Friday, 20 July 2012

Lives of the Poets

Poets can be unusual people, worrying and losing sleep over matters that are -- as yet -- barely blips on the radar of more prosaic folk.  Take Alice Oswald, for example.  I have admired her distinctive approach to landscape poetry since coming across Dart a couple of years ago, and I have both it and A Sleepwalk on the Severn as e-books on my phone: emergency reading for dull moments.  She seems the linguistic equivalent of Susan Derges or Garry Fabian Miller, photographic artists whose innovative work with landscape and rivers in Devon I admire very much.  Consequently, I read this interview-cum-profile in the Guardian by Madeleine Bunting with some interest.

Assuming you have now returned from following the link to the interview, you will probably be as bemused as me.  In principle, I agree with nearly everything Oswald has to say, but it is clear from Bunting's description that their "talks-walking" encounter by the river was, shall we say, a little edgy.  Now, I am by no means saying that Alice Oswald is odd or strange, but I do think there is a point where principle and practice have to diverge -- in the interests of conviviality -- or people will tend to think you are odd or strange.  You may be convinced that "meat is murder", for example, or that "property is theft", but -- if you want to lead a life unconfined by bars -- some allowance has to be made for those who think differently on these matters.  Oswald does seem to have moved beyond this point, somewhat.  One can easily imagine saying something unconsidered like, "Hey, lighten up, Alice Oswald!", and ending up neck deep in the Big Muddy.

Ah, angry poets! As it happens, I have slept in the bed of a prominent, prize-winning contemporary angry poet, whom I will not name, not because I am a gentleman (yeah, right), but because she was not in it at the time, and because she was bitterly and extremely vocally discombobulated when she discovered that Goldilocks had been visiting.  A few posts back, I was saying how interesting it is, when someone is made unexpectedly angry by something.  This was a case in point.

Back in the day, it was perfectly normal to be offered the bed of an absent housemate, when the last bus was long gone and one had lost the capacity to walk home. It probably still is.  In the late 1970s a good friend lived in a large squatted house off the Caledonian Road in London, and when I came to live in Town it was a convenient stopover en route from Bloomsbury to Hackney, where I, too, lived in a squat.  Not a few times I found myself unable to continue the onward journey, and simply crashed out, as we used to say, on a convenient stretch of floor.  But, one time, The Poet was absent, and I spent a blissful night in her comfy bed.

I should have known better, as I was by then a connoisseur of the poetics of domestic space.  The environments created by young women living in single rooms, though intensely personal, often had a certain generic character.  You would see the same posters and pictures, the same Victorian fireplaces and mantelpieces ironised with ornaments and objets trouvés, the same paperback books on improvised brick-pile shelves, the same inevitable potted spider-plants. In the days when spending an evening listening to music and sharing a joint or two with a circle of friends was the height of sophistication, such rooms often fulfilled a social as well as a private function.  Most men's rooms, by contrast, might as well have been bus shelters.

But The Poet's room was clearly not a social space: it was very much A Room of One's Own.  I recognised the scribbled loose pages and notebooks of an active writing mind, and admired the unusual and extensive collection of books.  She was incandescent when she discovered a stranger had been allowed in there. I had never before heard the words "invasion", "personal", and "space" used in meaningful juxtaposition, and barely understood the cause of her anger; I beat a hasty retreat.

It seemed odd, to me, to expect privacy in a squat, but then it was an odd and highly-strung household: one member was an aficionado of psychotherapy, who would famously declare one day that he had realised he didn't feel like paying the communal "rent" any more, you know? Such people, egotistical outliers, hyper-sensitive to society's bat-squeaks, are often straws in the wind of changes to come.  We were on the cusp of the 1980s, when the communitarian impulse would seek refuge in therapy and privacy from that unseemly orgy of privatisation, house-price inflation, and swaggering conspicuous consumption.  Obvious in retrospect, I suppose, but not at the time.

Of course, there will always be something deeply annoying about the self-righteous and the self-obsessed, however correct or prescient their divinations and obsessions turn out to be.  As a commenter says on the Guardian site of Alice Oswald's refusal of the language of "beauty" as a form of "colonization":

Much as I admire Alice Oswald, I find it somewhat disingenuous that, while refusing to use certain kinds of language, she lives in, and draws inspiration from, what most ordinary language-users call a beautiful, idyllic, pastoral spot. Were she to find herself living in, say, a landscape of intensively farmed monoculture, I daresay she wouldn't have the luxury of engaging in this linguistic pettifogging.

More to the point, I doubt she would ever consider living in such a place: true artists, it seems to me, are often experts in having their cake and eating it, too.  Unlike those more lowly writers who talk up the attractions of the "unspoiled", as a way of making a living, then complain that the influx of new, vulgar visitors is completely wrecking the place, many contemporary artists denounce the way we misunderstand and corrupt certain places by imposing our wrong-headed and nostalgic notions of "beauty" on them, yet quietly go and live there themselves.  You might say, without too much irony, that it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

And remember, you may not now concern yourself with the way the colonization of the natural world by human language may lead us to environmental disaster, but you will, Oscar, you will.


Kent Wiley said...

A fascinating point of view, Mike. I don't read poetry, but can equate Alice Oswald's need to banish words of beauty from her vocabulary with a similar need to excise the concept from photographic explorations of the landscape.

I too live in rather idyllic surroundings, but am continually drawn photographically to scenes of environmental degradation. Not for the need to necessarily make a point about the destruction of the world around us, but because I'm fascinated with what humans create. It's always in the name of "progress", even if it more correctly is "profit".

Mike C. said...


Yes, it's an interesting take on the whole "appropriation" debate. As I say, I pretty much agree with what she says, though sometimes I wonder how far people really understand what they're saying (it bothers me whenever I read someone is a fan of Slavoj Zizek, for example).


Kent Wiley said...

Hmm...Mike, you never cease to intrigue. I would have thought Zizek's Marxist critique would suit your past activism. Something for a future Idiotic Hat perhaps?

Mike C. said...


I don't have a problem with Zizek, as such, though I think he's a bit of a showman, with some very tacky views (e.g. on women and relationships), and I find it hard to take seriously anyone apparently advocating the up-side of Stalinism, including a hierarchical communist party model.

But I do have a problem with artists who take him up as the Latest Thing in intellectual gurus (a decade or more ago they'd have named Baudrillard). I really don't believe they understand the issues with which he engages (I say this because I know *I* don't!). They'll have read a few sound-bites, at most, and certainly won't know their Marx or their Lacan or their Hegel.