Trouble With Classicists

I love music and that’s why I decided to use songs as the titles of my posts. I get such a kick out of combining a song or piece of music with my peek at life because I think it adds to a story in a way that words can’t do (or at least, in a way that I can’t make words do). However, I was also thrilled to find Richard Burton reading the Dylan Thomas poem on YouTube and wondered whether there might be some of my other favourite poems there as well.  I like it when music, literature, poetry, art and movies affect me at an emotional level; when they  reach into my psyche and stir up forgotten memories and buried feelings. And if they also challenge me to think about life and stuff, all well and good, I like that too!

We spend so much of our lives doing as opposed to being. It’s that bloody protestant work ethic and the guilt that comes with it when one decides to bunk off. And I always used to view the arts as a bit of an indulgence; there was always so much more important work to be done. It was only when Kiera did art as a school subject that I became interested again. When I went to Paris with her, we decided to focus mainly on two aspects of French culture, namely art and food. We visited the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, the Musée Rodin and a lot of patisseries. Since I’m not much of an art fundi, I’ve always tended to gravitate to the impressionists and “pretty” pictures (think Constable and Turner). As one of her matric pieces, Kiera painted a picture of a body under a shroud on a gurney with the tagged toe sticking out. She got Edna to pose for it and I was very dismayed. Not because the dead person in the picture was my mother but because I wouldn’t be able to hang it on the wall. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had a very limited perspective on art and Edna’s Corpse now leans up against the wall behind the umbrella stand in the hallway in Durban!

Given that narrow view of mine, Kiera decided that I needed to be educated with regards to modern art and so, when we were in Paris, she persuaded me to go to the Centre Pompidou. I made it clear to her that I was there under sufferance, and proceeded to view all the Jackson Pollocks, Picassos etc rather disdainfully, making derogatory remarks, thinking I was being ever so witty. We stopped to look at a series of life-size paintings of a woman. It started with a rather good, conventional picture of the subject, which the artist then proceeded to deconstruct, ending with something like a Picasso portrait. I jokingly said to Kiera that they had hung the pictures the wrong way round and that it should have started with the “bits” and ended with the completed painting. At which point, thoroughly irritated with my ignorance, she launched into one of the most passionate lectures I’ve ever heard on modern art and a somewhat scathing attack on my lack of artistic insight. In a nutshell, she explained that any of the modern artists could paint a “classical” picture but that they chose to make a statement through their art rather than a “pretty” picture. The deconstructed painting of the woman was a perfect metaphor of this and how the bloody hell could I not see that? I had an “aha” moment right there and then (I didn’t dare not to) and I began to see modern art with new eyes. We finished our tour of the Pompidou by visiting the most amazing African art exhibition (called Africa Remix) where I saw a William Kentridge installation for the first time. A few years later, Kiera and I flew to Jo’burg to see the Kentridge production of The Magic Flute, which was absolutely thrilling.

Which brings me to poetry, well it doesn’t really but I’ve decided expose myself even further as the pleb that I am by doing a post on poetry. I’ve never been very good at memorizing poems but there are a few that, over the years, have stuck in my mind and when I read them again it’s like meeting long lost friends. Here are a few of my favourites, I hope you like them.

As a child I suffered from asthma and as a result was very susceptible to bronchitis. I missed a lot of school and spent many days in bed. I remember one time when I was laid up in bed yet again with a bad chest infection, my dad bought me my first poetry book, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Unbeknown to me, Robert Louis Stevenson “inherited a tendency to coughs and fevers and his frequent illnesses often kept him away from his first school” (Wikipedia!). No wonder I felt such an affinity to the children in his poems. I imagined I was the child in the poem and lost myself for ages in them and the wonderful illustrations.

The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

 I studied English at university but, unlike art, I could never get the hang of the classical poets (I think school English put me off). I much preferred the more modern ones, like Ted Hughes, e.e. cummings, T.S Elliot, W.H.Audin and the 60’s beatnik poets. But I was very lucky to have had the most wonderful lecturer on Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Found. I couldn’t read the stuff myself but I would sit enthralled while Mrs. Shum read it to us and elaborated on Milton’s verse. I remember Milton comparing a particular landscape to a woman’s body, as one does, and Mrs. Shum waxing lyrical about how the rolling hills of Zululand could be likened to a woman’s voluptuous breasts and thighs; and the tufts of bush in the valleys, her pubic hair. The sugarcane farmlands of Zululand never quite looked the same to me after that.

Mike Kirkwood lectured us on W.B. Yeats but I’m afraid he (Kirkwood) was just too damn good looking for me to pay much attention to Yeats. Although, The Second Coming stuck in my mind because I think it captured the times we were living through, 1976, the year of the Soweto Uprising.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Another favourite is ee cummings’ anyone lived in a pretty how town.

I identified with concepts of alienation and the meaningless of life at that time as I was a somewhat intense young person.

Moving on, I graduated and started working, and thereafter neglected my interest in anything arty, I’m ashamed to say. So there’s a big gap between university and Four Weddings and a Funeral! I loved John Hannah’s reading of Audin’s Funeral Blues.

And on the subject of death, I found this Rabindranath Tagore poem really comforting during times of grieving.

They who are near to me do not know that
you are nearer to me than they are.
They who speak to me do not know that
my heart is full with your unspoken words.
They who crowd in my path do not know that
I am walking alone with you.
They who love me do not know that
their love brings you to my heart.

Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise and Phenomenal Woman were quite inspiring to me when, at times, I felt that I didn’t fit in to the acceptable mummy mould and needed reassurance that choosing the road less travelled was the right thing to do. She gave it to me.

Which brings me right up to date as far as my appreciation of poetry is concerned. My favourite poem at the moment is this one that I came across recently by Wendy Cope called Loss.

The day he moved out was terrible –
That evening she went through hell
His absence wasn’t a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well


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