Tag Archives: william langland

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.


Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

J H Prynne, economics and the retail trade in this present crisis.

I think there can be little doubt that the free market ideology of the last thirty five years is having a few problems at the moment with most countries in the West experiencing the deepest and longest recession for over a century. For those of us on the left, the causes are reasonably clear and none of should be surprised at the tales of venality and corruption slowly emerging from the banks. The question is (as ever) what action to take because it is easy to provide the critique and point out the greed and exploitation at the heart of capitalism, it is altogether different to present a viable alternative because state socialism has an even worse reputation and track record.

I’ve remarked before on Prynne’s distaste for the fatuous tropes of the retail trade (‘buy one, get one free’, ‘three for two’ etc) and his use of these to express quite bitter sarcasm. This, together with an Old Left disdain for financiers, has run threadlike through the work since ‘Kitchen Work’ and it might be that things have changed a little with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’.

I’ll start with a poem from ‘The Oval Window’ which was published in 1983:

What if the outlook is likely to cut short
by an inspired fear in the bond market.
The place itself is a birthday prank:
current past the front,
en premiere ligne
like stone dust on strips of brighter green.
Given to allergic twitching, the frame
compounds for invertible counterpoint
and waits to see. A view is a window
on the real data, not a separate copy
of that data, or a lower surplus in oil
and erratic items such as precious stones
aircraft and the corpses of men tigers
fish and pythons, "all in a confused tangle."
Changes to the real data
are visible through the view; and operations
against the view are converted, through
a kind of unofficial window on Treasury policy,
into operations on the real data.
To this world given over, now safely,
work makes free logic, joined to the afterlife.

I don’t intend to undertake any kind of attentive reading of the above, those wishing for a duller account of ‘The Oval Window’ might start with the Reeve and Kerridge essay on Jacket. I just want to note that this is, in part, concerned with the nuts and bolts of the dismal science, ‘fear in the bond market’ ‘a lower surplus in oil’ ‘the real data’ and ‘Treasury policy’ are all phrases that continue to make up our economic and fiscal discourse. Reeve and Kerridge refer to the ironic tone of this poem but I’m of the view that it’s angry sarcasm and that this is underlined by the last line reference to the genocidal thinking behind the Holocaust. I also need to say that I’m not a great fan of this sequence but this particular poem does seem to represent a reasonably clear ‘position’.

I am however an enormous fan of ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ (2001) because it exudes technical skill and confidence and because (this is important) it makes me smile a lot. I could go on for a very long time about how this is the kind of stuff that everybody should be engaging with and responding to but, for the moment, I just want to focus on this:

On the track the news radiates like a planet auction,
for the best rates hard to chew. If it seems too good,
sucker, the pap is surely toxic, unless the glad
hand goes your way, soft as velvet. The strokes
of the palm not even touched, a waft of livid air
gives the take its donation, sexual preening overtly
lavish in symmetry; your flicker goes to mine and

locks into warranty, well why not. Over lush fields
a rising sun pitches out its sulky damp shadow, in
reminder of cost levels in the benefit stream. Oh
fight this fight or sleep when others wake, the
maze of a shining path leads on without a break;
count the steps in retrospect, burnt umber places
engrossed forever in dumb-struck dropped reward.

So, here we would appear to have a more grown up and considered economic thesis relating to some quite complex stuff, the ‘glad hand’ of corruption (or patronage systems) as the best way to avoid toxic ‘pap’, the rising sun of the developing nations and their ability to cut cost levels and the impact of consequential unemployment in the West on public finances. I’m reading ‘a shining path’ to those nice agrarian reformers in Peru who also happened to be murderous thugs with a very odd economic programme which, if successful, would have represented several steps backwards. I’ll save ‘fight this fight or sleep’ until later but the whole sequence is full of this kind of elegant / graceful detail.

In the interest of space I was going to skip over ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ but I think this needs to be singled out from the third poem in the sequence:

Fix out gaze on this, on virtue. Acknowledge
skid forward or same fervid plastic embankment
her link antler, rising and drive. Above his
anthem converge tall preening slips to axial

The economic ‘aspect’ of this only becomes apparent with the knowledge that a subsidiary definition of ’embankment’ is “A banking speculation; a bank account” which then makes sense of ‘fervid’ and ‘plastic’. There’s also the ‘preening’, sexual display link between this and the poem above.

This sequence is probably Prynne at his most austere and resistant and I’m not entirely clear why a reference to the banking crisis should be placed in a work that is mostly ‘about’ the civil war in Ulster with a particular focus on the Maze hunger strikes but I’ll continue to read it as economic rather than ideological.

‘As Mouth Blindness’ is the first poem in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and reads as a response to the ongoing fiscal self-flagellation currently being promoted and/or practiced by people who really should know better. The poem starts with:

Right now beyond the brunt yet afforded, gainsay now
for aspect close to residue, you'll see it there. Not full
scanned at damage so far, ridges debased fetch so plainly
or even gradual, nothing not due. Lay a hand over plus
be level be sane two for one. Her voice was ever low, nil
transfusion plot negative to hum under par in the race
to tint and show a true recoil, you are there from the shot,
the star flinched openly.

This uses the ‘two for one’ device to scathe about our current economic dilemma and carries on in a similar vein until this conclusion:

Time in the news to be not silent indoors, mouth in thought
shut up chew it the choice separates its like or is lame for
wounding in what is due would tell you suffused. For both
market done and stunned in face of, great lack breeds lank
less and less, claimant for right. Flatter by great expectancy,
for so resemble by just match, no less than fitting the race
to birthright and natal place, our lingo.

The place-work of
willed repeats gains a familiar tremor in jointure, we say
sustainable our mouth assents slave dental unbroken torrid reason
will commute previous and lie down. None more credible, mirror
make up flat sat batch pinup gruesome genome. Now get out.

This is a similar analysis but with more of a focus on the fact that it is always the poor who suffer most in a recession and there is more than a little obscenity in the deeds of our political leaders to punish those already in poverty for the greedy stupidity of the rich.

The last three words signal a similar level of anger and ‘lack breeds lank’ seems to encapsulate what many of see as the hidden reality of where we are now.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and what I’m thinking of as the ‘Hot Pie problem’. For weeks I’ve been flummoxed by:

For fields thus filled it was no dream if yet so dear I lay, pronate
attempered pronoun sounded dear heart how suckled, hot pies! be
blithe, for integer broad alleged awake among the things
that are, in spoken footprint cordial how alike by probe to lit
shelf grains.

Following on from Michael Peverell’s comment last month, I’ve being noticing just how much of ‘Piers Plowman’ there is in ‘KD’ and would like to suggest that this ‘Hot Pies’ is more than just a line from the initial scene of a “fair field of folk” but also an echo of Langlands more extended criticism of retailers and especially those that try to ‘corner’ the market in certain goods-

To punischen vppon pilories and vppon pyning stoles,
As bakers and breweres, bocheres and cokes;
For thyse men don most harm to mene peple,
Rychen throw regratrerye and rentes hem beggeth
With that the poor peple sholde potte in here wombe.

This is the first part of (in the ‘C’ text) of a 40 line digression about the greed and sharp practices of urban traders and retailer and does seem more or less at one with the Prynne perspective. Incidentally, ‘regratery’ is glossed by Pearsall as “buying up goods in the market at advantage (eg by setting up price-rings) and is defined by the OED as ” To buy up (commodities, esp. food) in order to resell at a profit in the same or a neighbouring market” and also notes that various laws were passed in a vain attempt to stamp out this pice of sharp practice.

Of course, price-rings continue to flourish in many areas from personal banking to airline tickets to gas and electricity with governments affecting to be shocked once these arrangements are exposed- it could therefore be that the hot pies refer to a disdain for these kind of practices.

Towards the end of ‘KD’ the call to arms seems to have modified. There are those of us who take the view that capitalism proceeds by means of long waves and that the end of a particular wave need not present a fundamental threat to the system. There is also a view that this particular crisis is so systemically threatening that the time could be ripe for a change.

Towards the end of ‘KD’ there is:

Taunting themselves with foresight badges, now is how to finish 
without fiduciary rank ending induced. Fractional deponent
closeness is not so hard too: when the time travel equals the
period of a sampling frequency, the contribution to the inter-
action is screened down to about half its unretarded strength.
Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment.

I’m reading ‘the stop key’ as the point when the free market breaks down and the above suggesting that this moment is not going to occur as a response to the fiasco that is currently gathering steam. I’d agree with this and think it significant that Prynne has read this at an Occupy event which may well signal his approval of their quietist and undogmatic approach.

J H Prynne and these Dreamboats

I’m now going to proffer a number of entirely tentative and provisional suggestions with regard to a partially successful reading of the first few pages of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’. Some time ago I observed that the repeated use of ‘I saw’ could be a reference to medieval dream / vision poems such as ‘Piers Plowman’ or ‘Wynnere and Wastoure’. I didn’t connect this at the time with the title but have done so now and would like to attempt to connect it with a poem by Stephen Hawes, ‘The Example of Vertu’ which is more very Early Modern than Medieval. My only justification is that this poem is a dream poem that contains a voyage and that Hawes was more or less contemporary with John Skelton whose ‘Speke Parrot’ is referred to twice in the first three pages. I also recognise that ‘Piers’ is the only dream poem listed in the ‘Reference Cues’ at the end of the poem.

Given that this is Prynne, it would be too much to expect any kind of direct congruence with ‘Example’ or other poems in this genre but it might be worthwhile to consider the reasons why this particular conceit was used and why it was so popular. Starting with the obvious, we all dream and anything can happen in our dreams. Throughout most of history people have tried to extract meaning from dreams either from what they may portend but also for the underlying rationale for certain dreams. Because of their inherent oddness, dreams have this magical quality and the dream poems made use of this to say things about the present and to exhort us to do better. Dreams and visions were often a key component of bible stories usually as a means of transmitting messages from God. Helen Phillips has also pointed out that a dream poem enables the poet to make trenchant criticisms whilst remaining one step removed from them and thus avoiding the notion of direct responsibility. Boethius’ ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ is also listed as a ‘Cue’ and it is framed as vision rather than a poem.

There is a greater degree than usual of method in what follows, I like to think that I’m following Prynne’s advice to translators in his ‘Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems’ essay:

In strictly local context the surrounding sense may point strongly to one-word meaning rather than to another. different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less ‘probable’ meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.

I’m hoping that looking at the ‘I saw’ conceit might give some access to the ‘different senses’ that might be found.

It may be thought that I’m placing too much emphasis on the dream/vision poem conceit in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ so I’ll now quote the relevant sentences and the page on which they occur:

Along the corridor of near frequency I saw willing and discrete the season not yet for sorrow, nearby not yet even so inference to claim.(p. 5)

On the plate in soft season to rise hungry semi-apt for supplement will to set affirm this wit at will for passion reflex acutely, I saw it amount in plenteous access burning by folly markers right to the crest. (p. 5)

At mass inlet dissent I saw ahead to eyeshot reach exacted coating fricative and locked parallel then tended, long for longing set-back, exhaled.(p. 5)

Who would save temporal occlusion no discount for loyal reckoning yet saw in this open flash delusion of false glory how ever else for sweet temper child indifference not to want to want this.(p. 5)

I saw the slide markers they were sticky and concluded what was, near enough mounting up as fast would say manifest enzyme in game reduced, stupefied like men braced for denial, each in proper step.(p. 6)

Some near witness now so wants to make it work, a most fantastic set-up!(p. 6)

I saw it upmost, to know partly is by now not to unknow else with borrowed light induced by origin perpetual, by passion flat lying and tumid for advantage, for all or nothing is the play sequence left over. (p.6)

For fields thus filled it was no dream if yet so dear I lay, pronate attempered pronoun sounded dear heart how succkled, hot pies! be blithe, for birth integer broad alleged awake among the things that are, in spoken footprint cordial how alike by probe to lit shelf grains.(p. 6)

I’m going to stop there because I don’t want to be too ambitious in what follows and because I think this kind of frequency makes my point – the first two quotes are the poem’s first two sentences and the seeing / vision device runs throughout the rest of the poem. It also gives me an opportunity to dwell on one or two bits that are beginning to make sense. The fourth quote might be an attack on what I’m now going to call retail culture. It is reasonable to suggest that one of Prynne’s recurring targets has been the slogans and jargon that retailers use to encourage us to part with our money- other poems have scathed the ‘buy one, get one free’ gimmick and other unsubtle ploys. The customer loyalty schemes provide a small discount in exchange for a customer’s shopping data which can then be used both to monitor performance and to ‘push’ products in the customer’s direction- hence ‘no discount for loyal reckoning’. The last part of the sentence might also infer that it is childish to be indifferent to the wider implications of such schemes, especially when bearing in mind all five of the main definitions of ‘want’ as a verb in the OED.

One of the other aspects of the dream poem was that it could bridge the increasing gap between the mundane and the celestial, S F Kruger in ‘Dreaming in the Middle Ages’ says- “Poems of this tradition simultaneously evoke opposed ideas about the nature of dreaming, and, by doing so, situate themselves to explore areas of betweenness – the realms that lie between the divine and the mundane, the true and the false, the good and the bad. They place their readers in a position similar to that of Gregory the Great’s dreamer, unable finally to pin down the poem’s status as revelation or deception, unable unambiguously to define its direction of movement as upward or downward”. I would argue that ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ does quite consciously resist readerly attempts to define status and probably cite the apparently superfluous inclusion of hot pies! as evidence of this tendency.

I think the above quotes also say something about the relationship between perception (sight in this case) and knowledge, as if Prynne is playing with our notions of the obvious. In the ordinary world we tend to ‘believe’ what we see and draw inference from this. For example, if I see a number of cars skid on ice it would be reasonable to infer that cars don’t function well on icy roads. It isn’t too much of a leap from this piece of common sense to the prevailing view of capitalism and the neo-liberal ‘free’ market as the only viable/inevitable economic system even though most of the hard evidence points in more or less the opposite direction. This might be what’s going on with “I saw it upmost, to know partly is by now not to unknow” quoted above and may also explain the tone of some of the other ‘seeing’ pieces.

Most of the others above remain closed to me although I will spend more time on these and report back when/if things become a little clearer.