Tag Archives: clavics

Odi Barbare Poem VI- a question (pt 1)

I’m still dithering about Hill’s latest collection. The nature of this dither relates to whether or not it’s any good. I know how I feel about ‘Oraclau’ (not very good at all) and about ‘Clavics’ (quite good as in better than ‘Without Title’ but some way below ‘Comus’). The ‘Odi’ sequence puzzles me and creates that kind of ‘am I missing something?’ readerly anxiety that I’ve written about in connection with Emily Dorman.

In yet another attempt to stop the dither, I’ve decided to pay careful attention to one poem from the sequence that I think I understand in order to try and identify the components of this particular problem.

Before we proceed, I’d like to say a few things about dissonance. Poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence begins with “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince” which is a bit like saying that these poems contain some naff lines and phrases but that’s okay because I’m aware of this and am letting you know that I’m aware. I don’t have any kind of problem with dissonance providing that it isn’t accompanied by a drop in quality or a diminution of theme.

The other thing that I need to mention is the ‘Sapphic’ verse form which Hill is said in the blurb to use in order to ‘re-cadence’ the form as used by Sidney. This consists of verses with three long lines followed by one short. Each of the fifty two poems in this sequence contains six of these verses. Both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ also used a single but different form throughout. This may not be an entirely Good Thing.

This is the first verse of Poem VI:

I can hack most laureates' roster-homage
Make a pranged voice nasal through a ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.

The first line might refer to poets laureate who are appointed by the crown and expected to write in honour of or (at least) about national events or it may refer to gifted poets in the way that Skelton would refer to himself. Given that verses 4 and 5 place us in or about the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 then the laureate may be Tennyson who might be said to have written a few ‘roster-homages’. This neat hypothesis gets a bit addled with William Caxton referring to Skelton as ‘late created poete laureate in the university of Oxford’ which might just match Hill’s appointment as Professor of Poetry at the same place. The OED defines ‘roster’ as- ‘ A list or plan showing the order of rotation of duties and service of individual soldiers or troops. Also (esp. U.S.): a simple list or register of soldiers, divisions of a regiment, etc., with various particulars relating to them’ which would seem to tie in with a poem to commemorate or pay homage to those soldiers that were slaughtered in the battle.

The use of ‘hack’ is also worthy of note. I’m now going to sound like Hill but the usually reliable OED has failed me on this occasion. In the British army to be able to hack something is to be able to withstand an ordeal- a meaning which is now commonly used, there is also the literary connotation of working as a hack which usually means reporting for the popular or provincial press. So, given the next line, we might have Hill acknowledging that he can withstand the onerous task of praising a list of the dead and that he recognises that this work might be a bit beneath a man of his talents.

Moving on to the second line, I’m claiming that Hill has used ‘prang’ before but I can’t recall exactly where. I’m taking it to mean crashed or damaged rather than having anything to do with Khmer temples (although….). It can be said that a voice is damaged if it sounds ‘nasal’, as if the speaker has a heavy cold or it could refer to that affected and deeply irritating intonation that is used by some poets when reading their own work. ‘Ruptured matchbox’ can be read as either meaningless or wonderful. Those in the meaningless camp would argue that it is used because it sounds good but actually means nothing and adds nothing to the poem. Those in the wonderful camp would staunchly defend the impossibility of the image because that’s what poets do and point out that a matchbox is both raspy and fragile (liable to break/rupture) at the same time which is reasonably similar to the voice when affected by a cold, we’d also point out that this kind of stuff is one of the reasons that we read and pay attention to Hill’s work.

With regard to ‘brief’ I again have to express some disappointment with the OED which defines the verb as to:

  • reduce to the form of a counsel’s brief;
  • put (instructions) into the form of a brief to a barrister;
  • give a brief to (a barrister), to instruct by brief; to retain as counsel in a suit;
  • give instructions or information to;
  • shorten, abbreviate, abridge.

None of these cover the way that politicians are prepared and given advice by civil servants prior to making an announcement nor in the sense of ‘briefing against’ something which is how we refer to the actions of lobbyists who want to cast doubt on a proposal. I’m still of the view that Hill is referring to the verb as in to advise (disparagingly or otherwise) that the act (fighting the battle) is undangerously heroic because the adjective doesn’t really make sense. There is of course the possibility that the’act’ is the act of poetic commemoration but that only works if Hill is being heavily ironic. Heroism is usually associated with danger, the heroic action is one that is performed in the face of danger so we could be talking about a false kind of heroism or this could be another case of Hill’s verbosity getting the better of him (see above) or an ironic or sarcastic comment on the faux-heroic pose struck by some poets.

The last line hovers around what exactly ‘it’ might refer to. Off the top of my head, the British empire survived the defeat at Isandlwana and went on to win the war even though the battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. So ‘we’ might refer to the British people or to the small minority of troops that did survive the battle. If we accept that this might be sarcastic then it could also refer to the fate of those who have the misfortune to listen to the ‘roster-homage’.

Hopefully some of these ambiguities will be resolved as I progress through the rest of the poem in subsequent posts and gradually make my way to the problematic final verse. On the next occasion I think we might need to address the iconic nature of certain British films, Welshness and a scratchy nostalgia for something that never was.

Paul Celan and inclination.

This is intended to be a series of questions that I don’t know the answer to.

Paul Celan was awarded the prestigious Buchner prize in 1960, his acceptance speech was published as ‘The Meridian’ and last year Stanford University Press published Pierre Joris’ translation of the notes than Celan made for the speech.

The Meridian contains this-

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

As a lifelong reader of Celan, this has caused me all kinds of problems because it seems to be quite central to his poetics. I can manage “language actualized” and “a radical individuation” but stumble over the repeated “angle of inclination” and it appears that awareness of this is what separates poems that have/are ‘always-still’ from those that have/are merely “already-no-longer” which appears to differentiate between those poems that have “presentness” and those that don’t. This all seems reasonably straightforward until we get to the “inclination of Being” which isn’t.

Turning to the notes for assistance I find: “The poet’s being-directed-toward-language (being inclined?)” and “…a language that presences, that fulfils itself under the singular angle of inclination of being”- neither of these are particularly helpful but the second one does at least takes us a bit further away from ‘Being’ with its connotation of ‘Being and Time’ and all that this entails.

‘Inclination’ has two main meanings, ” The fact or condition of being inclined; deviation from the normal vertical or horizontal position or direction; leaning or slanting position; slope, slant.” and “The condition of being mentally inclined or disposed to something, or an instance of such condition; a tendency or bent of the mind, will, or desires towards a particular object; disposition, propensity, leaning.” It would seem that it is the first definition that is meant because of being under the angle of inclination.

If however someone is inclined then they may be giving that thing special attention as when we need to lower our head so as to see a text or an image more clearly or to give something our undivided attention. In the Meidian Celan quotes Malebranche- “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.”

It’s also important to recognise that this quality of the poem can only be found in those poets who are mindful of where they speak. To be under an inclination might be to have taken shelter or it may indicate being under the influence exerted by this angle or by the fact of this angle. According to my very sketchy memory, Heidegger amy use the idea of ‘creatureliness’ to distinguish those things that have Being from those that don’t but this isn’t particularly helpful with the angle image.

As well as showing a preference and paying increased attention, being incline can also denote expressing an affinity or solidarity with someone, it can also signify reverence, we bow our heads when we pray. Further context might be available from J H Prynne and Geoffrey Hill who both use inclination in a way that seems to nod towards Celan.
This is from the sixth poem in Prynne’s ‘To Pollen’ sequence:

................................Or does that tell
you enough, resilient brotherhood is this the one
inclined.........................................

This is from poem 14 from Hill’s ‘Clavics’-

Guide pray, the mentally disadvantaged
Safe to Urbino; Yeats and your author
Photomontaged,
Graciously inclined each to the other.

Of course, I want both of these inclinations to be nods towards Celan and in putting my case I can mention the poems that both poets have dedicated to Celan, the many bad references to ‘breathturn’ in ‘Orchards of Syon’ together with the direct address to Celan’s lover, Ingeborg Bachmann. I can also make a fuss about Prynne’s analysis of ‘Todtnauberg’ in his ‘Huts’ essay. Both seem to directly address the reader and both appear to refer to the poet inclining.

The counter argument is that Celan is referring to the ‘slope’ of the poet’s existence rather than to the living, breathing individual that both Hill and Prynne seem to be writing about.

So, the other area of exploration would be the poems themselves but clues aren’t easily located. This might be the closest we are going to get:

SIGHT THREADS, SENSE THREADS, from
nightbile knitted
behind time:

who
is invisible enough
to see you?

Mantle-eye, almondeye, you came
through all the walls,
climb
on this desk,
roll, what lies there, up again,

Ten blindstaffs
fiery, straight, free,
float from the just
born sign,

Stand
above it.

It is still us.

I do not want to get into speculation about what all of this remarkable poem may be ‘about’ but I do want to point out that it is in part about the writing process in that the ‘you’ is instructed to climb on the poet’s desk and roll up the material that lies there (again). So, given that we are unlikely to be talking about lino or carpets, it is a reasonable guess that these are scrolls that have been unrolled by the poet. If we think of the new sign as something that has been created after the scrolls were unrolled and their contents revealed then I think we might be getting close to inclination as reverent attention because scrolls have both religious and historical connotations, especially in the Jewish faith. ‘Almondeye’ is one of the ways that Celan refers to those who were slaughtered by the Germans.

In another part of the Meridian, Celan refers to the poem being on the edge of itself and it seems to me that the defiant last line enables to poem to watch itself in the making.

Of course this is entirely provisional and subject to much further revision but thinking about this has made me reconsider the whole process of poetry making and that has to be a good thing.

Reitha Pattison and the superbly obscure

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but I’ve been thinking about instead, which is usually, for me, a mistake. Really dedicated readers of this blog will know that Michael Peverell responded to an earlier post on Pattison’s ‘Some Fables’ by pointing out that the last line of Fable XIV is a “misquote of Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum (or rather, a sixteenth-century translation presumably)” and that he knows this “from Google referring me to Pattison’s own leisurely ramble around Prynne’s “Corn burned by Syrius”.”

For the eternally curious (and the Prynne completists) the ramble is in the ‘Prynne’ issue of Glossator but Michael prodded me into thinking about the nature of what we refer to as ‘obscure’ and the effect of its use or deployment in poetry.

I know that I’m treading over some well-worn ground but I want to try and redeem myself by recounting my own change in view on the obscure. Many moons ago I had come to the view that the use of obscure references had the effect of intimidating or otherwise deterring the reader and smacked of laziness, as if the poet couldn’t be bothered to use his own words to express himself.

I’m still of the view that this is a sensible and defensible position to hold and that it has the benefit of appearing to be more ‘inclusive’ and democratic. As well as reading poems containing obscurities, I’ve had two significant encounters (in the Paul Celan sense) with critics that have caused me to further develop the above view. The first is George Steiner’s discussion of Celan’s use of “metastasen” and his speculation that it might also refer to Metastasio, the 18th century librettist and poet.

The second was with Stanley Fish’ examination of ‘Lycidas’ and his view that we will never know what the ‘two-handed engine at the door’ refers to and that over 400 years of critical debate on this matter has been a complete waste of time.

When I started this blog in 2009 one of the first pieces was an attempt to distinguish between the ‘difficult’ and the ‘wilfully obscure’ and to condemn the latter. This is the only piece that I have since removed. I think I did this because it was a view that I no longer held and that it might give first-time readers the wrong idea about what Bebrowed is ‘about’. This isn’t the same as wanting to preserve some consistency, I don’t have a problem with changing my mind and writing from fluctuating perspectives but this post was so at odds with the other 200 or so that I felt that it had to go.

I’m not suggesting that I’m an avid fan of the superbly obscure but that its presence doesn’t seem as significant. The reason for this is bound up with my changed relationship with meaning and authorial intention and my much more relaxed view about elitism.

Dealing with elitism first, it has been very, very tempting from time to time to throw out the over-educated, bourgeois, southern and therefore effete as describing words at the sight of a German or Greek phrase/or a reference to Hegel, Adorno or ‘contradiction’. I have succumbed to this temptation when these occur but also with other obscurities that seem to cross over into the deliberate in-crowd snobbery. Having this kind of rant makes me feel morally cleansed but it’s an easy gibe and one that doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. For example, in this post I have qualified the use of the word ‘encounter’ to indicate that I intend it to have the same meaning that Paul Celan gave it in the ‘Meridian Address’. I am, of course, aware that many people haven’t heard of Paul Celan and those that have may be unaware of what he intended by ‘encounter’. I recognise also that this kind of reference without any further qualification can be seen as both obscure and elitist. My defence is:

  • that I didn’t want to spend time of eleborating on a point that is incidental to what I’m trying to say;
  • that it is a mark of these dark and difficult times that the populace at large is neither aware nor concerned about what Celan meant by ‘encounter’ and that this lack of knowledge really isn’t my problem;
  • what I’m saying makes sense without the qualification, it’s just that the reference makes it more precise;
  • typing “Celan encounter” into Google will provide the required context and may perhaps point readers to the whole text (and the notes).

Obscurity occurs in two ways- the obvious way is when a word, name or phrase is used that is obviously obscure and the second way is when the reference is not flagged up as a reference or as a quotation, Prynne is particularly guilty of this.

Being largely self-taught and not having access to decent libraries, my ability to track down references would be very limited were it not for the world wide web so before about 2000 the charge that obscurity acts as a barrier to those of us who live in rural areas would have had some weight but this is no longer the case. Geoffrey Hill usually flags up his obscurities and sometimes clarifies them for us so he’s forgiven for Bradwardine, Gabriel Marcel and most of the rest. Neil Pattison and I had an exchange a while ago about his allusion to a Steven Malkmus lyric which I thought was too obscure and which he defended as ‘private’. This again was redeemed because the reader is told that the reference relates to a Malkmus song.

Here’s a quiz- who knows that ‘Consilience’ is the name of a book by E O Wilson? Who knows that it says that there is a commonality running through all science that is on its way to revealing the secrets of everything? Hill’s poem 26 in the ‘Clavics’ collection begins with “Unity of knowledge – consilience -” and goes on to gently demolish the Dawkins/Wilson position but you wouldn’t know this if you didn’t know the book. ‘Consilience’ is one of the three or four science books I’ve read in the last twenty years but I’m betting that very very few of Hill’s readers would have grasped the main thrust of his argument. It is true that the poem works (and works well) without this knowledge but it is so much more effective with it.

Prynne does unattributed obscurity too often to be counted and I’m intrigued by the inclusion of the Reference Cues at the end of ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ even if some of these are no use at all to those of us who don’t have the science, although I demand some points for making progress with ‘pore geometry’. I’m guessing that Prynne’s answer to the charge of deliberate and excluding obscurity is that he doesn’t feel that achieving complete understanding is essential to a successful reading of his work. I waver on this one because obscurities that aren’t flagged (‘rap her to bank’, poem 7 in the ‘Pearls that Were’ sequence etc.) are on the way to becoming open poems, a charge that Prynne denies.

To attempt a summary- Reitha Pattison’s obscurity isn’t problematic because the use of quotation marks indicates very clearly that she’s quoting and that the source is easily identified whereas Geoffrey Hill’s use of italics for the first line of Poem 26 is helpful but not helpful enough- most readers will be left with the misleading OED definition.

J H Prynne is guilty of the charge of wilful obscurity but in his case it doesn’t seem to matter because we’re not looking for conventional meaning or understanding. Unless of course he now wants us to become familiar with pore geometry, quantum physics, and the nature of monumental space in the Neolithic…

Incidentally, Reitha’s fifteenth fable contains a not very clearly flagged reference to the Georgian national epic but you might not know that, the only reason I did is because my son works in Tbilisi and he’d bought me a copy.

Four new poems from Geoffrey Hill and a CD.

These are published in the latest edition of Archipelago which is the Clutag house journal, the cd is produced by them as well and contains readings from ‘For the Unfallen’ through to ‘Without Title’.

I’ll start with the poems because these are taken from ‘ODI BARBARE’ which will be published this year and they mark a further departure from what I’ve thought of as ‘late’ Hill. This level of oddness started with ‘Oraclau’ in 2010 which was a remarkably unsuccessful celebration of Hill’s newly discovered Welsh ancestry and all things Welsh. The sequence stuck to a form that seemed to ‘strangle’ rather than enhance the poetry. This was followed by ‘Clavics’ a series of pattern poems with more than a nod towards George Herbert, the subjects ranged from the 17th century Lawes and Vaughan brothers to an affinity with Yeats and a defence of mysticism. I felt that this was much more successful but continue to fret about the pattern. If the four poems in Archipelago are representative then the next collection will be equally disconcerting but in a quite different way. It would appear that Hill wants to make us think and wants to entertain us at the same time. This trait has been apparent since ‘Mercian Hymns’ and comes to the fore in ‘The Triumph of Love’ but here it’s given a kind of uncompromising twist. I’m not articulating this very well but that’s because these poems something quite radical going on and I’m intrigued by it because I don’t know what to make of it.

The poems are sequential and numbered XL-XLIII so I’m assuming that this is from a sequence although no other indication is given as to its length. Each consists of six unrhymed quatrains and each of these has three longer lines and ends with a shorter line which is centred. This form/pattern is reasonably generic so it isn’t obvious where this particular ‘nod’ is aimed.

The first poem has a lot of the Welsh in it, some opera and Hopkins and contains this:

Goldengrove notebooks ripped for late bequeathing
Dyscrasy Publike its own gifts to plunder
Hazardings unscathed by the large alignments
Made for survival:

Make believe Merz | might be collage of rip-offs
Bless the mute parlous for our safe bestowings
Meteor showers sign expropriation
Cypress's roof-tree:

It may be that I’m having a dim few days but I am struggling to get the ‘sense’ of the above, I’m aware of Hill’s prior use of the Goldengrove trope and I’ve worked out that ‘Merz’ refers to the work of Karl Schwitters but I do come unstuck with ‘its own gifts to plunder’, ‘the large alignments’ and all of the last three lines quoted above.

I appreciate that each stanza may be a ‘ripped off’ element in the poem which is a collage but there’s a degree of difficulty going on that seems more unyielding than Hill at his most obdurate. I originally thought that I was being confused by what appeared to be ambiguity but this isn’t actually the case although there is the question of whether ‘make believe’ is intended as adjective or verb or both. This isn’t helped by the truism that follows, collage being essentially ‘about’ re-using images ripped off (in both senses) from elsewhere.

I am usually attracted to the difficult and would normally relish this kind of stuff but this isn’t the kind of difficulty that I’m accustomed to from Hill, it seems to be somehow insubstantial, almost as if it’s over-compensating for the not having very much to say. I hope I’m wrong and that the rest of the sequence will make things clearer for me.

I’ve also run through the various defences of difficulty that Hill has put forward over the years (not wishing to insult the intelligence of his readers, life is much more difficult than the most difficult poetry and, most recently, he often fails to reach a definable ‘point’ in his poetry because there are many things that he doesn’t have an answer to).

None of this explains or justifies what seems to be going on here as we have what seems to be refusal to be clear and an insistence on the portentous for its own sake- the poem’s last two lines are “Deep penillion woven to snow’s curled measures / Heard past unhearing.” There’s also the return of | to denote a pause and the deliberately arcane spelling, here we have ‘Swoln’ as well as ‘Publike’- I find all of this mannered and more than a little pretentious. Hill has also started to use a new device, the full stop that occurs half way up the line instead of at the bottom- or it may of course be a colon with only one dot instead of two. This is just as annoying as Neil Pattison’s use of a space between the colon and the end of the word, like : this. I’m thinking of starting a national campaign against this sort of affectation before things get out of hand…

These concerns aside, Geoffrey Hill is one of the two finest poets currently writing in English and these four poems are still miles in front of the vast majority of what passes for poetry on either side of the innovative / mainstream divide. This is the opening of poem XLIII:

Lucrative failing no poor oxymoron
Gravely highlight solo polyphony this
Shagged ur-pragmatism of standup comics
working rejection

The third line could not be written by anyone else and is sufficiently. startlingly brilliant to give me hope for the rest of the sequence.

The CD is a joy and should be played (along with Prynne’s partial Paris reading of ‘To Pollen’) instead of the muzak that currently infects our shops. It is clearly spoken, at an appropriate pace and enhances the poems on the page which in my experience is unusual. Of particular interest is the broadening of range and tone, there are still echoes of poems in ‘For the Unfallen’ and ‘King Log’ in much of the later work. The reading of the first and last parts of ‘Mercian Hymns’ is a particular delight.

This issue of Archipelago contains poems by (amongst others) Andrew Motion, Allan Jenkins and Alice Oswald all of which seem entirely happy in their lack of ambition and bland flabbiness which probably indicates the very low expectations of their readers (discuss).

(In accordance with new central command directive 1-7/dk-3, this has been read and corrected prior to the send button being pushed).

Geoffrey Hill in the Economist (briefly)

I visit the Economist site about twice a day and enjoy the cool distance it maintains between itself and the surrounding chicanery. It also gives me a reasonable overview that I don’t always get with the FT. This year it seems to be have turned its affections away from John Ashbery and turned instead to Geoffrey Hill, publishing a enthusiastic if brief review of ‘Clavics’ in April but imagine my shock to find a short film of him talking about his work as part of a promo for some Economist cultural event that he’s going to attend.

The film is just over four minutes long and we get captions instead of a person asking questions, although it would seem somebody did ask the questions because Hill is clearly responding to something rather than giving an impromptu talk.

The headlines are:

  • The beard is getting bigger;
  • He chooses to read the dig at E O Wilson from Clavics;
  • One of the captions tells us that his first collection took him six years to write but now he can rattle seven poems off in a week;
  • He makes a new defence against the charge of difficulty;
  • He denies that his ‘poems are a part of Christian discourse’ but does admit to an anxiety as to the fate of his soul;
  • He thinks poems should be ‘technically efficient’ and beautiful;
  • He makes some derogatory things about the Lawes boys and their gang at the court of Charles I;
  • He remains endearingly bad tempered about the current state of British politics and quotes William Morris to underline his view that we are living in a ‘state of anarchical plutocracy’ and that this informs everything that he writes.

Let’s start with the beard, both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ have the same photograph of Hill with a walking stick and looking fierce. Since then the beard has grown even more and is beginning to take on a life of its own. This is probably part of Hill’s re-casting as Welsh bard or it could be a new requirement of the Oxford job. Whatever the reason it is a remarkable achievement and Keith Flett would be proud.

Choosing to read the dig at ‘Consilience’ may indicate that this poem embodies the main theme of the sequence or that Hill considers it ‘technically efficient’ and beautiful. I’d like to think that it’s a mixture of both. I wonder how many Economist types will grasp the reference to Wilson and the positivist/atheist faction?

The newly prolific Hill perhaps needs to be advised that rattling off seven poems in a week is no guarantee that they will all be good poems. The person providing this advice should use ‘Oraclau’ as an example.

With regard to difficulty, defences in the past have related to not wanting to insult the intelligence of his readers and the ‘life is more difficult than anything I write’ riposte. The charge that he chooses to answer this time is that it is often difficult to discern a unified point of view from a poem. Hill agrees and says that his poems are often ‘about’ the difficulty of arriving at this kind of view. This is probably a more helpful answer than the other two.

Anybody who makes reference to Bradwardine and worries out loud about the nature and workings of Grace is (whether he likes it or not) making a contribution to Christian discourse although the confession of an abiding anxiety about his soul will take me back to the work to see if that kind of worry is addressed/expressed.

It can be argued that poems are only beautiful if they are technically efficient. I remain of the view that the recent work (especially ‘Oraclau’) has shown more than a little slippage in the technical department and I also think that he’s aware of it too. This view of technique doesn’t really square with the ‘make them wince’ quip in ‘Clavics’.

I probably need to check but this critical view of the Caroline court isn’t that obvious from the poems.

I’m not aware of the Morris quote and it doesn’t appear (from memory) nin Hill’s essays but I will try and check the context in which it was made. It is typical of Hill to take an observation from the late 19th century and apply to our dark and difficult times. He’s made much more abusive observations on the plutocracy in his work and it is correct to observe the distorting effect that the anarchy of the free markets has on everything. I don’t think that this view is discernible in everything that he has published

So, lots to think about, the Hill/Economist alliance is also something to consider – it’s certainly odder than the relationship between Ashbery and the New York Times. He does need to know that seven poems a week is not a badge of pride and that he should worry a bit more about his technical efficiency but he doesn’t have to because he’s Geoffrey Hill and (in my book) he can do anything he wants to because he has produced some of the most accomplished work since 1945.

A final thought, isn’t it amazing how much ground you can cover in 4 minutes and 29 seconds?

Geoffrey Hill, Clavics and dissonance

I’ve been re-reading Clavics and there’s a couple of conceits that I don’t quite ‘get’. I’m more understanding of the pattern that’s adhered to because Helen Wilcox tells me that this was reasonably common in the 17th century which looms large in the sequence. I’m also more on board with the rhymes and the half-rhymes although I still think that this kind of constraint doesn’t do Hill any favours and I remain relieved that the sequence isn’t anywhere near as naff as ‘Oraclau’.
The stumbling blocks that I have relate to what Hill says about dissonance and the nature of that dissonance together with the varying shades of his persona that Hill portrays. With regard to ‘dissonance’, I’m not at all sure why Hill should justify the inclusion of dissonant lines or phrases by his intention to make his readers ‘wince’. The OED has three definitions of this term:
1. an inharmonious or harsh sound or combination of sounds;
2. (specifically with regard to music) A combination of tones causing beats (cf. beat n.1 8), and thus producing a harsh effect; also, a note which in combination with others produces this effect;
3. Want of concord or harmony (between things); disagreement, incongruity.
These are the first two lines from Poem 11:

Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.

As I’ve said before, there are a few wince-inducing lines in this sequence, although nowhere near as many as in ‘Oraclau’, and some of these may be deliberately plugged in. I’ll get to these in a moment but the question does have to be asked as to why you would want to be so inept in the first place. I think I’ve recognised and forgiven many of Hill’s foibles in the past but this does seem as if he wants the best of both worlds- the self indulgence to include lazy lines and the arrogance to claim that this is deliberate as if this makes everything okay.

Perhaps I’m missing some really sophisticated and esoteric point but I don’t understand why you would want to do this. I’ve given some consideration to what Keston Sutherland has written about Wordsworth and ‘wrong’ poetry but I don’t think that this is what Hill has in mind because, unlike Wordsworth, his dissonances don’t even function enough to make sense. I’ll give two examples, the first is from Poem 10:

Would I were pardoned the effluent virus
Pardoned that sick program of pregnant odes.
Near admirers
Cope with our begging Nescafe and rides.

This is the end of Poem 7;

            You say
Well then
Haul Irony
Upon its rack; refrain
Clavics archaic iron key:
Splash blessings on dead in Afghanistan.

(This is the closest that WordPress lets me get to the pattern as it appears on the page).

Even if the first of these is saying anything (who are these admirers and why do they have to ‘cope’ these requests? etc) then ‘rides’ isn’t a very good word to end on because the softness of the vowel sound tends to drift off. The other odd thing is that I think of ‘ride’ in this sense as being used on the other side of the Atlantic whereas we would usually use ‘lifts’ but perhaps that isn’t naff/inept/dissonant for Hill who would not doubt argue that there is a half-rhyme with ‘odes’.

Moving on to ‘Afghanistan’, this comes at the end of a moving piece on the theme of memorialisation which Hill sees as being a central function of the poetry making business. He does these things very well without becoming either jingoistic or cringingly sentimental and up until the last line things move along quite properly but, to my mind, the dissonance created by the last word fundamentally undermines what has gone before. He might find this amusing (he does know how to end poems properly, he’s spent the last 50+ years ending poems properly)- it isn’t the constraint of the format that is getting in the way because most of the time this is managed reasonably. Perhaps there’s something deep and profound going on that has passed me by but after several attentive readings I get the impression that this is lazy self-indulgence on a grand scale (again).

The Hill persona that’s thrown into Clavics lacks some of the ‘bite’ of previous works. He is unusually gentle on Robert Lowell’s ‘The Dolphin’ which he has previously held up as the antithesis of what poetry should be about. This is an enormous disappointment to those of us who share this view and would expect some scathing polemic. The same can be said for the slightish dig at Dawkins and the gentle refutation of E O Wlison and the notion of consilience which he prefaces by acknowledging that he doesn’t ‘have the science’. He doesn’t have the economics either but that hasn’t stopped him ranting (appropriately) about the more dismal aspects of high finance. I confess that I come to Hill to some extent in expectation of bad-tempered and ill-judged polemic and am disappointed with this mellowing. It is however reassuring to note that the jokes are as bad as ever and that he is still trying to educate us.

Hill has spent the last fifteen years telling us how difficult he finds this poetry making business and this is underlined here although there’s more frequent reference to his age and a sense of his career drawing to a close which doesn’t come across as either self=pitying or unduly sentimental.

I may be wrong but the more pronounced emphasis on mysticism (“By which I mean only mystical / and eccentric though with centrist leanings.”) which is in a similar vein to Sean Bonney’s line about hanging around with Trots. I also get the impression that he wants to tell us about the 17th century for itself but also as a way of telling us about God. Geoffrey Hill continues to do God and the workings of grace very well indeed and again there seems to be a less pointed attitude when God is being done.

All of which is saying that Hill might be mellowing and also taking a bit more pleasure in his poetry making, I just wish he’d edit himself a bit more.

One final thought- I seem to be reading more of the books that Hill reads, this is not intentional but should I be worried?

Paul Celan’s Encounter with Poetry

These are a few thoughts on the ‘Encounter’ section of the Notes to the Meridian, they follow on from the pieces on ‘Breathturn’ , ‘The Poem‘ and ‘Darkness‘ although what follows should be able to be followed without reference to the other three.

I was going to start this with an extended discussion of the use of ‘encounter’ in the finished speech but I now realise the this is probably the most ambiguous term that Celan uses and gives the opportunity for a wide range of definitions and emphases. Briefly,  it seems to be referred to as the meeting between the poem and the other, on whose behalf it speaks. Celan also describes the poem as being ‘under way’ and encountering many things and individuals along its journey. Finally, there is the encounter with the reader which seems here to be quite different from the ‘message in a bottle’ analogy used in the earlier Bremen speech.

The notes are divided into three sections: ‘Encounter with the Poem’; ‘the dialogical poem’ and ‘The conversation with things’, I only want to deal with the first one here because ther’s a lot in it.. I’d like to make it clear that the selection below is entirely subjective, I am quoting the bits that are important/relevant to me and and the views expressed are not intended to be definitive.

Encounter with the Poem.

This section alternates between the reasonably clear and the very dense. I’ll start with some of the clearer ones-

“The attentiveness of the reader, a turning-toward the poem”

and then-

“aisthesis is not enough; the….., noesis is not enough…..; what is needed is personal presence, what is needed is conversation; conversation(s) and entertainment are two different things; conversations are demanding, strenuous.”

This sounds a bit like Keston Sutherland’s point about the need to pay attention to ‘serious’ poetry but Celan seems to be going further with this, the notions of ‘personal presence’ and conversation between the poem (poet) and the reader suggest an intimate and quite physical relationship, a theme which is developed further on in this section.

Incidentally, ‘aisthesis’ is glossed in the notes as ‘sense perception’ but it’s a bit more complicated than that (as you’d expect with Celan). ‘noesis’ is not glossed probably because the editors didn’t want to enter into speculation about the difference between the two terms. It’s also important to recognise that intellect and perception are not dismissed as being unnecessary but they are insufficient and need the ‘personal presence’ if the encounter is to be successful although it is acknowledged that this conversation/reading not be easy.

In my initial piece on the notes, I expressed surprise at the centrality of darkness to Celan’s thinking about poetry and I still find it difficult to square with the Celan that has been in my head for the last forty years. It is true that this darkness is referred to in the Meridian but the notes demonstrate Celan’s insistence that primordial darkness is at the very centre of poetry and that this darkness is ‘congenital’ to the poem.

This insistence is at it’s clearest in this long note-

Even for the one, -and before all for the one, for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, the encounter has to begin with the darkness – of the self-evident, what makes every encounter with a stranger strange.: “Camarado, who this is no book, who touches this, touches a human”

Only by this touch – that is not a “making contact”- comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium; it is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language: (noesis does not suffice; it is a question of the angle of inclination in which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the here and Now, the place and the hour.

The quote is from Whitman and the editors point out that this particular poem expresses Whitman’s essential qualities. Evrything after ‘suffice’ was added later.

This section is important to me on several levels, it first of all pulls together and adds emphasis to the connection between the darkness, the poem and the encounter with the reader and the way that this encounter is both intimate and a “conversation”. The bit about making every encounter with a stranger strange probably needs to be tied in with what Celan says about the relationship between art and poetry but also with the other as the subject of poetry.

The other intriguing remark is about the ‘angle of inclination’ which here refers to both poem and reader. In the speech we have this:

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

I’m using the Joris translation of the speech but I do seem to recall that the Felstiner version is more ambiguous about what this inclination refers to, whether it is the act of reading or the creation of the poem.

As well as being a wonderfully evocative and (to my mind) accurate image of the doing poetry business, I also need to point out that it may have been picked up by both Hill and Prynne.

W B Yeats is an abiding spirit withing the ‘Clavics’ sequence and I do need to give this more thought but in Poem 14 we have:

Guide, pray, the the mentally disadvantaged
Safe to Urbino; Yeats and you author
Photomontaged,
Graciously inclined each to the other.

Which would seem to encpsulate the role/actions of Hill as a reader of Yeats in the sense that Celan was pointing to.

A different take is presented by Prynne in the sixth poem in the ‘To Pollen’ sequence:

on brand simulation perfect pitch. Or does that tell
you enough, resilient brotherhood is this the one
inclined. Could one refused to the preset match hurt

I’ve written about both these inclinations in the past but I’d only seen Hill comparing himself to Yeats rather than as Yeats’ reader- which does make much more sense now that I’m more familiar with Clavics. As for Prynne, this is one of the very few coherentish remarks in ‘To Pollen’ and it focuses exclusively on his role as the maker of the poem. It also carries more than a degree of arrogance, referring to himself as ‘the’ one inclined as if there can be no other. Reading this again has reminded me that I do need to write something in the very near future about the way Prynne and Hill think about their readership…

As both Hill and Prynne are fluent in German and admirers of Celan, I’m making the not unreasonable assumption that they both read these notes when they were published in Germany in 1999. It does seem that Hill has made more use of the reciprocal nature of the poet/reader business than Prynne. This is odd because Prynne seems to be making a similar point about readerly activity in his commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’.

I don’t know very much about Whitman aoart from his role at the ‘Brooklyn Eagle’ but I am surprised that Celan should quote from him here as Whitman’s energy and exuberance does seem more than alittle at odds with the austere and terse Celan that I have in my head.

The last extract that I want to use is lengthy but it does (I think) indicate how readerly attention should proceed:

The poem as poem is dark, it is dark because it is the poem. Under this congenital darkness I do not mean those Lichtenbergian clashes of books and readers’ heads, where the hollow sound does not always come from the book; to the contrary, the poem wants to be understood, it is exactly because it is dark that it wants to be understood as poem, as ‘poem’s dark. Each poem thus demands understanding, will to understand, learning to understand that is, (but let this secondary phenomenon be mentioned here for the last time, a true understanding and in no way some “To enter into the co- or re- production, as fastidiously suggested these days on the federal and other levels. The poem, as I said, wants to be understood, it offers itself up to an interlinear version, even demands it; not that the poem is written in view of this or that interlinear version; rather the poem carries, as poem, the possibility of the interlinear version, both real and virtual; in other words: the poem is in its own way occupiable. I want to insist on the fact that here I am using the term interlinear version as an auxiliary verb; more specifically; I do not mean the empty lines between verse and verse, I beg you to imagine these empty spaces as spatial, as spatial and – temporal. Thus spatial and temporal, and, for this too I beg you, always in relation to the poem.

There exists, I return to this here already, because nothing can be lost sight of, no co-, no re- production; the poem is, because it is the poem, unique, unrepeatable, (unique too for the one who writes it and from you and I who are reading it, may not expect anything other than just this unique shared knowledge.) Unique, unrepeatable, irreversible on the other or on this side of any esotericism, hermeticism, etc.

There’s enough here to keep the academic Celan industry busy for decades but to me (as an amateur reader) the important points are the presence of the congenitally dark, the notion of poem as poem per se (which neatly expresses some of my more awkward thoughts) together with this personification of the poem as someone who wants to be understood and is on his or her way. There’s also this very strong and repeated rejection of the notion of the reading or the poem as being integral to its production and (instead) an incredibly firm (“I beg you”) strong emphasis on the poems relationship to time and space.

As a further thought, and this doesn’t please me, there is a discernibly Heideggerian flavour to the encounter section which is altogether of its time and place (Paris in the late fifties) but seems to get in the way of, rather than inform my understanding of the work. I realise that this position verges on the heretical for most other devotees.

For any Celan devotee, this is essential stuff and reveals, at least to this reader, a range of different themes and emphases that are only hinted at in The Meridian. I’m now going to have to spend some time with the poems (as poems) and ponder why ‘occupiable’ is underlined….

Difficult syntax in Hill, Prynne, Jarvis and Neil Pattison.

I’ve been goaded into this by Lachlan Mackinnon’s disparaging reference to Hill’s ‘tortured’ syntax in ‘Clavicles’ and by reading Jack Baker’s useful paper on “The Burden of Authentic Expression in the Later Poetry of Geoffrey Hill”. Thinking about how best to get this particular gripe off my chest, I have come to the conclusion that a comparative survey of those that take syntactical innovation to extremes might be more productive than simply having yet another rant about Mackinnon.

Mucking around with syntax is commonly justified by the normal poetic bleat that the language is not adequate to give voice to the poet’s finer feelings and deeper thoughts. Such manipulation is often used to disguise the fact that the poet has nothing to say- whilst acknowledging these pitfalls I want to try and show why and how really accomplished poets to produce stunning work.

I want to start with a rough and ready definition of syntax- the way in which phrases and sentences are put together.

I also want to propose that good poems are a site of many different kinds of struggle and one of the most telling is the one that engages with the standard English phrase and/or sentence.

Sometimes this engagement can lead the reader to new heights of bafflement. My current favourites are ” To the / chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach / luminous” (Neil Pattison) and “At for to.” (J H Prynne). Baker makes the following comparison -”But, whereas many of Hill’s peers, from John Ashbery to J.H. Prynne, revel in linguistic indeterminacy, the poet-figure in Hill’s recent work emerges as one who strives to resurrect language, to preserve its capacity for “eloquence and apprehension” against the destructive tendencies of the age.” I think this is absolutely correct about Hill and I can see that Ashbery’s output is about 85% revel but I think he’s wrong about Prynne.

I do however think there is a key difference between Hill and Prynne in that Hill loves language and Prynne doesn’t. Hill’s best work is characterised by an increasingly vivid tussle to get language to do what it is capable of, to realise its full potential at the hands of the poet. Prynne, on the other hand sees language as perpetually tainted and that the structure of language reflects and underpins the worst aspects of our culture. Jarvis and Neil Pattison both seem to fit somewhere in between but nevertheless produce work that bears evidence of different types of conflict.

Here’s Prynne in his ‘quick riposte’ to Peter Handke in Quid 6-

Of course it is rather easy to ‘see what he means’; and the history of Europe in this century is full of those terrible events supposed to have traduced or contaminated language, along with those sorrowful bystanders, perched upon some peak of purity, who can bewail the loss of a model of rational, passionate and poetic discourse that would somehow resist the ruptures of historical process. But, how silly. Warfare between nations is most often waged across language-frontiers, as a fiercely linguistic event, even if often for reasons not fully conscious or not admitted into full public view; but the mounting up of a war programme, in advance of the hostilities and to justify their methods, is a concatenation of intensely linguistic processes, in which the whole identity and propensity of individual language-histories are worked into the deepest complicity. By the time that war ‘breaks out’, that is, is declared by one nation or tribal cohort confident of subjugating another, the cascade of positional alterations to language use has been largely completed.

I don’t think that Prynne is saying that language is inherently evil or morally flawed but that it is often a kind of willing partner in Very Bad Things.

Then we have this longer passage from ‘George Herbert, Love III’-

Well, language is imperfect and is damaged by sin, not least in relation to man’s conception of his own self, inner and outer, puffed up with tendency to vainglory and selfishness even in moments of the most vehemently powerful moments of exchange with the divine. The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front-loaded selfhood. What the reader has in this poem is what is discoverable in its fallible language and we are to reconstruct what may be its near-full spiritual significance, by linguistic acts, by scrutiny of searching and minute kind. This is sacred philology and hermeneutics, ancient practices which are root-based.

But in the human encounter with belief-moments the reader is not pursuing the practice of assimilation to the world of language and experience outside the self, as situated in a distinct historical or cultural era, or not this merely. The reader is also intimately drawn into this focus of experience as given form and purpose by belief or the question of it: and this self-interior focus is also in large part linguistic.

Needless to say, there isn’t much here that I agree with and some of it seems to be obviously incorrect but it does give us a clear pointer as to what Prynne might be about. It’s also striking that this notion of a language damaged by sin and its structure performing some of the less desirable features of our national character should be expressed with such clarity and vehemence.

In the interests of balance, I want to weigh this against what Hill says at the start of the ‘Weight of the World’ essay-

Questions of accessibility turn upon matters of context. In both sacred and secular writings we may receive, at any instance, a sense of things inaccessible suddenly made accessible, where grammar and desire are miraculously at one. The effect may appear to be studied (as in Milton or Hopkins) or spontaneous (as in the Wesleys or Wordsworth); what delights and silences us is the sustained moment of communion between the two kinds of eloquence and apprehension.

So, for Prynne, the structure of language is to be attacked and our blithe assumptions about it (neutrality, innocence) are to be confronted and undermined on the way to declaring ‘how things are’. The price for this is the charge of obscurity and elitism.

Whereas Hill is in a struggle, wrestling and moulding language in the hope of reaching that point where the creative impulse and language structure are ‘miraculously unified’

Now I need some examples to indicate what I’m trying to say. With Prynne I think it can be shown that the broad arc of the last thirty years has been a more and more uncompromising attack culminating in the magnificently austere ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ of 2009.

Thirty years (ish) takes us back to ‘Oval Windows’ from 1983. The second poem in the sequence shows some sign of an early attack:

Formerly in a proper tonic, the rain
would pelt and cure by the foam inlet.
Smartly clad they could only panic
through the medium itself, rabbit by proxy.
On both sides smart guidance ex-stock
makes for home like a cup cake over.
Don't stare:
Police aware:
it is a defect coma and it shows;
try it on, see if they'd want to care.

I don’t want to undertake any kind of analysis of meaning or intention but I do want to point out where the syntax is being attacked. To start with most of the ‘rules’ are honoured, sentences make a kind of sense and are self-contained but some commas are missing and we are not at all clear what/who ‘it’ and ‘they’ refer to in the last two lines.

There is a project to be undertaken mapping the ‘syntax arc’ which I might do for Arduity but here I want to magically leap into 2009:

As to for a mint action bare sender add mantric, bare
cradle invention socket burden to saturate. To ramble his
for glimpse for insert her his pinnate to foramen custom
topic indecision failer for. At for was para fusing flim

This is the first quatrain of the eleventh poem in the sequence and is representative of the kind of attack that goes on throughout. I chose this because the first three words are echoed in the sentence ‘At for to.’ in the fifth quatrain.

The attack is of such force that phrases that do ‘follow the rules’ stand out in stark relief (pun intended). This poem has ‘Skim the lines’ and ‘Did they wear better’ but the rest is very much in the same state as the lines above.

Now we come to Geoffrey Hill. This inevitably involves some discussion of where the dividing line in his trajectory occurs. Jack Baker seems to place one line prior to ‘Canaan’ in 1996 and to another between ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ in 2000 whilst others identify ‘Triumph of Love’ as the turning point. I’m going to play safe and use ‘The Pentecost Castle’ sequence from ‘Tenebrae’ which was published in 1978 and this year’s ‘Clavicles’. This contrast enables me to make my point without getting mired in the before/after debate and is also appropriate because of the two
epigraphs. The first is from W B Yeats:

It is terrible to desire and not
possess and terrible to possess
and not desire.

and the second is from Simone Weil:

What we love in other human
beings is the hoped for satisfaction
of our desire. We do not love their
desire. If what we loved in them
was their desire, then we should
love them as ourself.

I don’t often get all soppy about poetry but ‘The Pentecostal Castle’ sequence is heartbreakingly beautiful. Re-reading it today I’ve become more aware of both its humanity and lyrical strength. It’s also a supreme example of personal and intellectual honesty. This is the eighth poem:

And you my spent heart's treasure
my yet unspent desire
measurer past all measure
cold paradox of fire

as seeker so forsaken
consentingly denied
your solitude a token
the sentries at your side

fulfilment to my sorrow
indulgence of your prey
the sparrowhawk the sparrow
the nothing that you say.

Again, I’m not going to worry about meaning but look at the nature of the struggle with language. The first thing to note is the absence of punctuation and this can be read as a list of twelve semi-autonomous phrases or three self contained sentences. The phrases make sense and are constructed in accordance with ‘normal’ English. The sequence as a whole can be thought of as a wonderful meditation on the many dimensions of desire but there is not yet any real sign of overt struggle.

I’ve chosen poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence because I think that it is likely to have been in Mackinnon’s mind when he described Hill’s syntax as ‘tortured’. This is the first part of the poem before we get to the ‘wings’:

Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.
Name-acclaim once-
Reclaimed ransom
Truth from figment.
Picks its fragment
Somewhere such a kingdom
Roughed assonance.
Judith of Bethulia's well wrested
Calm. How controverted we have become,
Questor quested;
Answerable;
Outside the frame
You can't draw from
Old dense pin-stabbed Bible
Unmolested.
Somewhere is sacramental belonging.
Here we find but banking with God's grammar
Strung unstringing
Grace from chance, worked like a novice stammer.

I would argue that this exemplifies Hill’s battle with language rather than his torture of it. The phrases make sense, there are properly formed sentences and with a bit of work we can see what he’s trying to get at. If heightened language is what marks poetry out from prose, isn’t this a good example of how this can be done?

So far we have struggle and attack as ways of confronting language and must now move on to the subversive practices of Simon Jarvis.

I think that it is reasonable to assume that Jarvis has a problem with contemporary poetry of all shades in that he doesn’t even try to do what he wants it to. He has therefore launched a two-pronged attack on the form and the way we think about the form. This is achieved by using poetry to attack poetry. The two prongs are at the opposite ends of the poetic spectrum, at one end is the defiantly metrical 250+ pages of ‘The Unconditional’ which looks like poetry and behaves like poetry but uses digression to defy the reader’s stamina and ability to keep up. A very much lighter version of this is ‘Bacarole’ on the Claudius App which looks like a poem but uses very extended sentences and clauses to disrupt any readerly attempt at conventional understanding. At the other end of the spectrum there is ‘Dionysus Crucified’- I’ve written about some of its more outlandish strategies before and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but it is difficult to imagine anything more radically ‘free’ that doesn’t descend into nonsense.

What I think I’m trying to say is that the Jarvis project involves the skilled use and manipulation of language to take aim at current poetic discourse and practice and is a much more effective strategy than most of those attempted in the last fifty years. In terms of syntax mangling, even on the very experimental ‘cross’ page the only clear example is ‘He needs stabbed in a throat’.

Now we come to Neal Pattison who has been known to add helpful comments to this blog and who is also a very accomplished poet. I want to use an extract from the prose poem ‘Curve, Indifference’ which was published in ‘Preferences in 2006 because it deploys a very different approach to syntax that produces a quite complex effect:

This we in the litchen attest. This afternoon is. By
stone reaches. Sunlight warms to a limit room, its
loving parallel : there are in stones her junctures
attested, and the low reaches bed cool with talk's 
mantle. Locators in pliancy instruct with cherubic
levity. The lips of earth, the breast and eyes attest
we mean extraction : these accidental of discre-
tionary will by chalk banked drop embed these 
only reaches accidental lip. You are awake. To the 
chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach,
luminous.

I’ve written about the Preferences collection before and probably need to write a longer piece to do it full justice but I’d now like to use the above to try and show how Neil uses syntax to heighten and intensify what is being said and also to display and withdraw at the same time. The repetition of attest and the subject/verb inversion when this is used, the deliberate placing of the colons between the words rather than immediately after the preceding word, the temporal progress from afternoon to night, the use of emphasis in the most conventional sentence are all used with great skill both to heighten and intensify what is being said. The greater subtlety lies in the things that are left unsaid, that ‘sense’ is being pointed towards but not actually displayed.

So, poets can do complex things with syntax and some of us find this one of its greatest attractions. In fact, with a few honourable exceptions, poets that don’t do things with syntax tend to be quite dull and banal. The primary exception is, of course, Elizabeth Bishop.

The Unconditional, Streak~~Willing and Preferences are available from Barque Press, Dionysus Crucified is available from Grasp Press, Clavics and the Collected Prynne (for Oval Windows) are both generally available.

Pattern Poems. Why?

This seems to have been following me around almost as much as the kenosis question. I think it started with Lachlan Mackinnon’s negative and bad tempered review of ‘Clavics’ and his reference to George Herbert’s ‘The Altar’. Then ‘Dionysus Crucified’ arrived which really does add a new dimension to this pattern business. I then buy The Herbert collection edited by Helen Wilcox and read her gloss on ‘H. Baptisme II’ and the fog began to lift. What follows is a number of examples coupled with questions that I don’t know the answer to.

The broad thrust of this enquiry is ‘why bother’? That is, why bother constructing a poem as an image of something when the words should be doing this job? The second part of this is doesn’t this kind of self-constraint lead to an inevitable decrease in quality? To be fair, I’ve given some consideration for the reverse (ish) process of painters who incorporate lines of verse into their work, both Kiefer and Twombly do this to good effect although with utterly different intent. So, I can see that the use of text can enhance visual images but I’m more than a little mystified by this patterning business in poems.

Then we come to the concrete poem and how this ‘relates’ to the pattern poem. I don’t want to dwell on this too much but in my head with concrete poems the image usually takes precedence over the text. However, the Wikipedia article on the gifted Iain Hamilton Finlay provides this definition: “poetry in which the layout and typography of the words contributes to its overall effect”. This could well apply to both and most sources cite Herbert as the earliest English ‘model’.

There’s also the nature of the image and how it might be ‘read’. Herbert’s ‘Altar’ is a poem in the shape of an altar, his Easter Wings are two stanzas in the shape of wings. The pattern of lines in ‘H Baptisme II’ is more abstract and therefore more open to interpretation. Here’s the first stanza-

                      Since, Lord, to thee
A narrow way and little gate
Is all passage, on my infancie
Thou didst lay hold, and antedate
My faith in me.

Wilcox quotes two critics who provide different readings as to shape, the first reads left to right and suggests a narrow entrance followed by expansion whereas the other reads to to bottom and suggests the ‘pattern of grace’ from small child to the sinfulness of adulthood and then the ‘renewed grace and humility of childhood in spirit’ Of course it also looks like an arrowhead and a quiver.

In her notes on sources to ‘The Altar’ Wilcox states that pattern poems originated in the Middle East and are also found in Classical poetry, she also points out that Puttenham refers to poems as ‘ocular representation’ in his influential ‘Arte of English Poesie’.

We now leap five hundred years and arrive at the oddness that is ‘Clavics’. There are several good things that can be said about the latest Hill sequence, the first being that it is much better in every way than ‘Oraclau’ which is a major relief for those of us who fretted that he might have completely lost the plot. The second is that it is mostly ‘about’ the 17th century and music, things that Hill does very well. The third good thing is that it has quite an overt mystical tinge.

There are thirty two poems in the ‘Clavics’ sequence and they all follow the same pattern. The second part of this pattern is a straight copy of Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ stanzas. In case there might be any dispute about this the ‘wings’ part of first poem quotes Herbert in the first two lines:

Intensive prayer is intensive care
Herbert says. I take it stress marks
Convey less care than flair
Shewing the works
As here
But if
Distressed attire
Be mere affect of clef
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.

I don’t want to go into the meaning of this and I’m trying to ignore the bad jokes. Herbert fans may wish to point out that the stanzas were originally printed on their sides so that they look like wing but Hill knows that they were set out as above in the manuscript. It’s really important to recognise that Hill knows more than anyone else on the planet about English culture in the first half of the seventeenth century – most people seem to focus on his reputation for difficulty and overlook the fact that he is a brilliant critic, which is a pity.

So, this is an undiluted copy of ‘Easter Wings’ but the longer first part doesn’t follow either ‘The Altar’ or any of the other Herbert pattern poems which leaves me with a problem because its either a pattern by someone else that I’m not aware of or it’s of Hill’s own devising and is somehow a further expression of the ‘Clavics’ theme(s). The other more complex question is why would you want to make 32 poems that all have the same shape? If poets use patterns to in some way enhance what the words say, does this mean that all of these poems are saying more or less the same thing? As the answer to this is clearly ‘no’ then what (exactly) might Hill be hoping to achieve?

The first hypothesis is a kind of follow on from ‘Oraclau’, Geoffrey Hill has now reached the stage in his career (and perhaps in his life) where he is no longer concerned about the views of others and now does things because he wants to and because he can. The second is that he’s showing off that he can write 32 decent poems under this sort of constraint. The third is that he’s buying into the underlying Christian imagery deployed by Herbert.

Consider this:

As good epitaphs go Will Lawes is slain
Permit me, sire, is slain by such whose wills 
Be laws. Again
Swift and neat hand
Notate the viols
Flexures of styles
Extravagant command
Purposeful frills
What comes of the upthrust and downthrust pen
These fantasies constrained by their own strings
Narcissus then
Crowns fantasy
Feasts what feasts brings
Imaginings
Consort like winter sky
Drawn from the wings.
Jolt into the epilogue by your leave
As into a mixed skirmish, a rout,
Punched semibreve
Like fatal bullet through the fine slashed coat.

I’ve turned this on its side, I’ve imagined two stanzas with the break at ‘pen’, I’ve utilised my very limited knowledge of musical notation, I’ve tried to ‘see’ a type of door key, I’ve struggled with the sequence’s epigraphs in English, Middle English and Latin but none of these offer me a way into the rationale for this kind of obsessive patterning. I’d really like there to be a rationale to do with music because this would fit with the title (as relating to musical keys) and to the reappearance of the Lawes brothers. The above, which is the third part of poem 3, holds out some hope with ‘punched semibreve’ and ‘Notate the viols / flexures of styles’ but neither of these lead in any obvious way to the singular shape that the words make.

It isn’t that there aren’t further veiled hints, this is from poem 12:

                Leave as coda
Some form of code
Like sonnets of Spanish
Aristocracy

This is again infuriating in that it appears to say something crucial when in fact it’s not saying very much at all. At this point I am ready to give up because the effort is proving to be greater than the expected reward.

We now come to Simon Jarvis and several different patterns. Lets start with the obvious, metrical regularity over a number of pages with no typographical variations produces a very regular pattern. Most of ‘The Unconditional’ can be thought of as a very long regular pattern. This pattern of itself says ‘poem’ as do Prynne’s quatrains in the ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’. In both cases the pattern on the page conforms closely to what people think poetry should look like. It is only when the words are read that this vision of conformity is undermined. In Jarvis’ case the same can be said for the ‘poemness’ of ‘Erlkonig’ and ‘Dinner’ in that the pattern is the pattern of poetry. e now come to the patterning in ‘F subscript zero’ some of which I’m tempted to describe as mannered:

                                        That's how you paint me
Left Summa of the war effort
Which from within
{I just decline
{ To break
{I just fail
Or to unmake
Or smash
More than a line
Could ever slake
Thirst not thirst for the Absolute by now as though known or imaginable only under the covering cherub of radical evil
| thirst for a drink

Without dwelling on the meaning, can there said to be a pattern in this? If there is I think we need to ask what it is hoping to achieve (if anything). I also need to make an irrational bias confession. When I was fifteen I had a friend who would write poems that had unfinished brackets strewn amongst them. When asked, he explained that this was because his life was like an open bracket. We thought this was really deep and it took me about three months to realise that it wasn’t. So, I’m starting with the hackles of suspicion already raised. It will also be noted that these are not ordinary brackets, the only time I’ve had cause to use these is when writing CSS style sheets but I very much doubt that a point is being made about page formatting. I’ve had a look at how this things are used when doing big sums and (as expected) I don’t understand the explanation and I fully accept that this is my problem rather than his. As far as I am able to ascertain (after three minutes of research) a single bracket by itself doesn’t signify anything.

I am assuming that ‘Summa’ and ‘Absolute’ point to an overt philosophical/theological context but I’m still having to guess where there’s this wide gap running down the middle part of this extract. I do however feel that we’re at the more abstract (as in ‘H Baptisme II’) end of the spectrum.

‘Dionysus Crucified’ does pattern in a number of extreme ways. Neither WordPress nor I have sufficient flexibility / skill to reproduce the patterns with any degree of accuracy but I will try and describe what might be going on. The first important fact is that these pages are very very big which allows for the extraordinary line length but also for the patterns to be displayed as intended.

One one page there is an outline of a cross with a number of letters and words arranged around these. There isn’t any immediately visual pattern to the words and they don’t ‘follow’ or mimic the shape of the cross.Some of the text in the first third of the page doesn’t follow a ‘normal’ left to right reading, there is this:

              S
T
R
I
N
G

This isn’t exact but it is reasonably close. On each of these lines there are other words and letters and parts of words so that we’re not sure what it is we’re supposed to be reading and in what order. Once we get below the arms of the cross this is no longer a problem and a left to right reading becomes (sort of) feasible.

The last page is entitled ‘CANTICLE’ and has a shape in that the way that the lines are arranged make a discernible shape. I’ve spent the last ten minutes looking at this shape and have only managed to come up with either flying saucer or luxury yacht. Neither of these is likely to be in any way accurate in that we’re very much in God / prayer / hymn territory and a left to right reading doesn’t work.

In conclusion I think I’m beginning to see the sense of using shape or pattern to enhance or underline different aspects of meaning or intent. I think ‘Holy Baptisme II’ functions more effectively than the better known ‘Altar’ and ‘Easter Wings’ because there’s less evidence of self-constraint detracting from the poem. I’m going to become much more familiar with ‘Clavics’ if I’m going to discover Hill’s rationale and life may be just too short. Simon Jarvis continues to set me a whole set of different challenges but I am interested (and impressed) enough to rise to the bait. This may not be A Good Thing.

Dionysus Crucified is still available from Grasp Press for only 11 quid. There is no excuse. Clavics and the Collected Herbert tome are both available on Amazon.

Clavics again

I think I’m ready to say a bit more about this sequence although there are some poems (or some parts of poems) that remain more than a little baffling. This particular form of bafflement isn’t so much about meaning but it is about motivation and intent.

For those who are accustomed to the trademark diversion into the English landscape, Clavics will disappoint- the closest we get is the first five lines of poem 5-

Making of mere brightness the air to tremble
So the sun's aurora in deep winter
Spiders' bramble
Blazing white floss
Silent stentor! -

Which isn’t particularly  outstanding and some way below his capabilities but this is likely to be due to the rhyme problem. This effectively undermined (some would say destroyed) the ‘Oraclau’ sequence and it rears its pretty little head again in ‘Clavics’. The damage is nowhere near as great on this occasion and there are a few places where the rhyme actually ‘works’ by adding either emphasis or intensity to the point being made. There are also places where Hill seems to overlook the scheme that he’s set himself- ‘bramble’ is here the rhyme for ‘tremble’ but then again the scheme seems to vary from time to time. The question does again have to be asked as to why the rhyme constraint is there at all if it means trying
As ever with late/high modernists, there are more than a few foreign phrases, a few obscure English words (almagest, praeterient, constatation) and words that Hill has created (ecrased, phage used as a verb). The significant change is with the foreign phrases which are usually given with some translation but not in this collection.
Things are a little more oblique than usual, it took me a little while to work out that “Parasites intolerant of rivals.” from poem 31 is a direct attack on Dawkins’ aggressive attitude to those who do not share his view. In the last piece on ‘Clavics’ I speculated as to whether Hill was putting forward a relativist position in response to the extreme positivism of Dawkins and Wilson as well as attacking their atheism. It turns out that this may well be the case but, as with all things Hill, there’s a bit of a twist.
Hill appears to be advocating a quite specific kind of 17th century mysticism in response to scientific ‘rationality’. This is signaled by the first line of the first two poems “Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise,” and “Torching Cabbalah not a fine refrain” and by the inclusion of Thomas Vaughan, Henry’s twin brother, and mention of his ‘Lumen de Lumine’, a tract which is subtitled “A new magical light: a tract concerning light from the fount of light”. I haven’t read this but Thomas is described as a “hermetic scholar and alchemist” by DNB and did enter into a acrimonious debate with one of the Cambridge Platonists. I’m taking this from poem 10 as a self-description: “By this much I mean only mystical / And eccentric, though with centrist leanings.”
I hadn’t considered mysticism as part of Hill’s beliefs prior to Clavics but in retrospect I can see that there were references in both “The Orchards of Syon” and “Comus” that I should have picked up on and will now spend some time with these to give bit more context.
I don’t know a lot about English mysticism but I’m not entirely sure how it ‘fits’ with Hill’s high Anglicanism, I do however like his description of being eccentric but with centrist leanings. I don’t think (this is provisional) that mysticism is being advocated just because it’s at the opposite end of the Dawkins’ spectrum, there seems to be enough throughout ‘Clavics’ to indicate that this is part of Hill’s faith / belief.
In thinking about this sequence I was led to re-read the essay on Henry Vaughan’s “The Night” which is brilliant in itself but also has a long discussion about rhyme and which contains a lengthy footnote quoting from ‘Lumen de Lumine” which Hill seems to be tying in with Aquinas’ more orthodox position.
The sequence does contain lines that don’t work, probably the most flagrant example is:

Would I were pardoned the effluent virus
Pardoned that sick program of pregnant odes
Near admirers
Cope with our begging Nescafe and rides.

Which, to my small brain, doesn’t makes any kind of sense and the last line is both completely flat and inept. This occurs at the end of the long section of poem 10 and Hill then tries to have his cake and eat it by starting poem 11 with “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince. / Density a workable element.”

There are several ‘dissonances’ that make me wince and acknowledging that this might be the case really does nothing to improve the situation- it’s like he’s recognising and flaunting his own weakness.
With regard to technique, there’s a strangeish identification with Yeats which seems to equate Hill’s prosodic clunkiness with the fact that Yeats taught himself the art of versification. Poem 14 has “Yeats and your author / Photomontaged / Graciously inclined each to the other”. Yeats also had a strong interest in the esoteric.
There are other more familiar themes, Hill continues to regret the loss of Empire, is critical of Nato’s presence in Afghanistan and appears to be particularly scathing about the size of Fred Goodwin’s pension- all of which is to be expected.
As can be seen from the above, I am finding ‘Clavics’ very absorbing and a great improvement on the self-indulgence of ‘Oraclau’ I hope that I’ve also shown that Mackinnon’s description of it as the ‘sheerest twaddle’ is hopelessly prejudiced and wrong.