July 14, 2009

The Poetry Trap

When a flagship piece of architecture opens a little test of aesthetic integrity is to look at the back stairs. It's around there that any flaw in design integrity is obvious (if it isn't already clear because it is a crap building). One of Buckminster Fuller's criticisms of the Bauhaus was that its designers never looked at looked at plumbing or drainage.
There is an analogy for the uses and abuses of poetry in visual arts contexts. I will talk more about this in future blogs and it is one of the issues I will be considering at the Saari Residency in Finland next week. Basically, it is a generally observable phenomenon that when curators and museum directors open there fabulous new buildings or refurbishments; after they have thought of the wine and cheese, the next accessory on the list is a poet, an opening poem, a poem read. But the overwhelming evidence suggests that their knowledge of this other field, of contemporary poetry is non-existent. So they cast around and choose either someone they have heard of or someone local. In the UK at least they means a bad poet. This is the logic that trots Simon Armitage out at every opportunity at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It is the logic that has Manchester International Festival add the poetry after-thought of Lemn Sissay and Jackie Kay as the featured poets.
The way to look at the way poetry features in the visual arts is this: Imagine that contemporary art was the peripheral artform and Poetry was the cultural driver with massive Tate Modern style palaces of consumption and inflated markets for the each emerging poetic talent. And the poetry directors then decide it would be nice to have an artist to 'do something' at one of their openings. In this analogy, they would be choosing the equivalent of watercolourists.
Continuing this dismal feeling, today I had the desperate experience of looking for a poetry book for Phil Davenport's birthday present. You could lose your will to live in the poetry section of Waterstones. To make this even worse, I then strolled into the Manchester Book Fair http://www.literaturenorthwest.co.uk/news/160 - I had seen an email announcement that the event featured some of the North West's leading poets, which was intriguing as I had not heard of any of them.

As I arrived there were a couple of Rapper's intoning a poem called "Same Old Shit" which primarily suggested that everything was the same old shit. It would be unseemly of me to say anything about this. Then a chap came on and read a poem with the immortal line "Conversation so dull it could bore the breasts off womankind". This and the same old shit seemed to sum it all up. A couple of others read but I was thankfully walking away, with a question in my mind that recurs on occasion. Maybe someone out there could help me: When honey bees sting their venom sac is fatally ripped out of their bodies. It has always struck me that this is horrifying metaphor that I must use in a poem one day, the notion of having your innards ripped out in sacrificial death. I thought there would be a scientific term for it, but can't find one. Does anyone know? As I walked away from the Book Fair, I imagined the sting being ripped out slowly.

1 comment:

Bournemouth Runner said...

Occasionally, they get it right, I'm thinking of Gillian Clarke at the Welsh parliament, for instance - and Armitage remains synonymous with his country. But it happens with individual collaborations as well. Damian Hirst did a book illustrating a friend of his, a poet; the name escapes me; and how many times do we see the writing at an art exhibition written and conceived by a visual artist not a poet. Most poets, I'd guess, would prefer to invite a painter or an illustrator of note to provide the cover for their own books, it is rare for the collaboration to be the other way.