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Monday, 31 December 2007

Belated and qualified thanks to The Guardian

My belated and qualified thanks to The Guardian for Saturday's book reviews by readers. Less jaded than the usual re-views from professional pens and not confined by genre or to books published in 2007, they somehow worked better than the ubiquitous five-to-ten-worders. I at least was able to arm myself with a virtual shelf of books I think I would like to read during 2008. A personal best was that for this time of the year.
"Qualified", because, although it was a nice try, it did not make up for what was lost. I would not willing have sacrificed the poetry review and the round-up of the blogs, for example. Why junk what is unique in order to tweak the merely fashionable?

Sunday, 30 December 2007

A Tune's A Tune For A' That

I have never before made a new year resolution, but feel that this might be a good time to change the habit of a lifetime. I am resolved that in 2008 I will at last get to grips with three poets that I have, in varying degrees, neglected in the past. Three very different poets that have this in common, that they are each, in their own way, musical. The three are: Swinburne, W.S.Graham, Robbie Burns.

It may be true that Swinburne is an empty vessel making a great deal of (tuneful!) noise signifying nothing, but that is only 99% of the truth. He is the most musical of the lot - and I like a good tune. Okay, so there has to be more to a good poem than just a tune, but occasionally there is. Even so different a poet as T.S.Eliot has made the point. Here he is writing in "The Sacred Wood":

"There are some poets whose every line has unique value. There are others who can be taken by a few poems universally agreed upon. There are others who need be read only in selections, but what selections are read will not very much matter. Of Swinburne we should like to have the 'Atalanta' entire, and a volume of selections that should certainly contain' The Leper','Laus Veneris', and 'The Triumph of Time'. It ought to contain more, but there is perhaps no other single poem which it would be an error to omit."

With that endorsement ringing in my ears I feel emboldened to step into the wilderness of the unfashionable and to hack my way through the tangled undergrowth of Victorian sentimentality to see what might be hidden there... a lost garden, perhaps? More likely a single plot - or is it I who have lost the plot?. Here are some verses from the Chorus of Atalanta:

For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remember'd is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes
From leaf to flower and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofed heel of a satyr crushes
The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root.

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
The Maenad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal's hair
Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.

It is also true, even if Eliot did not mention the fact, that there are some poets with enviable and well-deserved reputations, which reputations rest, however, upon just one or two undeserving works. One such is Robbie Burns. Burns is known, here in Sassenachland at least, only for "Auld Lang Syne" and "A Red, Red Rose" - though these do not begin to do him justice. Listen to Hugh McDiarmid in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (and incidentally, if you do not know the poem, rectifying that omission would constitute an excellent new year resolution - if you happen to be looking for one.):

"No' wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But Misapplied is a body's property."

There's plenty more. I guess McDiarmid didn't think it was just in Sassernachland! We will leave him for now with The Wren's Nest".

The Robin to the Wren's nest
Cam keekin' in, cam keekin' in;
O weel's me on your auld pow,
Wad ye be in, wad ye be in?
Thou's ne'er get leave to lie without,
And I within, and I within,
Sae lang's I hae an auld clout
To rowe ye in, to rowe ye in.

Which leaves us with Graham, seductive in a poem like "The Bright Midnight"

"Beside this church underneath a saintly element
Once rested in my arms another midnight more
Miracled into early years and maze of pathways
Frosted between the grasses of the churchyard.
Once rested on the flying spire earlier eyes
In appearance likely mine but far and elsewhere
Gazing from. Under this midnight, beside this church
What greyhaired measures and infant measures advance
Between the stones and audience the time contains?"

Maddeningly, though, in something like "Over the Apparatus of Spring is Drawn"

"Over the apparatus of spring is drawn
A constructed festival of pulleys from sky.
A doormouse swindled from numbers into wisdom
Trades truth with bluebells. The result unkown
Fades in the sandy beetle-song that martyrs hear
Who longingly for violetcells prospect the meads."

It has just this moment occurred to me: two Scottish poets to one English is a fair reflection of my usual diet. I must investigate sometime what are the specific flavours of the Scottish fodder that so appeals to my southern palate

Friday, 28 December 2007

A Romantic Story

Blame it on the weight of too much pudding, a fairly nasty chest infection, the soporific effect of wine or the general air of nostalgia that pervades everything at Christmastide, but whatever it was, there I was, doing a sleepy - Oh, so sleepy! - back flip over the years to that far-off time, my school days, when poetry had yet to come alight, being something to be learnt by heart for reasons that had nothing to do with the heart. It was a flat, prosaic plain, was poetry then, about which I have blogged before and will not do so again now, save to say that just once there was offered to me then, a glimpse, a vista of distant peaks, their foothills swathed in mist, and all far beyond my reach and understanding. I simply sensed their power and their importance, and could somehow understand that they represented another world, a mysterious, mystical, mythical world perhaps, certainly not at all like the one I knew. It was all very blurred - and very tantalizing.

And there was a story. It would have been the story that first drew me in, for it struck me as being a romantic story, and I was at an age - and no doubt in the mood - for a romantic tale. And there you have it: nothing whatsoever to do with poetry lessons. The viewpoint from which the ten peaks were seen and gasped at was an art lesson.

The story is set in 1912, sometime just after Christmas.Rainer Maria Rilke was visiting The Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe at the Castle Duino. (And can you think of a first sentence more calculated than that to set a teenage boy's romance cells a-buzzing?) Rilke suffered from depression and was in a critical condition. Then, walking beside some cliffs, his mind actually obsessed with various bookkeeping matters, some words came into his head as though from nowhere. (That did it for me: I firmly believed, back then, in the reality of artistic inspiration coming from out of the ether!) Those words must by now be among the most translated in German literature. The translation I like best (and not necessarily the most authentic) is:
"Who, if I cried, would hear me among the
angelic orders?"
Rilke was in awe at the words, and immediately knew them to be the key to something of rare importance. He wrote them down, and then, during the remainder of his stay at Duino, wrote the beginnings of most of his ten Elegies of Duino before completing the first two during the rest of that year, but did not finish the other eight until well after WW1.

For some reason, the best romantic tales are always the unrequited ones, and this, as it happens, is one of those. You know how it is that you sometimes glimpse a place you would like to go back to and get to know, perhaps on holiday, when you did not get the opportunity to explore fully? So it was with me. I promised myself that I would go back when I had more experience. And so I did. Often. But I never again saw what I thought I had seen back in those callow days. Eventually I decided it was something in me and let it go. I shall make it one of my self-appointed tasks to re-engage with them during 2008.

Funny, the things that can happen at Christmas!

Some facts that may or may not prove to be of use:

The theme of the elegies is the nature and the destiny of the individual.
He examines questions such as what kind of experiences must an individual undergo to achieve an intensity of being? and How can he reconcile that intensity with the transience of life, and with death?
Rilke is often portrayed as an intellectual poet, but many see him as coming from the spiritual. Where a Christian might speak of Truth that cannot be known but must be believed, Rilke would speak only of Being which, to a greater or lesser extent, can be participated in.
There is no sin or guilt, only participation or its lack. We do not meet sinners in the world, only failures.
Rilke constantly complained of his childhood having been stolen from him (at his military boarding school) and of his need to "re-perform" it in his poetry.
Almost uniquely among great writers (if you allow that he is one), he hardly ever speaks of Good and Evil.
Rilke's own life experiences were rather circumscribed, but the one through which he considered he most successfully achieved Being was in composing poetry and in the acts of perception and meditation preparatory to composing.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Traditional Christmas? Bah! Humbug!

It might help. I think, if I tell you where I am coming from: I love the traditional Christmas. Was brought up to love it. When I was a child we lived with my grandparents. They, especially my grandad, might have stepped straight out of The Old Curiosity Shop or A Christmas Carol. No-one was ever more Victorian than he. The first Christmas that I can remember was my fifth. I was in hospital. There was deep snow outside. At visiting times I could see, through the window behind my bed, my parents trudging through the snow to visit me. I was in a large children's ward. The nurses brought snow in from the grounds for us to throw at each other across the ward. There was a large, sparkling Christmas tree with presents, and on Christmas Day they carried into the ward a flaming Christmas pudding. The next few Christmases were trickier; the country was at war and the unavoidable austerities restricted what could be done, but my parents and grandparents still managed to create the illusion of a traditional Christmas. Perhaps it wasn't illusion. At Christmas everything changed, was different from the rest of the year. It began on Christmas Eve with the whole family going to church (for the rest of the year only we children went). Then on Christmas Day the house was full of people - adults, most of whom would sleep on the floor overnight. After we (my brother and I) had gone to bed and were judged to be asleep, the adults would engage in their adult things. like playing cards or Sandown, a horse-racing game with a large wheel like a roulette wheel, but without the ball and with horses instead of numbers. On this much money was lost and won, I think, "much" being a relative term, as none of them were wealthy. (And if all that does not sound very "traditional", then all I can say is that as a small boy I did not make such fine distinctions: the rest of Christmas was as traditional as could be, and that bit just made it even more different and more exciting, for I would creep out onto the landing and watch and listen and feel myself to be part of those adult activities.) It was the whole package that coloured my feelings towards Christmas, so, yes, I am for the traditional festival.

Even so, I see no point in trying to hold back the tide and trying to pretend that the traditional ways are not passing - indeed, have all but passed, as surely as has that more ancient tradition which has the manger at its centre. When I think back to my early Christmases - and it is not all due to the rosy tinted spectacles of memory, or to having been a child back then - and look around me now, I feel that I can say with Wordsworth, "The things which I have seen I now can see no more".

So why do I get so annoyed when the media try to play Canute on our behalf? Do they imagine that, it being Christmas, half the nation is waiting in breathless anticipation for yet another repeat or reprint of "Oliver Twist" or "A Christmas Carol" - or even one more analysis of why the Dickens stories are so important. And for that we are willing to sacrifice whatever of our favourite programmes or columns they decide to cut? Or are they merely trying to remind us of what recent origin these "traditions" are? No older than Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Not really traditions at all, then!

Even more difficult to see, is why they also find it part of their bounden duty to inflict upon us at this time of the year their worthless book lists: "Books for Christmas", "The Best Five Books of the Year", etc, in which fifteen or more authors or - worse still - celebrities, outline in eight column lines their five favourites and say why they have chosen them. These are often followed by same-but-different reviews for the new year. The Guardian is probably the least susceptible to this sort of tomfoolery, but even it succumbed this weekend, junking its usual roundup of the blogs and - worse still - the usual poetry review, for.... wait for it: another lesson on why the stories of Charles Dickens are so important! They are, but they now belong elsewhere. The babe in the manger, too, is as important as He ever was - or He could become so - but not if He is just being used to keep the tide at bay.

I shall not post again until after Christmas (probably), so whether yours is to be a traditional Christmas, a content-free Christmas or something inbetween, may it be the best of its kind and full of good cheer for you and yours.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Christmas Presents, Tracey Emin - and what she gave me.

Writing in yesterday's Independent, Tracey Emin confided the fact that Christmas and birthday presents are a great trial to her. In a word - or three - she cannot cope. "I get given thousands and millions of things that I don't want.... one year I just cried because of the avalanche of gifts... Sometimes at Christmas I don't open any presents at all. I leave them wrapped up until February or March." Then she had her "big, stupid idea": she asked people to either give money to The Terrence Higgins Trust or to give her a book. Consequently, she now has two hundred books she has not chosen.

That could have a big upside, I thought: amongst those two hundred books there could be numerous little gems that would have passed her by in the normal way. Of course, what I was really thinking was: if I tried that, I could end up with several little gems that otherwise I would have missed. But then I read on, to discover that among the two hundred were six copies of "How to Stop Smoking" by Allen Carr. Downside.

Among my friends and relatives there are those who prefer to buy presents that are entirely their idea of what I would like. Others ask for "lists". For them I write down suggestions. Some want these in case they "get stuck". The list will usually be heaviest in the book department, for books come most easily to mind. I began to wonder what would be the result if I simply said, as Tracey Emin apparently had, "Oh, just give me books", without providing any clues as to which books or even which genres. I think I know: some would ignore the suggestion completely, others would give me book tokens - good, but not a present to catch the ones that would get away from me. Mostly my friends and relatives do not like giving book tokens. Too impersonal. Not imaginative enough. Very well received by yours truly, though.

But then, just think what might happen if they took the suggestion at face value: a present that came entirely from the giver's intuitive grasp of what I need or would enjoy, might say too much about how the giver sees me. What a blow to the old self-esteem would be six copies of "How to Draw Landscapes", for instance! Okay, it's true that I might end up being able to draw landscapes, but who the heck cares about drawing these days - or have I missed it? is it perhaps back "in"? Has it made it back into the art schools, soon to hit the streets? (I have heard whispers, but you can't rely on anyone these days.) No, I will muddle along in my own misconceptions about my ability.

So I do not think I will change my practice, or ask my friends to change theirs, but if anyone does know of a method to net a few of those little gems that so easily slip through the fingers of reviewers - and thereby elude the likes of you and I - a comment, a clue, a pointer would do.

And what did Tracey Emin give me? Why, the idea for this post, of course.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Christmas Tipples from the Poets

To help the season along a little, I thought about the poets as though they were fine wines. What sort of wines would they be, with what sort of characteristics? Some of the following I found in a book when browsing. I cannot recall writing them, or why I might have done so, but I am happy on the strength of the crossings-out and redrafting, that they are, in fact, mine - and not infringing someone's copyright! A very happy, imaginary Christmas to you all.

Seamus Heaney
A strong, no-nonsense spirit with a distinctive, peaty flavour.

W.B Yeats
A somewhat grandiloquent wine, at times having more the characteristics of a slightly sticky liqueur. Ideal for the grand occasion, though be warned that this fine, slightly hallucinatory drink, has suggestions both of majesty and rebellion in its heady bouquet.

George Szirtes
An honest, slightly gritty wine that requires a serious meat dish to release its full authority.

Hugh MacDiarmid
The product of a robust grape that thrives in either of two soils, the one resulting in a refreshingly wild and unambiguous flavour, the other in a cloud of hints and associations.

W. H. Auden
A serious taste beneath a lively, jovial bouquet. A wine for either public or private occasions.

W. S. Graham
The punch with a punch. The first draught may be totally befuddling, but eventually - probably a day or two later - a cold clarity will hit. And you will never forget that you drank!

T.S. Eliot
One for the connoisseur, having in both taste and bouquet many associations to be enjoyed by the acquired palate.

R.S. Thomas
A severe wine with an enduring, uncomplicated flavour. A happy complement to simple fare.

Marianne Moore
Edith Sitwell once referred to this wine as "thick and uncouth", which is strange, considering its allusive and tantalising nature. Perfect with a light meal.

Robert Graves
A traditional wine, though with more than a touch of the free spirit. Ideal for the picnic hamper on a hot, sunny day, or to accompany a Mediterranean-style meal. A wine for lovers everywhere.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Richard Eyre and The Great Divide

Richard Eyre in the Guardian Review 15.12.07 (Yes, still picking up on that; there is ever enough there to keep a body thinking well into the following week) is concerned about an issue dear to my heart and, I believe, of no little importance: what he calls "the great divide". No, actually his preferred word for it is apartheid. It is the seemingly unbridgeable gulf that exists between those with access to the arts and those who are, or feel themselves, excluded.

There are many issues at work here, and it does not do to over-simplify the situation. Eyre mentions class, race and gender, and indeed they all play their various parts, but behind them, and interacting with them and with many other issues in a continuous feed-back, is the individual's self-picture. The self-picture comes about from the ganging together of countless min-experiences. From, in fact, the ganging together of those mini-experiences whose effects tend to reinforce each other, from the thoughtless remark to, say, a ten year old ("You would say that, wouldn't you?" or "You're not a bit like your brother!"), through all the different levels of teen-age peer pressure and the attitudes of parents, to the mores of their particular sub-culture, to relative wealth ("relative" being the operative word), to their own successes and failures, to the successes and failures of their heroes, to what connects them with the pleasure centres of their brain, and many more. What is important to the individual, and what has contributed to that situation, a situation more complicated than the meteorological patterns that determine our weather, will vary infinitely, but each will, fairly early on, develop a self-picture that will largely determine their openness to life's various offerings. So any schoolteacher knows that it will be of no use to tell John that he could be the next Ted Hughes if all he wants is to be the next David Beckham.

But I am speaking here of something deeper than mere interest. Interests do not of themselves contribute to the self-picture in its final, more inflexible form. Eyre recounts an interesting episode from his own youth when he went to see "Hamlet". His interests had, until that point been largely confined to maths and physics. The play, he says "capsized me", and he quotes Berlioz's experience of the same play: "Shakespeare... struck me like a thunderbolt.... I recognized the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth". When I was at college one of the mantras was "Interests grow into habits". ( I forget the Latin! ) That is when the self-picture begins to take final form, for as habits they are but a hair's breath from becoming desires. There is no point, I guess, at which it becomes impossible to capsize us, but it is certainly easier before we have formed our life-determining desires. At that point even winning the lottery may not capsize us.

"Art," says Eyre, "is the expression of the voice of gifted individuals with a point of view." He grew up in a rural backwater where there was no easy access to anything cultural. I can relate to that, though my experience was different. I didn't actually get to many (there was a war going on) but I could imagine myself going to art galleries, plays, operas even, but ballet - never! There was an invisible curtain, as effective as any iron one, between me and it, which took years to break down. Correction: it took years for me to come to see that it did not exist. Maybe the great divide runs through the arts themselves.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Nicholas Lezard :To Prop or not to Prop...

Seven years ago, he tells us (Guardian Review 15.12.07) Nicholas Lezard thought Beowulf "brainless macho trash". I remember it well - I think. I certainly read something along those lines when Seamus Heaney's translation first appeared. Thank heavens, I thought, at long last some other occupant of planet earth thinks as I do! Now, though, with the appearance of what he calls the coffee-table edition of Heaney's version, Lezard has changed his mind. But it is not some new Epiphany wrought by a more careful reading of the text that has brought this about. No, his changed opinion is entirely due to the pictures. They have convinced him that Beowulf is "a serious and complex work of art". He gives an example:

"'Boar-shapes flashed
Above their cheek-guards'
and on the left there is a large colour picture of a carefully-wrought boar surmounting a helmet excavated from Benty Grange, Derbyshire."

I have not yet seen the new edition. I may well sport out the £13.99 being asked for it, but if I do so invest, then I think I shall be buying it for the graphics, not for the text, for they sound well worth the outlay. As to the text, the one fact that might have won me over to it seven years ago, the knowledge that Seamus Heaney had thought it worth his while to translate it, failed to do so. My world will be shaken to its foundations if it turns out that pictures (props, which ever way you look at them) achieve what he could not. I am sure it is a fault in me, but the issue I am hammering on about is whether we should require a work of art to stand alone, or whether there is a place for props, and if so, what that place might be. Should we be swayed in our judgements by external factors, however inspiring or enlightening? I can accept props as an introduction, say in school, remembering that we are going to journey beyond them for our final understanding. I can see them as they are used in this new edition of Beowulf to provide insight into the poem's background and the society that produced it, or to correct misconceptions concerning that society. That is why I might yet buy the new edition. But such pictures are at most guide book illustrations to give us a taste of what lies before us or to explain its history, its culture or its politics. If the terrain, when we visit it, turns out to be "brainless macho trash", the photographs in the guide book, however appealing, will not alter that. Not unless it is that we are seeing what we are told to see and not what is in us to see.

I shall visit my local bookshop and have a look. I may, as I say, even buy the book... but then again, don't hold your breath, for on the same page of The Guardian Review was a very enticing write-up on Paul Muldoon's translation of Neil O'Gallagher's "The Fifty Minute Mermaid". If the Virgin shelves happen to be carrying that, and if it's half as seductive as the review makes it out to be, then that's where my cash is likely to be going. Unless it happens that my foundations do get thoroughly rattled!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

A Kind of Innocence

I bring this out at this time because it occurred at Christmas, and because it has become associated in my mind with Christmas - and with the anxieties that Christmas can bring for some.

Old pots, old bits of crackleware
you'd take them for, those heads she'd etch
and etch with the one trait that marked
them out as kin, their foreheads deeply

gouged by compass, pin or pencil-
sharpener blade as if a cat
had scratched repeatedly. Or then
again, more savagely than that.

All they ole hair roots dangle doon
and smothering us brains, she'd say -
and crackles too, from fir cones chewed -
and eyes tight-shuttered as she drew.

Some days I'd find her ruler nibbled
half away. It doss me 'ead in,
straight it doss, she'd say, all they ole
centimeters allus staring

up at I, givin' I the evil
eye. Sometimes I daresn't niver
even lift me desk lid up! Where'm
all us English inches gawn? All

bin eaten, az em? Her cousin,
mute, with felt-tipped plough, would furrow
pages into fields of corn, then
turn the plough into a wand, and

from the fields of corn bring forth
landscapes of magic realism,
while she, remembering, as he
did, Edens past, would commentate,

identifying features as
he drew - each one a property
of some past Heaven they had lost
but never left. The day their fathers

said Tomorrow we move on, he
mouthed or whispered with her: scroggs... now
spinney, Berts ole wilderness, dry
bunny, dummock, loff and lay. She

grinned: He know they country words right
well, he do, for they is soft and
tender like a mother - whiles town
words shout and hit out like a father.

D. A. King

Glossary (as far as I have been able to work it out):

scroggs : rocky ground covered with brushwood
bunny : a small stream flowing directly into the sea
dummock : a rounded hill
loff : a lake
lay : pastureland

Monday, 10 December 2007

Wendy Cope on Copyright

I must confess to slight disappointment at the tone of Wendy Cope's remarks (Guardian 08.12.07) on the vexed question of copyright, the purpose of which, surely, is to ensure that poems, novels, photographs, whatever remain the intellectual property of their creator and that any financial returns from said creations are not creamed off by the more unprincipled among us. That said, the internet has, for good or ill, changed many things, not least the popular mindset concerning material that is in the public domain. Is it really likely that the publican who painted a verse on a beam in his pub would have done so had it been pointed out to him that it was going to cost? And how many surfers who will happily download a verse, perhaps as a rather more pleasant alternative to reading it from the screen, would be prepared to pay for the privilege? It does not follow that if such a surfer could not download the poem (let us say because conscience forbade it), then the author would profit from the sale of another book. So not every "illegal" use of copyright material is actually taking cash from the author's pocket. It seems a little naive to think that someone who so liked one of Cope's poems that she sent it to all of her friends would, deprived of that option, have bought a copy of the book for each of them, or that recommended by her to buy it, they would all have rushed out and done so. Surely they would more likely have been persuaded to invest by receiving a copy of the poem? I have more often bought a newly published book on the strength of a review containing extracts from the book than as a result of reading the reviewer's unsupported opinion.

I do not wholly disagree with the substance of Cope's remarks. It is, as I have said, with the tone of them that I would take issue. Perhaps we need a means of allowing a more relaxed attitude towards the uses that can be made of copyright material, and at the same time a means of tightening the defenses against the rip-off. A simplification of the laws might be a good place to start. Wendy Cope may be able to explain them with a smile, but they hold many a pitfall for the mind not legally attuned.

Of course, crediting the author is but a matter of politeness, as is asking permission. Most authors I have found are only too willing to give permission - they are a friendly, supportive lot - but politeness is not something to be enforced by the law. For the occasional user of copyright material, the hurdles must occasionally seem insurmountable, not the least of them being the question of whether a particular work (especially in the case of photographic images) is in or out of copyright. (I get the impression that Cope would like material to remain in copyright for ever!) Others problems may include: not knowing the identity of the author - easily remedied on the web, of course - or how to contact him or her. Replies often take a long time to come (authors are busy people with big post bags), and may arrive too late.

The music industry has organised things rather more efficiently - but the best of schemes, it seems, is no match for the internet. A registration scheme along the lines of that employed for patents might help in an ideal world - but then, in an ideal world there would be no need of copyright. No, I am sure there is no other way in the long run than to adopt a more realistic mindset.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Big One : A Hunger for Books

"We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers."

My thanks to The Guardian for publishing Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, of which the above is an extract.

When I was a small child we, mother, father, younger brother and myself, lived with my grandparents. When I was eight years old, or thereabouts, I got the chance to explore in the cupboard, rarely opened, situated behind my grandma's chair. There I discovered two identically bound books, survivors or fugitives they must have been, from a complete edition of the novels of Dickens. Each of the beautifully tooled volumes contained two novels. Between them: A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. "Hello, are you interested in those?" asked my Grandad, suddenly reappearing. "These are the books I've always wanted!" I lied. He gave them to me, of course. The print was small, the words beyond my ability to decipher. I had never heard of Dickens, nor any of his novels. I was bowled over by the look and feel of the books, by the gravitas that they seemed to exude.

In a small - infinitesimally small - way that memory connects me to the hunger for books and the ability to read them, which Lessing describes so movingly in her speech. The hunger of which she speaks is in Africa, and she contrasts it with our addiction to the inanities of the internet. The passage quoted above is one of the most chilling I have read on the subject. I am not sure why it struck home so profoundly unless it was because of the connection between my memory and the whole tenor of what she was saying. But there is another contrast that I find chilling: it holds in one hand the incident that I believe started me on the path to serious reading and in the other an image of the future, the future as it is being predicted by some, the hand-held text-reading machines supposedly waiting in the wings to take over the world - i.e. to replace books, even paperbacks, to do for literature what the IPod has done for music. I just bet they will beep! The designers will not be able to resist. The mantra is: if it can be done, it must be done. No such gismo could have achieved for me what those once-boxed volumes of Dickens accomplished.

Read the speech by clicking on the title to this post.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Learning about poetry

At last, Ofsted has got around to poetry. For years we have heard how poorly maths - and to a lesser degree - science is taught, but poetry has had to wait its turn, and being of less importance than almost all the other aspects of the curriculum, its turn was almost last. The main reason that poetry is taught badly - I would say, for the most part not taught at all - is surely the fact that most teachers were themselves taught badly. It has become a vicious circle, the same vicious circle that bedevils maths teaching.

I have said before on my blog that although I had the (dubious) privilege of a grammar school education, I suffered very much from a lack of poetry teaching. Poetry (reading, not teaching) was an opportunity to identify various figures of speech. I learnt to spot a simile at twenty paces and to distinguish it from a metaphor, but I learnt nothing about form or rhythm. (Other than that the rhythm used in "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent unto Aix" was intended to imitate the rhythm of a horse galloping. But nothing about how the poet had performed that particular trick.) We certainly did not write poetry, and like many of the classes inspected by ofsted, we did not study poets - any poet - only individual poems, none of which were lyrical, but almost all of which were of the public or narrative variety.

All that was a long time ago, but since then I have spent most of a working lifetime in classrooms, and the impressions gained there do not conflict with my memories of my own school days. However, it does surprise me to hear that half the teachers responding to a survey (by The United Kingdom Literacy Association) cited by the ofsted inspectors, could not name more than two poets. I would like further information on that. But it does not surprise me to learn that at the Primary level teachers knew too little about poetry to be able to teach it, and did not know how to respond to attempts by pupils to write verse.

The inspectors made much of the use of nonsense poems, but they and nursery rhymes have their place. The problems are two-fold: on the one hand, the narrowness of what is studied and the vastness of what is not, and on the other the way in which it is studied. Young children still enjoy poetry and still write it, it seems; older pupils do not write it, and at best learn something about certain poems, but they learn about the poems as though they were chopped-up prose, which for most pupils (and teachers?) is what they remain. There is very little of that engagement with the language which is at the very essence of poetry. There is no reason why they (pupils and teachers) should not at the very least be introduced to iambic pentameters, dactyls, trochees, uses of the various meters and rhyme schemes, the importance of ambiguity etc, etc, always with the proviso that such introductions come in the context of an enjoyable experience. They do not need to be au fait with the whole gamut of what is available. And if such introductions might be thought not appropriate for all pupils, I could live with that. But there are many for whom it would be appropriate, who would enjoy a more nutritious diet in the 'poetry lesson', but who are at present missing out. I know, I was one of those.

Read The Poetry Society on the subject

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Mark Wallinger Wins the Turner Prize - but then a rose by any other name...

Mark Wallinger's State Britain at Tate Britain in January

First the bare facts, though they must be known to all.

1. Mark Wallinger has won the Turner Prize for Art for his State Britain. (Okay,
we could argue about the technicalities of displayed work versus an artist's
output over a twelve month period, but State Britain is what he won it for.)
2. He won it for recreating 600 items from Brian Haw's peace camp protest in
Parliament Square.
3. Before that, Brian Haw won the Channel 4 prize for the most inspiring political
4. Then Parliament passed an act banning protests around the Houses of Parliament
- an area including part of Tate Britain, as it happens.
5. The police therefore raided the peace camp and confiscated every last item. It
took seventy eight politically compromised officers to carry them all off.
6. Enter Mark Wallinger to set about recreating the display, which he did, every
last item (600 of them) in faithful detail. The exercise took fourteen assistants
six months and cost a total of £90,000. The research effort must have been
7. N.B. What in Parliament Square had been a protest becomes, in the confines of
an art gallery, a work of art. We have heard something along those lines
somewhere before, have we not?

Last night on News 24 Wallinger struggled to explain his recreation in artistic
terms. No matter. There is no reason why an artist should be good at words - or
television. For the record, if it had been my decision, I would have handed the
prize to Mark Wallinger - and would have struggled to justify my decision in
artistic terms. But now is the time to sound corny, for it is not painting, is
it? Neither is it sculpture. It is not drawing or... or any recognized category
of art. If anything, it falls under one or both of those overworked umbrellas,
'Concept' and 'Installation' Art. Last night I did not hear Mark Wallinge,
talking about his success on News 24, mention either term. He spoke of his
work as an act of restoration. He spoke of preservation. Both laudable endeavours,
both having much to do with art, even requiring a degree of "art", but not
actually art. He has said that "art needs to engage the viewer and has to have a
hook that is not entirely cerebral." Fine, but it cannot be all hook.

It is the language that is inadequate, I think. The vocabulary is deficient.
Like our one word for the many forms of love. It is sometimes difficult to
draw distinctions and leads to many an unfortunate misunderstanding. It seems to
me that we might learn a lesson from the scientific community: whenever science
enters some new territory it coins a new word for a new area of activity. The
'concepts' behind some concept art are difficult indeed to determine. Others are
so superficial as to be laughable. Maybe we are looking in the wrong place. Like
looking for the wrong feeling when there is talk of love. It might facilitate
general understanding of what (some) art is about if we could expand the
vocabulary. When some new, broad area of activity (not just some new ism) becomes
the place to go, could we not enter it on our art map and grace it with a name all
its own?

see State Britain at The Tate

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
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


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


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


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

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

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Souls Pass On (3)

This one really belongs in the last post - got delayed in the traffic.

Friday, 26 October 2007

The Souls Pass On

Time, I think, for another Digital Doodle...

The Souls Pass On : from darkness into light pollution.

Friday, 19 October 2007

A Critical Affair

Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature. I thought I'd mention it, as few others seem to have done so. Or do I do the multi-hued ranks of critic and commentator an injustice? There were the initial announcements, comment on the web, and then - well, very little really. Unless I missed it. I could not have missed the pages of comment on Anne Enright's "stunning" (i.e. unexpected) success in the Man Booker Prize, well deserved, I don't doubt, though I have not yet read the book. It could just be that Doris Lessing is that sort of author (I will come to what I mean by that later), but when you consider that the Man Booker is awarded for one book and the Nobel for a lifetime's work, the contrast of mixed opinion on one hand, and an overwhelming wave of silence on the other, seems all the greater.

If it sounds as though I am comparing either author unfavourably with the other, it is not so. Doris Lessing would approve, I think, the remarks of Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Man Booker Committee, announcing the award, for she it was who famously submitted the first of her Jane Somer novels to her own publisher, but anonymously, then, when, as she obviously knew it would be, it was rejected, she used the fact of that rejection to draw attention to the way the cards are stacked against the unknown author. That alone makes her one of my heroes/heroines. So we might suppose that she would indeed have approved the chairman's criticisms: that too many publishers laud every word of their established authors while ignoring newer talents; that critics shy away from their responsibilities, giving those whom they have decided beforehand are up-and-coming, or even great, their most reverential treatment; and that you can detect when such a reviewer doesn't like the book only when he uses all his column inches to outline the plot. (My own pet hate is when the reviewer devotes pretty much the whole of the article to an author's previous books.)

But why, I wonder do they shy away from committing their true feelings to print (or, as in the case of competition judges, from making a stand)? Do they fear a loss of reputation if time proves them wrong? But worse yet: perhaps they are doing just that, perhaps they are expressing their true feelings, are not able to see the merits in a newcomer's work or the faults in that of an idol. (I am tempted to, but will not, suggest that on occasions they may not even have read the outsider's work.) To praise a book or manuscript when it comes from the pen of one whom all know to be great, may be a safer bet, but it is singularly unhelpful - and may help to explain why 60% of British authors earn less then £10,000 a year.

I promised to elaborate on Doris Lessing being "that sort of author". It was not meant in a derogatory way, but she does strike me as being an author for whom a critic might hesitate to lay his reputation on the line. The Nobel judges praised her "skepticism, fire and visionary power" and spoke of her "vision of global catastrophe forcing mankind to return to a more primitive life", but she has been criticised for being too strident and eccentric, and indeed her appearance on our T.V. sets when told of her award seemed a little eccentric. The judges hadn't been able to contact her before announcing the award because at the critical time she had "popped down to the shops" and generally seemed not to be taking the matter seriously, chuckling with great (and, I think, unaffected) glee and cooing that "I've won them all now!" A healthy enough reaction, you might think. Eccentric some might argue. Too unsophisticated, not to say child-like? To me she seemed the quintessential English eccentric - and none the worse for that -, but could that be why the critics and others have left her alone for so long. Besides, she doesn't help herself: she has written books of sci-fi!

Maybe posterity will give her novels, short stories and poems the sort of critical success that her feminist classic, 'Golden Notebook', achieved. It was a long while ago, but received the plaudits of many, including Joyce Carol Oates.

The Nobel Prize for Literature Committee has done it before, of course. They seem adept at wrong-footing our most seasoned critics and publishers. I just wonder if the inscrutable silence following the announcement might indicate that they are hurriedly reading as much Lessing as possible before deciding on their response. Maybe her day is about to dawn.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

sound fellows, poets.

Caitlin Moran writing in the Times a week or so ago, set me idly thinking along a track along which I often idly think. Showing a touch of envy towards those - these days everyone except her, it seems - who has a £1 million 3-year research project to study, well, anything you can think of, it seems, she came to focus on a £1 million 3-year research project to study soundscapes. Town soundscapes. The results were taken to suggest that we who live in these comfortable, human enclaves called towns, away from the brutish life with which we would otherwise have to share our existence, actually like the sounds that designers try so hard to filter out for us. Apparently we like the sound of skateboards and the swish of tyres on tarmac. We certainly prefer them to the noise of animals trying to kill each other or having violent sex. In future, architects and designers, it was proposed, should try to manage these sounds on our behalf. Filter them, yes, but not filter them out.

So what was the track along which my thoughts were again sent idly roaming? Well, I have often wondered whether and to what extent the soundscape in which we are brought up influences, for example, our musical preferences. Moran's musings extended my familiar thought-track into the realm of poetry. Those sounds with which we are most familiar and have therefore come to love, hate or apathetically filter out, do they help to determine whether we like or hate Schoenberg's Piano Concerto or prefer the classical scale? Or heavy metal? Would the day-in, day-out and nightly sounds of beasts clashing and mating predispose us to the music of Schoenberg, with its lack of the usual hierarchy of pitches focused on a single, central tone - with its lack, in other words, of any unifying foundation? Or would the reverse be the case? What about a £1 million pound 3-year research project to discover if there is any significant difference to be found when comparing the musical tastes of town and country folk?

Interestingly (how relevant?), there is something called ambient music. Here is a quote by Eno: "Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." He had just come out of hospital and was bedridden. He was given a CD, which with great difficulty he put on his music system, only to discover that one speaker was producing no sound and the other was set very low. He was too incapacitated to correct it, but listened to it anyway. It suggested another way of listening to music - as ambient sound.

Patience! I am getting round to poetry. Coming up now, in fact. The interesting/ignorable hypothesis interests me, but attempt to apply it to poetry and there is a difficulty: the fact that poetry is not just sounds, but speech sounds, which it could be argued, vary significantly as between town and country and so contaminate the discussion. They vary geographically, of course, though to what extent the divide is a town/country divide, would probably be difficult to establish. Either way, how do I exclude the influence of speech sounds from the results of my £1 million 3-year study? Would rhythm perhaps be a way forward? Would our ears be tuned differently by a rural ambiance as opposed to an urban one? Would either rather than the other favour an appreciation of Gerard Manley Hopkins's sprung rhythms, for example? Perhaps there is room for another £1 million pound 3-year study - on whether there is a geographical (say north/south) poetry divide.

Here is a quote I found interesting (from Adam Matta, beatboxer), back with music, but very close to (some would say incorporating) poetry:"I am definitely trying to integrate the urban and percussive elements of hiphop and beatboxing with some of that abstract sensibility, as much as I enjoy painting the urban landscape. It’s the rhythms of the city that have interested me since I was two years old, but, for instance, when you watch traffic gather and disperse at an intersection, they start to resemble flocks of birds, or water flowing, elements that speak to patterns of nature, and they start to locate man’s relationship to the concrete construction. Hip hop is a way to harness the chaos of urban life and to layer your impressions of your relationship to that landscape." Interesting: visual rhythms inspire his music and it is the urban scene, not the rural, that he finds chaotic. Could others be influenced by aural rhythms, the way he is by visual ones? And if Adam could be so influenced at the age of two, could not some be influenced, but below the conscious level? (For how conscious can we be at the age of two of what influences us deeply, and how?) Perhaps we are all influenced, in ways we can only guess at, by ambient sounds and rhythms, visual and aural, way below the conscious level.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Another Digital Doodle

Was going to be another in the Raising of Lazarus series, but now I'm stuck for a title. Any suggestions?

Saturday, 29 September 2007

What is the language using us for?

My title is from the title of three poems by W.S. Graham. It is a quotation that sprang instantly to mind as I read a review by James Buchan of Ian Fairley's "translation" from Paul Celan's, "Snow Part/Schneepart and Other Poems (1968-1969)". He began his review by asking whether there can be any point to translating poetry.

The question has been raised many times before, by critics and writers, poets and linguists. Others too, have wrestled with the issues involved: cognitive scientists like Naom Chomsky and Fodor for instance. Indeed, the scientific study of language grew up with the development of the cognitive sciences, and has now become one of its central topics - and surely one of the most controversial. The problem of "what the words say" is fascinating in whichever aspect it is studied. It gives food for thought to playwrights, critics, philosophers and others and has spawned the current hot potato of (the impossibility of?) translating verse from one language to another.

There are perhaps three main strands to the problem:
words and their meanings
flow and rhythm
rhyme and assonance
Retain one of these as you translate, and you will lose the other two. There is a saying in Italian which we might render as: "translator - betrayer". Words just don't have literal equivalents in other languages, much less do they do they carry the same raft of alternative meanings and echoes of distant meanings from which we derive the all-important nuances, the vital ambiguities.

There are those - and I am all but persuaded to sign up - who argue that language, having developed for purely domestic and practical purposes, is suited to just those, and is out of its depth in deeper realms. In poetry, for example. If "uncertainty in meaning is incipient poetry" (Can anyone direct me to the source of that quote? I have not been able to track it down), it is also a barrier to understanding

Here are some lines from the first of Graham's three poems:

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go into language maybe
Because of shame or the reader’s shame.
Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.

Let us get through the suburbs and drive
Out further just for fun to see
What he will do. Reader, it does
Not matter. He is only going to be

Myself and for you slightly you
Wanting to be another. He fell.
He falls (Tenses are everywhere.)
Deep down into a glass jail.

Malcolm Mooney is Graham's fictional explorer. According to Lopez the name derived from a chain of bars owned by Guiness.
Now here are the first ten (and a bit) lines from the second poem:

What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are Communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us?

And finally, the last two verses from the third poem

What is the language using us for?
I don’t know. Have the words ever
Made anything of you, near a kind
Of truth you thought you were? Me
Neither. The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand

To speak to illustrate an observed
Catastrophe. What is the weather
Using us for where we are ready
With all our language lines aboard?
The beginning wind slaps the canvas.
Are you ready? Are you ready?

In fact I could have taken my examples from any of Graham's poems. His early ones embody the problem, his later ones address it. Here is Dennis O'Driscoll on Graham:
'Language itself became a central obsession of his later work, especially in the incomparable "Malcolm Mooney's Land" (1970). This book appeared after a fifteen your gap and evinced a desire on the part of the poet to make contact in the most direct way possible with his readers: "Anyhow here we are and never / Before have we two faced each other who face / Each other now across this abstract scene."'
Again: 'Indeed in an uncollected poem, he remarked that he had begun "to speak what I think is / My home tongue," and "to translate/English into English."
Yet his words retained much of their sense of mystery and paradox and the overall effect was of what he had once termed "Intellect sung in a garment of innocence."'

Poetry is not just words or just sound patterns or even just meaning. At its best it is metaphor set to music. Retain the words and neither music nor metaphor will be replicated in the target language. Take rhyme, for example: it arises naturally during the composing of the original poem, since it is part of the same dynamic process that produces both the content, which leads up to it and gives it its rightness, and the rhythm and flow by which the poem breathes. It is, in other words, the content that returns the sonar echoes of nuance, the "pings" given off by the word when, being exactly the right word, it alerts us to its relationships to other words nearby.

some languages are rich in rhyme: Italian, for example, where every other word, it seems, ends in a or i. One consequence of this is the more frequent use of an eleven-syllable line for an iambic pentameter, necessary to accommodate the almost inevitable weak ending. (It happens in English, of course: Shakespeare's "To be or not to be, that is the question" being a very good example.) English, by contrast, has a very poor rhyme pool, so translations from Italian into English where rhyme is important become fraught with difficulty and the line may sound forced. French poets and dramatists like Racine made frequent use of hexameters which are cumbersome in English, the reason being that French is a very evenly stressed language that derives its rhythm from the varying vowel lengths, whereas English has at least one strong accent in every word of more than one syllable. This gives French a flexibility in the longer line that is denied to English

According to Fairley, Celan, a Jew who lost both of his parents in the Michelailovka Labour Camp and was himself a Holocaust survivor, could have written his poetry in any one of six or more languages, but chose to do so in German - the language by which was delivered the authority for his parents' deaths - but, Fairley says, he took on that language, its portmanteau words and logical structure and proceeded to demolish it, its logic, its structure and its meaning. "Only when language is utterly disabled," Fairley writes, "can it articulate, in some abandoned region at the end of space and history, a fugitive echo of reality."

In spite of my intention to write on the inadequacy of language to the purposes of poetry, I seem to have produced an appreciation of W.S. Graham. So that's what the language was using me for!

That being so, I'll let Graham have the final word:

What does it matter if the words
I choose, in the order I choose them in,
Go out into a silence I know
Nothing about, there to be let
In and entertained and charmed
Out of their master's orders? And yet
I would like to see where they go
And how without me they behave.

(Part 1 of "Approaches To How They Behave")

Monday, 24 September 2007

My Entry for the Turner Prize

You may have forgotten - or even assumed that I would - but here is my entry, as promised in my post of May 11, for the non-existent Turner Prize for Poetry".

I Don't Know What I mean, but I Definitely Disagree.

Out of the darkness at the deep
heart of what I am, blind Angel, blinded
by internal light, by light
that burns its way towards the surface.
I am the Bush that burns
and yet is not consumed,
the burning Bush from which the voice of God goes forth
into the world, to put
out cap for coin, for currency
enough to buy this world of frivol
and fatuity, this pin-ball world,
for decency, for
eyes like those my father had
that saw in darkness,
sawed through the darkness
to the grain that ran our way.

I am the one you show across the road,
your penny-whistler whistling in the dark.
But friend, the other path is darker still.
All paths are dark except to one
who lives in darkness.

I am the hewn stone raised in witness,
the white stone of acquittal,
the stone-cold certainty
rejected by the builders.

But friends, know this:
there are those in this wicked world,
insurgents, evil men who snatch
the burning brands from me,
the lighted beacon of the western world,
to keep their flames alight
across the world's dark voids.
You see them in Iraq - and
what's that other country thereabouts?
But they shall not prevail, and those that die
I shall raise up.

Friends, let me be frank: at times
I grope for walls, for footholds, footling
holds, forgetting I have wings.
Come in beneath the shadow of my wings. There find
my Father's mercy seat.

I am the edifice
upon the megalith
upon the pebble from the shore
upon a grain of sand
adrift upon the void.
But friends, the void shall not prevail!

Friends, I am all things to all men, both
Elephant and Castle, Bush and Shepherd, and below
me are my Father's mansions. I, the way,
the only way, the escalator to the lines
of your salvation. No one can come
to Him but first descend in me.