I’ve been goaded into this by Lachlan Mackinnon’s disparaging reference to Hill’s ‘tortured’ syntax in ‘Clavicles’ and by reading Jack Baker’s useful paper on “The Burden of Authentic Expression in the Later Poetry of Geoffrey Hill”. Thinking about how best to get this particular gripe off my chest, I have come to the conclusion that a comparative survey of those that take syntactical innovation to extremes might be more productive than simply having yet another rant about Mackinnon.
Mucking around with syntax is commonly justified by the normal poetic bleat that the language is not adequate to give voice to the poet’s finer feelings and deeper thoughts. Such manipulation is often used to disguise the fact that the poet has nothing to say- whilst acknowledging these pitfalls I want to try and show why and how really accomplished poets to produce stunning work.
I want to start with a rough and ready definition of syntax- the way in which phrases and sentences are put together.
I also want to propose that good poems are a site of many different kinds of struggle and one of the most telling is the one that engages with the standard English phrase and/or sentence.
Sometimes this engagement can lead the reader to new heights of bafflement. My current favourites are ” To the / chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach / luminous” (Neil Pattison) and “At for to.” (J H Prynne). Baker makes the following comparison -”But, whereas many of Hill’s peers, from John Ashbery to J.H. Prynne, revel in linguistic indeterminacy, the poet-figure in Hill’s recent work emerges as one who strives to resurrect language, to preserve its capacity for “eloquence and apprehension” against the destructive tendencies of the age.” I think this is absolutely correct about Hill and I can see that Ashbery’s output is about 85% revel but I think he’s wrong about Prynne.
I do however think there is a key difference between Hill and Prynne in that Hill loves language and Prynne doesn’t. Hill’s best work is characterised by an increasingly vivid tussle to get language to do what it is capable of, to realise its full potential at the hands of the poet. Prynne, on the other hand sees language as perpetually tainted and that the structure of language reflects and underpins the worst aspects of our culture. Jarvis and Neil Pattison both seem to fit somewhere in between but nevertheless produce work that bears evidence of different types of conflict.
Here’s Prynne in his ‘quick riposte’ to Peter Handke in Quid 6-
Of course it is rather easy to ‘see what he means’; and the history of Europe in this century is full of those terrible events supposed to have traduced or contaminated language, along with those sorrowful bystanders, perched upon some peak of purity, who can bewail the loss of a model of rational, passionate and poetic discourse that would somehow resist the ruptures of historical process. But, how silly. Warfare between nations is most often waged across language-frontiers, as a fiercely linguistic event, even if often for reasons not fully conscious or not admitted into full public view; but the mounting up of a war programme, in advance of the hostilities and to justify their methods, is a concatenation of intensely linguistic processes, in which the whole identity and propensity of individual language-histories are worked into the deepest complicity. By the time that war ‘breaks out’, that is, is declared by one nation or tribal cohort confident of subjugating another, the cascade of positional alterations to language use has been largely completed.
I don’t think that Prynne is saying that language is inherently evil or morally flawed but that it is often a kind of willing partner in Very Bad Things.
Then we have this longer passage from ‘George Herbert, Love III’-
Well, language is imperfect and is damaged by sin, not least in relation to man’s conception of his own self, inner and outer, puffed up with tendency to vainglory and selfishness even in moments of the most vehemently powerful moments of exchange with the divine. The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front-loaded selfhood. What the reader has in this poem is what is discoverable in its fallible language and we are to reconstruct what may be its near-full spiritual significance, by linguistic acts, by scrutiny of searching and minute kind. This is sacred philology and hermeneutics, ancient practices which are root-based.
But in the human encounter with belief-moments the reader is not pursuing the practice of assimilation to the world of language and experience outside the self, as situated in a distinct historical or cultural era, or not this merely. The reader is also intimately drawn into this focus of experience as given form and purpose by belief or the question of it: and this self-interior focus is also in large part linguistic.
Needless to say, there isn’t much here that I agree with and some of it seems to be obviously incorrect but it does give us a clear pointer as to what Prynne might be about. It’s also striking that this notion of a language damaged by sin and its structure performing some of the less desirable features of our national character should be expressed with such clarity and vehemence.
In the interests of balance, I want to weigh this against what Hill says at the start of the ‘Weight of the World’ essay-
Questions of accessibility turn upon matters of context. In both sacred and secular writings we may receive, at any instance, a sense of things inaccessible suddenly made accessible, where grammar and desire are miraculously at one. The effect may appear to be studied (as in Milton or Hopkins) or spontaneous (as in the Wesleys or Wordsworth); what delights and silences us is the sustained moment of communion between the two kinds of eloquence and apprehension.
So, for Prynne, the structure of language is to be attacked and our blithe assumptions about it (neutrality, innocence) are to be confronted and undermined on the way to declaring ‘how things are’. The price for this is the charge of obscurity and elitism.
Whereas Hill is in a struggle, wrestling and moulding language in the hope of reaching that point where the creative impulse and language structure are ‘miraculously unified’
Now I need some examples to indicate what I’m trying to say. With Prynne I think it can be shown that the broad arc of the last thirty years has been a more and more uncompromising attack culminating in the magnificently austere ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ of 2009.
Thirty years (ish) takes us back to ‘Oval Windows’ from 1983. The second poem in the sequence shows some sign of an early attack:
Formerly in a proper tonic, the rain
would pelt and cure by the foam inlet.
Smartly clad they could only panic
through the medium itself, rabbit by proxy.
On both sides smart guidance ex-stock
makes for home like a cup cake over.
it is a defect coma and it shows;
try it on, see if they'd want to care.
I don’t want to undertake any kind of analysis of meaning or intention but I do want to point out where the syntax is being attacked. To start with most of the ‘rules’ are honoured, sentences make a kind of sense and are self-contained but some commas are missing and we are not at all clear what/who ‘it’ and ‘they’ refer to in the last two lines.
There is a project to be undertaken mapping the ‘syntax arc’ which I might do for Arduity but here I want to magically leap into 2009:
As to for a mint action bare sender add mantric, bare
cradle invention socket burden to saturate. To ramble his
for glimpse for insert her his pinnate to foramen custom
topic indecision failer for. At for was para fusing flim
This is the first quatrain of the eleventh poem in the sequence and is representative of the kind of attack that goes on throughout. I chose this because the first three words are echoed in the sentence ‘At for to.’ in the fifth quatrain.
The attack is of such force that phrases that do ‘follow the rules’ stand out in stark relief (pun intended). This poem has ‘Skim the lines’ and ‘Did they wear better’ but the rest is very much in the same state as the lines above.
Now we come to Geoffrey Hill. This inevitably involves some discussion of where the dividing line in his trajectory occurs. Jack Baker seems to place one line prior to ‘Canaan’ in 1996 and to another between ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ in 2000 whilst others identify ‘Triumph of Love’ as the turning point. I’m going to play safe and use ‘The Pentecost Castle’ sequence from ‘Tenebrae’ which was published in 1978 and this year’s ‘Clavicles’. This contrast enables me to make my point without getting mired in the before/after debate and is also appropriate because of the two
epigraphs. The first is from W B Yeats:
It is terrible to desire and not
possess and terrible to possess
and not desire.
and the second is from Simone Weil:
What we love in other human
beings is the hoped for satisfaction
of our desire. We do not love their
desire. If what we loved in them
was their desire, then we should
love them as ourself.
I don’t often get all soppy about poetry but ‘The Pentecostal Castle’ sequence is heartbreakingly beautiful. Re-reading it today I’ve become more aware of both its humanity and lyrical strength. It’s also a supreme example of personal and intellectual honesty. This is the eighth poem:
And you my spent heart's treasure
as seeker so forsaken
my yet unspent desire
measurer past all measure
cold paradox of fire
your solitude a token
the sentries at your side
fulfilment to my sorrow
indulgence of your prey
the sparrowhawk the sparrow
the nothing that you say.
Again, I’m not going to worry about meaning but look at the nature of the struggle with language. The first thing to note is the absence of punctuation and this can be read as a list of twelve semi-autonomous phrases or three self contained sentences. The phrases make sense and are constructed in accordance with ‘normal’ English. The sequence as a whole can be thought of as a wonderful meditation on the many dimensions of desire but there is not yet any real sign of overt struggle.
I’ve chosen poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence because I think that it is likely to have been in Mackinnon’s mind when he described Hill’s syntax as ‘tortured’. This is the first part of the poem before we get to the ‘wings’:
Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.
Truth from figment.
Picks its fragment
Somewhere such a kingdom
Judith of Bethulia's well wrested
Calm. How controverted we have become,
Outside the frame
You can't draw from
Old dense pin-stabbed Bible
Somewhere is sacramental belonging.
Here we find but banking with God's grammar
Grace from chance, worked like a novice stammer.
I would argue that this exemplifies Hill’s battle with language rather than his torture of it. The phrases make sense, there are properly formed sentences and with a bit of work we can see what he’s trying to get at. If heightened language is what marks poetry out from prose, isn’t this a good example of how this can be done?
So far we have struggle and attack as ways of confronting language and must now move on to the subversive practices of Simon Jarvis.
I think that it is reasonable to assume that Jarvis has a problem with contemporary poetry of all shades in that he doesn’t even try to do what he wants it to. He has therefore launched a two-pronged attack on the form and the way we think about the form. This is achieved by using poetry to attack poetry. The two prongs are at the opposite ends of the poetic spectrum, at one end is the defiantly metrical 250+ pages of ‘The Unconditional’ which looks like poetry and behaves like poetry but uses digression to defy the reader’s stamina and ability to keep up. A very much lighter version of this is ‘Bacarole’ on the Claudius App which looks like a poem but uses very extended sentences and clauses to disrupt any readerly attempt at conventional understanding. At the other end of the spectrum there is ‘Dionysus Crucified’- I’ve written about some of its more outlandish strategies before and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but it is difficult to imagine anything more radically ‘free’ that doesn’t descend into nonsense.
What I think I’m trying to say is that the Jarvis project involves the skilled use and manipulation of language to take aim at current poetic discourse and practice and is a much more effective strategy than most of those attempted in the last fifty years. In terms of syntax mangling, even on the very experimental ‘cross’ page the only clear example is ‘He needs stabbed in a throat’.
Now we come to Neal Pattison who has been known to add helpful comments to this blog and who is also a very accomplished poet. I want to use an extract from the prose poem ‘Curve, Indifference’ which was published in ‘Preferences in 2006 because it deploys a very different approach to syntax that produces a quite complex effect:
This we in the litchen attest. This afternoon is. By
stone reaches. Sunlight warms to a limit room, its
loving parallel : there are in stones her junctures
attested, and the low reaches bed cool with talk's
mantle. Locators in pliancy instruct with cherubic
levity. The lips of earth, the breast and eyes attest
we mean extraction : these accidental of discre-
tionary will by chalk banked drop embed these
only reaches accidental lip. You are awake. To the
chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach,
I’ve written about the Preferences collection before and probably need to write a longer piece to do it full justice but I’d now like to use the above to try and show how Neil uses syntax to heighten and intensify what is being said and also to display and withdraw at the same time. The repetition of attest and the subject/verb inversion when this is used, the deliberate placing of the colons between the words rather than immediately after the preceding word, the temporal progress from afternoon to night, the use of emphasis in the most conventional sentence are all used with great skill both to heighten and intensify what is being said. The greater subtlety lies in the things that are left unsaid, that ‘sense’ is being pointed towards but not actually displayed.
So, poets can do complex things with syntax and some of us find this one of its greatest attractions. In fact, with a few honourable exceptions, poets that don’t do things with syntax tend to be quite dull and banal. The primary exception is, of course, Elizabeth Bishop.
The Unconditional, Streak~~Willing and Preferences are available from Barque Press, Dionysus Crucified is available from Grasp Press, Clavics and the Collected Prynne (for Oval Windows) are both generally available.