Poetry and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA’:

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.


25 responses to “Poetry and the profound

  1. John, it seems to me that there are *many many* examples of profundity in contemporary poetry, if one accepts your definitions, which vary in wording from
    “somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world.”
    to what
    “describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound”
    “the magical descriptions of the realities of life”.

    I don’t think they’re rare at all. We live in a wonderful age for poetry.

    Beautiful post.

    • John,

      Perhaps I didn’t give enough emphasis to the personal (and probably wrong) definition of profundity. I can’t help having this definition and I don’t know where it came from but the fact remains that (in my subjective head) very few lines / phrases meet this criteria. I also accept that all three examples speak to me personally and address my concerns and experiences.
      I do know that we are very privileged to live in this abundance of wonderful work- yours included.

      • As you will see from my comments below, I think the most important word here is “personal”. I think profundity is a readerly response thing. I don’t think a poet can try to be profound. All a poet can do is try to be real (using every damn technique at her disposal). To quote O’Hara, “I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives. But how then can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, …”

        I give an example of a profound line to Kayt. Do you find it profound? I dunno (you can tell me if you wish. I know by it’s original context that the author had no pretensions to profundity. It just “got me.” I think there are lots and lots of lines like that. To quote one last time in this comment, in the Jack Collon/Lyn Hejinian collaboration “The Abecedarian Dreams of the Number Six”, “even drivel’s a lifeline …”

        A lifeline. I don’t know what else profundity might be.

  2. Oh, and something I just this minute read, by Kate Zambreno: “I’m not sure I’m interested in the idea of the “truth” of a subject, the “heart” of it all, or even questions of “reality” or authenticity. In prose, in the messy-essays I’m drawn to and in the baggy-monstered novels, I’m drawn to works that are defined by their intensity. I’m drawn by works that trigger a discomfort, or joy, or even boredom, if it’s intense. In works that are faked, theatrical, cruel. So I’m less interested in The New Sincerity but more The New Psychotic, or The New Fraudulent, or The New Histrionic.”

    Which is just to say, as Aristotle did, there are many ways to say being.

    • I agree with every single word for this except I think the New Wrong covers all the angles. I also think we need to take note of sincerity and honesty because they have a long pedigree and might also have something to tell us.

      • There’s a years-long long discussion in the US re: sincerity. Which is quite appropriate, I think, in a country which hasn’t been honest or sincere for one moment during its entire history. The main question, as I would pose it: is there any way to really be insincere, or dishonest? I would argue no, using Olson, “Maximus to Gloucester, 2” (out of context, admittedly) to make my case, “people. don’t change. They only stand more. revealed. I, likewise.” Everything we do as artists reveals us. There’s no place, no way, to hide. I believe that with all my soul. So I tend to consider sincerity and honesty just one more technical way to ge the work done.

  3. I like your profundity criteria. For me, I would define as profound something that gets into words something that I feel that is hard to articulate, something that you read that vivifies (? is that a word?) your interior self and echoes it out in-the-world. Something that clutches at you as you read it and snags in your mind and heart. But I am a feeling-reader rather than a thinking one. The most profound part of the last extract, for me, is the And no one/ to tell it to/ but you (but I like the bit about the glory of celebrating the process of earth and man too). But I guess that is because those lines speak to me about the special place shared experiences hold for, especially when I am feeling what I would describe as ‘acutely lonely’.

    Anyway, enough rambling. I liked this post; I feel like this is a space I can comment in as these sorts of ideas feel like they need less absolute knowledge or familiarity with the material. I’ll try to be brave and comment (where I think I have something to say) in those places too.

    • Thank you, as ever, for your contribution, I’ll need to give more thought to your definition but your example (I think) is also about lines that ‘speak’ to us personally and carry some personal truth rather than being profound or deep.
      As you know, I hope this blog isn’t deterring comments by some notion of absolute knowledge or by lack of familiarity but I’ll bear this in mind for both here and arduity.

    • Kayt, you don’t ramble at all. You cut straight to what I think is the point. The point is as Emily Dickinson put it: “If . . . it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry,” she wrote to a friend in 1870. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

      Which means that it’s the reader who decides what’s profound, not the poet. All the poet can do is be real, even if that means being unreal, lying thru her teeth, telling a joke, being silly, whatever it takes.

      I read a line yesterday that struck me as quite profound: “What size shoe do you think Walter Benjamin wore?” Why? Because it turned this famed thinker into a human being, just a mortal hunk of meat with feet of an entirely specific size. Argh. Shivers.

      I think Olson’s lines that spoke to you are profound, too. Why. Because they touch you when you’re “acutely lonely”. (Which I hope is seldom, by the way)

  4. Another quote related to this topic I randomly tripped over last night. It’s from Eugene Minkowski’s *Lived Time*, a phenomenological work from the 1930s. I have an English translation from 1970, and for some reason it said, in the manner of Alice’s little bottle, “Read Me” last night. He’s talking about translation, which I think is irrelevant here (or rather, I think that most questions relating to reading or writing poetry could be considered questions of translation):

    “Faced with the considerable differences between thought itself and its expression, and finding that these differences tend to be insurmountable, we often see the whole question concerning their relation decided by means of a rigid opposition of the terms “profound” and “superficial.” But life often makes it its business to enlighten us on this point. We learn to understand that the so-called superficial can have its own depth, while, on the other hand, the profound, pushed too far, risks becoming totally superficial.”

    The reason this quote seems relevant to me is that it suggests (to me, at least) that since it’s life that enlightens us, profundity is a matter of readerly response more than anything else. To put it at its most extreme, perhaps Poets are never profound, it’s their readers who are. I will address this more when I respond to the brilliant “cut straight to the chase” Kayt, above.

    • I’ve really enjoyed this post and all the discussion, if arriving late at the party. It’s led to a few thoughts I’d add. Firstly I’m wondering if my profound changes — yes as I grow, but even something I really love I feel different about from time to time and may start to become a bit of a cliche to myself if I use it as a path too much, maybe? I’m not certain, but I feel it’s so.
      And that and Minkowski above made me want to point out its not just about expression of thought, for me anyway, but expression of a thought/feeling (emotional and physical and maybe of other aspects too, connection to the world though have read more Heidegger than Rorty) — and I see Kayt has mentioned how important feeling is for the reader, so I don’t want to seem to be trying to steal her thunder. And that these things change for me is maybe why the profound may change, feelings especially and where I am in the world, but thoughts too. A non poetic example has come to mind, how different a glass of water may seem to someone depending how how much they need it? Maybe that’s a bit trite, sorry. I find it very important for the writing aspect as well as the reading side.
      And it’s led me to a thought I had had in other ways about Four Quartets – it seems to me he makes a journey to a thought/feeling but does so mainly on a thought path, which is part of what makes me wonder about it. But I should really read it more to find out if I still feel that way.

      • and reading this 10 minutes later it seems totally simplistic, much implied by what others have said. But the addition of talkng about feeling remains for me…as not just Kayt recognised.

      • Tony,
        I’m grateful for your contribution which isn’t at all simplistic and you’re absolutely right to emphasise the ‘feeling’ element in the profound.

      • Thanks John. It all caused me to reread Burnt Norton. I am not so sure about what I said about getting there on a thought path, i don’t feel it as clearly as I did when I first thought that. But it did remind me of how I get the impression, for all his profundity, depth, he seems to speak from a high place, perhaps the captain’s tower yes. Which also made me think of Jung who said if we are depressed we are too high up in our minds, a feeling and a thought I can get to go with such heights (I do not mean to imply he was depressed….just associations for me). Towards the end of that section he speaks of being and un-being which put a new slant for me on self/unself part you glossed over above from Hill.

  5. i don’t think four quartets is ‘mumbo-jumbo’

    • Neither did I until I read Helen Gardiner’s ‘The Making of the Four Quartets’ which left me in no doubt whatsoever. I believe that I can do a line by line demonstration of this sad fact which might be a variation on Hill’s similar analysis.

  6. Does it matter if it is? (The four quartets) – I mean, if profundity is personal, then does the intent of the poet matter in your experience of the work? I worry a bit about the equation of profundity with truth. I don’t know if we can ever say true things (I have a philosophical issue with ‘truth’).

    • I think it would matter less if Eliot wasn’t so influential (as poet and critic), it isn’t so much that it’s mumbo jumbo but rather the dishonesty behind its creation, the attempt to dress up something that is fundamentally empty in the clothes of the profound. How about ‘accurate’ or Rorty’s notion of useful instead of true?

    • Kayt, all literary critics should quit their jobs and leave the work in your hands. You keep hitting nails on the head, IMHO. Eliot could have been as full of BS as anything and still have managed to be profound – given that the only way to know if he’s profound is as you say – reader response. Second, I think you are utterly right about the equation of profundity and truth. There are many philosophical problems with “truth”. I do think that useful is a more useful word than true.

      • I really ought to do my dislike of the Quartets in greater depth (which is my readerly response), there’s also a tiny bit of Kazoo Dreamboats that appears to make a similar point. As I hope you know, I don’t normally refer to stuff that I don’t like but the personal dishonesty/charlatanry therein does make me quite cross.
        I’m all in favour of ‘useful’ because ‘truth’ is a bit wooly/suspect but it does (at least) prompt debate- and it was the first adjective that came to mind when thinking again about the wonderful Hill line.

  7. nathaniel drake carlson

    From the beginning of Tom Dilworth’s piece on David Jones’s In Parenthesis (found here: http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=13399):

    I asked David Jones, ‘What do you think of Yeats?’
    ‘Not much,’ he replied.
    ‘What don’t you like about him?’
    ‘Hard to say, exactly, but there’s something missing.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘Oh, the Plato-Aristotle thing.’

    As for myself, I’m working on Claudel, Elytis and St.-John Perse at the moment, all of whom seem thoroughly profound to me.

    • Excellent, will now read the link.

      Giving this further thought, I’m beginning to make a case for odd profundity in some of Neil Pattison’s work but I’ll probably need to write this out to know what I mean.

  8. Dad, (I would say John, but too many Johns!)I will confess to not having read Rorty, but useful seems more sensible than true. And I also appreciate what you say about the creepily dishonest feeling. I got the same feeling when you told me the Chronicles of Narnia were Christian allegory; it somehow diminished them in my six year old heart.

    • Guilty as charged, probably should have left you to come to that conclusion. Rorty is of the view that there is no suck thing as an omniscient truth (at all) and that it would be much better if we concentrated instead on interesting and useful ways of saying and describing things. I’m not terribly keen on interesting because it’s loaded but ‘useful’ is good. Positivists get really really cross about this but that’s probably for another time.

      • It’s OK, it was relatively non-traumatic, and just meant that I went off to look for other, better things that weren’t trying to preach. Useful might as slippery as interesting…. but truth sucks.

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