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Tuesday 29 April 2008

The Myth of Primitivism

There is a myth which has been part of Western Civilization since its birth: the myth of an earthly Paradise in which man lived in a state of nature. It has surfaced in several guises down the centuries, most notably, perhaps, in the sentimental but very persistent concept put forward by the eighteenth century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of the Noble Savage. However, towards the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century other influences began to work on it and reinvent it in ways that would make it attractive to artists and elevate the best of them to a status akin to High Priests of a new religion.
Sigmund Freud was one of those influences. His emphases on the subconscious and on the importance of understanding the instinctive side of human nature, together with the belief that our emotions, sensations and unconscious urges are the primary influences driving human behaviour, far more potent in that regard than mere rational thought, helped prepare the way for a sea-change in the thinking of artists who were already breathless from the blasts of a totally new kind of mountain air coming to them from the experiments of artists like Van Gogh and Gauguin. (Gauguin, of course, had already gone the extra mile and left the comforts of Western Civilization to live as a native on the island of Tahiti.) They were, if you like, the advance guard of those who would further the growth of the myth of the primitive.

In its maturity this myth would proclaim that each of the various indigenous races of the world received from its special ethos, a spirit superior in its spontaneity and an energy and a sincerity that none of the more civilized races, with their dilettantism and cultivated ways, could hope to match. Artists, most notably perhaps, Picasso, would in future look towards Africa and Oceania for inspiration - though not only there, for their interest would not be confined to "Negro" sculpture, but would branch out to encompass folk art and child art, seeing in them a directness and the immediacy of genuine feeling. But Picasso et al were doing more than just looking for inspiration, they were not only embracing the new, they were consciously and deliberately rejecting the cultivated, over-refined gentility of the old. The old art had sought to divert or instruct, but they were looking for one which sang with genuine, strong emotions. They were looking for, and finding, a new barbarianism.

It was probably no coincidence that there was at this time a painter at the height of his powers who was to achieve recognition throughout our Western Civilization as the only really great artist, coming from that civilization, ever to be blessed with a true genius for Primitivism. His was a genius unrecognized initially except by the other artistic geniuses of the day. Picasso, indeed,owned paintings by Henri Rousseau (called le Douanier and not to be confused with Jean-Jacques) at a time when almost no one else did.
Rousseau's paintings serve as exemplars of one particular form of Primitivism. He was exactly the kind of amateur or Sunday painter the Surrealists would later extol and whose work they would sponsor: a self-taught artist uncorrupted by formal training, one of Nature's geniuses whose eye could see further than the eyes of the trained artist. But this was in an earlier age and Rousseau was to die long before the Surrealist painters began to champion his art. He had been a regimental bandsman, who painted, in great detail, some unusually large and complex canvases of fabulous landscapes and animals from a vision which was simple, direct and completely naive. Not only that, but he painted them in strong, vibrant, unsubtle colours, using a technique that was plodding and unimaginative in the extreme, one very much on a par with a child filling in the colours in a painting book. He claimed that his life as a bandsman furnished him with his fantastic settings, which, he alleged, were of the forests of Mexico. It is now pretty generally accepted, however, that he didn't go to Mexico, and it is thought the animals were taken from books. These then are the characteristics, I would maintain, that distinguish this one form of Primitive painting: a) a simple, strong and individual, perhaps idiosyncratic, vision which is usually unvarying; b) a lack of formal training; c) strong, unsubtle colours; d) a lack of interest in visual authenticity; e) genuine feeling; and f) a piecemeal approach to "filling in" the canvas; g) much intricate detail or patterning. Of course, not all examples of this kind of Primitivism will comply with every one of my criteria. Whether there could be said to be a minimum standard for qualification for this category must be open to debate. How much and in which direction Rousseau influenced the new barbarianism cannot be calculated or clearly demonstrated, but it seems certain that his influence must have been enormous.

Most people, I imagine, understand the term Primitivism as applying to the art and artifacts of primitive - i.e. prehistoric or non-Western - races. This is a form of Primitivism quite separate from the one discussed above in that neither derives from the other. There may be on occasions a fortuitous similarity of appearance, but that is all. Perhaps here it would be worthwhile to mention that there is always an inaccuracy of some form in the attribution of the word Primitivism to an art form, an inaccuracy which in this instance is an ethnocentric one, often acknowledged by the insertion of quotes. In the sense in which we are using it here, the term was coined at the beginning of the Twentieth Century to refer to art forms which the West had not previously regarded as works of art. They were the products of the Near East, India, China and Japan, and were the subjects of Europe-wide Exhibitions and "Ethnographical Museums", which had appeared, bringing the works of these lands before the good citizens of Europe, but the motive had been part of the cult of progress, it had been to give to all and sundry a glimpse of the ground base from which our art had ascended, and to emphasize how far we had travelled. It was all in accord with the sentiments unleashed by Darwin's "The Origin of the Species", the sub-title of which was "The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". These curiosities (as they were termed), these objects of alien strangeness were seized upon by artists looking to break out of the prison of visual truth and away from the rest of the sterile conformities which they considered had engulfed the art of the day. Into this category we must place, then the works coming from Oceana, Polynesia, Africa, Australia, The Noth West American Continent. We are talking of such artifacts as the monolithic heads of Easter Island, God-images from Hawaii, India and elsewhere, Maori carved and painted objects.

But there is another form to which the term Primitivism is applied: it is used to denote the work of an artist who is to all intents and purposes Western, and works in a basically Western tradition, but borrows from the art of indigenous peoples to a significant extent. Gauguin's paintings, with their extensive use of Tahitian motifs would fall into this category, which is probably the one most central to the development of modern art.

There are other examples which you might or might not think would be more appropriately included under headings already given. The Pre-Raphaelites, for example, breaking away from the West's obsession with visual appearance by looking back to the Middle Ages and re-introducing the use of the woodblock. Or the NeoPrimitives drawing from folk art and popular art in exactly the ways that others were drawing from indiginous art, and Paul Klee and Joan Miro doing the same from child art.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to remind ourselves that what they were all taking from these various sources was the one thing those sources always had in common: each its own individual grammar of motifs capable of the direct expression of pure emotion untainted by the need to consider visual appearances.

I personally have a predilection for those artists who fall into my first category, a fine example from nearer the present day, would be Stanley Spencer. He is often likened to William Blake, a comparison which I do not find convincing. Both he and Blake were very individualistic, not to say unique, but Blake had more philosophy driving his work. There is, I would argue, an obvious naivety about Spencer's work which is not so apparent in Blake's. Spencer's naivety was of a religious (and to some extent a sexual) nature. He lived most of his life in the small village of Cookham on the River Thames (where he knew absolutely everyone), and hardly ever left it, except to serve in Macedonia during W.W.I. and to work as a war artist in the Glasgow shipyards during W.W.II. He had the distinguishing vision of the genuine Primitive. In his case the vision was of Christ living in Cookham, joining in the life of the village and ministering to the villagers, Spencer's friends and neighbours, the characters who populated his canvases. He does not comply with all my criteria, having had four years art training at the Slade School, but I have no doubt that he was a genuine Primitive. I must own up to a long-standing passion for Stanley Spencer's work, but I have also included him for a somewhat more practical reason: you can see in the unfinished painting (in the black and white image)being worked upon by Spencer, something of his manner of working.There is a famous unfinished painting, the one he was working on when he died (and for which he left sixty working drawings), called "Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta" which shows it very dramatically, but even in this small monochrome you can see that some characters have not yet had a drop of paint applied to them, whilst all around them the painting is nearly finished. It is a process not unlike fitting jig-saw pieces together.

Some might be surprised to learn that they are not quite an extinct breed, our Primitives. I learnt of one, previously unknown to me, a short time ago. He was featured in a magazine (I think "Country Life", to which magazine I am indebted for most of what follows) which I picked up to leaf through in a doctor's waiting room. His name is John Caple and he is from Sidcot, in Somerset, he was born in 1966, but has only been painting for ten years. His family has farmed in the Mendip Hills for generations and he is steeped in the mythology of that part of the world. It, and his ancestors and family members such as "Granfer Flinders", and local and family tales and legends, form the subject matter of much of his art which draws on the folk art of the area and the work of Alfred Wallis, a Primitive painter of Mystical subjects. Caple is totally self-taught. The titles of his paintings are suggestive: “Luvvy Garnet, Full Moon” (Luvvy Garnet was a lady in the village who walked through the narrow streets whenever there was a full moon while still fast asleep.) “Congregation, Somerset/Mother Prayer, Plymouth Brethren” (John’s maternal grandparents were part of the Plymouth Brethren, a religious sect based in the south of England.) and "Cheddar Quarry" are typical. He has designed numerous book covers for Penguin Books, including jackets to a recent edition of Roald Dahl's novels.

I do not doubt that he is a genuine Primitive as defined by my criteria, even though he does not comply with all of them. It is necessary to exert a little care here, though, for there are more pseudo-Primitives around than there are of the genuine article. Not just where the Rousseau-type, as I have called it, is concerned, but, for example, in the matter of fake and pseudo Aborigine works flooding the market as a result of the endeavours of disreputable agents.

You may think that I have over-emphasised he Rousseau-like individual at the expense of other types of Primitivism. Which would be correct: I have. I have been indulging what I admitted earlier on was a personal passion.

Thursday 24 April 2008

George Barker

Breakfast time last Saturday (19th of April '08) and as on most Saturday mornings at breakfast I open The Guardian to look for "The Saturday Poem". It is from Villa Stella. I read:

"The children are gone. The holiday is over.
Outside it is Fall. Inside it is so
quiet that the silence seems inclined to
talk to itself. They will not recover
the summer of seventy-seven again, even
though they become, in turn, their own children.

I sit in my sixty odd years and wonder
how often before in this old house a man has
sat thinking of what is now, and what was.
But can it serve a serious purpose to ponder
upon the imponderable? There, there beyond a
fall glimmers the long-lost garden

That garden where we, too, as in a spell
stared eye into dazed eye and did not see
that suddenly the holy day was over,
the flashing lifeguard, the worm in the tree,
the glittering of the bright sword as it fell,
and the gate closing for all time to be."

It is a magical moment, a déjà vu moment - and are not all deja vu moments magical in some way? The difference between now and before is that this time I know who wrote it: George Barker.
I came across the poetry of George Barker soon after I had begun to take a serious interest in poetry, but at that stage was in the seductive grip of Dylan Thomas (who famously dismissed Barker's poetry as "masturbatory monologues") and the still-fashionable T.S. Eliot, who had sponsored Barker's work. In fact, like a shopper at Blue Water on a Bank holiday, I was bumping into people at every turn, poets who seemed to be saying things that chimed with me at some level in some significant way. In the melee I decided that Barker's work was too intellectual for me. How come I thought he and not Eliot was too intellectual? Don't ask, for I have no sensible answer to offer you. It was several years later that in a magazine in a dentist's waiting room I read a passage from "Villa Stella". These three verses stayed in my mind. To me the final two have an almost undefinable beauty. I read them without knowing who had written them. When I came to the realisation that it was Barker, I knew I had some serious reading to do. End of story? Not quite, for I was still coming across poets and works faster than I could assimilate them. I must have been like a small child let loose to explore the great wide world on his own for the first time: what to have a go at next? Somewhere along the way George Barker was lost to view - until my déjà vu moment. Today I almost put him in the same bracket as W.S. Graham, in that he sacrifices linear logic and grammatical conformity to verbal and emotional extravagance. There is an slightly eccentric diction and a strong musicality. I say almost put him with W.S.Graham, for he is impossible to categorize; he belongs to no school.
It would seem that the world in general has treated Barker in much the same way as I have, for he was poorly received in the early days then encouraged by John Middleton Murray, which encouragement led to his first collection being published by David Archer's Parton Press, he was then promoted by T.S. Eliot, who, with one exception, would publish his work from then on. He became easily forgotten though, when the fashion changed. It would be nice to think that the analogy could come to be drawn more exactly with a revival of interest in his work. He became the youngest poet to appear in Yeats's Oxford Book of Modern Verse, and his two collections, "Lament and Triumph" and "Eros in Dogma", were to attract critical acclaim. Yet the promised "breakthrough" seems never to have happened. It is difficult to avoid asking why. We have been here before, I know, most recently in discussions of Ezra Pound and his work, but the thought will not go away that maybe the apathy is due, not to the poetry, but to the man. This, after all, is a poet who was thought by Yeats to be the finest of his generation, better than Auden and as rhythmically inventive as Gerard Manley Hopkins. Eliot seems to have been in at least partial agreement, for he initially rejected Auden, but apparently had no reservations where Barker was concerned. Could the fact that Barker's incipient popularity never did take off have had anything to do with his Bohemianism, his outrageous behaviour, his drinking and his proclivity for throwing heavy objects at guests and family - as, for example, when he threw a heavy ashtray at Elspeth, his second wife, for daring to venture the opinion that she hadn't enjoyed his most recent volume as much as the earlier ones? He fathered, according to one family member "around seventten" children by four women, though he was only married twice - to the mother of his first child, she being the first of his four long-term relationships, and to Elspeth, after the death of his first wife. He never divorced. In fact he didn't actually get around to leaving any of his lovers, preferring to drift in and out of relationships as he cooled towards one and (I suppose) warmed to the other. But he would pop back months later, unannounced, and expect all to be as he had left it. He once told the Sunday Times:" It is a woman's duty to be beautiful. When we have a civilized society, they will put down ugly and stupid women." There is much more, but you get the idea... Most of us would agree that such considerations should not influence our view of his poetry, but perhaps they do, by some sort of osmosis, get into the cells where judgements are made, for he has never been fashionable, and for someone so prolific, there is surprisingly little of his work to be found on the internet - and little enough biographical material. When I checked him out on Amazon they had a few books: one copy of his "Selected" (new), three "collected"s (new and used) and some copies of his "Street Ballads"; they also had 4 copies of biographical books and a copy of his "True Confessions". Not much, you might think, for a poet who was once highly regarded by the likes of Yeats and Eliot. "True Confessions" is a long autobiographical poem, and is the one not published by Eliot, who thought it too sexually candid for public taste. Maybe he was right, for when broadcast on radio by the B.B.C. it resulted in angry condemnations in parliament and in outraged accusations of pornography. It is the only book of his poems which Amazon has in plenty!
The fact is, though, that when the fashion was (as it still is) for a distant and ironic voice, when it was cool to be cool, when the trend was for linear logic, Barker wrote poetry that had much in common with Dylan Thomas's in that it was neo-romantic, exuberant and imagistic and had that commonality with W.S. Graham in being, yes, intellectually challenging, though perhaps more in its use (some would say abuse) of language than in its content. But not always. Here he is speaking of his mother:

To My Mother

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
Under the window where I often found her
Sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,
Irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for
The lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her -
She is a procession no one can follow after
But be like a little dog following a brass band.

She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
But lean on the mahogany table like a mountain
Whom only faith can move, and so I send
O all my faith, and all my love to tell her
That she will move from mourning into morning.

My own feeling is that you could trawl the archives of poetry for a long time and not find anything as movingly beautiful as "To My Mother" or those three verses from Villa Stella. But now, in somewhat different vein, some extracts from two poems dated 1934.
First, the opening two verses of

The Leaping Laughers

When will men again
Lift irresistible fists
Not bend from ends
But each man lift men
Nearer again.

Many men mean
Well: but tall walls
Impede, their hands bleed, and
They fall, their seed the
Seed of the fallen.

And some verses from:

Elegy Anticipating Death

Within abysmal catacombs lie
Branches of flame in darker trees,
The figures of precedented I.

As I under wander, these
Forms which crouch in alcoves
Clasping their cadaverous knees,

Glare down on me.
Later comes:

A third in speaking knows it says
No sound; a fourth chews air; and another's
Loins lack love's artifices.

Numberless countenances all brothers
To mine confront me at each turn
So that I an dead in the death of others

Yet all are myself; here they learn
The ossified restrictions I
Foresee must make my spirit burn

Only the more intense, when the soul-racks die
Not to loose dust but to the icy
Pain of bone laid immovably.

Perhaps to remake a point already made, George Barker published twenty-two books of poems. Of the twenty-two Google turned up no references to four of them, and many of the references that I did find were to second hand book suppliers, ebay, to books out of print and to Antiquarian Books. Furthermore a high proportion of the references were to the title only, with no quotations from, or comments on, the book. It maybe that my searches were not as exhaustive as they could have been, but it seems inconceivable that I could have drawn as many blanks on any other poet of his status, even on one so out of fashion. The twenty-two works are:

Third Preliminary Poems. 1933
Poems 1935
Calamiterror 1937
Lament and Triumph 1940
Eros in Dogma 1944
Love Poems. 1947
News of the World 1950
The Truie Confessions of George Barker 1950
A Vision of Beasts and Gods 1954
The View from a Blind I 1962
Dreams of a summer Night 1966
The Golden Chains. 1968
Runes and Rhymes and Tunes and Chimes 1968
At Thurgarton Church 1969
Poems of Places and People 1971
In Memory of David Archer 1973
Dialogues 1976
Villa Stella. 1978
Anno Domini 1983
Collected Poems 1987
Seventeen 1988
Three Poems.

Friday 18 April 2008

Bits and Pieces

No one told me..

I didn't know, until I read it in the paper the other day, that this is The National Year of Reading Shakespeare on behalf of which a national survey was commissioned to discover the preferred reading matter of 11 to 14 year olds. And guess what? Shakespeare did not come top. Not only that, but the bard escaped bottom spot only by the narrowest of margins, with homework pushing him up one place. First and second places were taken by Heat and Bliss, celebrity gossip magazine and teenage girls mag, respectively.

These unsurprising results were followed by the disconcerting "news" that most serious theatres are concerned that there is no source from which to replenish their existing audiences when, from one cause or another, these fall by the wayside.

All this led up to a consideration of how to interest the teenage youth in the Sweet Bard of Avon. (Why do we insist on referring to him as the bard, by the way? The one thing he never was, was a bard.) Putting him back in the school curriculum is ruled out, Tom Stoppard having been asked what he had thought of his first encounter with Shakespeare (which, as it happened, was Laurence Olivier's Hamlet), and having received the reply that it had bored him "shitless". (Not sure of the connection there, but I do know that I was put off Shakespeare at school, mainly by "The Merchant of Venice" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream". What wouldn't I have given for Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet"!)

There was much discussion of the various media available for communicating Shakespeare these days: opera, dance, radio, T.V., film, music, musicals... no mention was made of puppets or X boxes... but the most likely saviour, it was thought, was cartoons, particularly the Manga series, which are Japanese in style. Particularly, it was thought that the Japanese style of the Manga comics alongside Shakespeare's "funny English" would appeal to teenager Gothic tastes. The Classic Comics series was also thought to be a runner as these come in triplicate with a complete text, a "plain" text and a quick text". (There is also a no text version.)

I don't think the comic approach would have tempted-in many of the adolescents I have taught, though many of them, I am sure, would gladly have read them. But maybe the present teenage population.... maybe I am not well-placed anymore to judge. I would be interested to hear what others might think.

The comic page is from Richard III "plain" text.
Click on it to see larger size.

A Change of mind?

This is a follow-up to my post One man's meat is another man's Haiku, and has been occasioned by my discovery of a recently-published book by Maryanne Wolf, "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain". In my post I touched on the changes to a brain's structure that result from the process of learning to read, and how those changes vary enormously according to the type of reading matter being mastered. The example I took concerned how the structures resulting from learing to read an alphabet-based text such as English will differ from those in the brain of a person learning to read, say, Chinese, a visual encoding whose method is based upon the ideogram. One of my illustrations involved fMRI scans of the two brains. Wolf has a more powerful image which I would certainly have used had I been aware of it at the time: she tells of a bilingual man, a fluent reader in both English and Chinese, who suffered a disasterous stroke which destroyed parts of his brain, such that he could no longer read a word of English. His ability to read Chinese, however, was undiminished. She makes the point that reading is an unnatural activity, or as she puts it: "Our brains were never wired for reading." Reading was only ever made possible by the capacity of the neurons in the brain to forge new links in response to new demands being made upon the brain. This allows the language form being used to write a particular structure to the brain. Or as Wolf puts it: "We are what we read." I think that sums up quite succinctly what I was struggling to express in my original post.

A Subaltern's Love Song

Sad to hear of the death of Joan Hunter Dunn. I am sure many thought she was a fiction. As many as those who think John Betjeman was too light-weight or too jingly to be considered as a serious poet. Much of his work was maybe too light-weight and too jingly to have made of him a likely Poet Laureate, yet Poet Laureate he became. And there was more: he has been called parochial and passe and has been faulted for not doing the big themes - except for death. All of which is fair comment. He was not a nature poet, not a Wordsworth certainly, but perhaps his biggest crime has been that of becoming known for the wrong poems. A Subaltern's Love Song, would, I suppose, be regarded as typical Betjeman. And it is, but if that is to summarise what he achieved, it sells him short. He was best known for his nostalgia, his sense of place and of Victorian architecture in particular, even for his melancholia, but to my mind he was, above all, a poet of landscape, nearer to Crabbe than to Wordsworth. For me his best works are the poems from and of Cornwall and Ireland:

Stony outcrop of the burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe's Stone Age race.

He was also a splendid writer of blank verse and was happier with it than with prose. And what an incredibly lucky poet! How many others have been lucky enough to find a muse with a name like Joan Hunter Dunn? You couldn't even hope for it, could you? To what extent she was his muse, I am not sure, not in the same way that Maud Gonne was Yeats's muse, I think. To the best of my knowledge Joan Hunter Dunn inspired only the one poem (though I am happy to stand corrected on that), but Betjeman's muse is what she is, and I guess, will remain.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Short Official Guide VI

My Short official Guide to Ancestral Home reaches its conclusion with a look at the grounds. If you have stayed with me, my thanks. If you were not around for the earlier posts you can catch up on them by clicking on the label short_guide.

The Parklands

From the avenue that brought you to our door,
interminable though it would have seemed,
you would have seen a tiny fraction
of a small part of our land.
The work of many owners and the consequence
of many annexations. It contains:
a fountain (high-Baroque),
a lake with islands,
islands with fantastic grottoes,
grottoes with attendant ghosts
skeletons and water gardens,
a French parterre,
three formal gardens,
kitchen garden,
two burnt-out towers (North and South)
small theme park - and

The Sculpture Gallery

currently our hottest property. Cassandra Tiffany,
mother, father, midwife to the scheme,
self-styled Defender of the Average Man,
first ever data junkie, hooked
on ideas of a free society
and detonating smoke bombs in the halls of art,
found (as like as not)
polishing the bronze maquettes
of Epstein's Angel (wings like ruffled water),
a perfect combination of an earthly weight,
a gravitas with airiness
and what so nearly might have been.

In contrast, on a massive convolution of giant toes,
solid and supreme, a Hittite God;
purchase of stone,
earth-rooted weight,
Yazilikaya's finest, stands.
From toes to tip
of his comical,
conical hat,
a very modern model of the modern macho-man.

His sword has lions along its hilt.
The muscles rip.
The thrust is down and through the earth,
into an underworld of stone.
The lions are squeezed like hamsters in his grip.

The blade trepans the stone skull. Milt
of cold, cerebral thought is spilt:
red marrow from the bone.

Cassandra Tiffany departs
to keep the turnstiles clicking
with hurdy-gurdies, roundabouts
and throws in the casino.

You'll trust her as the dowager
survivor of Guernica...
The lithograph is value if you want a keepsake, dear…

Lord Noah for all his trekking,
could find no wilderness,
but hush! hush! deny them who dares,
Mandelbrot and Koch are mapping theirs
while all the frightened people say their prayers.

A louring sky, a souvenir,
a flurry of rekindled life
and sawdust in a dance.
Shabhala the ancient city is as near
to us as France.

Monday 14 April 2008

My April Haiku Challenge

Back at the beginning of the month I kind of accepted the challenge of April being Poetry Month in which the more foolhardy poets and would-be poets undertake to write a poem a day. Never a prolific wannabe, I did limit the strain on myself by saying that it would probably be a Haiku a day. There has been one other along the way, and although not yet at the half-way point, I thought I would post what I have so far -in case that's as far as I get or I fall off the edge of the world or something!
Remember, I also got in first by saying I was not expecting to produce anything other than stuff to work on later.

wind and rain all day two perfect rosebuds
hitting the magnolia one glistening with dew, one
the day it flowered snug in morning frost

the rain that brings to life spooky moon, weak sun
hidden colours in a dry stone snowflakes in a strong north wind -
does nothing for drab clothes nothing moves the rainbow

wise indeed who knows reading replaces sleep
where to scatter the ashes when fireworks or near thunder
in this nor' easter leave the mind in fear

the rhododendron men with blowers
blushed to see its snow veil dancing leaves across the road
tattered by the wind while traffic waited

after the hailstorm the fading bracts
a new moon in the acer waited and waited to greet
and a dying sun the new arrivals

a soft staccato a drift of hail stones
wingbeat of a startled bird - and the back steps glaciated
no greater sound that day in the grip of spring

Saturday 12 April 2008

The weasel under the cocktail cabinet.

Back in January (the 22nd) (Was it really that long ago?) I ventured a comment on Jim Murdoch's Post, Judging a Book by Everything Bar it's Cover that I was coming round to the idea of literature being what is left when you subtract the story. The actual phrase was not original, was not from my fast-breeder of a brain; nor, I guess, was the concept. Both seemed to have been hanging around at that time. However, the ground in which the seed for that thought might have grown had been prepared a little over forty years ago, and having left the comment I was reminded of a fascinating puzzle encountered in those dim and distant days, a puzzle that fascinated me then and still does today. At any rate, my comment on Jim's post set that old train of thought back upon its rails, and I have decided that it is now time I went somewhere with it. At the end of the day you might come to doubt the wisdom of that decision.

In the early days of my teaching career I worked in a special school for children with learning difficulties. Looking back, it was one of the most interesting periods of my career. Each child's special difficulties were individual to that child, but in any one there would be some sort of combination of: short attention span, immature language development, poor verbal- and abstract reasoning, some degree of hyperactivity... They were all aged between eight and ten. You will understand my amazement then when I tell you that their favourite television programme, was Perry Mason, an American, Emmy-winning drama. That is, you will understand my amazement if you are ancient enough to remember Perry Mason - or if you happen to have one or more of his D.V.Ds. in your collection. It was basically a courtroom drama written to a formula, the formula being that, in the first half hour a murder is committed and the police arrest the wrong person. Perry, a lawyer, is engaged for the defense and sets out to prevent what seems like an inevitable miscarriage of justice. There is a trial. Perry and his assistant investigate. Perry ties the prosecution up in knots before producing a pyrotechnic display of verbal wizardry that traps the guilty party into a dramatic court room confession, usually while giving testimony on the witness stand. The second part would consist of Perry and the innocent principals getting together for Perry to explain the intricacies of what happened: how the dastardly deed was done and covered-up and how the villains were eventually trapped by their one fatal mistake. That at any rate is how I remember it forty years on.

What I do remember and for sure is that the whole programme was geared to their weaknesses. The emphasis was all on the talk and away from the action. The 'action' was, for the most part, explained, not shown, other than in brief flash-backs - a further complication, for children not as television-sophisticated as they are today. The time-line must have been quite beyond their powers to unravel. And yet they were in no doubt about it: it was their favourite programme. The enthusiasm with which they recounted the previous evening's story was corroboration enough, if any were needed. They could not wait to explain the latest happenings, to tell me "What it was about". But here was the problem: the stories they unfolded bore no resemblance to the one I had watched. Consistently so. Week after week I failed to reconcile "their" plot to the one I had watched. I began by making the assumption that, not able to understand the speech (in which was the action, remember), they were in some way creating their own action and attributing it to the characters, rather as they might manipulate dolls or action men, projecting appropriate motives onto them as they did so. These alternative plots, I supposed, were the direct result of their lack of understanding or of their misunderstandings. That was very condescending of me, a fact I was to realise only when it finally dawned on me that my twenty pupils were not producing twenty different scripts. Some weeks they would all be telling the same tale, like crime suspects who had carefully rehearsed their alibi. (I did check that one out, by the way: they had not had the opportunity to compare notes to that extent, many of them having come straight off different coaches - not that they would have been able to get their stories together that well, in any case.) Other weeks there would be two or three versions with varying degrees of agreement between them, but impressive correspondence within each. And then a moment of intuition: watching the broadcast one Sunday, I tried to rid myself of all the extraneous baggage that I had been bringing to it, baggage which they did not possess: knowledge of the formula to which the stories were written (their versions rarely conformed), familiarity with the conventions of film and video drama (their story lines were always linear, not always as simple as you might expect, though flash-backs would often be absorbed into the present), my greater susceptibility to spoken language than to body language or to other forms of non-verbal communication (it was not so much that the actual words used were beyond them, as that the sentence structures would be unfamiliar), etc, etc. There was a colossal amount of it when I got right down to it. Too much ever to have allowed me to succeed in my self-appointed task of divesting myself of it! However, to the extent that I managed something of my plan, I was able, at least to intuit - no more than that - the possibility of alternative interpretations beneath the author's complex plots. False ones, you might think (the author would have, I am sure!) but that perhaps is to show the prejudices with which our culture so unthinkingly equips us - then sometimes (as in the case of those youngsters), doesn't. Assuming that I was correct in my suppositions, who are we to say that those alternative versions were less valid than the ones the programme-makers had in mind? Less valid to them, perhaps, but to those youngsters? (Another source of divergence, I decided later, after a little more "research", was the fact that they consciously took cues from the mood music - as they called it - while, it being anathema to me, I had always done my best to filter it out.)(I still practice this occasionally, with a kind of detached viewing when watching the soaps - the results can be quite interesting!)

So what did I glean from all that? A good deal that was valuable to me as their teacher, but for our purposes, an understanding that in any play or novel there are things going on that are not in concert, so that for the reader, viewer, listener what they take from it will depend upon where their focus is located. How many plots are there in even a simple tale well told? What, for this reader, that viewer, listener, is the tale about? Who but they can know? Certainly not the author. In a slim volume, an anthology of his work, a real gem of a book called Various Voices, Harold Pinter tells how many years ago he was taking part in a discussion on the theatre. A lady asked him what his work was about. As it happens, Pinter hates having to answer that particular question, and so replied "with no thought at all and simply to frustrate that line of inquiry: The weasel under the cocktail cabinet. It was a great mistake," he says, for "Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful remark about my own work." I believe theses have been written on it since, and no doubt Doctorates awarded and professors appointed on the strength of it. For Pinter the remark had meant "precisely nothing".

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Munch's Scream

The news that Edvard Munch's Scream, stolen in a dramatic Heist, you may remember, and then recovered in a damaged condition, is beyond repair came as a bit of a surprise, to say the least. After all, they have been restoring it now for four years. You might have thought that they would have realised a little earlier that the cause was hopeless. But then, reading on a bit, it transpires that the scratches to the paint surface and the areas of flaking have, in fact, been successfully dealt with. All that remains is some water damage, as I understand it, a loss of shine in an area of dark, loose brushmarks, well away from the central focus of the picture. This cannot be treated as the painting is on cardboard stuck to board. Had it been on canvas, the moisture would have been sucked out from the rear, but as it is, there is nothing that can be done.

Okay, so we have a painting whose main areas have been fully restored, but there is a water mark low down in an unimportant area, one to which Munch certainly did not give much care or attention. It's a great shame, but perhaps not the end of the world for the owners. So what's all the fuss about? Well, reading on still further, we discover that as a result of that unremovable mark, the paining has, in all probability, gained appreciably in value - and will certainly be an even greater crowd-drawer than it was before. Now am I being overly cynical here? Are they really unable to do anything about a mere water mark, these experts in their temperature- and humidty-controlled vault, behind their fingerprint-operated locked doors, with high-tech equipment and their genuinely jaw-dropping skills? After all, this is the era in which it has been known for conservators to remove the paint film, restore the canvas and then replace the original paint. Could they really not prise apart the board and the cardboard? And remember, it is not the only version of The Scream, but it has become - and even more so because of the mark - the most famous one, the one with star quality, the must-see one.

To a point I agree with the museum authorities that the damage has now become part of the painting, but are there any other cynics out there?

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Short Official Guide V

The penultimate page. Next week we finish with a stroll around the grounds.

The East Wing

The Chapel

door is opposite.
A place of meditation now.
(Shambhala the ancient city
can be reached.)
Put to many uses in its time:
mosque, temple, wine store.Popular with tourists,
it bids you pause
and spare a moment,
read (at the open page
and for your own enlightenment)
its “Angel Bible",
paraphrased by Clare
in blank,
unpunctuated verse
and annotated in her hand,
illuminated in the style of Blake
and bound in Angelskin -
the formula for which
died with her, we believe.
Her finest work.
And then the wagons really rolled!
Machines took over; Clare controlled
the commerce; visuals
were left to others.
Unit-planned, prefabricated frescoes
multiplied the scale
(and distribution schemes the sale)
by several-thousandfold. Of all those sold,
few went to churches.

The Eastern Priest's Room

part old, part new, was once the sacristy
and then The Figurine and Puppet Room.
Now furnished in pale greys and greens,
its damp walls, blotched with portraits of past owners
(faces grow like fungi in the gloom)
and tapestries of scenes
that moulded them, this house and you and me,
allow each owner, son and wife
when tourists come to come to life.

Explorers all, the psyche was their continent who said:
All that we cannot know is flesh and bone.
The rest is local colour. They who led
us on in Pollock rhythms trailed around the world
or spent themselves in tricks and dribbles
(in and out of bed),
seem more substantial to us now they're dead.
Scene after scene is peeled away,
web after web of soft, reflected glow,
reflecting what we can and cannot know.

The Music Room

contains no instruments these days.
a loop of tape
(and earpiece with acoustic boom
supplied at token cost)
gives flavour of
(a few short extracts only)
Ms Beatrice Paul's unlikely cult spectacular: A
Child Called Caryatid, or
A Pillar of Society.
Two verses from the lyrics follow here:

She'll dance with the devil for an offering on the drum,
the spirit of an age that has flown around the sun,
that wants to live for ever and believes it can be done.
Her brain is full of knowledge and her loins are full of love,
For a mind she has a gun-sight with its cross-wires trained above.
On how she will reach it, she is far from being clear,
for it's far beyond her range and she hesitates for fear
that the sun will melt her wings if she dares to venture near,
but she's calculated the trajectory and mapped it on a graph,
so suggest she will not reach it and she'll dance away and laugh,
and dancing to the music like a woman in a trance,
the images that come to her, she'll abandon in the dance.

It is hard now to remember that this woman proudly stood
among her people as the sanity among the superstitions of the wood.
Then the coldness of her thighs and the coldness of her brow
held an image that was clear, but is lost to man for good.
She's the mistress of our passions, she's the passion we avow,
so we listen to her stories of the days that are long gone,
of public adulation and the offerings upon
the altar stone she stood before, high above the people,
motionless, expressionless, dumb beneath the steeple,
and we think her stern and distant, with an act to run and run,
a bowl of living water from a river on the sun,
and we listen to her murmurs and interpret what we hear
as meaning that all meaning passed its use-by date last year.

Friday 4 April 2008

One man's meat is another man's Haiku...

The accompanying image is from an fM.R.I. scan (the f stands for functional). It shows a human brain. The fM.R.I's. rather remarkable ability to highlight active areas of the brain so that they are clearly differentiated from the more quiescent ones derives from the fact that oxygenated haemoglobin is diamagnetic - i.e, it slightly repels a magnetic force - while deoxygenated blood is paramagnetic - i.e. itself becomes slightly magnetic. Looking at an M.R.I. image, it can clearly be seen which areas stand out as active and which are the quiescent ones. By scanning a subject while he or she is reading a book, for example, the scan will reveal which specific areas of the brain were involved in that process.

A few weeks ago I came across the results of some studies which set me thinking and have resulted in this post. The studies compared the brain activity in Asian (Chinese) and Western (Canadian) subjects when reading. The two groups were scanned as they read and the two sets of scans produced very different results: those areas of the brain that were shown to be active when the Asian subjects were reading were not the same as those involved when the Canadians read. This has been attributed to the fact that in the West, language is alphabetic (or ideophonic), while Asian languages are ideographic. In the case of the Western reader, the activity is a sequential one, the letters must be read and then broken down into phonemes which then have to be matched to a known meaning. The reading (or recognizing) of the letters is a visual activity, whilst the matching of the phonemes must be done to a meaning that has been learnt by listening to the speech of others. In other words, the matching is from a visual area of the brain to an aural one. Initially there is nothing in the structure of the brain that would allow this to happen, so when a (western) child is learning to read, physical connections must be laid down between the two areas. In the case of the Asian child learning to read, however, the activity is more akin to the parallel processing of a computer, for the brain must grab meaning from a pictogram, and almost simultaneously determine the sound of it.

It will be seen that something happens in the first case, i.e. when a Western person is learning to read, that does not happen in the second: the structure of the brain is significantly modified - or if it is happening in both instances (likely) it is happening in different ways. And as in the case of reading, so it is with other speech and language skills: their acquisition permanently modifies, subtly or distinctly, the way in which the brain is structured, and that modification predisposes us to favour - to be able to fully comprehend or be moved by - certain forms and patterns of the spoken and written word.

I have long had this fanciful image of two archipeligoes; the islands in one are composed of words, those in the other are meanings. Between the words on the one hand and the meanings on the other there exists a network of narrow shipping lanes in which we writers, would-be writers,. lovers of poetry and others, move and have our being. Truth and beauty - and therefore poetry - inhabit the shallows between the lanes, visible, touchable at times, but ultimately elusive. They make their ways to and from the islands under their own steam and by their own routes. For us the connections between the islands are real, but never fixed or certain - and certainly never exclusive, never one-to-one and never immutable.

I have, I say, long held that image, but reading the results of these studies, I begin to get the notion - and here I risk exposing my ignorance - that this image of mine applies only - or mainly - to those of us in the western world for whom reading involves mastering an alphabet. It would seem that for the Chinese subjects of these studies the connections between my two archipeligoes are less fluid by far; the shallows play no part in the analogy, the lanes are firm, dry paths, the word-islands are mirror images of their meanings, the ideogram incorporates the visual experience to which it relates.

Having possibly exposed my ignorance, I am now going to risk my head above the parapet by daring to compare a triplet of my poor attempts at Haiku with three from recognised masters - or rather, two masters and a mistress. I have chosen Haiku as being both a convenient form of Japanese poetry and the one most familiar to most western people, though my interest is not in its brevity, but in what might lie behind it. I am hooked on the idea that something is going on in oriental poetry (and in Japanese poetry particularly) that we cannot fully comprehend. I am tempted to make the analogy of a colourblind person looking at a Matisse painting - but the thought raises the analogy with Chinese and Japanese painting, and that is a whole new subject that I will not get into now. Many poetry lovers will say they miss the the compression, the musicality of the rhythms and the assonance when confronted with a Haiku. To me they have often seemed little more than acute observations - and, indeed, Buson, a pupil of Basho, criticised the master for favouring unusual observations. But I slightly digress, I think, so here goes... my Haiku first:

Disappearing birds.
Silent woodlands. Silent homes.
Disappearing words.

Even in the fields
the city street is sounding like
a noisy neighbour

Wind and rain all day
hitting the magnolia.
That day it flowered.

And now a Haiku from the pen of Suzuki Masajo, a twentieth century poet:

Spring loneliness -
it falls short of the surf
this stone I toss

From Basho, seventeenth century, and probably the best known of all haiku writers:

The temple bell dies away
The scent of flowers in the evening
Is still tolling the bell.

And from Buson Yosa, eighteenth century:

The air shimmers.
Whitish flight
Of an unknown insect.

You will have no difficulty, I warrant, spotting the difference in quality between the first set and the second, but to me there is a deeper, more fundamental difference. I remarked just recently in a comment to a post from Jim Murdoch on minimal poetry, Less is more or less (part one) (24/03/08) that I had embarked upon a cull of my Haiku scripts. Of the three used here, two were the only survivors of that cull. By definition, therefore, they are the two that pleased me most - or perhaps, displeased me least. The third Haiku I have written since, so I have not abandoned the form which Jim brilliantly refers to as a Haiku approximation. That, surely, is exactly what it is. The clue is, I think, that when I come to compare my efforts with, say the Basho, I do not just see a great gap yawning between them; I see two different animals, a familiar life form and a very unfamiliar one. It would be no different were I to take another Japanese form; say tanka (rendered in English as a 35-syllable form) or Senryu (like Haiku, but using irony instead of a seasonal word). What would be different would be taking the example, say, of a sonnet. I might reasonably expect to be able to write a sonnet of sorts. It might not prove to be a very good sonnet, but it should still qualify as a sonnet.

Visiting Sorlil's Blog recently (thoroughly recommended, by the way) I was reminded that April (the cruelest month) is poetry month, for the duration of which, some unwise souls take on the challenge of writing a poem day. I, impetuous as always, laid a promise that I would try - no more than that! - but said it would probably be Haiku (approximations, of course) all the way. I do not think I could find the time for more than that - I know, I know, three lines take twice as long as thirty! But this, for me, is just the discipline of getting something down that perhaps I might be able to work on later.

In Less is more or less (part one), Jim also suggests that maybe Haiku is impossible for the Western (he says "English") mind, but goes on: That doesn’t mean some very nice poetry can't be produced using that structure and adds, I think realistically, but perhaps haiku is not the best name for it. By all means let us borrow the structure. If someone finds it will work for them they would be foolish not to, but to my mind Haiku is not about 5-7-5 or any other format or formula. It is about experiencing. It is about experiencing the walk between the islands along paths that may not even exist in our western world - or in our western minds, perhaps. It is about sights and smells, about sounds and feelings and about an intangible that belongs somewhere in Eastern philosophy.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Short Official Guide IV

Loyalty is rewarded this time with a shortish extract.

The Study

Here, on a bureau, overlooked by most,
find stories, scrapbooks,
and photographs from Picture Post.

Cabinets display Noah's logs,
itineraries, trophies, relics,
souvenirs and diaries
of ocean voyages and treks;
of vain attempts
to find that most
elusive wilderness. Read
thoughts on sail-aways
and welcomes home,
including that last time,
The Voyager's Return.
We picture Noah
complete with bride, The Princess
Able Clare,
on whom he wrote a thesis for the tech'
and whom he treasured as a jewel until the fall.

Reluctant to reveal,
open at their arbitrary pages,
revealing in their very arbitrariness,
admittedly not all,
but much of our relationship
to those remote and foetal ages.

Shannat... Shannapse... Shambhala!
Shambhala the ancient city can be reached.
Tickets cost... excursion rates...
the native guides, 'shifty-eyed'
deserted - it was said.

Brochures and travel agents
flood the centers of our minds,
now difficult to reach,
with neon light.

See in the final montage: the long night
slowly freezing from its first beginnings to a stop
(the sunken eyes, the wasted limbs,
the questionings awaiting en famille
having screwed him to his station),
as Lord Noah,exiled from his milieu, stands,
boots no match for water nor Pak-A-Mac for frost,
out-waiting the reluctance of the dawn to break.
Before he gets his turn to pay, the milk is gone.
Then with the armistice comes liberation.

Too late by far: Noah's child has died.
Chi-Chi, you may spot, has tin upon tin of milk put by.
His child (well-overfed)
is dancing with the ballet.

Featured here: Petrouchka's final act.
Sprawling in the marketplace.
Sky grown dim,
stitches leaking sawdust,
every limb
(You'll find him in the nursery,
still in disrepair,
propped up in the corner with the teddy bear.)