Playing with words


How did The Beatles graduate from callow boy band to sophisticated bohemian artists capable of creating a cultural masterpiece in only four years?
This was the question explored by sociologist Colin Campbell in an illustrated talk called Sergeant Pepper: Playing With Words where he examined the lyrics of selected songs from that seminal album.
His Festival Of Ideas lecture attracted a capacity audience at York University’s Ron Cooke Hub last night (June 15th). This attendance alone suggests the great British public is far from being “peppered out” by the mass media fanfare that has greeted the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The critic Kenneth Tynan has been mocked for describing the album, released on 1st June 1967, as “A decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation.” However, Campbell put Tynan’s ambitious claim in context by stating The Beatles were more than pop stars; they were artists who influenced millions of people throughout the world. Along with fellow musician Bob Dylan, they were the beating heart of 1960s counter culture.
They achieved this status with their songs. As boys, they played with words before they played the guitar. Being Scousers, they were addicted to puns; the band’s name, after all, is a pun. They also adored alliteration and instinctively used rhetorical forms, such as anaphora, epiphora, symploce and oronym.
Campbell defined good lyrics as being effortless, succinct, pleasing to the ear and original. The lyrics of The Beatles demonstrate these four characteristics. They put music in their lyrics through creative word play. They wrote songs, not just melody; strip away the lyrics from the music and you are left with something that’s vaguely dissatisfying.
Campbell added Lennon was the master of ambiguity, while Paul was the master of word sounds. All the while, curious George was learning the art of song writing by observing his band mates; Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun was, somewhat appropriately, revealed as Campbell’s favourite Beatles song.


A chamber piece


British director Terence Davies explores the inner life of Emily Dickinson, the reclusive 19th century American poet, in his latest movie. A Quiet Passion is a carefully composed chamber piece; most of the scenes are shot in dimly-lit rooms where revealing close-ups contrast with group shots conveyed by imaginative 360-degree pans. The outside world is kept at bay until the genteel domesticity is jolted when the director suddenly uses graphic colour photographs of dead soldiers lying on the battlefield to depict the American Civil War. Spinster Emily (Cynthia Nixon) writes her vigorous and emotional poems in the wee small hours so as not to disrupt her family’s domestic routine. The script is punctuated by Dickinson’s poetry, recited by Nixon. A Quiet Passion is a lyrical homage to a great poet who found fame only after her death.

Bishop’s move


Richard Holloway, the former head of the Anglican Church in Scotland who stopped believing in God, does not like being called an atheist because he “doesn’t do certainty”; if you must stick a label on him, he would suggest “expectant agnostic”.
He told a packed audience at York Explore Library last night (20/02/2017) he was fascinated by three questions that had taxed philosophers and theologians for centuries:

What are we?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?

In promoting his latest book A Little History Of Religion, the former bishop argued there were four approaches those questions:

Strong Religion: Humankind’s encounter with God was all truthful, all actual, all real. This fundamentalist approach left no room for doubt.

Critical Realism: There was an encounter with God but, due to human fallibility, we must be modest about the claims we make. It adopted a fluid approach to history.

Post Religion: (non-realism): This approach was sympathetic to religion; it regarded it as a colossal work of the imagination that spoke to the human condition in the same way as great works of art, such as an opera, play or novel. You can be a religious belonger without being a religious believer; it can challenge you to be a better person.

No religion: These people don’t get religion. They ask the question: “Why waste your time with it?” Some in this camp were benign while others, such as Richard Dawkins, attacked religion with vigour and a certain amount of anger by adopting, ironically, a religious, evangelical approach.

Holloway ended his stimulating talk by referring to Yehudah Amichai’s poem:

The Ecology of Jerusalem

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
like the air over cities with heavy industry.
It’s hard to breathe.

And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives.
Houses and towers serve as packing materials
later thrown away and piled in heaps.

Sometimes candles come in place of people.
Then it’s quiet.
Sometimes people come in place of candles.
Then there’s noise.

Amid enclosed gardens, among jasmine bushes
replete with balsam, foreign consulates,
like wicked brides who were thrust aside

lie in wait for their moment.

Judge the poet, not the man


Philip Larkin’s reputation took a battering with the publication of two books in the early 1990s. First came his selected letters, compiled by Anthony Thwaite, followed by Andrew Motion’s official biography: Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. Suddenly one of England’s best loved poets was regarded as a misogynist, racist and bigot. It was no longer cool to like his poems as Larkin had committed the cardinal sin of being politically incorrect.
James Booth, Larkin’s colleague at the University of Hull, has sought to restore the poet’s reputation by writing another biography entitled Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love.
Booth argues Larkin kept many relationships alive by developing a different persona for each; consequently his friendships, like his love affairs, were contained in separate silos.
It is a fascinating read that prompted me to return to the poems and what a treasure trove they are. Booth makes a compelling case that Larkin is one of English literature’s great poets; a status he achieved while holding down a demanding day job as a university librarian when higher education was undergoing a major expansion.

La La Land

Does love conquer all? What is the cost of pursuing your dreams? These timeless questions are posed by La La Land. The screen musical, despite its feel-good song-and-dance numbers, has a melancholic motif as a love story unfolds. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist passionate about jazz whose ambition is to run his own jazz club; Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress/writer. Fate brings them together but then stuff, as they say, keeps getting in the way. I watched the acclaimed movie at York City Screen today; excellent entertainment.