Tag Archives: elizabeth bishop

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.


Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.

The literary poem, a definition (at last).

A while ago I had some fun attempting to unpack what Neil Pattison might mean by the above term when he writes “the contested place and role of literary poetry”. I wasn’t very happy with the conclusion that I got to but now I’ve come across some more definitions to mull over. In my pursuit of all things Middle English, I’m currently reading J A Burrow’s ‘Medieval Writers and Their Work’ in which he contrasts current ideas of the literary with those of the medieval period. He cites several contemporary definitions and I want to think about each of these in turn:

  • it is not committed, in any ordinary, straightforward fashion, to the truth of the events which it reports or the ideas which it propounds. It does not ‘propose truth for its immediate object’;
  • in literature the standards of outward meaning are secondary, for literary works do not pretend to describe or assert, and hence are not true, not false, and yet not tautological either;
  • a form of communication which tends in part to convert itself into an object of contemplation;
  • The distinctive feature of poetry lies in the fact that a word is perceived as a word and not merely a proxy for the denoted object or an outburst of an emotion, that words and their arrangement, their meaning, their outward and inward form acquire weight and value of their own

The last part of the first definition is apparently a quote from Coleridge and is therefore not at all contemporary. Many, many poetry readers and teachers would assert that literary poetry stands in a privileged position with regard to the ‘Truth’ and that skilled poets have a duty to express that truth is poetic form. As someone who is making poetry from archival material relating to real events in our recent past, I would argue that literature can and should examine notions of the truth from a non-fictive (awful phrase) perspective. The ‘is not committed, in any ordinary, straightforward fashion’ qualifier implies of course that there most probably is an unordinary and rather crooked way in which truth might be the subject of literature but this (cunningly) isn’t specified.

The second definition (apparently from Northrop Frye) is more promising but only really succeed in telling us what the literary doesn’t do. ‘Outward meaning’ as a quality is massively complex and contentious and many would argue that some poems that do ‘describe and assert’ can also be literary. Geoffrey Hill’s nature poems are some of the finest poems in the language and yet attain that status by their ability to describe. Keston Sutherland’s @Stress Position’ describes the havoc wrought by Western foreign policy and asserts his opposition to it yet remains firmly within the late modernist vein with all its literary ticks and foibles.

The problem with negative definitions is that they avoid saying what are the attributes of the literary. Frye would seem to suggest that the literary is very far removed from the real and is in fact concerned with the ephemeral and the whimsical. Whilst this might be a populist view of the writer as angst-ridden dreaming idealist, it bears no relation to the works of Beckett, Celan, Hill or Prynne, all of whom might be said to be concerned with literature.

The third definition (from Gerard Genette) holds more promise because it talks about what the literary does rather than what it is. It seems reasonably sensible to assume that the literary gets to be that way by transforming the words on the page into something else. It’s also reasonable to see this effect at work more in poetry than in fiction which might lead us to believe that the poem is inherently closer to literature than the novel. I do however have more than a few problems with Genette’s ‘object of contemplation’ because I don’t think that I contemplate either poems or novels. I’m now going to be pedantic because I think that definitions need to be as clear and succinct as possible. The OED defines ‘contemplate’ as:

  • to look at with continued attention, gaze upon, view, observe;
  • to observe or look at thoughtfully;
  • to view mentally; to consider attentively, meditate upon, ponder, study;
  • to consider in a certain aspect; to look upon, regard;
  • to have in view, look for, expect, take into account as a contingency to be provided for;

I’m guessing that it’s the third of these that Genette is using but even here the definition relates to vision, albeit ‘mentally’. I don’t visualise poems or novels when I’m pondering them or giving them attentive consideration, I may run the words through my head but visualising how they look on the page is not usually part of what I do. I’m also deterred from ‘contemplate’ because of the meditation angle. I like to think of myself as a reasonably hard-nosed materialist and the ‘m’ word just strikes me as redolent of wooly-minded nonsense. So, the literary poem transforms itself into something else but that thing remains elusive.

In terms of the medieval, Burrow identifies ‘eloquence’ as a literary quality and I think this has some mileage because the sense of being clear and succinct with an element of the credible does seem to encapsulate how I evaluate the literary providing that it also transforms the words on the page. I’d like to take Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ as an example of eloquence and of transformation. The poem is a villanelle which is one of the trickiest forms to do well but it’s also an encapsulation of how Bishop felt about the various lovers in her life. The poem makes use of the complex form to transform words of self-pity and complaint into something wonderfully humane and poignant. For me, the poem is the epitome of technique and eloquence because it is self-laceratingly honest and expressed in a way that we can all relate to.

One final thought, is it possible for a poem to be too literary? Can the integrity of a poem be sacrificed at the altar of literature? Is there a point where things become too mannered for their own good? Is the recent work of Geoffrey Hill a case in point?

Defining literary poetry and its (contested) place

Last week I referred to Neal Pattison describing the English Intelligencer as having an ‘underdeveloped salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity’ which seems the sort of thing an editor would say- especially if we read ‘salience’ as a typo for ‘sapience’. I was going to do something big and bold about the nature of the contest(s) but then I realised that I don’t actually know what a ‘literary’ poem is.

‘Literary’ could refer to poems that aspire to the status of literature but this merely shifts the problem. It could also mean poems that use recognised and established forms or perhaps poems with ‘serious’ themes but then we get into deciding what is serious and what isn’t. Then there’s the attention divide by which (following Keston Sutherland) the difference between those poems that can be grasped or understood on a first reading and those that require additional attention. A further troubling thought occurs to me- could the literary poem have the same status as the literary novel? This is troubling that particular label is now a marketing device rather than having anything much to do with content.

Then there is the individual poet, are Prynne and Hill literary poets and, if so, why? Can the same be said of Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery or Kenneth Goldsmith?

The final and equally troubling doubt that occurs to me is that the literary poem may be the one that includes;

  • foreign words and phrases;
  • references to obscure figures;
  • references and allusions that aren’t ‘signalled’ as such;
  • unusual syntax
  • words that the OED consider to be obscure and/or archaic;
  • words where a secondary and much less well-known meaning is intended;
  • what J H Prnne has described as ‘radical ambiguity.

Are these the characteristics that I’m looking for? Can it be the case that literary actually simply means difficult?

Then there’s the possibility that literary poetry is that which gets reviewed in the three main lit comics, in which case words like ‘dismal’ and ‘vanishingly mediocre’ spring to mind.

Given that I am blessed with impeccable readerly taste, there is the argument that literary refers to the stuff that I like although this doesn’t stand up because Eliot clearly intended ‘The Four Quartets’ to qualify as literature and it does seem to be viewed in this way by the majority even though I really don’t like it. It could be argued that the literary is a fickle beast and that it moves about as tastes and academic trends change. This may be so but I am prepared to bet a fair amount of cash on the chances of Becket and Celan being consistently though of in this way for the next couple of centuries.

<before thinking about contemporary poets, it is probably as well to see if the OED offers any kind of help:

  • of or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature. Also in early use: relating to letters or learning;
  • of or relating to the letters of the alphabet, or (occas.) another set of letters or symbols used as an alphabet;
  • that is communicated or conducted by correspondence by letter; epistolary;
  • of a person or group: engaged in the writing or critical appreciation of works of literature; having a thorough knowledge of literature; spec. engaged in literature as a profession;
  • of language: having characteristics associated with works of literature or other formal writing; refined, elegant;
  • appearing in literature or books; fictional;
  • Of the visual arts, music, etc.: concerned with depicting or representing a story or other literary work; that refers or relates to a text; that creates a complex or finely crafted narrative like that of a work of literature.

Incidentally, the Oxford Historical Thesaurus provides ‘staffly’ and ‘bookish’ as alternatives and I’m becoming fond of both. Leaving out the ‘literature’ tautologies, it is possible to tease out a few revealing adjectives- refined, elegant, thoroughly knowledgeable, complex and finely crafted. The astute amongst you will note that there is nothing here about being aesthetically pleasing or deeply meaningful, indeed it could be argued that the literary poem is far more about form than content and that (by these standards) Elizabeth Bishop is the literary poet par excellence.

British poets that write in a late modernist vein have an odd relationship with the literary because (in my head) the one defining characteristic is seriousness or gravitas and some of the finest pieces of this kind of poetry gets its strength from its lack of refinement and inelegance. Most of it does fit with complex and knowledgeable but there are strong late modernist poems that aren’t finely crafted.

The conceptualists present a different kind of challenge, Kenneth Goldsmith’s verbatim transcripts of traffic and weather reports and sports commentary don’t in themselves meet any of the above criteria, indeed part of their ‘point’ is there immense banality but Goldsmith and others would argue that the idea (concept) can be judged in those terms even though this view is still considered heretical in some circles because it is ‘about’ neither form nor content in the traditional sense.

The final point of these ruminations relates to groups, are the ‘Movement’ poets, the ‘Beats’ and members of the Cambridge School literary simply because these groupings have achieved a certain academic recognition? Does this kind of recognition or label now constitute the literary?

Thinking about the younger generation of British poets, the work of Timothy Thornton strikes me as the one that best meets the above criteria, that ‘Jocund Day’ and ‘Trails’ may also embody the lyricism that the literary also entails for me. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonny Liron seems to be intent on destroying the literary in a very complex and thoughtful way, as is Jonty Tiplady.

J H Prynne’s vow to collide head-on with the unwitty circus that was and is the literary establishment would require us to look at his work as anti-literary but it is too complex, refined and knowledgeable for that. Geoffrey Hill is more clearly writing in a literary manner and yet makes use of weak jokes and imitations of stand-up comedians in his finest work. John Ashbery’ work is refined and elegant, sounds complex and knowledgeable and is loved by the literary comics- the only problem is that most of it is emptily meaningless and the poems that aren’t are the ones that attack the idea of meaning.

With regard to David Jones, ‘In Parenthesis’ can be said to be more literary than ‘The Anathemata’ because it has a better elegance/complexity balance but ‘The Anathemata’ is the better poem.

A final thought, Neil Pattison writes literary poetry that meets all of these criteria whilst managing to remain firmly in the late modernist (Cambridge faction) vein.

This may not have been a very productive line of inquiry but it has narrowed the ground for thinking in the near future about whether this material actually has any kind of ‘role’ or place in cultural modernity and whether reading ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ does move us forward as Neil claims.

Drafts, notes and poems.

Yesterday the multi-talented Zachary Bos sent me two pdfs, one of a Geoffrey Hill pamphlet entitled ‘Preghiere’ which was published in 1964 and the other of ‘The Kensington Mass’ by David Jones which was published in 1975, a year after Jones’ death.

With regard to the second of these the publishers (Agenda Editions) explain that this is an unfinished draft of a poem that Jones had been working on until his death. The text of the book consists of a tentative draft of part of the poem together with fragments from Jones’ handwritten notes which have been collated by Rene Hague who also provides some explanation. Jones’ notes are reproduced at the end of the book.

I have mixed feelings about reading material that may not have been intended for publication. In general I think I’m against it because we don’t know if those poets would have wanted their drafts to be read by others and doing so can feel a little bit grubby and intrusive.

The above purist stance falls apart when we come to specific examples- ‘Edgar Allen Poe and the Jukebox’ is a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s “uncollected poems, drafts and fragments” which contains 16 drafts of ‘One Art’ thus giving the reader the privilege of seeing a truly great talent at work. To those of us that might feel queasy about this kind of prying, the blurb quotes John Ashbery- “For those who love Elizabeth Bishop, there can never be enough of her writing. The arrival of this trove of manuscripts is therefore a stupendous event.” So, one justification would appear to be that it’s okay if the poet didn’t publish that much stuff during his or her lifetime. The counter argument goes that Bishop was meticulous about deciding what could be (by her very high standards) published and what couldn’t which is why a relatively small amount was made public.

Paul Celan presents a different kind of problem. James K Lyon’s “Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: an Unresolved Conversation 1951-70” which (among other things) makes extensive use of Celan’s marginalia in books by Heidegger in order to examine the relationship between the two. As a fan of all things Celan, I should be delighted by this but it turns out to be far too speculative:

During his intense reading of Wrong Paths in 1953, a passage on the nature of poetic language in the essay “What Are Poets For?” prompted Celan to enter double lines and write the word language [Sprache] in the margin. The passage reads, “Being, as itself, marks off its domain, which is measured (temnein, tempus) by Being’s being present in the word. Language is the domain (templum), viz. the house of Being . . . [the] temple of Being” (Das Sein durchmisst es selbst als seinen Bezirk, der dadurch bezirkt wird [temnein, tempus], dass es im Wort west. Die Sprache ist der Bezirk [templum], d.h. das Haus des Seins . . . [der] Tempel des Seins, G 5:310). In connecting humankind’s dwelling in the temple of Being with the poet’s role as a seer in that temple, Heidegger made an allegorical move that must have appealed to Celan’s belief in writing poetry as a higher calling.

Only a few days after finishing Wrong Paths, Celan again encountered the image of language as the temple or house of Being in Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, where it occurs in at least nine passages. His underlining of several of
those passages suggests that they caught the poet’s attention and probably left a trace in a poem he wrote soon after reading A Letter on Humanism.

This is from p32 but the whole book is peppered with ‘must haves’ and ‘probablys’ which doesn’t inspire confidence. The other reasonably obvious point to make is that underlining can signify a whole range of things as can making a double line in the margin. Most of us who make these kind of marks know that they have a wide range of meanings and connotations, as a mark to return to to reconsider/evaluate, as a mark of approval, as a mark of something that seems important or as something to denote disagreement or condemnation etc etc.

There’s also the voyeuristic/intrusive element in this. It is very, very unlikely that Celan made these marks in the knowledge that they would be scrutinised and made the subject of a book. What we know of his widow, Giselle, it is very unlikely that she would have given permission for an exercise of this kind. The other issue that I have with Lyons is that he makes a number of assumptions about the meeting between Celan and Heidegger at Todtnauberg when the fact is that we will never know what took place.

I also have Pierre Joris’ magnificent translation for Celan’s notes and drafts for The Meridian Address which continues to absorb me – I’ve written about it several times because I think it gives us a deeper insight into his poetics. The only moment of voyeuristic grubbiness has been felt when he equates Sophie Goll with Goebbels. The other redeeming aspects are that Giselle gave permission for poetry to be published after his death and that Celan retained these notes even though he no longer had need of them- he committed suicide over 9 years after the Address was made. The German editors have provided notes to explain some of the references but these don’t make the leap in speculation so there aren’t any must haves or probablys. For example, there is a lengthy citation for a French phrase used by Celan that identifies the source that Celan alludes and the version that was in his poession. There’s also a short entry on Kropotkin that identifies his anarchism and one oh his works- the editors do not then suggest that Celan was also an anarchist because that would be a probably.

Rene Hague was Jones’ greatest friend and would not have participated in the publication of ‘The Kensington Mass’ if he felt that this was in any way contrary to what his friend would have wished. His explanatory notes are a delight and I think this is an example of the right mix of respect and judgement that these situations require:

Our inclination will be to include as much as possible; but we have, unfortunately, to remember that David’s method was the exact opposite. We may comfort ourselves, however, by remembering, too, that little or nothing (I believe) was destroyed, and work which had been put on one side (e.g. Balaam’s Ass) would later be reinstated.

Hague goes into detail as to his reasons for ordering the drafts in this way but the drafts themselves are also included so we can follow the way these decisions have been made.

Given that Jones is one of the great modernists, as with Bishop, anything that adds to the sparse work that we have has got to be important, especially when compiled out of friendship and affection.

10 things right with poetry

In the interests of balance, here’s a number of facets that might help us out of the poetry mire:
1. strength and depth. Good poetry endures and embeds itself in our culture and our sense of ourselves. Great poetry endures because of its depth, because it reflects the complexity and nuances of our existence;
2. Paul Celan, J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill, John Milton and (probably) Edmund Spenser- all for very different reasons;
3. flexibility. Poems can be read aloud to an audience or to oneself. We can read poems to ourselves. Poems can be learned by heart;
4. lack of definition, the prose-poetry-song boundary is never clearly drawn. This is a good thing;
5. variety of form;
6. variety of style, even when two or three styles gain an ascendancy there is still room for the rest to breathe;
7. most poems are short enough to be learned by heart;
8. passion, great poems express passion better than any other art form;
9. brevity, poems can express complex thoughts and feelings in a very short space;
10. Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson, Keston Sutherland, John Matthias and David Jones purely on the grounds of technical merit.
The question that must be asked is whether the above can be utilised to get poetry out of its current malaise?
Any amendments, solutions would be warmly welcomed….

Keston Sutherland, Elizabeth Bishop and the end of a poem.

We all like a poem to end well. As poets we try to find satisfying ways to finish what we’ve said and as readers we (I) expect something that either summarises what’s been written or gives us something else to think about. Paul Celan and John Matthias do great endings in the above sense but I want to write about endings that disrupt our expectations i.e. ‘wrong’ endings.

Light streams under the door when the milk falls out
and though it isn’t the door
revolving between the MOD and BAE Systems
it is the door light streams under
the door nothing chic, middlebrow weird.

That’s the end of Sutherland’s ‘The Proxy Humanity of Forklifts’ and I’m about to describe it’s wrongness but before that:

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.

That’s the end to Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ which (for all kinds of reasons is one of the finest poems of the 20th century.

If we define wrong poetry as being in some way banal and thus unpoetic then these are both examples of wrongness. Sutherland’s ‘revolving door’ quip is a cliché that has been written by journalists, poets and diarists since at least the 17th century but the stuff that surrounds it redeems its wrongness. I would point to the brilliant last line and the questions that it throws up as well as the ‘B’ movie image of the light under the door to indicate that Sutherland knows exactly what he’s doing and does it in such a way that leaves most contemporaries trailing in his wake. Bishop’s poem is about the birth of consciousness of a seven year old girl. She’s already given us both the place and the date so we don’t need this information again, the ‘it’ that she’s back in is the everyday reality of the waiting room and she’s returning to it with a heightened awareness of herself (“an Elizabeth“). So, all of this information is superfluous, banal, unpoetic and therefore wrong, except for “The War was on” which disrupts the ostensible theme of the poem or takes us to an entirely different level.

‘Forklifts’ can be read as a scathing polemic against the unfolding fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan (hence the revolving door thing) but the ending seems to allude to fear – this light certainly isn’t the light of hope for a bright new future. Initially, two bits are puzzling – ‘when the milk falls out’ and all of the last line. Milk is usually kept in refrigerators and the door would need to be open for it to fall out. ‘Forklifts’ also contains a real patent to a fridge door closing mechanism in verse form (which is fairly high up on the wrongness scale in itself) so things start to make a bit more sense but not much because I need to pay more attention to that particular part of the poem. I also need to point out that light would stream out of the top, the side and the bottom of the fridge if the milk fell out. We then come to the last line, what do these three adjectives refer to? Why isn’t there a comma between ‘middlebrow and ‘weird’? Why aren’t these two hyphenated? Why does it seem to work so well?

It works, I think, because it writes against itself, the image of the light under the door is used but disrupted in different ways, the startling juxtaposition of the adjectives (especially ‘middlebrow) on the last line and the ‘revolving door’ quip which parades its own banality.

The end of ‘In the Waiting Room’ presents different kinds of wrongness but is equally disruptive. Place names and dates (especially when repeated) are fairly banal- we know where we are from the first line and we know when we are from the end of the first stanza but Bishop disrupts this by reminding us that the First World War was ‘on’ and that the ‘night and slush and cold’ would apply to the Western Front just as much as Worcester. Thus we are thrown from a description of the consciousness of a child to our own memories/awareness of these terrible events. That’s why it ‘works’, Bishop was skilled enough to take the risk and make the difficult point directly and personally to the reader.

The importance of poetry

The arduity project that I’m currently working on has given me more than a few problems. Trying to encourage people to read difficult poetry has led me to describe certain poets and certain poems as ‘important’. This has now become a cliché in my head as well as on the page so I’ve decided to work out what we mean when we say that ‘The Triumph of Love’ is important or that Paul Celan is important.
I’ll start with the importance of poetry as a means of expression. Ever since I read and understood my first ‘adult’ poem I’ve known instinctively that poetry was somehow important but decided not to work out why. This intuitive knowledge is problematic because it is really hard to explain but I can give something of a definition by separating out my notion of importance from that expressed by others. There is a view that poetry is in a privileged position because it can provide a closer indication of the truth than any other form of expression. I reject this view because I have yet to see any empirical evidence to support it and because this claim is the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad name.
My notion of the importance of poetry would rest on the fact that it isn’t prose and that it is incredibly versatile. Not being prose removes the poem from ordinary speech and enables all kinds of devices to give expression to deep emotion and profound ideas. Poetry, at its best, can be both incredibly beautiful and packed with meaning at the same time in a way that other forms of art can only aspire to.
This notion of versatility combined with a kind of strength has stayed with me since I was thirteen when a single line from a poem suddenly made sense. Nothing that I have read or tried to write since has caused me to change my view that poetry is really important but not that important.

So, why is it that I feel that some poets are ‘important’ and others not? I must stress that this isn’t an argument about the canon which (I would argue) has little to do with importance but an investigation as to why I feel that I can make an instinctive judgement  about a poem’s importance before I fully understand it.

First of all, poetry has to hold my attention and it has to be honest. This will always weed out about 95% of what’s been written. Heaney isn’t important because he doesn’t hold my attention, Larkin isn’t important because he’s dishonest and manipulative (I could go on).  Muldoon holds my attention but there’s this lurking suspicion that he’s dishonest. Of the Movement poets, I can make the strongest case for Thom Gunn in terms of interest and integrity. Elizabeth Bishop’s work is always interesting and honest and the degree of technical skill marks her out as ‘important’.

Modernist poetry gave poets a whole new set of crayons and the ‘late’ modernists continue to exploit this potential. For all its many faults, modernism did open up the possibilities of poetry and this trend should be seen as important because it represents a major break from what has gone before. Hill, Prynne, Celan, Olson and Matthias have all pushed this potential and produced work that is interesting, honest and complex. Sometimes the crayons don’t quite work as intended but that’s inevitable when something new is attempted and when you’re pushing the versatility of poetry to its limit.

Poetry that is important is poetry that is innovative, complex, honest, technically accomplished and interesting because it stands out from the rest of what is being produced and because it is clear that the poet is deadly serious about making poems.

‘The Triumph of Love’, for example, meets this criteria even if some of the devices used don’t actually work (the faux editorial gloss and the angry response to critics) because other factors more than compensate. Very few people on this planet are more serious about poetry than Geoffrey Hill.

Having written the above, I now have a lurking suspicion that Paul Muldoon might be more important than I thought……

The Elizabeth Bishop poem

This is a poem about a poem, the kind of thing that Larkin hated (apparently).  I write poems about poems all the time in a compulsive kind of way.  This particular piece is about misreading one line in “One Art”  and relating a little to well to that misreading. It’s also about depression (I’m bipolar)  and the resonance that the hour badly met has for us depressives.

I prefer this to the Rothko (no-one else does)  because it says (more or less) what I want it to say and it does it in a way that’s technically quite pleasing. I tried to give a flavour of the depressive experience but also tried to avoid sounding too mawkish. What it doesn’t do is get fully into the problem of misreading and I probably need to re-visit this.

One Art (Draft 15) for Elizabeth Bishop

A mistake, an error,

I read the line

I did not read the poem

I knew the poem

I just read the line

And my eye skipped the last word

And my brain read another

I read “met” for “spent”

The hour badly met

Seemed better than spent

And I got to thinking

I meet hours badly every day

It’s a given

It’s expected

A flustering blustering thing

All sixes and sevens

A flurry of gestures

The shrug, the blow

Each day I fail to meet the hour

So I would want

As a depressive

The word to be “met”

Yet I’m not her

And she’s a drunk

And the poem is her poem

And it is utterly wonderful

Whereas mine would be

All struggle and strife

The endless whine

Of some wounded beast

So I leave it there

And write this instead