A (Sixth?) Sense of Proportion

I am intrigued by aesthetic proportions, most notably the Golden Section. (Blame a second year undergraduate course on medieval and modern structures and living with somebody else’s writing a paper on the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence / golden ratio in nature and art!) When I am writing music I don’t consciously go out of my way to adhere to any particular proportions, but once a piece I am working on feels right in its span, scale and form, I do — merely out of interest — like to perform a few quick calculations to see what lies at a couple of critical moments. This evening, with the shape of my 6 minute Lenten motet now finally in place, I did the sums: the Golden Section just happens to fall exactly upon the great turning point of the piece; the start of the redemptive moment of hope. Not only this, but the prior petitions against oblivion begin at the exact half-way point in the motet. Sheer fluke! — but it does make one wonder what it is that the subconscious is up to, and whether and how we might feel or sense innately such proportions. A couple of minutes worth of notes need yet to be lived with and dwelt upon before it is finished, to determine whether or not they are right — and in a couple of passages have yet to be found prior to that settling process; but I feel now that the worst is over and that the piece will be completed before too much longer. 

Unlike the laissez faire approach to the artistic content of my work, when it comes to the design and layout of the recent print material I have produced, I have specifically calculated the proportions for certain elements on the page. In the case of the new poetry volume I am writing at present (a single, extended poem), I am — inspired by the fine press printer who undertook my first — laying it out for print on pages based on the Golden proportion with page margin’s similarly devised. The actual poem will remain at the whim of my feeling in its proportions. Overarching form is a major part of this poem, but I shall feel for it, as the poem evolves, rather than reach for the calculator. 


The Primacy of the Manuscript

As one who has spent, and continues to spend, many many hours of my life transcribing and editing works both literary and musical from manuscript for publication, I have developed an absolutist — some might say obsessive — need to be true to an artist’s scrawl; the words or notes they write; the definition and placing of every item of punctuation or articulation.  An artist’s manuscript is the most exacting source we have of their intentions, and any representation of a work must be true to the authorial sources available to us.

At present, my time is spent unpicking the poetry of Ivor Gurney — or as much as I am able in the midst of my current teaching commitments (a baptism of fire).  However, in the midst of this, I am at present trying to complete the last minutes of music for my War Passion — a chamber oratorio that is to be premièred at the Three Choirs Festival in July, and my absolutist need for accuracy has spilt over into that task, demanding textual accuracy in the poetry I am using.  (Some might argue that this mindset is at odds with the very act of setting a poem to music — a brutal act of artistic butchery — particularly so given my occasionally liberal way with the poetry I am using. But that is for another day.)

In a recent Oxford University Press (OUP) sale I ordered a book that I have had my eye on for a while: Vivien Noakes’s authoritative last word on the work of Isaac Rosenberg, in her ‘21st Century Oxford Authors’ edition of his poetry, plays and selected prose and letters.  This edition in some respects supersedes her Oxford English Texts (OET) edition, drawing upon manuscript material for Rosenberg’s poetry that only came to light after the OET.  I was fascinated to see one poem in particular in that edition; a poem that I have used in my War Passion, ‘The Tower of Skulls’ (see my blog-post about this setting, posted in April 2015).

At the time of the OET edition, which I have on my shelves, the whereabouts of the manuscript for ‘The Tower of Skulls’ was unknown, so that edition relied upon the 1937 published text.  Having learned that this manuscript was one of those that had come to light subsequent to that edition, I sought it out on the extraordinary and invaluable resource that is Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive.  The manuscript threw up a few questions, the poem evidently having been doctored a little upon its first publication.  A repetition of text had been ironed out: ‘jargoning on’ should have been ‘jargoning on and on’, so this required some slight reworking of the setting I had, by June 2015, already completed.

There was one mightily intriguing change which also required some slight adjustment — although I was in a little doubt about my reading.  I have become quite adept at reading handwriting on manuscripts; but even so, there was just a niggle of doubt.  I had sufficient confidence in my reading to again rework the setting, but I wanted confirmation from Vivien Noakes.  The book arrived this morning, and I turned immediately to the poem, only to be disappointed: the reading given — although correcting the repeated ‘on and on’ — did not reflect my own reading of the manuscript.

The passage in question is the closing stanza of the poem.  In its published form it reads:

When aged flesh looks down on tender brood;
For he knows between his thin ribs’ walls
The giant universe, the interminable
Panorama — synods, myths and creeds,
He knows his dust is fire and seed.

However, in the manuscript, I read the second line as: ‘For he knows between his thin ribs walk / The giant universe […]’.  It is a curious thing.  Knowing those great vistas of possibility within one’s “thin ribs’ walls” is perhaps more likely; but might they also be said to walk there?  Or is there an apostrophe missing after ribs in the manuscript, added in the published version, suggesting that it is within the walk of his ribs — within the locus of his being — that those vistas are to be found?  Rosenberg’s locating the walk ‘between’ rather than ‘within’ suggests that the former reading to be the more probable: the vistas figuratively walk there, between his ribs.

Given that Noakes makes no concession toward my reading of the poem, I have again returned to Rosenberg’s manuscript, throwing aside my seminar planning for a few moments.  Returning to it afresh, I am yet more convinced that it is indeed ‘walk’ that Rosenberg wrote, and so my setting of the poem shall remain thus.  I have posted below the images of the manuscript, so that you might make up your own mind.

Detail of the line in question:
Rosenberg detail 1

Compare the ‘k’ of walk with the surround ‘s’s at the end of words, and also compare that last ‘k’ with the below detail from the same manuscript — the word ‘stark’:
Rosenberg detail 2

The whole manuscript is available to view here: http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/document/5139/4359

You might pity the afflicted who are so concerned with the exact representation of a poet’s or composer’s work from their manuscript, but I hope you might agree: sometimes it is worth being pedantic about these things.  The manuscript and wider authorial sources must have precedence and must be preserved.  It also serves as a warning for both editors such as myself and users of published material; warnings of care and of our fallibility, and that, even though it might be in print several times over, Trust Nothing!!  Even a fine, exhaustive and extraordinarily knowledgeable editor such as the late Vivien Noakes can miss something.

Fulcrum: The beauty of metal type

Today I visited John Grice at the Evergreen Press in order to confirm the layout of the title page and other final details prior to the printing of my short poetry collection, Fulcrum, which is to be published on 1 June.  I had visited the Press once before, in order to discuss what might be possible in the printing of my little book – a visit that was relished for the excitement of seeing the machinery, metal type and other trappings of one of the artisan Fine Presses whose work I have long admired.  This time, however, there was the excitement of seeing some of my own work fully set in metal type, in readiness for the printing of the volume.  In this digital age, where computers and desktop printers make print such a ready commodity, the effect of seeing one’s work in such a concrete form as metal type is quite magical, and indeed moving.  So it was today, when I was confronted with 30 pages of my book fully set in gleaming type; three years of musings and writings cast in metal.  Type is a beautiful thing, and I couldn’t resist taking a few photographs of this stage of the book’s making.

The bound blocks of set type, ready for locking up and printing.

The bound blocks of set type, ready for locking up and printing. The five blocks of type at the near end of the row closest to the camera, and the farthest two blocks of the next row, constitute the longest poem in the book, ‘Lux Mundi’. There follows the verse, ‘The Allotted Grave’, and a free sonnet, ‘Sacrament’.

The opening of the poem ‘Plain Sight’

The opening of the poem ‘Plain Sight’

‘Rain-song’ (opening)

‘Rain-song’ (opening)

‘Relic of Hope’ and ‘Remembrance?’

‘Relic of Hope’ and ‘Remembrance?’

As you can see, metal type is quite beautiful and seductive — as are the machines that translate their form into the printed page:

Printing presses

To get to the press I walk along the Stroudwater Navigation, which is a far more pleasant than the road, to say the least:

Stroudwater Navigation

If you haven’t already ordered your copy of the book, be sure to do so! Click here for details.

The Death of an Artist? On the Passing of Seamus Heaney

Today saw the passing of the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.  It is only in the last couple of years that I have come to Heaney’s work, being introduced to ‘The Bog Queen’ by a friend.  It was a poem that gave me some extraordinary images that stuck fast, most notably the closing idea of the woman’s plaited hair as a ‘slimy birth-cord / of bog’, which cord was cut by the turf-cutter who discovered her, precipitating her birth from the mire.  As soon as I could thereafter I sought out North, which I bought in an edition which also contained his three prior collections: a great voyage of discovery to be had.  Sadly, the secondhand copy slightly marred my discovery of Heaney, many of the poems being annotated, often only briefly, by the previous owner, whether by a mere tick or more effusively with sporadic very goods or fabulouses.  For me, perhaps bizarrely, this mars my experience: I like to feel like I am on a private voyage of discovery and am the first to live these words.  Comment from another on the page from which I am reading is too invasive.  But I digress.  My point is, that while I have much still to read of Heaney’s work, the place of Heaney and the originality of his voice and his portrayal of his homescape (sic), has already become apparent.

I have this evening begun to contemplate the question of the death of an artist.  While Heaney’s loss undoubtedly leaves a great void for his family and friends, and secondarily for the literary world and the Irish nation in which he played a prominent part, he has left an important piece of himself behind in his work, which work will never die.  In fact, as one who still has so much of Heaney to discover, being in the early stages of that path of discovery, Heaney has only recently arrived: he is still in his infancy and will, for me, grow and join me on new journeys and experiences for some years to come.  Unlike so many who pass anonymously away, he remains with us, with great strength of personality and vision, and will be reborn again and again.

The Fascination of Manuscripts

‘[…] poetical manuscripts very often preserve reconsidered readings in the cancellations, deletions, corrections, rewritings, interlinear interpolations and the like at various stages of drafting.  These can catch the poet in the workshop, at the anvil; pause the sparks, so to speak, as in a photograph. […] Being able to observe these creative processes in progress put poetical drafts among the unclaimed wonders of the world – perhaps because they capture exceptional human beings in their most noble, most godlike, role […].  Such drafts are relics, sacred, holy in their way.’

So writes Roy Davids in his insightful introduction to the forthcoming major sale of poetical manuscripts at Bonhams in April and May; the sale of a major collection accumulated by Roy Davids.  (See the Bonhams website for details)

The scope and extent of Davids’ collection is extraordinary, with manuscripts the like of which one rarely, if ever, sees coming up for sale.  The catalogue has yet to be released, but the few tantalising details so far released include manuscripts by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and John Betjeman.  The contents of one manuscript has been divulged in The Independent : a previously unpublished poem by A.E. Housman, for which see here.

As Davids tells us in his introduction, he began accumulating the material in the early 1970s, when poetry manuscripts were little regarded and available cheaply – a situation which accounts for the fact that so many manuscripts of major English poets are now in America, notably in the Berg Collection (New York Public Library) and in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.  The fact that large collections of work by twentieth century English poets have emigrated is a source of some sadness and frustation to myself and other scholars of the period – but at least they are preserved and in a place in which they will be cared for and are accessible.  I hope that as many as possible might stay in Britain, but know that the Americans in particular will be vying for these materials.  I hope that there will be archives and societies now clamouring to raise the funds to allow them to bid on these things and ensuring that they go to a safe and appreciative home.  How I should like to be able to afford a couple of the items myself!

Having worked closely with the manuscripts of Ivor Gurney (whose manuscripts do not appear in this sale) and others, I know only too well the frisson that an original manuscript can give you.  Joy Finzi likened such things to a piece of ‘the True Cross’ – echoing Davids’ view of these fragile items.  For those of us who believe in poetry and music, there are few objects quite so special.

On Books: Some Thoughts and a Poem

The last few years has seen the growth of the eBook.  The popularity of dedicated electronic readers such as the Kindle, not to mention the advancement and ubiquity of other portable technologies such as the once humble mobile telephone, has meant that there is an abundance of literary material available almost instantaneously at the touch of a (virtual) button.  The same technologies give advancement to these rash (in my view) notions of a ‘paperless office’.  Personally, I can’t think of anything worse.  Although I am technologically minded, and embrace many of the technologies that come along, the need for paper cannot be usurped.  I love paper.  When I write I use a combination of on-screen editing and paper, drafting ideas on paper, transferring and developing them on-screen, printing this and working on the paper copy, and transferring those edits to the computer – and so it might continue.  Paper is where the ideas happen and things take shape.  The screen is a tool on which I can refine and move things around.  And once I have completed the thing, I often print a copy and, depending upon the nature of the work, retain both the paper drafts and the final copy in a file.  At a time when paper is sourced responsibly and sustainably and draws upon recycled material, I think that there should be no qualms about using paper – so why the need for the paperless office?

SThe answer undoubtedly lies in the fact that paper must be stored and takes up space.  And the same is true of books.  I am sure that many of my books (a section of which is picture to the right) would fit on a small, slim thing about the size of a slim paperback, but that is not the point.  What, in actuality, is the book?  Is it, like music, an intangible thing, of which the printed page is merely a record of a work that only exists when that printed record is translated to sound?  (A question akin to that thorny issue of whether, when a tree falls in a wood and nobody is there to hear it, does it in fact make a noise?)  Or is it something more than that?  Is the typography the book?  Or its binding?  For me it is all of these.  The bookish experience is one that begins with the physicality of the book, which gives some sort of embodiment to the less tangible fuel of the imagination which is contained within.  While the electronic book may contain the words, and even the typography, in its ability to contain all and sundry within its plastic casing, you do not get the unique individualism of the physical book.  Something is lost.

This is not to say that I don’t use eBooks.  When I go in search of books for my research I use the wonderful facility that is http://www.archive.org, on which many books are available to view or download as PDFs; but this is merely a matter of convenience and a first foray into that book.  If it contains what I hope, and I wish to read it, then I will visit the wonderful resource that is http://www.abebooks.co.uk and seek out a physical copy.  And only then, once it is in my hands, do I feel that I can get to know a book.  The internet and electronic books are a marvellous tool, but they are merely tools.  When using reference works I do find that it is often faster for me to go to my shelves and pluck off a book than it is to search and filter and work out what google might present you with and then read it; and when you have several reference texts on the go, having three or four books in front of you is much easier.

One important point to make is that, with the increase in digital facilities, the need for archives and proper libraries (filled with books and not computers, as seems increasingly to be the case) is ever more important.  One can view archives and books on the internet or from images otherwise digitally supplied, but technology is not infallible.  As the physical stock of local libraries has very noticeably decreased, and the use of eBooks and downloaded texts has increased, one feels that the physical book is in danger.  The tragedy of this eventuality, I feel, cannot be understated.

Just in case anyone is interested, I am appending below a thing I wrote a couple of years ago on the subject:


It is nothing to see:
A lifeless fall of leaves
furled in dark
unremarkable silence.

As a name to a man’s soul,
so few words betray
what lies entomed within –
but how those boards
so faded and frayed did thrill!

I reach out and gently
lift the lid of this inward eye;
the outer world dulls and dims
as those drear wings spread
in nervous joy of first flight.

Worlds and ideas awake,
sparkling like fire in the senses,
fuelled by coal etched words
burned finely into the page;
refined embers of the maker’s first notion,
untangled from the wood of thoughts,
set down and bound as precious
growth rings of civilisation.

In fragile perpetuity they endure,
speaking soundlessly across generations,
igniting infinite original meanings
in each enquirer’s mind.

Burgeoning volumes thicken
the woods that grow
to seeming endless forest
as dreams of many compete
to stand tall, nurtured with pain
or self-seeding with ease;
and our autumn’s long
high summer begins
its untimely end:
fresh foliage suppressed,
the richly scented leaves
are swept away to be recalled
only in photographic memory, increasing
intangibility, diminishing experience,
which returns to the rare
artisan’s evergreen preserve.

Words remain, and ever shall
while man breathes and reasons;
but hold them fast in unreliant
silence, burnt into earth’s
offerings as lasting memorial;
near-eternal conveyers of mystery,
of wisdom . . . and of delight.

© Philip Lancaster, Jan-May 2011

[Please respect my copyright in this poem, and the other things posted on this blog.]