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Wednesday 28 October 2009

Hopper's America

Edward Hopper's famous Night Hawk canvas

He felt the weight of prairie vastness in the urban space,
the loneliness such sparseness of expanse can bring,
the seep of grassland into city wariness, the way
great distance can be squeezed into a downtown street.

He saw the spaces infiltrating neighbourhoods
like wedges prising could-be friends apart, or solid hedges,
impenetrable, keeping people in. For hedge, a block
of darkened pigment: loneliness, a figure gaoled in light.

His landscape was a tableau frozen from time's stream,
a known world, stranger than we'd known, where nothing moved.
There were no doors, no corridors, no exits from the bleakness
and no absconding from his silent dream. No recoil to reality.

Always, it seemed, an unknown ghost was waiting to appear.

Friday 23 October 2009

If I had never read Heaney...

He appeared on the hill at first light. The scarp was dark against a greening sky and there was the bump of the barrow and then the figure, and it shocked. I thought perhaps the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us. I thought this as I blew out the lanterns one by one around the pen. The sheep jostled and I was glad of their bells.

He came down towards me, stumbling down over the tussocks of the scarp's slope that was cold and wet still with the night, and I could see he was a soldier from the red tunic that all the army now wore, it was said. He stopped at a distance. He had that wary look of one used to killing. His face was dark with dirt, and stubbled.

Deserters had been known to kill. I went on blowing.

He watched me all the time. Then as I turned towards him, he looked away and down into the valley where the village was beginning to smoke.

I saw him side on and I recognised him.

"Gabby," I said.

He turned.

"I wondered when," he murmured, so I could hardly hear. He was the tiredest man I have ever seen.

I first read Ulverton by Adam Thorpe I suppose five or six years ago, maybe more. It became famous as the book that did not win the Booker. More than one author has bemoaned the fact that if Ulverton could not win it, what chance have the rest of us? That opening scene has haunted since my first reading. The very mention of the book's title summons up my images of that scene. I have read the novel a couple of times since, but it never loses its power or its freshness so far as I am concerned. I say novel, but is it? Its subject is the story of a fictional village over three centuries, but whether you see it as a novel or as a collection of short stories relating to the people of Ulverton and the surrounding hills close to The White Horse, is, I suggest, largely a matter of taste. Most will settle for it being a story, and I have neither doubt nor difficulty with that, but here's another suggestion: you could see Ulverton as a collection of prose poems, for in many respects that is what they are.

That being so, it seems almost unbelievable to me that, but for another amazing example of the Internet's synchronicity, I might even now not have been made aware of the fact that Thorpe has a total of four volumes of poetry to his name. Worse. Research has elicited the fact that he was a poet first - and I knew not!

I recently began to re-read Ulverton once more and almost immediately was introduced to his most recent collection of poetry - from five years back! - Nine Lessons from the Dark. To have been so totally unaware of such a treasure from the pen (or keyboard) of one so greatly admired for his prose (or prose poetry) must count as some sort of offence against poetry's Highway Code, I'm thinking. Following without due care and attention, perhaps. Something like that.

Speaking of following, brings me immediately to what was both an encouragement to read and a disappointment: his debt to Seamus Heaney. Discipleship is perhaps too strong a word, but he treads a similar path and in many places the sound of his footsteps echoes those of his hero. The disappointment is not Thorpe's fault. If I had never read Heaney on The Grauballe Man:

he seems to weep
the black river of himself

I would have thought infinitely more highly of Thorpe on The Tollund Man:

Tollund was pickled
in his own ghost, petrified

to an absorbed, ebony drape
of self...

Like Heaney he derives much from the Danish bodies preserved in their peat bogs, but there is more than one way of looking at that. You could view it as a cheeky mining of the seam which Heaney has made his own; you could see it as showing the courage to follow his own muse no matter where she might lead; or you could think it an act of discipleship. Alternatively, you could look at the differences. Heaney was writing against the background of a troubled and violent Ireland, and saw the bog people and their brutal deaths as a metaphor around which to build confessional verse. Thorpe is interested in the bog people as an aspect of the natural world and the site as a place where he unintentionally terrified his son. A touch of humour, the natural world, the seriousness of human sacrifice and the abject fear of a small boy all somehow retain their true characters, their own realities.

I sensed as a medium might
in some Islington cabal

a second presence, no more than a hint,
watchful of me.

But later he draws on Heaney again with his description of the body:

the body shrivelled to the leather
of its stitched hood, stubble

that gave the vexed, late-
night look under the calm

of someone who did not scream.

But do I detect borrowings - echoes, let's say - as between the poems and the prose? Well, yes, and why not, indeed? Some are mundane. For example, the second chapter (or story) of Ulverton is actually a sermon. It begins:It was not snowing when we set out.
For good measure, a half page further down we read:
'Twas not snowing nor in any ways fowl when we set out.
Cairns, the first poem in Nine Lessons from the Dark begins: And the sky was clear when we started out. Of course, the similarities do not end there: the implied threat in each of those statements is realised only too forcefully. The stories have more than their opening statements in common.

One other example may suffice. Thorpe likes a good piss, or he imagines that the country folk of 1712 did, or he imagines the reader will think the country folk of 1712 did. And for all I know, in cruder times they did. It sounds authentic, and may well be so. I am getting round to the fact that one of my favourite poems from the collection is Productivity which explains at one point the (eighteenth century) countryman's method of putting a bloom on the horse's coat:
a wet of piss on the chaff
would make the coat shine.

An echo, if you like, of the third chapter (or story) in Ulverton, which has the character of a journal or a diary has this passage:
Today I caught the maid at her offices. She was pissing within the dairy and not, as instructed, upon the dung-heap which is hidden from general view. Being midway through her passing of urine she made no effort to hide herself and I was afflicted with a view of her private place, which, unlike my wife's, is crow-black.

There is more than a touch of pastiche, I think, particularly in Ulverton and the use of a slightly archaic language which I, perhaps in ignorance, find compelling.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Going, going, gone...

Caitlin Moran in yesterday's Times cried Goodbye, cruel world. I'm off to live on the internet. Not for me, such luxuries. My cry is Adieu Fair web, I'm off to re-engage with the unpalatable real world. Or maybe it will prove neither cruel nor unpalatable. I shall write more on that anon.

For now I remember how I used to speculate as a boy about what it would be like to be one of those medieval monks who contrived to get themselves walled up in some monastry or castle for some grave crime or sin. I am beginning to find out. I am almost there. There remains a chink in the growing wall of boxes, books, small items of furniture and other portable artefacts from downstairs, a chink just large enough to squeeze through. But not for much longer. Any moment now the electrician and the decorator will arrive to begin the ground floor's makeover. Then the invasion of my small junk room-cum-study-cum-computer room will be complete. I must retreat to saner areas, vanish from the internet before I vanish from the physical world completely. Fare thee well, oh friendly web! Adieu good friends for the space of half a moon at the most - or so I have been reliably informed by the decorator using his well-polished trust me, I'm a builder tone of voice.

But not all is lost. I have scheduled posts to appear, almost as normal, though at intervals a day or so greater than my usual, and I hope to see any comments left, though alas, I doubt I will get to answer them.

So trust me, I'm a blogger: I shall return!.
Farewell good friends.

Saturday 17 October 2009

Art for My Sake!

Henry Darger's Me to the Moon

Back on the 3rd of April this year I posted a poem of mine looking back to an obsession I had in childhood with a make-believe world of subterranean tunnels, caves, vertical shafts and the like. I had dreams about this world. Indeed, although I can no longer be sure, I think it may have all begun as the result of a dream. The world became an essential part of my my play world, though the games that resulted were for just one player. Me. I had fantasies about this world and about it dozens of secret entrances, all cunningly concealed, each by a different device, mostly natural, such as an old tree stump covered in ivy. I drew intricate plans and maps of my world, made several large paintings and at least one model. At that time I was suffering a lot of bad health and had to spend long periods in bed. I developed ways of folding and rolling the bed sheets to model my underground tunnels and built caverns between sheet and blanket. I suppose that had my obsession lasted into adulthood the appropriate response to it would have been for me to build installations to interpret to others what was going on in my head.

Earlier this year the Haywood Gallery in London held an exhibition of installations purporting to do just that. The exhibition was called: Walking in My Mind. Ten internationally recognised artists prodused works by means of which they hoped to convey to the gallery's visitors just what it was that was taking place inside their heads.

That seemed hopelessly optimistic to me, but now there is a gallery dedicated to going well beyond that brief, but paradoxically, with a somewhat greater chance of success - or so it seems to me. The Museum of Everything, newly opened in a disused dairy close to Regents Park in London, displays works made by artists for themselves and for themselves alone. These are works that for the most part were made for the artists' eyes only, works that spring from and feed the artist's fantasies and have no other purpose. Many of them are whimisical it seems, some verging towards the dark. But I stress: the one thing they have in common is their intended privacy. There is, or was when they created their works, absolutely no intention to communicate - and is not that intention an essential element in the making of a work of art? The exhibition contains, for example, works from a vast collection that was discovered by the late artist's landlord. No one other than Darger knew of their existence prior to his death. Henry Darger has since become rather well known - given that that was not part of his game plan - for his Vivien Girls, delightful creatures, nude for the most part, who are pursued through his paintings by absolute evil on account of their intrinsic goodness.

It was in reading about this exhibition that I was reminded of my childhood indulgences. Among the 95 artists whose works are currently on display are Calvin and Ruby Black, a couple who lived in the Mojave Desert where they created their own miniature world, a wind-powered city with the endearing name of Possum Trot. (Sounds like the name of a blog, does it not?) They populated it with lovingly made wooden dolls dressed in beautifully hand-crafted clothes. The parallels with my subterranean world seemed amazingly close, though in my case the population changed a few times: originally it was inhabited by the military, a special military with a brief to save the world, later it was given over to International Rescue (yes, really, I was the first, though there were no rockets). Then a mutant strain of humanity who had been subject to a death ray that had not quite worked. None of these proved as satisfying as the army, however, so finally they recaptured it.

So what is all this nonsense in aid of, then? I have already given a clue in a question I raised earlier: Is not the intention to communicate an essential element in the making of a work of art? I have been trying to think of precedents, but I have not exactly come up with an armful. What other examples can you think of for art-making in which no thrid party is involved, just the artist and his work? Where the art work has no role in communicating something? I thought of Cave art, but we cannot be sure what that was all about. Magic has been suggested, to give the hunter greater skill and more success. But the bones in the caves were not from the same animals as depicted on the walls - in many cases. Spirits are another suggestion. The works were not meant to be viewed, not even by the artist, which is why they were painted in such inaccessible places. The important fact - the only fact that mattered - was that they should exist. Somewhere. In and for themselves. Rites of passage is another suggestion. In which case they would be expected to convey something, to communicate. But we don't know. Ikons, I thought of, but then decided that of course they communicate, not something new from the artist, something familiar via the artist, but they communicate all the same. Child art, I thought of, and then found myself argueing against myself. I began by thinking about my tunnel-world. I never did think of it as art. Not even the paintings I made of it. And then it struck me that I didn't think of any of my other paintings as art, either. Not until... and then I realised that I have no idea at what stage I first began to think of my paintings as art. We all know that the child is a fine artist. And then he stops. Why? Could it be because he begins to think of his art as art? Begins to think in terms of others, trying to say something to others, and loses the freshness of having to satisfy only himself?

So: Can you think of any other examples of private art? Non-communicative art? And is it art? Can it be? Or does art have to be at least endeavouring to communicate? If so, what objectively distinguishes the two conditions?

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Self-Portrait : Moving with the Trees

Well overdue, I thought, for a digital doodle.

Saturday 10 October 2009

On being "On"

As Antony Gormley's One and Other 100 days project for the fourth (empty) plinth in Trafalgar Square neared its conclusion I found myself, like many others, wondering what it would have been like up there for the 2400 participants.

The weather's not been very conducive of late to the rearing of poetry blooms, so here's another forced in the greenhouse of nomuse.

The Empty Plinth

I felt I was great art for that brief hour,
but later, when I saw the others on the plinth
I thought how much they'd wasted their grand chance
and wondered if I too had looked as amateurish.

But I'd imagined I was one of Gormley's men,
you know the ones - those standing off the shore.
I told myself the crowds who milled below
were waves or ripples in the sea that stretched before.

I wondered too what Gormley might have made of me:
he used his body for those standing in the sea.
I used mine to show the world I'm me - a different me
for all great art involves a transformation.

Was I transformed? Or have I been? In my view
or the view of those beneath me on the square?
But wait, why does only greatness seem worthwhile?
Why can it not be run of mill, like song or dance?

I danced a few steps on the plinth myself, I did -
and I'm no Fred Astair, as all my mates would vow,
yet somehow those few steps made something rock
that otherwise would not have rocked in me.

Strangest thing... as popular as Gormley's One and Other
has become, the people streaming by did not look up,
did not enthuse, admire, form audience.
They were as waves ignoring cliffs to far above to love.

As folk in quiet times see their bones (I'm told)
dark-buried in the all-concealing earth,
so I now, when I close my eyes, see mine
transformed: dry, colourless, arranged as art.

On the Top of the Pops list

Interesting result to the BBc's National Poetry Day poll to find the Nation's favourite poet (again!). This time, though , it was an on-line poll and T.S.Eliot came top. (A similar poll conducted on radio recently put Kipling top. This time Kipling did not figure in the top ten.
Numbers 2 to 10 were: John Donne, Benjamin Zephaniah, Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, William Blake, W.B.Yeats, John Betjeman, John Keats and Dylan Thomas - a very different line-up from any radio poll results I've ever seen! What is one to make of that, I wonder?

Wednesday 7 October 2009

The Man Booker 2009

Cross country

Six runners at the tape
had run
their six unequal distances,
had covered ground
as different from each other
as a Haiku from a fable
or a vignette from a sketch;

had traversed land
as varied as
ploughed fields and grass,
as meadows, moors and bogs;
some with the benefit
of spikes and shorts,
some in their normal togs.

Yet still they found a winner.

Congratulations to Hilary Mantel - and the judges.

Monday 5 October 2009

An Unlikely Subject.

I have been struggling again of late to keep up with my visiting and commenting etc. The latest inroads into the time available for the keyboard have been made by our grandson reaching the grand old age of 21 - and a very special football match. When he was a toddler and not much more I began to take our son to see the local football, which at that time was Gillingham - the one in Kent. When we moved to our present abode for my next teaching post he and I began to follow Southampton. Since when they have risen to the dizzy heights of the Premiership before a mortifying slide to the ranks of Division 1 where yesterday they met Gillingham! That being so, my son returned the ancient favour and took me to see them. That and Friday's Chinese nosh-up for Matthew's coming-of-age (how quaintly old-fashioned that sounds!) have taken their toll and the process of catching-up has flagged a bit. Neither is it about to get better, for we have to prepare for builders, electricians, decorators and other distractions over the next few weeks, so the time-squeeze is unlikely to go away any time soon. However, I will do my best.

In the meantime, from yesterday (not for the purists), these:

The parked car cowers
like a frightened bird
beneath the hovering black cranes.

A pizza-pod
mistaken for a pasty.
My teeth unleash hot, molten cheese.

Climbing to our seats -
do birds get puffed
before they get their bird's-eye views?

Movement, repetitions, patterns:
something intangible
gets physical expression.

Twenty thousand rise expectantly
then sink down in despair -
the ball a foot too high.

Graffiti in the loo
foretold the final score -
and warned against the pizza pods.

Friday 2 October 2009

Sleep and the Poet

First draft - made late evening before retiring..

On Eating a Grape

It was not meant for this,
but to tumble into slime,
to rot - men say to die -
to mingle with the soil,
its seeds to germinate,
initiate new life.

I stroke its skin,
touch it with my tongue.
I use the dampness of my lips
to burnish it,
then hold it in my teeth
and kiss its fervent blackness.

Then finally bite into it.
A stinging jet.
Acidic juice,
is shrivelling my taste buds.
Sweet revenge on me,
subverter of its destiny.

Second draft - first thing the following morning.

The black grape bitten,
its bitterness at its lost seed
strikes at my throat.