Tag Archives: jacques derrida

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).

: “

Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne and Gillian Rose

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

In an effort to counter the liking-Prynne-means-that-you-can’t-like-Hill (and vice versa) syndrome I make sporadic attempts to identify similarities/affinities between the two. So far the primary one is admiration for the work of Paul Celan. I’ve recently come across another mutual affinity in Gillian Rose. Hill’s poem, ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ was published in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ in 2007 and Prynne speaks about his friendship with Rose in his introduction to the reading of ‘Refuse Collection’ which is on the Archive of the Now. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, the latest and strangest Prynne offering contains a reference to Rose’s ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ which is described as the philosophical version of her ‘Love’s Work’.

For those who don’t know, Rose was one of our brightest academics until her early death from cancer at the age of 48 in 1995. Up until the end of her life she wrote with enormous clarity and a fierce commitment to the ethical strengths of the European tradition which she saw as being undermined by the post structural and the post modern. ‘Love’s Work’ is a kind of autobiography which includes an account of her intellectual development and a brutally factual description of her battle with cancer. It is beautifully written and incredibly moving. I can say this because I was moved and this doesn’t occur very often.

Rose was also the finest writer of polemic that I have come across. Her demolition of Derrida’s ‘Of Spririt’ is a delightful example of how these things should be done- and I speak as one who is sympathetic to Derrida. I readily concede that ‘Of Spirit’ is probably his weakest work and that it’s a relatively (pun intended) easy target but the level of destruction wreaked is extreme, no prisoners are taken and it is a pleasure to watch an expert at work. She’s even better than Alistair Fowler in full flight. Incidentally, something very similar to the Rose position can be found occasionally in the poetry of Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis but neither come close to Rose’s verbal ferocity and wit.

Hill’s poem is remarkable because it is clearly heartfelt and that it probaly reveals more about the poet than it does about Rose. The poem recognises that Rose would have responded negatively to his wooing and “wiped me / in the championship finals of dislike” which is very, very likely but he also has this:

5
Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry's
assumption of rule. Or its role
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt

6
unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
rewedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics
to Phocion's wife - who shall be nameless -
in Poussin's painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.
Not many would see that.

This might just be my perspective but isn’t the last phrase massively patronising? Isn’t it likely that Rose would have taken greater exception to being patronised by Geoffrey Hill than being wooed by him? The Poussin reference is an allusion to the first chapter of ‘Mourning Becomes the Law where Rose makes a case for the action of the wife’s servant in anxiously watching over her mistress as signalling an act of justice.

Moving on to Prynne, I have remarked before that we are assisted by the inclusion of a list of “reference cues” at the end of the poem yet neither John Skelton (two references to ‘Speke, Parrot) nor Rose are included. ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ is referred to with unusual clarity:

.......................................Look out for dread it's your
letter speciality, bunk of delirium day-trading. 'External causes
are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of
change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be.

This may or may not be helpful but the quote is from Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937 which is one of the listed reference cues. The ‘I saw’ motif that runs through the poem is likely to be an allusion to Middle English dream poems.

I do not want to get bogged down in the finer points of Marxist debate but would like to note that “not this one” refers to the quote which is part of a much broader thesis. It’s also useful to note how Rose explained her title:

Post-modernism in its renunciation of reason, power, and truth identifies itself as a process of endless mourning, lamenting the loss of securities which, on its own argument, were none such. Yet this everlasting melancholia accurately monitors the refusal to let go, which I express in the phrase describing post-modernism as ‘despairing rationalism without reason’. One recent ironic aphorism for this static condition between desire for presence and acceptance of absence occurs in an interview by Derrida: ‘I mourn therefore I am’. by contrast Mourning Becomes the Law affirms that the reassessment of reason, gradually rediscovering its own movable boundaries as it explores the boundaries of the soul, the city and the sacred can complete its mourning. Completed mourning envisages the creative involvement of action in the configurations of power and law: it does not find itself unequivocally in a closed circuit which exclusively confers logic and power. In the title, Mourning Becomes the Law, ‘Become entertains the gradual process involved, and the connotation of ‘suiting’ or ‘enhancing’ in the overcoming of mourning.

All of this seems eminently sensible and the correct response to the post-modern absence of substance and there is no doubting Rose’s sincerity in making her case. As with all of these arguments however I still get the impression that there’s too much protesting going on coupled with a failure to set forward a credible agenda. It’s also telling that the focus of most of this opprobrium is on Derrida whose long term influence may not be as great as either Foucault or Deleuze.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not convinced that philosophy is a fit and proper subject for poetry. I’ve since modified that position and am now of the view that only those poems that are exclusively philosophical are bad poems. For example, the Mutability Cantos at the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’ would be bad if they weren’t viewed as part of that magnificent epic. Hill’s poem is a poem about a philosopher rather than a philosophical poem and is therefore excluded. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ contains a wide range of elements, some of which relate to philosophy and one of the main themes (non-being) is more than a little philosophical but I’ll continue to give it the benefit of the doubt.

So, another similarity even though Hill may also have been motivated by Rose’s ‘deathbed conversion’ to Christianity, both will have recognised a formidable talent regardless of ideological stance.

Incidentally, Simon Jarvis also acknowledges her support in his book on Adorno.

Poetry and the academy (again)

In the early days of this blog I allowed myself the occasional extended rant about the damage that something called the academy does to something we call poetry. The general thrust of this centred around an academic elite having more and more complex discussions with itself and thus locking most ‘serious’ poetry up in a box that excludes the rest of us.

I’d like to be able to report that I’ve mellowed and now appreciate that complex poetry requires complex analysis and that this must be expressed in precise terms which many may consider to be obscure. Unfortunately, recent exposure to academic work continues to confirm the original view although in a slightly modified form.

I read a lot of history and spend many a happy hour arguing in my head with views and perspectives that I don’t agree with. I’d like to be able to read about poets and poetry that interests me, especially work produced between 1580 and 1670 (ish) although I wouldn’t be adverse to reading outside these parameters. The problem is that I can’t finish the vast majority of those that I’ve tried. I start off with the best of intentions but soon get weary and decide not to proceed any further. This weariness is usually due to:

  • the points being made don’t seem to be well-founded;
  • an ideological agenda is being pursued which requires the author to shoehorn the work into a box that doesn’t fit;
  • academic eagerness leading to an ‘over-egging’ of the pudding;
  • increasingly convoluted arguments to make a very small point;
  • an emphasis on the wrong things;

There are some critics that I read with enormous pleasure even though I disagree with almost everything they say, I read and re-read Stanley Fish on anything and I do the same with Jacques Derrida on Paul Celan. I also read Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne on anything but my primary motivation stems from my interest in their poetry.

I do appreciate that there are academic trends and that these develop over time, I also understand that academia is competitive but it does seem that academic success is more likely if authors produce work that questions the prevailing status quo (and is well written).

I do not want to single out particular books but I have started about ten that have been published in the last five years. I’ve been attracted by the subject matter and the thesis that’s set out in the introduction and have started with more than a degree of enthusiasm because all of these books promise to do what I think ought to be done.

The over-egging of the pudding is particularly tiresome, it does seem that there is a tendency to develop entire theories on the flimsiest evidence. Some historians also fall into this particular trap but there is a growing trend which emphasises the things that we don’t actually know rather than those which we can only guess about. I’m not inherently against speculation but I am of the view that authors should make it clear when speculation is taking place.

I have tried to be reasonably broad in my reading, I’ve engaged with works about individual poets, about groups of poets, works with a political bent and those with a theological/philosophical angle and none of these have lived up to the promises set out in the introduction. Some of this can be very dispiriting, I’ve been taken through many pages of context and supporting evidence only to arrive at a ‘point’ that is so small as to be meaningless. I’ve been through pages of ideologically right-on posturing to arrive at a ‘point’ that is laughably wrong (as in factually incorrect).

We now come to specialisms and context. I am familiar with the history of this particular period and am therefore reasonably aware when authors provide only partial or inaccurate context. There may however be many readers who ‘only’ have a background in literature and would often struggle to make a judgement about the context that is provided. I’m not suggesting that this is deliberate but too often sweeping generalisations are made in order to prove a (usually speculative) theory. The other side of the coin is represented by J H Prynne who spends many pages in his ‘Love III’ commentary emphasising just how complex and obscure certain theological debates were in the 1620s.

we now come to over-complication which is usually due to putting forward a hypothesis on very, very thin evidence but can also stem from being overly-enamoured with theory. The love of theory is (to say the least) unfortunate because it can often deter the hapless reader (me) who ‘just’ wants to know a bit more about the poems. I could go on for a very long time about how the work of Edmund Spenser has been hijacked and fought over by various theoretical perspectives to such an extent that the poetry has been largely forgotten, looking at recent academic work would lead the neutral observer to conclude that Spenser only ever wrote about Ireland and that this was done in order to promote and strengthen a profoundly dodgy (technical term) imperial project. Needless to say a few critics have attempted to buck this trend but they do tend to get swamped by this kind of errant nonsense.

I’m not in any way adverse to theory but do nevertheless feel that theoretical concerns should be used to inform our understanding of the work and not the other way round. Literary theorists also suffer in the main from a very simplistic view of how things work/worked in the real world. There seems to be a number of straight lines that go from society to any particular poem, so we have a burgeoning economy or a flourishing legal profession or religious controversy having a direct and discernible influence on the way that poems are put together. I shouldn’t really need to point out that life is inherently messy and doesn’t always follow the lines that we draw for it. The refusal of some literary critics (from a variety of theoretical perspectives) to understand and accommodate this unfortunate fact is especially frustrating.

It’s also interesting to note that historians tend to do better on poets than literary critics do on history. Roy Foster has produced the definitive work on Yeats and Edward Thompson’s book on Blake and the Muggletoniansis an absolute delight.

In conclusion, with a few honourable exceptions, the academy continues to produce work about poetry that is incredibly introspective and usually inaccurate. This does enormous disservice to the work and to the interested but non-academic reader.

Celan, Prynne, Derrida and what poetry does.

(This might get horribly complicated).

A couple of things have been lurking around the Bebrowed control panel for a while:

  • The possibility that J H Prynne might be right about the authenticity of ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and;
  • The likelihood that Jacques Derrida might be wrong about at least one aspect of Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’.

Some time ago I wrote about ‘Field Notes’ which is Prynne’s lengthy commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and got more than a little indignant about the fact that Wordsworth wasn’t actually present when the Reaper’s song was heard. I was also critical of Prynne for appearing to skim over this (to me) problematic element.

Since reading Derrida’s essay on Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’ I’ve been convinced that this sets the benchmark for writing usefully about the supremely gifted poet.

I think I now have reason to amend these views. As I’ve said before, I’m not at all bothered by this inconsistency in fact I think the occasional about-face is good for the soul, as did William Cobbett.

I’m now going to have a glib moment, bearing witness is one of the main things that poetry does. This aspect of poetic function comes in a variety of different flavours. One of these is the business of memorialisation which can also be tangled up with the Christian and Jewish practices relating to our relationship with God.

To move things along, here’s the poem and the paragraph from ‘Field Notes’, for ‘Aschenglorie’ I’m using the Pierre Joris translation because it’s the most successful English version and Joris writes intelligently about the poem.

Ashglory behind
you shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
on
the drowned rudder blade,
deep
in the petrified oath,
it roars up.

(On the vertical
breathrope, in those days,
higher than above,
between two painknots, while
the glossy
Tatarmoon climbed up to us
I dig myself into you and into you).

Ash-
glory behind
you threeway hands.

The cast-in-front-of-you, from
the East, terrible.

Nobody
bears witness
for the witness.

This is from p. 39 of Field Notes. Prynne is discussing ‘O listen’ which occurs at the beginning of line 7, the definition of listen (OED 2a) is ” intr. To give attention with the ear to some sound or utterance; to make an effort to hear something; to ‘give ear’” whilst the second (OED 1a) is ” trans. To hear attentively; to give ear to; to pay attention to (a person speaking or what is said).”

And yet if listen is addressed to us (the readers), then indeed the poet-traveller must know full well that we cannot hear (listen sense 2a) even the slightest echo of this actual song: we know we can only quasi-‘hear’ the tacit melancholy strains of his own song-like poem, and even this lies silent upon the open page. And yet, if the traveller is imagined to hear her song by the projected imagination of the poet, then maybe the readers also can construct not the auditory actuality of this supposed song (based as it is on Wilkinson’s fieldnote report) but rather the inward response to a powerful idea (precisely, listen sense 1a) of what this song and this encounter may have meant and might still mean to a conjectured traveller acting as our deputy (our sound receiver) in this remembered but barely realised situation. But yet again we may notice that what we hear when we listen hard, strain to hear (listen, sense 2a) is neither her song nor even the intense silence which it acutely and transiently enhances: we hear instead the profound absence of her song (listen sense 1a again), even as we are told of the how and why (but not the what) she sings.

Reading this a week ago I realised that my previous concerns about ‘authenticity’ (the poem reports what Wilkinson, not the poet, actually heard) were really rather silly and that Prynne’s reading is quite important because it addresses the what and the how of poetry with remarkable clarity and insight. I want to pull out a couple of these:

Record and performance.

This event occurred, Wilkinson was walking through the Highlands and came across a “female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious long after they were heard no more.” It is this event that the poem records, memorialises and then proceeds to perform these accumulated absences- the poet wasn’t present, neither he nor Wilkinson could understand what was being sung and it is impossible to recreate on the page something that you haven’t actually heard.

Going along this route, I must confess that I begin to see the ‘point’ and worth of ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which hasn’t occurred before. One of the successful elements of the poem is that it manages convincingly to draw the reader into an experience that can’t actually be achieved in that it both records and performs the event.

Witness and encounter.

In dealing with ‘Aschenglorie’, Derrida spends a lot of time on the final cry of the poem and considers in enormous depth what sort of witness Celan might be referring to. When I first read the essay I was neck deep in thinking creatively about the various complexities of the witnessing and testifying conundrum and therefore lapped all this complexity up but I now think we might need to bear in mind the whole poem and what Celan says elsewhere about the poem as an encounter if we’re going to make productive sense of the plea.

To be fair to Derrida, he did say that he wasn’t going to offer a reading of the whole poem but he does then contradict himself by offering a precise reading of Tatarmoon and then corrects himself for (probably) over-reading. He also provides a brilliant reading of the poem’s first word.

“Pontic erstwhile” doesn’t sound at all promising unless it is referring to the slaughter of Pontian Greeks by the Turks in WW1 and the subsequent return to Greece as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. When they returned they found that their Athenian hosts couldn’t understand their dialect. The Pontian Greeks had lived on the Southern shores of the Black Sea from when the Greek colony was first founded nearly three thousand years ago.

Derrida felt that the ‘key’ to Celan was the fact that his mother tongue was the tongue of those who had destroyed his people and that this displacement (together with living in France yet writing in German) was the essential feature of the work.

What poetry does.

This week’s personal revelation, kicked off by the above, is that perhaps/maybe we need to give more attention to function rather than meaning. I’m not suggesting that meaning isn’t important but it does seem to have been overly prioritised down the years. Celan is of the view that the doing of poetry creates the potential for an encounter and I would go further and suggest that performance (in all of its senses) is what this encounter is mostly about.

Applying this to these two poems is fruitful because it encourages me as a reader to become the member of an audience and this (I think) makes the encounter more urgent, insistent and alive so that I can respond more to what is being done and in this way get greater pleasure from the meeting.

I have quite recently written about Spenser’s exuberant use and manipulation of language which should be the focus of pour attention rather than the political context of colonial Ireland at the end of the 16th century, I think what I meant by that is that we should primarily consider the performative features of the Faerie Queen and the nature of the potential encounter that Spenser’s after.

The poems have a lot more in common than at first appears, both address things that have been destroyed or are dying and both encourage us (me) to think about the process of memorialisation and bearing witness as a performance rather than a statement. Both also do new things with language in order to make that performance and now I’m going away to think about poetic newness as a means of heightening the chances of encounter….

On a final note, Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ probably needs to be considered performatively - Timothy Thornton’s account of the care Jarvis took with the initial reading suggests that this is at least one of the intentions.

Simon Jarvis’ F Subscript Zero

I blame Neil Pattison.
At the beginning of July I was enthusing about ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and which I saw as a radical departure from Jarvis’ previous work which had been characterised by a quite defiant use of regular metre. I continued to enthuse through the comments thread which is where Neil informed me of F subscript zero’ which was published by Equipage in 2007. I received a copy about a month ago and what follows is an interim / provisional report about which (as ever) I reserve the right to change my mind.
The first thing to note is that it contains two poems, neither of which are written in regular metre which demolishes the above mentioned chronology. In fact, the verse in the first poem is decidedly free and the second contains some odd formatting. The title is the abbreviation for ‘fundamental frequency’ which Vance Maverick has helpfully defined as
“within any tone, it’s the lowest frequency of any component. So If I sing a C, sounding about 125 Hz, that’s F0 — the overtones above it, which also contribute to the sound, are F1, F2, etc. (Of course, when an instrument plays its lowest note, that note has an F0 too.)”
The first poem would appear to have two titles, the first being “ODE” which appears in very large letters on an otherwise blank page and the second being “At home with Paul Burrell” which appears at the top of the first page of verse. This poem also carries an epigraph- “Immer zu! Immer zu!” in very small italics.
For those who who don’t know, Paul Burrell was butler to Princess Diana and became imbroigled in a fairly public row about some items belonging to Diana that found their way into his possession. As a result of this Burrell becama one of those minor celebrities beloved of the popular press. “At home with” is a headline used by magazines like ‘Hello’.
These preliminaries aside, the first few lines make it clear that we’re in Jarvis territory by which I mean that we’re dealing with poetry where nothing much happens but it happens in really interesting ways and with a strong leaning towards the abstract. The first seven lines are:

"Pudge blinks up or is it glints up from an area of skin pushed out as a fat
fat reserve held against no imaginable lack under the jawbone.
An eye glassy with its declaration of fair dealing first fixes then blurs its blue
or grey trompe window cum aperture into what were the most seeing or most living
or as a hole through which we can gaze into the trace left by a paralogism
or as one of two little caverns frankly welcoming two other little caverns of mine
into it/our ownmost shared inner expectorated category mistake."

I may be wrong but I cant think of anyone else who writes quite like this. I’d like to draw attention to ‘no imaginable lack’, ‘trace left by a paralogism’ and ‘inner expectorated category mistake’. There will be many who will view such phrases as being either unbelievably pretentious or far too mannered for their own good. There have been times in the last month when I have shared this view but now I’m not so sure.

It is worth bearing in mind Jarvis’ view that poetry is an excellent way of doing philosophy and also that doing difficult or ambitious things often comes with a price. The standard, sensible response to reading the above as the start of a six and a quarter page poem would be to put it down and not proceed any further but I’d like to suggest that those who do peresevere will be rewarded. I’m not suggesting that this is an easy ride and that all it takes is to re-adjust your head in line with the Jarvis thesis. What I am suggesting is that this overt attempt to put his thesis into practice has resulted in some of the most startling and though-provoking verse of the last decade.

The above use of ‘parologism’ and ‘category mistake’ announce Jarvis’ intent and the use of many clauses in one sentence echoes the digressive habits of ‘The Unconditional’.

Reviewing ‘The Unconditional’ in Jacket Tom Jones described the poem as “scholarly and in part its scholarship is part of Jarvis’ professional life”. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about whether I agree with that observation and what a scholarly poem might look like. I’ve decided that the term is less than useful because it implies an excess of objectivity which is inimical to the production of verse. One could argue that the ‘Maximus’ poems are scholarly because they are based to some extent on Olson’s archive-based research and are informed by Process and Reality but this would to overlook the utterly biased way that Olson argues his case. There is more of a case to be made for the astronomical aspects of ‘Paradise Lost’ being viewed as scholarly because they are based on contemporary science but nobody would argue that astronomy was Milton’s main ‘point’.
Jarvis’ professional life does however throw some light on this poem but more as a way of understanding one particular piece of polemic. He has written a well respected tome on Adorno in which he waxes eloquently and enthusiastically about the major elements of the Frankfurt School. This isn’t at all surprising as most poets writing in or around the Cambridge vein have bought into the Adorno view. One aspect of this view is its ingrained and unapologetic positivism and another is the view that poetry somehow has a privileged position as a means of creative expression. This particular breed of positivism is deeply/violently against most aspects of post structuralism and especially the works of Jacques Derrida. I now need to quote a lengthy extract which displays this tendency I’m providing such a large chunk because I want to try and avoid taking something out of context-

ready to call all bliss abstract from its long laboured fund of public inattention which is
at once a wrong screen and an exact measure of all goods failing to find a port
at once cloud and the only lit ghost of majesty not babied in blue melancholy
which is a flood at once drowning so punishing and so or and illuminating this dark orb
or which would be at once both saint and criminal only by virtue of this Mobius-at-once generale gloats
taking the hiatus in the a a tongue has broken down for mere representation of breakdown and thus
taking all breaks only for an imaginary slippage and hence whispering or otherwise repeating
a disowned indifferent cosmology of perennial deferal and differing eyelessly in its
refusal to speak a cosmology but instead just slid up topless topologies displacing all top
viz an insideless life no life but built like an invisible brainless bottle or blurred into lobbed blobs
innerless outerless upperless lossles less here than there, deathless, seamless, nested & recursive
less even like 'an advanced credit system' that it is a causality-through-freedom of holding companies
than it is the way my eye flees from sight of a pupil to a fugitively lit corner of restrained eyewear
than it is like the way my ear drops from the grain of an insignificant abrasion to its indexical stuff
than it is like the way my tongue slips from a kiss to a lick collecting some sundry or some sexy data
hand flips from a caress to a blow than it is like how in any event I may not discriminate a quality and how I may not discern a change

I’ve written at length about the ‘Stripogrammatology’ quip in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and have been critical of both its brevity and the abusive terms in which it is expressed. To be fair, Sutherland has put forward a vigorous defence of the two lines in question and I think we’ve agreed to differ. My primary concern was the fact that it’s intellectually shallow to dismiss Derrida in two lines. The above however is a much fuller critique of how the Anglo Saxon academy views deconstruction in general and the controversial ‘Differance’ essay in particular. I have to concede that it ‘works’ in that it is an effective statement in verse form of the standard position and that there are many good ‘philosophical’ bits, in fact I find the first ten lines to be quite stunning, especially ‘babied in blue melancholy’, ‘Mobius-at-once generale’ and ‘just slid up into topless topologies’. After line ten things get a bit too mannered for my liking without adding very much to what’s gone before but the whole does represent a poetic way of doing philosophy.
I need at this stage to come clean with the fact that I don’t share the Jarvis/Sutherland line on this particular subject and I would question whether the above standard refutation is an accurate reflection of what Derrida was about and whether this particular piece of condemnation latches on to the weaker bits of this particular essay or is just another wide-angled volley in the hope of taking a few prisoners. I’d also question whether Derrida actually did philosophy, but then again I’d ask the same question about Adorno.
The other point is that I had to read the above three or four times before I realised what was going on which indicates that I probably need to pay more careful attention to the rest of it.
I don’t want to say much more at the moment because I’m still trying to get my brain around most of it and haven’t yet begun to think about the second poem. Some bits are very experimental-

then but
so not

Some of these make sense whilst others at the moment are merely annoying. As for Paul Burrell…….

Poetic difficulties

Looking back over the last eighteen months I’ve become a bit of a ‘difficulty’ snob. There have been times when I haven’t read something because it seemed insufficiently obdurate. Writing some of the content for Arduity has helped to maintain this stance which isn’t terribly productive. This does not mean that I’m going to spend the rest of my life reading Fleur Adcock and Anne Stevenson but I does hopefully mean that I’m going to be a bit more tolerant of those poems that say straightforward things in fairly direct ways.
This has led me to think a bit more about difficulty in poetry and especially what I would describe as ‘cognitive’ difficulty. It seems to me that people describe poetry that resists interpretation as difficult but there’s also subject matter that can be difficult to read. The wedding reception scene in ‘Stress Position’ is difficult for me because it is an accurate description of an aspect of mental illness that I have experienced. The detailing of rapes in Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is particularly grueling because of the objective way that terrible events are written about.
The there’s the difficulty presented by the use of proper nouns and foreign phrases. Geoffrey Hill, John Matthias and David Jones are the biggest culprits in this department and it is only with the advent of the internet that some of this stuff becomes reasonably accessible – I’m thinking of ‘The Anathemata’ in particular.
Straightforward difficulty, the kind that thrives on ambiguity and allusion, has been written about at length on this blog with particular focus on Prynne, Hill, Sutherland and Celan. I’ve been a bit carried away with notions of meaning and intention and this is certainly satisfying but I want to turn my attention now to those things that are physically difficult to read, those things that are presented in a way that deliberately challenges our reading practices.
I’ve alluded to this in the past with regard to Keston Sutherland and I now want to contrast this with John Ashbery but first I’d like to explain the background to this. Following a recent George Steiner review in the TLS, I felt goaded into re-reading Richard Rorty on Derrida primarily to check out one of Steiner’s more sweeping generalisations. This was mainly about ‘The Post Card’ but also described ‘Glas’ as “unreadable”. So, I then looked at the first few pages of ‘Glas’ and realised that Rorty was referring to the fact that the text is divided into three or two columns with the intention that we should work out the relationship between each. I then recalled something similar going on with text, spoken word and image in Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’ which also deliberately makes things difficult for us.
As I’ve said in a previous post, Jacket2 are featuring Erica Baum whose ‘Dog Ear’ can be said to be cognitively difficult in that we can’t see all the words and they also have Hannah Weiner’s “The Book of Revelations” which also ‘hides’ parts of words and phrases. I’d never come across Weiner before and I will be writing about her stuff in more detail in the near future. Incidentally, the Jacket2 site now has an index page which makes things much, much clearer, I still don’t understand why they didn’t think about usability prior to launch.
Keston Sutherland’s “The Proxy Humanity of Forklifts” has a long prose section which is punctuated by numbers like this:

“……it was in that case the point of that different from nothing sixteen point three I was out for no points seventeen point eight dead eighteen eaten nineteen if uneaten twenty if not fucked twenty one point four eight if a can on seeing only that denied me twenty two point one four one…..”

This is a short extract from a much longer section but it does illustrate this particular kind of difficulty which comes from not knowing how to follow the numbers sequence and the ‘sense’ of the text at the same time and whether the effort required to do this will be worthwhile. There’s also the ambiguous use of some terms, is ‘points’ in “out for no points” to be read as part of the text or is it some kind of bridge to the numerical sequence?
Then we come to John Ashbery- “Litany” is a long poem first published in the “As We Know” collection in 1979. “Litany” starts with this author’s note: “The two columns of “Litany” are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues.” This of course throws down a gauntlet to the attentive reader- how can we grasp this simultaneity when we can physically only read one thing at a time? The poem itself isn’t much help, these are the first two stanzas from the left hand page:

For someone like me
The simple things
Like having toast or
Going to church are
Kept in one place.

Like having wine and cheese.
The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The
Snapdragons consumed in a wind
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end.

And this is the first two stanzas from the right hand page:

So this must be a hole
Of cloud
Mandate or trap
But haze that casts
The milk of enchantment

Over the whole town,
Its scenery,whatever
Could be happening
Behind tall hedges
Of dark, lissome knowledge

I’m not about to undertake a lengthy exposition of either of these poems but I would like to point out that they are doing the same thing in presenting us with a set of words that are difficult to get hold of and present an additional barrier before we can begin to make some kind of sense. I’ve made the observation before that Sutherland does seem to go in for a kind of deliberate damage but Ashbery (after Skaters) has always appeared too mannered for his own good. So the question would appear to be- is this stuff worth persevering with or should we, like Rorty, simply consign it to the ‘unreadable’ bin?

Slow poetry: a manifesto

Whilst trying to earn some money this week, I’ve also been thinking about the poem that I published here a few days ago and wondering whether this particular vein should be pursued. Positive feedback from Jim Kleinhenz and my daughter makes me think that it might be worthwhile but as working with repetition and small changes is new to me, I thought I’d put a few thoughts down before I progress any further with the material.

This started when I was listening to Laurence Crane on Radio 3 last week.  He was being interviewed as a way of introducing each piece. In the introduction to ‘Ethiopian Middle Distance Runners’ he said that he was interested in repetition and the effect of small changes and also in the way that these changes can still carry something of the original. My immediate response was to groan inwardly because I’m not usually fond of this level of austere abstraction.

The piece was then broadcast and I listened whilst trying (again) to write something interesting about Bloody Sunday. about two or three minutes into the piece I found I was listening intently to the repetition  and waiting for the change to occur. The pen was then put down and I gave the rest of the piece my full attention.

Things then began to fall into place quite quickly, I recdognised that repetition and small changes could be used in verse to produce similar effects. I’d had a line running through my head- ‘we don’t die enough’ that I’d absorbed and adapted from Blanchot and started to make a few notes. I have to say that I was pleased with the result because it provided a ‘use’ for the line and also pointed to other possibilities. I then tried to be a bit more ambitious with a description of a wound taken from the original Bloody Sunday pathology reports and developed that using less repetition and more complex changes to the line. I found this satisfying to do primarily because I was working with language in a different way and because the ‘technique’ seemed quite straightforward.

I then read the two pieces aloud and had a bit of a panic as to whether they should only be read aloud or printed on the page as well. I then found that I had a need to put these initial efforts on this blog- something I haven’t done for many months and that this need wasn’t so much about getting a reaction but more about display for it’s own sake- I still haven’t made sense of this impulse.

That’s by way of a longish introduction to a manifesto on what I’ve decided to call ‘slow poetry’. I think that this has two main strands-

  1. the use of repetition to encourage greater attention and to provide emphasis- a kind of incantation;
  2. the use of small changes to demonstrate (indicate) the complex relationship between the words and ‘sense’

There are a couple of other provisos, the first is that the initial line has to be quite strong, by this I mean that it has to gain and hold the reader’s interest and that it has to hold the potential for development. The second proviso is that things when modified shouldn’t become too complex or busy. The third is that the piece needs to end properly and that the last line requires as much thought as the first.

These have all come to light since I’ve started to see what repetition can do. I’ve also discovered the joys of appropriation, in working out ‘strong’ first lines I’ve found that it is feasible/reasonable to plunder bits of philosophy and to subject these to repetition and modification. I’ve done something with a line (which is almost an aside) from Derrida’s ‘La carte postale’ which has led me to think quite hard about this line in particular and what Rorty says  that Derrida’s doing with this  tome.  The good thing about slow poetry is that I’ve been able to work through very very gradually what might be going on. I’ve also discovered that appropriation is misnamed, it is much more about selection than theft.

There is also the documentary aspect, I have on my hard drive many of the witness statements provided to the Saville Inquiry and twenty or so of these describe one particular event in many different ways. I’ve been using some of these differences to experiment with what language does to sense described above. This has been immensely rewarding because I’ve spent 18 months using the ‘superabundant’ approach  to achieve the same effect and this minimal approach seems so much cleaner and more disciplined.

Bloody Sunday is important to me for several reasons and one of the things that it shows is how complicated and fragile the witness / knowledge / proof / judgement  process actually is and that this fragility undermines our notions of knowledge and ‘truth’. What slow poetry gives me is an opportunity to demonstrate this in a reasonably compelling way.

I’m very encouraged by Jim’s response primarily because he’s a very accomplished poet who gives a great deal of thought to what he writes. Both Jim and my daughter throw up ways of thinking about this stuff that I haven’t considered and will need to incorporate in the near future. I’m also intrigued to see Jim’s use of repetition on his blog this week.

The other thing that comes to mind is that I’ve spent this week thinking more about language (in all its forms) and less about poetry……. I also feel the need to post more of this stuff.

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.

Celan, Derrida, Joris and the witness business

A while ago I wrote about Celan’s poem which begins “Aschenglorie hinter” with specific reference to what Derrida wrote about the complexities involved in bearing witness. I’ve now read Pierre Joris’ excellent essay on the same poem and have come to the conclusion that those complexities are more important than I first thought.

Joris is a poet and translator of poetry. Along with Michael Hamburger he has produced the best translations of Celan’s work. When I say “best’ I acknowledge that I don’t speak a word of German and therefore cannot attest to the veracity of any translation but I do recognise a poem that ‘works’ well in English.

Hamburger didn’t translate ‘Ashenglorie hinter’ – it doesn’t appear in any of the three editions that I’m aware of. He took the view that some of the poems were/are untranslatable and left them alone. Joris does not share these qualms, his  translation of the ‘breathturn’ collection contains a sensitive and honest rendition of the poem whilst the essay explains how he got there. Whilst Derrida provides a very detailed analysis of the witness problem per se, Joris focuses more on the biography of the poet and rightly calls our attention to the problems posed for Celan by the success of ‘Todesfugue’ which did attempt to bear witness to those who died in the Holocaust and to Germany to account.

Despite the success of this poem Celan refused to have it anthologized throughout the sixties because of his view that its message had been hijacked by those striving to rehabilitate Germany on the world stage. The enigmatic final phrase from ‘Aschenglorie’ reads:

Nobody
bears witness

for the witness.

Joris points out that this can be read in a number of different ways, reflecting survivor guilt, self-pity and the desperate compulsion to testify with all its (English) connotations even though the act of bearing witness in itself may be fundamentally flawed. Derrida goes one step further by pointing out that witnessing is an impossible task (This is a crass paraphrase of a much longer argument) and both ponder out loud on ‘testis’ which is both the latin root of testify and of testicle, throwing this generative quality into the mix of possible allusions.
What I like about the Joris essay is that it lets us readers in on the mind of the translator and the absolutely honest way that a ‘difficult’ poem can be addressed, he is describing his task without showing off and displaying complete respect for the text. Celan, like all great poets, was concerned with the choice of words in a very considered and deliberate way, Joris works with the poem in the same way and does not try to score his own points (a common fault amongst many translators) but his focused solely on rendering the depth and truth of Celan’s work.
With regard to Celan, both Derrida and Celan ask themselves if they are over-reading, if they are seeing things that aren’t really there. With most poets this could be a problem but I don’t think it is with Celan because the later work becomes more and more densely compressed to such an extent that I don’t think we’ll ever grasp the full meaning.
It’s also immensely refreshing to read two experts write on Celan without dwelling on the Heidegger connection.
Joris’ Breathturn collection is available from a variety of second hand booksellers online and his essays ‘Justifying the Margin‘ (which also contains an excellent piece on the ‘Todnauberg’) poem is available from Salt. Derrida on Celan (Sovereignties in Question) is available from the AAAARG.ORG site free of charge.