Saturday, October 27, 2007

An undulating country of clouds

A book I never tire of dipping into (and always end up re-reading more than I intended) is John Suiter's Poets on the Peaks. It describes the experiences of Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen in the North Cascades where they all worked as lookouts, watching for fires from the summits of Crater Mountain, Sourdough Mountain and Desolation Peak. It is a most beautiful book to read, thanks to Suiter's black and white photographs of the key sites and landscapes. Some of these can be seen at the Poets on the Peaks website, along with extracts from the text. The section there that quotes from the book's Epilog gives a sense of how brief and special this episode in American literary culture was: the isolated lookout cabins that gave these poets the chance to experience wild nature, hard work and solitude, along with space to cultivate their poetry and Buddhism, are mostly no longer used. 'Fittingly, the last two operational fire-watch cabins on the Upper Skagit today are Kerouac’s on Desolation and Snyder’s and Whalen’s on Sourdough.'

Here are three Poets on the Peaks links:
Incidentally, there is a John Suiter photograph here in a similar style to those used to illustrate Poets on the Peaks, this one showing a nineteenth century version of the lookout stations, Thoreau's cabin at Walden. Suiter starts Poets on the Peaks with a quotation from Thoreau which could be describing the landscapes experienced by Snyder, Kerouac and Whalen:

'As the light increased I discovered around me an ocean of mist, which by chance reached up exactly to the base of the tower, and shut out every vestige of the earth, while I was left floating on this fragment of the wreck of a world, on my carved plank, in cloudland... All around beneath me was spread for a hundred miles on every side, as far as the eye could reach, an undulating country of clouds, answering in the varied swell of its surface to the terrestrial world it veiled. It was such a country as we might see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise.'

- from "Tuesday" in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Poems of moon and breeze

Yesterday we went to look at the Korean moon jar on show at the British Museum. It was bought in 1935 in an antique shop in Seoul by Bernard Leach and subsequently lent to Lucie Rie. As the BM site says, ‘When Leach saw the jar in Rie's studio, he decided that it should remain there.’ There is an article about the exhibition at the London Korean Links site.
One of the wall captions mentions the particular significance of the moon in Korean culture. I put “Korean Moon Poem” into google and the first thing that came up was “we are very pleased to advise that... Brigitte Bardot has taken up the cause of Korea's moon bears...” Turning instead to my copy of Peter M. Lee’s Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry, I had a look through to see how the moon had been treated in the nature poetry of Korea. It doesn’t seem to me to be a dominant theme, but it is a strong element in many of the poems. For example, there is Songs of Five Friends by Yun Sondo (whose verses making up The Angler’s Calendar (1651) I have mentioned here before); the five friends are water, stone, pine, bamboo and the moon. For Yun the moon’s appeal lies in the way it sees everything, but says nothing.

The moon also features in some of the poems of scholarly retreat written by Neo-Confucian philosophers in the previous century. The moon’s brightness and the wind’s freshness provide the setting for peaceful thought, far from the cares of the city. Kwon Homun mentions the clarity provided by ‘the windy air and bright round moon’, while Song Hon says ‘a clear breeze has no price, the bright moon no lover.’ Yi I (1536-84) writes ‘my study by the water, how cool and clean! Here I will discuss learning and make poems of moon and breeze.’ These lines are in the fifth of his Nine Songs of Mount Ku, which describe a series of inspirational landscapes: Crown Rock, Flower Rock, Emerald Screen, Pine Cliff, Hidden Screeens, Fisher’s Gorge, Maple Rock, Zither Shoal and Mount Mun.

Moon Jar in the National Museum of Korea

Friday, October 19, 2007

The True Line

Last weekend I went to the Small Publishers Book Fair at the atmospheric Conway Hall to see Eugen Gomringer talk about and read some of his concrete poems. While there I bought a couple of intriguing books from Colin Sackett. They both use illustrations from old geography books - charming relics from before the quantitative revolution and rise of critical geography, now recontextualised and given a second life as artist books. In this new form there is a more direct focus on the beauty of patterns and forms in the landscape. The books now raise questions rather than provide explanations, prompting thoughts about place, documentation, text and image, science and art.

The first of these two books is a little version of F. J. Monkhouse's Landscape from the Air, with a selection of aerial photographs featuring British locations. The pages of the original have been shrunk to about 8cm high so that the eye focuses on the images rather than the explanatory text. The white border frames each image and gives them the appearance of the documentary artworks created by people like Robert Smithson and Douglas Huebler. The retrieval and reconfiguring of an old book in this way partly would seem to reflect the 'archival impulse' behind many recent art projects. The images recall a time when British culture, under threat, was preoccupied with ideas of landscape; they are also a reminder of the aerial photographs taken during the war.

The other book I bought was
The True Line, a compilation of drawings by Geoffrey Hutchings. Colin Sackett writes: 'Geoffrey Hutchings published just a handful of books, all addressing the search for geographical and topographical truths, and for the ways of recording and depicting these truths precisely and economically by the handwritten word and line. In addition to his contribution to the development of the teaching of field studies in Britain in the late 1940s, with its emphasis on the direct observation and interpretation of landscape, he achieved a masterly ability to ‘read’ and transcribe a place in a graphic composition—be it a sketch-map or a plan, a tabular profile or a section, or an annotated panoramic drawing. In all of these compositions he integrated line and text in a perfect balance of brevity and detail.'

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A good prospect will ease melancholy

In his great compendium, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton includes a ‘Digression of Air’ in which he talks about the healthy properties of different climates and concludes in general that ‘variety of actions, objects, air, places, are excellent good in this infirmity, and all others, good for man, good for beast.’ Here is an extract describing the benefits of looking out on a good landscape...
'A good prospect alone will ease melancholy, as Comesius contends, lib. 2. c. 7. de sale. The citizens of Barcino, saith he, otherwise penned in, melancholy, and stirring little abroad, are much delighted with that pleasant prospect their city hath into the sea, which like that of old Athens besides Aegina Salamina, and many pleasant islands, had all the variety of delicious objects: so are those Neapolitans and inhabitants of Genoa, to see the ships, boats, and passengers go by, out of their windows, their whole cities being situated on the side of a hill, like Pera by Constantinople, so that each house almost hath a free prospect to the sea, as some part of London to the Thames: or to have a free prospect all over the city at once, as at Granada in Spain, and Fez in Africa, the river running betwixt two declining hills, the steepness causeth each house almost, as well to oversee, as to be overseen of the rest. Every country is full of such delightsome prospects, as well within land, as by sea, as Hermon and Rama in Palestina, Colalto in Italy, the top of Magetus, or Acrocorinthus, that old decayed castle in Corinth, from which Peloponessus, Greece, the Ionian and Aegean seas were semel et simul at one view to be taken. In Egypt the square top of the great pyramid, three hundred yards in height, and so the Sultan's palace in Grand Cairo, the country being plain, hath a marvellous fair prospect as well over Nilus, as that great city, five Italian miles long, and two broad, by the river side: from mount Sion in Jerusalem, the Holy Land is of all sides to be seen: such high places are infinite: with us those of the best note are Glastonbury tower, Box Hill in Surrey, Bever castle, Rodway Grange, Walsby in Lincolnshire, where I lately received a real kindness, by the munificence of the right honourable my noble lady and patroness, the Lady Frances, countess dowager of Exeter: and two amongst the rest, which I may not omit for vicinity's sake, Oldbury in the confines of Warwickshire, where I have often looked about me with great delight, at the foot of which hill I was born: and Hanbury in Staffordshire, contiguous to which is Falde, a pleasant village, and an ancient patrimony belonging to our family, now in the possession of mine elder brother, William Burton, Esquire. Barclay the Scot commends that of Greenwich tower for one of the best prospects in Europe, to see London on the one side, the Thames, ships, and pleasant meadows on the other. There be those that say as much and more of St. Mark's steeple in Venice. Yet these are at too great a distance: some are especially affected with such objects as be near, to see passengers go by in some great roadway, or boats in a river, in subjectum forum despicere, to oversee a fair, a marketplace, or out of a pleasant window into some thoroughfare street, to behold a continual concourse, a promiscuous rout, coming and going, or a multitude of spectators at a theatre, a mask, or some such like show.'

Friday, October 12, 2007

Return to Songshan

There's a promising site called Mountain Songs that "connects ancient (and some modern) Chinese poetry to the sites where the poetry was written or written about. It enables you to experience the same sights that the poets themselves viewed hundreds of years ago." It's not all that clear yet - for example when I looked up Wang Wei I wasn't sure what landscape is shown in the photograph. But you can look up a few of the mountains that Wang Wei wrote about in his poems, such as Mount Sung or Sōngshān: "Setting sun floods autumn mountains. Sōngshān towers high in the distance, / Coming back, I shut my door on the world..."

Postscript 2023

Mountain Songs, with the links I included above, has disappeared from its original place and is now harder to find, but it does still exist at a new address:

The 'About Us' tab gives no information on the authors and still says the site is under construction. However, Bill Porter wrote about Mountain Songs in his 2016 book about a thirty day journey round the sites of Chinese poetry, Finding Them Gone (p361). The site was created by Gary Flint, who travelled all over China photographing mountains and compiling translations. His 'technical adviser' was Robin Chang (Chang Ch'i). Flint sadly died of cancer in 2009, three years after I wrote this post on my blog. He had been a classmate at Reed College of Gary Snyder, whose translations of Han Shan first got me interested in Chinese poetry. 

In 2011 Mountain Songs was the fifth recommendation for classical Chinese poetry by Qiu Xaolong, on the Five Books site. Here's what he says of Gary Flint:

For a few years he worked and lived in Shanghai, where I met him. We would talk about poetry and poetry translation over dim sum, but he passed away over a year ago. I chose his website because he so selflessly dedicated his time, energy and money to create it. He collected translations by other translators, and also published some of his own. The website is still available because a friend of his, in memory of him, is keeping it up. Poetry translation is difficult, and he did it simply because of his passion for it. Anybody who loves Chinese poetry can go to the website. So I felt I had to mention it in his memory.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1944) is the last painting discussed in Roger Cardinal’s book The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash (1989). It seems to capture perfectly the qualities of Nash’s approach, because ‘the equinoctial arrangement of the total picture space is like the simultaneous presentation of an actual landscape and its dream-like mirror-image.’ The actual landscape was the Wittenham Clumps, which Nash had first visited in 1909 and which now, in declining health, he could see again, twelve miles distant from the house at Boar’s Hill near Oxford where he was staying. Roger Cardinal describes this landscape as the ‘ultimate Place’ for Nash, full of personal meaning, ancient history (they were a Neolithic burial site) and symbolic resonances: resembling breasts, pyramids or clouds, depending on the painting. In this painting, ‘taking equinoctial light as a general metaphor for his poetic revisualisation of the world, Nash invests this ancient setting with all the atmosphere of the surreal. Both real and unreal, lit up and mysterious, the magical landscape hovers before us, as we before it, suspended in a zone of pleasurable confusion wherein the familiar brushes against the unfamiliar, and the intangible floats silently into our embrace.’

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Porlingland Oak

Following on from the last posting about ‘The Printed Path’ - a few more words about Simon Pope, who provided a landscape-related performance piece just before lunch. The idea was that he would stand up and “recall” a John Crome painting in the Tate collection, The Poringland Oak (see below). He ignored the figures in the painting and tried to describe the tree itself, speaking in a hesitant, indefinite fashion which gave his monologue a vulnerable quality and left me, at least, feeling slightly uneasy. It seemed to be about the impossibility of re-presentation, of understanding what it was the painter saw, either in reality or in his mind’s eye. Watching him I was reminded of an occasion when I was hunting for a slide to illustrate a talk and, not finding it, was advised by a passing art historian that I would “have to ekphrate!” The performance last weekend would certainly have qualified as ekphrasis, which, after all, comes in many different forms.

John Crome, The Porlingland Oak (c1818-20)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Waterlog exhibition featured The Memorial Walks in which Simon Pope asked writers to memorise landscape paintings, walk out into the real landscape and then try to recall them. In the gallery, the paintings were ‘draped with black silk, reminiscent of the ancient Dutch ritual practiced in homes in which there had been a death, whereby landscape paintings and mirrors were draped with mourning ribbons in order that the departing soul would not become distracted upon its final journey’.