Thursday, 27 November 2008

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Sunday, 23 November 2008


One of the pleasures in connecting with the British poetry scene is that people here take the opportunity to celebrate the work of others. The frequency of festschrifts, birthday volumes and general celebrations testifies to a desire to let some poets know they are valued. Friendship is one thing (and a good thing) but these works make it a public fact. Accordingly I was more than happy to participate in the loose leaved Uplift: a samizdat for Lee Harwood. This publication, produced by Patricia Hope Scanlan and Timothy Weston of Artery Editions in East Sussex includes poems, artworks, a CD, memoirs and critical pieces but is, especially by virtue of its ‘open’ mode of production, not the kind of tombstone such an item might otherwise become. The samizdat was a surprise for the poet, presented to him at a reading in Brighton for the launch of a Shearsman selected and a book of conversations with Kelvin Corcoran. I couldn’t, unfortunately, be at the reading, though I hear Lee was in fine form.

Friday, 21 November 2008

friday, wednesday and thursday

Last Friday I attended a reading given by Peter Riley and Roger Langley at Dulwich College. The reading was primarily for the students and though turnout was voluntary for this after-hours event there was a goodly audience. Roger Langley, whose Journals (Shearsman, 2006) I’d recommend to anyone for their density and perceptual clarity, began by discussing the reception of haiku and the way that most scholarly discussions of the mode end up trying to crudely paraphrase what is already a kind of ultimate unit of writing. Peter Riley read a poem based on the early thirteen-month Chinese calendar. Both of these poets took their auditors a long way from notions of the art as a series of ever-more-clever simile manufacturings.

On Wednesday Riley appeared again in the Blue Bus series, this time with Peter Philpott. The latter read once more from his new manuscript consisting of poems ‘written’ by several characters, while the former read, among other pieces, a sequence of short pieces from a journey around the southwest of the US. The journal paralleling these poems (and many other things, including a wonderful memoir of growing up in the Manchester catchment) can be seen on Riley’s website.

Last night at Birkbeck, Michael Heller, fresh from the George Oppen conference in Edinburgh read earlier work as well as material from his forthcoming book of poems, Eschaton. Heller’s new book on Oppen, Speaking the Estranged, has only just appeared. Earlier critical work includes Conviction’s Net of Branches (when it appeared this was clearly the best introduction around to the work of the so-called Objectivists) and Uncertain Poetries (Salt, 2005). A selected poems, Exigent Futures came out from Salt in 2003.

Meanwhile I’d spent the late afternoons of Wednesday and Thursday wandering through the collections at Tate Modern and Tate Britain, noting the rehangings of the respective permanent collections. At the Modern I particularly noted works in the rooms devoted to the theme ‘states of flux’ including paintings by Robert Delaunay, the quite wonderful Gino Severini, Edvard Munch and Pierre Bonnard and filmwork by Jonas Mekas. At Tate Britain they’ve given some rooms over entirely to the work of a single artist or a particular association of artists like the Independent Group. A whole room of Victor Pasmore was worth it, as were hangings of Robyn Denny, whose work I’d seen little of, and Eduardo Paolozzi (in the Independent Group room with Nigel Henderson) featuring collages from his scrapbooks and a collage mural from 1952. I’d never particularly liked the later Paolozzi but the early things are fascinating (both for themselves and for the argument that ‘pop’ originated in Britain, not the States).

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Thursday, 13 November 2008

crab & winkle

The Crab & Winkle Way was the first continuously operated passenger rail service in Britain, running between Canterbury and Whitstable. It was in use from 1830 through to the early 1950s. The line climbed over hills and, at the top of the gradient, there’s a pond formerly used to supply water for the engine and a wood sculpture (above) by Tim Norris referencing the winding mechanism used to haul the engine up the steeper slopes. Part of the line is now occupied by a cycle track, part of the national network. I walked this path yesterday from the University of Kent campus to the coast. It was the first fine day for a couple of weeks almost. I’m using ‘Crab & Winkle’ as the title for the book Shearsman will be bringing out around April 2009. It’s a long journal-type poem that I initially drafted over the year from August 2006 and revised subsequently. Some sections have so far appeared in Jacket and onedit.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

strictly boring

At the risk of alienating readers I’m pasting here a piece I wrote in 2001 then revised in 2003 but never published, feeling I had missed the occasion. I was mildly embarrassed by it at the time but given the current state of world affairs and the imminent release of Baz Luhrmann’s new movie, Australia, I figured maybe the time for this piece had come. I liked Luhrmann’s first movie, Strictly Ballroom and indulged his next, Romeo and Juliet (the script at least was ok) but had the interesting experience of viewing his third, Moulin Rouge in a Brisbane theatre after which my partner and I left feeling as though we were the only people in the venue who hadn’t adored the film. Here’s the essay:

Near the beginning of Baz Luhrmann’s movie Moulin Rouge, poet Ewan McGregor lets us know that there are only three things in this world that matter: beauty, truth and love. The scenario of this film promises so much yet the finished product fails to deliver the substance of these promises. What it does offer is an unaccustomed insight into the mechanics of latter-day romanticism. From beginning to end the movie camouflages the slowness and banality of its plot through rapid editing and a heavy overlay of glitter. It appears to be aimed demographically at a young audience though its soundtrack is knowingly retro, lending an eighties feel to music which actually spans three decades (the early eighties of course was the moment of the New Romantics - Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Steve Strange &c; a time when haircuts and pirate costumes seemed the sole signifiers of originality). The themes of bohemia and romantic love (where love = death) permeate this intensely self-regarding movie as it presents itself as the advance guard of a brave new romanticism. But did the romantic project ever go away?

Extreme philosophies of individualism exist comfortably alongside the discourse of contemporary free-market economics. Both attitudes are products of the liberalism that made the aesthetic of romanticism possible and Luhrmann’s film brings to the surface the complicity that late romanticism shares with commerce. At Fox Studios the creative personnel at work on the multi-million dollar creation probably didn’t, despite their relative affluence, feel remote from the figure of the ‘starving artist in the garret’. McGregor, their object of identification, ‘lies in the gutter’ at one point in the film, though he is ‘seeing stars’ rather than looking at them.

The demise of the romantic impulse seems less likely now than ever. As the aesthetic counterpart of liberalism romanticism is proving itself a persistent ideology. Francis Fukayama’s notorious thesis on ‘the end of history’ was both a self-serving document and a classic example of romantic resurgence. Market capitalism according to Fukayama has rendered the ‘free world’ a perfect and perfectly stable place; a utopia of cash-flow. In the broader picture capitalism is the economics, liberalism the politics, and romanticism the aesthetic sensibility of one persistent world picture. The hinge between these discourses, romanticism, liberalism and market capitalism, is the individual: the authentic, singular, self-authoring, autonomous, Robinson Crusoe figure who inhabits all three fields.

Individual identity seems all-important in romantic accounts. In an age in which identification has become a science (identikits, fingerprints, iris maps, DNA swabs) the fragility of ‘identity’ increases. The discourses of liberalism serve to recreate ‘identity’ even if what is produced owes more to Hollywood than to Freud. ‘Depression’, a characteristic modern ‘disease’ is a sign of this. Depression and identity do seem to be closely linked, but not perhaps in the way one would at first suppose. Depression isn’t due to ontological doubt; it seems to ensue more from an over-identification, a surfeit of identity onto which blame and failure attach themselves. In a world devoid of identity, depression couldn’t exist. But that world would not be the world of the ‘liberal imagination’.

The worlds of identity and depression crop up in an almost exemplary fashion in the work of the so-called ‘confessional’ poets. Some confusion manifests itself in the assumption that this style of psychological impressionism represents a return to the primal nature of poetry. There was indeed an element of voyeurism at work in the writings of the Plath and Berryman fan clubs. A retrospective ‘will she do it this time’ frisson often accompanies the reading of Plath’s successive books. While critics may wish to read Plath in particular in terms of gender popularly the poet is seen as an arch-individual carrying the burdens of gender (and the only way out for the individual is death). The poetics of the 1960s under the momentary sway of Al Alvarez often left little room for any other kind of writer. Even an anthology of political poetry had to cover itself with the title Poetry of the Committed Individual. This aberration in the history of poetics left behind all previous ideas of the poet as a conduit and/or as the practitioner of a craft, installing in their place the notion of the doomed individual whose sacrifice somehow leaves the publisher better off and the rest of us free to pursue whatever else the market offers.

It is characteristic of the liberal perspective that it should constantly re-invent itself. The recent historical imagination perceives a series of endings or ‘deaths’: of ‘the author’, of modernity, even of history (in Fukayama’s case) and romanticism itself. Romanticism has died and returned several times over the last century. Its end has been frequently spelt out. High-modernists instituted an anti-romanticism before the First World War; new critics in the 1950s saw in TS Eliot and his followers signs of the end of romanticism (in this context the ‘Beats’ were seen as a throwback). But romanticism has since been read back into the work of most of the high modernist writers. Eliot had used Jules Laforgue’s modes to remove himself from romantic influence. Laforgue was an ironist, writing about anti-heroes and Eliot took this aboard. But Eliot’s anti-Semitism gives the game away: the Bleistein of Poems 1920 represents the unreflecting, unimaginative forces governing the everyday world who are an anathema to those of artistic temperament. The Bleisteins are defined by an absence of true individuality, unlike those of a romantic temperament.

Postmodernism (or I should say one of the postmodernisms) found as an aesthetic of stylistic plunder a rich field in romanticism reproducing and breathing new life into romantic forms. An art that has abandoned modernism’s austere drive towards purity can use its devices to produce ‘the romantic effect’, but so many people read the effect as the real thing in an age in which irony is just another stylistic device, a kind of display rather than a mode of concealment or an address to two audiences who are supposed to hear two different things. No matter what you do, it seems, the way your actions are received will be predicated on a romanticist philosophy. Is romanticism ‘the opiate of the masses’? Is it the ultimate ‘ruling ideology’? It would seem so.

In a late essay, unpublished in his lifetime, Walter Benjamin described the street ‘artists’ of Montmartre and Montparnasse (a later generation of those who provided the material for Moulin Rouge). These were ‘people selling paintings of a certain kind, intended for the “best room”: still lifes and seascapes, nudes, genre paintings, and interiors’. The passers-by might well be more impressed by the artist’s ‘presence and imposing attire than by the paintings on display. But’, he adds, ‘one would probably be overestimating the business acumen of the painters if one supposed that their personal appearance is designed to attract customers’. What these painters do display, says Benjamin, unlike the distinguished artists who ‘do not need to market themselves in person’, is a widespread ability to use the tools of art with moderate skill. The garb is more or less a disguise, meant to alert us to the artists’ individuality, to their place as ‘outsiders’, though their work conforms mostly to an idea of art as innocuous decoration.

The formula of the broad brimmed hat or the beret and the corduroy trousers would for many more years be assumed by the sellers of what would now be called ‘hardware store art’: the big-eyed puppies or the urban vistas that show no sign of technology. What is being presented is almost of production line quality yet the story of its production is camouflaged by the image of the artist. (Associated with this is the phenomenon of on-the-spot portraiture and its attendant myth of the artist’s unique perception of personality.)

The street painters represented for Benjamin the enactment of a relatively new idea of ‘the artist’ free from the academy, guilds and art schools. This was the idea of the artist as a wild animal ‘disregarding all discipline’. These painters assumed the role at a less threatening level so that to visit their domain was like visiting a zoo, yet for Benjamin they represented in a mild form an idea of art that had been embraced by the fascists.

They also pointed to a break between art and theory. Gustave Courbet was the last artist in whose work a solidarity between painting and public affairs was still discernable. The Impressionists replaced a theory that might give answers to ‘problems touching on areas other than painting’ with ‘the argot of the studio’. Art criticism, Benjamin argued, began to serve the art trade ‘while appearing to serve the public’. It had ‘no concepts - just a kind of jargon which changes from season to season’. The anti-theory stance of the populist press would not be far behind.

Benjamin suggests in this piece that art without any input into debates about the problems of perception had become esoteric, ‘almost a relic of a past era’. As a mere parade of style it might also suggest salvation around the corner. Art could now be rescued by a strong man, swept up, as it were, in his embrace.

In this sub-critical form of art talk we are not far away from the breathless world of romantic (or romance) fiction. As some critics have pointed out the relationship between romanticism and romance is predicated on gender. Romanticism is perhaps the masculine form and ‘romance’ the feminine form of the same aesthetic sensibility. Romantic love for girls (as opposed to heroism and other ‘outward’ motivations for boys) operates as a negation rather than an affirmation of the self. In this kind of romance and in romance fiction which is essentially the same thing, one is most oneself in being most erased.

Love and death, as exemplified in Moulin Rouge, are themselves romantically coupled. From well before the romantic period, we know that death had been one of the primary plot events in opera, and that male death (the death of the hero) had existed for some time as a theme of homoerotic intensity. But the death of an artist is perhaps specifically romantic since the (male) artist is the paradigmatic individual. The title of the Robin Williams’ film might well have been ‘The Dead Poets’ Fraternity’. Why, it seems necessary to ask, is a male literary figure (like Chatterton) more of a romantic figure in early/drug induced death than a woman? (The Sylvia Plath story is not really an exception to this since it has usually been cast as a gender and power struggle. Plath and Ted Hughes are bound together permanently like a soap version of Catherine and Heathcliff.)

In Australia you could contrast the reception of the deaths of two poets, Michael Dransfield and Vicki Viidikas. Dransfield’s figure, as it has been continually re-presented, is archly romantic: the poet who died young (partially) through drug use, whereas Viidikas could never escape the mundane squalor of her fate. She was ‘a junkie who once wrote poems’. There was no commercial spinoff after her death - Viidikas was not a prolific author though her work was highly regarded - and it may be some time before her poems appear in print again. On the other hand neither factual detail nor critical acumen were ever allowed to interfere with the myth at the heart of the Dransfield industry.

Death is at once ‘natural’ (even when ‘unnatural’) and a removal from ‘nature’. This paradox is reflected in the philosophies of romanticism with its contradictory approaches to the idea of nature. What is the relationship between the two romantic discourses, of standing out from nature, of being ‘against nature’ and of being ‘at one with nature’? Both attitudes are observable in the visual arts: collage reconstructs the world, ‘action painting’ is ‘inside’ it (organic). (Perhaps the recent concern with appropriation echoes the ‘against nature’ discourse?) In social terms these two attitudes are represented by the dandy with a lobster on a leash and by the ‘natural man’ or ‘child of nature’ and the only hinge I can see here seems, once more, to be a notion of the individual, whether as agonist or as tranquil perceiver.

Both discourses are reflected in the self-representations of capitalism in its various historical phases. JK Huysmans’ championship of the dandy (in Against Nature) sounds like the early capitalism of mining tycoons with its conspicuous consumption (the mansion on the hill) and its view of the world at large as an obstacle or a ‘challenge’. Wordsworth’s attentions to nature sound like the corporate strategies of boardroom capitalism with its advertising logos assuring us that ‘we’re always a part of your life’, ‘we’re clean and green’ &c (the ruse of announcing how unobtrusive you are). Interestingly the ‘’, or third phase of capitalism brings back the capitalist as a kind of (bohemian) adventurer, this time involved in the romance of making (and losing) money that may only exist on screen.

There is an amusing passage in a coffee table book on Australia which appeared in the mid 1960s. The author of the written text, novelist George Johnston, then recently returned from the Greek islands, reflects on the mining and business boom of those years with an enthusiasm buoyed up by bad faith, turning the masters of all this economic expansion into the heroes; a metamorphosis that would not at the time have embarrassed them:

Not long ago I revisited a city bar where in the old days the newspaper crowd and the artists and writers, and poets and actors got together to put their frustrations and despairs down among the ranked glasses. It had all changed. It was packed with businessmen, alert in their executive suits, most of them young. They stood on the marble floor shin-deep in a ground-growth of briefcases as thick and as brown as summer bracken. The place had been renamed the Explorers’ Bar, and all around there were murals of Bass and Flinders and Cook and Leichhardt and Sturt and Oxley.

Here the artists and the loners have been neatly scissored out of the romantic pantheon and replaced by the very figures who might have formerly taken pleasure in using the aesthetic adventurers as alter-egos. At the same time these new ‘heroes’ are located in nature (the bracken) and in history (the bar d├ęcor). Johnston proceeds to eulogise these figures:

From the lone weathered battlers, risk-taking and response to challenge have shifted more and more to the province of the banker, investor, capitalist and industrialist. These men, once collectively maligned in the political cartoons of a working man’s Utopia, have become the principal architects of our progress. It is almost as if they had taken inventory of us, their countrymen, and judged us as stable and on the whole thrifty, solvent and to an extent affluent even, and taken note in our pride in never having defected on what we owed.

Is there any escape from romanticism’s hall of mirrors? It seems for the moment unlikely. The capacity of this discourse to reproduce itself and its chameleon-like ability to be forever different forever the same will be hard to get around. One more instance of its durability may be seen in the recycling of partially sanitised myths of the ‘beat generation’. For some time I have been aware of a continuing attraction for young writers of those archetypical modern bohemians. I had myself eagerly read Kerouac and Ginsberg when younger, but have to admit some surprise at Kerouac’s continuing relevance for would-be writers (I can still read works of Ginsberg, up to around 1970, with pleasure, but doubt I will ever want to read Kerouac again). Kerouac was the Beat mythographer, the one who, in a sense, made it unnecessary for new bohemians to even read the work of other authors. Kerouac provided a descriptive entry to the world of low life, poetry and illicit substances, together with a name check of its cultural heroes. The invocation of these works, together with the products of earlier romantic bohemia like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, have become more important than their ingestion. Like the dandy affecting his yellow handkerchiefs and coloured drinks, the new bohemia constructs itself through superficial reference and a patina of derangement. The book as a physical object (and a marketing tool) becomes, like a pair of Calvin Klein underpants, the sign through which a subculture recognises itself. This is the world that is represented with unintentional clarity in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

a rocky horror show

I have never been a great admirer of Francis Bacon’s work. Yet the extensive exhibition on now at Tate Britain held the possibility of changing my mind. Often a large gathering of work by an artist who hasn’t been seen to best advantage for some time can generate fresh thoughts. In this case, alas, no. I came away from the show feeling that the paintings combined formidable technique with a limited range. The best work, it seemed to me, was the earlier material, and I would have liked to have seen much more of the work done before the 1950s.

Most critics, even those not altogether sympathetic with Bacon’s work, draw attention to the paintings based on Velazquez’ portrait of Innocent X but I didn’t find these ‘screaming popes’ at all powerful. Their facility worked against whatever they may have conveyed (think instead of Picasso, or Goya where the violence is perhaps less graphic but much more confronting). Images of Bacon’s studio together with the photographs and news items he referenced in his work were of interest in their own right; perhaps a lot more interesting than the work itself which seemed limited rather than complicated after viewing some of its components. Though the images are in a sense ‘torn’ from a wider matrix the resulting paintings seem as airbrushed as advertisements. Bacon noted of his gravitation towards the triptych that he liked the idea of working almost with frames of a movie. Yet the resultant scenarios are too balanced to feel movie-like and the prevalence of these works in the exhibition make it seem like their author was running on repeat.

Later I thought of this work and its reception from the post-war years through to the sixties as part of a wider phenomenon. Countries that were now (or always had been) on the periphery of the modernist art story, especially that story retailed by Clement Greenberg and the high modern formalists, often exhibit a desire for artists who are at once both ‘modernist’ and ‘old master’. In Australia this explains the high regard now (or once) held for painters like William Dobell and Arthur Boyd. In Britain David Hockney has also been the recipient of this kind of regard. Neither Bacon nor Hockney are artists without interest (Hockney’s best works, for me, are his stage decorations) but they are perhaps less central than the earlier art historians or the revisionists might think.

Friday, 7 November 2008

wednesday and thursday

New Zealanders Greg O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt (above) briefly passed through London en route for Menton and Berlin early this week bringing with them a copy of Jenny’s new book The Rocky Shore (Wellington, Victoria University Press). She will be back to read in Britain in March next year. Greg brought a limited edition booklet The Wolf of Horeke (Wellington, Fernbank Studio) with artwork by Noel McKenna.

The following night’s Crossing the Line reading featured Americans Charles Alexander (above) and Daniel Kane. Alexander read from two recent books, Near or Random Acts (San Diego, Singing Horse, 2004) and Certain Slants (NY, Junction Press, 2007) together with some more recent sections of his ongoing sequence ‘Pushing Water’. Tim Atkins kindly supplied the incidental music.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

the morning after

Here's a photograph I took in Georgetown DC the morning of Bill Clinton's win against George Bush Snr in 1992. You might need to click it for the detail.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

no taxation without representation

Let's just hope the US election doesn't go down the toilet. British election reportage is quite amazing. I'm sure it's the same in various other vassal states. And I keep thinking that maybe in the age of 'globalization' the various nations taxed in one way or another by the USA ought perhaps to demand voting rights too.

Saturday, 1 November 2008


The mod revival was a curious pop phenomenon of the late 1970s. What you saw wasn’t really what you got. You got revivalism: guys wearing union jackets, targets and parkas, sitting in their tight trousers astride Lambrettas; bands covering the 'Batman' theme and other pieces from early Who LPs and EPs (though Paul Weller’s understanding of the ethos went way beyond these superficial garnerings and probably engineered the folding of The Jam). Qualitatively the 1970s thing was not all that different from other revivals (or survivals), like that of the teds and rockers, the mods’ supposed antitheses. But was it really ‘mod’? The Who of course were seen by some in the early 60s as riding the mod bandwagon. They had modelled themselves on an existing subculture and it was this popularisation that fed into the later revival. Mod though is only a ‘style’ in retrospect. In its time it was more a philosophy: that of exhibiting grace under pressure. The music was more a matter of rare grooves and floor-fillers than of explicit homages to style. It was about the present rather than memory. This aspect of mod is probably always with us, becoming manifest from time to time, particularly in periods of social and economic adversity. One recent band that seems ‘mod’ to me is Little Barrie. Their music is tight (and loose, but the elements of funk aren’t allowed to grow turgid). It’s a bright, sharp sound; a virtuosity that doesn’t hang around drawing attention to itself. I don’t know what will happen if this band move on from the clubs to the stadia, but for me at this moment they are, as they say, ‘on the one’.