Tag Archives: ezra pound

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.


Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

Geoffrey Hill’s Expostulations on the Volcano and the Poetic

The one quality that I share with the immortal William Cobbett is that I’m not in the least bothered by inconsistency. I think it’s important for people to change their minds and this is why I preface most of the writing here with a ‘provisional’ and ‘tentative’ disclaimer. I have to report that whilst sunbathing this afternoon (newly discovered pastime), I started on the above sequence with the intention of paying it some attention instead of my previous dive-by reading.

A couple of years ago I went on at some length about how irredeemably bad the Oraclau collection was because it’s rhymes were both forced and wrong-footed. In fact I thought it was so bad that it shouldn’t have been published, even though Hill has a line somewhere vowing to make his readers wince. I’d now like to retract this and confess my prior knee-jerk and unwarranted prejudice.

Up until now, I thought that Sir Geoffrey and I agreed on one fundamental point: the teaching of creative writing is a Very Bad Thing indeed. I now discover that we may agree on the Poetry problem. More than ever I have to state that what follows is exceptionally tentative and subjective and heavily influenced by my tendency to over-read when someone appears to agree with me.

A central plank of the Bebrowed position re the Poem is that it has for centuries been far too poetic, far too in love with its own lyrical flow. I’ve made this argument before and no doubt will do so again but today’s speculation is whether Hill might (approximately) agree.

I have several items of evidence, each with specific flaws but, like a good conspiracy theorist, this isn’t going to get in my way. I have to admit that I’ve only just started to pay attention to Expostulation having previously flicked through it, alighting on poems that caught my eye. This was a mistake, I should have remembered that it isn’t helpful to read Hill in a piecemeal way. I’ve now started at the beginning and have noticed that ‘themes’ keep recurring and being expanded upon. One of these is the nature of The Poem. This is the end of the seventh poem in the sequence:

In stark of which, demand stands shiftless. Words
Render us callous the fuller they ring;
Stagger the more clankingly untowards;
Hauled to finesse in all manner of wrong:

Which is how change finds for us, long-lost one.
Oratory is pleading but not pledge;
Such haphazard closures of misfortune
Played by commandment on mechanic stage.

There are several things that I want to pull out from this. The first is this fuller ringing that render us callous. Words that ring in this way might be read as overly ornate or used for effect rather than content. It would therefore seem that this is a reasonable piece of evidence until we start to wonder about who ‘us’ might be. As with The Triumph of Love’s view of poetry as a “sad and angry consolation” it is unclear whether this refers to the readers or the poets, or both. With regard to this passage I’m currently voting for the poets because the poetic bag of tricks can be used with great cynicism and more than a little dishonesty, I believe that this ‘fits’ better with the finessing of all manner of wrong.

The second verse’s assertion about oratory is another, perhaps more tenuous, piece of evidence that I’d like to rely on. The pleading / pledging juxtaposition is worth some thought. I’m currently reading this to indicate that ‘strong’ poetry involves the commitment of the self to something, almost a formal commitment whereas the oratorical flummery that makes up most of The Poem is an act of persuasion rather than a statement of fealty.

My third piece of evidence is one of the sequences two dedications, it is Kate Lechmere’s 1914 observation of Pound reading aloud: “Such a voice seemed to clown verse rather than read it”. Now, clowning has been a strong element in much of Hill’s work since The Triumph of Love and my re-consideration of the Oraclau sequence is because it may be an extended clowning with a more serious purpose. This may be to undermine the poetic and the tricks that it has by producing bad poems with even worse rhymes. Incidentally, I think it might be urgently essential to get the clown back into The Poem.

My penultimate item is this from the end of Poem 9:

Justice is song where song is primitive 
As with poetics. Elsewhere more complex
Denouements, if folly can stay alive;
Innocence, if machination strum lax.

I’m not going to dive into the Hillian syntax of the last two lines but simply point to the observation that justice is song where The Poem is primitive i.e. before it got carried away with itself. There’s also something here about the honesty of the primitive poem. Isn’t there?

My final link comes from Hill’s introduction to his Annunciations which was published in the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse from 1962:

I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (the banquet) that it seems to be.

What I say in the section is, I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.

So, a degree of consistency, if I’m correct, going back over fifty years. I hope that the above has established a hint, if nothing more, of a sincere attempt to upturn at least part of the status quo, to make us wince (as he says elsewhere) in order to push us out of inertia, dumb acceptance, complacency. I do however need to have another look at Oraclau.

Information Quality: The Gnarly Poem

Continuing with the Information Quality theme, I’ve, after some discussion with others, devised the above as a way to proceed.

The following definitions are (as usual) tentative and subject to change.

The Gnarly Poem.

What I like about this quality is that it covers some big ground in five letters. The OED defines the word initially as ‘gnarled’ which in turn is given as “Of a tree: Covered with protuberances; distorted, twisted; rugged, knotted.” and gives the earliest usage as in Measure for Measure in 1616 ” Thy sharpe and sulpherous bolt Splits the vn-wedgable and gnarled Oke.” Apparently it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the adjective was used to describe non-wooden objects. This was when the rural labourer began to acquire the description which also has (in my head) connotations of ruggedness. I need to thank John Bloomberg Rissman for pointing out that gnarly is also a US surfing term meaning dangerous or challenging.

So we have poems that are rugged, whose protuberances make them hard to hold and their various twists and distortions throw up other challenges. They are also obdurate, made rugged after centuries of exposure to storm and drought. The gnarly poem demands / requires an almost physical response because it is only that bodily /embodied sense of engagement that the gnarls and the twists can be managed. Gnarly poems aren’t always good poems, there are many of this kind that are very bad indeed.


This is always tricky because I don’t read that much and hence tend to use the same material to try and think these things through. So, for a change, I’m going to include some John Skelton, Edmund Spenser, Ezra Pound and John Bloomberg-Rissman.

John Skelton’s Speke, Parrot

I wouldn’t have put this forward (the sort of obscurity that I often complain about) were it not for J H Prynne alluding to it in his Kazoo Dreamboat which gives me an excuse to write about this gnarliest of gnarly poems:

My lady maystres, deame Philolgyy,
  Gave me a gyfte in my nest whan I laye,
To lerne all language, and it to spake apetly
Now pandez mory, wax frantycke, some men saye,
   Phroneses for Freneses may not holde her way. 
An almon now for Parrot, dilycatly drest;
In Salve festa dies, toto theyr doth best.

Before we get any further some facts may serve to make my point. Skelton was one of the three most prominent poets between about 1495 and 1525. He was shameless in his self-promotion and vituperative in the extreme toward his critics and enemies- he wasn’t very pleasant. He enjoyed varying degrees of royal patronage and boasted of that in his work. It has been pointed out that Skelton’s work had no influence whatsoever on subsequent generations although Ben Jonson did steal some of his better lines.

The two main themes of Speke, Parrot are the promotion of the traditionalist side in the Grammarians’ War which started in 1519 and concerns the best way to teach Latin. The other is a fairly vicious attack on Cardinal Wolsey who was the most powerful man in England, after the king.

The first part of the poem (from which the above is taken) was derided by critics at the time as being far too obscure. It is thought that Speke Parrot was written in sections because Skelton defends this in charge in the lines of the poem..

The mix of many languages is one of the many gnarls, as is the device of the parrot and the obscurity of some of the subject matter and the way that this is expressed. The grammarian’s war was not a dry academic tussle but a battle fought in the most personal of terms, Skelton indicated that he would have to knock his opponent’s (William Lily) teeth in, Lily stated that Skelton was neither learned nor a poet- knowing that this would strike hard at Skelton’s personal vanity.

To make things more gnarly, Alexander Dyce (Skelton’s 19thc editor) observed that “The Latin portions of the MS are usually of ludicrous incorrectness” and points out that several sections of the poem are missing from the version that we have today.

The first part of the poem presents many challenges to the reader but perhaps the most difficult to wrestle with is the figure of the muti-lingual bird and the very oblique ways in which he makes his point. The poem as a whole scores highly in the gnarly stakes because it appears from nowhere in the English canon, defies categorisation and then dies a fairly rapid death.

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

I’m of the view that this is the second best poem in English primarily because of its verbal ambition and technical mastery. It’s also monstrously long (see below). The gnarls are about the oddnesses that seem to undermine the ‘sense’ of the work, the nature and functioning of the various allegories together with what I think of as the Faeire Lond problem.

FQ is ostensibly an exploration of the virtues set out in allegorical form (what Spenser’s describes as the “dark conceit”) and can be read as a series of fights involving the good guys against the bad guys with a few monsters and giants thrown in. The problem with the allegories is that they don’t actually do what they’re supposed to do. They spend much of each of the books describing human folly and stupidity rather than the positive qualities that they are supposed to represent. The other gnarl is the fact that this doesn’t become clear on the first reading, it only announced itself to me half way through the second because I had been completely blown away (technical term) by the vitality and excitement of the work.

This failure, and the weak attempts to rectify it prevents the attentive reader (me) from gaining a clear impression of what the work might be striving to do even though it is clear that it isn’t doing what Spenser say it does.

The next gnarl is geographical, the physical world of the poem doesn’t make sense, is hopelessly incoherent and inconsistent but this is only apparent when an attempt is made to ‘map’ Fairy Lond. The same problem is present in Piers the Plowman but Langland has the excuse of his being a dream poem. This absence of geographical sense is in direct contrast to the cosmological precision employed by Milton in Paradise Lost. Again this gnarl is only evident after reading the work and trying to take an overview but it still contributes to the general gnarliness.

For this reader the oddities concern torture, bestiality and cross dressing. For reasons of space I’m going to use the last to show how oddness can be a protuberance. This particular episode is contained in Canto V of the fifth book which is ‘about’ justice as embodied in Artegall and his robot Talus who acts as a killing machine on Artegall’s behalf. Book Five has been taken up by a number of critics fretting over the apparently genocidal sub-text and lumped it together with the prose A View of the Present State of Ireland which does advocate a form of genocide as a solution to the Irish Problem. I’ve had occasional rants about this before but it does overlook the treatment that Artegall from Radigund after he shows her mercy: she dresses him in “womans weeds” and sets him to work, along with her other knightly captives, “twisting linen twyne”, a situation that he accepts with a passivity that is completely out of character. Spenser appears to be using this to show what happens when you show mercy (you end up dressed as a girl doing girl’s work) and to express a remarkably vicious misogyny:

Such is the crueltie of womankynd,
   When they haue shaken off the shamefast band,
   With which wise Nature did them strongly bind,
   T'obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand,
   That then all rule and reason they withstand,
   To purchase a licentious libertie.
   But vertuous women wisely understand
   That they were borne to base humilitie,
Vnless the heavens them lift to lawfull soueraintie.

This piece of quite bonkers paranoia is unfortunately expressing the consensus in late Elizabethan England but it is made even more stupid by the exception made for Elizabeth I in the last line. The gnarliness is that this very clear unambiguous view is in direct contrast to the second stanza of Canto II in Book 3 which expresses precisely the opposite view. These are the last three lines:

   Yet sith they warlike armes have laide away,
   They have exceld in arts and policy,
That now we foolish men that prayse gin eke t'enuy.

FQ was first published as Books I-III in 1590 with IV-VI published six years later. The later books are considered to be ‘darker’ in tone than the first three but this particular gnarl stands out and I for one still can’t get my brain around such a direct contrast.

Ezra Pound’s The Cantos.

I’m not going to spend too long on this because of its obvious protuberances and knots. I do need to observe however that Pound knew about poetry and that his Don’ts from 1913 are still eminently relevant and applicable one hundred years later.

The Cantos have the following gnarly features:

  • the ideograms;
  • the anti-semitism;
  • the economic theorising, with examples;
  • massive inconsistencies in technique from the brilliant to the dire;
  • length.

All of these deter me from putting the effort required to read the work from beginning to end- not because of its obscurity and alleged difficulty but because it would take too long to deal with all these gnarls.

John Boomberg-Rissman’s In the House of the Hangman.

First of all I need to point out that John and I correspond most days and I may therefore be accused of some bias. I don’t think this is the case because, in this instance, his relentlessly ongoing work led me to identify this quality when I realised that I was entering into an almost physical struggle to give it the attention that it demands. The work is published daily on the Zeitgeist Spam and yesterday’s episode is no.1631. Each is made up from items that arrive via John’s RSS and these are credited in the notes at the bottom although it isn’t entirely clear which notes refer to which parts of the text even though they are listed in order.

One of the purposes is for ITH to act as a mirror for the world as it is in the (more or less) present and it’s done in a way that is reasonably chaotic and eternally relentless. For the attentive reader (me), the gnarls come in two different flavours. The first is that it isn’t always clear where one item / extract / thing /quote begins and ends and the second is the complete absence of context unless you follow the links in the notes and even (or especially) then you are still pretty much on your own. Nevertheless it demands engagement even though my ‘handle’ on it is never going to be anywhere near complete but the struggle, the process of the grapple is dangerously addicitve. I think this may demonstrate / emplify at least a couple of gnarls:

One luckless expatriate was picked up and thrown into a trash can. The Jewish-Japanese Sex & Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves. The guy who created the iPhone’s Earth image explains why he needed to fake it. Kangaroos have three vaginas. Grills, ‘Grillz’ and dental hygiene implications. When adding is subtracting. Hire a Drone With Bitcoin. PotCoin. Sweden is the largest exporter of pop music. Why Dark Pigeons Rule the Streets. Can You Sue A Robot For Defamation? His animals get their energy from the wind so they don’t have to eat.

Now, with this kind of material its very gnarliness is enough to deter most readers but each sentence in the above is a startling statement of What Might Be Going on just now, I think I might take some issue with the add / subtract statement but that’s part of the process- identifying some kind of logic and then fretting about the bits that seem especially gnarled and out of place. ITH can be read as a conceptual exercise that has taken one idea or way of working and stuck with it but it struggles against that because the concept takes an increasingly back seat as the episodes increase in number and more and more related material is accumulated.

Keston Sutherland’s Odes again

First of all I’d like to start with more confessions of my ignorance. The first of these relates to references to domestic appliances in modern poetry. When ‘The Stats on Infinity’ was published, I commented on the oddness of incorporating a patent for a fridge door closer into “The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts” and assumed that this particular conceit was a Sutherland original. I’ve now read Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ which contains the line “Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent;” which was apparently added to the original poem prior to the publication of ‘Personae’ in 1926. The note that I have on this describes the line as anachronistic which it probably is but I think it likely that this is what Sutherland is nodding towards in ‘Forklifts’ and the ‘Odes to TL61P’.
The next confession is completely different – the second ode contains:

But look at these caricatures,
numb by numbers, empty shells,
new complexity doorbells,
jokes about what they are.

I’ve written something about the second ode for Arduity and described the ‘new complexity doorbells’ line as being trite. It was then (gently) pointed it out to me that ‘New Complexity’ is used to describe a particular school of contemporary classical music. The confession is that I’d never heard of New Complexity even though I consider myself to have a reasonable knowledge of most modern musical forms. I’ve now become a fan of Ferneyhough, Barrett, Dench and co but don’t know if that helps with the line and the context in which it is used.

What follows is (as ever) not intended to be definitive as most of what I think is liable to change and these particular thoughts are based on something that has changed considerably over the last four months and may continue to change. What follows is a response to the draft that I received on March 1st.

In November I described the Odes as “the best thing I’ve read in years” and I stand by that, I also think that it’s an important development in contemporary poetry and I want to try and explain why.

The Odes are important because they successfully disrupt current notions of what an accomplished poem should look like and because they embody a degree of ‘wrongness’ that really does clash head on with the ‘unwitty circus’. The combination of the deeply personal and very political shouldn’t work but it does. The confessional elements are disturbing without being either sentimental or offensive. As ever with Sutherland there’s a surfeit of verbal brilliance but what stays longest in the mind is the naked honesty with which things are being said.
I’m very aware that I’m writing about something that only a few people have had the chance to read and that I’m also writing about some versions that will never see the light of day. In what follows I will therefore try to spell out why this stuff is so good with longish examples. Earlier versions of Odes 1 and 2 are addressed on Arduity.

This is from the opening prose section of Ode 1:

but before anyone could actually get hard or wet or both it was imperative that as leading members of that cast and as role models for our past we agree to adopt “the mess we inherited from the last government” for our leading answer rebranded to a motto for compliance with the takeover speculation boosting Autonomy Corp. 5.3% after better-than-estimated worse-than-estimable earnings forecasts at Oracle Corp., our flat back teeth drilled in the new tax protologisms, refuting enamel, scorning accessibility, adrift in gum, sucking the sickbag out of the airbag, phantoms of the gummy grind, children out the window sing “the mess we inherited from the last” humans who engross the past to profit from the joy they bring, the power set, of which children are a set or subset, quasi-unblinking idiot desquamators of the too-accommodating larynx, e.g. i-SENSYS epistemological monogamy “I am alive (repeat)” (repeat) (repeat) my climaxes in marialogical microbiology; e.g. Brittania’s martial amphiboly on acid and amphetamines, 2 (a repeat); phlebotomy of war, get the flow back; Bollywood; sex in bantam art; sex e.g. now; eggs explained in black and white;

The “mess we inherited” is the excuse that every new administration makes when carrying out unpopular policies and is usually accompanied by the revelation that things are actually much worse than the previous government had led us to believe. This has particular resonance at the moment as it is the constant refrain of the current Tory administration as it dismantles the remaining strands of public service in the UK. The above plays around with this political device in quite savage but accurate ways. I’m particularly fond of the supposed relationship between autonomy and oracle corporations

The tone is underpinned by the extended riff on teeth and gums with the children providing and additional layer of ‘stuff’ to think about. What does it mean to ‘engross the past’? What does the ‘power set’ refer to? Or is this another example of Sutherland failing to make sense but succeeding in being over-full?
We then come to the new words (protologism, desquamator. polycollaterals and marialogical) and ask whether they are effective or distractions. I don’t normally have a problem with neologisms providing I can work out what they might mean without working too hard. The first and the third don’t present major problems but ‘desaquamator’ probably derives from ‘squamous’ given that it’s used at the beginning of the section and I have to ask how many readers would know what squamous means? There’s also the difficulty of trying to work out who the ‘quasi-unblinking desquamators’ actually are and why they should be described as unblinking.
Then there’s the proper names and the model numbers of various appliances. The proper names are mostly straightforward ( Martin Amis, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Prometheus, Felix Gallardo, Chekhov, Lenin, Mariana, Traherne, Helmand, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Seurat, Anders Hoegstroem, General Tommy Franks, Mao, Caqmeron, Becket, Keats, Pound, Hitler, Guandong, Hegel, Merrill Lynch, Charles Olson etc) but there’s also ‘Madiha Shenshel’ as in “You task Madiha Shenshel with cooking your breakfast (hawk eggs in fried milk, high in polycollaterals)” which isn’t at all clear and carries echoes of some of the names used in Stress Position and Hot White Andy. There’s also reference made to three printer/copiers, a Tefal Maxifry, the clothes dryer referred to in the title and at least one washing machine. These are all confined to the first ode with the exception of the titular dryer which makes one or two additional appearances.
Ode three is a work of sustained brilliance and probably the best of the sequence, ranging from a sorrowful polemic to autobiography to confession without feeling contrived or self-pitying. It’s mostly prose except where it isn’t. It contains things like “Your fear of rich people getting social housing means that you don’t really want the communism you say you want, but you needn’t be ashamed only of that; your ear of shredded lichen goes down badly in the kitchen salesroom as a form of payment even for only the half or last part of a kitchen,” which is very, very clever and a major leap forward from the politics of Stress Position whilst retaining more than a degree of manic oddness (ear of shredded lichen). It’s not entirely clear who is being addressed here- not all of Sutherland’s readers will want communism so it’s more likely to be a self-accusation that then gets awkwardly absolved in the kitchen salesroom. I’m taking the rich people and social housing fear to be a reference to the fact that cuts in housing benefit in the UK will mean that only the well off will be able to afford social housing in London and that some councils have started to transfer tenants to other parts of the country – a move compared to ethnic cleansing by some of our more emotional MPs. The ‘communism that you say that you want’ is good because ‘communism’ is interchangeable with socialism, liberalism, radicalism, conservatism and any other hue of the political spectrum which makes the accusation more telling. The types of payment in the kitchen salesroom could ‘stand’ for the dodgy types of consumer credit that got us into our current mess or could simply be an allusion to the ways that capitalism creates illusory ‘needs’.
With regard to confession, we get;

I put Christian in my mouth under the blanket, played with him as if gargling. I didn’t know what to do, so that it felt better, authentically childish. I had to sleep in his bed because my mother put me there, as if killing our father; I could hear her sobbing downstairs at being stood up but not listen to it. He asked later that we keep it secret, once we had learned that you can do that. I was fine with that, though I also felt that it was somehow melancholy that such a simple act of pleasure between people still roughly equal at that age should need to be developed into a source of fear, when all we had to fear was other people, who could surely be imagined to come under the same blanket; I wanted everybody to get something out of my mouth.

I do find this acutely disturbing. The sexual child is something that isn’t considered unless it’s pathologised by ‘concerned’ adults. My own professional experiences of working with children who had been further sexualised by adults probably heightens my disturbance but I readily recognise the ‘simple act of pleasure between two people of roughly the same age’ as encapsulating the challenge to conventional grown-up attitudes and prejudices. The references to Sutherland’s mother and father also highlight more than a degree of adult complicity and dysfunction which I’m also disturbed by. There are two types of disturbance for me, one is concerned with my own memories of experiences of sex as a child / adolescent and the other is about how I feel about this as a Guardian-reading grown-up and parent. This has been rolling around in my head since last November and the more thought I give it the more complicated it becomes.
Ode three also contains a degree of tenderness, an ex-girlfriend (who is dead) is addressed with a mixture of nostalgia and genuine affection;

“I could at least pretend to be able to say anything to you, and believe in the pretence while it lasted by acknowledging it as such, and you could do the same for me; but now you’re gone, and I’m the government. But really you’re just away.”

There are also bits of ‘conventional’ Sutherland cleverness- arch references to Marx, Hegel and Heidegger although I’m of the view that the last two aren’t as clever as they try to be and I do have this abiding suspicion that some of it’s just gratuitous “Heidegger has a shit fit at the letting agents” is probably grounded in something that Heidegger wrote or a ‘position’ that he took but I wonder how many readers will grasp this on a first or second reading and how many of the rest of us will bother to give it any further consideration. I also realise that I expressed the same kind of concerns about the Derrida jibe in Stress Position and in November described the Hegel reference here as ‘smug’.
None of this should in any way detract from the brilliance of Ode 3 which throws down a significant gauntlet to the rest of us who try to write ‘engaged’ poetry in English..
I’ll address Odes 4 and 5 in the near future.

On poetry and obsession

This is one of those personal things that I do from time to time in the hope that I might help me reach some kind of a conclusion.
Last week I felt that I was drowning in verse, I was alternating between Matthias, Pound, Jones and Vanessa Place and was becoming more and more enthusiastic about them as I read and re-read. The usual method of exorcising this overwhelm ed sensation is to write about them so I’ve written about Matthias (for another publication) and Place (for arduity). I should also be pleased because I’ve overcome my fear of writing something useful about Pound but Pound has led to Browning’s ‘Sordello’ which is clamouring for my close attention. All of this is slightly compounded by the fact that the latest draft of Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ is sitting on my hard drive and it remains my belief that it’s the most important poem published in the UK since 1971.
I’ve tried hard since Xmas to diversify (unintentional pun) to other things, I’ve read some history, some Merleau-Ponty, some Simon Critchley and some Maurice Blanchot in an effort to broaden my horizons but to no avail, I remain mesmerised by Blanchot’s ‘L’Ecriture du disastre’ but (I then realise) that’s because I’m reading it as a poem.
So, given that I don’t want to become completely manic, a process which involves leaping from book to book without actually reading anything, I thought I’d try and get my brain around my readiness to be dragged into poetry and to become immersed in it.
Before we go and further let me try and define the nature of my obsession with verse. I think about poetry a lot but I also think about politics a lot and certain aspects of the historical past. I don’t however spend large amounts of time attempting to work out the finer points of ideology or historical scholarship, this kind of attention is reserved more or less exclusively for verse. I worry about things like Mandelstam’s influence on Celan, the quality of Geoffrey Hill’s jokes, the reason that I find Prynne’s later work so compelling and why conceptualist verse might be quite good. These thing seem to matter to me more than the crisis currently facing all forms of socialism or whether I Blair Worden has anything worthwhile to say about the 17thy century.
I also console myself with the fact that my obsession isn’t complete, I can still get distracted by the non-poetic. Whilst writing this I’ve just come across something called “Knowledge management and diplomacy: Reflections on the demise of the valedictory despatch in the context of an informational history of the British Diplomatic Service” which I will now have to read.
I also need to interrupt myself in order to point out that I’m not one of those who think that poetry is important in the wider scheme of things, it’s clear to me that it is ‘only poetry’ and one of many interesting ways of describing the world. I do not support the notion that verse may be in a privileged position with regard to Truth. In fact, I’m quite violently opposed to this kind of wishful thinking.
So, if poetry isn’t that important, what is this obsession about? I’ll try to give a couple of examples. Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ refers in part to a reader who nods his head and thinks approvingly “that’s how it is”. Some readers may be looking to verse to provide this function or to provide an analysis that concurs with their own but I’m not one of them. In fact, I seem to get more from poets that are at the opposite end of my spectrum because I enjoy being challenged.
I also consider myself a practitioner in the poetising business so my reading of other stuff is never completely neutral, I’m always on the lookout for devices and conceits that I can steal and modify. But this still doesn’t fully account for my readiness to throw myself into this material.
I’ll try another example, I know that I’m becoming obsessed by both Ezra Pound and by Vanessa Place. I’ve just started to pay them serious attention but already I feel as if I must read everything they’ve ever published, that I must spend hours on Pennsound listening to them read their stuff and that I must write about how good / important / useful they are. In both instances this excessive interest was awakened by specific poems, Canto 9 in the case of Pound and Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’. Reading Canto 9 I realised that I was in the presence of something that was both accomplished and gloriously confident of its own strength in a way that indicates what poetry can and should do. The only problem with becoming obsessed by Pound is the knowledge that there’s a lot of stuff to be obsessed about… I wasn’t initially impressed when reading Place in the last CLR but I was sufficiently interested to find some of her other stuff and to read a couple of interviews. I find ‘Statement of Facts’ to be both effective and deeply disturbing on number of different levels even though all the text is appropriated (or appears to be appropriated) and it’s determinedly conceptual.
As with my other obsessions (Spenser, Milton, Marvell, Celan, Hill, Prynne), there are elements in both Pound and Place that I can and will argue with but I find that I’m looking forward to that argument and perhaps it’s this kind of internal debate that is the ultimate attraction for me. I also get a lot from using this blog to push these arguments a bit further.
Poets that really interest me tend to be those with strongly held views about both poetry and the world. It doesn’t matter that much to me what those views are, I’m much more impressed by the way in which they are expressed in the poetry. So, does this make me typically post-modern with an interest in form over content? Probably and it also ‘explains’ my reluctance to take poetry to seriously.
I am therefore obsessed by stuff that is well-made, forcefully expressed and contains views or analyses that I can take issue with. The obsessive aspect comes from the fact that poetry has a very great deal of ‘depth’ in terms of its history and the forms that it has taken down the centuries and most good stuff that I read does place me further into this complex web that we call the poem.

Parenthood and books not read in 2010 together with excuses

Now that we’re at the end of this politically disastrous year, I’ve been thinking about all those tomes that I should have read but didn’t. This is purely for my own record and I’ll probably do it again next year. The reason for this interest in the passing of time is probably due to a recent ‘cardiac episode’ which is oddly ironic given that I’ve spent parts of the last five years planning to kill myself. One of the side effects of an unscheduled brush is a half-recognition that you might not have all the time in the world to read all the stuff that you need to.

I also want to use this to record what I see as a more significant event that I haven’t yet fully worked out. After said brush my two kids returned home briefly to offer support and to0 make sure that I wasn’t actually at death’s door. I’m unspeakably and fiercely proud of both of them. Kayt is 29 and beginning to pursue a career in archaeology which is her passion. Jack is 25, intent on saving the world (all of it), and is about to embark on the next phase of this project in Tbilisi.

They’re both incredibly bright and articulate and think that I’m cleverer than I actually am. We debate issues of common interest (poetry, the revolution, music etc) with more than a degree of good-natured intensity which is great fun- Jack and I recently discussed the possibility of setting up a better organised piracy business off the coast of Somalia whilst Kayt and I are currently arguing about Bachelard’s notions of  resonance and reverberation.

During the visit we were talking about the first Michael Faber novel and Kayt offered the view that it doesn’t have much of a plot. I expressed some surprise at this and pointed out that things do occur in the book. I was then going to expand on plotlessness when I noticed an exchange of glances between my two offspring. Jack smiled and gently explained that, to most people, narrative consists of things that occur in sequence.  Kayt nodded in agreement and I realised that any further argument on my part would merely be seen as further proof of my inherent oddness.

The significance of this moment cannot be over-emphasised. For the last thirty years I’ve been able to express all kinds of ‘odd’ views to my kids and they’ve taken some of these on board and we’ve argued about the rest. I now realise that any notion of parental guidance / influence is a thing of the past in that they are now (more or less) autonomous and have formed the view that my interests may be a little too strange or esoteric for them. This was probably compounded by the fact that I had earlier shown them both passages from ‘The Unconditional’ which was met with quietly amused bewilderment.

This is not to say that my feelings about them have changed. My love for them is absolutely unconditional and I will move heaven and earth to prevent bad things happening to them but there is a sense that the dynamic has changed.  I then began to consider this perceived oddness and whether or not the hours spent with Prynne, Sutherland, Celan, Derrida, Blanchot etc has actually pushed me into a fairly small and obscure corner of the world where debate is only possible with fellow eccentrics who’ve read the same stuff. I’ve decided that this may be the case but I don’t actually care- I’m not going to start engaging with more mainstream stuff because it’s not very interesting and it doesn’t challenge me.

I do need to work on the ‘oddness’ thing- I recognise that I’m attracted to the odd but (I like to think) only if it makes some kind of sense at some level. I also have to recognise that I may need to spend more time giving this oddness context so that it is less likely to be viewed as merely eccentric. This may also entail a greater degree of seriousness on my part but that may be a small price to play- especially if I’m going to escape this kind of marginalisation.

I must point out that this view isn’t confined to my kids. The NHS sends a man around once a week to check on my mood and thinking. This is very useful as he’s a Dorn fan and we can argue about the whole Olson/Dorn/Prynne thing but he does view my adherence to most things Cambridge as wilfully odd.

I’ve spent longer on that than planned so here’s the books not read-

“The Unconditional” by Simon Jarvis. I’ve tried and I’ve written about trying and I’ve even started to take an interest in Jarvis’ criticism but there’s a long way to go. The excellent Timothy Thornton recently described the experience thus “never got through The Unconditional, but can’t stop returning to it somehow” which describes my own experience better than I can. Next year will see me trying to work out the nature of this particular “somehow”.

“The Cantos” by Ezra Pound. My only excuse is that it’s very long and full of stuff that I’ll need to look up. I know that reading Hugh Kenner and the wonderful  Christine Brooke-Rose on Pound isn’t the same and that such an omission is unforgivable but the time required to pay full attention will detract from other stuff and I know that, once started, I’d become more than a little obsessed.

They That Haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets by J H Prynne. The only excuse is that I haven’t been able to find a copy on the web and the second-hand sites that I use don’t list it.
Anything by Wallace Stevens apart from “The Rock” following Jim Kleinhenz’ contribution to arduity. This is again unforgivable and my only excuse is that the Collected has got to the top of the waiting list twice in the last few months but was supplanted by stuff that seemed more urgent.
A guide to The Maximus poems of Charles Olson by George F. Butterick. The reason that this is on the list is that I’m a Maximus obsessive and Butterick makes a point about originality in his introduction and I want to see where he goes with it. The reason for not reading it is that I’m queasy about commentaries and would rather spend time reading the poem.
Anything by Benjamin, Adorno, Hegel, Marx. This is a lie, I have read one essay by Adorno and a couple of essays and a poem by Marx. I also read more about Hegel than was good for me. I read ‘Arcades’ in 2009 and hated it and don’t intend giving Benjamin any more attention ever. Adorno has been avoided for most of the last year but I have this horrid feeling that making sense of Jarvis will involve making some sense of critical theory in the near future…. I remain firm in my intention not to engage with Hegel because life really is too short.

Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England by Blair Warden. I’ve been intending to return to the 17th century for most of this year and this tome is attractive because it’s bound to annoy me and it’s a useful way into reading Nigel Smith’s new biography of Marvell and then Marvell’s prose. This was going to occur when I felt the need of a rest from contemporary stuff- the need has not yet arisen.

This list is not complete but it does contain most of the stuff that I probably should have read. There’s also the list of stuff that I should have written about but that’s going to stay in my head.

Charles Olson and the Maximus Poems

Two months ago the only thing that I knew about Olson was that he had taught Cy Twombly at Black Mountain College in the early fifties and that Twombly had dedicated a painting to him. I then noticed that reference is made to the Maximus Poems on the back of the first Bloodaxe edition of Prynne’s poems. I read a bit more about Olson on the web and bought the Maximus volume edited by George F Butterick and published in 1985.

I have to say that the Maximus experience has been a complete revelation. This is a huge sprawling work centred on the town of Gloucester in Massachusetts and describes the town’s history and its geography in great detail. It has been variously described as ‘an essential poem in the postmodern canon’ and a weak example of  ‘sub-poundian’ verse. I don’t think it’s either of these (by definition you can’t have a postmodern canon  and it certainly isn’t weak) but I do think it’s an entirely honest attempt to write about space in a very original way.

This may not sound like much but space is fascinating and something we give far too little consideration to. Some of the finest writing over the last fifty years has been about what we do with and how we react to where we are (Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Ed Soja). Olson is one of the very few poets to give space its due. He traces the birth and growth of Gloucester both by means of its only industry (fishing) but also records the way that land and buildings were passed on from one generation to the next.

Olson lived in Gloucester and isn’t at all afraid to place himself in the poems. We see him on fishing boats, we see him wandering about the town and its environs, being struck by wonder at the strangeness and majesty of the sea. Someone else has observed that Olsen felt that the past was always present in the present and there are attempts to express this in the poem but what comes across most clearly to me is the celebration of place in all its contexts.

There are some longueurs, I could have done quite so many references to myth although some are quite effective, but the overall effect is a celebration of place. Nearly at the end of my second reading of this epic, I know what it is like to be in Gloucester both now and in the seventeenth century.

What I don’t understand is how this magnificent work has fallen from grace. Olson had his advocates in Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Jeremy Prynne yet ‘Maximus’ seems not to have inspired others to follow suit (with the exception of Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’) in writing spatially. Perhaps that’s because we’re still culturally obsessed with time (one of the things that postmodernism was meant to overcome) or because Olson has become ‘infected’ by the stain of Ezra Pound.

It’s no secret that Olson knew and admired Pound nor is it any secret that Pound was ferociously anti-semitic but the Cantos and the Maximus series (apart from both being long and ambitious) are as different as chalk and cheese both in terms of ‘voice’ and subject matter yet the stain still lingers. The other problem is that the culture we live in has no time for big poetry which takes more than five minutes to read and is layered with meaning – this is our loss as poetry should have space for the ambitious and the majestic.