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The problem with Lyric

One of my main recurrent glibnesses is that poetry today is still too poetic for its own good. Whilst this is a reasonable one-liner, it might require some further elaboration because this particular quip ‘covers’ a reasonably serious point that deserves an airing.

First of all I’d like to define my use of ‘poetic’. I think most of us will agree that the poem has a long and noble history of using many devices, sleights of word, in order to achieve its effects. Three of the main tricks of the trade have been rhyme, metre and word choice which have been put together to create a certain type of poetry known as ‘lyric’ used primarily to describe personal emotions and responses but seems to have seeped its way into other areas since the Romantics.

This isn’t primarily an argument about aesthetic worth or value but much more about strategic direction. What poetry needs is to challenge and disrupt its current image and replace this with work that takes pride in ‘not being poetry’ because to do otherwise would be to perpetuate both the malaise and the current mediocrity.

I wouldn’t have that much of a problem with this if this idea of poetry was not so firmly fixed in the public imagination as to what poetry is about and anything that doesn’t conform to this amorphous notion isn’t poetry. This may well be why the stunningly mediocre still gets the major plaudits and the work that runs against this grain is ignored.

I’m not going to dwell on the current culprits but I do want to review how poets and readers have got into this plight. Oddly this is primarily due to an absence of imagination and a kind of intellectual laziness.

The term ‘lyric’ derives from the Ancient Greek practice of accompanying certain poems with the lyre. This may not seem to have any relevance today but is worth bearing in mind given the ongoing proximity between poem and song. The intervening 3000 years or so have seen many new tricks developed and extended with perhaps the ‘peak’ in English brought about by the Romantics in the early decades of the 19th century. This isn’t a debate about whether or not this was a good thing but it is to express concern that we are still making the Poem in the shadow of Wordsworth.

The damage was perpetuated by Eliot with his Four Quartets which attempted to give lyrical flummery some kind of intellectual kudos. This is another shadow that has skewed the poetic enterprise since 1936- this is a long time. I’m going to set out some examples of what I see as this fossilising tendency in an attempt to illustrate the thing that holds the current poem back the most.

Edmund Spenser and the Sonnet Explosion.

In the arduity scheme of things, Spenser is second only to Milton in the Great English Poets stakes. I can make a case for this assertion based on technical skill, the sustained brilliance of The Faerie Queene and pastoral innovation. I do however fall down on the sonnets. This particular form was particularly in fashion from about 1592 to about 1610 and some of the work produced was a very high standard indeed, Shakespeare and Sidney spring to mind as particularly adept. Spenser, being the showman that he was, clearly felt that he had to join in with his Amoretti an emotive account of his wooing of Elizabeth Boyle, his second wife. This is sonnet XLI:

IS it her nature or is it her will,
  to be so cruell to an humbled foe:
  if nature, then she may it mend with skill,
  if will, then she at will may will forgoe.
But if her nature and her wil be so,
  that she will plague the man that loues her most:
  and take delight t'encrease a wretches woe,
  then all her natures goodly guifts are lost
And that same glorious beauties ydle boast,
  is but a bayt such wretches to beguile:
  as being long in her loues tempest tost,
  she meanes at last to make her piteous spoyle.
O fayrest fayre let neuer it be named,
  that so fayre beauty was so fowly shamed.

Even in 1594 this is tired and cliche-ridden, an example of what Michael Drayton referred to as “ah me” verse whereby the poet (manipulatively, dishonestly) pours out his emotional angst. Unusually for Spenser, the technique is tired and sloppy but my point is that this sudden and extravagant outpouring of sonnets of a similar ilk marked the beginnings of the poet as talented but tortured soul in the modern period. This is compounded by the repeated use of excessive lyricism (plague the man, wretches woe, beauties idle boast, loves tempest tost etc etc). The problem is compounded by the fact that the sonnets were incredibly popular, a precursor of the work of the Romantics 200 years later.

George Herbert and the religious lyric.

Herbert is perhaps our finest religious poet after Milton and his posthumously published The Temple demonstrates a poet of great skill and technique who is not afraid to write with brutal honesty about his faith and his doubt. This is Sighs and Grones:

                                      O Do not use me
After my sinnes! look not on my desert,
But on thy glorie! Then thou wilt reform
And not refuse me: for thou onely art
The mightie God, but I a sillie worm;
                                      O do not bruise me!

                                      O do not urge me!
For what account can thy ill steward make?
I have abus'd thy stock, destroy'd thy woods,
Suckt all thy magazens:1 my head did ake,
Till it found out how to consume thy goods:
                                      O do not scourge me!

                                      O do not blinde me!
I have deserv'd that an Egyptian night
Should thicken all my powers; because my lust
Hath still sow'd fig-leaves to exclude thy light:
But I am frailtie, and already dust;
                                      O do not grinde me!

                                      O do not fill me
With the turn'd viall of thy bitter wrath!
For thou hast other vessels full of bloud,
A part whereof my Saviour empti'd hath,
Ev'n unto death: since he di'd for my good,
                                      O do not kill me!

                                      But O reprieve me!
For thou hast life and death at thy command;
Thou art both Judge and Saviour, feast and rod,
Cordiall and Corrosive:  put not thy hand
Into the bitter box; but O my God,
                                      My God, relieve me!	

Given what appears to be Herbert’s rising stature amongst critics, it is difficult to understand why the above has received so little attention. Unlike Spenser this is both complex and lyrically stunning. One of Herbert’s recurring anxieties is that he may not be worthy of God’s love, that his ‘frailtie’ may block his salvation. The lyrical strength, the outstanding use of rhyme and metre gives a prime example of the lyric at its best.

William Wordsworth’s enduring legacy.

I know that there are many people who consider Wordsworth to be on a par with Milton and there are some who consider him to be the best that we have. I am not one of those, although I acknowledge his great skill and artistry. My concern is the extent of his influence ever since, beginning with instilling in our culture what poetry should look like and what it should do. I’m not arguing that the work isn’t brilliant but to my mind it does the wrong thing in the wrong way. This is obviously a biased position but it does seem to me that there are many more things that poetry should (must) be doing than these outpourings of emotion. The only Wordsworth poem that I know well, thanks to J H Prynne’s remarkable commentary is The Solitary Reaper but it nevertheless makes at least part of my argument:

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings? -
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending; -
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

We’ll skip over the fact that Wordsworth is using someone else’s account of this encounter and worry instead about how this outpouring of emotion neglects both the genocidal Highland Clearances that were occurring at the time of composition and the fact that the female reaper was carrying out back breaking work in order to survive. Isn’t one of the prime functions of poetry to speak truth to power. Isn’t it to at least take note of social and economic injustice, especially when it’s as glaring as this? I’m not overly keen on out and out political verse, unless it’s done very well, but in this context it does make more sense than this exercise in aesthetics.

All of this would be okay if it had stayed in its own time and not echoed down through the last two hundred years, especially in the UK, as if nothing else of note has been written, except by Eliot.

A Modernist Interlude.

The most significant figures of the last hundred years have been Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. Of these two, Pound was clearly the most intent on creating a break with what had gone before and determined to confront the literary establishment. Eliot however became a fully paid up member of the poetry establishment and his work slid into the dishonest mediocrity that is The Four Quartets. In my youth I was very taken with this sequence both for its lyricism and what appeared to be intellectual integrity. As with almost everyone else, I found The Cantos both troubling (anti-semitism, fascism) and daunting (length, obscurity, inconsistency) but now I find that position reversed. The more I read Pound, the more I like what he has to say as he clearly articulates what I think. I’m particularly fond of his Donts and this exhortation: “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome”, a plea to move away from metre and towards cadence.

I’m not a fan of decisive moments nor of the counter-factual but it is likely that Pound would have been much more influential in terms of ‘steering’ the Moderns had he not mired himself in anti-semitism and Italian fascism. It is also likely that the Lyric may have lost some of its charm. It’s also of interest that Eliot’s prejudices and political alliances (anti-semitic, Action Francaise) get rediscovered and then buried about every thirty years or so.

However, I’d like to illustrate my point, such as it is, with something from each poet, perhaps if we’d had less of this:

Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust m the aIr suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house-
The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.
The death of hope and despaIr,
This is the death of aIr. 

There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand
Contending for the upper hand.
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.

and more, much more, of this from Pound’s Canto XLII;

And that (7thly) the overabundance every five years shall the
distribute to workers of the contrade (the wards) holdIng In
reserve a prudent proportIon as agaInst unforeseen losses
though there shd. be NO such losses
and 9th that the borrowers can pay up before the end of theIr
term whenso It be to theIr Interest No debt to run more than
five years,
July 1623
Loco SIgnl 
+            [a cross In the margm]
That profit on deposIts should be used to cover all losses
and the dIstrIbutIons on the fifth year be made from remaln1ng
profits, after restoratIon of losses no (benché) matter how
WIth sane small reserve agaInst future Idem
I, Livio Pasquini, notary, Citizen of SIena, most faithfully copIed
July 18th 1623

I like to think that these two are still relevant to our current plight. Things poetical have followed the former trend which uses the lyrical to create material that seems portentous and heavy with meaning but is in fact empty of anything except technique. The second is documentary and archival with little emendation but is an honest attempt to make a ‘real’ point- no matter how much we may disagree with it.

The later Eliot, as poet and publisher, conforms to the popular expectation of what poetry is and does and this still pervades the majority of material produced on either side of the Atlantic. This is both safe and counter-productive, poetry is disappearing from the public sphere primarily because most of it sounds like Wordsworth modified by the Four Quartets and doesn’t consider any of the other options. This is why all current conversations are both introspective and self-indulgent, because we stay with and argue about what we’ve known forever.

The Bishop and Hill Exceptions.

Because the Lyric has been so dominant over the last two centuries, it is really hard to produce original work of any quality but it can be done. I would nominate Elizabeth Bishop as one of the very few who have been able to construct work that stands above this overcrowded field. She achieved this by perfect technique and an understanding of what had gone before and how this could be progressed. She could only manage this however by a painstaking process of drafting and redrafting that often took many years to complete.

Sir Geoffrey Hill is a futher exception but in a different way. The default arduity position is that Mercian Hymns and The Triumph of Love constitute his finest work and neither of these are particularly lyrical in the accepted sense. However, some of Hill’s nature/landscape poetry shows again how some lyrical work can build on and further what’s gone before. This is Lyric Fragment from the A Treatise of Civil Power collection:

I hear an invisible
source of light skirling
off objects round about me - the granite portal
women's hair also, and a deer's antlers.
In February a solitary oak leaf
dominates recognition. Are there
ancient coins wreathed with Medusa's head?

A Concluding Qualifier.

The above is a bit too ‘neat’ for me and I must therefore confess that I’m distrustful of this kind of linearity. I’m also completely in the dark about the idea of ‘influence is supposed to work. Nevertheless it does seem that this business of living down to expectations is something that really does need to be fixed.h


J H Prynne in 2020

One of the very (very) few good things about the last year is that Jeremy Prynne has published at least two volumes of verse and both of these are in front of me. He may have written more but I’ve been away from contemporary work for about five years so I can’t claim any recent knowledge.

I’m going to start with The Fever’s End which, the last page tells me “Written Circa May 2020” and “Printed September 2020”. This kind of precise dating is unusual for Prynne. The collection consists of 23 poems each consisting of seven three line stanzas. The first poem is To This Troop;

Did prove to nerve fleck recruit
dyne swerve yeast directs unison
profounder nave intuit arrowroot

governance province win harrassed
width fluency cease primal trout
stipple carol suspect banquet in

warning arrival visual conserved
torrential saving citric  undergo
lapel claim untamed physic drift

unguent limpid commute dapple
pallid steam laced crisis honied
cantle stifle each manifest wild

inflame the pine-cone oasis prow
dutiful warning holdfast replied
surrender links incessant finery

intarsia dorsal thessis appointed
in swan plain mordant gamut tray
base weed appliance musketry tin

horizon mansion patient incident
variable dense moments stationed
quarrelsome beast if run to seed


After much furrowing of the brow, I have discovered that the best way to get past the foothills of Mt Prynne is to pay attention to the words that have some kind of affinity with each other and then to try and work out what this connection might appear be. What follow is provisional and, as ever, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time in the future. I attend here to the first six lines of the poem as an indication of what might be going on and some of the ways that may assist readers in their reading

In terms of the words, the following seem to have a military/martial dimension:



directs unison;


warning arrival;

lapel claim;

musketry tin;

surrender links.

‘Did prove’ seems to herald ‘yeast’ in the last line of this stanza, especially when it refers to the process of bread or dough to become aerated by the fermentation of yeast.

Onene of the secondary definitions of ‘fleck’ is ‘flare’ and a secondary reference of flare in the OED is “nonce-use (with on). To go emitting flames. The relevant quote would appear to be “1820   J. Keats Hyperion: a Fragm. i, in Lamia & Other Poems 157   “His flaming robes stream’d out..On he flared, From stately nave to nave”

The first stanza is thus a little clearer with these two echoes from one of our leading 19th century poets which we may come to later.

There is at least one alternative, the primary definition of fleck is “A mark in the skin; a blemish, freckle, spot; also, a sore or abrasion of the skin” and the NHS tells me that there is condition referred to as neurofibromatosis which is indicated by a mark under the skin. If the ordinary usage of recruit i used, this person might be someone newly affected by this condition, people notmally show symptoms under the age of seven.

We now come to a Prynne niggle with regard to ‘dyne’. I’m reasonably literate in most humanities and can normally root around to find what might be intended. The first definition is as a unit of force, the second is a suffix defined as ‘Forming nouns representing Greek δύναμις power, used in the formation of scientific, esp. electrical, terms. Examples: aerodyneamplidyneautodyneheterodyne‘. My niggle relates to not understanding the explanation and therefore not to go any further with any of these nouns. For the moment at least. I’m also concerned that it’s a deliberate move further into obscurity.

This doesn’t detract from my view of Prynne as the most important poet currently writing in English, for all kinds of reasons. It’s intended as a provisional observation that others may or may not share.I should paid ‘swerve’ some more attention and then I wouldn’t have needed to be reminded that the noun can also mean to move away from a clearly defined method or path. It then may have occurred to me that such a swerve in the making of yeast could lead it to fail to rise, as in ‘directed’ to a non-bubbly consistency.

The last line of the stanza demonstrates how Prynne gets his reputation for difficulty. At first and probably second and third glance this line appears to be a random collection of words that have very little to do with each other. This his fairly recent defence;

But what happens if the surprises produced by difficult and unfamiliar
combinations of language seem so extreme and excessive that the underlying
tendency becomes near-impossible to discover, making choices
between alternative meanings seem arbitrary and obscure? In such cases
the eect is not a rewarding surprise but an experience close to baflement:
we lose confidence in the text or in our ability to deal with it
adequately. Here, extended passages of densely difficult language seem
like insurmountable obstacles, because access to meaning seems blocked.
Does this then mean that the skills of the careful reader and the practised
translator are defeated, possibly by features of damaging incoherence
within the original text itself ? That may sometimes be the case.

However, in drawing these very general thoughts towards a conclusion,
I want to present the matter of difficulty in poetic language from
an alternative point of view. In the writing of modern and modernist
poetry in which various kinds of difficulty have been prominent
features, that difficulty itself has been developed as a method and a
structure of discourse. When links in text-cohesion are violated or cut
o, when extreme ambiguity displaces recognizable topic-focus, when
discourse levels and fields of reference are switched abruptly and without
sign-posts, these features may begin to comprise a second-order strategy
of pattern-making in a new way. Indeed, the use of rhyme-forms
in traditional English and also Chinese poetry may work like this,”

When I first read these lines I was one of the Mostly Baffled but they neverthless gave me a few footholds further up these tricksy slopes and I’ve come to lean against them ever since, Thinking about yeast and arrowroot, both act on food, albeit in different ways. As well as being a substantial part of a church, a nave can be the hub of a wheel and the navel, first used by Shakespeare’s Macbeth as in “Till he vnseam’d him from the Naue toth’ Chops.” I’m taking intuit to know something by intuition rather that being taught or having read about it. One of the pivotal points of the play is a banquet where the ghost of Banquo appears. It may therefore be said that there is a connecting thread between this unseaming and the banquet that frightens Macbeth very much indeed. We’ll get to this a little later.

The apparently baffling ‘primal trout / stipple’ may be derived from Gerald Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty;

Glory be to God for dappled things –

   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                                Praise him.

If any of this proves to be right then ‘governance province’ may refer to the new British province of Scotland which had come into being in 1603 by the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. This was one of the main matters of contention in the early years of James’ reign and the play is reckoned to have been written in 1606 of the year after. The appearance of the ghost at the banquet is seen as raising the suspicion of Macbeth’s complicity in Banquo’s murder. ‘Suspect’ would then seem to carry at least 2 meanings- that of Macbeth’s status in the killing and the false / misleading character of the banquet itself

This may seem too straightforward or deceptively amenable, I’m also thinking of the use of ‘commute dapple limpid stream’ in the fourth stanza as a device to tie things together.

In conclusion, from this early foray, we have Keats, Hopkins and Shakespeare to unravel and the use of dyne to understand and to justify its use, before getting to the next five stanzas. I hope that readers find in it a few things to consider.

Continuing to make poetry whilst demicked.

I’m writing this on June 16th 2020 on the southern coast of the UK. This means that my lover and I have been in various forms of lockdown for almost the last three months. Normally, as something progresses my views on that thing become clearer and more coherent. In this instance all of my views on the virus and our response to it have become increasingly vague and harder to get hold of.

So, what is attached is a hopefully creative means of trying to live with the lack of definition in a world that appears to have gone seriously awry. At the end of April and early May I recorded interviews via social media with a number of friends about their experiences and views of what was going on. I’ve then added the words and phrases that we were being bombarded with as a separate track so that the listener hears both the interview extracts and my voice at the same time.

The other motivation has to be record these experiences whilst we are experiencing the pandemic and its consequent bewilderments so that I and others will at least have a slurred but contemporary impression of the reaction to these events.

I’m also a major fan of documentary poetry, the work of Charles Reznikoff and Vanessa Place strikes me to be vital to our culture and sense of ourselves. I therefore insist that this piece is a poem even though it doesn’t use any of the standard lyric tropes and is based on fact.

I’m placing it here because I’d like to know what readers make of it and whether people think I should make a second part bringing us up to date with more recent events.

Geoffrey Hill’s final statement and the dead wife.

2019 saw the publication of Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, a sequence that Hill intended to be published after his death and which, according to the blurb, contains “a riot of similes about the poetic art” and its inherent strangeness. This, we are told, is also intended as a ‘summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry” and there are many things here to ponder. As I’ve said elsewhere, these represent an improvement on the five Day Books which Hill published towards the end of his life, which is a relief. The overall tone feels like a return to The Triumph of Love and Comus but I’m not sure that the content is up to the same standard.

The similes are many and vary from the profound to the crude. In fact they are so numerous that this reader has felt a little overwhelmed by the onslaught, some may feel that several are gratuitous.

I’ll probably reproduce all the similes on a later post but now I want to concentrate on just the first four in one poem because they ‘speak’ to me personally and are representative of the better work in the sequence. This is Poem 142;

Ordered reappearance of ideas from chaos: motto-phrase from poeisis of my declared period but not since

Poem as ‘dome of many coloured glass’ caught in mid-explosion on slow-motion film.

Barely in memory a ceremonial and normal life that can contain grief for a dead wife.

Imagination, at such and such a putsch, a form of conservative agitation. In an unjust nation. Freitod its safest ambition.

This is not a creed. Nor is it quite yet an autopsy on public need.

When ingenuity is suppressed let it not be disordinately released or we shall all be gassed by a watercolourist of scant ability and poor taste.

Delete and substitute:

‘For the first time in our history, love for the Fuhrer has become a legal term’.

And not even this will discredit our mystery before the highest democratic posthumous consistory, our wounds shallow, our tears glistery.

Poem as compact design, supreme nadir in the trap of a drain. Poem as dwarfed and distorted mimeo, disseminating in rhyme the murderous bibles as if they were Berlin or Warsaw or Moscow bus timetables.

Had Britain ‘gone under’ in that dire frame I would, a decade later, have become a Home Fires collaborator, I shouldn’t wonder; but through fear rather than greed.

(Please note that the lineation above is not the same as it appears in print, the lines are longer and the subsequent lines after the first of each statement are indented. My only excuse is that I haven’t kept up with the WordPress use of the <pre> tag. Will try harder.)

My personal interest in the above is that three years ago my wife died after a reasonably sudden and unexpected illness and this event caused me to become disenchanted with poetry because, like many things, it seemed quite trivial in the greater scheme of things. I was thus a bit disturbed to see ‘grief for a dead wife’ as part of this particular piece because it seems quite blunt and incongruent with the rest of what’s being said.

Hill was born in 1932 in the West Midlands and his late childhood and early adolescence was overshadowed by the Second World War and especially German bombing raids. This has remained a primary focal point throughout Hill’s work and figures prominently in Baluch. Amongst other concerns, there’s an abiding interest in Christian martyrs and in the workings of Grace.

In the brilliant Triumph of Love Hill defines poetry as a ‘sad and angry consolation’ which I thought was both accurate and lyrically strong. None of the definitions here, for me, are able to match that strength.

This ordered re-appearance throws up a few questions. It is true that some of us write in order to work out what it is we’re thinking because our thoughts and other mental processes seem tangled and incoherent. I’m not however sure that what we’re after in this is an ordering but more a kind of winnowing so that what’s left is what matters- whether or not it makes an orderly pattern.

I like motto-phrase as being more accurate than either slogan or maxim and i can see how this would apply to various schools and types of poetry. I think I’m correct in saying that Hill’s main period of academic / critical interest was the first half of the seventeenth century with forays into later periods. It may be that this is his ‘declared’ period but this is only a semi-educated guess. I’ve always found ‘poeisis’ to be a tricky term because it looks and sounds elitist and because it covers too many areas of endeavour to be useful. Most of Hill’s usage of obscure or ‘difficult’ vocabulary can be justified because that particular word adds precision whereas poeisis, in this instance doesn’t. The limitation of this to a particular period (‘not since’) seems at odds with the more universal business of poetry making that Hill seems to be after.

The multi coloured dome is apparently from Byron’s Adonais, this seems to be the relevant bit-

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

It would therefore appear that the poem in this instance is a kind of frame by frame record of the moment of death, when life is destroyed or shattered rather than ‘just’ coming to an end. I think that the poem is exceptionally good at memorialising the dead but I’m less convinced that it is itself at all like this shattered dome. I’m prepared to accept that the use of Byron’s poem to say something about poetry may indicate that there are further subtleties that may be going on here but I’m not sufficiently intrigued to attend to these here.

It’s not immediately apparent what the next sentence refers to, If we think about a putsch as an act intended to take control of something rather than an insurrection or a coup d’etat then it could be said that a poem is a way of ruling the poet’s emotions. I’m taking ‘such and such’ to have it’s colloquial meaning and to have been used because of the rhyme.

The next observation throws up a number of questions for me:

  • Why is ‘barely’ used in this way?
  • What is meant by ‘ceremonial’?
  • Is this dead wife a generic or particular figure?

It turns out that the first adjective opens up some ambiguity that I didn’t initially recognise. The OED reminds me that there is “Openly, without disguise or concealment, clearly, plainly” in addition to “Only just; hence, not quite, hardly, scarcely, with difficulty”.

Which would seem to give both something scarcely remembered but those memories that remain being clear. this makes sense to me, I have only a hazy memory of my early childhood, for example, but there are some events and experiences that remain very clear indeed.

Hill was a committed High Anglican Christian and his second wife became an Anglican priest. Church services at that end of the spectrum are also filled with liturgical rites and rituals that are referred to as ceremonies. He was also knighted and elected Chair of Poetry at Oxford University, both of which are freighted with the ceremonial.

If this is particular, I’m not entirely sure that any individual life can be said to be ‘normal’, any of my friends would be considered as normal people but none of them hace had lives that conform to any kind of norm. This may however be a minor quibble on my part.

Hill married twice and his second wife, Alice Goodman, is still alive so this may refer to his first, Nancy Whittaker although I don’t know whether or not she predeceased him. In terms of poetry making, the only direct reference that I’m aware of is this from Comus:

That the antimasque is what saves us
challenge by challenge. Still I anticipate.
I did not anticipate the marriage

that I destroyed. It was not then the fashion.

Having given this some thought, after my original startlement, the containment of grief seems a bit anomalous. Obviously I can only speak of mine and my family’s recent experience but grief is a very slippery and periodically persistent thing that doesn’t seem able to be contained. Some elegies speak eloquently of some aspects of individual grief but I think it’s unlikely that they contain all of it for a ‘dead wife’ or otherwise.

I’ll take ‘imagination’ in its broadest and most everyday sense but, rather than a coup d’etat, I’ll take the secondary definition of ‘putsch’ given as “a sudden or forceful attempt to take control of an organization, business, etc.; a sudden vigorous effort, a concerted drive or campaign”. A conservative agitation seems to be a contradiction in terms unless we think of people who agitate in order to keep something, the obvious recent example being the more vocal activites of Brexit supporters in the UK,

It’s fairly evident that some imagination is needed in the business of poetry making but a bit less clear how it can also said to be such an agitation. I’m also a bit suspicious that ‘such and such’ is only there because of the rhyme. ‘In an unjust nation’ isn’t a sentence, which is odd for Hill. The next few lines leads me to assume that the nation in question is pre-war Germany and that this putsch may, after all, be Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. We now come to annoying foreign words. The interweb tells me that freitod is German for suicide. I can think of no good reason in this instance why the English noun shouldn’t be used. To throw in a term that most ‘ordinary’ readers won’t know just puts them off and smacks of elitism and deliberate obfuscation. It may be here that Hill intends to point out the threat to the creative spirit that the totalitarian state poses. The last sentence would seem to argue that remaining silent is the safest response that a poet or artist can make when living under such a regime.

The next line seems like a bit of a retreat. The four similes are set out in the way that you would set out a statement of beliefs. If it isn’t a creed then why should Hill set them out in such a manner and express them in such a rigorous way. The second sentence is intended to be more telling (‘quite yet’) and less transparent. Has this public need died? Is there no longer such a thing as societal privation? Has the need been made public, ie placed in the public domain? Is it instead a need that is felt by members of the public. Or is it both and why is it dead?

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown that Hill’s singular voice and critical acumen stayed with him to the end and that this particular poem contains many elements that we should all give consideration to. I intend to follow this with some thoughts on Hill and Germany.

J H Prynne in The Paris Review.

This is the first Prynne interview in Quite Some Time and it gives some valuable insight into both the man and his work. What follows is not so much an analysis but a further development of the arduity position on this particular exponent of the poetic craft. I’ll probably follow this with a crass comparison with Geoffrey Hill’s interview in the same rag many years ago, mainly because I haven’t done this for a while.

It’s probably best to proceed by means of headings;


Prynne studied under Donald Davie and was initially focusing on Pound and William Carlos Williams and then Davie signposted Charles Tomlinson whose work in turn led to that of Wallace Stevens who is described as ‘a seriously intellectual poet of cerebral focus committed to an active intelligence of mind’ which Prynne didn’t find in either Pound, Creeley or Olson.

He is quite self deprecating about his early attempts at poetic practice and explains his repudiation of Force of Circumstance by describing it as being the product of ‘the extremely uncomfortable experience of being a beginner’. He does however see this collection as his way of making a start on the difficult business of placing his work in the public sphere.

As might be expected, there is some disparagement of the Movement group whose work is described as very defensive and traditional who were attracted to Eliot much more than Pound. We’re pleased about this because it is very similar to the arduity view although I’d add that the traditional thread has led to the dismal state of nearly all anglophone work today. I now have by my side Penguin Modern Poets 14 from 1969 which contains some of Tomlinson’s work and was bought at about that time when, as a callow youth, I was devouring as much poetry as I could. Prynne describes Tomlinson as a landscape poet and that, together with Williams, he provided a backdrop to Prynne’s early thoughts about producing his own work.

Re-reading poets that you’ve almost forgotten about is a mixed experience, the least pleasant of these has been Robert Lowell whose malevolent mediocrity clashed in a Very Big Way with the clear impression made on my adolescence. Tomlinson turns out to be much better than I recall, one page has the corner folded over so I’m guessing I did at one of the readings what I used to do. The mix of Stevens and Tomlinson does seem to be unlikely but that might be because I haven’t paid much attention to the latter. It’s also at odds with my previous belief that Prynne’s early main interests were in Wordsworth and Olson.


It turns out that Prynne’s view here is much more qualified than this reader had previously assumed. He doesn’t like the Mayan poems and think that some parts of Maximus are unduly self-indulgent:

I’m afraid the same would have been true with Olson. Some intelligent friend should have said, Look, Charlie, it’s all very well, but there comes a point where you’re answerable for certain uses of material. Your readers and students are going to say; Are we to follow down these roads. And if so, where are they going to take us? If you don’t care about these questions, then you’ve abandoned one of the important things that it means to be a poet. Yeats made a regular ass of himself in his adoption of spiritiualist blarney, even if he was just playing with it.

(The odd punctuation in the above is produced verbatim).

More on Prynne

J H Prynne Interview in the Paris Review.

Reading J H Prynne

Being Surprised by J H Prynne’s “Morning”.

Infusing with J H Prynne.

Infusing with J H Prynne Again.

J H Prynne and Money- the case of Biting the Air

Mind-altering verse, the case of Prynne’s Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian./a>

J H Prynne’s Truth: an intial recce

J H Prynne’s Al-Dente

J H Prynne, the Neolithic andLandscape.

J H Prynne and Beginnings

Prynne on poetry

Prynne and difficulty

Catching up with Prynne

Prynne on Wordsworth

Reading Prynne very carefully

Prynne’s Mental Ears

Impenetrable Prynne?

Prynne’s Sub Songs

The ‘same’ refers to Ezra Pound and his use of bonkers (technical term) economic theories in The Cantos. Olson’s irresponsibility refers to ‘bungling around’ with various fields of study, Prynne highlights archaeology, Nordic myths, Old Icelandic verse, and glyph languages as examples where he was affecting a knowledge that he didn’t have. I now have a couple of confessions to make. I read Maximus in a vain attempt to get a foothold on All Things Prynne. Needless to say this wasn’t forthcoming but I found the poem completely involving. I also discovered that Prynne had done some work in putting part three together prior to publication and then he and Olson had some kind of falling out. From this I’d assumed that Prynne admired the work without any but the smallest reservations. That’s thus a conclusion that shouldn’t have been leapt to.

The other confession is that I reckon I’m pretty good at sniffing out this kind of bungling in The Poem but on this occasion I assumed Olson did know what he was referring to even though I didn’t pay too much attention to the mythological elements. What I have paid some attention to is Olson’s use of A N Whitehead’s Process and Reality, a difficult work that argues, this is a mangled and very selective precis, that we should be concerned with events rather than things. In fact I’ve used Maximus on arduity to give a shining example of the 20th Century Philosophical Poem. In the light of the above, I may have to revisit at least the parts of the poem that I felt were fairly pertinent in order to check the amount of Bungle that might be present.

Another illusion shattered is the Black Mountain College that lives in my head. This stands at the pinnacle of academic/creative excellence but mostly because of the Rauschenberg / Johns / Twombly trio and Josef Albers rather than the poetry squad. Prynne is critical of what he saw as the bullying culture perpetuated by the teaching staff during Olson’s tenure and makes the same charge of bungling, citing Robert Creeley leading an ‘absurd’ discussion on ‘Putnam’ when he meant George Puttenham.

I’m going to skim over the part that deals with Ed Dorn because his friendship with Prynne is well known and I’m less than keen on his work although I’d probably have a completist’s interest in the ‘fifty binders’ of correspondence between the two.

Marx, Mao and Adorno.

I’ve always thought of Prynne as an old-fashioned leftie without thinking through what that might mean in any greater detail. Here Prynne, by way of illustration, contrasts his position with that of Keston Sutherland, well-known 100% Marxist and his former pupil. He describes his own Marxism as being ‘peculiar and extraneous’ and elaborates this by describing his view of Marx’ work as being ‘a humanistic projection of political narrative. He seems to express some regret at Sutherland’s increasingly Hegelian stance and points out that he’s not really interested by this particular slant. There’s also this preference, if that’s the right noun, for Hegel’s dialectic of nature. I like to think that all of this ‘fits’ with my initial characterisation mainly because it’s redolent of my discussions with activists of that generation.

Prynne’s enthusiasm for Mao takes me by surprise. This leaps out as an extraordinary observation:

I would have been more comfortable in the bad period of Chinese Maoism than I am in the good period of post-Maoist China which is full of unwholesome abandonments of serious disposition.

Which is qualified later with reference to Joseph Needham by:

Contradiction was something he was very familiar with. But the later career of Mao Zedong was a matter of great distress to him, and indeed it was to me. Because it all flies off the rails, most conspicuously with the Cultural Revolution. But there’s a period before this, too, when the agricultural policies are imposed on commune-type farming practise, which have disastrous, terrible, destructive consequences. We in the West didn’t understand that for a very long time. Information was very slow to come through.

Starting with the obvious, the ‘bad period’ was much, much worse than bad. The Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1961 was a policy of criminal stupidity that killed, by means of famine, between 20 and 45 million people. Those with even a vague understanding of the events (me) know that this was purely ideological and driven by Mao. As with Stalin and the Russian famine of the early thirties, the Great Leap Forward, for me, far more than the Cultural Revolution, destroys Maoism in all it’s forms. It negates all of the many achievements of the Mao period because that number of lives can never be a price worth paying. End of short but heartfelt rant.

In terms of ideology, there’s also this:

The essay “On Contradiction” is one of his major essays. Most Western readers find it nonsensical, and pour scorn on my interest in it- fat lot I care. It’s been a serious connection for me because Mao has a complex understanding of the task of the dialectic. He believes that dialectic is a principle of relationship within the material order itself, and not just within the intellectual order. It has meant a lot to me.

Purely in the interests of research, your humble servant has glanced at “Contradiction” and can report that it doesn’t look like nonsense but nor does it convert me to the dialectic as a method. The arduity position remains entrenched because I don’t understand how it’s supposed to work and how some contradictions can be selected over others. During the summer, in the interests of fairness, I waded through ninety pages of Hegel applying the dialectic to aesthetics and it still doesn’t make sense. With regard to ‘the principle of relationship’, Mao has this; “As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantative development, is like likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions”. The obvious response to this is that it’s incorrect and to draw attention to “as a matter of fact” and “chiefly” but that doesn’t mean that Prynne is deserving of my scorn. It is nevertheless fascinating with regard to Kazoo Dreamboats to learn how much Mao there is in some of even the later work.


Further tearing my assumptions asunder we have this which begins with reference to Mao’s dialectic:

It has meant a lot to me. As Adorno’s Negative Dialectics did. I’m not an Adornoite. Quite a lot of Cambridge literary intellectuals have signed up for an Ardorno-type commitment. I’ve never quite been of that commitment, but his understanding of the dialectic process, particular to self-enfranchisement from the metaphysical German tradition, which is so overbearing and so constraining- Adorno finds ingenious and very witty ways of liberating himself from the constraints of the German tradition.

This assumption was that All Things Cambridge were/are wholehearted Adornoites so it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that Prynne has never ‘quite’ been fully signed up to his way of thinking. I’ve just looked back and in 2010 on the bebrowed blog I made an attempt to marry together Adorno’s view on poetry with the Prynne ‘project’. What I didn’t emphasise enough at the time is that Adorno is wrong about the poem and makes the same (ish) mistake as the rest of German tradition in ascribing too much importance to the Poem as a privileged mode of expression.

The simple equation of Prynne = old fashioned leftie Adornite is now mostly jettisoned and replaced by a Maoist old-fashioned leftie with a non-Ardonoite interest in dialectic. I’m not entirely clear why this should matter to me all that much, I’m much more interested in the poetry than a poet’s politics. It may be that, as with Hill, politics clearly matters to Prynne and perhaps the poetry does, from time to time, form a satisfying backdrop to a particular poem or sequence.

Kazoo Dreamboats, a Maoist Poem?

I don’t like KB because I’ve never been sure what it’s trying to get to and I’m not keen on its tone. Incidentally, my bebrowed blog contains more than a few meanderings on this particular piece of awkwardness. ‘Maoist’ is not an adjective that I would have chosen even though it contains two longish quotes from Contradiction. However, the interview’s discussion about Mao starts with:

The discussion about Mao starts with:

The narrative that Mao Zedong invented and devised to produce a native Chinese style of Marxism was and is still extremely interesting to me. That interest is written on the surface and in the crevices all over Kazoo Dreamboats.

I’ll get to this shortly but I’m told that JC in the TLS has poured further scorn on Prynne (fat lot he cares) for confessing in this that he doesn’t know what KD ‘means’. This is an example of the kind of lazy jibe that gets thrown at serious writers, especially Hill and Prynne, of serious work by lit hacks that Should Know Better. Having paid some attention to the words on the page, this is not what Prynne says. He’s very clear that the poem is an exercise in self-contradiction, an account and examination of positions. It’s a should-know-better quip because it ignores the areas that good poets have been exploring down the ages but particularly in the last century. It’s lazy because it preaches to the converted, to the reactionary ignorance of the mainstream literati and it’s a quip because it’s designed for an easy laugh (sneer). In fact, Prynne gives an unusually detailed examination of KD and its composition. This is how it starts:

It was full of an extremely complex system of self-contradictions which ought to produce serious disorder in the thought process, and I simply said to myself, I’m going to let it do that. I contradicted some of my deeply held beliefs and opinions. I deliberately as if by kind of necessitous instinct wrote myself into overt opposition to them.

I’m about to take issue with the implications of this rationale but it can’t be argued that it doesn’t provide more of a ‘meaning’ than most poets of every hue are happy to provide. Can it? My concern here is as a practitioner rather than a reader and whether or not these kinds of process and deployment are more than a little self-indulgent. I’m a Prynne fan and have paid close attention to most of his later work but I’m not that interested in this kind of game, what does interest me is whether the poem is any good. As a maker of poems I’m fairly clear that I wouldn’t inflict this kind of exercise on my audience/readers because it isn’t very interesting. even to me. Of course I didn’t know this rationale when I first read the poem but this information only serves to increase my dislike.

For those who don’t know, it may be as well at this point to mention that all of KD is in prose which takes us into the tricky object that is the prose poem. This isn’t mentioned in the interview but, as it’s the first of this type for a Very Long Time, it might be worth some further consideration.

What does catch my eye however is this idea of a poem as a very ‘complex system’, a notion that gets a more detailed treatment in the Mental Ears and Difficulties in the Translation of Difficult Poems essays. These have lodged a notion of trajectories and connections that slide past each other without actually making the connection, a conceit that has helped this reader get a better grip on ‘difficult’ poetry in general. The question here is whether or not KD is such a system or more of a progressive sequence.

Those who have looked at KD will know that there are a list of 22 ‘Reference Cues’ which are books, essays and pieces of music from the sixth century BC up to the present day. Extracts from some of these of these are produced verbatim in the text of the poem. A few are quite lengthy and are marked off as blockquotes, there are two extracts from the Mao Essay, the second half of one of these is reproduced above, and Langland’s Piers Plowman is used as a repeated device at the beginning of the poem (see below).

Some of these cues are reasonably standard but others aren’t, this is all of them as they appear:

  • V. Adrian Parsegian,Van der Waals Forces: A Handbook for Biologists, Chemists, Engineers, and Physicists (Cambridge 2006).
  • Alexander Atland and Ben Simons, Condensed Matter Field Theory (2nd ed., Cambridge 2010).
  • Andreas Kayser, Mark Knackstedt, Murtaza Ziauddib, ‘A closer look at pore geometry’, Oilfield Review, 16 (2004), 44-61.
  • Leucippus (5th cent. BC), as reported by Diog. Laert,. Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Bk IX, trans. Hicks.
  • Parmenides of Elea, On Nature (c. 490-475 BC), trans. Burnet.
  • Melissos of Samos (follower of Parmenides), On nature (fragments), trans. Fairbanks.
  • Aristotle (384-322 BC), Physics Bk 1, trans. Fairbanks.
  • Kung-sun Lung (d. 252 BC) Pai-ma lun (‘On the White Horse’), trans. (entire) by A.C. Graham in his Disputers of the Tao (La Salle. III., i989), pp.85-90.
  • Richard Bradley, ‘The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle’ in Chris Scarne (ed.), Monuments and Landscape in Early Modern Europe; Perception and Society during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (London, 2002).
  • Mao Zedong, ‘On Contradiction’ (August, 1937).
  • William Langland, Piers Plowman (c.1360-87), B-Text, ed. Schmidt, C-Text ed. Pearsall.
  • Simonides of Ceos (c 556-469 BC), Frag 453, ‘Lament of Danaë’, sung version by Ed Sanders, ‘Danaë in a box upon the sea’ on DOCD 5073 A 05 (1990): Tiziano Vecelli (Titian), Danae (1554-6, Museo Nazionale, Naples).
  • Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia (1590), The Fourth Ecologues.
  • Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, Trans. I.T. (1609).
  • William Shakespeare, Sonnets 1609, &c.
  • William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798), &c.
  • P.B. Shelley, ‘Mont Blanc’ (1817), &c.
  • Alban Berg, Lecture concerning his opera Wozzeck (1929).
  • Tadeusz Borowski ‘The Man with the Package’ in his This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (London, 1976).
  • Cui Jian, ‘Yi Wu Suoyou’ (1986);
  • Christian Wolff, Early Piano Music (1951-1961), played by John Tilbury and others, inlay note to MRCD51 by Michael Parsons (2002).
  • Kevin Davies, Lateral Argument (New York, 2003).

With regard to the first of these, Prynne has this to say:

When I saw that this book,….., had been published by the Cambridge University Press, I just knew it was going to be an important book to me. I couldn’t tell you why but I’d already encountered this phenomenon of molecular forces and I knew I was going to care about it, partly because it was going to support a certain instinct I had about the structure of material things, which was increasingly an important question to me. I’d become a materialist in some abstract sense of the word, more progressively as my thought practises have developed.

In the interests of completism, I have a copy of this tome on my hard drive and have to report that I have major problems getting past the first three pages. This is because I’m mostly clueless about science and Very Bad at equations but it’s also because I don’t find it interesting. However, if I was interested, then I might make some effort to get a grasp on the outline of the theory But life is probably too short to make it a priority.

KD and Piers Plowman.

Moving on to something that I’m more familiar with, Prynne explains the presence of Langland (the use of “I saw” at the beginning of some paragraphs) with:

The one major thing was this extremely unexpected and forceful presence of Langland and the Piers Plowman enterprise. He just appeared, I took that very seriously. Partly because the structural contradictions in Langland’s thought were so central to the whole idea of his being a poet and doing the tasks of poetry. The Franciscan idea of a sacred poverty was so important to him and was so visibly violated by everything in the social world around him. He cares deeply and is worried stiff by what kind of answers he can find to the questions of human conduct, the questions of equitable justice, the questions of honourable satisfaction of one’s sacred religious duties. The line movement and the whole structure of these rather long lines that Langland writes are movements of profound worry. He suffered this poem, and didn’t avoid what writing it seems to have been thrust upon him.

It so happens, for entirely different reasons, that I’ve been making my slow but attentive way through the Pearsall edition of Piers for Quite some Time and I’m now intrigued about these ‘structural contradictions’ and what it might mean to suffer a poem. This tentative response is especially provisional because I’m only halfway through the poem but feel that I might be able to identify something of what might be meant. I must also confess that I’m only familiar with the ‘C’ text although I understand that this is a milder social critique than the ‘B’.

As Pearsall points out, the main concern about the Franciscan itinerant preachers was that they had betrayed the original principles of their order by using their position by pursuing material gain rather than adhering to their initial vow of poverty. I’m not convinced by Pearsall’s suggestion that Langland was further trouble that his role could also be seen as a travelling beggar. What does seem more pertinent is the role of Rechelesness, a character who is both cynical about and defiant of Christian teaching and practice. This oppositional view is expressed with such force and clarity that this character might be seen as our poet’s alter ego, as the embodiment of doubts and anxieties that have beset our poet. These kind of doubts may well cause this kind of afflicted soul to be ‘worried stiff’ about the answers to his questions.

Prynne describes the difficult business of becoming and being a poet in a particularly heartfelt way and I’m guessing that he’s also suffered more than a few poems in his long career. I’m sure that many poets are familiar with the experience of being compelled to express some keenly held concern yet are daunted by what the result of such a poem might be I struggle with an unhealthy mix of cynicism and moral doubt which continues to hinder my attempts to address the things that mean the most to me.

In the course of writing the above, I’ve given more than a little attention to KD and have to confess that I find it more or less unreadable. This comes as a shock as I usually take great pleasure in attending to the rest of the opus. Prynne indicates that he’s quite ambiguous about it and seems a little mystified as to why he wrote it in this particular way. I still have to observe that I don’t think it works.

In conclusion, a fascinating interview with many other elements that I’ve omitted. It gives many insights to both the man and his work over the last 50 years. If anyone needs a copy, please e-mail me at and I’ll send you the pdf.

John Matthias’ “Prynne and a Petoskey Stone”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoffrey Hill’s Riot of Poetry Similes

This is from the, probably self-penned, blurb on the back of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin:

Thematically the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of its evident helplessness.

As someone who has followed these meditations for the last 15 years, this claim holds great interest both as a reader and practitioner. I’m therefore now pondering on what Sir Geoffrey decided to leave us with on this reasonably crucial subject.

One of the abiding features of the poetry is Hill’s tendency to show off, with regard to poetry, his The Triumph of Love has this:

Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That's
beautiful. Once more? a sad and angry 

This may indeed be beautiful but there are very few poets who would have the front to point this out within the same stanza. This particular simile and Hill’s claim that literary and artistic practice require “a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead…..” have acted as ‘markers’ for my relationship with the work as a whole. With The Book, however, we now have many more ways of thinking about the nature of the Poem and mulling over its strange helplessness.

I still haven’t paid enough attention to this sequence of 271 parts, a process that will take months but I have selected some of the more startling and provocative observations. This is the last sentence from Poem 149;

No upright poem in its uptight English can seem to me quite free from
     limescale under the rim.

Scurrilous, deliberately offensive but, he may have a point. What is lazily referred to, by me and many others, as the mainstream can be sad to be said to embody both of these qualities. I’ve long been of the view that this particular kind of output is inherently doomed to a bland mediocrity because its voice is strangled into a bridle deemed to be proper and fit. i’m therefore in sympathy with the view expressed, even though it’s more of a confession than an observation. Hill isn’t saying that this work is burdened by such a stain but that it seems to him that this is the case. The implications being that his work avoids the upright and uptight and is thus unburdened by this mark.

I have to confess that this made me smile a lot because it seems to capture the best of Hill’s mischievous barbs, the limescale under the rim being particularly apt.

This being Geoffrey Hill, we also have the realy quite serious observations with their amended syntax, These are from 213 and 239;

We do well on the whole to unscramble continuity from tradition. Continuity may be more important; the poem must affirm portent to make gravity tremble.

Poem as one case of post partum depression, in some part with cause yet
without reason.

Both of these are brow furrowing, in the interests of context, I should provide the rest of each poem but this would only further cloud the issues that appear to be at stake. With the first, separating out tradition from continuity is tricky in the extreme, both relate to the past  and to mental and physical things that proceed through time. Traditions can die out whereas continuities, by definition, keep going on. Much of Hill’s work is concerned with these persistent phenomena. His Mercian Hymns  of 1971 sets the reign of the early medieval King Offa of Mercia firmly in the 20th century.

I have Hill as a quirkily sentimental traditionalist. This is a fuzzy impression rather than a clear and precise notion, nevertheless I am a bit startled by this assertion and what follows. A quick glance at the OED reveals that ‘portent’ has two main definitions: “A sign, indication, or omen of a momentous or calamitous event which is about to happen” and “A prodigy, a wonder, a marvel; something exceptional or extraordinary.” Taking the (now rare) second definition as the one intended, it would appear that the role of the poem is to assert and confirm the wondrous and exceptional nature of someone or thing. Needless to say, making ‘gravity tremble’ is a great sounding phrase but doesn’t mean very much when thought about. If Hill means to have ‘a great effect’ then he should be clearer, in my admittedly pedantic view.

I would however draw attention to the other qualities of the above, it starts with an equivocation – mostly, it would be a good thing if we…. which reads like the opening of a gentle suggestion rather than the clear imperative that it ends with. Portents as signs of things that are about to happen populate most religious texts and it may be that this alludes, at least in part to the birth of Christ.

It is safe to suggest that Hill has never experienced a post partum depression for obvious reasons. This doesn’t prevent him from putting together one of his less than brilliant witticisms with the play on ‘part’ and the ‘without reason’ quip. I like to think the point being made is a serious one, that the poem has its source of inspiration but this then gets extrapolated  into something that may not be entirely rational / reasonable.  As someone with some experience of severe depression, I would however like to point out that we depressives are rarely without ‘reason’ indeed when depressed we often have a more realistic view of things because we can’t put on the rose-tinted glasses what ‘normal’ people rely on.

To conclude, this is all of Poem 129;

Poem as enforcer of the realm. Poem as hostage to straws that overwhelm.
Give me back the stocky tu quoque of the baroque.
Poem as slow-burning arquebus fuse in a re-enactment universe.
Poem as nightmare stepmother in the Brothers Grimm. Poem as loquacious
sightseer at an unspeakable crime.
Poem reluctant to give its own name even though lately granted immunity
from recrimination.
Poem at home under its fig tree and with a thriving pigsty.
Poem as hapless amateur in competition with ‘Summertime’.

I hope that I’m not alone in being delighted by this, it strikes me as both incredibly inventive and very, very clever. I can even forgive the tu quoque  / baroque device because the rest is Hill at his best. The first line encapsulates for me the poet’s dilemma, we’d love to speak truth to power, to act as moral assayer in the courts of kings and queens yet we are also plagued by those small blemishes and imperfections that, in our heads at least, ruin what we make. I’m going to skim gracefully over the second line because it doesn’t have a simile and move on to this about-to-go-off gun in this recreated and thus fake universe. The arquebus, the forerunner of most firearms, came into use in the early 15th century and  weren’t very good. Until the end of the 16th century there was still some debate as to whether arquebusiers were more or less effective than bowmen. I therefore have this image of Something Bad about to happen when the sparkly b movie flame eventually ignites the gun. It now occurs to me that the flame may never reach the gun, that it may burn ineptly forever being harmless and menacing at the same time. My daughter’s a keen re-enacter and has been since her mid teens so I know something of the painstaking care that goes in to getting the historical details as right as possible. A re-enactment universe would also be an equally synthetic version of moment of time past but on a much, much larger scale, one that would completely overwhelm this dodgy firearm. As both a reader and a wannabe poet, this line resonates and sets off ideas and makes me smile a lot.

The wicked stepmother is a little brow furrowing, as I recall it, the tale involves a magic mirror and a woman who will stop at nothing to remain the ‘fairest in the land’ and so makes several attempts to kill Snow White, her step-daughter. She is eventually exposed and dies a horrid death at Snow White’s wedding. The ‘nightmare’ describing word, if that’s what it is, is unusual in this and most other contexts.  This being the case, I’ve scurried off to the OED which has this for the adjective; “Having the quality of a nightmare; extremely distressing, frightening, or oppressive; nightmarish. Later in weakened use: terrible, awful, fraught with difficulty” which is helpful.  There are in “The Book” a couple of occasions where Sir Geoffrey refers to his use of obscure historical figures and seems to take some pride in doing this. His previous response to the oft repeated charge of difficulty is that “life is difficult” and that his work is a reflection of that.

Hill was known for his frequent use of the OED and will no doubt have been aware that ‘fraught with’ is defined as; “(a) attended with, carrying with it as an attribute, accompaniment, etc.;  (b) ‘big’ with the promise or menace of; destined to produce”. The second of these makes me grin. I find Hill’s work, as with Celan, Prynne and David Jones, to be big with the menace of difficulty which, for me, is a Very Good Thing.

I’ll leave speculation about the Wicked Queen, except to note that relationships with Step-mothers can also be ‘big’ in the same kind of way.

I write quite a lot of material on unspeakable crimes (Derry, Newtown, Ferguson) and their implications and often feel queasy  about whether what I’m doing is some kind of atrocity tourism. On first reading, this seemed to be an easy cliche but it now seems uncannily prescient.

The poem that’s reluctant to identify itself is probably one that disguises its meaning and is criticised initially for this crime but rater gains recognition and praise. This can also be applied to Hill himself who had to put up with all kinds of barbs but was eventually elevated to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, the highest accolade in the UK.

Hill was the finest nature poet of his generation and the fig tree and the pig sty reflect elements of the pastoral tradition in poetry. Perhaps both the sty and the type of tree contain an oblique barb or some degree of self deprecation.

I’m taking this particular Summertime to be the song from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in part because elsewhere in the sequence he confesses a new found liking for Thirties jazz.  From the mid-late nineties some of Hill’s work seemed to suggest that he wants to entertain us as some kind of music hall act. The poem’s aspiration to be culturally popular may be what is hinted at here, the later work is littered by very bad jokes which are certainly hapless. Gershwin’s setting of the DuBose Heyward poem is an example of genius in transforming something merely good into one of the most important and influential songs of all time.</em>

It hope I’ve shown here how Hill has given his readers much food for thought. This particular disturbance pervades through most of the poems and only rarely do the similes fall into clunkiness. As is expected with Hill, there are more than a few inconsistencies and some quite startling breaks with what has gone before. However, this is a much more fitting way to end a career than The Day Books appeared to be.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is published by the OUP and can be gotten from Amazon for sixteen of your finest English pounds. Buy it.

Prynne’s Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian revisited.

Because I’m revising the Prynne pages as part of the arduity makeover, I’ve realised that there might be a need to look again at the work I wrote about a few years ago to see if either my view or understanding have changed. Looking back, I did spend a lot of time with the above and felt that I’d only started to scratch the surface. I also recall my indignation when Robert Potts in the TLS categorised Streak~Willing as ‘impentrable”.

I have now to report that I’ve spent the last few hours with the sequence and a pen to see if I can identify a wider ‘sense corridor’ in which to situate this material. In describing difficult poetry and the readerly challenge, Prynne has written:

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.

For the moment I’m ignoring the ‘d’ word and internal contests because I need to identify further elements in the ‘network’ that may or may not thread its way through the sequence. Readers with very long memories may recall that I managed to extract a ‘Troubles’ thread and then harried one of the twelve poems into a more pliable state. On this occasion I’m trying to look at all the poems as part of the whole and to see if I can identify any more of the elements that Prynne refers to.

The initial plan was to read all 12 poems carefully foour or five times and then to try and identify what seem to be Troubles related cross-links. This was fine for the first five poems but then came the sixth which starts with:

    When did when nor soon rebate the pinch altior stood
    for the narrow annexe would you they partake, in this
    hardly by defeats. Near gale allay force slam opportune
    drive forward parenthood, prink get on lie unborrowed

    Fuming to the brow, so tumult...........

I couldn’t resist digging a bit deeper see if this might be a ‘node’. This delving started with discovering that ‘altior’ can mean either higher or deeper. I then proceeded to look at the 18 definitions of ‘pinch’ in the OED. I thing I could have unearthed most of the relevant ones under my own steam but the OED is much (much) quicker and effort-free. These seemed to be a bit networkish:

  • a point at which a mineral vein is narrowed or compressed by the walls of rock; a similar narrowing of a stratum;
  • an instance, occasion, or time of special difficulty; a critical juncture; a crisis, an emergency;
  • emotional pain, esp. as caused by remorse, conscience, or sorrow; an instance of this, a pang;
  • stress or suffering caused by cold, hunger, poverty, etc.; hardship;
  • The critical (highest or lowest) point of the tide; the turn of the tide;
  • the critical or crucial point of an argument, theory, etc.; a crux;
  • a steep or difficult part of a road:
  • An arrest, a charge; (occas.) imprisonment.

There are other definitions that I could make a case for but most of these would seem to gesture in the general direction of the 10 Republican hunger strikers who starved themselves to death in the Maze prison in 1981. There are several other hunger strike nodes running through the sequence (see below) but this multi-directional use of ‘pinch’ is one of the more complex.

Before we get any further in, it might be important to know that Prynne has referred to the Troubles as a full-scale civil war. I think he’s correct on this and I think politicians and the pliant media use the euphemism because the fact of a civil war in our country would undermine the institutions that rule us.

The other element that is insufficiently acknowledged is that the rest of the UK has never cared that much about the various Irish Problems since the 13th century – British policies towards Ireland have ranged from the genocidal to the worst kinds of venal incompetence.

To return to the definitions, the geological term could relate to the power of the British state in crushing the protest or by forcing both sides into more and more extreme positions. The rest are fairly self-evident except perhaps the turn of the tide- according to some commentators, it was the failure of the hunger strike that led to the IRA moving towards a ‘political’ solution.

As can be seen, I’ve allowed my quest for the whole network(s) to be sidetracked by these few words, Which is a gentle reminder to me how easy it is for me to fall b ack into obsessive / completist mode with this work and how involving and satisfying this delving can be- and this is before I’ve spent much time with ‘rebate’ as a verb although I now know that it can mean to “lessen in force or intensity” and “To parry or turn aside an unwelcome question; to give a curt or evasive reply. Also: to refuse to accept something, to rebel”.

In the interests of me showing off, here’s the other points that I’ve identified:

Poem one

“inside the tight closed box”

“maybe open to one side glaze”

“To maul the out-sign / More at blanket turn, prior the blanket”

“tipping exclusion”

“oh disposal profligtate buck more in and ready.”

“who will meet who would, as to camber / one side slipped over”

Poem two.

“Approaching passion freak intact”

“second charge you let off stop surrender for / disarm”

“now less green took life by the tongue lit / In low pale extradite.

“More flute ignite nul wants”

“crab / out over the foreland, the annexe”

Poem three.

“Still eyes please are they found / Catchment plaster grand rubble up ask again”

“either way countenance / rebel gate, gate far over”

Poem four.

“Same terrace same fuse at delinquent if mass / coherent”

“They so full starved still / Flee graven no other”

“Live shined in mercy / how is.”

“fly other to fall / out of some world shall from hunger substitute.”

Poem five.

“further down gullet / hoisted put worse, same to find.”

per invention / per lingual ticket”

A network in progress- on to poems 6 – 12.

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.

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:

your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
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).

glory behind
you threeway 

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

bears witness for the

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.