Friday, July 31, 2015

Toward the sea’s edge

Reading sad news this week of the death of Lee Harwood, I remembered an unfinished post I began a few years ago on one of his books and its inspiration, Raymond Roussel's poem, 'La Source'.  I will return to this shortly, but it seems fitting to say a few things first about Harwood's own landscape-related poetry.  According to the Poetry Archive, 'his work is ... as much in the traditions of John Clare and Wordsworth as the 20th century avant-garde poetics of DADA, the Black Mountain poets and the British Poetry Revival.'  He wrote of the Welsh mountains, the Northlands of Canada, the coast of California and the Sussex landscape in and around Brighton, where he mainly lived from 1967 (I wonder whether, growing up in Brighton, I ever encountered him there in his day jobs as a postal clerk or bus conductor).  His verse was embedded with intriguing and eclectic cultural references (such as Roussel) and often took inspiration from specific paintings.  In an Argotist interview he said, 'I hope my work isn’t full of art references, but equally it would be stupid to believe that we’re some kind of Gary Snyder backwoodsman and that we never listen to music or look at paintings or read difficult books. That’s part of life too.'  He would have enjoyed the Royal Academy's Joseph Cornell exhibition, which I visited with two poet friends last week.  In his poem ‘Days and Nights: Accidental Sightings', Harwood wrote 'A Bundle of 50 Sticks For Joseph Cornell and Others’. This is the last one:
The white box contains a landscape – bare branches, a night sky
set with stars, a window, a figure, curious objects.
We look in from outside.

The photo above shows the title page of a short collection called simply Landscapes that Harwood published in 1969.  The poems do not have precise locations and places are remembered only haltingly.  In ‘Question of geography’ he half recalls somewhere, ‘green     a rich brown     as the sun shone / turned to slate grey     at times a soft blue smudge/ with dusk or rain clouds     the detail obscured.’  These broad strokes remind me of Howard Hodgkin’s paintings, slowly worked on over the years whilst memories become overlaid and blurred. ‘You paint over the picture & start on / the new one     but all the same it’s still there beneath the fresh plains of colour.’ Several poems in this book are ‘for Marian’ and sometimes the loved body and the landscape fuse: ‘When the sea is as grey as her eyes / On these days for sure     the soft white / mist blown in from the ocean     the town dissolving / It all adds up     her bare shoulders…’  He writes about painting out in the landscape but can sound weary of the ‘the whole routine of bare / canvas & all the paints all squeezed out’. Next to the experience of another person, a seascape can seem superficial: ‘Sea coves & cliffs, the deserted beach - / they all mean so little / You are there & that is what it is.’ ‘When the geography was fixed’ begins with a view from a room of distant hills, which turns out to be a painting, so delicately done that it is almost a bare canvas. ‘The hill & the room are both in / the white. The colours are here / inside us I suppose.’

The book I had intended to write about here was 'Wine Tales', a collaboration with Ric Caddel.  I was intrigued by its premise, to write short texts based on the images in wine labels.  The wines chosen – Muscadet, Claret, Liebfraumilch – take me back to the time when my parents would choose a bottle from a Brighton supermarket to drink together a the weekend.  I started making tasting notes and still have them, including one for Sainsbury's Rosé d'Anjou (£1.69, "pleasant, if undistinguished"), which was the source for one of the 'Wine Tales'.  In a book of interviews Harwood described the genesis of the book:
'Ric was visiting me in Brighton and we were talking about the wonderful labels you used to get on wine bottles and the stories you could make up to go with them. I'd already done one from a Claret label.  So we decided on a collaboration where one of us would choose a wine label, start a piece, send that to the other who would complete that piece. ... The idea was sparked by a poem by Raymond Roussel called 'La Source'. It's a long poem in strict verse form.  A narrator is sitting in a restaurant with a bottle of mineral water and there's a scene, a landscape, on the bottle. He walks into the landscape. It's a long description of what he sees. Right at the end, he comes out of the label, back to the table in time for the waiter to arrive with his lunch.'

←  part of a page from 'Wine Tales' (Galloping Dog Press, 1984)

my Rosé d'Anjou tasting notes from 1985  →

The reason I never finished my post on Lee Harwood and 'La Source' was that I did not have an English version of Roussel's poem.  However, there is an English translation by Anthony Melville of 'La Vue', which Roussel published together with 'La Source' (and a third poem 'Le Concert') in 1904.  'The View' is a description over 2000 lines long of a tiny beach scene set into the lens of a pen-holder.  The poet's eye focuses in on this seascape and begins to explore the view, encountering a fishing boat and a yacht with people standing about on deck, whose attitudes suggest their inner emotions and motivations.  Returning to the beach he alights on a couple who are themselves gazing at the water – ‘their thoughts are far from the world; they are rapt before / The profound feelings they have poeticised.’  There is a dog chasing a stick, a kite up in the sky, walkers on the boardwalk, beach huts, rocks and a natural arch which perhaps resembles the one at Etretat, so popular with nineteenth century artists.  Indeed there is a painter at work by this arch, oblivious to everything but a decision to be made over one precise spot in his picture.

The poem moves inland, up a road and into the villas that look out to sea, where a boy gazes at a lighthouse through a pair of opera glasses. Below the lighthouse there are more groups of people, lost in thought or watching the beach, like the poet, and his reader. ‘Their eyes are turned / Toward the sea’s edge, if not for the beauty / Of the waves, at least to watch some incident.’  They are like characters in Proust, whose narrator would recall similar scenes in À la recherche du temps perdu. Now as I write this, seeing that old wine label again, I am taken back to my own memories of the seaside at Brighton.  Lee Harwood wrote 'yet another Brighton poem' in praise of its beach, which made him feel 'good and happy and so at ease in the world'.  In Raymond Roussel's poem, the light finally goes down on the view, and the poet is left with his own ‘latent memories of a summer / Now dead, now far from me, fast blown away.'

Friday, July 24, 2015


Last week saw the launch of Rewilding Britain and an interesting piece on Channel 4 News in which George Monbiot returned to the Welsh sheep-farming 'Desert' he described in Feral.  The clip embedded above includes interviews with rewilder Ritchie Tassell and sheep farmer Dafydd Jones, who speaks entirely in Welsh to emphasise the landscape's cultural ecology.  Both feature in Feral and demonstrate opposing ways in which rewilding can be seen - as an attempt to reverse the long history of increasing estrangement from nature, or as the final step in a process that has driven people off the land.  Tassell recalls his childhood in Northumberlandshire, when the last mixed farms disappeared: 'that was the worst of times in terms of habitat destruction, almost the final nail in the coffin of what John Clare was writing about.'  But for Dafydd Jones, rewilding is a post-Romantic ideology, that seems to imagine a world without people.  In Feral Monbiot tries to reconcile these positions, concluding that it would be possible to rebalance economic incentives so that 'people as well as wildlife will regain a footing on the land.'

Monbiot wrote about John Clare in one of his columns a few years ago, recalling how he documented 'both the destruction of place and people and the gradual collapse of his own state of mind. "Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave … And birds and trees and flowers without a name / All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came."  Enclosure removed Clare from the intimate Northamptonshire landscape he had experienes as a boy.  Jay Griffiths, quoted in Feral, sees this as a historical moment that 'reaved children of the site of their childhood, robbed them of animal-tutors and river-mentors and stole their deep dream-shelters.'  This is one of the concerns of Rewilding Britian, which is part of a wider movement to encourage children to reconnect with nature (discussed, for example, in the last chapter of Robert Macfarlane's recent book Landmarks). In Feral, Monbiot writes that 'of all the world's creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. ... Missing from children's lives more than almost anything else is time in the woods.'  My own children see little of woodlands in Hackney but they did spend last weekend playing among the trees with their school friends on a parent-organised camping trip.  We were in Epping Forest, not far from the spot where John Clare arrived one July day in 1837, to live at Dr. Allen's asylum.

Wandering through the forest and playing hide-and-seek among the trees it was impossible not to be struck by their strange shapes, with multiple trunks growing from their bases.  They were regularly pollarded until the Epping Forest Act of 1878, which stipulated that the City of London Corporation "shall at all times keep Epping Forest unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people".  However, this preservation of the forest has affected its biodiversity as the trees' great crowns block out light, leaving the ground almost bear apart from dead leaves, bark and odd bits of rubbish.  Some of the forest trees have multiple trunks at ground level, representing decades of growth since they were last coppiced.  Their ability to regenerate after coppicing is the subject of a startling speculation in Feral: that our trees adapted to survive snapping and uprooting by the straight-tusked elephants that roamed across Europe until 40,000 years ago. Similarly, 'blackthorn, which possesses very long spines, seems over-engineered to deter browsing by deer; but not, perhaps to deter browsing by rhinoceros.'  The toughness of holly, yew and box trees may reflect an ability to withstand threats that no longer exist. 
'Even if these speculations do not lead to the reintroduction of elephants and rhinos, do they not render the commonplace astonishing?  The notion that our most familiar trees are elephant-adapted, that we can see in their shadows the great beasts with which humans evolved, that the marks of these animals can be found in every park and avenue and leafy street, infuses the world with new wonders.  Paleoecology - the study of past ecosystems, crucial to an understanding of our won - feels like a portal through which we may pass into an enchanted kingdom.'

Friday, July 10, 2015

Vision of a possible city

In 2012 William Kentridge delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University.  This was the lecture series that gave us Italo Calvino's wonderful Six Memos for the Next Millenium (he died before he could deliver them); I wonder how differently these might have been conceived now, in the age of Ted Talks and multi-media.  It is no surprise that an artist like Kentridge interspersed his words with film clips or that Harvard University Press have produced an enhanced e-book of the lectures, Six Drawing Lessons.  However, I've been reading an old-fashioned hardback version and thought I'd share here a few observations he makes on the history and geography of Johannesburg, a city he has lived in his entire life.

Johannesburg is a city that has 'an entirely geological justification'.  When a meteor struck the land it's impact caused a thin seam of subterranean gold to be tilted so that it met the surface a hundred kilometers from the impact site.  After the discovery of gold in 1886 Johannesburg was, for its first thirty years, the fastest growing city in the world.  There is a map made in 1889 that shows the physical landscape, the initial constructions (see photograph below) and 'a vision of a possible city.  At the time the map was drawn and printed, only about 3 percent of the streets and buildings and suburbs on it had been made.  It is extraordinary that now, 120 years later, almost all the map exists as a physical fact.'

Kentridge goes on to describe an episode that would have intrigued Calvino, author of Invisible Cities and The Baron in the Trees.
'Around 1900, at the end of the war between the British and the Afrikaners for control of the gold mines, the city of Johannesburg, wanting to keep the demobilized soldiers busy rather than drunk, employed them at a penny a tree to plant a forest of a million trees on the pavements and gardens of the city.  Johannesburg, by its own and some outside estimations, is the largest man-made forest in the world.  From my studio, you look out over an undulating sea of treetops.'
The lush gardens and trees are sustained in this naturally dry, inhospitable land by irrigation that brings water from rivers hundreds of kilometers away. 'The streams of the city itself are miserable ditches, stormwater drains awaiting the rainstorms.  But underground, where the mining is, it is the reverse.'  The continual pumping away of this water has left the ground prone to sinkholes, an unstable foundation for the racially segregated suburbs.  'In my childhood there were stories of an entire tennis match - the umpire on his high chair, the tea and orange juice on the table next to the court, the family Labrador - all being swallowed by a huge sinkhole, never found, never recovered.'

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The River of Heaven

Ando Hiroshige, Tanabata Festival in Edo, 1852
(from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji)

'Among the many charming festivals celebrated by Old Japan, the most romantic was the festival of Tanabata-Sama, the Weaving-Lady of the Milky Way.'  When Lafcadio Hearn wrote this at the beginning of the twentieth century, the custom had largely been abandoned in the cities.  I wonder if even then light pollution was beginning to make it hard to see the Milky Way (in 2008 the Japanese prime minister asked people to switch off their lights to celebrate the festival).  The Chinese legend behind the festival tells of Orihime, daughter of the Sky King, who weaves clothes beside the heavenly river, and her marriage to the herder Hikoboshi.  Once married she stops weaving and he lets his cattle stray all over Heaven, so the Sky King forbids them to meet.  However, moved by his daughter's tears he relents and allows them to cross the river once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when a flock of magpies create a bridge for them.  Today, July 7th, still marks the beginning of the Tanabata festivals, although the exact date varies by region.  Lafcadio Hearn's description of how it used to be celebrated is, I think, particularly evocative: ink stones, morning dew, poetry, bamboo planting and offerings to the star deities...   
'The popular customs relating to the festival differed according to locality. Those of Izumo—where all classes of society, samurai or common folk, celebrated the holiday in much the same way—used to be particularly interesting; and a brief account of them will suggest something of the happy aspects of life in feudal times. At the Hour of the Tiger, on the seventh night of the seventh month, everybody was up; and the work of washing the inkstones and writing-brushes was performed. Then, in the household garden, dew was collected upon yam-leaves. This dew was called Amanogawa no suzuki  ("drops from the River of Heaven"); and it was used to make fresh ink for writing the poems which were to be suspended to bamboos planted in the garden. It was usual for friends to present each other with new inkstones at the time of the Tanabata festival; and if there were any new inkstones in the house, the fresh ink was prepared in these. Each member of the family then wrote poems. The adults composed verses, according to their ability, in praise of the Star-deities; and the children either wrote dictation or tried to improvise. Little folk too young to use the writing-brush without help had their small hands guided, by parent or elder sister or elder brother, so as to shape on a tanzaku the character of some single word or phrase relating to the festival,—such as "Amanogawa," or "Tanabata," or "Kasasagi no Hashi" (the Bridge of Magpies). In the garden were planted two freshly-cut bamboos, with branches and leaves entire,—a male bamboo (otoko-daké) and a female bamboo (onna-daké). They were set up about six feet apart, and to a cord extended between them were suspended paper-cuttings of five colors, and skeins of dyed thread of five colors. The paper-cuttings represented upper-robes,—kimono. To the leaves and branches of the bamboos were tied the tanzaku on which poems had been written by the members of the family. And upon a table, set between the bamboos, or immediately before them, were placed vessels containing various offerings to the Star-deities,—fruits, sōmen, rice-wine, and vegetables of different kinds, such as cucumbers and watermelons.' (The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies and Stories, 1905)
One reason for mentioning this festival here is that in the Tanabata story the Milky Way has been imagined as a landscape feature in the sky.  Hearn begins his essay with a quotation from an 'ancient scholar': 'Of old it was said: "The River of Heaven is the Ghost of Waters." We behold it shifting its bed in the course of the year as an earthly river sometimes does.'  At the end of the festival people went down to their nearest earthly rivers.  The bamboo that had been planted and fixed to houses (like branches in the European May traditions I wrote about here recently) were then thrown into the water with poems attached to them.  Hearn concludes his essay with the reflection that old Japanese poetry based on the Tanabata legend, so remote from our modern worldview, may have little appeal in the West.
'Nevertheless, in the silence of transparent nights, before the rising of the moon, the charm of the ancient tale sometimes descends upon me, out of the scintillant sky,—to make me forget the monstrous facts of science, and the stupendous horror of Space. Then I no longer behold the Milky Way as that awful Ring of the Cosmos, whose hundred million suns are powerless to lighten the Abyss, but as the very Amanogawa itself,—the River Celestial. I see the thrill of its shining stream, and the mists that hover along its verge, and the water-grasses that bend in the winds of autumn.'

Friday, July 03, 2015

As we descended to this valley

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’, c.1831–2 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we descended to this valley,
where Samuel Palmer had used to walk - bareheaded
under the moon -
the passing clouds above
"did marvellously supple the ground."

- Ronald Johnson, The Book of the Green Man (1967)
Samuel Palmer is the inspiration for the fourth part of Ronald Johnson's marvellous book-length poem, an 'attempt, as a brash American, to make new the traditional British long seasonal poem', recently re-published by Uniformbooks.  Johnson had come over to England in 1963 and he descended into Palmer's 'Valley of Vision' with Jonathan Williams, who would write his own 'Two Pastorals for Samuel Palmer at Shoreham, Kent'.  These can be read at the Poetry Foundation, although they omit a footnote in which Williams refers readers to Geoffrey Grigson's Samuel Palmer: Valley of Vision and Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years.  Johnson was also influenced by Grigson's anthologies and writings on Romanticism: 'one should read all of Grigson' he wrote, 'his books are seminal and essential.'  The Book of the Green Man concludes with a yellow moon rising over Palmer's hills and newly-cut wheat: 'beneath a husk / of twilight / were as many suns as kernels, / & fields were far / as the eye / could reach.'

Jonathan Williams quoted this 'ecstatic reverie' in the appreciation he wrote when Johnson died in 1999.  He also recalled their early walks together in America, 'perfect training for poets: learning to attend the names of birds and plants and stars and trees and stones.'  Their discovery of Palmer's Shoreham was just one part of an extraordinary British 'Grand Tour' which formed the basis for The Book of the Green Man (links are to earlier posts on this blog):
We went up to Ardgay in Easter Ross in the north of Scotland to meet Ian Hamilton Finlay. We saw Hugh MacDiarmid in both Langholm and Biggar. We saw Basil Bunting up the Tyne above Newcastle at Wylam. And Herbert Read at Stonegrave House in the hills north of York. We went to Broad Town under the Wiltshire Downs to see Geoffrey and Jane Grigson. Geoffrey took us to Faringdon for Lord Berners' folly tower, to Buscot Park for Burne-Jones's Briar-Rose paintings, and to Lydiard Tregoze for the splendid interior of the Church of St Mary. Jane fixed Welsh girdle cakes for breakfast, the first we had ever tasted. We visited the graves of Blake and Palmer, Stanley Spencer and Walter Sickert, Delius and William Morris. In the spring of 1963 we walked from the mouth of the River Wye at Chepstow, up its long, winding valley, to its source high on the flanks of Great Plynlimmon. We hitched a few rides to allow us to add Kilpeck Church to Francis Kilvert's at Bredwardine along the route. And Strata Florida and the site of Hafod House further into Wales. And more pilgrimages that summer. To Nottinghamshire to Southwell Minster and the amazing foliate heads and plant carvings in the Chapter House. To Gilbert White's Selborne in Hampshire. To Samuel Palmer's Shoreham in Kent. To the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset. To Compton in Surrey for the Watts Mortuary Chapel. To Brighton for John Nash's Royal Pavilion. We were looking for all things, as RJ said, 'most rich, most glittering, most strange'.