It is interesting how reputations are set once an artist dies. Anthony Caro, who died last Wednesday, was described in various obituaries as ‘Britain’s greatest sculptor’ and ‘one of the finest artists of his generation’. Sometimes the loss of a great figure creates hyperbole, but in the case of Caro, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that he changed the course of sculpture in this country.
From the moment Caro decided not to become an accountant, as his father wanted, and to go to art school, he was single-minded in his pursuit of what came before, as a way of working out what to do next. He learned much from painters, specifically from Picasso and Matisse, who challenged the two-dimensional space of the canvas. It was only after he became an assistance to Henry Moore, perhaps Britain’s greatest sculptor of his day, that he really received the education he desired. Moore threw books at him, showed him classical sculpture, African tribal work, anything that would be useful for the younger artist. But the main thing Moore gave him was the ability to see sculpture removed from the plinth, removed from the gallery altogether. And that’s where Caro took off:
What we wanted to do at that time was to make sculpture work as something in its own right, not as something that depended on its likeness to nature. We wanted to make it more fully abstract, just as music is abstract. But sculpture’s materiality always tries to suck the sculpture back into the world of things. It was for this reason we had to open sculpture up. Our intent was to repudiate the object – and naturally our starting point was painting, Cubism and Matisse. Abstract sculpture began to take charge of the space it occupied, first by standing on the same literal ground as we do, then by bringing the floor itself to bear on the work, and later by taking into its realm table height and the wall.
Caro wasn’t interested in casting. He was interested in taking already-existing materials (as all artists seem to do now) and working them into a particular form. He was interested in colour – his love of Matisse showed him that colour can pitch nature into an entirely new perspective, and there he met abstract expressionism and later pop art head on. He made sculptures that were entirely themselves, which occupied a particular space, and resonated. He was interested in scale, how we measure up to things. He said:
Public sculpture identifies place. It gives the city-dweller a sense of ‘being somewhere’. And so it has to call to its surroundings and to the public. It can – and I believe nowadays it often should - invite participation. How a sculpture is seen by the viewer is always of extreme importance …
I thought of this just a few weeks ago when I was at the Museo Correr, for the Biennale’s Caro retrospective – what was the be his final show. There was a room of early drawings, which I had never seen before, and which gave a sense of the sculpture playing with ideas of weight and depth on paper.
Caro’s work, which was always playing with the new, but with a nod to the old, looked right at home in the hard and shining marble and terrazzo of the Correr. I watched a couple walk around and around one of the larger free-standing pieces that filled an entire gallery, trying to find the welding marks. They finally concluded, as one must, that the sculpture does not come apart, it is not a flat-pack assemblage. And then they turned to the guard and asked how they managed to get it into the building (the Correr’s temporary galleries are on the 4th floor of the palazzo), and the guard pointed to the large double window. And we all had an image of this great flying bird, something fantastic, scaling the heights of the edifice, with all of San Marco watching in amazement. We know the works weigh tons, but they also feel weightless, light, effortless, flowing.
Leaving the Correr and coming into the pristine square of San Marco, I was left with a celebration of form and shape – abstract, yes – but always placing us in the frame somehow, that idea that we should not simply be spectators, but participants. And that is immensely uplifting in an age where so many things are presented to us virtually, on screen. I’ll finish with these words from Caro himself:
All the artists I believe in are some sort of optimist. Optimism of this sort, like serenity, is hard won. Art is a religious activity – it’s about living. Decay and dying are something else. I can’t allow myself self-pity or a morbid attitude. There’s too much left to do in the studio. That’s the source as well as the place for my optimism.
This is the first of a few posts on the Venice Biennale. I begin with the Dutch artist Mark Manders.
Manders’s installation is entitled Room with Broken Sentence. When entering the Dutch Pavilion, an imposing modernist building by Gerrit Rietveld, you are confronted with windows which do not allow you to see inside; they are entirely covered with sheets of newspaper, as if the whole place were a building site, a work in progress. Once in, the newspaper curtains have the effect of blocking out daylight, so the lighting has an artificial quality, the overly-bright, slightly greenish tinge of ‘public’ areas, such as waiting rooms and offices. I didn’t realise until I was leaving again that the newspapers are invented, the text nonsense – words strung together to look meaningful, in the typography of a standard broadsheet. Headlines read Zest: Criticizing Flawiest Untwisted and Ontogenesis barbarites pinkishnesses seamstress. What’s the meaning of this meaninglessness?
Manders says, I covered all the windows of the entrance with fake newspapers. Like a thin layer of skin, the outside world is separated from an inner world … I cannot use real newspapers, because my work would then be linked to a certain date and place in the world … The newspapers consist of all the existing words in the English language. Each word is only used once.
Inside it’s as if everything in the space is covered with a fine layer of dust, and in one corner there are planks of wood propped against a screen and more in a corner, covered with a plastic sheet, as if left unfinished. Manders says, All my works appear as if they have just been made and were left behind by the person who made them. Busts of women are arranged on plinths, like classical muses in a gallery, but they too are unfinished, in rough, uncast, still-wet clay, dissected by slivers of wood. Some have wild hair sneaking through the timber. They are provisional, a bit scrappy, but each face wears the same calm expression. A young girl, also modelled in clay, is winched to a table surrounded by chairs (the sort of sleek modernist furniture that suits the structure). She’s armless, arms replaced by a plank of wood, a crucifixion of sorts. Her single leg balances her against the edge of the table, so that she hovers over the scene like a broken angel. She recalls Greek and Roman beauties with limbs missing, scatted in museums around the world, but she has the face and body of a child, too young for this kind of breakage. One huge face towers over the rest, again shown to us in cross-section, framed – no, interrupted – by a huge wooden frame.
Everything is broken, intersected, thrown together. It is disturbing, but not violent. The space is calm even in the disruptions it presents. There is something incredibly unsettling about the space – I was then interested to find this quote from the artist:
I don’t often show my work in the public domain, rather in museums where people choose to go to see art. But since 1991 I always test a work that I’ve just finished in a supermarket. I just imagine a new work there and I check if it can survive where it doesn’t have the label of an artwork. It is just a thing that someone placed in a supermarket. Now I am sure that all of my works can stand in that environment.
Sadly, I missed the off-site extension to Manders’ installation, his Fox/Mouse/Belt placed in a mini market off the Via Garibaldi.
There is something timeless about Manders’ work, as if it could have been made at any point in the last century, or even earlier – a part of a sculpture excavated from an ancient site and then displayed. Manders says, There is no difference between a work made twenty-four years ago or just a single day ago. Like the words in an encyclopedia, they are linked together in one big super-moment that is always attached to the here and now.
I will continue my tour of the Biennale with the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere.
I have experienced Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet on several occasions. The work consists of a circular arrangement of 40 speakers, each speaker playing a recording of an individual member of the Salisbury Cathedral choir singing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in allium. Visitors are invited to walk amongst the speakers seeking out single voices, to become a participant in the music, rather than simply a listener. Cardiff has said of the installation:
While listening to a concert you are normally seated in front of the choir, in traditional audience position. With this piece I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers. Every performer hears a unique mix of the piece of music. Enabling the audience to move throughout the space allows them to be intimately connected with the voices. It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct. As well I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.
I have heard the piece in pristine gallery spaces – at the Whitechapel in London and at the Baltic in Newcastle. The purity of the space, the absence of distractions (and the absence of human beings apart from gallery visitors – simply disembodied voices singing) has given it a particular ghostly resonance. So I was interested to see how my perception of the piece would alter hearing it in the hallowed spaces of the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval outpost, a gathering of French and Spanish ecclesiastical structures collected through many grand tours and bequests, and reassembled on a hill in Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River and the bucolic shores of New Jersey.
I lived in that neighbourhood, known locally as Inwood, during the summer before I moved to London. My boyfriend at the time found the sublet, attractive for its cheapness (we were both unemployed college graduates). I remember writing in a poem at the time about how the low rise 30s blocks looked like old radios. It was a proper old-style New York neighbourhood, completely untouched by gentrification, occupied by ancient Irish men, hard-up Julliard students (we had a tuba player across the courtyard from us who was not popular) and young Hispanic families. The Hispanic residents brought a bit of excitement to the place with their bright bodegas, full of votive candles depicting various saints we’d never heard of (which we used to collect and light in our kitchen), and coconut vendors, who occupied the corner near the subway. There were a lot of Haitians in the neighbourhood, and my boyfriend told me they held Voodoo ceremonies in the park on summer nights. I was never sure I believed this, until one day I found two pigeons tied together with their heads sliced off. Strange to think that the park might have been home to such rituals, and also home to the Cloisters, a little slice of Medieval Christianity in Manhattan. But that has always been the city’s gift, to be able to accommodate the community of the world in its tight grid.
Cardiff’s installation makes you forget all the clamour of the streets outside. In all the occasions I’ve experienced it, what has struck me is how it reduces the world to the moment you are experiencing it. In other pieces, Cardiff uses urban landscapes as stage sets for her narratives, but here, she wants you to forget everything else, so that the music allows you to explore internal narratives instead. And watching fellow visitors, you feel they are experiencing a similar shift, that they have forgotten where they are, and that this extraordinarily beautiful music is having a profound effect, whether they believe in God or not. In that respect, Forty Part Motet operates the same way in a pristine white space as it does in a religious setting – perhaps it works best when there are no distractions at all – but placing it in a chapel reminds us of the original source of the music, as a devotional piece. Conversely, it made me realise that for me the pure white gallery space is my place of refuge, and what I look for is that simple transaction between the artist and the viewer (or listener) that can change the way you feel about the world. I was just beginning to put those thoughts together the summer I lived in Inwood, the summer before I moved to London. I used to walk in the park and look out over the Hudson and wonder what my life in London would be like. Listening to that music, back in the Cloisters after many years, what I realised was that for me it taps into something much larger than individual or place, something unknown.
The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne served for four years as US consul in Liverpool. During his time in England he wrote the following:
The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones.
My mother used to carry this quote inside her wallet, which is when I first came across it, long before I had myself become an expatriate. My mother would not have known when she cut it out of ArtNews Annual in 1966 (where it was in turn quoted by John Ashbery in an article about American painters in Paris) that she was to spend the last five years of her life in London. But something attracted her to Hawthorne’s words, perhaps a sense that she was in some way an outsider, especially during her childhood in Newburgh, New York. She found the invigorating air Hawthorne talks about in Manhattan, a place (with a Native American name) that doesn’t really belong to America, international and cosmopolitan as it is. And I found that invigorating air in London, so I’ve never really believed Hawthorne’s assessment. For years now I’ve maintained that I become more foreign each time I return to the US, and to a certain degree this is true. My accent puzzles people, they can’t place me, can’t work out where I’m from. But in my 28th year as a Londoner, I feel as if Hawthorne’s words are pertinent, and I am going through an identity crisis.
This came to the fore during my visit to SUNY Fredonia, where I had been invited to give a talk and a reading of my work. The students seemed especially curious to know how I ended up in London (most of them were around the age I was when I left the US), if I found British words and expressions creeping into my work, if I thought I had a different view of London than those who’d been born there. During the reading I found myself darting between New York (I read a number of poems from my Jackson Pollock sequence) and London (characterised by Vici’s Formerly photographs). London is my home now, but there is something that continues to draw me to my birth country, especially now that the ties I have to it are increasingly diminishing.
My father would have been 100 earlier this month. I started my trip at his grave, with a copy of Christina Rossetti’s Selected Poems, a stone to lay, and some of my mother’s ashes to scatter. Rossetti has been a poet very much present for me over the last few months. If Rossetti has a ‘theme’ (and I believe most poets do) it is mortality and remembrance. It has struck me powerfully in recent days that once someone is permanently gone from your life, your memories are all you have left; selected and constructed from life, but still edited highlights, and therefore often unreliable. I have always loved this poem by Sheenagh Pugh, which for me captures perfectly this condition:
Times Like Places
There are times like places: there is weather
the shape of moments. Dark afternoons
by a fire are Craster in the rain
and a pub they happened on, unlooked-for
and welcoming, while a North Sea gale
spat spume at the rattling windows.
And most August middays can take him
to the village in Sachsen-Anhalt,
its windows shuttered against the sun
and a hen sleeping in the dusty road,
the day they picked cherries in a garden
so quiet, they could hear each other breathe.
Nor can he ever be on a ferry,
looking back at a boat’s wake, and not think
of the still, glassy morning off the Hook,
when it dawned on him they didn’t talk
in sentences any more: didn’t need to,
each knowing what the other would say.
The worst was Aberdeen, when they walked
the length of Union Street not speaking,
choking up, glancing sideways at each other,
but never at the same time. Black cats
and windy bridges bring it all back,
eyes stinging. Yet even this memory
is dear to him, now that no place or weather
or time of day can happen to them both.
On clear winter nights, he scans the sky
for Orion’s three-starred belt, remembering
whose arms warmed him, the cold night
he first saw it, who told him its name.
It is that idea that place, as much as the people who occupy it, also vanishes with time. With this in mind, my husband and I took a drive through Colts Neck, the small township in New Jersey where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. My mother had a framed picture of our house on her wall in London; the house is still standing, but it is much altered, and I found myself wondering if we had come to the right house, even though I knew for certain it was the one. I would have stayed in the car, but Andrew, curious about the place I’d talked about for years, got out and rang the bell. And someone was home, a woman who had lived in the house for the past 26 years, which immediately cheered me — someone loved it enough to invest a good portion of her life there. She asked if I wanted to have a walk around the grounds, and I said yes, even though part of me wanted to drive away immediately. What was strange was the sense of confusion I had in a place I thought I would always be able to navigate, as I knew every blade of grass. But that is because my childhood home has been sealed in memory, and in the land of memory, nothing ever changes. But the memory bank for the house closed thirty years ago, and in real time, much has happened, people have got on with their lives. I found the only way I could really navigate the familiar alien terrain was by certain trees that were still standing; many had gone. But I came away thinking that as much as I remembered, I was not remembered. The house was not sentimental, it would hold whoever occupied it, the same floorboards would creek under different feet. The windowsill in my old room where I’d carved my initials had been certainly painted over years ago.
In her years in London she missed America terribly, the familiar air. As much as she always loved London, her memory of the city stretches back to the early 50s, and the many years she came with my father. The London I live in was sometimes difficult for her, as most cities are when you are older. She used to love the towpath along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, where she walked for many years. As I walked the towpath for the first time in many years, I thought about why we love places, why they become important to us. Canals are interesting places, a man-made intervention in the landscape created to connect one body of water to another. Longtime Hopewell resident Paul Muldoon has written about the canal, making the connection between himself, the Irish poet living in America, and the Irish navvies who dug the canal (many losing their lives in the process) nearly 150 years ago.
My mother just thought it was a pretty place to walk. And it is — the long towpath separating canal from river, so you feel as if you are on a island, isolated from the busy world around you. But it is also a place of connections: land to water, water to water. She didn’t know she’d be making the long journey over the ocean so late in life. I realised as I scattered more of her ashes on the towpath that I was bringing her home, to her invigorating air.
I arrived in Spain just as the news was breaking back home of Seamus Heaney’s death. Earlier in the week, in preparation for my course, I had been reading ‘Summer 1969’ from ‘Singing School’, Heaney’s account of vacationing in Madrid at the very moment when civilian protesters were being gunned down by the constabulary on the Falls Road. Heaney’s inability to forget what is going on in his home while he is ‘suffering / Only the bullying sun’ leads him to a greater dilemma – what can he, as a poet, say to make a difference.
It’s the old refrain of Auden’s: ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, written on hearing the news of the death of Yeats. And the same cycle of suffering and inability, the effort (and possibly failure) to make a difference is present in his poem, which equally could be a statement on Heaney’s work (now complete):
Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Followers of Invective will know I have quoted those lines before. They never date – sadly, as I abandoned the news section of my paper on the plane, with its headlines speculating the possible American invasion of Syria.
Despite the Syrian crisis and the sad news of Heaney’s passing, I was glad to be back at the Almàssera Vella, with Christopher and Marisa North, who for part of the year generously open their home as a retreat for writers – a stunning place to gather and spend a pleasurable week in the sun (very hot, certainly, but more nourishing than bullying) talking about poetry and art. We were fortunate in our group to have two sculptors and a former artists’ model, so the discussion took on many aspects and angles. We started with Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, written around the same time as Auden’s tribute to Yeats, with the world on the brink of yet another world war; it’s tempting to see the two poets in dialogue, as Stevens presents his imperative to the writer or artist:
Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,
Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand
Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed.
You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.
Stevens’s blue guitar is an instrument of invention, a metaphor for how we construct metaphor. Despite the destroyed shapes and rotted names we continue to try and make sense of the world, even if it feels sometimes as if no one is listening or looking. Stevens, of course, is the presiding spirit of this blog, and it’s his poetry I have often turned to as a model of how to construct my own. Like Heaney, Stevens is really talking about the world and the reality of the world, and how reality is sometimes bleak, but like Heaney, Stevens will guide rather than preach. His blue guitar, by way of Picasso and Braque, stands for the imagination, a reflection of us that isn’t us, but something that sings our pleasures and pain. We can’t change reality, instead we ‘patch’ the world as best we can; poet as invisible mender.
So round the table in the blue house, we sat talking about Stevens’ blue guitar, and Jorie Graham, Charles Simic, Frank O’Hara, the latter becoming another kind of presiding spirit for us. We decided to write a ‘lunch poem’ every day, although we had to trade O’Hara’s frenetic Manhattan for sleepy Relleu (the village going into siesta mode just as we were gearing up for our afternoon’s writing).
It was O’Hara who declared it ‘a fine day for seeing’, and when we piled into a couple of cars on the Tuesday, the sun still shining, we were more than ready to look at some art. We took a detour on the way to Alicante to visit a 2000-year-old olive tree, growing a few hundred yards from the motorway, down a dirt track. It was an amazing sight, its great, gnarled branches twisting up and into a canopy of small silvery leaves. Later, in the gallery when we considered issues of texture and complexity, looking at sculptures by Sempere and Chillida, we recalled the smooth wood of the olive, rubbed white in places, like bone – reality as metaphor, a symbol of stubborn survival.
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Alicante is a revelation. Three floors of modern and contemporary art, mainly by Spanish artists, many who were new to us. The building itself is a sculpture – all white marble and stone, a clean space for seeing, a true meeting of architectural vision and user-friendly space, with balconies on the upper floors that open to vistas of the galleries below and to the hills and castle outside.
It is a symbol of pre-recession ambition and civic pride, all the more surprising in a town where most visitors head straight for the promenade and the beach; as a result, we had the place pretty much to ourselves (the museum attendants actually outnumbering us). It is incredible that more people are not taking advantage of this remarkable gallery (which offers free entry). The fact that there is no catalogue of the collection, not even a postcard or two, perhaps reflects its underuse. So we had to record our experience in our poems (and a few stolen snapshots).
The next day we piled back into cars and drove to the nearby village of Sella, and into the hills, the craggy puig molten copper in the late afternoon sun. We climbed higher and higher into the Tafarmach ridge, finally reaching the home and studio of Terry Lee and his wife Pam (who paints under the name Olivia Firth). We talked with them about their work, their notion of landscape; how we carry the landscapes of our past and of our imaginations with us (Terry often bringing together his adopted Spanish hillside and his native Derbyshire in the same painting). And I thought of Heaney again, how in his poem he can’t help think of the reek of the flax-dam as he passes through the fish market of Madrid, how he finds Goya’s cudgels in the Prado, and thinks of them as ‘two berserks’ who ‘club each other to death / For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.’ The visit to Terry and Pam, to the remote and extraordinary landscape in which they live and work, was an inspiration to us to think about how we might make space for our work, even in the noisy corner of a busy city.
And all too soon it was time to return to our respective cities and cloudier skies, away from the dreaming space of the Almàssera. But many poems are still to be written, as we carry the landscape in our minds, one more folded sunset.
Oh what a field day for headline writers! Big blue cock erected on fourth plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square. Boris Johnson unveils big blue cock. Sacre bleu! Lord Nelson now looks down on a giant French cock in Trafalgar Square. And it’s true that the artist, Katharina Fritsch, likes a joke, a bit of wordplay (the word for “cock” in German, “hahn”, has the same double meanings as the word in English). In the land of double entendres, Carry On films, ‘very British’ sex scandals (which always makes me think the iconic photograph of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley), the giant blue cock should feel right at home.
But apart from being a good joke, Hahn is a brilliant piece of public art. Firstly, the colour is an inspiration. I went to see it on an ordinary grey London afternoon (one of the first in an amazing summer of sunshine). London, as much as I love it, is a rather colourless city on an overcast day (which gives it a certain character), but the blue cock fills the air with its blueness. It’s the blue of Yves Klein, of Titian, of the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine (so a bit psychedelic) not the blue of ‘the blues’, but a joyous cry, a proper belly laugh. Getting back to the old double entendres, it’s also the blue of blue movies, something a bit risqué, daring, a middle finger raised in the sedate square.
It’s characteristic of Fritsch. Here’s her giant orange octopus, grasping a doomed diver:
But back to the location, the square itself. Trafalgar Square has in this century become the natural gathering place for protest, as it is a little more than a Molotov cocktail’s throw from Downing Street and Parliament. Many of the Fourth Plinth commissions have made political statements: Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper, or Yinka Shonibare’s piece Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. The projects that have attempted to bring a subversive force into the square has been the most successful.
You look around at the other statues in the square: pompous generals, preening officials, some on horseback, depicted as Classical heroes. Alll presided over by Lord Nelson, at the top of his ridiculously phallic column. He presides over the whole of central London – I realised he was peeking out at me between buildings the other afternoon when I was sitting on the Level 5 terrace of the Royal Festival Hall. He is a symbol of Britishness, of empire, of battle. So the cockerel, a little preening and pompous himself, has been placed in the middle of this stag party by a woman artist, a self-proclaimed feminist. Who also happens to be German. And she considers her cock to be a very French symbol, placed just so to piss off Nelson – a little nod to Napoleon.
It is public art that makes you laugh, that makes you consider what surrounds it, and gets you to re-evaluate the way the city honours its greats (and who is chosen to honour). And it’s bright. And it’s exuberant. I wish it would stay there forever, because I know as long as it’s there, it will bring a smile to my face.
When Auguste Rodin died at the age of seventy-seven on 17th November 1917, Henry Moore was a nineteen-year-old soldier serving on the front in France. Moore’s wartime experience would end when he was demobilised after a gas attack and it was at this point his life as a sculptor began. He attended art school in his native Leeds; while browsing the shelves in the reference library, he came across a book of conversations between Rodin and Paul Gsell:
I remember in it somewhere Rodin saying that when he got stuck with modelling a clay sculpture, he would sometimes drop it on the floor and have another look. Now this was for me, as a young sculptor, a tremendous revelation of how you can take advantage of accidents, and how you should always try and look at a thing over again, with a fresh eye.
This is the thing the two sculptors share, the need to look over and again, to bring to their forms a fresh eye. And it is compelling to want to compare the two great sculptors, both of whom were so in tune with the shapes and contours of the body; however, going around the current Moore Rodin exhibition at Moore’s house and studio in Perry Green, what is most interesting is the contrast. Rodin’s project was to capture the human form faithfully in bronze and clay. His figures become symbols of what we aspire to and exert upon the earth – beauty, power, passion, love. ‘I invent nothing, I rediscover,’ he said. Rilke talked about Rodin’s figures as ‘strange monuments of the momentary’, and that idea of the monument is central to Rodin. We are not common, we exert our presence on the world. This is a celebration of the individual, each man a miracle.
Whereas Moore’s figures are not representative. They embody ideas, concepts, they grow from the landscapes in which they are placed (I’ve always thought Moore’s figures really come into their own outdoors, particularly in rural landscapes where he was most at home, and where they merge with the contours of the hills). They are not about the individual as much as all humanity. For it wasn’t the First War, the one in which he fought, that formed Moore, but the Second, the war that forced him and his family to flee London for Perry Green, where he remained for the rest of his life. That was the war that touched him, and his drawings of groups of Londoners sheltering together from air-raids in the Underground are what I think of when I think of Moore. Humanity, what it is to be human; even in his individual figures there is this sense of all of us, moving in all directions at once.
Rodin died at the very moment when it became possible to imagine dimensionality in art, Cubism breaking a figure into facets of itself, and Moore picks up the baton. By putting the two artists together what we see is a progression. That is not to say that Rodin was reactionary; his work begins to push at the twentieth century well before it arrived (it is nearly impossible for us to view his work today and recall the shock with which it was received). Moore acknowledges this debt, and says that all of his generation were influenced by Rodin in some respect – the great master.
What is always exciting for me is going to a place where an artist worked. Having visited Rodin’s house a couple of years ago (and having recorded the experience in a previous post), it was a great pleasure to finally visit Perry Green. As we walked around the grounds, I thought it was strange that the gently rolling and fairly sedate landscape of Herfordshire was were Moore spent most of his life – I still equate him with the rugged and rough hills of West Yorkshire – but looking again at his undulating forms in situ, perhaps there was something after all in this landscape that softened him.
It has always been the case that what we value most is what we have in short supply: our desire is increased by the impossibility of attainment. As I sit here in the glorious sun, the years of bleak grey sodden summers in my adopted country are forgotten (or, if not completely forgotten, at least pushed to one side). I can’t dismiss the rain entirely – it defines the British tendency towards stoical acceptance, which I have always admired – but I am grateful this summer to be reminded of the sort of summers I remember from childhood: languid, hot and joyful. This sort of hot July day instantly carries me back to summers in New Jersey in the 70s (as snowfall too makes me nostalgic for those long cold winters).
But weather can also jolt us forward: July has been a month of poetry journeys to other parts of the country. At the beginning of the month, I spent some time in Frome with fellow poets on a writing retreat. As I have said before, these retreats are invaluable. I love the familiarity of my desk and having all my books around me, but routine can be a hindrance. I find there are moments in my writing life when I want to shake myself up, change direction – this is especially so between projects, when I’m waiting for the next big idea to ‘hit’ me. I only wrote one new poem in Frome, but it was a poem I needed to complete – a response to the drawings of the artist David Harker, for a publication he’s releasing later in the year. As David’s recent drawings are very detailed studies of trees, I took myself off to a field and sat under the shade of an oak and started to write. The resulting poem was informed by the immediacy of my conditions: Frome, oak, field, summer; but also the conversation I had with David a few weeks before, the recent death of my mother, the memory of other summers which seemed to be unlocked with the heat. I am interested in how a poem can be a map of a particular moment in the poet’s life, and how that private information is often obscured from the reader. When I reread my poems, I can remember where each one was written, what was happening in my life at the time, what triggered the initial idea or the first line. My poems are my private diary, but I’m aware that their public lives are entirely different.
These discussions of process and practice continued this week in Teeside, where I have been the guest of the Hall Garth poets. We spent a lot of time talking about form, how the poem is enclosed in its shape, how it can represent ‘spots of time’, to quote Coleridge. We sat in the cool interior of the Chop Gate Village Hall for our discussions, and then emerged into the sun to write. When I’m leading a group, I never manage to write anything of my own (the concentration is different); but I have made lots of notes for new poems. Next week I take these impressions and discussions back to my desk in London, where somehow that process of ordering and remembering always manages to shape itself into a poem. And I hope the forecast will remain sunny as well.
For many years I have taught the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’, regarded by most to be a textbook example of a villanelle. I have discussed the use of refrain lines with my students, and the importance of getting two that stay in the mind, that can withstand repetition, so that they carry the poem forward, both musically and thematically. I have analysed the poem – written when Thomas’s father was on his deathbed – read those words over and over. But I realise that I have failed to comprehend the poem. I am a careful reader, I’d like to think, so the failure isn’t so much in my understanding, as my inclination to be moved. Sometimes words are simply words until you allow them to have the ability to strike you, like an axe to break the frozen sea within us, to quote Kafka. So much poetry relies on joining a secret club, having shared whatever crucial life-changing moment or emotional epiphany the poet is revealing. We enter the poem once we have entered the experience. Since the recent loss of my mother, only now do I get it.
Because the way to really understand ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ is to watch a parent in his or her last days. Thomas is imploring his father not to die, to fight against it, despite the impossibility of winning, to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ (it could be said he neglected to take his own advice – intent on his self-destruction, he died only two years after the poem was written, at the age of 39). The word ‘rage’ appears eight times over 19 lines, as well as ‘fierce’ and ‘rave’. Thomas is spitting with anger – death makes him angry, its useless waste, its unnecessary suffering. Death is not gentle, nor, I suspect, for Thomas, is it a ‘good night’ (although ‘goodnight’ also means ‘goodbye’). For the most part, it is not peaceful, nor dignified, nor pleasant. It is not the Victorian damsel waiting for the guy with the scythe to come and get her, nor is it the noble lady of the manor stretched out in her canopied bed in all her finery. Nothing fine, nor noble, about it.
As I have mentioned before here, my sister-in-law gave me Ariel for my fifteenth birthday. It was, as they say, a damascene moment. I realised Plath was speaking to me directly from beyond the grave, telling me to write my anguish. Of course, I had nothing to be anguished about, but it was an attractive subject. I returned to Plath over the years but never with the same youthful vigour as I encountered her as a teenager, with her sharp tongue and curt turn of phrase. The more I learned about poetry, the more I understood her technical gifts (I teach her too now), the way she pares her lines to the bone. My mother’s last illness coincided with the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death (and made me realise they were near contemporaries – there is a photo of my mother when she first arrived in New York that could do for a cover illustration for The Bell Jar). I found myself going straight from the hospital one night to a reading of the Ariel poems at the South Bank. Sitting there in the dark, listening to the voices of various poets and actresses reciting lines that I had once to heart, I found myself getting annoyed with Sylvia, her appropriation of death as an art, as a piece of theatre. I am not denying that she was a very troubled and unhappy woman whose death was tragic, but there is something in the poems, a bravado, a seduction (perhaps a way of fooling herself into health?) that suddenly bothered me. I thought of my mother, who had lived a long and happy life which she valued, and I measured that against a woman who, in poem after poem, seemed to make death into a fetish. This is a gross simplification, I know, but in my fragile mood, it was how the poems struck me, for the first time, and I thought her selfish, willing death to make her ‘pure as a baby.’ I thought of the way I have romanticised death in my own poems, naïve as I have been, and I resolved to treat the subject with greater respect. It may have been another damascene moment.
I find this is the poem that gives me comfort at the moment. It is one of those poems handed down from generation to generation, from stifling classroom to dog-eared anthology. It has become so familiar that perhaps it has begun to lose its power. But now that I am ready to hear it, it is my axe.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, the explorer Marco Polo returns from his voyages to regale Kublai Khan with stories of the many and varied places he visited in his travels. But as his narratives progress, the ruler begins to question the reliability of his young adventurer. It becomes clear that the numerous cities Polo claims to have visited are merely different facets of one city – Venice, Polo’s home town. What to make of these ‘imagined’ cities once the truth is known? The book becomes not a travelogue, but a work of psychogeography, an imagining of many possible experiences within one urban centre, where buildings, people and ritual come together:
The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls …
I remembered Calvino when visiting Julie Mehretu’s current exhibition at White Cube, Bermondsey. It was not my first encounter with Mehretu’s work, having seen her paintings first in Venice (making the connection to Calvino more overt), then in Kassel. Two very different urban experiences: I have written about both cities here on Invective, and it strikes me now that both Venice and Kassel are appropriate sites for Mehretu’s project. Venice represents the meeting of east and west, a strange confection of ornate palazzi but also brooding corners and dark dead-ends. Kassel is a palimpsest – a city that will never shake its complete destruction, even through its reconstruction.
Mehretu’s cityscapes, like Calvino’s, are unreliable. You cannot move freely through the streets or chart a route between two places. Through a layering of architectural drawings – showing features such as columns and porticos – and city planning documents, Mehretu builds a place of frenetic energy and multiple diversions. Over these layered architectural elements, she creates a series of smudges and lines – almost destroying her creations, in the same way the wrecking ball levels buildings everyday (slow to erect, fast to collapse) – and over that, she paints coloured acrylic flourishes, long arcs and stripes, like graffiti (the unofficial street art that she cites as one of her influences). She says of these ‘marks’:
I think of my abstract mark-making as a type of sign lexicon, signifier, or language for characters that hold identity and have social agency. The characters in my maps plotted, journeyed, evolved, and built civilizations. I charted, analyzed, and mapped their experience and development: their cities, their suburbs, their conflicts, and their wars. The paintings occurred in an intangible no-place: a blank terrain, an abstracted map space. As I continued to work I needed a context for the marks, the characters. By combining many types of architectural plans and drawings I tried to create a metaphoric, tectonic view of structural history. I wanted to bring my drawing into time and place.
She calls the finished canvases ‘story maps of no location’, every city and no city at once. The idea of stories, of narratives, of characters, brings us back to psychogeography, which is concerned with the emotional responses of the individual to a city. Recently in this blog I mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s alternative mapping of her home town, San Francisco, and her definition of places as ‘stable locations with unstable converging forces.’ Mehretu’s approach is similar; she says:
I am interested in the potential of ‘psychogeographies’, which suggest that within an invisible and invented space, the individual can tap a resource of self-determination and resistance.
Her recent ‘Mogamma’ paintings contain overlaid images taken from 31 different squares which became centres for revolt and conflict during the Arab Spring. These are ‘charged places’ for Mehretu, and even post-revolution, they hold the turmoil of their association to these events in their very bricks. Mehretu herself fled a place of conflict – Addis Ababa during the Ethio-Somali war – when she was seven years old. In her work, she is placing herself back in the centre of conflict, asking the question: ‘how do I look at myself in this moment? How do I exist in a larger social and historical moment?’ The crisis, as a human being, globally, environmentally, politically, is always to consider how much power the artists’ mark has in our time.
I’ll end with a poem by Weldon Kees which seems to chime with Mehretu’s project:
To Build a Quiet City in His Mind
To build a quiet city in his mind:
A single overwhelming wish; to build,
Not hastily, for there is so much wind,
So many eager smilers to be killed,
Obstructions one might overlook in haste:
The ruined structures cluttering the past,
A little at a time and slow is best,
Crawling as though through endless corridors,
Remembering always there are many doors
That open to admit the captured guest
Yet in spite of loss and guilt
And hurricanes of time, it might be built:
A refuge, permanent, with trees that shade
When all the other cities die and fade.