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….