Category Archives: philosophy

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.

Advertisements

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.

Geoffrey Hill, mysticism and Gabriel Marcel

I’m currently paying attention to Expostulations on the Volcano, a new sequence which makes its first appearance in Hill’s Collected and it appears to contain a more direct exploration of the spiritual and mystical Hill.

Mysticism covers a great multitude of beliefs and activites, previously Hill has wondered out loud about the nature of Spirit and less about the workings of Grace. Expostulations sees him becoming increasingly involved in a particular aspect of the Kabbalah tradition, the Qiphloth. This is Poem 13:

What am I hymning that is not absurd?
I have reworked the least of me twelve times
For Cabbalistic humours, for the dead,
Buoyed by the storm music from Peter Grimes;

Fancying myself as a storm-petrel 
With excellent reflexes and at ease
In the burly element I patrol;
Tempted by instinct's sinew to be wise.

There would be scandal. Let me off my hook
Of retrospection; say I was not caught
By what I feared: one mere untimely look;
It is not nature's way to be distraught.

The Secrets of Creative Elements
Are not creation; nor do they vault forth
Loved-clown-like, but, to exorbitant wants,
Protract and retract themselves, mould Qliphoth.

As to these pots, frost-broken, white, exposed
Roots, tendrils, pebbles. In a mouldered cake,
Some would still argue: have the mass composted
For as long as deconstruction may take.

I’ve chosen the above because it seems to be at least a partial summary of the current state / condition of Hillian thinking and belief. Before I proceed, I need to point out that my only knowledge of things mystical is due to reading Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism some years ago and forgetting most of it, apart from Plotinus, shortly thereafter. My woes are further compounded by there being a whole range of spellings and definitions for Qliphoth on the interweb so I’m only able to offer my very wobbly grasp on things. In this particular tradition there is a Tree of Life which is a good thing made up of other good things. Qliphtoth is figured by some to be the bark of the tree and by others to be the shell of the nut produced by the tree and is a Very Bad Thing Indeed (evil). Some people apparently think that the Qlippoth is evil because it has been given an over-abundance of good/holiness.

Rather than undertake the usual bebrowed dissection, I think I want to consider the poem in total. What seems to be going on is the fretting over this retrospective hook and the drawing of a couple of conclusions, which may or may not be provisional.

The open. The next aspect is the numbers ‘game’ once we’ve got over the for/four pun, the four being: blood, phlegm, choler, and so-called melancholy or black bile which are in turn associated with hotness, dryness, coldness and moistness all of which were. for about two thousand years, thought to be the most reliable / unly indicators of health. Twelve is more of a problem, according to my brief skim through Major Trends the Tree has only ten components. I like the idea that, prior to the publication of the Day books there were twelve published books of verse. Of course, I want it to refer to the work because that kind of ties in with the end of the poem which is probably trying to say too many thing at once. The ‘reworking the least of me is nearly as good as ‘a sad and angry consolation’, Hill’s definition proffered at the end of The Triumph of Love and will now be used my me to describe my own meanderings. Or it could refer to the months of the years, the signs of the zodiac, the amount of pennies in a shilling and many other things besides.

Being me, I like the ‘exorbitant wants’ partly because it’s the kind of conjuring that his detractors hate but also because it shows the strength in depth that Hill still retains in re-working the language that we hold in common. I talked about clowns and clowning last time and was going to skim over it here but he might be saying something (in retrospect) about the light-comedy entertainer that Hill has, on occasion, aspired to be. A whole range of clown-related cliches come to mind but I do want to get on to the role of evil here and these broken pots and detritus.

Time for another confession, I first cam across Gabriel Marcel in A Precis or Memorandum of Civil Power in the A Treatise of Civil Power which was published in 2007. I found out from the interweb that he was a Christian existentialist and I left it at that. This was a mistake because, with the assistance of the increasingly impressive Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I’ve found a few things that slip almost neatly into what appears to be Hill’s current world view:

  • the world is broken and it may always have been broken but it is made more broken by historical events;
  • this brokenness is best characterised in the contemporary world in the refusal, or inability, to reflect or to imagine and the denial of the transcendent;
  • this is largely because we have prioritised and technology and this leads us to despair because it has no answer to the ‘bigger’ questions about the philosophical truths:
  • we still have a need for transcendence because we feel a degree of dissatisfaction which stems from this functional way of living;
  • with regard to transendence itself, Marcel has: “There is an order where the subject finds himself in the presence of something entirely beyond his grasp. I would add that if the word “transcendent” has any meaning it is here—it designates the absolute, unbridgeable chasm yawning between the subject and being, insofar as being evades every attempt to pin it down”;
  • Marcel makes a distinction between problem and mystery in that problems can be resolved by technique whereas a mystery is a “problem that encroaches on its own data” such as the relationship between body and soul, the nature of evil, freedom and love.

I’ll readily confess to tearing all of this out of context to suit my own purposes but, as a means of justification, I’d like to use the first few lines from part I of A Precis:

Could so have managed not to be flinging
down this challenge.
True way is homeless but the better gods
go with the house. Cogito a bare
threshold as G Marcel sagely declares,
of what's valid.
Come round to the idea, even so
belated and knock. Echo the answer
in spare strophes that yield almost nothing
to the knowledge
outside them raw with late wisdom.

Now, might this be a precis of the above lines of thought? Might this reveal a late acceptance of said line? Are the Day Books in part a working through of this acceptance? I, of course want to answer all of these in the affirmative because Hill’s disdain for the functional in this broken world does seem in the later work to march in step with an exploration of the transcendent.

Of cause this is tentative, subjective and provisional. I know I read something recently about Hill’s view of the relationship between the political and the mystical, once I’ve dug it out I may well change my mind. I am however particularly fond of these spare strophes that are said to be raw with late wisdom. Wonderful.

The Allegory by the Pool.

John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.

Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.

So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.

I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.

As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.

Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.

This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.

On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.

Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.

In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;

I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate
And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Do work their owne perfection so by fate.

This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.

As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.

Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.

Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.

I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:

I will not say that I am a device.
The semicircle where my heavy lyre
gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice;
tall poplars to the right; one may admire
how in the distance that dome can entice
from its squat cupola to the entire
warehouse of print on which the state has fed
its house of authorships, its empty head.

Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.

Prynne week: Biting the Air.

I’ve now decided to have a series of ‘weeks’ in the way that Radio Three has a composer of the week and some arthouse cinemas have a director’s season. I think I’m doing this because it gives me an opportunity to stay with one poet’s work over a number of posts rather than flitting from one to the other. This isn’t going to be easy because I am a lifelong flitter.

J H Prynne does however present a wide enough range of stuff to keep this tendency at bay and Biting the Air appears to be a good example of this. I will proceed with caution because Prynne’s work is generally tricky (technical term) but repays careful attention. Given the level of trickiness what follows is more than usually tentative, provisional and subject to radical change.

Biting the Air was published in 2003 and appears as the penultimate poem in the second edition and appears, in part at least, to have Big Pharma in its sights. I do know a little about the global pharmaceutical problem, I spent between 2004-10 writing about the inadequacies of the system of drug research, testing and marketing and remain of the view that producing misleading/false information that leads to death or premature death should be a criminal offence. Because I’m bipolar I’ll be taking drugs for the rest of my life so I also have an interest in how things are done.

This is a sequence of 12 poems, 11 of which have five four-line stanzas with the other one having a bit of variation in the middle. The epigraph is from Ockham- “Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything. This is the start of the first poem:

Pacify rag hands attachment in for muted
counter-march or locked up going to drainage
offer some, give, none ravine platter, tied up
to kin you would desire that. Even hand

bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. even
flatline signal glitz perfection, slide under be-
fore matter planning your treat advance infirm
in legal glowing stunt. Enough out of one hand

And this is the final three stanzas of the sixth poem:

told to you, root and branch slope management
at onrush unpaired and less compact, generic death
as possession on nil return. Which way the novice
points trail off, they say the same on the block

new level rib, spit your lips. Be quick, be
long to pump anger revivalism, percolate thick 
forest scarps dug yet deeper. Get a vaccine on
shipment perish thread your face why yours

if told more, stable on a tilted capital feed 
suspected more often. Give out a version amplified
with strings to obligate a boundary check, felt 
damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption.

There’s gloriously complex things that appear to be going on here. Starting with the obvious ‘medical’ words: pharmaceutical, flatline, infirm, generic, rib, lips, vaccine and life exemption- I’m taking this to indicate that the poem is making direct comment on the issues that beset modern medicine rather than using this particular malaise to talk about something else. Of course, he may be doing both but I’m going to stick with medicine as medicine for the moment.

I’m now going to be very brave and launch into some kind of close reading of the above few lines in order to see if bits can be extracted and refined. The reason for choosing two separate passages is to test out what Prynne says in his Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems essay published in the CLR in 2010:

But in certain types of “difficult” poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.

This and the rest of the essay strike me as invaluable aids in dealing with this kind of material but then there’s a doubt for me about how many readers will be bothered to read the essays and the critical work on Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Herbert which demonstrate how this particular poet ‘does’ poetry. I’ve read these because I was already intrigued by the material and wanted to know more, as has also been the case with Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis. Is this what the charge of elitism is about? Should readers need just the words on the page to get the full picture? I don’t think this is necessarily exclusionary, a fan of Liverpool football club may read players’ autobiographies in order to get some context from what they pay to see. I don’t think that I’m unique in wanting to know more about what my favourite writers think about writing and I don’t feel that this is an elitist pursuit.

So, is there a “corridor of sense” running through the above? I think that there might be but it might be best to take things reasonably slowly.

Even hand bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. At first stare, ‘front’ is problematic because it’s difficult to see how it can be described as pharmaceutical. It took me a little while but it may be that ‘front’ may refer to a cover or disguise for something else- usually a criminal activity. In New York, the Mafia has used garbage collection to disguise its main lines of business. The OED reminds me that ‘pharmaceutical’ is a noun as well as an adjective and that this has been used since 1829 to indicate a “pharmaceutical preparation; a medicinal drug”. No, one of the many problems with the drug industry are the intertwined problems of neutrality and objectivity. Time after time the biggest drug companies have been fined for presenting skewed and partial information when selling there products. They’ve marketed anti-psychotics as a beneficial treatment for dementia without disclosing the very much increased risk of stroke and the average shortening of life by about five years. This is bolstered by the publication of clinical trial results that are hopelessly compromised by the fact that they are funded by the company producing the drug.

So ‘even hand’ might be read as ‘even handed’, fair, balanced, impartial and these qualities are used by drug companies as a front to disguise the complex and often contradictory realities of new therapies.

Even flatline glitz perfection. The OED fives glitz as “an extravagant but superficial display” which characterizes the way drug companies flog their wares. A flatline on a heart monitor would indicate that the heart has stopped beating but on other graphs and displays it indicates a stable or unchanging state with no variation. The Prynne ‘even’ always presents me with difficulties but on this occasion it may be the verb as in to make level or equal or to describe something that has these qualities. With regard to flatlining, drug companies are particularly good at selling products that don’t make a blind bit of difference. There is currently a bit of a furore in the UK because it has been noticed that £300 million was spent on tamiflu even though the evidence for its efficacy doesn’t exist.

Slope management. One of the very many joys of paying attention to Prynne and Hill is the amount of time that you get to spend with the OED. Looking at the ‘slope’ variations I’ve just come across its use as an adverb, deployed by Milton in PL as That bright beam, whose point now raisd Bore him slope downward to the Sun which is wonderful and is obviously in need of revivial. However, I don’t think that there’s any need to get too esoteric in this instance. I’m taking ‘slope’ as being the opposite of the flat line in the first poem and ‘management’ as a euphemism for manipulation. This works in both ways- drug companies produce results that emphasise the benefits whilst minimising the likely risks. Incidentally, I’m not of the view that Big Pharma is the incarnation of evil but I am concerned that our political masters simply fail to understand the issues involved from the nature of objective knowledge and the intertwined relationships between academic and commercial research and health providers. I’ll also admit to be morbidly fascinated by these folding and re-folding processes.

I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong here, especially as I can’t get to grips with “at onrush unpaired and less compact” but I don’t have any better points of reference at the moment.

Felt damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption. This might take a little while. I’m going to take ‘manupilate’ to have its common definition and worry instead about exemption. This particular noun refers to setting an individual or entity outside a particular rule or code. The most obvious example that springs into this small brain is the exemption of diplomats from parking tickets. So, a life exemption may be an exemption from something that lasts for life or an exemption from the rules that normally pertain to being alive. It seems, for example, that we are living much longer than any previous generation and that this may be credited to advances in medical practice and treatments. The other exemption from life that can be exercised is the ability of the individual to choose to curtail his or her existence. I’m not going to amplify the minefield signalled here by ‘ethic’ but wish to point out that medical ‘progress’ (loaded term) has prolonged life but in some cases has simply extended an already unbearable existence.

I hope the above points to how a ‘corridor of sense’ may be obtained. I know that this particular take may be very wide of the mark but at least it does begin to tease out some of those boundaries of relevance that Prynne refers to. In the rest of this week’s posts I hope to put more of his description to the test.

Information Quality: the Monstrous Poem

Continuing with my theme, I’d like to move on to monstrosity as one of those quality that often gets overlooked or misplaced. I need to say at the outset that the name of this particular quality is stolen from Keston Sutherland although the following elaboration is all mine. Given the response to all things gnarly, I think I need to make clear that these qualities aren’t indicators of worth, there are good monstrous poems in this world just as there are bad ones. There is also good gnarliness and bad gnarliness and sometimes these are in the same poem (Lycidas, Poly Olbion). As with the gnarly, many of the onstrous demand an almost physical engagement, a bit of a cognitive and often aesthetic struggle before they can be overcome.

Monstrosity: a definition.

A monstrous poem needs to be large and ranging in scope rather than in scale although scale can be an important factor. By scope I essentially mean the ‘range’ of subject matter although a range of perspectives on the same subject can contribute. There are some obvious candidates, Olson’s Maximus springs to mind but some others that are more nuanced and understated but nevertheless deal with a lot of Very Big Stuff. The following are tentative and provisional examples of what I’m trying to say.

Elizabeth Bishop’s In the Waiting Room.

Bishop was probably the most technically able poet of the 20th century and the above is one of her very best:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
 I went with Aunt Consuelo
 to keep her dentist's appointment
 and sat and waited for her
 in the dentist's waiting room.
 It was winter. It got dark
 early. The waiting room 
 was full of grown-up people,
 arctics and overcoats,
 lamps and magazines. 
 My aunt was inside
 what seemed like a long time 
 and while I waited I read 
 the National Geographic
 (I could read) and carefully
 studied the photographs: 
 the inside of a volcano,
 black, and full of ashes;
 then it was spilling over
 in rivulets of fire.
 Osa and Martin Johnson
 dressed in riding breeches,
 laced boots, and pith helmets.
 A dead man slung on a pole
 --"Long Pig," the caption said.
 Babies with pointed heads 
 wound round and round with string;
 black, naked women with necks
 wound round and round with wire
 like the necks of light bulbs. 
 Their breasts were horrifying. 
 I read it right straight through.
 I was too shy to stop.
 And then I looked at the cover: 
 the yellow margins, the date. 
 Suddenly, from inside, 
 came an oh! of pain 
 --Aunt Consuelo's voice--
 not very loud or long.
 I wasn't at all surprised; 
 even then I knew she was
 a foolish, timid woman.
 I might have been embarrassed,
 but wasn't. What took me
 completely by surprise was
 that it was me: 
 my voice, in my mouth.
 Without thinking at all
 I was my foolish aunt,
 I--we--were falling, falling,
 our eyes glued to the cover
 of the National Geographic,
 February, 1918.

 I said to myself: three days
 and you'll be seven years old.
 I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off
 the round, turning world. 
 into cold, blue-black space. 
 But I felt: you are an I,
 you are an Elizabeth,
 you are one of them.
 Why should you be one, too?
 I scarcely dared to look
 to see what it was I was.
 I gave a sidelong glance
 --I couldn't look any higher-- 
 at shadowy gray knees, 
 trousers and skirts and boots
 and different pairs of hands
 lying under the lamps.
 I knew that nothing stranger
 had ever happened, that nothing
 stranger could ever happen.

 Why should I be my aunt,
 or me, or anyone?
 What similarities--
 boots, hands, the family voice
 I felt in my throat, or even
 the National Geographic
 and those awful hanging breasts-- 
 held us all together
 or made us all just one?
 How--I didn't know any
 word for it--how "unlikely". . .
 How had I come to be here,
 like them, and overhear
 a cry of pain that could have
 got loud and worse but hadn't?

 The waiting room was bright
 and too hot. It was sliding
 beneath a big black wave, another,
 and another. Then I was back in it.

 The War was on. Outside,
 in Worcester, Massachusetts, 
 were night and slush and cold,
 and it was still the fifth 
 of February, 1918.

The beginnings of and nature of self-consciousness is a pretty big piece of ground but here we also have family, otherness and our prurient, arrogant interest in what was then thought of and depicted as the ‘savage’, World War One and what seven year old can see of others with a ‘sidelong glance’, and what time does.

I challenge anyone to find a single mite of clunk in any of the above but my point here is that huge subjects are covered in a way that feels conversational and completely unforced. The monstrosity arrives in full flow in the second and third stanzas which take us (whilst still in the waiting room) to a level of abstraction that requires several readings, some reflection / consideration before things become a bit clearer.

Paul Celan’s Aschenglorie.

I wasn’t going to do this because I probably write too much about Celan and about this poem in particular yet it does have that huge, sprawling scale but in a way that is completely different from Elizabeth Bishop. Like the above, it’s one of my favourite poems. Although Celan was a Holocaust survivor, it is a mistake to think of his work only in that context, as I hope to show:


ASHGLORY behind
your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
on
the drowned rudder blade,
deep in the petrified oath,
it roars up.

(On the vertical
breathrope, in those days,
higher than above,
between two painknots, while
the glossy
Tatarmoon climbed up to us.
I dug myself into you and into you).

Ash-
glory behind
you threeway 
hands.

The east-in-front-of-you, from
the East, terrible.

Nobody
bears witness for the
witness.

Most of the writing on Celan’s later work is speculative and I certainly don’t intend to provide any kind of explanation for this piece of brilliance. For those who would like one, I’d suggest that Derrida’s Poetics and Politics of Witnessing is a better stab in the dark than most. I’d simply like to draw attention to the following subjects that may be being addressed here:

  • the current status/nature of those who died during the Holocaust;
  • language and the return from exile;
  • filial guilt;
  • Stalin and the displacement of ethnic groups;
  • suicide in the face of tyranny;
  • the problems facing/confronting the poet as memorialist.

What is brilliant about Celan is that he is able to pack so much into so few words. The first word, which is repeated further into the poem, brilliantly encapsulates the fate of victims but also the way in which they will continue- the image I have is of brightly burning wood beneath a light covering of ash, your hands will burn if you get too close. I like to think that Pontic erstwhile brings into focus the Greek speaking people of Pontus who lived on the Black Sea coast in what is now Turkey. Along with the Armenians they were subject to genocide at the hands of the Turks and then deported to Greece. It is said that the ‘native’ Greeks could not understand the type of Greek that these returnees spoke. The Tatar people were also moved en masse from their land in the Crimea by Stalin.

Of course, the implacable aridity and extreme ambiguity of Clean’s poem-making makes over-reading very, very likely but that should not stop any of us paying close attention to this almost magical body of work. My own sins in this regard read the ‘threeway’ as the meeting with the poet’s mother and father, both of whom were murdered by the Germans. The other big leap into speculation is the reported answer that Celan gave when asked what he did in labour camps during the war: “dug holes”. The last three lines are those that have caught the most critical attention, in his otherwise excellent essay, Derrida probably over-complicates this solitary, isolated act of witnessing and I’m never sure whether it’s a statement of fact or an anguished cry. The third bracketed stanza is gloriously complex and monstrous in itself and I hover between each of the eight or so readings that I have in my head, the breath rope may be a noose but it may also be the lines of bubbles rising from the mouth of some one (drowning) underwater, both possibilities cast the poem in a dramatically different way.

Sir Geoffrey Hill’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.

This was published in the Tenebrae collection in 1968, following Mercian Hymns. The notes at the back of the original inform me that these thirteen sonnets were written for a number of contexts and this goes some way to explaining the monstrous scale of the sequence. The title is taken from Pugin- the leading proponent of the 19th century Gothic revival.

The sequence uses this to expand on England, colonial India, ruins, the English landscape and (as ever) martyrdom. Each of these are huge but the ‘thread’ running though them is one G Hill and his idiosyncratic ‘take’ on these things which, with the possible exception of India, have been lifelong concerns. I’ll give a few brief examples to try and show this scope. There are three sonnets entitled A Short History of British India, this is the second half of the second:

The flittering candles of the wayside shrines
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts the dust.
Krishna from Rhada lovingly entwines.

Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their heads.
The alien conscience of our days is lost
among the ruins and on endless roads.

Obviously, our imperial experiences in India are difficult to encapsulate in 42 lines but it would seem that Hill’s thesis is in part British arrogance and its resulting inability to understand or engage with the glorious complexity that is Indian culture. Whilst the critique is occasionally scathing, the tone is rueful and oddly elegaic.

The second sonnet is entitled Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654. I’m taking this to be a nod towards Marvell’s Damon and Clorinda which carries more than a nod in the direction of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar. These are the first four lines:


November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

And these are the last 3.5 lines:


................Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors? And who is this clown
doffing his mask at the masked threshold
to selfless raptures that are all his own?

So this would seem to be perpetuating the distinctly English pastoral with a juxtaposition between the rural and the spiritual. The mysterious and allusive ending is in stark contrast with the clarity of the opening lines. This in itself is monstrously wrestleable. I also need to report that the recent Collected tells us that this particular sonnet is “an imitation of a sonnet by L. L. de Argensola” without specifying which sonnet. Of course, this information isn’t in the original edition. I don’t think this invalidates the Spenser-Marvell- Hill guess but it certainly throws something else into the pot.

Hill’s relationship with England has always been more than a little complex, he’s clearly a patriot and, as a red Tory, despairs of many elements of contemporary politics, especially our membership of the EU. He is also our best poet of the English landscape and his involvement with all things rural is unambivalent. This is the first part of The Laurel Axe which is the ninth sonnet in the sequence:

Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds

One of the epigraphs for An Apology is from Coleridge: “the spiritual Platonic old England” which adds another level of monstrosity to the sequence as a whole. Coleridge’s admiration for Plato is in itself unstraightforward but you don’t need to puzzle over this to appreciate the strength and brilliance of the above.

So, monstrosity of scale which seems more monstrous than the much longer Triumph of Love because so much is compressed into these 182 lines. I’m now going to spend a few days trying to subdue it into something more manageable.

<Simon Jarvis' The Unconditional.

I was going to use this as the example par excellence of monstrosity by means of digression and I was looking for a suitably digressive passages when I came across one of my v informative exclamation marks in the margin of page 179 and decided to use that instead, for reasons that will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

For those that don’t know, the Jarvis project is one of the most important of this century, his longer, formal work is a brilliant thumb in the eye at what we might think of as the literary establishment on both sides of the Atlantic for a number of different reasons. The above was published in 2005 and consists of a single poem containing about 235 pages of defiantly metrical verse. This is what caught my eye:

        Presuicidal choclatiera
coat morsels with a delicate agony
        for which their German reading long ago
was how the cost effective entrance fee
        ("In every line that Celan ever wrote
hovers a brooding ethical concern".
        poor penny dreadfuls of the critical sense
where the quotidian shopping carts unseen
        gather to give this hulking strut the lie
full of their viands for the evening pie.
        The worst that is thought and known in the world.
Precisely instead unriddable pleasures
        the poet gripped until he fathomed them wet.
(How precisely the joyful idiot is snubbed
        the couriers of singularity
can well arpeggiate as they now tread
        on underlings of idiotism who
know little of the sacrifices made
        by the sole selfers walking on their guts
(Tsk my resentimentful prosodist!
        Excellent rancour from the hilltop sire
When may we know what you yourself have lost
        or ever had to put up with in the rain?)))

This is horribly complex, at it’s heart it’s a rant at all things Continental but Derrida and co. (yet another technical term) in particular. Writing about the Holocaust is a huge subject as is writing about writing about the Holocaust as is the Adorno / Continental divide yet Jarvis takes these on together with a note of self-deprication at the end. I won’t argue with the notion that most of the critical writing on Celan is dire in the extreme but I don’t think that this is confined to one particular ‘sect’. I’ve gone on about this Adornian snobbery in the past and don’t intend to repeat myself. My point is that many many tomes have been written about writing about the Holocaust and many complexities have been examined yet Jarvis manages to encapsulate his fairly nuanced ‘position’ in one page and there’s a whole set of small monstrosities within.

So, I hope that I’ve demonstrated that this quality needs to be paid some attention. In writing the above I’v discovered a few other qualities (relentless monstrosity, monstrous ambiguity etc) which I’ll write about at a later date.

Marvell, Matthias, Sutherland and Information Quality

Not entirely sure where I’m going with this but I’ve come across the above notion which apparently is a growing field of study. It turns out that information quality is thought about in a matrix of different qualities and as soon as I saw these I thought it might be useful to think about The Odes to TL61P in these terms and see where we get to. I then had a closer look at these ‘metrics’ and decided that they wouldn’t fit this particular bill after all because they omit or confuse many of the aspects that I think about in poetry.

So, I’d like to start with what my own headings might look like. I need to emphasise that these qualities appear to me to be the ones I ‘apply’ in my reading this week and is entirely provisional, tentative and obviously subjective. In order to do this properly, I’m going to pay attention to three very different extracts from three poems that I’m reasonably familiar with and see where we get to: Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, John Mathias’ Laundry Lists and Manifestoes and Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P.

This is Marvell:


But most the hewel's wonders are
Who here has the holt-fester's care.
He walks still upright from the root,
Meas'ring the timber with his foot;
And all the way, to keep it clean,
Doth from the bark the woodmoths glean.
He, with his beak, examines well
Which fit to stand and which to fell.

The good he numbers up, and hacks;
As if he marked them with the axe
but where, tinkling with his beak,
Does find the hollow oak to speak,
That for his building he designs,
and through the tainted sign he mines.
Who could have thought the tallest oak
Should fall by such a feeble stroke!

Nor would it, had the tree not fed
A traitor worm, within it bred.
(As first our flesh corrupt within
Tempts ignorant and bashful Sin.)
And yet that worm triumphs not long
But serves to feed the hewel's young
While the oak seems to fall content,
Viewing the treason's punishment.

And this is Matthias:


           .....while on a promontory broken off
The screensaver image 0f an ancient SE10
Madame C's high cognates gather around boxes dropped
By Ever Afterlife Balloonists working on the script
Of Cargo Cults. They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all collaterals and cogs
Codes and codices for Mme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestoes which proclaim their faith in algorithms of an
Unkown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow.
They're coeternal, and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no story of their lives,their little trumpets blow.

And this is Sutherland:


The west Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with
a cabin; a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin
had England. Love gets saner, stained into the glass.
All countries must work together toward a mutual
resolution of currency imbalances, or risk war, says the
governor of the Bank of England, tasked with making
the genital stage of Godzilla inevitable; but he is
right, it's the answer Jesus would give if pressed; the
severance will yet amount to minus sweet fuck all.
Your job is to be at that orgy and to experience
maximum anxiety, write, and see what happens; it's not
a joke to say that you learn from that, except you
decline. Synergized to social fact, surplus grout of the
myriad equivalents; at the source I is screaming or am;
prolegomenon to an epigram. Smoke that shit. Yes.
Passion swings both ways, unfixed to be enlarged,
hungry for the majority of the earth, Robert's penis is a
surprise. In my tent, it is more pink than I am. I am 
more red or purple or brown. I had guessed, startling
me, but I sucked it anyway, not to go back; I think it
was an excruciation to him and a probably morally
significant embarrassment, because he never used it
against me when I started punching his face in on the 
couch that my mother pissed herself on; get it back;
why did I do that, smacking around with childish 
fists, deepening our wishes, blunting life in him and
me; and smack that miniscule nameless boy who merely
explained to me that my fantasy car for sale to him
could be given wheels, when I wanted it to be flat and 
just glide? The Victorian English had their more
innocent Green Zones in India, from which to peroroate
on the superiority of peace for trade; indiscreet to go
slaughtering around all over the place like the Russians
via the French and in any case very likely more
overheads to redemption. If sex is the price for that,
be it what you may; after all sex disappears anyway.

Verbal skill.

This is a broad category but, in my view, one of the things that poets do is to make words to a variety of different things at the same time, the words chosen shouldn’t ‘jar’ on the ear, should be precise whilst at the same time carrying a number of different contexts. There’s also the skill of putting words together, in whatever form that enhances both the sound of sense of what’s being written.

Taking Appleton House first, it seems to me that the words are taking us, almost by stealth, from the world of the wood to the world of politics. Unlike the others, Marvell is constrained by both rhyme and meter yet the lines proceed without that sing-song playground effect that seems to be present in too many poems of his period. Tinkle might be thought of as problematic but this is helped a little by the discovery that it can also mean ‘tingle’, especially with regard to the nose. The other concern might be the are/care rhyme in the first quoted verse and long/young in the last. It may well be that these could be credibly made to rhyme in the 17th century ( long/yong) but it still strikes me as clunky.

John Matthias is a superb technician who hardly ever puts a verbal foot wrong. I know this because I’ve been working with him to produced an annotated on-line version of his Trigons and that entire sequence is remarkable for its absence, with one very small exception, of clunk. It could be argued that I’m biased but this mastery is something I’d written about before John got in touch. The poem above is the last from the Laundry Lists sequence and these are the first lines that had me punching the air with delight precisely because of the verbal brilliance of the last line and this uncanny ability to use ordinary/conversational language to do very complex and intelligent things. As well as being a sucker for the great phrase (their tiny trumpets blow) I’m also of the view that poetry, if it’s about anything, is about a ‘mix’ of compression and precision. I have gone on at length about the last 6 and a half lines that conclude the sequence but I still feel the need to emphasise in terms of word-choice, syntax and phrasing how the very difficult to do properly is made to feel relaxed and easy.

Keston Sutherland is the most exciting British poet writing today but he isn’t without his annoyances and the most irritating of these is his tendency to throw in the obscure word or phrase which has always struck me as less than democratic- ‘prolegomenon’ and ‘perorate’ being the only offenders here. This aside, the above is utterly brilliant in that it manages to create a verbal flow that effortlessly takes us from wider public issues to the deeply personal and back again and achieves this by being both precise and economic with the words that are used. The way in which the sophisticated political analysis is smashed to bits by the extraordinary account of Keston as a child sucking off differently-coloured Robert is breathtaking, in the Prynne sense, and profoundly disturbing atleast to this particular reader. In terms of words, those used here are straightforward and clear we are not left in any doubt what is being said although the small and nameless boy at the end might carry some ambiguity. Incidentally, I’ve checked and ‘prolegomenon’ is a classical term for a written preface and I have to wonder whether ‘preface to an epigram’ is more democratic. As far as I can tell, we can reasonably use ‘declaim’ instead of ‘perorate’ and the same argument applies. I don’t find myself feeling the same about Matthias’ cognates because I can’t think of a more accessible substitute.

Tone

One of the surprising things about thinking in this way is that I’ve discovered or refined what seems to be important to me. I used to think of this as ‘voice’ but I now realise that this musical term seems to cover this better. I also realise that, most of the time, I’m attracted to and impressed by a mix of the clever and the playful. I’ll try to use these three extracts to think a bit more about what I mean.

Starting with the woodpecker’s journey through the wood. The first verse reads as a description of this progress and plays with language to create an ostensibly simple and pleasant scene. Things become much more serious by the end of the third verse which makes the subject matter very clear. The language sounds like an attractive melody but (cleverly) carries more than a little ‘bite’ it also conveys a degree of ambiguity which I find satisfying. The creation of these twelve lines of complexity seems quite improvised and conversational yet the ‘message’ is very serious indeed and refreshingly different in its use of play from other poetic efforts of the time.

I now see that it was this combination was what drew me in to Matthias’ work, in his longer work he clearly plays with language and conveys to the reader the pleasure that he takes in this. More so than with Marvell The above is a demonstration of the playfully clever in this pleasure and the verbal exuberance of the opening lines. The concluding image does many things given that the sequence as a whole is about our relationship to a sense of order and the ways in which we struggle with that. I hesitate to say this but “their little trumpets blow” is about as playfully clever as it gets.

Since i first came across his work, I’ve thought of Sutherland as essentially experimental even though he probably views himself as essentially political. The good thing about these experiments is that they mostly work. The beginning of this particular paragraph reads like the beginning of an earlyish Jon Zorn Riff, leaping from target to target at a rapid pace. Then you come across Godzilla’s genital stage which injects some humour into this depiction of Capital and Empire. The one-liners ooze (technical term) with cleverness and there’s clearly more than a little fun with words being had along the way. The most cleverly playful aspect is the insertion of the childhood confessions which tackles the wider theme of how the breaking of secrets can be a powerful and liberating political weapon.

Subject Matter.

I’m against political poems mostly because I find them too ‘viewy’ in the E Pound sense and I have more than enough views of my own. All of these poems ‘do’ politics but accomplish other things as well. Upon Appleton House encompasses landscape and the effects of natural forces, celebrates the life and achievements of his employer, Thomas Fairfax (all-round Civil War good guy) and presents this front row view of one of the most turbulent times in British history. It also does all these things very well indeed. I’m not that interested in the political aspects of the Civil War because I think we continue to give them far too much importance but I am fascinated by how poets responded to those events on either side of the ‘fence’. I am however fascinated by the interplay between the forces of the state and individual agency. Fairfax was on of the most prominent figures on the Roundhead side of the fence yet he was firmly opposed to the trial of Charles I, indeed on the first day of the trial his wife heckled from the gallery. So what Marvell seems to be playing with, as in his An Horatian Ode is the complexities involved in any political strategy/

Laundry Lists and Manifestoes is less obviously political but nevertheless plays along the manifesto / manifest / list and the way in which we ‘lean’ on lists as a kind of prop to calm our various neuroses. It’s not that lists are meaningless and arbitrary collations (as with Perec) but that they are inherently faulty in many kinds of ways. One of the very many clevernesses is that the sequence can itself be read as a long and overlapping list of proper nouns, so it’s a list of listists about lists. Of course, manifestoes are a central part of political life and they have there own frailties between ideology and electoral success.

Keston Sutherland is determinedly political and The Odes present a more considered analysis of the dismal workings of the state than his previous work but also makes use of his personal biography to make a more general but astute point about secrets and the liberating effect of exposing secrets.

One of the ‘big’ secrets of contemporary life is that children are sexual beings with sexual feelings. This isn’t in any way a defence for paedophilia but unleashing this particular secret does cast a lot of adult assumptions about notions of innocence and purity out of the window. In The Odes Sutherland describes in quite graphic detail his own childhood sexual preferences and desires and contrasts these with the desire of his parents to both prevent these being acted upon and to keep them hidden from the world. As well as disliking political poetry, I have a distinct loathing of what we now think of as confessional work so I should really hate this particular mix but it is saved by the strength of the analysis and the wider implications of the confession. I think.

There’s also the issue of wider appeal, we all live under the rule and by the rules of the state, we’re currently watching a couple of states looking increasingly fragile from internal strife and one that has gone beyond the point of self-destruction. We all make lists, nobody is free from the deep need to impose order on the world around us and this takes the form a list of nouns interspersed with a list of their ‘connectors’. We all have a personal manifesto which, whether conscious or not, guides our behaviour. Mine is poorly articulated notion of integrity that contains all of the qualities that I aspire to and it’s there because my previous behaviours have refined down those moral traits that make sense to me. There have been other lists, the clearest being the set of tasks that needed to be done in order to gain as much money in as short a time as possible. Everybody should think more about lists in a much more critical and sceptical manner- Matthias’s sequence prods us into doing that very thing. In a similar fashion we all need to confront our most hidden and awkward secrets and the lies that we tell ourselves about them. It now seems to me absurd that we deny in ourselves what we know to be true and incorporate that denial into our view of the world. Keston’s choice of secret is perhaps extreme but there are many, many others, the way that we deny our racism, our material greed and what Foucault almost described once as the fascist within.

Pointfulness

I read a lot of poetry and I’ve noticed a new demarcation in addition to honest / dishonest line and it’s to do with futility. It seems to me that the vast majority of published work on both sides of the Atlantic is utterly pointless, it makes no positive cultural contribution and is staggeringly complacent even as it glides into its own irrelevance. I’m not going to name names but it does take a lot for work to rise above this dismal morass. None of these three are complacent, the poets involved a clearly challenging themselves to produce work that challenges the staus quo and move things forward in a positive direction. I accept that Marvell’s being dead for a long, long time but nobody yet has picked up the gauntlet that he laid down.

In conclusion, I’m discovering a growing number of components that make up my idea of quality and it is making me read familiar work in new and fascinating eays. I wonder if others have their own readerly criteria…?