Tag Archives: Edmund Spenser

The Offside Rule and the unrelated(ish) Emily Dickinson Problem

I’m still in the process of updating, rewriting and polishing arduity. This week two problems have come to light that I thought I’d share.

Some time ago another site likened arduity to an attempt to explain the offside rule in soccer. To those who don’t know, the application of this rule causes immense amounts of angst and debate amongst fans but is a complete mystery to everyone else on the planet. I thought about this observation and decided that it wasn’t a bad analogy in that the mystification and the various nuances of technique are rough equivalents. I’d made pages on various tricks of the trade and had brief attempts at explaining the various isms but then decided that I’d rather illustrate various tropes rather than explaining them. Having reviewed the current content I think I’ve done this reasonably well but there isn’t a page that gives you an overview of the knowledge that might be useful. Some of the current links in the sidebar are misleading, the ‘difficult definitions’ link currently leads to a brilliantly incisive but completely unnecessary discussion of Heidegger, Hill and Derrida whereas what is needed is some examples of the difficult and the undifficult. I’ve decided to have a ‘nuts and bolts’ page that gives the briefest of overviews of a few key terms and suggesting some other resources that will provide more detail/context.

The selection of key terms is proving trickier than expected, I’m having problems with deciding whether to go back to basics (rhyme, meter, forms etc) or whether to deal instead with the things that are features of the difficult. In #1.5 I had thrown out most of the stuff that seemed superfluous and retained allusion, ambiguity, meaning, obscurity and the definition page. I’ve now decided to ‘do’ rhyme and meter as well but to link to Spenser and quote Jarvis as examples. I don’t think I need a definition for obscurity but can point these out when attending to particular poems. I also think that I should put a brief example in each definition and I dither between these two points. Frequently.

There’s also my personal concerns and interests. Following some comments about wrongness and readerly attention from Keston Sutherland, I seem to have developed these two into part of the writing that goes on here. It might therefore be as well to expand on these two a little more, especially as my idea of wrongness differs from Keston’s essay. There’s also the desire to say something about honesty as a quality that (in my view) not enough people think about when attending to the Poem. This would however involve giving examples of dishonesty which would involve writing about material that I actively dislike (later Eliot, most of Larkin, Burnside etc) which is something I try v hard not to do. The final element that I might need to develop is that of ‘clunkiness’ – this is usually part of a poem that either falls flat or doesn’t do what it’s trying to do.

We now come to the Emily Dickinson problem. This comes in two parts:

  1. I’m only just beginning to pay attention to the work;
  2. The poems don’t appear to ‘fit’ with the arduity remit;
  3. Dickinson appears to be admired by people that I don’t admire.

The last of these merely illustrates just how shallow this blog can be but I do have to acknowledge that this is more than a bit of a problem. As a further example, I don’t like the dishonesty at the heart of Sylvia Plath’s work but this is compounded by the nature and tone of her admirers.

The lack of ‘fit’ has shaken up my view of what difficult might be, I was prodded into looking at the work by Prynne’s comment from Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” poems:

It is worth pointing out that difficult ideas in poems are not always
expressed in language that is also difficult; for example, William Blake
in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience draws on language of almost
child-like simplicity and yet his thought is sometimes profound and
obscure. Emily Dickinson’s language is also mostly not difficult.

I’d decided many moons ago that I’m not going to tackle Blake but I’d decided to leave a decision on Dickinson until later. Whar spurred into attention was the strangeness of the last sentence and what we may be supposed to infer from ‘mostly not’. Thus prodded I went to the new Foyles and bought the Faber Complete. I haven’t as of yet done an end-to-end attentive reading but I’ve read enough to know that she may be the best ‘wrong’ poet in the language.

The poems are wrong because they don’t play by the rules, the don’t seem to bothered whether they work or not- and we haven’t yet got to the envelopes. Here’s all of Poem 599 in the Collected:


     There is a pain so - utter - 
     It swallows substance up -
     Then covers the Abyss with Trance-
     So Memory can step
     Around - across - upon it-
     As one within a Swoon - 
     Goes safely - where an open eye - 
     Would drop Him - Bone by Bone
     
   

The first two lines are very good indeed, the ‘utterness’ of pain that swallows up / megates all aspects of materiality but we then get to the Abyss which is one of the most loaded nouns that we have except that in this instance it gets subsumed by Trance which would appear to provide a distraction from the memory of this pain. The analogy is then made between ‘Swoon’ and ‘Trance’, the first of these providing some kind of safe passage whereas being awake would result in ‘Him’ being dropped into the abyss in a quite gruesome manner. None of this should work, it’s too disjointed, the use of capital letters seems unduly mannered and we’re left wondering whether ‘Him’ is Christ or just another hapless soul afflicted by this kind of pain. A ‘swoon’ is a fainting fit usually (in the 19th century) brough about by some excess of emotion. In the interest of a better understanding I’ve looked at the examples that the OED gives of and have discovered this from Elizabeth Barrett Browning from four or five years before 599 was composed: ” As one in swoon, To whom life creeps back in the form of death”.

There is a sense about the powers of the trance which has been used down the centuries as a way of making pain bearable. We’ve now discovered that our brains can obliterate memories of events of extreme trauma or pain. So there is some sense going on but there is also the last line which doesn’t seem to belong to what’s gone before. ‘Bone by Bone’ would seem to imply a body that has already been picked clean in some way but surely the noun is usually either ‘cast’ or ‘thrown’ or ‘flung’but not ‘dropped’ which seems much to casual for such an act

At this point I’d normally walk away but there is a tone that I find absolutely compelling (and wrong).

: “

The Allegory by the Pool.

John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.

Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.

So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.

I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.

As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.

Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.

This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.

On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.

Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.

In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;

I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate
And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Do work their owne perfection so by fate.

This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.

As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.

Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.

Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.

I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:

I will not say that I am a device.
The semicircle where my heavy lyre
gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice;
tall poplars to the right; one may admire
how in the distance that dome can entice
from its squat cupola to the entire
warehouse of print on which the state has fed
its house of authorships, its empty head.

Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.

Prynne week: Biting the Air. Again.

I’d forgotten just how addictive paying attention to Prynne can be and make no apologies for continuing with the above in order to identify further ‘corridors of sense’. Before we proceed I want here to provide the footnote to the paragraph that I quoted yesterday:

Here may be introduced the notion of meaning-threads or thematic linkage. Sometimes in working on a “difficult” poem a translator may hesitate over how to deal with a word or expression which seems to have many possible meanings. The translator notices that one of the possible meanings seems to have a connection with other words and meanings within the poem, coming before and after the problem word or expression. Maybe this link is an accident, but maybe it is part of the poem’s underlying argument, or one of its meaning-threads; in which case the translator can seemingly with some confidence select the translation of the problem word or expression which fits in best with this line of development. Following this course would help to give the translated poem a certain coherence of connected meaning. But sometimes appearances are deceptive. In noticing what looks like a prominent link, the translator may overlook a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them. Furthermore, within a poem a word or expression may precisely not fit at all, maybe even hinting at a connection which it is too discrepant in alternative signification to accommodate neatly. Or, indeed, problem words and expressions may include several of these different possible kinds of connection, all at once. If the original poem is full of alternative meaning-links and threads which do not overtly correspond to a central and single line of development, the translator must resist the temptation to make the behaviour of the original poem more orderly, and must respect possible word-meanings that do not fit in just as much (almost as much) as those that do. The translator has to be
very sensitive to meaning, but not over-respectful towards its demands!

I’m quoting this because it points out that there may be many meaning threads and because it warns against taking prominent linkages for granted because doing so “overlooks a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them”. Yesterday I did that very thing, I identified what seemed to be the overarching theme, the pharmaceutical industry, and noticed some other threads but failed to give them any consideration. Today I want to use the second poem in the sequence to try and compensate for that mistake:


Or it may be better to do that. Thick mitts for
an early start, precious upward mounting oval
mannerism, his park molested. Or to match defer
to certainty got a banner, to a grade. Hold one

before leasing forage behaviour; wash the novice
wrist, finger-tight. Do you already know this or yet
allocate sufficiency. Altogether just say the word
as lex loquens inter-married in sparse programme.

its cancel front to dive in a blip forward, your
modest capture. Sudden glial remorse announces
armament redress canine grips, on the platform
a bevy in service affair driven. A forever dulcet

hesitation in the mouth long-dated ostensible tap,
stare in daylight, one hand washes the other. Dis-
tribute what it takes, parallel fog lights crested
vapour banks confirm this. Conclusive under-

written first arrival, safe as houses on a detour
or live transmission in packet throb, insurgency.
Better power assignments for the moment this
sharing by split singlet to mollify what there is.

This will take some time. I’m never sure whether or not to tackle the surprises or the reasonably ‘clear’ first.

His park molested. On this occasion I’ll start with this molested park because it seems extreme, even for Prynne. It turns out that there are 44 definitions of ‘park’ in the OED but I’m going to select only two of them, one of which I knew and the other had escaped my attention. There have been since (at least) the thirteenth century royal parks which are reserved for the hunting of game. Some of the major ‘tussles’ between the gentry and the farming community has been the incursions into these parks by locals in pursuit of the same. The classic work on these confrontations is E P Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters pertaining to the 18th century. This may be confirmed as a sense thread by the presence of ‘mounting’ on the above line. Unfortunately, the same may be said of the second definition- a place for tanks and/or artillery in a military encampment. The OED provides a quote from The Independent in 2001: Close to the city’s ancient citadel, the Taliban maintained a tank and artillery park, which has been torn apart by bombs which also fits with mounting, as in a gun mounting. There’s also ‘armament redress’ in the third stanza, so a meaning thread may be on the horizon.

Sudden glial remorse. Up until three minutes ago I didn’t know what glial meant and I’m not much further now that I do. Apparently it’s the adjective from neuroglia which is the name given to ” the supportive non-neuronal tissue of the nervous system”. This is where we start clutching at straws, a further five minutes sepnt with the interweb reveals that some of the glial cells are responsible for maintaining an environmental ‘balance’ in the brain so that neuronal signalling takes place. These neurons are responsible for every aspect of the various mental processes. This balance may have echoes of ‘flatline’ in the first poem that I highlighted yesterday. Of course this could be me reading glial via the most obvious route and ignoring the other two main functions of these cells. I was going to give ‘remorse’ its common meaning but then decided to check for any other definitions that might be more appropriate. As I noted yesterday, one of the many bonuses of paying attention to Prynne is the opportunity to delve into ther inner recesses of the OED. On this occasion the 7th (obscure, rare) main definition is a “biting or cutting force” and the only quotation is from Spenser’s Faerie Queene: ” Their speares with pitilesse remorse, Through shield and mayle, and haberieon did wend” which makes me smile a lot. Spenser was notorious for his reckless meddling with the English language either by inventing words or using archaisms that didn’t exist of giving different meanings to words that did exist. Throughout the first edition of the dictionary most of these are identified with a sense or weary distaste. However, this type of remorse could be an attack carried out without thought which sets off / heralds / announces in itself a counter attack as in ‘armament redress’ This appears to add further weight to the military sense thread tentatively identified above.

The other probably irrelevant point that springs to mind is the fact there are many knightly fights in FQ and by Book IV, from which the quote is taken, our poet was running out of ways to describe the same event in different ways.

Better power assignments. This final sentence would seem to maintain the conflict thread. Prynne has written in other work ‘about’ the Ulster conflict which he has (accurately) described as a civil war and about the West’s tragic incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq. However the Ulster conflict was ostensibly resolved by a political arrangement known as ‘power sharing’. The power assignments which are said to be better could well be this arrangement which more accurately reflects the size of the province’s Catholic population. My only other observation is that it couldn’t be anything but an improvement on the previous Unionist dictatorship. Readers will be pleased to know that ‘split singlet’ may not refer to a torn vest because a singlet is also:

  • in theoretical physics, a quantum state with zero spin;
  • in spectroscopy, an entity appearing as a single peak;
  • in optics, a single lens element, the building blocks of lens systems;

I’m not even going to speculate about the first of these, having been barred from the physics lab at the age of 13 I really do know my limits. The third option may be me taking the easy route but it does seem that lenses enable us to see clearer but a lens that is split distorts our vision of how things are. Without wishing to run ahead of myself, I’m of the view that all English governments since the Normans have had an ‘idea’ of Ireland and the nature of the Irish problem that is fundamentally distorted. Therefore, it may be that the current power sharing arrangement does soften (mollify) those distortions but underneath there is still what there is- centuries of mutual hatred and suspicion.

I recognise (reluctantly) that the above may relate to the ongoing Afghanistan debacle or any other piece of imperial slaughter but at the moment the ‘sharing’ verb points in the direction of Ulster.

I think that’s probably enough for today, I’m more than a little saddened that the drug industry thesis from yesterday is now under siege but this does seem to bear out what our poet says in the above quote. Tomorrow I’ll have a look at the frequent use of ‘hand’ and hand-related terms that seem to run through the sequence.

Information Quality: The Gnarly Poem

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

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

The Gnarly Poem.

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

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

Examples.

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

John Skelton’s Speke, Parrot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ezra Pound’s The Cantos.

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

The Cantos have the following gnarly features:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What poetry does to philosophy.

I’ve been putting this off for weeks but have decided that now is the time. The berowed view that poetry and philosophy are incompatible has undergone some more waning but I’m now drawing a distinction between poetry that sets out as its main objective to ‘do’ philosophy and poetry that sets out to do Other Things that might have a philosophical component somewhere near the surface.

I’d like to consider first the nature of the poem and the nature of the philosophy tract. I accept that this is a very broad brush stroke but poetry is usually a compression whereas philosophy is usually an expansion. I’m making this distinction even though my reading of philosophy is quite sparse but it does seem that there’s a long windedness in terms of refuting all other philosophies before putting forward your own view.

Of course there are some poets, Lucretius, Pope and Jarvis spring to mind who are equally long-winded but most go the other way. Paul Celan and Edmund Spenser work by compression as does Charles Olson but in different ways and with different results. With regard to all of these, there is one element that I’d like to get out of the way before proceeding: the line between God and Truth aka between theology and philosophy. I’m taking Martin Buber, the Neo-platonics and Alfred Whitehead primarily as philosophers even though theologians have made extensive use of their work.

I’d like to start with Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie Which Frank Kermode referred to as the best philosophical poem in English. As the title suggests, it has change and time as it’s subject and this is one of Spenser’s recurring themes especially in The Faerie Queene. Essentially ‘Change’ puts forward the arguments for the priority of mutability over fixity and then Nature demolishes this with:

   I well consider all that ye have said
      And find that all things steadfastnes do hate
      And changed be: and yet being rightly wayed
      They are not changed from their first estate;
      But by their change their being doe dilate:
      And turning to themselves at length againe,
      Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
      Then over them Change doth not rule and raigne;
   But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine.

   Cease therefore daughter further to aspire
      And be content thus to be rul'd by me:
      For thy decay thou seekst by thy desire,
      But time shall come that all shall changed bee,
      And from thenceforth, none so more change shall see.
      So was the Titanesse put downe and whist,
      And Iove confirm'd in his imperiall see.
      Then was that whole assembly quite dismist
  And Natur's self did vanish, whither no man wist.

As a long-standing Spenser fan, this makes me want to jump up and down with delight because it’s supremely accomplished as poetry yet also manages in eighteen lines to express a fundamental aspect of 16th century philosopphical ‘truth’. Each stanza has one crucial and brilliantly crafted line, the first hinges on ‘dilate’. Bert Hamilton glosses the line with:

i.e. expand as they fill their natures, showing that change is not random but purposeful (see N.Frye 1990b: 160-161) acting in accord with the Pauline concept of sowing a natural body to raise a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15. 36-44). It is not circular, then but spiral in returning creation to its beginning.

This may be the case but I can’t help reading Ficino on God’s dance of joy into ‘dilate’ primarily because it seems a more logical and less complicated ‘fit’. Anyway, it is at once both plain and gloriously compressed and serves as a counterpoint to Spenser’s view of the world in continuous and relentless decline.

I think I need to note the extensive and frequently tiresome critical debate about the relationship between these Cantos and the rest of The Faerie Queene which is an argument without any facts. I will however set out the subtitle from the first edition of Mutabilitie which was published in 1609

   Which, both for Forme and Matter, appeare
      to be parcell of fome following Booke of the
               FAERIE QUEENE,
             VNDER  THE  LEGEND
                     OF
                 Conftancie 
              Never before imprinted.

‘Appeare’ is the tell-tale verb and we should leave it at that because we will Never Know.

The next act of compression comes from Paul Celan:


   ILLEGIBILITY
   Of this world. All things twice over.

   The strong clocks justify
   the splitting hour,
   coarsely.

   You, clamped 
   into your deepest part,
   climb out of yourself,
   for ever.

I’d argue that what we have here is a struggle with philosophy, an incredibly dense working of the major strands of 20th century thought with it’s concerns about perception, temporality and personal responsibility in the shadow of the Holocaust. Of course, many argue that this is too dense, that the distillation is too great and falls into meaningless and psuedo-mystical babble but this seems to miss the point entirely. Throughout his writing Celan is concerned with very Big Things indeed and explores the challenges inherent in living any kind of purposeful life when surrounded by our many violences and absence of thought.

Many who do accept the brilliance of this material insist on imposing the work of Martin Heidegger as the main philosophical thread and equate the ‘mystical’ quality the poetry with Heidegger’s later work. This seems to overlook other influences far removed from and (in some cases) directly opposed to all things existential. Martin Buber’s concerns with the demands of and responsibility for the Other are also very much present in the above. As with Spenser, I don’t want to examine the acres of critical pondering on this but I would like simply to point out that poetical philosophy, in the hands of genius, can be a more profound and provocative exploration of Truth in all its manifestations.

I’d like to finish with Charles Olson’s frequent nods to Whitehead’s Process and Reality in his Maximus series. In the past I have expressed the view that the work in its entirety can be seen as a transcription of Whitehead into poetic form. I’d now like to amend that view, Process and Reality was clearly a central aspect of Olson’s view of the world and this is apparent in parts of the sequence but there is much more of Olson the man here than there is of philosophy, even his clearest expositions are made by using himself and his everyday experience to make the ‘point’.

So, the best poetry adds other dimensions to philosophy because it can distil and intensify. This does not mean that poetry is in any kind of privileged position with regard to Truth but it does mean that it can, on occasion, push the conversation a little bit further.

Writing the Nation now

I’ve been re-reading the wonderful Helen Cooper on Spenser and she categorises the Faerie Queene (FQ) as an exercise in ‘writing the nation’ and I started to think about contemporary poets who might, at least in part, be doing the same thing.

Let’s be clear first about the FQ project, he has this:

And thou, O fairest Princess under sky,
In this faire mirrhour maist behold thy face,
And thine own realmes in Lond of Faerie,
And in this antique Image thy great ancestry.

Readers will be delighted to know that I don’t intend to dwell on FQ for longer than I need to but I do want to work out whether much use is made of ‘faire mirrhours’ today. This particular device works for me when it strike a chord with the idea of England that’s in my head and when it expresses the things that I feel about this contradictory and ham-fisted land.

As ever, what follows is subjective and I reserve the right to change my mind. Having given this some thought, I’ve dismissed both Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne because I don’t think that’s what they’re about. I’ve looked at Hill’s nature stuff again and it seems more about God than nation. I understand Hill’s brand of regretful patriotism but I don’t share it even if it does make me smile.

Simon Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’ speaks to me in terms of the road network, cars and the scratchy disintegration of the middle aged and middle class Englishman. I’m not entirely sure how much of the latter element is description or confession but it does contain the right quantity of quiet despair that seems to be prevalent in most of my peers. He’s also pretty good on complicity which seems to run through some of his more recent work too.

Page 91 of ‘The Unconditional’ has this extended riff on how things probably are:

       And when it set again through burning clouds
    in certain knowledge that his enemy
       was sitting there in service station blue
    as when first rumour of a coming war
       from crevices to mute intelligence
    leaks to the avid wire or wireless beam
       a possible integer of probable
    risk or then hope dividing from the fold
       brushes against the oil price like two lips
    on the most sensitive no skin there is
       the slightest contact more than nothing will
    call up all spirits from their surfaces
       sending all shocks of terror or delight
    whether to eros or to thanatos 
       or operatives to keep their sleepy screens
    jerk on to power up the data field
       setting the eddying hammering of blood
    as a no wave on no field spends its flood 
       whose figures bear away a man's whole life
    by one dead jump into the real sea
       whilst they caress the exquisitely keen
    crest which falls off to pleasure or to pain.

This very long and incredibly digressive poem was published in 2006 and one of the many things it does is expose and dissect the New Labour faux managerial nonsense that the nation had been subject to since 1997 and passages like the above express how this felt to those of us with more than half a brain.

Regular readers will know that I’ve struggled in a fascinated kind of way with the difficulties that Jarvis presents but, after several reads, it does (with all its very many quirks) feel like the best/ most accurate mirrhour that we have of England at the start of the 21st century. I appreciate that the above may be primarily aimed at the criminal folly of our recent foreign adventures but the mindset is also present in the Blairite innovations in welfare spending which have been joyously extended by the current dismalities that rule over us- especially the ‘avid wire’ and the misuse of the data field to justify the ever increasing levels of deprivation.

Another poem that holds up the mirrhour to English politics in a way that I can recognise. The exception is Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’ which set off a whole chain of immediate recognition in terms of what the current state of politics and the possibility of what political action might be about.

As with Neil’s earlier work, this is defiantly obdurate stuff but it’s initial strength comes from the careful modulation of the poetic ‘voice’ which is a very human voice rather than a tone. My recognition was immediate but also quite literally breathtaking as if I’d been grabbed in the chest. This happens to me about once every ten years and not usually with poetry, the last occasion was standing in front of one of those big Kiefers in about 2001. As I’ve said, the ‘meaning’ is by no means apparent so I’m still more or less at a loss as to why (apart from the voice) I should have this response but I’m certainly confident of my ability to extoll it’s worth as a ‘mirrhour’.

For example, there’s this from the middle of the poem:

    Gloze edging flouresces, accelerant centre fades :
    inside, the accurate flow to shell-gland, cored
    optic of pure courting is
                            To praise
    consumed in fit loops power, topic parabola
    recoiling : smoke feels, the reliquary a disclosure
    of this stratum, folded in its blastwave, that by
    furnace glossed art
                    coolant, exhales retinal
    clutch, feeding, ordinate, bracket, saline, aluminum,
    a baffling reach. The image smashed, hand formes
    kindling enrichment ; the footing centres exactly :

    as you went out,     becoming small       in the country
    speeding, glazed in : Pace ballots        on
                        mist
    into the entrails
              new white speed will index in her blood :

I’m not going to attempt a detailed analysis of the above but it might be useful to point out that poems epigraph is a quote from Philip Gaskell which describes a process that produces “a perfect image of the mould pattern and watermark in the paper but does not register the printing on the surface”, I also need to draw your attention to the brilliance inherent in both the phrasing and the use of language to create, for me at least, a quite forensic picture of how it is and what may or may not be done. I’m particularly blown away by ‘the accurate flow to shell-gland’ and the two line that begin with ‘as you went out’.

I’ve now realised that I have digressed some way from my initial intention which was to start with the ‘antique image’ and Leland’s remarkable ‘Itinerary’ and proceed via Drayton, Cobbett and Reznikoff to John Matthias with a glance at Olson and David Jones along the way. Hopefully I’ll be more disciplined next time.

Poetry and goodness

I need to start by expressing my gratitude to Michael Peverett, John Stevens and Steffen Hope for their feedback of the ‘Mercian Hymns’ page on arduity which has been invaluable and much appreciated. I’ve just added a longish page on the first four parts of ‘In Parenthesis’, any feedback on this would be much appreciated- either in the comments here or via e-mail- the address is at the bottom of each arduity page.

In his response to my recent thing on David Jones, Tom Dilworth expressed the view that “In IN PARENTHESIS the supreme value is not human life but goodness” which has set me thinking in a number of different directions. The first of these is that poetry is much better at badness than it is on the more positive aspects of the human race. The second is that those great poets who have tried to deal with goodness or virtue have clearly dealt with badness and vice with greater relish. The third thought is that there are those poets who exude goodness in their work and who approach their material with both empathy and compassion for the human condition.

In chronological order, I’m going to have to start with Book I of Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ which describes the quest of the Red Cross knight in achieving holiness. I think it is reasonable to observe that the most interesting/absorbing/entertaining characters are irrevocably Bad and that the way in which they do Badness is much more convincing than the good characters who help the knight on his way. Archimago and Duessa are eminently believable and Despair is a brilliant portrayal of what might be described as early nihilism but the virtuous Fidessa and Contemplation have all the realism of cardboard. The knight is so inept that we can’t take his side whilst Una, the object of his love and devotion, has only one scene where she is allowed to display her real emotions, for the rest of the 12 cantos she remains simply a bland paradigm of virtue.

Book III is ostensibly ‘about’ chastity as embodied by Britomart who does act with compassion and generosity, who does appear to be keen on doing the Right Thing and is much more complex and involving than any of the other ‘good’ subjects of the poem.

Spenser doesn’t write with compassion, he writes as a poet who is keen to demonstrate his value and skill. I am and always will be a Spenserian but that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the rampant egotism that runs through the work which really does get in the way of any sense of understanding of the reality of human talents and frailties. This self-regard is most obviously on display in the ‘Amoretti’ sequence but it also runs through the Faerie Queene- Spenser describes a great many fight scenes not because they are essential to his theme but because he’s very good at them even though the reader is weary after the first five or six.

George Herbert’s Love III deals with God’s love for mankind and the way in which salvation might work. I don’t want to re-visit Prynne’s detailed analysis but I do want to suggest that the poets displays a degree of goodness (in the sense of compassion and tenderness) as well as insight in the following lines. The poem uses the analogy of a guest and a meal that is offered:

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack any thing.

A guest, I answered worthy to be here.
Love said, You shall be he.

This is probably an entirely personal response but this strikes me as more than a theological ‘point’ because it seems to encapsulate the struggle that most of us have with the notion of worthiness. I know than a few individuals who have dedicated their lives to some kind of public service as a way of reconciling or dealing with their own sense of unworthiness and the above exchange seems to explore this in a particularly accurate and humane way that is absent from most of the rest of great English verse.

This brings us to John Milton and his God problem. In Paradise Lost, Jesus has compassion for humanity and does all the right/good things from defeating the bad angels to undertaking to sacrifice himself in order to redeem mankind. God, on the other hand, is grumpy and complains a lot about man’s ingratitude and disobedience. Being omniscient, God knows about Adam’s disobedience before it occurs but also knows (because of Free Will) that there is nothing he can do to prevent it. This makes him far more compelling than either Satan or Christ because he confounds our expectation that God must be inherently good and kind and never, ever bad-tampered.

The other bits of goodness turn out to be rather tedious, I find myself becoming irritated by the unalloyed virtue of Adam and Eve in the idyllic garden prior to the Fall. Milton is our greatest poet but he’s also a streetfighter with a number of points to make and this doesn’t leave much space for an empathetic stance.

Charles Olson’s compassion for the people of Gloucester and the way in which he describes existence on the edge of the Atlantic is an example of warmth and his love for the place which is enunciated in detail throughout ‘Maximus’, drawing us in to a similar viewpoint.

As with David Jones, one of Olson’s concerns is the relationship of the past to the present and the following fourteen lines explore this with great personal warmth;

A year that year
was new to men
the place had bred
in the mind of another

John White had seen it
in his eye
but fourteen men
of whom we know eleven

twenty two eyes
and the snow flew
where gulls now paper
the skies

where fishing continues
and my heart lies

I could go on for a very long time about how the archive and archival poetry brings the past into the immediate present a how Jones and Olson are two of our greatest poets (in part) because of this element in their practice. Instead, I just want to point to the love expressed and written in the above which to my mind is also an expression of Olson’s goodness.

Finally, Elizabeth Bishop is one of the very few poets who does goodness really well and I want to produce the closing lines of ‘Filling Station’ as an example of technical brilliance and a very human compassion:

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO-SO-SO-SO
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

There is a lot going on here but the ‘point’ is beautifully and expertly made and it is these expressions of compassion and human worth, even in the mundane, that makes Bishop so very, very good. There’s a reported conversation in ‘Moose’ which is technically perfect but is also soaked through with this sense of innate value in the human race.

So, I need to thank Tom Dilworth again for enabling me to think about yet another aspect that I’ve taken too much for granted and will now pay much more attention to.