Learning to Draw/ A History by Basil King

Skylight Press is proud to present the first complete version of Learning to Draw/ A History, which has been previously serialised in various small presses and online zines to some acclaim. The book is the life’s work of painter and poet, Basil King, compiled and edited here by Daniel Staniforth.  In order to introduce the book here is a section from the Editor’s Foreword.

As has been my experience, transplanted Brits in America have a unique magnetism to each other and this was the case when I met ‘Baz’ in the summer of 2009.  We quickly established that we both had London childhoods; his during the Blitz and mine during the Brixton riots, and cockney repressions were wont to intersperse with our conversations.  Rather in reverse to his temporal development, I came to Basil King the poet first, having recently stormed through his long versal memoir, Mirage, and was only casually aware of his existence as a painter, which came to the fore later in our correspondence.  Fascinating to me, even beyond his sojourn at the famous Black Mountain College, was the fact that his genesis as a poet was a result of a trip back to the old Albion in 1985.  And when I came to discover his paintings, I was struck by the English folk soul pouring through his biomorphic “Green Man” series. 

Coming to Basil’s Warp Spasm one quickly realizes that they are in the presence of the time honoured painter-poet, following such luminaries as Michelangelo (a famous sonneteer in his day), William Blake, Dante Gabriel Rosseti, Henri Michaux, and Jean Arp.  As a musician-poet, I have always found the dual machinations of multi-disciplinary artists and how they find synthesis and expression within their hybridity makes for a riveting study.  Of course, the idea of art in concert with poetry has a long and rich history gong back to Horace’s Ars Poetica (and Plato before him), culminating in great works of ekphrasis like Shakespeare’s descriptions of paintings in Cymbeline, or Keats’ great Ode on a Grecian Urn, or more recently Paul Eluard’s artist homage in Donner à Voir.  Such follows the Renaissance ethos ut pictora poesis – “as in painting so in poetry.” One can see this at work in Basil’s formative years at Black Mountain where the combined teacher/student roll call is a veritable tribute to muti-disciplinary art – John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Robert Duncan, Franz Kline, Charles Olson, Robert Motherwell, Josef Albert, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Robert Rauschenburg, and Peter Voulkos  – to name but a few.

Although his art has been included in poetry books by Paul Blackburn, Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka, Basil’s true ekphrastic poesis is naturally automated in his own work where all is captured and processed through the artist’s roving eye. His narrative scope is anchored in the abstract expressionism of his training but continually wonders to the expressive abstraction of a painter on the verge of a new creation, resulting in what Roland Barthes might call “painterly textuality.”  In his astute article Thoughts on Basil King’s Learning to Draw (alluding to previous partial editions), the poet Laurie Duggan draws a corollary between the poet and the painter where the poem being “tenacious about the tales it wishes to tell” is a parallel to “the processes he makes use of in paintings and drawings.”  The brushstroke works in equilibrium with the syntax where both become one utterance. 

When Basil approached me about editing and compiling Learning to Draw/ A History in the autumn of 2010 he insisted that I re-sequence the various sections according to my own reading of the work.  In that that it is a work he has been intermittently writing and publishing his whole adult life he said that he was “too close” to its separate parts to come to some organic whole.  Upon going through the fragments it became clear to me that it did indeed comprise “a history” (one of many possible) rather than some definitive biography.  In linear form, the ‘story’ (if it may be called such) takes the reader from London’s East End during the 76 days of Luftwaffe bombing, through his own great crossing, to the glory days of Black Mountain College and the New York art scene.  Peopling his textual canvas as he traveled through life, whether real or imagined, Basil followed the old Frederic Jameson mantra to “always historicize.”  In being asked to shuffle the cards in the King deck I initially felt a bit guilty of historiographic impingement, the sort of meddling or systematizing of history that Ortega y Gasset warns of.  But as I read though the sections I realized that history itself is public, communal, and cooperative.  As with his paintings, this loosely rendered autobiography was pliant and malleable, never misshapen as neither time nor memory is ever concrete or linear.  Laurie Duggan puts it helpfully: “The question of autobiography looms large over Learning to Draw, but what sort of autobiography? The artist does not appear as an exemplar (though we might learn from his example). There is no false modesty at work, nor is King a kind of Zelig who comes into shot while the camera focuses on the famous others.”  Thus, I simply shaped the final manuscript as if I were learning to draw, through intuition and exploration. 

Learning to Draw/ A History is available from various retail outlets such as Amazon, or direct from the Skylight Press website.



About Daniel

Writer & Musician
This entry was posted in American Literature, Literature, New authors, New books, Poetry, Recommended reads and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Learning to Draw/ A History by Basil King

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