Category Archives: books

Information Quality: The Gnarly Poem

Continuing with the Information Quality theme, I’ve, after some discussion with others, devised the above as a way to proceed.

The following definitions are (as usual) tentative and subject to change.

The Gnarly Poem.

What I like about this quality is that it covers some big ground in five letters. The OED defines the word initially as ‘gnarled’ which in turn is given as “Of a tree: Covered with protuberances; distorted, twisted; rugged, knotted.” and gives the earliest usage as in Measure for Measure in 1616 ” Thy sharpe and sulpherous bolt Splits the vn-wedgable and gnarled Oke.” Apparently it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the adjective was used to describe non-wooden objects. This was when the rural labourer began to acquire the description which also has (in my head) connotations of ruggedness. I need to thank John Bloomberg Rissman for pointing out that gnarly is also a US surfing term meaning dangerous or challenging.

So we have poems that are rugged, whose protuberances make them hard to hold and their various twists and distortions throw up other challenges. They are also obdurate, made rugged after centuries of exposure to storm and drought. The gnarly poem demands / requires an almost physical response because it is only that bodily /embodied sense of engagement that the gnarls and the twists can be managed. Gnarly poems aren’t always good poems, there are many of this kind that are very bad indeed.

Examples.

This is always tricky because I don’t read that much and hence tend to use the same material to try and think these things through. So, for a change, I’m going to include some John Skelton, Edmund Spenser, Ezra Pound and John Bloomberg-Rissman.

John Skelton’s Speke, Parrot

I wouldn’t have put this forward (the sort of obscurity that I often complain about) were it not for J H Prynne alluding to it in his Kazoo Dreamboat which gives me an excuse to write about this gnarliest of gnarly poems:


My lady maystres, deame Philolgyy,
  Gave me a gyfte in my nest whan I laye,
To lerne all language, and it to spake apetly
Now pandez mory, wax frantycke, some men saye,
   Phroneses for Freneses may not holde her way. 
An almon now for Parrot, dilycatly drest;
In Salve festa dies, toto theyr doth best.

Before we get any further some facts may serve to make my point. Skelton was one of the three most prominent poets between about 1495 and 1525. He was shameless in his self-promotion and vituperative in the extreme toward his critics and enemies- he wasn’t very pleasant. He enjoyed varying degrees of royal patronage and boasted of that in his work. It has been pointed out that Skelton’s work had no influence whatsoever on subsequent generations although Ben Jonson did steal some of his better lines.

The two main themes of Speke, Parrot are the promotion of the traditionalist side in the Grammarians’ War which started in 1519 and concerns the best way to teach Latin. The other is a fairly vicious attack on Cardinal Wolsey who was the most powerful man in England, after the king.

The first part of the poem (from which the above is taken) was derided by critics at the time as being far too obscure. It is thought that Speke Parrot was written in sections because Skelton defends this in charge in the lines of the poem..

The mix of many languages is one of the many gnarls, as is the device of the parrot and the obscurity of some of the subject matter and the way that this is expressed. The grammarian’s war was not a dry academic tussle but a battle fought in the most personal of terms, Skelton indicated that he would have to knock his opponent’s (William Lily) teeth in, Lily stated that Skelton was neither learned nor a poet- knowing that this would strike hard at Skelton’s personal vanity.

To make things more gnarly, Alexander Dyce (Skelton’s 19thc editor) observed that “The Latin portions of the MS are usually of ludicrous incorrectness” and points out that several sections of the poem are missing from the version that we have today.

The first part of the poem presents many challenges to the reader but perhaps the most difficult to wrestle with is the figure of the muti-lingual bird and the very oblique ways in which he makes his point. The poem as a whole scores highly in the gnarly stakes because it appears from nowhere in the English canon, defies categorisation and then dies a fairly rapid death.

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

I’m of the view that this is the second best poem in English primarily because of its verbal ambition and technical mastery. It’s also monstrously long (see below). The gnarls are about the oddnesses that seem to undermine the ‘sense’ of the work, the nature and functioning of the various allegories together with what I think of as the Faeire Lond problem.

FQ is ostensibly an exploration of the virtues set out in allegorical form (what Spenser’s describes as the “dark conceit”) and can be read as a series of fights involving the good guys against the bad guys with a few monsters and giants thrown in. The problem with the allegories is that they don’t actually do what they’re supposed to do. They spend much of each of the books describing human folly and stupidity rather than the positive qualities that they are supposed to represent. The other gnarl is the fact that this doesn’t become clear on the first reading, it only announced itself to me half way through the second because I had been completely blown away (technical term) by the vitality and excitement of the work.

This failure, and the weak attempts to rectify it prevents the attentive reader (me) from gaining a clear impression of what the work might be striving to do even though it is clear that it isn’t doing what Spenser say it does.

The next gnarl is geographical, the physical world of the poem doesn’t make sense, is hopelessly incoherent and inconsistent but this is only apparent when an attempt is made to ‘map’ Fairy Lond. The same problem is present in Piers the Plowman but Langland has the excuse of his being a dream poem. This absence of geographical sense is in direct contrast to the cosmological precision employed by Milton in Paradise Lost. Again this gnarl is only evident after reading the work and trying to take an overview but it still contributes to the general gnarliness.

For this reader the oddities concern torture, bestiality and cross dressing. For reasons of space I’m going to use the last to show how oddness can be a protuberance. This particular episode is contained in Canto V of the fifth book which is ‘about’ justice as embodied in Artegall and his robot Talus who acts as a killing machine on Artegall’s behalf. Book Five has been taken up by a number of critics fretting over the apparently genocidal sub-text and lumped it together with the prose A View of the Present State of Ireland which does advocate a form of genocide as a solution to the Irish Problem. I’ve had occasional rants about this before but it does overlook the treatment that Artegall from Radigund after he shows her mercy: she dresses him in “womans weeds” and sets him to work, along with her other knightly captives, “twisting linen twyne”, a situation that he accepts with a passivity that is completely out of character. Spenser appears to be using this to show what happens when you show mercy (you end up dressed as a girl doing girl’s work) and to express a remarkably vicious misogyny:

Such is the crueltie of womankynd,
   When they haue shaken off the shamefast band,
   With which wise Nature did them strongly bind,
   T'obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand,
   That then all rule and reason they withstand,
   To purchase a licentious libertie.
   But vertuous women wisely understand
   That they were borne to base humilitie,
Vnless the heavens them lift to lawfull soueraintie.

This piece of quite bonkers paranoia is unfortunately expressing the consensus in late Elizabethan England but it is made even more stupid by the exception made for Elizabeth I in the last line. The gnarliness is that this very clear unambiguous view is in direct contrast to the second stanza of Canto II in Book 3 which expresses precisely the opposite view. These are the last three lines:


   Yet sith they warlike armes have laide away,
   They have exceld in arts and policy,
That now we foolish men that prayse gin eke t'enuy.

FQ was first published as Books I-III in 1590 with IV-VI published six years later. The later books are considered to be ‘darker’ in tone than the first three but this particular gnarl stands out and I for one still can’t get my brain around such a direct contrast.

Ezra Pound’s The Cantos.

I’m not going to spend too long on this because of its obvious protuberances and knots. I do need to observe however that Pound knew about poetry and that his Don’ts from 1913 are still eminently relevant and applicable one hundred years later.

The Cantos have the following gnarly features:

  • the ideograms;
  • the anti-semitism;
  • the economic theorising, with examples;
  • massive inconsistencies in technique from the brilliant to the dire;
  • length.

All of these deter me from putting the effort required to read the work from beginning to end- not because of its obscurity and alleged difficulty but because it would take too long to deal with all these gnarls.

John Boomberg-Rissman’s In the House of the Hangman.

First of all I need to point out that John and I correspond most days and I may therefore be accused of some bias. I don’t think this is the case because, in this instance, his relentlessly ongoing work led me to identify this quality when I realised that I was entering into an almost physical struggle to give it the attention that it demands. The work is published daily on the Zeitgeist Spam and yesterday’s episode is no.1631. Each is made up from items that arrive via John’s RSS and these are credited in the notes at the bottom although it isn’t entirely clear which notes refer to which parts of the text even though they are listed in order.

One of the purposes is for ITH to act as a mirror for the world as it is in the (more or less) present and it’s done in a way that is reasonably chaotic and eternally relentless. For the attentive reader (me), the gnarls come in two different flavours. The first is that it isn’t always clear where one item / extract / thing /quote begins and ends and the second is the complete absence of context unless you follow the links in the notes and even (or especially) then you are still pretty much on your own. Nevertheless it demands engagement even though my ‘handle’ on it is never going to be anywhere near complete but the struggle, the process of the grapple is dangerously addicitve. I think this may demonstrate / emplify at least a couple of gnarls:

One luckless expatriate was picked up and thrown into a trash can. The Jewish-Japanese Sex & Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves. The guy who created the iPhone’s Earth image explains why he needed to fake it. Kangaroos have three vaginas. Grills, ‘Grillz’ and dental hygiene implications. When adding is subtracting. Hire a Drone With Bitcoin. PotCoin. Sweden is the largest exporter of pop music. Why Dark Pigeons Rule the Streets. Can You Sue A Robot For Defamation? His animals get their energy from the wind so they don’t have to eat.

Now, with this kind of material its very gnarliness is enough to deter most readers but each sentence in the above is a startling statement of What Might Be Going on just now, I think I might take some issue with the add / subtract statement but that’s part of the process- identifying some kind of logic and then fretting about the bits that seem especially gnarled and out of place. ITH can be read as a conceptual exercise that has taken one idea or way of working and stuck with it but it struggles against that because the concept takes an increasingly back seat as the episodes increase in number and more and more related material is accumulated.

David Jones reads from In Parenthesis

We’ll start with the obvious. In Parenthesis is the finest poem in English about WW1. This is not just my view, it is one shared by Sir Michael Howard, our foremost military historian:

David Jones’s In Parenthesis is the greatest poem to emerge from the First World War, and indeed one of the greatest to emerge from any war. It could have been written only by someone who had not only experienced the war in all its horror, but who was himself soaked in both poetry and history and for whom that war deepened his understanding of both.

What is perhaps most remarkable is the way in which Jones gives voice to a wide range of perspectives based on his own experience and those of his comrades. It is an account of one man’s progress from initial training in England until the assault on Mametz Wood as part of the Somme offensive in 1916. One of the most remarkable aspects of the poem is the interweaving of our cultural past into the present whilst not sacrificing the very real depiction of trench warfare.

I’ve written at length about In Parenthesis both here and on arduity so I don’t intend to repeat myself any further. The reason for this post is that, due to the generosity on Nathaniel Drake Carlson, I am now in possession of a number of recordings taken from one of those prehistoric vinyl things of Jones reading his work. These two are from In Parenthesis, the first is from Starlight Order:


The second is from The Five Unmistakeable Marks:


I think both of these illustrate the strngth of the work and the fact that it is uncannily beautiful to listen to. In the first track a tedious and very dangerous task is made almost magical and this is enhanced by the care that Jones takes in his reading. In his introduction, Jones has this: “……for I think that day by day in the Waste Land the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the emotions of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, Book iv, chapter 15- that landscape spoke with ‘a grimly voice’.” Of course, the idea of enchantment on the front line in 1916 is more than somewhat at odds with our modern perception of what this particular hell may have been like but both the text and Jones’ reading of it here make a more than convincing case especially if you consider enchantment with a ‘grimly’ voice.

The second track describes the moment of the initial assault on Mametz Wood and again conveys the otherness of this experience, our protagonist is moving forward in his ‘own bright cloud’ which then clears so that he can see the landscape before him. Again, Jones’ careful modulation and cadence transposes the event from something horrifically violent and bewildering into something quite specific, quite detailed culled from a memory that must have been etched on to the inside of his skull.

Neither Sir Michael or I were present at the Somme so we can’t vouch for the absolute authenticity of what is described here but it does appear to have a kind of ‘truth’ that is sharper and clearer, at least to me, than other first-hand accounts.

I intend to continue with the rest of these recordings because I think they provide valuable context for the work and may even encourage more readers to buy the book and read it. Once again my heartfelt thanks to Nathaniel for his generosity.

Keston Sutherland’s Under the Mattress

I am now in possession of a draft of the above, having watched the youtube clip of Keston reading this recently in the US. I’m told that it may not be finished but what I’ve seen is a very impressive piece of work. I’ll start with the central image, ‘you’ are underneath a mattress whilst a British military observer is ‘fucking his girlfriend’ on top of it. This is brilliant in all kinds of ways and in order to identify those ways I want to go back to the first part of the second ode from Odes to TL61P. This concerns our police force(s) and is a savage attack on the way in which the current status quo is maintained.

One of the many developments that have occurred during my adult life is the increased cleverness of the police whose primary function seems to have moved from Catching Bad People to Working with Communities as a kind of social work with muscle. Of course this is not the case, both of these functions are, as they always have been, cover for the ‘real’ task which is keeping us in our place. The general ‘cover’ has moved from the pseudo morality of the first stance to the management of communities with all the performance targets and outcomes and strategic babble that this implies.

This dismal state of affairs is captured thus:

What the public here from the police on TV is the
voice of police management. Everyone who has a
manager knows what that litotic brachylogy always
sounds like. You learn in the end to pick out the
buzzwords like hairs from a dessert you only think you
don't want to eat now, whereas in truth it is what you
have paid for in order that you can be too intimidated
to complain about it or send it back, by way of sending
it back instead, and though the mouthfeel is like
a grease-filled crack except astonishingly ugly you
study to toll your eyes, pucker as if embittered, and
furtively smirk at the gelatine souffle with the other
patriotic bulimics........

This is the sort of stuff that has me punching the air in delight. It’s grown up political satire and it is gloriously complex. This isn’t just another illustration of our complicity in our oppression/exploitation but the truly grim picture which is that we know that all of this is a con and yet make a conscious decision to live our lives as if it wasn’t. Keston has said that he isn’t sure whether he’s written a satire or a critique but I’m of the view that this manages to do both as well as skewering the fundamental lie of the ongoing farce that is New Labour.

Some time ago (before I became a more rounded and understanding person) I would have gone on to have a rant about both litotic and brachylogy as being both obscure and off-putting to the average reader. I think this argument would still stand if we didn’t now have free and instant access to the OED and other reference tomes via the marvels of the interweb. Now, given that I’ve been unable to unwrap both these oddities in less than a minute, I don’t think this argument applies to me but it may do for those who may find words like these intimidating in the sense that whoever uses them is much cleverer than they are and for those who just want to read poetry for the language without being overly concerned about anything as moveable as meaning.

I didn’t have a problem about not knowing what those two words mean and was quite happy to be swept along by the strength of the argument initially but then felt the need to discover that litotic isn’t a word in the OED (and therefore Does Not Exist) but is probably being used as the adjective for ‘litotes’ whichic is defined as “A figure of speech, in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary; an instance of this.” Brachylogy (which is a word) is apparently a term used in the lost art of rhetoric and means: ” Conciseness of speech, laconism; a condensed expression.” So, it turns out that this is probably the most concise way of saying what Sutherland wants to say and is therefore not only defensible but also a Good Thing.

Before we proceed to the dreamer under the mattress, there are a couple of brief detours that I want to take. John Bloomberg Rissman and I have been discussing the specialness or otherwise of poetry and I was challenged / asked to come up with a definition. Of course I ducked this as best I could but came up with what had attracted / enchanted me in the first place: the ability of the poem to express greater precision by means of compression. I don’t think that poetry is unique in this but I think, at its best, it does it very well. This is a long way of saying that ‘litotic brachyology’ is an example of this and of Sutherland’s poetic skills.

The other by-way that needs to be trod is that of satire, it wasn’t until I was writing out the above that I noticed the scabrous nature of this astonishingly ugly crack that is filled with grease. Having now noticed it, I think i have to ask whether this extreme kind of satire doesn’t detract from the deadly serious point that is being made. Just because Swift did doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s okay. In this instance I’m prepared to accept that it’s meant to be read at a rate of knots and that something forceful is required but I’m not certain that it isn’t a little gratuitous.

What follows is not just a dissection of police tactics in protests but also an interweaving of the hacking fiasco, the Arab spring, the emergence of China Mobile as a global competitor and the oddness that is the lingering and ongoing death of Yvonne Fletcher with management speak and the relationship between police overtime and crisis.

This was intended as a description of the effectiveness of the central image in Under the Mattress but I seem to have gotten carried away, this is magnificent:

.........................have a dream in which to 
evade arrest you squeeze your whole body under a 
mattress laid out intuitively horizontal on which now
 superficially outlays overcharged and wasted an 
obscurely misplaced British military observer who is 
thereby on standby to be presumed innocent on the 
ground of his readiness to fall in with reality not once
but by more expertly fucking his girlfriend, and once
having been gratefully squeezed under the mattress it 
is still being done more expertly to her on, to excuse 
the strange imposition of a life directly under his 
peacekeeping pounding ass, you explain without
 meaning it or strangely caring that who should remain 
at large on the tugboat or free would needs risk 
being captured, in vintage language like that.....

There are two things here that attract my attention. The first is this observer who we are told is a military observer but is also a peacekeeper. Starting with the business of observation, I seem to recall fairly reliable (and not denied) evidence that British ‘diplomats’ were present as observers when people were being tortured in a number of dark rooms all over the world. I also recall the present regime of posh rich boys undertaking to have a thorough review of these observers’ role and / or complicity in these barbaric practices which we could never condone or make use of. However, it must be pointed out that this observer is not actually applying the electrodes, hammer, white noise, hooding but is merely observing the process and the results that then ensue. The eminently reasonable argument put forward by the powers that be, or copied from the Bush adminstration, is that these ‘techniques’ produce valuable intelligence which helps us to win the War on Terror and that we need to observe the process in order to gain that intelligence. Of course this particular military observer may be a peacekeeping observer in somewhere intransigently tricky like the DRC which would be completely neutral and have nothing to do with the interests of the larger (British) mining conglomerates currently bringing wealth and prosperity to the region.

The second thing to think about is what it means or what it’s like to be under a mattress. First and most obviously your movement is restricted and you can’t see very much. Secondly you have the weight of the mattress and those people lying on it weighing down on you. Anything you hear is muffled and you can only see what is apparent in the gap on either side between the mattress and the frame of the bed. You cannot complain against the activities going on above because you are hiding in order to evade arrest.

At least one of your hands may yet protrude from the side of the bed as if in silent protest at what is going on above it. Breathing is likely to be difficult especially as your rib cage is buffeted from the exertions going on above.

It is a dream poem and in this particular dream the protagonist (still addressed as ‘you’) moves in and out of being “Roger fucking Moore” complete with a brief biography of this Great British Icon and the overall ‘feel’ is more satire than critique and it’s very funny.

So, an image that will stay with me for a very long time and a poem that manages to be seriously absurd / absurdly serious with a great deal of verbal flair. One of the threads that seems to be worked through in Keston’s recent work is an increasingly grown-up and sophisticated analysis of the workings of the state. As a closet anarchist, I’m very pleased indeed.

Keston Sutherland: the Dot Investigation

Regular readers will know that I’ve had a recent peeve (technical term) about the dot that appears in section II of Stress Position and annoyingly re-emerges in The Odes to TL61P. Since then, thanks to the infinite and not-to-be-questioned power of the interweb, several new possible justifications have been put to me and I have been gently reminded that I omitted the Dot in the Foot. I’ve also had a question put to me which I need to quote in full:

I wonder has there ever been a word in your life that has oddly just stuck around or hung in the air or returned obstinately to your mind without ever fully or altogether disclosing its charge of significance or range of associations?

I do want to address this at some length but first I want to report on my Dot Findings.

It turns out that the dot is not an annoyingly empty affectation, indeed it has a very clear origin and ‘meaning’. Thanks again to the power of the interweb I now have a digitised copy of an essay entitled “Poetry and Subjective Infinity” by Keston Sutherland which I am told pre-dates SP.

I think it is only fair to warn the uninitiated that Keston is much more Marxist than your average Marxist and what follows contains more than a little of Karl and may require some sympathy with a leftist position. We start with a childhood dream:

I would return to the labyrinth, resentful and awkward with grief, consciously unable to comprehend the reality that this cycle of meaningless labour in infinite abstraction would go on eternally, that it would go on being interrupted at regular intervals in order that the alien law could be reaffirmed, and that this whole cycle played out in absolute abstraction emptied of all sensuous content was not only inescapable, but that it was somehow the very pattern of necessity itself, and that my whole life would be spent in the dutiful repetition of this cycle, and that I would never understand why or to what end. In the dream I was a dot in infinity. When I woke up, I was a child standing in the living room in my pyjamas, drenched in sweat, convulsively screaming noises, and my father and sister were standing in front of me, nervously attempting to wake me, their two adjacent faces twisted up in worry and astonishment.

We then move on to Becket’s Imagination Dead Imagine from which this is quoted:

No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

Now, you will be pleased to know that, to further this investigation, I have just read all three pages of Imagination Dead Imagine. This isn’t any kind of burden for me because Becket’s prose has been a lifelong companion and I like to think that I have a reasonable grasp of the work. In this particular piece the scene is set with great precision and two prone and motionless figures are subjected to variations in temperature and light. The ‘speck lost in whiteness’ is first described as “Externally all is as before and the sighting of the little fabric quite as much a matter of chance, its whiteness merging into the surrounding whiteness”. There is then an analysis of the grammatical structure before this explanation of the speck:

The figure of the speck lost in infinity is something like the test of this proposition. It is the image of life contracted into a terminally punctual abstraction, jettisoned in a world from which it is absolutely impotent to escape, and which it can never hope even in the slightest degree to alter, disrupt or influence. To be absolutely impotent and absolutely lost in the world is not yet to be dead; but as Beckett often only seems to joke, the difference is in truth indifferent.

This is followed by Marx’s dot or his use of the term Puntualitat which is translated for us as ‘dotlikeness’ and is used by Marx (apparently) to describe the appearance of the individual under the “despotism” of capital. The point is also made that capital “assumes the role of infinity.”

I’m going to glide over the discussion that follows about the (no doubt) complex relationship between Marx and Hegel because it seems to be more about infinity that The Dot. There’s also a fair bit about the way that capital empties out the worker.

The essay ends with a rousing and heartfelt description of what poetry can and must do which starts with:

To be the critic of political economy, really to be the active enemy of capital and not its sycophant, requires poetry: speculation as the work of subjectively infinite self-conscious reflection must be kept alive in poetry.

and:

It has always seemed to me that the image of the dot lost in infinity, the image of absolutely belittled life horrifyingly forever adrift in infinite emptiness, is a basic experiential content of poetry. I have not written a poem I care about that was not in some more or less explicit way determined by that image and my horror of it.

So, I stand corrected – the dot does have a specific significance and meaning in Keston’s work and practice and is not, as I cynically suggested, a mere stylistic tic. There are however a couple of thoughts that this investigation has prompted for me. The first of these is the underlying and (to me) key difference between Becket’s speck and Marx’s punkt. The latter would appear to be a product of an economic system and would disappear if that system was overthrown. The first has always been our reality and will remain so throughout our existence regardless of the contexts in which we live. For Becket struggle and striving are always futile because they always end in a paricularly unremitting kind of failure.

The next point (entirely intentional} that I think needs to be made is that being an active enemy of capital does not require poetry any more than it requires light opera. This seems so blindingly self-evident to me that I cannot understand how very bright people whose work I have the greatest respect for should continue to make this entirely spurious piece of grandiosity. Poetry may be many wonderful things but it is neither essential nor, in any way, special. End of short and oft-repeated rant.

I think I also need to point out the absolute sincerity of Keston’s views on this, I have no doubt that his belief in the power of poetry is keenly felt and probably is the ingredient (technical term) that gives his work its brilliance and strength. I just think he’s wrong.

I’m not going to re-examine each particular dot here because that’s probably best left to individual readers although I may feel the need to return to the dot in the foot and the Capo dot at a later stage.

Keston Sutherland’s dot

Whilst thinking about writing this I realised that something has changed. Not so very long ago if I came across something that I didn’t understand then I automatically assumed that this was my problem, that I was insufficiently educated, inadequately read and what generally ignorant. I now realise that this is no longer the case. When I encounter a similar piece of bafflement I now assume that the problem lies primarily with the poet rather than with me. I’ve also noticed that I’m less bothered by elitism, not because it isn’t a sin but more because it seems to matter less. I think I might need to worry about both of these because there’s clearly some softening occurring and this does not sit at all well with my carefully honed rugged Northern working class persona.

I have no idea when these events occurred but they do seem to be exemplified by the Dot Problem.

I started reading Keston’s Stress Position at the very end of 2009 and was very impressed which is unusual because most kinds of poetic polemic manage to be both childishly agitated and tedious in equal measure.

I’ve written with enthusiasm about SP many times since then but I’ve always managed to glide gracefully around the dot device. Initially this was because I didn’t understand it and felt that this was due to the above issues. I was also very happy to overlook the dots because SP is full of many, many good things that I do understand and can write about. So, I was quite happy to file the dots away until some rainy day when things would become suddenly clear. However the dot (I now notice) has returned in The Odes to TL61P and I am trying to say intelligent things about these because I think they might be Quite Important.

So, I’ve been back to SP’s dots and have to report that they’re not any clearer now than they were in 2009. Section 2 (The Workings) opens with:


        To the anagrammatic Diotima I am a bare intuition of Vietstock
    so we split - on a skiv run down The Street like a milky gutter
        of burnt silk singing 8000 BAHT the girl with the waggly tail
    my eyes too. A billion negligible eggs in a rectangle pruned
        to a triangle, pruned to a dot. Making the parts of a sky inside you
    shift, think, and you too, reliving Svay Pak. Across the road
         Tajik scag, Satyr alive on theft, metanarcissism.

Now you might think that this is a fuss about nothing, that this particular dot makes complete sense given where it sits. However, this is the second half of the third stanza:

I can’t understand how beautiful it is, my thin heart thrashes at
the limit it sets in stony flesh flooded by brilliancy
later unknown, this is the real dot I hear my final voice
repeat as the shrinkwrapped air collapses spinning into the floor.

I would ask you to note the italics above because this is all of the fourth stanza:


        Now I want you to repeat that back to me in white noise
    lived with static that comes in grey when put on the black market,
        like truth faded into. I turn the hole in her foot into
    a man called DOT, it is not a person but a multicoloured and
        immaculate silhuette of whom it thrills me as I eat
    a chthonic donut, which, if you lick its sugar, tells the story
        of my dot, of Black Beauty, of the gastro yacht, of poetry.

It doesn’t end there, there are two real dots and and some dots that are all joined up, italicised, upper case dots and a capo dot further on. Now, perhaps it can be seen why I decided to leave well alone, the poem (apart from this and a couple of other tics) is brilliantly inventive and does what poetry can do at its very best. My initial response of being too thick to work out what might be going on has been given over to annoyance. First, I’m not a fan of changes in type to hint at a variation of meaning. Second, I’m not too sure that I can be bothered to work out what the dots might, if anything, signify. Third, I have a lingering suspicion that Section two of SP may be too elaborately affected for its own good. All of which is a pity.

We now come to The Odes of which I am the most enthusiastic fan / advocate / reader. I continue to think that it’s a really important piece of work in that it reaches out to the world well beyond poetry, it’s uncompromisingly honest and incredibly brave. Unfortunately, I’ve just noticed a dot. I hadn’t noticed it before but I am trying to write intelligent things about Ode 1 and this involves me paying more attention than usual. There may, of course, be other dots but this is the first:


     ...................You task Madiha Shenshel with
    cooking your breakfast (hawk eggs in fried milk
    high in polycollaterals), then finishing it, then making
    it again (fuck, a dot), automatically spitting shells
    out; you prefer the boxes to the toys; Deborah's photo
    of herself crammed into her college wardrobe, ad
    infitum; the hair on a thousand mothers; infinity ad
    nauseam; the internal level counter is stored in a single
    byte, and when it reaches 255 the subroutine causes 
    this value to roll over to zero before drawing the fruit.

So, there are two alternatives, I can note that the offending conceit is in brackets and therefore can be ignored or I can take a deep breath and start with all those dots in SP and work out what might be going on. It then occurs to me that the brackets argument doesn’t work because, by that argument, I’d miss the collaterals quip which does make a difference to what’s around it.

So, this isn’t my problem, I’m not missing the ‘point’ or, if I am, the ‘point’ isn’t sufficiently clear. One of the issues that I still have with SP is that sometimes it becomes a little too pleased with itself and occasionally Keston lets his cleverness (he is very clever) get the better of him so that the substance gets a bit lost. Nevertheless, it seems that it’s time to revisit The Workings.

Stumbling over David Jones

I’m currently confused, this doesn’t often happen. During last summer I began a project for arduity which involved writing about Simon Jarvis’ Night Office, Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P and David Jones’ The Anathemata. Things went reasonably well for a while, writing about the poems from the beginning and proceeding through at a leisurely pace until I hit a wall with The Anathemata. This took me by surprise because I’ve come to share Auden’s view of it as the finest long poem in English of the twentieth century. The nature of the wall was a passage where things start to get a little academic and I wasn’t keen because it feels like it’s trying too hard, with some of the notes displaying some of the worst traits of the self-taught, especially the desire for some kind of scholarly respectability instead of explaining what needs to be explained. This is usually something I can overlook but in this instance the tendency goes on for four pages and is also quite boring.

Of course, the sensible thing would be to mention my reaction and perhaps give a couple of examples and then move on but I didn’t, I decided to leave things alone for a while and come back to it later. I’ve been back to it twice since and each time I get the same sense of annoyance. I’m still of the view that The Anathemata is a staggeringly important poem and I am aware that it was written over a number of years and various bits were pushed together with varying degrees of success but I am genuinely taken aback by how much I dislike these four pages. What is equally puzzling is that I’ve read the poem several times over the last three years and this reaction hadn’t occurred, at all.

One of the reasons for this may be that I’m now reading with the specific intention of writing in some detail about the work and I’m doing this in an attempt to bring Jones’ work to a wider audience and this kind of reading may be different from my earlier incursions which didn’t have a fixed / specific objective. The other factor may be that I was previously more concerned with meaning and unravelling all the very many references and not enough on my readerly reaction.

Now, the secondary level of confusion occurs with whether reading in order to write is the best way for me to occupy my time. In 2011 I stopped blogging and writing about poetry for about 4 months because I felt this approach was taking away some of the pleasure I get from paying attention to this material. I’m also aware that things may be becoming a little too lit crit which is not what I want to do.

I’ll try to giv an example from the offending four pages, this is from the Rite and Fore-Time section of the poem:


                   For the phases and phase-groups
sway toward and fro within that belt of latitude.
There's where the world's a stage 
                   for transformed scenes
with metamorphosed properties 
                       for each shifted set.
Now naked as an imagined Belle Sauvage or as is the actual
Mirriam.

(The last sentence above is prose but I’ve matched the line ending from the 2010 Faber edition).

The note for this is:

The Mirriam are a people of the Shendam Division of the Plateau Province of Nigeria. The men of this tribe are not totally naked, but the women in general are, except for ornaments of bamboo pith. I am indebted for this information to Captain A.L. Milroy, MC, for many years an official in that area.

I stumble on two things, the first is the fact that we don’t need the Mirriam in the poem, it ‘reads’ badly and is superfluous to what’s being said and second is that the note doesn’t need Captain Milroy and his Military Cross. This annoys me because stating the obvious (there are still some people who go without clothes) for no good reason and the identification of the source and the status of that source is unnecessary. I freely admit that all of us auto-didacts do have some inherent anxiety about our absence of education but this particular example gets in the way of the poem.

I’m also of the view that if things are a chore to write then there is a greater danger that they are a chore to read. I’m therefore going to spend a period of time writing about things that crop up spontaneously rather than what I feel I ought to be attending to. Oddly, I don’t feel this way about the Annotated Trigons project which I’m working on with John Matthias and I think this is because it’s a bit of an adventure in that we’re experimenting with what the web can do and I’m also pushing my abilities (such as they are) in a new direction.

I’d like to conclude with something from The Anathemata that’s triggered something unexpected. Immediately after the offending section there is “For all WHOSE WORKS FOLLOW THEM which has a longish note, the second paragraph of which is:

The dictionary defines artefact as an artificial product, thus including the beaver’s dam and the wren’s nest. But here I confine my use of the word to both artefacts in which there is an element of the extra-utile and the gratuitous. If there is any existence of this kind of artefacture then the artefacturer or artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion because the extra-utile is the mark of man.

I’ve either missed or skimmed over this in the past but it does seem quite important in furthering my understanding of what might be going on. In his longish introduction, Jones claims that he is presenting the main elements of his own cultural background and history, the items and ideas that have significance for him, he also makes it clear that the central element for him is the Catholic Mass. What he doesn’t make clear is the direct connection that he makes here between Christ’s crucifixion and the act of artistic creation. Jones’ added emphasis on ‘direct’ makes it clear that he sees Christ’s death as much more than giving us the possibility of salvation but also enabling the creative process. I’m not reading this as God being immediately present in every creative act but it does seem to suggest that Passion in some way initiates each creative act.

I give this as an example of something that I wasn’t looking for and didn’t intend to write about but would give me more than a little pleasure to explore out loud the possible implications of and the rationale for the above. Next I think I’ll tackle Keston Sutherland’s dot problem….

The Annotated Trigons: a mid-term report.

Now that we’re more than halfway through with the above, I’ve decided that it may be useful to review progress thus far. The original aim was to create a form for the sequence that could be updated (the links used in the printed edition had died) and to see what the current advantages are to using the interweb as a platform for annotation. A further reason was the sad fact that Trigons is not included in the three volumes of John’s Collected and this was a way of compensating for that omission.

We set ourselves a couple of parameters, the first was to avoid overwhelming the text with too many notes and/or providing extraneous information that has no relevance to the poem. I think that early on we decided that we’d rather inform than explain. preferring to encourage the reader to work out ‘meaning’ whilst providing a degree of context to the characters and events that are mentioned in the work.

With regard to overwhelming, John suggested William Emspon as model to follow: ““There is no longer a reasonably small field which may be taken as general knowledge. It is impertinent to suggest that the reader ought to possess already any odd bit of information one may have picked up in a field where one is oneself ignorant; such a point may be explained in a note without trouble to anybody; and it does not require much fortitude to endure seeing what you already know in a note”. I’m not suggesting that we’ve got everything right in the amount of material that we’ve provided but I think that everything thus far that needs a note has got one.

This brings me some of the more abstract ramifications for this kind of project. At first glance, things seem reasonably clear, you put the sequence into a series of web pages and use a mixture of notes and links to external pages to provide Empson’s odd bits of information. However, links are changed, web pages are modified and updated, other more detailed / objective / better material may be postedso that a significant part of what is provided is very mobile and provisional indeed. It seems to my small brain that this has profound implications for all of us and it took me a couple of months on this project to realise that this is the case. I must stress that isn’t the concern that most of us had about the reliability of information on the interweb, this is about the fundamental nature of that information. I know that this is the case but I haven’t yet been able to fathom the direction that this is taking us.

We now come to reliability and emphasis. The good news is that Wikipedia is becoming increasingly accurate and objective and (as a result) it is much easier to spot the hopelessly biased articles. We decided early on however not to rely on it but to use it as a pointer to other sources of information. The other good news is that more and more ‘established’ resources are putting all of the content on the interweb for free. The even better news is that the google machine has become even more efficient at delivering the pages that you’ve searched for. All of this means that even the most obscure characters, books and events now have a wealth of context and explication almost at the click of a mouse.

The less good news is that some reputable/established sources aren’t always as balanced as perhaps they should be. Some Dictionary of National Biography articles clearly have a very one-sided axe to grind which should either have been more rigorously edited or rejected. This isn’t an argument for he anodyne, just the old-fashioned idea that, with something that purports to be definitive, both sides of an argument need to be presented.

I now have to admit to falling into the ‘explanation’ trap on a couple of occasions. I think I’ve written about the first where, in the notes to Islands, Inlands I was very tempted indeed to present things in a way that pointed to the tragic nature of Greek politics in the 20th century as a major theme. In Hess/Hess I nearly wrote at great length about the rumour that the man imprisoned in Spandau was an impostor and the sightings of Marshall Ney in the United States many years after his death.

In terms of presentation, a friend from Southampton University provided us with the same pop-up gizmo that Wikipedia use. This avoids users having to click to the bottom of the page for each note, the note appears as you roll the cursor over the link. We’ve followed the basic rules of usability and accessibility in that the navigation is ‘clean’ and consistent, there are no tables and each page can be read by screen readers as well as browsers- clicking on the link still displays the note at the bottom of the page. Having just written that sentence I’ve now realised that I need to add many (many) ‘title’ tags to the anchored links. In true bebrowed fashion I designed a navigation scheme at the outset that managed to become cumbersome and confusing before the mid-point and thus had to spend a few days devising a new one which I’ll try not to change.

One of the challenges that we should have recognised at the outset is how often and under what circumstances is it best to rely only on a link to an external page rather than via a note. I can’t pretend that we now have a consistent and rational to this but a kind of pattern is beginning to take shape. In the most recent poem there is this line: “in the days John Denver sang Let us Begin and Russian healers”. We could have explained who John Denver was in a note and then linked to the YouTube clip where Denver explains the background to the song before it is played. The rationale is (probably) that the reader soesn’t need to know who John Denver was but may benefit from knowing something about the song and the clip does that better than a note could.

On a personal note, I’m now of the view that everybody should do this with poems that they like because the exercise gives you so much more pleasure and insight (even when it’s wrong) when you’re preparing something that others might find useful. I’m very fortunate and privileged to have John’s input and sage advice and I’d like to place on record my deep gratitude for both his generosity of spirit and commitment to getting this as right as we can. As a poet John is an exceptionally skilled technician who writes from the soul as well as from the mind and there have been times when my jaw has dropped when these two qualities have come together in an extraordinary and startling way.

The original print version of Trigons is available from Shearsman, at 9 quid there really is no excuse. John and I would like to express our thanks to Tony Frazer at Shearsman for his ongoing support.

Geoffrey Hill and the Collected Problem(s)

I was given Broken Hierarchies for Xmas and this is an initial report having spent some time with knotted brow and the occasional moment of delight.

First of all, I must confess to having a chequered history with Collecteds, Lowell’s made me realise that I didn’t like any of his work after The Mills of the Kavanghs which was a shock, R S Thomas’ seemed much slighter and less majestic whole as did that of George Herbert, John Matthias’ otherwise fascinating three volumes commit the sin of omitting Trigons which he and I are currently annotating for the web. So it is with some unease that I’m approaching Hill’s Collected especially since I haven’t been overly impressed with the three (out of six) Daybooks sequences that I’ve read. The other anxiety is about how much has been changed/revised since the original publication and what this may mean for the poems that are already in my head.

First, there’s the new stuff, there is a lot of new stuff and some of it is intriguing and a lot of it does the half-rhyme thing which isn’t. There is one sequence of poems that are all set out (as with Clavics in the shape of what appears to be a key. Then there’s the revisions and expansions which have been applied to Hymns to our Lady of Chartres, Pindarics, and Clavics. This is okay because I’ve never been keen on the last two and I’ve never read any of the first. The other change that I’ve noticed thus far is that we now have headings in the index for the Offa sequence.

We’ll start with Hymns to our Lady of Chartres which is new to me although I understand from the interweb that it started life in 1984 or thereabouts as a sequence of three poems and then expanded to seven. The new version has twenty one poems each consisting of five quatrains which use half-rhymes. I’ve been giving some further thought to rhyme in general following the discussion between Rowan Williams and Simon Jarvis at the launch of Night Office when they both agreed that the ‘sense’ becomes subordinate to the form in that the poet is never sure where the rhyme is going to lead. Now, puzzling with furrowed brow over the rhymes that Hill deploys, which depend largely on word endings rather than vowel sounds, it occurred to me yesterday that this is a way of retaining more control over sense and direction rather than the full rhymes that Jarvis deploys.

Before we proceed with an example, I’d like to differentiate between two technical terms. The first of these is ‘clunky’ whereby the poem is well-intentioned but some lines are unduly awkward whereas ‘naff’ denotes poems that are so bad/inept that they shouldn’t have been started let alone published. This latter term is similar in many ways to John Matthias’ ‘gawdawful’.

This is poem 9:

A match crack-scuffs, a flame spurts in the fosse,
faces bow to cupped hands, a thing archaic,
a gesture proletarian and stoic;
Homeric, even, look at Odysseus,

who was of course a prince in his own country
champing on Gauloises; Hector of the taut
monocle, dragged helplessly by a foot.
Other manners, another century.

Herod was dire but he was not the Shoah.
What do you say, Vierge, to this Jewish child
fixed at your breast, in the great glass annealed,
Himself the threefold shattering of Chaos!

Another language, such as your Dai Greatcoat
unerringly presented: misadventure
for the machine gun's cunningly-loosed ceinture
binding in blood who late set out-

Jehova's time not ours. We might have given
the temple scroll for Peguy to repair,
indomitable, as an unsold Cahier,
mystique and politique there intershriven.

For those who still haven’t read him, Dai Greatcoat is David Jones and he is (probably) ‘your Dai Greatcoat’ because of the closing scene in In Parenthesis when the Lady of the Woods gathers the dead and dying to her at the end of a day’s fighting in Mametz WSood on the Somme. Now, I may be slow on the uptake but I am not aware of any other reference to Jones in Hill’s poetry. I know that some find the deliberate choice of the obscure word in preference to something more familiar (fosse instead of trench, ceinture instead of scope or range etc) but I’m fond of this particular quirk because there are words and meanings of words that should be kept breathing in the face of the current blandification that appears to becoming dominant. Having written that sentence I realise that I’m sounding as elitist as Hill but it’s something I can live with.

Of course, there is no connection that can be simply made between the biblical Slaughter of the Innocents and the Holocaust but it is certainly a startling line although I am concerned that it may be present just to startle- a tendency that seems to be on the increase lately.

These twenty lines do cover a lot of ground, as well as Jones, we get the Iliad, Christ, the Virgin Mary, French and German stereotypes, Charles Peguy, Herod and the Holocaust. Whilst the whole seems reasonably coherent and has
some threads that run through Hill’s work, I’m not entirely clear that there’s a convincing coherence here. There isn’t, for example, a link between soldiers lighting cigarettes in the trenches of the Somme to the figure of Hector been dragged around behind Achilles’ horse. Peguy was a poet and essayist who edited the literary magazine Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine and in 1909 made the observation that “everything that begins in mysticism ends in politics” which makes much more sense of the last two lines, as does the fact that he was killed in battle in 1914.

We now come to the headings problem, each of the Mercian Hymn poems has been given a title or sub-heading in the index but not on the printed page. Many of the titles occur more than once and seem a bit superfluous, we now have three poems each on ‘Offa’s Laws’ and ‘The Crowning of Offa’ for example which we don’t really need, it’s always seemed self-evident to me what the poems are about. The other quibble is that if these are in the index as part of the title then shouldn’t they be at the top of the poem as well? The opposite problem occurs with Pindarics, there are twenty one of these in Without Title and each begins with a quote from Cesare Pavese and is a response to that quote. We now have 34 Pindarics and all the quotes have been removed. The order of the first twenty one has changed too so that Pindaric 21 has become Pindaric 5 and there have been two changes to the text. This is very puzzling for my small brain, does this now mean that we should forget about the quotes and read the poems as a response to the three sentences from Pavese that now serve as an epigraph? None of this matters much to me because I didn’t like these poems the first time around but I do wonder how less indifferent others may feel.

I do intend to address the new material once I’ve got my brain around it- Ludo and The Daybooks take up 330 page or one third of the collection. This may take some time.

What poetry does to philosophy.

I’ve been putting this off for weeks but have decided that now is the time. The berowed view that poetry and philosophy are incompatible has undergone some more waning but I’m now drawing a distinction between poetry that sets out as its main objective to ‘do’ philosophy and poetry that sets out to do Other Things that might have a philosophical component somewhere near the surface.

I’d like to consider first the nature of the poem and the nature of the philosophy tract. I accept that this is a very broad brush stroke but poetry is usually a compression whereas philosophy is usually an expansion. I’m making this distinction even though my reading of philosophy is quite sparse but it does seem that there’s a long windedness in terms of refuting all other philosophies before putting forward your own view.

Of course there are some poets, Lucretius, Pope and Jarvis spring to mind who are equally long-winded but most go the other way. Paul Celan and Edmund Spenser work by compression as does Charles Olson but in different ways and with different results. With regard to all of these, there is one element that I’d like to get out of the way before proceeding: the line between God and Truth aka between theology and philosophy. I’m taking Martin Buber, the Neo-platonics and Alfred Whitehead primarily as philosophers even though theologians have made extensive use of their work.

I’d like to start with Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie Which Frank Kermode referred to as the best philosophical poem in English. As the title suggests, it has change and time as it’s subject and this is one of Spenser’s recurring themes especially in The Faerie Queene. Essentially ‘Change’ puts forward the arguments for the priority of mutability over fixity and then Nature demolishes this with:

   I well consider all that ye have said
      And find that all things steadfastnes do hate
      And changed be: and yet being rightly wayed
      They are not changed from their first estate;
      But by their change their being doe dilate:
      And turning to themselves at length againe,
      Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
      Then over them Change doth not rule and raigne;
   But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine.

   Cease therefore daughter further to aspire
      And be content thus to be rul'd by me:
      For thy decay thou seekst by thy desire,
      But time shall come that all shall changed bee,
      And from thenceforth, none so more change shall see.
      So was the Titanesse put downe and whist,
      And Iove confirm'd in his imperiall see.
      Then was that whole assembly quite dismist
  And Natur's self did vanish, whither no man wist.

As a long-standing Spenser fan, this makes me want to jump up and down with delight because it’s supremely accomplished as poetry yet also manages in eighteen lines to express a fundamental aspect of 16th century philosopphical ‘truth’. Each stanza has one crucial and brilliantly crafted line, the first hinges on ‘dilate’. Bert Hamilton glosses the line with:

i.e. expand as they fill their natures, showing that change is not random but purposeful (see N.Frye 1990b: 160-161) acting in accord with the Pauline concept of sowing a natural body to raise a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15. 36-44). It is not circular, then but spiral in returning creation to its beginning.

This may be the case but I can’t help reading Ficino on God’s dance of joy into ‘dilate’ primarily because it seems a more logical and less complicated ‘fit’. Anyway, it is at once both plain and gloriously compressed and serves as a counterpoint to Spenser’s view of the world in continuous and relentless decline.

I think I need to note the extensive and frequently tiresome critical debate about the relationship between these Cantos and the rest of The Faerie Queene which is an argument without any facts. I will however set out the subtitle from the first edition of Mutabilitie which was published in 1609

   Which, both for Forme and Matter, appeare
      to be parcell of fome following Booke of the
               FAERIE QUEENE,
             VNDER  THE  LEGEND
                     OF
                 Conftancie 
              Never before imprinted.

‘Appeare’ is the tell-tale verb and we should leave it at that because we will Never Know.

The next act of compression comes from Paul Celan:


   ILLEGIBILITY
   Of this world. All things twice over.

   The strong clocks justify
   the splitting hour,
   coarsely.

   You, clamped 
   into your deepest part,
   climb out of yourself,
   for ever.

I’d argue that what we have here is a struggle with philosophy, an incredibly dense working of the major strands of 20th century thought with it’s concerns about perception, temporality and personal responsibility in the shadow of the Holocaust. Of course, many argue that this is too dense, that the distillation is too great and falls into meaningless and psuedo-mystical babble but this seems to miss the point entirely. Throughout his writing Celan is concerned with very Big Things indeed and explores the challenges inherent in living any kind of purposeful life when surrounded by our many violences and absence of thought.

Many who do accept the brilliance of this material insist on imposing the work of Martin Heidegger as the main philosophical thread and equate the ‘mystical’ quality the poetry with Heidegger’s later work. This seems to overlook other influences far removed from and (in some cases) directly opposed to all things existential. Martin Buber’s concerns with the demands of and responsibility for the Other are also very much present in the above. As with Spenser, I don’t want to examine the acres of critical pondering on this but I would like simply to point out that poetical philosophy, in the hands of genius, can be a more profound and provocative exploration of Truth in all its manifestations.

I’d like to finish with Charles Olson’s frequent nods to Whitehead’s Process and Reality in his Maximus series. In the past I have expressed the view that the work in its entirety can be seen as a transcription of Whitehead into poetic form. I’d now like to amend that view, Process and Reality was clearly a central aspect of Olson’s view of the world and this is apparent in parts of the sequence but there is much more of Olson the man here than there is of philosophy, even his clearest expositions are made by using himself and his everyday experience to make the ‘point’.

So, the best poetry adds other dimensions to philosophy because it can distil and intensify. This does not mean that poetry is in any kind of privileged position with regard to Truth but it does mean that it can, on occasion, push the conversation a little bit further.

Speech! Speech! Geoffrey Hill and celebrity

Speech! Speech! has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. It’s meant to be the middle part of a sequence that starts with The Triumph of Love and ends with The Orchards of Syon. I’m familiar with both of these but I’ve never been able to pay attention to the filling in the sandwich until the last week when I noticed that the blurb has “allowing us to glimpse the mythical in the insistently modern, the tender in the intensely savage, especially in the elegaic sections on the death of Princess Diana”. Obviously, being congenitally attracted to the odd, I immediately sought these out and was not disappointed.

First of all, a couple of clarifications. Hill isn’t terribly keen on the current state of our nation and is instead very keen on an England that never actually existed. Politically Hill would be most at home with UKIP because of a shared patriotism and a detestation of all things EU. Hill is not, however, stupid and his views should be seen as part of the long line of Tory paternalists that stretches back to the 18th century rather than the inanities of this current crop of patriots.

The relationship between myth and the time of writing is one of the things that poetry has always done, what it hasn’t done with any great success is ‘deal’ with the problems of fame and celebrity. I’m interested in the figure of the celebrity in our culture because of what this says about us and the contents of our collective heads. I’m indifferent to the British Royal family and I was completely mystified by the extent and depth of national trauma brought about by that particular car crash. I saw Diana as a particularly vacuous member of her class who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and I still don’t think that she will have more than a fleeting effect on the rest of us. It transpires that Hill is not of this view, that he is firmly entrenched in the nation’s grief and has written about it.

We need to take a bit of a pause here, you have just published one of the finest poems of the last 30 years, a work that is a remarkable and innovative and wonderfully human meditation on the many traumas of our recent past and yet you choose to follow this up with a sequence that contains a number of mawkish sentimentalities about a product of the culture that you effect to despise.

This is the first Di-related stanza:

         22

Age of mass consent: go global with her.
Challenge satellite failure, the primal
violent day-star moody as Herod.
Forget nothing. Reprieve no-one. Exempt
only her bloodline's jus natalium.
Pledge to immoderacy the outraged 
hardly forgiven mourning of the PEOPLE,
inexorable, though in compliance,
media-conjured. Inscrutable I call
her spirit now on this island: memory
subsiding into darkness | nowhere
coming to rest.

(The vertical line between darkness and nowhere is the closest I can get to how it appears in print. There’s an acute accent above the o in ‘her spirit now’ which WordPress doesn’t (won’t) render)

There are a couple of typographical tics which we can reasonably avoid but the capitalised ‘people’ might require some attention. I’m taking the Latin as ‘birthright’ which would seem to make grammatical sense of the line and would suggest that those who are to be exempted are her two children. I’ve spent at least twenty minutes with the OED and what I know of Hill’s work and have come to the regrettable conclusion that “Pledge to immoderacy” doesn’t actually work, even allowing for Hill’s penchant for obscure words and secondary definitions. I think I know what he’s aiming for in his typically convoluted way but I think there are more precise ways of saying it. The rest is reasonably clear but I’m not sure that it’s accurate. My (admittedly dim) recollection of those strange few days is that the media were unprepared for the extent and depth of the collective grief. One of the things that interests me about celebrity is the mutual involvement of the media, the audience and the individual. Diana fed the media’s need to report this new and much trendier addition to the cast of dysfunctional misfits and the audience could take sides in the ‘narrative’ whilst the celebrity felt that she could manipulate sections of the media into supporting her ‘position’. I can’t explain this grief but I have to report that relatively sane friends of mine got caught up in it and were clearly feeling some pain. The last three lines are oddly mawkish and I wonder why Hill feels the need to say them unless, of course, it’s an example of the mythical in the present as advertised in the blurb.

Thirteen stanzas later we get these two:


    35

Say you dispute the audit - no offence
to her intended (or to her intended)-
pending the hierarchies so soon to be
remade | though not with her demotic splendour.
Fantastic, apocryphal, near fatalistic
love of one's country | bearing with it
always something over- or under-subscribed,
bound to its modicum of the outrageous,
cartoon animation: jovial, martial,
charwomen, their armour bristles and pails,
dancing - marching - in and out of tune
to Holst's JUPITER | as to JERUSALEM.

   36

Huntress? No, not that huntress but some
other creature of fable. And then for her|
like being hunted. Or inescapably
beholden (this should sound tired but not
emotional to excess). Half forgotten
in one lifetime the funeral sentences
instantly resurrected - how can they do it?
Whatever of our loves here lies apart:
whatever it is you look for in sleep:
simple bio-degradation, a slather 
of half-rotted black willow leaves
at the lake's edge.

(Again all the accents are missing).

This is much more to my taste, there’s the assertion of the patriot, the brief riff on the power of a Christian funeral – even if ‘resurrected’ might be going a little too far – there’s nothing clumsy here, the phrasing and word-choice seem to be adept and accomplished rather than mannered. The image of the charwomen speaks to me of a culture and a set of values that disappeared at about the time that the nation discovered sex (1963) and does so with exceptional skill and warmth. Some might argue that 36′s bracketed aside is both arrogant and out of place but I’m of the view that it’s a mark of the confidence of an able and accomplished craftsman who simply knows what he can get away with and does so.

Given my interest in the man and his work, I’m intrigued by ‘apocryphal’ which, for the moment I’m taking to mean “of doubtful authenticity” rather than relating to the Apocrypha. Hill can be relied on to promote the patriotic cause and I’ve always got the impression that he saw this as something innate in him and in others so this puts a new light on things. It certainly adds another layer to an already complex and contradictory picture. It’s also very heartening to note the completely unfunny ‘intended’ jape and the use of ‘slather’ which the OED tells me is limited to Scotland and the North of England but is also one of the most expressive nouns in the language.

So, I’m now going to persevere with Speech! because it might have other really good bits and it may persuade me to like ‘Orchards’ a little more.