Archive for February 1st, 2013

Tony Harrison’s is the voice-over; from the TV program aired Nov 4, 1987

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been four days since I reported on three of the 18th century MLA sessions I attended at the MLA held in Boston early this January, and more than a month since I described the trip, where we stayed and what we did outside the MLA.

I’ve got five sessions on poetry on TV and in community centers, on the radio; on paintings in film and doctored photos in graphic novels and newspapers. Two of the great pleasures of my existence — listening to a complete great book read brilliantly while driving my car, and watching the episodes of a long-running great mini-series nowadays mostly on my computer’s DVD player — were the topics of two more. The last I’ve put in my comments section, Agnes Vardes, French film families and how to make a cross-over French hit in contemporary cinema.


Perhaps the best session in the whole of the MLA I went to was Public Poetry in Britain (No. 289, Jan 4th, Friday noon-1:15 pm) where I heard intelligent discussions and poetry read aloud beautifully either by the speaker or the poet on TV or tape: Emily Bloom on Louis MacNeice’s autobiographical poem, Autumn Sequel, and his career on the BBC radio; David R. Sherman on Tony Harrison and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s political communal poetry; Kelly C. MacPhail on Edwin Muir. Theme: how poets attempt public poetry, to be public poets.

Emily Bloom began with MacNeice’s 22 years as an Anglo-Irish personality on the BBC and then went on to Autumn Sequel, a terza rima poem, where MacNeice claimed that the BBC failed to create a public poetry world which reached out to the wide general audience of Britain. Radio even played a roll in the spread of fascism. He was angry at the BBC as cowardly, filled with hackwork. He did not leave because there was little alternative to the BBC if you wanted to be a responsible public poet. She chose stanza from the poem relevant to 2013; MacNeice needed to cross back into the private sphere to speak.

David Sherman contrasted the white traditions of art-folk poetry of Harrison to the Jamaican rhythmic music hall Reggae chanting renditions of African folk song of Johnson. Mr Sherman suggested that poems become public when the community can rally around the poet himself as object/subject of public memory. V is a 448 line poem where V stands for Victory, Victim, Versus. It’s a deeply anti-war poem, compassionate for working people from which Harrison comes. He stands in a snowy graveyard, remembers Leeds where he comes from and begins to read; we get images of police beating up strikers; of Mrs Thatcher with her fingers making a V sign for victory;we hear Scargill’s voice about how in his house there was one book, a Bible. The program was discussed in many newspapers; MPs publicly protested. We see him quietly reading to a group of what looks like well-educated people in a community center.

This makes a striking contrast to the dialect poetry sung by Linton Kwesi Johnson on a tape of a time in a night club. Johnson’s poems were performed around the time of a riot insurrection in Brixton where many black people were badly hurt, jailed. The lines are angry and accompanied by loud percussive instruments (very strong drums). The theme is how Black Britain has to re-invent itself and challenge the rest of the nation to accept them.

Kelly MacPhail’s talk on Edwin Muir was wide-ranging, about Muir’s life, his career, his personal friendships and conflicts especially with Hugh MacDiarmid. Muir involved himself in the political changes in Scotland as the Scottish slowly dealt with having been forcibly unified with England from 1707; Muir took changing positions but remained steadfast in his written Scots-English. He wanted to create a national (Scottish) poetry and this required (it was felt) a true language apart from that of the English. One language that had emerged was a dialect formed in the lowlands as a new standard form of Scots. This seemed to me the language that Burns used. This dialect is, however, much contested. His friend and rival, MacDiamid, who was born in Glasgow, where his parents and siblings died when he was young, went to Paris and studied French, seems to have supported this form of Scottish while late in life Muir (who had married a middle class woman who influenced him) argued poets had a choice of two languages: the genuine ancient Scots tongue, Gaelic, or modern English. Mr MacPhail read aloud from Muir’s Scottish Journey, written while Muir was depressed (1936), about the predicament of a Scottish sensibility who may have to adopt modern British English in order to be readable.

Can anyone speak for an entity called Great Britain?


Scarlett Johansson and Tom Wilkinson in Girl with Pearl Earring

Origin of Tracey Chevalier’s book from which film adapted:

1665 painting by Vermeer

A crowded session I expect many of my readers might have enjoyed as much as I and Jim did occurred the day before, mid-afternoon (Jan 3rd, Thursday, 3:30-4:45 pm, No 90), I attended a rich session on Paintings and Photographs Remediated in Film, Graphic Narrative and Newspaper. David Richter gave another fine power-point presentation of a series of films, this time those using paintings. He began Rohmer’s Perceval where medieval painting shaped the visuals of the film; Rohmer wanted to thwart the viewer’s usual desires. He began with the idea that space in a painting is a static interior, while in a film it move and the screen is implicitly without boundaries. Paintings can be used as set decorations; as protagonists; as providing thematic context (for example in a movie where the characters are discussing war, Pascal’s Guernica is seen against the wall behind them); as paradigms for themes; they enable us to enter the century the film’s story occurs in; they justify symbolic presentations; they foreshadow; they set up parallels; they explain further. In each case he had specific movies which he played clips from and showed us the movie turning into a painting.

A young Colin Firth was the painter (as he later was Vermeer): here he contemplates his work and interprets the original painter’s intent and presence

Prof Richter had left out paintings painted for a film as rare. He did not seem to know of A Month in the County, a film adaptation by Simon Grey and Patrick O’Connor from J.L. Carr’s Booker prize gem novel; there a painting of a Last Judgement was made for the movie and the uncovering of it is central to the film.

Genie Giamo discussed the autobiographical graphic novels of Alison Bechtel, especially her Fun Home, where as in her other novels she lays bare the anguish, tragic events (her father may have killed himself) and fractured memories of her real family. Giamo told us Bechtel doctored the photos she had in order to present a story line about her family that concrete evidence does not support (though it may be true). Giamo defined remediation as a process whereby a pollutant is cleaned from an area; it makes environmental space less hazardous. By publishing her memoirs Bechtel rehabilitates the dark recesses of her mind and life; it’s an act of living in itself. This kind of memoir is done by other women; Bechtel’s also show a sense of humor like when her heroine-self says “I forget to get a job for the last 50 years.” Her family becomes a realistic Adams family. (She seemed to suggest that it didn’t matter whether the photos were “real” or undoctored or not. I disagree. The talk afterwards revealed what one might expect: Bechtel’s family were angry about the books.)

A typical mix of photos and drawings with revealing utterances by Bechtel’s father

A third presentation by Lisa Zunshine was about how people communicate by misinformation and miscommunication, and how art seeks to flatter us into thinking we see inside characters and read photographs and visuals accurately. We are invited to be superior voyeurs. She showed the photograph that was printed in US newspapers of Obama, Hillary Clinton and other people high in Obama’s administration watching the murder of Osama bin Laden, and wanted us to see the interpretations given the people in the photo were imposed by stereotypical preconceptions. The people at the session found her lively sceptical presentation effective.


Six volume Oxford edition of Barchestershire novels

Jim and I were glad we stayed late that Thursday night to attend a session on a type of TV drama I’m addicted to: Serial TV across Boundaries (No. 169, 7:00-8:15 pm). From Kathryn Van Arendonk I had the rare treat of a paper on Trollope and the mini-series, Northern Exposure. As I’ve been pointing to in my blogs on Downton Abbey, Trollope’s serial art is analogous in forms and motifs to serial drama on TV. Northern Exposure gives us a case where a mini-series changed its stories to de-emphasize the male protagonist to give us a portrait of an on-going community, causing the male lead to sue. A love triangle, a place where people gather (bar) become shaping forces. Trollope’s Barchester series shows the same re-forming to create a narrative system, whose preludes or codas can occur in a previous or later novel. The material is capable of perpetual proliferation.

Sean O’Sullivan’s talk on Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective has led me to rent this series from Netflix. Michael Gambon plays an obscure fiction writer in hospital with a painful and ugly skin disease. The BBC allowed Potter creative latitude so that the series was built by putting together fragments of memory; individual episodes were independent of others (they could stand alone) within 3 interwoven stories. We see time unfold with the different floors of the hospital representing different phases of the protagonist’s life; all is integrated with music. The films investigated the personal and communal experience.

A advertising poster for the movie-house version of the film, Mulholland Drive

Jason Mittel’s talk was on Mulholland Drive, which he argued is today a much acclaimed but misunderstood movie because it originated as a mini-series. The pilot episode was re-designed to be a self-contained film to allow the producers to release it to commercial theaters. He showed how the interpretations of the movie as now constituted bring out how a serial film has an uncanny dream-like underlying structure.

The talk afterward was stimulating. Ms Van Arendook said one could learn much by showing how a tightly-knit classic novel (say Austen’s Emma) was changed when it was turned into serial art. It was here I heard what I’ve come to see is true of Dickens: he breaks up his narrative so as to erase their original instalment publication pattern. People deplored the tendency at HBO in the last decade or so to go for the 6 hour mini-series in lieu of the 13-hour one.


To me the most personally gratifying was a session very early Saturday morning (Jan 5th, No. 432, 8:30-9:45 am) called Aural Communications and Close Listening. For years I’ve listened to people apologizing for listening to audio books, explaining (half-apologetically, self-deprecatingly) that listening is almost or as good as silent reading; or, assertions that such experiences must be inferior: you can’t control the speed of the utterance, have no text in front of you & so on. (Well you can control it, you can rewind or click ahead and back, and who says you can’t have a text in front of you or consult it before or later? Many audiobooks come with a downloadable e-text nowadays.

Philip Madoc’s reading and Andrew Davies’ mini-series showed me the reactionary reading of this book is all wrong

Matthew Rubery did more than answer these objections & explain their origins; he defended listening to books as different and sometimes better than silent reading. It is a new embarrassment, because until the later 19th century one form of entertainment in reading households was for the group of people to sit round a fire and listen to someone read aloud a book that was written to be read aloud — as most good novels are. Why do people question the “legitimacy” of aural communication: besides the two I’ve already cited: it’s felt they threaten close or deep reading; the reader is passive and allowing someone else “to do the work” of interpretation; they are abridged. The one objection that he let stand was they are often abridged and abridged poorly, leaving just the bare-bones of a plot. But one need not buy or rent an abridged book.

Two of my favorite readers made this book a deep love of mine

The defense: the narrator is an imagined voice in the book and the reader-narrator is bringing this to life; acoustic performances can deepen and enrich your experience of the book. You are led to see nuances and feelings you might not on your own. Logically, the more times you listen to different readers, the more you see in your book. I’ve listened to whole Trollope novels read aloud by different narrators and can vouch for that. Audio books offer sensuous resonating language when the reader’s voice is trained. (I just love David Case’s voice.) They help you understand the book, and can bring out its ideology. Im a sense audiobooks function the way film adaptations or stage dramatizations do only the text is not change. If their interpretation differs from yours, no one stops you from reading the book on your own. It can be difficult to discern paratexts but a good reader will include (by dropping his or her voice) a footnote, the introduction, notes.


Audio books also enable the phenomenon of the secondary activity while reading. For me listening to books turns what would be excruciatingly frustrated time in traffic jams into privileged time. Some people exercise, others clean their houses; they jog and walk their dogs. There is the wonderful element of imagined company. The drawbacks that Rubery registered were 1) the tendency of these companies to chose voices whose intonation are upper class, thus reinforcing false associations of value with one set of aural sounds rather than another; and 2) that it is difficult to find out what’s out there once an audio company goes out of business or is bought out by a larger company. The profit motive and fear of free downloaders makes the companies unwilling to pool their information into any standard source.

The second speaker, Cornelius Collins, talked about how in our culture the visual dominates the aural so that the aural is not sufficiently discussed and less money is spent on top-of-the-line sound mix and/or readers. Music today is massively compromised to fit i-tune requirements. Audio books are not compiled in a central place and the amateur readers remain under-rated, ignored. Much that is recorded is quickly in danger of being lost within a couple of years. Collins asked, What does it mean to listen closely? citing Peter Zendy’s Listen: A History of our Ears (about how to critically listen), said the way to do this is break the experience into segments (the way one does a movie). We need to discuss it and find a vocabulary for the quality of sound and someone’s tones.

More briefly: Justin St Clair discussed the new phenomenon of novels published as sound tracks, or with sounds of music accompanying them (hybridized reading); Linda Hutcheon’s Adaptation has a section on this new book. One problem here is the sound track is used as an ad for the book, and do not provide a meaningful atmosphere. Lisa Hollenback’s talk was on poetry and music on MP3s. These invite nostalgia is the recording is from time past. Vast websites on line provide experiences of sharing, swapping recordings. Music and story listening become social activities experienced in partly-imagined communities. It is much easier to collect and list music that’s recorded than books because of the free on-line collections.


Izzy and I saw the Agnes Vardes’s film, The Beaches of Agnes (it is every bit that good) that was part of the discussion of Contemporary French film (Jan 5th, Saturday, 10:15-11:30, No. 479). I almost missed the session because the title of the paper no where indicated she was its central subject.

Agnes Vardes speaking at a retrospective series at the Harvard Film Archive

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