Manifesto and Interpretation


The Engaged Musician - A Manifesto,  Sam Richards (CentreHouse)
The Writing Occurs as Son
g: a Kelvin Corcoran Reader, edited by Andy Brown (Shearsman)


Sam Richards is one of those people who as well as being multi-talented is also extremely modest, as a recent performance (as poet) at Plymouth art centre testified. His rant 'against excellence' made the point succinctly with his usual good humour as well as including an unmistakeable political barb. Although an accomplished poet/performer Sam's major role is as a composer/musician, one who has combined a long interest in improvisation with a role as collector of folk song. His mixing of the vernacular with the 'highbrow' (or rather, his questioning of the terms and their history) has always been a feature of his material and output. He's also a writer on music, having produced, among other tomes, a book on John Cage and another on music and society in the twentieth century, entitled Sonic Harvest (Towards Musical Democracy).  

His new book,
The Engaged Musician, is organised on the one hand, in what I'm going to call a practical yet 'theoretical' argument, combined with alternate chapters, which take some aspect of contemporary practice, via concrete examples of working musicians, to expand upon and flesh out the arguments. It's a novel approach which is stimulating and effective, and for a non-musician like myself, not too difficult to follow. Richards' approach is political in the sense that he regards music, rightly, as a key aspect of our cultural life together and makes the point that it's actually virtually impossible to be 'apolitical', with verve and impressive engagement, avoiding dry and arid language yet making his points with clarity. Where he doesn't have answers he lets you know this but the word 'engaged' in the title is no accident - this is a writer who thinks about what he is doing as he does in his work as a musician and facilitator of other performers.

The starting point for the book itself is fascinating, a detail of a Hogarth print, dated around 1741, entitled
The Enraged Musician. In it, a court musician is looking out from an open window onto a street scene which is crowded with characters and clearly with a variety of sounds and noises. Some of this clamour comes from actual instruments or singing - a 'parallel figure' to the indoors musician, for example, is facing the window and playing a clarinet-like instrument. He is 'of the street' and shabbier than his counterpart but a musician none-the-less and he is surrounded by clamour and bustle. There is the beginning of an argument here, between the 'bewigged, interior musician', with his ears covered to keep out the noise, and the world of the street, with its multitude of distraction and 'cacophony', an introduction to the music of the twentieth century perhaps, in its questioning of the nature and diversity of music and of the power relations which enable its production and dissemination. Richards takes on technology in its ever developing and transgressing forms and the institutions which make possible and control the outputs and the manner in which these aspects can be mediated and challenged by the grass roots and by those with a more democratic world view. He is not devoid of critiquing those who he may clearly otherwise feels sympathy towards - Cornelius Cardew, for example, or even in some senses Ewan MacColl, when he feels the 'approach from above' is ineffective and potentially patronising, but he always sees the complexity within work where a composer is attempting to marry the social with the musical and is most critical, quite rightly, in my view, of music which does nothing but service a shallow but pervasive commercial interest. The chapters which deal with practising musicians all contain links to the music so it's quite possible to follow-up on the arguments and also find yourself introduced to a variety of music which you might not come across otherwise. This is a stimulating book which favours the imagination over the advert and which brings together a vast amount of musical material to suggest a future rich in possibility and diversity but one which is constantly threatened by an economic system which professes freedom but genuflects to money and to narrow commercial interests. As Ursuala Le Guin puts it in the preface to The Engaged Musician:

     The exercise of the imagination is dangerous to those who
     profit from the way things are because it has the power to
     show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal,
     not necessary.

Richards' thinking is often subtle and detailed - and all the better for it - but he knows how to speak to the enemy when necessary. This is a fascinating book which is a must for contemporary music students and for just about everyone else, I'd say.


Kelvin Corcoran is a poet whose work I feel a need to re-engage with after reading this impressive bunch of essays edited by Andy Brown. Large-scale commentaries on an author's work - particularly a contemporary poet whose impressive output is ongoing - can seem like an intimidating addition to the work itself but I feel that this substantial book, together with Corcoran's New and Selected Poems (Shearsman, 2004), provide a great introduction to the work of a writer whose reputation is on the rise. Corcoran's ability to merge the political with the lyrical in a postmodern manner which retains a serious approach while also delighting the attentive reader, is pretty much unique in the British poetry scene and it's good to see his work attracting this kind of useful critical attention.

I can't provide an essay by essay meta-criticism here but I will point towards some of my favourite pieces and hopefully suggest why these essays are worth engaging with. They range from the subject of Corcoran's relation to Greece (both in myth and how this relates to our world in the here and now) where Peter Riley's seminal approach suggests how the worlds of then and now are mediated and also adds some biographical details which are invaluable. Andy Brown adds a political critique which embraces the NHS and also provides intriguing commentary on Corcoran's actual methods of composition. John Hall focuses intensely on the lyrical qualities of Corcoran's writing, making some fine distinctions between the nature of song and poetry and refers, perhaps surprisingly, to Eric Burdon and Burt Bacharach in passing. The relationship between high art and popular culture is a theme which re-emerges here at various points as does the sophistication of Corcoran's approach, which combines direct statement and emotional openness with a postmodern sensibility more often connected to surface glitz and technique. In this respect I was very taken with Luke Kennard's quite complex yet explanatory essay on 'the prose poem' which I'm still thinking about days after having read it. I feel after having read this piece that I understand, for the first time, the full implication of Adorno's comment on 'the impossibility of art after Auschwitz'. Kennard's application of surrealist art in relation to Corcoran's work (he's not suggesting that Corcoran is a surrealist) is both deep and thought provoking and something I'm going to have to think about more seriously.

Jos Smith takes on the subject of landscape in Corcoran's oeuvre and seems to have been influenced by Andrew Duncan's perceptive notion of separate frames which overlap but never quite interlock, creating an almost cubist notion of time and space. Smith also puns on the notion of umbrage (as in shady - 'umbrageous', and in 'taking umbrage', as in being insulted) and Marvell seems to be an unacknowledged reference point here. Much is made, by several commentators, of Corcoran's exploration of  'Eng-a-land' and its relation (in history and literature) to Greece and the colonial mindset, while Zoe Brigley Thompson focuses primarily on his poetry about art, with particular emphasis on the work of Roger Hilton. Simon Smith's succinct and exacting essay combines Corcoran's interest in W.S. Graham with his ambivalence towards Pound and the way in which this feeds into Corcoran's own presentation of history, both personal and in terms of class, committed yet provisional, critical yet not reductive to slogans and empty rhetoric. He also writes perceptively about Corcoran's collection written after he experienced a stroke -
Words Through a Hole Where Once There Was a Chimpanzee's Face.

Then there are the more personal reflections, including those by Corcoran's friend and fellow-poet Lee Harwood (Corcoran is probably the poet most alike to Harwood in terms of his subtle dialectical approach) and a moving tribute by Alicia Stubbersfield on Corcoran's qualities as a teacher from the perspective of a fellow-worker and poet.

There are other impressive pieces by Scott Thurston, Kate Peddie, Ian Davidson, David Herd and Martin Anderson, which interweave and overlap with the above themes and it's interesting how different critical approaches can bring a more 'overall grasp' of an individuals' work. If Andrew Duncan is strangely missing from the list it's probably fair to say that he's written a lot about Corcoran's work elsewhere, both suggestively and eloquently and his writing is easily traceable in a number of relevant volumes. Mention is also made of the huge importance of Barry MacSweeney as an influence on Corcoran (among many others) and there are 'three conversations' between editor and subject throughout the book which bring a more personal focus on Corcoran's material. Finally there is a section of poems from
Glenn Gould and Everything, a recent collection by Corcoran, which talks about illness and the uses of variation, as exemplified in both writer and interpreter of Bach, in particular.

These essays come highly recommended. If you're at all interested in contemporary poetry and its possibilities you might like to be acquainted with the work of Kelvin Corcoran. Read his
New and Selected Poems and then get hold of a copy of these exceptional essays. You won't be disappointed.

   Steve Spence 2014