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Saturday 25 August 2007

Two Poets

No doubt, it's the time of the year: it's been a while now since this sort of excitement, but this morning (Saturday), two such, both in The Guardian.

First there was The Saturday Poem. There is always the Saturday poem, of course, but not always with the freshness (for me, it had that freshness) and excitement of this morning. "Autumn Collection" by Luke Kennard, was the piece in question. I had not heard of him, nor of Mimi Khalvati. Her "The Meanest Flower" was the subject of this morning's Poetry Review. So, not just a couple of new poems, but the buzz of two new poets.

The quotes from her book passed my first test: they were not stock poems, my ears did not complain that they had heard this, or something like it, before - even though, as Charles Bainbridge points out in the review, the title is taken from Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood", and "the book as a whole could be seen as an on-going conversation with that wonderful meditation on childhood and loss". Indeed, the book is inspired by Shakespeare's songs, the short poems of Emily Dickinson, and Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems, and by the way in which weeds spread ubiquitously. Along the way, Khalvati experiments with the Ghazal, an ancient Persian form composed of an unrhymed couplets. Here she is, in a sonnet sequence, speaking of a family as though they were flowers - or is it the other way around?

"As if they were family, flowers surround you.
As if they were a story-book, they speak.
They speak through eyes and strange configurations
on their faces, markings on petals, whiskers,
mouth-holes and pointed teeth. They are related
to wind. Wind is a kind of godfather, high up
in the branches. They’re willing you to listen
to them, not him."

Obviously, I have not read the book - yet. But I have done some research on the web (There is a mass of material; she has been around for a long time, and I really should have known all about her.), enough to guarantee to myself - and you - that the whole oeuvre would be worth a good, long look.

For a good introduction to Khalvati, Click Here where you can read some of her verses and/or listen to her reading them.

But before I move on, here are some lines from "Mirrorwork" in which she is using Islamic mirror mosaics (She was born in Tehran, but left at the age of six and went back only briefly during her late teens and early twenties.) as the skeleton to bring the work together as a functioning whole.

'We are the thought of something not itself.
Each fragment whole, each unit split, but
dovetailed, one wall, one dome, in whose
muddied lakes of colour swim the blues
of a bag, green rings of a skirt. We
are the hall of mirrors, a fine mosaic,
the mirrorwork in which not even Kings
can see themselves.'

Luke Kennard seems not to be as well established, which is not surprising in one so young (a PhD student who also happens to be the youngest writer ever nominated for the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize, this for his collection "The Harbour Beyond the Movie".

Here are the first and last verses from "Autumn Collection"

There was dancing but no music.
The liquidambar scattered its leaves;
I played jacks with the Intuit girl.

Many of us have our own versions of events
Engraved one over the other on monuments
Erected one on top of the other.

Sunday 19 August 2007

The Sculpture Park

Time for a few more pics, I thought. These Digital Doodles are, as the title of the post suggests, from a series I call The Sculpture Park.

Saturday 11 August 2007

Have You Read It Before?

What do you most look for in a new poem? Speaking personally, I look first for something I have not read or heard before, after which I would hope to gain from it some fresh insight, to be shown something or someone in a new light. Finally, to fully satisfy, there is the requirement for a distinctive voice. I say "finally", though in fact there remains an extensive list of potential requirements, but the three I have given are enough for now, they represent, as I see it, both a very demanding expectation and the three absolute essentials, in that the absence of any one renders the poem poorer for its loss.

These thoughts were prompted in part by suggestions made in the media recently that Ian Mc Ewan has been guilty of plagiarism. To the best of my knowledge, the P word has not actually been used, but the implication has been made, and that strongly. Specifically it is said that "Enduring Love" is a somewhat below par rewrite of Stephen King's "Misery", and "Atonement" owes far too much to Lucilla Andrews's "No Time for Romance". One question raised, inevitably, you may think, by these charges, concerns that of the drawing of the line between inspiration and plagiarism. As always, everyone, it seems, would draw it somewhere else. I doubt whether there could ever be an objective standard laid down. "If more than 30% of the words in more than 40% of the book are replicated in their original order, the work shall be deemed to be...." I don't think so, do you?

The problem of the P word does not occur so much in the same way in the case of poetry. (Or do you know differently?) Here, plagiarism tends to be replaced by slavish imitation combined with a failure of the imitator to establish some essential distance from the imitated, a lack of that distinctive voice, in other words. How many would-be poets have lost their way in the wilderness trying to be yet one more Seamus Heaney? How much poetic talent has been lost that way? Poetry may not suffer from the P word to the extent that prose does, yet I think I more often read a poem than a novel with the feeling that I have read it before.

Echoes of other poets, even quotes, are common, but in any poem worth its salt they are positive: a phrase strikes sparks and invites us to consider a line from Eliot or Heaney. It all adds to the density of the poems, to the layers of meaning or possible meaning. To its ambiguity, perhaps. An image from the pen of Yeats or a metaphor from MacDiarmid may provide a loom of light above the poem's own horizon.

Friday 3 August 2007

Process V Outcome

My Grandparents were true Victorians. Indeed, you could say that in some ways they were more Victorian than the good queen herself. Not unnaturally, therefore, their taste in art ("pictures", they would have said) was Victorian. "Every picture tells a story" was a phrase I grew up with. They meant, of course, "Every picture should tell a story". Certainly, their pictures had narratives, usually a moral, which could be deduced from the work itself, often with the aid of the title.

Some days ago, surfing on the net, I came upon a blog extolling the primacy of process in all things art. I thought little of it at the time, and surfed on, but later thought more about it. Back a decade or two (or three) there was a vogue for process, not only in art, but in other fields also. (There may still be, for all I know.) In Education, for example, this translated as "How a person learns is what matters, not what s/he learns". "Process, not outcome," became the dictum. In other words, it is what happens to a person during the learning process that matters in the long run, that will decide what sort of a person s/he will become.

Following this dictum in art, the story is no longer told by the work, but of it. So what at first sight appeared to me to be a ventilation grill well overdue for cleaning, having layers of fluff adhering to its bars, became, when I was given its credentials, an object of vastly different kind: it was Idris Khan's photograph of the Qur'an'. He had scanned every page - nearly 2000 in all -into his computer and then digitally layered them to form a composite image. some say the result is beautiful. I do not go that far, but would say that knowing the story behind it, changes the emotional charge.

Cornelia Parker, you may recall, blew up a shed - or had it blown up, hopefully by someone who knew what s/he was doing. She presented the result as an installation, and intriguing it was, too. But knowing the means by which it was achieved added enormously to its impact. Simon Starling's boat seemed nothing extraordinary - until you were told that it was an ex-shed, and would be one again. It was said that his Shedboatshed was instrumental in gaining for him The Turner Prize.

There is in fact a whole genre called Process Art, has been since the 1960's. It was originally a reaction against minimalism. Its exponents chose transient materials, such as ice, wax, sand, fat, yeast. The artist would devise and set in motion a process by which the chosen materials would be changed, often repeating the process over and over. I think I see similarities here with the way in which fractals are produced, but here we have something physical, an artifact, if only fleetingly, not an image of something virtually conceived.

Like to find out more? Try these links.


The Guggenheim Collection

The Tate Collection

Artists you might like to look at are: Hans Haacke, Jannis Kounellis and Richard Serra.