In the past I’ve taken the ‘forensic’ route with the above sequence, reproducing one of the poems and then trying to identify those phrases that might make some kind of sense. I find this process to be both absorbing and addictive so this is an attempt to wean myself off ‘close’ reading and give some consideration to the sequence as a whole.
I’m still making the assumption that the poems in ‘Streak’ are linked in ways other than the fact that each consists of six quatrains and that one of these linkages relates to the recent civil war in Ulster with a specific focus on the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. Having re-read the sequence a couple of times I think I’ve identified a number of places where things become more than a little intense.
Before identifying these, I’d like to give some consideration to what Prynne says in ‘Field Notes’ about Wordsworth’s use of ‘O’ in ‘The Solitary Reaper’. I don’t want to precis the finer points of his analysis, which is both complicated and wonderful, but I do want to point out that for him the use of ‘O’ in poetry is an expression of strong emotion and/or feeling. I also want to think about this:
The motive for ardency is in part supplied by the scarcely bridgeable rift between the possibly actual and the intensely desired (the two senses of listen even in deep memory this separation must remain a disruption to unified human consciousness, which may in this era locate one of the primal tasks of the poet of this kind to make danger or desire upon the surface of the universal earth.
The ‘point’ of this is that ‘oh’ does occur in the ‘Streak’ sequence and there appear to be other statements of intense feeling as well. With regard to Ulster, is it reasonable to characterise British involvement in the recent ‘Troubles’ as attempting in part to resolve the gulf between what was possible and what was desired by the various factions. This, of course, could be yet another example of me running away with myself but it does seem worth bearing in mind at this stage.
Now we come to timing and the fact that ‘Streak’ was the first work to be published after ‘Field Notes’ and the observation that ‘To Pollen’ doesn’t contain a single ‘Oh’. The only other relevant observation is that the above seems to be a quite ardent/fervent expression of what poetry (of this kind) might be about at a quite deep level.
‘Streak’ almost begins with an ‘oh’, this is the first stanza and a bit of the first poem-
Inside the tight closed box off it was it was out
a same summer box oh then at must closed on all
or maybe often maybe open to one side glaze be
in part to spill affirm partial along a rim ballast
Beginning to think about ‘oh then at must’ I think I see what Robert Potts meant when he described this sequence in one word – “impenetrable” but there are do appear to be a number of ways in. The first is to ask what difference would there be if the ‘oh’ wasn’t present. When I say ‘oh then’ this tends to indicate that I have just realised something and am extrapolating from it. For example, if I’m told that it is raining I may respond with ‘oh, then I won’t go for a walk until later’ because walking in the rain isn’t much fun.
I’m struggling to see how ‘at must’ relates in any way to ardency especially when placed with this flurry of repetition. There is a very, very slight possibility that ‘must’ is actually the Middle English variant of ‘most’ and a slightly greater chance that it is used as an expression of ” a command, obligation, or necessity; (hence) an obligation, a duty; a compulsion” (OED). I’m currently inclined towards ” Expressing a fixed or certain futurity: am (is, are) fated or certain to, shall certainly or inevitably” because it seems to fit best with the certainty of ‘it was it was’ and contrasts with the maybes in the following line.
The second use of ‘oh’ occurs in the fifth stanza of the same poem-
Recital to side, same with to side livid in part
newly profuse did civic offer on a dial, sweep
flight oh disposal profligate buck more in and
ready. Tantric cube up tight seam, signal limit
The previous stanza ends with a full stop so this extract does contain the full sentence. Things may be a bit clearer in this instance. The notorious use of internment (imprisonment without trial) by the British government between 1971 and 1975 resulted in a rise in the membership of paramilitary groups. So ‘sweep flight’ may refer to the initial arrests and ‘profligate disposal’ to the fact that many (over 1900) were incarcerated whilst ‘buck more in and ready’ may refer to internment causing more individuals to go against ‘normal’ law-abiding practices and to join the IRA and other groups and to be ready to participate in violent acts. If this is the case then ‘oh’ here is likely to represent an ardent (as in keenly felt) lament or disappointment at the brutality and crass stupidity that characterised so much of British policy throughout the seventies.
The third ‘oh’ takes me back into bafflement territory although there are a few more footholds-
let lid flicker, stand up. Said what choice spoken
Quickly at a brag do they when not or if profound
same brows matching oh weigh out lamp for show fly
forward, must do. Weed wet they say would you de-
lay hard trimming fast the sluice unclued eye into.
I have spent ten minutes in the company of rules 88 and 89 of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and can now confirm that a jockey ‘weighs out’ before a race and weighs in after it and that the rules about this are quite complex. This, of course, does not help with either the bafflement or the ardency. The eagle-eyed amongst you will note the proximity of ‘must’ and some may recall that ‘lamp’ as a verb can mean to strike or to thrash, especially in northern dialect. So somebody may be being beaten up in order to either deter or intimidate others. ‘Brag’ as a verb can mean both arrogant and boastful language and a ” Show, pomp, display; pompous demeanour or carriage” which brings to my mind the deeply weird Orange marches that continue to be such a source of conflict.
If this particular ‘oh’ does not indicate ardency then might it indicate a kind of bored resignation because all parties during the Troubles continued to make the same mistakes and adopt the same nonsensical ‘positions’. There’s also the slim possibility that the verification involved in weighing out a jockey might nod towards the actions of the independent group set up to monitor if the IRA was actually disarming.
The fourth ‘oh’ (from the eighth poem) doesn’t offer any obvious footholds-
at the boundary. Draw back torted, for fraction unlit
decept inner bark what frame oh how not even upright
Is the surface entire all for them compose him runnel
delegate incision, enjoy the permit gates, be tint likely
pitch acid hob. Loop for fray unpick over flint skies.
I’m not going to even attempt the ‘torted’. ‘decept’, ‘runnel’ route because that is likely to take me into forensic fretting over signification and what I’m trying to do here is to examine the nature of the ‘oh’. It can of course be argued that in order to grasp the oh then I need to understand the context. I accept this but also point out that this particular ‘oh’ seems to be another expression of either dismay, exasperation or disappointment and doesn’t seem to contain very much ardency- although we can be ardently exasperated, can’t we?
The final ‘oh’ (from the penultimate poem) is a bit more promising-
folder wasted in a cratch, into that. Did they wear better
busy neck-piece jesting harmonious interlock bundle tag
agreement oh same training striker defect. All same lock
‘Same’ is repeated throughout the sequence and one day I will try and make sense of the various ways in which it is deployed. Is this particular same involved in some kind of coaching or education? Does ‘striker’ refer to hunger striker and what might this defect be? The strike was in part an extension of the blanket protest against the withdrawal of political status for IRA prisoners and the requirement that such prisoners should wear ‘ordinary’ prison uniform. I’d like to think that this ‘oh’ is an expression of fervent regret but that might be more about my feelings about the hunger strike than Prynne’s.
None of this is terribly helpful in terms of ‘joining up the dots’ and doesn’t bode well for trying to do the same with other recurring features but it does lead me to think much more about the sequence as a whole which is a Good Thing. Incidentally, there are references to keenly felt emotions that are completely ‘oh’ free…