Thursday, October 16, 2008

the one great elegance

This last weekend I picked up a book I had put aside for a while-- MacNeice's biography by John Stallworthy-- yes, I'm still reading it since I started mid-summer. It's unconscionable how little reading I've done lately, especially having my master's days still within grasp of memory. I was reading in excess of 200 pages a day then, and now I've finished only 200 pages of this autobiography in the span of a summer. Pathetic.

It happens during football season. My brain likes to curl up around football statistics, injury reports, player gossip, etc. and it's difficult to nudge in a more constructive direction. It's no coincidence that my brief return to reading the written word coincides with the Pittsburgh Steelers' bye weekend.

Being distracted by football is more easily done when others give you intellectual reasons for doing so. MacNeice does this for football. In The Strings Are False, he talks about "the one great elegance" in American football that sets it apart from English rugby-- the forward pass.

He writes, "To see a man feint and then throw a long impertinent pass out of the palm of his hand into a space where no one is but suddenly someone appears and ball and man are wedded at the run, is exhilarating, almost a sacrament."

Unlike TSAF, Stallworthy's biography of MacNeice's life is too exacting, to the point of over-reporting. He acknowledges this, his intent being to keep to MacNeice's writings and letters as closely as possible. You have to want to stay with him, or else the book is prone to fall upon the nightstand and not be picked up again anytime soon. Fortunately, Mac's character draws me back into Stallworthy's book, even if only for a few pages before falling asleep.

One part of the biography that I particularly enjoy is the recounting of Mac's days at Oxford. I suppose I enjoy this as much as I do because I've been to Oxford so I can more easily place myself in the scene as I'm reading. I would have liked to attend Oxford, too, and there is a bit of envy that also plays into my interest of this part of his life. Here's a photo of Christ Church I took while there in '05.

At one point, while strolling around, I was convinced I must have side-stepped a rope barrier somewhere and mistakenly wandered into a museum on campus. There were signs warning you to keep off the grass, and no one else was around. The courtyard was lined with grotesques and the place had the feel of being steeped long in history. Dumbstruck by the antique beauty of the place, I thought I had managed to walk right into a restricted area. Then a student kicked open a staircase door, talking on a cell phone on his way to class. He walked past with a backpack over one shoulder and a mountain bike over the other. And I realized that it was not a museum I had walked into, but rather, the courtyard of this kid's dorm.

Another connection I have to the passages regarding Mac's days at college is the similar approach we seem to have had to our collegiate environments. We both found ourselves out of place at college in our own, different ways. I touch upon this in my Aug. 2 entry where I first mention reading the biography.

Mac had it tough at Oxford finding his clique on campus. Not only was he an Irishman at an Englishman's university, but he was also a man among nancies. In The Strings Are False, MacNeice wrote, "In Oxford homosexuality and 'intelligence,' heterosexuality and brawn, were almost inexorably paired." This discovery "left me out in the cold and I took to drink."

Reading this about MacNeice illuminates something about his poetry Stallworthy doesn't touch upon. He's all over the mother-father relationships in Mac's poetry and the garden-tunnel imagery, etc., etc. What he doesn't address is the masculine tone of Mac's poetry and how its origin can be traced to is his being his own man (literally) at Oxford.

Left in the cold at Oxford, Mac wrote poetry that's its own. There is an independence, an authenticity, an edge to his work that I appreciate more now knowing that these traits also characterized his life. I'm reminded of a passage of his in a letter he writes to Eleanor Clark, explaining why he refuses to espouse socialism at a time when it was vogue to do so among those he associated with:

"I am damned if I am going to swallow Marx or Trotsky or anyone else lock stock & barrel unless it squares with my experience, or perhaps I should say, my feelings of internal reality."

Stallworthy quotes the following poem of MacNeice's in its entirity in his biography, and I think it's as good a representation of Mac's work as any. (Tell me, does anything sound less gay than bagpipe music?)

"Bagpipe Music"

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.

John McDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie McDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tyre and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Charmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife 'Take it away; I'm through with over-production'.

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide on an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish.
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

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