Category Archives: sociology

David Jones’ Sleeping Lord; A First Encounter

When writing about Jones’ magnificent work I’ve concentrated on In Parenthesis and The Anathemata because I encountered them first and because my initial response to the other work was that it’s a bit minor in that it doesn’t achieve the magnificence of the two longer poems. This view is currently undergoing some revision as I’m now paying some overdue attention to this material and have become just as absorbed as I am with the other two.

For those new to Jones, there are a couple of contexts that need to be stated at the outset: he was a staunch and conservative Roman Catholic and his father was Welsh which led to an abiding affinity with Wales and its history. Jones makes this clear in his introduction to The Anathemata:

So that to the question: What is this writing about? I answer that is is about one’s own ‘thing’. Which res is unavoidably part and parcel of the Western Christian res, as inherited by a person whose perceptions are totally conditioned and limited by and dependent upon his being indigenous to this island. In this it is necessarily insular; within which insularity there are further conditionings contingent upon his being a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription.

The good news is that you don’t need to be either Welsh or of the Catholic faith to become immersed in and enamoured by Jones’ work. When first reading the above introduction I was more than a little nervous of both these aspects but soon discovered that the material provides many different points of entry and passages of great beauty. The Lord of the title is identified at the outset as “Lord Llywellin, Prince of Wales” who was killed by Edward i’s forces at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in 1282.

This excerpt from the early part of the poem hopefully gives some idea of its strength:


                        does a deep syncline
                        sag beneath him?
or does his dinted thorax rest
                        where the contorted heights
                        themselves rest
on a lateral pressured anticline?
Does his russet-hued mattress
                        does his rug of shaly grey
ease at all for his royal dorsals
                        the faulted under-bedding.
Augite hard and very chill
                        do scattered cerrig
jutt to discomfort him?
                        Milleniums on millenia since
this cold scoria dyked up molten
when the sedimented, slowly layered strata
(so great the slow heaped labour of their conditor
the patient creature of water) said each to each other:
"There's no resisting here:
                          the Word if made Fire."

According to the patented Arduity Trickiness Index, there are four words that may give us problems. The first is the italicised ‘cerrig’ for which Jones provides this note; “stones; pronounced ker-rig ‘er’ as in errand. Pronunciation is provided for most Welsh words because Jones, in his brief introduction, states that the poem “chances to be a piece that is essentially for the ear rather than the eye”. The second word is ‘scoria’ for which I’m taking the secondary definition given by the OED- “Rough clinker-like masses formed by the cooling of the surface of molten lava upon exposure to the air, and distended by the expansion of imprisoned gases.” The third is ‘augite’ although it can be inferred that this refers to a hard rock. The OED is more expansive: ” As a mass noun: a mineral of the pyroxene group which occurs as dark green or black prisms, and is an important component of basic igneous rocks such as basalt and gabbro”- which takes us further into things geological than we need to go. The final word is ‘conditor’ which, in Latin, google translate tells me is either founder or builder whilst the OED has ” A founder; an institutor (of laws)”,both of which make sense in this context.

here we have a Medieval Welsh king conflated with Christ ‘asleep’ on the bare stone of a mountain and the above passage lists the ways in which this might be uncomfortable or difficult for him. The asking of questions, rhetorical or otherwise, is a key feature of Jones’ later work and works to good effect here- When this reader finds himself confronted with questions rather than a straightforward description, I find myself thinking more deeply about the content. The brilliance for me is that this insistence brings us into the detail of a different time and place and enables a sense of almost physical contact with the things and events depicted. I don’t know of any poet writing in English in the last hundred years that can achieve this with such sustained force.

One of my tests of greatness is the mix of originality of expression and technique. In the above the question about the Lord’s thorax is perfectly phrased and placed with the possible exception of the “on the lateral…” line which seems to provide a little too much geological detail and thus becomes a bit clunky when read aloud.

I’m also very impressed by the way the above ends with the description of water as foundational and as a patient animal biding its time, the use of ‘dyke’ as a verb, the speaking strata and the concluding theological / Christian point. That this quite complex passage is underpinned by a very energetic sense of moving forward is quite remarkable.

The last line probably refers to the act of God’s creation as in “In the beginning was the Word” and the idea of Logos which is a key part of John’s gospel and the coming of Christ as the Holy Spirit.

There’s an extended section on the place and duties of the Lord’s candlebearer which leads to the Household’s priest and what feels like an improvised riff on matters relating to the early church. T S Eliot placed Jones alongside Joyce in the pantheon of modernists and some of Jones’ prose leaps and bounds along in a distinctly Joycean manner. We are given a lengthy description of the priest’s thoughts during a blessing:


His, silent, brief and momentary recalling is firstly of those
Athletes of God, who in the waste-lands & deep wilds of the
Island and on the spray-swept skerries and desolate insulae where
the white-pinioned sea-birds nest, had sought out places of
retreat and had made the White Oblation for the living and the
dead in those solitudes, in the habitat of wolves and wild-cat
and such like creatures of the Logos (by whom all creatures are that
are)........

My knowledge of early Christianity is almost fuzzy as that of Welsh history but I’m not aware of a tradition of holy men doing good works in the wilds of Britain. However, a priest in medieval Wales may well have imagined such figures and mentally transplanted them from the eastern end of the Mediterranean to his homeland. I have reproduced the above passage with the same line length as it appears in the 1974 Faber edition because it seems important to preserve the ‘look’ of the prose text as it is with the verse.

There are some critics who I admire that are of the view that the prose sections are poems and should be read and appreciated as such. I’m not convinced that things are quite as simple as that. Throughout the later work, I’d argue for a fairly distinct marker between the parts written as poetry which seem to be more incantatory and faux bardic than the parts written as prose. My main shred of evidence for this is the difference between the two when read aloud. For those wishing to put this to the test, I’d advocate doing the same with a passage containing both elements.

The main charge against Jones and the reason given by many for his lack of readers is obscurity, the other is the staunchly traditional nature of his Catholic faith. I’m not convinced by either of these but I do concede that there are moments when both these factors combine in a way that is challenging to say the least. This is from the extended section on the priests thoughts;


                     Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!

This is annotated with;

See the first lesson of the first nocturn for Marina of Feria V in Coena Domini (Maundy Thursday) which begins ‘Incipit Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae Aleph: Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo.’

The line follows a passage on the ruination of the Roman cities and towns after the fall of the empire whilst the following lines provide some explanation for this catastrophe.

My first objection is that, for this agnostic monoglot, the explanation is more obscure than the line itself. My second objection is that, prior to the interweb (Sleeping Lord was first published in 1967) I’d have had no chance of working out what any of this meant. However, thirty seconds with the interweb reveals this passage from the A Heap of Broken Images blog:

These words first appear in Brideshead Revisited in a conversation between Cordelia and Charles. She uses them to describe her feelings after the chapel in Brideshead has been left empty. The phrase “Quomodo sedet sola civitas” -how lonely the city stands- is taken from the beginning of book of Lamentations, when the prophet Jeremiah cries over the destroyed Jerusalem; they are also used by the Liturgy of the Church in the office of Tenebrae to lament over the death of Christ.

Things now begin to fall into place, the phrase and its biblical source is now made clear and ‘fits’ well as a bridge between the two passages. It also happens that many years ago I read nearly all of Waugh’s writing because I liked his way of writing rather than his content. Like Jones, he was a staunchly conservative Catholic who bemoaned the reforms made by the Church in the early sixties. As a Jones completist, I’m now tempted to look again at Brideshead, having previously glided over most of the religious references and to look again at the diaries. For me, this is by far the most obscure part of the poem but it is the only part that I’d really struggle with and my incomprehension doesn’t get in the way of my understanding and appreciation of the poem as a whole.

After the priest’s many and varied remembrances, the poem returns to the Sleeping Lord and recounts the destruction wrought by the hog, a boar with great and destructive tusks, who may be the invading English armies of the Norman and Plantagenet periods, I’m tempted to suggest that this creature may be Edward I but that’s mainly because I want it to be.

This stunning poem ends where it began:


Do the small black horses
                      grass on the hunch of his shoulders?
are the hills his couch
                      or is he the couchant hills?
Are the slumbering valleys
                      him in slumber
                      are the still undulations
the sill limbs of him sleeping?
Is the configuration of the land
                      the furrowed body of the lord
are the scarred ridges
                      his dented greaves
do the trickling gullies
                      yet drain his hog-wounds?
Does the land wait the sleeping lord
                      or is the wasted land
the very lord who sleeps?

I hope, in this brief tour, I’ve given some idea of the poem and given encouragement to those who have initially been deterred by Jones’ reputation. I remain of the view that Jones is by far the greatest of the Modernists and that his ongoing neglect is an indictment of the current state of British Poetry as a whole and our literary critics in particular.

The Sleeping Lord and other fragments. is currently available for 12 quid from amazon. There really is no excuse.

Advertisements

The Extended Claudius App Fortnight: Amy De’Ath and Cecilia Corrigan.

This might be quite uncomfortable. This conversation between Amy and Cecilia relates to gender politics at the radical end of the poetry spectrum.

The main thrust of the dialogue is that radical poetry on both sides of the Atlantic is centred around a fairly exclusive grouping that omits feminist issues. I want to think about this point made by Amy:

What I’m taking issue with here is not Keston’s work — but with a whole gestural economy that’s both historical and casually social, an economy that always ensures the white men are at the top of the pile, they are the authority, they are the ones who so often define the terms of the debate.

I am of course ripping this out of the context of a more detailed and nuanced conversation but I think it gets to the nub of the problem. Now, I’m a white male who writes about this kind of poetry and I mostly write about men. I don’t feel that I’m at the top of any ‘pile’ but I do recognise that I am part of the problem. I also recognise the accuracy of the above and would like to spend some time trying to work out why this might be the case.

The first point is that poetry has always been dominated by men and men will always be reluctant to participate in their own downfall. The second is that ‘radical’ poetry is mostly leftist/marxian poetry concerned primarily with class and less about gender (or anything else). The final factor is that poetry is currently in a ghetto and radical poetry is an enclave within that ghetto and this breeds a special kind of neuroses that feeds into the gestural economy referred to above.

Thinking my own contribution to this travesty through, I recall reading something by James Baldwin which forcefully and convincingly pointed out that the white man can/must say nothing about racism because (paraphrase) any words, no matter how well-intentioned, would define the terms of the debate. So, as the oppressor I can’t speak up for those that I oppress. What I can do is to try to live a life that does not perpetuate the misogyny that still rules this side of the gender fence. However, it would be dishonest of me to write about women poets just to even up the balance.

That doesn’t explain why I’ve written much (much) more about Prynne, Celan and Hill than Vanessa Place who I would rank alongside all three of these in terms of importance. Nor does it explain why I’ve written next to nothing about Elizabeth Bishop. So perhaps I should redress this balance. In terms of other kinds of identity issues, I haven’t written anything at all about black poets, which is primarily due to not reading their work. Thinking this through, the prevalence of mental illness in all things Poetry does mean that I don’t experience anywhere near the kind oppression that I do on other areas of my life.

I don’t think I should do the hand wringing liberal thing and plead guilty as charged and leave it at that because I don’t find that productive. I’m very keen on all of us at this end of the spectrum acknowledge, as Cecilia says, the instability of our critical position, I’d also add that the best kind of poetry works from a standpoint that is unstable and transient. I don’t think this is necessarily a relativist position but I am of the view that we need to interrogate our individual certainties a bit more.

In addition to identity oppressions, there’s a couple that I’d like to throw into the pot. Most of this material springs from the middle and lower middle classes and suffers from acadamefication, ie the product of a certain kind of economic position together with a certain level of educational attainment. This isn’t a marxian argument but leans heavily on Bourdieu who demonstrated convincingly the way in which our cultural existences are wrapped up in the prevailing economic order. The role of the academy is as a primary instrument of control and pacification and the small and marginal world of radical poetry can be experienced / read as an extension of that process. I’m tempted to suggest that the avant garde never went to college but instead will be content to observe that, since about 1915, this particular position has been quickly and painlessly malappropriated by established practice and the economic order.

I’m not suggesting that any of these aspects are fixable but I do think that we need to talk about them and find our own ways to respond. Most of us could benefit from following Cecilia in making a poetic that’s ‘legible’ outside of the confines of this particular box. Acknowledging our mutual instabilities might help too.

The Odes to TL61P and Stress Position

Word has reached the bebrowed central committee that there are those who are expressing the view that ‘The Odes’ are not as good as ‘Stress Position’ and that they represent a more conservative politics. It would be easy to dismiss this as errant nonsense but it has given me something to consider, primarily because the people expressing this view are not usually foolish.

I also need to throw in some disclaimers, I’ve been reading The Odes, in draft form, on and off since 2010 and I was immediately struck by the quality of the poem and the absolute honesty of what it says. I saw it then, and still do, as a significant improvement on any of Sutherland’s previous work and welcomed the change in political ‘tone’.

I’ll deal with quality later but first I think I should address the ‘more conservative’ gibe. (Deep breath). I know that am more than thirty years older than the majority of Sutherland’s readers and our political perspectives might be completely different but the fact remains that an attack on torture in Iraq is easy politics. You do not have to be anywhere close to ideological purity to recognise the folly of the neo-con position and its murderous consequences. Everybody opposes torture, even those states that perpetrate it (ours).

I’m going to indulge in a personal anecdote or two before we get to The Odes. I’ve been professionally involved in a couple of major child abuse crises during the last twenty five years, during the first of these I was stopped in the street by a fellow CPGB member who wanted to know what the ‘line’ was on CSA and how we could make political gain from the disarray around us. It took me at least thirty minutes to gently explain that this was yet another of those issues where conventional thinking about ‘lines’ and political advantage might not apply. I think I also pointed out that ideological affiliation didn’t get in the way of fathers raping their children. I think I must also state that this particular colleague was and is very far from any kind of male chauvinism- he just didn’t get it.

The other anecdote relates to criminal trial involving one paedophile and twenty three young male victims with learning difficulties. Both the police and I were confident that the weight of evidence ws overwhelming but the jury convicted only on charges relating to one of the victims. Immediately after the trial an enraged DS and I pursued several jurors to a nearby pub and (gently) queried their reasoning. We were told that this young person was believed because he admitted to enjoying the acts perpetrated on him.

My point is that a poem about childhood sexuality and activity is neither more nor less conservative than a poem about torture in Iraq because terms like ‘conservative’ simply don’t apply. The analysis of what I’m currently thinking of as ‘austerity logic’ is reasonably astute and he continues to scathe away at the bastions of late capital and imperialism, so I don’t see any significant shift in position but rather an opening out from the confines of leftish concerns into areas where there are no easy ‘answers’.

One of the many challenges The Odes present to all of us is how to confront the way in which we keep some things secret as to do otherwise would be to invite societal/personal rejection. Because I’m a political animal I’d argue that this is a profoundly political issue that ideologues won’t touch with a bargepole precisely because it makes a mockery of the standard political spectrum and is so very threatening.

I’ll also confess to being biased because some of us have recognised since the mid-eighties that the current way of the world demands new and perhaps more oblique forms of action and have spent the last thirty years identifying those areas where a difference can be made in a way that reconfigures the networks by which we live. In brief, writing poems ‘against’ torture and bonkers neo-con imperialism won’t stop these phenomena whereas writing poems about secrets and guilts might encourage readers to consider their own and do something about them.

Now, we move on to the equally tricky issue of quality. I think I may have written more than most on Stress Position over the last three years and I also think I’ve been clear about its strengths and its failings. I know this may seem heretical in some quarters but there are some parts of SP that aren’t very good, there’s many bits that are brilliant and one in particular (which has nothing to do with Iraq) which walks ll over my soul every time I read it. There are also elements of tone where the anger becomes spiteful and arrogant and there are elements that don’t quite work in the sense that the underlying ‘sense’ breaks down which some might find attractive in an agit-prop kind of way but mars the fluency of the rant and, to this reader at least, is simply annoying.

The Odes have their rantings but these have more control and are thus more effective. The verbal clevery is just as incisive but less mannered in that it is clearly a personal statement/disclosure throughout in a way that SP never was. It could be of course that I’m biased, that this more personally honest sequence is more suited to my jaded and cynical palate, that I think it’s much better (and I do) because it’s less polemic and more challenge. This may be the case but there’s also the argument that the weak bits of poetry in the Odes are not as weak nor as numerous as those in SP and the work as a whole is much more ‘significant’ because it has a wider range and takes on difficult and disturbing themes in an accomplished way.

Some may fret about the high ratio of prose to verse and there are always technical questions about balance and the points where verse takes over and vice versa but this can’t be an argument about quality unless it the mix is obviously clunky (lit crit term) and it isn’t.

To conclude, The Odes are radically challenging and disturbing in ways that SP isn’t and they have greater focus and technical control which makes them ‘better’. Doesn’t it?

The Odes To TL61P of Keston Sutherland (at last)

This is the short version of this blog: It’s published, it’s a landmark, buy it.

That was fairly easy, the long version is much more daunting. But first of all I need to point out that we all owe a huge debt to Peter Target at Enitharmon for bringing this material to the wider world. The daunt stems from a couple of things:

  • I’ve written about the Odes here and on arduity before when they were in gestation and I don’t want to repeat myself;
  • I’m mindful of Peter Philpott’s comments re arduity and I don’t want to be explaining the late modern offside rule (again);
  • it won’t be easy to put into sensible words just how significant this stuff is.

I’ll start on a purely personal level, I disagree with Keston’s Marxist analysis of where we are now in terms of social and economic development, I’m ‘against’ confessional poetry for the same reason that Michael Drayton was against it in the 1590s. I worry about poems that aim to shock. Therefore, I should not be nodding my head and smiling as I read these pages, I should not be using terms like significant and landmark. However, I do and I have and I’ve een trying to work out why.

For me, as an increasingly frequent poem maker, the Odes provide an additional dimension to what poems (rather than poetry) can do and I haven’t felt this as clearly since reading ‘Crow’ when I was 15. I think I felt this when I first saw the drafts but reading the proof has strengthened that feeling. I’m nearly 58 and I’ve been paying attention to contemporary poetry since I was 13 and most of it is dismally similar. The additional possibilities that the Odes open up are about ‘doing’ personal honesty and being able to sustain political acuity over 70 pages without sliding into polemic or becoming boring.

It’s quite a big claim to describe a poem as a landmark and I have thought quite hard (for once) about this particular noun which I can justify. In the history of the poem there are some poems that stand out as ‘game changers’, poems that break many of the accepted norms and yet still manage to work and to push others in a radically new dimension. Of course there are many of these landmarks that work and are radically different but fail to change the game. The Odes are a landmark because they stand head and shoulders above anything else in the last forty years in terms of innovation, technical brilliance and absolute honesty and more than deserve to change the game in quite fundamental ways.

The danger is that they won’t and this is because of the level of defiant intelligence shining out from these lines. In the past I’ve expressed more than a little disdain for the late modern reliance on obscure words and foreign phrases because it smacks of elitism and deters (intimidates) most readers of ‘serious’ poetry. The Odes are not littered with these but there are enough to worry me. This no longer annoys me because (I think) doing arduity on Jones and Celan has demonstrated that (in good, honest work) this material if often essential in enabling a poet to say what must be said. This isn’t excusing those poets who use the obscure and the foreign to disguise the fact that they don’t have very much at all to say. Keston Sutherland however has lots to say and most of what he says is really quite important.

My usual method of road testing this kind of material is to show it to intelligent and normally receptive readers of poetry for a reaction. The current reaction to the first page is positive but people begin to fall over on the second with ‘Eriphile’, ‘squamous epithelium’ and ‘squamocolumnar junction’ and fail to proceed any further whilst glancing at me with a look of bemused sympathy.

We now come to significant as in “sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy; consequential, influential” (OED) and I’m justifying this by the nature of the rupture that it inflicts on the scheme of things. It is utterly different from anything else and it rents asunder many of our (mine) notions of what the poetic may be about. In fact it is this wrongness that demands attention because it works when it really shouldn’t and it shouts this fact with a kind of joyous intransigence. I often struggle with justifying my notion of what works as opposed to what doesn’t- in this instance The Odes work because they demonstrate verbal brilliance together with considered intensity that sweeps the reader (me) along without a technically duff note along the way and yet I know that this mix of analysis and disturbingly personal confession shouldn’t function especially when the analysis is old-school Marx and the confessional relates to accounts of childhood sexual experimentation and the uncomfortable fact that children have an ‘interest’ in sex too.

Of course it can be argued that I’m of this view because I was sent early drafts and this has in some way clouded my perspective. I don’t think this is the case, I like to think that I’m (unfortunately) sufficiently aware of the dangers of ‘capture’ and the halo effect to know when the soul has been sold but it is nevertheless a possibility that I acknowledge.

Of course there’s subtexts that I want to be present but might not be, for example we’re going to see ‘Not I’ at the Royal Court on the 25th because it’s a significant landmark in world literature and because I’ve never seen it live. The first part of Ode 1 has this:


    canal bound in stratified squamous epithelium to
    an alternatively screaming mouth, destined while
    dying inside to repeat before dying outside one
    last infinity of one-liners before snapping and giving
    up, or better yet pretending to, once you get it, once
    that is you really get it at all, or not at all, directly into

Needless to say, I’m now going to spend some time with my 1973 copy to work out if I’ve ever really got it even though the above might be about something else entirely.

The other it of affinity occurs with the observation that “if it’s not interesting to read what’s the point of doing it”. It just so happens that I’m putting on a series of poetry / music / storytelling and art events at our local arts centre and because this is not an audience of poets and poetry readers and I’m charging money at the door then the issue of interestingness in my own work is currently at the front of my mind and I have to report that poems that argue with what Levinas said about Celan in 1978 are not at all interesting whereas material about personal and political violence is. Needless to say, The Odes re endlessly interesting and full of stuff to think about, throw across the room and argue with. They must be read. Now.

Simon Jarvis and spirits and counter-fictions.

This is the third and final attempt to get my small brain around ‘Lessons and Carols’ from last year’s ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. There is no guarantee that I’ll get to the bottom of this remarkable poem in terms of all that it has to say but it’s probably time to move on. What follows, as ever, is entirely provisional and I reserve the right to change my mind.

I occasionally get brief flashes of recognition or (even) insight into what things might be trying to say but I need to be careful because these often lead me into imposing the meanings that I may agree with rather than what is actually there. As I finished the second piece on this poem such a flash flickered across my brain and it’s still lingering around , it relates to these lines:


  knowing at once in these spiritual tunes the sound of what comes
straight from the other world, straight from enchantment and straight
  from the terrible kingdom of non-love, of freedom and absence and longing,
so do these presents stand vigilant there at the window.

The spirits are fictions, the gifts are their counter-fictions.

The flicker was sparked by the vigilance of the presents which took me into social policy mode. I spent far too many years of my professional life dealing with aspects of the British underclass and was very aware that the main function of this group is to act as central plank of social control. One of the main reasons that we economically conform and play the material/status game is that we don’t want to fall into the chaotic and seemingly cursed world of the Undeserving Poor. The other aspect of crass materialism is that we use objects to reassure ourselves and others that we are far removed from that kind of deprivation.

So, I’m provisionally reading this kingdom of non-love as the sink estates where these difficult and dangerous souls eke out a hand-to-mouth existence and the vigilant presents as fictive or illusory guards against falling into this realm of freedom and absence and longing.

This is probably far too neat but I can discern something of Adorno’s reference to thought having become its own watchdog although his inherent pessimism takes the above to a more extreme and bleak place.

I wasn’t going to do this but it probably needs to be noted that the fictive but compelling lures and snares of late capital have occurred in previous poems. This is from ‘At Home with Paul Burrell’ which was published in 2007:

(You’re going to have to scroll off the screen for this but I think it’s important to preserve line length and the shape of this material.)

Yes my daughter everywhere false immediacy glints at a lure or pastes this slip of null now back over everywhere.
   Yes everywhere mediation curls up into the no less false shape of a blind trust.

And this is from the brilliant and ground-breaking and generally wonderful ‘Dionysus Crucified’ published in 2011:

                                              Spirit-seducingly all the kind wives & the mothers: every one of us has a face made of cash
Every one of us now wears the mask of sold labour and each time I look in a face 
  All that comes back is the answer of cash and of freedom from love turned up in a picture of ideal & absolute * perfectly perceptless sex
All that comes back is the light not light but elicited twinkles of lusterous sold simulacra of faces, the person I wear to the bank.

Of course, it can (and should) be argued that I’m attempting to prop up this tottering edifice by ripping lines out of their original context/meaning. I’m guilty as charged but this ‘lesson’ as to the fictive and increasingly mindless nature of our passive existence is at least a bit of thread.

You’e delighted to know that I’m going to glide over perceptless sex and return to the spirits. I think it’s reasonable consider at least a few possible meanings for this tricky noun. The common factor in most of these would appear to be the absence of the physical or tangible. There’s the various religious and theological meanings, there’s the distinctly Hegelian ‘geist’ as in the force or thrust of progress, there’s spirit as a characterising feature or essence, there’s spirit as soul and as the thing that lives on after death.

All or any of these throws up number of challenges to the above – we are told that these spirits are ‘fictions’ but that doesn’t quite equate with the very real function that they undertake. The desire to play the status game and the fear of a slide into poverty and deprivation are very real for most of us, it can be argued these are merely illusory barriers but they aren’t fictive- they are very real and effective devices that are at least in part responsible for the cultural and social blandification that we see around us.

I hope these three attempts give some indication of the quality and depth of ‘Lessons and Carols’ – am now torn between moving on to ‘Night Office’ or paying some more attention to Burrell and the remarkable Dionysus.

J H Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With this, things begin to fall into place thus:

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

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

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

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

Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne and Gillian Rose

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

In an effort to counter the liking-Prynne-means-that-you-can’t-like-Hill (and vice versa) syndrome I make sporadic attempts to identify similarities/affinities between the two. So far the primary one is admiration for the work of Paul Celan. I’ve recently come across another mutual affinity in Gillian Rose. Hill’s poem, ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ was published in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ in 2007 and Prynne speaks about his friendship with Rose in his introduction to the reading of ‘Refuse Collection’ which is on the Archive of the Now. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, the latest and strangest Prynne offering contains a reference to Rose’s ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ which is described as the philosophical version of her ‘Love’s Work’.

For those who don’t know, Rose was one of our brightest academics until her early death from cancer at the age of 48 in 1995. Up until the end of her life she wrote with enormous clarity and a fierce commitment to the ethical strengths of the European tradition which she saw as being undermined by the post structural and the post modern. ‘Love’s Work’ is a kind of autobiography which includes an account of her intellectual development and a brutally factual description of her battle with cancer. It is beautifully written and incredibly moving. I can say this because I was moved and this doesn’t occur very often.

Rose was also the finest writer of polemic that I have come across. Her demolition of Derrida’s ‘Of Spririt’ is a delightful example of how these things should be done- and I speak as one who is sympathetic to Derrida. I readily concede that ‘Of Spirit’ is probably his weakest work and that it’s a relatively (pun intended) easy target but the level of destruction wreaked is extreme, no prisoners are taken and it is a pleasure to watch an expert at work. She’s even better than Alistair Fowler in full flight. Incidentally, something very similar to the Rose position can be found occasionally in the poetry of Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis but neither come close to Rose’s verbal ferocity and wit.

Hill’s poem is remarkable because it is clearly heartfelt and that it probaly reveals more about the poet than it does about Rose. The poem recognises that Rose would have responded negatively to his wooing and “wiped me / in the championship finals of dislike” which is very, very likely but he also has this:

5
Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry's
assumption of rule. Or its role
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt

6
unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
rewedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics
to Phocion's wife - who shall be nameless -
in Poussin's painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.
Not many would see that.

This might just be my perspective but isn’t the last phrase massively patronising? Isn’t it likely that Rose would have taken greater exception to being patronised by Geoffrey Hill than being wooed by him? The Poussin reference is an allusion to the first chapter of ‘Mourning Becomes the Law where Rose makes a case for the action of the wife’s servant in anxiously watching over her mistress as signalling an act of justice.

Moving on to Prynne, I have remarked before that we are assisted by the inclusion of a list of “reference cues” at the end of the poem yet neither John Skelton (two references to ‘Speke, Parrot) nor Rose are included. ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ is referred to with unusual clarity:

.......................................Look out for dread it's your
letter speciality, bunk of delirium day-trading. 'External causes
are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of
change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be.

This may or may not be helpful but the quote is from Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937 which is one of the listed reference cues. The ‘I saw’ motif that runs through the poem is likely to be an allusion to Middle English dream poems.

I do not want to get bogged down in the finer points of Marxist debate but would like to note that “not this one” refers to the quote which is part of a much broader thesis. It’s also useful to note how Rose explained her title:

Post-modernism in its renunciation of reason, power, and truth identifies itself as a process of endless mourning, lamenting the loss of securities which, on its own argument, were none such. Yet this everlasting melancholia accurately monitors the refusal to let go, which I express in the phrase describing post-modernism as ‘despairing rationalism without reason’. One recent ironic aphorism for this static condition between desire for presence and acceptance of absence occurs in an interview by Derrida: ‘I mourn therefore I am’. by contrast Mourning Becomes the Law affirms that the reassessment of reason, gradually rediscovering its own movable boundaries as it explores the boundaries of the soul, the city and the sacred can complete its mourning. Completed mourning envisages the creative involvement of action in the configurations of power and law: it does not find itself unequivocally in a closed circuit which exclusively confers logic and power. In the title, Mourning Becomes the Law, ‘Become entertains the gradual process involved, and the connotation of ‘suiting’ or ‘enhancing’ in the overcoming of mourning.

All of this seems eminently sensible and the correct response to the post-modern absence of substance and there is no doubting Rose’s sincerity in making her case. As with all of these arguments however I still get the impression that there’s too much protesting going on coupled with a failure to set forward a credible agenda. It’s also telling that the focus of most of this opprobrium is on Derrida whose long term influence may not be as great as either Foucault or Deleuze.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not convinced that philosophy is a fit and proper subject for poetry. I’ve since modified that position and am now of the view that only those poems that are exclusively philosophical are bad poems. For example, the Mutability Cantos at the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’ would be bad if they weren’t viewed as part of that magnificent epic. Hill’s poem is a poem about a philosopher rather than a philosophical poem and is therefore excluded. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ contains a wide range of elements, some of which relate to philosophy and one of the main themes (non-being) is more than a little philosophical but I’ll continue to give it the benefit of the doubt.

So, another similarity even though Hill may also have been motivated by Rose’s ‘deathbed conversion’ to Christianity, both will have recognised a formidable talent regardless of ideological stance.

Incidentally, Simon Jarvis also acknowledges her support in his book on Adorno.