William Burroughs once described himself as an antenna. The writing was conducted to the page by some apparatus that picked up what the air-waves carried his way. I find this notion relevant to my own practice. When I try to direct the flow, it is likely to fail. I can have preoccupations, concepts that intrigue me, even messages I long to get across. But in the end I must trust in the apparatus I have set up for myself. That apparatus is put together out of a technique. For Burroughs, this was the cut-up – collage – a phrase from one source grafted onto one from another source.
And this is surely what technique is about: constructing an antenna for oneself. For Walter Sickert, it was painterly skill, the absolute control of his medium which, in a sense would dictate what subject matter might be appropriate, causing him to “letch” after a painting he envisaged as the servant of this skill, that then needed to find its “eye-catch” for the viewer to be held. This eye-catch is what Roland Barthes defines as the “punctum” in his book Camera Lucida. Sickert’s robust notion of letching after an image might also be analogous to Barthes’ “studium” – the element which creates interest in the image (which for Sickert is that which interests him directly – indeed lecherously).
I may letch after a message I wish to “get across”, or after a concept I have for a poem, but in the end I have to put my trust in my technique, in that antenna I have developed that picks up what is in the air, senses a possibility and to a considerable degree dictates the poem to me. It may seem instinctual, but it is actually the result of the acquired practice becoming so deeply embedded in me that what flows out onto the page seems to be happening unconsciously.
The same can be said for jazz improvisation or for dancing or for great acting or gymnastics. What begins by being learnt “consciously” becomes innately there for the practitioner – and only after the technique, the role, the back double-pike becomes innate, only after that can the flow be discovered that makes the sequence, or the drama or the poem work.
I sense that this idea is out of fashion, that for today’s trends, the studium is the message. The artist must be in control of what is chosen as the material, technique has been downgraded and what the practitioner represents and what the practitioner wishes to communicate is far more important than what any antenna may pick up. The artist is now in charge, whereas, for me, with my old fashioned notions, the art is in charge – or no one.
These thoughts have come to be articulated here in response to my own quandary as to how I came to write my two most recent poems. One called Polemic and the next called Governance. They seemed so utterly different, the one from the other. And yet they were written within a day of each other. I had been stuck for a while, wanting something from a poem – letching perhaps too much – struck by the utter emptiness of certain works by Algernon Newton – known as the “Canaletto of the canals” – for his paintings of buildings reflected in the still waters of London’s canals. Some of his landscapes are even more still than these waters.
But I could not see how to “get” that emptiness in words. Then I went an hour earlier than expected to Alan Brownjohn’s ninetieth birthday party at the Refreshment House in Golder’s Hill Park, in order to walk up to the pergola there, which I had never visited, and a poem came into being for me:
How do I write a poem as empty as an Algernon Newton,
Making irreducible the union of appear and disappear?
It would require a calming of space in time or at least
A narrative of stasis – but then, who is in charge
When one is no more than an antenna? The lightning conductor
Can only conduct what strikes it to the ground, albeit
In a civilized manner. But what is the apparatus that
Can register inertia in some uplifting or even ecstatic way
Now, now when everything is so questionable that
The fact that it is questionable also falls prey to doubt?
Repetition may be obliged to go hand in glove with surprise,
But where does this leave stillness? Here in this upper-class park
You might observe it in that shallow rectangular stretch
Of water graced with reeds which idles below a pergola.
Not in the pergola itself, which is taken up with a fashion shoot,
But between the columns of its arcade Algernon Newton-type
Clouds barely move along to the next interval. Like Morandi,
One might fill a poem with empty things. Things like boxes or
Vases, only useful on account of the emptiness they contain.
But then there are those sponsored benches, set in the nooks
Between shrubs, perfect for first-date flirtations, trees of all shapes
And sizes, leaves of every colour, sweeping here and weeping there,
And the poem fills with detail – why? Because there is nobody
In charge. I don’t want to walk on the lawn, says the sane rich
Asian. Just trying to be kind to nature. Who could resist
Recording it? Morandi? Algernon Newton? White
Water-lily blooms pay homage to the flimsily flowing cotton
Smock that matches them as an Indian lady kneels behind the reeds.
The next night, I watched Al Jazeera News appalled at events taking place at Kabul airport, and then I watched a movie called The Twelfth Man – in which Nazis searching for a Norwegian saboteur tear sofas apart in front of terrified women as they search for clues as to the fugitive’s whereabouts. Around five a.m., I woke up and began to write:
We have taken up our knives to disembowel your upholstery,
Sure you are carrying secrets, in your vagina most probably.
Therefore we demand that you strip now, in front of us.
Today we will sink you into a scalding tank. Tomorrow, when
We make you take your dip, ice will have formed on the surface.
As you freeze, be certain, we will be rooting out your children.
Nipples such as yours constitute a crime against humanity.
What you call your mind is actually a cancerous deformity.
Apologise at once. Accept that you were wrong and that you are,
Built the way you appear, being both too fat and too thin,
As if reflected in a hall of mirrors: hideous, distorted and typical
Of one with such a skin. Guilt is inscribed on every inch of you,
Blemishing your nakedness, like some unfortunate tattoo.
Taking the cat o’ nine tails to your back, penitent in the chapel,
Will not help you expiate the crime of being the crime itself.
Weak, you are, vulnerable and inferior. You mean nothing to us
Since you are no more than an interior, or what one calls a maw.
Your choices are ill-chosen. Whatever your desires may be,
They set the wrong example – renounce them and denounce yourself.
For you are sin’s original, the Babylonian uber-whore.
Your third eye must be excised along with your clitoris, for
You have no right to challenge us, and very well you know it.
Therefore your sex will be obliterated. Once we master auto-breeding
You will be flung forth onto the heap, another redundant item.
Men, and only men may roar. Only men may patronise the stadium.
As I say, no one is in charge.