The canon: what happens to new classical music compared to what happens to new poetry

I’m wondering tonight,  comparing what happens to new classical music compositions (which I used to write a lot of) and new poems (which I currently write more of) after their creation.

I was reading in the cd notes for a recording of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto that when it was written, even though people thought it was a bit showy and lacking in substance (I paraphrase) it was still a ‘welcome addition to the repertoire of 20th century piano concertos by British composers’.

Has anyone ever said anything similar about poems, that I can remember? Nothing springs totally to mind. Maybe the closest is someone saying something like ‘The Four Quartets was a welcome extended post-war statement by one of our major poets’. But that’s not quite the same thing. It’s close, but it doesn’t quite convey the sense of the utility of the artwork in terms of providing something that will ‘do’ to keep the tradition and its machinery going. I got the sense that the Britten concerto was seen as a not particularly successful bit of cooking that nonetheless filled the gap for now. Young pianists still had something contemporary to make their name with etc.

I think if the comparison between people talking about Eliot and people talking about Britten didn’t ring quite true, it’s partly to do with the differing circumstances that surround a new work in either form. With classical music, I think it’s more common perhaps for a performance to be lined up before the work is written. With poetry, there isn’t necessarily ANY performer ever involved, just the hope that there might be some readers engaged in a bit of one-on-one reception.

Is publication comparable to performance, I wonder? That’s another question.

I wonder if I’m too complacent about my poetry finding readers because I have some sort of assumption from my musical background that things that are written find an outlet? And are useful, for that matter?

What would things be like if there were figures whose profession it was to publicly read new poetry, in performances, or theatres or something? I think it’d be different to the scenario of poets just reading their work out, for example. Me, I quite like the idea of putting on a reading of other people’s poems that I thought made a nice programme, in the way that a concert programmer might with music.

As I write this, I know that there are some near examples of what I’m talking about, like I think there was a Bloodaxe tour a few years back which had a couple of actors performing contemporary poems. I like that idea. Maybe Live Literature in general is doing this a bit. The show I did as half of The Glamourous about women Beat Generation poets did this, but it also did a lot of other things simultaneously. I’m not thinking of poetry as theatre or performance poetry.

One thing I suspect is that the ratio of new classical music composed to new classical music performed is MORE EQUAL than the ratio of new poetry written to new poetry read/published.  Many reasons of course, if this is even true. Classical music’s ‘canon’ seems to be put together differently  to poetry’s ‘canon’.

This is a really unresolved thought. I want to start thinking about anthologies and whether they’re somehow implicated. I mean, they must be. They are. Will go off and ponder.

You’re such a brick!

I currently find myself with a habit of listening regularly to long-running British rural radio serial The Archers and of consuming every by-product of Agatha Christie I can get my hands on: television Marples, radio Poirots, exhibitions, Christie websites, the books themselves etc.

At work the other day, I called someone a brick. It was meant as a compliment, but I realised from the nonplussed reaction I got that not everyone goes around using  1940’s upper-class slang for a ‘good sort’, there I go again sorry, I mean ‘a great guy’. When I checked online, I found this mention on an old discussion forum that,

‘[you’re a real brick] has never been a phrase I’ve heard very often but I’ve seen it in plenty of books, especially in genres like Agatha Christie, Wooster, and others that centre on societies who have used public-schools!’.

My colleague at work said I must be hanging out with posh people, and I had I think in fact picked up the phrase from a rich art-collector who probably would consider themselves to be classed in that bracket.

Someone was reviewing PD James new book ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ in the London Review of Books recently. The book is a sort of Murder Mystery sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The reviewer kind of dismissed the book calling it a ‘Tory Idyll’. Maybe that’s my inference that it was a dismissal, but you got the sense from the tone that the reviewer was saying, the book can’t be important because it presents an unchallenged fantasy of successful life with the king in his castle and everyone knowing their place. The reviewer went on to say that buying the PD James book was akin to buying ‘a Christie for Christmas’, which apparently used to be a publicity campaign for Agatha Christie’s ever-growing book list. If you look on The Archers online discussion forum, you’ll certainly find plenty of old buffers, or at least pretend old buffers.

What does this say for my own politics and artistic stance, that I’m so into this trad y’Englsh fayre? It might have to do a little with my educational experience which saw me go on scholarship to one of Edinburgh’s private school’s aged 12 after attending my local primary, and then going on to Cambridge University to sing in St John’s College Choir after a year training at Winchester Cathedral. I mean, those transitions took me a long way away from my family’s more Scottish working class context and probably I was fascinated and awed a little. I should probably confess at this point – I mean, I need to confess it somewhere before I’m found out! – that I appear on the roll of members of Cambridge University Conservative Society. I can explain! There was a politically ambitious chap in the choir at John’s who was standing for some office in the society and persuaded me that it was ok to join up, even if I didn’t hold the appropriate views, purely so he could garner more votes. I mean, how could  I mind who was running a society I didn’t care about anyway? Well, there you go, proof if needed that Conservatives are corrupt 😉

Anyway, I think there’s always a child-like awe potential with visions of richness and privilege. I loved those Christmas adaptations of children’s books that came on when I was wee, like ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ or ‘The Box of Delights‘ even before there was any prospect of social-climbing myself.

I’ve noticed that some of the language from my vintage conservative obsession is finding its way into my writing. Here’s an excerpt from a recent poem called ‘a brilliant character dies early on’.


‘Gotta love a posh help,

a bet that paid off, that didn’t suck. Miss Molly

had maid in a bother and a lather,  all over some employment law tosh.

Miss wasn’t asking for an identity parade, but the bunkum spun Mother wouldn’t wash.’


I’m not quite sure what this is doing, but I think the language of war-time upper class Brit feels like a fun tool to use to write about social relations. I have a friend who is doing a PhD on Christie, so I guess my inspirations needn’t be dismissed as mere Tory frippery, or at least not uninteresting Tory frippery.

Photopost #1

Just to break up all this text, I thought it’d be a different sort of contextualisation from my life, creative and otherwise, but all feeding in to the same well of memory, to put up some more or less disparate photos from my camera phone. I was chatting to photographer/academic Richard Williams tonight at the Inspace opening, and we were agreeing that since camera phones/new media etc, we’re all photographers, film-makers now, and it’s uncertain what status these activities have for us creative sorts. I certainly find myself taking pictures a fair bit with my phone, knowing that the equipment is not specialised for the genre and that I have no formal training etc.  But I like looking through them and they’re harder to mess up than poetry 😉

Portentous, or what?! :-/

Very Small Kitchen. I AM NOT A POET

The title for this blog post isn’t as nonsensical as it seems. Or rather, it kind of is in a delightful whimsy of naming as it’s what David Berridge, poet and avant-gardist based in London, calls his wordpress blog. The blog covers, as he says,  ‘Connections of language, writing, reading and art practice, inside and outside the VerySmallKitchen.’. That’s better than what I’ve come up with, isn’t it? This isn’t a competition, though, luckily for me, although some poets out there seem to be treating poetics as social warfare. Good luck to them etc. …cans of worms… where was I?

Oh yes, David Berridge. Look at the beautiful haikuey thing on his blog’s About section: ‘Let’s ban gravity/ Let’s ban the moon and/ Read all our spam’. That’s the kind of genteel aspirational anarchic spirit I enjoy.

I’m talking about David Berridge because he organised a season called I AM NOT A POET last Edinburgh Festival-time (Aug 2011) with Mirja Koponen at the sadly missed Total Kunst Gallery in the Forest centre. My friend Colin Herd was doing a durational performance in the gallery over 3 days which he invited a different poet into each day for a short reading. I was very grateful to be one of the poets alongside Jow Walton and Samantha Walton, in what was really my first public solo-reading venture of my own poetry straight-up. It was ok, my reading*, but one of the nice and unlooked-for bonuses was that David Berridge invited me to contribute, along with all the other artists involved in the season, a double-sided page of A4 to what he calls an ‘assembling’ publication – basically a sort of loose leaf folio with a title page at the front in pink (fortuitously enough for my blog :-)).

People submitted wonderful and diverse things. My contribution was a playful landscape of columns of text in which I was experimenting with mainly one-word lines with obvious rhymes. It was an early part of something I’ve developed further since (c.f. the three silly pillars reference in my earlier blog entry for those paying close attention!). I thought I’d share the publication link here as I loved and love being part of such a cool venture which felt like a welcome opportunity for a bit of spontaneous and carefree experiment. It’s a free download on issuu:

Colin Herd’s page, by the way, describes what he was doing for his installation, so if you read that, you’ll have an idea of the scene for my reading and for the sort of event I AM NOT A POET was. Which is to say, it’s own thing!

the first page of my poem in the assembling

*I admit, I did find it quite embarrassing that I’d chosen to start my reading by reading one of my fave poems by Colin –  in context with Colin having just intro-ed me, it seemed kind of strange and impudent! Colin said ‘nice one Iain, well done, liked the poem’ at the end, or some such nonplussed retort. It’s weird what you do in life that you think is a good idea. I guess you eventually hope you convince people you’re not a freak. I spend a lot of time back-pedalling away from social death when I first meet people, I’ve noticed….

Something has happened (because of the internet)


I’ve been coming to terms with what feels like a fact; the ways we have learned to take in info through digital platforms has issued a challenge to anyone making any sort of art now.

I’m a great believer that to put your head in the sand and create in outmoded styles, because they fit your current way of seeing the world, is to fail to do the proper job of an artist and stretch your head so that it’s big enough to appreciate and communicate the new phenomena of our times. In fifty years, I bet it’s the people who went with the difficult path and didn’t get much public appreciation for their apparently incomprehensible output, who will be seen as the real ground-breakers and prophets. That’s what I’d rather be, anyway, though I’m maybe being idealistic.

One of the biggest changes of now is the way the internet has made loads of stuff accessible all the time. There’s a lot of writing around just now in magazines about people being scared of what’s happening to our heads as a result of this connectivity. People have always been scared of new technologies (Victorians thinking their blood would boil if they went faster than 30mph etc.) but it’s a given that our brains are learning new behaviours. I’m not averse to this, but I think it’s having an impact on both the form and content of art works (including literature, music etc).

Formally –  because we’re skitting around between lots of information as a habit (realising a postmodern ideal?) and we can rely on the person consuming our creative output to have access to related media. They can look things up on wikipedia, they can follow links, they can see what other people who saw this also watched etc. I feel that the boundaries of an art work have become more blurred than ever because of this linkedness. I think also it’s breaking down boundaries between traditional artforms (a process already underway pre-internet, for sure).


Contentwise –  because one of the side effects of having access to every view or culture under the sun, especially on user-generated platforms like youtube, is that everything seems very provisional and relative. Taking a permanent position, isn’t very easy to pull off in the context of a whirl of data and contradiction only a click away. I’m sensing there’s a retreat from work that asserts strong positions, that makes claims for individual superiority, genius, or that believes confidently in its ability to communicate a precise message.

I think people have developed an aesthetics of multiplicity and there’s often a sense in art work of being immersed in infinite data or something. I like writing like this which plays with all these different voices, sometimes like my friend Colin Herd’s poetry (see my links) lifting speech verbatim out of the ether(net). I say I like writing like that, but I admit it took me a while to even begin to see what might be done with it rather than just baffle me.

I came across this art-work online by Rafael Rozendaal the other day which harks back to that nostalgic hinterland of early computer graphics. It’s basically a sort of 3-D colourful maze which you can mindlessly scroll around in a happy haze. Although the look of it is retro, the artist is very interested in the ‘space of the browser’ as a site for images and also in the interaction we can have in the form of the internet. This is a total example of someone letting the new forms available dictate, bravely, how they create, I think. Also, interestingly, I came across the work on an online artfair, where it was being offered for sale alongside actual physical artworks. I think that’s one of the challenges for an artist these days. Fine, make art that’s online, but will anyone actually literally buy it? It’s a similar challenge, perhaps, to the ones facing music and film with regard to free or cheap download culture. Mind you, seen from a different perspective, it’s a challenge to the big grip of Capitalism. If creativity no longer functions as commodity, then where does that leave things. Good luck to those stuck in the hinterland in the meantime. May I be adventurous enough to have a look in my own works, even if it means no one pays me :-/

Short Thought About Words

So, I was thinking today that I can’t avoid the choice of which style of language I can write in. Once you realise that you are using a closed set of words because you have assumed them to be the ‘acceptable’ ones, or the traditional ones, or the cool ones or whatever, then it’s hard to stick to them without feeling that somehow you are not using fresh thoughts, because the words are so bound up in the thoughts.

It also can feel artificial, though, to take a whole new set of words off the peg. I mean, then what does that do to your identity as a voice? It changes it of course – and that’s the dizzying power of words. They’re literally the bricks of thought. LITERALLY. Ok, literally is debatable….

I really can’t remember why I was thinking about that just now. Could be one of several things. I’m starting to try to read Marx’ Das Capital for a reading group and realised quickly how many of his terms have entered the language – that was one thing.

What’s the alternative to sticking within the comfort vocabulary? Using every trick in the box? Then do you end up with word soup, as my friend the poet Sam Walton terms some poetry? I can’t help but think that words embody much more hidden freight in them than most people suspect.

I’d like to let the words in my poetry steer me and my thought sometimes, as well as me trying to herd them.