Monday, 23 April 2012

Bad With Names

Today is Shakespeare's (presumed) birthday.  You had probably already noticed: he's inescapable at the moment, what with the BBC's Shakespeare Unlocked season, and the World Shakespeare Festival, and goodness knows what else.  Sometimes, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether it is ever not Shakespeare's birthday.  But brace yourself for 2016, the 500th anniversary of his death.

One of the marks of an intelligent, aware person is an understanding that the world is never as simple as the version served up to satisfy the limited curiosity and attention span of children, and the cultural bystanders and don't-knows who make up 90% or more of the population.  But, even with that awareness, most of us are too lazy to act on it.  We stick with the official canons and "grand narratives", and tend as a consequence to suffer from a constant low-level guilt that we haven't put more effort into broadening our horizons.

But life is short and the Arts are overwhelmingly long.  Shakespeare and Dickens, Bach and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Turner; a person can spend a lifetime just getting to know the Premier League of the Arts, never mind looking into the life and works of the also-rans and might-have-beens. But it is troubling, isn't it?  Knowing how infrequently the prizes in life go to the deserving, you do have to wonder whether the Illustrious Dead, too, have somehow networked or sharp-elbowed their way to the top table.

For example, have you ever heard of Christoph Graupner?  No, neither had I.  Once, it seems, he was regarded as one of the most prominent composers in the competing courts of the German-speaking world.  In 1723 he applied for and was offered the post as Kantor in Leipzig, but his employer, the Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt, made him a counter-offer -- more money and job security -- and so he turned Leipzig down, clearing the way for one Johann Sebastian Bach to get the job.  Graupner wrote over 2000 works, virtually none of which has been performed in the last 250 years, mainly due to a dispute over his legacy that kept his work unpublished.  Radio 3 played one of his choral works last week, and to my untutored ears it was indistinguishable from Bach.  But what purpose would it serve to redress the injustice or to rewrite the history of music now?  There's quite enough actual Bach to be getting on with, not to mention Telemann and a dozen other underrated but moderately well-known composers jostling for attention.  Only scholars care about context.

But the embarrassing thing is that I seem constantly to be coming across new figures of substance -- unknown to me -- in domains I thought I knew.  Somehow, you assume that after 40 years or so, you will have a pretty good sense of who's who and what's what, at least in those areas that matter to you.  I'm sure there are many prominent physicists and Formula One drivers whose names have passed me by, but I would have thought that I'd have the novelists, the poets, the photographers, the painters, the musicians and the "cultural moments" pretty well covered by now.  Not so.

This week I was surprised by Jack Spicer and the Berkeley Renaissance in poetry, a movement of the 1950s that is a direct precursor of  The Beats.  How did I miss that?  Spicer is a good poet with interesting ideas about the role language itself plays in writing (his collected poems are titled "My Vocabulary Did This To Me").  Maybe I'm just bad with names.

There's simply too much good stuff out there, but luckily there's no law says you have to keep up with it.  And the great thing about Shakespeare is that -- so far, at least -- he sits reliably, indisputably and unassailably at the top of that vast tottering human pyramid of artistic endeavour.  It doesn't do us too much harm to ignore everyone else, and it seems highly unlikely that we've overlooked some other great poet-playwright genius, unjustly buried and struggling under that heap.

Or does it?  Or have we?  I wonder...  But don't you worry about it, birthday boy. I think you're probably still safe up there.

If thou survive my well-contented day
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more resurvey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bett'ring of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
"Had my friend's muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought
To march in ranks of better equipage;
   But since he died, and poets better prove,
   Theirs for their style I'll read, his for his love."
Sonnet 32

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