The notion of the Bad Other came to my attention through Barbara Cassin’s recentish work on the Sophists and Aristotle’s view of this disreputable rogues masquerading as philosophers. Without getting too much into the detail of the Cassin view, she suggests that Aristotle’s contemptuous denigration related to the fact that these scoundrels were ‘doing’ philosophy in another way and were relativists to boot. This led me to think about whether British poetry in it’s current parlous state has any equivalents and why.
Because I’m vaguely aware of the fact that in Europe the O word can have a range of different and sometimes conflicting connotations, I think it may be as well to set out a few definitions. These are entirely subjective and provisional and I. as ever, reserve the right to amend them at any time and for any reason.
This is whatever the maker designates as a poem, for whatever reason or for no reason at all. An important sub-set, which doesn’t concern us here is whatever the reader experiences as a poem which is different from that which is perceived as having poetic qualities.
In this instance, work which is poetry in the definition above and therefore the same as the rest of the form but which has components or aspects that are quite different and thus viewed with the same level of denigration with which Aristotle looked upon the Sophists. So, Other Work here refers to material that manages to be the same but different.
Cassin, paraphrasing Aristotle, uses the term ‘evil’ to describe the way that what we think of as mainstream philosophy thought of its Others. I don’t understand the ‘e’ word and, anyway, it seems too portentous to describe this particular reaction which I’d prefer to describe as not being ‘proper’. There’s also something, and this is very approximate, about being a charlatan and therefore Worthy of Derision.
Having thus set myself up for a fall, the following selection of contemporary baddies hopefully and tentatively sets out some likely candidates for the above pigeon-hole in what passes for our current literary culture.
Sir Geoffrey Hill.
Here is an Other who, by means of appointment to the Chair of all things Poetic at Oxford, has been transformed from Bad to Good even as the quality of his work has, erm, diminished. The main features of Hill’s Otherly Badness spring from a reputation in academia for ferocity, for the alleged difficult obduracy of his earlier work and what some have sneeringly referred to as his ‘post Prozac’ period heralded by the publication of The Triumph of Love in 1998. There’s also the alleged difficulty of the work throughout his career which doesn’t really hang together if it’s read with the attention that it deserves.
In terms of difficulty and obscurity I’d like to provide the second and final part of Mysticism and Democracy from the Canaan collection which was published in 1996:
Let this not fall imputed to our native obdurate credulities. Contrariwise within its own doctrine it spins, remote saturnian orb: the imperial granites, braided, bunched, and wreathed; the gilded ornature ennobling lowly errors - exacted, from exalted - tortuous in their simplicity; the last unblemished records of service left hanging in air yellowed with a late half light as votive depositions not to be taken down.
To my entirely fallible mind, this is strong poetry at its best but was seen by the mainstream as Wilful Trickery as evidenced by the ‘mangled syntax of the first line, the use of obscure vocabulary and the length and complexity of the final sentence.
All of this is Badness is compounded by Hill’s odd view about the relationship between Things Mystical and Political together with the fact that his political views are hopelessly eccentric and definitely Other. Unlike some of our other Badnesses, Hill produces material that looks like poetry even when it doesn’t sound like poetry. One of the most frequently quoted proofs is his response to critics in The Triumph of Love:
And yes - bugger you, Mcsikker et al, -I do mourn and resent you desolation of learning: Scientia that enabled, if it did not secure, forms of understanding, far from despicable, and further now, as they are most despised. By understanding I understand diligence and attention, appropriately understood of actuated self-knowledge, a daily acknowledgement of what is owed the dead.
It is the first two lines that have caught the attention of the Critical Crew as further proof of Bad and Other but I would argue that this fails to do any kind of justice to all of this section in the round. Some consideration of the following seven lines might reveal is that the desolation of learning embodied by MacSikker and His Friends is juxtaposed against the diligence and readerly that Hill’s work requires. Ending this is the recurring Hillian theme of ‘memorialising’ the dead.
So the Poem stares upon its Other and takes note of ‘Bugger you’. of ‘saturnian’ and of ‘ornature’ and declares Badness to be at work, continuing to condemn in this fashion until the Oxford Chair is awarded. This turn of events with its brief flurry of media interest causes the work to be cast as suddenly valuable and somehow essentially British. Of course, the irony is that the late and very prolific period have demonstrated to most of us that quantity and quality rarely go hand in hand but we are at least grateful that over fifty years of stunning work is not going to get Left on the Shelf.
An entirely coincidental digression
Whilst deciding which part of Jerusalem Deleted to use (see below) I had a look at this week’s TLS and, to my surprise found that Sir Geoffrey had penned the opening review. Being a fan, I read this extended discussion on the work of Charles Williams with increasing delight, not because of Williams but because this encapsulated Hill’s critical work at its combative best. So there I am, grinning inanely when I get to this:
I do not believe that Williams is a great poet; but he does make isolated major statements; and he is powerful and weird in essential ways. He engineers passages of poetry that obstruct and disoblige our own polemic and populist bias. “The edge of a possibility of utter alienation intrudes”, to adapt a sentence of his own about magic, quoted by Lindop. Nothing is more essential to British poetry in its present condition than that a sense of “utter alienation” should obtrude on it.
Now, had I started this on Saturday (it is now Monday), I may well have included this obtruding alienation in my title. As it is, Hill has neatly and, as ever, concisely set out what the Bad Other does and how necessary this is right now. I’m taking it that he rightly sees his own work, even as the Good Other’ as making a positive contribution and I can’t argue with the extent of the obtrusion but, as an Extremist in Most Things, I would question whether the alienation is sufficiently utter. Still, it remains weird to know that someone’s politics and faith can be so distant from my own yet view most things Poetry in more or less the same way.
Simon Jarvis as the Partially Bad Other.
Simon has a theory which, unlike the vast majority of his fellow academics, he has put into practice in his poetry. The broad outline is that writing within the formal constraints of rhyme and metre is the best way to produce philosophical or Big Thought verse. The more I think about the ‘P’ word the less convinced I am that it is either helpful or useful so I’m going to stick with thoughts that are concerned with broad principles and ideas rather than narrow ones. Of course, the Poem already considers itself to be expressing Big Thoughts quite successfully but is mistaking depth for affectation wrapped up in a distinctly Larkinian melancholia. There are many and varied reasons for this state of affairs that I don’t wish to dwell on except to point out that the Poem is most discomfited by work that follows the traditional rules in producing material that is focused entirely on serious stuff.
This badness is further solidified by length, digression and complexity, none of which the current Poem is either familiar with nor particularly keen on. There are three works that are guilty of all these Badnesses, Night Office, the middle one of these is gloriously and defiantly complex, the nature of ruins being one of its many themes:
It was my chrysalis : I can escape now from the very feeling that a line must mean I wear a gag or seal with tape prose mouth or verse mouth when the words are mine only so far as yours too. No more drape the necklace with dead nightingales! Refine with purer sense each word; I may walk free from nugatory beauties, and may see the split line on the ironstone alone for its own moving contour : I may go in thought through all the villages of stone without a single symbol, since I know I do not need a theory to come home, nor is it necessary that I show, by some exemplary device of hurt, I scrub the human patinas of dirt. There in idea every ruined brick glows inconsolably, until these shades fall on its surface, and the twilight's thick slants of illuminations through the glades dampen each damp-course like a pretty trick of light's undying glimmer when it fades little by little on the little cluster of walls and buildings lit with this rich lustre.
Night Office runs for about 220 pages of rhyming, metrical verse expressing complicated ideas about faith in the present. It's also extremely digressive. All of this slaps a gauntlet around the face of the Poem in the 21st century by following on from and developing what Alexander Pope (Poet) about Poetic Constraint quite some years ago, which is probably why it's been (mostly) ignored by those who should know better.
Which brings me neatly to my next morsel of Insightful Observation, or sweeping and generalised guess, whichever is preferred. In conversation with a close friend from across the water, it would appear that those in North America are more ready to ‘engage’ with and pay attention to Bad Others than we Brits who either ignore or deride or (see below) take one look and express vehement exasperation. This sad state of affairs, as with most Bad Others, belies more than a little anxiety from the advocates and practitioners of the status quo as to the quality of the work that they advocate. Whilst this might be a Stab in the Dark, me thinks it might be worthy of more detailed attention.
Back to Jarvis and his latest work Jerusalem Deleted which was published by Enitharmon in 2015 and has ‘The modern state is a transformed church.’ as one of its three epigraphs. I’m quoting at some length to give a more rounded demonstration of Badness:
658 Public realm excellence in bus stop kerbs antepenultimately must or gasp or hymn the last task of the transformed church starring the pavement with its studs and marks sown through the high street where no foot disturbs 659 my perfect flight : a nonstick alloy parks my protocarcase in the loading bay. The turning apron at the covered way Is quiet now, I wake up and feel the air soft on my wet face, and, as I lie there, 660 my cheek invents some message in the breeze which blows from anywhere; the distant real speaks through its bright gag, and the thin birch trees induce evacuated sense to feel itself still fettered to the truth which frees 661 me here from abstract freedom, which I steal back to my station of deleted duties the wrong anthology of rights & beauties. The stones of Spalding! Mabbug was deserted. I rose and Wandered down the High Street. No 662 strap or lock held me: then to what inverted world, or non-polity, had this truck so brought and deposited me not inserted in any social order but this row toytown postmodern, infant greens and reds 663 burnt at the edges where the rebel heads had assailed it? Retail units stood scratched in the thermoplastic pouch each outlet should pretend to speak with, and their fascias shut vertical rhythms, at the middle, where 664 the bad backlit acrylic sheet was cut : patch illuminations through the matt light-tongued their lost brands. In the cool dawn air I let cold cathodes from the closed steak hut shine on my set face. Could I just stay there?
Having typed that out, a further thought bobs up on my horizon: there is a Badness that is bad because it demands fairly focused attention which, as with lengthiness takes some time. Jerusalem Deleted is not a drive-by read (technical term), it requires a degree of concentration and readerly focus but(and this is the point) it more than repays those efforts.
I was once one of those who baulked at the Obscure but with the increasingly reliable interweb it’s bothering me less and less. For example, the poem concerns a war between two(ish) factions who took a different view of the nature of Christ at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Mabbug referred to above is likely to be Philoxenus of Mabbug, a strenuous advocate of one of the above factions. Of course this stuff is obscure yet the information required for clarification is very close at hand. Anyway, this is the kind of subject matter that scares the Poem very much indeed because it remains firmly in the Poetry Tradition, it tests out a position made clear by one of the poem’s canonical figures and yet it expresses ideas and offers opinions and depicts the human condition at a depth that is anathema to the blandified cacophony (short, straightforward, technically inept, criminally simplistic) that gets touted as the Poem today.
One of the several badnesses in the above is that of language use in this ongoing trek through a landscape ruinated by war. The inventive cheek, the speaking real, the closed and upright rhythms and the light-tonguing patch illuminations do present challenges to the reader but they also suggest and provoke different ways of Thinking about Things which I find particularly involving.
So, Bad Others are either scorned or ignored and sometimes both. This refusal to engage with and respond to the many challenges presented by these defiers and several other makers of the Bad that spring to mind belies a very real anxiety about the Poem’s current level of inadequacy, the sad fact that it isn’t up to the task. It really isn’t. As Sir Geoffrey says an obtrusion of utter alienation is required and it is required now.
Lovely piece. The alternative to badness– not to say its Other — is banality. The prevalence of which is enough to turn one toward more durable “spiritual exercises” (Hadot): but then your praise for Hill and Jarvis bring us back to poetry. By the way Rowan Williams The Edge of Words provides contexts for several pieces of your argument here.
Thank you Tom. The further problem with this particular banality is that it acts in apparent ignorance of itself in the wider scheme of The Poem in The World. And, yes, there is something quite particular about this turn. Don’t have the Williams but will seek it out.
You might want to check out Felix Bernstein’s “If Loving You Is Wrong”, which in its way is about at least one aspect of Bad Otherism … not the aspect you discuss here. http://www.theawl.com/2015/02/a-poem-by-felix-bernstein
Yes, speaking as a New Pedant, I’d prefer it if there was a ‘then’ rather than a comma. The whole wanting to be a poet trope is worth a bit of unpacking. Isn’t it?
Yes, it certainly is. Especially when wanting to be a poet (as in David Antin’s lines which Felix used to generate his poem), being a poet means “not being a poet in the previous way:
“if robert lowell is a
poet i dont want to be a poet if robert frost was a
poet i dont want to be a poet if socrates was a poet
ill consider it”