Pattern Poems. Why?

This seems to have been following me around almost as much as the kenosis question. I think it started with Lachlan Mackinnon’s negative and bad tempered review of ‘Clavics’ and his reference to George Herbert’s ‘The Altar’. Then ‘Dionysus Crucified’ arrived which really does add a new dimension to this pattern business. I then buy The Herbert collection edited by Helen Wilcox and read her gloss on ‘H. Baptisme II’ and the fog began to lift. What follows is a number of examples coupled with questions that I don’t know the answer to.

The broad thrust of this enquiry is ‘why bother’? That is, why bother constructing a poem as an image of something when the words should be doing this job? The second part of this is doesn’t this kind of self-constraint lead to an inevitable decrease in quality? To be fair, I’ve given some consideration for the reverse (ish) process of painters who incorporate lines of verse into their work, both Kiefer and Twombly do this to good effect although with utterly different intent. So, I can see that the use of text can enhance visual images but I’m more than a little mystified by this patterning business in poems.

Then we come to the concrete poem and how this ‘relates’ to the pattern poem. I don’t want to dwell on this too much but in my head with concrete poems the image usually takes precedence over the text. However, the Wikipedia article on the gifted Iain Hamilton Finlay provides this definition: “poetry in which the layout and typography of the words contributes to its overall effect”. This could well apply to both and most sources cite Herbert as the earliest English ‘model’.

There’s also the nature of the image and how it might be ‘read’. Herbert’s ‘Altar’ is a poem in the shape of an altar, his Easter Wings are two stanzas in the shape of wings. The pattern of lines in ‘H Baptisme II’ is more abstract and therefore more open to interpretation. Here’s the first stanza-

                      Since, Lord, to thee
A narrow way and little gate
Is all passage, on my infancie
Thou didst lay hold, and antedate
My faith in me.

Wilcox quotes two critics who provide different readings as to shape, the first reads left to right and suggests a narrow entrance followed by expansion whereas the other reads to to bottom and suggests the ‘pattern of grace’ from small child to the sinfulness of adulthood and then the ‘renewed grace and humility of childhood in spirit’ Of course it also looks like an arrowhead and a quiver.

In her notes on sources to ‘The Altar’ Wilcox states that pattern poems originated in the Middle East and are also found in Classical poetry, she also points out that Puttenham refers to poems as ‘ocular representation’ in his influential ‘Arte of English Poesie’.

We now leap five hundred years and arrive at the oddness that is ‘Clavics’. There are several good things that can be said about the latest Hill sequence, the first being that it is much better in every way than ‘Oraclau’ which is a major relief for those of us who fretted that he might have completely lost the plot. The second is that it is mostly ‘about’ the 17th century and music, things that Hill does very well. The third good thing is that it has quite an overt mystical tinge.

There are thirty two poems in the ‘Clavics’ sequence and they all follow the same pattern. The second part of this pattern is a straight copy of Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ stanzas. In case there might be any dispute about this the ‘wings’ part of first poem quotes Herbert in the first two lines:

Intensive prayer is intensive care
Herbert says. I take it stress marks
Convey less care than flair
Shewing the works
As here
But if
Distressed attire
Be mere affect of clef
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.

I don’t want to go into the meaning of this and I’m trying to ignore the bad jokes. Herbert fans may wish to point out that the stanzas were originally printed on their sides so that they look like wing but Hill knows that they were set out as above in the manuscript. It’s really important to recognise that Hill knows more than anyone else on the planet about English culture in the first half of the seventeenth century – most people seem to focus on his reputation for difficulty and overlook the fact that he is a brilliant critic, which is a pity.

So, this is an undiluted copy of ‘Easter Wings’ but the longer first part doesn’t follow either ‘The Altar’ or any of the other Herbert pattern poems which leaves me with a problem because its either a pattern by someone else that I’m not aware of or it’s of Hill’s own devising and is somehow a further expression of the ‘Clavics’ theme(s). The other more complex question is why would you want to make 32 poems that all have the same shape? If poets use patterns to in some way enhance what the words say, does this mean that all of these poems are saying more or less the same thing? As the answer to this is clearly ‘no’ then what (exactly) might Hill be hoping to achieve?

The first hypothesis is a kind of follow on from ‘Oraclau’, Geoffrey Hill has now reached the stage in his career (and perhaps in his life) where he is no longer concerned about the views of others and now does things because he wants to and because he can. The second is that he’s showing off that he can write 32 decent poems under this sort of constraint. The third is that he’s buying into the underlying Christian imagery deployed by Herbert.

Consider this:

As good epitaphs go Will Lawes is slain
Permit me, sire, is slain by such whose wills 
Be laws. Again
Swift and neat hand
Notate the viols
Flexures of styles
Extravagant command
Purposeful frills
What comes of the upthrust and downthrust pen
These fantasies constrained by their own strings
Narcissus then
Crowns fantasy
Feasts what feasts brings
Consort like winter sky
Drawn from the wings.
Jolt into the epilogue by your leave
As into a mixed skirmish, a rout,
Punched semibreve
Like fatal bullet through the fine slashed coat.

I’ve turned this on its side, I’ve imagined two stanzas with the break at ‘pen’, I’ve utilised my very limited knowledge of musical notation, I’ve tried to ‘see’ a type of door key, I’ve struggled with the sequence’s epigraphs in English, Middle English and Latin but none of these offer me a way into the rationale for this kind of obsessive patterning. I’d really like there to be a rationale to do with music because this would fit with the title (as relating to musical keys) and to the reappearance of the Lawes brothers. The above, which is the third part of poem 3, holds out some hope with ‘punched semibreve’ and ‘Notate the viols / flexures of styles’ but neither of these lead in any obvious way to the singular shape that the words make.

It isn’t that there aren’t further veiled hints, this is from poem 12:

                Leave as coda
Some form of code
Like sonnets of Spanish

This is again infuriating in that it appears to say something crucial when in fact it’s not saying very much at all. At this point I am ready to give up because the effort is proving to be greater than the expected reward.

We now come to Simon Jarvis and several different patterns. Lets start with the obvious, metrical regularity over a number of pages with no typographical variations produces a very regular pattern. Most of ‘The Unconditional’ can be thought of as a very long regular pattern. This pattern of itself says ‘poem’ as do Prynne’s quatrains in the ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’. In both cases the pattern on the page conforms closely to what people think poetry should look like. It is only when the words are read that this vision of conformity is undermined. In Jarvis’ case the same can be said for the ‘poemness’ of ‘Erlkonig’ and ‘Dinner’ in that the pattern is the pattern of poetry. e now come to the patterning in ‘F subscript zero’ some of which I’m tempted to describe as mannered:

                                        That's how you paint me
Left Summa of the war effort
Which from within
{I just decline
{ To break
{I just fail
Or to unmake
Or smash
More than a line
Could ever slake
Thirst not thirst for the Absolute by now as though known or imaginable only under the covering cherub of radical evil
| thirst for a drink

Without dwelling on the meaning, can there said to be a pattern in this? If there is I think we need to ask what it is hoping to achieve (if anything). I also need to make an irrational bias confession. When I was fifteen I had a friend who would write poems that had unfinished brackets strewn amongst them. When asked, he explained that this was because his life was like an open bracket. We thought this was really deep and it took me about three months to realise that it wasn’t. So, I’m starting with the hackles of suspicion already raised. It will also be noted that these are not ordinary brackets, the only time I’ve had cause to use these is when writing CSS style sheets but I very much doubt that a point is being made about page formatting. I’ve had a look at how this things are used when doing big sums and (as expected) I don’t understand the explanation and I fully accept that this is my problem rather than his. As far as I am able to ascertain (after three minutes of research) a single bracket by itself doesn’t signify anything.

I am assuming that ‘Summa’ and ‘Absolute’ point to an overt philosophical/theological context but I’m still having to guess where there’s this wide gap running down the middle part of this extract. I do however feel that we’re at the more abstract (as in ‘H Baptisme II’) end of the spectrum.

‘Dionysus Crucified’ does pattern in a number of extreme ways. Neither WordPress nor I have sufficient flexibility / skill to reproduce the patterns with any degree of accuracy but I will try and describe what might be going on. The first important fact is that these pages are very very big which allows for the extraordinary line length but also for the patterns to be displayed as intended.

One one page there is an outline of a cross with a number of letters and words arranged around these. There isn’t any immediately visual pattern to the words and they don’t ‘follow’ or mimic the shape of the cross.Some of the text in the first third of the page doesn’t follow a ‘normal’ left to right reading, there is this:


This isn’t exact but it is reasonably close. On each of these lines there are other words and letters and parts of words so that we’re not sure what it is we’re supposed to be reading and in what order. Once we get below the arms of the cross this is no longer a problem and a left to right reading becomes (sort of) feasible.

The last page is entitled ‘CANTICLE’ and has a shape in that the way that the lines are arranged make a discernible shape. I’ve spent the last ten minutes looking at this shape and have only managed to come up with either flying saucer or luxury yacht. Neither of these is likely to be in any way accurate in that we’re very much in God / prayer / hymn territory and a left to right reading doesn’t work.

In conclusion I think I’m beginning to see the sense of using shape or pattern to enhance or underline different aspects of meaning or intent. I think ‘Holy Baptisme II’ functions more effectively than the better known ‘Altar’ and ‘Easter Wings’ because there’s less evidence of self-constraint detracting from the poem. I’m going to become much more familiar with ‘Clavics’ if I’m going to discover Hill’s rationale and life may be just too short. Simon Jarvis continues to set me a whole set of different challenges but I am interested (and impressed) enough to rise to the bait. This may not be A Good Thing.

Dionysus Crucified is still available from Grasp Press for only 11 quid. There is no excuse. Clavics and the Collected Herbert tome are both available on Amazon.


6 responses to “Pattern Poems. Why?

  1. One way carefully plotted line-lengths work is by cutting across rhythm and syntax. This benefits from well-elaborated rhythm and syntax in the words, and these examples are not so strong in those departments. (Syntax is fragmented but doesn’t have much clear subordination or closure.)

    However, I do think Hill means us to count syllables in the Clavics examples. I think he wrote a poem with patterned line-lengths (like many — say Spenser’s Epithalamion), then printed each line of a given length at a given indentation. The fours go here, the sixes there, and the tens at the left. (I think the fives and nines are meant to be heard like “acephalic” versions of the sixes and tens.)

  2. Hmm, I was trying to draw a distinction and failed. I’m saying that in the Clavics example, Hill may seem to be making a visual pattern by playing with graphical line-lengths — but in my opinion this is a side effect of playing with syllabic lengths, as Spenser etc. played with lengths in feet. And if we’re going to ask why poets should do that….

    • Since writing this I’ve been re reading Clavics and am more impressed than I was, Hill achieves the pattern on occasion by altering word spacing and I’m now trying to get my brain around what the big image is meant to represent or stand for, there appears to be a few clues in the text.
      In terms of text and image, both Ted Hughes and Paul Muldoon have placed photographs alongside poems- Muldoon is probably more successful.

  3. nathaniel drake carlson

    You should really have a look at Thomas Dilworth’s The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones, which is among the finest treatments on Jones available anywhere. He gets into extraordinary detail in making his case for Jones’ towering genius, especially as regards the elements of super refined pattern making precision, the structural qualities that guide the work. This is something I respond to mightily. Dilworth has specialized in Jones for years now but his treatment of this subject is second to none (and there’s a lot of tremendous work available!).

    • I’ve had a look for this and I can’t afford the only copy available for less than £100 but I might give it to myself for Xmas. Jones and pattern making is a line of thought that I am however going to spend the next week or so getting my brain around this. Incidentally, ‘towering’ is the most accurate adjective when it comes to all things Jones

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