Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Earth has not anything to shew more fair

I was going to photograph the view from Westminster Bridge this morning but we've been asked to work from home during the Olympics period, so I took the snaps above with my phone last week.  Two hundred and ten years ago today, Wordsworth admired the city from this same spot, although he dated his famous sonnet September 3rd.  His sister's diary briefly records the moment, a vision of the city seen from the Dover coach, en route to Calais where they would meet Annette Vallon and Wordsworth would see his daughter Caroline for the first time. 'It was a beautiful morning.  The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge.  The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of nature's own grand Spectacles.'

Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802

EARTH has not anything to show more fair;
  Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
  A sight so touching in its majesty.
This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,        
  Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
  Open unto the fields, and to the sky,—
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
  In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
  The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
  And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Ten years ago, Shakespeare's Globe and The Wordsworth Trust published a commemorative volume, Earth has not any thing to shew more fair, edited by the Trust's director Peter Woolf and the writers Alice and Peter Oswald.  The book contains thirty-seven poems inspired by Wordsworth's, including a couple of re-writes from the point of view of Dorothy.  Most of the poets write about the modern view, which can now be enjoyed from the London Eye (as in Charles Tomlinson's poem) or, from even higher up, in an aeroplane coming in to land (Kona McPhee).  By contrast, 'Composed Underneath Westminster Bridge' (Denise Riley) looks down at the river itself: barges, pigeons and brown particles 'churning through the tide.'  I first read Wordsworth at school in A Choice of Poets and none of us taught from this to compare and contrast Wordsworth's 'sight so touching in its majesty' with Blake's bleak 'London' would be surprised to encounter a poem here like Matthew Caley's 'No Bulwark', which asks us to 'behold the tableau, two crackheads and their spoonlit underchins / 'neath the doubled alcove of a riverbridge.'  Language itself has become degraded in Peter Finch's 'N Wst Brdg', a re-write of Wordsworth's lines as an extended text message. Edwin Morgan looks into the future in 'Sometime upon Westminster Bridge' and sees a swollen Thames, shattered Barrier and the city left to drown.

Westminster Bridge on the cover of A Choice of Poets

In some of the book's other poems, parallels are drawn with different bridges or historical moments on the Thames.  Ciaran Carson makes the link with Monet (who came to England in the autumn of 1870 to escape the Franco-Prussian War), contributing a brief imagistic poem entitled 'Claude Monet, The Thames Below Westminster, 1871', which reproduces in words that famous painting of the Houses of Parliament in the mist. Perhaps unsurprisingly those who work in the Houses of Parliament receive short shrift in this collection: Sean O'Brien imagines the bridge 'speaking truth to power' and Alice Oswald stares at 'the regular waves of apparently motionless motion / under the teetering structures of administration.'  She seems to have little time for the people who work round here... 'the weather trespasses into strip-lit offices / through tiny windows into tiny thoughts'. Peter Oswald is equally bleak, imagining  that 'trickles of thinking mingle with the flow / from pipes of every kind' and seep into the river - 'the squeezed out city's boil of poisons / stirred to one colour by the rush to ocean.'  But it doesn't always feel like this, and those of us who love London, despite everything, will always love Wordsworth's poem for the way it conveys the beauty of certain sunlit mornings, when dull would he be who would pass by such a sight, so touching in its majesty.

Detail of the plaque on Westminster Bridge

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fog Tropes

I've embedded above two versions of Fog Tropes, the original for brass sextet and a second version for strings commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.  Ingram Marshall explained the origins of his best known work in an interview with Frank J. Oteri: 'A friend of mine was a performance artist in San Francisco, that's where I was living at the time, asked me to put together what she called a sound score. Not really a piece of music, so much as a bunch of environmental sounds and some electronic music that she could use for a performance piece she was putting together, which had to do with the weather in San Francisco ... So I recorded all of these fog horns and went back to my studio and started making tape loops and basically created a kind of collage of different pitches of fog horns. And some other sounds got in there, you know some buoy ringing, some birds. Lots of birds. Wind sounds.'  Marshall kept a ten minute section to play as a stand-alone tape piece, but the following year, 1981, John Adams suggested he 'juice it up with some trombones and tubas'.  The resulting composition has been performed many times since - 'somebody once did it on a barge floating down a canal in Germany. When the brass players were on the barge and I guess the audience was on the bank. I don't know where the speakers were for the tape part. It's had an interesting history.'

Fog Tropes featured in a recent survey by The Wire of great bass sounds, along with recordings by some of the other environmental sound artists I've mentioned here before: Alan Lamb, Chris Watson, Jana WinderenOne contributor actually chose a recording of foghorns, having searched the internet for examples of their lonely calls echoing across the water.  Fog Tropes was selected by Brian Morton, who writes that it reminds him of Ray Bradbury's story 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' in which a dinosaur falls in love with a lighthouse. 'It's possible to hear the pneumatic voices of Fog Tropes as the minimalist love songs of a forgotten species, but the music is also admonitory and vaguely threatening, suggesting Alcatraz island in a sea mist, imminent shipwreck, phantom disappearance.'  Alcatraz itself was the subject of another Ingram Marshall project: a 1982 collaboration with the photographer Jim Bengston which evolved into a two hour performance piece.  In liner notes for the resulting record, Marshall says that he visited the island to record 'the sounds of buoys, birds and fog horns as well as singing and gambuh flute playing in some of the resonant spaces of the prison. I also captured the famous roar of the cell doors' mechanized closings - this chorus of metal echoing through the wildly reverberant spaces of Alcatraz is probably the perfect sound print of the desolation and utter finality of the place.'

Saturday, July 21, 2012

London's nocturnal beauty vanishes

We went along today to see the Olympics torch procession through Stoke Newington, but the big story this week has been around security, with the army drafted in to cover for those G4S guards who have failed 'to materialise'.  Earlier this month residents of a tower block in Leytonstone lost their court case to prevent high velocity missiles being installed on their roof.  There are five other missiles sites, from Epping Forest to Shooter's Hill, along with a helicopter carrier moored on the Thames, Typhoon jets at RAF Northolt, and sniper-carrying Puma helicopters in Ilford. At the Olympics Airspace site you can download a 100-page manual which 'navigates pilots through the various security and operational airspace restrictions in place for the duration of the Games'  A map shows the prohibited zone for model aircraft, which covers the entire city.

All this makes me wonder how the Met's Air Support Unit, the 'avian police' that Sukhdev Sandhu interviewed for Artangel's Night Haunts project, will fit into the Olympics operations.  He asked one of them to describe the most beautiful thing he had seen at night.  "Oh, where do you begin?  The mist lying in the valleys takes your breath away.  The orange glow of the breaking dawn.  Or sometimes when there's a full moon you can see its reflection in the Thames..."  But these visions are reduced to black-and-white heat traces in the thermal imaging cameras used to scour the city for security threats.  'The thermal imagers themselves, though they're designed to help the police protect the city, produce images that resemble Baghdad, Vietnam - bombing zones for Allied troops. For a moment, London's nocturnal beauty vanishes: the forests seem ash-charred, lit-up areas ghostly apparitions.'

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Oppressive Light

Two new translations of the poetry of Robert Walser have been published this year. Christopher Middleton's slim volume for New Directions is a beautiful thing, but highly selective (it eschews all of Walser's early lyrics).  The Black Lawrence Press have issued Oppressive Light, a fuller collection of translations by Daniele Pantano starting with 'In the Office' from 1897/8 ('The moon peers in on us. / He sees me as a miserable clerk / languishing under the strict gaze / of my boss...'), and ending with 'Contemplation' (1930), written in the Waldau asylum ('...Life lay by the riverside like a boat / no longer able to sway, to drift.')  Carolyn Forché's introduction to Oppressive Light can be read at Ready Steady Book: 'one enters his language to be enveloped in gentle agonies, dark praise, rays of bright pleasure and the tumult of recognitions regarding selfhood and the fog of self, an ich ohne ich.'  More straightforwardly, Hans Bethge, writing in 1920, found 'lovely, inward-looking, and frequently quite ironic poems that are dreamy and spellbinding'.  He was describing early verse like the title poem, 'Oppresive Light', first published in 1904 while Walser was still living in Switzerland:  'How small life is here / and how big nothingness. / The sky, tired of light, / has given everything to the snow.'

The last time I wrote about Robert Walser, I described the way nature in his novel The Assistant seems able to speak to a lonely young man, unsure of his place in this world.  In his early poems, Walser can be found walking home, looking down at the snow, recalling his 'delusional and awkward' conversation, or passing through trees with their pleading hands under a sky 'rigid with fear', or wanting to stop but finding that 'the green of the meadows laughed / the smoke rose smiling like smoke, I carried onwards.'  And yet nature can also be a comfort: 'gently the meadows draw / the dead fear out / of my heart, then / everything is still again.'  If these early poems are reminiscent of The Assistant, the later verse reminds me more of Walser's Microscripts, those strange texts written in a radically miniaturised form of a Germanic script, so small that a whole story could fit on the back of a business card.  Landscape remains an important presence - the first poem in this collection from his years in Berne is called 'How the Small Hills Smiled' (1925).  Among these poems' smiling hills, white clouds and green meadows, flags and boats and laughing children, there is always a whisper of sadness.  Nature, he writes in 'Sensation', is a riddle, cheering but failing to calm him.  He can do without it, but would miss the brilliance of its sounds and colours, enshrining them in memory.  The poem concludes on a note of hope: 'it's beautiful everywhere, / as long as we see beauty from within ourselves.'

Friday, July 13, 2012

Untrue Island

"We really have to listen..."  Alice Oswald was talking on Tuesday evening about the need to get away from "a gentlemanly way of viewing the world" and experience landscape free from nostalgia and picturesque convention.  She thinks we concern ourselves too much with mapping and naming, that sometimes it is better just to observe.  Of course many nature writers have been written about the need to preserve and revitalise the language of landscape - I mentioned here recently, for example, the Home Ground project and Robert Macfarlane's essay 'A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook' - and Oswald does not doubt the value of a rich vocabulary for nature.  But she cautions against the tendency to see this as simply another field for the aquisition of knowledge.  Poetry, she said, is a kind of music in which silences are essential: "language must have its opposite next to it."  The form of the landscape can shape the structure and syntax of a poem, and at the same time poetry itself needs to leave some space for the world beyond.

On Location: Writers, Sounds and Places was an event organised as part of the Writing Britain exhibition, in collaboration with The Guardian and In the Dark.  In addition to Alice Oswald, it featured Rachel Lichtenstein, who we last encountered here sailing down the Thames estuary, Madeleine Bunting, who wrote the biography of an English acre in The Plot, and the 'writer and mythographer' (and, I'm tempted to add, 'national treasure') Marina Warner.  It was great to have an all-woman panel as some nature writing events I've seen advertised seem rather male dominated.  At one point Rachel Lichtenstein was asked how she'd broken into the 'all-male psychogeographers club', reminding me of a recent Matthew Sweet remark that psychogeographers tend to be 'literary men in desperate search for a respectable excuse to escape their childcare responsibilities at the weekend.'  Alice Oswald spoke positively about her domestic ties and of her mental and physical immersion in the tidal landscape of Devon.  She reminded me of an occasion when Robert Macfarlane, questioned about the greater challenge for women in 'wild' places, pointed to the example of Nan Shepherd, who slept out so as to be woken 'by the sharp press of a robin's claw upon her bare arm or the snuffle of a grazing deer.'

Robert Macfarlane's short film on Orford Ness, embedded above, was shown as part of the On Location event.  He has been working there on a commission, Untrue Island, with bass player Arnie Somogyi and has written about being given 'access to off-limits areas into which I'd long wished to pry: flooded and collapsing laboratories, abandoned control rooms. We came to know the site and its resonant place-names off by heart: Cobra Mist, Lab Three, the New Armoury, the Bomb Ballistics Building.'  Ever since reading The Rings of Saturn I've wanted to visit Orford Ness, drawn by the idea of those enigmatic ruins, which are fast becoming a kind of Tintern Abbey for the post-industrial Romantic (the closest I've managed to get is the distant glimpse you can see below).  Those making the trip to the Ness this month for a perfomance of Untrue Island will be 'ferried over the Ore, and then walk for a mile through the site – past sculptures by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson – to reach the New Armoury. The piece is an hour in length, consisting of part improvised jazz and part pre-composed music, the text part-spoken and part-sung, all by Arnie and his fellow musicians. But because the Armoury is open to the weather – doorless at both of its vast and ruined ends – the other performer will, of course, be the Ness itself.'

[As a postscript I should mention that Madeleine Bunting has interviewed Robert Macfarlane at Orford Ness for the first in a series of Guardian podcasts on Landscape and Literature.  In the second she walks the streets of Whitechapel with Rachel Lichtenstein.  A third, not yet available as I write this, will feature Alice Oswald.]

Friday, July 06, 2012

No trace of Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain, Red Pine, Copper Canyon.  The Copper Canyon Press publish a beautiful edition of  the complete poems of Cold Mountain (Han-shan) by Bill Porter, who translates Chinese literature under the name Red Pine. Nobody knows Han-shan's real name, but it is said that he called himself after the location of the cave which he made his home.  In his introduction Red Pine describes visiting this cave, 'located in Chekiang province at the base of Hanyen, or Cold Cliff, a two-day walk from the East China Sea ... Even now, Cold Mountain's old home attracts few visitors.  In May of 1989 and again in October 1991, Layman Fang of Kuoching Temple arranged for a motorized rickshaw to take me and two friends there.'  The road was poor and when they got there they found a roofless hut inside the cave, owned by an old farmer.  After sharing with them his lunch of noodles and red pepper paste, the farmer guided them around the area.  'In the centuries that followed Cold Mountain's disappearance, Buddhists built a monastery just beyond the base of the cliff.  It had since been replaced by terraced field of corns and peanuts but our host told us he still dug up the occasional temple tile.'

Red Pine's search reminded me of Gilbert Highet, seeking traces of Poets in a Landscape (1957): guided by the descriptions in Virgil, Pliny and Sextus Propertius, for example, he finds the Springs of Clitumnus still a source of 'cool copious fresh water, absolutely clean, rising out of dry earth under a hot sun' but is drawn back to the present when he notices 'in one of the fountain-beds, half a dozen Coca-Cola bottles set to cool for possible sale to tourists.'  Robert Macfarlane has just written an article about artistic pilgrimage, including his own attempt to follow W. G. Sebald (seemingly not yet abandoned when I did a post called The Printed Path in 2007).  In his new book The Old Ways, the guiding spirit is Edward Thomas, but he also travels in the footsteps of Eric Ravilious and Nan Shepherd.  Macfarlane's experience of the pine forests of the Siete Picos (described in my last post) reminded me of Richard Holmes on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson in Footsteps (1985): 'I slept out that night under an outcrop of pines, facing east on a slight incline, with the light of the Costaros far way to my left. The turf was springy, and the pine needles seemed to discourage insects. As I lay in my bag, a number of late rooks came winging out of the gloaming, and settled in the pine branches, chuckling to each other. They gave me a sense of companionship, even security: nothing could move up through the trees below me without disturbing them. Once or twice I croaked up at them (it was the wine) and they croaked back: 'Tais-toi, tais-toi.' This night I fell asleep quickly. Only once, waking, I drank two ice-cold mouthfuls of water from my can and, leaning back, saw the Milky Way astonishingly bright through the pine tops, and felt something indescribable - like falling upwards into someone's arms.'

I seem to have become side-tracked...  'People ask the way to Cold Mountain,' Han-shan wrote, 'but roads don't reach Cold Mountain / in summer the ice doesn't melt / and the morning fog is too dense...'  In a footnote to this poem, Red Pine observes that a road does reach Cold Mountain, even though it is only wide enough for one cart and its condition is very variable, depending on the rain.  Furthermore, although the fog can drift inland from the nearby ocean in spring, 'ice and snow appear only briefly during the winter.  But then, this poem is about a different mountain.'  Han-shan's mountain poems are no more topographically specific than Petrarch's spiritual narrative, The Ascent of Mount Ventoux.   Petrarch descends after reading this passage in St. Augustine: 'And men go about admiring the high mountains and the mighty waves of the sea and the wide sweep of rivers and the sound of the ocean and the movement of the stars, but they themselves they abandon.'  Han-shan took the opposite path, abandoning himself to the landscape and remaining in the Tientai Mountains writing poems until one day, it is said, he disappeared into the rocks themselves, squeezing into a crevice which then closed around him.  Red Pine is shown this spot by the old farmer.  'Several vines led down from the spot, and we pulled ourselves up to a fine view of the hills to the south but no trace of Cold Mountain.'