Monday, 30 July 2012

The Symbolist Conundrum

We went to see this exhibition recently, and I loved the pictures. They were mostly landscapes, forests, lakes, mountains, rivers – and they were extremely beautiful, haunting and atmospheric. I came home enthused about the Symbolist movement, and looked them up on Wikipedia, and a couple of other sites. What a disappointment! A more miserable bunch of self-indulgent, elitist, proto-fascist, self-dramatising fantasy-merchants I never came across.

And yet. I bought a postcard of Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, and I love it. I love Yeats’s Celtic Twilight poetry too, and Debussy’s music, and a lot of artists of the faerie kind. It’s beautiful, it’s passionate, it’s full of genuinely good things, but nevertheless, the Symbolists give me the creeps. Which leaves me with a conundrum I explored in my Orpheus sequence, when I was working out my own poetics. Orpheus is the poet of the ‘other-world’, a wild, magical, romantic realm, irresistibly lovely, unimaginably risky, wonderful and terrifying. It’s why he loves the dysfunctional Eurydice, why he can’t cope with her becoming happy and normal. He begins the sequence, as Persephone says, ‘hooked on eerie’, and he needs to be rescued from her dysfunction zoo as much as his wife.

And yet. The Faerie King tries to tell Orpheus that without the Elf-Country there will be no beauty, no ideals, just a commercial exchange of duties and obligations in which he will grow dull, and over-worked, and never rise above the ordinary destructiveness of domestic drudgery. It is a familiar argument - a defence of poetry that has been made since the Renaissance, an exaltation of the imaginary ideal over the experience of dull reality. And it is intrinsically dualist, setting matter against mind, facts against spirit.

The consequences of this can be awful. As Wordsworth says in The Prelude (I don’t think I’m taking this too far) if you’re not talking about reality, you’re only talking about yourself. The artist disappears up his own ego in quasi-gnostic feeling that there are some people who know these things, who can appreciate these things, and they are better than the lumpen clods who can’t. An artist becomes a shamanic figure, a wild man, (I leave the reader to ponder the obvious sexism under-pinning that cliché), and respect and understanding of the work is buried beneath anxiety about the status of its creator. Creative writing classes are plagued by it -there are a lot of people who don’t write poetry because they don’t feel they have the soul of a poet. And there are unfortunately a lot of people who think they can write poetry because they do. It can lead to some pretty destructive myths around mental illness, too, but that’s beyond my remit - I just didn’t want to leave it unsaid.

There are two endings to my Orpheus story. In one, Orpheus’ art becomes manipulative, predatory and cut off from his audience. He looks back, not at Eurydice, but at his lost realm, and, as in the Classical story, he is torn to pieces by Maenads. The other follows the Northern version of the story. In this, Orpheus finds the key to Eurydice’s prison in recognising his common humanity. By the time he meets the Faerie King his work is full of compassion. The beauty he celebrates is grounded in the real world, and is shared with everyone. And I think that’s it. We don’t have to have pedestrian poetry full of grit and graffiti and suburban blight. There is beauty in the real world, there are inspired and gifted people on every street, places in our back gardens where nature flourishes, work going on that brings people together, ways of living that don’t involve disregarding and destroying everything that inconveniences us. We can have poetry that wakes us up to it, that celebrates it, that inspires us without having to blow fairy dust all over it. Can’t we?

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Air and Sunlight

Yesterday was the first good opportunity to get into the garden, and I spent a fair bit of time doing what my father would have called "letting the dog see the rabbit". Everything was lush and wet and overgrown, and there is some serious mildew and rust because of all the damp. I cut back all the spent flowers - much more than I expected, as it turned out. Last year the rocket went on producing new blooms right into October, but this year we got one glorious swathe of flower, and then it all went over at once, which means that I could cut it right down, let some air and sunlight into the borders, and hopefully, prevent it self-seeding all over the place like it did last year.

Most of the vegetables seemed to like the rain. We had three good pickings off the peas, and the sun has come at the right time for the beans.

I've been growing potatoes in sacks for the last year or two, as Bob Flowerdew recommends. Last year wasn't so hot, and I really resented the amount of potting compost it took. This year I did something different. When we returfed the lawn, I saved the old stuff to make a loam stack, and the first lot seemed to be ready. It wasn't quite, and ground elder had rampaged through the whole stack, so I had to seive it all to get rid of the roots, but with a little 6x to beef it up it did pretty well, and I was quite impressed with the haul.

I'm really pleased with the garlic, too. It went in last November, after Monty Don told everyone to put it in. I went to the Garden Centre and asked for it and the assistant said "You've been watching THAT PROGRAMME!" so I guess half of Stirling had been in on the same errand.

It wasn't all about the food, though. The robins are back and the great tits. I've noticed them checking out the new nest-box, so I hope it will get used next year. There are young greenfinches and chaffinches trying out their wings, a second brood of sparrows, and wrens and dunnocks seem to be singing as much as in May. I should have known they'd be back - our village is notorious for infestations of harvest mites - known as berry bugs here - and they are biting ferociously just now! The flowers are much less in evidence, as the roses took a battering, but this pot of french lavender is at its best.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The week of the Wetland Flowers

At the weekend we went with some friends to see the Falls of Leny at Callander. They were pretty spectacular after all the rain, as you can see.

But the thing that made this trip was the sight of several flowers I'd never seen before.

This one is cow wheat. It was everywhere.

This one is marsh cinquefoil.

This one caused us some bother. The only thing we knew was that it wasn't ragweed.We finally decided that it must be goldenrod - not the Canadian one we see in gardens, but our own smaller native one.

But this one was the best. We think it is a butterfly orchid. I'd never seen anything like it before. I gather that this is a very good year for orchids because of the wet, and all I can say is I'm glad it's good for something!

Now that I am back at the desk, I have been updating the web-site, and I have added an article on Cistercian spirituality, (on the publications page) for those who are interested.It was originally written a good while back, but I've revised it in the light of the Beauvais film Of Gods and Men, and my more recent involvement in the Transition movement.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Pausing for Breath

These fulmars which I photgraphed on holiday, don't have much to do with this post, but it's a nice serene picture, and that's the mood Im in just now.

I had thought, now that our big family things are nearing some sort of resolution, and the dust is settling on a few major upheavals, that I would be getting down to giving poetry some serious attention. I have a mass of notes, a whole shelf of books to read and review, and some interesting lines of enquiry to follow up. It was all looking pretty exciting, though maybe, just a little bit like hard work.

However, while my attention was elsewhere, a backlog of house repairs and garden maintenance has built up, a couple of groups I'm involved in have called in some favours, and some cherished friendships are showing signs of neglect. I realise that I'm getting a little overstretched.

It's time for a re-think, a little quiet, a little re-ordering of priorities. I'll be back when we've had the roof mended, the immersion heater replaced, the mysterious cracks in one of our ceilings investigated. And while that's going on, I'm going to read some new poets, study Julian of Norwich, doodle a little, dream a little and watch birds coming and going in the garden and over the river.

See you when I get my breath back!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Walking the Territory in June

June had its moments - between showers.

This is British hogweed, not the giant Japanese stuff. It looks quite airy and delicate, and has nice seedheads in the autumn.

There are whole stands of this stuff growing along the riverbank -

It's comfrey, a plant which is not only brilliant for gardeners, providing a potash-rich mulch for tomatoes, but had many medicinal uses in the past. A wiccan herbalist friend of mine reckoned that it was a survival from the days of the Abbey, which might be the case. Augustinian Canons elsewhere had a very good reputation as healers, growing herb gardens and building hospitals within the monastery complex.

This year the wild roses are spectacular. I don't remeber ever seeing them so prolific.

Most of the nestlings are fledged now, though I notice that the sparrows appear to be trying for brood number two. The exceptions are the black-backed gulls, whose fat fluffy brown chicks are walking all over the roof of the warehouse their colony has nested on. I'm not looking forward to them taking off. The adults are big, noisy and aggressive and the colony has doubled since last year. I know magpies have a bad rep for killing things, but they are nothing compared with gulls. On Orkney I saw a black-headed gull stoop and lift a plover chick out of a nest without the slightest effort or hesitation. All the meditation on the circle of life and gulls have chicks to feed too doesn't always cut it when you see the bereaved birds circling ad screaming and trying to chase the predator away!

This is fairly irrational I know. I was delighted to find an owl pellet on the parapet of our bridge, but the owls could have eaten all sorts of creatures I'm fond of. And as for the seal I saw going down the river with the tide - that was pure joy, although it could have destroyed untold fish stocks as it came upstream. But there it is. I find some of my wild neighbours easier to live with than others!