Thursday, May 12, 2011

In the novel 'Mr Palomar' by Italo Calvino, there is an episode in which the eponymous hero visits a Zen meditation garden - the Ryoanji in Tokyo - where he tries to meditate on the sand and rocks which are meant to invoke a feeling peace and oneness:

"[Mr Palomar] allows the indefinable harmony that links the elements of the picture gradually to pervade him.

Or, rather, he tries to imagine these things as they would be felt by someone who could concentrate on looking at the Zen garden in solitude and silence. Because - we had forgotten to say - Mr Palomar is crammed on the platform in the midst of hundreds of visitors, who jostle him on every side...

...What does he see? He sees the human race in the era of great numbers, which extends in a crowd, level, but still made up of distinct individualities, like the sea of grains of sand that submerges the surface of the world..."

I like that expression "the era of great numbers", which captures the combination of magnificence and banality that characterises our experience of living in an overpopulated world. If you're wondering where this is heading, well, first I just want to say what a wonderful piece of work "Mr Palomar" is: I've recently read this short novel, which reads like a set of prose poems, and which I'd love to be able to read in the original Italian. Secondly, the "the era of great numbers" aptly describes the poetry world, and probably the world of most other artforms, at least in The West. The number of poets and the volume of poetry they produce is overwhelming. But I don't take the high-modernist approach that it's too much, that the masses have usurped the citadel, and that the days when a few members of the elect dispensed poetry to the public was better (note: that's a tongue-in-cheek caricature). If you keep an open mind, you can enjoy the constant delights and surprises that crop up all the time - tinged with the regret that you're never going to get it all. A small sample of poetry arrives on my doormat or inbox at a steady rate. These are a few books I'm very much enjoying at the moment:

in arcadia by Alisdair Paterson (Oystercatcher)
Play. Pause - Words to Three Musics by David Kennedy (Cherry on the Top)
Shod by Mark Goodwin (Nine Arches)
Silk Egg by Eileen R Tabios (Shearsman)
A Stone Dog by Aidan Semmens (Shearsman)
Shifting Registers by Ian Seed
When the blue light falls 2 by Carol Watts (Oystercatcher)

All of these are excellent, and I hope to get round to writing short reviews of at least some of them; in the meantime I'm enjoying their variety and range - one benefit at least of living in "the era of great numbers".


Aidan Semmens said...

Must read some Calvino - that excerpt is excellent, Alan. As is your identification and analysis of the 'era of great numbers'. If blogger had a 'like' button I'd have hit it before I got to your mention of A Stone Dog! (And is that an Alasdair Paterson I haven't seen or read there... ?)
Can't help wondering, though, what a modern(ist) Malthus might predict for the future of poetry, though...

Alan Baker said...

Hi Aidan. It's the first Alisdair Paterson I've read, and I'm well impressed. Taking a long break is obviously good for one's poetry, as you and Ed Baker (and George Oppen) can attest. Too late for me to take a long break :-)
And yes, applying Malthusian theories to poets might mean a sudden drop in numbers (though the Coalition cuts might have a similar effect).

Aidan Semmens said...

Alasdair's great - on the governing of empires is one of my very favourite recent books: he's also an excellent reader and a jolly nice chap. I remember him being quite good before he took his long break, but he's much sharper now.