A confession: although my blog name is profanepoet, I find it difficult to write serious profanity. I may use the odd ‘bloody’ or ‘bastard’ quite freely, but it’s all very tame in comparison to something like The Book of Mormon. I had a fairly strict religious upbringing, and although I did rebel against that, enough indoctrination remains to inhibit me from mocking other people’s religion. Ultimately TBoM is quite affectionate toward the Mormons, but it certainly patronizes them as well as Africans and presumably caused offense to many. I find such humour extremely appealing to watch but impossible to write.
I have the same trouble with writing comedy. When I was a PhD student at Cambridge I joined the Footlights – not as a performer, since if anything my stage fright was worse back then, but as a writer. I was a bad fit to the group. The comedy style that served as their model was Viz magazine, a deliberately offensive Newcastle comic book (which, by the way, I loved). I admired Andy Parsons and Henry Naylor and the rest, but I couldn’t write for them.
Quite a few other women felt the same way, and we formed a splinter group, putting on our own show starring Sue Perkins. I remember very little of it — I’m not sure they even used any of my material, though my name did get on the programme. Highlight of my comedy career.
Go see it. Well, OK, not if you’re easily offended by profanity. But it’s hilarious, chock-full of great set-piece song and dance numbers. Stone and Parker manage to simultaneously send up Broadway musicals and be a prime example of the form. The song lyrics are not great poetry, but my goodness they are crowd pleasers.
A few rows in front of us was a party of 7 people dressed as Mormon missionaries in camp tribute. I’ve never seen that sort of thing for a show still in previews. I predict this one will run and run. Like dysentery.
I’ve made a stab at reading some classics of modern Scottish poetry. With a name like McLean, you can tell I’d be kindly disposed towards it. We Americans take pride in our ancestral heritage. In school I memorized ‘To a Louse’ and recited it in my very best (very bad) attempt at the accent.
So I made an honest effort to read Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.’ It had all the obscurity of Burns with none of the power or wit. The dialect was part of the problem of course: even with the glossary, Lallans would slow anyone down (Scots included, I’d bet). But a bigger problem was the rambling self-indulgent self-pitying mess that it appeared to be trying to say. I thought it might just be the depiction of drunkenness, so I skipped to the end when the narrator was supposed to be more sober, but that didn’t seem to help. I lost patience with it.
Tom Leonard’s ‘Intimate Voices’ was on the surface just as impenetrable, in Glaswegian rather than Lallans. But even without a glossary the meaning was clear enough, and it had a real music to it. As with Don Paterson’s early work, the subject matter wasn’t my favourite, dealing largely with going out and getting drunk and getting hit. But if that’s what you’re going to write about, then the Glaswegian voice seems appropriate.
Even so, Scottish dialect poetry causes me some niggling discomfort as a manifestation of Scottish nationalism. I can sympathize that they want a stronger identity, but as a leftie I’m against nationalism of every sort, as a matter of principle. We should be trying harder to integrate cultures, not separate and purify them. It’s worth bearing in mind that MacDiarmid was rooting for a Nazi invasion of Britain, because he thought it would be good for Scotland. Now there was a group that understood cultural purity.
As foretold, I finished Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and liked it. He constantly uses long run-on sentences, which I normally dislike (he must use ‘and’ more than any poet I know), but they work for him. He rhymes alternate lines, almost always masculine rhymes, with the rhyming line usually shorter (maybe 3 beats vs 5-6 in the non-rhyming line). All that combined with an accentual meter like Beowulf gives a breathless driving rhythm to the poetry. And of course the subject matter is poignant, all about the world he inhabited and his worries for its future — written in 1938. “Fair dues,” we can think in retrospect, “He was right to be concerned.”
I was less taken with Anne Sexton’s Transformations, where she retells a series of Grimm fairy tales. They’re such powerful stories to begin with, it didn’t seem she added a lot. There were a few nice touches, like Sleeping Beauty ending up a terrified insomniac, always dreaming she’s ninety. That was probably the strongest recurrent theme: anxiety about the transition from young girl to hag, which we all go through if we live long enough. But then other additions worked less well, such as accusations of sexual abuse by Sleeping Beauty’s father. Most of the compelling darkness was present in the original stories, as far as I remember. As a reimagining it falls short of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, let alone other modern poets like AE Stallings. But perhaps those modern poets wouldn’t have done it without her – I don’t have a very good feel for how ground-breaking she was at the time.