Sunday, 23 March 2014

Going Into the Room: Turner, Mahon, MacNeice

JMW Turner, The Wreck Buoy, 1807 (reworked 1849)

Last weekend I went to the Turner and the Sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I've seen a lot of Turner paintings and quite a few exhibitions, but this was really great, and got better as it went along. There were some of the great paintings which permanently reside in the London galleries, such as The Fighting Temeraire and Snow Storm, but there were also equally amazing oil paintings from galleries elsewhere in the UK and the US; paintings of shipwrecks; delicate watercolours and quick sketches which were exquisite; and a whole range which showcased both Turner's genius in different mediums and styles, and also all the ways in which the sea inspired him.

As I looked at these amazing works by a painter who I love, I felt a very welcome lifting of stress, though it also came with some heightened emotion. It was quite a cleansing feeling. The news has been particularly dark in the past couple of months; constant rolling coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, and the weirdly blank (because they have no news) coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, have all been mentally wearing, as well as the ongoing nightmares of Syria and other places. These events can be distressing even if we are only exposed to them through the media and are not, for now, caught up in the middle of them. The world is a difficult place to live in at this time. I have been reading Mark 13, where Jesus and his apostles discussed "the sign when all these things are to come to a conclusion" (Mark 13:4). "Moreover, when you hear of wars and reports of wars, do not be alarmed; these things must take place, but the end is not yet," said Jesus (Mark 13:7), pointing to conflicts and other "pangs of distress" that would afflict humanity. My strong belief that the increasingly acute world events of the past 100 years are an indication of coming changes, and that things won't always be this way, is incredibly encouraging. But these are still difficult times.

The arts can also have a therapeutic effect in stressful times, and I felt it at the Turner exhibition. I came to a realisation, too. Here it is:

Poetry is like going into a room. When you write it, or when you read it, you go into the room, and you try to work things out. The room could be the size of the whole world, or the size of your heart, or anything in between. You could open the windows and let in floods of light, or it could be completely dark and closed. You could break down the walls, or they could be transparent. There might be one other person there, or crowds, or no one. There could be blank walls, or great artwork, or something utterly unexpected. Perhaps you will feel better, or less confused, or perhaps more confused. But whatever happens, there is always a room, and you go in, and try to work things out.

Along with this, I thought of two poems. One is 'Everything Is Going to Be All Right' by Derek Mahon. Here's a video of him reading it:

The other is 'Order to View' by Louis MacNeice, one of Derek Mahon's greatest influences.

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