A few days ago I was speculating out loud as to what poetry might do and whether this may be a more productive question than those relating to meaning and form. I also suggested that maybe thinking more about poetry as performance could be productive in these difficult times.
I’d like to start by getting to a more precise indication of what I think I mean by performance and to make it clear that I don’t mean the poetry reading as performance nor do I mean slam poetry or any variations therein. I do mean the performative effect of the words on the page as words on the page.
This effect can take many different forms and can be achieved in many different ways. Some poets appear to understand this aspect of the poem better than others, (Spenser, Milton, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Muldoon) and now I want to look at Reitha Pattison’s sequence with this perspective in mind.
‘Some Fables’ consists of twenty nine-line, single-stanza poems divided equally into two ‘books’. Each of the poems is based on a classical fable and then does things to it in startling and subversive ways. Both the sequence and the two books and the individual poems can be experienced as performances.
There are several definitions of ‘performance’ that we might need to take with us:
- (OED 4a)The action of performing a play, piece of music, ceremony, etc.; execution, interpretation;
- (OED 4c) An instance of performing a play, piece of music, etc., in front of an audience; an occasion on which such a work is presented; a public appearance by a performing artist or artists of any kind. Also: an individual performer’s or group’s rendering or interpretation of a work, part, role, etc. In extended use: a pretence, a sham;
- (OED 1g) Linguistics. N. Chomsky’s name for: a person’s actual use of a language, as opposed to his or her knowledge of it.;
- (OED 1e) Psychol. The observable or measurable behaviour of a person or animal in a particular, usually experimental, situation. Also as a count noun: an observable or measurable action;
- (OED 1f) Business. The extent to which an investment is profitable, esp. in relation to other commodities; an instance of this.
I want to be greedy and use all of the above to look at this remarkable work. I am not suggesting that ‘Some Fables’ is especially suited to this frame, I can think of many others (‘The Triumph of Love’, the proverb swapping scene between Arthur and Una in ‘The Faerie Queen’, ‘Triodes’, ‘Dionysus Crucified’ etc.) that might be better suited but I’ve been particularly impressed by the sequence and it has been in my thinking this week.
Let’s start with definition 4a, the title indicates a very old literary form and suggests some variation on this theme. The term ‘fable’ leads us to think of Aesop and the stories we were told as children or other attempts at performance like ‘Animal Farm’so it is reasonable to assume that these will be in some way interpreted, as would a Beethoven symphony or a tragedy by Shakespeare.
Of course there are many differences between an orchestral or theatrical performance and the reading of a poem but if we think of language and the history/tradition of poetry as the script/score and what the poet does with this as the performance then I think we might be getting closer to what poetry does.
So, Pattison has decided to perform some fables and the title puts the audience/reader into a certain cast of mind with regard to the ‘original’ form but also with later variations (emblems, epigrams etc) somewhere on the horizon.
This is the first poem in the sequence:
A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.
It should be reasonably obvious on a first reading that this isn’t a straightforward variation on a theme and that the performance is much more nuanced than we may have expected. Of course, the advantage of the performance on the printed page is that the audience (a lone reader) can stop the performance at any time in order to absorb and reflect.
The first judgement that I make about a performance of any kind is whether or not it holds my interest. This can relate to the skill of the performer (Elizabeth Bishop), the subject of the performance (Maximus) or to the method of delivery (The Unconditional) with Poetry as the script/score/screenplay. In this instance factors one and two more than get my attention. There is the obviously skilled use of language and the tantalising hints of a number of subjects.
The poem does invite a fair deal of interpretation but before we get on to that, I’d like to point out elements of language use that are performative in the sense of the last three definitions as quoted above. The opening announcement is ostensibly plain and unambiguous- a reflection is ‘plain’ language word for a plain language thing and then we are given the nature of the reflection which points at one particular fable. This is followed by a series of plain language statements that aren’t by any means clear and the poem ends with a brilliantly phrased but very enigmatic moral. The skill in this performance lies in both word choice and the way that key words are put to use= ‘meat and evil’, ‘markers of repast’ ‘stern cosmetic aches’ ‘some still starved’ and all of the last line.
Staying with the performance theme, what this first poem does is make a series of introductions about what follows (there will be recognisable fables, there will be morals, some attentive thought will be required) but also establish a distinctive voice or the means by which the performance will take place and it is this voice that I now want to think about.
I need to be honest here and confess to not knowing exactly what it is that I mean by ‘voice’ even though I see this as crucial to the performance perspective. In terms of effect, the voice of a poem gives us some idea of the character of the poet, some hint about personality and more of a hint about the way in which the poets lives (is) in the world. Of course this may be due to my working background in the business of making judgements about character from pieces of behaviour but the fact remains that each poet that exists in my head has a distinctive mode of expression that is more than just a collection of poetic conceits. This applies to all the poets that I carry around regardless of whether or not I like their work.
This voice, I would argue is one that aims to unsettle but also to be clear about unsettling, a voice that is comfortable and relaxed about its intelligence and that wants to maintain a respectful distance. I was going to use ‘cool’ as the nearest reasonable adjective but that misses out on the intention to unsettle, ‘subversively cool’ doesn’t fit the bill either but it is fascinating to see how this voice develops over the sequence. I’m currently marking off the variations between Books 1 and 2.
Whilst thoroughly enjoying these elements of the performance, these two fables in particular have undergone many variations and improvisations over the centuries and there are allusions here which bring me to the emblem books and the arguments about Providentialism in the 16th century, if we’re thinking about meaning, the sequence can be read as a series of very accomplished riffs on the ways in which askesis may or may not work. Incidentally, things haven’t changed that much since Hesiod, the Muppet Show has ‘done’ the Ant and the Grasshopper.
To get back to performance, the announcement of originality and quality is made here in ways that aren’t that apparent on an initial or drive-by reading and the reader does have to pay attention to absorb the best bits. The use of ‘tight’ in this context is exceptional as is the move through dog-meat-evil and both of these whet the appetite for the rest of the sequence.
‘Some Fables’ is available from Grasp Press for £6.00 inc p&p. Buy it