Thursday, 3 June 2010

Awayday: the bear, the kings, the monuments

In London from early on - first to do an interview with Stephen Moss of The Guardian on 'what's the use of poetry?' I imagine it might be short - say, 20 minutes or so - but we chat for an hour and a half around a drink. I talk my head off, as I sometimes do on topics like this, using the example at one point (it doesn't matter for now apropos what) of the potential human reaction if a grizzly bear suddenly entered the room. It is not an image I have ever used before, nor have I ever seen a grizzly bear except in a zoo, but the image recurs a couple of times before we leave. As we go out through a different door from the one we came in I glance behind and there is an enormous bronze bear sculpture by the door. I hadn't seen the sculpture on my way in, nor did I expect to see a life-sized bronze sculpture of anything, let alone a grizzly bear. For a brief heady second I feel that I have done what shamanic poets are capable of, that is to say I have spoken a bear into existence. I joke to Stephen about the prophetic power of poetry: he smiles and I smile, because it is intended as a joke - but just for a moment I had myself going there. You've finally cracked it, Szirtes. Now just keep doing it.


Then I rush off to the British Museum where C is waiting with friend Petra and Mary from the Chinese Department. Mary gives us brief informed tour of the Chinese prints before we go to the Kingdom of Ife exhibition, Petra knows the country (part of Nigeria) - she even know one of the archaeologists pictured on the wall. The exhibition is mostly heads, of brass or copper or terracotta. Many of them are in what I think of as Early Classical naturalist manner, the equivalent of Apollos and Venuses, maybe just a touch later in that they are clearly individuals with all proportions correct, but the handling formalises and abstracts towards ideal. They are beautiful, noble, more or less ritualistic, but serenely human too. I want to write more about this and will soon.


But it's not a large exhibition, and I have another exhibition to see at the Serpentine Gallery. It is Phyllida Barlow's work on show and Phyllida is one of the three visual artists I am collaborating with (the snake poem on the front of the website is via work by Helen Rousseau on the same project). Phyllida's half of the exhibition consists mostly of large, highly tactile, sculptural objects that look almost recognisable, but hold us at a kind of abstract distance (one is not supposed to touch). There is a clear paradox in the rough textural quality of the large forms and the refusal to become knowable. Even the titles partake of this. The titles are all untitled: (something), whatever that something is, eg, a wall blob. I walk around deeply attentive, make notes, go away, buy a cold drink and scribble a few lines. Then back to near Russell Square to meet Petra and C,

thence home...



dana said...

Hello, sounds like a lovely day. That head is so modern looking to me, and beautiful.

This prompts me to bring up a question I've had for a while now. How familiar should a reader be with the works you use as references or jump off points for your poems? What about for other derivative works?

I suppose there are no "shoulds," but of course seeing the companion photograph or knowing the play gives the poem deeper meaning. Maybe I'm just too lazy to look up the ones I don't know. I always appreciate your links, and learn from them. Maybe you've got a new media: hypertext poetry.

George S said...

I don't think it should be necessary, Dana - in the same way that I hardly knew anything about Eliot's Waste Land before falling in love with it. Knowing more later deepened my enjoyment, but didn't create it, or in fact add much to the original thrill. Sometimes - paradoxically - knowing can lessen both thrill and pleasure for a while, in that knowing means we can tidy it up and file it away more easily. The work has to keep sitting up and staring at us, saying over and over again: I am not that. I am not my contexts. I am the strangeness of the world.

Knowing things is not the same as knowing about things.

And in any case, everything has a cultural context. The head in the post above is beautiful, we can feel that. As we learn more about her, her meaning amplifies, but something about her will always be seen as for the first time.

I would want my poems not to be intimidating but to retain, as long as possible, that first-time encounter sense. That sense is apprehended rather than explained.

Personally I always do my best to explain what is, I suspect, explicable, and generally find that more is capable of entertaining explanations than most people think.

In the end, however, I believe, a poem is an exclamation of some sort, one that has duration and song and carries with it the places it has been in the past. One doesn't understand it: one falls into it because it is the kind of thing that can be fallen into. You hear the cry beneath the words and fall into it.

dana said...

What do you mean by "and generally find that more is capable of entertaining explanations than most people think"?

Intimidation/not understanding: there's something there. There's a tension between the way I was taught to read poems in school (lit major, natch), and reading, or listening to poems alone. I remember in school the endless footnotes (esp. in Shakespeare) and the teachers' explanations of historical context and references to other works. In one way, it made poetry seem impenetrable, elitist. In another way, it seemed accessible, with some digging.

To paraphrase Donna Tartt, "I secretly preferred the easy delights of English prose to the coolie labor of poetry."

Maybe the poetry reader/listener has to be willing to suspend understanding and just fall. Maybe that's what makes poems so rewarding to return to again and again. Thanks for the reply.