Losing Paradise

17 Jun

I chose to spend the pandemic as a poet.

During the day I have experimented with multiple forms.

At night, I read.

My shelves bulge with volumes of verse I’ve bought over the years – books often purchased on the strength of a single sonnet. Shelley’s Collected Works bought for “Ozymandias”. Barret Browning procured for “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Shakespeare’s sonnets snapped up second hand for “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Books bought and never read.

I do not blame only myself.

We’re taught poetry is difficult. We are told it is meant to be analysed – that is, pulled apart –  and then from the remaining mess we’re expected to fashion an academic essay that fits whatever is this year’s fashion. It’s a bit like forcing your dog to chomp at a pearl necklace and then carefully inspecting his turds in the hope of finding beauty.

The last few months I have read poetry purely for pleasure. Volume after volume, cover to cover. No agonising, only enjoyment. I do read everything twice; I’m not going to miss a Grange simply because I awkwardly gulped my first mouthful. But playfully I push on. No lingering over the needlessly esoteric. No pandering to thoughts and feelings I deem artificial. My shelves are full of dead poets. They wrote for me. And I’m taking it all.

Which brings me to Paradise Lost.

Milton’s epic was set for my second year at uni. At age 19 it seemed unreadable. The assessment concerned a passage from Book Six …. out of the twelve. I struggled through to Book Six, a dog that by page 1 knew this was not fare meant for my mouth.

I expect I got a C.

I pity the marker who had to rake through all that excrement.

Thirty five years later, I owe Milton an apology. And I owe myself one. Perhaps I wasn’t ready while still in my teens, but did I need to wait until I was in my fifties?

What impresses most about Milton is his utter audacity.

The introduction to my edition quotes the critic Northrop Frye: ‘In listening to the Kyrie of the Bach B minor Mass we feel what amazing things the fugue can do; in listening to the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 106, we feel what amazing things can be done with the fugue.”

Milton does something amazing with the form, but he also does something amazing full stop. He attempts to “justify the ways of God to Man.”

He fails. Of course.

But what an exhilarating failure! Milton’s Fall of Humankind might teach you little about God – but it teaches you a hell of a lot about being human.

Let me pull this back to theatre.

Because we have so many highly trained professionals in this town, the danger is we will be (to use Frye’s distinction) more “Bach” than “Beethoven”. Professionalism means we aim for certain standards: we try to get things right. Our goal is to make theatre that is perfect.

“But what can be wrong with perfection?” you ask.

Nothing. By definition.

Except that ….. when we cease to right, we can start to be human.

Some paradises are meant to be lost.

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