Blessay 29: Sam’s Poetry

In May 1980 Samuel Beckett was in London at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, using it as a rehearsal space for Endgame about to be performed in Dublin. For twenty minutes I watched Beckett quietly, yet emphatically, directing the actor playing Hamm. It was captivating: akin to a conductor instructing a chamber orchestra. The music of the dialogue being as important as its sense. ‘The man came crawling towards me, on his belly. Pale, wonderfully pale and thin, he seemed on the point of-‘ Beckett asked for a greater stress on the ‘r’ in ‘wonderfully’ to make it almost sound like ‘wondrous.’

Afterwards I approached him and asked him if he would sign my hardcover of the Beckett trilogy (Molly, Malone Dies and The Unnameable.) As he held the book, and took out his fountain pen, I said I greatly admired his work. Then I dared to add a qualifying ‘but.’ That his prose slightly appealed to me more than his plays. At that he paused, in the signing, looked kindly at me, and almost, but not quite, smiled in agreement.

Looking back I suppose I might have been cheeky and added that his prose was preferable to his poetry. Would he have agreed? Maybe he’d have repeated what he once said of his poetry collection Echoes Bones (1930) that is was the ‘work of a very young man who had nothing to say and the itch to make.’ And that poetry was not his true medium of expression?

Re-reading Beckett’s Poems, 1930-1989 I still feel the same way about them. That Beckett, the poet, was a brilliantly erudite man who reveled in his influences – Jonathan Swift, the German Romantics, Dante and very strongly T.S.Eliot. Their influential wit and melancholy combating oddly with Beckett’s passionate interest in French philosophy, especially Descartes and Pascal.

Beckett’s early 1930 verse, and to a lesser degree the later poems, have a hermetic density requiring foot-notes and scholarly elucidation. It’s not that these are bad poems but frustratingly forbidding. You can glimpse the emergence of the authentic Beckett voice. But I feel that poetry, as a literary form, constrained him. He is not a great poet. Yet he is undoubtedly a very great, poetic writer and real ‘poetry’ sings out wonderfully in his plays, novels, short stories and prose fragments

For me there are seven poems and two translations that I absolutely cherish. These are Alba, Cascando, Saint-Lo, Dieppe, my way is the sand flowing, what would I do without this world, I would like my love to die, Drunken Boat (from Rimbaud) and Zone (from Apollinaire). As for the rest of his oeuvre? Of course being a Beckett completest I own a copy of the poems. If only to tackle the more hermetic verse for its incidental pleasures – a solving of puzzles. So I’ll deal with the forbidding ones first.

The poetry set in London (eg,Serena 1) has an eccentric charm that’s much better realized in his very funny, London-based comic novel, Murphy (1938 ). Whilst Whoroscope (1930) for which he won a poetry competition is apparently based on a 17th century biography of Descartes. It concerns Descartes liking of his omelette made of eggs hatched from eight to ten days. If the eggs were shorter or longer than that, then he thought them disgusting. Some intermittent, mad comic moments, try to liven up this long, and rather show-off, poem. Lovely gems like ‘Them were the days I sat in the hot-cupboard throwing Jesuits out of the skylight.’or ‘he buttoned on his redemptorist waistcoat.’

‘Slobbery assumption of the innocents/two Irish in one God’ and ‘Where the arms of girls are bare as jets of water.’ Again arresting lines. One funny. The other lyrical. You’ll find other such striking assertions in most of the poems. Yet all the time be longing for them to fully engage your attention, work as poems. Only on returning to my seven selected poems and two translations, is Sam’s poetry redeemed. Here are some major Becketian statements.

Sample this poem from 1947.

‘my way is in the sand flowing / between the shingle and the dune / the summer rain rains on my life / on me my life harrying fleeing / to its beginning to its end

My peace is there in the receding mist  / when I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds

And live the space of a door / that opens and shuts

That’s a piece of stark, profound simplicity. It’s as if Dante and Eliot were meeting Beckett at a crossroads to hold a conversation about the brevity of life. Eventually telling Beckett to ‘gladly take from us both, and go that way with your own voice, Sam.’

Or experience Saint-Lo (1946)

Virs will wind in other shadows / unborn through the bright ways tremble  / and the old mind ghost-forsaken /  sink into its havoc

Here’s the Beckettian mind-set, of his characters, right on the very edge of appearing in print. Molly and Malone of his 1951 novels, Molly and Malone Dies, will experience such mental havoc and physical discomfort, gratefully punctured by Beckett’s bleak, but deeply compassionate, humour.

I don’t want to quote from the other poetic successes. Buy the complete poems. Agree or disagree with my choices, my comments. You’ll have your own favourites. And can maybe prove to me that overall Beckett is a more consistently accomplished poet than I have made him out to be. Yet I suspect that you will return more to the stronger voice of his other writings. A deeply poetic voice ( in my mind I still hear Beckett’s calm Irish brogue ) that said so much that was unerringly true about our human condition.


Blessay 28: On Violence

I’m not sure if I am really qualified to write this essay for I’ve never been a victim of a major violent incident. Nor committed a very violent act. Even as a spectator of real violence (as opposed to the ‘violence’ of books, films, art, the media etc) my experience is limited. I suspect that for the vast majority of people living in Britain this is also true (That’s of course a generalisation open to be challenged.)

I don’t want to analyse English crime culture and statistics. What I want is to sketch out my own ‘low key’ encounters with violence. The shock, surprise, everyday intimacy (even routine) of violence and how it has made me more human. I’ve not been physically and mentally damaged by violence. I consider myself to be a sensitive person affected by violent behaviour. Mostly during childhood, adolescence and my thirties. Hardly in middle age, not at all after sixty.

This is a mundane list of violent moments in my life, divided into two parts.

(1) Violence as victim/perpetrator

Aged four and being hit hard, repeatedly on my head, by an older child, with a tin bucket, whilst playing in a sand pit in the park. My mother comforted me. Whilst the attacker was spanked by his Mum.

Aged thirteen and being verbally abused by a boy in the playground. We got into a fist fight where I nearly broke my thumb – for I stupidly clenched my fist so that my fingers shielded the thumb of my right hand. My fist struck his jaw. And his mine. Not hard pain. More dreamlike amazement that this was happening.

Aged fourteen and suffering an arbitrary attack by an unknown teenager. He got of his bike, accused me of being the ‘bastard’ who had beaten up his brother and then hit me hard, several times, in the stomach. He was bigger than me and demanded money. I gave him a shilling and he sped of on his bike.

Aged thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. Being caned at school for only talking in class. I learnt not to pull my hand back, for instead of hitting your palm the cane struck the tips of your fingers. And that really hurt.

Aged twenty and being horribly sarcastic to an ex-school friend I met in a pub. He’d been my closest mate. Very bright but too angry and rebellious. Had abandoned all that ‘exam crap’ and also me. I was drunk and taunting too such a pitch that he almost struck me.

Aged thirty. The breakup of a relationship. A big argument, with my girlfriend, concerning a flat tenancy. Fighting over who would stay put and who would move out. We began smashing cups and saucers in the kitchen. We never hit each another, just forcefully pushed, shoved and then made love (non-violently.)

(2) Witnessing Violence

My mother tapping my father with a cold poker on his knee. Not fiercely hard but enough to make him moan. She was crying about his meanness. I woke up from sleeping on the sofa. Father shrank back as Mother kept saying ‘divorce.’ They stopped when they realised I was watching. It never occurred again. I was eight.

Witnessing two women fighting in the street. They were brawling over some malicious gossip. One woman held the others hair and dragged her across the pavement. A small crowd gathered round. When it got too rough a man intervened. It was comic, then unpleasant and finally frightening. The women began to fight with the man. Throats were pinned tight against a lamppost. Another man broke things up. I was eleven.

My brother taking me to a boxing match at a sports stadium in Liverpool. It was smelly, sweaty and a bit seedy. The boxers looked so young and skinny. I found the shouting and screaming of the crowd (mainly men but a few older peroxide blonde haired women) more disturbing than the fight. I was fourteen.

A sense of dark street alleys containing the cries and shouts of guys being attacked. You never ever went to investigate. Just hurried on home. Between the age of ten to eighteen.

Hearing my bandaged up uncle John describing, to the family, his beating up. He was a taxi driver for three years who regularly showed us his injuries over Sunday evening tea at my aunt’s house. Thirteen to sixteen.

My aunt and my mother having a go at my Dad again for being mean and secretive. I think he was hit on the shoulder by a saucepan. Then we had dinner and Father laughed a lot. In these occasional scenes of domestic violence my Dad never fought back nor started a fight himself. His ‘violence’ was, according to mother a provocative ‘mental cruelty.’ Undiagnosed his condition was probably a form of autism. His own, highly disciplinarian, father frequently locked him in a broom cupboard. Such parental control gave my Dad low self-esteem, inertia, stubbornness, timidity and great deal of humour. His constant deflecting stream of jokes couldn’t prevent my older brother slapping his face one day, over lunch. Such blows were cathartic, even necessary. We carried on. Mostly eleven to fifteen.

Waking up, at two in the morning, to violent sounds in the street. I looked out the bedroom window to see a man being tightly held, against the bonnet of a car, whilst another man beat him with a chain. Someone, inside the car, laughed and chanted, ‘We want our money, man! Our rightful money!’ The victim was then thrown into the back seat and driven away. I couldn’t get the window open to shout at them. To late to ring the police. Anyway the phone, in the dilapidated house, a St. John’s Wood squat, with half the upper floor missing, had recently been disconnected. Aged thirty-one.

Working in a children’s home in North London. A disturbed teenager had locked himself in a window-less room. He had a knife and threatened self-harm. My colleagues and I took turns in watching him through the key-hole, and speaking to him from behind the door, until he opened it and handed over the knife. I was forty.

I have never been horribly beaten up. Nor have I physically, or verbally, attacked anyone with the intension of beating them up. I hate violence. It is a last, and usually futile resort when reason and tolerance has broken down. I forgive my Mum for sometimes attacking my Dad. In her sad, and highly prolonged situation, of loneliness, frustration and emotional neglect, I cannot blame her.

Violence is a cruel and disconcerting aspect of being alive. It’s inextricably bound up with anger. And anger is a difficult emotion to control. Yet it can be responsibly expressed (Hard though that seems in the passion of the moment.) I witnessed mental cruelty in old people’s care homes, single person hostels, bullying in schools and shouted loudly at the perpetrators to stop. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. The world around me appearing frighteningly indifferent.

I will not moralize about the supposed harmful effects of watching and reading about violence through social media, TV, film and newspapers. The evidence is never completely conclusive. No one thing makes a person violent. There are many complex, often deeply unconscious, as well as social, reasons for destructive behaviour.

This essay is a sharing of violent happenings in my life. I don’t want anymore. There may be.  Violence is small fine seam in my life, and other lives too, that makes up identity. I’d prefer it to be not apparent. That love, empathy, reason and respect should always have the upper-hand.

Blessay 27: An Afternoon at Lourdes

Today I was talking to an angry man, on a train to Brighton, who was telling me about a friend who’d just died from prostate cancer. ‘Martin couldn’t get out of bed, and his wife booked a flight for him to travel to Lourdes. She’s a bloody old-fashioned Catholic…insisted he try a miracle cure…hah!’

Skeptic though I am, I didn’t echo his dismissive ‘hah!’

I was reminded of my only, completely unplanned, visit to Lourdes in August 1988. I’d a girlfriend named Suzanne and was staying with her, and her parents, in a beautiful old country house, near the town of Pau in the Pyrenees. My week with Suzanne had been pretty fraught. She was inclined to suddenly halt a conversation, look cautiously round to check no one was in sight, and then angrily whisper obscenities about her father (a carpet salesman) into my ear. I listened and made no judgement. Country walks together and breaks, on my own, became a necessity.

Such a ‘break’ came in the form of a bus trip to Lourdes, only 41 kms from Pau. Morbid curiosity made me buy a return ticket. It was a sweltering hot day and the bus was crowded. On arrival in Lourdes miracle expectation, exuding from pilgrims and tourists, now crowding the streets, had pushed up the ambient temperature by a few degrees. I walked behind a small t-shirted group clutching tiny wooden crucifixes, rosary beads and pocket bibles.

The Virgin Mary grotto at Lourdes stands on hill. Dropping my group I went on alone up the hill. But not for long. I had to make way for a processional line of wheelchairs pushed by nurses. The headgear and uniform of the young nurses looked oddly archaic, almost First World War in style. Their patients were men and women of all ages – a ‘suffering humanity’ wearing sunglasses and dressed in white pyjamas.  The nurses were very cheerful. Some singing, in Italian, Jesu-Mary ditties. It was like the satirical spa scene in Fellini’s 8 1/2. All it needed was Rossini’s Thieving Magpie overture from the film’s soundtrack.

At the grotto people were drinking water from installed taps. Some merely sipped, others gulped down paper-cups of water and a few choked from drinking too much, too fast. As they were watered candle after cancel was lit to the accompaniment of a piped choir. When the nurses weren’t filling the cups, pilgrims were allowed to reach out and touch the rocks underneath the statue of Mary. One young man had a pen-knife and was trying to hack of a bit of rock. After a short struggle, with a big nurse, the knife was confiscated.

The pilgrim patients were now wide-eyed and hopeful. They tried to rise from their chairs, or shake as much of their infirmed bodies as possible. The nurses couldn’t agree on whether to pin them down or help them up. Then a tall matron, standing next to a row of empty stretches, lying on the grass, barked through a megaphone. ‘The mayor is expecting our group for tea at five. Avanti! Avanti!’

The waters have been officially tested and found to have no curative properties. In perfect health I drank a little Lourdes water. It tasted like flat white lemonade (Whereas the best non-curative water I’ve ever tasted was from a stream on the island of Lewes. Hebridean champagne that soothed my headache.)

There’s also the Lourdes water that people bathe in. In the 1895 a lot did. Much to the disgust of Emile Zola.

‘The Fathers of the Grotto only allowed the water of the baths to be changed twice a day. And nearly a hundred patients being dipped in the same water, it can be imagined what a terrible soup the latter at last became.’

On my August day out many came to be dipped. I hoped health and safety laws were being properly observed. That the dirty soup wasn’t allowed to thicken.

Walking back through town I endured shop window, after shop window, full of Virgin Mary merchandise. Art gallery rooms, of too many Renaissance pictures of Mary, with the infant Jesus, can strain your aesthetic self. But Mary alone, as a cheap fetish, is quite a horror. Amidst all the mugs, pictures, t-shirts, bags and jewellery stood Mary, immaculately conceived as soap. ‘Glowing 3-D silicone soap’ according to the label.

I caught the 5.30 bus. On arriving in Pau Suzanne was waiting for me in her favourite cafe.’So how did you get one with the sick?’ She asked, smoking a cigarette. Suzanne looked too bright-eyed from her substances. It was her little pill to ward of the blues and confusion. Others had fresh water, soupy prospects and infinite belief. Exhausted, I couldn’t answer her, yet.

Blessay 26: La Premiere Nuit

When the average feature film length ( 90 to 120 mins ) was established, in the mid-twentieth century, you would have thought short films, under 45 mins, would have died out. But they were, and still are, produced. Fledgling directors make shorts because it’s a way to learn their craft, they’re cheap to produce and act as a calling card for the industry – a means of obtaining funding for a feature.

What’s often overlooked is that short films are a legitimate artistic form in their own right. Like the poem and the short story they are not made with any commercial success in mind. It’s as difficult to get a collection of poetry or short stories published as it is to have a short film screened and distributed. Of course it can be slipped onto YouTube, that huge repository of the bad and the beautiful, but a screening in a cinema or a review by professional film critic is very rare. Most short films, like poetry and short stories, will not make you any money and receive little, if any, critical attention.

There was a time when directors built up a substantial body of short films and continued making them once they’d ‘graduated’ to features. I’m thinking of French Cinema of the early nineteen fifties continuing into the sixties and seventies. Particularly the work of Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Alexandre Astruc, Alain Resnais, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Georges Franju. All these directors created remarkable short films, often comparable in intensity and ambition to their features.

From 1949-58 Georges Franju only made shorts. Nine years of documentaries that ended with Les Premieres Nuit ( documentary in style but fictionalised. ) If I had to choose my favourite short film ever then it would be this 20 minute film. You can argue that Resnais’s Night and Fog, Marker’s La Jette, Vigo’s Zero de Conduite or Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou are more important and influential films. That is probably true. And they are certainly poetic. But for me La Premiere Nuit is a film poem.

To say what is a film poem is difficult. It’s not a technical matter of a density of lines and verses being comparable to abstracted imagery and film editing. It’s more a filmmaker’s inwardness of sensibility achieving a heightened mood and impression. You can take a moment in many films ( great, good or even routine) and say that one scene or sequence creates an epiphany, and isn’t that poetry? Well, yes and no. One of the highest accolades to bestow on any work of art is to describe it as poetic. But when you have a conciseness of form and content, within 20 minutes, feeling like the camera has been used like a pen on the single page, then you have the hypnotic La Premiere Nuit.

Alexandre Astruc said in his 1948 essay Birth of a new Vanguard -The Camera Style.

‘Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but of true writing. The auteur writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen.’

Astruc is seen as anticipating the French New Wave and his literary models were prose experimentalists like William Faulkner.

‘For me the fantastic is above all realism. I detest fiction…I love what is realistic because I think that is more poetic. Life is much more poetic than anything you can imagine.’

That’s Franju about his attitude to filmmaking. An approach that has been termed surrealist. It is. But not in the more obvious surrealist way. Franju’s fantastic realism, tends to probe the surface of things, to reveal the poetry of our everyday actions. And those real actions are more poetic if they’re distilled to reveal a core of dreamlike strangeness. Which is the stuff of La Premerie Nuit.

The film’s story is simple. A rich young schoolboy is attracted to a girl he sees on the Paris metro. Her presence makes him cry. One evening he escapes the comfort of his chauffeur driven car to search the railway for her. Exhausted he falls asleep on a stopped elevator. He dreams of entering an empty train, running parallel to another train, and sees the girl looking at him, as both trains almost waltz together. She is sped away. The boy wakes up. It’s morning. The shift workers and cleaners are coming. The boy leaves the metro. He enters a park and walks slowly by the trees now bare of their leaves.

Franju was blessed by good child actors, the photography of Eugen Shuftan, the editing of Henri Colpi and music by Georges Delerue. All contribute so hauntingly to the atmosphere of La premiere Nuit. Franju’s employs his collaborators to help convey, with great exactitude, time, space and place.

I first saw La Premiere Nuit when I was 17 or 18 at the Merseyside Film institute Society. The film’s sense of sexual awakening disturbed and captivated me. Nothing of any real sexual nature happens. All is intimation, suggestion and yearning. A pre-pubescent fantasy in very mundane surroundings. No dreamy irrationality or madness here. Only an eiree first encounter underground, where life, as normal as that above you, goes on.

I love critic Raymond Durgnat’s speculative remarks on Franju. His other anarchic, surrealist intentions for La Premiere Nuit.

‘Let’s hope, though, that the boy becomes a confirmed truant, keeps slipping away from home and school, until, in the end, his dreamtime can synchronise with the city’s day. But that’s an even longer journey; one on which most sensitive people lose their way, becoming, for example, merely poets.’

If La Premiere Nuit is a film poem then it is also a deep call to escape the constrictions of normal bourgeois life and retain a capacity to dream. And Franju played a small part in the crucible of my growing up, that eventually turned me into a mere poet.

If you want you see La Premiere Nuit, then it’s been uploaded twice on YouTube. One poor print with a TV logo in the corner. The other a 16mm print that’s visually cleaner, however the sound is a little better on the TV copy. Please don’t watch it on a tablet or phone. This exquisite miniature’s not to be compromised by a tiny screen. Try and stream it through to a TV monitor.

However I would really advise you to wait till the middle of August for the BFI is about to release a DVD/Blu-Ray re- mastered edition, where La Premiere Nuit is to be coupled with Franju’s wonderful ‘horror’ film feature Eyes Without a Face.

Don’t forget, it’s never too late to escape and take up poetry.