Writing the Nation now

I’ve been re-reading the wonderful Helen Cooper on Spenser and she categorises the Faerie Queene (FQ) as an exercise in ‘writing the nation’ and I started to think about contemporary poets who might, at least in part, be doing the same thing.

Let’s be clear first about the FQ project, he has this:

And thou, O fairest Princess under sky,
In this faire mirrhour maist behold thy face,
And thine own realmes in Lond of Faerie,
And in this antique Image thy great ancestry.

Readers will be delighted to know that I don’t intend to dwell on FQ for longer than I need to but I do want to work out whether much use is made of ‘faire mirrhours’ today. This particular device works for me when it strike a chord with the idea of England that’s in my head and when it expresses the things that I feel about this contradictory and ham-fisted land.

As ever, what follows is subjective and I reserve the right to change my mind. Having given this some thought, I’ve dismissed both Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne because I don’t think that’s what they’re about. I’ve looked at Hill’s nature stuff again and it seems more about God than nation. I understand Hill’s brand of regretful patriotism but I don’t share it even if it does make me smile.

Simon Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’ speaks to me in terms of the road network, cars and the scratchy disintegration of the middle aged and middle class Englishman. I’m not entirely sure how much of the latter element is description or confession but it does contain the right quantity of quiet despair that seems to be prevalent in most of my peers. He’s also pretty good on complicity which seems to run through some of his more recent work too.

Page 91 of ‘The Unconditional’ has this extended riff on how things probably are:

       And when it set again through burning clouds
    in certain knowledge that his enemy
       was sitting there in service station blue
    as when first rumour of a coming war
       from crevices to mute intelligence
    leaks to the avid wire or wireless beam
       a possible integer of probable
    risk or then hope dividing from the fold
       brushes against the oil price like two lips
    on the most sensitive no skin there is
       the slightest contact more than nothing will
    call up all spirits from their surfaces
       sending all shocks of terror or delight
    whether to eros or to thanatos 
       or operatives to keep their sleepy screens
    jerk on to power up the data field
       setting the eddying hammering of blood
    as a no wave on no field spends its flood 
       whose figures bear away a man's whole life
    by one dead jump into the real sea
       whilst they caress the exquisitely keen
    crest which falls off to pleasure or to pain.

This very long and incredibly digressive poem was published in 2006 and one of the many things it does is expose and dissect the New Labour faux managerial nonsense that the nation had been subject to since 1997 and passages like the above express how this felt to those of us with more than half a brain.

Regular readers will know that I’ve struggled in a fascinated kind of way with the difficulties that Jarvis presents but, after several reads, it does (with all its very many quirks) feel like the best/ most accurate mirrhour that we have of England at the start of the 21st century. I appreciate that the above may be primarily aimed at the criminal folly of our recent foreign adventures but the mindset is also present in the Blairite innovations in welfare spending which have been joyously extended by the current dismalities that rule over us- especially the ‘avid wire’ and the misuse of the data field to justify the ever increasing levels of deprivation.

Another poem that holds up the mirrhour to English politics in a way that I can recognise. The exception is Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’ which set off a whole chain of immediate recognition in terms of what the current state of politics and the possibility of what political action might be about.

As with Neil’s earlier work, this is defiantly obdurate stuff but it’s initial strength comes from the careful modulation of the poetic ‘voice’ which is a very human voice rather than a tone. My recognition was immediate but also quite literally breathtaking as if I’d been grabbed in the chest. This happens to me about once every ten years and not usually with poetry, the last occasion was standing in front of one of those big Kiefers in about 2001. As I’ve said, the ‘meaning’ is by no means apparent so I’m still more or less at a loss as to why (apart from the voice) I should have this response but I’m certainly confident of my ability to extoll it’s worth as a ‘mirrhour’.

For example, there’s this from the middle of the poem:

    Gloze edging flouresces, accelerant centre fades :
    inside, the accurate flow to shell-gland, cored
    optic of pure courting is
                            To praise
    consumed in fit loops power, topic parabola
    recoiling : smoke feels, the reliquary a disclosure
    of this stratum, folded in its blastwave, that by
    furnace glossed art
                    coolant, exhales retinal
    clutch, feeding, ordinate, bracket, saline, aluminum,
    a baffling reach. The image smashed, hand formes
    kindling enrichment ; the footing centres exactly :

    as you went out,     becoming small       in the country
    speeding, glazed in : Pace ballots        on
                        mist
    into the entrails
              new white speed will index in her blood :

I’m not going to attempt a detailed analysis of the above but it might be useful to point out that poems epigraph is a quote from Philip Gaskell which describes a process that produces “a perfect image of the mould pattern and watermark in the paper but does not register the printing on the surface”, I also need to draw your attention to the brilliance inherent in both the phrasing and the use of language to create, for me at least, a quite forensic picture of how it is and what may or may not be done. I’m particularly blown away by ‘the accurate flow to shell-gland’ and the two line that begin with ‘as you went out’.

I’ve now realised that I have digressed some way from my initial intention which was to start with the ‘antique image’ and Leland’s remarkable ‘Itinerary’ and proceed via Drayton, Cobbett and Reznikoff to John Matthias with a glance at Olson and David Jones along the way. Hopefully I’ll be more disciplined next time.

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2 responses to “Writing the Nation now

  1. Welcome back! Please don’t let some ideal of “discipline” discourage further posting.

    This may be obvious, but let it at least be said: the nation that’s mirrored, in all these cases, is plainly itself a work of the imagination. All three authors may be entirely honest about this, and more or less deliberate, but part of their poetry is in this imagining. They all select and heighten real or ideal aspects of the national experience.

    Over here we have a long tradition of mirroring the nation using tricks like those of realist fiction, letting the glance fall here and there, with judicious jumps of scale, to suggest that everything is being encompassed in proportion. This too (Whitman, Olson, O’Hara, etc.) is poetic fiction, and doesn’t literally encompass the fender-bender I just saw out the window of this bus on Highway 101, or the contrails gleaming above the highway, or the software company on the edge of the wetlands towards which it conveys me, etc., any more than vice versa.

    But I don’t know good American poetry that openly grapples with issues — that focuses the poetic mirror on problems of state policy. For thoughts on the security state, I turn to journalists and bloggers — those more ambitious in working with language are less practically ambitious in what they try to do with it.

    • Thank you, it’s good to re-dip the toe in the water. One of the things that I decided to ignore is the position of a nation on the world’s stage and the sort of nation writing that goes with it- this would have dragged me into areas of the FQ project that are already overdone but I think next time there’s some ‘compare and contrast’ to do and how us foreigners imbibe and absorb America’s ongoing poetic renditions of itself, thinking in particular of my generation’s response to ‘Howl’.

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