Poetry as History

The title is a deliberate inversion of the Geoffrey Hill poem published in ‘King Log’ in 1968. In that collection there is a sequence entitled ‘Funeral Music’ and at the back of the collection Hill has placed a short ‘essay’ on the sequence and the Wars of the Roses. There’s also a similar note at the end of ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy which gives a clear account of Peguy’s life and death.

I’ll get on to what Hill says shortly but the purpose of this is to consider the doing of history as a function of poetry. There are two or three ways to think about this:

  • poems that are about or are set in the historical past;
  • poems that comment on or are about contemporary public rather than personal issues which then serve as part of the historical ‘record’;
  • poems that consciously bear witness and/or memorialise those who have died.

About now I need to declare an interest, in that I am keen on history and enjoy reading serious history which is written by grown up historians. In the UK at the moment we have a number of exceptionally gifted historians who are a joy to read and this is what I do when I’m not reading poetry. I say this to make it clear that I have a bias but I hope what follows will that many of our more accomplished poets do the historical past in a way that adds to the record rather than simply embellish it.

The brilliant David Jones wrote about his personal past in the Battle of the Somme in ‘In Parenthesis’ and provided accounts of different periods in ‘The Anathemata’. In his preface to ‘The Anathemata’, Jones provides a succinct reading of the relationship between poetry and history:

I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product.

I think this is entirely sensible in that language itself is caught up and mired in the clutter and detritus of the past and it can be argued that this is why language can never be neutral and is always compromised. With this in mind, I’m going to look at how modernist poets have explored their relationship with the past.

Charles Olson and ‘Maximus’

Olson’s relationship with the past works on several levels. To start with ‘Maximus’ has the town of Glocester at its centre and Olson tells the story of the town from when it was first settled to the second half of the twentieth century. In order to tell this story, Olson makes extensive use of archival records and some of these are reproduced verbatim. He also interweaves myth and mythical figures into the sequence whilst having running argument about the best way to do history, taking the side of Herodotus instead of the less fanciful Thucydides. Olson was greatly influenced by A N Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ which (amongst many other things) questions our current thinking about the relationship between the present and the past, an interrogation undertaken with great skill in ‘Maximus’.

I want to give two examples, the first is the second half of ‘Letter 23’:

What we have here - and literally in my own front yard, as I said to Merk,
asking what delving, into "fisherman's field" recent historians......
not telling him it was a poem I was interested in, aware I'd scare him
off, muthologos has lost much ground since Pindar

The oldish man sd: "Poesy
steals away men's judgement
by her muthoi"(taking this crack
as Homer's sweet-versing)

"and a blind heart
is most men's portions." Plato

allowed this divisive
thought to stand, agreeing

that muthos
is false. Logos
isn't - was facts. Thus
Thucydides.

I would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking
for oneself for the evidence of
what is said: Altham says
Winslow
Was at Cape Ann in April,
1624

What we have in these fields in these scraps among these fishermen,
and the Plymouth men, is more than the fight of one colony with
another, it is the whole engagement against (1) mercantilism
(cf. the Westcountrymen and Sir Edward Coke against the crown,
in Commons, these same years - against Gorges); and (2) against
nascent capitalism except as it says the individual adventurer
and the worker on share - against all sliding statism, ownership
getting in to, the community as, Chamber of Commerce, or theocracy;
or City Manager

I think this shows how focused Olson was on ‘doing’ what we think of as the historical path in a new and challenging way. I am of the view that ‘Maximus’ is one of the towering acheivements of the twentieth century for all kinds of reasons but mostly because it manages to do justice to enormously complex subjects in a deceptively straightforward manner so that the reader does not appreciate at the time just how much is going on. Here we’ve got the suitablity/reliability of poetry as a means of doing history, the reasons why the doing of history might have taken a particular course and Olson’s preference for ‘the evidence of / what is said” before a detailed example of how this might be applied to Gloucester together with the working out of one aspect of the Whitehead thesis.

Before we get on to the next Olson example, it may be worthwhile to consider what poets hope to achieve by giving voice to their relationship with the past. Is the making of such a poem akin to the creation of a monument? Is it a signature or a trace amongst many of the same thing? Are we meant to be educated or informed, is there a didactic purpose behind the new configuration of the past? Or might it simply be the need to tell a story and to have that story be heard as story? I think what I’m trying to identify is what poetry adds to the past and now I’ll have a look at the role of the archive in Maximus. This is from one of the later poems in the sequence from July 1968:

Only
one such possible person so named at sd date wld
be her son Henry's mother - and therefore
Margaret Cannock herself. John Josselyn's
Sister-in law & hostess Black Point 1671
[just before the Indian attack, 1676, after which
no further record* of Henry, or of Margaret his
wife until

*not true. He died, Pemaquid, 1683.

this strange message out either
Upper Cheery or of Gee Avenue itself, that

The references to and quotes from the local archive recur throughout the sequence which was written over twenty years and indicates that Olson was prepared to demonstrate and put into practice his view about how history should be done. As someone who has spent many happy hours with the archive, I am fascinated by Olson’s use/appropriation of primary sources and his confidence in spelling out his practice throughout Maximus.

I’m sure that many people would argue that Olson was an anachronism and that his archival verse hasn’t actually led anywhere. This may be so but there are other important poets who have done the past as a way of ‘informing’ the present.

John Matthias

I could write for a very long time about Matthias because he is one of the five most accomplished poets currently at work with the English language. He does several things very, very well but I ammost attracted to his work that focuses on aspects of the past because he manages to modify and intensify our historical consciousness. I’ll try and explain this a bit further- we all have some notion of various periods in the past and for the English terms like ‘Elizabethan’ or ‘Enlightenment’ conjure up a specific group of images and thoughts about what things might have been like during the time that those phrases refer to.

I’ve written before about ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestos’, ‘Kedging in Time’ and the ‘Trigons’ sequence but now I’d like to use them try and demonstrate the ways in which my sense of certain terms have gained greater depth. I like to think of ‘Laundry Lists’ as an extended riff on the sadness of the list throughout history. This is the third poem in the sequence;

We have the record of the stranger's deeds, his wily ways,
His journey home when washed and dressed and
celebrated at the court of Alcinous. We have the history of
Abram's offspring after Babel. But Shem and Ham and Japheth,
Gomer, Jadai, Gavan, Tuval, Meshech, Tiras, Riphath,
Togarmah and many others on the J & P lists might as well be
Coat and tie and shirt and trousers on the one Nausicaa left at home
That floats up on a foreign shore right now.
Of Nausicaa little else is known (though more has been
surmised.) She went on with her wash.
Zeus and Yahweh went on to become Suprematists
(The empty squares of cities not, as Kasimir Malevich
Was to say, mere empty squares.)

Here we have Homer, the Old Testament and post revolutionary Russia lightly woven together so have cause to think again about these three reference points. The poem does many things but in particular but it takes a number of these points and ‘re-works’ them in surprising ways to the point where my way of thinking about them has changed which is odd because my thoughts about and notions of the past are fairly fixed.

The same effect is achieved with ‘Kedging’ which is presented as a tribute to Matthias’ mother-in-law but is also a very astute take on what could be called our national consciousness in the early part of the last century. Briefly the terms that I’ve had to modify are ‘Casement’, ‘Scapa Flow’, ‘music hall’ ‘Hitchcock’ and ‘John Buchan’ as well as ‘code breaking’ (which is one of the most durable myths that we like to tell ourselves.) All of these are presented with great skill and intelligence with a refreshingly different scrutiny. It’s also a poem that seems to be burying itself deeper into my head.

‘Trigons’ is a longer and perhaps more ambitious sequence about cognition and perception but featuring specific times and places during the last century, Corfu in the late thirties and during WWII, London during the Blitz, Berlin, Moscow, Paris in 68, California all of which offer us a mostly musical / literary take on the century but also use aspects of each location to say something deeper about place and the passing of time.

Incidentally, here’s a chapter from the ‘Salt Companion to John Matthias’ which is a very perceptive analysis of the role of music in the work. It’s good to see that Matthias is beginning to get the attention that his work deserves.

Geoffrey Hill

Hill does history oddly, the most obvious candidates for poems as history would be ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’. The first of these is written in the voice of Offa and is partly set in early medieval Mercia but also flits in and out of the present. It is brilliant, one of the most important poems since 1945 but I’m not entirely sure that Hill is doing history here, it seems more likely that he’s doing key aspects of the nation and the inherently violent structuring of power.

‘Charles Peguy’ is described as “my homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat'” and this is much more directly historical but only in the sense of providing context. This is the opening of the ninth poem in the sequence:

There is an ancient landscape of green branches-
true temperament de droite, you have your wish-
crosshatching twigs and light, goldfinches
among the peppery lilac, the small fish

pencilled into the stream. Ah, such a land
the Ile de France once was. Virelai and horn
wind through the meadows, the dawn masses sound
fresh triumphs for our Saviour crowned with scorn.

Hill would argue that he isn’t attempting to do history but he is still a historical poet by which I think I mean that particular elements of the past are almost soaked into all of the poetry. Hill’s academic expertise lies in 16th and 17th century England and there are recurring personalities and events referred to in almost every publication- the first and second world wars, the fate of the Jews during WWII, religious martyrs (especially Robert Southwell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). There is a didactic feel to some of this but the history that Hill does is about providing context to what he has to say rather than adjusting our view of the past. ‘The Triumph of Love’ which is as brilliant as the Offa sequence is about our moral and spiritual recovery after the two world wars (hence the title) but it is much more about the nature of our moral landscape than about those terrible events.

I’m not sure that I’ve got very far with this other than to demonstrate the nature of some of the attachments that poets have to the “mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product”. In the near future I’ll give some thought to the role of poet as a maker of the historical record with specific reference to Jones, Spenser, Milton and Marvell.

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