Sunday, 30 August 2009

Simon Turner - Close Encounters (2) - David Gascoyne, 'The Very Image'

I must admit to having been slightly obsessed with this poem since I first read it years ago (context unknown). Apparently, you can judge how much someone loves a book by the numbers of editions they have in their house (Ulysses: 6; The Divine Comedy: I've lost track; Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book: 0), and I think much the same rule applies to individual poems. 'The Very Image' is printed in at least four texts I own, including Gascoyne's selected, and an excellent Penguin anthology entitled English and American Surrealist Poetry, which does exactly what it says on the tin, more or less; so that should give you some indication of how much esteem I hold this poem in (or the degree of my manic hoarding disorder, your call).

Anyway, the reason I want to discuss this poem here and now - aside from proving my co-editor wrong about my status as some kind of nascent hermit - is because I find it interesting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I think it is one of Gascoyne's strongest Surrealist poems, and one of the best examples of linguistic Surrealism produced by the English Surrealist group. Secondly, I think the poem has great value as being in some ways indicative of the English Surrealist group's poetics as a whole, though I'll get on to that shortly.

'The Very Image's' greatest strength is its simplicity. It's built in five line stanzas, each on containing a single image. Here's the opening:

An image of my grandmother
her head appearing upside-down upon a cloud
the cloud transfixed on the steeple
of a deserted railway station
far away

There is a distinct 'purity of diction' (to borrow Donald Davie's phrase) on display here, and the connection to Davie is an instructive one. One of the Movement's main bugbears was, of course, Modernism (though how much of that was literary leg-pulling is up for debate, and Davie's own unceasing aesthetic support for Pound and Bunting rather complicates the picture), but their real ire was saved for Dylan Thomas and the New Apocalypse crowd (including Nicholas Moore, Henry Treece, George Barker, and Norman McCaig for a short while). One of the primary well-springs of the New Apocalyptic aesthetic was, of course, Surrealism, and Gascoyne's Surrealist poems in many regards pre-empt the Apocalyptic project. 'The Very Image' is striking precisely because it forgoes the apocalyptic (small-a) tone that dominates in other poems of his, such as 'And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis', favouring instead a rhetoric almost of plain statement, which is much more effective in allowing the startling images to show through.

The poem is dedicated to René Magritte, the Belgian artists whose paintings, alongside those of Dali, have become a visual shorthand, via poster prints of his most famous works, of what Surrealism is supposedly all about. In the process, his paintings have lost much of their capacity for strangeness: we come to a Magritte thinking we already know the score. Gascoyne's poem succeeds in making Magritte strange again, creating a series of uncanny and vertigo-inducing images through the plainest of means:

An image of an aeroplane
the propeller is rashers of bacon
the wings are of reinforced lard
the tail is made of paperclips
the pilot is a wasp

Which brings me on to my second point. Whilst the visual heritage of Surrealism enjoys a great deal of popular success - however much that success has stripped its greatest practitioners of the capacity to shock and appall - the literary possibilities of Surrealism have either been relegated to the status of a cult, with writers such as Gascoyne enjoying a small but committed readership, or the processes which gave birth to classics like The Magnetic Fields and Paris Peasant have been watered down by several generations of 'soft' Surrealists. It is strange, then, that many of the great writers seem to pre-empt their own redundancy, as the visual is repeatedly given precedence over the written, the linguistic, in many of the great theoretical texts of Surrealism. Basically, these lads were bare obsessed with eyes, with what the eye could produce imaginatively: language was only valuable insofar as it coulld produce new images for the mind's eye to confront.

Gascoyne's poem, however, seems to be rather more ambivalent. Yes, it's dedicated to Magritte, yes, it's entitled 'The Very Image', but the poem's effects - that of accumulation, whereby the image only makes 'sense' (or rather, feels complete) once each individual stanza is over - are chiefly linguistic in character. The shock of learning that the pilot of the insane plane in the quotation above is a wasp is only possible, I would argue, in a written text: a visual text could not withhold information in this way. Likewise, in the poem's final stanza, the reader is confronted with new information which alters all that has gone before:

And all these images
and many others
are arranged like waxworks
in model birdcages
about six inches high

What begins, then, as a hymn to a great painter becomes, to my mind, a celebration of the almost godlike capacity of the poet to control the reader's perceptions, finally belittling the images he has created in the foregoing stanzas.


The Editors said...

Glad to see I've goaded some magic out of you. I enjoyed your take on this, but most of all the shameless use of "bare obsessed with".

It's an accumulation of context - it establishes the environment in which the reader can trust that the pilot is a wasp, which is wonderful.

But to what extent is the trust the reader places in the poem's imagery posited by the poet's reputation, the historical context that surrealism is now in?

Is there something that newer poets, working in a different way, context, social environment, utilise in order to create a reader's trust in their poem's ability to go where it wants to go? No, I'm probably barking up the wrong tree, searching for some kind of empirical magic...


The Editors said...

George, I'm not sure if there is an easy answer to that, but to my mind, at least part of the contract of trust generated by Gascoyne's poem is related to the simplicity of the language: structurally, semantically, it's very approachable, even conservative: what startles is the content, the fact that the poem creates a space in which phrases like 'the pilot is a wasp' can come into being as though such a thing were perfectly reasonable. I was remindedby your comment of Lyn Hejinian's assertion of Ron Silliman's Tjanting (and I'm paraphrasing / misquoting) that every word is recognisable to the reader. Which I take to mean that Silliman allows the reader in through his use of the concrete-colloquial tradition in American poetry, but then pulls the rug from under their feet with his complex mathematical patterning. Trust is generated by a readily-deciphered vocabulary: surprise is generated by repetition, decontextualisation and general semantic derangement. Helpful? Probably not, but it's early, so you can give me some leeway.