Thursday, April 26, 2007

'A Rough Guide'

A Rough Guide
by Mark Haddon

Be polite at the reception desk.
Not all the knives are in the museum.
The waitresses know that a nice boy
is formed the same way as a deckchair.
Pay for the beer and send flowers.
Introduce yourself as Richard.
Do not refer to what somebody did at a particular time in the past.
Remember, every Friday we used to go
for a walk. I walked. You walked.
Everything in the past is irregular.
This steak is very good. Sit down.
There is no wine but there is ice cream.
Eat slowly. I have many matches.

Mark Haddon, who won the 2004 WhitBread prize for best novel for his phenomenal Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was also longlisted for the 2004 Booker, which DBC Pierre won, has a poetry collection, called The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea.

In the first line, even though the initial sounds are made up of plosives (‘Be polite’), they are understated. The b and p’s are in non-stress syllables. It sounds like the speaker is lowering her voice but still maintaining a sense of earnestness. After these two syllables comes the first stress syllable, ‘lite’. Then the speedy reading after this, over ‘at the re’ makes me wonder if the person is speaking with a slur. The stress at ‘cep’, the non-stress at ‘tion’, and ‘desk’ – they all give an image of someone collecting herself. Especially so when the mute consonant at the end of ‘desk’ makes the end-stopping here more poignant, like someone stopping for breath or someone bringing up short.

The second line is full of nasal sounds, like someone is still in her cups: ‘are in the museum’ makes this patent.

‘Pay for the beer’ in line 5, repeats the plosive scheme of line 1, but this time they are in the stress syllables. And this time, the speaker sounds adamant in her insistence, but she softens a little in ‘send flowers’ and in the next line, which has a lot of tongue-rolling sounds.

The next 4 lines talk about the past. And the word ‘past’ itself is repeated and it also sort of circumscribes these lines. The speaker reminisces about the regular walks they take on Fridays. The line with 3 repeats of the word ‘walk’ is interesting. Notice this line has 3 sentences, so that there are 2 pauses. Also, the first and second sentences are similar in structure. However their symmetry belies any congruity. Rather, their separation by a pause between them shows up a contrast, a distance separating them: she and he were walking but not together, and this is affirmed by the line ‘Everything in the past is irregular’. Which, indeed, the pace of this walking was: irregular.

The penultimate line is a slurred rendering of ‘There is no wine but there is’. Then she perks up at ‘ice cream’, with a high-note end-stop.

The last line repeats the nasal sounds of line 2, with more labial sounds. The caesura or mid-pause, and ‘many matches’, which puts me in the mind of ‘knifes in the museum’ of line 2: something sinister or naughty is going to happen.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Mending Wall"

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Robert Frost

I came across this poem when I was doing my "agony aunty for the English language" bit for the Star's Mind our English page some years ago. A reader wanted to know where the expression good fences make good neighbours (which is always trotted out as a truism!) had come from. I googled and found Frost's poem and enjoyed it greatly. (Perhaps the phrase is older though?)

The poem tells a story of two farmers surveying the wall between their land when the Spring comes, and making repairs. It is a drystone wall, so called because the stones are simply piled on one another without mortar to glue them together. Walls built in this way are common all over the British Isles, the choice of stone and design of the wall differing from region to region. (Frost was American but wrote his best poetry while living in England.)

The speaker in the poem isn't terribly bothered if the stones are scattered on the ground and feels they do not need the wall. The neighbour though is adamant and stubbornly repeats his father's aphorism:
Good fences make good neighbours.
But why, the speaker teases, it isn't as if we had cows. The farmers only have trees and they are hardly going to walk across the boundary!
Something there is that does not love a wall ...
The speaker repeats. The phrase argues directly with his neighbour's saying about good fences.

It seems to be in the natural order of things for the stones to fall apart: the winter ice has done its work, and hunters looking for rabbits have disturbed the stones perhaps (he wants to joke) even the elves have had a go at it.

But what exactly is that "something"?
... it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself.
The farmer never does. He cannot go beyond his father's words, entertain a different way of seeing the world.

Frost doesn't spell that "something" out for us, but clearly the poem is about a great deal more than two farmers and a drystone wall. It's about how people build up social barriers between them, that prevent real communication and friendship. It's a big theme carried most effectively by this playful and conversational poem.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

At my first Poetry Slam

Through the urging of friends, I found myself at my first Poetry Slam last Saturday organised by one of our puisi-poesy members, and to top it off, I was asked to be one of the five judges (Oh no!).

This is the first Poetry Slam ever in Malaysia, and to help us along to kickstart things were new friends from Singapore, Chris Mooney-Singh, his wife and their team from Word Forward. A poetry slam is a showcase of the competitive art of performance poetry, where equal emphasis is given to the ability to deliver a poem, as much as the poetic content itself.

It turned out to be really fun and I enjoyed myself, surviving the boos from the audience for being a meanie, but I would like to think I was a pretty fair, at least, though maybe a bit critical, given my familiarity and preference for written poetry.

(Personal opinion only, so please don’t take offence from a baby tricycle riding judge)

Among the KL poets, there was Tshiung Han See whose poem was interesting, but too short and not well delivered enough for me to evaluate very well, as much as I wanted to give him more marks. Jasmine Low shared a poem about her father, which was nice, but perhaps more suited as a poem on a page, plus I wanted more from her poem. Dato’ Shan’s political poem fatty fatty bomb bomb was humorous, and reminded me of Cecil Rajendra’s poetic style, but I think it was a little lightweight, considering the difficulty of effectively managing the simplicity of the diction with humour and the seriousness of its critique. Flynn Jamal was wonderfully dramatic, acting out characters with their soliloquys, but I could only give her marks on performance, but not content. Her friend, Nur Sheena Baharudin is really promising and had something going with her two poems. I liked her imagery and her use of words, especially the weaving of Malay words poetically into the second poem. Her blending of a song fragment into her first piece was creative, and not jarring in the context of the poem.

Meanwhile, Sharanya seduced the judges with her sensuous imploring to be made love to in her first poem. Sharanya’s delivery was perfect and the poem was also effective through the repetition of its rhythm. KG’s poem probably suffered, coming after Sharanya. He definitely has a good feel for language, but I felt he could have done a bit more with his piece (KG, hope you’re not angry with this). Peter Brown was the controversial decision for me, because I gave him the lowest mark for his fritter away, It is probably a case of my own personal taste, but I couldn’t quite find anything poetic in his first poem, that’s why I decided to fail him. No doubt, he is a consummate entertainer, and probably the best among the other contestants in that department, especially with his second ‘vigorous’ poem and his simulation of sex, so I gave him better marks for that, and for the fact that he had a good flow going too. His third and last piece was his best, a limerick that had some control of rhythm, rhyme and choice of words, but the repeated phrase “losing nature” …mmm… could probably be replaced with something better, I think..

The Singaporean poets, who were by far more experienced, put on a good show. Pooja Nansi had a very good first poem on how the difference in one’s manner of speaking may give rise to discrimination, and how different speakers of the English language may claim it as their own. Her second poem was equally good, but as with her first, her delivery wasn’t the best when compared to the others, and perhaps a bit of the complexity in the second poem became a stumbling block for two of the other judges, hence her not making it to the final, which was a pity. I found myself liking Bani Haykkal’s Apocalypse, and if I am not mistaken and do remember correctly, there was a very apt and effective imagery and metaphor of stacked cars. Too bad he didn’t go further, as I would have like to hear him perform another poem.

The person who took the first prize was S’porean Marc Nair, and a deserving winner at that. His first poem was on Milo addicts who impressed all the judges including me, though I later decided to deduct some marks for it being overly long and not focused enough. His second on poetry and TV was both a performance and writing feat in itself, going fast and furious along the lines, as his poem wove in and out smoothly from references to one TV show to another. Not only that, I think I sense substance in the poem, though it was too fast to catch. His last poem was also excellent and worked on smoking as a metaphor for reading or writing poetry.- a fresh idea that I enjoyed. Sharanya who was also in the final together with Peter shared a poem about a metaphorical wolf, which for me wasn't well developed throughout and came across a little flat. So, in the end, Marc’s good delivery, as well as the craft of his poems, and the variety of their subject matter help him clinch his win.

Indeed, it was good to see that neither nationalistic pride nor cross-straits rivalry between our two counties weigh in the judging. The other judges did a very good job, considering that some of them didn’t exactly read poetry, but that also goes to show too that poetry is something that is probably universally intuitive in a way, despite people having obvious differences in tastes.

Poetry slam is truly a wonderful way of opening up opportunities to aspiring poets, generating public interest in poetry and popularising it as an art form in an age of IPods, the internet and 3G communications. In this sense, performance poetry in conjunction with poetry slam would be able to engage ordinary people with its immediacy and accessibility. However, I would add that for me at least, performance poetry shouldn't be mistaken as anything-goes-self-expression, because as much as this medium allows for various forms of personal creative freedom in language and presentation, poetry is still an art, a craft that carries and draws upon a certain aesthetic sensibility and soul.

Oh yeah, I forgot about the pictures... which you can find here, under the heading The Python and the Poets

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