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A Metaphor Backed By Law (Brittle Star #40, June 2017)

14 Jun

 

Brittle Star (Issue 40)

Since the middle of last year, I’ve been writing a column for Brittle Star magazine, mainly using it as a space for thinking aloud about writing in general. Full Spectrum Poetry (issue #38) argued for a definition of poetry that doesn’t bind it solely to a specialist sub-category of writing called ‘poems’ while The Lyric Mode (issue #39) picked up on the arguments about the exact relationship between poetry and songwriting triggered by Bob Dylan’s Nobel laureateship: might it be Dylan’s very literariness that made his award problematic as a recognition of songwriting on its own terms?

Both these issues are still available.

The latest issue, #40, features a consideration of the fictional, highly poetic nature of money – or at least, the fictional, poetic and ultimately irrational belief systems required to sustain a sense of reality around this chimeric substance we grant so much sway over our own and others’ lives. Tracing a line from an off-hand remark by Robert Graves through Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market to “The Magic Money Tree” of recent election debate notoriety, A Metaphor Backed By Law appears in issue #40, which launches at Barbican Library on June 28.

Brittle Star – launch for Issue 40
Wednesday 28 June, 6.30 for 7pm
Barbican Music Library, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS.
Nearest tube: Barbican or Old Street.
FREE event but space is limited: book on 020 7638 0569

Brittle Star (Issue 38)
“Even so, [Philip Larkin’s] way of looking at finance still fits neatly into our standard idea of money as a practical tool, something that exists in the world, even if we do fail to use it well or acquire its promised blessing. The actual relationship between poetry and money turns out to lie in stranger, much deeper territory. In Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, for example, money is glimpsed in its true, chimeric and phantasmagorical forms. Rossetti’s poem shows us money’s seductive evanescence and changeability, its connections to our wishes and desires made literal flesh in the goblins’ fruit:

“I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather.”
“You have much gold upon your head,”
[The goblins] answer’d all together
“Buy from us with a golden curl.”

She clipp’d a precious golden lock,
She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,
Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock…

Christina Rossetti (1859)

As Christina Rossetti’s heroine soon discovers, the cost of her transaction is paid in more than money – and if a golden curl can be used as a coin, it’s because the coin itself is only an arbitrary token. Yet we do still insist on thinking of money as a solid and practical thing, almost the opposite of poetry. When Amber Rudd and Theresa May invoke the undoubtedly poetic image of ‘The Magic Money Tree’ during an election debate, the phrase is plainly meant to be dismissive, derisive and wounding – who could be so naive as to imagine such a thing exists? – even as it turns out to offer a perfectly accurate image of what money is and how it has been produced…”

[Extract from: A Metaphor Backed By Law (Brittle Star #40)]

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“Planet Claire has pink air.
All the trees are red.
No-one ever dies there.
No-one has a head…

The B52s: Planet Claire, 1979

Memorable and effective as they are, songs like these aren’t operating by the rules we expect when approaching the canons that define our sense of how contemporary poetry might be written. Their antecedents lie in those traditions represented by Mother Goose and Lewis Carroll, by the nursery rhyme, nonsense poem and anonymously authored folk air. Modernism’s antipathy to its own late-Victorian lyrical inheritance may partly explain why this approach is undervalued in the poetry of our own time, but remains a live concern in the popular song. A good deal of nonsense verse can be found in the catalogue of The Residents, for example, whose 1978 Duck Stab/Buster & Glen recordings amount to a fairly direct, if musically unsettling, reinvention of Edward Lear:

Skinny was born in a bathtub
and grew so incredibly thin
that even the end of an eye-dropper sucked him in.

Skinny never knew any questions,
Skinny never looked at lights
but Skinny sold something every single night…

The Residents: Hello Skinny, 1978

Eighteenth century literary fashions for ballads, children’s rhymes and commonplace verses of the kind collected in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) stirred disputes not unlike those seen since the Nobel committee made its announcement a few weeks ago. They were deeply concerned with questions about what was true and authentic art, what merely artifice and kitsch, in ways that are evidently still with us. Breaches of literary decorum, like the apparently superfluous but musical phrase, can be disapproved of but may also be where much of the song’s appeal lies: “We can refute Hegel, but not the Saint or The Song of Sixpence” as Yeats once put it.”

[Extract from: The Lyric Mode (Brittle Star #39)]

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