Tag Archives: poetry

Is J H Prynne Worth the Bother?

I’ve spent some time recently glancing through everything I’ve written on Prynne here and on my arduity site. There’s a lot of it and I find myself asking whether paying this amount of attention to his work has been Altogether Worthwhile.

This might seem strange for one who has advocated Prynne’s value and championed his cause very much against the prevailing mainstream scorn. However, I know that I will spend my life with Hill, Celan, Jones, Milton and Spenser by my side, I can’t say the same for Prynne. Because I’m a stubborn bastard, I enjoy worrying verse into submission,in opening it up picking over the entrails and seeing where its bodies lie. Prynne offers more opportunities than most for this kind of obsessive ferreting but I’m not sure that I read him for pleasure any more.

My route to the Prynne foothills was from Milton via Geoffrey Hill. About 20 years ago I got over a period of Poem Disenchantment with Milton which led to Geoffrey Hill’s Comus and the rest of his obdurate oeuvre. Patting myself on the back I decided to have another look at Prynne as the other but even more difficult late modernist. As this blog and arduity show, there’s been a lot of tussling mostly until my latest disenchantment in 2015. The high point of these encounters was opening Streak Willing Entourage Artesian for the first time and getting immediately dragged in to its many delights. Conversely, the low points have been my disappointment in Kazoo Dreamboats. These lows aren’t the reason for my uncertainty, I’m probably more disappointed by Hill’s Day Books Than anything that Prynne’s ever done.</

Regular readers will know that I’m of the view that serious poetry rewards the serious attention that a reader may give to it and that poetry that can be fully grasped in a single reading usually isn’t very rewarding at all. So, if my problem with Prynne isn’t the amount of time and brow furrowed puzzling required, what then might it be?

The easy answer is that the work promises more than it delivers. The harder answer is that doesn’t make me re-think my beliefs and opinions. The others provide much more food for thought and, in the process, challenge my well developed and even better defended opinions and prejudices. Prynne delivers a kind of euro-lefty polemic that just seems quaint. It’s not that I have any major objections to this but it is a set of beliefs and ‘positions’ that were outdated in 1975. For me the response to the ‘message’ is to sigh and shrug because these rules no longer apply, if they ever did.

Hill on the other hand had a set of political and theological tenets that I could never share, as did Jones and Spenser but they make me reconsider, at least, my views on being English, on God and the church and (this is important) on the way I relate to other people.

My introduction to Prynne on arduity has this;

You’re either up for these kind of skirmishes or you’re not. I find that I am and my admiration for Prynne has grown as I have gone further in. If you choose to participate you are likely to find that engagement with this body of work will force you to question not only language but also the way in which you experience the world. You will also begin to find that the vast majority of contemporary poetry is intensely mundane and ordinary. If you write poetry then you may find that your voice will be radically altered, this is a good thing providing it’s not just a pale imitation of the man himself.

Re-reading the others still forces me to reconsider how I experience the world but Prynne doesn’t. Streak Willing…. had that effect and still draws me in but it no longer pulls me out of my cognitive and ideological comfort zone in the way that Mercian Hymns or Celan’s Atemwende collection or Jones’ Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea do. This is a personal disappointment mainly because I expected to be equally absorbed and affected by most of the rest of Prynne’s body of work and I’m not.

I’ll try and give a couple of examples, over the past few years I’ve attended reasonably closely to the Biting the Air sequence (2003) and to the Al-Dente collection (2014). From the latter, I’ve attended at some length to infusion, a poem that I provisionally and tentatively identified as having to do with the Grexit crisis:


This mercy will replace to them near first
exactly, as taken from clear at new payment
tacit doesn't reduce the few. Natural as due
not meaning to align song even reverted by
fixity, grant is yours.

                       Is description as
assert this brand get into advancement offer
agree to credit, must agree even so offset
along the close margin, is yours.

                                    Watching
is the site when agreed to break outward pass
claimed in front by either filter, in promise
adept cede a pledged condition willing to
give prominence flat-long fall. Walk over
quickly is yours.

                    However and so far, as or
will accept without presume limit, or foremost
latitude, will discover to steady if brilliant
sky gets easily by admit from iron former melted
intermit. Will line for, is yours.

                                         Does this
scrape or grate whenever veering to harbour
a fusion incline yet to feel redress faction,
in link acceptance, grant is yours.

                                         Be given
is yours, grant for this, is so quickly to be
is too and for, is yours.

For the arduity piece, as can be seen, I paid a lot of attention to the first stanza in order to:

  • demonstrate that is was about Grexit;
  • provide detailed examples of Prynne’s use of ambiguity;
  • demonstrate that his later work isn’t all that impenetrable after all.

Like most of us, I have my own views on this particularly vicious farce and they’re not either changed or challenged by the above. Europe is not yet a federal state and therefore Greece and Ireland and Portugal are all sovereign states. The ECB and the IMF, pushed by the German government, have spent most of this decade walking all over Greek sovereignty and forcing pernicious ‘reforms’ on a population that had no choice but to accept them. I’m aware that my views on this and other EU matters are inconsistent (for a federal Europe but against the current economic and social regimes) but the above doesn’t provoke me enough to think again.

The bebrowed method with Prynne is to think laterally, take note of the commas, look our for puns and spend much time with the OED. The fourth stanza above, for example, only begins to yield sense if I take into account subsidiary definitions for ‘foremost’,’former’ and ‘intermit’ as well as the regional meanings of melt as a verb. Doing this is intellectually satisfying but a bit mechanical. This isn’t because it’s insufficiently poetic or lyrical, I’m moved and challenged by the some of the conceptual work of Vanessa Place, even though it’s ‘simply’ repurposed prose without any kind of personal voice or interjection. With Prynne, I care about his subject matter(s) but he doesn’t reach me the way that others do.

Whilst the above may seem unduly negative, I must emphasise that I still take pleasure from the work. I can well recall the delight I felt when I realised that ‘foreland’ in the second Streak~Willing poem referred to the Irish provinces rather than a piece of coastline. I still get a kick from working this kind of stuff out and some of the verbal dexterity involved is technically brilliant. I still rate the work very, very highly because of its originality and the audacity of its challenge to our dismal mainstream. In the future however I’ll read him for the mental tussle rather than any likely impact on my thoughts and feelings.

In conclusion, it’s always been important for me to feel that I’m in a relationship with a body of work. I expect it to give me the same respect that I give it and I try to be open to genuine encounters (in the Celanian sense) with individual poems. I don’t have that with Prynne, sadly.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin.

The above has been recently published and it is a very welcome antidote to the bewildering foibles of The Day Books. The blurb on the back is revealing. I make no apology for these two lengthy excerpts:

Written in long lines of variable length, with much off-rhyme and internal rhyme, the verse- form of the book stands at the opposite end from the ones developed in the late Broken Hierarchies where he explored highly taut constructions such as Sapphic metre, figure poems, fixed rhyming strophes, and others.

and

Thematically, the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of evident helplessness………….. the references to alchemy, heterodox theological speculation, and the formal logics of mathematics, music, and philosophy are made coolly, as art, and as emblems for our inadequate and perplexed grasp of time.

I have to report, on an initial read-through, that this collection makes me smile a lot because it feels like a return to the aspects of Hill’s work (Comus, The Triumph of Love, Mercian Hymns) that I enjoy the most. I didn’t enjoy any of the late work mentioned above and that part of the blurb reads a bit like a gentle response to those of us who expressed our doubts.

Because I haven’t yet begun to pay serious attention to the sequence as a whole I thought I’d allow my youthful enthusiasm give a few examples of what I find (at the moment) to be the most grinworthy (technical term).

Poem 109 is a meditation and pronouncement on Stanley Spencer and Things Scottish. Up until yesterday afternoon I either didn’t know or had forgotten (both are equally likely) that, according to the DNB, ” the War Artists’ Advisory Committee commissioned Spencer to record shipbuilding on the Clyde” and that the Resurrection series was one of his more significant works of that period. Hill’s poem starts with “The Resurrection, Port Glasgow, of nineteen forty-five to forty-seven, is not the triumph that the late Referendum could have been”. I’m taking it that, although the blurb refers to Brexit, this is the vote on Scottish Independence. Hill’s readers will recognise the characteristically complexity of the sentence and the fact that this may not need to be said. Art criticism is well beyond my capabilities but I will observe that it would seem unlikely that Spencer had Scottish independence in mind at the time, regardless of his fondness for the shipbuilders on the Clyde. It’s a remarkable enough line to draw me in further. The other question that arises is whether Hill’s view of the triumph that could have been marks a shift in Hill’s political beliefs and associated patriotism.

The next ‘stanza’ is “Art can incorporate a summation of what we inherit to impart of national / tradition. The tradition of the Clyde is now said to have died with Jimmy Reid.” The first sentence might be read as a statement of the mostly obvious whilst the second would seem to contradict it. Those of us of a certain age and political persuasion will recall that Jimmy Reid was the leader of what turned out to be the Clyde’s final industrial action. It would seem reasonable that the ‘tradition’ here refers to the history of radical socialism for which the Clyde workforce was rightly renowned. Again, this seems to signal a shift in Hill’s politics. The phrasing of the first sentence is reassuringly typical of Hill’s way of expressing Big Thoughts and this particular thought is consistent with both his earlier poetry and criticism. I’m taking it that ‘impart’ is a carefully chosen verb.

A brief note here about formatting, each poem is in prose. Each new paragraph begins at the left margin and the rest of the lines are indented by five spaces. The WordPress rendering of the pre tag makes it difficult to accurately reproduce how this looks on the page so I’m incorporating the lines into my paragraphs with ‘/’ marking each line break.

The next paragraph is; ” A kind of colloquial good, ‘Waking up’, ‘Tidying’, ‘Reunion of Families’- / Nineteen forty-five – forty-seven bore an obligatory hope – can stitch together a public shroud from private kindness; so that political / bloodymindedness must mourn its vital progeny born dead.” This is where we get into vintage Hill territory, what exactly might be intended by a ‘colloquial good’? Why is the hope of 1945-47, prompted by the election of a Labour government, said to be ‘obligatory’? If we take colloquial to refer to common or conversational speech might this ‘good’ be a quality in society that is beneficial for everyone? Or might it refer a thing being seen to have value by the ordinary people of Glasgow?

The years referred to also deserve some attention. This was perhaps 20th century’s most significant in British politics with the foundations of a social democracy and the National Health Service being laid. The hope was that a class ridden society could be transformed into something more equitable and just. Hill was born in 1933 and, as a bright teenager, would have been more than aware of these momentous shifts.

One of the definitions provided by the OED for ‘obligatory’ is; “Frequently humorous. So customary or fashionable as to be expected of everyone or on every occasion.”

We are therefore directed to the mood of optimism amongst ordinary people that the inequalities of the past would be eradicated and that significant improvements in living standards were about to occur. Of course, these hopes were not entirely met, the standard excuse being that the size of the post war debt to the US prevented the Atlee government spending enough to make a significant/lasting difference. Hill’s use of this adjective would seem to be an attempt at a kind of arch humour, that this was a hope that everybody felt obliged to share no matter how realistic it may be.

Jimmy Reid was to many the epitome of political and industrial ‘bloodymindedness’ and since then there have been very few figures in the UK labour movement to achieve similar prominence and success. Of course, successive governments since 1971 have colluded in the slow death of the British shipbuilding industry and the consequent damage done to communities. Trade Union legislation has also greatly limited the ability of workers to take action against unfair treatment. I’m hoping that this is what Hill is referring to with the still born progeny.

The last stanza is the longest and most direct; “Scotland is not England, of course; and, of the two, the condition of England / is worse. Spencer’s was an English muse, nevertheless; a power of sorts / among her foreign peers; and with a very local sense of redress that, / undeniably beautiful, pressed down on Clydesiders a sentimental appeal, / like skeins of festal coloured knitting wool that they may well have / wished not to possess.

This seems to be fairly straightforward the condition of England is (not was) worse than that of Scotland. Spencer and his source of inspiration were English and, although he created beautiful work set on the Clyde, he was hampered by a sentimentality that may not of been popular with the community that he was depicting. There’s also this local sense of a need for justice for wrongs done. The grin factor is obviously subjective but I think it’s important to recognise and celebrate the things that give us pleasure. In this instance the pleasure comes from a recognition of Hill’s personality (another loose and subjective term) and what would appear to be his method of thinking. The altering of syntax is a fairly consistent device over the last 30 years or so which some find annoying but I feel is an important illustration of how big or difficult thoughts are arrived at. I’m absorbed by this process and feel almost involved in the production of the work. This may seem overly personal but the late Hill at least does have this attractive-but-maddening tendency to throw himself, lock, stock and barrel into his work. Poem 109 is an example of Hill getting hold of a theme and shaking it to bits. Spenser is described in admiring tones in the two previous poems but here thoughtful consideration is given to a quite specific aspect of his work. I smile here because of the way in which the point about sentimentalising / prettifying is made and because I’ve been a member of a community that has had similar treatment from time to time and been less than pleased. Of course, Hill the curmudgeon is still present with the born dead progeny, a simile designed more perhaps to shock than inform. I’m also intrigued by this apparent political sea change. Hill described himself once as a ‘Red Tory’ and this strand is the most apparent in his work along with more than a smattering of patriotism. Both of these would seem to run counter to what’s expressed here and in other parts of the sequence to this is invites further exploration.

However, the elements that made me smile the most on an initial reading is “like skeins of festal-coloured knitting wool” and the need for redress being pressed down. Both of these are, to my ear, redolent of Hill at his very best

This blogging about poetry mularkey

I don’t understand the blog in that I haven’t worked out where it fits in the scheme of things and what it might do that’s different from a web site or a Facebook entry (or whatever they might be called). I’m also completely mystified by tumblr but I suspect that it might be this week’s future. In the interests of trying to keep up, I did ask someone about tumblr this morning but he wouldn’t tell me.

Prior to starting this blog I didn’t know that I could write about poetry. I knew that I could write and has a reasonably long list of subjects that I could write about but my thinking on the poetic seemed too wound up with and complicated by my own attempts at poetry making for anything remotely useful to emerge.

I still don’t think I can write about poetry at anywhere near the level that I’d like to (somewhere between Alastair Fowler and Helen Cooper) but the miracle that has occurred is that I can write stuff that other people take an interest in and feel sufficiently involved to make a response. The other miracle is that these responses are without exception both intelligent and (this is important) well-mannered. Some of these are so well thought out and expressed that I need to think long and hard about a suitable / appropriate response.

The other thing is that I read very few blogs and the majority of these aren’t about poetry. I look at Mark Woods, Mrs Deane and Rio Wang every day, I look at Dylan Trigg and Language Hat every other day and a number of photography and design mags every week but the attention I pay to poetry blogs is sporadic. I once had the Jacket site open whenever I was on-line but these days that honour has passed to the Claudius App and TEAMS Middle English index pages because they manage to hold my interest and Jacket2 doesn’t.

So, this is a digressive way of saying that what follows is highly speculative and probably badly worked out. The first of these relates to the difference between my web site, arduity, and these pages. I was going to say that I put more of myself into this and try to be more objective with arduity but that isn’t really what’s going on. The main difference is that I’ve got a plan for arduity and I don’t for bebrowed. They’re both ‘about’ difficult or complex poetry and they’re both intended to be useful but arduity is written with more focus on encouraging confidence to tackle this stuff whereas bebrowed follows the wavering fancies that occupy my head.

I’m now going to try and get technical. If we think of all things poetic as a relatively autonomous ‘information order’ as described by Sir Christopher Bayly then, right now, a lot of things / processes / events are taking place. The first and most obvious of these is the effect of the one to many gizmo which means that a poem can be circulated / displayed, responded to and that response can be responded to within a very short space of time. The other process that is taking place is that of circulation prior to whatever publication might mean. I and others have drafts and have commented publicly on these drafts many months in advance of publication, I have also written with puppy dog enthusiasm about at least one poem that has been circulated but probably won’t ever be published. There are parallels here with poetic practice before and after the printing press, both Donne and Marvell only had manuscripts in circulation during their lives, all their work (with a couple of minor exceptions) was published after their death

The second is the exponential growth in self indulgence. The web is now cluttered with poetry that has never been subject to the editorial glare. Last year I posted something that consisted entirely of Gillian Welch set lists in chronological order as well as the versification of the labels used on maps of Sector 5 for the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday. Neither of these would have ever been ‘published’ in the world of print and constitute an act of the worst kind of self-expression. The sad fact is that I don’t care, they’re on the blog primarily because I like them and feel they need to exist outside of my head. In mitigation I would say that I don’t do it very often and only when I feel that there is some kind of imperative.

Anyway, it now transpires that I have a readership and I try not to think about this because that might inhibit or modify what I want to say which is usually a blow-by-blow attempt to work out some kind of conclusion and / or structure. The blog also allows me to fly a number of intensely speculative kites safe in the knowledge that on or two readers will bring me back to ground- poetry as performance on the page being the most recent example.

I like to think that the well mannered responses are in part due to my decision to only write about poetry that I like and to try and pretend that the rest doesn’t exist. There are exceptions to this (Jarvis’ ‘Dinner’, Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’) but they prove the rule. This isn’t formulated froma moral stance, it’s simply that I don’t find it very interesting demolishing poems even when they thoroughly deserve to be so treated. I have set myself this challenge of writing enthusiastically about material that I feel deserves to be better known and appreciated and I don’t have any problem at all with the fact that I am occasionally in a very small minority. I know from bitter personal experience of bulletin boards and blogs in another sphere that things can rapidly become needlessly conflictual and I’m very pleased that this hasn’t occurred here.

There’s also this feeling that something really important is happening to this particular information order but we only catch glimpses of what this might be, I keep trying to list the things that blogging has made me think about and discover, I try to examine my traffic stats as if these might give me more of a clue but most of the time this is just a collection of instinctive stabs in the dark unless I get prodded into elaborating on the technical prowess on display in ‘The Anathemata’ which means that I have an excuse to read it again…

A final point, this tries hard not to be either lit crit or the reviewing of books, what it does attempt is an honest statement of the fruits of readerly attention and I am very pleased that others find bits of it to be useful- in the sense that Richard Rorty intended.

Poetry and the revolution

There’s a Godard movie (probably ‘British Noise’) where one character asks the other if intellectuals can also be revolutionaries. The question that I’d like to ask is whether poets can be revolutionaries and intellectuals. Some months ago on this blog I made a glib and entirely gratuitous remark about poems not being very effective at changing things, I’ve now had some cause to re-think this observation.
Let’s start with some definitions: the intellectual usually works in the academy and thinks about theory and is comfortable with theory; the revolutionary is convinced that the world must change and will do whatever he or she can to effect that change; the poet writes poems.
I think most of us would agree that these are not good times for political revolutionaries, the ‘old’ revolutionary movements in Europe have been decimated in the last thirty years by the effects of the current long wave of capitalist development, the success of the state’s infiltration of subversive groups and the eternal revolutionary habit of self-destruction by factionalism.
Things are equally bad for contemporary poets who aren’t read except by other contemporary poets (and those who aspire to write contemporary poetry) and academics who gain professional status by writing about them. The revolutionary potential for poetry is further compounded by Bourdieu’s analysis of how creative expression functions in society today. Poetry also suffers from factionalism and what some would see as wilful obscurity.
Intellectuals, on the other hand, are thriving. Anxiety about poor standards of education in the West has led to the state throwing huge amounts of money at higher education which has led to the proliferation of theorising and endless pontification. Most ‘serious’ poets work in the academy, mostly because they can’t earn a living from book sales.
I’m not a revolutionary, most revolutionaries that I’ve met (and conspired with) are so driven by the absolute need for change that ‘the revolution’ becomes the only objective without too much consideration given to what may ensue from that event. I’m more attracted to the radical position which acknowledges that things do need to change but is deeply sceptical about iconoclasm for its own sake.
I do read poetry and (occasionally) I try to make poems but I’m not entirely sure that the current poetry game is a game that I want to play because the framework in which it operates is fundamentally flawed. However, I do keep getting drawn back to it because of its strength and power to challenge the way that I think and use words.
As one of the self-taught, I reserve the right to be sceptical about intellectuals and especially the role of intellectuals in a state sponsored academy. There’s a nagging suspicion in the back of my head that ‘important’ thinkers achieve their importance because they merely appear to pose a threat to the status quo.
So, is poetry a useful tool in the struggle? I think poetry can be quite good and effective at revolting against itself (The Waste Land, The Cantos, Atemwende, Brass etc.) but that it takes far too long to have an effect on the world psyche. It can be argued that the poetry of Wordsworth has now reached public consciousness ( a belated interest in the power and importance of the natural world) but two hundred years is simply far too long.
Poets can be revolutionary poets and reactionary ideologues but this shouldn’t deter us from the potential of poetry for effecting radical change. In fact, poetry can re-engage us with the world at a time when the established order is pushing us towards rampant individualism with its consequent sense of alienation.
In order to break out of the current malaise and to act as a part of the struggle poetry needs to change the frame in which it operates. To do this it needs to recognise the poem is a commodity that exists in a market and that it competes with other commodities in terms of reception, value and effectiveness. It needs, in short, to sell itself and it needs to articulate that value in a much more direct way. Its current structural weaknesses need to be quantified, e.g. does its incestuous relationship with the academy do it any favours, is the teaching of creative writing really a good thing, is difficulty a mark of quality?
I have to believe that a poetry that is truly as ‘impossible as reality’ is a feasible possibility but those that produce and proliferate verse needs to change the nature of the frame.

Geoffrey Hill explains ‘Annunciations’

I first found out about poetry in 1968 at the age of thirteen. I’d read ‘Welsh Landscape’ by R S Thomas and suddenly discovered how poetry worked and that it was somehow important.

In 1969 I bought ‘The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse’ edited in 1962 by Kenneth Allott. I didn’t read much of it primarily because my eye was drawn to more ‘modern’ poets. I picked it up again yesterday because of the time that it spans (1918-1960) and then noticed that the last poem in the collection is ‘Annunciations’ by Geoffrey Hill which was published in ‘King Log’. I’ve read this poem before so wasn’t particularly excited until (out of curiosity) I looked at Allotts introduction where he praises Hill’s earlier work and complains about the “crabbed density” of some of the later poems in ‘For the Unfallen’. He says-

I find the darkness of many of the later pieces so nearly total that I can see them to be poems only by a certain quality in their phrasing.

Allott then quotes Hill as ascribing this ‘formality under duress’ to the influence of Allen Tate. A debate between editor and poet is then alluded to, Hill wants to be in the anthology but would much rather his latest work is included. Allott goes on  –

I understand ‘Annunciations’ only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversations (i. e. they grasp something by the tone of the speaking voice) but without help I cannot construe it.

To resolve this stand-off, Hill agrees to supply notes to help with this construal.  These run to one and a half pages and, as far as I know, are Hill’s only attempt to explain a poem in detail. The poem is in two parts, one concerning the ‘Word’ and the other concerning ‘Love’. Hill begins by describing the common theme –

I suppose the impulse behind the work is an attempt to realize the jarring double-takes in words of common usage: as ‘sacrifice’ (I) or ‘Love (II) – words which, like the word ‘State’ are assumed to have an autonomous meaning or value irrespective of context, and to which we are expected to nod assent. If we do assent, we are ‘received’; if we question the justice of the blanket term we have made the equivalent of a rude noise in polite company.

It could be said (and I will) that Hill’s career can be seen as an ongoing series of rude noises in polite company. He continues to question, gnaw away at, dissect a wide range of terms that most of us take more or less for granted- justice, spirit, forgiveness, love to name but a few. I think it’s also important to note Hill casting himself as the outsider, as the one who dares to question and so is not ‘received’.

Hill goes on to describe the first poem and points out the ‘key antithesis between lines 6 and 7 –

The loathly neckings and fat shook spawn

(each specimen jar fed with delicate spawn)

Line six, Hill contends, stands for ‘ pain, lust in the blubbery world’ whereas line seven describes pain and lust after it has been distilled by the ‘connoissseurs’. We aren’t told why the world might be blubbery but we are told that the connoisseur may be the poet or the critic. The choice of blubbery is instructive because of it’s obvious whaling connotations and because there is a quote in the OED which goes- “Democracy is the blubbery spawn begotten by the drunkenness of aristocracy”. It almost goes without saying that Hill is an exceptionally close reader of the OED and probably expects the rest of us to do the same.

Hill ends his notes to the first part with –

By using an emotive cliché like ‘The Word’ I try to believe in an idea that 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.

Trying to believe in an idea is a difficult activity and I wonder whether some of Hill’s later work continues to reflect this attempt to believe in the ‘special’ power of poetry. With this in mind, I’m going to have to re-read some of the even more crabbed later stuff.

I have to confess that I’m not terribly keen on the second part of the poem because I don’t think it does what Hill describes. I also find its use of quasi-religious terms and phrases rather tiresome. Hill finishes his notes by saying:

But I want the poem to have this dubious end, because I feel dubious; and this whole business is dubious.

Which sounds like a bit of a cop-out, the poem finishes with a portentous flourish that doesn’t sound at all hesitant but might just be empty…. the kind of thing that Hill complains about in his introduction.

Making money and poetry

This is by way of a digression and is more about thinking out loud than but putting forward a coherent view.

I’ll start with stating the obvious, nobody gets rich from the writing of poems. Even the finest and most respected poets have to earn an income from a day job.

This is a fact.

However, I currently find myself in an odd position. The company in which I held a 50% share has just been sold to a large national retailer which means (my partner tells me) that I don’t need to work any more. Because of my mental health issues and the niggling protestant work ethic, I do actually want to continue to earn an income. I also find that I have a bit of entrepeneurial ability.

So, whilst I have a few potential projects to keep me busy for the next few years, I’m attracted to testing out the monetary value of doing ‘something’ with poetry. To start with I need to put together an analysis of poetry as product. This may seem crass but it does help to clear away a lot of the fluff and get down to basics:

  1. poetry has the potential to change lives in a fundamental way;
  2. poetry has a really bad reputation/image in the commercial world especially when compared with other forms of creative expression;
  3. there is a market need for poetry, many, many people are dissatisfied with what popular culture has to offer and would welcome the opportunity to have their view of the world challenged;
  4. most poems can be learned;
  5. the fundamental task would be one of market creation which would involve prising poetry away from the academy (this must not involve any kind of ‘dumbing down’);
  6. marketing would involve challenging the current poor image that poetry has and encouraging poets to talk about their work in clear and unambiguous terms.

The aim would be to make poetry as popular as soccer within a generation and to start this off by running a series of television programmes on poems and what they can do. For example, it would be good to film Kenneth Goldsmith talking about conceptual poetry and compare this with Keston Sutherland talking about political poetry. I also have in my head a pastiche of Grand Designs called Grand Conceits where a film crew follow a respected poet through the arduous business of writing a poem.

Once you start thinking about poetry as product you begin to realise that some poems have more commercial value than others. The Maximus Poems have enormous potential as does Triumph of Love but I’d have to try a bit harder to extract value out of  Breathturn or Comus.

My role in this? I’d like to have a go at market creation, for a very small percentage…..

Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position

I was going to write this in the manner (style?) of the prose section of this poem but then I realised that this would only make any kind of sense to those who had read it and that only I would be amused.
Let me start by saying that Stress Position is a major piece of work that makes a significant contribution to current debates about language and its relationship to the ‘real’, compromised world. Bits of it are also very funny with extraordinary images.
The poem is ‘set’ in Baghdad and features the poet, a number of historical and fictional characters and Black Beauty. Rumsfeld and Cheney also get a name check and the sky makes several appearances.
If Keston was bipolar (which he isn’t), I’d be gently telling him to increase the lithium because the poem manages to hover on the bridge between mania and psychosis but is probably an attempt to express dialectical consciousness and produce poetry that is “as impossible as reality”.
So, the poem would appear to be a radical critique of American imperialism particularly with regard to torture but it also sets up a particular ‘metric’ (a term much used by Prynne) between aspects of the external world and the inside of Sutherland’s head. This is incredibly successful in that it takes the reader on an exhilarating ride through dystopia and manages to throw out a broad range of ideas at the same time.
I have a personal rule when reading poetry which is to count the lines that I wished I’d written. Stress Position is full of these so I should be overcome with envy but I’m not because Sutherland has thrown down the gauntlet to those of us who aspire to write poetry and change the world (not always at the same time).
Sutherland doesn’t have a good time in Stress Position, he gets gang raped in a toilet cubicle in McDonald’s and loses a leg but the overall tone is rhapsodic rather than brutal. A gastro yacht is also featured along with references to number of dishes- the significance of this escapes me but I’m working on it.
Sutherland has made a distinction between ‘readers’ and ‘consumers’ of poetry and made a passing swipe at mainstream poetry in the process. He was using Prynne as an example of a poet who demands very close attention and scorning those poets whose work can be read and fully understood in one go. With regard to Stress Position, the poem does demand attention but it’s of a different order to that demanded by Prynne, there’s no need for a word-by-word examination nor is their as much ambiguity but there’s still work to be done. The “anagrammatic” Diotima makes an appearance, certain words and phrases are italicised, a lot of compound words are used and I’m not at all sure about the presence of Black Beauty nor the presence of Sutherland’s mother before he gets gang raped. So the attention is more about the poetic structure rather than what the words may mean. Some words are printed in block capitals with numbers attached and I will need to work out what that’s about. There’s also bits of French and German that will require my attention.
The poem is also immensely quotable I’ll just give three lines as an example-

That means that he that the dots are all joined up in a skeleton already

and that skeleton is publically wanked off, into the open darkness

and the darkness spits its wet dust on a sticky mirrorball.

The other thing that the reader gradually realises is that the poem is tightly structured. Sutherland spent a long time thinking about this before putting pen to paper and it has paid off because we stay with the various threads rather than reading the various episodes as random and chaotic.

Ideologically, Sutherland and I are miles apart. I don’t share his Marxist/Hegelian slant on things nor do I have much faith in the dialectic but I do share his outrage at American foreign policy and the forces of late capital. I also share his concerns about the way that language gets appropriated by the impossible world. I don’t read poems to agree with them, I read them to be challenged and to steal ideas and Stress Position more than meets those criteria.

There is a bitchy dig at Derrida that is overly simplistic. If you are going to take on Grammatology then you need to be very clear what you are taking on and why.

Sutherland will hate this but I think the whole world should read Stress Position – it’s available from Barque Press for £6.