Archive for April, 2010

Pastoral no more

April 28, 2010


Clear skies – photograph by Liz Mathews

Writing about the romance of finding the natural world in unexpected places, Kathleen Raine speculated that:

‘Paradise perhaps always retains the aspect of whatever images first reflected it back to us… a dispossessed unheeded beauty – the quarry, the urban park, London trees at night – an image of lost paradise, on the outskirts of the human and urban world.’

This poignant sense that she can only see the little that remains after the Fall, the remnants of some imagined paradise, sounds a strong echo now, when the loss of natural world seems no remote myth but a contemporary happening. The human condition, before, was always to feel a nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian lost Eden, a better place we once knew. Now, that loss lies in the future, literally, as well as the imagined past; as though a new enactment of the old story is taking place before an unwilling or indifferent audience.

Of course it’s still possible to find places where the heavenly beauty of the natural world survives; in the great happiness of those moments the rose seems without a thorn, mortality can be forgotten. (Though perhaps it’s always been closer to our human state to weep that the daffodils must haste away so soon, to stand in the showers of white blossom already blowing down, to feel part of that natural order of change.)

So much art, for so long, has mapped that ‘Garden’ of our inner landscape, or lamented the exile from it, as well as celebrating nature, or protesting against the various forms of devastation which have always threatened it. But now the pastoral is a protest against more urgent loss.

In a poem about the destruction of the environment, Raine couldn’t resist expressing an unquenchable optimism in the powers of the natural world:

And on this doomed decaying city rise
on the last days as on the first,
these marvels inexhaustible and boundless.

Accidentally discovered ‘dispossessed unheeded beauty’ is made all the more precious by its fragility. So we still snatch beauty where we can find it, not waiting only for the rare moments of absolute perfection. Often, the reward is a mixed blessing, rather like the images Raine observed; the magnolia tree flowering alone in a valley of tower blocks; the goldfinch perched on barbed wire. They express our contemporary situation with a strange exactitude.

In the exhilarating moment when the sky was empty of planes, silenced by the volcano, it was possible to imagine, briefly, what the world could be like if paradise wasn’t paved for a parking-lot, if we could once again think of its imperfections as only just less than heaven, rather than an impending loss of earth.

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Beethoven, Mozart, Cake

April 22, 2010


Basket of Primroses – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘When one goes into a shop to buy a cake, one gets nothing but a cake, which may be very good but is only a cake; whereas if one goes into the kitchen and makes a cake because some people one respects and probably likes are coming to eat at one’s table, one is striking a low note on a scale that is struck higher up by Beethoven and Mozart.’

Although in this passage from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon Rebecca West is making a point about capitalism (she continues ‘we prefer to create than to buy’), the matter of creativity inevitably comes in. The days when ‘shop cake’ seemed grand – because everyone baked – are long gone; it’s probably truer now than it was in 1942 that a homemade cake seems complimentary. What interests me is her assertion that this cake-making is an art, as valid as any great composer’s music, if on a lower note. I think this is, in the context, a feminist stance; also a statement of the importance of intention in making.

In the same book she describes Macedonian peasant women’s embroidery as ‘uncorrupted merchandise’, in contrast to the sort of commercial copy sold elsewhere. There is an integrity of purpose which makes the act of creation genuine, for her, rather than primarily commercial, just as the cakes are only cakes (however good) if they’ve been made for a shop. (Of course, this applies to the sale of her own work; even the hack journalism of her youth is motivated by a passionate belief which is proof enough that she wrote primarily for other reasons.)

The motivation behind the work of art was what couldn’t be bought; the friendly intent of the cake-making would never be replicated by money-making intent. So West was moved by the Macedonian women’s work because artistic expression was a natural part of their life – they might sell the work they made, but that wasn’t why it had come into being. Within her own culture there was already a divide which made the professional artist responsible for this expression, on behalf of society as a whole, but she still considered that those who did it merely for commercial reward were corrupt.

The value that she placed on intention didn’t confuse West into thinking that the results were all the same, or that ‘everyone is an artist’ any more than that she was a professional pastry-cook. Rather, she was valuing a person’s own effort of creation over their powers of buying. Just as she asserted that the cake made for friends is an expression of true creativity for the maker (on a small scale), so she trusted that there were people who would understand the compliment of being offered a created thing.

A Shrine more numinous

April 12, 2010


City Spring – photograph by Liz Mathews

Kathleen Raine’s wonderfully-titled collection of essays Defending Ancient Springs is opinionated, idiosyncratic and brings the author to some strange alchemical conclusions. It’s also fascinating, inspiring, the work of a true poet – and perhaps out of print. (Certain aspects of it do seem very dated, particularly her failure to even mention a single other poet who’s a woman. Her violent sense of the lack of magic or mystery in contemporary poetry – because it isn’t sufficiently traditional – has been overtaken by new and different kinds of writing.) I bought it second-hand as a great admirer of Raine’s poetry, mainly to read her revealing commentary On the Mythological.

I wasn’t expecting her essay on the poet David Gascoyne, which also considers Humphrey Jennings’ poetic film-making in the British documentary movement of the 1940s. Raine was married to Charles Madge, another poet deeply involved in fact-finding as one of the founders of Mass Observation; her comments on this group of artists are those of an insider. She describes Mass Observation as an exploration of the national imagination, a voyage into the psyche, rather than a quasi-scientific venture of the opinion poll type. (This perfectly describes their weird collection of rumours, home-truths, wild stories and gossipy reactions to news stories – far stranger than fiction, but nowhere near science.)

Since I saw Listen to Britain again – as an extra on the DVD of Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City – with its luminous black and white photography and extraordinarily poignant images, these films and poems have become a source of intense interest to me. (There’s currently a resurgent fascination in this period, of course, and all things British and documentary, so it’s a convenient moment to extend one’s knowledge.) Sometimes it seems as though the BFI have reissued almost every black and white non-fiction short ever made, and all the people – like me – who’ve bought Night Mail go on to get all the rest. They really don’t make ’em like that any more.

Among the many discussions of the films’ propagandist or political messages, artistic or national qualities, historical or nostalgic appeal, what distinguishes Raine’s essay is her emphasis on the surrealist background of her poet/film-maker friends of the 1930’s and 40’s, which she considers far more important than the pro-Communist leanings with which these artists are often associated. Thus, the films are true to the idea of the ‘surrealist object’; the images had to be ‘discovered’, not ‘invented’. She describes the experience of going for a walk with Jennings as seeing ‘the world come to life as he discerned and discovered everywhere expressions of the imagination, past and present, of the English race’.

The films depict this same view of the ordinary environment as one ‘in which the imagination is mirrored and embodied, and where it everywhere may discover images of its own interior order…’ Whether their surreal juxtapositions are found among urban architecture or industrial machinery, pastoral scenes or seascapes, they convey the same vision of human imaginative involvement in the external world. (And Jennings’ ‘ordinary people’ are all heroes, archetypes of the kind Raine argues are essential to literature – though his overtly left-wing glorification of the worker-hero might have earned her censure.)

This connects directly with the work of Kathleen Raine. Her nature poetry celebrates a mythic landscape, a pastoral of the heart, with a sense of wonder at the everyday extraordinariness of things which these film-poems share. In On the Mythological she writes ‘The Lake District is for many a shrine more numinous than St. Paul’s… not nature so much as nature transformed by poetry and painting… which is the environment imagination inhabits.’ Without the action of the imagination, enabled by art, the ‘wet and birdless hills’, she observes, may remain ‘uncommunicative’.

As one of the most sensitive English poets of place, Raine is obviously not suggesting that the Lake District is dull, but rather establishing the inter-dependence of art, imagination and natural landscape. She continues: ‘If a natural environment can reflect back to us imaginative forms, and evoke these in us, the city is the embodiment of those forms; what imagination creates is the city… A city, symbolically understood, is the environment which imagination creates for itself, a work of all the arts…’

The cities she invokes are Blake’s Jerusalem, Yeats’ Byzantium, the heavenly cities of Plato or St. Augustine – with a side-swipe at London’s failure to become Blake’s visionary place. ‘In the profane and quantitative modern world,’ she remarks, ‘we live like exiles from the realities of our own imagination; to enter a beautiful building, a city of art, is like a homecoming.’

This conjures up, among so many other vivid pictures, some of Jennings’ ‘discovered’ images of unlikely urban beauty. Common to Raine and the poet/film-makers is the sense that there is in the environment – whether landscape or city view – the map of the imagination, which they can unroll suddenly before us to show numinous shrines in unlikely places.