Jackie Kay

The voices that will not be drowned

A late posting, after spending the better part of the last two weeks in Suffolk. There is something about that odd bleak coast that gets to you after a while, particularly as autumn shifts to winter, and the trees become ghosts of themselves (some so windbattered they morph into lanky-haired witches turned to wood by some conjurer’s spell). My last post came from that most mysterious and haunted of locations, Orford Ness, and as poems begin to appear in my inbox from the Mendham group, the echoes of that excursion remain.

It was perhaps appropriate then that those echoes were picked up for me at the opening event of the Aldeburgh Poetry festival, which paired the poet Jackie Kay and the artist Maggie Hambling in conversation. Both poet and artist have been influenced extensively by place, Kay by the Glasgow of her childhood, and more recently, by the Nigeria of her birth father. But it’s Hambling’s fascination with the Suffolk coast, which I am just beginning to feel might be my coast too (having traded in the Atlantic coast of my childhood), and what she had to say about her process as an artist that extended the conversation I had with my fellow poets out on the Ness.

Hambling has been working with the wave as an image for some time, and she explained that she begins her working day with a walk by the sea (or by the Thames when she is in London). Although her wave paintings don’t always resonate for me, I think they are part of a larger project, which is about finding continuity. Hambling said that the purpose of art is to make people stop for a moment (she mentioned the poem’s ability to halt us as well). And maybe those wave paintings are her way of trying to halt the sea, to capture it in different moods and seasons, a sequence of waves, all distinct but from the same source. In relation to this, she talked about the limitations of photography: ‘a photograph can only ever be the record of something – a painting is a live thing’. Her waves work best for me in unison, each singing its moment, like a motet.

Hambling talked about the artists she values, who ‘speak in paint’: Rothko, Twombly, Titian, Rembrandt, and why we revisit certain paintings and artists again and again (as we do certain poems), because they are living, because they carry on a dialogue with their viewers, tell us different things at different times. And that’s why we engage with certain places, keep returning. The Suffolk coast has become one of those places for me, familiar enough now, but still new.

Which brings me to the scallop, Hambling’s monument to one of Aldeburgh’s greatest sons, Benjamin Britten. It is a work of public art which has divided opinion vehemently, so its opponents and supporters might be locked in a bitter political election or a religious war. It comes down not so much to Hambling’s sculpture (which is certainly more effective than her ‘sculptural bench’ dedicated to Oscar Wilde outside Charing Cross station) but its position. On the side of the detractors, there is this articulate response (as opposed to some of the other responses) from Humphrey Burton, which was published in the Guardian when the sculpture was first unveiled:


I am on the side of the supporters (and plucked up the courage to say so to the famously-irascible Hambling herself as she was leaving the talk last week). I disagree with Burton about what he describes as ‘casual violation’. The scallop is firstly not ‘casual’, in that it has been very carefully designed to be seen from many angles and distances, to have an impact from afar as well as up-close. It has become well-worn by the countless children who climb on it (and public art that doubles-up as climbing frame can be no bad thing – the fact that it is not cordoned off or prohibited from being touched is the very thing that makes it truly democratic, truly ‘public’). It is neither purely figurative, nor completely abstract, but somewhere in between, which should appeal to many, and also somehow captures Britten himself, whose music occupied the middle of the twentieth century, and brought together the traditional and the experimental. The scallop’s edge is inscribed with a line from the libretto of Britten’s most famous opera, the one which is most situated in Aldeburgh, Peter Grimes: I hear those voices that will not be drowned. In that way, it is also a tribute to that older generation who made their living from the sea, and to Aldeburgh’s other great son, the poet George Crabbe, in whose work The Borough the tragic Grimes first appears.

As to violation, well, this is more of an issue. As one of my fellow poets asked as we approached it, following our trip to the Ness, ‘it comes down to this: who owns the beach?’ A number of long-time residents, including Burton, somehow felt the beach had been ‘spoiled’ by the scallop. Burton suggests the sculpture could be moved inland, which would somehow make both its subject and the inscription invalid. It was designed to face the thing that obsessed Crabbe, and Britten, and Hambling equally: the sea. It could be nowhere else. I can understand that it upsets those true Suffolkers who like their flat surfaces flat and their big skies uninterrupted. Perhaps I am not a good judge, coming from an urban location, where views are changed all the time by what’s erected, what’s torn down. But this is not just a piece of public art, happily freed from the four walls of the gallery, it is a celebration of the sea, those who thought and wrote and sang and captured it in various ways. And so it needs to face its subject, to make us stop for a moment, and really observe the way the sea moves and changes.

I’m very late to this debate, started as it was in 2004. But in my short time in Suffolk, the scallop has become one of my favourite landmarks. That’s what it is, a landmark. Here’s the full quote from Montague Slater’s libretto:

But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown.
Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down.
I hear those voices that will not be drowned
Calling, there is no stone
In earth’s thickness to make a home
That you can build with and remain alone.

Poetry and the age

There has been much debate recently (mostly between other poets) as to whether poetry is going through a renaissance or a slow death. In a recent article in The Guardian, Jackie Kay affirms that this is a wonderful time for poetry: ‘In this bleak midwinter, with the recession and bad weather, poetry may be helping us to keep body and soul together. At a time when everything is being cut, closed down, diminished and discontinued, the forecast for poetry is surprisingly fair.’

In one respect, she is right. Poetry is more visible in the broadsheets and on radio and television cultural review programmes (although still the poor relation to fiction), and poets are the recipients of high-profile prizes. But why should that be surprising?! Why do we still need to make excuses for poetry’s existence, and make poetry more palatable to people by telling them how good it will make them feel?

For those of us on the inside, we have been aware of small surges of media interest when there is something ‘interesting’ to report in the poetry world (and what is interesting to the broadsheets is hardly ever the poetry itself). It is still not clear to me, as a poet, how many people out there read poetry (especially those who are not poets themselves) and for what purpose? Is poetry’s purpose ‘to keep body and soul together’? Or is its purpose to challenge the reader in some way, to unsettle, to alter his / her thinking? Can it do both?

Some poets engaged in this current debate feel that poetry (more specifically, poetry in the UK) is going through a conservative period. Although I don’t disagree, I wonder if there has always been a chasm between practitioners’ interests and public reception. Although the Turner Prize is a well-established and reputable award in the art world, every year we go through the predictable tabloid jibes and knee-jerk outrage. Is it really art? Should it get public funding? Instead of trying to understand something which appears to be difficult or challenging, it’s easier (and more fun) to ridicule it.

Not to say that poetry gets that sort of public attention (possibly for financial reasons). Even in this so-called renaissance, I suspect it is still a fairly small percentage of the population who read contemporary poetry, compared to the number of people who attend contemporary art exhibitions. But why should this be? I went back to Randall Jarrell’s excellent essay ‘The Obscurity of the Poet’ and was unsurprised to find that his piece, written in 1950, sadly has not dated, and some of what he says could be said to be true today.

Jarrell’s main argument is that not just modern poetry, but all poetry, could be considered obscure through sheer neglect. He laments the fact that even educated readers no longer make the effort to read poetry, and because they are out of the habit of reading poetry, and because they view poetry as “obscure”, they assume it is therefore “difficult”.

The truth of the matter is that some poetry is difficult. Some poetry, like some art, is meant to be difficult and unsettling and provoking; it’s not meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. But something that challenges and upsets us can also be affirming, in that suddenly we see the world differently, sometimes more clearly.

So instead of saying how wonderful it is that people are bothering to notice poetry at all, shouldn’t the media (and poets who act as spokespeople for other poets in the media) focus on why poetry is important, and not just as a salve for the soul?

I’ll leave the last word to Randall Jarrell:

“Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensible because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art and through works of art alone — for which of us could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us?”