Capturing the Senses

Last weekend writer and friend Hannah Swithinbank posted the following request on her blog:

“Read me poetry, please”

She pointed out that poetry is best enjoyed when read aloud and that the nature of poetry means that the sounds created can add to the meaning as much as the words themselves. I immediately knew that this was a project that I wanted to be involved in because I love the idea of a virtual poetry club that I can participate in at my leisure without the pressure of another demand on my already busy schedule.

I never really studied poetry at school, apart from the obligatory Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy at GCSE. By the time I had analysed those few short verses to death I was certain that there was no merit in poetry as it didn’t appear to be something that could be read for enjoyment. Fortunately I had a housemate in my third year who loves poetry (so much so that she is now starting her Phd on the Romantic Poets) who encouraged me to give poetry a second chance.

I started with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and was gripped by the emotion in her work. Haunting, sad and hopeful. Next I listened to an old recording of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, it was like stepping through a portal into the wild existence of the Beat generation. I started to remember poems I had read as a child, Kubla Khan by Coleridge, Eldorado by Poe, The Highwayman by Noyes. Poems of adventure and daring, poems that built cities and events out of a dizzying arrangement of words. Following my interest and natural taste, reading for pleasure, poetry has become something that I savour. And when no one is in the house I will read it aloud, the echo of the words hanging tangible in the air around me.

Each initial reading of a new poem is something to be savoured. I have to give it my full attention, because I know that the feelings and pictures evoked by the first reading have to be remembered. Although with time I may gain a better understanding of a poem I find that nothing equals the first experience of it. Perhaps the best comparison is of catching a glimpse of the glittering water from the crest of a hill on the way to the seaside, although the vista when you arrive may be more splendid nothing beats the exhilaration of that first tantalising glimpse that announces you truly are on holiday.

I don’t understand the mechanics of poetry, I couldn’t explain to you how or why the poet creates atmosphere and emotion and certainly couldn’t expound any poetic devices, but I suspect that doesn’t matter. I suspect that poets want their work to create images in the readers’ mind and to sweep the audience along on a wave of emotion rather than be remembered for the structure of their couplets.

It is so much easier to lose yourself in a poem when listening to it, so I am really excited to take part in ‘Read me poetry, please’ in the hope that it might inspire more people to read and enjoy poetry.

April Rise by Laurie Lee

The poem I chose to read is April Rise by Laurie Lee. It’s not an old favourite but one that I came across this morning. I have long admired Cider with Rosie for the way that Lee paints a picture of country life but had never read any of his poetry. In his poetry, like his prose he paints a vivid picture of a place and atmosphere. This poem reminds me of Silent Pool in Surrey and reminds me that our experience of poetry is always influenced by our personal archive of memories and pictures.

I’m still learning how to read poetry, still a novice, but it is something that I hope I will continue to engage in for years to come because there are so many poets out there who have used words to make something beautiful and exciting, and that surely deserves to be celebrated.

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What’s your commission?

A couple of months ago I was asked if would consider showing some of my work at a big church event called Westpoint that we attend with others from across the South West. My stomach lurched in response ‘What? Me? Show my work? To nearly 3000 people? You must be kidding.’

But encouraged by friends that it was a great opportunity I somewhat reluctantly said yes and it turned out to be a great experience.

Now the wonderful couple behind this slot called ‘What’s Your Commission?’ was Stu and Chloe Alred from Frontiers Church Exeter. They wanted the interviews to be snapshots of real people living real life and to encourage others with stories of how faith and work can interact and how we are all called to work in different disciplines or careers. It was a fascinating slot each evening with interviewees as varied as a singer, an army doctor, an IT security manager, a salesman and of course myself an illustrator.

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Chloe and Stu on stage at Westpoint, you can hear more of their story here.

Now why am I blogging about this? Not just for five minutes of fame, but because I want to share some of the insights that I gained as I prepared for the interview.

Why do I Illustrate?

I think my love of illustration can be best explained by the magical experience I had as a child when I first saw the animation Granpa with drawings by John Burningham. In his pencil lines lived wild adventures, affection between a grandfather and his granddaughter, and one of the most poignant expressions of loss I have ever seen.

It is an old cliche that a picture says a thousand words, but I was captivated by the story that Burningham’s pictures told. Good illustration has the potential to evoke emotions and communicate a message in the form of story. I want the stories that I tell to be positive ones full of hope because I want to counter the often dark and despairing stories that fill the world around us. I want to fill the world with things that are good and beautiful and true and to share some of the joy that I know.

If asked why I have chosen to pursue illustration it is easy to joke that I illustrate because I’m not talented at anything else. The reality is that I have chosen a career in illustration because I believe it is my commission. Over the past months I have considered other careers as the lifestyle of the freelance illustrator can be isolated and hard work, but preparing for the interview I came to the conclusion that illustration and design is what I’m meant to be doing. Just because something is challenging is no reason to give up, so I am heading back into the studio with renewed vigour and an expectation that the next year will hold all sorts of creative surprises.

So what are the challenges?

I often get frustrated when I can’t get an image to look exactly the way I want and perfection eludes me – but then I have to remind myself that the journey is just as important as the destination – the creative process that an artist engages in is an echo of the creative process that took place when God created the world. My desire to create is part of the fact that I am made in the image of God our creator; in fact my creativity is an expression of His goodness.

When I draw, or collage or paint it is personal. It is an expression of who I am, no matter how objective I try to be, something of who I am will find its way into my work. And when you put that work on display for all to see it can feel a little like standing naked in front of a crowd. It makes you vulnerable, exposed, subject to people’s praise or censure. One can leave you reeling from the blow, the other elated and on cloud nine. So I am choosing to embrace the imperfect sketches and the unremarkable paintings along with the successes knowing that the process will refine both my work and my character.

As I’ve had this chance to think about my work and what I am called to do I would like to leave you with a question. What’s your commission?

My thoughts may not be revolutionary but I still want to think

This is less about my design and illustration work and more about engaging with the world around me. I want to be an active observer and a conscientious thinker. So this blog is a chance for me to write book reviews and articulate some of my thoughts. Really it’s a challenge to myself to not become a passive consumer of culture but rather to think critically and biblically about what I see, hear and read.