that George Szirtes music thing

George Szirtes has invited examples of “those occasions when I had only to hear a bar of music to know that something had radically changed.”

This will do, for me:

I’m cheating, really, though, because it’s not just that piece of music, though I think it holds up pretty well and it does have a brilliant opening with that sample of Rickie Lee Jones talking about sunsets. It’s standing in for all that late 80s, early 90s bleepy stuff from the ambient to no-nonsense thumping rave music.

I’ve never actually been that keen on clubbing—too loud, too boring—and the rave scene happened without me, but I’ve always loved the aesthetic. Instead of electronic instruments being used as a simple replacement for physical intruments, the music starts embracing the ways in which they are different from physical instruments. The artificiality of the sound becomes part of the point. I still like that sound; I still like rather electronic-y pop music.

Looking back at the early stuff now, part of what appeals is the simplicity of it. Even though it’s obviously been made with electronics rather than bits of wood and catgut, it has a rough-hewn quality that’s sort of charming.

Culture Nature Other

The ternness of terns

George Szirtes discusses people’s need to identify things – flowers, birds – something he doesn’t share. Indeed he sets up (but slightly backs away from), an opposition between the botanist’s way of looking and the artists’s way. He ends like this:

Yet all the time I am aware that even an urban citoyen of the imagination should be able to tell a kingfisher by its silhouette as it flashes across a narrow stream or be able to name at least a hundred stars. One should be able to do that really, as well as trying to render the flashing sensation in language and learning to define the starness of stars.

I can’t help feeling that those people – the vast majority – who can’t distinguish a gull from a tern, a swallow from a swift, or a bee from a wasp or a hoverfly, are completely failing to appreciate the ternness of terns.

Being able to recognise something and distinguish it from superficially similar things seems absolutely central to any attempt to learn something about its thingness. The ability to attach a name is secondary to the process of coming to know a thing the way you know a familiar place or a friend.

Conversely, any birdwatcher could tell you that gaining some sense of a bird’s thingness, its inscape, is a key part of learning to identify it. Of course, being a prosaic bunch, they don’t call it ‘inscape’, they call it ‘jizz’. But if there’s a distinction between saying ‘I knew it was a tern because of its tern-like jizz’ and ‘I knew it was a tern because it had ternness’, it would take a better philosopher than me to elucidate it.

Culture Other

page vs performance

Ros Barber is annoyed by the use of the term ‘performance poet’ in a disparaging way and “can’t see the sense in perpetuating the page/performance divide”. George Szirtes thinks the distinction is useful, and makes a good point about the intimacy and privacy of reading poetry from the page.

One-to-one reading is like reading a letter. Its context is concentration, direct address, detachment, the sense of being alone with experience, language and little else.

I basically agree with Szirtes. I think of poetry as a written medium that should work orally, rather than an oral medium that happens to be recorded in writing. A good poem should have been painstakingly written to get everything the poet wants into the words themselves, and the very idea of ‘performance’, with its implication of adding something to the poem, offends my sense that the words should be everything.

Of course if a poet is going to give readings, they should try to do them as well as possible; but for me, that means a careful, thoughtful reading-aloud of the poem, rather than an attempt to make it into a microdrama. I find poetry readings by actors are often unbearable for that very reason – they tend to use the poem as the script for a performance, rather than effacing themselves and trying to do the best possible job of communicating the poem.

Culture Other

Szirtes on the myopia of poets

George Szirtes has an interesting post up at the moment, which starts:

One of the reasons I became a poet rather than a novelist is, perhaps, because I have a far stronger sense of events – nature as event, phenomena as event, objects as event – than of people. To most poets I suspect other people are a kind of myopic blur.

Whether it’s true for all poets or just him, the post is worth reading. No permalinks, so if you’re reading this some time in the future, you need to track down the entry for 20.12.05 .


That Szirtes lecture

George Szirtes’s TS Eliot lecture is now available online at The Poetry Library. The Paterson lecture he comments on can be read here.


T S Eliot Lecture – George Szirtes

I went to the T S Eliot lecture given by George Szirtes today. Having been to Don Paterson’s lecture last year, it was interesting for me that Szirtes decided to pick out some of the things Paterson had said and disagree with them.

In all such disagreements between poets, the terrible temptation is to think that one of them must be right. Even worse, that the other must therefore be wrong, and that it’s necessary to decide which is which. But they both write fine poems, so they must both be right. Or rather: Paterson has come to a way of thinking about poetry which he finds fruitful; Szirtes has come to another way which he finds productive. Not only are neither of them ‘right’, any more than Wordsworth or Hopkins were right, but there is no one right answer at this level of debate.

That’s not to say there are no universally applicable truths about poetry, just that they are rather limited in scope.


The Paterson lecture can be found here, for the moment at least. The Szirtes one will apparently be put on the web tomorrow. I’ll post a link to it then.