Jackson Pollock

Home is so sad


Various discussions over the past week have triggered a preoccupation with the concept of home. As readers of Invective already know, I have made my home in London for the past 26 years, having spent the previous 21 years in New Jersey and New York. When I first moved here – with no particular plans, and probably no clear intention to stay – I found I was writing poems about my childhood in America, as it seemed I had gained the necessary distant to do so, not just physical distance, but also mental distance. At a certain point, when I started to establish a life for myself here, those American poems stopped. If it can be said that the majority of my poems are situated anywhere, it is London, or at least an urban location resembling or based on London. In my favourite poem by Cavafy, he talks about the possibility of ‘finding another city better than this one’ but the reality is that:

This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city.

Cavafy’s poem is relentlessly negative, concluding ‘As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, / you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.’ So the city becomes a metaphor for his failure, which he is fated to carry with him forever. Although I would contest his conclusion, I agree with Cavafy that a place you have spent much of your life becomes engrained in you, and any other place you visit is held against that dominant place, the place you call ‘home’. You do carry your city with you everywhere you go, like a garment you wear against your skin. But for me, that is a comfort rather than a burden.

‘Home’ is necessarily complicated for me, in that I consider London home, but I also recognise that I am not a Londoner. This is my adopted city, and perhaps for that reason, it is always precious, and I have never taken it for granted. If you think of writers like Conrad or Kundera or Nabokov, it is their otherness, the fact that they were from one place, and made a decision to reside permanently in another (and give up their mother tongue to write in the language of the place they made home) that charges their prose with a quality of surprise and energy. I have just switched from one kind of English to another (sometimes mixing my poems with both American English and British English, as I do in my speech). I think of myself as Anglo-American, and, like Plath or Eliot (if I could even begin to compare myself to them) my poems reflect the dual nature of who I am.

At the recent Place: Roots – Journeying Home weekend at Snape Maltings, the discussions began with Benjamin Britten and his commitment to place (in his case, Suffolk) in his music. The beginning of Peter Grimes just sounds like the beach at Aldeburgh; it makes sense of the place entirely, so that no other music can represent it so well. This idea of being firmly rooted was carried through to a discussion by Patrick Wright of the German writer Uwe Johnson, who, like Sebald and Hamburger, ended up in eastern England (Johnson rolled up in Sheerness, which even he thought was a dump, but somehow that awful place added a quality of stark alienation in his writing).


Wright made the point that ‘roots are also routes’, which makes me think of writers such as Bishop who was always searching for a home, and laid down roots in many places, only to uproot herself and start again. I always think of her line (in Questions of Travel) ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’ every time I embark on a journey elsewhere, impossible as it is to take away with you the ‘folded sunset’. It seems that lately I have returned to America, not physically (I have only been back once in the last six years), but psychically. When doing readings from The City with Horns in 2011, I found myself telling audiences that the New York I depict in my Jackson Pollock poems isn’t the New York I remember, but the New York of my parents’ generation, a New York that filled my early years with stories of glamorous book launches and classic cocktails. And now I am trying to recreate the New Jersey suburbs of the 70s in my novel – thinking of Cheever, and Rick Moody, and Tony Soprano, and my own childhood.

I’ll finish on this poem by Larkin, which Anne Berkeley and I were discussing during the Snape weekend – the definitive statement on home:

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.


Blue territory

It seems that obituaries come thick and fast at the end of the year. And so the news the day after Boxing Day (the day of my father’s funeral four years ago) that the extraordinary painter Helen Frankenthaler had died at the age of 83. Michael McNay’s obituary (which appeared in the Guardian) quoted the critic Nigel Gosling writing on Frankenthaler in May 1964:

If any artist can give us aid and comfort Helen Frankenthaler can with her great splashes of soft colour on huge square canvases. They are big but not bold, abstract but not empty or clinical, free but orderly, lively but intensely relaxed and peaceful … They are vaguely feminine in the way water is feminine – dissolving and instinctive, and on an enveloping scale.

“Dissolving and instinctive and enveloping … “ It was that feminising, that “softening” of Abstract Expressionism, a way of taking all that anger and brutality and violence, and producing something more controlled, but still passionate, that’s what artists such as Krasner and Mitchell and Frankenthaler did. They were on the fringes of the boy’s club that included Pollock and de Kooning and Gorky, but their work is just as important, sometimes more beautiful, more subtle, even gentle.

In his poem, ‘Blue Territory’, taken from the title of one of Frankenthaler’s paintings, Frank O’Hara evokes ‘the flattering end of the world’, the sea, the sky, but also a place beyond human recognition, where ‘we could be alone together at last, one by one’:


                Who needs an ark? A Captain’s table?

                                                                      and the mountains

never quite sink, all blue, or come back

                                                      up, de-

sire, the Father of the messiness of all




The knotted rope


A funny thing, memory. The mind plays tricks, gives you back a replica of what was really there. But of course, what was there is not what is here; places, situations, people do not remain static. Only in memory, and over time, even memory becomes unreliable.

Back in Venice, I return to the Guggenheim, my first visit since I wrote about Jackson Pollock’s great painting Alchemy. The painting is darker than I’d remembered, larger. I found it oddly comforting the last time I saw it, but this time it is frightening as well. Vast and impenetrable. The image in my poem that conjures ‘a man stranded in space’ feels accurate. But it’s another Pollock that catches me this time: Enchanted Forest. Alchemy is a landscape, the sky at night swirling with galaxies, but Enchanted Forest is vertical, human-scale, like a door you could walk through. But, if you could walk into the painting, you would be immediately barred by the thick tangle of … branches? Thorns? Entry is impossible. The twisting mass of black is interrupted by flecks of red, like blood, just to enforce the idea that this is not a forest for mortals.

In another room, Joseph Cornell’s Setting for a Fairy Tale. A classical façade in the foreground, but clearly two-dimensional, like a stage set. What is behind is dense forest, real branches resembling trees looming over the house. The branches are painted silver; ghostly, but somehow they are more real than the cut-out mansion, the play house that they frame. The windows in the house are actually mirrors; another illusion. The whole construction is behind glass, boxed, framed. It’s only when you stand back from it do you notice the tiny figures in the foreground, almost blending into the façade. The mansion is a wall which will prevent them from entering the forest behind, as it has no proper doors or windows. The branches arch over the flimsy façade, as if they might break the glass and escape the box. For me, it has the same effect as Enchanted Forest, but on a miniature scale. The trees, the real three-dimensional trees, shrunk to fit their box, suggest that this fairy tale is grim(m). There could never be a happy ending.


And in another room, Arthur Duff’s Black Stars. Strands of vertical rope, like the kind of rope you see on boats along the canals, but not quite so thick; black, and knotted at intervals, so when you stand back, there is a dense cluster of knots at its centre. Like both the Pollock and the Cornell, Duff is playing with dimensionality. From a distance, the rope looks like a flattened surface, just paint on a canvas; it’s only when you approach do you realise. Are the stars knotty problems for us to understand (like alchemic equations)? Is this what we might call ‘dark matter’? Are we so small in the great scheme of things? Are we so easy to fool with simple tricks of perspective that any magician could perform? Do we find we get tied up in knots when we seek explanations? Is memory a dark clot in the brain, a thick tangle of trees we can’t penetrate?

Outside, the cold winter light of the canal. 

He blew his mind out in a car

Another poem from my Pollock sequence. Pollock wanted James Dean to play him in the movie of his life, which would be like getting James Franco (brilliant as Ginsberg but far too beautiful) to play him now instead of Ed Harris, who was tough, edgy, tortured (and not too beautiful), and who had enough of Pollock’s physical attributes to pass for the real thing. Pollock was attractive to women, but he was a bruiser, with a heavy, hangdog face. He looked like his paintings look: difficult, untidy, unpredictable.

But you can see why when Pollock looked in the mirror, he saw Dean. His ego (and a reasonable amount of drink) allowed him to envision himself as a film star, an idol, and the press agreed. When Life magazine ran a photo feature with the headline, Is This the Greatest Living Artist in the United States?, Pollock knew the answer was YES. It was 1949, long before Basquiat and Tracey Emin were even born, but it was Pollock who gave them the model for artist as temperamental star; so that the art and the personality become intertwined in people’s minds (and sometimes the personality becomes a greater force).

But there was an inner Dean in Pollock too: the biker-jacket-and-Marlboro aesthetic, the tormented genius. Pollock recognised Dean as a kindred spirit. He also recognised someone who knew how to “manage” his image. And they crossed into each other’s worlds; Dean wrote poetry, Pollock was the star of Hans Namuth’s films where painting becomes an action sequence (like a fight or a car chase).

They were both killed in car accidents, within a year of each other. Dean died on 30th September 1955 at the age of 24. His Porsche 550 Spyder, known as “Little Bastard” was completely destroyed in a head-on collision. Rebel Without a Cause was released posthumously. In that film, Dean’s character, Jim Stark, is challenged to a “chicken run”, a drag race towards a cliff edge in stolen cars. Pollock was a fan of the movie. It is commonly accepted that his “accident” was probably not an accident. On his way back from a party on 11th August 1956, he drove his Oldsmobile convertible into a tree. He had been drinking. He was 44. One of his passengers, Edith Metzger, was also killed, but his lover, Ruth Kligman, survived (earning her the nickname “Death Car Girl”).

So here’s the poem. The passages in italics are lines from Rebel Without a Cause.

Rebel without a Cause

Lights. Camera. Action. Paint
whirls off the brush, as he drips
and dives:


Posing with his new Oldsmobile,
itching to take her out
for a spin, take in a matinee.

At the Regal lights dim
on the plush red, Jimmy’s face
reels on the screen:

Once you been up there
you know you’ve been someplace

The boy in Warnercolor, the boy
in the newsreel. Wheels
spun out, Porsche scrapped.
Like the magic trick, sawn in half.

The artist slumps in the row at the back.
He’s seen this flick before:

I don’t know what to do anymore.
Except maybe die.

Good trick:
exit stage right
before you crash and burn,
because tomorrow you’ll be nothing.

Better to be a dead hero
than a deadbeat. Plush red,
lights dim.

You can wake up now,
the universe has ended.

Short voyages

Another poem from my Jackson Pollock sequence, in memory of both Pollock and Frank O'Hara. O'Hara wrote the first important monograph on Pollock’s work, calling him ‘an artist who was totally conscious of risk, defeat and triumph. He lived the first, defied the second, and achieved the last.’

O'Hara’s poem, 'Digression on Number 1, 1948’ was one of his famous 'Lunch Poems’ sequence, written quickly, in the grip of the inspiration of that moment. He said of the painting that it 'has an ecstatic, irritable, demanding force, an incredible speed and nervous legibility in its draftsmanship’, which could serve as a description for O'Hara’s poetic style (so often reduced to “I do this, I do that”, missing the point that all activity invites revelation). The poem ends with these lines:

There is the Pollock, white, harm
will not fall, his perfect hand

and the many short voyages. They’ll
never fence the silver range.
Stars are out and there is sea
enough beneath the glistening earth
to bear me toward the future
which is not so dark. I see.

The lines are eerily prescient, in the evocation of the 'short journeys’ which were to be their lives; and that strange image of the 'sea / … beneath the glistening earth’ bearing the poet towards 'the future / which is not so dark’. When O'Hara wrote the poem, Pollock was already dead. O'Hara would die almost exactly ten years after Pollock. Both men were in their 40s at the time of their deaths, in accidents. They are both buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs, Long Island.

When O'Hara died, Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, was quoted as saying 'Frank’s buried at Jack’s feet.’

Short Voyages

for Jackson and Frank

                      To digress
is to be alive and know a mind
at work, a body in motion,
the blare of the city, in all its
                No accidents,
only cause and effect, the future
which is not so dark but which
we cannot stop, speeding forward,
destiny at the wheel. 
everything is lucid, shining,
like children in the rain
or a lover, naked, and they
have to get it down,
to this age of flags and fear
where art might have a place,
sometimes right here on the street
or in a bar
              where men
argue the world into being
and drink to forget
tomorrow we might be gone.