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Friday 23 February 2007

The Man from the Night

"What kind of thought,"
I asked the man who came from the night,
"prepares a man for death?"
His hands were manacled
and from his collar hung a leash.

"The empty gurgles of the last
blood through the veins,
an ice-edged gasp, the lung's
last fling, a wordless trick
such as a domme might turn

"or pull, a page thrown to the wind,
a video of sea and sky, a childhood
dolphin ride (yet still the sense
of being tied) these narratives
are preparation of a sort," he said,

"but are sensation-driven. Logic
brought no man into this world,
or eased his passage here or later,
and will bring no comfort to him then.
We seek a thought sublime,

"subliminal, though incompletely beautiful,
as is the sea. One source there is:
one comforter, one hand upon my leash,
one Queen of Night and Bitch of the park bench,
one Mistress of the deep within." "And with

"that thought you are prepared to die?" I asked.
"It breaks upon me like a wave,"
he said, "a fist through glass,
a scarred back, shards of song,
thoughts fashioned dolphin-wise;

"or child-like images arise
with feelings such as floaters in the eye
or dark clouds on a summer's day
may bring - rogue instincts
out of sinc with mine.

"The sea swell lifts
and carries me, its kindly reach
takes hold upon the leash, the beach
receives me like a bird
(no vermin in its plumes),

"assures me I am rock
on which the world will shatter -
and rock, the chosen rock,
the sea will grind to sand...
So no, not die with thoughts of her,

"but rather knowing how a change
in us wrings echoes from the sea,
how portals open, myths are born -
vignettes perhaps - among which
my last swim with dolphins,

"seaward to their graves. The leash
lies limply on the waves,
but she does still what she does best:
she keeps my frothy, whipped emotions
strictly locked away."

Thursday 15 February 2007

Every Picture Tells a Story

One of the more enjoyable aspects of growing old is the "I remember that!" moment. Occasionally, though, it brings with it a downside, a sense of unbelief, sometimes even guilt, that you could ever have forgotten... I have enjoyed two such moments recently, one of which did indeed bring in its train a tinge of guilt. It was occasioned by reading the obituary (a less enjoyable aspect of growing old: figures from your past become history) of the painter Martin Bloch. I guess I would have to admit that as major artists go, he was probably a minor one, but his work was no less enjoyable, "important" even, for that. If he was major it was as a lyrical colourist. There have been few better than him, I think. His canvases were, to my mind, all a painting should be: a lucid expression of an original take upon the world. He should not be forgotten, which makes me sad that I did indeed forget him - though I have been in good company all these years. Perjaps I will post more on him in the future, in the meantimea few images of his work (on display at The Sainsbury Centre, Norwich) can be seen at http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ArtistWorks?cgroupid=999999961&artistid=769&page=1

This subject for this post was brought to mind by the current fashion for all things Chinese. The Times has been running a "Brainteaser" feature in which readers are invited to use their intuition to match words with Chinese picturegrams. It reminded me of the excitement I once felt upon encountering Ezra Pound's theories of poetics. As I subsequently discovered, the inspiration for them came from a total misunderstanding of the nature of Chinese characters, but that did nothing to dampen down my enthusiasm, either for Pound's theories or his poems.

I came to his work via the now famous poem "In a Station at the Metro" in which commuters emerging from the Paris subway take on the aspect of wet petals.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It is now, to use an overworked word, iconic, but back then the compression, the rejection of conjunctions, the unorthodox spacing, were all new to me. Everything, in fact, was there in embyo, just waiting for its coming of age and its call-up for The Cantos.
So what was this "misunderstanding" that led to something that would prove ground-breaking?

When Fenellosa died, his widow asked Pound to edit her late husband's notebook. Pound found there a series of classical Chinese poems with Fenellosa's notes in English written beneath them. (Intriguingly, they were spaced rather as Pound would later space the lines of his poems, as he spaced those in the poem given above.) Fenellosa had fallen prey to the basic misunderstanding that Pound would inherit and accept completely: the belief that all Chinese characters were ideograms, compressed visual metaphors that had developed over long years of increasing abstraction. That being so, Fenellosa had reasoned, they could be directly transcribed into English, without reference to their original language. Pound accepted this, too, as gospel, and saw this "sign language" as a model for a new kind of poetry in which he would juxtapose, not just visual images, but almost anything else: narratives, prose on occasion, facts of all sorts, his theories of finance and usury. It led to the Imagist movement and to The Cantos.

So what do I recall of that far off time? (I am speaking once more of my art school days - see my "It's How He Sees It" post.)
I recall that we (some of us) actually read the cantos - though not in their entirety, I think!
We embraced his imagist theories, and thought that all poetry should be "Imagist", though what we meant by that varied.
We knew that Pound had edited Eliot's Waste Land, had given it its form and that it had been dedicated to him - and we applauded that and thought The Waste Land, like Cathay and Tha Cantos, were a breath of fresh air in what was a very stuffy environment, but we tended to read Pound, not Eliot.
And I recall that we (most of us) felt that The Cantos didn't quite work, but that it didn't matter, for their importance transcended their quality - which I think was correct.
Even knowing that Pound was a tireless promoter of Eliots cause, didn't persuade us to read Eliot - so far as I can recall - from what was over fifty years back!
I have scoured the Internet for a glimpse of Pound's exposition of his imagist theories, but have found nothing. Some bits about him, but none by him. If any kind person reading this should know something I don't know, I would be very grateful to be enlightened.

Thursday 8 February 2007

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon - and mine.

A Wikipedia Image

Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" is one hundred years old this year.

Some facts:

The painting measures 8 feet by 8 feet.
Picasso worked on it for over a year.
He produced over 400 sketches for it.
The composition originally included two men, a sailor and a medical student.
The "Avignon" in the title is not the town, but a street in Barcelona's red light district.

So, these young ladies are prostitutes, and from them, many would maintain, sprang the whole of what we now call modern art. They caused shock and horror on their debut and still are often greeted with incomprehension. I, like most, have had my difficulties with them, not least of which, the question of why each was conceived and rendered in differently. For example, to the figure on the extreme left paint has been applied more thickly than is the case with the others. Her head is more classical in conception than are theirs. In the center are two figures influenced - or taken directly - from Iberian sculptures. One wears a mask taken from African art, while the two central, standing figures have been graced with a few curves which have been denied to the others, for whom sharp, splintery, geometric forms are the order of the day. They all seem to be in no sort of relationship with each other, like five figures imported from five other paintings, and all stare out of the picture frame as if at the viewer. They share a common colour scheme. These three facts are about all they have in common.
This multiplicity of styles within one painting was, and is, a stumbling block for many critics. What was Picasso driving at? It is of no help to point to what others have found in the work, or to emphasise the influence it has had on Modernism. (See January's post "It's how he Sees It".)
Neither of the two standard responses seem to me to be wholly convincing. The first of these says that during the time Picasso took to complete the work he, being the artist he was, took up and then discarded several styles, and that our five chicks who were all laid (shall I say) at different times, were depicted accordingly. Like Salisbury Cathedral, I guess, thoughoils, unlike architecture, allows the artist to go back over earlier work in the light of new insights. The other response is to say that he was trying to make us look, to make us see. The extended effort that he put into the painting is clear evidence, I think, that he didn't see this as one more painting, but as something special. Ground-breaking, even. It has been said that if Picasso had died before 1907 he would have been an interesting minor painter. After this he was a colossus.
My own view is that this is Picasso pushing at the boundaries. Having five young women to work on, gave him the opportunity to push against five different boundaries. It is him saying (discovering) "So, if I push Cezanne to the ultimate, this is where I get to, whereas African Art pushed as far as it will go, will land me here," or "This is journey's end so far as Iberian sculptiure is concerned," and so on. It is the new Martin Luther nailing his theses to the cathedral door: "Copying is out. Copying is not reality." No longer is it the case that you look at something and then try to reproduce it, you look - or not, as the case may be - and think about purposefully changing it. He is rethinking the grammar, the syntax of painting, and he is discovering, for himsel but also for those who would follow, potential ways to paint - in this case, women. It is, if you like, his sampler. And the reason it took so long and so many studies is because he had to figure out how to blend five differing styles into one cohesive painting.

I have taken the liberty of adding for good measure my own depiction of Les Demoiselles, shown in happier days, relaxing on an away day to the beach. I did attempt to portray each of the young ladies in a completely different style. (It was actually quite tricky, and I did not persist.) Oh, and I have reinstated one of the young men - the medical student, as it happens. The sailor proved to be a bit of a misfit, and Picasso was quite right to leave him out.

Monday 5 February 2007

It May Not Say What It Says

After posting "It's How He Sees It" last month, I was surprised and delighted to receive an email sent by a friend from college days. The email - and another which followed soon after - developed an aspect of literary theory that I had touched on: the possibility that a work might possess content, even contradictory content, which the author did not knowingly include and of which he had no conscious knowledge. I was grateful to him referring me to an essay by Pierre Macherey, "The Text Says What It Does Not Say", which I have now read in lengthy extracts - and may even invest in the full text at some future point. For anyone who is interested in the subject (deconstruction of texts) I can recommend as an introduction a Literary Studies piece intended for Third Year Undergraduates. You will find it at
http://www2.plymouth.ac.uk/gateway_to_study/essaywriting/litera-2.htm (or click on the title of this post).
Thinking on these things - and the idea, outlined in the Lit Studies piece, that the "meaning" of a literary work resides in its incompleteness, its "gaps and silences" - I was reminded of the question attributed to Basho, the seventeenth century master of the Haiku: "Is there any good in saying everything?" An illustration I have seen given with the quotation, comes from the modern art of photography: "The poet makes the exposure, leaving the reader to develop it." I leave you to develop that thought, but as I do so I also leave you with (for what it may be worth!) my own light-hearted contribution to the debate.

The Poet

Quietly in his living room,
he'd write his poems
like a dead man
filling in the details
of dead people on a form.

And yet the poems laughed and sang;
his words would play the fool,
wear tatty jeans and swap their clothes
like children out of school.

Morose and unaware of how
they skittered round the room,
escaping from the forms he thought
secure as Alcatras,
he'd fit each word into its frame -
”Forms are,” he said, “the only way
to give words gravitas.”

He was a saintly Christian man
whose instincts were to bless,
how could he know his words would run
and be promiscuous?

"Experimental!" critics cried,
"The form, the form is all!
It's here and there and everywhere -
in one form or another.”

The people heard the words at play,
they heard them in the street,
"How perfectly absurd," they said,
to be so indiscreet!"

But when at last the word was out,
their thoughts, once cold, grew warm:
"How sad," they said,
"the poet's dead -
died filling in a form!"

Saturday 3 February 2007

Two Centenaries

Think of a poet. Can you recall the details of your first experience of a poem by him or her? I ask because it just so happens that this year is the double centenary of two poets, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, and it also happens that my first encounter with the poetry of each was memorable. I suspect that is somewhat unusual.


Auden, I met on the night mail crossing the border. I was young enough to be completely bowled over by the rhythm of it, and though I didn't realise it at the time, also by what was in fact my first dose of Benjamin Britten - but that's another story. I can still recite chunks of it from the memory. On that occasion I couldn't get them out of my head, particularly:

"This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door."

(full text at: http://www.newearth.demon.co.uk/poems/lyric206.htm )

It was a documentary, a classic film of the Postal Special's night run from London to Scotland. No, not A documentary, it was THE documentary of its day. Auden spoke for his generation and to the man on the tram on his way to work. The same man today, I suppose, will know of Auden, if at all, from "Twelve Songs" from his "Funeral Blues" featured in the film "Three Weddings and a Funeral". I rather think that most people, reminded of it, would say they loved it, but haven't heard it since.

He spoke to his generation, but his work could also be highly intellectual and/or laced with private jokes. He tackled the romantic entanglements of his fellow man, along with the big problems of the day. I find one of his most moving works to be "In Memory of W.B.Yeats". (Full text at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544 )

Often overlooked is Auden's revival of verse drama. He wrote several libretti for opera and several successful verse plays and he was before his time in believing that there should be no distinction between cast and audience, all should be involved. He co-scripted with Isherwood and Benjamin Britten, though this last partnership did not achieve the success it promised.

Louis MacNeice

"Bagpipe Music" was my first encounter with Louis MacNeice. Like "Night Mail", though for vastly different reasons, it wouldn't leave me; words were going round in my head, particularly the couplet:

"It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi."

(Full text at: http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac6.htm)

Was I lucky or unlucky in my introduction? Both, I think. I felt at the time that he was probably not one to be taken too seriously, that what I had heard sounded too much like a cross between a nonsense rhyme and material for a stand-up commedian.