SIXTEEN OCCASIONAL POEMS

1990–2000

 

POSTSCRIPT ON WHAT OCCASSIONED FOREGOING VERSES

Alasdair Gray © 2005

 

THE FIRST OF MARCH 1990

In 1990 the heads of print workshops in Glasgow and Berlin co-operated to make an artful book. They paid two professional writers and two professional artists from each cityto live for a month to live in the other city and give the book (titled Vier + Four) writings and pictures based on their foreign experiences. That is how I came to be in the sky to Berlin on the first of March, and was later a guest of the Berlin Literarische Colloquium on the shore of the Wannsee when Berlin (her great partition wall about to be demolished and USA troops still deploying armaments in her suburbs) was the most politically complex city in Europe. I intended to write a verse diary of my Berlin experiences for Vier + Four but was unable to write more than this introduction to it.

 

WINTER HOUSEKEEPING

I used two houses in the winter of 1990-91, one rented from Glasgow District Council, one by the woman I married. That made her home mine too, so I soon had as few as most people.

 

WAITING IN GALWAY

In April 1994 we went to Galway Literary Festival and enjoyed quiet afternoons in an uncrowded, unhurried pub with many intricate little corners. Blows can never be evaded for long and one will inevitably kill us, but in the snug of that small drinking shop and bedroom of a small hotel I felt that between blows enough peace can exist for life to be good, if addiction to peace is avoided.

 

SOUTH AFRICA APRIL 1994

More people have lived during the twentieth century than in the whole half million years before it, and more have been violently killed. The largest killings were in wars started by capitalist empires and by single party dictatorships. After 1950 several states created and maintained by violence ended without violence destroying them: the British and USSR empires, the dictatorships of Greece, Spain, Portugal, South Africa. I wanted to celebrate the fact that unjust systems at last exhaust those who inherit them, that no human state is solid.

 

GENESIS

The start of the Jewish Genesis and the Christian Saint Johnís Gospel that expands on it have been used by people in authority to suggest that the order of the universe derives from dictatorial words of command: an idea loved by those who want to be obeyed and many who like obeying them. Existential philosophy opposed that by saying the universe that generates us has no order by the order our own minds decide to impose. This view, though perhaps bracing for brave souls trying to change a crushing state of mind or society, may have led to the woolliness of some Postmodern theories. My wee poem suggests order is a pattern unfolded in simultaneous material and mental events, and neither has priority. No doubt this idea too is liable to corruption.

 

POSTMODERNISM

In 1995 I attended a conference about links between visual and verbal art. It was held in Elmira College, New York State, USA and ended in a debate dominated by a speaker who talked only about Postmodernism. He seemed sure that critics and lecturers were now entitled to read any idea they liked into a work, and illustrated the playful freedom this allowed by reading out twenty or thirty pithy, often humorous definitions of postmodernism, which he first said were quotations of writing by his students and finally declared were invented by himself. His energetic speech led to a discussion which said nothing about the links between vision and word and ignored descriptions of our intricate universe and how well or badly we live in it. Ideas Homer, Jesus, Shakespeare, Mark Twain et cetera thought important seemed irrelevant to the Postmodern speech game. Then chaos theory was mentioned with enthusiasm by one who seemed to think it a liberation from logical constraint instead of a logical way to solve problems.

I remembered Popeís Dunciad. This described fashionable criticism so divorced from common sense that it snuffs out the Word that Saint John said was the light of the mind, thus returning the universe to that earliest state which Jews thought a dark depth and the Greeks a mere chaos.

The first seven lines of this poem are quotations from the start of Saint Johnís Gospel in King James authorised version, the tenth line from Popeís Dunciad but shifted to the past tense.

 

DEAR COLLEAGUE

Philip Hobsbaum wrote a bitter, funny poem in the voice of someone interviewing an applicant for a teaching job. The applicant is rejected because, though an experienced teacher, he has also written books. My poem ends by paraphrasing the end of Philipís, which uses the conventional phrase ending most business letters in English.††

 

POEMS 9-15 INCLUSIVE

These seven poems were suggested by the titles and images of prints by Ian McCulloch. They were written in August 1998 for Ianís book of prints, The Artist in His World published by Argyll, of Glendaruel.

 

TO TOM LEONARD

While excepting god as the energy, form, matter of the universe and believing all religious beliefs are partly true, I dislike the division of god into father, son and holy ghost: a division I feel too human and masculine, yet also too abstract and theoretical to imagine. In October 1999 I was delighted to read God the Tree in translations from the poetry of Rilke. Rilke imagined a sixteenth century Russian monk who speaks of godís Italian branch having an unusually sunny growth compared with the Russian branch, which none the less has its own unique growths. The brought to mind Scotland and Tom Leonard and let me end this collection hopefully.

 
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