Poetry Parnassus: "This global chorus"

An audacious celebration at the Southbank Centre.

Whether you’re counting down the hours to the Games or couldn’t give a damn, the Cultural Olympiad programme - now well underway - is doing its best to win over all people to the London 2012 cause. A successful festival of any sort has about it the spirit of collaboration (over competition) and elicits in its goers the irresistible notion that, for the moment, they’re part of some utopia. Such was the feeling among hundreds of writers and readers last week, at probably the greatest international gathering of poets in history. 

Poetry Parnassus, the “back of an envelope” idea of Simon Armitage, artist-in-residence of the Southbank Centre, saw 204 poets from as many countries come together to represent their nation's poetic tradition at the many-venued culture complex on the Thames. Readings and workshops, parties and debates filled six days and nights. 

Did you know Somalia is possibly the world's most poetry-loving nation? Such takeaways about the global poetry scene were easy to come by over the week, but far more interesting was the demonstration of how many various ways people of countries around the world relate to poems. Take Somalia again: while poetic expression there is the base from which almost all other creative outlets develop - and most people can recite many poems - the tradition is entirely aural. How unlike the UK, where poetry is so often read in one's head, the verse printed and bound; confined to a page.

With such an international gathering the political dimension of poetry didn't need teasing out. On Wednesday, PEN International & English PEN hosted Freedom of Expression Day where personal narratives and debate centred around themes of exile, identity and conflict. Free speech, the defiance and deviance inherent to the purposeful writing of poetry, was alluded to throughout the festival: Shailja Patel, the Kenyan poet, warned writers should never "[take] lightly the privilege of a platform," and Yuyutsu Sharma from Nepal picked a lofty quote by Shelley, that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".

Still, this was as much a celebration of the listener/reader as of the performer/published writer. Many times over the week they were at least as grateful, but on Tuesday evening poetry lovers may have been most excited. At dusk over Jubilee Gardens, behind the London Eye, a helicopter dropped 100,000 cards printed with poems by 300 contemporary poets. The "aeronautical display" by Chilean collective Casagrande had adults and children jumping for poetry, or merely gazing at the "Rain of Poems" that gently fell against the city skyline. Later, crossing Waterloo Bridge, I read the first I had caught: an abridged version of a poem by Rafeef Ziadah (Palestine's representative at the Parnassus) that I'd seen a video of her performing last winter. Printed on a little card and shortened to just a stanza, took my breath away again.

Poetry Parnassus, a gathering of poets from every Olympic nation

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear