I spent September and October 2018 at the Houghton Library in Harvard, as a Library Visiting Fellow, thinking about leftovers and aphorisms (and aphorisms as leftovers) in Edward Lear’s poetry, diaries and letters.
It’s been over two years since Professor Suzie Hanna and I recorded Glenda Jackson reciting ‘The Blue from Heaven’ in a little Woolwich studio. Since then, the track has been waiting patiently in the wings as Suzie experimented with ways to animate Stevie Smith’s extraordinary poem.
Suzie tested out filmed footage, symbolic imagery, collage (all juggled with running a busy Masters course at NUA) but nothing seemed quite right for this strange, resistant little text. Describing Arthur riding through a blue world – coloured by mysterious gigantic cornflowers, which tower above his head – the poem challenges us to separate the literal from the symbolic, the metaphorical from the nonsensical.
I happened to see on Twitter that the Abingdon County Hall Museum, just a few miles from Oxford, was holding a week-long exhibition on the life and work of Dorothy Richardson. I’ve got a great dissertation student working on Dorothy Richardson this year, so I decided that this counted as teaching prep. I left my (almost-finished) thesis behind for the mid-week trip to Abingdon.
Well, it’s always fun doing this, fitting other words to an old tune. (Stevie Smith, ‘A Turn Outside’
Stevie Smith sang a lot of her poems in performance. Often, her subtitles include instructions about the tunes which they should be sung to.
It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.
He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.
Coleridge’s Person from Porlock had a good few outings in the mid-twentieth-century.
My first name, Wystan,
Rhymes with Tristan,
But – O dear! – I do hope
I’m not quite such a dope.
For the last few days, I’ve been preoccupied by Shaun Tan’s illustrations for the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Tan created sculptures corresponding to 75 of the fairy tales, each photographed and presented alongside a snippet of the original narrative.