Category Archives: books

Geoffrey Hill, William Cobbett and Jeremy Corbyn

For the past decade or so I’ve been intermittently musing on the nature of Hill’s politics, citing elements of his work as indicative of a kind of Little Englander High Tory (LEHT). The posthumously published The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin provides additional qualifiers and amendments on both points which I’ll try and outline here.

The first startlement comes with Poem 186;

This, it is becoming clear, is more a Daybook than ever The Daybooks were:
          il mestiere di vivere that secures its own private consistory and guards the
          door, admitting neither rich nor poor to the designs and details of poetry
          which are the very devil to portray without favour or fear.
Corbyn must win. Though he is a flawed man it is not my belief that Hogarth 
           would set him down as a tout or a thief.
To ask whether again Labour could ever again take power is beside the point at this
           juncture and hour.
Let me recomence my old caterwaul of 'intrinsic value' if only to rile you.
But why should you be riled at all? No disordinancy has been revealed, other
         than in the cabals that have reviled Corbyn with claptrap lobbymen.
It is the lobby that corrupts the language of praise, determines greatness to be 
         derisory. I should not trust even Hogarth on the topic of Jews and ususry.
         And Cobbett would be worse. I count them amongst my grievous heroes,
         whose structural stature - each minute particular of unbribed observa-
         tion, whether of turnip or fashion - combines in a singular authentic
         judgement upon the nation

I’ll start with Cobbett. For those that don’t know, William Cobbett was an early 19th century journalist and radical who was a key figure in the movement for parliamentary reform. He was also an ardent supporter of and advocate for all things English and rural. I rate him as the finest writer of prose that we have ever had, a talent that makes me smile a lot. I don’t share his politics nor do I admire him as a man but his writings are a constant source of pleasure and inspiration.

Hill has always been a bit evasive about the precise nature of his politics apart from his patriotism and his belief in the need for some kind of hierarchy in the way that we govern our lives. It is nevertheless reasonable to suggest that he shared many of Cobbett’s beliefs and compassion for the rural poor. Here he seems to be troubled by his hero’s antisemitism which appears to be akin to the current workings of the Westminster lobby industry.

The statement Corbyn must win is unusually short and direct. I’m taking it that this refers to the 2017 UK general election in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party was narrowly defeated by the incumbent Conservative leader, Theresa May. No doubt there will be many books written and many debates had over the Corbyn phenomenon and what it may have signified.

I’m one of those lefty cynics who recognised the gift that a Corbyn leadership would give to an already divided Tory party. As a paid up member of the ongoing failure that is the Great British Left, I’d followed Corbyn’s career with interest and had been unable to work out why the party hadn’t expelled him many decades ago- his views having much more in common with some of the small grouplets of the far left than they do with the parliamentary party.

It is therefore more than a shock to read these three words coming from this self confessed High Tory especially when, elsewhere in the series, he confesses to being a Remain supporter in the ongoing Brexit fiasco. Hill had made his anti-EU views clear in the Canaan collection of 1996 esp with regard to the political strife around the ratification of the Mastricht Treaty- an internal Tory kerfuffle mostly about the loss of sovereignty.

I’m going to glide over the Hogarth reference because I want to attend to all that Baruch has to say about him in another piece. I have however been casting about for commonality between Cobbett and Corbyn and it occurs to me that both of these are political outsiders. Neither were accepted by the political elites/establishment even though both, at times, enjoyed extraordinarily wide public appeal. Cobbett took several attempts to get elected to a seat, even after the 1832 Reform Act whilst Corbyn led his party to two defeats and gave the Tories their biggest majority since 1931.

We are pointed in the direction of two essays where Hill pays attention to the nature of intrinsic value. The first of these, Rhetorics of Value and Intrinsic Value, which starts with David Hume, proceeds to Joseph Butler and George Eliot before moving on to Richard Hoooker before alighting upon Ben Johnson;

“Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted, Language is, It imitates the publicke riot. The Excesse of Feasts, and apparrel, are the notes of a sick State; and the wantnonnesse of language, of a sick mind.”

Hill’s comment is telling;

The intelligence that believes in these words, from wheresoever derived, and seals that belief by giving them this cogent stability, affims also its acceptance of a doctrine of intrinsic value, albeit tacitly. The tacit understanding here is that language does not universally descend into corruption in company with a sick mind, or the mind of a sick state. Johnson had no doubt that his own times were sick; but he never doubted the capacity of language, his own language in particular, to guard its sanity and to guard the sanity of those who give it their assent…….. If you do answer with yea, yea! – as I admit that I do- you are henceforward committed to a course of thought and statement that accepts opposition as part of the common lot, which can hardly avoid controversy, and which will be, or from some points of vantage will appear to be, narrowly constrained and constraining.

To this reader, at least, things become a little clearer, the ‘old caterwaul’ is recommended because it identifies the value that both Corbyn and Cobbett brought redressing the sick state and the ways in which both were entangled in controversy. The Tory press took great delight in reminding all of us of Corbyn’s earlier support for the IRA and the PLO whilst his own campaigns gained popular support because he talked of a new kind of politics, one that was based on a sense of commonality and economic justice.

I’m not entirely sure that Corbyn has a notable mastery of language, as time went on his speechifying became increasingly equivocated by the supposed need hedge his bets, especially with regard to Brexit. Given Hill’s notion of value, it does make sense to see the Jeremy Corbyn of 2017 as a figure coming out of the cold to speak truth to power.

As might be expected, I don’t share this view of language as something special and apart from our daily lives. I remain of the view that the words we use are tethered to the lives that we live and the ways in which we live them. Words are very powerful but they aren’t special, they don’t transcend everyday life in the way that most poets seem to claim.

The other thing that I may wish to attend to is how much of this idea of value should be applied to Hill’s own work. For example, can Mercian Hymns be read, at least in part as an attempt at sanity guarding? What about the stunning Mysticism and Democracy poems from the Canaan collection?

J H Prynne on Wordsworth and Delight

My arduity site has a piece on Prynne’s Field Notes which is an enormously detailed examination of Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper. In that I hope I made clear my dislike of Wordsworth coupled with my admiration of Prynne as a critic.

This very afternoon I came across his Concepts and Conception in Poetry which was published in 2014 and focuses on extracts from The Prelude, The Pedlar and all of Wallace Stevens’ Prologues to What is Possible I have no idea when I bought this, I didn’t know that I owned it and I cannot remember even thumbing through its pages. Given my admiration for Most Things Prynne, I’ve now read it and would like to point out a couple of things that I’ve found helpful in approaching his verse.

Concepts runs to 45 pages and is divided into five parts:

  • Extracts from Boethius, Dante, Shakespeare, John Locke, J S Mill, Henry Home, Shelley and Ray Jackendoff on the nature of concepts;
  • Prynne’s introduction which sets out his theme;
  • Commentary on The Prelude extract;
  • Commentary on the same from The Pedlar;
  • Commentary on Prologues to What is Possible.

Here I’m going to deal with parts 2 and 3 although I may do something later about part 4. My only observation re part one is that the number and length of the extracts does seem to be over-egging the pudding in terms of establishing a premise.

Part 2 is characteristically dense but induces more brow furrowing in this reader than did Field Notes and his work on Herbert’s Love III. This is probably because the point being made is around a specific aspect of conceptualisation which is quite complex. Being thereby a little disappointed, I’ll try to offer a summary of this notion and some of the poetry evidence used to support it. Here’s what appears to be the main thrust of the argument;

These higher ‘free’ levels of poetic contrivance have been described as already self-conceptualized, in part because of language as a mediating code practice or even code-structure. But it is possible to consider the most ambitious forms of poetical invention to be those that enter into their own conceptual domain so completely as to transform this into its own ‘free naturalism’ where all is conceptualized and therefore nothing is, a ‘possible world’ where abstraction functions not as that which is abstracted from something else but as autonomous at levels of second-order meaning and interpretation; this meta-discourse practice is fully supported by the language medium because natural language itself is generically conceptualized in relation to ‘what there is’ whether ‘real’ or not, elastic in upward dimensionality, almost indefinitely so; and this is especially true of poetic discourse constructions.

It would seem likely that Prynne is here describing his own work as an example of the ‘most ambitious forms’ and, if so, may give further insight into his practice and, in using Wordsworth and Stevens as examples, is demonstrating one aspect of his approach as a reader.

As can be seen, the processes by which concepts come about is fairly central here. After some internal debate, I’ve decided not to engage with conceptualizing in any detail except to observe that things can sometimes be made more complicated than is necessary and that I’m always suspicious of claims made for the special nature of poetry. I am however intrigued by this notion of an autonomous abstraction.

As a reader of the later work, this particular ‘frame’ seems to ‘fit’ much of Prynne’s work over the last 25 years. This may be because I want it to fit but the work is renowned for it’s resistance to straightforwardness and as such follows its own rules regardless of other contemporary work and trends. However, I can’t see how the above works, I don’t understand the process by which a poem can enter into its own conceptual domain because the nature of concepts is that they operate in a wider context of ideas, observations and feelings. Poems make use of parts of this context but I don’t think that they can make it, exclusively or otherwise, their own.

The paragraph continues with;

Within such territory, often separated from lower levels by ascription as ‘in imagination’ or ‘sublime’ an arbitrary text-lexicon can be converted into a distinct vocabulary and improvised rules for following a narrative or a performance can be formed by modification of lower-order practice or can be newly invented in their own right. A reader may have a demanding task to interpret these ‘rules, but the process may be exhilarating enough to carry the reader forward with strenuous delight: ‘it must give pleasure’ (both Wordsworth and Stevens agreee on this).

Readers from many moons ago may recall that my attempts to get above the foothills of Mount Prynne was greatly assisted by the pleasure I gained from attending to his Streak Willing Entourage Artesian from 2009. I was at a loss to adequately describe this feeling other than to observe that reading the series required quite a profound change in the way that I thought. ‘Strenuous delight’ is (probably) probably closer although I’d change the noun to ‘satisfaction’ for reasons that I’ll try to explain below.

In retrospect, the delight gained was from the fact that the main subject, the recent civil war in Ulster, was and is an interest of mine. This was coupled with the pleasure I get in extending and challenging my mental abilities. The delight comes from my love of poetry and its many strategies of expression.

I have never had this from Wordsworth, a poet that, after fifty years of trying, I still can’t see the point of. I’m even less keen on The Prelude because I had Book III as part of my Eng Lit A level. Prynne has been a fan since childhood and has led me to see, in part, the point of The Solitary Reaper. Here he makes use of lines 279-306 Book Thirteenth from the 1805/06 version;

Yet much had been omitted, as need was,
Of books how much! and even of the other wealth
Which is collected among woods and fields
Far more: which is Nature's secondary grace,
That outward illustration which is hers, 
Hath hitherto been barely touch'd upon,
The charm more superficial and yet sweet
Which from her works finds way, contemplated
As they hold forth a genuine counterpart
and softening mirror of the moral world.
       Yes, having track'd the main essential Power,
Imagination, up her way sublime
In turn might Fancy also be pursued
Through all her transmigrations, till she too
was purified, had learn'd to ply her craft
By judgement steadied. Then might we return
And in the Rivers and the Groves behold
Another face; might hear them from all sides
Calling upon the more instructed mind
to link their images with subtle skill
Sometimes, and by elaborate research, 
With forms and definite appearances
Of human life, presenting them sometimes
To the involuntary sympathy
Of our internal being, satisfied
And soothed with a conception of delight
Where meditation cannot come, which thought
Could never heighten.

This is part of the Conclusion and Prynne assesses its adequacy as a summation of all that’s gone before. It may be my personal bias re Wordsworth but the process seems unusually long winded and seems to hedge around what appears to be the central point, With regard to ‘delight’ we are told that it;

…….can be sought after and deeply welcomed but it cannot be caused into being , only prepared for and then discovered or received.

I don’t understand this, how might we prepare ourselves to be delighted? Causing something into being is either clumsy or evasive esp if ‘making something happen’ is what is intended. In addition, I always thought that surprise was a key element in delight and being looked for diminishes or negates that sensation.

Here’s a couple of personal poetry examples of what I think I mean, I experienced delight when:

  • a stranger told me that he’d chosen the subject for his phd on the strength of things I’d written about David Jones;
  • I discovered that Geoffrey Hill had quoted in me in one of his Clavics poems;
  • an audience member informed me that one of my performance pieces had created a sound picture of how she thinks.

My point is that none of these were expected nor sought for and I experienced them all as a shock, as something sudden and completely outside any kind of expectations that I might have had. I couldn’t have prepared myself for any of these and the delight that I felt came this mix of surprise and pleasure.

Things get trickier as Prynne tackles the ‘sense’ of the final lines;

The resolving stage in this passage of discursive thought adopts apparently a practice of meditation mediated in textual performance and yet held strongly to be finally beyond the reach of meditation, even of thought itself.

This is a fair summation of what Wordsworth seems to be asserting and Prynne clearly thinks that it is an important point to make. I have a real struggle with this beyond ‘thought itself’ notion in general and especially when used with regard to poetry. My standard response is that the thing we call the brain makes thoughts, that that these thoughts may occupy various categories (intuitions, emotions, visions, sensations, opinions etc) but they are all thoughts and that, mentally, there is nothing else. Claiming that something can get above or outside of thought strikes me as irrational and more than a little lazy.

My final worry is this;

Or have the stages outlined here, by which the domain is reached, devised a new category of potentially conceptualised understanding, that is intrinsically, or at least initially personal and individual and thus self-generalising only within this one private individual mind? And yet this outcome is grasped here as a scheme of self-knowledge with a sufficient articulation to be able to be communicated to potential readers, who extend the realm of possible meaning into a society of the poem, distinctly and hopefully envisaged by its author.

This seems to be trying too hard, this intensely personal and private understanding that is arrived at outside of thought can, be means of ‘a sufficient articulation’ reach readers who can then further enhance it. I have no idea how this might work, I suspect that ‘sufficient articulation’ is used because it throws up further confusions and bewilderments. Prynne’s reference to ‘a society’ as in one of many also seems a bit weird in this context.

I hope that, in disagreeing, I’ve at least shown how Prynne may think about this particular aspect of poem making. In the coming weeks I’ll look at what he has to say about The Pedlar.

The poetic voice in the difficult poem. Geoffrey Hill and David Jones

I embark on this as a result of seeing a paragraph somewhere that puzzled over the nature of Samuel Beckett’s ‘voice’ in his later prose. For some reason this triggered off an internal debate as to the respective voices deployed by Pound in his Cantos and by Charles Olson in his Maximus series. Leafing through these two bignesses, I realised that I didn’t respond well to the voices behind the poem.

This surprised me because both poems have enough of the poet in them to keep me interested but here this turned out to be an appalled fascination rather than enthusiasm.

In this sense, I’m treating voice as the thing in a poem which gives some indication of the poet as a member of the human race rather than as the maker of the poem. I’ve therefore chosen Hill and Jones because the voices they deploy are very different but equally full of humanness.

The Teacherly Voice.

I’ve learned a lot from these two, Jones uses notes to clarify some of his references and obscurities whilst Hill tends to make his explanations part of the poem. From Jones I’ve learned much more about life in the trenches during World War I than any other book could have taught me, I’ve also become reasonably au fait with the tenets and liturgy of the Catholic faith as well as aspects of the history of London.

As an example, there is this from In Parenthesis;

At 350 – slid up the exact steel, thegraduated rigid leaf precisely angled to its bed.

You remember the word of the staff instructor whose Kinross teeth bared, his bonnet awry, his broad bellow to make you spring to it; to pass you out with the sixty three parts properly differentiated.

The note for the first paragraph is “Has reference to adjustment of back-sight leaf for firing at required range. The opposing trench lines were, at this point, separated by approximately 300-350 yards. In other places the distance was very much less. Among the Givenchy craters, the length of a cricket pitch divided the combatants.

This is the gloss for the second- “Scotsmen seemed as ubiquitous among Musketry Instructors as they are among ships’ engineers. There are 63 parts to the short Lee-Enfield rifle.”

The points about sight leaf adjustment and the 63 parts are helpful in attending to the poem, The crater details give additional context but are not needed by the reader. The Ubiquitous Scot is an observation that makes me smile and has a touch of the human about it.

Hill’s A precis or Memorandum of Civil Power does education with regard to Messaien;

Why Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps this has
nothing to do
surely with civil power? But it strikes chords
direct and angular: the terrible
unreadiness of France to hold her own;
and what March Bloch entitled Strange Defeats ,
prisoners, of whom Messaien was one,
the unconventional quarter for which 
the Quator 
was fashioned as a thing beyond the time,
beyond the sick decorum of betrayal,
Petain, Laval, the shabby prim hotels,
fortified with spa waters. (When I said
grand minimalist I'd had someone else in mind-
just to avoid confusion on that score.)
Strike up, augment,
irregular beauties contra the New Order.
Make do with cogent if austere finale.

I was aware of the Quartet but wasn’t aware that Messaien had been in prison, nor was I aware of the Bloch quote although he is one of my favourite historians.

I’ve thus been taught and given additional context to the rest of the poem. I’m also intrigued by Hill’s desire to be understood. He frequently claimed not to be bothered by the difficulty of his work, justifying it, less frequently, by observing that life is difficult and the poems are a reflection of that fact. The ‘grand minimalist’ clarification, I like to think, because he knows how good this series is and he’s tidying up any ambiguities that may have occurred. The score pun is typically terrible but endearing.

The Raw Voice

By this I want to draw out the voice in both that has both startled and moved me. I discover reasonably late in life that I read poetry in order, in part to be emotionally affected. This has come as something of a shock because becauseI’d always told myself that the prime attraction was the quality of the phrase/line/image/idea.

I’ve been thus affected by both Jones and Hill by the unadorned horror in some of their lines. There is a lot of rawness about that is intended to be moving but leaves me cold.

The two extracts here have a personal impact on me because both my grandfathers were seriously wounded at the Somme, events which have permeated down through subsequent generations. My wife and I also lost a child who was only alive long enough to be christened before she died, this has been of enormous significance to both of us and our other children for the thirty six years since.

These two are again from In Parenthesis;

And white faces lie,

(like china saucers tilted run soiling stains half-dry, when the moon shines on a scullery rack and Mr and Mrs Billington are asleep upstairs an so’s Vi – and any creak frightens you and any twig moving.)

And this;

And next to Diamond, and newly dead the lance-jack from No 5, and three besides, distinguished only in their variant mutilation.

Whilst I find both of these raw, as in ‘soiling stains half dry’ and ‘in their variant mutilation’ I also accept that they are restrained, poetic and have the feel of the terrible authentic. Both of these are from part 7 which deals with the first couple of days of the Somme offensive. Both my grandfathers experienced mutilation during this period, one lost an eye and the other lost half his face and took sixteen years to die. I’ve read a lot about WWI and the Somme in particular and nowhere have I come across anything close to this in terms of accuracy and humanity.

Turning to Sir Geoffrey, this piece of theological pondering is from Poem CXXV in the brilliant The Triumph of Love series;

                                               So much 
for the good news. The bad is its correlate-
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.
Wycliff and Dame Julian would have raised
few objections or none to those symmetries.

As I indicated earlier, for fairly obvious reasons this touches a nerve. Beth lived for 16 hours which was long enough to be christened but not to be baptized. Earlier in the poem Hill makes clear that he’s paraphrasing Thomas Bradwardine (14th century polymath and Archbishop of Canterbury). After getting over my immediate response I had a look at Bradwardine and his very orthodox attack on the New Pelagians- I think I’ve written about this in the past as an example of extreme obscurity. The entirely accurate bit that I experience as both raw and distressing is the eternal torments and the guaranteed damnation. It doesn’t matter that Hill attempts to balance this with the ‘good news’ which is that “All / things are eternally present in time and nature”. This still strikes me as more than a little gratuitously self indulgent.

The Human Voice.

I accept that I’ve spent more than a few words here and on arduity on what think of as Jones’ humanity and Hill’s tendency to throw himself, body and soul into some of his later work without being clear as the effect this has had on me personally.

By humanity I intend a mix of empathy and compassion for others clearly and unambiguously expressed. This passage from Part 4 is indicative of what I think I mean;

Corporal Quilter gave them no formal dismissal, nor did he enquire further what duties his party might next perform. Each one of them disposed himself in some part of their few yards of trench, and for an hour or more were left quite undisturbed, to each his own business. To talk together of the morning’s affairs; to fall easily to sleep; to search for some personally possessed thing, wedged tightly between articles drawn from the Quartermaster; tore-read again the last arrived letter; to see if the insisted water were penetrated within the stout valise canvas; sufficiently to make useless the very thing you could do with; to look at illustrations inlast week’s limp and soiled Graphic, of Christmas preparations with the fleet, and full portraits of the High Command; to be assured that the spirit of the troops it excellent. that the nation proceeds confidently in its knowledge of victory.

I make no apologies at all for producing this list of troops’ ‘downtime’ activities as I feel it more than adequately expresses Jones’ very human respect and affection for his comrades in arms. Passages like this occur frequently throughout this long work which can be read as a tribute to those who served on both sides of the trenches.

The Personal Voice

On the other hand, Hill’s later work gives many peeks into his life story and he has no problem with ruminating about his work within his poetry.

The Triumph of Love gives us examples of both;

Guilts were incurred in that place, now I am convinced,
self-molestation of the child-soul, would that be it?

The place in question is Romsley which is close to Hill’s childhood home. It is known that, for many years, Hill had problems with his mental health and eventually obtained a diagnosis and some appropriate help. As someone with similar issues who happened to be a social worker, I’m going to resist extrapolating too much from these lines other than to confess that I readily identify with the unerring accuracy of both self-molestation and the child-soul. One of the main functions, it seems to me, of creative endeavour is to provoke us into comparing our own experiences, emotions and ideas with those expressed in the work. Sadly, far too many mainstream poets since the fifties have poured out their pain into poems in a way that I find distasteful and trite. I’m therefore against the confessional poem but Hill is forgiven because these moments are both oblique and rare.

The Triumph of Love also has this;

At seven, even, I knew the much-vaunted
battle was a dud. First it was a dud,
then a gallant write-off.

As with all those who were children between 1939 and 1945, the Second World War was formative for Hill and frequent references are to made to aspects ranging from the German resistance movement, Dunkirk, the fate of the Jews and the bombing of Coventry.

The posthumous Book of Baruch has this;

Eagle-eyed ancient history, look down on us from your eyrie with    
           resolved countenance: as when, in the Daily Mail, I read about 
           Spain, and drew dread in, and put the question 'will it come   
           here?' to my dad though he knew well it would.

Here I’m taking ‘Spain’ to refer to the Spanish Civil War and Hill’s father’s response an attempt to soothe the anxieties of a small child- our poet was born in 1932.

Baruch also has;

In my father's time I worked rhyme against form with smears of         
            poisonable blue indelible pencil. He also let me part-expend
            my rage  on any leftover blank page of a 'surplus' police 
            notebook; my lips of purple slake.
He was a good man; I brought him pain and pride.

Elsewhere Hill expresses his anger about his grandparents’ poverty but here we have something more complex going on. His father was a police sergeant and in the thirties and forties would have been seen as a figure of some authority in the wider community. I’m assuming that the pride would come from Hill’s Oxbridge education and subsequent academic career – I have no idea about the cause(s) of the pain.

The voice here is restrained but lyrical- the lines kick off for me my own relationship with my dad and his complete mystification as to why I should enjoy reading and writing.

As a result of these small observations and clear interjections, I feel that I know more about the humanness of Hill than I do of Jones although I’ve read much more about the latter’s life.

I’ll finish here, I’ve found this a rewarding experience in that I’ve had to try and think about both poets’ work as a whole- something that’s quite different from the close attention that I try to pay to individual poems. I hope that others will find it useful.

As some of you may have realised, I’m still kicking around the glories of the wordpress ‘verse’ button and its unusual rendering of the <pre> tag. I now intend to try and find a way to make it ‘work’ in a much friendlier manner. The lineation on the Baruch extracts doesn’t match the format in the book either, will try to fix this as well.

The OUP, the English Language and the Free Market. A Rant.

But hopefully a considered rant. Starting with the obvious, I like to think of myself as a writer who writes about poetry that is tricky to get hold of. This sometimes because it makes use of words that I don’t understand or the secondary definitions of ordinary words that I’m not aware of.

In order to par sustained attention to this kind of non-drive by work, I need access to the same dictionary used by those poets. this also applies to the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets that I’m particular fond of and occasionally write about.

This dictionary is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) published by the Oxford University Press. In the not too distant past digital access was free via local authority library membership which is free. I was thus a member of the Hampshire library service until about three years ago when, quite suddenly, my access was denied. Further investigation revealed that the price of library affiliation had gone up to such a level that Hampshire were no longer prepared to pay it. This also proved to be the case amongst local authorities along the South Coast.

I don’t think I need to demonstrate the centrality of the OED but would gently point to the pic of Sir Geoffrey Hill sitting in front of a full set of volumes of the rear cover of The Orchards of Sion and both his and J H Prynne’s many complaints about the inferiority of the second edition when compared (in detail) with the first.

I couldn’t/wouldn’t afford the £215 annual subscription so I reluctantly had to devise a way of jumping over the paywall, for obvious reasons I’m not going into further details but it took me about five minutes and didn’t involve any kind of technical expertise.

The rant is that the OED is the definitive reference point for English speakers across the globe and millions of us are effectively locked out of both our heritage and the language we use.

I’ve just checked the OED site and came across this;

We are pleased to offer annual individual OED subscriptions at a reduced rate of £90 (usually £215) or $90 (usually $295) until March 31 2021.

As an ex-retailer, I can only surmise that this reduction is due to the fact that people have decided that they can’t afford the full amount and it’s been decided to reduce it to a more manageable amount. It is very unlikely that the OUP have had a sudden flurry of conscience.

I simply can’t write without this resource, I don’t and won’t charge for access to what I produce. I can’t afford spending either £450 or £1075 for five years’ use. I know that many others are in the same position and have to use Other Means to get access.

This brings me on to the pricing regimes of University presses which makes books about many subjects beyond the reach of the interested reader who doesn’t have access to a university library. I present examples from the OUP’s current poetry list;

American Experimental Poetry and Democratic Thought which currently sells for £98.00.

A History of European Versification at a breathtaking £212.50

Andrew Marvell, Orphan of the Hurricane which is priced at £79

Once again, as a reader. I have an interest in all of these, especially the Marvell, a major point that is becoming increasingly contested. I’m also guessing that like minded souls across the English speaking world would have a similar interest and would buy the book if it was reasonably affordable.

I readily accept that this is in part due to the funding crisis facing many of our universities which is compounded by the imposition of fees by the vile George Osborne and his posh boy chums. This kind of exclusionary practice may be a product of discredit economic models but it’s a double edged sword in that we, more than ever, need our workforce to be both knowledgeable and reflective to be able to survive in a global market, especially now.

I’ve just checked and, within three clicks, have discovered that I can download a complete pdf of the History tome for free. This again involves a small amount of technical knowledge that most poetry readers don’t have. I hope this demonstrates the futility of such a pricing regime and the inability of academic publishers to recognise the Writing on the Wall.

This particular Writing relates to the redundancy of charging for books and may other kinds of knowledge simply because there are and will continue to be ways to access these for free. I’m not talking about torrenting from pirate sites but via bodies that will remain nameless specifically set up to provide this service. I would use the open circulation of research into all aspects of Covid-19 as a prime example of how the scientific community is inching towards such a model and will continue to do so. Sadly I also recognise that lit crit and poetry journals will take more than a few years to catch up.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve demonstrated the extreme injustice of the current systems.

David Jones and art for art’s sake.

For the first time in a numbers of years I’ve been reading the Epoch and Artist collection of Jones’ essays and find myself struck again by Art and Sacrament and by The Utile from 1955 and 1958 respecitvely. This is primarily because of what Jones says about the relationship to the making of art with participation in the Catholic Mass in a note to The Anathemata which has always puzzled me.

I’m puzzled because this is a view that’s given with some force and has, what I find to be, an unpleasant sting in the tail:

But I here confine my use of the word to those artefacts in which there is an element of the extra-utile and the gratuitous. If there is evidence of this kind of artefacture then the artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion because the extra-utile is the mark of man.

For which reason the description ‘utility goods’ if taken literally could refer only to the products of sub-man.

This is note 2 on p.65 of the 2010 Faber edition of The Anathemata the italicised adverb is in the original text. I write as a reader who is unsettled by both paragraphs and, although I have had conversations with the leading critics on this, what follows is intended in a readerly way rather than lit crit.

I’m unsettled specifically by this notion of direct participation and by the use of sub-man.

I am happy to accept that taking part can be an unconscious thing and that it therefore includes non-believers. What I’m agitated by is how it works, even for believers. Being far too curious in many things I do like to know the details of this kind of belief. I’ve spent many hours getting to the finer points of how the dialectic is supposed to function, how religious grace has been fought over by Christians since the time of Christ for example. In comparison the what I think of as the Jones Problem is a very, very minor concern.

It matters to me because the use of emphasis disrupts my enjoyment of the work as a whole and this particular poem that I consider to be the finest long poem of the 20th century. I also consider myself to be, in part, an explicator of Jones’ longer work and therefore feel a bit of a fraud because I’ve never got to grips with this.

‘Sub-man’ is different because it smacks of a number of ideologies that I find repellent. I’m prepared to accept that this was an accepted ‘type’ used to refer to some indigenous people to justify colonial expansion and slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews during World War II. Naively I had thought that all Western artists had rejected thinking in this way after the discovery of the camps in 1945. The above paragraph demonstrates clearly that this isn’t the case.

As with T S Eliot and many others, Jones was an admirer of the French Action Francaise party (which was both far-right and monarchist) in the thirties. He was also a keen reader of the works of Oswald Spengler which was intially appropriated by the Nazis.

To return to the passion, Art and Sacrament clarifies what is meant by participation and why the proposition is universal rather than confined to the Catholic mass. This is arrived at by a long and detailed argument and I realise that it didn’t sink in to my brain because its various twists and turns will have deterred me from giving it the attention that it deserves.

What follows is a much abbreviated summary of what I read as the central argument. This, as ever, is both tenuous and subjective and should not be taken as in anyway definitive. It has, however, given me as a reader a better handle on some of What Might Be Going On in the glorious complexities that make up The Anathemata.

The essential bits are the function of religion as a binding force, a kind of ligament that binds man so that he man be free. Then there is art as a making/doing of signs, the sacrament as strategy and the mass as the place where signs are done.

To give the full flavour of the arguments made in support of these, I would need to produce the essay in full. Instead, I reproduce below the passages that I find most helpful.

It was in order to convey this that I chose the art of strategy as my example. For strategy in so far as it partakes of art, offers less occasion for those particular misunderstandings which would tend to arise had something more recognizably an art, and immeasurably more typical, been chosen: for example had poetry, dancing, painting, sculpture, song or architecture been chosen.

But having made some attempt to indicate certain characteristics that are implicit in the activity of art we are now free to consider some more explicit manifestations of those same characteristics by which we recognize that the art of man is essentially a sign-making or ‘sacramental’ activity. We have come through a tangled wood of attempted definitions and have been hampered by unavoidable explanations, but now perhaps we are more free to deploy in the open and can see better how the front shapes.

As it is the sign-making or ‘sacramental’ character of art that is our chief concern, I shall, in the following pages, confine myself to a more explicit consideration of what that may mean, and especially what it may mean to us today in view of our civilizational trend.


But brief reflection will show that Calvary itself (if less obviously than the Supper) involves poiesis. For what was accomplished on the Tree of the Cross presupposes the sign-world and looks back to foreshadowing rites and arts of mediation and conjugation stretching back for tens of thousands of years in actual pre-history.


But leaving Christians and their obligations altogether aside and speaking, for a while, as one unconcerned for the truth or untruth of the Christian documents, main tradition or divergent theologies, it remains true that in the signs referred to we have not only an element of art but some indication of the kind of activity that we predicate of Ars at her most abstract. This much should be as evident to those who imagine themselves to be antipathetic to the signs as to those who claim a love of them. A non-Christian person would rightly observe that these signs equally involve Ars whether the intention of the sign-makers is un-Catholic or Catholic. But such a person would also observe that in the latter case something further was involved. He would note that the intention in this case envisaged an abstract art par excellence; for nothing could be less ‘representational’ or more re-presentative or further from ‘realism’ or more near reality than what is intended and posited in this latter instance. He would note an extreme objectivity in the view that sign and thing signified are regarded as having a true identity. He would note the rejection of the opinion held elsewhere that such an identification overthrows the nature of a non-Christian person would rightly observe that these signs equally involve Ars whether the intention of the sign-makers is un-Catholic or Catholic. But such a person would also observe that in the latter case something further was involved. He would note that the intention in this case envisaged an abstract art par excellence; for nothing could be less ‘representational’ or more re-presentative or further from ‘realism’ or more near reality than what is intended and posited in this latter instance. He would note an extreme objectivity in the view that sign and thing signified are regarded as having a true identity.

I’m obviously not impressed by this ‘explanation’ and this isn’t because I’m a lifelong agnostic but rather that I still don’t have an explanation of how this might come about. I am, mostly, a materialist but I like to think that I’m reasonably accepting of things spiritual. I also accept that I have a soul and find that it is mostly fed by poetry.

I have to refute this notion of religious sign = artistic sign and the consequent participation in what the sacramental sign stands for by all sign makers and doers. At least I’m a lot learer on what Jones’ note intends and this does give me an additional hold on the thinking behind and within the Anathemata.

The following chapter was written as a kind of addendum to the first and part of it offers a clarification and defence of the term sub-man. First of all, I need to point out that Jones intends utile to mean that which is practically useful useful rather than art which isn’t. As was stated in the preceding essay, man is essentially a maker of art and the making of the merely useful is much less significant- hence the term in question.

I have just used the term ‘sub-man’ but that will not really do, except rhetorically. Also it is too suggestive of some primitive anthropoid or hominiform type, and that is not at all the association intended. On the contrary these apparently ‘sub-human’ works are the products of full homo faber, homo sapiens, modern man, and they are of course made and used by men, some of whom are in a high state of spiritual, moral, intellectual and aesthetical awareness. None the less these products are, to all appearances, ‘sub-human’ in quality. And they are not few, but many, not only many but ubiquitous and characteristic

I understand this but it feels like special pleading after the event by a man who now realises the offence that he has caused. Unlike the universal participation, I do understand how this is supposed to work but disagree with it, even without the sub-human quip. Jones claims that man has a special status as a maker of art because he has consciousness. Again this manages to be both too simple and complicated in equal measure.

There have been many over the centuries who have claimed that poetry is somehow closer to the truth than other art forms. This also strikes me as silly.

This ‘above and below’ way of thinking is a product of the very human desire to put things in order, to invent orders of hierarchy and then to argue about both. Both are constructs and have no grounding whatsoever in reality. Even if we apply the practical/creative split we find that it is perfectly possible to be a technically proficient artist just as it is to be an artistic technician.

In terms of the quote, Jones’ ‘it will not do, except rhetorically’ misses the point. It will not do at all, not in 1958, nor in 2021 especially in light of the growth of antisemitism across Europe. It’s significant that Jones doesn’t make a specific reference to the most obvious ways in which ‘sub-man’ can be defined and his defence / explanation is too convoluted and illogical to be taken seriously.

In conclusion, I’m disappointed and my view of David Jones the man has been diminished. I’m particularly concerned that I’ve spent the last decade informing others that Jones’ finest quality is his humanity. Sadly I feel the need to go back to the work to see if this view remains the same.

Incidentally, Faber published in 2017 a new edition of Epoch and Artist which is available from most UK outlets.

Making poetry in these slurred times

This may not be the most coherent piece I’ve written but it might be the most heartfelt and urgent. We’ll start with some context. It’s now April 19th 2020 and I’m living with my lover, for the first time, in Ventnor in the UK and we’re in lockdown.

I don’t know about others but I write verse in order to work out about how I feel about something. The previous blog was a poem I made in response to the current and ongoing disaster, I’ve also made a v short performance piece (see below) in response to how this thing seems to be unfolding.

The shock for me is how hard this is. It should be ideal because I use documentary material, I’m a vaguely anarcho-lefty policy wonk with specific interests in health and social care and I hover on one of the main ‘vulnerable’ groups. This should therefore be the ideal opportunity, in a spacious property overlooking the Channel, to write at least one epic of Spenserian length and probably two.

In fact, there is an argument that gently points out that we creative types have a duty to spend this time documenting the disaster and how we feel about it from the inside in, more or less, ‘real’ time. To go further, I would hold up Celan’s Todesfugue as one of the greatest poems we have that did exactly that.

I’m under no illusions, I am at best an interested amateur who writes in order to perform rather than to be read. I’ve written and had performed lengthy pieces on Bloody Sunday, Ferguson and the Newtown shootings, I’m thus not averse to dealing with challenging subjects and am drawn to the complicated.

Covid-19 has, however, from nowhere on my horizon, has scrambled any feelings and thoughts that I might have.

We’ll start with bigness. In terms of a single Whiteheadian event, this particular virus is huge. A glance at one of those fucking dashboards reveals that it is infecting and killing everywhere and our collective response is hugely passive. As I type the global economy is continuing to collapse and a return to any kind of normal is looking increasingly unlikely for any of us. From this viewpoint, the making of art in itself can appear to be trivial and poetry making then becomes even more self-indulgent and vain than normal.

I’m not suggesting that all art is of little import but that big events and themes require a degree of brilliance that few of us have. In fact the bebrowed rule is that the quality of material required increases in step with the importance of the subject matter. The most obvious examples to me are Dante on the afterlife, Milton on the Fall, David Jones on World War One and Celan on the Holocaust. There are quite a few others.

Those of us who aren’t brilliant then have to try and avoid irrelevance by saying something that might be useful to the reader by presenting a different perspective and providing a consequent moment or two of reflection..

Moving on to plenitude, this catastrophe is producing too many aspects and too much data as it scythes through us. All of the media, quality and otherwise, is feasting on this stuff and putting forth opinions on everything from the plight of those locked in with their abusers to the chemistry of enzymes and proteins. None of these very many concerns are minor issues and they will all be struggled over in the years to come.

In the face of this poetry can become:

a ranting thorn in the side of the powers that be;

a record of the disaster and its effects;

a memorialisation of the dead;

a blueprint for the future;

an interrogation of the nature of science and expertise

a personal response providing one possible way feeling about this stuff.

My problem is that I want to do all of these (except perhaps the blueprint), and they all keep crowding on to my page and all of them seem really important which results in either clever-clever rantery or a major wallow.

As well as complexity, I’m also struggling creatively with adjusting to the disaster as it reveals different aspects of itself. This weekend the British media have discovered that residents of care and nursing homes may be dying in their thousands in addition to those currently recorded. As an ex-manager of the inspection and regulation of such homes I know that these figures are readily and easily available and national collation should have begun in February at the very latest. I’m also disgusted that politicians failed to act upon the bleeding obvious fact that these homes are by far the most vulnerable part of society. I’ve ranted about this on social media this morning but now feel that I need to add this specific negligence into the creative mix.

The other problem that I have is that of sudden isolation. We’re living in a small town that,for all its many faults, has a strong sense of community and collective endeavour, these things have, literally, kept me sane over the last ten years and now going out on our daily walks reveals a blank page.

Both Megan and I want/need to talk to others face to face about the weight and complexity of what’s going on and that is the activity that is most Against The Rules. Incidentally, we now have a society that’s governed by rules rather than laws and nobody seems to have noticed.

I’ve just realised that this may have turned into an extended whinge, the kind of semi-ranting self indulgence that I’m wary of. My only excuse is that at least it’s an honest exploration of the bewilderment and angst that I feel in the gripof Covid 19.

Within Minutes, read by John Armstrong (writer) and Megan Mackney (actor)

Edmund Spenser and his stanza.

It has been some years since I last wrote about Spenser but I’m now re-reading the brilliant Faerie Queene and want to pay some attention to the Spenserian stanza which is a Thing of Wonder and Delight. For those not familiar with the work, the FQ is very long indeed and divided into 6 books, each dealing with a virtue. The books consist of 12 cantos which usually contain more than 40 9-line stanzas apiece.

As an aside, I owe a personal debt to this work, for about ten years from 35 to my mid forties I went through my first period of disenchantment with poetry, feeling that it was all a bit trivial and took itself far too seriously. Up until then, I’d only paid attention to work produced after 1921 and was surprised to find myself being into something Very Big from the end of the 16th century. What surprised and pleased me most was that the Spenserian stanza made poetry fun, in short I was hooked.

As the name implies, this particular stanza is of Spenser’s own devising and, in his hands, is remarkably effective in addin additional dimensions to his tales. As examples, I want to use this dialogue from Book 111 and then a fight scene between Arthur and Cymochles from Book 11. This is a conversation between Britomart (the personification and her nurse;

The Damsell pauzed, and then thus fearfully
      Ah Nurse, what needeth thee to eke my paine?
      Is not enough, that I alone doe dye, 
      But it must doubled bee with death of twaine?
      For nought for me, but death there doth remaine.
      O daughter deare (said she) despeire no whit,
      For never sore, but might a salve obtaine;
      That blinded God, that hath thee blindly smit,
Another arrow hath your lovers hart to hit.

But mine is not (quoth she) like others wound;
       For which no reason can find remedy.
      Was neuer such, but mote the like be found,
       (Said she) and though no reason may apply
      Salue to your sore, yet loue can higher stye,
     Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne.
     But neither God of loue, nor God of sky
     Can doe (said she) that, which cannot be donne.
Things oft impossible (quoth she) seeme, ere begonne.

Book three is ‘about’ Britomart and her quest to find Artegall, the object of her love. The above takes place after our heroine has fallen in love but before she and her nurse have set off on their mission. In order to appreciate the full effect, it’s really important to read this out loud and feel the strength of the rhymes and the pulse of each stanza. The content here is both sophisticated and refreshingly human, the second stanza sets out respective positions on love and how to respond to it but this is done in away that carries the attentive reader forward. This reader is struck by “Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne” which is very accomplished indeed, expressing something complex in a deceptively straightforward way.

One of the marks of a great poet is the ability to make the very difficult appear easy. Many poets over the last 420 years have tried to imitate this form but very, very few have come close to make the device ‘work’ as it should. Claims have been made for Shelley’s Adonais and Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes but neither of these equal the sustained quality of Spenser’s content.

The second example is one which demonstrates how the stanzas run/flow into each other, especially when reporting action scenes. Here, Prince Arthur is fighting Cymochles and Pyrrhochles;

For when Cymochles saw the fowle reproch,
  Which them appeached, prickt with guilty shame,
  And inward griefe, he fiercely gan approch,
  Resolu'd to put away that loathly blame,
  Or dye with honour and desert of fame;
  And on the haubergh stroke the Prince so sore,
  That quite disparted all the linked frame,
  And pierced to the skin, but bit no more,
Yet made him twise to reele, that neuer moou'd afore.

Whereat renfierst with wrath and sharpe regret,
  He stroke so hugely with his borrowd blade,
  That it empierst the Pagans burganet,
  And cleauing the hard steele, did deepe inuade
  Into his head, and cruell passage made
  Quite through his braine. He tombling downe on ground,
  Breathd out his ghost, which to th'infernall shade
  Fast flying, there eternall torment found,
For all the sinnes, wherewith his lewd life did abound.

Which when his german saw, the stony feare
  Ran to his hart, and all his sence dismayd,
  Ne thenceforth life ne courage did appeare,
  But as a man, whom hellish feends haue frayd,
  Long trembling still he stood: at last thus sayd;
  Traytour what hast thou doen? how euer may
  Thy cursed hand so cruelly haue swayd
  Against that knight: Harrow and well away,
After so wicked deed why liu'st thou lenger day?

Book II’s protagonist is Guyon and his quest is for temperance. Arthur (magnificence) comes to his aid in the struggle with these two brothers who represent the inability to exercise different aspects of self control. What attracts me to the above is the way in which Cymochles ‘guiltie shame’ goads him into attacking Arthur, particularly the reference to ‘inward griefe’. This shows a much more sophisticated and considered approach than we would expect from a ‘standard’ fight between good and bad.

Spenser’s fights contain a fair amount of gore and the ‘cruelle passage’ here is fairly typical. The end of this stanza again expresses the consequences of a sinful life in an elegant and precise way. The third stanza moves us rapidly to Pyrrhocles’ anger at his brother’s death. The pace of the action from fight to death to reaction is remarkably swift, especially when the various asides and sub-texts are taken into account. This rhythmic movement through the stanzas also gives a sense of emotional intensity and drama.

The other less noticed aspect of the Spesnerian stanza is that it creates something that is quite profoundly visual, almost filmic which enables the reader to feel more like an active onlooker rather than a passive consumer of text.

The final point I’d like to make is that it is Spenser’s exuberance that carries things forward with such sustained panache for over 3800 stanzas. It is clear that the poet knows that his stanza is successful as a form and takes delight in showing off what it can do. This sense of energetic pleasure is communicated to the reader who thus becomes another smiling enthusiast.

Incidentally, ‘haubergh’ is the Spenserian spelling of ‘hauberk’ or chain mail coat/jacket whilst a ‘burganet’ is a type of helmet.

I hope I’ve demonstrated at least some of the value of The Faerie Queene and encouraged one or two of you to pay it some attention.

J H Prynne’s Zinc Option

This is one of the poems from Prynne’s Or Scissel collection which was published by Shearsman in 2018. I’m probably running before I can walk but there’s a couple of things beings said here that appear to be unusually clear;

And despite twin to gem in such placement,
at the sun-drift, at the turn nearby run
across it with a near tremor galvanised even
high and brittle; splinter alteration all known
beyond range incessant as slower for removal,
perish in parallel, squared off. Indignant both
in stock over elevate without pause for dial
laser before due moment, perfunctory if by
measuring zinc option, beyond the gem-tilt
ice crevasse. Not reluctant by match willing
as would all be or variable; button furnace
steel chasing, defect for prospect indexical
home on the range in company expected abate-
ment accession roaming sense acknowledge,
make pack and fasten. Refract fully possible
to get close, alternate dispossession to
the upper frank reach, brow in mark not yet
or notable, in quake hot furnace in new-broken,
offended. Declare vertical in certain pitch
wants no more for hunger makes contortion on
every side, despite censure or because of 
its absence, to pay entirely on the nail ahead,
open. Weld inlay dangerous to carry forward,
deal unfound until by surprise uncovered,
on the floor keep up: necessary parclose. How
otherwise deal fair or first before, go there
extenuate by staunch prior permission, your feet

I always feel some trepidation in writing about a Prynne piece that’s new to me, the opportunities to ‘go wrong’ are enormous yet I’m always tempted by even the most obdurate work when it hints that it might my attention. What follows is, as ever, provisional and tenuous and I reserve the right to change my mind at any time in the future.

As well as this proviso I must make clear that the town I grew up in, Middlesbrough, began as a centre for iron and steel making and throughout my adult life has been in a slow but steady state of decline.

I therefore want zinc option at least in part to address the increasingly farcical progress of that slow death. In support of this claim, I draw attention to the following;

across with a near tremor galvanised even
high and brittle; 

To galvanise, the OED tells me, is (incorrectly) referred to as the coating of iron with zinc even though “no galvanic process is involved” it’s also used to energise or give enthusiasm to either a group or an individual. Zinc is said to be brittle at temperatures below 100 – 150 celsius where it becomes malleable but is brittle again above 210 degrees.

The galvanic process involves passing a galvanic charge through something which may be what the small tremor refers to. It can also be argued that the British steel industry has been given small shocks of capital over the years which have resulted in small tremors of activity rather than a full recovery.

as would all be or variable; button furnace
steel chasing, defect for prospect indexical

I’m here taking ‘button’ as a noun meaning to close something and to be silent about something. I’m resisting the temptation to place too much importance on the OED’s “Of broccoli, cauliflower, etc.: to form a small, premature head” but reserve the right to keep it in mind. As an aside, one such premature head from my adolescence was the building of a new blast furnace which was heralded as putting Teesside in front of all other steel makers when the sad fact remained that the developing world could make the same product at a much cheaper price.

For the moment, it may be as well to take ‘furnace/steel’ at face value but to give additional attention to ‘chasing’ which throws up a number of possibilities. This has a subsidiary definition of setting something with gems as well as to emboss or to engrave. There’s also chasing as pursuing which could characterise the UK government’s forlorn attempts to lure foreign investors to the industry.

There are several ambiguities within ‘prospect’ – a view, something to do with the future and, as a verb, seeking out mineral resources. Sadly I have no idea as to what any of these might have to do with ‘indexical’

.................................... Refract fully possible
to get close, alternate dispossession to

Looking at the many possibilities of ‘refract’ highlights what is both intriguing and infuriating about Prynne’s work. I’m a fan of ambiguity in all forms of creative expression mainly because that’s how life in general seems to be. There are times, however, when there are too many possible / likely intentions that the exercise begins to cancel itself out. This particular instance may well be one of those.

Having very little scientific or technical knowledge, I decided to start here with refraction rather than the verb and this is the first entry in the OED;

Rhetoric. Use of the same word in opposing senses. Obsoleterare.

The one example given is from 1555;

1555   R. Sherry Treat. Figures Gram. & Rhetorike f. xxx   Refraction serueth to the like, when all one worde is repeted in a contrarye sense, as I know all this life to bee but bitternes, but I pray you geue me such bitternes.

I’ll proceed in a moment with the more standard definitions but there’s something here that what Prynne’s later work might be about. Here there’s the repeated use of ‘furnace’ but there’s also his interest in paradox and contradiction that seems to form part of the way in which we should read this material.

The ‘normal’ use of this verb applies to the deflection of light or sound waves when they enter another medium, water being the most obvious example. It can also mean to reflect or return, to break up or impair, to analyse nitre in order to calculate the extent of its impurities and to measure and then correct the refractive error of the human eye.

All of these would seem to ‘fit’ the sense of the poem in some way but there is also something called seismic refraction which, wikipedia tells me, is used in geological prospection because;

The methods depend on the fact that seismic waves have differing velocities in different types of soil (or rock): in addition, the waves are refracted when they cross the boundary between different types (or conditions) of soil or rock.

Without getting too lit crit, Prynne spends much time in Field Notes, his remarkable study of The Solitary Reaper, discussing how the sound of the human voice travels across the landscape. If we read refract as to break up or impair and close as to shut down then things may again appear to support my straw clutching. The 1980s saw the Thatcher government preside over many plant closures throughout the UK causing further poverty and hardship in the communities affected.

The final couple of lines that I’d like to call to my aid are;

deal unfound until by surprise uncovered,
on the floor keep up: necessary parclose. How

A deal unfound is a deal not found, the steel industry has sought many deals in the past in terms of both mergers and sales. All of these have failed to produce a viable concern with some plants having to stand idle for years waiting for the next rescue deal to come along. Reading ‘parclose’ as a partition and as a conclusion or end, I interpret a bitter irony deployed in ‘necassary’ which was usually the term faux regretful politicians would use to excuse further plant closures.

In conclusion, I may be entirely wrong but this seems to me a fair, if tenuous, stab at what might be going on here and I’ll return to Zinc Option in the next few weeks. With that in mind, any comments would be most helpful

David Jones, his notes as strata.

I’ve been re-reading Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Collison’s brilliant and essential edition of Jones’ The Grail Mass and Other Works. I was going to pick out a few of the notes and talk about Jones’ views on both the Roman Empire and All Things Welsh. Something in the editors’ introduction, however, caught my eye before I had the chance to dive in;

These notes are best understood not as didactic attempts to limit the meaning of the lines to which they refer, but rather in terms of Jones oft-used geological metaphors of ‘strata’ or ‘deposits’ to describe the way in which meaning builds up over time within a culture. He was particularly concerned with layers of meaning, and argued that to appreciate the textures on the surface one must know what lies beneath. A page of Jones’ poetry with footnotes running along the bottom and the verse printed above instantiates this understanding. The footnotes do not explain away the verse, they uncover a lower stratum of meaning upon which the poetry above is built. From this perspective, they endeavour not to draw the text down to a fixed meaning, but rather point upward, opening out possibilities of association that would have been otherwise inaccessible and which Jones hopes will subsequently inform the reader’s engagement with the verbal play of the poem itself. The visual impact of Jones’ footnoted poetry is one of the reasons the editors have confined commentary to extended endnotes.

As a self-opinionated Jones obsessive, this detailed explication provides a lot to think about. I’ve been of the view that the notes to The Anathemata don’t ‘work’ in that they often explain things that don’t always need an explanation glide over in silence the things that are Very Obscure Indeed. Self-annotation always seems to me to be fraught with hazard. Some poets manage it reasonably well but others seem much more concerned with self-justification rather than providing assistance. Of course, different readers require different kinds of help but Jones’ later work is so obdurate that I feel that we could all benefit from more consistent ‘cover’. The editors describe these notes as providing a ‘lower stratum of meaning’ that is somehow foundational to that particular part of the poem. If this is the case then I’m not sure that it’s something that I need, I’d much rather have some idea of context which provides broader information rather than these foundations. If this is the case then I don’t mind if more information is provided than I need as long as it gives me that cognitive breadth.

I’m nevertheless intrigued by this geological aspect and have now paid some attention as to where this might apply in the Grail Mass. I want to start with a couple of lines from The Third Celtic Insertion;

or circumambulate the world of
Mother Mona to wheat her furrows
for Camber's mess.........

Mother Mona gets this lengthy note;

Anglesey was known as Mon fam Cymru, ‘Mona the Mother of Wales’, on account, it is supposed, of the corn grown on the island. We have already noted the association of the sea god Manawyddan with the soil, The great fabulist, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in order to provide suitable founders for England, Scotland and Wales respectively names as the sons of Brute: Locrine, Ambarnact and Camber. Camber, no more than the other two, has any place in the earlier mythology. He is, I suppose, a literary invention of the Angevin age. Geoffrey was trying to provide an Aenid for Henry of Anjou’s empire. We can, however, at this date afford to utilise his inventions, for he himself has become part of our deposits. (Incidentally what a tragedy it was for Britain as a whole that the Angevin hegemony ever disintegrated. For had it continued the unity between these islands and French civilisation would have been assured).

The above would appear to be a bit at variance with our editors’ observation. It’s more of a justification for making use of an erroneous reference than ‘a deposit’ in itself. The two elements which may require explanation (‘Mother Mona’ and ‘Camber’) are dealt with first and this provides all the information that I need. As a reader, the observation about Geoffrey’s work having become ‘part of our deposits’ strikes me as extraneous to my engagement with the work. As Jones ackowledges, the last observation is also extraneous (and incorrect).

I also want to have a think about this;

Here in Kemais, igneous and adamant, 
and high - there in Penfro, the high trees
are low under Manannan's tide
where the Deisi foray who converse with incubi.

Does the tufted coverlet drape the shifting
or do we tread the paleozoic
                Where, hard strata lean on leaning strata
harder yer, and with each greater hardness
the slow gradient falls, slowly falls to where
the basalts dark gull's side beyond the fretted
knuckles of Pebidiog
                 Where the brittle rim of the lithosphere
hangs and jutties between water-cloud
and water
                  where the last grey tokens are.

All the names, except ‘Mannanan’ from the fist stanza are directly defined in the notes and that omission is clarified by the explanation of the reference to the ‘high trees’ lying low under the tide.

The rest of this extract however has no notes at all so I’ve had to use the interweb to elucidate both ‘Pebidiog’ and ‘lithosphere’ and to look up ‘jutty’ as a verb. This is what I mean with regards to the notes not ‘working’ in any of the later poems but especially this and The Anathemata. It may be argued that The Grail Mass is an incomplete draft an and Jones may have been intending to do this at a later stage before publication. All the same, this seems unlikely given the similar gaps in The Anathemata. Jones’ introduction to that work has;

I have a last point that I wish to get clear. Although in the notes to the text and in this apology I refer to or cite various authorities and sources that does not mean that this book has any pretensions whatever of a didactic nature. I refer to those sources only to elucidate a background.

This seems to me to be reasonably clear, I think that Jones could have done more elucidating but feel that thinking of the notes as some kind of strata just serves to complicate things that are already complex.

Paul Celan, Timestead and suicide.

Celan’s work is the finest poetry of the 20th century. I know of no other poet who can match his ability to delve into the far reaches of the human soul, nor has any modern writer faced up to himself with such searing honesty. I accept that this is a subjective view and one that goes back to my adolescence but it’s one that I’m more than happy to stand by.

Timestead / Zeitgehoft was first published after Celan’s suicide and contains work from the last eighteen months of his life. I have a whole range of issues with posthumous publication because we will never be sure what the writer intententions were with the poems that were left behind and are thus uncertain as to whether the poems are actually complete.

Celan is perhaps best known as a Holocaust survivor who was also a follower of the writings of Martin Heidegger, a card carrying Nazi and anti-Semite. What tends to get overlooked is his recurring struggle with mental ill health and his abiding interest in Jewish mysticism. He was plagued by severe depression and bouts of paranoia which required electro shock treatment. He died in 1970 by throwing himself into the Seine.

For the last fifty years I’ve avoided thinking about Celan’s final act for a number of reasons. Initially, as a callow youth, I saw the suicide of talented artists as an almost natural manifestation of the tortured genius, later on I read Celan’s suicide as an equally rational response to the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish race. Much later, in middle age, I became severely depressed myself and, during three separate episodes, I made active plans to do away with myself and required both periods of incarceration and consequent shock treatment. These coincided, more or less with the start of this blog in the late noughties. I’ve been writing about Celan throughout the last 12 years but have never felt able to confront this specific aspect of his work.

In my experience, suicide wasn’t a cry for help. I knew that I was, once again, en route to a severe depression and felt completely unable to prevent this. The only way that I felt I could get some resolution was by killing myself, thus depriving the depression of its victory.

Now that I’ve been well for about 10 years, I’ve felt able to look at Timestead with a bit more dispassionate attention and have been taken aback by the brutal strength of some of the poems. This is The whisperhouse / Das Flusterhaus;

The whiseprhouse,
open on leapday,

handed on
on jute, surface-

it naturalizes
the fricatives,

the lallation-stage
is taken care of
by the lip-

-does the
other snap in,
on time? -

this, yes this
of your hands,

the network of the dead
helps to carry the firnice,

the moon,
poles reversed,
rejects you, second 

at the resthaven, deathproud, the
start throng
takes the hurdle.

I recognise that there may well be a lot of over identification going on but the above does ‘speak’ to me at a very deep level. I’m taking it that the ‘you’ here is the poet himself and that it’s written in the certain knowledge that he will kill himself. This is a big claim but things do seem to build slowly towards that bitter conclusion. In earlier work glaciers and ice fields are places of death where life seems to be extinguished. The compound here suggests to me somebody in agony at that place as well as the noise of the ice moving slowly forwards.

I’m taking ‘firnice’ to be a compound of ‘firn ice’ whch Wikipedia describes as “ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice” which may or may not point towards the way in which death proceeds. I was initially puzzled by this ‘network of the dead’ but things became a bit clearer when I realised that the network is helping something else with moving this load along.

Celan wrote a lot about the death of his parents, both of whom perished in the camps and about meeting them in the after-life. This network could thus refer to those who have previously died helping the living through to the same state. From a personal perspective I know that this kind of psychosis is common among the severely depressed, as is the notion of death as a welcome relief. It may seem odd but a serious depressive episode is, as it progresses, exhausting. Your brain is working really hard to keep what you know to be dangerous thoughts and feelings in check whilst your emotions are clamouring for your attention. Even though I’m not in any way religious I can identify with viewing a place to get some respite from this incredibly taxing onslaught as akin to heaven.

I viewed my planned suicides as victories over the depression which was making me feel so distraught and vulnerable. I was also convinced that my illness was contagious and that I was infecting those that I loved simply by remaining alive. Planning my imminent death felt like I was at least doing something rather than allowing ‘it’ to pull me further down to the depths. In retrospect, this gave me a kind of pride which I think is what Celan might be referring to here, especially if we understand ‘takes the hurdle’ as crossing the line between life and death.

I realise that I’ve ignored the first half of the poem, this is mainly because it doesn’t speak to me with the same direct intensity that the last four stanzas do and because there isn’t space here for an extensive discussion of fricatives, jute and the whisper house although this may occur in the coming weeks.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve shown at least one possible way of responding to The Whisperhouse and have been able to demonstrate why it is so very important to me.

I’ve used Pierre Joris’ translation taken from his Breathturn into Timestead which was published in 2014 and is highly recommended