Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rue for A. E. Housman from "The Throne of Psyche"

This is part of the underpainting for "Touched,"
the painting that adorns the hardcover jacket
and paperback cover of The Throne of Psyche.
If you look at the book image below, you'll see
the designers made an interesting change.

It's a lovely, cool Saturday evening with the birds starting up the twittering machine. I'm a bit sleepy, thanks to waking up to another poem in the night . . . So here's a little poem from The Throne of Psyche for your passing-by pleasure. I must have been thinking of Housman's poem, "With Rue My Heart is Laden," which regrets the loss of golden lads and lasses and ends with rose-lipped girls sleeping under the fields where roses fade. And I definitely was remembering that he fell in love with a classmate, a young man who was a close (but not that close!) friend--and who later married (without inviting poor Housman, alas) and took his bride to India. He died before Housman, and though I said on video at West Chester that he died there, I believe Moses Jackson actually died in Canada... He was a traveling sort of fellow, it seems.

Meanwhile Housman found his reward in holding the Kennedy chair in classics at Cambridge, where he managed to make major contributions to his field. He was not, it must be said, famous for being kind to students and was ruthless about poor scholarship from other scholars of Greek and Latin poetry.

The only other easy-to-miss part of this poem is that line, "For yours is dust, and you are not." I meant for it to work in two ways: that is, Housman is dead and therefore "not" to the living; and he is not dead in the sense that his poems in A Shropshire Lad have managed to allure readers for quite a long time now.

The poem was originally published in Books & Culture.

RUE FOR A. E. HOUSMAN

To have one love for all your life
   And it as dear as breath;
To lose the shape of what you loved
   In distance, then in death:

Yes, what a funny world it is,
   Where this is not the worst
That can happen--and daily does.
   The mouth that did not thirst

For yours is dust, and you are not.
   Yet heedless of all doom
The children shout immortal joys;
   Again the roses bloom.


And here is the cover or jacket
of The Throne of Psyche
with the rather surprising change . . .
(Detail from the final picture, "Touched,"
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.)
Mercer University Press, May 2011, 106 pp.


23 comments:

  1. Wow, I think it works, but it's radically different. Are you happy with it? (The cover, I mean.)

    That's a wonderfully Housmanian (how *do* you make an adjective out of "Housman"?) response to Housman. I love the way the killer sentence of the poem straddles the space between the second and third stanzas!

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  2. Hi Dale--

    It's actually very close to the final version of the painting--just a mirror image and cut down to a smaller detail (though still pretty big.) The first version we saw they had actually fooled with the texture so that the sunflowers looked soft, which I did not like so much--reluctant to fool with Clive's painting.

    Yes, I wanted it to be Housmanian. Housmanish! Housmaniac. Or Housmandodian.

    And I am very glad you liked that gap-leap from thirst to dust!

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  3. Luisa, I take that as a high compliment, from you! Thank you.

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  4. Why did they choose to turn it around that way??
    I had noticed that nifty little poem in the book, with its economic use of words and sharp allusion.

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  5. Clearly they thought it made a better cover/jacket with the figure of the woman to the right! Does the eye prefer to be drawn to the right?

    Technically, they could not have managed some of the parts of the design with her at left. If you look at the rear jacket, you see that a band with the title emerges from the orange panel on the back, crosses the spine to divide author from title very neatly, and then wraps onto the front. That's a tidy and ingenious was to proceed. If you did that with the female figure at left, you would cross her face and neck with the title...

    Well, go hold it up to your mirror and see if you think it was the right choice!

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  6. Loved that rueful Housman homage when I read it in the book!

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  7. Dale, I was happy for the designers to reverse an image of the painting and to crop it to a workable detail. They made a beautiful cover that I'm proud to be associated with. The painting itself, currently at my retrospective exhibition at the National Library of Wales before being shipped to the new owner in the Netherlands, does look very different in the reversed image, though I'm not at all bothered by that. A painting can't be a book cover without the ingenuity of a designer. It has to do a completely different job as a cover, and the designer has to find solutions to fulfil that brief. In this instance everything has pulled together well. Author is happy, publisher is happy, designer is happy and the painter is happy too. I'm with Marly though on not liking an earlier version where the image was photoshopped to create a three-dimensional effect with the sunflower heads rendered out-of-focus, and I was relieved when that approach was jettisoned in favour of the cover as it appears now.

    I was intentionally being more subversive in the painting than is apparent on the book cover. Traditionally images of the subject have the Angel entering from the left and the Virgin seated at the right. I changed that convention for the painting, and so by reversing the image the designers have returned the subject to the more usual compositional layout, though it should be said that it's far from conventional to represent the Angel in physical contact with the Virgin. However, in the context of the book cover, I doubt whether anyone would ever recognise the subject of the painting as being an Annunciation, and even the title, 'Touch', gives little away. No lilies either, or doves. I try to avoid conventional iconography, preferring to use unlikely elements to precipitate questions.

    Anyway, it's a great cover. The use by the designers of that vibrant orange really makes the image rock!

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  8. Lucy,

    I am happy to think that you have your very own copy!

    Clive,

    Thanks for finding that Clivean question and for that fine response.

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  9. Wow, thanks Clive! I have to admit I never even thought of virgin and angel: my mind was full of Cupid and Psyche, the forbidden sight, the touch that destroys the intimacy it yearns for -- my head is whirling now!

    Not that the two myths don't speak to the same impossibilities. Just how does the human take on the divine, and at what cost?

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  10. Marly, I'm going with Housmandodian, definitely :-)

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  11. Dale,

    I like that one too. It reminds me of Hodmandod.

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  12. I loved reading about the changes in the cover of the book--that's not a process we often get to hear about. It looks great, certainly.

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  13. It is lovely. The designers are very thoughtful, and the leaves from the cover appear again on the division pages--pretty!

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  14. The orange IS lovely, and I can see that you are right, Clive. A book cover is NOT a painting, and a painting would have to be adapted in some way to fit its use as a book cover, but being left-handed, I am somewhat upset when people favor the right over the left as a matter of form.
    I have to confess; I didn't see this as an Annunciation at all, particularly since sunflowers seem to me an image of the earthly and quotidian, the temporal and temporary.

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  15. Thank you Hannah Glad that you like the cover.

    Robbi, you're quite right about the sunflowers. Lilies are the traditional flowers of the Annunciation, and really it's just me being perverse and not wanting to use them in this painting. I have no liking for lilies.. particularly the Madonna lilies associated with the Virgin... finding them heavily fleshy and their scent cloying. They just don't hit the spot for me, and so rather than struggle with them for the sake of tradition, instead I construct an alternative symblogy for my paintings. I also use what's around me in the garden here, which I believe is an appropriate manner of working.

    Sunflowers have connections with the mystical and have been used by artists as such, particularly the British painter Paul Nash. I think it important for artists to shake things up a bit from time to time, so that viewers are forced to reconsider the familiar stories, otherwise symblogy can become tired and ultimately meaningless. I enjoy mysteries in art as much as I am drawn to them in life, and it suits my purposes as a painter for my subject matter not to announce itself in obvious ways. The moment one starts calling a painting 'Annunciation', then the viewer slides into an 'Annunciation' mode of thinking. I try to avoid that. I'd prefer the curiosity to be piqued and questions asked rather than there be a pat answer provided by the title.

    The first Annunciation I painted had a field of lilies under the Virgin's feet, though not the 'Madonna' lily but the small, modest, lily-of-the-valley.

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  16. PS.

    Robbi, while I draw with my right hand, I more regularly paint with my left. You can see that in the un-reversed drawing... and of course in the original painting... the angel is seizing the Virgin ( a transgressive act itself in an Annunciation) with his LEFT hand. I too occasionally get bothered by the right-hand-favouring majority! (-;

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  17. Insomniac, up...

    Clive, all this time, and I did not know you draw with one hand and paint with another! It seems significant somehow.

    If you ignore the Greek mythological connections of sunflowers (although maybe not Blake's poem about Clytie) and just look at them as an image, they invoke light, halo, crown, and fruitfulness.

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  18. Don't know about significant Marly. Weird, certainly!

    Yes to all of what you listed re- sunflowers. A Virgin with a great sheaf of sunflowers in her arms seems to me to be an image waiting to be painted!

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  19. It's one of those things that seems pregnant with meaning--but why? Yes, maybe it's just weird. But it still feels meaningful.

    Virgin of the Sunflowers sounds like a grand idea.

    Odd, the mind's connections. One of Steve Cieslawski's paintings just popped into my head when you said that, a woman running with a sheaf (not grain, exactly--more like something torn from the golden clouds above her) down from a high dune-like ridge. "The Last Ingredient."

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  20. HM. Glad to have sparked this interesting discussion. I was thinking about Blake, of course, and perhaps Van Gogh. They are homely flowers and about the natural world.
    I'm not surprised to hear you are left-handed (at least ambidextrous)! So many people with ideas are.
    I understand why one would want to disengage the Annunciation from its association with lilies, which after all are linked to death, except perhaps in Mexican painting!

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  21. How wonderfully enlightening all of this conversation is! I appreciate all the generous details you've provided, Clive; and that you often prefer taking the "subversive" path...

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  22. And of course you can always visit him on his artlog!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.