Category Archives: cultural criticism

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.

Video

J H Prynne, Kazoo Dreamboats and the rules.

Re-reading Pynne’s interview in the Paris Review, I’ve decided to have another attempt at attending to Kazoo Dreamboats from 2011. For those who aren’t already familiar with it, this is a longish work in prose which marked a distinct departure from his previous creative work. The tone ‘feels’ different and we are provided with a list of references which a both far ranging and often obscure.

I’ve never been fond of this departure because it seems too self indulgent and the effort required to come to terms with it outweighs the pleasure that I could get. Some long-standing readers will know that I’ve been greatly rewarded by paying close readerly attention so some of the other later works but not in this instance.

I’ve written previously about the Paris Review interview and I’d like now to expand on what Prynne has to say there about Kazoo Dreamboats and to see if these comments help with my appreciation, or otherwise.

I have to start with my usual disclaimer, what follows is entriely tentative and provisional, I’m not making any attempt to produce a definitive reading. This is much more about my subjective and personal relationship with Prynne’s work and I reserve the right to change my mind at any time.

In the interview Prynne acknowledges the gulf between KD and the rest of the work whilst making the point is that muchh of it is at variance with what he previously felt and believed. This passage is that I’ve found most useful in my readerly approach;

I was very, very focused,I was in a state of almost constant exhilaration. It seemed like a terrific moment of liberty to be able to write directly onto the paper what seemed to be the next thing to be written down. Some of the things I wrote down astonished me. I’d think, Did I write that? Don’t ask! Did I mean that? Don’t ask! What does it mean for what’s going to come next? Don’t ask! I switched off all the question-forming practise. It was not automatic pilot. It’ true that quite a lot of texts and thoughts came forward and offered themselves to be written down. But it was not the Kerouac-type, random, automatic writing. It was indeed the reverse of that: very deliberate and fully self-aware. At the same time it surprised me a lot. I wrote down opinions I couldn’t believe I held. I violated opinions I had held previously for a long time. I simply trampled them down.

Some of this, it turns out, is a rejection of Wordsworth’s philosophy with regard to the “elevation of the spirit” and of “a whole slab of metaphysical idealism in the English Romantic tradition”. This is a major shift and one that should be viewed as positive by those of us who have a less than rosy view of this particular tendency and its influence.

After some attentive grappling with the very dense text, I came across the paragraph containing four rules which would seem to contain at least some of the “anti-Wordsworthian digs” that Prynne refers to in the interview. The paragraph starts with the rules;

Rule One; people with top pay are rubbish, everyone knows this, it’s a law of nature. Rule Two: Diogenese offered himself, as a master, in the market, to any slave who needed one. Rule Three: you do not see into the life of things, dimensionless or not, except by harvest of data plotted against uncertainty. Rule Four: justice is scarce ever the obverse of injustice, since the one is the top end and the other the bottom.

Here, at least, it’s fairly clear, even to this usually mystified reader, what’s being said. It may be that there are currents running underneath these statements or allusions that we need to grasp but the rules are clearly stated in readily comprehensible language. The first one is probably the most allusive but on the surface is a truth held by many on the left. Even the mainstream media acknowledges that the increasingly large gap in salary between the highest and lowest earners is a problem. This however, isn’t the point that’s being made here however. The lucky few are said to be rubbish, ie not worth their salary, and that this is a permanent and immobile law. The implication of this rule is that everybody should be paid the same, thus eradicating any kind of differentials. 

<p>I initially skimmed over “it’s a law of nature” and then realised that this had both a philosophical and a ideological aspect that may require some attention. It turns out that both Hobbes and Locke had natural laws although Hobbes had more of them. I also have the impression that a further type of law has been upheld by the right to justify various kinds of inequality and aggression.</p>

We now come to Diogenes, a Greek philosopher who found himself being auctioned at a slave market. He was renowned for subverting the established elite and his ‘offer’ was a playful attempt to undermine the auction process and thus the master/slave relationship.

We now need to take a deep breath and dive into Rule Three which sounds a little like a statement about quantum physics. At the back of the booklet there is a list of reference points of work that Prynne was attending to during KD’s compositiion. These are the first two:

  • V. Adrian Parsegian,Van der Waals Forces: A Handbook for Biologists, Chemists, Engineers, and Physicists (Cambridge 2006);
  • Alexander Atland and Ben Simons, Condensed Matter Field Theory (2nd ed., Cambridge 2010).

Yet again and against my better judgement, I have stared at several of the pages in both these books and am none the wiser other than that both seems be concerned with the behavious of fairly small things. In his interview Prynne describes himself as a materialist and having an interest in the structure of matter.. A the time of publication, issues around Big Data and its many implications were coming to the fore so it is very, very tempting to read those concerns into harvesting and to extrapolate the fact that we can only talk about probabilities rather than certainties at the sub atomic scale. As with Rule One, this is a very clear and apparently rigid statement, this is the only way that you can examine the basis of existence. As someone who also considers himself, usually, to be a materialist, this seems to be reasonably self evident but I’m interested in why Prynne should make this particular statement here. Of course, as ever with Prynne, I maybe missing his point entirely and grappling with apparent sense corridors that don’t actually exist.

It’s probably important to realise that this rule is as specific as the first whereas the third allows a little wiggle room with ‘scarce’. There are more questions thrown up by this observation about justice than by the others. these are some that spring to mind:

 

  • in Rule Four, why is ‘obverse’ used to describe the way in which we normally view this relationship?
  • is the the syntax of the first sentence of an example of what Prynne describes in the interview as a “quasi-religious vocabulary” that he’s not been “entirely comfortable with”?
  • does this refer to a universal kind of justice or a specific type?
  • the top and bottom ends of what?

Because I’m aware of Prynne’s use of secondary definitions and entymologies, I’ve had more than a glance at the OED with regard to all things obverse. I’m happy to report that some progress has been made because, in addition to ordinary use (contrary, opposite), we have this as definition 4:

Logic. Of a proposition: obtained from another proposition by the process of obversion.

Being infinitely curious, I have now looked at the noun;

Logic. A form of immediate inference in which the predicate of the contrary or the subcontrary of a proposition is negated, so as to obtain another proposition logically equivalent to the original.

Here’s a confession; I’ve spent my life ignoring logic of the philosophical type because it seems horribly complicated and because I don’t seem to need it to get by. I am therefore hoping that Prynne is here making use of the ordinary sense rather than any of the others.Having said that, I’d be happier with ‘opposite’ or ‘mirror image’ or ‘inverse’ because these I can understand and relate to. This, however, is very likely to be wishful thinking.

Justice is a very big word indeed, covering many areas of existence. In this instance, I’m guessing that Prynne is carrying on from the first rule and referring to economic justice which, most of us would argue, is inextricably linked with social justice. If we take justice to mean fairness then it is very evident indeed that the current economic systems by which we live make matters worse for those ‘on the bottom’

To conclude, I’m now intrigued by Kazoo Daydreams and, after some years of doing other things, I feel sufficiently enthused to spend more time with it and pay some attention to Prynne’s more recent work.

Why Sir Geoffrey Hill is Right about the Poem.

Hopefully, regular readers will accept that I am Very Opinionated Indeed about many things poetry. I don’t have a problem with this but it has recently been pointed out by a friend that these are my opinions and not absolute truths. This has given the bebrowed control panel some pause for thought. I usually qualify my reading of a particular poem by stressing the tenuous and provisional nature therein plus claiming the right to Change my Mind. I do have strong views about the Poem in General which are probably full of bias and prejudice but for which I like to think I can make a case. Geoffrey Hill is another example of someone with a passion for the Poem and equally trenchant views, most of which I happen to agree with and intend now to expand on several subjects where this odd congruence occurs.

What the Poem might be for.
Hill’s views here are slightly more specific than mine but he has this from his essay Language, Suffering and Silence:

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

I’m a diluted atheist and thus don’t share the application of ‘grace’ and I worry about any kind of theology but I do share this emphasis on the semantic and co-existent ethical shock which, for me at least, gets to the essence of what the Poem is for. I read this as a radical use of language that undermines the conventions of language in order to effect the opportunity for a reconsideration of our values. The inherent action of grace or of anything else doesn’t seem to be an essential component of how these two components might work together.

Hill’s work throughout contains much memorializing most of which springs from his admiration of martyrs. I’m equivocal on this because I don’t share this enthusiasm to anything like the same extent. What I do share is the ethical duty that we have to bear witness to both lives and events. The best work of the 20th century does this, Celan on the Holocaust, Prynne on Abu Ghraib, Charles Olson on Gloucester, David Jones on the first 6 months of 1915, this could be a very long list. My point, is that our best poets, working in whatever tendency, recognise that the Poem performs this act very well indeed, perhaps better than any other means of expression. It’s not for nothing that poems are read at funerals.

I’m now a little bit troubled by the use of ‘duty’ in the above, mostly because it’s heavy with notions of debt and obligation that I’d rather avoid. I think my intention here is to indicate that makers of the serious poem are to some extent throwing their talent away (see below) if the disregard this function.

We now come to these shocks. The value of this aspect of the Poem seems to be shared by J H Prynne who says this:

“If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrases which break the rules for local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity, and the translator can recognise the challenge to translating skills even if good solutions are hard to find.”

I like to think, mostly because I share both perspectives, that these two are saying more or less the same thing although Hill develops this as leading to ethics whereas Prynne talks about the effects of this device on the reader. Prynne is writing here about ‘difficult’ late modern work but I’m assuming that both are making this claim for the Poem in general.

The Teaching of Something Called Creative Writing.
Both Sir Geoffrey and I are at one with this. We’re against it, in fact we’re very against it. The reason for this is both structural and ideological. The structural argument is:

“the academy in itself, by its nature does damage to aspiring poets;
the individuals teaching this particular skill aren’t, in the main any good as teachers and worse as poets;
aspiring poets are thus led by mediocrities to produce increasingly mediocre, unadventurous work;
this is a process that feeds into itself producing the current Poetry Malaise that we all know so well;”
The ideological reason is more an attitude than an analysis. It goes- poetry is a specific skill that needs to be understood and developed by each individual in his or her own way. The key components of this process are reading, re-reading and reflection. The other component is writing material and trying it out in the world. Neither of these have much to do with attending classes and the taking of the note.

One of the reasons I started arduity is my concern as to the way in which the Poem is becoming increasingly colonised by these academic structures who seem to encourage conversations poetry-wise in increasingly abstruse terms. I’m thus less than pleased about the above process even though Sir Geoffrey’s syntax and the occasionally vague nature of his ‘point’ is guilty of this particular sin.

The Religious Poem.
Hill’s critical writing and his poetry have led me to realise the centrality of this element in Western culture. As a devotee of the work of Paul Celan and R S Thomas, I was aware thet worth relating to faith is important but it was Hill who, together with David Jones, crystallized this into a much deeper appreciation. For a Very Long Time humanity has been concerned with the afterlife and a number of Christian devices have been developed to indicate how This Might Work. Primary amongst these is the action (a hopelessly inadequate noun but it probably serves my purpose) of grace. An argument about this ripped apart Europe for most of the 16th century and has been a defining element of our ideas of self for the last two thousand years.

So, grace is in our mental and emotional dna, whether we like it or not. It therefore follows that the Poem must, if even by stealth, must attend to it.

Modernizing Old Stuff.
We both seem to be in agreement that, as a rule of thumb, the updating of a text inevitably does damage to that text. Of course, there are those of us who want to read Beowulf but don’t have the time to gain some familiarity with Old English and others who want to read Gawain but don’t want to delve into the glories of Middle English.

There’s also the problem of motive with some editions especially the desire to produce the work in a way more accessible to the students and readers of the 21st century. Hill has penned a less than sympathetic essay on the Yale edition of the Tyndale bible which worries about both of these issues in a typically curmudgeonly manner. Here are a couple of extracts:

“When the concessions to common sense have been made (for example, the amount of editorial discretion in the old ‘verbatim’ editions which even purists are willing to accept; the current availability of exact photographic reproductions of black-letter texts), it here that one’s case rests against this modern-spelling edition of Tyndale finally rests. A tractable ‘English’ project (‘accessible Tyndale’) has insinuated itself into Tyndale’s intractable purpose (to make the New and Old testaments accessible, in English to the ‘laye’ people’). This is not so much transmission as a kind of contamination.£

and

To make Tyndale’s New Testament of 1534 ‘accessible’ to ‘today’s reader’ is not to discover it as the modern book it once was. The modern book it once was remains in the sufficiency and jeopardy of ‘its difficult early- sixteenth-century spelling’;….

I think the general point here is the bogus claims of the modernisers. The distant past is a remarkably strange and unfamiliar place, the readers of the 16th century had completely different expectations and practices from those of today. Tyndale made his bible for them and not for readers of the 21st century of whom he had no knowledge whatsoever. I’d have a lot more time for the Yale edition if it was made clear that this was prepared with students in mind to give a general impression rather than to make it into something with universal application.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that modernized texts are a Wholly Bad Thing, just as translations are essential to my monoglot reading. It does nevertheless insist on a recognition that these transpositions might reflect more of the transposer than she or he would acknowledge. I’m aware that there may well be a charge of elitism here but I’m less and less bothered by this because it seems reasonable to question some of the more fatuous claims made by the modernisers.

On a personal level, I accept that every translation and modernizing produces a new poem but I am outraged that some of these do irreparable damage to the original. David R Slavitt’s verse translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is an example of a new Very Bad Poem that manages to obliterate this important poem under the guise of accessibility.

A final note on this particular prejudice: I’m trying to teach myself Middle English (for all kind of reasons) and am currently paying attention to the marvel that is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I started with J A Burrow’s 1972 edition primarily because of his expertise in All Things ME. Before getting very far, I moved on to Andrew and Waldron’s The Poems of The Pearl Manuscript. The main noticeable difference is that the latter retains the original spelling whereas the Burrow’s blurb has “The aim of this addition has been to remove unnecessary impediments while retaining the integrity of the original”. This justification is lazy in the extreme, especially given Burrow’s prominence and scholarship. Using ‘was’ instead of ‘watz’ is a kind of contamination in that it destroys the way the word sounds for the sake of modernizing something that is already clear enough. I don’t understand the use of ‘integrity’ in this context because that’s the very thing that is lost from the beginning.

The curmudgeonly view of the OED
The second edition of the above, especially in online form, is essential for most readers and writers of serious work. It is the standard point of reference for the English language and I never cease to be amazed how this project has been put together and maintained over the years. There are however gaps and inaccuracies as with any large work of reference and Hill has gone to some length, as has Prynne, to point some of these out.

These trenchant observations are from Hill’s essay Common Weal, Common Woe:

“In the entry on dexterity (‘2. Mental adroitness or skill….cleverness, address, ready tact’) the reader is appraised that sense 2 occurs ‘sometimes in abad sense: cleverness in taking an advantage, sharpness’. The citation from Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (‘The dexterity that is universally practised in those parts’) is ambivalently placed and, in its brief citation, elusive in tone. Read in context (towards the end of Book Eight) the phrase still holds a good deal in reserve. Clarendon is alluding to the manners and morale of Antrim’s Irish and Montrose’s Scottish highlanders, from whose ranks it was planned to raise an army ‘that was not to depend on any supplies of money, or arms, or victual, but what they could easily supply for themselves, by the dexterity that is universally practised in those parts’. “

“How far, if at all, does Clarendon’s sense of his word confirm to the editorial definition? This is not a case to be explained by ‘sometimes in a bad sense’. Whatever is happening to the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ connotations is happening within the space of eighteen words, where what is ‘good’ is determined by the necessities of the ‘good’ cause and what is ‘bad’ by the unexplored hinterland of ‘what they could easily provide for themselves’.”

and this on Hopkin’s use of ‘disremember’:

“On the other hand they make a public exhibition of the contributors’, or editors’, inability, over half a century, to recognize the one usage which significantly changes the pitch of the word (‘qØite ! Disremembering, disrembering all now’) The Second Edition heads its entry ‘v. Chiefly dial. dísmémbering ấll now’) The Second Edition heads its entry ‘v chiefly dial. [f. DIS 6 + REMEMBER v.] To fail to remember; to forget. (trans and absol.)’. If this may be thought sufficient for the nine other citations, it patently fails to register the metamorphic power of Hopkin’s context. ‘Disremebering’ in ‘Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves’, is not, as the Dictionary presumes, ‘failing to remember, ‘forgetting’ it is ‘dismembering the memory’.”

Now, it can be argued that both of these are mere quibbles and of no greater importance than one individual’s nit-picking. This would be entirely reasonable were it not for the fact that Hill knew a Very Great Deal about both the 17th century and the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins and therefore his observations would seem to be worthy of serious attention.

I’m an Eng. Lang. obsessive and am firmly of the view that it’s important to get this stuff as ‘right’ as possbile. I make extensive use of the OED as do many others to make sure that a) we get a better understanding of what we read and b} we ensure we make appropriate use of the words that we write. I’ve encountered entries over the years where the definitions seem to be partial or insufficiently nuanced. Obviously I don’t have Sir Geoffrey’s learning and am thus unable to qualify the doubts that I have but it is a worry that our sole point of reference would appear to contain quite a few flaws.

In conclusion, it may seem that all of the above fits with Hill’s reputation as an angry purist but I like to think that it’s more about being passionately involved with the Poem and having keenly held views about what it does and the various things that get in the way. I’m also of the view that there is nothing at all wrong with being opinionated provided the position expressed, as with Hill, can be supported by facts.

John Peck and Magnificence

To everyone who asks me about the above I use ‘magnificent’ which seems to encapsulate my feelings. Having done this for a few months I now realise that I don’t entirely know what I mean. This isn’t unusual, I throw out many adjectives (serious, important, honest, clunky, naff, dishonest etc.) that are gestures rather than anything precise. This doesn’t bother me but my use of the m word is a new one and it’s the only one that will do and I’m going to try and explain why. I think that the quality I’m describing is equivalent to the ‘virtue’ that Arthur embodies in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, that combination of masterful ability, courage and compassion with more than a little excellence thrown in.

With regard to the work(s), it needs to be pointed out that it’s Very Long Indeed with four sequences, the first three containing 70 ish, and the last one containing 121, thirty, or thereabouts, line poems. It’s not a drive-by read, it has its obscurities and expresses complex ideas which require serious attention. The verbal content also has more than a degree of bigness that I hope to demonstrate below.

The good news for the understandably daunted it that there’s a helpful blurb on the back that quotes from the foreword by Nate Klug which, for all kinds of reasons, I have yet to read. I’ll get to the blurb shortly but first I want to explain my choice of example. This particular poem isn’t especially typical nor is it one of the best but it does seem to contain most of those elements which combine to form magnificence. I thought about producing extracts from several poems to give a more comprehensive ‘flavour’ of What Might be Going on but rejected that because bits would detract from the way a whole poem ‘works’.

This, then, is poem 37 from the first section:

Sokurov has filmed farewell to Europa at the Winter Palace
in the Hermitage, his tall fool from the eighteenth century,
a diplomat in black, no lace, catching aromas from the Dutch Masters,
and at the ball whirling in mazurkas with plumed partners
after which applause for the orchestra and exit down both wings
of the great stairs, bemedaled sashes, the gartered stream
of the dead in living flood, sideburned Pushkin there, dixit.
Pushpin! The jab going in with feeling, for anything that was an object
has become a relation drawn out and lingering, for sale
yet ungraspable. John Marriner at Ani was on its track too, sealing
candle gleam over chant at young Gagik's coronation
beneath the dome's hole, rain misting rubble. Yet it won't do,
staging these reviews - don't ask us what we are screening,
ask us how, if we are lucky, we look past. For then the knife hangs,
no one moves, and yet Gretchen must not die. Dismantling this,
untying the fly, unlacing Smoking Joe Frazier's eight-ounce gloves,
are stipulated for philosophers from here on out. Tapping for air
in the fished-out nose cone: punch through to her!
White embroidery on the furze,
the same on the inch's window, and I have that hostage
to warm and salve for an hour. Late weirds the crow
Great, Spate, I shall be loud among the loud
but slur among her sands, and crowd
to the plunge between them, and cleanse, and begin to gnaw.

To get the obscurities out of the way, there is a very detailed website about Ani which also provides details of Marriner’s visit to Ani, once the capital of Armenia, in 1967 which was recorded in his Trebizon and Beyond (1969) which is, in part, the story of his quest to locate the Golden Fleece. Gagik I was the king of Armenia from 989 to about 1018.

Perhaps even more obscure is ‘dixit’ which the OED gives as; “An utterance (quoted as) already given” which is apparently from the Latin for ‘he has said’.

Having some familiarity with Peck’s previous work, I guessed that this particular Gretchen belongs to Goethe and this is confirmed except that it alludes to the dialogue between Mephistopheles and Faust in Pushkin’s Scene from Faust.

I’m taking it that Pushkin isn’t obscure but some might not be familiar with Sokurov’s The Russian Ark from 2002 which follows a man/ghost in black who walks round what was the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, making various encounters on the way.

Smokin’ Joe is the least obscure, world champion heavyweight boxer who famously lost his title to Muhammad Ali in the seventies, which, to this child of the fifties and sixties, seems like only yesterday.

Before we proceed, it might be helpful to note that the blurb has “Cantilena is one of our only major long poems to address climate change” and “its performance of a kind of imaginative magic – what Peck calls ‘undersensing'”.

It seems to me that this poem is centred on Europa and Gretchen and our eyes wide open rush to planetary death. These are Big Themes, I may well be overeading but saying goodbye to Europe does signal the end of the Enlightenment Project and its distinctly odd hotchpotch of values. The figure of Gretchen as the model of innocence and the ‘pact’ made with Mephistopheles might also carry something of the fatal trade-off between technical and industrial progress and the consequent destruction of the rock on which we live. This is one of the aspects that I’m thinking of as Big, I’m not sure that ‘climate change’ is the appropriate phrase because it sounds fairly innocuous and technical rather than the destruction that has already started. There’s wider concerns going on here, the nature of evil, the debate as to the price of progress and the role of the Enlightenment. The poem can be read as an elegy, starting with Sokurov’s farewell and ending with the crow and the cleansing and quite primitive consumption.

On the other hand, this may well be entirely wrong, one of my frequent mistaken stabs in the dark. Peck may instead be referring to the ongoing disintegration of the post war European project and making use of one of our finest contemporary filmists and one of the Enlightenment’s greatest literary works. Or as something else that I haven’t thought of.

I know next to nothing about Pushkin, I have tried and failed to attend to Eugene Onegin and haven’t read any Goethe since my youth. I am however a bit of a fan of Sokurov, I admit to watching The Ark more for its technical prowess rather than the content. I’m much more fond of the Moloch, Taurus, the Sun sequence which ends with Faust which many cognoscenti consider his finest work to date. The increasingly essential Wikipedia article on the latter quotes the latter’s producer: ” a film that can introduce the Russian mentality into European culture; to promote integration between Russian and European culture” and that it ” reflects Sokurov’s enduring attempts to understand man and his inner forces” which would seem to undermine the farewell gesture that appears to be alluded to her. My interest in the other films is about the issue of endings, especially The Sun which is about the fate of Emperor Hirohito at the end of the Second World War.

We now come to the poem as poem and the reasons for my enthusiasm. When reading it aloud it becomes clear that, apart from ‘dixit’ that this is a thing that works at every level, that it demands a specific manner of reading which feels natural but is packed with technical elan. This produces something that feels completely unforced and natural but (I speak as a practitioner) takes enormous skill and effort to produce. It may be my unfamiliarity/ignorance but I stumble vocally over ‘dixit’ because, if it refers to Faust being an utterance that’s repeated by both Sokurov and Goethe, it feels a bit superfluous.

In terms of technique, I’d point out the stress patterns throughout but especially from ‘John Marriner’ down to ‘misting rubble’ which is full of music whilst carrying a provocative jab in the eye- all that remains of Ani, once a great and strategically city, are ruins.

We now come to this weirding crow. The OED gives ” To assign to (a person) as his fate; to apportion as one’s destiny or lot.” which seems, together with the three rhymes, to encapsulate our current plight. The question facing all of us is whether or not humanity’s collective demise is already inevitable and all we can do is prolong the decline or we can halt it. Whichever of these turns out to be accurate, we are sleepwalking out was to imminent catastrophe, I am of the former view and that mourning and grief appear to be my only response.

Bigness is an important element in the Magnificence Virtue and it is on display here in a number of different ways. Europe is physically huge, stretching from the Urals to Iceland and it’s also mentally huge too, keeping within itself a story of long rises alternating with an equally long fall. For the last 400 years a story of bloodshed and ruthless exploitation has underpinned incredible scientific and industrial growth which now be coming to an end. In many ways this progress has been made to the detriment of the planet and the natural systems that support us. Planetary degradation is and will remain the biggest crisis affecting us all and here it’s tackled head on. Apart from this exposition, there’s also more than a degree of intellectual depth going on, perhaps best epitomised by ‘…for anything that was an object / has become a relation drawn out and lingering, for sale / yet ungraspable.” Being a little paranoid, this could be seen as a disparaging barb in the direction of us misunderstood relativists or towards the finer points of Marxian theory. If the first is the case and one of the signs of the Decline of the West is this transformation of solid things then I would like to observe that it may be that this particular form of positivist secularity has got us into our current mess and that objects don’t (ever) exist in splendid isolation. The value of this part of the poem is that the point is made without either scorn or bile, unlike some of our other Serious Poets.

Ths slightly lesser Bigness comes with what philosophers need to do in the future- the laces quip is taken from John the Baptist’s description of himself not being fit to fasten Christ’s sandals but may also infer the disarming of the severe damage we do to each other and to the planet. I’m taking the fly to be the lure used by fishermen to attract their prey. The ‘task’ would therefore seem to be to remove the fatal allure of a shiny bright temptation and to pacify ourselves. By doing these we might dismantle the knife mechanism that threatens Gretchen. This would seem to throw up the role of philosophy in contemporary society and whether philosophy leads or follows global developments. It can be argued that the Industrial Revolution and all that went with it was much more ‘about’ the development of the steam engine than the work of Kant or Hegel. These issues are complex and don’t have easy resolutions but they need to be thought about especially when our public life seems to be engaged in a hell-for-leather race to the bottom.

I’m not of the view that poetry has any kind of Privileged Position with regard to truth but I do think that it is exceptionally good at compression and precision. By this I mean expressing complicated stuff with very few words and doing it accurately. This doesn’t mean that the views expressed are necessarily correct or true. My other entirely personal marker is whether or not I could achieve the same effect on the page. In this instance I recognise that I can’t and never will be able to achieve this level of technical accomplishment.

Finally, there are many, many poems of this quality in Cantilena and I know I’m going to be provoked and inspired by most of them. As ever, the above is an entirely subjective and probably inept attempt at saying what I mean and how I feel.

Cantilena is available from Shearsman Books at the ludicrously low price of 15 quid. You really do need to buy it.

Simon Jarvis and the The Good Poet, Bad Man Problem.

This isn’t going to be easy. Personal circumstances have kept me from arduity for quite a few months and I have been having one of those awkward dithers as to whether or not to resume. If I’d decided to carry on with this piece of self-indulgence then I would probably have done something with the latest and completely bonkers John Bloomberg-Rissman epic and or something insightful and Eng Lit about the copy of Gawain that was tucked into Spenser’s doublet throughout the composition of The Faerie Queene.

The circumstances already alluded to led me to being in Singapore when news reached me that Simon Jarvis had been convicted on child pornography charges. The first response was nauseous shock, the second was to google for the details. Sure enough, the local Cambridge paper confirmed the conviction, made reference to many thousands of images and a Yahoo chat log.

So, the dilemma has been whether or not to write with reference to this event, whether to read it as a signal to stop writing about poetry altogether or whether to try and make some kind of public sense of the various emotions that have afflicted me for the last couple of months.

I’ve written at length about Simon’s work, we’ve had an intermittent correspondence and a couple of telephone conversations. At my instigation we were going to meet last summer but i cancelled due to unexpected health issues. I’m a particular fan of his longer work which I think make a significant contribution to 21st century verse.

I had the great misfortune of spending much of my career dealing with most aspects of child sexual abuse, including criminal prosecutions. My work undermined my political beliefs in that, like all good anarchists, I was and am against what passes for our criminal justice regime and believe that incarceration makes things worse rather than better for all concerned. This ‘easy’ stance was taken to bits by the realisation that some people did so much damage that they needed to be removed from contact with the rest of us. In my perfect world psychopaths and adults who want to abuse children would be locked up until they die.

Apparently the defence lawyer in this case described Simon as a very intelligent man but one who was ‘driven by demons’ and the judge, imposing a 12 month suspended sentence felt that he had taken responsibility for his actions and had put his own measures in place in order to deny himself access to this kind of material.

I don’t buy either of these, many of us are driven by these imaginary creatures in one form or another but we are free to act or not to act, they did not force Simon to seek out this material. I’m also deeply cynical about this taking of responsibility trope, especially as I’ve met and worked with serial offenders who claim to have seen the light in recognising the predatory aspects of their actions only to go on to re-offend with monotonous regularity. It’s also symptomatic of our corrupt and corrupting justice sentence that he wasn’t given 3-5 years for the images and a couple more for the chat logs. The other observation is that someone who has collected 12,000 images is more than likely to have acted on his fantasies.

The above problem can be formulated in fairly straightforward terms; ‘is the work of someone who does/thinks bad things diminished by this?’. I’m trying to put aside my own feelings on this one by going back to my Previous Response which was ‘not really’. My primary readerly example is Spenser’s Faerie Queene and his advocacy of starving the irish into submission. My take on this is that these views do not diminish the work even though they are reasonably evident in Book V. This is primarily because he was expressing an opinion shared by many of his countrymen at the time, one which in various forms has always informed the English view of these troublesome people and their lawless ways. This is not to say that I don’t condemn all of our eight hundred year role in Ireland, it’s just that my main criteria for rating any poem is whether or not it’s any good.

Incidentally, Hopkins fits the classic paedophile profile but I dislike him because I don’t think he’s any good. Geoffrey Hill’s bloody Tiber in Mercian Hymns may or may not be a reference to the Powell speech but, again, it’s a commonly held view of his generation and the sequence is still one of the finest pieces of work of the twentieth century.

Moving on with this personal purgation, I have only looked at the work once since the conviction (see below) but I am able to pinpoint perhaps the main way in which I was conned. From memory, The Night Office is written in an almost overwhelming tone of despair. I recall taking issue with a critic who characterised this as primarily emotional whereas I felt that it was more spiritual and directed both inwards and outwards towards the world in which we live. I now realise that this was more about self-disgust and the poem can be read as an extended exercise in self-flagellation. Jerusalem Deleted is much more straightfoward, the protagonist lives in fear of capture and who goes along with the assumption of others that he is someone who is as he appears.

In retrospect, these are enormous signposts that I missed because I wasn’t looking for them. As someone who has been severely depressed on a number of occasions, I also have experience of despair and self disgust. In addition, the Love of my Life always accused me of bluffing my way throughout my professional and commercial career and, in weaker moments, I have been known to admit the accuracy of this view. So with both these works I over-identified and failed to ponder long enough about Simon’s weird observation on joy in his chat with Rowan Williams at the launch of Night Office.

I wasn’t going to quote from any of the Jarvis poetry but was flicking through Jerusalem Deleted to confirm my impression of the fear theme when I came across this:

.................................I passed 
              the long-calmed traffic where the point cloud soars
like the flat spatter of ejaculate

                    656
left on a hurt face in a private film
         replayed incessantly.

To conclude, I still think Simon’s longer work is important, it’s just that I won’t be reading it any more.

David Jones’ Sleeping Lord; A First Encounter

When writing about Jones’ magnificent work I’ve concentrated on In Parenthesis and The Anathemata because I encountered them first and because my initial response to the other work was that it’s a bit minor in that it doesn’t achieve the magnificence of the two longer poems. This view is currently undergoing some revision as I’m now paying some overdue attention to this material and have become just as absorbed as I am with the other two.

For those new to Jones, there are a couple of contexts that need to be stated at the outset: he was a staunch and conservative Roman Catholic and his father was Welsh which led to an abiding affinity with Wales and its history. Jones makes this clear in his introduction to The Anathemata:

So that to the question: What is this writing about? I answer that is is about one’s own ‘thing’. Which res is unavoidably part and parcel of the Western Christian res, as inherited by a person whose perceptions are totally conditioned and limited by and dependent upon his being indigenous to this island. In this it is necessarily insular; within which insularity there are further conditionings contingent upon his being a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription.

The good news is that you don’t need to be either Welsh or of the Catholic faith to become immersed in and enamoured by Jones’ work. When first reading the above introduction I was more than a little nervous of both these aspects but soon discovered that the material provides many different points of entry and passages of great beauty. The Lord of the title is identified at the outset as “Lord Llywellin, Prince of Wales” who was killed by Edward i’s forces at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in 1282.

This excerpt from the early part of the poem hopefully gives some idea of its strength:

                        does a deep syncline
                        sag beneath him?
or does his dinted thorax rest
                        where the contorted heights
                        themselves rest
on a lateral pressured anticline?
Does his russet-hued mattress
                        does his rug of shaly grey
ease at all for his royal dorsals
                        the faulted under-bedding.
Augite hard and very chill
                        do scattered cerrig
jutt to discomfort him?
                        Milleniums on millenia since
this cold scoria dyked up molten
when the sedimented, slowly layered strata
(so great the slow heaped labour of their conditor
the patient creature of water) said each to each other:
"There's no resisting here:
                          the Word if made Fire."

According to the patented Arduity Trickiness Index, there are four words that may give us problems. The first is the italicised ‘cerrig’ for which Jones provides this note; “stones; pronounced ker-rig ‘er’ as in errand. Pronunciation is provided for most Welsh words because Jones, in his brief introduction, states that the poem “chances to be a piece that is essentially for the ear rather than the eye”. The second word is ‘scoria’ for which I’m taking the secondary definition given by the OED- “Rough clinker-like masses formed by the cooling of the surface of molten lava upon exposure to the air, and distended by the expansion of imprisoned gases.” The third is ‘augite’ although it can be inferred that this refers to a hard rock. The OED is more expansive: ” As a mass noun: a mineral of the pyroxene group which occurs as dark green or black prisms, and is an important component of basic igneous rocks such as basalt and gabbro”- which takes us further into things geological than we need to go. The final word is ‘conditor’ which, in Latin, google translate tells me is either founder or builder whilst the OED has ” A founder; an institutor (of laws)”,both of which make sense in this context.

here we have a Medieval Welsh king conflated with Christ ‘asleep’ on the bare stone of a mountain and the above passage lists the ways in which this might be uncomfortable or difficult for him. The asking of questions, rhetorical or otherwise, is a key feature of Jones’ later work and works to good effect here- When this reader finds himself confronted with questions rather than a straightforward description, I find myself thinking more deeply about the content. The brilliance for me is that this insistence brings us into the detail of a different time and place and enables a sense of almost physical contact with the things and events depicted. I don’t know of any poet writing in English in the last hundred years that can achieve this with such sustained force.

One of my tests of greatness is the mix of originality of expression and technique. In the above the question about the Lord’s thorax is perfectly phrased and placed with the possible exception of the “on the lateral…” line which seems to provide a little too much geological detail and thus becomes a bit clunky when read aloud.

I’m also very impressed by the way the above ends with the description of water as foundational and as a patient animal biding its time, the use of ‘dyke’ as a verb, the speaking strata and the concluding theological / Christian point. That this quite complex passage is underpinned by a very energetic sense of moving forward is quite remarkable.

The last line probably refers to the act of God’s creation as in “In the beginning was the Word” and the idea of Logos which is a key part of John’s gospel and the coming of Christ as the Holy Spirit.

There’s an extended section on the place and duties of the Lord’s candlebearer which leads to the Household’s priest and what feels like an improvised riff on matters relating to the early church. T S Eliot placed Jones alongside Joyce in the pantheon of modernists and some of Jones’ prose leaps and bounds along in a distinctly Joycean manner. We are given a lengthy description of the priest’s thoughts during a blessing:

His, silent, brief and momentary recalling is firstly of those
Athletes of God, who in the waste-lands & deep wilds of the
Island and on the spray-swept skerries and desolate insulae where
the white-pinioned sea-birds nest, had sought out places of
retreat and had made the White Oblation for the living and the
dead in those solitudes, in the habitat of wolves and wild-cat
and such like creatures of the Logos (by whom all creatures are that
are)........

My knowledge of early Christianity is almost fuzzy as that of Welsh history but I’m not aware of a tradition of holy men doing good works in the wilds of Britain. However, a priest in medieval Wales may well have imagined such figures and mentally transplanted them from the eastern end of the Mediterranean to his homeland. I have reproduced the above passage with the same line length as it appears in the 1974 Faber edition because it seems important to preserve the ‘look’ of the prose text as it is with the verse.

There are some critics who I admire that are of the view that the prose sections are poems and should be read and appreciated as such. I’m not convinced that things are quite as simple as that. Throughout the later work, I’d argue for a fairly distinct marker between the parts written as poetry which seem to be more incantatory and faux bardic than the parts written as prose. My main shred of evidence for this is the difference between the two when read aloud. For those wishing to put this to the test, I’d advocate doing the same with a passage containing both elements.

The main charge against Jones and the reason given by many for his lack of readers is obscurity, the other is the staunchly traditional nature of his Catholic faith. I’m not convinced by either of these but I do concede that there are moments when both these factors combine in a way that is challenging to say the least. This is from the extended section on the priests thoughts;

                     Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!

This is annotated with;

See the first lesson of the first nocturn for Marina of Feria V in Coena Domini (Maundy Thursday) which begins ‘Incipit Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae Aleph: Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo.’

The line follows a passage on the ruination of the Roman cities and towns after the fall of the empire whilst the following lines provide some explanation for this catastrophe.

My first objection is that, for this agnostic monoglot, the explanation is more obscure than the line itself. My second objection is that, prior to the interweb (Sleeping Lord was first published in 1967) I’d have had no chance of working out what any of this meant. However, thirty seconds with the interweb reveals this passage from the A Heap of Broken Images blog:

These words first appear in Brideshead Revisited in a conversation between Cordelia and Charles. She uses them to describe her feelings after the chapel in Brideshead has been left empty. The phrase “Quomodo sedet sola civitas” -how lonely the city stands- is taken from the beginning of book of Lamentations, when the prophet Jeremiah cries over the destroyed Jerusalem; they are also used by the Liturgy of the Church in the office of Tenebrae to lament over the death of Christ.

Things now begin to fall into place, the phrase and its biblical source is now made clear and ‘fits’ well as a bridge between the two passages. It also happens that many years ago I read nearly all of Waugh’s writing because I liked his way of writing rather than his content. Like Jones, he was a staunchly conservative Catholic who bemoaned the reforms made by the Church in the early sixties. As a Jones completist, I’m now tempted to look again at Brideshead, having previously glided over most of the religious references and to look again at the diaries. For me, this is by far the most obscure part of the poem but it is the only part that I’d really struggle with and my incomprehension doesn’t get in the way of my understanding and appreciation of the poem as a whole.

After the priest’s many and varied remembrances, the poem returns to the Sleeping Lord and recounts the destruction wrought by the hog, a boar with great and destructive tusks, who may be the invading English armies of the Norman and Plantagenet periods, I’m tempted to suggest that this creature may be Edward I but that’s mainly because I want it to be.

This stunning poem ends where it began:

Do the small black horses
                      grass on the hunch of his shoulders?
are the hills his couch
                      or is he the couchant hills?
Are the slumbering valleys
                      him in slumber
                      are the still undulations
the sill limbs of him sleeping?
Is the configuration of the land
                      the furrowed body of the lord
are the scarred ridges
                      his dented greaves
do the trickling gullies
                      yet drain his hog-wounds?
Does the land wait the sleeping lord
                      or is the wasted land
the very lord who sleeps?

I hope, in this brief tour, I’ve given some idea of the poem and given encouragement to those who have initially been deterred by Jones’ reputation. I remain of the view that Jones is by far the greatest of the Modernists and that his ongoing neglect is an indictment of the current state of British Poetry as a whole and our literary critics in particular.

The Sleeping Lord and other fragments. is currently available for 12 quid from amazon. There really is no excuse.

John L Armstrong 2020

Attending to Pierre Joris on Celan’s Threadsuns

I’ve spent some time writing about Paul Celan’s later poems since Pierre Joris’ translations of these were published in 2014. Up until this week, however, I hadn’t read any part of his introduction.

I rarely read literary criticism because I find most of it overly dense and at variance with my experiences as an ‘ordinary’ reader. The honourable exceptions are Jacques Derrida and Joris on Celan, J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and Ezra Pound on Most Things Poetic. I don’t agree with any of them but I like the way they think and, in turn, make me think. This is an example of that process.

There is a brief section on Threadsuns which is the title of a poem from the Breathturn collection and also the title of the following collection. This is the poem;

THREADSUNS
above the grayblack wastes.  
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
mankind.

This has always struck me as bleak and despairing. The last couple of lines seem to indicate that the human race has finished rather than referring to somewhere other than earth. The ‘gray-black’ wastes’ may indicate those lands torn apart by the many slaughter of the second world war but also our world in the present.

Joris makes a couple of points that I’d like to attend to first:

For indeed, we no longer live, as the pural of the poem’s title immediately makes clear, under the cosy reassurance of a world held in place, centred around a or the sun, Helios, as it was called under the old dispensation.

and;

Ezra Pound lamented in the Cantos that “the center does not hold” – Celan knows that this is so because there is no single center, no single sun that can hold it all up, that, in fact, there has always been only a decentered multiplicity of centers.

I’m not entirely sure that this holds up, it is a position and a perspective that I (mostly) agree with but it’s not one that seems to be present in Celan’s work. I readily admit that I have no formal training whatsoever in either philosophy or literary criticisms but I am reasonably familiar with the work of the French post-Structuralists and would expect many more instances of this perspective if this was the case. This is a pity because Joris, as well as being the best translator of the work, one of Celan’s most astute readers.

My own tentative and provisional view would be that this is either or both a sun that emits different kinds of light and other stars in other parts of the galaxy / universe . In the same part of the introduction Joris points out that; “Celan insisted, and rightly so, I believe, on the fact that his poetry was directly linked to, and arose from, the real.” This would seem to indicate that the earth still revolves in a solar system with a single sun at its centre.

The Pound quote seems to be apt in this context. I’m not one of those that rejects all of Pound’s work because of his repellent anti-semitism and fervent support of Italian Fascism. I love his earlier work but am both bored and underwhelmed by large swathes of The Cantos which seems to me a very inconsistent piece of work indeed. The fuller quote is “things fall apart, the center cannot hold” which seems to point to a real 20th century phenomenon rather than something more abstract. As a retired anarcho-nihilist, I can readily identify with the last 120 years as a period of ongoing disintegration whereby things do break up and lose their grip but I think this is a real and material product of our times.

If we imagine these threads or beams bringing different qualities of light then it seems reasonable to suppose that these may lead to all of us having different perspectives on things.

I’ve found this poem so very bleak because it seems to hold a lament for the death of mankind and the planet on which we live. The final phrase can be qualified by ‘but they won’t be because it’s too late’.

Joris takes a different tack;

-then the title of the next volume spoke of a new measure, of new measures, to be accurate: of those new measures needed in a world seen as “grayblack wastes” to link the above and the below, the inside and the outside, the tree-high thought ann the wastes, because, Celan goes on, “there are / still songs to be sung” poems to be written under the duress – Lightduress will be the title of the next collection – of the present condition.

Again, I’m not convinced by this, the Breathturn collection contains more than a few references to poems and poets bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. Leaving aside those tall thoughts for a moment, the wastes of the world may have been created by this catastrophic event which left nothing at all behind. The industrialised murder of many millions by ‘ordinary’ men was so destructive that nothing was left except these songs that must but can’t be sung.

Regular readers will now that I don’t think enough attention is paid by critics to Celan’s experience of mental illness and how this is reflected in some of his work. Because of my own struggles with severe depression, I may over-identify with this aspect but I still maintain that it is very present in the later work. I’m not of the once prevalent view that this work is inferior to the previous material and this decline was related to increasingly severe ‘episodes’ . Instead, I think the bouts of mental anguish, in this instance, enrich the work with a purity of tone which is devoid of all comfort and pretence. Here, might it be that these ‘grayblack wastes’ are also the result of mental as well as physical damage? That all human beings are emotionally traumatised by having to live the barbarities of modern life?

I’ll therefore read into these tall thoughts as being the product of mental distress and disturbance and the gripped ‘light-tone’ as being the, now lost, normal and the real. It also occurs to me that these thoughts could also be the kind of ‘refined’ thinking that came along with the European Enlightenment and, some would argue, led to the atrocities of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust.

This ‘light-tone’ is annotated by Joris;

“Light-tone” and “light-pitch” are literal trabslations of Lichton. if one considers the word as a Celanian composite. The German word, however, is also a German word in filmography, where it refers to the process of “sound-on-film” in which sound is inscribed as variations of light values on film.

Whilst this is helpful and intriguing, I’m more in favour of a gesture towards these tall thoughts trying in vain to lighten the ‘grayblack wastes’

In conclusion, I hope I’ve shown how thoughtful and clearly expressed criticism can provoke readers into re-thinking their own assumptions and feelings about this kind of work. I also need to express again the debt of gratitude that we all owe to Pierre Joris for his astute and intelligent translations of this brilliant but demanding work.

Geoffrey Hill’s Riot of Poetry Similes

This is from the, probably self-penned, blurb on the back of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin:

Thematically the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of its evident helplessness.

As someone who has followed these meditations for the last 15 years, this claim holds great interest both as a reader and practitioner. I’m therefore now pondering on what Sir Geoffrey decided to leave us with on this reasonably crucial subject.

One of the abiding features of the poetry is Hill’s tendency to show off, with regard to poetry, his The Triumph of Love has this:

Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That's
beautiful. Once more? a sad and angry 
consolation.

This may indeed be beautiful but there are very few poets who would have the front to point this out within the same stanza. This particular simile and Hill’s claim that literary and artistic practice require “a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead…..” have acted as ‘markers’ for my relationship with the work as a whole. With The Book, however, we now have many more ways of thinking about the nature of the Poem and mulling over its strange helplessness.

I still haven’t paid enough attention to this sequence of 271 parts, a process that will take months but I have selected some of the more startling and provocative observations. This is the last sentence from Poem 149;

No upright poem in its uptight English can seem to me quite free from
     limescale under the rim.

Scurrilous, deliberately offensive but, he may have a point. What is lazily referred to, by me and many others, as the mainstream can be sad to be said to embody both of these qualities. I’ve long been of the view that this particular kind of output is inherently doomed to a bland mediocrity because its voice is strangled into a bridle deemed to be proper and fit. i’m therefore in sympathy with the view expressed, even though it’s more of a confession than an observation. Hill isn’t saying that this work is burdened by such a stain but that it seems to him that this is the case. The implications being that his work avoids the upright and uptight and is thus unburdened by this mark.

I have to confess that this made me smile a lot because it seems to capture the best of Hill’s mischievous barbs, the limescale under the rim being particularly apt.

This being Geoffrey Hill, we also have the realy quite serious observations with their amended syntax, These are from 213 and 239;

We do well on the whole to unscramble continuity from tradition. Continuity may be more important; the poem must affirm portent to make gravity tremble.

Poem as one case of post partum depression, in some part with cause yet
without reason.

Both of these are brow furrowing, in the interests of context, I should provide the rest of each poem but this would only further cloud the issues that appear to be at stake. With the first, separating out tradition from continuity is tricky in the extreme, both relate to the past  and to mental and physical things that proceed through time. Traditions can die out whereas continuities, by definition, keep going on. Much of Hill’s work is concerned with these persistent phenomena. His Mercian Hymns  of 1971 sets the reign of the early medieval King Offa of Mercia firmly in the 20th century.

I have Hill as a quirkily sentimental traditionalist. This is a fuzzy impression rather than a clear and precise notion, nevertheless I am a bit startled by this assertion and what follows. A quick glance at the OED reveals that ‘portent’ has two main definitions: “A sign, indication, or omen of a momentous or calamitous event which is about to happen” and “A prodigy, a wonder, a marvel; something exceptional or extraordinary.” Taking the (now rare) second definition as the one intended, it would appear that the role of the poem is to assert and confirm the wondrous and exceptional nature of someone or thing. Needless to say, making ‘gravity tremble’ is a great sounding phrase but doesn’t mean very much when thought about. If Hill means to have ‘a great effect’ then he should be clearer, in my admittedly pedantic view.

I would however draw attention to the other qualities of the above, it starts with an equivocation – mostly, it would be a good thing if we…. which reads like the opening of a gentle suggestion rather than the clear imperative that it ends with. Portents as signs of things that are about to happen populate most religious texts and it may be that this alludes, at least in part to the birth of Christ.

It is safe to suggest that Hill has never experienced a post partum depression for obvious reasons. This doesn’t prevent him from putting together one of his less than brilliant witticisms with the play on ‘part’ and the ‘without reason’ quip. I like to think the point being made is a serious one, that the poem has its source of inspiration but this then gets extrapolated  into something that may not be entirely rational / reasonable.  As someone with some experience of severe depression, I would however like to point out that we depressives are rarely without ‘reason’ indeed when depressed we often have a more realistic view of things because we can’t put on the rose-tinted glasses what ‘normal’ people rely on.

To conclude, this is all of Poem 129;

Poem as enforcer of the realm. Poem as hostage to straws that overwhelm.
Give me back the stocky tu quoque of the baroque.
Poem as slow-burning arquebus fuse in a re-enactment universe.
Poem as nightmare stepmother in the Brothers Grimm. Poem as loquacious
sightseer at an unspeakable crime.
Poem reluctant to give its own name even though lately granted immunity
from recrimination.
Poem at home under its fig tree and with a thriving pigsty.
Poem as hapless amateur in competition with ‘Summertime’.

I hope that I’m not alone in being delighted by this, it strikes me as both incredibly inventive and very, very clever. I can even forgive the tu quoque  / baroque device because the rest is Hill at his best. The first line encapsulates for me the poet’s dilemma, we’d love to speak truth to power, to act as moral assayer in the courts of kings and queens yet we are also plagued by those small blemishes and imperfections that, in our heads at least, ruin what we make. I’m going to skim gracefully over the second line because it doesn’t have a simile and move on to this about-to-go-off gun in this recreated and thus fake universe. The arquebus, the forerunner of most firearms, came into use in the early 15th century and  weren’t very good. Until the end of the 16th century there was still some debate as to whether arquebusiers were more or less effective than bowmen. I therefore have this image of Something Bad about to happen when the sparkly b movie flame eventually ignites the gun. It now occurs to me that the flame may never reach the gun, that it may burn ineptly forever being harmless and menacing at the same time. My daughter’s a keen re-enacter and has been since her mid teens so I know something of the painstaking care that goes in to getting the historical details as right as possible. A re-enactment universe would also be an equally synthetic version of moment of time past but on a much, much larger scale, one that would completely overwhelm this dodgy firearm. As both a reader and a wannabe poet, this line resonates and sets off ideas and makes me smile a lot.

The wicked stepmother is a little brow furrowing, as I recall it, the tale involves a magic mirror and a woman who will stop at nothing to remain the ‘fairest in the land’ and so makes several attempts to kill Snow White, her step-daughter. She is eventually exposed and dies a horrid death at Snow White’s wedding. The ‘nightmare’ describing word, if that’s what it is, is unusual in this and most other contexts.  This being the case, I’ve scurried off to the OED which has this for the adjective; “Having the quality of a nightmare; extremely distressing, frightening, or oppressive; nightmarish. Later in weakened use: terrible, awful, fraught with difficulty” which is helpful.  There are in “The Book” a couple of occasions where Sir Geoffrey refers to his use of obscure historical figures and seems to take some pride in doing this. His previous response to the oft repeated charge of difficulty is that “life is difficult” and that his work is a reflection of that.

Hill was known for his frequent use of the OED and will no doubt have been aware that ‘fraught with’ is defined as; “(a) attended with, carrying with it as an attribute, accompaniment, etc.;  (b) ‘big’ with the promise or menace of; destined to produce”. The second of these makes me grin. I find Hill’s work, as with Celan, Prynne and David Jones, to be big with the menace of difficulty which, for me, is a Very Good Thing.

I’ll leave speculation about the Wicked Queen, except to note that relationships with Step-mothers can also be ‘big’ in the same kind of way.

I write quite a lot of material on unspeakable crimes (Derry, Newtown, Ferguson) and their implications and often feel queasy  about whether what I’m doing is some kind of atrocity tourism. On first reading, this seemed to be an easy cliche but it now seems uncannily prescient.

The poem that’s reluctant to identify itself is probably one that disguises its meaning and is criticised initially for this crime but rater gains recognition and praise. This can also be applied to Hill himself who had to put up with all kinds of barbs but was eventually elevated to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, the highest accolade in the UK.

Hill was the finest nature poet of his generation and the fig tree and the pig sty reflect elements of the pastoral tradition in poetry. Perhaps both the sty and the type of tree contain an oblique barb or some degree of self deprecation.

I’m taking this particular Summertime to be the song from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in part because elsewhere in the sequence he confesses a new found liking for Thirties jazz.  From the mid-late nineties some of Hill’s work seemed to suggest that he wants to entertain us as some kind of music hall act. The poem’s aspiration to be culturally popular may be what is hinted at here, the later work is littered by very bad jokes which are certainly hapless. Gershwin’s setting of the DuBose Heyward poem is an example of genius in transforming something merely good into one of the most important and influential songs of all time.</em>

It hope I’ve shown here how Hill has given his readers much food for thought. This particular disturbance pervades through most of the poems and only rarely do the similes fall into clunkiness. As is expected with Hill, there are more than a few inconsistencies and some quite startling breaks with what has gone before. However, this is a much more fitting way to end a career than The Day Books appeared to be.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is published by the OUP and can be gotten from Amazon for sixteen of your finest English pounds. Buy it.

Testifying with Paul Celan. Again.

Before moving on with the above, I need to add a personal note about mental illness. I’m type 2 bipolar and was in a relationship with my wife from the age of 14 until 61 when she died. Between 2006 and 2008 I had three particularly severe episodes of depression that required admissions to hospital. The second and third of these came very close to ending our marriage. I therefore probably over identify with this that Celan wrote for Giselle, his wife in 1963.

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You - all, all real. I - all delusional.)

I’m not claiming a precise parallel here but I do find these four lines to be packed with stuff that speaks to me. Our relationship was healed by means of counseling as a couple in conjunction with psychotherapy for me. Because of our professional backgrounds we were very good at obtaining NHS services so both of these went on for years rather than months. It may not seem apparent but both of these processes involve the subjects in providing testimony and bearing witness of themselves in the hope of some kind of redemption or expiation.

Apparently this poem has been written about many times by critics concerned with meaning. I think I’m more concerned with effect, whilst acknowledging that there may be many different levels of ambiguity and portent. I have always recognised that these line speak of mental health and the resultant dynamic between ‘us both’. This is because of Celan’s self-identification as both ‘the transpierced’ and delusional.

For me, Giselle is bowed down because of the behavioural difficulties that come along with this kind of illness whereas Celan is stabbed across his body, in a way that damages both his lungs and his heart. I’ve never been entirely clear as to the inclusion of ‘am subject to you’ unless it refers to the fact that, when ill, we’re incapable of making decisions and these have to be made by our partner, we’re also very, very withdrawn.

This flaming also presents a few problems because of the many ambiguities. What we know is that, by this stage, Celan’s work was becoming increasingly sparse with each word and phrase carrying a great deal of significance. The question could therefore be strictly one of poetics as in where would a single word come from that could ‘do justice’ to all the nuances of this crisis. This requires reading ‘flame’ as something springing to life although this isn’t to ignore the Old Testament speaking from the burning bush.

I therefore think that this kind of testimony is very different from the one used in WORDACCRETIONS that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Most of the work is read as bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. In this instance it does appear that something more intimate is going on. One of the indicators for this is the fact that the entire poem is in brackets as if cordoning it off from all the rest of the poems in the Atemwende collection. Writing about another poem (ASHGLORY), Derrida makes the slightly convoluted point that as soon testimony is made available then it ceases to be testimony. This is because, by its nature, testimony contains information that is only known by that individual. I like this particular convolution because it gives some emphasis to the essentially personal and intimate nature of providing this kind of material. It also points to the flaming as something destructive as well as creative.

There’s also some distancing going on in this line, it is a word that is testifying on behalf of the couple rather than they themselves. Without getting too lit crit, this is different from the final anguished three lines of ASHGLORY;

No one
bears witness for the
witness.

Here, there is no individual that bears witness of behalf of the witness instead of an element of language.

My own experience indicates just how hard it is for someone with this kind of illness to ‘open up’ about anything and how especially difficult it is for couples to collectively to disclose the very private and personal details of their lives together, particularly when these are in crisis.. In this respect the first statement is quite revealing perhaps saying that “I may be delusional, inferior to you and in all kinds of emotional and mental pain but I do know you like nobody else does”.

There is as well the ambiguity of the last line, if the poet is completely delusional then how is it possible for us to pay attention to his work and this poem in particular? This apparent self-abnegation might also be an angry retort to Giselle. One of the difficulties for the ‘sane’ partner is to know when the other is being delusional and when he/she is both rational and lucid. It is extremely unlikely that Celan, who may well have been very ill, was ‘all delusional’ all of the time but it is a barb that can be thrown by a partner as an expression of their exasperation and consequent anger.

To conclude, these four lines speak of a different kind of witnessing and testimony but make the same ‘point’ about how difficult and yet crucial it is that we perform this act.

Moving on, this is the last of the ‘testimony’ poems;

ERODED by
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
experienced - the hundred-
tongued perjury-
poem, the noem.

Evorsion-
ed,
free
the path through the men-
shaped snow.
the penitent’s snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlors and -tables.

Deep
in the timecrevasse
in the
honeycomb-ice
waits, a breathcrystal,
your unalterble
testimony.

As with WORDACCRETIONS, we appear to be dealing with geology and its processes but here there seems to be more about human activity. The poem’s addressee appears in the second line in terms of speaking and of language which wears away this false poetry. This ‘noem’ is said to be produced by many people or by many languages. In either respect this perjury could arise from the simple fact that no two eye-witnesses will give an identical account of the same event and a hundred people will contradict each other so much that it is difficult to establish what actually occurred. The same can be said for languages, one of the main skills of the translator of poetry is to tease out the intended meanings with all there nuances and put them into another language where a ‘like for like’ substitution may fail completely in conveying the full weight of what’s been said.

This ‘gaudy chatter’ indicates more than a degree of contempt for those who are chatting. Gaudy, for me implies something bright and colourful but at the same time tasteless and banal. To chatter is to spend time in trivial, unthinking conversation. I’m a cultural snob of the first order and have no time for either of these but I’m also well aware that part of this is a class foible, my bourgeois fear of and distaste for the crowd.

Perjury, however, is a deliberate act. It involves giving evidence, providing testimony, that you know to be untrue which it is why it is a criminal offence. This poem then is deliberately untrue rather than simply being the product of too many tongues.

We now return to geology. I was surprised to find that ‘evorsion’ isn’t in the OED but two minutes with the interweb tells me that it’s a geological term referring to “The formation of niches or potholes by erosion due to vortices of water”. We now have three different kinds of erosion: by sunlight; by wind and by water. Each of these reshape the landscape in a gradual and destructive way.

Snow and ice are recurring images in Celan’s work and ‘men’ is a loaded term in its angrily ironic reference to what the Nazi’s saw as the difference between the men of the Aryan race and the sub-human Jews. The penitent’s snow is completely new to me but another 20 seconds with the interweb tells me that it’s;

“Penitentes, or nieves penitentes (Spanish for “penitent-shaped snows”), are snow formations found at high altitudes. They take the form of elongated, thin blades of hardened snow or ice, closely spaced and pointing towards the general direction of the sun.

The name comes from the resemblance of a field of penitentes to a crowd of kneeling people doing penance. The formation evokes the tall, pointed habits and hoods worn by brothers of religious orders in the Processions of Penance during Spanish Holy Week. In particular the brothers’ hats are tall, narrow, and white, with a pointed top.

These spires of snow and ice grow over all glaciated and snow-covered areas in the Dry Andes above 4,000 metres or 13,120 feet. They range in length from a few centimetres to over 5 metres or 16 feet.

There is thus a path, big enough for a man to walk through, across a field of these strange structures which reaches these welcoming rooms. I am reasonably flummoxed ( lit crit term) by the hyphen or dash in front of ‘table’ because it’s unusual in Celan’s and suggests that the first part of a compound word is missing. Of course, that’s the only explanation that I can think of and I readily accept that there may be many others. It may be that the gaps there to indicate the repetition of ‘glacier’ from the beginning of the line but, in English at least, we understand that an adjective can refer to more than one noun.

Ice and snow have been taken to refer primarily to the harsh winters that his parents endured in labour camps in Ukraine. Ice also brings stasis, it prevents things from moving and causes pliable objects to become brittle. Glaciers, on the other hand, are mobile and transform the landscape significantly by means of erosion. A Crevasse in this instance is a deep and dangerous cleft in the ice which can move without any prior warning. Things temporal always disturb me a bit because the mention of time is likely to refer to the work of Martin Heidegger who I now see as both a vile anti-Semite and a charlatan.

However, on a reasonably superficial level, this crevasse could mark a split in time. Many victims of the Holocaust reported that they felt that history had simply stopped because of the unimaginable violence of what they were suddenly experiencing. The split, on this tentative and provisional reading could (might) indicate the temporal chasm opened up by the Holocaust.

Atemwende, the title of this collection translates as ‘Breathturn’ and this was of great importance to Celan. This is a note from 1960-

‘What’s on the lung, put on the tongue,’ my mother used to say. Which has to do with breath. One should finally learn also to how to read this breath, this breath-unit in the poem. In the cola meaning is often more truthfully joined and fugued than in the rhyme; shape of the poem: that is presence of the single, breathing one-

And this perhaps adds some context to the geological themes;

The stone is older than we are, it stands in another time; in the together conversation with it, the one facing us in silence, we set ourselves in relation to the space from which it stands towards us; from this direction, the direction of our speaking, our words are given their share of colour and reach (magnitude).

As the stone, as the other, the inorganic will

    resemble

that which in us is not plant and animal-like: it becomes the spiritual principle, it reaches down into the depths, it rises up.

So, if we take these into account, the rocks of the planet are like our spiritiual component and it is breath that carries the truth. Elsewhere in his notes Celan refers to ‘breath units’ as the essential components of the poem. It is possible here to see the breathcrystal as such a unit that has been turned to crystal by the cold. The last two lines make it clear that this particular formation is now set and cannot be changed.

I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this assertion. Bearing witness to even the most horrific event in our history is obviously essential but testimony, once it becomes evidence comes into a very fluid realm whereby the facts of any event can begin to shift and blend into something quite different.
I’m not suggesting that Holocaust deniers shouldn’t be stringently challenged but I’m not entirely convinced that criminal prosecution is the most helpful response.

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown some of the main ways that Celan writes about the different types of witnessing and testimonies and how these ‘fit’ with the rest of his hearbtreakingly brilliant work.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin.

The above has been recently published and it is a very welcome antidote to the bewildering foibles of The Day Books. The blurb on the back is revealing. I make no apology for these two lengthy excerpts:

Written in long lines of variable length, with much off-rhyme and internal rhyme, the verse- form of the book stands at the opposite end from the ones developed in the late Broken Hierarchies where he explored highly taut constructions such as Sapphic metre, figure poems, fixed rhyming strophes, and others.

and

Thematically, the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of evident helplessness………….. the references to alchemy, heterodox theological speculation, and the formal logics of mathematics, music, and philosophy are made coolly, as art, and as emblems for our inadequate and perplexed grasp of time.

I have to report, on an initial read-through, that this collection makes me smile a lot because it feels like a return to the aspects of Hill’s work (Comus, The Triumph of Love, Mercian Hymns) that I enjoy the most. I didn’t enjoy any of the late work mentioned above and that part of the blurb reads a bit like a gentle response to those of us who expressed our doubts.

Because I haven’t yet begun to pay serious attention to the sequence as a whole I thought I’d allow my youthful enthusiasm give a few examples of what I find (at the moment) to be the most grinworthy (technical term).

Poem 109 is a meditation and pronouncement on Stanley Spencer and Things Scottish. Up until yesterday afternoon I either didn’t know or had forgotten (both are equally likely) that, according to the DNB, ” the War Artists’ Advisory Committee commissioned Spencer to record shipbuilding on the Clyde” and that the Resurrection series was one of his more significant works of that period. Hill’s poem starts with “The Resurrection, Port Glasgow, of nineteen forty-five to forty-seven, is not the triumph that the late Referendum could have been”. I’m taking it that, although the blurb refers to Brexit, this is the vote on Scottish Independence. Hill’s readers will recognise the characteristically complexity of the sentence and the fact that this may not need to be said. Art criticism is well beyond my capabilities but I will observe that it would seem unlikely that Spencer had Scottish independence in mind at the time, regardless of his fondness for the shipbuilders on the Clyde. It’s a remarkable enough line to draw me in further. The other question that arises is whether Hill’s view of the triumph that could have been marks a shift in Hill’s political beliefs and associated patriotism.

The next ‘stanza’ is “Art can incorporate a summation of what we inherit to impart of national / tradition. The tradition of the Clyde is now said to have died with Jimmy Reid.” The first sentence might be read as a statement of the mostly obvious whilst the second would seem to contradict it. Those of us of a certain age and political persuasion will recall that Jimmy Reid was the leader of what turned out to be the Clyde’s final industrial action. It would seem reasonable that the ‘tradition’ here refers to the history of radical socialism for which the Clyde workforce was rightly renowned. Again, this seems to signal a shift in Hill’s politics. The phrasing of the first sentence is reassuringly typical of Hill’s way of expressing Big Thoughts and this particular thought is consistent with both his earlier poetry and criticism. I’m taking it that ‘impart’ is a carefully chosen verb.

A brief note here about formatting, each poem is in prose. Each new paragraph begins at the left margin and the rest of the lines are indented by five spaces. The WordPress rendering of the pre tag makes it difficult to accurately reproduce how this looks on the page so I’m incorporating the lines into my paragraphs with ‘/’ marking each line break.

The next paragraph is; ” A kind of colloquial good, ‘Waking up’, ‘Tidying’, ‘Reunion of Families’- / Nineteen forty-five – forty-seven bore an obligatory hope – can stitch together a public shroud from private kindness; so that political / bloodymindedness must mourn its vital progeny born dead.” This is where we get into vintage Hill territory, what exactly might be intended by a ‘colloquial good’? Why is the hope of 1945-47, prompted by the election of a Labour government, said to be ‘obligatory’? If we take colloquial to refer to common or conversational speech might this ‘good’ be a quality in society that is beneficial for everyone? Or might it refer a thing being seen to have value by the ordinary people of Glasgow?

The years referred to also deserve some attention. This was perhaps 20th century’s most significant in British politics with the foundations of a social democracy and the National Health Service being laid. The hope was that a class ridden society could be transformed into something more equitable and just. Hill was born in 1933 and, as a bright teenager, would have been more than aware of these momentous shifts.

One of the definitions provided by the OED for ‘obligatory’ is; “Frequently humorous. So customary or fashionable as to be expected of everyone or on every occasion.”

We are therefore directed to the mood of optimism amongst ordinary people that the inequalities of the past would be eradicated and that significant improvements in living standards were about to occur. Of course, these hopes were not entirely met, the standard excuse being that the size of the post war debt to the US prevented the Atlee government spending enough to make a significant/lasting difference. Hill’s use of this adjective would seem to be an attempt at a kind of arch humour, that this was a hope that everybody felt obliged to share no matter how realistic it may be.

Jimmy Reid was to many the epitome of political and industrial ‘bloodymindedness’ and since then there have been very few figures in the UK labour movement to achieve similar prominence and success. Of course, successive governments since 1971 have colluded in the slow death of the British shipbuilding industry and the consequent damage done to communities. Trade Union legislation has also greatly limited the ability of workers to take action against unfair treatment. I’m hoping that this is what Hill is referring to with the still born progeny.

The last stanza is the longest and most direct; “Scotland is not England, of course; and, of the two, the condition of England / is worse. Spencer’s was an English muse, nevertheless; a power of sorts / among her foreign peers; and with a very local sense of redress that, / undeniably beautiful, pressed down on Clydesiders a sentimental appeal, / like skeins of festal coloured knitting wool that they may well have / wished not to possess.

This seems to be fairly straightforward the condition of England is (not was) worse than that of Scotland. Spencer and his source of inspiration were English and, although he created beautiful work set on the Clyde, he was hampered by a sentimentality that may not of been popular with the community that he was depicting. There’s also this local sense of a need for justice for wrongs done. The grin factor is obviously subjective but I think it’s important to recognise and celebrate the things that give us pleasure. In this instance the pleasure comes from a recognition of Hill’s personality (another loose and subjective term) and what would appear to be his method of thinking. The altering of syntax is a fairly consistent device over the last 30 years or so which some find annoying but I feel is an important illustration of how big or difficult thoughts are arrived at. I’m absorbed by this process and feel almost involved in the production of the work. This may seem overly personal but the late Hill at least does have this attractive-but-maddening tendency to throw himself, lock, stock and barrel into his work. Poem 109 is an example of Hill getting hold of a theme and shaking it to bits. Spenser is described in admiring tones in the two previous poems but here thoughtful consideration is given to a quite specific aspect of his work. I smile here because of the way in which the point about sentimentalising / prettifying is made and because I’ve been a member of a community that has had similar treatment from time to time and been less than pleased. Of course, Hill the curmudgeon is still present with the born dead progeny, a simile designed more perhaps to shock than inform. I’m also intrigued by this apparent political sea change. Hill described himself once as a ‘Red Tory’ and this strand is the most apparent in his work along with more than a smattering of patriotism. Both of these would seem to run counter to what’s expressed here and in other parts of the sequence to this is invites further exploration.

However, the elements that made me smile the most on an initial reading is “like skeins of festal-coloured knitting wool” and the need for redress being pressed down. Both of these are, to my ear, redolent of Hill at his very best