ON POETRY, WRITING AND RANDOM CULTURAL MATTERS

Monday, 24 April 2017

David Hockney and Queer Art at Tate Britain


So, OK, David Hockney is the fastest selling show, the longest opening, etc. and he seems the most popular living British artist. And yes, I do enjoy his work from the earliest through the swimming pools, to the Californian and East Yorkshire landscapes to the latest ipad work, the colours, the confidence with shape, all well exemplified in this major retrospective.

But at this point I am thinking it is all a bit over-hyped. Go in your thousands if you must, but I think I have seen rather too much of his work. I am jaded and cynical.

Queer Art was something else. It is a melange of homoerotic art, hidden messages and work by queer artists to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary this year of the decriminalization of homosexual acts. All very laudable and some of my favourite paintings were there, especially Vita Sackville-West in her red hat.

But, it was too much of a mishmash for me: a wide swathe of chronological time, a disparate collection of images and objects. I spent far too much time reading things in order to be told their significance. That is not the mark of a successful art exhibition. I am meant to be swept up in the work, not having a lengthy history lesson in order to appreciate it. Still, worth a peek if you are passing.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Hidden Paris - Fontainebleu

Hidden in the sense that it is not in Paris at all, the Chateau taking up the central part of the genteel town of Fontainebleu is a 40 minute train ride from Gare de Lyon, but it was a fabulously sunny day and definitely time to get into the green after winter's grey.

Smaller and older than Versailles, this palace of the French monarchs is undergoing some building restoration work at present so the Pope's rooms, so called, were closed, but the rest was open; room after room of gorgeousness, a veritable feast and a study in royal interior design over the centuries, including throne rooms, a ball room, library, reception rooms, Marie Antionette's bed chamber (another one), and many of Napoleon's personal effects, dinner services, campaign tent, jewels.

The gardens are extensive for strolling, picnicking, boating, and the like. A great day out when you want to escape the traffic fumes and Tom Cruise filming helicopter chases for Mission Impossible 6 in the skies of Paris.

Hidden London - Brixton Windmill

Not to be confused with the famous music pub of the same name, the windmill stands in a little park just a stone's throw away. Ashby's Mill, as it is more correctly called, is a little remnant oasis of the countryside before it became built over and turned into South London.

By the end of the nineteenth century, with the wind blocked by buildings it fell into disuse to be resurrected for another thirty years until 1934 by the installation of a steam  and later gas engine.

Open inside occasionally, but viewable all year round, it's one of those quirky things we flaneurs rather enjoy finding on a sunny day.

Concrete Poetry - the iconisation of language

There's a new exhibition in LA at present, not that I shall be seeing it as I am nowhere near. The last in London to my recollection was Poor Old Tired Horse at the ICA in 2009. Worth a rethink? Perhaps.

So, what exactly is it? Is it art? Is it poetry? Is it neither? Is it the bridge between the two? Are any of these definitions useful?

Firstly a very brief potted history - people have been making words look attractive on the page for hundreds of years before the Concrete Poetry movement of the 1950s-1970s. For example, all of those beautiful illuminated mediaeval manuscripts; the Books of Kells, books of hours and so on, through to Elizabethan Labyrinth poems, to elements of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Lewis Carroll's Mousetail from Alice in Wonderland, and the work of Pound and cummings. What are these all about?

In the simplest terms the words are turned into a picture or representation beyond just their letters, the purpose of which is to enhance the effect of the poem for the reader.

This seems to be one kind of possible extension to any poetic practice of considering the way the words look on the page either through formal poetry, or choosing the lineation in free verse, such as more recently Philip Gross' Amphora.

If all forms of poetry try to do this, then all poetry is concrete in this sense. However, much of what we consider to be concrete poetry lacks something: read it out loud and the effect is lost, as it is essentially a visual form, lacking sound and often meaning.

But what might make it art? Its visual nature, certainly, and the fact that it uses words and typographical elements rather than colours or images, does not reduce its status, even if no pictorial representation is produced.

Thus we might conclude that it is neither poetry nor art, or both as some kind of hybrid, which for me points to the rather otiose nature of such definitions. As an entertainment for the eyes, a provocation of ideas and a demonstration of wit, let's just enjoy it, shall we? Here are just some of my personal favourites (more to follow, so check back soon):

 Ian Hamilton-Finlay (very hard to choose just a couple!)



Mary Ellen Solt:







Saturday, 8 April 2017

Hidden Paris - Basilica St Denis

It's difficult to hide the world's first Gothic building, but if you put it in a northern suburb of Paris with a certain reputation, then it's hardly surprising it has taken me five years to get around to visiting it.

Joking aside, this is a magnificence that everyone should see at least once: huge vaulted ceilings, beautiful rose window, and the main draw: the fabulous, mostly marble, tombs and mortuary effigies of the Kings and Queens of France.

Word of warning. It may be 20 degrees outside, but the church is absolutely freezing, especially the crypt, so wrap up unless you like you want to catch you death, so to speak.

Fascinating to see and a real test of my memory as I didn't take the rather time consuming tour and had to drag up my rather shaky knowledge of French history. Noses and staffs broken during the Revolution, the grim tale of Henry IV's head, and the real mummified heart of Louis LVII await you.

I was particularly taken with the lions and dogs on which the monarchs and their spouses rested their feet. Some were comical, such as dogs pulling on their mistresses cloaks, and some were down right odd, as if the sculptor had never even seen a real lion, which indeed, he may not have. One was even a ferret.

Coffee in the sunny square afterwards before heading back to line 13 was not only welcome, but essential.

Hidden Paris - Opera Garnier

 Sumptuous in the kind of golden glory that the French excel in, the Garnier Opera House is a must see for so many reasons, even if you don't like opera that much. It is a veritable eye-dazzle.

Although the entry for an unguided tour is a little steep at 11 Euros a person, it is well worth an hour of your time, if like me, you still point your toes and fancy yourself dancing the ballet. One sweep down the highly polished marble stair case should do your performing princess ego no end of good.

Principal among reasons to come here are the art works: Rodin's statues at the foot of the grand staircase, their feet turned gold by so many passing and reverent hands, and Chagall's magnificent ceiling in the auditorium.

It surprised me how may of my fellow visitors completely missed it, busy as they were taking selfies. I stared up at it for ages, studying each element of angel, goat, violin, and all the Paris landmarks cunningly included in his trademark palette. Super!

Monday, 3 April 2017

English Pen Literarture Festival



Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the English Pen Literature Festival in London, a day long series of performances and readings in support of imprisoned and suppressed writers from oppressive countries around the world. We heard of those silenced as a result of their writings, mistranslations of their work, their mere existence and the supposed threat their words represent in regimes afraid of criticism and free speech. The participating writers responded with new work of their own, variously explaining the situation of the writers with whom they were in dialogue. 


One comment that came up more than once was how difficult and uncomfortable it was to make work based on the plight of another writer. One person even called such efforts obscene. I have been considering this for the rest of the weekend and I am not sure I agree. The brief after all was to do just that, and, as we are writers, we ought to be able to write about anything, no? If what was meant was that it is an intrusion to put oneself in the precise shoes or, more likely, bare feet of another writer, then granted, trying to describe torture and deprivation by hi-jacking another person’s experience and emotions, could be seen as distasteful. How, after all, could one know, exactly? 


But there is more to consider in these ethical ambiguities, surely? If a writer has been silenced, is it not another writer’s role, or even duty, to help them have a voice? We are writers and have imagination, and should not too readily censor ourselves. That would be to perpetuate the wrongs. I think what would be obscene would be to try to pass off someone else’s experience and emotions as one’s own, so, yes, the I is I first person should probably be abandoned, if not at least carefully considered in this project. Yet, writing in the third person may seem too distant, or the second, again too knowingly dictatorial, but these are what we have and it is our job to make the best of them.


The work shared on Saturday took many approaches; the most successful in my view were those who tried to use the silenced writer’s words and work directly, either as mash up or, sample, woven into letters and diary extracts, or forming parts of poems, or using the numbers of years or months of a person’s incarceration as the number of elements in the piece of writing, i.e. to control its structure. More traditional ways of tackling a response included using classic/historical depictions of violence and martyrdom, and poems in response to one of the writer’s poems.

It was a marathon of listening and, if this is not the wrong word, enjoyment, appropriate given the sheer number of people deprived of their freedom and voices; things we take too lightly for granted.