Invective Against Swans
The poet in the gallery


It’s good to start the new year with projects, especially if those projects involve mooching around galleries and writing poems. Lately, I have been immersed in the world of Martin Creed, in preparation for a course I’m running at the Hayward on the occasion of their Creed retrospective, What’s the point of it? You can find a guest blog by me on the Southbank website:

So much of Creed’s work is about chance and order, and the collision of those two conditions. So much of writing is a similar activity. When putting together the course (which starts on Monday and runs for five weeks), I wanted to think about basic themes and structures, but I didn’t want to be too determined about how things should be. I want to go a little crazy, move my students (and myself) out of the usual poetry comfort zone (sitting quietly at a desk with a pen and a notebook, waiting for inspiration to strike), because Creed’s work is often about discomfort – looking at things we think we shouldn’t really be looking at, things we suspect don’t really belong in a gallery, at least not in the hallowed spaces of the National Gallery, or on the pristine white walls of Mayfair. There is a defiance in the work, poking fun at convention, having a laugh. I’ve been having fun too, listening to sound poetry, reading lots of John Cage and Edwin Morgan, a bit of Carl Andre, fiendish Oulipo experiments where vowels are suppressed and lines lengthened by measurement. And wondering how all these grand and batty experiments might still alter what we do and how we do it. It feels a bit like limbering up before running a marathon (of course I’m thinking about Creed’s Work No 850, which involved runners sprinting through the galleries of Tate Britain).


At the same time, I’ve been commissioned by the poets Catherine Smith, Emer Gillespie and Abegail Morley, who have formed a group called Ekphrasis to look specifically at the relationship between poetry and art: They are asking 13 poets in total to respond to the current Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy. While not exactly as anarchic as Martin Creed’s show, the RA has commissioned six architects to come into the grand galleries of their Piccadilly building and let loose. The result is a show not simply of installations, but alternative spaces that (almost) make you forget you are in the RA.


But what I couldn’t forget while going through the show was that I needed to make a poem out of my experience, and that made me view the work differently, not just for its own merits, but also, and quite specifically, what could be mined from it? A quite mercenary approach to the gallery experience – one artist thinking what can I borrow, with impunity, from another artist (that is kind of the loose definition of ekphrasis, isn’t it)?

There was much I liked, but not much I thought I could use as a starting point for a poem. Not because the work wasn’t interesting, I just couldn’t see a way in for me. Something has to meet me on both an intellectual and emotional level (which takes me back to something Martin Creed has said, in negation to the idea that he is a chiefly a conceptual artist: ‘you can’t have ideas without feelings’). And then I walked into the space created by the Chinese architect Li Xiaodong. It is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to say why something moves you. Maybe that’s why you have to write the poem, to explore the question. But as soon as I passed through the simple curtain into Li Xiaodong’s construction of hazel twigs, forming a forest-like maze, which opens onto a shingle courtyard, I knew it was the installation I wanted to write about. Not that I knew what I wanted to say, of course – I’m still struggling with the poem itself – but that this was the place that could open my mind and heart to a poem.

I suspect I’ve quoted this before, a statement on the source of the poem by my great idol, the Irish poet Eavan Boland, but it’s so great, it’s worth saying again: 

Explaining a poem is difficult. The method is inherently unreliable. There is too much instinct and error in the process to make its initiator a good witness afterwards. Akhmatova says of one stage in her poetry “my handwriting had changed and my voice sounded different.” But such clear beginnings are rare. The truth is that every poem has a different hinterland: a terrain of chance and shadow, of images in life which stay put until they become images in language.

I like that idea of the hinterland. Maybe that’s what the gallery is to a poet, a ‘terrain of chance and shadow’ that we enter, hoping to be charged up enough to make something new.

The fullness of time

Just back from a week at the glorious Château Ventenac 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 to writers on how to observe, but also on how to immerse oneself in the moment. Perec recorded everything he saw in the place Saint-Sulpice over the course of a weekend (positioning himself, as any self-respecting Oulipo poet might, at various café vantage-points) without editorial comment or censorship, so that even the most mundane or pedantic details are faithfully listed. It reads like an exercise because that’s what it is. When we get down to the business of making experience into poetry, we select, so that certain details might be singled out, highlighted as significant. It is interesting to consider what we cross out in the process.

And that’s where the idea of a sequence comes in. One poem is sometimes not enough to contain all the things we need to show. Why not more? After all, poets love numerology, the idea of splitting language into a neat package of lines or stanzas. So why not five poems (like the fingers on a hand) or seven (like the deadly sins, or the days of the week), to show different points of view, angles, timeframes, narratives, etc? We moved from Perec to Stevens, and his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which gives us such variations, like a Cubist painting or a jazz riff put into words. We thought about the symbolism of the blackbird, the number thirteen, and what Stevens is saying about fate and how language tries to express big things like mortality – and often misses – unless we can focus on the small details. We agreed that his blackbird never feels like an omen, an harbinger of bad luck (after all, Stevens is a champion of the commonplace rather that the fanciful – no nightingale for him) but rather a presence that is alive and moving in a static landscape …

Although it was actually the hoopoe who was sighted, sunning in the lower terrace, and of course, the resident black swans of the Canal du Midi. I include them here because I’m often asked what I have against swans – it’s their romanticising I resist. The black ones have a sort of mythical quality about them, although these two are hardly mysterious – they are used to being fed by tourists on longboat holidays, so they will swim right over to you, and demand attention, trumpeting loudly.

We attempted a group exercise (based on Anne Berkeley’s wonderful versions of Baudelaire’s Pipe) to identify the different ways we perceive language. We all looked at the same poem by Eluard, and came up with our own versions, ranging from fairly faithful translations of the original, to surreal statements based on a complete ignorance of French – increasingly more unstable as comprehension and meaning fly through the window.

And flying is what time did too. It seemed like a lot to pack into a week, and so it was. Naturally, it passed very quickly, in the excited mix of poems and chat, and food and wine. And suddenly I find myself back at my desk in London (where spring seems to have been and gone).

I began my week in the walled medieval citadel of Carcassonne, a place which is sealed in time, and so I end with a photograph, taken by poet Sue Rose, of a motif of decorative carvings – remains of larger structures – arranged on a wall to celebrate pattern and light. Like a good poem, or a series of poems, each one a little bit different than the one next to it.