GEORGE SZIRTES Beside his work in poetry and translation, George Szirtes has written Exercise of Power (Lund Humphries), a study of the artist Ana Maria Pacheco, and, together with his wife the painter Clarissa Upchurch, produced Budapest: Image, Poem, Film (Corvina), a collaboration in poetry and visual work. His new Bloodaxe collection The Burning of the Books and other Poems is a PBS recommendation. The sequence ‘The Burning of the Books’ is also available in a limited edition, illustrated by Ron King, from Circle Press.
Reviews and Features
George Szirtes Ut Pictura Poesis
ALICE OSWALD (with etchings by JESSICA GREENMAN)
Weeds and Wild Flowers
Faber and Faber £14.99
PAUL MULDOON (with photographs by NORMAN McBEATH)
Walking the Block
Ut pictura poesis: erit quae, si proprius stes…
As painting, so is poesy. Some man’s hand
Will take you more, the nearer that you stand;
As some the farther off: this loves the dark;
This fearing not the subtlest judge’s mark,
Will in the light be viewed: this, once the sight
Doth please: this, ten times over will delight.
It was Horace in his Ars Poetica who first pinned it down. There it is above, translated by Ben Jonson who also wrote:
I now thinke, Love is rather deafe, than blind,
For else it could not be,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my love behind:
I’m sure my language to her, was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence, of as subtile feet
As hath the youngest Hee,
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Oh, but my conscious feares,
That flie my thoughts betweene,
Tell me that she hath seene
My hundreds of gray haires,
Told seven and fortie yeares,
Read so much wast, as she cannot imbrace
My mountaine belly and my rockie face,
And all these through her eyes, have stopt her eares.
(‘My Picture Left in Scotland’)
The connection between pictures and poems (between all arts) is complex. Jonson, in the poem, has left behind a picture and finds that his visual image is interfering with his poetry as well as his love life. Perhaps the woman addressed should have stood ‘farther off’. Maybe his portrait loved Horace’s dark. Maybe we all do. At least as much as light.
The study of ekphrastics deals with the way one art form interprets another. Our chief experience of this is in art books and galleries where the commentary all but takes over from the picture. We watch as people in a gallery lean close to the label with its byte-sized piece of information, read it carefully, step back then move on as if the picture were a less important commentary on the text. It is not the eyes have it, but the words. In many cases the eye would have very little but for the words. Our knowledge about things becomes a thing in itself, actually obviating encounters with things themselves. Some theorists argue that ‘male’ words, even in poems (male in being words at all), are forever raping and objectivizing ‘female’ images (female, even when created by men). They don’t explain, though, how their own explanations fail to act the male role in relation to poems that may be written by women. You’d think that words and visual images were ever at a kind of low-level war. But they sit happily together. Of course they do. The great notional gesamtkunstwerk where all the arts act together to make the best of all possible imagined worlds was with us before Wagner formalized it. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou, wrote Fitzgerald out of Omar Khayyam. We can easily dream of Debussy setting Baudelaire while gazing at a Monet. And of course artists were very happy to produce illustrations or interpretations of modern poems from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, though there is a perceived difference. Cruikshank, being an illustrator, merely illustrated Dickens, but Manet and Matisse, being artists, interpreted Mallarmé. In between came Delacroix’s versions of Shakespeare, Dante and Byron and the Pre-Raphaelite versions of Keats and Tennyson.
The terms on which writing and art come together in the making is another matter. For most of the history of western art the text existed first and the image followed. Religious texts called on images in the form of altarpieces and frescoes to supplement and illustrate their message to the illiterate. The invention of the camera and the freeing of visual art, both from the task of depiction and from the demands of a literary or narrative text, turned things around. After the middle of the nineteenth century the balance swings so that text increasingly follows image. Most new books of poetry contain some poems about works of visual art. The first major marker set down for this tendency was Walter Pater’s famous passage about the Mona Lisa being ‘older than the rocks she sits among’, in his book The Renaissance. Yeats picked up most of the paragraph, chopped it into lines and made it the first poem in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Things proceed from there. Several anthologies can be filled – and have been filled – by poems about paintings, with John Hollander’s The Gazer’s Spirit of 1995 being a major landmark. But then there are poems about sculpture, photographs and film too – the Faber Book of Movie Verse of 1993 for example.
Sometimes – though rarely, I suspect – the poetry and the art grow next to each other, in concert. I think it might have been that way with some of Roy Fisher and Ronald King’s collaborations for Circle Press. But that process often involves expensive limited editions, art prices rather than book prices. Here too the text might take precedence in terms of order. Whenever the text comes first the question of status arises for the art work that accompanies it. Mostly though we are talking about the reverse process. First comes the picture – a painting, a postcard, an illustration in a book, a photograph – then the poem arranges itself around it. It might do the dull thing of describing or commenting. Or it might draw from the picture some valuable perception as Auden did out of Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus (‘About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters’). Sometimes a poet, like John Ashbery, might take a painting such as Parmigianino’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror and use it as a stepping stone to wilder meditations. There is no specific way to go about writing poems around visual images, though the process itself is endlessly fascinating. The three books here all go about it in a different way with different concerns.
To begin with, Alice Oswald’s, Weeds and Wild Flowers, does not consist of poems about etchings by Jessica Greenman. It is, says Oswald, the product of ‘a number of conversations’ and is, she adds, two books, one of poems and one of etchings. But, Oswald continues, ‘whereas etchings express that thought dynamically in the postures of the pictures [the thought that ‘flowers are recognisably ourselves elsewhere’], the poems make fun of it, using the names of flowers to summon up the flora of the psyche’. There are a number of misapprehensions here. First of all the book is clearly one book not two and I think I am expected to include some reference to Greenman’s art as well as to the poems, even while being aware that the book – this book – would not exist were it not for the reputation – and of course quality – of Alice Oswald as a poet. Greenman’s etchings depict the same flowers as Oswald’s poems explore; sometimes they are of Oswald’s poems, or fragments of them. They are attractive, decorative, lyrical etchings that don’t rely much on etching’s traditional strengths such as variability of bite, hence mark. They don’t do tone very much. Except for a certain roughness, they could be engravings.
The poems don’t seem to me to make fun of the idea of flowers as aspects of personality. They have Oswald’s great characteristic strengths of formal power, nimble, often surprising diction, and intensity of feeling, albeit in a more playful way than in, say, Woods, etc. They are playful in the way that Shakespeare’s early plays and songs can be playful, through an enriched delight in the sheer sprightliness of words. It is certainly Oswald-lite; the element of whimsy is quite conscious yet she cannot help but hit a certain profundity. ‘Yellow It Is’ begins:
It’s early morning
and a woman
from a previous world
is wading upstream…
(‘previous’ is good, and lightly balanced)
Very stately and
sturdy with double-
jointed elbows she’s
still in her
her crinkled three-ply
surcoat made of
cloth of June…
Puns, enjambments, light wit. Some people can’t abide poetry that does not come straight from the profoundest mouth of Plato’s cave. I think this is a lovely book that might be usefully compared with Ted Hughes’s Season Songs, which contains some of Hughes’s best and warmest poems.
If the Oswald-Greenman arrangement might be described as co-habitation, Paul Muldoon and the photographer Norman McBeath’s mutuality, Plan B, could be seen as a form of Facebook Scrabble where McBeath kindly sets out the letters for Muldoon to mount up a series of triple letter and triple word scores. But that is Muldoon’s way, his art. One will always be Wise to his Morecambe, Ernie to his Eric. Norman McBeath is probably best known as a very fine portrait photographer whose main subjects include a number of poets, among them Paul Muldoon. In the past he has also collaborated with Janice Galloway on a book called City Stories. The photographs here are excellent and various. They make a miscellany that ranges from sheep to a wrecked upright piano left in a field or garden, by way of a polythene-sheet-covered statue of Apollo that also forms the cover of the book. In his brief introduction Muldoon, like Oswald, talks of ‘conversations’, but only once the poems and photos are ready, side by side. He begins, however, with the idea of mediation where, as he says, ‘The very idea of a “subject” soon begins to seem crudely inappropriate’.
The idea of common subjects certainly is. What there are, are revelatory connections. That is the way Muldoon’s poetry works in any case. The formal play is core Muldoon, the narrative shifts sideways, and sometimes (to employ a photographic metaphor) just out of frame. In core Muldoon the reader – this reader at any rate – is left in a state between wonder and irritation, but then this reader prefers Muldoon when he has a subject, preferably a human or humane one. The poems here do sometimes share a kind of out-of-frame subject with the photograph. The poem reproduced on the back, a sonnet titled ‘A Hummingbird’, faces a photograph of a Gossard ‘line-of-beauty’ plaster model in a deserted conservatory, to neither of which is there any express reference in the poem. The poem begins with an occasion (‘At Nora’s first post-divorce Labor Day bash’), moves to a remark about a vibrator, switches straight to a ruby-throated humming bird (the sound of the vibrator?) and then a mention of the Wake (Finnegan’s?), ending with an image of an engine rolling on after a crash. All this is core Muldoon, not fribble Muldoon. Is it good Muldoon? What do you mean? It’s a perfectly good Muldoon. Go on. Check the tyres.
Jane Weir’s book, Walking the Block, is a solid, handsome, hardback production, a labour of love based on the life and work of two handblock printers Phyllis Barton and Dorothy Larcher. It is a project that has wound up as poetic biography. Of the three books under consideration it is by far the straightest. There is very clearly a subject, in fact two. Each poem faces a full-page reproduction of a print by the subjects with occasional other material – a photograph of Barton and Larcher at a market, the interior of the cabin on a yacht, the cabin furnished out by the pair, some instruments, a diagram, a drawing. A lot of money and commitment has gone into it. The paper is heavy, textured, off-white. The book is an object that demands to be judged by the same craft criteria as do the works of Barton and Larcher, and indeed, Weir. The poems are not directly descriptive of the images facing them, but share some similarity of mood or approach. They strive to tell a tale and deliver the quality of life and work.
‘The poetry canon’, writes Weir in her introduction, ‘is littered with poets who, as with all great artists, practised the tradition of close and accurate observation’. She goes on to mention Marianne Moore and Gerald Manley Hopkins. Not so much Moore or Hopkins, I think, but a touch of Bloomsbury. The poems themselves are solid, honest pieces of work. They are, if anything, a little too faithful, a little too literal to bounce off the page, to tear themselves free of context. But then how could they? The context is the subject and they are the products of subject. One poem, ‘White Spots’, begins:
When Thérèse returned she explained
that her smock was made of cotton
dyed from the plant Indigofera.
Hoisting it over her head,
she spread her hand across the cloth,
like the flat blade of a palette knife
as if smoothing batter for a crêpe.
Sensitive, solid, nothing fancy, straight and careful work. I think it could do with a touch of Muldoon. Solid tyres, steady engine, family car, one careful owner with subject.