Posts Tagged ‘poetry of witness’

A vision of a better future

December 11, 2010

All things – driftwood sculpture by Liz Mathews (text by Vita Sackville-West)

Vita Sackville-West was an optimist; in deep mid-war at Sissinghurst, when the gardens were covered in snow and the earth undiggable, she wrote

I will believe in April while I live.

A visionary, able to see her own country so clearly from the remote differentness of Persia (where she finished her great poem about the Weald The Land – essence of England), her imaginative empathy was strong. Writing of the beauty of overgrown gardens in the war, neglected perforce by owners called away to war duties, she imagined the imagination of the garden’s creator:

… the fond gardener wandered as a ghost

Only in thought…

Her ‘vision of a better future’ was not only for herself, her family and her privileged class. She had a concept of the interlinked, interdependent connectedness of our lives with the earth that enabled her to see human life, however central in importance to her, as part of an organic whole:

We are all things, the flower and the tree;

We are the distant landscape and the near.

We are the drought, we are the dew distilled;

The saturated land, the land athirst;

We are the day, the night, the light, the dark;

The waterdrop, the stream; the meadow and the lark.

We are indeed all in it together. This week’s events are yet another example of how much the Coalition’s cuts will affect all parts of our society – but how much more severely for those least able to afford it.

When I went to university in the 1980’s I was on a full grant, with my tuition fees paid – just like the generation of MPs who have brought this scheme forward – and I would otherwise not have been able to go to university at all. My degree (in Art History) did not lead directly to high-paid employment, nor did it give me a sound grounding in business studies, but it did equip me for life as an artist, in which I was soon self-supporting (and tax-paying), and have been ever since – and as an artist, I have been able to contribute considerably more to society than I possibly ever could have otherwise.

Austerity measures which ensure that poorer people are denied access to further education, like those that close theatres which provide more income in VAT receipts than the entire government expenditure on the arts – are so shortsighted and illogical as to be difficult to believe, let alone accept. And it’s hard to avoid the observation that the class imposing the hardship caused by the cuts will be the least affected, will inevitably suffer least. A better future for whom?

Rebecca West also had a vision of a better future that was also shaped by her understanding of a world in conflict , and of the essential inhumanity and unsustainability of capitalism; speaking of the destruction of popular artforms by commercial imperative she wrote:

Here was the threat of a world where everybody was needy, since the moneyed people had no art and the people with art had no money… The art of the gypsies commands no respect, for the capitalist system has discredited popular art, and only exploits virtuosos… Also the gypsies are poor, and the capitalist system despises people who don’t acquire goods.

(from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

But her observation resulted in a certainty about who was the most needy, between those who have art and no money, and those who have money and no art:

Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and tasted…

In other words, with art we can actually live our lives, experience them and understand them. Without art ‘we feel about ourselves as though we were reading a bad book’ – distanced, unengaged, unable to understand what’s going on, in constant need of distraction and oblivion – and unable somehow to put it down.

There is surely another way; we should be able to recognise the value of the things that make life worth living – education (by which I mean opening minds to the possibilities of knowledge and the gifts of humanity, giving powers of independent thought, rather than a brutalising training for worthless wage-slavery), adequate healthcare and equality of welfare and opportunity, the arts (so much a measure of humanity, marker of courage under oppression, of the fire of the human spirit) – and at the same time recognise those things that we don’t need, and really can’t afford anyway – like another Trident, or some new nuclear power stations.

Of course higher education and the arts are not more necessary to our society than the NHS, but like every prudent person, we should be paying off our overdraft by converting it to a loan with a sensible repayment timescale, and rethinking our purchasing priorities – retaining and investing in the things we do need, and not buying those that we don’t.

Vita Sackville-West believed that ‘Winter passes’, and in the Russian snow, Anna Akhmatova kept her poems in her head. Of course, the arts will survive, because they’re like that. But so many fewer people will have access to them, that our society will be living in a long cold winter.

As You I Am

March 30, 2010

Testimony is a double-sided work on paper, with some letters torn out to let the light through:

It’s made to hang in an internal window, or as a screen, so that you can see both sides:

I first showed it as part of my 2008 installation in the Poetry Library in London’s Southbank Centre, hanging in a plate-glass window that separated the Poetry Library from the theatre foyer, and the following discussion is taken from one of a series of gallery talks I gave for that exhibition.

from Working with words

Here in this library we are surrounded by messages from the living and the dead – who are often looking both ways into their own past and to the imagined future. In Testimony the siting in this particular space necessitates two views, one view outwards to the no-place of the foyer where the poet Kathleen Raine identifies herself in the past, ‘already gone’ – and one view inwards into the exhibition space where the poet looks forward into the future.

The two views pivot on the phrase that sides poet and viewer together in this moment, and identifies our common lot –

As you I am

– which works both ways in reminding us of the poet’s mortality and our own, and works both ways on the paper too, with the symmetrical letters torn through, making the words of air and light, and communicating the startling fact in a physical way. 

This pivot is at the centre of the poem here physically, and I’ve placed it exactly where it comes in the written text. The poet’s urge to be with us here, now, to speak aloud in our imaginations in the present moment, to join our now to hers, gives life to this physical context, amplifying her individual voice above the clamour, overcoming the limitations of time.

The surrounding text is written in ink with a peg pen, rather than lettered, referencing the personal nature of the words the poet uses to meet us at this point:

This woman whose hand writes words not mine

and the extremely compelling individuality of this hand-written message, invoking the future reader for the writer, as much as the poet is invoked for her reader. The unusual shape of the whole untorn sheet of handmade cotton-rag paper (70cm x 70cm) further reflects the duality of the text.

Signed one-off; about 70cm square; for sale £200

For some more paperworks from this exhibition and for sale, please see the Paperworks and Bookworks pages.

To buy or enquire about any work, please leave me a note in the comments box below or click on contact details.

All photographs copyright Liz Mathews.

Any use of these photos needs permission.