Royal Academy

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.

What is left

Rachel Whiteread’s work has always been about absence, most typically the absence of humans in a space. Ironically, what made me want to write about her now is the absence of her own work from the galleries of the Royal Academy, where Modern British Sculpture is currently showing (an absence which marred my enjoyment of the exhibition). Perhaps that’s ok; maybe it’s incorrect to think of her in terms of conventional sculpture, as she hardly ever creates “new” objects; in her casts of baths and boxes and rooms and stairways, she is memorialising the ordinarily domestic, making sarcophagi of the accoutrements of the living. She is showing us what is already present, just from inside out, from one remove.

The first piece of hers I knew was House, her concrete cast of a derelict Victorian dwelling at 193 Grove Road in Mile End, still stubbornly standing even after the rest of the terrace had been demolished. This is what Andrew Graham-Dixon said in 1993, when House was first on view:

To visit House or (as many will do) simply to come across it, isolated in a scrubby patch of parkland at the corner of Roman Road and Grove Road, is to be suddenly and disconcertingly transported elsewhere. It is to be taken to another world, like and yet completely unlike this one: the world of the photographic negative, with its phantom-like reversals of known fact; the world that Alice enters through her looking glass; the world that lurks behind the molten silver mirror in Cocteau’s Orphee, where normal relations between objects have been summarily suspended. Denatured by transformation, things turn strange here. Fireplaces bulge outwards from the walls of House, doorknobs are rounded hollows. Architraves have become chiselled incisions running around the monument, forms as mysterious as the hieroglyphs on Egyptian tombs.

The comparison to the Egyptian tomb seems very accurate. I thought at the time that House looked like a grand mausoleum, only you could never enter (and therefore, never leave); it had gone from a building with a doorway and windows, to something shut in, complete. Rather than looking out of or into, it was something to look at, a monument to itself. I thought it was beautiful, but also very ugly (Whiteread has said in interviews she likes making objects which are both), a mark of the way the city makes ruins of the old. We are used to garbage, to the ubiquitous brownfield, a place of waste and statis. So House stood as a symbol for that urban wasteland too.

I finally wrote the poem that follows several years later, not exactly in response to ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, but to Auden’s idea in that poem of “the human position”, how the ordinary resides alongside the miraculous; and that’s what art does, it shows us the juxtaposition.  And there it was in House: the monumental and the commonplace combined.

The final irony was of course that Whiteread’s House was eventually demolished, the victim of one of those ridiculous public debates about the value and meaning of art, etc. I later entered my poem in a poetry competition sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, and to my great surprise, I won with a poem about a building, which was really the concrete cast of a building, and was neither ancient, nor, in the end, preserved.





The concrete fills the spaces between

the walls and what they held a child’s cry,

an argument, dulled. It hardens, cools.


The house is peeled away like a skin:

a fire protrudes from the shell of a room,

the ghost of a fire gone out. 


A mausoleum to newspapers and spoons,

deep pile carpets, nights consumed

by the bluish glow of the TV,


perched in a field, a grassed-over street

where once other houses stood,

gathering lives together.