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This article is taken from Poetry Nation 5 Number 5, 1975.Black and White - The Graphics of Charles Tomlinson (Translated by Michael Schmidt)
WHEN I first read one of Charles Tomlinson's poems, over ten years ago, I was struck by the powerful presence of an element which, later, I found in almost all his creative work, even in the most reflective and self-contemplating: the outer world, a presence at once constant and invisible. It is everywhere but we do not see it. If Tomlinson is a poet for whom 'the outer world exists', it must be added that it does not exist for him as an independent reality, apart from us. In his poems the distinction between subject and object is attenuated until it becomes, rather than a frontier, a zone of interpenetration, giving precedence not to the subject but rather to the object: the world is not a representation of the subject - rather, the subject is the projection of the world. In his poems, outer reality - more than merely the space in which our actions, thoughts and emotions unfold - is a climate which involves us, an impalpable substance, at once physical and mental, which we penetrate and which penetrates us. The world turns to air, temperature, sensation, thought; and we become stone, window, orange peel, turf, oil stain, helix.
Against the idea of the world-as-spectacle, Tomlinson opposes the concept - a very English one - of the world as event. His poems are neither a painting nor a description of the object or its more or less constant properties; what interests him is the process which leads it to be the object that it is. He is fascinated - with his eyes open: a lucid fascination - at the universal busyness, the continuous generation and degeneration of things. His is a poetry of the minimal catastrophes and resurrections of which the great catastrophe and resurrection of the worlds is composed. Objects are unstable congregations ruled alternately by the forces of attraction and repulsion. Process and not transition: not the place of departure and the place of arrival but what we are when we depart and what we have become when we arrive. . . The water-drops on a bench wet with rain, crowded on the edge of a slat, after an instant of ripening - analogous in the affairs of men to the moment of doubt which precedes major decisions - fall on to the concrete; 'dropped seeds of now becoming then'. A moral and physical evocation of the water-drops.
Thanks to a double process, at once visual and intellectual, the product of many patient hours of concentrated passivity and of a moment of decision, Tomlinson can isolate the object, observe it, leap suddenly inside it and, before it dissolves, take the snapshot. The poem is the perception of the change, a perception which includes the poet: he changes with the changes of the object and perceives himself in the perception of those changes. The leap into the object is a leap into himself. The mind is a photographic darkroom: there the images - 'the gypsum's snow/the limestone stair/and boneyard landscape grow/into the identity of flesh' ('The Cavern'). It is not, of course, a pantheistic claim of being everywhere and being everything. Tomlinson does not wish to be the heart and soul of the universe. He does not seek the 'thing in itself' or the 'thing in myself' but rather things in that moment of indecision when they are on the point of generation or degeneration. The moment they appear or disappear before us, before they form as objects in our minds or resolve in our forgetfulness . . . Tomlinson quotes a passage from Kafka which defines his purpose admirably: 'to catch a glimpse of things as they may have been before they show themselves to me.'
His procedure approaches, at one extreme, science: maximum objectivity and purification, though not suppression, of the subject. On the other hand, nothing is further from modern scientism. This is not because of the aestheticism with which he is at times reproached, but because his poems are experiences and not experiments. Aestheticism is an affectation, contortion, preciosity, and in Tomlinson we find rigour, precision, economy, subtlety. The experiments of modern science are carried out on segments of reality, while experiences implicitly postulate that the grain of sand is a world and each fragment figures the whole; the archetype of experiments is the quantitative model of mathematics, while in experience a qualitative element appears which up to now has not been limited to measurement. A contemporary mathematician, René Thorn, describes the situation with grace and exactness: 'A
la fin du XVIIième siècle, la controverse faisait rage entre tenants de physique de Descartes et de Newton. Descartes, avec ses tourbillons, ses atomes crochus, etc., expliquait tout et ne calculait rien; Newton, avec la loi de gravitation en l/r2, calculait tout et n'expliquait rien.' And he adds, 'Le point de vue newtonien se justifie pleinement par son efficacité . . . mais les esprits soucieux de compréhension n'auront jamais, au regard des théories qualitatives et descriptives, l'attitude méprisant du scientisme quantitatif.' It is even less justifiable to undervalue the poets, who offer us not theories but experiences.
In many of his poems Tomlinson presents us with the changes in the particle of dust, the outlines of the stain spreading on the rag, the way the pollen's flying mechanism works, the structure of the whirlwind. The experience fulfils a need of the human spirit: to imagine what we cannot see, give ideas a form the senses can respond to, see ideas. In this sense the poet's experiences are not less truthful than the experiments carried out in our laboratories though their truth is on another level from scientific truth. Geometry translates the abstract relationships between bodies into forms which are visible archetypes: thus, it is the frontier between the qualitative and the quantitative. But there is another frontier: that of art and poetry, which translates into sensible forms, that are at the same time archetypes, the qualitative relationships between things and men. Poetry - imagination and sensibility made language - is a crystallising agent of phenomena. Tomlinson's poems are crystals, produced by the combined action of his sensibility and his imaginative and verbal powers - crystals sometimes transparent, sometimes rainbow-coloured, not all perfect, but all poems that we can look through. The act of looking becomes a destiny and a profession of faith: seeing is believing.
It is hardly surprising that a poet with these concerns should be attracted to painting. In general, the poet who turns to plastic work tries to express with shapes and colours those things he cannot say with words. The same is true of the painter who writes. Arp's poetry is a counterpointing of wit and fantasy set against the abstract elegance of his painting. In the case of Michaux, painting and drawing are essentially rhythmic incantations, signs beyond articulate language, visual magic. The expressionism of some of Tagore's ink drawings, with their violence, compensates us for the sticky sweetness of many of his melodies. To find one of Valéry's water-colours among the arguments and paradoxes of the Cahiers is like opening the window and finding that, outside, the sea, the sun and the trees still exist. When I was considering Tomlinson, I called to mind these other artists, and I asked myself how this desire to paint came to manifest itself in a meditative temperament such as his - a poet whose main faculty of sense is his eyes, but eyes which think. Before I had a chance to ask him about this, I received, around 1970, a letter from him in which he told me he had sent me one of the New Directions Anthologies, which included reproductions of some of his drawings done in 1968. Later in 1970, during my stay in England, I was able to see other drawings from that same period - all of them in black and white, except for a few in sepia; studies of cow skulls, skeletons of birds, rats and other creatures which he and his daughters had found in the countryside and on the Cornish beaches.
In Tomlinson's poetry, the perception of movement is exquisite and precise. Whether the poem is about rocks, plants, sand, insects, leaves, birds or human beings, the true protagonist, the hero of each poem, is change. Tomlinson hears foliage grow. Such an acute perception of variations, at times almost imperceptible, in beings and things, necessarily implies a vision of reality as a system of calls and replies. Beings and things, in changing, come in contact: change means relationship. In those Tomlinson drawings, the skulls of the birds, rats and cows were isolated structures, placed in an abstract space, far from other objects, and even at a remove from themselves, fixed and immovable. Rather than a counterpointing of his poetic work, they seemed to me a contradiction. He missed out some of the features which attract me to his poetry: delicacy, wit, refinement of tones, energy, depth. How could he recover all these qualities without turning Tomlinson the painter into a servile disciple of Tomlinson the poet? The answer to this question is found in the work - drawings, collages and decalcomania* - of recent years.
Tomlinson's painting vocation began, significantly, in a fascination with films. When he came down from Cambridge in 1948, he had not only seen 'all the films'; he was also writing scripts which he sent to producers and which they, invariably, returned to him. This passion died out in time but left two enduring interests: in the image in motion, and in the idea of a literary text as support for the image. Both elements reappear in the poems and the collages. When the unions closed the doors of the film industry against him, Tomlinson dedicated himself energetically to painting. His first experiments, combining frottage, oil and ink, date from that period. Between 1948 and 1950 he exhibited his work in London and Manchester. In 1951 he had the opportunity to live for a time in Italy. During that trip the urge to paint began to recede before the urge to write poetry. When he returned to England, he devoted himself more and more to writing, less and less to painting. In this first phase of his painting, the results were indecisive: frottages in the shadow of Max Ernst, studies of water and rocks more or less inspired by Cézanne, trees and foliage seen in Samuel Palmer rather than in the real world. Like other artists of his generation, he made the circuit round the various stations of modern art and paused, long enough to genuflect, before the geometric chapel of the Braques, the Legers and the Gris's. During those same years - getting on towards l954 -Tomlinson was writing the splendid Seeing is Believing poems. He ceased painting.
The interruption was not long. Settled near Bristol, he returned to his brushes and crayons. The temptation to use black (why? he still asks himself) had an unfortunate effect: by exaggerating the contours, it made his compositions stiff. 'I wanted to reveal the pressure of objects', he wrote to me, 'but all I managed to do was thicken the outlines.' In 1968 Tomlinson seriously confronted his vocation and the obstacles to it. I refer to his inner inhibitions and, most of all, to that mysterious predilection for black. As always happens, an intercessor appeared: Seghers. Tomlinson was wise to have chosen Hercules Seghers - each of us has the intercessors he deserves. It is worth noting that the work of this great artist - I am thinking of his impressive stony landscapes done in white, black and sepia - also inspired Nicolas de Stael. Seghers's lesson is: do not abandon black, do not resist it, but embrace it, walk round it as you walk round a mountain. Black was not an enemy but an accomplice. If it was not a bridge, then it was a tunnel: if he followed it to the end it would bring him through to the other side, to the light. Tomlinson had found the key which had seemed lost. With that key he unlocked the door so long bolted against him and entered a world which, despite its initial strangeness, he soon recognised as his own. In that world black ruled. It was not an obstacle but an ally. The ascetic black and white proved to be rich, and the limitation on the use of materials provoked the explosion of forms and fantasy.
In the earliest drawings of this period, Tomlinson began with the method which shortly afterwards he was to use in his collages he set the image in a literary context and thus built up a system of visual echoes and verbal correspondences. It was only natural that he should have selected one of Mallarmé's sonnets in which the sea snail is a spiral of resonances and reflections. The encounter with surrealism was inevitable - not to repeat the experiences of Ernst or Tanguy but to find the route back to himself. Perhaps it would be best to quote a paragraph of the letter I mentioned before: 'Why couldn't I make their world my world? But in my own terms. In poetry I had always been drawn to impersonality - how could I go beyond the self in painting'? Or put another way: how to use the surrealists' psychic automatism without lapsing into subjectivism? In poetry we accept the accident and use it even in the most conscious and premeditated works. Rhyme, for example, is an accident; it appears unsummoned but, as soon as we accept it, it turns into a choice and a rule. Tomlinson asked himself: what in painting is the equivalent of rhyme in poetry? What is given in the visual arts? Oscar Domìnguez answered that question with his decalcomania. In fact, Domìnguez was a bridge to an artist closer to Tomlinson's own sensibility. In those days he was obsessed by Gaudì and by the memory of the dining-room windows in Casa Batlló. He drew them many times: what would happen if we could look out from these windows on the lunar landscape?
Those two impulses, Domìnguez's decalcomania and Gaudì's architectural arabesques, fused: 'Then, I conceived of the idea of cutting and contrasting sections of a sheet of decalcomania and fitting them into the irregular windowpanes . . . Scissors! Here was the instrument for choice. I found I could draw with scissors, reacting with and against the decalcomania . . . Finally I took a piece of paper, cut out the shape of Gaudì's window and moved this mask across my decalcomania until I found my moonscape . . . The 18th of June 1970 was a day of discovery for me: I made my best arabesque of a mask, fitted it round a paint blot and then extended the idea of reflection implicit in the blot with geometric lines . . . ' Tomlinson had found, with different means from those he used in his poetry but with analogous results, a visual counterpoint for his verbal world: a counterpointing and a complement.
The quotes from Tomlinson's letter reveal with involuntary but overwhelming clarity the double function of the images, be they verbal or visual. Gaudì's windows, converted by Tomlinson into masks, that is, into objects which conceal, serve him to reveal. And what does he discover through those window-masks? Not the real world: an imaginary landscape. What began on the 18th of June 1970 was a fantastic morphology. A morphology and not a mythology: the places and beings which Tomlinson's collages evoke for us reveal no paradise or hell. Those skies and those caverns are not inhabited by gods or devils; they are places of the mind. To be more exact, they are places, beings and things revealed in the darkroom of the mind. They are the product of the confabulation - in the etymological sense of that word - of accident and imagination.
Has it all been the product of chance? But what is meant by that word? Chance is never produced by chance. Chance possesses a logic - is a logic. Because we have yet to discover the rules of something, we have no reason to doubt that there are rules. lf we could outline a plan, however roughly, of its involved corridors of mirrors which ceaselessly knot and unknot themselves, we would know a little more of what really matters. We would know something, for instance, about the intervention of 'chance' both in scientific discoveries and artistic creation and in history and our daily life. Of course, like all artists, Tomlinson knows something: we ought to accept chance as we accept the appearance of an unsummoned rhyme.
In general, we should stress the moral and philosophical aspect of the operation: in accepting chance, the artist transforms a thing of fate into a free choice. Or it can be seen from another angle: rhyme guides the text but the text produces the rhyme. A modern superstition is that of art as transgression. The opposite seems to me truer: art transforms disturbance into a new regularity. Topology can show us something: the appearance of the accident provokes, rather than the destruction of the system, a recombination of the structure which was destined to absorb it. The structure validates the disturbance, art canonises the exception. Rhyme is not a rupture but a binding agent, a link in the chain, without which the continuity of the text would be broken. Rhymes convert the text into a succession of auditory equivalences, just as metaphors make the poem into a texture of semantic equivalences. Tomlinson's fantastic morphology is a world ruled by verbal and visual analogies.
What we call chance is nothing but the sudden revelation of relationships between things. Chance is an aspect of analogy. Its unexpected advent provokes the immediate response of analogy, which tends to integrate the exception in a system of correspondences. Thanks to chance we discover that silence is milk, that the stone is composed of water and wind, that ink has wings and a beak. Between the grain of corn and the lion we sense no relationship at all, until we reflect that both serve the same lord: the sun. The spectrum of relationships and affinities between things is extensive, from the interpenetration of one object with another - 'the sea's edge is neither sand nor water', the poem says - to the literary comparisons linked by the word 'like'. Contrary to surrealist practice, Tomlinson does not juxtapose contradictory realities in order to produce a mental explosion. His method is more subtle. And his intention is distinct from theirs: he does not wish to alter reality but to achieve a modus vivendi with it. He is not certain that the function of imagination is to transform reality; he is certain, on the other hand, that it can make it more real. Imagination imparts a little more reality to our lives.
Spurred on by fantasy and reined in by reflection, Tomlinson's work submits to the double requirements of imagination and perception: one demands freedom and the other precision. His attempt seems to propose for itself two contradictory objectives: the saving of appearances, and their destruction. The purpose is not contradictory because what it is really about is the rediscovery - more precisely, the re-living - of the original act of making. The experience of art is one of the experiences of Beginning: that archetypal moment in which, combining one set of things with another to produce a new, we reproduce the very moment of the making of the worlds. Intercommunication between the letter and the image, the decalcomania and the scissors, the window and the mask, those things which are hardlooking and those which are softlooking, the photograph and the drawing, the hand and the compass, the reality which we see with our eyes and the reality which closes our eyes so that we see it: the search for a lost identity. Or as Tomlinson puts it best: 'to reconcile the I that is with the I that I am'. In the nameless, impersonal I that is, are fused the I that measures and the I that dreams, the I that thinks and the I that breathes, the I which creates and the I which destroys.
* 'Decalcomania without preconceived object or decalcomania of desire: by means of a thick brush, spread out black gouache, more or less diluted in places, upon a sheet of glossy white paper, and cover at once with a second sheet, upon which exert an even pressure. Lift off the second sheet without haste.' Oscar Domìnguez, quoted in Surrealism by Roger Cardinal and Robert Stuart Short.
Black and White: The Graphics of Charles Tomlinson will be published by Carcanet Press.
This article is taken from Poetry Nation 5 Number 5, 1975.