Saturday, 16 February 2013

Music about fighting

In 2006, I entered a competition for a piece of writing in Easy-Read English -- the adaptation of language for people with learning difficulties.  My entry didn't get anywhere in the competition, and, not seeing any other market for it, I let it stay in the depths of filespace. 

Recently, however, I came across an opportunity to revamp it.  The Up-Goer Five Text Editor enables you to type text using only the 1000 commonest words in English.  I copied my 2006 piece into Up-Goer Five, and was told immediately that many of my words fell outside that thousand.

The list of prescribed words is indeed an amazing one.  Block, blonde, and blood are in it, all in a row, but not sing, clap, or war.  Does anyone know how far Up-Goer Five matches the vocabulary used by practitioners of Easy-Read?  Where I didn't find synonyms, I set about excising passages rather than writing longer explanations. This operation shortened the thing from 674 words to 479.

The result is below (and on Up-goer Five here).  Easy-Read and the constraints of Up-Goer Five can be likened to txtspk, Twitterspeak, and the Victorians' telegramese -- adaptations of English for a particular purpose, and most unlikely to be the future of English prose.  But constraints can be stimulating.  Think of the 14 lines of the sonnet!

I must give credit where credit is due.  My coming across Up-goer Five was thanks to Dixe Wills' article in the Christian magazine Third way.


We are working on a big piece of music.  It is by Mr Britten.

We start working on it in the cold.  The music seems strange.  Parts of it are not what we expect.  We go wrong.

I look over my music book on trains.  We are getting there.

As we get closer to the date, we work harder.  One evening, we try the music with the band and the kids. We go wrong in new ways.  Is it because we are not used to the band?

I ride home very fast.  The music feels like the ride.  It is under control.

Then we try again, in another building.  The stars join us for the first time.  I go wrong in more new ways.  The ride home is shorter.

On the date, we try the music in the afternoon.  Many of us come by car.  They are late because of road works.  I go wrong in parts of the music that were all right before.  The music feels much harder now.

The time comes.

We give the music sitting down to begin with.  The music starts quietly, with deep notes and bells and us.  We get through the first part and don't go too wrong.  But by the end of the second part we have gone wrong in places.

The music has six parts.  The last part is the hardest.  We know we have gone wrong in many places already.  Can we get through this hard part?

We struggle.  We know we are struggling.  Lots of people have come to hear us.  Do they know we are struggling?  Will we have to stop?  The man waves his stick to lead us.  His waves get bigger and clearer.

The music ends as it began.  It ends quietly with bells and us.

After our last note the man puts his stick down.   Then everyone is silent for a long time.  The music has made us all want to be silent.

Then someone makes a noise with their hands.  The noise means "We like the music."  Then others join in.  They make a loud noise with their hands for several minutes.  The stars lean forward.  Leaning forward means "Thank you for liking us." The kids and the band and the small band all lean forward.  And we too get asked to lean.  Thank you for liking us.

We walk off the raised floor.  My wife comes to meet me with a friend of ours.  They tell me how much they liked the music.

Other people are saying the same thing to their friends.  They did not notice we were struggling.

We know we were struggling.  We know we could have done it better.  But the music has worked.  It was beautiful.  It has made people think about what fighting is like.

Listen to Mr Britten's music if you can!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

More numbers poems

In 1986, I wrote a poem called 'Values: what the parties think of the number nine'.  A couple of years later, I conceived the idea of incorporating 'Values' into a sequence of poems, one for each of the digits 0 to 9.  I wrote all of the projected poems, but soon realised that I had to deal with them separately, if I wished for any hope of publication.  I evidently came to that decision long before I began keeping my poetry card index in 1994, and I cannot now lay hands on a copy of the sequence as a whole.

The poems for 3 and 4 I put together.  They were published in Streetwise 12, October 1993, p. 26.

3 4
4 4

hard to hold against pulse and a holding
in balance in tension impossibly
big for cohesion and tight for division
three is a time and a stretch and a way

Four, plus-minus, fridge, central heating, neat,
clicks over, give or take, its even beat,
four weeks a month, an issue every quarter,
four simple elements, earth, air, fire, water,
four mind-forms, melancholic, or phlegmatic,
or sanguine, or choleric, automatic
four strokes to turn an engine. Give or take,
four is for things we comprehend or make.

The poem for 7 doesn't explicitly mention the number at all, but it mentions the whole-tone scale, which has seven notes, and the last two lines have seven syllables each.  It was published in the Poetry Now anthology Mating rituals, edited by Veronica Hannon (Peterborough: Poetry Now, 1993), p. 142, and is, I suppose, the kind of thing I have had in mind when I've described myself as partly failed puritan and partly failed enfant terrible.


Straights are major, gays are minor,
transsexuals bitonal,
and awkward in their whole-tone
scale some choose to be alone.

The poem for 8, on the other hand, names the number in the title and first line.  It is concerned mainly with visual images; the date in the first line has to do with the figure 8 as a sun and its reflection, not with historical events.  The picture that I had in mind when writing the quatrain was the cover illustration of the Unesco Courier for November 1987.  It shows the remains of a ship, which went down two centuries ago, caught by sonar imaging on the floor of one of the Great Lakes, with masts still standing.


The eighth of August eighty-eight,
a shimmer of reflected suns,
the water heating back the light.

Sound shudders through, down, octaves down,
echoes the vessel, fathoms drowned,
displays green of years or water,
shadows two masts on a deep ground.

'Eight' was published in Saint Matthew's church magazine, Cambridge, May-June 1989.