Sunday, 13 September 2009

British Library

It is a nest of the many alone,
All drawn to the honeycomb honeytrap -
Each grub has a cell with a single chair
And wireless umbilical wires one in.
Only a wanderer may spot the world
In laptop facets of the compound eye.
None leave nothing achieved solo again,
Progress mired by ink-trailed squared stacked paper.

And two found it.  One another.  Lips press
And smiles spread like wings filling the great room
As sunlight pouring through cathedral glass
Making beauty of a tawdry husk of stone.

I left smiling.  Industry unaided
Did not enjoin such cheerful joy so shared .

Day of writing.

When I was at the NPG the other day, I was browsing in the gift shop trying not to buy too many postcards.  I picked up Thom Gunn's The Man With Night Sweats just to flick through while I was there. The poems of his I've read have been good, but nothing has gripped me absolutely. Then I found the following, after which the book came away with me:

Barren Leaves
Spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling:
Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.

That's all there is of it, just those two lines. The first is a quotation from Wordsworth's 'Preface to the Lyrical Ballads', which can be regarded as one of the first attempts to define what poetry should be in the modern age. Gunn's irreverent second line subverts the high minded Romantic ideal of poetry, poking fun at the old master and his own profession. It reinterprets poetry for our time, basely humanising it. The feminine rhyme in the couplet underlines the self-deprecating mood, as does the title - written down, left on shelves, and poetry loses its immediacy. A spurt of emotion, left for others to re-invigorate or not as they choose. Gunn even seems to be suggesting that those overflows of feeling, like spent semen, is un-recoverable. I love it.

And THEN, there were more, still about writing.

He concentrated, as he ought,
On fitting language to his thought
And getting all the rhymes correct,
Thus exercising intellect
In such a space, in such a fashion,
He concentrated into passion.

This time, it's a much more positive picture of poetry - the compression of thought into language results in 'passion' at the end. The writer character in this poem succeeds in creating something. Refining thought into poetry. The full Wordsworth quotation given in part in 'Barren Leaves' is as follows:

"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind."*

Gunn's poem describes this process almost exactly.

Finally, another two-liner:

Their relationship consisted
In discussing if it existed.

I assume the title refers to Henry James...whose work I have never read. Anyone who makes a point of style out of long sentences doesn't immediately attract me to read him. But I do know that his novels spend a lot of time examining personal relationships...navel gazing, really. Gunn's couplet here doesn't make me any more likely to read any James, it has to be said. But it's an interesting concept of a relationship and the traps that it might be possible to fall into - style over substance, and all that. Too much thinking and not enough living.

I haven't finished the collection yet. There are more poems I'll quote when I have, I think, that aren't so comedic. I would recommend this to anyone at all though. It's accessible, joyous poetry. Exuberant and boisterous. Fun to part of. Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and the rest of them are great, don't get me wrong at all, but they require the right mood for reading. From what I've seen of this collection of Gunn's so far, you could pick it up any time and anywhere and take something away from it. Fantastic artistry.

*The full text of the 'Preface to the Lyrical Ballads' can be found here, for anyone who has time for that kind of thing.

I don't really have anything to say about this.

Except that it tasted good.

Living in Cambridge is like living in a commune.

At least, it is for me. No house I've lived in feels like home, but the city does. Guess that's understandable when you look at the number of places I've lived in in the 5 years I've been here.

I was cycling up to Great St Mary's to sing for one of the more peculiar weddings I've ever been involved with yesterday morning quite early for a Saturday (rehearsal started at 10). September is really here in the mornings - I'm pleased to see it. It was cool and quiet in town. No tourists, no students. The city takes a breath before diving into the new day term year.

I can go to places and know I'll see someone I know. I can feel a sense of possession of the place. It is mine and I am its, at least for now. It is intensely familiar, after the closeness of our relationship. My life has been played out against a backdrop of the ancient and the beautiful in a large but tight knit community.

I will miss it, this place. It is enormously strong, but also very peaceful. I need not to be here any more, this much I am certain of. I need to look outwards and upwards and destroy the comfort zones and start somewhere fresh. I will visit, and it will take a while for the bond to breakdown, but then I will be just a visitor. I don't think it will ever make me feel trapped the way St Albans does. Maybe sometime I'll come back here. It's a wonderful place.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Ain't I a woman?

I took a couple of days off this week. I had been going to take the week off and Traci and I were going to go away, but she's headed off to France to see an old friend before she has to leave Europe sometime next month. I could have cancelled all of the leave, but I was dying for a break and anyway had a lot of things to do - like take vast quantities of stuff to charity shops and start the long and drawn out process of shipping my books somewhere they'll be safe while I bum around the globe for 6 or 8 months. Yesterday, I decided that a holiday was a holiday and I was going to do something with it that I wanted to do and damn everyone else and all my chores. I took some books down to St Albans and then took the train from there to St Pancras and the tube from there to Leicester Square.

And I went to the National Portrait Gallery. I like the NPG. It's not too big, unlike the National Gallery next door, and it's easier to get your head around a more focused form of art than the enormous and wide ranging collections you find in the bigger London galleries. A portrait is a portrait. These days, a lot of them are photographic and I like that. Even the ones that aren't are quite accessible. Also, you get the double interest of the technical and artistic brilliance of the picture itself combined with an interest in the subject. It's about biography as well as art.

I wandered around the Gay Icons exhibition which I've read a few reviews of. It was put together by a panel of ten selectors, all prominent public gay figures, asked to select six people from the last 150 years, who may or may not themselves be gay, whom they regard as inspirational. I hadn't heard of a lot of the people quoted, though I had heard of most of the selectors. There were few restrictions placed on the selectors, which meant a nicely diverse range of figures quoted. Lots of artists of one sort or another - from porn stars to drag queens to poets and composers, sports people, martyrs like Alan Turing and Harvey Milk, activists like Peter Tatchell who work for gay rights and others who have worked for other causes - Nelson Mandela for example, and various feminists, anti-slavery campaigners and racial equality advocates. The downtrodden and discriminated against everywhere united in the commonality of struggle, I guess.

But the one story that touched me above all others was that of Sojourner Truth, one of Jackie Kay's choices. She was a former slave who worked for the abolition of the practice. The following speech is attributed to her, given at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio on the 29th of May, 1851.

"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear de lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"

This is an extract of the version recorded by Frances Gage (see article here) and is almost certainly not historically accurate - but isn't it fantastic? No matter how she said it and what she said, isn't it incredible that a former black female slave in mid-nineteenth century America should have been able to get up and make such a speech? She must have been a formidable lady. She'd have been in her late 50s by this point, having been freed around 25 years previously. Most slaves didn't live that long. To have gone through so much with so little - and to have stood up before men and women of both colours and spoken like that. We who live today have so much to be grateful for. Not that there aren't things to struggle for still - in the West, gay partnership rights across Europe and America, healthcare reform in the US, freedom of speech and rights for women everywhere top a very long list for me - but how far we have come.

This last picture is the Brunswick Centre. I was wandering back to Kings Cross through Bloomsbury, turned a corner, and there it was.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Highly susceptible to guilt.

Sometimes I feel too nice. Too prepared to lie down and be walked over. Too prepared to be the one apologising. To be the one who puts others in front. To be the one who isn't asking. To be giving while others take. Too much turning the other cheek. And I follow those feelings up with noticing how self-centred and cruel they are. By not wanting to be the person I would be if I behaved like that. By not wanting to feel bad for it afterwards. 'I'm not nice! I'm just...highly susceptible to guilt.'* I'm sure I don't always succeed. Sometimes I wish I didn't. Wish I didn't feel compelled to be nice. I don't want to be nice any more. But what does not being nice achieve? More heartache all round, for everyone including me.

Being nice feels great sometimes. Sometimes it's almost selfish, like wanting to give people things to see them being happy and get the glow of knowing you did that - but that makes everyone happy, so it doesn't matter that it goes both ways. And then self-sacrifice has its own appeal. Martyrdom. But then there's resentfully being nice...being nice because there's no practical choice otherwise. Because you can't stand to feel the guilt. Because you can see that being unpleasant would have the sole effect of relieving your feelings and causing pain without advancing the situation. Trapped in being nice. Because you love someone and that makes the guilt far deeper. And no matter what happens, you love them and try and do the best for them even though it doesn't feel like the best thing to do for yourself. Even if at some level it is. And feel like a doormat and left behind and lost and not understanding why you aren't behaving differently. Because you can't behave differently because there is no way of being different. Alternatives aren't alternatives.

I'm not sure if this sort of nice scores you any points. Does it put you ahead for round two? I'm not sure if it doesn't leave you open to more prone silence in the future. But I don't want to be the person who doesn't at least try to be nice. Head down and keep walking. Slow and steady wins the race and all that. But I'm not sure the world works like that, no matter how many world religions would like it to be so.

I don't want to be a cruel person. I want to be a fair person. I want to be a nice person. I want to be a kind person. I want to be trusted and safe. I want to put others first. Because that's what we're all taught when we're tiny. Sometimes, I wish I didn't. I think it might be easier if I wasn't susceptible to guilt. But I am. And I will carry on trying to be those things, even it means I do end up with a reputation as unflappable and strong. I don't feel either of those things.

*Wonderfalls. Possibly the best TV show ever made. Only available in American DVD format, so you need a region-free player or Linux and a techie to watch it outside of the US but SO worth it. Seriously. I wish they'd made more than one series. And I'm annoyed that Carl got that tagline into his email signature before I'd watched that far so I couldn't use it myself...