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Poetry and Art: Ian House introduces poems inspired by Rembrandt, Rodin and Kandinsky

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

Sometimes I have doubts about the propriety of ekphrastic poems. The artist has done the work: selected or imagined a slice of the world, responded to it in her own way. The danger is that the poet will succumb to being a parasite who describes the work (at length, to assist the reader) before tying the ribbon with his dependent response. Over the years I have become inclined to use familiar or typical art works so that some knowledge can be assumed in readers and I can concentrate on recording the experience and feeling of standing before the work.

Ian House, March 2022

REMBRANDT

A Life

A film flows by. Watch frame-by-frame,
the illusion of a whole is gone.
Peacock, patriarch and potentate,
stricken burgher and serene artist,
each portrait reels us in, holds us fast
for thirty minutes to its truth,
a truth affirmed by the unavoidable nose,
the nose he will not gloss over, the pole
round which the masks and costumes whirl,
the rock round which the fluent selves disperse
and form the delta of his life.
Labile himself, he grips us.
Fixed, gives us the freedom to roam.

Interrogation

There’s an early painting where he pops up
as a grinning jackanapes, and in an etching
he’s a snarling, wild-haired Hamlet,
styles he’s trying out and masks he’s trying on.
By mid-career he’s looked at himself so long,
so inquiringly, so intently looking at me

that I flinch.
then face up to him,
fling the challenge back,
probe and rummage him,
and still he bears down,
demands to know,
and I turn in, go deep,
mine and defend myself.
We back-and-forth like this
till I’m barely aware who’s who
and it’s intolerable
and I tear myself from him,
diminished, enriched.

Has Been

When Rembrandt took one last look in the mirror,
he saw an old guy with uncombed grey hair,
a puffy face, that nose, dead eyes.
It seems a final honesty. All those years
had he painted not what he saw but what he saw
as what he felt he was or, more dishonest still,
what he felt he was as what he saw? At last
he closes the dressing-up box,
shows what’s there beyond apparent artifice,
a man dissolving, passing out of life.

The old master wasn’t an Old Master
but a bankrupt, sick, unvarnished failure.

No: ‘Rembrandt’ names the works and all his selves.

In Amsterdam, one January too bitter for tourists, I sat on my own for thirty minutes in a room full of Rembrandts. At Kenwood once I sat for thirty minutes facing the great late self-portrait. In life we rarely have the opportunity to look so closely and for so long at another person. Unlike a sleeper, Rembrandt (a Rembrandt self-portrait) is no passive recipient of our gaze. He meets us.

~

RODIN

Encountering Rodin

That’s no thinker but a performing of thinking,
that brazen, posturing, ponderous simulacrum,
that frozen, statuesque lump. This is a thinker,
Rodin’s first shot, a small terracotta creature
stuck on a metal rod, leaning forward,
neck straining, urgent
to see, to understand;

his hand a clenched claw,
the fingers cramped to his mouth;
his right eye a thumbed hollow,
his left eye a slit,
his back cracked and peeling
and lodged on a titanic thigh;

man or amphibian, taking life
from the fingers of his maker,
sprung from the oven of making,
still forming, gathering himself
for the first shot,
for the making,

for making the thought into thing,
the release of contortion,
the body’s projection
into thought that flows
from the head down the arm to the hand
to the nib that encounters – here, now – the page.

In July 1921 I saw The Making of Rodin at Tate Modern, an exhibition of the maquettes and plaster casts which were the first shots at the definitive marbles and bronzes with which many of the likely readers of my poems will be familiar. The quality of exploration and improvisation rejuvenated the works for me. The poem, an exploration of my feelings as I looked at one work, has, I hope, something of the same quality, reflecting the struggle of creation.

~

KANDINSKY

Things of Beauty
Kandinsky, Study for Composition VII

So lightsome and joyous this Study,
a ballet of greens and vermilions,
a profusion of Cambrian life forms,
flute solos of orange, floral starbursts of blue;
thudding browns and sunshiny yellows
are caught in the dance of the ocean,
the swirl of the springtime, urgent
as Stravinsky, sweet as Debussy:
just such a medley as I’d seen that day
in the gutter, distressful not blithe
because I couldn’t uncouple
the cylinders and circles and oblongs,
the crimsons and purples and glittering silvers
from crisps packets, sweet wrappers, coke tins.

Everything, looked at with detachment, is beautiful but that detachment is sometimes hard to achieve. Grey and rainy is as beautiful as sunny and dry but you can’t see that if you’re out in it.

~

Cover image Just a Moment by Ian HouseIan House taught in England, the United States and eastern Europe. His collections are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2021), all with Two Rivers Press. He lives in Reading.

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Poet of the Week – 12: Ian House

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—12: IAN HOUSE

Ian House was born in Reading during the Second World War. A child of the 1944 Education Act and the grammar school, he read Philosophy, Politics and (a vanishingly small amount of) Economics at St John’s College, Oxford, and then taught English in schools in Derbyshire, Somerset and Yorkshire, experiences which led him to conclude that a Quaker school, with its commitments to peace and equality, would be a place in which staff and students might get on in a sensible way. When the opportunity for a job at Leighton Park came up, he returned with misgivings to Reading. During twenty-four years at the school, he enjoyed a sabbatical term at St John’s College, Cambridge, which revived his brain and doubtless impaired his liver, and an exchange-year teaching in Philadelphia.

On taking early retirement he taught English in adult language schools in Moscow, Budapest and Prague and, on returning to England, began writing poetry. His three collections, all with Two Rivers Press, are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2020).

Ian House writes:

Although ‘Spinning Yarn’, Part II of my new collection, is implicitly about the making of poems, there is nothing I desire less than to investigate in prose the reason I write poems. The less I know, I suspect, the better. I observe my ‘practice’, with interest, from the outside. An experience or observation makes me feel, for some unknown reason, that there’s a poem there. I wander around for a day or two, doing the thises and thats of living, unconsciously incubating. Possibly I’m writing the poem to find out why I’m writing it. Certainly, I have no idea, when I start, where it’s going. If I do have an idea, the poem will be stillborn. I write a lot very fast, crossing out and revising, crossing out and revising … then I start over with a few rescued lines and write a lot, very fast, crossing out and revising; I do this three or four times, aware mainly of the physical pleasure of transmission from brain down arm and hand through pen to page. When I sense there’s something that feels like a poem awaiting birth, I put it onto the computer, and tinker with it for an intermittent two or three days and let it totter off. After about seven years I’d be capable of re-reading it without a sense of paternity to see if it has any merit.

At the front of the binder in which I keep the hard copies of my poems there are two sheets of paper. The first says simply, ‘Be Real. Be Surreal. NOT What do I think about it? BUT How does it feel?’ Useful advices I always bore in mind when I started writing seriously in 2001. The second sheet contains several quotations about the sun, the source of all light and sustenance. They include Chaucer’s charming and profound, ‘Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye’; Lowell’s beautiful prayer, ‘Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/ to his girl solid with yearning’; crowning all, Whitman’s understanding of the relation of the poet to the sun, ‘Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me/ If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.’ Little wonder that I see the two poems based on Paul Nash’s paintings of sunflowers as central to my new collection. Sally Castle’s sunflower on the cover does indeed burn.

If, on a good day, the sun fuels my poems, Wallace Stevens is their guiding star. The Man with the Blue Guitar makes the high and necessary claim that ‘Poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns’. Yet Stevens can ground a poem in the simplest of situations, noticing how ‘The mother ties the hair-ribbons of the child/ And she has peace’ or taking in old age ‘one last look at the ducks’ in the local park. His poems ‘were of a remembered time/ Or something seen that he liked’. And so are many of mine.

One of Stevens’s miracles is that he doesn’t so much describe a situation as create it, charm it into being as in ‘The Poems of Our Climate’:

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow …

Would that I could get anywhere near that intensity without straining. Or write poems that invite or compel the deep attentiveness of which he writes so movingly in ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’: ‘The reader became the book; and summer night/ Was like the conscious being of the book.’ Or write a poem of which it could truly be said that it is ‘the cry of its occasion, /Part of the res itself and not about it.’

As well as his example, Stevens has given us handy tips always in my mind: ‘It Must Be Abstract’ (distilling something from the concretes); ‘It Must Change’ (be responsive to the flux of living); ‘It Must Give Pleasure’ (as an artefact in words, not sounding, unless for special effect, like the ‘skreaking and skittering’ of grackles). The poems in the Paul Nash sequence, meditating on the poetic imagination, bear similar titles. All that said, my poems are nothing like Stevens’s anymore than I’m like the mackerel that fed me for lunch today.

IT MUST BURN

~Paul Nash, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945

blazing yellows and oranges
intenser than all imagining
fierce as a fusion reactor
self-unsparing self-consuming
the sunflower hurtles downhill
freewheeling fertiliser of crops
cutting a swathe
through grass and standing corn
like a top whipped on by the sun
outpouring of nature’s juices
ah sunflower outrunning time
headlong career, suspended
at this moment for ever
leaps the frame and continues

[from Just a Moment]

THE TEARS OF THE WORLD

Unrestrained the shrieks of children
at fleeting abandonments, minor betrayals,
the vastness and urgency
of scraped knees and small losses.

In silent rooms, during polite conversations,
imagine the thickness
of the calluses we have accreted. Listen
to the wind that rattles the shutters.

[Uncollected]

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The Arborealists: The Art of Trees

The Arborealists and Guests: The Art of Trees
14-24 June, daily 10am-6pm
The Turbine House Gallery, Gas Works Road (just by the Prudential Building).

We are delighted to contribute to this exhibition, organised and hosted by the Reading Tree Wardens, with a poetry reading on Sunday 23rd June at 2pm. Hear Susan Utting, Jean Watkins, Ian House and Gill Learner read poems – some of their own, some written by others – inspired by their love of trees. Wine and nibbles will be provided and our books available for sale. Open to all but places MUST be booked as the venue is small. Please book by emailing rtwn2011@gmail.com.

The Arborealists are a group of professional artists whose special topic is the tree and whose inaugural exhibition at The Royal Academy, Bristol, was nationally acclaimed.