I have been sitting for a painted portrait recently. The artist is my friend Angus Reid, poet, film- and theatre-maker, architectural critic, composer… he painted years ago but has just taken it up again recently, when he persuaded his teenage son Mark to sit for him, guitar in hand. Now he’s taken a studio at the Arts Complex at Meadowbank, and I’m his first sitter.
We decide, I can’t quite remember how, that I’ll read poems aloud while he draws and paints. I think this is mainly to stop me getting bored, but it means he’s seeing me with eyes downcast. (One day I play music instead, but this is far less interesting for either of us – I catch myself dropping off on occasion.)
Reading poems aloud is a fine way of critiquing them – their strengths and weaknesses are thrown into relief. Neruda’s Book of Questions is a life-affirming delight despite its repeated interrogation of death (Neruda wrote it only months before his own death); W.S. Graham is harder work than I had imagined, abstract and angular, the specific setting of ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’ giving the most satisfaction; MacCaig keeps producing the most startling and exact images, often in otherwise imperfect poems; but it’s Milosz I most enjoy, the good company of his prosy, conversational, curious, wry, humorous tones, that open up further conversations once the poems return to silence.
I found Angus’s comments on the process revealing too:
“In the time we have spent together, the image has begun to reflect the pleasure we both take in spoken poetry. The work is still in progress, but one drawing was a break-through, coming after Neruda and Milosz and somewhere in the midst of W.S. Graham and MacCaig: in the face of a middle-aged man reading – a face I know well – there was suddenly a surprise, something unselfconscious, that I was able to observe: small flashes of patience, tenderness and appreciation. The image seemed to be able to go beyond likeness to capture something universal that is otherwise largely hidden by the Ego, and the everyday.”
At one level sitting seems an egotistical exercise, spending time having an image made of one’s transient, imperfect self; but at another, like many activities where you give in to time rather than trying to manage it, it’s a way of losing yourself, losing track of time, and finding what else there is.