Monday, 5 January 2015

KINKY: CHRISTINA ROSSETTI, OSCAR WILDE, MR TURNER & RAY DAVIES ARE ON THE SAME PAGE

Fleet Street's first lady Rector, the Revd. Canon Dr Alison Joyce, fed provocative thought in a New Year sermon hinged to the carol 'In the Bleak Midwinter'. Swirled out of Christina Rossetti's starkly moving poem, it turns on the giving of hearts. 'Yet what I can I give him/Give my heart', Rossetti wrote. Yet a couple of hundred years earlier, 17th Century clergyman and writer Nathaniel Wanley got there before her, in his poem 'Royal Presents': 'And though we have no gold, if for our part/We can present thee with a broken heart ...' Broken being the operative. In 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', penned in 1897 after his incarceration for homosexual offences, Oscar Wilde confronted the specifics more specifically: 'How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?' I was jolted by the memory of the 1986 Carly Simon single, 'Coming Around Again', with the lyric 'So don't mind if I fall apart, there's more room in a broken heart ...' I'm not the only one to agree, from bitter experience, that there is.
I haven't thought much about poetry since I graduated. Having said that, like Steve Harley, I remain partial to T.S. Eliot, and still dip into Charles Bukowski and R.S. Thomas. As an art form, it has always seemed arduous. So much blood and sweat over so few words. A little over a year ago, I realised I was wrong about this, when I attended the funeral of Welsh rugby international turned eminent broadcaster Cliff Morgan, my father's lifelong friend. Max Boyce delivered a eulogy to Cliff so poetic, so passionate, that I knew he must have been planning and polishing its couplets for weeks. Not so, he confessed during the boozed-up wake at an Isle of Wight yacht club afterwards. He had sketched it on the train up from Wales that morning, and had finished it on the penultimate leg of his journey out of Waterloo.
In November 2012 I spoke at a literary festival in Mumbai, and sat in on lectures by poets both domestic and foreign, including Ruth Padell and Glynn Maxwell. It struck me then, in a way that I had never before appreciated, how a poem has the power to ram home a thought or a message in ways that perambulating prose can never do. Though the birth is brief, the labour is often long, despite Max Boyce's claim. Every syllable counts, as does its juxtaposition to and relationship with every word chosen.
The same may be said for songwriting. Last night, on my way back from the peculiar film 'Mr. Turner' (fascinating to me primarily because two of my friends are in it, Marion Bailey and her real-life daughter Alice Bailey Johnson, as well as Margate, where my grandparents lived and where I spent most of my school holidays - I digress), I listened to a Johnnie Walker interview on BBC Radio 2 with Ray Davies. They were discussing the phenomenon of songs such as 'Waterloo Sunset', and how those hits have resonated so deeply for millions of people over fifty-odd years. Ray couldn't explain where they came from. They never can.
He said, provocatively, that songwriting cannot be taught, proceeding to paradox by mentioning that he teaches occasional masterclasses, in which he tries to impart a little of his knowledge and experience. What's interesting, he said, is to put twenty people in a room together and set them all the same songwriting assignment. You will get back twenty different but equally stimulating ideas. This 'proof' of infinite human creativity is 'why he does it.'
Every art form is poetic, in its way. Turner's paintings could be described as visual poems: dreamy pre-Impressionist expressions of landscapes, oceans and weather. Pop songs explore, in contemporary language, the conundrums and complexities of living, primarily through human relationships. The best stories, paintings and songs stick around because they transcend the boundaries of time, reaching a hand through generations and linking us to the past, while reassuring us of a future we may never know. Happy New Year.


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