I embark on this as a result of seeing a paragraph somewhere that puzzled over the nature of Samuel Beckett’s ‘voice’ in his later prose. For some reason this triggered off an internal debate as to the respective voices deployed by Pound in his Cantos and by Charles Olson in his Maximus series. Leafing through these two bignesses, I realised that I didn’t respond well to the voices behind the poem.
This surprised me because both poems have enough of the poet in them to keep me interested but here this turned out to be an appalled fascination rather than enthusiasm.
In this sense, I’m treating voice as the thing in a poem which gives some indication of the poet as a member of the human race rather than as the maker of the poem. I’ve therefore chosen Hill and Jones because the voices they deploy are very different but equally full of humanness.
The Teacherly Voice.
I’ve learned a lot from these two, Jones uses notes to clarify some of his references and obscurities whilst Hill tends to make his explanations part of the poem. From Jones I’ve learned much more about life in the trenches during World War I than any other book could have taught me, I’ve also become reasonably au fait with the tenets and liturgy of the Catholic faith as well as aspects of the history of London.
As an example, there is this from In Parenthesis;
At 350 – slid up the exact steel, thegraduated rigid leaf precisely angled to its bed.
You remember the word of the staff instructor whose Kinross teeth bared, his bonnet awry, his broad bellow to make you spring to it; to pass you out with the sixty three parts properly differentiated.
The note for the first paragraph is “Has reference to adjustment of back-sight leaf for firing at required range. The opposing trench lines were, at this point, separated by approximately 300-350 yards. In other places the distance was very much less. Among the Givenchy craters, the length of a cricket pitch divided the combatants.
This is the gloss for the second- “Scotsmen seemed as ubiquitous among Musketry Instructors as they are among ships’ engineers. There are 63 parts to the short Lee-Enfield rifle.”
The points about sight leaf adjustment and the 63 parts are helpful in attending to the poem, The crater details give additional context but are not needed by the reader. The Ubiquitous Scot is an observation that makes me smile and has a touch of the human about it.
Hill’s A precis or Memorandum of Civil Power does education with regard to Messaien;
Why Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps this has nothing to do surely with civil power? But it strikes chords direct and angular: the terrible unreadiness of France to hold her own; and what March Bloch entitled Strange Defeats , prisoners, of whom Messaien was one, the unconventional quarter for which the Quator was fashioned as a thing beyond the time, beyond the sick decorum of betrayal, Petain, Laval, the shabby prim hotels, senility fortified with spa waters. (When I said grand minimalist I'd had someone else in mind- just to avoid confusion on that score.) Strike up, augment, irregular beauties contra the New Order. Make do with cogent if austere finale.
I was aware of the Quartet but wasn’t aware that Messaien had been in prison, nor was I aware of the Bloch quote although he is one of my favourite historians.
I’ve thus been taught and given additional context to the rest of the poem. I’m also intrigued by Hill’s desire to be understood. He frequently claimed not to be bothered by the difficulty of his work, justifying it, less frequently, by observing that life is difficult and the poems are a reflection of that fact. The ‘grand minimalist’ clarification, I like to think, because he knows how good this series is and he’s tidying up any ambiguities that may have occurred. The score pun is typically terrible but endearing.
The Raw Voice
By this I want to draw out the voice in both that has both startled and moved me. I discover reasonably late in life that I read poetry in order, in part to be emotionally affected. This has come as something of a shock because becauseI’d always told myself that the prime attraction was the quality of the phrase/line/image/idea.
I’ve been thus affected by both Jones and Hill by the unadorned horror in some of their lines. There is a lot of rawness about that is intended to be moving but leaves me cold.
The two extracts here have a personal impact on me because both my grandfathers were seriously wounded at the Somme, events which have permeated down through subsequent generations. My wife and I also lost a child who was only alive long enough to be christened before she died, this has been of enormous significance to both of us and our other children for the thirty six years since.
These two are again from In Parenthesis;
And white faces lie,
(like china saucers tilted run soiling stains half-dry, when the moon shines on a scullery rack and Mr and Mrs Billington are asleep upstairs an so’s Vi – and any creak frightens you and any twig moving.)
And next to Diamond, and newly dead the lance-jack from No 5, and three besides, distinguished only in their variant mutilation.
Whilst I find both of these raw, as in ‘soiling stains half dry’ and ‘in their variant mutilation’ I also accept that they are restrained, poetic and have the feel of the terrible authentic. Both of these are from part 7 which deals with the first couple of days of the Somme offensive. Both my grandfathers experienced mutilation during this period, one lost an eye and the other lost half his face and took sixteen years to die. I’ve read a lot about WWI and the Somme in particular and nowhere have I come across anything close to this in terms of accuracy and humanity.
Turning to Sir Geoffrey, this piece of theological pondering is from Poem CXXV in the brilliant The Triumph of Love series;
So much for the good news. The bad is its correlate- everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed damnation for dead children unbaptized. Wycliff and Dame Julian would have raised few objections or none to those symmetries.
As I indicated earlier, for fairly obvious reasons this touches a nerve. Beth lived for 16 hours which was long enough to be christened but not to be baptized. Earlier in the poem Hill makes clear that he’s paraphrasing Thomas Bradwardine (14th century polymath and Archbishop of Canterbury). After getting over my immediate response I had a look at Bradwardine and his very orthodox attack on the New Pelagians- I think I’ve written about this in the past as an example of extreme obscurity. The entirely accurate bit that I experience as both raw and distressing is the eternal torments and the guaranteed damnation. It doesn’t matter that Hill attempts to balance this with the ‘good news’ which is that “All / things are eternally present in time and nature”. This still strikes me as more than a little gratuitously self indulgent.
The Human Voice.
I accept that I’ve spent more than a few words here and on arduity on what think of as Jones’ humanity and Hill’s tendency to throw himself, body and soul into some of his later work without being clear as the effect this has had on me personally.
By humanity I intend a mix of empathy and compassion for others clearly and unambiguously expressed. This passage from Part 4 is indicative of what I think I mean;
Corporal Quilter gave them no formal dismissal, nor did he enquire further what duties his party might next perform. Each one of them disposed himself in some part of their few yards of trench, and for an hour or more were left quite undisturbed, to each his own business. To talk together of the morning’s affairs; to fall easily to sleep; to search for some personally possessed thing, wedged tightly between articles drawn from the Quartermaster; tore-read again the last arrived letter; to see if the insisted water were penetrated within the stout valise canvas; sufficiently to make useless the very thing you could do with; to look at illustrations inlast week’s limp and soiled Graphic, of Christmas preparations with the fleet, and full portraits of the High Command; to be assured that the spirit of the troops it excellent. that the nation proceeds confidently in its knowledge of victory.
I make no apologies at all for producing this list of troops’ ‘downtime’ activities as I feel it more than adequately expresses Jones’ very human respect and affection for his comrades in arms. Passages like this occur frequently throughout this long work which can be read as a tribute to those who served on both sides of the trenches.
The Personal Voice
On the other hand, Hill’s later work gives many peeks into his life story and he has no problem with ruminating about his work within his poetry.
The Triumph of Love gives us examples of both;
Guilts were incurred in that place, now I am convinced, self-molestation of the child-soul, would that be it?
The place in question is Romsley which is close to Hill’s childhood home. It is known that, for many years, Hill had problems with his mental health and eventually obtained a diagnosis and some appropriate help. As someone with similar issues who happened to be a social worker, I’m going to resist extrapolating too much from these lines other than to confess that I readily identify with the unerring accuracy of both self-molestation and the child-soul. One of the main functions, it seems to me, of creative endeavour is to provoke us into comparing our own experiences, emotions and ideas with those expressed in the work. Sadly, far too many mainstream poets since the fifties have poured out their pain into poems in a way that I find distasteful and trite. I’m therefore against the confessional poem but Hill is forgiven because these moments are both oblique and rare.
The Triumph of Love also has this;
At seven, even, I knew the much-vaunted battle was a dud. First it was a dud, then a gallant write-off.
As with all those who were children between 1939 and 1945, the Second World War was formative for Hill and frequent references are to made to aspects ranging from the German resistance movement, Dunkirk, the fate of the Jews and the bombing of Coventry.
The posthumous Book of Baruch has this;
Eagle-eyed ancient history, look down on us from your eyrie with resolved countenance: as when, in the Daily Mail, I read about Spain, and drew dread in, and put the question 'will it come here?' to my dad though he knew well it would.
Here I’m taking ‘Spain’ to refer to the Spanish Civil War and Hill’s father’s response an attempt to soothe the anxieties of a small child- our poet was born in 1932.
Baruch also has;
In my father's time I worked rhyme against form with smears of poisonable blue indelible pencil. He also let me part-expend my rage on any leftover blank page of a 'surplus' police notebook; my lips of purple slake. He was a good man; I brought him pain and pride.
Elsewhere Hill expresses his anger about his grandparents’ poverty but here we have something more complex going on. His father was a police sergeant and in the thirties and forties would have been seen as a figure of some authority in the wider community. I’m assuming that the pride would come from Hill’s Oxbridge education and subsequent academic career – I have no idea about the cause(s) of the pain.
The voice here is restrained but lyrical- the lines kick off for me my own relationship with my dad and his complete mystification as to why I should enjoy reading and writing.
As a result of these small observations and clear interjections, I feel that I know more about the humanness of Hill than I do of Jones although I’ve read much more about the latter’s life.
I’ll finish here, I’ve found this a rewarding experience in that I’ve had to try and think about both poets’ work as a whole- something that’s quite different from the close attention that I try to pay to individual poems. I hope that others will find it useful.
As some of you may have realised, I’m still kicking around the glories of the wordpress ‘verse’ button and its unusual rendering of the <pre> tag. I now intend to try and find a way to make it ‘work’ in a much friendlier manner. The lineation on the Baruch extracts doesn’t match the format in the book either, will try to fix this as well.
Very interesting diversion into quality of voice in Jones and Hill; Jones from the mire of the trenches. You reflect on Hill’s experiences recorded poetically; and yet no, clearly he was not a confessional poet, but wrote with great and sometimes unsparing insight.
This does lead to at least one likely question;- must poetry relate to something we can personally understand? Does really good poetry not somehow transcend the border limits of personal experience?
And maybe Jones is one instance of that relative to trench war. Perhaps some parallels with Hill’s historical treatment of Mercia?
And a good defence of poetry.
No, I don’t think that it must just as I’m unsure that the really good equates with transcendence. The next piece on Celan’s voice will pay more attention to this aspect.
‘So much / for the good news. The bad is its correlate- / everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed / damnation for dead children unbaptized.’
I’m a Catholic and can I assure you that the Catholic Church has never taught as an article of faith that unbaptized infants suffer the punishments of the damned, but rather that they are excluded from the beatific vision of God. This isn’t much consolation and honestly I’ve come to seriously question the Church’s teaching on heaven and hell in general. This is quite apart from the poetics at issue in this post, which I’m still pondering.
Hopefully you’ll take up the question of poetic voice in Celan?
‘By humanity I intend a mix of empathy and compassion for others clearly and unambiguously expressed.’
It would seem likely that Celan’s extreme paranoia made empathy and compassion for others difficult for him. If it is present in the work, it goes without saying that it’s not ‘clearly and unambiguously expressed’. How then do we assess voice — raw, human, and personal — in Celan?
Yes, he’s currently competing with Prynne as to who will be considered next. My initial thoughts re Celan are about a voice that remains open for the sake of the other, but I reserve the right to change my mind.
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