Category Archives: poetics

Prynne week: Hands and Biting the Air.

After today I’m going to leave BTA and move on to the work on George Herbert’s Love III because I’m conscious that there’s only four days left and many things that I want to pay attention to. First, a few thoughts on ‘meaning’. I’m of the view that, as with Celan, we shouldn’t expect an an all-encompassing overview of what’s going on. I’m also mindful of Prynne’s Mental Ears and Poetic Work essay where he writes “I am rather frequently accused of more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more of less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because for what so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading”. So, in these pieces I may be trying to unpick a number of threads that appear to make a kind of ‘sense’to me but I also recognise that there’s too many ambiguities and intertwined subjects for complete sense to be made. So far I have armed conflict alongside Big Pharma but these are both still provisional and may indicate completely different subjects altogether.

Today, instead of working out ‘what’ I’m going to have a go at ‘why’. By this I mean attending to the repeated use of the word ‘hand’ and things closely related to hands and what hands do. I’m an enormous fan of repetition and recognise it, in any form, to be a particularly strong means of expression. Those that read Monday’s piece on BTA may have noticed that the word crops up three times in the first eight lines of the poem. It then reappears with unusual frequency throughout the rest of the sequence. I’d like to start by highlight the third of these: Enough out of one hand / to grasp another and the last two line of this poem: a country prosperous and blue and bright over / and blindness forever in hand on hand proverb. These appear to be connected especially if I take the proverb to be a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush It seems to my small brain that any process of negotiation involves letting go of some of what you’ve got in order to get more of what you want. In the good old days when we had effective strikes, workers may have closed down a number of factories and have these standing idle so they can get management to either agree terms or reach a beneficial compromise. In Ulster, the situation was a bit more complex- this was a three-sided civil war with all three parties having a different set of objectives. Paramilitaries on both sides of the community could have carried on their murderous campaigns against each other and the British army but (for different reasons) chose to give that campaign up in favour of a political settlement. In order to achieve this both sides had to disarm- ie give up what strength they had in return for that much fatter bird in the bush. Of course, this might be too ‘neat’ but it might tie in with yesterday’s ‘thread’ especially if the eternal blindness refers to the ongoing inability of either side to understand the other’s point of view and aspirations.

This mutual obduracy might also occur if we take ‘rag’ as a ragstone (i.e a hard sedimentary rock that can be broken up and fashioned into paving stones) and for ‘pacify’ to have the same connotations as ‘mollify’ in the second poem that I wrote about yesterday. Would it be too easy to read ‘hand attachment in’ as both giving in an attachment and that hand attachment being a firearm? It probably would.

Before we go any further, it might be useful to consider the why question. Apart from the possible linkage of a thread of sense, is there any other reason to use repetition to this extent? The reiteration of a phrase or image or melody serves to give emphasis, to perhaps signal up this element for greater attention than what surrounds it. In songs a chorus can contain the main theme and give structure to the whole by establishing a kind of rhythm. There’s also Prynne’s strong interest in work songs which rely on a degree of repetition in the chorus. It may be an exploration of using the same word in different ways. Or, it may be none of these.

The word ‘same’ has even more repetition in Prynne’s later Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian and some of that may be an echo of the Spanish equivalent in Goya’s notebooks during the Peninsular War. Here it seems less obscure but more complex. These are form the second poem that I wrote about on Tuesday:

......................................Hold one

before leasing forage behaviour; wash the novice
wrist, finger tight. Do you already know this or yet
allocate sufficiency.

and this:

..................................A forever dulcet 

hesitation in the mouth long-dated ostensible tap,
stare in daylight, one hand washes the other.

Both of these throw down a number of challenges, the first doesn’t use ‘hand’ but has two verbs that normally need a hand to be carried out. The preceding sentence ends with “got a banner” so it may be this that someone is being told to hold. As in most civil ways, the flying and display of flags and the respective flag colours was a wearily regular feature throughout the Ulster conflict(s). This ties in with “leasing forage behaviour”. The OED defines the verb to forage as: “To collect forage from; to overrun (a country) for the purpose of obtaining or destroying supplies; to lay under contribution for forage. Also in wider sense, to plunder, pillage, ravage”. To lease something is (in my improbably broad sense) is to allow something to be used for a specific length of time in return for a payment. So, the waving of the flag on marches and demonstrations may be seen as a precursor for plunder and pillage- this can perhaps be more starkly seen in the atrocities that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

It might also be that this ‘leasing’ refers to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) approves drugs for prescription use in the UK- the high price of some of these could be said to be plundering the country’s finances.

‘Wash the novice wrist’ would seem to be fairly clear but not make a huge amount of sense in this context. Slightly more of a sense-thread is to be found if the verb is taken as an adjective to mean washy or weak or tender. So what we might infer is that this novice or new recruit has a weak wrist and is only capable of making things with screws and bolts so that they can be easily undone. This is probably an example of chronic overreading but it’s nevertheless worth some further thought.

The second hand (weak and almost accidental play on words) in the poem might refer to blessing bestowed or absolution (washing) that is given by the clergy. There has yet to be a thorough and independent examination of the role of elements of the Catholic and Presbyterian churches in terms of tacit support given to the respective armed factions. We speak of the guilty as having ‘blood on their hands’ and, according to the tenets of Catholicism this blood can be cleaned of by means of confession and penance. The equivalent in Protestant terms it to identify yourself as a sinner before the eyes of God although there is some disagreement as to what this might result in.

In both Ulster and the Balkans it is possible to see some of the main protagonists as proclaiming and undertaking a religious cause or duty- in this way the respective clergy can be seen as the religious ‘arm’ of the struggle on of whose roles is to provided a kind of moral justification for the violence.

Even as I write this I have doubts as to whether things can be this straightforward, especially as “in the mouth long-dated” seems better suited to a medical reading. This is further complicated if ‘dulcet’ is taken as an equivalent to a doucet which is a kind of musical pipe or flute, which brings us the the Orange marching season and how a cessation of the most provocative of these was seen as an important element of the peace process.

So, many more things to think about and I haven’t begun to look at the economic and financial terms that crop up through the sequence, which might help with the threads that seem to be present.

That’s enough of BTA for now, next I want to give some more attention to Prynne’s remarkable work on Herbert’s Love III which may demonstrate how much thought we need to put into our reading.

Prynne week: Biting the Air.

I’ve now decided to have a series of ‘weeks’ in the way that Radio Three has a composer of the week and some arthouse cinemas have a director’s season. I think I’m doing this because it gives me an opportunity to stay with one poet’s work over a number of posts rather than flitting from one to the other. This isn’t going to be easy because I am a lifelong flitter.

J H Prynne does however present a wide enough range of stuff to keep this tendency at bay and Biting the Air appears to be a good example of this. I will proceed with caution because Prynne’s work is generally tricky (technical term) but repays careful attention. Given the level of trickiness what follows is more than usually tentative, provisional and subject to radical change.

Biting the Air was published in 2003 and appears as the penultimate poem in the second edition and appears, in part at least, to have Big Pharma in its sights. I do know a little about the global pharmaceutical problem, I spent between 2004-10 writing about the inadequacies of the system of drug research, testing and marketing and remain of the view that producing misleading/false information that leads to death or premature death should be a criminal offence. Because I’m bipolar I’ll be taking drugs for the rest of my life so I also have an interest in how things are done.

This is a sequence of 12 poems, 11 of which have five four-line stanzas with the other one having a bit of variation in the middle. The epigraph is from Ockham- “Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything. This is the start of the first poem:

Pacify rag hands attachment in for muted
counter-march or locked up going to drainage
offer some, give, none ravine platter, tied up
to kin you would desire that. Even hand

bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. even
flatline signal glitz perfection, slide under be-
fore matter planning your treat advance infirm
in legal glowing stunt. Enough out of one hand

And this is the final three stanzas of the sixth poem:

told to you, root and branch slope management
at onrush unpaired and less compact, generic death
as possession on nil return. Which way the novice
points trail off, they say the same on the block

new level rib, spit your lips. Be quick, be
long to pump anger revivalism, percolate thick 
forest scarps dug yet deeper. Get a vaccine on
shipment perish thread your face why yours

if told more, stable on a tilted capital feed 
suspected more often. Give out a version amplified
with strings to obligate a boundary check, felt 
damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption.

There’s gloriously complex things that appear to be going on here. Starting with the obvious ‘medical’ words: pharmaceutical, flatline, infirm, generic, rib, lips, vaccine and life exemption- I’m taking this to indicate that the poem is making direct comment on the issues that beset modern medicine rather than using this particular malaise to talk about something else. Of course, he may be doing both but I’m going to stick with medicine as medicine for the moment.

I’m now going to be very brave and launch into some kind of close reading of the above few lines in order to see if bits can be extracted and refined. The reason for choosing two separate passages is to test out what Prynne says in his Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems essay published in the CLR in 2010:

But in certain types of “difficult” poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.

This and the rest of the essay strike me as invaluable aids in dealing with this kind of material but then there’s a doubt for me about how many readers will be bothered to read the essays and the critical work on Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Herbert which demonstrate how this particular poet ‘does’ poetry. I’ve read these because I was already intrigued by the material and wanted to know more, as has also been the case with Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis. Is this what the charge of elitism is about? Should readers need just the words on the page to get the full picture? I don’t think this is necessarily exclusionary, a fan of Liverpool football club may read players’ autobiographies in order to get some context from what they pay to see. I don’t think that I’m unique in wanting to know more about what my favourite writers think about writing and I don’t feel that this is an elitist pursuit.

So, is there a “corridor of sense” running through the above? I think that there might be but it might be best to take things reasonably slowly.

Even hand bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. At first stare, ‘front’ is problematic because it’s difficult to see how it can be described as pharmaceutical. It took me a little while but it may be that ‘front’ may refer to a cover or disguise for something else- usually a criminal activity. In New York, the Mafia has used garbage collection to disguise its main lines of business. The OED reminds me that ‘pharmaceutical’ is a noun as well as an adjective and that this has been used since 1829 to indicate a “pharmaceutical preparation; a medicinal drug”. No, one of the many problems with the drug industry are the intertwined problems of neutrality and objectivity. Time after time the biggest drug companies have been fined for presenting skewed and partial information when selling there products. They’ve marketed anti-psychotics as a beneficial treatment for dementia without disclosing the very much increased risk of stroke and the average shortening of life by about five years. This is bolstered by the publication of clinical trial results that are hopelessly compromised by the fact that they are funded by the company producing the drug.

So ‘even hand’ might be read as ‘even handed’, fair, balanced, impartial and these qualities are used by drug companies as a front to disguise the complex and often contradictory realities of new therapies.

Even flatline glitz perfection. The OED fives glitz as “an extravagant but superficial display” which characterizes the way drug companies flog their wares. A flatline on a heart monitor would indicate that the heart has stopped beating but on other graphs and displays it indicates a stable or unchanging state with no variation. The Prynne ‘even’ always presents me with difficulties but on this occasion it may be the verb as in to make level or equal or to describe something that has these qualities. With regard to flatlining, drug companies are particularly good at selling products that don’t make a blind bit of difference. There is currently a bit of a furore in the UK because it has been noticed that £300 million was spent on tamiflu even though the evidence for its efficacy doesn’t exist.

Slope management. One of the very many joys of paying attention to Prynne and Hill is the amount of time that you get to spend with the OED. Looking at the ‘slope’ variations I’ve just come across its use as an adverb, deployed by Milton in PL as That bright beam, whose point now raisd Bore him slope downward to the Sun which is wonderful and is obviously in need of revivial. However, I don’t think that there’s any need to get too esoteric in this instance. I’m taking ‘slope’ as being the opposite of the flat line in the first poem and ‘management’ as a euphemism for manipulation. This works in both ways- drug companies produce results that emphasise the benefits whilst minimising the likely risks. Incidentally, I’m not of the view that Big Pharma is the incarnation of evil but I am concerned that our political masters simply fail to understand the issues involved from the nature of objective knowledge and the intertwined relationships between academic and commercial research and health providers. I’ll also admit to be morbidly fascinated by these folding and re-folding processes.

I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong here, especially as I can’t get to grips with “at onrush unpaired and less compact” but I don’t have any better points of reference at the moment.

Felt damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption. This might take a little while. I’m going to take ‘manupilate’ to have its common definition and worry instead about exemption. This particular noun refers to setting an individual or entity outside a particular rule or code. The most obvious example that springs into this small brain is the exemption of diplomats from parking tickets. So, a life exemption may be an exemption from something that lasts for life or an exemption from the rules that normally pertain to being alive. It seems, for example, that we are living much longer than any previous generation and that this may be credited to advances in medical practice and treatments. The other exemption from life that can be exercised is the ability of the individual to choose to curtail his or her existence. I’m not going to amplify the minefield signalled here by ‘ethic’ but wish to point out that medical ‘progress’ (loaded term) has prolonged life but in some cases has simply extended an already unbearable existence.

I hope the above points to how a ‘corridor of sense’ may be obtained. I know that this particular take may be very wide of the mark but at least it does begin to tease out some of those boundaries of relevance that Prynne refers to. In the rest of this week’s posts I hope to put more of his description to the test.

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:


ASHGLORY behind
your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
on
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).

Ash-
glory behind
you threeway 
hands.

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

Nobody
bears witness for the
witness.

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.

Marvell, Matthias, Sutherland and Information Quality

Not entirely sure where I’m going with this but I’ve come across the above notion which apparently is a growing field of study. It turns out that information quality is thought about in a matrix of different qualities and as soon as I saw these I thought it might be useful to think about The Odes to TL61P in these terms and see where we get to. I then had a closer look at these ‘metrics’ and decided that they wouldn’t fit this particular bill after all because they omit or confuse many of the aspects that I think about in poetry.

So, I’d like to start with what my own headings might look like. I need to emphasise that these qualities appear to me to be the ones I ‘apply’ in my reading this week and is entirely provisional, tentative and obviously subjective. In order to do this properly, I’m going to pay attention to three very different extracts from three poems that I’m reasonably familiar with and see where we get to: Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, John Mathias’ Laundry Lists and Manifestoes and Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P.

This is Marvell:


But most the hewel's wonders are
Who here has the holt-fester's care.
He walks still upright from the root,
Meas'ring the timber with his foot;
And all the way, to keep it clean,
Doth from the bark the woodmoths glean.
He, with his beak, examines well
Which fit to stand and which to fell.

The good he numbers up, and hacks;
As if he marked them with the axe
but where, tinkling with his beak,
Does find the hollow oak to speak,
That for his building he designs,
and through the tainted sign he mines.
Who could have thought the tallest oak
Should fall by such a feeble stroke!

Nor would it, had the tree not fed
A traitor worm, within it bred.
(As first our flesh corrupt within
Tempts ignorant and bashful Sin.)
And yet that worm triumphs not long
But serves to feed the hewel's young
While the oak seems to fall content,
Viewing the treason's punishment.

And this is Matthias:


           .....while on a promontory broken off
The screensaver image 0f an ancient SE10
Madame C's high cognates gather around boxes dropped
By Ever Afterlife Balloonists working on the script
Of Cargo Cults. They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all collaterals and cogs
Codes and codices for Mme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestoes which proclaim their faith in algorithms of an
Unkown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow.
They're coeternal, and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no story of their lives,their little trumpets blow.

And this is Sutherland:


The west Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with
a cabin; a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin
had England. Love gets saner, stained into the glass.
All countries must work together toward a mutual
resolution of currency imbalances, or risk war, says the
governor of the Bank of England, tasked with making
the genital stage of Godzilla inevitable; but he is
right, it's the answer Jesus would give if pressed; the
severance will yet amount to minus sweet fuck all.
Your job is to be at that orgy and to experience
maximum anxiety, write, and see what happens; it's not
a joke to say that you learn from that, except you
decline. Synergized to social fact, surplus grout of the
myriad equivalents; at the source I is screaming or am;
prolegomenon to an epigram. Smoke that shit. Yes.
Passion swings both ways, unfixed to be enlarged,
hungry for the majority of the earth, Robert's penis is a
surprise. In my tent, it is more pink than I am. I am 
more red or purple or brown. I had guessed, startling
me, but I sucked it anyway, not to go back; I think it
was an excruciation to him and a probably morally
significant embarrassment, because he never used it
against me when I started punching his face in on the 
couch that my mother pissed herself on; get it back;
why did I do that, smacking around with childish 
fists, deepening our wishes, blunting life in him and
me; and smack that miniscule nameless boy who merely
explained to me that my fantasy car for sale to him
could be given wheels, when I wanted it to be flat and 
just glide? The Victorian English had their more
innocent Green Zones in India, from which to peroroate
on the superiority of peace for trade; indiscreet to go
slaughtering around all over the place like the Russians
via the French and in any case very likely more
overheads to redemption. If sex is the price for that,
be it what you may; after all sex disappears anyway.

Verbal skill.

This is a broad category but, in my view, one of the things that poets do is to make words to a variety of different things at the same time, the words chosen shouldn’t ‘jar’ on the ear, should be precise whilst at the same time carrying a number of different contexts. There’s also the skill of putting words together, in whatever form that enhances both the sound of sense of what’s being written.

Taking Appleton House first, it seems to me that the words are taking us, almost by stealth, from the world of the wood to the world of politics. Unlike the others, Marvell is constrained by both rhyme and meter yet the lines proceed without that sing-song playground effect that seems to be present in too many poems of his period. Tinkle might be thought of as problematic but this is helped a little by the discovery that it can also mean ‘tingle’, especially with regard to the nose. The other concern might be the are/care rhyme in the first quoted verse and long/young in the last. It may well be that these could be credibly made to rhyme in the 17th century ( long/yong) but it still strikes me as clunky.

John Matthias is a superb technician who hardly ever puts a verbal foot wrong. I know this because I’ve been working with him to produced an annotated on-line version of his Trigons and that entire sequence is remarkable for its absence, with one very small exception, of clunk. It could be argued that I’m biased but this mastery is something I’d written about before John got in touch. The poem above is the last from the Laundry Lists sequence and these are the first lines that had me punching the air with delight precisely because of the verbal brilliance of the last line and this uncanny ability to use ordinary/conversational language to do very complex and intelligent things. As well as being a sucker for the great phrase (their tiny trumpets blow) I’m also of the view that poetry, if it’s about anything, is about a ‘mix’ of compression and precision. I have gone on at length about the last 6 and a half lines that conclude the sequence but I still feel the need to emphasise in terms of word-choice, syntax and phrasing how the very difficult to do properly is made to feel relaxed and easy.

Keston Sutherland is the most exciting British poet writing today but he isn’t without his annoyances and the most irritating of these is his tendency to throw in the obscure word or phrase which has always struck me as less than democratic- ‘prolegomenon’ and ‘perorate’ being the only offenders here. This aside, the above is utterly brilliant in that it manages to create a verbal flow that effortlessly takes us from wider public issues to the deeply personal and back again and achieves this by being both precise and economic with the words that are used. The way in which the sophisticated political analysis is smashed to bits by the extraordinary account of Keston as a child sucking off differently-coloured Robert is breathtaking, in the Prynne sense, and profoundly disturbing atleast to this particular reader. In terms of words, those used here are straightforward and clear we are not left in any doubt what is being said although the small and nameless boy at the end might carry some ambiguity. Incidentally, I’ve checked and ‘prolegomenon’ is a classical term for a written preface and I have to wonder whether ‘preface to an epigram’ is more democratic. As far as I can tell, we can reasonably use ‘declaim’ instead of ‘perorate’ and the same argument applies. I don’t find myself feeling the same about Matthias’ cognates because I can’t think of a more accessible substitute.

Tone

One of the surprising things about thinking in this way is that I’ve discovered or refined what seems to be important to me. I used to think of this as ‘voice’ but I now realise that this musical term seems to cover this better. I also realise that, most of the time, I’m attracted to and impressed by a mix of the clever and the playful. I’ll try to use these three extracts to think a bit more about what I mean.

Starting with the woodpecker’s journey through the wood. The first verse reads as a description of this progress and plays with language to create an ostensibly simple and pleasant scene. Things become much more serious by the end of the third verse which makes the subject matter very clear. The language sounds like an attractive melody but (cleverly) carries more than a little ‘bite’ it also conveys a degree of ambiguity which I find satisfying. The creation of these twelve lines of complexity seems quite improvised and conversational yet the ‘message’ is very serious indeed and refreshingly different in its use of play from other poetic efforts of the time.

I now see that it was this combination was what drew me in to Matthias’ work, in his longer work he clearly plays with language and conveys to the reader the pleasure that he takes in this. More so than with Marvell The above is a demonstration of the playfully clever in this pleasure and the verbal exuberance of the opening lines. The concluding image does many things given that the sequence as a whole is about our relationship to a sense of order and the ways in which we struggle with that. I hesitate to say this but “their little trumpets blow” is about as playfully clever as it gets.

Since i first came across his work, I’ve thought of Sutherland as essentially experimental even though he probably views himself as essentially political. The good thing about these experiments is that they mostly work. The beginning of this particular paragraph reads like the beginning of an earlyish Jon Zorn Riff, leaping from target to target at a rapid pace. Then you come across Godzilla’s genital stage which injects some humour into this depiction of Capital and Empire. The one-liners ooze (technical term) with cleverness and there’s clearly more than a little fun with words being had along the way. The most cleverly playful aspect is the insertion of the childhood confessions which tackles the wider theme of how the breaking of secrets can be a powerful and liberating political weapon.

Subject Matter.

I’m against political poems mostly because I find them too ‘viewy’ in the E Pound sense and I have more than enough views of my own. All of these poems ‘do’ politics but accomplish other things as well. Upon Appleton House encompasses landscape and the effects of natural forces, celebrates the life and achievements of his employer, Thomas Fairfax (all-round Civil War good guy) and presents this front row view of one of the most turbulent times in British history. It also does all these things very well indeed. I’m not that interested in the political aspects of the Civil War because I think we continue to give them far too much importance but I am fascinated by how poets responded to those events on either side of the ‘fence’. I am however fascinated by the interplay between the forces of the state and individual agency. Fairfax was on of the most prominent figures on the Roundhead side of the fence yet he was firmly opposed to the trial of Charles I, indeed on the first day of the trial his wife heckled from the gallery. So what Marvell seems to be playing with, as in his An Horatian Ode is the complexities involved in any political strategy/

Laundry Lists and Manifestoes is less obviously political but nevertheless plays along the manifesto / manifest / list and the way in which we ‘lean’ on lists as a kind of prop to calm our various neuroses. It’s not that lists are meaningless and arbitrary collations (as with Perec) but that they are inherently faulty in many kinds of ways. One of the very many clevernesses is that the sequence can itself be read as a long and overlapping list of proper nouns, so it’s a list of listists about lists. Of course, manifestoes are a central part of political life and they have there own frailties between ideology and electoral success.

Keston Sutherland is determinedly political and The Odes present a more considered analysis of the dismal workings of the state than his previous work but also makes use of his personal biography to make a more general but astute point about secrets and the liberating effect of exposing secrets.

One of the ‘big’ secrets of contemporary life is that children are sexual beings with sexual feelings. This isn’t in any way a defence for paedophilia but unleashing this particular secret does cast a lot of adult assumptions about notions of innocence and purity out of the window. In The Odes Sutherland describes in quite graphic detail his own childhood sexual preferences and desires and contrasts these with the desire of his parents to both prevent these being acted upon and to keep them hidden from the world. As well as disliking political poetry, I have a distinct loathing of what we now think of as confessional work so I should really hate this particular mix but it is saved by the strength of the analysis and the wider implications of the confession. I think.

There’s also the issue of wider appeal, we all live under the rule and by the rules of the state, we’re currently watching a couple of states looking increasingly fragile from internal strife and one that has gone beyond the point of self-destruction. We all make lists, nobody is free from the deep need to impose order on the world around us and this takes the form a list of nouns interspersed with a list of their ‘connectors’. We all have a personal manifesto which, whether conscious or not, guides our behaviour. Mine is poorly articulated notion of integrity that contains all of the qualities that I aspire to and it’s there because my previous behaviours have refined down those moral traits that make sense to me. There have been other lists, the clearest being the set of tasks that needed to be done in order to gain as much money in as short a time as possible. Everybody should think more about lists in a much more critical and sceptical manner- Matthias’s sequence prods us into doing that very thing. In a similar fashion we all need to confront our most hidden and awkward secrets and the lies that we tell ourselves about them. It now seems to me absurd that we deny in ourselves what we know to be true and incorporate that denial into our view of the world. Keston’s choice of secret is perhaps extreme but there are many, many others, the way that we deny our racism, our material greed and what Foucault almost described once as the fascist within.

Pointfulness

I read a lot of poetry and I’ve noticed a new demarcation in addition to honest / dishonest line and it’s to do with futility. It seems to me that the vast majority of published work on both sides of the Atlantic is utterly pointless, it makes no positive cultural contribution and is staggeringly complacent even as it glides into its own irrelevance. I’m not going to name names but it does take a lot for work to rise above this dismal morass. None of these three are complacent, the poets involved a clearly challenging themselves to produce work that challenges the staus quo and move things forward in a positive direction. I accept that Marvell’s being dead for a long, long time but nobody yet has picked up the gauntlet that he laid down.

In conclusion, I’m discovering a growing number of components that make up my idea of quality and it is making me read familiar work in new and fascinating eays. I wonder if others have their own readerly criteria…?

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
pore.

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.

Keston Sutherland’s Under the Mattress

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

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

This dismal state of affairs is captured thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keston Sutherland: the Dot Investigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

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

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

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

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

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:


VI
    
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.

VII

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:

                         I
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.

Keston Sutherland’s dot

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Stumbling over David Jones

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The note for this is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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