First night: What's he worth on paper?
Monday 06 October 1997
Any graduate of the world's first degree course in media performance (said to be available exclusively from University College, Salford), would know that timing is all. And therefore Bantam Books is quite right to publish Casual Sex and Other Verse, the much-hyped first book by the performance poet Murray Lachlan Young, at the beginning of a week when the media's attention will be focused on poetry, culminating in National Poetry Day on Thursday. It is a week in which feverish swarms of poets will be descending on Bristol, Manchester, London, Glasgow; in which schoolchildren will be hard at work producing poems at least as long as the Bayeux Tapestry; and in which serious poems will interrupt serious discussions on the airwaves.
But how serious will Murray Lachlan Young's efforts seem beside all the rest of this nationwide activity? The undeniably serious aspect of the affair so far is the figure that he is said to have commanded from EMI for a recording contract - pounds 1.1m - and a second one from MTV for pounds 250,000. These sums of money (the recording contract alone being worth double the amount awarded to Seamus Heaney for the Nobel Prize for Literature) are extraordinary: no poet since Tennyson has commanded such sums. Young also picked up unexpected support from Oberon Waugh in the Literary Review, that great champion of fogey verse.
Poets and editors who were asked to respond to the news proved less charitable: Michael Horowitz, usually the most generous supporter of his fellow poets and himself a veteran of live performance, was uncharacteristically harsh: "His work sucks. It's not poetry. Someone I know saw him performing and said he makes people laugh." Peter Forbes, the editor of Poetry Review and a believer in the beneficent influence of performance poetry, slapped Young down too: "My instinct is to disapprove of the whole thing." Michael Schmidt, a poet and respected publisher of poetry, wrote in PN Review: "It is hard to know whether to celebrate with Mr Waugh or nash teeth with Horowitz and Forbes. The works is not available to be read."
That was the difficulty, of course: the media had focused on the money that a performance poet can command and not on the poems themselves because, until this week, those who had not caught Young on the performance circuit could not have seen his poetry because he was unpublished.
Now, at last, the hype is over. Is Waugh right? Or is Horowitz? Horowitz without a shadow of a doubt. On the page, the work is trite and clumsy in the extreme; crude, self-preening doggerel in the Belloc-cum-Hood mode with a naughty, late-20th-century fizz about its subject matter, which ranges from snorting cocaine to suicide, from outing heteros to casual sex. The test of any good poem is whether or not it deserves to be re- read; whether its language and its mood haunt us. This book-simulacrum can be read in 30 minutes flat, and it would require a mightily self-destructive act of physical and intellectual application to wish to pick it out of the waste basket.
But this is not quite all, of course. The more important matter is what the record and TV deals, and all the media attention lavished on Young to date represent: the young man has undoubtedly been a wow with audiences who have seen and heard him. His photograph on the book's jacket proves how visually appealing - from the well-oiled, raffish locks, to the white winged collar - someone thinks he is. He is proving a success as a performance poet. But performance poetry of this kind is as different from most of the poetry being read and heard around the country this week - the kind of poetry that transfigures the ordinary; that shows a respect for the mysterious workings of the imaginative processes; that transforms our perceptions of the world - as could ever be imagined.
Some of the time the world is all zip, bop, wow! This is the terrain of the performance poet. At other times, in those moments between the moments, time seems to take a little longer. That's when the real poet, sometimes impecunious, occasionally curmudgeonly, shoulders through, fresh from the inner dark of himself (or herself) and others.
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