Tag Archives: andrew marvell

The many faces of the innovative poem

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

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

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

William Langland

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

Thomas Hoccleve

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

John Skelton.

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

Edmund Spenser

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

John Milton

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

Andrew Marvell

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

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

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

David Jones.

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

Charles Olson.

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

Paul Celan.

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

Charles Reznikoff.

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

Allen Ginsberg.

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

Geoffrey Hill.

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

J H Prynne

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

Simon Jarvis

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

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

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

Vanessa Place.

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

Keston Sutherland.

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

Jonty Tiplady

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

Marvell, Matthias, Sutherland and Information Quality

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

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

This is Marvell:


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

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

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

And this is Matthias:


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

And this is Sutherland:


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

Verbal skill.

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

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

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

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

Tone

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

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

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

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

Subject Matter.

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

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

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

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

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

Pointfulness

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

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

‘Scenes from Comus’ on Arduity.

About two years ago I started (launched would be too grand a verb) the Arduity site with the aim of helping readers to engage with poetry that is thought to be difficult. At the same time I applied for Arts Council funding which wasn’t forthcoming. For a year or so I added bits in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion and then left it alone. To my surprise it continues to attract between 100 and 200 user sessions per day and people still say encouraging things about it.

In an attempt to get a bit more structure into my life, I’ve decided to overhaul arduity and to move it more in the direction of poets and their work but with the same objective of encouraging ‘lay’ readers to pay attention to this material.

Apart from tidying up some of the navigation and a few of the very many typos, I’ve spent most of today writing about ‘Comus’ because the Geoffrey Hill section is a bit thin and doesn’t contain any direct examples of the work. Then there is the fact that I really like writing about this particular sequence as it’s the one that converted me to his work.

After much internal deliberation I’ve also mentioned on the Hill index page that the last three books might not be very good but, for the moment, I haven’t spelled out how utterly dismal ‘Oraclau’ actually is.

Having now read what I’ve written on ‘Comus’, which I still think of as one of the clearer sequences, I’m now beginning to dither. Two years ago I had a typical user in mind, a keen reader of poetry with a reasonable level of intelligence who is nevertheless deterred from this work because of its density, word use and allusions and by the critical chatter that surrounds it. This had been my experience and it took a very positive review of ‘Comus’ by Nicholas Lezard to attempt to tackle this kind of stuff. So, the tone was to be one of positive encouragement together with an overview of the tricks of the late modern trade.

Having now re-read some of the initial content, I’ve decided that most of it is more didactic and patronising than intended and that it lacks personal enthusiasm and tends to glide over some of the very real obstacles to access.

Starting with enthusiasm, I’ve tried with this blog to find different ways to do avid pleasure and admiration. Sometimes this ‘works’ and on other occasions it falls flat on its face but my point is that I do try to communicate the pleasure/provocation/incitement that I get from some of this material on Bebrowed whereas I haven’t with Arduity. With regard to obstacles, I’ve just written something that indicates that the reader may benefit from some baseline knowledge of-

  • Wyatt and Surrey;
  • Boethius and Fortune and/or Providence;
  • the relationship between Andrew Marvell and John Milton;
  • the red Tories of the 1820s
  • Hopkins’ improvisations on ‘self’, ‘inscape’ and ‘selving’
  • the meaning and usage of ‘couvade’

My dithering stems from not knowing how my intended user would respond to this kind of exposition. I did some self-censoring in that I haven’t done chapter and verse on ‘selving’, I’ve omitted almost completely the workings of grace and have merely mentioned Hill’s promotion of poetry as memorialisation. I tell myself that this isn’t being too dishonest and explication of some of the above does at least let users know what they might be in for.

However, there is this lingering doubt that a line has been crossed and that (again) I’m writing for myself rather than for the user and that I haven’t injected enough enthusiasm to counteract the density of the references/tone/theme. This is even harder to judge. I have been known to opine that anyone who doesn’t like a certain poem is obviously devoid of a soul and have resorted, on occasion, to quite florid hyperbole but there are very few times when I’ve said what I needed to say. Those that do come to mind have tended to be more personal and immediate rather than considered and/or mannered. For example, I’m reasonably happy about my writing about Keston Sutherland, Amy De’Ath, Sarah Kelly and Andrew Marvell but I don’t think I’ve been as spontaneous as I should about Paul Celan, Vanessa Place and Timothy Thornton.

For once, this isn’t an imaginary problem. Tomorrow I intend to write a couple of thousand words on ‘The Triumph of Love’ and I’ll enjoy this because it’s a wonderful piece of work that is also completely bonkers in term of tone and rationale. I do want to emphasise this level of eccentricity but also let users know that they will need to deal with the workings of Grace, the nature of purgatory and the Bradwardine problem. To do otherwise would be fundamentally dishonest. I’m also tempted to liven things up by including some psychopathology with regard to class background and childhood but this would only be to create a quite spurious frisson.

There is also the fact that I think it is one of the very best things to be written in the last forty years yet I don’t agree with either its centrasl ‘point’ which seems stupidly naive or its level of self-admiration. How do I include these concerns without going into enormous detail about arguments that are quite preipheral to my enjoyement of the work?

In conclusion, any thoughts on the above would be most welcome as would any views on the direction that Arduity should now take, bearing in mind that this has been about presenting an alternative to the academy rather than a supplement to it.

Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.

The Poet as Witness, Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’.

The above poem is a gloriously vicious account of the circumstances leading to the Second Dutch War which in 1667 saw the Dutch fleet sail up the Thames with impunity, steal our flag ship, set fire to a few towns and sail away without loss. This was going to be a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise with other primary sources (Pepys and the Calendar of State Papers) in an attempt to differentiate between the official, the personal and the poetic but then I got sidetracked into another line of enquiry which I should tackle first.

Re-reading the ‘Instructions’, I came across Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans, who is one of the first political figures to fall under Marvell’s scrutiny. In the poem he is portrayed as a kind of seventeenth century sex machine and pointedly crude reference is made to his alleged affair with Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s queen. Being struck by the severity of Marvell’s gaze I (in the interests of balance) decided to look at Jermyn’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. The DNB article on Jermyn contains a reasonably objective account of Jermyn’s life in terms of posts held and the ‘close’ relationship with Henrietta Maria. Dealing with Jermyn’s role after 1660, we get this-

” Andrew Marvell’s great satire on the conduct of the war, ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’, attacked St Albans’s alleged lack of ability, his appearance, and his overindulgence in the pleasures of the court:
Paint then St Albans full of soup and gold,
The new court’s pattern, stallion of the old.
Him neither wit nor courage did exalt,
But Fortune chose him for her pleasure salt.
Paint him with drayman’s shoulders, butcher’s mien,
Member’d like mules, with elephantine chine.
Well he the title of St Alban’s bore,
For Bacon never studied nature more
But age, allaying now that youthful heat,
Fits him in France to play at cards and treat.”

So, poet as witness becomes poet as ‘official’ recorder. The Jermyn article is written by his only recent biographer and yet he chooses to include part of Marvell’s diatribe as part of the objective record which wasn’t part of Marvell’s intention. The poem portrays a high degree of political incompetence and corruption but Marvell was no innocent bystander, he had been MP for Hull since 1659 and was therefore part of the dismal political malaise that infected British public life during the 1660s and beyond. As an act of polemic, the poem needs to be considered as part of a series of ‘advice’ poems penned by Marvell and others and should perhaps be read both as testimony and as a demonstration of poetic skill.

There is a ‘point to this dismal tale and that is that the King, who is addressed directly in the poem’s closing lines, should pay more heed to the advice of the landed gentry rather than his courtiers and their parliamentary supporters. The primary reason given is that the gentry have substantial and enduring wealth and are not dependent on royal patronage and the corruption that this entails.

As well as being a scathing account of contemporary events and a polemic against the corrupt and sexually charged culture of the court, ‘Instructions’ contains a memorialisation in oddly erotic terms of Archibald Douglas who chose to stay aboard his burning ship whilst the rest of the crew fled. In a subsequent poem, ‘The Loyal Scot’, Marvell uses Douglas’ heroic example to suggest that national distinctions shouldn’t be given prominence in political debate.

So, poem that bears witness to a national disaster by recording both the circumstances and the disaster itself, a poem that acts as polemic against contemporary incompetence and corruption, that provides pithy descriptions of a range of powerful characters and, in the process, presents a vivid portrait of the culture and concerns of the ruling elite.

Incidentally, both Milton and Marvell eulogise characters who chose to stay on board sinking ships. Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ is an elegy for Edward King who drowned in 1637 after deciding to pray on deck rather than try to escape. It strikes me that we wouldn’t think of either of these deaths as in anyway heroic now (stupid, but not especially brave) yet this does seem to have been an act worthy of praise in the 17th century.

I’d like to conclude by means of comparison with a more recent piece of witnessing. David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ memorialises the Somme offensive, that great British disaster of WWI but for other reasons. Jones does not seek to berate the dismal incompetence of the generals that sent so many men into this carnage, his stated aim is to mark the turning point in the British army with the arrival of new-fangled technologies that reduced much of the good natured camaraderie of the first two years of the war. Notwithstanding Jones’ aim the poem is a first hand account of soldiers moving up to the front and the initial suicidal assault on Mametz Wood. Jones resists polemic and even the scenes of death and dying are handled in a lyrical and moving way which is far removed from the anger so evident in many other war poets.

It can be argued that all poetry bears witness but Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions’ seems to cover most forms of testimony, apart from the eye-witness account, and also makes a significant contribution to the wider cultural landscape of his time. For those who are interested, it is especially rewarding to follow Pepys’ account of the same period (as well as having some responsibility for the naval fiasco, he read the poem in manuscript form) and the official records which show a government immobilised by panic.

In the woods with Andrew Marvell

Weng Naiqiang - scene from the Cultural Revolution

In December Michael Schmidt provided a thoughtful response to the piece on ‘Upon Appleton House’ and I’d like to respond and cover some of the areas that I didn’t cover last year.

The poem is Marvell’s longest and is ostensibly ‘about’ the Fairfax estates in Yorkshire where Marvell was employed as tutor to Mary Fairfax between 1650 and 1652. Last year I focused attention on the woodpecker and what the references to ‘traitor-worm’ and ‘treason’ might signify but now I want to thinks about the section on the estate’s woods in the context of the rest of the poem

The poem seems to be trying to do a number of things, the first being to pay tribute to the Fairfax family and then to use the grounds of Appleton House as both a place of rest from the cares of the world and the site of poetic experimentation

Nigel Smith usefully divides the poem into six main sections:

  • the first ten stanzas deal with the architecure of Appleton House as a reflection of Fairfax’ modesty and humility;
  • the second section tells a story about the union of the Fairfax and Thwaites families and explains how this is tied up with the origins of the house as a convent;
  • this is a description of the garden which is presented (oddly) in military terms;
  • the fourth section is the most technically ambitious and describes the meadows and the effects of the floods that occasionally occur
  • this concerns the woods although the eighteen stanzas are interrupted by three ‘about’ the river;
  • the last sixteen stanzas focus on the river and describe the onset of evening and the arrival of Maria Fairfax- the poem close with further praise of the Fairfax dynasty.

One of the many good things about Andrew Marvell is that he is so difficult to pin down and much critical energy is wasted in trying to position him within the mid to late 17th century. This if further compounded by the conflicted and deeply factional times in which he lived and the fact that he seemed to occupy both ‘camps’ in fairly rapid succession. There’s also the fact that most of the poems seem to point in more than one direction at the same time.

According to Smith, there was a bit of a fashion for writing about landscape during this period and I read the section on the meadows as Marvell’s successful attempt to overgo his peers. We’ll start with the mowers:

To see men through this meadow dive
We wonder how they rise alive.
As, under water, none does know
Whether he fall through it or go.
But, as the mariners that sound,
And show their lead the ground,
They bring up flowers to be seen,
And prove they've at the bottom been.

The above is an example of Marvell the technician, he combines his image with complete control over language and the poetic form. It can be argued that this is mere mimesis but the seafaring analogy sets us up for the flooding in the later part of this section so that the reader is already thinking of the meadows as ocean. There’s also other stuff going on, rising ‘alive’ and providing proof of plumbing the depths both of which have obvious religious connotations – and God was very big indeed during the Protectorate. The most impressive aspect (to me) is the absence of frills, there are no describing words and what needs to be said is said with the minimum fuss.

Before we get to the flooding, we have this political aside:

For to this naked, equal flat,
Which Levellers take pattern at,
The villagers in common chase
Their cattle, which it closer rase;
And what below the scythe increased
Is pinched yet nearer by the beast.
Such, in the painted world, appeared
Dav'nant with th'universal herd.

Smith’s gloss, as is the norm, goes on at great length about the levellers and also throws in the Surrey Diggers and Winstanley but kind of skirts around the central ‘issue’ which appear to be enclosure and the related debates about encroachment on common land. The sub-text would appear to be that the Levellers are campaigning for something that the labourers on the Fairfax estate already have. Given that Fairfax was involved in the suppression of this particular group of eccentrics, I fondly imagine his discussions on all things radical with his daughter’s tutor (when they weren’t discussing Spenser, obviously).

As a fully paid-up Spenserian, I warmly applaud the snook that is cocked at William Davenant (who declared Spenser’s language to be obsolete and the immortal Spenserian stanza to be ‘unlucky’) but I’d also like to point out that this isn’t political per se but a conscious effort to please Fairfax and to efficiently overgo one of the prominent literary figures of the time. Needless to say, Fairfax was a committed Spenserian and would have vehemently disagreed with Davenant’s view.

This isn’t to deny that politics play a part in the poem but that the views expressed or alluded to are more readily attributed to Fairfax than to the poet. I’d also like to argue that it’s technically difficult to get so much stuff into an eight line stanza.

We now move into the wood which has a similar tone to that of ‘The Garden’ (which I’m still claiming as a sequence rather than a single unified poem) but it does have a dedicatory element:

The double wood of ancient stocks
linked in so thick, an unison locks,
It like two pedigrees appears,
On the one hand Fairfax, th'other Vere's:
Of whom though many fell in war,
Yet more to heaven shooting are:
and, as they Nature's cradle decked,
Will, in green age, her hearse expect.

Smith doesn’t gloss ‘green’ and he should because it’s the only way to make any kind of sense of the last two lines, if indeed sense is altogether desirable. As I’ve said before, the seventeenth century was a very different place and we should think much more about these differences rather than about the apparent similarities. Of course, there are poems and bits of poems from the period that we can relate to but there are also some aspects that we’ll never get to grips with. The colour green, for example, was packed which much more ‘meaning’ in 1651 and is likely to have been used so frequently by Marvell because of it’s radical ambiguity and its deployment throughout the cultural landscape. Suffice it to say that ‘green’ here may not mean either natural or young or that it could mean both of these and six or seven more.

I wrote recently about ‘The Garden’ and had a bit of a moan about the current tendency to equate the mention of soul with the Neoplatonic. Marvell’s soul might make an appearance in these woods too-

Thus I, easy philosopher,
Among the birds and trees confer:
And little now to make me, wants
Or of the fowle, or of the plants.
Give me but wings as they, and I
Straight floating on the air shall fly: Or turn me but, and you shall see
I was but an inverted tree.

I’d like to make a claim for a parallel with the soul that flies in ‘The Garden’ but I’d also like to remove the Neoplatonic connotations and supplant it with something about the Edenic quality of the wood and the apparently simple qualities that are explored by the ‘easy philosopher’ but that makes a number of assumptions that I want to make because it fits with what I want to think about with regard to Fairfax’ decision to retire from public life which nicely chimes with the act of reflection that Marvell appears to admire.

A final thought- the line on treason (written about in the first post) is glossed by Smith as a straightforward condemnation of regicide but is it another reflection of the Fairfax family stance on this rather than what Marvell thought? The regicide isn’t equated with treason in the ‘Horatian Ode’ but Charles’ courage on the scaffold is praised….

Back in the Garden with Andrew Marvell’s soul and the colour green

This is going to appear more than a little disjointed but there is (trust me) some method in the confusion that follows. I’ve been re-reading Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and trying to follow Nigel Smith’s logic with regard to a Neoplatonic reading of the sequence and giving further consideration to Bruce R Smith’s gloriously ambitious ‘The Key of Green, Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture’ in order to try and get this particular poem a bit clearer in my head.

There are a number of things that I think need to be established before getting into the specifics:

  1. the middle of the 17th century is very far removed from and foreign to the early part of the twentieth century, the religious groups of the Interegnum and beyond were not the Taliban, John Evelyn was not our first ecologist regardless of what Simon Schama might say;
  2. the appearance of the word ‘soul’ in a poem does not automatically imply the presence of all things Plotinus hovering benignly (or otherwise) over the text;
  3. poetic influence, especially from one poet to another, is hugely complicated and should not be treated as a simple ‘given';
  4. Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ may not be a single poem but a sequence of nine self-contained and coherent poems grouped around a single theme just as Hill’s Oraclau has Wales and the Welsh as its unifying link;
  5. work on the development of gardens and the place of the garden in the 17th century mindset / cultural landscape is only now beginning to produce results and these currently cover a very broad range of perspectives;
  6. as with ‘soul’, the use of the word ‘green’ should not be automatically be taken to refer to all things natural and wholesome.

I feel that I can now turn to the poem and start with what Nigel Smith has to say about the Neoplatonic basis for the poem/sequence- “In effect, M. transfers the metaphors of Neoplatonism from the cosmic to the human scale, almost parodying Neoplatonic language: Should not abide unchanged when it produces: it is moved and so brings forth an image. It looks to its source and is filled, and going forth to another opposed movement generates its own image, which is sensation and the principle growth in plants…. The part before this, which is immediately dependent upon Intellect, leaves Intellect alone, abiding in itself.'” The quote is from Book III of the Enneads and Smith refers us to the first 6 line of stanza / poem VI:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

To back up his claim, Smith quotes at some length from Nathaniel Culverwel’s ‘An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature’ and concludes with “Again, the broad patterns of thought M.’s thought are evident.” It so happens that I know a little of Plotinus and the Neoplatonic thread in English verse and it is this sort of opportunistic reading that really doesn’t do attentive readers any favours. Before proceeding with this I think I need to say that Nigel Smith’s work on Marvell (especially in the Longman Collected) is a model of what scholarship should be about- it’s just that here he does overreach himself. If we treat ‘The Garden’ as a single poem then it is clear that it is saying a number of quite different things and that these things are not easily compressed into one particular school of thought. We might also want to suggest that the poem deliberately resists a single, unified reading. This is not a radical insight about Marvell, people have been complaining about the unresolvable ambiguity in his work since 1681. The quest for a single coherent meaning or viewpoint is very attractive, some time ago I posted something on this blog which proposed to make complete sense of ‘An Horation Ode’ purely on the strength of its closing lines.

Before going on to the next stanza / poem, I’d like to draw attention to Smith’s “In effect” and “almost” in the above quote which might just indicate that he knows that he’s on a slippery slope.

We now turn to the next stanza which brings us to Edmund Spenser and the soul:

Here at the fountain's sliding foot
Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root,
Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There it like a bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs it sliver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Smith states that Spenser’s ‘Hymne to Heavenly Beautie’ is the source for the third and fourth lines and cites most of stanza 4 of that poem. However, the Yale edition of Spenser’s shorter poems is of the view that this sense of ascent is a reflection of Plato rather than Plotinus. Smith also quotes Alistair Fowler’s view that Boethius, Jeremy Taylor and George Herbert are also sources. I don’t have access to the 2003 Times Literary Supplement article that this is taken from but, as a general rule of thumb, anything that Fowler says must be correct because he is better than anyone else and writes with superb elan and authority.

Coincidentally, I know nothing of Boethius but I am now in possession of Prynne’s ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ which includes Boethius in its ‘Reference Cues’ list so I may have to read this before I get to the rest. I don’t wish to minimise the various threads that Marvell may be making use of here but I think my point is that influence isn’t just about mimesis or imitation, the strongest type of influence is that which gives the influenced permission to act or create in a certain way. For example, Pound gave Charles Olson permission to write a very long poem about many apparently disparate things just as James Joyce gave David Jones permission to write about the thought patterns of troops in WWI.

In this way Spenser gives permission to Herbert and they both give permission in turn to Marvell to write about the soul in a way that may contain elements of the Neoplatonic whilst not embracing the whole philosophy. It is eminently possible, for example, to draw a parallel between Ficino on the One and the structure of Book I of the Faerie Queen but that doesn’t mean that Spenser is putting forward a specifically Neoplatonic position.

With regard to green, this occurs twice in the poem / sequence, in addition to the above, stanza / poem 3 begins with this-

Nor red nor white was ever seen
So am'rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees, their mistress' name
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! Wher'se'er your barks I wound,
No name but your own shall be found.

When I last wrote about this, I observed that green could be read in a number of different ways. Bruce R Smith has these-

  • leaves, especially bay leaves, especially bay leaves wound around a
    poet’s brow,
  • greenwood, greensward, greenhouse,
  • the village green,
  • verdigris, litharge of lead (PbO), and quicksilver “ground with the pisse of a yong childe” to make an emerald-green dye,
  • the suit of “flaming greene like an Emerald” that St. George is supposed to have worn when, en route to England, he stopped off in Egypt and was crowned king there,
  • a table covering for conducting legal business (the Board of Greencloth,
  • the green baize of the House of Commons), playing card games, and shooting pool,
  • green phantasms in “Perspective-Houses,” where, according to Francis Bacon, the inhabitants of New Atlantis produce “all Colourations of Light. All Delusions and Deceits of the Sight, in Figures, Magnitudes,
    Motions, Colours: All Demonstrations of Shadows,”
  • greenhead and greenhorn,
  • “the greene-ey’d Monster,” and
  • “Good is as visible as greene.”

Smith contiues with- “The last of these greens is John Donne’s in “Communitie,” a poem printed with Donne’s amorous verse in 1633. Donne’s speaker begins with the commonly held proposition that we must love good and hate ill. But what about “things indifferent”? These we have to “prove” or try out, “As wee shall fi nde our fancy bent.” Take women. Nature made them neither good nor bad, so we must use them all: “If they were good it would be seene, / Good is as visible as greene, / And to all eyes it selfe betrayes.” Green is so visible, it turns out, not just because it is everywhere to be seen in greenwood and greensward or because the speaker is a greenhead full of youthful desire but because women are green goods, pieces of ripening fruit that the speaker can devour one after another.”

I’ve quoted the above at length because I want to make a more general point about the occasional need to accept that we don’t actually know and will never know what certain things mean or refer to and that this is especially the case with Marvell. Perhaps it might be more appropriate to celebrate this multiplicity than contributing to sterile and unresolvable debates over precise intention and meaning….