Tag Archives: Difficult poetry

Simon Jarvis and the ‘difficult’ poem.

In addition to this blog, I also run the arduity web site. When I say ‘run’ I mean that I have written most of the content, built all of the pages and try and fix things that go wrong. The site is intended to help readers to feel more confident in engaging with difficult or innovative poetry. Because I haven’t put any effort into promotion, it doesn’t get much traffic although the feedback has been positive and helpful.

Both George Steiner and J H Prynne have had a go at defining ‘difficult’ as it might apply to modernist poetry with Steiner putting more emphasis on allusion whilst Prynne emphasises both ambiguity and juxtaposition (this is a crude characterisation). Arduity provides information on types of difficulty and also looks at a number of ‘difficult’ poets including Prynne, Paul Celan, Keston Sutherlan and a number of others.

In the past I’ve been of the view that Simon Jarvis’ work exemplifies a particular kind of difficulty and the ‘The Unconditional is particularly difficult for reasons that don’t clearly fit with what Steiner and Prynne identify. This primarily relates to the frequency and length of digressive passages which are difficult to follow because they are very, very long.

I’ve written before about the digressive element and don’t intend to repeat myself, suffice it to say that this aspect of ‘The Unconditional’ more than qualifies Jarvis for inclusion in arduity.

So, up until the end of June, Simon Jarvis was in my head as being deliberately digressive and defiantly prosodic using both metre and rhyme to make his point. I then received ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and ‘F subscript zero’ followed in August. Both of these are in free verse and very, very different from the defiantly metrical ‘Unconditional’, ‘Erlkonig’ and ‘Dinner’.

Having spent some time with both, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘F subscript zero’ is the more difficult of the two and I will now try and explain why. ‘Dionysus’ may have a page where the words are spread all over the place and a page where the words are printed over the outline of a cross but it does at least have the advantage of some proper names (Dionysus, Pentheus, Origen, Augustine, Ashley and Cheryl Cole etc) which might provide a number of footholds with which to begin. The only proper name in the first poem ‘F0′ is Paul Burrell together with a faily obvious reference to Princess Diana.

I wrote about ‘FO‘ a couple of weeks ago and drew attention to it as an example of Jarvis’ view that doing poetry is a good way of doing philosophy. Most people would consider philosophic poetry to be difficult enough but there are passages here which are very experimental in form too.

I’m using another extract from the first poem (‘ODE’) because it allows me to make more than one point:

   A filament burns in hours of effort continuously or with perenially reiterated force expelling daylight.
Eternal no instant!
Just as immeasurably you hop hopeless, heap up a big pile of nothing one on top of the
popped up these points, prop off at a dimensionless, totter off as a broke hand wud build
of water its imperishable palace of failure in floppies
of fire its terrible comfort blanket in cruel
of paper its inedible lunch in cash f memento is pool of solace i.e. oil outside L'pool
of leaf its fat bank account in the Caymans which I would love to have
of in
or and
Durationless!

To my mind, thse lines manage to pack in more difficulty than most poets manage in a career. Incidentally, for once, the formatting is reasonably accurate. The first thing to note is that things stop making grammatical sense in the third line until you realise that ther is a list that reads ‘of nothing’, ‘of water’, ‘of fire’ ‘of memento’ and ‘of leaf’ with the proviso that ‘of solace’ may also be included.

The next thing to note is that there are several different ways of saying ‘nothing’ and a missing ‘other’ and a missing ‘o’.

The missing ‘other’ occurs after “one on top of the” unless of course “on top of the / popped up these points” is meant to make sense. There’s also an apparent contradiction in a burning filament ‘expelling daylight’. If there is a missing other then I think we need to ask whether or not this is a philosophical other or an ordinary other just as we need to ask the same question about the repeated nothings. Given that other parts of the poem contain references to Derrida and Adorno, I think it’s safe to assume that there is some philosophical point lurking within these lines.

We now come to the issue of constraint. In his recent lecture Jarvis would appear to be arguing that the constraints of rhyme and metre were helpful in the writing of poetry with a philosophical theme, using the example of Alexander Pope to make his point. This particular poem is in free verse yet there is philosophy going on so this would seem to contradict the Jarvis thesis. However, I’d like to draw attention to the alliteration with the letter ‘p’ in the third and fourth lines and to the fact that ‘which I would love to have’ is so utterly naff that it seems to work against the lines that precede it.

I do have this half-formed theory that Jarvis is using poetry to subvert and dismantle what we currently think of as the contemporary poem and these very complex lines seem to bear this out. I might, of course, be completely wrong but it seems to be a worthwhile tread to pursue at this stage.

None of this is very helpful in preparing a page for arduity, I’m still concerned that a full description of what might be going on may deter rather than attract readers but I remain of the view that Jarvis’ work is important in its own right and has essential things to say about poetry that should not be ignored.

I will be returning to this poem once I’ve given it some more attention. As a final observation, I’m usually fairly good at bearing in mind the context of the whole poem whilst working through difficult sections but this particular piece has thus far defeated my attempts to get hold of the bigger picture.

I also need to give more thought to the celebrity thread that recurs in ‘Dionysus Crucified’.

Difficult poetry and the arduity project

This is by way of an update on arduity which I started earlier this year. The bad news is that I was turned down for a grant from our Arts Council primarily because they didn’t accept my plans with regard to financial viability.

This has come as no great surprise but it has led me to reconsider what I hope to achieve. I’m still of the view that a non-academic resource is needed to help readers to get to grips with difficult verse and know that I would have benefited from such a resource when starting to tackle Hill and Prynne. I’m also still of the view that the site should contain readings and responses from other non-academic readers as a kind of counterweight to what is produced by the academy. In this regard it’s interesting to note that I’ve had offers of contributions from others but nothing as yet has materialised.

There was a stage a while ago when I got bogged down in worrying about platforms (arduity now has three wikis and a blog that I haven’t started to develop) but I now think that I need to give more consideration to involving others- it doesn’t matter what platform you use if the material isn’t there.

Whilst I really enjoy writing about poetry, I also recognise that my own knowledge base is limited and my personal preferences do not cover the full range of this kind of material. I’m currently trying to psyche myself up to write something useful about Eliot and Pound but I’m not avidly enthusiastic about either (and I haven’t worked my way through ‘The Cantos’). The other thought that occurs to me is that I haven’t done enough on the various components of difficulty- I posted a shortish piece on ‘meaning’ yesterday which seems to be quite popular but doesn’t really do the subject justice.

The other issue is that I need to focus on a bit of marketing. I have yet to do the reciprocal links thing with other like-minded sites and I should really begin to make a bit more of an effort. I also need to reconsider the search engine placement strategy- ‘arduity’ has a first page ranking for ‘difficult poetry’ in google but this produces zero traffic so I need to think again about keywords and phrases with a view to the content that has been created.

So, this is a double plea- any contributions would be very much welcomed as would any views on the existing content (particularly on the ‘toolkit’ section). The relevant e-mail address is at the bottom of each page if you don’t want to respond here.

Incidentally, I find I’m addicted to writing about Prynne- is there a cure?

Clarifying difficult poetry- a plea

Regular readers will know that I’ve started a project (Arduity) which is aimed at helping non-academic readers to get to grips with difficult poetry. The support that I’ve received thus far together with promises of contributions has been very heartening but I’m at one of those crossroad moments where I don’t know how to proceed. This is unusual for me because my usual tendency is to carry on in all directions in the hope that something will eventually become clear.
This particular problem relates to having too many choices and being aware that whichever choice I make now will remain fixed for the life of the project. I know this to be the case because the choices which we made (and regretted) in my last business project remained fixed and unalterable for ten years.
I think the aim of this thing is relatively straightforward, it’s about removing some of the barriers that currently surround difficult verse and encouraging readers to provide their own responses to poets and/or their work. To this end I have begun work on a web site and have put a few pages on a wiki and also there is some of the material on this blog that can be re-used.
The advantages of using a wiki are two-fold, site users can create and display content without any mediation and those who wish to comment or add content can also do the same. The problem with this is that anyone can put non-relevant or abusive material on the wiki because there is no mediation. I’m also concerned about spam, this blog has received over 800 spam postings compared with 165 legitimate comments over the last 18 months.
The advantages of an old-fashioned site are retaining two kinds of control, I can control the content and the stats package gives me the ability to configure pages and content in order to increase the number of page views. This blog gives me the same level of control but I don’t get access to a full set of stats.
So, I’m currently thinking of a blend of all three-

  • The wiki would be used for contributions/responses to poems and poets
  • The web site would be used to provide baseline information
  • the blog would be used to develop ideas and for me to think out loud

This all made sense for most of last week when I started to dither which isn’t good because I’ve got more content and I need to put it somewhere. The other options are to just run with one or two of the above. I’m painfully aware that I know next to nothing about information architecture and even less about getting the balance between ‘fixed’ and user created content right so if anyone has any useful suggestions then I’d be very grateful

Difficult Poetry and Philosophy

This may take some time, I’ve been writing about ‘The Maximus Poems’ the arduity project and I really wanted to talk about the influence of Alfred North Whitehead on the work but didn’t because I feel that this may deter first-time readers. Since then I’ve been giving more than a little thought to the complex relationship that poets have with philosophy. It seems to me that writers of difficult poetry are, in part, difficult because they are dealing with fundamental issues and in this there is a big similarity with philosophy.

The issue becomes more problematic when we consider the exact relationship between the two. Olson is relatively straightforward in that ‘Maximus’ can be read as a reworking of ‘Process and Reality’. We know that this was one of the most thumbed and annotated books on Olson’s shelf and that Olson referred to it as his guiding light. So, it would appear that Olson’s view of our perception of time and space was informed by Whitehead and this conceptual framework was used to shape ‘Maximus’. The next question to be asked is was this a conscious thing – did Olson deliberately set out to write a poem about the world according to Whitehead or was the work so ingrained under his skin that this had become his reading of the world?

The situation gets more complex with other difficult poets, a straight line can be drawn between Henri Bergson (via T E Hulme) and the early work of Pound and Eliot. On closer inspection however this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. In terms of form Bergson may have been influential but Bradley is certainly more influential on Eliot in terms of content. It would also be impossible in my view to point to any straight lines influencing Pound.

Then we come to the Heidegger problem. I’ll leave aside my previously stated view that Heidegger was wrong about poetry and consider instead his  well-documented influence on the work of Paul Celan.  The relationship was never an easy one as Celan could never forgive Heidegger’s studied silence about his Nazi past but it is clear that Celan read Heidegger from the early fifties on over. As a lifelong reader of Celan, I’ve looked for traces of the existential Heidegger in Celan’s work and they aren’t apparent.  I’ve also read long and learned essays that purport to show me that they are apparent yet I’ve never been convinced. What can be said is that there is a lot of mysticism in Celan’s work, as there is in Heidegger’s later output but we also know that Celan was an enthusiastic reader of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Unpacking these various threads in Celan’s notoriously resistant verse is almost impossible.

J H Prynne’s debt to Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Marx and others is fairly well-documented but again we have the problem of many ‘influences’ coming together in different ways. I’m currently giving priority to Merleau-Ponty but this is only because I’m reading him and his thoughts on perception seem to tie in with the way that I read Prynne. The socialist perspective clearly comes from ‘Capital’ and the notion of poetry as truth stems from Heidegger (amongst many others).

As a (weak) practitioner, I try and write poetry that makes sense of the world but I don’t do this with any particular philosophy or ideology in mind. I do however acknowledge that the way that I live my life is formed by a cognitive map that has many influences. My understanding of the way power works is informed by Foucault, my reluctant comprehension of how culture functions is informed by Bourdieu, my personal relativism is influenced by Richard Rorty, my sense of place I get from Henri Lefebvre and I wish I could write like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida. I’m currently writing a long poem about the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday and no doubt all of the above will ‘inform’ what I write but even I couldn’t begin to sort out the strands.

So, poets write about fundamental stuff and sometimes take from philosophy a framework for thinking about their subject. Undertaking an objective analysis of that ‘influence’ is however immensely difficult and often a waste of time

Clarifying Difficult Poetry

This is a shameless plug for the arduity project which I’ve mentioned before which is either an exercise in pure self-indulgence or an essential public service. The idea is to encourage ‘ordinary’ readers of poetry to engage with verse that is considered to be difficult. The sub-text is to encourage these readers to contribute their own response to this kind of work thereby creating a discourse outside of the academy.

At the beginning of the summer this seemed to be a great idea. I’d cut my teeth on Celan and Hill and was beginning to get a bit more coherent about Prynne and (as with any neophyte) was filled with ardent enthusiasm for all things difficult. Somewhere at the back of my skull I knew that this wasn’t quite that clear-cut but I plunged in without asking too many further questions. Three months in and the issues that I ignored come back to haunt me. The big one is the definition of  ‘difficult’ and whether the site should mainly focus on modernism, with its penchant for deliberate opacity, or whether other poets and poems should be included.

The other struggle is to get the balance right between enthusiasm for the subject and being overly didactic (my daughter’s term). I do want to give the impression that Prynne and Hill are a joy to read but I also want to give some indication as to why this might be the case and I am trying hard not to couch too much stuff in abstract terms. For example, I currently have a Charles Olson problem in that I’ve decided that the Maximus Poems are difficult in terms of form, length and the underlying ideas but I want to communicate the enthusiasm that I felt on my first reading. This is difficult because I’ve read a lot of background stuff since and it’s really tempting to talk about Alfred North Whitehead even though that would deter many first timers.

I don’t want to provide a blow by blow guide to individual poems because it’s important that readers do their own work of interpretation. What I think the site is trying to do is give readers the conceptual resources and confidence to begin to tackle this material. To this end the site also contains a list of resources and useful critics. This second element is tricky because I know what I’ve found to be useful but I’m also aware that others may find other critics more accessible. I’ve recommended Derrida on Celan because his reading is the one that makes most sense to me but his style is not to everyone’s taste….

I also recognise that I’m going to have to write about poets that I don’t like. There are some poets whose earlier stuff is much better than the later (Eliot, Ashbery) but there are also some that I can’t stand. I’m dreading the day when I have to write something positive about Rilke for example.

One of my concerns on putting this together was that it would spoil  the pleasure that I get from reading poetry. Thankfully this hasn’t occurred. Last night I spent a couple of enjoyable hours in Gloucester with Olson and smiled throughout. I’ve also taken delivery of  ‘Sub Songs’ which is proving to be intriguing.

This kind of project carries with it a sense of responsibility. I don’t want the site to enter into the various factional disputes that infect poetry but I do want to counteract the view held by some that difficult poetry isn’t worth the effort and the best way to do this is to provide examples of why the work of interpretation is worthwhile without trying to score points against the mainstream.

I’m also making plea for feedback on the structure and content of the site. I know that its design is very dated ( I last built a web site in 1999) but I am keen to know if the project is moving in the right direction. I’d also like to thank John Matthias and Jim Kleinhenz for their ongoing support and feedback.

J H Prynne on ‘difficult’ poetry.

The third issue of the Cambridge Literary Review has published a ‘Keynote Speech’ given by Prynne in China in 2008 entitled “Difficulties in the translation of  ‘difficult’ poems” which turns out to be the best guide to Prynne’s practice that I have yet seen. What follows is a crude synopsis but I hope it gives more than a flavour of his analysis/argument.

He starts with a general description of modernism noting that:

“In difficult modernist poetry there can be obscure and complex aspects relating to thought and ideas, to imagery and structure, to condensed or broken linkages and to embedded references to other texts or works.”

I read this and realised that this wasn’t so much a general description of modernist poetry but a list of some of the main aspects of Prynne’s work, nobody else that I’m aware of combines all of these elements together. Prynne also talks about the difficulties that the reader/translator faces when trying to work out which of the many meanings of a word or phrase and which of the many pathways should be followed. This is very redolent of my own experience of reading Prynne’s work which is littered with moments of what he describes as ‘rich uncertainty’. He also makes the point that good difficult poetry is surprising and that this surprise sometimes takes our breath away. Geoffrey Hill makes a similar point in ‘Language, Suffering and Silence’ where he writes about ‘semantic shock’ being an important component of a successful poem.

I think the following usefully sums up the Prynne project:

” In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrase which break the rules of local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity, and the translator can recognise the challenge to translating skills even if good solutions are hard to find.”

These ‘semantic sparks’ seem to be increasingly frequent in Prynne’s more recent work, ‘Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian’ appears to be littered with them. Whilst being surprised and carrying this level of ambiguity is very rewarding, I find the longer poems require me to hold a lot of these uncertainties in my head at the same time which can be quite intimidating. For example ‘Streak, Willing’ appears to have the recent civil war in Ulster as a major theme yet the third section contains a reference to an economic recession which doesn’t appear to occur elsewhere. This may be because I haven’t picked up these references yet but (because of its length) I do find it difficult to get the whole poem into my head but this doesn’t prevent me from trying because I know that I will eventually be familiar with all the cryptic phrases and allusions.

Having read and absorbed what Prynne has to say, I think that for me the biggest ‘attraction’ in reading him is the multi-dimensional quality of the work in that he makes full use of the modernist bag of tricks but there is also the additional elements of word sounds and form that come from much older poetic traditions. So, as well as surprise and uncertainty, I think I read Prynne because of the cognitive challenges that his work presents and the enjoyment comes in trying to put all the elements together.

Prynne rightly distances difficult modernist work from  post-modernist “playfulness where meaning is allowed to skim across the surface in a deliberately arbitrary way, because the use of difficulty as a method of poetic thought is different both in intention and effect from difficulty as a playground or a funfair.” We could argue whether this is a fair description of all post-modern verse or whether its just a bit of a dig at the work of John Ashbery but I think the line is properly drawn against those who think that Prynne is inviting readers to make their own poem when reading his work.

We now come to the thorny issue of the dialectic, regular readers will know that I groan inwardly when mention is made of the dialectic in relation to poetry primarily because I feel that this complex term with very many competing definitions is used as a kind of lazy shorthand by poets and critics who want to display their ideological credentials. Here’s Prynne’s use of the term:

“If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.”

I’m not disputing that difficult poetry can produce both contradiction and self  dispute but I would like to query whether we need to describe such elements as “a dialectic practice” because the dialectic is about much more than just contradiction.

As usual with Prynne, the footnotes are almost as revealing as the text itself. There are references to Eliot, Empson, Ivor Richards and Sergei Eisenstein amongst many others.

In conclusion, this is essential reading for anyone who is serious about getting to grips with Prynne and may also serve to cut a much needed path through the critical obfuscation that continues to be produced by others.