But always to preserve the adventive
Minute, never to destroy the truth
Admit the coarse manipulations of the lie
If only the brown fingers, franking his love
Could once be fixed in art, the immortal
Episode be recorded – there he would awake
On a fine day to shed his acts like scabs…
Men, women, and the nightingales
Are forms of Spring.
The first is from Cavafy, the second from Corinth. The first salvaging something beautiful from the sordidness of cheap sex and poor brothels. The second the eternal resurrection, that is man, art and life… Both can be found in Lawrence Durrell’s Selected Poems, 1935-1963.
The first suggests a mere passive recording, so as too keep and fix one perfect moment; to capture it like a photograph. But is this how artists work?
Pasternak made the poet into a sponge, to soak up the sodden bench; but then he wringshimself out, and onto the page. Thus we have an initial passive, receptive, state, followed by the force of creation. This feels closer to the truth, as well as being the greater poem. For even the best photographs are made; they are not merely a chemical plate soaking up a few seconds of light… Think of Walker Evans, that great American photographer: once in the studio he cuts and shapes, he edits; he sheds his acts like scabs…
What a great line! Given the context I assume it refers to removing the surface ugliness to reveal the hidden beauty, that precious moment, experienced by chance. Yet what is underneath those scabs?
And what exactly is going on; is art healing under all that ugliness? If we take the metaphor literally we would say that it was growing under a protective layer of sordid and banal incrustations (our workaday life). I don’t think this is what Durrell intends, though his meaning is ambiguous – to shed suggests a making; and the previous line could imply that creation happens during the recording; on the page, the canvas, and the garden wall. No, I assume he thinks of art as a beautiful object that we find miraculously, like a Minoan vase, and, if we are lucky, capture in a few words, rubbing off the muck and dust, as we place it on the page, and put it in the cabinet. That is, by a lucky chance something beautiful happens, like a parachute out of the sky, and we see it, and record it with words and images.
And you buzz and fly when the words skip across the page!
But the metaphor points to something deeper. Beauty grows underneath the surface of things, below our daily acts. It grows inside us until we let it out. And then we fix and shape to put it into a final poetic form. But we need the scabs, those daily banalities; for our art, or more specifically, our artistic process, our ruminating, needs to be protected. Protected? Artistic germination is largely unconscious and must remain so, if it is to have power. Let the mind, or more correctly, its ideas, in too early, and it will shape the material. For ideas are only copies, weaker imitations of our impressions (to use David Hume’s terminology). And because they are weaker and less original they are more likely to be influenced by an already existing template; by other poems or fashionable concepts. They will lose the freshness of new spun thought. (In a different context think of pastiche, or how easy it is to alter a few words of a classic song or lyric to raise a laugh. After the initial response this can feel tame and second hand).
Can we extend this metaphor? I think we can: just as the wound heals and knits itself together outside our consciousness, so art creates inside us, somewhere in our nervous system, our stomach, our big toe? It is the body at work under our household tasks, our daily reason. That is, the creative act is something hidden from us, and it is physical – it is not a conscious mental process. Though once on the page the mind does get to work to shape and form – there is always a point when the analogy breaks down.
There are echoes here of T.S. Eliot, who saw poetry as a kind of illness: we have to get it out to get better… And, of course, Faber was Eliot’s publisher, of both his poetry and criticism. Is there link; were you listening Lawrence?