Sunday, December 31, 2006


Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo is a key landscape for the poet Michael Longley. There is a page on the Teachnet Ireland site that includes his poem 'Carrigskeewaun' and some teacher's notes explaining how it contrasts 'wild natural scenery and the domestic images of picnics, children at play by the sea and boiling kettles'. The site also has a long list of Michael Longley links and some quotes from the poet, including this justification for his landscape poetry: 'The most urgent political problems are ecological: how we share the planet with the plants and the other animals. My nature writing is my most political. In my Mayo poems I am not trying to escape from political violence. I want the light from Carrigskeewaun to irradiate the northern darkness. Describing the world in a meticulous way is a consecration and a stay against damaging dogmatism.'

There is another site for 'Carrigskeewaun' here and a further poem inspired by the landscape, 'Remembering Carrigskeewaun', is at the Poetry Archive.

Postscript: 2011

With the publication of his new collection, Kate Kellaway in The Guardian interviewed Michael Longley.  He told her "I don't go to Carrigskeewaun for escapist reasons. I want the beauty, the psychedelic wild flowers, the calls of the wild birds. I want all of that shimmering beauty to illuminate the northern darkness. We have peace of a kind, but no cultural resolution – the tensions which produced the Troubles are still there. It is important for me to see beautiful Carrigskeewaun as part of the same island as Belfast. I might be most a Belfast man when I am in Carrigskeewaun."  And then a bit later, in the same interview, he envisaged his own death.  "There is a headland as you approach Carrigskeewaun and that is where I want my ashes scattered. And I just want one little stone, with my name on it, to be blown around by the wind and to mingle with the sand grains."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Monk by the Sea

Among the many fascinating readings in Harrison, Wood & Geiger's Art in Theory 1648-1815 are two versions of a short article on the famous Friedrich painting, The Monk by the Sea, which was exhibited at the Berlin Royal Academy of Art in 1810. These texts clearly show the style of two (possibly three) of the great German Romantic writers. The first is by Clemens Brentano (although 'it is likely' that Achim von Arnim 'contributed towards the composition'): a piece called 'Various Emotions before a Seascape by Friedrich', submitted to the Berliner Adendblatter journal, edited by Heinrich von Kleist. However, this version only appeared in 1826; in 1810 Kleist actually published a cut-down version re-written by himself. Brentano's original is light-hearted and witty, featuring various characters overheard discussing the painting. Kleist's version is much darker ('the painting stands there with its two or three mysterious objects like the apocalypse'); it is a voice instantly recognisable if you've read his stories (Penguin publish an excellent anthology).

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809
Source: Wikipedia Commons

One thing the two articles share almost word for word is this memorable opening sentence: 'It is splendid, in infinite loneliness by the shore of the sea under a cheerless sky, to stare at a limitless expanse of water; in part, this is due to the fact that one has gone there, that one must return, that one would like to cross over, that one cannot do so; that everything belonging to life is missing and that one hears one's own voice in the roar of the tide, in the billowing of the wind, in the passing of the clouds and in the lonely cry of the birds; in part it is due to a demand which is made by the heart and by the withdrawal of nature...'

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Route 128 by the power lines

Jonathan Richman has celebrated the landscape of New England in various songs over the years. For example, 'Twilight in Boston' is like one of those solitary, Romantic walking poems, although when you look at the words in isolation from the music they are little more than a simple itinerary: "Now we're walking up Beacon Street / Through the back bay there / Few clouds, heading for Kenmore Square.." The names acquire an aura for those of us who don't know Boston, and we want to believe that those who do know the city would recognise the poetry of the place in these bare phrases.

Perhaps the most effective of Jonathan Richman's landscape evocations is the moment in some versions of 'Roadrunner' where he breaks off to describe the way the world seems from his car:

'Can you feel it out in Needham now?
out in route 128 by the power lines
it's so exciting there at night
with the pine trees in the dark
it's so cold here in the dark
with 50,000 watts of power
we go by faster miles an hour
with the radio on...' 

A friend and fellow Jonathan Richman fan once went to Boston and brought back a photograph of a sign with those magic words 'Route 128'. Looked at here in England I knew it was a resonant metonym for something, but of what I wasn't quite sure: Jonathan Richman? Rock & Roll? American road songs, road movies, road stories...? Or just a sense of freedom?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A famine road on the borders of Connacht

There is a recording of Eavan Boland reading her poem 'That the Science of Cartography is Limited' on the Norton site. There is also an essay by Boland in the Literary Review in which she taks about her boarding school in England:
"There were no maps in our house when I was growing up, none that I remember. At least not in the obvious places where I saw them in other houses--on the walls, framed, or as pages open on a table. If there were I have no image of them. But there were maps at school... Every day I sat there--six years old, then eight, then ten--always coming back to the same classroom for history, for science, for English, for religion. Always seeing a teacher in front of the map, speaking with certainty and precision. Often entering the strange illusion and that the teacher was mute and the map was speaking through her. Look what I own it said. See what you have lost... I was certainly aware, long before I wrote this poem, that the act of mapmaking is an act of power and that I--as a poet, as a woman and as a witness to the strange Irish silences which met that mixture of identities--was more and more inclined to contest those acts of power. The official version-and a map is rarely anything else--might not be suspect as it discovered territories and marked out destinations."
In 'That the Science of Cartography is Limited', Boland writes about an incident where she came upon an Irish famine road in a wood. This road is not on the map. As she explains in the later essay, "the fact that these roads, so powerful in their meaning and so powerless at their origin, never showed up on any map of Ireland seemed to me then, as it does now, both emblematic and ironic."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Charnwood Forest

I have started adding labels to these posts, relating them to different types of landscape. This is not necessarily very helpful because, despite the titles for each entry, Some Landscapes is not an inventory of actual landscapes. But I like the idea of clicking on the word and getting up all entries which refer to mountains by way of highlighting some aspect of landscape in culture, or something about the work of a particular artist.

Of course only a subset of cultural landscapes are likely to give insights into particular places, and this is true for all periods of art. For example, I could boost the number of postings on forests by mentioning Charnwood in Leicesterhire, which features in Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion (The Sixe and Twentieth Song). But being written in 1622 it sounds like this:
'No tract in all this isle, the proudest let her be,
Can show a sylvan nymph for beauty like to thee:
The satyrs and the fauns, by Dian set to keep,
Rough hills, and forest holts, were sadly seen to weep,
When thy high-palmed harts, the sport of bows and hounds,
By gripple borderers' hands, were banished thy grounds.
The dryads that were wont thy lawns to rove...'
And so on. It is possible to strip out the classical allusion here and focus on what the satyrs were weeping about: greedy (gripple) cottagers killing off the deer. But the dryads provide further distraction: they rove to Sharpley and Cademon, real places which are not described, and on Bardon Hill we are merely told that they are joined by 'harmless elves.' To be fair, there are brief bursts of description in this poem but it does not engage directly with the Leicestershire landscape.

There is a useful on-line summary of the Poly-Olbion by William Moore. His description of the twenty-sixth song from which the lines above are taken is as follows:
'Topographical competition continues in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire. The Vale of Bever (Belvoir) matches herself with previous boasting valleys. The Muse defends the slowness of the Soar River, by analogy to a young girl visiting a sumptuous palace for the first time. The Soar praises its Charnwood Forest for containing all the best features of every other forest. The Trent River, comparing herself favorably with the Thames and the Severn, catalogues her fish. Sherwood Forest, in competition with Charnwood, tells the story of Robin Hood and his bowmen. The Peak, a "withered Beldam," tells of her seven wonders (caves, wells, a hill of sand, and a forest) before the song flows down from the hills along the Darwin (Derwent) River.'

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mountains of the Mind

Oslo's National Museum is organised very well on thematic grounds. There was a lot of criticism when Tate Modern opened with a Richard Long right opposite a Monet, and to some extent I agreed that this tended to diminish both works, but the idea of juxtaposing responses to landscape from different eras is something that I do enjoy (as should be evident from this web log). In Oslo there is an excellent room with striking contemporary works like Marianne Heske's Mountains of the Mind (1988), Per Bernsten's View No. 4, Eggedal 1985 and Hiroshi Sugimoto's Norwegian Sea, Veseralen (1990), placed among nineteenth century Norwegian landscape paintings. Among the latter are Kitty Kielland's beautiful Summer Night (1886), a small Friedrich-like painting by Thomas Fearnley, Old Birch at the Sognefjord (1839), and Johan Christian Dahl's vast and detailed, View from Stalheim over Naerodalen (1842), parts of which are like a hyperreal Chinese mountain landscape.

Johan Christian Dahl, View from Stalheim over Naerodalen (1842)
Source: Wikipedia Commons

I bought a postcard of the Marianne Heske work, a video image of a mountain scene with what appear to be heat-sensitive colours. I can't find the exact image on line but there is a similar one here and a different video image here. Another example in a similar style is Full Moon Mountain (1987). I had not encountered Heske's work before. It says here that Heske created "canvases made up of enlargements of video photograms which had registered the emergence of lava in a volcanic eruption" - I am not sure if this is a reference to Mountains of the Mind? Visually Heske's work brought to mind the more extreme Symbolist and Expressionist landscape paintings - the design of the National Museum invites such comparisons.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Hooray the blog is back! I now seem to be able to get access to Beta Blogger through a Mozilla browser... anyway here's a quick post to resume normal service.

Edvard Munch, The Yellow Log (1911)

I went to Oslo at the start of the month. I was really disappointed by the Munch museum, more notable now for the extraordinarily high level of security than the art: airlock doors, whirring cameras, silent security guards watching your every move. Two landscapes were on display, Winter in Kragero (1912) which looks a bit like a CĂ©zanne hillside suddenly covered in snow, and The Yellow Log (1911) in which a woodland scene is given some ostranenie with the prominent log of the title, a shining Symbol like a felled sunbeam. These two post-date most of Munch's best, and best known, paintings. There is an earlier landscape in the Nasjonalgalleriet which I much preferred: Vinterbillede (1899), a simple image of winter that achieves an atmosphere of oppressive stillness through heavy paint and a cropped view of dark trees in the snow.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Suspension of Blog due to Beta Blogger Problems

As I am continuing to have problems logging in with the new Beta Blogger, I am having to suspend this blog. I cannot now access the Blog through either Internet Explorer or Firefox. I can only get past the login prompt by using Safari (which is what I'm doing now), but then, once in, the options for actually writing an entry seem to be severely limited. I cannot use text formats or include links and I can't copy and paste from other packages. The only thing I seem able to do is type plain text, which is not really much better than nothing. I'll try to work out how to get round these problems and hope that Blogger sort some of them out.