Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hokusai at the British Museum



The Great Wave of Kanagawa. Hokusai, 1831


About ten days ago, I went to the British Museum's exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave (until 13 August, but check ticket availability if you're interested in going).

Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the greatest Japanese artists of the creatively rich Edo period (1603-1868), is best known for The Great Wave of Kanagawa, one of a beautiful series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The exhibition featured many of these famous prints but it also highlighted the unusual European influence in many of his works and the extraordinary range of his art. I saw cherry blossoms whose petals were so soft and multifoliate that I wanted to touch them, birds that seemed photographic but with a hyper-real beauty, swirling dragons, sharply defined bridges and lakes like something out of Tolkien, wry and delicate self-portraits.

Hokusai was also very close to the poetry world. He provided illustrations for poems, and depicted poets, in the series A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry and One Hundred Poems Explained By the Nurse. In this particularly beautiful example, Poet traveling in the snow, the rider may be the Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu; 712-70), one of the greatest figures of Chinese literature. It's suggested that he could also be the poet Su Shi (1037-1101), who was famous for writing poems about snow.



Hokusai's work became more and more extraordinary in the last years of his life. In the final room, looking at the paintings on silk from the two years before he died, I found myself struggling to breathe, then in tears. I saw a dragon with desperate human eyes emerging from rain clouds, diving ducks transforming beneath the surface, a joyous tiger bounding upwards through the snow. Shortly before his death, Hokusai reportedly said "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five years, then I could become a real painter."


Thursday, 13 July 2017

U2 and Poetry: The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour




U2's current world tour is, unusually, not to promote a new album - it's for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree and they are playing this album in its entirety, along with other songs before and after. I saw them last Sunday at Twickenham Stadium in London. It was a remarkable show for many reasons, not least of which was the screening of poems on the stage backdrop just before the show actually started.

I have a long history with U2, which sort of started close to 30 years ago when my brother bought The Joshua Tree. But it really started a few years later when I bought War, Under a Blood Red Sky, The Unforgettable Fire and later their other albums, when I was about 14. Those albums feature very prominently in my mental and emotional timeline from my early teens. I discovered those albums for myself, and the obsession was like falling in love. My relationship with The Joshua Tree is probably a bit harder to define, as I first encountered it through my brother and through the radio when I was younger. I was always impressed, but I also regarded the album with a slightly detached sense of awe which I've never quite shaken. I think it's their best record, but I'm not quite as closely bonded to it as I am to albums like War and Unforgettable Fire. I'm perhaps closer to its individual songs than I am to The Joshua Tree as a whole.

Before seeing U2 play on Sunday, I was already aware that they were scrolling poems on the big screen during the intermission between the opening act and the start of the main show. There was a fair amount of media coverage in Canada when one of the poems chosen was by Canadian poet laureate George Elliott Clarke. However, most (if not all) of the other poems chosen are by Americans, and it seems that different poems have been used at different shows. The poems that I saw were:

Elizabeth Alexander - 'Praise Song for the Day'. This poem was read at Barack Obama's inauguration.



Walt Whitman - a selection from Leaves of Grass



Sherman Alexie - 'The Powwow at the End of the World' 



Robinson Jeffers - 'Juan Higera Creek' 



James Dickey - 'The Strength of Fields'



Shirley Geok-lin Lim - 'Learning to Love America'  (this is actually the poem's full title, although it said 'Learning to Love' on the screen).



Pedro Pietri - 'Puerto Rican Obituary' (I didn't get a picture of this one, as the show was starting just as the poem finished...)

This U2 website has detailed more of the poems which were included on other shows (or perhaps I missed others when my friend and I were wandering around after the opening act.) Many of these poems will also be available to read online: http://www.u2songs.com/news/the_joshua_tree_tour_poetry

Personally, I was especially surprised and happy to see the Robinson Jeffers poem 'Juan Higera Creek'. Jeffers has been a bit of a well-kept secret for a long time, but in the current socio-political-environmental climate he seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. I also love the James Dickey poem, 'The Strength of Fields'.

I don't know who was involved in selecting the poems, but to accompany (or precede) The Joshua Tree, they seemed to me exceptionally well chosen. In them, I saw the following which I also find in The Joshua Tree:

A variety of voices and experiences, including those of minorities and immigrants. The poems are by Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, among others. U2 composed The Joshua Tree in part because they'd fallen in love with America, and as Irish musicians they were well aware of their country's close links to America and of the huge numbers of Americans who are descended from Irish immigrants.

American landscapes. The landscapes of The Joshua Tree are dual (at least), as in poetry's landscapes. When U2 played 'Where the Streets Have No Name' ("I'll show you a place high on a desert plain, where the streets have no name"), the huge backdrop screen sent us flying along an American desert highway. The song was also partly inspired by Bono's humanitarian work in Ethiopia and by the divisions in Northern Ireland when he was growing up; finally, it seems to be about the speaker's spiritual quest (continued in 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'. There seems to be something of this in 'The Strength of Fields'.) But the imagery of the album's lyrics often evoke idealised American landscapes, especially in the song 'In God's Country'. These poems also travel all over a real and figurative America.

Stories of oppression. 'Puerto Rican Obituary' came out of Pedro Pietri's experiences in advocating for civil rights along with fellow Puerto Ricans in America, and it tells a series of tragic stories. The songs 'Bullet the Blue Sky' and 'Mothers of the Disappeared', in particular, are about US military intervention in Latin America and about los desaparecidos in countries such as Argentina, Chile and El Salvador. There is a strong duality in The Joshua Tree between a mythical America and a violent one, whether internationally or closer to home (the song 'Exit' is about gun violence, and apparently the line "The hands that build can also pull down" also comments on the dual nature of US interference abroad).

The language of the poems may at times be prosaic, but the impression is often prophetic and spiritual, even shamanistic. This is also very reminiscent of U2's (Bono's) lyrical approach. Bono often includes literary references in his songs, and this was definitely a factor in my affection for U2, especially given that I was falling in love with U2 and with the poetry of WB Yeats at the same time in my early teens. Here are some of the notable poetry references in U2 songs:


  • "Into the half-light" - from 'Bad' (The Unforgettable Fire), also a reference to 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' by Yeats
  • 'A Sort of Homecoming' (The Unforgettable Fire). The title of one of my favourite U2 songs is taken from the quotation "Poetry is a sort of homecoming" from Paul Celan's 'Meridian' speech. When I learned that Bono had been influenced by Celan's writings in this song, I went to find Celan in the library, meaning that U2 are directly responsible for introducing me to his work. Also in 'A Sort of Homecoming', Bono sings 'O come away, o come away' which is a likely reference to 'The Stolen Child' by Yeats.
  • "In the world a heart of darkness, a fire zone/where poets speak their heart then bleed for it/Jara sang his song, a weapon in the hands of love/You know his blood still cries from the ground" - from 'One Tree Hill' (The Joshua Tree). Victor Jara was a Chilean songwriter, poet and political activist who was murdered under the rule of Pinochet. His last lyric was 'Estadio Chile' and it was written just before his violent death in the Chile Stadium (which has been renamed after him.)
  • "See the stone set in your eyes" - from 'With Or Without You' (The Joshua Tree). This reminds me of "The stone's in the midst of all", from Yeats's 'Easter 1916', but I admit this may be a long shot on my part.
  • "In dreams begin responsibilities" - from 'Acrobat' (Achtung Baby). This is adapted from the epigraph to the Yeats collection Responsibilities.
  • "Hope and history don't rhyme" - from 'Peace on Earth' (All That You Can't Leave Behind), a song partly based on the Omagh bombing of 1998 by the so-called Real IRA. This line is adapted from a famous quotation in Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, a version of Philoctetes by Sophocles. Bono spoke here of his love for Heaney's work: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/01/bono-seamus-heaney-tribute-poetry  

There are plenty of other literary references in U2, but I suppose it comes down to this: Sunday's concert was one of the best of my life (the fact that we had hard-to-come-by standing tickets helped a lot), and The Joshua Tree has more than stood the test of time. It was lovely to see some great poetry projected on the screen for all to read, and to reflect on how both poetry and U2 have accompanied me, and often intersected, for a very long time. 



Photos: The Joshua Tree Tour - Twickenham, July 9, 2017. Taken by Clarissa Aykroyd