‘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.

Workshopping With Will Shakespeare

Last weekend – what with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death just gone by and seeing an advertisement on Facebook I think it was – I signed up to be a participant in a Shakespeare and writing poetry workshop. Being an English teacher, love of Shakespeare rather comes with the territory but I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who enjoys being a participant in classes. So much of my time is spent initiating, organising, timing carefully and concluding that it’s a wonderful holiday-feeling to be initiated, organised, timed carefully and concluded by somebody else. (In what follows I am able to quote the work of nobody else but myself – for which apologies).

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The workshop was part of a series organised through the South Bank Poetry magazine, co-edited by Peter Ebsworth (its founder) and Katherine Lockton. They were both present for the workshop – upstairs, above the Poetry Society’s Cafe in Betterton Street, Covent Garden – but it was Katherine who ran the session. We gathered about 10.45 for 11am, most of us arriving clutching the mandatory take-out coffee from the cafe or elsewhere on our walks from the Tube. A big table, a plate of biscuits, greetings, sign in (whose name do I know here?). Upstairs at the PS is a strange mix of store room, kitchen, second hand bookshop, classroom. I thought it could do with a tidy-up myself – then tried to curb my flicker of nerves, that need for control. Actually, I’ve not taken part in a public workshop like this for ages. We were probably all feeling the same: what if I write total crap and Katherine asks me to read it out. Maybe a biscuit . . .

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We started with free writing for 5 minutes or so – “to loosen up”. Katherine wanted us to set off from “My Shakespeare is . . .” What sprang vividly to mind was an occasion teaching not Shakespeare, in fact, but Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. A student read the “face that launched a thousand ships” speech so very badly that it achieved a weird sort of beauty in her inarticulacy. A bit like those ruins of classical statues (not far from where we were, in the British Museum) that seem to have acquired an added poignancy in not remaining whole. I rather like free writing (it’s how most of my own poems begin, a sudden splurge of material that then gets worked on) and as I wrote I ended up (from that halting reading of Marlowe) to love in a life or its opportunity missed:

 

Those encounters where you don’t have the words

Just stops pauses some musical sense

Of the word order but no –not the words themselves

And she turns away dips her head

Laughs at something somebody across the room has just said

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Katherine then dished out the text of Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” On the Tube in I had been wondering how I’d tackle Shakespeare in such a setting and I thought I’d not go for the more familiar moments. Katherine did and I have to say she was probably right. I’d have ended up explaining too much perhaps (too teacherly) when the point was to respond creatively to the poems. So most of us were familiar enough with this poem in which the narrator does compare his love to a summer’s day and the summer’s day turns out to be liable to be windy, over too soon, too hot, over too soon . . . The lover apparently suffers from none of these things not even death itself – because the poet has preserved her in “this” poem: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”. We wondered, among others things, at the manly arrogance of this.

We picked a phrase or even just a word to respond to from the poem and set off for 30 minutes or so. On this first occasion, many of us seemed to get sucked into the vortex of the sonnet form and rhyme especially. But the quality of the group that day was extraordinary. Several produced sonnets which worked well (in 30 minutes!) and all the pieces eventually read out were interesting responses. I chose the phrase “By chance, or nature” and was exploring (again) the chance or fate of meetings with the one’s you love. I was imagining the alternative worlds we jettison or turn our back on with every choice we make:

 

So that in one of those plural worlds

We might have met before, or later, even not

At all – through pram and playground, into school

To college, old flames, chance turn, random plot.

 

You can see what I mean about getting locked into a formal mode. It may be that most of us realised this as when Katherine then tried us with Sonnet 130, more of the group struck out – away from formality, probably into something more like our natural mode. This was also probably encouraged by the fact that Katherine was showing us contemporary responses to these poems as we went. Several of these were quite encouraging in that they were pretty poor as poems – there are a number of anthologies where contemporary poets respond to Shakespeare (especially this year) but so many of the poets try too hard to up-date originals into some hip idiom; embarrassing like Dad-dancing). I guess that at least gave us permission to try something more adventurous of our own.

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I found myself interested in the way the Sonnet 130 tries to define the lover through a kind of via negativa, what she is not. It’s a kind of anti-poetic in that the poet dismisses the ability of comparison (one of the poet’s main tools) to capture her in truth. This was reminding me of repeated occasions in the Daodejing poems I have been working on for 3/4 years (just published now – so fully on my mind last weekend) in which the text also argues the elusiveness of the One. The latter is often given female characteristics so it was an easy step to my scribble:

 

She lives in the live darkness between

The opening and shutting of my eye-lids

 

Between ascender and descender

Of this pen this white expanse

 

This Microsoft space not knowing what to do

With itself not being busy

 

In the moment when instructions cease

And what opens is that snow-field

 

Beneath the first or second chair-lift not yet

Inscribed [. . . ]

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The third piece Katherine gave us were extracts from Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene, the “what’s in a name” speech” and Juliet’s “O serpent heart”). We discussed these and annotated them to pick out certain patterns and concerns. We then compiled a small list of words of our own and set off with the aim of writing in the voice of a character from Shakespeare. I’ve always had a soft spot for Horatio and especially Hamlet’s gentle, though firm, put-down: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. I had Horatio realising the truth of this, a bit Prufrock-like realising that he was not meant to play the Prince, but be an observer, something of a by-stander at the big events:

 

O but it’s enviousness I breed

Here listening to you roar

And glitter you go on to the very point

Or way off kilter

And patronise me yet even this you do

With such grace with warmth making me love you.

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The rhythm of this particular workshop was a lot of time for individual writing. We shared all we wrote (no one objected – and absolutely none of it was “crap”), and Katherine introduced the extracts quite briskly while still allowing plenty of time for people’s reactions to them. The time was now about 4pm. The final piece was stimulated with small bits of cloth from Katherine’s Mum’s sewing box but also with a story she told (no details – it’s her story) which we could incorporate if we wanted to.  My final piece was the strangest I’d produced so far. My cloth was a rich red – a bit sexy – and the encounter was on a staircase, I was coming down to meet someone. Perhaps by this time I was more Juliet than myself, or I’d carved myself into two:

 

Everything possessed

Of that clarity

And the weight

Of heraldry—

 

So the long dress

I wear is gules

Its blood-red

Slit to the thigh

 

Its plunging neck

A sunlight wedge

At the foot

Of the shallow stair

 

I lift my chin

As if called for [. . . ]

 

I don’t know if the 4 pieces I produced will come to anything further but I can honestly say they would not have been written otherwise. In running my own workshops, I always say the simple thing they achieve is to take your writing to places you’d not have got to alone. That certainly happened the other day and I’m grateful to South Bank Poetry for the chance to participate: now back to the front of the class.

DR FAUSTUS
DR FAUSTUS  – Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton

What Shape is your Poetry Workshop?

With its proximity to some of the processes of politics, what has come to be the traditional form of the poetry workshop is perhaps easily derided. Billy Collins does this  (in his book, The Art of Drowning, 1995) and we all recognise both the speaker and the likely recipient of the speech:

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.   

It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now   

so immediately the poem has my attention,

like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

 

And I like the first couple of stanzas,

the way they establish this mode of self-pointing

that runs through the whole poem

As both leader and participant, I’ve suffered and witnessed suffering at the hands of egomaniacs, bullies and tyrants – those who come to workshops with no intention of listening to the proffered advice. What they are after is some exertion of personal power over a captive audience and, up to a point, workshop members are exactly that since the basic democratic premise is that we sit and listen with an open mind – a very open mind.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,

which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,   

but other times seems standoffish,

professorial in the worst sense of the word

like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.   

But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.

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Others will know the history better than I do but the poetry workshop seems to have been organised first by Philip Hobsbaum in the 1950s. Hobsbaum was born in London to orthodox Jewish parents who moved north in 1937, sensing the threat of war and fearing the anti-semitic currents of the time. In Bradford, Hobsbaum attended Belle Vue grammar school, then Cambridge, where he studied under F R Leavis at Downing College (“the greatest man I ever met – an amazing teacher”).

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He also encountered Thom Gunn, just graduated, who introduced him to the early work of Larkin, and, as editor of the student literary magazine Delta, he printed work by Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove. Most significantly, with these budding poets, he organised regular meetings. Hobsbaum possessed some training as an actor and the original idea (of what was to become ‘The Group’) was to encourage verse-speaking. But these meetings soon turned into exercises of Leavisite close analysis, or Practical Criticism in the style of I A Richards, plus a good deal of mutual support for the growing network of poets.

Maybe it’s just me,

but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.   

I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?   

And what’s an obbligato of snow?

Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.

At that point I’m lost. I need help.

The Group style of workshop spread as Hobsbaum himself moved to a variety of jobs from Cambridge, to London, Belfast and Glasgow in turn. Although there was some overlap in personnel with The Movement, the various incarnations of the Group had a more practical focus as there was no imposed programme or style. In Belfast (1962–1966), Hobsbaum organised what became known as The Belfast Group, including emerging authors Seamus Heaney, Edna and Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Bernard MacLaverty. Heaney described the process in 1963: “members of the Group listen to a fellow member read a number of his poems which have been previously circulated on cyclostyled sheets. They then discuss the verse very thoroughly, frankly, informally – and the poet is there to counteract, resent, and/or benefit from the criticism”.

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Philip Hobsbaum in later years (photo: Gerry Cambridge)

Personally, I first experienced the process at Lancaster University in the late 1970s, taking a ‘free ninth’ optional course in Creative Writing as part of a more traditional English degree. The meetings were led in Lonsdale College by David Craig and Heaney’s “previously circulated . . . cyclostyled sheets” have a very familiar ring to them. The format was somewhat different in the 4 years or so I spent attending two workshops in Oxford – copies of individual poems were handed round only on the day and discussion was spontaneous indeed (see my earlier blog ).

The other thing that throws me off,

and maybe this is just me,

is the way the scene keeps shifting around.   

First, we’re in this big aerodrome

and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,   

which makes me think this could be a dream.   

Then he takes us into his garden,

the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,   

though that’s nice, the coiling hose,

but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.   

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Billy Collins

I currently attend 3 workshop groups. In none of these is work circulated beforehand. In one, the poet reads once only, the other members have photocopies and discussion ensues with the writer sworn to silence (this prevents self-defensive manoeuvres and conflict). In the second group, the same process is followed except that after the reading of the poem aloud by the poet, the members have about 10 minutes to WRITE their thoughts on the poem itself. Discussion then follows (the up-side of this is that all poets go home with annotated copies of their own work; the down side is it’s very hard work and discussion often follows the annotations, a little less fluidly).

There’s something about death going on here.

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here   

is really two poems, or three, or four,   

or possibly none.

 

But then there’s that last stanza, my favourite.

The third group plays the game of anonymity. Sufficient copies are put into an envelope, no identifying marks. Each member then picks out a poem (not their own) to read aloud. On first reading the members cannot see the text. Only on second reading can they follow the text on the page. There then follows the discussion. This produces the fascinating experience for the poet of hearing another person read the poem – and the reader’s later comments about how easy or otherwise the poem was to read are always interesting to those of us who think poetry is primarily an oral art.

This is where the poem wins me back,

especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse [. . . ]

I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work   

night after night collecting all these things

while the people in the house were fast asleep,   

and that gives me a very strong feeling,

a very powerful sense of something.

But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.   

Maybe that was just me.

Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

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Easy to mock; easy to de-rail from their true purpose, but in creating his workshops (once more following Leavis) Hobsbaum believed a vital part of a student’s course was the rigorous discussion of text. To him, criticism was a fiercely rational, evaluative process, and any other use of language – “political propaganda, newspapers, advertisements, film, conceptual prose of all kinds” – had to be liable to the same level of scrutiny. In Essentials of Literary Criticism (1983), he maintained that “the training of a critic is also the training of a citizen”. This is surely right as the skills and sensitivities of the workshop, the class, the informal discussion of poetry anywhere, anytime, are exercises, in part, to develop the insight, the healthy scepticism, the ability to read and interpret whatever those vying for power, those possessed of power, want to say to us. Alan Brownjohn wrote in Hobsbaum’s obituary: “In a postmodernist, relativist age of education for entrepreneurship, Hobsbaum’s analytical and discriminatory approach might appear to be losing out, though reports of its death are an exaggeration.”

I’m sure Brownjohn is right and – as the UK General Election machine winds itself up ever higher – I’ll quote David Constantine’s important conclusion to his third Newcastle / Bloodaxe lecture in 2003: “We are, when we read poetry, during the reading of the poem and lingeringly for some while after, more wakeful, alert and various in our humanity than in our practical lives we are mostly allowed to be. Achieving that, in vital cooperation with the reader, a poet has done the most he or she is qualified to do. Any further stage, any conversion of this alerted present state into action, into behaviour, is the responsibility of the citizen. And the poet, like the reader, is always a citizen”.

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