Category Archives: family

David Jones, John Matthias and what poetry might be for

This could be quite tricky, I want to put my finger on some elements of the poetic that I’v probably avoided. My usual response to questions about what poetry might be able to do is that to analyse such things is to spoil them and it’s therefore better to Leave Well Alone. Today however I have found myself writing “this is what you come to poetry for” with regard to a small part of Jones’ “The Anathemata” and thinking about whether to include my own keenly felt observations in the ‘Trgons’ annotation project. With regard to the latter I’ve decided to exclude them but to try and work out here why they mean so much to me.

Both the ‘experiments in reading’ and the ‘Trigons’ annotation project involve paying a different kind of readerly attention. With the former it’s about:

  • finding passages that strike a particular chord and
  • writing about whatever it is that does this and exploring how this striking ‘works’.

Annotating ‘Trigons’ requires a different kind of attention in that we need to identify those lines or phrases that may benefit from some additional information in terms of context and then working out the best way to provide this given the vast resources of the interweb. This has required me to invent an ideal reader who is intelligent and literate but may need some help with some of the characters and references.

As an example we’ve just finished the Hess / Hess poem and I’m still not sure that we’ve given enough information about Myra Hess and Clara Schumann and whether I’ve chosen the most appropriate links for the neuroscience terms. The work is immensely rewarding for the insights about technique and how long poems work but also for providing me with another thing that poems can do.

In the past I’ve written about how poems are particularly good at both portraying and becoming part of our cultural landscape. I think I now want to amend that, I’m discovering that poems can also bring to mind things that we already know but are no longer ‘present’ to us and I’m finding the effect of these ‘prompts’ to be fascinating. I think that I need to make a distinction here from the more straightforward ‘jogging’ of memory and what might be going on here. This seems to add an emotional dimension to remembering because there are two instances where I can recall how I felt about what I knew. In my current adult way of thinking I would not of said that either of these facts were in any way significant but two of John’s images have changed that view.

The first concerns the German invasion of Crete during WWII. As quite a serious child in the sixties I watched a ty programme called ‘All Our Yesterdays’ which spent half an hour each week recounting events that had occurred 25 years before. So, sometime in 1966 I learned that the invasion of Crete was undertaken exclusively by paratroopers and that this was the first time that this had occurred. Accompanying this fact there was footage of white parachutes opening in a clear blue sky- it transpires that I still have this image in my head which has caused me to think what that might be about. I was eleven and about to leave primary school, I was interested in technology and progress and therefore impressed by ‘firsts’ but my mother’s family had been decimated by two world wars and we were (generally) ‘against’ any kind of armed conflict even though we knew the Germans were horrid because of the Holocaust.

So, I’m impressed by the audacity of this invasion even though I’m a bit of a pacifist. I do have this very specific associated image that wasn’t particularly dramatic or impressive yet clearly formed part of who I was becoming- someone with a strong interest in history and how wars are made / done. It is very unlikely that any of this, including my (current) grudging admiration for shiny killing machines without paying close attention to ‘Trigons’.

The other ‘jog’ concerns the figure of Rudolf Hess in Spandau. It turns out that somewhere in my brain there is this fuzzy image of a wraith-like shape in a military wandering through the grounds of the prison. Unlike Crete, I have no idea where this came from but I do recall (now) having a slightly morbid interest into this odd German with his even odder story and the circumstances of his incarceration. I think this interest ran alongside the fact of Hess’ high rank in all things Nazi and his consequent involvement in the worst kind of evil. I knew about Nuremberg, I also knew the rumours about high-ranking Nazis hiding out in South America and I knew that Speer was also incarcerated but I don’t have an image of him as I do of Hess. I’m quite disturbed about this, it’s like carrying around a ghost that you didn’t know was there.

So, as well as reminding us of our cultural past, it would seem that some poetry can bring to life personal memories about that landscape that we didn’t know that we had. I may be wrong but novels (even very good ones) don’t do this for me, neither does painting.

I’ve written recently about beauty in poetry and some time ago about how some lines address me directly. This isn’t because they imitate or match my response but it is (I think) that they prompt a re-evaluation and a re-framing of the way that I think and feel. A recent example that has led to a clearer understanding of what might be going on comes from David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ and is written in reference to the ‘Willendorf Venus’:


                 But he's already at it
the form-making proto-maker
busy at the fecund image of her.

That’s it, three lines. What it has done is prod me into thinking differently about how I ‘do’ creativity. The brilliant “already at” and “busy at” give this sense of enthusiastic and eager urgency that I know that I still feel but I seem to have buried under concerns about technique and form and about the end result rather than the doing which should be the absolute joy that it was when I was 14. Of course, Jones is making a much wider point about the role of the form-maker but what he also does is encapsulate in a very simple way a spontaneity that most of us overlook and/or bury as the contingencies of adulthood kick in. Incidentally, I don’t think I would have been as affected by this if I hadn’t had to type it out.

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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.

Purdey Krieden on the Claudius App (2)

I’ve spent the past week avoiding this in the hope that the need to write about the above might go away. The reason for this procrastination is twofold-

  • this is a kind of poetry that I’m not familiar with and don’t know how to ‘place’;
  • I find the apparent themes to be too challenging for comfort.

I am aware that the North Anerican poetry market / discourse / shop has a number of less than useful labels for a bewildering gaggle of poetic tendencies which I can’t be bothered to get my brain around because they appear to be less than useful- the placing of Barbara Guest as a member of the Language faction springs to mind as do many others. These three poems may fit snugly into a recognised type but this eludes me and I don’t intend trying to find out.

With regard to themes, I need to state that I spent too many years of my early career in the business of safeguarding children (usually from members of their family) and this experience has led me to question whether it is appropriate / fitting / responsible / helpful to write imaginatively about the bad things that can happen to children. I’m not suggesting that all work of this type does more harm than good but I don’t think that the confessional poems of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell have been in any way beneficial.

Bad things happen to children and adults behave badly in all three of these poems which are also linked by an almost elegaic cadence. This means that I should be against them, that I should be able to walk away from them and read something else (and the is some very good stuff in this issue) but I can’t because of the amount of talent that’s on display. I’m increasingly coming round to the Jonathan Meades view that the only school that matters is the school of talent and my definition of talent is anything that I wish I’d done myself (talent) or anything that is so good that I know I’d never be able to match it (extreme talent). I’m not suggesting this as a universally applicable tendency but it works for me because it’s something I recognise and don’t need to rationalise. For example, I really do wish that I’d thought of placing Black Beauty in Baghdad as a central feature of a poem about American foreign policy but I know that I’ll never be able to write something like Book V of the Faerie Queen, Book II of Paradise Lost, The Anathemata, Celan’s Aschenglorie, and most things by Hill and Prynne all of which are examples of extreme talent.

Leaving the social work anxieties aside, these three poems contain many flourishes and conceits that I’m jealous of, that manage to be both intelligent and original. The other rather glib observation is that all three seem to start from a point of chaos and work towards (but never quite reach) a point of coherence or sense. With most innovative poetry, this usually occurs in the opposite direction (with a few notable exceptions).

There are some parts of this material that I can recognise as accomplished but nevertheless have qualms about what they appear to ‘say’. One of the more obvious of these is the bell around the brother’s neck which is contasted obliquely with his sister’s mouth which her mother fills with grapes. The bell can make a noise which may or may not alert others to the brother’s plight where as the girl is silenced by the actions of her ostensibly indulgent mother after which the brother dies. This quite remarkable passage also throws up a number of questions that don’t appear to be resolved:

  • did the brother’s question cause his death or was he going to die anyway?
  • does the evil eye carry just the ordinary meaning or are we meant to think of the Bataille novel too?
  • is the position of the eye under the sheets intended to infer that it’s powers are diminished or is there some other significance that I’m missing?
  • what (precisely) are the limits of her lips and why do they mingle to rather than with?

All three poems have touches that are dangerously brilliant but some feel to me as if they’re trying too hard. Let’s start with the brilliant:

  • we would press the bleeding tissue on our horses faces / and mystify the names of the children in front of their pretty mothers;
  • our mother died a virgin my eyelids are still black after the rain;
  • and we would receive silence from god’s glands / and spread it on our faces; i feed my brothers with my own gleaming body and myself with dusty semaphores;
  • I ran to the lake with my knees uselessly wet / people with torn eyes mostly walk around at night / shirley spat rain under my skirt;
  • these love bites your family jewelries my son;
  • sometimes i urinate rain even though i am not a catholic;
  • you see me now as I was in your garden twenty years ago, as long as it is pretty he said;
  • ‘I love pudding’ – me too, he cum; / those noises are insects tickling the mold on your tits / vinegar was injected in the cells, then a foxtrot;

The list grew as I was going down the page, some of this is really very accomplished and I wish I’d written most of it. There are bits that hold it back by too much effort, the backwards words and anagrams is tedious, the figure of the guinea pig doesn’t ‘work’, the ‘salomon’ conceit seems fairly pointless, the are either too few or too many mis-spellings.

So, I don’t think I’ll get this stuff out of my system any time soon and I’m stil not sure of the taste that’s currently in my mouth but I think I might be a little less disturbed / challenged and this may not be a Bad Thing.

Parenthood and books not read in 2010 together with excuses

Now that we’re at the end of this politically disastrous year, I’ve been thinking about all those tomes that I should have read but didn’t. This is purely for my own record and I’ll probably do it again next year. The reason for this interest in the passing of time is probably due to a recent ‘cardiac episode’ which is oddly ironic given that I’ve spent parts of the last five years planning to kill myself. One of the side effects of an unscheduled brush is a half-recognition that you might not have all the time in the world to read all the stuff that you need to.

I also want to use this to record what I see as a more significant event that I haven’t yet fully worked out. After said brush my two kids returned home briefly to offer support and to0 make sure that I wasn’t actually at death’s door. I’m unspeakably and fiercely proud of both of them. Kayt is 29 and beginning to pursue a career in archaeology which is her passion. Jack is 25, intent on saving the world (all of it), and is about to embark on the next phase of this project in Tbilisi.

They’re both incredibly bright and articulate and think that I’m cleverer than I actually am. We debate issues of common interest (poetry, the revolution, music etc) with more than a degree of good-natured intensity which is great fun- Jack and I recently discussed the possibility of setting up a better organised piracy business off the coast of Somalia whilst Kayt and I are currently arguing about Bachelard’s notions of  resonance and reverberation.

During the visit we were talking about the first Michael Faber novel and Kayt offered the view that it doesn’t have much of a plot. I expressed some surprise at this and pointed out that things do occur in the book. I was then going to expand on plotlessness when I noticed an exchange of glances between my two offspring. Jack smiled and gently explained that, to most people, narrative consists of things that occur in sequence.  Kayt nodded in agreement and I realised that any further argument on my part would merely be seen as further proof of my inherent oddness.

The significance of this moment cannot be over-emphasised. For the last thirty years I’ve been able to express all kinds of ‘odd’ views to my kids and they’ve taken some of these on board and we’ve argued about the rest. I now realise that any notion of parental guidance / influence is a thing of the past in that they are now (more or less) autonomous and have formed the view that my interests may be a little too strange or esoteric for them. This was probably compounded by the fact that I had earlier shown them both passages from ‘The Unconditional’ which was met with quietly amused bewilderment.

This is not to say that my feelings about them have changed. My love for them is absolutely unconditional and I will move heaven and earth to prevent bad things happening to them but there is a sense that the dynamic has changed.  I then began to consider this perceived oddness and whether or not the hours spent with Prynne, Sutherland, Celan, Derrida, Blanchot etc has actually pushed me into a fairly small and obscure corner of the world where debate is only possible with fellow eccentrics who’ve read the same stuff. I’ve decided that this may be the case but I don’t actually care- I’m not going to start engaging with more mainstream stuff because it’s not very interesting and it doesn’t challenge me.

I do need to work on the ‘oddness’ thing- I recognise that I’m attracted to the odd but (I like to think) only if it makes some kind of sense at some level. I also have to recognise that I may need to spend more time giving this oddness context so that it is less likely to be viewed as merely eccentric. This may also entail a greater degree of seriousness on my part but that may be a small price to play- especially if I’m going to escape this kind of marginalisation.

I must point out that this view isn’t confined to my kids. The NHS sends a man around once a week to check on my mood and thinking. This is very useful as he’s a Dorn fan and we can argue about the whole Olson/Dorn/Prynne thing but he does view my adherence to most things Cambridge as wilfully odd.

I’ve spent longer on that than planned so here’s the books not read-

“The Unconditional” by Simon Jarvis. I’ve tried and I’ve written about trying and I’ve even started to take an interest in Jarvis’ criticism but there’s a long way to go. The excellent Timothy Thornton recently described the experience thus “never got through The Unconditional, but can’t stop returning to it somehow” which describes my own experience better than I can. Next year will see me trying to work out the nature of this particular “somehow”.

“The Cantos” by Ezra Pound. My only excuse is that it’s very long and full of stuff that I’ll need to look up. I know that reading Hugh Kenner and the wonderful  Christine Brooke-Rose on Pound isn’t the same and that such an omission is unforgivable but the time required to pay full attention will detract from other stuff and I know that, once started, I’d become more than a little obsessed.

They That Haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets by J H Prynne. The only excuse is that I haven’t been able to find a copy on the web and the second-hand sites that I use don’t list it.
Anything by Wallace Stevens apart from “The Rock” following Jim Kleinhenz’ contribution to arduity. This is again unforgivable and my only excuse is that the Collected has got to the top of the waiting list twice in the last few months but was supplanted by stuff that seemed more urgent.
A guide to The Maximus poems of Charles Olson by George F. Butterick. The reason that this is on the list is that I’m a Maximus obsessive and Butterick makes a point about originality in his introduction and I want to see where he goes with it. The reason for not reading it is that I’m queasy about commentaries and would rather spend time reading the poem.
Anything by Benjamin, Adorno, Hegel, Marx. This is a lie, I have read one essay by Adorno and a couple of essays and a poem by Marx. I also read more about Hegel than was good for me. I read ‘Arcades’ in 2009 and hated it and don’t intend giving Benjamin any more attention ever. Adorno has been avoided for most of the last year but I have this horrid feeling that making sense of Jarvis will involve making some sense of critical theory in the near future…. I remain firm in my intention not to engage with Hegel because life really is too short.

Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England by Blair Warden. I’ve been intending to return to the 17th century for most of this year and this tome is attractive because it’s bound to annoy me and it’s a useful way into reading Nigel Smith’s new biography of Marvell and then Marvell’s prose. This was going to occur when I felt the need of a rest from contemporary stuff- the need has not yet arisen.

This list is not complete but it does contain most of the stuff that I probably should have read. There’s also the list of stuff that I should have written about but that’s going to stay in my head.