What poetry is/does, an anthology

I thought it might be useful (for me, at least) to put in one place the thoughts of some of our leading practitioners as to what poetry might be about. This is because some of them say really important things and then I forget the detail/context of what is said and have to spend 30-40 minutes flicking through stuff to find the full version of the fragments that sit in my brain.

So, what follows is a series of statements from David Jones, Paul Celan, Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne, Simon Jarvis and Keston Sutherland. There is likely to be a bias towards Prynne and Celan, I make no apology for this because it appears to me that these two have the widest range of useful things to say. The list is chronological by date of birth (I am assuming that Jarvis is correctly placed but this is only an assumption) so it isn’t intended to imply an order of merit but I have tried to include all of the statements that have made an impression on me.

David Jones.

Jones is a major poet who wrote two crucially important poems both of which continue to be the unaccountable victims of critical oversight. His most complex and ambitious work is ‘The Anathemata’ and the following are taken from his introduction:

“He speaks of an ‘inward wound’ which was caused by the fear that certain things dear to him ‘should be like smoke dissipated’.”

“Part of my task has been to allow myself to be directed by motifs gathered together from such sources as have by accident been available to me and to make a work out of those mixed data.”

“When the workman is dead, the only thing that will matter is the work, objectively considered. Moreover, the workman must be dead to himself while engaged upon the work, otherwise we have the sort of ‘self-expression’ which is as undesirable in the writer or the painter as in the carpenter, the cantor, the half-back or the cook. Although all this is fairly clear in principle, I have not found it easy to apply in practice.”

“I name the poets in particular, not to round off a phrase, but to state what appears to me to be a fact. The forms and materials which the poet uses, his images and the meaning he would give those images, his perceptions, what is evoked, invoked or incanted, is in some way or other, to some degree or other, essentially bound up with the particular historic complex which he, together with each other member of that complex, belongs. But, for the poet, the woof and warp, the texture, feel, ethos, the whole matiere comprising that complex comprises also, or in part comprises, the actual material of his art. The ‘arts’ of, e.g., the strategist, the plumber, the philosopher, the physicist, are no doubt, like the art of the poet, conditioned by and reflective of the particular cultural complex to which their practitioners belong, but neither of these four arts, with respect to their several causes, can be said to be occupied with the embodiment and expression of the mythus and deposits comprising that cultural complex. Whereas the art of poetry, even in our present civilisational phase, even in our hyper-Alexandrian and megalapolitan situation, is, in some senses, still so occupied.”

I’ve included all of the last paragraph because ‘The Anathemata’ is one of the very best modernist poems that we have and I feel that what Jones says about ’embodiment and expression’ of our past and present cultural clutter ought to be central to everybody’s thinking about the practice of poetry.

Jones chooses his words carefully and I’m particularly keen on ‘mixed data’ because it in some way encapsulates my view for poetry to be more conscious of phenomena as data, mixed or otherwise. The second quote reflects one of the key struggles in ‘The Anathemata’- the attempt to exclude the ‘I’ whilst utilising an intensely personal collection of data. This is also fascinating because it might anticipate what Prynne has to say about the need for ‘self-removal’ in the poetry making process (see below).

Of course, none of the above will carry any real weight unless people read and pay attention to Jones’ poetry which I would argue is an essential task for anyone with an interest in the modernist vein.

Paul Celan.

Celan is the major figure in poetry since 1945, his work is unique in many respects and has attracted huge amounts of critical attention. After his death Hill and Prynne both wrote poems dedicated to him and his work but the reason for his inclusion here is for what he has to say about poetry and poetic practice.

I’m going to start with a longish quote the Bremen Speech because this clarifies and expands on what Celan meant when he said that his poems are like messages in a bottle.

“For a poem is not timeless. Certainly it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time – through it, not above and beyond it.

A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the – not always greatly hopeful – belief that sometime and somewhere it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward something.

Toward what? Toward something standing open, occupiable, towards an addressable Thou, toward an addressable reality.

Such realities, I think, are at stake in a poem.”

Here I think we have the idea of the poem as a quite intimate encounter- a theme that Celan elaborates on in his notes for the Meridian Address (see below). The ‘addressable Thou’ is a strong echo of the work of Martin Buber.

The next quotes are from the Meridian address as it was delivered in Darmstadt.

“But the poem does speak! It stays mindful of its dates, but – it speaks. For sure it speaks always only on its own, its very own behalf.

But I do think – and this thought can hardly surprise you by now – I think that it had always been part of the poem’s hopes to speak on behalf of exactly this strange – no, I cannot use this word this way- exactly on another’s behalf – who knows, perhaps on behalf a totally other.”

“It stands fast – after so many extreme formulations, permit me this one too – the poem stands at the edge of itself; it calls and brings itself, in order to be able to exist, ceaselessly back from its already-no-longer into its always-still.”

“But language actualised, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.”

“Does one take, when thinking of poems, does one take such routes with the poems? Are these routes only re-routings? But they are also at the same time, among many other routes on which, routes on which language becomes voice, they are encounters, routes of a voice to a perceiving you, creaturely routes, blueprints for being perhaps, a sending oneself ahead toward oneself, in search of oneself…A kind of homecoming.”

The Address is packed with really crucial stuff and the above is only my very subjective take on the stuff that I need to keep in mind. The quotes below are from the notes that Celan made in preparation for the Address and I’m including only those that seem essential.

“Imagination and experience, experience and imagination, in view of the darkness of the poem today, make me think of a darkness of the poem qua poem, thus of a constitutional, a congenital darkness. In other words: the poem is born dark; it comes, as the result of a radical individuation, into the world as a piece of language, thus, i.e. as far as the language manages to be world, laden with world.”

“”What’s on the lung, put on the tongue” my mother used to say – …..on breathroutes it comes, the poem, it is there,pneumatic: for everyone.”

“Poems are not accumulations and articulations of “word material”; they are the actualizing of something immaterial, language-emanations carried through life-hours, tangible and mortal like us. These hours are, especially in the poem, our hours – this is one of them – hours have no phenotype; we still write for our life.”

“The poem is the place where all synonymity stops: where all tropes and everything inessential is led ad absurdam; the poem has, I believe, even here where it is most visual, an anti-metaphorical character; the image has a penomenal aspect, recognisable through perception, – What separates you from it, you cannot bridge, you have to take the decision to leap.”

Even for the one, – and before all for the one, for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, this encounter has to begin with the darkness, with the self-evident what makes every encounter with a stranger strange. “Camarado, who this is no book, who touches this, touches a human.””

The end of this last quote is from Whitman’s ‘So Long’.

All of the above constitute the base of a poetics which, fifty years later, we have not yet begun to ‘actualise’- and we should / must.

Geoffrey Hill.

Geoffrey Hill is one of our best poets and he has many things to say on the nature of poetics and the business of making poetry. The problem is that it is really difficult to extract quotes from his essays that do not refer directly to external specifics so that the only way to get the full meaning of what’s been said is to read the full essay. I have, however, managed to isolate two paragraphs which set out some of Hill’s views on the nature of poetry and what it can do.

“At one essential level, the act of making a poem does not differ from an act of criticism: in each case the crucial step requires getting within the judgement the condition of the judgement. Occasionally one can see this happening as if in slow motion: authors’ drafts are a way of preserving this effect, though my own insistence on such practice may reverse the customary trend of advice. Rather than saying, ‘see how clever this particular leap of imagination has been’, I find myself repeatedly urging, ‘how recalcitrant, how obstructive, this material is’.”

“I would seriously propose a theology of language: and a primary exercise to be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition; and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial, types; (b) that the art and lietrature of the late twentieth century require a memorialising, a mamroising, of the dead as much as, or even more than, expressions of ‘solidarity with the poor and the oppressed’.”

Hill also quotes Simone Weil with approval-

“Simultaneous composition on several planes at once is the law of artistic creation and, wherin, in fact lies its difficulty.

A poet in the arrangement of words and the balance of each word, must simultaneously bear in mind matters on at least five or six different planes of composition….Politics, in their turn, form an art governed by composition on a multiple plane.”

In a recent interview with The Economist Hill has expressed the view that poetry should be ‘technically efficient and beautiful’.

J H Prynne.

Prynne is the most accomplished and challenging poet currently writing in English. Over the last four years he has produced a number of essays and commentaries which provide more than a little insight into his practice and the way that he thinks about poetry. The selection that follows is subjective and is not in any way intended to be either comprehensive or definitive- these are simply some of those that are important to me.

The first is from ‘Huts’-

“The house of language is not innocent, and is no temple. The intensities of poetic encounter, of imagination and deep insight into spiritual reality and poetic truth, carry with them all the fierce contradiction of what human language is and does. There is no protection or even temporary shelter from these forms of knowledge that is worth even a moment’s considered preference, even for poets or philosophers with poetic missions. Because the primal hut strips away a host of circumstantial appurtenances and qualifications, it does represent an elemental form, a kind of sweat-lodge; but it is confederate with deep ethical problematics, and not somehow a purifying solution to them. Yet the hut presents always a possible aspiration towards innocence, residual or potential, and towards transformation, so that a cynical report would be equally in error. Poets worth the attention of serious readers are not traffickers in illusions however star-bright, and entering by choice rather than necessity into a hut implies choosing the correct moment to come out again. Even Wordsworth manages to do this, in the poem I have cited. The house of language is a primal hut, is stark and is also necessary, and not permanent.”

This from ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ (2009)

“As I have admitted, I develop these inchoate thoughts in order somewhat to reflect on my own writerly practice. The discourse of poems is rather usually less directly able to be construed and normalized than the ordinary language of every day. The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean?”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading. The task, however, is not to subside into distracted ingenious playfulness with the lexicon and cross-inflectional idiomatics, but to write and read with maximum focused intelligence and passion, each of these two aspects bearing so strongly into the other as to fuse them into the enhanced state once in an old-fashioned way termed the province of the imagination.”

These three are from ‘Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems’ (2010)-

“Not only is poetry characteristically condensed, so that some semantic links may be cut off or completely absent, but also a diversity of apparently incompatible reference is often deliberate and a valued feature of complex poems. A reader can move slowly through dense compositions of this kind, and pauses at moments of choice can enrich the activity of reading; it’s not necessary all the time to make precise decisions, because uncertainty may be intrinsic to the text and its internal connections to its method of thought.”

“But in certain types of “difficult” poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectical practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.”

“If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrases which break the rules for local sense.”

The above probably represents as comprehensive a guide to the reading of Prynne that we’re likely to get. The following two rather lengthy quotes are from ‘Poetic Thought’ (2010)-

“To work with thought requires the poet to grasp at the strong and persistent ways in which understanding is put under test by imagination as a screen of poetic conscience, to coax and hurl at finesse and judgement, and
to set beliefs and principles on line, self-determining but nothing for its own sake merely; all under test of how things are. Nothing taken for granted, nothing merely forced, pressure of the composing will as varied by delicacy, because these energies are dialectical and not extruded from personality or point of view. Dialectics in this sense is the working encounter with contradiction in the very substance of object-reality and the obduracy of thought; irony not as an optional tone of voice but as marker for intrinsic anomaly.

So, the poet working with poetic thought requires to activate every part of the process, into strong question where the answer is obscure, or into what looks like strong answer where the question evades precise location. Language will have to keep up with this as best it can, must not be damaged unreasonably but equally must not be sheltered like a sick child: it can fight its own battles. There is also not too much cause to worry about the reader, since if these efforts produce composition of durable value the reader will catch up in due time. The notion of a reader unwilling to be conscripted by mere appearance brings also an astringent, sceptical aspect into view, and the width of reader-kinds and their motivations also splays out the notion of single-origin, single-issue poetic thought.”

“I believe the answer to be that strong poetic thought does indeed demand the unreserved commitment of the poet, deep-down within the choices and judgements of dialectical composition; but before the work is completed, the poet must self-remove from this location, sever the links not by a ruse but in order to test finally the integrity of the result. Indeed, until this removal is effected, the work cannot be truly complete, so that the new-discovered and extended limits of poetic thought form the language-boundaries of the new work. Some of the limit-rules here are already inherent in language as a system of social practice and grammatical construction; some of the limit-features have to do with a text’s not breaking the bounds of poetry altogether. But, these powerfully signifying limits are valorised by the internal energy of language under intense pressure of new work, new use, new hybrids of
practice and reference and discovery.”

Simon Jarvis.

I freely confess that I’m still trying to catch up with the Jarvis Project and the following may only give a flavour of what might be going on. The first is from an essay entitled ‘Thinking in Verse’ (2008), the poets referred to are Blake, Wordsworth and Shelley-

“The present chapter attempts to open up a little our sense of how some of these poets themselves thought
about thinking in verse, so as to suggest the possibility that, far from having been read to death or superseded, their thought and work may remain far in advance of any literary-critical apparatus which has so far been brought up
to decode them. It aims, in the longer term, to begin opening up the possibility that verse is not merely a kind of thinking but also a kind of implicit and historical knowing: the possibility that the finest minutiae of verse practice represent an internalized mimetic response to historical changes too terrifying or exhilarating to be addressed explicitly.”

This is from ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ (2007)-

“It is this longing which can be felt in the ambiguous or potential hypermetricality of the line ‘And the most ancient Heavens through Thee are fresh and strong.’ The equivocal or possible hypermetricality arises just because one kind of abstract freedom (the freedom to speak the lines exactly as you ordinarily would like to) and one kind of abstract rigorism (the demand to speak the lines just as the metrician supposed to know would have you) have been rejected: yet not in favour of some actually existing harmonious state, a perfect balance between the duty to metre and the inclination to prose, but in favour of a tense or, better, living recognition of difference – that [sense of] ‘similitude in dissimilitude’ which Wordsworth thought so vital as to offer an explanation for the pleasures of sex and prosody alike.”

In this talk, Jarvis makes the case for prosody being beneficial in the expression of philosophical ideas and themes with particular reference to Alexander Pope.

Keston Sutherland.

Sutherland is a brilliant poet and one of the finest critics that we have. For me he has been the source of a great many things to think about and to argue with. He’s also the best explicator of all things Prynne.

I can’t currently identify where I got this from, so any help would be much appreciated-

“”…being a reader of poetry means engaging closely and carefully with it, staking an intimacy on the work of interpretation, in some way perhaps even needing that intimacy or submitting to it as a sort of definition of oneself, or the component of a definition. Some poetry demands and makes possible that sort of intimacy more than other poetry.”

This is from a draft of ‘This is not a Metaphor’, (2010)-

“Poetry will not be ―social realist‖ unless it can make a more radically truthful picture of life than the forms of representation that are popularly considered ―realistic‖. It is difficult to find poetry which does that, because the poetry which may do it is always, as a matter of principle, uncertain whether it does or not; social realism is an intensely self-critical and sceptical mode. It is sceptical about the value and the tendencies of poetic artifice, it is sceptical about rhetoric, rhyme, versification and metaphor, and its scepticism is not logical or linguistic, simply—not just a professional scepticism about semiosis and the power of words to designate objects or ―signifieds‖—but moral and political. Its fundamental insistence is that poetic artifice is not morally or politically trivial, but capable of determining moral and political attitudes, by accident and by sleight as well as by open and programmatic persuasion; and it takes a special, intense interest in damaging practices of representation that make people insensitive to suffering or blind them to the extent of suffering and its complex material causes.”

This is taken from an interview that Sutherland gave to Laura Kilbride in November 2011-

“So for me, right now, the most important political responsibility—and I positively identify it as a Mayakovskyan responsibility for the poet—in an event like that, is to walk around and to discover in the vernacular of protest and anger the means to produce a complex, perceptive account of underlying social contradiction that can on some level be intelligible to the people who were on that march and that will properly reflect back part of the experience of being there—that rather than any kind of de rigeur intensifying climax or amplified poetical outburst which screws up into a ball and perfects its energy at the peak of its intensities of violence. I’m extremely suspicious of the forms of implicit and explicit messianism involved in that kind of fetishism of intensities—not simply because it becomes harder and harder to do, the more I learn about the world, but also because I do think that it’s at least potentially and is often actually and in fact a thoroughly bourgeois posture. I think that people when they hear the word ‘bourgeois’ tend to imagine that this is a concept whose application can conveniently be limited to people whose authority we despise or who are our parents or who are older than us or who own shops or whatever it might be. But in fact, of course, there are all sorts of very exciting, very intense and emotionally bewildering forms of romantic bourgeois posturing which are bourgeois not because they come from the mouths of the people who own the means of production, but rather because they imaginatively spirit into existence solutions to social problems whose origin and engine is the poetical imagination rather than real political activity aimed at resolving social issues.”

This from ‘Wrong Poetry’ published in ‘Stupefaction’ in 2011-

“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.”

As I’ve said, this isn’t definitive but it does represent some of the material that I find most helpfully provocative, which is not to say that I agree with any of it.

6 responses to “What poetry is/does, an anthology

  1. The appearance of Hill’s Collected Critical Writings gave me a chance to reread many of his best pieces. From late in CCW I’d quote: “To ‘get within the judgement the condition of the judgement’ is, so far as I can be said to understand it, the basic essential of all true criticism. And not only criticism. Each true poem is required to bear within it the condition of the judgement that inspired it” (561); AND: “In a successful poem a particular word may instantaneously perform what it desiderates” (580).

    • Tom,

      Thank you for these additions Tom, I will include both but will also expand them, do you think I should address the whole ‘alienated majesty’ trope?

  2. You’ve put a lot of work into this piece, John, so I want to tell you that it is much appreciated. This ‘mini reader’ in the thoughts of these poets offers another vantage point from which a baffled reader can try to see what they are doing through the fog.
    From your Prynne extracts I fastened on:
    “intelligence and passion” – fused in an enhanced state once (old-fashionedly) termed the “province of the imagination” – yes, some of these works need an imaginative response from a collaborative reader –
    and on that depiction of words close together which seem normally not to be associated as “hot spots”. There’s something here for a reader to work on I think.
    Tom D’Evelyn has highlighted Sir Geoffrey Hill’s remark “to get within the judgement the condition of the judgement”. That stood out for me too in the passages you quote, but I find this observation totally puzzling. Is that because I haven’t read much literary criticism?
    Finally, might I suggest you incorporate among the widgets of your blog the WordPress search function? I was trying to track down some comments from Neil Pattison and it took me a while.
    Keep up the good work please.

    • Widget has been added, but I don’t know if it ‘does’ the comment threads. There is a good deal more context to the judgement quote and I’ll try to do it justice in the next few days.

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