There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so

Charles Cowling

I don’t know where you stand on literary criticism. I’ve never been a fan, largely because I don’t understand it. Many years ago I taught for a while, and I was charged with showing fifteen year-olds how to back-seat drive Shakespeare and other quite good writers. Despairing of my teaching methods, my students would resort to buying exam cribs so that they could teach themselves. They would come to class wanting to test me about themes and symbolism and other stuff that left me standing with my mouth open. They all did pretty well in their exams, though. The best things we learn at school are the things we find out for ourselves. Very bad teachers are especially inspiring in this respect. I ought to say inspirational, but I won’t.

I was much keener on literary celebration. I encouraged my students to clap and whoop when they encountered something they really liked – a great idea, a well-turned phrase, some yummy assonance. I hope they retained something of this spirit.

The critical faculty can go both ways. Lit crit teaches us what’s good and why. It teaches us taste. It teaches us to be discriminating. And here comes the downside: it teaches us to discriminate against. One measure of cleverness is its ability to demonstrate that something lots of people think is really rather good is, in actual fact, complete crap. I’ve always preferred open-eyed wonderment to narrow-eyed appraisal. I’m not saying I’m right. But I do think that schools teach clever kids to sneer.

If you take a lit crit yardstick to most of the poetry declaimed at funerals you’ll agree that most of it falls short of the highest rank. Try as they may to interest their clients in summat a bit posh, celebrants find it all but impossible to stop them from going downmarket, pouncing on some Poundland stuff about stairways to heaven and how God only takes the best, then asking the celebrant to read it. As practical jokes go, this is a pretty good one to play on an educated person.

Does the literary quality of funerals matter? Of course not. The only thing that matters is the testimony of hurting hearts (Tony Piper’s phrase). Celebrants can attach far too much value to a well-wrought script.

The iniquity of literary snobbery is well exposed by the poem young Ryan Mayes wrote for his murdered girlfriend Nikitta Grender:

My love for you runs so deep, it is hard for me to sleep.

I miss you both so much and I know all our plans and hopes are now in my dreams.

I never thought the Lord would take you both away from me so soon.

Just a thought of you makes me cry, I never had a chance to say goodbye.

I always smell your scent, it makes me think of all the times we’ve spent.

So many things I never got to say Babe, the day God took you a part of me died too.

But now I have to let you rest although my world’s a mess.

I miss you both and will love you ‘til the day I die.

Your heartbroken boyfriend Ryan XXX.


Account of the funeral here. Don’t miss the family member with the pink hair.


6 thoughts on “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so

  1. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    I don’t think people have to be “poetic” (I guess that means “familiar with poetry”?) in order to respond to poetry, any more than people have to know about music in order to respond to it. I still remember the impact made on all sorts of un-lit poeple by the moment in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” when a character read Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” Surely it all depends on the poem?
    Let’s not polarise people according to a guess as to their sensibilities and what they do or don’t relate to. Let’s just ask them and see.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    I write poetry (though rarely read it); but in practice I seldom use it at a funeral because actually most families don’t relate to it. If you’re not doing Religious because he wasn’t religious, why do Poetry if neither he nor his family were poetic?

    You have to be careful how you enunciate ‘Lit-crit’. Which reminds me of the saying, clearly spoken by a straight man: “Poetry’s like penises – I prefer my own.”

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Thanks Charles,valued words indeed coming from the old GFG himself.I know literary snobbery – any kind of snobbery – dismays you, and we have somehow to think our way through these complexities if we are to do a good job.

    And I guess when I wrote “people hold on to whatever keeps them afloat” I was, without realising it, still reeling from those utterly terrifying and unbearable images from Japan.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Brilliant, GM. Brilliant and thoughtful and humane. I think a lot of us are extremely grateful to you for this.

    AS for “Categories of critical analysis wash away in the fierce emotional storm of grief and people hold on to whatever keeps them afloat.” — well, that enters the Pantheon of Great Thoughts suma cum laude!

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    My ideal lit crit would help people to explore and explain WHY they do or don’t like something, rather than telling them why they should prefer one thing to another.

    Such explorations might enable people to reveal to themselves and for themselves why Seamus Heaney is more highly regarded than Pam Ayres, by people who read a lot of poetry and think a lot about what they read.But if they preferred Ms Ayres, fine – they’d just have more valid and interesting things to say about why. And whatever they want at a funeral is an absolute.

    Because we may be confusing two things here – why, in a book-lined quiet room, or at a poetry reading, or by the pool on holiday, we know perfectly well that writer A is trashy and writer B is much better; and why, in the highly charged symbolic event we call a funeral, A is exactly right for dear old Dad, and B can take a hike, along with Professor Z and any other expert.

    I’d rather read B myself, but that, of course, is not the point by a mile or two. And XP I don’t think you’re being a snob – it is often important to say that Ethel chose the poem, because that’s part of this unique family event.

    Just the same with music, seems to me. Categories of critical analysis wash away in the fierce emotional storm of grief and people hold on to whatever keeps them afloat. Even “Time to say Goodbye.”

    It’s not difficult to explain why Schubert and Bill Evans are more rewarding than “A Walk in the Black Forest,” given a bit of careful listening, but if the latter speaks to them and for them, then it’s better on the day.

    Perhaps drama people grasp this more easily than lit critters- if it works on stage in performance, it’s good.If it doesn’t work, no matter how beautifully written, then it’s no good.

    A funeral is a performance, surely.

    Because we may know more than the people we’re working with about music and poetry, we mustn’t let our anxiety about appearing elitist force us to pretend that Pam Ayres is as good as Seamus Heaney – that’s just patronising; she’s great, but she works at a different level. For a regular reader of poetry to pretend otherwise is anti-intellectualism, or as we say these days, dumbing down.

    Conversely, we mustn’t let our depth of reading and understanding get in the way of helping people find and deliver the right poem for the event – that would be lacking professional empathy and compassion.

    A favourite grumble of minibrants goes “I had to read that tosh from Canon Scott-Holland yet again,” or “‘My Way’ once again and I’ll scream.” Understandable, and I’m guilty of it, but – that’s the job.

    But isn’t it lovely when they ask you to help, and you find something for them which is a)good and b)they relate to!

    (Sorry if I’ve mentioned this before..) They said “we really don’t know what to leave to, but we really want it to be cheerful.” “He loved cricket, always listened to Test Match Special, they said.”

    I tentatively suggested that they considered the theme music to TMS (“Soul Limbo” by Booker T and the MGs)For years they’d heard it echoing round the house on summer evenings. It went very well indeed – smiles and tears. At that moment, it was better than Bill Evans, Schubert and Mozart rolled into one.

    Mostly, it’s not like that…

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    Some of the stuff we are asked to read is absolute rubbish. But if it’s touched a nerve with someone, and says what they can’t find the words to say, then fair enough.

    Sometimes the snob in me repeats “this was chosen by Ethel”, but apart from that – good luck to ’em.

    I can always recite something from that Bill Shakespeare fella to myself on the way home, if I’m feeling a bit unclean.

    Charles Cowling

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