (with Nagano at the helm) didn't disappoint: it was evocative and thrilling in equal measure. It was followed by a piece that was new to me, Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, which I found intriguing. Impressionistic music like this needs to be heard several times to be appreciated and I resolved to seek out this piece again.

Then came Debussy's Clair de Lune, which is wonderful on a piano as he wrote it (and a piece my partner-in-life plays rather well) but in this transcription for orchestra the lyricism suffocated under layers of strings. It sounded alarmingly like a Henry Mancini production. There was a full moon over the amphitheatre and it might have blushed.

The evening's final piece divided the audience. Well it divided my partner-in-life and me anyway. She loved Ravel's La Valse, his impressions of a Viennese waltz. To me it started off whimsically, then became a smug little joke that went on about ten minutes too long. I won't be seeking out this one.

But I'm listening again now to Gaspard de la nuit on YouTube, in the original arrangement for piano. Yep, second time around it's even better. A discovery that was worth our mad rush through Friday evening's traffic.

Big Bang Masterchef!

Our two older boys have just returned from their annual fortnight in the wilderness of Camp Nominingue. They're more tanned, more self-reliant and more helpful around the house than when they left - though we know from experience that none of this will last! Nominingue is brilliant, a hugely positive experience for them. They love it.

Each year I have a theme for my emails to them at camp, to add variety to the updates on how their soccer teams are doing without them and the latest Arsenal transfer news. Last year there was my infamous series of lame Knock Knock jokes. This year I combined their favourite TV programmes into a script for a new show: Big Bang Masterchef on beIN Sports!

(None of the following will make sense, even if you're familiar with The Big Bang Theory, Master Chef, and the football talk shows on beIN sports. My goal making a connection with the boys, not making sense!)

Episode 1

In the first episode, Penny is trying to heat milk for hot chocolate but she burns it. Gordon says not to worry, because she’s cute, and anyway he really wanted crème brulée so "well done Penny!".

Sheldon comes up with new tactics for the team, based on a dodecahedron formation in midfield instead of a diamond, with the number 10 role filled by a physicist playing in the black hole behind the striker. The shouty guy from Newcastle says that’s ABSOLUTELY MAGNIFICENT.

Howard says no no that’s just RIDICULOUS, you have to apply quantum theory not relativistic mechanics because the potatoes aren’t perfect spheres like a brazuca. He gets so annoyed he throws a big mucky spud at this week’s special guest, potatoe's Wayne Rooney, who hits it first time on the volley into the top left corner of the oven. GOAL!

Episode 2

Today it’s the dreaded pressure test! What can our chefs make in 20 minutes with some eggs, biscuits and ice-cream?

Well, Penny has made a Baked Alaska! But the ice-cream has melted, the eggs are scrambled, the biscuits have crumbled, and it's all dripping on the floor in a messy puddle. Gordon says not to worry, she’s still cute, and anyway he really wanted a milkshake so "well done Penny!".

Sheldon is going for a real pressure test: he puts the ingredients in a pressure cooker heated in a fusion oven to 2 million degrees so as to simulate the extreme pressure conditions at the beginning of the universe, crushing the organic ingredients to a tiny point. The shouty guy from Newcastle says he’s no idea what the hell Sheldon is doing but it’s ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.

Suddenly, this week’s special guest Arjen Robben slips on Penny’s mess. He does a triple somersault with a twist landing on his backside and screams that Leonard tripped him. PENALTY! says Gordon. He shows Leonard a red card and tells him to take off his apron. Holy Dutch crap on a Bayern cracker says Raj, that's definitely not cricket. But Howard has no problem with the pressure.  He steps confidently up to the penalty spot and blasts his biscuits to the top right corner of the fridge. GOOAALL!!

Episode 3

Today it's the season finale of Big Bang Masterchef on beIN Sports!

We're down to our last 2 chefs, who'll each create a stunning meal that displays all of their talents and everything they've learned this past fortnight. Of course Raj is one of the finalists, but poor Leonard is suspended after his red card in the previous episode. His place is taken by...Penny!

Raj creates a fabulous meal of wonderfully aromatic dishes: onion bhaji with a coriander and lime dip, chicken tikka masala with basmati rice, and sweet mango lassi with almonds. Penny really goes for it too: KD macaroni and cheese followed by a perfectly-unwrapped Snickers bar.

Gordon says Raj's meal is too spicy and complicated while Penny, who's still cute by the way, has cooked the macaroni to al dente perfection so "well done Penny!".

The shouty guy from Newcastle says this is BLOOMING RIDICULOUS and Gordon just doesn't recognise GENIUS when he sees it. Well thank you, says Sheldon. No No No I'm talking about MESSI shouts Shouty.

This week's special guest, Iker Cassillas, stands up to present the trophy to Penny. But he's not sure if he should go over to meet her or wait for her to come over to him. He takes 2 steps forwards, hesitates, takes a step backwards, takes another forwards, trips over his feet and drops the trophy. He watches helplessly as it rolls across the floor and is picked up by Howard. YES! says Howard believing he has won and raising it high above his head in celebration. GOOOAAALLL!!!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Here's something for the weekend

She said, "There's something in the woodshed".
"And I can hear it breathing." 
"It's such an eerie feeling, darling".