Gil Scott-Heron was one of my heroes. As an English student in the mid-80s, songs like The Bottle and Pieces of a Man were the soundtrack to many good nights out; but they also told me that poetry and philosophy weren’t just things done by the dead white men on my degree syllabus. Twenty-five years later Gil Scott-Heron was still doing it for me when I saw him at the Royal Festival Hall last year.
His death, last week, has pulled on a thread of sadness that connects some of the things I most love in life – poetry, art, yoga and the wisdom they sometimes reveal.
I’ve been thinking about this since seeing a picture at the Watercolour exhibition currently at Tate Britain called “Bean Painting 2004”. It’s simple – lots of different kinds of beans laid out like specimens. You have to look at it quite closely and in doing so you become aware of the attention the artist (Rachel Peddar-Smith) must have given to every single bean: complete absorption in each bean in turn, not thinking about the last one or the next one, but just this one in front of her now.
In that focus, I recognise an attitude I sometimes experience in yoga. It’s a complete attention to the now, but also a willingness to let go and move on to the next thing. You have to let go of the last asana (posture) to move onto the next one. A yoga lesson for life.
I thought of it again when I heard the Britten Sinfornia playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in April. Just as you’re getting into one variation, it’s over and something else has developed. And in order to move so swiftly from one piece to the next the musicians forget themselves and their self-consciousness; they have to become the music.
Following this memory thread back to my English degree, I wondered if this is the same “Negative Capability” that the Romantic poet Keats wrote about?: “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” Keats wrote in 1818 that the poet is an empty vessel, a chameleon that can so immerse himself in an object that he becomes it.
And the contemporary artist Anish Kapoor says: “I have often said I have nothing to say as an artist. Having something to say implies that one is struggling with meaning. The role of the artist is in the fact that we don’t know what to say, and it is that not knowing that leads to the work.”
Keats in his short life, experienced more than enough sickness, death, loss and grief. He suggested that through poetry, by immersing oneself totally in the now – however painful the now might be – one might free oneself from its agony.
The best yoga, for me, is when I don’t strive to achieve an asana, but I switch off my mind and my ego and trust my body’s own wisdom to feel its way into “becoming the asana”.
And occasionally, in meditation, or in moments of complete absorption in some physical activity or sensory experience, we can let go of anxieties, judgments and other distractions, eventually merging our own consciousness with that of the object of the focus. And in doing so, do we glimpse an awareness of our own consciousness without borders, of being part of a universal consciousness?
Gil Scott-Heron, puts is much more eloquently of course:
Pre-notes on notes to come
be no bargain-day xtras on freedom and
ain’t nobody givin it away.
echoes from overloud voices get rapped inside
badass black thunderclouds and carried to God who sits at
the corner of forever.
God sent down correctly.
God sent down right on timely:
music – muzak – musick
messages that cannot be decoded by stale brains
words and notes that mean:
inside you is where life is an not at woolworthless 5&10.
the message is here: inside the man
bubbling brain cells and heart/soul cells
ax-cell-er-rating faster until understood
and used and passed on and used and passed on and used and…
Gil Scott-Heron, May 3rd 1971 (from Pieces of a Man liner notes)