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Sunday, 29 July 2007


No posts for a couple of weeks, yours truly having been tasting the aesthetic delights of the Norwegian Fjords. It might have been the work of those omnipresent trolls or the waterfalls or caves that somehow in the darker recesses of my mind suggested the following, or it might have been a combination of all these. Or none. Who knows?

On Acquiring the Optimum Conditions for Creativity.

How wonderful to find a cave,
a shell-like structure, stone and brick,
you curled within, a perfect fit.
The world without, a distant myth.

And then to find as well your own
amenable dominatrix,
a muse with whip and concrete mix
to drive you in and seal the door.

How wonderful to kiss the whip,
be blinded to this half-blind world -
and deafened too, though foetus-like,
you listen to your mother's heart.

Your mother's heart lies at the heart
of music, poetry and art.
Its metronomic rhythms bind
the trolls composing in your mind.

How wonderful to feel the walls
cave out before your wall of sound,
to shatter like a singing glass,
or water ricocheted from rock.

How wonderful to be pitched back
into the bosom of the street,
submit again to hearing, sight...
and worship at her beauty feet.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

A Voice from the Silence

Recently I treated myself to a copy of Don Paterson's "Orpheus : A Version of Rilke". Fifty five sonnets to Orpheus, the originals having been completed by Rilke in under a month at a time when he was working on the Duino Elegies - when he was working to finish them, no less. It does not seem feasible. He spoke of writing them to dictation. Paterson is at pains to stress that what he has produced is a version, not a translation, and he includes a twelve page Afterword, plus an appendix of fourteen notes, all devoted, in the main, to an analysis of the contrasting natures of these two very different beasts. Incidentally, the book would have been well worth buying had it contained no more than the Afterword and the Appendix.

But they are merely a bonus. It does contain more. It contains fifty five stunning sonnets. I say that as an act of faith, for I have not yet read them all, not even half of them, but they will, I just know, be meat and drink to me for some time to come. (I guess I will take substantially longer to read them than Rilke took to write the originals.) But my purpose just now is not to discuss or eulogize about the sonnets, but to think upon the following, which Paterson quotes in the fourth of his Notes:
"Charles Simic once memorably remarked that poems are translations from the silence. For a version to be any kind of a real poem, it must first reinhabit that extralinguistic silence the original poem once itself enjoyed - which is to say the poem must make a symbolic exit from language altogether. In this meditative space, its pattern of idea and image is reconsumed by its own strangeness, and when it re-emerges into language rediscovers itself in original speech."

I think it is not too fanciful to say that I was aware of something akin to this - perhaps the obverse side of the process - as I chose and read some "taster" sonnets, and particularly the opening one, "Orpheus". I read the words, was aware of meaning (though not "the" meaning), as from the page came, a voice, certainly, but a voice in the silence. The language was not being internalised. It was meaning as you might encounter it in dream, not knowing by what means you had come by it, a ghostly flame flickering between me and the page. A brief moment, no more; a tick of the clock, but perhaps it was the eternal clock that had ticked.

Later,as I read them again, the spell was broken, and the language kicked in with its own enchantments. Later still, it occurred to me that there is often (always?) something of this to my first reading of any great poem. It would be interesting to know if this is a universal finding. Is it the same for all?

Sunday, 8 July 2007


"Vision" must be one of the most overworked words in the context of literary or artistic reviews and discussions. Every publisher's blurb, it seems, talks of "the author's vision". Art critics are no less fond of the epithet than their literary counterparts. So what, in these contexts, does the word mean? Very often, the author's or the artist's "vision" amounts to no more than his or her personal "take" on a particular subject. Sometimes it is doom-laden, as in: "The author's vision of the final days of global warming...", such a vision being something conjured from the depth of the imagination. It used to mean more. A "visionary" artist was one such as Samuel Palmer or William Blake. The word visionary was an accolade that marked him out, exalted him above his more mundane and realistic peers. As always, there would have been disagreement about which artists qualified for the honour, but about the nature of the honour itself there would have been more or less total concord. At that time it would most likely have been a supernatural vision - or an hallucination, depending upon your particular take on the subject. So, am I saying that to be visionary a work must record an actual visionary experience? Or can an artist or an author construct a vision from his or her imagination? It surely must involve more than a slickness with imagery, more than the twisting of a shape on canvas or a clever way with rhyme or assonance. Traditionally, the first essential would have been that it should possess a heightening effect to lift it out of the ordinary, one that was more than special effects or a device to achieve a coherent composition. And where the word "vision" retains its former meaning, that must still apply. In other words, it must compel with its authenticity; we must be convinced by a genuine spiritual quality, be able to see in it the signature of an active other world or life peeping into ours and having some effect upon it.

But away from its historical aspect, maybe there is another, equally worthy, equally valid: the artist or the author may have a "vision" in which s/he sees - and helps us to see - the world, or some small part of it - in a wholly new way. Van Gogh's "take" on the world has done so for many. We could argue endlessly as to whether his vision involves the penetration of another world into ours. For me it does not, but no one now sees sunflowers in quite the way they were seen before he painted them. Or consider the distortions of an El Greco painting, even those of the disciples in Leonardo's "Last Supper". Expressions of tension and spiritual struggle. The difference between the heightening effect of these on the one hand and van Gogh's on the other is not easy to convey, but is clear enough when the comparison is made. Looking at either of the former two we instinctively feel that the artist has reached us through something seen at the heart of each of us, an image of the eternal, some would say; a small particle of being that does not change whatever may be changing in the world around. Shelley, confirmed atheist that he was, had a sense of the spiritual and a drive towards self-knowledge that came together in his poetry, creating visions to open up that world for his readers, while for Wallace Stevens poetry could change the world by re-ordering what is there, re-creating the given. Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" can not give me that, however much I may glean from them.