All Our 1960s


 This recent article reinforces my sense that, for my generation of late 50s/early 60s working class kids, there was a perceived expulsion from Eden in the form of the ideological and architectural destruction of ‘our’ cities and the social units they maintained by 1960s councils, and their replacement with the fruits of Brutalism. 

As happened in Byker (painstakingly and painfully recorded by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen), like unloved children, we entered into at once a traumatised nostalgia for the often miserable past, and a codependent relationship with concrete, the material that had buried it. As it decayed, it seemed that so too our social bonds rotted away, but, in the ambivalent air of experimental times, we were secretly complicit, convinced that we were arriving in that space age future the media projected at us through comics, TV and film, only to discover that how we got there rendered it pre-poisoned and dystopic.

The ideals of planners met the corruption of councillors, and prepared the way for an assassination perpetrated soon enough by Thatcher: of the idea of society itself, a conceptual crime which is now being brought to its grim conclusion by the Tories in their latest and perhaps terminal dismantling of the post-War settlement that gave us our council houses and our innoculations and our railways, and even sent some of us to university.

I find myself thinking, not just about Dundee and its many dodgy demolitions, but about Peterlee and Victor Pasmore, who named his Apollo Pavilion after that same space race, and described it as ‘a free and anonymous monument’, ‘in which to linger and on which to play’ – ironically, of course, it was the free play known as vandalism, coupled with the lingering contempt of local politicians, opposed to such abstruse aesthetic principles, which led to its long decline.

In many of these cases, then, what interests me is how the extremes of genuine idealism and Gradgrinding graft meet. It’s a strange, alchemical marriage of the descendant of Morris’s Arts & Crafts Socialism and Arnold’s middle class, middle brow Philistine, while our usual Barbarian overlords gaze on, uncomprehendingly wondering whether to exercise their droit de seigneur and fuck us over.

Some of those now in entirely justified panic about Palmyra (I’m thinking of Boris Johnson’s protests here) are of the same cast as those who either permitted or presided over the destruction of another culture they weren’t taught how to value. 

The contrast between Johnson’s pronouncements, and the establishment silence over, for instance, the bulldozing of Mayan temples in Belize to provide road materials, is telling. The latter is, of course, a vandalism occurring within the acceptable confines of capitalist thinking (business as usual; ancient but not ‘Classical’ remains).  

Meanwhile, those of us engaged in or by public art, or in an art that wishes to engage with the public and public matters, must seek funds and a forum to advance such endeavours within the same system and at the mercy of the same media. While the example of figures like Jeremy Deller encourages us not to be fooled again, it is as difficult as ever to wake up to the circumstances of our own longing for lost and dangerously ambiguous certainties.

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Love and the Romans, III

The central role of rhetoric in an educated Roman’s life cannot be overstated at this point. Schooled in it from childhood, every Roman male knew it was his duty to articulate the sentiments of the state, and in his best interests to argue for what advanced his own cause, morals, or status. Rhetoric was the art of memorable persuasion, and it was delivered with one eye on the case in hand, and the other on reputation. When it was applied to intimacy in the form of the poem, it had to both persuade the loved one, and appeal to a wider audience, indeed to posterity.

What the final two poets I’m looking at understood was that fame trumps femme. Horace and Ovid never give any sign of being caught in the actual torments of passion as their predecessors and rivals do. Ovid in fact claims he wasn’t in love at all when Cupid coerced him into writing love poetry: ‘No boy, no girl with long and lovely hair -/I’d made my protest. He drew instantly/an arrow from his quiver, chosen with care/to lay me low…’. Horace, in the first love poem in his first Book of Odes, crucially positions himself at a chilly distance to the agonies of love, both older and wiser:

What slim elegant youth, drenched in effusive scent,
Now sits close to your side, Pyrrha, in some recess
Rich with many a rose-bloom?
Who loves smoothing your yellow hair,
Chic yet daintily plain? How many gods profaned,
What indelible vows he will lament, and oh,
What dark hurricane-lashed seas
He will watch with a pallid cheek!
Poor fool, golden he thinks you will always be,
Heart-free always, he hopes, always adorable…

What Horace brings to the lyric then is at once maturity and philosophical perspective: he is not blown away by lust, indeed, the final book of odes, published in his fifties, begins with the grumbling of an old warrior putting on his harness again: ‘Must it be war again/after so long a truce? Venus, be kind, refrain…’

The old tensions between convention and passion are resolved for Horace in a single brilliant phrase, which cuts at a stroke through the Gordian knot of Catullus’ ‘odi et amo': ‘carpe diem’ – pluck the day or even moment, as though it were a flower or a fruit. (Horace is, of course, our fruit course or even a sorbet.) The imagistic brilliance of this somewhat disguises the sheer difficulty of doing so: Horace’s wisdom is a product of long meditation on the famous Sabine farm, and therefore of looking at Rome from a long way off. As he says, ‘The choir of poets all loves woods and shuns the city’.

Horace was, of course, supported by Maecenas, the wealthiest man in Rome, which explains how he could afford to be so out of it. Ovid, as we know from his last works in Romanian exile, could not bear to be. His appetite for intrigue, or for the cataloging of it, plus his capacity for rhetorical invention and variation, led him to exhaust the tropes of the love elegy till, in A.D. Melville’s words, it could be said he ‘had dealt the genre its death-blow’. Certainly he wrote the love elegy’s elegy, in his poem after Tibullus’s death:

…if aught survives but shade and name,

Tibullus dwells in some Elysian glade;

And greeting him, their young brows wreathed with bay,
Come Calvus and Catullus and you too…
Gallus, who life and spirit cast away.

Your soul joins theirs, if souls survive at all…

That reservation sums up Ovid’s carefully poised positioning of his poetry. Ironically, apart from Catullus, we know almost nothing of either Calvus or, Ovid’s declared influence, Gallus.

Ovid’s brilliant insincerity can be summed up by the interplay between two poems, one to his mistress, the other to his mistress’s servant:

So I’m to face fresh charges every day!
I win, but all those battles are a bore.
If my eyes wander when we’re at a play,
You’ll choose one in the gods to make you sore.

A pretty girl gives me a silent look,
You claim that silent look some signed revealed…

And now a new offence. Your clever maid,
Cypassis, does her mistress wrong – with me!
Heaven grant me better, if my fancy strayed,
Than such a low-class slut for company…

Inevitably, after swearing his innocence by Venus, the next ode begins

Cypassis, so supreme in styling hair
(None but a goddess’ should by you be dressed,
In our sweet stolen joys so debonair
(You suit your mistress well, but suit me best),

What gossip whispered we were intimate?
How did Corinna hear of our amour?
Did I let slip some word to indicate
Our secret? Did I blush? Not I, for sure.

Nor does he blush in blackmailing Cypassis into sleeping with him again. All his manipulative guile is present in a contrast from which only his mistress is excluded: everyone else, especially his reader, is in on the secret. If Ovid is our pudding, he deliberately sprinkles the sugar of his wit to the point of sickliness – this is not a just dessert. It is at this moment we realise that the mistress hardly matters, could indeed be anyone, and that Ovid, as he says in ‘The Art of Love’, has defeated love itself: ‘et mihi cedet Amor’ (So love shall yield to me). The genre is at an end, though this final victory seems hollow at best.

From these five Roman poets spring almost all our conventional male literary lovers: Romeo, Shakespeare himself in his sonnets, young Werther, the Goethe of the Roman elegies, Casanova and Don Juan. From them too we get the idea of the heartless or unfaithful mistress, the discontented Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, as well as modern sexually and socially liberated female characters, and the present crises of gender and patriarchy which feminism argues we must resolve. Love appears in several familiar guises as obsession, madness, philosophy and game.

As such they oblige us to consider the cultural relativism of our assumptions, even those about our feelings. Their sheer vivacity after millennia are a tribute to the power and expressiveness of the poetic imagination. If that enables us better to appreciate kindness and affection as we encounter it here and now – remember, we will be as they are a long time dead – then they are not only a great counter to the general soppiness of the occasion, but pointers to its underlying value: our urgent and ongoing need to know the truth about love.

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Love and the Romans, II

The great period of the love elegy, in which our five poets thrived, is actually quite brief. One hundred years, roughly, takes us from Catullus’ birth, around 84 BC, to Ovid’s death, in exile in Tomis in AD17. Within about seventy years, actually, the poets have invented, developed, exploited and abandoned the entire convention, and it’s salutary to think of it lasting about as long as, say, English Romanticism, or the time it took to develop poetry in Scots from Robert Fergusson through Burns to James Hogg.

In that time the Republic died along with many of its citizens, including Cicero and its nemesis, Caesar, and the empire began under Augustus. Catullus knew the first two, Horace and Ovid the latter: these were poets at the heart of the Roman state whose depiction of its attitudes to love actually reveal a society in crisis – Catullus’s great love, Lesbia/Clodia, a very wealthy and influential woman, is denounced as a meretrix – not quite a whore – in one of Cicero’s great speeches, while some undisclosed scandal involving the imperial family, and obliquely related to Ovid’s poetry, has him sent into exile at the personal order of the emperor, with no hope of reprieve.

Women, then, were becoming more independent, republican moral absolutes were slipping: something needed to be invented to hold society together. Sounds a bit like the 1960s, doesn’t it, in Larkin’s famous formulation:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

It is too fanciful to suggest, as we’ll see, that the social cement was romantic love rather than the new cult of the emperor, (‘Love Me Do’ versus ‘Love Big Brother’) but, in the works of our five poets, it was clearly something more than papering over the cracks.

If we think of our poets as courses in a Roman feast, Catullus is a very particular sort of starter, perhaps involving a lot of tentacles. A northern Italian, a Veronese, who led a school of new writers – Cicero calls them ‘neotoroi’ in tribute to the Greek influences they bring into Roman verse – he is at once Roman and other, as symbolised by the new, possibly Celtic, word for kisses, ‘basia’, he brings into Latin. And indeed everything in Catullus seems polarised, contrary – his most famous lines hint at irreconcilable oppositions: ‘ave atque vale’ (hail and farewell) he says at the tomb of his beloved elder brother: having travelled all the way to Troy, what else can he do but turn on his heel and sail home? And in two of the most compressed lines in world literature he says ‘odi et amo’ – I hate and I love: ‘you ask, perhaps, how that can be?/I know not, but I feel the agony.’

His work is both tender and obscene, touching and baffling, and, what’s worse, he makes no effort to soften the blow for us – yes, he really does claim that Spaniard he dislikes cleans his teeth in urine; yes, in his rage at Lesbia’s faithlessness, he depicts her as tossing off strangers in the street. And yet, this is the same poet who gives us what amounts to the first freeze frame in literature: the moment when Lesbia is about to enter a house they’ve borrowed for the occasion, and he pauses the poem so we can look at the sunlight on her foot: ‘…as she crossed the well-worn threshold, [she] stopped, with shining/foot poised upon the slender sandal-tip.’

It is the moment before all happiness, and all unhappiness too – and Catullus realises it.

Passion in Catullus is too much for the frame of our sensibilities to contain – only the formal bounds of the poem can do that, so he doesn’t even try to be consistent. Part of the reasons behind this is social: Lesbia is married, their classes don’t exactly mesh, and the variety of terms he uses to address her reveal this: she is, often, his girl ‘puella'; she is rarely his lady, ‘era'; once or twice his mistress, ‘domina’ – and, once only, his woman: ‘mea mulier’. This is as close as he gets to that lovely inscription on a funerary stone on exhibition now in the gallery upstairs, ‘coniugi carissimae’ (dearest wife). Their love cannot disturb the fixed order of Roman society, and in Propertius or Ovid, this becomes convention – Propertius and Cynthia would never dream of marrying, while Ovid actually is married, as he lets slip at one point – just not to the subject of his poems.

That which concerns the emotions must be regarded as separate from that which concerns business, alliances, dynasties, power – and this social fact underpins Catullus’s emotional agony: he knows, ultimately, he is a rich woman’s toy, like the sparrow whose death he mock elegises, understanding that in one sense he is elegising himself in the grimly ludicrous image of it hopping toward Hades: ‘Now he travels the solitary darkness/towards that region from which there is no returning.’

This fundamental contradiction, you can love each other but not live together, leads Catullus almost to the point of breakdown, and Tibullus and Propertius try to tolerate and control it by very different means. Propertius we’ll turn to in a moment, but Tibullus, to continue our idea of a feast, must be a fine wine, as he’s the first poet to introduce the idea of drowning his sorrows, which he does just two poems into his first book:

Strengthen the wine, drown these fresh agonies,
That sleep may overpower my weary eyes;
Let none wake me as Bacchus stuns my brain,
And my doomed love finds its relief from pain.
My girl is now watched by a cruel guard,
Her solid door is shut and firmly barred.

Here we find the convention of the poor poet, locked out and, it must be said, rather wallowing in the misery. If Catullus swings from cruelty to self-laceration, Tibullus rather favours the masochistic end of the emotional spectrum. Un-Roman in his sentiment, he even says ‘I do not care to win renown, my Delia: let me/be called a lazy coward, only be with you.’

In fact, what comes out in his verse is a gradual admission that he would very much like to settle down. What begins as a dismissal of ‘being grey-headed and yet speaking words of blandishment’, seen in an unflattering portrait of an old lover ‘In quavering tones composing badinage,/and trying to prink his hair, now white with age’, turns into a trope of fidelity: ‘ in our case, Delia,/as our hair grows grey, let us still be textbooks of true love.’ Finally, he wishes for nothing more than to age peacefully in a pastoral setting, love’s battles past, even as he suspects this can only be imagined within the frame of the poem:

The master follows his sheep, his son the lambs,
His wife prepares warm water for him when he’s tired.
That’s the life for me – to let my head get steadily whiter,
And as an old man call to mind the actions of the past.

It’s a luxury few of these poets achieved: Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius all vanish from the records in their thirties, and Propertius’ late poems are obsessed with death and the testimony of ghosts. Where Tibullus is passive, he is anything but, cat-fighting with his Cynthia even after her death, when her ghost comes and tells him what’s what in no uncertain terms:

Ghosts do exist. Death does not finish everything.
The pale phantom lives to escape the pyre.
Yes: bending over my pillow, I saw Cynthia –
Interred that day beside the highway’s roar.
Still sleepless, brooding on my mistress’ funeral,
I loathed the chilly empire of my bed.
Her hair was just the same as at her burial,
Her eyes the same; her dress scorched down one side;
The fire had eaten at her favourite beryl ring;
Her lips had tasted Lethé, and were pale.

She spoke, in a voice panting with life and passion: her hands
Quivering meanwhile, the frail knuckles snapped.
‘Cheat! Liar! false to me and every other girl,
Can sleep have any influence on you?

But Propertius’s work demonstrates even more sharply than Catullus’s the stylistic collision between the psychology of the lover, the conventions of the love poem, and the realities of Roman society – he refers to Cynthia as ‘docta puella’ (learned girl), and she would have had to have been to keep up with the use of obscure allusions which pepper his passionate declarations. He is a highly flavoured dish, perhaps with the garum or rotting fish sauce the Romans loved so much – Pound’s famous ‘Homage to Sextius Propertius’ best captures his cryptic, sardonic tone:

…I ask a wreath which will not crush my head.
And there is no hurry about it;
I shall have, doubtless, a boom after my funeral,
Seeing that long standing increases all things
regardless of quality.
And who would have known the towers
pulled down by a deal-wood horse;
Or of Achilles withstaying waters by Simois
Or of Hector spattering wheel-rims…
If Homer had not stated your case!

And I also among the later nephews of this city
shall have my dog’s day,
With no stone upon my contemptible sepulchre;
My vote coming from the temple of Phoebus in Lycia, at Patara,
And in the mean time my songs will travel,
And the devirginated young ladies will enjoy them
when they have got over the strangeness…

What I’m hinting at here is a kind of collision of consciousness and convention, as these Roman poets reshaped Greek metres and forms for a new era which itself was reshaping them into figures which we recognise today as psychologically complex individuals – because we experience similar contradictions. It is in this sense that Horace, at the end of Book 3 of his Odes, has a piercing insight about art itself: thanks to his poems, ‘non omnis moriar’ – I shall not wholly die. While we continue to engage with their work on all these levels – not just as social records or as self portraits, but also as rhetorical structures and aesthetic decisions, that whole complex which adds up to the poem as work of art – we recreate them in ourselves, and we live through them as much as they do through us.

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Love and the Romans, I

(This is the text of the talk I gave on St Valentine’s Day at the McManus, Dundee, to accompany their marvellous exhibition of Roman artefacts. I’ve divided it into three parts.)

In the play, ‘The Invention of Love’, Tom Stoppard has AE Houseman’s friend Alfred Pollard remark, ‘Like everything else, like clocks and trousers and algebra, the love poem had to be invented. After millenniums of sex and centuries of poetry, the love poem as understood by Shakespeare and Donne… – the true-life confessions of the poet in love, immortalizing the mistress, who is actually the cause of the poem – that was invented in Rome in the first century before Christ.’

It’s an extraordinary claim, but one which goes a long way toward explaining why we’re here tonight. It is, undeniably, a strange thing to do: gather over a drink to listen to a poet talk about other poets two thousand years dead, and on a night devoted, surely, slightly more to love than to poetry. But what if the former were, as Stoppard suggests, actually dependent on the latter?

That is one of the tasks of the poet, after all, to question and perhaps to change our perspective on things we think absolutely stable, even eternal; to jostle the verities. Why exactly is it we celebrate romantic love in February – a rather chilly month for it, after all? And what has it to do with the Roman poets? In this talk, I’m going to look briefly at the lives, loves and literary output of the five poets we associate with the period that Pollard, and through him, Stoppard, refers to: Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, Horace and Ovid.

But first, St Valentine. Despite the best efforts of scholars, no-one really knows very much about him, or why we associate him with love. Pope Gelasius, at the end of the 5th century, rather grudgingly admitted him to the canon, but as one of those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only known to God’ – which is pope-speak for someone we know nothing about.

Vigorous hagiography created the legend of a bishop martyred and buried on the Via Flaminia for getting between the Emperor Claudius and a law preventing young men from marrying before they’d joined the army, by clandestinely performing marriage ceremonies. It’s not clear which Emperor Claudius this is, or what law it refers to, or indeed which bishop called ‘Valentinus’ was interfering with recruitment.

But it doesn’t matter much, as the first significant appearance of the idea of a ‘valentine’ is not till almost nine hundred years later in Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Parliament of Fowls’, when the poet writes, ‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.’ Blessed are the chese-makers! Yet another damn poet, then, popularises the idea of a day devoted to love, though it’s by no means clear this was in February. And, as so often in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, all such ideas lead back to Rome.

Not only is Chaucer reading a work of Cicero at the outset of his poem – and like many readers of Cicero, he promptly falls into a deep sleep – but scholars for many years tried to relate Valentine’s Day back to the Roman feast of Lupercalia, referred to by Horace in his third book of odes: in honour of the god Faunus, or Lupercus, ‘A goat shall die…/at the year’s end, the ancient shrine/smoke with thick incense, and the wine,/liberally poured, keep filling up/Venus’ friend, the drinking cup.’

Sounds great, as does the habit of cutting thongs from the sacrificed animals’ hides, then running through the streets, whipping people. Women in particular, in a prophecy of Fifty Shades of Grey, required whipping to increase fertility – a belief alluded to in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in relation to Caesar’s wife: ‘The barren, touched in this holy chase,/Shake off their sterile curse…’ Horace, in another ode, specifically asks Venus, ‘Whose whip bends proud girls’ knees -/one flick for Chloe, please.’ – though I’m not sure that had quite as much to do with fertility.

This rite was still so popular in Christian Rome, that the same pope, Gelasius, had to ban it, offering the Roman senators of his day the alternative, ‘run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.’ (The fact Gelasius banned Lupercalia and acknowledged Valentinus in the same year may or may not be of significance.)

There is, I’d suggest, something in this nexus of new beliefs and ancient rituals, of wine and whips, which takes us back to another weird mix, of principles and passions, that lies at the heart of the Roman love elegy, the paradoxes of which continue to affect or afflict us as we sit here. Are our deepest emotions innate or social constructs? What has love to do with lust and vice versa? Can or should such impulses be contained within the structures of conventional morality?

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Dark Whimsy

(A post that started months ago as I realised my creative attention had moved for the time being toward something between the poem and the prose poem. These pieces arose from my engagement with social media rather than the conventional frame of magazine submission or commission, and they kept me writing – to put it crudely – while I got through a difficult period. I wanted to think about new modes not as a substitute for the poem, but as, in some ways, successors to it, and that helped me to discuss a particular approach to humour rather than wit in my work in general.)

I was trying to explain my Twitter prose pieces at one point as word cartoons – they have something of the ephemerality of the strip cartoon, the daily-ness rather than disposability per se, and therefore they might aspire to something of that thematic freedom, that chance to explore every variation which we see over the decades with, say, Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

Then I realised that, in order to argue this, I’d have to define whimsy so that it wasn’t a simplistic negative, but a mode of access to absurdism of both the good old British as well as the European varieties. This would, I supposed, be like my attempts to reclaim terms like ‘procrastination’ or ‘nostalgia’.

And by then my argument had already lost the lightness I think of as one of the things I’m aiming at in such pieces in the first place… As James Finlayson used to say, in that manner which inspired the writers of The Simpsons, ‘D’ohhhhh!!!’

To plough on deeper into the self-reflexiveness, what I think I’ve been trying to do for some years is to replace camp (which for me as a grinchy Scot still has too much of an English upper class connotation, albeit one that parodies that class) with whimsy (which clearly has some of the same sort of connotations, but seems to me more determined to undermine it). Part of that choice was no doubt driven by my heterosexuality, part of it by my outsiderness – while friends were happy to position themselves within a gay or at least theatrical aestheticism, and would cite Coward or Wilde, Bowie or Morrissey, I found myself thinking more of Carroll and Lear, but also Milligan and Ivor Cutler.

I’m interested in that vein of absurdist satire which begins in the trauma of war with The Wipers Times, moves through to an anti-establishment take in the Goons, Pete and Dud (and Derek and Clive), Monty Python and The Goodies, and then rejoices in the reappropriated surrealism of Reeves and Mortimer or The Mighty Boosh. US counterculture comics were full of it, and to the likes of Crumb and The Flaming Carrot, I’d add the line that runs from Herriman to Jim Woodring’s Frank. In fiction it’s found as much in wierd fantasy as Kafka or Bruno Schulz, in that strain that links Lovecraft and Ashton Smith to Murakami and Michal Ajvaz.

It is effectively a dark whimsy, and I recognise its edge in Jan Svankmajer, and its lightness as far afield as Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Hayao Miyazaki.

Michel Gondry’s work in particular exemplifies a shift from storytelling per se to how a story is told which seems at the heart of dark whimsy. His work is less about the story as a necessary force derived from realism and inexorably driving the characters to their destinies, and more about the aesthetic decisions you can take in depicting such a journey. It almost seems that narrative is less important than narrative figures and devices – an approach to the story arc which resembles the Baroque’s way with the architecture of the arch. And yet it’s not arch, in the Rococo sense, or in the way a camp rebelling would be, or as, say, John Ashbery’s approach to traditional form (or indeed the traditional pronoun ‘I’) is. It’s just found a new-ish way of telling.

The ‘story’ of Mood Indigo, for instance, is an Orphic myth of the loss of the beloved which is reconfigured by the film (and the original book)’s fecund generation of imagery. We already ‘know’ what’s going to happen – as we do with many stories – so most of our attention is transferred instead to the emotive impact of detail. All this intense, frenetic invention is foreground, a sort of flattening of ‘reality’ to resemble the comic and the cartoon, but this is not to claim the film (or book) is affectless.

On the contrary, I found it moving precisely because our presumption that the lightness of approach must be inadequate to deal with the darkening of mood was being tested. Yes, we don’t know how to handle such matters as the mortality of those we love, and assuming conventional aesthetic norms will help, focussed as they are around tragic necessity, is certainly to pay lip service to Aristotelian catharsis, but that is not to make it an inevitable choice.

Something opens up to us when we don’t rely on an idea of characterisation that puts its inventiveness into backstory rather than stylistic choices about imagery or framing. The pictorial is aligned to the poetic in that both acknowledge symbolism arises from the immediacy of the senses as much as from the depths of memory. Wes Anderson’s work in particular returns again and again to this equivalence.

In a similar sense, I found it a real liberation when I began to think of the poem as a cartoon in words, an animation. I sometimes find it more useful to think of stanzas as panels rather than as paragraphs, and of metaphors as visual (or at least sensory) accompaniments to the ‘text’ rather than as a set of statements or rhetorical structures. The analogies may not be exact, but they still help me.

But basically I like the way cartoons get to allude in a compressed way to all sorts of other cultural modes, but still (or ‘and therefore’) play around with tone in such a free (not necessarily comic) way: that’s the sort of plasticity I love in poetry. Thinking in terms of cartoons gets me out of what feels monotonous or monologic about the lyric – that it’s this perfectible voice all poetry should aspire to. Perfection in this sense hints at narrative consistency as much as at aesthetic or theoretical coherence. It might not itself be a pompous concept, but the attitude toward it can often feel like it is. Whereas a cartoon can require a huge amount of work and just look wild, or be incredibly controlled yet, morally, off the wall: its aesthetic just feels more open.

What it feels like when it’s working is something like late Philip Guston when, after years of abstraction, he turns to figurative work but it comes over as cartoonish, and you realise it’s because he knows that the cultural division between art and the cartoon isn’t there any more, the division between the abstract and the figurative isn’t there; that the distinction between the modern and Renaissance definitions of ‘cartoon’ no longer holds, and pretty soon the idea of division itself will be as much of a nostalgia as the things it’s supposed to separate off.

And as soon as you realise that, everything’s back again – art, cartoon, abstraction, figurative stuff, and the divisions between things. It’s just that they’ve become something else, something completely alien to us, and nobody really knows what they mean anymore.

Except for the nostalgia they induce, a concept which now means what it always did, though nobody noticed: the returning pain. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the pain of not being able to return, or the pain of having returned, it’s returned to us as pain for the simple reason we no longer feel at home where we are, because we can see our way toward a way of being that reconfigures our old idea of ‘home’ itself.

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Addressing Dundee

(These first few catch-up blogs are relatively straightforward posts in that they’re already done. Here’s the first of three commissioned or otherwise occasional pieces written between June and November of last year: the verse I delivered at the dinner, and the short address I gave at the graduation ceremony at which I was awarded an honorary degree from Dundee University.

The large humblebrag quotient in that last clause is probably what has delayed me posting this by six months or so. Another factor is these are occasional pieces in several sense of that term. But the question of what the occasional might be, is, I suppose, why I want to post them now.

With the poem – delivered at a formal but relatively intimate dinner – a mostly comic tone was in keeping, and the totemic figure of McGonagall allowed me to posit that doggerel might have a peculiarly democratic role in Dundee. In the address, there was a more obviously ‘suitable’ part, exhortatory, aspirational, symbolised by the dolphins; and a slightly questionable element, flippant, even odd, represented by the cephalopods.

That off-the-cuff warm up line about the link between a squid in a library and a ‘wacky’ TV ad suggests a different kind of link between the role of poetry – or the poet – and appropriateness, which I think is more or less what I’m looking at in other, as yet incomplete posts. There is a sense on such occasions that verse (in the traditional prosodic understanding of the term) is formally suitable, but that its register – what contemporary writers say in such forms – might be more problematic, or at least a matter for debate.

A straightforward panegyric mode is obviously still accessible to us (Morgan’s lines on the opening of the Scottish Parliament come to mind), it’s more a question of why anyone other than the Poet Laureate or our own Scottish Makar should want to access it. And for me especially, as Dundee Makar, whether that is at all what I want to do with the role. To be honest, I like disturbances – I’m as interested in unsettlement as I am in settlement.

So, on the one hand I didn’t want to do anything less than honour an occasion I have an investment in as an academic as well as a participant, but on the other, I wanted my way of honouring it to be ‘open’ in several senses: to the random, the bizarre, and, on another level, to more difficult matters like commodification and, most importantly, bereavement.

Because in a way all that was a balancing act – a preamble to the mention of my father, and the dedication of the degree to him. The fact that English Literature students happened to be graduating alongside nurses made it possible to do something nearer to the bone, and so I wanted to try and enlarge the register somehow from congratulations, peroration and dedication. Both the trivial and the tragic have their place at our rites of transition.


As it happened, the extraordinary Leymah Gbowee was the other person receiving an honorary degree that morning, and her powerful, heartfelt account of death and oppression on the national stage of Liberia, and indeed the international stage on which her Nobel Laureate has helped her in the lonely task of speaking truth to entrenched male power, put all my concerns into perspective. Her address was disturbing and galvanising in equal measure about the terrifying vulnerability of women and children in war, and what can be done with courage and solidarity. Please look out her story.)

Dundee addresses

1. To the Guests

Now comes the time for giving thanks
When honoured guests – and even planks
Like me – express their gratitude
For hospitality. Hot food
And heady talk: from soup to nuts
We’ve had our fill, and now some klutz
Rears up to reel off cramboclink?
– McGonagall would turn to drink.
Who he? Dundee’s teetotal bard
Whose verses left the muses scarred.
Who me? Why I am Dundee’s Makar,
This celebrated city’s slacker,
Who writes on dolphins and on pies
And will for nothing tell you lies.

Who they? Far more distinguished guests
Whose stories verse must part-digest
For they belong now to Dundee
And doggerel’s democracy.

Here’s Danny Wallace, Dundee’s Dice Man:
To all that cometh, like an Iceman,
For one whole year he just said, ‘Yes’.
But this September? Do confess…

Chris van der Kuyl, that coolest man,
Has done what digitally he can
To lose us in procrastination
By bringing Minecraft to the nation.

We all want liberty and health
But both states are accrued to wealth:
Let those who heal or strive for peace
Be fitly honoured by degrees.

Leymah Gbowee spoke to power
Lowering guns at a crucial hour:
Liberia’s hero, challenging lies,
Won for all women a noble prize.

Chris Marshall signalled how the cell
Grows cancerous – perhaps the knell
To that disease Ron Laskey screens:
So we encroach on Death’s demesne.

Mei Lin Young asked: where is our ground
If not in knowledge? Where we found
A university we find,
Like her, an Eden for the mind.

Our lives are not as neat as nations:
Interdependent with Creation,
A virus is another violence
Sir David Baulcombe’s work has silenced.

While hydro is another power
That Scotland owns in muckle showers
And flocks of lochs and rivers’ force:
Let David Siggsworth guard that source.

Eight noble names plus mine makes nine –
The muses’ number, so, more wine:
Let independent thought inspire,
And toast our host, in grateful choir!

2. To the Graduates

My thanks to the Chancellor, Professor Finkelstein, and the University.

Congratulations, everybody, today is a good day: we graduated, we all made the grade.

Don’t worry, I may be the Makar, but I’m not going to read you a poem – last night I did just that, at the formal dinner, remarking the experience must be a bit like finding a squid in a library. I went home, and while checking the England score – didn’t they do well? [this would have been the England-Uruguay result – England lost 2-1] I saw an ad in which an octopus beat four Chinese players at ping pong… The world you’re graduating into is a wierd, wonderful, and often terrifying place.

This morning, while I ironed this very shirt, I was looking out of the window, watching for dolphins coming up the Tay – one of the joys of Dundee in the summer months. I’d like to tell you for the sake of neatness that I saw some: as in David Constantine’s poem, ‘Waiting for Dolphins’, we ‘all, unaccustomed, [want] epiphany…’, today especially, but I won’t lie. For once.

We learn from Latin that to graduate comes from gradus, a step. So to graduate also means you are taking a step out of the academy and into the world, adding one more degree to the sum of human ability. One degree may not seem much, but as we know from studying global warming, as the dolphins already know, even a single degree has the potential to change our world utterly. As they say in the ads, steps can go down as well as up, backwards as well as forward. You have the chance to step positively, the chance to change things as you have been changed by these years of study.

Ten years before most of you were taking your first serious exam, that one called being born, I was receiving my first degree. I was the first in my family to do so, so my family were there, as, mostly, yours are now, just checking that it was really happening. One of the joys you’re feeling now is joy in their joy, that empathy that defines family, that defines community, that I like to think defines Dundee. It is the same empathy you’ll need now to engage with others in your careers, your maturity. The world is wierd and getting weirder, but it is also wonderful, full of epiphanies, and, with your help, it could get fuller and fuller of wonder. Take plenty of immaturity with you, for the journey.

My father, who was there at my first and indeed my second graduations, is not here today. He died earlier this year, so I want to dedicate my degree to his memory. As the nurses here today know, part of your maturity will be joyous, part of it will be suffering. I still remember the nurse saying goodbye to my father just after he’d died: that is empathy.

But no more tears, my dears. I suggest you dedicate part of your degree to those who got you here today, who are still with you, or are with you in spirit. The rest of it is yours alone: use your learning, your empathy, to take you wherever you want to go; take us along with you in search of dolphins, in search of epiphany: take us somewhere wierd and wonderful!

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Griffades d’Ours, or, There Ain’t No Sanity Claws on the Evening Stage

Anyone visiting this site over the last few months could be forgiven for assuming I’d given up on it, whereas I’ve in fact been attempting to complete an entry – any entry – for months. The eternal tail-chasing of the writer with multiple responsibilities, which includes the decision as to which of one’s various tails one should, like a diligent mutant, pursue, was particularly difficult for the last six months of last year.

That old paradox, whereby the more duties one has to perform, the more creative work one finds time for – the creativity riding the wave of responsibility, while cutting across if not rebelling against its direction – has pertained to an extent, but the main manifestation has been a frustrating series of half-executed blog entries, and a lot of work – poetry, fiction, criticism – languishing in draft.

I was steadily employed in residency (Orkney!), competition (Wigtown! The Stephen Spender!), examination (an epic novel about China! Gao Xingjian!), etc, over the summer, and so the usual creative space – to read freely, to feed the imagination and develop larger scale work – never opened up. I was back to the familiar, actually rather comforting, pursuit of intense pockets of time, to what I think of as xenochronicitous composition. This led to my usual solution of bifurcating into other identities, other manifestations, this time the Tumblr site I’ve set up as Dundee Makar, and the collaborative creative blog derived from Twitter texts known only as Chimera.

When I look now at those blog drafts now through the fairly dense cross-hatchings of ideas pursued obsessively elsewhere, I’m reminded of a phrase in a book I’ve been reading recently while commuting, In A Trance: On Paleo Art, by Jeffrey Skoblow. This is a meditation on the earliest cave paintings – what we can know about their makers by visiting and experiencing them. He points out that the caves favoured by our ancestors twenty to thirty thousand years ago, had, for hundreds of thousands of years before that, been favoured by cave bears. In the places they chose, for whatever reason, to paint, there are sometimes already marks on the walls made by the claws of the bears.


‘In some places,’ Skoblow writes, ‘the lines made by humans cross these griffades d’ours, which resemble one of the basic hash-mark patterns of the human engravings…’ The key factor, I realised, in the incompletion of those drafts, was undoubtedly deeper markings of this sort, indications of an ongoing grieving for my father that otherwise no longer seemed visible in my life.

After an initial inability to write anything, at least for public consumption, I had begun a reactive examination of that grieving process, and how it interacted with the tactics of creativity outlined above. After a few months, though, a deeper numbness began to assert itself, a tertiary stage. I was looking after my mother to some extent, I was keeping on at the job, and there was just less room for both mourning and creativity: those inner processes our responsibilities repress when they do not actively deny them.

My professional responsibilities didn’t really touch this inner realm, and my attempts at maintaining creative momentum were done, as it were, in the antechambers to that particular cave. To switch metaphors, it was like being stranded in a rowing boat and sticking an oar into the back of a sleeping whale: I made progress of a sort, but I certainly didn’t wake the whale up, nor was I sure I wanted to.

So there were at least as many unfinished entries as there were months between June and December, and at least as many false starts on new ideas. Some types of writing – essays, reviews, commissions, all duly appeared; and strange hybrid forms – half short short fiction, half prose poem, verse sketches, cartoony manipulated images aplenty – were completed, but nothing more, well, usual. The impulse to write poems was still down there, in the belly of the whale, in the darkness of the cave, waiting its time to be delivered up, or rather to be visited.

Meanwhile, a need for engagement with others, and with the political in its more personal and more public forms, began to assert itself. I try to speak about this in those hitherto missing blog entries (which I’m effectively introducing here), so will confine myself to saying I’m not much of a joiner-in, less still a sharer-of-opinion – indeed, I mostly go in dread of opinions, including my own. But I found I wanted to take more of a stand, to be more visibly involved in matters I’d previously shied away from, partly because I’m shy, and partly because I couldn’t justify a lot of such actions as socially meaningful.

In some way in my head my father’s gregariousness, his great gift of engagement, allowed me to be remote, to be disengaged. Essentially his adult-ness obviated some of the need for mine. Now he’s gone, I feel more exposed in all sorts of ways, and one of them certainly concerns the extent to which that separateness is an immaturity. It’s not a bad thing at all that I feel a need to work that out, even if I’m unlikely to change my politics (libertarian, anarchist) hugely.

So I’ll be revisiting the incomplete entries over the next month or three, trying to finish them where possible in the hope that I can put together some more of the components of this difficult stage at which I find myself without becoming even more introverted than usual.

But one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is another phrase from In A Trance. Discussing another cave, Skoblow points out, ‘Lines straggle this way and that. Some of them suggest anatomical shapes, but never depict the human figure as a finished or closed unit, with a bounding line separating it from its environment.’

This suggestion that there might be something innately human about incompletion, that our relationships, speech-acts, projects, lives, are rendered fundamentally incomplete by the way we exist and co-exist in time, intrigues and moves me. Our great urge to make things out of thought, whether that be the artwork or simply the concept, leads us into an absoluteness that may sometimes be wrong-headed. Failure to ‘complete’, to achieve ‘closure’, to achieve the assumed end or goal, to achieve at all, causes us to fall back into the baffled realm of the fragmentary. But what if this sort of closing off was premature, an eager but inexact urge for the exact? What if there were no fragments in this sense? As MacDiarmid hypothesised, ‘There are plenty of ruined buildings…but no ruined stones.’

What if our natural disposition within our perception of past, present and future was to be open and therefore incomplete? Trailing clouds, by all means, whether glorious or not, but also boats against the current, craning over our shoulders for a glimpse of harbour, even if the only signs we see are those claw-marks, ‘griffade d’ours‘: signs to which we cannot definitively assign – and yet cannot resist assigning – meaning.

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