Saturday, March 28, 2009


Philippe Jaccottet is described by Roger Cardinal in the Oxford Companion to Literature in French as follows. 'Swiss by birth, Jaccottet settled in a French village in the Drôme, a region of wooded hills and mountainous prospects from which he derives a landscape poetry of non-specific and universal resonance. ... Trees and birds, rain and snow, moon and stars are the archetypal features of a world dense with intimations of harmony and transfiguration. Inspired by Hölderlin, Rilke and Ungaretti, each of whom he has translated, Jaccottet celebrates those rare moments of participatory insight when contingent phenomena, lyrically voiced, accede to the status of metaphor or metaphysical symbol.'

Beauregard (1981) is a set of five prose pieces, the first of which was inspired by the poet's chance discovery of a remote, 'insignificant' village, in the Drôme called Beauregard. I read it in the Bloodaxe translation by Mark Treharne, who describes Beauregard as a collection of 'landscapes in prose', 'place reassembled as text.' Jaccottet writes of both the physical setting and his own interior landscape, something Treharne sees as inevitable - 'endemic in the whole business of inscribing landscape in the referential system of words'. However, the approach is something particularly associated with certain poets: Eugenio Montale for example (whose writing on the Cinque Terra I have described here before). Jaccottet cites Montale's poem Tempi di Bellosguardo in his own poem - they both contain 'the same word'.

I found Mark Treharne's general introduction to Jaccottet interesting, touching as it does on some of the difficulties of dealing with landscape in the arts today. Here are some of the points made in it:
  • Jaccottet elected to live in the Drôme to avoid distractions, not to write regional verse or nature poetry. The landscape provides 'a point of focus for sensory, affective and meditative response.'
  • His poetry represents attentiveness pushed to its limits. But 'scrutiny should not be too intense, too keen for the capture, or it will kill its object.'
  • The eyes, according to Jaccottet, drink in the world and 'contribute to its metamorphosis into immaterial images.' In his poetry, 'objects become images and ultimately figures of language.'
  • But landscape is not just a static image, it changes constantly and Jaccottet reflects this (particularly the play of light and seasonal change).
  • One of Jaccottet's prose works is called Paysages avec figures absentes, which sounds like a collection of landscape paintings that have lost their 'figures' (in connection with this, see my earlier post on artworks entitled 'Landscape with...') In this, he describes intense encounters with a landscape that sound like epiphanies, but is reluctant to make too much of them. 'Occasionally, as if our movements had crossed - like the encounter of two glances that can create a flash of illumination and open up another world - I have thought I had glimpsed what I should have to call the still centre of the moving world. Too much said? Better to move on...'
  • As a modern landscape poet, Jaccottet finds it important to stress the distance between nature and human cycles: 'landscape can appear ordinary and familiar, but also alien, full of uneasy distances, a foreign language.'
  • Finally, the introduction to the Bloodaxe translation begins with discussion of a brief poem that contemplates the sight of snow on a mountain. It is from Airs: poèms 1961-64, a collection inspired by haiku. The poem is an 'enigmatic verbal landscape' - its lack of detail leaves the reader unsure how specific or real it is. For Treharne, 'the laconic style provokes an involvement with the poem that a more explicit formulation would not have done.'

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Under cherry trees

Cherry blossom forecast (see Neil Duckett's blog)

It looks from the latest cherry blossom maps as if the blossom should have reached Tokyo by now. Here in London the blossom is already out. A few years ago we had a small blossom viewing party in our garden and I could not resist pinning up some Japanese poems in translation, like this one by Kobayashi Issa: Under cherry trees / there are / no strangers.

Of course blossom viewing in Japan is no longer an occasion for reverential nature worship, and in many ways it never was, as is clear from this passage in The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō: 'The man of breeding never appears to abandon himself completely to his pleasures; even his manner of enjoyment is detached. It is the rustic boors who take all their pleasures grossly. They squirm their way through the crowd to get under the trees; they stare at the blossoms with eyes for nothing else; they drink sake and compose linked verse; and finally they heartlessly break off great branches and cart them away. When they see a spring they dip their hands and feet to cool them; if it is snow, they jump down to leave their footprints. No matter what the sight, they are never content merely with looking at it' (Kenkō, ‘Essays in Idleness’ (1330-32), translated by Donald Keene).

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thames: Sacred River

Roni Horn (discussed in my previous post) is one of many sources for Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River. He describes her book Another River (2000) as one of the most interesting published on the Thames in recent years. However, his chapter on Thames art, discussing the likes of Richard Wilson, Canaletto, Turner, Whistler and Stanley Spencer, only covers painting and doesn't extend to Roni Horn's Still Water or other recent work like Mark Dion's Thames Dig. I was also a bit disappointed with Ackroyd's 'The Song of the Thames', a chapter that starts with Handel's Water Music but goes no further in discussing music related to the river, describing instead the work of poets like Spenser, Milton, Pope and Shelley. I suppose this imbalance does reflect the general view of the relative strengths of English culture.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was, according to Ackroyd, a poet 'haunted by the river.' Here are some of the connections described in the book:
  • Shelley growing up by the river at Syon House Academy, Eton and Oxford
  • In the summer of 1815, living on the borders of Windsor Forest, like his predecessor as river poet, Alexander Pope
  • That same year, a journey up the river in a wherry with Thomas Love Peacock (already the author of a poem on The Genius of the Thames); Peacock would write about the experience in his novel Crotchet Castle (1831)
  • The poem 'A Summer Evening Churchyard' inspired by the fifteenth century church Shelley saw at Lechlade (where there is now a path, Shelley's Walk, a fact which, taken with my recent comments on the causeways at Hangzhou named after Chinese poets, makes me reflect on the way writers have impressed themselves onto the landscape...)
  • Still in 1815, Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude in which 'he compares the true pilgrimage of a poet to a journey upriver'
  • In 1818, a house rented at Great Marlow and writing 'much of The Revolt of Islam in Bisham Woods, or while floating under the beech groves of Bisham-on-the-Thames in a boat called Vaga'
  • And finally, Yeats' view of Shelley that 'a single vision would have come to him again and again, a vision of a boat drifting down a broad river...' and the fact that Shelley eventually died 'in the watery element to which he had dedicated his life.'
Overall I think Ackroyd's book on the Thames has been rather underrated, perhaps because it is seen as covering similar ground to his London: The Biography. But Thames: Sacred River is far from just a rehash, looking as it does at the whole river from source to sea and meditating on such subjects as the light of the Thames, the healing properties of the water and the river's connections with birth, death and dreams. The prose is elegantly simple, with none of the repetition that should have been edited out in the earlier book, and it is certainly a work of 'landscape art' (as I broadly define it for this blog) in its own right.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Becoming a landscape

I have been asked by another Roni Horn enthusiast whether I'm going to post about the Tate's 'Roni Horn a.k.a. Roni Horn' exhibition... Well, here goes, although as I start to write this I can't help recalling that the subject of landscape barely featured at the discussion of her work at Tate Modern, and wondering if I've therefore already given her disproportionate attention here (with The dark river, Thicket No. 1, Hot Pot at Strútur, To Place: Verne's Journey and Frequently the woods are pink). And yet I think my earlier posts have so far only touched on a few aspects of what seems a fundamental connection.

The two-volume exhibition catalogue has a Subject Index which includes entries on 'desert', 'rocks', 'island', 'trees', 'water', 'weather'. These were written by Roni Horn and other commentators like Tacita Dean and Hélène Cixous (some previously unpublished). There's one entry for 'landscape': 'The point at which something becomes too complex to be itself only. This is the place where a thing becomes a landscape'. So for Roni Horn, landscape is more than just a view. This is a quotation from notes accompanying a set of photographs, Becoming a Landscape (1999), which connects close-up portraits with shots of geothermic pools in Iceland. I'm intrigued by the way she blurs landscape with other forms like 'portraiture', as in You are the Weather about which she has said "I did have a very specific idea that I wanted to see if I could elicit a place from her face—almost like a landscape."

In connection with You are the Weather, Roni Horn has made a collection of 'adjectives that apply to humanity and the weather equally'. Bad, balmy, beautiful, bitter, breezy, bright, brisk, brutal etc etc. These words were embedded in the floor for an exhibition in Munich (1996) and the same thing has been done this year at Tate Modern (in the room which showcases her artist books). They are also selling Roni Horn T-shirts with some of these adjectives on them: balmy, moist, dull. Hm... not sure what I think of these... but I do love the exhibition and would highly recommend it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The West Lake of Hangzhou

An article in February's Landscape Architecture by Carl Steinitz is entitled ‘Landscape Planning A History of Influential Ideas’. Reading it reminded me a bit of those Medieval chronicles which start with a brief history of the world before proceeding seamlessly to a detailed account of much more recent events. His list begins in Song Dynasty China, races forward past the Medicis' villas and English landscape gardens before slowing down in the late nineteenth century and then dwelling on a range of American landscape architects and related figures. These include Eisenhower, who makes the list for coming up with interstate highways, and Lady Bird Johnson (more positively) for adding aesthetic considerations to the US National Environmental Protection Act’s criteria.

The first in his list of great ideas is the West Lake of Hangzhou: ‘important because it is the result of a decision made in the eighth century to build a very large lake - a deliberate act to create a new landscape on a large scale. This landscape was made primarily for reasons of defense, water supply, aquaculture, and agriculture. In the Song Dynasty it was rebuilt under the direction of the poet and governor of Hangzhou, Su Shi (1037-1101). Over time, it has become considered 'natural', a place of great scenic beauty and cultural importance. Emperor Qianlong's Ten Scenes of the West Lake, poems composed in the 18th century, is learned by all Chinese schoolchildren today. Too many people believe landscape planning is only conservation and reaction, but the West Lake shows that landscape planning includes action with foresight. The big idea embodied by the West Lake is that a landscape built for practical reasons can be designed and transformed over time into a highly valued cultural landscape, and even one that is primarily assumed to have been the result of natural processes.'

Source: shenxy

This account misses out Su Shi's predecessor as governor of Hangzhou, Bai Juyi (who I still think of in Wade-Giles terms as Po Chü-i). Bai Juyi was prefect of Hangzhou in 822-24 and rebuilt the dyke that previous governors had neglected. He ordered 'the construction of a causeway connecting the Broken Bridge with the Solitary Hill, to facilitate walking on foot, instead of depending on boat. Then he planted coolabah trees and willows trees along the dyke, making it a beautiful landmark'. The causeway is now known as Bai Causeway (another one, the Su Causeway, was built later by Su Shi). One of Bai Juyi's poems about the West Lake (called in earlier times Qiantang) can be found here: 'The water's surface now is calm, the bottom of the clouds low. / In several places, the first orioles are fighting in warm trees, / By every house new swallows peck at spring mud.'

Here is the list of Emperor Qianlong's Ten Scenes:

Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring
Curved Yard and Lotus Pool in Summer
Moon over the Peaceful Lake in Autumn
Remnant Snow on the Bridge in Winter
Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset
Two Peaks Piercing the Clouds
Orioles Singing in the Willows
Fish Viewing at the Flower Pond
Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon
Evening Bell Ringing at the Nanping Hill

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In May the days were pink like Egyptian stamps


'In May the days were pink like Egyptian stamps', writes Bruno Schulz in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. 'There sailed across the sky the great corvette of Guiana, exploding with all its sails... Then the scenery changed in the sky: in massed clouds three simultaneous pink eclipses occurred, shiny lava began to smolder, outlining luminously the fierce contours of clouds (Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica), and the center of the world receded, its glaring colors became deeper. Roaring tropical oceans, with their azure archipelagos, happy currents and tides and equatorial and salty monsoons made their appearance. With the stamp album in my hand, I was studying the spring. Was it not a great commentary on the times, the grammar of its days and nights?' (trans. Celina Wieniewska)

The power of stamps to transport a child's imagination and transform the landscape around them may have dwindled since this was written about eighty years ago. Nevertheless, when I used to collect stamps from the French colonies like this one from New Caledonia, I loved them both as small windows onto distant lands and images of a past that no longer existed. Looking back, it is actually quite surprising how recently some of these stamps could have been used - decolonisation had only taken place since the War and these understated monochrome drawings had only relatively recently been replaced by an effulgence of all kinds of images in full colour.  The view of the Sahara shown below is by Henry Cheffer, an engraver (related to Rodin) who specialised in stamps, and dates from 1936. It gives a feeling of the quiet mystery contained in these ephemeral but collectible objects.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Panorama of Scheveningen

Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Segment of the Panorama of Scheveningen, 1881

By 1881 the panorama form was almost a hundred years old. Although many of the panoramas in the latter part of the nineteenth century were executed by relatively well-known Salon artists, such works were far removed from the concerns of cutting edge landscape painters - the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Symbolists. A possible exception was Hendrik Willem Mesdag, whose panorama of the beach and village of Scheveningen I saw on my trip to The Hague recently. Mesdag was a leading Hague School painter and his motivation for agreeing to work in this relatively disreputable format may have been the desire to work on such a large scale in his own speciality – the seascape.’ Petra Halkes (‘The Mesdag Panorama: Sheltering the all-embracing view’, Art History, Vol. 22, No.1, March 1999) suggests that Mesdag’s panorama can be compared to other landscape art produced at this time in that it responded to ‘a need to screen out the shattering forces of industrialisation and enclose a gentle arcadia within an endless universe.’ This view of Scheveningen may function as nostalgia for the ‘all-embracing view’, the panoramic vision of nature that at the time of the earliest panoramas was only just beginning to be challenged by the fragmentation of industrial society and the new visual modes of modernity.

Visiting the panorama now imposes another century's worth of nostalgia. The building has been restored but feels very much like a time capsule: you walk through a short dark corridor and come up a Victorian wooden stairway into the middle of the panorama, surrounded by a frameless view of the Dutch coast. (The absence of a frame is all the more noticeable because as you enter the museum you go past several Mesdag seascapes which sit within heavy, ornate gilt frames.) The realism is initially disconcerting as your eyes become accustomed to seeing the world in through the medium of paint. But after a while some details do start to seem a little odd, for example soldiers on the beach that look rather like toy soldiers (they are just doing some drill, but reminded me that panoramas had long been associated with battle scenes). And to the left of the view shown above, there is a slightly surreal pavilion with statues that reminded me of De Chirico and some goats visible in the grass outside. It's a reminder that the more realistic a landscape, the stranger some of the details may seem.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The stranger's bright city

I've been reading the beautifully produced Enitharmon Press anthology, Branch-Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, in which 56 writers and critics pay tribute to the enduring influence of Thomas's poems. The review in The Guardian notes that 'Old Man' is the Thomas poem that receives most mentions, 'and it's easy to see why, as its insistence on the manifold bewilderments of utterance and reference give it a strikingly contemporary ring.' In the poem Thomas wonders whether his small daughter will remember picking the herb Old Man - a thought made additionally poignant by the death of the poet soon afterwards and the fact that his daughter, Myfanwy, lived on until 2005. Charles Tomlinson's poem 'Old Man, or Lad's Love' recalls meeting Myfanwy Thomas and being given by her a sprig of old man from the bush Thomas wrote about. Tomlinson has grown from this four plants of his own, which stand at the door in the Cotswolds opening up a landscape 'into space and time.'

Branch-Lines is a fascinating and often rather moving book, as many of the poets look back to their own formative years and memories. The contributions often have no direct connection to nature or landscape, but I'll highlight here one that does. U. A. Fanthorpe writes that Thomas comes naturally 'to writers in English, like grass growing' and talks about Thomas's love of place names, as in these lines:

If I should ever by chance grow rich
I'll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.

Fanthorpe contributes her own poem 'Strong Language in South Gloucestershire' (2000) in which the old names (Sodbury, Nympsfield, Ozleworth, Doughton, Slimbridge, Gloucester) are seen to preserve landscapes from the distant past: 'Soppa's tinpot two acres, / Something holy, a good place for blackbirds, / Dock farm, bridge over mud, / The stranger's bright city.'