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Morag’s stories: Joy and Musée des Beaux Arts Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Posted by carryapoem in Stories.
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When I was a wee Orkney hippy at Edinburgh University, hiding my terror behind a floppy hat called Priscilla from a second hand shop in Saxe Coburg Street, Professor Talbot Rice, who looked just like one of the Byzantine Pantocrators he lectured about, set an essay. We had to choose our favourite picture in the National Gallery down the road. Riding side by side with the terror, which stemmed mostly from having to cross big roads without my glasses on (I was vain too) – was a fair amount of conceit about myself, I remember that, loftily, I penned a diatribe about what a stupid task this was, what an insult to our tender intelligences. To prove my point I listed lots of pictures, and explained (! To the Prof of Fine Art?) why they all had merit, in one way or another.

I think I got an OK mark, and a mild comment about it merely being an exercise…

I felt a bit like that seeing  Carry a Poem, for a minute. These days, though, in a much more crowded world even than swinging ’68, I know more about the importance of making folk pay attention to seeing and listening.

I realise that most of the poems I carry are only in bits – beginnings and ends. It’s as if I’ve spent my life scouring the index of first lines, found the poem and skipped to the climax as you might with a detective story. Many of the ones that stick have been learned in childhood – ‘Cargoes’ (Masefield) of course, and ‘The Highwayman’ (Noyes) for example. I remember them with joy, but for some of my classmates the weekly memory test was torture – you never knew who would be picked, and words weren’t the tools of choice for most of us. Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Frost, Roethke, Muir, Mackay Brown, Tennyson, Shelley, Matthew Arnold, not to mention Marvell, Donne, Shakespeare… beginnings and ends. A ‘snapper up of unconsidered trifles’, that’s me.

My appreciation of poetry is inextricably bound with pictures . My father was a painter and art teacher – his studio was full of books, heavy Phaidon Press things, not always in colour because he couldn’t afford them. I spent hours page turning – I still remember the feel of the shiny paper, and the paint stained floorboards I sat cross legged on till I got pins and needles.

I gravitated, untaught (he gave me free range) towards kailyard Scots, genre Dutch, Victorian morality tales, and from there to symbol and metaphor – Durer, Bosch, the scary Northern Gothic. Bruegel was as compelling to me as the cut out paper doll you had to stick on cardboard which appeared weekly on the back of the Bunty with several snazzy outfits. It delighted me that you could attach a proverb to just about anything; that the children’s games had an enormous meaning, beyond the dirty muddy village square they populated. The games, and the playground, were very like my own. The clogs and sledges in the winter pictures were like ours, as were the wifies leaning out of windows and the neer do weels sleeping off their beer.

There were also, in the studio, many pictures of Greek statues – Grey’s College of Art, during the war, was firm about figure drawing. You had to emulate the great. I learned who they were, the gods and heroes, and their stories mixed themselves up in my head with Knight Death and the Devil, Ophelia, Carnival and Lent – in that beautifully random way only children have access to, before anybody’s told them about centuries and schools and movements.

So – pictures of stories – and stories are all about love and loss. There isn’t much else. It can be personal or political: but that’s what we’ve got to deal with. Pictures, words, music help; but love and loss is the bottom line.

That’s my defence for choosing two poems, not just one!

The first is in translation – Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s poem ‘Joy’.

I keep it in my head as a reminder of that hapless hippy and the travails she got herself into. It’s helped me develop a sense of humour about myself, and about self obsessed adolescents everywhere. More than that – because in essence  it’s a solemn profound poem – it reminds the writer in me of the power of metaphor. Children’s games, after all, are deadly serious.

I plunged, as you do, into an impossible relationship with an unavailable man. He plunged too, but was more sensible – or cautious – than I. In the midst of the coup de foudre stage, he gave me this poem, saying it summed everything up about me. I loved it – and more than that, thought he was quite right. The Enzensberger fella had me bang to rights.

she will overthrow all that is settled and fast
she will not lie
she will riot

Yes I will, I thought!

she can’t stand prophets

Yes!

she is strange and headstrong.

Oh yes!

And if you are hearing echoes of Bob Dylan here (‘she’s got everythin she needs/she’s an artist/she don’t look back’) well, you’d be right.

i keep nothing from her
i share with her all i have
she will leave me

I read it as a deeply romantic, yearning, bewildered testimony to my fantastic pulling power, on one level. Even now, when I read it, I can feel that chaotic hopeless passion.

Of course the thing didn’t last: but what makes me love this poem beyond the merely personal is that the object of my passion, once he had become a mere person to have coffee with again, remarked, ‘of course you know it’s really about revolution.’

I looked again – and so it was. Layers and layers of metaphor, and I’d only seen what appertained to me. I don’t know what happened to the Priscilla hat; but Saxe Coburg Street has certainly changed. As for me – never again did I look at a poem without an eye to the sub text, what lies beneath.

The other poem is Auden of course; ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. He looked at Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow as avidly as I did, saw every detail I saw as a child, and then attached yet another layer of allegory to the work. Icarus aims too high – how Scottish, to be punished for gettan above yersel – but the poet sees how the painter has seen that

the sun shone
on the white legs disappearing into the green…

but the daily grind continues – his drama is away in the distance, and ‘someone else is eating or opening a window’

‘everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.’ The fields have to be ploughed, whether boys are falling from the sky or not. The ship has to deliver its cargo.

Painting poetry and music alert us to the human condition – in this case, to the melancholy truth that, whatever is happening in Iraq, or Afghanistan, we are very good at allowing suffering to happen on that  faraway corner of the canvas; very good at ‘just walking dully along.’ So that’s pinned up on my pinboard, along with a postcard of the painting; this summer I saw it for real for the first time.

Morag MacInnes is a writer based in Orkney

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