the last of…

Fantasy, Film, Ghosts, London, Modernity, Poetry, Poets, Writing

So here’s Iain Sinclair, talking about London while wandering in Haggerston Park and Bethnal Green:

He’s sadder here than I’ve ever seen him. He talks in the film about how London has changed into something he can no longer engage with – that writers in general can engage with – in any particularly constructive way. But I think there’s also something very personal behind his grief.

Tom Raworth, a very major, often astonishing poet, died back in February. There’s more on him here. Sinclair knew him well and was – is – greatly influenced by him. He mentions his death at the end of this LRB piece, a companion to the film. I think the film is in part an elegy to him, and to a particular milieu which once surrounded Sinclair but is now slowly and inevitably slipping away.

And of course Sinclair’s more overt concerns about London are both very genuine and very incisive. Most of the film was shot within a few minutes walk of my own final London flat. I once knew that area well, but when I visit it now I feel a very absolute sense of slippage. London has moved away from me, too. There’s a sense of radical change afoot that is hard to keep up with, and both painful and (for someone less closely involved with the city) fascinating to watch.

And I write this on the day that Theresa May’s Article 50-triggering letter reaches Brussels and Brexit proper begins. I’m European as much as I am British – I spent my early years in France. I speak French, some German and Latin, which lets me read Italian and Spanish. I’ve found deep riches in all those cultures. And I’m British as much as I am English. My family on both sides is ultimately Scottish and I spent four immensely formative student years up there.

Brexit is at best profoundly suspicious of and at worst deeply corrosive to those international parts of me, and more broadly to those of England and Britain; to that positive, open European identity that the best parts of the 20th Century fought so hard for. So I felt for Iain Sinclair as he wandered through streets that he’d once felt lost in, and that he’d worked so hard to understand, and that were now puzzling him all over again. His film helped crystallise the sense of loss I’m feeling, without once directly referring to its cause. If you have fifteen minutes today, I’d recommend watching it.

Travelling to Avebury

Poetry, Poets

It’s World Poetry Day today. I wanted to post something by Louis Zukofsky – just been having a great time reading his collected shorter poems – but his son is very protective of his copyrights, so there’s very little of him available online.

Instead, two other offerings. First of all, one of his poetic colleagues – Basil Bunting – reading from his magnificent long poem ‘Briggflats’

And secondly, a very poetic film, in which Derek Jarman travels to Avebury. Poetry happens when language starts writing us. Here, 8mm film and a rather lovely soundtrack write a whole new world.

A poem for Kenneth Rexroth

Landscape, Poetry, Poets

Yes, there is always poetry
lending meaning from language
to us, this world. Yes, there is art
and here is the world, and us;
here before each poem, then after
changed and unchanged. I think of lava,
how Kenneth Rexroth described it –
here and no more. Burning into stone
as if fluid vision can become
cold rock, boring into eternity.
Yes, there is always poetry
and here is this world, and us
running through the words we leave
as if lava were so much water
each letter a failure to hold the flow,
the flow a failure to stop and perceive.

I wrote this last night, then posted it on posterous. I thought I’d put it up here (with two slight emendations) today. It’s very much inspired by reading Kenneth Rexroth – I’m deep in his Collected Shorter Poems just now, and loving his determination to respond to the world as it is, in the moments that he perceives it. This poem came in particular out of reading ‘Lyell’s Hypothesis Again’.

William Blake understood as a West London Shopping Mall

Aliens, Ballard, Fiction, Film, Ghosts, Landscape, London, Modernity, Poets, William Blake

On Sunday, I went to the William Blake 1809 exhibition at Tate Britain, reviewed here in The Guardian. It’s absolutely fascinating; it restages his first and only public display of prints and paintings, and sets them in a context which helps explain their abysmal critical reception.

I wanted to do a video review of it, but unfortunately (as I discovered) you’re not allowed to take pictures in the Tate. This raises fascinating questions about copyright, and the Tate’s understanding of differences between reproduction and interpretation in a digital world; more on that in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, I still wanted to do a video blog entry reviewing the exhibition, but of course I couldn’t show any of the images. So I decided to follow Ballard, and understand it in terms of a West London Shopping Mall – which led to this short film:


It’s available in higher resolution at Vimeo here:

William Blake understood as a West London Shopping Mall from Al Robertson on Vimeo.


Dispatches from a moving time

Essayists, Fiction, Landscape, London, Modernity, Novelists, Poets

Well, the process of moving continues – silence for the last week or so as I’ve been deep in final moving and decorations (with hugely invaluable help and support from H) before the new carpets go in at Allumination Central. More busy-ness continues – furniture ordering, sorting estate agents, etc, before the upcoming move to Stoke Newington. Yup, the Allumination Central mothership is relocating! More news on this as happens.

So, a quick post today, because there really hasn’t been too much pondering time of late. And, in salute of my upcoming new neighbourhood, let’s hear from Iain Sinclair as he wanders Abney Park Cemetery, our soon-to-be-local nuttily gothic burial ground, and discurses fascinatingly on the literary and general history of Stoke Newington, Hackney and London in general.

And I’m off to walk round the flat barefoot again – why didn’t I get new carpets years ago? Hey ho…




Lovecraft, Olson and ‘The Mayan Letters’

Fantasy, Horror, Humanism, Landscape, Poetry, Poets, Seascapes

Well, it’s been a fascinating morning of pondering Lovecraft’s roots in Ovid. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m not going to go into detail here – still working out exactly what I think – but in brief I think the link builds on Ovid’s status as the great poet of transformation in ‘Metamorphosis’, and the chronicler of the numinous’ daily interaction with man in ‘Fasti’.

Lovecraft, of course, has a horror of metamorphosis, although many of his characters don’t; and his work tracks the divine breaking into the quotidian in random, terrifying ways. But more on that another time.

Because today’s weird pondering continues my ongoing death of Humanism rant by thinking about how exactly and interestingly mid-20th Century poet and educator (and inventor of the term ‘postmodern’) Charles Olson tallies with your generic Lovecraftian academic villain.

In Lovecraft, the academic villain is a very identifiable type; someone deeply engaged with lost, historic lore, working either alone or in concert.

As a rule, they’re obsessed with secret lore, are very aware that what they’re up to goes against / is threatening to the cultural mainstream, and yet are driven on by both personal rewards and by a sense that what they’re uncovering is real truth, that will lead to a mass transformation in their particular cultural consciousness and affairs.

For example, the Joseph Curwen circle in ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ look forward to the moment when ‘it will be ripe… to have upp ye Legions from Underneath, and then there are no Boundes to what shall be oures…’, while in ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ Great Race society seems to have been profoundly effected by news of its impending doom.

And these researchers have an interesting relationship with time; it’s a very malleable thing to them, allowing them to bring the past directly into the present, and vice versa. The Joseph Curwen circle talk with the dead of all centuries, while the time traveling delvings of the Great Race of Yith are presented very directly indeed:

‘I learned… that the entities around me were of the world’s greatest race, which had conquered time and sent exploring minds into every age… I talked with the mind of Yiang-Li, a philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in 5,000 A.D.; with that of a general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in 50,000 BC; with that of a twelfth Century Florentine monk named Bartolomeo Corsi…’

Other examples abound; many Lovecraftian villains (and most of his heroes, come to that) can be seen as researchers of one kind or another. The Fungi from Yuggoth take humanity to the stars, and beyond; the crazed cultists of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ use forbidden knowledge to excavate Cthulhu; the protagonist of ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ is a kind of archaeologist of local horror; and so on.

So what? Well, the preponderance of researchers / historians / revivifiers in Lovecraft is a logical outcome of his central myth; that of a past that can be recast in ways that radically transform understandings of humanity and of modernity in general. And that’s what links him so interestingly with Olson.

I’d been kind of vaguely aware of this link, but it hadn’t really grabbed me until I sat down to read Olson’s ‘The Mayan Letters’. Edited by Olson’s friend and poetic ally Robert Creeley, aka the Figure of Outward, ‘The Mayan Letters’ record Olson’s researches into Mayan culture over a six month period in the early 50s, carried out from a small village on the Mexican coast.

‘The Mayan Letters’ are a key document in Olson’s ongoing struggle to get past the limitations of Western European thinking and perception, as rooted in (what Olson perceives to be) alienating ancient Greek philosophy. For him (and paraphrasing hugely!) the Greeks separated the object from the discourse, creating an artificial gap between thinking and existing that’s in turn alienated Western consciousness from the world that surrounds it.

As he put it in his essay ‘The Human Universe’, ‘the distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’. One way – he thought – of reclaiming language as ‘the act of the instant’ is to pitch it in terms of hieroglyphs or ideograms, reclaiming the word as object rather than description. And that attitude in part led him to the Mayans, who built their language on ideograms.

Of course his interest was in Mayan culture was far broader than the purely linguistic – as a researcher, he hoped to uncover the frame of mind that an ideogrammatic language supported, find a way of describing and reintroducing it into contemporary culture, and thus bring about a constructive change in Western mass consciousness (‘the shift is SUBSTANTIVE’, as he notes of the past, and will be again).

And that’s what makes him – and ‘The Mayan Letters’, and his broader work, so resonantly Lovecraftian. Whether acting as archaeologist, linguist, historical researcher or just plain explorer, his language rings with the expository excitement of the classic Lovecraftian researcher (‘I tried, for a while, to scratch away at the walls of the graves…’), whether hero or villain:

‘Craziest damn thing ever, this place: nothing on it otherwise but two sets of double small ‘pyramids’ at either end of the island… a damned attractive place… was it the reason the Maya… did so come here, choose, this place [to bury their dead]?… Must find out more.’

Olson then resolves – in a classically Lovecraftian set up – to go and look up MSSs of previous expeditions to the island. Or there’s this:

‘Have been digging up the old Maya chronicles, the last couple of days, and ome up with interesting stuff on Quetz-Kukul – and the question of, sea origins.’

Or this:

‘God, give me a little more of [watching stars in the Mexican sky while talking about them] and I shall excuse what you say abt me, another time, my friend. For you have said something so beautifully tonight, in this business of force:… that force STAYS, IS & THEREFORE STAYS, whenever, whatever:

that is what
we are concerned with
it breaks all time and space’

Where Lovecraft found horror in the breakage of time and space, Olson found wonder. And all of this is in service of an explicitly (perhaps even physically as well as culturally) transformative project:

‘BUT the way the bulk of them still (“the unimproved”) wear their flesh… the flesh is worn as a daily thing, like the sun… carried like the other things are, for use… the individual peering out from that flesh is precisely himself, is, a curious wandering animal (it is so very beautiful, how animal the eyes are, when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes, how human and individuated the look comes out)’

And that wearing is for Olson a ‘real, live clue to the results of what I keep on gabbing on about, another humanism’. For Olson as for Lovecraft, the return to the animal is transformative, but for Olson it’s a positive, allowing a step out of Western humanism into something far more spontaneous and positive, something that (using Jung’s term) leads very directly to the profoundly positive end of individuation, of becoming a true and integrated self.

And that’s the source of both similarity and the difference between the two writers. Both either track or drive a step away from a Humanism that began with the ancient Greeks and that has defined Western culture for the last couple of thousand years. For Lovecraft, that’s a profoundly destructive step, but one that (visionary that he was, often despite himself) one he can’t deny; for Olson, it’s an entirely positive step, one that should be encouraged.

In the end, Olson can be read as a Lovecraftian villain; but being a villain in Lovecraft means breaking an old consensus and replacing it with something unimaginably, transcendentally new – and, in this decaying modern world, that can only be a good thing to do.

Those are pearls…

Poetry, Poets, Seascapes

A post about poetry, as Nichola Deane over at Casket of Dreams is pointing the way to some roaringly good work (as well as writing with precise lyricism about Richard Hawley – do have to disagree with her about Dean Martin, tho’, there are few things more rock’n’roll than the careless swing of ‘Sway’, sung by a man so laid back that he held off Mafia influence by just not really caring about them).

Anyway… she’s also championing Robert Lowell, who I’d read a little of a few years back and pegged as (yet another) dodgy confessionalist.

I was quite wrong:

‘A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,-
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our north Atlantic Fleet,
when the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs;
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of red and whites,
Its open, starring eyes
Were lusterless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks at its nose
On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name
Is blocked in yellow chalk.’

The opening sentences of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, which marvellous poem ND quotes and dissects fascinatingly, showing less of it than I have but making much more of it.

Reading the above made me think of other sea poems, and in particular W. S. Graham’s magnificent ‘Nightfishing’. It’s unavailable online (you’ll have to buy the Faber Collected Poems, worth every penny IMHO), but here’s a taster. W. S.’s poetic alter ego is trawling for fish off the Devon coast; the sea breaks over the boat and then sluices out again –

‘See how, like an early self, it’s loath to leave
And stares from the scuppers as it swirls away
To be clenched up. What a great width stretches
Farsighted away fighting in its white straits
On either bow, but bears up our boat on all
Its plaiting strands. This wedge driven in
To the twisting water, we rode. The bow shores
The long rollers.’

A lovely brief passage, but more importantly it catches the metaphoric tension that drives and energises the poem. W. S.’s descriptions of the processes of sea going, of fishing, become a way of talking about the mind’s progress through a poem, the self’s onward motion through life; the poem becomes a subtle and complex meditation on the stormed and freighted journeys through time that are an inevitable condition of our enforced, dynamic lives within it.

So, the sea sparking two very different but equally cool poems; I hope you enjoy them!

Pound 1, Brancusi 0

Abstraction, Art, Birds, Poetry, Poets

Just spent a lovely weekend in Venice, with H; great food, great boozing, lovely company (of course), much architectural beauty, and also of course much time spent looking at art and (as ever) following Ezra Pound around.

This year’s Ezra stalking was particularly successful; our hotel was just round the corner from his and Olga Rudge’s house, and just next door to the quayside where he’d considered throwing the proofs of his first book into the Grand Canal – and, with it, his sense of poetic vocation. He remembered the moment in Canto 76 thus, standing by the:

‘…soap smooth posts where San Vio
meets with il Grande Canale
between Salviati and the house that was of Don Carlos
shd I chuck the lot into the tide-water?
                 le bozze “A Lume Spento”’

I re-enacted the moment, to minimal dramatic effect. Anyway, from there we hit the Guggenheim Museum, amongst other things taking a look at the Brancusi ‘Bird in Space’ they have there. Here’s that:

And it is, of course, rather lovely. But I also found I had a bit of a problem with it.

My problem is that (this version of) ‘Bird in Space’ an entirely optimistic piece of art. It’s about positive, upward flight; a utopian sense of the possibilities of being; an expression of a desire for, and a faith in the possibility of, transcendence. Brancusi described it as a ‘project before being enlarged to fill the vault of the sky’.

That kind of thing used to inspire me, but now it unsettles me. If the 20th Century was about anything, it was about the problems of transcendence, about the way that transcendent thinking can so easily create an other that needs to be eradicated before paradise can come about.

Brancusi’s work rejects the gross and earthly; in art perhaps laudable, but when that same impulse is translated into politics, and used to image a new, purer reality, one that can be real if only the dross of this world is destroyed – well, you know where that leads.

Which lead me back to Pound. He spent World War II in Italy, broadcasting to America on behalf of the Fascists. After the war, he was locked up in a prison camp near Pisa, and only spared execution by a plea of insanity, which led to 12 years in an asylum in Washington DC.

He then returned to Venice, where he lived out the rest of his life – along the way apologising to a visiting Allen Ginsberg for the ‘stupid, suburban sin of anti-semitism’. The last years of his life were characterised by an almost unbroken silence.

His sense of regret also found expression in one of the final sections of ‘The Cantos’ –

 ‘I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
      Let the wind speak
                   that is paradise

Let the Gods forgive what I
                have made
Let those I love try to forgive
                what I have made.’

Begun as a transcendent project, in the full bloom of High Modernism, ‘The Cantos’ came to embody a rejection of that sense of transcendence. Pound lived the mistakes of the 20th Century, and learned from them.

Brancusi sought to purify; Pound understood what that purification could lead to, and pointed his reader back to direct, passive engagement with what’s already there (‘Do not move / Let the wind speak’) rather than an active attempt to create Paradise by carving away and discarding everything that doesn’t deserve to be part of it.

Pounding system

Fantasy, Modernity, Poets

Well, I’ve come down from the weekend a little more but in the aftershock I have put my back out! So now I am hobbling round my flat like a little old lady – but as well as a lovely evening with H watching Venture Brothers et al, memories of the weekend are buoying me up…

Where to start? There’s the deep generosity of Pete Crowther, the wildly comic ongoing Smith & Jones double act, the great joy of seeing the Elastic Press anthology that first brought H and I together win the year’s best award, the Stephen King upstaging Boris the crocheted Dalek, anticipating Black Static, seeing Arvon friends again – but, above all, what made it such a great weekend was epic, wonderful conversations.

One was particularly productive, in a boozy kind of way – chatting with Hal Duncan about the relationship between various aesthetic genres. Specifically, he sees Modernism as the two opposites that Romanticism and Classicism represent, crashing together into the 20th Century.

It’s a fascinating point of view, and goes a long way towards explaining much that seems to be contradictory in Modernism. Take Mondrian, for example; austere classical perfection underpinned by whacky Theosophical thinking. Or James Joyce; a deeply rationalised dissection of multiple literary forms, filtered through journalistically precise observation of Dublin, but underpinned by deep mythical structures.

My deepest engagement with Modernism always came through Ezra Pound. Here, too, you’ve got that kind of binary opposition. One (deeply reductive) way of summing up Pound’s flawed masterpiece ‘The Cantos’ is as an equation: (History + Economics) x (Mythology + Art)/Biography = Cantos.

Hal’s opposed rational and intuited structures co-exist there too, deepening and commenting on each other. But of course, they create a tension – one that in many ways is unresolvable. Pound felt this very strongly, exemplifying it in his famous, repeated lament, ‘I cannot make it cohere’. In the end, he disclaimed ‘The Cantos’, unable to find achievement in them, and writing:

M’amour, m’amour
what do I love and
where are you?
That I lost my center
fighting the world
The dreams clash
and are shattered –
That I tried to make a paradiso

Pound couldn’t merge the Classical and the Romantic, falling instead into Facism and then bleak repentance. Beginning ‘The Cantos’, he’d seen meaning as something to be forced onto the world, using the combined, opposite tools of intuition and analysis. At its end, he could only see it as an emergent property of systems too subtle and complex to be anything other than observed:

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise

Let the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made

The project of High Modernism failed, replaced by a Post-Modernism that (generalising wildly) found equal value in all things, on the positive basis that rich meaning could emerge from any one of them, and the negative one that imposition of specific meaning on a non-specific world could lead to very real social and political horrors. Decrying the death of his life’s work, Pound predicted the movement that would succeed him.

Post-Modernist relativity has its own problems; they’ve been rehearsed elsewhere, so I won’t ramble about them here. The real question is – what does all this have to do with Hal Duncan?

Well, I can’t help seeing his work – recent novels ‘Vellum’ and ‘Ink’ – as (in part) an attempt to revive the tools that the Modernist project built, and show how they remain a profoundly useful way of engaging with modernity. But it’s late in the evening now, and I’ve got much to do, so more on this tomorrow…

Inspectors of the Heart

London, Poets

Apropos of nothing at all, here’s a poem I wrote a few years back. I was walking up St John’s Hill, past the hairdressers, when a siren cut through the moment and everything seemed to stop:

Inspectors of the Heart

A violent sound puts streets in shock –
cars stop to let the siren past.
It almost seems that nothing else is there;
just lights, that wailing and a fifth gear howl
that hurtles by, then up the road and on.

Lord, let sirens quiet and silent traffic flow;
protect us from inspectors of the heart.

Uniforms are knives to crowds,
slicing through them to arrest
someone maybe wanted, maybe not.
Pedestrians avert their eyes and freeze
resisting implication in this mess.

Lord, let sirens quiet and silent traffic flow;
protect us from inspectors of the heart.

They’ve gone, have left a space
where something trusting used to be.
Abusing stop and search they’ve shown us all
that they’ll invade us as and when they need;
remembered charges clog the muted streets.

Lord, let sirens quiet and silent traffic flow;
protect us from inspectors of the heart.