‘The Unconditional’ should come with a number of warnings. Barque should tell prospective purchasers that the experience of reading this poem will leave them fundamentally disconcerted and that the effort of sustaining concentration will probably prevent all but the most determined getting to the last page. There should also be a separate warning for those with a tendency to mania which states that this will only feed the hunger for distraction.
I’ve had five attempts at ‘The Unconditional’ to date and have never got past page 40 (did I mention that it’s very, very long?), the reason for this is that on each occasion I become scared that I’ve missed something and have returned eagerly to the beginning. On about attempt three I decided that I shouldn’t get bogged down in the use of brackets because that may become apparent further into the poem. I then re-read all of the critical responses to the poem and found (again) that these didn’t really match the inherent weirdness of what I was reading. I also downloaded ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ from the now defunct aaaarg site and skimmed though a few pages.
Others have waxed at length on the theoretical and technical aspects of the work so I won’t do that. I want instead to concentrate on the use of language and on the use of rhyme. ‘The Unconditional’ is a song in that it uses regular metre and rhyme to say complex and difficult things. 9 times out of 10 this works and it works reasonably well although I’m not at all sure why the rhyming lines stop and start. The use of language is reasonably straightforward, there are characters and things happen- “as =x first climbed the stairs and then climbed down / backwards from Eden with no smile or frown / breaking the clench of composited teeth / incompetent to choose help or relief…” as can be seen, events move slowly but in interesting ways. With regard to big words, there’s currently one word per page that I’m having to look up which isn’t to great a hardship but it does disrupt the flow.
Further distraction came along with the arrival of ‘Prosody as cognition’ on my hard drive which turns out to be a spirited defence of the central place of prosody in the face of many attempts to pronounce it redundant. The poem ends with a note which starts “This poem is metrical” and then goes on to give an indication of how the main protagonist’s name (=x) may be pronounced. Re-reading the first bit of ‘Philosophic Song’ I came across this-
“It might mean, not that philosophy gets fitted into a song – where all the thinking is done by philosophy It might mean, not that philosophy gets fitted into a song – where all the thinking is done by philosophy and only the handiwork by verse – but that the song itself, as song, is philosophic. It might mean that a different kind of thinking happens in verse – that instead of being a sort of thoughtless ornament or reliquary for thinking, verse is itself a kind of cognition, with its own resistances and difficulties…… it would be philosophic song precisely in so far as driven – by the felt need to give utterance to non-replicable singular experiences in the collectively and historically cognitive form of verse – to obstruct, displace or otherwise change the syntax and the lexicons currently available for the articulation of such experience”.
I quote this at length because I think it sets out the rationale for ‘The Unconditional’ as philosophic song and because it makes some key points, I particularly like the “felt need to give utterance to non-replicable singular experiences” because I think it encapsulates what poetry is about. I’m not sure that ‘The Unconditional” succeeds in its ambition but I shall start it again with a renewed interest and a determination to get past page 40. Did I mention that it’s 239 pages long?