The Self in "Self Determination" — a Relevant Case
I recently received two requests to use examples of my phonetic work from the seventies in education: one from an English publisher about to publish a book of preparation work for A Levels in English Literature; the other from the Scottish Qualifying Authority asking to use my work in a forthcoming Scottish examination.
The English publisher wanted to print my poem “Poetry” preceded by an unattributed quote: “Tom Leonard taught me two very important lessons about poetry. 1. Whatever your accent, the way you speak - like your fingerprints - is unique and, so, a precious part of who you are. 2. Poetry says that your voice deserves to be heard. His poems are often from the point of view of people who have been told that they don't speak 'proper English'. They're often spelt phonetically: that is, instead of being spelt as they would be in a dictionary, the words are spelt as they would be pronounced.”
After the poem itself, questions included:
Say this poem out loud. Do you use language in a different way when you speak and write? In general, do you think poetry is more like speech or writing? How does that illuminate the poem's form and meaning? In his poem, '100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose', Leonard says 'Poetry is the heart and the brain divided by the lungs'. Would you say Leonard's argument in 'Poetry' is intellectual, emotional or both? Support your theory with examples from the poem. If you're interested in all these ideas about poetry, voice and identity, you could write your own poem about what makes a poem a poem, or a poet a poet. Write it to represent your natural speech as closely as possible; creating your own spelling system if necessary. Is this different from the way you normally write?
An hour or two after receiving the above request by email, I received another this time from the Scottish Qualifying Authority. They wanted permission to use the opening three paragraphs of my prose work “Honest”. It would appear in an exam in a section headed “The Use of Scots in Contemporary Literature” and was to be set alongside a poem in traditional Shetland dialect. “One should read the texts carefully then answer either questions 7 or 8.”
I replied to the English request, granting permission.
To the Scottish Qualifying Authority I wrote: “I do not grant permission for my work to be used. It is not an example of "Scots" whatever that highly politicised term means, and I will not allow any of my phonetic work to be used as a false aunt sally within such a defining context."
In informing my publisher Nicholas Johnson what had happened, I told him: “This is the second occasion recently I have had to send such a reply. I was happy to give the English request permission, happy that they would link a poem like 'Poetry' to personal articulation and the line in 100 Differences 'Poetry is the heart and the brain divided by the lungs'. There is no one in Scotland just now that I know capable of making that connection, let alone in an exam board. Nationalism like a virus here is pushing the possibility of there being such perception further away.”
Talking with the actors about Mother Courage and her Children on Saturday and Sunday, I mentioned that in the middle of translating I bought the print books of the Scottish artist Muirhead Bone’s series The Western Front that he made for the War Office in 1917. It seemed appropriate whilst I was as it were travelling across the desolate war terrain of Mother Courage’s Europe, to travel visually with Muirhead Bone—whose work I have always liked—on his journey through the devastated war terrain of France.
It struck me as no more than my getting “mental atmosphere” as I wrote, but after listening to the end of the play on Saturday and Sunday
it struck me that the translation in the last line had of course been triggered at the back of my mind by the famous recruiting poster of those days YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU. The last line is a kind of bitter parthian invocation to the audience.
I put up two of the Muirhead Bone posters on my journal while translating the play in July 2010. This one below is another in the series, the foreground including, according to its accompanying description, old trenches and dugouts.
Have had an exhilarating experience this past two afternoons. In a rehearsal room at the National Theatre of Scotland premises in Glasgow director Graham McLaren has directed a group of actors reading out my translation of Mother Courage and Her Children. They have shown a real understanding of the language, the nuances, a delivery and when required, a panache that has been music to my ears. After three long years with my script I felt yesterday “The secret is out.” Whatever happens, the secret is out. And some of the songs performed were very movingly done.
A final rehearsal tomorrow afternoon in the Tron, then the public staged reading itself there at 7.30.
Back from London where before we got the train back home my son took us to his nearest gallery the Estorick in Canonbury Square where there was an exhibition of later de Chirico painting and sculpture. It came back to my mind lying in bed this morning seeing the ceiling damage over towards the window, so I got my camera and took a photo. Nothing much online from the exhibition though this figure called Castor from 1973 was one of the exhibits.
My translation of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children has now been published and is available online from the publisher at £8.99 plus £1 postage here
Another old school book.
A subject I enjoyed a lot when I went to secondary school was elementary geometry. Used to like working out different ways of solving a problem beyond the first-discovered evidently “correct” one. I remember once when we had been told the solution in class to a set problem and I proposed my different way of solving it, the teacher said my final proof was what we would later find was called proof by analogy.
These elemental geometric shapes remind me of my triptych “For those of us who have to live outside the narrative”. And the pleasure I felt when one of my sons told me that when he grew up he wanted “to study shapes in nature.”