I need to start this with a number of caveats. Neil Pattison has made a number of valuable contributions to this blog and I think we’ve agreed to disagree on a number of points. I came across ‘Preferences’ (one of those small Barque productions) before I made the connection between the ‘Neil’ who was telling me that academic language is okay really and that I should read Wordsworth and the poet. The Barque blurb caught my eye because it contained an excerpt that seemed both intriguing and quite startling.
The second caveat concerns difficulty. I’m spending a lot of time thinking and reading about difficulty in the arts and think I can tell the difference between ‘valid’ difficulty and wilful obscurity. On opening ‘Preferences’ I realised that this was difficult stuff, what I didn’t foresee was how much the poems would get under my skin.
I’m compiling a scale of difficulty in contemporary poetry, at the top comes Jeremy Prynne closely followed by Dan Beachy-Quick followed by Neil Pattison who is a long way in front of both Keston Sutherland and Geoffrey Hill. The other recent addition is Simon Jarvis who is very difficult but in a completely different (and original) way. Needless to say, all of these perpetrate valid difficulties (I tend to follow George Steiner on this) unlike some of our trendier charlatans who aren’t really worth the effort.
So, I made the mistake of trying to read Pattison at the same time as Jarvis and Matthias. I thought this would be like alternating between Prynne and Sutherland which I found to be fairly straightforward. These three demand a different kind of attention and I have found the need to concentrate on each at a time.
Now we come to the name dropping problem. There are five poems in ‘Preferences’ and in the second (‘Spoils’) reference is made to Stephen Malkmus. As far as I am aware, this can only refer to the lead guitarist of an American band called Pavement who put out three albums in the nineties. I know this because I was a bit of a fan at the time and even attended a gig to promote the third album. I was a fan because the lyrics were reasonably esoteric and the music was quite unlike the rest of what was around. So, I’m familiar with Malkmus but I still don’t understand what ‘Stephen Malkmus / skates in the traffic’ is doing in the second part of ‘Spoils’ although my research thus far has failed to find skating in the traffic as a line/image in the second Pavement album (my children, I discover, have stolen the other two).
The other name to be dropped is ‘Gyorgy’ as in ‘Gyorgy, / bow the steel’ which occurs in ‘How do we look’ and I’m taking this to be a reference to Ligeti because he’s the only musician I know of with this forename. Again, I’m a fan of Ligeti and know a lot about his life and work but I still don’t have a clue as to what he’s doing in this poem.
On a first read through ‘Preference’ looks like Prynne and sounds like Prynne. There’s the same oblique phrasing, the surprising word choice and the refusal to make it in any way ‘easy’ for the reader. On subsequent readings it becomes clear that there’s a lot more going on and the Prynne influence seems to lose its prominence. Some of the phrasing, for example, seems to echo Hill when he’s making a point and some of the terse statements (and the way these are used) are fairly unique.
The first piece, ‘Curve, Indifference’, consists of eight prose paragraphs – here’s the sixth:
“The file is of clement as its frontier shaded. Reasonably dry make rising grey interrupt is then tamer and again vocational, attempts being these armed in crease of clemency, skinned to the belt’s noose. Strung calypso post, assurance baked orange. His teeth.”
This provides us devotees of difficulty with a wide range of avenues to follow. How can a file be clement (unless the file is a queue rather than a dossier)? Should there really be a gap between ‘in’ and ‘crease’? What should we do with the ambiguity in ‘Strung calypso post’? Whose teeth and why?
This kind of stuff has kept me busy for the last few weeks and the process is just as involving (and less baffling) as making sense of Prynne. To be fair, this is the most obdurate of the paragraphs in ‘Curve, Indifference’ but the rest in’t that much more straightforward.
I’d like to finish this with an example from ‘Spoils’ which I think demonstrates both the eccentricity and the quality of Pattison’s work: ‘Inane flecks in the jargon. Permeated, / operational text regalia / maunders through the scart. Bright redundancy / blocs commit the route, touting bricolage / to the commonable haul of auction.”
Flecks in the jargon, text regalia, maundering, bricolage that’s touted, wonderful.
‘Preferences’ is available from Barque’s website.