Friday, 19 November 2010

Brecht and Buddha

It is a yellow room, and the Buddha sits amongst a fountain of blue; lord of his citadel, the ceiling his strange crown.  In a meditative pose he listens carefully to the introductions, and our mild applause.  Will he like what he hears, these new phrases and odd sentences?  Or is he uneasy about this strange art? Can he trust this man? Who crosses borders with nothing but words in an old rucksack. I see his posture shift; how he wonders for a moment: will he jump the high walls around my doctrines…   It lasts only seconds.  He sits serene, an enormous monument, and listens and meditates.  Once again in charge, so confident and secure; once again a fortress inside his own temple.

We hear Graves, and Brecht; then our eyes are closed, to listen to our own breathing.  Though my thoughts are like old Potsdamer Platz, my silence struggling to cross the road.

Why Graves?  An early influence; a professor of poetry when an undergraduate; his White Goddess a seminal text when first starting out; the muse how she comes and goes!  A lover but no wife…

Today, Easter Sunday morning
A sudden snowstorm swept over the island.
Between the greening hedges lay snow.  My young son
Drew me to a little apricot tree by the house wall
Away from a verse in which I pointed the finger at those
Who were preparing a war which
Could well wipe out the continent, this island, my people, my
And myself.  In silence
We put a sack
Over the freezing tree.

Brecht?   The world narrowed down in a stanza, with an image that is both fact and metaphor:  that protective sack over the apricot tree.  A small gesture on the edge of war, an island in another sea; hopeless but necessary.  It is the exiled poet making a home inside his own phrases; yet another island in another sea, this one small poem in a language robbed by crooks and murderers.  It is a free verse with many formal properties, and there are many ways it can be read; the reader has read it perfectly. Though the poem is wider than its words.   It is a statement about politics, the daily news and the increasing barbarity of his time. He gives us a small biography; but insists the poems are themselves art objects, separate from his political views; and the poet agrees, there are many quotes to prove it.  The Buddha nods his head, but he is not so sure.  But wait!  How many know of the poet Brecht, the huge corpus he left behind, most of it unpublished at his death?  Now we think of plays and politics; Kurt Weill and Mother Courage… But no!  The Buddha shakes his head, he agrees, it will be as a poet that Brecht will be remembered best, sometime in the future.  Though his politics are important too: he was right to make propaganda against the Nazis.  Here is a worldview and a vocation shared, a large sympathy; and he talks of our right to be furious; his anger at our own ugly politics; of the small people who rule our lives; and make the poor pay.  How true! 

He is an atheist and a materialist.  A little incongruous with Buddha looking on, did I see the crown wobble?; but how vital and absorbing!  And David Constantine talks about the “whole” person, of how it will always remain intractable to our rulers.  The phrase is perfect.  To become simply an employee, a consumer or a voter, is to have the abundance of our nature reduced; we are turned into roles with limited choices, selected by others who control and manipulate us.

He is a materialist who believes in transcendence; a poet obviously.   For a moment I thought I saw the Buddha smile, a crack in his castle wall.  A small misunderstanding, perhaps?  Had he forgotten the German romantics, their sense of the immanence of the natural world?   Some old ideas are brought to life: with a certain sensibility, and all our attention, we can unlock the magic of the everyday; we can make the common uncommonly wonderful!  He talks of his war sequence, it is about his grandmother, her loss and widowhood; her photographs and the postman at the door.  It is not about the big politicians and their slogans the size of houses….  He is not writing of things he has never known – beware facility!  The poems have to emerge from the deep unconscious, our body has to speak; and we must listen carefully with our nets out to catch its words.   I think of W.S. Graham.  Concentrate our energies on the mundane and we can discover the marvellous.  That is the poetic credo – a bridge to cross to a foreign land, this temple here; it makes an appearance during the interview.  It has been said before, of course.  He quotes Yeats having a vision in a (Lyons?) teashop; and who feels blessed, and wants to bless!  For art is also about the giving of pleasure, to oneself and others; our only lasting monument.  Did the Buddha shake his head; or was that a nod of assent?

The nature of the creative act is discussed; its cycles of fullness and emptiness; of the muse who comes and goes, and emigrates to America.  Poetry is not about the self, he says, but taps levels below the conscious identity - Eliot is referenced.   And of course Eliot wondered if there was a link between illness and art; Constantine compares the cycles of creativity to that of bi-polar.  One feels at home: all the books are on the shelf!  The politics, the intellectual background, the aesthetics and artistic impulses… all sounds so true and familiar.  He is one of us, an atheist in a Buddhist temple.  How strange, but it feels so very right!  Even the Buddha is smiling! I give him a wink and a hand sign.

He talks about Casper Hauser, and his own sequence, which tries to capture how others saw him; the enlightenment hopes and the messianic illusions his innocent strangeness engendered.  This is a different kind of muse, who wanders into strange territories: of the Anthroposophists who believed there would be no Great War if Casper had been placed on the throne of Baden.  It’s the old illusion, of the usual kind, that believes its bad men who rule; replace them with the good and innocent and the world will become an earthly paradise.  The fantasies of holy fools who live outside parliament’s gates; and who would lock them, if they could, to the rest of us. 

He reads some poems: about Goethe in an apartment in Rome; of Keats dying in the same city; of a vicar preaching with fireworks; there is one of Casper on the Cowley Road; and another watching the eclipse in Wales; there are many many more; they fill the room with a different universe.  A drunk on the tube to Epping sees a donkey’s head on a man’s shoulders; it leaves with a beautiful woman.   A simple vision at the end of the line, but he does not follow them.  The door closes, the tube pulls away, and he returns to the city’s centre.  Is this the poet’s lot?  To feel and see, to grasp the incidental pleasure, but, ultimately, his fate not to waltz or jive, but to watch them dance away… 

The Buddha is comfortable, safe and secure he seems almost fast asleep; we tip toe softly out, saying not a word.

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