‘St John of the Cross, he did his best stuff imprisoned in a box;

And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks.’

Nick Cave

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds do all kinds of songs: weird fables, howling bad dreams, exquisite love songs. Blues straight from the abbatoir; lullabies filled with desire; stir-crazy sermons: my little list represents only part of what the band can do and what Nick Cave, as principal songwriter, can create. But still we find the greedy Cave is hungry to do more. This Elvis-Odysseus is on a mission to ‘move the world.’ He doesn’t stop. ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’ is the song that tells us of Cave’s greed, but also of his male muses, two of whom are named above. The rest? John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; Karl Marx; Paul Gauguin; Philip Larkin; Dylan Thomas; Vladimir Nabokov. Grisly lives, grisly deaths: debased, obscene and comic, all of them, even speccy old librarian Larkin, become rockstars the way Cave writes about them. They suffer and endure, but above all they carry on creating as they disintegrate.

‘There She Goes:’ a more joyous and desperate love-song you can’t imagine. A gospel frenzy, a prayer for the muse to ‘send that stuff on down,’ Cave’s song is one of his best. It’s like seeing  some crazy man walking into an open field in a thunderstorm and watching him bear his chest to the lightning–not so much prayer as dare.

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Pop music is all froth and bubbles. It lightly comes and goes–and stays. For days, now two songs have been somewhere close to the surface in my mind. They have stayed awhile but when I think about them, I don’t exactly know why. Neither song lays any claim to greatness, either as a commercial success or as a piece of High Art, but I wouldn’t be without either. Listen to Mazzy Star sing Arthur Lee’s song ‘Five String Serenade’ and catch Crowded House with ‘Not the Girl You Think You Are’ now, before I take you any further. You’ll see:

 

 

Mazzy Star were a band that nineties’ ‘Indie Kids’ such as myself tended to regard with hazy affection. They were the kind of band whose records you put on at the end of a drunken evening. The stoned shoegazer could count on them for a lullaby. You have just listened to ‘Five String Serenade,’ but ‘Fade into You’ and the rest of their 1993 album ‘So That Tonight I May See’ lulled my generation into a slightly bleary 2am post-coital sadness. ‘Ahhhh’, the songs sigh. They are about fading and falling and breathing out. They use tambourines and cellos quite a lot, in a good way.

If ‘Five String’ is a bit of light late-night relief, the Crowded House song, ‘Not The Girl You Think You Are’ has even fewer claims to seriousness. The Kiwi Crowdies were and are an unashamed ‘sing-along-a’ pop band. A Crowded House gig was like Grandstand Karaoke: the audience knew the words twenty times better than the band did, and singing along was a blast:

‘Do you climb into spa–aaa–ace

To the world where you li—i—ve?’

Crowded House songs soar, more often than not, and they are jolly good fun to sing. Instantly memorable lyrics with the odd lyrical moment and addictively sweet, crafted melodies, often with a sour or sharp undertone (think Lemon Sherbets and you’ll have the right idea) all add up perfectly in your typical Crowdies song. Lemon-Sherbet, Candy Floss songs, they are sugar-laden hits, filled with empty calories–you would have thought.

Not entirely. Neil Finn, Crowded House’s singer and lyricist, should not be underestimated. His words aren’t poems in any real sense, but he has poetic phrases here and there. Take ‘Not the Girl You Think You Are.’ What a line. The tone is right: it could be gentle advice, possibly reassurance. Or maybe it’s the opposite, a case of saying ‘you were somebody and now you aren’t.’   Something has been taken away from you, girl, but ever so gently. ‘He won’t deceive you or tell you the truth’ is another great little moment, partly because of the pause or caesura in the melody after ‘deceive you.’ You drift into a certainty and…out of it again, thanks to the dreamy waltz-time of the song. Clever. Old-fashioned with that un-pop 3/3 time, ‘Not the Girl’ suggests long, slow disappointment. OK, so the song never gets to the duende, the deep song it never gets beyond the slightly wistful–but it daydreams beautifully.

Mazzy Star’s ‘Five String Serenade’ meanders more sadly, repeating its brief message over and over, but we can’t help but listen to Hope Sandoval’s sweetly bombed rendition, even if the lyrics are a little rickety on account of their prepositions:

This is my five string serenade;

Beneath the water it played.

And while I’m playing for you,

It might be raining there too.

 

And on my easel I drew

While I was thinking of you.

And on the roof of my head,

in came my five string serenade.

 ‘Five String’ sings a sweet nothing several times, but the nothing is important. One idea is varied in the manner of a musical theme: ‘ I am thinking about you:’ Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse meets Arthur Lee. OK, so you don’t draw on an easel, you draw at it; and it would be nice to know how the serenade got from being on Lee’s head to in it, but the other ideas, if slight, are utterly lovely: singer Hope Sandoval’s rain connecting with the rain falling on her lover somewhere else; a tune arriving in the singer’s head, no matter how. It is a frail construction, made of straw, almost; but as an idle dream it works very well. Bubbles, straw and smoke: it’s perfect pop. Pop should burst on the tongue like this and take you nowhere for a minute or two. Duende ? Oh let the dark sounds come alright, but let them come later.

[Arthur Lee’s version of his song is included below]

The Philharmonia, conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 27th February 2009

So great is the size of orchestra and choir required to do justice to Schoenberg’s late Romantic epic that it is performed very rarely in its entirety. My school took a small party of students to see the Gurrelieder. This was a huge privilege: perhaps the only time in my life I will see this oratorio, I was also lucky to see Salonen conduct. Like the wood-dove herself, Salonen almost seemed to take off as he led the music. Was he lifting the orchestra or was the orchestra lifting him? Birdlike, always, at the close of the piece he held up his left hand as though cupping the essence of the Gurrelieder in his palm. Thanks to him, the great wave of songs rose and fell exactly as they should: extravagant, lush, precise and clear. A phalanx of musicians left the ground with him and landed again flawlessly. He, the orchestra, the choir, and the soloists had ballon; musicians, they were dancers too. Below is a short account of the work they performed.

Waldemar, Schoenberg’s lover-king protagonist in the Gurrelieder, opens the piece with an image of stillness:

Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung jeden Ton

Von Meer und Land.

‘Now dusk mutes every sound / on land and sea.’ Schoenberg’s oceanic final voyage into Romanticism, with its titanic orchestration,  unfolds from the day’s end, from silence. From nothing and from shadows this oratorio takes us on a journey to a castle (Gurre), where Waldemar visits his lover Tove. After the pair are reunited, the songs take us to darker places:  Tove dies at the hands of Waldemar’s vengeful wife, and, from there, Waldemar  journeys through the afterlife, rising from the dead with his vassals to go in search of his murdered lover.  No fulfillment, no happiness returns us to the peace we experience in those opening lines. Schoenberg’s theme  is longing or saudade, as the Portuguese would have it, and it is this saudade that gives the Gurrelieder its explosive drive. We glimpse rest and peace in the incipit, and every note that follows pulses with a desire for the peace of  ‘Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung jeden Ton.’ What doesn’t move creates movement.

From stillness, two choirs, two timpanists, a celeste, vast woodwind and string sections, four concert harps–even two piccolos–produce such a ‘call-note’ of longing that audience members feel obliterated by it. Hearing it, we are dislodged beautifully but violently from ourselves. ‘Holla’ sing the male voice choir in unison in part three as they hunt through the forest. The chase is on through the darkness to first light. Evening and morning, the last day.

Dreams do not readily lend themselves to theory, even though they are often theorised about: they are not a grand edifice on strong foundations. They are the house built on sand: ‘Þa com Þær regen and michel flod’–then came rain and a great flood. Always that line from Matthew vii, 24-27 in the Anglo-Saxon Bible arises when I think of dreams: it is a metaphor and an old rhythm that says what a dream is: a house where the walls wash away, and the floors and the roof.

Dreamthread is a series of miniature essays, dreambubbles on this inexhaustible topic. In future, you may find that I add other dreamthreads onto The Casket, or I may not (dreams are capricious in keeping promises) but here I at least make an idle start. Below are a few little reveries with their warped surfaces and dangerously alluring colours. And bring your lifejacket: there are sirens out on them there dreamseas.

i. Ted Hughes and the Manfox

Teachers aren’t allowed to teach dreams. We actively discourage dreaming in lessons, bullying the students to ‘concentrate’ and ‘get on with the work.’ But this teacher is a dreamer, and for dreamer read ‘anarchist of the imagination’;’ night pilgrim’; ‘disciple of Queen Mab’. My theories about pedagogy are few and simple, but one of my treasured ideas is that the closer a lesson is to seeming like a dream or beast of the mind, then the better that lesson is. To be a beast of the mind, the lesson has to be one where the imaginative boundary between teacher and pupils is blurred, and all share the dreamscape, all become the beast. Most of the lessons that happen this way (I do not teach this kind of lesson, incidentally; they occur without anyone’s conscious will) take poems as their starting point.

Only yesterday, I taught a lesson on Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’ to my higher ability year 8 group. Before looking at the poem itself,  we chatted about Hughes’s ‘Manfox’ dream. I told them that, in the dream, Hughes describes how he is struggling with an undergraduate essay he is writing on Samuel Johnson. As he tries to write, in walks a fox on hind legs, looking like a small man. This fox, this Manfox, is on fire, his skin bloody, black and charred. Manfox walks to Hughes’s desk and places his bloody and blackened handprint on the paper of  the unfinished essay, and tells Hughes: ‘Stop this! you are destroying us.’

For my money, this has to be one of the most beautiful dreams I have ever heard described, and so seduced am I by it that a strange thing happens me when I tell its story. Hughes’s dream is such a powerful idea, of the poetic muse rising to the surface of the poet’s mind in order to save his poems and therefore the poet himself, that as I spoke to the students, I felt I was Hughes: Ted Hughes, now ten years dead, but, through the sorcery of his dream, fiery and alive. Thanks to his night-magic, even the most fidgety children in the group listened: they always sense when you are opening a door into a world they do not yet know.

ii. A Game of Cards

I had a great dream about Elizabeth Bishop once. We were playing cards on an old rickety blue-top card table I used as my first proper desk as a child. I gushed about how much I admired her work, and she said ‘Don’t imitate me. Change your hand.’ The conversation was so vivid, and the dark colours so sharp that I’m in the dream now and again now as I write this. Her face blended into the darkness but her voice was ashy, asthmatic and clear. This was years ago, but it felt like such a blessing at the time and still does: my Manfox dream.

iii. Charles Lamb Dreaming

‘Witches and Other Night Fears’ was on the syllabus of my Romantic Literature MA at Manchester, and I vividly remember the tutorial. My teacher Grevel Lindop read aloud Lamb’s description of the dream where Lamb starts off sporting with nereids and ends up being ‘wafted’ down the Thames to Lambeth Palace. Lamb tells us that ‘the poverty of my dreams mortifies me’ and Grevel commented: ‘well, if that’s poverty, I’d be quite happy to be as poor as Charles Lamb.’  Quite, especially when the essay closes with observations like these:

 an old gentleman, a friend of mine, and a humorist, used to carry this notion so far, that when he saw any stripling of his acquaintance ambitious of becoming a poet, his first question would be, —“Young man, what sort of dreams have you?”

The ‘notion’ to which Lamb refers is also lovely: ‘The degree of the soul’s creativeness in sleep might furnish no whimsical criterion of the quantum of poetical faculty resident in the same soul waking.’ The brain’s reservoir of making, a dream is colour and memory refashioned. Light like liquor.

iv. Dream-colours

Normally we know when a dream is important because of the type of colour it uses. If a dream looks like precious and semi-precious stones (but always including a very shiny jet colour somewhere to add weight and melancholy) then we should know of that dream that it is the mind is at its most wild, lovely and truthful. As for melancholy, I should perhaps have stolen from Byron and said ‘lemancholy’– his word for the sadness involved in love–as there is always an erotic element when those colours are present, even if the dream is not overtly sexual.

*

Dreams are never finished. You never hit the ground. You open a door and nothing lies beyond it. Think of the half-built sets in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon: the head of Shiva drifting on the flood.

‘You’ve made a blog…Clever boy! Next: flushing.’

Don Paterson

Blog. Such an unattractive word, along with its unlovely sister, blogroll, but perhaps appropriate enough for the secretions that make their way onto many websites. Blogs range from the quirky and literate to the downright loopy– why are so many religious fundamentalists dedicated bloggers? Perhaps the blog offers a kind of virtual pulpit for creationists and other types of religious eejit, a pulpit where crackpot ideas are more often affirmed than challenged.  As a ‘blogger’ (ugh, I wish those scare quotes were a pair of tweezers) I wish that the name for writing one’s thoughts down in the form of an electronic essay, available for the public to read on demand, had been better chosen. The French do it more elegantly, or they are trying to: the boys on the burning deck of  the Académie Française want the French to call blogs ‘jouebs’ whilst their French-Canadian camarades prefer ‘blogue.’ (1) The Canadian option is suave, the French is naughty and intellectual–it sounds as though it was invented by the shade of Roland Barthes, fascinated in the afterlife by le plaisir de la toile, the pleasure of the net–‘joueb’ being short for ‘un journal web.’ At least with with ‘joueb’ there are playful connotations (jouer) rather than scatalogical ones.

‘Joueb’ is a word I’m tempted to adopt here not least because it chimes with the serious play I wanted to be in evidence on The Casket. When I began, I did not imagine that this would be the kind of web log of events and feelings, the boring blogtease in evidence on so many sites. Instead, I wanted a more formal version of a writer’s notebook. The Casket is a room for improvised observations; for ‘working without really doing it,’ as Elizabeth Bishop once described letter-writing; or, for the bonsai or capsule essay. I wanted it to be the sort of place where William Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson and the other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century essayists might want to kick their shoes off and sit down, alongside– in conversation and play with–other modern idlers, punks and thinking wastrels. Guy Garvey has a chinwag with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; John Keats plays pingpong with Nick Cave; that sort of thing.

That’s the Dream bit. The reality of writing here is always tempered by that toile of readers, and the ways in which you suspect you are being read. WordPress provide the blogger with stats, raw data, which give an insight into possible clusters of interest: the fans of Dude Lebowski often stumble here because of my Clive James piece, which happens to mention him; college kids, I guess, writing about F Scott Fitzgerald, stop by to read my comments on Tender is the Night. Nick Cave fans, Leonard Cohen fans drop in for some duende. But most readers are text-tourists, looking for something else. Search terms tell me that what they are looking for is often information about ‘people in caskets’ or ‘dreams of dead people in caskets’ or ‘images of virile beautiful men’ (that will be the Rufus Sewell essay I wrote when I first started). Occasionally, I now get searches directed at ‘Casket of Dreams’ itself, which is flattering, but generally, most Casketeers arrive here in some kind of hurry; possibly bewildered, but always wanting the answer to a question.

On the whole, I’m glad they do show up. This despite the fact that the feedback they leave is seldom edifying. Comments by readers are usually pretty useless:  the flatterers  usually want you to visit their joueb in return; the nitpickers are equally self-important (‘How dare you assert that The Arctic Monkeys are talented self-publicists?’  with best wishes from their manager, etc). Yet how long do my visitors stay, and what do they flick through, what consider? My stats cannot, thankfully, tell me that. Still, whether you are looking for images of the dead in caskets, or whether you want to think about saudade or negative capability, you’re welcome. F. Scott Fitzgerald is sobering up next door in in time for the final of scriptwriters’ pingpong, where he meets William Faulkner in the Hollywood grudge match of the century. Mark Rothko is talking primitivism and abstraction with Elizabeth Bishop over a glass of grog by the fire. So stop awhile. Put your feet up. The weather is drawing in, and in any case, there is plenty we have to catch up on.

(1)http://www.petiteanglaise.com/archives/2004/11/08/french-blogging-vocab/

Richard Wilbur is a poet who does not press his company on anyone. He does not prod you in the chest with a forefinger and insist on your undivided attention. Almost as modest as Elizabeth Bishop, his poems wait in the brain, outside the spotlight of conscious attention, until you see their sense–and hear it, as Wilbur’s St Teresa hears, pierced by ‘the spear which drew/ a bridal outcry from her lips.’ There is reading and there is this: the direct seduction by the speaking and singing voice of the poet. One is civilised: looking to like, if looking liking move. The other is not civilised–indeed nothing can tame it– a ‘did my heart love till now?’ moment. The first kind of reaction is of a Juliet who is offering a cautious assessment of how she might feel once she has met Paris. It is a rational reaction, an acknowledgement that feelings might grow over time. The second, a Romeo-seeing-Juliet response, is the kind of staggered gasp, the astonished inbreath that comes with a love that seems to obliterate everything else that came before it. Today has been that kind of day, a day in which Richard Wilbur has cast so many other poets that I love into the shadows. He, in my newly reconfigured mind, is teaching the torches to burn.

What has made the difference is hearing the poems. I have been reading them and liking them for years, but recently I acquired the Academy of American Poets’ 1989 recording of Wilbur’s poems, introduced by James Merrill, and as soon as Wilbur began to read his work, the  full-throated ease of the poems split me apart like a sharp thumbnail cuts a ripe fig. As I listened, I happened to be driving through a treacherous winter landscape: the car skidded and lost traction at times, but the poems never wandered from the path. Ecstasy escaped like odour from each poem, but the formal shape, the pattern of the metrical dance, was so exact that the ecstasy was never less than rational. Wilbur’s ‘Teresa’ again: ‘And lock the O of ecstasy within/ The tempered consonants of discipline.’

My Teresa moment in the car reminded me that metre, any poet’s metre, comes from the living organism that is the poet’s speaking voice. All rhythms that he or she is able to use spring from the musical rhythms of speech. And yet the great poets’ speaking voices are more than speaking voices. The rhythms used by the poet eventually come to use him: they order and shape his mind so that he is incapable of functioning without them. Indeed, he is those rhythms: falling and trochaic, rising and iambic, his mind moves as a poem moves. Many poets have this quality: when they give interviews and talk, their talk is spilt poetry. A sure test of a poet’s worth? The wash of rhythm rippling through apparently casual conversation, sufficient to make you imagine that rhythm undulating even through his dreams. 

Poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Kathleen Jamie, for example, seem to take topographical rhythms into their speech. Heaney’s peat-sharp consonants kick alongside bubbling lightness; Longley’s conversation is like the wind coming in off the sea at his beloved Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, a wind that picks up the otter’s water-pulse as it swims offshore, a wind that seems capable of counting the starry sand grains on the beach. Jamie, on the other hand, talks like an Alder in thaw, with a ticking passion and impatience, as if willing the sap to rise again.

Yet some poets, such as John Berryman, do not seem to have any metrical smoothness in their conversation. Berryman’s speech is an odd mixture of explosions and quiet despairing gurgles. Listen to him read at the Guggenheim in 63 and you notice he can make the word ‘but’ bang like sniper fire, and the word ‘elaborate’ drift off upstairs, downstairs, somewheres… His poems have the same kind of nitroglycerine unpredictability. Metre is there but it is volatile, as the Berryman personae swim in and out of focus: Henry’s quiet conscience-voice, the voice who tells Mr Bones that there is indeed a ‘law’ against him, contends against the noisier ‘impenitent’ and ‘seedy’  Henry. Still, even in the case of Berryman, speaking voice and metre are connected: the poems have all the irresponsible anarchy of dreams, and all the loopy order of a fine and fractured mind. Berryman’s speech is that broken mirror too.

Robert Lowell’s poems always sound like the Atlantic battling Melville’s whale. Lowell is the big sea, the ‘brackish reach of shoal’ he evokes in ‘A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’–even when he is writing about ducks. Hear him reading  ‘The Public Garden’ at the Guggenheim in ’63 along with Berryman and he delivers the lines

the shedding park-bound mallards, how they keep
circling and diving in the lantern light,
searching for something hidden in the muck.

with a voice which seems to thunder like Jehovah. He has no offswitch for that Miltonic grandeur, a quality which gives even his weakest poems a kind of sonic weight, and in interviews, he seems always to drift towards a magisterial iambic: ‘their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated’ he says of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams in his Paris Review interview, in ruptured hexameter.

Elizabeth Bishop, too, follows the same law of metrical overspill from her poems to her talk. Hear ‘The Armadillo’ on the website of  The Academy of American Poets (1) and all her conversational, epistolary modesty seems folded into every line. Her speaking voice crosses current with counter-current. Above is modesty and dignity, an elegant uninsistence; underneath is a struggle, almost with breath itself. What she says is beautiful, but her breathing hints that she can hardly bear to voice it: what poor things the lovely words are, she seems to say–words, as lovely and robust as those ‘frail, illegal fireballoons’ she describes.  Bishop’s speech also floats with a hidden, fragile fire. Below is a comment she makes in a 1977 interview with George Starbuck where she discusses the blue snails that appear in her poem ‘Crusoe in England.’

Perhaps — but the ones I’ve seen were in the Ten Thousand islands in Florida. Years ago I went on a canoe trip there and saw the blue snails. They were tree snails, and I still may have some. They were very frail and broke easily and they were all over everything. Fantastic. (2)

Now this is nowhere near as lovely as the description in ‘Crusoe’ where the snails are ‘a bright violet-blue with a thin shell’ and the shells of the dead snails ‘look like a bed of irises’ but the spill of enthusiasm and the joy of seeing is evident. Her rhythm comes from her eye, pulsing and receptive to the energy and fragility of the snails and everything else she encounters. Describing the snails in the poem hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm for the snails she saw in Florida: that ‘and..and…and…’ gives a sense of the endlessly rocking eye within.

A final instruction: click on the link given below and sample some of the clips of an interview given by Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive. In them, you will hear his exquisite poetic cadence in so many phrases of explanation, whether he is talking about the ‘excitingly exact concrete perceptions’ of Marianne Moore or the ‘rhythmic jags’ of Hopkins.  Interviews like this are valuable because they give the reader a kind of faith in poems as self-generating, self-seeding. To hear a poet talk is to sense poems rising from speech.

But there is a further benefit to be had from listening to poets in conversation. Their talk, whether it be Longley’s, Bishop’s or Wilbur’s, also helps us to think about the question ‘What is a poet?’ After listening to Wilbur being interviewed, a few images come to mind: a poet is a split casing, a discarded pod, content to be left behind by the disciplined ecstasy of the growing flower. Ego needs to cede to voice.

Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive: http://www.peoplesarchive.com/browse/mpeg4_150k/5786/en/off/

(1) Link to Academy of American Poets and an audio recording of Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo’ http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15214

(2)http://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmarticleid=420

 

It’s the Pink Panther, the rinky-dink Panther,

 and it’s as plain as your nose,

that he’s the one and only truly original

Panther Pink from head to toes.

 

I can give you those lyrics so easily, straight from memory: the words aren’t even buried treasure, so close are they to the surface. Oh yes, I’ve got those Rinkydink-Batfink-Top-Cat-Tip-Top-Hit-Me-With-Your-Rhythm-Stick blues. Some days, it happens: an old beating-on-a-trashcan sound gets up some speed. ‘Starts again always in Henry’s ears/the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.’ Yes. It’s something to do with that compulsion John Berryman describes in Dream Song 29. Somewhere, in a mysterious corner of the cerebellum, two or more sounds connect like a little circuit and you are thrown backwards into a cartoon moment, a movie, a catchy number-one from Top of the Pops: cartoons such as The Pink Panther, Top Cat, or Batfink; that Ian Dury tune that your parents recorded onto the very first tape you had and played to death, the one containing an unholy amalgam of The Beatles, ‘Chanson D’Amour,’ Showaddywaddy and Boney M. But plenty of people reach for this kind of nostalgia. TV is full of this po-mo recent-past binge-thinking, and full of people moaning about how boring it is to focus on all this easily available Pot-Noodle memory. I quite agree.

The Pink Panther is hardly Rilke’s Panther in the Jardin des Plantes. Top Cat’s adventures don’t travel the same magical distance as Fred Astaire’s footsteps in Top Hat. Top Cat and The Pink Panther please like sweeties please, like lemon sherbets: a sweet quick fizz. Who can remember their plotlines? How did Hugo A Go Go try to trap Batfink and Karate in ‘The Short-Circuit Case’ ? Why didn’t Top Cat and Officer Dibbles try to make a go of it? We don’t much care. The reason these little toons had bite wasn’t their story, it was their sound.

Soundbites, as politicians know, work because their sounds bite. A little phrase locks its jaws into a lobe of the brain and a permanent link is forged. So, although the plot of Batfink is lost, the sounds of the names are not. Pun-punchdrunk genius went into those Batfink character names: Hugo A Go Go, Judy Jitsu, Goldyunlocks, Brother Goose. An assonating, alliterating badass thought of catchphrases like ‘My wings are like a shield of steel’ and ‘my supersonic sonar radar will save me.’  Never mind the story; have the pleasure of tasting tongue-twisters like that week on week and the kids will be hooked. But why?

It’s a deep-brainer. We learn language by making neural connections, and as researchers such as Hulme and Snowling have found, if ‘children lack “phonological awareness” […] they are destined to find learning to read and write difficult.’ (1) In other words, if they cannot hear rhymes and alliteration, and therefore cannot link or group the sounds of speech, they are likely to be poor readers and writers: reading and writing build upon ‘the child’s intuitive knowledge of the structure of speech.’ (2) This phonological awareness develops before we begin to read and write, so if such connections are not made, literacy is impaired. And if literacy is impaired, memory is impaired: memories are words that name images, smells, tastes, sounds and textures. From my experience as a teacher, a child with poor literacy has no memory. She cannot say what she remembers, because words strung into syntax are what call up the world, and her grasp of syntax is like a torn fishing net. She will not be able to describe her first memory. She will not be able to tell you about her house, her family, her dreams. She has no dreams–because she has no words.

Now I know how memory is stifled at birth (it happens when a child isn’t spoken to and listened to,  from the beginning) I know how precious the tongue-twisters are. Penelope Pitstop, Dastardly and Mutley and Hong Kong Phooey are little giggles, chimes that set off bigger, greater poems later. But they only delight me today because of early conversations I had with my parents, at a time when I couldn’t yet reply but nonetheless heard the pretty chime of things that set the darkness echoing.

1) from David Wood, How Children Think and Learn, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999),  215

2) Wood, 215.

 

Batfink usually has some alliterative delights, puns and rhymes, and this is no exception: Hugo A Go Go is the ‘copycat bat’ and poor Karate, thrown off a cliff, moves the voiceover narrator to comment: ‘It looks like Karate’s courageous career is kaputt.’ Karate also dusts down City Hall for the copycat bat’s ‘wingerprints.’ Bliss, even if the 4 minutes of cartoon does feel rather laboured.