So I had the huge pleasure of seeing Saul Williams
perform at the London Word Festival
last week. It turned out it was a spoken word event rather than a performance of the new album, but to be honest I didn’t mind. He’s an amazingly charismatic performer, with real presence on the stage and an almost magical ability to connect with the audience – he had the whole place pretty much captivated (and very excited). And I was both surprised and pleased to find that he had a silliness and playfulness that balanced/matched his poetic intensity.
Part of the pleasure of hearing him perform was that so much of it was familiar – from Slam
, his albums
and the books
of his I’ve been reading; he ended his performance with the first section of last week’s collection, , said the shotgun to the head
– which was really special, given that I’d just read it that morning.
, said the shotgun to the head is basically one long book-length poem, about a kiss that changes the poet’s life (‘here is the account of a man so ravished by a kiss that it distorts his highest and lowest frequencies of understanding’). Divided into ten ‘chapters’, it’s laid out on the page in different fonts, weights and settings, which added to the playful nature of the book (and made it fun to read).
As with She
there was a lot in it
that went way over my head, but the lyrical inventiveness of Williams’ writing made it a pleasure to read nonetheless (and I was reassured by his own confession, on Monday, that he’s not entirely sure what everything he writes actually means). But thinking about understanding poetry got me thinking about the fact that modern poetry would be more accessible if the reader has an awareness of what’s gone before – that is, twentieth-century poetry – of which I personally am largely ignorant, beyond Yeats and Eliot. Saul Williams’ poetry is clearly hugely influenced by beat poetry (he quotes Bob Kaufman
in , said the shotgun
…), and again, I’ve read nothing of any of the beat poets.
So I went looking for an introduction to twentieth-century poetry, to fill in a few of the gaps for me. I didn’t really find the book I was looking for, but I did get hold of Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem
(nicely synchronous I thought), which looked like it was worth buying for the excellent introduction (the ‘rules’ of modern poetry and the renaissance of British poetry) alone. I haven’t finished it yet but she makes the excellent point that 1: not only is the ‘difficulty’ part of the pleasure of reading poetry – ‘the sound or music of the poem seduces the ear and lures in our imagination to make us work at understanding the meaning’ – but also 2: we are used to difficulty in other art forms – films, comedy and so on – it’s just that most people haven’t kept pace with the way poetry evolved over the twentieth century. Just as modern poetry can be baffling if you haven’t read anything beyond the Romantics, so would modern cinema – its plots, editing and so on – be utterly confusing if you had stopped watching cinema when it was still silent and black and white. (Of course the bulk of the book is a collection of fifty-two columns on individual poems that were initially published in the Independent
, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into them, too; maybe, too, they’ll help me up my game a little in terms of writing this blog.)
So thanks for the prompt to go a little deeper, Saul. Again, due to there being no separate poems as such I can’t pull out any favourites. But here’s the opening, with the Bob Kaufman quote:
children of the night,
bearers of the day torch:
scorched and burned.
the dam is broken.
the curse is fled.
once muddied and still,
the river runs
those ships that never sailed
the ones with their seacocks open
that were scuttled in their stalls
i bring them back
HUGE AND INTRANSITORY
and let them sail
And here’s a fantastic picture of the man in action:
(photo © Liberation Frequency, from this set on flickr)
, said the shotgun to the head, Saul Williams (MTV Books, 2003)