Category Archives: books

Attending to Pierre Joris on Celan’s Threadsuns

I’ve spent some time writing about Paul Celan’s later poems since Pierre Joris’ translations of these were published in 2014. Up until this week, however, I hadn’t read any part of his introduction.

I rarely read literary criticism because I find most of it overly dense and at variance with my experiences as an ‘ordinary’ reader. The honourable exceptions are Jacques Derrida and Joris on Celan, J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and Ezra Pound on Most Things Poetic. I don’t agree with any of them but I like the way they think and, in turn, make me think. This is an example of that process.

There is a brief section on Threadsuns which is the title of a poem from the Breathturn collection and also the title of the following collection. This is the poem;

THREADSUNS
above the grayblack wastes.  
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
mankind.

This has always struck me as bleak and despairing. The last couple of lines seem to indicate that the human race has finished rather than referring to somewhere other than earth. The ‘gray-black’ wastes’ may indicate those lands torn apart by the many slaughter of the second world war but also our world in the present.

Joris makes a couple of points that I’d like to attend to first:

For indeed, we no longer live, as the pural of the poem’s title immediately makes clear, under the cosy reassurance of a world held in place, centred around a or the sun, Helios, as it was called under the old dispensation.

and;

Ezra Pound lamented in the Cantos that “the center does not hold” – Celan knows that this is so because there is no single center, no single sun that can hold it all up, that, in fact, there has always been only a decentered multiplicity of centers.

I’m not entirely sure that this holds up, it is a position and a perspective that I (mostly) agree with but it’s not one that seems to be present in Celan’s work. I readily admit that I have no formal training whatsoever in either philosophy or literary criticisms but I am reasonably familiar with the work of the French post-Structuralists and would expect many more instances of this perspective if this was the case. This is a pity because Joris, as well as being the best translator of the work, one of Celan’s most astute readers.

My own tentative and provisional view would be that this is either or both a sun that emits different kinds of light and other stars in other parts of the galaxy / universe . In the same part of the introduction Joris points out that; “Celan insisted, and rightly so, I believe, on the fact that his poetry was directly linked to, and arose from, the real.” This would seem to indicate that the earth still revolves in a solar system with a single sun at its centre.

The Pound quote seems to be apt in this context. I’m not one of those that rejects all of Pound’s work because of his repellent anti-semitism and fervent support of Italian Fascism. I love his earlier work but am both bored and underwhelmed by large swathes of The Cantos which seems to me a very inconsistent piece of work indeed. The fuller quote is “things fall apart, the center cannot hold” which seems to point to a real 20th century phenomenon rather than something more abstract. As a retired anarcho-nihilist, I can readily identify with the last 120 years as a period of ongoing disintegration whereby things do break up and lose their grip but I think this is a real and material product of our times.

If we imagine these threads or beams bringing different qualities of light then it seems reasonable to suppose that these may lead to all of us having different perspectives on things.

I’ve found this poem so very bleak because it seems to hold a lament for the death of mankind and the planet on which we live. The final phrase can be qualified by ‘but they won’t be because it’s too late’.

Joris takes a different tack;

-then the title of the next volume spoke of a new measure, of new measures, to be accurate: of those new measures needed in a world seen as “grayblack wastes” to link the above and the below, the inside and the outside, the tree-high thought ann the wastes, because, Celan goes on, “there are / still songs to be sung” poems to be written under the duress – Lightduress will be the title of the next collection – of the present condition.

Again, I’m not convinced by this, the Breathturn collection contains more than a few references to poems and poets bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. Leaving aside those tall thoughts for a moment, the wastes of the world may have been created by this catastrophic event which left nothing at all behind. The industrialised murder of many millions by ‘ordinary’ men was so destructive that nothing was left except these songs that must but can’t be sung.

Regular readers will now that I don’t think enough attention is paid by critics to Celan’s experience of mental illness and how this is reflected in some of his work. Because of my own struggles with severe depression, I may over-identify with this aspect but I still maintain that it is very present in the later work. I’m not of the once prevalent view that this work is inferior to the previous material and this decline was related to increasingly severe ‘episodes’ . Instead, I think the bouts of mental anguish, in this instance, enrich the work with a purity of tone which is devoid of all comfort and pretence. Here, might it be that these ‘grayblack wastes’ are also the result of mental as well as physical damage? That all human beings are emotionally traumatised by having to live the barbarities of modern life?

I’ll therefore read into these tall thoughts as being the product of mental distress and disturbance and the gripped ‘light-tone’ as being the, now lost, normal and the real. It also occurs to me that these thoughts could also be the kind of ‘refined’ thinking that came along with the European Enlightenment and, some would argue, led to the atrocities of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust.

This ‘light-tone’ is annotated by Joris;

“Light-tone” and “light-pitch” are literal trabslations of Lichton. if one considers the word as a Celanian composite. The German word, however, is also a German word in filmography, where it refers to the process of “sound-on-film” in which sound is inscribed as variations of light values on film.

Whilst this is helpful and intriguing, I’m more in favour of a gesture towards these tall thoughts trying in vain to lighten the ‘grayblack wastes’

In conclusion, I hope I’ve shown how thoughtful and clearly expressed criticism can provoke readers into re-thinking their own assumptions and feelings about this kind of work. I also need to express again the debt of gratitude that we all owe to Pierre Joris for his astute and intelligent translations of this brilliant but demanding work.

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Geoffrey Hill’s Riot of Poetry Similes

This is from the, probably self-penned, blurb on the back of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin:

Thematically the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of its evident helplessness.

As someone who has followed these meditations for the last 15 years, this claim holds great interest both as a reader and practitioner. I’m therefore now pondering on what Sir Geoffrey decided to leave us with on this reasonably crucial subject.

One of the abiding features of the poetry is Hill’s tendency to show off, with regard to poetry, his The Triumph of Love has this:

Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That's
beautiful. Once more? a sad and angry 
consolation.

This may indeed be beautiful but there are very few poets who would have the front to point this out within the same stanza. This particular simile and Hill’s claim that literary and artistic practice require “a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead…..” have acted as ‘markers’ for my relationship with the work as a whole. With The Book, however, we now have many more ways of thinking about the nature of the Poem and mulling over its strange helplessness.

I still haven’t paid enough attention to this sequence of 271 parts, a process that will take months but I have selected some of the more startling and provocative observations. This is the last sentence from Poem 149;

No upright poem in its uptight English can seem to me quite free from
     limescale under the rim.

Scurrilous, deliberately offensive but, he may have a point. What is lazily referred to, by me and many others, as the mainstream can be sad to be said to embody both of these qualities. I’ve long been of the view that this particular kind of output is inherently doomed to a bland mediocrity because its voice is strangled into a bridle deemed to be proper and fit. i’m therefore in sympathy with the view expressed, even though it’s more of a confession than an observation. Hill isn’t saying that this work is burdened by such a stain but that it seems to him that this is the case. The implications being that his work avoids the upright and uptight and is thus unburdened by this mark.

I have to confess that this made me smile a lot because it seems to capture the best of Hill’s mischievous barbs, the limescale under the rim being particularly apt.

This being Geoffrey Hill, we also have the realy quite serious observations with their amended syntax, These are from 213 and 239;

We do well on the whole to unscramble continuity from tradition. Continuity may be more important; the poem must affirm portent to make gravity tremble.

Poem as one case of post partum depression, in some part with cause yet
without reason.

Both of these are brow furrowing, in the interests of context, I should provide the rest of each poem but this would only further cloud the issues that appear to be at stake. With the first, separating out tradition from continuity is tricky in the extreme, both relate to the past  and to mental and physical things that proceed through time. Traditions can die out whereas continuities, by definition, keep going on. Much of Hill’s work is concerned with these persistent phenomena. His Mercian Hymns  of 1971 sets the reign of the early medieval King Offa of Mercia firmly in the 20th century.

I have Hill as a quirkily sentimental traditionalist. This is a fuzzy impression rather than a clear and precise notion, nevertheless I am a bit startled by this assertion and what follows. A quick glance at the OED reveals that ‘portent’ has two main definitions: “A sign, indication, or omen of a momentous or calamitous event which is about to happen” and “A prodigy, a wonder, a marvel; something exceptional or extraordinary.” Taking the (now rare) second definition as the one intended, it would appear that the role of the poem is to assert and confirm the wondrous and exceptional nature of someone or thing. Needless to say, making ‘gravity tremble’ is a great sounding phrase but doesn’t mean very much when thought about. If Hill means to have ‘a great effect’ then he should be clearer, in my admittedly pedantic view.

I would however draw attention to the other qualities of the above, it starts with an equivocation – mostly, it would be a good thing if we…. which reads like the opening of a gentle suggestion rather than the clear imperative that it ends with. Portents as signs of things that are about to happen populate most religious texts and it may be that this alludes, at least in part to the birth of Christ.

It is safe to suggest that Hill has never experienced a post partum depression for obvious reasons. This doesn’t prevent him from putting together one of his less than brilliant witticisms with the play on ‘part’ and the ‘without reason’ quip. I like to think the point being made is a serious one, that the poem has its source of inspiration but this then gets extrapolated  into something that may not be entirely rational / reasonable.  As someone with some experience of severe depression, I would however like to point out that we depressives are rarely without ‘reason’ indeed when depressed we often have a more realistic view of things because we can’t put on the rose-tinted glasses what ‘normal’ people rely on.

To conclude, this is all of Poem 129;

Poem as enforcer of the realm. Poem as hostage to straws that overwhelm.
Give me back the stocky tu quoque of the baroque.
Poem as slow-burning arquebus fuse in a re-enactment universe.
Poem as nightmare stepmother in the Brothers Grimm. Poem as loquacious
sightseer at an unspeakable crime.
Poem reluctant to give its own name even though lately granted immunity
from recrimination.
Poem at home under its fig tree and with a thriving pigsty.
Poem as hapless amateur in competition with ‘Summertime’.

I hope that I’m not alone in being delighted by this, it strikes me as both incredibly inventive and very, very clever. I can even forgive the tu quoque  / baroque device because the rest is Hill at his best. The first line encapsulates for me the poet’s dilemma, we’d love to speak truth to power, to act as moral assayer in the courts of kings and queens yet we are also plagued by those small blemishes and imperfections that, in our heads at least, ruin what we make. I’m going to skim gracefully over the second line because it doesn’t have a simile and move on to this about-to-go-off gun in this recreated and thus fake universe. The arquebus, the forerunner of most firearms, came into use in the early 15th century and  weren’t very good. Until the end of the 16th century there was still some debate as to whether arquebusiers were more or less effective than bowmen. I therefore have this image of Something Bad about to happen when the sparkly b movie flame eventually ignites the gun. It now occurs to me that the flame may never reach the gun, that it may burn ineptly forever being harmless and menacing at the same time. My daughter’s a keen re-enacter and has been since her mid teens so I know something of the painstaking care that goes in to getting the historical details as right as possible. A re-enactment universe would also be an equally synthetic version of moment of time past but on a much, much larger scale, one that would completely overwhelm this dodgy firearm. As both a reader and a wannabe poet, this line resonates and sets off ideas and makes me smile a lot.

The wicked stepmother is a little brow furrowing, as I recall it, the tale involves a magic mirror and a woman who will stop at nothing to remain the ‘fairest in the land’ and so makes several attempts to kill Snow White, her step-daughter. She is eventually exposed and dies a horrid death at Snow White’s wedding. The ‘nightmare’ describing word, if that’s what it is, is unusual in this and most other contexts.  This being the case, I’ve scurried off to the OED which has this for the adjective; “Having the quality of a nightmare; extremely distressing, frightening, or oppressive; nightmarish. Later in weakened use: terrible, awful, fraught with difficulty” which is helpful.  There are in “The Book” a couple of occasions where Sir Geoffrey refers to his use of obscure historical figures and seems to take some pride in doing this. His previous response to the oft repeated charge of difficulty is that “life is difficult” and that his work is a reflection of that.

Hill was known for his frequent use of the OED and will no doubt have been aware that ‘fraught with’ is defined as; “(a) attended with, carrying with it as an attribute, accompaniment, etc.;  (b) ‘big’ with the promise or menace of; destined to produce”. The second of these makes me grin. I find Hill’s work, as with Celan, Prynne and David Jones, to be big with the menace of difficulty which, for me, is a Very Good Thing.

I’ll leave speculation about the Wicked Queen, except to note that relationships with Step-mothers can also be ‘big’ in the same kind of way.

I write quite a lot of material on unspeakable crimes (Derry, Newtown, Ferguson) and their implications and often feel queasy  about whether what I’m doing is some kind of atrocity tourism. On first reading, this seemed to be an easy cliche but it now seems uncannily prescient.

The poem that’s reluctant to identify itself is probably one that disguises its meaning and is criticised initially for this crime but rater gains recognition and praise. This can also be applied to Hill himself who had to put up with all kinds of barbs but was eventually elevated to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, the highest accolade in the UK.

Hill was the finest nature poet of his generation and the fig tree and the pig sty reflect elements of the pastoral tradition in poetry. Perhaps both the sty and the type of tree contain an oblique barb or some degree of self deprecation.

I’m taking this particular Summertime to be the song from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in part because elsewhere in the sequence he confesses a new found liking for Thirties jazz.  From the mid-late nineties some of Hill’s work seemed to suggest that he wants to entertain us as some kind of music hall act. The poem’s aspiration to be culturally popular may be what is hinted at here, the later work is littered by very bad jokes which are certainly hapless. Gershwin’s setting of the DuBose Heyward poem is an example of genius in transforming something merely good into one of the most important and influential songs of all time.</em>

It hope I’ve shown here how Hill has given his readers much food for thought. This particular disturbance pervades through most of the poems and only rarely do the similes fall into clunkiness. As is expected with Hill, there are more than a few inconsistencies and some quite startling breaks with what has gone before. However, this is a much more fitting way to end a career than The Day Books appeared to be.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is published by the OUP and can be gotten from Amazon for sixteen of your finest English pounds. Buy it.

Soldiering with David Jones, the Grail Mass and In Parenthseis.

One of the more prominent aspects of Jones’ work in things military, especially when applied to the Roman Army at the time of the crucifixion and to the British troops at the Somme. In Parenthesis, his first long work, is an account of the experiences of British troops from the parade ground in England to the Somme offensive and the trenches at Mametz Wood in 1916. The Grail Mass has to do in large part with the Passion and the views of rank and file Roman troops are brought into focus.

David Jones was one of the finest poets in any language of the 20th century and this is in part because of what I can only think of as his exceptional humanity. What I think I mean by this is his clear compassion and sense of solidarity for and with others. In Jones’ case this is given voice in vibrant lines of verse. Jones deals with very big themes and these passages where the voice of ordinary people (us) is heard are remarkable for their strength and impact. I don’t subscribe to either Jones’ views or his beliefs but I am awed by his ability to give a clear voice to humanity.

What follows is a strictly non-technical but readerly working through of a couple of examples primarily so I can begin to work out how this is achieved from specific examples. The extracts I’ve chosen are lengthy but it does seem that it is the accumulation of words and phrases rather than short but pithy bursts that leave the biggest impression.

This is from In Parenthesis in the period just before the Somme offensive begins;

Well you couldn’t go far afield because of the stand-by but blokes came across from ‘A’ and the other companies to see their friends and people talked a good bit about what the Show was going to be like and were all agog but no-one seemed to know anything much as to anything and you got the same served up again garnished with a different twist and emphasis maybe and some would say such and such and others would say the matter stood quite otherwise and there would be a division among them and lily-livered blokes looked awfully unhappy, people you would never expect it of and the same the other way the oddest types seemed itching for a set-to quite genuine it would appear but after all who can read or search out the secret places you get a real eye-opener now and then and any subsequent revealing seldom conforms and you misconstrue his apparent noble bearing and grope about in continued misapprehension or can it by any manner of means be that everyone is as interiorly in as great misery and unstably set as you are and is the essential unity of mankind chiefly monstrated in this faint-heartness and breeze-right-up aptitude.

This is a couple of days before the ‘Show’, the start of the Somme offensive which took many, many thousands of British lives, the first few days being particularly murderous. Because both my grandparents were injured in this wholesale butchery, I’ve read many accounts and this one is by far the most impressive. It captures the apprehensions and fears of those about to be sacrificed without over-dramatising their fate. In such circumstances it’s entirely normal to compare your mix of feelings with those around you and the tour-de-force for me is the contradictions in terms of expectations, especially with regard to the ‘oddest one’ and their apparent eagerness for conflict. This and the following paragraph are without punctuation and this Joycean ‘feel’ is used brilliantly to convey these differing reactions economically and with great affection. As a reader I feel that I’m with these men, I find myself thinking how I would feel and present myself in such a horrific plight. I wouldn’t want to appear scared even though I would be terrified and I would be observing comparing the others around me. The conclusion that is reached as to collective great misery and instability rather than fear and panic is especially real.

In his preface to In Parenthesis, Jones describes how this sense of togetherness and solidarity amongst the conscripts made the battlefield into “a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, book iv, chapter 15 -‘that landscape spoke with a grimly voice’.” The working through of this observation in the poem makes it one of the great achievements of the Modernist movement in any genre.

The Grail Mass, thanks to the exceptionally skillful philological work of Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Callison contains an extended section to do with soldiers on the walls of Jerusalem on the night of Christ’s arrest. This theme was published in fragments in 1974 as part of the The Sleeping Lord but is here presented in a much more complete and coherent form, even though one of Jones’ manuscript sheets is still missing.

This is from On the traverse of the Wall I (The wall) and Private Oenomaus is ruminating thus:

      Fourteen more years of nights to
watch with skinned eyes, rigid along the staked
mound, until you think it's him whatever
small thing shifts outside the wire. To watch
from this dressed wall, but this arse-ways, kicking
onager, torsioned at the ready, & aligned
on Christ knows what- unless they reckon
keeping of new moons at the transit of
the god, the barley cakes, the mingled
sop, the libations, the lamb's flesh given
and the recitation of the Praise, can turn, twixt dusk
and dusk, these fellaheen that weep for
their dead baals, or sing their fabulous
deliverances at the vernal turn, into
something to be reckoned with - as tough
a proposition as the Belgae, or those
flax-headed bastards at the West Wall.
Not on your life. But still - they're right
enough to take no chances - plumb right.
That's what the old hands used to say - back
at me first station - I can hear 'em yet
puttin it over on the rookies:
         "remember, the army never takes any chances
the active ad-ministration - we won't speak of
'Q' department - seldom underestimates the
requirements. The gen'ral always first considers
if he be able with 15 maniples, or as they
say now, five cohorts, to meet him who with
half that personnel but with unknown
fire potential, comes against him - always
remember that - the big heads aren't such
greenhorns as you'ld suppose - it's not
out of love of yer body remember - if a 
balls up was advantageous - well they'd
arrange a balls-up - but they're not stiffs
not by a long journey and they know the
job - always remember that and thank your
stars you're in the Roman Army">

I’ve chosen this section not just because of its quality but also its blend of the personal and the public perspective of the ordinary soldier. Oenomaus is six years in to his 20 year stint in the Roman army and the first part is his consideration of the Passover and the people that participate in it. Jones’ first note on this tells us that an ‘onager’ was a small military catapult used by the Romans although Wikipedia gives its first recorded use being in 353 CE. our private speculates on the elements of the various local spring rituals and whether these will transform the ‘fellaheen’ (a much later Ottoman term for villagers and farmworkers) into a force that the may present a threat to the Roman occupation. When read aloud, this passage acquires a particularly lyrical feel with the contrast between the rituals and the strength of any Roman response to trouble. I’m taking ‘arse-ways’ to indicate that the catapult is aimed towards the city inside the walls rather than outwards, at ‘Christ knows what’. Given that this is the night of Christ’s arrest, it may well be that the Romans expected some protests from his followers.

The tone given is of a man who is weary of his lot and especially tired of night duty with ‘skinned’ eyes keeping a look out for anything that moves in the dark. Most soldiers throughout the ages have found the monotony of guard duty, especially at night, one of their most arduous and disagreeable tasks. The opening lines here cleverly convey that sense or torpor and ennui. I’m therefore convinced by this created mood and drawn into the detail of what’s being said. Putting myself in Oenomaus’ place, I don’t think I would be overly concerned with which particular sects and cults used which rites but I would be aware that these and others were practiced when winter turns to spring.

As a reader, then, I have some sympathy for this foot-soldier and his plight and am happily led on to the old hand’s monologue which is a fascinating demonstration of imperial strategy and confidence.

At this time (about 30 CE), the empire was still expanding but already controlled all of the Mediterranean and what is now France. There were skirmishes on the borders but no other power strong enough to threaten Roman Hegemony. The old hand’s remarks are an indication of an absolute confidence that springs from centuries of military and political expansion. He gives a specific example of the way in which Roman commanders ensured success on the battlefield by trying to ensure that the enemy was always outnumbered in manpower and armaments. His monologue is ostensibly to instill confidence into new recruits but there’s also a barb within. If it serves the purpose of a wider strategy that some men will be sacrificed then the required ‘balls-up’ will be arranged because the army prioritises victory and strength over the welfare of its troops.

I’ll return to the ‘place’ of both Romes in The Grail Mass in the near future but here I wanted to lay down a framework for the role of soldiery in Jones work as a whole.

Testifying with Paul Celan. Again.

Before moving on with the above, I need to add a personal note about mental illness. I’m type 2 bipolar and was in a relationship with my wife from the age of 14 until 61 when she died. Between 2006 and 2008 I had three particularly severe episodes of depression that required admissions to hospital. The second and third of these came very close to ending our marriage. I therefore probably over identify with this that Celan wrote for Giselle, his wife in 1963.

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You - all, all real. I - all delusional.)

I’m not claiming a precise parallel here but I do find these four lines to be packed with stuff that speaks to me. Our relationship was healed by means of counseling as a couple in conjunction with psychotherapy for me. Because of our professional backgrounds we were very good at obtaining NHS services so both of these went on for years rather than months. It may not seem apparent but both of these processes involve the subjects in providing testimony and bearing witness of themselves in the hope of some kind of redemption or expiation.

Apparently this poem has been written about many times by critics concerned with meaning. I think I’m more concerned with effect, whilst acknowledging that there may be many different levels of ambiguity and portent. I have always recognised that these line speak of mental health and the resultant dynamic between ‘us both’. This is because of Celan’s self-identification as both ‘the transpierced’ and delusional.

For me, Giselle is bowed down because of the behavioural difficulties that come along with this kind of illness whereas Celan is stabbed across his body, in a way that damages both his lungs and his heart. I’ve never been entirely clear as to the inclusion of ‘am subject to you’ unless it refers to the fact that, when ill, we’re incapable of making decisions and these have to be made by our partner, we’re also very, very withdrawn.

This flaming also presents a few problems because of the many ambiguities. What we know is that, by this stage, Celan’s work was becoming increasingly sparse with each word and phrase carrying a great deal of significance. The question could therefore be strictly one of poetics as in where would a single word come from that could ‘do justice’ to all the nuances of this crisis. This requires reading ‘flame’ as something springing to life although this isn’t to ignore the Old Testament speaking from the burning bush.

I therefore think that this kind of testimony is very different from the one used in WORDACCRETIONS that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Most of the work is read as bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. In this instance it does appear that something more intimate is going on. One of the indicators for this is the fact that the entire poem is in brackets as if cordoning it off from all the rest of the poems in the Atemwende collection. Writing about another poem (ASHGLORY), Derrida makes the slightly convoluted point that as soon testimony is made available then it ceases to be testimony. This is because, by its nature, testimony contains information that is only known by that individual. I like this particular convolution because it gives some emphasis to the essentially personal and intimate nature of providing this kind of material. It also points to the flaming as something destructive as well as creative.

There’s also some distancing going on in this line, it is a word that is testifying on behalf of the couple rather than they themselves. Without getting too lit crit, this is different from the final anguished three lines of ASHGLORY;

No one
bears witness for the
witness.

Here, there is no individual that bears witness of behalf of the witness instead of an element of language.

My own experience indicates just how hard it is for someone with this kind of illness to ‘open up’ about anything and how especially difficult it is for couples to collectively to disclose the very private and personal details of their lives together, particularly when these are in crisis.. In this respect the first statement is quite revealing perhaps saying that “I may be delusional, inferior to you and in all kinds of emotional and mental pain but I do know you like nobody else does”.

There is as well the ambiguity of the last line, if the poet is completely delusional then how is it possible for us to pay attention to his work and this poem in particular? This apparent self-abnegation might also be an angry retort to Giselle. One of the difficulties for the ‘sane’ partner is to know when the other is being delusional and when he/she is both rational and lucid. It is extremely unlikely that Celan, who may well have been very ill, was ‘all delusional’ all of the time but it is a barb that can be thrown by a partner as an expression of their exasperation and consequent anger.

To conclude, these four lines speak of a different kind of witnessing and testimony but make the same ‘point’ about how difficult and yet crucial it is that we perform this act.

Moving on, this is the last of the ‘testimony’ poems;

ERODED by
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
experienced - the hundred-
tongued perjury-
poem, the noem.

Evorsion-
ed,
free
the path through the men-
shaped snow.
the penitent’s snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlors and -tables.

Deep
in the timecrevasse
in the
honeycomb-ice
waits, a breathcrystal,
your unalterble
testimony.

As with WORDACCRETIONS, we appear to be dealing with geology and its processes but here there seems to be more about human activity. The poem’s addressee appears in the second line in terms of speaking and of language which wears away this false poetry. This ‘noem’ is said to be produced by many people or by many languages. In either respect this perjury could arise from the simple fact that no two eye-witnesses will give an identical account of the same event and a hundred people will contradict each other so much that it is difficult to establish what actually occurred. The same can be said for languages, one of the main skills of the translator of poetry is to tease out the intended meanings with all there nuances and put them into another language where a ‘like for like’ substitution may fail completely in conveying the full weight of what’s been said.

This ‘gaudy chatter’ indicates more than a degree of contempt for those who are chatting. Gaudy, for me implies something bright and colourful but at the same time tasteless and banal. To chatter is to spend time in trivial, unthinking conversation. I’m a cultural snob of the first order and have no time for either of these but I’m also well aware that part of this is a class foible, my bourgeois fear of and distaste for the crowd.

Perjury, however, is a deliberate act. It involves giving evidence, providing testimony, that you know to be untrue which it is why it is a criminal offence. This poem then is deliberately untrue rather than simply being the product of too many tongues.

We now return to geology. I was surprised to find that ‘evorsion’ isn’t in the OED but two minutes with the interweb tells me that it’s a geological term referring to “The formation of niches or potholes by erosion due to vortices of water”. We now have three different kinds of erosion: by sunlight; by wind and by water. Each of these reshape the landscape in a gradual and destructive way.

Snow and ice are recurring images in Celan’s work and ‘men’ is a loaded term in its angrily ironic reference to what the Nazi’s saw as the difference between the men of the Aryan race and the sub-human Jews. The penitent’s snow is completely new to me but another 20 seconds with the interweb tells me that it’s;

“Penitentes, or nieves penitentes (Spanish for “penitent-shaped snows”), are snow formations found at high altitudes. They take the form of elongated, thin blades of hardened snow or ice, closely spaced and pointing towards the general direction of the sun.

The name comes from the resemblance of a field of penitentes to a crowd of kneeling people doing penance. The formation evokes the tall, pointed habits and hoods worn by brothers of religious orders in the Processions of Penance during Spanish Holy Week. In particular the brothers’ hats are tall, narrow, and white, with a pointed top.

These spires of snow and ice grow over all glaciated and snow-covered areas in the Dry Andes above 4,000 metres or 13,120 feet. They range in length from a few centimetres to over 5 metres or 16 feet.

There is thus a path, big enough for a man to walk through, across a field of these strange structures which reaches these welcoming rooms. I am reasonably flummoxed ( lit crit term) by the hyphen or dash in front of ‘table’ because it’s unusual in Celan’s and suggests that the first part of a compound word is missing. Of course, that’s the only explanation that I can think of and I readily accept that there may be many others. It may be that the gaps there to indicate the repetition of ‘glacier’ from the beginning of the line but, in English at least, we understand that an adjective can refer to more than one noun.

Ice and snow have been taken to refer primarily to the harsh winters that his parents endured in labour camps in Ukraine. Ice also brings stasis, it prevents things from moving and causes pliable objects to become brittle. Glaciers, on the other hand, are mobile and transform the landscape significantly by means of erosion. A Crevasse in this instance is a deep and dangerous cleft in the ice which can move without any prior warning. Things temporal always disturb me a bit because the mention of time is likely to refer to the work of Martin Heidegger who I now see as both a vile anti-Semite and a charlatan.

However, on a reasonably superficial level, this crevasse could mark a split in time. Many victims of the Holocaust reported that they felt that history had simply stopped because of the unimaginable violence of what they were suddenly experiencing. The split, on this tentative and provisional reading could (might) indicate the temporal chasm opened up by the Holocaust.

Atemwende, the title of this collection translates as ‘Breathturn’ and this was of great importance to Celan. This is a note from 1960-

‘What’s on the lung, put on the tongue,’ my mother used to say. Which has to do with breath. One should finally learn also to how to read this breath, this breath-unit in the poem. In the cola meaning is often more truthfully joined and fugued than in the rhyme; shape of the poem: that is presence of the single, breathing one-

And this perhaps adds some context to the geological themes;

The stone is older than we are, it stands in another time; in the together conversation with it, the one facing us in silence, we set ourselves in relation to the space from which it stands towards us; from this direction, the direction of our speaking, our words are given their share of colour and reach (magnitude).

As the stone, as the other, the inorganic will

    resemble

that which in us is not plant and animal-like: it becomes the spiritual principle, it reaches down into the depths, it rises up.

So, if we take these into account, the rocks of the planet are like our spiritiual component and it is breath that carries the truth. Elsewhere in his notes Celan refers to ‘breath units’ as the essential components of the poem. It is possible here to see the breathcrystal as such a unit that has been turned to crystal by the cold. The last two lines make it clear that this particular formation is now set and cannot be changed.

I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this assertion. Bearing witness to even the most horrific event in our history is obviously essential but testimony, once it becomes evidence comes into a very fluid realm whereby the facts of any event can begin to shift and blend into something quite different.
I’m not suggesting that Holocaust deniers shouldn’t be stringently challenged but I’m not entirely convinced that criminal prosecution is the most helpful response.

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown some of the main ways that Celan writes about the different types of witnessing and testimonies and how these ‘fit’ with the rest of his hearbtreakingly brilliant work.

Is J H Prynne Worth the Bother?

I’ve spent some time recently glancing through everything I’ve written on Prynne here and on my arduity site. There’s a lot of it and I find myself asking whether paying this amount of attention to his work has been Altogether Worthwhile.

This might seem strange for one who has advocated Prynne’s value and championed his cause very much against the prevailing mainstream scorn. However, I know that I will spend my life with Hill, Celan, Jones, Milton and Spenser by my side, I can’t say the same for Prynne. Because I’m a stubborn bastard, I enjoy worrying verse into submission,in opening it up picking over the entrails and seeing where its bodies lie. Prynne offers more opportunities than most for this kind of obsessive ferreting but I’m not sure that I read him for pleasure any more.

My route to the Prynne foothills was from Milton via Geoffrey Hill. About 20 years ago I got over a period of Poem Disenchantment with Milton which led to Geoffrey Hill’s Comus and the rest of his obdurate oeuvre. Patting myself on the back I decided to have another look at Prynne as the other but even more difficult late modernist. As this blog and arduity show, there’s been a lot of tussling mostly until my latest disenchantment in 2015. The high point of these encounters was opening Streak Willing Entourage Artesian for the first time and getting immediately dragged in to its many delights. Conversely, the low points have been my disappointment in Kazoo Dreamboats. These lows aren’t the reason for my uncertainty, I’m probably more disappointed by Hill’s Day Books Than anything that Prynne’s ever done.</

Regular readers will know that I’m of the view that serious poetry rewards the serious attention that a reader may give to it and that poetry that can be fully grasped in a single reading usually isn’t very rewarding at all. So, if my problem with Prynne isn’t the amount of time and brow furrowed puzzling required, what then might it be?

The easy answer is that the work promises more than it delivers. The harder answer is that doesn’t make me re-think my beliefs and opinions. The others provide much more food for thought and, in the process, challenge my well developed and even better defended opinions and prejudices. Prynne delivers a kind of euro-lefty polemic that just seems quaint. It’s not that I have any major objections to this but it is a set of beliefs and ‘positions’ that were outdated in 1975. For me the response to the ‘message’ is to sigh and shrug because these rules no longer apply, if they ever did.

Hill on the other hand had a set of political and theological tenets that I could never share, as did Jones and Spenser but they make me reconsider, at least, my views on being English, on God and the church and (this is important) on the way I relate to other people.

My introduction to Prynne on arduity has this;

You’re either up for these kind of skirmishes or you’re not. I find that I am and my admiration for Prynne has grown as I have gone further in. If you choose to participate you are likely to find that engagement with this body of work will force you to question not only language but also the way in which you experience the world. You will also begin to find that the vast majority of contemporary poetry is intensely mundane and ordinary. If you write poetry then you may find that your voice will be radically altered, this is a good thing providing it’s not just a pale imitation of the man himself.

Re-reading the others still forces me to reconsider how I experience the world but Prynne doesn’t. Streak Willing…. had that effect and still draws me in but it no longer pulls me out of my cognitive and ideological comfort zone in the way that Mercian Hymns or Celan’s Atemwende collection or Jones’ Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea do. This is a personal disappointment mainly because I expected to be equally absorbed and affected by most of the rest of Prynne’s body of work and I’m not.

I’ll try and give a couple of examples, over the past few years I’ve attended reasonably closely to the Biting the Air sequence (2003) and to the Al-Dente collection (2014). From the latter, I’ve attended at some length to infusion, a poem that I provisionally and tentatively identified as having to do with the Grexit crisis:


This mercy will replace to them near first
exactly, as taken from clear at new payment
tacit doesn't reduce the few. Natural as due
not meaning to align song even reverted by
fixity, grant is yours.

                       Is description as
assert this brand get into advancement offer
agree to credit, must agree even so offset
along the close margin, is yours.

                                    Watching
is the site when agreed to break outward pass
claimed in front by either filter, in promise
adept cede a pledged condition willing to
give prominence flat-long fall. Walk over
quickly is yours.

                    However and so far, as or
will accept without presume limit, or foremost
latitude, will discover to steady if brilliant
sky gets easily by admit from iron former melted
intermit. Will line for, is yours.

                                         Does this
scrape or grate whenever veering to harbour
a fusion incline yet to feel redress faction,
in link acceptance, grant is yours.

                                         Be given
is yours, grant for this, is so quickly to be
is too and for, is yours.

For the arduity piece, as can be seen, I paid a lot of attention to the first stanza in order to:

  • demonstrate that is was about Grexit;
  • provide detailed examples of Prynne’s use of ambiguity;
  • demonstrate that his later work isn’t all that impenetrable after all.

Like most of us, I have my own views on this particularly vicious farce and they’re not either changed or challenged by the above. Europe is not yet a federal state and therefore Greece and Ireland and Portugal are all sovereign states. The ECB and the IMF, pushed by the German government, have spent most of this decade walking all over Greek sovereignty and forcing pernicious ‘reforms’ on a population that had no choice but to accept them. I’m aware that my views on this and other EU matters are inconsistent (for a federal Europe but against the current economic and social regimes) but the above doesn’t provoke me enough to think again.

The bebrowed method with Prynne is to think laterally, take note of the commas, look our for puns and spend much time with the OED. The fourth stanza above, for example, only begins to yield sense if I take into account subsidiary definitions for ‘foremost’,’former’ and ‘intermit’ as well as the regional meanings of melt as a verb. Doing this is intellectually satisfying but a bit mechanical. This isn’t because it’s insufficiently poetic or lyrical, I’m moved and challenged by the some of the conceptual work of Vanessa Place, even though it’s ‘simply’ repurposed prose without any kind of personal voice or interjection. With Prynne, I care about his subject matter(s) but he doesn’t reach me the way that others do.

Whilst the above may seem unduly negative, I must emphasise that I still take pleasure from the work. I can well recall the delight I felt when I realised that ‘foreland’ in the second Streak~Willing poem referred to the Irish provinces rather than a piece of coastline. I still get a kick from working this kind of stuff out and some of the verbal dexterity involved is technically brilliant. I still rate the work very, very highly because of its originality and the audacity of its challenge to our dismal mainstream. In the future however I’ll read him for the mental tussle rather than any likely impact on my thoughts and feelings.

In conclusion, it’s always been important for me to feel that I’m in a relationship with a body of work. I expect it to give me the same respect that I give it and I try to be open to genuine encounters (in the Celanian sense) with individual poems. I don’t have that with Prynne, sadly.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin.

The above has been recently published and it is a very welcome antidote to the bewildering foibles of The Day Books. The blurb on the back is revealing. I make no apology for these two lengthy excerpts:

Written in long lines of variable length, with much off-rhyme and internal rhyme, the verse- form of the book stands at the opposite end from the ones developed in the late Broken Hierarchies where he explored highly taut constructions such as Sapphic metre, figure poems, fixed rhyming strophes, and others.

and

Thematically, the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of evident helplessness………….. the references to alchemy, heterodox theological speculation, and the formal logics of mathematics, music, and philosophy are made coolly, as art, and as emblems for our inadequate and perplexed grasp of time.

I have to report, on an initial read-through, that this collection makes me smile a lot because it feels like a return to the aspects of Hill’s work (Comus, The Triumph of Love, Mercian Hymns) that I enjoy the most. I didn’t enjoy any of the late work mentioned above and that part of the blurb reads a bit like a gentle response to those of us who expressed our doubts.

Because I haven’t yet begun to pay serious attention to the sequence as a whole I thought I’d allow my youthful enthusiasm give a few examples of what I find (at the moment) to be the most grinworthy (technical term).

Poem 109 is a meditation and pronouncement on Stanley Spencer and Things Scottish. Up until yesterday afternoon I either didn’t know or had forgotten (both are equally likely) that, according to the DNB, ” the War Artists’ Advisory Committee commissioned Spencer to record shipbuilding on the Clyde” and that the Resurrection series was one of his more significant works of that period. Hill’s poem starts with “The Resurrection, Port Glasgow, of nineteen forty-five to forty-seven, is not the triumph that the late Referendum could have been”. I’m taking it that, although the blurb refers to Brexit, this is the vote on Scottish Independence. Hill’s readers will recognise the characteristically complexity of the sentence and the fact that this may not need to be said. Art criticism is well beyond my capabilities but I will observe that it would seem unlikely that Spencer had Scottish independence in mind at the time, regardless of his fondness for the shipbuilders on the Clyde. It’s a remarkable enough line to draw me in further. The other question that arises is whether Hill’s view of the triumph that could have been marks a shift in Hill’s political beliefs and associated patriotism.

The next ‘stanza’ is “Art can incorporate a summation of what we inherit to impart of national / tradition. The tradition of the Clyde is now said to have died with Jimmy Reid.” The first sentence might be read as a statement of the mostly obvious whilst the second would seem to contradict it. Those of us of a certain age and political persuasion will recall that Jimmy Reid was the leader of what turned out to be the Clyde’s final industrial action. It would seem reasonable that the ‘tradition’ here refers to the history of radical socialism for which the Clyde workforce was rightly renowned. Again, this seems to signal a shift in Hill’s politics. The phrasing of the first sentence is reassuringly typical of Hill’s way of expressing Big Thoughts and this particular thought is consistent with both his earlier poetry and criticism. I’m taking it that ‘impart’ is a carefully chosen verb.

A brief note here about formatting, each poem is in prose. Each new paragraph begins at the left margin and the rest of the lines are indented by five spaces. The WordPress rendering of the pre tag makes it difficult to accurately reproduce how this looks on the page so I’m incorporating the lines into my paragraphs with ‘/’ marking each line break.

The next paragraph is; ” A kind of colloquial good, ‘Waking up’, ‘Tidying’, ‘Reunion of Families’- / Nineteen forty-five – forty-seven bore an obligatory hope – can stitch together a public shroud from private kindness; so that political / bloodymindedness must mourn its vital progeny born dead.” This is where we get into vintage Hill territory, what exactly might be intended by a ‘colloquial good’? Why is the hope of 1945-47, prompted by the election of a Labour government, said to be ‘obligatory’? If we take colloquial to refer to common or conversational speech might this ‘good’ be a quality in society that is beneficial for everyone? Or might it refer a thing being seen to have value by the ordinary people of Glasgow?

The years referred to also deserve some attention. This was perhaps 20th century’s most significant in British politics with the foundations of a social democracy and the National Health Service being laid. The hope was that a class ridden society could be transformed into something more equitable and just. Hill was born in 1933 and, as a bright teenager, would have been more than aware of these momentous shifts.

One of the definitions provided by the OED for ‘obligatory’ is; “Frequently humorous. So customary or fashionable as to be expected of everyone or on every occasion.”

We are therefore directed to the mood of optimism amongst ordinary people that the inequalities of the past would be eradicated and that significant improvements in living standards were about to occur. Of course, these hopes were not entirely met, the standard excuse being that the size of the post war debt to the US prevented the Atlee government spending enough to make a significant/lasting difference. Hill’s use of this adjective would seem to be an attempt at a kind of arch humour, that this was a hope that everybody felt obliged to share no matter how realistic it may be.

Jimmy Reid was to many the epitome of political and industrial ‘bloodymindedness’ and since then there have been very few figures in the UK labour movement to achieve similar prominence and success. Of course, successive governments since 1971 have colluded in the slow death of the British shipbuilding industry and the consequent damage done to communities. Trade Union legislation has also greatly limited the ability of workers to take action against unfair treatment. I’m hoping that this is what Hill is referring to with the still born progeny.

The last stanza is the longest and most direct; “Scotland is not England, of course; and, of the two, the condition of England / is worse. Spencer’s was an English muse, nevertheless; a power of sorts / among her foreign peers; and with a very local sense of redress that, / undeniably beautiful, pressed down on Clydesiders a sentimental appeal, / like skeins of festal coloured knitting wool that they may well have / wished not to possess.

This seems to be fairly straightforward the condition of England is (not was) worse than that of Scotland. Spencer and his source of inspiration were English and, although he created beautiful work set on the Clyde, he was hampered by a sentimentality that may not of been popular with the community that he was depicting. There’s also this local sense of a need for justice for wrongs done. The grin factor is obviously subjective but I think it’s important to recognise and celebrate the things that give us pleasure. In this instance the pleasure comes from a recognition of Hill’s personality (another loose and subjective term) and what would appear to be his method of thinking. The altering of syntax is a fairly consistent device over the last 30 years or so which some find annoying but I feel is an important illustration of how big or difficult thoughts are arrived at. I’m absorbed by this process and feel almost involved in the production of the work. This may seem overly personal but the late Hill at least does have this attractive-but-maddening tendency to throw himself, lock, stock and barrel into his work. Poem 109 is an example of Hill getting hold of a theme and shaking it to bits. Spenser is described in admiring tones in the two previous poems but here thoughtful consideration is given to a quite specific aspect of his work. I smile here because of the way in which the point about sentimentalising / prettifying is made and because I’ve been a member of a community that has had similar treatment from time to time and been less than pleased. Of course, Hill the curmudgeon is still present with the born dead progeny, a simile designed more perhaps to shock than inform. I’m also intrigued by this apparent political sea change. Hill described himself once as a ‘Red Tory’ and this strand is the most apparent in his work along with more than a smattering of patriotism. Both of these would seem to run counter to what’s expressed here and in other parts of the sequence to this is invites further exploration.

However, the elements that made me smile the most on an initial reading is “like skeins of festal-coloured knitting wool” and the need for redress being pressed down. Both of these are, to my ear, redolent of Hill at his very best

David Jones’ Sleeping Lord; A First Encounter

When writing about Jones’ magnificent work I’ve concentrated on In Parenthesis and The Anathemata because I encountered them first and because my initial response to the other work was that it’s a bit minor in that it doesn’t achieve the magnificence of the two longer poems. This view is currently undergoing some revision as I’m now paying some overdue attention to this material and have become just as absorbed as I am with the other two.

For those new to Jones, there are a couple of contexts that need to be stated at the outset: he was a staunch and conservative Roman Catholic and his father was Welsh which led to an abiding affinity with Wales and its history. Jones makes this clear in his introduction to The Anathemata:

So that to the question: What is this writing about? I answer that is is about one’s own ‘thing’. Which res is unavoidably part and parcel of the Western Christian res, as inherited by a person whose perceptions are totally conditioned and limited by and dependent upon his being indigenous to this island. In this it is necessarily insular; within which insularity there are further conditionings contingent upon his being a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription.

The good news is that you don’t need to be either Welsh or of the Catholic faith to become immersed in and enamoured by Jones’ work. When first reading the above introduction I was more than a little nervous of both these aspects but soon discovered that the material provides many different points of entry and passages of great beauty. The Lord of the title is identified at the outset as “Lord Llywellin, Prince of Wales” who was killed by Edward i’s forces at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in 1282.

This excerpt from the early part of the poem hopefully gives some idea of its strength:


                        does a deep syncline
                        sag beneath him?
or does his dinted thorax rest
                        where the contorted heights
                        themselves rest
on a lateral pressured anticline?
Does his russet-hued mattress
                        does his rug of shaly grey
ease at all for his royal dorsals
                        the faulted under-bedding.
Augite hard and very chill
                        do scattered cerrig
jutt to discomfort him?
                        Milleniums on millenia since
this cold scoria dyked up molten
when the sedimented, slowly layered strata
(so great the slow heaped labour of their conditor
the patient creature of water) said each to each other:
"There's no resisting here:
                          the Word if made Fire."

According to the patented Arduity Trickiness Index, there are four words that may give us problems. The first is the italicised ‘cerrig’ for which Jones provides this note; “stones; pronounced ker-rig ‘er’ as in errand. Pronunciation is provided for most Welsh words because Jones, in his brief introduction, states that the poem “chances to be a piece that is essentially for the ear rather than the eye”. The second word is ‘scoria’ for which I’m taking the secondary definition given by the OED- “Rough clinker-like masses formed by the cooling of the surface of molten lava upon exposure to the air, and distended by the expansion of imprisoned gases.” The third is ‘augite’ although it can be inferred that this refers to a hard rock. The OED is more expansive: ” As a mass noun: a mineral of the pyroxene group which occurs as dark green or black prisms, and is an important component of basic igneous rocks such as basalt and gabbro”- which takes us further into things geological than we need to go. The final word is ‘conditor’ which, in Latin, google translate tells me is either founder or builder whilst the OED has ” A founder; an institutor (of laws)”,both of which make sense in this context.

here we have a Medieval Welsh king conflated with Christ ‘asleep’ on the bare stone of a mountain and the above passage lists the ways in which this might be uncomfortable or difficult for him. The asking of questions, rhetorical or otherwise, is a key feature of Jones’ later work and works to good effect here- When this reader finds himself confronted with questions rather than a straightforward description, I find myself thinking more deeply about the content. The brilliance for me is that this insistence brings us into the detail of a different time and place and enables a sense of almost physical contact with the things and events depicted. I don’t know of any poet writing in English in the last hundred years that can achieve this with such sustained force.

One of my tests of greatness is the mix of originality of expression and technique. In the above the question about the Lord’s thorax is perfectly phrased and placed with the possible exception of the “on the lateral…” line which seems to provide a little too much geological detail and thus becomes a bit clunky when read aloud.

I’m also very impressed by the way the above ends with the description of water as foundational and as a patient animal biding its time, the use of ‘dyke’ as a verb, the speaking strata and the concluding theological / Christian point. That this quite complex passage is underpinned by a very energetic sense of moving forward is quite remarkable.

The last line probably refers to the act of God’s creation as in “In the beginning was the Word” and the idea of Logos which is a key part of John’s gospel and the coming of Christ as the Holy Spirit.

There’s an extended section on the place and duties of the Lord’s candlebearer which leads to the Household’s priest and what feels like an improvised riff on matters relating to the early church. T S Eliot placed Jones alongside Joyce in the pantheon of modernists and some of Jones’ prose leaps and bounds along in a distinctly Joycean manner. We are given a lengthy description of the priest’s thoughts during a blessing:


His, silent, brief and momentary recalling is firstly of those
Athletes of God, who in the waste-lands & deep wilds of the
Island and on the spray-swept skerries and desolate insulae where
the white-pinioned sea-birds nest, had sought out places of
retreat and had made the White Oblation for the living and the
dead in those solitudes, in the habitat of wolves and wild-cat
and such like creatures of the Logos (by whom all creatures are that
are)........

My knowledge of early Christianity is almost fuzzy as that of Welsh history but I’m not aware of a tradition of holy men doing good works in the wilds of Britain. However, a priest in medieval Wales may well have imagined such figures and mentally transplanted them from the eastern end of the Mediterranean to his homeland. I have reproduced the above passage with the same line length as it appears in the 1974 Faber edition because it seems important to preserve the ‘look’ of the prose text as it is with the verse.

There are some critics who I admire that are of the view that the prose sections are poems and should be read and appreciated as such. I’m not convinced that things are quite as simple as that. Throughout the later work, I’d argue for a fairly distinct marker between the parts written as poetry which seem to be more incantatory and faux bardic than the parts written as prose. My main shred of evidence for this is the difference between the two when read aloud. For those wishing to put this to the test, I’d advocate doing the same with a passage containing both elements.

The main charge against Jones and the reason given by many for his lack of readers is obscurity, the other is the staunchly traditional nature of his Catholic faith. I’m not convinced by either of these but I do concede that there are moments when both these factors combine in a way that is challenging to say the least. This is from the extended section on the priests thoughts;


                     Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!

This is annotated with;

See the first lesson of the first nocturn for Marina of Feria V in Coena Domini (Maundy Thursday) which begins ‘Incipit Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae Aleph: Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo.’

The line follows a passage on the ruination of the Roman cities and towns after the fall of the empire whilst the following lines provide some explanation for this catastrophe.

My first objection is that, for this agnostic monoglot, the explanation is more obscure than the line itself. My second objection is that, prior to the interweb (Sleeping Lord was first published in 1967) I’d have had no chance of working out what any of this meant. However, thirty seconds with the interweb reveals this passage from the A Heap of Broken Images blog:

These words first appear in Brideshead Revisited in a conversation between Cordelia and Charles. She uses them to describe her feelings after the chapel in Brideshead has been left empty. The phrase “Quomodo sedet sola civitas” -how lonely the city stands- is taken from the beginning of book of Lamentations, when the prophet Jeremiah cries over the destroyed Jerusalem; they are also used by the Liturgy of the Church in the office of Tenebrae to lament over the death of Christ.

Things now begin to fall into place, the phrase and its biblical source is now made clear and ‘fits’ well as a bridge between the two passages. It also happens that many years ago I read nearly all of Waugh’s writing because I liked his way of writing rather than his content. Like Jones, he was a staunchly conservative Catholic who bemoaned the reforms made by the Church in the early sixties. As a Jones completist, I’m now tempted to look again at Brideshead, having previously glided over most of the religious references and to look again at the diaries. For me, this is by far the most obscure part of the poem but it is the only part that I’d really struggle with and my incomprehension doesn’t get in the way of my understanding and appreciation of the poem as a whole.

After the priest’s many and varied remembrances, the poem returns to the Sleeping Lord and recounts the destruction wrought by the hog, a boar with great and destructive tusks, who may be the invading English armies of the Norman and Plantagenet periods, I’m tempted to suggest that this creature may be Edward I but that’s mainly because I want it to be.

This stunning poem ends where it began:


Do the small black horses
                      grass on the hunch of his shoulders?
are the hills his couch
                      or is he the couchant hills?
Are the slumbering valleys
                      him in slumber
                      are the still undulations
the sill limbs of him sleeping?
Is the configuration of the land
                      the furrowed body of the lord
are the scarred ridges
                      his dented greaves
do the trickling gullies
                      yet drain his hog-wounds?
Does the land wait the sleeping lord
                      or is the wasted land
the very lord who sleeps?

I hope, in this brief tour, I’ve given some idea of the poem and given encouragement to those who have initially been deterred by Jones’ reputation. I remain of the view that Jones is by far the greatest of the Modernists and that his ongoing neglect is an indictment of the current state of British Poetry as a whole and our literary critics in particular.

The Sleeping Lord and other fragments. is currently available for 12 quid from amazon. There really is no excuse.