Tag Archives: john skelton

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.

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.

Commentaries, Annotations, Glossaries and the Poem

For the past few months I’ve been trying to broaden my reading to incorporate poetry written before 1570 and also to get to grips with the joys of Middle English. Thus far this has involved engaging primarily with Thomas Hoccleve and John Skelton, for both of these I’ve made use of editors which has proved to be a ‘mixed’ experience. I’m also in pursuit of most things relating to David Jones and this morning I received Rene Hague’s commentary on The Anathemata. Obviously I haven’t begun to read this in depth but this from the preface encapsulates some of my concerns:

I very soon met two difficulties. The first was the problem of whom I was addressing, and what knowledge, apt to help him in his interpretation, could I attribute to him. For while it is annoying not to be told, something of which you are ignorant, it is equally, or even more annoying to be told what you have known since childhood: it is as bad as having an obvious joke explained to you. I could only take my own friends, so often better informed than I, as a standard. I found it impossible to be consistent, and in the end I had to write as though simply for myself, with a friend reading over my shoulder.

The second difficulty arose from the impossibility of defining a literal meaning. That exists at no more than syntactical abstraction, which has little use unless it allows the reader to move onward into the intricacies of allusion, allegory, spiritual and even mystical interpretation; and here (even though a commentator may provide a useful starting-point) every reader must do his own work based on his own reading and thinking. Anyone who has studied the great poets closely and for many years will know how endless is that work, and how entrancing.

Needless to say, Hague has now been promoted to one of the Few who write well about poetry and understand the needs of the attentive reader. This balance is a useful benchmark and I would add, from recent personal experience, explanations or definitions that the reader doesn’t understand- I don’t think I should need to consult the OED to understand this kind of explanation. The other infuriation comes from notes/glosses that are wrong, that are factually incorrect and (usually) misleading.

In order to exemplify what Hague is describing, I set out below the sinners and saints in my recent (ish) reading with some examples. I readily accept that each reader brings a different knowledge base and vocabulary to this material but (as ever) this is a subjective view and I’d be grateful for other responses from interested readers.

Roger Ellis on Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘La Male Regle’.

Editors of Middle English poetry place modern definitions alongside the line in question. This particular poem is an extended version of what Drayton categorised as ‘ah, me!’ poetry in that the poet spends a lot of time bemoaning his plight and generally being sorry for himself. These lines are from the second stanza, Ellis’ definitions are in italics:

 And now my body empty is, and bare
of ioie and ful of seekly heuynesse, sickly
al poore of ese and ryche of evel fare. in things bringing ease; in misfortune

I would argue that this last line is done an enormous disservice by this inept heavy-handedness. Not many readers will need to be told that ‘ese’=’ease’ but if they did then it might be better/more helpful to give the phrase as ‘ill at ease’. With regard to being incorrect, ‘in misfortune’ completely misses the point. I’m not any kind of expert in these things but I can think of many more precise definitions and ‘evel fare’ doesn’t really need an explanation because most of us will be able to define both words for ourselves. It could of course be argued that this edition is aimed at students who might need this kind of assistance, I would then point out that in that case there is an even greater need for precise definition and not what appears to be lazy platitude.

Alexander Dyce on John Skelton’s ‘Diuers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous’.

Skelton was writing about a hundred years after Hoccleve at the start of what is thought of as the early modern period (a decidedly movable feast). This is the second verse of one of his more minor ‘ditties’:

Allectuary arrected to redres
These feuereous axys, the dedely wo and payne
Of thoughtfull hertys plungid in dystres;
Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and greene;
Of lusty somer the passing goodly quene;

Dyce’s edition of Skelton’s verse was published in 1843 and is a delight in that it is hopelessly partisan and idiosyncratic but you can feel the enthusiasm for the work bouncing off the page- the notes can be read on their own merit although it does help to know something of the period. However, Dyce often omits words and phrases which should be glossed and also gives explanations that the interested reader (me) may not understand.

This is how Dyce deals with the above:

Allectuary- Electuary. Arrected – appointed. Redres- relieve, remedy. Axys – (access) fits, paroxysms. Of thoughtful hertys plungid in dystre- Skelton borrowed this line from, Lydgate whose ‘Lyf of our Lady’ begins: “O thoughtful herte plungid in dustressed”. Thoughtfull is anxious, heavy, sad. Herber – arbour.

So, how many of us are familiar with ‘electuary? Was this a common word in 1843 and do we need a definition of ‘redres’ when we aren’t given one for either ‘condute’ or ‘enverduryd’? Because of his enthusiasm I should nevertheless confess that Dyce annoys me far less than Ellis.

At this point I could repeat what I’ve said elsewhere about commentators on Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Marvell and Wordsworth but instead I’ll move forward to the present and the problem of the introduction.

Ann Hassan on Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Speech! Speech!’

Thus far I’ve only read the introduction the Hassan’s commentary but it does contain one roadblock of a sentence. Following Hague, I’m of the view that the reader should be encouraged to undertake his or her own reading and to do the work of attention in all it’s senses. Early on in her introduction Hassan has this: “Hill’s stock preoccupations (in shorthand the triumvirate of martyrdom, memory and responsibility) are still present.” This glib, albeit ‘shorthand’, observation has no place in such an introduction because it sets out a position rather than encouraging readers to form their own impressions and views. For this reader, I think I know Hill’s work reasonably well and I’m deeply sceptical of a ‘triumvirate’ that omits God and England but I am deterred from preceding by the simple fact that this kind of generalisation isn’t helpful and may portend even more infuriations to come. There’s also a degree of complexity in Hill’s work that makes the adjective ‘stock’ either simplistic or (more likely) wrong. I will continue eventually however because I’m a Hill completist, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to this particular sequence and there are 294 pages for me to get lost in and annoyed with.

Poetry’s dead ends

This has been prompted by Andrew Hadfield’s observation that the poetic innovations of John Skelton led to a ‘dead end’ by which I think he means that there are no obvious followers who took up the Skelton way of doing poetry. I think this might be right about Skelton, certainly it’s hard to think of anything since in the manner of ‘Speke Parrot’ and this has led me to consider how many other dead ends there may be.

Hadfield also quotes with approval C S Lewis on Skelton- ‘He has no real predecessors, and no important disciples; he stands out of the streamy historical process, an unmitakable individual, a man we have met’ and this seems quite helpful in dead end identification. The other consideration for me is to identify why I’m attracted to this particular type of failure.

The two poems that spring to mind are Browning’s ‘Sordello’ and David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’. The DNB has this to say on Sordello: ‘ One of the chief characteristics of the poem that gives it its distinctive voice is parabasis: that is, the presence of digressions in which the author addresses the audience on personal or topical matters. After devoting six books often relating in a roundabout way to Sordello, in the end the narrator suggests that the real subject was not Sordello but rather the poet himself and his efforts to write the poem. Carefully ordered but appearing unstructured, purportedly historical but in fact deeply personal, generically indeterminate and stylistically complex, Sordello is unique in literary history’ and notes that Browning thought that it would make his career whereas it was met with critical condemnation and has remained unfollowed despite attempts by Swinburne and Ezra Pound to revive it. Some lonely souls regard it as our first modernist poem but this is very much a minority view.

‘The Anathemata’ can also be said to have buried Jones’ literary reputation because of what is seen as its relentless difficulty and obscurity which undermined the reputation of the much more accessible ‘In Parenthesis’. It also has had champions but seems to stubbornly resist attempts at rehabilitation. I recognise that Jones’ influence can be seen in the work of John Matthias but I can’t think of any work that matches the ambition and the breadth of this completely brilliant poem.

I’d also like to nominate Michael Drayton’s ‘Poly-Olbion’ but it did receive some recognition at the time of publication and was revered as our national poem by some in the 19th century. I also acknowledge that most of Drayton’s work was a pale imitation of Edmund Spenser but ‘Poly-Olbion’ stands apart in terms of what it tries to do and because it puts Drayton at a further distance from his metaphysical and cavalier peers. Whilst there are a number of poets who were influenced by Drayton, I can’t think of any poems that are in the vein of ‘Poly-Olbion which is a very, very long geographical survey of England and Wales- it is also one of the poems referred to by Jones in his notes to ‘The Anathemata’.

‘Speke Parrot’ is gloriously complicated and makes extensive use of foreign words and phrases. One of its themes are said to be an attack on Cardinal Wolsley’s growing power whilst another is espousing the ‘traditional’ cause in the Grammarians’ War which is now considered to be reasonably obscure but did lay the ground for the English Renaissance at the end of the 16th century. As Jane Griffiths (current expert on all things Skelton) has pointed out, the current version that we now have which was produced in the 19th century is a mixture of the manuscript and print versions of the poem but it is clear that Skelton took more care with this than the rest of his output.

Not only is this poem radically different from any other of the time, it is also very different from the rest of Skelton’s output and I’m increasingly of the view that it is this ‘overshadowing’ by one particular poem that is responsible for these ‘dead ends’.

Warming to this particular theme, the DNB again informs me that it was Browning’s publisher, Edward Moxon, who gently steered back on to a less ‘difficult’ path, thus preventing the kind of overshadowing referred to above. I also need to distinguish here between bad poems and poets that have been rightly overlooked and those accomplished poems which have led to dead ends but nevertheless deserve our attention.

The other point of this post was to try and work out why I’m attracted to this stuff. I think there’s two things that are entwined here:

  • a completely sentimental and irrational devotion to the perceived underdog which is embedded in the cultural DNA of the north-east of England which I reluctantly accept as my own even though I haven’t lived therefor thirty years;
  • a deeply felt identification with the odd and the incongruous providing that the oddness / eccentricity is sincere and not merely for the sake of standing out from the crowd.

There is also a little bit of elitism going on in that I want to be in the ‘gang’ that recognises the importance of this stuff (Ezra Pound in the case of ‘Sordello’, W H Auden and John Matthias in the case of ‘The Anathemata’ etc.) because I like to think that I’m as preceptive, insightful and generally clever as other gang members. Needless to say, this is something that I need to be very careful with.

By way of coming to some further kind of conclusion, it is worth recognising that the poets concerned took more care with these works than any other and that ‘Speke Parrot’ ‘Poly-Olbion’ and ‘The Anathemata’ were provided with notes. The other commonality is the level of self-consciousness in the work and the presence of the poet who is addressing the audience about (at least in part) the making of the poetry.

Finally, the dead end may also be due to the difficulty in following in these footsteps, as a practitioner I recognise that David Jones provides the best modernist example to follow but it really would take years of practice and learning to reach that kind of breadth and technical prowess. And life might just be too short…

I’m conscious that this is a personal selection, I’d be interested to hear of others, particularly those outside the UK.

Is J H Prynne wrong enough?

Had I been asked this question at the beginning of last week, I would have had to think a lot and eventually and regretfully come down on the side of the negative. This week, having had ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ in my possession for three or four days, the answer is that not only is he wrong enough but he has now stretched the limits of wrongness far beyond the averagely wrong into the realm of the utterly and the completely- as in the Wild Man Fisher end of the wrong spectrum.

I’m trying hard to come up with a brief description that will give some flavour of what I might be talking about:

  • it’s in prose and can only be recognised as a poem by the way line occur at the end of some paragraphs;
  • the only other reason for identifying it as a poem is the fact that is listed as such on the newish Prynne bibliography site;
  • at the back of the book there is a list of ‘reference cues’ which are 22 publications ranging from “Condensed Matter Field Theory” to Parmenides’ “On Nature” with Skaespeare and Mao Zedong somewhere in between;
  • extracts from these publications are to be found incorporated verbatim into the text either as blockquoted paragraphs or inside Prynne’s text;
  • the subtitle is “or, on what there is”, there is a picture of what appears to be a wooden car with very small wheels on the cover which was apparently drawn in Angola in 1938;
  • reference appears to be made to John Skelton’s ‘Speke Parrot’ which is one of the wrongest of wrong poems in the English language;
  • the cliche count is much higher than usual;
  • one of the ‘reference cues’ is incorrectly cited, given what was Prynne’s day job, this is likely to be deliberate.

As can hopefully be seen, terms like ‘radical departure’ are inadequate to express the kind of shift that appears to have taken place but I am beginning to see glimmers of recognition, we have the keen interest in place and the physical experience of being in a place, we have an odd playing around with contradiction and the dialectic.

It’s also clear that the ‘I’ has in some way been reinstated which is at odds with what Prynne has said recently about the absolute need to ‘self-remove’ during the poetry making process.

Let’s now turn to wrongness, Keston Sutherland reports on the universally negative response to Wordsworth’s “I’ve measured it from side to side: / ’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide” which, in the context of early 19th century poetics was very wrong because of its literality. We, of course, like to think that we’re much more sophisticated than the Romantics and have a much broader and more inclusive view of things but I would argue that the school of innovation has established its own definition of wrong and not wrong. I would cite the ‘progressive’ response to Vanessa Place as the most obvious evidence of this.

The ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ wrongness exists on at least three levels, the first is the verbatim use of texts appropriated from elsewhere- “The original cremation Pyre was placed where the heavens met the earthand where the inhabitants of nearby settlements could observe smoke rising into the air. It was also located in the one place on the hilltop where the position of a distant mountain would correspond to that of the summer moon. The subsequent development of the site gave monumental, gradually focussing that particular alignment until it was narrowed to the space between the tallest stones.” The only archaeology text in the reference cues is an essay by Richard Bradley called “The Land, The Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle”. The Bebrowed quality control department has an excellent archaeological and Neolithic resource, this has been consulted and, apparently, Bradley meets with massive approval.

The sentence preceding this blockquoted paragraph is – “A language may die also from the record of currency exchange to the full pair-convert transumed in surrender value, decalibrated; or the travel line from matter to fancy of spirit is invert and pyretic: smoke for the mirror, tenant creamery.” The sentence following the paragraph is: “The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit in formative exit in naturalised permission, solemn grade – one rigmarole, batter Wiglaf’s rebuke and insurance payout.” As ‘Beowulf’ is not one of the reference cues, I’m taking it that only those texts that are directly quoted are considered cue-worthy. Incidentally, ‘durance’ is a Geoffrey Hill word. In years to come critics will spend many a happy hour debating the use of ‘transume’ in this particular context.

As for John Skelton, the two references so far identified are- “Nothing shall come of continuous diminish but across its boundaries if the exist for sure everything is possible and can be computed, speak parrot and to discernibly good approximations” and “Now goggle-eyes revert or new Poseidon nudging to click by its solar filtration charm of such birds take to wake and be taken, arm’s length residue output gravamen parrot dictum”. I’ll return to both of these once I’ve become more familiar with the rest of the poem.

Some of this reads as a parody of Prynne, the puns are worse than ever and the playing around with negation and contradiction is much more explicit than before whilst the tone is much more direct- “Wave good-bye don’t be stupid, the location is obscure because coherence is not spatial and is without meaning beyond its scrap value, every fly on the wall could tell you this.” What I’m trying to do at the moment is to try and get some kind of handle on the whole work but there are sentences like this that compel me to dive in and get to grips with the particular. I’m reasonably okay with the coherence and meaningless thing but I do need to worry ‘spatial’ to death especially in the light of the documentary allusion and some anxiety about whether or not anybody actually uses this particular term any more.

As a reader, I am still disappointed with ‘Sub Songs’ for all sorts or reasons but primarily because I was hoping for more austerity and an even more pronounced collision with the ‘unwitty circus’, but I can see that this does (if nothing else) set a different set of quite startling challenges. I also have to confess that I don’t have the science to do justice to either Van der Waals forces or condensed matter field theory but I am making (some) progress with pore geometry…..

What might be said is that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is wrong in several senses:

  • it contradicts a lot of what Prynne has said in the recent past;
  • it makes literal use of apparently disparate texts;
  • it plumbs new depths of oddness, and;
  • the references to Skelton’s wrong poem and to the dream trope from Langland and many others signal a desire to be wrong in terms of what we think of as canonical verse.

I think I’d argue that this is wrong enough both in terms of the literal and the oppositionally odd. As you might expect, I’m completely addicted and will probably continue to read nothing else for the foreseeable future.