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Monday, 27 July 2009
The Weaver of Grass has issued a challenge for this week to anyone interested - a meme: a post on those people who have been the greatest sources of inspiration. As most of you will know, my main interests are painting (and the visual arts in general) and poetry. The question therefore resolves itself into: who, in these two areas particularly, has most inspired me.
I think it might help if I said straight away that I have never been inspired to paint a particular picture by another painter. Similarly, no poet has ever provided the inspiration for a particular poem. I have occasionally been inspired by a painting to write a poem - and less often by a poem to paint a picture, but apart from a couple of exceptions (the second of which I will get to later) that has been the whole extent of it.
The first exception has to do with child art. At various times during my teaching career I was inspired by a young child's painting to put brush to canvas, nearly always with predictably frustrating results. Never did I get within a million miles of what the child's painting had inspired me to attempt. Whoever first discovers what it is that the child artist loses as s/he matures and then first discovers how it may be preserved will be responsible for enriching the world immeasurably.
Of course, poets and painters whom I admire have helped me along the way, though I do not think I would go as far as to call it influence, let alone inspiration. I will give you an example and you can judge for yourself. One of my heroes from the world of poetry is Seamus Heaney. Some years ago I was inspired to write some poems about my father who had just died. He had been a golf club-maker by profession, beginning in the days when they were made by hand. He could take a block of wood and shave it away to be left with, not just a club head, but a particular club head for a particular professional, capable of lifting the ball into a desired angle of flight. Later, when machines took over, he made the prototype for the machines to copy. He was also much in demand among professional golfers whenever they would require repairs or modifications to be made.
During the drafting of the poems I recalled some of Seamus Heaney's early poems. Digging was one. In it he spoke of his father's use of the spade as if it had been the tool of a craftsman, which of course it had been. He contrasts this with his own determination to be, not a farmer, but a writer. It ends:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Another such poem was Follower. in it he compared the way as a child he had followed his father at his ploughing, admiring his skill with the horses and his eye for a straight furrow. The poem went on to compare that with his own awkwardness (I stumbled in his hobnailed wake an d how later, in his father's old age, it is he, the father, who keeps stumbling / behind me, and will not go away. There were other works by Heaney that sprang to mind: poems conveying the characters of various craftsmen and the flavours of their crafts or describing their skills. I did not consciously use these, but, as I say, I remembered them and they helped. Certainly I would not claim to have been inspired by any of them. The inspiration came from my father.
Taking another slant, there are a few poems I would dearly loved to have written. (That might make an interesting meme: which works do you wish you had written - or painted or composed or whatever.) The one above all that I would dearly love to claim for myself is Hugh MacDiarmid's fabulous long meditation, On a Raised Beach. Never could it be said though that it had inspired me - or ever would. Quite the reverse, in fact. Let me put it this way: if I had lain on that inland beach as MacDiarmid did and had I been inspired as he was to write a meditative poem about it, my knowledge of his poem would have killed stone dead (pun not intended) any inspiration that the experience might have produced. His poem is so out beyond and far above anything I might contemplate attempting that the thought of doing so would never occur.
And now to my second exception (the one I said I would come to):- As a lad of eleven or twelve or thereabouts i had a passionate interest in cycling. Touring to begin with, the cycle speedway: stripped-down bike, saddle low over the rear wheel, handlebars up-turned like backward-facing horns, one foot on the cinder track, slewing round makeshift tracks on bomb sites and the like. Then came time-trialling, and finally the beginnings (in this country) of what we then called massed-start racing, mainly on disused airfields and private estates. Somewhen about that time I discovered Masefield, I can't remember how or where, maybe at school, maybe not. Specifically, I discovered Reynard the Fox, a long, rather Chaucerian (as I remember it) poem about a fox hunt, told from the point of view of the fox. I think I can truthfully say that it inspired me to write ... but what I wrote, Oh dear, it was a dreadful parody purporting to tell the story of a massed-start cycle race. The really dreadful thing about it is that I can still remember whole sections of it. It was that bad, it was unforgettable. Worse yet, it was published. Only in the club magazine, nothing national, but for that to have been my first published work...
Here, in an act bordering on total abasement, are the opening lines:-
Don Boyd had broken from the pack
of milling wheelers all intent
on doing their best to bring him back,
now spurred by his clubmates' frantic cries
he thrust with his aching, unwilling thighs...
See what I mean! Not wishing to turn embarrassment into humiliation, I will leave it there. Inspiration means different things to different people. To me it simply means having been given a workable idea. I think I was given a workable idea, even though I didn't get the idea to work. Can you be inspired to write a dud? I think you can. I think I was.
But there is a higher form of inspiration, I would suggest: there is the artist or the work of art that inspires you, not to produce a particular painting, poem, piece of music, whatever, but to go that road, to take up that art-form and to follow where it leads. Unbelievably, perhaps, the poem that did that for me was Plato's Dialogue The Republic which I had, also around the age of eleven or twelve in E. V. Rieu's translation (Penguin edition). I was totally thrilled by it and I attribute my passion for poetry to... well, I don't know, should it be Plato or Rieu?
Meanwhile I was incubating a passion for art, without really being aware of it. A good deal of bad health meant that I was often confined to bed for longish spells. Drawing was a life-line. But then I went - probably was taken, but if so I can't remember by whom - to the Tate Gallery. There I was introduced to William Blake (his Beatrice is shown above), Samuel Palmer (the first image below is of his In a Shoreham Garden), Graham Sutherland (a typical image is shown below right), Henry Moore (his war drawings of people sheltering on the London Underground - penultimate image) and John Piper (final image). I suppose the big three were Palmer, Sutherland and Piper. They have never lost their magic. They took me to art school and on to college, confirming me in my desire to teach art - which I never did, but that's another story.