Monday, 31 May 2010

You Will Be Happy, Trust Me!

Bubbling up
They overflow the glass
All your words
Cascading down the side…

Alka Seltzer! Your words
Hilarious sentences,
A new found beard
For you to drink…

Loudly you laugh
A Father Christmas
Drunk on salutations…
You will be happy, trust me!

A bubble bath
Around your lips
To eat a few…
Beautiful promises.

_Laughing again
__Licking the syllables
___Fizzling over the rim…
__Dribbling down your face.


The Candy Coloured Clown is Dead

What to make of Dennis Hopper? Two great scenes:

Hopper singing In Dreams to Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet. There is nothing quite like this: Orbison’s song mixed in with a crazy rant; part love letter, part death threat. A woman climbs onto the car roof, Hopper with his knife out giving it to the man… how disturbing; and then the song takes him over: a few simple words controls a psychopath. When I first saw this film what was so unsettling, so frightening, was Frank Booth’s unpredictability – he is inhuman in his freedom to hurt and intimidate.

And Hopper in a café talking to his two boys; explaining why the Motorcycle Boy was born at the wrong time, at the wrong side of the tracks… a prince without a princedom. Coppola captures his eyes so well here: the unearthly light of a seer. In Rumblefish Hopper plays it low key: that of an intelligent alcoholic, shambling along at the twilight of his days. Was this acting or real life? Either way, utterly convincing.

The Guardian obituary reads like a synopsis of Hollywood itself: great popular movies of the 50s, the turn towards art in the next two decades, followed by a slide into the blockbusters of the 80s, 90s and the last ten years. A symbol of Hollywood’s ambiguity; and an artform’s decline?

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Would You Like a Fluxus Teddy Bear? Yes or No?

Curious. The artist Tom Phillips has discovered that his daughter’s A-level textbook spells his name wrong, and commits a number of other egregious errors. He writes:

This seems not to be written for but by a student, and one moreover none too bright or knowledgeable, or even literate.

In the current TLS T.P Wiseman quotes a Higher Education Funding Councils report:

Playing Around…. Can you Waltz with a Semi-colon?

How small can a poem be? Can three short lines satisfy.... Or should we cram the page with syllables, stuff it full of images, like a mouth overwhelmed by a Hotdog?

Some Lit Crit, where I ride around trying to make a decision...

Come On In

Can we get inside your world?

High on crack, everything’s a laugh, my big toe in wiggling around in your hole, you arse whole, yeah man, my ankle’s goin’ knee deep inside….

There is something repellent about people high on drugs – a certain sensitiveness, of feeling for the outside world, disappears. In its place a brick wall of overweening ego, and secret meanings, a poet high in a hall of mirrors - everytin’s a laugh, if you eye tin my mean in’.

Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant certainly captures the ugliness of an addict. Too much! As the film becomes uncomfortable and boring – yes, drugs are boring for those outside the dealer’s door.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

I Hate You!

Ad hominem attacks are the best way to camouflage one’s own weakness, and thus a favourite with intellectuals. Too busy wiping the spit from your eye you do not notice the missing buttons; the cigarette burns on the curry-stained trousers.

Graeme Richardson’s article on modern poetry is an attempt to understand it. This poetry, mostly written in the academy, is a fortified island to the world at large; and like all closed communities and religious cults revels in its strangeness; its distance from the ordinary public:

a focus on or acute awareness of poetry as concerned with the process of perception/consciousness/putting into language, rather than on what is perceived or experienced – hence phrases like language-centred or reflective, and hence too accusations of "difficulty" or "elitism"…

and support now within a small but not insubstantial number of University Departments (including creative writing programmes) – making it with this incipient institutionalisation a post avant-garde. (

This is often heightened by weird ritual and unearthly language. For the outsider, allowed brief access to these territories, an obvious question is: do their ideas, the words they use, have any intrinsic sense; do they have value? This can be hard to answer.

Richardson’s article, if I read it right, offers a tentative yes to that question; but is judicious in its distinctions: they may be much that is poor and empty; of advertising bills sold as Tennyson.

Within that article the author identifies a reason (almost certainly true) for the current vogue for complexity and ambiguity in modern poetry – the academy. In a letter to the TLS (21/05/2010) Michael Dickman lambasts Richardson… for what we’re not quite sure, though “there is much to take issue with.” One suspects he doesn't like the perceived attacks on academic poetry. Whatever the reason, the rage is more palpable than the sense...

He attacks him for mentioning an aggressive and unsympathetic critic, William Logan, and for suggesting that descriptions of certain experiences and states of mind might be better done more simply, in other styles, like fiction or journalism. “There is much to take to issue with”, yet he concentrates on these!

There are three personal attacks in this short letter. The first – Richardson should “hire Logan full time.” Two ad hominems in one hit! While the other two accuse him of being soft on complexity, “a terrible position for an educator”, and suggests he should “review picture books.”

The attacks are interesting. The first conflates a particular criticism – is this type of poetry the best way of dealing with certain modes of existence – with a cosmic idea: universities should deal with complexities. Really? Isn’t it rather, that there is a certain tendency in the academy to generate complexity? To make the simple hard. Here, the letter writer is simply stating an assumption that is built into these organisations. And confirms the author’s original point! That poetry has been transformed into an academic language. To speak like an academic: we uncover the institutional unconscious in his performance.

The second attack shows the contempt of the initiate for the unbeliever. Like all cult followers the nuance, the single case, the particular is transformed into the universal, the cosmic, the World Revolution: “Should everything be easy?” What a wonderful gob of spit that is!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Monday, 24 May 2010

You be can right when you are wrong

All these boys and girls had stuffed themselves on Dostoevsky, Soloryev, socialism, Tolstoy’s teachings, Nietzsche’s doctrines and the latest poetry. They had jumbled it all up into a heap which was left lying alongside them. But they are completely right. It all comes down to approximately the same things and constitutes our present-day thinking, the main peculiarity of which is that is a new, unusually fresh phase of Christianity. (Pasternak)

A new phase of Christianity? Was the intellectual earthquakes at the turn of the 20th century a revival of this moribund religion? Pasternak gives the answer himself:

Our age has understood anew that part of the Gospel which from time long past has been best felt and expressed by artists. It was prominent with the Apostles but then dropped out of sight with the church fathers, in the church, in morals and in politics…. It is the concept that communication between mortals is immortal and that life is symbolic because it is meaningful.

The Ancient City of Christianity was a ruin by 1920. Yes, there were some intact churches, a few monasteries; and bibles could be seen on street bonfires; a few pages floating into safety.

Of course, as with all ruins, some buildings survive. But is Pompeii a working port?

By 1900 Christianity was no longer the all-encompassing worldview of medieval Europe, that fortress that protected our conceptual life. By then new thought systems had emerged – the State, Communism, Symbolism, and Science. Some were ramshackle camps that have since faded… museum pieces themselves now, which we view alongside Byzantine crosses and Orthodox Icons.

But Pasternak is also right! The last 400 years has seen the decay of a religion, a system of thought and practice; starting slowly in the 17th century and picking up speed in the 19th. By the end of that century the old Christian ideas and symbols could no longer adequately represent this new world – it had changed too much; while the old concepts were inadequate, and undermined by new knowledge: by science, and by biblical and historical criticism. The pressures to understand and capture this world were intense: the freshness and excitement of new discoveries! A new worldview was there in the making, but as yet all options appeared open – what would our new world look like? Of course, to understand these changes people often looked back, using ideas and images from the past – as Pasternak does here. But it wasn’t a new phase of Christianity that he was seeing; it was springtime of new birth, before a new religion (ideology in the modern parlance) was established. Thus a certain immediacy of experience, and of life – there is a certain lifelessness about ideas that deaden our experiences. Remove them, and we have to think and create, and act for ourselves. Old ideas are like the clothes we wear, take them off… how hot the sunlight feels; how sharp that breeze! No wonder he talks of the time before the Catholic Church, the time of Christianity’s formation, when again everything was fresh and alive; before the Church Fathers put their clothes on.

So he was right to see the mistakes of his generation as a failed attempt to return to the past (and to praise them for it). However, he was wrong to take that failure literally – it wasn’t a return to Christianity, but a return to Religion, a new one yet to be formed…

Flowers are Lovely when You Laugh at Them

What is happiness? Those times we forget ourselves, when, putting down our heavy baggage, those fashionable suitcases we carry, we skip away, lost in the moment to dance in dappled light under cherry blossom trees?

We turn off the mind, and are happy. So nice! Though I wonder: a little too nice, too easy?

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Clowns in Charge

At what point did the Soviet Union begin to collapse? The day Stalin died?

The Pasternak affair showed both the intolerance of the government and its ineffectiveness - a tired authoritarian bureaucracy that wasn't flexible enough to fool the outside world, but didn't have the tools to silence its author (murder was no longer an option). The result? Doctor Zhivago was published and the author became an international celebrity, and the Soviet Union condemned on all fronts.

Last week Israel stopped Noam Chomsky from delivering lectures to the Bir Zeit university in the West Bank. The result? To the world they look both intolerant and foolish: how better to advertise the repressive measures of the occupation, and create an uproar against them?

I explore some parallels.....

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Pick & Mix

Are coincidences independent of us? Unless we create the world they must be, in actual fact. However, there appears an infinity of material in this world of ours, of which we perceive and remember a fraction. With so much stuff the potential for coincidences is high, but our awareness of them is limited; and depends upon our personalities. It is up to us to recognise a coincidence - we create our own world of happy accidents. And because we are our own artists these coincidences have strong effects; we endow them with meaning and excitement. They seem strange and wonderful, when they’re really rather common. Thus we make of an old bucket Queen Mab’s commode.

A few weeks ago I read of Carus’ ideas on the integration of knowledge within the individual (and the greater that absorpton and transformation the greater the artist and thinker?).

Now a couple of stops down the railway line I pick up Pasternak

But genuine art, to my understanding, is far from having such pretensions. How can it set out to give orders or issue instructions when it has more weaknesses and transgressions to its credit than virtues? It nurtures a modest desire to be the reader’s dream, the object of his longings, and is in need of his responsive imagination, not in the form of amicable condescension but as an integral element on which the artist is dependent for his formation, just as a ray of light is dependent on a reflecting surface or a refracting medium to enable it to play and sparkle. (my italics)

A coincidence? Or creation? Either way I particularly like this passage because it brings out the author’s modesty.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010


Pasternak Again

In his article “Some Propositions” he had presented the image of “the capercailzie engrossed in its mating call, deaf and oblivious to all around it” as the symbol of the defencelessness of literature. He used to tell us how hunters used to kill these birds, who saw nothing and heard nothing in their state of ecstasy, pointblank at a distance of two paces. (Evgeny Pasternak)

Also a symbol for intellectual life: a nice echo to the points made in my previous post.

It brings back images of the Russian Socialists in the summer of 1917 debating whether the current events were proof of Marx’s prophecies. They were uncertain of the signs; is now the time to take charge? Yet the iron laws of history ruled out Russia as the place for the first Communist revolution. All those speeches and debates! And outside Lenin & Co crawl nearer and nearer…

Pasternak’s view of the fragility of literature is a true one, which he learnt through experience – the individual vision crushed by the crude ideologies of Populism and Utility (the two main ingredients of Soviet Communist propaganda).

And today? These same ideologies, but now at the service of the “Market”, rather than the state. Once again literature suffers.

Is there an answer? In the Soviet Union it was reform of the state, a reduction in its power. And today? How you do control the “Market”? It used to be the state, perhaps it still is….

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Triumph of Literary Politics Over Honest Criticism

You read an article, and it feels wrong. Why? The central idea is too simple, the causes given too few; a certain narrowness about the presentation. Engineers talk about engineering, poets about poetry. But can these subjects be explained just on their own terms? Does the Clifton Suspension Bridge exist only because an engineer made it?

There is one great idea in William Oxley’s Horizon article – some of Arts Council funding should be used to subsidize shelf space for small press poetry in bookshops. The rest? Something is not quite right. Let’s have a look, to see what that might be.

I Drift About Collecting Stuff

….collecting words
As I go.
It’s a strange business.
Yes I know.
So what do you
Depends, usually
I put them
On the table,
Slap is a word I like
If I can find it

And I have music
And drink my tea.
And I play!

But how do you
I juggle them around,
You know
Until something comes up
Yes, I think I see
Like that feeling
When the chords touch you
Just right!
Think of Shhh/Peaceful
How it begins,
The guitar and keyboards
Like saucepans bubbling.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Is it Possible, do we Think with our Legs?

Our lives, argues Carus, develop through a kind of dialogue between our conscious and our unconscious mind. Certain activities are necessarily unconscious in their character: the acquisition of skills such as composing the letters in a word when writing, or playing notes on a piano correctly, usually implies an effort to establish non-conscious reflexes or to turn conscious knowledge into unconscious knowledge. For knowledge is never truly integrated into our being until we absorb it into our unconscious; otherwise it remains static, purely conceptual…

He suggests that creative insights first come to maturity in the non-rational climate of the unconscious, and then rise triumphantly to consciousness like a light borne up over the waters of the psyche, that reach back into the deep, rich darkness. (Roger Cardinal on Carl Gustav Carus)

The dynamism of knowledge! Has it ever been expressed so well? And the last sentence in the first paragraph: elucidates that feeling when I’m touched by a penetrating passage of a great thinker. The power it conveys, like great art great thoughts release energy; and the sense that the writer has made an idea their own; that its been created afresh.

It also collaborates the intuitions of Hume and Schopenhauer: that thought, even the most abstract, is at root more than mere concepts – there is something very physical about our insights…


Like the entwined roots of two trees what is the relationship between ideas and the world? Can you separate them out? What causes what!

Menzel moved towards favouring authoritarianism. His admiration for Frederick the Great increased…

It was around this time that the sense of charm began to disappear from Menzel’s paintings. He became even more remote in his recordings of the world around him. That delight in the workings of the world that was one of the more innocent of the legacies of Romanticism gave way to a passionate and unyielding sense of naturalistic virtuosity.

Adolph von Menzel became an autocrat in style after his disillusionment with liberal politics; was his change of politics the cause of this change in style? Or is it the other way round: losing the liberality of his perceptions changed his politics…

If the great Enlightenment thinkers are right, and new ideas come from perceptions, from quick dives of the sensual mind into the everyday world, and those perceptions are governed by the passions, then the disappointment with the political failures of the 1848 revolution could be the cause, the emotional impetus. But of course, that world is already there, it is suffused with the ideas of the time and place; and your own body’s decay. You dive into a swimming pool only to find Hume’s Enquiries all over the tiled floor…

Le Bonheur

The opaqueness.

A sky blue wall with sunflowers painted all over, smiling ecstatically… How do you get through? Can you climb it? They laugh as you lie crumpled clutching your bruised ankle: such contempt in such self-satisfied faces. You punch them, hard in the gob – more bruises; you let off fireworks of abuse. And the sun is out! You can feel them dancing, and the sky twinkles in delight. Everybody’s friends today. Except you. On the floor bleeding, and pain like cars on the highway, branch roads all over your body… you hear an ambulance; it passes by going in the other direction. Damn that wall! Sunflowers, such ugly flowers. And no spray cans in sight, and all the bulldozers are on holiday…

Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur suggests just there is something opaque about happiness.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


The park is growing dark and quiet
and lights are beginning to shine amongst the trees;
here and there, near a light
leaves and lawn are green again.
Charles Reznikoff

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Power and the Glory

At what point in the Middle Ages did it become impossible to think outside Christianity?

This thought came to me when I heard someone criticise the calls for proportional representation – only the economy matters. How true! like God seven hundred years ago. For economics, or more correctly, The Market, is today’s deity.

Politics is the great God killer, the mad man in the market place: it has the power to redistribute power and wealth, to control the economy. Thus a change in the parliamentary system that gives other parties, and the majority of the population, a say in running in the country is the crucial question right now. The one chance in a generation? Is Nick Clegg the man to carry this heavy load….

Or is it beyond us all, as a new Monotheism takes charge?

Words are Enough

David Bromwich has some interesting analysis of Obama in the current LRB. A particularly insightful comment is he that has been tutored by the American establishment, but is not part of it: thus he aggravates the ordinary voter – seen as elitist –, while the powerful treat him with contempt.

In his piece Bromwich also highlights the self-referential nature of Obama's speeches and the commentary upon them. Their rhetoric appears to inhabit its own world. I look at this here.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

I Want Facts and Figures

When does a poem end? You finish a poem, and then you revise it endlessly until… you stop. Why do you stop, at that moment? Tell me, what criteria do you use?

How do you judge a poem.... In attempting to answer this question I suggest a short lyric is more complicated that the Olympic Stadium. What can I be saying?

Losing Words

A line from Mary Ann Samyn:

Thank goodness for tomorrow, which held today, squirming a little but secretly loving it.

Shortly after I misread John Ash’s The Stranger in the Corridor. Leaving out the “With” in the first line:

…vague attributes, they all wander in here
at one time or another. Often
I wish they would stay longer, if not to speak,
Then perhaps to take on some more certain form, -

Still close to the original meaning, but changes it just enough to create new nuances; with language itself becoming the material.

Mix up the two poems?

Hotel guests we see them enter and leave: in steps yesterday and out walks tomorrow… and today? Trapped in the revolving door.


Saturday, 8 May 2010

Film! Film!

My education started when most people’s end. It began in my early twenties with the BBC, and its seasons of classic films; a museum of film art, from that great period - the 1950’s through to the mid 70’s. A particularly powerful influence was the Nouvelle Vague, with Jules et Jim leaving the biggest impression.

Despite my enthusiasm for the French New Wave I had never seen an Agnès Varda movie, although she’s a key figure.

On Thursday rushing to see Cleo 5 to 7 I was blocked by a crowd of people inside the BFI. Pushing my way through I knock down an elderly French lady. She falls rather badly. She’s later carried away to the hospital. Some rush to her aid, others, poets and professors mostly, attack me! They throw me to the ground, kicking me all over the place. And they quote as they go - I have a bruise for every line they shout. One’s really into Larkin – you know the one. Somehow I manage to escape, scrambling through a rather ugly rendition of An Elegy upon the Death of My Lord Francis Villiers. The last thing I hear “You’ve killed French cinema!”

Not feeling so good I stumble into the film. And…

A Deliberate Champion of Individualism

Some literary criticism from the Soviet Union:

Kolkhoz chairman G. Sitalo… reeled off a lot of farm production figures – 1,250 thousands poods of grain… 200 thousands poods of oil cake… the general conclusion to be drawn from these figures was unambiguous: ‘ We were glad to hear the news that Pasternak… has been expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers.’

A Murder Ballad

The Oxford Girl
I fell in love with an Oxford girl
She had a dark and a roving eye.
But I feel too ashamed for to marry her,
A-being so young a maid.

I went up to her father's house
About twelve o'clock one night,
Asking her if she's take a walk
Through the fields and meadows gay.

I took her by the lily-white hand
And I kissed her cheek and chin,
But I had no thoughts of murdering her
Nor in no evil way.

I catched a stick from out the hedge
And I gently knocked her down,
And blood from that poor innocent girl
Came a-trinkling to the ground

I catched fast hold of her curly, curly locks
And I dragged her through the fields,
Until we came to a deep riverside
Where I gently flung her in.

Look out, she go, look out, she floats,
She's a-drowning on the tide,
And instead of her having a watery grave
She should have been my bride.

A striking song. No explanation - even the perpetrator doesn’t seem to know why he did it – and so quick, not long after they first meet, when they appear to fancy each other. Why? The first stanza gives a hint, but is not at all clear. Then there’s the ending. So dispassionate: there doesn’t appear that much difference between a wedding and a drowning. Maybe he has a mild regret?

In the liner notes Shirley Collins says, “I am always struck by the tenderness underlying this murder ballad.” The second stanza? And because he “gently knocked her down”, and “gently flung her in”? This is also true, and adds to the unease: unexpected violence mixed up with love and coolness.

The structure of the song is interesting: it describes a sudden, inexplicable act of murder, but within the description of the act the reader is warned that is about to take place (he has no thoughts of murder as he’s picking up the stick). Thus the act is immediate, while the song creates some suspense, but both an encompassed in the same description.

To get this effect Shirley and Dolly Collins substantially edited this folk song. Carthy Waterson provides the explanation in her version; losing the mystery, and its power.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

National Poetry Month

I took up Carrie Etter's challenge:
thirty pieces in thirty days. I made it.
Now the work begins!
A month of creation
followed by years of revision.

To the left is another work in progress,
dedicated to the idea,
and all the people who took part:
there were 24 of us.

From Notes on the Spring Holidays

In a world where each man must be of use
and each thing useful, the rebellious Jews
light not one light but eight -
not to see by but to look at.
Charles Reznikoff

We Find Ourselves in the Full Daylight of a Sudden Discovery

Studying Surrealism? I was asked this at a Book Fair yesterday. No!

But then, what am I doing? Exercising a curiosity, enjoying the art, acquiring books…. However, what fascinates me, and which in the conversation I tried to convey a little by calling Breton a rational intellectual afraid of the irrational, is Surrealism’s mistakes.

Breton absorbed too much Freud, mistaking a Freudian interpretation of the mind for the external world; that world which exists beyond our experiences. This misunderstanding was very fruitful. It is also helps us see Freud’s own, quite fundamental, errors. I explore this a little, here.

Saturday, 1 May 2010