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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


Bee said...

I so agree! We've had enough of "favorite" lists . . . doesn't Wordsworth always come on top of these? And let me guess the American poets: Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath? I DO like the thought of art/writing being unsettling, but all of the unsettling pieces I can think of have also become rather banal (unlike your choice).

I often think of the word "sticky" -- as in what sticks in your mind, conscious or unconscious? What leaves traces?

Karen said...

The sticking point for me is the concept of "favorite". How can I choose one poet or even one poem from all? My "favorite" is the one that speaks most clearly to me at the moment - an ever shifting preference.

The most unsettling work of art I've seen is at the Musee D'Orsay - a sculpture of Ugolino and his sons by Carpeaux. The anguish depicted on each of the faces I have not forgotten.

By the way, I think your sculpture is Choc-Mol - a Mayan god. It funny, but he doesn't bother me at all.

Jim Murdoch said...

The key word here has to be "unsettled" and bearing that in mind I could select almost any one of H R Giger's works but the ones that combine human figures with machines are some of the most uncomfortable artworks I've seen. I would offer this one as a good example of his biomechanoid work. It both attracts and repels at the same time.

Shadow said...

all good and well to have these things, but the criteria is unspecified, so the results are really an indication of ..... nothing?

Rachel Fox said...

I read that article too. He's a bit of a whingey writer, Mr Sutcliffe, always moaning about something! That's a huge generalisation...I hope he's too busy to read blogs.

It was odd though because just that very day I had remarked to poet Hugh McMillan (on his blog) that he did unsettling very well in his poems. I'm not sure if he is the most unsettling artist I have come across...I would have to think about that for a few weeks or so. I know that the Lars von Trier movie 'Dogville' unsettled me (and indeed any artworks that feature women...or anybody... as items to be treated badly in a sexual way have that effect).

As for the favourite poet - I think they just meant it as a bit of fun to "get people involved", "stimulate debate" and all the other interactive flimflam. I did vote, as it happens, just for fun though, yes, there were (and always will be) a thousand things wrong with the list. I can just never resist the urge to vote for Larkin when I see his name. Miserable old goat - he would have whinged about it too.


steven said...

hi dave - i think that history will bear out my sense that popularity doesn't always equate with real excellence. i'm also thinking here of "parent of the year", "teacher of the year", "most valuable player" type awards. steven

Susie Hemingway said...

How could a favourite poem or even a favourite poet ever really be chosen? never for me. For on different days during the journey of my life, I restlessly choose a change in direction to match my feelings of that moment. Fickle I may be but do we not all do that?
My long time favourites last forever of course, to return to again and again but often they are not suitable or match my changing feelings. My most loved poems I am sure, would not be the favourites of others. So are we to choose for the now? and how can we do that!
To choose something that unsettles is a most interesting idea! Now that stirs the imagination, that indeed would be worth voting on. A great idea I feel.

Many thanks for your kind comments about my latest "Poem Of Love" and the reason behind them. I am flattered that you liked the first verse. You may if you wish hear me reading one of my poems, "I Write For You" on BBC Radio recently during poetry week, the link is on my other blog: www.susiehemingway.com under the category - site news.
I like your blog very much and will return again to read more.
Sincerely Susie Hemingway.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

You, under-rated? Never!

You have started another debate. I see Steven says that "popularity doesn't always equate with real excellence" but who defines "real excellence"? These polls may not be of value as such but, rather like classical compilation CDs, if they encourage people to look (or listen) further, find something they might not otherwise have come across, it can only be good.

As for unsettling art, having just looked at Jim's link, I can say that that does it for me!

Tess Kincaid said...

Most unsettling piece of art? Hmm. I'll have to ponder this one and get back with you.

I enjoy such a range of art forms that "favorite" never works for me.

Unknown said...

Last summer Barry and I visited the National Art Gallery in Ottawa and they ran an exhibit called "The New Man". It was a collection of mostly dada, surrealism and expressionist artwork portraying how the events of socialism and two world wars had influenced the art, the artists and people in general of European countries primarily. Many of the artworks were of misshapen people, the drawings for Guernica were included. By the time I arrived at the influence of Adolf Hitler storm trooping his agenda across the continent, and the effects of his rise to power, I couldn't even bring myself to continue. I had to leave. On our way out we had to walk past the newly renovated American Embassy encased in black-stealth bulletproof steel complete with video cameras to get to our hotel. Americans are our friendly neighbours. The whole experience was very disturbing.

Rose Marie Raccioppi said...

It is more than common place for adults to ask children, what is their favorite,,,, (this or that) and I have been told by a number of my students that they "hate when someone wants me to choose one (what ever) over the other, when I really like them both the same..."

Favorite, for me is in the moment, not static, not permanent, not binding.

The most unsettling - most penetrating to the core of feelings and belief is the sculpture of Ugolino and his sons by Carpeaux. I have responded to this work, post of:http://apogeepoet.blogspot.com/search?q=Ugolino+

And Yes, you are a chosen read... Thank you for all you offer and for visiting APOGEE Poet.

Rosaria Williams said...

We are all for contests and crowning the winner. The movie industry goes at it constantly, and spends inordinate amount of time and energy in celebrating itself.

Poets ought to have their work in the limelight too, judged by other poets. Is there a guild for poets?

The Weaver of Grass said...

Agree entirely about this "favourite" business.
As regards an unsettling work of art - there is a statue of Mary Magdalen in one of the galleries in Florence, which I found haunting many years ago and can still call to mind today.
Also I think Guernica, which captures the horror of war, is also on the list. Music wise - the thing which springs to mind is that my previous husband who died in 1991 and who had been a POW of the Japanese (on the death railway) could not bear to stay in the same room if Home Sweet Home was being played on the Last Night of the Proms. I reduces me to tears still.

gleaner said...

Like Rose Marie said, I think favourite for me is in the moment, not static, not permanent. I suppose one can do a very generalised analysis of a favourites list to gauge the mood or general feeling of the times. However, the motivations behind those people who participate in favourite lists make them more about revealing human nature's need to feel part of the herd/group.
I enjoy having a quick glance at results of these lists but usually to confirm to me that my favourites are not there and to see what is commercially popular, but not necessarily artistically popular.

Carl said...

My lists change from moment to moment... and are my lists alone filtered by my taste and personal experience. a poll for favorite (insert art form of your choice here) is not useful. I'm in the top five painter/photogrpahers aged 43 in my town... I can't imagine there is a big golden trophy for that. Oh well back to painting just because I feel like it and it makes me happy.


Renee said...

The only poets are know are my friends.


Friko said...

Everybody's favourite? well, that says it all, doesn't it?
The nation's favourite? ditto!

It won't do more than give rise to another "anthology of favourites" But, if it helps to flog a poetry book or two, perhaps then there's some merit to it.

Friko said...

I forgot about "unsettling"
Nefertiti's head in Berlin; there can be nothing man-made that is more discombobulating, frightening, awe-inspiring and breathtaking.

Dave King said...

I'm not sure who the Americans are. I thought maybe Wallace Stevens might be one. The Irish two were Heaney and Yeats, surprise, surprise. Yes, I was rather intrigued by the unsettling idea.

I agree about the "sticky" stuff!

Absolutely right, no disagreement at all about favourites. And yes, Ugolino would be a strong candidate in the unsettling stakes.

I have made a "correction" - actually made clearer - the script.

I didn't know of your biomechanoids, certainly not the one linked to, ugh! That will take some beating.


I do absolutely agree about items treated badly in a sexual way. I did actually have in mind good if not great works, though I do admit that poorly executed work had not occurred to me.

Yes, I am sure you are right: they did mean it as a bit of fun, but my thought really was that it could have been that and a bit more than that.

I'm right there in your corner when it comes to teachers and the popularity stakes!

I must confess that I, too, am fickle in that regard, but I know some who are not, who would always pick the same poet - not sure about the same poem, though. I have a core twenty to thirty poems to which I constantly return. I suppose I would have to admit that they represent some sort of favourite group.

Thanks for the link. I shall away to it directly - and many congratulations.

I see what you are saying. I'm working on a post on something along those lines, so I'll say no more for the moment.

Yup, Jim's link did it for me, too.

Understood. Many would say that's as it should be.

Your description was so vivid I found myself thinking in images and something like a trailer for a futuristic horror film running in my head. I was wishing I was a film director or script writer. Thanks - I think!! (Kidding. Thanks indeed)

Rose Marie
I think you would have a lot of support for both of those positions. Thanks.

good point. V ery good point. There are, of course, competitions, but I suppose the same objections and the same cases for could be made there.

The Weaver of Grass
Many thanks for that, a most moving comment which deserves to be left in peace to do its work.

Yes, I think we are on the same wavelength there

Yes, I cannot see myself that The Nation's favourite - as opposed to yours or mine - makes any sense at all.

You see? It's not democratic, they wouldn't have let you vote for me!

That is the one case to be made I think. - but another anthology? It's a big price to pay!
Nefertiti's head? Agreed.

A Cuban In London said...

Lists of the 'Best of...' bore me to tears now. So, I'm with you on this one, dave, I would not vote either.

My choice of unsettling work of art would have to be Pollock's 'Chaos'. There are many more, obviously, but I did not dig Pollock the first time around and it was only when I bought one of Ornette Coleman's albums that I began to understand the painter. The album cover was the aforementioned painting. Seeing it against the background of the music to which I was listening it made sense to me. Pollock, in my view, allowed his brushes to have a say, to travel wherever they want to go, drift off, if you like. That to me, is revolutionary, even if it looks simplistic, and it does look uncomplicated.

I loved your choice, by the way. I have seen that sculpture on the net, in photos somewhere but never knew where it'd come from. Many thanks for the explanation.

Greetings from London.

Madame DeFarge said...

I agree with the notion that favourite can be fluid, but there are constants - Philip Larkin is always one, John Donne another. But I read so few poems that I would be hard pressed to name ones I didn't like. As for unsettling images, the album cover for a Rage Against the Machine album with the picture of the burning monk makes me feel sick every time I see it.

maeve63 said...

Hi Dave,

I'm sorry that I've been gone so long. I hope things are well. I come asking a favor of you today. Would you please point out my last 2 days of blog entries to your readers? I know this may sound a bit odd, but I'm hoping to spread some good about this world and I would really apprecieate a hand in the healing. I would mean a great deal to me.
Thank you

BTW - I have long admired the Mayan's. Definitly an incredible culture.

Art Durkee said...

I agree with your interest in "unsettling" over "favorite." I think "favorite" lists are inherently pablum precisely because they're popularity contests. Some great poets have also been favorites—but it's rare.

Most great art is unsettling. I find that I am always attracted to art that shakes me up, or shakes me loose perhaps. "Unsettling" is a good way to put it. Freeman Dyson once titled abook-length memoir he wrote Disturbing the Universe, and that is a phrase that has always stuck with me.

I think that all great art disturbs the universe. That is part of its function and purpose.

For me, I recall how reading Rilke's Duino Elegies was unsettling the first time, and can remain so, especially the First and the Tenth Elegies. Rilke's conception of Angels is not remotely comforting or sentimental. I could never believe in angels, because the trite Victorian representations that one usually associates with angels are so baldly bland and sentimental. But Rilke's Angels I can believe in; they more closely match my own experience of such things.

There have only been one or two film adaptations, out of the dozen or so, that really capture how terrifying the spirits in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" really are, particularly the third spirit, the ghost of Christmas Future who is all too reminiscent of Death. That stuff is rather unsettling, if you really take it in. Most versions of Dickens still tend to sentimentalize things a bit much.

Unknown said...

A Cuban in London
Excellent choice, one I had not thought of, I must admit. I agree about it being revolutionary.

Madam De Farge
Donne is a fine favourite to have. I see nothing wrong with personal favourites, but do not understand national ones. I don't know the album cover - don't think I want to!

Welcome back. Good to have you visiting again. Will do, but may not get them in tomorrow's post.

The web's synchronicity strikes again. I have a post scheduled to go on line in a few hours titled Disturbing the Universe! - but the quote is from Eliot, not Dyson. Again, I have to confess that I had not thought of the Duino Elegies. I'm kicking myself for that! I take the Dickens point.

readingsully2 said...

Hi, Dave. Interesting read.

Carl said...

Seems like I threw out the baby with the bath water and missed the bigger point. The Elliot poems are beauties and great examples of what you are talking about. They do sraw you in and also let you (force you) to make conclusions of your own.

Thanks for always getting me to think.

Cloudia said...

apologies if my whimsical Beckett quote was in bad taste!