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Sunday 30 November 2008

The Postcard

The Royal College of Art recently held its annual "secret" postcard sale, the proceeds of which go to help support the students. "Secret" because the name of the donor is withheld until the purchase is complete.

I bought a postcard from the R.C.A.
Hand-painted. On a good day -
so I thought - I'd choose, maybe,
a Grayson Perry, Ricky Figg, Nick Park,
Paul Simonon or even (Could I ever get
that lucky?) a Tracey Emin contribution - Chance
to own a bit of art by someone special, see?
It's that what pulls you in.
It's gambling, of course; you pit
your wits against the odds. You reckon
Lady Luck is sure to smile
on them as knows their stuff.
Choose well, and well, you've got yourself
a masterpiece, my son!
A solid gold original, no less - and one
that's by a famous name. You understand? The game
is that you don't know what you've got
until you've paid your forty quid, stumped up the bread.
Most like you'll end up with a dud, one done
to do you over good and proper by a student. Even then,
not all is lost. Treat it like a real investment, friend.
Your student could get famous in his time - or hers,
of course! And me? Don't ask. I know my art, don't fret,
I'm something of a connoisseur, I'm told.
But even so... I only went and picked (you won't believe)
this pierrot - on a beach, I think he is.
Something should have told me, no?
Well, so it did, it struck me as I went to pay: passé
or what, I thought. No artist worth his salt
or Cobalt Blue would have a go
at one of those these days!
I think I've picked a picky for the birds, I said.
My girlfriend, though (she's wonderful), she says
You stick by what you first thought. So I do -
and hear a plummy voice say: By... and follow By...
with some long monicker I'd never heard of... and then try
to make out anyone who's of the cognoscenti,
would be sure to know that name straight orff!! Straight Orff?
The cheek of it, that she should put me in my place...
Was my face red! But cooling down a bit,
a consolation prize, a good result - looked at
objectively. A whiz. I'll use it for the picture round
in my pub quiz.

The image is of Tracey Emin's contribution. Did you guess?

Thursday 27 November 2008

What the World Needs Now

Some weeks ago now (08.11.08, actually) I was skimming through The Guardian -Weekend Section with a view to mentally planning my weekend reading when my eye was caught by a profile of Zoe Heller and by the following remark attributed to her: If I could bring one thing back to life I'd choose Marlon Brando. I wondered briefly who or what I would choose to resurrect, given the rather daunting responsibility of that option. I say briefly because the answer came unbidden and at once. it was as though it was waiting in the wings to come on stage at the moment it was called: Albert Schweitzer. no doubt at all in my mind, then or now. Probably my first hero. Almost certainly my first real hero. I know that I have blogged before about this or that hero of mine, but they were mainly heroes for a time or of a particular activity. This man was - and is - a giant among them. This man is not just for Christmas or for this or that wee interest. This man is for real - which, considering that he was neither artist nor poet, is quite something. (He could turn a powerful phrase or two, though!) But I have to admit that he has not always sprung immediately to mind as he did a week or so ago. He has tended at times to become partially buried beneath my more recent concerns and passing whims. Furthermore, I can no longer trot out yards of his philosophy or reams of his sayings as once I did. Some might say that is because his day has gone. I disagree. The fault lies here, with me. Even so, there are some words, sayings - mantras almost - that still break through the preoccupations of the now to remind me of those golden, heady days when I was young and innocent enough to have heroes that were heroes to me according to every meaning of the word.

Reverence for Life was (is) the big one. I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live. What impressed me was not that he said it, but that as far as I could see he lived it. But back then there was no as far as I could see. In that automatic qualification you see the cynicism of old age. I should have deleted it, but I leave it in as a warning to all, not to let it happen to you. Back then there never was - or could have been - any doubt. Maturity with its attendant scepticism came much later - though not where Albert Schweitzer was (or is) concerned. Others may know differently, but if so, it will take a lot to convince me. Heroes should remain unblemished. Few have.

One saying of his that I used often to trot out may well be apocryphal. It concerns an occasion when he was playing the big organ in some cathedral - I forget which - and a remark made to someone who had had the temerity to suggest that he had made a mistake. His reply was brief and to the point: that God does not hear the wrong notes. It worried me, though, at the time, for it occurred to me that so far as my hymn singing was concerned God would be hearing absolutely nothing from me.

After Reverence for Life it was the range of his learning and his accomplishments that most impressed: theologian, organist, philosopher and doctor-surgeon, the last an application of his philosophy, the dedication of his life to the missionary hospital at Lambaréné in the Gabon which he established and where he then remained, apart from the Bach organ recitals he would give to raise funds for his work. His erudition still impresses, but now as then it is his reverence for life that I come back to - and that comes back to me. I never did think it a practical stance for me, nor, for that matter, for the man on the London Omnibus - as they used to be fond of saying back then - but it was right for him, he lived it, and in living it he proclaimed it to the world and proclaimed along with it something of what had gone wrong with the world's take on life.

He is probably best known for his work at Lambaréné and for another of his books The Quest of the Historical Jesus, emphasising the humanity of Jesus. In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Given the state of our planet now, and its dwindling biodiversity, it seems to me that reverence for life is exactly the philosophy that is needed for its salvation. Much is spoken about developing our capacity for awe and wonder in the face of nature, but that does not quite go far enough. Reverence suggests dimensions that are missing when only awe and wonder are on the menu. And so for the purposes of this post I am stressing Schweitzer's philosophy of reverence. There are, as I have hinted, at least three other major aspects to his life and work. I may post on one or more of those at a later date. This, I think, is enough for now.

What follows I have taken from the The Association International de l'oeuvre du Dr. Albert Schweitzer de Lambaréné website whose aim is to further Schweitzer's work and which has links to other pages and sites with more information, details of books and museums and facilities for making donations to his on-going work.

The following words by Albert Schweitzer are excerpted from Chapter 26 of The Philosophy of Civilization and from The Ethics of Reverence for Life in the 1936 winter issue of Christendom. If you want to have more text about the "Origin of Reverence of Life"

I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live. As in my own will-to-live there is a longing for wider life and pleasure, with dread of annihilation and pain; so is it also in the will-to-live all around me, whether it can express itself before me or remains dumb. The will-to-live is everywhere present, even as in me. If I am a thinking being, I must regard life other than my own with equal reverence, for I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds true whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.

In me the will-to-live has come to know about other wills-to-live. There is in it a yearning to arrive at unity with itself, to become universal. I can do nothing but hold to the fact that the will-to-live in me manifests itself as will-to-live which desires to become one with other will-to-live.

Ethics consist in my experiencing the compulsion to show to all will-to-live the same reverence as I do my own. A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself has ended. Whenever my life devotes itself in any way to life, my finite will-to-live experiences union with the infinite will in which all life is one.

An absolute ethic calls for the creating of perfection in this life. It cannot be completely achieved; but that fact does not really matter. In this sense reverence for life is an absolute ethic. It makes only the maintenance and promotion of life rank as good. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances, it condemns as evil. True, in practice we are forced to choose. At times we have to decide arbitrarily which forms of life, and even which particular individuals, we shall save, and which we shall destroy. But the principle of reverence for life is nonetheless universal and absolute.

Such an ethic does not abolish for man all ethical conflicts but compels him to decide for himself in each case how far he can remain ethical and how far he must submit himself to the necessity for destruction of and injury to life. No one can decide for him at what point, on each occasion, lies the extreme limit of possibility for his persistence in the preservation and furtherance of life. He alone has to judge this issue, by letting himself be guided by a feeling of the highest possible responsibility towards other life. We must never let ourselves become blunted. We are living in truth, when we experience these conflicts more profoundly.

Whenever I injure life of any sort, I must be quite clear whether it is necessary. Beyond the unavoidable, I must never go, not even with what seems insignificant. The farmer, who has mown down a thousand flowers in his meadow as fodder for his cows, must be careful on his way home not to strike off in wanton pastime the head of a single flower by the roadside, for he thereby commits a wrong against life without being under the pressure of necessity.

There is nothing I can add to that.

Schweitzer's hospital at Lambaréné

Saturday 22 November 2008

Anatomy of a Storm

Someone let this so voracious creature
loose above our heads. Some mad scientist
(all scientists are mad, faith-mad, of narrow
focus - or ignored), some politician
someone, thing, manipulated chance or
circumstance until the masses, mismatched,
massed against each other, slowly moved, then
quickened, whirled like Dervishes beyond dance
round each other. Some ministry or flow
of air or trait of human nature stirred
the growing cauldron, poured in energy.

With energy came arrogance - or so
it seemed to displaced columns, refugees,
concretions, nondescript free-fallers... Puffed-
up, swept-up, sweeping upwards, bursting through
the cloud shelf, scorching sky and atmosphere,
then falling back exhausted, great and good
and those behind the great and good became
charged particle or thunderbolt, loose cannon
in the making. And as a twig or leaf
is steered by currents in a stream, so is
this darkness steered by its environment,

by carbon footprint or prevailing wind,
some toxic brew, a slight imbalance in
the status quo, a twist of fate (or faith),
too little knowledge or too much. But someone
tempted this thing here, confusing cause
with consequence. Now aftermath is all -
or all we've got - and makes of it our frenzied
link to fury on a God-like scale. The
final curtain falls, no bang nor whimper here,
just thunder modulating to the howls
of earth-survivors with their earthly fears.

Like ink dropped into water, darkness spreads
until the very jar forgets there has been light,
and out at sea the last of our divides,
the one between the ocean and the air,
dissolves in spray. The wind drags surface
sheets of water like rag dolls, and corkscrews
them the way magicians fan their cards. The
bottom line is both that undercurrents
flow against the tide, and that we cannot
know or fathom out which card to choose, which
one The Mighty Thaumaturge pre-destined.


For some time now I have been receiving complaints from friends and followers to the effect that they cannot get the comments page on my blog to work. And now, neither can I - which I think is a bit rich. Wisely, the guys at Blogger have made it impossibly difficult to contact them in any way that might require a reply from them! My aplogoes, then, to anyone who has had the same trouble - and to those who have been waiting for a reply from me. this is the best I can do. The following are the replies I would have left on my previous blog, Tagged, had I been able.


Quite a thought, that it's a male gene - I can't think of any females I know who have the same problem.

The doctor was about to give me mu flu' jab the other day when he stopped and said Which hand do you use? I held up my right and said pen and pencil, then my left and said mouse! He looked hard at me and asked; Which hand do you wipe your bum with?

Of course it was logical, who ever heard of puttin g that lot on, just to go out to play?


I have a poem somewhere on my blog recounting the (true!) story of a great aunt of mine who woke up on the mortuary slab. She always maintained that, everyone being clothed in white coats, she thought they were angels and that she was in heaven.

Sweet Talking Guy

I don't think my mum appreciated it when I walked in, though.

Pamela Terry and Edward

Well, no one would ever have thought that you needed that lot on, just to go play!

Thursday 20 November 2008


Some days (weeks?) ago I was tagged by that rather delicious AcornMoon to provide seven facts about myself (unusual if possible - absolutely impossible, naturally), then to tag seven others to do likewise, and to leave a message with each to let them know they have been tagged. Like AcornMoon and Karen (her tagger) before her, I am a virgin at this - actually, I will make that the first fact.

My next three I share with AcornMoon, which is why I include them, of course:

  • I cannot remember names. Nothing to do with age - I have always had difficulty.

  • I can remember faces - well, I could, but all memory is random these days

  • I have always had difficulty putting on weight. I eat mountains, but it makes no difference

  • I think I am a crossed-lateral - i.e. right-handed, left-eyed. Either that or I am a natural left-hander who was coerced into changing, probably by a school teacher - there were still some around in my schooldays who thought left-handedness was a sinister characteristic to have.

  • I was seriously ill when 5 years old. My parents were warned that I might not make it to 6.

  • On my first day at school at play time the teacher told us all to put on our coats, hats and gloves, from which I sensibly deduced that it was time to go home. So I went. A Long walk for a 5-year old, crossing at least one main road.

So that's me!
The other half of my challenge was to pass it on to seven other bloggers.
Here goes! I have chosen the following in the hope that they will not heap curses on my head for having done so. Obviously, it is all done in the spirit of if you want to, if you'd rather not, no problem.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Another Garden of Eden

Towards the end of last month in a post I called A Painting with a C.V., about Raymond, a one-time pupil of mine, I told the story of how he had resolved, or partly resolved, an inner conflict by painting a picture - a really fine picture, as it turned out.

This post has something in common with it: they both centre around a boy, a pupil of mine, painting a picture of The Garden of Eden. But there, I think you will probably agree when you have read the account, all similarity ends.

First though, I need to explain something of the background. Stanley was 10 or 11 years old. He came from Jamaica, having lived there with his mother, father, brothers and sisters until he had turned school age, which I think would have been six, at which point his father decided to bring him to England to take advantage of England's superior education system. He could only afford the two of them to make the journey, so mother and siblings were left behind in Jamaica. Stanley was the chosen one, the one who would bring wealth and honour to the family. Exactly how it came about, I do not know, but Stanley was almost 9 by the time he and father had reached England and the authorities over here had caught up with them. At that point Stanley had still never been to school, so it was hardly surprising that he did not start well. Very quickly his school asked the educational psychologist to take a look at him, and he was pronounced Educationally Subnormal, as the nomenclature then was. (Today we would say that he had moderate - or even mild - learning difficulties.) It was then that father washed his hands of him. He was now the no-gooder on whom he had wasted all his money, the runt of the litter who would never amount to anything. (I thought he showed promise as a script writer, but see what you think after reading the post.) However, as far as his father was concerned, they might as well have stayed in Jamaica - though had he but considered for a moment, he might have realised that in the light of his son's special needs, Stanley was in a position to profit even more than his father had first thought, from the provision available over here. However, again not surprisingly, Stanley was soon being referred as a behaviour problem. Not long after that, he came to us, and to me. The educational psychologist asked that if possible, I arrange periods in which his behaviour would not be checked or punished, but merely observed and recorded. I had always been of the opinion that such children can not be adequately helped unless you first know them and what makes them tick, and that they cannot be well known unless they are allowed occasionally to show their true selves. The trick is to find an environment in which they can do this without disrupting (or corrupting) the rest of the group. My first choice was an art period. I had arranged a table of objets d'art (mostly liberated from items collected for a school fair) and reproductions of paintings from The Tate and elsewhere. Among these were two postcards brought from home as a contribution to our collection by one of the girls. These were Rousseau's The Dream and Savador Dali's famous melting timepieces. Stanley had acquired for himself the reputation of being a severe behaviour problem. In fact, as this short episode shows, his behaviour was of the attention-getting variety. Annoying, indeed, intended to be annoying, its success depends upon it, but not beyond the wit of man to cope with.

Stanley sidled past our inspiration table, looking away from it, surreptitiously flicking away the Dali and then palming - I think is the best word to describe it - The Dream. Why did he do that? he was an accomplished thief. Cynics said he had just been practising, but if that had been the intention I am sure I would not have seen it go, even though I had been watching him. He could have taken the piano without being spotted! No, if I saw him take it, he had meant me to see him. Whatever, he settled himself behind a drawing board which he rested on his knees and propped against his desk. The reproduction was propped against a water jar. From time to time his two eyes would appear briefly over the top of the board or round the edge of it - vertically!

Silence for a bit - and then a monologue. I should point out that there were gaps in the monologue, well-judged, mostly, for effect, waiting for his words to sink in, I suspect.

I'm a-goin-a do Eve first... put 'er in...
her titties first, I think - and then 'er hair...
all black and curly-wurly, lovely grub...!
Gotter cross 'er legs coz she's a lady!

An' now I doin' Adam... here he comes...
He sees Eve dreaming wide awake.
"Wow!" he thinks, because 'e sees 'er titties...
only now it looks like she got three...
"Three, is it?" Adam says. "How come, my sister?"
But arf a mo', the middle one's a magic mushroom...
and she's arf eaten it... He says:
"And what you been a-up to, woman?"
An' she say:
O, Adam, the ole serpent there, he say if I eat all the mushrooms..."
"Get on with it woman... what if you do eat all the mushrooms?"
"I will see how all the magic spells in all the world are made..."
An' Adam says... "An' can you girl?"
She tells him how the trees are full of stars
an' all the planets in their courses spin around the twigs... An' Adam says:
"I'll have a bit of that, I think!" and bites the mushroom on 'er breast...
and soon 'e don't know which is tittie and which is mushroom,
so he says:
"An' that ole serpent, he teach you well, ole girl, coz now I don't know you tittie from you magic mushroom...
But you should cover them things up, sweetheart, for they be powerful bright
to bring down any man..."
An' she wild! She veery wild... She get up and she slap his face good an' hard.
"The Gooooooooooood LLLLawd, he gave me these 'ere titties, boy," she say. "You hear me boy? The goooooood LLLLlawd did...! An' no one aint-a-gone-a tellllll me what to do with mar titties, save the Gooooood LLLLLLawd... Hallelujah boy!"

The eyes came round the board for the umpteenth time.
An' that mean you, too, man-behind-the-desk, there! No one ant-a-gone-a tell me what to doooo with marrrr bones, save that same Goooooood LLLLLawd... Hallelujah man!

The monologue petered out at this point, so I wandered round the room, coming last to Stanley. He had painted a cartoon, night-club world, with speech bubbles, though the speech in them was indecipherable. It was a world of strippers, booze and couplings. Surprise, surprise, Eve's legs were not crossed as he had said.
A busty blonde was dancing with the snake.

I pointed to the bubble coming out of Eve's mouth, and asked what it said.
He replied: "You just like all the men, you only wanting one thing, boy!"
an' Adam, he saying "Yup, coz that's what the Goooooooood LLLLLord gave it for!"
An' wanna know what Adam sees?
he asked, looking up at me.
I said that I would very much like to know what Adam can see.
He sees man building houses five miles high
an' painting smoke across the sky. He sees the blue dome over Eden
an' he sees it blow away all that hot air that's blown out by that dick in the white coat.

Later he added skyscrapers to the background.

I thought this might be an opportune moment to use this as my post, being that we have been having a discussion partly about the link between speech and painting. Okay, this is not quite what any of us had in mind, but it could be seen as a comment of sorts.

As another side issue, there is the question of the coincidence of both stories revolving around The Garden of Eden. Not down to any influence from me, I do assure you, and not such a coincidence as it might seem, for, looking back, I am quite surprised at the number of occasions on which, with an absolutely free choice, children have raised or used the story. Even children who could think of no other story from The Bible, would know and use that one. The second most popular Biblical story was Noah and the flood. Nothing else came near. The New Testament was nowhere. Those two stories must resonate very deeply with something in our psyches, I think.

Thursday 13 November 2008

The Sister Arts

Painting and poetry have long been known as the sister or twin arts. Apropos of which, there is a story told of Michelangelo which is perhaps apocryphal. He possessed a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, so the story goes, which copy was his most cherished possession. He was always reading it, and as he read it he would be inspired by the verses to create figures which he would therefore draw in the margins. On being summoned to Rome, and unable to bear being parted from his beloved book, he packed it in the trunk which he was sending on by ship, whilst he made the journey by road. You've probably guessed the next bit: there was a great storm at sea; the ship, the trunk and the book were lost. A double loss, for he had lost both Dante's poetry and his own drawings. He went for a damage limitation strategy and reproduced his drawings from memory, elaborating them as he did so - all on The Sistine Chapel Roof.

True or not, I have always felt the story to contain within itself the whole question of the influence of poetry on art - and, of course, its corollary, the influence of art on poetry. One example of each will suffice, I think, the first being Baudelaire. In a recent post, The Flowers of Evil, I wrote of Baudelaire as the first modern poet and of the modernity of his poems Les Fleurs du Mal. But Baudelaire was driven by another passion, and had to his credit another achievement by which he should be remembered: he was the first art critic in the modern sense - and many think him the best that has so far been.

Baudelaire sought out the company of those who then constituted the Paris art world, and more to the point, they sought his company. He was a good listener at their discussions and an acute observer in their studios. He came to know their thoughts and theories and how these related to the works they were producing, and he contributed to them in no small measure. In many cases, theories of art that the painters were working towards were fleshed-out and developed by Baudelaire.

A good example was the theory that was being developed by Delacroix concerning the correct way to look at a painting. Delacroix was insisting that the viewer should look for melody. To do this you looked at it from a distance. If the distance was great enough, both lines and subject matter became imperceptible. It has meaning, he wrote, if it is melodious, for if it is melodious it has already taken its place in your store of memories.

In fact, Baudelaire took this further: A well-drawn figure fills you with a pleasure which is absolutely divorced from its subject. Whether voluptuous or awe-inspiring, this figure will owe its entire charm to the arabesque which it cuts in space. So long as it is skillfully drawn there is nothing - from the limbs of a martyr who is being flayed alive, to the body of a swooning nymph - that does not admit a kind of pleasure in whose elements the subject matter plays no part.

The important word in the above paragraph is probably arabesque, for it was a concept that Baudelaire piloted. Furthermore, he piloted it in such elegant prose that it stayed in the memory and was picked up by artists who would come later. Certainly the idea of the arabesque as the be all and end all of things was picked up by the symbolist painters for whom it became almost iconic. But the influence did not stop there: Matisse and Picasso also picked it up and ran with it.

For Matisse - no mean stylist he! - the arabesque was to become of fundamental importance. But that was not the limit of Baudelaire's influence on Matisse. At times in his Notes of a Painter, Matisse is almost paraphrasing from the writings of Baudelaire, something he was quite open about it, for his letters are full of his indebtedness to Baudelaire's theories.

But if there was one theory more than any other driving Baudelaire it was the question: What is pure art according to the modern ideal? His answer? It is the creation of an evocative magic, containing at once the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself.

Before Baudelaire art criticism was no more than a cataloguing exercise. He transformed it, ensured that it could never go back to what it had been, and introduced into it many words that are to this day resonant of modernity, words like: consciousness,

The poet I have chosen to illustrate the influence of art on poetry is Wallace Stevens. Making it easy for myself, I guess, for the involvement of his poetry with art is well known. In fact, I could have used him to illustrate the influence either way, for not only were the twentieth century modernists a formative influence on his poetry, but his verse did much to shape the development of modern American art particularly.

While working on his first collection, Stevens was a frequent visitor at art galleries, and particularly at one, that of his old college friend, Walter Arensberg, where works by Picasso and Duchamp were on show. It is well known that the inspiration for his long poem The Man with the Blue Guitar came from Picasso's painting of a man with a blue guitar. It is true that Stevens never confirmed this, indeed was careful to say that it was suggested by no particular painting, but it is generally conceded that Picasso's painting was the main source of inspiration. Stevens used the thought and theories of cubism to get him out of the excesses of surrealism, which he thought was just too much. Particularly, he was drawn to the depiction of multiple views of a single object. Inevitably, there is a degree of fragmentation in some of the poems of Stevens, but it is never accidental. It is there for a the purpose of the multiple view.

There is this perfect little gem of a poem, Anecdote of the Jar, which is one of Stevens's best-known works, though I must confess that I was very far in to Stevens's work before I came across it.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

I can find no reference by Stevens himself to the fact, but again it is acknowledged widely that the inspiration for this , as for others, came from the found objects of Duchamp. It does seem that Stevens lived and worked at a time when in America, at any rate, the arts influenced each other in ways they do not regularly do today, and perhaps never did in Europe - with the glorious exception of Baudelaire.

In The Idea of Order at Key West Stevens explores the relationship that exists between Perception and reality. Nothing becomes real until it is observed. Art opens the door to perception, which is the centre of our being. The poem is an illustration of this. Without the poem and without the song in the poem we would not perceive the order at Key West. Elizabeth Bishop seems to have developed her existentialism from these investigations by Stevens.

Stevens lectured regularly on The Relations Between Poetry and Painting. The weight of his argument was to the effect that in an age when man has by and large lost his faith art and poetry must compensate for what has been lost. The imagination as it is released in the practice and/or appreciation of art is the next greatest power to belief in God. Because poetry and painting exist in the borderland between imagination and reality they acquire a prophetic status and work prophetically. They become a vital assertion of self in a world where nothing but the self remains, if that remains. In all that he had to say on the subject, though, he always refused to draw lines of influence between particular works - instance his refusal to acknowledge the inspiration for The Man With the Blue Guitar.

This unwillingness to be specific about individual lines of influences suggests that it just might be that they do not work in the case of Stevens, that as he himself put it, his inspiration came, not from particular works, but fromthe literature of painting. :To a large extent, the problems of poets are the problems of painters, and poets must turn to the literature of painting for a discussion of their own problems.

So we find that The Man with the Blue Guitar refers to a saying of Picasso that a painting is une somme de destructions, (a horde of destructions):

Is this picture of Picasso’s, this "horde
Of destructions," a picture of ourselves,

Now an image of society?

Tuesday 11 November 2008


I am grateful to Sharon Hart for the four awards you see in my sidebar. It is always good to get the odd Brownie point - especially when it might help to attract newcomers to the blog! The terms of the award are such that I am now asked to nominate my selection, which I am more than glad to do. No pressure, of course, on anyone who would rather not. I do not have any specific criteria, I simply go for the blogs that have given me the most pleasure or created the most interest over the longest period of time. I hope they - and anyone not included on my list - will accept it in the spirit in which it is intended. My list is:

Sunday 9 November 2008

The Golf Club Maker

Two things have exercised me this week: I have been trying to update my blog - and what an exercise that turned out to be! It seems I had an older version and had first to update from Templates to Layouts, a move which lost me all my previous customising. Furthermore, the HTML which was fine on the old version will not do on the new. Apparently I need XML - of course I do, fool that I am, I should have realised that!

My other occupation has been trawling through old poems and drafts. In the process I rediscovered the benefit of putting poems away for a while. And also, I believe, discovered the elusive factor I was fumbling for in my previous post. (Yawn, yawn) It was not sloppiness, but lack of courage. It happens that during the course of its development a poem (or any other work, I guess) is likely to acquire words, phrases, lines - whatever - in which you have invested much of yourself. You are heavily committed to them. Sometimes (even!) they may refer back to an earlier word, phrase, whatever, that has long since been removed, but they hang on like plants that have had their roots cut away, trying to send down new. The subconscious editor says No, this should go, you know it! And you do, but it's bad news - like knowing you should see the dentist, but what the hell! Does that make sense?

Well, anyway, here is one I prepared earlier! A complete redraft of a poem put away for quite some while:-

The Golf Club Maker

Maker and player, golf clubs fashioned much
of what was truly him. Blade light in hand,
he'd feel for contours that the grain had planned;
the ball responding to his putter's touch
would follow lines he'd part-divined. He'd scotch
excuse with: Bunkers son, just life's soft sand!
All life was raw material, the land-
scape and the clubhead in the wood. The catch
was that the way you shaped them would shape you.
Then came war, Dachau, darkness, and he knew
the days of nature's probity had gone.
Silent now on truth, his famed persimmon -
and he himself as hushed, no more to say;
yet still he'd let the dumb wood have its way.

Saturday 8 November 2008


As you may have noticed, I am making some changes to the appearance of my blog. Most notably, perhaps, I am replacing my list of blogs with the Followers widget. If you feel so inclined, please click on Follow this Blog in the side panel and then click on the appropriate radio button to indicate whether you would like to follow it annonymously or publicly. Finally click on the orange Follow button. The change should benefit both of us in terms of attracting more visitors. Also, please bear with me if I do not get round to your blogs as often while I am trying to sort out the compexities of the bloggers code!! - I shall hopefully make up for it later.

Thursday 6 November 2008

The Mmmmmmm? Moment

There have been moments when I've wondered why I blog. At times of greater clarity I know what keeps me doing it: it's mainly down to the generosity of spirit and the honesty (as I believe and hope) of those who take the time and trouble to pass comment. This willingness to comment freely is in marked contrast to what I have found in real life for example, where friends and family are rather loathe to put their heads above the parapet and say just how a piece of writing strikes them.

And one of the most interesting aspects to the commenting, so I have found, is the frequency of what I have come to think of as the Mmmmmmm? moment. This is a comment, maybe on a line or phrase of mine that misfires in some way; a word, perhaps, that has some unhelpful connotations, the lineation of a poem or some slight awkwardness of rhythm. Indeed, it could be a comment on absolutely any aspect of the poem's form, but what it always is, is something picked up that makes me think: Of course, why did I not spot that? to be followed, almost immediately afterwards, by the thought: Well, actually I did - all but! So by a Mmmmmmm? moment, I am referring to the time when someone hits on something in the poem which had caused me some unease, had caused me, in fact, to wonder Mmmmmmm? whenever I read it through. Perhaps the Mmmmmmm? moment had remained a Mmmmmmm? moment, for what was wrong had successfully eluded me. Not always, of course, would it be the case that I had sensed a flaw, but we are only interested here in the cracks and bugs in the woodwork which my sensors half pick up, while more sensitive ones elsewhere are left to complete the job.

It was the comments on my poem Autistic Boy that set the writing of this post in motion. I experienced several Mmmmmmm? moments when drafting and redrafting that poem, but whenever I met one, I would feel that there was something more urgent, more glaringly wrong that I must attend to first - and so, for all sorts of reasons, I never did get back to the more elusive ones - or if I did, I failed to resolve the difficulty, failed to see the wood from the trees, perhaps.

This experience throws up some interesting side-issues: am I being sloppy in not paying enough attention to the inner voice, indefinite though it may be, not thorough enough? Or too perfectionist maybe, in wanting there to be no Mmmmmmm? moments in my poems? Can there ever be none? Wouldn't that mean that I had either written a masterpiece (unlikely!) or had lost my critical faculty altogether?

Quite often, if I have worried about a Mmmmmmm? point during the day, I will wake up the next morning with a new word, phrase or line, sometimes several lines that appear to solve the problem, only to find that it no longer gels with what goes before or comes after. So I get a domino effect. It is as though an editor, somewhere deep in my subconscious, has been at work during the night, the same one, presumably, that was doing the Mmmmmmm?ing during the day - which editor, though, seems not to know the whole poem, just the bit that is misfiring!. Nevertheless, he is not to be marginalised for that. I recall a lecture I once heard in which the speaker spoke about prophetic dreams, but said that they always had a rational explanation. He gave as an example the case of a woman who dreamt she fell down the stairs, and a couple of days later, did exactly that. His explanation was that her subconscious mind had registered the fact that a carpet rod was loose. The fact never made it to her conscious mind, so the dream arose to warn her of the danger, though all unsuccessfully.

I have heard of poets and novelists being given the answers to difficult parts of their creation in dream form. I can't say I have ever had that experience - or maybe I just didn't recognise them for what they were. There are certainly cases on record, if not of poems then inventions. The invention of the sewing machine, for example, is said to have been facilitated by such a dream. The inventor, try as he would, could not see how to get the cotton back through the material from the garment's underside. In his dream he was captured by cannibals who danced around him and the pot heating on the fire. Their spears had ribbons flying from their business ends. When he awoke he had his answer: thread the needle at the pointed end.

And, in the arts there is the case of Coventry Cathedral. Sir Basil Spence, the architect, worried for ages that there was something missing. Or more precisely, that it needed something more. He worried so much that he developed an abscess under a tooth. Under the anaesthetic he saw the cathedral with concertina-shaped walls, an arrangement that allowed the windows all to face the altar and to direct all their light towards it. It is one of the features of the Cathedral.

Perhaps poetry is not so amenable to such visual interpretation, but the subconscious can still play its part. Indeed, I would argue that that is where poetry is born and raised. It may not be the perfect place to nurture something so vulnerable, but it is all we have.

What my examples have in common is the fact of them being preceded by a great amount of hard graft. The answers might have been given, but they were not just given. But what when the answer doesn't come, even after all that hard work? Should we then struggle on like good little perfectionists? Or should we be pragmatists, admit that this is as good as we are likely to get it and invite the world to see the result? Is there a point at which we should say; Enough, that is it, for good or ill? Of course, we are the lucky generation: we have a parachute; we have our friends out there in the blogosphere, and we have their comments for the final push - or if you'd rather I didn't mix my metaphors, we have their comments for a safer landing! My thanks to you all!

Sunday 2 November 2008


Ancestral portraits
(of a sort),
those faces on her pages.
Patterned like old masters,
skeined from thought
or torn from magazines,
then craquelured
with pin or compass point
'till each became, from
hairlines down to eyebrows or beyond,
a wickerwork of scratches.
They's all us crackles, she would tell
of where a glaze had crazed -
or so we might have thought.

And crackles too
from fir cones chewed,
And eyes closed as she drew.

They's all us family, she'd say
(thumb marking every one),
all suffering the family disease. All they
long hair roots manglin' down
and choking all us brains...
And then

I'd find her ruler eaten half away.
Dozz me 'ead in, straight it dozz -
allus they old centimetres staring up
an' givin' I the evil eye.
Some days I daresn't even lift me desk lid up!
Wherem all us English inches gone?
All been eaten, az 'em?

Weekends Elaine was mum.
Two brothers in a pram
(one old enough to walk),
small sister on a rein
and all unwashed,
she'd walk them up on Saturday
to watch the boys play football in the park.

My son came once to run the line.
That was the week we'd looked
at ripples on the lake; the way
the waters moved round a canoe
or ruffled differently
when following or faced
into the wind; the way
a small wave slapped against the bank... our play
to find the best words
for the patterns we had seen
and to embody them in art. Elaine
was energised beyond herself.
Ripple became her word
for beautiful.
You's ripple, you!
she told my son.
He looked to me for help.


As far as I could determine, skeined was used of anything that came from the memory or the imagination: a drawing, painting, speech, song, a tune played on an instrument, writing, and so on.

Mangling seemed to carry the double meaning of hanging down and becoming entangled.

Allus = always.