Tag Archives: celan

Sarah Kelly’s ‘cables / to the telescopes’

This has a number of disclaimers. Last year I wrote about Sarah Kelly’s work in the ‘Better than Language’ anthology and made these pertinent observations:

In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.

The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.

Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:

  • short lines;
  • absence of titles;
  • absence of big or foreign words;
  • a satisfyingly sparse intensity
  • exceptional word choice;
  • great endings.”

The next part of the disclaimer (before we get to the digression) relates to the fact that we have corresponded fitfully since the first piece was posted and I remain of the view that Sarah’s work is essential.

The bad news is that I might have to start writing ordinary / normal poetry again instead of culling sketch maps and set lists because Sarah’s work has taken a new direction which means that there is now nobody writing the kind of poetry that I would write if I believed in poetry. The good news is that this new direction is stunning and shows to the rest of us (me) that our thinking is really one-dimensional even when we’re trying to be original.

Set out below are three images from a series currently entitled ‘cables / to the telescope’-

page 3 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 4 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 8 from the cables series sarah kelly

This is what Sarah has to say “which is a collection of around 35 poems called ´cables/to the telescopes´ using collograph too and the same technique of putting everything inside the paper rather than inscribing it upon the surface. Here are some of the images, the plan had been to turn them into a kind of artists books, but we´ll see. For now, it´s hugely rewarding and pushing me in different directions which feels like movement, and movement for me is at the very crux of it all”. Sarah has been learning to make paper and these pieces have come from that, the key thing for me is the idea of putting text inside the paper as part of the process of making the paper which sets off a whole range of thoughts related to good wrongness because text isn’t supposed to have three dimensions, it isn’t supposed to be tactile and it should exist on the surface of things rather than within them.

In the earlier post I identified Sarah as a co-conspirator because I seemed to grasp at an intuitive level what she might be ‘about’ and this remains the case, the possibilities from this new work are certainly making me think again about text as image and about text as thing.

I now need to digress, artists are better at putting poetry in pictures than poets are at putting pictures in poems. Anselm Kiefer and Cy Twombly both incorporated lines from poetry into some of their more famous works, books have been written about Kiefer’s use of Celan and books will be written about Twombly’s use of Rilke. Poets have made pattern poems and concrete poems and have written poems about paintings and to accompany paintings. Some time ago I was of the view that poets should steer well clear of the visual, that what mattered where the words on the page and what they meant and that anything else is just distraction. Then I came across the work of Erica Baum which seemed to suggest that image and text (or image of text) can function as a viable (whatever that might mean) alternative to the poem on the page. I then had a look at Caroline Bergvall’s work and decided that I want to be Caroline Bergvall so I thought I was reasonably au fait with this corner of things poetic. Sarah’s work has thrown this into doubt because the text-as-thing within instead of on the page seems to reconfigure my assumptions and remind me of how little I know and how deeply unoriginal my thinking has been. This reconfiguration seems to have caught some of the Whitehead notion of process.

Digression- I spent some time yesterday recording a layered reading of a poem, I did this with two friends who own the equipment. What was interesting / satisfying for me was the way in which we were able to work together to get something from out of my head and into the real world. I was pleased that this process (which was deeply tentative) worked but the ‘doing’ seemed as important / interesting as the audio file.

Sarah’s new work is about process and showing that movement through to final object which can be seen and felt across the contours of the paper and the text and what’s just becoming additionally interesting is how and when you decide that the object is ‘finished’ / ‘complete’ and I am fighting the opportunity to take this too far down the Whitehead route.

Unusually, I haven’t discussed the words and this is in part because of the brilliance of this particular conceit but also because I think I need to find a different way of writing in order to do justice to the material and it seems that conventional enthusiasm isn’t going to be enough.


Clarifying Difficult Poetry

This is a shameless plug for the arduity project which I’ve mentioned before which is either an exercise in pure self-indulgence or an essential public service. The idea is to encourage ‘ordinary’ readers of poetry to engage with verse that is considered to be difficult. The sub-text is to encourage these readers to contribute their own response to this kind of work thereby creating a discourse outside of the academy.

At the beginning of the summer this seemed to be a great idea. I’d cut my teeth on Celan and Hill and was beginning to get a bit more coherent about Prynne and (as with any neophyte) was filled with ardent enthusiasm for all things difficult. Somewhere at the back of my skull I knew that this wasn’t quite that clear-cut but I plunged in without asking too many further questions. Three months in and the issues that I ignored come back to haunt me. The big one is the definition of  ‘difficult’ and whether the site should mainly focus on modernism, with its penchant for deliberate opacity, or whether other poets and poems should be included.

The other struggle is to get the balance right between enthusiasm for the subject and being overly didactic (my daughter’s term). I do want to give the impression that Prynne and Hill are a joy to read but I also want to give some indication as to why this might be the case and I am trying hard not to couch too much stuff in abstract terms. For example, I currently have a Charles Olson problem in that I’ve decided that the Maximus Poems are difficult in terms of form, length and the underlying ideas but I want to communicate the enthusiasm that I felt on my first reading. This is difficult because I’ve read a lot of background stuff since and it’s really tempting to talk about Alfred North Whitehead even though that would deter many first timers.

I don’t want to provide a blow by blow guide to individual poems because it’s important that readers do their own work of interpretation. What I think the site is trying to do is give readers the conceptual resources and confidence to begin to tackle this material. To this end the site also contains a list of resources and useful critics. This second element is tricky because I know what I’ve found to be useful but I’m also aware that others may find other critics more accessible. I’ve recommended Derrida on Celan because his reading is the one that makes most sense to me but his style is not to everyone’s taste….

I also recognise that I’m going to have to write about poets that I don’t like. There are some poets whose earlier stuff is much better than the later (Eliot, Ashbery) but there are also some that I can’t stand. I’m dreading the day when I have to write something positive about Rilke for example.

One of my concerns on putting this together was that it would spoil  the pleasure that I get from reading poetry. Thankfully this hasn’t occurred. Last night I spent a couple of enjoyable hours in Gloucester with Olson and smiled throughout. I’ve also taken delivery of  ‘Sub Songs’ which is proving to be intriguing.

This kind of project carries with it a sense of responsibility. I don’t want the site to enter into the various factional disputes that infect poetry but I do want to counteract the view held by some that difficult poetry isn’t worth the effort and the best way to do this is to provide examples of why the work of interpretation is worthwhile without trying to score points against the mainstream.

I’m also making plea for feedback on the structure and content of the site. I know that its design is very dated ( I last built a web site in 1999) but I am keen to know if the project is moving in the right direction. I’d also like to thank John Matthias and Jim Kleinhenz for their ongoing support and feedback.

Celan, Derrida and bearing witness

This might take some time as I have a number of things that I need to say and a number of other things that I need to throw up in the air to see how they land. Whilst this piece is prompted by Derrida’s essay “Poetics and Politics of Witnessing” which focuses on a poem by Paul Celan, I also want to talk about the creative possibilities that the process of bearing witness offers.

I’m one of those sad obsessives who take an interest in public inquiries. I’m fascinated by the way that the State seeks to exonerate itself when bad things happen and by the way that the State will use inquiry findings as an excuse to act in a draconian manner. I have been tangentially involved in one such inquiry (into the Cleveland child abuse fiasco) and the final report did not tally with what actually occurred during the crisis. At the time, I put this down to the State having its own agenda which was to introduce new legislation but, having now read primary material on the BSE inquiry and the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, I can see that it is the process of giving evidence (bearing witness) that is flawed.

The last lines of Celan’s poem are “No one / bears witness for the / witness.” Paul Celan was a Holocaust survivor and both his parents died at the hands of the Germans. Throughout his life Celan felt compelled to act as a poetic witness to the Holocaust and Derrida rightly points out this task is in itself impossible. He substantiates this with- “That comes down to saying – always the same paradox, the same paradoxopoetic matrix – that as soon as it is guaranteed, certain as a theoretical proof , a testimony can no longer be guaranteed as testimony.”

I’ve said before that Derrida is the finest reader of Celan that we have and his reading here of ‘Aschenglorie hinter’ underlines his honesty and intelligence in stating within the text and confronting its challenges head on. Before I get on to discussing these issues I do want to expand a bit on the witness/testimony problem. There are a number of stages in the ‘official/judicial’ bearing witness process. The first is the point at which the witness becomes aware of the bad thing that has happened. We all perceive and make sense of things differently so witnesses to the same event can produce materially different accounts of the same event, neither of which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The second part of the process is the making of the statement which is usually done in the presence of a friendly/sympathetic official and provides the witness with an opportunity to recount what they have witnessed. The third part of this phase consists of repeating this as part of a judicial process and the fourth occurs when the witness is cross-examined by lawyers for other interested parties.

My personal experience of both civil and criminal cases bears this out and also underlines the deterioration that occurs along every step of the way as outlined above. I once spent three days being cross-examined in a child abuse case and all of this consisted of having to defend my personal and professional integrity rather than on the veracity of what I had witnessed. In this particular instance, what convinced me that a very bad thing had occurred arose from a chance conversation with a young person with quite profound learning difficulties who was trying, as bet he could, to communicate to me that he was the victim of sexual assault perpetrated by a colleague of mine. Professionally I knew that this witness could not actually bear witness but the truth of what he said remains with me to this day (there were 22 other victims and my colleague was jailed for seven years).

Contrasting the witness statements with Lord Phillips’ final report into BSE is a further illustration of how veracities get lost along the way. There is one veterinary pathologist who is convinced that BSE (‘scrapie in a cow’) was first identified 12 months before the ‘official’ date, she knows this because she carried out the autopsy. The final report flatly contradicts this without introducing any meaningful evidence and does this (as Phillips admits) in order to dispel media speculation that the British state had known about BSE for a year without taking any action.

We now come to Bloody Sunday and I’m aware that I’m writing this prior to publication of Saville’s findings. There are however some aspects of witness testimony that won’t find their way into the final report. A teacher who was on the march recalls seeing a soldier crouched down on one knee with his rifle sight to one eye and realising that very similar poses are struck in army recruitment brochures. The report will ignore this and in doing so will occlude one person’s ‘truth’ of the moment. Bernard Mcguigan was shot in the head by soldier ‘F’ who happened to be crouched on one knee- this will be in the report but will be missing was that Barney (as he was known) was seen having a ‘crafty’ smoke as the march began and that his wife didn ‘t like him smoking. Other details will also be missing, that his wife had soaked an orange cloth in vinegar to ward off the effects of tear gas, that she was cooking bacon and/or sausages when her brother called to tell her that Barney was dead. These are all truths taken from just two of the hundreds of witness statements that were made.

The point that I’m trying to make is that bearing witness is a complex and tricky business and that Derrida is absolutely correct about the damage that is done once witnesses encounter an official domain.

Poetry has the potential to act as witness in a way that is less mediated/corrupt. Our finest poets (Prynne, Hill and Sutherland) have all produced work which stands as witness to bad things that have occurred. Prynne has done this brilliantly with the multiple viewpoints of ‘Refuse Collection’ whereas ‘Triumph of Love’ is Hill’s magisterial take on the various excesses of the twentieth century. Finally ‘Stress Position’ manages to be both a searing indictment of Western atrocities in Iraq and a technical exercise in perspective. All of these poets are compelled (creatively and morally) to bear witness and do so in a way that should jolt us out of our complacency.

Celan really struggled with his compulsion, he saw the Holocaust as such a terrible scar, such an omniscient tragedy, that putting it into language of any kind gave him enormous difficulty. This poem is a truly terrible poem to read and must have been agony to write but it stands today as the finest example we have of bearing witness.

The other point of writing this is to think aloud about my latest creative ‘project’ which will probably be a long and fairly dense conflation of Bloody Sunday and BSE as expressed in witness statements and expert evidence. For the first time ever I’ve done research, I’ve learned about proteins that misfold and about the difference between an entry and exit wound.  I’ve also tried to work out in detail the motives of the British state in both of these events.

I’m trying out different forms and different voices (primarily because I’m bored with writing/sounding like RS Thomas) and have thus taken note of how the best do it (bear witness). I have to say that the early results have pleased me and, as I write to please myself, that’s all that really matters. I’m thinking of calling it “The Ballad of Barney and Beast 142” which has a bit of and echo of Sutherland’s “honest account of Ali whoever’ from Stress Position.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to have a bit of a rant about John Felstiner who chooses to translate ‘glorie’ as ‘aureole’. This is perverse in the extreme- ‘aureole’ may be a subsidiary definition but there is nothing to suggest that this was Celan’s intention- every other translator into French and English gives ‘glory’ as does Derrida. Given the status of the Felstiner collection shouldn’t more of us be pointing out that there are far better translations out there? I’m thinking in particular of Hamburger and Joris both of whom have published their own poems whereas Felstiner hasn’t.

Finally, in a 1994 discussion Derrida defined the ideological difference between Heidegger and himself. He said that Heidegger was concerned in gathering things together whilst he was concerned with scattering them. Inquiries are concerned with the gather whilst the truth lies in the scatter.

Paul Celan, Jacques Derrida and deconstruction

In the Anglo-Saxon world, Jacques Derrida often gets a bad press. He’s usually considered to be either a complete charlatan or to be unreadably obscure. I’ve never been brave enough to tackle either ‘Of Grammatology’ or ‘Glas’ but I was terribly impressed by the notorious ‘differance’ essay- so impressed that I copied out the last few paragraphs. I was also impressed by Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s use of the term ‘spirit’ although less impressed with his analysis of the rectorship address.

Derrida in 1994 said of deconstruction ” It is an analysis which tries to find out how their thinking works or does not work, to find the tensions, the contradictions, the heterogeneity” and “deconstruction is something which happens and which happens inside”. This was an attempt to refute the charge that deconstruction has no respect for the text and seeks to reduce everything to the same level.

One can argue whether deconstruction is appropriate for philosophy and this is a debate that I’m happy to leave to others. It is however clear to me that it is entirely fitting for the reading of ‘difficult’ poetry and indeed may be the only way to read challenging verse.

I have written on this blog before about the poetry of Paul Celan (who has also been accused of unreadable obscurity) and my belief that his work is the most important poetry of the last 50 years. Celan is a source of constant joy for academics, they tend to seize on one aspect of his work (usually his admiration for Heidegger) and extrapolate to the nth degree. In my view this doesn’t clarify any aspect of the work but does enable critics to construct their own pet theories ad absurdam. I acknowledge that Celan is a complex figure and one has to reconcile his relationship to philosophy, religion, German literature as well as the holocaust and his consequent mental health issues but that doesn’t mean that we should seize on one particular strand as proof of his intentions.

Further meat for academics is provided by two speeches that Celan made (The Bremen Address and the Meridian) in which he sets out a personal manifesto for poetry. These two have provided critics with endless hours of fun in picking over key phrases to the exclusion of the whole.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I approached ‘Shibboleth for Paul Celan’, a 1986 essay in which Derrida tackles several key themes in Celan’s work. The first thing that can be said is that it is neither unreadable nor obscure, there are no references to people that you’ve never heard of nor are there any foreign phrases that will bee unfamiliar to the lay reader. The essay stays within Celan’s work and looks especially at the concept of ‘date’ and the use of the Hebrew word ‘Shibboleth’ and the practice of circumcision.

What I like about this essay is that Derrida treats the texts with complete respect, he doesn’t indulge in flights of fancy and extrapolate things that aren’t actually there. The essay starts with a long discussion of the nature of cirmcision and what it may signify, the circular nature of the wound itself, the wound as a sign of admission to a community and ‘the experience of blessing and of purification’.

In the Meridian, Celan says ‘Yet the poem does speak! It remains mindful of its dates, yet – it speaks’. Derrida starts from this to consider the role of the date in Celan’s poetry, pointing out the importance of commemoration and mourning in the work and also the fact that the date on which the poem was written always returns the following year. The fact that poems carry two dates (the date on which it was written and the date of the event which it describes) and the notion that each date carries within it its own destruction leads to Derrida to point out the inherent madness of the date. Some would say that this is an example of over-reading or of finding things that aren’t actually there but I found myself following this line of argument and can see its merits.

In the Old Testament the story is told of a victory over the Ephraimites. In order to prevent the defeated soldiers from escaping, each was required to say the word ‘shibboleth’, the Ephraimites were known for being unable to pronounce this word and thus gve themselves away. Derrida extends the use of this word to consider the access that it may give to a poem and also the role of passwords as rallying cries to political action.

I realise that the above doesn’t do justice to the nuances of the essay but I hope it conveys the sense that deconstruction can treat the text with appropriate respect and that challenging work almost insists on this working from within. This particular essay will also enrich the experience of anyone with an interest in Celan.

Poetry and the academy

In my journey up Mount Prynne I’ve been looking at some of the academic work that sets out to elucidate the poems and place Prynne in a wider context. The Jacket site has been particularly useful in this regard but unfortunately most of the stuff on there is couched in dense and (to the lay reader) impenetrable terms which doesn’t actually elucidate the work but does serve to further mystify and complicate the business of climbing Mount Prynne. I cite as evidence Kevin Nolan who writes- “rather than a merely mechanical materialism or, even worse, a Heideggerian apophatics which would collapse the autonomy of the poem in the rush towards a negative theology of the unennhalte?” How many people, other than post-graduates, are going to be entirely familiar with the meaning of this?

There’s also the issue of value in poetry and the fact that an impossibly elitist and obscure discourse on poets and their work effectively destroys that value by means of exclusion. This is not to say that I am against theory nor am I against the various European brands of criticism per se. I do recall however watching with some dismay as deconstruction, post-structuralism and all things Foucault started to seep into the Anglo-Saxon world in the early eighties. This seepage has produced what is, at best, a bastardisation of the original ideas and, at worst, a complete travesty of what was meant.

I need also to say that there are some insights in Mr Nolan’s piece but the hapless reader does need to wade through the bullshit to get at them. Unlike David Harvey, I don’t think that Eng Lit has entirely lost it’s theoretical way  but I do feel that attempting to be more ‘difficult’ than difficult poets themselves are does nobody any good. Criticism, if its any good, should provide readers and students with the wider context and provide the tools for us to appreciate the poems finer points. Alastair Fowler’s gloss on Paradise Lost, for example, tells me about the way Milton makes use of astronomy and of the significance of numbers in the poem’s  construction.  I can then choose whether or not to marvel at the astronmical invention and puzzle over the numbers but Fowler also lets me know that these are not barriers to understanding. George Steiner writes with great warmth and enthusiasm about Paul Celan but he does this with far more clarity than many members of the academy.

So, this is a plea for Eng Lit to sort itself out and to remember that obscurity and quality do not always go hand in hand and that ‘difficult’ poets do should not be written about in difficult terms.

Jeremy Prynne and Geoffrey Hill compare and contrast

Prynne and Hill have many things in common, both have taught at Cambridge, Hill is only four years older than Prynne, both admire Paul Celan and both write poetry that is said to be difficult. They are also the two most important poets in the English language.

If ‘difficult’ means that they write poems that require more than 30 seconds’ attention, then they are clearly difficult. I would argue that ‘difficult’ isn’t a particularly useful term and that we should use ‘complex’ and ‘absorbing’ instead. Both Prynne and Hill are important because they challenge the safe mediocrity that passes for English poetry these days and because they remind us of the possibilities of language.

I’m much more familiar with Hill than I am with Prynne but it has taken four years to achieve an understanding of what Hill may be about. This has been an immensely rewarding experience helped along by frequent reference to the  OED, DNB and Wikipedia. I like to know the politics of the poets that I like and Hill has described himself as a hierarchical Tory and a 19th Century Red Tory. I take him  to mean members of the Ultra Tory faction that aligned themselves with Cobbett at various points during the 1830s. In 2009 this is obviously a minority position to take but it does give a flavour of Hill’s eccentricity.

Both Prynne and Hill are critical of the money markets.  Such vilification has a long and noble history in English politics – we all like to castigate those who appear to do very little for their wealth but Prynne especially goes for knee jerk easy options rather than presenting a more nuanced analysis. In ‘News of the Warring Clans’ he has a go at option trading in this manner and in ‘The Oval Windows’ he has a more obscure go at the manipulation and control of economic data which he describes as ‘work makes free logic’. Work makes free was emblazoned on the gates of Auschwitz and is a phrase that shouldn’t really be used lightly. There is a huge gap between the workings of capitalism and the eliminationist impulse that motivated the Nazis. This aside, Prynne does redeem himself with ‘Refuse Collection’ which is his response to the atrocities committed at Abu Grhaib, a searing indictment of western imperialism and one of the best political poems that I’ve ever read.

Starting to read Prynne can be a daunting experience wherea Hill is intimidating. Prynne is daunting because of the use of words- ‘shut inch’, ‘tree glide’ are examples of the kinds of phrases that I’ve been engaging with in recent weeks which I find oddly involving. Hill is intimidating because of the breadth of his references. ‘Triumph  of Love’ is the only poem that I know of to contain reference to both Gracie Fields and Michel Foucault.  These aren’t particularly obscure but the are others that are (the Lawes brothers, Hallgrimur Petursson, Immelmann to name but three)  which is why Wikipedia and the DNB are so helpful.

One difference between the two is in the use of foreign phrases, Hill tends to translate these as he goes along within the poem whereas Prynne doesn’t. My poor French can make sense of the phrases in that language but I can’t do this with the German. I’m also a bit concerned at the almost random way that Prynne uses French phrases when there are perfectly adequate English ones available.

In terms of the work, I would nominate ‘Mercian Hymns’,  ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘ Scenes from Comus’ as the finest of Hill’s output, I would nominate ‘Brass’, ‘News of the Warring Clans’, ‘Word Order’ and ‘Refuse Collection’ for Prynne.

What I’m also grateful for is that both have broadened my horizons. Reading Prynne has led to Charles Olson (a revelation), Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley which has caused e to be more sympathetic to American poetry. Reading Hill has led to Hopkins, Southwell and Henry Vaughan. I still don’t like Hopkins but Hill has made me work out why.

Both poets have written poems dedicated to Celan and Celan looms large in their work. Prynnes technique of using words that have multiple meanings and of putting words together in odd ways is redolent of Celan at his best. Hill makes the most direct reference to Celan in ‘The Orchards of Sion” where he has several goes at translating ‘atemwende’  and then speculates about Celan’s taste in women. All of this feels a bit gratuitous.

Who is the best? This depends on what you want poetry to do, if we wish to be reminded of the complexity of reality then Prynne is your man. If we want poems to remind us of our moral obligations and the importance of the natural world then Hill is way out in front. There can be no denying that these two are writing poetry that puts the rest in the shade.