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Friday, 29 February 2008

going, going...

There is yet one more post that I am hoping to make, either later today or early tomorrow. It is one that has been hiding in the wings for some time, waiting for its turn. Unfortunately, after it has made its appearance I shall be going off-line for a while. For how long, exactly, I am not sure, the reason being that my junk / computer / painting room is to be redecorated. To make matters worse, our decorator has brought forward his start date to Monday. Part of me queries the wisdom of this project, but in essence it an attempt to reclaim our last outpost of disorder for civilization. For the past week or so, between bouts of incapacity caused by a chest condition, I have been consigning books, bits of equipment and other paraphernalia to various forms of temporary storage. A God-sent opportunity to get rid of junk and clear the decks for a new order, you might think...

This morning over coffee I am reading that the Museum Association is trying to persuade its members to do exactly what I have been doing: it wants them to consider selling and / or simply removing unwanted artifacts from their storerooms as a first step to making their collections more dynamic. Unheard of heresy! The big curatorial No-No! Apart from the curator's first commandment of retention, absorbed with the first drops of their mothers' milk and with every breath taken since then, there is, as I have discovered, a practical disincentive: what happens during such a clear-out is that car load after car load (lorry load in their case)of stuff that "could be useful at some time in the future" is removed to some dump or disposal point without the remaining pile of jumble ever growing any smaller. The sole achievement, it seems to me, is that in the new, enlightened order, most of the surviving articles cannot be found.

There is a plus, of course: during the demolition of the old organized chaos, long-lost or long-forgotten books, manuscripts and artifacts of many kinds are rescued from oblivion and restored to some sort of prominence in the heap.

I will not say adieu good friends, as I may yet inflict this one more post upon you. (Trying hard, in my present condition, to avoid words like final or last, you understand!)

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Galleries, banks and blockbusters

A long overdue discussion has broken / is breaking / is about to break. Nicholas Penny, the newly-installed director of the National Gallery has stuck his head above the parapet to say that in his opinion: The responsibility of a major gallery is to show people something they have not seen before. Also, he has gone on record as saying: I have a lot of thinking to do about our exhibitions and the direction they are taking. The direction they have increasingly taken over the past thirty to forty years has been for more and more and bigger and bigger blockbusters of artists of popular appeal, the (mostly) dead celebs of the art world, in fact. We have seen Velasque, Titian, Monet (more than once) and their like; we have seen long queues at the box offices and no doubt the galleries have seen welcome improvements to their bank balances. All to the good, of course. Nothing wrong with any of that. It is what is, or might be, sacrificed that is the cause for concern. Dr Penny has now shown us the kind of thing he thinks has been sidelined: his new exhibition is of the work of Giovanni Segantini, Luigi Russolo and Guiseppe Pellizza.

Rohan Maitzen at Maitzen Reads pulls from Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep an interesting quote on the purpose of literary criticism and the critic's responsibility, which, it seems to me, could as easily have been directed towards the point and purpose of a major art gallery and the curator's responsibility. It is not, Booth suggests to pack.... only the best that has been.... but to find those forms of critical talk, that will improve the range or depth or precision of our appreciations. Take out the phrase critical talk and substitute some other that has to do with the display of visual art, and we are just about where I think we should be. And what then of the blockbuster? I see no reason why the two forms of exhibition should not thrive in each other's company, indeed, why they should not support each other. Why not link one of each, not necessarily at the same gallery but have two galleries co-operating maybe, and have each promote the other. Sell joint tickets, for example, or have each selling discounted tickets for the other? I seem to recall that the exhibition of Mexican Art that bowled me over in my student days was the blockbuster of its time. It is now too far back for my memory - or the web, it seems - to date, though I will say the fifties, and was way earlier than any suggestions I have seen for the first blockbuster. It may not have drawn crowds to equal those that went to Tutankhamun, nor put as much away in the bank for its organisers, I just don't know, but the reason I raise it at all is to point out that it fulfilled both requirements: it drew people, including those who did not frequent galleries, and it introduced them to an art they had not seen before.

Friday, 22 February 2008

kicking dead whales down the beach

This post had it beginnings in the discussions following my earlier post on clobbering the language, "The Language is Under Siege". Jargon was a little outside my self-imposed terms of reference, but is definitely worth a word or two.

The word jargon derives from Middle English and Middle French words for twittering, the chattering of birds.
It has two main definitions: either it is a specialised language used within a clearly defined profession, group or culture, especially when the words are not understood by those outside the group (though there are exceptions to this last, which I will note as I come to them); or it is a pretentious or meaningless language. All that follows has to do with the first definition - though it may not always seem so!

Within each user group the jargon has a particular function and/or effect. Here are some examples:-

Trade and Professional Groups use jargon to improve communication. It develops as shorthand expressions for specialised and/or technical concepts, and at its best achieves a clarity and precision which a long description would find hard to match. A good example would be critical path, meaning a sequence of operations in which an error in any one will prove fatal for the whole. The medical and legal professions are well known for their use of jargon. For health workers it eliminates the need for long descriptions, reduces misunderstandings and crosses normal language barriers. Here, though, it is possible to find many of the best examples of jargon used for deliberate non-communication. A doctor may tell his nurse, not wanting to increase your anxiety with bad news, that you have a "bilateral perorbital haematoma", though why you should not be privy to the fact that you have a black eye is hard to fathom. True, the use of medical jargon to obfuscate belongs more to the medics of the past than those of the present day, but no doubt it still does occur, and anyway, it makes a good example. Here, though, is a technical specification not intended to obfuscate, but unless you are an initiate, I bet it does! You find such specifications in advertisements and user guides, so they are meant for the likes of you and me. To a person trained in electronics, though, each word of jargon would be worth a page or more of description.

The HK 980 is a traditional integrated amplifier with 80W per channel while the flagship HK 990 (pictured) has 2x 150W amplifier, balanced XLR inputs and outputs, coaxial and optical digital inputs, MM and MC phono inputs, USB connectivity, Real-Time Linear Smoothing Technology (RLS IV), dual subwoofer outputs, 2.2-channel EzSet/EQ room optimisation and a High-resolution Synchronisation Link.

An interesting special case is that of airspeak or air traffic control English. After W.W.II. the airline countries of the world decided that henceforth all commercial flying would be conducted using a restricted form of English. It is concise and unambiguous, using no word that sounds like another or has a similar meaning. The rules allow only short episodes of speech between opportunities for the other participant to talk-back. Frequent check-backs are also built into the system to ensure that what is heard is what was said. No words from outside the code may be used and no other subject matter broached. The conversations are monitored and the rules strictly enforced. All pilots are trained in the airspeak before being allowed to fly commercially.

A fragment of airspeak.
control BA six zero six Alfa: squawk ident.
pilot Identing, BA six zero six Alfa.
(ident = identify, identing = identifying, squawk = reveal, make known)

Certain activities acquire their own jargon, often filching them from trade or professional groups. Computer users have generated more jargon than their screens have pixels. Some very familiar ones are: random access memory, read only memory, low-level language and virtual memory, but what about: backwards compatible change (meaning a hardware or software revision that allows older versions to run without crashes or error messages); backward compatibility (meaning the reverse of the above: crashes will occur); blogosphere, (the totality of all the blogs); misbug (an unintended characteristic of a program that logically should have been a bug, but in fact has proved to be a desirable feature); and parent message (meaning whatever it is that a follow-up follows up)? And then what about liveware and bioware? Both of these are facetious references to people - usually the computer user. There are literally hundreds more, but for the moment I will confine myself to two that I find amusing: ambimouseterous (derived from ambidextrous and meaning "able to use the mouse with either hand" - I was going to include this one in my "affronts to the language" category, but, wholly against my better judgement, I rather like it!); and quadruple bucky (denoting the use of four shift keys together whilst typing a fifth - often with the nose! - not much used now, as modern programming has rendered it obsolete).

Because of the computer's ubiquity and importance, many examples of its jargon have found their way into common usage (e.g. "Let me have your input on this." and a bottom-up approach), however, any particularly useful phrase capable of wide applicability, is liable to make it into common parlance no matter from which walk of life it derives.

Another use for jargon is as a badge denoting membership of a group. As such, its use is to consolidate group identity. The professions have been known to use their jargon to bestow an aura of authority and/or "knowingness". Others may use it simply to impress or to keep non-members firmly on the outside - all powerful effects of jargon used for obfuscation. Not just the professions, though: school children, secret societies, religions and others have all used it to keep the outsider at bay.

A former piece of jargon that has made its way into general use and best describes such jargon is Bullshit - unless you prefer the twittering of birds, that is.

Jargon which becomes highly fashionable within the group (Buzz-words) appears to have as its main function the creation of an air of excitement or a sense of being at the cutting edge (the most advanced or ambitious stage of an activity), no less! Power-dressing (a formal style of dressing as a sign of status by women) would belong to this group

The school playground. is a rich source of jargon used to confer membership and to reinforce group identity. If a child cannot talk the playground talk he or she will miss out on the pecking order which children establish for themselves. Cool (O.K., fashionable), fit (of a girl: sexy, fanciable), minge and mingey (noun and adjective: the opposite of fit - from the taboo word for a woman's genitals) and retard (a stupid person) have all been part of the school jargon in my area recently, some very briefly, for it is often very local and very short-lived. Indeed, fit recently provided a splendid illustration of how this can work. Its use was very prevalent among the youngsters at the local schools, but then, almost overnight it dropped out of the vocabulary. A few weeks later one of the King brothers in Emmerdale was using it in the bedworthy sense.

At this point I am becoming conscious of the fact that this blog is ostensibly dedicated to poetry and the visual arts, so I thought maybe I should include something from those areas. That being so, I cannot resist giving you a few scraps from Henry Reed's Judging Distances. It is from his Lessons of War. In this poem he is having some fun with military jargon - and much else.

.......................................but at least you know
How to report on a landscape: the central sector;
The right of arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
And at least you know

That maps are of time, not place....................

The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
And how far away would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.

But what I had intended to give, were some examples of the jargon poets use among themselves, Here are a few: Iambic Pentameters (having five "te, tum" feet to a line); feet, (a term roughly corresponding to bars in music); wrenched rhymes (words forced out of their natural sounds to make them rhyme); envoi, (a short, final stanza); bang, bang, bang, crash. (a phrase sometimes used to describe the alliterative character of Anglo Saxon verse: three alliterated stresses followed by a non-alliterated stress); and alliteration, (the repetition of the same initial sounds in neighbouring words - a great favourite of the school poetry lesson, or was when I was at school. Is it still?) Poets have nearly as much jargon up their sleeves as computer users and Hi Fi enthusiasts.

Clobbering the language. This, basically is where we came in. The following are, in my humble judgment, simply affronts to the language:

Incentivize Giving (usually the peasants) an incentive of some sort.
Disincent The reverse of incentivize.
Commoditize Every tycoon's nightmare: the product loses its status on the high street and becomes just another piece of consumer junk.
Soup to nuts Suppling everything the customer might require.
Disambiguate Deciding on a single meaning for a set of data.
Face time Time spent in face-to-face dialogue.

There remains just the need to explain the title. The expression kicking dead whales down the beach is another that derives from computing. It was first coined as part of a rant about the difficulty of getting things done under an IBM mainframe. It went: Well, you could write a C compiler in COBOL, but it would be like kicking dead whales down the beach. It has come to refer to any slow, difficult and disgusting process. Incidentally, if you had to look up the references using the three links, it will have given some idea of the shortening and simplifying effect of jargon in general - assuming you understand it.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Art-maker or piss-taker

Imagine you are living a hundred years ago. Ninety one years, to be precise. You are helping to curate the inaugural exhibition of an art society, The Society of Independent Artists that you and a few artist friends have co-founded. You are receiving the members' entries when at the last minute, just as submissions are about to close, Marcel Duchamp walks in and plonks his entry on the table. It is a urinal. Just that, an ordinary, everyday urinal. Indeed, you recognise it as one of those dollar or so jobs from Pans R Us in the High Street. He wants to exhibit it under the title: Fountain. You walk all round it, examining it closely, looking for his input (pun not intended), but no, beyond removing its price tag and signing it R Mutt 1917, he has not changed it one iota. There has been no exercise of skill whatever. It's a wind-up, it's got to be. He's taking the proverbial - only, he looks serious enough, and is very persistent. Reluctantly, you admit to yourself that you can see there is something about its shape, something you had not noticed before, not in all the years you have been using such things (or not, depending on whether you happen to be in that half of the population which uses such things)... even so, your instinct is to reject it, for you do not want to become the fall guy, the laughing stock of the art world. However, a quick look through the society's constitution confirms your worst fears: as a fully paid-up member he is entitled to show any work of his that he pleases. Ah, that might be your get-out clause: his work. You point out that it is not his work, that he bought it, it is some other person's work, someone who is not a fully paid-up member. There is nothing from him, no contribution that would make it his within the meaning of the rules. As a work of art it is still raw material.

He of course, will have none of that. No contribution? Was it not he who saw it, his perspicacity that first recognised its potential, was it not he who rescued it from its former fate, and has he not now, by changing its environment and giving it a title, cancelled out whatever utilitarian significance it may previously have possessed? And by doing all the aforementioned, has he not furnished it with a wholly new and more appropriate point of view? In short, can you not see that he has transformed it into a new work by generating a new and radical thought about it!

But still you are unconvinced; after all, the society is about art, not philosophy, and art is about line, colour, texture, shape, isn't it? New thoughts, new points of view... that sounds like philosophy... and in any case, he didn't actually reel it all off like that there and then, even if he was getting there slowly, making it up as he went along, and even if one month later, when The Blind Man, a magazine he was co-editing, came out, the whole justification was in place and there for all to read. Too late to help you, of course, and doubtful if it would have, anyway. Some thought he was just making a play for intellectual respectability (the stuff he actually made by hand was a touch weak, anyway), but you allowed his entry and the rest, as they say, is history.

But it is history that will not lie down. (Ah, I almost forgot to say you can come back now to 2008.) You must be finding it to be wearing a bit thin by now! Every so often someone pops their head above the parapet to ask again if perhaps the whole thing was a joke, if Duchamp was taking the proverbial - or maybe even conning us all: public, curators, critics, other artists and art historians. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian of Saturday, 9th February is the latest (unless you know of a more recent someone), though he suggests varying the question to ask how Duchamp came by his highly original thought. The question is interesting, but does not seem to lead to an answer to the first question, which is also interesting, but hardly light-creating. Suppose we were to assume for the sake of argument that Duchamp was a joker or a con artist (for it hardly matters which), what does that say of the artists who have worn his mantle since? Not much, for either they too were duped or they saw in Duchamp's displays something that he missed. My father had a favourite saying: Many a true word spoken in jest. It could make the perfect riposte to a sarcastic remark or some other thoughtless barb. Maybe Duchamp's jokes, if that is what they were, had a wisdom that was hid from him. But no matter, the situation is not much changed if Duchamp was being genuine. For us, looking at the situation with which we are faced today, the same two possibilities exist: either his inheritors have seen in him something worthy of further exploration or they have latched on to a way of making an easy buck. So far as he is concerned there does exist a third possibility: that Duchamp began by taking us all for a ride, but then realised that he had stumbled on something more than he had bargained for: an all-time winner. It would change nothing for the present situation, even if we knew.

Ah, if we knew... Yes, it would be fascinating to know what was in the mind of Duchamp, to understand his motives and to know by what stages he reached his vision, but it seems unlikely that we ever will. Nor would it profit those who simply want to understand what has happened since. We are left as we always are, to pick our way through the forest of good, bad and indifferent artists that has grown up in the soil that, for better or for worse, he has bequeathed us.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

A Nod to Nabokov

So it has broken out again, the debate as to whether Nabokov's last book, The Original of Laura, should be destroyed in accordance with the author's dying wish, or preserved for posterity - which might make one wonder what rights this posterity has over the rights of a dying man.

But before we get into discussions of general principle, let us first be clear what we are talking about: we are talking about notes for a novel. Not a novel, but notes, notes written on fifty index cards. It seems this was his usual method, he would shuffle the notes around as part of his editing process, but a novel might take a couple of thousand cards, as indeed did Ada or Ardor. So, The Original of Laura was, to put it mildly, unfinished. Furthermore, it was his habit to write the middle of the novel last. This is taking us further and further from anything resembling a novel. The Original of Laura was complete in his head, but far from complete on the cards. It is no more complete in the document sitting in the Swiss bank vault, for that document was typed up from the cards. Posterity has no hope of getting Nabokov's last novel. It may indeed yet be given a novel spun out of Nabokov's notes by someone only too happy to climb on the current bandwagon and produce one of the novels that a deceased novelist didn't actually write, but it will not get Nabokov's last novel.

I feel strongly about this particular case, but as to the general question, might it not depend upon the state of mind of the author making his or her dying wish? (And is the case that Nabokov was hallucinating at the end? And was that when he made his dying wish? If so, that changes the argument mightily, I would have thought!)Famous precedents, on the other hand, can not make it right to ignore an author's dying wish - for example Kafka wanted his works destroyed,but his wishes were ignored, with the result that we became the beneficiaries of what I regard as a wrong act. That a thing has been done before does not make it right to do it again, but in the matter of the value to posterity of the notes,I do have one misgiving: suppose an artist left a sketch book filled with drawings for the magnum opus that was in his head to paint... would I feel differently about that? I think I might. I do believe that, unlike the notes for a novel, we would then be destroying something of inestimable value. Why are the two cases so different?I am not sure, it may have something to do with thinking that the sketches can stand alone as statements, whereas the notes cannot. Am I deceiving myself? Again, I don't know, but I shake off the misgiving with the thought that Nabokov is best known for Lolita, not his best work to my way of thinking, but better that than he be best remembered for a book he never wrote, which I suspect is beginning to happen.

One final point:- It has been claimed that a plot has been produced from the notes. If that is what posterity is to receive, I am not impressed. I am even more inclined to the belief, as I have written elsewhere, that literature is what remains when you disregard the plot.

Friday, 8 February 2008

The Language is Under siege

Carol Anne Duffy has a little gem of a poem called Poet for Our Times, the first four lines of which are:

I write the headlines for a daily paper.
It's just a knack one's born with all-right squire.
You do not have to be an educator,
just bang the words down like they're screaming Fire!

There's more of the same quality. For example, the poem ends:

The poems of the decade... Stuff'em! Gotcha!
The instant tits and bottom line of art.

A few weeks ago my wife, Doreen, and I decided to grace the local pizza emporium with an order for our evening meal. I rang the order through. The conversation went thus:

Good evening sir, how may I help?
I'd like to order a delivery, please.
Fantastic! What would you like?
An eight inch vegetarian hot...
...thin base.
Fantastic! Anything else?
Yes, one portion of kebabs.
Fantastic! Anything else?
No, that does it.
Fantastic! How might you wish to pay?
Fantastic! It will be with you in twenty minutes.
Fantastic, sir!

There was more, in point of fact: we had to confirm my telephone number and address. Both of those were fantastic also.

They are both in their respective ways, extreme examples of the same process, my friendly pizza purveyor and Duffy's self-styled poet. Extreme, but by no means rare. For a long time now - four or five decades to my personal knowledge - we have witnessed this process of cranking up the meaning of words or over-using them to exaggerate some aspect of (usually) a very ordinary happening or situation. Now no sportsman or team can ever just lose. You might have said that Andy Murray lost the last of five closely-contested sets 28-30. Not a bit of it :he crashed out. Manchester United may have lost by the odd goal after extra time or on penalties; no matter, they would have crashed out. No team or sportsman ever just loses. Not dramatic enough. Know what I mean? Alternatives to crashing out would include being thrashed or humiliated, but simply losing... never! A browse over the paper stand in my local newsagent shop this morning (Friday) turned up the following headlines: "Archbishop of Canterbury wants Sharia Law", "Winter has gone for ever", "Sold for £100 million : the soul of football", "Our children are being tested to destruction". A while ago, "Nation rocked by blizzards", greeted a rather ordinary fall of snow and strong winds.

Although not in this morning's examples, the hyperbole (hype as we usually now refer to it) will very often centre around the stretching "to destruction" of the natural meaning of a single word or phrase. Such words and phrases gather certain associations or emotions, usually pejorative. The words then become trigger words, releasing their newly acquired charge of emotion whenever they are rolled out for that purpose. Examples from this morning's cull would include Sharia, alien (referring to justice), Muslim and tolerance (as opposed to zero-tolerance, another such word, though usually having welcome associations). Each hype or over-use sucks out a shade more of the word's original meaning. Hyperbole becomes almost hyperbolism, used as an art form.

While I was still mulling over these things the other day, I discovered that Jim Murdoch had weighed in with his post on swearing (Feb 7th)and with a comment to that post, mentioning how swear words were losing their power. Exactly so, they are a splendid example of what I have in mind. I do not doubt that this overuse of words, stretching their natural meaning, and this incessant "shouting" is today's greatest threat to the language, for we have all become guilty of it. Here are some I have heard recently: "I hate men with large knots in their tie!" Really? I take leave to doubt that she meant what she said. She probably meant that she doesn't like to see large knots in men's ties. Not the same thing at all. "I love bald men!" What, all of them? Trivial examples, no doubt, but those two words "hate" and "love" are constant offenders and process is sometimes easier to see in the trivial than in the cataclysmic. (So, why shouldn't I indulge myself once in a while?) One of the basic rules of hype is: never use a comparative when a superlative will do. It's no good having a better car, you must have the best. "Today" was not just warmer than yesterday, it was the warmest this month, even if it is only the 4th of the month. I haven't mentioned advertising, one of the worst offenders, but everyone will have their own examples. Here is mine: "It is more than a car: it is a culture".

Not everyone will agree with me that the examples mentioned above represent the greatest threat to our language, and it is true there are others. An interesting one I have come upon recently, though not one likely, I think, to prove fatal, comes from predictive texting. Prophets of doom have long bemoaned the "C U l8er" culture, though I see no reason to think that the youngster (it usually is) who sends that will thereby become unable to write "See you later." No, it is the predictive element that might become of interest. The predictive function on the mobile guesses at the word you are wanting to write and changes the letters in the current word whenever you type a letter that indicates to it that its latest guess is incorrect. If when you have completed the word, it is still wrong, you then make the corrections - usually by pressing the * when all the letters will rearrange themselves and form the word you want - or not, when you will have to correct it manually. I find this very tedious, and so, apparently, do some youngsters, for they are developing the habit of not correcting the final word, but leaving the mobile's guess in place. I tried writing (not sending!) a few texts using this system: my intended "Giving Pat a lift." became "High sat a Jjj". On another attempt "Barmaid" became "cabmad", "At the pics with Pat" became "At thief sigh whig sat"The incredible fact is that the kids are learning to read these messages . A new, alternative, language is developing! Handwriting and neologisms are blamed for much that is wrong or going wrong, as is one of my pet hates, the ascendancy of graphics over words. Practically every User's Manual and every set of Assembly Instructions contains either no words or a bare minimum. Instead you get symbols, arrows and drawings of unrecognizable objects. No need to read at all these days, some would say. Nevertheless, I remain convinced about the major evil.

Don't misunderstand me, I am not arguing for stasis. When you have that you have a body on your hands, yet people have tried: governments indeed have set up committees to rule on correct and incorrect use. All such are doomed to inglorious failure. The language goes its own way in response to changing circumstances and changing needs. it has always done so, and long may it continue to do so, but abuse of the language is not a changing condition or a changing need. Even so, it has seen off greater threats in the past and will no doubt do so again. In my view, one group of people charged with the responsibility of acting as guardians to the language are the poets. It is not why we write or try to write poetry, but it remains the case that while there is a body of writing being produced in which such issues are paramount, there remains hope of a full recovery. Seamus Heaney is a good example. His interest in Anglo Saxon poetry, his feeling for each word, knowledge of its roots and, through those roots, his awareness of its associations and allusions, all contribute towards making him the poet that he is and guardian supreme.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The sins of the poet are visited upon the poem

"If a man stinks, his verse is bound to smell". That graphic phrase was said to me once about the poetry of Ezra Pound. It could be thought to sum up well enough the public response to him over the past few decades. Now, though, it seems things might be set to change: one hundred and sixty two of his letters, written over a period of forty years to various Chinese intellectuals, and unearthed by fifteen years of painstaking research, are about to be published, shedding light, it is said, on this very misunderstood man and his poetry.

So where are we at the moment, before their publication? What do we know of this elusive person? What I personally know of his poetry is that before WWII he was responsible for the birth of Imagism. He was also very influential in the development of Vorticism, whose chief exponent was Wyndham Lewis, founder and editor of Blast. For a while during the war Pound lived with Yeats in a cottage in Sussex, studying Japanese,which studies led him to fall under the spell of Ernest Fenellosa, an American academic working on Chinese characters, though in Japan. Although neither of them knew Chinese at all well, and by a process which many have called mistaken, what Pound took from Fenellosa's studies was something he called the ideogrammic method, which he developed to the full in his magnum opus, The Cantos. (This is where, in another life, I came in, so far as Pound is concerned, and for a few years thought there could be no other poetic method - but that, as they say, is another story.) Based upon the pictorial nature of Chinese characters, it was in essence our old friend allusion, used down the centuries by poets everywhere. The Cantos are sprinkled everywhere with simple quotes intended to evoke the work from which they are taken. (Fine, if you are well-versed in literature - as, indeed, you need to be to read, say, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, with which Pound assisted, which he edited and which ranks as the first truly modernist poem.) Quotes in such abundance gave The Cantos a certain gravitas, but more than that, Pound was able to juxtapose the quotes the way Chinese characters juxtapose images, a technique which allowed him to express abstract concepts in concrete forms while at the same time shocking and/or puzzling readers with the interconnections and associations thereby created. Meaning became complex and contradictory by turns.

Besides his influence on Eliot, Pound also championed the work of poets and artists such as James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Jacob Epstein, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Rabindranath Tagore and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. In other words, he was a main player in the develoment of modernism.

So why has a poet whom many regard as having been more important than Eliot been sidelined in comparison with Eliot? Mainly because he made himself unpopular - to put it mildly - by his endorsement of Mussolini. He embraced him and all that he stood for in the early days, the days when what Mussolini stood for was social justice, but he failed to react when El Duce changed tack. But there was more: broadcasts made from Rome and a virulent anti-semitism. The letters show, we are told, that his views were misunderstood and that he had come to realise his mistakes.

To me the interesting question - which will not be answered by the letters - is the degree to which we allow our feelings about a poet to influence our judgment of his or her poetry. Or do we think - and it possibly is a reasonable thought - that a poet needs to be a man above other men? Is the poetry discredited by the life-style or the moral failings of its creator? Was my friend correct in thinking that some smell will stick and mar the poem? Or have the two considerations nothing at all to do with each other? If, for example, a present day, highly regarded poet, went on record as saying that 9'11 was justified, would that immediately render worthless his/her whole oeuvre?

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Self portrait for a Modern Masque

The ground breaks open when the spirit wakes.
Between the spheres of Good and Good Intent
the evil that abounds is masked. All flesh lies hollow
on the watery bed, tideway of ensoulment.
From it, cool sedative to human eyes, the floral
tributes, crematorial flames arise. Like unveiled
windows at the dead of night, the eyes stare back.
Reflected gaze. One feed-back loop too far brings death
within our ken. Our inmostness and what of earth
is visible, go hand-in-hand - or marry in
a one-night stand. The eyes no longer laugh
nor cry, nor can they see except the mask
maps out the contours, marks how day and night
break-in. break-up, break-out, like breaker-ripples
on a millpond bursting at its seams. All seem
the same to those who do not wear the mask.