Category Archives: literary criticism

Prynne week: J H Prynne on George Herbert’s Love [III]

Today I’m going to turn away from the harrying of the poetry and pay serious attention to the prose. Prior to the publication of Prynne’s tome on the above (in 2011) I was completely in the dark about the strength of Herbert’s work and the place it seems to occupy in the God-related debates of the time.

I’d previously read Prynne’s equally lengthy work on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper which didn’t encourage me to read more of the Romantics but did suggest a new way of reading poems. Given that the book is 87 pages in length, I’m not going to attempt a précis but pay attention to one aspect of Love [III]:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
                 Gulitie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
                 From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                 If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
                 Love said,  You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
                 I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                 Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
                 Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                 Me deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes love, and taste my meat:
                 So I did sit and eat.

This seems a fairly straightforward exposition of how the “grace” might ‘work’. Those familiar with the first half of the seventeenth century will know that this was the most controversial subject of the day which split the Protestant faith into a bewildering plethora of competing factions. One of the main causes of controversy was the increasing popularity of Arminius, a Dutch theologian, who held that recognition of and repentance for past sin could be a way of gaining salvation. As a gross simplification, this might be seen as a ‘half-way’ position between the teachings of Calvin and the Roman Catholic church. Needless to say, Prynne gives much space to the place of the poem in this debate which seems (to me) to be closest to the Arminian ‘position’.

I want to pay attention to what Prynne has to say about the first line of the third verse, he starts with ‘truth’ and remarks that “notable is the way in which the admission of truth is brought forward as a countering concession in argument, when what is at stake is the divine agency of God’s own constant fidelity”. He goes on to quote from John’s First Letter: “…….it is the spirit that beareth witness, because the spirit is trueth”. This is followed by three extracts from Donne, Savnorola and Toshell expounding on the nature of God’s truth and how it is indivisible from His mercy.

Some might think that this is too small a detail to spend much time over but ‘truth’ has always been a term that is loaded with significance and this was very much the case in the second decade of the 17th century when the poem was written. From my perspective, as one who has some problems with the notion of truth as Truth, it is as well to be reminded that the truth was considered to be part of the spiritual rather than the imperial realm and that it was most impertinent to suggest otherwise.

The discussion moves to “Truth Lord” which Prynne takes to be the guest’s acknowledgement of ‘weak’ humanity’s distance from God. We are also presented with this dilemma described by George Downame in 1631 “And if we acknowledge him to be our Lord, we must be carefull to do his will, otherwise in vaine do we call him soe”. I’m not so sure that the word placed here carries that much significance but I accept that it might carry more than an echo of The Lord’s Supper, Prynne describes this as an “implicit presence” which seems accurate given the guest/meal metaphor that frames and structures the poem.

So, hopefully the above demonstrates the kind of detail and consideration that Prynne is prepared to give each part of the poem. As with anything so densely argued as this, over reading can occur but the overall impression here is a respectful and careful attention that is given to the text. I’d like to contrast this favourably with other current criticism which is (usually) badly written and overladen with underlying themes that simply aren’t there. In this instance I think our critic is correct to give weight to the theological context but should perhaps have wondered what these two words are doing in this particular place. It is possible as reading them both forward and back, that is to confirm Love as the creator of sight but also to add some kind of veracity to them being harmed by sin. I know that this might further complicates this but it strikes me that someone as technically adept as Herbert could be, in effect, making two points as one. Of course I readily acknowledge that Prynne is a much more astute reader than I will ever be, indeed I wouldn’t have considered any of this without his gentle prodding.

Even with the above quibble, I am staggered by the brilliance of the final sentence on Truth Lord: “These are august shadows to the ostensible debating tone in the poem’s polite cross-talk; the social idiom of speech intonation unmistakably implicated with fundamentals of belief”. Sentences like this demonstrate just how far in front of the rest of us Prynne is. Needless to say, I’ll be throwing ‘august shadows’ and to be ‘unmistably implicated’ into as many sentences and conversations as possible in the coming months.

Now we come to the importance of words and their various meanings. Mar, it is pointed out, apparently had a much ‘firmer meaning than it does in contemporary use: to impair fatally, to destroy or to cosign into irretrievable ruination. In the interests of readerly research, I’ve looked at the OED and these do appear but there is another definition that might be more pertinent: “To damage (a material thing) so as to render useless”. This works for me because of the place it seems to occupy in the poem. It’s also a bit odd that Prynne doesn’t provide this definition as well.

Further examples are provided of the use of ‘mar’ with prominence given to a sermon given in 1609 by Lancelot Andrewes on the way in which God sent Christ to redeem mankind: ‘He should not have sent Him made: but as he was, neither made nor created, but like Himselfe, in His own estate, as was meet for the SON OF GOD , to be sent. To make Him any thing, is to send Him Marred and no better’. Now, I’m not disputing the erudition deployed here nor am I doubting the point of placing the verb in a contemporary god-related context but I’m having a little trouble seeing how God’s putative marring of Christ has a lot to do with the guest’s eyesight.

There’s another paragraph, the gist of which is that the guest is confessing his responsibility for the ‘spiritual damage’ that he has caused but is blocked from repentance (and hence salvation) by his insistence on condemning and punishing himself.

Time for a personal interjection: one of the many reasons that this poem appeals to me is that I’m a bipolar depressive with a fairly ropey psychology and I can identify with the kind of self-negation that the guest is expressing here, especially shame, perceived wrongdoing and a complete denial of self-worth. What I find hard to get my brain around is the view that this state equates with not being ‘saved’ by God, even though I don’t dispute the technical skill involved in expressing so many things with such compressed precision.

Returning to the poem, Prynne gives a full account of the nature of religious shame and provides this explication from Thomas Wilson’s wonderful A Christian Dictionary:

Trouble and perturbation of minde and Conscience, being greeved and cast down at the remembrance of sinne against God … This is shame of Conscience, which in wicked men is an euill affection, and part of the torment of Hell: but in the godly it is a good affection a signe and fruite of their repentance.

This may we be evidence of a rapidly vertiginous descent into peculiarity but I cannot express how much I love rummaging through and plundering this tome. The above is a good example of its unequivocal no-nonsense approach to what many thought of as hopelessly complex terms. We should have more of these now- and I speak as one who is over-fond of complication.

I’d have left it at that and felt quite pleased with myself but our critic takes things a couple of steps further pointing out that here there are two meanings:

  • the objective and public shamefulness of the guest’s acts and omissions and;
  • the inward sense of shame and contrition that these acts and omissions give rise to in him.

I’m not sure that there’s a clear difference here even though Wilson points to it. As a shame regular, from the inside there is always an awareness of both even if the first is fictive. For example, I feel deep shame, inwardly and outwardly, about (as I see it) succumbing to my condition> I’m sure that the above good/bad dividing line has its god-related appeal but from the inside the problem is that they are both intertwined and feed into each other. End of second interjection.

Prynne follows his double meaning up with the ‘mistake’ of the guest in his assumption that he is inevitably condemned but that ‘Love knows better’.

So, is this the kind of attentive reading that we should all apply? What might this tell us about the ‘way’ to read the later Prynne? I consider myself to be an attentive reader, I like to think that I’m careful and thoughtful in my reading but I’m not sure that I’d want to be this relentlessly forensic although I acknowledge that I might be tempted to be this forensic but by giving a bit more weight to the poem as poem- those of us who are not fans of theological debate in the early 17thy century may feel overwhelmed by the amount of context. I do however think it’s a good thing to be extremely concerned with words in all their various glories and must try to apply this concern to more contemporary material other than Hill and Prynne. The insights this material give to Prynne’s poetry are many and varied, there’s the interest in the nature of faith, in the ambiguities and contradictions therein and about social and political context. Most of all though I think there’s a clear indication of approach to the poem with a capital P and that must be useful for those of us who want to get a little closer to the poems.

Prynne week: Biting the Air. Again.

I’d forgotten just how addictive paying attention to Prynne can be and make no apologies for continuing with the above in order to identify further ‘corridors of sense’. Before we proceed I want here to provide the footnote to the paragraph that I quoted yesterday:

Here may be introduced the notion of meaning-threads or thematic linkage. Sometimes in working on a “difficult” poem a translator may hesitate over how to deal with a word or expression which seems to have many possible meanings. The translator notices that one of the possible meanings seems to have a connection with other words and meanings within the poem, coming before and after the problem word or expression. Maybe this link is an accident, but maybe it is part of the poem’s underlying argument, or one of its meaning-threads; in which case the translator can seemingly with some confidence select the translation of the problem word or expression which fits in best with this line of development. Following this course would help to give the translated poem a certain coherence of connected meaning. But sometimes appearances are deceptive. In noticing what looks like a prominent link, the translator may overlook a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them. Furthermore, within a poem a word or expression may precisely not fit at all, maybe even hinting at a connection which it is too discrepant in alternative signification to accommodate neatly. Or, indeed, problem words and expressions may include several of these different possible kinds of connection, all at once. If the original poem is full of alternative meaning-links and threads which do not overtly correspond to a central and single line of development, the translator must resist the temptation to make the behaviour of the original poem more orderly, and must respect possible word-meanings that do not fit in just as much (almost as much) as those that do. The translator has to be
very sensitive to meaning, but not over-respectful towards its demands!

I’m quoting this because it points out that there may be many meaning threads and because it warns against taking prominent linkages for granted because doing so “overlooks a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them”. Yesterday I did that very thing, I identified what seemed to be the overarching theme, the pharmaceutical industry, and noticed some other threads but failed to give them any consideration. Today I want to use the second poem in the sequence to try and compensate for that mistake:

Or it may be better to do that. Thick mitts for
an early start, precious upward mounting oval
mannerism, his park molested. Or to match defer
to certainty got a banner, to a grade. Hold one

before leasing forage behaviour; wash the novice
wrist, finger-tight. Do you already know this or yet
allocate sufficiency. Altogether just say the word
as lex loquens inter-married in sparse programme.

its cancel front to dive in a blip forward, your
modest capture. Sudden glial remorse announces
armament redress canine grips, on the platform
a bevy in service affair driven. A forever dulcet

hesitation in the mouth long-dated ostensible tap,
stare in daylight, one hand washes the other. Dis-
tribute what it takes, parallel fog lights crested
vapour banks confirm this. Conclusive under-

written first arrival, safe as houses on a detour
or live transmission in packet throb, insurgency.
Better power assignments for the moment this
sharing by split singlet to mollify what there is.

This will take some time. I’m never sure whether or not to tackle the surprises or the reasonably ‘clear’ first.

His park molested. On this occasion I’ll start with this molested park because it seems extreme, even for Prynne. It turns out that there are 44 definitions of ‘park’ in the OED but I’m going to select only two of them, one of which I knew and the other had escaped my attention. There have been since (at least) the thirteenth century royal parks which are reserved for the hunting of game. Some of the major ‘tussles’ between the gentry and the farming community has been the incursions into these parks by locals in pursuit of the same. The classic work on these confrontations is E P Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters pertaining to the 18th century. This may be confirmed as a sense thread by the presence of ‘mounting’ on the above line. Unfortunately, the same may be said of the second definition- a place for tanks and/or artillery in a military encampment. The OED provides a quote from The Independent in 2001: Close to the city’s ancient citadel, the Taliban maintained a tank and artillery park, which has been torn apart by bombs which also fits with mounting, as in a gun mounting. There’s also ‘armament redress’ in the third stanza, so a meaning thread may be on the horizon.

Sudden glial remorse. Up until three minutes ago I didn’t know what glial meant and I’m not much further now that I do. Apparently it’s the adjective from neuroglia which is the name given to ” the supportive non-neuronal tissue of the nervous system”. This is where we start clutching at straws, a further five minutes sepnt with the interweb reveals that some of the glial cells are responsible for maintaining an environmental ‘balance’ in the brain so that neuronal signalling takes place. These neurons are responsible for every aspect of the various mental processes. This balance may have echoes of ‘flatline’ in the first poem that I highlighted yesterday. Of course this could be me reading glial via the most obvious route and ignoring the other two main functions of these cells. I was going to give ‘remorse’ its common meaning but then decided to check for any other definitions that might be more appropriate. As I noted yesterday, one of the many bonuses of paying attention to Prynne is the opportunity to delve into ther inner recesses of the OED. On this occasion the 7th (obscure, rare) main definition is a “biting or cutting force” and the only quotation is from Spenser’s Faerie Queene: ” Their speares with pitilesse remorse, Through shield and mayle, and haberieon did wend” which makes me smile a lot. Spenser was notorious for his reckless meddling with the English language either by inventing words or using archaisms that didn’t exist of giving different meanings to words that did exist. Throughout the first edition of the dictionary most of these are identified with a sense or weary distaste. However, this type of remorse could be an attack carried out without thought which sets off / heralds / announces in itself a counter attack as in ‘armament redress’ This appears to add further weight to the military sense thread tentatively identified above.

The other probably irrelevant point that springs to mind is the fact there are many knightly fights in FQ and by Book IV, from which the quote is taken, our poet was running out of ways to describe the same event in different ways.

Better power assignments. This final sentence would seem to maintain the conflict thread. Prynne has written in other work ‘about’ the Ulster conflict which he has (accurately) described as a civil war and about the West’s tragic incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq. However the Ulster conflict was ostensibly resolved by a political arrangement known as ‘power sharing’. The power assignments which are said to be better could well be this arrangement which more accurately reflects the size of the province’s Catholic population. My only other observation is that it couldn’t be anything but an improvement on the previous Unionist dictatorship. Readers will be pleased to know that ‘split singlet’ may not refer to a torn vest because a singlet is also:

  • in theoretical physics, a quantum state with zero spin;
  • in spectroscopy, an entity appearing as a single peak;
  • in optics, a single lens element, the building blocks of lens systems;

I’m not even going to speculate about the first of these, having been barred from the physics lab at the age of 13 I really do know my limits. The third option may be me taking the easy route but it does seem that lenses enable us to see clearer but a lens that is split distorts our vision of how things are. Without wishing to run ahead of myself, I’m of the view that all English governments since the Normans have had an ‘idea’ of Ireland and the nature of the Irish problem that is fundamentally distorted. Therefore, it may be that the current power sharing arrangement does soften (mollify) those distortions but underneath there is still what there is- centuries of mutual hatred and suspicion.

I recognise (reluctantly) that the above may relate to the ongoing Afghanistan debacle or any other piece of imperial slaughter but at the moment the ‘sharing’ verb points in the direction of Ulster.

I think that’s probably enough for today, I’m more than a little saddened that the drug industry thesis from yesterday is now under siege but this does seem to bear out what our poet says in the above quote. Tomorrow I’ll have a look at the frequent use of ‘hand’ and hand-related terms that seem to run through the sequence.

Information Quality: the Monstrous Poem

Continuing with my theme, I’d like to move on to monstrosity as one of those quality that often gets overlooked or misplaced. I need to say at the outset that the name of this particular quality is stolen from Keston Sutherland although the following elaboration is all mine. Given the response to all things gnarly, I think I need to make clear that these qualities aren’t indicators of worth, there are good monstrous poems in this world just as there are bad ones. There is also good gnarliness and bad gnarliness and sometimes these are in the same poem (Lycidas, Poly Olbion). As with the gnarly, many of the onstrous demand an almost physical engagement, a bit of a cognitive and often aesthetic struggle before they can be overcome.

Monstrosity: a definition.

A monstrous poem needs to be large and ranging in scope rather than in scale although scale can be an important factor. By scope I essentially mean the ‘range’ of subject matter although a range of perspectives on the same subject can contribute. There are some obvious candidates, Olson’s Maximus springs to mind but some others that are more nuanced and understated but nevertheless deal with a lot of Very Big Stuff. The following are tentative and provisional examples of what I’m trying to say.

Elizabeth Bishop’s In the Waiting Room.

Bishop was probably the most technically able poet of the 20th century and the above is one of her very best:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
 I went with Aunt Consuelo
 to keep her dentist's appointment
 and sat and waited for her
 in the dentist's waiting room.
 It was winter. It got dark
 early. The waiting room 
 was full of grown-up people,
 arctics and overcoats,
 lamps and magazines. 
 My aunt was inside
 what seemed like a long time 
 and while I waited I read 
 the National Geographic
 (I could read) and carefully
 studied the photographs: 
 the inside of a volcano,
 black, and full of ashes;
 then it was spilling over
 in rivulets of fire.
 Osa and Martin Johnson
 dressed in riding breeches,
 laced boots, and pith helmets.
 A dead man slung on a pole
 --"Long Pig," the caption said.
 Babies with pointed heads 
 wound round and round with string;
 black, naked women with necks
 wound round and round with wire
 like the necks of light bulbs. 
 Their breasts were horrifying. 
 I read it right straight through.
 I was too shy to stop.
 And then I looked at the cover: 
 the yellow margins, the date. 
 Suddenly, from inside, 
 came an oh! of pain 
 --Aunt Consuelo's voice--
 not very loud or long.
 I wasn't at all surprised; 
 even then I knew she was
 a foolish, timid woman.
 I might have been embarrassed,
 but wasn't. What took me
 completely by surprise was
 that it was me: 
 my voice, in my mouth.
 Without thinking at all
 I was my foolish aunt,
 I--we--were falling, falling,
 our eyes glued to the cover
 of the National Geographic,
 February, 1918.

 I said to myself: three days
 and you'll be seven years old.
 I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off
 the round, turning world. 
 into cold, blue-black space. 
 But I felt: you are an I,
 you are an Elizabeth,
 you are one of them.
 Why should you be one, too?
 I scarcely dared to look
 to see what it was I was.
 I gave a sidelong glance
 --I couldn't look any higher-- 
 at shadowy gray knees, 
 trousers and skirts and boots
 and different pairs of hands
 lying under the lamps.
 I knew that nothing stranger
 had ever happened, that nothing
 stranger could ever happen.

 Why should I be my aunt,
 or me, or anyone?
 What similarities--
 boots, hands, the family voice
 I felt in my throat, or even
 the National Geographic
 and those awful hanging breasts-- 
 held us all together
 or made us all just one?
 How--I didn't know any
 word for it--how "unlikely". . .
 How had I come to be here,
 like them, and overhear
 a cry of pain that could have
 got loud and worse but hadn't?

 The waiting room was bright
 and too hot. It was sliding
 beneath a big black wave, another,
 and another. Then I was back in it.

 The War was on. Outside,
 in Worcester, Massachusetts, 
 were night and slush and cold,
 and it was still the fifth 
 of February, 1918.

The beginnings of and nature of self-consciousness is a pretty big piece of ground but here we also have family, otherness and our prurient, arrogant interest in what was then thought of and depicted as the ‘savage’, World War One and what seven year old can see of others with a ‘sidelong glance’, and what time does.

I challenge anyone to find a single mite of clunk in any of the above but my point here is that huge subjects are covered in a way that feels conversational and completely unforced. The monstrosity arrives in full flow in the second and third stanzas which take us (whilst still in the waiting room) to a level of abstraction that requires several readings, some reflection / consideration before things become a bit clearer.

Paul Celan’s Aschenglorie.

I wasn’t going to do this because I probably write too much about Celan and about this poem in particular yet it does have that huge, sprawling scale but in a way that is completely different from Elizabeth Bishop. Like the above, it’s one of my favourite poems. Although Celan was a Holocaust survivor, it is a mistake to think of his work only in that context, as I hope to show:

your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
the drowned rudder blade,
deep in the petrified oath,
it roars up.

(On the vertical
breathrope, in those days,
higher than above,
between two painknots, while
the glossy
Tatarmoon climbed up to us.
I dug myself into you and into you).

glory behind
you threeway 

The east-in-front-of-you, from
the East, terrible.

bears witness for the

Most of the writing on Celan’s later work is speculative and I certainly don’t intend to provide any kind of explanation for this piece of brilliance. For those who would like one, I’d suggest that Derrida’s Poetics and Politics of Witnessing is a better stab in the dark than most. I’d simply like to draw attention to the following subjects that may be being addressed here:

  • the current status/nature of those who died during the Holocaust;
  • language and the return from exile;
  • filial guilt;
  • Stalin and the displacement of ethnic groups;
  • suicide in the face of tyranny;
  • the problems facing/confronting the poet as memorialist.

What is brilliant about Celan is that he is able to pack so much into so few words. The first word, which is repeated further into the poem, brilliantly encapsulates the fate of victims but also the way in which they will continue- the image I have is of brightly burning wood beneath a light covering of ash, your hands will burn if you get too close. I like to think that Pontic erstwhile brings into focus the Greek speaking people of Pontus who lived on the Black Sea coast in what is now Turkey. Along with the Armenians they were subject to genocide at the hands of the Turks and then deported to Greece. It is said that the ‘native’ Greeks could not understand the type of Greek that these returnees spoke. The Tatar people were also moved en masse from their land in the Crimea by Stalin.

Of course, the implacable aridity and extreme ambiguity of Clean’s poem-making makes over-reading very, very likely but that should not stop any of us paying close attention to this almost magical body of work. My own sins in this regard read the ‘threeway’ as the meeting with the poet’s mother and father, both of whom were murdered by the Germans. The other big leap into speculation is the reported answer that Celan gave when asked what he did in labour camps during the war: “dug holes”. The last three lines are those that have caught the most critical attention, in his otherwise excellent essay, Derrida probably over-complicates this solitary, isolated act of witnessing and I’m never sure whether it’s a statement of fact or an anguished cry. The third bracketed stanza is gloriously complex and monstrous in itself and I hover between each of the eight or so readings that I have in my head, the breath rope may be a noose but it may also be the lines of bubbles rising from the mouth of some one (drowning) underwater, both possibilities cast the poem in a dramatically different way.

Sir Geoffrey Hill’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.

This was published in the Tenebrae collection in 1968, following Mercian Hymns. The notes at the back of the original inform me that these thirteen sonnets were written for a number of contexts and this goes some way to explaining the monstrous scale of the sequence. The title is taken from Pugin- the leading proponent of the 19th century Gothic revival.

The sequence uses this to expand on England, colonial India, ruins, the English landscape and (as ever) martyrdom. Each of these are huge but the ‘thread’ running though them is one G Hill and his idiosyncratic ‘take’ on these things which, with the possible exception of India, have been lifelong concerns. I’ll give a few brief examples to try and show this scope. There are three sonnets entitled A Short History of British India, this is the second half of the second:

The flittering candles of the wayside shrines
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts the dust.
Krishna from Rhada lovingly entwines.

Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their heads.
The alien conscience of our days is lost
among the ruins and on endless roads.

Obviously, our imperial experiences in India are difficult to encapsulate in 42 lines but it would seem that Hill’s thesis is in part British arrogance and its resulting inability to understand or engage with the glorious complexity that is Indian culture. Whilst the critique is occasionally scathing, the tone is rueful and oddly elegaic.

The second sonnet is entitled Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654. I’m taking this to be a nod towards Marvell’s Damon and Clorinda which carries more than a nod in the direction of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar. These are the first four lines:

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

And these are the last 3.5 lines:

................Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors? And who is this clown
doffing his mask at the masked threshold
to selfless raptures that are all his own?

So this would seem to be perpetuating the distinctly English pastoral with a juxtaposition between the rural and the spiritual. The mysterious and allusive ending is in stark contrast with the clarity of the opening lines. This in itself is monstrously wrestleable. I also need to report that the recent Collected tells us that this particular sonnet is “an imitation of a sonnet by L. L. de Argensola” without specifying which sonnet. Of course, this information isn’t in the original edition. I don’t think this invalidates the Spenser-Marvell- Hill guess but it certainly throws something else into the pot.

Hill’s relationship with England has always been more than a little complex, he’s clearly a patriot and, as a red Tory, despairs of many elements of contemporary politics, especially our membership of the EU. He is also our best poet of the English landscape and his involvement with all things rural is unambivalent. This is the first part of The Laurel Axe which is the ninth sonnet in the sequence:

Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds

One of the epigraphs for An Apology is from Coleridge: “the spiritual Platonic old England” which adds another level of monstrosity to the sequence as a whole. Coleridge’s admiration for Plato is in itself unstraightforward but you don’t need to puzzle over this to appreciate the strength and brilliance of the above.

So, monstrosity of scale which seems more monstrous than the much longer Triumph of Love because so much is compressed into these 182 lines. I’m now going to spend a few days trying to subdue it into something more manageable.

<Simon Jarvis' The Unconditional.

I was going to use this as the example par excellence of monstrosity by means of digression and I was looking for a suitably digressive passages when I came across one of my v informative exclamation marks in the margin of page 179 and decided to use that instead, for reasons that will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

For those that don’t know, the Jarvis project is one of the most important of this century, his longer, formal work is a brilliant thumb in the eye at what we might think of as the literary establishment on both sides of the Atlantic for a number of different reasons. The above was published in 2005 and consists of a single poem containing about 235 pages of defiantly metrical verse. This is what caught my eye:

        Presuicidal choclatiera
coat morsels with a delicate agony
        for which their German reading long ago
was how the cost effective entrance fee
        ("In every line that Celan ever wrote
hovers a brooding ethical concern".
        poor penny dreadfuls of the critical sense
where the quotidian shopping carts unseen
        gather to give this hulking strut the lie
full of their viands for the evening pie.
        The worst that is thought and known in the world.
Precisely instead unriddable pleasures
        the poet gripped until he fathomed them wet.
(How precisely the joyful idiot is snubbed
        the couriers of singularity
can well arpeggiate as they now tread
        on underlings of idiotism who
know little of the sacrifices made
        by the sole selfers walking on their guts
(Tsk my resentimentful prosodist!
        Excellent rancour from the hilltop sire
When may we know what you yourself have lost
        or ever had to put up with in the rain?)))

This is horribly complex, at it’s heart it’s a rant at all things Continental but Derrida and co. (yet another technical term) in particular. Writing about the Holocaust is a huge subject as is writing about writing about the Holocaust as is the Adorno / Continental divide yet Jarvis takes these on together with a note of self-deprication at the end. I won’t argue with the notion that most of the critical writing on Celan is dire in the extreme but I don’t think that this is confined to one particular ‘sect’. I’ve gone on about this Adornian snobbery in the past and don’t intend to repeat myself. My point is that many many tomes have been written about writing about the Holocaust and many complexities have been examined yet Jarvis manages to encapsulate his fairly nuanced ‘position’ in one page and there’s a whole set of small monstrosities within.

So, I hope that I’ve demonstrated that this quality needs to be paid some attention. In writing the above I’v discovered a few other qualities (relentless monstrosity, monstrous ambiguity etc) which I’ll write about at a later date.

Night Office and Spiritual Pain.

First of all, I have to report that the above has also received a measured and comprehensive review by Arabella Milbank in Issue 5 of The Cambridge Humanities Review. In contrast to the review in the TLS, this makes no spurious reference to either J H Prynne or the Cambridge School but concentrates on what the poem says and how it says it.

It is both erudite (ie it has words in it that I don’t understand) and focuses on the overriding religious theme rather than the structure of this startling work. What surprises me is that, as far as I can work out, Milbank does not discuss the issue of suffering and spiritual pain which, to this reader at least, appears to run a broad thread through all 227 pages. She does however have this:

Jarvis revoices tenets in some extraordinary ways, reminding us that he believes poetry is “no alibi for weak theology”. These can be very dark. Extraordinary sections in this wintry, Adventine poem cover much of the traditional ground of the Four Last Things, taking the poet down to hell and into Judgement. At one point this vigil is referred to the orthodox mesonyktikon, where the night office is particularly that of eschatologically awaiting wakefulness. Its troparion of the Bridegroom is taken up to paint these lucubrations as those of the faithful virgin. The possibility of properly negative, absolute judgement or damnation haunts, and is not refused, by the poem:

at which this sorry this this & this & this
meet you yourself as your beloved’s right
clear irreversible refusal, set
into that helpless falling out of love
with no past, future, forward, back, above

Being not all that erudite, I’ve spent some time with the interweb and have discovered that the mesonyktikon is the mdinight office of the Orthodox Church and a troparion is a type of Orthodox hymn and the Services of the Bridegroom are held every evvening from Palm Sunday until Holy Tuesday and that the name is taken from the parable of the Ten Virgins. ‘Lucubrations’ are defined by the OED as ” The product of nocturnal study and meditation; hence, a literary work showing signs of careful elaboration. Now somewhat derisive or playful, suggesting the notion of something pedantic or over-elaborate”. I’ll glide over the exclusionary nature of the above and move on to my theme which is that this figure is beset by suffering, by a complex anguish in his relationship (or the absence of it) with God.

Rather than dive into a series of examples to demonstrate my contention, it may be useful to add a personal note with regard to anguish. I have no experience whatsoever of the spiritual / religious aspects of existence because I don’t believe in God and view those that do as fundamentally mistaken. It is therefore difficult for me to fully appreciate what this figure may be going through. As regular readers will know I am prone to bouts of severe depression which, together with a reasonably ropey psychology, gives me some in sight into what non-physical pain is like and the sensibilities that come with it.

I also have some readerly experience in poetic spiritual pain and one of the problems that I have is that of sincerity rather than manipulation. I’ve had lingering doubts about the sudden cries of emotion that leap from some of George Herbert’s lines since reading his manual for priests, A Priest to the Temple where he advocates the occasional exclamatory outpouring to intensify the faith of the congregation. There’s a different kind of problem with R S Thomas whose religious doubts and sufferings seem to be much more about the poet (as poet) than they are about the experience itself. I don’t have any doubts at all about the sincerity embedded in the later work of Paul Celan whose agonised struggles with faith and the You are almost unbearable to read:

SEWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands:
your name 
that hands comforted

When I knead the 
lump of air, our nourishment,
it is soured by
the letter effulgence from
the dementedly open

With regard to the Jarvis project, one of the many honesties from The Unconditional onwards is this sense of personal vulnerability, a willingness to expose and explore this fragility without resorting to the confessional ‘ah me’. This is at some distance from the interspersed rants about the ways in which capitalism ensnares us, a much more personal meditation on a suffering that is keenly felt:

These chimes and echoes form the long relay 
postponing that intolerable minute
when I should not be able to delay
sight of my face and all the crimes hid in it:
so the quick rhapsode stitches up all
fact-calques and formulas, where who would bin it
must stare down that total knowledge of his error,
continuous inobviable terror.

I’m taking (tentatively, provisionally) ‘rhapsode’ as someone who reads poetry aloud to others, a ‘fact-calque’ to be a premise or supposition that is loaned and eventually adopted by a foreign culture and ‘inobviable’ to be that which cannot be obviated or circumvented.

Severe depression has these characteristics and they hurt a great deal. The extent of the self-loathing is such that staring into a mirror is exceptionally difficult not just because of the hidden crimes but also because of the shame that the acute knowledge of these brings about. Continuous terror is a bit more tricky in that I experience a continuous and nagging fearfulness but this isn’t related to my perceived crimes. I can however just about appreciate how difficult this combination might be to bear.

I think it might be worthwhile as well to consider the use of ‘crime’ rather than ‘sin’, is this because the former carry a degree of forethought/intent whereas a sin can be because of some personal trait.

Of course, with such a lengthy poem, it may reasonable to suggest that I have selected the above purely to make my case and that it isn’t, in fact, representative of the whole. This may well have some truth in it but I’m trying to describe what came across most clearly to me on an initial reading as a devotee of poetry. I’ve acknowledged that I don’t share the beliefs described here and have obviously missed out on many of the theological and liturgical ‘points’ but I do continue to read the poem for its honesty and its strength.

Incidentally, the review refers to Night Office a “great religious poem”, the ‘g’ word is a very big word indeed and not one to be idly thrown about. In my head there are very, very few great poems, religious or not and I don’t think this is one of these even if it is both compelling and exceptionally addictive. Perhaps we may need to wait for the next four poems in the sequence to make a decision on ‘g’ ness.

Simon Jarvis’ Night Office reviewed in the TLS. Sigh.

Oh dear. I’ve just caught up with last weeks British Book Comic and came across a review of ‘Night Office’. This is a rare event in that this prestigious rag rarely publishes anything on anybody (apart from Sir G Hill) that I read. I’ve been waiting for the mainstream to take some notice of this and of Keston Sutherland’s Odes because both are put out by Enitharmon, an established and respected publisher.

I think I’ve read all of Jarvis’ published work and some of his essays with a fair deal of attention. I remain of the view that he is unique and his work challenges the foundations of what passes for contemporary verse. This is not shared by William Wootten, the reviewer who starts with this:

When a devotee of the astringent “difficulty” of J.H. Prynne and de facto member of the Cambridge School publishes a 7,000 line Anglican in formal rhyming verse, it is safe that he has had something of a change of heart. Not total, perhaps. Simon Jarvis’s Night Office, the poem in question, alludes to Prynne and foregrounds the sort of Adorno-inspired theorizing Jarvis and others have used to justify Prynnian poetics. Even the way Jarvis writes as if no one had produced a rhyming pentameter since 1908 may be more a result of subscription to modernist orthodoxy than evidence of its renunciation. Still, there is no pretending Night Office is your standard Cambridge fare.

I’m going to leave aside the weak prose and worry about the sad fact that this appears to be an extended sneer. In a land that cherishes freedom of expression this is all very well provided that it is factually accurate. Starting at the beginning, the only occasion that I can recall Jarvis writing on Prynne was in the manner of complaint and impatience, complaint about having to read a poem as a crossword puzzle and not being that interested to do so. This is hardly the manifestation of a devotee- defined by the OED as “A person zealously devoted to a particular, cause, pursuit etc.”. This change of heart is also a bit of a mystery given the publication of the equally lengthy and formal The Unconditional in 2005 and the more recent religious themes in Dinner and Dionysus Crucified. We now come to the Adorno jibe, regular readers will know that I’m of the view that Adorno was mostly wrong (as in incorrect) but especially wrong about poetry. I readily concede that he looms large over some things Cambridge and over Jarvis’ academic work but I don’t think that Prynnian poetics can only justified in this way, I like to think that I’ve managed to locate an approach that has nothing whatsoever to do with Critical Theory.

I need to move on to what appears to be the main target dressed thinly as context, this strange beast known as the Cambridge School. If this name applies to the contributors to The English Intelligencer then this ceased circulation more than forty years ago. If we mean those poets who emulate Prynne, there aren’t any although some place Tony Lopez in that group. If we mean those of us who can see the point of Prynne and consider him to be Very Good indeed then I’m part of this School- which is ridiculous beyond words.

I haven’t got the space to pay the attention to ‘Anglican’ that it deserves other than to ask which particular brand of that broad church is the poem supposed to belong?

Now, how many readers of the poetry section of the TLS are going to be motivated to read the rest of the review? How many of these are going to approach what follows with an open mind? Is this kind of naked factionalism the main problem with the State of the Poem today? As I’ve said, polemic is fine but misrepresentation is not.

We now come to tactics, if you want to scare readers off you use the ‘P’ word as frequently as possible and throw in a German thinker that most won’t have read. You do not start by outlining the Jarvis thesis that verse constrained by rhyme and meter is the best way of making philosophical and theological work, you do not mention Alexander Pope but you do churn out the same 40 year old clichés because it’s easy.

For those who do persevere, Wootten makes some reasonably valid points, he acknowledges that the use of rhyme “seems well suited to Jarvis’s turn against poetic puritanism” but qualifies this by pointing out that some of the rhymes are ‘wince-inducing’. He also questions whether or not Night Office would be better in prose. These are both reasonable responses but the prose option completely misses the point. Perhaps I’m too familiar with the wince-inducing rhymes of Sir G Hill’s later work but I can’t recall being induced to wince.

The conclusion is condescending in the extreme:

Night Office may well be a transitional work from a writer at last discovering his true strengths. Since it is apparently the first of five such long poems, written or in prospect, there will be plenty of chance to find out.

The only response to this is that Jarvis’ strengths have been apparent to those of us who have read him since The Unconditional as have his weaknesses but this remarkable work is a progression that develops those strengths and I for one await the next with eager anticipation.

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.


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.

Rhyme: Simon Jarvis, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon

I seem to reading a lot of rhyme these days but I’m still trying to get my brain around why some of it ‘works’ and some falls flat on its face. This last category is perhaps best exemplified by Geoffrey Hill’s Oraclau whilst the most effective, to my ear at least is Simon Jarvis’ Night Office with Muldoon somewhere in between.

I’m not going to use Oraclau here but focus instead on Liber Illustrium Virorum, another of the Day Books because bits of it appear to rhyme and others seem to wave in the direction of rhyme but fall short. This isn’t a lit crit exercise, I haven’t re-read Jarvis on rhyme but I do recall what he and Rowan Williams said about it at the launch of Night Office last year. Paul Muldoon is included in this primarily because I think that he’s technically very gifted and he rhymes well, whatever that might mean.

We’ll start with Night Office:

I may know rest and let a sweet surrender
drug my light eyelids so I fall and drift
up to cool uplands where exhaustions tender
miraculous oblivions which sift
sharp pangs & terrors to the sink then render
each back to me allegorized, or lift
my worst thoughts up transfigured till I see them
like inaccessible retreats or flee them

to those cisalpine cantons whose hid peaks
for once escape clouds; yet their high pavilions
are just too distant to be clear : each speaks
in shepherd-emperors whose armed civilians
sing hymns from fields where chequered light's leaped freaks
sport, flit & glitter there; these equal millions
distribute needed bread with the champagne
to every citizen whose real pain

is salved & tended, & whose sorrows darken
just for one instant on the meadow, since
in this high kingdom every empress hearkens
to all her fellow-regents. I may rinse
in these long lakes whatever stain dishearten
my every gesture. To the east of Linz
there rise more ranges. Then I will wake up.
The milk, the tea, the table and the cup.

Now is probably a good time to recap on the Jarvis project which seems to be about demonstrating that constraints, like rhyme and metre, can enhance poems that ‘do’ philosophy. There is a lecture somewhere on the interweb where he uses Pope’s Essay on man to make this point. The relevant observation from the launch was Simon’s agreement with Rowan Williams that the rhyme constraint dictates the poem’s direction of travel.

As a reader of poetry I’ve spent most of the last forty years being against rhyme because:

  • I don’t see how it can be more effective than less restrictive forms at saying complex things;
  • I think the majority of rhyming verse is too close to song;
  • when a rhyme fails it fails really badly;
  • when I’m reading a poem that rhymes I’m more conscious of the rhyme rather than the sense;
  • deep down, against my new man instincts, I think rhyme is effeminate.

Obviously the last of these, which I’ve only just recognised, has no bearing on reality and is exclusively my problem. The other three however I can make a decent stab of defending / justifying. The first prejudice is now beginning to soften because Night Office does some very complex things indeed and because I recognise that the Spenserian stanza (which rhymes) does many complicated things, including an accomplished piece of philosophising.

With regard to the above, I’m of the view that it works, that it manages to avoid the proximity to song, there are no rhymes that fail and I am reading for the sense, even when reading aloud. What I think is also worth noting is that this is immensely readable, I don’t find myself becoming furrowed of brow when attending to Night Office because the syntax used is much closer to conversational speech than most works in the late modern vein.

I first realised that I may need to modify the rhyme position in 20o6 when reading Paul Muldoon’s The Old Country from his Horse Latitudes collection. I’ve always been intrigued by Muldoon’s work because it manages to enthrall and annoy me at the same time. The Old Country is a sequence of thirteen poems each with two four line stanzas followed by two with three lines. These two are from the middle of the sequence:

Every slope was a slippery slope
Where every shave was a very close shave
and money was money for old rope
where every grave was a watery grave

now every boat was, again, a burned boat
Every dime-a-dozen rat a dime-a-dozen drowned rat
except for the whitrack or stoat,
which the very Norsemen had down pat

as a weasel word
though we know there speech was rather slurred.
Every time was time in the nick

just as every nick was a nick in time.
Every unsheathed sword was somehow sheathed in rime.
Every cut was a cut to the quick.


Every cut was a cut to the quick
what with every feather a feather to ruffle
Every whitrack was a witterick.
Every one was ina right kerfuffle

when from his hob some hobbledehoy
would venture the witterick was a curlew.
Every wall was a wall of Troy
and every hunt a hunt in the purlieu

of a demesne so out of bounds
every hound might have been a hellhound.
At every lane end stood a milk churn

whose every dent was a sign of indenture
to some pig wormer or cattle drencher.
Every point was a point of no return.

I’m taking it that this particular old country is Ulster and what is captured throughout this sequence is a portrait of and an oblique comment on a particularly grim mentality forged during the ‘Troubles’. That aside, i’m of the view that this is anexample of what rhyme can do to add another level of meaning to something that’s already complex. As a reader, I’m very aware of the rhyme and the rhyming scheme but I’m also wrapped up in the way that this seems to be an essential part of the meaning, an underpinning of the wry commentary on these stock phrases. In this sequence Muldoon manages to make the (very) difficult look and feel gloriously easy and this has the effect of drawing the reader in to a particular way of reading. It’s poems like this that enable me to tolerate some of his more glaring self-indulgences.

Speaking of which, we now come to the enigma that is the late work of Sir Geoffrey Hill. In The Daybooks he makes shape poems and he uses half-rhymes, some of which work and some of which don’t. At this juncture I have to point out the Bebrowed view that Hill can write anything that he wants of whatever quality simply because of Mercian Hymns and The Triumph of Love which are two of the towering works of the last fifty years. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the variations in quality that seem to run through these late works. As an illustration, this is the first poem in the Liber Illustrium Verborum sequence:

Medusas, basilisks, dragons in fens,
Eternal in their demands. Dragon's teeth
I have learned use of, with Coriolan's
Oliviousness also a plundered myth;
Determination of necessity;
Past recklessness in bruised misreckoning;
That blazed Yeatsian thing
Of savage joy.
The reed lake; wintering
Wild geese a-clang
Phenomenon darkens
The comprehension of its vanes,
Lividness in fettle. Something unclear
Scales the escarpment of this eightieth year,
Pray's the child's terrified
Comfort of bed.
Who is best able to
Choose whom to fable to,
Horse a way on a laugh,
Prance equity,
Appear both ends of the school photograph?

Given that all the poems in this sequence look the same, I’m taking them as shape poems in the shape (as with the first parts of the Clavics poems) of a key. Of course this is a tentative view taken without attending to most of the sequence but it will do for now. I also recognise that there’s a greater amount of verbal invention and dexterity than some of the already published Daybooks but we still have this odd mix of full rhymes and rhymes that rely on the sound of the final consonant. I’ve had several goes at reading this aloud and, to my ear, the constraints imposed on the first half get in the way of the sense rather than complementing it and this is only reversed in the last five lines of ‘full’ rhyme. This is a pity because the sense seems to mark out a more muscular and verbally clever poet.

In conclusion, I think this would seem to be an example of how constraint can hinder rather than enhance the experience of paying attention to the poem. Incidentally the full rhyme of the last five lines is not featured in the poems that follow.

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

(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.