Tweet Titian! Some wonderful poetry guidelines.

Having been alerted to this fun competition via a Twitter contact, I had a great deal of fun composing an entry. I wanted to share on here the guidelines for writing your poem, provided for the National Gallery by George Szirtes. I’m not generally a poet as I prefer writing prose, but these beautifully composed points could inspire any kind of writing, including art history, and could even inspire structures of thought which might not even necessarily reach incarnation via the written word.

  • Writing poems about paintings is not a matter of description. It is a matter of passing through. What you see and know accompany you.
  • You pass through into a perception you don’t yet understand. You watch and listen as you move. You are inside it, looking around.
  • You may know something of the artist, you may know something about art. That knowledge is your sense of direction.
  • Your medium is words. Words are the air you breathe in the imagined space of the image. It is the rhythm of words, their colour and weight.
  • The picture is speaking to you. It speaks to memory and the unknown. You enter and discover. You go your own way.

– George Szirtes

Tweet Titian! | Twitter poetry competition | The National Gallery, London.

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Classic FM versus Radio 3

I lived away from the UK for ten years, and had a slow internet connection so couldn’t stream radio. So coming back here last summer, I had no idea what the different UK radio stations were or what you could listen to on them. I love listening to classical music, so I’ve settled on a combination of Classic FM and Radio 3, mostly. And I can’t decide on one or the other permanently. Continue reading “Classic FM versus Radio 3”

Ethically dubious, intellectually satisfying…?

When I used to live in France, I worked freelance for a while as an academic researcher, writer and editor for a number of private research companies. In theory, these companies provided model essays or primary research to students or lecturers, but in practice, I strongly suspect much of the work I and the other freelancers produced was handed in by students. Indeed companies like the ones I worked for got a lot of negative press in the UK at one time because of the rise in plagiarism from people abusing their services. I spent a certain amount of time writing primary research pieces for these companies but the dubious ethical situation increased (we would be asked to edit an essay, including content, in response to tutor comments, for instance) and there came a point beyond which I decided to only take on editorial, bibliographic or translation work from them. With one company, I stopped writing for them altogether after I was briefed to completely paraphrase an entire essay so that it was unrecognisable from the original (in other words, I was being openly asked to aid and abet plagiarism).

Whenever I look back on this time, though, I rather miss some aspects of it. And thinking about working on my writing portfolio reminded me of one of my favourite projects, which I did just before Lucy was born in the summer of 2009. And it really was just before she was born (I could hardly reach the keyboard, and I had to warn them I might not finish it if she arrived a week or two early). It was a one week deadline to research and write from scratch an 8000 word undergraduate dissertation on Gainsborough. I knew nothing whatsoever about Gainsborough; I had access to no UK research libraries; but it was a fantastic, fun and interesting project and, as the last piece of primary research writing I did for this company, it became symbolic of what that work had given me: I had inadvertently arrived at the weird situation where I had quite a useful set of skills to research pretty much anything at all from scratch (I had written university essays on everything from social work, Libyan politics, genital excision, bilingualism, album covers, the French Revolution, drug culture, Messenger skin design, childhood immunisation in Pakistan, as well as several other full-length art history dissertations.) I think I’ve held on to a certain research speed from that period. My PhD research had obviously given me the solid grounding in primary research and academic writing which makes this stuff come naturally after having done it for so long, but the surreal freelancing cranked those skills up to supernatural speeds. I still skim websites and journals very quickly and seem to be quite good at finding, and moulding into a recognisable written form, disparate source material and information and resources about any topic under the sun.

I hope I can put these skills to use again some day. More than anything else, it’s fun.

Gender stereotyping in children’s toys

The Achilles Effect explores gender bias in the entertainment aimed at primary school boys, focusing on the dominant themes in children’s TV shows, toy advertising, movies, and books: gender stereotypes of both sexes, male dominance, negative portrayals of fathers, breaking of the mother/son bond, and the devaluing of femininity. It examines the gender messages sent by pop culture, provides strategies for countering these messages, and encourages discussion of a vitally important issue that is rarely talked about—the impact of gender stereotypes on boys.

via The Achilles Effect.

And:

Pinkstinks is a campaign that targets the products, media and marketing that prescribe heavily stereotyped and limiting roles to young girls. We believe that all children – girls and boys – are affected by the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood. Our aim is to challenge and reverse this growing trend. We also promote media literacy, self-esteem, positive body image and female role models for kids.

via Pinkstinks.

I first heard about this issue because of fancy dress costumes. Doctor, scientist, astronaut are marketed to boys. Girls’ options… princess, fairy, ballerina, overwhelmingly. Pinkstinks campaigned successfully and got Sainsbury’s to remove the gender labelling. I just think it’s one of the areas where individuals can genuinely have the power to affect the values of wider society of the future. Girls, even small ones, must have the culturally validated right to want to be a scientist or astronaut if that is what they choose. It applies to boys too, in different ways, which is what the Achilles Effect website campaigns about.

As parents, we have the opportunity to encourage children to be whatever they can and to aspire to anything they dream to be, but mass marketing which perpetuates ridiculously out of date caricatures of gender makes it very difficult: which is why I keep trying to support the campaigns against reductive stereotyping.

Do not let me have what I want

I found an interesting story when I was looking up Hans Christian Andersen in response to a post about scary French children’s stories on Facebook). It’s The Story of a Mother. Here is the summary on wikipedia, which is pared down but still moving, and here is a more fictionalised, stylised version.

The discussion about whether or not children should be exposed to dark ideas made me want to look up some Andersen because of the different type of darkness, death, etc in stories ostensibly aimed at children. I remember certain vivid images from childhood like the Little Mermaid’s pain when she walked (as if on a knife-edge); an image of a mother with three dead children, for which I can’t find the source.

Incidentally, I tend to dislike the existential twistedness of many French picture-books (of which there is a specific genre, I’d say; and which are aimed at very young children) compared to the profound discussions of death, loss and morality in stories like many of the Andersen stories, and other dark children’s literature (Dahl, Robin Jarvis etc).

I was particularly interested in The Story of a Mother (because there are lots of amazing Andersen stories) for the stunningly moving last appeal of the mother. She basically says “Do not let me have what I want” – and I’m *sure* there is a cultural reference elsewhere for this and I’ve been googling it ever since but can’t find anything but a few obscure Christian ideas. Perhaps it is a negro spiritual, or something: anyway it rings a bell.

Also, for me the story is scarily evocative of the depth of a mother’s love. She will do anything to find her child; she will literally bleed from her own heart, and walk to the ends of the earth and will find the child amongst millions. And it is the fundamental selflessness of a parent’s love, that, somewhat like the judgement of Solomon, she would rather lose the child (ie deny her own pleasure) than for it to suffer.

Interesting ethical questions. In fact, it’s not like the judgement of Solomon. There, the mother chose to give up her own pleasure (having the child with her) in favour of the child living (albeit, apart from her). The mother in the Andersen would rather the child die than risk its suffering; indeed, a 50-50 risk. But we have to remember the context of this story is that the child is going to God. A continued existence in bliss, presumably. So this skews the statistics of her decision making a little. 50-50 suffering or happiness for the child in life, against a 100% chance of the child’s bliss in death combined with a 100% chance of suffering for the mother who loses her child in life. So in the end, selfish versus selfless seems to be her only criterion for the decision.

Although Christians would presumably believe that they would be reunited with the child in death. Typical – religion provides a win-win situation for any problem.

Anyway, who knows – perhaps some suffering is valuable. Personally, I think I’d rather live fully and properly, and risk feeling some pain, than only live half-heartedly, and never feel pain or loss. Also, there is definitely a distinction to be made between what one wants, in the present moment, and what one should have. Naturally, I’d just query whether God should be in charge of making that distinction, as he is in the story. What the mother asks for is for God to decide what should happen – she places her fate in divine hands. Sadly, in reality, much as it’s tempting to delegate, I believe the responsibility for that type of decision is mine and mine alone.

Anyway, these thoughts are as far as I’ve got alone. Feel free to comment or discuss below.

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