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Monday 28 September 2009

On Turning Over a New Leaf

When the apple tree turned over a new leaf
it began producing plums.

When the pear turned over a new leaf
it brought forth grapes instead.

When the cherry turned over a new leaf
it found acorns on its branches.

When The Book of Life turned over a new leaf
a skeleton crawled out.

When the woods turned over their new leaves
a million tiny creatures saw the sun.

When these turned over the dead leaves
the dust and ash beneath began to smoke.

When humankind turned over its new leaves
it took leave of its senses

and not until it turned again the old leaves
did the trees bring forth their true and ample fruit.

Friday 25 September 2009

What sex is your computer - & 3 Brilliant ideas

Are you one of those for whom time always seems to be moving at the wrong speed? When we are bored it slows and drags, when engaged in some exciting project it flies by and there are not enough hours in the day or days in the week. Lying awake at night it almost stops. At my age it is increasingly lethargic. For those unfortunate enough to have such problems, the depressed find that it crawls and cannot be prodded into faster life, but for the manic it, too, goes at a hundred miles an hour and there is nothing to be done to slow it down. If you happen to be a tad obsessional you will be focussed too firmly on time future at the expense of the present, whereas if anxiety is your black dog you will be interested mainly in time past.

This is all very well known, of course. I mention it only because this last week I discovered that there was help at hand. Well, if not help, then certainly illumination.

You have but to click here to be whizzed away to the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. Here you will be asked a series of questions and rated according to the degree to which you are influenced by : Past Negative, Past Positive, Present Fatalism, Present Hedonism, Future and Transcendental Future. You can also, should you so wish, take what they call the Transcendental-future Time Perspective Inventory - but I'll leave you to discover all about that for yourself. (Just so there's no misunderstanding: so far as I have been able to make out none of this has anything to do with Transcendental Meditation - just thought I'd make that clear.

From a source that must remain anonymous, I learn that a certain police sergeant was in trouble with his inspector for referring to one of his P.Cs (female) as a W.P.C.. This, apparently, is offensive in the present climate. It is like referring to an actor (female) as an actress. Well beyond the pale, no? This one worries me, though, and not least because I had not realised that computers came with gender differences. How do you tell? What is it about my friendly inspector's computer that marks it out as being female? Is there a test for it? Can I buy one in P.C. World? It really worries me that I have not noticed any such distinguishing features in any of the computers I have had dealings with in the past. And certainly not in the one I am up close and personal with at the moment. What has happened to me? Am I slipping? And what mightn't I have done in close contact with them over the years, and not even been aware that I was doing it? It does of course answer one mystery: the question of why it is (allegedly) that so many officers would prefer to be in the station playing with their computers rather than out on the beat.

No doubt it had to happen, and on the 5th November it will happen, for on that auspicious day Penguin will publish a volume containing over sixty of the world's classic novels Twitterized. This, apparently, is what Elizabeth Bennett is reduced to: It's as if the less he seems to care about me, the more drawn to him I am. This seems the opposite of how it should be? Oh well.

From a source which modesty forbids me to divulge comes the most brilliant idea of all. An idea that foretells the day when you will click on File on your word processor and see, not just the options New, Open, Save, Save as, but now: New, Open, Save, Save as, Save as verse. Think about it: You will have typed into your W.P. (something like) It had been a wet night, but Jim had remained focussed on the small float bobbing in the dark pool at the end of his line... and at that point the muse had walked out on you, slamming the door as she went - obviously not intending to return any time soon. Dejectedly you click on File, are about to click on Save as when inspiration (daughter of the muse who has just left) whispers in your ear. Following her suggestion, you click instead on Save as verse and are rewarded with:

the angler -
his dreadful intensity
in the evening rain!

Okay, so Buson (painter-poet, 1716-83) got there before the computer on that occasion, but one day the computer will get there first and you will be famous. I understand (from my not-to-be-divulged source) that the originator of the idea is prepared to let Microsoft have the idea to develop for free, as that is all it is just now, just an idea.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Nude descending to an entrance - or an exit

Nude Descending a Staircase Marcel Duchamp

Slowly the ball of her right foot descends
to press down gently on the stair below,
rolls like a marble on an endless track,
seeks out the spot - the only spot - that does not creak.
Slowly her weight transfers to it.

Slowly the left descends to add its weight,
she feels the pace of life take a new leash.
The house is full of echoes: voices, rasps and groans,
she hears the sound of someone shuffling cards.
A fortune being told? Perhaps a fortune lost.

The warm air from below seduces her, clings
like a robe to her nude form. She moves her arms
as if to draw the garment round her, but instead
looks through the window on the mezzanine. A flash
of light from moon or car illuminates the scene:

a fox runs headlong, through a field and down the hill,
then lets the forest swallow him. STEEP HILL, she reads.
Then: 1-IN-5. ENGAGE LOW GEAR. The catseyes glint,
and all but freak her out. DANGER LORRIES TURNING
screams at her. She turns, looks back to view the screen,

sees overlapping versions of herself - fifteen
she counts. They clunk a bit. Walt Disney-ish,
the way they portray movement. Spread below
an engineer's delight: what passes in these more
enlightened times for what we used to call

a life class: cat-walk, film and video
The students cheer and throw their cameras
and mobiles in the air. The right foot's off again.
The window mists and seems to move. NO PARKING looms

appear. Two hands. The hands sweep back and forth.
The window fails to clear - her body-heat, perhaps.
The willows - or the window cleaners - gently tap
the glass. Her boyfriend's naked form falls limply on her lap.
The window clears, the local constable peeps in.

The verities of life vie in her consciousness,
the who and where she is, how life unfolds;
expressions of her hopes and memories.
As easily she slips between them as to sleep,
like being born or fading into death.

Saturday 19 September 2009

The Venus of Willendorf


He who created me,
my nomad, hunter-
gatherer, shaped me
for consort on the trail,

gave me no feet -
what need had I of feet?
He held me in his hand,
fondled as he walked,

whose sharp eyes
picked me out,
half-formed in fine
dense limestone,

half-exhumed from
stone and scree;
whose stone blades
chipped me free,

gave shape
to my rotundity.


Part rosary, part
worry bead,
part pebble in the palm,
tactile he wanted me;

tactile I was - and am.
(Don't ask!) These days
they land

all sorts on me:
Earth Goddess for a start;
Goddess of fecundity -
I ask you,

I, who was his Titty
, who gave
him feelings
as he walked -

assured him
of his manhood - me!


He'd give me girlie gifts
like body paint.
(Red ochred
I was then.)

Stone chisels shaped
my hair in plaits
and laid them round my head
for him to finger.

Yet not for those
he trekked with me,
but my great vulva - My
high mountain pass
, he'd say.

Nor that alone,
but five prodigious globes
would keep his fingers
busy as we went.

(Didn't seem to mind
my age or motherhood.)


No one knows
how long my sleep -
twenty-, thirty-
thousand years?

They guess! That I
was lifted lightly
to an evening's light
is more the point.

Since when
the earth has opened up
its secret store
of stone-age Venuses -

like cold Kostenki,
or (Fanny)Galgenberg.

Riff-raff! Starchy, stylized.
They'd not have thawed his bones!

Thursday 17 September 2009

Hot on the trail!

Last month I posted on a visit made to the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley, Surrey. The day proved to be the hottest of the year that far. Last week, honouring a long-standing arrangement with Doreen's cousin and a friend of his, we returned to Wisley. Weather-wise it was a re-run of our previous visit. Even hotter, clear blue sky, unbroken sun, etc, etc. There were differences. In August the schools were out and it was very much geared to the interests and needs of children. This time we were greeted by a sculpture trail of 64 sculptures organised by The Surrey Sculpture Society, a Science of Gardening Trail, showing what the Wisley scientists are doing to further the cause of horticulture, and a Global Warming Walk.

I did suggest that perhaps we should try to follow all three at once, see where that would get us. Where it got us was to the early signs of impending nervous breakdowns, so we gave up and just followed our noses.

Here then, the day in a few photographs - emphasis on the sculptures, you will notice. They were of somewhat uneven quality, as they were bound to be.

The first two to greet us. The three-eyed monster had something that worked on me, though I could not work out what.

Above, a quiet - and shady! - spot beside the lake where we rested for longer than we really needed to, and just chatted - the best part of the day.

The photograph below shows a sculpture that reminded me very much of The Marini horse and horseman that used to be one of my first stops visiting The Tate. I am not not putting them on a par for quality, though I do confess that I rather liked this long-legged version!

An attempt to right two omissions from that earlier post. Firstly, the new glasshouses. In my previous post I showed something of the plants within, but gave no idea of the houses themselves or their setting.
And below, a view of the rockery which I previously showed from the top looking down - a view which seems to have caused some confusion. This then to put the record straight, what might be called the more normal view - looking up.

Above, the sculpture of all the sculptures I would have most liked to take home. And below another, longer, view of the rockery.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Eliot : Disturbing the Universe

This post has in a sense been handed to me by two or three responses to my post On not getting it. In the course of discussing how a reader might react to difficulties in a poem they all said (something like)... otherwise you end up just problem solving. (What preceded the three dots varied in each case, but had to do with unravelling apparently meaningless lines, phrases, images etc.

The question turns, I suppose, on that word just. I think I answered for the most part gaily (glibly might be a better way of putting it), but later it occurred to me that there is another, more important, side to the matter, illustrated perhaps by the way in which T.S. Eliot used it to revolutionise English poetry.

Eliot, at that time a bank clerk in London, was appalled by what, in his view, the Victorians had done to English poetry. They had allowed it to flounder in a great soup of sentimentality. Emotion and feeling were all. It had lost that all-important contact with the intellect. He hatched his master plan to rescue it, to drag it to the firm land of reason before it drowned altogether. Accordingly, he produced three great poems: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady and "La Figlia che Piange" (The Weeping Girl).

Here is the text of The Weeping Girl

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair--
Lean on a garden urn--
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair--
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise--
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.

Is that not beautiful? So are each of the other two, in their rhythms and in their cadences (something that Eliot did masterfully), so beautiful that you may easily not spot the plan, as I believe most people do not until it is pointed out. My personal opinion is that these three poems are as good as anything Eliot wrote, with the possible exception of The Four Quartets.

The public were baffled, as they had every right to be, for technically, theoretically and actually these three poems are incomprehensible. Eliot intended them so to be. That, indeed, was the master plan - to make them completely and permanently incomprehensible by withholding the essential information that the reader would need if s/he were to understand them. That way, he reasoned, the intellect would be continually engaged with the poems in its unending effort to understand them. The alternative, to give sufficient information for complete comprehension, would result, he reasoned, in the reader losing interest the moment that the problem unravelled. But of course, the plan would not have worked if they had been incomprehensible conundrums and nothing else. They were not. As I have indicated, they were - and are - poems of great beauty. They also contain some brilliant images which alone would have kept me reading. If we look at J Alfred Prufrock first - for no better reason than that it was the first one I read - we find that it opens in this wise:-

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

To my way of thinking the image contained in lines 2 and 3 is brilliant - though not completely understandable. I still am not sure HOW the evening is like the patient. I'm not sure either, what a half deserted street is like, but following like a tedious argument does it for me. Eventually, though, we come to the overwhelming question. The stricture not to ask runs right through the poem, as an attitude when not actually spelt out. We never do find out what it is. We never do find out what is this visit we are to make. And then we come to the two lines

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Who are these women?
Why do they come and go?
Where from and where to?
Where is the room?
What sort of room is it?
Why are the women talking constantly of Michelangelo?

These two lines appear twice in the poem, so you would think they must be of some importance, yet none of those questions are ever answered. These opening lines, in what they offer and in what they withhold are typical of the poem. Indeed, they are typical of all three of these poems.

Portrait of a Lady begins

Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon
You have the scene arrange itself—as it will seem to do—
With “I have saved this afternoon for you”;
And four wax candles in the darkened room,
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb
Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.

The second verse begins:

You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,
And how, how rare and strange it is, to find
In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,
[For indeed I do not love it … you knew? you are not blind!
How keen you are!]
To find a friend who has these qualities,
Who has, and gives
Those qualities upon which friendship lives.
How much it means that I say this to you—
Without these friendships—life, what cauchemar!

We are in similar territory. We do not know who the Lady is or who the young man is. Much less do we ever discover what they are to each other, not - despite the many clues and false clues - what they want from each other. Is it a healthy relationship. At times it does not seem so, but we do not know, we are never told. Nevertheless, much as I want to know, I for one find that I have to keep reading. And yes, the brain is permanently engaged upon the matter and the matter is beautiful.

What we do se here, it seems to me, is that Eliot did not jettison feeling. He did not go to the opposite extreme. There are feelings in plenty in these poems. Many of the feelings that we encounter in The Waste Land, for a start, feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, waste, the triviality of modern living, resignation and even martyrdom.

I have measured out my life in coffee spoons from Prufrock.

I shall sit here serving tea to friends from Portrait of a Lady. (Another refrain that appears more than once in the poem.)

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
- from Prufrock

Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
from Portrait of a Lady

Perhaps you can write to me.”
My self-possession flares up for a second;
This is as I had reckoned.
“I have been wondering frequently of late
(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
Why we have not developed into friends.”
I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.
from Portrait of a Lady

And there is wit:
My smile falls heavily among the bric-a-brac. from Portrait of a Lady

And humour

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

Wednesday 9 September 2009

This is not a Meme!

Did you know that the nation has been voting for its favourite poet? I am not sure whether I did know or not. I read about it in Tom Sutcliffe's column in The Independent. It did seem to ring a distant bell, but to be honest there are so many of these lists of favourite authors, novels, films and god knows what these days, especially on the net, that the distant ringing may have been from some quite other bell.

They are beloved, of course, of networks where the aim is to encourage relationships. They serve to highlight areas of like mindedness among their participants, and for that they are appropriate. That is to say they tell us more about the people taking part than about the subjects for which they are voting. All well and good. But what are we to make of this national thingy? The results, when they come out, will be anonymous, they will tell us nothing about anybody. Okay, it may boost your ego - or do the opposite, depending on your stance - to know that Shakespeare, your own personal favourite, is also, as it turns out, the nation's favourite, but where do you go from there? Ooops, silly of me, you couldn't have voted for Shakespeare, he wasn't on the list. Didn't make the shortlist - again! After me, he must be the most under-rated poet of all time!

So who did make it? Oh, I don't know, there were thirty of them, nice round number, all Brits except for four - two Americans and two Irish. Well, that's fair enough, I suppose: we Brits aint a'gonna vote for some non-Brit to be our favourite, are we? So you've guessed, I know: I didn't vote. Can't now because the voting's closed,. and wouldn't have done even if I'd known about it in time.

Tom Sutcliffe reckons it might have been more appropriate to vote for the best poem, that at least, he maintains, would have put the focus back on the poetry and away from the poets. Which brings us back to the old, much argued-about conundrums of how do you rate one poem against another and is this competitive element appropriate in the realm of art? If so, what about introducing poetry and painting as events in the next Olympic Games?

His last sentence was the most interesting - and this is the bit that is not a meme: I don't give a damn who the National Favourite Poet is but I'd be interested to know who might be voted The Most Unsettling Poet. Changing that a bit, I was wondering if there is a work of art that has really unsettled - discombobulated - you. I know which mine would be. Not a poem, but a sculpture. One I saw at the Tate back in the sixties, for me the jewel in an amazing exhibition of Mexican Art. It was found at the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars at ChichenItza, Yucatan, and shows a sculptural figure reclining on its elbows and holding a hollowed-out bowl or plate, which was presumably for offerings. None of the images that I have been able to find come anywhere near the sense of threat and savagery that being up close and personal to it evoked in me, perhaps because none were of the actual example which I saw in the exhibition, though they seem to have been produced to something of a formula and there is a conformity linking them all. Chac was a Mayan rain god. Chac Mool's bowl is said by some to have been for the purpose of catching rain - not as exciting, perhaps, as the alternative explanation. More reading here

Sunday 6 September 2009

And Death Shall Have Its Dominion.

A work in progress: 2 verses are in their first draft, the rest are in a second. So any feedback would be gratefully received.

Pale and brittle, wilting to a stranger beauty,
the hydrangeas know the score, know that
the withering is not the dying, but a mask,
an act of mourning, a long process
brought on by the sudden shock of death
and cushioning its worst effects.

Wise in their own wisdoms, they
know death for what it is:
a momentary singularity in which
all space in all of its dimensions
is removed from time, and time is drawn
immeasurably brief - a singularity,
which when it seems to linger has passed by.

What lingers are the echoes of a life that was.
Imagine you are in a country house.
You're in a window seat and looking out.
You see a ha-ha and beyond that sunken fence
a herd of rare breed cattle in the fields.
The house resounds to life's activities, it seems,
but what you hear are echoes of the life that was,
the life that made it what it was, the body processes
that run on pointlessly because they cannot stop.
And what you might have thought were death-bed sounds
are made by children playing, are reverberations
of a new existence brewing, not upstairs,
but in the garden, nursery or hall. Outside,
the cattle are the earnest that the life goes on.

Ah, but there we have it, for between the two, between
the past and future, death's hiatus lies -
a ha-ha we've internalised. To one side stand
the masters of the house, and to the other
lie their bodies. On the one side erstwhile mistresses
still entertain, whilst on the other lie
their corpses in their graves. Between the two
is no communication, neither now, nor ever was,
though something passes, though we know not what, between
our space-cum-time continuum and that lost world
in which each nano-moment now exists,
and must exist, apart from space and other time.

The dead are buried in the dust and faeces
of a world that was not meant to be, that no one planned,
that happened anyway, at night, when no
one was on guard. But some have been cremated
and their ashes spread. Blown by the wind, they've found their way
across and deep inside the ha-ha, deep, so deep,
where no light falls. Our singularity has all
the attributes of the astronomer's black hole.
We can go in, cannot return. Yet still they sing
and still there is there life abundant -
as the cattle testify, their life somehow
more spiritual than ours. But we

who are still living, cannot know
the ways of any world in which they're not,
and of our loved ones it may be we cannot spot
the crossing points at which they leave for good:
the body dies, the mind expires and someone
must pronounce the patient dead - and all
at different times, perhaps. And all that while
the inside and the outside states are out of key.
We see it still in the hydrangeas, though
their season has wound on and there are other deaths:
the fox cub in the road shows how
each death of every kind is timeless in its way.

Thursday 3 September 2009

The 7-Day and 7-Minute (Nearly) Poem

For seven days
the seven buds
had waited
looked around them
far below them -
seven fledglings

psyching themselves up
for seven days
to brave the drop
and fly the nest.
They chose a stormy night
of drenching rain
that battered the hydrangeas.

Bursting from their bondage
they opened,every one.
By dawn
the seven buds
were seven roses
claiming their just prize -
some seven hours of sun.

And now a haiku from the same source:-

Fifteen red roses
have turned to face the sun.
One yellow rose has turned its back.