Invective Against Swans
Stretching before and after

Helen Frankenthaler wrote of her 1972 painting, ‘Burnt Norton’: 

I was thinking about Eliot, making order out of chaos, of light and dark. Like Eliot’s poem, the painting’s simplicity is arrived at after a great deal of complexity. My work is never playful. This seemed at the time an especially serious and weighty picture to solve.

The resulting work seems to be a distillation of what she found in Eliot’s poem, deceptively simple in its reduction, until you learn that Frankenthaler worked on the grey-blue horizontal line that interrupts the brown near the lower edge of the picture for many weeks until she got it right. Is that line the ‘still point of the turning world’ that Eliot envisioned, something not fixed, but not static? The line hovers in Frankenthaler’s painting, ‘a white light still and moving’; it could be a body of water, a break in the relentless brown of the hulking shape that dominates the canvas – a dark mountain range. There is a dip, a view through to a lighter horizon tinged with rose (the exact colour of ‘dust on a bowl of rose leaves’), something seen but not quite reached. 

Eliot’s poem is about time, how from the present moment stretches both past and future. In Frankenthaler’s painting, it is tempting to see that line she struggled with for so long as the present, the dark mountain as the past, the rosy glow in the distance as the future. But that is perhaps too simple – a way of desiring meaning from a painter whose vision is never absolute. In that respect, Eliot is Frankenthaler’s perfect poet, dense and difficult in his subjects, but light and lyrical in his words. 

Walking around the current Making Painting show at Turner Contemporary, I was struck again by what a brave painter Frankenthaler was, how she took all those butch abstract expressionist movements and softened them. But that makes her sound uncertain, and her canvases are big, bold, exploring colour and light the way Matisse did, but with the lyrical focus of Monet (I found the show’s attempt at a comparison with Turner distracting – he’s not the first painter I would think of as an influence on Frankenthaler, although when you look at their approach to similar subjects, of course there are some similarities). A film of her working shows her kneeling over a huge canvas placed on the floor – the technique of Pollock’s which freed her. But unlike Pollock, all bravado and splash, her gestures are slow, deliberate. And yet she is not as famous as he is, although she deserves to be. You look at Frankenthaler’s work and see the whole scope of Color Field painting opening up with those first grand gestures. 

Frank O’Hara knew it. Eliot, for all his classicism, would not be the right poet to repay the compliment. O’Hara wrote of Frankenthaler’s work:

she is the medium of her material, never polishing her insights into a rhetorical statement, but rather letting the truth stand forth plainly and of itself.

But Eliot was more in my mind than O’Hara as I came out onto the front in Margate, thinking again of his efforts to connect nothing with nothing, and how Frankenthaler somehow nails it.


The nourishing sun


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.

Blue territory

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 comfort Helen Frankenthaler can with her great splashes of soft colour on huge square canvases. They are big but not bold, abstract but not empty or clinical, free but orderly, lively but intensely relaxed and peaceful … They are vaguely feminine in the way water is feminine – dissolving and instinctive, and on an enveloping scale.

“Dissolving and instinctive and enveloping … “ It was that feminising, that “softening” of Abstract Expressionism, a way of taking all that anger and brutality and violence, and producing something more controlled, but still passionate, that’s what artists such as Krasner and Mitchell and Frankenthaler did. They were on the fringes of the boy’s club that included Pollock and de Kooning and Gorky, but their work is just as important, sometimes more beautiful, more subtle, even gentle.

In his poem, ‘Blue Territory’, taken from the title of one of Frankenthaler’s paintings, Frank O’Hara evokes ‘the flattering end of the world’, the sea, the sky, but also a place beyond human recognition, where ‘we could be alone together at last, one by one’:


                Who needs an ark? A Captain’s table?

                                                                      and the mountains

never quite sink, all blue, or come back

                                                      up, de-

sire, the Father of the messiness of all

Natural selection

In my garden in Stockwell I often see a pair of jays, not to mention our resident blackbird (with very distinctive white markings on his wings), blackcaps, robins, blue tits and an occasional wren. I’ve seen a heron fly over the house once, and a sparrow hawk twice. And last winter there was a spectacular invasion of redwings, perfectly at home in our uncommon snow. Beyond my garden is a low-rise estate, and beyond that, the Stockwell Road, which leads to Brixton. Not the most bucolic place, with its constant sirens and chicken take-away debris. But the birds don’t seem to mind, because they are birds, and as long as they can find enough to eat, they will stick around. As a city-dweller for the whole of my adult life, I still notice their presence, they still make an impact, and I am glad for their small music as I sit at my desk. City-dwellers are always in search of little patches of nature, parks and playgrounds, churchyards and canal towpaths, which make our concrete and tarmac existence more bearable. The whole rus in urbe thing.

I have to say that I never felt much of a longing for nature. The city has always been enough for me; as O’Hara says in ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” Cities are easily navigable, and city-dwellers understand the politics of street and transport systems. We have a capacity for ugliness, for the burnt-out and uninhabitable. I like nothing better than a jaunt to some far-flung, forgotten corner of London with my friend Vici MacDonald (aka ‘Art Anorak’, a great connoisseur of urban ruin.

So as I skim pleasantly through anthologies of pastoral poems, in anticipation of two upcoming writing workshops looking at aspects of poetry and landscape, I wonder what has happened to me to make me even want to enjoy the blade of grass, let alone write about it (and encourage others to write about it). I have no ‘natural credentials’. I am not a gardener by trade, like Alice Oswald or Sarah Maguire. I do not know the names of plants and trees (although I am getting better with birds). I have the language to describe the urban experience, but I am ill-equipped to say much about flowers and fields. It doesn’t stop me from trying, sometimes in what feels to be a string of clichéd phrases. The built environment seems easier to sum up somehow, because I am part of it; the natural world operates in mystery.

However, I am beginning to realise that part of my problem is compartmentalisation. It is wrong of me to create a division between the urban and the rural. After all, aren’t the birds in my Stockwell garden part of the natural world? Richard Mabey, whose brilliant book The Unofficial Countryside has just been reprinted, says:

Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom. We imagine it to ‘belong’ in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots.

Mabey’s project is to get us to embrace the lichens and weeds growing amidst the ruined buildings and between the railroad tracks, and therefore to see that we are not separate from nature. And that may make the (so-called urban) poet’s task less difficult when faced with that blade of grass.

Short voyages

Another poem from my Jackson Pollock sequence, in memory of both Pollock and Frank O’Hara. O’Hara wrote the first important monograph on Pollock’s work, calling him ‘an artist who was totally conscious of risk, defeat and triumph. He lived the first, defied the second, and achieved the last.’

O’Hara’s poem, ‘Digression on Number 1, 1948’ was one of his famous ‘Lunch Poems’ sequence, written quickly, in the grip of the inspiration of that moment. He said of the painting that it ‘has an ecstatic, irritable, demanding force, an incredible speed and nervous legibility in its draftsmanship’, which could serve as a description for O’Hara’s poetic style (so often reduced to “I do this, I do that”, missing the point that all activity invites revelation). The poem ends with these lines:

There is the Pollock, white, harm
will not fall, his perfect hand

and the many short voyages. They’ll
never fence the silver range.
Stars are out and there is sea
enough beneath the glistening earth
to bear me toward the future
which is not so dark. I see.

The lines are eerily prescient, in the evocation of the ‘short journeys’ which were to be their lives; and that strange image of the ‘sea / … beneath the glistening earth’ bearing the poet towards ‘the future / which is not so dark’. When O’Hara wrote the poem, Pollock was already dead. O’Hara would die almost exactly ten years after Pollock. Both men were in their 40s at the time of their deaths, in accidents. They are both buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs, Long Island.

When O’Hara died, Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, was quoted as saying ‘Frank’s buried at Jack’s feet.’

Short Voyages

for Jackson and Frank

                      To digress
is to be alive and know a mind
at work, a body in motion,
the blare of the city, in all its
                No accidents,
only cause and effect, the future
which is not so dark but which
we cannot stop, speeding forward,
destiny at the wheel. 
everything is lucid, shining,
like children in the rain
or a lover, naked, and they
have to get it down,
to this age of flags and fear
where art might have a place,
sometimes right here on the street
or in a bar
              where men
argue the world into being
and drink to forget
tomorrow we might be gone.

To repel ghosts

I am staring at the iconic photograph of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Lizzie Himmel, the one where he is posed on a red leather chair in his studio. Painted directly onto the wall behind him is a lumpy black figure, part cartoon, part gremlin, with bared teeth. Gremlin and artist are facing each other. Basquiat is wearing a pinstripe suit and a tie, but he is clearly artist rather than businessman; the cuffs of his trousers are dirty, he is barefoot. One foot is propped against a toppled chair. He holds his paintbrush aloft. It is 1985 and he is at the height of his fame. Three years later he’ll be dead.

The photograph is blown up to fit the wall so that he is larger than life, confronting visitors arriving at his Musée d’Art Moderne retrospective. People are streaming into the museum to see his work; they are photographing his photograph, posing in front of his image. Mostly young girls; too young to remember him. But he is forever 25 years old in this photo – cocky, beautiful, haunted. If he had lived, he would have been 50 this year.

As I am walking through the show, I’m thinking about Jackson Pollock. Not necessarily the first artist you might connect with Basquiat, but since I’ve been immersing myself in Pollock’s life and work for the last few months, he is never far away. They were both ‘untrained’ talents. True, they both went to art school, but what they created was not something that was taught to them. Both were undisciplined, liberated, self-destructive, and what they brought to their art was an expression of chaos, the world turned on its side. If Pollock had lived, he might have admired the young Basquiat, from the perspective of the older artist who had ‘been there, done that’.

Basquiat’s world is bright and throwaway, but there are always gremlins and ghosts in the background, random scrawls crossed out, eradicated. He is often referred to as a graffiti artist, but the graffiti here are the jottings of the psyche, the ‘heart as arena’. These jottings link him most closely to Twombly, but the latter artist had a greater library from which to draw, quoting Rilke and Keats on his canvases. Basquiat’s references mix the high and the low; the language of billboards and ad campaigns merged with snippets from Greek myth, the names of gods and kings (which makes me think of O’Hara at his best, as in ‘The Day Lady Died’). The texts in Basquiat’s paintings give the viewer a way to read his mind. In Eroica II, one of his last paintings, the images disappear completely and the canvas is given over to words; a litany of ‘b’s from a slang dictionary: ‘balls: testicles / bang: injection of narcotics or sex / bark: human skin’. It is as if his gremlins are speaking directly to us, mischievous and deathly in the same breath. On the side, the phrase “man dies”, written in shadowy grey. In the end, he was not able to repel his ghosts.

Cedar nights

Another poem from my Jackson Pollock sequence, this one about the legendary Cedar Tavern in New York. ‘We often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue,’ Frank O’Hara said. There is nowhere in the world now where such a place could exist, tolerant and cheap and nondescript enough for artists to gather in that way (tolerant to a degree: Pollock was banned for tearing the door off the men’s room in a drunken rage).

Cedar Nights

Kerouac baptised the ashtray with his piss,
Rothko gazed into his glass, lost
in a haze of smoke (later he would slit

each arm, two razored lines, maroon on white),
while Gorky picked a fight with every stooge
who strayed within his reach (his wild eye,

hangdog face, peasant hands, the dreams
he couldn’t shake). De Kooning pontificated
over water (bastard) and by his lead

women shattered into pieces, all lips
and tits. Klein splattered the bar in black,
while dizzy Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters

swore, and sang, and toppled off their stools,
then hurled themselves into the negro streets;
Frank was brashly erecting something new

from shreds of Rauschenberg and Lady Day.
And Jack? He was painting up a storm,
(when he was sober), admiring his fame

from the summit of the Gods, until the night
she breezed into the Cedar, all ass
and attitude, looking for a guy,

and there he was, the prize, the mark, the Jack
of Hearts, the cover boy. She sidled over:
what’s a girl gotta do to get a drink?