James Boswell: Exhibition of Drawings

Here is the hard art: I am shocked: into my brain
sneers a megaphoned General, trundles a corpse-laden train,
hangs a Means-Tested householder, burns a dead look,
empties the death-veined leaves of a wartime sketchbook.
Your drawing-pen was a venom-tipped weapon of war,
over the mind’s dull scratch-sheet its fork’s-points tore,
insinuating the poison of its truth.
A Mass Sacrifice, a mass sacrifice of youth
you showed the War – a great wooden cross forced down a private’s throat
by a huge and horn-rimmed nanny-goat –
a megaphone and a cross and a gun shouting the odds
in place of the face – you showed us the new gods –
a skeleton soldier stands at a barbed-wire fence –
beautiful the phalanges across the battle-dress heart in deference –
you collapsed the chest of obedience, knocked down the salute to power –
you encompassed the war as a kind of ‘Children’s Hour’ –
and scraped the silicone out of the whole damn story.
See them in 1939, ‘Candidates for Glory’,
tall, short, kitted out, waiting for the “off”,
less light than in a dog’s eyes, parked there, shapes-of-stuff.
O this has moved me, Poet of War,
whose image, like the word-poet of the war before
is that of pity. Here again is the heart,
a gasp, a reminder. Here is the hard art.


Fifty years have gone and countless died
in other wars. Art-by-formaldehyde
is the way of it now: what was a quickening once
to art, is now is the merest numbskull response.
And so we have, grossly mounted, a shark
gaping at us, to tell us death is stark.
Are our minds pickled? Can we not tell apart
sublime from obscene? Will the new century’s art
be as soft-in-the-head – mere silly games in the yard?
Or will it embrace where experience has been hard?


And before the War, in a street scene with its quiet
echoes of centuries; and the street market’s riot;
and in the ‘Left Review’ the ‘Confession of Faith’
of a fairy Conservative with his gorilla beneath
in policeman’s garb; Empire Builders like hogs;
His Majesty’s Servants – upright rotting logs –
and on the floor, yielded up in all-out surprise,
the enormous event of a private murder lies;
and a gargantuan Punch-and-Judy dance,
their fake-fight echoing every inane War-stance;
and circus midgets, grumpily, stumpily dressing;
and suddenly in a Paris brothel, a blessing
of simple ease. Young men perched on stools
and naked women talking them up. These jewels
of tawdry grace, laughing, lip-sticking, whispering,
light all the room up in a certain prospering
of what not may be, but what is.
This shift
to the real – from anywhere – is art’s hardest gift.

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