The poet in the tower
Every writer could use a good tower (or at the very least, a top-floor study). I think of Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee or Joyce’s Martello in Sandycove (the subject of a blog post over a year ago now). A tower gives you perspective, the ability to see the full landscape. This morning I looked out the window of my tower and found myself eye to eye with a gull (which was perched on the top of a telegraph...
Beauty and its double
During this week in Venice I have been trying to work out why I (and countless writers, painters and composers) love the place so much. Well, there is water of course. I have a thing for cities on water (Stockholm being another favourite city), perhaps because movement invariably slows. Brodsky said that there is something ‘primordial about traveling on water’. In London we look at the river –...
Poets After Dark
Apologies to followers of Invective for the radio silence. It’s been a busy time. Here is a link to a piece on the Poetry School blog: a discussion between myself and Julia Bird on the recent Poets After Dark performances at the Hayward Gallery http://www.poetryschool.com/news/poets-after-dark.php
Back from the dead
To Matt’s Gallery to see the new Susan Hiller installation, Channels. I have always been a fan of Hiller’s work, for its curiosity, its humanity, its obsessive cataloguing of objects associated with the activity of living. At her Tate Britain retrospective several years ago, I became fascinated by her Homage to Joseph Beuys, a collection of bottles of holy water which Hiller patiently sourced...
Seeing the light
I have spent the last couple of weeks in and out of the Hayward Gallery, in anticipation of the Poets After Dark event in April. I am one of the ‘dark poets’ – ten of us in total – commissioned to write a new poem inspired by the Hayward’s current exhibition, Light Show. The exhibition brings together artists who work with light in various ways: there are minimalist works from Dan Flavin, an...
Rip it up and start again The German artist Kurt Schwitters arrived in Britain in 1940, after fleeing Germany, where he was labelled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, and then Norway, after the German invasion of that country. Schwitters’s practice was to make new things from the fragments of what had come before: refuse, found materials, abandoned scraps. To describe this work, he coined the...
Home is so sad
Various discussions over the past week have triggered a preoccupation with the concept of home. As readers of Invective already know, I have made my home in London for the past 26 years, having spent the previous 21 years in New Jersey and New York. When I first moved here – with no particular plans, and probably no clear intention to stay – I found I was writing poems about my childhood in...
When the photographer Tessa Traeger was a child she knew two brothers, Thomas and Godfrey Batting, first cousins of her grandmother, who ran a chemist shop in Tunbridge Wells. They remained bachelors (although both proposed at various times to Traeger’s widowed mother, who refused them). They were keen astronomers and avid collectors (and, by all accounts, great hoarders). Tom bought paintings...
A mind of winter
Although it has been an increasingly regular occurrence over the last four winters, Londoners of my generation still consider snow a novelty. Suddenly, the population of the city turns child again, breaking into impromptu snow ball fights, erecting elaborate snowmen in local parks (although the prize for best urban snowman goes to one last winter, constructed atop a toilet discarded on the...
Where all sounds count
I start the new year enjoying the sound of poems (always in tandem with thinking about how they look on the page, of course), how they enter ear and brain through being spoken and received. This consideration of the music of words comes from a pleasant conflation of events – my recent performances of Formerly with musician Douglas Benford; a great evening with the visiting American poet DA...
Year’s end (and what counts)
Not just year’s end, mind you, but world’s end, if you believe the Mayan prophesy: tomorrow marks the end of the 5125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican calendar, so we will either undergo a spiritual transformation (and enter a new era of development) or face cataclysmic destruction. On the radio this morning they were talking about dates which possess a magical alignment of numbers, such as...
That the science of cartography is limited
is the title of an Eavan Boland poem (and a point I wish to prove). In that poem, Boland is walking with her husband in the woods. They come to a track that her husband identifies as a famine road, a place of forced labour and suffering. ‘Where they died, there the road ended,’ she writes: and ends still and when I take down the map of this island, it is never so I can say here is the...
It is a tale of two giants in the art world, Thaddaeus Ropac and Larry Gagosian, squaring up to each other as only giants can, by each opening massive spaces on the outskirts of Paris at exactly the same time, and filling them both with the work of Anselm Kiefer, an artist whose epic themes and equally-epic works bust the conventional four white walls of lesser galleries. Vici and I had...
The voices that will not be drowned
A late posting, after spending the better part of the last two weeks in Suffolk. There is something about that odd bleak coast that gets to you after a while, particularly as autumn shifts to winter, and the trees become ghosts of themselves (some so windbattered they morph into lanky-haired witches turned to wood by some conjurer’s spell). My last post came from that most mysterious and...
The Sound of Secrets
We embarked for the Ness on a boat from Orford Quay early on Saturday morning. The sky was grey, the sea darker – the colour of mutton-fat jade, as in Bishop’s poem ‘The End of March’. Our group had read the poem the night before, and discussed the various endings being marked, not just the end of winter, but also the end of wanderings (thinking about the pun in the title) – Bishop had...
Death and Life in Middlesbrough
To Middlesbrough, for my workshop on Poetry and Memorial, occasioned by Julian Stair’s extraordinary exhibition at mima, Quietus: the vessel, death and the human body. I have been a long-time admirer of Julian’s beautiful urns and sarcophagi, and my poem ‘The Firing’ was based on his work (here it is, along with some other poems from the book Fetch, on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon site:...
The dreary sea (and what is writ in water)
Well, not exactly the sea – but a view of the dreary Mersey, like a slab of wet concrete, through the window of Tate Liverpool. But we find the sea inside, contained in vast canvases by Turner and Twombly, turbulent, swelled by storm; the manifestation of the Sublime, as Ruskin defined it, a perilous beauty inherent in what is dangerous, terrifying. The sea is contained inside us as well;...
We arrived in the village of Aubeterre on a Monday afternoon, the place pretty much empty, even of tourists. Aubeterre is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, which is a not a value judgment so much as a brand, with strict regulations the local Town Council must adhere to. To be considered for this esteemed title, the population of a village must not exceed 2000 inhabitants, and it must...
A novel thought
I was speaking to a fellow poet recently about the issues of shifting genre. We agreed that poets generally make very frustrated novelists. We had several theories as to why this is the case. Poets write incredibly slowly, labouring over every word, agonising over whether they need that comma or not. In the time it takes me to finish one poem, a proper novelist might have 20,000 words. It is...
To preserve the living, and make the dead to live
One of the great highlights of my recent trip to Kassel was a visit to the Museum für Sepulkralkultur, which is, surprisingly, a bright and airy modern building housing the most incredible collection of objects associated with death, funeral practice and mourning rites. How pleasant it was, as the sunlight streamed through the windows, to be walking amongst coffins and skulls, so beautifully...
The invisible ruin
One of my favourite books, In Ruins, considers our perpetual fascination and joy at the sight of a crumbled wall or toppled tower. Its author, the art historian Christopher Woodward, writes: When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future. To statesmen, ruins predict the fall of Empires, and to philosophers the futility of mortal man’s aspirations. To a poet, the decay of a monument...
A suitcase of memories
Kassel is a strange setting for Documenta, now one of the largest contemporary art festivals, held every five years. It was a hotbed of Calvinism, a refuge for the Huguenots in the late 1600s, home to the Brothers Grimm, the capital of Westphalia, and later a Prussian province. It has a grand palace, built by Wilhelm IX (now the main museum, with a surprising collection of old masters)...
A short tour of Scotland / inhabiting someone...
There are no words to describe the beauty of Skye. That’s the sort of lazy, easy, meaningless writing you get in holiday brochures and vacation websites. But, having just returned from the island, I find I’m struggling to summon any words myself. As a poet, I’m supposed to have the vocabulary to describe beauty and awe. Or am I? As a contemporary poet, beauty has become a no-go area. I have...
Short meditations on rain
I love all films that start with rain: rain, braiding a windowpane or darkening a hung-out dress or streaming down her upturned face … (from Rain, Don Paterson) And rain was rainier for being blown Across the grid and texture of the concrete. (from Lightenings, Seamus Heaney) Hidden, oh hidden in the high fog the house we live in, beneath the magnetic rock, rain-,...
As much of the country hunkered down against storms that threatened to bring a month of rain in one day, us poets gathered to take a little stroll around London (inspired by the Formerly exhibition at the Poetry Café). Our meeting point was outside Chancery Lane tube, at the dragons marking the boundary of the City. We arrived armed with umbrellas and waterproofs, but at half past ten, our...
It's raining poems
There have been many accounts on Facebook and on various blogs (including this lovely account from Katy Evans-Bush: http://baroqueinhackney.com/2012/06/27/the-reign-of-poems/) of the Rain of Poems that showered down on London on Tuesday night, making a welcome change from the month of the ordinary wet kind of rain that’s drowned out summer. It was, as many commentators have already said, a...
Formerly the launch (and some thoughts on the...
A successful event at the Poetry Café always involves a little sweat. In this instance, raised partly through the preparation that went into Thursday’s combined private view, launch and performance, but also induced by the sheer number of people we tried to squeeze through the door and into the intimate space. Through the clever use of a very long cable, we managed to broadcast the reading...
Number 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth
A few people have asked myself and my co-founder, Vici MacDonald, why we decided to call our new press Hercules Editions. The simple answer is that we both live in Lambeth (although in the last four years I have strayed further South in the Borough, all the way to Stockwell), and that the presiding spirit of our part of the world is William Blake, who moved to Number 13 Hercules Buildings in...
I love when random meetings produce unexpected and rewarding results. I met Alison Gill on one of Paul Carey Kent’s art walks through London, and in the pub afterwards, we struck up a conversation. Alison told me about her work as a sculptor, and I told her about my poems. Fast forward to last month, when Alison contacted me, in the process of looking for speakers / artists from other genres to...
In 1945, WS Graham wrote to Sven Berlin about Alfred Wallis’s paintings: ‘It’s like the work of the angel in the man and both not knowing each other very well.’ In the following year, Graham would write his poem ‘The Voyages of Alfred Wallis’, which begins with the lines: Worldhauled, he’s grounded on God’s great bank, Keelheaved to Heaven, waved into boatfilled arms, Falls his homecoming...
This week I have been on a writing retreat in Oxford. I told several people before I left that I was going on a retreat, and the general reaction was one of bemusement. Why should that be, I wondered? Perhaps there is something about use of the word retreat that surprised them. In one respect, the definition suits my reasons and goals perfectly: a retreat is ‘a place affording peace, quiet,...
High Line highlights
A sunny day in New York last week, exploring the Chelsea galleries. I have a folk memory of Chelsea (from my undergraduate excursions to far-flung diners and cavernous night clubs) as the unchartered periphery of the city, rubbing up against the Hudson River, a hinterland of piers and warehouses. It still has that rough and seedy feel (despite the incursions of high end designers like Comme des...
The fullness of time
Just back from a week at the glorious Château Ventenac http://www.chateauventenac.com/ where spring had arrived before us, and the wisteria was buzzing with fat black bees. We came together to discuss the poetic sequence, especially in relation to space (but also place) and time. We started by looking at Georges Perec’s funny little book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a treatise...
The other side of language
I came across this quote from WS Graham today – “a word is exciting because of its surroundings” – hunting for some clarification on the poem Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons (in preparation for my course at Chateau Ventenac next week) while pondering the very strange image near the end when the famous flutist Quantz tells his pupil, Karl: One last thing, Karl, remember when you enter...
Do you read me?!
We stumbled onto the Reading Room at do you read me?! by accident, the way you do when you are wandering around an unfamiliar city without any real destination or goal. I discovered later that their Potsdamer Strasse branch (or, as it says on their website, a place for lectures, exhibitions, debates and all the still slumbering ideas and projects) is a sister location to their ‘bespoke’...
Hello to Berlin
Most cities worth visiting need to be experienced more than once, over time, in different seasons, staying in different quarters. It is essential to have a decent map, to walk as much as possible, to see how different neighbourhoods join up so that you get a feel of the city’s arteries. It’s important to have an itinerary, to know what you want to see, famous landmarks and museums; but it is...
Staphorst is a place you can’t quite place. I was expecting it to be rural, and it is, in a way. We travelled on three trains to get there; from London to Brussels, Brussels to Schiphol. And from Schiphol, heading north, through Rotterdam, towards Meppel; the landscape eventually yielding to wide, flat fields separated by irrigation canals and lined by rigid rows of poplars, with the odd...
The language of water
When your writing is going well, does it feel as if words are ‘pouring’ from you? When you’re listening to someone speaking and not really grasping the meaning, do you have the sensation of words ‘washing’ over you? Why a ‘torrent of abuse’ or a ‘sea of troubles’? These watery metaphors represent a pace at which words are measured, the ebb and flow of language; water can describe our way of...
The skull in the study
I’m sitting at my desk in Suffolk, away from the usual sirens and shouts of south London. Since I’m not often sitting at this desk, I’m concentrating on the things that I’ve placed on it to inspire me. Although proper countryside is not far from my window, I still seem to have imported objects from the natural world: a ceramic dish of small chalk-white snail shells gathered on a walk in Spain;...
A word can hold a thousand pictures
I have finally acquired a copy of Elisabetta Benassi’s book, All I Remember, which documents her project to collect from both public and private archives press photographs spanning the 20th century – not for the images themselves, but for the texts on the reverse, the description of what we’d be seeing if the photographs were revealed to us. The title comes from one of the photos, which depicts...
Virginal, but no virgin
In his marvellous book, Home: A Short History of an Idea, the architectural critic Witold Rybczynski, provides this analysis of a 1660 painting by Emanuel de Witte, Interior with a Woman Playing the Virginals: On the surface this is an idyllic, peaceful scene … But all is not what it appears to be. Closer inspection of the painting reveals that the woman is not playing for herself...
This month marks the end of a project I started with Vici MacDonald (whose new blog is here: http://artorbit.me/ ) last spring. Vici has been taking photos of unloved parts of London for many years now. You could say we are both connoisseurs of urban blight; we’ve been known to go on expeditions to look at far-flung pumping stations and railway sidings. The grottier, the better. But these are...
The slush pile
At the moment, I find myself in that strange neutral space “between projects”. It seems that I hardly ever write the odd stand-alone poem anymore; these days my poems are part of a larger scheme, a sequence or a collaboration. I have found that manner of working keeps me lively; there is always something on the go. Until there isn’t, of course. Two collaborations have just come to an end, and...
Young Woman Seated at a Virginal
I am standing in front of a painting of a woman playing the virginal. The instrument is decorated with what appears to be a motif or scene painted onto the dark wood, but the scene is blurred; the artist, Johannes Vermeer, wants to position us at eye level with the woman, so that we might focus on her. There is nothing else in the painting to draw our attention. She is wearing a satin gown,...
Here is a poem from my last collection, which I hope captures the strange, stilled atmosphere of this season. Some things come to a halt and other things start anew. I’ve been looking at the last line again, and wondering if it rings true (at least for me this year there is quite a bit happening over the next few months). I’m trying to remember how I felt when I wrote the poem, how I came to...
It seems that obituaries come thick and fast at the end of the year. And so the news the day after Boxing Day (the day of my father’s funeral four years ago) that the extraordinary painter Helen Frankenthaler had died at the age of 83. Michael McNay’s obituary (which appeared in the Guardian) quoted the critic Nigel Gosling writing on Frankenthaler in May 1964: If any artist can give us aid and...
A week in poetry (and a short tour of independent...
There have been times (usually when I’m in a bit of a slump) when I have asked myself why I continue to write poetry. Apart from the pleasure it gives me, I realise it will never bring me vast numbers of readers or great wealth. Auden was right: poetry makes nothing happen. It will not change the world (although it should, of course). It is often considered precious, esoteric, obscure. But there...
This little piggy . . .
When you see a horse in a painting, it is often a symbol of majesty, nobility. The very English horses of Stubbs and Munnings also speak of class. Dogs are symbols of domesticity. Small dogs, often portrayed with their female owners, signal intimacy, fidelity; whereas large dogs are all about the estate, the hunt, the working of the land. Cows are the queens of the bucolic pastoral; we cannot...
The knotted rope
A funny thing, memory. The mind plays tricks, gives you back a replica of what was really there. But of course, what was there is not what is here; places, situations, people do not remain static. Only in memory, and over time, even memory becomes unreliable. Back in Venice, I return to the Guggenheim, my first visit since I wrote about Jackson Pollock’s great painting Alchemy. The painting is...
Briggs on Hein
Today’s guest post is from David Briggs, whose excellent first collection, The Method Men, was published by Salt in 2010. This is the first airing of this poem, which has been accepted for an anthology to be published by Bristol University based around public art. ‘This poem is a response to a sculpture by Danish artist Jeppe Hein called ‘Follow Me’. It stands in the Fort House...