Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Listen Again

It is rare to hear a radio programme that changes your view of both of the participants, but Andrew Marr interviewing Clive James (Start the Week, Radio 4 23 December) did it for me.
In the past I have found Andrew Marr to be an irritating know-it-all and I would not normally listen to him or watch him unless I knew he was talking to someone I was interested in. That's why I listened to this interview, well, that and the fact that I was driving up the M5 in horrible weather and needed something to lift the fog and rain.
I've always liked Clive James, though he too can be a supercilious know-it-all, it's just that he has always been funny too, and that buys a lot of forgiveness.
What emerged from the programme was that Andrew Marr is a better informed and deeper thinker than I had realised, though I should have guessed because you don't get on the way he has without some talent. Clive James, it turns out, is a wise and deeply intellectual poet as well as being an entertaining critic and funny too.
If you missed the programme then catch it on listen again.
I should make clear that some significant time in the programme is devoted to a discussion of Clive James translation of Dante’s Inferno, in which the relative merits of various verse forms are discussed. Dante apparently uses Terza Rima but Clive decided that this would not work in English because, he says, English is much harder to rhyme than Italian. How I got to my age without knowing that I do not know, but never mind, Clive used a Quatrain form instead. Let me make clear that until now I would not recognise a Quatrain or a Terza Rima if it bit me, but I still found the discussion fascinating. That, I think, says a lot about the quality of the two discussants.
Clive said a little about his illness, he has emphysema and leukaemia, though that was apparently was in remission at the time of the interview. The consequence of his illness is that he has to be very careful to manage what energy he has, so what better to do than translate Dante’s Inferno. Why didn’t he undertake such a monumental task when he was well? It appears that being ill has somehow forced him to concentrate his thoughts, which seems to have had a side effect in developing wisdom.

I  have now looked up the two rhyming forms and I think I understand Clive's point, both forms have pairs of lines that rhyme, but in the Terza Rima the pair in verse 1 rhyme with the middle line in verse 2 and the pair in verse 2 thyme with the middle line in verse three, and so on. In effect you have to keep finding three words that rhyme, whereas in a quatrain you only have to find pairs of rhymes. So a quatrain is easier if Clive is correct in thinking that English has less rhymes than Italian. I suspect that it's all down to those declensions that I struggled to learn for Latin O level. This may be the first time in about 50 years that I have found some particular use for doing Latin. Is that what the teachers had in mind I wonder? Unlikely - I suspect in that Clive James is only a year or two older than me and I don't think he had published much poetry when I was doing Latin. Were they thinking that I would wish to read Dante in the original? Had they read Dante? Who knows and now it doesn't matter because Clive has done it for us.
What about Dorothy L Sayers version I hear you cry, Clive says it is good but old fashioned, listen to the programme and you'll see what he means when Andrew reads a segment of the Sayers version and Clive reads the same part of his. Go on, go and listen to it, it will be on all over Christmas on listen again. You can even download it and put it on your iPod.

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