Category Archives: poetry

Paul Celan, notes on the encounter

The notion of encounter is a key part of the Meridian address and a major theme in Celan’s later work. It’s also quite complex so I’ll start with its use in the Meridian speech and then proceed to the notes.

This seems to be talking about an encounter between the poem and the other:

Perhaps, I have to tell myself now- perhaps an encounter of this “totally other” kind with a not all too distant, with a very close “other” is – I am using here a familiar auxillary verb- is thinkable- thinkable again and again.

This elaborates on how the poem proceeds:

The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author remains added to it.

But doesn’t the poem already at its inception stand in the encounter- in the mystery of the encounter?

The poem wants to head toward some other, it needs this other, it needs an opposite. It seeks it out, it bespeaks itself to it.

Each thing, each human is, for the poem heading towards this other, a figure of this.

The attention the poem tries to pay to everything it encounters, its sharper sense of detail, outline, sturcture, colour but also of the “tremors” and “hints,” all this is not, I believe, the acheivement of an eye competing with (or emulating) ever more precise instruments, but rather is a concentration that remains mindful off all our dates.

So, the poem is not an inert object, it goes out into the world and moves towards this encounter a meeting that have been brought into existence at the point when the poem was made/written. This is the kind of stuff that gives Celan his reputation for difficulty and has allowed his detractors more fuel than they deserve. I’ve always understood that the encounter occurs between the poem and the reader but the notes show that this is hopelssly simplistic.

The ‘Encounter’ section of the notes is made up of three parts:

  1. Encounter with the Poem;
  2. The Dialogical Poem;
  3. The Conversation with Things.

I’ll try to deal with each part in turn although there may be some overlaps along the way.

Encounter with the poem.

It’s important to recognise that the poem, for Celan, has agency- it is underway and it is attentive as it heads towards this other. This may seem odd but any writer produces work with a specific audience in mind even if this is a fairly broad group. Some of the more serious writers may have a specific aim in touching or influencing readers in a certain way and this points to a slightly more grounded rationale. I encounter books and poems and other texts all the time, some of these are first encounters and others are with old friends or aquaintances and I give them attention. Does Celan’s idea of the attention that the poem tries to pay allude to the elements placed by the poet to enable a reciprocal encounter to take place?

I’d like to report that the notes add weight to this incisive line of reasoning but instead we get:

The poem as poem is dark, it is dark because it is the poem. Under|with this congenital darkness I do not mean those Lichtenbergian clashes of books and readers’ heads, where the hollow sound does not always come from the book; to the contrary, the poem wants to be understood it is exactly because it is dark that it wants to be understood-: as poem, as ‘poem’s dark‘.Each poem thus demands understanding, will to understand, learning to understand (that is, but let this secondary phenomenon be mentioned here for the last time, a true understanding and in no way some “To enter into the co- or re-production, as fastidiously suggested these days on the federal and other levels. The poem, as I said, wants to be understood, it offers itself up to an interlinear version, even demands it; not that the poem is written in view of this or that interlienear version, rather the poem carries, as poem, the possibility of the interlinear version both real and virtual; in other words, the poem is in its own way occupiable. I want to insist on the fact that here I am using the term interlinear version as an auxilliary word; more specifically I do not mean the empty lines between verse and verse; I beg you to imagine those empty lines as spatial, as spatial – and – temporal. Thus temporal and spatial, and, for this too I beg you, always in relation to the poem.

There exists, I return to this here already, because nothing can be lost sight of, no co- no re-production, the poem is because it is the poem, unique, unrepeatable. (Unique too for the one who writes it and from you and I who are reading it may not expect anything other than this unique shared knowledge.) Unique and unrepeatable, irreversible on the other or on this side of any esotericism, hermeticism, etc – –

The arduity page on the darkness of the poem deals with the idea of primordial darkness (eqated with mortality) as where the poem comes from. We appear to have here this darkness as almost indistinguishable from the poem and that it is this darkness that leads to the poem’s desire to be understood. So, the encounter with the reader carries the potential for being understood but the poem in this encounter demands that the reader has the will (a very loaded noun) to understand and is prepared to learn how to understand.

The poem can also have this interlinear quality which is said to be both spatial and temporal and is differentiated from the ’empty lines between verse and verse’. This opens up a heap of possibilities:

  • Does this mean that we should pay attention to the significance of the placing of the line breaks?
  • Sould we be looking for each line break as indicating a shift in time and/or place?
  • Can we consider these qualities in the same way as the dark of the poem?
  • Does this interlinearity have the English sense of ‘reading between the lines’ – i.e. looking for the things that aren’t said or are occluded?
  • What exactly might have been meant by virtual in 1960, in this sense does it mean ‘nearly’ or ‘almost’ real?

The notes to ‘breathturn’ make use of Plotinus to make clear that ‘ Original and reproduction are the same / the yearning to become world-free’ which seems at odds with the apparent distinction made here although the second paragraph seems to insist that attention must be paid to those versions even though the poem, as poem, is unique

Celan denied the charge of hermeticism- something that was increasingly levelled at him during the last ten years of his life, he did however acknowledge that his work carried more than a degree of ambiguity. This denial seems to be undermined by the referal to the ‘other on this’ side of hermeticism.

These two paragraphs contain one of the most explicit statements of Celan’s poetics and it is again fascinating to see this insistence on the agency of the poem, as if it is a conscious and acting thing- it is the poem that ‘demands’ that ‘offers itself up’ that carries its darkness with it. The ‘giviing itself up’ can refer to surrender but also to scarifice for the sake of this interlinear version.

Christoph Lichtenberg was an eighteenth century scientist who apparently (according to the editors) asked the rehtorical question about the head and the book.

The other ‘significant’ extended passage is more explicit about the encounter:

Even for the one,- and beyond all for the one, for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, this encounter has to begin with the darkness – of the self-evident what makes every encounter with a stranger strange. “Camarado, who this is no book, who touches this, touches a human

Only from by this touch – that is not a “making contact” – comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium; it is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language (noesis does not suffice; it is the question of the angle of inclination under which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the here and Now. the place and the hour

(The text after ‘suffice’ is a later addition)

To get the obvious barriers out of the way first, the “Camarado” quote is from Walt Whitman’s “So Long”:

     Camerado, this is no book,
     Who touches this touches a man,
     (Is it night? are we here together alone?)
     It is I you hold and who holds you,
     I spring from the pages into your arms--decease calls me forth.

This might suggest an additional intimate and deeply personal element to the poem/reader encounter.

The OED defines aisthesis as ” The perception of the external world by the senses” and sensorium is ” The seat of sensation in the brain of man and other animals; the percipient centre to which sense-impressions are transmitted by the nerves”. .

Apparently ‘noesis’ is used in phenomenology to mean “a process or an act of perceiving or thinking, as opposed to an object of perception or thought; (also) the subjective aspect of an intentional experience”. All of this would seem to suggest that what we normally consider as our way of apprehending things will not suffice, that there needs to be a conversation and this needs to be under this enigmatic ‘angle of inclination’- an idea which is in the Meridian speech and which I’m still puzzling over:

This strange encounter with the stranger, in order to be real, needs to be focused on a conversation between the poet and the reader. This more than resonates with me because I’m only really keen on those poems and those bodies of work that give something in return for my readerly attention. As a very amateur and inept practitioner, I’m most pleased when a poem of mine develops in response to how audience members react. It’s when Celan goes beyond the ordinary workings of perception that I begin to struggle. The process works for me by explicable exchanges. I read a poem and then think about it. If I’m sufficiently intrigued and impressed by it then I will return to the text in the hope of finding things that weren’t initially apparent and which may give an entry point to what might be going on. I find this ongoing relationship to be both satisfying and involving.

Another brief note in this section appears to make my case for me;

The one writing and the one understanding poems remain complimentary to each other.

This is from the Meridian Address itself;</p.

This always-still of the poem can only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, of the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

I’ve puzzled over this particular angle of inclination for a Very Long Time and keep coming back to a kind of attentive leaning forwards as an expression of care for the Other but I may (again) be entirely wrong…. but I’d like it to infer that our existence (Being) is intertwined with this concern and concentrated attention. i recognise that I’m ignoring the Heideggerian usage of both ‘being’ and ‘creatureliness’ because this particular emphasis seems in Europe in 2019 to be less than helpful.

The Dialogical Poem.

Many of Celan’s poems are addressed to a ‘You’ and this part of the notes deals with this and also expands further on what the encounter between poem and reader might be about. I’ve thought of the ‘you’ in Celan’s work as being either God or his parents or the Jews who were murdered or a lover or himself and I can produce examples where this appears to be the case. What I hadn’t given too much thought to is the ways in which may be addressed to the reader and these brief notes have caused me to reconsider.

I’ll start with something reasonably explicit-

I speak, in that I as I write my poems, in my own and most own matter. With that I hope, and that seems to me to belong to the last, because oldest, and still to be defended hopes of the poem, to promise also in strange matters. In the strangest matter; in the You-distance. At the perihelion of poetry. -The poem has, I am afraid . entered the phase of total You-darkness: it speaks in the strangest matter!-.

I speak alternately in the first and second person; by naming at times the one at times the other, I mean the same.the possi In the You-Darkness the possibility of the selfencounter x/ remains.

I have to document this I quote (Buchner): “…”

This is followed by a shortish horizontal line and beneath that this has been added later “x/ mystical motive-“.

So, this ‘you’ could be both the particular addressee of the poem and, at the same time, the reader of the poem. I’ve already described what Celan has to say on the darkness of the poem so I won’t dwell on this here but the Poem-darkness is a primordial darkness that is congenital/inherent in the poem and moves with it as it is underway towards the encounter. The reference to a ‘phase of total You-darkness’ suggests that there may be other phases that may not be You-dark or may not be totally You-dark. What is more important to me at least is this reiteration of ambiguity as in ‘I mean the same’ which isn’t quite the same as ‘I mean both at the same time’ but it’s close enough for my small brain at the moment. The other intriguing element is this business of the poem as a way to encounter the self or there is the chance of encountering the self in the You-darkness phase of the poem. Both of these do help with my encounter with the work. This is ‘Soviel Gestirne’ form the ‘Die Niemandsrose’ collection in 1963- I’m using the Michael Hamburger translation-

      SO MANY CONSTELLATIONS that
      are held out to us. I was,
      when I looked at you- when? -
      outside by
      the other worlds

      O these ways, galactic,
      O this hour, that weighed
      nights for us over into
      the burden of our names. It is,
      I know, not true
      that we lived, there moved,
      blindly, no more than a breath between
      there and not-there, and at times
      our eyes whirred comet-like
      towards things extinguished, in chasms,
      and where they had burnt out,
      splendid with teats stood Time
      on which already grew up
      and down and away all that
      on which already grew up
      is or was or will be-,

      I know,
      I know and you know, we knew,
      we did not know, we
      were there, after all, and not there
      and at times when 
      only the void stood between us we got
      all the way to each other.

This can be read as being addressed to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the proximity to the ‘you’ may refer to Celan’s near-death experiences in the German work camps. This would ‘fit’ with “the burden of our names” as having a recognisably Jewish name invariably meant death. I’m not going to dwell too long on capitalised time being splendid with teats only to note that teats are sources of sustenance and that the capital t usually denotes Heideggerian notions of existence. What I think is important here is that darkness or blindness seems to be an essential part or precondition of the encounter. The play on knowing and not knowing and presence and absence can be read as the paradoxical nature of the encounter, that it occurs in the dark and at the edge(s) of experience. Elsewhere Celan seems to be talking about the poem as containing the potential for an encounter with a reader who is able to fully apprehend it.

We now come to ‘cathexability’:

In the poem something is said, but in effect so that the said remains unsaid as long as the one who reads it will not let it be said to him. In other words: the poem is not topical, but can be made topical. That too is, temporarily, the ‘cathexability’ of the poem: the You, to whom it is addressed, is given to it on the way to this You. The You is there, comma even before it has come. (That too is a sketch-for-being \Daseinsentwurf\.)

(The german word at the end has been inseterted by the translator, Pierre Joris, to indicate that there isn’t an appropriate equivalent for this in English).

‘Cathexability’ is given in the preceding note as ‘occupiability’ and it is here that Celan insists that the reader must allow the poem to say what it needs to say. In a previous note however we have this;

The addressee of the poem is no one. No one is there when the poem becomes poem. to take the fate of that no one upon oneself is what leads to the poem –

This is where things begin to get tricky in that I’m not sure whether ‘oneself’ here refers to the reader or the poet. It may be that the poem can only be made when the poet assumes the ‘fate’ or potential for encounter upon himself. It could also be that the encounter only occurs when the reader accepts the same thing. Incidentally there are more than a few of the poems where the addressee is quite clearly identifiable as a real person.

The Conversation with Things

I’d like to report that this part of the notes provides further clear and unambiguous insights into the work but they don’t. The name of Osip Mandelstam occurs more than any other poet and it’s clear that his work is a presence in Celan’s poetry. Now, there is a long and convoluted debate to be had about the nature of this influence but here we have Celan’s personal take:

A word about the poems: By nearly none of his As for only a few of his contemporaries, and with that not only those writing not only those writing in the Russian language, are meant? for Osip Mandelstam born in 1891 the word in the poem are sign and signified the poem is the place. where what can be reached through language by the individual seems gathered is gathered; to make the perceived in the word “thing-fast” enters into an indissoluble connection with the what his (the individual’s) speechlessness with WHERE it thingfast its (indecipherable word meets the question after the whereto and the wherefrom of the one who speaks, voiced \stimmbegabt\ and voiceless at the same time, meets the wish to gain world and the wish, the original wish of the poet, thus, in the poem, to become free of the world.

For the things in the poem have a relationship with are related to those things that one calls the last ones.

I think we have here this important point, all of the following are the same;

  • the poem and the thing it writes about;
  • the poet who is voiced and the poet who is voiceless;
  • the wish to ‘gain’ the world and the wish to be free of it.

These kind of paradoxes will be familiar to readers of Celan’s work but I wasn’t aware that. in this, he saw himself as walking in Mandelstam’s footsteps. I’m not going to go over the arguments about the relationship between language and things because others do it much better but I do want to note this relationship which Celan contrasts favourably with the use of metaphor:

The reification, the becoming-object dialogue of the poem: in the vocabulary too (as indeed it has to is everywhere a question of self incarnation). A naming, that is before it is something else, always still an invocation (there too where it is a silent gaze): hence, from this naming the poem according to its Being is anti-metaphorical; what is transferred to the objects is at best the I: it is, from the naming of the silent consonant of the name

Why not give an extreme formulation? The poem is the unique, the untransferable real the present \Gegenwartige\

Asthe objective \Gegenstandliche\ it can also have the object’s muteness and opacity; it only wakes up thro in the true encounter, which it has as its secret. Therefore every real encounter is also remembrance of the poem’s secret.

(The last two paragraphs were added at a later date).

I think I can now be forgiven for being more than a little confused. What (exactly) might the ‘silent consonant of the name’ be? Is the self who incarnates itself the poem, the reader, the poet or the subject of the poem or any combination of these. Is the capitalised ‘Being’ a reference here to the wilder shores of Heidegger’s mystic streak? Is this secrecy that belongs to the poem in any significant way different from the charge of obscurity that so many have levelled at the work?

I’m reasonably okay with naming as invocation but I can’t make the leap to the silent gaze especially as we go straight back to the authentic name according to its Being or essence as being in opposition to metaphor. A brief galnce at the possible meanings of ‘gegenstandliche’ (objective, representational, concrete, graphical) leads me to believe that this could be a combination of any of these?

So, this last part of the encounter notes throws up much more debate than it resolves but parts can also act as an important marker for further reading of the work.

Thinking about the encounter in a wider frame leads me to consider whether the same term or idea can be applied to work by other poets. I think of myself as being in a relationship with the work of four or five poets and a component of that is attending to particular poems. For example, I have a complex but rewarding relationship with the work of Edmund Spenser and can chart in my head how my reading of the Faerie Queene has evolved over the last 20 years. In my head I think an encounter is more of s single short event rather than an evolving and involving relationship.

My initial experience of Celan’s work was almost 50 years ago and has much more of an immediate impact in that the poems were terse, mysterious and very powerful and the development of that relationship has been more of a series of a working through of what that initial encounter may have been about.

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John Matthias’ “Prynne and a Petoskey Stone”

Before we proceed, given the incestuous nature of the UK poetry ‘scene’ I need to make something clear. I’ve known John Matthias for about 10 years and am an unabashed fan. I have always found him to be exceptionally supportive of what I try to do. Without John’s insistence, it is very,very unlikely that I would have paid any attention to the work of David Jones.

We worked together on arduity’s Annotated Trigons Project, a process I found delightful and incredibly instructive. His work is exceptionally skilled and speaks with a wry humanity, as does the man himself. He also has that enviable skill of masking skillful technique with an almost conversational voice. I should also point out that I much prefer John’s longer sequences to his shortish poems.

A copy of John’s latest, Acoustic Shadows, has recently landed on my doorstep and it contains the above poem. Prynne and John were colleagues at Cambridge University for a number of years but I have no idea as to the extent or depth of their relationship.

To get the initial difficulty out of the way, the interweb tells me that Petotskey Stones are:

A Petoskey Stone is a fossil of a colonial coral (Hexagonaria percarinata) that lived in a shallow sea covering the Great Lakes area during Devonian time about 350 million years ago. 

When the corals died, some of them were covered with sediment and became part of a rock unit known as the Alpena Limestone. The Alpena Limestone outcrops along the coast of Little Traverse Bay near the city of Petoskey, Michigan – the town for which the stones have been named. 

The calcium carbonate exoskeleton of the coral colony is what became a Petoskey Stone. The fossil corals range in size from small specimens of a few animals that are an inch or two across to large colonies that can be several feet across and weigh over 1000 pounds. A photo of a modern colonial coral is shown in the accompanying photo. 

And J H Prynne is the UK’s finest living poet but also renowned for the difficulty of his work. There are many pieces on Prynne on this blog and on my arduity site.

This longish work is a sequence of seven linked poems of varying length each of which tells of John’s experience of stones from, as a youth, coming second in a melon seed spitting contest at the Ohio state fair through to pebbles from Aldeburgh beach and on to fragments of the Berlin Wall. Also intermingled is one poem in particular Prynne’s White Stones collection from 1969 and a typically self-deprecating episode at Cambridge probably when John taught there:

In fact, my awkwardness includes a dizzy head 
of syllables attending dance, a breathless
hunting for the line. Once, at his college, I wore
a borrowed gown and spilled my glass of wine
to high table merriment, but still I thought it
a fond libation. The old poet is over eighty
and undaunted. Even I am halfway through
my own eighth decade now. No so long, declares
the gay geologist of one's imagination. Gay
in Yeats' sense, not in the sense of our
contemporary speech. In America, I said,
we have but low tables, though often high style
in spite of that. May the college please forgive
its spillage and its mopping up...........

I’ve quoted this, from the third poem in the sequence, because it seems to exemplify some of John’s themes and the brilliance of his technique. Here we have a memory of an embarrassing incident whilst at the one of the notorious high table at a Cambridge College. The spillage follows a wry but precise observation on the poetry making malarkey. Those of use who try to cobble together verse from language know only too well this ‘breathless hunt’ for the right combination to say something close to what we’re after. This is pointed out, almost as an aside, in an easy and accessible manner but those syllables attending dance are dazzling and provocative in equal measure.

Those familiar with Prynne’s recent work will know that he remains undaunted in both form and content in spite of the ongoing scorn thrown in his direction by many who should know better. John is similarly resilient although he writes in a much more ‘acceptable’ manner. The oblique dig at the hidebound snobbery that continues to infect Most Things Oxbridge is well made. It is, of course, much more effective to do away with the impeding rituals of the high table. There’s something profound being said about aging and this gay geologist who I picture, with small hammer and trowel at hand, merrily scrabbling away at elements of the past so that they can be used in the present. The Yeats reference would appear to be a reference to his Lapis Lazuli especially to

 All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.

Being largely ignorant of Yeats’ work, I didn’t appreciate the connection until I spent a minute or so with the interweb that brought up the full text of this eloquent poem. Being ignorant in this regard, I don’t know whether this reference is obscure or not but it is possible to grasp the gist of what’s being said without that knowledge. It is reasonable to suppose that Yeats at the beginning of the 20th century would using the adjective to denote being light hearted and cheerful rather than homosexual.

I’d also like to point out a one of the technical aspects that make the above work as a poem. Some words in the above are extraneous to what’s being said but are used to maintain the cadence of the verse. I’d recommen reading the above out.loud as printed above and then with the words ‘own’ and ‘now’ from the eighth line. This has the effect of disrupting both the cadence and the flow of the poem has a whole.

The sequence concludes with a quote from Prynne and a look forwards to our geolical future;

Plantin type: You say I / think or not /
get on / get off / quiet / match the stone . I note,
like some Confucian sage, that melon seeds
bring melons, peach seeds peaches, cherry seeds
the cherry trees that blossom here; I'd pour
a quick libation, pocket pebbles from the Aldeburgh
beach if I were there. Here, I'll shine the corals
petrified by time and left behind by melting glaciers
still receding, which eventually will make this
shore and all the inland reaches of our low lying land
once again a warm and shallow sea.

The quote is from the last line and a half of Prynne’s A Stone Called Nothing which was published in The White Stones collection in 1969. Of perhaps more interest in this context are these lines from Prynne’s The Glacial Question, Unsolved:

      the ice smoothing the lumps off,
filling the hollows with sandy clay
as the litter of "surface". As the roads
run dripping across this, the rhythm
is the declension of history, the facts
in succession, they are  succession, and
the limits are not time but ridges
and thermal delays, plus or minus whatever
carbon dates we have.

Both of these, then,would appear to be concerned with the effects of the passage of time with Matthias putting his personal history into this much wider context. John’s final line is loaded because we know now that the self-inflicted and very premature return of “a warm and shallow sea” will spell the end of the human race on planet earth.

To conclude, I hope I have given some indication of the strength and value of Matthias’ work and encouragement to those approaching his work for the first time.

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.

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.