Image by Georgie Ress

A tour of the Archive with Sarah Tremlett

Sarah Tremlett, artist and writer


I may be a closet listophile. Just as I have always been fascinated by the way that unlikely groupings of authors often rub shoulders amongst the nicknacks and flotsam of domestic bookshelves, so I am captivated by the serried tomes of library collections, groaning with the impossibility of harmoniously organising their writer-makers other than through alphabetical constraints. For me it is the sheer joy of accidental ‘literary neighbours’– the juxtaposition of philosophies, of absurd cross-temporal couplings, of antipathy amongst authorial intent, as if defying the surgical precision of the white-gloved archivist’s hand to comprehensively group; in other words each grouping also celebrates individuality. Every collection of books in the world (from a scattering of bleached old friends lounging on a dusty window sill to a populous marshalled by a ladder on wheels), will contain this marvellous aberration – who is sitting next to whom and just what would they be talking about? To this end I have made a selection of three pairs of poets from the archive; unlikely partners to consider in conjunction or communion with each other, but perhaps casting a brighter light on the notion of the solo author ‘cased, jacketed and bound’, orbiting in their own uni-lit universe. As a writer, artist and video poet I have chosen these writers not only for their shared subject matter, but for the often hauntingly visceral significance of voice as indicator of personal subjectivity. It is the atemporal actuality of the rhythms, tone and resonance of the spoken word that makes The Poetry Archive such a valuable site in the history of poetic language.



For John Clare

John Ashbery

John Ashbery in 'For John Clare' and Fleur Adcock in 'Leaving The Tate' both deal with the theme of 'captured' place. Ashbery's monotone inevitability soaks through the lines, beginning with the beautiful, 'Kind of empty in the way it sees everything, the earth gets to its feet and salutes the sky.' I feel him as tired, stoical earth, a kind of reluctant tourist of himself – displaced by the endless unfixability of moments repaired by the camera: 'If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are...'

Leaving the Tate

Fleur Adcock

In contrast, Adcock's friendly, Meissen-like voice chips delicately across London views, with an eye accustomed to recording life as selected images after leaving The Tate Gallery with a clutch of postcards. (This reminds me of an artist friend who, in his youth, once deposited postcards of his work in a well-known major art museum – but that is another story.) She uses broad, optimistic brushstrokes to portray her understanding of how an artist works: 'Another day would be different but it wouldn’t matter... Cut it off just there, by the lamp-post. Leave the scaffolding in. That’s your next one....' As if turning out art in a gesture, a trice – a trick, an easy facility which somehow defeats time. 'Art’s whatever you choose to frame.'

from Immram

Paul Muldoon

Both Bishop and Muldoon strike out with sharp, poetic narrative, distilling the experiential moments of time and place through masterful eyes. Paul Muldoon's 'From Immram' works an easy looseness of a well-beaten line. An elasticity and tightening of the everyday remark drives through biographical experiences in bars and shady places, with a sparkling Irish feel for the substance of the craft. The story is the thing, the Bardic tale with a glance over the shoulder – telling not describing – the breath of his life he is lucky to escape with drives us onward to the next epiphany and the next.

Filling Station

Elizabeth Bishop

The highs and lows of 'driving without a seat belt' are counterpointed by Elizabeth Bishop’s strapped-in lines, serving up detailed eye-witness accounts from a life lived through long-distance travelling. Her razor-sharp vignettes admit to a certain futility in the uncompromisingly powerful 'Filling Station'. Only a woman's eye for domestic detail 'part of the set' and detachment from the scene of action could have crafted this. The female awareness of the minutiae of life, the decorative effects which charmingly betray and beguile us. Bishop's voice (above all the others) feels the most distant from the words on the page – perhaps haunted by her mother's incarceration in an asylum during her childhood; a high-arching, American, careful sadness, coupled with a slow-burn humour and a finely honed execution, 'Somebody/arranges the rows of cans/so that they softly say:/ESSO-SO-SO-SO', indicating so many why's gone abated and dried out. The mother that she did not know seems to be translated into the knowing of everything else in her universe. Williams and Beer

The Widow's Lament in Springtime

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos William's 'The Widows Lament in Springtime' and Patricia Beer's 'The Lost Woman' both unravel feelings of loss (or displacement through time), and in each poem whiteness is linked with mortality. In Beer's moving work about the death of her mother there stands, like an angel a 'shocking white ambulance drawing away from the gate'. In William's hands it is white 'blossom' blown in the brevity and beauty of William's distilling which affects and unsettles; a reminder of time passing and finished, forever, forever. It hits you in the stomach with its inevitability and lightness of deliverance. 'Thirty five years/I lived with my husband./The plum tree is white today/With masses of flowers'. Williams' old, American voice, slightly cracked, like a sun-dried porch, methodically says not tells the words, as if it is someone else’s poem from someone else’s diary; each line ending trailing off, falling away, like life itself. When all is said and done you have to thank him for letting nature do the talking, sending the message across in as few words as necessary.

The Lost Woman

Patricia Beer

Patricia Beer's voice, which has been recorded in a public place, serves to highlight the isolation of the speaker and the proposition she makes – that there lies a lost woman in all of us. And, at this time, it is important to remember the position of women for centuries, lost in a world which defined them, rather than allowing their own identity to operate under their own terms. With a West Country accent peeping through, Beer offers and suggests with a perky, drifting lightness, (as if partly communicating via her imagination and an indecipherable intellectual puzzle), her understandings and considerations. She exudes familiarity, she disarms and we touch base as she makes and weaves and listens – her words affect in their shocking normality.

Losing

George Szirtes

As a postscript to this trio of couplets 'Losing' by the Hungarian refugee George Szirtes, might go some way to encapsulating all of the above. The reader is halted as words leak from deeply buried atrocities. Salvaged, fragile sense is forever reminded of unspeakable separation. His book does not stand shoulder to shoulder on the shelf next to the others but rests on them, ready to be grasped quickly in a moment of doubt, a financial crisis or racing on an empty stomach; in other words to bookmark us when we too have lost our place.


Sarah Tremlett, artist and writer

Sarah Tremlett is an artist, writer and video-poet.

Enjoy new recordings of classic poems from the past read by contemporary poets

The Mistress

John Wilmot Earl of Rochester

read by Alan Brownjohn

A Song For St Cecilia...

John Dryden

read by Glyn Maxwell