Tag Archives: preferences

The Archive of the Now- listening to poetry

The image is more of a poem than just the words on the placard, juxtaposition of two faces and one arm....

A few weeks ago I was approached by Andrea Brady asking for a link to the above which I was more than happy to provide because the archive does an incredibly valuable job of providing recordings of British poets reading their own work.

I’ve now spent some time with a number of the recordings and I’d like to draw attention to some of these.

I think I’ve said in the past that I’m not keen on listening to complex material without having the text in front of me as well. I also subscribe to the well worn but accurate observation that poets are bad at reading their own work although there are exceptions (Ezra Pound, John Matthias, Vanessa Place and Amy De’Ath spring to mind). I’m also disappointed about the sound quality of most of the readings on the web and won’t repeat here the rants that I have had in the past on this subject. All of this is counterbalanced by my recently renewed interest in how poems sound and might sound which was revitalised by Timothy Thornton’s account of the initial reading of ‘Dionysus Crucified’.

As a reasonably inept maker of poems I have a strong interest in all things archival so I want to spend some time here giving some thought to the idea of an archive of the present.

Before we get to the material, it seems that the site has had a fairly recent overhaul in terms of look and feel, it is a pity that nobody took the opportunity to update the links in each poet’s profile as many of these are either dead or redundant. The Simon Jarvis page doesn’t work at all.

There are a goodly number of what this blog considers to be essential poets reading essential poems and there’s also material that’s new to me that I need to pay more attention to. The ‘essentials’ are-

  • Caroline Bergvall;
  • Amy De’Ath;
  • Simon Jarvis (not working);
  • Francesca Lisette;
  • Neil Pattison;
  • Reitha Pattison;
  • J H Prynne;
  • Luke Roberts;
  • Keston Sutherland.

I have written before about my desire to be Caroline Bergvall and this recording intensifies that need. Some of the readings here can be listened to without the text but the brilliant ‘Chaucer’ poems would (probably) benefit from listeners having the printed version as well.

Bergvall’s work is marked by both commitment to what language can do and a readiness to experiment without losing either coherence or quality. The other observation that I need to make is that these readings are at variance with the poems that I have in my head, ie the way the poems ‘sound’ when I read them on the page. I wouldn’t read them as fast and I would be less emphatic- listening to these has made me reconsider (in a good way) how I’ve responded to the work as text.

I’ve written recently about the work of Amy De’Ath and have entered into some debate with the Harriet blog over the nature of her determined tulips and what they might signify and I don’t want to go over old ground. The readings here are from 2010 and demonstrate how poetry should be read. I first came across Amy’s virtuosity in this regard whilst listening to her read Jonty Tiplady’s ‘The Undersong’ which is a remarkable poem but made brilliant by the reading. The audio page of the current issue of the Claudius App also has Amy reading four of her own poems. Oddly, I don’t feel the need for the text for any of these even though some of these poems are at the complicated end of complex. If the archive really is about the ‘now’ then perhaps Andrea and co could commission a reading of the even-more-brilliant ‘Cuteness is a Landscape’.

I now need to register my personal disappointment at the failure of the Simon Jarvis page, particularly because I’ve never come across the first two poems and because I have a very clear idea of how ‘The Unconditional’ should be read. I think I’d also like to point out that there is absolutely no point in having a page that doesn’t function- it should be fixed or removed.

Francesca Lisette is another of our incredibly talented younger poets, she has this unerring ability to scare me and make me smile at the same time, there’s this mix of committed defiance and intellectual depth that is stunning. I remain of the view that anyone who can put ‘relinquish’ and ‘flounce’ together has got to be brilliant. The scariness also has some roots in a verbal density that really doesn’t see any need to compromise- this is one of those cases where having the text really helps. Incidentally, Mountain haven’t yet published Lisette’s latest collection but intend to do so in the fairly near future- according to their site it’s now called ‘Teens’. The relevant page does contain the text for ‘Icarus in Reverse’ which I think confirms my earlier assertion, even though her reading is perfectly judged and paced. I’d also like to draw attention to the link to Lisette’s reading at Greenwich in 2010 and ask rhetorically whether audio by itself is enough in an age where filming is incredibly straightfoward.

To conclude this part (of at least three) I’d like to observe that Neil Pattison has produced some of the finest and hauntingly brilliant poetry of the last ten years. I know this because I’ve been haunted by the ‘Preferences’ collection and by ‘Slow Light’ and ‘May Ode’. I’m going to omit the usual Pattison disclaimer and instead report that Neil is (or was) of the view that the audio version is somehow more definitive than the printed ‘Preferences’. I don’t hold to that view for two main reasons, the first is that this is complex and occasionally obscure/secretive material that repays readerly attention and there is a real danger that a first-time listener will be put off by the level of complexity that’s playing across a number of registers. This would be a tragedy because this is important/unique/groundbreaking stuff that we should all learn by heart. There’s also the issue of veracity, the first recording was made in 2005 and the collection was published in 2006 so I’m guessing that the differences between the two can be explained by re-drafting but the question then is (given Neil’s view) which should be considered authentic, or do we view authenticity as a movable commodity?

‘Preferences’ is still avaible from Barque but the link on the Archive page leads to an outfit wanting to sell me a domain name, this really isn’t helpful….

Slow Light by Neil Pattison

This is the day’s third attempt to do this and I’ve decided to cut top the quick rather than strolling digressively around the houses.

I am gripped and compulsed by ‘Slow Light’ which is a sequence of four poems by the singular Neil Pattison. I’m told that this is a minority position but I’m of the view that this piece of work is one of the most grown up and full on poems that it has been my privilege to read and I’m now going to try and explain why.

Before this entirely floundering attempt at clarity, I need to disclose that I am in possession of a paragraph or so from Neil that gives some background to the work in question. I have not yet read this paragraph, I may never read this paragraph.

Slow Light as Full On Poetry.

‘Full on’ is a technical term that probably requires a degree of qualification. When applied to the innovative faction of poetry, the term denotes work that refuses to compromise, that shows minimal interest in being of assistance to the reader, that just doesn’t do the dramatic flourish. It can be argued, for example, that Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’ marks a bit of a lean away from the full on and towards the flourish. ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and ‘Stress Position’ both contain large amounts of readerly assistance and lashings of flourish and therefore cannot be considered to be full on.

It was the full on nature of these poems that first drew me in as in:

          the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines 
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over

I’ll get on to the meaning/obscurity thing later but now I want to draw attention to the nature of the ‘voice’ which is clearly saying what needs to be said and the phrasing which is striking (‘a fixed wing / you fled over’, ‘suns inlet solutions of landscape’) but also concerned only with being precise rather than working for effect. The other aspect about the absence of compromise is that you recognise quite quickly those poems that are going to draw you in and hold your attention for a number of months. In my case this only applies to full on poems that are compelling in other ways- there are many poems that refuse to compromise that I casn’t be bothered with.

>Slow Light as Grown Up Poetry

This also requires a degree of explanation. There are poems that take ‘easy’ positions on complex subjects, there are poets who stubbornly cling on to a distinctly adolescent world view and there are poets who want to show off. These are not grown up. Examples of grown up work would include most of Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and David Jones’ The Anathemata and R S Thomas’ late poems.

‘Slow Light’ is grown up because it avoids easy options and seems determined to set out an angry and urgent view of how things are:

Meant in this wood, in
this stone. Winter and block, as means
of operation, as
means of exchange
That you must disown now
has no purchase :

I think we can argue about the means of exchange / no purchase thing but I think it’s clear that we’re meant to think rather than to be impressed.

Slow Light as obscure poetry.

I think the above examples might indicate that this sequence inhabits the more ‘difficult’ end of the poetic spectrum in that it isn’t entirely clear what is being referred to and that there’s a degree of ambiguity which indicates a number of meanings/intentions.

When I wrote about Neal’s earlier work last year, I expressed some concern about the obscurity of one of the references but I’m not too sure that I’m still bothered by this. I’d also like to draw a distinction between the difficult and the obscure. The latter occurs when a reference is used that may not be familiar (Geoffrey Hill and Bradwardine, Simon Jarvis and Origen, Simon Jarvis and Adorno’s ‘real’ name etc. etc.) whereas difficulty occurs when the structure and use of language combine to make meaning or intention less than apparent. Of course, poems can be both obscure and difficult, the four poems that I’ve just read from Hill’s forthcoming collection would appear to fall into this category.

One of my least favourite obscurities is the unattributed use of the foreign phrase mainly because of its obvious elitism. I have to report that ‘Slow Light’ does contain one German phrase but it is attributed to Melanchthon and is relatively straightforward to translate. It could be argued that Melanchthon is a relatively obscure figure but we can at least check out the circumstance in which his remark may have been made.

The difficulty with this particular sequence is on at least two levels, some of the phrases are strange in themselves and there isn’t an obvious progression from one phrase to the next:

as you went out,   becoming small   in the country 
speeding, glazed in : Pace ballots on
into the entrails
new white speed will index in her blood :

(I’ve tried to keep the spacing accurate in the first and second lines, throughout the sequence, there is a space between the end of a word and the colon.)

I freely confess to not yet having a clear understanding with regard to either subject or meaning and that I’m still trying to get all four poems into my brain at once (they’re all quite short) and have thus far found the repeats on infancy and hands more than enough to be concerned about. What I do know is that, as with Prynne, there’s more than enough here to keep me gripped and involved for the foreseeable future.

Odd Poetry, Strange Poetry

I am an acknowledged fan of the odd and can fully appreciate that oddness has an important place in poetry (the inclusion of Black Beauty in ‘Stress Position’, Simon Jarvis’ excessive interest in the details of the British road network, Geoffrey Hill’s pale imitations of bad stand-up comedians etc) but the strange is another matter as it leads to questions rather than feelings of indulgent amusement. There’s a lot of the strange in ‘Slow Light’ and this is probably what makes it compelling. “Gloze edging flouresces”, “cored / optic of pure courting is” “in weaning light that house break” are a small sample of just how strange the sequence is and I find this daangerously involving.

I’m told that not many people like ‘Slow Light’ and I readily accept that it may not be to everyone’s taste but I for one believe that it is by far the best thing that Neil has done and that it makes a significant contribution to poetry.

One Quibble

The use of colons and semi colons like : this is : annoying and more than a little mannered for my taste- Hill has started doing something similar which is also annoying, as if | wasn’t bad enough.

‘Slow Light was first published in 2008 in ‘Pilot’ 2 (a magazine edited by Matt Chambers at SUNY andI understand that it will be included Mountain Press in Neil’s ‘The Green Book’ collection in the reasonably near future- I intend to write about a least one other excellent poem from this before then.

Difficult syntax in Hill, Prynne, Jarvis and Neil Pattison.

I’ve been goaded into this by Lachlan Mackinnon’s disparaging reference to Hill’s ‘tortured’ syntax in ‘Clavicles’ and by reading Jack Baker’s useful paper on “The Burden of Authentic Expression in the Later Poetry of Geoffrey Hill”. Thinking about how best to get this particular gripe off my chest, I have come to the conclusion that a comparative survey of those that take syntactical innovation to extremes might be more productive than simply having yet another rant about Mackinnon.

Mucking around with syntax is commonly justified by the normal poetic bleat that the language is not adequate to give voice to the poet’s finer feelings and deeper thoughts. Such manipulation is often used to disguise the fact that the poet has nothing to say- whilst acknowledging these pitfalls I want to try and show why and how really accomplished poets to produce stunning work.

I want to start with a rough and ready definition of syntax- the way in which phrases and sentences are put together.

I also want to propose that good poems are a site of many different kinds of struggle and one of the most telling is the one that engages with the standard English phrase and/or sentence.

Sometimes this engagement can lead the reader to new heights of bafflement. My current favourites are ” To the / chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach / luminous” (Neil Pattison) and “At for to.” (J H Prynne). Baker makes the following comparison -“But, whereas many of Hill’s peers, from John Ashbery to J.H. Prynne, revel in linguistic indeterminacy, the poet-figure in Hill’s recent work emerges as one who strives to resurrect language, to preserve its capacity for “eloquence and apprehension” against the destructive tendencies of the age.” I think this is absolutely correct about Hill and I can see that Ashbery’s output is about 85% revel but I think he’s wrong about Prynne.

I do however think there is a key difference between Hill and Prynne in that Hill loves language and Prynne doesn’t. Hill’s best work is characterised by an increasingly vivid tussle to get language to do what it is capable of, to realise its full potential at the hands of the poet. Prynne, on the other hand sees language as perpetually tainted and that the structure of language reflects and underpins the worst aspects of our culture. Jarvis and Neil Pattison both seem to fit somewhere in between but nevertheless produce work that bears evidence of different types of conflict.

Here’s Prynne in his ‘quick riposte’ to Peter Handke in Quid 6-

Of course it is rather easy to ‘see what he means’; and the history of Europe in this century is full of those terrible events supposed to have traduced or contaminated language, along with those sorrowful bystanders, perched upon some peak of purity, who can bewail the loss of a model of rational, passionate and poetic discourse that would somehow resist the ruptures of historical process. But, how silly. Warfare between nations is most often waged across language-frontiers, as a fiercely linguistic event, even if often for reasons not fully conscious or not admitted into full public view; but the mounting up of a war programme, in advance of the hostilities and to justify their methods, is a concatenation of intensely linguistic processes, in which the whole identity and propensity of individual language-histories are worked into the deepest complicity. By the time that war ‘breaks out’, that is, is declared by one nation or tribal cohort confident of subjugating another, the cascade of positional alterations to language use has been largely completed.

I don’t think that Prynne is saying that language is inherently evil or morally flawed but that it is often a kind of willing partner in Very Bad Things.

Then we have this longer passage from ‘George Herbert, Love III’-

Well, language is imperfect and is damaged by sin, not least in relation to man’s conception of his own self, inner and outer, puffed up with tendency to vainglory and selfishness even in moments of the most vehemently powerful moments of exchange with the divine. The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front-loaded selfhood. What the reader has in this poem is what is discoverable in its fallible language and we are to reconstruct what may be its near-full spiritual significance, by linguistic acts, by scrutiny of searching and minute kind. This is sacred philology and hermeneutics, ancient practices which are root-based.

But in the human encounter with belief-moments the reader is not pursuing the practice of assimilation to the world of language and experience outside the self, as situated in a distinct historical or cultural era, or not this merely. The reader is also intimately drawn into this focus of experience as given form and purpose by belief or the question of it: and this self-interior focus is also in large part linguistic.

Needless to say, there isn’t much here that I agree with and some of it seems to be obviously incorrect but it does give us a clear pointer as to what Prynne might be about. It’s also striking that this notion of a language damaged by sin and its structure performing some of the less desirable features of our national character should be expressed with such clarity and vehemence.

In the interests of balance, I want to weigh this against what Hill says at the start of the ‘Weight of the World’ essay-

Questions of accessibility turn upon matters of context. In both sacred and secular writings we may receive, at any instance, a sense of things inaccessible suddenly made accessible, where grammar and desire are miraculously at one. The effect may appear to be studied (as in Milton or Hopkins) or spontaneous (as in the Wesleys or Wordsworth); what delights and silences us is the sustained moment of communion between the two kinds of eloquence and apprehension.

So, for Prynne, the structure of language is to be attacked and our blithe assumptions about it (neutrality, innocence) are to be confronted and undermined on the way to declaring ‘how things are’. The price for this is the charge of obscurity and elitism.

Whereas Hill is in a struggle, wrestling and moulding language in the hope of reaching that point where the creative impulse and language structure are ‘miraculously unified’

Now I need some examples to indicate what I’m trying to say. With Prynne I think it can be shown that the broad arc of the last thirty years has been a more and more uncompromising attack culminating in the magnificently austere ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ of 2009.

Thirty years (ish) takes us back to ‘Oval Windows’ from 1983. The second poem in the sequence shows some sign of an early attack:

Formerly in a proper tonic, the rain
would pelt and cure by the foam inlet.
Smartly clad they could only panic
through the medium itself, rabbit by proxy.
On both sides smart guidance ex-stock
makes for home like a cup cake over.
Don't stare:
Police aware:
it is a defect coma and it shows;
try it on, see if they'd want to care.

I don’t want to undertake any kind of analysis of meaning or intention but I do want to point out where the syntax is being attacked. To start with most of the ‘rules’ are honoured, sentences make a kind of sense and are self-contained but some commas are missing and we are not at all clear what/who ‘it’ and ‘they’ refer to in the last two lines.

There is a project to be undertaken mapping the ‘syntax arc’ which I might do for Arduity but here I want to magically leap into 2009:

As to for a mint action bare sender add mantric, bare
cradle invention socket burden to saturate. To ramble his
for glimpse for insert her his pinnate to foramen custom
topic indecision failer for. At for was para fusing flim

This is the first quatrain of the eleventh poem in the sequence and is representative of the kind of attack that goes on throughout. I chose this because the first three words are echoed in the sentence ‘At for to.’ in the fifth quatrain.

The attack is of such force that phrases that do ‘follow the rules’ stand out in stark relief (pun intended). This poem has ‘Skim the lines’ and ‘Did they wear better’ but the rest is very much in the same state as the lines above.

Now we come to Geoffrey Hill. This inevitably involves some discussion of where the dividing line in his trajectory occurs. Jack Baker seems to place one line prior to ‘Canaan’ in 1996 and to another between ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ in 2000 whilst others identify ‘Triumph of Love’ as the turning point. I’m going to play safe and use ‘The Pentecost Castle’ sequence from ‘Tenebrae’ which was published in 1978 and this year’s ‘Clavicles’. This contrast enables me to make my point without getting mired in the before/after debate and is also appropriate because of the two
epigraphs. The first is from W B Yeats:

It is terrible to desire and not
possess and terrible to possess
and not desire.

and the second is from Simone Weil:

What we love in other human
beings is the hoped for satisfaction
of our desire. We do not love their
desire. If what we loved in them
was their desire, then we should
love them as ourself.

I don’t often get all soppy about poetry but ‘The Pentecostal Castle’ sequence is heartbreakingly beautiful. Re-reading it today I’ve become more aware of both its humanity and lyrical strength. It’s also a supreme example of personal and intellectual honesty. This is the eighth poem:

And you my spent heart's treasure
my yet unspent desire
measurer past all measure
cold paradox of fire

as seeker so forsaken
consentingly denied
your solitude a token
the sentries at your side

fulfilment to my sorrow
indulgence of your prey
the sparrowhawk the sparrow
the nothing that you say.

Again, I’m not going to worry about meaning but look at the nature of the struggle with language. The first thing to note is the absence of punctuation and this can be read as a list of twelve semi-autonomous phrases or three self contained sentences. The phrases make sense and are constructed in accordance with ‘normal’ English. The sequence as a whole can be thought of as a wonderful meditation on the many dimensions of desire but there is not yet any real sign of overt struggle.

I’ve chosen poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence because I think that it is likely to have been in Mackinnon’s mind when he described Hill’s syntax as ‘tortured’. This is the first part of the poem before we get to the ‘wings’:

Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.
Name-acclaim once-
Reclaimed ransom
Truth from figment.
Picks its fragment
Somewhere such a kingdom
Roughed assonance.
Judith of Bethulia's well wrested
Calm. How controverted we have become,
Questor quested;
Outside the frame
You can't draw from
Old dense pin-stabbed Bible
Somewhere is sacramental belonging.
Here we find but banking with God's grammar
Strung unstringing
Grace from chance, worked like a novice stammer.

I would argue that this exemplifies Hill’s battle with language rather than his torture of it. The phrases make sense, there are properly formed sentences and with a bit of work we can see what he’s trying to get at. If heightened language is what marks poetry out from prose, isn’t this a good example of how this can be done?

So far we have struggle and attack as ways of confronting language and must now move on to the subversive practices of Simon Jarvis.

I think that it is reasonable to assume that Jarvis has a problem with contemporary poetry of all shades in that he doesn’t even try to do what he wants it to. He has therefore launched a two-pronged attack on the form and the way we think about the form. This is achieved by using poetry to attack poetry. The two prongs are at the opposite ends of the poetic spectrum, at one end is the defiantly metrical 250+ pages of ‘The Unconditional’ which looks like poetry and behaves like poetry but uses digression to defy the reader’s stamina and ability to keep up. A very much lighter version of this is ‘Bacarole’ on the Claudius App which looks like a poem but uses very extended sentences and clauses to disrupt any readerly attempt at conventional understanding. At the other end of the spectrum there is ‘Dionysus Crucified’- I’ve written about some of its more outlandish strategies before and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but it is difficult to imagine anything more radically ‘free’ that doesn’t descend into nonsense.

What I think I’m trying to say is that the Jarvis project involves the skilled use and manipulation of language to take aim at current poetic discourse and practice and is a much more effective strategy than most of those attempted in the last fifty years. In terms of syntax mangling, even on the very experimental ‘cross’ page the only clear example is ‘He needs stabbed in a throat’.

Now we come to Neal Pattison who has been known to add helpful comments to this blog and who is also a very accomplished poet. I want to use an extract from the prose poem ‘Curve, Indifference’ which was published in ‘Preferences in 2006 because it deploys a very different approach to syntax that produces a quite complex effect:

This we in the litchen attest. This afternoon is. By
stone reaches. Sunlight warms to a limit room, its
loving parallel : there are in stones her junctures
attested, and the low reaches bed cool with talk's 
mantle. Locators in pliancy instruct with cherubic
levity. The lips of earth, the breast and eyes attest
we mean extraction : these accidental of discre-
tionary will by chalk banked drop embed these 
only reaches accidental lip. You are awake. To the 
chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach,

I’ve written about the Preferences collection before and probably need to write a longer piece to do it full justice but I’d now like to use the above to try and show how Neil uses syntax to heighten and intensify what is being said and also to display and withdraw at the same time. The repetition of attest and the subject/verb inversion when this is used, the deliberate placing of the colons between the words rather than immediately after the preceding word, the temporal progress from afternoon to night, the use of emphasis in the most conventional sentence are all used with great skill both to heighten and intensify what is being said. The greater subtlety lies in the things that are left unsaid, that ‘sense’ is being pointed towards but not actually displayed.

So, poets can do complex things with syntax and some of us find this one of its greatest attractions. In fact, with a few honourable exceptions, poets that don’t do things with syntax tend to be quite dull and banal. The primary exception is, of course, Elizabeth Bishop.

The Unconditional, Streak~~Willing and Preferences are available from Barque Press, Dionysus Crucified is available from Grasp Press, Clavics and the Collected Prynne (for Oval Windows) are both generally available.

Secret poems, obscure poems

Some months ago I wrote about Neil Pattison’s “Preferences” collection and commented on his reference to Steven Malkmus in ‘Spoils’. Neil and I then had some correspondence and Neil indicated that he thought this reference was secretive rather than obscure. I now know what the ‘secret’ is and it’s safe to say that no amount of digging around in Pavement lyric sheets is going to reveal it but this exchange did set off a train of thought that I haven’t been able to get rid of.

Most good poetry gets charged with the sin of obscurity and this usually means the use of allusion or direct references to out-of-the way bits of information and this is supposed to be a Bad Thing. Hill is frequently accused of this and his response is that he doesn’t want to insult the intelligence of his readers. References to Bradwardine and Gabriel Marcel may not be part of mainstream liberal knowledge but they are clearly signposted and any reader is able to follow these through. The reference to the ‘grinning cake’ in Comus is not signposted in any way and is therefore secret to Hill even though Tom Day has made a brave stab at interpretation.

Then there’s extreme obscurity which is where the knowledge exists in the public domain but readers are not given a clue where to begin. John Wilkinson has recently pointed out in Glossator that Prynne’s use of “rap her to bank” in ‘Word Order’ is a quote from a coal miners’s song yet this isn’t indicated as an allusion or reference in the poem. The relevant section reads-

Would you take a chance on it
or take a cut, in the cavity
rap her to bank:nothing

This is certainly obscure but is it secretive? It could be argued that the phrase is distinctive enough to be read as a quote and that readers with a knowledge of miner’s songs would recognise it. on the other hand, for the rest of us, the meaning will remain hidden.

Then there’s wilful obscurity. Ezra Pound prompted Eliot to change the epigraph from Conrad’s “The horror!” quote in ‘Heart of Darkness” to a quote from ‘The Satyricon’ (In Latin and Greek) on the grounds that “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation” even though Eliot found it to be “elucidative”.

Now we come to secrecy which may occur in a number of ways. I’m defining secrecy as something that the poet writes but does not intend to be ‘discovered’. I read something recently about Celan that said that a particular poem only makes sense if you know what Celan did on a visit to a city and what he saw there. Celan has also famously described his poems as ‘a message in a bottle’ which can only be fully grasped by those who ‘find’ them.

In Pattison’s case, I’m in a privileged position because I’m now ‘in’ on the nature of the secret but I still have to ask why it was inserted in the first place in a poem that was published. I like to think of myself as being an attentive reader and would probably worked my way through Pavement lyrics till I found the reference, looked at it in context and ended up none the wiser or have extrapolated ‘meaning’ that wasn’t actually there. It could be argued of course that the secret is an integral part of the poem and that it ‘fits’ with one or more of the themes but in order to make a judgement on that you need to know that it’s a secret.

So, the poet flags up an image or a piece of information and then (by not elaborating) withdraws it from sight. It could be argued that Prynne does this too- the above reference isn’t signalled by quotation marks nor is it long enough for the rest of us (if we know that it’s a quote) to follow through. Perhaps I should have found the Pavement quote and extrapolated from there thus making a meaning that wasn’t intended, perhaps that’s what secrecy/withdrawal is about.

Neil Pattison’s ‘Preferences’

I need to start this with a number of caveats. Neil Pattison has made a number of valuable contributions to this blog and I think we’ve agreed to disagree on a number of points. I came across ‘Preferences’ (one of those small Barque productions) before I made the connection between the ‘Neil’ who was telling me that academic language is okay really and that I should read Wordsworth and the poet. The Barque blurb caught my eye because it contained an excerpt that seemed both intriguing and quite startling.

The second caveat concerns difficulty. I’m spending a lot of time thinking and reading about difficulty in the arts and think I can tell the difference between ‘valid’ difficulty and wilful obscurity. On opening ‘Preferences’ I realised that this was difficult stuff, what I didn’t foresee was how much the poems would get under my skin.

I’m compiling a scale of difficulty in contemporary poetry, at the top comes Jeremy Prynne closely followed by Dan Beachy-Quick followed by Neil Pattison who is a long way in front of both Keston Sutherland and Geoffrey Hill. The other recent addition is Simon Jarvis who is very difficult but in a completely different (and original) way. Needless to say, all of these perpetrate valid difficulties (I tend to follow George Steiner on this) unlike some of our trendier charlatans who aren’t really worth the effort.

So, I made the mistake of trying to read Pattison at the same time as Jarvis and Matthias. I thought this would be like alternating between Prynne and Sutherland which I found to be fairly straightforward. These three demand a different kind of attention and I have found the need to concentrate on each at a time.

Now we come to the name dropping problem. There are five poems in ‘Preferences’ and in the second (‘Spoils’) reference is made to Stephen Malkmus. As far as I am aware, this can only refer to the lead guitarist of an American band called Pavement who put out three albums in the nineties. I know this because I was a bit of a fan at the time and even attended a gig to promote the third album. I was a fan because the lyrics were reasonably esoteric and the music was quite unlike the rest of what was around.  So, I’m familiar with Malkmus but I still don’t understand what ‘Stephen Malkmus / skates in the traffic’ is doing in the second part of  ‘Spoils’ although my research thus far has failed to find skating in the traffic as a line/image in the second Pavement album (my children, I discover, have stolen the other two).

The other name to be dropped is ‘Gyorgy’ as in ‘Gyorgy, / bow the steel’ which occurs in ‘How do we look’ and I’m taking this to be a reference to Ligeti because he’s the only musician I know of with this forename. Again, I’m a fan of Ligeti and know a lot about his life and work but I still don’t have a clue as to what he’s doing in this poem.

On a first read through ‘Preference’ looks like Prynne and sounds like Prynne. There’s the same oblique phrasing, the surprising word choice and the refusal to  make it in any way ‘easy’ for the reader. On subsequent readings it becomes clear that there’s a lot more going on and the Prynne influence seems to lose its prominence. Some of the phrasing, for example, seems to echo Hill when he’s making a point and some of the terse statements (and the way these are used) are fairly unique.

The first piece, ‘Curve, Indifference’, consists of eight prose paragraphs – here’s the sixth:

“The file is of clement as its frontier shaded. Reasonably dry make rising grey interrupt is then tamer and again vocational, attempts being these armed in crease of clemency, skinned to the belt’s noose. Strung calypso post, assurance baked orange. His teeth.”

This provides us devotees of difficulty with a wide range of avenues to follow. How can a file be clement (unless the file is a queue rather than a dossier)? Should there really be a gap between ‘in’ and ‘crease’? What should we do with the ambiguity in ‘Strung calypso post’? Whose teeth and why?

This kind of stuff has kept me busy for the last few weeks and the process is just as involving (and less baffling) as making sense of Prynne. To be fair, this is the most obdurate of the paragraphs in ‘Curve, Indifference’ but the rest in’t that much more straightforward.

I’d like to finish this with an example from ‘Spoils’ which I think demonstrates both the eccentricity and the quality of Pattison’s work: ‘Inane flecks in the jargon. Permeated, / operational text regalia / maunders through the scart. Bright redundancy /  blocs commit the route, touting bricolage / to the commonable haul of auction.”

Flecks in the jargon, text regalia, maundering, bricolage that’s touted, wonderful.

‘Preferences’ is available from Barque’s website.