Tag Archives: geoffry hill

Poetic rupture and innovation.

One of the many challenging things that Michel Foucault said was that progress or innovation proceeds by means of catastrophic rupture rather than gradual change and I’ve been thinking about whether or not this applies to poetry and why some ruptures succeed whilst others fail.

There are two kinds of ruptures:

  • those poems that represent a significant break with the accepted notion of what poetry is;
  • those poems that are a significant move away from the poet’s previous work.

Many would argue that Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is the most obvious rupture in both senses and the most successful in terms of lasting influence. It is possible to see this poem as significantly and radically different from anything before it but I’ve always been of the muddle-headed view that there is a gradual and reasonably logicial progression from ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’ through ‘Gerontion’ to the Ur-text itself. I’m not arguing that ‘The Waste Land’ wasn’t seen at the time as radically different from all that had gone before nor am I saying that it didn’t represent a significant break with the past but I don’t think that it came entirely out of the blue.

This is from ‘Prufrock’:

    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
    (They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, know them all-
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, 
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
       So how should I presume?

There’s a voice within ‘Prufrock’ that is both playfully and intently ambitious, a voice that has a keen interest in how the universe might be disturbed. I think I can also make a case for this early poem with its juxtaposition of the demotic and profound as more modernist than its successor. I’ll also confess to considering everything after ‘Prufrock’ as a bit of a decline.

Eliot had intended to begin ‘The Waste Land’ with ‘Gerontion’ but was dissuaded from doing so by Ezra Pound. I think this might illustrate the point that I am trying to make:

    The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
    Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
    The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
    Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                     I an old man,
   
    A dull head among windy spaces.
    Signs are taken for wonders. 'We would see a sign!'
    The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
    Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
    Came Christ the tiger.

Given Eliot’s original intentions, it isn’t altogether surprising that many elements of the Waste Land are presaged here, my point is that the rupture isn’t as suddenly as we might think.

By way of contrast, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ was a complete break with what had gone before in his work and was completely out of step with the rest of English poetry of the time. The sequence is in prose and ostensibly concerns Offa, king of the Mercians, but does this by mixing the Anglo Saxon past with the 1971 present in a way that is incredibly accomplished and quite mysteriously evocative. Hill hasn’t published anything like it since and it doesn’t seem to have started any kind of trend. I was fourteen and busy reading ‘Crow’ in 1971 and completely missed this piece of brilliance until about 2005 but it still feels like a major break that should have had much greater effect.

The Prynne trajectory is much easier to trace. ‘Brass’ was also published in 1971 and contained this:

                 yet
    the immediate body of wealth is not
    history, body-fluid not dynastic. No
    poetic gabble will survive which fails
    to collide head-on with the unwitty circus
              no history running
                  with the French horn running
                         the alley-way, no
                  manifest emergence
              of valued instinct, no growth
                  of meaning & stated order:

Is a head-on collision with the unwitty circus also a rupture or is the essential thing about rupture that it renounces and/or ignores the circus? Does the recent publication of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ mark another significant rupture in Prynne’s work?

Geoffrey Hill isn’t after collisions but he also seems to hold his peers at arms-length, I can make a case for ‘The Triumph of Love’ as a sequence that breaks (ruptures) most of the rules and conventions yet still manages to be defiantly wonderful.

What Foucault didn’t mention was the stupidly high proportion of failed ruptures- those breaks with the past that are not followed by others but are nevertheless just as brilliant as those that succeed. Into this camp I’d place ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘Speke Parrot’ ‘Sordello’ and ‘The Anathemata. There are those that would argue that Langland’s reputation is actually secure and the poem continues to attract critical acclaim but my point is that it wasn’t followed through by others in the same way as Chaucer, Hoccleve and Lydgate. John Skelton was probably deeply dislikeable as a man but his work stands apart from what preceded it and ‘Speke Parrot’ would mark a rupture in any decade but hasn’t influenced anybody since. ‘Sordello’ was a critical and popular disaster but it does shine out as the most ambitious and genuinely innovative poem in the Browning oeuvre- Ezra Pound claimed that he was the only person on the planet who fully appreciated it.

I’ve written many times about the criminal neglect of David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ but the fact remains that it hasn’t been followed and is currently in danger of being forgotten altogether even though some of us regard it as one of the very best poems of the last hundred years. The reasons for this are many and various but pride of place has been given to difficulty and/or obscurity. I’m more inclined to the view that it presented a major challenge to Eliot-inspired modernism and failed to find an audience because it didn’t ‘fit’.

We know come to the rupturist par excellence- Paul Celan’s later work marks a chasm between our current notions of what poetry can do and Celan’s view of what it must do. Most serious poets now recognise Celan as the greatest 20th century poet but few have been brave enough, with the honourable exception of Edmond Jabes to follow in his wake. It is impossible to overstate the violence of this particular rupture which began to tear its way to the surface in the late fifties and continued to Celan’s death in 1970. Suffice it to say that it’s body of work that rips apart all the usual notions of meaning and addresses language as a matter of survival and thinks of the poem carrying the quite desperate potential for an encounter in this struggle for life.

Both Prynne and Celan work at the extremes of ambiguity and allusion, both are rejected for their elitism and obscurity just as both are criticised for writing unpoetry. I’m still of the view that these are the names, above all others that we’ll remember in 200 years’ time.

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.