Archive for The Poetic Image

Strangeways

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2021 by dcairns

I’m intrigued by poet Cecil Day-Lewis (and father of that other D-L) and his second life as crime writer Nicholas Blake. The mysteries of Nigel Strangeways are nicely, if unspectacularly written. Strangeways differs from most amateur sleuths in his being defiantly UN-eccentric. But there’s another key aspect to Blake’s mysteries which means the makers of the new version of The Beast Must Die might be struggling to find a sequel in any of the twenty extant Blake-Strangeways books.

Two of Blake’s novels have received more attention, particularly in the film world, than all the rest.

The Beast Must Die – nothing to do with werewolves – is the most popular of the novels. It’s an outlier, for a few reasons. Fair-play whodunits and cosy crime novels tend to keep emotion at a distance. The victims are usually either unpopular, dislikable characters (which provides lengthy suspect lists and obviates all that messy grief) or solitary figures without close dependents (or both). Or, if there are grieving loved ones, they’re shuffled off-stage as fast as decently arrangeable, or are portrayed so woodenly their bereavement has no disquieting effect on the reader. (I love how, in Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi mystery A Maze of Death, a character, noting the glassy underreaction of his fellow suspect/prospective victims in a Ten Little Indians scenario, deduces that they must all be amnesiac psychopaths, simply because they’re behaving exactly like the people in mystery novels always do.) In The Beast Must Die, the motivation for the murder is so distressing, and traumatic for the man involved, that it overwhelms the mystery aspect completely — so that the first two film versions, Román Viñoly Barreto’s Argentinian version of 1952, and Claude Chabrol’s French one of 1969, are able to excise Mr. Strangeways altogether, and the plot if anything gets better.

The other significant film connection with Blake is Orson Welles’ putative film of The Smiler with the Knife, abandoned in favour of what became CITIZEN KANE. This time, Blake himself largely dispensed with his protag, handing the story over to his plucky wife Georgia. She’s required to inveigle her way into the confidences of a fascist leader plotting a coup. Easy to see how Welles would have been interested in a political thriller like that, transposing the story to the US and casting Lucille Ball and himself as the heavy in a story that would have had aspects of NOTORIOUS avant la lettre.

Welles definitely definitely made the right choice for his film debut, but SMILER the movie remains an intriguing might-have-been. It might, actually, have provided its director with a solid commercial hit.

I can’t quite forgive Blake for killing off Georgia Strangeways between novels, though he gives Nigel a girlfriend later, the sculptor Clare Massinger, who’s quite good fun.

But the other aspect of Blake’s novels I’ve discovered is strongly negative: he can’t write mysteries. I have dim memories of a few of them I read a while back, but one, The Whisper in the Gloom (televised and Americanized and Disneyfied as The Kids Who Knew Too Much in 1980) depends on an inexplicable coincidence which really gets the reader wondering — but is left as an inexplicable coincidence at the novel’s end. Spoiler alert: it’s borrowed from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, making the revised title very apt.

This seems like a big cheat, but The Ghastly Hollow and The Widow’s Cruise both play fair — the trouble is they’re amazing guessable. I rarely guess the solutions to mysteries, despite reading a lot of them, a bit about them, and having a sort of crack at it myself. Blake’s derivative side is evident in both books: TGH is a poison pen story possibly derived from Clouzot’s LA CORBEAU or Richard Llewellyn’s play Poison Pen, filmed in 1939; TWC is a kind of Bette Davis sister act. What Blake does with the stories is fairly original, I wouldn’t call him a plagiarist (though Gloom comes very close), it’s just that he utterly fails to hide his clues in plain view. He just leaves them lying in plain view, or actively thrusts them under our noses like an idiot magician forcing a card on us, but a card he really wants to conceal.

I can’t work out how Blake/Day-Lewis managed to spin out a career in mysteries as long as he did. His best two books have the least mystery, and every time the solving of the crime is central to the story, he muffs it. Still, I guess it kept him fed while he wrote his poetry, and kept his soon-to-be-distinguished son clad, so that was worthwhile. I admire his The Poetic Image (1947) as a work of criticism.

His books are very readable but I must stop reading them because they don’t satisfy. He’s like the opposite of John Dickson Carr: Carr’s impossible crimes, colourful detectives and jaunty dialogue are far more uplifting, far less real, and he plays far less fair. But at least you’ll never guess who done it.

The Sleeping Images of Things

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2015 by dcairns

blake

In a charity shop I picked up, slightly randomly, The Poetic Image by Cecil Day-Lewis (Daniel’s dad; also a crime writer whose book The Beast Must Die was adapted by Chabrol). It’s a very interesting treatise on the forms and uses of imagery in poetry ancient and modern (or modern-ish — the book dates from 1947. A stamp on the inside front cover says it was presented to Lynn Watson os Shrewsbury High School as Modern Languages Prize in 1970.)

Among the food for thought is a very fine description of the creative process, which applies whatever kind of writing one is involved in, I should say. Perhaps a work of fiction may be more likely to be sparked not by a poetic image (a kind of engram, compressing together object, idea or emotion) but by some more abstract narrative notion. Rarely does it begin with a theme, I think. Here’s what Cec says ~

The poet, then, starts with an impression, a drop in the river of experience, crystallized perhaps into an image. Or, let us rather say, that is how the poet is apt to start nowadays; for there have been times, as we have noticed, when he at any rate seems to have begun with an abstract idea and set out to put it into verse. The modern method, insofar as it differs from the classical, is indicated in Goethe’s words,

It wasn’t on the whole my way, as a poet, to stride after the embodiment of something abstract. I received within myself impressions — impressions of a hundred sorts, sensuous, lively, lovely, many-hued — as an alert imaginative energy presented them.

This is the first stage. W.B. Yeats witnessed the second when, quoting Goethe’s ‘One must allow the images to form with all their associations before one criticizes,’ he went on to speak of the trance-like state in which ‘images pass rapidly before you,’ and said that it is necessary to ‘suspend will and intellect, to bring up from the subconscious anything you already possess a fragment of.’ That concentrated attention which watches over the birth of a poem from the moment when the first birth-pang is felt — a concentration will-less indeed, yet intense, and by its very passivity aiding the process which brings the whole poem out into the light — may fairly be called a suspension of the intellect. But it overlaps with the third stage, then the poet’s attention becomes more active (Malebranche called this attention ‘the prayer of the intellect’), and the work of criticism begins, the selection or rejection of associated images in conformity with the now emerging pattern of the poem. The creative process up to the emergence of formed images from the unconscious, is described by Dryden in his introduction to The Rival Ladies, where he speaks of the time when the play was only ‘a confused mass of thoughts, tumbling over one another in the dark: when the Fancy was yet in its first work, moving the sleeping images of things towards the light, there to be distinguished, and then either chosen or rejected by the Judgement.’

That Lucretian phrase, ‘moving the sleeping images of things towards the light,’ may be set beside this passage from E.S. Dallas —

Trains of thought are continually passing to and fro from the light into the dark, and back from the dark into the light. When the current of thought flows from within our ken to beyond our ken, it is gone, we forget it … After a time it comes back to us changed and grown, as if it were a new thought.

I do not know that out modern psychology, which he and Dryden so far anticipated, could have put the whole thing any better.

***

The best account of creativity I’ve ever read. Polanski has said that he mainly works on instinct, but applies his critical faculties to what his instincts suggest. Dali spoke of his paranoiac-critical method. It’s all about catching images thrown up more or less irrationally from parts of our brains we don’t control. and then attempting to fit them into a pattern which makes its own kind of sense.

Picture is by William Blake. Chosen for irrational reasons.