The Tate Gallery
Preen no prejudice, but saunter into this proud building,
Remove your hat. Let your bags and baskets be examined
For bomb and gun.
Though within there will be blasts and explosions.
Important blows, battles and fisticuffs
With the history of art, for here are no concessions, no unsuitable reticence,
Be ready to be shaken, to toss out your inhibitions. Take off dark and pink glasses,
Unarmoured stand and reflect on improbable landscapes,
That easy scenery, coherent colours
Are out of court. Here is a kingdom of trial and error. Experiment
Is Emperor and everywhere a lively court is kept under soft control,
Allowed out on excursions, sent for on search-parties and reconnaissance,
Ambassadors and envoys are on the look-out for empirical makers,
Avoiding valleys, scaling stark mountains, hurrying, never at rest.
And you walk here with a ticket of freedom, a pass to dangerous escarpments,
The guards here are wary of withdrawals,
Will watch you watching canvas and metal, stone and clay,
A country then where Nature is often bypassed,
where rocks are hacked and broken, borders
footstepped and trampled,
But remember what is wanted from you is a good giving,
A generous benefaction – your open ideas,
your wide mind with its gates flung
back and windows open.
You will be received here by international personages,
Reclaimers, responders, builders, lavish spenders,
Rothko, Ernst, Magritte and Modigliani,
But Blake will restore your confidence,
Palmer hold out his hand.
Come, enter, accept this gilt-edged invitation,
You are important and needed. Your gaze is urgent,
Watch Turner bonfire the sky,
You are wanted for these lavish pyrotechnics.
Think of these at night when no-one sees
The fearful summons and unsparing brush.
Ernst is a haunter with dark images.
Imagine ghosts of gazers seeing flesh
Hinted at. Rodin is there of course,
Yet in a night-time gallery, the wish
Of all past lookers and their live discourse
Might haunt the air. ‘Here,’ one might say, ‘My dread
Is captured. I’ve had dreams like that, a curse
On easy sleeping’. Do these painters then
Darken our day to help us through the night
Knowing that we are scared and little men?
Perhaps, but we are ones who climb to bright
Precarious moments, love those abstract lines
Of Nicholson and Mondrian. Our sight
Is sharpened in this place of many signs
Directing us within but also out
To how the sky behaves or moon reclines.
The Tate’s pure purpose cannot be in doubt.
Place of mirror and mirage, hint, retirement and then
Sudden fierce arrivals, after shunting in sidings, of paintings which have unloaded
Influence, bias, and bring in their own views of now, visions of time beyond us almost, also
Warhol, Pollock, Hockney, all, in a way, shockers, shapers of work
Which affronts us, takes us by the scruff, giddys us to come round and stand, shakily still
Before the risk and rise of intemperate choices, blatant colours, bearers
Almost, of ungrace. And yet, and yet… look closer,
Dare to stare at the tricks played by Magritte, be willing to admit
That painters had to leap down unconscious minds, and
Out-Freud Freud, healing not by talking trouble away, but by being forced
To admit art must go this way, find a difficult sturdy beauty in all unlikeliness,
And, as a touchstone, stare at Blake or Palmer,
Open your eyes to your own mind reflected
But improved, given form and purpose,
Painted out of the colour-box of the rainbow,
Shocking us only to save us for this moment
In an age at ease with violence and terror.
An almost impossible peace may here be gathered,
But has to be won by a courage of total looking.
Elizabeth Jennings was born in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1926 and educated at Oxford High School and St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her many books of poems include Collected Poems 1953 – 1985 (1986) and Tributes (1989), both published by Carcanet. She has written a number of critical books, including Robert Frost and Every Changing Shape, and has translated Michelangelo’s Sonnets. She has edited a number of anthologies and has given many poetry readings, in Great Britain, Florence and New York.