Category Archives: mental health

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.

Thomas Hoccleve and Medieval Mental Health

This has two strands. The first of these is about Middle English poetry and how we ought to pay more attention to those poets who weren’t Geoffrey Chaucer. The second relates to madness and poetry and how Hoccleve in particular has challenged my view of the confessional poem.

I’m a relative newcomer to medieval verse, I’d been put off Chaucer at A level (as with most other things) and since then have been pre-occupied by other periods. My knowledge of the 14th and 15th centuries is scanty and it seemed like to much effort to acquire the context as well as the ability to read Middle English.

Two things then occurred- the internet got better and I decided that rather than move forwards through the canon, which would have meant Dryden and Pope, I would move backwards. The improvement in the internet has meant that there are many more resources on-line and that I now have access to a wide range of books on the period as well as primary texts.

The first thing that I’ve learned is that Middle English is gloriously expressive and this makes me smile a lot. The second thing is that it isn’t ‘fixed’ in that there are huge variations in vocabulary and sentence construction. This ‘mobility’ is much more apparent than it is in the 16th century early modern usage.

So, I’m paying attention to Hoccleve and am being dragged further and further into the work because he throws himself into his poems (in every sense) and he’s really good at feeling sorry for himself. I first came across him on the TEAMS site which is really good for us newbies because it provides both an introduction and translates the more difficult words. The site has Hoccleve’s best known work ‘The Regiment of Princes’ and, on the strength of that, I’ve subsequently bought ‘My Compleinte and Other Poems’ edited by Roger Ellis. I’ve had a recent moan about Ellis’ gloss but it is mostly serviceable even if it makes me cross.

We now come to the confessional. I’m against confessional poetry because most of it strikes me as self-indulgent whinging with more than a little exhibitionism which I find distateful. I accept that this is a personal view but it’s one that I can usually defend. As a bipolar depressive I’m particularly against confessional poems about the poet’s mental health and share Geoffrey Hill’s distaste for the work of Lowell and Plath because of this. I also readily accept that this is about my view of how ‘we’ should respond to and ‘deal with’ our condition. Thomas Hoccleve experienced a bout of mental illness and wrote a poem about his experience which has gone some way to modify the above view.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that Hoccleve is one of literatures great complainers, he complains about not having enough money, about not being paid and about the poor state of his health and therefore qualifies as the leading miserablist of the late medieval period. The other point to note is that he was a senior civil servant, working as a senior clerk in the office of the privy seal and was never poorly paid by the standards of the day. Having this job also implies a thorough knowledge of both Latin and French.

The onset of the illness is described (in strictly medieval terms) in the first stanza after the prologue of ‘My Compleinte’. I have had to use contemporary lettering throughout because WordPress doesn’t seem keen on ME, I’ve marked with an asterisk where this occurs-

Almygh*ty God, as liketh his goodnesse,
vesiteth* folke alday, as men may se,
With los of good and bodily sikenesse,
And among othir, he forg*at not me.
Witnesse vppon the wilde infirmite
Wiche th*at I had, as many a man wel knewe,
And wiche me oute of mysilfe caste and threwe.

As you might expect, the medieval explanation for mental illness is much more straightforward then ours, no mention of childhood trauma, nor of genetics or excessive substance use but it’s about God not forgetting our inflicted poet.

The last line is a wonderful example of the expressive qualities of Middle English, I can relate to what’s being described, in fact it seems in many ways more accurate than contemporary attempts to portray the onset of mania/depression. Being cast and thrown out of yourself is also gloriously succinct and neatly avoids the details that so many poets dwell on. I’m taking ‘wilde infirmite’ to relate to a period at the psychotic end of mania primarily because other forms of wildness tend to recur and because of how Hoccleve describes the negative reaction of his friends. I may of course be entirely wrong on this but it does seem likely.

Those of us who do recover or have periods of being well do find the reaction of some former friends and acquaintances quite difficult- even in these enlightened times there is still huge stigma attached to mental illness and people often find it easier to sever ties with those who have been ill. Things were not at all different in the early 15th century. Hoccleve reports that is has been five years since his recovery (occasioned by God) and that he is still shunned by his friends:

For th*ough* my wit were hoom come ag*ein,
Men wolde it not so undirstonde or take.
With me to dele hadden they disdein.
A rietous persone I was and forsake.
Min oolde frendshipe was al overshake.
No wigh*t with me list make daliaunce.
The worlde me made a straunge continuance.

Hoccleve explains this rejection as being due to his friends’ belief that his infirmity will recur- which is entirely reasonable given that most periods of illness are episodic- whether treated or not. I’m sure that many of us have experienced that sense of isolation and I know that I have also isolated myself in the fairly recent past What strikes me as remarkable in this passage is (again) the last line which seems to capture what still goes on today. ‘Continuance’ is taken by Ellis to mean ‘face’ but I think ‘countenance’ is more accurate. Most bouts of madness, in whatever form, still kick off a negative societal reaction that is more to do with fear of othernerness than straightforward ‘disdain’.

In conclusion, I’m very glad that I went backwards instead of towards Dryden and Pope primarily because of the joys of the language but also because of the greater differences and smaller similarities between then and now. I’m also becoming more mellow about confessional verse.

Reading Poetry the Bayesian Way

Michael Woolf - Bastard chairs Project

Having started to pay attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, I’ve been forcefully reminded of my own scientific ignorance by the sad fact that I don’t understand even the explanation of the explanation of Van der Waals forces. Some time ago I also decided that the understanding of protein folding might be Quite Important but I can only follow even the most basic reports with extensive use of the OED because, to quote Hill, I don’t have the science.

This isn’t normally a problem in that I can get by / function in the world without scientific literacy but as an auto-dictat it now annoys me that I’ve ignored this stuff since I was 12. In an attempt to assuage this angst, I’ve been looking through scientific comics to see if there’s anything that I can attempt to access without too much furrowing of the brow.

Looking through last year’s ‘Science’ comics I fell across one containing an article entitled ‘How to grow a mind: Statistics, Structure and Abstraction’ which I think I’m beginning to understand and I am finding it useful to think about the way that I read ‘difficult’ poetry and how mis or over readings might occur.

The authors of the article start by asking how it is that we can build up knowledge from so little data. They give the example that small children learn what a horse or a hairbrush is and can apply this knowledge after very limited exposure to examples. They use a ‘Bayesian’ or ‘probabilistic’ model to explain this and (this is important) I understand most of it.

Before going any deeper into the science and sums, I’d like to use a few poetic examples of the fruits of paying attention and drawing inference. There’s a line from Keston Sutherland that refers to the dire situation in Northern Mexico that I read as a reference to a bankrupt chain of booksellers, there’s a trope used by Timothy Thornton that I took to be a reference to the Latin verb to love but isn’t – although we both agree that it should be. I understand Prynne’s reference to the foreland in ‘Streak Willing’ to be a reference to the original four Irish provinces and his repeated use of ‘speak parrot’ (once in English and once in Latin) to be a reference to the John Skelton poem of the same name. In each of this instances it turns out that I have been applying Bayes’s rule and this pleases me because I think I can now put a bit more structure on the way I think about this ‘paying attention’ to poetry business.

We now have a slight digression on statistics. I find that I understand statistical probability on a fairly instinctive way. I know this because I can still recall my reaction to learning the statistics with regard to being over 50 and having a bipolar disorder. The numbers in question are: suicide attempt (70%) and successful suicide (20%) and the only further detail that I needed was that one in five relates to the total number of people with the condition and not the 70%. This was a very big slap in the face and ever since I’ve taken a much more active interest in my care and have been much more proactive in obtaining the services that I feel I need. I did not find out how these figures were arrived at nor whether there were any other variables. In terms of prevention it would seem that lithium might be beneficial for attempts but this may be due to patients who are drug compliant might be less likely to do themselves in. What I’m trying to say is that I’d like to think of myself as a creative esoteric type who has a distant relationship with calculations and numbers but I also know that my reaction to these numbers was immediate and unfiltered- i.e. that 7 in ten and 1 in 5 are both lousy odds.

Anyone who has read poetry that is considered to be difficult will know that engagement initially depends on using probability to work with sparse data. For example, I don’t know that Prynne’s ‘grow up to main’ refers to Ulster Protestant anxiety about demographic trends but I can demonstrate that such an inference does have more than a chance of being correct. Of course that also depends on the level of likelihood that the recent civil war is one of the themes of the ‘Streak Willing’ sequence and both of these depend on information acquired prior to reading the poem and what feels like a rough calculation of the odds.

If we think of difficult lines or phrases as what the article decsribes as ‘latent variables’ i.e. data that is unobserved or hidden from us then the Bayesian rule can be applied.

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign
yours grow up to main, leaf round and round the
cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm
same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

There are many latent variables in the above, one of the many pleasures of paying attention to Prynne is that each and every phrase may contain data that has several different meanings. I’ve chosen ‘grow up to main’ because it’s one phrase that appears to point in a reasonably specific direction and is one that I’ve used in my head to work out what the Bayesian rule might be.

This is the passage that struck home with me:

Bayesian inference gives a rational framework for updating beliefs about latent variables in generative models given observed data. Background knowledge is encoded through a constrained space of hypotheses H about possible values for the latent variables, candidate world structures that could explain the observed data. Finer-grained knowledge comes in the “prior probability” P(h), the learner’s degree of belief in a specific hypothesis h prior to (or independent of) the observations. Bayes’s rule updates priors to “posterior probabilities” P(h|d) conditional on the observed data .

The posterior probability is proportional to the product of the prior probability and the likelihood P, measuring how expected the data are under hypothesis h, relative to all other hypotheses h′ in H.

(I’ve removed the quite scary sum that occurs in the middle of this because I don’t understand it and because of the limitations of the WordPress formatting monster.)

The constraining of hypotheses in poetry reading terms is the narrowing down of an infinite number of subjects to ones suggested or alluded to elsewhere in the sequence and knowledge of what Prynne tends to write about. Both of these would point to politics – imperialism – recent conflicts – Iraq, Afghanistan, Ulster and further refinement led me to Ulster as a constrained hypothesis as to what the sequence may be about.

‘Prior probability’ turns out to refer to the extent/depth/strength of my belief that ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ is about Northern Ireland and the Bayesian rule looks at the impact of my understanding of the new data (‘grow up to main’) on this hypothesis to produce the posterior probability referred to above.

Given that the phrase doesn’t make grammatical sense, I ran through a number of possibilities- ‘main’ as the sea and this being a reference to sons running away to sea in the traditional manner or ‘main’ as in the most important or central or controlling part at which point a connection was made in my head with the view that the only reason the Protestant factions came to the negotiating table was that demographic trends indicated that the Catholics were destined to become the majority anyway and that it was best to share power now rather than become the victims of persecution once that moment was reached.

I find with Prynne and Celan that there are very few certainties and that every readerly judgement has to be made on probabilities. I’m also aware that, having come to this insight, I become more entrenched in my view and less likely to consider other probabilities simply because I haven’t thought of them. The other thing that I’ve done to increase the posterior probability is to point to such unarm / same peril as pointing or referring to the same way of thinking as in “we’re going to have to face this point whether we disarm or not” which is very satisfying and only slightly let down by the ‘Me’ that precedes it.

The other value of the Bayesian rule is to think about where the reading has produced the ‘wrong’ or unintended interpretation. In retrospect it turns out that I was so carried away with my ‘insight’ that I forgot about the odds.

The only qualm that I have about this is that it seems a bit too smooth, I don’t do these things in a linear way, my arrival at a posterior probability may contain many competing hypotheses and I may come up with a solution / possibility when engaged on another task but it does seem to present a broad outline of how I pay attention to this kind of material. What’s interesting is the confirmation that the appreciation of poetry may not be some left-field intuitive event but may be based on hard calculation…..

(pre)

Using Celan to read Celan

I’ve used ‘I know you’ as an example of what a short poem can do and now I want to try and use Celan’s notes for ‘The Meridian’ to think bit more about this remarkable poem.

I’m going to use the Pierre Joris translation of the poem because it makes ‘sense’ and the Felstiner doesn’t. This is the German followed by the Joris-

(ICH KENNE DICH, du bist die tief Gebeugte
ich, der Durchbohrte, bin dir untertan.
Wo flammt ein Wort, das fur uns beide zeugte?
Du-ganz, ganz wirklich. Ich - ganz Wahn.)

(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 delusion.)

Joris’ note to the poem states that it was written in 1965 for Gisele, Celan’s wife and that it has been the subject of much critical attention and analysis. I haven’t read any of this so I may be about to unwittingly say what has already been said.

If we take the poem as an address to Gisele then the above can be read as referring to Celan’s mental illness and the effect that this has had on their relationship. Closer examination however reveals several other elements that need to be thought about but I’d like to start with the obvious first.

By 1965 Celan’s mental illness was reasonably well-established and he was receiving electro-shock treatment as a way of reducing the severity of the episodes. Since about 1960 Celan and Giselle had periods of living apart primarily because of his ‘difficult’ behaviour which included bouts of paranoia.

So, Gisele is the one who is deeply bowed or weighed down by the poet’s illness and behaviour, he is the one who is fixed and defined by his condition whilst remaining devoted to Giselle. There is a problem about acting as witness to the difficulties that exist between them. In the final line Celan contrasts his own symptoms with his wife’s sanity and groundedness.

I’ve already said that this superficial reading speaks to me because of my bipolarness and the effect that this has had on my marriage so I think (or I like to think) that I can identify with the tone of the address and with the circumstances that these things may have been said. I also think that the poem strikes another blow for those of us who wish to see Celan taken out of the Holocaust and Heidegger boxes beloved of so many critics. In fact I’d like to claim Celan for madness and Kropotkin in thinking about the later work.

Of course, as with all things Celan, things are rarely straightforward. There is the brackets problem, the choice of adjectives, the ‘you’ problem and the incredible complexity of the third line. Some of these are helped, but not resolved, by the Meridian notes and we’ll need to start with the notion of the encounter.

The Brackets.

We know from the notes and the address itself that Celan thought of the poem as the opportunity for an encounter and that this encounter is both personal and tactile (conversation and handshake). A poem written by husband to wife at a time of marital stress carries more than a degree of intimacy and this may explain the brackets within which the entire poem is placed- as if these four lines are marked off or in some way removed from the rest of the collection. If this is the case, and it may very well not be, then there is the decision to publish problem. If we are to read this as a quiet cry of desperation which acknowledges the pain caused by madness and the brackets as a sign of privacy then publication does seem a bit odd.

Brackets are also used to enclose information that isn’t essential to what surrounds it but serves to add additional context or clarification. In the above paragraph I could have let ‘personal and tactile’ stand without further qualification but chose to add two of the specific examples that Celan provides to make his point. I think I did this for two reasons- the first being to justify my paraphrase, especially my use of ‘tactile’ and the second was to clarify that by ‘intimate’ I was not intending any kind of sexual connotation. I think that I chose brackets rather than commas to indicate that this element wasn’t essential to my argument or train of thought and should be seen as additional or supplementary.

With regard to this poem, it may be that the brackets here also denote information which is not essential for reading the rest of ‘Atemwende’ but which nevertheless ‘informs’ elements of the other poems. It could be that Celan was trying to indicate that his mental anguish and the difficult relationship with Gisele underlay the other poems in the volume or that he was trying to amplify one particular theme that occurs in other poems.

Some people may feel that I’m paying too much attention to something that may simply be a rather mannered device but Celan never did things without giving them careful consideration and it is very unlikely that the brackets are where they are just for ‘effect’.

The You Problem

There are many yous in Celan’s work and the addressee can be God, his parents, a lover, other victims of the Holocaust or a combination of these. You can also refer to friends and acquaintances. The yous are rarely identified in the poems and their identity has to be worked out by the rest of the poem and this isn’t always possible. In this instance things make a lot more ‘sense’ if we identify all four yous as referring to Giselle although this might not be the case with the you that Celan is subject to. As with most of Celan’s later work, things may only become a little clearer if the rest of the poem is placed under the closest scrutiny.

I Know You.

The seems like a very direct and unambiguous statement until we ask whether a wife would need to be told that her husband (for the previous twelve years) knew her. So perhaps we need to consider what kind of knowledge this might be and the reasons for placing it at the start of the poem. The phrase could signify that the poet knows all there is to know about Gisele and this could then be seen as some kind of threat- I know all of your secrets and I’m now going to divulge these to the world. The phrase may also indicate the start of an encounter triggered by this recognition. If we recognise a friend that we haven’t seen for a long time then we may start this encounter with a handshake so Celan may also be indicating that this is the start of a specific and real encounter rather than the idealised one that his poetry usually aims for (the message in a bottle motif from the Bremen Prize speech).

The other intention may be to announce the poet’s credentials in saying what he is about to say- I know you and my knowledge of you leads me to say these things. Of course, some of these things appear to be contradictory.

The Bowed Subject problem.

If this poem is in part ‘about’ mental illness then the description of Gisele as ‘deeply bowed’ may refer to the pressure that Celan’s condition has placed upon her and weighed her down. At the beginning we therefore have an acknowledgement of the damage that Celan’s behaviour and irrationality has caused- in the early sixties Celan had to move away from the family home because of fears for the safety of Gisele and Eric, their son. Ths seems to be contradicted a little by the second line where the poet declares himself to be ‘subject’ to Gisele. So, if this second ‘you’ is his wife then there is some kind of paradox- my behaviour oppresses you and wears you down yet I (who am mad) remain your subject and will therefore do your bidding. Of course ‘subject’ has many other connotations and meanings but it does seem that at a primary level this apparent paradox is being expressed.

Transpierced

I’ve said before that this describes for me the experience of mental illness, the feeling of being both wounded and immobilised at the same time, the sense of being slowly robbed as the episode intensifies until I arrive at the point where nothing can be done/thought/said. Because I’ve received a lot of attention from mental health professionals over the last five years, I’ve had many attempts at summing up the experience of being severely depressed but I’ve never come close to anything as accurate and telling as this.

The Witness Problem.

Jacques Derrida has written at length about the meaning of Celan’s question about witnessing for the witness at the end of ‘Aschenglorie’ and the third line seems to take us in the same direction but closer examination reveals that the question here is of a completely different order. ‘Where flames a word’ isn’t asking about who will witness or how this will be done but about the place in which a word/language will be born that will testify for them both which is asking something much more specific and personal. Is it this word that Celan the poet is searching/questing for? Is this why the poem is published?

I’m taking the last line at face value, referring to the difference between the afflicted poet and his mentally healthy and grounded wife but I do have to ask if the last two lines are in the right order. It does seem that the there are a series of statements in lines one, two and four but that line three poses the question that arises from these statements. As I said at the beginning, line three is wonderfully complex and brilliantly crafted and (with my fondness for great endings) I’m puzzled as to why Celan should order thing in this way.

The Notes to the Meridian are published by Stanford University Press and are widely available.

What short poems do

When I was 15ish, I was of the view that poetry was about compression, that it’s primary purpose was to condense and intensify life as it is lived. I hadn’t arrived at this conclusion from any deep knowledge or understanding but I did know that Paul Celan had written the most obviously important poetry that I had come across and that the more austere later works were staggeringly good. This view was solidified by Samuel Beckett’s ‘Lessness’ which seemd intent on paring things down in a similar way.

Over the last forty years I’ve weaned myself off this early certainty and discovered the many joys of the longer poem and the pleasure to be gained in losing myself for page after page. The problem with having Celan for a template has meant that very few poems have met my early standards and those that do tend to be part of a sequence rather than a ‘stand alone’ poem. I was thinking about this the other day when writing about Andrew Marvell’s ‘Garden’ sequence and found myself trying to work out what I look for in short poems.

The first and most obvious quality is brevity but the kind of brevity that says a lot without appearing to try whilst the second is about depth or perhaps profundity but a depth that is worn lightly and thus avoids ramming the ‘point’ down my throat. The third is about a good start but a better finish in that the opening should attract my attention and hold my interest whilst the end should be both sharp and accomplished.

I want to use four short poems to try and demonstrate what I mean, I’ve chosen these because I think that they are successful in their own right (although three do belong to a sequence) and because they all manage to kick off a series of related thoughts which may or may not have been part of the original intention.

Reitha Pattison’s Fable I

I’ve written about this recently but I want to use to show just how much a few lines can hold:

A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.

The first element relates to fables and various other forms of the same kind of thing. Emblem books during the 16th and 17th centuries made great use of these stories so I’ve been led back to Whitney and the popularity of the emblem form and the conscious use that Spenser and others made of emblems. The illustration in Whitney’s great collection of the dog and his reflection is remarkable in its directness.

I’ve also been reading Alistair Fowler on the impact of the epigram on what is referred to as the English Renaissance and beyond and Pattison’s Fables do share many epigrammatic features which has brought me to think again about the use of such forms as life lessons and their equivalents in the popular culture of today.

The mix of Providence and an agrarian work ethic is startling because the two are not obviously related and it’s taken me a while to think this through. Providence is defined by Alexandra Walsham as a the “sovereignty of God and His unceasing supervision of and intervention in the earthly realm” whereas ‘work ethic’ is a term used by Weber to ‘explain’ the relative economic success of Protestant northern Europe when compared with the Catholic south. The story of the ant and the grasshopper tells of a grasshopper who does little during the warm summer months and an ant who puts stores food for the winter. Of course, the grasshopper has no food and starves having been rebuked by the ant for his idleness. The original point is reasonably straightforward but Pattison plays with it to bring other dimensions to bear.

Geoffrey Hill’s poem LI from ‘The Triumph of Love’

I am aware that the above sequence really needs to be read in its entirety in order to be fully appreciated but this particular poem meets all of the above criteria and succeeds in its own right. It also provides what is perhaps the central point of the work as a whole:

Whatever may be meant by moral landscape
is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in crass section: igneous, sedimentary,
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,
individual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.

This is particularly satisfying because it’s a quite statement in the middle of some quite dramatic flourishes which attempt to encapsulate some of the worst aspects of the 20th century and provides the key as to why we have come through those appalling experiences. So it’s a kind of riposte to those who see only brutality and mindless slaughter but it’s also a self-contained statement of faith in a ‘particular grace’ and the finer qualities that each of us possess and which run across and outweigh our many and various ‘faults’. It is a remarkable statement and one that continues to provoke a number of questions- as a more or less committed atheist, the notion of grace means little to me but I would argue that the other three qualities do play a huge part in getting us through although I’m not entirely sure that the geological analogy works for me it is still remarkably accomplished, keenly felt and a brilliant statement of quite a complex and nuanced position.

Andrew Marvell’s Poem VI from ‘The Garden’

I’ve written recently about another poem in this sequence so I don’t intend to repeat myself here. This particular poem stands out from the others both for its tone and for the things that it appears to be saying which ‘work’ on a number of different levels:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I’m firmly of the view that Marvell has never been given his due and I think the above is an example of both masterful control and an ability to say complex things in startling ways. Nigel Smith’s commentary tells me that the above continues to give critics fertile ground for controversy and debate but I just think that it’s very, very well put together and contains a satisfyingly high level of ambiguity. ‘Green’ had a number of connotations apart from those relating to the environment in the 17th century, as did ‘shade’ and the contrast of these thoughts with the more psychological description is at odds with the rest of the sequence but also indicates just how different this period was from our own- something we tend to overlook especially when thinking about the English Civil War. I’m currently pursuing the role of green in the period and it is fascinating.

Paul Celan’s ‘I know you’

I want to finish with this because I started with Celan and he is the best and what follows demonstrates this. We often think of Celan primarily as Jew and in relation to the Holocaust but the four lines below were written to/for his wife, Giselle. By the early sixties the marriage had become strained primarily because of Celan’s ‘difficult’ behaviour which was due to his mental health problems. As someone who has similar problems, I read it as an exposition of the kind of tensions and pain that such issues can cause:

(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 delusion.)

This has also generated swathes of critical attention and debate but for me it’s heartbreakingly accurate, the use of ‘transpierced’ speaks to me at a very deep and personal level and the third line encapsulates so much of the desperation that many of us go through. It is also fitting that the entire poem should exist in a bracket.

There are very few poems (of any length) that manage to speak to me in this way and I remain awed by Celan’s incredible ability to make difficult things very solid. I’ve been thinking about the Meridian notes a lot recently and this for me embodies what Celan says about the poem as creating an opportunity for the encounter with the reader that is almost tactile. This does that for me.

Poetry as therapy

I’m currently undergoing one of those periods of clinical depression that are wearily familiar to those of us who are of the bipolar persuasion. This isn’t quite as traumatic as the last few- I’m not in hospital but I’m not pleased. I’d forgotten the effect on loved ones and how much this thing hurts.
The default mode for me is to withdraw and to read. In the past I’ve read Pepys’ diaries as a way of keeping the bad thoughts away and this has worked because there’s a lot in the diaries and I can distract myself by the sheer oddness of the past contained in those pages. So, given that I’m not suicidal and I am able to function at some level, I decided to try reading poetry to see if any verse might have a similar effect. I’m not looking for a ‘lift’ in mood but I am looking for something that will occupy and involve me in a way that keeps some of the demons at bay.
I’ve just bought ‘Clavics’, the latest Hill offering and whilst it’s very odd, it isn’t really big enough to provide an enormous distraction. It also suffers from not being very good and this isn’t helpful. I then tried poets writing about poets and discovered that Hill is more absorbing than Prynne. This is a surprise because I think ‘Field Notes’ is a lot more insightful than any of Hill’s essays yet Hill seems to write in a way that is more involving. I also find that Prynne is more frequently wrong than Hill even though the latter is incredibly opinionated and crabby. Neither however managed to occupy me for longer than a couple of hours and I do need something for the next six weeks.
I’m steering clear of Celan (for fairly obvious reasons) but have found bits of David Jones to be sufficiently absorbing and not at all annoying and I’m re-reading John Matthias’ ‘Trigons’ which is oddly soothing. With Jones I’m alternating between ‘The Sleeping Lord’ fragments and ‘The Anathemata’ which in some ways complement each other and I’ve found it useful to read the words through before thinking about the notes, I know that ‘The Anathemata’ has this fearsome reputation for difficulty but on this reading I’m more impressed by the use of ‘ordinary’ language and the integrity of the poet’s ‘voice’. It’s not particularly soothing but it does manage to hold my attention and keep the demons at some distance. I’m also working my way to a connection between the ‘Middle Sea and Lear Sea’ section and Michael Drayton’s ‘Poly-Olbion’ but I’ll need to be more motivated and alert before I can check this out.
‘Trigons’ is being read closely for the third time and more treasures are being unearthed. I’ve said before that I think that Matthias is one of our most accomplished poets and ‘Trigons’ shows off his skills and predilections in full flow. I’ve also said before that Matthias is adept at making the difficult look easy, he shares with Olson the ability to communicate complex ideas under the cloak of conversational ease. On this occasion I’m beginning to work out how this is achieved rather than chasing up the references- Matthias is a shameless dropper of names – and this is proving absorbing.
In the search for occupation (I don’t need to be instructed and I’m past the stage of being entertained) I’ve come across Heidegger’s ‘Off the Beaten Track’ collection which Prynne claims to have read with “ardency” at about the same time that Celan was beginning to pay a similar kind of attention.
There is an essay entitled ‘Why Poets?’ that I couldn’t resist and I am finding it more involving than most of Heidegger’s later output- I’ve had to re-read the first ten pages several times thus far without progressing to the end. There’s a typically oblique refutation of the mysticism charge –

If we enter upon this course, it brings thinlung and poetry together in a dialogue engaged with the history of being. Researchers in literary history will inevitably see the dialogue as an unscholarly violation of what they take to be the facts. Philosophers will see it as a baffled descent into mysticism [ein Abweg der Ratlosigkeit in die Schwamerez]. However, destiny pursues its course untroubled by all that.

Which once would have made me quite cross but now just brings a smile. Then there’s this masterpiece of nonsense, the sort of thing that gives continental philosophy its reputation for affectation-

The being of beings is the will. The will is the selfmustering
gathering of each ens to itself. All beings are, as beings, in the will.
They are as things willed. Do not misunderstand: beings are not primarily and only as things willed; rather they are, so long as they are, themselves in the mode of willing. Only as things willed are they what wills in the will, each in its own way.

In my current state unpacking this is quite helpful, it may also be completely futile but at least it’s occupying me in a way that doesn’t get distracted or despondent.
Others that I’ve tried and given up on include Browning’s ‘Sordello’, anything by John Ashbery, Keston Sutherland and Ezra Pound all of which had been occupying me prior to this bout kicking in.
I am going to look at Charles Olson in the next few days but I’m not optimistic.
I’ve also tried ‘Infinite Jest’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’ and got through the first two hundred pages of the first before giving up but only the first twenty of the second. With ‘Infinite Jest’ I keep waiting for the point where I suddenly realise what all those people who I respect have been raving about becomes clear. This is my fourth attempt and that point has not yet been reached.
So, David Jones and John Matthias are now placed alongside Pepys in times of crisis. Any other suggestions will be gratefully received. I’ll also get to the end of ‘Why Poets?’ Eventually.