I was watching BBC2 last night. Anthony Gormley on How art began. I got the buzz and the jolt I remember from when I first saw Bronowski’s Ascent of man, or John Berger’s Ways of seeing. It was quiet, it was thoughtful, it was utterly gripping.
There was none of the nonsense that attends the contemporary culture-tourist programme, usually hosted by some breathless ex-Blue Peter presenter, or D-list ‘celebrity’ who no-one has ever heard of. The nonsense that begins ‘I’m going on a journey to discover…’ The last time I heard that one was on a programme about St Kilda, where the excitable ‘discoverer’ appeared to think she was the first to tell a story that that the BBC had documented, using contemporary film records, and broadcast about 20 years before she was born. I got ridiculously cross. It does me no good.
But last night was the real deal, how things should be, delivered by a man who knows exactly what he’s talking about, and why; a man genuinely awestruck by images made 40,000 years ago. Not the the prints of hands, but the images of the absence of hands that became dust 40,000 years ago. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll not spoil it for you….just make sure not to miss it.
One thing I just had to write down…..there was so much, but this especially….was his response to what he described as a tender piece of art, an animal drinking, so it seemed, from a pool. He called it (I think)
an art of interdependency…. a pre-narcissistic art
There you had it. Art is essential to our selfhood, our sanity and our spiritual health. But great art is somehow ego-free. Gormley said something startling. He said ‘I don’t like Picasso. He was a predator.’ You get your money’s worth with Gormley, much as you do with Hockney. Television for grown ups. What Gormley explored, among other things, was art as a responsive connection to the multifarious world and the place of the people and the individual within it.
Which brings me to the business of ‘green thoughts’. Not the languorous state I read in Marvell’s ‘annihilating everything that’s made/to a green thought in a green shade’ but the business of art’s response to and redefining of the ‘natural’ world…which is a concept I find problematic, but I’ll not pursue that now. I’m thinking of the whole complicated continuum from Pastoral poetry to the current imbroglio of ‘eco/environmental poetry’. I’ve been wrestling with this ever since I read Yvonne Reddick’s tour de force of exegesis in Ted Hughes: environmentalists and eco poet. I think I lost my way in the second chapter in which she summarises the sects and subsects of ecopoetry criticism: the topological, the tropological, the entropological and the ethnological. There are probably more by now, but they didn’t help me to entangle what I think of as ‘nature’, living as we do in a land where every metre has been named, walked, farmed, exploited, fenced, walled, built on, abandoned and reclaimed. All I know is that is if we continue degrade the ecological balances of the world it will die. The earth will get over that. It doesn’t care. It’s already gone through four major extinctions, not least being the one caused by the emergence of oxygen in the free atmosphere. It doesn’t care for us. But it seems obvious that we need to care for it if we care anything for ourselves.
When it comes to poetry that concerns itself with the natural world (and I’ll strenuously avoid that capitalised cliche Nature) I guess my first big eye-opener was Raymond Williams’ The country and the city which was my introduction to the idea that words like that are culturally constructed, and go on being deconstructed and reconstructed. Very little of the poetry we were given at school concerned itself with the city and the urban. It was pastoral, nostalgic and often sentimental . Poems like ‘The deserted village’. Poems like ‘Daffodils’. It took me a long time to work out why I distrusted ‘Daffodils’ but the clue’s in the first line:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
The first word; I. It’s not about daffodils, is it? It’s about the poet and what the daffodils can do for him as he wanders (ie purposelessly) and lonely (ie in self-elected solitariness) as a cloud (ie diffuse and without responsibility). It’s what I thought of when I heard Gormley’s phrase ‘ a pre-narcissistic art’. He did a revolutionary thing, Wordsworth. It’s a shame this poem is what he’s chiefly remembered for by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry. He opened our eyes to a power and loveliness beyond the bounds of a predominantly urban and urbane culture. I’ll hang on to that as I come to introduce today’s guest. I’ve taken far too long to share my enthusiasm for her work.
Alison Lock is a poet and writer of short fiction whose work has appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. She is the author of three poetry collections, two short story collections, and a fantasy novella. Her latest collection of poetry, Revealing the Odour of Earth, Calder Valley Poetry (2017), is an observation of life as seen through the natural environment: ‘landscape made language’ (Bob Horne). She finds inspiration in the moorlands and the natural environment of the South Pennines, which is often reflected in her writing, but she is also influenced by her childhood home of the West Country. More about her writing can be found at http://www.alisonlock.com
I really like that phrase of Bob Horne’s…‘landscape made language’. It chimes with Macfarlane’s ‘landmarks’. Unconsciously, I hyphenate it. landscape-made-language. And also language-made-landscape. So much of Alison’s poetry is a poetry of place. A topological poetry if you like. I hope these poems will explain what I mean. (yet again, apologies for my having to use screenshots of the poems. It keeps the shape but loses a bit of clarity)
The Wordsworthian note is there right enough…the I that wants to emboss its prints on the new snow. But it’s a shared experience, a shared place. I especially like its physical presence, its textures, its solidity… ‘the ribcage of stone’ and the texture of the ice, its ‘milky slipcovers’. The paths are set with traps. I like the sound of the landscape, too, the susurrations, the chitterlings, the whisperings, its nervousness in a world that will shortly unleash a madness, or enchant us all into a sleep of reason.
It seems apposite, just now, to write about walls, and differences between good fences and boundaries between peoples.
First published – Anapest: Issue One
It’s a poem of exact true observation, that gives each stone its heft and surface, and it’s given that extra jolt that makes you see a work of hands in a new light in the turn of one line:
How she imagines each unique rock
A stone wall as an imaginative act which is about the suppression of ‘self’, imagination in the way that Michaelangelo thought he could feel the shape inside the stone, the way he could release it. Lovely. Robert Frost would have liked it, I think.
One more poem (which absolutely had to be done with a screenshot!)
Landscape that speaks our lives, and which requires us to speak for it in turn. Alison, thank you for being our guest today. Thank you for the poems. Please come again.
Changes are afoot with the cobweb. I’m delighted and unnerved to be asked to be a resident blogger for Write Out Loud. I can’t resist the thought of a considerably larger readership. We’re not entirely sure how this will work out BUT I know I haven’t the stamina, the imagination or the bottle to write two separate regular posts a week. I’m barely keeping up with one. The plan is that I’ll write for Write Out Loud, and then repost to the cobweb a week later. I need to keep the cobweb going for loyal followers in the States, for instance, who won’t be likely to pick up WOL. Anyway. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll be writing to future guests to make sure they’re happy with the plan. If not, I’ll give them posts exclusively on the cobweb. In the meantime, thank you for following. Don’t go away.