Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer of music and poetry

This has truly been a summer of music and poetry - and not only because we commemorated the 40th anniversary of the famous Woodstock Festival.

Every summer I attend a few great music concerts - rock, jazz or classical - in the magnificent amphitheatres that the ancient Romans left behind in the south of France. This year I've been exceptionally fortunate in my choice and spent a couple of glorious hours in the company of Marianne Faithfull, David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and Leonard Cohen, among others. The problem is that all these musical excursions - together with the usual seasonal avalanche of social invitations and visitors from far and near - played havoc with my reading habits. Which is where the poetry came in.

Whenever I struggle to find time for the hefty literary novels I adore, I turn to poetry. Short and sweet. Sometimes short and bitter. Sometimes not so short at all, but still manageable if you have only half an hour's reading time while waiting in the queue for David Byrne's show. I don't know much about poetry. I just know that I love certain poems, whether I 'understand' them or not. It's a little like human relationships, I guess. Often we can't explain rationally why we love the people we love.

Suffice to say I see myself as one of those 'some people' in Wislawa Szymborska's poem Some people like poetry - which happens to be one of my favourite poems. It starts like this:

Some people -
that means not everyone.
Not even most of them, only a few.
Not counting school, where you have to,
and poets themselves,
you might end up with something like two per thousand.

Read the rest, if you don't know it yet, in Szymborska's Poems New and Collected 1957 - 1997.

I reread the Polish Szymborska this summer, along with some evergreens like the Canadian Margaret Atwood and the South African Antjie Krog. I also read some fresh young Afrikaans voices, like Carina Stander (Die vloedbos sal weer vlieg), Loftus Marais (Staan in die algemeen nader aan vensters) and Danie Marais, not related to Loftus (Al is die maan 'n misverstand). And I discovered some new poets, not new in the sense that they're young or unknown, but still marvellously new to me because I was not aware of them, although they might have been publishing for years, even decades. This is one of the advantages of not knowing much about poetry. You discover old-but-new poets all the time.

My latest discovery is Tony Hoagland, an American poet who was born in 1953, followed The Grateful Dead at some stage, and has been publishing since the eighties. Already in 2003 his collection What Narcissism Means to Me was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. So I suppose you can say he's been around.

I discovered Hoagland when another poet sent me one of Hoagland's poems - appropriately, I thought, since poets themselves seem to be the only people who really know the work of other poets - and it was such a fine example of the right poem at the right moment that I immediately fell under Hoagland's spell. I was on my way to one of this summer's musical delights, the Marianne Faithfull concert in Lyon, when the poem Are you experienced? popped up on my computer screen. It is a wonderful, nostalgic and funny description of a rock festival where 'Jimi Hendrix played Purple Haze on stage,/ scaling his guitar like a black cat/ up a high-voltage, psychedelic fence', and the poet was desperately searching for his car because 'I wanted to have something familiar/ to throw up next to'.

The haze I was in
was actually ultraviolet, the murky lavender
of the pills I had swallowed
several hundred years before,
pills that had answered so many of my questions,
they might as well have been guided tours
of miniature castles and museums,
microscopic Sistine Chapels
with room for everyone inside.

But now the poet found himself 'unable to recall the kind and colour of the car I owned', and unable to guess 'that one day this moment/ cleaned up and polished/ would itself become/ some kind of credential.'

Experience, indeed. Jimi Hendrix was one of the most brilliant victims of the excesses of the sixties. I read the poem a few hours before I watched Marianne Faithfull - surely one of the ultimate survivors of that wild decade. She's been everywhere, she's done everything, she's got the scars to prove it. Hoagland's words are a glorious post scriptum to that age of sex, drugs and rock and roll, a lament for the victims, an ode to the survivors.

Read the poem for yourself, read other poems by the same poet, read other poems by other poets. As for me, I'm going to continue reading poetry now that the days are getting shorter again. Who knows, it might even turn into a winter of music and poetry...

Monday, August 3, 2009

The president, the professor and the police officer

Once again I'm amazed at how real life can sometimes come crashing into the fiction one is reading.

I posted my first blog entry last year on the day that Barack Obama was elected President of the USA, because I realised that I was reading the perfect book at the perfect moment: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. And last week, as Obama had to deal with the first potentially damaging 'racial incident' of his presidency - after a prominent black professor from a New England university town had been arrested for burglary in his own home - I was reading a remarkable campus novel about black academics and their fancy homes in, yes, you guessed, a New England university town.

Zadie Smith's On Beauty , winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, would have been a joy to discover under any circumstances, but the media blitz following the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates - by a white police officer who mistook him for a burglar - added some authentic seasoning to a tasty dish of make-believe and satire.

Smith, in case you've forgotten, was seen as something of a literary Wunderkind after the success of her debut novel, White Teeth, while she was still in her early twenties. Her next book, The Autograph Man, proved that she was not simply a shooting star, and On Beauty, written before she turned thirty, confirmed that she was indeed 'the author setting the bar for her generation', as The Scotsman claimed. She was praised even more profusely in The New Statesman: 'Smith can outwrite all but a few of her contemporaries, and everyone her own age.'

After reading this wise and witty and sexy and stylish campus novel, I can only agree. Smith is an astonishingly accomplished author - not only for her age, but for any age - and On Beauty is a story with emotional substance and intellectual depth, which also happens to be very, very funny. Her characters are completely convincing three-dimensional people of various ages, races and social classes; her dialogue is always pitched perfectly, whoever is speaking; and the plot, full of unexpected twists and delightful turns, provides pure narrative pleasure.

So if you're still looking for a book to carry you through these long lazy days of summer (or long dark winter nights, if you're living on the other half of the planet), hurry up and read this one. And while you're enjoying the humorous depiction of black intellectuals and art critisism and campus politics and family relations and marital infidelity - and much, much more - do spare a thought for the real-life black intellectual who was recently invited, by the first black president of his country, to share a beer with the white police sergeant who'd arrested him.

One more proof that life outdoes even the best satirical fiction, time and again.