March 14, 2009

Small Eternities

It's always a pleasure to visit Manchester's finest building - the Rylands Library. The recent refurbishment is thankfully sufficiently restrained so as not to interfer with the original architecture. The Library itself has got a fabulous collection including 500-year-old translations of the Bible into English, one of England’s oldest recipe books and even fragments of the Gospel of Mary. Its poetry collection stretches from one of the earliest existing manuscripts of the complete Canterbury Tales by Chaucer to the Dom Sylvester Hou├ędard plus, as the local publisher, the Carcanet archive.

The Library has recently opened an exhibition called "A Small Eternity - the Shape of the Sonnet Through Time" which I was keen to see as the form has been recently illuminated by Jeff Hilson's brilliant survey of contemporary practice "The Reality Street Book of Sonnets". Sad to report the best you can say about the show is that it is how an archivist curates. In terms of the content, the piece that really caught my eye was an illuminated page by Petrarch:

"You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes"

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness,
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness,
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world's delight is a brief dream.

I was pleased to stumble on this piece first because as the display unfolds it comes more and more annoyed under the malign and banal influence of Carcanet and the Centre for New Writing at Manchester University (of which the libary is part). Apart from the New Labour access approach to curatorship, it is generally acknowledged that labels larger than the object/work to which they refer is bad curatorial practice. It is admittedly a challenge to exhibit book based works, especially rarely valuable ones, because their contents remain for the most part (except for the displayed page) out of reach, but photocopy enlargement of some pages isn't the answer; colour photocopies of Carcanet cover designs isn't the answer. Small Eternity is a typical 'book-on-the-wall' show made worse by the dismally low level of interpretation intelligence - in a glass case we find photocopied and laminated sheets featuring annotated Petrarchian, Spenserian and Shakespearian sonnets, but the Petrarch (above) clearly features symbolic and paleo-Oulipian devices in the illumination and no formal interpretation is offered bar the identification of a little drawing of Laura (his unrequited love). The only poem that actually works as an exhibit is Edwin Morgan's concrete poem: Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words: 'I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.
The really problematic aspect of Small Eternity is the complete absence of any sense that the Sonnet has potential as a contemporary form as the Hilson anthology demonstrates. In one corner there is a intimate seating area a small table has a small selection of "How to" books with paper and pencils and the invitation to write your own sonnet. Then you can pin it on a board and then other visitors can put up other cards that say "I like this one" - the winner of the popular vote (and everyone who voted) will get a handprinted version of the poem. Although I suppose banal in its own right, the participatory aspect sits neatly with the shadow of Carcanet/Manchester Writing School. This School of Quietude has produced a small anthology of Sonnets by current students whose lack of poetic artifice can only draw a rather resigned sigh.

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