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Monday, 29 December 2008

Death of an Anti-War Horse

A bad time, the festive season turned out to be in terms of losing people. First on Christmas Day came the shock news that Harold Pinter had died, and then on the same day Eartha Kitt took her leave of us. They had in common the fact that they were both great anti-war campaigners. They also had in common the fact that they were both heroes of mine, but that, as they say, is another story.

I will stick my neck out and say that Pinter was by a distance the greatest playwright of the late twentieth century, and that only Beckett got anywhere close to challenging that position.
Pinter used everyday speech forms - yours and mine - and from that rock face cut his poetry.
As a poet he wrote prose poetry, but yes, he was a poet also, and a scriptwriter - and, as I wish to stress here (for others can write with greater authority on his plays), an effective anti-war campaigner. Yes, I use the word effective, though I'm not sure how much notice was taken... but then are we ever? I know with my own conscience that it sometimes has to nag for quite a while before I allow it to take effect.

Here is part of his speech of acceptance for the Wilfred Owen Award for Poetry ; 18 March 2005

This is a true honour. Wilfred Owen was a great poet. He articulated the tragedy, the horror, and indeed the pity -of war - in a way no other poet has. Yet we have learnt nothing. Nearly a hundred years after his death the world has become more savage, more brutal, more pitiless....

... We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people, and call it Bringing freedom and Democracy to the Middle East.But as we all know, we have not been welcomed with the predicted flowers. What we have unleashed is a ferocious and unremitting resistance, mayhem and chaos.

You may say at this point, What about the Iraqi elections? Well, President Bush himself answered the question only the other day when he said: We cannot accept that there can be free democratic elections in a country under foreign military occupation. I had to read the statement twice before I realised that he was talking about Lebanon and Syria.

And here an extract from a Dear Prime Ministerletter written to Tony Blair in 1998 - after the 1997 election:

We have been reminded over the last few weeks of Saddam Hussein's appalling record in the field of human rights. It is indeed appalling: brutal, pathological. But I thought you might be interested to scrutinise the record of your ally, the US, in a somewhat wider context. I am not at all certain that your advisors will have kept you fully informed.

The US has supported, subsidised and, in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945.

He went on to give details of the death toll in Guatemala, East Timor, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Indonesia and the devastation wreaked in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, before signing off on a somewhat more friendly note:

Oh, by the way, meant to mention, forgot to tell you,we were all chuffed to our bollocks when Labour won the election.

Two Poems

The Disappeared

The Disappeared Lovers of light, the skulls,
The burnt skin, the white
Flash of the night,
The heat in the death of men.

The hamstring and the heart
Torn apart in a musical room,
Where children of the light
Know that their kingdom has come.


Weather Forecast

The day will get off to a cloudy start.
It will be quite chilly
But as the day progresses
The sun will come out
And the afternoon will be dry and warm.

In the evening the moon will shine
And be quite bright.
There will be, it has to be said,
A brisk wind
But it will die out by midnight.
Nothing further will happen.

This is the last forecast.

March 2003

Saturday, 27 December 2008

words should have role models

I was quite sure that couple of weeks before Christmas, or thereabouts, Jim made a remark, commenting on one of my posts concerning words and their meanings, expressing his interest in the subject and his continual surprise that we are ever able to talk to each other. (or something like that.)Unfortunately, though I have trawled my recent posts and their comments, I have done so without success. Just maybe, therefore, it was some other post and not one of mine to which he appended the comment. That he did make the remark, or one very like it, I am in no doubt, for it inspired this poem - and another, to be revealed later, D.V.
I wrote it there and then, in one go, no drafts, and only one small change since - They've for they have. It must be the first time ever I've known for sure that a poem was finished. I wrote "for what they might become" and the beast stopped and dug its heels in. There was no more to be done, nothing else forthcoming. Reading it through now, it sounds very W.S.Graham, but I know it isn't, I'm sure it's mostly Jim - the comment in question and others in the past. This business of words and what they mean intrigues him, I think, as it does me.

The words you hear me speak
are mine. I borrowed them from you,
but in the borrowing they changed,
did not stand still. They are like
homing pigeons now, are proud
to bring you my reply. What will you do
with them now they've returned?
Tell me, will you change them back
or recognise their new integrity?
Or might you change them further yet?
Some were mine from the beginning.
Those I sent like doves in search
of land where they might rest.
Recouperate.What will you do?
How will you recognise the unfamiliar
from that which you knew well?
Might you not send them back
as hawks in search of prey?
If so, how shall I see them then
for what they are? Or should I search
their souls for what they might become?

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Pebbles

This from the local paper: Newquay, Cornwall. 03.12.2008 (much edited):

Someone, a local artist has been leaving his own hand-painted gifts around the town centre in an effort to spread 'the real meaning of Christmas' which he feels has been lost.
He has painted more than 150 pebbles with an image of the baby Jesus.
More than 70 of the ornately decorated pebbles have already been placed around the town and have been discovered by residents.
The small fist-sized pebbles are laid out at random on small heaps of hay. As shoppers flock to the town centre in the run-up to Christmas the artist hopes that they will discover his handiwork and the 'real message' of Christmas.

Pebbles from a beach
and on each
the baby Jesus.
Christmas within reach.

The Christ Child on a stone.
The pebbles have their bounds,
each a different set.
He accomodates them yet.

Pebbles from a beach
strewn along the street,
A Christ Child by the gate.
Around the market: eight.

The Christ Child pocket-sized:
each a comfort stone,
pebbles to be prized
and worried to the bone.

Pebbles from a beach,
harder than that crib
in its far off stable.
Everywhere, he's able.

Cots from a pebbly shore,
Saviours tucked in stone.
How many will be drafted?
We each must find our own.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Christmas Tipples With the Poets

But first

a very good Christmas to you all,

with much happiness, good health and

prosperity in the new year -

if that last is not tempting providence too severely!

And on the subject of tipples, but before we get to the poets, whilst still soporific this morning (20.12.08) I heard a Radio 2 voice informing me that one of our police forces (Kent?) has issued its officers with a list of words that are difficult or impossible to say after having over-imbibed. (World shortage of breathalysers perhaps?) I didn't get all the words, but they included: innovative, preliminary and transubstantiation. The Radio 2 voice later suggested that aurora borealis (which have been Christened The Northern Christmas Lights, apparently) might be added to the list. So here's a sort of Christmas challenge for anyone foolish enough to take it on: using those 4 words, write a Christmas poem that only we more sober souls will be able to read aloud on Christmas Day.

And now to those tipples... This is a recycled (i.e. expanded and much improved) version of a post I made a year ago in which I got to wondering what if some of our best poets had become producers, not of poetry, but of fine wines? Are these the sort of wines we might have been enjoying this year?

Seamus Heaney
A generous, authoritative, rather earthy wine with a peaty, even gritty flavour and holding a wide range of subtle hints needing to be teased out by a knowledgable and sensitive drinker. Nevertheless, it is easy to like on first acquaintance and has become highly popular as a result. It comes into its own when accompanying a serious meat dish, but can be tenjoyed with any dish - or with none.

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
A wine for all occasions, having great strength and clarity of both colour and bouquet. It is the perfect accompaniment for the big occasion or the gourmet meal, though it will not let you down at party time.

John Betjeman
I know of connoisseurs who consider this a low-alcohol drink. They are wrong. If few have menaged to become incapacitated on the strength of it, many they are who have grown merry with its help..

Sylvia Plath
A dry white with a sensuous texture, often missed until the palate has been acquired.

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! No spirits and only the finest grapes are used, those that are the result of geography, of the soil, the climate, the very atmosphere in which they grew. Remarkable then, how well it travels!

Elizabeth Jennings
A quiet, restrained and unassuming wine that by eschewing fashion has won for itself considerable popularity among discerning drinkers.

T.S. Eliot
One for the connoisseur, having in both its taste and its aroma many associations to be enjoyed by the cognoscenti.

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.

Even as you draw the cork you will feel the presence of the English countryside. It could not have come from anywhere else.

Elaine Feinstein
A dry white wine with a spare, wry flavour.

Thom Gunn
A supple, dark and sexy red.

Friday, 19 December 2008

On poetry and religion : After-thoughts

It has occurred to me sinc reading through the comments (including my own!) on my most recent post, Poetry and Empty Heaven, that the debate on what constitutes the finest religious poetry (and particularly Art Durkee's parallel approach to the numinous and his remarks about beliefs being internal to the poem), the aspect which I had set out primarily to discuss was not so much any of those, fascinating though I found them to be, as the reality or otherwise of (as Wallace Steven, for example, saw it) poetry taking the place of religion. This was the reason I decided that, with the exception of the poetry of The Bible, I would not discuss religious poetry per se. I made mention of Nick Laird's quasi-religious return to poetry in a time of extremity, and of the fact that to a degree poetry has supplanted religion in my own experience. Poetry and religion do seem to me to be parallel in many respects, and at times to stand-in for each other. One interesting question that I did not raise might be that of whether poetry replacing religion must of necessity be religious in some generally accepted meaning of the term.

I was fascinated, then (by the continuing synchronicity as much as anything else), having posted that, to read (in the T.L.S.) in a review of the recently published interviews with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones, the following:

A Catholicism of the imagination is voiced in the book, in contrast with his position in the 1960's, when he would have been "diffident" in answering questions about the teachings and ceremonies associated with the "first visionary world" of acradle Catholic. So his fresh starts have included reversions, and the book is particularly interesting in its discussion of the scope of his born-again imaginative Christianity - if that is not to overstate, for there was never an outright abeyance or denial.

God is no longer dead, at all events, as Heaney may have been moved, with his generation, to wonder in the 1960s. The poet sees ghosts, and his poetry, when it began in him,was experienced as a "redemptive grace". There is, if not an after-life, an "after-image of life". This does not make him a theocratic defender of Ireland's Catholic Church, but it may be that he has followed a different course from those of its flocks who are now less faithful than they were once.

My thanks to all those who took part in the earlier debate, and particularly to Art Durkee and Sorlil for their contributions.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Poetry and Empty Heaven

And synchronicity goes marching on... Art Durkee first mentioned it in his comment to my Schweitzer (Part 1) post. I then picked up the thought in Schweitzer Part 2, intending to run with it not very far, but it out-paced me. In that post I also referred in passing to the way in which my bookshelves, which had once been crammed with tomes on theology, became gradually divested of those and restocked with books of poetry. I posted it on Sunday morning. In the afternoon I sat down, as is my wont, to read the Review section of the Guardian from the day before - I have given up on the Sunday papers, finding enough in Saturday's Guardian (usually) to last me through the weekend.
In the Review I found Nick Laird ((here) writing about poetry and religion.
I don't like faith, I read, but I'm fond of its trappings - the kitschy icons, the candles, the paintings, the architecture and, especially, the poetry. Both religion and poetry, he goes on to say, work at the borders of the sayable. After a fascinating discussion on the poetry of The Lord's Prayer, he goes on: But give me real poetry over religion. Poems have the mythological dimension of religion... through which the invisible world is symbolised - but lack the doctrine.

Theology tries to systematise the accumulated revelations of religion... Poetry admits everything is apocrypha, that all things are open to faith or nothing is
. In systematising, he says, religion tries to pick and choose, to say we'll have this, but not that. (That becomes heresy - my insertion.) Poetry can hold oppositions in equilibrium, life tends to paradox and poetry can cope with that.

Finally, he quotes Les Murray's (A true poem is dreamed and danced as well as thought)poem Poetry and Religion in which he (Murray) argues that the two things are:

The same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror,

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There'll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given and intermittent,
as the action of those birds - crested pigeon, rosella parrot -
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

So Nick Laird, having introduced poetry's most obvious connection with religion, then somewhat shies away from it - which is, I guess, not far from the position most would take these days. I shall do likewise (save for one exception, which I shall come to later), if only because the obvious connection - shall I call it the first connection? - of poetry with religion is important enough for a post or two all to itself. As with painting, so much poetry from the past was produced, either in the service of religion or by those whose lives were ruled and ordered by religion.

In Grey Gowrie's Third Day: New and Selected Poems, the poems of the selected were written back in the 60's. He seems not to have written thereafter - until a life-threatening illness resulting in a heart transplant in the 90's brought him back to poetry and resulted in a stupendously moving sequence called The Domino Hymn. He writes with verve and distinction on the areas in which poetry is most potent: life, art, love. music and death. These, of course, are the great themes of religion also. His thirty year absence from poetry and his sudden return in a moment of crisis have all the hallmarks of a person in extremity refinding his religion - and we should not overlook the hint or resurrection in that Third Day in Gowrie's title.

Perhaps it might be in order at this point to say a word or two about the one promised exception to my self-imposed ban on poetry produced specifically to serve a religious purpose. My exception is the poetry of the Bible. It is, I think, different from other such poetry because it underlies, not just Christianity, but our whole (Western) civilisation, including, of course, our literature, in a way that no other poetry does. I am not able to speak on the poetry of any of the other great religions and their societies, except to point out that the majority of the world's great epic traditions, unlike the Bible, are in verse form. The Bible's narratives are almost all in prose. In view of this, it is maybe even more surprising to discover that almost one third of the Old Testament is poetry. And a very terse and evocative form of poetry it is, too, mainly because it is in binary style, achieving its effect by the juxtapositioning of short lines connected by ambiguous conjunctions or by none. (The connecting word/letter waw can mean and, or, but etc.) Often therefore, the specific relationships between lines are not made plain. Furthermore, other items of syntax are often omitted. The individual poetic units (usually 2 or 3 lines) often seem to me to have something of the character of a haiku. This from the Book of Judges, for example (5:25):

Water he asked
Milk she gave:
In a lordly cup she offered cream.

Those of you familiar with the concept will have noticed that the above quote is also a good example of parallelism, as is much Old Testament poetry. Parallelism is the pairing off of lines or half lines by giving them the same linguistic or semantic character. So in the quote above Water he asked is grammatically equivalent to milk she gave. In the case of semantic parallelism the second line or half line might reflect the first by echoing its meaning, by reversing it, extending it or intensifying it.

Other characteristics of Biblical poetry include word repetition, word association, ellipsis, chiasm (an A-B-B-A pattern of words, grammatical structures or lines and imagery.

My short introduction to the Bible's poetry will, I hope, emphasise the importance, indeed, the closeness of poetry to religion, without putting off those who might already be familiar with the points or be indisposed to the whole subject of organised religion.

Such and, (I sincerely hope) most others may be more predisposed to the thoughts of Wallace Stevens in The Man with the Blue Guitar, his long hymn to the special relationships existing between poetry and the other arts and religion, which has it that:

Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,

Ourselves in poetry must take their place
Even in the chattering of your guitar.

Empty, I think, not because Heaven now has nothing to offer, but because in the modern world it has no takers. The people have left themselves with only poetry to which they can turn.

Stevens was much burdened by the idea of the passing of the old truths and beliefs, and could see nothing with which to replace them but that offered by his notion of The Supreme Fiction, a fictive replacement for the idea of God. In his wonderfully satirical poem, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," he offers the readily available notions of the modern world, but finds them less than satisfying to the human soul:

Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began.
J. Hillis Miller says in his book, Poets of Reality, that Wallace's saxophones squiggle because the theme of universal fluctuation is a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry: A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement. In the end, all that remains is reality.

I thought I would let Nick Laird take it and finish it from this point, for he seems to me in so many ways to be the voice of one crying in today's wilderness with more than a little of today's zeitgeist:
I've spent a lot of late nights over the past year working on a long poem that I hoped would pull everything together, would unify all my little thoughts and theories. It was meant to be a hymn to the natural world, but also touch on neuroscience and evolution and quantum physics. It had sections set in the past in Northern Ireland, in the present across several continents, and a scene set in the future. One bit was split into three sections meant to represent the ego, id and superego. It contained riddles, a recurring alter ego, and two creation myths. It is - was - an unbelievable mess.

A good poem is a closed belief system, and I was trying to create, I think, a kind of religion to supplant the one I was raised with, and have now lost.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Thaumaturgic Protection for a Turkman Boy

A similar garment in The Britsh Museum

Seven tents gave seven of their finest
cloths, and chose from sempstresses those souls who,
skilled both in the occult and with thread, knew
best their ancient lore, and were the most blest
of the tribe. Once seamed, the guardian vest
received their magic signs to see him through
life's ills: their bells, coins, cowrie shells and blue-
as-azure tokens of their love - for zest
and health in all he'd do. The hem, unstitched,
hung free to propagate the tribal line.

Today, the boy might think his coat bewitched,
kept safe by our much stranger science: nine
red eyes, those modern talismans of ours,
protect the old protector's ancient powers.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Double Header

Who looks down on whom?

In my second post on Albert Schweitzer, The Quest I told of a discussion that arose from a painting of mine, a discussion concerning the physical appearance of Jesus, and how it could be argued that in the Biblical story of Zaccheus climbing a sycamore tree to see Jesus over the heads of the crowd, the phrase for he was a small man could be taken to refer to Christ as easily as to Zaccheus - the traditional interpretation.

Commenting on this, Hope at The Road Less Traveled, said: It's funny, I never thought of Jesus being the "short" one instead of Zaccheus. Guess it was that song I learned as a kid, "Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see..."

Which is pretty much the general reaction when the idea is first floated.

I also had a couple of emails on the subject, including this from a very good friend of mine:
In the course of your latest blog I was prompted (& amazed to be able) to recall a ditty which I remember my mother singing to me over-&-over when I was young. ( I still remember, word for word, a number of such verses reproduced from her own childhood learning) . . .

Now Zaccheus was a very little man,
And a very little man was he.
He climbed into a sycamore tree
For the Saviour he wanted to see.
And when the Lord passed by that way
He looked into that tree,
And said “Now, Zaccheus, you come down
For I’m coming to your house for my tea!”

On googling 'climbed into a sycamore tree' I came across the verse with virtually the identical words on the 'stickykids' website. It was preceded by a longer variation of the story with a sample sound track - not the same as the one my mother used! Not of any great interest to you perhaps, but fascinating to me as it must be 60 or so years since I ever even thought of Zacchias!

Keep up the good work. Bill

Back to School

I was somewhat amused to read and hear on the TV that the people who decide these things (in this instance led by Sir Jim Rose, adviser to the government, and a man with much good work behind, one who has always had my admiration) have decided that our school curriculum is twenty years old and no longer up to the job of preparing our young people for life and work. The trouble lies in the subject boundaries, so they plan to completely modernise (even revolutionise) this twenty year old curriculum - with an idea that we were all familiar with in the 60s and 70s, a way of teaching that was highly popular when I began teaching even further back than that and which I used a great deal until (20 years ago, would you believe?) I was told by my inspector that it would have to go as it was no longer up to the job of preparing our young people for life.

Projects, are to be the great new-old thing in education. Children should follow a project which requires them to research across several traditional subject areas. They will work and learn instead, in the following areas: English, Communication and Languages : Mathematical Understanding : Scientific and Technological Understanding : Understanding Physical Health and Wellbeing : Understanding Arts and Design

Learning by project worked very well, once - well enough to show that it can work. That was when what you learnt was more important than how you were taught because that was in the days when what you learnt was more than a matter of box ticking. It is true that in its heyday it was not always well used. Sometimes the checks to ensure that the necessary ground was covered were not rigorous enough; sometimes the projects were not intrinsically related to the subjects they were supposed to be covering; sometimes the method was pushed to extremes. However, with its demise, and by the time I retired, I was beginning to think that teachers were becoming more and more like tour guides. They had their itinerary, known as a curriculum, and they behaved as tour guides traditionally are supposed to behave: they show you Buckimgham Palace, St Paul's Cathedral and Piccadilly Circus, take you on the London Eye and round The National Gallery - and that's it, x number of boxes ticked, London done, let's go and look at Wales! The concept of experiencing a subject area was fast disappearing. It has gone much further down that road in the years since.

The argument centres around the point of contention that it has always centred around: the usefulness or not of inert learning (learning that has no immediate relevance for the child, but will become relevant later). But whenever I hear that discussion being rerun it reminds me of Henry Reed's great WWII poem Naming of Parts from his Lessons of War sequence. Here are the first two verses:

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

Doesn't that put the case rather succinctly?

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Girl Possessed

Girl Possessed : Paul Klee

Aglow with light and bright
as any stormlamp, yet
no light is shed, no gloom
is lifted where she walks.
Possession has dispossessed her,
and her wooden eyes are bled
of light - or blinded by it -
and look out from what
might seem eternal emptiness,
in search of the internal.
Possession has hollowed her
of inwardness. She is
deceived. The entity
has hold of her,
the not-her, and has drained
her of control, of all
the attributes of life
beyond the physical.
Capping the body she was born
with, this prosthetic face.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Quest...

A day or two after my post on Albert Schweitzer, I turned my thoughts to the question of whether or not to produce a follow-up. I had already determined that if I was to write one it would be on The Quest of the Historical Jesus, the book that was probably responsible for first thrusting him fully into the public gaze - and for sure into my gaze. Then I read the comment byThe Weaver of Grass on my original post, pointing out that we (The Weaver and I) are of about the same age and that Schweitzerhad been a very real presence during our childhoods and adolescence - which said at least part of what I had been trying to get across, while putting it much more succinctly than I had managed. And then I found myself at Box-Elder reading her Books Lying About post, and the three things came together somehow in the deeper recesses of my mind to remind me of the way in which my book collection has changed since those far-off years. When - and maybe partly because - Schweitzer was such a towering presence, my bookcases were largely filled with works of theology. I was an altar boy at my local (Anglican) parish church and later would become a Methodist lay preacher (a somewhat heretical one, if the truth be told), but over the years, and I think partly through the influence of The Quest of the Historical Jesus I became less and less interested in what I came to see as the rather sterile Philosophy of God. Slowly the shelves were taken over by books on art, literature (with an emphasis on poetry), some science and a few selected novels. That is my rationale for choosing to post on The Historical Jesus: the influence it had on me. I do not say that Schweitzer was entirely responsible for the shift in my concerns and interests, that would be too simple, but he was one who happened along at that time and so became part of the process.

However, the question of synchronicity becomes more fascinating by the day. It was first raised in this connection by Art Durkee in a comment to my Reverence for Life post. He had been re-reading Frederick Franck's To Be Human Against All Odds when my post appeared. Franck was a disciple of Schweitzer and Franck's life was very much modelled on the master's. I am grateful to Art for the comment, for I have not read any of Franck's work, but intend to rectify that omission ASAP.

If Schweitzer is not as well-known as I believe he should be, The Quest of the Historical Jesus seems even more neglected. It is easy to see why this would be, and certainly I do believe that in today's world more than ever it is the philosophy of Reverence for Life that it might be redemptive for us to adopt as our default life-style, but, as I have pointed out, The Quest played a part - and a big part - in my early and development and in my early and developing interest in Schweitzer. Partly it was, I am sure, that society had different concerns in those days. Maybe it was the lead in to the age of the celebrity. Whatever it was, Schweitzer's emphasis on Christ's humanity seemed to fit the public mood exactly. One anecdote might illustrate. In my teens I was invited to paint a mural for a small, country church. It had to show something of Christ's ministry. I duly produced a painting as a cartoon for the proposed work. In fact, the project never came about, and I heard - and saw - no more of either the matter or the cartoon. The whole busines had died a natural death so far as I was concerned. Unknown to me, however, it was not quite dead: the cartoon had found its way into a local art exhibition. (Local to the church, not to me.) The local paper sent a reporter to cover the exhibition. He wrote a longish piece on my painting. It never appeared in the local paper, but still without my knowledge, it was syndicated - whatever that might mean in media terms - and appeared (apparently - for I still knew nothing of all this) in various places around the world. And I never would have known, had not some kind person collected a wadge of cuttings and sent them to me anonymously. I found the whole business to be quite amazing. I had not realized that so much material was available on the subject of Jesus the man, or that it would generate so much interest. One correspondent had referred, for example, to an official report by a Roman Centurion to his superiors describing Jesus in some detail. Most, though, drew conclusions from gospel passages. One I recall based his argument around the act of Zaccheus in climbing a sycamore tree to get a good view of Jesus as he passed by. The Gospel record says he wanted to see what Jesus was like; but he could not, on account of the crowd - for he was of small stature. That last remark - for he was of small stature - has usually been taken as referring to Zaccheus, but several correspondents pointed out that it could as easily refer to Christ. All rather dull and academic - in the present climate. I have related it, though, to show how attitudes have changed. That lengthy debate would rate perhaps a whimsical letter in The Times today, but not much more, I think. (Though the various images of Jesus are culturally important, no undisputed record of his appearance is known to exist - here - though it is interesting, perhaps, to note that there is more to go on than is the case when, for example, we discuss the appearance of Shakespeare.)

Of course, the physical appearance of Jesus is not the stuff of Schweitzer's book. He is interested in deeper matters, but my anecdote illustrates, I think, how times - and interests - have changed. For me the book was a breakthrough. I was having severe trouble with the Son of God bit. Schweitzer put it differently: that Jesus was not born the Son of God, but that during his ministry he became increasingly conscious that he was, as we all are, the Son of God, though in his case in a unique way, i.e. he was The Only Son of God. The title, the role and the implication of both were freely entered into by him as a fully conscious and accepting being.

I will not attempt a synopsis of The Quest of the Historical Jesus. There is so much on the web, that one only has to Google Schweitzer's name or anything to do with him to be almost embarrassed by a wealth of riches. I will simply give some quotes as I did for Reverence for Life, enough, I hope, to give sufficient of its flavour for you to judge whether or not it is a book for you..

"But the others, those who tried to bring Jesus to life at the call of love, found it a cruel task to be honest. The critical study of the life of Jesus has been for theology a school of honesty. The world had never seen before, and will never see again, a struggle for truth so full of pain and renunciation as that of which the Lives of Jesus of the last hundred years contain the cryptic record."

"When we have once made up our minds that we have not the materials for a complete Life of Jesus, but only for a picture of His public ministry, it must be admitted that there are few characters of antiquity about whom we possess so much indubitably historical information, of whom we have so many authentic discourses."

"There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: 'Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.' Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign."

"For a hundred and fifty years the question has been historically discussed why Judas betrayed his Master. That the main question for history was what he betrayed was suspected by few and they touched on it only in a timid kind of way ... The traitorous act of Judas cannot of consisted in informing the Sanhedrin where Jesus was to be found at a suitable place for an arrest. ... The betrayal by which he brought his Master to death, in consequence of which the rulers decided upon the arrest, knowing that their cause was safe in any case, was the betrayal of the Messianic secret. Jesus died because two of His disciples had broken His command of silence; Peter when he made known the secret of the Messiahship to the Twelve at Caesarea Philippi; Judas Iscariot by communicating it to the High Priest. But the difficulty was that Judas was the sole witness. Therefore the betrayal was useless so far as the actual trial was concerned unless Jesus admitted the charge. So they first tried to secure His condemnation on other grounds, and only when these attempts broke down did the High Priest put, in the form of a question, the charge in support of which he could have brought no witnesses.
But Jesus immediately admitted it, and strengthened the admission by an allusion to His Parousia in the near future as the Son of Man.
The betrayal and the trial can be rightly understood when it is realized that the public knew nothing whatever of the secret of the Messiahship."

"Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity."

Finally, for good measure, some more quotes from Reverence for Life

"The plowman does not pull the plow. He does not push it. He only directs it. That is just how events move in our lives. We can do nothing but guide them straight is the direction which leads to our Lord Jesus Christ, striving toward him in all we do and experience. Strive toward him, and the furrow will plow itself."

"But the man who dares to live his life with death before his eyes, the man who receives life back bit by bit and lives as though it did not belong to him by right but has been bestowed on him as a gift, the man who has -- overcome death in his thoughts--such a man believes in eternal life because it is already his, it is a present experience, and he already benefits from its peace and joy. He cannot describe this experience in words. He may not be able to conform his view with the traditional picture of it. But one thing he knows for certain: Something within us does not pass away, something goes on living and working wherever the kingdom of the spirit is present. It is already working and living within us, because in our hearts we have been able to reach life by overcoming death."

"I do not want to frighten you by telling you about the temptations life will bring. Anyone who is healthy in spirit will overcome them. But there is something I want you to realize. It does not matter so much what you do. What matters is whether your soul is harmed by what you do. If your soul is harmed, something irreparable happens, the extent of which you won't realize until it will be too late."

"These three great temptations unobtrusively wreck the presupposition of all goodness. Guard against them. Counter the first temptation [indifference, followed by uselessness] by saying that for you to share experience and to lend a helping hand is an absolute inward necessity. Your utmost attempts will be but a drop in the ocean compared with what needs to be done, but only this attitude will give meaning and value to your life. Wherever you are, as far as you can, you should bring redemption, redemption from the misery brought into the world by self-contradictory will of life, redemption that only he who has this knowledge can bring. The small amount you are able to do is actually much is it only relieves pain, suffering, and fear from any living being, be it human or any other creature. The preservation of life is the true joy.

As for the other temptation, the fear that compassion will involve you in suffering, counter it with the realization that the sharing of sorrow expands your capacity to share joy as well. When you callously ignore the suffering of others, you lose the capacity to share their happiness, too. And however little joy we may see in this world, the sharing of it, together with the good we ourselves create, produces the only happiness which makes life tolerable. And finally, you have no right to say: I will be this, or I will be that, because I think one way will make me happier than another. No, you must be what you ought to be, a true, knowing man, a man who identifies himself with the world, a man who experiences the world within himself. Whether you are happier by the ordinary standards of happiness or not doesn't matter. The secret hour does not requires of us that we should be happy--to obey the call is the only thing that satisfies deeply.

So I tell you, don't let your hearts grow numb. Stay alert. It is your soul which matters.

A good thought on which to end, perhaps.

The first image above is of Jesus as depicted in the Ravenna Mosaics.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Postcard

The Royal College of Art recently held its annual "secret" postcard sale, the proceeds of which go to help support the students. "Secret" because the name of the donor is withheld until the purchase is complete.

I bought a postcard from the R.C.A.
Hand-painted. On a good day -
so I thought - I'd choose, maybe,
a Grayson Perry, Ricky Figg, Nick Park,
Paul Simonon or even (Could I ever get
that lucky?) a Tracey Emin contribution - Chance
to own a bit of art by someone special, see?
It's that what pulls you in.
It's gambling, of course; you pit
your wits against the odds. You reckon
Lady Luck is sure to smile
on them as knows their stuff.
Choose well, and well, you've got yourself
a masterpiece, my son!
A solid gold original, no less - and one
that's by a famous name. You understand? The game
is that you don't know what you've got
until you've paid your forty quid, stumped up the bread.
Most like you'll end up with a dud, one done
to do you over good and proper by a student. Even then,
not all is lost. Treat it like a real investment, friend.
Your student could get famous in his time - or hers,
of course! And me? Don't ask. I know my art, don't fret,
I'm something of a connoisseur, I'm told.
But even so... I only went and picked (you won't believe)
this pierrot - on a beach, I think he is.
Something should have told me, no?
Well, so it did, it struck me as I went to pay: passé
or what, I thought. No artist worth his salt
or Cobalt Blue would have a go
at one of those these days!
I think I've picked a picky for the birds, I said.
My girlfriend, though (she's wonderful), she says
You stick by what you first thought. So I do -
and hear a plummy voice say: By... and follow By...
with some long monicker I'd never heard of... and then try
to make out anyone who's of the cognoscenti,
would be sure to know that name straight orff!! Straight Orff?
The cheek of it, that she should put me in my place...
Was my face red! But cooling down a bit,
a consolation prize, a good result - looked at
objectively. A whiz. I'll use it for the picture round
in my pub quiz.

The image is of Tracey Emin's contribution. Did you guess?

Thursday, 27 November 2008

What the World Needs Now

Some weeks ago now (08.11.08, actually) I was skimming through The Guardian -Weekend Section with a view to mentally planning my weekend reading when my eye was caught by a profile of Zoe Heller and by the following remark attributed to her: If I could bring one thing back to life I'd choose Marlon Brando. I wondered briefly who or what I would choose to resurrect, given the rather daunting responsibility of that option. I say briefly because the answer came unbidden and at once. it was as though it was waiting in the wings to come on stage at the moment it was called: Albert Schweitzer. no doubt at all in my mind, then or now. Probably my first hero. Almost certainly my first real hero. I know that I have blogged before about this or that hero of mine, but they were mainly heroes for a time or of a particular activity. This man was - and is - a giant among them. This man is not just for Christmas or for this or that wee interest. This man is for real - which, considering that he was neither artist nor poet, is quite something. (He could turn a powerful phrase or two, though!) But I have to admit that he has not always sprung immediately to mind as he did a week or so ago. He has tended at times to become partially buried beneath my more recent concerns and passing whims. Furthermore, I can no longer trot out yards of his philosophy or reams of his sayings as once I did. Some might say that is because his day has gone. I disagree. The fault lies here, with me. Even so, there are some words, sayings - mantras almost - that still break through the preoccupations of the now to remind me of those golden, heady days when I was young and innocent enough to have heroes that were heroes to me according to every meaning of the word.

Reverence for Life was (is) the big one. I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live. What impressed me was not that he said it, but that as far as I could see he lived it. But back then there was no as far as I could see. In that automatic qualification you see the cynicism of old age. I should have deleted it, but I leave it in as a warning to all, not to let it happen to you. Back then there never was - or could have been - any doubt. Maturity with its attendant scepticism came much later - though not where Albert Schweitzer was (or is) concerned. Others may know differently, but if so, it will take a lot to convince me. Heroes should remain unblemished. Few have.

One saying of his that I used often to trot out may well be apocryphal. It concerns an occasion when he was playing the big organ in some cathedral - I forget which - and a remark made to someone who had had the temerity to suggest that he had made a mistake. His reply was brief and to the point: that God does not hear the wrong notes. It worried me, though, at the time, for it occurred to me that so far as my hymn singing was concerned God would be hearing absolutely nothing from me.

After Reverence for Life it was the range of his learning and his accomplishments that most impressed: theologian, organist, philosopher and doctor-surgeon, the last an application of his philosophy, the dedication of his life to the missionary hospital at Lambaréné in the Gabon which he established and where he then remained, apart from the Bach organ recitals he would give to raise funds for his work. His erudition still impresses, but now as then it is his reverence for life that I come back to - and that comes back to me. I never did think it a practical stance for me, nor, for that matter, for the man on the London Omnibus - as they used to be fond of saying back then - but it was right for him, he lived it, and in living it he proclaimed it to the world and proclaimed along with it something of what had gone wrong with the world's take on life.

He is probably best known for his work at Lambaréné and for another of his books The Quest of the Historical Jesus, emphasising the humanity of Jesus. In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Given the state of our planet now, and its dwindling biodiversity, it seems to me that reverence for life is exactly the philosophy that is needed for its salvation. Much is spoken about developing our capacity for awe and wonder in the face of nature, but that does not quite go far enough. Reverence suggests dimensions that are missing when only awe and wonder are on the menu. And so for the purposes of this post I am stressing Schweitzer's philosophy of reverence. There are, as I have hinted, at least three other major aspects to his life and work. I may post on one or more of those at a later date. This, I think, is enough for now.

What follows I have taken from the The Association International de l'oeuvre du Dr. Albert Schweitzer de Lambaréné website whose aim is to further Schweitzer's work and which has links to other pages and sites with more information, details of books and museums and facilities for making donations to his on-going work.

The following words by Albert Schweitzer are excerpted from Chapter 26 of The Philosophy of Civilization and from The Ethics of Reverence for Life in the 1936 winter issue of Christendom. If you want to have more text about the "Origin of Reverence of Life"

I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live. As in my own will-to-live there is a longing for wider life and pleasure, with dread of annihilation and pain; so is it also in the will-to-live all around me, whether it can express itself before me or remains dumb. The will-to-live is everywhere present, even as in me. If I am a thinking being, I must regard life other than my own with equal reverence, for I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds true whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.

In me the will-to-live has come to know about other wills-to-live. There is in it a yearning to arrive at unity with itself, to become universal. I can do nothing but hold to the fact that the will-to-live in me manifests itself as will-to-live which desires to become one with other will-to-live.

Ethics consist in my experiencing the compulsion to show to all will-to-live the same reverence as I do my own. A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself has ended. Whenever my life devotes itself in any way to life, my finite will-to-live experiences union with the infinite will in which all life is one.

An absolute ethic calls for the creating of perfection in this life. It cannot be completely achieved; but that fact does not really matter. In this sense reverence for life is an absolute ethic. It makes only the maintenance and promotion of life rank as good. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances, it condemns as evil. True, in practice we are forced to choose. At times we have to decide arbitrarily which forms of life, and even which particular individuals, we shall save, and which we shall destroy. But the principle of reverence for life is nonetheless universal and absolute.

Such an ethic does not abolish for man all ethical conflicts but compels him to decide for himself in each case how far he can remain ethical and how far he must submit himself to the necessity for destruction of and injury to life. No one can decide for him at what point, on each occasion, lies the extreme limit of possibility for his persistence in the preservation and furtherance of life. He alone has to judge this issue, by letting himself be guided by a feeling of the highest possible responsibility towards other life. We must never let ourselves become blunted. We are living in truth, when we experience these conflicts more profoundly.

Whenever I injure life of any sort, I must be quite clear whether it is necessary. Beyond the unavoidable, I must never go, not even with what seems insignificant. The farmer, who has mown down a thousand flowers in his meadow as fodder for his cows, must be careful on his way home not to strike off in wanton pastime the head of a single flower by the roadside, for he thereby commits a wrong against life without being under the pressure of necessity.

There is nothing I can add to that.

Schweitzer's hospital at Lambaréné

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Anatomy of a Storm

Someone let this so voracious creature
loose above our heads. Some mad scientist
(all scientists are mad, faith-mad, of 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 beyond 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 here, 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.

Like ink dropped into water, darkness spreads
until the very jar forgets there has been light,
and out at sea the last of our divides,
the one between the ocean and the air,
dissolves in spray. The wind drags surface
sheets of water like rag dolls, and corkscrews
them the way magicians fan their cards. The
bottom line is both that undercurrents
flow against the tide, and that we cannot
know or fathom out which card to choose, which
one The Mighty Thaumaturge pre-destined.


For some time now I have been receiving complaints from friends and followers to the effect that they cannot get the comments page on my blog to work. And now, neither can I - which I think is a bit rich. Wisely, the guys at Blogger have made it impossibly difficult to contact them in any way that might require a reply from them! My aplogoes, then, to anyone who has had the same trouble - and to those who have been waiting for a reply from me. this is the best I can do. The following are the replies I would have left on my previous blog, Tagged, had I been able.


Quite a thought, that it's a male gene - I can't think of any females I know who have the same problem.

The doctor was about to give me mu flu' jab the other day when he stopped and said Which hand do you use? I held up my right and said pen and pencil, then my left and said mouse! He looked hard at me and asked; Which hand do you wipe your bum with?

Of course it was logical, who ever heard of puttin g that lot on, just to go out to play?


I have a poem somewhere on my blog recounting the (true!) story of a great aunt of mine who woke up on the mortuary slab. She always maintained that, everyone being clothed in white coats, she thought they were angels and that she was in heaven.

Sweet Talking Guy

I don't think my mum appreciated it when I walked in, though.

Pamela Terry and Edward

Well, no one would ever have thought that you needed that lot on, just to go play!

Thursday, 20 November 2008


Some days (weeks?) ago I was tagged by that rather delicious AcornMoon to provide seven facts about myself (unusual if possible - absolutely impossible, naturally), then to tag seven others to do likewise, and to leave a message with each to let them know they have been tagged. Like AcornMoon and Karen (her tagger) before her, I am a virgin at this - actually, I will make that the first fact.

My next three I share with AcornMoon, which is why I include them, of course:

  • I cannot remember names. Nothing to do with age - I have always had difficulty.

  • I can remember faces - well, I could, but all memory is random these days

  • I have always had difficulty putting on weight. I eat mountains, but it makes no difference

  • I think I am a crossed-lateral - i.e. right-handed, left-eyed. Either that or I am a natural left-hander who was coerced into changing, probably by a school teacher - there were still some around in my schooldays who thought left-handedness was a sinister characteristic to have.

  • I was seriously ill when 5 years old. My parents were warned that I might not make it to 6.

  • On my first day at school at play time the teacher told us all to put on our coats, hats and gloves, from which I sensibly deduced that it was time to go home. So I went. A Long walk for a 5-year old, crossing at least one main road.

So that's me!
The other half of my challenge was to pass it on to seven other bloggers.
Here goes! I have chosen the following in the hope that they will not heap curses on my head for having done so. Obviously, it is all done in the spirit of if you want to, if you'd rather not, no problem.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Another Garden of Eden

Towards the end of last month in a post I called A Painting with a C.V., about Raymond, a one-time pupil of mine, I told the story of how he had resolved, or partly resolved, an inner conflict by painting a picture - a really fine picture, as it turned out.

This post has something in common with it: they both centre around a boy, a pupil of mine, painting a picture of The Garden of Eden. But there, I think you will probably agree when you have read the account, all similarity ends.

First though, I need to explain something of the background. Stanley was 10 or 11 years old. He came from Jamaica, having lived there with his mother, father, brothers and sisters until he had turned school age, which I think would have been six, at which point his father decided to bring him to England to take advantage of England's superior education system. He could only afford the two of them to make the journey, so mother and siblings were left behind in Jamaica. Stanley was the chosen one, the one who would bring wealth and honour to the family. Exactly how it came about, I do not know, but Stanley was almost 9 by the time he and father had reached England and the authorities over here had caught up with them. At that point Stanley had still never been to school, so it was hardly surprising that he did not start well. Very quickly his school asked the educational psychologist to take a look at him, and he was pronounced Educationally Subnormal, as the nomenclature then was. (Today we would say that he had moderate - or even mild - learning difficulties.) It was then that father washed his hands of him. He was now the no-gooder on whom he had wasted all his money, the runt of the litter who would never amount to anything. (I thought he showed promise as a script writer, but see what you think after reading the post.) However, as far as his father was concerned, they might as well have stayed in Jamaica - though had he but considered for a moment, he might have realised that in the light of his son's special needs, Stanley was in a position to profit even more than his father had first thought, from the provision available over here. However, again not surprisingly, Stanley was soon being referred as a behaviour problem. Not long after that, he came to us, and to me. The educational psychologist asked that if possible, I arrange periods in which his behaviour would not be checked or punished, but merely observed and recorded. I had always been of the opinion that such children can not be adequately helped unless you first know them and what makes them tick, and that they cannot be well known unless they are allowed occasionally to show their true selves. The trick is to find an environment in which they can do this without disrupting (or corrupting) the rest of the group. My first choice was an art period. I had arranged a table of objets d'art (mostly liberated from items collected for a school fair) and reproductions of paintings from The Tate and elsewhere. Among these were two postcards brought from home as a contribution to our collection by one of the girls. These were Rousseau's The Dream and Savador Dali's famous melting timepieces. Stanley had acquired for himself the reputation of being a severe behaviour problem. In fact, as this short episode shows, his behaviour was of the attention-getting variety. Annoying, indeed, intended to be annoying, its success depends upon it, but not beyond the wit of man to cope with.

Stanley sidled past our inspiration table, looking away from it, surreptitiously flicking away the Dali and then palming - I think is the best word to describe it - The Dream. Why did he do that? he was an accomplished thief. Cynics said he had just been practising, but if that had been the intention I am sure I would not have seen it go, even though I had been watching him. He could have taken the piano without being spotted! No, if I saw him take it, he had meant me to see him. Whatever, he settled himself behind a drawing board which he rested on his knees and propped against his desk. The reproduction was propped against a water jar. From time to time his two eyes would appear briefly over the top of the board or round the edge of it - vertically!

Silence for a bit - and then a monologue. I should point out that there were gaps in the monologue, well-judged, mostly, for effect, waiting for his words to sink in, I suspect.

I'm a-goin-a do Eve first... put 'er in...
her titties first, I think - and then 'er hair...
all black and curly-wurly, lovely grub...!
Gotter cross 'er legs coz she's a lady!

An' now I doin' Adam... here he comes...
He sees Eve dreaming wide awake.
"Wow!" he thinks, because 'e sees 'er titties...
only now it looks like she got three...
"Three, is it?" Adam says. "How come, my sister?"
But arf a mo', the middle one's a magic mushroom...
and she's arf eaten it... He says:
"And what you been a-up to, woman?"
An' she say:
O, Adam, the ole serpent there, he say if I eat all the mushrooms..."
"Get on with it woman... what if you do eat all the mushrooms?"
"I will see how all the magic spells in all the world are made..."
An' Adam says... "An' can you girl?"
She tells him how the trees are full of stars
an' all the planets in their courses spin around the twigs... An' Adam says:
"I'll have a bit of that, I think!" and bites the mushroom on 'er breast...
and soon 'e don't know which is tittie and which is mushroom,
so he says:
"An' that ole serpent, he teach you well, ole girl, coz now I don't know you tittie from you magic mushroom...
But you should cover them things up, sweetheart, for they be powerful bright
to bring down any man..."
An' she wild! She veery wild... She get up and she slap his face good an' hard.
"The Gooooooooooood LLLLawd, he gave me these 'ere titties, boy," she say. "You hear me boy? The goooooood LLLLlawd did...! An' no one aint-a-gone-a tellllll me what to do with mar titties, save the Gooooood LLLLLLawd... Hallelujah boy!"

The eyes came round the board for the umpteenth time.
An' that mean you, too, man-behind-the-desk, there! No one ant-a-gone-a tell me what to doooo with marrrr bones, save that same Goooooood LLLLLawd... Hallelujah man!

The monologue petered out at this point, so I wandered round the room, coming last to Stanley. He had painted a cartoon, night-club world, with speech bubbles, though the speech in them was indecipherable. It was a world of strippers, booze and couplings. Surprise, surprise, Eve's legs were not crossed as he had said.
A busty blonde was dancing with the snake.

I pointed to the bubble coming out of Eve's mouth, and asked what it said.
He replied: "You just like all the men, you only wanting one thing, boy!"
an' Adam, he saying "Yup, coz that's what the Goooooooood LLLLLord gave it for!"
An' wanna know what Adam sees?
he asked, looking up at me.
I said that I would very much like to know what Adam can see.
He sees man building houses five miles high
an' painting smoke across the sky. He sees the blue dome over Eden
an' he sees it blow away all that hot air that's blown out by that dick in the white coat.

Later he added skyscrapers to the background.

I thought this might be an opportune moment to use this as my post, being that we have been having a discussion partly about the link between speech and painting. Okay, this is not quite what any of us had in mind, but it could be seen as a comment of sorts.

As another side issue, there is the question of the coincidence of both stories revolving around The Garden of Eden. Not down to any influence from me, I do assure you, and not such a coincidence as it might seem, for, looking back, I am quite surprised at the number of occasions on which, with an absolutely free choice, children have raised or used the story. Even children who could think of no other story from The Bible, would know and use that one. The second most popular Biblical story was Noah and the flood. Nothing else came near. The New Testament was nowhere. Those two stories must resonate very deeply with something in our psyches, I think.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Sister Arts

Painting and poetry have long been known as the sister or twin arts. Apropos of which, there is a story told of Michelangelo which is perhaps apocryphal. He possessed a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, so the story goes, which copy was his most cherished possession. He was always reading it, and as he read it he would be inspired by the verses to create figures which he would therefore draw in the margins. On being summoned to Rome, and unable to bear being parted from his beloved book, he packed it in the trunk which he was sending on by ship, whilst he made the journey by road. You've probably guessed the next bit: there was a great storm at sea; the ship, the trunk and the book were lost. A double loss, for he had lost both Dante's poetry and his own drawings. He went for a damage limitation strategy and reproduced his drawings from memory, elaborating them as he did so - all on The Sistine Chapel Roof.

True or not, I have always felt the story to contain within itself the whole question of the influence of poetry on art - and, of course, its corollary, the influence of art on poetry. One example of each will suffice, I think, the first being Baudelaire. In a recent post, The Flowers of Evil, I wrote of Baudelaire as the first modern poet and of the modernity of his poems Les Fleurs du Mal. But Baudelaire was driven by another passion, and had to his credit another achievement by which he should be remembered: he was the first art critic in the modern sense - and many think him the best that has so far been.

Baudelaire sought out the company of those who then constituted the Paris art world, and more to the point, they sought his company. He was a good listener at their discussions and an acute observer in their studios. He came to know their thoughts and theories and how these related to the works they were producing, and he contributed to them in no small measure. In many cases, theories of art that the painters were working towards were fleshed-out and developed by Baudelaire.

A good example was the theory that was being developed by Delacroix concerning the correct way to look at a painting. Delacroix was insisting that the viewer should look for melody. To do this you looked at it from a distance. If the distance was great enough, both lines and subject matter became imperceptible. It has meaning, he wrote, if it is melodious, for if it is melodious it has already taken its place in your store of memories.

In fact, Baudelaire took this further: A well-drawn figure fills you with a pleasure which is absolutely divorced from its subject. Whether voluptuous or awe-inspiring, this figure will owe its entire charm to the arabesque which it cuts in space. So long as it is skillfully drawn there is nothing - from the limbs of a martyr who is being flayed alive, to the body of a swooning nymph - that does not admit a kind of pleasure in whose elements the subject matter plays no part.

The important word in the above paragraph is probably arabesque, for it was a concept that Baudelaire piloted. Furthermore, he piloted it in such elegant prose that it stayed in the memory and was picked up by artists who would come later. Certainly the idea of the arabesque as the be all and end all of things was picked up by the symbolist painters for whom it became almost iconic. But the influence did not stop there: Matisse and Picasso also picked it up and ran with it.

For Matisse - no mean stylist he! - the arabesque was to become of fundamental importance. But that was not the limit of Baudelaire's influence on Matisse. At times in his Notes of a Painter, Matisse is almost paraphrasing from the writings of Baudelaire, something he was quite open about it, for his letters are full of his indebtedness to Baudelaire's theories.

But if there was one theory more than any other driving Baudelaire it was the question: What is pure art according to the modern ideal? His answer? It is the creation of an evocative magic, containing at once the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself.

Before Baudelaire art criticism was no more than a cataloguing exercise. He transformed it, ensured that it could never go back to what it had been, and introduced into it many words that are to this day resonant of modernity, words like: consciousness,

The poet I have chosen to illustrate the influence of art on poetry is Wallace Stevens. Making it easy for myself, I guess, for the involvement of his poetry with art is well known. In fact, I could have used him to illustrate the influence either way, for not only were the twentieth century modernists a formative influence on his poetry, but his verse did much to shape the development of modern American art particularly.

While working on his first collection, Stevens was a frequent visitor at art galleries, and particularly at one, that of his old college friend, Walter Arensberg, where works by Picasso and Duchamp were on show. It is well known that the inspiration for his long poem The Man with the Blue Guitar came from Picasso's painting of a man with a blue guitar. It is true that Stevens never confirmed this, indeed was careful to say that it was suggested by no particular painting, but it is generally conceded that Picasso's painting was the main source of inspiration. Stevens used the thought and theories of cubism to get him out of the excesses of surrealism, which he thought was just too much. Particularly, he was drawn to the depiction of multiple views of a single object. Inevitably, there is a degree of fragmentation in some of the poems of Stevens, but it is never accidental. It is there for a the purpose of the multiple view.

There is this perfect little gem of a poem, Anecdote of the Jar, which is one of Stevens's best-known works, though I must confess that I was very far in to Stevens's work before I came across it.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

I can find no reference by Stevens himself to the fact, but again it is acknowledged widely that the inspiration for this , as for others, came from the found objects of Duchamp. It does seem that Stevens lived and worked at a time when in America, at any rate, the arts influenced each other in ways they do not regularly do today, and perhaps never did in Europe - with the glorious exception of Baudelaire.

In The Idea of Order at Key West Stevens explores the relationship that exists between Perception and reality. Nothing becomes real until it is observed. Art opens the door to perception, which is the centre of our being. The poem is an illustration of this. Without the poem and without the song in the poem we would not perceive the order at Key West. Elizabeth Bishop seems to have developed her existentialism from these investigations by Stevens.

Stevens lectured regularly on The Relations Between Poetry and Painting. The weight of his argument was to the effect that in an age when man has by and large lost his faith art and poetry must compensate for what has been lost. The imagination as it is released in the practice and/or appreciation of art is the next greatest power to belief in God. Because poetry and painting exist in the borderland between imagination and reality they acquire a prophetic status and work prophetically. They become a vital assertion of self in a world where nothing but the self remains, if that remains. In all that he had to say on the subject, though, he always refused to draw lines of influence between particular works - instance his refusal to acknowledge the inspiration for The Man With the Blue Guitar.

This unwillingness to be specific about individual lines of influences suggests that it just might be that they do not work in the case of Stevens, that as he himself put it, his inspiration came, not from particular works, but fromthe literature of painting. :To a large extent, the problems of poets are the problems of painters, and poets must turn to the literature of painting for a discussion of their own problems.

So we find that The Man with the Blue Guitar refers to a saying of Picasso that a painting is une somme de destructions, (a horde of destructions):

Is this picture of Picasso’s, this "horde
Of destructions," a picture of ourselves,

Now an image of society?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


I am grateful to Sharon Hart for the four awards you see in my sidebar. It is always good to get the odd Brownie point - especially when it might help to attract newcomers to the blog! The terms of the award are such that I am now asked to nominate my selection, which I am more than glad to do. No pressure, of course, on anyone who would rather not. I do not have any specific criteria, I simply go for the blogs that have given me the most pleasure or created the most interest over the longest period of time. I hope they - and anyone not included on my list - will accept it in the spirit in which it is intended. My list is:

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Golf Club Maker

Two things have exercised me this week: I have been trying to update my blog - and what an exercise that turned out to be! It seems I had an older version and had first to update from Templates to Layouts, a move which lost me all my previous customising. Furthermore, the HTML which was fine on the old version will not do on the new. Apparently I need XML - of course I do, fool that I am, I should have realised that!

My other occupation has been trawling through old poems and drafts. In the process I rediscovered the benefit of putting poems away for a while. And also, I believe, discovered the elusive factor I was fumbling for in my previous post. (Yawn, yawn) It was not sloppiness, but lack of courage. It happens that during the course of its development a poem (or any other work, I guess) is likely to acquire words, phrases, lines - whatever - in which you have invested much of yourself. You are heavily committed to them. Sometimes (even!) they may refer back to an earlier word, phrase, whatever, that has long since been removed, but they hang on like plants that have had their roots cut away, trying to send down new. The subconscious editor says No, this should go, you know it! And you do, but it's bad news - like knowing you should see the dentist, but what the hell! Does that make sense?

Well, anyway, here is one I prepared earlier! A complete redraft of a poem put away for quite some while:-

The Golf Club Maker

Maker and player, golf clubs fashioned much
of what was truly him. Blade light in hand,
he'd feel for contours that the grain had planned;
the ball responding to his putter's touch
would follow lines he'd part-divined. He'd scotch
excuse with: Bunkers son, just life's soft sand!
All life was raw material, the land-
scape and the clubhead in the wood. The catch
was that the way you shaped them would shape you.
Then came war, Dachau, darkness, and he knew
the days of nature's probity had gone.
Silent now on truth, his famed persimmon -
and he himself as hushed, no more to say;
yet still he'd let the dumb wood have its way.

Saturday, 8 November 2008


As you may have noticed, I am making some changes to the appearance of my blog. Most notably, perhaps, I am replacing my list of blogs with the Followers widget. If you feel so inclined, please click on Follow this Blog in the side panel and then click on the appropriate radio button to indicate whether you would like to follow it annonymously or publicly. Finally click on the orange Follow button. The change should benefit both of us in terms of attracting more visitors. Also, please bear with me if I do not get round to your blogs as often while I am trying to sort out the compexities of the bloggers code!! - I shall hopefully make up for it later.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Mmmmmmm? Moment

There have been moments when I've wondered why I blog. At times of greater clarity I know what keeps me doing it: it's mainly down to the generosity of spirit and the honesty (as I believe and hope) of those who take the time and trouble to pass comment. This willingness to comment freely is in marked contrast to what I have found in real life for example, where friends and family are rather loathe to put their heads above the parapet and say just how a piece of writing strikes them.

And one of the most interesting aspects to the commenting, so I have found, is the frequency of what I have come to think of as the Mmmmmmm? moment. This is a comment, maybe on a line or phrase of mine that misfires in some way; a word, perhaps, that has some unhelpful connotations, the lineation of a poem or some slight awkwardness of rhythm. Indeed, it could be a comment on absolutely any aspect of the poem's form, but what it always is, is something picked up that makes me think: Of course, why did I not spot that? to be followed, almost immediately afterwards, by the thought: Well, actually I did - all but! So by a Mmmmmmm? moment, I am referring to the time when someone hits on something in the poem which had caused me some unease, had caused me, in fact, to wonder Mmmmmmm? whenever I read it through. Perhaps the Mmmmmmm? moment had remained a Mmmmmmm? moment, for what was wrong had successfully eluded me. Not always, of course, would it be the case that I had sensed a flaw, but we are only interested here in the cracks and bugs in the woodwork which my sensors half pick up, while more sensitive ones elsewhere are left to complete the job.

It was the comments on my poem Autistic Boy that set the writing of this post in motion. I experienced several Mmmmmmm? moments when drafting and redrafting that poem, but whenever I met one, I would feel that there was something more urgent, more glaringly wrong that I must attend to first - and so, for all sorts of reasons, I never did get back to the more elusive ones - or if I did, I failed to resolve the difficulty, failed to see the wood from the trees, perhaps.

This experience throws up some interesting side-issues: am I being sloppy in not paying enough attention to the inner voice, indefinite though it may be, not thorough enough? Or too perfectionist maybe, in wanting there to be no Mmmmmmm? moments in my poems? Can there ever be none? Wouldn't that mean that I had either written a masterpiece (unlikely!) or had lost my critical faculty altogether?

Quite often, if I have worried about a Mmmmmmm? point during the day, I will wake up the next morning with a new word, phrase or line, sometimes several lines that appear to solve the problem, only to find that it no longer gels with what goes before or comes after. So I get a domino effect. It is as though an editor, somewhere deep in my subconscious, has been at work during the night, the same one, presumably, that was doing the Mmmmmmm?ing during the day - which editor, though, seems not to know the whole poem, just the bit that is misfiring!. Nevertheless, he is not to be marginalised for that. I recall a lecture I once heard in which the speaker spoke about prophetic dreams, but said that they always had a rational explanation. He gave as an example the case of a woman who dreamt she fell down the stairs, and a couple of days later, did exactly that. His explanation was that her subconscious mind had registered the fact that a carpet rod was loose. The fact never made it to her conscious mind, so the dream arose to warn her of the danger, though all unsuccessfully.

I have heard of poets and novelists being given the answers to difficult parts of their creation in dream form. I can't say I have ever had that experience - or maybe I just didn't recognise them for what they were. There are certainly cases on record, if not of poems then inventions. The invention of the sewing machine, for example, is said to have been facilitated by such a dream. The inventor, try as he would, could not see how to get the cotton back through the material from the garment's underside. In his dream he was captured by cannibals who danced around him and the pot heating on the fire. Their spears had ribbons flying from their business ends. When he awoke he had his answer: thread the needle at the pointed end.

And, in the arts there is the case of Coventry Cathedral. Sir Basil Spence, the architect, worried for ages that there was something missing. Or more precisely, that it needed something more. He worried so much that he developed an abscess under a tooth. Under the anaesthetic he saw the cathedral with concertina-shaped walls, an arrangement that allowed the windows all to face the altar and to direct all their light towards it. It is one of the features of the Cathedral.

Perhaps poetry is not so amenable to such visual interpretation, but the subconscious can still play its part. Indeed, I would argue that that is where poetry is born and raised. It may not be the perfect place to nurture something so vulnerable, but it is all we have.

What my examples have in common is the fact of them being preceded by a great amount of hard graft. The answers might have been given, but they were not just given. But what when the answer doesn't come, even after all that hard work? Should we then struggle on like good little perfectionists? Or should we be pragmatists, admit that this is as good as we are likely to get it and invite the world to see the result? Is there a point at which we should say; Enough, that is it, for good or ill? Of course, we are the lucky generation: we have a parachute; we have our friends out there in the blogosphere, and we have their comments for the final push - or if you'd rather I didn't mix my metaphors, we have their comments for a safer landing! My thanks to you all!