My blog post a couple of weeks ago on ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) proved to be one of the most popular I’ve ever written. This was in part the ‘how to’ aspect of the blog. In preparing to run a workshop at the Holburne Museum in Bath in February, 2017, I’d been reading a wide variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I tried to categorise the various approaches. I came up with 14:
Describe – and do no more.
Describe but imagine beyond the frame
Describe but incorporate researched materials
Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach
Make Minor Figure/s Speak
Make Objects Speak
Make the Artist Speak
Interrogation of the Artist
Interrogation of illustrated Figure/s
Interrogation of Yourself
An Account of Your Encounter with the Art
An Account of Gallery Visitors’ Experience
An Account of Others’ Experience
Come at a Tangent – the ekphrastic experience as after-thought or illustration
While at the Holburne Museum I was given their recent anthology of ekphrastic poems, From Palette to Pen, edited by Frances-Anne King in 2016. It contains 20 poems stimulated by art objects in the Holburne and as well as recommending it as a great resource for ekphrastic writing, I thought I’d use it to test my earlier analysis of the form to see if it held water.
It did pretty well. It goes without saying that all the poems engaged to some degree in method 1 – description of the art object itself. But beyond that, by far the commonest approach was method 4 – making the main figure speak. This was adopted by Anna-May Laugher, Claire Dyer, Carrie Etter, Frances-Anne King, Pascale Petit, Linda Saunders and Lesley Saunders. Petit manages to make Adam speak, remembering his naming of the animals; Claire Dyer makes Rosamund Sargent speak from her own portrait by Allan Ramsay; Lesley Saunders makes one of the sisters, Alicia and Jane Clarke, speak and so betray their “little sisterly difficulties”.
Another common approach was my method 8, an interrogation of the artist (without getting the artist to actually speak for themselves (method 7)). Jenny Lewis’ poem on a 17th century Rosewater basin began in this way, inquiring “What’s on his mind as he hammers / the silver, makes light flower”. Her poem goes on to incorporate some obvious research into the object too (my method 3) which takes her poem away from a narrow view into the colonial world of “London, the world, New England” in which it was made. David Hale, writing about Jan Asselyn’s ‘Landscape with Drover’ also imagines and interogates the artist’s approach, gazing at his own picture in process:
Ah, the south. He feels the heat of it
on his face and hands, smells dust, dung
and crushed thyme as he sips his coffee,
wonders again what the bull is looking at –
where time and life have gone.
I’d be tempted to widen this category of approach – or even introduce a new one – because several poems in the anthology interrogate the artist specifically about the artistic methods used to create the art object. Sue Boyle does this in detail about the making of Antonio Susini’s bronze figure, ‘Crouching Venus’: “Coated in plaster, lowered into fire, / she must be negated, melted from her mould”. There are also elements of this approach in the poems by Dawn Gorman and Phillip Gross, the latter dwelling as much on the making of a Beadwork Basket as on its illustrations of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. Gill Learner’s poem also looks over the artist’s shoulder as he glazes a 15th century earthenware dish.
My method 9 – interrogating or engaging with one of the figures in the art work – was used by Caroline Heaton, Wendy Klein and Tim Liardet. Klein and Liardet both directly address figures in the image (for example, “Someone chose the best for you, Mary Bourchier” and “You let the baby grip his fingers”). Heaton’s engagement with Plura’s marble statue of ‘Diana and Endymion’ is a bit less direct, using the third person (rather than a second person address) to think herself into Diana’s state of mind:
Confined to the island
of the self, she laments
the chill of her lunar circuit,
its lonely eminence.
Rosie Jackson approached a piece of furniture, ‘The Witcombe Cabinet’, via a brief description of it but quickly developed thoughts about her own mother and indeed herself which I’d take to be my method 10 – using the art object to interrogate or enquire into one’s own life: “”My mother would have loved it here, / the roped off beauty […] But I ask questions of locked drawers”.
I think Claire Williamson mostly used method 3 – describe and make use of researched materials – in her poem on Thomas Barker’s painting of ‘Priscilla Jones’. The relationship between the sitter and the artist is the focus here, their romantic engagement and subsequent “passionless” marriage. In fact, I’ve not checked details of the painting/poem and I suppose it maybe that Williamson is making all this up – in which case she’s adopting method 2 – describe and imagine beyond the frame as George Szirtes does in anticipating the adult life of the boy in ‘Garton Orme at the Spinet’.
So the methods used in this anthology are fairly limited – seven of the fourteen I proposed. Those not adopted here are several varieties of ventriloquism (getting minor figures or objects to speak up; getting the artists to speak directly), the kinds of poem that more narratively describe encounters with art objects in a gallery or other location and a more tangential approach.
Finally, Lawrence Sail’s poem describes a Mantuan School ‘Female Head’ and is probably the ‘purest’ ekphrastic poem in the anthology in that it does little more than describe the image – method 1. However, Sail addresses the woman imaged as “Our lady of the liminal” and as such he breaches the borders (“offstage”) a fair bit, beginning to imagine beyond the frame to some degree (method 2). It’s a lovely poem and deserves quoting in full:
In January this year, I posted a review of Hilary Davies’ powerful new collection, Exile and the Kingdom. In what follows, she has been kind enough to answer a few questions which presented themselves as I read the book. In her replies, Davies ranges across poetic influence, the importance to her work of a European perspective, the question of structuring a poetry collection, the relation between the spiritual and the everyday, and the difficulty of writing about grief and loss.
MC: Could you say a little about the significance of the title of the book, Exile and the Kingdom?
HD: Exile and the Kingdom treats of preoccupations that have been with me all my life. The collection consists of five distinct but interrelated sequences which all have to do with pilgrimage in some way. Our pilgrimage through life is in a very real sense an exile but how we approach it, are changed by it and by those we meet and love is also how we may approach the kingdom.
MC: The book’s five parts have a clear structure and I found myself wondering how that architectural ordering of poems came about and how it related to the chronological sequence of their being written.
HD: Since my first book of poems, The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop, back in 1991, I have written in all my collections in sequences. This is because I found that discrete lyrics, unconnected to any wider context, were no longer sufficient by themselves to allow me to address the themes I wanted to address. I began to think in terms of a broader architectonic for the poems I wanted to write: each time I have embarked on new subject matter, I have sought a scaffolding, a framework, to give my work the reach I felt my chosen topic needed. Sometimes these have been quite simple, sometimes very complex, requiring a great deal of research in a dizzying variety of areas. This research has been an integral part of the poetic voyage and creative process for me over the years, and I find it exciting and exhilarating.
Exile and the Kingdom is no exception. The eponymous section comes last. It was, however, actually the first to be written. Finding this particular theme took a long time, over a year; the title, much longer. There were several false starts and considerable frustration. This was in part the normal consequence of having just published my third collection, Imperium. At such moments, there is always a period, first, of satisfaction and repletion, then an insidious feeling of lack of purpose, then increasing anxiety that you may never be able to do it again.
MC: The use of the liturgical ‘hours’ as the structuring device in the concluding ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ sequence is very powerful. Is this something that formed part of your original thinking about the sequence or a later ‘addition’ that seemed right?
HD: I knew I wanted to write something about the stages in my spiritual life up till then, including my conversion to Catholicism, but couldn’t see how to do it. Slowly, I discovered a structure: the liturgical hours or divine office. These are amongst the very oldest of Christian prayers, dating back to the time of the apostles and influenced by Jewish practice. They were incorporated, in altered form, into Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and are consequently familiar to Anglicans the world over, in, for example, evensong; they are still observed in monastic communities and in both the Eastern and Catholic churches. What was especially interesting to me was their symbolism, which is a dual one. They mark out the day and the night, and are thus associated with different states of the soul, different spiritual aspirations, different signposts on the journey of life. Traditionally, they have also been attached to different texts in the New Testament, something of which I was not aware initially and which became part of the quest, to see how these passages related to events in my own life. They did, of course, as all great religious texts do, because part of their aim is to explain ourselves and the forces that we encounter to us.
MC: The closeness of the spiritual to the everyday seems to be one of the points of the book’s second sequence, ‘Songs from the Lea Valley’ which strikes a very different note, more personal, urban and multicultural.
HD: My home for the last 25 years has been the Lea valley, on the eastern edge of London. It is of huge importance to the history of the city, and yet remains unknown to many inhabitants in spite of being chosen for the site of the Olympic park in 2012. In order to celebrate it, I began writing occasional lyrics over a period of years, evoking the river, marshlands, the city, those who have lived here and given it its character way back even into the Stone Age. It is a hugely cosmopolitan place – more languages are spoken in my constituency than anywhere else in Europe – and that spirit of ‘live and let live’, the melting pot of cultures and the vibrant atmosphere it creates, is what I wanted to convey in the poem ‘In Abney Park’. This is a 19th century cemetery in Stoke Newington, now a nature reserve beloved of walkers and mothers with babies. It is peopled with mourning angels, as was the custom of the time, but lies only yards from the bustle of Ermine Street, the great Roman road north to York, along which the trade and armies of empire have been travelling for two millennia.
MC: Throughout the book you make use of two quite distinctive poetic styles. One is a more discursive, even philosophical, free style of unrhymed verse; the other is more formal and lyrical. Are they contrasting or complementary?
HD: The question of styles emerged really from the differing subject matters. The personal poems naturally spoke in a lyric voice, the longer sequences do mirror the fact I am trying to reflect on larger historical and philosophical themes
MC: In that variety of poetic voice, I seem to hear the influence of writers like T.S. Eliot, David Jones, even George Herbert. Which predecessors do you look to when you write, or perhaps which predecessors do you try to circumvent?
HD: I don’t consciously look to any poets when I am writing, which of course is not to say I am not influenced by certain writers, as we all are. But these influences hopefully have become fully digested in a mature style. I have been influenced by and admire the poetry of Jones, Herbert, Eliot, Donne, Traherne, Vaughan, Yeats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Patrick Kavanaugh, W.S. Graham, David Gascoyne, George Barker. But also Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Rilke, Jean Follain, Hofmannsthal, Goethe, Lorca. And others no doubt that temporarily escape my mind. These are for wildly different reasons and sometimes as much for subject matter as prosody.
MC: Your love of the landscape and culture of France and Germany comes through powerfully in the book. Do you see yourself as an British poet who travels, or a European poet who lives in the UK?
HD: I first crossed the Channel at the age of fifteen, at a time when Britain was negotiating its entry into the Common Market. In those less blasé times, the land on the other side seemed unimaginably exotic and profoundly exciting. Two years later I went to Germany, West Germany as it then was – a tiny difference in nomenclature that encapsulated the catastrophe of the 20th century. These visits changed the course of my life: I went on to read French and German at university, and to earn my living teaching these languages and cultures for over thirty years while pursuing my writing as a poet.
This means I am a committed European. I have lived in Paris and spent over 20 summers in France. I have written poems about the 12th century lovers and thinkers, Abelard and Héloïse, and poems set in the great Paleolithic landscapes of the Dordogne and the Vézère: I have charted the spiritual pilgrimage that began for me in Poitiers and the Marais in Paris.
MC: So that sense of connectedness to the European mainland and its cultures has been important to you for a very long time?
HD: The theme of interconnectedness, of the richness that the admixture of peoples brings, was the major inspiration behind the fourth section of the collection, ‘Rhine Fugue’. This was an ambitious project which required a great deal of research over 5 years. France and Germany are part of my psyche and part of my heritage as a European. They have also, as we notoriously know, been for many centuries alternately brothers and enemies, and the Rhine is the great watercourse that both unites and divides them.
The notion of fugue was suggested to me by the fact that Beethoven was born on the banks of the river in Bonn; the contrapuntal nature of this musical form exactly fits the interweaving, recapitulations and reversals of the history of the Rhine. I wrote the poem in seven overlapping and yet distinctive sections, drawing on my own experiences with the kindness of strangers as a teenager; the Prussian general Blücher’s crossing of the Rhine in the cold dead of night to go and help Wellington at Waterloo; evocations of the benign influence of the river in different French and German locations; the rich Jewish Ashkenazim tradition during the Middle Ages in Worms; William Tyndale’s publication of his world-changing English translation of the New Testament while in exile, also in Worms; Beethoven as a exemplar of man’s attempts to reach the spiritual world through music and, finally, a return to the Rhine as a symbol of the need for cohesion and friendship in Europe, and what happens when we don’t have that.
When I began this poem, it seemed like a rather private concern of mine that might have little resonance with my readership; in 2017, it has all the urgency of a warning against a not so benign return to the nationalisms and wars of the past,
MC: This is where we wish poetry had a wider and more powerful reach! You catch that admonitory sense so well in the lines: “O the melancholy of broken-backed bridges! / For razed cities never gave garlands.”
HD: At the height of the Second World War, two men from Rhenish backgrounds, Robert Schuman, a Frenchman of German and Luxemburg origin, and Konrad Adenauer, former mayor of Cologne, were both in hiding from the Nazis. Independently, and later together, influenced by the Christian democratic thinking of Jacques Maritain, they conceived of a post-war Europe transformed and redeemed by reconciliation and co-operation. Their vision underlies the European project and the peace that has obtained in Europe for the last 70 years. It is the Europe that I grew up in and which has sustained me poetically and professionally all my life.
MC: Despite a number of ‘in memoriam’ poems, it struck me that this was a book as much about love as grief. Did the book grew organically in that direction or was there something more willed about it?
HD: Yes, the poems were about grief, its extreme and shocking impact, but also about how in the end love overcomes this. But ‘overcomes’ makes it sound trite. It is a much more subtle, protracted and painful process than this in reality, and actually one that goes on for the rest of your life. I know this now because in the summer of 2013, my husband, the poet and editor Sebastian Barker, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given three months to live.
In fact, he lived another seven; he also lived to see his last and best collection, The Land of Gold (Enitharmon, 2014), reach publication. It contains his farewell to life, to love, his family, to the landscapes he loved in France and Greece. It contains his last and most profound statement about hope and faith, from which he gave a reading in Cambridge two days before he died. This journey is one he had begun many years earlier but one which I had gone with him, in marriage, poetically and spiritually. His death provoked profound grief and a sudden and violent realignment of everything in my life that had seemed so certain. I have described it as ‘severe growth’: growth that was not sought for nor wanted, but which came upon me just the same. I am still discovering what this means. The central sequence of the book is about the loss, confusion, terror and celebration that the death of one we love occasions. ‘Lympne Hill’ is a memory of looking out over the huge panorama at Lympne on the south coast towards Romney Marsh and the sea, where my husband seemed to touch, just for a moment, heaven. It is my thanksgiving to him.
You turn towards me, burning and happy,
That boy running the clouds over and over
Pell-mell into the hollows, this man
In his years reaching with all his might
Far out on life’s cantilever to touch his soul’s blue.
MC: The final poem of the collection is set at St Davids in Wales. You seem to be responding partly to the bleakness of the landscape. What streams of thought and experience seem to be coalescing there?
HD: That poem came out of a visit I made there at Christmas 2007, not the first by any means, as I am half Welsh. By chance we met a friend there who was visiting her very devout, sweet and Catholic mother, sitting in her ‘ragged kitchen’, and the friend then took us to St. Non’s Chapel, which is right out on a promontory exposed to the sea. Its situation struck me very much. The dusk came down in a very clear sky, with that indigo you get in winter twilight. And I was very conscious of the geology of that part of the world. Some of the oldest rocks in the world are exposed near St. David’s. Pre-Cambrian, pre-life on land, 620 million years old estimated. Hence the reference to the ‘oldlands’ where the human presence is compared to a baby in its mother’s arms. At Whitesands Bay, near St. David’s, the shales are Cambrian and the rounded domes you see at the top are characteristic of those very old rocks.
I also remember I had Stanley Spencer’s painting of ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ in mind in writing the line ‘The saints lean from her windows against the night’. And the final line – the concluding line of the whole collection – is from the liturgy of Compline: ‘God grant us a quiet night and a perfect end’. But the whole poem is shot through with liturgical references as is, of course, the whole sequence.
Last week I travelled down to the Holburne Museum in Bath to take a look at their Brueghel dynasty exhibition – this is where I am running a poetry workshop this coming weekend (25th Feb – it’s waiting list only now I believe). So after last week’s blog post about the varieties of ekphrastic poetry, my mind is still on the same topic. Unsurprisingly I have been looking at William Carlos Williams’ late ekphrastic poems in Pictures from Brueghel (1962). I think the reasons why Williams was so drawn to these images 50 years ago remain the reasons why Brueghel’s star continues to rise in popularity (not just among ekphrastically-inclined writers) in our century.
We like Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s work because it gives an impression of conveying a plain, unvarnished truth and this was done by self-consciously reacting against Romanist and more conventional, stylised Renaissance models. This gives many of the images a democratic or at least a demotic feel (something Melvyn Bragg and his guests pursued in the In Our Time edition on Brueghel’s painting ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’). We also respond to Brueghel’s gentle caricaturing of human figures which seems to be done at least as much out of amused sympathy as satire. We are intrigued as well by Brueghel’s tendency to literal eccentricity, to displace the expected centre of his canvas, most notably in Biblical subjects where the Nativity or the journey to the Cross is subsumed – hard to spot – in a larger, village scene. In other images, there seems almost to be no clear centre of focus (in pictures on children’s games or Netherlandish proverbs, for example). For Williams, a 20th century poet interested in breaking with tradition (linguistically and formally), on fully recording the modern world as it is, and with a clear democratic (American) focus, Brueghel’s work makes an obvious rhyme.
Most of Williams’ poems about Brueghel’s pictures simply describe what is to be seen. There is a fidelity to the fidelity of what Brueghel does. The closing lines of ‘Children’s Games’ praises the way “Brueghel saw it all / and with his grim // humor faithfully / recorded / it”. ‘The Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ describes plainly the “riotously gay rabble of / peasants”, the poem intent mostly on conveying the sheer energy and vitality of the scene, climaxing in the “Oya!” cry which comes as much from the mouths of the peasants as from the admiring poet. What adds interest to this poem is the opening statement that such a fizzing and spilling of energy is “Disciplined by the artist / to go round / & round”.
‘The Corn Harvest’ is likewise largely descriptive of the particular canvas though the role of the artist as ‘organiser’ is noted at the outset. The poem ‘Peasant Wedding’ repeats this descriptive method, varied only by the poet’s opening imperative address to one of the figures: “Pour the wine bridegroom”. The tension in this poem is less between artist and his boisterous subjects but between the boisterous wedding guests and the bride who sits “awkwardly silent”. Williams’ frequent thoughts about the nature of the artist surface most clearly in ‘Self-Portrait’ (a Williams’ mistake – in fact a painting not by or of Brueghel at all). Starting again from plain description, the poem comes to focus on the artist’s eyes (“he must have / driven them hard”) and the poem deduces/speculates on the artistic commitment this implies: “no time for any- / thing but his painting”.
In ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, Williams looks at the same painting that Auden did some 20 years earlier. Williams’ take is very much like Auden’s and both are finely attuned to Brueghel’s image which characteristically displaces the centre of interest (the falling boy’s body). For Williams, the event occurs “unsignificantly” and the splash goes “quite unnoticed” or as W H Auden put it more memorably as the Second World War got under way: “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”.
‘The Hunters in the Snow’ mixes plain description with an interrogation of the artist’s choices as “organiser” of the image, his placing of objects to left or right, background or foreground. Williams again expresses his admiration for Brueghel’s concern “with it all”, for the older artist’s inclusive, comprehensive engagement with the world; this from the poet who wrote of wheelbarrows and cold plums. This insistence on art’s encompassing what is there (more than what we’d like to be there) emerges again in ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ (Williams also wrote about this image in Paterson (1958)). Here. Williams uses a bit of art history to point out Brueghel’s divergence from “the Italian masters”. Brueghel’s mind is said to be “alert” and “dissatisfied with / what it is asked to”. Rather than a slavish adherence to tradition, Brueghel is a “chronicler”, in particular in the eccentric portrayal of Joseph, chatting distractedly in the background, and Mary, eyes downcast, self-deprecating, almost hidden from view.
The best of these poems is ‘The Parable of the Blind’. Using his usual devices of description of the image and comments on the artist’s judgment (its colours and diagonal arrangement of figures), the punch of the poem arises from an imaginative reading into the image. Some of the blind men’s faces are raised skywards, Williams says ironically, “as towards the light”, yet in reality they follow one another “stick in / hand triumphant to disaster”. It’s a “horrible but superb” picture” says the poem and perhaps Williams’ sense of the horror lies in the fact Brueghel has portrayed this moment (one of many that seem to have proverbial roots) with a fidelity that, on this occasion, accentuates the grimness far more than any possible humour: it’s an unusually cruel image.
Ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) are on my mind a great deal as I have been planning the all-day workshop I have been asked to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath on the 25th February, 2017. This particular exhibition, ‘Breughel: Defining a Dynasty’, opens on the 11th February and was in the news recently as it will include, among many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. I’ve been reading a variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I wondered if there was a way of categorising the various approaches. There are probably many – but these 14 ways (in 5 subgroups) are what I have come up with and they might usefully serve as a way to kick-start ekphrastic poems of your own. Try one a day for the next fortnight!
Describe – and do no more. This is always the poet’s initial desire, to put into words what has caught our attention visually (and because attention has been visually caught there is something about this image or object that chimes with the writer’s subconscious). In terms of the poet’s intention, the wish to describe may be sufficient (the subconscious may do the rest). Examples might be Michael Longley’s ‘Man Lying on a Wall’ (from Lowry’s poem of the same name) or William Carlos William’s ‘The Dance’ (from Breughel the Elder’s ‘Peasant Dance’).
Describe but imagine beyond the frame – Derek Mahon’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ (after Munch’s painting of the same name) does this, beginning with description of the scene but then wonders where the road leads away to in space, asks what the next day will bring (in time) and concludes with allusions to Munch’s more famous image ‘The Scream’: “bad dreams / You hardly know will scatter / The punctual increment of your lives”.
Describe but incorporate researched materials – an easy option in the world of Google where the artist’s life or love life, the political context etc are easily accessed. Edward Lucie-Smith does this in ‘On Looking at Stubbs’ ‘Anatomy of the Horse’’, working with the gossip of local people in the Lincolnshire village where Stubbs worked at preparing the horse’s carcass: ‘His calm knife peeling putrid flesh from bone”.
Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach as famously done in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’ (from Georges Braque’s ‘Bather’). Thomas Hardy makes the Elgin Marbles speak in ‘Christmas in the Elgin Room’.
Make Minor Figure/s Speak – UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Not my Best Side (Uccello’s ‘St George and the Dragon’) might be considered a hat-trick of the category above but her decision to make all 3 characters in the painting speak, casting side-lights to and fro, means I put it here. Delmore Schwartz’s ‘Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine’ – while more free indirect speech than ventriloquism – has a similar effect, visiting each of the characters in Seurat’s picture and allowing their perspective to be aired.
Make Objects Speak – this is an obvious category though I’m a bit short on illustrations of it. BC Leale’s ‘Sketch by Constable’ almost does it by concentrating attention on a tiny dog sketched in the corner of an image of Flatford Mill. Ann Ridler also comes close by largely ignoring the foreground figures and focusing on the landscape only in ‘Backgrounds to Italian Paintings’.
Make the Artist Speak – writing about Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’, Robert Fagles makes the artist speak, denouncing photography and preferring the expressive qualities of paint: “Of the life hereafter I know nothing, mother, / but when I paint you what I feel is yellow, / lemon yellow, the halo of rose”.
Of the Artist – Vicki Feaver’s ‘Oi yoi yoi’ (on Roger Hilton’s image of the same name) starts with description but quickly begins talking directly to Hilton (“You were more interested / in her swinging baroque tits”). Interestingly, ekphrastic poems need not always stand in awe of the work; looking at Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed’, Thomas Blackburn has a long one-sided conversation with the artist, charting a growing disenchantment with Bacon’s work, accusing him of “uttering, with superb, pretentious / Platitudes of rut, that you have said and said”.
Of the Figure/s – I have always admired Gerda Mayer’s poem, ‘Sir Brooke Boothby’ (after Joseph Wright’s image), in which she addresses with Sir Brooke about his languid pose, his copy of Rousseau, his intense scrutiny of the observer. Peter Porter’s many poems about art objects are hard to categorise but ‘Looking at a Melozzo da Forli’ (an image of the Annunciation) interrogates both image and the figure of Mary herself.
Of Yourself – probably all ekphrasis is a sort of self-interrogation but some poems make this more clear. The address often takes the form of admissions of ignorance or obtuseness in the face of the image or the asking of rhetorical questions. Robert Wallace on ‘Giacometti’s Dog’ once again begins in description but asks questions about the fascination of the image, eventually concluding “We’ll stand in line all day / to see one man / love anything enough”.
Through Giving an Account
Of Your Encounter – Wallace’s poem spills across these artificial categories and might be placed here, among poems where the poet explicitly records details of his/her encounter with the work of art. Yeats famously does this in ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, looking at images of Augusta Gregory and John Synge. David Wright (who lost his hearing at the age of seven) movingly describes his visit to Rome to see Maderno’s sculpture of St Cecilia (patron saint of music) in his poem ‘By the Effigy of St Cecilia’.
Of Gallery Visitors – poets often comment on the behaviour or experiences (imagined) of gallery visitors (and even the gallery attendants!). Gillian Clarke does this in ‘The Rothko Room’: “In this, / the last room after hours in the gallery, / a mesh diffuses London’s light and sound. / The Indian keeper nods to sleep, marooned / in a trapezium of black on red”.
Of Others – admittedly a catch-all category this one, but sometimes (especially when the works of art appear in churches) the poet can be interested in speculating about the responses of more ‘ordinary’ people. Thom Gunn does this toward the end of ‘In Santa Maria del Popolo’ where Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of St Paul’ is displayed. Having recorded his own response to the image he ends by staring at the old Roman women who come to kneel before it: “each head closeted // In tiny fists holds comfort as it can. / Their poor arms are too tired for more than this / – For the large gesture of solitary man, / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness”.
Come At a Tangent
Finally, the ekphrastic moment can be presented as if an after-thought, or illustration of a poem already half composed. There are famous examples of this, especially Auden’s ‘ Musee des Beaux Arts’ which spends most of its length contemplating in very general terms the way old paintings present suffering. Only towards the end does Auden refer to Breughel’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ which he describes in some detail to suggest how “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”. RS Thomas’ ‘Threshold’ does something similar, only concluding with allusions to Michaelangelo’s painting of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. And Seamus Heaney’s ‘Summer 1969’ records a visit to Madrid as the Troubles boiled in Northern Ireland, and only latterly does the poem focus on Goya’s ‘Panic’: “Saturn / Jewelled in the blood of his own children, / Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips / Over the world.
I met poet, translator and critic, Hilary Davies, back in the early 1980s and our paths have kept crossing since. She was one of the first intake of women undergraduates at Wadham College, Oxford, where she read French and German. She won an Eric Gregory award in 1983, has been a Hawthornden Fellow and chair of the Poetry Society (1992–3). With David Constantine, she co-founded and edited the poetry magazine Argo and has three previous collections of poetry (published by Enitharmon): The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (1991); In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1997); Imperium (2005). She was head of languages at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London, for 19 years and was married to the poet, Sebastian Barker, who died in 2014.
Davies’ new collection, Exile and the Kingdom (Enitharmon, 2016), is framed by two very powerful sequences. It opens with ‘Across Country’, a series of seven poems which add up to an autobiographical ‘growth of the poet’s mind’. The book concludes with ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ itself, a further eight poems which are nothing less than a meditation on the poet’s raw grief and re-discovery, or reassertion, of her religious faith. Both sequences contain weddings.
‘Across Country’ opens with an evocation of a child’s first moments, “what gets forgotten”, in a state of inarticulacy, no ability to exert our own will, with no will even, language-less and effectively silent, being “carried by gods”. Passive in the hands of mother and father, the journey variously begins in “The reindeer saddle and the motor car, / the sighing desert and the plateau wind”. Davies seems to suggest these first human experiences fall onto a tabula rasa as they “Etch the first surfaces of particularity / And settle in our souls”. The particular development traced here is Davies’ own, of course, and crucially this involves a later period of travel in France. Happily alluding to Wordsworth’s own tracing of his youthful days and Revolutionary enthusiasm in France (“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive /But to be young was very heaven” – The Prelude, Book 11), Davies praises “the glory of the cornfield and belltower, / Granite, limestone, vineyard and cloister”. As with Wordsworth, France offers an experience of human love, but Davies is also drawn to intellectual pursuits, the thrilling confusion of “many minds passing”, arguments of “polity and governance” and to the “meretricious fruit / Of the ideology tree”. We are being told this in order for such concerns to be ultimately dismissed:
The lords of existence
Are neither economist nor philosopher
The Lord of existence
Shows himself not in systems
The fourth poem in ‘Across Country’ seems to record the young woman’s first realisation that religion was to be the answer to many of the questions she was asking: “I crossed into church after church that summer, / Thinking of erudition, but beside me trod Love”. The capitalisation and conventional personification makes it clear that Davies is deliberate and happy to place herself in a long tradition of poetry dealing with religious experience; there is no radical re-making of poetic form or language. Davies does not use masks. Discursive passages are in unrhymed, fairly irregular paragraphs which are punctuated every so often with more lyrical rhyming passages, song-like.
Poem five of ‘Across Country’ is just such a lyrical piece, portraying a wedding, but not one that lasts:
Hate has eaten my bridegroom’s heart
And remorse is become my fury
Now I must go the road of affliction
Searching for mercy.
That search, Davies argues, is more a matter of “Waiting, not willing”. It is the traditional negative road in the sense of the centrality of “self-surrender”, imaged in the seventh poem as the sensation of being on a boat on a threatening ocean: “No measure but the dark blue breathing of the opening deep, / Where personhood dissolves beyond mere terror”. I don’t share Davies’ faith but I share her belief that, in terms of our daily acts and choices, we are to be judged in the long run: “Only perdurance delivers”. And in terms of the nature of those acts and choices, whatever set-backs are faced, we need to be accompanied by that same figure who walked beside her into the churches in France: “what love is, and does”. Read as the record of the poet’s experiences, it’s likely that this opening sequence concludes with Davies meeting with Sebastian Barker, the beginning of new happiness (“I knew instantly I had to go the hard way with you / To learn how to love better”).
The central sections of this collection are made up of poems more directly engaged with the contemporary world of north London, Stamford Hill, Walthamstow, the valley of the River Lee, Abney Park in Stoke Newington (I blogged one of these poem’s a few weeks ago). There are also poems more explicitly concerned with the relationship with Barker with titles like ‘Night’s Cloak’, ‘Aubade’, ‘Love Song’. I’ve always thought it a premature admission of defeat to declare ‘happiness writes white’ but some of these poems slip too easily into a mode in which this reader feels more like eavesdropping than sharing the experience of years of happy marriage; technically there is a flowering of lyricism and some softening of the vocabulary. On the other hand nobody is going to read these poems and not be thinking of Hardy’s tributes to Emma Gifford – it seems whether the marriage was mutually loving or not, the sense of loss remains overwhelming.
This is where the concluding sequence picks up though there is no need to narrow Davies’ focus wholly to the autobiographical. As I’ve said, these poems are in the tradition of religious verse and there are passages here that stand comparison with the Eliot of the Four Quartets. The opening poem – a little sequence in itself – paints a state of despair, initially social and political, latterly more personal:
Then there’s the heartache
At the core of things: attachment, the blank certainty
Of letting go, the arbitrary wing of accident,
Wrong gene or partner, a lifetime bled into the dusty ground
Of non-fulfilment, the waste [. . . ]”
The temptation is to try to counter this by accepting “ourselves as measure”, to focus simply on career, material gain, simply being busy, keeping warm. That this is never enough in itself is suggested when Davies recalls a favourite uncle who, having apparently a comfortable and successful life kills himself. For the young Davies what this taught was clear: “the impossibility of loving begets despair, / And despair kills”. The third poem of ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ seems to mark the beginning of the end of exile and returns to one of the many French churches mentioned in the earlier sequence.
Out of the bustling Parisian streets, the narrator turns aside and understands, “Even if I have all gifts without love I am nothing”. As in Four Quartets, Davies mixes philosophical discursiveness with personal reminiscence and poem four recalls a Christmas morning in a country church. The priest, apparently ill, still takes the service, his gasping for breath making his faith even more memorable, a Wordsworthian spot of time worthy of recall in darker moments in the struggle to “retain that sudden downrush / Of the numinous that was supposed to change us”. Poem seven expresses the sense of hard-won joy through another lyrical presentation of a second wedding. On this occasion, no clouds foreshadow failure but as the bride stands at the door, a wind blows her veil up like a candle flame or flower:
The guests are gathered in the church at Salle
The light falls on the floor;
For all eternity the rose
Stands at heaven’s door.
But the sequence and whole book ends in the altogether wilder landscape of St David’s, Wales. The final poem suggests such rose and flame moments are but parts of the coherence of a life where experience must inevitably consist of “Innocence and loss, hope, wisdom, regret and thanksgiving”. Exile and the Kingdom intends to convey this in full. Although propelled most often by loss of a loved one, the burden of the book remains love not grief. It matters little whether we share Davies’ particular form of faith, since what comes strongly from these pages is her concern for the way we treat each other, our overloaded preoccupation with ourselves, how our acts and choices are affected. Poems like these themselves form spots of time for the reader and I’m not going to forget their human concern for what love is and does.
This is the second posting on a metrical exercise on iambics. I have been teaching 3 sessions for the Poetry School in the last few weeks, contributing to the ongoing course called The Construction of the Poem which takes students through the various constituent elements that go to make up a poem. It is advertised as on ‘the history and application of formal techniques’ and my brief is to cover metrical issues. Though the course is directed more at learning about such techniques than the application of them (this is partly just a matter of time restrictions), one exercise we have played around with is growing our own iambics – this began with an iambic monometer and grew into an iambic tetrameter as detailed in my previous posting.
Starting from the tetrameter again, the poem will now grow some more . . . This is where I got to last time:
Because I hope to speak to her
I walk again along the way,
the path beside the old canal,
where children play and mothers come,
where thistles bloom in purple knots
that grey and drift across the path,
here strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,
with needles dropped another day,
where users lean and drift, ascend
above the clouds and steeple cock.
From this pretty regular iambic tetrameter, grow on further lines while at the same time lengthened these lines to iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line). New material indicated in italics:
Because I hope to speak to her, I walk
again along this way, the path beside
the old canal where children play and mothers
come, where thistles bloom in purple knots
that grey and drift across the path. It’s strewn
with wrappers torn from sweets, with needles dropped
another day, where users lean and drift,
ascend above the clouds and steeple cock.
Its glint I glimpse where water stands, its gold
a coin, a drowned, two-headed coin she tossed.
A bird is panicked from the reeds, its wings
slapping the surface like a window smashed.
I’ve slightly re-jigged line 2 here and feel the need to punctuate more heavily with the lengthening lines. The di-syllabic “mothers” again presents an issue at line 3 – I’ve made the same choice here as before, not breaking the word, allowing 11 syllables in line 3, shortening line 4 to 9 syllables. “Slapping” – given the sudden violence of the bird’s flight – I have allowed to stand as a reversed, trochaic foot opening line 12. I’m now thinking of the narrator as a mother (though as easily a father) who has come to a place remembered as visited with a daughter, now more grown up. The coin toss image seems to allude to some life-chance or choice and the inclusion in the poem – in the narrator’s observations – of the discarded needles probably tells its own story.
Beyond the pentameter lies the less common reaches of the hexameter or alexandrine – six iambic feet per line:
Because I hope to speak to her, I walk again
along the path, this way beside the old canal
where children play and mothers come, thistles
bloom into purple knots that grey and drift across
the path strewn here with wrappers torn from sweets, needles
dropped on another day, where users lean and drift,
ascend above the clouds and steeple cock. Its glint
I glimpse where water stands, its gold a coin, a drowned
two-headed coin she tossed. A bird is panicked from
the reeds, its wings beat the water like a window
smashed. If I stand inside the door and gaze across
the pews towards the brightly coloured glass of saints
and martyrs, mother, child in arms, its chubby limbs
each filled with sun, her robe is blue, her arms are full.
The lengthened line now begins to drag a little and is feeling rather clumsy here (it would need more work if I wanted to go with this) but as a reader I think of the slow, rather mournful walk of what now seems to be the possibly bereaved narrator. In line 3 the two syllables of “thistles” again ought to be broken across the line break – this time I cut the preceding word (“where”) to give more of a jolt to this threatening word so line 3 ends with a trochaic foot – “come” and “thist-” forming a spondee. Line 4 opens with a trochee too. The word “needles” presents the same problem at the end of line 5 – this I’ve re-jigged as above (though it does not read well to my ear at the moment). But I guess I’m happier to disrupt the predominant iambic by this stage – partly because it’s clearer to me now that this poem has a dark edge to it – but also because the longer lines give (maybe they need?) the chance of more variation. Line 10 has also been altered a little, “slapping” is replaced by the stronger monosyllable “beat”. The unexpected leap into the church interior seemed a good idea – a change of scene – and an intuitive link to the smashed rippling of the canal water, reminding the narrator of stained-glass. The image of Madonna and child is maybe too obvious but actually feels right for both writer (me) and the narrator (definitely now a mother of a child lost somehow). It’s also more acceptable as the church steeple had already been alluded to in the poem.
I’m now going to take this as far as the iambic heptameter line or fourteener:
Because I hope to speak to her, I walk again along
the way, this path beside the old canal, where children play
and mothers come and thistles bloom in purple knots that grey
and drift across the path. It’s strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,
with needles dropped another day, where users lean and drift,
ascend above the clouds and steeple cock. I glimpse its glint
where water stands, its gold a coin, a drowned two-headed coin
she tossed. A bird is panicked from the reeds, its wing-beats break
the water like a window smashed. I stand inside the door
and gaze across the pews towards the brightly coloured glass
of saints and martyrs, mother, child in arms, its chubby limbs
each filled with sun. Her robe is blue, her arms are full of blood,
the red of ribbons, red of nails, the red of every month.
It’s her I think I need to find. Beyond the traffic noise,
I cross the bridge. A narrow boat is gliding down below,
its brightly painted tubs, its name a girl’s, I watch it pass
into the dark, a stink of smoke, a swirl, a wink of light.
That the Madonna’s arms are full of blood surprised me but probably I am echoing those earlier thoughts of veins and needles. The repetitions of “red” felt quite bold, I think following the maturing of the narrator’s daughter. I grew up near the Kennet and Avon canal and still walk there often watching the narrow boats pass. Many of them are carefully decorated by their owners and this was coming to mind at the end though I still think this is a very urban part of the canal network. Obviously the passing boat, with its girl’s name, reminds the mother of her daughter (I guess we still don’t know exactly what happened to her) and though there is something positive in the painted colours of the boat (echoing the coloured windows in church I now realize), its passing into the tunnel is ominous and the fragmenting of the lines (these long lines are good for this) suggest a dissolving or passing away.
I don’t know how this reads yet as a poem and it’s certainly to raw and new to think which of these forms suit it best (if any). But it’s not a poem or a place I might have entered into without the use of this very methodical exercise. It’s worth a try, I think, and whatever the results, it’ll set you thinking about line lengths generally and patterned rhythm or metre more specifically – essential tools of the poet at any stage.
I have been teaching 3 sessions for the Poetry School in the last few weeks. I have been contributing to the ongoing course called The Construction of the Poem which takes students through the various constituent elements that go to make up a poem. It is advertised as on ‘the history and application of formal techniques’ and my brief is to cover metrical issues. Though the course is directed more at learning about such techniques than the application of them (this is partly just a matter of time restrictions), one exercise we have played around with is growing our own iambics – from little monometers great fourteeners may grow!
The first dab of culture in the experimental petri dish is the simplest of forms, the iambic monometer. If you want to join in with this, it hardly matters what you come up with (and I certainly make no claims for what follows) partly because the exercise is also exploring Glyn Maxwell’s claim that using form will propel the poet towards “words you didn’t expect, matter you never chose, resonances that crept up around you” (from On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012)). Michael Donaghy often suggested something similar: “Like good poets whom the tyranny of rhyme forces into the discovery of their finest lines, I’m in it for the discovery. If writing poems were merely a matter of bulldozing ahead with what you’d already made up in your mind to say I’d have long ago given it up for something more dignified” (from ‘My Report Card’ – 2000).
Here I’m more concerned with choosing regular iambs than making much sense. The hesitating movement of the short lines works quite well. In the Poetry School sessions we looked at Robert Herrick’s famous poem in this metre, ‘Upon His Departure Hence’, as well as one by Karen McCarthy Woolf (‘Mort-Dieu’). Both poems use the curbed tentativeness of the metre to reflect on mortality – almost as if the form offered a safe form, a containment of (too) powerful emotion.
Now re-organise the same material as a dimeter. This will involve the composition (if that’s quite the word) of further lines simply to complete the form and this will take you into unexpected territory perhaps . . .
Because I hope
To speak to her
I walk again
Along the way
The path beside
the old canal
where children play
and mothers come
The dimeter remains a very brief line (I don’t feel much need for punctuation yet) but here the short reach of each line gives some urgency to the narrator’s hoping to speak to “her”. The reader (as much as the writer at this stage) is wondering who both narrator and hoped-for interlocutor is. The extra material begins to suggest maternal possibilities, partners, other children . . . The “again” of line 3 is also interesting – a recurrent search. Why can’t she be found. What is this need to speak to her? Why come to this location?
Now re-organise further to make a trimeter:
Because I hope to speak
to her I walk again
along the way, the path
beside the old canal,
where children play and mothers
come, where thistles bloom
in purple knots that grey
and drift across the path.
It feels natural to want to punctuate these lines now with their greater complexity and greater risk of ambiguity. The three beat lines perhaps begin to evoke the pacing of the walker? There is an issue with the 5th line in which (keeping to a strict iambic metre) the word “mothers” ought to be broken across the line break. I’ve decided to allow an extra syllable into line 5, so ending it with a feminine, weak, seventh syllable. Line 6 I’ve therefore left with one syllable short. It’s happenstance but I like the extra dwelling of a reader’s attention on “mothers” (I begin to think the “she’ is a mother, or the narrator may be a mother searching for a female child). The shortening of line 6 which refers to “thistles” also feels right; it introduces a spiky, perhaps threatening image and the shortened line creates an uneasy feel. These undoubtedly ‘fortuitous’ developments are just the sort of thing the poet has a veto over – we decide whether they stand or need to be revised further. Here, I let them stand.
Next stage is an iambic tetrameter – four iambs per line:
Because I hope to speak to her
I walk again along the way,
the path beside the old canal,
where children play and mothers come,
where thistles bloom in purple knots
that grey and drift across the path,
here strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,
with needles dropped another day,
where users lean and drift, ascend
above the clouds and steeple cock.
Woah! No – I don’t know where this is heading . . . The longer length of line now begins to give a more conversational feel. This four beat line (either with accentual-syllabic or plain stress metre) is probably the most common in English verse. I think of it (and the good old iambic pentameter) as sort of neutral spots on the metrical continuum – neither too tightly bound nor loosely adrift). The greying of the thistles now seems to allude to aging (of the narrator?), certainly to time passing, time on her mind. The sweet wrappers make a clear gesture towards childhood; the discarded needles strike a far more ominous note (if a bit clichéd). Is the narrator seeking a child, no longer a child, has she become involved with drug abuse?
If you want to see this poem developing into an iambic pentameter – and find out (with me) what the poem is really about – I’ll post the remainder of this blog on Monday.