Tag Archives: wrong poetry

The Offside Rule and the unrelated(ish) Emily Dickinson Problem

I’m still in the process of updating, rewriting and polishing arduity. This week two problems have come to light that I thought I’d share.

Some time ago another site likened arduity to an attempt to explain the offside rule in soccer. To those who don’t know, the application of this rule causes immense amounts of angst and debate amongst fans but is a complete mystery to everyone else on the planet. I thought about this observation and decided that it wasn’t a bad analogy in that the mystification and the various nuances of technique are rough equivalents. I’d made pages on various tricks of the trade and had brief attempts at explaining the various isms but then decided that I’d rather illustrate various tropes rather than explaining them. Having reviewed the current content I think I’ve done this reasonably well but there isn’t a page that gives you an overview of the knowledge that might be useful. Some of the current links in the sidebar are misleading, the ‘difficult definitions’ link currently leads to a brilliantly incisive but completely unnecessary discussion of Heidegger, Hill and Derrida whereas what is needed is some examples of the difficult and the undifficult. I’ve decided to have a ‘nuts and bolts’ page that gives the briefest of overviews of a few key terms and suggesting some other resources that will provide more detail/context.

The selection of key terms is proving trickier than expected, I’m having problems with deciding whether to go back to basics (rhyme, meter, forms etc) or whether to deal instead with the things that are features of the difficult. In #1.5 I had thrown out most of the stuff that seemed superfluous and retained allusion, ambiguity, meaning, obscurity and the definition page. I’ve now decided to ‘do’ rhyme and meter as well but to link to Spenser and quote Jarvis as examples. I don’t think I need a definition for obscurity but can point these out when attending to particular poems. I also think that I should put a brief example in each definition and I dither between these two points. Frequently.

There’s also my personal concerns and interests. Following some comments about wrongness and readerly attention from Keston Sutherland, I seem to have developed these two into part of the writing that goes on here. It might therefore be as well to expand on these two a little more, especially as my idea of wrongness differs from Keston’s essay. There’s also the desire to say something about honesty as a quality that (in my view) not enough people think about when attending to the Poem. This would however involve giving examples of dishonesty which would involve writing about material that I actively dislike (later Eliot, most of Larkin, Burnside etc) which is something I try v hard not to do. The final element that I might need to develop is that of ‘clunkiness’ – this is usually part of a poem that either falls flat or doesn’t do what it’s trying to do.

We now come to the Emily Dickinson problem. This comes in two parts:

  1. I’m only just beginning to pay attention to the work;
  2. The poems don’t appear to ‘fit’ with the arduity remit;
  3. Dickinson appears to be admired by people that I don’t admire.

The last of these merely illustrates just how shallow this blog can be but I do have to acknowledge that this is more than a bit of a problem. As a further example, I don’t like the dishonesty at the heart of Sylvia Plath’s work but this is compounded by the nature and tone of her admirers.

The lack of ‘fit’ has shaken up my view of what difficult might be, I was prodded into looking at the work by Prynne’s comment from Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” poems:

It is worth pointing out that difficult ideas in poems are not always
expressed in language that is also difficult; for example, William Blake
in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience draws on language of almost
child-like simplicity and yet his thought is sometimes profound and
obscure. Emily Dickinson’s language is also mostly not difficult.

I’d decided many moons ago that I’m not going to tackle Blake but I’d decided to leave a decision on Dickinson until later. Whar spurred into attention was the strangeness of the last sentence and what we may be supposed to infer from ‘mostly not’. Thus prodded I went to the new Foyles and bought the Faber Complete. I haven’t as of yet done an end-to-end attentive reading but I’ve read enough to know that she may be the best ‘wrong’ poet in the language.

The poems are wrong because they don’t play by the rules, the don’t seem to bothered whether they work or not- and we haven’t yet got to the envelopes. Here’s all of Poem 599 in the Collected:

     There is a pain so - utter - 
     It swallows substance up -
     Then covers the Abyss with Trance-
     So Memory can step
     Around - across - upon it-
     As one within a Swoon - 
     Goes safely - where an open eye - 
     Would drop Him - Bone by Bone

The first two lines are very good indeed, the ‘utterness’ of pain that swallows up / megates all aspects of materiality but we then get to the Abyss which is one of the most loaded nouns that we have except that in this instance it gets subsumed by Trance which would appear to provide a distraction from the memory of this pain. The analogy is then made between ‘Swoon’ and ‘Trance’, the first of these providing some kind of safe passage whereas being awake would result in ‘Him’ being dropped into the abyss in a quite gruesome manner. None of this should work, it’s too disjointed, the use of capital letters seems unduly mannered and we’re left wondering whether ‘Him’ is Christ or just another hapless soul afflicted by this kind of pain. A ‘swoon’ is a fainting fit usually (in the 19th century) brough about by some excess of emotion. In the interest of a better understanding I’ve looked at the examples that the OED gives of and have discovered this from Elizabeth Barrett Browning from four or five years before 599 was composed: ” As one in swoon, To whom life creeps back in the form of death”.

There is a sense about the powers of the trance which has been used down the centuries as a way of making pain bearable. We’ve now discovered that our brains can obliterate memories of events of extreme trauma or pain. So there is some sense going on but there is also the last line which doesn’t seem to belong to what’s gone before. ‘Bone by Bone’ would seem to imply a body that has already been picked clean in some way but surely the noun is usually either ‘cast’ or ‘thrown’ or ‘flung’but not ‘dropped’ which seems much to casual for such an act

At this point I’d normally walk away but there is a tone that I find absolutely compelling (and wrong).

: ”


Dipping into ‘The Unconditional’

Regular readers will know that I have a complex relationship with the above poem by Simon Jarvis which was published by Barque in 2005. This complexity has the following components:

  • the poem is 236 pages in length
  • I really like long poems
  • the poem is defiantly metrical and this may have something to do with the Jarvis view that philosophical poetry is best done within some kind of constraint;
  • the poem is almost obsessively digressive as if it wants to leave nothing out;
  • I really like digression but found the length of the digressions and the detail that they contain very difficult to carry in my small brain;
  • Jarvis is very good on traffic;
  • I think more serious poetry should be written about traffic;
  • it took me ten attempts and many months for me to read all of it;
  • I’ve read it again and am now of the view that it is an important and subversive piece of work that should be more widely read.

In the past I have considered it heretical to dip into long poems because there are so many things that will be missed if you only read a section. So, for many years I’ve read and re-read ‘The Faerie Queene’ and ‘Paradise Lost’ all the way through, except for the rivers and genealogy sections in FQ and have found this to be enjoyable even though there are bits of both that are quite tedious. Recently however, I’ve begun to just read sections or even parts of sections so as to give specific aspects more attention and this doesn’t seem to be problematic, in fact I’ve noticed more things this way than I would with an end-to-end reading.

‘The unconditional’ is a long poem but it is also a poem that requires a degree of sustained concentration that I’ve found to be quite demanding even though the second reading was much less arduous than the first. I’ve therefore embarked on a series of dips and these have proved surprisingly fruitful. I’d like to use pp130-1 to show what I mean. One of the poem’s main characters is Jobless whose life has been crushed by the cruel realities of contemporary life. This is Jarvis on despair:

          Jobless too listlessly allowed his eye
to drift like unheld cursor to the top
whereas a thin strip of evening sky
3 inches long by one deep suddenly
glimmered a lit mass of illumined cloud
at corner of the screen but half concealed
by a corona off the anglepoise

Pausing here for a moment, there’s a couple of things that I only noticed when dipping. The first observation is that the words make sense in that there isn’t any of the distorted syntax so common in the modernist vein and that the words are everyday words. Closer reading would suggest that there’s a bit of a problem with ‘whereas’ which seems to be used to mean ‘where’ when its common definition is ‘on the other hand….’. I have tried the rest of the definitions in the OED and none of these make sense here either which leaves me with a sneaking suspicion that it is being used simply to keep up the syllable count for the sake of the metrical constraint. I may be completely wrong on this but I can’t think of any other reasonable explanation.

The next two items may be the result of over-reading or putting three and three together to make eleven but it seems to me that there are a couple of echoes from Wordsworth here. It may be that “three inches long by one deep” is an allusion to “‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.” from the original version of ‘The Thorn’. I only know about this because it features in Keston Sutherland’s essay on ‘Wrong Poetry’ which uses the line as the epitome of wrongness. The final item is this glimmering lit mass mularkey which seems to be the way the sky is described in bits of ‘The Prelude’ although I haven’t sought out particular lines/phrases and may therefore be completely wrong. In my defence, Jarvis does know his Wordsworth, having written ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ which I still haven’t read (it’s very long, I won’t agree with it, life’s too short etc).

The poem continues with:

hitting the screen too mirrorwise to see
could none the less not blank out every note
of the four letters which his anxious eye
made out from several dot of cathode ray
causing a painful tightening at the chest
or then a lurch up from the lower spine
pushing the head out with its brace of eyes
to stare down at the flooring which he then
just as the blood arrested in his vein
slowly began at that to understand
or feel as though he understood that this
widely disparaged carpet was a map
of every message which he had to get

In the above we aren’t given any hint of what those four letters may be even though looking at them seems to bring on some kind of cardiac event. In this poem and several others Jarvis pays close attention to aspects of male self-loathing and here we have an astute description of where such feelings can lead. I particularly like the lurch from the spine which cause the head and its eyes to jut forward as if to some kind of attention.

Other aspects of this are a bit laboured- ‘too mirrorwise’ is probably trying too hard and either one of ‘to understand’ or ‘feel as though he understood’ is superfluous as we all only feel as if we understand- don’t we?

I’m taking ‘dot’ as a typo for ‘dots’ but I don’t understand why “or then a lurch….” is used instead of ‘and then’ because ‘or’ doesn’t make sense because I’m reading this as a sequence- chest tightening- lurching up- blood arresting until we get to the carpet.

The penultimate section of the brilliant ‘Dionysus Crucified’ has a carpet which causes some distress/consternation and is described in detail but it isn’t a map. Now, Jarvis is a committed late modernist but there is something oddly continental about other things acting as maps but it is Jobless that’s having this delusion and not our poet. Nevertheless, the poem proceeds:

          the next ten years or seconds of his life
nothing outside the textile ever spoke
more forcibly of this than clementine
or muck skip ochres fading to a brown
then zipped to primrose at occasional
points of most import like the words of Christ
printed in rubric for the hard of mind
in presentation copies of the word
distributed at prizegivings but here
shrilling alone a sheer bright lemon thrill

I read Jarvis because he makes passages like this, he can devise the idea of nothing being external to the fabric of the carpet and make it both credible and startling, he can come up with phrases like the ‘hard of mind’ that cause me to think about what exactly that might mean or refer to and why it isn’t in common usage. Most of all, this kind of thing is easy to do badly, to get carried away with the delusional and thus lose that which is believable and he manages to avoid this by staying just on the right side of bizarre and the last line is stunning.

I completely missed about 80% of the above in the first two readings, so perhaps ‘dipping’ isn’t so heretical after all…

Is J H Prynne wrong enough?

Had I been asked this question at the beginning of last week, I would have had to think a lot and eventually and regretfully come down on the side of the negative. This week, having had ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ in my possession for three or four days, the answer is that not only is he wrong enough but he has now stretched the limits of wrongness far beyond the averagely wrong into the realm of the utterly and the completely- as in the Wild Man Fisher end of the wrong spectrum.

I’m trying hard to come up with a brief description that will give some flavour of what I might be talking about:

  • it’s in prose and can only be recognised as a poem by the way line occur at the end of some paragraphs;
  • the only other reason for identifying it as a poem is the fact that is listed as such on the newish Prynne bibliography site;
  • at the back of the book there is a list of ‘reference cues’ which are 22 publications ranging from “Condensed Matter Field Theory” to Parmenides’ “On Nature” with Skaespeare and Mao Zedong somewhere in between;
  • extracts from these publications are to be found incorporated verbatim into the text either as blockquoted paragraphs or inside Prynne’s text;
  • the subtitle is “or, on what there is”, there is a picture of what appears to be a wooden car with very small wheels on the cover which was apparently drawn in Angola in 1938;
  • reference appears to be made to John Skelton’s ‘Speke Parrot’ which is one of the wrongest of wrong poems in the English language;
  • the cliche count is much higher than usual;
  • one of the ‘reference cues’ is incorrectly cited, given what was Prynne’s day job, this is likely to be deliberate.

As can hopefully be seen, terms like ‘radical departure’ are inadequate to express the kind of shift that appears to have taken place but I am beginning to see glimmers of recognition, we have the keen interest in place and the physical experience of being in a place, we have an odd playing around with contradiction and the dialectic.

It’s also clear that the ‘I’ has in some way been reinstated which is at odds with what Prynne has said recently about the absolute need to ‘self-remove’ during the poetry making process.

Let’s now turn to wrongness, Keston Sutherland reports on the universally negative response to Wordsworth’s “I’ve measured it from side to side: / ’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide” which, in the context of early 19th century poetics was very wrong because of its literality. We, of course, like to think that we’re much more sophisticated than the Romantics and have a much broader and more inclusive view of things but I would argue that the school of innovation has established its own definition of wrong and not wrong. I would cite the ‘progressive’ response to Vanessa Place as the most obvious evidence of this.

The ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ wrongness exists on at least three levels, the first is the verbatim use of texts appropriated from elsewhere- “The original cremation Pyre was placed where the heavens met the earthand where the inhabitants of nearby settlements could observe smoke rising into the air. It was also located in the one place on the hilltop where the position of a distant mountain would correspond to that of the summer moon. The subsequent development of the site gave monumental, gradually focussing that particular alignment until it was narrowed to the space between the tallest stones.” The only archaeology text in the reference cues is an essay by Richard Bradley called “The Land, The Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle”. The Bebrowed quality control department has an excellent archaeological and Neolithic resource, this has been consulted and, apparently, Bradley meets with massive approval.

The sentence preceding this blockquoted paragraph is – “A language may die also from the record of currency exchange to the full pair-convert transumed in surrender value, decalibrated; or the travel line from matter to fancy of spirit is invert and pyretic: smoke for the mirror, tenant creamery.” The sentence following the paragraph is: “The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit in formative exit in naturalised permission, solemn grade – one rigmarole, batter Wiglaf’s rebuke and insurance payout.” As ‘Beowulf’ is not one of the reference cues, I’m taking it that only those texts that are directly quoted are considered cue-worthy. Incidentally, ‘durance’ is a Geoffrey Hill word. In years to come critics will spend many a happy hour debating the use of ‘transume’ in this particular context.

As for John Skelton, the two references so far identified are- “Nothing shall come of continuous diminish but across its boundaries if the exist for sure everything is possible and can be computed, speak parrot and to discernibly good approximations” and “Now goggle-eyes revert or new Poseidon nudging to click by its solar filtration charm of such birds take to wake and be taken, arm’s length residue output gravamen parrot dictum”. I’ll return to both of these once I’ve become more familiar with the rest of the poem.

Some of this reads as a parody of Prynne, the puns are worse than ever and the playing around with negation and contradiction is much more explicit than before whilst the tone is much more direct- “Wave good-bye don’t be stupid, the location is obscure because coherence is not spatial and is without meaning beyond its scrap value, every fly on the wall could tell you this.” What I’m trying to do at the moment is to try and get some kind of handle on the whole work but there are sentences like this that compel me to dive in and get to grips with the particular. I’m reasonably okay with the coherence and meaningless thing but I do need to worry ‘spatial’ to death especially in the light of the documentary allusion and some anxiety about whether or not anybody actually uses this particular term any more.

As a reader, I am still disappointed with ‘Sub Songs’ for all sorts or reasons but primarily because I was hoping for more austerity and an even more pronounced collision with the ‘unwitty circus’, but I can see that this does (if nothing else) set a different set of quite startling challenges. I also have to confess that I don’t have the science to do justice to either Van der Waals forces or condensed matter field theory but I am making (some) progress with pore geometry…..

What might be said is that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is wrong in several senses:

  • it contradicts a lot of what Prynne has said in the recent past;
  • it makes literal use of apparently disparate texts;
  • it plumbs new depths of oddness, and;
  • the references to Skelton’s wrong poem and to the dream trope from Langland and many others signal a desire to be wrong in terms of what we think of as canonical verse.

I think I’d argue that this is wrong enough both in terms of the literal and the oppositionally odd. As you might expect, I’m completely addicted and will probably continue to read nothing else for the foreseeable future.

Keston Sutherland, wrong poetry and the cultural game.

I’m reading Sutherland’s ‘Stupefaction’ which contains an expanded version of the ‘Wrong Poetry’ essay that I wrote about some time ago. In that post I made a comment in response to Vance Maverick about ‘wrong’ poetry being a potential means of escape from Bourdieu’s ‘iron cage’.

Sutherland addresses the Bourdieu dilemma in a way that I’ll attempt to explain shortly but first I’d better give my take on the nature of the cage. For those who don’t know, Bourdieu was a Marxist sociologist who undertook a comprehensive study of cultural taste and practice in France. The results were published in ‘Distinction’, a landmark book that spelled out the bad news for those of us who clung to the notion of the (at least) partial autonomy of the artist. Bourdieu showed that all forms of artistic endeavour, even the most radically subversive, are structured and determined by the economic order and that all creative interventions were just further moves in this ‘cultural game’

I first read this in the mid-eighties and would have loved to have written it off as yet another piece of simplistic, reductive Marxist polemic but for the fact that is the greatest postwar sociologist with an impeccable body of work and ‘Distinction’ put forward such a comprehensive and well researched picture of how things are that I just couldn’t argue with it. I really wanted to find some flaw but couldn’t and still can’t although his description of the auto-didact is too simplistic and insufficiently researched.

So, my predilection for innovative and subversive work doesn’t spring spontaneously from within me but is essentially a product of the economic order which ‘allows’ such work because it perpetuates rather than challenges the established order of things. This is a variation of the Situationist analysis except it has the facts and figures to back it up.

Let’s try and be clear. There is absolutely no escape from the way in which all forms of creative endeavour are the product of the economic order and to pretend otherwise is both naive and stupid. I am not at all pleased to arrive at this fact, nor do I think it any way vindicates the rest of the marxian analysis.

‘Wrong Poetry’ starts on page 91 but only really begins with its subject on page 119 having spent many many words on matters Hegel, Marx and Adorno. I’m sure that this kind of intense abstraction is attractive to those of a dialectical ilk but it does stand as a significant barrier to the rest of us who might be concerned about the current state of poetry.

There is then this as a proposed route out of Bourdieu-

“The difficult thing for a poet who knows this is not to make art that compels cognitive transformation but that avoids being a plaything in the ‘game of culture’; in a capitalist society, pure art like that is just as profoundly bourgeois as theatricalised suspicion itself. In fact, it is an idol of that suspicion. But neither can radical art just smilingly catalogue itself under the heading of this antimony. The truly difficult thing for the poet is to make a poem that pronounces the antimony in the most sociologically eloquent and cognitively strenuous form imaginable.”

He then goes on to describe the life of a line from Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ which was negatively received because of its absence of poetry-

I've measured it from side to side
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

Sutherland quotes from a variety of negative reactions before giving us his view that this couplet is, in fact, the best part of the poem. He then uses this to attempt a definition of ‘wrong’ poetry- “It is poetry that cannot fulfil the concept ‘poetry’ and that is illiteral.” This comes with two caveats – that ‘can not’ does not mean ‘will not’ and illiteral does not mean ‘incapable of literalisation’.

Regular readers will know that about once every six weeks or so I have another failed attempt at diagnosing poetry and the poetic and that I have come to the conclusion that (before we begin to think about Bourdieu) poetry, in terms of production, dissemination, cultural framing, class profile and ah-me ness, is the fundamental problem with poetry and anything that encourages more of us to try and address this central problem is a Very Good Thing.

I’m not at all clear that my recent interest in machine generated data and/or the way in which data is structured/framed presents any kind of alternative but what I do know is that you really can’t have your cake and eat it. The only point of the Bourdieu thesis is that there nothing outside of the cultural game, i.e, that even the most self-consciously subversive intervention is just another move in the game and that the components of the game cannot change the structure of the game because these are determined by much larger and more powerful economic forces. So, sociological eloquence and strenuous cognition aren’t really going to enable the poet to stop acting as a ‘plaything’ of the economic order.

There are a couple of clarifications that I think that Sutherland glides over. He confuses the conversation that poetry has with itself with the conversation that poetry has with the rest of the world and attempts to apply the ‘rules’ of the former to the latter. This doesn’t work, the social world in which we all make our way is not in anyway perturbed by the nature of Wordsworth’s couplet and is incredibly likely to be equally unperturbed by many more conceits of this sort. The second piece of clarification is that poetry quite likes being poetic and has little or no interest in genuine (as opposed to affected) innovation.

This is not to say that wrong poetry can be ignored – we need to respond to the gauntlet by embarking on an objective discussion of who may be producing it now, Sutherland cites Prynne and Wilkinson but I’m not convinced, of the borders between the wrong, the strange and the (merely) odd and whether Prynne’s head on collision is the right / best means of approach.

Before any wrong poetry can have effect it might be as well to try and understand the frame within which poetry currently operates- the role of education, the influence of new technologies, the effect of reduced production costs, the ways in which the form is presented and talked about in the wider discourse{s} etc etc. Only then, when we have some real data, does wrongness have any chance of challenging even the most peripheral elements of the game.

As a final interim thought, which of the following could be described as wrong or strange or odd-
1. The last line of every poem in Prynne’s ‘Word Order’;
2. The length of some digressions in Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’;
3. The verbatim use of court material in Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’;
4. Jonty Tiplady’s mix of the abstract and the demotic;
5. Keston Sutherland’s inclusion of Black Beauty in ‘Stress Position’;
6. Simon Jarvis’ use of the cross in ‘Dionysus Crucified’.

Simon Jarvis reconsidered

Regular readers may know that I’ve been struggling with ‘The Unconditional’ for almost a year and yet haven’t been able to walk away from it. Jarvis has also published a shorter poem (“Erlkonig”) which is much more manageable and user-friendly.
John Wilkinson has described ‘The Unconditional’ as being as peculiar as the infamous Roussel tome, with it’s infuriating digressions. I possess ‘Images of Africa’ and have never managed to read it because I find it too contrived and more than a little smug about its conceit. The Jarvis poem doesn’t annoy me but I do find it really difficult to follow and retain some of the metaphors to the very end and perhaps that’s the point but it isn’t a point that I’m keen on.
There are other ways of making things cognitively difficult for the reader- Sutherland does this to great effect. Relying on extreme length to ensure that the reader has forgotten what it is we’re digressing from is simply a barrier to actually finishing the book- or are we just meant to read the first fifty pages and then walk away? The reason that I haven’t walked away and am now on my sixth attempt is that some of the lines are very good indeed and that Jarvis seems to have a number of interesting points to make. What these points may be I have yet to work out with any degree of precision but there’s more than enough to hold my interest.
There’s also the ‘wrong’ poetry issue that I wrote about a while ago whereby something flat and banal is used to interrupt or damage the flow of the lyric. Again, I don’t know whether this is deliberate but Jarvis does-

In that domain a buried A-road may
sometime by old pavilions of its shops
remind a hoarse commercial traveller
of the remediable loss of life
in undefended type face of a font
still mutely pleading for the shoppers’ loves
still wearily enduring falling sales
still waiting for authenticated close
or still waiting a ripeness when
the properly intolerable come
and foreclose closure closing it by force.
=x. was ready to feel all that.
There or anywhere else.
But he was nowhere near the area.

(Starting with the first line, every other line should be indented.)

We then get a more lyrical discussion of the use of the colour blue in motor cars. From the extract above, it’s clear to me that the last three lines don’t “work” and go from the slightly naff “feel all that” to the completely inane “nowhere near the area”. Given that Jarvis can sustain lyrical passages in a suitably poetic manner for several pages, I would suggest that this is deliberate although I have no idea why. The other question is whether that third line of wrongness is simply too wrong. I also have to ask whether the fourth and fifth lines aren’t trying too hard- what feels like something quite clever on first reading starts to become a bit pretentious and superfluous on subsequent readings.
I will persist with “The Unconditional” and am resolved to get to at least page eighty on this attempt.
Turning to “Erlkonig”, there are several things that can be said-
1. It’s only thirteen pages in length
2. The digressions are much, much shorter
3. It rhymes
4. It’s more socio-political and less philosophical than “The Unconditional”
5. A lot of it is about a road (again)
The title and epigraph are both taken from Goethe’s poem which translates as the “Elf King”. With regard to content, it’s not easy to make political points without sounding like a rabid Trot or a fully paid up member of the chatterati and it’s even harder to do this with rhyme. Jarvis succeeds on both counts as this example demonstrates. This stanza is dealing with CCTV and the kind of malveillance that we in the UK are increasingly familiar with.

The one supposed to know, but not to care.
The one supposed to hold in trust the worst
in order that the public’ s better share
should be protected from the truly cursed.
The one supposed indifferently to stare
at image after image, only at the first
which could offend, to hunt offenders down —
then to remember nothing, with a frown:

The last line is very, very astute and makes a complex point without making any great fuss and I really admire that. I’m also going to have to review the Bebrowed line on rhyme (too restrictive unless you happen to be Elizabeth Bishop) which is always a good thing. I could have a small rant about the title and the epigraph but I won’t as “Erlkonig” is a poem that succeeds on several levels and has given me much to think about which is always a good thing.

Keston Sutherland on wrongness in poetry

I am going to have to stop reading Sutherland, he gives me far too many things to think about. I’ve recently had sight of an essay on two lines from Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ which was published in ‘Lyrical Ballads’. The essay is called “Wrong Poetry” because these two lines were universally criticised for their seemingly unpoetic ineptitude but Wordsworth stood by them for seventeen years. The lines in question are- “I’ve measured it from side to side / ‘Tis three feet long and two feet wide”. Against my better judgement and overcoming my natural aversion to all things Wordsworth, I have now read this particular poem in its entirety and have to report that it isn’t very good and that the aforesaid couplet does seem a bit clunky even when compared with what surrounds it. ‘Clunky’ is my personal term and it applies to bits of poems that just don’t work or seem out of place. I like to think that I’ve had enough experience of clunkiness that I can recognise it in the work of others. This characteristic I would distinguish from ‘bad’ which in my lexicon refers to either dishonest posturing or complete technical ineptitude. I’m not of the view that a poem can be so bad that it’s good- although I do accept this may apply to certain pop songs.
That was the first digression, this is the second. The essay spends the first three pages rattling on about Hegel and Adorno. To uneducated souls like me this kind of obfuscation is deeply off-putting. In normal circumstances I would mutter darkly and not proceed any further in accordance with my lifelong vow never to ‘do’ Hegel and also because I fail to see what whatever the great German said could have to do with the way that I read and think about poetry. Furthermore, ‘Field Notes’ doesn’t begin with three pages of Hegel, neither does Fish when writing about Milton nor Derrida when writing about Celan. I fail to see why Sutherland feels to need to dabble in this academic nonsense, especially when he’s got something useful to say. Still, perhaps all this does is further demonstrate the need for the arduity project.

After the first three pages we get to the lines in question and the critical response to them then Sutherland defends them (and Wordsworth’s defence) with his usual vigour. Calling Simon Jarvis to his aid, he makes the claim that Wordsworth disliked being praised in the wrong way but that he also liked being dispraised in the right way,  Sutherland asserts that Wordsworth “should have needed an occasion to insist that poetry which even the most sympathetically inclined right-minded judges, and perhaps those judges especially, cannot like, nonetheless ‘ought to be liked’.”

This line of thinking is carried further in defence of the offending couplet. To condense a more detailed argument, Sutherland praises the lines because of their absolute literalness and points out that what may lie behind them is  “an attitude and pressure of conviction dislocated from its social context and its materials of argument, an excitement too powerful to disown that is persisted in with almost nonsensical tenacity”.

I don’t care enough about Wordsworth or this particular poem to form a view as to whether or not Sutherland is right but along the way he does throw out a number of ideas and issues that I will have to think about. The first is the concept of poetic wrongness. In this age of free verse and poems that consist solely of appropriated text, do we still have an idea of wrongness?

I think we do, two examples spring to mind where radical devices have been used that are ‘wrong’. Geoffey Hill’s ‘The Triumph of Love’ contains editorial notes and responses to critics within the poem. I don’t think that either of these elements work but aren’t wrong enough to detract from the brilliance of the poem. They shouldn’t be there, they are too pleased with themselves and  nowhere near as innovative as the time shifts used in ‘Mercian Hymns’ yet the rest of the poem is strong enough to carry them. Of course my idea of wrongness is entirely subjective and not in step with Sutherland who intends it to denote the overly literal. In the case of Hill, the devices used could be seen as conceptually bold, innovative and ‘wrong’ in the sense of defying convention but the fact remains that the content isn’t effective enough to match the devices.

The other proponent of  ‘wrong’ poetry that comes to mind is Sutherland himself. I’ve already written at some length about ‘Stress Position’ and speculated that it may be an attempt to fulfil his stated need for ‘poetry that is as impossible as reality’. I’d now like to throw wrongness into the mix. Wrongness in this particular poem comes in two distinct forms, one that doesn’t work and one that does precisely because it defies both logic and convention, demanding that the reader enters into the inherent contrariness. The first kind of wrong is the gratuitous Derrida quip in the final section of the poem which doesn’t work because it is merely offensive and repeats tired old cliches that have been around since the late sixties- if Sutherland wants to take on deconstruction and/or relativism then he should try and put up an argument.

The second kind of wrong relates to the gang rape scene and to Black Beauty. ‘Normal’ rules would suggest that if you are writing about torture and include a rape scene then you should not (under any circumstances) depict it in a lyrical way, especially if the victim is yourself.

The other maxim goes- if you are writing about torture and the vagaries of American foreign policy which are serious themes you should not place a fictional horse in the narrative. You must not do this because it will confuse your readers and it will not (under any circumstances) work.

This kind of brazen wrongness does actually work on a number of levels precisely because it is so very brazen and because Sutherland executes these two wrongs with enormous skill. I like to think that I’m not easily pulled in but I find both the inclusion of the horse and the rape scene very plausible. It’s this kind of wrongness that may indicate where the future of poetry lies.