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Rhyme: Simon Jarvis, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon

I seem to reading a lot of rhyme these days but I’m still trying to get my brain around why some of it ‘works’ and some falls flat on its face. This last category is perhaps best exemplified by Geoffrey Hill’s Oraclau whilst the most effective, to my ear at least is Simon Jarvis’ Night Office with Muldoon somewhere in between.

I’m not going to use Oraclau here but focus instead on Liber Illustrium Virorum, another of the Day Books because bits of it appear to rhyme and others seem to wave in the direction of rhyme but fall short. This isn’t a lit crit exercise, I haven’t re-read Jarvis on rhyme but I do recall what he and Rowan Williams said about it at the launch of Night Office last year. Paul Muldoon is included in this primarily because I think that he’s technically very gifted and he rhymes well, whatever that might mean.

We’ll start with Night Office:


I may know rest and let a sweet surrender
drug my light eyelids so I fall and drift
up to cool uplands where exhaustions tender
miraculous oblivions which sift
sharp pangs & terrors to the sink then render
each back to me allegorized, or lift
my worst thoughts up transfigured till I see them
like inaccessible retreats or flee them

to those cisalpine cantons whose hid peaks
for once escape clouds; yet their high pavilions
are just too distant to be clear : each speaks
in shepherd-emperors whose armed civilians
sing hymns from fields where chequered light's leaped freaks
sport, flit & glitter there; these equal millions
distribute needed bread with the champagne
to every citizen whose real pain

is salved & tended, & whose sorrows darken
just for one instant on the meadow, since
in this high kingdom every empress hearkens
to all her fellow-regents. I may rinse
in these long lakes whatever stain dishearten
my every gesture. To the east of Linz
there rise more ranges. Then I will wake up.
The milk, the tea, the table and the cup.

Now is probably a good time to recap on the Jarvis project which seems to be about demonstrating that constraints, like rhyme and metre, can enhance poems that ‘do’ philosophy. There is a lecture somewhere on the interweb where he uses Pope’s Essay on man to make this point. The relevant observation from the launch was Simon’s agreement with Rowan Williams that the rhyme constraint dictates the poem’s direction of travel.

As a reader of poetry I’ve spent most of the last forty years being against rhyme because:

  • I don’t see how it can be more effective than less restrictive forms at saying complex things;
  • I think the majority of rhyming verse is too close to song;
  • when a rhyme fails it fails really badly;
  • when I’m reading a poem that rhymes I’m more conscious of the rhyme rather than the sense;
  • deep down, against my new man instincts, I think rhyme is effeminate.

Obviously the last of these, which I’ve only just recognised, has no bearing on reality and is exclusively my problem. The other three however I can make a decent stab of defending / justifying. The first prejudice is now beginning to soften because Night Office does some very complex things indeed and because I recognise that the Spenserian stanza (which rhymes) does many complicated things, including an accomplished piece of philosophising.

With regard to the above, I’m of the view that it works, that it manages to avoid the proximity to song, there are no rhymes that fail and I am reading for the sense, even when reading aloud. What I think is also worth noting is that this is immensely readable, I don’t find myself becoming furrowed of brow when attending to Night Office because the syntax used is much closer to conversational speech than most works in the late modern vein.

I first realised that I may need to modify the rhyme position in 20o6 when reading Paul Muldoon’s The Old Country from his Horse Latitudes collection. I’ve always been intrigued by Muldoon’s work because it manages to enthrall and annoy me at the same time. The Old Country is a sequence of thirteen poems each with two four line stanzas followed by two with three lines. These two are from the middle of the sequence:


VI
    
Every slope was a slippery slope
Where every shave was a very close shave
and money was money for old rope
where every grave was a watery grave

now every boat was, again, a burned boat
Every dime-a-dozen rat a dime-a-dozen drowned rat
except for the whitrack or stoat,
which the very Norsemen had down pat

as a weasel word
though we know there speech was rather slurred.
Every time was time in the nick

just as every nick was a nick in time.
Every unsheathed sword was somehow sheathed in rime.
Every cut was a cut to the quick.

VII

Every cut was a cut to the quick
what with every feather a feather to ruffle
Every whitrack was a witterick.
Every one was ina right kerfuffle

when from his hob some hobbledehoy
would venture the witterick was a curlew.
Every wall was a wall of Troy
and every hunt a hunt in the purlieu

of a demesne so out of bounds
every hound might have been a hellhound.
At every lane end stood a milk churn

whose every dent was a sign of indenture
to some pig wormer or cattle drencher.
Every point was a point of no return.

I’m taking it that this particular old country is Ulster and what is captured throughout this sequence is a portrait of and an oblique comment on a particularly grim mentality forged during the ‘Troubles’. That aside, i’m of the view that this is anexample of what rhyme can do to add another level of meaning to something that’s already complex. As a reader, I’m very aware of the rhyme and the rhyming scheme but I’m also wrapped up in the way that this seems to be an essential part of the meaning, an underpinning of the wry commentary on these stock phrases. In this sequence Muldoon manages to make the (very) difficult look and feel gloriously easy and this has the effect of drawing the reader in to a particular way of reading. It’s poems like this that enable me to tolerate some of his more glaring self-indulgences.

Speaking of which, we now come to the enigma that is the late work of Sir Geoffrey Hill. In The Daybooks he makes shape poems and he uses half-rhymes, some of which work and some of which don’t. At this juncture I have to point out the Bebrowed view that Hill can write anything that he wants of whatever quality simply because of Mercian Hymns and The Triumph of Love which are two of the towering works of the last fifty years. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the variations in quality that seem to run through these late works. As an illustration, this is the first poem in the Liber Illustrium Verborum sequence:

                         I
Medusas, basilisks, dragons in fens,
Eternal in their demands. Dragon's teeth
I have learned use of, with Coriolan's
Oliviousness also a plundered myth;
Determination of necessity;
Past recklessness in bruised misreckoning;
That blazed Yeatsian thing
Of savage joy.
The reed lake; wintering
Wild geese a-clang
Phenomenon darkens
The comprehension of its vanes,
Lividness in fettle. Something unclear
Scales the escarpment of this eightieth year,
Pray's the child's terrified
Comfort of bed.
Who is best able to
Choose whom to fable to,
Horse a way on a laugh,
Prance equity,
Appear both ends of the school photograph?

Given that all the poems in this sequence look the same, I’m taking them as shape poems in the shape (as with the first parts of the Clavics poems) of a key. Of course this is a tentative view taken without attending to most of the sequence but it will do for now. I also recognise that there’s a greater amount of verbal invention and dexterity than some of the already published Daybooks but we still have this odd mix of full rhymes and rhymes that rely on the sound of the final consonant. I’ve had several goes at reading this aloud and, to my ear, the constraints imposed on the first half get in the way of the sense rather than complementing it and this is only reversed in the last five lines of ‘full’ rhyme. This is a pity because the sense seems to mark out a more muscular and verbally clever poet.

In conclusion, I think this would seem to be an example of how constraint can hinder rather than enhance the experience of paying attention to the poem. Incidentally the full rhyme of the last five lines is not featured in the poems that follow.

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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.)

Hill, Jarvis, Muldoon and rhyme.

I’m about to announce a bit of a conversion but I need to give some background first.  In 2010 Geoffrey Hill produced “Oraclau |  Oracles”,  Simon Jarvis produced “Erlkonig” and “Dinner” whilst Paul Muldoon published “Maggott”.  Much to my surprise, “Oraclau” uses rhyme and does so in a perplexing way, the Jarvis poems rhyme (which is less surprising) whilst Muldoon is known, at least in my head, for flaunting his ability in this department.

At some stage during December, I came across an essay by Jarvis entitled “Why rhyme pleases” which some kind soul had uploaded to the AAAAARG site (which now contains an impressive collection of his criticism) and have now read it.

Since early adolescence I’ve been against rhyme for personal reasons and also because it seems to trivialise the materialise the material in bringing it too close to song.  Reading “Oraclau” has provoked a mixed response in me. The rhymes Hill uses are, for the most part, half rhymes functioning as a nod in the direction of ‘like sounds’ but not quite getting there. The overall theme is clear enough (Hill’s Welsh ancestry and most things Welsh) as is the structure (144 nine-line stanzas, some of which form longer (and titled) poems. The “voice” is clearly Hill’s and there is less God than usual but the rhymes don’t seem to work and in some cases operate against the sense of what’s being said (being Hill, this could be the point).

Jarvis uses rhyme in some parts of the defiantly metrical “The Unconditional” so it’s not surprising that the two subsequent and shorter poems should use it throughout. I’m less impressed with “Dinner” than I am with “Erlkonig” although they are meant to be related.  This may be due to insufficient attention on my part so I’ll read it a few more times before arriving at a view.

So, I decided that I needed to take rhyme a bit more seriously and then recalled a Muldoon Poem called “The Old Country” from ‘Horse Latitudes’ which I found impressive and read this again.  I wasn’t entirely clear why this particular poem should ‘work’ for me in a way that most rhyming verse doesn’t but the re-reading confirmed my initial reaction.

Simon Jarvis is a man on a mission, the UK’s major hardcore advocate of prosody in all its forms and someone who is clearly not afraid to reinforce his critical argument in his poetry. He also writes very well – even when he’s wrong. “Why rhyme pleases” operates on several levels, Jarvis starts with 18th century critics of rhyme – “Yet rhyme is also a toy, a bawble, a gewgaw, a trifle; it jingles, it tinkles, it rattles and babbles. In short, it is something of absolutely no importance whatever, which must therefore be destroyed without further delay, because it is so deeply evil”. The “deeply evil” aspect is attributed to the protestant view of rhyme as essentially papist. This is juxtaposed with an extended paraphrase of Viktor Zhirmunksy’s untranslated ‘Rhyme: its history and theory’ published in 1923 and described by Jarvis as the most important book on rhyme that has ever been written. Both Prynne and Zhirmunksy are cited as critics who view rhyme as something that either stimulates or cocoons- a view that Jarvis wishes to dispel. He sets out his stall by invoking Adorno in stating that

….technique is the way art thinks. The second is the argument that art thinks historically, and that what it knows, when it thinks well, is natural-historical experience. So called ‘form’ becomes in Adorno’s account a kind of inexplicit mimesis, a mimesis which is not of individual objects in the world, but of those features of natural-historical experience which are at once the most elusive and amongst the most important: of structural shifts in the texture of experience itself which are too painful, or too blissful, directly to be thematized. No art is about itself. So technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff.

I must confess that I have yet to read ‘Aesthetic Theory’ but my usual response to Adorno is one of unabiding scepticism. Nevertheless the idea that art uses its technique to ‘think’ is impressive- leaving aside the question of how something as abstract as art can be said to think at all and whether you really can have form as a ‘mimesis’ of ‘structural shifts in the texture of experience itself’.
Jarvis quotes Prynne’s ‘Ariestas, in Seven Years’ to make a point about the differing ways that rhyme might be identified. He then looks at the way rhymes by Wallace Stevens and Louis Aragon have been viewed by critics before looking at detail at a longish passage from Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ in which he equates Pope’s virtuosity with Barthes’ description of the seduction of the unknown reader.
For me rhyme only works when it doesn’t get in the way of the poem. I find that when I’m reading some poems that rhyme I tend to scan ahead looking for the rhyme words/sounds which is very distracting and reduces any pleasure I might get from the verse.
I’d now like to compare the use of rhyme in these three poets to indicate why rhyme is beginning to please me and also to point out my ongoing concerns about the Jarvis argument.
Here’s the first two stanzas from the ‘Hiraeth’ sequence in ‘Oraclau’:

119: Hiraeth (1)
I would do gratefully what others claim
They could not: relive my adolescence
If I were granted a special licence
To learn Welsh and love you. Great shame
I cannot speak or sing
This language of my late awakening
Nor ask you pardon, Beloved, nor bring
You, my bride into the feasting house
Of first desire, dazed by your wedding dress

120: Hiraeth (II)
Tell me, what is my sense of abiding.
Ah, love, are we to labour over these
Mechanic etymologies
Who encountered blank forbidding
Before we gave much thought
To language – touching was vivid sight
Our fingers talked, we were illiterate.
Abide does not hit home as does inure:
I who have swum in love words, shore to shore!

(In each stanza lines three and four should be indented by two characters and line five should be indented by six characters.)
I recognise that this requires a much fuller read than the one it’s about to get but I want to use it to demonstrate the problem that I have with rhyme. This centres around the last line of each stanza and whether or not ‘shore’ is an adequate rhyme for ‘inure’ and if allowing the ‘like’ sound to be a consonant is a case of having your cake and eating it. My first reaction to house/dress was that it didn’t rhyme and then (after reading Jarvis) I realised that the same consonant was being substituted quite frequently for the vowel so the last stanza in Hiraeth ends on whelped/scalped.
Because I tend to avoid rhyming verse, I don’t know if this is a long-standing technique with an illustrious pedigree or whether this is a Hill innovation. What I would like to point out is that the last line of the first stanza isn’t very good and the absence of a vowel rhyme makes it worse. Perhaps it’s just the unromantic part of me that thinks that being ‘dazed’ by a wedding dress isn’t very poetic and more than a little banal in this context. The absence of a vowel rhyme to my mind just brings more attention to the fact that the line lets down the rest of the stanza. I don’t think this is saved by the bride / desire rhyme half way along but perhaps others would disagree. Reading this aloud and trying different approaches seems to confirm the wrongness of the last line.
The second stanza is better in terms of what’s being expressed but in my head ‘shore’ is never going to rhyme with ‘inure’ even though the ‘re’ ending is identical. There’s also a midway rhyme going on with ‘home’ and ‘swum’ which almost works.
I do hope that regular readers will appreciate that I continue to hold Hill in high regard and the disappointment expressed here is due to a mixture of my own prejudices and some ongoing doubts about whether you can be too idiosyncratic for your own good. As ever with Hill, I’d far rather think about what is being said than the method of delivery.
We now come to Jarvis and ‘Dinner’ which rhymes throughout and is successful in carrying the reader along without drawing too much attention to the nature of the rhyme. Here’s two stanzas that exemplify this:

A disassembled personality:
a legal concept, whose recursive shape
will offer no intentionality
to be detected by lips or tape
but distributes its known reality
throughout its assets where they fold or gape:
a holding company, a nest of links.
Was this his inside? As he frowns, she thinks,

it hardly could be anyone’s, still less
that owner of the most persuasive grin
she had known twenty years ago, unless
instead of speaking, as she’d thought to win
no points but merely in a fine undress
the unforced force of wit’s adventures in
their very musculature, wit instead
ruled like an errant gene the vacant head?

This is both very clever and well put together and shows why we need to take Jarvis seriously as a poet and a critic. The points are being made in a complex and lateral way to add further layers to the portrait of a man consumed by scratchy disaffection whilst affecting to play the bourgeois game. The rhymes are precise, don’t feel forced and contribute to the strength of these two stanzas. I’m also beginning to see the point of using rhyme as an off-setting device as in ‘lips or tape’ and ‘fold or gape’. The only minor qualm is that if you’re using rhyme in the sense of similar vowel sounds then this intensifies the need for the rest of your word choice to fit and ‘musculature’ doesn’t – it draws attention to itself with the repeated vowel and the dearth of hard consonants but it isn’t strong enough as an image and simply indicates its own weakness when compared with the rest.
After four or five readings I still don’t like ‘Dinner’ but I find that I’m having productive arguments with it which is always a good thing.
I want to finish this rhyming trio with an excerpt from Muldoon’s ‘The Old Country’ which is successful because it manages to be technically accomplished and thematically astute without ramming either of these facts down the reader’s throat.
‘The Old Country’ consists of thirteen sections each or which runs into the next, the last line of a section forms the first line of the next. Each section has two four line and two three line stanzas and the rhyming scheme is uniform throughout. This is the seventh section:

Every cut was a cut to the quick
what with every feather a feather to ruffle.
Every whitrack was a whitterick.
Everyone was in a right kerfuffle

when from his hob some hobbledehoy
would venture the whitterick was a curlew.
Every wall was a wall of Troy
and every hunt a hunt in a purlieu

of a demesne so out of bounds
every hound might have been a hellhound.
At every lane end stood a milk churn

whose every dent was a sign of indenture
to some pig wormer or cattle drencher.
Every point was a point of no return.

This works on a number of levels, the ‘Old Country’ of the title refers to Ulster and this is a clear exposition of Muldoon’s view of a number of complex threads pertaining to the place of his birth. Instead of drawing these out I’d like to concentrate on the rhymes and repetitions and what they bring to the poem as a whole.
The rhymes are clear and direct with the very minor exception of ‘bounds’ and ‘hellhound’ and repetition occurs on the second line of the first and third stanzas- as well as the repetition of the last line mentioned above. Normally this level of structure would annoy me to death but I get immersed in it because these devices are an important element in underpinning the strength of the message. I have yet to work out why this might be the case but I do know that it’s a poem that I re-read on a regular basis because of the pleasure to be had in this degree of accomplishment.
I’m aware that there is a view that Muldoon is too clever for his own good and that he has somehow squandered his talent. I can see that this might be accurate and I continue to dither about whether his work as a whole is any good but nevertheless feel that this may be one example of why this jingling gegaw can ‘please’.

The Paul Muldoon Problem

I’ve spent Xmas in the company of Geoffrey Hill (in Welsh mode), Maurice Blanchot (in disastrous mode), Keston Sutherland (in deeply disturbing but probably brilliant mode) and Paul Muldoon.
I haven’t mentioned this before but I have this need of late to buy Muldoon collections and then to spend weeks dithering about what I feel about him/them. This unpleasant state is compounded by the fact that I can’t easily put him into a category. This isn’t to do with lack of familiarity, I’ve been reading his stuff for years, it is more to do with the contrast between very, very good poems and incredibly bad ones and the ones that are bad but in a really interesting way. Then there’s the critical clichés about Muldoon that I try to avoid (modern/postmodern, early brilliance/late coasting) except when they hit me in the face.
I also need to confess that I haven’t read either Madoc or Qoof and keep promising myself to get round to these but the dithering keeps getting in the way.
I am accustomed to dithering about most things in life but not about poetry. I can dither endlessly about politics, films, holiday destinations, music, health, personal finances but not about poetry. I can read a collection of verse and arrive at a judgement very quickly. Sometimes this judgement is wrong and is corrected over time but I can usually stand by my initial reaction and by subsequent reactions with a degree of certainty. This is not the case with Muldoon who appears to embody most things poetic that I hate yet manages to write a few lines that are really exceptional. Then there’s the rhyme issue. Muldoon does rhyme and he does it very well but he knows that he does it well and reminds the reader of this fact on a regular basis.
I hadn’t given rhyme too much attention until fairly recently but the latest Hill collection uses rhyme for the first time since ‘The Unfallen’ which has led me to take it a bit more seriously. I’ve even the read the first half of Simon Jarvis on “Why Rhyme Pleases” which quotes this definition from Hugh Kenner: ‘… the production of like sounds according to a schedule that makes them predictable’ which probably best expresses how most of us think about it. The quality of a rhyme is primarily judged by Kenner’s first criteria of ‘like sounds’ and how alike these are without feeling contrived or forced. The use of a word which makes the rhyme but does this at the expense of the sense of the line is a bad rhyme just as much as a rhyme which isn’t very alike.
Muldoon is fairly renowned for his ability to play around with and extend rhyme in inventive ways. I don’t find this particularly impressive because I’m stuck in that old-fashioned thing of feeling that content is more interesting and important than form. This is because a virtuoso display of technical skill won’t make up for the fact that a poem has nothing to say whereas interesting content will always compensate for poor or indifferent technique.
So, turning aside from dexterity, I’ve given some thought to content and find that Muldoon continues to alternate between providing some interest and being seemingly intent on the glib and superficial. “Maggot” (the latest collection) contains a poem dedicated to John Ashbery which is crying out to be unpicked and also has some excellent phrases that almost work in the way that Muldoon wants.
On the other hand there’s those poems that are both clever and accomplished but don’t say very much, as if cleverness and dexterity are enough. I’m an admirer of cleverness in all its forms but I do get a bit weary with Muldoon’s habit of reminding me just how clever he is. I’d much prefer that he spent more time explaining what he thinks or feels because his subjects usually merit a more reflective approach. ‘Wayside Shrines’ which is the last poem in the collection gives the impression of wanting to be taken seriously on a number of levels but it still feels that Muldoon can’t resist undermining this intent – rhyming ‘out through the prism’ with ‘monasticism’ is merely distracting.
Then there’s the word use issue. Most of the tone in Muldoon’s work is conversational and relaxed (which is probably used to denote hidden depth) but ever once in a while a word is thrown in that sends me running for the OED. Two prominent examples are “harupsicate” and “tatterdemalion” both of which clash with the surrounding lines could be replaced by other less obscure words. This assumes that we’re meant to understand these by their primary meanings and not take too much notice of secondary definitions / contexts.
None of this resolves how I feel about Muldoon and why I keep on reading him. His subject matter is usually of interest to me and his fore-mentioned cleverness is attractive and repellent in equal measure. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s quite good in doing what he does and is capable of writing with a degree of insight and sensitivity even though the level of deliberate superficiality feels more than a little affected.
So, I’ll probably keep on reading Muldoon without quite knowing why…

The importance of poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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