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Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Landscape or Landfill?

                      Samuel Palmer's Garden in Shoreham



Landscape is a word meaning different things to different people. To some it conjures up a cityscape, to others a picturesque view, a holiday snap perhaps, and to yet to others it suggests a fragment of a golden age, a time gone by that maybe never was. If the possibility existed to offer the services of a time machine to take such folk back in time to walk the hills and meadows of Wordsworth and Constable et al - not necessarily to walk with those giants, but to see the world as it was in their day - I guarantee you would have no shortage of takers. It isn't, of course, and most folk know well enough that the clock cannot be turned back, yet they still bemoan the fact that "modern" (i.e. contemporary) painters and poets neither paint nor write they way their predecessors did, nor from the motives that those far off masters had. Ask why they think that is (not good enough to say that 'It has always been the case) and you will get a range of answers. Here are some I once received:

Beauty isn't fashionable.
Nature has been done so much and for so long that it has become a cliche.
They can't draw the way the old masters did.
You have to write about what you know. They live in the cities. They don't know the countryside.
They are just straining to be different from all the other artists.
In a word: money! Fashionable architects and celebrities want slick abstracts.
Landscape has become a warehouse wall with two kids doing graffiti

The emphasis was all on the change that has come about in the artist or poet, about "what has always been the case" and not about what I think must be at the heart of the matter, the changes that identify what we see today as being in a different category from those seen in the past. We are talking changes that we have wrought in the landscape itself. In nature, no less, for if by landscape we mean rural landscape (as for the purposes of this post, I do), then it is well known that before the Romantics triggered their seismic change in how we think and feel, places like The Lake District gave rise to fear and and horror. They were dangerous places to be avoided. In recent times there has been another seismic change. To think and feel deeply about landscape was always to look beyond its physical beauty, to a something else, to something transcendent. Now, though, it involves looking beyond even the something else (though hopefully not to overlook it) in the knowledge that the very existence of what we see is under threat - and by us.

The nature that Wordsworth knew is all but a thing of the past. The landscape is tainted. It no longer holds excitement or mystery as once it did. Maybe a poet of Wordsworth's stature is needed more today than ever. The visionary (positive) eye to see beyond the green issues as they are now being debated (in very negative, pessimistic terms), to see and to feel the effects we have upon the landscape and the effects of the landscape upon us, both as they are and as they could be. Such poetry of landscape as is around today tends to be descriptive. We need it to tackle relationships, to look at how (to quote one of my respondents): "... the blighters have sprayed it with their insecticides and their anti-this and anti-that concoctions, how our fields have become killing fields." It is in the same bracket, she almost suggested, as the Americans spraying their defoliants in Vietnam. Venture along that line and you have at least to say that the two things, if in the same category, are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But there, the point is made: the countryside is no longer what it was. As Wordsworth put it, rather more eloquently:

"The things which I have seen I now can see no more,”
and later that...
“The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there has past away a glory from the earth.".



Cotman's Mousehole Heath and Constable's Harwich Lighthouse



Such feelings of poignancy and of the ephemeral essence of nature were always at the fount of poetry. The question is: how appropriate are they as a response to to the changes we have made to the planet? And even more pertinent: how useful to our need to work through and come out on the other side? for it is not just a matter of insecticides. We have been busy in many ways. Perhaps the scene we are looking at has been genetically modified in parts. Would that matter? Should it matter? In many people the possibility occasions strong negative feelings, even those pre-Wordsworthian feelings that the countryside might be a place of danger. Should poets be any different? One day maybe, those for whom it is currently a stumbling block, who are able to see the countryside only as an aspect of creation that has become both threatened and threatening, will be able to see the otherness despite (maybe within) the genetically modified, and through the horrors that have perhaps befallen it. But it may take a genius of Wordsworthian or Poundian proportions to sensitize us all to that particular vein of thought. The point is that even where the scene still appears to be of the same order, the hidden attributes have changed significantly, and our reactions to it and feelings for it have changed accordingly. We approach with sentiments from which perhaps no great poetry can spring. And if we turn (for one moment only) to city landscapes, the situation may well be worse, occasioning perhaps even more extreme feelings of guilt to do with global warming and much else.

Seamus Heaney, writing on nature poetry and the art of Haiku (The Guardian, 24,11.07), quoted Ezra Pound commenting upon his poem "In a Station of the Metro" - a poem initially of thirty lines, which he then spent eighteen months whittling down to its essentials. We know it as a poem of fourteen words expressing the original and now famous "Haiku moment" when he saw that crowd streaming out of the Metro station and set about finding an image to encapsulate it.

"The apparition of these faces in a crowd:
Petals on a wet black bough."

It is close to the English feeling for landscape which can perhaps best be seen in the works of the English watercolourists: Cotman, Constable, Turner et al. but not forgetting the likes of Blake and Samuel Palmer. To quote Pound again, it is that quiet, hinted-at moment when "a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective." It is Heaney's "worldness" of a scene," a "worldness" which yet has a strong sense of another world within it. It is to this other world. he says, that the poetic expression promises access. But it is also a moment of pathos, the two elements of which are its physical beauty and the ephemeral nature of that beauty. We have no trouble with the transience of beauty, we see that all too clearly, but the beauty that we see is the outer beauty, the physical beauty, the beauty of its "worldness". The sense of that other world within the worldness is the beauty we have tainted, and in the main it now eludes us. At times, maybe, it is no longer there - and will not be there until that second Wordsworth comes.

Monday, 26 November 2007

To write or not to write...

I had a bit of a surf among the blogs this morning (like you do!) and found what I consider to be an interesting one at
http://btt2.wordpress.com/
The current topic of conversation being the question of whether to write in books or not - i.e. to annotate, add footnotes etc. It struck me that this is a question close to most bookpeople's hearts in one way or another. I left my immediate response , an off-the-top-of-the-head answer, which was:

I am a one hundred percent preservationist. I almost never annotate or write notes of any sort, even in paperbacks. I often feel very strongly how useful, even convenient, it would be to do so, but cannot bring myself to do the deed. It’s something deep inside to do with a feeling for books. I cannot bear to see them mistreated in any way - e.g. thumbed, bent back round their spines etc

It could be, though, that quiet reflection will moderate these thoughts. If so, I'll let you know, but where do you stand?

Friday, 23 November 2007

The Storm

Someone let this so voracious creature
loose above our heads. Some mad scientist
(all scientists are mad, faith-mad with narrow
focus - or ignored), some politician
someone, thing, manipulated chance or
circumstance until the masses, mismatched,
massed against each other, slowly moved, then
quickened, whirled like Dervishes in war dance
round each other. Some ministry or flow
of air or trait of human nature stirred
the growing cauldron, poured in energy.

With energy came arrogance - or so
it seemed to displaced columns, refugees,
concretions, nondescript free-fallers. Puffed-
up, swept-up, sweeping upwards, bursting through
the cloud shelf, scorching sky and atmosphere,
then falling back exhausted, great and good
and those behind the great and good became
charged particle or thunderbolt, loose cannon
in the making. And as a twig or leaf
is steered by currents in a stream, so is
this darkness steered by its environment,

by carbon footprint or prevailing wind,
some toxic brew, a slight imbalance in
the status quo, a twist of fate (or faith),
too little knowledge or too much. But someone
tempted this thing in, confusing cause
with consequence. Now aftermath is all -
or all we've got - and makes of it our frenzied
link to fury on a god-like scale. The
final curtain falls, no bang nor whimper here,
just thunder modulating to the howls
of earth-survivors with their earthly fears.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Judging a book by its cover

It seems from what I am reading in the press that Picador, an imprint of Pan MacMillan, is about to discontinue the practice of launching works of literary fiction in hardback. There will be some exceptions, limited editions at £20 or so, but from next year, and for the vast majority of readers, the one practical option will be to buy it in paperback format, priced at £7.99. Some pundits are seeing this as the end of hardbacks for the genre, expecting all or most other leading publishers to quickly follow suit.

Nearly all hardback literary novels are heavily subsidised. Even established authors like Booker prize-winners find it hard to sell them. They are then, in a word, unprofitable. I had fondly imagined that there would always be a market for the hardback. Libraries, for example. Silly me! It seems that they now devote that part of their resources to music, D.V.Ds and ROMs. There is - or was - just one reason for the publisher to bother with hardbacks at all: the fact that reviewers will (would?) not review a book unless it was out in hardback. So what has changed? Could it be, I wonder, that it is because Richard and Judy will not put a book on their very lucrative lists unless it exists in paperback?

So is this the death knell for the hardback? What will the reviewers do if the format ceases to exist? Will they declare themselves redundant and go get themselves jobs with Waterstone? But the Jeremiahs are always around, which makes choosing your preferred soothsayer a difficult business. (No easier, perhaps, than picking the right weather forecaster.) Only a week or so ago I read that the e-book will kill off all forms of hard copy, paperback and hardback alike. I am not a gambling man, but I will lay a wager... Or perhaps not. I cannot for the life of me believe that there are enough people out there who would happily peer at a screen to digest the latest Graham Swift rather than consume him comfortably ensconced in a favourite armchair with... well, even with a miserable paperback riding on their lap. Another prospect that has been put forward is that we will all download pages, print them out and read them from our own hard copies. Has been known! Fine for reference, for the odd poem perhaps, but no way in which to go back on old favourites - and the loose sheets make the bookshelves look untidy. And as for reading a whole novel that way... forget it!

However, I do worry about what this development portends for poetry. There is an important difference between novels on the one hand and poetry, reference books in general, and some other genres on the other: it is in the degree of use to which they are subjected. For frequent use a hardback is essential, surely. To be fair it is only the death of hardback novels that is under discussion. And then only those described as "literary". There are, it is said, plenty of genres that are not threatened - but now I am willing to have a bet - that they don't include poetry.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Anthologies

Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing until the present day, the novel has steadily gained in popularity at the expense of poetry. This fact has resulted in the sad circumstance in which it is no longer profitable for publishers to maintain poetry lists. And yet there is a market for poetry, albeit at the "popular" end of the spectrum. It is much in demand for devotional and "spiritual" purposes, for example, and at weddings and funerals. Also at this time of the year, for remembrance purposes. Furthermore, many people seem nostalgic for the poetry they "did" at school. To meet these, and other, rather uncritical, niches in the market, publishers have been quick to turn to the anthology. Among those for whom the pleasures of poetry demand a more evaluative approach, these facts have given the anthology a bad name. The (small) poetry shelf in my local Waterstones is devoted almost entirely to copies from the BBC's "Nation's Favourites" series, and to themed anthologies in general. Between them they could put a mawkish gloss on any genuinely emotional public or family event. Tom Dick and Harry realise well enough that poetry can add feeling to the sentiments of public and private occasions in a way that prose perhaps cannot. It is the one opportunity to make a buck or two that poetry allows the publisher.



With my eclectic appetite for poetry I doubt I could afford (or shelve) enough single-author books to satisfy it. I therefore decided early on to indulge myself with a couple of anthologies, but no more than that. The main problem I found was not that the quality of the poems included was poor, but that it was very restricted. The emphasis was always on the short, lyrical, autobiographical (and well-known) verse. To have more than two such weighty tomes, I thought, would be to saddle myself with much unwanted repetition.



I suppose we go through various phases as our knowledge and love of poetry grows. School poetry was for me totally off-putting: "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent Unto Aix", "Lochinvar", "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and many more of that ilk. Maybe memory plays tricks, but I cannot recall much else except a couple of Shakespeare plays ("As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night") read round the class. I think my own studies began with "The Oxford Book of English Verse". So did many another's, I imagine. Since then I have from time to time relaxed my self-imposed limit enough to buy, or be given, just one more anthology in the hope that this one would add something worthwhile to my collection without burdening it with too much extra repetition. Almost always I was disappointed.

More recently, the situation has changed slightly - or I have grown luckier, shrewder, or more discerning in my choosing. It was the acquisition of "The Rattle Bag" and "The Firebox" that first alerted me to the possibility that a new day might have dawned while I was sleeping. "The Rattle Bag", edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughs, became a popular resource in schools and, for me, something of a treasury at home. Its pages still bulge with numerous markers, each one a link to earlier discovered pleasures. Sean O'Brien's "The Firebox" is devoted to the poetry of Britain and Ireland after 1945. If it did not cover the ground comprehensively (as it could not have done) it passed the first test in that it contained much that was not already on my shelves. But it went further, it contained much that I had not met before, including quite a bit that I should have, but hadn't. Soon after it came the Penguin "Scanning the Century", the century in question being the twentieth. I soon came to regard it and "The Firebox" as non-identical twins.



All of the above are still giving valuable service, but sometime ago I was fortunate enough to acquire a copy of "The Norton Anthology of Poetry", a magnificent tome containing 1,828 poems by 334 poets, including major works by important poets, such as "Little Gidding" by T.S.Eliot and lengthy sections from major long poems, for example, a complete stanza from Spencer's "Fairie Queene". As a work of reference, nothing that I have come across even runs it close. I find it invaluable. And then most recently, almost its antithesis, a slim, themed anthology - you could almost call it. Carol Ann Duffy invited her peers, established and still making their way, to choose a poem from the past and then respond to it with a poem of their own. Fifty replied. The replies are printed alongside the original texts. The result is fascinating, with Carol Rumens responding to Philip Larkin's "This be the Verse", Paul Muldoon responding to D.H. Lawrence's "Humming Bird" and Liz Lochhead responding to John Donne's "A Nocturnall Upon S Lucie's Day". Not the least fascinating part is to see who has chosen what (and who). The book is called "Answering Back". Alright, not strictly, an anthology as we know them, but what the heck! I had to tell someone about it! And while on the subject of themed anthologies, I feel bound to mention Andrew Motion's "First World War Poems". Here again, numerous works that I had not known alongside (of course) the old favourites and works by well-known poets that I had not thought of as war poets. It has actually caused me to revise my view of the war poets.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Damien Hurst's Master Class

Damien Hurst goes back to school, lessons taught or learnt, I can almost hear the headlines now... but on second thoughts they are more likely to be about headless students, bovine professors and such-like. Will I be alone in detecting a strong element of humour in Damien Hurst's latest? Whatever might have been thought about his past productions, pickled shark et al (and just about everything that could have been thought was thought - and fought over) it surely must be agreed that there is an easily understood rationale to his most recent installation, which should make it less controversial than many that have preceded it. The concept - I am tempted to use the literary term conceit - is that of an anatomy school. This is a potentially rich theme allowing for the drawing together of many threads from earlier preoccupations.

And Hurst misses few of those opportunities, it seems to me. A cow flanked by doves does duty as the teacher (fertile ground for punning remarks by critics and reviewers?), whilst the pupils (yet more fertile ground?) are represented by rows of headless, pickled sheep (did I not mention - did I even need to mention - that the Anatomy School is contained within a twelve feet high tank of formaldehyde?) and the mischievous, no doubt pupil-from-hell at the back, is none other than our old friend the shark. The book shelves hold, not books, but rows of medicine bottles and boxes of pills. Been there before, have we not? Hurst has said that the shark represents individuality and the sheep uniformity, the uniformity of education through which "people end up as dead sheep; alive, but not much alive". And the cow...?

Whether or not I agree, I can relate to that, unsubtle though it is - so unsubtle that I could probably have worked it out for myself. And the title of this installation? The Archaeology of Lost Desires Comprehending Infinity and the Search for Knowledge. Not quite so easy to access whatever rationale is behind that, perhaps. We are talking here of an installation that stands in (fills) the very large lobby of Lever House in Manhattan, that will become part of the Lever Collection and that comprises 30 tanks, each supported by a stainless steel autopsy table bearing a sheep's carcass and a 30,000-pound tank containing two sides of beef, in addition to the shark, numerous medicine cabinets etc, etc, and... oh, yes, a leather arm chair, a long string of Italian sausages and a black umbrella.

I will forbear to mention how much Hurst was paid for the installation, but I do believe that the rationale, as I have called it, is sufficiently interesting to deserve success. It's continuity with so much of his past work is also a plus. But does it work aesthetically? Is an installation even supposed to? Does it work in any important dimension? Who can say who has not seen the actual work up close and personal? If you have, or should you get to in the future, a comment would be appreciated. Otherwise, we have to leave him where he has always been - in a class of his own.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Friday, 9 November 2007

Cracks in the Fabric

Did she vandalise the floor of Tate Modern? Or did she remove the floor first? Or maybe just lay a new one on top of the old? Surveyors, structural engineers and others have been taken along to inspect it, with no firm, or with conflicting, results. The management are not saying. It seems that whatever the method used, its secrecy is an intrinsic constituent of the metaphor that is (must be, surely!) Doris Salcedo's "Shibboleth". She says that it represents the fissure into which drop (or is it "are dropped"?) all the oppressed victims of racial hatred. It represents divided humanity.

With the best will in the world, you cannot get any of that from the work itself. You might have read something like that into it, it's almost a cliche now, anyway, but you could not possibly get it from the work itself. More than anything, what it seemed to me to symbolize when I saw the first press photographs of it, was the poverty or triviality of the concepts that so often lie behind (and should be driving) concept art. Here I must confess that I have not seen Shibboleth for myself, but I am confirmed in my view by the fact that Salcedo (or the gallery authorities) found it necessary to hand out leaflets to visitors "explaining" the work to them. The problem is, I think, that to be successful, a work of concept art must offer both a striking image and a richness of content. It is by no means easy to combine these two, and (usually) it is content that is sacrificed. Salcedo has herself has insisted that it is the meaning of the work (not the process) that is important. That being so, it would seem to me that the work has failed her own test, in that, without the leaflets to "explain" it, the meaning is not clear, its significance is not accessible.

But Shibboleth has been on display at Tate Modern since the 9th of October, so why am I only now making it part of my blog? Deciding, a few days ago, that it was high time I reacquainted myself with the poems of Edwin Muir, I took down his: Collected Poems and as chance would have it, opened the book at The Refugees:

A crack ran through our hearthstone long ago,
And from the fissure we watched gently grow
The tame domesticated danger,
Yet lived in comfort in our haunted rooms.
Till came the stranger
And the great and little dooms.

Muir is in my view a poet undeservedly neglected these days. The Refugees is not uniformly good, yet reading that opening verse again I was immediately reminded of what I had seen and read of The Shibboleth, and struck by the contrast between the two. Impossible, of course, to directly compare a work of visual art with a literary one (though not all would agree), yet what can perhaps be compared are the feelings aroused by them, the insight given, the thoughts provoked. Salcedo is not working in isolation, but within a well-established if not exactly popular tradition. Within the last week I have come across images of an installation (shall we call it?) by two American artists, Dan Havel and Dean Ruck, in which they punched a hole in the wall of a house, and not just in the wall, but right through the house and out the other side, creating a sort of tunnel. Meanwhile, Zhang Dali (good name), the Beijingi artist, is spray painting outlines of his head, magnified to fill the space available, on the walls of houses and then knocking out the head-shaped hole, through which people may see the emerging shape of a city being regenerated. Somehow, both these ideas seem to me to be more fertile than Shibboleth.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

W.S. Merwin - and an exercise.

Writing my "How to Read Poetry" post last week brought to mind a long-time favourite of mine, W.S.Merwin, whose praises I have not yet sung - an omission I am about to correct. He has been one of the most influential voices (some would say the most influential voice) in American poetry over the last half-century or so, but, incredibly, he has been unobtainable in Britain for over thirty years. Now a selected edition has been issued by Bloodaxe which is remarkably good value at £9.95.
Merwin has perhaps three great passions: the landscape, language and the environment. And two great hates: imperialism and the violence that we do to the landscape, the language, each other and ourselves. If any one sense could be said to haunt his work it is the sense of loss; loss to the environment, the loss and impoverishment of language and loss of any real sense of self. He has, for example, dedicated himself to the protection and restoration of the Hawaiian ecology. Three snippets from his work, all opening lines, followed by one complete poem of just eighteen words, will, hopefully, whet your appetite for more:

To the Words
When it happens you are not there

O you beyond numbers
beyond recollection
passed on from breath to breath
given again
from day to day from age
to age
charged with knowledge
knowing nothing


Losing a Language

A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old remember something that they could say

but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words

many of the things the words were about
no longer exist

the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I


Chord

while Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes
echoing through the forests
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they
thought of their gardens dying far away on the
mountain


Witness

I want to tell what the forests
were like

I will have to speak
in a forgotten language

And now the exercise I promised. Not mine, but something I found earlier, something from which I have derived much fascination and, I believe, no little insight - and that not confined to the poetry of W.S. Merwin. We are indebted for it to a book review by Marion K Stocking in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Summer 2006 edition:
   Empty Water

I miss the toad
who came all summer
to the limestone
water basin
under the Christmasberry tree
imported in 1912
from Brazil for decoration
then a weed on a mule track
on a losing
pineapple plantation
now an old tree in a line
of old trees
the toad came at night
first and sat in the water
all night and all day
then sometimes at night
left for an outing
but was back in the morning
under the branches among
the ferns and green sword leaf
of the lily
sitting in the water
all the dry months
gazing at the sky
through those eyes
fashioned of the most
precious of metals
come back
believer in shade
believer in silence and elegance
believer in ferns
believer in patience
believer in the rain
Try reading this poem a line at a time, reenacting the process of composition. Ask what would happen if one ended the poem there. Ask how each hypothetical terminal line casts its light back over the preceding lines, determining what the poem is "about." What it gives me is an overlay of thirty-three delicately different poems in a succession of voices – the affectionate observer, the historian, the gently amused ("left for an outing"), the ecologist, the metaphor maker, and ultimately the voice of formal supplication. Reading "Empty Water" in the context of all that preceded it, I hear resonance of the famous toads in folk literature; I hear Merwin's concern for geologic and natural history (no mask here: the poet speaks of his own spot of time on earth); I hear and am moved by the shifting rhythms of the syntax and lineation, by the limpid lyric progressions, by the clarity and simplicity of the words, always conscious of the silences behind them, and by repetitions all culminating in the incantatory litany. "A poem," Merwin has said, "is an act of attention." His attention here contemplates with sensuous intension a small creature which, in its absence, signifies something crucial about our future on this planet.

Some Useful Links

poems
more poems
an interview with Merwin
In an interview with Edward Hirsch Merwin outlined some of what drives him: "I have a faith in language. It's the ultimate achievement that we as a species have evolved so far. (I don't mean that I think we are the only species with a language.) It's the most flexible articulation of our experience and yet, finally, that experience is something that we cannot really articulate.... That's the other side, one of those things that makes poetry both exhilarating and painful. It's conveying both the great possibility and the thing that we cannot do."

Thursday, 1 November 2007

How To Read Poetry

When the words arrange themselves, be still,
make neither sound nor movement, but allow
them their opacities. Like stones
upon a hillside their significance
lies not in them but in the contours. Lines
lie at the heart of what they are. Do not
exalt them one or severally, do
not mistake the real for what is wonderful,
but let them speak as one in their own time.
They speak the lines. The lines are dumb. The stones
dispose themselves around your thoughts in what
may feel like speech. Something phenominal
is taking place; expectancy and awe
are everywhere, as if creation knows
that some eternal verity from some
external shore has broken through, as if
MacDiarmid's grudging stones had moved at last,
and of their own accord, that needful inch. ^




^ from Hugh MacDiarmid's majestic 'On a Raised Beach'

"'Ah!' you say, 'if only one of these stones would move
- Were it only an inch - of its own accord.
This is the resurrection we await,
- The stone rolled away from the tomb of the Lord."



to read more