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Monday, 27 April 2009

Facing it.

Publication of the three short-listed portraits for this year's BP Portrait Award set me thinking about the possible justifications for such a high profile award for a branch of art much regarded as one of its Cinderellas. On the one hand the competition is very popular with the public. On the other, that same public seems to rate portraiture much as it rates still life: charming, but little more. Many artists (apart from portrait painters, of course) seem to rate the competition as an irrelevance. The fact that all the submissions are traditional-style works with not an abstract or an even a remotely avant-garde painting to be seen, might be taken as confirmation of that stance. (In fact the competition was founded specifically to combat the wave upon wave of modern and modernistic works flooding on to the market.) Others consider the whole concept of competition to be out of place in the context of art. However, my interest just now is with portraiture itself and not with the competition - though I will just add that the exhibition is invariably of a very high standard, and this year's short list promises that it will be so again. The entries will be on show in The National Portrait Gallery from the 18th June until the 14th September.

When speaking of portraiture in this context I am ignoring the corporate side of the family, the public representation of the great and the good, the pontiff and the general, the local dignitary in his fine robes, perhaps holding the symbols of his office. I am focussing entirely on the private portrait, the one over which the artist has control and is not in hock to the sitter or his patrons.

It is often said that the human figure is the most difficult of all subjects to render in visual terms. It isn't, of course, the difference between representing Uncle Ben on canvas and, say, a fox, is that we understand in greater detail and with more certainty how a human being (Uncle Ben) is constructed than how a fox is put together, we are more aware of his proportions and contours and what is normal and what outside the norm than is the case with the fox. And even if we take, not a fox but a pet as the example, the argument still applies. No matter how much we may love our dog or our cat, the clincher is that we have never been one, our critical faculties are not engaged to the same expert level. And so we are more confident that we know what is possible or what is right and what is a mistake or a distortion. our judgements have more authority. That is why life drawing, clothed or unclothed, was traditionally the linchpin of art training. (It is not so nowadays, I understand. Art schools are dropping it from their curricula because students are refusing to attend the classes.)

The same factors are at work in the case of portraiture as in that of life drawing, but others come into play as well. As a species we are really very adept at discerning character in a human face. Some individuals, indeed, pride themselves on having such abilities to a particularly marked degree, but all of us are probably reasonably efficient. However, reproducing in paint what we claim to be able to discern - or maybe only intuit - in the flesh is another matter. Even so, the one who could not have painted the portrait, could not have hoped to catch the likeness can maybe see at a glance if the character conveyed is one that hangs together, is a possible, even a convincing portrayal. Even more exacting, and from the same - if heightened - criteria, is the self-portrait. Paul Klee wrote: Art does not represent the visible, it makes visible and to my mind there must be an element of making visible in any work of art.

We must never forget, however, that the portraitist, and especially the self-portraitist, may have a hidden agenda no less than the painter of corporate portraits. Two of the finest show this very clearly. Rembrandt painted dozens of self portraits, more probably than any other artist of his standing, and in each one he is depicted trying on a different role. Rubens painted only four, spread out through the course of his career, and in each he is the same as in the other three. Age did not weary him - or take any sort of toll, so far as his portrayals of himself were concerned. Not a bad way to reassure yourself in life, I suppose.

The images, in order, are: "Manuel" by Annalisa Avancini, "Tom" by Michael Gaskell and "Changeling" by Peter Monkman.

I have been challenged to the following meme by Lizzy Frizzfrock, so here goes...

1. My current obsession, in so far as I have one, is the poetry of W.S.Graham.

2.The item ofclothing I wear most often is probably the oldest shirt I possess.

3.What's for dinner - hopefully either a curry or red snapper.

4. I prefer to listen to either Bach (J.S.) or Benjamin Britten.

5.A word of thanks to Lizzie for thinking of me - I just hope that she will not be disappointed with the result (or the time I've taken to respond).

6.Favourite vacation spot Don't have one really, we tend to make for places we have not been before. Northern Italy of the Norwegian Fjords come closest.

7. I am reading Grey Gowrie's "Third Day : New and Selected Poems" and "Stepping Stones : Interviews of Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll".

8. Four words to describe myself: impatient, optimistic, impractical, forgiving.

9.Guilty Pleasures: Single malts.

10.First spring-cleaning thing: the computer

11. I look forward to finishing my current project, whatever it happens to be - even though I know I shall hate having finished it.

12. I guess I am now supposed to tag a chosen group of fellow bloggers, but instead I am going to demonstrate my independence of spirit and make it an open tag for anyone who would like to take it up. Please leave a note on my blog, though, if you decide to do so.

Whilst on the subject of Facing it and alluding to the post immediately before this, we had our two grandsons for their weekly meal yesterday, the conversation turned to Palestine and Gaza, the younger of the two (18) said: "Well, we caused it Grandad, after all that Hitler did to them, we did the same. It was us who put them in that mousetrap and left them with their enemies." I have never doubted our complicity, but hearing it put that starkly and that particular spin on it... I have not quite gotten over it yet. Is that the way the younger generation sees it, I wonder?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Seven Jewish Children

In the first drafting of my poem The White Crucifixion (Scroll down to the previous post) I included the bombing of Gaza as a latter day Guernica, but rather quickly removed it as it seemed to me to complicate the issues without adding very much to them. However, the play Seven Jewish Children being in the news again has caused me, if not exactly to interrupt my intended programme, at least to modify it enough to bring you the full text of this eight minute play. It was written as a quick response to the bombing, and the author, Caryl Churchill has released it for free performances and readings on condition that a collection is taken up on behalf of the people of Gaza. If you would prefer to hear a reading of it by Jennie Stoller, you can do so on The guardian website (guardian.co.uk/video). There are also video links here

Tell her it’s a game
Tell her it’s serious
But don’t frighten her
Don’t tell her they’ll kill her
Tell her it’s important to be quiet
Tell her she’ll have cake if she’s good
Tell her to curl up as if she’s in bed
But not to sing.
Tell her not to come out
Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting
Don’t frighten her
Tell her not to come out even if she hears nothing for a long time
Tell her we’ll come and find her
Tell her we’ll be here all the time.
Tell her something about the men
Tell her they’re bad in the game
Tell her it’s a story
Tell her they’ll go away
Tell her she can make them go away if she keeps still
By magic
But not to sing.
Tell her this is a photograph of her grandmother, her uncles and me
Tell her her uncles died
Don’t tell her they were killed
Tell her they were killed
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her her grandmother was clever
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her she was brave
Tell her she taught me how to make cakes
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her something
Tell her more when she’s older.
Tell her there were people who hated Jews
Don’t tell her
Tell her it’s over now
Tell her there are still people who hate Jews
Tell her there are people who love Jews
Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews
Tell her more when she’s older
Tell her how many when she’s older
Tell her it was before she was born and she’s not in danger
Don’t tell her there’s any question of danger.
Tell her we love her
Tell her dead or alive her family all love her
Tell her her grandmother would be proud of her.
Don’t tell her we’re going for ever
Tell her she can write to her friends, tell her her friends can maybe
come and visit
Tell her it’s sunny there
Tell her we’re going home
Tell her it’s the land God gave us
Don’t tell her religion
Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived there
Don’t tell her he was driven out
Tell her, of course tell her, tell her everyone was driven out and
the country is waiting for us to come home
Don’t tell her she doesn’t belong here
Tell her of course she likes it here but she’ll like it there even more.
Tell her it’s an adventure
Tell her no one will tease her
Tell her she’ll have new friends
Tell her she can take her toys
Don’t tell her she can take all her toys
Tell her she’s a special girl
Tell her about Jerusalem.
Don’t tell her who they are
Tell her something
Tell her they’re Bedouin, they travel about
Tell her about camels in the desert and dates
Tell her they live in tents
Tell her this wasn’t their home
Don’t tell her home, not home, tell her they’re going away
Don’t tell her they don’t like her
Tell her to be careful.
Don’t tell her who used to live in this house
No but don’t tell her her great great grandfather used to live in
this house
No but don’t tell her Arabs used to sleep in her bedroom.
Tell her not to be rude to them
Tell her not to be frightened
Don’t tell her she can’t play with the children
Don’t tell her she can have them in the house.
Tell her they have plenty of friends and family
Tell her for miles and miles all round they have lands of their own
Tell her again this is our promised land.
Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people
Don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I’d known.
Tell her maybe we can share.
Don’t tell her that.
Tell her we won
Tell her her brother’s a hero
Tell her how big their armies are
Tell her we turned them back
Tell her we’re fighters
Tell her we’ve got new land.
Don’t tell her
Don’t tell her the trouble about the swimming pool
Tell her it’s our water, we have the right
Tell her it’s not the water for their fields
Don’t tell her anything about water.
Don’t tell her about the bulldozer
Don’t tell her not to look at the bulldozer
Don’t tell her it was knocking the house down
Tell her it’s a building site
Don’t tell her anything about bulldozers.
Don’t tell her about the queues at the checkpoint
Tell her we’ll be there in no time
Don’t tell her anything she doesn’t ask
Don’t tell her the boy was shot
Don’t tell her anything.
Tell her we’re making new farms in the desert
Don’t tell her about the olive trees
Tell her we’re building new towns in the wilderness.
Don’t tell her they throw stones
Tell her they’re not much good against tanks
Don’t tell her that.
Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafés
Tell her, tell her they set off bombs in cafés
Tell her to be careful
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her we need the wall to keep us safe
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea
Tell her they don’t
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea.
Tell her we kill far more of them
Don’t tell her that
Tell her that
Tell her we’re stronger
Tell her we’re entitled
Tell her they don’t understand anything except violence
Tell her we want peace
Tell her we’re going swimming.
Tell her she can’t watch the news
Tell her she can watch cartoons
Tell her she can stay up late and watch Friends.
Tell her they’re attacking with rockets
Don’t frighten her
Tell her only a few of us have been killed
Tell her the army has come to our defence
Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.
Don’t tell her how many of them have been killed
Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed
Tell her they’re terrorists
Tell her they’re filth
Don’t tell her about the family of dead girls
Tell her you can’t believe what you see on television
Tell her we killed the babies by mistake
Don’t tell her anything about the army
Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army.
Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why
not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know? tell
her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got
nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell
her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them,
tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them,
tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can’t talk
suffering to us. Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog
of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I
laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals
living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out,
the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if
the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re
chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in
blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.
Don’t tell her that.
Tell her we love her.
Don’t frighten her.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The White Crucifixion

Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion

Little Jewish son of god,
but born of woman, jilted,
hijacked by the Gentiles, gently
coming home.
Around him roars the mighty mechanism, man.

God-like anisoptera
spreading wide his wings,
becomes a millpond centre
for a whirlpool world of hate.
Around him hums the mighty mechanism, man.

Small-time god and King of Jews
insisting on his right to truth,
to act the whole of what He is,
to be the undivided one.
Around him runs the mighty mechanism, man.

Disregarded Jewish god,
feels the thorns and nakedness,
wears them as a travesty -
and in the wearing, clothes again
the fickleness of faith.
Around him ticks the mighty mechanism, man.

Doubly-jilted Jewish god,
crucified, but no Good Friday,
shorn of all redemptive powers.
This is end-game, Armageddon,
Bergen-Belsen, Nagasaki,
Guernicas that yet may come.
Around him pinks the mighty mechanism, man.

Little upstart son of god,
conceived in sin as graven image,
who will answer to the Father?
Who will argue with the Torah?
Synagogues and scriptures burn
while he waits on Heaven or
whatever god will answer him
(whose arms were always spread this wide -
in welcome or in impotence?)
Around him stalls the mighty mechanism, man.

Little guilty Jewish god,
guilty of an ancient wisdom
and a spirit vastly mobile -
unacceptable to some.
Light from Heaven and the Torah,
colder than the bleakest ice age,
brings no credence or credentials
to the still-cold shouldered one.
Unlawful son of God the Father,
son that never could have been,
around him deeper mythic sources
sing Hosannas, change the scene.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

As many of you will realise, I do not often get into the business of book reviews, but I am making an exception. I am currently reading "Stepping Stones" by Dennis O'Driscoll, a series of 16 interviews with Seamus Heaney. The enjoyment level has been such that I just cannot wait any longer before sharing some of the pleasure and hoping that there will be those among you who will beg, borrow or steal a copy for themselves.

If you enjoy biography or autobiography to any degree, if you like hearing poets talk in confidential tones about their work, if you are interested to hear them talk about the work of other poets, if you enjoy a searching interview for its own sake, if any of these appeal to you, then Stepping Stones is a book for you. Dennis O'Driscoll is the perfect interlocutor for this venture. He is, of course, a fine poet in his own right. He proves a worthy interviewer, knowing his subject inside out and back to front, as they say, and knowing how to listen and pick up the threads of an answer for the next question. The two are easy with each other and the text is a dream.

The book has sixteen chapters representing sixteen interviews. It begins, as you might expect, with Heaney's early life and continues to and beyond the serious stroke suffered in 2006. The final chapter also picks up on matters discussed earlier, such as the status and importance of Yeats and Heaney's Catholicism, O'Driscoll's last question being:- And finally, from Keeping Going, 'Is this all? As it was / in the beginning, is now and shall be?' to which Heaney replies: ....'Fundamentally, they're saying what William Wordsworth said long ago: that it is on this earth "we find our happiness, or not at all". Which is one reason for keeping going.'

But now back to the beginning of the book. The first interview has the title 'From Home to School' and is a fascinating piece of social history containing all manner of details pertaining to the home and way of life of the Heaney family at that time. Heaney relates it in what I can only describe as golden prose. I would not have minded too much had the whole book been like this and poetry had got no mention - though needless to say, that would have been a desperate loss as it later proves. We also hear of the tragic death of Heaney's brother in a road accident almost outside the house, a continuing trauma for the family in that they were constantly reminded of it, and one that eventually forced a move away. The incident is well known from Heaney's poem Half Term Break.

In Chapter 2 we find Heaney "Growing into poetry" and hear that he was not particularly responsive to poetry as a boy. We are taken forward into his life as an undergraduate at Queens University and learn of his forcing himself to become a smoker 'against all that the body was telling him'.

These first two chapters comprise Part 1 of the book. Part 2 begins with Heaney's Collection Death of a Naturalist, and from this point on we are largely in book rather than biographic territory, though by no means completely so. Discussions will range over topics like the effect that his writing and its growing success had on him personally, on his wife and on their marriage. Nevertheless, the focus is now increasingly on particular works. At various times it becomes helpful to know the works referred to, at least in passing, in order to derive greatest benefit from the discussions. Looking up any that might not be familiar, would pay great dividends. Perhaps I should give a couple of examples:

From Chapter 5: Did you intend the title of Wintering Out to suggest the wintering out of cattle as well as 'the winter of our discontent'? Does it hint at Despair or is there a spring not far behind?

'No spring was being promised, but I still didn't think of the title as despairing. It came, as you recognize, from memories of cattle in winter fields. Beasts standing under a hedge, plastered in wet, looking at you with big, patient eyes, just taking what came until something else came along. Times were bleak, the political climate was deteriorating. The year the book was published was the year of Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday.'

Then from Chapter 6: does it surprise you that, rather than responding to the new life unfolding around you, you ventured so deeply into mythic terrain in "North"?

'A line was crossed with The Tollund Man. The minute I wrote "Some day I will go to Aarus" I was in a new field of force. It had to do with the aura surrounding that head - even in a photograph. It was uncanny, in the full technical sense. Opening P.V. Glob's book "The Bog People" was like opening a gate, the same as when I wrote Bogland.'

O'Driscoll then asks: When you published "Nerthus" and "The Tollund Man" in "Wintering Out", you knew you weren't finished with Glob's book?

'There was a hiatus. I was treading earth, if you like. The archaeological drift I had got into - via poems like "The Tollund Man" and "Toome" - didn't just stop when I handed in the manuscript of "Wintering Out".
.... and there is much more of it.

Earlier in the book we read this:
How did you regard the pop poetry of the sixties? The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan - did you find any sort of poetry there?

'Not really. It was more like background music or fairground music - I enjoyed the sound of it going on around me, but didn't regard it a having anything to do with the word-work. Poems that engaged me had a different kind of fetch and conviction about them; I underwent a strangeness when I wrote or read a good one. Whatever the Beats and the Liverpool Poets were doing, it didn't put me through the eye of my own needle the way "The Bull Moses" or "The Windhover" did......' and gain there is more, but you need to read it for yourself from the pages of "Stepping Stones".

Thursday, 16 April 2009


Tinnitus: hiss
of the viper, viperish
hiss, kiss of death,
death of silence, its bliss.

Shhhh, sound for no sound,
for hush, word for silence,
word meant to brush
sound under the carpet,
escaping and breaking
in wave upon wave, crashing
through the sound barrier.

We call it white noise
that is muddy, distorted,
then booms its confusion
embracing all sound
(as white is all colours)
from sizzle to whistle,
from gong to bird song.

Heard or unheard, it's
the sound of the gas
creeping into the chamber,
din from within
the heart of creation.

Sea-heart and surf-roar,
wave-break and shell-speak,
babble of voices rise to
crescendo, siren
and word-like, though wordless
and barren 'til peak swell,
the stopper, kills all
but the viper,
kills all but its hiss,
death to silence, its bliss.

Tommaso Gervasutti has posted a poem which he thinks (and I agree) has affinities with that of my previous post, The Shivering. You might like to check it out.

Monday, 13 April 2009

The Shivering


The past is an old house
of groaning timbers,
full of bumps and whispers
that disturb our sleep.

The darkness shivers
like a wet dog
tossing constellations
from a firmament of fur.

Dawn's light unwraps
the sycamore, pulls back
the shadows, tissue-thin,
beginning at

the top-most leaf, continuing
down to the bole
of hearts and arrows
carved in innocence.

An image of God's bounty:
the tree in leaded panes,
reflected, faceted,
fragmented, whole

as images we keep
of winter chimney smoke,
the raw material
for ghosts we make

more easily than daisy
chains on warmer days.
(Our spirit beasts
roam everywhere.)

At dusk the tree
rolls out its shadow,
stretches it
down Longman Hill,

then loses it
in tints and textures
of a woodland canopy,
like water finding sand.


The deep past is a ruined house.
Bones lie beneath,
for which we scratch and paw
to flesh our images.

Beyond recovery,
the buried sycamore
can throw no darkness,
but must keep it hidden,

must clasp it to itself,
become the darkness
that we penetrate
at our great peril.

The smoke has gone; the ghosts
have taken a more solid state;
the sycamore bestows
obscurity. The ruins

whisper; groans and bumps
become the sucks and squelches
of the bog, the squeamishness
and shivering of faith.

Here's hoping you all had a good Easter. I did, which is why I am a couple of days behind with my visiting and now have to begin the task of catching up.

Friday, 10 April 2009

And so to Easter...

This post has become in part a continuation of my previous one on Myth. That was not how it started out. I had intended to present merely those Easter images that over the years, and at different times, have moved and influenced me to the greatest degree. I was resolved to simply post them and let them speak for themselves. That is not what happened. First, a bit of personal history.

The first image I can recall seeing that - in my mind - had anything to do with the Easter story was Holman Hunt's The Light of the World. "But," I hear you object, "it has nothing to do with the Easter story." And neither does it, which is why I inserted the phrase in my mind. I have no idea how it came to be so associated, but it did.

Moving on, and some few years later, on a visit - I think my first - to The Tate Gallery, I bought a poster-sized print of Salvador Dali's Crucifixion - the one depicting Him and His cross floating, rising, rocketing, soaring - I was never quite sure of the most appropriate verb - above a sleeping world. I saw this as a statement that Christ was the active participant in his passion, that he was, if not triumphant, then at the very least, the hero of the action. It was also smack, bang in the middle of my surrealism phase, so that may have had something to do with it.

Just recently I have been moved by his other crucifixion, the one featuring the blocks which seem to have offended many traditionalists. I can quite see how that might be so. I have to admit to having been shocked myself when I first saw the image, but now it just seems full of power and - I would even say - majesty.

Between those two, though, three others were to hold sway in my imagination: the Stanley Spencer, the Mathis Grunewald and the Graham Sutherland. These, however, did not fall into line and form a neat progression somehow reflecting my progress from A to B. They skirted around each other, permanent rivals vying for my favour.

It was at this point as I thought about what to post that it occurred to me that Easter is a perfect example of one of the most common myths in the history of man's thought and faith. Indeed, it seems to be universal. The myth of descent and ascent, the going down and the rising again. William Blake thought that all gods were creations of the human poetic genius and pointed out that they have had a political function in the control of the populace, but more importantly - certainly for us now - they have a poetic function. We usually speak of it as being to explore our humanity, but he pointed out that beyond that it actually creates the humanising aspects of the self.

So the Easter story is but Christianity's take on the myth of descent and rising again, the myth that occurs also, for example, in the narratives of Orpheus and his descent into the underworld. St Paul, telling the gospel story, shows no interest in the domestic life of Jesus. There is no biography to speak of. He plunges straight in with a powerful poem of Christ emptying himself and taking the lowest form of humanity, then soaring heavenwards to take the most exalted place of all. This is a myth that has been taken and adapted by the modern day psychiatrist. The patient is taken down into the murkiest depths of his or her unconscious in order to rise again and be made whole.

Traditionalists - and especially traditional Christians - will - complain that I have told only half the story, that I have focussed on the death at the expense of the resurrection, whereas it is the latter that is at the heart of the Easter story/Easter myth. And they would be correct to make that protest.

The fact is that I can think of no work of art depicting the resurrection that has moved me in the way that these images of the crucifixion have moved me. This morning (Wednesday) The Times stole my thunder with a four page insert on Easter art, one heading in which read: Artists Still Overshadowed by the Cross, however it turned out that it did not mean what I at first took it to mean. Even so, they were able to come up with only two versions of the resurrection: Fra Angelico's and that by Piero della Francesca. Furthermore, in their list of the top ten works was only the Francesca. They were also the only two to occur to me. The Francesca I greatly admire, but beyond that it leaves me cold. Even after reading the Times's worthy text on the significance of its various aspects, it fails to move me as these others have moved me. The Angelico I do appreciate, it does resonate with me, but still it has never had the deep emotional - and lasting - effect on me that my other selections have had.

I do find it incredible though, this imbalance between great deaths an d great resurrections, if I can put it that way. You could argue that the artists of the past were doing the bidding of those who commissioned them, and were not free agents in this. But that makes it more unlikely, not less, since the commissioning agent was usually the church, for whom the resurrection is at the very heart of all faith - and not just Easter.

And what of this fugitive from my past? Can anyone come up with a role for The Light of the World in the Easter story? I'll make it an Easter challenge!

And to each one of you out there in blogland, may you have exactly the Easter you would choose for yourself.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Myth and Me.

Myths are all around us. There are those who think it is not so, that myths belong to a previous age, an ancient, pre-scientific time. But in fact, we encounter them everywhere: ancient myths and modern myths, myths of religion and myths which spring from science itself and from scientific enquiry, myths from business and from politics. Tales to give racial or social significance and cohesion. And there are family and private myths - stories that do the same on a domestic or personal scale. Narratives to maintain the individual psyche. Some may become loose canons and end up fragmenting what they should bind: the myths of racial purity and racial supremacy, for example, which devastated large areas of the world during the previous century.

When I was growing up there were those in the extended family who would tell me of the myth of infinite human progress and perfectibility. That particular myth was already dead, of course: killed by the first World War and buried by The Second, as an uncle of mine would have it, but they still believed it, they had been brought up with it. I found it a seductive myth, even if I never did quite take it in. There were others : the myth of Papal Infallibility was one. I never did get my head around that. Like unto it was the myth of the infallibility of British Justice. Some, I think, thought me almost a traitor because I would not swallow that one - and strangely, I have no idea what prevented me: I had no obvious reason, no evidence at that time not to believe. Years later, of course, when the great backlog of miscarriages of justice began to trail through our High Courts, I felt some vindication. The Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, The Birmingham Six and many, many others. So not all myths are good. Some have served their purpose and now work against it. We have to be careful which myths we assimilate.

It is through myth, I believe, that poetry and religion shake hands. Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry had supplanted religion, but I see it more as a handing on of a baton - perhaps only temporarily. We have to remember, though, that religion is not myth, even if myth is religion. Myths are not stories which are not true. neither are they true stories, they are truths told in stories. They are not fables about non-existent entities, but revelations concerning realities.

We live in a world that we do not fully understand. There are powers at work that are beyond us. This is so even for the scientists at the cutting edge of discovery, perhaps especially so for them. But we - and they - must try to understand. Furthermore, this world that we do not understand is changing in ways that we do not understand, and so we are striving - before it is too late - to create the myth that will look back to remind itself of our origins, even as it looks forward and attempts to tune our hearts (some might prefer to say souls) to that which we are becoming.

To me poetry and myth seem inseparable. Poetry at its best shares the mythic quality that lies at the heart of religion. A narrative becomes mythic when it has a discernable truth running through it like a vein of gold through a landscape. Poetry and religion are the two alternatives, the two main tools at our disposal to mine that vein. What poetry brings to the task is its focus on the vein, its refusal to be led astray by the extraneous, more prosaic facts of the narrative. Poetic truth is mythic truth, and myth, as I have stressed, is religion. Margaret Whyte has said of myths; without them, we were born yesterday. They are indeed, our history, but that is not to imply that they carry historical truth. They express our root,. they picture us as we were and in that picture we see ourselves for what we are.

And the great dynamo driving all these myths is death. People the world over are coming to terms as best they may with what for the individual must be life's biggest fact of all. They have always done so, of course, but in modern times there has been an increasing tendency to find the official myths wanting, and these being Do-It-Yourself times, for the individual to attempt to find a bespoke narrative. To some extent the days of the one-style-suits-all have passed. Possibly people in past times did the same, but were more reticent about it, not wanting to break ranks - or be excommunicated or burnt as a heretic. I have reached the age at which it begins to seem more and more urgent to thrash out an exit strategy. I can recall the moment when the fact of death first became a reality for me. It was war time, so I had heard a lot about death and people being killed, but it was all very remote, like a film that didn't hold my interest. For me and for my friends war was fun. We went out mornings after air raids looking for shrapnel, even bits off aircraft if we were lucky. I was at Junior school, so would have been between 7 and 11, probably somewhere around 8-9. I was walking home from school with my friend - he who was the subject of my poem Pistol-Whipped - when we came upon a dead fox and a dead rat. We said it was a rat, but upon reflection it could have been a large mouse or other rodent. They had both been skinned, the fox, I think expertly, the rodent perhaps not so well. It was a traumatic moment, but the trauma passed very quickly. My friend pointed out how like a map the fox's body was with its veins and arteries and its bumps and blemishes - plus a few scratches which we immediately decided were claw marks. The devil's! - and soon we were concocting stories as to how the two animals had met their deaths and how they had come to end up skinned. I do remember that soon after this there were dreams and fantasies about death, which over the years, as other deaths (and the mythic teachings of Christianity) were assimilated, began to assume the shape of a private myth. At some point in the last 20 - 30 years poetry took over the organising-integrating role from religion. Impossible to say exactly when or how this happened, but soon after that I began to read Wallace Stevens and to discover that he had trodden a similar path. Not the same path exactly, for I did not feel, as he did, that poetry had to fill the gap left by an empty Heaven. It was simply that it worked more efficiently for me.

Beware Blogger, I'm a thief!

Little anecdote I thought might be worth a mention:
I have just recently invested in a laptop, and yesterday afternoon spent an interesting couple of hours establishing a wireless connection to my existing modem. At a certain point I decided to test the connection by putting in the address of this blog. After a few minutes dithering (one might suppose) I was presented with a message from the laptop's pre-installed anti-virus software apologising for the fact that they had decided not to open the requested page as it would seem that the sole purpose of picsandpoems.blogspot.com is to steal traffic from some outfit calling itself blogger.com.

Friday, 3 April 2009

revisiting, visiting, visitor...

First the final (?) version of my March 13th post Title Anyone in answer to which I received an abundance of riches in the form of suggestions for a title and also editorial advice, all of which I have considered. In some cases I have taken the advice as given. More often it has led to a process of thought which has resulted in changes, possibly which the person who gave the advice might not recognise. But still, without the suggestions I would not have arrived at this version. I will not deail them, but my thanks to all - plus my apology for sticking with the title that I originally had in mind.

Tunnels of the Mind

Still there, the hidden door
beneath the tree stump's
ivy skirt. Enough to roughly shake
the child awake to free the man -
an old, discarded corner
of my inner landscape lighting up.
A sat nav for my visiting.

Perfect concordance: intersections,
tunnels of the mind, an ancient roof-fall,
stones - all harking back
to peopling my secret land
with supermen and supreme
heroes, warriors with special powers
to save the world.

Still there, still hidden
from the adult world, extant
in reverie. Repackaged, dark.
Sleep slips the willing tourist in
who once was architect. Rewriting
memory, it is a palimpsest
of limpid sheets rewriting me.

The population change
unnerved me for a while.
Is it because I'm old
the soldiers all have gone,
left children here to waft the smoke
from air-polluting torches?
I leave it now to them to save the world.

and here I give the original, untitled, version for comparison:

Perfect concordance:
tunnels recalled from childhood, tunnels
extant beneath the garden. Visited
of late in star-bright darkness,
most recently last night,
then twice the week before,
and four more nights that month.

Still there, the hidden door
beneath the tree stump's
ivy skirt. Enough to roughly shake
the child awake to free the man -
an old, discarded corner
of my inner landscape, lighting up.
A sat nav for my visiting.

Steered by it unerringly,
each crossing known,
each excavation harking back
to when I'd peopled them
with supermen and supreme
heroes, warriors with special powers
to save the world.

The population change
unnerved me for a while.
Is it because I'm old
the soldiers have moved on,
left children to waft smoke
from air-polluting torches?
I leave it now to them to save the world.


Jeff showing us around
the school where he taught science.
Playtime and he's taking us
to see his Science Club.
Boys, everywhere we go,
are mobbing him:
excited cries of Sir! Sir! Hi ya sir!
Then crashing through a classroom door:
Ned. Come and see, sir! Come and see!
We go.
Beside a glass vivarium, two crane flies
copulating. How....
absolutely natural!
croons Jeff...
Two daddy longlegs - Ned's
face decomposes: What? A daddy
and a mummy longlegs, no?
he asks.
No, both are known as daddy - but
Jeff gets no futher. Wow!
That does it then!
stamps with venom on them both.
Aint 'aving none of that
round 'ere!
he cries.

Dawn. The pigeon comes
and scatters bread across the lawn.
At dusk he's here to peck it clean.

P.S. and P.P.S. to my last post. Some of you, I know, will be interested to learn that John Cage's 4'33" (1st movement only) is now being offered (in America) as a free download.

In today's Independent an interesting article on the newly refurbished Whitechapel Gallery. Can be read here. Unfortunately, the rather impressive images do not seem to be available on line.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Blockbuster & Bugger All

This post has absolutely nothing to do with April Fool's Day beyond the fact that the first item is a very suitable one for April 1st. Actually, it would have been even more apt had I left until the end the fact that the exhibition which forms its subject closed ten days ago!

The exhibition in question is the one shown in my first image. there are (or were!) five rooms. The next five images cover the whole scope of the exhibition, depict all the exhibits... at least, I think they do, for some reports have said there were five rooms, but others have put the figure at nine. It's all most confusing. It could well be that there should be another four images like the five I have included. Speaking of which... you are not mistaken and there is no malfunction. The photographs are empty. The exhibition was called Void. It was staged at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and was a retrospective.

"Whose retrospective?" I hear you ask. Wrong question. The exhibition catalogued the fifty year history of the art of absence, of nothingness, of the minimal carried to the extreme, to the point where it ceases to exist. Did I say catalogued? Ah, well, that reminds me: there was a very expensive, glossy catalogue produced to go with the exhibition. More than most people would be willing to pay for most catalogues, I guess, so it must have been something special! You've guessed it... blankness abounds!

Top of the bill was Klein. You probably remember him. He staged the first ever Void show, snappily entitled The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility, the Void. That was in 1958. Three thousand people queued round the block (guess that's why they called it a blockbuster) to pass through a blue curtain into an empty room.

However, visitors this time were considered more deeply. They did not have only the empty whiteness of the rooms to meditate upon, they were also treated to silent music as they made their way between the absent exhibits.

My apologies for delaying the posting of this piece (peace?) until after the closure, but you have no need to worry, it is going on tour and will be coming to a gallery near you!

My other piece of news is that on this coming Sunday The Whitechapel Gallery in East London is to reopen after a two-year closure, during which it has been extended in to what was a library next door and extensively refurbished. To mark the occasion it will launch four exhibitions. My post concerns one of those.

The Whitechapel has a proud history of staging what have come to be seen as iconic exhibitions. Notably, it is still the only British gallery ever to have brought us Picasso's Guernica. Some would say it is about to cap that by exhibiting Picasso's tapestry of the same subject. The tapestry normally hangs in the U.N. building in New York. It was commissioned for the U.N. by Nelson Rockefeller. It is the same size as the painting, but many who have seen both, believe it to be more impressive, being less colourful and therefore more starkly dramatic. Others who know both the painting in Madrid and the setting for the tapestry in the new Whitechapel, say that the latter offers the great advantage over the former of being able to approach the work directly from the front and to being able to approach it closely or to move away from it.