(Incidentally, I’ve just written an intro to ‘Mercian Hymns’, any kind of feedback would be much appreciated.)
I’ll start with a request. Can poets please stop writing brilliant pieces of work with such frequency? It’s just that I ran out of reasonable/sensible ways to enthuse in best puppy dog fashion in early 2011 and I don’t think I can vary the superlatives any more.
I now need to do a longish letter-
Dear The Claudius App,
First of all, thank you for disturbing me and unsettling me over the last three issues. I’d almost given up on finding a platform that reflects what I think might be Quite Important in these tumultuous times. Thank you also for introducing me to new names and for the Emily Dorman thing which has sparked off a reasonably productive train of thought here.
Now, I’m guessing that I’m much older than you and I’m trying hard not to sound like some bad tempered baby boomer whose cross because the kids aren’t playing by the rules but it’s this site design/affectation gizmo thing that may well be considered cool and pointful in your neck of the woods but for this avid reader is just irritating. Having said that I do applaud the inclusion of audio files which are decently recorded and do what should be done.
So, great and groundbreaking venture (I’m particularly fond of the Manifesto conceit which I’ll write about shortly) but it would be helpful if I didn’t have to amend the url as
a simpler way of getting to the material that I want.
As for Weber the temptation is just to provide the link to his ‘An official word from me out of uniform’ and leave readers to simply read yet another blazing example of why this is a ‘wonderful age for poetry’ (to quote John Bloomberg-Rissman, Neil Pattison, Peter Brown and several others). Of course, I can’t resist having another go at the enthusiasm thing. On this occasion, however, I’m going to try a bit more structure:
Phrasing / Language use
I am a sucker for the neat turn of phrase and Weber provides these in abundance. In fact the initial read was breathtaking due to the density of neat turns and the fact that they had a point and weren’t just placed as a piece of flashy ornament. This is really unusual, many poets become overly impressed with a particular phrase or image and include it for the sake of its cleverness more than its’ relevance to the rest of the poem. I’ll give this as an example of how to do neat phrases properly:
An eight ball of blow and a contract
with the DA's office for Sofitel
voucher codes and next level cheats. In love with the pair
who wore grey Japanese
hakamas on the Mexican escalators. No, no
OK, but what? Chopper out of Vostok
to Progress Station, kite-skiing, golden visitor's book
for those who make it to the site to sign?
‘Sofitel voucher codes and next level cheats’ running on to ‘hakamas on the Mexican elevators’ does show a very rare skill in language and expression. What I think I like most is the way that each poem sets up a pace (rather than a rhythm) and maintains / sustains this throughout accommodating the most extraordinary images as it goes. The above example is only the most florid demonstration of this skill/craft which is on display throughout. With regard to these images, I have to ask what exactly is going on in a mind that can produce the first three lines quoted above- its depiction of the almost overly manic mindset is one that I am very familiar with- and it is done with such flair.
Taking risks with your work is always a good thing, especially when things don’t quite come off. With this kind of material it is really very easy to fall flat on your face. The annoying thing about Weber is that he takes risks and never falls off. Keston Sutherland falls off, Jeremy Prynne falls off, Geoffrey Hill falls off but Tomas Weber doesn’t which is especially galling for those of us who fall off all the time but also a kind of challenge to work out how this is achieved. My own hypothesis is that this is what I’m thinking of as structured risk whereby the run on in pace feels spontaneous and almost improvised but it’s actually thought through and planned and it’s this structuring that is most impressive because it also needs to hide itself. In a previous piece on Weber’s contribution to ‘Better than Language’, I referred to the ‘insane quality’ of his work but (having re-read) insanity has little to do with it- there’s a very sane and talented mind at work here.
I’m tempted to characterise this as ‘faux distant/cool’ in that an initial read through give the feel of analysis, of a skewed grab at objectivity. More attentive readings reveal that is is juxtaposed with a lyrical desperation that’s hinted at but never actually appears. The other facet that becomes clearer with reading is the anthemic quality- I keep hearing ‘Howl’ as I read. None of this may make sense but what is for certain is there is loads of thought provoking stuff going on here.
Theme / genre
Apart from Amerika in all its glory, theres a lot of astute observation about how we are coerced into ‘doing’ culture and how good we’re getting at lying to ourselves. I like to think that what’s going on is best epitomised by-
Some do compromise very nicely
emotional but daddy scrubs up like Jesus Christ so get on.
But, magnificent though this is, it doesn’t do any kind of justice to the quality and provocation of the sequence as a whole which needs to be thought of as running a single and coherent observation.
The above is another failed attempt to articulate how good/talented/important Weber’s work is and a further indication that the young talents (Weber was born in 1990) currently working in the UK provide the rest of us with the privilege and delight of reading them and smiling and being staggered and more than a little jealous and struck by how some of this stuff is breaking new ground for poetry above and beyond the tired old labels and judgements that my generation have made.
Yes, Weber is cool isn’t he, and so is Claudius. Thrilling to see Weber next to McSweeney, two such different contemporary miracles. But I just wanted to comment on the Mercian Hymns piece – I haven’t checked out the OED, but I’m pretty sure that, in Hill’s childhood, “flay” was quite often used hyperbolically in school idiom and manly adventure fiction to mean (specifically) belting, thence (more generally) bashing or duffing up.
Cf, from Desmond Coke’s The Bending of a Twig:
“Shoot, you young fool, shoot! Good Lord, man, shoot!”
The coach is no more Lycidas’ master. He is back at Cambridge. He is coaching, and a little idiot of a cox has got a bump and will not take it.
“Now! Now!” howls every one.
Hollins plods on, hurling awful threats at the unconscious cox. “My lord, I’ll flay you dead to-night, young Marsh. Great snakes, he’s overlapping yards! Oh now! Shoot! Now!” His hands are clenching and unclenching. A guileless day boy, coming in his path, is hurtled to the stony ground.
A story very much in the “Stalky & Co” mode, and of course Kipling himself is a fertile source for this kind of punitive behaviour and expression.
So I’ll meet ’im later on
At the place where ’e is gone—
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian1-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
I really am very grateful for your feedback and will amend accordingly with both possibilities, I do find doing this stuff in isolation to be quite difficult at times. Weber is a contemporary miracle, I’m trying not to read the McSweeney in case he’s as good and I’ll have to devise new superlatives…
Well thanks for the opportunity to embark on a Google-driven word-chase, it’s purely my own indulgence! nb – She not he, Joyelle McSweeney that is …
I’m still not reading her, ‘Offa’ page is now amended. I’ve quoted you directly- hope this is okay.
I’ve just read your piece on the Mercian Hymns over at your Arduity site – but there doesn’t seem to be any facility to comment there. Having been rereading these poems only recently, your article was immediately of interest. Great interest in fact, since you offered a number of thoughts that hadn’t occurred to me.
I would agree that Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns are a great deal easier to read and enjoy than much that followed. It is because I relish these Hymns so much that I am drawn to keep trying other poems of his – but with nothing like the same satisfaction.
Your commentary rightly draws attention to how enjoyable the Mercian Hymns are – they are charming, amusing, disturbing, thought provoking, and musical.
I love the way he conflates the Anglo Saxon epoch and the modern. There must be some underlying argument at work here, although sheer entertainment would be justification enough. However, I find that the intermingling of then and now invites us to think about how far human nature shows itself to be the same in all ages and how far it diverges; it does both.
And, as you remind us, these poems equally invite us to consider how far the child today is like the adult of then; a sort of Lord of the Flies reminder. Perhaps we can go farther and say that in these poems Geoffrey Hill shows how the brutality of the state of childhood (and early England) is still very close to the surface of modern humanity. Worst luck.
I like your commentary. Sing some more.
PS: Offa’s Dyke does get a mention later: see XXI and the charabancs – glorious lines.
Thank you for your very considered and perceptive response. I must have another go at getting a comments gizmo for arduity but at the moment it’s defeating my limited html skills. As well as the themes that you’ve identified, I’ve since been thinking more about how Hill’s notions of authority and value tie in with the Hymns. I also failed to give sufficient emphasis to the heartbreaking beauty of the sequence as a whole. I’m now going to re-read XXi and amend the page accordingly.
If you do find time to pursue these themes, I for one would be very interested.
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thanks for the closest reading on the web. a question from state-side: is weber a student of sutherland? are sutherland’s students producing sutherland-like poems? looking forward to your thoughts on the claudius manifesto!
The better than language anthology says he is/was an undergradute at Cambridge and Keston teaches at Sussex. Those poets who I know who either are or have been students at Sussex tend to go in ‘unlike’ directions although I’m not aware that anybody is producing Sutherland’s wonderful blend of polemic and confession. I’m still trying to ration myself with all things Claudian, but I will get to the manifesto once I’ve decided whether or not to make a contribution.