They talk a lot about ‘voice’ in poetry these days, I know.
But in the book I’m thinking of, there is poetic voice and then – when the poet delivers the narrative in person – there’s a whole other voice: the true, human, living, palpable one. The one that sends a million micro-vibrations through your ears and right down to your toes.
Of course, any poet can read her or his work aloud. And I do love to hear what it sounds like when it’s the author, and not the imagined-author-in-my-head. Sometimes it’s warmly more, sometimes briskly less than what I expected. But still, there’s magic in the unutterably mortal human voice.
Have you heard, for example, one of the earliest ever poetic recordings – Robert Browning in 1889 attempting to recite ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’? How his memory fails, and the best galloping poem in existence gallops not.
But recordings are good, aren’t they? If poems are fragments, shored against our ruins, the files of us reading them must add a little bit of immortality. It’s part of the thinking behind that lovely resource, The Poetry Archive. And because the technology for making such recordings is available to most of us now, via phones and tablets and desktops, many poets share things on websites via SoundCloud. And so Tom Duddy, even in his final months, was able to leave a recording of ‘The Touch’ in his own inimitable voice.
I possess a number of poetry publications issued with an accompanying CD. The brand new Quirky Press's recent (dual language) Somali Lullabies, for example, includes a CD of the lullabies sung by Maryan Anshur: they come alive in her lovely voice. Mary Johnston, who writes in the Doric, has published all her poetry pamphlets with an accompanying CD. This overcomes the language barrier instantly, as well as invoking all the humour and warmth underpinning the text. And Christine de Luca (the Edinburgh Makar who often writes in Shetlandic) has issued recordings too and also has sound files from all of her books on her website. I couldn’t read Christine’s Shetlandic poems aloud for myself: hearing them is the key to their wit, beauty and delight.
And I have quite’ a few bookless audio CDs of poets doing this and that: a little pile of them on the shelf. I never ever listen to them.
So although I have mentioned this poet before (I blogged about J.O. Morgan’s StAnza reading of At Maldon in 2014), I’m going to talk about his CD. Because you might not send for it. And even if you did, you might not listen to it.
I have listened to At Maldon six or seven times, maybe more. When I was at StAnza in March of this year, I had the CD playing in the car. The journey takes 40 minutes, (80 minutes round trip) so I was able to hear the whole of the poem every day. I had only intended to listen to it once, out of interest. After all, I’ve heard the man himself do this in a room, live.
But no. I listened over and over. This recording is a most beautiful thing. More of an audio book than a poetry sound file, because it’s a story. And yet a story so beautifully told that each time I liked it more. And I began to realise something I hadn’t realised previously – that is to say, this is something I knew in my head but not in my mind – what similes, and specifically epic similes, are really up to.
But even before he starts playing with imagery, epic and otherwise, J.O. Morgan has a special skill in simple, evocative description. In a very few words he sketches a picture and you’re there:
A farm boy ankle-deep in estuary mud.
His draw-string bag. His wooden whelking spoon.
At the same time, your ear responds to the rhythm, the melodic drive, the aural pleasure of that ‘wooden whelking spoon’. And then the farm boy sees the Viking Fleet approaching:
The horizon again.
Yet grown now from the gap,
the split between water and air,
a row of twenty matchwood boats
with wide white handkerchief sails;
as still as cardboard cut-outs on the sea.
The metaphors are simple, small and unthreatening. Matchwood, handkerchiefs, cardboard cut-outs. But you can ‘see’ them, can’t you? And sense their ominousness. At Maldon is sensual to the core: you see it, you hear it, you feel it.
Because this is a narrative that dances – it draws you in. It creates pictures for you, one after another, rich and beautiful and emotive. And the epic similes start to work on you too, one after another, comparing like with not really that like, and yet it works. They come at the subject from one side, and then another, a new facet, a new angle. A sort of elegant but riveting game. A kaleidoscope of imagery, inside which the central impression remains absolutely clear.
How do you re-create a battle? How do you put a reader/listening right inside an experience? Like this, with Leofsenu
– as he skips and twirls into the fray
a spear extending from each hand,
a grey whirr of blades like a blender on full;
so his foes are chopped and spun aside,
flung from the merry-go-round.
A blender? Surely not. And yet – yes, yes, that’s it exactly. And then the blender spins into a merry-go-round, so different and so much a part of the movement and the battle. This writer is brilliant with imagery, his tropes are tropical. And it is a dance.
But maybe you could get this without hearing the recording. And yet I want you to listen to this CD. Why?
It’s question of voice, and voices.
If I said to you, ‘the reader adopts different accents for different characters, as they move in and out of life and death’, you might raise an eyebrow. You might quail at the thought of an ‘actorly’ peformance. Well, J.O. Morgan does adopt different accents and voices, but he doesn’t work like an actor. He slips in and out of voices with as much ease as he spins from metaphor to simile. He performs like a story-teller, which is what he is, through and through. He is, on page and in person, a natural. You don’t get people who can do this often – maybe once in a generation.
And his voice, just as beautifully, conveys changes in tone and perspective. At one point he is the old Earl, Byrhtnoth; at another he stands outside time, almost the science professor:
As vegetation rots and is compressed
through lapsed millennia
by successive layerings of decay,
and all its goodness is squeezed out
and it blacken as it flattens into coal,
so bodies freshly fallen are packed down.
When I first read At Maldon on the page, I didn’t totally ‘get’ the flashbacks, or the marvellous way the anticipated (in the pub) and actual deaths of Aelfwine, Offa and Leofsunu are combined in just one scene, ducking backward and forward in time. I was reading fairly quickly. I was reading to get to the end and hold the whole thing in my mind. But this narrative is like music. At each stage, the beauty of sound and visual image is perfectly balanced. You have to hear it by by bit, let the story-teller unfold what is to be unfolded in its own time.
No matter how many times I listen, my eyes fill with tears in certain places. In fact, I think they do it more now than they first did. I know the story. I know what’s coming. But it makes no difference. I’m inside it just as vividly each time. For example, after his great attempt, when Offa finally falls:
Offa kicks and shakes away
the blades and barbs
invading his personal space.
Like flies they scatter.
Like flies they buzz back
A glittery swarm;
a hive mind set to pester,
that neither knows nor wants to stay away.
Till Offa’s pipes are cut,
and the big machinery of his body settles;
the pistons flushed of air,
the fuel-tanks dry,
the sockets clogged.
The energy of the narrative is remarkable. At Maldon is utterly topical: this is about all of us. This is about mortals fighting for life and the littleness of human beings in the universe, and our inevitable recycling in biology and story. And whatever that story is – whatever we are as living creatures – surges through this man’s voice, both on paper and in person.
Get the book from CB editions of course, (if you don’t already have it) because you’ll want to see it on the page. But above all get the CD. It is only four quid. If you have a car, listen to it wherever you’re going. If you’re a runner, run to it. It is perfect while doing a spot of cooking – and you’ll be charmed by culinary imagery in unexpected places.
But whatever you do, listen to this one. There won’t be anything like it again in our lifetime.