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Since Feeling is First: Alan Humm

The above is a quote from E.E. Cummings. It's the title of what will become a regular feature in One Hand Clapping: writers, artists and musicians talking about the things that have inspired them. Here are some of mine.

V.S. Pritchett

In Esquire magazine in 1991, Martin Amis wrote the following:

"As for ...snooker, well, to approach the televisual ideal, by which we all measure ourselves, I'd have to do nothing else for the rest of my life. Then snooker might work out and measure up, with everything going where you want it to go, at the right weight and angle. Then snooker might feel like writing."

What: everything? Blimey. I prefer V.S. Pritchett, who when he was reminded that his novel Mr Beluncle had been criticised for being static said:

"Yes, I found it hard to make the characters move: I had to get a furniture van or a bus to get them from one chapter to another."

This pragmatic humility only increases my admiration. Pritchett was a wonderful writer – he was accurate and insightful, as well as having a lovely feline silkiness – and (not but) he's saying that writing is difficult. It should be difficult, at least some of the time; one mustn't confuse good writing with facility.

Les Murray

I tell my students that the best writers of prose and poetry are like Beethoven. Beethoven, I say, had a knack for choosing notes that seem both surprising and inevitable. You just need to swap adjectives or verbs or even nouns for notes. I experience this sort of thing as a kind of blow against the enemy, which (obviously) is mediocrity. Flatness. "Dead words", to quote D.H. Lawrence. At his best, Murray was never flat. When he died, his publishers made the following statement:

"We mourn his boundless creativity, as well as his original vision. His poetry created a vernacular republic for Australia, a place where our language is preserved and renewed."

He also agreed to let me feature one of his poems. (I realise that this might not be as important as creating a vernacular republic but it certainly did it for me.) He was a cracking writer. RIP

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Actors. Can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em. Angela Carter once called theatre actors "painted loons" and I do have a certain amount of sympathy with that view. All that declaiming. Film acting is different, though, and it's worth remembering what a film actor does, or is supposed to do. They're often at their most effective when they're silent. The best film actors are like violin strings: they seem to resonate even when they don't appear to be doing anything at all. Watch Daniel Day Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread and see how it, whatever "it" is, comes muscling off the screen. Then watch Tom Cruise in Anderson's Magnolia and wonder how a man with so little charisma can command the fees he does. Philip Seymour Hoffman stands quietly behind him and he's like a klieg light compared to the fitful guttering of the established star.

And it's weird: it isn't, quite, that Hoffman is delivering a version of reality. To extend, and possibly over-labour, the metaphor, Hoffman is a virtuoso. He makes music out of his own... stuff. (There's bathos for you.) What he does is something way more vivid than simply re-presenting life. His performance is so coherent and cohesive and alive that it creates its own form of truth. You can't not watch him. Or I can't.

Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat (See above)

I wish that, at this point, I could claim that my favourite work of art was something by Christo or Cindy Sherman or Graciela Iturbide or Vermeer, all of whom I love. The trouble is, I don't love anything as much as I love Bathers at Asnières. Seriously. Look at it. Could anything be more perfectly arranged? It isn't pointillism yet; it's too early for that. It's subtler, I think. Look at the river. Look at the way that even those sections that seem, at first, to be one colour are actually made up of different colours: all those shades of blue. As Will Gompertz writes,

"The white shirts, sails and buildings are the service of Seurat's overall design: they are there to bring to vivid life the colours around them, making the greens, blues and reds vibrant. He is beginning to work out that the more he separates the colours, the greater sense of brilliance they radiate."

I maintain that you can feel this. Or, at least, that I can. When I go to the National Gallery I always choose to look at this picture first. I feel like I'm soaking it up. I think it's like a poem in that it captures all of the tiny things that add up to a single moment. As an artist of whatever type, you're trying to create something durable out of moments that are heartbreakingly evanescent. And what is more durable than this? Go and see it. It's huge.

"Stay With Me (Baby)" by Lorraine Ellison

There's a Buddhist parable somewhere in which a student complains to his teacher that concentrating on your breathing is boring. The master holds the student's head under water for a long time; I think he nearly drowns him. Then he says something like: "When you want enlightenment as badly as you wanted to breathe then, come back and talk to me." There are days when I think that all music should feel like that.

And, no, a singer can't always feel exactly what they say they're feeling in a song. How can they? They're performing it, and they will have to perform it over and over again. It's the same with songwriters. Sometimes, they're writing what they felt yesterday or a year ago or what one of their friends is feeling or what they've read about or talked about or dreamed about. But great writers and singers summon it up. You trust them because you know that they know what they're talking about. In the words of the Bible (and Jerry Lee Lewis): "Either be hot or cold. If you are lukewarm, the Lord will spew you forth from His mouth." Even Joni Mitchell, who sometimes seems to be holding her songs at her fingers' ends, has a voice that resonates with everything that she has felt, over time.

Which is another way of saying that this is an astonishing record. It's like being in a wind tunnel. You have to play it loud; to live right in the middle of it. It's passionate and raw and, at the moment that she sings it, deeply felt. I do understand that you need (one needs) a breather. If you had this all the time you'd be wrung out. But it still begs the question: why, in music and elsewhere, would you want anything else?

Alan Humm is the editor of One Hand Clapping. You can find more of his writing here.


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