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Sunday 30 March 2008


I have read a number of comments lately on the recent illustrated version of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, including a review by Nicholas Lezard, which I tore out of a Guardian Review before Christmas with the thought that I might, perhaps, just conceivably, but probably not buy the book. These ancient tales are, in the main, not for me. There are a few exceptions, Njal's Saga being a notable one. Sure, that is a fault in me, but there it is.

Seven years ago, Nicholas Lezard says, he, too thought as I do... Well, he didn't actually say that, didn't actually mention me, but he admits to having thought Beowulf "brainless macho trash". I remember it well. I think. I certainly read something along those lines when Seamus Heaney's translation first appeared. Thank heavens, I thought, at long last some other occupant of planet earth thinks as I do. Now, though, with the appearance of what he calls the coffee-table edition of Heaney's version, it appears he has changed his mind. But it is not some new Epiphany wrought by a more careful reading of the text that has brought this about. No, his changed opinion is entirely due to the pictures. They have convinced him that Beowulf is "a serious and complex work of art". He gives an example:

"'Boar-shapes flashed
Above their cheek-guards'

and on the left there is a large colour picture of a carefully-wrought boar surmounting a helmet excavated from Benty Grange, Derbyshire."

I have not yet seen the new edition. I may well sport out the £13.99 being asked for it, but if I do I shall be buying it for the graphics, not for the text, for the images do indeed sound well worth the outlay. As to the text, the one fact that might have won me over to it seven years ago, the knowledge that Seamus Heaney had thought it worth his while to translate it, failed to do so. My world will be shaken to its foundations if it turns out that pictures (props, which ever way you look at them) achieve what he could not. I am sure it is a fault in me, but the issue I am hammering on about is whether we should require a work of art to stand alone, or whether there is a place for props, and if so, what that place might be. Should we be swayed in our judgments by external factors, however inspiring or enlightening? I can accept props as an introduction, say in school, remembering that we are going to journey beyond them for our final understanding. I can see them as they are used in this new edition of Beowulf to provide insight into the poem's background and the society that produced it, or to correct misconceptions concerning that society. That is why I might yet buy the new edition. But such pictures are at most guide book illustrations to give us a taste of what lies before us or to explain its history, its culture or its politics. If the terrain, when we visit it, turns out to be "brainless macho trash", the photographs in the guide book, however appealing, will not alter that. Not unless it is that we are seeing what we are told to see and not what is in us to see.

I shall visit my local bookshop and have a look. I may, as I say, even buy the book... but then again, don't hold your breath, for on the same page of The Guardian Review was a very enticing write-up on Paul Muldoon's translation of Neil O'Gallagher's "The Fifty Minute Mermaid". If the Virgin shelves happen to be carrying that, and if it's half as seductive as the review makes it out to be, then that's where my cash is likely to be going. Unless my foundations do get thoroughly rattled!

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Short, Official Guide III

If you have stayed with me this far, thank you and welcome to part 3, The Nursery.

The Nursery

Designed by Jane, Third Marchioness,
cradles of a culture, like or not,
faithfully preserved. Her taste
(as always), careless, brash and bold.
Room for a thousand childhoods -
but the room was always cold.

You must not miss the dolls' house, very small,
a replica of this house and its contents,
and inside that a perfect replica again,
and inside that,
brought to you by the power of virtual reality
a host of life-size families
with every detail of those times
scaled down
to fit the present age.

For a pound coin in the hardware
adopt the mind-set of a former generation:
experience at first hand, act
with empathy,
see palaces of good and ill
see local knights,
your heroes once, promoted or demoted to a myth.
Ride out with us.
You'll see one or you'll see one not,
but where you see, there that uncertain king,
by Heisenberg , rides time past, present and continuing. ref

And the word of God was Euclid's ref
and the complex plane ref
was void and vacant. Darkness lay
in the abyss.
And men like Koch and Mandelbrot 1 2
said: "Let's give geometry a new dimension!" and
infinity began to bleed into the world again.

See Adam's single fruit upon its single tree
bifurcating endlessly to such diversity. ref
It seemed a simple plot
before division ruled the roost,
before turbulence was king, ref
when storm and chaos as we thought ref
grew only out of fear
and Gaston Julia had yet ref
to intuit how beauty met
with chaos and disorder
in a geometric set.

The lights flash on: GAME OVER!
An invitation: one more
coin, another world:
step right inside the dolls' house, step
right back to when it all began. There walk
with Newton on his solid hills, ref
meet Ptolemy or Abraham, ref
wear on your sleeve the soul of Einstein, Blake 1 2
or Hubble - Caedmon even, he whose polygene, 1 2 3
yours for a coin,
became our genius.
Technology, our modern grace,
enables you to sing
as he sang:
wild and hauntingly,
full-bodied, as a bird sings,
matching every note
to the subtleties and splendours of a God who spoke.

There dream his dream with us,
a man apart from what we call reality. There feel
his lack of choice, his wounded pride;
share with him his lowly station,
experience his flat, untutored voice
and know as he knew, this:
that just because he sang so in a dream
the power came to his life.
You, too, may sing of things you know not,
hear your voice power through the pious monasteries
and watch the bleak religions of your day awake to pray.

His world was shadowy.
You can explore that shade,
learn how the cattle were reality,
that Abbess Hilda was not real: ref
he knew her, of her, fed her cattle;
she remained a symbol of his bread and butter.

Facing her across the hallowed study,
terrified to speak lest you should break the spell,
feel the symbols change, feel living water
well up from the abbess in her, welcome him.
Be her and lose a servant;
be the world and gain a limb.

And everywhere, the great abyss,
the Dachau moment reigns supreme; ref
our second Genesis ref
begins in pain.
Tiresius, ref
blind hero of blind poets down the years,
blind in the way that all blind men are blind,
blinded by the light's ambivalence,
but snake-eyed,
bridges our divide
with his twofold vision.
Divisions multiply.
With visual cortex
wired to sighted retinas around the world,
he bids you turn the virtual page
and join his Masterclass.
Here feel the moment grip and twist you,
feel desire in either form, see images
that freeze the sight-lines to the brain
and watch them spiral from the sky.
All that was human lies inhumed - until
a millionth of a thought-time later: miraculous free fall!
The dark sparks hammer in the brain again
to leave you breathless at the Berlin Wall. ref

From here and there, this one and that,
a world-wide web of whispers from the ruins
brings to the darkness of our cave, a patina of light.

The ivy broke the stones apart,
the dust encroached upon the heart,
the two towers crumbled into dust, ref
swallowed by a holy lust -
the lust that saw the Caryatids fall
then raise this more surpassing hall.
She and the hall were ever one,
who holds the host above her head
to give us all our daily bread.

See her days exposed to view.
The Dreamtime spread its arms in welcome. Those who knew ref
her in the old days
might not recognize her now.
The steel tap, tap on cobblestone and sett of her high heels
is both a proclamation and a provocation to their ears.

Wiser now and wealthy, elemental in her role,
she's our New Age Voodoo Lady with a mix of fetish doll.

Friday 21 March 2008

Easter Treats

No, not chocolate eggs and Easter bunnies, though I have no objection to either, but no, I am thinking of larger treats than these, the sort I like to give myself at such times. Just as at Christmas I like to listen to Handel's Messiah or Britten's St Nicholas Cantata, so at Easter Bach's Matthew Passion sets the mood, as does standing among Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua or before da Vinci's Last Supper.... seasonal treats indeed! Of course, since I got rid of the private jet as part of my green contribution, I am reliant on reproductions for such pleasures. Given the standard of present-day reproductions, this represents a relatively small diminution of the aesthetic experience. It is true that there are losses; of scale, for example, but there is modern technology and imagination to come to our aid, and all-in-all not so much is sacrificed that the artist's vision is lost. Not in the case of the da Vinci, at any rate, though the Giottos present a rather more severe problem - but more on that anon. For now I should confess that my favourite Easter treat is Bellini's Agony in the Garden. Once, for a short time, for personal reasons, it was Salvador Dali's Crucifixion, and that being so, the Dali will always have a special place in my affections. But for the moment, and because life is, I think, the poorer for being deprived of the occasional digression: a small diversion. There is currently a photographic exhibition running at The Photographers' Gallery in London. On show are the entries for The Photography Prize. Worth £30,000, it is awarded annually to an international photographer who is judged to have made the greatest contribution to photography over the previous year. This year's finalists are John Davies (UK), Jacob Holdt (Denmark), Esko Männikkö (Finland) and Fazal Sheikh (USA). Founded in 1996, the Photography Prize has become one of the most prestigious international arts awards. What caught my attention was a remark made by Adrian Searle, the art critic: Half the photographers up for the Deutsche Börse prize have a moral point to make. But it's the ones who don't that are the most interesting. No, actually, it didn't catch my attention, not immediately, for when you think about it, it is a pretty okay remark, an orthodox viewpoint, uncontroversial. Moral points got themselves a bad press thanks to the Victorians, and although some aspects of Victorian taste are making a bit of a come-back, moral points in art are still not fashionable. So if I registered anything at Searle's remark it was a big indifferent, "You don't say!" It was just what most of us (I suspect) would have expected.

I suppose the discussion hangs on what you term as a moral point, but although Searle's remark is in key with today's thinking and would not raise an eyebrow (not even one of mine) in the normal run of things, when I applied it to the works I have mentioned (and, of course, I could have applied it to many more), it seemed just fatuous. It certainly would not always have been the case. In the Middle Ages art was very much a practical craft, but one that served a spiritual end. The artist was a kind of auxiliary priest, tilling the sensual fields the priest could not touch, and bringing forth from them his spiritual harvest. The eventual disassociation of church and artist and the rise of genre painting took a long time to mature - and, arguably, was never completed. So we have Giotto at the beginning of the fourteenth century painting his frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua. What perhaps is not sufficiently appreciated is that Giotto's fame rests squarely on his genius for picture cycles, and a picture cycle is what he gives us in the Arena Chapel. The cycle is a form of art quite distinct from that of the single picture, or even a series of single pictures, and as such is unfamiliar to us. We tend to see them in isolation, even discuss which one we like best, but cycles do not work like that. They obey their own laws and form a continuous narrative in which each is influenced by the rest, and in its turn casts its own influence. It may be easier to see the difference if we think about their origins: they represent the end result of a long development from the friezes of ancient Greece and Rome, through the mosaics and illuminated manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries. In one such manuscript we find several versions of the Genesis story side by side. It was not until much later that the highlights would be selected out and isolated in frames of their own.

The painter of frescoes such as Giotto was as circumscribed in what he could and could not do as any painter of eikons. Today's artist would probably brush in a landscape or a building and then place the figures in it. The artist of Giotto's day would start with the figures and then contract the background. Even if they were supposedly in the building shown, it would be positioned behind them. The figures were actors who were always stage front with the scenery behind them. The dramatis personnae for these actions had been developed by the painters of Byzantium, in whose works they were mask-like figures, but Giotto mastered the principles behind their use and breathed new life into them, using them for his own purposes.

Meanwhile, poetry was following an almost parallel course, with Dante describing journeys undertaken beyond the known worlds of life and death, journeys frightening enough to be thought of as the Star Treks of their day. Line by line he was creating verses equating to Giotto's picture cycles and following many the same principles.

We have, though, largely lost the feeling for Giotto's art and for the art of all those like him who worked in picture cycles. Perhaps it was inevitable, sad, but a sadness over which we should not linger, merely wipe away the occasional tear and move on. Even in these days of the installation, when we may find ourselves actually walking into an art work, our focus remains very much on the single picture, yet the cycle was, in a sense, the installation of its time. Perhaps if we could try to see it that way we would be drawing closer to the way it would have been seen by its creator. Maybe before we wipe away that tear and move on, we should make one last effort to rediscover the laws of the picture cycle. You stand at the centre of a chapel and the figures are part of the setting, as much so as the pillars in a cathedral. And as part of the purpose of the pillars is to lift the mind to heaven, the figures are there to draw you into a divine narrative. A useful analogy might be drawn with our modern surround sound.

There is a sense in which the picture cycle was never to surpass the achievements of Giotto, but there is another in which it was to reach its zenith in the work of Bellini, and yet another in which the feeling for it was already beginning to be lost. As always there was a demon at the heart of the tragedy. In this instance the demon was the altar piece, which would increasingly become the focus for the congregation's attention. And as the altar piece grew in importance, the power of the cycle could not be sustained. Focus is not always a goodly (or a Godly)thing.

image of Arena Chapel from Web Gallery

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Short, Official Guide Book II

Continuing the threatened serialisation of Short, Official Guide Book to Ancestral Home from its introduction of 12/03/08, the tour proper begins here:-

The Great Hall.

You enter next the Great Hall.
Grande it was in days of old, its oak
carved with the chronicles of folk
back almost to the fall.
A gallery of excellence, a temple of the arts,
A blossoming of hothouse plants
before the frosts got in.

Facing you, the hardy Caryatid. ref
See her now that her hour has gone:
the stones she proudly held aloft
are dust to walk upon -
or splayed in patterns round her feet,
white petals from a rose.

Impassive as a firedog,
older than steel,
remembering the days when people used to kneel,
now daubed with pop art circles
to produce a modern feel,
she stands beneath a stained glass eye,
has stood there long
in glass-stained sun;
an apparition who has seen
all changes come to pass,
watched dispositions, forms,
configurations move
like adders in the grass
or shadows on the carriage window
as the engine gathers speed.

Move in stillness if you will
to view the bas-relief. ref
Here all is shadowed flux and flow.
Think: shifting sands, life-giving bleed,
motif leaching into motif; light
and dark, an ocean tide:
our ever-moving picture show.

Our history in silhouette:
shadows of a shade. The youngest son,
not blooded yet
(and truth to tell, not quite
perplexed, beset
when chattels, house and grounds seemed lost,
our father dead, the heir unfit -
and that far from the end of it,
for then was found
an unknown, virulent decay
worming its spongiforming way ref
from floor to floor
into the very heart and core
of our imaginings - a modern
Atlas suddenly, a Jacob, took 1 2
the world upon his shoulders, stole
birthright and title, self-esteem,
his brother's seniority,
to sell abroad, illegally,
the instruments of dignity,
the family identity:
our diaries and history,
our manuscripts and tapestries,
the precious jades and ivories,
the lily of pure gold.

The family and house were saved,
but narratives we'd loved of old
and treasured beyond life were told,
in strange, unsympathetic languages.

Dear visitor, you entered by the very door
through which they came, those
and profiteers,
financiers, and the whole cast
of racketeers,
to strip and asset-strip and rip
out all the grandeur that was here.

Nowhere now, the words, the talk,
the child-like figures carved in chalk,
the riverside sold off for shops,
The Queen Anne gardens ploughed for crops.
Nowhere, the lead glaze earthenware,
the chinoiserie anchorite, 1 2
the painted alabaster bear, ref
the Buddhas carved in andesite, ref
but here instead (from truckle bed, ref
from engine head and hammerhead,
nails, bow saws, axe and trowel) was born
this strange, mutated quadruped
with bullshit on its horn.

Sunday 16 March 2008

Gordon Brown's Natty Line in Lineation

In case you might have missed it, I thought the following worth passing on:-

A Turkish Kurd, Nehmet Basci, has spent the last five years teasing out of our world leaders (or those close to them) the titles of their favourite poems. Somewhere along the way he unearthed the the intriguing fact that Gordon Brown's favourite piece is by an American, James Stockinger. Gordon is said to be so taken with this particular poem that he is given to quoting it in his speeches. A few lines should give the flavour...

The hands of other people lift us from the womb,
The hands of other people grow the food we eat,
weave the clothes we wear and
build the shelters we inhabit.

Stockinger is reported to have been very flattered by the P.M's. opinion of his poem, even though, as he himself was honest enough to point out, it... er... wasn't actually a poem... not as such. What it actually was... well, actually, it was a misquotation from his doctoral thesis. Not the end of the world, though... a few unplanned line breaks and in no time at all it was the poem that the P.M. had always thought it was, as proof of which his publishers have included it in their latest anthology. Hands up, all those who have ever thought that perhaps too much contemporary poetry was just chopped-up prose!

Saturday 15 March 2008

The Roar of the Canon

The full phrase was "drowned out by the roar of the canon", used , if I remember correctly, by a correspondent to a local paper. He was having a rant about the difficulties encountered by young ("experimental"!) poets in their attempts to make their voices heard, about the "carve up" of so-called poetry competitions in which poets belonging to the exclusive club of those who have "made it" award each other prizes (I've heard that one a few times since), and about several other beefs, the natures of which escape me for the moment. He seemed, though, driven by the belief that we(e) poets who don't quite make it into the anthologies are poetry's equivalent of canon fodder. I was reminded of the article a week or so back by what struck me as something of a coincidence: The Guardian newspaper announced that it was to give away booklets on The Great Poets of the Twentieth Century and it was launching the said give-away with a plea to bring back the canon. Meanwhile, the Independent was announcing the launch of its free booklets on the great poets from Chaucer to Hardy. And how was it launching its bonanza? With a plea for the restoration of the canon!

The word canon comes to us, as does so much, from the Greeks. Their word kanon meant a measure or a rule. Our derivation of it was first applied to those books of the Bible that were accepted as authoritative. So Matthew, Mark, Luke and John became the canonical Gospels. Later, it came to be applied to an agreed body of work, say poetry, against which other such works could be measured. It had another benefit: any well-educated young person would grow up becoming familiar with the canon, and this would give him or her a way in to other, newer, works. Poets frequently borrow from other poets or allude to their works in their own poems, and the frequency with which a particular work is alluded to or borrowed from is one of the factors that may, or may not, see it included within the canon. So, any reasonably well-educated person reading in Eliot's The Waste Land

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man
You cannot say or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

would realise, at least in broad terms, that we are entering Biblical territory here, Ezekiel country to be precise; but still there is work to be done, for a poet may allude to works in order to disagree with them as readily as to enlist them to his cause. The Gospel according to Eliot equates Ezekiel with The Son of Man, but then states that the prophet knows nothing of the roots or branches that grow out of the "stony rubbish" because all he knows is a place where the "sun beats" and there is no relief. In the Bible the prophet is commanded by God to stand up and listen. Eliot marginalises God's listening prophet, saying that he knows nothing. God leads Ezekiel through a wasteland of bones. The reference is from Ecclesiastes 12 and is followed by another biblical allusion, "and the dry stone no sound of water", a reference to Moses in Exodus. So we have two images: the dead tree and the dry stone. Both speak of people being forsaken, of a place where there is no relief, no water. Eliot ignores the original meaning of Ecclesiastes 12 to make the point that even a prophet can not know the feelings of freedom introduced briefly near the end of the previous verse (In the mountains, there you feel free) because it is eclipsed by the place of no relief.

A poet writing today could not assume that his readers would have such familiarity with any book or poem, never mind the Bible, and would know that to rely so heavily upon allusion would be to render his work a closed book to most. Which, I suppose, is simply another way of saying that there is no agreed canon upon which the poet can rely for his allusions. Ask why that should be and you will receive a variety of answers. Some will say that Eliot rewrote the canon - or tried to. Others will put it to you that the canon fell into disuse because all the poets included in it were white males, and that the effort to redress the balance led to such an expansion that it became too all-inclusive, too unwieldy. Nearly everyone was in somehow or other! (Interesting that, seeing that between Chaucer and Hardy, The Independent could find only one woman, Emily Dickenson, whilst in its selection of Great Poets of the Twentieth Century, The Guardian also found only one woman, Sylvia Plath. And just don't ask how many non-whites!) Some might tell you that the canon does not exist today because it has never existed.

Obviously, the canon means different things to different people. A canon certainly did exist in the eighteenth century when Erasmus and other humanists demanded a universal knowledge. Later, it was put to good use by the universities. Some will say it was easier then, that the canon more or less chose itself. After all, how many classical works had come down to us ?
Similarly, the Elizabethan canon, in terms of poets, caused little controversy. Something like:
Edmund Spenser
Sir Philip Sidney,
Christopher Marlowe,
Wiliam Shakespeare,
Ben Jonson,
John Donne.

But still today academics refer to poems and write books on particular works or poets, and as, inevitably, their subjects and their quotations coincide or overlap, and as the same works become anthologised again and again (or don't), a sort of canon begins to emerge. So some will contend that, as each different purpose tends to produce its own canon, we end up with too many canons for them to be of any real use. A modern canon, for example, might select works in terms of traditional characteristics; the Alexandrians, to take a different example, chose works that displayed good grammatical usage; a canon could evolve that was socially or environmentally inspired; and so on, you could think of many more, I have no doubt.

So: there are many competing canons and there always will be; or there is no canon, never has been a canon and never will be a canon. It all depends upon your particular viewpoint, but what I truly cannot fathom is how one could bring back the canon! Who would do that, seeing that, as far as I am aware, no canon was ever created by someone sitting down and deciding what was in and what was out. Neither is it a matter for a committee. For many, particularly for those involved in teaching, The Norton Anthology (scroll to 15/11/07) is perhaps the nearest we have to a canon just now, but new voices being drowned-out by the roar of canon? I don't think so; more like some distant, sporadic musket fire! But what do others think?

Wednesday 12 March 2008

The Short official Guide Book

I have decided to publish my only long poem, here on my blog. Big deal! I hear you say, and for me it is, if only because until very recently I did not think I ever would. What brought about the change of mind, I have no idea. However, I am not publishing it in one go, but a "page" at a time, in serial fashion. An earlier version was on my web site until recently. Indeed, "Short Official Guide to Ancestral Home" has had been around in one form or another for quite a while. It began as the germ of an idea while on a guided tour of an ancestral house. Our guide was excellent in that he was lucid, witty and patient with questioners. He knew his material thoroughly and had a fund of anecdotes, each of which was associated, in his mind at least, with a particular room, and he kept the group interested and wholly amused. Occasionally he would bring from his store a colourful character we had not met before and would not hear of again, but mostly it would be past owners or residents already introduced to us, who who would be the subjects of some new anecdote. However, because the stories were linked to the various rooms, they were in no chronological order, so, for example, I would find myself wondering whether the "Captain George" of the present story was the "Captain George" who had escaped ignominiously through the kitchen window, or would that have beent his father? And did Fanny's wedding come before or after the accidental shooting of the Viscount? Would Lad May have known about the twins when she wrote the letter, or did the party take place at a later date? And so on. In other words, the details fascinated, but the broad picture escaped me. Sir Frank was obviously in fine fettle when he set sail, and in a bad way at the funeral, but which was the earlier occasion? Had his condition made good progress or had it deteriorated? I remembered having similar difficulties getting the broad picture from my school history lessons, but on the guided tour the ambiguity of it all struck me as a metaphor for society. Civilisation even. Indeed, it occurred to me that the house might itself be a metaphor for civilization. Taking that a step further, some of the house's major players began to assume roles corresponding to those of various figures from history, some historical, some mythical.

I should say that today I can recall almost nothing of the house itself or of its many occupants over the years. None of them appear in the poem - as far as I am aware! The slowly developing imagery of the poem has obliterated all the images of its source. I should also say that it would probably be unhelpful to look for symbols of the usual kind in the poem. Symbols are by definition constant. They stand for what they stand for. In the poem, though, these symbols, like those in the poem's meeting between Caedmon and The Abbess Hilda, are subject to change. The house, for example, may stand for different things at different times.

The drawings (not illustrations in the true sense) are by my grandchildren.

Short, Official Guide to Ancestral Home

Preface to the second edition

In houses such as this
was history shaped, were
revolutions planned. In rooms
like these great men and women
honed their special skills, found
passions ready-made -
and not just ready-made: arranged
like books on shelves for easy reference
and, ultimately: choice. All that are here:
dust, furniture, fine paintings speak
of other days and other ways; of past
explorers, knights to the Crusades,
missionaries of many faiths and creeds
(or none), exploiters, slavers,
traders, smugglers and murderers,
fools and vagabonds; all grew
within these walls, and then set forth
to work their wonders or disasters.
Inventors, torturers and doctors,
men of science, dancers
and romancers, artists,
artisans and engineers,
politicians, parasites and public
men of all descriptions,
bishops, generals and thieves,
all in their day
and in their various ways
lived here.

Walking sticks (unless you are infirm)
and brollies, bags (not handbags),
cameras and overcoats, mobile phones
and parcels, food and drink
must be surrendered in the Entrance Hall.
Whilst doing so, please note
(for we are very proud of them)
the geometric patterns in the floor;
intricate, they are
of Portland stone and Devil's Black.
Beyond (majestic is the only word),
the cantilevered staircase
rises to the upper rooms.
Staircase and the bedrooms may be viewed
on Tuesday afternoons, September
through to January, when
her Ladyship goes south
and you are free
to take the Long Tour, one
we have designed
especially for connoisseurs. Today
should whet your appetite. The door
beyond the staircase is your
open sesame, not just
to our world, but to many.

Sunday 9 March 2008

Ambiguity in Poetry

Good to be back, though in truth I am only partly back, courtesy of a long-defunct, now resurrected dial-up connection that will not do all I ask of it: specifically, it will not allow me to read or write comments. so your indulgence for a few more days, please - and my thanks to those who sent or left messages of support and/or commiseration.

In her Times2 column of 3/3/08 Frieda Hughes examined the poem Heart of Cold by Gregory Woods ("Quidnunc", Carcanet), a poem unknown to me until then, but one which I found both strange and strangely compelling. Forsaking her usual form of analyzing a poem's content in terms of opinions expressed, her interest on this occasion was on what is withheld, the ambiguity resulting from demands made on the reader to contribute. "Heart of Cold" describes a male figure, one which those whose voices are the poem's voice, find ravishing. The ambiguity begins in the question as to what form this figure takes: is it a painted figure or a sculpted or a living one. There are indications for and against each - and, I would hazard a guess that there are indications for and against any others you might propose. Here are the opening lines to the second of its three verses:

No part of him has not been fondled, worshipped, kissed or licked
By strangers. Every inch of him has been not only looked
At but assessed by touch and taste, concavities unlocked,
Convexities enfolded, ..............................

Which suggests to me that we are speaking here of a sculpted or a living form - or would be, were it not for the fact that the first verse ends:

We wouldn't have been nearly as excited
If anything unphysical had ever been inserted.

What on earth could that mean? Hughes obviously thinks it indicates that the subject is a painting or a photograph, perhaps in a magazine, and that the poet is suggesting that the introduction of, say, text, would have broken the spell. But if I read the poem in its entirety, I do not find that an easy interpretation to sustain. Furthermore, I cannot think that the word "inserted" would be the preferred word for that circumstance. But the truth is that we do not know for sure.

Looking back to the sentence which immediately precedes this rather odd statement, we read:

...................................Extreme detachment suited
Both him and us.

The nature of the relationship existing between this mysterious figure and the reader is characterized by distance. He may be an object of adoration; it may be that no part of him has escaped the kissing, fondling and licking of strangers; but the relationship between him and them is one of cool, remote physicality. As I see it then, the poet is saying that if something unphysical was ever to intrude into this relationship, say feelings of eroticism, of love or of some mental or spiritual imperative, then the excitement that his body held for them, the voices of the poem, would be over.

The poem set me thinking again about the whole question of ambiguity in poetry. What is it? Where does it come from, and why?

The first question is the most easily answered: it is the lack of a single, clear, incontrovertible meaning. We often speak as though ambiguity belongs only in poetry and literary writing, but, like the other constituents of poetry, rhyme, rhythm etc, it is part of everyday experience. WAY OUT PEDESTRIANS is a sign I saw recently. REFUSE TO BE PLACED IN THIS BIN is another well-quoted example.

As to where it comes from, there are numerous sources, metaphor and the way the poet manipulates the metaphors, for example; the juxtaposition or conflation of conflicting or contradictory meanings is another; then there is the ambiguity arising from puns, allusions, allegories, etc; sudden changes in the poet's perspective can mystify; tautology and contradictory or irrelevant images confuse, as might the use of words such as "let", meaning both to allow and to hinder. Any of these might be either accidental or intended by the poet.

"Why" is perhaps the most fundamental question. Why is it that something which in much prose writing (as in the two notices above) would be thought an error of either diction or reasoning, becomes not merely legitimate for the poet, but prized? Because poetry is such a compressed and information-rich language, with so many parts of speech banging up against one another unprotected by the redundant words of prose, it would be almost impossible to exclude ambiguity altogether. Fortunately, the poet is able to turn it to good account and use it: to increase the richness and the subtlety of the language still further; to hold conflicting thoughts in a kind of balance; to expand the literal meaning of what is being said; or to give layers or shades of meaning. There are others, but it might be more to the point to take an example. I have chosen an early poem of Seamus Heaney's: The Play Ways. It dates from the sixties. Heaney, a teacher for a short time, is writing from experience, and what he describes is a lesson that is very much in the spirit of the sixties: he plays the class a piece of music and then they write. Nothing comes between those two experiences, no guidance from the teacher, no examples, no questions, nothing. He is happy that they should forget him, forget that he is there. Heaney has some notes, but nothing as formal as a lesson plan. Part of the charm of this piece for me, I suppose, is that I was teaching then, and saw and took lessons such as this and was thrilled (at times) by the results. Impossible now, of course: the culture has changed. Nothing is worth teaching now unless the results can be measured - and how do you measure a child's response to a piece of music. Well, yes, you could count how many punctuation marks were in the "right" or "wrong" place, but that somehow misses the point, I do believe.

I find it an interesting example in that much of the ambiguity is inherent in the content rather than either the syntax or the choice of words. It could be no other way unless Heaney had been happy to conjecture about what was happening to his pupils. He doesn't; for the most part he describes what he sees and hears. He tells us, for example, that the pupils are unsure what to do, but also that something (we presume something wonderful) has happened to them such that for the moment he is surplus to their requirements. So he proceeds ambiguously, as he must, given that the whole exercise is ambiguous in terms of expected outcomes, etc. But before even that, the title is ambiguous: does the word Play have to do with learning by play or is it play as in music. Either or both, would be appropriate. And what about that last line? Does it apply to the children, to the notes in the symphony or to both?

The Play Way

Sunlight pillars through glass, probes each desk
For milk-tops, drinking straws and the old dry crusts.
The music strides to challenge it
Mixing memory and desire with chalk dust.

My lesson notes read: Teacher will play
Beethoven's Concerto Number Five
And class will express themselves freely
In writing. One said: `Can we jive?'

When I produced the record, but now
The big sounds has silenced them. Higher
And firmer, each authoritative note
Pumps the classroom up as tight as a tyre

Working its private spell behind eyes
That stare wide. They have forgotten me
For once. The pens are busy, the tongues mime
Their blundering embrace of the free

Word. A silence charged with sweetness
Breaks short on lost faces where I see
New looks. Then notes stretch taut as snares. They trip
To fall into themselves unknowingly.

Finally, and this is for those odd occasions when for some reason you feel unable to go with the flow, to live with Keats's uncertainties, doubts and mysteries; perhaps you have an essay to write (and ambiguity is big with essays) and need something you can sum up; whatever, for all such occasions here, as a possible way in, are a few simple questions to ask yourself before diving into a full analysis of what on earth it means.

  • Does the ambiguity matter? Does it add anything? Would the poem be impoverished if the ambiguity did not exist? Try to see the poem without it.

  • Could both (or all) the possibilities allowed by the ambiguity be valid? And would that enhance the poem?

  • Is there a reference to it? It is ambiguous when you first encounter it, but maybe there is something later in the poem that will refer back to it, or something earlier that upon rereading the poem will throw some light on the passage.

  • Does it result from a simple omission, accidental or intended? Words (which the reader is meant to supply) are sometimes omitted for the sake of rhythm or compression. Punctuation may be omitted. Any such may cause confusion as to meaning.

  • Is it simply a decluttering? The poet has stripped away all the inessentials to make, say, an image stand out more starkly, but in removing something from the context has opened up the possibility of new interpretations of the passage in question.

Sunday 2 March 2008

Six Word Memoir Challenge

I have been tagged to write a six-word memoir by poet hound, a challenge which appealed to me, the challenge being to sum up my life in six words. I do believe that in the attempt I have learnt a bit about myself!

The game is an interesting twist on a challenge Earnest Hemingway was once offered. He bet $10 that he could sum up his life story in six words. He wrote: For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Here are the rules:

* Write your own six word memoir
* Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like
* Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere
* Tag five more blogs with links
* And don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

Details at World Class Poetry

My effort:

signpost misaligned
path more rewarding

I have challenged:
Jim Murdoch
John Baker

Saturday 1 March 2008

"Illustration" John Minton

With this post it is adieu for a few days. (See previous post)

Towards the end of last year, a very good friend lent me four or five back editions of Illustration, a quarterly magazine that I had not met before. As the name suggests, its area of interest is book illustration. I was at once impressed by the quality of its production; the typography, general lay-out and design had all received generous portions of care and attention to detail, as, indeed, they should have in an art periodical, but that is not always the case. The articles are varied, interesting, well written and well researched. For a publication of its type and price (£6 at time of writing) it is excellent, and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone whose interests lie in that direction. Its stated aims are worth quoting, I think: "The aim of the magazine is simple. We wanted a general magazine about illustration - the artists, the collectors, the collections, the exhibitions, the history, the philosophy and the key events relating to this subject. We wanted to discuss the work of great artists from the past as well as new graduates currently coming out of college. We wanted to explore children’s book illustrators alongside those who work on adult novels and classics - or even political manifestos and train timetables. We wanted to consider the humorous, the serious, the sinister and the surreal".

It was nostalgia, I have no doubt, that directed my attention first to the Spring 2006 edition featuring John Minton. I was at art school in the early fifties, studying for a N.D.D. (National Diploma in Design) in book illustration. I would rather have been studying painting, if the truth be known, but it was not to be, and book illustration was a compromise. Painting was on the syllabus, of course, and sculpture, and there were evening classes where I could top-up, but in the illustration sessions I was probably more interested in what the others were doing than in what I was producing. And what the others were mostly doing was polishing their credentials as up-and-coming Mintons, for Minton's star was at its zenith just then. (He was to prove himself something of a shooting star in the very best Bohemian tradition, when, following an unhappy childhood, he would plunged - or find himself plunged - into a life of booze and drugs, resulting in a tragic and untimely death.) It seems incredible that in a life so short and so filled with distraction, he managed to leave so much, but being force-fed Minton at every turn, to the point where his way of representing lush, tropical vegetation was de rigueur, as, indeed, were Samuel Palmer moons and trees with crescent-shaped branches, I was to that extent put off the whole subject. It was all very tight and formulaic and not at all to my taste. It was not until much later in life that I came to see his achievements in a somewhat different light. Had I not come to that realisation, Illustration would certainly have steered me towards it. I do still find the paintings, as I found them then, lacking in substance. He strikes me as an illustrator's painter rather than a painter's illustrator. The illustrations to Kay Dick's novel An Affair of Love for example, and the rather lovely (slightly Lowryish?) paintings to accompany an article on St Helens for Future magazine are both represented in Illustrationby excellent reproductions, as are my own personal favourites, the delightful images for The Snail that Climbed the Eiffel Tower.

Minton : The Tate Collection