Category Archives: poetics

The Offside Rule and the unrelated(ish) Emily Dickinson Problem

I’m still in the process of updating, rewriting and polishing arduity. This week two problems have come to light that I thought I’d share.

Some time ago another site likened arduity to an attempt to explain the offside rule in soccer. To those who don’t know, the application of this rule causes immense amounts of angst and debate amongst fans but is a complete mystery to everyone else on the planet. I thought about this observation and decided that it wasn’t a bad analogy in that the mystification and the various nuances of technique are rough equivalents. I’d made pages on various tricks of the trade and had brief attempts at explaining the various isms but then decided that I’d rather illustrate various tropes rather than explaining them. Having reviewed the current content I think I’ve done this reasonably well but there isn’t a page that gives you an overview of the knowledge that might be useful. Some of the current links in the sidebar are misleading, the ‘difficult definitions’ link currently leads to a brilliantly incisive but completely unnecessary discussion of Heidegger, Hill and Derrida whereas what is needed is some examples of the difficult and the undifficult. I’ve decided to have a ‘nuts and bolts’ page that gives the briefest of overviews of a few key terms and suggesting some other resources that will provide more detail/context.

The selection of key terms is proving trickier than expected, I’m having problems with deciding whether to go back to basics (rhyme, meter, forms etc) or whether to deal instead with the things that are features of the difficult. In #1.5 I had thrown out most of the stuff that seemed superfluous and retained allusion, ambiguity, meaning, obscurity and the definition page. I’ve now decided to ‘do’ rhyme and meter as well but to link to Spenser and quote Jarvis as examples. I don’t think I need a definition for obscurity but can point these out when attending to particular poems. I also think that I should put a brief example in each definition and I dither between these two points. Frequently.

There’s also my personal concerns and interests. Following some comments about wrongness and readerly attention from Keston Sutherland, I seem to have developed these two into part of the writing that goes on here. It might therefore be as well to expand on these two a little more, especially as my idea of wrongness differs from Keston’s essay. There’s also the desire to say something about honesty as a quality that (in my view) not enough people think about when attending to the Poem. This would however involve giving examples of dishonesty which would involve writing about material that I actively dislike (later Eliot, most of Larkin, Burnside etc) which is something I try v hard not to do. The final element that I might need to develop is that of ‘clunkiness’ – this is usually part of a poem that either falls flat or doesn’t do what it’s trying to do.

We now come to the Emily Dickinson problem. This comes in two parts:

  1. I’m only just beginning to pay attention to the work;
  2. The poems don’t appear to ‘fit’ with the arduity remit;
  3. Dickinson appears to be admired by people that I don’t admire.

The last of these merely illustrates just how shallow this blog can be but I do have to acknowledge that this is more than a bit of a problem. As a further example, I don’t like the dishonesty at the heart of Sylvia Plath’s work but this is compounded by the nature and tone of her admirers.

The lack of ‘fit’ has shaken up my view of what difficult might be, I was prodded into looking at the work by Prynne’s comment from Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” poems:

It is worth pointing out that difficult ideas in poems are not always
expressed in language that is also difficult; for example, William Blake
in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience draws on language of almost
child-like simplicity and yet his thought is sometimes profound and
obscure. Emily Dickinson’s language is also mostly not difficult.

I’d decided many moons ago that I’m not going to tackle Blake but I’d decided to leave a decision on Dickinson until later. Whar spurred into attention was the strangeness of the last sentence and what we may be supposed to infer from ‘mostly not’. Thus prodded I went to the new Foyles and bought the Faber Complete. I haven’t as of yet done an end-to-end attentive reading but I’ve read enough to know that she may be the best ‘wrong’ poet in the language.

The poems are wrong because they don’t play by the rules, the don’t seem to bothered whether they work or not- and we haven’t yet got to the envelopes. Here’s all of Poem 599 in the Collected:


     There is a pain so - utter - 
     It swallows substance up -
     Then covers the Abyss with Trance-
     So Memory can step
     Around - across - upon it-
     As one within a Swoon - 
     Goes safely - where an open eye - 
     Would drop Him - Bone by Bone
     
   

The first two lines are very good indeed, the ‘utterness’ of pain that swallows up / megates all aspects of materiality but we then get to the Abyss which is one of the most loaded nouns that we have except that in this instance it gets subsumed by Trance which would appear to provide a distraction from the memory of this pain. The analogy is then made between ‘Swoon’ and ‘Trance’, the first of these providing some kind of safe passage whereas being awake would result in ‘Him’ being dropped into the abyss in a quite gruesome manner. None of this should work, it’s too disjointed, the use of capital letters seems unduly mannered and we’re left wondering whether ‘Him’ is Christ or just another hapless soul afflicted by this kind of pain. A ‘swoon’ is a fainting fit usually (in the 19th century) brough about by some excess of emotion. In the interest of a better understanding I’ve looked at the examples that the OED gives of and have discovered this from Elizabeth Barrett Browning from four or five years before 599 was composed: ” As one in swoon, To whom life creeps back in the form of death”.

There is a sense about the powers of the trance which has been used down the centuries as a way of making pain bearable. We’ve now discovered that our brains can obliterate memories of events of extreme trauma or pain. So there is some sense going on but there is also the last line which doesn’t seem to belong to what’s gone before. ‘Bone by Bone’ would seem to imply a body that has already been picked clean in some way but surely the noun is usually either ‘cast’ or ‘thrown’ or ‘flung’but not ‘dropped’ which seems much to casual for such an act

At this point I’d normally walk away but there is a tone that I find absolutely compelling (and wrong).

: “

arduity makeover: the poetics problem the verb dilemma and revising Prynne

I’ve mentioned before that I’m in the process of updating and revising arduity. This is primarily because it’s outgrown its original architecture, the amount of pages was beginning to interfere with the ease of navigation and there are some sections that I want to expand and others I need to dump.

For reference, the Prynne index page has been revised and re-formatted

Given that I still want the site to be helpful to readers, the biggest overhaul required is the ‘toolkit’ section which was intended to provide site users with some insight into the various conceits and devices used by some of our more adventurous practitioners. That seemed reasonable at the time but it doesn’t quite fit the bill now.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that ‘poetics’ does fit the bill but may deter a sizeable proportion of the target audience who may be intimidated by such a tag. I know that six or seven years ago I wouldn’t have clicked on a ‘poetics’ link because I wasn’t sure of what it meant and therefore would feel that the site wasn’t for me and was probably aimed at students and academics rather than ‘ordinary’ readers.

In view of the above, I’ve come up with a few alternatives. The first of these is ‘the tricks of the trade’ which has more than a little appeal for me because it’s a common term and ‘trick’ covers the various devices or conceits that poem-makers use to create a certain effect. The term as a whole implies a certain amount of duplicity or deception. I’m also fond of the tongue-in-cheek aspect which might imply there’s an attempt to vaguely ‘clown’ the subject. Six or seven years ago I would have been attracted rather than intimidated by such a tag.

The next noun that has been considered is ‘techniques’ or ‘poetic techniques’ which appears to sit midway between these two. My concern here is that it doesn’t ‘cover’ enough of what I think needs to go in. some of the sleights of hand, for example, would include making things sound more profound than they are or the various shades of plagiarism which, along with others seem to be more deceit than technique.

Given that the new header is a photo of a number of books and an adjustable wrench then ‘nuts and bolts’ seems less scurrilous than ‘tricks’ and I don’t think I need ‘poetic’ front of it. All of this is tentative and provisional but I’d be keen to hear from anyone with other suggestions.

If it’s any help I’d like to cover rhyme, metre, ambiguity, allusion, translation, subjects, god poems, truth poems, meaning, language, digression and more than a few others in a similar vein.

The next problem relates to the verbs. I’m reasonably comfortable with ‘paying attention’ because it’s one I over-use but it does echo Celan and Sutherland and it conveys the basic theme- read the fucking words. The real brain grinder of the past few days has been the verb for innovative work. The first solution ‘exploring’ seemed incredibly weak and the sort of thing you would find on a school curriculum. At this point I discovered ‘undergroping’ which was in common use in the 15th century and became immediately enthusiastic but was then discouraged by those more sensible than I. ‘Investigating’ and ‘tackling’ both fell by the wayside because of the wider connotations. ‘Interrogating’ was quite popular for a couple of hours and maqy have been the choice were it not for the repetition of ‘in’.

The current winner is ‘negotiating’ because it implies a dialogue with the work definition 4 in the OED is”To find a way through, round, or over (an obstacle, a difficult path, etc.)” which seems to capture the intent. I’ve also settled on ‘innovation’ rather than ‘innovative work’ or ‘innovative poetry’ because both seem too much of a mouthful and I already have ‘the Difficult’ poem in the header.

I’ve revised the text on the new page as well and am pleased to report that I still agree with most of it but I’m now in the process of reading some of the work to see if there’s any more points that might be useful. I’m currently thinking about relegating the point about the OED and secondary definitions to the middle of the list because. I’m told, some people decide that this means that the work isn’t worth the bother.

One of the points that I’ve been trying to make since 2010 is the effect that Prynne’s work has on the way that I think. I’ve tried a variety of metaphors and provided examples but I still don’t think I’ve got it right. I want to say something about altered cognition but in a much more specific way. Have been tempted to use the LSD analogy but haven’t given in. Yet.

I’ve added something about the nature of language which seems reasonably central and am thinking of scaring a few more people off by encouraging the need for a panoptic view of a particular poem or sequence. As with the noun and the verb, any suggestions as to how to make this (quite important) page more helpful would be very much appreciated.

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

Geoffrey Hill, mysticism and Gabriel Marcel

I’m currently paying attention to Expostulations on the Volcano, a new sequence which makes its first appearance in Hill’s Collected and it appears to contain a more direct exploration of the spiritual and mystical Hill.

Mysticism covers a great multitude of beliefs and activites, previously Hill has wondered out loud about the nature of Spirit and less about the workings of Grace. Expostulations sees him becoming increasingly involved in a particular aspect of the Kabbalah tradition, the Qiphloth. This is Poem 13:

What am I hymning that is not absurd?
I have reworked the least of me twelve times
For Cabbalistic humours, for the dead,
Buoyed by the storm music from Peter Grimes;

Fancying myself as a storm-petrel 
With excellent reflexes and at ease
In the burly element I patrol;
Tempted by instinct's sinew to be wise.

There would be scandal. Let me off my hook
Of retrospection; say I was not caught
By what I feared: one mere untimely look;
It is not nature's way to be distraught.

The Secrets of Creative Elements
Are not creation; nor do they vault forth
Loved-clown-like, but, to exorbitant wants,
Protract and retract themselves, mould Qliphoth.

As to these pots, frost-broken, white, exposed
Roots, tendrils, pebbles. In a mouldered cake,
Some would still argue: have the mass composted
For as long as deconstruction may take.

I’ve chosen the above because it seems to be at least a partial summary of the current state / condition of Hillian thinking and belief. Before I proceed, I need to point out that my only knowledge of things mystical is due to reading Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism some years ago and forgetting most of it, apart from Plotinus, shortly thereafter. My woes are further compounded by there being a whole range of spellings and definitions for Qliphoth on the interweb so I’m only able to offer my very wobbly grasp on things. In this particular tradition there is a Tree of Life which is a good thing made up of other good things. Qliphtoth is figured by some to be the bark of the tree and by others to be the shell of the nut produced by the tree and is a Very Bad Thing Indeed (evil). Some people apparently think that the Qlippoth is evil because it has been given an over-abundance of good/holiness.

Rather than undertake the usual bebrowed dissection, I think I want to consider the poem in total. What seems to be going on is the fretting over this retrospective hook and the drawing of a couple of conclusions, which may or may not be provisional.

The open. The next aspect is the numbers ‘game’ once we’ve got over the for/four pun, the four being: blood, phlegm, choler, and so-called melancholy or black bile which are in turn associated with hotness, dryness, coldness and moistness all of which were. for about two thousand years, thought to be the most reliable / unly indicators of health. Twelve is more of a problem, according to my brief skim through Major Trends the Tree has only ten components. I like the idea that, prior to the publication of the Day books there were twelve published books of verse. Of course, I want it to refer to the work because that kind of ties in with the end of the poem which is probably trying to say too many thing at once. The ‘reworking the least of me is nearly as good as ‘a sad and angry consolation’, Hill’s definition proffered at the end of The Triumph of Love and will now be used my me to describe my own meanderings. Or it could refer to the months of the years, the signs of the zodiac, the amount of pennies in a shilling and many other things besides.

Being me, I like the ‘exorbitant wants’ partly because it’s the kind of conjuring that his detractors hate but also because it shows the strength in depth that Hill still retains in re-working the language that we hold in common. I talked about clowns and clowning last time and was going to skim over it here but he might be saying something (in retrospect) about the light-comedy entertainer that Hill has, on occasion, aspired to be. A whole range of clown-related cliches come to mind but I do want to get on to the role of evil here and these broken pots and detritus.

Time for another confession, I first cam across Gabriel Marcel in A Precis or Memorandum of Civil Power in the A Treatise of Civil Power which was published in 2007. I found out from the interweb that he was a Christian existentialist and I left it at that. This was a mistake because, with the assistance of the increasingly impressive Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I’ve found a few things that slip almost neatly into what appears to be Hill’s current world view:

  • the world is broken and it may always have been broken but it is made more broken by historical events;
  • this brokenness is best characterised in the contemporary world in the refusal, or inability, to reflect or to imagine and the denial of the transcendent;
  • this is largely because we have prioritised and technology and this leads us to despair because it has no answer to the ‘bigger’ questions about the philosophical truths:
  • we still have a need for transcendence because we feel a degree of dissatisfaction which stems from this functional way of living;
  • with regard to transendence itself, Marcel has: “There is an order where the subject finds himself in the presence of something entirely beyond his grasp. I would add that if the word “transcendent” has any meaning it is here—it designates the absolute, unbridgeable chasm yawning between the subject and being, insofar as being evades every attempt to pin it down”;
  • Marcel makes a distinction between problem and mystery in that problems can be resolved by technique whereas a mystery is a “problem that encroaches on its own data” such as the relationship between body and soul, the nature of evil, freedom and love.

I’ll readily confess to tearing all of this out of context to suit my own purposes but, as a means of justification, I’d like to use the first few lines from part I of A Precis:

Could so have managed not to be flinging
down this challenge.
True way is homeless but the better gods
go with the house. Cogito a bare
threshold as G Marcel sagely declares,
of what's valid.
Come round to the idea, even so
belated and knock. Echo the answer
in spare strophes that yield almost nothing
to the knowledge
outside them raw with late wisdom.

Now, might this be a precis of the above lines of thought? Might this reveal a late acceptance of said line? Are the Day Books in part a working through of this acceptance? I, of course want to answer all of these in the affirmative because Hill’s disdain for the functional in this broken world does seem in the later work to march in step with an exploration of the transcendent.

Of cause this is tentative, subjective and provisional. I know I read something recently about Hill’s view of the relationship between the political and the mystical, once I’ve dug it out I may well change my mind. I am however particularly fond of these spare strophes that are said to be raw with late wisdom. Wonderful.

Geoffrey Hill’s Expostulations on the Volcano and the Poetic

The one quality that I share with the immortal William Cobbett is that I’m not in the least bothered by inconsistency. I think it’s important for people to change their minds and this is why I preface most of the writing here with a ‘provisional’ and ‘tentative’ disclaimer. I have to report that whilst sunbathing this afternoon (newly discovered pastime), I started on the above sequence with the intention of paying it some attention instead of my previous dive-by reading.

A couple of years ago I went on at some length about how irredeemably bad the Oraclau collection was because it’s rhymes were both forced and wrong-footed. In fact I thought it was so bad that it shouldn’t have been published, even though Hill has a line somewhere vowing to make his readers wince. I’d now like to retract this and confess my prior knee-jerk and unwarranted prejudice.

Up until now, I thought that Sir Geoffrey and I agreed on one fundamental point: the teaching of creative writing is a Very Bad Thing indeed. I now discover that we may agree on the Poetry problem. More than ever I have to state that what follows is exceptionally tentative and subjective and heavily influenced by my tendency to over-read when someone appears to agree with me.

A central plank of the Bebrowed position re the Poem is that it has for centuries been far too poetic, far too in love with its own lyrical flow. I’ve made this argument before and no doubt will do so again but today’s speculation is whether Hill might (approximately) agree.

I have several items of evidence, each with specific flaws but, like a good conspiracy theorist, this isn’t going to get in my way. I have to admit that I’ve only just started to pay attention to Expostulation having previously flicked through it, alighting on poems that caught my eye. This was a mistake, I should have remembered that it isn’t helpful to read Hill in a piecemeal way. I’ve now started at the beginning and have noticed that ‘themes’ keep recurring and being expanded upon. One of these is the nature of The Poem. This is the end of the seventh poem in the sequence:

In stark of which, demand stands shiftless. Words
Render us callous the fuller they ring;
Stagger the more clankingly untowards;
Hauled to finesse in all manner of wrong:

Which is how change finds for us, long-lost one.
Oratory is pleading but not pledge;
Such haphazard closures of misfortune
Played by commandment on mechanic stage.

There are several things that I want to pull out from this. The first is this fuller ringing that render us callous. Words that ring in this way might be read as overly ornate or used for effect rather than content. It would therefore seem that this is a reasonable piece of evidence until we start to wonder about who ‘us’ might be. As with The Triumph of Love’s view of poetry as a “sad and angry consolation” it is unclear whether this refers to the readers or the poets, or both. With regard to this passage I’m currently voting for the poets because the poetic bag of tricks can be used with great cynicism and more than a little dishonesty, I believe that this ‘fits’ better with the finessing of all manner of wrong.

The second verse’s assertion about oratory is another, perhaps more tenuous, piece of evidence that I’d like to rely on. The pleading / pledging juxtaposition is worth some thought. I’m currently reading this to indicate that ‘strong’ poetry involves the commitment of the self to something, almost a formal commitment whereas the oratorical flummery that makes up most of The Poem is an act of persuasion rather than a statement of fealty.

My third piece of evidence is one of the sequences two dedications, it is Kate Lechmere’s 1914 observation of Pound reading aloud: “Such a voice seemed to clown verse rather than read it”. Now, clowning has been a strong element in much of Hill’s work since The Triumph of Love and my re-consideration of the Oraclau sequence is because it may be an extended clowning with a more serious purpose. This may be to undermine the poetic and the tricks that it has by producing bad poems with even worse rhymes. Incidentally, I think it might be urgently essential to get the clown back into The Poem.

My penultimate item is this from the end of Poem 9:

Justice is song where song is primitive 
As with poetics. Elsewhere more complex
Denouements, if folly can stay alive;
Innocence, if machination strum lax.

I’m not going to dive into the Hillian syntax of the last two lines but simply point to the observation that justice is song where The Poem is primitive i.e. before it got carried away with itself. There’s also something here about the honesty of the primitive poem. Isn’t there?

My final link comes from Hill’s introduction to his Annunciations which was published in the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse from 1962:

I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (the banquet) that it seems to be.

What I say in the section is, I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.

So, a degree of consistency, if I’m correct, going back over fifty years. I hope that the above has established a hint, if nothing more, of a sincere attempt to upturn at least part of the status quo, to make us wince (as he says elsewhere) in order to push us out of inertia, dumb acceptance, complacency. I do however need to have another look at Oraclau.

Paxman, Popular Culture and The Poem

In the UK we have a number of national treasures and Jeremy Paxman is one of these. He fronts the BBC Newsnight programme which tries to delve a bit deeper into the stories that politicians spoon feed lazy journalists with. We love Paxo because his interviews of the powerful are a mixture of disbelief and contempt: the humbling of the mighty is always good to watch.

Paxo has become the news this week with the stunning and prescient observation that poetry has lost touch with the public, that it is as remote from popular culture as it is possible to be. This is the gist of his argument as reported in the Grauniad:

“I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn’t happen, because it’s the most delightful thing,” said Paxman. “It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.”

He is of course correct, it’s a view that I’ve been known to express over the last four years and have made arduity as an attempt to bridge at least one of the gaps.

Ten years ago I would have pointed at the material that is currently produced as the main problem with work too often being chronically self-indulgent or inaccessible or both. I’m no longer entirely of that view but the problem is real, the same article reports a drop in the value of UK poetry sales from £8.4 million in 2009 to £7.8 million in 2013 yet the response of those poets quoted is largely one of denial.

I’d like to start with some basics; poetry in the UK is enclosed, it has conversations with itself and argues about things that nobody outside of poetry either relates to or cares about; poetry covers a wide spectrum with a variety of styles, genres and subject matter but most of it isn’t very good; poetry’s relationship with academia is not helpful.

There are comparisons to be made, fiction and music do remarkably well and both of these range from the ‘popular’ to the (much) more esoteric. Poetry does the same but very few people care about the Poem compared with those that care about either music or fiction. Unlike these two competitors, there are many more people that write poetry than those who read it.

I’d like to pay some attention to Paxo’s charge of irrelevance because I don’t understand the ‘leap’ from being incestuous and self-obsessed to relevance. At the ‘radical’ end of the spectrum there is certainly material that is pertains to and engages with most aspects of public life. Of course, the ‘message’ emanating from this material may not readily fit into what appears to be the current consensus but it certainly challenges the status quo. So, the material is relevant but some of the most relevant is wrapped up in vocabularies and formats that most people find challenging. Without naming any names it must also be said that most of the mainstream poems and poets (ie those that attract the ‘quality’ press and get awarded prizes) are appallingly bad in terms of skill, subject matter and relevance. There is still too much of the confessional and the observational and little or nothing that gives me any indication at all of what it might be like to live and act in these dismal times.

Then there’s the issue of what we want the Poem to do, a question that is clouded by the Image Problem. A recent and entirely random poll conducted by this blog would suggest that poetry either:

  • expresses strong eomotions or;
  • describes lyrical scenes or;
  • is profound

I must stress that this poll was less than objective and only involved about ten individuals but most people felt that the Poem had lost its way with Eliot and what they see as the descent into obscurity and inaccessible elitism.

Also, in my small part of the world, the only venue for poetry has been an open mic event attended exclusively by poets who read their material. I attended for a couple of years and then decided to produce a few gigs last year that featured a mix of poetry, music, storytelling and elements of the visual arts. We attracted a mixed crowd and managed to change some people’s minds about the Poem. As regular readers might know, most of my output is experimental but I was gratified by the strength of response and by the subsequent interest that was shown, especially from music fans. What surprised me was how the best reaction was to the most experimental aspect of my work rather than material that I considered to be more accessible.

For me, the best result from this is that I’ve been able to broaden my range of collaborators and now work primarily with visual artists, musicians and writers of fiction. I’ve found that I get a much more objective reaction to my work. One evening earlier this week I was working on mixing some multiple vocal / jazz material with a composer and he made the (gentle) observation that my more recent contribution wasn’t as strong as some of the earlier versions. In the past I would probably dismissed this as the response of a non-poet who didn’t fully appreciate the poetic subtlety of what I’m trying to achieve. In this instance, because he wants to make this ‘work’ as much as I do, I reviewed my various versions and am now in the process of radical modification- I need to do this quickly because I’m working with a guitarist tomorrow evening.

So, performance alongside other means of creative expression and collaboration with practitioners in different fields may be a couple of ways of addressing the Paxo challenge in terms of engagement and relevance. It can’t do any harm. Can it?

The Allegory by the Pool.

John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.

Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.

So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.

I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.

As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.

Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.

This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.

On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.

Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.

In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;

I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate
And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Do work their owne perfection so by fate.

This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.

As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.

Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.

Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.

I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:

I will not say that I am a device.
The semicircle where my heavy lyre
gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice;
tall poplars to the right; one may admire
how in the distance that dome can entice
from its squat cupola to the entire
warehouse of print on which the state has fed
its house of authorships, its empty head.

Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.

The Extended Claudius App Fortnight: Amy De’Ath and Cecilia Corrigan.

This might be quite uncomfortable. This conversation between Amy and Cecilia relates to gender politics at the radical end of the poetry spectrum.

The main thrust of the dialogue is that radical poetry on both sides of the Atlantic is centred around a fairly exclusive grouping that omits feminist issues. I want to think about this point made by Amy:

What I’m taking issue with here is not Keston’s work — but with a whole gestural economy that’s both historical and casually social, an economy that always ensures the white men are at the top of the pile, they are the authority, they are the ones who so often define the terms of the debate.

I am of course ripping this out of the context of a more detailed and nuanced conversation but I think it gets to the nub of the problem. Now, I’m a white male who writes about this kind of poetry and I mostly write about men. I don’t feel that I’m at the top of any ‘pile’ but I do recognise that I am part of the problem. I also recognise the accuracy of the above and would like to spend some time trying to work out why this might be the case.

The first point is that poetry has always been dominated by men and men will always be reluctant to participate in their own downfall. The second is that ‘radical’ poetry is mostly leftist/marxian poetry concerned primarily with class and less about gender (or anything else). The final factor is that poetry is currently in a ghetto and radical poetry is an enclave within that ghetto and this breeds a special kind of neuroses that feeds into the gestural economy referred to above.

Thinking my own contribution to this travesty through, I recall reading something by James Baldwin which forcefully and convincingly pointed out that the white man can/must say nothing about racism because (paraphrase) any words, no matter how well-intentioned, would define the terms of the debate. So, as the oppressor I can’t speak up for those that I oppress. What I can do is to try to live a life that does not perpetuate the misogyny that still rules this side of the gender fence. However, it would be dishonest of me to write about women poets just to even up the balance.

That doesn’t explain why I’ve written much (much) more about Prynne, Celan and Hill than Vanessa Place who I would rank alongside all three of these in terms of importance. Nor does it explain why I’ve written next to nothing about Elizabeth Bishop. So perhaps I should redress this balance. In terms of other kinds of identity issues, I haven’t written anything at all about black poets, which is primarily due to not reading their work. Thinking this through, the prevalence of mental illness in all things Poetry does mean that I don’t experience anywhere near the kind oppression that I do on other areas of my life.

I don’t think I should do the hand wringing liberal thing and plead guilty as charged and leave it at that because I don’t find that productive. I’m very keen on all of us at this end of the spectrum acknowledge, as Cecilia says, the instability of our critical position, I’d also add that the best kind of poetry works from a standpoint that is unstable and transient. I don’t think this is necessarily a relativist position but I am of the view that we need to interrogate our individual certainties a bit more.

In addition to identity oppressions, there’s a couple that I’d like to throw into the pot. Most of this material springs from the middle and lower middle classes and suffers from acadamefication, ie the product of a certain kind of economic position together with a certain level of educational attainment. This isn’t a marxian argument but leans heavily on Bourdieu who demonstrated convincingly the way in which our cultural existences are wrapped up in the prevailing economic order. The role of the academy is as a primary instrument of control and pacification and the small and marginal world of radical poetry can be experienced / read as an extension of that process. I’m tempted to suggest that the avant garde never went to college but instead will be content to observe that, since about 1915, this particular position has been quickly and painlessly malappropriated by established practice and the economic order.

I’m not suggesting that any of these aspects are fixable but I do think that we need to talk about them and find our own ways to respond. Most of us could benefit from following Cecilia in making a poetic that’s ‘legible’ outside of the confines of this particular box. Acknowledging our mutual instabilities might help too.

Claudius App Fortnight: Dionysus Crucified, Derivation and Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudius App Fortnight: Dionysus Crucified, Part the First

Thanks to the innovative and eminently usable design of the App, I hadn’t realised that the above reading was part of issue five until last week which is a pity because Dionysus benefits from being listened to as well as read. I have a lot to say about this so will attempt a slice at a time rather than the whole lot in one go.

I’ve written about DC before when it was published in 2011 but in the past I’ve probably dwelt too much on the poem’s visual aspects and not enough about what the poem says. Dionysus is a multi-layered figure in myth and literature. He is primarily known now as the god of wine and is thus associated with all kinds of unbridled pleasure seeking. There are many Greek myths about him and a play. The Bacchae by Euripides which informs much of the poem.

In addition, more than a few scholars have noted have noted that there are some similarities with Christ and this is extended in DC. This multi-facected god occurs in a variety of guises throughout European literature, my personal favourite is as Comus in Milton’s A Masque Performed at Ludlow Castle which pits the god of revels and licentiousness against the figure of chastity.

One of the things that I did notice about the poem, from its format and subtitle (Choral Lyric for Two Soloists and a Messenger) was that it had the potential for being read by multiple voices and this recording confirms that but in surprising ways.

Dionysus returns to Thebes in order to gain revenge on behalf of his mother who the King (Pentheus) and the women of Thebes had refused to believe that she had been impregnated by Zeus. Needless to say, Pentheus meets a bloody end at the hands of the female followers of Dionysus, one of whom is the king’s own mother.

Before we get any further it’s important to say that DC is involved with contemporary concerns and problems rather than an ‘updated’ piece of Greek literature. The other item of interest is that, in print, these lines are very long indeed. After much internal debate, it has been decided that we’re going to retain line length at the expense of readerly ease so you will have to scroll to the right for some of what follows. Sorry.

After the sound effects (which are absent from the printed poem) things start with an introduction from Dionysus who wastes no time at all in announcing himself:

I to the land of THEBES DIONYSUS son of ZEUS have come have come and son of daughter of KADMOS SEMELE have come too borne of divine fire:
   I from a nylon jacket announce recombinance because it is unreasonable that my skin not also learn to survive in plastic consciousness of objecthood
So when I in congealed oil products may orange it to the top at the derived traffic island or at some other holy place as though some beacon were lit

Now, I’ve complained before about poems that are read indistinctly and or at too fast a pace but here the enunciation is clear and the pacing seems about right but there are still three words that the first or second time listener is going to have problems with: ‘recombinance’, ‘objecthood’ and ‘orange’- although the last of these is due to its use as a verb. Now, I think all poetry should (must) be read aloud to other people and spent most of last year doing that very thing to a variety of non-poetry audiences. The dilemma for me is how best to convey all the content of a poem without becoming Very Ponderous Indeed. I don’t know the answer to this but I do know that it’s a problem especially for first-time readers who don’t have the text and are simply scrolling through a number of sound files to locate anything of interest. It could be argued that this applies to most half-way decent work but the Jarvis Project is strategically important in all kinds of ways and needs to get the widest audience possible.

As can be heard, Simon Jarvis does not ‘do’ straightforward points, the house style is much more of digression, as if to wring every last point out of a sentence and yet this recording doesn’t (somehow) require the level of attention that is needed for print. It still does need serious and sustained attention, not because of the subject matter but because of what it does to poetry as a ‘form’ by which I think I mean that DC is reasonably unique in what it does and it does it with aplomb.

Prynne talks of the ability of late modernist poetry to surprise and startle and this is at work here in the use of words and in the oddness that is the derived traffic island as well as the ‘classical’ opening line followed immediately by the nylon jacket and the congealed oil products. The use of ‘orange’ as a verb might tie in with the colour of the jacket but I don’t think listeners will have time to think this through in the course of a reading but giving a performed impression of the content may be what’s going on here.

Justin Katkow’s reading of the opening speech contains a few stumbles but also changes one of the words, the inner dish which first displayed it becomes the inner dish which first deployed it which significantly changes the meaning of the line. Therefore I, as a Jarvis completist, need to ask whether this is deliberate or accidental and, if the former, why was such a significant change made after publication?

Following the speech things move on with 4 verses from what I assume to be the choric element referred to in the subtitle. I need to declare a personal interest in this, I’ve been working creatively with multiple voice performances for the past couple of years and am therefore intrigued by how others do it.

I’m not trying to achieve what I think is being attempted in DC but I am concerned with the blurring of coherence and the power of repetition. I’m also playing with the plain speech / polyphony / cacophony continuum and the different ways in which these make ‘sense’ to an audience. In my reading of the poem, I hadn’t reckoned on these verses being read by two voices with a slight delay. This increases the power or strength of what’s being read but loses some of the clarity that one voice provides. If it was me I’d be tempted to double the delay interval and bring more of a contrast between the voices- probably with the use of a female voice as the ‘follower’. This is a minor quibble, for years I’ve been convinced that the use of multiple voices at the same time provides a much wider and more productive dimension to The Poem and this kind of example goes some way to vindicating that view.

I want to spend much more of the second part of this to the other uses of two voices in Dionysus so I won’t dwell on them here except to note that these four verses are far from simple and to perform them in this way is indicative of the ambition and absence of compromise in the Jarvis Project.