Looking at art, says the American poet Mark Doty (in his prose meditation, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon), can give us a sense of ‘being held in an intimacy with the things of the world’; describing those things, whether done by an artist or a poet, is what he calls ‘an inexact, loving art’. In the poetry published here, I’ve written about artworks, about objects, and though writing about them may be ‘inexact’ – how can you ever convey them in words? – I hope that these poems about pots, painting, sculpture also move beyond the things they describe and open up ideas about time and space and history, about sacredness and the body.
It’s only by putting these particular poems together for The Compass that I’ve begun to notice links and connections between them. Three of the poems are about pottery, springing from a project I’ve been working on with a potter, which has led me to explore what a pot might represent, and to think about how our bodies are vessels too, the physical also containing the invisible, the indefinable, in the same way that the clay pot holds air. I’m interested too in the ancient, seemingly intuitive, act of making things out of clay, and ‘Postcard from Japan’ hints at this long tradition, which in turn links with the Inuit tradition, and landscape, that inspired the words in ‘Set Adrift’. Similarly, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s work is rooted in the landscapes of her native Yorkshire and adopted Cornwall, and in the poem about her work, the sculptures and the river become part of one another. ‘The eggs’ may not be so obviously about art, but what I was partly trying to write about here was the sacredness of everyday things – how something as simple, and as ordinary, as an egg can become an object of contemplation. And like the pot, like the human body, it too is a vessel, a container.
When we describe the world, Doty continues, we become ‘closer to what we are’; and I think our poetry shows our preoccupations, lets our readers see who we are. Through juxtaposing these poems, I’ve been made more aware of my own way of looking at the world, and at ‘the things of the world’; hopefully that feeling of ‘being held in an intimacy’ with them will extend through the poems and out towards their readers.