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Thursday 25 January 2007

Burns Night

Tonight is Burns Night. What that conjures up in the minds of most people, I guess, is a certain conviviality, not to say rowdiness, associated with the eating of haggis and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne". The words known by everyone are:

For Auld Lang Syne!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

Also well-known is:
"My Love is like a Red, Red Rose",
Less so, perhaps:
"A Man's a Man for a' that", "To a Mouse" and "Address to a Haggis".

For these poems and others, with texts, also facts about the poet and much else, click on the title of this blog.

What Burns Night (and to a lesser extent Burns) conjures up in my mind are a few verses from Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle". This is a deep and complex poem in which the drunk man finds himself lying helplessly on a moonlit hillside, staring at a thistle and meditating on its jaggedness and its beauty. This becomes a metaphor for the divided state of Scotland - and much else, as the meditations become varied and far-ranging.

But here he is on Burns Night (though not Burns):

"You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o' a knock-knee
Chinee turns roon to say, 'Him Haggis - velly goot!'
And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.

"No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a'body's property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They'd be the last a kennin' haund to gie -

"Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And a' their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad - and Hell, nae doot - are voicin

"Burns' sentiments o' universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha's nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

"A' they've to say was aften said afore,
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate maks him the dumpin-grun
For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

"Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae's me for the Zietgeist!"

If you do not know the poems of MacDiarmid, you should certainly see about putting that right.
You will not agree with all his sentiments, but you surely will enjoy disagreeing.

Here he is, for example, on the common folk:

"And a' the names in History mean nocht
To maist folk but 'ideas o' their ain,'
The vera opposite o' onything
The Deid 'ud awn gin they cam' back again.

"A greater Christ, a greater Burns, may come.
The maist they'll dae is to gi'e bigger pegs
To folly and conceit to hank their rubbish on.
They'll cheenge folks' talk but no their natures, fegs!"

Start at the link I have given - the poems have a glossary running alongside. Enjoy!

Thursday 18 January 2007

Homage to Duchamp

Another from the "sketchbook". I call this one
"Explosion in a Shingle Factory" to cock a snook
at critics who have likened it to a nude descending
a staircase.

It's how he sees it!

For me, it has been one of those weeks when whichever way I might turn, the same train of thought would present itself: in the newspaper, magazines, on the radio, everyone seemed to be on the same track, a track that for me led to a little nostalgia, and to a question echoing from centuries back, from days spent arguing with fellow art students about how we might legitimately judge a work of art to be successful. Along with that question went one concerned with who is best placed to judge whether a work is successful. There were those who argued that only the artist can know, for the only valid criterion of success is whether or not the finished product corresponds to his/her initial vision (has s/he, in fact, accomplished what s/he set out to do?), and only the artist can know that. If it met that one test, it would be deemed successful; if not, then it was written off - which should have meant the waste bin: ergo, everything not junked by the artist is successful! (I use the word "vision" as shorthand for "the artist's personal - i.e. unique - experience and the significance that s/he gives to it.")

So from that standpoint we have to take it on trust from the artist that the work is faithful to the vision to which we cannot be privy. We are saying, in effect, not just "It's art because I (as artist) say it is" (Marcel Duchamp), but even that it is great art because I say it is! But wait: does a close correspondence between the finished artefact and the vision, automatically make it great (or successful) art? And conversely, does a lack of such correspondence mean that it fails, end of? If millions of people all over the world are moved, thrilled, excited, chastened, shamed or whatever by the work, yet what they are getting from it is not what the creator thought s/he was putting in, does that inescapably disqualify it from being great art?

The word "truth" comes to mind at this point, and with it "communication". They go hand in hand. For me a work of art, to be a valid work of art, must communicate something, and at least part of that something has to do with truth. But truth to what? More echoes from the art school: we talked much in those days about truth to materials.( Important if you are carving stone, not to try to make it look like wood.) Also, truth to yourself, and to your vision. But if we can't know what that was, what then? First of all, when looking at, listening to or reading the work in question, I want at the very least to be able to catch some of the emotion, the passion that led to it and went into it. Being true to yourself is an aspect of your character, and the work will display whatever character its creator showed when creating it. Frieda Hughes remarked in Monday's Times 2 that while sports commentators may speak of sportsmen and teams showing character in the way they perform, we don't think that way of artists, musicians, writers. To my mind, great art results from an inner exploration of some sort. The persistence with which that is pursued and the concentration with which it is pursued decide the intensity of the experience, from which derives the work's character. Does that help to decide who is best able to make a judgement on it? I think it may, for when we follow that path to its final destination, we find that a great work of art has the ooomph to make you turn aside from being yourself in the-world-as-it-appears-to you, and, at least for a while, to be another consciousness in some quite different-looking world.
Whether that happens exactly in the way the artist envisioned it happening, seems to me quite incidental. One of my favourite quotes is that by Alfred Brendel:"A work of art is like a person: it has more than one soul in its breast." Just as valid from this perspective is the man in the street's (still) instinctive defense of "modern" art: "Well, that's the way the artist sees it!" Let's hope he's right!

Sunday 14 January 2007

The End of the Line

Browsing through the Review section of yesterday's Saturday Guardian, my heart initially sank when I reached Gillian Beer's article, End of the Line, in that paper's Lives and Letters. Another article on whether or not poetry should rhyme!
But then I read it, and as I began to do so my heart recovered somewhat: it was not that at all, but the most sustained piece of common sense and thought-provoking comment I have ever (I think) read on the strangely vexed subject of rhyming. I commend it to anyone still feeling saddened by the spectacle of the banner-waving bards at the Ledbury Festival. My own feeling? As ever, truth lies on both sides of that particular divide, but do read the article for yourself, at Guardian Unlimited . If you don't already think it, you may decide that there is no real argument. But something I am sure about: you will be well rewarded for your time and trouble.

Saturday 13 January 2007

Intelligence Gathering

I read somewhere that catharsis can be the blogger's only motive, that for secular man, blogging has replaced the confessional. (Are there no Catholic bloggers then?) I am a lapsed painter who has not picked up a brush in well over a year. (I will let you know in some future blog if that unburdening of the soul produces any spiritual benefit.) Having so deserted my first love, things have not gone too easily with my second poetry.

The "photos" from my last blog, "Winter of Global Warming", were an attempt to pick up the brush again. They would be "sketches" for a painting, but I became fascinated by the process and began to see them as an end in themselves.

"Write about what you know", is the usual advice to wannabe poets when they start to write. Should work just as well when wanting to restart, I thought. As luck would have it, I had on file an unfinished fragment of autobiography. Even easier to ease myself back into the swing of things by finishing one already under way. Here then, though not exactly epic, my faint-hearted attempt to woo back the favours of the lady Calliope:

Intelligence Gathering

The light below,
which was always white in sitting room and hall,
but yellow from my post upon the landing,
could be a wedge to split a wall in two
or a flood that rose up through the stairwell,
filling it with muffled sounds, strange vowels

that surely came through water.
My great aunt and my mother talking
late at night, their voices sounding foreign.
My great aunt's house. My brother,
five years younger, sleeping, unaware
of how the world can change its shape and bare

its soul when darkness falls. Evacuees,
our world had changed before, conscripting me
so far into its bonnet's bee of spy and counter-spy,
that zooming in on my aunt's bureau, my mind's eye
would recognise among the clutter, code books, maps
and two-way radio - all trappings of the spy.

Sometimes on my watch, a phrase
would startle with a vague familiarity,
sunlit and leaping from the flood, glistening
with drops from memory: a distant cousin
to one of my first snapshots of the world.
My job to gather and decode. Sifting through,

I laid bare secrets that I swore
to carry with me to the grave:
my parents married after I was born;
my mother loved a man who wore
a funny hat; and, dying of an unknown
illness, I had only days to live.

Friday 5 January 2007

A Winter of Global Warming

Ah, for the power of the found phrase!

It was the phrase "winter of global warming"

that led to these "fiddlings" in my digital sketchbook.

Oxymorons are very inspirational, I find.

Thursday 4 January 2007

Through a Glass Lightly

Yesterday's Times2 carried an article on The New York-based artists, The OpenEnded Group and their digital reconstruction of York Minster's Great East Window. The window is undergoing restoration, courtesy of a National Lottery grant, and is current;y under wraps, not to mention scaffolding. For a few weeks, though, the public will be able to see it in its computerised reinterpretation. One phrase in the article caught my eye particularly, a quote from a member of the group: "None of us is religious, but we ended up making a religious work of art."
I wondered briefly if it would be possible to make a work of art that was not religious. I guess it might, but that would all depend on your understanding of the word. To me "religious" implies that something is going on that is not wholly physical - though that need not be taken to imply that something is going on that is not physical. Usually, it means that somehow the physical has acquired a non-physical dimension. (Hey, isn't the universe's supposed fourth dimension, time, non-physical? Or doesn't that count?) So, if the human mind can posit such a creation, it should be able to posit other non-physical dimensions, should it not?
For me, visual art without that extra dimension is decoration; poetry or prose without it has something akin to decoration: rhyme rhythm, assonance, storytelling, or whatever, but I find myself looking for that extra dimension, that value-added dimension, and being disappointed when I do not find it. It is the inexplicable that eventually makes sense of life and brings sense to life. In life it is always there, lurking beneath the surface. Art exposes it. It is the ghost in the machine, the numinous in the secular. Have a look at my last blog, The Day was Green: Wallace Steven in "The Man with the Blue Guitar" argues that poetry should take the place of out-dated religion - "empty heaven and its hymns". And how will it do that without the presence of something not wholly physical?
Or do you see it differently?