Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Poetry, Philip Larkin & All That Jazz

I don't like poetry, much. And I used to be a poet. The readings I've been to remind me of why I especially don't like poetry readings. They take themselves so seriously, as if the fact that someone's allowed them to read to a captive audience automatically elevates their words to the 'worthy' status. It doesn't.

Watching Rhymes, Rock & Revolution: The Story of Performance Poetry on BBC4 last night reminded me that I was once a poet. Yes, even one that read to an audience. Those were the days (early 80s) when 'ranting' was all the rage. Well, I could write and I could rant, so I did, although not quite in the style of Attila The Stockbroker or other comedy/political commentators. Although I tried to be funny. And political. I tried to be 'avant-garde' too by reading whilst backed by an Improv saxophonist and drummer. I'm not kidding.

Well, I was young and fancied myself as a wordsmith. I'd read a lot of Kerouac and Ginsberg. In a classic case of monkeys in the BBC research department the Beat movement was introduced in the programme as one that was 'inspired by Jazz and Be-bop'. Heh-heh! Jazz and Be-bop, different things, right? Well, what do you expect, musical knowledge and all the poetic history? Come on, half of them on unpaid interns. I deduce this from not only the musical ignorance (Jazz-wise) but the omission of The Last Poets, who should at least have got a mention in the section on Gil Scott-Heron, surely. No? Too obscure? Too radical?

Talking of Jazz, another programme in the series Contains Strong Language, was Return To Larkinland, in which fellow public schoolboy A.N.Wilson reflected on Philip Larkin in his plummy camp voice, but it was enjoyable; partly because Wilson is so plummy and camp. Larkin loved Jazz and got paid to write about it. I enjoy his writings because he's so stubbornly wrong about modern (50s/60s) Jazz; laughably so. In 1966, for instance, for the Daily Telegraph, under Records Of The Year, he begins: 'Since jazz, as I explained some years ago, has now split irrevocably into Negro Art-Music and Beat, it follows that the best records today are either by failing veterans or reissues.' That's Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter and the rest dealt with then!

Larkin the librarian...like a dark, evil flipside of Betjeman...punk provincial (part-time) spitting at gentility, a written 'fuck' in the face of society, all that suppressed rage surfacing in a line...the suit as a straitjacket which he'd shrug off now and again...unable to commit to one relationship, therefore keeping two women at a distance...dedicated to independence despite once writing of 'The instantaneous grief of being alone' (Conscript)...watching 60s Youth set free, regretting not having been born ten years later, perhaps...Larkin, the literary success who always felt like a failure.

Well, Time, 'the echo of an axe/ In a wood', has pretty much severed Larkin from any chance of respectability. As a man, his name seems to be dirt these days. Racist? Misogynistic? And just a human being with failings, like you and me. Unlike Larkin, my success as a poet was brief...but I understand Jazz better than he did...

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