Saving Grace

more critical pearls from Kevin Saving (Honorary Recusant)

Reviews:
Dalgit Nagra (2007) Look We Have Coming To Dover!, Faber and Faber, London
ISBN 978-0-571-23122-5
British Library Board (2003) The Spoken Words (Poets), Audio CD, ISBN: 0-7123-0516-5

Look We Have Coming To Faber!

Retailing at a pricey £8.99, Daljit Nagra's first collection has been both critically praised and prize-recommended. It contains 31 poems and a 'Punjabi to Ungreji guide' ('Ungreji' apparently means 'English' in Punjabi). The blurb states boldly that it 'takes in its sights Mathew Arnold's 'land of dreams''. We are told that 'Nagra, whose parents came to England from the Punjab in the 1950s, conjures a jazzed hybrid language to tell stories of aspirations, assimilation, alienation and love...'
  Whilst I have often wanted to take Mathew Arnold in my sights, I find it hard to refrain from questioning some aspects of Mr Nagra's literary treatment of the land of his birth. I quite comprehend how in his poem, 'Yobbos', he can feel disenfranchised when encountering the unthinking prejudices of his fellow countrymen. And in 'Sajid Naqui' I enjoyed his off-centre elegy for a 'grungy', irreligious friend whose funeral is hi-jacked by a strict Shi-ite family. However, other poems are more problematic. Several (including 'A prelude to Suka's Adventures from the Board Room' and the title poem - a recipient of the Forward Prize) appear to poke fun at some perceived myth of meritocratic advancement in Britain. This myth (more usually entitled 'The American Dream') cannot, surely, have been sustained by anyone in Britain - not even the most ill-informed of immigrants - since Dick Whittington's day.
  I was sorry to find that Nagra's free-verse often takes on the dense, stream-of-consciousness smattering of pidgin-English (coupled with a mannered dearth of punctuation) which the academies seem, currently, to be so enamoured of. One fairly typical stanza (from 'Bibi & the street car wife') reads as follows:

  Ever since we loosened our village acres
  for this flighty mix-up country, like moody
  actress she buys herself a Datsun, with legs
  of KFC microphoning her mouth
  (ladies of temple giddily tell me her tale):
  she manicured waves of men, or honking horn
  to unbutton her hair she dirty winking:
  come on friend, I like letting you in!
 
One of the favoured adages of writer's workshops (or so I'm told) is 'Show, don't tell'. Unfortunately, when a riot of images chases each other across the page what frequently occurs, indigestably, is not so much a 'showing' as a 'showing-off'. Too often, for such a slight volume, its readers can end up feeling themselves not only patronised but that
double-standards are in play. If this reviewer (of white, English ancestry) were to adopt pidgin-English as a literary device he would, doubtless, receive opprobium. So how is it acceptable for Nagra and others to do so? Lest in these politically-so-correct times I stand accused of constructing some small-minded Little-Englander manifesto, let me add that dyslexics, too, have feelings.
  In 'Booking Khan Singh Kumar' Nagra startles himself with the insight 'Should I read for you straight or Gunga Din this gig/ Did YOU make me for the gap in this market/ Did I make me for the gap in this market' yet a few pages later in 'Kabba questions the ontology of representation, the Catch 22 for 'Black writers'' he growls ''Udder' is all vee are to yoo, to dis cuntry...vut free-minding teecher are you to luv 'our' poem...' This feels like a writer who wants both to have his chapatti and eat it.
  Whilst I can, and do, sympathise with the plight of an immigrant to Britain, racially abused, economically exploited and 'misunderstood', I'm caused to wonder if this publication hasn't missed a chance to lessen that misunderstanding and, again, for just what stratum of British society it was written.

Best of the Posthumous Poets

When critics speak of a particular poet's ''voice' they appear to have in mind some characteristic combination of syntax, form, vocabulary, subject-matter and revealed philosophy - a kind of idiosyncratic literary modus operandi. There is, however, another 'voice' which speaks more directly to the ear, which affords some aquaintance with its owner's physicality, cultural exposure, even psyche.
  This compilation of early recordings by many of the great figures of English literature (all born during the nineteenth century and all reading from their own work) makes available to the interested lay-person archival material which might previously have been obscurely inaccessible or entirely unsuspected.
  The collection opens with an 1890 recording of Alfred, Lord Tennyson declaiming sonorously (if sometimes unintelligibly due to poor sound quality) his 'Charge of the Light Brigade', and showing no signs of an allegedly broad Lincolnshire burr. It is perhaps as well that there are few 'p's or 'b's in the text. One commentator, Montague Eliot, later spoke of being put off poetry for life when, as a child and seated in the front row for a Tennysonian recital, he and other children 'were regaled with a shower of spittle'.
  This is followed by Robert Browning, caught in the year of his death from bronchitis (1889), well into his seventies, but sounding remarkably chipper. He seems the more likable, too, for first fluffing his lines and then apologising with 'I'm sorry but I can't remember me own verses!' Sir Henry Newbolt recites 'Vitai Lampada' like the archetypal product of a plummy parsonage (which, of course, he was) inciting us to 'play up, play up and play the gime'. In later life he'd come to dislike this, his best-known poem.
  We can listen to Mr William Butler Yeats discussing and then reading his 'Lake Isle of Innesfree', accent not in the least Oirish, which is unsurprizing when we know that between the ages of two and sixteen he was brought up largely in Hammersmith. In 'Tarentella', his fellow politician/poet, Hilaire Belloc breathlessly mythologises an incident ('Do you remember an Inn, Miranda? Do you remember an Inn..?') which takes on a slightly different aspect with the knowledge that the "Miranda" in question was, in fact, the Duke of Miranda (a Spanish diplomat).
  We can eavesdrop upon a strangely anonymous Rudyard Kipling, perhaps in 1921 still
guiltily grieving his son, John, whom he'd encouraged into enlisting, under-age and fatally, during the First world war. We catch Laurence ('age shall not weary them nor the years condemn') Binyon sounding...half-asleep! Eventually, with Walter de la Mare, we hear the first fully competent recitation: rich, cultivated voice, well-modulated tones. Much how we feel a poet should sound.
  We hear Robert Frost with miles to go before he sleeps, workman-like and with a pleasant New-England twang; Alfred Noyes, putting his heart into 'The Highwayman'; John Masefield (in 1941), by now every inch the lettered poet laureate, no longer the waif who'd dreamed of a maritime career and then had to jump ship (victim of irremedial sea-sickness). One notable absentee is Thomas Hardy: to date, no archive recording of his has ever been unearthed.
  We DO hear Ezra Pound - a quite dotty performance, this, featuring a cod-Scottish brogue, booming balderdash and comic self-accompaniment on the timpani. We hear Siegfried Sassoon, very much the gentleman-player, at ease with his material if not yet his memories. And we hear the old mandarin himself, Thomas Stearns Eliot, the merest inflection of the trans-Atlantic about his delivery - dry, but engagingly disinclined to treat 'The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufock' too portentiously.
  These are some of the highlights on an impressively compiled CD, which can be resourced via your local library. There is a certain magic to be found here, if you've a taste for such things, akin to finding a Virtual-Reality Scheherazade in your living room, telling her tales.
  For all that, these are not, for the most part, polished performances - certainly not by actors with extensive training in intonation, pitch and the strategic use of pause. What this collection does bring us is the immediacy of some of the world's greatest writers, speaking some of the world's greatest lines and using whatever wit and nature lent them. Not necessarily the finest interpretations available but, assuredly, the definitive ones.

Kevin Saving © 2008