Category Archives: Poetry

Bravo! for the new arbiters of art: us … and a commenters’ strike at The Guardian

Shawn Yu's Teaton Series

'Cavalier-Servant' -- Shawn Yu

Hello-and-goodbye, … unless, against long odds, you read on. Why so pessimistic? Though this is said to be the age of the image, people measuring attention spans have found that in ten seconds flat, an online video loses a fifth of its audience. How much less hope must there be for the seductive power of a mere text?

This new painting by Shawn Yu was still brightening my day on a part of my screen when I saw the report on video watching. It led me to marvel at how fast aesthetic attraction, not just dismissal, works on the net. Of how quickly we can recognise a certain je ne sais quoi in an artist’s work impossible to explain, even to ourselves, which guarantees that we will find that painter’s oeuvre consistently engaging – at the very least. As I’ve explained (see the second footnote here), it was a drawing Shawn made from a photograph of Bruce Chatwin that originally caught my eye as I was speed-skimming my way through images of that writer served up by search engines.

Every visit to Shawn’s site since has been rewarding. Lately, going there has been like popping into a magical gallery in which a wizard keeps putting up new paintings on the walls for an exhibition by a single artist, and on the same theme – in this case, kettles, teapots, jugs and coffee pots, of all things; some with and some without human companions. As someone who has always had trouble with collections of short stories, anthologies of poems, group shows by artists – or even a single artist displaying pieces on several themes in more than one style – the staggered presentation has felt so right that it might have been designed for me. Finding my way to it without any intermediary or other people’s interpretations of the pictures has only heightened the pleasure of looking at them.

I think Shawn is still a student but close to being hatched by his art school. There’s no saying whether he will or won’t stick with Surrealism. He does seem to me to have a very special feeling for that style. Some of his pictures have taken me back to standing in the Dali museum in Figuerres a few years ago, enjoying the expressions on the faces of other visitors as much as examining the exhibits. Like the great moustachioed one, Shawn’s blog shows that he can also be a fine realistic painter – impeccably accurate as an anatomist, just as Dali was. … But scrolling down his online exhibition, it has also occurred to me that Surrealism remains the only approach to depicting our world that captures the grain, the scent, the unending, stomach-churning topsy-turvyness of contemporary life.

Last week I was surprised to find – in another context – that Herbert Pothorn, a German architectural historian, thought that Surrealism had a precedent in a style that defined another age of uncertainty and chronic disruption:

The final phase of the Renaissance is known as Mannerism. In art history the term implies a highly personal mode of expression; it also indicates the adoption of the specific idiom or manner of a certain artist by others, or by a whole school. … [I]t also entails a love of exaggeration and artificiality, obtained by any means possible. Mannerism tends towards excess, towards distortion of perspective …It was the product of a spiritually uncertain age – an age caught between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, seeking for new certainties, and attempting to guide itself through all this insecurity with the help of fantasy […] Mannerist painting was … a forerunner of Surrealism, i.e. that trend or movement of ideas that aimed to re-establish the unconscious, freeing it from the tools and formulae of reason.

… Something paradoxical about the way we deal with people’s posts in the Blogosphere is that we’re as apt to dismiss some prematurely as we are to relentlessly monitor others for signs of behaviour we don’t approve of – scrutinising these post-writers’ beliefs and inconsistencies more often and minutely, from thousands of miles away, than we could have done from right next door in the past. Then there’s the fun of comparing our reactions with those of others – comparisons all the more exciting for our having no ties or obligations to our fellow blog watchers.

It seems as if lots of other visitors to the Guardian‘s site have been put off by that paper’s barbaric censorship policies; in particular, by its victimisation of Desmond Swords/Kevin Desmond (or HerMajesty here). You might imagine that the dramatic drop in the comments count for a weekly poetry blog there in recent weeks would have registered with the managers of that site as a protest against its suppression of free expression – and that they might have tried to make amends, or at least offer some form of apology. You might imagine that they’d have noticed that for several years, now, that blogger who refuses to accept being banned has been responsible for more lively debates and click count-boosting posts than anyone else. … You might imagine that they’d have noticed that without him, there is only word for the threads in that section: dull.

But no, they appear to be have decided to sit out what is virtually a commenters’ strike, and do nothing at all.

The reasons why so many of us are supporting Des are: (i) The Guardian’s site managers’ failure to understand that it is commenters, not their ‘above-the-line’ bloggers, who have made that spot on the web worth visiting – a fact that makes their obtuse and draconian censorship utterly counter-productive. (ii) He can be wonderfully witty and inventive in the way he undermines the stodgy, misguidedly technical and needlessly jargon-ridden introductions to the Poem-of-the-Week – by an author who has shown, when she posts in comments sections, that she is capable of being funny and lively, on occasion. [(iii) See addendum, below, which contains the most important part of the explanation.]

Yet above the line, week after week, she holds forth in her droning Voice of Authority – in a style of criticism I expect will come to be known as Early Debased – or Very Early and remarkably Debased (as someone said about a bell tower in a church in an English university town in the late nineteenth century that was referred to as the Meat Safe).

Why don’t people like her see what is happening to the presumption of literary authority? In my last post I mentioned keeping tabs on the staggering – and widening – gap between paid and unpaid critics’ assessments of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. On a trip to the Amazon.com page a few hours ago, I noticed that 579 of 660 readers of an exemplary review by ‘zashibis’ — who awarded the book a one-star rating — had marked it as helpful. Its opening establishes that zashibis is objective, and nurses no personal grudge against the much-fêted author:

Negative reviews get no love on Amazon, but, having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc., I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.

I read and enjoyed The Corrections, so was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years …

My impressions of the book from reading its first twenty five-odd pages have been confirmed, to the letter, by dozens of detailed descriptions of the rest of the mega-tome by lay assessors. ‘Taken in’ is exactly how I would have felt fifteen years ago, before there was an Amazon.com publishing extracts from new novels on its site – or offering instant access to hundreds of uncredentialled but obviously astute zashibises. I wouldn’t have been able to get a refund for the hefty price I’d have had to pay for Freedom, and I’d have had felt miserably and furiously isolated in my bafflement by the laurels the literary establishment had heaped on it.

Censors like the Guardian’s will have to take over the world to reverse the flood tide against pontificators who specialise in king- and queen-making in the arts. All hail, Canute!

…………………………………………………………………………………

Late addendum:

(iii) As Scott Adams recently said about his brilliant satirisation of corporate idiocy,

Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy.
[…]
In the early days of my cartooning career, as the creator of “Dilbert,” part of the strip’s appeal was that I was holding a day job while mocking the very sort of company I worked for. If you knew my backstory, and many people did, you could sense my personal danger in every strip. (My manager eventually asked me to leave. He said it was a budget thing.)

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Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Criticism, Poetry, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Get poetry out of the ivory tower and give it back to poets

Elephant from a 15th c. bestiary (The Royal Library of Denmark)

Speculative representation of an elephant from clues in 15th century England … or … Academic interpretation of modern poetry in English, c. 2010

… ‘But, censorship aside — why does the academic infestation and degradation of poetry bother you so much?’ I haven’t yet replied to the friend who asked me that after reading the last three posts on this blog.

I could answer in two parts: first, that I suppose the fault lies partly with me. I’ve never given up a childhood glimmer of intuition in close sympathy with Mme. de Staël’s definition of poetry, c.1800, as ‘a momentary possession of all that is sought by our soul’. … Alright, I was a geeky, old-fashioned child who should have known better, having been born post-modern like you, readers – known that Modernism was about irreversible repudiation, disenchantment and disillusion, with no room for exaltation through the sublime.

For the second part, I might say: for the same reason I’d put the Kama Sutra near the top of my list of the dullest books ever printed.

What? that hallowed sex bible of the ancient Indians? is what I expect my friend to shriek. Yes, that one, which has never lived up to its billing, for me. (Or possibly the Indologist A.L. Basham, who said that ‘The Indian passion for classification […] led to the development of rather pedantic schools on […] sexual relations.’) I’ve found instructions for fiddling with the innards of personal computers a bigger turn-on than the venerable do-it-yourselves manual for the inculcation of lust that presumes mechanical contortions and not emotional and mental electrification to be the erotic gift that keeps on giving.

To see what that has to do with modern poetry, just close your eyes and imagine: your limbs are sweetly intertwined with your amour‘s, lips fine-tuned to the secret harmonies of lips. Suddenly, a voice that belongs to neither of you speaks. ‘Dopamine level’s rising nicely in both male and female subjects,’ it says. You look over your shoulder to see a large pair of tortoiseshell spectacles angled in your direction at first, then at the screen of a small computer, and then at another screen with a tangle of wires – with eek! …two of them ending in you and your partner.

‘Don’t pay any attention to me,’ a someone perched on the edge of your bed says in precise, forensic tones. ‘I’m just validating your trajectory from pre-consummation to full-on orgasmic attainment. So pleased your pheromones were gaining altitude fast enough that you didn’t notice me inserting my hormone calibrators into you!’ … If, defying all conceivable odds, you and your dear one do manage the uh, … usual culmination, … the all-knowing voice intones through heavy breathing a helpful summing-up with forward spin. ‘Excellent! Oxytocin and prolactin attaining high averages in both subjects. If you want my advice, kids, try and keep a lid on the prolactin – good for bonding initially, but you don’t want it getting too high as the rate of congress rises over the medium to long term. Can be a causative element in feelings of entrapment.’

… Perfectly ‘orrible, yes?
– except for those of you who surely depend on recipes for every meal you cook, and need food and wine critics to tell you what your own taste buds should, or could, if you would only let them. … What I’m saying is, I see reading poetry or experiencing any artistic creation as an intimate, highly personal exchange between an artist and every member of an audience. No intermediaries, thank you. Certainly not for poetry in English from roughly John Donne’s time.

I can think of nothing worse than having to digest the evisceration and explanation of a poem before I’ve had a chance to read it on my own — like many an unfortunate student of literature. Well, actually, I can. Infinitely more frightful would be the literary equivalent of a research sexologist straining to persuade me that if I would only consider this other position – I mean, interpretive possibility, I’d get over my instinctive aversion to those pinhead eyes too close together, … I mean of course, that shopping list for athlete’s foot remedies rearranged as an experimental Poem, and attain nirvana.

Literary assessments by a critic who is also a sensitive writer do not read like sexology. When Frank Kermode died a few weeks ago, the elegant NYT editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg had this to say:

In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.

He was drawn to the entanglements of the text and its rational mysteries rather than some scaffold of theory. In his many books and essays, he protected the reader’s freedom to be interested in whatever was interesting. That meant writing a prose that was never wholly academic and over the years became more and more open to the intersection of literature and the lives we’re actually living.

Could Kermode’s approach serve as the gold standard and guide to writing about poetry in the future? Can we ask academics to restrict their interpreting and grinding down to verse written in obscure, archaic forms of the language? Could they be persuaded to refrain from telling us what is and isn’t good poetry – or indeed a poem at all?

Asking those questions could be whistling in the wind, today. Poetry has been getting more and not less entangled with academia, as the lawyer-poet and critic David Orr has wickedly pointed out:

Partly as a result of the art form’s academic attachment, poets are increasingly knit together in complicated patterns based on mentorship, instruction or just basic university proximity. […] In “Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry,” for example, the critic Robert Archambeau smartly traces poets including Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass through their connection to Yvor Winters at Stanford. It’s a project that wouldn’t work (or at least, not quite so well) with Eliot or Frost or Williams, simply because times have changed.

That said, some of the inter­dependence in today’s poetry world isn’t a function of modernity but of insecurity, which is why you’ll occasionally find writers claiming to be “fourth-generation New York School poets,” as if latching on to your great-grandfather’s avant-garde were something to be proud of, rather than sheepish about. Presumably it feels better to be a poet carrying on the tradition of “X” than just a plain old poet talking to the void.

… But then there’s this internet, through which change – if enough people demand it – can come as unexpectedly as a sneeze. Nearly every publication of note in the old print world has been frantic to outdo the others, lauding Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom to the stratosphere and beyond. I’ve been monitoring the many very different reports on the book at Amazon.com – a few of them finely considered and beautifully written – by actual readers. Freedom’s standing with these reactors has fallen steadily over the weeks since its launch near the start of the month, bringing its average rating down by half a star to just three.

This was precisely what I wanted to see happen four years ago, after twice being misled by professional critics infecting each other with hype fever — steadily improving, credible, independent literary criticism.

So I’m optimistic about the net helping those of us who care to reclaim poetry for true poets, who want it left alone. I suspect that we’ll get the sexologists — no, I mean surely, poexologists, out of the way soon enough. ; )

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Filed under Criticism, Poetry

On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

The Clash - Jakub Julian Ziolkowski

Much that is rotten about the social order collapsing in the dying age of print is obvious from what was cut when censors ran amok on – of all things – a supposedly liberal newspaper’s poetry blog, the subject of the last entry here. Readers who never saw the comments hacked out of that discussion have been curious about what they said, so I’m putting up a selection in another part of this site.

The Guardian purge is well worth revisiting, for connoisseurs of pattern recognition. Censorship itself started with religious authorities who had glimpsed the beginning of their end in Gutenberg’s printing press. As hard as it was for their 15th-century ancestors to keep up with the subversive literature of their day, the toil of today’s online censors is even more quixotic. Yet they bash on, against the popular will, the masters that they serve as hopelessly misguided as hierarchs of the past were in insisting on their entitlement to authority – banding together for reinforcement in much the way they did, and deploying similar tactics.

It was the very smallness and insignificance of the group of actors associated with the poetry blog that made watching old patterns play out in the bloodbath so entertaining – not merely horrifying.

Here are seven parallels that stood out:

1. The use of propaganda. After a hundred-odd comments were slashed – by the reckoning of several readers – a supporter of Carol Rumens, the lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger enraged by attacks on academia’s effects on poetry, tried to justify the silencing of her opponents with this nonsensical post:

SCFMH
3 September 2010 3:47PM

An elegantly pruned blog, all excess foliage to the compost. These words of wisdom say it all: […]’Pruning grape vines is a basic principle that any grower, regardless of experience, must understand. Whenever you leave a vine unpruned, the first year you’ll have a massive big crop. Novice growers can feel delighted with their success and wonder what all the pruning fuss is about. […But …] when you actually prune a vine correctly, you remove as much as 95 to 98% of the previous season’s growth. […] The vine can’t produce enough energy to ripen an unregulated crop, and it’ll be poor quality.’

Propaganda is a branch of the art of persuasion. It nearly always relies on specious logic, like other kinds of communication that insult readers’ intelligence. Pruning a grapevine has absolutely nothing in common with suppressing free speech. Snipping leaves and branches serves a single, consistent aim – producing wine of a particular type. Not a bit like the right to free expression, which can serve as many aims as there are people expressing themselves, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed.

2. Defenders of the status quo are uniquely protected from criticism or reprisals – and on the public purse. SCFMH – whose posts are usually more intelligent — has revealed himself elsewhere on the net as Simon M. Hunter. Like Rumens, he appears to teach at a university. There is irony unbound in the reason why SCFMH can support a Rumens capable of calling her employers ‘you bastards’ without producing a single birth certificate blank where a father’s name should be – yet lecturing commenters not sitting in her classroom about their behaviour, and getting a few of them banned from the Guardian‘s site for no more than bracing, playful criticism. (I would place a large bet on no reader of or commenter on her blog’s ever having addressed an employer as she did, in full public view.)

That reason is called ‘tenure’. It was invented, as the Wikipedia says, ‘to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, …’

Who pays the salaries of most university lecturers? Ah, in Britain and the US, that would be us, the unwashed public. Shouldn’t we be entitled to as least as much freedom as they have to speak out?

3. Blatant hypocrisy goes unchallenged. Like feudal serfs, most readers of the Rumens blog were stopped from objecting to her treatment of dissenting commenters by the censors’ threat: ‘This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.’ (And indeed, all attempts to support Rumens’ critics disappeared.)

4. Defunct, repressive authorities have collaborators, enablers and appeasers. . . among those who should know better, but fear that they stand to lose more than they gain from a revolution. Look at the posts left in place after the grand cull on the morning of September the 3rd and you’ll find fine samples of smug support for the triumphant status quo.

5. No right of appeal for those muzzled and expelled. ….The Guardian’s censors and moderators will only discuss deletions in private, by email. As anyone who can see why transparency is essential to justice knows, that amounts to, ‘We’ll brook no challenges and will suppress all evidence of our repression and mistakes’.

6. The powerful never stoop to an apology. Rumens showed that she understood that something of the kind was required of her when she said vaguely, the following week, ‘Milton may be above criticism, ATF, but , alas, I don’t think I am…’. .. A whole-hearted apology clearly linked to the censorfest might have won her some points. Most of all, she owed – still owes – her critics a respectful discussion of what academia has done to modern poetry; of the wider implications of both her and her featured poet being academics. … And she and the Guardian could have won the undying loyalty of many a reader by conceding that the censorship went too far, and above all, by restoring the censored posts.

7. Futile attempts to carry privileges from the old order into the new. Noting cracks in the joists and foundations of their fortresses, some members of the old guard are naively trying to set the rules for the new order. Anxious to be seen as egalitarian in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Rumens said in the cull’s aftermath that her ‘blog has to have comments – that’s the admirable nature of the beast. It’s not about soloists.’ … Ah, but that’s the beauty of online media: there are no such rules. There are no externally imposed‘ has to have’s, shoulds, or musts. Millions of wonderful blogs on the net have no comments at all, year after year; millions of others have huge and lively comments sections that read like transcripts of beer busts.

… Indeed, the old order changeth … And yet, as an old friend put it, ‘These dictators never learn, do they? They can’t help themselves.’

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Filed under Censorship, Criticism, Editors and editing, Poetry, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Mysteries of modern poetry: are poets still free spirits?

Off with their heads!

Drawing by John Tenniel

Continuing our inspection of censorship at the Guardian, here’s a surprising suppressor of free speech — that is, if you are used to thinking of poets and other artists as passionate believers in unfettered communication.

Could that honestly be said of Carol Rumens, a published poet, university lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger for that newspaper? Her electronic column — when written by her predecessor in that space — was a quick, open-ended introduction to a poem chosen for discussion by all comers. Under Rumens, the blog has taken on a directive and teacherly tone that some of her readers enjoy.

This week, an extended argument with commenters keen to lift the dead hand of academic analysis from modern poetry – affecting not just its criticism but writing – grew intense. Guardian moderators slashed comments by Rumens’ opponents so wildly and in such quantities that at least one onlooker wondered about the possibility of unhinged combat rage (think My Lai and Green Berets.)

The butchery was justified on the grounds that commenters had been attacking a living poet – the author of this week’s poem, Vona Groarke. Actually – as is clear from careful inspection of the unexpurgated record, there were no personal attacks on the poet, with the exception of a childish remark about her name by someone notoriously infantile. It was the opinions and judgment of Rumens herself that came under fire and, in a scant few posts, the poem itself.

At the end of the cull, Rumens made an ominous announcement in her comments section:

[…] I have emailed the mods via Sarah […] and they will watching the blog extra carefully.

@Einsloth, a delightfully whimsical commenter known to be an accomplished poet himself, was singled out for a special rap on the knuckles. Why? Because he had begun his critique by referring to ‘this precious pearl of a poem’. Comparisons with other samples of acid wit in the annals of literary criticism would reveal that to be mild – as intended.

But Rumens said,

He begins with a sneer. That is NOT doing what we should all do here. [her caps.]

Should. Shouldn’t. … Hmm … Now, this particular Guardian blogger has been a teacher for decades. We must allow her the tics of the more dictatorial members of her profession. But what was a newspaper doing, denying its commenters their right to disagree with her?

This post on acciaccatura is aimed at those moderators and constructed to honour the old maxim, ‘Do as you would be done by.’ I would like to see the Guardian simply highlight all comments it finds questionable – except for libel – and let readers reflect on them and draw their own conclusions. How? Just as I’m setting out these excerpts from the blogs and comments-section remarks of Carol Rumens – neutrally, and in a spirit of enquiry.

LITERARY STYLE

Can a prose style like this, introducing poems, earn poetry more readers – and stimulate new interest in the most graceful literary form?

It’s a strong poem that inhabits a slightly uncharacteristic lyric angle, off-road to the central preoccupations of this septuagenarian poet’s spacious, modernist imagination. Yet I feel it reveals the emotional forces implicit in those preoccupations.

… when the same ideas could have been stated like this:

It’s a strong poem, with an uncharacteristic touch of lyricism, a departure from the usual preoccupations of this septuagenarian modernist. Yet, to me, it reveals the passion behind those preoccupations.

APPROACH TO CRITICISM

Is this a helpful interpretation of a cheerful short poem? Lines that describe an athletic woman diving into the sea?

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

N.B. A controller critical of controlling?

SELF-EXPRESSION

Should a blogger cooperating with censors of free speech be calling her own employers at her university ‘you bastards’ in public – on a Guardian blog? Carol Rumens was gently reprimanded by a kind commenter: shouldn’t she extend the same kind consideration to the impassioned comments of others?

CarolRumens
Comment No. 1200270
July 2 18:41

To my Employers (the National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, University of Bangor)

Nasty
Idiotic
Emetic
Crap
Innit

Sorry but they are trying to get me to do some extra teaching that forces a younger colleague out of a job. Hope you’re reading this, you bastards.

stoneofsilence
Comment No. 1203154
July 4 8:57

Never slag off an employer on
Impulse, especially in forums
Everyone can be a voyeur on
Carol Rumens, Oh Carol Rumens
Ire will misfire- its – hire or fire

Seriously, Carol I think it is best that these matters be resolved using the appropriate channels. If you believe there is a case, then take it to the union or whoever represents you, and take it up with the boards. If it is a Dean or Director who has made this decision then go to the head of the college. If you have already exhausted those channels then you can use this blog to vent off your anger, but not until then. I do not personally think it is useful to make fun of your employer’s strategy which is one that is typical of all those humanities departments that had to reinvent themselves in the 1990’s so as to be more attractive to business. …

Readers, I’ll let you decide …

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Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, Poetry, The Guardian

Neurons making love and art

'Dragon Boat Festival,' Fang Zhaoling, 1985

'Dragon Boat Festival,' Fang Zhaoling, 1985

It’s rutting season where I am.

Perfect, as it happens, for the question preoccupying me lately — about what conclusions neuroscience will reach on the neurological basis for the romantic temperament, its joys and vexations. In place of the asthmatic buses and jackhammers punctuating thought on my last working visit to London, I have galumphing deer clattering on the wooden planks hugging the perimeter of this house. This is something like listening to badly trained, drunken clog-dancers who lack any sense of rhythm.

Shhhh,’ I said, raising a cautioning hand at the kitchen table the night before last. I left my seat silently, snapping on outdoor lights as I went, and soon was looking down two sets of long doe ears lined in off-white fur — eighteen inches away and behind a glass door — as their owners tucked lustily into bird seed. That’s right, bird seed — where there’s no shortage of lush gardens for randy ruminants to plunder … — fallen from the bird feeder into a re-potting project.

Next morning, proof that the marauders returned …

In the morning, proof that the marauders returned …

A few days ago, I was about to post Fang Zhaoling’s painting with a line saying ‘Happy Bank Holiday’ – since the scene it depicts looked like fun unbound — until I read its caption. I remembered discussing on someone else’s blog last year the annual Dragon Boat Festival, which commemorates the death of one of the most famous poets in Chinese history. Qu Yuan (332-296 BC) was an aristocrat and great patriot with an ‘air of suffering nobility’ whose despairing love for his country led him to criticise its rulers, endure the ostracisation that followed, and eventually die by suicide. During the festival, the outstandingly practical Chinese try symbolically to ‘fish his corpse out of the water in which he drowned himself’, according to the sinologist Hellmut Wilhelm. A Chinese government site says about his most celebrated work:

Lament on Encountering Sorrow is a romantic lyric poem with a measured realism. The poet utilizes a great deal of exaggeration in portraying characters and describing objects. The assemblage of fairy tales further enhances the poem’s romantic flavour.

It was intended as a political protest. Though the poet who is its hero harnesses jade dragons to his phoenix carriage and is borne away on the wind to battle obstacles to winning the hand of a fairy, goddess or princess, Wilhelm says that the amorous quest is an ‘allegory of sensual union’ whose actual significance is political. In the ancient Chinese tradition, that union ‘was often used … to allude to the relationship between ruler and advisor.’

What interests me about Qu Yuan’s story and his epic poem is that they illustrate the consistency, across cultures, of the link between art and a bonjour tristesse view of life. The mystical psychologist Helen Palmer includes as typical of this perspective an attraction to ‘what’s missing: the distant, unavailable, and hard to get ,’ as well as a ‘sense of abandonment … impatien[ce] with mediocrity and mundane life’ ; a tendency to intensify feeling through ‘loss, fantasy, artistic connection, and dramatic acts’ – and in work, a craving for distinctiveness, for ‘creativity, even genius, an eccentric edge in presentation.’

That isn’t just true of artistic creativity, as conventional thinking has it, but of original thinking in science, too. That point is made in a mention I found only this week of The Age of Wonder by the biographer Richard Holmes:

“Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity,” Holmes writes. “But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive.[…]”

A biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, Holmes’s particular genius is to parse the similar philosophical concerns of both science and poetry, showing us how the scientists of the era defined the textbook Romantic temperament as much as the poets did.

I want neuroscientists to explain what drearily reductive evolutionary biologists have so far been unable to do, which is tell me why Albert Einstein, Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, Robert Oppenheimer and Ted Hughes all had enough sturm-und-drang in their relationships to justify thrillingly romantic bio-pics — even though, because they were men, no one would a priori have assumed any interest in being ‘in love with being in love’ in ways assumed to be typical of women. Why is romantic love – the most intense, pleasurable, but also difficult kind of loving – so often part of the picture of high accomplishment in creating what didn’t exist before, when that involves imagination and originality?

What other human tendencies belong in that cluster of neurological functions or tendencies? For instance, science has found that brain circuitry fully supports the old cliché about the close kinship between the emotions of love and hate. Recently, neuroscientists have been working on a fascinating puzzle – trying to work out why cursing seems to act as a natural analgesic:

According to a study published in the current issue of NeuroReport, swearing helps to alleviate pain:

“Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon,” said Richard Stephens of Keele University in England and one of the authors of the new study. “It taps into emotional brain centers and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain.”

I was thinking about all that when fragments of David McDade’s lyrics on a CD bought for a different song caught my ear (not in the overcooked rendering of the hyper-pneumatic Dolly Parton) :

Everytime the bluebird sings
My heart takes wings to the sky
With bluebird’s grace I fly
To my place in your eyes
Cause after all, I did all I could
And you did your best, just the same
Nobody won, we both lost, no one’s to blame
But I’ll find my way to you, if I’m only pretending
And we’ll be like bluebirds, live the beautiful lie
We’ll be like bluebirds, live the beautiful lie

… and when those last words seemed strangely familiar, a search engine reminded me that it was Stendhal who said that all art is a beautiful lie, or what you could see as elaboration on the romantic impulse.

What would the opposite of that be? Perhaps excessive realism – like Schopenhauer’s. He meticulously worked out how attaining our desires only leads to new desires and discontentment, and for himself, mostly rejected close human connection — preferring the companionship of a succession of poodles he owned from his student days until his death. I suspect that most of humanity would find his impeccable rationality less compelling than the grand — grandiose — delusions of romanticism. Our reach was surely always intended to exceed our grasp.

How many wouldn’t reject the chance to write impenetrably, as Schopenhauer did, …

The physical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of becoming. The mathematical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of being. The logical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of knowing. The moral form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of acting.

… if offered the choice between that and being able to say, as Byron did, that

… dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures and the touch of joy:
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight off from our waking toils,
[…] they become
A portion of ourselves and of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity; …

A world-view like Schopenhauer’s leaves so much less room for believing six impossible things before breakfast – in, for instance, the existence of bird-brained, seed-chomping deer.

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A serendipitous postscript to: Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

A good reporter thinking in what couldn’t be deemed his finest hour was complaining the other day that the net has killed serendipity. To that I say, stuff and nonsense. The fact is, it’s alive and well and has only done a bit of shape-shifting — just as Serendip, the inspiration for that gorgeous word, turned into Ceylon and then Sri Lanka.

After I’d posted my last entry here, I got curious about how posterity is treating Bruce Chatwin. Near the top of search engine offerings for my query, I found a surprising and highly original assessment of his work by a friend of his, the composer Kevin Volans.

No, that doesn’t count as an example of serendipity, but only the equivalent of a waiter appearing with poached eggs and a double espresso because I’d ordered — gosh!poached eggs and a double espresso. I was looking for other people’s opinions of the Chatwin oeuvre: that was what I got. What did signal serendipity was that the title of the Volans paper, written for last spring’s Oxford Literary Festival, was Some Japanese Influences on Style and Structure in Bruce Chatwin’s Writing. And as if that wasn’t sufficiently delectable on its own, he explains en passant that it was ‘the compositional structure of the books that first attracted me to Bruce’s work.’

Volans’ analysis justifies an obsession of mine — that we need much more of both cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary criticism in the arts, because it’s in the perspectives of outsiders that the most illuminating insight is found disproportionately. That’s not something I can prove statistically or in any objective way, of course. But though I have no formal training in either classical music or poetry appreciation, this segment of the — rather disorganised, only it doesn’t matter — paper immediately leapt out as fresh and true:

In place of metaphor Chatwin tends to use a structure also found in haiku or its older form waka – an AB form in which the first part sets up an expectation, and the second part provides a resolution (which is often unexpected). The resonance created between the first and the second parts substitutes for metaphor. […] This is the basis of the structure of Japanese linked poetry which was developed from the 8th century onwards. According to Yuasa, ‘…each poem takes up the suggestion of the last poem and yet opens up a new world of its own, so that the reader is carried though the whole series as through the exquisitely arranged rooms of a building.’ I think this is what Bruce aspired to in his more ambitious moments.

An AB structure runs throughout Bruce’s late work in particular – the
form is so common as to almost be a personal cliché – and is used both on a small and a large scale. […]

A: “Mrs. Gandhi wore a green and white striped sari. And sat down to a breakfast
B: that never came.” [ What Am I Doing Here ]

A: “They set down the coffin with a show of reverence.
B: Then, attracted by the smell of hot bread from a bakery along the street, they strolled off to get breakfast…” [ Utz ]

A: “Olwen had kicked. The hoof caught him under the chin,
B: and the sparrows went on chattering.” [ On the Black Hill ]

I wondered what Volans would make of the Shawn Yu portrait of Chatwin that I was attracted to because it gets behind the shimmering, beguilingly fey persona that the writer created. This passage in the Volans critique led me to suspect that he just might understand my choice of image:

[Artistry] transcends ‘personality’. Personality is formed and assessed socially and is habitual […] Beethoven the personality may have driven Beethoven the artist, but it was the intellect, the intelligence and the imagination of the artist that created the realms of his music. […] I say all of this because with Bruce Chatwin it is easy to be sideswiped by the glamour of the personality and the life of the author. Indeed, I think that at times the artist and the persona in Bruce were at odds with each other.

Volans believes that Chatwin was deeply influenced by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North — particularly in the writing of his impressionistic, idiosyncratic, collage- and blog-like account of his Australian odyssey:

For me Bruce’s novel with the most interesting structure is The Songlines. In form it’s almost an exact parallel of Basho’s A Visit to Sarashina Village: first a prose narrative which gives way to a set of linked verse. Basho, in the company of a pupil, sets off to see Mount Obasute under a full moon. The piece becomes a meditation on the meaning of travel, and journeying as a metaphor for transience of life itself. The linked poems at the end are by Basho and his disciple Etsujin.

[…]

[The Songlines ] is, of course, primarily a meditation on walking, travelling and its meaning. And the notebooks at the end have links: Petrarch talks of sleeping in a different bed each night. This links to Rimbaud (asking what am I doing here) – to a sleepless night in an hotel in Brazil – to the names of 2 hotels in Cameroon, the Windsor and the anti-Windsor – which provide a link a the British ambassador in Kabul, whose contradictory initiative and insensitivity to local culture leads to a Moorish proverb on the value of men – which prompts a story of a little man who prospects for jewellery in sewers in Miami: “’It is not, I can assure you, sir’ he said, ‘ an unrewarding occupation.’” And so on. And of course, many of the notes are quotations from other people’s writings.

Another point on which Volans and I might be singing in perfect harmony is about the commercialisation of the arts — an affliction I’ve bewailed before in writing about the fate today of journalism and book publishing.

By starting his career with In Patagonia Chatwin ran into a problem: all the arts are now run by their arch enemy: Business – in this case the Book Industry. And industries love labels. Work must be classified into genres. Is it fact or fiction? Is it a novel or is it a travel book? I recall one of the judges of the Booker prize being almost more annoyed at the brevity of Utz than anything else. The book didn’t fit into his classification of a novel, and therefore he felt it didn’t belong in the competition! (Imagine Capability Brown’s apoplexy at the sight of a stone garden).

I see hyper-serendipity as one of the greatest treats the net serves up. I’d have rated my chances of stumbling on Volans’ thoughts about Chatwin before I came online at close to zero. I am unlikely to have thought of asking a reference librarian about parallels in exotic cultural traditions for Chatwin’s literary style, and as for what rhythms a composer might discern in it — no, again, not even in a dream.

Yes, I do have an extraordinary friend or two who might, out of the blue, volunteer observations from a Volans-like perspective — or opinions as penetrating from some other viewpoint entirely. But that would be serendipity, too — the old-fashioned, ante-net kind.

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Stick to your Polish, Joseph Conrad! … Whoa, Cleopatra!

A few questions and some leftover thoughts from the last entry in this blog, Ruth Padel and the Presentation of Intelligent Pulchritude in Everyday Life … in ascending order of frivolity:

Why is Derek Walcott the focus of such vicious animosity in sections of the transatlantic literary community – more than the combinination of jealousy about his Nobel prize and gossip about sexual intemperance would explain?

The high watermark for the nastiness about him is surely a 2007 review of his Collected Poems in the New York Times Book Review. Most startling are its omniscient pronouncements about Walcott’s relationship to himself by the reviewer, a poet called William Logan. Since Logan’s harshness as a critic is well-known and the NYTBR is usually moderate and careful in its criticism, it is impossible not to wonder whether his editors weren’t trying to get across a hidden message in choosing his assessment for a lead review.

‘[W]riting,’ Logan wrote with the presumption of a hanging judge revealing a heinous crime — but not reasoning very well — ‘was Walcott’s escape from the islands. The metaphors whisper their quiet acknowledgment of guilt.’

At times [Another Life, Walcott’s autobiography in verse] reads like “The Prelude” by a writer far more elegant than Wordsworth, though almost every line about the poet himself sounds false:
[…]
[F]or the exile, language is a daily form of betrayal. Walcott has remained a figure of divided loyalties and a double tongue — his grandmothers were descended from slaves, his grandfathers white. Though he “prayed / nightly for his flesh to change, / his dun flesh peeled white,” like any young man of parts he was somewhat enamored of himself. Even the late verse can seem shallow and narcissistic, beauty seized in his own beautiful eye — he treats women (“O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”) in a manner closer to lechery than to old-style courtesy. Caught between two races and two worlds, he has sometimes succumbed to pride or self-pity, or to that pride indistinguishable from self-pity.

[How does merely worshipping female beauty add up to lechery?]

Letters from outraged readers took up most of the letters column in a subsequent issue of the publication:

Joseph Cuomo complained, in part:

Logan asserts that “the rhythms and intonations of English verse were a passport to the elsewhere; but they came with a burden — the language of the colonial masters was not the one caught in his ear at home.”
[…]
First, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Walcott’s life knows that “the language of the colonial masters” was indeed “the one caught in his ear at home,” most particularly the language of Shakespeare and the Bible, both of which were read to him as a boy by his mother.

Logan only compounded his presumptuousness in his mostly incomprehensible attempt to justify his hatchet job:

The poet manages to sound like an exile wherever he lives; but mastery of English and immersion in the classics have estranged him from the island of his birth, no matter how often he returns or how long he stays.

Walcott’s conflicts are played out within himself — his vanities and even his self-pity erode the imperial manner of his verse.

The gist of Logan’s case against Walcott: he writes beautifully; in fact he writes too well – not least because by failing to do so in the patois of St. Lucia, where he was born, he has betrayed the half of his heritage that’s West-Indian for the sake of his English genes.

What business did Samuel Beckett have writing in French — or Conrad, Dinesen and Nabokov scribbling in anything other than Polish, Danish and Russian, respectively? Those Chinese and Indian engineers in Silicon Valley, how dare they code in western programming languages when it’s obvious that they should be working in the scripts of their Taoist ancestors, or of Sanskrit metaphysics?

There’s a great deal that we haven’t been told about the story of Walcott and the literati, I feel sure.

The real Cleopatra -- digitally recreated from the most reliable facts about her

The real Cleopatra -- digitally recreated from the most reliable facts about her

Didn’t Ruth Padel have a glimmer about how much damage she was potentially doing professional women last week with her bald-faced lie about her role in spreading rumours about Walcott’s past? About her failure to explain that, rather than her motives for exposing his reputation on some university campuses? Given that most working women have a hard enough time already with society’s ancient uneasiness about women and power — what was she thinking?

The drama of her resignation just nine days after her election as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry recalled a recent opinion piece on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, an outstandingly acute and meticulous biographer. (Read Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999), for a superb sample of the biographer’s art.) Writing on this site about Padel’s confident projection of sexuality, I was reminded of just how remarkable that is, given Schiff’s reminder that

… Cleopatra puts a vintage label on something we have always known existed: mind-altering female sexuality. […] She does not so much bump up against a glass ceiling as tumble through a trapdoor, the one that dismisses women by sexualizing them. As Margaret Atwood has written of Jezebel, “The amount of sexual baggage that has accumulated around this figure is astounding, since she doesn’t do anything remotely sexual in the original story, except put on makeup.” In Cleopatra’s case, the sheer absence of truth has guaranteed the legend. Where facts are few, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.

Padel, denying that she had used her connections to discredit Walcott, unwittingly recalled the female reputation for scheming that goes at least as far back as a first century BC marriage contract in which

a woman promises to be faithful and attentive — and to not add love potions to her husband’s food. Clever women, Euripides had already warned, are dangerous women.

In fact, as Schiff notes dryly:

Before she was a slot machine, a video game, a cigarette, a condom, a caricature, a cliché or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor, before she was reincarnated by Shakespeare, Dryden or Shaw, she was a nonfictional Egyptian queen. She ruled for 21 years, mostly alone, which is to say that she was essentially a female king, an incongruity that elicits the kind of double take once reserved for men in drag.
[…]
She was self-reliant, ingenious and plucky, and for her time and place remarkably well behaved. Having inherited a country in decline, she capably steered it through drought, famine, plague and war.

The ages-old controversy about Cleopatra – the subject of Schiff’s biography-in-progress – has an echo or two in the opposition to Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Obama nominated last week to replace a retiring justice on the US Supreme Court. Once again, a woman had to be defended against criticism of behaviour that would have attracted virtually no comment, had she been a man:

Judge Guido Calabresi, a former dean of Yale Law School who taught Ms. Sotomayor there and now sits with her on the Second Circuit, said complaints that she had been unduly caustic had no basis. For a time, Judge Calabresi said, he kept track of the questions posed by Judge Sotomayor and other members of the 12-member court. “Her behavior was identical,” he said.

“Some lawyers just don’t like to be questioned by a woman,” Judge Calabresi added. “It was sexist, plain and simple.”

Could there really be such a thing as a ‘collective unconscious’?

… and if there isn’t, how else are we to account for the phrase ‘thinking women’ turning up in The Independent (‘Can an ex-civil servant finally persuade women to buy erotica?’) ten days after I linked to Pauline, the sculpture I think of as Thinking Woman, in this space? I’m still waiting for someone to prove I’m all wet to suggest that the sculptor, Harold Francis Bell , has scored a coup for the ages.

Advice-seeker

Advice-seeker

What advice does Doris Lessing have for this premature case of Droopy Corners Syndrome that I found floating on the net a few years ago?

It is not given to every circle of bloggers to have a comrade posting not just one but two intimate anecdotes about a household name on every continent. @ISA, also known as Philip Hall – who should be hard at work on a memoir about his freedom-fighter family’s South African history this very moment – told us about the only anti-ageing cosmetic advice I have ever heard of Doris Lessing giving. Why she should have given him any advice at all after his ferocious evisceration, in her presence, of The Grass is Singing — that I, like many others, consider her finest work – surpasses all understanding. But it certainly says a lot for her.

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