Sunday, 6 December 2009

Echo Unvisited

INTERLOCUTER B: In his bedroom he’s got (.) he’s got this (0.2) a CD (.) it’s a stereo really (0.5) in the shape of a (.) of a jukebox and a (0.8) on the wa:ll there’s a err there’s this clock and it’s a an electric gu(h)itar (laughter)
INTERLOCUTER B: [it’s like yeah it’s like that game they play on the radio (.) only (.) you know (laughs) only it’s one thing in the shape of another.

There are those that we cannot love, those that we will not love – the unloved and unlovely. Upon such things, let us for a moment dwell. My intention first of all is to draw to mind a common scene, a British high street in the early part of the twenty-first century. It is important that you try to picture the thing I’m describing here, the herringbone bricks of pedestrianization buckled by two decades of wear; seasonally-blighted hanging baskets mounted from lamp-posts at intervals along the street. This is not London, though it might be; this is not any of the major cities, though it might be one of those equally. It is common, it is everystreet, but it is best depicted in the provinces where scale and ambition are smaller.

We have, let us say, an old Savoy Picture House on a corner: white Portland stone with statuary of Thalia and Melpomène dancing on the roof-top. It has been converted into a McDonalds restaurant since 1986. We have, let us say, a large neo-Georgian post office of the early ’30s; groaning and impressive and serving as an outlet of Argos. Banks scuttle the length of the street like apologetic hermit crabs in the vast shells of interestingly named Victorian banks long since swallowed up and forgotten about. There is a shoe-shop, probably, it may have closed; a travel-agents, ditto; a 1960’s Woolworths building now occupied by a shop that sells toilet brushes and dog food for under a pound. All of this is there, and for the most part unlovely, but it is not what I want you to look at.

Between two of these buildings there is another; it is hard to tell you what it is, it might be anything. For the purposes of our imagining though, let’s think of it as a former TSB or an Early Learning Centre. It is a small building, just a shop front and a storey above. It was built in the mid 1980s or early 1990s in a style that is probably best described as Provincial Post Modernism, though we will not call it that. We will not call it that, because I think what this building amounts to is a process common to all architecture, indeed to all artifice. Labelling its style would pin it down to an idea separate to its individual qualities, and in degrees both elevate and diminish it. I do not want us to dismiss this building, no matter how ordinary or unloved it might be to us. It is as worthy of our attention any piece of poetry or art:

Be Yarrow Stream unseen, unknown!
It must, or we shall rue it:
We have a vision of our own;
Ah! Why should we undo it?
The treasured dreams of times long past
We’ll keep them, winsome Marrow!
For when we’re there although ’tis fair
’Twill be another Yarrow!

It would be simplest for me to give you a picture of the kind of building I mean. A photograph could be found somewhere on the internet, and linked to, and you would know instantly what sort of thing I am talking about. I am not going to do that. I am not going to do so because I trust the argument given by Wordsworth in the passage above, which is a stanza from his poem ‘Yarrow Unvisited’. The poem, composed during the poet’s tour of Scotland in 1803, imagines a visit to the Yarrow Water, the river that ran beside Walter Scott’s house Abbotsford much detailed in his writing. Wordsworth did not visit the Yarrow that year, and would not do so for another decade. Dorothy noted at the time that they ‘debated concerning it, but came to the conclusion of reserving the pleasure for some future time’, and so the visit was not undertaken and it is not in the poem either.

Indeed, ‘Yarrow Unvisited’ is a poem about the process of picturing a thing before it is seen: ‘We have a vision of our own; / Ah! Why should we undo it?’ is the question at the heart of the matter. The image of the river is present and possessed at the point when it is still ‘unseen’; a point stressed in the possessive words ‘have’ and ‘own’ in the third line of the stanza. Yarrow ‘unseen’ belongs to Wordsworth in a way that the seen river would not. It is the discrepancy between these notions of seeing and possession that are crucial in the poem; how can we own the thing we have not seen? How can we not?

The form of Wordsworth’s poem, based upon a 1701 broadside ballad Leader-haughs and Yarow, reflects this issue. The first, third, fifth and seventh lines of the stanza are written in iambic tetrameter; the alternate lines in trimeter with a hypercatalectic – an extra syllable added to the line’s final foot. The effect of this is an alternating scheme of masculine and feminine rhymes – the first and third lines rhyme on their final syllable ‘known’ and ‘own’, but the second and fourth also rhyme on their penultimate: ‘rue it’ and ‘do it’. Modern readers might note of the alternating masculine and feminine rhymes a similarity to Betjeman’s poem ‘Youth and Age on Beaulieu Water’ (1945), and perhaps the effect of it in both poems is to replicate the waves and movement of water. This might be the case, but there is more happening in that form.

What we must look at is how Wordsworth views the river which ‘we have’ despite not having visited it; it is ‘unseen, unknown’. What these terms suggest is not simply negation but also reversal. Firstly, they are negatives suggesting that in the present the river has not yet been seen or known; seeing and knowing are what might only exist in the future. However, the use of the word ‘undo’ in the fourth line prompts us towards another reading; to ‘undo’ is quite a different thing, a reversal of an act that has already been carried out. We can only ‘undo’ that which has been done; in the same way, we might read the first line of this stanza to mean that we can only ‘unsee’ that which has been seen, ‘unknow’ that which has been known. We assume of the alternate lines that they are written in trimeter with an extra syllable added; but equally they might be tetrameter with the final dipody cut short. These lines, put plainly might be ‘undone’.

The act of imagining is the primary instinct in the poem. To go to and look at the river would not be to ‘see’ it; for in doing so we would find it to ‘be another Yarrow’ a thing different from our own(ed) version. To fill in the ‘missing’ syllables of the alternate lines, would render it another poem. Our lack is our strength here; we own best that which we do not have and must thereby imagine.

And so, I do not want you to look at the building in the High Street, I want you instead to see it. It is, as I have already stated a small building. It is built out of brick; not simply brick but bricks of different colours; the main body is a yellow brick, around its shop front are two blank-faced pilasters of red. Beneath the two oblong windows of the first storey are panels of a greyish, bluish brick. The building is symmetrical. It rises to a brick pediment that houses a small, circular window. This is not a real window – there is not a room behind it – merely a network of pipes insulated with silver foil, though you cannot see this for the ‘window’ is glazed with opaque black glass. The window frames are red. I think they are red. They are red, or blue, or possibly green. They are probably a primary colour. The pediment is topped with a composite stone, a little like sandstone in colour. You can see the joins of mortar between each slab; these provide a rich habitat for moss. A ball tops the pediment, a globe if you will, a little larger than a football made in the same composite stone.

Can you see it yet? I really want you to try to.

Two oblong windows in the same primary-coloured UPVC frames occupy the first storey. In both, the glass is divided into four panes; behind which there is a halogen-lit office which may, or may not, be connected to the shop beneath.

On the face of it, it is not a very interesting building; it is less showy than the Savoy Picture House and meagre in its proportions against the impressive post-office building. If buildings expose the preoccupations of the age they were built in, then this building – squat, simplistic, cheap – gives a grim insight into the last two decades that may have built it. But see it; really take in what it is about. These buildings – up and down the country, infill in streets of greater structures – wants to be something else, something better.

Look at the out-of-town supermarkets of the same period; structures not constrained by space or finance in the same way as this pitiful structure. These sprawling edifices to Mammon, do not want to look like places where you buy nappies and diet coke in bulk. They decorate themselves with long external arched colonnades, pitched rooves, a clock tower perhaps, a weathervane or two. They desire to be the old market-halls of England made large, made comprehensive. They want us to look at them and feel those same warm feelings of love that we get when we find ourselves unexpectedly in country market towns. Only we do not love these supermarket buildings; we barely think of what they look like, we often hate their intention in the first place.

The intent of our 1980’s high street building however is surely less objectionable. It cannot be claimed that it is ‘killing the high street’ in the way that the supermarket might, because it is contributing to it. Yet we still do not warm to it, we do not want to love it. Our grounds for this are predominantly aesthetic; we do not take it seriously, we don’t think it deserves our love. To a degree, it is engaged in the same false nostalgia as the supermarket; only its reference points are other high-street buildings. Its pediment, roundel, globe, all point towards it wanting to be something grander, something Palladian, but it doesn’t really look anything like. Perhaps we do not like it because we think this nostalgia is ‘fakery’; yet all its neighbours in the street are also historical shams.

Our building occupies a shape. It is the shape of some other building. In silhouette, it might not differ greatly from a Georgian house, but in detail it is something other. This is the great difference between it and the 1930’s post-office. The post-office attempts to mimic a Georgian building in its dressing: fanlights, steps up to the door, big brass knobs. It hopes that we might look at it and not consider that it is not a Georgian building, though perversely where it differs most is in its scale. It performs mimicry of style and embellishment, and we take it seriously as such. Our 1980’s building merely echoes shape; and our response is somewhat different.

A few years ago, I taught John Hollander’s poem ‘Swan and Shadow’ to a group of undergraduates. These students, eager to succeed, were honed to seek out and analyse “serious literature”. They had fallen under a common misapprehension that their task in hand – their task in studying, their task in life – was to identify things that were “good” and things that were “bad”. “Samuel Beckett is a good writer”, “Tom Clancy is a bad writer”, “William Blake is a good writer”, “Shakespeare is an overrated writer”; these are the kinds of things you hear. They are meaningless statements, easily totted out, and utterly irrelevant. Yet, I think because of the way formalised education directs us towards some things in favour of others it is common to develop a sense of value-judgement in this act.

The students, faced with Hollander for the first time, took it to be a joke; a test, perhaps – it was the Emperor’s new verse and I had put it in front of them to see if they would fall into the trap. “It’s just shaped like a swan,” they sniggered. They dismissed it as a novelty:

                           Above the
                      water hang the
                              O so
                          What             A pale signal will appear
                         When         Soon before its shadow fades
                       Where       Here in this pool of opened eye
                       In us     No Upon us As at the very edges
                        of where we take shape in the dark air
                         this object bares its image awakening
                           ripples of recognition that will
                              brush darkness up into light
even after this bird this hour both drift by atop the perfect sad instant now
                              already passing out of sight
                           toward yet untroubled reflection
                         this image bears its object darkening
                        into memorial shades Scattered bits of
                       light     No of water Or something across
                       water       Breaking up No Being regathered
                        soon         Yet by then a swan will have
                         gone             Yes out of mind into what
                               of a
                      sudden dark as
                           if a swan

Of course, it is shaped like a swan, but that is not the end of it – there is a lot more to say. Firstly, it is shaped not ‘just’ like a swan as the student said, but as a swan and it’s reflection – or, as Hollander titles it ‘Swan and Shadow’. That’s fairly interesting in the first place because what we expect is not shadow, the blocking out of light, but – and this is what the poem seems to describe – the reflection of it. It mimics the shape of another thing, much in the same way that our 1980’s building seems to. Both have a recognisable outline, but this is not all; they have a discernable form unique to themselves. If we look at the poem, what we find is that it is not simply the outward shape of the poem that is reflected in the middle line, but indeed the metre – the number of syllables in each line is mirrored in its reflected counterpart.

Though we view the poem initially as a whole; our reading experience undertakes it in parts. Reading is a progression. When we begin a book or poem we cannot know what it is about until we have reached the end. Seeing, however, fools us into believing we can understand the whole in an instant. This is the fundamental error that we make in our dismissal of buildings, art, poetry of this kind, that we assume we can understand in a moment. We must take time to read the visual in the same way that we do with the literature that we take time to study. This is in a way what the poem is exploring.

As we read, we encounter the poem in stages allowing it to ‘take shape in the dark air’ of the page, to produce ‘ripples of recognition’ as we begin to see the thing we are really reading about. This is true of all reading not only Hollander’s ‘Swan and Shadow’, yet it is a common mistake particularly amongst English undergraduates to arrive at a text with a preconception of what it is saying. Indeed it is the error that Wordsworth has already befallen in picturing his Yarrow – knowing it, owning it – before he has visited the place for himself.

When we begin ‘Swan and Shadow’ we are not reading about a swan at all:

                           Above the
                      water hang the

This is dusk; we are placed in the poem ‘above the water’ hanging in the air with the flies. This description of what is above the water ‘hangs’ there over the main body of the piece itself. Throughout the poem we find this. The ‘object bares its image’ only when the text has reached a point when it can begin to be recognised as a swan. Similarly it is ‘already passing out of sight’ at the point when the image has passed and is now becoming a reflection. The fulcrum to all of this is the final line of the water: ‘now’. It is the last moment at which we are able to look at the swan and not at the memory of it, but it is urgent because it is only in that moment, only when the swan is fully visible to us that we are really able to see it at all.

The poem is without punctuation. New sentences are implied by capital letters, and pauses occasionally seem to come at line endings. In other cases the poem’s enjambment encourages us to a continuous reading pattern. This uninterrupted movement creates for the reader both the impression of an image being assembled from ‘scattered bits of light’ or scattered words, but also the sense of the passing moment, the juncture in which something might be seen.

What Hollander’s poem explores is the process of seeing before an object is in sight, the moment at which it is seen, and the passing of it

                                              out of mind into what
                               of a
                      sudden dark

The ‘pale hush [...] past sudden dark’ is strikingly beautiful. It is both the entry of it into memory and also death, a notion instilled by the final image of the bird’s swansong. Whereas the first half of the poem opens in the physical space of dusk above the water; its ending is in the mind:

                           if a swan

This movement from the physical to the mental image is much like that of Wordsworth’s trilogy of Yarrow poems. As discussed earlier, the first of these ‘Yarrow Unvisited’ (1803) concerns the mental expectation of sight, much like the first half of ‘Swan and Shadow’. The second, ‘Yarrow Visited’ (1814) is engaged with the moment of seeing first-hand ‘Thy genuine image, Yarrow’ much like the central part of Hollander’s poem. In the last of these, ‘Yarrow Revisited’ (1831) concerns the remembered image of the day.

I have not seen this noted elsewhere but Hollander’s poem surely relates to the Yarrow poems, its title being taken from ‘Yarrow Unvisited’:

Let Beeves and home-bred Kine partake
The sweets of Burn-mill meadow;
The Swan on still St. Mary’s Lake
Float double, Swan and Shadow!
We will not see them; will not go,
Today, nor yet tomorrow;
Enough if in our hearts we know,
There’s such a place as Yarrow.

Though Wordsworth states that ‘We will not see them; will not go’ in the poem, the bird and its double are already seen. Both the poet and the reader picture them floating on the lake, as the swan in ‘Swan and Shadow’ is imagined from its outline before we begin reading it. “I see–” Wordsworth writes in ‘Yarrow Visited’, “but not by sight alone, / Loved Yarrow” and this is the crucial point here, our experience of “seeing” and “loving” must exist beyond “sight alone” or else we deliver false reactions like: “It’s just shaped like a swan.”

It’s with that in mind that I want us to reconsider our 1980’s high street building, or indeed anything that we have dismissed as being unworthy of our attention. The student’s stumbling block with ‘Swan and Shadow’ was that they immediately saw the ‘object’ of the poem, and decided it was frippery; yet the outline form of it is crucial to what the poem is attempting to deliver. What we are looking at is not swan at all, but a collection of black marks that reflect the outline of the bird. Most artifice is a kind of reflection; a painting of a swan replicates its physical appearance, the 1930’s post office building attempts to mirror the architecture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Some reflections are more accurate than others, and here there is a distinction to be drawn between reflection and echo. Here in Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Narcissus’s fate of reflection is depicted with quite staggering detail:

He feedes a hope without cause why. For like a foolishe noddie
He thinkes the shadow that he sees, to be a liuely boddie.
Astraughted like an ymage made of Marble stone he lyes,
There gazing on his shadowe still with fixed staring eyes.
Stretcht all along vpon the ground, it doth him good to see
His ardant eyes which like two starres full bright and shyning bee.
And eke his fingars, fingars such as Bacchus might beseeme,
And haire that one might worthely Apollos haire it deeme.
His beardlesse chinne and yuorie necke, and eke the perfect grace
Of white and red indifferently bepainted in his face.
All these he woondreth to beholde, for which (as I doe gather)
Himselfe was to be woondred at, or to be pitied rather.
He is enamored of himselfe for want of taking heede.

The emphasis is placed upon the body parts, the ‘ardant eyes [...] like stars’, the ‘beardlesse chinne and yvorie necke’ produce in the poem a potently erotic image of the boy. Reflection is about detail, in the way that the post office copies accurately the Georgian fanlights it admires. Echo’s fate is different, she suffers because she is robbed of bodily form reduced to just a voice that resembles that which she admires:

Ay readie with attentiue eare she harkens for some sounde,
Whereto she might replie hir wordes, from which she is not bounde.
By chaunce the stripling being strayde from all his companie,
Sayde: is there any body nie? straight Echo answerde: I.
Amazde he castes his eye aside, and looketh round about,
And come (that all the Forrest roong) aloud he calleth out.
And come (sayth she:) he looketh backe, and seeing no man followe,
Why fliste, he cryeth once againe: and she the same doth hallowe,
He still persistes and wondring much what kinde of thing it was
From which that answering voyce by turne so duely seemde to passe,
Said: let vs ioyne. She (by hir will desirous to haue said,
In fayth with none more willingly at any time or stead)
Said: let vs ioyne.

Echo is without detail. What we read of her is only her responses to the words spoken by Narcissus. She is reduced to simple resemblance that we might mistake at first for something else, and as such is defined by her lack, the thing that she is not. In a sense this is the fate of our 1980’s building – it is a shape that resembles something, so we do not care to look at its detail. We think we already know it. Hollander in writing about Echo, notes that:

In the association of Echo with Narcissus, the profoundest relations between light and sound, emptiness and fullness of self, absorption and reflection, are established. Ovid’s story of Echo’s hopeless love for the autoleptic youth follows the spurned nymph into the woods and, finally, into what will be thenceforth her canonical doom [...] Within such hollow spaces she withers away into a voice speaking out of bones; then the bones petrify in time, and the voice speaking out of the woodland caves.

These petrified bones have built the architecture of our modern cities. Buildings, which we dismiss as mere echoes, deserve listening to; deserve perhaps even our pity. We refuse to love this building because we define it by what we perceive to be its lack – it isn’t ‘as good’ as the Neo-Georgian post office, and do not consider what it is beyond this assumption. The slavish replication of lavish reflection is not, I suspect, so different from the echoed forms of these ignored buildings. We should at least try to see if not love them.