Category Archives: political science

Simon Jarvis and spirits and counter-fictions.

This is the third and final attempt to get my small brain around ‘Lessons and Carols’ from last year’s ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. There is no guarantee that I’ll get to the bottom of this remarkable poem in terms of all that it has to say but it’s probably time to move on. What follows, as ever, is entirely provisional and I reserve the right to change my mind.

I occasionally get brief flashes of recognition or (even) insight into what things might be trying to say but I need to be careful because these often lead me into imposing the meanings that I may agree with rather than what is actually there. As I finished the second piece on this poem such a flash flickered across my brain and it’s still lingering around , it relates to these lines:


  knowing at once in these spiritual tunes the sound of what comes
straight from the other world, straight from enchantment and straight
  from the terrible kingdom of non-love, of freedom and absence and longing,
so do these presents stand vigilant there at the window.

The spirits are fictions, the gifts are their counter-fictions.

The flicker was sparked by the vigilance of the presents which took me into social policy mode. I spent far too many years of my professional life dealing with aspects of the British underclass and was very aware that the main function of this group is to act as central plank of social control. One of the main reasons that we economically conform and play the material/status game is that we don’t want to fall into the chaotic and seemingly cursed world of the Undeserving Poor. The other aspect of crass materialism is that we use objects to reassure ourselves and others that we are far removed from that kind of deprivation.

So, I’m provisionally reading this kingdom of non-love as the sink estates where these difficult and dangerous souls eke out a hand-to-mouth existence and the vigilant presents as fictive or illusory guards against falling into this realm of freedom and absence and longing.

This is probably far too neat but I can discern something of Adorno’s reference to thought having become its own watchdog although his inherent pessimism takes the above to a more extreme and bleak place.

I wasn’t going to do this but it probably needs to be noted that the fictive but compelling lures and snares of late capital have occurred in previous poems. This is from ‘At Home with Paul Burrell’ which was published in 2007:

(You’re going to have to scroll off the screen for this but I think it’s important to preserve line length and the shape of this material.)

Yes my daughter everywhere false immediacy glints at a lure or pastes this slip of null now back over everywhere.
   Yes everywhere mediation curls up into the no less false shape of a blind trust.

And this is from the brilliant and ground-breaking and generally wonderful ‘Dionysus Crucified’ published in 2011:

                                              Spirit-seducingly all the kind wives & the mothers: every one of us has a face made of cash
Every one of us now wears the mask of sold labour and each time I look in a face 
  All that comes back is the answer of cash and of freedom from love turned up in a picture of ideal & absolute * perfectly perceptless sex
All that comes back is the light not light but elicited twinkles of lusterous sold simulacra of faces, the person I wear to the bank.

Of course, it can (and should) be argued that I’m attempting to prop up this tottering edifice by ripping lines out of their original context/meaning. I’m guilty as charged but this ‘lesson’ as to the fictive and increasingly mindless nature of our passive existence is at least a bit of thread.

You’e delighted to know that I’m going to glide over perceptless sex and return to the spirits. I think it’s reasonable consider at least a few possible meanings for this tricky noun. The common factor in most of these would appear to be the absence of the physical or tangible. There’s the various religious and theological meanings, there’s the distinctly Hegelian ‘geist’ as in the force or thrust of progress, there’s spirit as a characterising feature or essence, there’s spirit as soul and as the thing that lives on after death.

All or any of these throws up number of challenges to the above – we are told that these spirits are ‘fictions’ but that doesn’t quite equate with the very real function that they undertake. The desire to play the status game and the fear of a slide into poverty and deprivation are very real for most of us, it can be argued these are merely illusory barriers but they aren’t fictive- they are very real and effective devices that are at least in part responsible for the cultural and social blandification that we see around us.

I hope these three attempts give some indication of the quality and depth of ‘Lessons and Carols’ – am now torn between moving on to ‘Night Office’ or paying some more attention to Burrell and the remarkable Dionysus.

Process, Reality and Maximus

Annette Lamballe 2/01/13

Sunrise over the Channel from our garden. Annette Lamballe 2/01/13

Looking at the wordpress dashboard gizmos, I now realise that I haven’t blogged since August which (for me) is a very long time indeed. This was a conscious break to get away from the poetry blogging mentality and to do Other Things. These are ongoing works in progress in both the creative and political ends of my life and I’ve recently begun to polish/refurbish the arduity project primarily because people like it and it gets a consistent level of traffic that I know I can grow.

Whilst doing other things I’ve been reading Langland and other middle English stuff and engaging with bits of philosophy. This wasn’t deliberate (I’m supposed to be immersed in the more arcane parts of social policy) but I fell across ‘Selves’ by Galen Strawson which tackles an aspect of one of the creative collaborations that I’m involved in. This prodded me into another attempt at Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ which, in turn, has caused a bit of a re-think of Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’ which I’ll outline here.

I’ll start with ‘Maximus’, regular readers will by now have gathered that I think this is one of the greatest poems of the 20th century and one of the most accomplished. Olson was a great fan of the above mentioned Whitehead tome and it is possible to read ‘Maximus’, at least in part, as a working through of the Whitehead thesis. I don’t intend to spend too much time on the intricacies of ‘Process and Reality’ but I do want to quote two bits that might put ‘Maximus’ in a slightly different light.

Before we go any further I do need to confess that I’m yet to complete my reading of ‘Process and Reality’ and some of what follows is loosely based on/in argument with what others have written. The following are the first and ninth of Whitehead’s 27 ‘Categories of Explanation':

That the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities. Thus actual entities are creatures; they are also termed ‘actual occasions.

and

That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process.’

It strikes me that these two require a fundamental shift in our current ways of thinking because they indicate that, instead of thinking of things as fixed and reasonably stable objects, we should be thinking of everything in terms of an ongoing process of becoming. The issue I want to raise is whether ‘Maximus’ reflects the very radical nature of this shift or presents a poeticised position which is at least one step removed from Whitehead.

I’m going to use ‘Oceania’ from the third volume of the sequence because it is a brilliant and technically accomplished poem but also because it contains at least two overt references to the Whitehead project.

The poem is ‘about’ Olson walking around Gloucester’s harbour in the early hours of the morning and writing and making a note of the time as he writes and describes what he sees. It’s lyrical and fiercely intelligent and manages to make the technically difficult feel effortless. ‘Oceania’ begins with:

                  OCEANIA,
                           the Child
              of the Moment of Mind 
              and Thought


            I've seen it all go in other directions
            and heard a man say why not
            stop ocean's tides
                              and not even more than the slow
            loss of a small piece of time, not any more vibration
            than the small wobble of the earth on its present axis

         no paleographic wind will record these divergent
         and solely diverse animadversions - some part also of emotions
         or consciousness........

So, we appear to start with an exploration of the temporal and the cerebral and end with a reflection of what Whitehead says about the importance/centrality of feelings. There are however a couple of areas of ambiguity- what has been seen to ‘all go in other directions’ and which ‘animadversions’ won’t get recorded?

Later on the poem has:

       As a stiff & colder 
       wind too, straight down
       the river as in winter
       chills  cools
   the night - people had sd

   earlier they'd hoped
   wld have been a
   thunderstorm  I had sd no
   the wind's still
   where it was 

       Excuse please  no boast
         only the glory of
               celebrating

       the processes
         of Earth
              and man.

This can be read as a straightforward reiteration of the first Explanation above but, given the radical implications of this and the rest of the principles of ‘Process and Reality’ it does feel a bit thin. I’m saying this because I’ve previously read ‘Oceania’ as one of the best examples of philosophic poetry that we have and now find myself a little disappointed at it’s lack of daring. The poem does elucidate both the principle of process and the consequent focus on the relational but it doesn’t give full voice to what is really revolutionary about what Whitehead appears to insist upon- that it’s a fundamental error to think in terms of objects rather than of the potentiality of events (becoming).

Some might argue that the first few lines are a stab in this direction but they’re too vague and I’m still reading them as a nod towards the notion of the past always existing in the present which isn’t the same. I need also to state that this is my own readerly (rather than expert) response and one that is based on the beginnings of my understanding of all things Whitehead. I do however think that it does throw into sharp relief the problematic and endlessly convoluted relationship between poetry and philosophy.

I read philosophy because it can enable me to think about things in different ways and to confront challenges to my current beliefs. For example, I’m having this intensely enjoyable readerly argument with Galen Strawson on the singleness of the self. I don’t get this level of challenge from poetry even though, at its best, it does aim at a kind of accuracy, rather than truth, about how it is to be in the world. The difference between the two is that poets can/should use ambiguity whereas philosophers have this need to be absolutely clear about what’s being said- even when they’re acknowledging the ambiguous and provisional nature of things.

The other difference is one of brevity. ‘Process and Reality’ runs to 353 pagtes of densely worded text, Strawson’s ‘Selves’ weighs in at 425 pages, the UK press is at the moment bursting to the seams with the latest dismal assault on the welfare state which J H Prynne brilliantly encapsulates as “great lack breeds lank / less and less” which manages to combine elements of Rawls and most of Marxian philosophy at once but does so without finding fifty different long-winded ways to say the same thing.

In conclusion, ‘Oceania’ is a shining piece of delightful brilliance in it’s own right but it isn’t philosophy because the two activites will always be different.

J H Prynne and these Dreamboats

I’m now going to proffer a number of entirely tentative and provisional suggestions with regard to a partially successful reading of the first few pages of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’. Some time ago I observed that the repeated use of ‘I saw’ could be a reference to medieval dream / vision poems such as ‘Piers Plowman’ or ‘Wynnere and Wastoure’. I didn’t connect this at the time with the title but have done so now and would like to attempt to connect it with a poem by Stephen Hawes, ‘The Example of Vertu’ which is more very Early Modern than Medieval. My only justification is that this poem is a dream poem that contains a voyage and that Hawes was more or less contemporary with John Skelton whose ‘Speke Parrot’ is referred to twice in the first three pages. I also recognise that ‘Piers’ is the only dream poem listed in the ‘Reference Cues’ at the end of the poem.

Given that this is Prynne, it would be too much to expect any kind of direct congruence with ‘Example’ or other poems in this genre but it might be worthwhile to consider the reasons why this particular conceit was used and why it was so popular. Starting with the obvious, we all dream and anything can happen in our dreams. Throughout most of history people have tried to extract meaning from dreams either from what they may portend but also for the underlying rationale for certain dreams. Because of their inherent oddness, dreams have this magical quality and the dream poems made use of this to say things about the present and to exhort us to do better. Dreams and visions were often a key component of bible stories usually as a means of transmitting messages from God. Helen Phillips has also pointed out that a dream poem enables the poet to make trenchant criticisms whilst remaining one step removed from them and thus avoiding the notion of direct responsibility. Boethius’ ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ is also listed as a ‘Cue’ and it is framed as vision rather than a poem.

There is a greater degree than usual of method in what follows, I like to think that I’m following Prynne’s advice to translators in his ‘Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems’ essay:

In strictly local context the surrounding sense may point strongly to one-word meaning rather than to another. different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less ‘probable’ meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.

I’m hoping that looking at the ‘I saw’ conceit might give some access to the ‘different senses’ that might be found.

It may be thought that I’m placing too much emphasis on the dream/vision poem conceit in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ so I’ll now quote the relevant sentences and the page on which they occur:

Along the corridor of near frequency I saw willing and discrete the season not yet for sorrow, nearby not yet even so inference to claim.(p. 5)

On the plate in soft season to rise hungry semi-apt for supplement will to set affirm this wit at will for passion reflex acutely, I saw it amount in plenteous access burning by folly markers right to the crest. (p. 5)

At mass inlet dissent I saw ahead to eyeshot reach exacted coating fricative and locked parallel then tended, long for longing set-back, exhaled.(p. 5)

Who would save temporal occlusion no discount for loyal reckoning yet saw in this open flash delusion of false glory how ever else for sweet temper child indifference not to want to want this.(p. 5)

I saw the slide markers they were sticky and concluded what was, near enough mounting up as fast would say manifest enzyme in game reduced, stupefied like men braced for denial, each in proper step.(p. 6)

Some near witness now so wants to make it work, a most fantastic set-up!(p. 6)

I saw it upmost, to know partly is by now not to unknow else with borrowed light induced by origin perpetual, by passion flat lying and tumid for advantage, for all or nothing is the play sequence left over. (p.6)

For fields thus filled it was no dream if yet so dear I lay, pronate attempered pronoun sounded dear heart how succkled, hot pies! be blithe, for birth integer broad alleged awake among the things that are, in spoken footprint cordial how alike by probe to lit shelf grains.(p. 6)

I’m going to stop there because I don’t want to be too ambitious in what follows and because I think this kind of frequency makes my point – the first two quotes are the poem’s first two sentences and the seeing / vision device runs throughout the rest of the poem. It also gives me an opportunity to dwell on one or two bits that are beginning to make sense. The fourth quote might be an attack on what I’m now going to call retail culture. It is reasonable to suggest that one of Prynne’s recurring targets has been the slogans and jargon that retailers use to encourage us to part with our money- other poems have scathed the ‘buy one, get one free’ gimmick and other unsubtle ploys. The customer loyalty schemes provide a small discount in exchange for a customer’s shopping data which can then be used both to monitor performance and to ‘push’ products in the customer’s direction- hence ‘no discount for loyal reckoning’. The last part of the sentence might also infer that it is childish to be indifferent to the wider implications of such schemes, especially when bearing in mind all five of the main definitions of ‘want’ as a verb in the OED.

One of the other aspects of the dream poem was that it could bridge the increasing gap between the mundane and the celestial, S F Kruger in ‘Dreaming in the Middle Ages’ says- “Poems of this tradition simultaneously evoke opposed ideas about the nature of dreaming, and, by doing so, situate themselves to explore areas of betweenness – the realms that lie between the divine and the mundane, the true and the false, the good and the bad. They place their readers in a position similar to that of Gregory the Great’s dreamer, unable finally to pin down the poem’s status as revelation or deception, unable unambiguously to define its direction of movement as upward or downward”. I would argue that ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ does quite consciously resist readerly attempts to define status and probably cite the apparently superfluous inclusion of hot pies! as evidence of this tendency.

I think the above quotes also say something about the relationship between perception (sight in this case) and knowledge, as if Prynne is playing with our notions of the obvious. In the ordinary world we tend to ‘believe’ what we see and draw inference from this. For example, if I see a number of cars skid on ice it would be reasonable to infer that cars don’t function well on icy roads. It isn’t too much of a leap from this piece of common sense to the prevailing view of capitalism and the neo-liberal ‘free’ market as the only viable/inevitable economic system even though most of the hard evidence points in more or less the opposite direction. This might be what’s going on with “I saw it upmost, to know partly is by now not to unknow” quoted above and may also explain the tone of some of the other ‘seeing’ pieces.

Most of the others above remain closed to me although I will spend more time on these and report back when/if things become a little clearer.

Pierre Joris, clinamen and the Deleuzian Celan

This started with me asking a few questions about what might be meant by ‘the angle on inclination’ in the Meridian and developed into a more extended and helpful discussion with regard to pushing and pulling and the nature of fatefulness. Celan’s best translator, Pierre Joris (who spent seven years producing the English version of the notes to the speech), made a contribution by confessing that he’d nearly used ‘clinamen’ instead because of the connections that he sees between Deleuze and Celan.

Let me say that Pierre has spent more time thinking about Celan’s work than anyone currently on the planet and I readily concede that my knowledge of either Celan or Deleuze is extremely scant by comparison. What follows is simply an attempt to work out what a Deleuzian Celan might look like.

Coincidentally, I’ve been approaching Deleuze from the Whitehead (as opposed to Foucault) angle of late and I’ve now had some time to mull this unlikely partnership over. Staring with the reasonably obvious, Celan’s main philosophical ‘influences’ came from Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger and not from anything remotely post-structural and Deleuze is increasingly seen as a leading figure in the development of post-structuralist thought

Peirre acknowledges that this pairing is also about his need for there to be an affinity between these two (“the vagaries and vanities of translation”) and this is always a danger. There have been times when I’ve read a far stronger neo-platonic theme into ‘The Faerie Queene’ because I want Spenser to be devoutly following Ficino even though the evidence for this level of devotion is decidedly thin, there’s also the occasions when I want Marvell to be cleverer than he (probably) is.

Celan is however radically ambiguous and attempted to explain this is conversation with Hugo Huppert:

And as regards my alleged encodings, I would rather say: ambiguity without a mask, is expresses precisely my feeling for cutting across ideas, an overlapping of relationships. You are of course familiar with the manifestation of interference, coherent waves meeting and relating to one another. You know of dialectic conversions and reversals – transitions into something akin, something succeeding, even something contradictory. That is what my ambiguity (only at certain turning-ponts, certain axes of rotation present) is about. It stands in consideration to the fact that we can observe several facets in one thing, showing it from various angles, “breaks” and “divisions” which are by no means only illusory. I try to recapitulate in language at least fractions of this spectral analysis of things: related, succeeding, contradictory. Because, unfortunately, I am unable to show these things from a comprehensive angle.

The link/affinity with Deleuze may spring from the ‘several facets in one thing’ that are to be shown from a variety of angles all of which sounds a bit similar to Deleuze’s insistence on the multiple rather than the single and linear.

This is not the place to provide even a brief overview of Project Deleuze but in this instance it might be worthwhile considering how he defines ‘clinamen’ in ‘Repetition and Difference':

Ancient atomism not only multiplied Parmenidean being, it also conceived of Ideas as multiplicities of atoms, atoms being the objective elements of thought. Thereafter it is indeed essential that atoms be related to other atoms at the heart of structures which are actualised in sensible composites. In this regard, the clinamen is by no means a change of direction in the movement of an atom, much less an indetermination testifying to the existence of a physical freedom. It is the original determination of the direction of movement, the synthesis of movement and its direction which relates one atom to another. ‘Incerto tempore’ does not mean undetermined but non-assignable or nonlocalisable.
If it is true that atoms, the elements of thought, move ‘as rapidly as thought itself’, as Epicurus says in his letter to Herodotus, then the clinamen is the reciprocal determination which is produced ‘in a time smaller than the minimum continuous time thinkable’. It is not surprising that Epicurus makes use here of the vocabulary of exhaustion: there is something analogous in the clinamen to a relation between the differentials of atoms in movement. There is a declination here which also forms the language of thought; there is something here in thought which testifies to a
limit of thought, but on the basis of which it thinks: faster than thought, ‘in a time smaller .. .’. Nevertheless, the Epicurean atom still retains too much independence, a shape and an actuality. Reciprocal determination here still
has too much of the aspect of a spatia-temporal relation. The question whether modern atomism, by contrast, fulfils all the conditions of a structure must be posed in relation to the differential equations which determine the laws of nature, in relation to the types of ‘multiple and non-Iocalisable connections’ established between particles, and in relation to the character of the ‘potentiality’ expressly attributed to these particles.

I’ve quoted this at length to try and avoid ripping thins out of context but it is still packed with the worst aspects of Gallic ‘density’. Deleuze is perhaps a little clearer in the preceding pages where he emphasises multiplicities- “The Idea is thus defined as a structure. A structure or an Idea is a ‘complex theme’, an internal multiplicity – in other words, a system of multiple, non-localisable connections between differential elements which is incarnated in real relations and actual terms.”

I have no clear idea of what aspects of this particular clinamen it is that Pierre sees in Celan so I’m going to make a few guesses. Celan defends his use of ambiguity by saying that reality is open to a number of different perspectives and that his work attempts to express this. Deleuze appears to be saying that a reductive perspective disregards the relationships between and across these particles and that this is a fundamental error. I would argue that there are similarities between the two perspectives but there are also major differences. Before spelling out what these might be I need to confess that I do see ‘Process and Reality’ hovering in the Deleuzian background at all times even though this is often at variance with the facts. So, Whitehead’s relational perspective which prioritises the many over the one is reflected in what Deleuze is saying and there is no doubt that Celan would share some notions of a multiple rather than a singular reality. I’m not sure that he’d embrace the relational emphasis and he would really struggle with other elements of Deleuzian thought. He would probably reject the quite radical view of time and the above quote does have the ‘only at certain turning points’ qualifier whereas Deleuze insists on ‘multiplicities’ at all times regardless of turning points. There’s also a playfulness that is at the heart of Project Deleuze that is absent from Celan’s life and work.

I am happy to accept that ‘angle of inclination’ can have several meanings and an awareness and validation of the multiple over the singular might be one of them. The other thought that occurs to me is that Prynne does radical amibiguity too and his ‘is this the one inclined’ quip from ‘To Pollen’ may also signal a recognition of the same quality but this would probably take us to Merleau-Ponty as well as Whitehead…

Readers will be delighted to know that I’m now going to stop thinking about the Meridian and return to the poems.

Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne and Gillian Rose

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

In an effort to counter the liking-Prynne-means-that-you-can’t-like-Hill (and vice versa) syndrome I make sporadic attempts to identify similarities/affinities between the two. So far the primary one is admiration for the work of Paul Celan. I’ve recently come across another mutual affinity in Gillian Rose. Hill’s poem, ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ was published in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ in 2007 and Prynne speaks about his friendship with Rose in his introduction to the reading of ‘Refuse Collection’ which is on the Archive of the Now. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, the latest and strangest Prynne offering contains a reference to Rose’s ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ which is described as the philosophical version of her ‘Love’s Work’.

For those who don’t know, Rose was one of our brightest academics until her early death from cancer at the age of 48 in 1995. Up until the end of her life she wrote with enormous clarity and a fierce commitment to the ethical strengths of the European tradition which she saw as being undermined by the post structural and the post modern. ‘Love’s Work’ is a kind of autobiography which includes an account of her intellectual development and a brutally factual description of her battle with cancer. It is beautifully written and incredibly moving. I can say this because I was moved and this doesn’t occur very often.

Rose was also the finest writer of polemic that I have come across. Her demolition of Derrida’s ‘Of Spririt’ is a delightful example of how these things should be done- and I speak as one who is sympathetic to Derrida. I readily concede that ‘Of Spirit’ is probably his weakest work and that it’s a relatively (pun intended) easy target but the level of destruction wreaked is extreme, no prisoners are taken and it is a pleasure to watch an expert at work. She’s even better than Alistair Fowler in full flight. Incidentally, something very similar to the Rose position can be found occasionally in the poetry of Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis but neither come close to Rose’s verbal ferocity and wit.

Hill’s poem is remarkable because it is clearly heartfelt and that it probaly reveals more about the poet than it does about Rose. The poem recognises that Rose would have responded negatively to his wooing and “wiped me / in the championship finals of dislike” which is very, very likely but he also has this:

5
Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry's
assumption of rule. Or its role
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt

6
unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
rewedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics
to Phocion's wife - who shall be nameless -
in Poussin's painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.
Not many would see that.

This might just be my perspective but isn’t the last phrase massively patronising? Isn’t it likely that Rose would have taken greater exception to being patronised by Geoffrey Hill than being wooed by him? The Poussin reference is an allusion to the first chapter of ‘Mourning Becomes the Law where Rose makes a case for the action of the wife’s servant in anxiously watching over her mistress as signalling an act of justice.

Moving on to Prynne, I have remarked before that we are assisted by the inclusion of a list of “reference cues” at the end of the poem yet neither John Skelton (two references to ‘Speke, Parrot) nor Rose are included. ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ is referred to with unusual clarity:

.......................................Look out for dread it's your
letter speciality, bunk of delirium day-trading. 'External causes
are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of
change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be.

This may or may not be helpful but the quote is from Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937 which is one of the listed reference cues. The ‘I saw’ motif that runs through the poem is likely to be an allusion to Middle English dream poems.

I do not want to get bogged down in the finer points of Marxist debate but would like to note that “not this one” refers to the quote which is part of a much broader thesis. It’s also useful to note how Rose explained her title:

Post-modernism in its renunciation of reason, power, and truth identifies itself as a process of endless mourning, lamenting the loss of securities which, on its own argument, were none such. Yet this everlasting melancholia accurately monitors the refusal to let go, which I express in the phrase describing post-modernism as ‘despairing rationalism without reason’. One recent ironic aphorism for this static condition between desire for presence and acceptance of absence occurs in an interview by Derrida: ‘I mourn therefore I am’. by contrast Mourning Becomes the Law affirms that the reassessment of reason, gradually rediscovering its own movable boundaries as it explores the boundaries of the soul, the city and the sacred can complete its mourning. Completed mourning envisages the creative involvement of action in the configurations of power and law: it does not find itself unequivocally in a closed circuit which exclusively confers logic and power. In the title, Mourning Becomes the Law, ‘Become entertains the gradual process involved, and the connotation of ‘suiting’ or ‘enhancing’ in the overcoming of mourning.

All of this seems eminently sensible and the correct response to the post-modern absence of substance and there is no doubting Rose’s sincerity in making her case. As with all of these arguments however I still get the impression that there’s too much protesting going on coupled with a failure to set forward a credible agenda. It’s also telling that the focus of most of this opprobrium is on Derrida whose long term influence may not be as great as either Foucault or Deleuze.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not convinced that philosophy is a fit and proper subject for poetry. I’ve since modified that position and am now of the view that only those poems that are exclusively philosophical are bad poems. For example, the Mutability Cantos at the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’ would be bad if they weren’t viewed as part of that magnificent epic. Hill’s poem is a poem about a philosopher rather than a philosophical poem and is therefore excluded. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ contains a wide range of elements, some of which relate to philosophy and one of the main themes (non-being) is more than a little philosophical but I’ll continue to give it the benefit of the doubt.

So, another similarity even though Hill may also have been motivated by Rose’s ‘deathbed conversion’ to Christianity, both will have recognised a formidable talent regardless of ideological stance.

Incidentally, Simon Jarvis also acknowledges her support in his book on Adorno.

Poetry and Politics and Truth, a response to Tom Dunn

Tom,

Rather than respond to your recent comments re the above in the comments threads, I thought I’d attempt a more considered response here. It also gives me the opportunity to review the last stated Bebrowed position on this knotty conundrum. I consider myself to be deeply political, most of my adult life has been spent in various forms of what many would think of as ‘extreme’ political activity and I was a member of the CPGB (Gramscian/Marxism Today faction) for about five years until it disbanded even though I have never considered myself to be a Marxist. I also have a lifelong passion for poetry and have held the view that the two don’t mix in that I wouldn’t turn to a poem for ideological ‘positions’ just as I wouldn’t hope to find poetics in political activity. I also feel that there’s too much of the political in politics and too much poetry in poetry.

I really struggle with the fact that many poems are written about political problems that will have absolutely no influence whatsoever on those problems regardless of the stance that those poets take. I’m also deeply suspicious of poets that pick ‘easy’ targets and will shortly give some examples of these.

None of the above is helped by the annoying fact that most of the best poems currently being written do commit most of the above crimes. In my ideal world all poets would be working out the implications of what Levinas described as ‘the sadness of self-interest’ together with Foucault’s view that the primary struggle is with the fascist that lurks within each of us. I also accept that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon so I’m left with these vaguely marxian poets who are producing brilliant poems but dismal politics.

And then there’s Geoffrey Hill who has described himself as a ‘hierarchical Tory’ and whose work is a really fascinatingly incongruous mix of knee-jerk polemic and quite thoughtful analysis- but only when applied to events before 1670.

You say that there’s no space for God in this material yet there’s certainly a lot of God in Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and I think I could make a case for God in later Prynne. My own view is that poets are much better with theology than they are with politics and that the best God poems are those that express doubt rather than conviction (R S Thomas, Paul Celan, George Herbert). I’m also of the view that it is entirely possible to get pleasure from poems a standpoint that I find politically and morally repellent- Book V of the Faerie Queen and most of Pound’s Cantos spring to mind.

There is some work that is politically sophisticated and strategically correct and is being undertaken at the conceptualist end of the spectrum by Vanessa Place and Caroline Bergvall both of which make me feel more than a degree of what we used to call solidarity.

There’s also a younger group of poets who are in the process of recasting the personal and the political – I quote from some of these below.

With regard to Truth, I’m one of those intellectually flabby relativists that manage to be loathed by Richard Dawkins and the current pope in equal measure but there are Cambridge poets who are concerned primarily with truthful poetry and with a concern for authenticity but this usually coloured by dialectical processes and an interest in contradiction. My only excuse is Richard Rorty’s view that we should concentrate on that which is useful without too much regard for truth-value because doing things the other way round does get us into all kinds of trouble.

Incidentally, I really don’t want Bourdieu to be correct but he is- you don’t need to be a committed leftist to be persuaded. The escape from the iron cage is inevitably subjective but my money’s on Place, Bergvall, Neil Pattison, Johnny Liron and Jonty Tiplady- each of these for very different reasons (see below).

The Desire problem.

Bear with me but this does seem to get to the core of the poetry/politics problem. In 2010 Keston Sutherland began circulating ‘The Odes to T61LP’ which is the bravest sequence that I think I’ve ever read because it deals in an honest an open way with sexual identity and desire and childhood sexuality and confronts every single aspect of the British male persona. Timothy Thornton is an extraordinarily talented younger poet who is dealing with desire in a uniquely lyrical way.

I am and will remain critical of Sutherland’s Marxist certainty but (and this is the problem) I don’t know of anyone else with this degree of talent and critical insight.

The Polemic problem.

Poets, even Milton, are bad at polemic and shouldn’t do it. In fact, it is the repeated attempts to do this adequately that makes me most annoyed about things Cambridge/Brighton. I’ve been re-looking at some recent examples for this piece and they just make me unaccountably cross. Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’ doesn’t make me cross but it’s still an ‘easy’ target, isn’t it?

The Streak~~Willing~~Artesian~~Entourage exception.

I’ll vote for this being the best political work of the last twenty years precisely because it refuses to simplify, take sides or otherwise pontificate and it is wonderfully austere. I also think it is politically important because it confronts some fundamentals that have been ignored by all shades of the political spectrum.

Examples.

I’ve attempted to put together a number of quotes to do with politics. This selection is based on my own reading and is entirely subjective but it does at least provide a bit of a map for further discussion / debate. I’ll do something similar with both God and Truth at a later stage

This is from ‘Statement of Facts’ by Vanessa Place-

Counts 10, 11, 12 and 14: Jane Doe #3: Marion J.

Marion J. was living alone in a house on Colorado Street Long Beach on July 31, 1998; around 1:30 or 2:00 a.m., she returned home with a friend from Ralphs. The friend left without coming inside the house, and when Marion J. went in, she noticed her five cats were under the bed and her back door was open. She closed and locked the door, and took a shower. Her friend called around 2:15 or 2:30 to let Marion J. know she’d arrived home safely; Marion J., who had been
laying on her bed waiting for the call, then fell asleep. (RT 866-868) She woke about 3:15 a.m. because someone’s hand was around her throat. The person took Marion J.’s glasses and told her if she screamed, he’d snap her neck. Marion J. said she wouldn’t scream, the man pulled her nightgown over her head and told her to open her legs, she did, and he put his penis in her vagina. The man then took his penis out of Marion J., lifted her leg and reinserted his penis. Next, the man turned Marion J. over and put his penis in her vagina a third time while pulling her hair back. Marion J. was bleeding; the man got a towel from the bathroom, wiped her, laid on the bed, and told Marion J. to get on top of him because it would be easier for her to “control it.” Marion J. did, and the man’s penis again went into her vagina. (RT 868-870, 875)

And so is this-

On Marion J.’s mixed breast swab sample, there are six peaks (11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) at D-8; Fedor’s handwritten notes indicate two of the peaks (11, 15) are possible stutter. (Defense Exhibit Y; RT 1570- 1571) Stutter is a PCR artifact, and does not represent actual DNA in the sample. Fedor wrote “possible” because those peaks could be
DNA, but did not report them as because he did not think they were reliably present, i.e., he thought they were stutter rather than additional DNA. His conclusion was based on the position of the alleles, and their shorter peaks; another analyst could conclude they were real. The Identifiler software has a Kazam macro which is to filter out stutter based on the manufacturer’s research; the macro did not identify 11 and 15 as stutter. Fedor did not know what the stutter limit is for D-8; there is no fixed laboratory standard. The Identifiler user manual indicates the limit at D-8 is 8.2 percent. (RT 1571-1575, 1577-1578, 1593-1594) Similarly, at D-21, the computer recognized an allele,
meaning there was an allele present of at least 150 RFU intensity. (RT 1579-1580)

This is from Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Fried Tale (London Zoo)’-

Dame Justice no longer worries unduly. She no longer gives a smiling sod about the moral attributes or social benefits of equitable share-out of wealth; or land; or health; or education or how to work out well-being for the mostest; or the bestest ways of valuing people’s skills or establishing fair and durable structures; or thinking long-term; or facilitating technological access; or revisiting the rules of international exchange; or the balance of import/export; or the value of local trade; or determining the boundaries between life and death; or between breathing and unbreathing; or feeling and unfeeling; or animate and inanimate; or how to get out of the deep labyrinthine social moral spiritual physiological bankrupcy engineered by the brutal omnipathological so-called transnational traficking bloodsuck oilsprung hyperdfunded plunderterprrize. Sgot to be said she can be pretty longwinded. Speaks in subsections.

1a. Must fall. 1b. Should fall. 2a. Could Fall. 3a. Will Fall.

This is from Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’-

Be housed, clutched, inert. Receive, that wave earthed
in keratin
Dark’s cuticle
then fastening dark hand, recede. Conductive, slow
strings waist, a focus vantage stills, in weaning light

that houses break. Elaborately plaited fingers
crack on a shell in the breech. By coastal
rolling, granules secure and justified, flowingly
the solvencies peak and burn in type ; infant salts
the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over

This is from Jonny Liron’s ‘6.XII’-

                language and theories de cauterize
and un captivate the attention of a
child bent fixed hell for leather of
fucking like a pretend dog, this should
be what you stand for, not the press
or forgetting.

This is the end of Jonty Tiplady’s ‘Superanus’-

Nice to wonder about with you,
nice to stay fat,
nice never truly to be a polygraph.

Worth it that the woods be sovereign
what matters is that any of it
happened at all,
the children a little fucked (concept to pop to sex) up
and Formby in Albania like Big Bird to Catanou
did quite well with that toaster.

Around now climate change arrives.

Having just re-read the above, I worry that this selection might appear too wilfully oblique and insufficiently specific but I am trying to honestly highlight those things that make ‘sense’ to me and I really am far too old to worry about the niceties of correctness or the rigours of a party line.

quiries pt 1 or Bad Things That Happen

(From Saville, Phillips, Stafford and the Bank of England with 5-15% original embellishment, the bleed into the clouds is, on this occasion, entirely intentional)

Neruda, Prynne and repetition

Given that thinking about repetition has enabled me to write some verse, I’ve been half-looking for the way that it has been used by others. I recalled my favourite Neruda poem “Explico algunas cosas” ably translated as “I’m Explaining a Few Things” by Nathaniel Tarn. I could go on for a very long time about how good this poem is and how everybody should read it but instead I just want to draw attention to the end of the poem which repeats the same sentence twice. The sentence is “Venid a ver la sangre por las calles” which Tarn renders as “Come and see the blood in the streets”. The only difference between the repeats is in line length and punctuation:

Venid a ver la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver

la sangre por las calles,
enid a ver la sangre

por las calles!

This is an echo of the startling “and the blood of the children ran through the streets / without fuss, like children’s blood” which occurs halfway through the poem.
So here we have a poem which is about the Spanish Civil War and which uses repetition to give emphasis to one particular horrific image. Whether this ‘works’ or not is open to debate but it had made enough of an impression on me to remember it for twenty five years without actually re-reading the poem.
We then move on to the entirely different case of Jeremy Prynne. I think in a previous post I’d referred to a poem in the “Word Order” sequence that seems to make use of repetition-

He took his chance
first right he took
no chance first

at the front gate
or no right
chance to take

to first front
gate right gate right
they take no front

a cloudless sky

(There should be a bigger gap between the third stanza and the last line but WordPress won’t play ball).
Being deeply shallow, I have in the past described this as a ‘riff’ and have gone so far as to take issue with John Wilkinson’s much more complex explanation. I don’t intend to offer any further interpretation here other than to point out that a lot of words do get repeated in a very few lines.
Whilst thinking about this I realised that the word ‘same’ can denote a repetition and that this word is used somewhat bafflingly in “Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian” and that I’d put off thinking about this use whilst trying to work out what Prynne is saying.
So, I had another look- this is the first poem in the sequence:

Inside the tight closed box off it was it was out
a same summer box oh then at must closed on all
or maybe often maybe open to one side glaze be
in part to spill affirm parted along a rim ballast

Ready known, the same on over the way up be aim
superflux be fillip finger tight eddy cluster for
test the cover to seal better by close not closed
in her cone practice modify. To maul the out-sign

More at blanket turn, prior the blanket, over out
side did tear or torn smatter hot shut right off
tipping exclusion . Same day mainly deprive rank
serve for service, at same hours total. Deeper

Fold to box to fill to undersell nor roving shame
spelled got hurt by a burn. Same too fast joined
by the flap cover trickle or stream cut solid then
cut your hand the close hand perfectly yours for.

Recital to side, same with to side livid in part
newly profuse did civic offer on a dial, sweep
flight oh disposal profligate buck more in and
ready. Tantric cube up tight seam, signal limit

Galvanic who will meet who would, as to camber
one side slipped over close fit: alter presume
that shutter way, his also servile blank package
the box befitted frank aside simulate by adoption.

The attentive among you will recognise that there is a fair amount of repetition going one here in addition to the frequent use of ‘same’.

Every now and then I try to give myself a break from Prynne and immerse myself in other stuff, I especially try to take a break from “Streak~” because thinking about it fills up my head and I do have a life to lead. However this repetition coincidence proved far too attractive for me to ignore. The first thing to note is the bits that are repeated as well as the use of ‘same’. I’ve made a list:

it was it was
a same summer box
maybe often maybe
the same on over the way
More at blanket turn, prior the blanket
did tear or torn
same day
serve for service
at same hours total
same too fast
at your hand the close hand perfectly yours for
Recital to the side, same with to side livid in part
who will meet who would

There is also the frequent use of ‘box’, ‘tight’ and ‘side’ to consider.

In the past I’ve put forward the view that this sequence is in part ‘about’ the recent civil war in Ulster and this is further justified here by the use of blanket which I’m taking as a reference to the blanket protest carried out by Republican prisoners at the Maze prison in response to the British government’s decision to deny them political status. This led eventually to the hunger strike at the prison which killed ten men.

This, of course, is nothing more than a guess but it’s a guess that’s informed by bits from other parts of the sequence and I have yet to come across anything that points in another direction other than the ‘same plastic fervid embankment’ in the third poem.

Without venturing into possible meanings for any of this poem, it is profitable to look at the way that certain words are used. We start with something being inside a box that is shut tight and that this thing is said to be both ‘off’ and ‘out’. Things get much more complicated on the second line with the appearance of a ‘summer box’ that might be closed on all sides but also may only be closed on three, the fourth side being glazed.

Prior to opening the OED, I threw ‘box ‘ and ‘same’ around in my head and it occurred to me that a lot of British political thinking about and attitude towards Ireland hasn’t changed in any significant fashion since the 16th century and a lot of our dealings with the Irish stems from the same set of false imperial perceptions which have caused conflict to repeat itself in the same way through the years.

I then started to wonder about ‘box’ as a more abstract term, as a rigid way of thinking- to be creative is said to involve thinking outside the box. I then decided that box as a kind of imperialist way of thinking was probably far too pretentious and speculative. I then turned to the OED.

There are 21 definitions of box as a noun, excluding the botanical definitions (which I’m going to ignore) and some of these are quite helpful-

“A space enclosed within borders or rules, esp. one to draw attention to a heading, an announcement, etc.”
“An enclosed area heavily defended in all directions.”
” A case for the protection of a piece of mechanism from injury, dust, etc.”
” A box-like shelter; a hut, or small house.”
and:
“to be in the (formerly a) wrong box : to be in a wrong position, out of the right place. to be in a box (colloq.): to be in a fix, in a ‘corner’. So to be in the same box : to be in a similar (unhappy) predicament.”

I think that all of these have some potential in pointing to what Prynne might be referring to. It could also be that he is referring to several of these definitions at once. For my purposes the last of these seems a good place to start- being in the same box is to be in the same unhappy predicament. It could be argued that all three of the main groupings in the civil war were stuck in a similar and unhappy predicament.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I again tried to make sense of the first two lines and was disappointed that the above leg-work had not yielded revelatory results. Still not able to identify this thing that is said to be both off and out and unable to determine whether ‘summer’ relates to the season (as with ‘same day’ and same ‘hours’ in the third stanza) or to one of the other definitions although ‘one who makes a summary’ might get us somewhere.

This is at least progress of a kind, I no longer think that box=bomb and the repetition ‘theme’ is becoming intriguing because of the different forms that it takes. I’m also painfully aware that I can persuade myself of a meaning because I want this to be the case. At the moment, for example, I’m a bit carried away with the imperialism box trapping everybody in one unhappy predicament. Then again, a new understanding of ‘at must closed’ might change all of that…

The next method of approach is to think about what repetition hopes to achieve and see how these fit into the above.

Poetry and the revolution

There’s a Godard movie (probably ‘British Noise’) where one character asks the other if intellectuals can also be revolutionaries. The question that I’d like to ask is whether poets can be revolutionaries and intellectuals. Some months ago on this blog I made a glib and entirely gratuitous remark about poems not being very effective at changing things, I’ve now had some cause to re-think this observation.
Let’s start with some definitions: the intellectual usually works in the academy and thinks about theory and is comfortable with theory; the revolutionary is convinced that the world must change and will do whatever he or she can to effect that change; the poet writes poems.
I think most of us would agree that these are not good times for political revolutionaries, the ‘old’ revolutionary movements in Europe have been decimated in the last thirty years by the effects of the current long wave of capitalist development, the success of the state’s infiltration of subversive groups and the eternal revolutionary habit of self-destruction by factionalism.
Things are equally bad for contemporary poets who aren’t read except by other contemporary poets (and those who aspire to write contemporary poetry) and academics who gain professional status by writing about them. The revolutionary potential for poetry is further compounded by Bourdieu’s analysis of how creative expression functions in society today. Poetry also suffers from factionalism and what some would see as wilful obscurity.
Intellectuals, on the other hand, are thriving. Anxiety about poor standards of education in the West has led to the state throwing huge amounts of money at higher education which has led to the proliferation of theorising and endless pontification. Most ‘serious’ poets work in the academy, mostly because they can’t earn a living from book sales.
I’m not a revolutionary, most revolutionaries that I’ve met (and conspired with) are so driven by the absolute need for change that ‘the revolution’ becomes the only objective without too much consideration given to what may ensue from that event. I’m more attracted to the radical position which acknowledges that things do need to change but is deeply sceptical about iconoclasm for its own sake.
I do read poetry and (occasionally) I try to make poems but I’m not entirely sure that the current poetry game is a game that I want to play because the framework in which it operates is fundamentally flawed. However, I do keep getting drawn back to it because of its strength and power to challenge the way that I think and use words.
As one of the self-taught, I reserve the right to be sceptical about intellectuals and especially the role of intellectuals in a state sponsored academy. There’s a nagging suspicion in the back of my head that ‘important’ thinkers achieve their importance because they merely appear to pose a threat to the status quo.
So, is poetry a useful tool in the struggle? I think poetry can be quite good and effective at revolting against itself (The Waste Land, The Cantos, Atemwende, Brass etc.) but that it takes far too long to have an effect on the world psyche. It can be argued that the poetry of Wordsworth has now reached public consciousness ( a belated interest in the power and importance of the natural world) but two hundred years is simply far too long.
Poets can be revolutionary poets and reactionary ideologues but this shouldn’t deter us from the potential of poetry for effecting radical change. In fact, poetry can re-engage us with the world at a time when the established order is pushing us towards rampant individualism with its consequent sense of alienation.
In order to break out of the current malaise and to act as a part of the struggle poetry needs to change the frame in which it operates. To do this it needs to recognise the poem is a commodity that exists in a market and that it competes with other commodities in terms of reception, value and effectiveness. It needs, in short, to sell itself and it needs to articulate that value in a much more direct way. Its current structural weaknesses need to be quantified, e.g. does its incestuous relationship with the academy do it any favours, is the teaching of creative writing really a good thing, is difficulty a mark of quality?
I have to believe that a poetry that is truly as ‘impossible as reality’ is a feasible possibility but those that produce and proliferate verse needs to change the nature of the frame.

Wendy Brown on Walls and Anxiety

I haven’t come across Wendy Brown before, apparently she’s an American professor of political science and recently she gave an interview on Broken Power Lines (an excellent blog which is ‘devoted to how power never functions as intended’ – I like that) about the current political situation in which we find ourselves.

Professor Brown says that directionlessness and meaninglessness are features of late modernity and that neoliberalisation provides direction without providing meaning.  This has some resonance for me, I’ve always been a little sceptical about the importance some commentators attach to ‘meaning’ (because it’s a term that can easily become overly portentous) but I do recognise that in the UK there’s a fundamental emptiness at the bottom of neoliberal free market dogma. This is best expressed at the moment by the posturing of politicians in the run up to our forthcoming general election. The question (as ever) is not how best to produce a just and fair society but which of these hollow men are best placed to ‘manage’ the vagaries of globalisation and the free market. The ‘quotidian nihilism’ that Brown talks about has its most obvious expression in continually falling turnout rates and the cynicism with which British politicians operate.

The question is- how can we combat/challenge this emptiness and replace it with something productive? The other problem we have is to figure out whether this malaise is an inevitable feature of late modernity (as Brown suggests) or whether it’s a product of this particular long wave of capital. I’d go with the latter primarily because there’s a lot of features of late modernity that I quite like. In terms of combating the emptiness, it seems to me that getting bogged down in ‘meaning’ as a replacement is a waste of time, like Richard Rorty I’m much more drawn to alternatives that are both useful and interesting without wishing to attach any further depth.

We now come to walls and anxiety. Brown’s view would seem to be that we are becoming more anxious because we are using our sense of place as globalisation whittles away at the nation state and that we need walls to be able to define ourselves. When I first read this I didn’t think that it applied to me- I’m a citizen of the free world and despise petty nationalisms so I recognised that this anxiety could apply to others but that I was was immune. Yesterday, however, a friend asked me if I liked living in Ventnor and I said that I did because I can’t see the rest of England from it. Ventnor is a resort town on the south coast of the Isle of Wight that is sandwiched between the English Channel to the south and 750ft high downland to the north so we are well and truly ‘boundaried’.  Living for the last 17 years has given me a strong sense of place and is a refreshing contrast to other places in which I have lived (Essex, Middlesbrough) which don’t have similar walls. So, whilst I’m not that bothered by national boundaries, I have to recognise that my own walls are very important to me and perhaps we need to give greater political consideration to this sense of place (which is different from identity).

Incidentally, Broken Power Lines also contains a review of 24 city which is the latest film by the very clever Jia Zhang-Ke which everybody should see.