Tag: reflection

A Leaf Must Fall

Walter Pater said that all art aspires to the condition of music. Music plays games with time which may be why it can evoke the past so powerfully. Our first encounters with a song or tune can focus attention in a uniquely memorable way and remain permanently accessible.

Playing a favourite recording is a bit like revisiting a memory although memories, we are told, alter each time they surface and meet the light of day. A little bit of now leaks in which results in our remembrances constantly being rewritten. Wonderfully creative, of course, although it’s worth recalling that ‘being creative with the truth’ is the new euphemism for telling lies!

Music is your only friend until the end, Jim Morrison sang, and in some moods I can’t disagree. Listening to familiar records puts me in touch with who I was but can also show me how I’ve changed. As so often, the poet Philip Larkin has something interesting to say on the subject. The ‘you’ in this poem is his mother.

Reference Back

That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.

Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique Negroes blew
Our of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
To my unsatisfactory prime.

Truly, though our element is time,
We’re not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.

There’s so much in this poem that it’s hard to hold in the mind. It gnaws away at my thoughts, which must be why I keep going back to it. Bit like probing an aching tooth perhaps? I find myself wondering if present unhappiness can damage happy memories. Another poet, TS Eliot, wrote that humankind cannot bear too much reality. Maybe we’re all busy re-editing the past to fit new realities or worse, new virtualities … ha, my spellchecker doesn’t like that word which I’ll take as a signal to stop! Besides, I’m getting out of my depth here …

Sometimes you come across old music you never heard at the time which has a freshness that evokes an era better than some of the stuff from it you keep playing … such a find was The Famous Jug Band’s album Sunshine Possibilities. If there’s a Genius of place, there must be a genius of time. Listen to these two tracks (lyrics provided for the first) and you may find yourself magically transported back to 1969 …

If you must go, go now 
Before the summer fades 
Before the geese have flown
Before the rivers rise 
Or would you take my heart? 
Would you take my mind?

And if they ask where you are 
I'll say that you have flown 
Before you died of cold
And while your wings were strong 
And that I love you still 
And that all will fade. 

And as you fly away 
You'll think no more of me 
For autumn has no tears 
For summer's fading leaves 
And that is how it was 
And how it will be.

Artful (Part Two)

 

Intention does not make good art.

George Saunders

Good news for those of us who can’t make up our minds … isn’t it? The ultimate slacker, of course, was Sir Francis Drake who – legend has it – greeted news of the Armada’s arrival during a game of bowls by remarking that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the Spaniards. True or not, it’s a cool story! And here’s the blurb to Russell Hoban’s inspiring children’s tale, “How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsman”:

Tom is so good at fooling around that he does little else. His Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, who thinks this is too much like having fun, calls upon the fearsome Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach him a lesson. So the Captain challenges Tom to three rounds of womble, muck, and sneedball, certain that he will win. However, when it comes to fooling around, Tom doesn’t fool around, and his skills prove so polished that the results of the contest are completely unexpected …

Turns out the puritan work ethic isn’t the sure-fire short-cut to success it always claims to be. Nothing wrong with doing your homework, of course, provided you’re the one who set it. And as anyone who is micro-managed into a stupor will tell you … er, duh?

I enjoy blogging. You can please yourself what to write and each new post is ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ as TS Eliot put it … though not in a post, because he died in 1965! The phrase occurs in his long poem “Four Quartets”, a profound meditation on life and death, where he keeps circling back in frank admission that he has not yet found the right words:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Uncanny, don’t you think, how well that describes every would-be post you’ve sent to the trashcan? But something keeps us coming back for more, perhaps the hope that this next one will articulate a wholly new idea never before even half-imagined … ah, dream on, Dave! The cold reality you need to face is that there is nothing new under the sun … but who is this galloping towards us, blowing his cavalry bugle?

No artist tolerates reality.

Franz Kafka

Ha, if Kafka’s brave enough to ride a horse, who are we to wave a white flag? Or stare glumly at a blank page, for that matter … each new post may not grasp the grail but together they may amount to more than the sum of their parts.

Both Eliot and Kafka produced constant variations on just a few themes. This brings to mind a principle of musical construction known as isorhythm, where a fixed rhythmic pattern undergoes a series of melodic transformations throughout the course of a piece. Jazz pianist Geoff Eales, who even calls his band Isorhythm, says: “It’s a marvellous way of achieving unity within variety.” If you have six minutes to spare, here’s a taste of their music:

Hang on, do I spy a figure in flowing robes riding a camel down that sand-dune? Could be John Barth with more support for the aesthetic existence:

Reality is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Let’s stay in the clouds awhile. Whether or not you agree with Walter Pater’s dictum that all art constantly aspires to the condition of music, it’s hard to deny the importance of pattern. What else are new works of art – or new blog posts, for that matter – but variations on a theme? That’s a phrase that could also describe evolution itself and there’s something to be said for the argument that we are no longer evolving physically because cultural change has taken over – ever since we decided body hair was uncool and started wearing animal skins.

Or maybe we just like dressing up. We’ve grown used to the mystery of attire and love playing peekaboo, much as we love words which seem to mean one thing when they also mean another. Our natural survival instinct is to hunt for variations in patterns which might signal advantage or warn of danger. Perhaps this is why I find it so rewarding to work within tight constraints of form – strict verse patterns, regular rhythms, rhyme schemes, limited word lengths and so on. I like the way you can construct a whole world in a small space – a forgotten world, maybe, or a spoof version – or even, perhaps, a better world? And unlike the real world, this one is under your control. William Blake knew the power of imagination:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Ah, the thrill of the chase!

What do you mean, you can’t spot the connection? If Seamus Heaney can compare his pen with his dad’s spade, please allow me to wear my deerstalker hat when I go on a word hunt … though I am trying to make a serious point here. Words and ideas seem to come more naturally when I’m struggling to make them fit into a tight space. Focusing on the how, perhaps, I’m less self-conscious about the what. How is style, whereas what is substance …

Let me cut back to the chase. Meaning is political and, in a world that’s shrinking fast, you can’t open your mouth without putting your foot in it – or else open your ears without some foul poison seeping in. So easy to feel hopeless, helpless, voiceless. But Scott Fitzgerald, as ever the canary in the mine, came up with this clear note of caution:

Either you think for yourself or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilise and sterilize you.

Or drive you to self-medication, maybe? But we all swim in the same sea these days and perhaps art is our only lifeline.

Art is the link between soundbites. Well, why not? I’m a great admirer of playwright Joe Orton who assembled his hilarious satirical farces much as a visual artist puts together a collage. Each play had one main theme – sex, work, the holiday industry, death, religion and madness all took turns to amuse! – and his preparation was to make lists of possible ingredients which included … Titles/Names … Exclamations and Ripostes … Longer Conversations. Sometimes he had particular characters in mind but much was free-floating and using only the barest plot outlines he cut and pasted wild and unpredictable romps that have barely dated.

I saw a brilliant production of his ‘What The Butler Saw’ – set in a madhouse – only the other week. It was fast and furious, leaving the audience in a state of breathless excitement – torn between wanting to laugh and not wanting to miss the next line.

Whenever actors and directors complained to Joe that lines weren’t funny, he went home and used his lists to come up with new lines. One actor described him as ‘indefatigable’. Orton said that he wanted his lines to be ‘irrefutable’.

Indefatigable and irrefutable! Now there’s an artistic manifesto …

Well, I could carry on like this all night but I need my beauty sleep. The way I usually bring my ramblings to a close is to write on A4 paper and – when I reach the end of the second side – force a conclusion which sums up what I’ve written, often random thoughts and stuff I’ve copied from books or newspapers, before adding an all-encompassing title. It’s good training but useless here, where you can go on and on and on and … on that note, I’ll bid you a fond farewell and leave you with a reminder of what might be at stake if only we could pull our fingers out!

We created the art before we had the society.

Vladimir Tatlin

PS.  If you are the famous boy with your finger in the dyke, please ignore my final exhortation …

Image result for finger in the dyke

 

 

Image: The Daily Player

Artful (Part One)

One dictionary definition of art describes it as “the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words”. 

You can’t argue with that, of course, but it’s a faintly lacklustre description of what seems to me a magical process. (By magical, I don’t mean anything supernatural. Nature herself is plenty deep enough for me.) So I sat down, contemplated and came up with words to finish a sentence beginning Art is …

Art is … 

celebration	   empathy	    example	      acknowledgment
clarification      preservation	    representation    remembrance
focus		   transformation   symbolism         vision
refuge	           escape           relief            rescue
vision             affirmation      assertion         critique
play               consolation      exorcism          purging
purification       journey          confession        exploration
adventure          creation         mystery           completion
record             analysis         synthesis         experiment
therapy            weapon           touchstone        composition
meeting            bridge	    mirror            reflection
sharing            contribution     warning           recommendation
conversation       spur             signpost          rallying-cry
prophesy           manifesto        subversion        provocation
illumination       healer           argument          questioning
collaboration      catalyst         explanation       unique

Great art can be all of these things. No wonder creative people are prepared to go through agonies to produce something worthwhile. But following your own inner promptings while keeping your eye on the subject and your ear tuned to the expectations of an audience is a juggling act which requires psychological stamina and deep determination.

A big ask.

But artists aren’t superhuman – very often their expressive ability is rooted in misfortune and injustice, their human frailty the source of strength. The struggle against mute power, says philosophical novelist Milan Kundera, is the struggle of a theatre group that has attacked an army. This is an almost comic version of the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword.

But it’s also a heroic image. Art embodies the hope that we aren’t helpless – something can be done.

My previous post, featuring an unbelieving Philip Larkin reflecting on religion to draw fresh conclusions, suggests that cultures can merge to create something new. A paradox – art is nothing if not original but grows best when nourished by tradition. Someone commented that today’s European churches were often built on the sites of ancient temples and I replied that many were dedicated to gods of healing – perhaps our new temples are the medical centres, sources of endless antibiotics.

As to our spiritual needs – answers to big questions like Who am I? – we have modern-gothic malls to bestow the dubious blessings of consumer identity. I shop, therefore I am?

But there’s trouble in paradise. Shop till you drop becomes Shop till you drop the climate in a hole it can’t clamber out of … and this, I like to think, is where art appears at the top of the hill like the cavalry to the rescue. Or is it the Commanches?

Hang on, our movie seems to have jumped forward a few reels … let’s wind back a bit!

Ha, look, that’s me in a walk-on role! I play the part of a free-thinker who has a tendency to get himself lost. Being in love with words doesn’t help – chasing fine phrases down ridiculous rabbit-holes butters no parsnips, as nobody said to anyone ever. I never know what I want to do until I’ve done it and consequently am the world’s worst procrastinator … or else a close second to this chap!

Image result for AA Milne shipwrecked sailor

To see AA Milne’s poem about the poor fellow, click on https://davekingsbury.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/procrastination/

Where was I? All over the shop, as usual, and whenever shop-assistants start to hover I tell them Just browsing … you too, huh? Hmm, going into shops without buying anything could be the new agitprop – “political propaganda promulgated chiefly in literature, drama, music, or art” – but would anybody notice? I suppose you’d have to combine it with requests for impossible objects – gold-plated cycle-clips in honour of Philip Larkin, perhaps?

By the way, Larkin has form when it comes to supplanting religion with art:

Water

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Larkin’s tone is ironic but the beauty of the final image suggests a serious intention. It is open-ended, inviting the reader in to wonder … or wander! The poem steers clear of religion’s didacticism and enters a more democratic artistic space. I am reminded of the campaign to bring pure drinking water to the world’s poor and its unforgettable images:

Image result for children at water taps

In trying to create my own artistic space, I’m encouraged by novelist Richard Ford’s words:

I’ve always tried to abide by EM Forster’s famous dictum … that … fictional characters should possess “the incalculability of life”. To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and make generalisations about as the people we actually meet every day … I should add, as a counterweight to Forster, that I have also taken to heart Robert Frost’s advice meant specifically for writers: that what we do when we write represents the last of our childhood, and we may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly.

I’m drawn to this because I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. Does he mean, be mature but don’t forget to have fun? Is he saying, go for realism but leave room for fantasy? Maybe the message is that rules are there to be broken – there’s no progress without contraries, says William Blake.

But are Ford’s two principles really opposed? I suspect that a childlike point of view – immune to cliché, where the merely childish are wholly susceptible to it – would appreciate ” the incalculability of life”. When once we start to reduce the “variegated and vivid” and content ourselves with stereotype, we lose our appetite for life. This is where all the trouble starts …

I’m well aware that the artist in me is wary of making generalisations, where my inner preacher can’t get enough of them. A friend of mine once said I had a “shopping-trolley mind” by which he meant that I pull ideas off the shelves at random like a lucky winner in a supermarket sweep.  You may have more ingredients than anyone else, he said, but they may not add up to a successful meal.

Ah well, time to empty this particular shopping bag and see what I can serve up in Part Two … maybe a tip or two on turning a million and one ideas into something tasty and satisfying. Just don’t expect me to have a shopping list.

And in defence of my somewhat round-the-houses approach, I’ll end with some curiously encouraging words from writer George Saunders:

Intention does not make good art.

 

 

Image result for race round supermarket

 

Image: Mirror