Saturday, 7 November 2009

Canzone: Animal

GEORGE STUBBS (1724-1806): A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl: Human Skeleton, Lateral View, in Crawling Posture, 1795-1806.

There is a new poem up in the front, titled Canzone: Animal.

As I said in the last post I shift between work, thinking and, curiously, not thinking. As far as poetry goes I am still in the Canzone room, working out its spaces and angles, trying to figure what it demands of me, what odd corner of emotion I will come across. I am pretty well convinved that thought and emotion are broad categories. One feels intensely but in so complex a way that to name any of the emotions or thoughts seems almost a profanity. It is one of the reasons I hate the emotional telegraphese of news bulletins, all that shrink-wrapped, opaque pabulum, the wheeling out of one tragic cliché after another. It is, if anything, the instinctive shudder at such opportunistic, and essentially lying, shorthand that made me a poet in the first place.

But writing is a slightly horrifying occupation. Part of me says I ought to be an emotional wreck, incapable of thinking, let alone working at these obsessive intricate demanding patterns, objectifying whatever it is I ought to feel. And why even write these words? You, goes the accusation, are turning your father and his sickness into an aesthetic object. You should not be writing but feeling, the accuser continues. There is, surely, something missing in you.

The simple answer is that I am a writer: that is what I am and do. But simple answers are not really answers, the accuser retorts. They are merely road blocks on the way to some city of truth that we cannot know.

So my next road block is to claim that I don't know what I feel until it passes through the filter of language. But why should it have to do so? demands the accuser. Isn't the poem a superfluous gesture, a refusal?

I go on to claim that gestures are what we have, for how are we to know the body and its depths without gestures? But these poems bear a signature, your signature, they are about you, a you that has subsumed the objective, out-there, real and equal, in fact greater realm of experience that is properly your father's, the accuser insists.

Listen, I reply. After my mother died in 1975, a good ten years later, I wrote my longest poem, 'Metro' which is entirely posited on her and her experience as I received it, and when I showed it, eventually, to my father - my father not being a literary man - he said that it was like 'walking about inside her'. He did not intend that as criticism, he simply recognised her in some sense. Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what art is?

Talking of art, replies the accuser, didn't you also write in a poem called 'Hand Colouring' about how unlifelike, how unreal, how almost mortuary, it felt to be looking at photographs of yourself taken by your mother and hand coloured by her. 'Almost like embalment', you wrote then. And aren't you doing the same, and him alive? Embalming him alive?

Now we are at the borders of religion. 'Stranger, beware the false beguiling arts' says the Puritan motto in Stranger's Hall, Norwich, and didn't someone once say to me, that all this poetry was vanity? Yes, vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the preacher.

I come to my last visible answer, which is much like Russell Hoban's 'last visible dog' in his marvellous The Mouse and His Child. The answer goes like this and it is in the form of a question:

Who can tell how much vanity, how much deficit of feeling, how much embalment, how much gesture, how much preoccupation, how much self-delusion, how much aesthetic nit-picking, how much temptation to assume control of everything is involved in being who we are? Who knows where an instinct is bred, or indeed a sense of voice, balance, manners..

...and the question remains unfinished because I am now beyond the last visible dog, though I do not think it impossible that there might be another dog, and maybe another behind that one and that beyond all these dogs along the way, beyond my own road blocks, there is something we can yearn for and hope for, and could it not be that the thing one writes is a kind of offering to it?

But the dog's not there. That's what makes it an invisible dog.


So, now on the front is a new canzone titled Animal. It has been through six or seven major redraftings, the most abiding problem being the question of the pronouns: the I, the you, the we of it. It started with I and has finally returned to I. The I that writes this is perfectly aware of the difficulties involved. On the other hand that I is an optimist who thinks art can and should address life as best it can, not be an alternative closed monastic system (and believe me, I respect the integrity of monks.) In other words, 'I' means something in a poem. It means that something is at stake.

The word animal is so close to the word anima, meaning soul, that the one rings through the other for me. It is derived from the concepts of soul, mind and breath. All of these then.

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