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A Touch of the Verbals
The Chicken Coup/Chopper Drop Out/Underground Station
by Mac Dunlop
3 CDs, £8 each from http://sparror.cubecinema.com/macdunlop/
reviewed by Edward Picot
The term "performance poetry" was first widely used in the 1980s, but it can usefully be applied retrospectively to any poetry which is designed at least as much for performance as the printed page. Wikipedia defines the genre as
...poetry that is specifically composed for or during performance before an audience... Performance poets use a different style of writing poetry that is less conducive to print and better suited for their oral presentations... Many performance poets are denied credibility by Academics, but are able to build a greater audience for poetry by communicating to a wider range of people.
Performance poetry has certainly been attacked by critics on occasion as a diluted or compromised form. Another article on Wikipedia, about the UK's Liverpool poets (Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and Roger McGough, who all came to prominence in the 1960s), quotes A Alvarez, who called their work "diluted near-verse designed for mass readings and poetry-and-jazz concerts", displaying "the logic of a traditional form at its weariest". Alvarez was the poetry critic of the Observer from 1956 to 1966, and edited the influential Penguin anthology The New Poetry in 1962. He championed the "tough" verse of such poets as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and he was hoping for a new poetry which would combine "the psychological insight and integrity of D H Lawrence" with "the technical skill and formal intelligence of T S Eliot". It is easy to imagine why he would have disliked the Liverpool poets, since their output is characterised by light humour, whimsy and romanticism with a small r. Here, for example, is the conclusion of Henri's "Tonight at Noon":
The poem as a whole (which incidentally takes it title from a Charlie Mingus track) is basically a fanciful list of things which are as unlikely to happen as noon in the middle of the night. The underlying message is that the world might actually be a better place if some of these things came about (for example "Poets get their poems in the Top 20" or "There's jobs for everybody and nobody wants them"). By extension, the poem becomes a small gesture of rebellion against the dull conformism of "ordinary" life, a mildly-psychedelic manifesto in favour of imagination, feelings and free love. The poet offers himself as a figurehead for anyone who feels that the world is being run and ruined by dull minds; and we, the audience, feel ourselves to be included and swept along in a tide of humorous, groovy nonconformism.
Not all performance poetry is like this, however. Here, for example, are the opening lines of Alan Ginsberg's Howl:
Ginsberg is the best-known of the Beat poets who emerged in the USA in the 1950s. The tone of Howl is far less whimsical than "Tonight at Noon": Ginsberg addresses not only political and social issues - the disillusion and ruination of the best minds of his generation, and the reasons why this has happened - but metaphysical ones too - "the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night".
One thing that Ginsberg and Henri have in common is their use of the list as a stylistic device. The basic sense of Ginsberg's lines is contained in the opening statement, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness". Thereafter - and incidentally the first part of Howl is one huge sentence several pages long - he simply gives us numerous variations on the same theme, heaping up circumstantial detail. Likewise, the basic sense of "Tonight at Noon" is simply "You will tell me you love me tonight at noon (ie. when pigs fly)", and the rest of the poem is a list of other unlikely or impossible things. It is no mere coincidence, then, that on Chicken Coup we find Mac Dunlop (through one of his fictional characters) ruminating on the use of lists as a basis for poetry:
I always think there's a difference between listening to a poem and reading it off the page, if you know what I mean. The voice makes a difference somehow, doesn't it? - how it's toned. So you can take a thing like a shopping-list and you can make that into a poem.
Why should the list be such an attractive stylistic device for poets who design their poems to be read aloud? Partly because to make a list is basically to say the same thing over and over again with variations, which means that if the audience fails to hear or understand any one element of the list it will still be able to get the general idea. Although extremely simple the list is also almost infinitely flexible and extensible; and because of its repetitive nature it automatically has a certain rhetorical power, which can be greatly augmented if the rhythm and diction are properly controlled, as in Howl. For the same reason, it also has a potential for comedy, because its rhetorical heaping-up of significance can always be punctured by a sudden moment of reversal or incongruity. One example of this is Mac Dunlop's "Job for Life", which is a list of different ways to make a living:
The basic joke here is simply the abrupt insertion of a rude and insulting word into an array of self-important ones: but there is also the more subtle tactic of bracketing various disparate titles together as if to suggest that they all belong in the same group; so that the clinching rhyme leaves us with the impression that world-polluters, IMF bankers and capitalists are actually all just types of wanker.
Humour itself is an important element of the performance poet's style, being one of the most effective means of holding people's attention and keeping their goodwill. Mac Dunlop, on his website, describes Chicken Coup as "a series of 'off the wall' comic sketches which act as interludes for the songs, soundscapes and poems". As a matter of fact all three of these CDs are designed along very similar lines: a humorous character, portrayed by Dunlop, sets up a macro-narrative which acts as a containing-device for all the other pieces in the set. On "Chicken Coup" we are with a farmer or farm labourer who has accidentally chopped off somebody's finger whilst attempting to behead a chicken, and who is now trying to distract that person by talking about poetry whilst dressing the wound and waiting for the ambulance; in "Chopper Drop Out" our guide finds himself whisked aloft in a helicopter which is equipped with a magic microphone capable of listening to people's thoughts; and in "Underground Station" we find ourselves on a tube train, engaged in conversation by a man who sounds like Prince Charles, who helps us to listen to the headphones, thoughts or conversations of various other travellers.
Performance poets have often been noted both for their left-wing political views and their close involvement with the alternative musicians of the day. Take the "ranting poets", for example, who emerged in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s - Attila the Stockbroker, perhaps the best-known of the ranting poets, originally wanted to be a bass-player, varied his poetry performances by playing the mandolin, and first met Seething Wells (now Steven Wells) "when we both shouted our poems off the back of a lorry at a demonstration organised by the Woolwich Right To Work Campaign". But the association between performance poetry, music and politics goes back much further, of course. The Beat poets, as the name suggests, were closely associated with the music scene of their day, especially jazz, from which their improvisational techniques were at least partially derived. Ginsberg often accompanied himself on the harmonium when he gave his readings, and set some of William Blake's poems to music. He and his fellow-Beats also became heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s (as did many of the best singers and songwriters of the time, of course).
Dunlop is less vociferously left-wing than the ranting poets, but his poetry certainly has a political flavour: for example "Job for Life", "Ode: Do I not like Bombs", or "Dirty Bomb" -
He also shares his predecessors' inclination to exchange peformance poetry for music now and again. These CDs contain a number of songs performed in a hoarse and bluesy tenor to his own piano accompaniment, the best of which is probably "Falling Men":
One respect in which he differs from earlier performance poets, of course, is his use of new media. Not only does he have his own website and publish collections of his poetry on CD, he has also combined poetry with video (on Illiterture and The Polisher's Travels). On his website is a video version of "Job for Life" in which the words of the poem are shown as animated text, in various colours and combinations. His 2002 piece "Data Stream Pure Corrupt" indicates his willingness to experiment: on the website it is described as follows:
This 10 to 15 minute performance used a YAESU FB200 SSB transceiver to receive and transmit the sounds created by the broadcast of a live web stream. These sounds then informed the performer as to what the accompanying human voice should say or do.
The same interest in experimentation is apparent on these CDs, where Dunlop is constantly playing with sound-effects rather than just presenting us with straightforward recordings of his readings. Sometimes the experimentation goes too far - the last track on Chicken Coup is so heavily laden with reverb and feedback that it's difficult to follow what is actually being said - but it does brings a sense of variety and surprise to the CDs, and thus prevents them from seeming like second-best substitutes for live performances.
Another respect in which Dunlop differs from the other performance poets I have mentioned is that as often as not the words and sentiments he utters come to us, not directly from Dunlop himself, but from a character or persona he has adopted. From this point of view his poems often ask to be read as dramatic monologues rather than personal lyrics. He clearly has a talent for "doing voices" - on these CDs there are Irish, Welsh, Scottish and American accents, as well as various different English ones. Admittedly there are times when the connection between the voice he chooses for a character and the things the character says may seem rather arbitrary. There is also a problem of slippage: the chicken-farmer's accent changes noticeably as "Chicken Coup" progresses, and likewise the posh person who links the pieces on Underground Station becomes more and more like Prince Charles as the CD goes on.
Elsewhere, though, character and voice fit together more cohesively and are better-sustained. On "Car Sales", one of the funniest and most successful pieces on Underground Station, Dunlop portrays a Jewish-American salesman who sounds something like Billy Crystal, anxious to sell a big gas-guzzling car but confronted by a customer who wants something small and economical. He tries to make the bigger cars seem more attractive by telling stories about them: a red 1957 Stingray "actually belonged to an animal trainer who lived in Rhode Island... The only time he drove it was to deliver a chimpanzee to a friend of his in LA, so that he could go around the world on a cruise..." When questioned more closely about these stories, he has to invent wilder and wilder lies to sustain them. Why does the '57 Stingray only have 300 miles on the clock if it was used to drive a chimpanzee from Rhode Island to LA? Because, he explains, the car ran out of gas in Toledo:
"so he calls up the local garage and the guy came out with the tow truck - and the guy says, I gotta get to LA, you know, because I got this monkey here who's suffering in the back, you know, the poor little thing - and the guy says, well, Jeez, you know, LA's a bit out of my district - but what I'll do for you... I'll tow you from Toledo to LA for two thousand dollars - which, you know, considering the distance was very reasonable - and the guy was in a hurry, he was desperate, he was worried about the monkey, he goes okay..."
The wobbliness of these lies, the feeling that they are being made up on the spur of the moment and may be about to collapse into incoherence, is something Dunlop does particularly well. While some of his pieces, such as "Dirty Bomb", have a distinctly "written" feel to them, others seem to be largely improvised. Dunlop describes his method in such pieces as follows:
I often use recording technology to 'write' with just as a note pad, sometimes with a general idea like 'Cars'... Of course, many things get recorded, few actually make it into final versions such as the ones on these 3 CDs...
Perhaps the most notable example of such improvised material is "River of Conscious", from Underground Station, which is a bizarre stream-of-association diatribe veering between surreal comedy and a Beckettian investigation of the fundamentals of existence. At one stage, the speaker starts trying to work out the practicalities of what he calls "the barbed wire approach to life":
...you know, let's keep separate and everybody will be happier - or at least they'll all be separate, and then at least it will look like everybody's happier because everybody will have their own little world, and it won't be based on colour, faith, ethnic origin - it won't have anything to do with anything, it'll just be about the number of people, and then you divide the space up equally amongst them, and so you have population per square mile, say, and, you know, everybody can have a little bit, and have their own independent state - might be a bit complicated - you'll need a passport to go and see your friend, sort of thing, you know, you'll probably have to cross through potentially thousands of different countries just to get over to the other side of the city to go and see somebody for dinner...
For performance poetry - if we're still talking about poetry here, which may or may not be the case - some of this material can be surprisingly difficult to follow at first hearing, and it certainly doesn't go out of its way to ingratiate itself to its audience. Other pieces are even more opaque. "Numbers Click", from Chicken Coup, is a sequence of ideas linked by word-associations and punctuated by the word "like":
The fact that these lines are spoken in a Northern Irish accent serves to emphasise the political themes which are clearly there anyway, and gives them a bristly, challenging quality which might not have come across nearly so strongly on the printed page or screen.
What these CDs demonstrate is that in the hands of someone like Dunlop, performance poetry can encompass a whole range of different styles, and crowd-pleasing entertainment is only one of them. Not all the material here is equally successful, but it displays an encouraging willingness to experiment, both in terms of writing techniques and of engaging with new media; and there are several pieces which deserve and repay close attention and repeated listening.
© Edward Picot, November 2006
© The Hyperliterature Exchange