See What I See?

Poetry, Visual Art and the Good Intentions of a New Year


January and February feel like the lowest ebb of the year and thus the worst time to engage with a new project. It is a time for sloping about, perhaps ravelling in the tail ends of the old year. The part of the new year that relates to fresh starts should be moved to March 1st when spring is rising up around us, when the whole world can lend us its vigour until our own returns. Regardless, the turn of the calendar year leads inevitably to thinking about the new, about changes of direction, about taking new paths. As we wind up neglected projects, either by finally, officially abandoning them or by finishing them off, it is impossible not to think of what will replace them.

Writing poetry is what I have been thinking about, since Christmas and new year. As I have got older, I have learned to be cautious about my new enthusiasms. Anything new is beguiling, an easy and exciting hit. But once I have picked it up and turned it over in my hands a few times, alive with temporary enthusiasm, it is just as easy to let it fall to the ground again, a stepping stone to the next sparkly possibility. I am a magpie tracking shiny things. But I kept thinking about poetry. Maybe, that fascination with language, the way a vivid and elusive moment can be so finely expressed, the way our bodies respond to words on a page, tears rising, hearts beating, the profound understanding, for a moment, of our unconscious mind; maybe that is best sought in and served by poetry. 

Or maybe not – for me I think, at least. It seemed that because I want to write about things just for the sake of their beauty or singularity that poetry was the logical response (to be honest, I also find building a plot difficult, irritatingly taxing.) I have come to the conclusion that my impulse, however, is not to be a poet.

When I thought about starting a poem it was most often to write descriptions of things; patches of mud the colour of coffee silt in paths through woodlands, the mosaic of cracks in pavements tufted with bright clumps of grass and foil sweet wrappers, a child who believes they are an adult practicing their beautiful, impervious disdain as they brush past in a busy town. I was an artist by trade so in some ways it is an impulse that I have had all my life. Anyone working as a visual artist is engaging primarily with the astounding bounty of what we see around us. This is still partly true even when making conceptual art. The primary drive to making visual art comes from what we see and the way it fills us with so many shades of wonder. 

But even as an artist, dealing directly with the beauty of the visual world can be difficult. Very few landscape paintings trigger in me the same response as an actual landscape. Art has to do something other than replicate. It isn’t enough to carefully paint a view and say ‘this is the view that made my heart sing because the scoop out of those hills made such a beautiful empty space.’ The painting needs the presence of the viewer, the lens of how they saw, not a record of what. It needs to reflect a moment of human experience too. Otherwise we wouldn’t need it. 

Art has lost its confidence with beauty, forgetting, I think, that beauty isn’t necessarily pleasing, or tame, or safe. Beauty isn’t empty spectacle. Beauty isn’t a cheap sales pitch. Beauty is awe, it is the experience of our senses that transcends merely recognising the input of sound, sight, touch or word. It describes what reaches us in a way that we can’t always explain. And that isn’t necesarily easy or nice. When making art in a contemporary context, safe cynicism and dry irony have wrung the beauty out of it. Not that there is no beauty in art, just that it may be glossed over, an inconvenient side effect. 

It is in the end, rather than a drive towards poetry, for me simply an impulse to continue in my attempts to share these things. All of the arts are an act of communication. There are any number of forms we reach for to deliver the message. I don’t think my  (if I’m honest) lazily instinctive approach makes me suited to the rigours of being a poet. So I may end up instead fulfilling my desire to describe things, to attempt to share the joy or wonder or heartache of them, with some loose paragraphs of what used to be called ‘descriptive writing’ when I was at school. Is that a thing for grown-up writers? 

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