Tag Archives: Samuel Beckett

Keston Sutherland: the Dot Investigation

Regular readers will know that I’ve had a recent peeve (technical term) about the dot that appears in section II of Stress Position and annoyingly re-emerges in The Odes to TL61P. Since then, thanks to the infinite and not-to-be-questioned power of the interweb, several new possible justifications have been put to me and I have been gently reminded that I omitted the Dot in the Foot. I’ve also had a question put to me which I need to quote in full:

I wonder has there ever been a word in your life that has oddly just stuck around or hung in the air or returned obstinately to your mind without ever fully or altogether disclosing its charge of significance or range of associations?

I do want to address this at some length but first I want to report on my Dot Findings.

It turns out that the dot is not an annoyingly empty affectation, indeed it has a very clear origin and ‘meaning’. Thanks again to the power of the interweb I now have a digitised copy of an essay entitled “Poetry and Subjective Infinity” by Keston Sutherland which I am told pre-dates SP.

I think it is only fair to warn the uninitiated that Keston is much more Marxist than your average Marxist and what follows contains more than a little of Karl and may require some sympathy with a leftist position. We start with a childhood dream:

I would return to the labyrinth, resentful and awkward with grief, consciously unable to comprehend the reality that this cycle of meaningless labour in infinite abstraction would go on eternally, that it would go on being interrupted at regular intervals in order that the alien law could be reaffirmed, and that this whole cycle played out in absolute abstraction emptied of all sensuous content was not only inescapable, but that it was somehow the very pattern of necessity itself, and that my whole life would be spent in the dutiful repetition of this cycle, and that I would never understand why or to what end. In the dream I was a dot in infinity. When I woke up, I was a child standing in the living room in my pyjamas, drenched in sweat, convulsively screaming noises, and my father and sister were standing in front of me, nervously attempting to wake me, their two adjacent faces twisted up in worry and astonishment.

We then move on to Becket’s Imagination Dead Imagine from which this is quoted:

No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

Now, you will be pleased to know that, to further this investigation, I have just read all three pages of Imagination Dead Imagine. This isn’t any kind of burden for me because Becket’s prose has been a lifelong companion and I like to think that I have a reasonable grasp of the work. In this particular piece the scene is set with great precision and two prone and motionless figures are subjected to variations in temperature and light. The ‘speck lost in whiteness’ is first described as “Externally all is as before and the sighting of the little fabric quite as much a matter of chance, its whiteness merging into the surrounding whiteness”. There is then an analysis of the grammatical structure before this explanation of the speck:

The figure of the speck lost in infinity is something like the test of this proposition. It is the image of life contracted into a terminally punctual abstraction, jettisoned in a world from which it is absolutely impotent to escape, and which it can never hope even in the slightest degree to alter, disrupt or influence. To be absolutely impotent and absolutely lost in the world is not yet to be dead; but as Beckett often only seems to joke, the difference is in truth indifferent.

This is followed by Marx’s dot or his use of the term Puntualitat which is translated for us as ‘dotlikeness’ and is used by Marx (apparently) to describe the appearance of the individual under the “despotism” of capital. The point is also made that capital “assumes the role of infinity.”

I’m going to glide over the discussion that follows about the (no doubt) complex relationship between Marx and Hegel because it seems to be more about infinity that The Dot. There’s also a fair bit about the way that capital empties out the worker.

The essay ends with a rousing and heartfelt description of what poetry can and must do which starts with:

To be the critic of political economy, really to be the active enemy of capital and not its sycophant, requires poetry: speculation as the work of subjectively infinite self-conscious reflection must be kept alive in poetry.

and:

It has always seemed to me that the image of the dot lost in infinity, the image of absolutely belittled life horrifyingly forever adrift in infinite emptiness, is a basic experiential content of poetry. I have not written a poem I care about that was not in some more or less explicit way determined by that image and my horror of it.

So, I stand corrected – the dot does have a specific significance and meaning in Keston’s work and practice and is not, as I cynically suggested, a mere stylistic tic. There are however a couple of thoughts that this investigation has prompted for me. The first of these is the underlying and (to me) key difference between Becket’s speck and Marx’s punkt. The latter would appear to be a product of an economic system and would disappear if that system was overthrown. The first has always been our reality and will remain so throughout our existence regardless of the contexts in which we live. For Becket struggle and striving are always futile because they always end in a paricularly unremitting kind of failure.

The next point (entirely intentional} that I think needs to be made is that being an active enemy of capital does not require poetry any more than it requires light opera. This seems so blindingly self-evident to me that I cannot understand how very bright people whose work I have the greatest respect for should continue to make this entirely spurious piece of grandiosity. Poetry may be many wonderful things but it is neither essential nor, in any way, special. End of short and oft-repeated rant.

I think I also need to point out the absolute sincerity of Keston’s views on this, I have no doubt that his belief in the power of poetry is keenly felt and probably is the ingredient (technical term) that gives his work its brilliance and strength. I just think he’s wrong.

I’m not going to re-examine each particular dot here because that’s probably best left to individual readers although I may feel the need to return to the dot in the foot and the Capo dot at a later stage.

The Odes To TL61P of Keston Sutherland (at last)

This is the short version of this blog: It’s published, it’s a landmark, buy it.

That was fairly easy, the long version is much more daunting. But first of all I need to point out that we all owe a huge debt to Peter Target at Enitharmon for bringing this material to the wider world. The daunt stems from a couple of things:

  • I’ve written about the Odes here and on arduity before when they were in gestation and I don’t want to repeat myself;
  • I’m mindful of Peter Philpott’s comments re arduity and I don’t want to be explaining the late modern offside rule (again);
  • it won’t be easy to put into sensible words just how significant this stuff is.

I’ll start on a purely personal level, I disagree with Keston’s Marxist analysis of where we are now in terms of social and economic development, I’m ‘against’ confessional poetry for the same reason that Michael Drayton was against it in the 1590s. I worry about poems that aim to shock. Therefore, I should not be nodding my head and smiling as I read these pages, I should not be using terms like significant and landmark. However, I do and I have and I’ve een trying to work out why.

For me, as an increasingly frequent poem maker, the Odes provide an additional dimension to what poems (rather than poetry) can do and I haven’t felt this as clearly since reading ‘Crow’ when I was 15. I think I felt this when I first saw the drafts but reading the proof has strengthened that feeling. I’m nearly 58 and I’ve been paying attention to contemporary poetry since I was 13 and most of it is dismally similar. The additional possibilities that the Odes open up are about ‘doing’ personal honesty and being able to sustain political acuity over 70 pages without sliding into polemic or becoming boring.

It’s quite a big claim to describe a poem as a landmark and I have thought quite hard (for once) about this particular noun which I can justify. In the history of the poem there are some poems that stand out as ‘game changers’, poems that break many of the accepted norms and yet still manage to work and to push others in a radically new dimension. Of course there are many of these landmarks that work and are radically different but fail to change the game. The Odes are a landmark because they stand head and shoulders above anything else in the last forty years in terms of innovation, technical brilliance and absolute honesty and more than deserve to change the game in quite fundamental ways.

The danger is that they won’t and this is because of the level of defiant intelligence shining out from these lines. In the past I’ve expressed more than a little disdain for the late modern reliance on obscure words and foreign phrases because it smacks of elitism and deters (intimidates) most readers of ‘serious’ poetry. The Odes are not littered with these but there are enough to worry me. This no longer annoys me because (I think) doing arduity on Jones and Celan has demonstrated that (in good, honest work) this material if often essential in enabling a poet to say what must be said. This isn’t excusing those poets who use the obscure and the foreign to disguise the fact that they don’t have very much at all to say. Keston Sutherland however has lots to say and most of what he says is really quite important.

My usual method of road testing this kind of material is to show it to intelligent and normally receptive readers of poetry for a reaction. The current reaction to the first page is positive but people begin to fall over on the second with ‘Eriphile’, ‘squamous epithelium’ and ‘squamocolumnar junction’ and fail to proceed any further whilst glancing at me with a look of bemused sympathy.

We now come to significant as in “sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy; consequential, influential” (OED) and I’m justifying this by the nature of the rupture that it inflicts on the scheme of things. It is utterly different from anything else and it rents asunder many of our (mine) notions of what the poetic may be about. In fact it is this wrongness that demands attention because it works when it really shouldn’t and it shouts this fact with a kind of joyous intransigence. I often struggle with justifying my notion of what works as opposed to what doesn’t- in this instance The Odes work because they demonstrate verbal brilliance together with considered intensity that sweeps the reader (me) along without a technically duff note along the way and yet I know that this mix of analysis and disturbingly personal confession shouldn’t function especially when the analysis is old-school Marx and the confessional relates to accounts of childhood sexual experimentation and the uncomfortable fact that children have an ‘interest’ in sex too.

Of course it can be argued that I’m of this view because I was sent early drafts and this has in some way clouded my perspective. I don’t think this is the case, I like to think that I’m (unfortunately) sufficiently aware of the dangers of ‘capture’ and the halo effect to know when the soul has been sold but it is nevertheless a possibility that I acknowledge.

Of course there’s subtexts that I want to be present but might not be, for example we’re going to see ‘Not I’ at the Royal Court on the 25th because it’s a significant landmark in world literature and because I’ve never seen it live. The first part of Ode 1 has this:


    canal bound in stratified squamous epithelium to
    an alternatively screaming mouth, destined while
    dying inside to repeat before dying outside one
    last infinity of one-liners before snapping and giving
    up, or better yet pretending to, once you get it, once
    that is you really get it at all, or not at all, directly into

Needless to say, I’m now going to spend some time with my 1973 copy to work out if I’ve ever really got it even though the above might be about something else entirely.

The other it of affinity occurs with the observation that “if it’s not interesting to read what’s the point of doing it”. It just so happens that I’m putting on a series of poetry / music / storytelling and art events at our local arts centre and because this is not an audience of poets and poetry readers and I’m charging money at the door then the issue of interestingness in my own work is currently at the front of my mind and I have to report that poems that argue with what Levinas said about Celan in 1978 are not at all interesting whereas material about personal and political violence is. Needless to say, The Odes re endlessly interesting and full of stuff to think about, throw across the room and argue with. They must be read. Now.

Keston Sutherland on Beckett and embellishment

I’ve just bought Sutherland’s ‘Stupefaction’ which contains four long essays. I haven’t yet read any of these but there is something in the introduction to the ‘Wrong Poetry’ essay that I feel I need to respond to. I’ve written about a shorter version of this and will be interested to see the direction that the longer one takes.

The introduction starts with Hegel on knowledge and goes on to attack Yirmiyahu Yovel’s 2005 translation of the preface to the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t care about Hegel and am remarkably relaxed about this, Hegel is not one of those thinkers that causes those feelings of inadequacy in this auto-didact that Bourdieu describes so acutely. I can however share in the anger that is felt when a translation does a disservice to the original. I remember my sense of violation on reading a recent and very bad translation of ‘Orlando Furioso’ and I continue to despair at the plaudits that John Felsteiner received for his skewed translation of Celan. So, I can understand this kind of getting cross especially when Yovel states that he has ‘followed the letter of the original Hegelian text….using straightforward contemporary style and avoiding literary embellishment’ and goes on to tell us ‘I broke Hegel’s long sentences or simplified their structure, I also omitted his italics’. You don’t have to care about Hegel to comprehend the monumental stupidity of such a strategy in any context. It is therefore reasonable that Sutherland should scathe but he does so (in part) with this- “Every reader of Beckett will know that literature is not so easily avoided, and that nothing embellishes like simplification and ommission”.

The first piece of unpacking that needs to be done with this is about the sneer that lurks within. I’m fond of the ‘anybody’ device, my current favourite being ‘anybody who has thought about this for longer than thirty seconds will know….” because it implies that the object of my scorn either hasn’t given this much thought or that he or she is actually incapable of reflective/analytical thinking. Throwing something specific into the mix does raise the stakes however because it is creating a specific coterie (readers of Beckett) who are in some way especially aware of these two specific points.

It just so happens that I’m a current and attentive re-reader of Beckett and neither of these assertions spring immediately from the page. I readily accept that there are many different Becketts doing many different things in many different ways but I’m struggling to square either of these with the Beckett that’s in my head.

Let’s start with the avoidance of literature (which is different from the avoidance of “literary embellishment”- something which Sutherland neatly overlooks). I take it that Sutherland intends us to know that Beckett is an example of a writer whose apparent rejection of literary conceits and devices still results in great literature. I don’t think that Beckett does reject or avoid literature, I think the large body of his work from 1945 on over demonstrates an intensification of literary strategies rather than an avoidance of them. There are far too many examples that I can produce to underline this but I’ll try just three. This is from ‘Not I’:

…for her first thought was…oh long after…sudden flash…brought up as she had been to believe…with the other waifs…in a merciful…[brief laugh]…God…[Good laugh]…first thought was…oh long after…sudden flash…she was being punished…for her sins…a number of which then…further proof if proof were needed…flashed through her mind…one after another…then dismissed as foolish…

(The bits is square brackets are Beckett’s stage directions which are in italics in the original.)

This is how ‘Company’ begins:

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.

To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes and again when he opens them again. Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified. As for example when he hears, You first saw the light on such and such a day. Sometimes the two are combined as for example, You first saw the light on such and such a day and now
you are on your back in the dark. A device perhaps from the incontrovertibilitv of the one to win credence for the other. That then is the proposition. To one on his hack in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as vou now are.

Finally this is from ‘The Lost Ones’:

The truth is no searcher can readily forego the ladder. Paradoxically the sedentary are those whose acts of violence most disrupt the cylinder’s quiet.Fourthly those who do not search or non-searchers sitting for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles.

The first thing that I ever understood about Beckett (and here I’m getting quite protective) is that primarily there is a distillation and compression going on rather than an avoidance, that whatever he is doing (like Rothko) is saturated in the practices and effects of what’s gone before and, I would argue, this is what ‘any’ reader should and does know. The above examples aren’t carefully chosen but are from the things I was reading yesterday, my point would be even easier to make if I used any of the longer plays or novels- as anybody who has read Beckett would know.

I’m now going to address the use of ’embellish’ which the OED defines in the following ways:

  1. To render beautiful;
  2. To beautify with adventitious adornments; to ornament;
  3. Now often with sense to ‘dress up’, heighten (a narration) with fictitious additions;
  4. To brighten (in feeling), cheer.

I’m taking it that both parties are using the first part of the third definition. I have absolutely no idea whether Hegel resorted to literary dressing up but I am firmly of the view that (if he did) these should be included- the sentence structure must be retained and the italics left in purely for reasons of obtaining as clear as possible an understanding of what he meant at the time of writing.

Harold Pinter (Nobel prize winner and leading Beckett disciple) once said that he always returned to Beckett because he knew that Beckett would always rub his nose in the shit. I wouldn’t go quite as far as this because there are many more dimensions to Beckett than this. What I would take issue with is whether any of Beckett results in the kind of dressing up that Sutherland implies.

I could go on about this at much greater length- it is remarkable how much stuff Sutherland gives me to think about and argue with and ‘Stupefactions’ will no doubt trigger off a whole load of thoughts.

Finally, I wonder if Beckett is being used to add cachet to the argument, it strikes me that either Joe Luna or Vanessa Place are much more appropriate examples….

Stupefaction is available from Amazon for £12.

A Response from Keston Sutherland

Since this was posted, I’ve had the following response from Keston-

“I’m grateful for your post on that remark in my book _Stupefaction_. I
think our wires may be just a little crossed. Perhaps you remember that
in _Molloy_ Beckett writes “it is not at this late stage in my relation
that I intend to give way to literature” (something like that, that’s
almost but not quite verbatim). His joke is that literature has until
now been successfully altogether avoided and that he means to keep it
that way. Of course the truth is that is was never avoided for a moment.
My point about embellishment is a riposte to Yovel, whose word that is;
but it is also the suggestion that Beckett understood, painfully and at
real cost, that you can’t avoid addition simply by means of subtraction:
in the context of my criticism of Yovel, the point is that every
omission, levelling, normalization into familiar idioms, etc, is in fact
a positive addition to the text, or if you like a “literarization” of
it. Yovel claims that literariness can be trimmed and expunged; I
counterclaim that the trimming and expunging is itself a modality of the
literary (and that no-one understood that fact so well as Beckett). In
any case I certainly didn’t intend a “sneer”. The chapter “Marx in
Jargon” which precedes “Wrong Poetry” and sets the stage for it is an
investigation into the meaning of the idea that “anyone” or “everyone”
could know something, so that when I make that remark in “Wrong Poetry”
it is from a theoretical basis already established earlier in the book.”

Samuel Beckett as Geometer

I was going to write something thoroughly enthusiastic about Beckett’s ‘The Lost Ones’ and ‘Lessness’ making extravagant claims for both as crucial works in 20th century literature. Then I decided to use the above to get to something that’s being nagging away for a while. I also wanted to claim the shorter prose for poetry, suffice it to say that all of the shorter prose (including ‘Texts for Nothing’ and the ‘Fizzles’ sequence) can be successfully read as prose poems.

Beckett’s plays are marked by the precision of his stage directions and some of the later stuff consists mostly of incredibly detailed directions which has led most critics to conclude something about Beckett’s need for control over the way his work is presented to the world. I’m going to argue that, whilst this may be the case, there’s something else going on with regard to the function of structure and structure as process.

For those who doubt the significance of geometry to Beckett, I would refer them to Quadrat 1 – 2 both in performance and in the detail of Beckett’s directions. ‘The Lost Ones’ is of a different order but nevertheless begins with:

Abode where lost bodies roam each searching forits lost one. Vast enough for search to be in vain. Inside a flattened cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high for the sake of harmony.

We are then told that the light inside this structure is yellow and that it oscillates, becomes still and then oscillates again and that the temperature rises and falls between 25 and 5 degrees in a four second cycle that also has brief periods of ‘stability’.
The inside of this structure is lined with rubber and that there are niches or apertures set in the lining but only in the top half of the cylinder.
Before we go any further it is probably as well to say that not very much happens in ‘The Lost Ones’, we are shown how various groups function, some climbing ladders to the niches, others remaining inert, we are told of a number of rules or customs governing the use of the ladders and of the rumours of a way out of the structure but we aren’t given any idea as to the origins of this little world although we are given the strong impression that things will continue in a similar vein ad infinitum.
As with most things Beckett, it is entirely possible to read something dystopic and miserablist into this but a closer and more attentive reading reveals that we are being offered an acute analysis of the political and ideological processes currently at work in the world and of the strivings this involves. The inhabitants of the cylinder are divided into four distinct groups and there are two competing beliefs about the way out of the structure. There is perhaps less emphasis than normal placed on the meaningless and futile nature of this sort of activity as it is given some kind of rationale but all the kinds of activity lead to nothing.
To continue, there is no need to include so much relational detail in this brief piece unless a ‘point’ is being made about the relationship of these dimensions to the figures/people that live within them. At times the detail we are given comes across as being deliberately arch:

They are disposed in irregular quincunxes roughly 10 metres in diameter and cunningly out of line. Such harmony only he can relish whose long experience and detailed knowledge of the niches are such as to permit a perfect mental image of the entire system. But it is doubtful that such a one exists. For each climber has a fondness for certain niches and refrains as far as possible from the others.

This is probably the most significant passage for it blends the geometrical parameters with the inadequacies or failings of the system or customs by which the people function. We are, of course, expected to know what a quincunx is and to pick up on the use of ‘cunningly’.

There does seem to me to be something else going on with this emphasis, as if the detail of the frame is almost of more interest than what it contains and this isn’t just about the essential futility/absurdity of human existence but more about the structure of performance (for the want of a better term) per se.

If we view the beings in ‘The Lost Ones’ as performers and the structure they inhabit as a set then things do become a little easier. I’m not for one moment suggesting that Beckett is meaning that we should view life as ‘merely’ a performance but I think that he is saying that structures and elements within those structures are about staging and that human beings will inevitably respond to structures in certain wearily predictable ways. The people have ladders that they take turns in climbing, there are rules or customs governing the use of the ladders and pandemonium breaks out if these are infringed. There are rumours and speculation about what the ceiling contains but nobody attempts to reach it even though this is technically possible.

The other structural element is the fifteen ladders which can be moved around the inside of the cylinder. Ladders have always had some significance for Beckett both as a means of escape and of a means of isolation as here when a climber exceeds his time in a niche and the ladder is consequently taken away. We are told that some of these ladders have rungs missing which makes climbing difficult and that these rungs are used in fights or in attempts by individuals to ‘brain’ themselves.

The floor of the cylinder is divided into zones-

The bed of the cylinder comprises three distinct zones raised by clear-cut or imaginary frontiers invisible to the eye of flesh. First an outer belt roughly one metre wide reserved for the climbers and strange to say favoured by most of the sedentary and vanquished. Next a slightly narrower inner belt where those weary of searching in mid-cylinder slowly revolve in Indian file intent on the periphery. Finally the area proper representing an area of one hundred and fifty square metres and chosen ground of the majority. Let numbers be assigned to these three zones and it appears clearly that from the third to the second and inversely the searcher moves at will whereas on entering and leaving the first he is held to a certain discipline. One example among a thousand of the harmony that reigns in the cylinder between order and licence.

Before we get on to the importance of that last line, I just want to point out the mordant brilliance of ‘invisible to the eye of the flesh’. It’s in the details of his work that the strength of Beckett’s genius is revealed to us.

The last sentence is key because it indicates the grounds for his insistence on providing us with shape, trajectory and physical dimension. The climbers climb and the searchers search in spite of themselves, they are responding and contributing to the deadening structure around them and responding in particularly painful and futile ways for there is no way out and the only certainty is in the oscillating light and the temperature that continues to rise and fall. Of course it is Beckett who has created this level of precision as he does with his dramatic works and reflects his expressed wish to do away with actors/characters altogether.

As Robert Coover has tellingly described in ‘Spanking the Maid’, sado-masochistic practices are enhanced by both the ritual certainty of calibration and repetition. Those who torture others find it more effective to follow a structured regime- to inflict the right amount of pain for the right length of time etc.

With Beckett nothing is straightforward but I would argue that his extreme us of geometry here and elsewhere does challenge us to think in quite different ways about performance and the expression of that performance. ‘Texts for Nothing and Other Shorter Prose’ is published by Faber and sells for £9.99 in the UK.

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Stealing from Samuel Becket

Being in the middle of what the nice man from the NHS is calling ‘a severe depressive episode’, I shouldn’t be reading Beckett because of his ability to really “rub your nose in the shit” (Pinter). But here I am reading Beckett out loud, to myself and finding the whole thing oddly moving.

In my search for things to read during this period of enforced rest, I’ve looked at Prynne’s ‘Field Notes’ purely on the grounds of density and the opportunity it presents to lose yourself in the arguments that are presented. I started out with good intentions but then found myself getting irritated by some of the more tenuous lines of thought. By chance, I then looked at the epigraphs and was reasonably astonished by this (the third):

Another trait its repetitiousness. Repeatedly with only minor variants the same bygone. As if willing him by this dint to make it his. To confess, Yes I remember. Perhaps even to have a voice. To murmur, Yes I remember. What an addition to company that would be! A voice in the first person singular. Murmuring now and then, Yes I remember.

I’ll worry about that capitalised ‘Y’ later but there are a couple of things that immediately spring to mind. The first is that ‘Field Notes’ was published in 2007, two years before ‘Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian which contains as its epigram a 15th century French lyric which piles up variations on ‘fume’ and that the first poem in the sequence (as I’ve said) really plays around with the repetition theme. So, there’s some kind of link between the two and I would normally dive back into the commentary to see what else is said about repetition.
On this occasion I decided to look at ‘Company’ because one of Vance Maverick’s comments to a previous post had made me think about Beckett and repetition but I hadn’t gone any further than re-reading ‘Lessness’.
For my sins, I haven’t paid serious attention to Beckett for a long while and re-reading ‘Company’ is a reminder of the strength and rigour of the work. It has been said that ‘Company’ can be read as a kind of distillation of all of Beckett’s output. I don’t think this is the case but I do recognise some of the recurring themes, especially in the later work.
Apart from the above-quoted paragraph and one or two phrases, the level of repetition is not high but it is the way in which the phrases are deployed and then commented on that is particularly effective.
By ‘effective’ I think I mean the way that Beckett manages to drag the reader in so that we become participants rather than observers. I’d forgotten how compelling this involvement becomes.
Repetition comes more to the fore with ‘Worstward Ho’ which is more abstract and contains the immortal ‘fail better’ line and appears to take repetitiousness to excess:

Say for now still seen. Dimly seen. Dim white. Two white dim empty hands. In the dim void.

So leastward on. So long as dim still. Dim undimmed. Or dimmed to dimmer still. To dimmost dim. Leastmost in dimmost dim. Utmost dim. Leastmost in utmost dim. Unworsenable worst.

When I started thinking about repetition I certainly didn’t have this level of concentration in mind but this and other examples from the later work do provide4 fertile ground to think this thing through further. One of the things that I wanted to avoid was that repetition or slight variation should make things too ‘busy’ or complicated and it seems (and this is provisional) that Beckett avoids this by the length of the piece which allows him to ‘extend’ phrases in ways that are quite startling but always fairly plain- especially when read aloud…..

Prynne, Hill, Celan and the influence problem

I’ve been giving some thought to the poets that I most admire and the importance or otherwise of thinking about the poets that they most admire or can be said to have been influenced by. I’ve come to the conclusion that we can divide ‘influence’ into two distinct categories. The first of these relates to ‘voice’ by which I mean the way that a poem is phrased and the way in which the poet is heard. The second relates to ‘theme’ by which I mean the subjects that the poet chooses to write about.
Influence works in many ways, we admire the work of another and deliberately emulate some aspects of their work. This does not need to be a conscious process- I’ve been a lifelong fan of the work of R S Thomas but it is only very recently that I’ve realised that most of my stuff has been written in his voice. I wasn’t at all aware of this until I decided that I was beginning to get bored with what I was writing and looked again at thirty years’ output. Ridding myself of that influence has proven to be difficult, the temptation to reach for a hunk of Thomas syntax and/or rhetoric still persists.
On the other hand I have made a conscious effort on occasion to emulate Celan’s later work. So I’ve got notebooks full of allusive three line poems packed with as much ambiguity as I could manage. Needless to say, none of this stuff is any good but I don’t mind the many years spent proving to myself that I couldn’t get anywhere near the strength of voice that Celan possessed.
Then we come to the Eliot problem, I’m not one of those that thinks that Eliot is a universally bad thing. A good deal of my late teens were spent poring over The Wasteland and the Four Quartets and I can still see that the first of these is an important piece of work but I do despair at the influence that Eliot has had on subsequent generations without really moving anything forward. I thinks that Eliot’s influence falls almost completely into the ‘voice’ category although his muddle-headed judgements as a critic have certainly distorted our view of what poetry can and should do for far too long.
This brings me by way of contrast to other modernist strands. Discussion of Paul Celan too often revolves around his reading of and relationship with Martin Heidegger which is interesting but I’m not convinced that Heidegger had as big an influence on the work as Osip Mandelstam who Celan translated and admired. It is eminently possible to hear Mandelstam’s ‘voice’ in Celan’s work after 1965 and both poets are concerned with the same subjects- the first stanza of ‘The night is irredeemable’, written in 1916, could very well have been written by Celan 50 years later. In terms of how this ‘influence’ worked I’m guessing that Celan recognised what Mandelstam was trying to achieve, decided (correctly) that this was important and proceeded to take it further. This kind of influence is very different from imitation/emulation.

We now come to the Prynne problem. It is clear from my recent reading that Prynne is a fully paid-up and possibly founding member of the William Wordsworth fan club. It is also clear that he was one of Charles Olson’s keenest followers. As with all things Prynne, identifying any trace of other works is difficult and when these are found it’s often hard to decide whether or not their use is altogether straight faced.
The ‘Mental Ears’ lecture makes an oblique connection between Wordsworth’s notion of the sublime and Prynne’s occasional use of the word ‘lintel’ but it isn’t immediately apparent that this counts as influence per se. There is also Prynne’s use of ‘O’ which appears to signify the same ardency that it denotes when used by Wordsworth.
Thinking about Olson, I’ve come to realise that Olson’s interest in perception and perspective is one that is shared by Prynne but Olson’s ‘voice’ does not occur in Prynne- except for his first collection which he has since ‘repudiated’. I understand from Keston Sutherland’s Glossator essay on Brass that Prynne and Olson had a falling out just before Olson’s death but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Prynne still holds the work in great esteem- somewhere on the net there’s a pdf file of significant Olson criticism with Prynne’s name at the bottom- this is dated 2007. The other significant influences which aren’t often noted are Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, both of whom have a strong interest in the language/discourse problem. This may be wishful thinking on my part but ‘Word Order’ contains imagery ‘lifted’ straight from Celan whilst the later work contains echoes of Beckett’s residua. None of this detracts from Prynne’s originality but does demonstrate that his work is part of a distinct poetic lineage.
We then come to Geoffrey Hill who is a keen advocate for the work of Hopkins and other, less well known, poets (Gurney, Rosenberg, Herbert etc). Then there is the Ezra Pound problem- the only discernible voice that I can hear faintly resonating around Hill’s finest work. Like Prynne and Celan, Hill is a political poet. He also has strong religious beliefs which he isn’t shy about sharing with the rest of us and his notion of poetry is (to say the least) idiosyncratic. That isn’t to say that Hill is immune to influence but I would suggest that it is more occluded than Prynne and Celan.
Then there’s the ‘horses for courses’ argument- I’m currently trying to write something based on witness statements presented to the Phillips and Saville inquiries and I like what Olson did with the archival records of Gloucester for ‘Maximus’. Am I being influenced if I follow his example and lift straight from the record? Or should I be more allusive? Another strong influence for me is the example set by Emile de Antonio’s documentary films of the sixties and I guess that we all have non-poetic figures standing over us as we write.