Tag Archives: robert browning

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:

    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.

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.