Tag Archives: john ashbery

Readerly anxiety- a dialogue

I first identified readerly anxiety in something I wrote about the Emily Dorman poems on the Claudius App site and since then have been in correspondence with John Bloomberg-Rissman with a view to thinking more generally about this particular response. The following is an edited record of the discussion thus far:
JA I experience RA as as a number of intellectual variations around the status of what’s in front of me and the shifting nature of what I do when my eyes move across the words. I’ll try and give an example of RA other than the Dorman thing- I fret about both John Ashbery and about Paul Muldoon in that I think I know what they might be about and I recognise their abilities but I am completely at sea when it comes to deciding how I might feel about them. I can also read both as ‘just words’ and find myself often just staring bleakly at the text. This is also an itch that I cannot scratch, I continue to buy the books on publication but no longer open them.
Because I’m self-taught I do become more anxious than I should about the nature of a text- part of me still thinks that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is either a parody or a hoax and I do sometimes feel that I’m missing the ‘point’. Reading Blanchot has helped with this because I find that I need to approach his later material as a child would without any prior notion of context or background- I’m now trying to apply this to poetry that remains beyond my reach.
J B-R I think everyone is self-taught when it comes to contemporary poetry, really. There are no authority figures who can tell us what to do with Kazoo Dreamboats, at least none I believe know any more about the text in front of them than I do … expect perhaps in the sense they’ve spent a lot more time with his texts than I have – as you’ve obviously done with Hill … but that doesn’t mean they can do my reading, have my experience for me. You write “part of me still thinks that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is either a parody or a hoax and I do sometimes feel that I’m missing the ‘point’.” A friend of mine from Nottingham, Alan Baker, told me that Lee Harwood believe that Prynne is entirely a … well, not a fraud, but just uh meaningless air or something. But I can’t believe Harwood, either. I have no reason to “believe” anyone. All I have is who I am and what I know and the text in front of me.
You describe RA as “a number of intellectual variations around the status of what’s in front of me and the shifting nature of what I do when my eyes move across the words”.
I think that describes my own RA as well.
I think there are two “sides” to it. Both are readerly, but one is social and the other is more phenomenological, so to speak. The social side has to do with what you call status. In spite of the “death of the author” I do think authorial intention comes into play (e.g. is this a feminist poem? is this satire?, is this a mashup?, is this to be read as fast as I can or as slowly as I can? etc etc. All of those are authorial or public or community determinations … (for instance, it wasn’t til heard Tom Raworth out loud that I understood how to read him (fast fast fast). The other side is what I’m clumsily calling phenomenological, tho I’m sure there’s a much better word for it. And that’s what am ***I*** doing when I read, that shifting nature thing. Am I looking up words in the dictionary? Am I trying to find a narrative line (narrative used loosely, to mean something like “one words follows another and is tied to it, and the next word is tied to that chain, somehow, etc etc etc, i.e. that the words are syntactically/semantically connected somehow no matter how they first hit me”)? What am I doing with the images? the line breaks? the music?
The anxiety from the social side is easy to understand: am I reading a satire seriously? Am I missing something everyone else in the room so to speak is getting?
The other anxiety is worse, tho. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m reading at all, actually, or whether I’ve turned the poem into some sort of mirror, and am just projecting onto it (what if I’m finding a narrative thread? Am I constructing it out of nothing that’s actually there? What if I’m not finding a narrative thread and there is one?) … the real question is: how do I know whether e.g. narrative [or whatever] is even relevant when I think about this thing in front of me?
This is all a way of saying that when you write, re Prynne, e.g., “I find that I need to approach his later material as a child would” there’s a little voice w/in my saying, even if that brings me to a more satisfying experience, can I call that experience **reading*** – or must I call it something else?
I don’t think Kazoo Dreamboats is a hoax, by the way. I think it was an odd sort of poem to perform at Occupy, surely; I don’t now what people thought, because it’s sure not obvious what he’s “saying”. But when I got my copy I sat down and read the first half-dozen pages without stopping. Did I get it? Depends what “it” is (which is where the anxiety comes in). But I enjoyed the hell out of it, and couldn’t stop marveling at the way each sentence of bit started one place, and ended someplace else, and took me on a journey which was delightful.
I’m reading a book about Sherrie Levine right now and came across a bit I want to quote. But first a little background. Clement Greenberg and then Michael Fried attempted to define modernism as a “space” in which each art was true to its own inner necessities; it was a failure of some kind when one art made use of a technique or an aspect of another art. Fried called this impurity “theatricality” and saw it as a real negative. (I’m simplifying to the point that I’m losing all the subtlety and interest of their arguments, so I’ll quote Fried a little to be fairer: “the concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself – are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theatre” …). In any case, a bit later Rosalind Krauss wrote a piece called “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. The author of the book I’m reading (Howard Singerman) suggests, “Her ‘expanded field’ maps out and articulates that frighteningly unjudgeable space **between** the arts – and perhaps between art and criticism – that Fried dismissed as theater.”
When I read “that frighteningly unjudgeable space” I immediately thought of RA and began to wonder – maybe RA is the only truly appropriate response to art now. Maybe a Greenberg/Fried kind of purity that will enable us to categorize/assimilate/”get comfortable with” the kind of poetry we’re discussing is over. Maybe that was modernism. Maybe we’re somewhere else now. Maybe the problem with trying, e.g. to classify Kazoo Dreamboats is the attempt to read it as a modernist poem. Maybe it, and Ashbery, and Muldoon, and Hill, and Anne Boyer (nice post, by the way) etc etc etc are all working in “that frighteningly unjudgeable space” and we simply have to live with anxiety of not KNOWING – which is different than not reading, of course. As Thomas Pynchon wrote at the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow: “It’s all theatre” … [tho not quite in Fried’s sense of the between or bastardized, except to note that we are “always already” between …]
JA I think there is a case for thinking that we are somewhere else now and one of the things that might concern me is that RA might be not the appropriate response but the only response of any kind that can be made. I’m also coming to the view that this might be more about what’s happening to the act of reading than about the material and much more about the ‘figure’ of the reader in the wider scheme of things.
A further thought is that elements of RA have been addressed by poets down the ages. I’ve just spent the afternoon in the 16th century and this got me to thinking about EK’s commentary or gloss on the Shepherd’s Calendar whereby Spenser placates anxiety by providing some context and also manages to draw attention to his many gifts. David Jones’ notes to ‘The Anathemata’ are extremely detailed as if to compensate for the complexity and obscurity of the text.
One of the things that it beginning to help is to try and widen the frame to think about the ‘work’ in a wider and perhaps less cultural context as in (for example) the place of reading poetry in the national psyche or the relationship between the teaching of expression (and the ways in which this is funded and marketed), the production of expression and its consumption more in the style of Bruno Latour than Derrida or Fish.
The final thought for this evening is the nature of the value of RA and whether it can be the itch that can be productively scratched. I like to think that my recent experience has kick-started a process of different modes of reading (as a child, as a writer, as a mentor etc etc) which might just make the ‘unjudgeable space’ a bit more bearable.
J B-R Maybe we readers are catching up with the kind of dark ecology / black metal nihilism that the speculative realist philosophers like Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Nicola Masciandaro, Reza Negerastani etc have been working with the last few years. I mean, if “god is dead” then all values have to be created – by us … something like that. [And we’re too hip to believe ourselfes, our self-created values] Question: where did you find Readerly Anxiety in Blanchot? I’d like to read that.
Some material makes us more anxious than other material. I think we do still have culture that appears to cohere (even if it’s only running on fumes and momentum ..) so a kind of writing that “looks normal” allows us to play readerly games we already know how to play … of course keeping our anxiety tamped down some.
I agree with you that RA may be the only response that can be made although I’m not sure that we want to make the “unjudgeable space” bearable. I think we want to bear its unbearableness, so to speak. It seems honorable, if I can still use a term like that.
JA I’m really struck by your notion of honourably bearing the unbearable- this resonates with me on quite a deep level because I think I feel the need for a way to be within RA rather than to try and struggle outside it.
The other thing that strikes me is that Prynne might be right and it is the reader’s view/response that matters then RA becomes a creative force for change, even if that entails more than a degree of Brassier’s blend of activism- which could be what’s required in the poetic networks in which we ‘operate’.
I don’t want to get hung up on the Latour/Derrida thing because I think they both point in the right direction, I just feel that I can do more with Latour. Hardcore Blanchot is to be found in the utterly brilliant ‘Writing the Disaster’ which (for me) sets out some of this territory.
J B-R I too think we need to be within RA rather than to struggle to get outside it. As far as I can tell, there is only one type of person today that has no RA, so to speak, and those are the types who have an absolute book [whether scripture or capital or race or nationality or …] to do their thinking for them, to ground their being – a grand récit; the rest of us aren’t so lucky (or unlucky, rather) (no, or lucky).
I think that to be within RA is to be within a state of negative capability. But not quite Keats’. I’m sure you recall his slightly sexist definition: when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason. I only repeat it here to emphasize the “without any irritable reaching” bit. I think that’s what problematic …
I’ll take myself as example. Last nite I picked up the Blanchot and found myself “irritably reaching” – I, like the translator, wanted to pin ‘the disaster’ to B’s “The Death Sentence” – which would, of course, remove my irritable reaching, as I’d then know what the “disaster” is. Which would, of course, also destroy the power of the text, which demands RA, utterly (in the most utterly utterly meaning of utterly) demands it, is nothing without it.
I think that irritable reaching is a difficulty we don’t want to transcend.
I’ll get back to the Prynne notion of reading in a second, but I want to note that I believe that RA and negative capability (with irritable reaching – reaching without grasping) and Derrida’s différance all point us in the same direction.
Re: Prynne: yes, I think that “the reader’s view/response … matters”, but that’s only part of the story. After all, all responses are not equal.* There is a text that we must face (honorably). Which would mean, I think that we can’t privilege our role in the process as a palliative for our RA.
*What I mean is e.g. a reading of the disaster text that simply substituted “death sentence” for “disaster” would be a less honorable (worse) reading that one in which I “stay irritable” if need be in order to remain in RA.
It suddenly occurs to me that Socrates thought his wisdom was based in his knowledge that he knew nothing. But he always seemed a little too proud of the fact, a little too smug, for me. It’s as if he treated that knowledge the way the folks above treat their base text. We don’t even have that “knowing we know nothing” to fall back upon.
You write: “RA becomes a creative force for change, even if that entails more than a degree of Brassier’s blend of activism- which could be what’s required in the poetic networks in which we ‘operate’.” I’m very interested in this notion. I’d like you to elaborate on it. What kind of change are we talking about? How is RA instrumental?
Which is another way of asking: if poetry (writing it or reading it) changes anything, what does it change and how does it do it? I think that’s a question that [almost] torments me …

(There is more of this discussion but I’m going to leave it there for now to see if it strikes a chord with others. I hope the above makes clear that both John and I experience RA as something real and almost tangible and that the response would seem to be the development / deployment of ‘honourable’ reading.)

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.

Reading ‘Difficult’ Poetry with Success. Prynne, Hill and David Jones.

“The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case
I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean?”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition
for successful reading.”

But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, not ready at all to
This leaving out business. On it hinges the very importance
of what's novel.
Or autocratic, or dense, or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall

The first of these is from J H Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears’ and the second is from John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’ which was published in ‘Rivers and Mountains’ in 1966 and both appear to be saying the same thing. So, if two of the most important poets of the last fifty years have this lack of interest in the quest for meaning, what might a successful reading look like?

For me, ‘successful’ relates to feeling satisfied by the act of reading and this usually involves giving attention to a poem or part of a poem. It is the way I feel about reading attentively that is the marker for me. There are some contemporary innovative poets who produce work that doesn’t involve me, that doesn’t (for a variety of reasons) retain either my interest or attention. This is not to suggest that this work is inferior – it’s just that I’m not interested in it.

The problem of meaning (which used to concern me) is only one aspect of readerly attention/involvement and working out meaning tends to be a by-product of doing other things and being involved in other ways. I’m going to use the above poets to try and illustrate what I mean by this and how ‘success’ can occur in other ways.

Prynne is a good place to start and I’m currently paying attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ because it seems to mark a significant ‘turn’ in his output and because I find it compelling. The first reward that I get is in responding to the challenge which, for me, is altering the way that I absorb information. Prynne’s work demands a less linear (for the want of a better word) kind of attention and requires this adjustment to be made before reading rather than after. I like this because I can do it and I find doing it utterly absorbing. I’ve also found that I can apply this kind of attention to other things unrelated to either poetry or reading.

This is one of the shorter paragraphs from ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’:

                                       Can this be or was it moreover
for this incision in dropsy yes not ventral not assented sold OUT
in mere song-like retrieval, give way with no-name in appearance
decking as a whirling swarm of gnats is soft summer sun at the
edge of the outward forest, infolded not time after time still less
perpetual by false appearance which is the true-fast semblance of
falsity, indued and ever-doubtful. Our morning hymn this is, and
song at evening echo confuted by shared antagonism, implicit not
by next coming-to-be as the world is transformed in feature full
of folk saying what is it not, time-locked against spokes in the cycle
of saying so. Indicative ridiculous also, won't you come home
Bill Bailey before a toast and tea, scumbags! reptiles! the old folks
just better stay at home or lose their reason too, mine and yours
loaned against non-interest, souls implanted by necessity smooth
turning upon an axle you'd not know was not granted its near life
to be there, on-site in foam, I saw no less than these things
right up on the peremptory shore line.

I’ve quoted this at length because I can now show different kinds of involvement. The first of these is about identifying the individual phrases and working out what they might be doing. The first phrase asks a question which then appears to be answered with some qualification. This process is less arduous here than it is for most of the more recent Prynne, this seems to be making an effort towards greater coherence but there are still challenges – deciding what the Bill Bailey and old folks at home references are doing is something that would need a different kind of involvement (checking song lyrics) than the rest. For me, the most satisfying part is engaging with the way that some phrases point in a number of different directions at once and then trying to apply these to the whole. This passage contains these that are crying out for this kind of involvement;

  • incision in dropsy;
  • mere song-like retrieval;
  • appearance decking;
  • the outward forest;
  • true-fast semblance;
  • song at evening echo confuted;
  • spokes in the cycle of saying so;
  • souls implanted by necessity;
  • on-site in foam;
  • peremptory shore line.

Some of this involves looking at secondary word meanings and derivations, checking how each of these might relate to what’s going on around them and (in this work) bearing in mind the ‘reference cues’ printed at the end. All of this is absorbing and rewarding because it is possible to gain a sense of progress and some insight into other ways of thinking generally and doing poetry in particular. I must also mention the feeling of success that I get when I begin to grasp the structure and direction of the whole.

It is also important to stress that meaning comes way down on the list, I’m very comfortable in not knowing what ‘this’ and ‘it’ refer to in the first paragraph and accept that this will only be made clearer by the kind of attention that I’ve just described.

A successful reading of Geoffrey Hill doesn’t have the same qualities but it still requires attention and involvement. My first encounter with Hill was reading the first few pages of Comus on the bus on the way to work and realising that this was a poet who was confident in his abilities and quite precise in what he had to say. This gives the reader a feeling of security – as if she or he is in safe hands. Success with Hill works on two levels, responding to what he says and considering the way that he says it. I occasionally try to write poetry and therefore have an interest in the practice and technique of those that I admire. One element of success with Hill is evaluating his technique and assessing whether the poem is both technically efficient and beautiful- his criteria, not mine. Success comes when I feel that I’ve made a reasonable assessment. Some of this doesn’t take long, ‘Oraclau’ is obviously less than technically efficient and this gets in the way of what Hill might be trying to say. Other judgements are more nuanced, I wouldn’t have addressed my critics from within ‘The Triumph of Love’ but that doesn’t stop it from being a brilliant piece of work. I admire ‘Clavics’ more than I did when it was published but I’m still not sure about the use of patterns. So, successful reading as a practitioner in the case of Hill is wanting and being able to continue to think about technique and tactics.

I’ve said before that I don’t have any kind of faith and that Hill and I occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. I don’t feel challenged by his high Anglicanism nor by his odd brand of ‘hierarchical’ Toryism because both are wrong in the sense of being factually incorrect so success here is not about being challenged about my beliefs and prejudices but is more about what poetry can and should do. In general terms I agree with Hill about poetry and about literature and I like the way that he reads. Success here is about being able to place myself in the hands of a fellow traveller who knows far more than I about the things that interest me.

The sense of success that I get from reading Hill comes from this complex sense of identification and/or comparison which usually leads to other things. To give a recent example, reading ‘Clavics’ and Hill’s identification with Yeats has led me to look again at his work.

I’ve written before about the challenges presented by ‘The Anathemata’ and success here is more about throwing yourself into what’s been said and trying to get hold of the extent of Jones’ ambition. As with the work of Prynne, engagement is more about the way in which language is used and the variations in those techniques issues of meaning take a secondary place. In his introduction Jones indicates his intention to set out his personal cultural background and interests in poetic form so we have the Roman Catholic faith, Welshness, London, the Roman empire, prehistory and seafaring as well as material from various chronicles and romances.

Success with Jones works on two levels, the ability to immerse yourself in what is being said and the extent of your willingness to explore further some of the issues and subjects covered. I like to think that I succeed by the first criterion in that I can now, with the help of the notes, follow the flow of the poetry and visualise most of what is described. I have however ‘failed’ on the second standard in that after the first couple of readings I resolved to know more about Catholic liturgy as well as Welshness. I have the books sitting on my hard drive but have yet to look at any of them.

I think what I’m trying to say about all three of these ‘difficult’ practitioners is that successful reading starts with a degree of acceptance of them on their own terms and being interested in how those terms are involved in the poetry making rather than being primarily concerned with either meaning or intention.

Is poetry too poetic?

I come to this in wavering mode. On the one hand it can (and is about to be) argued that poetry is the main problem with poetry just as politics is the main problem with politics. On the other hand I can point to the work of some of our younger poets (particularly Timothy Thornton and Francesca Lisette) as examples of really strong poetic poets who are moving the form in new and exciting directions.

I need to clarify what I mean by the nature of the problem. The first issue is introspection and the sad fact that most poems a written in and from aspects of poetic lineage. We are all guilty of this, I have spent many years attempting to write in a similar fashion to poets that I admire because I think this is a good way to do poetry and also because I like to think that I ‘get’ what they are about. The second issue relates to what I think of as the heightened language problem. It is absolutely correct to say that poetry in a variety of ways concentrates, refines, energises and thus heightens our language practice but I am concerned that there is too much heightening going on.

Poetry that plainly says what needs to be said.

I’m going to start with a quote from George Herbert because it’s what reminded me of the current poetry problem and because it gives me an opportunity to identify contemporary poets who make matters worse. This is the first verse of ‘Jordan’:

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?
Is all good structure in a winding stair? May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

I would argue that the problem is best exemplified by the ‘false hair’, the ‘winding stair’ and the ‘painted chair’. The first time I read these lines I thought of Prynne’s austerity and his stated aim to say how things are and then I realised that he’s frequently guilty of creating a winding stair. In fact it’s the complexities of the stair that I find so compelling. Then I recalled those moments where the austerity is ruptured by false hair moments. ‘To Pollen’ is mostly unlyrical in that the phrases are blunt and completely without heightening. The third poem in the sequence ends with “Stand nearby went off its oil trap refined” which just isn’t poetic. The twentieth poem however has:

will explain how that works, how bravery is planted
in a celestial soil like dust that we are

and ends with:

for good cheer brave hearts never in vain as under
starry skies commit acts of stupendous cocky turpitude.

The first of these is a bitter and sarcastic quote of what the clergy say about warfare whilst the second undermines the lyrical description of our soldiers with the last three words, especially ‘cocky’ which is almost anti-poetic.

I’m ready to concede that Prynne is a special case in all kinds of ways and that the above two examples (ruptures which are intended to take our breath away) can be seen as attacks on Herbert’s false hair but I wonder whether their cleverness can be seen as part of the winding stair. Prynne does all kinds of winding stairs, he does radical ambiguity, he does secondary and tertiary meanings, he does obscure references all of which might appear at variance with his desire to say how things are.

Poetry made with false hair.

I’m guessing that this extract from Simon Jarvis’ F0 is what Herbert had in mind:

The grey shades fall across the lintel and the steppes of lack still roll their perfect carpet out
Not like something upon which it is death to tread rather like some death which we are to be and to tread.
The sun is still felt to go down as this planet spins over it
No less lit when it turns away
Than is this inside
No darker or lighter than a thought.

There’s the poetic twists of the first line (‘shades fall’, steppes of lack’) followed by the repetition ruse in the second and the mannered syntax and distorted perspective of the last four. I speak as fan of Jarvis and consider him to be one of our most accomplished poets but I think this, by being too poetic, is the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad name.

On this theme, it is widely acknowledged that nobody does the English landscape as well as Geoffrey Hill, this is conceded even by those who dislike the rest of his output. It is therefore of some note that Hill is at his most poetic (and playing with false hairs) in this particular mode. This is the beginning of “In Ipsley Church Lane 2”:

Sage green through olive to oxidised copper
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossoms come off in handfuls - the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown. Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog.

As poetry this is very accomplished and poetic (‘rainward’, drizzle shaking itself etc) with a lyricism that’s at odds with the rougher speech and language struggles that occur in his less popular and more challenging work. This, I feel, tells us a lot about what many critics and readers expect from poetry, that it should have false hair and embellish rather than heighten language.

The Dogme interlude.

(Bear with me, this does make a kind of sense.)

Last night I was watching the Mark Cousins thing on the history of film and he was interviewing Lars von Trier. Lars was explaining what he did with the camera in ‘Breaking the Waves’ and Cousins remarked that Godard did something similar in the early sixties. Lars smiled at this and gently explains that Godard was/is still caught up in the cinematic tradition of making film whereas he wanted to get rid of all that.

The point is that those who do poetry perhaps need to get rid of all that as well. It’s interesting that at Dogme hq there is Dreyer’s editing desk and perhaps poets and critics should take a look at “The Passion of Joan of Arc’ to be reminded of just how much can be done with less.

I’ve never been keen on Dogme because I’m not keen on artificial constraints but some ‘rules’ might be helpful in solving the poetry problem or at least in beginning to think about the problem.

The Stress Position Dither.

As I’ve already said there’s a degree of wavering in my head on this because of the brilliance of some of the poetic and lyrical stuff currently being written. There’s also the problem presented by the first part of Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ which is written in metrical 7 line stanzas. The poem as a whole is a searing indictment of the dismal Iraq fiasco in general and the use of torture in particular. This is one of the stanzas:

   Wash your mouth, the rustle of sweetened Diyala inflected by affix
FACE 2, affix CONE GUTS 6, the life you rifle down
battering the slash of blood in procrustean sewage, never bespoke
free karaoke? The revolving door that leads to the emerald
has seven doors and seven plates of glass, the man who pushes
it round, who pushes the push bars, who pushes the meaning onward
himself is the spicy diglyceride, pre-cum for oil and water.

Regular readers will know that I’m a great fan of ‘Stress Position’ and consider it to be one of the best achievements in the last twenty five years. I also recognise that the above containsseveral examples of what I’m trying to identify as the problem. There’s the mannered use of words and phrases (‘rustle’, ‘procrustean sewage’ etc), the faux portentousness of revolving doors and the meaning being pushed onward and the repetition of ‘push’ are all tricks of the trade that we could do without.

The dither kicks in when I can recognise the inherent value of the work as a whole and can recognise why the first part is constructed in this way yet feel (uneasily) that the deployment of the poetic bag of tricks is very bad for the future of poetry in the current scheme of things. The other bit of wavering with regard to ‘Stress Position’ is my minority view that the prose section depicting a wedding reception is the most successful and effective part of the work.

John Ashbery and the Winding Stair.

Unlike George Herbert, I don’t have that much of a problem with the ‘winding stair’ and would argue that most ‘good structure’ is in the intelligent and subtle use of form and language. I do however worry about the ongoing influence of Ashbery on both sides of the Atlantic because I feel that his work epitomises what Herbert was trying to get at. I’m going to be glib and suggest that Ashbery is the current poet of the chattering classes, lauded in the quality press and taught extensively in North America and the UK. I remain a great admirer of Ashbery’s earlier work and of the effort that he has put in to champion other poets. It doen’t take a lot of attentive reading to come to the conclusion that most of his later work is fairly self-regarding and repetitive as if Ashbery has found his own winding stair, is sticking to it and wants us all to admire it. I accept that Ashbery can do this because he is John Ashbery and has the absolute right not to care about wider issues. I also feel that, given his ‘profile’ that this kind of stuff is very, very bad for poetry.

The Painted Chair and the Truth

For Herbert, God was the truth, his poems ends with ‘My God, My King!’ as an example of all that plain poetry needs to say. This may be entirely sufficient for religious poetry but doesn’t tally with the situation of poetry today. I would argue that poetry will only survive, other than as a niche for academics and hobbyists, if it challenges, disturbs and confronts our comfortable notions of the truth. The most successful poems that I have read in the ‘challenge and disturb’ department attempt tp say truthful things about difficult subjects- J H Prynne on the ‘Troubles’ Vanessa Place on rape and the nature of evidence and Keston Sutherland on the sexual identities of children. These are disturbing because none of them, as subjects, have easy solutions and the poets do not pretend to provide answers to the challenges that they provoke.

Reading and re-reading ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’, ‘Statement of Facts’ and the yet-to-be-published ‘Odes’ is a disturbing experience but also one that has convinced me that this is the kind of relentlessly honest poetry that must survive and flourish.

Poetic difficulties

Looking back over the last eighteen months I’ve become a bit of a ‘difficulty’ snob. There have been times when I haven’t read something because it seemed insufficiently obdurate. Writing some of the content for Arduity has helped to maintain this stance which isn’t terribly productive. This does not mean that I’m going to spend the rest of my life reading Fleur Adcock and Anne Stevenson but I does hopefully mean that I’m going to be a bit more tolerant of those poems that say straightforward things in fairly direct ways.
This has led me to think a bit more about difficulty in poetry and especially what I would describe as ‘cognitive’ difficulty. It seems to me that people describe poetry that resists interpretation as difficult but there’s also subject matter that can be difficult to read. The wedding reception scene in ‘Stress Position’ is difficult for me because it is an accurate description of an aspect of mental illness that I have experienced. The detailing of rapes in Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is particularly grueling because of the objective way that terrible events are written about.
The there’s the difficulty presented by the use of proper nouns and foreign phrases. Geoffrey Hill, John Matthias and David Jones are the biggest culprits in this department and it is only with the advent of the internet that some of this stuff becomes reasonably accessible – I’m thinking of ‘The Anathemata’ in particular.
Straightforward difficulty, the kind that thrives on ambiguity and allusion, has been written about at length on this blog with particular focus on Prynne, Hill, Sutherland and Celan. I’ve been a bit carried away with notions of meaning and intention and this is certainly satisfying but I want to turn my attention now to those things that are physically difficult to read, those things that are presented in a way that deliberately challenges our reading practices.
I’ve alluded to this in the past with regard to Keston Sutherland and I now want to contrast this with John Ashbery but first I’d like to explain the background to this. Following a recent George Steiner review in the TLS, I felt goaded into re-reading Richard Rorty on Derrida primarily to check out one of Steiner’s more sweeping generalisations. This was mainly about ‘The Post Card’ but also described ‘Glas’ as “unreadable”. So, I then looked at the first few pages of ‘Glas’ and realised that Rorty was referring to the fact that the text is divided into three or two columns with the intention that we should work out the relationship between each. I then recalled something similar going on with text, spoken word and image in Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’ which also deliberately makes things difficult for us.
As I’ve said in a previous post, Jacket2 are featuring Erica Baum whose ‘Dog Ear’ can be said to be cognitively difficult in that we can’t see all the words and they also have Hannah Weiner’s “The Book of Revelations” which also ‘hides’ parts of words and phrases. I’d never come across Weiner before and I will be writing about her stuff in more detail in the near future. Incidentally, the Jacket2 site now has an index page which makes things much, much clearer, I still don’t understand why they didn’t think about usability prior to launch.
Keston Sutherland’s “The Proxy Humanity of Forklifts” has a long prose section which is punctuated by numbers like this:

“……it was in that case the point of that different from nothing sixteen point three I was out for no points seventeen point eight dead eighteen eaten nineteen if uneaten twenty if not fucked twenty one point four eight if a can on seeing only that denied me twenty two point one four one…..”

This is a short extract from a much longer section but it does illustrate this particular kind of difficulty which comes from not knowing how to follow the numbers sequence and the ‘sense’ of the text at the same time and whether the effort required to do this will be worthwhile. There’s also the ambiguous use of some terms, is ‘points’ in “out for no points” to be read as part of the text or is it some kind of bridge to the numerical sequence?
Then we come to John Ashbery- “Litany” is a long poem first published in the “As We Know” collection in 1979. “Litany” starts with this author’s note: “The two columns of “Litany” are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues.” This of course throws down a gauntlet to the attentive reader- how can we grasp this simultaneity when we can physically only read one thing at a time? The poem itself isn’t much help, these are the first two stanzas from the left hand page:

For someone like me
The simple things
Like having toast or
Going to church are
Kept in one place.

Like having wine and cheese.
The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The
Snapdragons consumed in a wind
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end.

And this is the first two stanzas from the right hand page:

So this must be a hole
Of cloud
Mandate or trap
But haze that casts
The milk of enchantment

Over the whole town,
Its scenery,whatever
Could be happening
Behind tall hedges
Of dark, lissome knowledge

I’m not about to undertake a lengthy exposition of either of these poems but I would like to point out that they are doing the same thing in presenting us with a set of words that are difficult to get hold of and present an additional barrier before we can begin to make some kind of sense. I’ve made the observation before that Sutherland does seem to go in for a kind of deliberate damage but Ashbery (after Skaters) has always appeared too mannered for his own good. So the question would appear to be- is this stuff worth persevering with or should we, like Rorty, simply consign it to the ‘unreadable’ bin?