John Cage

Creed’s creed


A month ago I posted in preparation for my Hayward course, The Point of the Poem, inspired by the Martin Creed exhibition What’s the point of it? Now I am posting at the end of the course, which seemed to pass very quickly – perhaps in the way that Creed’s work is often about something that can happen in an instant, a sudden revelation.

As predicted last month, we did go a little crazy, reciting Schwittersesque sound poems (even having a communal performance of laughter in the middle of the gallery), discussing Snowballs after experiencing the Balloon Room (or to give it its proper title, Half the Air in a Given Space), talking tempo after viewing a film of the rising and falling of a male organ (projected on an outdoor wall on a balcony of the Hayward – without doubt the strangest experience I have had in all my years of teaching). We ended the course on a good old fashioned debate about Creed’s work – its detractors labelling it puerile, tedious, shallow; its supporters calling it playful, humorous, celebratory.


And we did look at some fabulous poems along the way. From this sonnet by Edwin Morgan, a variation on a statement of John Cage’s (considering Creed’s use of repetition in his work):

Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry – John Cage

I have to say poetry and is that nothing and am I saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
I that am saying poetry have nothing and it is I and to say
And I say that I am to have poetry and saying it is nothing
I am poetry and nothing and saying it is to say that I have
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
Poetry is saying I have nothing and I am to say that and it
Saying nothing I am poetry and I have to say that and it is
It is and I am and I have poetry saying say that to nothing
It is saying poetry to nothing and I say I have and am that
Poetry is saying I have it and I am nothing and to say that
And that nothing is poetry I am saying and I have to say it
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it

To a dash of e.e. cummings (thinking about Creed’s obsession with counting:

one’s not half two

one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one:
which halves reintegrating, shall occur
no death and any quantity; but than
all numerable mosts the actual more

minds ignorant of stern miraculous
this every truth-beware of heartless them
(given the scalpel, they dissect a kiss;
or, sold the reason, they undream a dream)

one is the song which fiends and angels sing:
all murdering lies by mortals told make two.
Let liars wilt, repaying life they’re loaned;
we (by a gift called dying born) must grow

deep in dark least ourselves remembering
love only rides his year.
                                          All lose, whole find

To this riff on the letter ‘A’ by Christian Bök (examining the way Creed uses chance operations in the work – for example, his stripe paintings, the length of which are dictated by the length of the brushes in his pack)

from Chapter A
(for Hans Arp)

Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard
as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an
alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars
all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A
madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh – a hand-
stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a
mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that
charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark
saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all
annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and
Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans
all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.


Mostly, I wanted to pick up on Creed’s love of experimenting, of having fun – entering the work from a place of indecision, indeterminacy, just waiting to see what would happen next. What happened for us was that a collection of surprising and extraordinary poems were generated. We have Creed’s crazy vision to thank.

The poet in the gallery


It’s good to start the new year with projects, especially if those projects involve mooching around galleries and writing poems. Lately, I have been immersed in the world of Martin Creed, in preparation for a course I’m running at the Hayward on the occasion of their Creed retrospective, What’s the point of it? You can find a guest blog by me on the Southbank website:

So much of Creed’s work is about chance and order, and the collision of those two conditions. So much of writing is a similar activity. When putting together the course (which starts on Monday and runs for five weeks), I wanted to think about basic themes and structures, but I didn’t want to be too determined about how things should be. I want to go a little crazy, move my students (and myself) out of the usual poetry comfort zone (sitting quietly at a desk with a pen and a notebook, waiting for inspiration to strike), because Creed’s work is often about discomfort – looking at things we think we shouldn’t really be looking at, things we suspect don’t really belong in a gallery, at least not in the hallowed spaces of the National Gallery, or on the pristine white walls of Mayfair. There is a defiance in the work, poking fun at convention, having a laugh. I’ve been having fun too, listening to sound poetry, reading lots of John Cage and Edwin Morgan, a bit of Carl Andre, fiendish Oulipo experiments where vowels are suppressed and lines lengthened by measurement. And wondering how all these grand and batty experiments might still alter what we do and how we do it. It feels a bit like limbering up before running a marathon (of course I’m thinking about Creed’s Work No 850, which involved runners sprinting through the galleries of Tate Britain).



At the same time, I’ve been commissioned by the poets Catherine Smith, Emer Gillespie and Abegail Morley, who have formed a group called Ekphrasis to look specifically at the relationship between poetry and art: They are asking 13 poets in total to respond to the current Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy. While not exactly as anarchic as Martin Creed’s show, the RA has commissioned six architects to come into the grand galleries of their Piccadilly building and let loose. The result is a show not simply of installations, but alternative spaces that (almost) make you forget you are in the RA.


But what I couldn’t forget while going through the show was that I needed to make a poem out of my experience, and that made me view the work differently, not just for its own merits, but also, and quite specifically, what could be mined from it? A quite mercenary approach to the gallery experience – one artist thinking what can I borrow, with impunity, from another artist (that is kind of the loose definition of ekphrasis, isn’t it)?

There was much I liked, but not much I thought I could use as a starting point for a poem. Not because the work wasn’t interesting, I just couldn’t see a way in for me. Something has to meet me on both an intellectual and emotional level (which takes me back to something Martin Creed has said, in negation to the idea that he is a chiefly a conceptual artist: ‘you can’t have ideas without feelings’). And then I walked into the space created by the Chinese architect Li Xiaodong. It is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to say why something moves you. Maybe that’s why you have to write the poem, to explore the question. But as soon as I passed through the simple curtain into Li Xiaodong’s construction of hazel twigs, forming a forest-like maze, which opens onto a shingle courtyard, I knew it was the installation I wanted to write about. Not that I knew what I wanted to say, of course – I’m still struggling with the poem itself – but that this was the place that could open my mind and heart to a poem.

I suspect I’ve quoted this before, a statement on the source of the poem by my great idol, the Irish poet Eavan Boland, but it’s so great, it’s worth saying again: 

Explaining a poem is difficult. The method is inherently unreliable. There is too much instinct and error in the process to make its initiator a good witness afterwards. Akhmatova says of one stage in her poetry “my handwriting had changed and my voice sounded different.” But such clear beginnings are rare. The truth is that every poem has a different hinterland: a terrain of chance and shadow, of images in life which stay put until they become images in language.

I like that idea of the hinterland. Maybe that’s what the gallery is to a poet, a ‘terrain of chance and shadow’ that we enter, hoping to be charged up enough to make something new.

The other side of language

I came across this quote from WS Graham today – “a word is exciting because of its surroundings” – hunting for some clarification on the poem Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons (in preparation for my course at Chateau Ventenac next week) while pondering the very strange image near the end when the famous flutist Quantz tells his pupil, Karl:

One last thing, Karl, remember when you enter
The joy of those quick high archipelagos,
To make to keep your finger-stops as light
As feathers but definite. What can I say more?

In 1977, Graham wrote to Fraser Steel, a radio producer at the BBC, who had queried the use of ‘archipelagos’ in the poem, assuming it was a typo. Graham replies:

Of course I mean ‘arpeggios’. That’s why I said ‘archipelagoes’. It is making a quick little entertainment by putting down one word in stead [sic] of the other and both words making an exciting sense. At least I hope so. Again, I think we know he is playing a quick flourish of islands.

A lot of the poem has the strangeness, the not-quite-rightness of something translated awkwardly from German into English (Graham read Quantz’s famous 1752 treatise on playing the flute, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen in its English translation, leant to him by Rose Hilton). But the use of ‘archipelagos’ is typical of Graham, because he wants us to think of art – in this case music, but of course also poetry – as a means of transport to another place. So there is the sense of two words, the ‘correct’ one, but also one which is close in sound but carries us further in metaphor. And isn’t it funny how playing or listening to arpeggios on a flute sounds a bit like hopping quickly from one little island to the next (and trying not to get your feel wet in the bargain)?

John Cage, whose music I was listening to this afternoon (a chance collision between Cage and Graham – both of them would have liked that) said that music should be ‘purposeless play … not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.’ Graham certainly felt that way about words, was always acutely aware of their power to both confuse and clarify. Which is what he is constantly doing in his poems, sometimes all at once.

And anyhow, ‘archipelago’ is one of the most beautiful words I can think of, so it’s good to have an excuse to put it into a poem …