How to get the most out of your gallery visit
How do you feel about visiting an art gallery? Do you go for pleasure, for education, self-improvement or to socialise? Or do you avoid them and feel that art is just not for you? Many people feel uncomfortable just stepping over the threshold of a gallery, whether it’s a huge and majestic Victorian building or a temporary white box as cutting edge as they come. Maybe you just nip in for some quality cake and a clean loo?
If it’s pleasure; at the appreciation of human-made beauty, the vision and talent in expressing it to us, the viewers, does the act of viewing the art actually engender a feeling of joy inside you? Can you express that joy in an environment where you’re frightened your shoes will make too much noise on the ancient marble floor? This may come more easily to the introverts among you, savouring the silence and opportunity to have your own private encounter with a beautiful painting and the mind of the artist. What about the extroverts among you? Can you express that joy when you’re trying to quietly cross that marble floor or tentatively pad across the carpet? Perhaps you’ve gone for self-improvement purposes. If so, it could be a little easier to gain some satisfaction from spending your precious time, as you add to your bank of cultural capital. Or you might simply appreciate the respite from a frantic life; a chance to feel solemn, silent and dutiful, like in a Presbyterian church or libraries of old.
Or do you prefer the ‘cocktail party’ setting of a smaller gallery, and relish jumping into the intellectual debate with passionate, quirky artists discussing cutting edge contemporary art? Or do you worry that you don’t quite understand, that commenting at all will mean missing the mark with an inane comment, or worse, unwittingly become part of an experimental performance piece? Does it feel like forced intimacy, standing awkwardly with your wine glass at smaller events, where you feel expected to say something worth ransacking the smaller, more homely silence of a white-walled box? Uneasy at a sense that the artists might be observing you observing their thoughts made manifest. Do most of us realise the extent to which we have been trained to behave in prescribed and acceptable ways as we enter these environments?
I’m just as ambivalent about children making noise in libraries as in art galleries. I want to hush noisy children so I can concentrate on reading in our shared space, but perhaps I’m only resenting their freedom because we had to be quiet, back in our day. I’m glad they feel free enough to express themselves; perhaps they’re part of a budding, enthusiastic pre-school book group. Just not when I’m there. I relate to their childlike state in a way, as I seem to have something resembling a middle-aged onset of ADHD, where sitting still or concentrating for long periods is difficult, but I generally manage for others’ sake. I can’t bring myself to raise more than a whisper in a library, but, bloody hell, in other settings, I want to join in with the conversation, in an almost ‘repressed Tourette’s’ type way. I want everyone to join in. If I’m honest, generally I want all hell to break loose and it to become one big carnival. Politeness and shyness merge with bourgeois norms of behaviour in high arts settings, hell, even cinemas, and it drives me to distraction. British audiences are expected to refrain from moving their bodies or making any noise during a play, except for polite applause or perhaps a hastily wiped tear. Partly because in an urban setting, the audience are the maligned or tolerated ‘public’, rather than friends and acquaintances, and the British are still the last nation on earth to embrace a messy and unnecessary display of emotions. Unless it’s splashed across a wall or screen or stage and safely at a distance. Perhaps the tots in the library are leading the way forward after all.
We seem to edging back toward the boisterous interaction of Shakespeare’s audiences in theatre settings, and it’s becoming increasingly acceptable, even necessary, in visual art environments. Accompanying a school group to the National Gallery is much more engaging and fun than going alone. I learned more about the secret symbols embedded in paintings in an hour than I have in years. We could take over the space and not worry about annoying anyone else or depriving someone more deserving of the leather couch. If art galleries went the way of museums with hands-on activities, even for adults, or just meeting or watching artists at work it would make you feel part of the place and stay for longer. There’s a wee gem of an exhibition currently showing at the oft-overlooked Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Botanical Gadens; yet another collaboration of poetry and art that both delights the senses and delivers an deep message. The gallery space is warm and welcoming for all ages, this time with quiet opportunities for children to allow nature to inspire their creativity.
There are huge debates about why certain ‘demographics’ are less likely to visit British art galleries. Mostly between people who are not from ‘those demographics’, who, in awkward terms, display some imaginative ideas of what, for them, constitutes ‘the other’. Some of it is simply a ‘perception problem’, that art galleries are for the white and middle-class, and indeed, there is often a very real psychological discomfort for certain people in places that are not, perhaps in small but significant ways, welcoming to all. Women artists, working-class artists and artists of colour are still underrepresented, marginalized and ‘othered’ by curators and board members who are not from these backgrounds, partly because of the narrow understanding that results from stultifyingly homogeneous social and professional networks. As talented artists and their works suffer unduly from the lack of exposure that they deserve, whether through tokenism, pigeonholing or downright exclusion, some important conversations about history and society are also being omitted from the mainstream art world. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of ‘cultural capital’ is often used to explain why the intellectual elite, reared on a steady diet of high art from childhood, frequent and feel at home in high art institutions, which generally cater to their particular interests. Content, and how and by whom the content is curated, of course, can also be key, and is currently the subject of heated debates. http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/black-people-dont-go-art-galleries.
With major prizes going to women artists of colour recently, notably, Lubaina Humid’s 2017 Turner Prize win, and Barbadian-born, Glasgow-based artist Alberta Whittle claiming the 2018 Margaret Tait award, this no doubt encouraged the new director of Glasgow International to hold a variety of exhibitions, talks and performances by artists of colour. This was particularly welcome in the wake of Transmission’s Gallery’s funding recently being unceremoniously cut by Creative Scotland. The decision was made despite Transmission receiving high acclaim for their work and social impact by the very same organisation. The artist-run institution, founded by Glasgow artists in 1983, has continued in its radical tradition to encourage important conversations, particularly around Black art and artists, gender and sexuality; pushing boundaries and inspiring new ways of thinking. One of these artists is Camara Taylor, exhibiting at GI this year. Seeing as this is exactly the raison d’être of contemporary art, this has been a massive blow to both the artists and Scotland’s modern art scene. https://frieze.com/article/why-did-creative-scotland-defund-storied-glasgow-art-gallery-transmission
One of the exhibitions I attended at Glasgow International was ‘(BUT)..WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY? which included powerful live performances to a rapt, multiracial audience. https://manystudios.co.uk/syfu/ Sometimes the conversations that result might be unsettling for some people forced to reflect on and reframe some of their most cherished or simply unconscious beliefs about their own history and identity, but that’s precisely why art must make space for them.
The fear of ‘wasting time’, is a real one. Whether you’re hustling on the breadline, trying to make ends meet with three dead end jobs, or hustling as a CEO of an investment bank, the risk of wasting time aimlessly wandering around a gallery that doesn’t immediately serve your needs, is not one you are going to take. Even the visitors don’t like to waste too much time. Various studies have shown the average visitor spends 30 seconds in front of a painting, perhaps a masterpiece that has taken decades to complete, with careful patronage from a house of aristocrats or royalty. It’s rather like gobbling up a beautifully cooked and arranged dinner in 5 minutes flat. But, hey, don’t stay there just because you feel you should. The gallery will be gaining extra points for a steady stream of punters anyway. But why might you want to go to a gallery in the first place? What do you expect to gain from going? Seeing as most other arts, from novels to songs, involve story-telling of some kind, perhaps the emotional connection can’t be had easily without knowing something of the back story. Of the artists, the time, the place, the emotional state they were in during the period of creation and who else and what else they may have been responding to. I’ve been doing some research into Scottish historical figures and how their personal stories relate to wider themes, and it’s been exciting to spot them in both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and realising how just how limited and misleading the information plaques very often are.
Big galleries are free, open, not demanding of a special invitation. You can stay as long as you like. In theory, it is entirely democratic, as it’s yours to share during opening hours. Yet, for many people, it doesn’t feel that way. The National Gallery in London changed their stairs at their entrance because apparently people found them intimidating. Do you like the majesty of columns and chandeliers or does going into these buildings, with architecture that stems from a tradition of an entrenched class structure, make you feel like you don’t belong there? Temples all over the world have stairs. Even the Christ statue in Rio has 220 steps… Ordinary people make the pilgrimage. Yet how familiar might we find the surroundings, let alone the people, of Oxford University if we haven’t gone to a top public school? How at home might we feel in the Houses of Parliament? The Vatican? Do we need to feel a sense of belonging? Does the beauty elevate us or oppress us? Edinburgh is well known for its snobbery, and tribal groupings easily coalesce around ‘low’ and ‘high’ art. Neu Reekie! is a local arts organisation that loves to mess with this dichotomy, and enjoys taking over otherwise solemn spaces like the National Galleries with an irreverent mix of poetry, music and animation, creating an atmosphere that’s a little freer. http://www.theskinny.co.uk/books/events/neu-reekie-does-titian-national-gallery-of-scotland
Collective (www.collectivegallery.net), a contemporary art gallery that’s been based in Edinburgh since 1984, has recently made the heights of Calton Hill its new home. It states emphatically that a major part of its mission is to be the friendly face of contemporary art precisely in order to encourage dialogue. Accessibility is its watch word; extending itself to offer an experience welcoming to all, adapting the trails to the site and the exhibitions to accommodate visitors who are blind or partially-sighted. I’m sure with advances in technology, visiting an art gallery as a blind person will be just as fulfilling as for a fully sighted person https://www.rnib.org.uk/blind-artist-launches-genuinely-audio-visual-art-exhibit-aid-talking-books.
However, a couple of years ago, I excitedly stumbled across their temporary gallery, in use while the painstaking restoration process was being finished, but I was left to my own devices in an exhibition I found bewildering and incomprehensible. I had no idea what I should ask the assistants to help me understand, and instead was happily distracted by the incomparable view of the city which in itself gave me the sense of elevation I needed. I hope Collective put their money where their mouth is for their relaunch later on this year, because their relaunch is a very impressive and ambitious project. They hope to create a visitor experience that encompasses not just contemporary art but heritage and science, having restored Playfair’s original observatory from 1818. They’ve put a great deal of effort into letting visitors choose the level of freedom or support and guidance that they might need and are hoping to create a space where people feel especially welcome, relaxed and inspired to observe their own reactions and engage in dialogue with others.
And of course, this should perhaps be the main point of creating, funding, and visiting contemporary art in the first place. The thoughts, conversations and debates that follow from experiencing and being affected by the art; the blending of the unique personal resonances that each viewer has due to their mood, life history and hopes for the future. I’m always interested in the ways one might catch something of the possibly ephemeral responses, solidifying them for just long enough to transmit a spark to the next along the circuit of new ideas, filtering through and co-creating a change in the zeitgeist. Or this is perhaps too much like pinning down a butterfly, for no one can foresee where or what a thought or word might spark. The Sunday lunchtime poetry events that accompany the Royal Society of Artists annual exhibition have recently drawn me back again and again, to look at the artworks through someone else’s lens. The poems have been written in response to selected artworks, and the events allow time for questions and discussion about the themes that emerge. https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/art/art-review-the-rsa-annual-exhibition-2018-royal-scottish-academy-edinburgh-1-4739530 Fortunate to attend the private viewing, I enjoyed reading Raman Mundair’s powerful poem accompanying a short film by Pernille Spence/Zoe Irvine. However, I felt rather rootless wandering around the vast exhibition alone. Returning to their poetry events and sitting next to the artworks has given me the time, space, comfort and company to enjoy the exhibition’s varied works in much greater depth.
Often people are simply afraid they will have nothing to say, or won’t have the required background knowledge to make comments that are informed enough without feeling embarrassed. Part of this perhaps stems from the fact that our hierarchical education system lays down very early whose ideas carry the most legitimacy and weight. What if we fully integrated both democratic dialogue and art into mainstream schools in the UK like Paolo Friere advocated, or alternative schools like Krishnamurti schools do? Rather than relegate it to a separate, second-class subject? If children’s ideas were treated with more respect from the beginning, and a constructive and ongoing dialogue was encouraged in the classroom, we might have a generation of learners who, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, are not afraid to make public ‘mistakes’.
In the meantime, the risk of appearing foolish or wasting precious time can be mitigated by friendly gallery staff, and creative ways to engage the viewer, without doing all of the ‘work’ for them. If, as a punter, you’re still a little unsure, here’s some handy tips to make the most of your experience. At least let people know they can have an exhibition list for basic information about what they are looking at. If people have some background knowledge of an artist and painting, or their sense of curiosity is piqued with the help of a friendly assistant, they might just spend longer than 30 seconds in front of it…come and see it again..read about it online..discuss it..respond to it artistically..maybe even buy it!
Who is this Imogen Stirling, who is breaking over the Scottish Poetry Scene like a sudden Tsu-Na-Mi? The Mumble managed to catch her for a wee blether & find out…
Hello Imogen, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Imogen: I’m originally from North Berwick, a small town just outside of Edinburgh, and have since spent a long time living in Glasgow. I’ve also traveled a lot, mainly through music work, and have lived everywhere from Germany to the Canary Islands.
You have a background in musical theatre, so why the shift to spoken word?
Imogen: My roots will always be in theatre and music and I’m currently planning projects which really merge all three art forms. However, when I was solely working in musical theatre, I began to find the genre quite stifling in that you’re always performing somebody else’s material. Transitioning to playing in a band brought more creative freedom but there’s still that constant audience demand to hear cover songs. It just wasn’t me. Spoken word gives me complete autonomy over what I perform which is liberating. I find it a very exciting and malleable art form because it allows me to draw upon various genres to find a balance that feels right, so forming a show and performance that is creatively unique and very much my own.
You’re really enjoying quite a shooting star ascent into the Scottish poetical stratosphere, are you enjoying the journey?
Imogen: I certainly am! It’s been a whirlwind. I’m very driven and knew from the outset that I wanted to find success in spoken word. It’s required a lot of work on my part but has paid off as, in less than a year performing spoken word, I’ll have put on my first full length show, toured the UK, and performed at some major festivals. The effort is cushioned by being part of such a warm and supportive community. There’s a unique sense of camaraderie that motivates my work.
Which poets inspired you, both old skool & today?
Imogen: I have pretty eclectic influences, and a lot of them come from outside of poetry. I first drew inspiration from music – the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, Alex Turner, James Taylor. I’m a Kate Tempest girl through and through, her work brought me into poetry and consistently drives my performance. At university, I was taught by both Kieran Hurley and Kei Miller, between them they demonstrated the way that theatre and song can emerge through poetry and I still refer to them to hone my vision today. I’m a big fan of Jahra Rager who fuses contemporary dance with poetry to create some of the most blistering work I’ve seen. Ocean Vuong is a beautiful page writer and a useful foil to the more extroverted performance poets. I’ve found myself working alongside the most incredible talent in my current project: Piers Harrison-Reid, Zoka, Thomas Wolfe, Tamar Moshkovitz, Minty Taylor, Rob Carnie, and Billy Pilgrim with The Heartsease Kid. The diversity and sheer quality of the work they produce keeps me on my toes and encourages me to push my writing.
Everybody wants to be a hipster
I come home, different’s taken over
And I adore it
The bearded baristas
The hashtag heroes
The craft beer, the matcha
The smashed avocados
The tattoos, the typewriters
Instagram, instagram, instagram
Everybody wants to be a hipster
I come home, different’s taken over
Time for my go at breaking this mould
I dye my hair
I get the piercings
Start writing poetry
Learn how to tarot read
Know which wine is which and
Which coffee to ditch and
I think I could get used to living like this
Everybody wants to be the most hipster
I come home different’s taken over
And grown addictive
Whose beard is the longest
Whose man bun the tightest
Who’s the best read
Knows their Hamlet from Titus
Don’t know what the goal is
But we’re all chasing it
Topping the craze and the craze and the craze and it’s
It’s all a distraction
Because something is missing amidst it
We inflate the gravity of this dress up game
Engage the safe space to exercise difference
To learn to talk recite and proffer
But not to offer any real substance
Seems unconstructive, seems over indulgent
Seems underwhelming, seems empty headed
Seems where is the empathy
When we resort to trending hashtags to mitigate apathy
Seems appearance has superseded moral integrity
When do you know you have just composed a decent poem?
Imogen: To be honest, it takes a while. I’m a very harsh critic and need to have a piece well received by an unknown audience before I believe in it. A lot of what I write is political and intended to motivate a response from a crowd so it’s hard to judge its merit purely by my own opinion. That said, I’m at the stage now where I can recognise when a piece of mine is creatively strong – for me, it all comes down to flow, wording and clever rhymes. It’s quite mathematical really. But I can’t judge the overall impact of a poem until I’ve performed it live.
What is it about performing your poetry you love the most?
Imogen: How much it seems to affect people. The responses I get from folk after performing poetry are so different to that of a theatre or music audience. Perhaps it’s because poetry is so inherently personal, perhaps it generates a more emotional response in a listener. Whatever it is, it’s special to see the way words can communicate. And plus, it’s exciting. Performance poetry is so dynamic, such a show, and has the potential to be quite interactive – you can see who is responding to a piece, you can speak directly to them.
Can you tell us about Words w/ Friends?
Imogen: Words w/ Friends is a collective of poets working with producer, The Heartsease Kid, to creative innovative collaborations of lo-fi hip hop and spoken word poetry. We’ve just released an album, Words w/ Friends vol. III, which we’re touring around the UK in July. By fusing the genres, we;re aiming to heighten the accessibility of poetry through creating an art form that appeals to more diverse audiences. We want to re-establish the relevancy of poetry for a modern crowd.
What does Imogen Stirling like to do when she’s not being, well, poetic?
Imogen: I like to travel. Once the Fringe is done, I’m keen to get back to the Canary Islands, practice my surfing and my Spanish, find the sun. I’m a vegan activist and write for Vegan Connections, it’s great being involved in such a proactive and important movement. I love theatre – both performing it and watching it. Spending time with friends, drinking wine, discovering new music.
Nicolas died in Somalia
When I met him we were both staying
In Gran Canaria
I told him he reminded me of my brother
Both fiercely determined and destined to be doctors
He said is that right
Must be smart, funny and handsome too then?
I laughed and said yes
The bomb was so strong that most victims could not be identified
It took me 5 weeks to learn of his fate
Every day I saw papers detail the events of the shooting in Vegas
58 victims described and mourned
Yet just two weeks later
Over 300 Somalians ignored
I learned more news of strangers
Than the boy I’d learned to surf with
As though covering his life had not been deemed worth it
I looked at Nicolas and saw my brother
Others looked at him
And saw the third world urchins
The BBC leak through Comic Relief sob reels
We’re taught they’re used to extremities
So we could not assimilate
He was too much other
He must not have suffered
The Mumble caught you performing at Eden festival last week. Where else will your words be winging off to this Summer?
Imogen: I’ve a couple festivals still to come, V in the Park which is a new vegan festival, and then Latitude Festival in July. After that it’s all go with the Words w/ Friends tour, we’ve got 10 dates all around the UK. Finally it’ll be Fringe time where I’ll be performing #Hypocrisy alongside doing some other guest spots throughout the month.
Can you tell us more about your Fringe show?
Imogen: The show is called #Hypocrisy and is a fusion of spoken word, theatre and original music. It’s my Fringe debut and will be on at the Scottish Poetry Library from August 8-12th at 7pm. The show is a response to the bizarre world we’re living in. One where dangerous politicians prevail, where the media constantly sells us fictions masquerading as realities, where an ocean of social media sympathy can pour forth for western terror victims but backs turn on the migrant crisis. Ultimately, a world of staggering hypocrisies. It’s presented from my perspective as a young white woman. Beginning by looking into my experiences travelling as a musician through Europe (during which time I often found myself reaping the benefits of my skin colour) it opens up to explore what is evidently becoming an increasingly racist world. The show is a contemplation and an interrogation of western privilege. It’s an exposure of hypocrisy and a reminder of perspective.
What will Imogen Stirling be doing after the Fringe?
Imogen: Hopefully a brief stint in the Canary Islands to unwind a little after what’s been a very full on year. I’m planning a tour for #Hypocrisy, an album, and a new top secret music project. There’s a lot to look forward to, I’m very excited.
Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
TUESDAY 14TH APRIL 1998
So I woke up, a little shivery, but otherwise excellent for a good ten hour sleep (a rare thing on the road), pack’d up & stepp’d out of the train. An old Italian guy gave me a funny look & a smile – to be honest, I must look a little strange to people. I appear a sort of noble scruff, my guitar being carried in a stretchy jumper, & my sleeping bag sticking out of my pack. This is even after halving it in bulk with some wire I found in Villach.
Bought some bread rolls & milk, then caught a train that would take me near to Ravenna – the place of Dante & Byron, two of my favorite poets. The ride was pleasant (easily jump’d) & went thro’ the flat Italian lowlands. These constitute acres of farms & seem quite slow. A more rural pace of life, dotted with young boys or shawl’d women tending the land. Even the stations I pass’d thro’ had chickens by the side.
I chang’d trains at Ferrara, where I bought a beer & cadg’d more fags (like I’d been doing all day) & realised the Italians don’t speak much English. The ride to Ravenna was another jump, & when I arrived I did a quick walk around the streets, saw Dante’s tomb (quite impressive but his bones are in Florence) & a glorious exhibition of metalworks in a beautiful column’d garden. Each piece was based on a section of the Paradisio, & some had come from as far as Australia. The detail was amazing, but I didn’t have time to soak it in properly as I felt fluster’d. I didn’t want to spend any money on a hostel, so decided to head to Florence instead.
Distant Riviera di Levante
My heart’s destination, mine art’s true call,
But first, the mausoleum of Dante,
To tap into a predecessor soul,
Overgrown with moss & creeping ivy,
My man, you were the wildest of us all!
Ravenna, this may be a swift sojurn,
But one day, with my wife, I shall return.
I had a couple of hours to kill, so I went searching for more bread. I found a supermarket, got a big roll & some orange juice – & lifted some sausages & fish. I know stealing is morally bad – but my poetry is all-important right now. I may be a rogue at times, but have a good heart.
I ate a hearty meal, then caught the train to Bologna, but disaster struck! I got caught (too slack!) & paid 15,000 lira (tho’ it could have been worse)! However, it cannot be too bad to pay just over a fiver for a journey around Europe. Chang’d trains again (by now its 9-30 in the evening) at Bologna. I didn’t have time to see the city, so stay’d on the station, sharing some food with a tramp & being quite impress’d by the uniforms, all shiny, of some Italian policemen.
My ‘instinct’ help’d me get pass’d the police on the intercity to Florence, which was full of slick young Italian guys, well dress’d & wearing shades – we even had a little strum together on my guitar. Then we arrived in Florence, & after dashing back on the train for my journal just in time, I entered the capital of Tuscany.
So I stash my bags in some bushes & start to look around Florence. I have an hour or so before the train to Pisa. I saw the main cathedral, which was breathtaking at first, then as I walked around the building it began to remind me of one of those cardboard cut-outs you build yourself with glue. Very surreal.
So I was just about to return to the station when I came across an Italian busker singing a Verve song (The Drugs Don’t Work) to some young Germans, accompanied by an old looking North African on harmonica. Of course I sang a song, then decided to fuck Pisa off & go get a pizza with my new mates instead. They all had sleeping bags & whatnot, so I would spend the night with them.
We had a beer & pizza in a bar, where I got offer’d some hashish off an Arab, who kept talking to me in Arabic & would not understand that I didn’t speak any Arabic. Just as I was about to buy it, the Germans decided to leave – they were mostly 14-16 year old girls (with a young 12-year-old lad & a mid-twenties German guy) as they were being hit upon. I follow’d, passing the house where Shelley had written Prometheus Unbound & Ode to the West Wind – the Palazzo Marini – & we chill’d at the station, where Louisa, a 16-year-old, began to take a rather uncomfortable shine to me.
Two more German girls then arrived, in the same situation, & wearing flares! Cool – some hippy brethren! One was half-Turk, half-Yugoslavian, & look’d like a full-on gypsy – Romany hair, beads, head-scarf & string features. Her name was Eva & I took an instant shine. The other girl was a red-headed German, quite nice & calm. She was call’d Mia, & they both spoke quite good English.
We all found a park & huddl’d up in our sleeping bags, broke out the food & had a small shindig. Me & the German guy play’d guitar, I read some poetry & so on. Eventually they all left, just leaving me & my new friends – Mia & Eva. I manag’d to sleep in the middle (I can’t wait to get a harem one day) & we went to sleep after chatting about life, magic & fairies. I told a story (Fairy Exodus), then we all had sweet dreams & morning birdsong.
WEDNESDAY 15TH APRIL 1998
Woke up feeling quite nice at about 10-30. We slowly got ourselves together, play’d a little in the park, then went for cappucinos. As I sipped mine in the street outside the cafe, I saw how Italy is so very stylish, but the people have somehow lost their sense of dignity.
Afterwards we meander’d about town, dodging the occasional rainstorm (we got gradually wetter), seeing more nice buildings & doing some shopping! We all got on very well as we carted our stuff round the streets like a mini-hippy tribe, with Florence gaining a definite sense of romantic character in the daytime. Full of Americans, but old & calm.
We bought some food – our plan was to find a place to cook some veggies – lots of fruit & veg, a huge loaf, some water & a big bottle of dry Italian white. I also bougth a new string for my guitar & tried haggling down a hat on the market, which only cost 5000 Lira. Then it started to rain so I bought it to replace the one I lost in Belgium.
Then, in a beautiful stationary store, with amazing azure blue pens & ink, I bought a bound book for my poem, The Death of Shelley. It is going to be excellent, & Mia did the front title page as we sat in the street.
We then wander’d to the other side of the river, over a bridge where jewelers shops lined the road, climbed a hill & made camp near the top. I then made a fire thanks to last year’s woodsman’s summer in Bournemouth.
Altho’ we were next to a road, only one police car pass’d by, saying ‘no fire’ & threatening us with imaginary handcuffs. I pretended to put it out, then Eva went full steam ahead with the cooking.
The view of Florence at sunset was beautiful – no highrises, a sea of red rooves – & after dark we eventually had some home-cooked vegetable soup, assisted by my very own Knorr spice cubes. We then drank the wine & I sang some songs – new string sounds good – a special moment indeed on a Florentine hillside at dusk.
We wake in arms, after cappuccinos
Wander moped streets, O sacred city
Where argent-sheen’d Arno ardently flows;
I buy a book to fill with poetry,
On the title page Maya draws a rose,
Then buy fresh foods & climb a hill where we
Build a fire, cook dinner, watching sunshine
Fade over Florence with a sweet red wine.
After, at about 11PM, we wander’d thro’ drizzle to the fabulous city square, with statues of famous Italians every where. I could sense Shelley & Byron, who must have walk’d in these very streets. Indeed, Florence seems to have hardly changed in those two centuries.
Then, a kindly Tunisian call’d Karmel found us, scored us some cannabis from dodgy North Africans in the street, & we all proceeded to get stoned. It blew us all away, & the girls began singing, the acoustics in our coloumn’d corridor being amazing. Unfortunately, as I was playing along I snapp’d my brand new string!
Karmel’s French was worse than mine, but we still had a great life, him just babbling in Italian & me giggling along stoned off mi nut. Eventually, after 3 or 4 reefers, Karmel left & the girls huddl’d into me to get to sleep. Our clothes were quite damp, but it wasn’t too bad. It rain’d all night, & we were lucky to have shelter.
I now have 100,000 Lira (10,000 a day) & £10 sterling. The tests of my virtues & willpower begin tomorrow.
THE BIRTH OF A POET
The Mumble have recently, & rather happily, discovered there is something quite addictive about reading the bitter-sweet paeans of Glaswegian poet, Megan Mccorquodale.
I like it when a slim volume of poetry lands on my carpet with the one o’clock post, wee Daisy barking in recognition of the package-size, knowing we’ll be out in the hills soon enough as I ponder over this fresh bouquet of page-uncrimpled poetry. I also like it when I don’t know anything about the poet, which was the case for Megan Mccorquodale, described on her book’s blurb as;
but being as stable as the dust
in the kitchen draft
I was aimlessly thrown around the house today
as fickle as Glasgow summers
After reading Megan’s book, however, I now believe I know her a hell of a lot more intimately than when I first opened the pages of WHAT I TOLD FRANK, her debut collection published by Clochoderick Press. These fledgling poetry publishers have a keen, keen eye for quality, with the noble ambition of declaring their, ‘overall mission is to run Clochoderick as a non-profit service and to use any income to invest in new literary talent.’ So far so good, for WHAT I TOLD FRANK is an ethereally excellent book, in which the viscera of Megan’s voice – all bleeding & skin-gnaw’d – strips back the modern poetical psyche like the faded crumbling wallpaper of a condemn’d Glaswegian high-rise.
In fact the best sex we ever had
was after we argued about the existence of a god
and for a long time I felt like we
weren’t kneeling at the same altar
but in the end you told me no matter what
you had met your match with me
To begin with, WHAT I TOLD FRANK, is less a collection of separate poems, but rather one long unbroken piece of epyllia, like an Eve of St Agnes or something like that. The vast majority of the stanzas are in short, solid blocks of unrhyming free verse. In these Megan operates her mental music is if it were the drone of Milton’s epic organ, monotone but certainly not monotonous. She is gritty, & urban, but not in the cliched way of so many contemporary poets; for her angst contains beauty.
A product of youthful punkdom’s spit & distortion, the residues of those sweaty speed-fuel’d nights linger in her unglamorous lines, as does a woman completely aghast at the world she lives in – but is either too afraid, too drunk or too comfortable to escape. Some of her stanzas were brilliant, some were a little abstract – perhaps on purpose, like a diazepam dream – & it was rare that a complete poem had a full complement of those brilliant stanzas. Her efforts that did were, in the main, Megan’s more dramatic pieces, such as the fantastic I’VE NEVER BEEN GOOD AT PARTIES.
The poem has a final stanza which reads; ‘the shaking soul was the first / to answer the door / the most sober / but when it opened I sighed with relief / grabbed my coat / & followed Frank back out of the door.’ Frank, of course, is Megan’s muse, & companion through their shar’d Glaswegian half-life; & the whole collection is some kind of paean to her imperfect love for Frank who flutters in & out of her creative window like the Raven in Poe’s poem, & on the front cover of Megan’s book itself. In the next poem we gain an excellent flavor of her polluted love for Frank;
I can’t write today
when I wash my hands
waiting for the sting of bar work from the night before
I can’t feel the cuts on my fingers
As we wander through the moody, graphic, polaroid novel of Megan’s poetic art, we find her to be an uncomplicatedly natural poet. She extends her metaphors effortlessly. She is definitely neurotic, & obviously a chain-smoker – there seems to be at least one reference to cigarettes in every poem. She is also hypersensitive & hyper-accurate in her observations of the mundane & the marvelous, all of which intrigue Megan but ultimately bore her. But not us, by the way, we’re not bored at all; for she is blessed with the Bukowski droll, the melody melancholic of Barrett-Browning & polished with the prettiness of Auden. A fascinating book which deserves several reads before, one hopes, the next collection is out. The bar is set very high now, however, so good luck Megan Mccorquodale!
My strength is the strength
Of ten young things: I am with you:
In that first moment of delight
When you look from the page, no longer lost
In the maze of youth
Just as the Islamic world absorbed the ancient scholarship of its Greek conquests, & just as the European renaissance repeated the assimilations, so too does Poetry have a duty to regurgitate itself from time to time, when the spirit of renewal strips away the evolutions of time, leaving shiny new versions of moments of classical brilliance. It is with this as my leading inclination that I now turn to the writings of Theodore Heubner Roethke; a very fine-minded, Twentieth Century, Pulitzer-prize winning, American, post-modernist poet. Very much respected by his peers, James Dickey once opined that he did not, ‘see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke’s got. Whitman was a great poet, but he’s no competition for Roethke.’ Dickey was surely here analysing the poetry of the poet, but what I want to study here are a curious collection of whispy musings on the art of poetry which Roethke stuff’d his notebooks with in the mid-twentieth century. In this same period he was also an English teacher, & these spontaneous philosophartistical outpourings represent some kind of cross-pollinating hybrid of human thought.
During the composition of these maxims, Roethke was too rush’d by teaching to collate his thoughts into a more conventional order. ‘I’m teaching well,’ he wrote in 1947, ‘if I can judge by the response – but haven’t done one damned thing on my own. It’s no way to live—to go from exhaustion to exhaustion.’ He seems have snatch’d at those scatter’d moments of focuss’d thought, scribbling them down in the depths of his office, to be discovered by his colleague, David Wagoner, upon the death of Roethke in 1963. Taking on the role of the Litologist (literary archaeologist) Wagoner dived into the 277 spiral notebooks full of fragmenting imagination, distilling them into a collection called Straw for the Fire (1972).
A half century later I intend to further the curation process begun by Wagoner by a secondary process of distillation. My endeavour shall be to select & reorder the most quintessentially poetic of Roethke’s maxims, in order to create some kind of spiritual map of the poetical experience entwined – with some magnitude & immediacy – with the entire universality of the poetic arts. As I do so, I hope to go against, as Roethke himself once said, ‘the academic tendency to rest: that profound impulse to sit down.’ Echoing the ‘garland’ collections of elegiac sayings espoused by the Tamils, I have named the collection’s form the ‘Tiara,’ in which are contained the choicest jewels dug up from the mines of mental ferment, which are polished & set in a smooth & solid structure.
‘The desire to express certain ideas,’ wrote John Cruikshank, ‘in as brief & memorable a form as possible is a long-standing human impulse.’ The aphorism has had many hey-days; the Kural of the Sangam age; the Roman epigrammical penchant as dictated by Tacitus & Martial; the intellectual epithetical flourishings of the seventeenth century French salon. In such brief capsules of literary exhortation, the qualities of elegance, accuracy & conciseness are held paramount. It is those maxims of Roethke which possess this triad of excellence the most which I have chosen for my materielle. Respecting Roethke’s deal love of teaching, I hope to have assembl’d the maxims in a way that will maximise the effects of the impartation of the poet’s empirical mind upon those who never had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with the man. Instead let us – & by us I mean every waking poet from now until the last gatherings of human time – listen to the everliving word-sage speak as if we were adepts gather’d at the naked feet of the wise Tamil sage; as if we were a young poet receiving Rilke’s letters of advice; as if we were one of the lucky students in the wartime poetry classes of Michigan State.
BECOMING A POET
The young artist: there is no other kind of mind but my own
Poetry is the discovery of the legend of one’s youth.
There is an academic precept which says: never listen to the young. The reverse should be true: Listen, I say, & listen close, for from them – if they are real & alive – may we hear, however, faintly & distortedly – the true whispers from the infinite, the beckonings away from the dreadful, the gray life beating itself against the pitted concrete world.
The wisdom the young make holy be their living
We’re not going to split the heart of reality: not until the third semester.
And then there is the more honest & charitable mentor who regards poetry as a kind of emotional & spiritual wild oats of the young, a phase of adolescence to be pass’d thro’ quickly – & anything said to shake him out of this emotional orgy is all to the good.
THE SPIRIT OF POETRY
The eye, of course, is not enough. But the outer eye serves the inner, that’s the point.
Basis of poetry is sensation: many poets today deny sensation, or have no sensation: the cult of the torpid.
Hearing poetry starts the psychological mechanism of prayer
The intuitive poet often begins most felicitously, but raptures are hard to sustain.
O keep me perpetual, muse, ears roaring with many things
Good poets wait for the muse, the unconscious to spring something loose, to temper & test the promptings of the intuition with the pressures of craftsmanship: they can think while they sing.
Simple & profound: how little there is
Say to yourself: I will learn & treasure every good turn of speech ever made.
The intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.
THE ART OF POETRY
Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even can enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.
The nobility of my imagination is my theme: I have to let things shimmer.
The essence of poetry is to perish – that is to say be ‘understood.’
A ‘movement’ is a dead fashion.
The artist has several levels of life always available. If he falls to the ground with a theme or gets a ‘block,’ he can always return to life – a routine task.
This is the lazy man’s out often: I haven’t read it, therefore it does not exist.
Poetry is not just a mere shuffling of dead words or even a corralling of live ones.
A musical ear is a gift from nature: but like all gifts it can be develop’d
Rhythm: creates a pattern into which our mental faculties fall; this cycle of expectancy calls for surprises. The poet, at least the good poet, provides them.
My design in short poems: to create the situation, & the mood as quickly as possible: etch it in & have done; but is that enough? No. There must be symbolical force, weight, or a gravity of tone.
Play with it – The language has its cusses & fusses just like us.
Diction: one of the problems of diction, in certain kinds of poems, is to get all the words within a certain range of feeling; all elemental, all household, etc. etc. Often a very good figure from another level or range will jar.
The decasyllabic line is fine for someone who wants to meditate – or maunder. Me, I need something to jump in: hence the spins, & shifts, the songs, the rants, the howls. The shorter line can still serve us: it did when English was young, & when we were children.
To make it so good that there will be no actors will ever act it right: but none can be so bad, in any windy barn, to foul it up entirely.
It’s the damned almost-language that’s hardest to break away from: the skill’d words of the literary poet
Did I beat the poem to death? Did I worry the material like a mad dog?
We can love ourselves & literature with equal intensity – that’s our contribution
A poet is judg’d, in part, by the influences he resists
Puts his thoughts in motion – the poet
A poet: someone who is never satisfied with saying one thing at a time
The poet must have a sense not only of what words were & are, but also what they are going to be?
A poet must be a good reporter; but he must be something a good deal more.
Poet must first control, then dominate his medium
Maturity in a poet: when he no longer is concern’d with personal mortality… but whether the language dies.
There comes a time in the poet’s life when one personality, even with several sides, is not enough. Then he can go mad or become a dramatist.
There are so many ways of going to pot as a poet; so many pitfalls, so many snares & delusions.
The most bitter of intellectuals: he who was once a poet.
FORM IN POETRY
Remember: our deepest perceptions are a waste if we have no sense of form.
We must have the courage, as Kierkegaard says, to think a thought whole
Transcend that vision. What is first or early is easy to believe. But… it may enchain you.
The artist (not the would-be): you may have deep insights – but you also need the sense of form. Sometimes the possession of the first without the second may be tragic.
English poetry: mostly by ninnies, capable of fits & starts of ravishing feeling
The Victorians – they didn’t let enough go in or go out. They lived in ponds.
Some of these Limeys write as if they were falling over chairs
The ‘other’ poem in Yeats… had to set the stage for his best work. If he had not written at such length, he might not have been heard.
The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing & snoring & scraping
One of the problems of the lyric poet is what to do with his spare time; & sometimes it becomes the community’s problems too. It worries people.
A bewildering bardling: no real feeling except a thin intense hatred of his contemporary superiors
A culture in which it is easier to publish a book about poetry than a book of poems
One of the subtlest tasks is the sifting from time. Some poems have that special sheen of contemporaneousness, the immediate glitter of fashion – & still survive.
One of the virtues of good poetry is the fact that it irritates the mediocre
Not the stuff, but merely the stuffing, of real poetry. An anthology of abstractions from one of the less sure metaphysicians: a nowadays nausea.
Much to be learnt from bad poems
A wrenching of rhythms, verbal snorting; tootling on the raucous tin-ear, mechanized fancies: his poems have movement, sometimes they slide away from the subject.
Embroidering a few metaphors on his pale convictions
These fancy dandlers of mild epithets, graceless wittols hanging on the coattails of their betters. I can forget what they do until they forget to steal & start being themselves.
Those dreary language-arrangers. Don’t be ashamed if you belch when you try to sing
So many writers are an immense disappointment: they’re neurotic, grubby, cozy, frighten’d, eaten by their wits.
Think with the wise, talk like the common man
When you begin to get good, you’ll arouse the haters of life
May my silences become more accurate
Live in a perpetual great astonishment
I can’t die now. There’s too much to do.
He was the master of the remark that insults everybody – including himself.
Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
EASTER SUNDAY 12TH APRIL 1998
Woke up at 7:00 as the first drops of morning rain splash’d my weary brow. Fortunately the station was open, & I caught a dry 40 winks before getting on the move again.
The two trains to Vienna were eventful. One guard ignored me, the other let me go, & soon I was back at the (very uninteresting) Vienna Sudbahnhoff. My train to Italy wasn’t ‘til 12:55 (it was now 10:00) so I ate a little & blagg’d some coins off an Austrian to make a call.
My sister replied, ‘do you know what bloody time it is,’ as I had woken her up. She then wish’d me to be careful just as the money ran out.
Felt a little lost, so started to chat to a young Czech couple. This pass’d a little time & as they left I had a look at the departures board. I noticed (God knows how) a separate train was leaving for the Italian border in a few minutes. I quickly pack’d & made it to the train just in time – a woman kindly opening the door for me the seconds before it left.
I stach’d my stuff, hid in the toilets & quietly waited for the result of my spontaneity to settle. As it turn’d out, the jump was simple. I sat down in a seat after twenty minutes, & the guard never check’d me again, which allow’d me the privilege of the most spectacular train journey I’ve had to date – all for free, including the hot water for the tea-bags I intelligently brought along. I was sat in the comfort of a nice inter-city, complete with psychedelic patterns on the wall, & a nice Austrian chick next to me.
The Austrian Alps were beautiful; huge rocky formations bursting from the earth. The train wound its way thro’ the valleys, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending (my ears popp’d) & sometimes thro’ tunnels. The towns were so idyllic, especially in the narrower valleys, where even the football pitches were narrow.
After a while, the non-stop mountains, the pine forests (although magnificent) & the snow-capp’d misty peaks grew a little monotonous. It was perpetually green & splendid, but I was on the train til 16:00, some 350K.
Yet, each new mountain still spark’d a warm glow within – it must be the poet in me. I reckon I’ll climb one one day, & if you read this as an old man, Damian (& are still able) – & have the money, time & freedom – bag some Sherpas & go hit the mountains of Ostreich!
Just before the border a series of mountains all in a row loom’d before me, with a beautiful clear lake at their base. I had arrived at Villach. I had two hours to kill, so I stash’d my stuff beside a rail-line & had a wander around the town. It was quite dull, but the scenery was amazing, a ring of mountains!
I take the greatest train jump of my tour
From Vienna to Villach, on a sleek
Inter-City, as each Alp towers o’er
My little carriage, each volcanic peak
Thrust from the fertile, verdant valley floor
With breathtakin’ beauty – I could not speak,
Until dinnertime by a mountain stream…
Villach’s heap’d watchers echo to my scream.
I took out my bread, mustard, cheese, raisons, an orange & a tin of meat – & settl’d down to a meal. I follow’d with a quick strum on my guitar, then headed back to the station, to catch the train to Italy.
At the station, before getting on the train, I met some mad Brazilian bloke. I then found my carriage was home to a beautiful Italian girl. Roll on the wine, women & pasta!
Jumping the train was easy – there was an empty carriage at the back & I got to watch the Italian mountains disappear, & if anything, they were more beautiful than the Austrian ones; brilliant white tops illuminated by the sun & fantastic deep, azure blue skies.
Eventually the carriage emptied, & I turn’d off the light for a few moments sleep – which was lucky as a conductor came, but chose not to wake me.
How glad am I to enter Italy,
For the call of the muse grows ever strong,
Like some wild animal trapp’d inside me,
To find a form in my juvenile song;
Snowy mountains shrink into flat country,
Thro’ fields of lazy green we zoom along,
To Venice; as Italy greets my feet
I see a canal sparkling,’ where’s the street?
So I am in Italy, but no-one can prepare you for your first real look of the place as you leave Venice station. The Grand Canal is bang! right in front of you, & you immediately know the place is something special.
I follow’d my travellers instinct & found an empty carriage near the station to hide my stuff & sleep tonight, then set off out to explore the city. On the way, however, the start of perhaps the most bizarre incident of my trip began.
I bump’d into Edson, the Brazilian, & we began to walk about. He was trying to find a hotel (no luck), so we went to share a margarita pizza. He paid for most of it, then we went to meet his work-mate Kristina, who he’d just left at the station.
Now it turns out that they are here in Venice to get a visa, & then return back to Austria tomorrow. So they left their bags in a luggage depot at the station, except for a mysterious suitcase, which Kristina began to wheel about the town.
God knows what mission we were on, but my first stroll around Venice involved following Edson around at breakneck speed, asking every Italian the way to a mythical place. Apparently the Italians are an ‘uneducated bunch’ & we were sent in the wrong direction.
However Venice was beautiful! There are no roads (& no pollution) just beautiful streets & canals, still the same as in Byron’s day. The buildings were quite crumbly & decadent, but his added to the timelessness – or should I say onetimeness – of the place.
In the middle of being distracted by all things Venetian, I suddenly received the suitcase (voluntarily), & became intrigued by the whole affair. Could it contain drugs, money, gems (Edson said he was a gem-seller)? I was tempted to do a runner like in some dodgy Britflick – but of course didn’t. I am here to write poetry.
The evening ended at 2AM, after a few glasses of wine, some mad pidgeon English conversations, & my offer to share my sleeping bag with the fella. We left Kristina bobbing on one of the canal taxi berths, & settl’d down in my train carriage. It was a bit weird, sharing such a small space with a stranger, but hey! that’s life!
EASTER MONDAY 13TH APRIL
I woke up at 8:30 next to Edson who’d decided to share my carriage. We met up with Kristina (who had been in the station most of night), had coffee & rolls for breakfast, then went to get their visa. I thought I’d tag along because they were paying & it seem’d like fun.
There were more mindless meanderings a la last night. This time in the pleasant ‘new’ city of Venice on the mainland. Eventually we found the place, & all they received was a slip of paper for their troubles – no visa.
I finally managed to find out what was in the suitcase – photos of Kristina’s Jewish family, some choclates & a few documents.
So I bid adieu to my new-found friends &, at about 12:00, I found myself alone in a beautiful city, ready to explore. First I bought some bread & made up a pack’d lunch, & then set off to look for a place to eat it, strolling about quite happily until, by the docks, I look’d out to the sea & the skies were stormy & black.
This was excellent, as I need to ‘feel’ an Italian storm for my poem, The Death of Shelley. I watch’d it for a while, the occasional flash & rumble, then when the rain came hurtling down I started running thro’ the streets, seeking shelter. Passing the occasional other set of people doing the same.
I found a nice alleyway, & a nice Italian guy gave me some mineral water for free from his restaurant. When the rain had almost stopp’d I stepp’d out onto the near deserted streets & returned to my ‘den.’
I strumm’d for a while by the canal, watching the boats full of people watching me, then it began to pour again. I ate a couple of bananas, tehn got chang’d for the night’s activities. I plann’d to do some busking (to keep an eye on my money). It will be the first time since last year & I feel a little nervous. So I bought some wine for 2000 lira (75p) – some carton’d Italian white.
I also chang’d a £50 note, giving me 140,000 lira. Sounds a lot, dunnit? I aim to arrive in Shelleyland with 100,000 – this giving me 10,000 a day (for 10 days) to write my poem.
I did the big sight-seeing tour, hopping on a boat (not paid for) which took me round the edges of the city & to the Plaz de St Marco. This was a very big & beautiful place, with lots of museums. However, they were all mann’d by gruff Italians & so I couldn’t sneak in.
I did manage to have a look in the cathedral – which was glorious. I think it was from the 15th century, & was cover’d in paintings of Biblical times. These were quite faded, & I wonder’d how cool they would have been when the Church was all-powerful. The Church can be likened, I think, to an old painting.
Took a boat back thro’ the heart of the city, along the Grand Canal, just gazing at the amazing houses. I saw the Union Jack waving outside one – the consulate – hurrah!
When it grew dark, I slung my geetah over my back & wander’d thro’ the city, looking for a place to play. The best spot was took by some gondaliers, so I bought an ice-cream, then headed for St Marco Square.
I began to busk under a statue of Casanova & two bare-breasted harpies. Only once did I receive some cash, off a young Italian couple, but the real fun started when I heard some Italian bongo players who I’d met in the afternoon.
The night then proceeded at full pelt, I gradually got piss’d & had a most amazing time. It felt like Bournemouth once again. Some mad old Buddhist play’d my guitar & we all got down nice & funky.
Thro’ Venice I, the poetic rover,
Roam streets by night, guitar oer broad back slung,
Under a statue of Casanova,
Ditties composed near Chichester are sung,
Eldritch voice attracts coins for each number,
Those tuneful tayles melodiously wrung,
& after playing for an hour or so
Buzzy black bongo bangers join my flow.
Caught a river-bus back home (it was very cold) & crawled into bed. My mattress was plastic bags, my pillow my rucksack, my bedding a sleeping bag & a curtain, & it was all nice & comfy, so I went to sleep.
THE BIRTH OF A POET
The Philosophy of Composition” is an 1846 essay written by American writer Edgar Allan Poe that elucidates a theory about how good writers write when they write well.
Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says—“By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea—but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.
For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven” as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity—which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.
We commence, then, with this intention.
The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.
It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as Robinson Crusoe (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.
Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.
My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration—the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes—that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment—no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast—but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.
Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.
The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem—some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects—or more properly points, in the theatrical sense—I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone—both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity—of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain—the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.
These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.
The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.
The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being—I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.
I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object—supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover—the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”—that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture—propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query—that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer—that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.
Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning—at the end where all works of art should begin—for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name
Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”
I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.
And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.
Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic—the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.
The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven—and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields—but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.
I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber—in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished—this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.
The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird—and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.
I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.
I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage—it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird—the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.
About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic—approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible—is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”
Not the least obeisance made he—not a moment stopped or
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.
In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:—
Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?”
Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness—this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only,
From this epoch the lover no longer jests—no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader—to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement—which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.
With the denouement proper—with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world—the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable—of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams—the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”—a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.
But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required—first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.
Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem—their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line—
“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”
It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore.