Rubha nam Bràithrean
Rubha nam Bràithrean, Isle of Skye (Photo credit: Heather McCallum)

Thoughts about poetry and further snippets from the Diary

‘poetries’ not ‘poetry’

Having been away at a poetry festival, a few thoughts occurred to me on the subject of poetry. There isn’t a single thing ‘poetry’ but a family of things or ‘poetries.’ Just as there are buildings which have a vague resemblance to each other, such as castle, cottage, hut, tenement and so on, so there are poems which have slight, if basic, things in common. The buildings usually have doors and windows, and people live in or visit them, but that’s as far as it goes. A vast distance separates the hut from the castle. Similarly, poems have family resemblances. All poems are made from words and sounds but just as vast a distance separates the comic ditty from the epic, sacred verse from the profane.

The analytic and holistic

For me, there is a Blakean dimension to poetry, the search for the infinite, a journey of the soul to the Most Real. The poet will journey to the furthest star – per ardua ad astra – and report back on what has been witnessed – and this journey to the star is an interior journey. The scientist will also see to the furthest star, externally, and report back with measurements and analyses. One journey analytic, the other holistic. The poet will bring together all intimations and hints, from whatever quarter, and resolve what the message is and bring everything together in a whole.

Tuesday 22nd January 2013

Experimental verse

I wrote verses today based on Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. I’m using Dàn Dìreach syllabic metres although I’m not keeping strictly to the metres and I also use enjambment from verse to verse. It’s an experiment. I feel a formal element keeps the poetry from being too discursive and I think the syllabic metres suit the subject matter. It allows for a tension between the classical and the romantic.

Romantic and classical tensions

We see this tension between the romantic and classical idiom in 19th century painting. Ingre classical to the core, Rossetti romantic, Whistler somewhere in between although his romance is a romance with colour and composition. Whistler was a student of Courbet for a while and an admirer of his work but Courbet is a Realist and very different to Whistler. His influence on Whistler isn’t very evident.

Quiet days

Yesterday and today have been quiet. Everybody remarks how well Margaret looks. She has indeed made a remarkable recovery. She is able to eat almost normally and she isn’t tired any more and is back to her normal routine.

Saturday 26th January 2013

Van Gogh in Arles

On Thursday, I wrote verses on Van Gogh’s painting The Bedroom at Arles 1888/9. His life was so sad and this painting is sad when one knows the life story behind it. The room itself is so tidy, although Van Gogh wasn’t a tidy person normally. But he was waiting for Gauguin – and other artists – to arrive in Arles. Perhaps this was a way of welcoming them. Unfortunately, when Gauguin did come, he didn’t stay long. There was a violent argument, Van Gogh threatened him with a razor, and Gauguin escaped back to Paris. The remorseful Van Gogh cut off an ear and gave it to a prostitute. It was the beginning of the end for him.

Paul Gauguin

Yesterday, I wrote verses about Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon 1888 and today I continued the Gauguin theme with a poem about his masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What are we? Where are we going to? painted in Tahiti in 1897. Life, it appears, for him was a mystery. In March 1897 he learned of the death of Aline his favourite daughter in Copenhagen. Poor, ill and sad he decided he would paint this final painting and then end it all. The suicide attempt, with arsenic, failed and he was to survive for another six years. Going by the painting and the fact that he tried to end his life, he apparently didn’t believe in an afterlife.

Sunday 27th January 2013

The sacred and the sublime

I’m thinking of the sacred (or holy) and how a person can have feeling of the sacred. Is that the same as the sublime? Perhaps. But maybe not. The sublime is something you can get from nature, when you are dwarfed by the immensity of a mountain range towering above you, or when you look at the stars high above on a dark clear night. The sacred is something else. It can be inspired by something outside of you. It’s a feeling category in its own right. It’s something like Rudolph Otto’s feeling category of the numinous but not quite the same. The sacred feeling has a quietness to it. It’s a feeling in the inner self, although it can be inspired by something external. It also has a Wow! element. It can sometimes be felt in the perfect harmony of matching colours.

Water – the sacred element

What can give me this feeling is water. There’s a sacramental quality to it. Is that why it’s used in baptism? A symbol of the sacred. The outer cleansing and the inner transformation. There’s a magic to water. It’s worth musing over for it’s probably the most sacred of earth’s substances. At the same time one of the most common. A most powerful symbol of God and the Holy Spirit.

The sacred and the profane

It’s amazing how the water and dirt often mingle together, like the sacred and the profane. In studying paintings by the great artists, how often do their paintings capture the sacred and the sublime, and they create these paintings while they are living immoral and sometimes reprehensible lives. How can this be? Take Gauguin. In Brittany in 1888 he paints Vision After the Sermon. It shows peasant Breton women in an attitude of prayer after being at a sermon and having an ecstatic vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel. The great white foreground of the women’s bonnets and the blood-red field where the battle is taking place captures perfectly the feeling of the holiness of the vision. He does something similar with The Yellow Christ (1889).

Sin and grace

In contrast, a few years later, in 1893, he paints the sensual Annah the Javanese. Gauguin had picked her up in Paris, in place of the native girl he had left behind in Tahiti. And yet his great painting of 1897, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? shows that he was a person who was searching for meaning in life. Thus we can see how sin and grace can mix, and be seen to mix, in the most unlikely of places and people. Just like water, God’s grace interpenetrates life and the world and makes living bearable.