Category Archives: cultural criticism

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)

Every Fucker has a Dashboard

and the stats keep coming, and the stats are wrong and the stats keep 
coming and the stats are bad and the stats keep coming and the stats 
are worse than the day before and this really isn't my cup of tea

with men in badly fitting suits telling me about the numbers which are 
destined to, compelled to, get worse than

what we ever knew
and we can't begin to know
what we didn't know before this
And something must be done
and we just don't know
except that we Need More Stuff
but all this knowing stuff
has been found Suddenly Lacking
and we don't like this disknowing
it's not right up our street

and the stats keep coming and the stats are wrong and the stats keep 
coming and the stats are as bad as bad can be in this nonknowing, 
kerfufling malarkey which gets us all queasy and scratchy and sweating 
cos the data is bad and tomorrow will be worse

my love and I spent some time in the garden
and it was like 1913 is supposed to be
all for the best in this....
except for four thousand three hundred and three, if not for seven hundred and eight
and we Need More Stuff
cos it's about dying in the now
about drowning in your own
and the stats are bad
my love and I we hold hands as we always have
even though we're queasy
and maddened and mystified

clapping at 8
is that really it
all that we can do?

when the stats are bad
when the stats are wrong
JLA 4th April 2020

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
dangling.

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

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-
deep

it naturalizes
the fricatives,

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

-does the
other snap in,
on time? -

this, yes this
glacierscreaming
of your hands,

the network of the dead
helps to carry the firnice,

the moon,
poles reversed,
rejects you, second 
earth,

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

Geoffrey Hill, Hopkins and the working poem.

Hill’s final collection, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Julian, is blurbed as a ‘meditation on the nature of poetry’ and Poem 71 seems to live up to that promise;

A working poem has, or is, its own microclimate; certainly, in Britain it does so
        posses its nous. Some of us may be distinguished thus, pre-structuralists
        of our antic cause; the streamlet's cluck and treble through meadow and
        arable; gold gobs of mistletoe, the spoiler, the spoils, heaped in Tenbury
        market to go

Something here to be garbled if half understood. I am invoking presence not
        mood. Mood - almost at first standing - abandons us while, in absence,
        presence remains I state it crudely enough for small gains.

But it is not, even so, the same as the 'strain of time' which, according to that
         Jesuit, (resolute, glad, forlorn), draws from us the psychic skin that bound
          us to find the world tolerable, ourselves credible; and reels it in: alien
          a photonegative of all earthly loves; the Aurora palpitating absently
            apart in its waves and coils.

How, knowing this, he could write 'Hurrahing in Harvest' I can barely
          conceive, though it refelcts and reveals 'Spelt from Sybil's Leaves'
          mutually audible, darkly lucent, impenetrable, starkly provident.


I’m particularly fond of the way in which Hill writes, in both his criticism and verse, about the nature and role of verse. He’s previously described poems as a ‘sad and angry consolation’ and suggested that poems are best suited to memoriaiising the dead. On this occasion he appears to suggest that the poem is something apart and evoking a presence rather than a mood. The adjective ‘working’ can refer to something that is functioning as it should or;

Serving as the basis for further work; (of a theory, hypothesis, etc.) that is sufficient for present purposes but is likely to be developed or refined later; provisional; (of a document, drawing, etc.) serving as a draft; preliminary, unfinished.

I’d suggest that it is the second of these that we are meant to attend to although a working poem can also be an effective poem. If we take the second definition then this can be applied not just to indivdual poetry but the entire body of poems that, from the beginning, have been developed and extended by subsequent generations.

I live in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight which has its very own microclimate by virtue of its position between St Boniface Down and the English Channel. Us locals are very pleased about this because it adds to our sense of individuality and apartness, we have our own plants and our own lizards and butterflies which we claim to be unique in the UK. Poem as microclimate may then be said to create and preserve elements which are special and specific to it. It may also perpetuate itself. I’m following the second and “chiefly British” definition of nous as:

Common sense, practical intelligence, ‘gumption’.

Of course, Hill would want the British poem to retain some notion of common sense because he is a patriot and seems to subscribe to this odd view of British culture as the sole repository of plain and unadorned thought. We then have this quite startling description of some of ‘us’ poets being identified by the sound of a running stream and the sparkle of mistletoe piled up at a provincial market. The ‘cluck and treble’ and ‘gold gobs’ give emphasis to Hill’s stature as our finest nature poet.

Turning to mood and presence, I don’t find this convincing because it seems too grandiose and because the notion of presence remaining in its absence smacks of religiosity rather than poem things. It would also seem that the idea of invocation is used to gesture towards the presence of Christ in the christian mass. This isn’t to deny that poems can create a sense of presence, I get this strongly from David Jones In Parenthesis and from Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P and from many pieces of music but I don’t experience this in a religious or spiritual sense. It’s more about being able to identify with and personally relate to what’s being expressed than any notion of wider powers. One of the strengths for me of poetry is its ability to compress and distill complex ideas and emotions into a single line or phrase but I don’t think that we should try to mystify things further.

The Jesuit is Gerald Manley Hopkins and I have to state that I’ve never been able to see any value in this poet’s work. Because of Hill’s enthusiasm and advocacy, I’ve spent more than a little time with the verse in an attempt to grasp what it is that I’m missing. I’ve also read quite a bit about Hopkins only to decide that I don’t like him much as a man either. Up until now I haven’t been at all familiar with either of the two poems mentioned above but they are both remarkable enough for the Hopkins penny to begin to drop.

The third paragraph’s apparent denial of what Hopkins may have said about poetry’s power to strip us of our comforting delusions sets up the contrast between two poems doing very different things.

Hurrahing in Harvest turns out to be a joyous description and celebration of God’s presence in the world and is brimful of humanity and faith. The line “Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?” could be read as too cloying but is somehow saved by the insistent alliteration. Again this is subjective, I’m irrationally fond of words starting with the same letter and this is particularly pleasing to my ear. I’d also like to draw attention to the use of ‘realer’ which seems to make the line work well. The poem’s final line almost falls over into kitsch but saves itself by the strength of what it is saying- especially the repeated hurling for him.

Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves is a bit more complicated and much darker. It contains most of the baseline tricks of the poetry trade but I’m not sure that there’s that much invocation going on. There is however a concluding line which describes life as a torturer’s rack;

Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, | thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

Hill concludes by pointing up this apparent contrast and claiming that one poem ‘reflects and reveals’ the other. We are left with four separate qualities, two of which are a bit tired (‘mutely audible’ and ‘impenetrable’) and two others which will resonate with me for days.

Paul Celan: some wordwords from Timestead

For those who don’t already know, the bebrowed view is that Paul Celan is the greatest poet of the twentieth century and his later work stands far above that of any other poet since 1900. I’m not going to expand or justify this point as I’ve already done this elsewhere. What I am going to do is hopefully illustrate this brilliance by attending to his abiding interest in language as shown in Timestead, his final collection which was published posthumously in 1976, six years after he took his own life.

Before we get on to the poems, a few points might be useful:

Before proceeding, it’s probably as well to throw into the mix some of what the Address and the notes for it have to say about language. I’m going to select a few that I find most helpful in my ongoing involvement with the work. So this is entirely subjective, my only defence is that I don’t have space to attend all of those that might be pertinent.

As with the poems, I’m using the English translations of Pierre Joris simply because I find his to be the most reliable. This is a key passage from the Address:

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

The 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.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape, and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

These are from the Poem and Language section of the notes:

This pictorial is by no means something visible, it is, like everything else connected with language, a mental phenomenon. Language is not that an encounter with an invisible. It is, even in what is furthest from the voice a question of the accent; in the poem the perception of its sound pattern also belongs to the perceived image. By the breath-steads in which it stands. you recognize it by the crest-times. That is by no means the same as this or that cheap impressionistic tone painting, timbre etc. It is, here too, a manifestation of language, a speech-art that has to be hear in the written, i.e. the silent, ( the language-grille which is also the speechgrille, makes this visible.)

and:

The poem is inscribed as the figure of the complete language but language remains invisible; that which actualizes itself – language – takes steps, as soon as that has happened, back into the realm of the possible. “Le Poeme”, writes Valery est du a l’état naissant; language in statu nascendi, thus language in the process of liberation.

As with any great work, Celan’s output has been the subject of fierce critical debate, most of which is sufficiently obfuscatory to deter even the most attentive of fans (me). So I’m going to leave these kerfuffles to one side and present my view of the deployment of language in one particular late poem that hopefully will demonstrate the sense of involvement and fascination that this stuff triggers in the soul.

 The whisperhouse,
open on leapday,

handed on
on jute, surface-
deep,

it naturalizes 
the fricatives,

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

―does the 
other snap in,
on time?―

this, yes this
glacierscreaming
of your hands,

the network of the dead 
helps to carry the firnice,

the moon,
poles reversed,
rejects you, second
earth,

at the restheaven, deathproud, the
starthrong
takes the hurdle.

We’ll get the trickier words out of the way with the help of the OED-

Fricative= “Of a consonant-sound: Produced by the friction of the breath through a narrow opening between two of the mouth-organs”, English examples include ‘v’ and ‘f’

Lallation = ” An imperfect pronunciation of r, by which the sound of that letter is confused with that of l” or “childish utterance”.

The definition for firnice comes from Wikipedia- ” is partially compacted névé, a type of snow that has been left over from past seasons and has been recrystallized into a substance denser than névé. It is ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice. Firn has the appearance of wet sugar, but has a hardness that makes it extremely resistant to shovelling. Its density generally ranges from 550 kg/m3-830 kg/m3, and it can often be found underneath the snow that accumulates at the head of a glacier.”

The first line is close to my heart in that I’ve just incorporated the Loud Whisper into my own performance work. What I’ve found fascinating is this activity as halfway, or thereabouts, between speaking and breathing. Whispering loudly also involves a conscious effort to empty the voice of all its sonority which is really difficult to sustain over a long period.

Four occasions when we whisper come to mind:

  • when we are in a religious building, as a mark of reverence;
  • in libraries, museums and arts venues where we don’t want to disturb the concentration or enjoyment of others;
  • when we want to keep something secret and we don’t want to be overheard;
  • when we are in hiding and in danger of being discovered.

So, the ‘house’ suffix may be a place of worship, study, entertainment, display, secrecy or hiding or a mixture of any of these.

Whispers are also nouns, the sound we make when we whisper or a sound made by something else that sounds like a whisper. Bearing mind how the poem proceeds, the escape of gas can sound like a whisper which might have us leaping to the idea of the whisperhouse as a gas chamber, a place of industrialised slaughter. This may or may not be conjoined with any of the above, ambiguity being a recurring device in Celan’s work. Here I’m going to make use of J H Prynne on the poetically ambiguous:

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

Of course, outside the field of contemporary cultural endeavour, this quality is frowned upon precisely because it is inexact, imprecise and generally wooly in a world in which clear answers and meanings ‘matter’ more than anything else. The ambiguous, an expression that might point in two or three ways at once, is not tolerated even though the quantum world appears to be characterised by this kind of uncertainty.

It might be worthwhile to give some attention to the less likely meanings which in order to see whether any of them do provided these additional aspects. There are a few that spring to mind:

  • a house is also, in English at least, a place of government (Houses of Parliament, House of Representatives etc.) and thus might point towards the way in which the political elite in Germany acquiesced in the political ascendancy of the Nazis, who made no secret of their virulent hatred of the Jews;
  • a whisper, in this sense, could also signify the way the Holocaust was accepted but not discussed by the German people during the war, the extent of this knowledge is still an issue of quite fierce scholarly debate but I think Celan’s body of work shows that he felt that the German people were at the very least complicit in this calculated genocide;
  • this whisper may also about the fact that the Nazi regime was intent on keeping the fact of mechanised slaughter a secret from the allies as a way of avoiding blame for their deeds;
  • a whisperhouse may also be a house where Jews were hidden during the war and needed to remain quiet in order to evade discovery.
  • the house may carry some of whatever it was that Heidegger may have meant in his Building, Dwelling, Thinking.

All of these might be completely wrong, they may well reflect what I want them to signify rather than Celan’s intentions. However I feel that the above possibilities demonstrate Prynne’s ‘richer sense’.

It appears to me that much firmer ground is reached when we get to the fricatives and the lallations. Fricatives involve the lips, lip pegs may suggest an impairment of the lips thus making speech very difficult indeed, perhaps reducing it to a ‘childish utterance’. The main stumbling block to this set of tentative assumptions is the gas chambers ‘naturalising’ the fricatives. In its wider sense, this verb relates to the turning of something or person foreign or alien into something native. In a secondary sense, the OED has ” To introduce or adopt (a word, phrase, etc.) into a language or into common use; also in extended use”.

Plants are one of the things that can be made native in a number of different senses.

This, as might be expected, sets your humble servant on a whole new round of re-ambiguation, starting with the fact that Celan was born in Romania but his mother tongue was German, he became a translator in Paris after the war, working across many different languages. One of the aspects noted by many critics is that he wrote his poems in German, the language of those responsible for the Holocaust and the death of his parents. I’m of the view that this facet is given too much prominence but I can’t deny that translation has something to do with putting things foreign into a more usable form. I also have to recognise that Celan was a keen amateur botanist.

These pegs may be used to hold the lips together thus denying/preventing speech except for humming. So, is this a confirmation of the then widely held view that the fact of the Holocaust renders all creative expression impossible? Todesfuge, an early and most famous poem was heralded as demonstrating how such expression is possible. His later work suggests that this process of bearing witness to the unspeakable proved exceptionally difficult and emotionally destructive as the years went by.

This noise made by the glacier is also a sound without meaning, a sound of fear and pain but one that doesn’t speak with words, in language. I would thus, provisionally and tentatively, that one of the ‘threads’ running through this brilliant poem relates to the destructive effect of the gas chambers on our ability to put anything into language.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least some indication of the fruits that close attention to Celan can bring and that some readers may feel encouraged to have a look for themselves. Breathturn into Timestead is available from Amazon at fifteen and a half of your finest English pounds and for free from a number of those criminal free books sites. For new readers, the second option is probably preferable to the first.