Blue Poles

Trumpet Issue 2

It would be nice if poetry wrote itself. Occasionally, when I was younger, I had the feeling that it did: poems were likely to be written quickly, in a flush of enthusiasm it pleased (flattered) me to call inspiration. Sometimes so quickly that in some kind of weird hippocampal storm I had the feeling I was remembering something and copying it down rather than making it up as I went along. Those were the best times. As one gets older the realisation dawns that the hotline to Parnassus was little more than the excited firing of youthful synapses and that the process happened quickly because one’s brain was younger. Idleness was also a factor. Now it feels more like hanging onto a rising balloon, or chasing after a snatch of melody just on the edge of earshot. I’m referring to the initial draft only here: the spit-and-polish stage can take anything from days to months to years.

I had got it into my head, after reading a biography of the American painter Jackson Pollock, that there were uncanny similarities between his ‘predicament’ and that of the English yachtsman Donald Crowhurst. If I had stopped to think about how irrational this comparison was I would never have attempted to write a poem about it, but the initial enthusiasm for a poem can feel a bit like an ill-advised infatuation: in your heart of hearts you know it’s a questionable idea, but you can’t help hoping it might all turn out for the best anyway.

Crowhurst was a participant in the Sunday Times Golden Globe yacht race in 1968. This weekend sailor and unflagging optimist found himself in an unenviable position: deeply in debt, having mortgaged his house and business on his participation in the race, he knew he was unprepared and that his boat was unseaworthy. Knowing he wouldn’t survive the Southern Ocean and unwilling to let his family and main financial backer down, he falsified his position and hung around for a couple of months in the Southern Atlantic, waiting to rejoin the race in last place once the other participants sailed back up the Atlantic en route to England. However, as a number of the other competitors dropped out or came a cropper, Crowhurst realised that his self-built trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, would come in the apparent winner of the ‘elapsed time’ race, i.e. with the single fastest global circumnavigation. Crowhurst knew that his falsified logbooks would be subject to close scrutiny and that an even greater humiliation, and probable legal action, awaited him. His yacht was discovered on 10 July 1969, unoccupied and drifting. A logbook he left seemed to indicate that, under immense pressure, he had gone insane and committed suicide by jumping off the boat. The ship’s chronometer was also missing.

It struck me that Jackson Pollock was similarly irrevocably committed: to a style that he felt was a dead-end. Snide critics calling him ‘Jack the Dripper’ probably didn’t help, and his alcoholism and growing fame seem only to have reinforced the feeling he held that deep down, he was a fraud. His struggle with the huge canvas, Blue Poles is a case in point: desperate to find a way out of the tangled, formless mass of paint, he followed his wife Lee Krasner’s suggestion of introducing the lines or ‘poles’ as a focal point, and these seem to me to act like magnets, organising the chaos behind them in the way that a magnet orders iron filings into a distinctive pattern. I had wanted to write about Blue Poles for a while, but poems about paintings are tricky, and the similarity I perceived between Crowhurst and Pollock offered me an opportunity, a psychological ‘in.’

The first lines of the poem were written quickly, as I wanted to get in the idea of freedom itself being disabling, especially in the case of a painter who has abandoned form:

Freedom is a prison for the representative savant
          addled on bath-tub gin and with retinas inflamed

Pollock, in the way that some artists are, had been ‘taken up’ as fashionable by Time magazine and Peggy Guggenheim, as well as critics with particular axes to grind, and his gruffness and relative lack of education must have made him seem something of a savant, simultaneously courting the attention (and in desperate need of the money) and despising it, and, in the process, himself.

The details that followed emerged from meditating on Pollock as in some sense a representative American artist – faced with a vast imagined hinterland, haunted by the sense of a landscape beyond human influence. This sense of the vastness of space is present in all of the American poets I admire: in Wallace Stevens, in Frost and most extraordinarily in Emily Dickinson. I imagined Pollock reacting similarly, casting

                    such desperate lariats
across space, repeatedly anticipating the fall
          into disillusion, the sine wave skewered
by the oscilloscope, the mirror’s hairline fracture

‘Lariat’ is an American English word for ‘lasso’ and it struck me as appropriate both to Pollock’s painting technique and his machismo. A few lines down, the ‘pushy midwife’, the ‘veiled mother’ and the ‘rich woman’ allude to the strong women in Pollock’s life with whom he had such troubled and ambivalent relations; his wife, his mother and his patroness, respectively.

There is an extreme quality to Jackson’s painting, as if he was continually trying to free himself from the prison of form and the terror of influence. Such radical freedom is not possible in this life, of course, and attempts to gain it usually only end one way. The line ‘tracing the drunken white line at midnight on the highway,’ alludes to Pollock’s habit of walking in the middle of traffic while extremely drunk, deliberately courting an accident. The final lines of the poem join the compulsion of Pollock to the compulsion of Crowhurst; still improbably, perhaps, but in a way that seemed to me psychologically meaningful:

                           drawing about you
such a field of force that there was nothing left to do
           but plant blue poles amongst the spindrift and iron filings
and step, clutching your brass chronometer,
          clean off the deck and into the sky
where a lens rose to meet you like a terrifying eye.

The ‘lens’ alludes generally to the fear of scrutiny harboured by both men, but more specifically to the famous film by Hans Namuth which depicts Pollock painting onto a sheet of glass or Perspex, with the camera underneath filming upwards. The resulting feeling of exposure and of being a ‘sell-out’, according to his biographer, seems to have sent Pollock definitively over the edge.

I wanted the form of the poem to echo as much as possible the tension and provisional nature of Pollock’s ‘action painting’ technique, so the indented lines are an attempt to indicate something continually, urgently pressing forwards. Similarly with the poem’s rather abrupt ending, which seemed to present itself, over the course of several drafts, as the only appropriate way out. I struggled for weeks with the fact that the poem addresses the artist directly. Addressing famous people in verse can seem silly and pretentious (shades of E J Thribb) but the poem worked best, I think, with an urgent tone, and that urgency was imparted by direct address in a way that a more detached idiom couldn’t manage. In the final analysis, the poem is simply a very personal response to a painting and two life narratives that moved me. 

Blue Poles 
After Jackson Pollock
by Caitríona O'Reilly 

Freedom is a prison for the representative savant
    addled on bath-tub gin and with retinas inflamed
from too long staring into the Arizona sun
    or into red dirt which acknowledges no master
but the attrition of desert winds and melt-water.
    Is that why you cast such desperate lariats
across space, repeatedly anticipating the fall
    into disillusion, the sine wave skewered
by the oscilloscope, the mirror’s hairline fracture?
    The West was won and there was nowhere left to go
so you vanished into a dream of perpetual motion
    knowing that once to touch the surface
was to break the spell, but that while the colours hung
    on the air an instant, there was no such thing
as the pushy midwife, the veiled mother in the photograph,
    the rich woman’s bleated blandishments.
Tracing the drunken white line at midnight on the highway,
    you were too far gone to contemplate return,
like Crowhurst aboard the Electron; not meaning
    to go to sea, but drawing about you
such a field of force that there was nothing left to do
    but plant blue poles among the spindrift and iron filings
and step, clutching your brass chronometer,
    clean off the deck and into the sky
where a lens rose to meet you like a terrifying eye. 

Caitríona O’Reilly has published two collections of poetry with Bloodaxe Books, The Nowhere Birds (2001) and The Sea Cabinet (2006). A third collection, Geis, is forthcoming in 2015. 

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