Tag Archives: the triumph of love

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 and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA':

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
hay
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes
out

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.

Rhetorical smoke and mirrors from George Herbert to Geoffrey Hill

“This figure consists in arranging words and thoughts out of the natural sequence, and is, as it were, the ttuest mark of vehement emotion. Just as people who are really angry or frightened or indignant, or are carried away by jealousy or some other feeling – there are countless emotions, no one can know how many – often put forward one point and then spring off to another with various illogical interpolations, and then whee round again to their original positions, while, under the stress of their encounter, like a ship before a veering wind, they lay their words first on one tack and then another and keep altering the natural order into innumerable variations – so, too, in the best prose writers the use of hyperbaton allows imitation to approach the effects of nature.”

The above is taken from ‘On the Sublime’ by the 1st century writer known as ‘Longinus’. I quote it at length because I’m about to have another dither in the George Herbert debate and I want to measure hyperbaton up against what Hill does to syntax. One of my more or less fixed views is that we would all benefit from greater expertise in rhetoric, that it’s too valuable and powerful tool to be left in the hands of lawyers and clerics and that poems that make effective use of rhetorical skills are usually good poems. As is usual, I’ve been of this view without having any more than an entirely superficial knowledge of what rhetoric might be able to do. This is more of a problem because I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about the English Renaissance yet one of its key planks was the renewed interest in and teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools and universities.

So, I didn’t know that hyperbaton was a recognised feature of rhetoric and that the disordering of syntax to indicate extremes of feeling had been in use for many, many years. Now that I do know I’ve given a bit more thought to the degree of deliberation in George Herbert’s outbursts and have cast a slightly different light on his recurring pleas for plain speaking. In addition I’ve had another look at Hill’s use of rhetorical devices in ‘The Triumph of Love’.

The George Herbert problem is one of authentic outpouring vs cynical manipulation- how much of Herbert’s blurted incoherence is in fact a cynical attempt to promote similar feelings in his readers? I think this matters because it is these sudden interjections that set Herbert’s work apart from most things before or since. I also have a personal disdain for cynically manipulative poetry (Lowell, Plath, Eliot, Larkin etc etc) and I wouldn’t want to think of Herbert in the same way. Herbert may have been a country priest attending to his rural flock but he had been a star pupil and student at Westminster School and at Trinity College. He also became deputy and then Cambridge university orator so we can surmise that he had more than a passing knowledge of and practice in things rhetorical. Given his aristocratic background, biographers have had some difficulty explaining Herbert’s decision to become a country priest and this social difference can be seen in the patrician tone adopted in much of his ‘A Priest to the Temple’ which is a prose manual for aspiring vicars.

I’ve previously expressed some concern about the amount of feigned incoherence that might be going on but I’ve alos recently come across the intriguing ‘Jordan II':

When first my lines of heav'nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention:
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with a metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off'ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much less those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence?
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense.

This is where the smoke and mirrors come into play. Herbert is advocating speaking and writing plainly in praise of God rather than using convoluted thoughts ‘curling with metaphors’ but he is using rhetoric to make this anti-rhetorical point. Herbert is of course aware of this and also knows that many of his readers will be able to locate Sidney’s “Foole said my muse to me, looke in the heart and write’ at the heart of the poem. He would of course argue that the writing out of this sweetness is something that his parishioners could relate to far more than the ornate devices of the chattering classes.

So, is this a further example of Herbert’s manipulative skills or a genuine and finely wrought renunciation of fine words? Let’s start outside of the poetry and the huge social and cultural gap between this priest and his parishioners. From this perspective it is very likely that excessive use of complex phrasing and metaphors would result in a degree of bewilderment and resentment, it is also likely that rural parishioners would be very suspicious of someone of such high status becoming their priest. So, in order to be effective, Herbert would need to speak plainly and demonstrate the strength of his zeal by the occasional cries of devotion. This would make sense if he then went on to produce ‘plain’ poems of praise because these would mean more to his flock. However, he doesn’t do this but carries on writing complex and sophisticated poems which extol the virtue of plainness.

The discovery of hyperbaton led me back to Geoffrey Hill and Lachlan Mackinnon’s charge of tortured syntax. Sadly I have to report that this endeavour has taken an unexpected turn. I started with the annoying reference to epanalepsis in poem X in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and from then on things rhetorical seemed to be everywhere in the sequence. Some of these (The Turing contradiction in poem XVI, the references to ‘Laus et vituperatio) seem merely portentous but some of the longer (and more serious poems) seem to follow various rhetorical schema in a way that I hadn’t noticed before. Poem CXXV has this:

I have been working towards this for some time,
<em?Vergine bella. I am not too far from the end
[of the sequence - ED]. It may indeed be my last
occasion for approaching you in modes
of rhetoric to which I have addressed myself
throughout the course of this discourse. Custom

So, one of Hill’s finest sequences turns out to be a ‘discourse’ which is expressed in modes of rhetoric and I’m now going to have to re-read this and the rest (including ‘Odi Barabare’) with a different pair of eyes….

Reading ‘Difficult’ Poetry with Success. Prynne, Hill and David Jones.

“The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case
I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean?”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition
for successful reading.”

But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, not ready at all to
This leaving out business. On it hinges the very importance
of what's novel.
Or autocratic, or dense, or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not
ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall
not,

The first of these is from J H Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears’ and the second is from John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’ which was published in ‘Rivers and Mountains’ in 1966 and both appear to be saying the same thing. So, if two of the most important poets of the last fifty years have this lack of interest in the quest for meaning, what might a successful reading look like?

For me, ‘successful’ relates to feeling satisfied by the act of reading and this usually involves giving attention to a poem or part of a poem. It is the way I feel about reading attentively that is the marker for me. There are some contemporary innovative poets who produce work that doesn’t involve me, that doesn’t (for a variety of reasons) retain either my interest or attention. This is not to suggest that this work is inferior – it’s just that I’m not interested in it.

The problem of meaning (which used to concern me) is only one aspect of readerly attention/involvement and working out meaning tends to be a by-product of doing other things and being involved in other ways. I’m going to use the above poets to try and illustrate what I mean by this and how ‘success’ can occur in other ways.

Prynne is a good place to start and I’m currently paying attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ because it seems to mark a significant ‘turn’ in his output and because I find it compelling. The first reward that I get is in responding to the challenge which, for me, is altering the way that I absorb information. Prynne’s work demands a less linear (for the want of a better word) kind of attention and requires this adjustment to be made before reading rather than after. I like this because I can do it and I find doing it utterly absorbing. I’ve also found that I can apply this kind of attention to other things unrelated to either poetry or reading.

This is one of the shorter paragraphs from ‘Kazoo Dreamboats':

                                       Can this be or was it moreover
for this incision in dropsy yes not ventral not assented sold OUT
in mere song-like retrieval, give way with no-name in appearance
decking as a whirling swarm of gnats is soft summer sun at the
edge of the outward forest, infolded not time after time still less
perpetual by false appearance which is the true-fast semblance of
falsity, indued and ever-doubtful. Our morning hymn this is, and
song at evening echo confuted by shared antagonism, implicit not
by next coming-to-be as the world is transformed in feature full
of folk saying what is it not, time-locked against spokes in the cycle
of saying so. Indicative ridiculous also, won't you come home
Bill Bailey before a toast and tea, scumbags! reptiles! the old folks
just better stay at home or lose their reason too, mine and yours
loaned against non-interest, souls implanted by necessity smooth
turning upon an axle you'd not know was not granted its near life
to be there, on-site in foam, I saw no less than these things
right up on the peremptory shore line.

I’ve quoted this at length because I can now show different kinds of involvement. The first of these is about identifying the individual phrases and working out what they might be doing. The first phrase asks a question which then appears to be answered with some qualification. This process is less arduous here than it is for most of the more recent Prynne, this seems to be making an effort towards greater coherence but there are still challenges – deciding what the Bill Bailey and old folks at home references are doing is something that would need a different kind of involvement (checking song lyrics) than the rest. For me, the most satisfying part is engaging with the way that some phrases point in a number of different directions at once and then trying to apply these to the whole. This passage contains these that are crying out for this kind of involvement;

  • incision in dropsy;
  • mere song-like retrieval;
  • appearance decking;
  • the outward forest;
  • true-fast semblance;
  • song at evening echo confuted;
  • spokes in the cycle of saying so;
  • souls implanted by necessity;
  • on-site in foam;
  • peremptory shore line.

Some of this involves looking at secondary word meanings and derivations, checking how each of these might relate to what’s going on around them and (in this work) bearing in mind the ‘reference cues’ printed at the end. All of this is absorbing and rewarding because it is possible to gain a sense of progress and some insight into other ways of thinking generally and doing poetry in particular. I must also mention the feeling of success that I get when I begin to grasp the structure and direction of the whole.

It is also important to stress that meaning comes way down on the list, I’m very comfortable in not knowing what ‘this’ and ‘it’ refer to in the first paragraph and accept that this will only be made clearer by the kind of attention that I’ve just described.

A successful reading of Geoffrey Hill doesn’t have the same qualities but it still requires attention and involvement. My first encounter with Hill was reading the first few pages of Comus on the bus on the way to work and realising that this was a poet who was confident in his abilities and quite precise in what he had to say. This gives the reader a feeling of security – as if she or he is in safe hands. Success with Hill works on two levels, responding to what he says and considering the way that he says it. I occasionally try to write poetry and therefore have an interest in the practice and technique of those that I admire. One element of success with Hill is evaluating his technique and assessing whether the poem is both technically efficient and beautiful- his criteria, not mine. Success comes when I feel that I’ve made a reasonable assessment. Some of this doesn’t take long, ‘Oraclau’ is obviously less than technically efficient and this gets in the way of what Hill might be trying to say. Other judgements are more nuanced, I wouldn’t have addressed my critics from within ‘The Triumph of Love’ but that doesn’t stop it from being a brilliant piece of work. I admire ‘Clavics’ more than I did when it was published but I’m still not sure about the use of patterns. So, successful reading as a practitioner in the case of Hill is wanting and being able to continue to think about technique and tactics.

I’ve said before that I don’t have any kind of faith and that Hill and I occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. I don’t feel challenged by his high Anglicanism nor by his odd brand of ‘hierarchical’ Toryism because both are wrong in the sense of being factually incorrect so success here is not about being challenged about my beliefs and prejudices but is more about what poetry can and should do. In general terms I agree with Hill about poetry and about literature and I like the way that he reads. Success here is about being able to place myself in the hands of a fellow traveller who knows far more than I about the things that interest me.

The sense of success that I get from reading Hill comes from this complex sense of identification and/or comparison which usually leads to other things. To give a recent example, reading ‘Clavics’ and Hill’s identification with Yeats has led me to look again at his work.

I’ve written before about the challenges presented by ‘The Anathemata’ and success here is more about throwing yourself into what’s been said and trying to get hold of the extent of Jones’ ambition. As with the work of Prynne, engagement is more about the way in which language is used and the variations in those techniques issues of meaning take a secondary place. In his introduction Jones indicates his intention to set out his personal cultural background and interests in poetic form so we have the Roman Catholic faith, Welshness, London, the Roman empire, prehistory and seafaring as well as material from various chronicles and romances.

Success with Jones works on two levels, the ability to immerse yourself in what is being said and the extent of your willingness to explore further some of the issues and subjects covered. I like to think that I succeed by the first criterion in that I can now, with the help of the notes, follow the flow of the poetry and visualise most of what is described. I have however ‘failed’ on the second standard in that after the first couple of readings I resolved to know more about Catholic liturgy as well as Welshness. I have the books sitting on my hard drive but have yet to look at any of them.

I think what I’m trying to say about all three of these ‘difficult’ practitioners is that successful reading starts with a degree of acceptance of them on their own terms and being interested in how those terms are involved in the poetry making rather than being primarily concerned with either meaning or intention.

Poems, Sections and Bits, a few technical questions for Geoffrey Hill.

Just before Xmas I bought the Clutag CD recording of the reading that Hill gave in February 2006 to launch ‘Without Title’. As well as being an absolute delight, (apart from the destruction of one poem by the great Eugenio Montale) the way that Hill introduces some of his publications has caused me to think more about the sequence/collection and section/poem terminology. Before we go any further I need to observe that this disturbance is of a different order to that caused by Prynne’s omission of the penultimate poem in the ‘To Pollen’ sequence in his recentish Paris reading.

The problem is caused here by the fact that I thought I understood the nouns used to describe these things. I thought that I knew that:

  • a number of poems published in a single book but without a unifying theme is called a collection as in John Matthias’ ‘Kedging’ or Hill’s ‘Without Title';
  • a number of things published with a unifying themes is called a sequence and the things are called poems or prose poems;
  • sequences and collections may be divided into sub-groups of poems, these groups are known as sections;
  • parts of sequences or collections are never called bits because the term is too general to be helpful.

It turns out that this is not the view of our latest poetic knight and current Professor of Poetry at Oxford so I may well be wrong on all counts but nevertheless the questions remain. In the reading (referred to by Hill as a ‘recital’) he refers to the poems in ‘Mercian Hymns’, ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’, ‘The Triumph of Love’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ as ‘sections’. In the introduction to ‘The Orchards of Syon’ he refers to the poems as ‘poems’ and then rapidly corrects himself to ‘sections’. The poems in ‘Comus’ are referred to as ‘bits’.

Let’s start with ‘Mercian Hymns’ which is a sequence of prose paragraphs or prose poems about Offa, one of our first kings. It’s brilliance lies in the fact that the past and the present are blurred and merged to create an account of England and a study in power. It is one of the very best things produced since 1945 and the argument about the poem / section terminology is less relevant because the each page carries a sequential Roman numeral and contains two or more paragraphs which would need to be called ‘prose poems’ which would be clumsy / inept / naff etc.

The ‘Charles Peguy’ is a sequence and is defined by Hill as “my homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat'”, it consists of ten poems each made up of a varying number of quatrains. I was going to make a case for each of these as autonomous pieces that can stand in their own right until I recalled that part 4 runs on to part 5 as in:

So you spoke to the blood. so you have risen
above all of that and fallen flat on your face

5

among the beetroots, where we are constrained
to leave you sleeping and to step aside

So, parts 4 and 5 may be sections of one autonomous poem whereas the rest are all ‘stand alone’ poems within the homage (sequence).

Moving on to ‘The Triumph of Love’, I can make a case for all of the numbered ‘sections’ as autonomous poems but I do have a problem with CXIII which in its entirety is “Boerenverdriet? You eat it – it’s Dutch liverwurst” which is a footnote to the use of the word in CXI. Admittedly some of the very short ‘sections’ are a couple of lines of snatched monologue but they can still stand as poems. The other puzzle with CXIII is that the rest of the gloss to the sequence is provided by a fictional editor whose interjections are placed in brackets within the poem. This may be due to the fact that another gloss is provided for the next word – “Lothian [Macsickker - Ed]” and Hill didn’t want things to get too cluttered.

As well as being as good as but very different from ‘Mercian Hymns’ this is obviously a sequence built around a number themes but which presents an oddly optimistic and/or redemptive take on the atrocity-laden twentieth century. It is true that occasional reference is made to stand up comedy and Gracie Fields the singer is deliberately confused with Gracie Fields the boat but I’ve just re-read the sequence again and am now more convinced of its brilliance and its audacity.

The poem / section slip of the tongue when introducing ‘The Orchards of Syon’ is perhaps indicative of Hill’s uncertainty with these terms but the use of ‘bits’ for ‘Scenes from Comus’ is odd because there may be degree of disdain or self deprecation going on – it is the least represented book in the Selected and Hill does quote A N Wilson’s abusive reaction to one of the poems but he does read 4 ‘Comus’ which is as many as ‘The Triumph of Love’ and two more than ‘Mercian Hymns’.

The significant difference with ‘Comus is that it is divided into three sections and each section contains poems in the same format, section one has all ten line poems consisting of three three-line verses followed by one line on its own, each poem in the second section is a single nine-line stanza and each poem in the third consists of four three-line verses. Each section has a title and each of these relates to the masque, a type of performance popular in the 17th century.

‘Scenes from Comus’ has received large amounts of critical flak on both sides of the Atlantic but I think it’s wonderful and written by a poet who is confident of his skill and legacy and (this is important) is beginning to be comfortable in his skin. So, why ‘bits’? It’s not as if Hill is unfamiliar with all the other terms that he could have and the term does suggest something trivial and expendable but this is at odds with putting so many of the poems into the reading.

I will continue thinking of poems that happen to be components of a sequence as poems, I’ll also carry on using sections as the term for groups of poems within a sequence and I don’t think I’ll ever use the term ‘bit’ because it doesn’t seem either useful or appropriate.

Writing this has made me realise that the sequence word contains a degree of complexities and blurrings that I’ll try and write about in the next few weeks.

The attentive among you will have noticed that I’ve missed out ‘Speech! Speech!’ but that’s because they’re poems- all of them.

Poetry and truth, a further response to Tom Dunn

Tom,

I’ll probably need to take my time with this because it strikes me that simply making a few assertions isn’t going to be helpful. I also want to avoid thinking about truth at the expense of poetry because that seems equally self-defeating. So, I need to start with the personal- I like poetry and I especially like poetry that I find to be useful. This usefulness (which is different from utility) may be simply that a poem can help me think more productively about something or it may challenge the way that I currently think or feel or it may show me something else that language or heightened language can do.

In adolescence I formed the view that the function of poetry was to describe the essence of things and it didn’t matter if these descriptions were terse and/or obdurate, they were useful if they were honest. I can still make a case for the ‘poetry is about what really matters’ faction but I now think that what ‘really’ matters is more about the relationship between things than some essential quality of the things themselves. It is true that I find some poems profound and moving but I think that those poems are more about the struggle for truth rather than its discovery or prediction.

I think poetry (as well as being far too poetic) can take itself far too seriously and I don’t think this is confined to the Cambridge School or other politically minded groupings. I think that this stems from two principle causes. The first of these is the fact that the making of poetry is an intensely personal and intimate act in that we are trying to express what we think and what we feel with an intensity that doesn’t occur in fiction. Because of this we tend to expect a serious and considered response which is usually the case because most readers are also poets. The other issue relates to the weight of history, poetry has built up around itself a body of knowledge which is expressed in sombre and considered tones, woe betide the critic who attempts a humorous tone even when such a response is required. In short, poetry’s image is conducive to a readerly expectation of essential truths.

This might be disappointing but I’m only going to use one example of poetic expression of secular/philosophical truth and two examples of the expression of religious truth.

Charles Olson and the Truth.

I’m going to start with Charles Olson’s use of Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ in ‘The Maximus Poems’. I’m using this because it’s a philosophical position that I’m vaguely sympathetic to and because Olson expresses it really well with an enormous amount of skill.

Here’s a confession, I haven’t yet managed to get through ‘Process and Reality’ and am therefore dependent on what others have said. Broadly, Whitehead puts more emphasis on the relationship between things, suggest new ways of thinking about time and challenges the view that knowledge should be based on things that are fixed. ‘Maximus’ has many other conerns but it does Whitehead really well.

This poem is entitled ‘OCEANIA’ and dates from June 1966 and is about Olson walking around the New England town of Gloucester in the early hours of the morning. The poem is written in the present tense and is seemingly straightforward until we get to-

And now I look onto the marsh
away from the boulevard
lights-& there is the
whole back of the river's
mouth flooded as I had
5 yrs ago called it Oceania!

As a stiff and colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the processes
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you

for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and Jeremy Prynne

I’d forgotten about the Prynne reference but the above is my favourite example of poetry expressing a truth really well. This occurs in the middle of the poem, Olson continues on his walk but now the reader is involved in and taking part in the ‘processes of Earth and man”. This is what poetry is good at but it does require enormous skill to get it right.

Geoffrey Hill and Godly truth.

‘The Triumph of Love’ is one of Hill’s most successful sequences and focuses on the terrible events of the last century but this is presented through the prism of his faith. Poem CXXV contains a longish debate about faith and philosophy and a number of deliberately provocative statements:

....................The intellectual
beauty of Bradwardine's thesis rests
in what it springs from: the Creator's Grace
praecedentem tempore et natura ['Strewth!!!
'already present in time as in nature'?-ED]
and in what it returns to-our arrival
at a necessary salvation. So much
for the good news. The bad news is its correlate-
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.

The poems then has a bit of a rant at those who choose to try and dilute the severity of this ‘news’ and ends with-

I have been working up to this. The Scholastics
mean more to me than the New Science. All
things are eternally present in time and nature.

Bradwardine’s chief claim to fame is that he wrote a tract defending the established Catholic church and its doctrines against a group of medieval reformers who were known as the ‘New Pelagians’. Hill’s faith leads him to side with the more conservative view but also has to accept what this means and there is some unease about this although the last line expresses a religious truth. The workings of grace and the nature of salvation play a big role in Hill’s work and he has spoken recently of his view that all his work is informed by his anxiety as to the fate of his soul. We may not share Hill’s faith but I think that we must recognise his ability to express difficult aspects of it with great skill.

Simon Jarvis and the nature of Grace.

I do intend to write something about ‘Dionysus Crucified’ in the near future in part as a response to two of the responses Simon give to the interview questions. Here I just want to give an example of how very innovative poets deal with religious truth. What follows is a couple of lines that are very long and unbroken in the original, the first line is spoken by Pentheus and the second is Dionysus’ response-

Here against undeserved instruments I with my year of worked seasonal graces apply to the ceaseless sodality made by the party of inextinct saints.
Apply to head office: grace lightens wherever it will, and your workings convert it to sacrifice so that its ghost may become the free gift you deplore.

How grace might function has been and remains the source of enormous strife and controversy, here Jarvis appears to be espousing a traditional view which is further elaborated in his references to the teachings of the early church. ‘Dionysus is an incredibly complex and ambitious work but I think that this brief extract demonstrates Simon’s ongoing concern with truth, both religious and secular.

What short poems do

When I was 15ish, I was of the view that poetry was about compression, that it’s primary purpose was to condense and intensify life as it is lived. I hadn’t arrived at this conclusion from any deep knowledge or understanding but I did know that Paul Celan had written the most obviously important poetry that I had come across and that the more austere later works were staggeringly good. This view was solidified by Samuel Beckett’s ‘Lessness’ which seemd intent on paring things down in a similar way.

Over the last forty years I’ve weaned myself off this early certainty and discovered the many joys of the longer poem and the pleasure to be gained in losing myself for page after page. The problem with having Celan for a template has meant that very few poems have met my early standards and those that do tend to be part of a sequence rather than a ‘stand alone’ poem. I was thinking about this the other day when writing about Andrew Marvell’s ‘Garden’ sequence and found myself trying to work out what I look for in short poems.

The first and most obvious quality is brevity but the kind of brevity that says a lot without appearing to try whilst the second is about depth or perhaps profundity but a depth that is worn lightly and thus avoids ramming the ‘point’ down my throat. The third is about a good start but a better finish in that the opening should attract my attention and hold my interest whilst the end should be both sharp and accomplished.

I want to use four short poems to try and demonstrate what I mean, I’ve chosen these because I think that they are successful in their own right (although three do belong to a sequence) and because they all manage to kick off a series of related thoughts which may or may not have been part of the original intention.

Reitha Pattison’s Fable I

I’ve written about this recently but I want to use to show just how much a few lines can hold:

A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.

The first element relates to fables and various other forms of the same kind of thing. Emblem books during the 16th and 17th centuries made great use of these stories so I’ve been led back to Whitney and the popularity of the emblem form and the conscious use that Spenser and others made of emblems. The illustration in Whitney’s great collection of the dog and his reflection is remarkable in its directness.

I’ve also been reading Alistair Fowler on the impact of the epigram on what is referred to as the English Renaissance and beyond and Pattison’s Fables do share many epigrammatic features which has brought me to think again about the use of such forms as life lessons and their equivalents in the popular culture of today.

The mix of Providence and an agrarian work ethic is startling because the two are not obviously related and it’s taken me a while to think this through. Providence is defined by Alexandra Walsham as a the “sovereignty of God and His unceasing supervision of and intervention in the earthly realm” whereas ‘work ethic’ is a term used by Weber to ‘explain’ the relative economic success of Protestant northern Europe when compared with the Catholic south. The story of the ant and the grasshopper tells of a grasshopper who does little during the warm summer months and an ant who puts stores food for the winter. Of course, the grasshopper has no food and starves having been rebuked by the ant for his idleness. The original point is reasonably straightforward but Pattison plays with it to bring other dimensions to bear.

Geoffrey Hill’s poem LI from ‘The Triumph of Love’

I am aware that the above sequence really needs to be read in its entirety in order to be fully appreciated but this particular poem meets all of the above criteria and succeeds in its own right. It also provides what is perhaps the central point of the work as a whole:

Whatever may be meant by moral landscape
is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in crass section: igneous, sedimentary,
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,
individual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.

This is particularly satisfying because it’s a quite statement in the middle of some quite dramatic flourishes which attempt to encapsulate some of the worst aspects of the 20th century and provides the key as to why we have come through those appalling experiences. So it’s a kind of riposte to those who see only brutality and mindless slaughter but it’s also a self-contained statement of faith in a ‘particular grace’ and the finer qualities that each of us possess and which run across and outweigh our many and various ‘faults’. It is a remarkable statement and one that continues to provoke a number of questions- as a more or less committed atheist, the notion of grace means little to me but I would argue that the other three qualities do play a huge part in getting us through although I’m not entirely sure that the geological analogy works for me it is still remarkably accomplished, keenly felt and a brilliant statement of quite a complex and nuanced position.

Andrew Marvell’s Poem VI from ‘The Garden’

I’ve written recently about another poem in this sequence so I don’t intend to repeat myself here. This particular poem stands out from the others both for its tone and for the things that it appears to be saying which ‘work’ on a number of different levels:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I’m firmly of the view that Marvell has never been given his due and I think the above is an example of both masterful control and an ability to say complex things in startling ways. Nigel Smith’s commentary tells me that the above continues to give critics fertile ground for controversy and debate but I just think that it’s very, very well put together and contains a satisfyingly high level of ambiguity. ‘Green’ had a number of connotations apart from those relating to the environment in the 17th century, as did ‘shade’ and the contrast of these thoughts with the more psychological description is at odds with the rest of the sequence but also indicates just how different this period was from our own- something we tend to overlook especially when thinking about the English Civil War. I’m currently pursuing the role of green in the period and it is fascinating.

Paul Celan’s ‘I know you’

I want to finish with this because I started with Celan and he is the best and what follows demonstrates this. We often think of Celan primarily as Jew and in relation to the Holocaust but the four lines below were written to/for his wife, Giselle. By the early sixties the marriage had become strained primarily because of Celan’s ‘difficult’ behaviour which was due to his mental health problems. As someone who has similar problems, I read it as an exposition of the kind of tensions and pain that such issues can cause:

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both.
You - all, all real. I - all delusion.)

This has also generated swathes of critical attention and debate but for me it’s heartbreakingly accurate, the use of ‘transpierced’ speaks to me at a very deep and personal level and the third line encapsulates so much of the desperation that many of us go through. It is also fitting that the entire poem should exist in a bracket.

There are very few poems (of any length) that manage to speak to me in this way and I remain awed by Celan’s incredible ability to make difficult things very solid. I’ve been thinking about the Meridian notes a lot recently and this for me embodies what Celan says about the poem as creating an opportunity for the encounter with the reader that is almost tactile. This does that for me.