Friday, 9 December 2016

On pointless virtuosity

In his 2008 collection Song & Dance the poet John Fuller unveiled a new form: the autogram. This, he explained in a helpful note, was 'the imitation of a poet's work limited to using only the letters found in his or her name'. The following lines, for instance, use only the letters appearing in the name of . .  but can you guess?

Hail ami!
Wilt halt? Wilt wait?
What am I? An animal in a hat? Naw.
(Am I a Milan wit? A Taiwan tin-man? Naw!)

No prizes for that one. The others are trickier, and I'll admit to not 'getting' them all straight away, or in one case at all. But - how to say this politely? - I  really couldn't be bothered. An adroit pastiche is something to admire, to be sure, but a highly predetermined exercise such as Fuller's leaves me cold. What exactly is it that are we being invited to admire? The pastiche itself or the tight constraints within which it has been executed?

Fuller's autograms are certainly virtuosic but strike me as perfect examples of pointless virtuosity, making the location where the engagingly ludic becomes, well, merely ludicrous. Gilbert Adair once observed that 'clever-clever' does enot mean 'double clever' but 'half clever'.  I think he was referring to Tom Stoppard who, in Travesties, gave cleverness a bad name, soaring far beyond the ability of any audience to follow his giddy virtuosity (involving cut-up Dadaist limericks in French, I seem to recall)

The French, with their lightly-worn and culturally embedded stanbdards of intellectual  pretension are much better at this kind of thing, both as writers and readers. The Oulipian authors in particlar, worked gleefully within masochistically severe self-inflicted restraints to test both their own startling ingenuity, the outer limits of form and their readers' forebearance. You know the kind of thing - Perec's novel La Disparition (which excludes the letter 'e') or his 5,000 word palindrome; or la Vie mode d'emploi in which an apartment building is systematically and painstakingly explored and inventoried, room by room, using as a navigarting principle the Knight's move in chess. There's a place for all this of course, and a distinguished one, but it can all seem awfully remote from the pulse of life.

The poet Luke Kennard's latest collection, Cain, (published by Penned in the Margins) won this year's British Book Design and Production Award. It really is a beautiful piece of work, comparable in apperance to one of Alasdair Gray's exquisitely-wrought novels. It's beautifully printed in black and red and the acclaimed centrepiece is a series of thirty or so prose anagrams based on a passage from the Book of Genesis, the 'am I my brother's keeper' bit about Cain and Abel.

'Virtuoso' (from the Italian virtuoso) has the Latin stem, vir, implying manliness.. That masculinuty can best express itself through dazzling technical adroitness, facility and (by implication) commitment to an artistic practice is flattering for us blokes, but unsettling too..

I recall several 'virtuoso' performances in the past year or two. and as it happens they were all by men: One that springs to mind is Robert LePage at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival in a seamless (and often bloodless) epic  involving a model apartment building (shades of Perec) and an army of unseen assistants making it all happen. It will be re-staged at the Brbican next year. It had its moments, and many of them, but I was often reminded of the Charlie Parker recording Bird with Strings, in which the saxophonist performed in front of an orchestra, killing stone dead the very thing he was best at - wild improvisation unhampered by sheet music and orchestration. It was, I suppose, an ill-fated bid for artistic 'respectability' aimed at the posh, and quite horrible.

I suppose I prefer work that has a raggedy, unpolished feel, from Trout Mask Replica to . . . well, you know.

Autogram extract copyright John Fuller

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