Thursday, July 21, 2011

Intelligent Artifice - a history of sci-fi cinema

I wrote the following article shortly after I'd written a science fiction screenplay (never made alas) in the philosophical tradition of that genre. The piece was to be published in Film Ireland, in spring 2002, but for purely logistical reasons had to be cut, so never saw the light of day. It goes some way to explaining my interest in the genre. So, here it goes:


Intelligent Artifice
Science Fiction and the search for the immaterial

In his book of essays, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that the famous scene in Don Quixote where Quixote attempts to fight the windmills with his sword, is the first expression in literature of man’s discomfort with his own technology. The Age of Reason had arrived and with it the greatest explosion of technological innovation since the Upper Paleolithic. The universe had become a clockwork, a gargantuan machine governed by fixed and immutable laws and God was, in the end, a logician. When Quixote raises his sword he is waving it as his own insignificance in the shadow of such a world.

Film, more than any other art form, owes its very existence to the advancement of the technological and from the beginning film-makers have had a preoccupation with the dual nature of the medium as the mechanical eye that mirrors the eye of direct experience. It’s no surprise then that the first moving image recorded by the Lumiere brothers was of a locomotive – one of the most potent symbols of the industrial – entering the station at La Ciotat. The shadowplay of light on the cave wall had become something precise and reproducible.

Science Fiction as a genre is, by its very nature, dedicated to the exploration of scientific concepts and their consequences to human life and the life of human society. It’s surprising to find, though, that for a genre so preoccupied by the scientific and the symbols of science the message of science fiction films so often comes out in favour of the imprecise and contradictory world of human emotion over the cold exactitudes of scientific reductionism. Few films within the genre can be seen as pure celebration of scientific discovery (or possible future discoveries) and those that do – such as Contact or 2001 – seem to call for an expanded view of science that takes into account the peculiarities of human experience and its search for extra meaning beyond the measurable and seen. In short, they attempt to reconstitute a context in which scientific knowledge exists in that which is beyond science.

Although science fiction as a rule is not committed to revealing science as it stands but as it might be in the future, more often than not futurist dramas say more about the time they were conceived than they do about the future they predict. From this point of view, Fritz Lang’s seminal masterpiece Metropolis can be seen as a quasi-religious appraisal of the plight of the worker in a mechanized world at a time when the Trade Union movement was growing in power. In the central figure of Maria, Lang presents a symbol of the harmony between the “brain and the hand”, a balancing principle regulating the relationship between the industrialist and his workforce. Of course, the industrialist Fredersen attempts to destroy Maria’s message by replacing her with a robot designed to ferment worker unrest – a clear comment on Communism – but in the end he is reconciled to Maria’s cause through the marriage of his son (his conscience) to Maria.

Although Metropolis had appeared in 1926 science fiction film-making in the proper sense only emerged in the 1950s and then largely as a response to the lingering memory of  the atom bomb and its legacy of fear played out in the politics of the Cold War. In Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) the alien visitor Klaatu warns that humanity’s entry into the atomic age poses a threat to the whole universe. The film’s cautionary, though optimistic, message is also echoed in the Edenic parable Forbidden Planet (1956) were Dr Morbius, confronted with the vast superiority of a now extinct alien civilization, believes that the human race is not ready for such knowledge. In a clever (if not very dramatic) Freudian twist, the film argues that it is our primitive instinct or “unconscious monster” that makes such knowledge perilous. It’s probably the correct conclusion but in reality society rarely withholds its technology for fear of it being abused.

Another rich period for science fiction film-making was the 1970s when a number of films where produced which spoke directly to the issues of the time. In Douglas Thumbull’s ecological drama Silent Running (1971) the Earth’s forests have disappeared and the only remaining vegetation exists on spaceships floating quietly through the void of space. When Bruce Dern’s character Freeman Lowell is ordered to destroy his cargo he refuses and in an act of desperation kills his shipmates and leaves – in one of the most poignant images found in science fiction – two robots Huey and Dewey to tend to the garden as it drifts away into the darkness. Soylent Green (1973), though marred by a wooden performance from Charlton Heston, is another interesting meditation on the problem of over-population and the ecological and social decay resulting from it.

If the notion of a mechanical universe asks a question of philosophy and religion, a mechanized society asks a question of everyone who lives in it. And the ultimate expression of the mechanization of human society is the totalitarian state. In Michael Radford’s suitable grim retelling of Orwell’s 1984 (1984) we are presented with a kind of retro-futurism, Oceania most closely resembling war-time Britain but one were fascism has prevailed over democracy. History is the key to the present as the opening credits declare: “He who controls the Past controls the Future. He who controls the Present controls the Past.”

Under the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother John Hurt’s character, Winston Smith, attempts to conduct a sexual relationship in secret, an act banned as a “thought and sex crime” by the State. Like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, also made in 1984, the film explores the limits of human resistance within such a society and finds – in an outcome not dictated to by the demands of Hollywood – that everyone has a breaking point, the film’s bleak message summarised in the devastatingly simple refrain uttered by Winston about his lover: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me.” 

Another film that mines dystopian themes, though this time in a completely minimalist futuristic setting, is George Lucas’s excellent and underrated first feature THX1138 (1971). In a twist on the notion of mechanical societies being based entirely on materialistic principles, the leader of this unnamed underground city speaks to the citizens – who are denoted merely by a serial number – via confessional booths from behind a Christ-like image instructing them to “work hard, be more productive, prevent accidents, be happy.” Of course, in a world where everything is regulated and drugs are administered to keep the population permanently sedated, there is no such thing as happiness only perhaps hope. The closing scene where THX1138 (Robert Duvall) escapes from the city and emerges into the idyllic landscape above is a truly lyrical finale to a film that makes no concessions to the terrible nature of such a vision.

Perhaps though the most audacious variation on the subject has been the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix with the idea that the ultimate form of subjugation is to not know that you are subjugated – to believe that you are free when you are not. As Morpheus tells Neo, “[you were] born into a prison that you cannot smell, or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.” And metaphorically the most interesting prisons are the ones we cannot see. You can't help but feeling that this prison might be that of material gain above all other values.

The Matrix also expresses one of our deepest fears about our own technology: that it has become so advanced that it can begin to think and out-think us, that our machines may, in the end, make machines of us. Or as Davis Cronenberg would see it in films such as Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999) our machines are destined to outgrow us and it is the future of mankind to merge in some way with technology by way of some kind of biomechanical interface, and if our computers outsmart us so be it – Darwinian evolution would simply have entered a new and exciting conclusion, though one that may ultimately spell our own extinction.

The most striking symbol of the machine, though, is one that is indistinguishable from us: the android. And the question must be asked: is there anything that truly separates us from such an intelligent machine?

In many ways the image of the android gives rise to our deepest suspicion and fear. In The Terminator (1984), James Cameron gives us a cyborg that embodies our worst nightmare: a machine that is almost indestructible, unwavering in its mission to destroy and totally lacking in empathy. This also serves as a good description of the alien species in Ridley Scott’s landmark film Alien (1979) and perhaps the alien is terrifying precisely because it embodies such machine-like qualities coupled with a kind of brute Darwinian ferocity.  

Alien, of course, also has its own android in Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer on the Nostromo spacecraft. Ash represents another version of our disquiet about intelligent machines: he may look and act like us, but he is by design an extension of corporate enterprise and will always choose what is best for the company, or state, over his fellow workers. In an interesting inversion of this idea the android in Alien Resurrection (1997) Call (Winona Ryder) is programmed to care and is revealed to be an android precisely because of her unwavering empathy. As Ripley points out: “No human is that humane.”

Although the idea of artificial intelligence may be seen as another instance were science fiction might anticipate the scientific outcome, the genre’s ongoing fascination with androids may be have more to with their metaphorical charge as representation of ourselves in a post industrial world, than they do about possible scientific advancements. The power of the film Bladerunner (1982) is not that replicants such as Roy (Rutger Hauer) are androids but that they are androids coming into awareness of their own mortality marking and, as such, making a key transition from something merely mechanical to something that resembles life. When Roy confronts his maker Tyrell he says what we might all say given the chance: “I want more life, father.” And if Roy has come into knowledge of fear he also demonstrates in his death-speech (written as it turns out by Hauer himself) that he has also experienced the very human emotion of awe.

Science fiction, like films in any genre, is often guilty of producing trite and formulaic narratives appealing more to the marketability of the genre than the vast possibilities it offers. At its best though, science fiction has produced some of the most intellectually stimulating stories of any kind about the present nature of our lives as well as the future possibilities they occupy in the imagination. If science fiction is on some level fascinated by the windmills of Cervantes novel, it is also like the book’s central character searching for the meaning beyond that landscape. Like the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Solaris - the intelliegent planet that presents us with our own deepest desires, in Tarkovsky’s film of the same title - science fiction often describes an encounter between the known and the unknowable, between what is seen and what is beyond the visible. It may not attempt like science to offer final solutions to its questions, but in their place it often delivers enduring visions of what might be true of the past, the present as well as the future of our society. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Launch of 'In the Library of Lost Objects'

Just wanted to make a quick post about the launch of my debut poetry collection 'In the Library of Lost Objects' last week in the Damer Hall, Dublin. A very special thanks to Poetry Ireland for hosting the event. A really great crowd turned out for the occasion and Niall MacMonagle made a very thoughtful and generous introduction to the work. I know some of you couldn't make it along but I really appreciated the messages of support I received. A big up also to Shauna Gilligan who helped out on the night with the book stall.

Here are some images from the night. A big thank you to my good friend Brian Walsh for taking the photos.

Niall MacMonagle making his introduction


Signing a copy of the book for poet Aifric Mac Aodha

A reflective moment...

Poet Ross Hattaway approaches


Family and friends...

With Niall MacMonagle and Prof Salah D Hassan

Centre: Joseph Woods, Director of Poetry Ireland, 
who hosted the event.

With artist Gemma Mc Guigan, who took the beautiful 
cover image for the collection

Finally, the book itself...

'In the Library of Lost Objects' is available in Books Upstairs, D'Olier Street, Dublin; The Winding Stair Bookshop & Cafe, Ormond Quay, Dublin; Alan Hanna's Bookshop, Rathmines, Dublin; and the Rathgar Bookshop, Rathgar, Dublin. My thanks to them all for the support.

It can also be ordered directly from the Ward Wood website at:

It can also be found at and The Book Depository (who offer free worldwide delivery):

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In the Library of Lost Objects - published

Just a quick note to let you all know that my debut poetry collection In the Library of Lost Objects has just been published by Ward Wood Publishing. I'm really delighted with the book and excited to finally have it in my hands. My thanks to Adele Ward for her thoughtful edit of the poems included and Mike Fortune Wood for the cover design and all the other many tasks he fulfils at the press. I'd also like to thank Gemma Mc Guigan for the striking cover image.

The collection can be ordered directly from Ward Wood's website at:

It can also be found at the Book Depository:

The Book Depository are currently offering a 25% discount. Won't last for long.

For members of the Poetry Book Society the collection is also available at the same discount.

The book will be launched by Niall MacMonagle in Dublin on Wednesday, June 22nd. I'll post again closer to the date with more information.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

This is just to say...

            that this anthology
            is longer
            than I had

            and which
you were probably
hoping you could read
over breakfast

            Forgive me
            my comments are endless
            so long

            and so serious  

A big thank you to those who have followed this series of close readings of poems on the blog, as well as those who may have dipped in on occasion.

Naturally, there were many other poems I would have liked to have written about, but to take this further might try even a generous blog readers patience. It’s interesting to look back and see what poems I found myself looking at. Obviously, I decided to write about 20th century poetry and not the work of earlier poets or, indeed, my peers. I am quite surprised at the amount of mid-century American poems here. I also think that British poetry is quite under-represented in this list. (One of the first poetry anthologies I came across was Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 which was also a very formative experience.) I'm also mindful that the list isn't entirely balanced in terms of either traditions and gender, though I hope this doesn't reflect anything ingrained. These are simply poems that made an impact on me along the way.

In any case, here are some of the poets and poems I would loved to have analysed and shared, but didn’t get around to or was too intimidated by. Here they are:

T.S. Eliot                                ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
e.e. cummings                        ‘my sweet old etcetera’
W.H Auden                             ‘On This Island’                     
Keith Douglas                         ‘Vergissmeinnicht’
Elizabeth Bishop                     ‘Crusoe in England’
W.D. Snodgrass                      ‘Heart’s Needle’
Lawrence Ferlinghetti               ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’
Edward Lucie-Smith                 ‘Lovers’
Philip Larkin                             ‘High Windows’
Gwyneth Lewis                        ‘Zero Gravity’
Brendan Kennelly                     ‘We Are Living’
Thomas Kinsella                       ‘Phoenix Park’
Guillevic                                   from ‘Carnac’
John Montague                        ‘Moortown Manor’
Patrick Galvin                          ‘The Kings Are Out’
Carol Ann Duffy                       ‘Telegrams’
Charles Simic                           ‘Euclid Avenue’
Tony Harrison                           ‘V’
Paula Meehan                          ‘Take a Breath. Hold It. Let it Go’

There are, of course, many more. I’m sure you could compile your own, and entirely different, list!

'Epilogue' by Robert Lowell (1977)


                  Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme –
                        why are they no help to me now
                        I want to make
                        something imagined, not recalled?
                        I hear the noise of my own voice:
                        The painter’s vision is not the lens,
                        it trembles to caress the light.
                        But sometimes everything I write
                        with the threadbare art of my eye
                        seems a snapshot,
                        lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
                        heightened from life,
                        yet paralysed by fact.
                        All’s misalliance.
                        Yet why not say what happened?
                        Pray for the grace of accuracy
                        Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
                        stealing like a tide across the map
                        to his girl solid with yearning.
                        We are poor passing facts,
                        warned by that to give
                        each figure in the photograph
                        his living name.


In one way the fact that there is only one Lowell poem in this selection is grossly unrepresentative. I came to Lowell at a point when I wasn’t sure what a poem should be, and I suppose in his work I saw how form was not the same as conformity or whatever other notions I was carrying around in my head at the time. After the impressionistic and entirely self-referential poems I was writing, this was something of a revelation, and I think the choice of poems I have made her is the legacy of reading Lowell’s work, in one sense.

So, I could say a lot more about him but in a way it seems apt to give him the last word with a poem that was one of the last he wrote, if not the last. Lowell’s reputation has seemed to decrease by increments on this side of the Atlantic in the decades since his death. Partly, I think this is as a result of his label of 'confessional' poet and perhaps also the father of Boston confessionalism. Really though, it was W.D. Snodgrass who got there first with his poems about marital breakdown in Heart’s Needle, but Lowell touched on the far more taboo subject in his writing about mental breakdown. It’s strange to think now why such subjects were so controversial only a generation ago, though perhaps they are even today in our more ‘open’ society.

I think people are right, in a sense, to be suspicious of confessionalism and the way it spawned a whole cottage industry of angst-ridden pseudo-poetry (poetry as therapy, almost). At the same time, the forthrightness of expression all poets are allowed now wouldn’t be possible without it. We have become so used to being able to write on any subject that we take it for granted.

In his introduction to the Selected Poems (amazing really that a collected only came out this side of the Atlantic in 2003) Jonathan Raban argues that Lowell was really a poet of candour rather than of confession (as I'm sure others who came after him could also claim). For me, what makes Lowell as such a poet is that he had the sense to see his mania for what it was (and the grandiose schemes it sometimes produced such as rewriting Dante) and wrote about his madness after the fact. I think he bestows such poems with a dignity and restraint not always observed in his own work or others - what he calls here “the grace of accuracy”. A large part of that is found in the formal elegance he brings to bear on poems such as ‘Skunk Hour’, ‘Waking in the Blue’ or ‘Home After Three Months Away’ (“I keep no rank or station./ Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.”)

‘Epilogue’ is his own self-defense, I suppose. He seems to want to break away from the pressure of autobiography but hears only “the noise of my own voice”, the word “noise” here suggesting his own frustration that he cannot escape himself. The poem is a debate that turns on the question, “Yet, why not say what happened?” It is a struggle between the real and the desire to escape it – or at least to write beyond your own experience. Again, those last lines are what distinguishes him from being a poet of pure confession. He is also, I think, compassionate here – aware not just of the nature of his own suffering but of suffering in general:

                                    We are poor passing facts,
                                    warned by this to give
                                    each figure in the photograph
                                    his living name.

I think it was apt that Lowell should end his career with these lines as he would pass – very soon after writing them – into one of the figures in the photograph he describes, though perhaps as much a “poor passing myth” as a “poor passing fact”.

Here is Lowell reading 'Epilogue'

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

'Encounter' by Czeslaw Milosz (1936)

                   We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn
                        A red wing rose in the darkness.

                        And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
                        One of us pointed to it with his hand.

                        That was long ago. Today, neither of them is alive,
                        Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

                        O my love, where are they, where are they going
                        The flash of hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
                        I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

                        trans: Czeslaw Milosz & Lillian Vallee


It is extraordinary that ‘Encounter’ is separated by 35 years from Milosz’s poem ‘Gift’ (the piece I started these reflections with) and yet seems to have so much in common with it. It is as though ‘Gift’ closes a small circle in his work which, for me, is more successful than the large orbits of his other grander pieces. With ‘Encounter’ he makes use of the same simple and direct style as found in the later poem. And like that poem, it is incredible how far he takes the reader in such a short interval.

The one feature that clearly distinguishes the two poems is the time-frame in which the poem exists and this difference gives rise to a difference in form. ‘Gift’ is one moment, and that moment is lived through in one stanza which holds it together. That poem does have a simple sequential quality, but it is not just a sequence of events – it is a sequence of images and feelings.

With ‘Encounter’ Milosz is dealing with memory and events separated by a great gap in time – or perhaps more correctly, the one event looked at twice from different times. And this event is not so much one moment but one moment interrupted by a happening – the quiet monotonous motion of the wagon and the thoughts of those travelling on it, jolted as a hare flashes across the road in front of them.

Just as the hare’s sudden presence interrupts the travellers’ awareness, the poem interrupts the awareness of the reader by its sudden shift in time: “That was long ago.” It is interesting that this fracture in the time-frame is quite similar to that used in Robert Creeley’s ‘The Long Road…’ (which I looked at last week) when he writes in a plain manner, “We all grew up”. And in both poems the following lines makes clear the nature of that fracture: the events that have occurred in between that moment in the wagon and the point of recollection. In both cases it is really death that has happened.

To extend the comparison further, the two poems – having created this shift in time and perspective – resolve the implications of it differently. For Creeley, there is the expected sense of longing and, even more directly, anxiety in the line:

                                    Where are they now?

It is significant that the poem hangs on a question. With Milosz, the effect would’ve been the same had he ended the poem on the third last line, with his question:

                                     O my love, where are they (?)…

While he doesn’t attempt an explicit answer to this question he does qualify it with the last line:

                                    I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

So where Creeley’s poem ends with the hint of the existential, Milosz finds a kind of mystery which cannot be understood, but hides behind such moments. It is as though the hare has become a symbol for the unexpected and ultimately life enforcing nature of existence. Yet, there is also a hint of uncertainty, I think. The fact that the last line must explicitly state his feeling might suggest that it is a conscious movement towards hope. And that movement, sudden like the hare’s, inverts the meaning. Perhaps hope is just that: an inversion of our expectation and experience.

Here's a wonderful feature length celebration of Milosz's work at UC Berkeley, introduced by poet Robert Haas.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'The Long Road' by Robert Creeley (1996)

                  The Long Road…
                  The long road of it all
                        is an echo
                        a sound like an image
                        expanding, frames growing
                        one after another in ascending
                        or descending order, all
                        of us a rising, falling
                        thought, an explosion
                        of emptiness soon forgotten


                        As a kid I wondered
                        where do they go,
                        my father dead. The place
                        had a faded dustiness
                        despite the woods and all.
                        We grew up.
                        I see our faces
                        in old school pictures.
                        Where are we now?

Creeley is perhaps one of the few poets who has taken the best (and most experimental) elements of modernist poets such as E.E. Cummins’ and made them his own. The influence is quite concealed here but the metaphor “is an echo/ a sound like an image/ expanding” has shades of Cummings’ confusion of the senses technique. Although Cummings was one of the first poets who I felt genuine excitement reading, the difficulty of his work (particularly the later work) is that the methodology tends to confuse rather than illuminate, and his poems often become a cryptic language puzzle that only the author knows the answers to. While Creeley's work is often fragmentary, it doesn’t make this mistake. The opening stanza is certainly abstract and tricksy, but it does make sense.

Again, the poem offers solutions to the problem of containing both abstract thought and the image in a poem. Creeley starts here with the concrete “the long road…” but immediately suggests that this as a metaphor “…of it all”. The poem then dives into a series of shifting images/metaphors till we reach “thought, an explosion/ of emptiness soon forgotten”. The language has a strange poetic quality but the deciding impression is of a philosophical kind.

Then the sudden break as the second section begins: “As a kid I wondered…” The poem is now concrete, personal, memoried. This section, in contrast, dramatizes the first through a series of questions: the human aspect and response to the opening philosophical considerations.

What is remarkable, though, is how much he says in this short stanza. There are two clear “beats” to borrow a cinematic term. The first comes with “… my father dead”. The line is simple yet it evokes the world of a child emptied of the secure presence of his father. Even the woods offer no consolation against “the faded dustiness”. The child is alone, and realises he will always be alone. Then the second beat comes with the line “We all grew up”. The discontinuity suggested by death is echoed in the sudden leap in time with the implication that the loss continues, goes on. Then the two times are encapsulated in the image of the man looking at his own past in the monochrome of old photographs. “Where are they now?” a question containing more than an explanation can manage.

You can download Robert Creeley reading 'The Long Road' (and four other pieces) at the University of Pennsylvania poetry microsite:

Here's an interesting video clip of Creeley reading a reinterpretation of a poem by Lorca.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

'The Sun Bathers' & 'The Term' by William Carlos Williams

              The Sun Bathers

                   A tramp thawing out
                        on a doorstop
                        against an east wall
                        Nov. 1, 1933:

                        a young man begrimed
                        and in an old
                        army coat
                        wriggling and scratching

                        while a fat negress
                        in a yellow-house window
                        leans out and yawns
                        into the fine weather


              The Term

                   A rumpled sheet
                        of brown paper
                        about the length

                        and apparent bulk
                        of a man was
                        rolling with the

                        wind slowly over
                        and over in
                        the street as

                        a car drove down
                        upon it and
                        crushed it to
                        the ground. Unlike
                        a man it rose
                        again rolling

                        with the wind over
                        and over to be as
                        it was before.


Although all modernists were preoccupied with the idea of representing “reality”, the interpretation of what this meant was often quite different. For Williams, a practicing doctor in a poor neighbourhood, that reality also included the social conditions and lives of those he knew and treated. Although his approach often shares, with Eliot and Stevens, the idea of recording life objectively he had – and only discovered this recently – a strong antipathy towards the high modernist stance of these two poets, particularly that of Eliot.

In many ways I find Eliot a more exciting poet. There is a virtuosity both in form and texture (a kind of sonic pyrotechnics) which is absent – quite deliberately – from these poems. With Williams I find there is rarely a brilliant or memorable line but the poems as a whole are brilliant in their pared back way. I think, temperamentally if nothing else, I’m drawn to this work. It seems to me also, for all its almost documentary objectivity, to have a heart. He just presents what is there (the red wheel-barrow etc) but there is so much care in how he does this. The work has, in the end, an empathy with those it represents (the tramp lying in the doorway, the scruffy young man, the black woman who leans out her window) though like the best documentaries it almost never explicitly states this.

In many ways I think the lyric poem and the photograph have a lot in common. Although a poem is imagistic it also has temporal quality so the analogy is not complete but somehow they seem close. (In a way, a poem has to be an image or sequence of images and cannot be abstract, say, in the way a painting can.) But ‘The Sun Bathers’ and ‘The Term’ are closer to very short, and seemingly random, pieces of video – as though a camera were simply pointed at an average scene (like the bag tossing in the street) and allowed to run for 10 or 15 seconds. The poems have that almost found quality that so many of Williams' peers in the art world were also exploring.

Obviously though, these poems are not casual at all. There is a real art to the images he turns his eye to and the sequence in which they appear. Sometimes they are like a pan-shot that moves slowly from one image to another (from the tramp to the woman in the window in the first poem), or the camera that holds on an image that most people would simply ignore like the cat stepping into a pot, or a bag as portrayed in 'The Term' (“about the length and apparent bulk of a man”) blowing down the street. It is almost impossible to be this direct and simply.

I’ve often wondered if Alan Ball had 'The Term' in mind when he wrote the scene for the film American Beauty where Ricky shows Jane the video footage he has taken of a plastic bag circling round and round as it is caught up in an eddy of wind.

There was a wonderful American documentary series called Voices & Visions which looked at the great American poets of the 20th Century. One episode was dedicated to Williams. Unfortunately it's not possible to embed this material but here are the links that will bring you to two long clips from the episode available to view on Youtube:

Pt 1:
Pt 2:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm...' by James Wright (1961)

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s 
Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadows.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distance of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between pines,
Two droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up in golden stones.
I lean back, as evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for a home.
I have wasted my life.

What I am attempting to do by looking at these poems is to learn how poets develop strategies to find structures for experience. The delicate balance between the image and the statement, the passive or intrusive voice and so on. Here, James Wright pushes the balance to the extreme. The entire poem, communicated in the passive (or more accurately, purely observational) voice, relates simply the images and sounds that surrounds him as he lies in a hammock in rural Minnesota – the butterflies, the cowbells, the empty house, the chicken hawk. Then, quite out of the blue, the declarative statement of devastating significance: “I have wasted my life”.

What is the connection between the statement and the images that precedes it? Very little, I think. Yet, that is perhaps the point. Wright makes no attempt to imply or suggest this final revelation in the way that he establishes the images of the poem: the sky is just the sky, the butterfly a butterfly. His observations are essentially a disconnect from his own inner life. It is this lack of intrusion that makes the last line so surprising. There is no hint, no foregrounding, no clues to the outcome. As a reader we might feel that the rustic imagery is leading us towards some statement of personal contentment. Yet, if the last line was positive in this way, the poem would fail to be memorable. It’s the starkness and timing of that line that is so unexpected. It relates a peculiarly modern sense of alienation and regret which we might usually associate with the metropolis, but that is here more arresting for being said as the poet lies on a hammock on a summer’s day in rural tranquility.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

from 'Five Villanelles' by Weldon Kees (1947)

                        from Five Villanelles


                        The crack is moving down the wall.
                        Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        It’s mildly cheering to recall
                        That every building has its little flaws.
                        The crack is moving down the wall.

                        Here in the kitchen, drinking gin,
                        We can accept the damnest laws.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        And though there’s no one here at all,
                        One searches every room because
                        The crack is moving down the wall.

                        Repairs? But how can one begin?
                        The lease has warnings buried in each clause.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,
                        The sort of thing that gives one pause.
                        The crack is moving down the wall.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.


The challenge of any poem is finding the form that best suits the content. With a fixed form like the villanelle the form itself, to a very large extent, dictates the content (more so than any other form I think). The great difficulty is finding a subject matter that works well in this context and also finding lines that are good enough to bear repetition. For me, the problem is that good villanelles are few and far between and so you tend to hear the same ones repeated over and over as examples – ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ by Thomas and ‘Antarctica’ by Derek Mahon, at least the latter in Ireland. I love both these poems, but they’ve grown a little too familiar and perhaps worn out by being cited so often. It has also created the sense, for me at least, that the villanelle best handles poems of intense emotion told with a kind of epic grandeur (which the repetition of lines definitely generates in both poems mentioned above).

What is refreshing in this poem by Weldon Kees (written before Thomas’ or Mahon’s as it turns out) is that it shows that the repetition can be used to an entirely different effect: the grinding and hopeless realities of daily life. There is nothing epic in this; just something relentless and incremental in “the crack is moving down the wall”. 

I think Kees exploits the repetition of the form to create the droll and sardonic attitude of a man who sees his life crumbling around him, but has another gin in the kitchen as he watches. It’s too late to stop but there is still a black sense of humour that recognizes, “We must remain until the roof falls in.” Obviously, the fact that the central image is of a crumbling house (and that there is a “we” in the poem) adds a whole range of associations: about marriage, about life, about the cracks that form in the person as well as on the wall.

This is the house that Weldon built and one gathers it was a difficult place to live. I am relieved though, above all, to have found a new villanelle which opens up so many possibilities for the form that I hadn’t noticed before now.

Kees published three collections of poetry from the late 40s to the mid-50s, which went almost entirely unnoticed at the time. He also did very interesting experiments with observational photography and was an accomplished jazz pianist. In 1955 his car was found by the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. When the police went to Kees’ flat they found a pair of red socks soaking in the sink. He was never seen again. It was thanks firstly to Donald Justice and, more recently, the critic and poet Dana Gioia, that his reputation has been resuscitated. Reading the collected poems reveals Kees as one of the most important mid-century poets in America. It’s a great shame he never lived to know that he would be seen as such.

You can find here Dana Gioia's intriguing essay, ''The Cult of Weldon Kees'.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

'Anahorish' by Seamus Heaney' & 'Epic' by Patrick Kavanagh

                   I have lived in important places, times
                        When great events were decided, who owned
                        That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
                        Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
                        I have heard the Duffy’s shouting “Damn your soul”
                        And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
                        Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
                        “Here is the march along these iron stones.”
                        That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.




My ‘place of clear water’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
With pails and barrows

those mound dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.


Against the almost ontological response to the natural world found in the Stevens and Bonnefoy pieces, these two poems from Kavanagh and Heaney show an entirely different emphasis. Like the ‘Snowman’ and ‘Place of the Salamander’, both poems attempt an negotiation between the poet and the environment, but here the negotiation is one imbued with a sense of the historical/mythological context. To put it differently, for Heaney and Kavanagh, the natural world is not just place but place and memory. And memory moves down through the strata of place and personal history, forming a dialogue between geographical places and the lives of those who have lived in them.

While Kavanagh’s poem attempts explicitly to locate the human drama in a mythical landscape (as the title suggests), he does this not by abstracting or generalising the historical but by bringing it back to its local origins. In this way, he establishes the significance of the lives of people and the places where those lives happen as McCabe and Duffy fight over a land boundary. And in doing this Kavanagh doesn’t expend with the actualities of either the people involved or the seeming-small nature of the dispute. In other words, he restores ‘epic’ events to their real locations. His backdrops are not painted. They are tactile and necessary. There is a sense of deep history at work: “...Homer’s ghost came whispering/ To my mind. He said: I made the Iliad from such/ A local row...”

If Bonnefoy had written about a place like ‘Anahorish’ he probably would’ve simply called it ‘A Hill’ or ‘A Spring’. For Heaney, though, it is crucial that this location has a place-name and an historical orientation through this act of naming – and by historical here, I mean that again in the local sense. It is, for Heaney, as if the place name and the place are equally significant and inform each other. In the end, they are inseperable. He writes:

Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings...

Yet, the place is not diminished by this process of locating it in historical and even mythological time (he calls it 'the first hill in the world'). The naming is part of the relationship with those who have lived there, establishing this encounter (the poem) in a lineage of many such encounters. The process is open-ended, aware of the presence of the past but capable of allowing the personal present to co-exist, in a sense, with the pressure of the historical to find his ‘place of clear water’. It also represents a preoccupation in Irish poetry about 'named' place. One might say, to a point, sometimes, of a refusal to a more universal sense of displacement to the ontological, as found in French poetry...