Category Archives: geography

Claudius App Fortnight: Dionysus Crucified, Derivation and Noise

I may have to extend this particular fortnight by a week or so and then come back with some more during the summer, hadn’t realised how much there is that I want to write about.

I mentioned the derived traffic island as a problem for a listener without access to the text. I’ve been given some consideration as to what this strange description might involve. The relevant long lines are:

     I from a nylon jacket announce recombinance because it is unreasonable that my skin not also learn to survive in plastic consciousness of objecthood
So when I in congealed oil products may orange it to the top at the derived traffic island or at some other holy place as though some beacon were lit
    Then I precisely may not die and may not be killed but persist like toxins or persist like some unvanquishable god-component in e.g. chthonic

To those of us familiar with the Late Modern strain, this isn’t too tricky although it is convoluted. The only stumbling point is this piece of road accoutrement that is said to be derived. In the most commonly used sense, to be derived is to be based on or developed from something else which doesn’t make any kind of sense especially when the traffic island is described as a holy place which seems to bestow something along the way to immortality. Having alluded to this in the previous post I mulled it over and tried the usual bebrowed method of looking at the OED but nothing immediately clicked into place and then another possibility came to mind. The Situationists made use of ‘derive’ and Guy Debord defined it in 1958 as:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

Psychogeography has since gone through a variety of phases, permutations and (in the UK) moves from being in vogue to relative obscurity every five years or so. Without wishing to overread too much and acknowledging that I do want the Jarvis Project to at least nod towards Debord, it is possible to see this traffic island a a fixed point on a geographical contour. This point also is a place of safety from being knocked down and holiness might spring from what some see as the ritual significance of ‘sight points’ in the landscape, hence the reference to lit beacons.

Of course this is more tentastive and provisional than usual but I’m going to have to look at the other road bits in the rest of the poems to see whether this hunch can be supported. This might be timely because I understand the next long poem is going to relate a series of journeys through the landscape.

We now come to noise and its relationship to sound. Last year I did four or five gigs involving multiple voices speaking simultaneously and made a couple of audio-visual pieces using the same technique. Having spent many hours mixing and layering what people say in interviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that two voices saying different things at the same time is reasonably intelligible (sound) whereas three voices isn’t (noise). Having already written about the first use of two overlaid voices, I want to pay some attention to the other three:

The first of these starts at about 21.30 on the track and is a rendition of what I think of as ‘the cross page’ because its central feature is the figure of a cross over most of the page with the text interspersed in and around it. This is another section where the two voices follow each other. Listeners with no previous knowledge/familiarty will need to make their own mind about coherence but I have trouble following what’s being said even when I have the text in front of me. It can be argued that this is due to the apparently random setting out of the lines but it is more likely due to the speed of the delivery and the very short gap between the voices. I accept that some of the lines are quite a challenge in themselves (Ive so you can rip / Girlyboy up now / Peeping Non / Mummy hates him too) but read this way doesn’t help, unless the intention is to make noise rather than ‘sense’.

The second is more conventional and ‘works’, it occurs in three places on the Messenger section of the poem, the first two lines are:

    Were screaming for Cheryl and Ashley to get back together or else for essential supplies of fresh water                     impaled on the fir
So hard I could hardly remember the theme tune that Pen had reminded me made up the keycode which opened                        in matchless pain

So, the long lines are read by Simon with Justin providing the brief interjections and this ‘works’ because the pace is easier and the voices don’t seem to be in competition with each other. This has the effect of drawing the audience in rather than the previous bombardment.

The last piece takes up almost all of the Canticle page and starts at about 28.15 on the track. This was completely unexpected because I recognised that the setting out of the lines was unusual but hadn’t worked out that this was written for a singing and a speaking voice using different lines from the text. I’m guessing that most listeners will find these last few minutes very challenging indeed but I think it’s brilliant and an example of what can be done of the sound / noise boundaries. It’s not so much that the reading of Canticle makes the lines discernible, it is the impression formed by listening that seems to be important here. I’m reminded here of the many discussions I’ve had with friends as to the merits of free jazz which treads the same kind of lines but is completely alien noise to most people.

To conclude, Dionysus Crucified is a brilliant poem and Claudius App have provided a valuable service for us all by hiding this recording in the recesses of their site. Listen to it with headphones, buy it from Critical Documents and read it- you won’t be disappointed.

Annotation, illustration and the movies

(We’ve now completed the notes to Section 4 of “Islands, Inlands”)

One of the main reasons for producing an online full text version of Trigons is the problem of the dead link. The Trigons sequence contains urls pointing to pages that expand on what’s in the text. There’s a link to a youtube clip of Myra Hess playing the Appassionata and there’s another to a page which explains how the signals in the brain can be ‘made’ into music. Both the links that appear in the Shearsman print edition are now dead so we thought that producing an online version would mean that the links could be updated as and when they passed away.

This is not something that’s an optional add on, the poem is quite insistent on the Hess clip:

but reach for something distant in confusion take a look
yourself at youtube.com/watch?v=UNlyxn2Y4 E
before you read
another word..................

In addition to these two, there are others which expand on the text and need to be maintained / updated. Having now completed the first four sections of the first Trigons poem, another element becomes apparent. One of the central events of “Islands Inlands” is the kidnap of General Kriepe on Crete by a band of Cretan partisans led by Patrick Leigh Fermor which I’ve written about before re the dangers of imposing my reading on top of John’s intention. In researching this a bit more I’ve come across a Greek television documentary where the kidnappers and their captive are reunited and Kriepe and Leigh Fermor are interviewed about this adventure. Fortunately there is a version on youtube that’s been dubbed into English so I’ve been able to link to that. I’m also in two minds about linking to “Ill met by Moonlight”, the film version based on W Stanley Moss’ book about the kidnap. At the moment I’m deciding against inclusion because it doesn’t seem to add much to “Trigons”.

I’ve found that, once you start thinking in terms of “material” rather than what’s in print you become immersed in a completely new set of possibilities, from the use of images and how they can relate to the notes and to the poem, the use of audio files for the music that’s written about in the text through to whether to flag up sources that are skewed by bias but nevertheless give a decent account of the event that the work alludes to. Another dimension that I haven’t got my brain around yet is how best to reference place names that might be obscure- I’ve linked Mt. Ida on Crete to the Google map but I can also provide images s well as geographical and geological data. I’m also very fortunate to be working with the maker of this poem and therefore I have this amalgamation of what he wants as the poet and what I want as the reader.

Whilst writing this, Zachary Bos forwarded me a quote from one G Hill on difficulty which seems pertinent to the glozing business:

I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

This is all very well but I do think there’s a difference between simplification and providing context. I’m also a little suspicious of Hill’s justifications because they change so often (“life’s difficult” “wouldn’t want to insult the intelligence of my readers”) and none of them manage to justify some of his more extreme obscurities (Bradwardine). If I thought that either John or I were trying to provide a “Trigons Lite” then I wouldn’t have started but John’s work is usually packed with real people and real places which provides plenty of scope for providing a ‘neutral’ context.

In his response to an earlier post, John quoted William Empson:

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.

One of the advantages of the interweb is that you can present information at a number of levels that enable readers to “drill down” as far as they want. Of course we choose when the bottom is reached, the current debate is about to revolve “Mr S Thalassinos” which John feels requires a short note but I’ve now found a quote which ties this fictive character to Giorgos Katsimbalis who is already mentioned in the notes which is useful to me as a reader but may be too much for the poem in terms of providing a disproportionate amount of detail.

I’ve also been trying out a number of “experiments in reading” and it now strikes me that perhaps I should make more use of links in these too. This seems especially important in the case of David Jones’ “The Anathemata” for which Jones provided his own notes as well as a number of images to accompany the text. As I’ve said before, Jones omits to gloss some of the trickier bits and some of the notes require notes of their own. I was continuing with this particular experiment earlier this week and, in order to preserve the sense of immediacy, simply referred to looking on the “interweb” to find more about some of the proper nouns. Half of me thinks that this is okay, that it’s not intended to be a gloss and that people (who want to) should be able to find the same information quite quickly whilst the other half thinks that a link expanding further on the “it’s Ossa on Pellion now” line might be useful.

As John Dillon remarked in a recent response, illustrations and comments alongside poems in manuscript form were reasonably common during the medieval period- as I’m writing I’m resisting the temptation to link to Bodleian MS Douce 104 which carries illustration to the ‘c’ text of “The VisionPiers the Plowman” – and many poets have used photography to accompany their work- Paul Muldoon’s “Plan B” springs to mind. This isn’t to say that poetry on the web should be reduced to a comic book but that it might help, for example to include in the notes an image of the kidnapped general as he is escorted across the island. It might also help to make use of google maps for Smyrna and Leros as well as Ida. I’m sure that there’s a balance to be reached in these things but I don’t think just relying on text is going to be sufficient in the very near future. For example, Trigons has many musical and musicological references which can be augmented with the relevant audio files, the issue for the glozer is whether or not these should be embedded in the page or accessed via a link in the text. I’m of the view that the latter should suffice provided that the “title” tag makes it very clear on rollover what the link leads to.

The other issue that keeps cropping up is the reliability of external sites. We’ve decided not to rely on Wikipedia articles unless we can verify the content but there are some wonderful resources now on some of the more esoteric subjects, there’s a Leigh Fermor blog that is obviously a labour of love but contains invaluable info and resources that we’ve made use of, there’s also an English language site devoted to Karaghiosis, a form of puppet theatre that we’ve obtained a pertinent quote from even though I haven’t been able to verify it.

The annotated Trigons: an update.

Given the interest in this project, I thought I’d provide a weekly (ish) summary of progress made. The first section of “Islands, inlands” has now been completed and we’ve agreed a working template for the navigation which might prove to last at least another few weeks.

I think we’re still exploring what can be done with the interweb and the possibilities beyond print. I think we both started with a concern not to either ‘explain’ nor to provide too much context. This has been ameliorated by realising the obvious – users don’t have to follow links if they don’t want to and therefore can control the extent of the context that they may need. I wouldn’t need to know about Miller or Durrell, for example, but would need some background on Seferis.

Of course, as well as writers, there’s the foreign names and words, the first section has “Karaghiosis” who is the main character of Greek shadow puppet theatre. I’ve provided a brief explanation, one relevant quote and am about to link to the most relevant and comprehensive site that I can find but I need JM to point me towards the relevant passage about raising the dead in “Prospero’s Cell”.

This also throws up the question of whose poem this is. I haven’t yet worked this out but I’ve come across material that seems to be a direct source but isn’t. There’s an interview with Seferis where he describes meeting Durrell and Miller and then goes on to recount Miller’s generosity in giving him his diary- the first draft of what was to be published as “The Colossus of Massouri” which is one of the poem’s main source text. This anecdote has no bearing on “Islands, inlands” and readers don’t need it to gain full understanding of the poem. I’m however of the view that it’s a lovely story and indiciative of the spirit of bohemian solidarity in thirties Europe that Seferis describes. So, the quote about the diary goes in on account of loveliness and the solidarity remark will only be gleaned by those that can be bothered to follow the link and read the interview in full. I think this underlines the ownership issue in a collaboration- I’ve put this in and John has approved its inclusion but it wasn’t in his head when he wrote the poem. I’ve also quoted Seferis on 20th century Hellenism because I think I’d like readers to draw the line that John alludes to when he says that:

The Old War in question is, of course, WW II, though it is not accidental that the first poem in the sequence deals with a Greek setting in that conflict:

I’ve decided that it would be inappropriate to overtly ‘develop’ that remark but am attempting to do this by stealth- as with the Kreipe kidnap problem discussed last week- providing quotes re Miller and Greece as a “continuous process” and linking to Seferis on the Colonels’ Junta:

Everyone has been taught and knows by now that in the case of dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy, but tragedy awaits, inevitably, in the end. The drama of this ending torments us, consciously or unconsciously — as in the immemorial choruses of Aeschylus. The longer the anomaly remains, the more the evil grows.

In terms of the interweb, the possibilities for adding breadth and depth are enormous especially as the quality of content is improving. Of course there are still the recurring anxieties about bias but I’ve been struck by the absence of balance in some of the well-established bastions: the Wikipedia article on Durrell seems much more judicious than the almost hagiographic DNB entry.

We now come to the link colour problem. Many, many years ago when I started building content pages on welfare benefits, there was an accepted way to ‘do’ links that everybody followed. This is no longer the case and I hve gone through a number of phases in either going with the flow towards greater variation or in maintaining blind adherence to the original on the grounds that It Still Works. The current arduity style sheet, for example is the product of extensive dithering undertaken last year on another project and is obviously in need of further dither. I may be wrong but I’d like not to disrupt the ‘flow’ of the line with too great a contrast in colour from black to blue to red and I’m thinking of getting rid of the roll-over, colour swap device that seemed cool when the Guardian did it but clearly isn’t. I did think of just using the underline to indicate a link and thus retain the consistency in colour but this would then confuse those parts of the text that are underlined in print with the links. So, before we go any further I think I need to have an extended play with the light blues and reds.

Then there’s the even thornier issue of link density, the first section is 16 lines and there are 9 links which is probably excessive but I’d rather put more rather than less in at this stage. I haven’t linked “the pornographer” but have relied on JM’s note which links to a fuller profile of Miller. I’ve done it this way because I reckon most readers will connect Miller to Paris and pornography (I did) and have been more direct on the Smyrna Consul because I originally thought that this may refer to Durrell. I thought about explaining that “The Tempest” refers to the play but instead hoped that most readers would gather this for themselves, I’ve used the Durrell profile to attribute this suggestion to him.

As a reader, I know I’ll interrupt my reading to check out words and names that aren’t familiar and this nealy always entails the interweb which can be both distracting and (sometimes) wrong. I’m therefore trying to provide anchored links to brief definitions at the bottom of the page which then link to more relevnt detail.

In terms of navigation, we now have a Trigons home page which gives a brief introduction and overview but I think I’m now of the view that we might need a separate home page for each of the poems- these could be built around John’s original notes. This might take to some time to agree- I’m finding that information architecture is quite difficult to do when the other person isn’t in the same room and there’s the fact that there are other components in the sequence.

On a personal note, John keeps on gently pushing me towards writers that I would otherwise ignore. This process started three years ago with David Jones and has now moved on to Seferis and Michael Ayrton whose “The Testament of Daedalus” I have now acquired and is awaiting some attention- the Collected Seferis is on it’s way. There’s also a bit of a debate under way as to how much detail we should give on Erik Lindegren…

John Matthias, annotation and collaboration

First of all, the three volumes of John Matthias’ Collected Poems have now been published by Shearsman and must be read by all those of us who value intelligent and exhilarating verse. What isn’t in these three volumes is the remarkable ‘Trigons‘ which John nevertheless regards as part of his collected work.

I’ve been writing about John’s work here and on arduity for the last three years primarily because he makes the technically difficult look effortless and because he provokes thoughts in quite a startling way. The great Guy Davenport said that John is “one of the best poets in the USA” and nobody with any sense could disagree with that.

John and I have corresponded over the last three years and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude both for his support and for introducing me to the magnificent work of David Jones.

We’ve been talking about ‘Trigons’ for the last year or so and about the complex business of annotation. John has provided a set of notes on Trigons for a poetics seminar earlier this year and we’ve now agreed to collaborate on expanding these into an annotated on-line edition of the poem.

The purpose of this blog is to think aloud about what annotation/glozing might be about. I’m reasonably particular about what I feel that I need in that I’d rather references were over rather than under explained but I don’t need notes that state the bleeding obvious and ignore some of the obscurities that I need help with. I’m also aware that increased familiarity with the text leads to a proportionally increasing impatience with the notes. Having acknowledged this I then assumed that this particular poem would be relatively straightforward given the plethora of real people and events and that the only real difficulties would be the use of musicology and neuroscience.

I now have to report that I was wrong. I’ve only started on the first section of the first poem in the sequence and have hit a number of complications. The first relates to familiarity. The first part of Trigons I relates to Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller on Crete and Patrick Leigh Fermor on Corfu. Now, I assumed that most readers would be reasonably familiar with Miller and Durrell but might need some help with Leigh Fermor. My focus group tells me that this may not be the case: Miller gets confused with Arthur; Durrell gets confused with Gerald and nobody has even heard of Leigh Fermor. I’m prepared to accept that this particular focus group isn’t packed with poetry fans but they all read fiction, are intelligent yet only one can name works by Miller and Durrell- both of whom are best known as novelists.

What I didn’t know until I read John’s notes was that Durrell had written ‘Prospero’s’ Cell’, an account of his time on Corfu, and that Miller wrote ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, an account of his time as a guest of Durrell’s. Delving a bit deeper I’ve come across a Paris Review interview with Miller where he says he considers ‘The Colossus’ to be his finest work because “the Colossus was written from some other level of my being. What I like about it is that it’s a joyous book, it expresses joy, it gives joy”. Needless to say I’ve now started to read this and have placed a pdf of it on arduity for download. In ‘Prospero’s Cell’ Durrell suggests that Corfu may have been the setting for ‘The Tempest’ – I can’t find a copy of this on the web but the advantage of working with the poet is that I can always ask him for the exact reference if we think it’s needed.

I’ve also acknowledged to myself that I don’t like Durrell as either a writer or as a man and that I need to keep this prejudice out of the note whilst tempering my enthusiasm for all things Miller.

The next problem is a little more difficult to resolve. In 1943 Leigh Fermor led a group of English and Cretan resistance fighters to kidnap the German General Kriepe, an event that John refers to in some detail. Now there are three views about this adventure:

  1. that it was a heroic act in the brave campaign against the German occupiers;
  2. that it was a foolish act that achieved nothing except the death of civilian victims of the ensuing German reprisals;
  3. that it had nothing to do with the Germans but was a less than subtle attempt to ensure that the reprisals were inflicted on villages controlled by the communists.

Although I wasn’t aware of the Kriepe kidnapping, I did know about the murky role of the British in both the Greek resistance and the postwar Greek civil war. I also knew that the Greek left have been particularly vituperative about this ever since. The poem goes on to make mention of the Colonel’s coup (1967-74) and the torture of dissidents that took place on an epic scale during those years. I therefore made the assumption that some reference was being made to the essentially tragic nature of Greek politics since 1945. This isn’t actually the case – which leads to this dilemma- how much of the above do you provide and how much do you leave out? The temptation is not to comment on anything other than the facts and link to a more detailed account but each of these accounts unsurprisingly takes one of the above lines and trashes the other two. I think we’ve agreed that I’m going to provide a factual note that mentions the three main theories but only observes that the SOE decided to ditch the communist resistance in the months prior to the kidnap. I think we’re both happy to leave any over-reading (resistance – civil war – coup -Euro fiasco – rise of the extreme right (again)) to the attentive reader.

With regard to collaboration, our current modus operandi seems to work because we’re both enjoying the process and I think it helps that we’re both exploring what can and can’t be done with the internet re glozing. I’m also incredibly grateful that I have the poet to keep my wilder fantasies in check.

This is the incomplete first part of our efforts, it’s very much in draft form but I’d be immensely grateful for feedback as things progress.

Pennsound’s Matthias page has the man himself reading from Trigons and other works.

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.

J H Prynne and the English Intelligencer

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

I’m a bit worried about Mountain Press. I’ve got all four of their titles and I don’t see how they can possibly maintain this level of quality, unless Neil Pattison does the decent thing and publishes the work that he’s written in the last five years. Their current list has work by three of the very best poets under the age of thirty which I’ll be returning to in the near future and ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ which is edited by Neil, Reitha Pattison and Like Roberts.

As with Pierre Joris’ work on Celan’s notes for the Meridian, all of us with any kind of interest in serious poetry owe the editors an enormous debt. This anthology (for the want of a better noun) contains material that is vital to a full understanding and appreciation of All Things Cambridge. It also opens up a challenge to those of us who like to think that we’re radical and engaged in our poetics. Because of this, I intend to try and deal with the material in a number of instalments because (as with Celan) a single account would be very long and doing this over time means that I can have the luxury of changing my mind.

In my head the English Inelligencer (EI) is a kind of Ur-text marking out the time at which British Poetry got serious. I’d come to this view by reading the views and memories of others as none of this material has been generally available. ‘Certain Prose’ (as you might guess) focuses on the prose as the majority of the poetry is available elsewhere.

Neil Pattison addresses the question of EI’s status in his introduction:

Its disintegrating pages have acquired a shabby mystique as avant-garde incunabula, and scholarly pearls extracted from its fugitive pages, along with items of gossip about its protagonists, have acquired a high value in some quarters. This unlikely glamour has not served the Intelligencer well, and has perhaps obscured the worksheet’s true value, which lies not just in the role it played in the lives of its renowned contributors, but also in its underexplored salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity, the problems of which The English Intelligencer may pose more acutely than any other journal of its time.

One of the oddest contributions collected here is from Peter Riley entitled “Working Notes on British Prehistory or Archaeological Guesswork One” which treats the end of the Neolithic as the point where humanity took a wrong turn. It also surveys much of the archaeological of the time and puts forward a number of hypotheses. In his introduction Neil describes this as Riley’s “noble, askew and arguably isolated attempt” to translate his personal ‘treasured dream’ into a theoretical position. This may or may not be the case, my main interest is that it was responded to in some detail by Prynne.

Before proceeding, I need to make a personal disclosure. I know a bit about the Neolithic, my daughter spends her professional life prospecting potential Neolithic sites in Calabria and we have many interesting discussions about the period and what can be usefully said about it. These discussions (and some reading) have led me to the view that we still know very little and that there appears to be an inherent weirdness/otherness about what we do know. I am therefore immensely suspicious of any attempts to make concrete statements based (at best) on informed guesswork or from our perspective rather than theirs. Riley’s title does recognise the guesswork element but he also puts forward a narrative which is an extended guess. One of the more perceptive hypotheses that he puts forward is about the primacy of the circle and circularity and how this may be connected to the fat lady cult that characterises much of the period

This concern with the distant past may not appear to have much to do with poetry and this may well be the case. I would however draw your attention to the inclusion of a work about stone circles in the ‘reference cues’ list appended to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and that a paragraph is quoted in the last parts of the poem and to the related ‘A Note on Metal’ which first appeared in the EI and was published in the Bloodaxe ‘Poems’ even though it isn’t a poem. I’ll return to these shortly but first I’ll deal with Prynne’s response.

The first thing to note is his prose style hasn’t changed much over the years, we get the occasional sharp bite and the idiosyncratic use of certain words. The second is that his opposing view is quite clearly stated, he gently points out that trade rather than invasion is more likely to have been responsible for changes during this period- a view that has been reasonably standard for the last 50 years even though we still haven’t got our brain fully around what we might mean by ‘trade’ in the Neolithic.

The other good news is that I think that I agree with most of what he says although I’m still puzzling over his use of ‘motive’. Most discussion of the Neolithic revolves around two central concepts- landscape and ritual. The cynic in me would want to suggest that this is mainly because of the big Neolithic monuments/structures that are thought to have been constructed with reference to the surrounding landscape and that these very visible monuments are thought to have been a venue for ritualistic practices.

Let’s start with Prynne on the trap of imposing our own ideas and world-view on the past:

My instinct is that the distribution of local instances of fact which can be grouped (pot and implement typology, for example) has led to imposed ideas of region that are foreign in pre-literate landscape and which are (by unacknowledged retrojection) based on common-law practice concerning land-ownership.

This seems reasonably sensible although the explanation of how this mistake comes about is a little too refined for my liking- I don’t think ‘retrojection’ works in straight lines.

‘Motive’ appears to be a key term in Prynne’s response:

But we have no evidence at all for the tribal pressure of motive, especially when this related to magical practice and manic excursion.

By motive here I don’t mean anything like that legal-ethical notion of willed predisposition, based on the idea of extension dominated by acts of choice. I mean much more the recognition of possibility as a source of compulsion, pointing one’s body towards the land of the dead or what other definition the guardian decrees. And in this sense the divination of purpose is mantic, as it was for Ezekiel, what a man does is what he thus comes to understand he has always desired. The question of future time (what next) is a specific dimension of landscape, which is the magic of parts locked into the physical extension of the whole.

I freely confess to getting lost just after ‘a source of compulsion’. A few paragraphs later there is this:

I think in that sense that the stone circle or avenue is a very discreet and accurate adjustment of these two forces, of presence as the ritual consecration of motive (in the sense I’ve explained earlier). If both movement and memory are sacred arts, then a place which is the same place accumulates special force, just as the body does for the variety of conditions it can reach out for (Shammanistic transport, for example, or starvation or sexual fulfilment). A stone circle at the intersect of several movement-patterns was thus already ritualised, as an act of recognition repeated to the point where it became socially valid, the social disposition of megaliths rehearsing the interchange between accident and purpose carried to its highest pitch. I could see that as a mechanism for hanging on to sanity, or at least for doing so without collapsing into gutless boredom. As you say, movement and situation incorporated, unlike the utterly trivial predictive charades enacted (so it seems) at Stonehenge, by some Gaullist astronomer. That kind of fixation on calendrial accuracy is the deadly enemy of quality: the middle-class merchant fingering his wrist-watch.

I’d like to point out that Avebury is more attractive than Stonehenge because it is more complex and even weirder. Speculation about both sites is good fun and can be quite entertaining but it is always going to be speculation simply because the evidence can be read in so many competing ways. This isn’t to say that I dislike the above speculation primarily because it indicates that an amount of original thought has gone into these issues. This concern with the landscape and the quality of human activity in it is reiterated in ‘News of Warring Clans’ from 1977 and ‘Field Notes’ which is Prynne’s detailed commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which shows a great deal of careful thought about these issues, especially about the physical experience of being situated in and embodied by the landscape.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and Richard Bradley’s essay, ‘The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle’ which is one of the reference cues and is quoted verbatim at the end of ‘Dreamboats':

Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment. A language may die
also from the record of currency exchange to full pair-convert
transumed in surrender value, decalibrated: or the travel line
from matter to fancy of spirit is invert and pyretic: smoke for the
mirror, tenant creamery.

The original cremation pyre was placed where the heavens met the earth
and where the inhabitants of nearby settlements could observe smoke rising into
the air. It was also located in the one place on the hilltop where the position of a
distant mountain would correspond to that of the summer moon. The subsequent
development of the site gave monumental expression to this relationship,
gradually focusing that particular alignment until it was narrowed down to the
space between the tallest stones.

The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to
consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit
in naturalised permission, solemn grade-one rigmarole, better
Wiglaf's rebuke and insurance payout. To be this with sweet
song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee is by
rotation been and gone into some world of light exchange, toiling
and spinning and probably grateful in this song.

As might be expected, Bradley’s essay says more about this particular stone circle than appears in the quote but the extant evidence does suggest a conscious link between the circle/pyre, the mountain and the sky. The mountain (Lochnagar) is also significant because it is the only visible peak that retains its snow for ‘much’ of the year.

I’ve said in the recent past that I haven’t worked out what Prynne may be intending with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ but I continue to feel that being and non-being are an intertwined theme. The above seems to confirm that and to underline Prynne’s long-standing interest in bodies and monuments in the landscape. Incidentally, the ‘sweet joy’ quote is from Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’ and Wiglaf was king of Mercia in the ninth century but I have no idea what his ‘rebuke’ might be about…….

On the next occasion I think that I might have to address Neil’s claims about the contested role of literary poetry and try and work out the difference between the literary and the non-literary- any ideas on this would be wamrly welcomed.

In the Garden with Andrew Marvell

This was the year when I should have become a Marvell completist, I had planned to read the letters and the Nigel Smith biography and reacquaint myself with the finer points of the mission to Moscow and the second Dutch war. Instead I’ve written about ‘Appleton House’ but nothing else.

I have several excuses that I won’t bore you with but recently I’ve come across bits and pieces of criticism (whilst looking for other things) and most of these have focused on ‘The Garden’ which I’ve since re-read and am beginning to appreciate how exceptional and odd this poem is.

In previous readings I’ve taken it to be a poem about the value of retreating to the countryside away from the pressures of urban life but with a bit of bite, a kind of ironic take on this well-worn theme but now I think it’s a bit more than that. This thinking has incorporated the various and wildly divergent readings promulgated by the academy which has brought to mind Geoffrey Hill’s recent comment about the frequent folly of seeking out a single unified ‘meaning’. Having said that I must confess that these attempts to crystallize a variety of elements does cause me to reconsider my own take on things. For example, in her essay ‘Marvell’s Amazing Garden’, Mary Thomas Crane makes a strong case for ‘wonder’ as a central, unifying theme:

“The physiology of wonder takes a central role in Marvell’s “Garden,”
linking wonder and amazement to images of attempted escape, entrapment
and enclosure that recur throughout the poem and which
contribute to Marvell’s sense of wonder as a state of suspension. The
poem begins with the potentially surprising idea that ambitious men
“amaze” themselves in a vain quest for earthly recognition and reward.”

I don’t want to discourage this kind of stuff because it gives the rest of us more to think about and often to return to a poem with a fresh pair of eyes but this worry about theme, intention and meaning does tend to detract from the enjoyment of the poem as poem- in the way that Marvell augments and intensifies ordinary language to do complex things. As a reader it is what the poem does that gives me far more satisfaction than working out what it might mean. In this instance there’s many things being done in relatively few lines. The first thing to note is that the poem can be read as a sequence of numbered (they are numbered in the first published version in 1681 and in the Longman edition but not on the luminarium site) eight-line poems each of which stands in its own right in that it makes sense without reference to the poems that precede or follow it. I’m finding that thinking in this way and avoiding a ‘panoptic’ overview is the most effective way of getting down to the detail.

I also need to confess an interest in the garden and the idea of gardens in the 17th century which I find fascinating as to how this ‘place’ developed and underwent several transformations within the national psyche. So, i have a bias too but I hope it doesn’t prevent me from demonstrating that there doesn’t need to be a unifying meaning other than the title of the sequence.

This is the third poem:

Nor red nor white was ever seen
So am'rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees, their mistress' name
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! Wher'se'er your barks I wound,
No name but your own shall be found.

I need to say here that Nigel Smith’s commentary in the Longman edition of the poems is exemplary. I know that some have commented that the notes are too detailed but, because the 17th century is so utterly different from our own, I don’t think that you can have too much context. With regard to the above, which seems reasonably straightforward, I didn’t know about the “occult writings and nature mysticism” that holds that at the time of creation God placed the name of each created thing within that thing and that he placed in Adam all these ‘signatures’, hence the greater significance of the last two lines.

The other stuff that these lines kick off for me is the contrast between the lovers’ unheeding zeal and the cool detachment of the speaker together with his intent to do the right thing, i.e. only to place in the tree what was initially placed their by God. I think we then might want to consider what it is about love and lovers that causes them to inscribe things in this way. It might be an indication and expression of ‘cruel’ sexual passion but it’s also about memorialising the relationship by creating a mark or a trace that will last for a long time. There’s also the business of signing and the competition for a kind of ownership- as in ‘this is our tree because we placed out names in it as evidence/symbol/mark of our love for each other’ which might be contrasted with the eternal ownership marked by God’s initial writing of the name.

We then come to the thorny question of who is speaking here, Smith refers to this as Marvell’s persona but this particular voice seems different from the other authorial voices in the poem and we also need to ask why he should be signing the trees in this if they have already been signed by God- isn’t this more than a little presumptuous or an example of what Prynne would describe as ‘self-vaunting’?

Smith also points to the subversion of ‘traditional’ colour theory that occurs in the opening lines and others have commented on the wonderfully complex notions of green that held sway in the period, noting that the brilliant “Annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought in a green shade” occurs at the end of the sixth poem. I don’t intend to go any further with this here but to flag it up as a further example of just how much is going on in these eight lines.

So, this particular poem is one of the less complex in the sequence but is satisfying and successful in its own right in that it uses plain language in a way that manages to make us think again about things that we might take for granted. In just eight lines it has managed to broaden my understanding of the fitful and stuttering formation and growth of our cultural landscape. It’s also what Geoffrey Hill would describe as technically efficient, although it might not be beautiful.

Saving poetry from itself

Bear with me, what follows is a rough sketch of how those of use who “see the point” of poetry (to quote James Fenton when he was good) can help to change the frame in which poetry currently operates. This suggestion is largely atheoretical but I have stolen freely from Henri Lefebvre, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault and Chris Bayly in terms of thinking this through.
Let’s get class out of the way first, poetry is viewed as a middle class pursuit and serious poetry tends to be viewed as the domain of the academic cohort within the bourgeoisie. I’m not interested in whether this is actually the case, it’s the perception that concerns me and this is a problem for those of us who believe that poetry can and should transcend these affiliations.
Let’s now think of dissemination which takes two main forms, publication and the reading. In my experience the vast majority of people who attend readings are themselves aspiring poets. Poets, in the main, are published by outfits that survive on a shoestring because very few people buy contemporary work. Neither of these methods of dissemination can be said to be functioning effectively, preaching to the converted leads to mutual back-scratching, coteries and all the factional problems that get in the way of spreading the word.
I’m now going to borrow Bayly’s concept of the ‘information order’ in order to point to a way out of this dilemma. He applied this to the British presence in India but it will serve my purpose here, if we think about the way poetry presents itself as something rarefied and esoteric ( there are many poets who seem to go out of their way to ‘do’ esoteric) we can see that the current information order with its emphasis on brevity and the pithy phrase is not conducive to stuff that requires thought and reflection. I could go on for a long time about how this might be a Bad Thing but suffice it to say that poems don’t have a very high place in the current scheme of things.
This may seem like going off on a bit of a tangent but I want to give some consideration to the nature of public space. Where I live (small town by the sea) the dominant public spaces are the beach and the shops. Both of these present opportunities to sell stuff, the promenade is full of cafes and pubs, the town centre has a supermarket and several other retailers and people (me included) wander from one to the other to meet our needs.
For the most part, this is a drab and uninteresting experience punctuated only by the passing traffic and is entirely functional. We may meet people that we know but this is only on the way to the next purchase.
Now, consider what might happen if someone was standing in this space reading poetry out loud. The main response would be one of disdain but one or two people may stop and listen, the voice would have to compete with the traffic and words may be drowned out but this would nevertheless be an intervention in an otherwise ordered space.
Consider also what may happen if two or three readers were situated around this space and were reading out loud from the same work. This might be a bit more disturbing, people may become a bit more aware of what was being read and shopkeepers might start to complain.
This would seem to work on a number of levels. On one level it takes poetry away from the malfunctioning sphere referred to above and returns it to public space. I’m not suggesting that this will win instant converts but perhaps one in a hundred passers-by might give some thought to what they hear. Such an act would also be a positive intervention in public space and may (if done with sufficient regularity) change how that particular space functions- instead of been the junction with the traffic lights it might become the place where that odd man reads poetry every afternoon.
In Ventnor, being a resort town, things are very quiet from November through until the following spring. The spot that I have in mind is at a junction where three roads meet and the initial idea (before I attempt to recruit volunteers) is to stand on the least frequented pavement and try and project the words (I have a loud voice) across the traffic to the pedestrians on the other side. The sound of the poem would thus have to compete with the sound of the traffic. In order to give this event some further legitimacy, I’m toying with involving our local news blog (which is excellent) to give advance notice and report on the initial reading.
Thinking this through for the past ten days, I’ve checked myself for signs of many (it’s a fairly bipolar idea) but it still holds validity primarily because I think it’s more interesting to try and do something that just bemoan the poetry problem and (if taken up by others) it might go some way to changing the frame in an interesting way.
Having decided to do this I then have to decide what to read. I’d be endlessly amused by reading Prynne at his most austere or ‘The Triumph of Love’ or ‘Stress Position’ but that might be a bit much for my fellow citizens. I’d have problems with pronunciation with David Jones but I think I could manage selections from ‘Maximus’ or all of ‘Trigons’, any suggestions would be much appreciated.
I must stress that I don’t see this as a one-off stunt but as a regular event occurring in a specific place at a specific time- the intention is not to shock or startle but to embed this act as a feature of place.
Does any of this sound reasonable? I really do need some feedback.

John Matthias and cultural geography

A short while ago I wrote a piece on poetry and map-making which was both ill-conceived and poorly expressed.  I’ve now had the opportunity to think this through some more and will attempt a second stab.

The first premise is that space is constructed by us as individuals and that the spaces that we create in our heads are far more important than the physical dimensions/aspects of a physical space that actually exists.

The second premise is that poetry is particularly good at creating the idea of a particular place, that verse can best express how it is (or was) to be in a particular location.

The third premise is that our cultural background is tied in with how we put space together in our heads and that this is intricately linked with our sense of time.

Some of John Matthias’ work is a prime example of the above. I don’t normally pay much attention to blurbs on the back of books but I think Guy Davenport gets it about right when he says- “Objective and clear, his poetry is a splendid fusion of engaging subjects and masterful technique. He has refined the narrative and speculative poem, giving it a lyric integrity of great strength and beauty.” I’d also like to add that Matthias is the best ‘poet of place’ that we currently have. The ‘A Gathering of Ways’ collection contains poems about East Anglia, the American Midwest and a remarkable long poem about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.

“She maps Iraq” is a brilliant, eloquent poem about the nature of political power and gender relations and the making of space whilst the ‘Trigons’ collection takes us from 1939 to the present and includes the Greek Isles, London, Paris, Moscow and California.

I’ll try and give an example of why this stuff is important, when we think of London during the Blitz, we think of London in flames, of many thousands dead, of the physical destruction of the East End but Matthias writes of a series of concerts given during the Blitz by Myra Hess in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery and does so in such a moving and evocative way that my cognitive map of that time and place has changed.

His ‘East Anglian Diptych’ has had a similar effect- in the past I’ve always thought of East Anglia a rather damp backwater but reading this has made me aware not only of the vibrancy of the place but also how that particular place has been created and re-created through time. The inclusion of Edward Thomas and John Constable also add to the cultural component in space creation. I’ve said before that Matthias is a very intelligent and skilled poet, he is able to do difficult things whilst making them seem easy and I wish I had this gift.

So, poets make place and some poets do this with a great deal of care. John Milton went to enormous lengths to ensure that the spatial relationship between heaven, hell and earth was feasible. Dante creates specific geographies for each of his various levels whilst Spenser’s spaces in the Faerie Queen are a weird (but considered) blend of the real and the imaginary.

My own current attempts to write something reasonable about the Saville Inquiry are currently floundering on the space issue. The place itself is contested because it has two names (Derry and Londonderry) and the places where trauma occurred during that Sunday afternoon continue to be constructed in equally different ways both culturally and politically (with a large religious dimension thrown in) and I know that I should reflect this but can’t yet do it with ease.

One final thought, Matthias’ description of gendarmes using their clubs like swords has changed irrevocably my mental image of the barricades from 1830 onwards- is this what the strength of poetry (in a few lines) can do?

Poetry as cartography

A couple of days ago I downloaded from the AAAAARG site a book pointing out that a movie is a kind of map and that film directors can be seen as cartographers. I probably won’t read the book because the first few pages were a bit glib for my taste but the analogy stuck with me. I’ve also been having discussions with a number of people about the arduity project which is essentially an attempt to liberate ‘difficult’ poetry from the academy. During these conversations it has been pointed out to me that we may read poetry in order to understand ourselves. As an ex-social worker, this view seems a bit too therapeutic for me but it is one that is fairly commonly held.

Let’s start with the basics, we use maps to plan routes, to get from point A to point B. We also use maps to give us some context, whether this is the recent floods or (as the FT did this morning) the proposed route of the new train line from London to Birmingham. My son is planning to work in Tiblisi next year and I’ve looked at a few maps to try and work out what this might be like for him.

We need to be taught how to read a map, we need to be aware that there are different kinds of maps for different functions and that different cultures have had different ways of putting maps together. Maps have also been drawn up as an expression of power over the territory that they depict. A further thought, maps can be incredibly beautiful objects.

Cartographers make maps and poets make poems. Do poems tell us where we are are do they enable us to see ourselves more clearly? Or are poems simply mimetic? I’ll readily accept that the poems that mean the most to me have a geographic aspect, from the Faerie Queen and Paradise Lost through to Maximus, The Moose and Stress Position all have a special resonance for me because the poets concerned have taken the time to provide a spatial context for what they are trying to say.

I’ve also started to read Donald Davidson this week and he talks about how literature ‘works’. He uses the term ‘triangulation’ which (if I’ve got this right) consists of an object (whether this is a concept or a thing or a group of things) being viewed and/or experienced by both the writer and the reader and the writer has prepared a text and the reader is looking at the object and comparing it with the text.

Is this how it is? Keston Sutherland may not give me a map of downtown Baghdad but he certainly gives me an impression of the murderous effects of Western imperialism, I may not agree with him but there’s no doubting the brilliance of  his ‘map’.

I don’t share Geoffrey Hill’s faith but he does give me a clear idea of what it is to be a Christian and the struggle that this involves.

Poetry isn’t prose, a poem can and should do more than a story. To extend the analogy, perhaps a poem is a special kind of map using ‘radical economy and truthfulness’ (Prynne) to allow us to measure ourselves against both the thing described and the poet. The Moose can be read  as a straightforward description of a bus ride but Bishop writes with such clarity that most of human existence is on that bus and she gives us the map.