Friday, 8 June 2007

Dead Hamburger and the Bird and Tree Problem

Michael Hamburger is dead. His obituary is here. He sent some of his early poems to Eliot for his opinion. In one of them, where Hamburger had written "bird" Eliot wrote in the margin: "What sort of bird?" I call that constructive criticism.
Writing often reminds you how much you fail to look, or it does me. I'm always asking things like that, even for newspaper pieces. If a dog's mentioned, you ask, "What was the dog called?" If a tree falls on someone and kills them, you want to know what sort it was.
Much of the humour of pieces can derive from that sort of thing. Brand names are funnier than generic descriptions. "He was hit in the face by a cake" is clearly not as good as "He was hit in the face with a Sara Lee Double Belgian Chocolate Cake, which had been bought at Bejams for £4.99".
But I don't know the names of trees or birds or anything like that, really. Or rather, I know the names, but their effect on me is entirely divorced from their real presence. "Cedar" and "Maple" and so on have an effect, but it's entirely onomatopoeic; "Snow Falling on Cedars" strikes me as a good title (not enough for me to have bothered reading it yet, mind you). But I don't know what a cedar looks like. In Steppenwolf, Haller likes hanging around in a porch with an araucaria. But isn't an araucaria a monkey puzzle tree? They're bloody huge things, so what's it doing on the highly-polished encaustic tiles in some hausfrau's porch?
I was once given a book called Trees of Great Britain and Ireland. I really must dig it out. I approve of trees. So did quite a lot of surprising people. Dr Johnson was always going on about them.
Back to Hamburger. His grandfather's budgerigar was confiscated by Customs at Harwich. I know what a budgie looks like.