masculinity


Auden: the most accessible of voices, the most forbidding of minds. Even when he dodges and evades, his voice hits from far, like love. Aloof, he touches, even, especially with his plainest phrases. Want a love poet? He’s your man. But don’t expect to love in the same way after you read him. Want a compass? He directs, but only into solitude. Gentle, inconsolable, terrifying, his words have such reach that he can change you without you realising that he’s at work. Look on this place you’re living in and you will not know it. Look on yourself and the mirror will not say your name.

Or so I realise, now I see how he’s been at work in me all these years, ever since that time in my adolescence when I didn’t know poetry even mattered. Perhaps he was the one who started to make poetry matter to me. Let me tell you how.

1987, and I bought an LP by The Communards. Buying it was rebellious, listening to it and loving it even more so. Those were the days leading up to the introduction of Clause 28. Busy with grief, the gay community fought two enemies: the Thatcher government’s increasingly homophobic stance and the terror of HIV. In the midst of this, Jimmi Sommerville and Richard Coles released Red, The Communards’ second album. Part of the ‘Red Wedge’ movement that drew together artists such as Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, The Communards seemed to my fourteen-year-old mind even more radical. Anger, sadness and sexual freedom characterised their music, and they promised a liberated sexual identity that, as a straight, straight-laced private school teenage girl, I could never have imagined without their help. But when I bought their record that year, I hardly knew that this precious sexual liberty that they had written about owed so much to the man who wrote the lyrics to the standout track on the album, a man who had a beautiful name, beautiful even in the small print of the liner notes: W.H. Auden.

The song in question was a setting of Auden’s villanelle ‘If I Could Tell You.’ Long after I had ceased to think of the other songs on Red, the words to this song continued to blossom in my mind. ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ How much dumb pain lies here in this simplicity? ‘There must be reasons why the leaves decay.’ A wall you didn’t see coming lies in that word ‘must.’ No answer, no answer. ‘The vision seriously intends to stay.’ No one wants an ending to that sweetness; not even the glory of it wants to go. ‘Because I love you more than I can say.’ How often has that sentence been on our lips, and when has it ever meant more than here, when Auden says it for us? And again the villanelle turns round: ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ Every time it returns, we are in a little deeper.  Every time the words face us, we yearn to see our own face.

See? This is Auden, doing what he does best, going on ahead. On Red, Auden’s words lead the way. They lead Somerville and Coles into courageous truth-telling about what was then happening to their ‘lovers and friends.’ And I wish sometimes that I could take Auden by the hand and tell him how those words led me into thinking and feeling. Not immediately, I hasten to add: it is not easy to hear Auden. It is harder still to follow on behind. But once heard, the words themselves lead, and Auden does nothing.  No-one else I know has quite this ability to stand up for language and to stand so cleanly outside it. But in doing so, he gives us the best of ideals: to love words so that we leave ourselves behind.

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‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

‘The term [dude] is used mainly in situations in which a speaker takes a stance of solidarity or camaraderie, but crucially in a nonchalant […] manner. Dude indexes a stance of effortlessness.’ Scott F. Kiesling  (1)

‘Meestah Cliiiiiiive Yaaaaames.’ With those feather boa tones, Margarita Pracatan used to introduce Clive James on his television show some years back. Like a good many of my friends in sixth form, my first introduction to James was watching Clive James on Television. My friends and I tuned in, not so much for the international TV clips, but for what he used to say about them. Later, after his defection to the BBC, I used to make a point of watching Margarita, Vitaly Vitalyev, P. J. O’ Rourke and others being coaxed into giving up the very best of their wit to a T.V. audience by the outrageously twinkly Australian. James wasn’t so much a TV presenter as a cultivator of personalities. He nurtured his guests like an expert gardener might lovingly provide the right conditions in which some rare, delicate orchid could flower. Back in the sixth-form common room, during ‘frees’ when when we should have been writing essays on Hamlet, we would discuss the previous week’s guests and TV clips, laugh over the best jokes and feel a little bit more intelligent as we retold them, even though we couldn’t hope to imitate the composure of Mr James’s delivery. Clive James, my friends and I thought, was a dude.

‘Dude’ is, at first sight, a grossly inappropriate word to apply to someone who, as long as I can remember, has been cuddly and decidedly avuncular. ‘Dude’ is a word that seems to belong in Bill and Ted  or The Big Lebowski. It is a word that acts as punctuation in the speech of Bart Simpson. It doesn’t, at first glance, fit the meta-articulate James at all. But I mean the word in two very particular senses. Firstly, it’s a ‘street’ way of expressing admiration for a person, and in particular, their masculinity. The kids I teach often use the word in this way, boys sometimes greeting each other with ‘Yo! Dude!’ It’s a way for boys to say ‘I love you’ to their male friends without the other kids questioning their sexuality. The kind of masculinity these kids admire, however, is ‘gangsta.’ James’s masculinity couldn’t be more different. His wit is powerful but never violent, affectionate and yet unsentimental and undeceived. He’s a ‘dude’ not because of his swagger (he couldn’t swagger if he tried) but because of his genius for camaraderie and the seemingly effortless grace with which he writes and speaks. He is also a ‘dude’ because he is able to speak of everything from ‘the street’ up to the Sistine Chapel ceiling and beyond. Recently, his unmissable Radio 4 ‘A Point of View’ show encompassed Amy Winehouse and Snoop Dogg, but he can write just as movingly on Auden or Roland Barthes.

Above: ‘Dude’ Lebowski being…a dude.

James’s Protean intellect makes him a dude in a much more archaic sense too. A dude was originally a New York aesthete, possessed of certain fastidious and refined sensibilities, a lover of beauty and truth. James’s whole career has been a defense of this old-fashioned worldview, but with one critical difference from the aesthetes of old: they were fond of championing art for art’s sake. James loves art for life’s sake. For him, to borrow from Blake, ‘everything that lives is holy.’

But Keatsian? Like ‘dude’ this is an honorary title, but perhaps even more of an apparently unlikely appellation. Or so it seems, unless you’ve had the chance to make more than a superficial acquaintance with the life and works of the early-nineteenth century poet. Keats had a reputation until relatively recently for being a rather fey, dreamy, wistful type. In the popular imagination he was rather feminine. (3) But as recent scholarship (most notably Nicholas Roe’s) has shown, Keats is tougher and far more politically engaged than was previously thought. Keats’s problem was his image. His was what he termed a ‘poetical character,’ delighting in whatever persona he created. He himself felt he was a thing of nothing. His friends (among them, Shelley) and enemies alike couldn’t bear this slipperiness and nothingness of spirit and tried to cast him as ‘piss-a-bed’ poet (Byron) or the wan and wounded Adonais (Shelley). Anything but that ‘poetical character’ Keats felt himself to be.

Clive James hasn’t had the extremes of critical response endured by Keats; he’s not consumptive; and has proven himself magnificently capable of avoiding early death.  However, I’d like to suggest a couple of gentle affinities. James is a little marginalised these days, the default Keatsian position (why isn’t he on BBC4 and ITV simultaneously,  being at once erudite and populist as is his gift?). In addition, his writing has a ‘poetical character’ to it: his TV criticism, his essays, his poems, his comic ‘to camera’ pieces, reveal a delight in Iagos and Imogens alike– all of that work fed by the Keatsian wellspring of permanent, discreet melancholy, beating in every measured word. ‘Where but to think is to be full of sorrow’: surely James’s whole poetical identity (if he has an identity) feeds on the marrow of this axiom.(4)

 Benjamin Haydon’s sketch of Keats for Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.

 

 

1) American Speech, Vol. 79, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 281-305.
http://www.pitt.edu/~kiesling/dude/dude.html

2) Watch James in Clive James on Television and listen with nostalgia for the intelligence and humour with which he dissects ‘Captain Power’ and the singing kiddy evangelists:  http://youtube.com/watch?v=eXf4ZtYsSWg

(3) Given my earlier comments on Rufus Sewell and ‘feminine’ masculinity, I also have a secret soft spot for this Keats, the Keats whom Byron accused of perpetually ‘frigging his imagination’ in verse. Nicholas Roe’s book is John Keats and the Culture of Dissent.

(4) James’s own website has a splendid selection of prose, poetry, audio, video work by James and people whose work he admires. www.clivejames.com

glodisrufuss.jpg“Wh’T

“What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”
 Susan Sontag
Against Interpretation, 1966

Have you ever seen a movie called ‘Twenty-One’? I would be surprised, even astonished if you had. It was made sometime in the 90s and starred Patsy Kensit at a rather low point in her career. Straight-to-video, it was an English film that aspired to be Alfie told from a woman’s point of view. The only moments I remember are Patsy having a wee whilst delivering a monologue to camera and the sheer presence of a young male actor called Rufus Sewell. He played a lowlife smackhead, and the screenplay gave him very little in the way of memorable dialogue.

 

But his face! Round, enormous eyes that could seem blue, green, even black depending on the force of his expression. One eyelid was slightly lazy, half-closed, which suggested…louche disdain, or perhaps a dark inwardness, cruelty, restraint. But it’s an imperfection that makes the face crackle with life. Without it, he’d simply be a vapid pretty boy. With it, the deliciously feminine eyes acquire depth, wit, mystery.

 

You see the photo above and you see someone who appears a little rugged. Back then, however, his face was heart-shaped, his neck slender. He looked willowy and slight. Yet as is only too clear in recent TV outings, he’s actually tall and physically imposing. Strange then that he appeared to be quite delicate and Keatsian when young. It’s as if that feminine masculinity that Sontag talks about has been eroded or concealed over time. Hollywood doesn’t like it, men’s magazines don’t like it. It’s still subversive even now for a man to look so tantalizingly like a woman.

 

One of the things I do is to teach at secondary school, and I remember, after a fight broke out in a lesson, a conversation I had with one of the miscreants. He was a smooth-skinned, dark haired boy who had large, amost Jayne Mansfieldian lips, who swore ‘I’m straight, I’ve got a girlfriend, but I’ve been bullied for five years because of the way I look.’ In other words, for being pretty. The other boys found him incredibly threatening. It both surprises me and does not surprise me that this kind of male beauty (real male beauty, as Sontag would have it) is perceived in this way.

 

Teaching is one way to understand how prevalent and difficult to root out are gender inequality, homophobia and racism. Prejudice is the big sea you’re battling against when you step into the classroom. So of course, the boys’ reaction to my Byronic student wasn’t really surprising.  But on a personal note, I can’t quite understand how everyone can’t see how erotic Sewell’s kind of male beauty is. Or perhaps people do see, and then look away again. Such beauty disturbs their sense of what gender is: such beauty is not fixed or stable. It’s volatile, inflammatory, disturbing, and ultimately a melancholy thing. You can only know it like you know the air: by its movement, its fluidity.

 

 

Teachinty-One’at is most beautiful in virile men is something