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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Never Knowingly Understood : The Sublime Daftness of Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was the daftest of the daft poets, and this is meant as the most sincere of compliments, because to entertain listeners and readers with an unremitting stream of original and uplifting daftness is not as easy as one might suppose. Cutler composed songs that were poems and wrote poems that were songs and he recited or sung them while playing the harmonium or piano. His voice is a distinctive one and once heard is never forgotten. His records are little treasures.

Born in 1923 in Glasgow, Scotland, Cutler joined the Royal Airforce (RAF) during the Second World War and became a navigator but was demoted on a charge of “dreaminess” and reduced to working in a storeroom. The story is that he was caught too many times looking at the passing clouds while flying and wondering aloud what animals they most closely resembled instead of carrying out his technical duties.

After the War he worked in schools in deprived areas of London, teaching music, dance, drama and poetry, refusing on principle to punish his pupils for misdemeanours and encouraging them to write verses about killing their siblings. He remained an inner city teacher for three decades. Writing poetry was only a hobby for him, but he appeared on BBC Radio on occasion, and in 1959 released his first record on the Decca label, Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, which includes two quintessential Cutler tracks, ‘Pickle Your Knees’ and ‘Gravity Begins at Home’.

An unapologetic eccentric, Cutler preferred to dress in old fashioned clothes and kept a set of ivory cutlery in his house because of the pun on his name. He travelled everywhere by bicycle while communicating with sticky labels that he made himself. These ‘stickies’ featured Cutlerisms, his life’s philosophy distilled into slogans and maxims, the most famous of which became “Never Knowingly Understood”, a direct allusion to his working method of allowing his subconscious mind to do all the creative exertion on his behalf. This is a technique associated with Surrealism, but Cutler had a lighter, quieter, sparser approach to the weird, macabre and illogical than the majority of surrealists. The darkness is transmuted into mischief and the savagery into play. There is melancholy in some of the poems, even despair, but it tends to be counterbalanced by the charm and daftness. The result is calmly invigorating.

Two more records on the Decca label gave him a small following but wider success remained elusive for many years. Not that he cared much about his popularity. His ambitions were refreshingly modest. Who Tore Your Trousers? and Get Away from the Wall, both released in 1961, are now fairly difficult to obtain. It was an appearance on a television show three years later that proved to be a turning point in his career. He was noticed that night by Paul McCartney who then invited him to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film. This led to him working with renowned Beatles’ studio engineer George Martin, who in 1967 produced Cutler’s album Ludo, the most traditionally musical of all his releases and still his best selling record.

Despite the whimsicality and apparent simplicity of his poems, Cutler had a solid grounding in jazz and collaborated with many groundbreaking musicians, including Robert Wyatt and Fred Frith. His name appears with great frequency on billings of music festivals devoted to jazz, fusion and experimental music from the 1960s and 70s, much of it abrasive, raucous and difficult. He was taken seriously by a host of virtuosos and accepted by them (something that never happened to the equally eccentric Shooby Taylor at the same time). Yet he disliked loud music and was a member of the Noise Abatement Society. He rarely raised his voice and asked his audiences to applaud as gently as possible.

For live performances he obtained the services of Phyllis King, who would contribute readings of brief prose passages. Brevity was dear to the heart of Cutler, who preferred his short stories to be no longer than one page in length and his songs to last no more than two minutes. Many of his poems consist of just a few lines, yet they often have a resonance and depth that eludes more complex works. “Women of the world take over / Cos if you don’t, the world will come to an end and it won’t take long” is the whole of the poem entitled ‘Women of the World’ and does it really need to be any longer?

Personally I hold in special regard those poems and songs where there is brilliantly simple but effective wordplay at work. He relies on a trick that humorous writers have been using for centuries, namely that if there is a possibility that a word or phrase has more than one meaning, the less obvious meaning will be chosen as the pivot on which the work revolves. In this way Cutler is not dissimilar to Spike Milligan and other absurdist comedians who were prominent at the time. Cutler’s song ‘Shoplifters’ from the album Ludo is a good example of the technique, demonstrating not only his penchant for strange placid humour but also ultimately his compassion and optimism:

Is your shop right down on the ground?
Then let us lift it, lift it for you.
There’s plenty of room in the blue
for your shop, and for you.

A woman whom once I knew
had a shop, it sold bananas and calico.
She said, ‘Lift up my shop’
so we lifted it two thousand hundred yards into the sky.
She thought she was going to die.
But we gave her the big reassure.
There was plenty of room to spare.

‘Good Morning! How are you? Shut up!’ from the same album is an even more ingenious and wry demonstration of the duplicity of words and meanings. The protagonist expresses a morning distaste for “small talk” and insists on “big talk” instead (“elephants, elephants, oh I love that big talk”) but soon changes his mind and asks for small talk (“Flies, mice and spiders. Mice, flyders and spice. Spice, mice and flyders. Microscopes, microscopes, oh I love that small talk”) before reverting to a desire for big talk again (“Cows, yaks and mammals. Maks, yammals and cows. Yaks, yows and cammals. Cacks, mammals and cows. Have you finished with your big talk? Yes, hello!”)

Having said that, if I had to choose just one favourite piece from his output, I might settle for a song without any wordplay at all in which the hilarity is generated by pure ridiculousness paired with a smile-inducing calypso rhythm. ‘I Believe in Bugs’ from his 1974 album Dandruff is a tonic for all our troubled souls. It helps to restore an unspecified hope to the ravaged world. The daft is mighty! Cutler shows us that it is best to never grow up in the first place, but that it is not quite too late for those who have unfortunately already grown up.

Cutler generally made no real distinction between his records and his books, seeing them as variations on each other. Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2 (there is no Vol. 1)is autobiography with an absurd twist, designed to be read, listened to and looked at. The record was released in 1978 and the illustrated book in 1984. Tales of an impossible childhood in Scotland, where parents drag out their children into the rain to enjoy nature (“Look, said father, a patch of grass!”) but where chores intrude like monsters to quash curiosity, are presented with minimal inflection and fatalistic understatement. One wonders how such damp surroundings can result in such astoundingly dry humour.

The titles of his records and poetry collections and other books are frequently wonderful in themselves, one line absurdist poems in essence that tickle the eyes. Cockadoodledon’t!!! (1966), Jammy Smears (1976), Grape Zoo (1991), Is That Your Flap, Jack? (1992), and the quartet of books featuring the character Herbert, all released in 1984, Herbert the Chicken, Herbert the Elephant, Herbert the Questionmark, Herbert the Herbert, and the wonderful collection of some of the stickers that Cutler would hand out to random people, Befriend a Bacterium: Stickies by Ivor Cutler (1992), among dozens of others.

Cutler’s eccentricity was authentic and never contrived for the sake of a public persona. He was once found in an empty theatre chastising his malfunctioning harmonium. “Right, that’s it. I told you, I warned you. I’m leaving you.” True to his word, he abandoned the instrument and it eventually found its way into the hands of a theatre troupe who staged a play based on Cutler. The jazz musician Robert Wyatt remembers Cutler as friendly and funny, but denies that his poems and songs were comedy and nothing more. “Neither quite comedy or tragedy, his work took you to another place, like a sort of East European Samuel Beckett.” Despite his seemingly primal Scottishness, Cutler’s ancestors were Jewish and the Jewish musical traditions remained in his family, though Cutler himself cited Paul Robeson as his favourite singer.

Useful advice in an emergency situation is always welcome. It is best to conclude this brief appreciation of Ivor Cutler with a ‘Jungle Tip’ from Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol.2. If confronted by a lion in the wilds of Scotland (or in any other place where lions are largely unlikely) the following poetic suggestion might save your life…

If a lion attacks
stoop swiftly.
Pick up two medium sized rock stones
and insert them deftly up his nostrils.
He will forget your presence temporarily
in an attempt to remove the foreign bodies.
But do not wait around
for he will bound after you
and you will not play your trick a second time.

More videos from Ivor Cutler:

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Lear and Far

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
         You are,
         You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
          His nose,
          His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
          The moon,  
          The moon, 
They danced by the light of the moon.

Beyond the Owl and the Pussycat

Courtesy: Creative Commons

The most famous poem written by the grand nonsense versifier, Edward Lear, is the one about the owl and the pussycat eloping together, and with the possible exception of ‘The Jumblies’ it is his best too. One of the curious things about this marvellous flight of silly fantasy is how it seems to demand a sequel. And sequels have been provided, one by Lear himself. Why this should be the case remains a minor mystery. No one to my knowledge has ever tried to write a sequel to his other poems, not even he.

It is not enough to state that the original story of the owl and pussycat lacks a convincing resolution. So do most of his other poems. No, there is a special quality about this work, about the adventure of two animals, one feathery, the other furry, that encourages further speculation on what might happen to them next. We extrapolate the action in our minds and frequently we are tempted to write down what we think could be a suitable or surprising continuation. But none of the sequels have become well-known.

The owl and the pussycat went to sea, they were married and danced in the light of the moon. So far, so good. Lear originally wrote the poem for a three year old girl, Janet Symonds, who was the daughter of a close friend. Might a young child have understood words such as ‘runcible’? No, but that word is an invented one anyway, coined by Lear for this poem, and though it has entered the dictionary nobody is quite clear as to what it means. My own dictionary, a battered old dusty thing, claims that a ‘runcible spoon’ is a curved fork. I have the option to believe that definition and I decline.

Lear liked the word he had coined so much that he spent it freely in other poems, obscuring the meaning still further. The enthusiastic reader can find a ‘runcible hat’, ‘runcible wall’, ‘runcible cat’, ‘runcible goose’ and ‘runcible raven’ in his extensive works. It is a satisfying word and that is sufficient to justify its frequent use by him or anyone else. Lear was a primarily a visual artist and often illustrated his own poems and there exists his own drawing of the famous ‘runcible spoon’ in the beak of a bird known as the ‘dolomphious duck’ who employs it to scoop up frogs.

That should have settled the matter. The ‘runcible spoon’ is a type of ladle. But in fact nothing was settled. British national newspapers published letters from readers demanding to know what the thing was. Other readers answered with all the knowledge, or fancy, at their disposal. It became a spoon named after a butler who obsessively polished cutlery until it changed shape. Or it was a spoon with a sharp cutting edge that ought to remind the person who used it of the Roncevaux and the battle fought there with swords that feasted on the tasty morsels inside the tin can armour of the troops engaged in the fighting. And yet speculations like these are doomed to defeat. ‘Roncevaux’ sounds nothing like ‘runcible’ and the quince enjoyed by the owl and pussycat certainly has a taste different from that of fallen hacked knights.

To focus on one word in a marvellous verse narrative that includes perilous ocean crossings, forbidden romance, mercantile pigs and serenades seems petty in the extreme. Let us agree that ‘runcible’ is a fine word and leave the deeper question to future generations to solve. It will surely be more fruitful to consider the epic journey freed from the mooring ropes of semantics. The owl and the pussycat set out to sea in a ‘pea-green boat’. It is not revealed whether this boat belongs to them or whether they have requisitioned it. They carry supplies with them in the form of honey and plenty of money and it is stated plainly that this money is ‘wrapped in a five-pound note’. Now that is a peculiar assertion for Lear to make. Why wrap money inside more money? Five-pound notes back in his day were large, more like small towels than the kinds of banknotes we are familiar with. Have these two intrepid beasts turned the five-pound note into a parcel that contains gold coins? It is hardly a safe place to conceal valuables. A thief who steals the five-pound note will take the rest unintentionally. And they are at sea. Are there no pirates in these waters?

I will say nothing about the fact that owls and cats are not generally known for forming amorous relationships with each other. That would be crass. But it is true that the larger species of owl is a menace to the domestic cat and would rarely hesitate to swoop and grab one for lunch. Yet love flourishes in the most unlikely of settings and circumstances. Better to mind our own business and not pry into private matters. The owl and pussycat wish to elope and our duty is to stand aside and let them do so. The owl turns out to be a competent musician despite lacking fingers and plays the guitar for the pussycat while singing songs of charm and sweetness. Compliments are exchanged between the pair and the pussycat soon urges marriage as a most desirable development. Yes, the owl is willing but the couple have no ring. Impediment!

They sail away for a year and a day to a land ‘where the Bong-tree grows’. To spend so long at sea without making landfall in such a tiny vessel is really an achievement. How much honey did they take with them to last so long? It seems feasible that they supplemented their diet with fish caught fresh from the ocean or perhaps with migrating birds that the owl would be able to intercept. We who live on land have no right to criticise. On the island they discover a pig with a ring in his nose. Yet he is a free pig, owned by no one, and presumably the ring is decoration rather than a symbol of servitude. We see in our modern age how many people wear jewellery in their flesh that has no deeper meaning than style and fashion. Buccaneers originally wore gold earrings to pay for their funerals if they were killed in a skirmish. Contemporary men wear earrings perhaps to look like buccaneers. In the first case, the purpose is more important. In the second case, it is the appearance that matters. Who can say what reason the pig has for his ring? Lear tells us that this pig is actually a ‘Piggy-wig’ and there might be a clue to some esoteric status in that suffix.

The pig agrees to sell the ring for ‘one shilling’. It is doubtful whether the pig has any spare change in such a remote location. Therefore the shilling must be a coin, part of the money wrapped in the five-pound note. Why protect the token of lesser value with the token of greater? It makes no sense. The paper banknote is likely to have been splashed by water during the crossing. It would be very improbable for a sea voyage of 366 days to be entirely storm free. Paper turns soggy, metal does not. To cover the five-pound note with the shillings is the sensible thing to do, and store them in the driest part of the boat. But who am I to give advice to these characters? They have been successful in all they have so far attempted. The transaction is made and the ring is handed over. A turkey who lives on a hill agrees to marry them the next day. The ceremony is completed and the nuptial night is celebrated by a modest feast and a corybantic dance on the sand in the bright moonlight.

How marvellous! How wonderful! Why do we feel that more needs to be told? The narrative is incomplete, of course. Too many questions remain to be answered. But why do we insist on learning more about the owl, the pussycat, the world that is theirs? Once again, I maintain that this curiosity extends to no other of Lear’s poems. We read about the ‘Dong with the Luminous Nose’ and we are satisfied with what we are given. None of the limericks demand further action. Could it be simply that the poem is so nice we wish it to continue? That we are dissatisfied with its brevity? Lear must have felt the same way because he began writing a long sequel but it was never finished. What remains is truly a peculiar work. Although it is never stated explicitly that the owl is male and the pussycat female, it is certain that this is a heterosexual pairing because in Lear’s fragmentary sequel the couple have children. ‘The Children of the Owl and the Pussy-cat’ was published posthumously in 1938, long after Lear’s death. Let us now consider what happens in that narrative.

The children of the two voyagers are part fowl and part feline. They love to catch and eat mice. They take up the story and reveal that they live on the shore of Calabria. Does this mean that the land where the Bong-tree grows is part of Italy? Or did the couple move from the place where the pig married them? The cat climbs a tree one day and falls to her death. The owl is now a single parent but he rallies and does his best to look after the children. “Our owly father long was ill from sorrow and surprise / But with the feathers of his tail he wiped his weeping eyes. / And in the hollow of a tree in Sila’s inmost maze / We made a happy home and there we pass our obvious days.”

Other owls visit them and bring them news of the outside world, but this is regarded as nothing to be grateful for because the children “take no interest in poltix of the day”. The money has almost run out but the owl still plays on the guitar and sings songs to nobody in particular. The sequel breaks off abruptly. It is a rather sad set of rhymes but the tale it tells is no more implausible than the original elopement. The pig and the turkey play no part in the events. Nor is it revealed exactly how many children there are.

Beatrix Potter, however, did write more about the pig. ‘The Tale of Little Pig Robinson’ is a prequel that relates the background of the pig. No one has seen fit to write in greater depth about the turkey and that is a shame. But over the decades that followed, a few more details emerged about the owl and the cat. In the 1977 animated film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the character Owl mentions that it was a relative of his who went to sea in the pea-green boat. Eric Idle, former member of the Monty Python team, has penned an apocryphal work about what occurred between the owl and pussycat’s marriage and the fatal accident. ‘The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat’ features a tense episode in which the couple are attacked by a band of ravenous rats. A heretical text published in the Roald Dahl Treasury is set in an alternate world in which the owl offers gin to the pussycat and so she rejects him. The comedian Stewart Lee has also created an extended version of the story. None of these sequels dispel the feeling that there is a lot more to be told about the remarkable owl and pussycat.

I have made three or four attempts to write a sequel myself. I will leave you with arguably the most appropriate one.

“Mayday! Mayday!” hooted the Owl
as the pea-green boat began to sink.
“We’re low on honey and plenty of money
won’t serve for a life-raft, I think!
The Pussy-cat can’t swim and even I won’t
be able to flap as far as the shore.
We’re in the drink of an appalling bay
and drowning seems the only way
        that this unfunny day
         is going to finish at all.”

“Don’t panic,” said the confident voice
over the crackling radio static.
“The Royal National Lifeboat Institutional Society for the  
      Protection of Talking Fictional Animals is coming to you 
       without delay.”

            And so it was.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Blood and Water by Rebecca Lowe

This is an excellent debut. Within only a few pages I knew I was in the presence of a real poet. What I mean by this is that the author clearly has a true lyrical sensibility and is able to project it concisely, precisely and powerfully into the reader’s mind. There are many superb poems that exist that were written by authors without this sensibility. Those poets have relied on craft, luck or inspiration, or even the sheer momentum of originality, and everything has worked out for the best. But when we feel we are in the presence of a real poet we know that nothing is left to chance.

This doesn’t mean that the poems weren’t sweated over, rewritten, grappled with. I make no suggestion that poetry flows without any trouble from the pen of a real poet, but one thing is sure, which is that the reader of a real poet soon develops a deep faith in the author and is willing to go quite far on the poet’s future journey, no matter how tortuous the way turns out to be, without becoming discouraged. I found that reading the poems in this book filled me with confidence in the voice of the poet. I turned the pages trustingly rather than hopefully. The poet almost adopts the role of a guide, leading the reader, who is now a sort of pilgrim, into the mysterious territory of the work, guiding them safely to destinations that are also resolutions. And it is all very satisfying.

The range of the poems in this volume is impressive. There is a mystical tone to many, but others are pragmatic, grounded in this world, full of raw emotions transmuted into beautiful words by the alchemy of perfectly honed and tuned words, phrases, lines. The balance of these poems is a delight. They all inhabit their own length exactly, without wasted words or abrupt dislocations. There are poems about motherhood, wistfulness, daydreaming, human connections. So far, so good, but there is nothing in these themes, despite the wonderful treatment they are given here, that one can’t find in innumerable debut poetry collections. The book bursts out of the typical debut poet’s emotional restrictions when it deals with elements that are more fantastical. This is not to say that these wilder and more outward poems lack emotion. On the contrary, the emotion returns and surrounds them, but the effect is heightened. There is now adventure as well as introspection, action as well as feeling. I appreciate the blend, the variety, the vigour, the echoes of legends, tall tales, myths.

The poet has given permission for two poems from the collection to be quoted in full by me. The truth is that I could have opened the book at random and selected any two to justify my praise of this volume. There are no weak poems in the book at all, no fillers. But I have chosen two that align most closely with my own taste. The poet states that ‘Humans Become Fish’ was inspired by the artwork of an artist named Natalie Low but it reminds me of the first novel of one of my favourite writers, Inter Ice Age 4 by Kobo Abe. My second choice is the wonderfully evocative and melodic ‘Night Fantasy’, a sombre yet not unhappy nocturne.

– Rhys Hughes

2051: HUMANS BECOME FISH

We have learned to breathe underwater,
traded our salt-choked lungs for gills,
At first it was difficult, many died.
But slowly we trained ourselves
to become elemental,
Our filament fingers,
scraping the seaweed
from foamed faces,
became fine-feathered fins.
Last of all to go, was the legs,
We were loath to lose them,
but one day, after years of running
along the bottom of the ocean,
we found we could fly.
We flicked out new-grown tails,
somersaulted bubbles and swam,
Our pellucid eyes bulging,
Mouths an open question,
And made our homes
among the reeds and coral.

Lately we have lost all power of speech,
but find ourselves able instinctively
to feel the shoal’s clamour,
Our sleek armoury of scales
Streamlined to the flow.


NIGHT FANTASY

Last night, we were all at sea,
tossing and turning on the churning waves,
billowed up on the briny foam-flecked
spatter of a white-horse gallop,
we slipped into wet pillow worlds
where fronded whirlpools
sucked and stranded
the matchstick masts
of our promises and dreaming
and dashed them
cruelly on the
broken rocks of the night,

See how I lengthen my footsteps
along acres of untamed sands,
how the tides suck away at my prints,
until all that remains is a
splinter of moon dust;
shipwrecked
on the shallows
of your sleeping.

Rebecca Lowe

Rebecca Lowe is a journalist, poet and co-organiser of Talisman Spoken Word open mic and Swansea Poets for Peace. Her poem ‘Tick, Tick’ won the Bread and Roses 2020 Award. Her poetry has been featured on BBC Radio and published in many anthologies. Blood and Water is her debut poetry collection.

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Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL