Tag Archives: neil pattison

Writing the Nation now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and pedantry

Excessive or undue concern for petty details; slavish adherence to formal precision, rules, or literal meaning- OED 1(b)

I’d like to spend some time conrasting two slightly different kinds of ‘slavish adherence’ to literal meaning in order to point out that this isn’t always a bad thing especially if you substitute ‘attention’ for ‘adherence’.

I’ll start with Prynne before moving on to Hill-

‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ was published by Mountain earlier this year and contains (mostly) a number of debates about the direction that English verse might take. EI is important because of its close relationship with the beginnings of the Cambridge School- two of the main contributors were Peter Riley and J H Prynne.

EI ran from January 1966 to April 1968 and Neil Pattison’s introduction observes that-

The Intelligencer was by its nature fragile. It was a testing ground for young poets countenancing revolutions in their art, their writing ineluctable from their dreams of radical change in the order of social life. It was a ground from which those poets could address with liberty the central questions of poetic vocation, contesting the role of the poet in that order. They addressed these questions through the risk of practice, staking that risk of practice, taking that risk against trust in the group’s commitment to sustaining the attempt and through volatile discursive practice.

Neil goes on to observe that EI is still relevant today and that “the work of sabotage it calls on unfinished” which seems to be a bold claim but it is borne out by the collection that the three editors have put together.

We now turn to the primary / ongoing saboteur, J H Prynne and his ‘A pedantic note in two parts’ in which he takes on the Oxford English Dictionary with regard to its definition of ‘winsome’. This starts by reproducing the OED’s definition which ends with “The current sense came into the literary lang, from where it must have survived with specialized meaning.” As this was written in the sixties, I’m taking it that this refers to the first edition, the second edition has- “Sense 3 came into the literary language from northern dialects”, sense 3 is -“Pleasing or attractive in appearance, handsome, comely; of attractive nature or disposition, of winning character or manners”. In a paragraph placed alongside the 1st edition definition Prynne has:

“From the new Oxford dictionary of Etymological Evasion and Cowardice. The specific rune of our only tolerable condition (a) suppressed and (b) “specialized meaning” imported into the (god help us) from the (one presumes) non-literary north. This is our modern permafrost of the spirit.

Which is a reasonably forthright rant, I will refer to said tome as ‘ODEEC’ from now on. We could of course quibble with whether this kind of inaccuracy merits the overly dramatic but well phrased final sentence but it is always good to have modern icon knocked around. I get annoyed when the ODEEC seems to miss the ‘point’ or provide a sufficiently nuanced or precise definition but Prynne’s last sentence does take annoyance to a new level.

He continues (in a paragraph that goes across the page) with-

The English rune wynn was the name for “bliss”; it was a proper name, reaching right across Germania and back before the division of the Indo-European peoples. It is the same root as the Latin Venus (which is also a proper name).

There then follows a progression from Venus to the use and ‘meaning’ of runes quoting Tacitus and a range of academic texts. This ends with-

The proto-Germanic rune *wunjo “bliss” is now a name no longer audible at our current wave-length: and being a total opponent of names The Oxford Etym. Dict. will do nothing to take us back, to the sounds of our proper selves.

The other, more recent example of Prynne’s pedantry that springs to mind is his close (excessive?) fretting over the various definitions of ‘listen’ from ‘The Solitary Weeper’, none of which meet his requirements although this is to do with precision rather than etymology. Now that it’s being pointed out to me, I am more than a little dismayed by the loss of the ‘bliss’ element of winsome but I don’t think that I’m cut off from any of the sounds of my proper self. I’d also like to question the use of ‘proper’ in this particular context and query ask aspect of my self might be described with such a word?

Geoffrey Hill, in his brilliant essay ‘Common Weal, Common Woe’, attacks the OED on a couple of different fronts. This is the first:

The Second Edition heads its entry ‘v Chiefly dial. To fail to remember; to forget. (trans. and absol.)’. If this may be thought to be sufficient for the nine other citations, it patently fails to register the metamorphic power of Hopkins’ context. ‘Disremembering’ in ‘Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves’ is not, as the Dictionary presumes, ‘failing to remember’, ‘forgetting'; it is ‘dismembering the memory’.

There then follows a fairly detailed description of the other ways in which the dictionary lets Hopkins down. This is to be expected as Hill is Hopkins biggest admirer and the most eloquent proponent of his work. I neither understand nor like Hopkins but do recognise his importance and feel that greater attention should have been paid to his specific usage. There is a wider point that poets will extend the language with new words and shades of meaning and perhaps our lexicographers ought to pay more attention to the work that poets produce.

The other area that Hill is especially good on is the way words were used in the past. He targets the Dictionary’s citation of Clarendon its entry on ‘dexterity’.

No one reading the OED entry would be able to deduce that dexterity was one of the rhetorical Janus-words of seventeenth century politics or that Clarendon was a master in his style of deployment.

The sin here is twofold- the relevant definition is given as “Mental adroitness or skill; ‘readiness of expedient, quickness of contrivance, skill of management’ (Johnson); cleverness, address, ready tact. Sometimes in a bad sense: cleverness in taking an advantage, sharpness” and “A dexterous or clever act; in bad sense, a piece of ‘sharp practice’. Obs” neither of which capture the 17th century usage and the Clarendon citation, used as an example of the first definition, is the meaningless ‘The dexterity which is universally practiced in these parts” which has been ripped out of context and more properly ‘belongs’ to the ‘sharp practice’ of the second definition.

The little that I know of the 17th century deployment of ‘dexterity’ leads me to take Hill’s side but it is interesting that he should single out a definition that is incomplete rather than wrong.

To the innocent bystander it may seem that Prynne and Hill occupy different planets but this ‘slavish’ attention produces the finest work that we have. Paul Celan is the other word obsessive that springs to mind.

All of which leads me to my ‘point’ which is to reiterate that perhaps it is now time fou critics to forsake theoretical and ideological niceties and (to paraphrase Pound) read the fucking words.

The literary poem, a definition (at last).

A while ago I had some fun attempting to unpack what Neil Pattison might mean by the above term when he writes “the contested place and role of literary poetry”. I wasn’t very happy with the conclusion that I got to but now I’ve come across some more definitions to mull over. In my pursuit of all things Middle English, I’m currently reading J A Burrow’s ‘Medieval Writers and Their Work’ in which he contrasts current ideas of the literary with those of the medieval period. He cites several contemporary definitions and I want to think about each of these in turn:

  • it is not committed, in any ordinary, straightforward fashion, to the truth of the events which it reports or the ideas which it propounds. It does not ‘propose truth for its immediate object’;
  • in literature the standards of outward meaning are secondary, for literary works do not pretend to describe or assert, and hence are not true, not false, and yet not tautological either;
  • a form of communication which tends in part to convert itself into an object of contemplation;
  • The distinctive feature of poetry lies in the fact that a word is perceived as a word and not merely a proxy for the denoted object or an outburst of an emotion, that words and their arrangement, their meaning, their outward and inward form acquire weight and value of their own

The last part of the first definition is apparently a quote from Coleridge and is therefore not at all contemporary. Many, many poetry readers and teachers would assert that literary poetry stands in a privileged position with regard to the ‘Truth’ and that skilled poets have a duty to express that truth is poetic form. As someone who is making poetry from archival material relating to real events in our recent past, I would argue that literature can and should examine notions of the truth from a non-fictive (awful phrase) perspective. The ‘is not committed, in any ordinary, straightforward fashion’ qualifier implies of course that there most probably is an unordinary and rather crooked way in which truth might be the subject of literature but this (cunningly) isn’t specified.

The second definition (apparently from Northrop Frye) is more promising but only really succeed in telling us what the literary doesn’t do. ‘Outward meaning’ as a quality is massively complex and contentious and many would argue that some poems that do ‘describe and assert’ can also be literary. Geoffrey Hill’s nature poems are some of the finest poems in the language and yet attain that status by their ability to describe. Keston Sutherland’s @Stress Position’ describes the havoc wrought by Western foreign policy and asserts his opposition to it yet remains firmly within the late modernist vein with all its literary ticks and foibles.

The problem with negative definitions is that they avoid saying what are the attributes of the literary. Frye would seem to suggest that the literary is very far removed from the real and is in fact concerned with the ephemeral and the whimsical. Whilst this might be a populist view of the writer as angst-ridden dreaming idealist, it bears no relation to the works of Beckett, Celan, Hill or Prynne, all of whom might be said to be concerned with literature.

The third definition (from Gerard Genette) holds more promise because it talks about what the literary does rather than what it is. It seems reasonably sensible to assume that the literary gets to be that way by transforming the words on the page into something else. It’s also reasonable to see this effect at work more in poetry than in fiction which might lead us to believe that the poem is inherently closer to literature than the novel. I do however have more than a few problems with Genette’s ‘object of contemplation’ because I don’t think that I contemplate either poems or novels. I’m now going to be pedantic because I think that definitions need to be as clear and succinct as possible. The OED defines ‘contemplate’ as:

  • to look at with continued attention, gaze upon, view, observe;
  • to observe or look at thoughtfully;
  • to view mentally; to consider attentively, meditate upon, ponder, study;
  • to consider in a certain aspect; to look upon, regard;
  • to have in view, look for, expect, take into account as a contingency to be provided for;

I’m guessing that it’s the third of these that Genette is using but even here the definition relates to vision, albeit ‘mentally’. I don’t visualise poems or novels when I’m pondering them or giving them attentive consideration, I may run the words through my head but visualising how they look on the page is not usually part of what I do. I’m also deterred from ‘contemplate’ because of the meditation angle. I like to think of myself as a reasonably hard-nosed materialist and the ‘m’ word just strikes me as redolent of wooly-minded nonsense. So, the literary poem transforms itself into something else but that thing remains elusive.

In terms of the medieval, Burrow identifies ‘eloquence’ as a literary quality and I think this has some mileage because the sense of being clear and succinct with an element of the credible does seem to encapsulate how I evaluate the literary providing that it also transforms the words on the page. I’d like to take Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ as an example of eloquence and of transformation. The poem is a villanelle which is one of the trickiest forms to do well but it’s also an encapsulation of how Bishop felt about the various lovers in her life. The poem makes use of the complex form to transform words of self-pity and complaint into something wonderfully humane and poignant. For me, the poem is the epitome of technique and eloquence because it is self-laceratingly honest and expressed in a way that we can all relate to.

One final thought, is it possible for a poem to be too literary? Can the integrity of a poem be sacrificed at the altar of literature? Is there a point where things become too mannered for their own good? Is the recent work of Geoffrey Hill a case in point?

Defining literary poetry and its (contested) place

Last week I referred to Neal Pattison describing the English Intelligencer as having an ‘underdeveloped salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity’ which seems the sort of thing an editor would say- especially if we read ‘salience’ as a typo for ‘sapience’. I was going to do something big and bold about the nature of the contest(s) but then I realised that I don’t actually know what a ‘literary’ poem is.

‘Literary’ could refer to poems that aspire to the status of literature but this merely shifts the problem. It could also mean poems that use recognised and established forms or perhaps poems with ‘serious’ themes but then we get into deciding what is serious and what isn’t. Then there’s the attention divide by which (following Keston Sutherland) the difference between those poems that can be grasped or understood on a first reading and those that require additional attention. A further troubling thought occurs to me- could the literary poem have the same status as the literary novel? This is troubling that particular label is now a marketing device rather than having anything much to do with content.

Then there is the individual poet, are Prynne and Hill literary poets and, if so, why? Can the same be said of Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery or Kenneth Goldsmith?

The final and equally troubling doubt that occurs to me is that the literary poem may be the one that includes;

  • foreign words and phrases;
  • references to obscure figures;
  • references and allusions that aren’t ‘signalled’ as such;
  • unusual syntax
  • words that the OED consider to be obscure and/or archaic;
  • words where a secondary and much less well-known meaning is intended;
  • what J H Prnne has described as ‘radical ambiguity.

Are these the characteristics that I’m looking for? Can it be the case that literary actually simply means difficult?

Then there’s the possibility that literary poetry is that which gets reviewed in the three main lit comics, in which case words like ‘dismal’ and ‘vanishingly mediocre’ spring to mind.

Given that I am blessed with impeccable readerly taste, there is the argument that literary refers to the stuff that I like although this doesn’t stand up because Eliot clearly intended ‘The Four Quartets’ to qualify as literature and it does seem to be viewed in this way by the majority even though I really don’t like it. It could be argued that the literary is a fickle beast and that it moves about as tastes and academic trends change. This may be so but I am prepared to bet a fair amount of cash on the chances of Becket and Celan being consistently though of in this way for the next couple of centuries.

<before thinking about contemporary poets, it is probably as well to see if the OED offers any kind of help:

  • of or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature. Also in early use: relating to letters or learning;
  • of or relating to the letters of the alphabet, or (occas.) another set of letters or symbols used as an alphabet;
  • that is communicated or conducted by correspondence by letter; epistolary;
  • of a person or group: engaged in the writing or critical appreciation of works of literature; having a thorough knowledge of literature; spec. engaged in literature as a profession;
  • of language: having characteristics associated with works of literature or other formal writing; refined, elegant;
  • appearing in literature or books; fictional;
  • Of the visual arts, music, etc.: concerned with depicting or representing a story or other literary work; that refers or relates to a text; that creates a complex or finely crafted narrative like that of a work of literature.

Incidentally, the Oxford Historical Thesaurus provides ‘staffly’ and ‘bookish’ as alternatives and I’m becoming fond of both. Leaving out the ‘literature’ tautologies, it is possible to tease out a few revealing adjectives- refined, elegant, thoroughly knowledgeable, complex and finely crafted. The astute amongst you will note that there is nothing here about being aesthetically pleasing or deeply meaningful, indeed it could be argued that the literary poem is far more about form than content and that (by these standards) Elizabeth Bishop is the literary poet par excellence.

British poets that write in a late modernist vein have an odd relationship with the literary because (in my head) the one defining characteristic is seriousness or gravitas and some of the finest pieces of this kind of poetry gets its strength from its lack of refinement and inelegance. Most of it does fit with complex and knowledgeable but there are strong late modernist poems that aren’t finely crafted.

The conceptualists present a different kind of challenge, Kenneth Goldsmith’s verbatim transcripts of traffic and weather reports and sports commentary don’t in themselves meet any of the above criteria, indeed part of their ‘point’ is there immense banality but Goldsmith and others would argue that the idea (concept) can be judged in those terms even though this view is still considered heretical in some circles because it is ‘about’ neither form nor content in the traditional sense.

The final point of these ruminations relates to groups, are the ‘Movement’ poets, the ‘Beats’ and members of the Cambridge School literary simply because these groupings have achieved a certain academic recognition? Does this kind of recognition or label now constitute the literary?

Thinking about the younger generation of British poets, the work of Timothy Thornton strikes me as the one that best meets the above criteria, that ‘Jocund Day’ and ‘Trails’ may also embody the lyricism that the literary also entails for me. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonny Liron seems to be intent on destroying the literary in a very complex and thoughtful way, as is Jonty Tiplady.

J H Prynne’s vow to collide head-on with the unwitty circus that was and is the literary establishment would require us to look at his work as anti-literary but it is too complex, refined and knowledgeable for that. Geoffrey Hill is more clearly writing in a literary manner and yet makes use of weak jokes and imitations of stand-up comedians in his finest work. John Ashbery’ work is refined and elegant, sounds complex and knowledgeable and is loved by the literary comics- the only problem is that most of it is emptily meaningless and the poems that aren’t are the ones that attack the idea of meaning.

With regard to David Jones, ‘In Parenthesis’ can be said to be more literary than ‘The Anathemata’ because it has a better elegance/complexity balance but ‘The Anathemata’ is the better poem.

A final thought, Neil Pattison writes literary poetry that meets all of these criteria whilst managing to remain firmly in the late modernist (Cambridge faction) vein.

This may not have been a very productive line of inquiry but it has narrowed the ground for thinking in the near future about whether this material actually has any kind of ‘role’ or place in cultural modernity and whether reading ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ does move us forward as Neil claims.

J H Prynne and the English Intelligencer

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

I’m a bit worried about Mountain Press. I’ve got all four of their titles and I don’t see how they can possibly maintain this level of quality, unless Neil Pattison does the decent thing and publishes the work that he’s written in the last five years. Their current list has work by three of the very best poets under the age of thirty which I’ll be returning to in the near future and ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ which is edited by Neil, Reitha Pattison and Like Roberts.

As with Pierre Joris’ work on Celan’s notes for the Meridian, all of us with any kind of interest in serious poetry owe the editors an enormous debt. This anthology (for the want of a better noun) contains material that is vital to a full understanding and appreciation of All Things Cambridge. It also opens up a challenge to those of us who like to think that we’re radical and engaged in our poetics. Because of this, I intend to try and deal with the material in a number of instalments because (as with Celan) a single account would be very long and doing this over time means that I can have the luxury of changing my mind.

In my head the English Inelligencer (EI) is a kind of Ur-text marking out the time at which British Poetry got serious. I’d come to this view by reading the views and memories of others as none of this material has been generally available. ‘Certain Prose’ (as you might guess) focuses on the prose as the majority of the poetry is available elsewhere.

Neil Pattison addresses the question of EI’s status in his introduction:

Its disintegrating pages have acquired a shabby mystique as avant-garde incunabula, and scholarly pearls extracted from its fugitive pages, along with items of gossip about its protagonists, have acquired a high value in some quarters. This unlikely glamour has not served the Intelligencer well, and has perhaps obscured the worksheet’s true value, which lies not just in the role it played in the lives of its renowned contributors, but also in its underexplored salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity, the problems of which The English Intelligencer may pose more acutely than any other journal of its time.

One of the oddest contributions collected here is from Peter Riley entitled “Working Notes on British Prehistory or Archaeological Guesswork One” which treats the end of the Neolithic as the point where humanity took a wrong turn. It also surveys much of the archaeological of the time and puts forward a number of hypotheses. In his introduction Neil describes this as Riley’s “noble, askew and arguably isolated attempt” to translate his personal ‘treasured dream’ into a theoretical position. This may or may not be the case, my main interest is that it was responded to in some detail by Prynne.

Before proceeding, I need to make a personal disclosure. I know a bit about the Neolithic, my daughter spends her professional life prospecting potential Neolithic sites in Calabria and we have many interesting discussions about the period and what can be usefully said about it. These discussions (and some reading) have led me to the view that we still know very little and that there appears to be an inherent weirdness/otherness about what we do know. I am therefore immensely suspicious of any attempts to make concrete statements based (at best) on informed guesswork or from our perspective rather than theirs. Riley’s title does recognise the guesswork element but he also puts forward a narrative which is an extended guess. One of the more perceptive hypotheses that he puts forward is about the primacy of the circle and circularity and how this may be connected to the fat lady cult that characterises much of the period

This concern with the distant past may not appear to have much to do with poetry and this may well be the case. I would however draw your attention to the inclusion of a work about stone circles in the ‘reference cues’ list appended to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and that a paragraph is quoted in the last parts of the poem and to the related ‘A Note on Metal’ which first appeared in the EI and was published in the Bloodaxe ‘Poems’ even though it isn’t a poem. I’ll return to these shortly but first I’ll deal with Prynne’s response.

The first thing to note is his prose style hasn’t changed much over the years, we get the occasional sharp bite and the idiosyncratic use of certain words. The second is that his opposing view is quite clearly stated, he gently points out that trade rather than invasion is more likely to have been responsible for changes during this period- a view that has been reasonably standard for the last 50 years even though we still haven’t got our brain fully around what we might mean by ‘trade’ in the Neolithic.

The other good news is that I think that I agree with most of what he says although I’m still puzzling over his use of ‘motive’. Most discussion of the Neolithic revolves around two central concepts- landscape and ritual. The cynic in me would want to suggest that this is mainly because of the big Neolithic monuments/structures that are thought to have been constructed with reference to the surrounding landscape and that these very visible monuments are thought to have been a venue for ritualistic practices.

Let’s start with Prynne on the trap of imposing our own ideas and world-view on the past:

My instinct is that the distribution of local instances of fact which can be grouped (pot and implement typology, for example) has led to imposed ideas of region that are foreign in pre-literate landscape and which are (by unacknowledged retrojection) based on common-law practice concerning land-ownership.

This seems reasonably sensible although the explanation of how this mistake comes about is a little too refined for my liking- I don’t think ‘retrojection’ works in straight lines.

‘Motive’ appears to be a key term in Prynne’s response:

But we have no evidence at all for the tribal pressure of motive, especially when this related to magical practice and manic excursion.

By motive here I don’t mean anything like that legal-ethical notion of willed predisposition, based on the idea of extension dominated by acts of choice. I mean much more the recognition of possibility as a source of compulsion, pointing one’s body towards the land of the dead or what other definition the guardian decrees. And in this sense the divination of purpose is mantic, as it was for Ezekiel, what a man does is what he thus comes to understand he has always desired. The question of future time (what next) is a specific dimension of landscape, which is the magic of parts locked into the physical extension of the whole.

I freely confess to getting lost just after ‘a source of compulsion’. A few paragraphs later there is this:

I think in that sense that the stone circle or avenue is a very discreet and accurate adjustment of these two forces, of presence as the ritual consecration of motive (in the sense I’ve explained earlier). If both movement and memory are sacred arts, then a place which is the same place accumulates special force, just as the body does for the variety of conditions it can reach out for (Shammanistic transport, for example, or starvation or sexual fulfilment). A stone circle at the intersect of several movement-patterns was thus already ritualised, as an act of recognition repeated to the point where it became socially valid, the social disposition of megaliths rehearsing the interchange between accident and purpose carried to its highest pitch. I could see that as a mechanism for hanging on to sanity, or at least for doing so without collapsing into gutless boredom. As you say, movement and situation incorporated, unlike the utterly trivial predictive charades enacted (so it seems) at Stonehenge, by some Gaullist astronomer. That kind of fixation on calendrial accuracy is the deadly enemy of quality: the middle-class merchant fingering his wrist-watch.

I’d like to point out that Avebury is more attractive than Stonehenge because it is more complex and even weirder. Speculation about both sites is good fun and can be quite entertaining but it is always going to be speculation simply because the evidence can be read in so many competing ways. This isn’t to say that I dislike the above speculation primarily because it indicates that an amount of original thought has gone into these issues. This concern with the landscape and the quality of human activity in it is reiterated in ‘News of Warring Clans’ from 1977 and ‘Field Notes’ which is Prynne’s detailed commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which shows a great deal of careful thought about these issues, especially about the physical experience of being situated in and embodied by the landscape.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and Richard Bradley’s essay, ‘The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle’ which is one of the reference cues and is quoted verbatim at the end of ‘Dreamboats':

Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment. A language may die
also from the record of currency exchange to 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 original cremation pyre was placed where the heavens met the earth
and 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 expression to this relationship,
gradually focusing that particular alignment until it was narrowed down to the
space between the tallest stones.

The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to
consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit
in naturalised permission, solemn grade-one rigmarole, better
Wiglaf's rebuke and insurance payout. To be this with sweet
song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee is by
rotation been and gone into some world of light exchange, toiling
and spinning and probably grateful in this song.

As might be expected, Bradley’s essay says more about this particular stone circle than appears in the quote but the extant evidence does suggest a conscious link between the circle/pyre, the mountain and the sky. The mountain (Lochnagar) is also significant because it is the only visible peak that retains its snow for ‘much’ of the year.

I’ve said in the recent past that I haven’t worked out what Prynne may be intending with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ but I continue to feel that being and non-being are an intertwined theme. The above seems to confirm that and to underline Prynne’s long-standing interest in bodies and monuments in the landscape. Incidentally, the ‘sweet joy’ quote is from Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’ and Wiglaf was king of Mercia in the ninth century but I have no idea what his ‘rebuke’ might be about…….

On the next occasion I think that I might have to address Neil’s claims about the contested role of literary poetry and try and work out the difference between the literary and the non-literary- any ideas on this would be wamrly welcomed.

Withheld Poetry

I have been thinking about this for a while but what follows is more tentative speculation than anything with definition or clarity, I’m also likely to change my mind. Last year I wrote about Joe Luna’s contribution to the ‘Better than Language’ collection and remarked that what mattered was the stuff going on outside and around the text rather than the words themselves. I’ve since elaborated on this a little but it now occurs to me that several of our better poets are in the business of withholding or making poems that function as a collection of items/events that are incidental to what’s being talked about.

This line of thought started with a discussion with Neil Pattison about obscurity, I felt that one particular reference was far too obscure for it’s own good- Neil responded by pointing out that this might be secret rather than obscure. This was followed by coming across Luke Roberts’ observation of the ‘deliberate secrecy’ deployed in the work of Francesca Lisette.

I probably need to be a bit more detailed, I’m not talking about allusion in the sense that a phrase can allude or point to something else. The material that is withheld isn’t signposted at all except by the fact that it isn’t present and the poem that we have appears to be what is left when the’secret’ has been removed.

Before this gets hopelessly and incoherently abstract, I’m going to take refuge in some examples of what I’m failing to describe. In my head, Luna, Pattison and Lysette are the most conscious/deliberate withholders at the moment so I’ll use a poem from each. This is Joe Luna’s poem from the ‘document’ containing this and poems by Francesca Lisette, Jonny Liron and Timothy Thronton which was published by Grasp last year. The blurb says “Joe Luna’s poem is a singular work made from revisions and concanetations of smaller poems, written alongside and sometimes in response the others here”. This is the first half of the third part of this singular work;

with silliness & love taut multiplies
the trauma that produces humans. here
is my head so bleed it will you make my
infant mouth stay nothing: there, if I am
fully human, what goes in and how
the square can phrase that with a charge
of infantilism or crack: head's mother
tongue's cheap trick, selling short what's smashing
but prevented, love: given half a chance
who wouldn't harm what represents us,

I should perhaps have mentioned that this collection is a response to this government’s enlightened approach to the funding of higher education but that really isn’t much help with what might be going on here. The astute amongst you will have noticed that sense seems to have been deliberately disrupted or damaged without quite veering off into the completely abstract. The reader (me) is thus left with the impression of something which has been excised from the poem but still exists outside it. This notion is further enhanced by the considered use of punctuation- the full stop in the second line is not a typo and is followed by the lower case ‘h’. Normally I might find this kind of thing overly clever but this is more than redeemed by the degree of invention and the careful use of language that allows for this kind of disruption.

What’s also remarkable is the shifting nature of the proximity to sense/clarity, of how we almost know what “here / is my head so bleed it will you make my / infant mouth stay nothing” refers to or means even though we never can.

I’ve said this before but Francesca Lisette writes stunning poetry that manages to combine defiance with invention and humour.

Coincidentally, Mountain Press have just published ‘Teens’ which appears to gather together most of Lisette’s work. This is all of ‘Descension':

fractionate uglies pass under mucked,
where eyes are, where palms grit to bless.
lunar spacings fringe the raw velvet
revolving the splintered crease.
[pin intervention]
now decidedly a field: turned-up,
caught in buttercup
high confessional
black touching dank silver
working to undermine the grease
jellyish strapped-in. blue myths wheel and caw;
bones stream in particles winded
caesarian synapse gives out: gives over

afterwards the shadowed wreckage
bacon won breeds eyes silkily
intentionally fathered.
cloud-set skin replaces knives and worm-wracked pentagonal
it is the laugh, the hairshine.
throttles on vampirically.
features too, escape voluble knowledge
all the undoings dozed out while braised:
carrying this kiss of initials like a stricture

Is this what Roberts means by “deliberately secret”? I’d like to put it another way, the above contains brilliant moments of verbal invention and enough indicators to allow us an informed guess as to what might have gone on but this can only ever be a ‘might’ because the language never quite gets to be formed even though it gives the impression of wanting to. It could be argued that this is just another piece of dense oddness but (as with Luna) what’s important is what isn’t said and we can only catch this at the corners and edges of the lines.

Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’ is one of the best poems written in the last ten years. This has primarily to do with the ‘voice’ of the poem and the determined urgency that it contains but it also withholds in a way that is slightly more nuanced than Luna and Lisette. This is a section that makes my point:

Scope under the silicon tint is tinfoil, patches
thumbnail, scan. Rubric, stinted, component of
this limb
is related to this joint
radiant proteins, bonding in a dream, stripped
out in light : tint qualifies, the eagles venturing
acquisition only ; stability maps in to sculpted
enamels, restriction polishes up as belt, teething
ulterior surface, desaturated : is tinfoil, scoped
then selective, this humane break in the product
line. Tracking its metric, folding, cursive, the scan
is firebreak, no quality witheld, the stinted whole.

This is grown-up poetry that isn’t for the faint-hearted, it’s got to be worked with, the reader has to identify the things that aren’t being said which without doubt are much more terrible than the things that are. In fact I’d like to suggest that Neil’s withholding is to do with heightening and intensifying our anxiety and pushing us toward action or at least a response to the Bad Things that are almost described.

Another thought occurs to me- this keeping back isn’t done so that the reader can fill the gaps with whatever his or her experiences might suggest. These are real and tangible things that are not being said and that might be the point because the world is full to bursting with things that are made clear, are made plain to such an extent that we think we know lots about what there is to know. Only we don’t know very much at all and these poets are very good at bringing us back to the many absences and gaps that we need to recognise and pay attention to.

The New Clever and Late Modernism

I’m going to try very hard not to display too many personal foibles in this but it does seem to me that the last six months (ish) have seen a disproportionate amount of clever/intelligent/cerebral material emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. It may well be that this degree of intelligence may have been around for some time and I’ve missed it but I’m about to make a case for the arrival of a new aesthetic which seems to be growing out of and away from the late modernist ‘thread’. I’m also aware that North America has a whole range of movements and labels apart from late modern but a number of developments there would suggest to me that the clever is on the increase.

I think that I need here to explain the ‘c’ word. This denotes both a demonstrable level of ‘inate’ intelligence that is communicated through the writing together with technical prowess in the doing of poetry and (this is key) a demonstrated understanding of what poetry can and should do. This is a working definition that avoids notions of theme or form simply because the New Clever does not ‘fit’ into those kinds of boxes. Before I give examples, I need to acknowledge that I’m attracted to cleverness in most things, I admire clever people with clever ideas so my enthusiasm may be a little warped. In my defence I have to observe that it is generally the clever material that has lasted and is revered rather than that which is efficient and/or beautiful but not very intelligent.

The fate of late modernism does seem tied up with the New Clever and this is best exemplified by our best practitioners, both of whom have recently published material which marks a significant departure in their respective careers and is wilfully and fiercely clever.

I’ve said before the The Claudius App is (after only two issues) the best poetry site on the web and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the poets mentioned below have also featured there.

Some New Clever Poets/Poems

This is provisional, subjective and intended to be argued with- I also reserve the right to change my mind.

Simon Jarvis

I don’t think that anybody could argue that Jarvis’ work isn’t clever. ‘The Unconditional’ is one of the bravest and most challenging interventions to be made since the early seventies and ‘Dionysus Crucified’ is bursting with intellectual energy and formal experiment. In fact, it could be argued that these two very different works embody the New Clever in action. Both tackle complex ideas in ways that manage to both honour and subvert the last three thousand years of poetry whilst producing flurries of verbal brilliance:

Later in Services formica teemed.
Nonsemiotic grapefruit-eating all about
extended its impossible ideal.
Lay your knife and your fork across your plate.
Against all furious effort the slack face
still with each globful let some wet sign slip
to sit with meaning on the grating chin
while if de minimis a muscle there
could give no serviceable twitch that did
not paint a message in the vacant air
causing nonsemiosis to migrate
from off this world's bad grapefruit to some skies
of uninhabitable scientistic loss.
Agramant tucked into his bacon.

What’s clever about this (over and above the philosophical/ideological point that it makes) is that it could very easily have failed, it could have overstated the case and turned out yet another slice of poetic self-indulgence but Jarvis chooses to underplay his case and retain the ‘point’ within a comically banal frame. Agramant is the villain of the piece in this very long poem (240 pages) which is defiantly metrical throughout. He takes his name from one of the chief villains in Orlando Furioso- another very long poem. It’s verbally inventive and the point concludes brilliantly-“some skies / of uninhabitable scientistic loss”. I don’t agree with what Jarvis says but I am utterly won over by the way that he says it.

This, on the other hand is from ‘Dionysus Crucified’-

  And there they were, there on the verdigris sofa, Pen and the stranger, sitting bolt upright next to each other. Neither was saying a word,
Staring down into their Kenco while in the air all around us I noticed as soon as I sat down myself there was some kind of fusion jazz playing so quiet
That you could not really here it, could not really make out the notes, or the notes were as though they could not really bear to be notes, could not
Really will to be heard, but at each point where into the ear some decided concertion of sound might have brought its own message home, instead of this
The lost hum of saxophone dither would disappear into the airlessness, seem to become a prosthesis attaching the stranger therre to his comfortable
Sofa, although for the truth of it he didn't seem to be comfortable, sat on the edge of it just as if it were about to fades in the west as crimson
Devour him or kill in a single and swift suffocation his kin and his gods, his ancestors, with all his loving descendants, just as though all these were
shortly to vanish there into that armchair.

(The gap between ‘if it were about to’ and ‘fades in the west’ denotes that the latter is part of another poem that descends intermittently down the right side of the page.)

Pen is about to meet a sticky end- Pen being short for Pentheus who meets a horrible end in the Euripides play around which large amounts of the poem revolve. In terms of clever, I’d just like to point out that, once again, Jarvis demonstrates narrative skill whilst making a series of points in amongst the appalling colour scheme and sinister furniture.

Daniel Poppick

I know very little about Poppicks work but ‘Sneaky Freeze’ strikes me as an ideal candidate for the New Clever in that it makes startling use of language and seems at the same time against the boundaries of what it can do. This may sound hopelessly pretentious but listening to Poppick’s reading indicates to me a kind of sprint along the edge of coherence which manages to express things whilst undermining any sense of reliability. It’s very, very clever.

Amy De’Ath

“Cuteness is a Landscape” is another example of what De’Ath is doing with poetry, there’s the nods towards technique and convention, the exquisite word choice and an incredible sense of involvement that drags the reader in. I think this extract makes my point-

Your teeth are made of platinum
good for skating upside down
across the Cute, Zany & Interesting:

on Clink Street a floating
bookcase regurgitates
wonderlust. And a lesser soul am I for that

I’m going to ignore the presence of furniture and point instead to the image set up at the beginning, the presence of ‘the’ in line three and the play on wonder/wander together with the ‘straight’ poetry of the final phrase. Compelling, original and very aware of what poetry might be about.

Neil Pattison

Neil has produced some incredibly powerful work over the last few years and can be thought of as being in the vanguard of the New Clever because of his acute awareness of what words can do but also because of an absence of compromise. This is from ‘Slow Light':

		Statuary, black stinted, oily pressure
floods analogue, dial into red : graphic fluctuation
wired-in, the pasture seized in tarry drift, ejected
measuring the iris backflow, airlift, break unscratched.

Gloze edging flouresces, accelerant centre fades :
inside, the accurate flow to shell-gland, cored
optic of pure courting is

I might be the only person on the planet who finds this stuff completely mesmerising but I don’t care. ‘Gloze edging flouresces’ is significantly brilliant by itself but placed in amongst this marvellous density shows a very intelligent process pushing against the edges of the form to say what must (must) be said. Neil is also a leading light in what I’m currently thinking of as the ‘New Witholders’ who have much more going on around the poem than inside it. Other members include Francesca Lisette and Joe Luna.

J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and the New Clever.

Both of the above seem to be pushing themselves in new directions, ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ certainly signifies a move away from the late modern and Hill’s ongoing engagement with pattern together with the level of learned abstraction in ‘Odi Barbare’ also signals a different way of doing clever.

So, I think I’m arguing for thinking about poems in a different way that seems more suited to what’s currently being written. Other New Clever poets would include Sarah Kelly, Reithat Pattison, Purdey Krieden and Jonny Liron but I’ll return to these in the next week or so….