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Saturday 28 February 2009

The elderly keep slipping into graves.

The real subject of this post is a book for which I have been waiting avidly for some time now. It has recently appeared and I have only just now ordered it, George Szirtes's Collected. It must be the subject of some future post. Let me explain: something like eight or nine years ago I bought a collection of poetry called The Budapest File by George Szirtes. I can't recall how or why I bought it: was I browsing in the local bookshop and just happened upon it, or did I read a review and order it? I don't know, so I must assume that at the time of purchase I regarded it as no big deal. If that is how it was, then it did not stay no big deal for long. I knew the work of Szirtes, of course. Which is to say, I had read some of his poetry and thought I knew it. But the moment I began to dip into The Budapest File there came a seismic shift in my understanding. Which in itself was strange, because The Budapest File was Szirtes's tenth collection, or something like that, and most of its poems had been published in those earlier volumes, were distributed among them. I must have read many of them in the years before I bought the book. Whatever, I can't explain what happened, I can only recount it. Suffice to say that I was plunged into a world the like of which I had never inhabited before, indeed would not wish to inhabit save in the safety of Szirtes's poems.

Szirtes came to this country as a refugee from Hungary. It was sometime, apparently, before he began to write about his childhood memories of Budapest, but when he did, it was as though it had an inevitability about it - which likely it did have - and it became a theme, a major one which was at the same time very personal and distanced enough to place the personal in its political and social setting. His remembered world, his lost childhood - perhaps I should say his nearly lost childhood, maybe to some extent and in some ways regained in his poetry - is redolent with threat. It is a world in which nothing can be taken at face value, anything at all might turn out to be other than it seems. It is a place of echoing voices, of assaults on the senses that seem to have no rational cause. And indeed, very little of it could have been called rational. It is all the fears and nightmares of childhood that you and I have ever experienced, but multiplied a thousand times. It is all that, but experienced by children and adults alike. It is darkness which is always hostile, always malevolent, never neutral. The Budapest File has conveyed to me the horror of that time, and of the regime that made it possible, with greater clarity than all the political speeches, photographs or magazine and newsprint articles. It is horror writ as such horror is always writ: personalised.

I committed whole chunks of the poems to memory. Some, I didn't need to, for they lodged there, quite naturally, without any conscious help from me. But I have prattled on enough. Let me give you a few tasters of what I mean:-

The first verse from The Photographer in Winter:-

You touch your skin. Still young.The wind blows waves
Of silence down the street. The traffic grows
A hood of piled snow. The city glows.
The bridges march across a frozen river
Which seems to have been stuck like that for ever.
The elderly keep slipping into graves.

and the fourth verse:-

The white face in the mirror mists and moves
Obscure as ever. Waves of silence roll
Across the window. You are in control
Of one illusion as you close your eyes.
The room, at least, won't take you by surprise
And even in the dark you'll find your gloves.

This from Undersongs

Desire again, the Undersongs. The lost
Children feel it in their sleep,
and turn uneasily to the wall through which
Symbols pass and cool their blood like ghosts.
My mother's family has passed through it,
No one remains, and she is half way through.
Her brother disappears, the glove has closed
About him somewhere and dropped him in the ditch
Among the rest. The ditch becomes a pit,
The pit a symbol, the symbol a desire,
And this desire's the thread. The tunnels creep
Under the skin, the trains with their crew
O passengers can glide through unopposed.

This from part 5 of TheCourtyards

Think of an empty room with broken chairs,
a woman praying, someone looking out
and listening for someone else’s shout
of vigilance; then think of a white face
covered with white powder, bright as glass,
intently looking up the blinding stairs.

There’s someone moving on a balcony;
there’s someone running down a corridor;
there’s someone falling, falling through a door,
and someone firmly tugging at the blinds.
Now think of a small child whom no one minds
intent on his own piece of anarchy:

Think of a bottle lobbing through the air
describing a tight arc – one curious puff –
then someone running but not fast enough.
There’s always someone to consider, one
you have not thought of, one who lies alone
or hangs, debagged, in one more public square.

This from Transylvana: Virgil’s Georgics:-

Poplars full of thrushes. Sky leans
on earth. The river dreams.
Shrubs light their torches. A bullfinch
sputters on a branch, bursts into flames.

So this review has not been about the book I have been waiting for, the book I have now ordered. I have done myself proud of late. It will be my third new book within a month - well over my usual budget. But if I had to ration myself to just one for 2009 it would be George Szirtes Collected, even though he has referred to Collecteds as Tombstones. I am confident enough to believe that this will not turn out to be a tombstone, merely premature.

Thursday 26 February 2009


The image below was sent to me in an email. It is obviously doing the rounds, so you may have seen it. It is the sunset at the North Pole with the moon at its closest point. I am posting it for no other reason than I think it uncommonly beautiful.

The fragment below I wrote some time ago. It was intended to grow a bit and become part of a longer poem, but I think it must have been still born, for there has been no development since.

Grey the slates, green-grey the tiles,
the walls like grubby sheets hang down -
could not be said to rise. No sign
of any spark where life has been;
no tree, no meadow, flower or stream.

But now look up, see school is out;
the clouds, like children bursting through the gates,
play every sort of landscape game they know.
Transformers of a different kind, they
flatten tufts of prairie grass, build
table mountains, gulfs and
crevises, pile pebbles high as cairns, become
grey crags of anvil-shapes. Behind
it all, meanwhile, the sun
grafts its pink fingers - strange
graffiti - on them all.

Tuesday 24 February 2009


He was my friend. I pistol-whipped him
with a wooden gun my father made.
(War time: such trifles were in short supply.)
Bad enough if I had hit him in the street,
but doing so in church, my would-be crime
became a sin. He'd reached across the pews
to snatch my illustrated, treasured
Holy Bible from my grasp. In doing so
he'd torn the prophet Moses clean in half,
ripped out the the Ten Commandments and had trashed
the Golden Calf. I lashed out, blind in a
red mist of rage, the gun - my contribution
to the Sunday School's Toy Sunday service -
firmly in my hand. The priest, as blind as I
in his red mist, then missed the obvious:
would not allow the righteousness of my
response, my holy anger, pious grief....
And so I left, walked out on all those
coloured stamps of Jesus making wine
and bringing long-dead people back to life -
images we'd added to our albums
week by week. I went to seek a better way:
agnostic for a month, then atheist for two.
I bought a book on Godlessness,
and reading it, became - I know not how -
my erstwhile friend's companion once again.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Party Time

This post really follows on from the second part of my previous post, in reply to which several of you, either in the comments or by email, made the point that drawing involves putting in only the important lines. In other words, it is essentially an excercise in leaving out. The trick is in the deciding which is which, which are the lines of stress and which the lines that just confuse and muddle the work. This is an excercise intended to make you an artist in seeing, as it was once put to me. A Picasso in seeing, maybe. It is really no different from what I described last time.

If you are skilful or confident enough to draw freehand, there is no problem. Do that. Choose one of the images I give below and try to draw no more than twelve lines to convey its essence.

If you are not yet at that stage copy an image into your graphics program, but not straight into it. Open the program with a background layer first, then copy the image into it as a new layer. Now place another layer on top of the image, either a transparent layer or one sufficiently transparent for the image to show through.Now, making sure that the top layer is the active layer, draw in your lines. When you are happy with it remove the image layer, leaving just your lines. (Of course, you could do this using tracing paper, but it is much easier to remove lines and change tings using the programme.)

When you are happy with the result, try again, using fewer lines. The challenge is to use the smallest number of lines possible.

And the Party stuff? Ah, yes, well, with just a little judicious adaptation, it can make for a good party game, should you be planning the right sort of party.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Picasso stuff

A blockbuster exhibition, Picasso : Challenging the Past opens next week at The National Gallery - and not , as you might expect, The Tate, which would normally be the venue for exhibitions of Modern art.

The history to this is that twelve years ago the two galleries reached an agreement. Modern art, they said, began in 1900. It was perhaps on a par with the government deciding in its wisdom that history finished with the building of the Berlin Wall. This, of course, was to ensure that no untoward politics could creep into the syllabus. It created anomalies, as it was bound to: for instance that the building of the wall could be part of a history syllabus, but the knocking down of it could not. So the kids could have the first half of a story, but not its conclusion. In the case of our two galleries, however, their agreement was meant to ensure that the Tate was free to acquire anything dated post 1900, but before that The National gallery was to have the monopoly. (Nicholas Penny, the new director of the National Gallery, is keen to renegotiate the definition of Modern art, but meanwhile points out that the agreement covers acquisitions only, not exhibitions and loans.)

Seven years ago it was the Tate launching a Picasso plus... blockbuster exhibition, that one highlighting the intense personal and artistic rivalry that existed between him and Matisse. They showed it in blow-by-blow fashion, two great artists slugging out their I-can-do-that-better-than-you obsessions. The exhibition was a wow and so The National is hoping they can work the same trick and pull off a similar financial success. Their hope is pinned to a show which will give us Picasso taking on, not Matisse on this occasion, but the old masters as he vies with them for the ultimate accolade: tell us, pictures on the wall, who is the greatest artist of us all. We will see him, metaphorically, of course, giving the icons of the past a bashing. Alongside, Goya's Naked Maja, for instance, we will see Picasso's version. Well, not actually alongside, for the curators do not want to encourage a spot the difference attitude in the viewers. Not much chance of that, I would have thought, as in most cases there are few similarities, if one is being literalist or formalist, that is.
I shall hope to get along to the exhibition at some point, if only because included in it is a Picasso of which I am particularly fond, in which I think I see something of Guernica for instance. The painting in question is The Rape of the Sabines, which I show below, beneath the Poussin original - can I call it that without intending any disparagement to Picasso? It should be an interesting tournament,for, as Chris Riopelle, points out, in these types of engagement the Old Masters usually win hands down. I hope I can be there to see for myself.

Picasso employed a system called refactoring to develop an image from a purely naturalistic form to one abstracted to show the essence of a subject.

In 1945 he produced a series of 11 lithographs of a bull which has come to be regarded as a master class in the use of the system. Here I reproduce some of these images, each one of which represents a stage in the development of his image. I pick the sequence up at the second lithograph. Before this, Picasso had drawn a very life-like bull (the first lithograph) and now we see him beefing it up to make it almost more life-like than life.

At the third stage he begins to analyse it, putting in lines of force and delineating contours created by bones and muscles. His lithographic crayon follows much the same paths that would have been followed by a butcher chopping up the carcass.

From stage 4 onwards Picasso is simplifying, taking out unimportant planes and combining others, producing a new distribution of weight and balance, making the bull appear more solid even than it was before.

My last image is also Picasso's last in the series. It is the destination to which he has been headed throughout the various transformations.

If you are interested in following this process in greater detail, you might like to go to here, where the full set of lithographs, together with a more complete explanatory commentary, can be found

Tuesday 17 February 2009

With Eyes Tight Shut : 2

If you have not read part 1 to this post, With Eyes Tight Shut : 1 you might like to do so in order to get the back story, as they call it these days.

Battalions of ant-like warriors,
seen from some high vantage point,

act out the world of men and things
in some huge kreigspeil on the beach.

And then, or so it seems, the tides push in
and every piece and pawn upon the board
becomes but my reflection in the sea -
ten thousand images and congeners of me.

Because of some interstice in the land
(our language is inadequate)
I cannot reach these images or see
what makes each always him and never me.

Repeatedly the pieces move;
I understand their strategy
and analyse their moves,
but cannot see
who moves them with such mastery.

From where I stand
the waves distort the images they carry
and pawns seem bent the way the tides are flowing.

I watch the fluctuating mirages
that ever come back different from the sea.

Is this illusionary flux what I call thought?
Is thought coerced in me?
The sea heaves up its greasy back;
the pieces and the pawns dissolve and break,
are shattered by the wave's caress.

And where the symbols of the indivisible divide,
do we reach consciousness?

Above is the first poem still extant to have come from my eyes closed experiments. It is certainly the longest, and thereby hangs a tale of sorts. Back then - and then would be four or five decades back, something like that - closing my eyes would work amazingly well, the trouble was I didn't realize how well until it no longer did. (You don't appreciate what you've got until you lose it may be a cliche, but it has a knack of proving itself to be only too true.) Back then, shapes, patterns, colours would evolve, not so much before my eyes as behind them. At times it was like having my own inbuilt video machine playing to me. As you will have guessed from my remark above, it didn't last. The shows got shorter and shorter until they were mostly static affairs, single images that were intense to begin with and then slowly faded. The early animated ones were ideal for poetry writing, of course, for they tended to be linear, to have a development, although that would not be a narrative unless I read one into it - quite easily done in some cases. More recently they have been less productive of poetry and more suitable for art work. Strange then, that this did not occur to me until I saw the Victor Pasmore exhibition. The images are fewer and further between now - on a par with other aspects of the ageing process, I suppose - and have achieved something of a scarcity value since an operation to remove a cataract. This I find very strange. It has been explained to me that where the brain expects to find a signal in a nerve ending and fails to do so (e.g. because an aural nerve has been damaged or because the eyes are closed), it will find something in the system to compensate and the individual concerned will experience tinnitus or some sort of image. Cataracts and their removal and the insertion of implants would seem on that basis to have nothing to do with it. But there it is. That which I once had in spades is now in short supply - or I need more patience, need the eyes closed over a much longer period of time.

Perhaps I should point out that there is a difference in the way I use the images. In the case of those that suggest verse I use them exactly in that way: as kicking off points from which to develop the poem. For inspiration, if you like. The poem above was constructed from what was basically one image that morphed slightly two or three times. I have put in italics the phrases representing the various image states. Where, on the other hand, I try to reproduce the image visually, again I do exactly that: reproduce it as faithfully as I can. Most recently I have tried to do this digitally, with camera and scanner, using objects as starting images and manipulating them towards the desired result. The two shown below are such. They began life as glass ashtrays, but they represent (reasonably well, I think) images from my cataract operation. I have a real phobia about eyes and anybody/thing touching them. So the op' was quite a difficult affair for me - and could have been for the surgical team! Especially so as I was told I must try not to move the eyeball. Reasonable enough, but... I decided to try to focus on an imaginary point in space. Imaginary because the lens of one eye was being removed and the other eye was covered by a green cloth. Furthermore, the eye being attacked was also being continually irrigated. Accordingly, I imagined myself focussing on a point in what was a stygian darkness - and was rewarded by the alternation of the two images shown below. Susan, commenting on my previous post, mentioned the possibility of using the closed eye technique to face fears of darkness or the unknown. In this particular instance it was forced on me, but I would have to say that it worked a charm.

But back to verse. Also below I give some examples of shorter verses that have come from images seen with the eyes tight shut.

The darkness shivers,
is a wet dog,
shakes its fur from which
come stars, white
constellations of the mind.

Green railway lines lie left to right
in lateral perspective, and a smudge
pours smoke into the sky.

The light is soft and soothing,
effervescent, drains
into a white chrysanthemum
from which a river flows and into which
white petals fall.

Saturday 14 February 2009

With Eyes Tight Shut : 1

The final images below are from my now defunct website which I decided to revisit (cannibalise, if you will) a while back. They are a few years old and date from a day out that Doreen, my wife, and I had with two friends who were showing us something of the area in which they live: The Thames Valley around Walton and Richmond. We stopped at one point, thinking to take a walk along the towpath, but were stopped by a poster outside a small gallery announcing that within was an exhibition of work by Victor Pasmore under the title Seen with the Eyes Tight Closed - or something along those lines; memory fails over such detail these days. We went in.

I had thought that I knew the work of Victor Pasmore. He had first come to public notice as a leading light in the Euston Road Group and had then fallen under the spell of Ben Nicholson and moved into abstractionism.
Later still he pioneered the growth ofConstructivism in this country; but what we found in that small gallery beside the River Thames was unlike anything I had seen of his before. It was exactly as it had said on the tin, visions (could there be any other word for them?) seen with the eyes tightly closed.

Much of it consisted of arrangements of lines, squiggles splashes and flat areas of
paint. A sort of minimalist Jackson Pollock, I thought at the time. The work had,
though, more impact and was more thought-provoking than I have made it sound. But what struck me in retrospect was how different were his visions in the dark than my own. At that time I would tend to see recognisable images. This I knew because I had made similar experiments, but as a writer, using the sights that arose behind the closed eyelids as stimuli for poems. Strangely enough, I had not thought to use them for any form of visual art.

I experimented and found that what I saw was influenced by a number of factors.
In roughly descending order of importance they are:

  • The last image seen before closing the eyes.

  • My thoughts.

  • Ambient sounds.

  • The movement (if any) of the eyeballs.

Sometimes the images evolved in response to continuing stimulus. What is the relationship between dreaming and this phenomenon, I wondered?

The image above and those below are the results - recreations by whatever method I thought would get nearest to the remembered image. Oh, for the technology to photograph the image that the brain sees!) These days I tend not to see recognisable objects, but more of that later perhaps, in part II, which will deal with writing - if I proceed that far.
I wonder if any research been done on what people see with the eyes closed? Do any of you knowledgeable folk out there know of any? Or has anyone a theory or observation to offer?

Thursday 12 February 2009

Henry Moore

SkyArts recently screened a program entitled The Art of Henry Moore which I recorded and, a few nights ago, watched. Something that I had not realised when recording, was that the commentary was by Henry Moore himself. It was, he said, an introduction to some of the problems that have fascinated him in the course of producing his art. What struck me was that wrapped up in a fascinating reflection on his craft were a number of points, any one of which would have made an excellent discussion point. By which I do not mean that I found them controversial, merely that they might have had much more to give as such. As such I give them here - or teat them merely as thinking points.

  • The Mother and Child is one of my inexhaustible subjects. It is eternal. But how does religious art differ from the everyday? Artistically speaking, what is the difference between a Mother and Child and a Madonna and Child? (I give Moore's answer to that question at the bottom of the post.)

  • A straight line, a pure curve, solid geometric shapes, the perfect cube are considered to be beautiful, but they are best made by a machine. The artist's concern is with imperfection.

  • Sculpture should always have some initial obscurity, some mystery not apparent to the quick observer (actually, all art should), otherwise it is merely an empty immediacy, like a poster intended to be seen and read quickly from the top of a bus.

  • My little studio is an important habitat for me. I love its clutter and muddle. It throws up fortuitous associations and can send me off working in an unexpected direction.

  • The theory that an artist's work is directly attributable to his imagination is a romantic idea. An artist's gift is that he can reject his imagination.

  • Speaking of his air raid shelter drawings (which I had always thought he'd made in situ in the London tube stations), he said: Naturally, I could not draw in the shelters, I drew from memory later at home. It would have been like making sketches in the hold of a slave ship. One couldn't be as disinterested as that. (I thought how different from the present day photo-journalists, some of whom would have gone in close with their lenses.)

  • Speaking first of his early interest in primitive art, especially that of Mexico, and then of the revelation that was afforded him by a six month stay in Europe, he explained that it was a long while before he was free to use the lessons of Europe in his art. That was because of the violent way in which they clashed with his pre-existing interests. He then asked: Is this conflict what makes things happen?

  • Artists do not need religion. Art is religion. If one believes that all life is significant - and everyone who does not commit suicide has that belief - then one has religion in his art.

  • Beauty is a deeper concept than prettiness or niceness, deeper than an arrangement of shapes and colours. People expect perfect craftsmanship, lovely artefacts, but never did I want to produce a beautiful woman, though I do want beauty in my art. (And later) My work is mainly intuitive, not erotic, though I have no objection to others finding it erotic, to others finding in it what I had not realised was there.

  • Drawing, even for those who are not good at it, makes you look more intently at the subject. Just looking has no grit in it, no mental struggle or difficulty. That only happens when you are drawing.

Moore suggested that the difference between a Mother and Child and a Madonna and Child was that the latter should have austerity, nobility and grandeur.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Nature Poetry

extract from the poem Koi by John Burnside

All afternoon we've wandered from the pool
to alpine beds and roses
and the freshly painted
palm house

all afternoon
we've come back to this shoal
of living fish.

Crimson and black
or touched with gold
the koi hang in a world of their invention
with nothing that feel like home
- a concrete pool
and unfamiliar plants spotted with light
birdsong and traffic
pollen and motes of dust

and every time the veil above their heads
shivers into noise
they dart

and scatter

though it seems more ritual now
than lifelike fear
as if they understood
in principle
but could not wholly grasp

the vividness of loss

I suppose most people when they think of nature poetry think first of someone like William Wordsworth, say:-

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

or John Clare, with a poem like:-

The thistledown's flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.

The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

From remarks I have heard or seen expressed recently, it would seem that many people now think of someone they regard as being a Romantic or a peasant poet, usually someone from the past. Indeed, that last criteria appears to be the most telling. And why is that? I've heard it several times expressed in recent days that it is no longer possible to write sensible poetry about nature. (Not sure in which sense sensible is being used there!) Nature is, to coin a phrase, all messed up. It is polluted, it has been genetically modified; its ecology, as often as not, is in shreds; it is threatened by global warming, and by much that is more insidious even than global warming. That which has raised and sustained, not only us, but all life over millenia, that which has been our cradle and our nursery, will be our grave, and still is (so far) our home; that which I have seen, ( as Wordsworth put it,) and now can see no more, has all but passed away. Or to quote again from the same verse: That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth. Had he been living now, he might have used the same words with a slightly different feeling. It is not personal mortality that spoils the picture now, it is universal mortality, the end of everything.

Therefore, it is said, people - and by implication, especially poets - cannot be interested in poetry as they once were. Really? I think that those who feel that way must have in mind a rather impoverished form of poetry, one that maybe just describes a sunset not very differently from the way it has been described a thousand times before; an outmoded form of poetry, in fact, one that has no truck with the darkening of nature that is taking place, one that ignores the fracturing of nature that we are engaged in, one that shuts its eyes to the disfiguring of the natural world. Yes, one that avoids mention of the darkening, the fraturing and the disfiguring even of our own natures.

Good nature poetry, to my mind, begins in accurate observation, continues with precise description and then moves you on, placing you not-quite-where-you-thought-you-were in the great scheme of things, so that at the end you feel differently about some aspect of nature - and therefore about yourself - than you did at the beginning. It changes your relationship to nature and weaves you into the fabric of it in a way you had not not realised you could be. Wordsworth's poetry did that. It still can do that. And so can the poetry of many contemporary and recent poets: Alice Oswald and John Burnside spring readily to mind, as do Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughs. Neither must we forget Seamus Heaney. He is not always thought of as a nature poet, but he is, and a splendid one at that. And I would specially recommend the work of Alice Oswald:

Easternight, the mind's midwinter

I stood in the big field behind the house
at the centre of all visible darkness

a brick of earth, a block of sky,
there lay the world, wedged
between its premise and its conclusion

From Field

The fact that nature has changed - if that is, indeed, a fact - has made no difference to the relevance of Wordsworth's poetry. Before he and the other Romantic Poets got to work on our sensibilities The Lake District and other such places were almost universally regarded as dangerous, unwholesome, ugly areas of wilderness. Wild places to be avoided. But now, some would maintain, nature is going back to being dangerous and unwholesome. And that is not just the wild places, which hardly seem to exist now, but all of it. Nowhere can you escape the desecrating, toxigenic hand of man. That someone needs to speak out about it hardly needs saying. Almost daily someone does. Certainly, it is true that man (who is himself part of natue, let us not forget) is the one most able - and morally charged - to speak up for nature. And why should the poet over all others have that moral obligation? Because it is also true that man is everywhere speaking out. Yet still the desecration and the poisoning goes on. Why? It surely must be that all the speaking out is failing to change hearts and minds. And that must be because the politicians cannot change hearts and minds. They are too caught in their self-made webs of expedience and compromise. The responsibility must fall to those who have chosen or been chosen to be the guardians and the first line exponents of language, the poets and writers of our generation.

We make language, it has been said, and language makes us, but not just language; we are physical beings; mental beings; spiritual beings, and our whole being must be involved in our dedication to nature - as it is involved in the finest examples of poetry and prose. For the sad thing is that we are no longer talking just about the nature that once was, our traditional environment, in other words. No, we are talking about nature adapted, modified, suffused by the habits of science, including, of course, bad science.

I chose John Burnside for my opening example because although in many respects he is a one-off, having bucked just about every trend going, his work nevertheless seems to me to point a way that nature poetry might go. He may not seem to be too focussed on nature. Indeed, he may not seem to be too focussed on anything much at all. His gaze is apt to pick out that which most folk would not stop to register: "a look we cannot place", "a lime-green weed", "a glimpse of powder-blue", leaf mould, a fungal trace or tracks in snow, a litter of leaves. But as he looks he seems to see out of the corner of his eye the presence of man, who doesn't get much of a mention, except as Burnside is both man and the narrator. Man's presence is implied, though, by the way it is felt impinging on the scraps that Burnside sees. Man is everywhere defining what he is and what is his, negotiating with his equally invisible companions and competitors, the rest of nature. So Burnside, who, miraculously, seemig not to mean to, can beautifully conjure up the English countryside, paints not so much a landscape as a borderland where all are engaged in something that is not entirely present, must be spiritual and (for those reasons?) is not precisely explicable. In a poem called Halloween the narrator peels bark from a tree to smell its ghost. Everything is insubstantial, flux and flow. The borderland is forever breaking up: the fern-work of ice and water.

I will leave you withan extract from Alice Oswald's Dart, a meditation on Devon's fabulous river of that name.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South south west and down the contours. I go slipping

between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can't get out.












and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water

of linked stones

trills in the stones

glides in the trills

eels in the glides

in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

Saturday 7 February 2009

Faking it!

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth. Picasso

Scene 1 for My Confession, a play in one act, is set in an art school in the early fifties. The curtain rises to reveal a large hall in which an End of Year Examination is in progress. Art Theory. This is not an externally administered exam, but is important as it could decide whether I continue my studies or not. On the paper before me are five questions of which three must be attempted. One is compulsory and will attract the bulk of the marks. I cannot now recall the exact wording, but it is concerned with Paolo Uccello and with his painting The Rout of San Romano - of which there are in fact three versions extant. The examiner wants me to explain what drives the painting, what, in common parlance, makes it tick.

I stare alternately at the question paper and at the pile of foolscap papers topped by Answer Paper 1 on which I have carefully written,in their appropriate squares, my name and examination number. Apart from these small but essential additions, though,I have not ventured to spoil its virgin whiteness. I have been considering it for some five or more minutes. No doubt the invigilator, if he is looking in my direction, sees a student without a clue, gazing in blank dismay, waiting for inspiration to strike. He would be wrong. I am trying to gather together in my mind all that I know of Paolo Uccello and his three Battle pictures; and more than that, as each new piece of information swims into my mind I am trying to visualise it on the answer paper, trying to see how much space can be filled by the total of all I know, how far down I can move the bottom line of my essay, and how much more will be required.

So what do I know? Paolo Uccello, fifteenth century. Two things drive these battle paintings: Uccello's fondness for decoration, acquired during the early years of his career, five of which he spent working on mosaics; and his absolute passion for perspective, not so much the perspective that we all learnt in our art classes at school, the perspective that Massacio used to such good effect in representing nature. No, not that, for Uccello missed out on that particular trick, having been abroad when Massacio was thrilling the art world. Instead, here is Uccello forging ahead with the new thing he is turning into the new Big Thing in art: the science of foreshortening. Fantastically difficult, involving not just vanishing points, but also calculation points for complex mathematical formulae which he had begun to develop earlier, when commissioned to copy in paint a sculpture of a horse and rider. So realistic did he contrive to make the painting, that from a cursory glance, a viewer might have thought it another piece of sculpture. One thing, though: it was burdened (some would say) with two sets of vanishing points, one for the pedestal and another for the sculpture itself. It was a problem he never solved: foreshortening involves applying perspective to various parts of a subject individually. How, then, to devise a coherent system of perspective for the whole?

Furthermore, after the equestrian painting, he seems to have gone out of his way to paint whatever was most difficult. There is a famous painting of The Flood, for example, in which he has placed mazzocchi on two of the figures. Mazzocchi were hoops of wood or wicker which were used as foundations for
headdresses. The thing about them was that because they had a multitude of facets depicting them would challenge the draughtsmanship of the most able of artists. They were used as test pieces for those at the top of their profession. There was no reason for the two figures in the painting of the flood to be wearing them other than the difficulties they would cause Uccello in painting them.... hmmm... might be able to work that into the answer. I will have to see! But it is as I ponder how much padding it might provide that the dread thought strikes: what is really being asked of me is some evidence that I have at the very least, a passing knowledge of the formulae involved. And of course, I don't. On one level I know the work well. It hangs in The National Gallery where I am a regular visitor and so have frequently passed it. But that, alas, is exactly what I have always done: passed it - without a second thought. A massive painting, massively boring, a rather strange affair, indeed, all those huge wooden steeds like so many rocking horses and on their backs those men in armour looking more like robot figures from some sci-fi film. A different tack is called for. So what do I know that I might not know I know until I start to ask myself some leading questions?

Let's see how close I can get to the four to six sides of foolscap expected of me. I start to write something about Uccello and his obsession with mathematical formulae... that is, my brain dictates the words mathematical formulae, but my hand writes mystical formulae and I am away. Uccello is no longer a master of foreshortening and pattern, he is art's high priest of mysticism. It's all in the numbers. Numbers are the life blood of mysticism, I decide, and with so many horses, lances, bodies and whatnot, I can conjure almost any number I fancy out of the picture. And conjure is what I do, what Uccello did, what the mystics of old did. But it doesn't even have to be all numerical: the jumble of lances and other fallen weapons on the ground are no longer exercises in perspective or an intricate patterning, they are carefully camouflaged mystical signs, symbols of the occult. The background becomes a section of the lower slopes of a pyramid; there are all-seeing eyes everywhere on the harnesses that the horses wear; the chopped-up and carefully arranged fragments
of lance are broken triangles, pentagrams and squares; the lances carried by the riders on the left form inverted compasses; there is even an ankh, cut into small sections and distributed throughout the picture. Even the symbols shown in my two small images, which I now know are symbols used in the Bahai faith, were miraculously (we are talking about mysticism, remember) found by me, their fragments scattered throughout the painting. How I found them I now have no idea, but that I did I do clearly remember.

It is an excellent essay, as good as any I have written. I am pleased with it as a piece of writing, but... and the but is obvious, I think.

Scene 2: Two days later. A corridor outside the Principal's office. The Principal is a dapper man, tall and with a military-type bearing. He has a beard almost too extensive to be called a goatee, though that is what he insists it is. He is reputed to have been a monk, though my guess is that he was a lay brother. At any rate, he was the order's calligrapher. He carries a silver-topped walking cane and appears with it now at the end of the corridor, motioning me to precede him into the office, but it doesn't work out that way: we meet at the door. His big thing is truth, truth to materials, not trying to make a wood carving look like a bronze casting, that sort of thing. He must be seeing me as the Anti-Christ just now, for he will not have been deceived by my essay, that's for sure. So I am expecting a rough passage. By the thunder, King, he roars under his breath - a skill he has mastered and often uses - and by the forty-thousand purple beards of the Most Holy Prophets of Doom, what is a fellow who can write like that, doing in a place like this? Of course, you do not believe a word of it, and neither do I, but then the fact of your non-belief in what you yourself have written is something I cannot prove, and that being the case, I am bound to take it at face value. Ergo, dear boy, I am bound to give you an A-grade. It should have been an A+, but at that, I regret to say, my spirit baulked. And with that he marches off into the sunset - well, the printing room - noisily prodding the ground before him with his silver-topped cane.

The Epilogue

I would have been well satisfied with a C. Chuffed to bits, in fact. But that A-grade pricked my conscience and left me with a feeling of guilt that to this day I have not satisfactorily expunged.

Confession is good for the soul, they say, and so with this admission (and one other - watch this space!) I make my joint bid for whatever form of heaven eventually awaits us all.

Wednesday 4 February 2009


Leaves, macho once,
now with white fur hats
are doffing them to no one.

The house-bound
thrill to welcome
this new landscape

Grey light,
in visiting the snow,
replenishes itself.

Like dust sheets in reverse,
snow, spread everywhere,
has covered our untidiness.

The snow lies weightless,
calm and unfazed
by its transience.

Lamplight jounces off the snow
flooding the late evening
in a mimicry of day.