Tag Archives: robert browning

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

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.

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.