Strike a Pose: Jacqueline Saphra’s ‘A Bargain with the Light’

They come from conversations overheard or taken part in, sights, sounds and the other senses, recall, reading, when alone or in company. Poems drop into the growing matrix of all we’ve felt and known. For those who write, it goes on all day long. But only a few land propitiously and work their way into what lies beneath to root and grow. The best of them find earth particularly suited to the nature of the seed and Jacqueline Saphra’s introduction to the highly ekphrastic A Bargain with the Light (Hercules Press, 2017) records just such a moment.

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This exquisitely produced little book also contains a discussion of the model and photographer, Lee Miller, by the academic, Patricia Allmer. Miller emerges from this as a multitude; as object, agent, speaker, spoken of, product and producer – in Allmer’s words a “key female icon of the twentieth century”. And so, in 2016, visiting the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition, ‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’, Saphra was stopped “in her tracks” by a nude photograph of Miller, taken by her father. Saphra explains: “How could I not be drawn to this extraordinary, wounded woman [. . .] with her huge capacity for creativity, her beauty, her restlessness?” It can take only a moment for both the drawer and the drawn to discover in each other a mutual compatibility.

The poems that arose from Saphra’s fascination with Lee Miller take the form of an heroic crown of sonnets. The form incorporates repeats and revisitings as well as replicating, in its constituent short forms, the brief instantaneous moment of the taken photograph. By coincidence, I’ve used a less strict form of the crown of sonnets recently and, in search of a propulsive, forward movement within the sequence opted not to repeat lines verbatim and also to cut the fifteenth sonnet which repeats many lines once more. But Saphra adheres to the form pretty tightly and in doing so reflects the remarkable recurrences in Miller’s life. Though she finds some evidence of maturation and progress, her chosen form argues against this. The penultimate sonnet declares: “you’re still the same girl who trembled / in the snow wearing only silence”.

This reference is to one of the earliest images of Miller, taken by her father – as a stark naked 7 year old, standing in 2 feet of snow in her home town, Poughkeepsie. It’s an appalling image, but Saphra’s verse derives from it two elements that will recur: the (definitely creepy) power of the father and the fact that Miller is hiding in full (full frontal) sight. ‘Darkroom Lessons’ addresses another naked image of Miller, again taken by her father. But now she is a 20 year old woman. She turns her head aside as if she’s just been struck. For Saphra:

 

You turn and strike a pose.

Once more, you look beyond. This time your face

in profile signals absence. Your skin glows [. . .]

 

Miller’s nakedness demands she hide herself and the gaze from which she hides . . .

 

It’s him

again: the father, tucked behind the lens

sharing his expertise. This is how it starts:

with naked lines and curves; it ends

with lessons in the darkroom. This is art.

 

The euphemistic “lessons in the darkroom” allude to the fact that Miller was sexually abused in childhood – though by a neighbour, rather than her father.

 

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Lee Miller – Self Portrait

By the 1930s Miller had reached Paris, her naked body now proving an inspiration to artists like Man Ray. But Saphra’s poems indicate that while still an object, Miller is becoming more of an agent too: “This is your chance / to know his secrets, so you play his game”. In her compliance, Miller learned much from Man Ray. ‘The Art of Control’ responds to a watershed moment, a self-portrait image from around 1930: “You steal his eye and take both sides: / In front, behind: the seer and the seen”. The poem concludes (quietly, plainly as ever) marking Miller’s bid for an independence and freedom (as woman and artist) that perhaps seemed unlikely:

 

No deal to cut, no tacit threat, no flesh:

Sweetly, you make your bargain with the light,

The only safe transaction. You took this.

Here is your face. Simple. Nothing amiss.

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The sonnet crown demands that this concluding line is repeated as the first line of the subsequent poem. The risk that we might read the line too simplistically and optimistically is reduced when we hear much the same words re-applied to Miller’s 1944 photograph of a French woman accused of collaboration with the Nazis – her head shaved: “Here is your face, simple, nothing amiss”. As in this instance, as the sequence unfolds, more of the sonnets are in the voice of Miller herself. This technical shift marks the artist’s growing self confidence and one of Saphra’s suggestions is evidently that, having suffered much in her youth, she is able to confront head-on the suffering of others. And hence take a great photograph.

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So Miller’s image, ‘The Burgermeister’s daughter’ is of a Nazi woman who has poisoned herself. To take the image, Miller must have got very close. So too with the frightening ‘Beaten SS prison guard’, his goggling eyes and smashed, bloodstained face filling the frame. Miller took it on a visit to the Buchenwald Camp. Saphra makes Miller speak of it:

 

I learned how to escape. How well I hid,

how close I dared to stand. I fix my focus

inches from his face, his eyes clear, the blood

congealing on his skin. If there’s disgust,

I channel it, and if there’s fear, I know

how to burn it, use it for fuel.

 

The sonnet sequence does not unfold strictly chronologically. In the midst of Miller’s war years, there’s a poem in response to an image of a 6 year old Miller with her mother; then there’s another of the whole Miller family in 1911. The strategy here maybe be (reflecting the repetition of the crown form) to suggest how much of the little (abused) girl remained within the confident, female war photographer. But it does give rise to some arid repetition. In one poem Miller tells us “I’ll learn to play both naked and concealed” and in the other we are again reminded, “You learned how to escape. How well you hid”.

 

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Jacqueline Saphra

But how far Miller must have come is suggested by one of the strangest of the images here, the 1943 ‘US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves’. The white uniformed, virginal nurse stands comically surrounded by grasping rubber gloves arrayed on sort of hat-stands to dry. Her figure is grotesquely dwarfed by the grasping and groping that goes on around her. Miller speaks in Saphra’s poem, reflecting on her own inner turmoil:

 

Where are the doctors? When will they begin

to make it better? I watch and wait

as if they’ll find a cure for this malaise,

as if the storm inside can be erased.

 

Though elsewhere, Miller’s voice rings out much more defiantly (“I’ll crash in, braced / to win, dig for mercy, shoot for grace”) it’s the still-troubled “girl who trembled / in the snow” we are left with in sonnet 14. If Miller truly is Allmer’s “female icon” then she is – in Saphra’s treatment of her – one achieving only a pyrrhic victory in the twentieth century gender battles: “You square your shoulders, soldier on”. Yet the poems are all the more moving because of this. The poet’s profound identification with Miller, her deployment of ekphrastic techniques and her clever use of the crown form make for a very satisfying read. It goes without saying that Hercules Press’ production and design is stunning. This is a little book to treasure or – as it’s getting close to Christmas – to give.

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‘From Palette to Pen’ – a bit more ekphrasis

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: 

  1. Describe – and do no more.
  2. Describe but imagine beyond the frame
  3. Describe but incorporate researched materials
  4. Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach
  5. Make Minor Figure/s Speak
  6. Make Objects Speak
  7. Make the Artist Speak
  8. Interrogation of the Artist
  9. Interrogation of illustrated Figure/s
  10. Interrogation of Yourself
  11. An Account of Your Encounter with the Art
  12. An Account of Gallery Visitors’ Experience
  13. An Account of Others’ Experience
  14. Come at a Tangent – the ekphrastic experience as after-thought or illustration

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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:

Female Head, about 1525

Our lady of the liminal –

witness at her back the margins of

the unruly forest,

and the focus of all her attention

being offstage.

 

But the heart of the story is locked

in the ghost of her gaze – its candour,

the early signs

of grief, a drift to the verge

where hope wavers.

 

And everywhere, time on the make –

in the darkening turquoise of the sky,

the slow swell

of the trees, the craquelure moving up

to infect her soft features.

William Carlos Williams’ Brueghel Poems

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.

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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”.

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‘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”.

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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”.

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‘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.

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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.

14 Ways to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

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!

Through Description

  1. 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 paiting of the same name) or William Carlos William’s ‘The Dance’ (from Breughel the Elder’s ‘Peasant Dance’).

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  1. 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”.

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  1. 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”.

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Through Ventriloquism

  1. 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’.

 

  1. 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.

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  1. 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’.

 

  1. 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”.

 

Through Interrogation

  1. 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”.

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  1. 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.

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  1. 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

  1. 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’.

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  1. 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”.

 

  1. 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”.

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Come At a Tangent

  1. 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.imgres

Review of ‘The Pity’: new war poems commissioned by the Poetry Society

On National Poetry Day (October 2014) four contemporary poets performed new work about the legacy of the First World War. Two months later the Poetry Society published The Pity as a limited edition anthology. Given free to Society members (it has just now come through my letterbox with the new issue of Poetry Review) it is also available to purchase online.

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So The Pity contains substantial poems commissioned by the Poetry Society, in which Steve Ely, Zaffar Kunial, Denise Riley and Warsan Shire (chosen to represent “different poetics and perspectives”) respond to the centenary and legacy of the First World War. The Pity was published in collaboration with Cockayne – Grants for the Arts and The London Community Foundation to mark the centenary of the First World War. John Glenday’s poem, ‘The Big Push’ is also included, providing a short coda to the volume. His poem takes inspiration from Sir Herbert James Gunn’s 1916 painting, ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’, held in The Fleming Collection of Scottish Art.

In this blog, I will discuss only the contributions of Ely and Glenday; on another occasion, those of Kunial, Riley and Shire.

Steve Ely’s ‘How dear is life’ is a sequence in 7 parts mixing literary, historical and personal materials to very powerful effect. He presents nothing less than a vision of war and its causes, the careful placing of the comma in the title of the first section – ‘Business, as usual’ – indicating where he wants to lay the blame:

This time it’s oil, not markets.

This time it’s oil, not borders.

This time it’s oil, not ideas.

This time it’s money and power –

like last time and every time before.

Ely has said the whole sequence is much influenced by Henry Williamson’s fictionalized autobiography, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, which presents the First World War as a sacrifice of the innocents on the altar of capital. The sequence is intended to portray a liberation from a “world-destroying growth-and-profit system”, not merely a release from the horrors of war. Though writing with commitment (see Morning Star: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-1063-Steve-Ely-commissioned-by-the-Poetry-Society-for-centenary-of-World-War-I#.VL0uW0esWss) there are two aspects of the sequence that prevent it ossifying into predictable attitudes: one a matter of materials, the other of technique.

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Ely draws on material linked with his maternal great-grand-father, Thomas Sellars, killed on the Somme in February 1917, contrasting the glorious send-off by friends and family with his eventual fate (and the shifting attitudes of those left at home):

They stuffed his lungs with poppies and crushed him

under a cenotaph. Where they weep.

Likewise, he uses material from a more extensive time period, linked with his own background in the mining communities of Yorkshire. The pressures of economic activity which determine that (on one occasion) it will take too long to recover the body of a killed miner mean that the bereaved family is fobbed off with a “screwed down coffin            packed with the stone that / killed him” (one of 262 deaths in the pits in the twentieth century). Ely deploys this alongside the 216 deaths of Frickley and Kirkby, “ragged up through two world wars”. There are moments reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s poems here. Owen’s ‘Disabled’ is inevitably evoked when Ely treats the plight of individuals injured in wars, sickeningly evoked in ‘The Story of my Heart’:

on spoon-fed rusk-mush

matted in my beard                 pus from a crusted wound

[. . . ]

I was more than a mouth        more than shit

once                 I was

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But it is the first, fifth and seventh parts of the sequence where Ely’s technical choices are fully displayed. Under the creative pressure of his unifying political vision, he draws together fragments (often separated by blank spaces on the same line) into new relations with each other, melding biblical, historical, mythical and more contemporary elements together to make his point:

and what did they see

river running red         with Empire

river running green      with Deutschmarks

sterling                        Frenchfrancs        roubles        dollars

the promissory land                 of bilk and money

Using the same techniques, ‘The Vision of the White Crow’ springs from information that Hitler (while recovering from a gas attack at Pasewalk Military Hospital in 1918) experienced episodes of ‘hysterical blindness’ in which he claimed to have seen his eventual rise to power. Ely voices Hitler’s convictions that the “Reichsblood” was being drained by “socialists democrats profiteers bankers” but then propels his vision forward into the later twentieth century, “unwritten pages of world book turning”. We are whirled through Washington, Moscow, Sarajavo, Maastricht, past John Lennon, and (maybe?) Andy Warhol, towards the X-Factor and twerking with Angela Merkel. This is heady poetry of conviction and the persuasiveness of phrase-making (phrase-making that leaves syntax and causality behind) is intoxicating but perhaps is the intoxication that Auden warned himself against in the late 1930s. But Ely is clearly on the side of Shelley, echoing ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in the final section, urging the disenfranchised – who, the poem has made it clear are always the victims of the powerful and wealthy in both war and peace – urging them to “Rise . . .Rise  . .  Rise”.

John Glenday’s single poem is as different as could be. It is an ekphrastic piece, the pictorial inspiration being Herbert James Gunn’s 1916 painting, ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’.

GUNN-Sir-James-The-Eve-of-the-Battle-of-the-Somme

Much of the poem’s impact is already evident in the image: the naked, vulnerable, beautiful figures of pale youth, relaxed, hedonistic, while across the swirl of the River Somme itself, the ominous daubs and pointed shapes of the army camp are almost – but not quite – out of sight. ‘The Big Push’, in its 7 regularly lined quatrains, rhyming ABAB, is calculated to be a more conventional poem than any part of Ely’s. It’s a dramatic monologue, perhaps spoken by one of Gunn’s swimmers and it tries on many familiar tropes we might now associate with WWI and its poetry: the singing in the face of imminent extinction, the waggish black humour of the Tommies, the football playing, the stoical resilience of the trench soldier. We even have a reference to Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, “like an unbodied joy”.

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It’s this image, drawn from the narrator’s past, that opens the way to the final two stanzas which are a sequence of associations after taking over German-dug trenches from occupying French troops, the “tiny, brilliant flowers” blooming in that place, the speculation that, if the dead might someday return, “they’ll come back green”. The poignancy of these images returns us to the Gunn painting. The young men are at one with Nature, having passed through the horrors of the Somme are gifted a return to that pastoral scene where:

. . . all the things they suffered will mean no more to them

than the setting in of the ordinary dark, or a change of weather.

I take the irony here to be at the expense of the narrative voice, whose steady, rather plangent tone and period-shaped imagination is not yet able to encompass the horrors that a modern reader all too readily associates with the battle to commence the very next day. I’m reminded of Owen again. In ‘A Terre’ (completed July 1918), his wounded officer blackly recalls Shelley (again!): “I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone”. But Owen’s narrator re-shapes the Romantic idea of the one life by envying the lives of rats, cheese mites and microbes: he already understands the horrors that Glenday’s naïve narrator has yet to learn.