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Sunday 28 September 2008


At art school in the early fifties, as I recall, there were two five-letter words that were as taboo as any with four letters: style and taste. I speak only of the students, for I cannot recall what the position of our lecturers was on these issues. Taste was a rude word signifying a person who knew what he liked- usually translated as meaning a person who liked what he knew. Style was a no-no, I think because it was seen as something trivial, not part of anyone's great vision. Yet it is difficult to conceive of either a painting or an example of literature that does not display a style of some sort. If it is pared to the bone, that in itself is a very distinctive style.

How times do change: only last week we were reading of Damien Hurst's former girl friend who owns a painting by him, his first according to her, given to her by Damien while they were still an item. It is a perfectly straight-forward painting of a cat. She has been fondly imagining herself to be sitting on a fortune, but alas, when she took it along to Sotherby's recently, she was told that it was worthless. Why? Well, not because it was an early, immature work - which it was, of course. And not because it was poorly conceived or crudely executed. Any of those would have been good and valid reasons for declaring a painting worthless - in my humble opinion. But, no, she was told that it was of no value because it was not in his trademark style. Translated, that means, it is a painting and not something preserved in formaldehyde. Okay, someone has now offered her £5000, but she still wants - or wanted, I might have missed out on the final chapter of the story - at least ten times that figure. (Yes, quite!) In the same paper I read a piece on Gerhard Richter, an who insists on swimming against the current tide by refusing to limit himself to a single (trademark) style. A trademark style, he insists, is not necessary for success. All power to his brush!

So when did this all come about, this general insistence on the trademark style? Picasso certainly did not have any truck with it. He experimented with most of the styles around (and maybe a few that were not) as the three accompanying images are intended to illustrate. And that was not just in his salad days, but right through his career. His various periods took in Naturalism, with his blue and rose periods,African Art, Primitivism, Cubism, collage works, Surrealism and various degrees of abstraction.

We get the same attitude in poetry. There are many good things to be found in his poetry, says a critic, but he is lacking his own voice. It is an ambiguous remark to the extent that it can sometimes be taken to mean that he is not saying anything original, at other times that though he has an original take on the world, he is not expressing it in an original way. In actual fact I am not sure about that as a possibility where poetry is concerned. There are two main positions, each defended by enthusiastic poetic combatants; there is the dualist view that style allows you to express very similar (though not identical) thoughts in different ways; and the monist standpoint that form and content are inseparable, that if you change the form you will inevitably change the meaning. Where poetry is concerned I am a monist. (And I think I am one where painting is concerned - though I might have to give that a bit more thought.)

For me, poetry must always involve an interplay between form, content and style. One poet piles on image after image, another pares them down, and just as for one painter meaning is inseparable from detail, whilst another gives us acres of one slightly scintillating colour, so does poetry have its counterparts to those.. Within each of the various genres (literature) and schools (painting) is a structure of accepted conventions which readers and viewers well understand. Style is (or was) one of those conventions. Once it meant that works of art coming from a certain place and time could be attributed to that place and time by means of their distinctive style. Today the situation is not that straight-forward, but even now, if you depart too far from the accepted conventions, you may not carry your target audience (to use the current jargon) with you.

Alternatively, depart far enough and your work may become a breath of fresh air blowing through a stifling atmosphere becoming ever more stale. T.S.Eliot's Wasteland had such an effect. Perhaps not immediately, so far as the majority were concerned, but late in the day it became a breath of fresh air for me. I recall when I was first exposed to it - though that was more than three decades after it was written. I still find it incredible to think that there was that time lag. What were our poetry teachers reading all those years? To me the breath of fresh air was almost scriptural.The wind bloweth where it listeth, you hear its sound, but no man knoweth whence it comes or where it goes. (John 3.8) I didn't understand where the ideas were coming from, not at first. Neither did I know where they were taking me. It has often been like that for me: understanding may not come at once, perhaps not for a long time, but it may perhaps be enough to stand in front of a painting and take it in. The eyes may have thoughts of their own of which the brain is unaware. The ears may react to an unfamiliar verse form long before the brain can catch up.

Sometimes something unconnected with the art form, say a technical advance or a social change, will bring about a new style. (Once it would have been something of that nature, for sure, but these days it could as easily be just someone striving to be different.) For the the Impressionists, for example, the catalyst had to do with the paints. For the first time in history it was no longer the case that the artist had to mix his own in the studio, but was able to buy them ready-mixed in tubes. Consequently, he was no longer confined to painting in the studio, but could take his easel, his canvas, his brushes, and his tubes of mixed paint out into the countryside and paint the scenes before his eyes. At the same time there were the twin influences of Japanese prints and of the photographers with their revolutionary cropping of the image, sometimes across a figure. All this, of course, led to changes that went far beyond what we would normally think of as style. Style, content and meaning (whatever that means!) become inextricably mixed. As they did, for example, when Picasso began to play (I chose the word instinctively, but allowed it only after careful thought) with images from African sculpture. Picasso was always playing around with images and techniques, but perhaps sometimes he played with more than he might have appreciated at the time. The simile that almost invariably comes to mind when I think of the artist playing, let's say absent mindedly, with the power that can reside in an image - which is a creative thing to do - is of Humboldt, the explorer, on the banks of the Orinoco River coming upon some native children playing with the dried seed pods of a sunflower-like plant. They were rubbing them vigorously and then holding them high in the air, at which point all manner of tiny creatures, small objects and debris blowing around in the air were drawn to them and stuck there. They do not know with what they play, said Humboldt, it being, of course, electricity. Picasso could not have seen in the African heads, masks and figures, what their makers had seen in them, but what he was playing with, as it turned out, was the power that drove him to his Demoiselles d'Avignon. There had been other influences, the painting had had a lengthy gestation period, but African Art was what lit the fuse and produced the blast that was to blow his artistic development completely off its old course and on to a new and previously unsuspected one. African art solved for Picasso the dilemma that was holding him back: how to come up with a radically new structure and form without losing the content and the allusions to real-life issues that were so important to him.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

The Poet Laureate

The post of poet laureate will soon be up for grabs, it seems, as Andrew Motion is coming to the end of his ten year tenure. In fact, the phrase up for grabs may be somewhat misleading as it it rumoured that all our leading poets are running for cover, demanding police protection or diplomatic immunity (if they can prove a Gaelic connection) or generally going into all kinds of hiding, for the post is perceived as something of a poisoned chalice. Which is why, I suppose, it is now a ten year sentence and not life.

Many are the opinions now being expressed in the media and across the internet. Reading them has been something of a surprise to me - and rather salutary to discover the depths of my own ignorance. For example: I had thought the post in question carried something of a national responsibility, that the poet laureate was supposed to produce poems to mark the notable events in the life of the nation. Okay, so it's sort of difficult to come up with much that the poor guy could be celebrating in verse just now... maybe the exploits of our olympic and para-olympic teams? Not much to go wild about on the political front, though. Still, there are issues to be addressed: global warming, of course (yes, I know that has a political dimension, but this is thinking at the keyboard).

But no, actually, that is not what he does; it is what I had thought he did and it is what a lot of those who take an interest in such things think he should be doing. Indeed, many seem to think it could become an excellent blueprint for the modernisation of the post (sorry, poisoned chalice), but it is not what the job is about. What the job is about, apparently, is writing poems for the Windsors; a rap-inspired poem for Prince William's twenty first birthday, for example; a ceremonial thingy for the royal diamond wedding. Neither of these, according to their author, being exactly well received.

Another surprise, which stopped being a surprise when I thought about it (that is, when I realised that I could not recall a significant poem from his pen in the last ten years - more ignorance on my part, perhaps), was his writer's block. He has himself given the impression just recently that he has not written anything of his own account for a long while. The post (poisoned chalice) has been incredibly thankless, he told a recent arts festival, and has left him unabe to write anything at the present time. I was surprised because I had fondly thought him to have been a good poet laureate. And so he has been, in terms of the status of poetry in our society. He has worked tirelessly to promote the reading and writing of the stuff... though that, as I understand it, was no part of the job.

There are voices being raised demanding that this impossibly limiting conception of the job must go, must undergo dramatic revision before the next victim is picked upon. The change last time around, from life tenure to a ten year stint was acknowledgement that change is due. Overdue, some would say. This time there is pressure for a more thorough-going change.

My vote for the new poet laureate? Carol Ann Duffy. Yes, I know; she hasn't got a hope in hell of being the next victim: she's bisexual and she's Scottish, two facts that damned her last time around. But she's what the nation deserves. I really don't wish her any harm, but I would like to see her take on the role. She would make something of it, I am sure... Oh, but there is one other thing against her: she has been brutally honest about the vacuity at the heart of contemporary British (sorry, English) society. The first two verses of her Head of English are typical:

Today we have a poet in the class.
A real live poet with a published book.
Notice the inkstained fingers girls. Perhaps
we're going to witness verse hot from the press.
Who knows. Please show your appreciation
by clapping. Not too loud. Now

sit up straight and listen. Remember
the lesson on assonance, for not all poems,
sadly, rhyme these days. Still. Never mind.
Whispering's, as always, out of bounds -
but do feel free to raise some questions.
After all, we're paying forty pounds.

See what I mean?

Sunday 21 September 2008

Haiku thoughts from Guernsey

Recollected in tranquility: most of the following originated on the day I forgot to take my camera. I was about to bin them, but then thought: "No, not yet... wait and see".

A seawall for a catwalk
and the gulls in turn
show off their feathers.

Time out from the parade:
two mannequins mount guard
against maraudung swallows.

No victor, no escape.
Two rutting stags:
eternal stalemate.

Vertiginous path.
Footprints left in wet cement
end at the cliff edge.

Small things - a cracked wing mirror -
and we leave the world behind
more fractured than we found it.

Sliding towards the ferry, | A sculptor's genius?
the Autumn sea's | No, only the sea
grey avalanche. | can ripple stone like that.

From above the cliffs
a tranquil sea
threatened by a casement gun.

The old moon swells with pride | Upended ice cream cone,
nearing the skyline | a castle in the sand
which brightens at her touch. | creating its own moat.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

The Photobooth

It's good to be back. My thanks to those who visited during my absence, and especially to those who left comments. I will get to all as soon as I can - inbetween catching up on a backlog of chores, of course! We did eventually escape the nice doctors with their nasty procedures and made it to Guernsey for a few (warm and sunny!) days. Whilst idling on the beach and the cliffs above, it struck me that I have my own version of the seven ages of man. The first age was characterised by building sandcastles on the beach, the second by beach cricket, the third by swimming. The fourth age was back again to building sandcastles, though now pretending that the building of them was not for myself, but for a small son or daughter. Ditto the beach cricket of the fifth age, I suppose, though a distinct lack of breath must have made it obvious that it was not my first choice of activity. The sixth age took in cliff walks. During the seventh age you write stuff like the following - though you might think it has much in common with sandcastles. How many similarities can you find?

The Photobooth.

The man in the photobooth was two,
who knew a thing or two, who said:
these pictures of me
are new of me,
Yet every hue and line is true.

You delude yourself, said the twin in his skin,
your lines and hues
come from dust in the air,
from the fog and fug and mud of the world,
the jog and the smudge,
the fudge to begrudge
the insights that you claim.

Not insights as such:
these stills of me
are as Hubble shots
of a galaxy.
They show what we always knew to be there,
but amplified and rearranged,
with emphasis and focus changed.
They resonate to strains that were laid
before the world began.
An essential part of the general me,
though a stateless me, a refugee,
at odds with the world,
they're at home in this photobooth.

There is no home in this photobooth.
It and the world are one.
It has no special measures or meanings or truths,
its rules and the world's are the same:
"Keep still, turn that,
put your coins in the slot,
do this, not that,
keep your head in the center
and all in the frame..."
It's wise in the ways of a broken world
and replicates what it knows:
so the cabinet judders, the body corrodes,
the shutter sticks and the flash explodes.
A lightball hits your eyes.

Which all translates as the power of life!
Just look at those overlapping planes!
See the broken lines and the jagged truths,
the liveliness that the booth exudes!
The energy that it gives to its art,
The meanings that come from the booth!

There are no meanings to the booth
and none that it can give.
Like the world in which we're cast to live
it's one great accident,
a mischance, an oddity, not profound,
whose images strike one as sound,
of impeccable provenance.
But art must follow intent.
An image possessing a sacred power,
has that power invested by man,
it's an image to keep pristine, not exposed
to whims of the passing hour -
or debates about what it means.

So that's that!
The world stays flat,
any roundness might strike as obscene!
The booth has been firmly put in its place
that raised its art from copying
to inventive genius,
from colouring between the lines
to a new sublimity,
from drudgery to grace.

Friday 12 September 2008

Tracey Emin : two questions

I came across two observations by Tracey Emin in The Independent of 08/08/08 which I thought might be worthy of further consideration and comment. I had planned to use the following in a somewhat longer post at some time in the future, but then reading comments to my Heads, tails, both or neither post, thought it might be more relevant and to that extent more intersting to post them now.

The first followed a description of the effort involved in the installation of her retrospective exhibition at The Edinburgh Festival,
as part oof which she complained about how personal were most of the reviews - not surprising really, I thought, given that the exhibition, like most of her work, is focussed on the personal aspects of her life and its hardships. Then came a comment about how great it would be if she was to die and it turned out that all her work had been made by a really thick-jawlined 6ft 2in Geordie guy and that she herself had hardly ever existed. It's a topic that comes up frequently in one form or another, Tracey just makes it personal, because that is what she does, life having made of her what it has. The basic question, though, is: What difference would/should it make to a work of art if it was suddenly discovered to have been made by someone else? (You could argue, of course, that the question cannot be asked of Tracey, because the work, being what it is, could not have existed in her absence. That does not affect the validity of the question, of course.

She then went on to suggest that most of us, given the choice, would not have come here (i.e. been born) to this planet, to everything I know, uninvited. But this is why I feel so lucky. Art came and got me. Art with its big ideas and its engulfing arms picked me up and swept meaway to another world. It is another of our familiar modern cries: does evrything (life) have to have a meaning? If so, where does that meaning originate?I have to agree with Tracey that life has no meaning except we human beings give it one. (I have not always thought that.) Where she and I part company is ober her contention that art can supply The Big Idea that will give life meaning. It is not the artist's role, I fear, to do that. The artists role, it seems to me, is to work within the framework of the big idea, to express, expound - and maybe to extend - it. Michelangelo did not originate the big ideas on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He expounded them, developed some, propogated some offshoots, but the big ideas themselves he had found in the scriptures. The scriptures themselves were not the source. The big ideas predated even them. The scriptures, too, were working within the framework set be society. The scriptures have long ago lost their pre-eminent position. So have the priests along with them. There are various candidates out to succeed them: artists, philosophers, scientists. The latter seem to be winning - is that where society took the wrong turn?

Sunday 7 September 2008

Why Books?

Overheard in the supermarket: a woman bemoaning the fact that she had visited the local public library with aview to using one of its computers, only to find that they were in great demand and she should have bookedher session beforehand: They just don't have enough computers, she announced with some venom, they seem to be spending all their money on bloody books! What they want them all for? So that's my question: Why books? For the purposes of this post books are: novels, short stories, plays - truth-telling verisimilitudes of any kind, which from this point on I will call TTVs for short. That out of the way, it is a fundamental question right enough, particularly so at this point in time when there is so much coming on stream that threatens to trivialise, or to appear to trivialise the TTVs. There are e-books, for instance, electronic book readers, techno-books, soaps, games machines, docusoaps, docudramas and much else, none of which are in themselves necessarily trivialising, though the ways in which they have been, and are being, used tends to make them so. I have even seen the soaps proclaimed as today's novels - more on that later. So, given all that, what are books for?Do they have purpose which cannot be fulfilled by any of these would-be usurpers?

We first encounter the TTV as children - not necessarily in book form, and always assuming we were lucky enough to have that sort of childhood. For us then they had much the same purpose as play. With no experience of the world, we role-played to discover as best we could what it mught be like to be a bus driver, fighter pilot, parson or parent. From stories read to us we heard what others thought it would be likeor had found it to be. Or maybe we encountered threats, real or imagined, that our small world held for us, and in the safety of the game or the story we rehearsed the ways to deal with them. We learnt, too, that actions - including our own - have consequences and began to realise that we should have to deal with those as well.

Some things never change, or not much. I remeber that our professor at London University used to impess upon us that: There are more ways of living a life than can be lived by one person living one life. If we want to try the other ways - or some of them! - we can probably best - or most easily - do it in a book. And the book in question will be a TTV, a novel or a biography, a mask of artifice revealing in its fiction a valuable truth.

We could widen the question, of course, and ask what are T.V. dramas for? For have I not already mentioned hearing them proclaimed the new novel? That proclamation was put out by no less a person than Jane Tranter, Controller of Fiction at the BBC in a recent speech to The Royal Television Society. What she actually said was that: television has supplanted the role of the novel in addressing the big social issues of the day. She was comparing the nineteenth century novel with present day television drama, but her words leave scope for some ambiguity: did she mean that in the nineteenth century folk read novels for the same reasons that people today watch T.V. dramas? Or did she mean that the world of the imagination has moved on from the nineteenth century novel and is better served now by T.V. drama, an altogether superior commodity? Certainly, those nineteenth century readers were an enthusiastic bunch, going to much greater lengths to satisfy their passion than we are likely to have to do today. Many clubbed together to buy the instalments they could not afford by themselves, many were illitierate; in both cases they would gather together and have the latest instalment read out. Today we sit mostly in family groups in front of the box for our nightly fix. Maybe even the family group is doomed; the writing has been on the wall for some time in the form of games machines, but now there is another threat: a television set that two programmmes at the same time. Which one you watch depends upon the angle to the screen at which you sit. Of course, you need earphones so... But I digress:There seems little doubt that Jane Tranter meant to imply that the T.V. drama was superior to the novel in terms of imaginative content and the variety of experiences available to the viewer. I find that a staggering assertion at a time when B.B.C. drama, if not actually being dumbed down - and I think it is - is certainly at an all-time low.

To test my feeling, I retrieved an old Saturday Guardian Review from the recycle bin and found in that one paper the following books reviewed: When Will There Be Good News?, described as a crime novel that is funny, clever and always surprising; Casanova, a biography of energy and brio;From A to X; A Story in Letters, John Berger's long-listed Brooker contender; Palace Council by Mark Lawson, a historical thriller that chronicles the fortunes of black America; The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry, a mischievous tale of high and low intrigue that entertains; and Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold the re-telling of Dickens's life with his estranged wife taking centre stage. There were others I could have added, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, for example, not new I know, but then neither is everything on the box. The point is that just taking the books listed here, you would be hard put to it to find a comparable selection anywhere in the T.V. schedules.

Barely had I written the above, than Doreen suggested we sat down to watch My Zinc Bed, a BBC2 drama I had recorded a few days earlier. It was everything I have just been suggesting is no longer to be found among the schedules. It was on the theme of addiction, which did not immediately endear it to me, I having seen so many on that subject that were harrowing and nothing else. This was not like that. Indeed, nothing much happened. For sure, there were no tummy-wrenching scenes. The plot, such as it was, meandered, but mostly it was words. Dialogue. dialogue that made you listen and listen attentively. The pace varied, as did the emotive charge. It was difficult at times, but totally original. The exception that proves my rule, obviously! Encouraging, though.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

More Bits and Pieces

With this post I emulate (in some respects) the protagonist from my recently posted poems and execute a partial disappearance from the blogosphere. I shall not push the analogy too far! I hope to continue to post, but fear I shall not be able to get around to you all as I would like. We have a busy, busy week or so on the horizon, with things not too pleasant to contemplate, and (hopefully) a few that are. So not all bad. See you all soon.

Some Greek orthodox monks who have lived an ascetic life on the remote Mt Athos peninsula since Byzantine times, who are noted for having banned women completely (and even female animals), and for having chosen (some of them) to live solitary lives in caves, have made a giant leap into the twenty-first century by providing themselves with broadband internet access. I assume that the ban does not extend to images of women.

Maureen Lipman related the following anecdote in The Oldie magazine recently:
A white-haired ladiy leaving a performance of Chekov's Cherry Orchard (in which Lipman was playing Charlotte, the governess), was heard to remark yo her companion: Well, I thought it was very enjoyable, didn't you, Mary? But why on earth they had to set it in Russia, is beyond me

A survey has found the following books to be unreadable - i.e. unfinishable

1. Vernon Little God - DBC Pierre
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - JK Rowling
3. Ulysses - James Joyce
4. Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres
5. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
6. The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie
7. The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho
8. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
9. The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
10.Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Each of the above had recently been included in a must read or not-to-be-missed list.

This from The Independent on Sunday:

A sculpture of a crucified frog was threatened with eviction from Bolzano’s new modern art museum after being condemned by the pope, but the minister of culture and local right-wing politicians insist it is staying where it is.

Today the museum's governing committee decided "by a clear majority" to keep it on display.

The work by the late German artist Martin Kippenberger shows a lurid green frog, warty and bug-eyed, nailed to a cross with its tongue hanging out - but holding a foaming tankard of beer in one hand and an egg in the other.

Exhibited in the inaugural exhibition of the new Museion in the centre of this German-speaking city in Italy's far north, it was said by the museum curators to be a self-portrait of the artist "in a state of profound crisis." But attacks on the work, which began locally, culminated in a letter to a local critic from the pope and a condemnation by the minister of culture.

Quote from Sir David Hare, playwright:

The principal question you can ask of any artistist is: what difference would it have made if they'd never existed?

I am pushing my luck perhaps, but at the risk of becoming an absolute bore, a few further words on my recent three poems, my trilogy, as I have called them. For those of you who have been good enough to show an interest - even to suggesting that I should try to bring the three parts together - this, as they say on News 24, is breaking news to the effect that I am pruning the third poem, Going Back (posted under the title The thing a poem has to be), cutting out redundant words etc, and have reinstated the original ending, which I did not post. Here, if you are still with me, it is:-

To him it must have felt
the dream would never end: the stress;
continuing uncertainty - all this
releasing memories... somatic some
and only later of the mind:
a smack returning to the face...
from what: a hand?
a wave? The churning gut...
sea-sickness? fear?
and still the strain, the
ambiguities that fed
the fantasies; the slow
unfolding tale.
And even as he plied
the iron, to smooth
the creases in that tale,
a coast guard on the promontory
abseiled down to rocks
and tiny spits of sand,
where boys trapped by the tide
had been reported seen, and found
there, two of those who'd thrown the knives
and taunted him, and further round
the headland, washed-up on the sand,
the body of the boy who'd disappeared.