Parmigianino, Self-Portait in a Convex Mirror

Parmigianino, Self-Portait in a Convex Mirror

We spend a lot of our lives thinking. We indulge in memory, lying sleepless in the early hours trying to recall in detail the particular softness of a lover’s kiss or reliving the moment we saw a footballer control the ball on his chest, then swivel and shoot, in one swift, fluid motion, and the ball’s arc, up and over and into the net, again and again like a gif on a sports website. And we consider matters of weight, pondering careers and money, the character of our friends; we think about death and love; we think about faith and loneliness and fear.

In film, thinking is often depicted by flashbacks, entered through the giveaway portal of the fade, or by voiceover. “What is love?’ a Malick character might voice as the sun streams through the jungle. “What place does it have in our hearts?”, the child skipping in the luxuriant garden.

In fiction, thinking is hard to do. You can give thought free rein, like Thomas Bernard or Lydia Davis (whose novel The End of the Story is a true masterpiece of thought, albeit the conflict of thought), or make it the unseen, unheard master of action, the pressing force behind, say James Ellroy’s sentences of attack and thrust.

Poetry and thought are close companions, though, from the glorious contemplations of the Psalms to the compressed complexities of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Or John Donne, thought in action, in the very process of itself:

“And now good-morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”

The connecting words (and, for, let) propel the ideas, one to the other, in sophisticated mental discourse.

WS Graham

WS Graham

WS Graham, in the Nightfishing, published in 1955, begins to be a poet of thought, even in perhaps his most sensuous poem:

“Yet this place finds me

And forms itself again.”

Over 22 years later, thinking has become the dominant ‘activity’, in the dazzling poems of Implements in their Places.’

Here, he entreats us to:
“Imagine a forest

A real forest”

and to:

“Hang up the ballad

Behind the door”.

The intellectual struggles of the poet become the subject of these poems, each physical impression both a thought and a feeling, and always always always words:

“Out into across

The morning loch burnished

Between us goes the flat

Thrown poem and lands”

For me, Graham is enacting the very act of poetry – this is poetry happening; this is creation itself, thoughtword. All one, mingled. It is rougher, more vigorous than Donne, and its conflicts no less tough than other masterpieces of the poetic process such as Wordsworth’s The Prelude:

“Trances of thought and mountings of the mind

Come fast upon me: it is shaken off,

That burthen of my own unnatural self,

The heavy weight of many a weary day

Not mine, and such as were not made for me.”

In the great modern masterpiece of poetic thinking, John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the whole, long poem is a speculation (from the Latin for mirror, as Ashbery helpfully glosses at one point), a self-portrait in thought, a true reflection, albeit convex:

“Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,

Desolate, reluctant as any landscape

To yield what are laws of perspective

After all only to the painter’s deep

Mistrust, a weak instrument though


Press play and Nikolayeva begins a Shostaovich Fugue. We might know what is coming, but today really is uncharted.

David Quick

February 2014