Haida oral poetry – talk at RFH

I went today to a talk with Margaret Atwood and Robert Bringhurst about his translations of Haida oral literature.

‘Oral literature’ is technically an oxymoron, I guess.

The Haida, btw, were a Native American people living on islands in the Pacific Northwest – off the coast of what’s now British Columbia. The subject matter itself was interesting – insights into the Haida culture and all that. I think I’ll probably order the man’s book, although annoyingly it looks like I’ll have to order it second hand from the States. But I got thinking about more technical aspects of oral ‘writing’.

First thing: each rendition of these stories would be different, of course. We tend to talk about that, though, almost as a by-product or an inconvenience resulting from the medium. But probably it was regarded as a good thing, and a storyteller who could retell a story in a fresh way would be valued, just as we value stand-up comedians like Eddie Izzard or Billy Connolly. Taking that thought further, it would be great if you could pick up a favourite novel – Pride and Prejudice or whatever – and it was slightly different from last time you read it. The characters would be the same, and the plot would be the same, but some scenes would be expanded or contracted; the enmphasis could be different, the dialogue could be different. The possibilities would be endless; yet it would still be the same novel. Perhaps sometimes you’d feel disappointed that a particular aspect was lost from last time you read it; but perhaps there’d be some brilliant vignette that was new.

Second thought: An oral culture would be one circumstance where the idea of memetics might be somewhat rewarding. I’m persuaded that the gene/meme parallel is an accurate one, on a very reductive level. But most practical examples seem uninformative, because they tend to be reduced to such a simplified model – the spread of a meme in the blogosphere or whatever. Part of the reason that our culture is not very usefully compared to biological evolution is perhaps the ability to store and share information exactly, so ideas and texts rapidly reach a stasis in the way they’re presented and spread extremely rapidly, so cultural evolution tends to move in jumps and continuity is lost. An oral storytelling culture – assuming that one still existed and the ability to record and exmine the output was there – would act in a way rather closer to genetic evolution. Continual semi-random incremental changes when a storyteller retells a story, other types of changes when someone tells a story they learnt from another – the possibility of tracking change would be stronger. Would it actually tell you anything profound about people or poetry (or biological evolution) that common sense doesn’t? Probably not.

It’s a pity that storytelling has lost its audience. Yes, we can read now, but there must be virtues in an unscripted (if not unplanned) oral performance that we could learn from. And theatres are suitable venues. Hell, we could buy performances on DVD, although that would tend to reinforce the idea of a definitive performance and drain the spontaneity out of the exercise.

An interesting thing he said. He’d already said that these stories – some of which are epic in length; he mentioned an eight-hour performance – were not metrical, and someone asked why he called them poetry. I was expecting him to come up with some kind of answer about compression or sonic qualities – one of the things we grasp at when trying to justify free verse as poetry. In fact, though, he said that they were structured more like European classical music; that the structuring wasn’t clear on a line-by-line basis, or even from reading a whole poem, but that when you’d read enough examples, the common structure became apparent. So if you just listened to one Beethoven symphony, it might not be clear what made it a symphony; but if you listen to a lot of Beethoven symphonies and compare them to Haydn and Mozart, you can start to understand the similarities. He described the structure as ‘fractal’ – typically five broad divisions (movements? acts? fitts?), each divided into five shorter episodes, further divided into five sub-episodes, and so on. He also mentioned the use of repeated themes and motifs in a way similar to music. I’m always a bit sceptical about poetry/music comparisons (or poetry/painting, music/painting, whatever), because such different media don’t seem to offer much scope for genuine comparison. And because the examples people come up with are so often flaky. He sounded pretty convincing, though.


  • Post category:Culture

the Turner Prize and Gwen/Augustus John

I went to the Tate to see the Turner Prize exhibition and the Gwen John and Augustus John.

I thought the Turner Prize was a distinct step up from last year; but then last year I thought two of the four artists on display were complete duds.

I always think it’s a pity that most of the TP press coverage is of the Daily Mail outraged-of-Tumbridge-Wells kind, always asking ‘is it really art?’. Because that’s a stupid philistine question, and one that naturally provokes an outraged defence of the TP from right-thinking people like me who believe that to write off the Turnmer Prize entries is to write off most of modernism in art – and that would be a pity. Whereas the TP is crying out for a more subtle and interesting public debate; including the point that many of the entries are just crap.

The one that most annoyed me last year was the video of a man running over a bridge in Belfast, cut together so that he ran and ran and ran and never reached the end. The particular bridge used is one that joins Catholic and Protestant areas. But the image of someone running and running and never getting anywhere is a huge filmic clich

  • Post category:Culture

testing something

testing a modification to the RSS feed.

Just so you know.

  • Post category:Me

a cool game

My best score so far (I haven’t played much yet): 2024

  • Post category:Other

food is so pleasingly universal

Cooking can be a great humaniser of another culture.

My grandfather refused to eat garlic because that was food for Frenchmen and Arabs. But I mean something broader than that.

Our impressions of other countries are news driven. Not the countries we’ve visited, or whose films we watch, or whose clothes we wear, perhaps; but that still leaves whole continents we only know about in terms of wars, revolutions, famine, disease and abject poverty.

If you asked people what they thought if you said “Iran”, the list of topics would be short: oil and fundamentalist Islam. I’d be tempted by that answer myself. But I also own various cookbooks which tell me that Iranians eat dishes like a pilaf cooked so that the rice at the bottom forms a golden crusty base; or tea made from dried limes; or dishes flavoured with lots of mixed fresh herbs – dill, flat-leaved parley, mint, coriander. And they make meat dishes flavoured with fruit – duck with cherries, chicken with apricots.

I guess if you don’t cook a lot, especially food which is foreign to you, that might make Iran seem even more distant. For me, though, it transcends religion or language or culture and makes us all just human. I read these recipes, and my mouth waters. A dried lime pilaf doesn’t compensate for a lack of human rights – but it does bring out the shared experience of being human. The food of other cultures can seem forbidding – try cartilage on a stick or soy-fried grasshopper, if you’re in Japan – but the more you know how to do it, the more it just all becomes food.

I should stop before I become any more like “I’d like to teach the world to sing…”

  • Post category:Other

the secrets of the ancients have been uncovered

Who needs aliens, when you’ve got ingenuity, common sense, a grasp of physics and a willingness to experiment? Not W. T. Wallington.

The annoying reliance of Mr Wallington’s website on embedded mpegs means that, at least on my version of Netscape, his site is a bit flaky. It worked better on IE. But he’s a hero. Too many people, faced with Stonehenge or the Pyramids, just make a lazy leap to a supernatural explanation. If more people cast themselves enormous concrete blocks and quietly got on with working out how to build their own copies of ancient monuments, we’d understand rather more about early building techniques.

Just because they didn’t have JCBs, it doesn’t mean the ancients were stupid.

  • Post category:Other

a platitudinous observation

Isn’t it odd how little we sometimes know the people we know best?

Yeah, I know, it’s hardly an observation that’ll win me the Nobel Prize for Human Insight. The specific incident that prompted it happened the other day: I wandered into a room where my father was, whistling a merry tune. He looked startled, and said “I didn’t know you could whistle!”

Possibly part of the reaction, if he didn’t think I could whistle, was that he thought there was a whistling stranger in his house. But the point is – he’s known me for 29 years. I’ve been able to whistle for about 20 years of that time. I don’t whistle that much – I tend to hum or sing under my breath instead – but if you’d asked me, I would have said I whistled fairly often. Presumably not. It was an odd moment.

  • Post category:Me

a faltering start

I haven’t got off to a very good start on the blogging thing, have I? It was a probably a mistake trying to start The Poetry Blog and stormy petrel at the same time.

I actually set this blog up initally to play with Squishdot. I’d done a certain amount of redistributing and restyling on PoBlo, but it was still very much using the framework of the out-of-the-box fancy version of Squishdot. stormy petrel was my attempt at using the code and content of a Squishdot site but building up the page layouts from scratch.

In the event, having done that, I decided that I liked it much more than the previous version, so I used a version of it on PoBlo too. This version almost eliminates the use of tables for positioning, with just a two-cell table to hold the toolbar and main column in position, and everything else done with CSS; as a result, it’s much easier to customise than the old one.

But, having set it up, I do intend to make a genuine stab at running a personal blog. Watch this space.

  • Post category:Me


i.e. spinach pie.

‘Spanakopita’ is just the Greek for spinach pie. It sounds so much better in Greek, though.

Briefly wilt the spinach in a covered saucepan, with no added water. Squeeze as much water as possible from the spinach and then mix it with some crumbled feta, a bit of finely-chopped spring onion, some fresh dill and beaten egg. Then layer up half a dozen layers of filo pastry, oiling each one before putting on the next. Put the spinach filling on top, and cover it with another 6 or 7 layers of filo. Cut through the top half of the pie – i.e. the top half of the pastry – to form it into lots of little triangles or diamonds. Cook it for three-quarters of an hour at 180C.

It was the first time I’ve tried this. I used 500g of spinach, 125g of feta, 2 eggs, a supermarket pack of dill and one pack of frozen filo. If I was doing it again I’d use a bit less dill, but even so, I think it was a success. It’s easy to make – I’ve never used filo before and was surprised at how manageable I found it – and the finished thing looks really impressive, golden brown and crunchy. Smells (and tastes) good too. It would be a good choice of dish if you were entertaining vegetarians, I think.

It’s a pity, really, that despite a large Greek/Cypriot/Turkish population in the UK, their food has only penetrated the public awareness as far as kebabs, pita bread and lurid pink taramasalata. Oh, and houmous, I suppose. Anyway. I got the recipe from Claudia Roden’s ‘Tamarind and Saffron’ (though there are extremely similar versions all over the net), which is a book of Middle Eastern food – the Middle East in this case extending as far as Greece and Morocco. Her ‘The Book of Jewish Food’ is also fabulous, not just as a source for all the obvious things like bagels and gefilte fish, but recipes from Iran, India, Egypt. Lots of great filo-based pies in that one, too.

  • Post category:Other

the death of Jacques Derrida

Does the death of the author include the death of the theorist?

I’m not a fan of Derrida. I think he wrote foggy garbage and damaged the study of literature, producing a generation of academics who actively valued obscurity, polysyllabic technicalism and elf-indulgent wordplay over such unflashy virtues as coherency, logic and research.

I also think that, insofar as his theories can be pinned down, they are based on an out of date and false model of language – that of Saussure.

I’m as keen as anyone on the simple truth that common sense is frequently common nonsense. But sometimes, common sense is acting as a bullshit detector. And when someone tells you that all meaning is an illusion created by the interplay of context, that the deeper you look the less language means, the correct response is: Monsieur Derrida, it is the bullshit which you are talking.

Perhaps Derrida would have made a brilliant poet, or painter, or something; he certainly had a fertile mind and a sparkly way with words. He made a crap literary theorist, though.

  • Post category:Other

all about me

To be more accurate: not very much about me. I’m Harry Rutherford.

I write poetry as a hobby – hence the blog and the wiki. I’m also a mod at PFFA.

Other interests that might surface while I blog are food and birding. Or, they might not – who knows what I’ll feel the need to mention.

Anyone who knows me may have read that tagline under the blog title (‘a person who delights in strife…’) and be worried that I’m suffering from a delusional self-image. Don’t worry. That meaning of ‘stormy petrel’ just came up in the crossword and I thought it was really nice, especially since the storm petrel is a fantastic bird. And since I’ve established a marine theme for my various sites, I chose it for my personal blog.

The picture of a petrel is used courtesy of Ash Midcalf at birdcheck.co.uk.

  • Post category:Me


Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at

  • Post category:Culture

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fevourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Under construction

Under construction – come back soon.

  • Post category:Me