I haven’t written about John Keats for a few weeks and have been meaning to start a series of posts on his circle of friends; many of whom were key to his development as a poet. However, an article via a Google Alert caught my eye last week and having read a little around the story, it is so unusual and the meaning so obscure (for me in any event) that I wanted to share it on this blog. I think it raises some issues about how inclusive both art and poetry are, and who the work involved is actually aimed at and why. I hope to elicit comments from those interested in poetry or art; both or neither.
In 2011 a devastating earthquake hit the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. Although shocks are regularly felt across the country, this was of such magnitude that it devastated the city. Many of the buildings are having to be demolished, leaving patches of wasteland waiting for the city authorities to authorise a rebuild.
However on one such area now sit two life-sized bronzed bulls, atop two concert grand pianos.
The bulls are part of an installation art work by New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai and these strange sculptures, easily viewed by those in passing cars is part of the On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer sculpture exhibition that represented New Zealand at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
The inspiration for the sculpture apparently came from Keats’ poem On first Looking into Chapman’s Homer , his first truly successful and ‘great’ poem, written in 1816 following a night which he had spent unable to tear himself away from the pages of George Chapman’s translation of Homer. The sonnet uses images of exploration and discovery to express his own joy at the discovery of Homer through Chapman’s work. He examines the interplay between old and new worlds, and he takes us with him as he sees the equivalent of new planets and undiscovered oceans in Homer’s poetry:
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; 10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien
I am no artist but the sculptures are very striking and although half a world away I can imagine how they might strike passers-by as not simply surprising, their smooth shapes juxtaposed as they are with the broken bricks of the waste ground, but awe-inspiring. On one piano a full-size bull rests on the closed lid with its ‘massive body suggesting the folding forms of landscape’(A Peak in Darian) , and on the other the bull is standing firm ‘offering an eye-to-eye challenge for anyone prepared to take a seat at the keyboard’ (apparently as Chapman’s Homer).
However, apart from bringing new readers to John Keats – something that I always applaud – I can’t see the connection between this work and the poem itself. Are the bulls representative of the Spanish explorer Balboa who (rather than Cortez as Keats states) discovered the Pacific? What images are the pianos meant to conjure? The artist does state that music is very much part of the installation and a number of pianists have, in previous exhibitions of the work, spent time playing a mix of jazz and classical music.
I am not sure what to make of the piece to be honest and would be interested to hear the views of anyone reading this. It is a wonderful poem and marked the beginning of the rapid growth of Keats as one of the greatest poets in the English language. Take time to read it again, as I have a number of times today and see if you can find some closer links between it and the sculpture.
Or perhaps I am missing the point entirely. Does it in fact matter whether there are any direct comparisons to be made? Are these bulls on pianos as representative of discovery, exploration and regeneration to Michael Parekowhai as the new planet and discovered ocean were to Keats?
Or is this something that baffles you or reinforces your view that art and poetry exclude you in the obscurity of their ‘meaning’; making you even more reluctant to learn more about either artwork or poem?
In any event it is a new way to look at a familiar poem. I get some very peculiar alerts to Keats via Google but at least this one set me thinking.
How do they strike you?