Recently, I found myself caught up in the great Nobel Literacy Prize debate over whether Bob Dylan should have been awarded one or not. The arguments came from many sides but it all came down to this: Are lyrics poetry? That is, what makes lyrics suitable to be read; or recited; or sung or quoted; or used in a wedding speech; or a eulogy; or put on a pedestal and displayed around a Harbour walkway? Or anywhere? Do lyrics need music. Is that that what defines them or differentiates them from poetry? I guess the Nobel panel of judges decided that lyrics could stand alone as a legitimate branch of poetry – and QED a legitimate literacy work. That begs another question, too. Does a great literacy work have to be in a published book? Have any text or SMS works ever been nominated? Or even Kindle only editions. And, of course, one could easily argue that Rap is poetry – set to music or just recited. It doesn't need Hip Hop to sell it, but it helps. Don’t let’s get started on that one.
The debate will rage, no doubt. In the meantime, here in New Zealand, there’s a world-famous poet whose writings often end up set to music, although he doesn't intentionally set out that way. In the case of poet and National Treasure, Bill Manhire, it was poetry. More to the point the poetry of Riddles. Manhire should know a thing or two about poetry as he founded the International Institute of Modern Letters, home to New Zealand’s leading creative writing program. He is now Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington. Riddling entered Manhire's life when he was very small child. In the introduction to his new collection Tell Me My Name, he reveals the first riddle his mother ever sang to him. He might not have really understood then what the nonsense all meant but it created a strong memory and he sings it still:
“A wee wee man in a red red coat
Staff in my hand and a stone in my throat.”
(Answer: a cherry)
From the traditional English Riddle, The Cherry Song.
As a university student he was introduced to Old English and Norse languages and Anglo Saxon riddle poems. "Objects like a cloud, a swan, an iceberg, would be described in slightly oblique, misleading ways.” This has affected the way he writes this new collection. Oblique but ultimately transparent references are important to this sequence of thirteen riddles.
To add another dimension jazz scholar Norman Meehan has composer and plays some very atmospheric piano accompanied by Jazz vocalist Hannah Griffin. What’s interesting about the compositions is that none of them give any clues as to the answers to these riddles but they are revealing once you do know the answers. There’s one about ice that Manhire has peppered with tiny cluesin the lyrics. But musically Meehan gives little away save for the opening few notes of a melancholy violin, slowly groaning like and iceberg.
Manhire’s worked with Meehan and Griffin before, on Buddhist Rain, Small Holes in the Silence (Rattle Records), These Rough Notes (VUP) and the acclaimed Making Baby Float – poems written by Manhire about growing up in 1950’s New Zealand. Griffin’s voice is just as lush and warm on this new CD as it was on that earlier project. It’s almost a maternal angelic presence. Calming and soothing. She could sing the phone book or the US presidential results and still make the world seem alright. What’s abundant here is the space between lyrics and music. Like Manhire’s reading voice, it is slow, relaxed and measured. It is also slightly monotonic, with Griffin holding fast her course. Again giving away little but surprisingly it’s still seductive and enticing. You want to solve these. Or at least try.
The little hardback book that comes with the CD includes the full texts and eight photographs by celebrated artist Peter Peryer – none of which truly give the game away, either. They’re actually red herrings – images that provocatively lure you one way, and then another but ultimately have little obvious conections to the subject of the riddle. This is yet another layer of playfulness.
I approached this as a CD review but it’s as much a book review – or a poetry review – as well. Upon my first reading, I looked at the ‘riddleness’ of each poem – what lies within the rhyme. I was looking for the word-smithing and the echoes, the enigma, and because of the rhymes the sweetly crafted melody. As poems, along there is an openness, as if you are walking through a wide-open paddock – endless green stretching to the horizon to meet the blue skies. No wind. Calm. Slow. Sensually sun kissed skin. A vast plain that could generate both movement and stillness. This is a bit of a trade mark for Manhire. He likes to leave the doors open and for the poem to breath. You can hear his soft, gentle voice in these lines. With him, it’s always what he doesn’t say that is important.
Take this poem. Simply numbered ‘1’. I won’t spoil it by telling you the subject of the riddle but if you put yourself in the mind of the speaker you will travel with him to the destination:
The road goes by the house
the wind sings in the tree
we sing the travelling worlds
we sing quietly
(we sing quietly)
All of these poems have cryptic clues awaiting their own individual ‘Eureka!’ moments where there is a Ha! at arrival which is good (but not as good as the travel). Sure, you can look to the back page to discover the answers or are they? Perhaps a bridge; an ocean; an echo; a family tree; a watermelon; a muddy puddle; ice; Christmas fairy lights; the dark; longitude and latitude. I’ve added one in, can you guess. Best not. And why puncture the delight of solving these riddles, or better still the bliss of not really ever knowing. In a world of big data, secrets and lies, and a pursuit of truth – fake or otherwise, is there ever a time when we can just ponder without conclusion? Perhaps that is the real pleasure here. The following example may shed some light. Or not.
I’m always at the cinema
I’m always at the beach
I’m waiting in that secret place
that lovers try to reach
from poem number ‘5’
Next month these poems will be performed as stage production at Wanaka’s Festival of Colour adding yet another dimension. There are rumours that the show may tour the country, too. As a ‘literary’ piece it will jump of the page, into the strings and keys of the piano and drift across the auditorium, floating on the vocal chords of a singer. Will this be poetry or lyrics that you are experiencing. Does it matter? Like the riddles themselves, we need to let them be – un-categorized, a pleasure as they are.
I’ll leave you with more to travel on, navigate it wisely:
I’m made of where you’re going
I’m made of north and south
I’m made of possibility
I’m made of somewhere else
From Poem ‘4’
Tell Me My Name is published simultaneously with Bill Manhire’s new poetry collection Some Things to Place in a Coffin.
For more information: http://vup.victoria.ac.nz/tell-me-my-name/