Category Archives: Uncategorized

Information Quality: the Monstrous Poem

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

Monstrosity: a definition.

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

Elizabeth Bishop’s In the Waiting Room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Celan’s Aschenglorie.

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

your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

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

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

glory behind
you threeway 

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

bears witness for the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And these are the last 3.5 lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Simon Jarvis' The Unconditional.

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

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

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

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

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

David Jones: Christian modernist? Conference in Oxford Sept 10-13th

Okay, I don’t attend conferences nor do I usually give them any kind of publicity but on this occasion I’m going to do both because it seems that Jones’ work must reach a bigger readership and this conference may give things a push in the right direction.

The details are here and this is the blurb Which I’ll then take some issues with:

‘Modernism’ in literature and the arts is associated with cultural and political rebellion, ‘making it new’ through formal experimentation, and a widespread drive towards a regenerated New Era of human history. For many modernists, Christianity stood for a bygone era to be overcome; the reactionary, dead hand of the past.
Yet David Jones’s art, poetry and cultural theory subvert this neat dichotomy. He was a Catholic convert with a deep appreciation of the Church’s ancient liturgy and tradition; but he also conceived his Catholicism as a mode of cultural ‘sabotage’ and a sign of ‘contradiction’. His art and poetry is palimpsestic and fragmentary, inspecting ruins and traces, endlessly fascinated by dense, half-inaccessible layers of meaning stretching back through past cultures into the pre-history of human sign-making. Yet his theory of human culture as sign-making centres on Christ’s entry into the world of signs, epitomised in the Eucharist. Jones saw himself as living in an epoch in which man’s vocation as artist was being twisted out of shape by a technocratic, capitalist civilization obsessed with utilitarian means and ends. The modern artist therefore was a Boethius, shoring up the surviving fragments of the past to make a bridge into a different, regenerated future; a vision which helped Jones to assimilate a wide range of experimental modernist work which, like his own, looked both backwards and forwards at the same time.
This conference will examine the paradox of Jones the ‘Christian modernist’. Does the very concept of cultural ‘modernism’ perhaps need reassessment when confronted with his example? How is his experimental art, poetry and cultural theory relevant to theology? How does his work relate to the theological controversies of his day, especially the ‘modernist crisis’ within the Catholic church and beyond? How does the influence of other modernist art, theory and literature interact with Christian influences (whether theological or artistic) in his work? What was Jones’s influence upon other thinkers and creative artists, both those who shared his religious views, and those who did not? And is his complex vision of human beings as makers and artists who participate in divine creativity through their sign-making – while also hiding this from themselves – still relevant today? Or should it rather be analysed as a product of its time, an unfortunate idealisation that at one point even led Jones to affirm a limited sympathy for the ‘fascist and Nazi revolutions’?
It is the aim of this conference to confront the paradoxes and pleasures of reading and studying Jones head-on, in order to refine and extend our critical vocabulary to encompass an artist, poet and thinker who continues to challenge our preconceptions. Finally, perspectives that challenge the fruitfulness of the whole idea of Jones as ‘Christian modernist’ are also welcome. Are there reasons for steering clear of both terms? Is Jones’s work perhaps better seen as transcending or collapsing such categories?

I think the longer work needs be read and re-read and that we should perhaps pay a little bit more attention to what Jones said it was about in his prefaces. This might give us an indication of where to start, for me (personally, subjectively, tentatively) Jones is primarily a memorialist of our cultural and historical past. I recognise that because of his use of form he’s been co-opted into the modernist gang and that there is a lot of God in both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata but none of this has much meaning for me. My main concern is whether it’s any good and whether I’ll enjoy reading it. Needless to say, it is and I do.

What both works do for me is challenge and extend my view of friendship, of times spend in terrible circumstance and of my own cultural heritage and the beliefs and personal liturgies that are important to me. I have no idea how other people react but it’s those elements that I’d like a grown-up discussion about.

Information Quality: The Gnarly Poem

Continuing with the Information Quality theme, I’ve, after some discussion with others, devised the above as a way to proceed.

The following definitions are (as usual) tentative and subject to change.

The Gnarly Poem.

What I like about this quality is that it covers some big ground in five letters. The OED defines the word initially as ‘gnarled’ which in turn is given as “Of a tree: Covered with protuberances; distorted, twisted; rugged, knotted.” and gives the earliest usage as in Measure for Measure in 1616 ” Thy sharpe and sulpherous bolt Splits the vn-wedgable and gnarled Oke.” Apparently it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the adjective was used to describe non-wooden objects. This was when the rural labourer began to acquire the description which also has (in my head) connotations of ruggedness. I need to thank John Bloomberg Rissman for pointing out that gnarly is also a US surfing term meaning dangerous or challenging.

So we have poems that are rugged, whose protuberances make them hard to hold and their various twists and distortions throw up other challenges. They are also obdurate, made rugged after centuries of exposure to storm and drought. The gnarly poem demands / requires an almost physical response because it is only that bodily /embodied sense of engagement that the gnarls and the twists can be managed. Gnarly poems aren’t always good poems, there are many of this kind that are very bad indeed.


This is always tricky because I don’t read that much and hence tend to use the same material to try and think these things through. So, for a change, I’m going to include some John Skelton, Edmund Spenser, Ezra Pound and John Bloomberg-Rissman.

John Skelton’s Speke, Parrot

I wouldn’t have put this forward (the sort of obscurity that I often complain about) were it not for J H Prynne alluding to it in his Kazoo Dreamboat which gives me an excuse to write about this gnarliest of gnarly poems:

My lady maystres, deame Philolgyy,
  Gave me a gyfte in my nest whan I laye,
To lerne all language, and it to spake apetly
Now pandez mory, wax frantycke, some men saye,
   Phroneses for Freneses may not holde her way. 
An almon now for Parrot, dilycatly drest;
In Salve festa dies, toto theyr doth best.

Before we get any further some facts may serve to make my point. Skelton was one of the three most prominent poets between about 1495 and 1525. He was shameless in his self-promotion and vituperative in the extreme toward his critics and enemies- he wasn’t very pleasant. He enjoyed varying degrees of royal patronage and boasted of that in his work. It has been pointed out that Skelton’s work had no influence whatsoever on subsequent generations although Ben Jonson did steal some of his better lines.

The two main themes of Speke, Parrot are the promotion of the traditionalist side in the Grammarians’ War which started in 1519 and concerns the best way to teach Latin. The other is a fairly vicious attack on Cardinal Wolsey who was the most powerful man in England, after the king.

The first part of the poem (from which the above is taken) was derided by critics at the time as being far too obscure. It is thought that Speke Parrot was written in sections because Skelton defends this in charge in the lines of the poem..

The mix of many languages is one of the many gnarls, as is the device of the parrot and the obscurity of some of the subject matter and the way that this is expressed. The grammarian’s war was not a dry academic tussle but a battle fought in the most personal of terms, Skelton indicated that he would have to knock his opponent’s (William Lily) teeth in, Lily stated that Skelton was neither learned nor a poet- knowing that this would strike hard at Skelton’s personal vanity.

To make things more gnarly, Alexander Dyce (Skelton’s 19thc editor) observed that “The Latin portions of the MS are usually of ludicrous incorrectness” and points out that several sections of the poem are missing from the version that we have today.

The first part of the poem presents many challenges to the reader but perhaps the most difficult to wrestle with is the figure of the muti-lingual bird and the very oblique ways in which he makes his point. The poem as a whole scores highly in the gnarly stakes because it appears from nowhere in the English canon, defies categorisation and then dies a fairly rapid death.

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

I’m of the view that this is the second best poem in English primarily because of its verbal ambition and technical mastery. It’s also monstrously long (see below). The gnarls are about the oddnesses that seem to undermine the ‘sense’ of the work, the nature and functioning of the various allegories together with what I think of as the Faeire Lond problem.

FQ is ostensibly an exploration of the virtues set out in allegorical form (what Spenser’s describes as the “dark conceit”) and can be read as a series of fights involving the good guys against the bad guys with a few monsters and giants thrown in. The problem with the allegories is that they don’t actually do what they’re supposed to do. They spend much of each of the books describing human folly and stupidity rather than the positive qualities that they are supposed to represent. The other gnarl is the fact that this doesn’t become clear on the first reading, it only announced itself to me half way through the second because I had been completely blown away (technical term) by the vitality and excitement of the work.

This failure, and the weak attempts to rectify it prevents the attentive reader (me) from gaining a clear impression of what the work might be striving to do even though it is clear that it isn’t doing what Spenser say it does.

The next gnarl is geographical, the physical world of the poem doesn’t make sense, is hopelessly incoherent and inconsistent but this is only apparent when an attempt is made to ‘map’ Fairy Lond. The same problem is present in Piers the Plowman but Langland has the excuse of his being a dream poem. This absence of geographical sense is in direct contrast to the cosmological precision employed by Milton in Paradise Lost. Again this gnarl is only evident after reading the work and trying to take an overview but it still contributes to the general gnarliness.

For this reader the oddities concern torture, bestiality and cross dressing. For reasons of space I’m going to use the last to show how oddness can be a protuberance. This particular episode is contained in Canto V of the fifth book which is ‘about’ justice as embodied in Artegall and his robot Talus who acts as a killing machine on Artegall’s behalf. Book Five has been taken up by a number of critics fretting over the apparently genocidal sub-text and lumped it together with the prose A View of the Present State of Ireland which does advocate a form of genocide as a solution to the Irish Problem. I’ve had occasional rants about this before but it does overlook the treatment that Artegall from Radigund after he shows her mercy: she dresses him in “womans weeds” and sets him to work, along with her other knightly captives, “twisting linen twyne”, a situation that he accepts with a passivity that is completely out of character. Spenser appears to be using this to show what happens when you show mercy (you end up dressed as a girl doing girl’s work) and to express a remarkably vicious misogyny:

Such is the crueltie of womankynd,
   When they haue shaken off the shamefast band,
   With which wise Nature did them strongly bind,
   T'obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand,
   That then all rule and reason they withstand,
   To purchase a licentious libertie.
   But vertuous women wisely understand
   That they were borne to base humilitie,
Vnless the heavens them lift to lawfull soueraintie.

This piece of quite bonkers paranoia is unfortunately expressing the consensus in late Elizabethan England but it is made even more stupid by the exception made for Elizabeth I in the last line. The gnarliness is that this very clear unambiguous view is in direct contrast to the second stanza of Canto II in Book 3 which expresses precisely the opposite view. These are the last three lines:

   Yet sith they warlike armes have laide away,
   They have exceld in arts and policy,
That now we foolish men that prayse gin eke t'enuy.

FQ was first published as Books I-III in 1590 with IV-VI published six years later. The later books are considered to be ‘darker’ in tone than the first three but this particular gnarl stands out and I for one still can’t get my brain around such a direct contrast.

Ezra Pound’s The Cantos.

I’m not going to spend too long on this because of its obvious protuberances and knots. I do need to observe however that Pound knew about poetry and that his Don’ts from 1913 are still eminently relevant and applicable one hundred years later.

The Cantos have the following gnarly features:

  • the ideograms;
  • the anti-semitism;
  • the economic theorising, with examples;
  • massive inconsistencies in technique from the brilliant to the dire;
  • length.

All of these deter me from putting the effort required to read the work from beginning to end- not because of its obscurity and alleged difficulty but because it would take too long to deal with all these gnarls.

John Boomberg-Rissman’s In the House of the Hangman.

First of all I need to point out that John and I correspond most days and I may therefore be accused of some bias. I don’t think this is the case because, in this instance, his relentlessly ongoing work led me to identify this quality when I realised that I was entering into an almost physical struggle to give it the attention that it demands. The work is published daily on the Zeitgeist Spam and yesterday’s episode is no.1631. Each is made up from items that arrive via John’s RSS and these are credited in the notes at the bottom although it isn’t entirely clear which notes refer to which parts of the text even though they are listed in order.

One of the purposes is for ITH to act as a mirror for the world as it is in the (more or less) present and it’s done in a way that is reasonably chaotic and eternally relentless. For the attentive reader (me), the gnarls come in two different flavours. The first is that it isn’t always clear where one item / extract / thing /quote begins and ends and the second is the complete absence of context unless you follow the links in the notes and even (or especially) then you are still pretty much on your own. Nevertheless it demands engagement even though my ‘handle’ on it is never going to be anywhere near complete but the struggle, the process of the grapple is dangerously addicitve. I think this may demonstrate / emplify at least a couple of gnarls:

One luckless expatriate was picked up and thrown into a trash can. The Jewish-Japanese Sex & Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves. The guy who created the iPhone’s Earth image explains why he needed to fake it. Kangaroos have three vaginas. Grills, ‘Grillz’ and dental hygiene implications. When adding is subtracting. Hire a Drone With Bitcoin. PotCoin. Sweden is the largest exporter of pop music. Why Dark Pigeons Rule the Streets. Can You Sue A Robot For Defamation? His animals get their energy from the wind so they don’t have to eat.

Now, with this kind of material its very gnarliness is enough to deter most readers but each sentence in the above is a startling statement of What Might Be Going on just now, I think I might take some issue with the add / subtract statement but that’s part of the process- identifying some kind of logic and then fretting about the bits that seem especially gnarled and out of place. ITH can be read as a conceptual exercise that has taken one idea or way of working and stuck with it but it struggles against that because the concept takes an increasingly back seat as the episodes increase in number and more and more related material is accumulated.

Night Office and Spiritual Pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Jarvis, Rowan Williams and complicity.

We’ll get to Pushkin later but first of all I want to report on my third book launch of the year which occurred last Thursday evening in darkest Marylebone and centred on the latest (unless you count the latest edition of The Claudius App) of what I’m increasingly thinking of as the Jarvis Project. The idea of this particular gig was that Simon should read from ‘Night Office’ and then Rowan (ex head of the C of E and Dostoevsky expert) should chat to him about it.

The reading was from the beginning and (I think) followed the course of the version in ‘Eighteen Poems’. I was a little disconcerted to hear the first few pages read in a voice that almost went out of its way to avoid the rhyme and metre before injecting some vigour with the remarkable description of the cathedral that I’ve written about before. The explanation for this approach came in the chat with Williams which I’ll think about below. The chat was far ranging and reasonably complex and I wish I’d taken notes because what was said was immensely helpful in enabling readers to get more directly to grips with the work. I outline below what I took to be the main ‘points’.


In response to a question from the floor Simon said that he was very aware that he was criticising our culture from a position within that culture and that this brought its own difficulties – Rowan made the same point about his position in the church. At this point I recalled Simon’s protest about ‘the bloke thing’ blog which I wrote earlier this year because that was an (albeit inept) attempt to illustrate how all of us are enmeshed in a system that many of us aren’t terribly keen on.

There is a complicity ‘thread’ in “Night Office” but I don’t think it’s as pervasive as or direct as it is in some of Simon’s earlier work but his point has got me thinking about the way in which Poetry in its widest sense might be equally complicit. There are the obvious facts, poetry is published and sold for money, poetry ‘events’ sometimes charge people to attend, students pay to go to college and a few are taught about poetry. Many people pay money to attend creative writing courses. We have a State Poet, we don’t have a State Novelist. Poems are used to sell products. So, as well as individuals who are complicit by virtue of their dependence on the current neo-liberal fallacy that underpins our lives, poetry is also caught up in this New Stupidity. I’m very (was going to write ‘painfully’) aware of my own surrender to aspects of s culture that I despise, I know that in terms of the basics (food and shelter) I’m up to my neck in market forces from property bubbles to commodity booms yet this hasn’t prevented me from, with varying degrees of intensity, trying to change things. The other thought took a bit longer to sink in and it has its basis in ‘The Unconditional’. I think it goes lie this, if you want to challenge the current poetry status quo and/or debate then you either write poetry that denies the poetic or you write poetry that embraces the poetic in a way that hasn’t been seen for about two hundred years. ‘The Unconditional’ is very long and very metrical, ‘Night Office’ is even longer, is the first in a series of five, rhymes and is equally metrical all of which puts it at odds with and subverts the current Poetic.

The Liturgy.

This is clearly the cornerstone of the work, Simon appears to be of the view that all of us continue to participate in various forms of ritual but that these have had the spiritual element removed. Both speakers were keen to express the crucial importance of liturgical practice and the need to in some way revive its central position in our lives.

Poetic structure and the wine bottle.

There was a lengthy exchange about rhyme and metre with both agreeing that the structure of the poem must come first when thinking about writing something with these constraints. Simon pointed out that, contrary to the established view, the metrical poem is not the wine held in place by the structure of the bottle but is the wine that is produced by the action of the wine press. I like this line of thought even though I’m still not convinced by the Jarvis Argument that poems that are thus constrained are more effective at expressing Big Thoughts. I am however prompted to re-read the ‘Prosody as cognition’ essay, which at first glance is ‘against’ the idea of prosody as some kind of measuring exercise.

Russian Poets and Russian prosody.

There are more than a few references to Russia in ‘Night Office’ and the occasional Russian phrase. During the discussion Simon mentioned that Russian had many similarities to English but that the Russians had given much more thought to prosody. He also mentioned with approval one or two of the Russian poets that are named in ‘Night Office’.

The conversational reading.

This explained the restrained nature of the reading, Simon feels that it is important for poetry not to make a fuss about itself but to be read in a conversational rather than a dramatic fashion, he used the examples of Wordsworth and Coleridge as opposing sides of this particular coin. Of course, anything that takes this floridity out of poetry is absolutely fine by me. The only point of disagreement between the two was when Simon likened Pushkin to Wordsworth. On the strength of this assertion I’ve looked at the first page of the Nabokov version of ‘Eugene Onegin’ and decided that I don’t like Pushkin either.


This was a little odd, there’s a huge amount of painfulness in ‘Night Office’ and Simon was asked as to the whereabouts of joy. He replied that joy itself is a kind of pain in that it entails a complete loss of self-control. I’m now trying to get my brain around the possibility that the Jarvis worldview is unremittingly bleak. This may however be an extension of his view that Greek tragedy lies behind every aspect of European culture.

Gillian Rose.

Simon noted with complete approval the Gillian Rose thesis as expressed in her “Broken Middle” which is one of the Rose tomes that I haven’t read. Given that the late Ms Rose gets praise from both Hill and Prynne, there must surely be a phd or two on Gillian Rose and the Late Moderns.

So, additional perspectives on Night Office and on the body of work as a whole whereby a few things become much clearer whilst others become more complex than I first thought.

Poetic rupture and innovation.

One of the many challenging things that Michel Foucault said was that progress or innovation proceeds by means of catastrophic rupture rather than gradual change and I’ve been thinking about whether or not this applies to poetry and why some ruptures succeed whilst others fail.

There are two kinds of ruptures:

  • those poems that represent a significant break with the accepted notion of what poetry is;
  • those poems that are a significant move away from the poet’s previous work.

Many would argue that Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is the most obvious rupture in both senses and the most successful in terms of lasting influence. It is possible to see this poem as significantly and radically different from anything before it but I’ve always been of the muddle-headed view that there is a gradual and reasonably logicial progression from ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’ through ‘Gerontion’ to the Ur-text itself. I’m not arguing that ‘The Waste Land’ wasn’t seen at the time as radically different from all that had gone before nor am I saying that it didn’t represent a significant break with the past but I don’t think that it came entirely out of the blue.

This is from ‘Prufrock’:

    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
    (They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, know them all-
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, 
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
       So how should I presume?

There’s a voice within ‘Prufrock’ that is both playfully and intently ambitious, a voice that has a keen interest in how the universe might be disturbed. I think I can also make a case for this early poem with its juxtaposition of the demotic and profound as more modernist than its successor. I’ll also confess to considering everything after ‘Prufrock’ as a bit of a decline.

Eliot had intended to begin ‘The Waste Land’ with ‘Gerontion’ but was dissuaded from doing so by Ezra Pound. I think this might illustrate the point that I am trying to make:

    The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
    Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
    The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
    Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                     I an old man,
    A dull head among windy spaces.
    Signs are taken for wonders. 'We would see a sign!'
    The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
    Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
    Came Christ the tiger.

Given Eliot’s original intentions, it isn’t altogether surprising that many elements of the Waste Land are presaged here, my point is that the rupture isn’t as suddenly as we might think.

By way of contrast, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ was a complete break with what had gone before in his work and was completely out of step with the rest of English poetry of the time. The sequence is in prose and ostensibly concerns Offa, king of the Mercians, but does this by mixing the Anglo Saxon past with the 1971 present in a way that is incredibly accomplished and quite mysteriously evocative. Hill hasn’t published anything like it since and it doesn’t seem to have started any kind of trend. I was fourteen and busy reading ‘Crow’ in 1971 and completely missed this piece of brilliance until about 2005 but it still feels like a major break that should have had much greater effect.

The Prynne trajectory is much easier to trace. ‘Brass’ was also published in 1971 and contained this:

    the immediate body of wealth is not
    history, body-fluid not dynastic. No
    poetic gabble will survive which fails
    to collide head-on with the unwitty circus
              no history running
                  with the French horn running
                         the alley-way, no
                  manifest emergence
              of valued instinct, no growth
                  of meaning & stated order:

Is a head-on collision with the unwitty circus also a rupture or is the essential thing about rupture that it renounces and/or ignores the circus? Does the recent publication of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ mark another significant rupture in Prynne’s work?

Geoffrey Hill isn’t after collisions but he also seems to hold his peers at arms-length, I can make a case for ‘The Triumph of Love’ as a sequence that breaks (ruptures) most of the rules and conventions yet still manages to be defiantly wonderful.

What Foucault didn’t mention was the stupidly high proportion of failed ruptures- those breaks with the past that are not followed by others but are nevertheless just as brilliant as those that succeed. Into this camp I’d place ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘Speke Parrot’ ‘Sordello’ and ‘The Anathemata. There are those that would argue that Langland’s reputation is actually secure and the poem continues to attract critical acclaim but my point is that it wasn’t followed through by others in the same way as Chaucer, Hoccleve and Lydgate. John Skelton was probably deeply dislikeable as a man but his work stands apart from what preceded it and ‘Speke Parrot’ would mark a rupture in any decade but hasn’t influenced anybody since. ‘Sordello’ was a critical and popular disaster but it does shine out as the most ambitious and genuinely innovative poem in the Browning oeuvre- Ezra Pound claimed that he was the only person on the planet who fully appreciated it.

I’ve written many times about the criminal neglect of David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ but the fact remains that it hasn’t been followed and is currently in danger of being forgotten altogether even though some of us regard it as one of the very best poems of the last hundred years. The reasons for this are many and various but pride of place has been given to difficulty and/or obscurity. I’m more inclined to the view that it presented a major challenge to Eliot-inspired modernism and failed to find an audience because it didn’t ‘fit’.

We know come to the rupturist par excellence- Paul Celan’s later work marks a chasm between our current notions of what poetry can do and Celan’s view of what it must do. Most serious poets now recognise Celan as the greatest 20th century poet but few have been brave enough, with the honourable exception of Edmond Jabes to follow in his wake. It is impossible to overstate the violence of this particular rupture which began to tear its way to the surface in the late fifties and continued to Celan’s death in 1970. Suffice it to say that it’s body of work that rips apart all the usual notions of meaning and addresses language as a matter of survival and thinks of the poem carrying the quite desperate potential for an encounter in this struggle for life.

Both Prynne and Celan work at the extremes of ambiguity and allusion, both are rejected for their elitism and obscurity just as both are criticised for writing unpoetry. I’m still of the view that these are the names, above all others that we’ll remember in 200 years’ time.

A brief annonucement

I’ve decided to spend a few months doing other things thus spend less time writing here. The reasons for this (I think) are twofold- I think I need something a bit more focused to occupy my head and this new project will be a way to develop my writing in different ways, I also find that I’m now reading things and thinking of ways to blog about them which is more than a little annoying. This isn’t to say that I’m stopping whatever this is but I’ll only be writing here when I feel compelled to do so.



Geoffrey Hill and The Beautiful Poem

Geoffrey Hill has recently said that poems should be both beautiful and ‘technically efficient. I think I’ve observed before that Elizabeth Bishop is my nomination for the most efficient maker of beautiful poems but this has now got me to thinking about the thorny issue of the aesthetically pleasing. What follows is a demonstration of the Bebrowed line on poetic beauty which (as ever) is provisional, weakly thought through and subject to radical change.

I’ll proceed with Geoffrey Hill and the two ‘In Ipsley Church Lane’ poems from ‘Without Title’ because they seem to be aiming for/towards beauty. This is the first poem:

More than ever I see through painters' eyes.
The white hedge-parsleys pall, the soot is on them.
Clogged thorn-blossom sticks, like burnt cauliflower,
to the festered hedge-rim. More than I care to think
I am as one coarsened by feckless grief.
Storm cloud and sun together bring out the yellow of stone.

But that's lyricism, as Father Guardini
equably names it: autosuggestion, mania,
working off a chagrin close to despair,
riddled by jealousy of all self-healed
in sexual love, each selving each, the gift
of that necessity their elect choice.

Later, as in late autumn, there will be
the mass-produced wax berries, and perhaps
an unearthed wasps' nest like a paper skull,
where fragile cauls of cobweb start to shine.
Where the quick spider mummifies its dead
rage shall move somnolent yet unappeased.

This is the second poem:

Sage-green through olive to oxidized copper,
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossom comes off in handfuls - the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown.
Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog:

substantially the world as is, its heavy body
and its lightnesses emblems, a glitter
held in keel-shaped dock leaves, varieties
of sameness, the pebbles I see sing,
polychrome under rainwash,
arrayed in disarray, immortal raiment:

my question, since I'm paid a retainer,
is whether the appearances, the astonishments
stand in their own keepings finally
or are annulled through the changed measures of light.
Imagination, freakish, dashing every way,
defers annulment.

There are different kinds of poetical beauty but Hill has always been particularly good at doing beautiful things with the English countryside. The scenes themselves may not be visually pleasing or attractive but Hill shows that language can be beautiful in the way that it encapsulates and conveys aspects of the natural world. This is acknowledged in the first line of the first poem which goes on to demonstrate how a poet can make use of his painterly eyes. One of the bebrowed-defined components of poetic beauty is balance which is different from structure, things stop being beautiful if they go on for too long or if they contain too many adjectives or flaunt their own cleverness/eloquence. The faults are all committed by Milton in his description of Eden in ‘Paradise Lost’ but Hill manages to avoid most of them.

Regular readers will be delighted to know that I’m not going to fret about the presence of Romano Guardini, nor am I going to dwell on the self/selving Hopkins trope but on the way in which language can become beautiful. In the first stanza of poem I, the natural world is used as a frame to introduce the ‘real’ subject (Geoffrey Hill). The first stanza is beautiful because it knows itself and does, perfectly what it sets out to do. We’ll come to the italicised ‘as one’ in a moment but the first sign of confidence and mastery comes with ‘the soot is on them’ which is exquisite in its mode of description and the brilliance of the phrasing. I know that Hill often gets some flak for being overly portentous and that I have often complained about the words sounding better than they are but on this occasion the balance and the turn of this particular phrase is just about perfect. I’m also struggling to think of anyone else (ever) that might be capable of getting away with the ‘burnt cauliflower’ image in this kind of context without it feeling contrived/dishonest/clunky etc.

It also takes a lot of nerve to start the second stanza by dismissing the content and tone of the first with a typically opaque reference to a Catholic writer on the liturgy or perhaps this is a gamble that we won’t bother to look him up. Moving rapidly over the opportunity to psychologise, the third stanza ‘works’ and bridges the bits of self-revelation effectively but the language use isn’t as beautiful as the first- it could be but it lets itself down with the ‘perhaps’ which is in sharp contrast to the absolute clarity of the first six lines. I’m also trying hard to ignore the ‘mass-produced’ / Guardini ploy.

The second poem is an example of Hill’s unerring skill in the words business, the images build at the right pace and are complex enough to avoid cliché- ‘lightnesses emblems’, ‘pebbles I see sing’ arrayed in disarray’ punctuate the things that are described at the right pace and without drawing too much attention to themselves. There is the question of whether he’s too pleased with the drizzle and the dog and whether it’s good enough to be pleased in the first place. The third stanza is typically convoluted but not ‘difficult’ and ‘their own keepings’ manages to dilute what might otherwise be too grandiose for what’s being said. It’s also a poem about the rain, a favourite British concern but he does do it very well- even for this jaded compatriot.

There are other bits of Hill that I do find beautiful but these two are the ones that stay with me as examples of what language can do with the natural world.

Incidentally, for Hill completists, the Google street thing has been down this particular lane and it looks utterly ordinary…

Poetry and the academy (again)

In the early days of this blog I allowed myself the occasional extended rant about the damage that something called the academy does to something we call poetry. The general thrust of this centred around an academic elite having more and more complex discussions with itself and thus locking most ‘serious’ poetry up in a box that excludes the rest of us.

I’d like to be able to report that I’ve mellowed and now appreciate that complex poetry requires complex analysis and that this must be expressed in precise terms which many may consider to be obscure. Unfortunately, recent exposure to academic work continues to confirm the original view although in a slightly modified form.

I read a lot of history and spend many a happy hour arguing in my head with views and perspectives that I don’t agree with. I’d like to be able to read about poets and poetry that interests me, especially work produced between 1580 and 1670 (ish) although I wouldn’t be adverse to reading outside these parameters. The problem is that I can’t finish the vast majority of those that I’ve tried. I start off with the best of intentions but soon get weary and decide not to proceed any further. This weariness is usually due to:

  • the points being made don’t seem to be well-founded;
  • an ideological agenda is being pursued which requires the author to shoehorn the work into a box that doesn’t fit;
  • academic eagerness leading to an ‘over-egging’ of the pudding;
  • increasingly convoluted arguments to make a very small point;
  • an emphasis on the wrong things;

There are some critics that I read with enormous pleasure even though I disagree with almost everything they say, I read and re-read Stanley Fish on anything and I do the same with Jacques Derrida on Paul Celan. I also read Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne on anything but my primary motivation stems from my interest in their poetry.

I do appreciate that there are academic trends and that these develop over time, I also understand that academia is competitive but it does seem that academic success is more likely if authors produce work that questions the prevailing status quo (and is well written).

I do not want to single out particular books but I have started about ten that have been published in the last five years. I’ve been attracted by the subject matter and the thesis that’s set out in the introduction and have started with more than a degree of enthusiasm because all of these books promise to do what I think ought to be done.

The over-egging of the pudding is particularly tiresome, it does seem that there is a tendency to develop entire theories on the flimsiest evidence. Some historians also fall into this particular trap but there is a growing trend which emphasises the things that we don’t actually know rather than those which we can only guess about. I’m not inherently against speculation but I am of the view that authors should make it clear when speculation is taking place.

I have tried to be reasonably broad in my reading, I’ve engaged with works about individual poets, about groups of poets, works with a political bent and those with a theological/philosophical angle and none of these have lived up to the promises set out in the introduction. Some of this can be very dispiriting, I’ve been taken through many pages of context and supporting evidence only to arrive at a ‘point’ that is so small as to be meaningless. I’ve been through pages of ideologically right-on posturing to arrive at a ‘point’ that is laughably wrong (as in factually incorrect).

We now come to specialisms and context. I am familiar with the history of this particular period and am therefore reasonably aware when authors provide only partial or inaccurate context. There may however be many readers who ‘only’ have a background in literature and would often struggle to make a judgement about the context that is provided. I’m not suggesting that this is deliberate but too often sweeping generalisations are made in order to prove a (usually speculative) theory. The other side of the coin is represented by J H Prynne who spends many pages in his ‘Love III’ commentary emphasising just how complex and obscure certain theological debates were in the 1620s.

we now come to over-complication which is usually due to putting forward a hypothesis on very, very thin evidence but can also stem from being overly-enamoured with theory. The love of theory is (to say the least) unfortunate because it can often deter the hapless reader (me) who ‘just’ wants to know a bit more about the poems. I could go on for a very long time about how the work of Edmund Spenser has been hijacked and fought over by various theoretical perspectives to such an extent that the poetry has been largely forgotten, looking at recent academic work would lead the neutral observer to conclude that Spenser only ever wrote about Ireland and that this was done in order to promote and strengthen a profoundly dodgy (technical term) imperial project. Needless to say a few critics have attempted to buck this trend but they do tend to get swamped by this kind of errant nonsense.

I’m not in any way adverse to theory but do nevertheless feel that theoretical concerns should be used to inform our understanding of the work and not the other way round. Literary theorists also suffer in the main from a very simplistic view of how things work/worked in the real world. There seems to be a number of straight lines that go from society to any particular poem, so we have a burgeoning economy or a flourishing legal profession or religious controversy having a direct and discernible influence on the way that poems are put together. I shouldn’t really need to point out that life is inherently messy and doesn’t always follow the lines that we draw for it. The refusal of some literary critics (from a variety of theoretical perspectives) to understand and accommodate this unfortunate fact is especially frustrating.

It’s also interesting to note that historians tend to do better on poets than literary critics do on history. Roy Foster has produced the definitive work on Yeats and Edward Thompson’s book on Blake and the Muggletoniansis an absolute delight.

In conclusion, with a few honourable exceptions, the academy continues to produce work about poetry that is incredibly introspective and usually inaccurate. This does enormous disservice to the work and to the interested but non-academic reader.

Geoffrey Hill, Amy De’Ath and Love (poetry).

I think it is reasonable to suggest that there is far more bad/appalling love poetry in the world than there is good or even average. Many, many capable and technically efficient poets have a complete blind spot when it comes to writing about love. This has always been the case but this sad fact is offset by the fact that some of the world’s finest poems are about love. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are head and shoulders above most other poems of any genre and Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ wins my vote as the most perfect poem of the twentieth century.

Prior to ‘Odi Barbare’, Geoffrey Hill was one of those poets who should give the love lyric a very wide berth. I think it’s generally acknowledged that the ‘Oraclau’ sequence isn’t very good and the ‘Hiraeth’ poems are just bad and shouldn’t have been published. I’m not denying the emotional intensity and honesty of what’s been said, it’s just that this isn’t an excuse for the inept.

The good news is that the love poem in ‘Odi Barbare’ is a big improvement on the ‘Hiraeth’ poems, the not so good news is that it’s more than a little odd and the oddness gets in the way. It is addressed to a loved one and it is technically efficient and bits of it might be quite beautiful but there does appear to be a sort of smugness going on.

Amy De’Ath’s ‘Caribou’, on the other hand, contains a number of poems where a loved one is addressed but in ways that are both original and quite startling. I am about to compare and contrast these two but I think I need to state at this point that the Bebrowed perfect love poem remains ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop both because of what it says and its technical virtuosity. I also need to acknowledge that it is very hard to write credible love poems without falling into the traps of mawkish sentimentality, self-indulgence and unoriginality.

Hill’s poem/section/bit XXVIII starts well:

Broken that first kiss by the race to shelter,
Scratchy brisk rain as irritable as tinder,
Hearing light thrum faintly the chords of laurel
Taller than we were.

There’s a lot going on in this and it’s well put together. The first line is both economical and striking, to start with ‘Broken’ is a typical flourish that demonstrates an advanced and deep understanding of what language can do. ‘That’ rather than ‘the’ makes it clear that a loved one is being addressed rather than the reader and the search for shelter is a theme that is developed further. I’m very fond of ‘thrum’ as a verb and I’m sure that Hill will be aware of all its definitions as well as the musical one alluded to here. The last line (in the context of a love poem) seems a bit weak but serves to anticipate some of what follows.

Amy De’Ath’s ‘Tall Glass’ starts with this:

So you are the clearest, loneliest tall
glass, and you are free, and you are paler
than a milieu of pale teenage girls
scrubbing, condensing massively into a
huge tear, you are the advert for
the glass you are driniking from, is
this the glass you are drinking
from, is this that glass

This is the first half of the first stanza of two and I really like the way that it makes use of and subverts convention at the same time, I also like the way the originality of what is being said with its hint of obsession and an unstated desire to be clear about the emotions/desires that underline the ‘you are’ observations. The ‘milieu’ image is striking and is additionally enhanced / made even more effective by the deeply anti-poetic ‘scrubbing’. As with Hill, this is accomplished and inventive stuff that becomes more satisfying as things progress.

In the previous post on ‘Odi Barbare’ I mentioned the ‘Sapphic’ verse form (three longish lines followed by one short) and the fact that each of the poems has six verses that conform to this format. My initial response was that this particular constraint is more effective/useful than the ones used in ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ but I’m still not entirely convinced that it works as Hill intends. It seems to me that what the blurb describes as a ‘recadencing’ of Sidney’s example may strangle or damp down the power and force of what’s being said.

This is how Poem XXVIII ends:

What though, wedded, we would have had annulment's
Consummation early, and though in darkness
I can see that glimmerous rim of folly
Lave our condition,

Had we not so stumbled on grace, beloved,
In that chanced day brief as the sun's arising
Preternaturally without a shadow
Cast in its presence.

Many of us have been enthralled and fascinated by Hill’s engagement with the workings of grace and this seems to add a further dimension. Leaving aside the many and verious theological niceties, the image of two lovers ‘stumbling’ on grace is odd as it suggests that the first kiss on that chanced day coincides with the appearance of grace and the salvation that usually comes with it. I don’t think that the last two lines of the penultimate verse work but this is probably because I don’t understand exactly (out of the many options) what is being said and the short line seems weak, the choice of ‘lave’ just seems too mannered and draws unnecessary attention to itself. The last verse is much more effective and the final line does provide a good ending. I’m still not sure how grace might be stumbled upon but the poem is so much more accomplished than the ‘Hiraeth’ poems.

I was going to type out all of ‘Tall Glass’ as a demonstration of what a good love poem might look like in 2012 but I’ve now decided to draw attention to these lines from the second stanza:

the huge baby of spring is bouncing towards us
about to cast his reckoning on his heads
and decide we are all right to go on loving if we
like, hope leaning on the air between
tenements, holy mother of snow I miss you-
altitude of bees, tall scarf a richness I know,
I will not fight about it
in the glass there is such a richness.

EWhat this demonstrates is De’Ath’s ability to do very special things with ordinary language and to produce work of real depth without resorting to some of modernism’s better known devices. The baby of spring, the air between the tenements and the altitude of bees all combine to express a range of emotions and desires in a way that seems accurate and honest- which is a way of saying that I believe in the feelings expressed in ‘Tall Glass’ whereas I have a degree of scepticism about those expressed by Hill. ‘Holy mother of snow’ manages to be heartfelt and wonderfully expressive at the same time.