Tag Archives: t s eliot

Poetic rupture and innovation.

One of the many challenging things that Michel Foucault said was that progress or innovation proceeds by means of catastrophic rupture rather than gradual change and I’ve been thinking about whether or not this applies to poetry and why some ruptures succeed whilst others fail.

There are two kinds of ruptures:

  • those poems that represent a significant break with the accepted notion of what poetry is;
  • those poems that are a significant move away from the poet’s previous work.

Many would argue that Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is the most obvious rupture in both senses and the most successful in terms of lasting influence. It is possible to see this poem as significantly and radically different from anything before it but I’ve always been of the muddle-headed view that there is a gradual and reasonably logicial progression from ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’ through ‘Gerontion’ to the Ur-text itself. I’m not arguing that ‘The Waste Land’ wasn’t seen at the time as radically different from all that had gone before nor am I saying that it didn’t represent a significant break with the past but I don’t think that it came entirely out of the blue.

This is from ‘Prufrock’:

    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
    (They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, know them all-
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, 
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
       So how should I presume?

There’s a voice within ‘Prufrock’ that is both playfully and intently ambitious, a voice that has a keen interest in how the universe might be disturbed. I think I can also make a case for this early poem with its juxtaposition of the demotic and profound as more modernist than its successor. I’ll also confess to considering everything after ‘Prufrock’ as a bit of a decline.

Eliot had intended to begin ‘The Waste Land’ with ‘Gerontion’ but was dissuaded from doing so by Ezra Pound. I think this might illustrate the point that I am trying to make:

    The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
    Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
    The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
    Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                     I an old man,
    A dull head among windy spaces.
    Signs are taken for wonders. 'We would see a sign!'
    The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
    Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
    Came Christ the tiger.

Given Eliot’s original intentions, it isn’t altogether surprising that many elements of the Waste Land are presaged here, my point is that the rupture isn’t as suddenly as we might think.

By way of contrast, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ was a complete break with what had gone before in his work and was completely out of step with the rest of English poetry of the time. The sequence is in prose and ostensibly concerns Offa, king of the Mercians, but does this by mixing the Anglo Saxon past with the 1971 present in a way that is incredibly accomplished and quite mysteriously evocative. Hill hasn’t published anything like it since and it doesn’t seem to have started any kind of trend. I was fourteen and busy reading ‘Crow’ in 1971 and completely missed this piece of brilliance until about 2005 but it still feels like a major break that should have had much greater effect.

The Prynne trajectory is much easier to trace. ‘Brass’ was also published in 1971 and contained this:

    the immediate body of wealth is not
    history, body-fluid not dynastic. No
    poetic gabble will survive which fails
    to collide head-on with the unwitty circus
              no history running
                  with the French horn running
                         the alley-way, no
                  manifest emergence
              of valued instinct, no growth
                  of meaning & stated order:

Is a head-on collision with the unwitty circus also a rupture or is the essential thing about rupture that it renounces and/or ignores the circus? Does the recent publication of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ mark another significant rupture in Prynne’s work?

Geoffrey Hill isn’t after collisions but he also seems to hold his peers at arms-length, I can make a case for ‘The Triumph of Love’ as a sequence that breaks (ruptures) most of the rules and conventions yet still manages to be defiantly wonderful.

What Foucault didn’t mention was the stupidly high proportion of failed ruptures- those breaks with the past that are not followed by others but are nevertheless just as brilliant as those that succeed. Into this camp I’d place ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘Speke Parrot’ ‘Sordello’ and ‘The Anathemata. There are those that would argue that Langland’s reputation is actually secure and the poem continues to attract critical acclaim but my point is that it wasn’t followed through by others in the same way as Chaucer, Hoccleve and Lydgate. John Skelton was probably deeply dislikeable as a man but his work stands apart from what preceded it and ‘Speke Parrot’ would mark a rupture in any decade but hasn’t influenced anybody since. ‘Sordello’ was a critical and popular disaster but it does shine out as the most ambitious and genuinely innovative poem in the Browning oeuvre- Ezra Pound claimed that he was the only person on the planet who fully appreciated it.

I’ve written many times about the criminal neglect of David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ but the fact remains that it hasn’t been followed and is currently in danger of being forgotten altogether even though some of us regard it as one of the very best poems of the last hundred years. The reasons for this are many and various but pride of place has been given to difficulty and/or obscurity. I’m more inclined to the view that it presented a major challenge to Eliot-inspired modernism and failed to find an audience because it didn’t ‘fit’.

We know come to the rupturist par excellence- Paul Celan’s later work marks a chasm between our current notions of what poetry can do and Celan’s view of what it must do. Most serious poets now recognise Celan as the greatest 20th century poet but few have been brave enough, with the honourable exception of Edmond Jabes to follow in his wake. It is impossible to overstate the violence of this particular rupture which began to tear its way to the surface in the late fifties and continued to Celan’s death in 1970. Suffice it to say that it’s body of work that rips apart all the usual notions of meaning and addresses language as a matter of survival and thinks of the poem carrying the quite desperate potential for an encounter in this struggle for life.

Both Prynne and Celan work at the extremes of ambiguity and allusion, both are rejected for their elitism and obscurity just as both are criticised for writing unpoetry. I’m still of the view that these are the names, above all others that we’ll remember in 200 years’ time.


Poetry and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA’:

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.

Disappointing verse

Since my comments on ‘Oraclau’ last week I’ve been contacted by a long-standing Hill fan (whose views I respect enormously) to say that he thinks that it’s by far the worst thing that Hill has published and that he couldn’t finish it. For me, an avid and attentive Hill reader, it’s not quite as bad as that but it’s certainly not of the standard that I’d come to expect and it is doubly disappointing that it should be published when Hill’s ‘visibility’ should be at it’s height. New readers, encouraged by glowing reviews, will have bought this collection and then wondered what all the fuss has been about. I have read the collection right through a couple of times and bits of it again just to make sure that my first impressions were accurate. I now have to agree with my correspondent that the chosen stanza ‘strangles’ Hill and should add my own concern that the collection doesn’t actually say very much.

So, this vague feeling of being personally let down has led me to think about the other occasions when this has occurred. This hasn’t been that frequent but one that really sticks in the mind is Ted Hughes’ ‘Moortown’ which (along with ‘Remains of Elmet’) followed ‘Gaudete’ and marked a return to the rural realism that was his speciality prior to ‘Crow’.  I’m one of the few people on the planet that was immensely impressed by ‘Gaudete’ and felt that, along with ‘Crow’ and ‘Cave Birds’, it heralded a new trajectory in English verse. It’s a view that I still hold but I accept that this is a minority view – nothing from ‘Gaudete’ is in the Hughes Collected. I clearly recall being not simply disappointed but also feeling let down because I’d felt involved in the work and could see the value of it. I tried hard to like ‘Moortown’ but it seemed flat and ordinary and it didn’t make me think so I stopped reading Hughes until ‘Birthday Letters’ which is another story altogether.

The second form of disappointment is probably more traumatic, on a number of occasions greater familiarity has led to a quite sudden realisation that previously admired work isn’t in reality very good.

Many moons ago I was an enormous fan of all things Elliot and then I read ‘The Making of the Four Quartets’ by Helen Gardiner, reading with some care the correspondence between Eliot and John Hayward as well  as the various drafts. This resulted in a sense of disenchanted,  what had previously seemed to be enigmatic and profound became (in my head) something quite empty and more than a little pretentious. I’ve still got a lot of time for anything up to and including ‘The Waste Land’ but the rest leaves me cold. Trying to write something intelligent and objective about Eliot has made me realise how conflicted I feel about him – I don’t actively dislike the work but am finding myself becoming increasingly indifferent to it.

This isn’t the case with Robert Lowell whose later work I actively dislike for a number of reasons. For most of my life I had regarded Lowell as one of the more accomplished and significant poets of the 20th century and was thus delighted when the ‘Collected’ was published in 2003. It then became apparent that the majority of Lowell’s output wasn’t particularly coherent and that the work became more self-indulgent and trite as time went on. I also decided that I didn’t like the man behind the work and I don’t buy into the bipolar excuse for self-indulgence. I realise that this is a minority view but I’m of the view that Lowell ‘peaked’ with ‘The Mills of the Kavanaghs’ with things going downhill from then on. I will concede that the first half of ‘Near the Ocean’ is good but ruined by the political gesture that closes it. I should stress that this dislike comes from paying greater attention to the poems rather than any background reading. I think I’d be prepared to overlook the confessional element of the later stuff if I felt that it was either technically good or interesting. I also recognise that this is at complete variance with the view of Elizabeth Bishop who I continue to admire.

With regard to Hill, I am disappointed but I’m not dismayed. I continue to look forward to the publication of Odi Barbare next year but now that sense of anticipation is tinged with a degree of apprehension.


T S Eliot on David Jones and living with poetry

I’ve just bought the new Faber editions of Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I’ve said before that Jones is an excellent poet and deserves a much wider readership for his unique ‘voice’ and the sheer humanity of the work.
‘In Parenthesis’ contains an undated preface from T S Eliot who refers to both poems and places Jones in the same ‘bracket’ as himself, Ezra Pound and James Joyce which is praise indeed. Jones provided notes to these poems but Eliot encourages the reader to read the poem straight through: “For that thrill of excitement from our first reading of a work of creative literature is itself the beginning of understanding, and if ‘In Parenthesis’ does not excite us before we have understood it, no commentary will reveal to us its secret. And the second step is to get used to the book, to live with it and to make it familiar to us. Understanding begins in the sensibility: we must have the experience before we attempt to explore the sources of the work itself.”
Unusually, I find myself in complete agreement with Eliot on this. I’m very familiar with the thrill that first reading can bring and the consequent need to make a poem familiar but what strikes me as most important is the idea of living with a poem. In my experience this has many dimensions and different poems require different kinds of cohabitation.
The first kind of cohabitation usually applies to long poems, living with ‘Paradise Lost’ or ‘The Maximus Poems’ or ‘The Faerie Queen’ involves reading and re-reading from beginning to end until I am familiar with both the content and the ‘voice’ of the poem and the brilliant bits are inscribed in my skull.
The second way of living with a poem is best exemplified by my relationship with Celan and Prynne. With both of these I try to identify lines or phrases that are reasonably clear and then spend lots of time thinking about the more obdurate bits- I don’t need to have the text in front of me to do this but I do need to be able to concentrate. I find that this process of rumination gets the poem well and truly under my skin.
Geoffrey Hill’s poetry demands a unique kind of cohabitation from me. Ever since I first read ‘Comus’ I haven’t been able to separate out the work from the man and each reading has involved a deepening of a relationship that I can only describe as quasi-therapeutic. This is probably because I identify with some aspects of Hill’s psychology and re-reading certain poems involves a self-measurement that informs how I am in the world. Living with Hill is much more than getting my brain around the obscure references, it’s also about trying to work out aspects of the man that I can’t personally identify with.
Then there’s the poems that literally live with me, for most of this year Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and Neil Pattison’s ‘Preferences’ have moved around the house with me and are dipped into on a very frequent basis. I don’t think that this has led to any clearer understanding but I am now very familiar with both and continue to relish the brilliant turns of phrase that they contain.
Finally I must mention those cohabitations that teeter on the brink of divorce. I’ve had several attempts to live with ‘Orlando Furioso’ in a variety of translations this year and these have all collapsed in acrimony. Of greater import is the Simon Jarvis problem. I’ve just spent a week away trying to establish a relationship with ‘The Unconditional’ but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s worth the effort. It’s certainly unique in contemporary verse and there’s enough good stuff to keep me coming back but I have yet to find a point of entry that I can sustain.