Sunday, 20 March 2011

Radio | Poetry | Open Cast Surgery

“Radio is cleaning up the nation.”
-Elvis Costello

My teaching timetable this year has taken me out of the comfortable fireside of literature into the cold operating theatre of linguistics. I was initially troubled by this shift away from the subjective sensitivity that I spent three undergraduate years honing as I recently began to acquire the clinical skills of language-studies.

My fears were soon put aside for the re-ignition of my childhood fascination with the idea of a ‘fair test’. You spend years in secondary school playing with this idea. ‘Why wasn’t this a fair test? What could you have done to lessen the variables? Why are your results fundamentally moot?’

The linguist’s lab is rife with unclampable variables. The sands of semantics are constantly shifting, with many dictionary definitions reaching obsolescence before even going to print. The English language’s internationally plunderous nature makes it idiomatic and, with the internet’s erosion of the barriers between modal conventions, measuring its dimensions is like trying to use a 30cm ruler to scale a melting ice cap.

Then there’s ethics – how far can we go to determine the science behind these chunks of breath we use to share our brains’ contrivances? I’m thinking here of what linguists refer to as The Forbidden Experiment. The only way to prove Chomsky’s idea that language is innate would be to shove a baby in a silent, unlit chamber and see if it started talking. It could theoretically bury the tabula rasa for good, but it would mean that you, the license payer, allowed scientists to abuse an innocent child. How could you?

And so these endless thoughts of fair tests have followed me back to the bookshop. It is impossible to give a fair reading of a poem, in the scientific sense. The actual words used are just one layer to the poem’s reception; there are just too many variables in place. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the key distractions/detractors that come between you and the words of a poem:

On the page…

  1. What publishing house is this collection released from?
  2. What font are the poems written in?
  3. How has the blurb/bio been written?
  4. What poets have donated quotations of recommendation for the cover?
  5. What illustrations have been used on the cover?
  6. Where did you find this book and did you have to pay for it?
  7. Is there much background noise in the place where you are trying to read this poem?
  8. Seriously, how loud does that kid on the bus need to have his headphones? The whole top deck can hear Kings of Leon emanating from his dirty white ear plugs.
  9. What sort of press-shot has the poet gone for? Are you kidding me? A glass of wine? And a raised eyebrow? Christ.
  10. How thick is the collection?
  11. Nice paper?
  12. How old is the poem? Is the poet alive?
  13. Any ye olde language to be dealing with?
  14. What was your English teacher in High School like?

On the stage…

  1. What sort of event are you seeing this poet at? Open mic? Guest spot? Book launch?
  2. Are they doing the poetry voice? Oh god, they aren’t doing the poetry slam voice are they? With the hand gestures too?
  3. Do you find this person physically attractive?
  4. How confident are they?
  5. How much time does the poet spend introducing each poem? Have they just spent 20 minutes telling you about an obscure tribal tradition they found out about on their gap year?
  6. What sort of company are you with?
  7. Is the rest of the room enjoying the poet? Have they earned that rare thing of applause for an actual poem rather than a polite clap at the end of a set?
  8. Is there free wine at this thing?
  9. Are you distracted by the sound of bar staff muttering to each other?
  10. Is the poet younger than you?

The lists of distractions could go on for hundreds of nuanced pages, perhaps separated into ‘social’, ‘linguistic’, ‘ambient’ and ‘subliminal’ factors to name a few. But we aren’t ever going to get rid of the countless barriers between you and an enjoyable poem, so why think about them?

Well, the radio (and its descendents) represents the closest thing to a fair test we are likely to get in poetry. When poetry is allowed to vibrate the air around a wireless we have a far more democratic process that that of a crowded reading, or a poorly produced book, or a badly lit YouTube video.

Granted, poets on the radio are still only as palatable as their voices allow, and the quality of microphone and the reputation of the station is a factor - but so fewer variables exist when considering the medium of radio broadcast; a medium which allowed Dylan Thomas to reach a far greater audience than he might have by virtue of his written words alone. But then he had the sort of voice needed to sell such aurally complex pieces, so perhaps my argument does not stand.

What the radio has done however, is lay the ground for my generation’s most underappreciated, free-at-point-of-service commodity; the Podcast. And if poetry does not embrace and thrive as part of ‘podmanity’ then it is a shameful missed opportunity.

The precedent is set with one of the finest regular podcasts available – Classic Poetry Aloud.  Those who are unaware of the existence of this vast and beautiful resource need to spend the next three hours getting lost in its archives. The reader, who chooses to remain anonymous, reads a different poem every week with his impeccably clear and tentative delivery.

For me, this is poetry at its most democratic – read by a consistent, nameless voice, with the sole motive of delivering beautiful words to anyone willing to listen. Many of my undergraduate nights were spent wandering the streets of Leamington or the endless footpaths of Warwick campus, listening to the impassioned delivery of poems from Blake to Verlaine.

Chomsky loves it

But for financial reasons, this podcast is only able to supply work that is now out of copyright. This is helpful in so much as you are guaranteed works which have stood the test of time, but the modern mainstream needs to awaken to the power of the podcast and its untapped potential for making people truly love poems rather than buying poets.

Reading this, who would not make a point of downloading a weekly CarcanetCast, or FaberCast where a member of the editorial team picks a poem from their stable to share with the world? I know that I would subscribe to hearing Roddy Lumsden record a rendition of his favourites from the Salt line-up once a week. Or to hear Neil Astley work his way through Bloodaxe’s back catalogue.

Not only would this help spread awareness of some of the sparkling talents that flit from renown due to poor marketing budgets or lack of bookshop stocking, but it would help kindle that most precious thing in poetry-world; an audience. And let us not forget here – for producer and consumer alike – podcasts are free.

Now perhaps I only argue this case in the hope of sparking off a product that I want to exist, but I know that what I’m suggesting makes sense. With the smallest of financial investments, the finest poets and publishers of poetry can easily drip their beautiful words into the ears of commuters, teenagers, teachers and scientists, and anybody else who thinks that they are too busy to sit down and read the stuff.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

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