Wallace Stevens

What’s in a name?


Occasionally people ask me about the derivation of the name of this blog. Regrettably, I can’t take credit – it’s the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens. When I first started, I posted a statement on why I chose it:

In his poem ‘Invective Against Swans’, Stevens has a dig at those lovely birds, bringing them down a peg by calling them ‘ganders’ (which are actually male geese), dismissing their ‘bland motions’. I suspect Stevens had no serious gripe against swans; nor do I. They are decorative, they transform a landscape into a painting, they make me hum Tchaikovsky to myself. But stick them into a poem, specifically a contemporary poem, and they become a metaphor for all that is trite and precious. And that’s Stevens’ beef, all those ‘white feathers’ and ‘chilly chariots’. There he was, facing a newish century, a brave new world that had shaken itself out of a war; a new poet trying to find a new way of saying things. He is railing against the grandiose, the clichéd, the humourless. Never one to miss a joke: ‘gander’ is also colloquial in boon dock Florida for ‘a quick glance’, as in ‘get a gander of that’; also colloquial for the village simpleton, as idiotic as a goose. And as we’re talking specifically about a ‘male goose’, could the poet be referring back to himself, possibly to all his fellow bards (how close that is to ‘birds’!) as well?

I suppose my aim in this blog has always been to explain my notion of what I find beautiful in the world, which is not always typical (swans being an easy measure of ‘typical beauty’). Stevens has been one of my guides. His work has made me interrogate image and language. When I was thinking what to call this collection of random thoughts, he seemed to provide the right phrase. I am not the only poet to reference Stevens in this way. One of my favourite contemporary presses is Shearsman, its name taken from a line in ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’: ‘The man bent over his guitar / A shearsman of sorts.’ The musician becoming a maker (a shearsman being a cutter of cloth), as is the painter (Picasso) or the poet (Stevens). The poem is a manifesto for the making of art, and therefore the shearsman is an appropriate symbol for a press that espouses the made poem, an object that sometimes challenges convention, like Stevens, like Picasso. 


I have recently discovered that an electronic duo based in Brussels have named themselves after one of my poems. Here is a link to Mannequins on 7th Street:


On their site, they talk about the name as an ambient reference to the general chaos of city life, something they attempt to reflect in their music. Ironically, the poem came not from the place itself, but from a drawing by Anthony Eyton; so like the shearsman of Stevens’ poem, who presides over poet, painter and musician, the title Tony gave his drawing now radiates out over all of us. 


It makes me think too of how some artists have the right name. Sometimes a name even becomes an adjective for an artist’s practice; to say a poem is Plathian is to say its images are dark and strange, its language clipped and sparse. Plath’s name is monosyllabic, it sounds like the noise that a pebble makes hitting the water. She loved the assonance of soft ‘a’s.

I have a name that is invented. The story, although intensely personal to me, is really a common one: my grandparents arrived at the port of Galveston, Texas, with their papers in Cyrillic and not a word of English. The desk clerk asked them to say their name aloud, and he took it down as he heard it. YO-SEL-OFF. As a poet, I value the strange name that no one can spell, that was made up on the spot, that makes me sound rare and exotic, the grandchild of Russian immigrants who went to a new country to make a new life. After all, we are always inventing ourselves, making up names for what we create.

The nourishing sun


I arrived in Spain just as the news was breaking back home of Seamus Heaney’s death. Earlier in the week, in preparation for my course, I had been reading ‘Summer 1969’ from ‘Singing School’, Heaney’s account of vacationing in Madrid at the very moment when civilian protesters were being gunned down by the constabulary on the Falls Road. Heaney’s inability to forget what is going on in his home while he is ‘suffering / Only the bullying sun’ leads him to a greater dilemma – what can he, as a poet, say to make a difference.

It’s the old refrain of Auden’s: ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, written on hearing the news of the death of Yeats. And the same cycle of suffering and inability, the effort (and possibly failure) to make a difference is present in his poem, which equally could be a statement on Heaney’s work (now complete): 

                   Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Followers of Invective will know I have quoted those lines before. They never date – sadly, as I abandoned the news section of my paper on the plane, with its headlines speculating the possible American invasion of Syria.

Despite the Syrian crisis and the sad news of Heaney’s passing, I was glad to be back at the Almàssera Vella, with Christopher and Marisa North, who for part of the year generously open their home as a retreat for writers – a stunning place to gather and spend a pleasurable week in the sun (very hot, certainly, but more nourishing than bullying) talking about poetry and art. We were fortunate in our group to have two sculptors and a former artists’ model, so the discussion took on many aspects and angles. We started with Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, written around the same time as Auden’s tribute to Yeats, with the world on the brink of yet another world war; it’s tempting to see the two poets in dialogue, as Stevens presents his imperative to the writer or artist:

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,

Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand

Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed.

You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.

Stevens’s blue guitar is an instrument of invention, a metaphor for how we construct metaphor. Despite the destroyed shapes and rotted names we continue to try and make sense of the world, even if it feels sometimes as if no one is listening or looking. Stevens, of course, is the presiding spirit of this blog, and it’s his poetry I have often turned to as a model of how to construct my own. Like Heaney, Stevens is really talking about the world and the reality of the world, and how reality is sometimes bleak, but like Heaney, Stevens will guide rather than preach. His blue guitar, by way of Picasso and Braque, stands for the imagination, a reflection of us that isn’t us, but something that sings our pleasures and pain. We can’t change reality, instead we ‘patch’ the world as best we can; poet as invisible mender.


So round the table in the blue house, we sat talking about Stevens’ blue guitar, and Jorie Graham, Charles Simic, Frank O’Hara, the latter becoming another kind of presiding spirit for us. We decided to write a ‘lunch poem’ every day, although we had to trade O’Hara’s frenetic Manhattan for sleepy Relleu (the village going into siesta mode just as we were gearing up for our afternoon’s writing).

It was O’Hara who declared it ‘a fine day for seeing’, and when we piled into a couple of cars on the Tuesday, the sun still shining, we were more than ready to look at some art. We took a detour on the way to Alicante to visit a 2000-year-old olive tree, growing a few hundred yards from the motorway, down a dirt track. It was an amazing sight, its great, gnarled branches twisting up and into a canopy of small silvery leaves.  Later, in the gallery when we considered issues of texture and complexity, looking at sculptures by Sempere and Chillida, we recalled the smooth wood of the olive, rubbed white in places, like bone – reality as metaphor, a symbol of stubborn survival.


The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Alicante is a revelation. Three floors of modern and contemporary art, mainly by Spanish artists, many who were new to us. The building itself is a sculpture – all white marble and stone, a clean space for seeing, a true meeting of architectural vision and user-friendly space, with balconies on the upper floors that open to vistas of the galleries below and to the hills and castle outside.


It is a symbol of pre-recession ambition and civic pride, all the more surprising in a town where most visitors head straight for the promenade and the beach; as a result, we had the place pretty much to ourselves (the museum attendants actually outnumbering us). It is incredible that more people are not taking advantage of this remarkable gallery (which offers free entry). The fact that there is no catalogue of the collection, not even a postcard or two, perhaps reflects its underuse. So we had to record our experience in our poems (and a few stolen snapshots).


The next day we piled back into cars and drove to the nearby village of Sella, and into the hills, the craggy puig molten copper in the late afternoon sun. We climbed higher and higher into the Tafarmach ridge, finally reaching the home and studio of Terry Lee and his wife Pam (who paints under the name Olivia Firth). We talked with them about their work, their notion of landscape; how we carry the landscapes of our past and of our imaginations with us (Terry often bringing together his adopted Spanish hillside and his native Derbyshire in the same painting). And I thought of Heaney again, how in his poem he can’t help think of the reek of the flax-dam as he passes through the fish market of Madrid, how he finds Goya’s cudgels in the Prado, and thinks of them as ‘two berserks’ who ‘club each other to death / For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.’ The visit to Terry and Pam, to the remote and extraordinary landscape in which they live and work, was an inspiration to us to think about how we might make space for our work, even in the noisy corner of a busy city.


And all too soon it was time to return to our respective cities and cloudier skies, away from the dreaming space of the Almàssera. But many poems are still to be written, as we carry the landscape in our minds, one more folded sunset.

Supersize me

It is a tale of two giants in the art world, Thaddaeus Ropac and Larry Gagosian, squaring up to each other as only giants can, by each opening massive spaces on the outskirts of Paris at exactly the same time, and filling them both with the work of Anselm Kiefer, an artist whose epic themes and equally-epic works bust the conventional four white walls of lesser galleries.

Vici and I had wanted to visit both Ropac Pantin and Gagosian Le Bourget. Ironically, both new spaces are in the Northeast reaches of Paris, beyond the Périphérique. Although we know the centre of Paris well enough, this was certainly new territory for us. But after consulting the Gagosian website and google maps, we concluded that getting to Le Bourget, although not impossible on public transport, would be challenging. Once out of the RER station, there was a 3.5 kilometre walk up what looked on the map like a dual carriageway road – not very pedestrian-friendly. The fact that the gallery is actually a former airplane hangar in Le Bourget airport should have given us the clue – if you don’t have your own plane, too bad. And that’s because this new Gagosian enterprise isn’t for the likes of me and Vici, it’s for other giants who have giant wallets and giant walls vast enough to accommodate a Kiefer or two.

Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly. There are lots of places in London which are difficult to get to unless you have a car (London being vastly more spread out than Paris). But there is a difference of approach to the two galleries which is notable. While the Gagosian website had very little information about Le Bourget and the current show, Ropac’s website says this:

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is delighted to announce the opening of its new exhibition space in Pantin, located in the northeast of Paris, in October 2012. Formerly an early 20th century ironware factory, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Pantin will allow for the display of large-scale works alongside a programme of related events. “We created this new space which will give the artists the opportunity to realize their vision without the usual restrictions of space.” (Thaddaeus Ropac) The architects Buttazzoni & Associés who already redesigned the existing Parisian gallery in the Marais have worked on the redevelopment of the new space in Pantin, where they have preserved the historical character of the listed buildings. The site has eight separate buildings allocated for exhibitions, performances, private viewings, archives and offices … The project also includes a multimedia space for performance, dance, lectures, conferences, screenings and other activities that complement exhibitions and attract a wider audience.

And it’s not that difficult to reach. Pantin is on the Metro, and then it’s a 15-minute walk through rather characterless light industrial country. But Vici and I are always up for a journey through the more charmless bits of cities. And anyhow, the gallery was signposted, and once there, we felt the hike was worth it.

Kiefer’s work is always ambitious, reaching. Some find it bombastic (and perhaps the fact that he has become embroiled in the clash of the art titans will not help this perception). It is true that the work is very dense in its field of reference, taking on mysticism, alchemy, history. The Holocaust is ever-present in the work, a dark line that runs through all, and the poet Paul Celan sits on his shoulder, the imagery of the Todesfuge present in Kiefer’s motifs, the dug earth, the black milk. I don’t always understand his references, but I feel the same way when reading late Stevens – there is something so complicated being grasped at, an understanding of the world and its deeper workings, not just physical, but psychic, cosmic. That sounds a bit new age, but I feel I don’t have the vocabulary to describe how Kiefer works, without falling into the grandiose, the abstract. If I try and express it in imagery, it’s like there’s wide field before you, sometimes cluttered with the rust of our discarded machinery, sometimes flat and reaching into a distance you can’t see. The landscape is dead – it is winter here always. I think Kiefer is saying that’s where we are, as a people, standing in this barren field with our rubbish all around us. Nothing can grow here; it’s our winter.

The other great artist who is present in Kiefer’s work is his teacher, Joseph Beuys. In another building on the Ropac site, there is a display of Beuys’s work related to his 1969 performance piece, Iphigenie. Seeing the work of both artists together made me look again at the motifs and materials they share: ash, rust, stone. While Kiefer remains outside of his work, Beuys is always the subject, the conduit for change and protest.

It was disappointing not to get to Le Bourget, perhaps a journey for another time. Kiefer’s work is so important and vital that it’s a shame it won’t be easy for many people to make the journey. But I was glad to have made the effort. And I look forward to future trips to Pantin.

The fullness of time

Just back from a week at the glorious Château Ventenac http://www.chateauventenac.com/ where spring had arrived before us, and the wisteria was buzzing with fat black bees. We came together to discuss the poetic sequence, especially in relation to space (but also place) and time.

We started by looking at Georges Perec’s funny little book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a treatise to writers on how to observe, but also on how to immerse oneself in the moment. Perec recorded everything he saw in the place Saint-Sulpice over the course of a weekend (positioning himself, as any self-respecting Oulipo poet might, at various café vantage-points) without editorial comment or censorship, so that even the most mundane or pedantic details are faithfully listed. It reads like an exercise because that’s what it is. When we get down to the business of making experience into poetry, we select, so that certain details might be singled out, highlighted as significant. It is interesting to consider what we cross out in the process.

And that’s where the idea of a sequence comes in. One poem is sometimes not enough to contain all the things we need to show. Why not more? After all, poets love numerology, the idea of splitting language into a neat package of lines or stanzas. So why not five poems (like the fingers on a hand) or seven (like the deadly sins, or the days of the week), to show different points of view, angles, timeframes, narratives, etc? We moved from Perec to Stevens, and his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which gives us such variations, like a Cubist painting or a jazz riff put into words. We thought about the symbolism of the blackbird, the number thirteen, and what Stevens is saying about fate and how language tries to express big things like mortality – and often misses – unless we can focus on the small details. We agreed that his blackbird never feels like an omen, an harbinger of bad luck (after all, Stevens is a champion of the commonplace rather that the fanciful – no nightingale for him) but rather a presence that is alive and moving in a static landscape …

Although it was actually the hoopoe who was sighted, sunning in the lower terrace, and of course, the resident black swans of the Canal du Midi. I include them here because I’m often asked what I have against swans – it’s their romanticising I resist. The black ones have a sort of mythical quality about them, although these two are hardly mysterious – they are used to being fed by tourists on longboat holidays, so they will swim right over to you, and demand attention, trumpeting loudly.

We attempted a group exercise (based on Anne Berkeley’s wonderful versions of Baudelaire’s Pipe) to identify the different ways we perceive language. We all looked at the same poem by Eluard, and came up with our own versions, ranging from fairly faithful translations of the original, to surreal statements based on a complete ignorance of French – increasingly more unstable as comprehension and meaning fly through the window.

And flying is what time did too. It seemed like a lot to pack into a week, and so it was. Naturally, it passed very quickly, in the excited mix of poems and chat, and food and wine. And suddenly I find myself back at my desk in London (where spring seems to have been and gone).

I began my week in the walled medieval citadel of Carcassonne, a place which is sealed in time, and so I end with a photograph, taken by poet Sue Rose, of a motif of decorative carvings – remains of larger structures – arranged on a wall to celebrate pattern and light. Like a good poem, or a series of poems, each one a little bit different than the one next to it.

The poetics of space

Tagged along this weekend on one of Paul Carey-Kent’s art walks – which are always exhaustive and exhausting (but in a good way) – on this occasion around some of the West End galleries. Paul’s encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary art and his personal Baedeker of London galleries ensure that his walks are full of surprises; there are always new artists to discover and secret galleries, often hole-in-the-wall locations without a sign or a window to the street, like the speakeasies of old.

I especially want to talk about two shows we visited which are currently on at Hauser & Wirth’s two London outposts, and which focus (very differently) on space. As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I am a huge fan of Gaston Bachelard, whose theories of how to consider space in poetry, how to “read” a room, both emotionally and contextually, have influenced my ideas of how a poem should occupy the space of the page. I am currently working on a sequence of ‘concrete’ poems to accompany a new sequence of woodcuts by Linda Karshan; it’s the first time I have consciously tried to work the poem into a predetermined shape (which has been dictated by the size and scale of the woodcuts) so this issue is very much in my mind at the moment.

Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures occupy the whole of H&W’s Piccadilly site. I should mention that the building is one of my favourite art spaces in London because it was once the headquarters for a bank, and so it retains the ornate wood panelling, the elaborate plaster ceilings, and in the basement, the actual vault. It follows Bachelard’s theory that certain spaces retain their past, a “geometry of echoes”, as he puts it. There is something austere and old-fashioned about the space that effects the work that is shown there. When you walk through the door of the gallery, you are immediately confronted by a series of tall structures: styrofoam blocks covered with colourful fabrics, which give the impression of square flags, teetering on wooden stilts sunk into blobs of concrete. Strange totemic towers, which are formal (and therefore match the formality of their setting) yet appear to be constructed from junk (Barlow is famous for recycling her materials, using bits of other sculptures she has scrapped to make new ones). They look like objects which might have had some function or meaning, now lost in the passage of time. I found these structures moving; perhaps because they appear handmade, a bit precarious, as if they might topple any minute. I felt small surrounded by them; they crowded me, it was hard to navigate around them. Barlow talks about ‘sensations of physicality’, an effort to capture the urban experience ‘like something wild or feral.’ And all contained in that slightly stuffy , officious space. The other piece that really made an impression on me was in the (scary) basement, a grouping of plywood and cement hoops, like a crowd huddled in the doorway. Barlow’s sculptures are like three-dimensional versions of Prunella Clough’s paintings (full of the detritus of urban life). There is something poignant and intimate about all of us (city dwellers, that is) squeezed together into these man-made spaces.

Down the road at Hauser & Wirth’s Saville Row site, a huge pristine cube of a space, were Roni Horn’s new sculptures, ten discs of “solid cast glass with as-cast surfaces on all sides (fire-polished top)”. The media is a poem in itself. They are beautiful, inscrutable structures, like rounded blocks of ice, cold and perfect, apart from the scarred sides, which show the viewer the cast of their making. They are isolated, distanced from each other in the enormous empty room. Their glassy tops are pools, circles of nothing, still and impassive. Bending over one to find myself reflected in its surface, I was reminded of the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Mirror’:

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful –

The eye of a little god …

But there is another literary association attached to the work which had us puzzled. Although the piece is untitled, its ‘subtitle’ is an excerpt from a letter (which may be from Anne?) relating the story of a “nasty-looking” comb that belonged to Emily Brontë. The comb accidently fell into the fire the moment Emily died and was retrieved by Charlotte: “There it is to this day, a bit burnt. One of the most horrible things I ever saw”. So how does this emotional, dramatic account relate to these cool, controlled sculptures? I’m still puzzled, but what strikes me is how those glass discs are ‘sealed’, solid, as if they are preserving something inside that we can’t see (only the reflection of ourselves on the surface). So maybe both the letter and the sculptures themselves tell us something about the act of preservation. I’m still trying to work through it.

One thing I do know is that both Barlow and Horn have a deep connection to poetry. Barlow is married to the poet Fabian Peake (their daughter Clover is also a poet). Horn is a fan of Dickinson and Stevens; both poets have been referenced in her work. A connection between them, and back, once again, to Bachelard.

Paul Carey-Kent's blog: http://paulsartworld.blogspot.com/)

Hauser and Wirth: http://www.hauserwirth.com/