Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Deceased was a Very Modest Man

News of the funeral spread by word of mouth, and handbill notices were posted at the Kiev station in Moscow…. naturally removed by activists and busybodies. But new copies promptly appeared. The result was that a large crowd, estimated at several thousand, began to congregate at the approaches to the village cemetery….

The gardens and countryside near Pasternak’s home were a riot of apple and lilac blossom as the coffin was borne in slow procession for half a mile along the country lanes and paths leading from his house to the cemetery.

At the graveside Valentin Asmus, a philosopher and an old friend of Pasternak’s, gave a short, informal address. He spoke of Boris Leonidovich as one of the glories of Russian literature…..

Two of Pasternak’s lyrics… were then recited: Had I but Known the Way of it and Hamlet. Shouts of Glory to Pasternak rung out. The scene was moving almost beyond endurance; tension mounted, tears fell, the phantom of a political demonstration hovered. But before long the plainclothes security men moved in and managed to terminate the proceedings without open scandal.

As the coffin lid was lowered into position the bells of the local Church of the Transfiguration suddenly began pealing….


Extraordinary picture. A funeral advertised like an underground rock concert; the beauty of the country scene; the moving address; that moment of tension; then the security men move in. And for a poet.

This is how Ronald Hingley’s biography ends. For some analysis…..

Monday, 26 April 2010

Wring out the Poet

How very strange are the writings of Boris Pasternak. I hadn't realised just how strange until I began to read Ronald Hingley's biography. Here's his translation from Spring:

Poetic Art! Become a sponge,
Sucker festooned. I'll spread you
Mid gluey foliage on green
Garden's bench's sodden plank.

Sprout florid ruffs and farthingales,
Ingest yon clouds and canyons.
And nightly, poetry, I'll wring you out
For thirsty paper's good.

It's strange in the Stallworthy and France translation, which I'd forgotten, but not so far out as this. For long having only known Doctor Zhivago I didn't understand the enthusiasm of Frank O'Hara and Co for Pasternak; it didn't quite fit, somehow. It's obvious now. And the Martian poetry of Craig Raine: Pasternak in an Oxbridge accent?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Eliot in the Mud

The words running out I wobble off course. Stumbling through thick sand, and through eyelids heavy with sweat and tiredness, I see an empty blue sky, perfect for sentences; the sea laughing all around….

Day 25. It looks like I will make it to 30 pieces in 30 days. And all those phrases scoffing on the sidelines – which one of them will I select now?

Ideas. Or ideas about ideas. Or ideas about form and construction. Or ideas about not having ideas… How far can these intrude into the genesis of a piece of art? A large question, and central to an understanding of Modern Art, at least since Duchamp. When I started this month I wondered if my usual technique of writing – waiting for the words or images to rise, like a body out of the bog – would be enough. Were there only so many bodies in all that mud? Or would I have to force it, using more of my conscious mind? Would there be more ideas? Would I create manifestos? Or like some Russian Futurists believe that silence was the best poem?

Silence around a glass jar, its words half eaten.

A half closed door. Its silence on chess stones red and black…

Silence after the words fell out: Swedenborg Hall, 4.23 am.

A fatter silence at 4.26am, after the last car horn?

Thus my earlier post about Mac Low and Oulipo. And from these thoughts this emerged, somehow:


Innovators and Outsiders
Elopes with Modernismo.
She dances in the dust, in her long dress its ruffles roses.
Luxuriating together in faded hotels
They hear beds attack the wall (words twist and fall….)
Insides by Malevich (Malevich!).
Always he kisses her black curls.
Oracles in the fag machines
He collects on scraps of paper.
The words settle down
She laughs when he reads a line.

Writes of Montezuma, the old monuments
She wants to leave the city.
Elopes with Modernismo
Form and pattern are not repetition!
In view of the prevailing situation
Still these scraps of paper.
No slogans here!
Only signs and oblique symbols.
Back to the origins
The dress she leaves on a grey pond, a new island…
Elliptical emerges from her thighs
And they attack the wall with pleasure!
Rank rich and reliable
The old words too stolid to build a wild garden
Given away at the old Cathedral
Old Ernst and Leonora.
Elopes with Modernismo
She laughs when he reads these lines.
Rebel against it all.
She dances still; dancing in courtyards and mirrored halls.


Yes! I pulled Eliot Weinberger from the mud. It’s a work in progress as part of the race to 30. I’m happy with that tension between the (half)-conscious idea (the acrostic) and the freedom of the actual creation. In the same race Carrie Etter also used an acrostic, though more integrated into the poem than mine. Just a coincidence? Or something more, arising out of the pressure to create?

The situation creates its own logic, perhaps, like a Jazz musician improvising night after night, spinning a near endless set of variations within a limited number of pre-conceived themes, you are forced to do different things – maybe it’s the music that forces you. It gets bored with you! And between the repetition of the themes and the new variations your mind oscillates, perhaps more than usual, between the bog and dry land, between the conscious and unconscious mind. On the bad days there’s too little variation – you drift into tired themes. But on a good day: you blow the whole thing apart – Coltrane’s Chasin’ the Trane on the Village Vanguard set?

And within this mix, this tension, ideas can become mysterious too. The secret of Borges….

Eliot Weinberger? Everyone needs teachers, and though I have never met him he has been very important for me: a great writer and translator, but also a great explicator of poetry; and a wonderful anthologist. Yes, books can be human too.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

And the Camps are Far Away

In my maddest moments I think we’re turning into the Soviet Union; about middle era Brezhnev: the corruption, the inefficiencies, the isolated political elite, and the fantasy world of the media feel ever so familiar. The new dawns and false promises of Socialist Realism sold the Soviet state, that bag of particularly rotten merchandise, while Western PR sells The Corporation, and its mirage of eternal happiness.

So what was the Soviet Union really like? Can
Andrei Platonov help us? Or is it another world, a completely different one, that he sees?

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Francesco Parmigianino at the Controls

How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you.....

These lines from John Ashberry's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror convey
rather too well my feelings when reading these lines from the same poem:

......as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
Its the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has ommitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place.....

My emphasis. It sums up yesterday's post, perfectly. Ashberry must have been walking around inside me carving away at my words; junking all those intentions. These were not what he wanted. No, my words must follow his art. So kick Snyder in the guts, and throw Klee out of the window. And chip away, chip away! until that final flourish. Now you have what I meant you to say!

Are words so powerful? It seems so. Bound to Ashberry with handcuffs. Oh John!

Ideas are so Simple

In What You Should Know To Be A Poet Gary Snyder writes:

all you can about animals and persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
names of stars, and the movement of the planets
and the moon

and he continues....

I disagree with nearly all this, and more! Yet I think it's a great poem. Likewise I recently read an extract from Klee's Schöpferische Konfession: actions may be the start of everything, but the actions are governed by ideas. Another great artist, and again I think he is wrong. I explain why here.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Monday, 12 April 2010

Do Words Need Zimmer Frames?

Thirty pieces in thirty days, and can I still tap those artesian wells? Because of my uncertainty, I’ve played with triggers, been more experimental, looser; improvising as I go…. Instead of hands and buckets, I now have pistons and pumps, and still the water comes, the words flow…

It reminds me of Oulipo and the self-imposed limits they imposed to their creativity. One example from the Yale Anthology of C20th French Poetry is Michelle Grangaud’s Michelle Grangaud Creating Anagrams; each line of which is an anagram of the title (the original in French is called Isidore Ducasse comte de Lautréamont). Some lines:

turn a manacle arches a giggling dream
a mugging canal is cleaner than a glad rag
gurgling ale a strange man a charm dice

These sound more surreal than Breton, in the same volume:

Of privet and the nests of angel fish
Whose arms are sea foam and river locks
And the mingling of wheat and mill
My love whose legs are fireworks…

Or take Jackson Mac Low, who creates his own rules to create:

George Washington never owned a camel
But he looked thru the eyes in his head
With a camel’s calm and wary look.

The rules here: each section has a president’s name, and the letters of all the names have images associated with them (actually their Phoenician meanings… there are other subsidiary rules to keep it interesting) some which are then used in that section. You get a cluster of similar words, which can add a density to the work.

Oulipo more surreal than Surrealism? Maybe it is, and it may give us a clue to the shortcomings of the latter movement. Seen as an exploration of the irrational, it may not be this at all. Instead, the images may come from an all too rational mind (see Mark Polizzotti’s biography of Breton for some confirmation of this). Rather than an understanding of that other world outside our senses (absolute reality?) it may simply be a jumbled up jigsaw puzzle of the rational consciousness.  This may explain its affinities with the games of Oulipo and Mac Low.

The irrational is stronger than that, surely?

Kant is in the Petrol

April is National Poetry Month in the States, where you're encouraged to write something everyday. Carrie Etter challenged her readers to join her. I did. Here's a work in progress:


Elke Erb
Why can’t I simply be simpler? Oh Elke! To create your city-states you must notice the presidents, their wives reading Kant to the children; so carefree on the narrow pavements, so vulnerable when so young – watch how the cars eye them. Kant. All the girls should know him. His rules are our rules, they’re the clothes we wear – outside would you go naked, carrying those tired jugs, those hairy thighs….

And those cars there: so tempting that stray foot, those wandering arms. But its Kant you see, strolling along; even cars respect him – I hear he goes into the petrol…

You walk around the block, the same routine Monday to Friday, with Immanuel on your arm; he’s quite attractive, I gather, and he paints his abstractions with such charming colours. An artist in tone and form; a close friend of Braque some say, musicians too and philosophers.


Elke Erb is a German poet, or perhaps I should say an East German poet, whose Mountains in Berlin is a series of absurdist prose poems. This poem refers to My Gallows, where she goes all over the country rather than describe a simple scene: a man hanging on a hillside while a child plays at the bottom of the hill. Wondering why she wasn't more direct she writes Why can't I simply be simpler?

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Past Does Not Exist

To break new ground must a major thinker reject reality?

This thought comes to mind when reading Ernest Gellner's brief analysis of the Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, who revolutionised his field. In order to secure the insights that he did, concentrating on existing societies through meticulous field work, he had to ignore the past; and prove logically that it did not exist!

The result, perhaps, is that you see the world much clearer, sharper, you see it from a different perspective; and thus come the new insights, out of which new theories emerge. For what are insights, if not startling snapshots of our all too familiar places.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Friday, 2 April 2010

Van Doesburg at the Tate

Surrounded by windows. Everywhere you look, white rectangles and squares, with thin black frames between them. Then around the corner the stain glass windows, flooded with colour. Mostly, though, the glass is clear, with only patches of blue, red or yellow.

Is there nothing outside the window?