Three Poets and All That Jazz: Dylan (the Bob one), Bowie (the David one) and Philip Larkin’s Record Diary.

image of three books on Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Philip Larkin's essays on Jazz

Three books came my way this Christmas, each about a unique artist and all with very different styles and perspectives.


Poet #1

Before Bob Dylan became the 2016 Nobel Laureate for literature, one academic in particular had already been teaching his poetry students about Why Dylan Matters. Professor Richard Thomas has now gifted us with these insights in a highly engaging read that is impeccably researched and to be enjoyed by academic and pure listener-reader alike. The Guardian hailed it with Music Book of the Year 2017 and here is one reader in total agreement.

Growing up and attending school during the 1950s in a small Minnesota town, young Robert Zimmerman absorbed a  multitude of cultural influences that included Roman and Latin Classics amid other literary fodder. Later on, as he ventured forth into the wider American scene, Dylan explored modernist poets like Rimbaud and the writings of Beat authors like Jack Kerouac, all of whom helped shape the unique lyrics of the Bob Dylan canon. Yet the attachment of those words to a musical frame of increasingly sophisticated quality takes the singer-songwriter into a further dimension, one of musical virtuosity that draws from deep roots in American folk to begin with, then blues, country, rock and beyond. It is this intensity of musicianship combined with poetic lyricism that create the sheer enjoyment, intrigue and love of the Dylan canon for me personally and no doubt for many other lovers of Dylan’s work.

Throughout Martin Scorcese’s documentary film, No Direction Home, Dylan describes himself as a musical expeditionary and this is reflected in the ever-changing variety of styles and genres he has adopted to form his trailblazing career. Within that career as musician-lyricist, he is also no doubt a poet. His work, like poetry, exists as a multi-layered treasure, to be enjoyed anew with each listen.


Poet #2

In David Bowie: A LifeDylan Jones adopts a chronological-biographical frame, populated by personal interviews and anecdotes from many of David Bowie‘s friends and contemporaries. In a clear avant garde tradition, Bowie songs seem to me to come from a symbolistic origin, whereas Dylan’s, at least early on, were more of a social commentary. Bowie’s abstract style is also a commentary of sorts, more focused on the inner life or inner space, as well as, paradoxically, the vast cosmological context of life – outer space – and on how that can be articulated through the media of the body, clothes, words and music. Bowie articulates alienation like no other.

Jones’s book is a ‘warts and all’ description of David Bowie’s life, especially the earlier ‘rock star’ years, yet it is also a fond and adoring one. We encounter the artist, driven by a creative instinct that was compelled to manifest in a continually renewing vortex of personas, music, lyrics, visual art and styles, with bodily appearance acting as a blank canvas and the stage as pure theater. As I have argued before, Bowie is a shapeshifter par excellence, a hurricane of creativity in relation to the forming and transforming self.

I found this book fascinating and an enriching addition to my indulgence in all things Bowie, especially the way in which the author brings us behind the scenes of the world in which he moved. Many individuals were involved in the ever-changing Bowie project, all of whom fed into what we know and love as the Bowie classics. Read the book.


Poet #3

My final consideration in this triad of Christmas gift books is the collection of essays and reviews of contemporary Jazz, written for the Telegraph newspaper from 1961-1971 by the Hull based poet Philip Larkin. Reading this book is like a safari into Jazz history, describing artists like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as their recordings filtered in from the United States and Europe, as well as some well known band leaders within Britain itself, like Kenny Ball and Chris Barber.

While the merits and demerits of Larkin’s life and work are topics of considerable debate at the moment, there is no doubt that he loved Jazz and the people who created it and that, in his own words, in the final analysis, ‘what will survive of us is love’ (An Arundel Tomb).

Another Hull poet, Andrew Motion, has written extensively on Larkin’s life and work and presented a captivating portrait of him on the Sky Arts ‘Passions’ series. The following snippets are from the program and summarise Larkin’s offering as ‘glittering verse that spoke directly to, and about, post-war Britain’ and the uncertainty of life. It is this directness and connectedness with everyday life that forms Larkin’s appeal, welded to an ability to ‘create beauty from despair’. As Shane Rhodes contends, ‘He was incredibly accessible for an academic poet’.

In All What JazzI find the articles informative and fun. They have sent me off on a new pilgrimage into jazz music and songs, some reminiscent of growing up with my Dad watching Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen on TV, others complete revelations, especially the voice of a lady singing with the Chris Barber Jazz Band. She’s called Ottilie Patterson and she hails from Comber in Northern Ireland, just up the road from my home in Carryduff. Here she is; what a voice?!




Farewell Maestro #DavidBowie

Album Cover, Hunky Dory, contains song Changes

David Bowie on Hunky Dory album cover

Saddened by the passing of my all time favourite artist David Bowie, I’ve been looking back over my old posts and collections, celebrating his work and asking myself ‘What did David Bowie and his work mean to me?’

A series of images, tunes and words spring to mind. Here are just a few of them.
Youthful yet ageless, renowned yet humble, epitome of fearlessness, imagination, glam rock, the seventies, the eighties, colour, metallic, snazz and pizzazz, style, freedom, inventiveness, creativity, oxygen, emotion, sophistication, underground, challenge, way out, pure artistry. A while back I expressed my love of Bowie’s portrayal of the central character in the film ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. To complete my hymn to our departed hero I have included that post as an appendix to this one. With thoughts and meditations towards his grieving family, I add

>>Rest in Peace Maestro and Thank You for the Music<<



Here’s an earlier blog post:

Falling Into Life: David Bowie as Archetypal Energy

Famous for his shapeshifting and experimental, entrancing songs, David Bowie’s role in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth is rarely noted nowadays. For me this is one of his finest pieces of work, alongside the song Changes from the 1971 Hunky Dory album. As a rare example of a movie that closely mirrors the book, Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name published in 1963 tells the story of a Martian who comes to earth to find a way to save his planet, his species and his own family. Bowie captures perfectly the loneliness and at times despair of the alien as he tries to make himself understood by the people he becomes involved with on earth. There is always an archetypal quality to Bowie’s work and in this role, he seems to me to mirror the Jungian process of  individuation, that always requires some kind of descent into the unknown and often alien realms of the  unconscious.

Other symbols of a pending descent into the inner world include dreams of stairways down to a cave or basement, or sliding into a lake or ocean. The classic example is Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, whose descent down the rabbit hole and encounters with numerous archetypal characters represent the way in which humans can grow through encounters with the unconscious (see Clifton Snider’s article at ).

Ancient myths also reflect this theme, like Orpheus in the underworld and Persephone’s cyclical return. But the ultimate goal of descent is to touch base in some way before returning to the world a more expanded and integrated person, like the hero returning with the elixir of life or as Jung expounded, the alchemist finding the lapis lazuli.

While not everyone’s cup of tea, The Man Who Fell To Earth gives me a sense of the ultimate creativity of the hero’s journey and takes the sting out of uncertainty and change, for though the hero may not achieve his or her initial plans, they often find connections and meaning in the new world, so that ultimately it is the journey, not the destination that matters.

What does David Bowie mean to you?

Buried by the Shadow: Lessons from Baudelaire

Having just read a piece of historical fiction called Black Venus by James MacManus, I have been left at once saddened, uplifted, more informed about the French poet Charles Baudelaire and perhaps also a little wiser on the work of shadow energies in our lives. In the midst of public horror and ridicule, this gifted but tormented artist had the courage to face and describe the human shadow through its many manifestations in his personal life (much like James Joyce would do a century later). It is this window of identification and therefore the sense that we are not alone in our experiences that is, I believe, one of the massive attributes of literature, indeed all forms of expression. These ideas are also tied in with my current interests in creativity and mental health recovery and promotion, as well as with previous musings on the role of the shadow within a Jungian approach to personal maturation.

That literature and Jungian ideas overlap is inevitable. Jung emphasised the symbolic nature of human thought and imagination, as did Baudelaire and Manet. A muse was often a source of both inspiration and projection for the artist, a dynamic that may well be present in all our lives – who hasn’t ever had a hero or a guru or some other personified source of inspiration and motivation?


But to truly move onwards in  the hero’s journey of our life course, it is essential to incorporate and balance all the archetypal energies, of which the dark shadow is only one. The self-acceptance required remains elusive and unthinkable still for many of us and therefore while we might take the necessary step of acknowledging the shadow’s terrifying existence in ourselves, we must also avoid disowning and projecting it, or conversely, allowing it to swallow and destroy us. I fear that Baudelaire may have been devoured by his own shadow, a force he projected into his muses and possibly detected in himself but was unable to fully accept with compassion and therefore was ultimately unable to constructively channel it.

Like many before and since, Baudelaire went relatively unappreciated in his own time but is now recognised for his visionary genius and his initiation (with the painter Manet) of a whole new world of symbolism, modernist literature and the impressionist artistic oeuvre. T. S. Eliot, who wrote the groundbreaking modernist work The Wastelandcited Baudelaire as having paved the way for him and as the inspiration behind his poetry.

While the nihilism of these writers might be something of a blind alley if taken alone, and for many an all-too-shocking description of human nature, they did at least move towards a more authentic insight into that nature, if ultimately a too-pessimistic and destructive one. From  more recent work on the shadow as being both dark and light, we can embrace the shadow as having something to teach us, as gifting us with the potential for liberation and motivation, while living alongside the inherent potential danger.

It is unclear whether or not Baudelaire reached a level of self acceptance and accommodation. Certainly by all accounts he struggled and suffered but also experienced episodes of joy and happiness  in his life. I suspect we are all dancing a similar dance and can only hope that through literature, compassion, empathy and all the many forms of self-expression we can find, we can each give and take encouragement with our fellow journey-makers. Whether or not we manage to face, own and constructively channel our own shadow aspect is possibly the chief deciding factor of our mental health and well-being, perhaps even one of the  core tasks of our lives.

The novel Black Venus  by James MacManus is and excellent read by the way (follow the link at the start of this post).

My book is available now in the UK, USA and on Palgrave and Amazon sites:

Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives (Palgrave 2014)


images: Top: Charles Baudelaire by Emile Deroy

and Second image is T.S.Eliot photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell



Along the Way with Author Roberta McDonnell, PhD

So enjoyed my conversation with Sandra Harriette whose blog A Life Inspired is itself truly inspiring and full of beautiful uplifts and motivational resources. Thanks Sandra, a pleasure to chat with you.

A Life Inspired

There are a good number of people who obtained schooling and professional training in a field. What never ceases to motivate me is the fact that some of them are willing to share what they know and do it so creatively. Roberta McDonnell is that kind of person. Having started in the mental health nursing field, then onto full time education to study psychology and social anthropology on a doctoral level, Roberta decided to begin a blog on the experiences she had and the people she encountered throughout her careers. Several of her publications can be found there. She remarks: “These experiences have shaped my interests and inspirations today and I draw continually from those resources in current writings as well as in ideas for future projects.” Roberta is led by the conviction that literature in all formats is a priceless human gift and her utmost contributions in her field are…

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