Tag Archives: Art

‘Flood’ by Gillian Clarke

When all’s said, and done,
if civilisation drowns
the last colour to go
will be gold –
the light on a glass,
the prow of a gondola,
the name on a rosewood piano
as silence engulfs it.

And first to return
to a waterlogged world,
the rivers slipping out to sea,
the cities steaming,
will be gold,
one dip from Bellini’s brush,
feathers of angels, Cinquecente nativities,
and all that follows.

I think this is a wonderful poem, and a gorgeously beautiful homage to Art in all its forms. It speaks about what might be our world’s most lasting and essential legacy; “If civilisation drowns”, writes Clarke, “the last colour to go/ will be gold”.

Flood is clearly set in Venice, and we can be sure of that with the expressed notion of civilisation ‘drowning’; it is a commonly-known fact that Venice is sinking and will one day be under water. Of course, there is also the mentioning of the “prow of a gondola”, and the Venetian painter, Bellini, which helps to paint this image of Venice. Italy, with its history of the Roman Empire, and so much enlightenment and brilliant art during the Renaissance, is the ideal symbol for Western civilisation. It is also an obvious religious centre, and I think that amplifies this idea of the holiness of art. Gold is certainly a colour that I connect with Italy.

So, the poem talks about what would be the last thing “to go”, should civilisation be destroyed, and what would be the first thing to “return” if we had to rebuild civilisation from its ashes. Clarke’s answer to both of these questions is simple: “gold”. For me, this gold in the poem represents Art (every form of art: painting, sculpture, poetry, music etc). Man needs Art to express what Keats called “our deep eternal theme”; we have a need to express ourselves and our experience of beauty, truth, and all that is sacred. There seems to be a distinct aura of the sacred surrounding the idea of Art (i.e. the “gold”) in the poem, hence the references to the “feathers of angels” and the “Cinquecente nativities”.

I just love this piece. It reminds me of what a glorious thing Art can be.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Cezanne’s Ports’ by Allen Ginsberg

In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore.

But that meeting place
isn’t represented;
it doesn’t occur on the canvas.

For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains.

And the immense water of L’Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats.

This poem is about a painting by Cezanne called ‘The Gulf of Marseilles seen from L’Estaque’. You can see the painting below.

I think Cezanne’s Ports is a fascinating poem. Ginsberg fascinates (and often troubles) me anyway, but here I love how he finds such a poignant significance to this beautiful painting — significance that I admit I would not have found myself without nudging.

So, the poet starts by talking about the foreground of the painting, and describes it as “time and life/ swept in a race/ toward the left hand side of the picture.” I love this description, because there is a sense of the bustle of triviality (which I certainly get from the sand-coloured puzzle of roofs), and how it is always on its way to “Heaven and Eternity” (which the poet next tells us is represented by the far grey shore of hills, with their “bleak white haze”.)

The “meeting place”, where “shore meets shore”, is not represented in the painting; it “does not occur on the canvas.” Why does it not occur in the picture? Is it because “Heaven and Eternity” are impossible to depict in art? Because they are impossible to comprehend in life?

In the final verse, Ginsberg talks about the sea — the “immense water of L’Estaque” — as a “go-between/for minute rowboats.” I like the curt manner of this ending because it amplifies the sweetness and triviality of the tiny rowboats (I think the term “rowboat” is significant because he is using an almost childish word to describe the boats, and of course “minute” ensures that we visualise them in a certain way.)

For me, these little rowboats represent our human efforts to understand the divine — our attempts to understand “Heaven and Eternity” in life. These attempts are not futile, but they are perhaps, as I said before, sweet and trivial, when you consider how the whole of the foreground is being inescapably “swept” towards the left of the painting, and Heaven. Ginsberg was a Buddhist for much of his life, and I think that this may have influenced this poem a great deal.

P.S. Ginsberg was also greatly influenced by Blake and Whitman. From Whitman, in particular, he inherited his love of free verse, and his long lines that are ‘single breath units’. I love this style, and I would like to share with you some enlightening extracts from “When the Mode of Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake”, which Ginsberg wrote in 1961:

“one must verge on the unknown, write toward truth hitherto unrecognisable of one’s own sincerity, including the avoidable beauty of doom, shame and embarrassment, that very area of self-recognition (detailed individual is universal remember)”

“For if we write with an eye to what the poem should be (has been), and do not get lost in it, we will never discover anything new about ourselves in the process of actually writing on the table, and we lose the chance to live in our works, & make habitable the new world which every man may discover in himself, if he lives — which is life itself, past present & future”

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

I think that final quotation is true and beautiful, and I also think the influences of Blake, and Buddhism are very evident there.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Starry Night’ by Anne Sexton

That does not keep me from having a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. –Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

This poem is inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night. It begins with a quote from a letter written by Van Gogh, which says that, despite himself, he has a deep, “terrible” need for religion, and that it is when he feels this need that he goes out and “paint[s] the stars”. I think there is something profound here about man’s need for something eternal and sacred. Though Van Gogh didn’t want religion in his life, he nevertheless had a need for the sacred. By creating art — by going out and painting the stars — Van Gogh was in effect immortalising the beauty of the world. He was acknowledging the transcendent power of beauty. Though he may not necessarily feel the presence of the Divine, a painter understands eternity, and s/he understands the holiness of beauty.

Van Gogh was a tortured, troubled artist just as Sexton was. When you look at ‘Starry Night’, the painting, there is such movement in the brushstrokes, and such turbulence — almost violence — in the thick swirling sky with its “eleven stars”, boiling in the “hot sky.” I love Sexton’s description of the painting, with the “black-haired tree” slipping up “like a drowned woman into the hot sky”. This particular description really struck me. When you look at the painting you will see that the tree does indeed look as though it were made of hair. There is something so dark and sinister about that image — it’s so “alive”, and “it moves”, as Sexton writes. I love the way the night “boils” in the poet’s description, because that is exactly how the painting looks to me.

The refrain “This is how I want to die” is repeated twice in the poem. It is a sort of mantra, and is central to the meaning of this poem in my view. I know that I always bring everything back to Keats, but this reminds me of his Ode to a Nightingale. In Nightingale, the poet listens to the beautiful sound of the bird’s voice (which represents the eternal beauty of Poetry and Art) and feels that this would be the perfect moment to die:

“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/ While thou art pouring forth thy soul/ In such an ecstasy!”

I think Sexton is expressing something similar, here. However, there is of course more violence in Sexton’s desire for death, which I think reflects her suicidal nature and the fact that she would eventually commit suicide. Sexton does not want to simply “cease upon the midnight with no pain”; she wants to be “sucked up by that great dragon, to split/ from my life with no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry.” Sexton wants to be a part of the violent narrative. She wants to be a part of the mythology — the world where the “old, unseen serpent swallows up the stars”. There is religious imagery here with the serpent (the devil), and the moon pushing children “like a god, from its eye”. I think perhaps that — in the same way that Van Gogh painted the stars because he had a “terrible need” for something eternal and sacred — Sexton wanted to die in a glorified way — through suicide, as a tortured poet  – in order to join the hosts of dead poets that are immortal because their stories and their work is eternal. Perhaps this poem expresses a sense that Sexton felt suicide would be dramatic and violent and would immortalise her.

My final thought on this poem is to do with the final words: “no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry”. This part of the poem seems extremely violent to me. Sexton is expressing her deep, dark desire to part with life, but she goes further… The “no flag” part suggests to me that the poet is saying she wants to die not as a martyr, or for any particular cause — not holding up the flag of patriotism, or religion (or even the white flag of surrender.) No, the poet does not want to die as a victim (perhaps that is part of the attraction of suicide to her). She also writes that she wants to die with “no belly”. This is an interesting image, which is clearly linked to the poet’s femininity (the belly being the home of the womb and the place in the body where life starts.) Is Sexton saying here that she wants to die with no belly — with no gender? Sexton did have children in reality, I think maybe three or even more, I can’t remember. In any case, here she is expressing a desire to die without producing more life in the process; she wants her belly — her ability to reproduce — to be gone. I think that is is mostly about not wanting to be defined by her womanhood, but rather by her abilities as a poet. There might also be a sense here in which she is saying that she wants her creative production to stop (as it would, at her death) — to be final and untouchable.  Finally, the poet writes “no cry”. I think that these final words come back again to the idea of surrender. I think Sexton is saying that she does not want to die a victim, with a “cry” of pain or defiance. She wants to go willingly, bravely, and on her own terms.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘A une artiste’ by Louise Ackermann

Puisque les plus heureux ont des douleurs sans nombre,
Puisque le sol est froid, puisque les cieux sont lourds,
Puisque l’homme ici-bas promène son cœur sombre
Parmi les vains regrets et les courtes amours,

Que faire de la vie? O notre âme immortelle,
Où jeter tes désirs et tes élans secrets ?
Tu voudrais posséder, mais ici tout chancelle ;
Tu veux aimer toujours, mais la tombe est si près!

Le meilleur est encore en quelque étude austère
De s’enfermer, ainsi qu’en un monde enchanté,
Et dans l’art bien aimé de contempler sur terre,
Sous un de ses aspects, l’éternelle beauté.

Artiste au front serein, vous l’avez su comprendre,
Vous qu’entre tous les arts le plus doux captiva,
Qui l’entourez de foi, de culte, d’amour tendre,
Lorsque la foi, le culte et l’amour, tout s’en va.

Ah! tandis que pour nous, qui tombons de faiblesse
Et manquons de flambeau dans l’ombre de nos jours,
Chaque pas a sa ronce où notre pied se blesse,
Dans votre frais sentier marchez, marchez toujours.

Marchez! pour que le ciel vous aime et vous sourie,
Pour y songer vous-même avec un saint plaisir,
Et tromper, le cœur plein de votre idolâtrie,
L’éternelle douleur et l’immense désir.

 

My Translation — ‘To a female artist’

Since the happiest have numberless pains,
Since the ground is cold, since the heavens are heavy,
Since the man down here walks his dark heart
Among the vain regrets and short-lived loves,

What to do with life? O our immortal soul,
Where will you throw your desires and your secret impulses?
You would like to possess, but here everything totters;
You want to love forever, but the grave is so near!

The best thing is still to shut oneself in
Some austere study, as well as in an enchanted world,
And, in beloved art, to contemplate on earth
One of its aspects, eternal beauty. 

Serene-browed artist, you have understood,
You who, of all the arts, captured the sweetest one,
Who surrounded it with faith, with worship, with tender love,
Whilst faith, worship and love, all disappear.

 Ah! Whereas for us, who fall from weakness
And lack a torch in the shadow of our days,
Each step has its bramble where our foot gets wounded,
On your fresh pathway walk, walk forever. 

Walk! So that heaven will love you and smile upon you,
So that you may dream for yourself with a holy pleasure,
And deceive, heart full of your devotion,
The eternal pain and the infinite desire.

 

I thought I would do another translation for today; I haven’t done one in a while. This is a poem that I really like by Louise Ackermann. This poet was born in Paris in 1813, and spent a lonely childhood in the countryside near Amiens. She married a German man called Paul Ackermann, and moved to Berlin with him, but her husband died after only two years of marriage. Once widowed, Louise Ackermann moved back to Nice to live with her sister in a very austere fashion. She lived in isolation in the countryside, and it was during this time of solitude that she wrote most of her poetry. She published at three volumes of poetry (as far as I know) during her lifetime.

I find this poem quite fascinating in its exploration of the nature of art and the artist. It seems to me that there is a great sadness and longing in this verse — a longing for the eternal beauty that seems to exist in art. In this poem there is an acknowledgement of the drudgery of human life (the “numberless pains”, the “vain regrets” and “short-lived loves”), as well as an expression of the human impulse to express the soul in art (“O immortal soul,/ Where will you throw your desires and your secret impulses?”) There is also an expression of the idea of wanting to exist as if in art (similar ideas to those of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn) — “You want to love forever, but the grave is so near!” The artist keeps almost flying away with her art, but she is always pulled back to reality…

I love the final line, that “eternal pain and infinite desire”. I think it is such a profound description of the nature of the artist (and poet) — forever in pain, forever suffering from being human, but forever full of desire to express, to create, to transcend… to attain something holy through art.

I found this quite a difficult poem to translate, and this is what I came up with.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This poem has had an enormous impact on my life since I first read it. It has given me a great amount of pleasure (and still does). I don’t want to do a detailed analysis because it would be such a long blog and nobody would read it. I just want to talk about the final two lines, which are probably the most famous words that Keats ever wrote.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I think the most obvious, surface explanation of this is something like: if beauty is truth, then, if art is not based on truth to a certain extent, then how can beauty exist in art? It’s the idea that art must contain aspects of reality in order to be beautiful and sublime.

But there is also a deeper, philosophical meaning to it which relates, I think, to how we reach Truth. How we find truth, how do we recognise it, and what is its source? For Keats, logic was not the answer. He did not believe that Truth could be reached by consecutive reasoning. He believed that since one can argue anything (logic can be applied to reasoning that does not lead to Truth) then Truth must come from some other source. That other source might be Beauty. As Keats wrote in a letter in 1817, “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”.

I think that “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” is also connected to Keats’ views about the nature of poetry. He wrote that “if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree then it had better not come at all.” He described poetry as an “experience beyond thought” — the music or Beauty of the poetry contains Truth just as much as the meanings of the words. It makes sense that this kind of Truth is more trustworthy, because we have an innate understanding of what is beautiful, whereas logic can easily hoodwink us and have us believe falsehoods.

Keats wrote that poetry was best to be understood “through the senses”, and that is certainly true of this poem — it is a symphony of words and rhythm. For me, the meaning is almost secondary.

If you look at the beginning of the poem, there is a link to all of this. Keats describes the urn (which represents Art is all its forms) as a “still unravish’d bride”, “foster-child” and “Sylvan historian”. This mysterious opening allows us to understand that the urn is beautiful (an “unravish’d bride”) and knowledgeable (a “Sylvan historian). So art can be a source of both beauty and truth… and this of course foreshadows famous last lines of the poem.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh