BY Craig Burnett in Interviews | 11 NOV 03
Featured in
Issue 79

Sound and vision

An interview with Lavinia Greenlaw

BY Craig Burnett in Interviews | 11 NOV 03

Good poets are preternaturally curious, and Lavinia Greenlaw has one of the most powerful senses of curiosity in contemporary poetry. The history of science, landscapes, 17th-century and contemporary art, photography, and the Penguin Pool at the London Zoo are a few of the things that she has converted into thoughtful poems. Poetry must also provide a way of comprehending subjective experience: it starts, as Greenlaw says, 'with our nerves' - which could be a materialist way of saying 'soul'. The tension between facts - the external world - and how they affect 'our nerves' gives Greenlaw's work its power and urgency.

'A World Where News Travelled Slowly', the title poem of her second book, won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 1997. Her most recent book, Minsk, was short-listed for the 2003 Forward Prize.

Craig Burnett  When I read 'Minsk' (2003), I was reminded of the fantastic scene in Barton Fink (1991) in which the head of Capitol Films, Lipnik, talks to Barton about writing: ' ... I'm not one of these guys who thinks poetic has gotta be fruity. We're together on that, aren't we? I mean I'm from New York myself - well, Minsk if yo' wanna go way back, which we won't if you don't mind and I ain't askin'.' Besides the coincidence of Lipnik's hometown, what are the pitfalls of going 'way back' and how did you resist becoming too sentimental in a poem about homecoming? Why Minsk?

Lavinia Greenlaw  Minsk is a runaway name with its own life, about which I keep discovering more. I haven't seen Barton Fink, but I will now.

My starting point was a lost life - mine with someone, which then extrapolated itself into his great-aunt's lost life in Minsk. She ended up in London and one day was stopped by an inspector on the underground and couldn't find her ticket. He said 'Where have you come from Madam?' and she replied 'Minsk'. Perhaps she and Lipnik were related.

I want to make clear that I resisted this poem for a long time, thinking it just a cute anecdote. Over ten years or so, it made itself clear as the place we think we've left behind and can't get back to, which might not have existed in the first place.

As I said, it's a runaway name - like Casablanca or Rio. Just the sound of it - crisp, chilly, inscrutable - brings to mind vodka and snow, iron and curtains, redundant statues, inescapable forests, frozen fields and endless apartment blocks. Typographically, it's damn near perfect, too.

CB  The materiality of the word 'Minsk' is great, like the line 'The power cuts shut the short days down' from 'The Long Day Closes', which reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The sound patterns become independent of meaning, giving the poem a double life.

LG  I was about to say that sound is not independent of meaning, that it is part of meaning, but am also aware of how it can create, as you say, a double life, especially in a medium where the elements are more discrete, such as opera. The way a man sings a woman's name can mean anything! I suppose that poetry pushes cracks between sound and meaning; it certainly uses sound to reach the reader where it matters, at gut level. Wallace Stevens said that poetry should be read on one's nerves and, as part of this visceral experience, sound provides more than just meaning. Sometimes it is a metrical pattern, sometimes a consciously stretched or broken pattern, but a sense of pattern is always there.

More formally, the metrics of 'The Long Day Closes' are intended to suggest children playing in a ring, dancing faster, falling over, the circle breaking. The language is deliberately dense, setting up trapped echoes. Hopkins is a great model, and I only wish I could take the risk of his extreme density without producing pure silt.

CB  He said that 'All beauty may by a metaphor be called rhyme, may it not?' Are you looking for a kind of beauty in your sound patterns, your 'trapped echoes'?

LG  Two kinds! Hopkins' 'Pied Beauty' (1877), with its opening line 'Glory be to God for dappled things', and also the beauty of pattern, which is one of heightening form and of things making their own sense.

CB  Could you talk about your interest in the visual arts - for example, your poem 'The Earliest Known Representation of a Storm in Western Art'.

LG  My starting point is perception: how we see, and our compulsion to map and measure the world (I am shortsighted and easily get lost.) Also, I am all for speechlessness and paintings are so nice and quiet!

'The Earliest Known Representation' came out of a day spent slogging around Florence, looking at restored frescoes. One blurred into another until I saw what looked like a patch of damp - a panel labelled 'The Earliest Known Representation of a Storm in Western Art'. It was very crude compared to the rest of the sequence and it seemed to me that while the artist had seen storms, he had no artistic precedent, no model. We need more (and less) than the truth in order to tell the truth clearly. I don't mean that to sound so slick - it's a constant negotiation and I am still fumbling towards what it, and I, mean ...

I'm also interested in how hard it is to see the familiar, or not to bring the familiar to meet the unknown (the curse of analogy). While at the Courtauld Institute, I wrote about a 16th-century artist called Jacques de Gheyn, whose nature studies (mice, frogs etc.) are divested of meaning and restored to strangeness. He appears in my poem 'Against Rhetoric'.

CB  In it, you call Jacques de Gheyn 'indifferent'. Do you mean that in the rarely used sense of 'impartial'? Was it his strangeness that attracted you to his work?

LG  Saying he was an 'indifferent history painter' is actually being kind to him. He was terrible. Despite all his independence and gifts and strangeness, did not escape the conventional ambition of the painters of his age, and finally succumbed to it.

Van Mander describes how de Gheyn taught himself about colour by methodically setting out squares of different shades, which seems an astonishingly modern way to go about things in 1600. I do think he could detach himself enough to see beyond aesthetic harmony. His colours can be really harsh. The skin of his frogs is broken down into a crude mottle of pink, yellow and green, but from any sort of distance looks exactly like the grainy, elastic, tough, damp surface you'd expect. He painted a yellow and black snail into one of his still lifes which I didn't believe in until one exactly the same crossed my path in Amsterdam.

CB  What made it so unbelievable?

LG  It was too vivid, painted and harsh for me to see as 'natural'. It made me realise that de Gheyn's strangeness is in part due to his confrontation with aesthetic convention, which infects naturalism and even the quasi-scientific documentation that he was undertaking, far more than we realise. Even this hardboiled age, we are looking for visual harmony, poetic harmony, a 21st-century kind of sweetness and light. De Gheyn was perhaps rare in his willingness and capacity to set this aside; like the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who has a way of reaching past all that and coming back with truth and wonder.

CB  What about 'Bright Earth' (2002), your A-Z of pigment, which is a mix of science and wonder? You must know Philip Ball's book Bright Earth (2002)?

LG  'Bright Earth' has a direct connection to Philip Ball's book as it was commissioned by the Royal Institution to complement a lecture he gave there on the subject. I made it an alphabet because I wanted to concentrate on single words and their etymological reverberations and associations. To me, this tight concentration and breakdown was like trying to focus on a single shade.

CB  Words are even more elusive than shades, aren't they? This is the double life I was talking about - the sensual and conceptual. They affect and depend on each other, but there is always a division - the 'cracks' that you mentioned - and experiencing that gap is one of the thrills of reading poetry.

LG  The sensual and the conceptual ... both appeal because they go beyond what we can articulate; when you use words all the time, it's good to be reminded of their limitations - also to escape them. Perhaps words try to fill the gap between the sensual and the conceptual? After all, words are not supposed to be an end in themselves, are they?

I agree about the thrill of reading poetry being one of getting caught between what we might call sense and sensibility. The same with writing it - the thrill comes from the need to make sense of what you're doing, to work within the logic of the poem, to make yourself clear (by which I don't mean direct); and at the same time and with the same urgency, the need to invoke and convey the feeling the poem started with - its impulse - and to keep it at the gut level I was talking about earlier.

CB  You've also worked with Garry Fabian Miller. His photographs in Thoughts of a Night Sea (2002), the book you did together, hit you at gut level because they seem impossible to articulate. How did you go about attaching words to his images?

LG  Garry and I discovered we admired each other's work and he took a chance on me with this book. He knew he didn't want a conventional text and my response to the images was to write as few words as possible.

The photographs are not made with a camera, but by shining light through a blue glass jar of water: visions of light and water which are not real but are made of light and water. We sat in his darkroom and then in his studio and talked, and I increasingly found affinities of process and decided to break it down, first into a list of words and then into the smallest possible texts which would lift off from those words and carry each barely discernible step of the making of an image towards the next.

As with 'Bright Earth', I focused on etymology, believing it to set off a deeper reverberation than we can sense in our minds.

CB  I wonder about this 'deeper reverberation'. Aren't you in danger of sounding 'fruity', as Lipnik calls it? Then again, it also reminds me of recent theories of consciousness that use quantum physics to understand how the human brain has some advantages over computers. Is it mysticism?

LG  All I mean is sound - not gongs or wind chimes or Mandelstam's 'buzz of the earth'. I was alluding to what you said earlier about the double life of language, and in this case wanted to make room for the less overt of the two. God, it's so hard to talk about this without sounding 'fruity'. You try it, Lipnik!

It was a response to the nature of this series of Garry's work - it resists narrative and makes clear it is not actual, but the effect on us is to make the night sea out of this light and water, and to read it. I wanted the text to arrest the reader at the point of imposing these things. In that sense, it is either anti-mysticism or an admission of susceptibility to all that, a tantalised resistance!

My brother did a PhD in astrophysics, studying spectra around a cluster of stars, and I remember him saying once that it had been a good month, he had got a result: 25 million light years, plus or minus 25 million light years. The logic of this was so mysterious to me that it induced a feeling of awe that might have something to do with the mystical: a sense of my own limitations, Francis Bacon's 'broken knowledge' which leads to a moment of wonder.

This is very tangled, but what I am getting round to saying is that yes, I think there is more to language, experience and thought than can be made sense of, but on the other hand, as Wallace Stevens said, poetry of all things has to be grounded in reality. It's about sense and truth, and those are things which we recognise by instinct first. The intellect follows and must be sufficiently met, but we start with our nerves.


Your great-aunt lost till sprung
by the London Underground inspector's question:

'Where from?' As if bright lines
had led her brothers onto opposite sides

to meet once, thirty years on,
in an airport transit lounge in Miami.

A boom-time armchair prospector
and First Violin of the Cuban Symphony,

reborn under the fixed signs
of Castro and Kennedy,

they fought like lovers, each believing himself
the one left behind in a place he could never

return to, beyond the forest wall
where beekeepers grind stone to brick

in settlement, change into exchange,
where history runs to meet itself

as here, where the headwaters of two rivers
are met by the confluence of two rivers.

A home upon a golden hill
with city gates of straw and strawheaded children.

The Last Postcard
after Malevich

I want to give you something as complete
as this house without doors or windows.
It swarms in its rectangle
as busy and inward as an ant hill.
It simmers beneath three chimneys
that are themselves just puffs of smoke,
signals, perhaps,
of frail but conclusive activity.

The red house stands on a green line
that could be grass or a thickening pool.
It widens a little to the left
as if growing or going somewhere.
As for the yellow fence or field
we could climb or walk it,
or take the road that passes through
in a sweep of black, oblivious.

This summer, the years are lining up
like the edge of the world.
All the weight is behind us,
behind the house.
Think of this as the long view:
a resettlement of colour into light
without doors or windows
like this house, where I wish you.

Craig Burnett is a writer and head of exhibitions at Blain|Southern Gallery, London/Berlin. He is based in London, UK.