Archive for March, 2017

On poems by Rutger Kopland and Kathleen Jamie

What follows is a brief discussion of use of interruptive image and of modes of address, in two seemingly disparate writers. There is much to be found in common between them.

Under the Apple Tree/Onder de appelboom

http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/4514/auto/UNDER-THE-APPLE-TREE

I came home, it was about
eight and remarkably
close for the time of year,
……………………………………………..

 

…………………….. once again became
too beautiful to be true, …………….
………………………………………………….

and later I heard the wings
of wild geese in the sky
heard how still and empty
it was becoming
……………………………………………..

Rutger Kopland, Under the Apple Tree/Onder de appleboom (Among Cattle/Onder het vee, 1966)

We scarcely notice the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, or the manipulation of mood-buttons. He earns our trust, and the trust of the ordinary reader by foisting no great ideas of redemption on us, by insinuating no Political awkwardness. We get the ‘feel’: the surburbanism of life lived by the ordinary person, with a job, family… in fact, do we recognise in ourselves: nostalgia for the past? The past of a secure economy, of safe jobs, a stable society? This is a claim that plagued Rutger Kopland from these early books.

See how he builds the tension from stanza two: the juxtaposing of details of the neighbour (for which read, everyman/the identifier of self as ordinary: the classic Dutch sense of communalness), the change in light: the dark that identifies colours, blues…. Having keyed up the emotions at this point: the ‘…too beautiful to be true…’ (those last three qualifying words communicate so much, particularly in combination with preceding, ‘…once again…’), he immediately disengages and redirects. The emotional response is channelled via the toys in the grass, via sound, to the house, and identified as the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but in consequence the mind is made open, the imagination engaged, by this ‘mental event’, so that when the geese fly they are identified immediately as ‘wild’, the sky is emptied by their presence, a sense of immanence is apparent.

Once again this keying-up of emotions is channelled to the ‘…precisely you…’: an anchoring, grounding in the here and now.

Now I want to look at Flashing Green Man by Kathleen Jamie: my apologies for the long excerpts, the text of the poem occurs nowhere online

Flashing Green Man

I regret the little time I make to consider
these adult days, …………………
…………………………………………………..
……………………………………… Under the multi’s

walking tall and bejewelled
across our dark land, I wait with the others:
thinking about supper and the grocer’s wife,
……………………………………………………..
………………………………. But these days I don’t much consider.

The green man flashed – he too refuged in cities –
and the traffic stilled for the shouting
news-vendor in his cap and scarf, for us
blethering people; and a sound
in the orange glow: a high kronk-honk
………………………………………………………..
…………………………….. But I stopped

on the rush hour pavement to watch
the skein’s arrow
cross the traffic-choked Marketgait,
and head for the glittering multi’s
tenth or twelth floor, where they banked
in the wind of these pivotal buildings
to pull themselves North to the Sidlaws:
and brash light from windows
……………………………………………………..

………………………………………………………
…… a pale-faced woman peeling potatoes

as her husband climbed the long stairs,
listened, smiled, and wiping the window
cupped her hands around her eyes
to acknowledge a sign
truer than the flashing green man
or directional arrows seen at a junction
where I watched the geese tilt
to make their turn, their beating wings
more precious than angels’ in the city lights.

Kathleen Jamie, The Queen of Sheba, Bloodaxe, 1994

Both poems employ long sentences that take up almost a whole long stanza; both do not employ much by way of commas, colons, semi-colons. The Kathleen Jamie much more than the Rutger Kopland. Why is this? What does the long sentence express in the poem? Because it is used for a reason. What, the lack of punctuation?

Rutger Kopland only uses the comma; this allows a sense of flow, of ongoing thought, of feeling uninterrupted by analysis, discursive thought, consideration.

The long sentence can be seen as a rhythmic device, except that my term ‘device’ devalues the way the writer orders his work in this instance. Both writers contribute to the effect of on-going life in the poems, of on-going life in tandem with reflection; that is, although the poem instances a brief period of time, the minutes of the event, it encapsulates a life period. The point being that life and reflection are portrayed as part and parcel of the same event, the event that that the poem enacts, and that is the poem. It is all thrown against a much bigger, wider screen where times passes and is enacted.

Try to imagine what each poem would be without the interruption of geese.

For Rutger Kopland the geese can be seen as a device for expressing (or discovering?) an emotional state beyond that posited by the poem to that point. Admittedly, tiredness combined with a sense of fulfilment/achievement, had brought Rutger Kopland to a delicate state where he found his cognisance of the evening as too beautiful to be true. I use the term ‘cognisance’ here because I think it is necessary to know something of the man to know the range of the poem.

The late Rudi H van den Hoofdakker was a neuroscientist, who specialized in sleep disorders, and the aging process in the elderly. He was, it has been said, ‘the least metaphysical of men’; he was also a pioneer of the use of ‘ordinary language’ in poetry. By this I mean he did not use terms, express concepts that were not available to common language use. And yet he strove continually to express deeper and deeper insights into the human condition using this limited palate. To read his (translated) poetry aloud is to never stumble over an overwrought, or extravagant image, never to sense any awkwardness due to incursion by uncharacteristic content. I have cited negative attributes; for the positive I would state the poems recommend themselves to us as owning an integrity, honesty even.

In Kathleen Jamie the geese are an interruption into the closed state the city represents, of the wilderness, the ‘natural’ world, from the world that covers major parts of the earth’s surface. Kathleen Jamie has travelled these places, remote, difficult, almost inaccessible. Her books bear this out.

In this poem we are prepared for this special interpretation of the geese, by the Green Man image, a rural image of the essence of wildness in this case translated into the city as an icon for Walk, that is, movement, vitality, if you will.

Without the geese the poem would still have been a very potent expression of the urban life. For some writers this would have been enough. For Kathleen Jamie, though, she has at least a dual vision. Like her fellow Scot, Norman MacCaig with his ‘binocular vision’ who identifies the smell of herring on an Edinburgh high street, or the incursion of Highland (Lochinver/Assynt) experience, memories, into city experience, Kathleen Jamie is aware of the importance to her of those outside places.

She identifies herself as a city dweller in the poem, and this, it could be argued, precipitates the crisis that the incursion of geese engenders. The geese in this case become for her agents of a wider life-experience. Yet it seems to be a gendered life-experience: the clerks tugging on their street clothes are set against the pale-faced woman peeling potatoes: the clerks are oblivious to the geese, although just as trammelled and trapped, whilst the woman, and there is no hint of an unhappy relationship, smiles and recognises something of an extra adjunct to life in the incursion and activity of the geese.

For Rutger Kopland the geese are the vehicle for acknowledging a greater intensity of feeling. In the poem he writes how the sound of the geese precipitated a sense of how still and empty/ it was becoming.

If we compare this stillness and emptiness with the immediately preceding sense of fullness we get a quick switch from full to emptiness, itself symptomatic of emotion without outlet, looping in itself, until anchored by the presence of the other person.

If we compare this sense of emptiness with the following by Kathleen Jamie we maybe can get a handle on the emotion.

Skeins o geese

http://www.versedaily.org/skeinogeese.shtml

Skeins o geese write a word
across the sky. …..
……………………………
The sky moves like cattle, lowin.

I’m as empty as stane, as fields
ploo’d but not sown, naked
an blin as a stane. …..
…………………………………
blin

tae a’ soon but geese ca’ing.

Wire twists lik archaic script
roon a gate. …………………
…………………………………..
………………………  The word whustles

ower high for ma senses. Awa.

…………………………………………………..
…………………………………………………..
………………………………………..

Whit dae birds write in the dark?
A word niver spoken or read.
the skeins turn hame,
on the wind’s dumb moan, a soun,
maybe human, bereft.

Kathleen Jamie, as above

Line 15 – that Awa’., should it be read as The word whustles/ ower high for ma senses and awa? Or is it a direct address: Awa with all that! In the latter case it could be said to serve a similar purpose to the retreat from the intensity of emotion in the Rutger Kopland poem. And as in the Rutger Kopland poem the emotive power of the piece is re-directed, first by disentangling from the past and then by calling upon the standard image for the going beyond language, custom, culture, into a common heritage of human experience, that of the human predicament of being faced with the ultimate full stop, our inevitable deaths.

Both writers have particular takes on use of language. I have mentioned Rutger Kopland’s ‘common language’; Kathleen Jamie intersperses standard English with lowland Scots, a lived language rather than a dictionary-enhanced language such as lallans. Kathleen Jamie’s lived Scots, particularly evident in Skeins o Geese, is also and emphatically a ‘common language’. Elsewhere in the book this poem is from, The Queen of Sheba, we have poems of recognition between people, of a (re-)discovered fellowship. This is at times wholly a gendered recognition, at others a recognition of common humanity. The identifying of herself as a city dweller, as in Flashing Green Man, is a part of this. The book also broadens out into the ‘other’ lands Kathleen Jamie constantly references. There we find recognition and fellowship amongst, and with, nomads and widely different cultural groups.

And where do the poems end, in relation to these interruptions of geese?

In Rutger Kopland the becoming is in the arrival of the partner, remarkably close, that is, it is a treasured relationship. With Rutger Kopland we never move beyond the self. This is what has contributed to his being called essentially a sane writer: he recognises that all our knowledge is the self’s knowledge, that we are always just people on the earth, amongst its variousness. In a later poem Self-portrait as a Horse the writer does not become the horse but is always aware that he is human, and can never enter the being of another, whether person, or creature. We can only know the world other than from the position of our self. In this we are all alike.

In Kathleen Jamie we become aware of the close proximity of the Sidlaw Hills to the city. This is a key feature of much Scottish writing, that city and ‘mountain’ are cheek by jowl. One is never without a glimpse, sighting, of ‘wilderness’ in one form or another. This dual vision, cited above, becomes a means for investigating the common bond in the variousness of human lives, in whatever terrain.

Rutger Kopland investigates a similar connection, but by emphasising the common humanity inherent in all, but from within.

Both poems chart a journey; in Kathleen Jamie this has the added resonance through her experience of nomadic peoples, and the apparently nomadic migrating geese in the city. The journey in Rutger Kopland is an entirely self-referential journey; maybe here we see the impact and legacy of the Calvinist tradition, the sole reliance on the self naked before God, without intercession from priest or saint. This is very much what we now take to be Martin Luther’s great vision. Historically it took many generations, twist and turns, interpretations etc to get to this, but the vision is strong enough for us in our unreligious time to glimpse: it is the existential moment. But in Rutger Kopland’s case brought back from the brink by the bonds of common humanity, of love for family, of duty, of responsibility to one’s community. And all accepted with varying degrees of willingness.

Rutger Kopland (1934-2012):

rk

Kathleen Jamie:
kj

We have all now seen the viral R F Kelly interview.

http://www.news.com.au/world/europe/robert-kellys-live-bbc-interview-gatecrashed-by-his-kids/news-story/941f9467b6664cc9b5684cb6db933814

I was one of the ones who presumed the lady was the nanny, and not his wife. Of course, those of us who did, are now happily castigated:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-39244325

It’s all about reading the signals, aligning with experience, and about rail-roaded expectations.
Who now remembers the argument he was putting across? It was presented as a purely visual event.

Those of us who have siblings close in age recognised this: the older/wiser one goes there, does that, so the other follows. It is about learning to be part of a larger unit. We will need it when we go to school, to be obedient so we can take in, learn.
As they get older this can turn into utter frustration: being followed around all the time. I remember it, I did it: we trust our family more than neighbour kids. Something our parents taught us. So, when the older one needs a broader discourse, the younger does not understand, and thinks it’s business as usual.

The older child came in: she knew something was going on, with the computer, her dad talking to it. She played along.
Oh, but he pushed her away.
Maybe she was way too disruptive anyway. Maybe not. But what did we read from that?
And the other sailed in, in the arc.

This was piling it on: we knew the classic two set-up, so when the lady came in, with the expression of horror, it was a classic full three-set fail.

But how did she handle it? She did not assume the authority we presumed his wife would.
And, now knowing she was his wife, my heart bleeds a little for her predicament, how she was caught out here in her uncertainty to her position, status.

It is no longer so funny. I now read her moment of pain in this.
Why does it hurt; what do I read? My own embarrassments? Probably; me not measuring up to some wider discourse’s system of etiquette.
I read her crouching, and closing the door on hands and knees as not the wife-status behaviour of someone from my own very restricted cultural experience. I was wrong; this was her/South Korean etiquette.

This is how Brexit will be.
Our ignorance of others will be written large. Because this is how it was before Britain joined the Common Market, when anything continental was exotic, when foreigners were to be mocked, and Ealing Farce and Carry-Ons ruled the waves… on a very, very small pond.

 

I was right to be castigated. I did go the easy way, and assume. I did play along with the media game/online presentation.
Tiredness, loss of attention, over-exposure to the needs of a world, much of which is not my business – all these sap alertness and attention.

‘Pay attention, boy. Yes, you at the back.’

PS

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-39267005

On Thursday 9th March it was announced Howard Hodgkin had died. He was 84.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-39219709

In memory, I am re-posting my blog on his work:

Howard Hodgkin (1933-2017)

To view a Howard Hodgkin painting is like being in on some event, but with the sound turned off. Everything is happening at once, but there’s this gap.

His paintings are visual ‘events’; you feel the churn of intensities.

It works by being so tightly contained. Most of his paintings are comparatively small: 37×38 cm (Still Life), 26x30cm (Venice Sunset). It’s only in later works he takes on size: 196x269cm (When Did We Go To Morocco?); but these are the exception.

The fierce overpainting objectifies emotional responses. The technically assured range of brushstrokes persuades us into seeing the harmonics of the piece.

So what soundtrack would we put here, then?

Harrison Birtwistle (Sir), for his layered textures and sense of theatre? Because Hodgkin is dramatic, his “emotional responses” (ie his paintings) lift and shape, throw into relief, subjective experience onto an objective plane.

But also for both their idiosyncratic Englishness. Unmistakable. Hodgkin’s focus is mostly domestic, the interior: we, the public, look either into frames into the picture, or out of an interior. Our sense of perspective is jeapordised to such an extent whichever way we look, that Hodgkin’s intensity becomes ours.

The unmistakable overpainting of the frame, and the painted frame within the painting (see Snapshot) is to “protect from the world” the at times fleeting emotion of the painting.
SNAPSHOT, 1984-93

snap

His paintings are deeply figurative; witness the quantity of portraits. At their heart (the canvas level, or, as he uses mostly board, the wood level) is generally a figurative leitmotif, before arpeggios of response, a polyphony of tonal qualities, describe their way out.

Ok, joke over, but you get the idea.

Painting for Hodgkin is about creating “illusionistic spaces” through the use of a specific vocabulary: colour is to create depth, the richly textured surfaces that allow underpainting to show through create counterpoint; patternings and obliquities help suggest space, while other techniques defeat space, keeping our eyes on the surface of the painting.

He has learned, surprisingly, from Sickert: “one way to make a painting exciting is the intimation of a human drama through psychological and sexual innuendo”. He does this through his tightly controlled focus, an almost keyhole perspective. Hodgkin himself writes: “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations”, that is, not emotions themselves. He also writes: “Pictures result from the accretion of many decisions, some are worked on for years, to find the exact thickness of a feeling.” (to Susan Sontag).

But is the Sickert so surprising? Hodgkin studied at Camberwell School of Art 1949 to 1954. Camberwell at that time was very influenced by the Euston Road School, in reaction to avant-garde’s pure abstractionism, and Surrealism. The Euston Road School (William Coldstream, Graham Bell, Victor Pasmore) was all about disciplined realism, observation, everyday life. And deeply influenced by Sickert and the Camden Town Group.

You also need to consider early Vuillard for the mood and interior scenes. Later, of course Hodgkin’s peers, Matisse, Derain, and who were to become fellow travellers: the neo expressionists.

His focus has always been intimacy, the understated; his figuration cubist, similar to de Kooning. Hodgkin’s observation is very much a consideration of remembered moments, his disciplined realism the veracity of the self.

Of It Can’t Be True (1987-90)

Itcantb

Michael Auping writes, it is “echo-like in its composition. It is composed of tilting frames jostling each other for position within the whole.” So, a constant tension set up by structural elements: the bright yellow frame in the centre is stopped short by a series of abrupt brush strokes that “violate its containment”.

And the title: what can’t be true? I question the need to know. The painting stands, for us; it emerges out of the personal life of the painter. As with all creative works there are always the unknowable elements: the subjective self’s containment is challenged, maybe compromised, but never wholly claimed. The titles are at times oblique because they are commentaries, jokes even, on the self, the legislated life, the legislators of life.

Auping comments, on Snapshot (1984-93), “We are given an inside view…  how the artist allows the marks to show through other marks, how he half buries and obliterates, leaving only what is necessary to re-engage his memory of the subject, though that memory and its relation to the title remains mysterious.”

As with all things, we have to learn to read paintings, their vocabularies, their aesthetics. Those who praise Old Masters for their perspicacity only see, in fact, a fraction of what they look at.

And so we begin to hear the soundtrack to these paintings (and it is not Birtwistle) in the dramatic tensions of the canvases, the emotional sweeps and uncoverings of colour, the personal chiaroscuro.

What has not yet been addressed is Hodgkin’s purpose in using the technique of the overpainted frames. It is a constant feature in his work, this bleeding out from the canvas onto walls, into the room’s light, but most importantly, into the viewer’s own existence.

There is something Derridean in this, how Derrida interrogates Kant and his logic of the parergon: “those things attached to the work of art but not part of its intrinsic form or meaning” eg the frame of the painting, the colonnades of a palace, drapery of statues…. The strict demarcation between one thing and another.

Derrida’s ‘indeterminacy’ informs Hodgkins’ sense of self; sexual orientation, and a sense of community are all implied here; hence a democracy of being, of being in the world. Hence, also, the personal quality, the familiarity, of some of his titles, implying a relationship with the viewer. Like all relationships it has to be worked at, constantly renewed, updated, changed.

HH

https://michael9murray.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/darkness-spoken-the-collected-poems-of-ingeborg-bachmann/

There was a loud rat-a-tat-tat on her door. It was a warm Rome night; she looked up from her work – That time?
She tutted at the interruption, at the time, at another night without dinner. Was she really tutting at her own forgetfulness? She turned back to her work, the old manual typewriter.

The door was knocked – banged – again. With great annoyance she stood but sitting so long had not been kind to her hips and she stumbled, hobbled, towards the door, holding onto her old, scant furniture.
She became aware of the noises around her for the first time, noises from the other apartments she was housed among. There was the next door radio again, and the other side the harassed voice of  mother of two little girls. Upstairs for once was quiet. Odd that, she was thinking. And then the door banged again.

‘Who is it?’ she called in her still-inflected Italian.
‘The Police. Open up please.’
Still she paused, the particular emotions this roused racing through her like long-lost family. She opened the door a crack, then more as she recognised the older man’s face.
‘Hello again,’ he smiled sardonically.
‘Upstairs?’ she asked. He nodded. Without being asked they walked in. They looked round the small, cramped apartment.
‘You would think,’ the younger of the two men was saying, ‘with all these papers, books… they’d sound-proof.’
‘Sound, like hot air, rises.’ The other motioned to the ceiling above, still strangely quiet.
‘This is the third time your neighbours have complained,’ the older man said, not unkindly.
‘I have to work.’ she said.
‘I know, I know….’

‘We need to see your papers.’ It was the younger man, he did not like the way his older officer was being easy with the perpetrator. There must be respect for the law.
She showed him her passport, permits.
‘German ?’ He was unsure now, the old enmity was still alive
‘Austrian!’ She was suddenly very much awake.
‘The older man moved in front of his comrade, gently returning her papers to her.
‘It is late, though,’ he said, ‘people need to rest after a long day.’
‘But I need to work,’ she repeated; or I’ll go mad, was running through her head.
The younger man was trying to claw back the ground he’d just lost,
‘What are you working on?’ His tone was a little too authoritative; he realised it and could not keep eye contact.
‘Just… just some poetry, a novel.’
The younger man was leafing through her papers. She looked anguished. The older man sighed, tired and in need of some cooler air after the stuffy room.

‘It is such a… little thing.’ the younger officer said, holding up the poem she had typed out already. He looked disappointed. They were moving towards the door at last.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘such a little thing.’

 

ib2

Based on a real event.

ib1