Category Archives: economics

Langland and the (un)deserving poor.

One of the many joys of having a number of ‘spaces’ on the interweb is that you can decide where certain whimsies ought to be placed. There is currently a kind of master plan to incorporate all things Middle English into arduity as an example of poetry that might be difficult at first but which rewards serious attention tenfold. Unfortunately Other Things are filling up my arduity time at the moment so I’ve decided to share one of my more recent ME encounters here.

I’m reading the ‘C’ text of ‘Piers the Plowman’ and alternating this with the genius that is Thomas Hoccleve in order to get to grips with the language and to better understand the world at the end of the 14th century. In Another Guise I’ve been professionally implicated with the problem of the great unwashed for many years and have been of the view that the underclass has served a specific purpose since the early modern period or thereabouts.

Passus VIII of ‘Piers’ contains a dialogue between our hero and Hunger who he calls in to deal with the wastours (lovely term) who won’t work for their food. It would be crass to point out that our current governmental dismalities have a similar visceral need to punish those who won’t abide by the rules but this doesn’t stop me from pointing out in some detail what this might be about. At the heart of this particular anxiety is deception, the notion that some of the poor are faking some disadvantage in order to get a free ride on the backs of others.

This has particular resonance in the UK with the recent Tory claim to represent “hard working people” with the implication that the rest of us are somehow beyond redemption. Passus VIII recounts how Piers needs to plough his field before he sets off on pilgrimage and requests some help from his companions. In order to set the scene, we’ll start with the late feudal ‘deal’:

   'Sikerliche, sire Knyhte.' sayde Peris thenne  (indeed)
'Y shal swynke and swete and sowe for vs bothe     (work)
And labory for tho thowe louest al my lyf-time
In couenant that thow kepe holy kirke and mysulue
Fro wastores and fro wikkid men that this world struyen  (idlers)
And go hunte hardelyche to hares and to foxes            (boldly)
To bores and to bokkes that breketh adoune myn hegges     (bucks, hedges)
And afayte thy faucones wild foules to culle
For the cometh to my croft my corn to diffoule.'         (spoil)    

Incidentally, I’m using Derek Pearsall’s version of the ‘C’ text. I’ve used some of his glosses and one or two of mine.

So, by the time of writing (1380 ish) the above describes a relationship that was undergoing some changes and this notion of reciprocity was under more than a little strain. It does however set out what people may perhaps have felt nostalgic for, that the peasantry should feed the nobility in return for protection and some degree of pest control. In Langland’s present however the knight fails to protect against the first wastores that he comes across:

   Courteisliche the knyhte then, as his kynde wolde,
Warned Wastour and wissed him betere
'Or I shal bete thee by the lawe and bring the in stokkes.'
    'I was nat woned to worche,' quod Wastour, 'and now will I nat bygynne!' (accustomed)
And lete lyhte of the lawe and lasse of the knyhte
And sette Peres at a pes to playne whare he wolde.

Not only is the Knight ineffectual, the hard working paragon is himself treated with contempt- the last line being a challenge to go and complain anywhere he wishes but the recalcitrant wastoou is going to carry on with his idle ways. There’s also a bit of double edging going on, of course members of the nobility would be courteous as part of their code of behaviour but this is totally ineffective in getting these terrible people to change their ways. This is all too redolent of our current debate about welfare with both parties agreeing that there does need to be some coercion (sanctions, workfare, more sanctions) and only disagreeing on the most effective ways to be punitive. The bad old days of the welfare state are blamed, like the knight is here, for being far too soft on the poor.

My eye was also caught by Piers’ specification for the deserving poor:

But yf he be blinde or broke-legged or bolted with yren      (iron)
Suche pore' quod Peres 'shal parte with my godes,
Bothe of my corn and of my cloth to kepe hem fram defaute

All I can say is that this fierce 14th century social critic is more lenient in his outlook on disability than either of our political parties.

Before proceeding to Piers’ solution I think I need to point out that I’m usually of the view that the past is a very strange place indeed and comparisons between then and now are reasonably meaningless and this increasingly applies as the time gap increases. However, I’m also of the view that the underclass have always been with us and will always be with us regardless of any attempts at modification. The undeserving poor ( ie the generationally unemployed living on the edges of criminality and moving from one boisterous relationship to another) are the eternal moral panic and they perform a really important function- they keep the rest of us in place, playing by the rules of the game because we don’t want to be like them. I fully accept that Langland’s ire was also focused on certain groups of friars who sustained themselves by begging but it’s nice to see that the concerns of Hard Working People, the fear that someone else might be getting something for nothing, have remained fairly constant. I also think it’s telling that the wastores come before the wikkid men. Confronted by the failure of the Old Order Piers calls up Hunger (aka famine) to bring these idlers to their senses:

    Hunger in haste tho hente Wastour by the mawe
And wronge him so by the wombe that al watrede his yes.  (stomach, watered)
A boffated the Bretoner aboute the chekes                 (a Breton)
That a lokede like a lanterne al his life aftur,
And beet hem so bothe he barste ner her gottes           (nearly burst his guts)
Ne hadde Peres with a pese-loof preyed him bileye.
Haue mercy on hem, Hunger.' quod Peres, 'and lat me yeue hem benes,   (give them beans)
And that was bake for bayard hit may be here bote'                    (bay horse)
    Tho were faytours afered and flowen into Piers bernes
And flapton on with flayles fro morwen til euen          (threshed)
for a pot full of potage that Peres wyf made

So, extreme measures are called for to get these shirkers into the mainstream with the rest of us Hard Working types. First of all you starve them and then you hit them about the face and head before nearly killing them with blows to the stomach. Of course, dealing with the underclass doesn’t require the ‘normal’ set of principles because they just aren’t like us, at all….. It also helps if at least one of these idlers is a foreign idler- from Brittany in 1380 and from Romania / Bulgaria now.

Without getting into a lit crit tussle about the differences between the ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts, we know that Langland’s work was well-received and the figure of Piers was taken up by the leaders of the Peasants’ revolt. It would therefore appear that these quite brutal solutions tapped into a popular vein then pretty much as they still do now.

Of course it is still a mistake to over-identify with the past and ‘Piers’ drifts in and out of ‘reality’ enough to remind us that there is a lot that we don’t understand but it is remarkable how certain tunes do appear to echo down the centuries.

The Odes to TL61P and the nodding dog

The Odes had their London launch last week and I now have to take back anything I’ve previously said about the way that Keston reads his work- this was a magnificent performance which managed to do justice to the text and to throw up more food for thought. Prior to this there was launch in Brighton which was recorded and is now on soundcloud and I think we all need to thank Joe Luna for producing such a clear and professional account of the event.

I’m currently spending most of my reading time with the Odes mainly because I don’t understand how they work – there seems to be a new (to me) set of devices being thrown together and I have yet to work out how the various effects are achieved.

There is one section that is beginning to furrow my brow in unexpected ways, this is the offending paragraph in full:

      China is now a multilateral partner. That joke
about the reference to the answer in the riddle in the
reference to the answer to my life will be repeated
without a pause until I laugh. Bush says three people
were waterboarded, and hold the zeroes; our text today
is maintain physical integrity, but a hundred times funnier,
and therefore a hundred and one times funnier,
billions of times funnier, and hereafter infinitely more
because stupefying at a compound growth rate
too big to fail. There is always something we need to do about
everything, something it is always hard to be. Career
poets are part of the problem, smearing up the polish,
drying out the fire; chucking shit all over the place; not
being party to the solution; banking on the nodding
head 'the reader' saying 'yes, that's what it's like' so
as not to know what it's for, since meaning is easier,
that way, gaped at through the defrosted back window
of the Audi, hence the spring for a neck; we all
know where that shit got us: being what we eat. The
British have become snobs. The don't want to be security
guards always getting the nightshifts at KFC illegally
married to sewage technicians, subject to racist abuse
which intelligent politicians learn they must not be seen
on camera to regard as bigotry; the immigrants are real
because they do. They say, I am more realistic than
you. But at least you listen. The EU ones are the
mainstream, the non-EU ones are the avant garde.

I want to think a bit about the ‘that’s what it’s like’ jibe which I’m informed is a quote from Don Paterson. The normal Bebrowed line on this is that any criticism of this particular poet is a Good Thing per se but this particular
assault may deserve unpacking. As a reader there are very few poems that come close to describing how something is for me. Some, like John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ are immensely evocative of a group of feelings and attitudes that I hold but I don’t know how those things ‘really’ were because they occurred before I was born. I don’t share John Milton’s faith but his depiction of the way we are brought to do evil seems fairly astute. Keston Sutherland’s depiction of mental anguish in Stress Position strikes a major chord with my experience of severe depression- it isn’t exact but its flow and feel does say more than something about the spirit of the beast. I’m therefore, at least in part, sitting on the rear shelf of the Audi.

Slightly more attentive reading reveals that description (how it is) is being extended into meaning which makes things a bit more complex. Poetic mimesis is complex and layered enough but meaning takes us into this new and shining realm of smoke and mirrors. To get us into this position, Sutherland contrasts similarity for function. ‘what it’s for’, and implies that we attentive readers should concentrate on this aspect if we are to avoid becoming the nodding dogs.

I have no idea, and have no intention of discovering, of the context in which Paterson made this effortless remark but I think the quality of the description is reasonably crucial in leading us to think about function. For example, the Odes describe this really odd but little noticed phenomenon of an acceptance of austerity measures amongst the UK population because we feel that we (somehow) deserve to be punished, that in some way our personal behaviour has resulted in the ongoing fiasco. As a reader, I’ll only be encouraged to think about the meaning or function of that piece of wilful masochism if it is described or alluded to in a way that I can recognise. I think what I’m trying to say is that most of the time I need to be a nodding dog before I can become a thinking dog.

This paragraph also exemplifies Sutherland’s enviable skill in ramming several devices up against each other in ways that shouldn’t even begin to work but do, the themes move from diplomacy, torture, absurdist repetition, mimesis, meaning, the sins of the career poet, immigration, racism and menial labour in a few brief lines and mostly make sense. The only sentence that might not make sense is “There is something we need to do about everything, something it is always hard to be”. I’m struggling with the second half of this primarily because it might sound better than it is. Either this could mean that there is something that it is always hard to be, without this something being specified, or it is hard to be that person that must do something about everything, either way I don’t think it ‘works particularly well but this is small price to pay for the general level of brilliance that runs through this material.

I think the best way to approach the Odes is to read them straight through at least a couple of times so that you can grasp the glory of the full picture before beginning to think about the component parts.

The Odes to TL61P is published by Enitharmon and sells for £8.99.

Simon Jarvis and the Bloke Thing

We’ll do the puppy dog enthusiasm first. Anyone with even a passing interest in English poetry in the 21st century needs to obtain a copy of Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ which was published by Eyewear at the end of last year. This is because his work is important and exciting and more challenging than almost everything else that I’ve read in the last ten years. End of the tail-wagging thing.

One of the recurring themes in Jarvis’ very broad range of work is the plight of the middle aged bloke, one of the other themes/interests is the Great British road network. I’ve had a few problems with the bloke thing because it’s felt scratchy but never quite scratchy enough although there are elements of ‘The Unconditional’ that come close. The usual Jarvis angle on the Bloke Thing is the troubled issue of complicity with regard to cash and the extent to which we all have to play capital’s game. Many, many middle aged writers do this and most of it is an extended whinge about how difficult life is and how the ways of the world force us into new depths of melancholic sadness. The Jarvis take is usually more effective than this and the first poem in this collection raises the Bloke Thing to new heights of non-wallowing expression. These are the opening lines of ‘Lessons and Carols’

    The ring road rests, and frost settles over the meadow;
      down at the river the lights are strung out into faint
    points of attention and silence envelops the dark.
      Here I am standing again on the path on the edge of the city.
    Here I am set with a face looking up at the black
      exit from lighting, the place where the money runs out.

This sets the scene for an elegaic account of Bloke Things which seems to use metre to set up a kind of incantation effect. I’ll deal with this shortly but I think the most striking feature of the above lines are their lyrical strength- I’m particularly fond of ‘faint / points of attention’ and ‘the black / exit from lighting’ because both do clever and evocative things in a few words. The ‘points of attention’ manages to be both lyrical and complex without seeming to try.

I’m going to ignore the ringness of the resting road for the moment and talk a bit more about this Bloke Thing. There has always been a miserablist faction within the Bloke school of poets and this kind of self-lacerating exhibitionism has won more than a few plaudits and continues to do so. This is fair enough, there’s obviously a readership for what Drayton once call ‘ah, me’ verse but I find it inherently dishonest and reasonably loathsome so I approach the Jarvis forays into this territory with a degree of prejudice. It turns out here that he’s not pleading for sympathy but delivering a thesis that’s been one of his semi-formed bones of contention for a while. He’s also elaborating on the Bloke as Dad gizmo in a way that Doesn’t Quite Work.

We’ll continue with the retail problem, J H Prynne is more than a little scornful of the devices used to get us to buy things but Jarvis seems intent on taking this to a new level:

      Each knows, sees us. Although we can never believe it,
    under this laboured neutrality lurks a persisting
      terror of scorning them, terror of giving offence to them.
    We must by gifts; we must come to the store,
      leaving our monoglot offerings there at the checkout
    leaving with objects apparently filled up with life.

Most blokes will confess to disliking shopping (I’m banned from shopping because of my obvious desire to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible) but this is an analysis, description of how retail is supposed to work on our soul and make us feel inadequate if we don’t participate to the full. It’s very well done and sustained through most of the poem and I like it because it gives me something to test my own prejudices and phobias against- I’ve long been of the view that we can’t live on this planet without being compromised by the money machine and that retail does a reasonable job of pulling us in further by means of deception and guile but I’m not convinced that in the many Blokes there ‘lurks a persisting terror’ of ignoring the whole rigmarole. In fact I think most people are aware of the compromises involved and ‘succumb’ anyway- which is probably more worrying but akin to the feeling that the current austerity binge is somehow our fault.

I’m not sure that ‘apparently’ works on the last line but the rest is another example of Jarvis using metrical constraint to get his point across.

The road/driving motif is preserved with

    the telephone smooth as a baby, the shallow recessed
      hand-holds which welcome me into my family car,
    all are quite empty of thought or motive: all, all
      think nothing at all, think all that a stone thinks or less than it.
    All that I feel for them floats in an ether of foolish 
      half-waking conjecture, cutting the circuit short just
    where thought might become painful, might tell me how to wake up.

This is brilliant because it uses simple objects and our feelings about them to make a wider point. It doesn’t matter that the point has been made many times before- what matters here is the ery human elegance with which it is expressed. The ‘ether of foolish half-waking conjecture’ is wonderful and currently the subject of some debate in the Bebrowed household.

I’m not entirely clear that the dilemma of the Bloke as Dad theme works quite as well because it’s trying to do too many things and has this:

    just as a father wants to protect his dear children
      holds them against him, enfolds them in cuddles, for fear
    that his own strength will be too small to save them all, knowing
      he floats like a twig in a river of pitiless money

I am going to come back to this and the conclusion at a later date because I think it needs to be unpicked in the context of the Jarvis Project as a whole but for now I’d like to conclude that this is brilliantly expressed, thought-provoking stuff and that ‘cuddles’ really doesn’t work on any level. At all.

J H Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (again)

Eighteen months ago I wrote with more than a little enthusiasm on the above and have been intending to take this a bit further since then. This may have been a productive gap because I’ve since discovered more aspects of URS to be enthusiastic about.

URS was published in 2001 and consists of 14 poems each of which has two seven line stanzas. There is a completely blank page between poem 7 and eight and rhyme does occur at least once. I’m making the assumption that this is a sequence and not simply a collection of unrelated poems and I’m trying to consider what the poem does rather than what it might mean in an attempt to respond to and build on Ben Watson’s remarkable ‘Madness and Art” which focuses on URS.

I’m also very grateful to Ben for explaining the ‘lo mismo / lo mismo’ epigram- ” a compacted lettrist sonnet made of Francesco de Goya’s despair of finding anything other than the Spanish words for “the same” to title his endless pictures of the horror of war” which has (at last) unlocked for me the recurring use of ‘same’ in ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’. URS entertains me and this is part of Prynne’s intention. I need to add that this isn’t just about making jokes, like most serious poets his jokes are invariably bad, it is about gaining my interest and then involving me in a satisfying dialogue or conversation about what language might be doing. I get annoyed when John Ashbery and Geoffrey Hill attempt to engage me in this way because they don’t deploy much verbal dexterity whereas with Prynne the potential for dexterity may very well be the ‘point’ or at least one of them.

I’ve also found that the way I read this material has changed. Two years ago I think I was still looking for clues that might help with gaining more of a foothold but now I’m trying to absorb stuff for the sense of involvement that it brings because it’s that involvement that is the attraction.

I want to use several bits from the sequence to try and illustrate what I mean about involvement and why URS makes me smile. This is from the second stanza of the ninth poem (unless we’re counting the blank page as a poem):

Elastic bravery tell your friends, profile margins
dilate the soft annular parallax. In such due process
with a furry wrap the favourite minces a hot share
of the pie, the offertory selection hoarded at par
for dark x-linked transfer......

One of the cleverer aspects of this is the things that aren’t said, those things that are nearly said that would allow us to make a bit more ‘sense’. Profit for profile, granular for annular, diligence for process, cake for pie and collection for selection would combine to make a much more straightforward reading which raises the possibility of a ‘shadow’ text running alongside the one that it on the page. This aside, there’s more than
enough here to hold my attention.

The first two words raise the obvious question about whether and in what circumstances bravery or courage or fearlessness can be described as elastic or stretchy or pliable?

A reading of the OED clarifies a few things about ‘elastic’ which I should have been able to think through. The main feature of elasticity is that it is pliable under pressure but springs back to its original shape and size once that pressure is removed. On a very basic level, an elastic band can be stretched but will revert to its original position once we’ve stopped stretching it. The OED also reminds me that it can be used to describe personalities- “Of feelings, temperaments, etc., hence, also, of persons: Not permanently or easily depressed; buoyant” which relates better to bravery in its primary sense. This is of no apparent help with ‘tell your friends’ which brings us back to the recurring retail trope that I wrote about last week. I have read this particular device as a sarcastic comment on and protest against the facile and unsubtle way that retail sloganeering plays upon and exploits our baser instincts but this may not be the case in this instance. “Tell your friends” can carry a number of different connotations but in a retail sense it is a term used to encourage marketing by word of mouth whereby satisfied customers are urged to recommend a particular shop or service to others. This is of course fraught with danger because you don’t have any control over what is ‘told’ although it does help a new business develop a customer base- I speak from personal experience.

To make any real sense of what might be going on, the best place to start is probably at the end, x-linked diseases are so-called because they are “single gene disorders that reflect the presence of defective genes on the X chromosome. This chromosome is present as two copies in females but only as one copy in males”, one of these diseases is muscular dystrophy in its Duchenne and Becker forms.

With this, things begin to fall into place thus:

  • muscles function because they are elastic in that they return to normal after stretching or being made tense;
  • myscular dystrophy is a degenerative condition that is characterised by changes to the shape and size of muscles;
  • ‘parallax’, as well as the astronomical senses, can also mean a distortion;
  • ‘annular’ has a secondary definition of ” esp. in Physiol. of ringed or ring-like structures. annular ligament: a strong muscular band girding the wrist and ankle”;
  • for anybody who may be carrying this genetic disorder, there is an obvious imperative to inform partners of this fact prior to making a decision about having children.

Working this out, making the connections, is satisfying especially for those of us that get easily distracted and need a bit of a challenge to ‘engage’. It’s also intriguing to see how this theme of disability and genetics relates to the rest of the sequence and whether any of this is any help at all with the still baffling first part of the second sentence which will need further attention even though there’s the potential Langland connection with hot pies and the proceeds from the offertory….

The reason that URS makes me smile is that it is packed with verbal ingenuity and forces me to think in a completely different way- a way that has to carry several dimensions at once and it’s this, rather than the ‘message’ which brings on a reconsideration of the wider world. For example, what does it require to run a ‘ghost’ text alongside the main event? Can the workings and logic of capital be compared to the resistance to treatment and relentless degeneration of MD? The list is endlessly absorbing.

URS is in the 2005 edition of the ‘Poems’ which is available from the usual suspects and I believe the original is still available from Object Permanence.

J H Prynne, economics and the retail trade in this present crisis.

I think there can be little doubt that the free market ideology of the last thirty five years is having a few problems at the moment with most countries in the West experiencing the deepest and longest recession for over a century. For those of us on the left, the causes are reasonably clear and none of should be surprised at the tales of venality and corruption slowly emerging from the banks. The question is (as ever) what action to take because it is easy to provide the critique and point out the greed and exploitation at the heart of capitalism, it is altogether different to present a viable alternative because state socialism has an even worse reputation and track record.

I’ve remarked before on Prynne’s distaste for the fatuous tropes of the retail trade (‘buy one, get one free’, ‘three for two’ etc) and his use of these to express quite bitter sarcasm. This, together with an Old Left disdain for financiers, has run threadlike through the work since ‘Kitchen Work’ and it might be that things have changed a little with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’.

I’ll start with a poem from ‘The Oval Window’ which was published in 1983:

What if the outlook is likely to cut short
by an inspired fear in the bond market.
The place itself is a birthday prank:
current past the front,
en premiere ligne
like stone dust on strips of brighter green.
Given to allergic twitching, the frame
compounds for invertible counterpoint
and waits to see. A view is a window
on the real data, not a separate copy
of that data, or a lower surplus in oil
and erratic items such as precious stones
aircraft and the corpses of men tigers
fish and pythons, "all in a confused tangle."
Changes to the real data
are visible through the view; and operations
against the view are converted, through
a kind of unofficial window on Treasury policy,
into operations on the real data.
To this world given over, now safely,
work makes free logic, joined to the afterlife.

I don’t intend to undertake any kind of attentive reading of the above, those wishing for a duller account of ‘The Oval Window’ might start with the Reeve and Kerridge essay on Jacket. I just want to note that this is, in part, concerned with the nuts and bolts of the dismal science, ‘fear in the bond market’ ‘a lower surplus in oil’ ‘the real data’ and ‘Treasury policy’ are all phrases that continue to make up our economic and fiscal discourse. Reeve and Kerridge refer to the ironic tone of this poem but I’m of the view that it’s angry sarcasm and that this is underlined by the last line reference to the genocidal thinking behind the Holocaust. I also need to say that I’m not a great fan of this sequence but this particular poem does seem to represent a reasonably clear ‘position’.

I am however an enormous fan of ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ (2001) because it exudes technical skill and confidence and because (this is important) it makes me smile a lot. I could go on for a very long time about how this is the kind of stuff that everybody should be engaging with and responding to but, for the moment, I just want to focus on this:

On the track the news radiates like a planet auction,
for the best rates hard to chew. If it seems too good,
sucker, the pap is surely toxic, unless the glad
hand goes your way, soft as velvet. The strokes
of the palm not even touched, a waft of livid air
gives the take its donation, sexual preening overtly
lavish in symmetry; your flicker goes to mine and

locks into warranty, well why not. Over lush fields
a rising sun pitches out its sulky damp shadow, in
reminder of cost levels in the benefit stream. Oh
fight this fight or sleep when others wake, the
maze of a shining path leads on without a break;
count the steps in retrospect, burnt umber places
engrossed forever in dumb-struck dropped reward.

So, here we would appear to have a more grown up and considered economic thesis relating to some quite complex stuff, the ‘glad hand’ of corruption (or patronage systems) as the best way to avoid toxic ‘pap’, the rising sun of the developing nations and their ability to cut cost levels and the impact of consequential unemployment in the West on public finances. I’m reading ‘a shining path’ to those nice agrarian reformers in Peru who also happened to be murderous thugs with a very odd economic programme which, if successful, would have represented several steps backwards. I’ll save ‘fight this fight or sleep’ until later but the whole sequence is full of this kind of elegant / graceful detail.

In the interest of space I was going to skip over ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ but I think this needs to be singled out from the third poem in the sequence:

Fix out gaze on this, on virtue. Acknowledge
skid forward or same fervid plastic embankment
her link antler, rising and drive. Above his
anthem converge tall preening slips to axial

The economic ‘aspect’ of this only becomes apparent with the knowledge that a subsidiary definition of ’embankment’ is “A banking speculation; a bank account” which then makes sense of ‘fervid’ and ‘plastic’. There’s also the ‘preening’, sexual display link between this and the poem above.

This sequence is probably Prynne at his most austere and resistant and I’m not entirely clear why a reference to the banking crisis should be placed in a work that is mostly ‘about’ the civil war in Ulster with a particular focus on the Maze hunger strikes but I’ll continue to read it as economic rather than ideological.

‘As Mouth Blindness’ is the first poem in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and reads as a response to the ongoing fiscal self-flagellation currently being promoted and/or practiced by people who really should know better. The poem starts with:

Right now beyond the brunt yet afforded, gainsay now
for aspect close to residue, you'll see it there. Not full
scanned at damage so far, ridges debased fetch so plainly
or even gradual, nothing not due. Lay a hand over plus
be level be sane two for one. Her voice was ever low, nil
transfusion plot negative to hum under par in the race
to tint and show a true recoil, you are there from the shot,
the star flinched openly.

This uses the ‘two for one’ device to scathe about our current economic dilemma and carries on in a similar vein until this conclusion:

Time in the news to be not silent indoors, mouth in thought
shut up chew it the choice separates its like or is lame for
wounding in what is due would tell you suffused. For both
market done and stunned in face of, great lack breeds lank
less and less, claimant for right. Flatter by great expectancy,
for so resemble by just match, no less than fitting the race
to birthright and natal place, our lingo.

The place-work of
willed repeats gains a familiar tremor in jointure, we say
sustainable our mouth assents slave dental unbroken torrid reason
will commute previous and lie down. None more credible, mirror
make up flat sat batch pinup gruesome genome. Now get out.

This is a similar analysis but with more of a focus on the fact that it is always the poor who suffer most in a recession and there is more than a little obscenity in the deeds of our political leaders to punish those already in poverty for the greedy stupidity of the rich.

The last three words signal a similar level of anger and ‘lack breeds lank’ seems to encapsulate what many of see as the hidden reality of where we are now.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and what I’m thinking of as the ‘Hot Pie problem’. For weeks I’ve been flummoxed by:

For fields thus filled it was no dream if yet so dear I lay, pronate
attempered pronoun sounded dear heart how suckled, hot pies! be
blithe, for integer broad alleged awake among the things
that are, in spoken footprint cordial how alike by probe to lit
shelf grains.

Following on from Michael Peverell’s comment last month, I’ve being noticing just how much of ‘Piers Plowman’ there is in ‘KD’ and would like to suggest that this ‘Hot Pies’ is more than just a line from the initial scene of a “fair field of folk” but also an echo of Langlands more extended criticism of retailers and especially those that try to ‘corner’ the market in certain goods-

To punischen vppon pilories and vppon pyning stoles,
As bakers and breweres, bocheres and cokes;
For thyse men don most harm to mene peple,
Rychen throw regratrerye and rentes hem beggeth
With that the poor peple sholde potte in here wombe.

This is the first part of (in the ‘C’ text) of a 40 line digression about the greed and sharp practices of urban traders and retailer and does seem more or less at one with the Prynne perspective. Incidentally, ‘regratery’ is glossed by Pearsall as “buying up goods in the market at advantage (eg by setting up price-rings) and is defined by the OED as ” To buy up (commodities, esp. food) in order to resell at a profit in the same or a neighbouring market” and also notes that various laws were passed in a vain attempt to stamp out this pice of sharp practice.

Of course, price-rings continue to flourish in many areas from personal banking to airline tickets to gas and electricity with governments affecting to be shocked once these arrangements are exposed- it could therefore be that the hot pies refer to a disdain for these kind of practices.

Towards the end of ‘KD’ the call to arms seems to have modified. There are those of us who take the view that capitalism proceeds by means of long waves and that the end of a particular wave need not present a fundamental threat to the system. There is also a view that this particular crisis is so systemically threatening that the time could be ripe for a change.

Towards the end of ‘KD’ there is:

Taunting themselves with foresight badges, now is how to finish 
without fiduciary rank ending induced. Fractional deponent
closeness is not so hard too: when the time travel equals the
period of a sampling frequency, the contribution to the inter-
action is screened down to about half its unretarded strength.
Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment.

I’m reading ‘the stop key’ as the point when the free market breaks down and the above suggesting that this moment is not going to occur as a response to the fiasco that is currently gathering steam. I’d agree with this and think it significant that Prynne has read this at an Occupy event which may well signal his approval of their quietist and undogmatic approach.

J H Prynne, Mao Zedong, William Langland and the difficult poem

Having spent most of last week polishing the arduity site, I’ve had the opportunity to reconsider the scope of the project, which was initially about encouraging people to tackle work that is usually considered to be difficult. Since then I think I’ve modified my own understanding of the difficult and become a bit less zealous about converting everyone to the joys of this material. In fact, I’m now seeing it as a more detailed and thorough mulling over of stuff that is often ignored because of the ‘D’ tag.

The other lesson learned is that it’s a mistake to worry about definition, to try and compartmentalise the various facets that people might find intimidating / obscure / baffling. It is probably best to try and give examples and to concentrate on how they work or function rather than what they might mean. This is the current premise and has so far resulted in pages on ‘Scenes from Comus’, ‘The Triumph of Love’, and ‘Mercian Hymns’as well as a long page on the first three parts / chapters of David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’.

All of this is a way of getting ready to re-write the Celan and Prynne pages, add something on the notes to the Meridian which was published last year and to try and say something useful about ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ without scaring off those new to either poet. I want to use this to illustrate some of the problems that ‘KD’ presents. In amongst the ‘reference cues’ at the back there is an apparently famous speech ‘On Contradiciton’ from 1937 which, Wikipedia tells me, “is considered his most important philosophical essay”. I’ll deal with what Prynne does with this in a moment but ‘Piers Plowman’ (in both ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts’ is also listed and these present a similar kind of difficulty.

I think I need to point out that I’ve never been keen on this Marxian contradiction rigmarole primarily because (it seems to me) that the selection of the contradictory elements needed to achieve a resolution is too arbitrary and has led (oddly) to the reification of dialectical materialism at the expense of other methods of analysis. The part of the speech that Prynne has included exemplifies this particular tendency.

The other part of getting some structure into life is to engage with the late Medieval period and Middle English. I started with Thomas Hoccleve and am now oscillating between him and Langland. I didn’t think there would be too much in Piers Plowman that would need unpicking but then (yesterday) I got to an extended grammatical analogy which is in the ‘C’ text but not in either ‘A’ or ‘B’. This relates to the nature of reward and is part of a fascinating debate reflecting the economic anxieties of the latter half of the fourteenth century and can be considered hard to grasp at a number of different levels.

So far, ‘KD’ has three themes / subjects which are reasonably clear, the first relates to being and un-being, the second to contradiction and the third is a kind of response to the current economic fiasco which continues to destroy lives across the planet.

The thoughts on contradiction take their cue from these extracts from the 1937 essay:

There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes……It is evident that purely external causes can only give rise to mechanical motion, that is, to changes in scale or quantity, but cannot explain why things differ qualitatively in thousands of ways and why one thing changes into another. As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantitative development, is likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions.


But is it enough to say merely that each of the contradictory aspects is the condition for the other’s existence, that there is identity between them and that consequently they can coexist in a single entity? No, it is not. The matter does not end with their dependence on each other for their existence; what is more important is their transformation into each other. That is to say, in given conditions, each of the contradictory aspects within a thing transforms itself into its opposite, changes its position to that of its opposite.

Prynne follows this with:

I saw these gaps of explanation rolling like wheels contrary within
themselves, alien motions on fire with coriolis demeanour. I saw
the grains self-rotate in their own amazement with noise of spheres
metallic and burnished, along the baseline it is by amount at
principle neither so nor not because contradiction is inherent and
not alternate in sense-ordering. I saw this notion in full fiery
finesse, alive alive-o.

( For the sake of accuracy, I’ve maintained the line breaks as published).

Both of these are blockquoted paragraphs, but there is also:

...............................................'External causes
are the condition of change and internal cause are the basis
of change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be'.

The dilemma here has a number of dimensions, the first concerns the Marx – Lenin – Mao lineage and the variations along the way and the second concerns the relationship between the quote and what follows. I’ve just had the dubious pleasure of wading through all of the essay and really wouldn’t want to inflict this on anyone else partially because people may be overwhelmed by the apparent density therein and because I’d be tempted to point out the very high nonsense factor. As the essay is used on three separate occasions however I will have to try and provide some context- including the fact that this made Mao’s reputation as an ideologue/theorist which was instrumental in his rise to power. I’ll resist the temptation to go on about the genocidal Great Leap Forward and his readiness to kill more than 40 million people for the sake of an ideological nicety but this won’t be easy.

I have no problem with identifying the ‘Molly Malone’ lyric and waxing eloquent about Prynne’s interest in the work song, nor with puzzling over the nature of the spheres, nor with speculating about the abiding presence of ‘sense order’ in Prynne’s work.

Given the presence of contradiction throughout ‘KD’, playing down this element and concentrating on the other concerns is nevertheless dishonest so I’ll probably try to present an overview, link to what David Harvey says about contradiction and leave readers to pursue this further if they so wish.

There’s also the sad fact that I’m both deeply partisan and opinionated and what I get from poems may not be a true reflection of what is probably available to others. For example, when Geoffrey Hill uses ‘self’ in any context I have this need to go into ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’ at very great length because that’s what I want to take rather than what might actually be there.

I’ll also indulge myself with extensive quotes from Gillian Rose on Poussin and on her debate with Sister Wendy and point to what Prynne said about Professor Rose at his reading of ‘Refuse Collection’- I may even bring Geoffrey Hill’s memorialisation into things and try and make some kind of point re Rose’s denunciation of all post-structural thought and Jacques Derrida in particular”.

‘KD’ is written mostly in the form of a medieval dream-vision poem with heavy use of the ‘I saw’ trope which is how ‘Piers’ starts. Prior to paying attention to Langland, I wouldn’t have seen the parallels between this and ‘KD’ but I now see that both are in part a response to changing economic circumstances and that neither take the easy option of presenting one ‘side’ or the other but leave readers to do the ‘thought work’ instead. As noted above, the poem does have remarkably obdurate sections but it is also a very real discussion of the anxieties and resentments that pervaded England at the time – for all kinds of reasons. This is how the grammatical analogy in the ‘C’ text of Passus III begins:

        Thus is mede and mercede as two maner
Rect and indirect, reminde bothe
On a sad and a siker sembable to hemsuluen.
Ac adiectif and substantif vnite aske
And accordance in kynde, in case and in nombre,
And ayther is otheres help - of hem cometh retribucuon,
And that is the gyft that god giveth to all lele living,
Grace of good end and gret joye aftur:

The problem here is about just how much context do people want and how much this may be of assistance rather than providing further obfuscation. I think it’s important to try and get this right if only to demonstrate that poetic difficulty isn’t confined to the modernist thread and because it’s a wonderful example of the poem as engaged political commentary. I don’t have problem with clarifying the language and elements of the analogy, nor with presenting an overview of the argument but I do get a bit unstuck with the detail of the economic realities, of ‘bastard feudalism’ and the workings of orthodox ideas about retribution and grace. This is because there needs to be a balance between enabling people feel confident about the poem and swamping them with (partisan and partial) context even though that might be useful.