Category Archives: cultural criticism

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

The Poem’s Bad Other(s), Sir Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis amongst others.

The notion of the Bad Other came to my attention through Barbara Cassin’s recentish work on the Sophists and Aristotle’s view of this disreputable rogues masquerading as philosophers. Without getting too much into the detail of the Cassin view, she suggests that Aristotle’s contemptuous denigration related to the fact that these scoundrels were ‘doing’ philosophy in another way and were relativists to boot. This led me to think about whether British poetry in it’s current parlous state has any equivalents and why.

Because I’m vaguely aware of the fact that in Europe the O word can have a range of different and sometimes conflicting connotations, I think it may be as well to set out a few definitions. These are entirely subjective and provisional and I. as ever, reserve the right to amend them at any time and for any reason.

Poem

This is whatever the maker designates as a poem, for whatever reason or for no reason at all. An important sub-set, which doesn’t concern us here is whatever the reader experiences as a poem which is different from that which is perceived as having poetic qualities.

Other

In this instance, work which is poetry in the definition above and therefore the same as the rest of the form but which has components or aspects that are quite different and thus viewed with the same level of denigration with which Aristotle looked upon the Sophists. So, Other Work here refers to material that manages to be the same but different.

Bad.

Cassin, paraphrasing Aristotle, uses the term ‘evil’ to describe the way that what we think of as mainstream philosophy thought of its Others. I don’t understand the ‘e’ word and, anyway, it seems too portentous to describe this particular reaction which I’d prefer to describe as not being ‘proper’. There’s also something, and this is very approximate, about being a charlatan and therefore Worthy of Derision.

Having thus set myself up for a fall, the following selection of contemporary baddies hopefully and tentatively sets out some likely candidates for the above pigeon-hole in what passes for our current literary culture.

Sir Geoffrey Hill.

Here is an Other who, by means of appointment to the Chair of all things Poetic at Oxford, has been transformed from Bad to Good even as the quality of his work has, erm, diminished. The main features of Hill’s Otherly Badness spring from a reputation in academia for ferocity, for the alleged difficult obduracy of his earlier work and what some have sneeringly referred to as his ‘post Prozac’ period heralded by the publication of The Triumph of Love in 1998. There’s also the alleged difficulty of the work throughout his career which doesn’t really hang together if it’s read with the attention that it deserves.

In terms of difficulty and obscurity I’d like to provide the second and final part of Mysticism and Democracy from the Canaan collection which was published in 1996:

Let this not fall imputed to our native
                            obdurate credulities.
Contrariwise within its own doctrine it spins,
remote saturnian orb:
the imperial granites, braided, bunched, and wreathed;
                                the gilded ornature
ennobling lowly errors - exacted, from exalted -
                   tortuous in their simplicity;
the last unblemished records of service
                                       left hanging
in air yellowed with a late half light
as votive depositions
                     not to be taken down.

To my entirely fallible mind, this is strong poetry at its best but was seen by the mainstream as Wilful Trickery as evidenced by the ‘mangled syntax of the first line, the use of obscure vocabulary and the length and complexity of the final sentence.

All of this is Badness is compounded by Hill’s odd view about the relationship between Things Mystical and Political together with the fact that his political views are hopelessly eccentric and definitely Other. Unlike some of our other Badnesses, Hill produces material that looks like poetry even when it doesn’t sound like poetry. One of the most frequently quoted proofs is his response to critics in The Triumph of Love:


And yes - bugger you, Mcsikker et al, -I do
mourn and resent you desolation of learning:
Scientia that enabled, if it did not secure,
forms of understanding, far from despicable,
and further now, as they are most despised.
By understanding I understand diligence
and attention, appropriately understood
of actuated self-knowledge, a daily acknowledgement
of what is owed the dead.

It is the first two lines that have caught the attention of the Critical Crew as further proof of Bad and Other but I would argue that this fails to do any kind of justice to all of this section in the round. Some consideration of the following seven lines might reveal is that the desolation of learning embodied by MacSikker and His Friends is juxtaposed against the diligence and readerly that Hill’s work requires. Ending this is the recurring Hillian theme of ‘memorialising’ the dead.

So the Poem stares upon its Other and takes note of ‘Bugger you’. of ‘saturnian’ and of ‘ornature’ and declares Badness to be at work, continuing to condemn in this fashion until the Oxford Chair is awarded. This turn of events with its brief flurry of media interest causes the work to be cast as suddenly valuable and somehow essentially British. Of course, the irony is that the late and very prolific period have demonstrated to most of us that quantity and quality rarely go hand in hand but we are at least grateful that over fifty years of stunning work is not going to get Left on the Shelf.

An entirely coincidental digression

Whilst deciding which part of Jerusalem Deleted to use (see below) I had a look at this week’s TLS and, to my surprise found that Sir Geoffrey had penned the opening review. Being a fan, I read this extended discussion on the work of Charles Williams with increasing delight, not because of Williams but because this encapsulated Hill’s critical work at its combative best. So there I am, grinning inanely when I get to this:

I do not believe that Williams is a great poet; but he does make isolated major statements; and he is powerful and weird in essential ways. He engineers passages of poetry that obstruct and disoblige our own polemic and populist bias. “The edge of a possibility of utter alienation intrudes”, to adapt a sentence of his own about magic, quoted by Lindop. Nothing is more essential to British poetry in its present condition than that a sense of “utter alienation” should obtrude on it.

Now, had I started this on Saturday (it is now Monday), I may well have included this obtruding alienation in my title. As it is, Hill has neatly and, as ever, concisely set out what the Bad Other does and how necessary this is right now. I’m taking it that he rightly sees his own work, even as the Good Other’ as making a positive contribution and I can’t argue with the extent of the obtrusion but, as an Extremist in Most Things, I would question whether the alienation is sufficiently utter. Still, it remains weird to know that someone’s politics and faith can be so distant from my own yet view most things Poetry in more or less the same way.

Simon Jarvis as the Partially Bad Other.

Simon has a theory which, unlike the vast majority of his fellow academics, he has put into practice in his poetry. The broad outline is that writing within the formal constraints of rhyme and metre is the best way to produce philosophical or Big Thought verse. The more I think about the ‘P’ word the less convinced I am that it is either helpful or useful so I’m going to stick with thoughts that are concerned with broad principles and ideas rather than narrow ones. Of course, the Poem already considers itself to be expressing Big Thoughts quite successfully but is mistaking depth for affectation wrapped up in a distinctly Larkinian melancholia. There are many and varied reasons for this state of affairs that I don’t wish to dwell on except to point out that the Poem is most discomfited by work that follows the traditional rules in producing material that is focused entirely on serious stuff.

This badness is further solidified by length, digression and complexity, none of which the current Poem is either familiar with nor particularly keen on. There are three works that are guilty of all these Badnesses, Night Office, the middle one of these is gloriously and defiantly complex, the nature of ruins being one of its many themes:


It was my chrysalis : I can escape
now from the very feeling that a line
must mean I wear a gag or seal with tape
prose mouth or verse mouth when the words are mine
only so far as yours too. No more drape
the necklace with dead nightingales! Refine
with purer sense each word; I may walk free
from nugatory beauties, and may see

the split line on the ironstone alone
for its own moving contour : I may go
in thought through all the villages of stone
without a single symbol, since I know
I do not need a theory to come home,
nor is it necessary that I show,
by some exemplary device of hurt,
I scrub the human patinas of dirt.

There in idea every ruined brick
glows inconsolably, until these shades
fall on its surface, and the twilight's thick
slants of illuminations through the glades
dampen each damp-course like a pretty trick
of light's undying glimmer when it fades
little by little on the little cluster
of walls and buildings lit with this rich lustre.

Night Office runs for about 220 pages of rhyming, metrical verse expressing complicated ideas about faith in the present. It's also extremely digressive. All of this slaps a gauntlet around the face of the Poem in the 21st century by following on from and developing what Alexander Pope (Poet) about Poetic Constraint quite some years ago, which is probably why it's been (mostly) ignored by those who should know better.

Which brings me neatly to my next morsel of Insightful Observation, or sweeping and generalised guess, whichever is preferred. In conversation with a close friend from across the water, it would appear that those in North America are more ready to ‘engage’ with and pay attention to Bad Others than we Brits who either ignore or deride or (see below) take one look and express vehement exasperation. This sad state of affairs, as with most Bad Others, belies more than a little anxiety from the advocates and practitioners of the status quo as to the quality of the work that they advocate. Whilst this might be a Stab in the Dark, me thinks it might be worthy of more detailed attention.

Back to Jarvis and his latest work Jerusalem Deleted which was published by Enitharmon in 2015 and has ‘The modern state is a transformed church.’ as one of its three epigraphs. I’m quoting at some length to give a more rounded demonstration of Badness:


                 658
Public realm excellence in bus stop kerbs 
          antepenultimately must or gasp
             or hymn the last task of the transformed church
starring the pavement with its studs and marks
  sown through the high street where no foot disturbs

                659
my perfect flight : a nonstick alloy parks
my protocarcase in the loading bay.
        The turning apron at the covered way
Is quiet now, I wake up and feel the air
          soft on my wet face, and, as I lie there,

                660  

my cheek invents some message in the breeze
  which blows from anywhere; the distant real
speaks through its bright gag, and the thin birch trees
           induce evacuated sense to feel
        itself still fettered to the truth which frees

               661

me here from abstract freedom, which I steal
  back to my station of deleted duties
           the wrong anthology of rights & beauties.
The stones of Spalding! Mabbug was deserted.
        I rose and Wandered down the High Street. No

               662

         strap or lock held me: then to what inverted
            world, or non-polity, had this truck so
  brought and deposited me not inserted
in any social order but this row
toytown postmodern, infant greens and reds

               663

burnt at the edges where the rebel heads
         had assailed it? Retail units stood
  scratched in the thermoplastic pouch each outlet should
          pretend to speak with, and their fascias shut
vertical rhythms, at the middle, where

              664

the bad backlit acrylic sheet was cut :
         patch illuminations through the matt
   light-tongued their lost brands. In the cool dawn air
I let cold cathodes from the closed steak hut
              shine on my set face. Could I just stay there?

Having typed that out, a further thought bobs up on my horizon: there is a Badness that is bad because it demands fairly focused attention which, as with lengthiness takes some time. Jerusalem Deleted is not a drive-by read (technical term), it requires a degree of concentration and readerly focus but(and this is the point) it more than repays those efforts.

I was once one of those who baulked at the Obscure but with the increasingly reliable interweb it’s bothering me less and less. For example, the poem concerns a war between two(ish) factions who took a different view of the nature of Christ at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Mabbug referred to above is likely to be Philoxenus of Mabbug, a strenuous advocate of one of the above factions. Of course this stuff is obscure yet the information required for clarification is very close at hand. Anyway, this is the kind of subject matter that scares the Poem very much indeed because it remains firmly in the Poetry Tradition, it tests out a position made clear by one of the poem’s canonical figures and yet it expresses ideas and offers opinions and depicts the human condition at a depth that is anathema to the blandified cacophony (short, straightforward, technically inept, criminally simplistic) that gets touted as the Poem today.

One of the several badnesses in the above is that of language use in this ongoing trek through a landscape ruinated by war. The inventive cheek, the speaking real, the closed and upright rhythms and the light-tonguing patch illuminations do present challenges to the reader but they also suggest and provoke different ways of Thinking about Things which I find particularly involving.

So, Bad Others are either scorned or ignored and sometimes both. This refusal to engage with and respond to the many challenges presented by these defiers and several other makers of the Bad that spring to mind belies a very real anxiety about the Poem’s current level of inadequacy, the sad fact that it isn’t up to the task. It really isn’t. As Sir Geoffrey says an obtrusion of utter alienation is required and it is required now.

arduity makeover: the poetics problem the verb dilemma and revising Prynne

I’ve mentioned before that I’m in the process of updating and revising arduity. This is primarily because it’s outgrown its original architecture, the amount of pages was beginning to interfere with the ease of navigation and there are some sections that I want to expand and others I need to dump.

For reference, the Prynne index page has been revised and re-formatted

Given that I still want the site to be helpful to readers, the biggest overhaul required is the ‘toolkit’ section which was intended to provide site users with some insight into the various conceits and devices used by some of our more adventurous practitioners. That seemed reasonable at the time but it doesn’t quite fit the bill now.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that ‘poetics’ does fit the bill but may deter a sizeable proportion of the target audience who may be intimidated by such a tag. I know that six or seven years ago I wouldn’t have clicked on a ‘poetics’ link because I wasn’t sure of what it meant and therefore would feel that the site wasn’t for me and was probably aimed at students and academics rather than ‘ordinary’ readers.

In view of the above, I’ve come up with a few alternatives. The first of these is ‘the tricks of the trade’ which has more than a little appeal for me because it’s a common term and ‘trick’ covers the various devices or conceits that poem-makers use to create a certain effect. The term as a whole implies a certain amount of duplicity or deception. I’m also fond of the tongue-in-cheek aspect which might imply there’s an attempt to vaguely ‘clown’ the subject. Six or seven years ago I would have been attracted rather than intimidated by such a tag.

The next noun that has been considered is ‘techniques’ or ‘poetic techniques’ which appears to sit midway between these two. My concern here is that it doesn’t ‘cover’ enough of what I think needs to go in. some of the sleights of hand, for example, would include making things sound more profound than they are or the various shades of plagiarism which, along with others seem to be more deceit than technique.

Given that the new header is a photo of a number of books and an adjustable wrench then ‘nuts and bolts’ seems less scurrilous than ‘tricks’ and I don’t think I need ‘poetic’ front of it. All of this is tentative and provisional but I’d be keen to hear from anyone with other suggestions.

If it’s any help I’d like to cover rhyme, metre, ambiguity, allusion, translation, subjects, god poems, truth poems, meaning, language, digression and more than a few others in a similar vein.

The next problem relates to the verbs. I’m reasonably comfortable with ‘paying attention’ because it’s one I over-use but it does echo Celan and Sutherland and it conveys the basic theme- read the fucking words. The real brain grinder of the past few days has been the verb for innovative work. The first solution ‘exploring’ seemed incredibly weak and the sort of thing you would find on a school curriculum. At this point I discovered ‘undergroping’ which was in common use in the 15th century and became immediately enthusiastic but was then discouraged by those more sensible than I. ‘Investigating’ and ‘tackling’ both fell by the wayside because of the wider connotations. ‘Interrogating’ was quite popular for a couple of hours and maqy have been the choice were it not for the repetition of ‘in’.

The current winner is ‘negotiating’ because it implies a dialogue with the work definition 4 in the OED is”To find a way through, round, or over (an obstacle, a difficult path, etc.)” which seems to capture the intent. I’ve also settled on ‘innovation’ rather than ‘innovative work’ or ‘innovative poetry’ because both seem too much of a mouthful and I already have ‘the Difficult’ poem in the header.

I’ve revised the text on the new page as well and am pleased to report that I still agree with most of it but I’m now in the process of reading some of the work to see if there’s any more points that might be useful. I’m currently thinking about relegating the point about the OED and secondary definitions to the middle of the list because. I’m told, some people decide that this means that the work isn’t worth the bother.

One of the points that I’ve been trying to make since 2010 is the effect that Prynne’s work has on the way that I think. I’ve tried a variety of metaphors and provided examples but I still don’t think I’ve got it right. I want to say something about altered cognition but in a much more specific way. Have been tempted to use the LSD analogy but haven’t given in. Yet.

I’ve added something about the nature of language which seems reasonably central and am thinking of scaring a few more people off by encouraging the need for a panoptic view of a particular poem or sequence. As with the noun and the verb, any suggestions as to how to make this (quite important) page more helpful would be very much appreciated.

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

Geoffrey Hill’s Expostulations on the Volcano and the Poetic

The one quality that I share with the immortal William Cobbett is that I’m not in the least bothered by inconsistency. I think it’s important for people to change their minds and this is why I preface most of the writing here with a ‘provisional’ and ‘tentative’ disclaimer. I have to report that whilst sunbathing this afternoon (newly discovered pastime), I started on the above sequence with the intention of paying it some attention instead of my previous dive-by reading.

A couple of years ago I went on at some length about how irredeemably bad the Oraclau collection was because it’s rhymes were both forced and wrong-footed. In fact I thought it was so bad that it shouldn’t have been published, even though Hill has a line somewhere vowing to make his readers wince. I’d now like to retract this and confess my prior knee-jerk and unwarranted prejudice.

Up until now, I thought that Sir Geoffrey and I agreed on one fundamental point: the teaching of creative writing is a Very Bad Thing indeed. I now discover that we may agree on the Poetry problem. More than ever I have to state that what follows is exceptionally tentative and subjective and heavily influenced by my tendency to over-read when someone appears to agree with me.

A central plank of the Bebrowed position re the Poem is that it has for centuries been far too poetic, far too in love with its own lyrical flow. I’ve made this argument before and no doubt will do so again but today’s speculation is whether Hill might (approximately) agree.

I have several items of evidence, each with specific flaws but, like a good conspiracy theorist, this isn’t going to get in my way. I have to admit that I’ve only just started to pay attention to Expostulation having previously flicked through it, alighting on poems that caught my eye. This was a mistake, I should have remembered that it isn’t helpful to read Hill in a piecemeal way. I’ve now started at the beginning and have noticed that ‘themes’ keep recurring and being expanded upon. One of these is the nature of The Poem. This is the end of the seventh poem in the sequence:

In stark of which, demand stands shiftless. Words
Render us callous the fuller they ring;
Stagger the more clankingly untowards;
Hauled to finesse in all manner of wrong:

Which is how change finds for us, long-lost one.
Oratory is pleading but not pledge;
Such haphazard closures of misfortune
Played by commandment on mechanic stage.

There are several things that I want to pull out from this. The first is this fuller ringing that render us callous. Words that ring in this way might be read as overly ornate or used for effect rather than content. It would therefore seem that this is a reasonable piece of evidence until we start to wonder about who ‘us’ might be. As with The Triumph of Love’s view of poetry as a “sad and angry consolation” it is unclear whether this refers to the readers or the poets, or both. With regard to this passage I’m currently voting for the poets because the poetic bag of tricks can be used with great cynicism and more than a little dishonesty, I believe that this ‘fits’ better with the finessing of all manner of wrong.

The second verse’s assertion about oratory is another, perhaps more tenuous, piece of evidence that I’d like to rely on. The pleading / pledging juxtaposition is worth some thought. I’m currently reading this to indicate that ‘strong’ poetry involves the commitment of the self to something, almost a formal commitment whereas the oratorical flummery that makes up most of The Poem is an act of persuasion rather than a statement of fealty.

My third piece of evidence is one of the sequences two dedications, it is Kate Lechmere’s 1914 observation of Pound reading aloud: “Such a voice seemed to clown verse rather than read it”. Now, clowning has been a strong element in much of Hill’s work since The Triumph of Love and my re-consideration of the Oraclau sequence is because it may be an extended clowning with a more serious purpose. This may be to undermine the poetic and the tricks that it has by producing bad poems with even worse rhymes. Incidentally, I think it might be urgently essential to get the clown back into The Poem.

My penultimate item is this from the end of Poem 9:

Justice is song where song is primitive 
As with poetics. Elsewhere more complex
Denouements, if folly can stay alive;
Innocence, if machination strum lax.

I’m not going to dive into the Hillian syntax of the last two lines but simply point to the observation that justice is song where The Poem is primitive i.e. before it got carried away with itself. There’s also something here about the honesty of the primitive poem. Isn’t there?

My final link comes from Hill’s introduction to his Annunciations which was published in the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse from 1962:

I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (the banquet) that it seems to be.

What I say in the section is, I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.

So, a degree of consistency, if I’m correct, going back over fifty years. I hope that the above has established a hint, if nothing more, of a sincere attempt to upturn at least part of the status quo, to make us wince (as he says elsewhere) in order to push us out of inertia, dumb acceptance, complacency. I do however need to have another look at Oraclau.

Annotation, Collaboration and the New Poem

This is an exercise in distraction, I’m supposed to be proof-reading the Annotated Trigons and revamping the currently chaotic navigation for the rest of arduity. Regular readers of both bebrowed and arduity will know that I’m really bad at proofing and I’m daunted by the navigation task because it needs to be much more intuitive than is currently the case. With this in mind I will instead spend time today reflecting on the completed project (apart from the proofing, obvs) especially in terms of what John has said in his updated introduction:

I do want to record that I’ve had a similar pleasure in our own dialogue and the resulting new version of Trigons. Because it is a new version. “The Poem” is different from “The Poem-With-Notes,” as it should be. There are now two texts, two ways of reading the work. I would hope that readers would want to own the printed version of Trigons, available from Shearsman Books, and after that access the annotations available here. I should note that sales of the Shearsman Trigons increased after the annotation project began.

Whilst working on the project I decided to focus on the work rather than thinking too deeply about the wider implications/aspects of what we were doing but now it’s probably time to think a bit more broadly.

When we set out I asked on the blog whether or not the notes become part of the poem and I still haven’t got to the bottom of this. In my head, as a reasonably attentive reader, I think I can make a case for EK’s notes to the Shepheard’s Calendar but that may be because I’m convinced that EK is a thin cover for Edmeund Spenser and the whole device is an attempt to launch himself into the Elizabethan literay ‘scene’. David Jones’ notes to both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata because they say what the poet wanted to say in terms of giving them a broader context.

So, in these instances, the poet’s annotation, or at least the poet’s involvement does suggest an additional part of the text which is a little more than an appendix or supplement. I’d like to illustrate this from my own recent experience. One of the things I need to do today is to check with John whether he’s happy with an early
note I made about the dubious role played by the British SOE in supporting the Cretan resistance during the German occupation. I’d developed the notion that one of John’s themes for the Islands, Inlands section of the work was the tragedy of Greek history during the twentieth century. I rapidly discovered that this wasn’t the case and amended the note. Reading it again yesterday I’ve come to the conclusion that it says much more about my interests than it should and that it spoils that particular poem. This is the note:

General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the German troops on Crete was captured on April 26th 1944 by a group of Cretan resistance fighters led by Patrick Leigh Fermor and W Stanley Moss of the British Special Operations Executive. The group moved South across the mountains of Crete and were picked up by a British motor launch on May 14th 1944 and taken to Egypt.

The majority view today is that this was a heroic act carried out by heroes who would risk everything to strike at the occupiers. Moss wrote his account as Ill met by moonlight which was made into a film in 1956. Both Fermor and Moss were decorated for this act and remain revered figures on Crete. However, some members of the Greek left point to the murky role of the SOE in withdrawing support from the main resistance group (EAM) and forming a group with more right wing tendencies because of its leftist affiliations. Some hold the view that the kidnap was of limited value and an attempt to bring reprisals on those villages controlled by the EAM. Whilst this is unlikely, what can be said is that the role of the British in Greece from 1943 through to the end of the especially brutal Greek civil war served British and American interests primarily at the cost of many Greek lives.

Youtube has a remrakable (dubbed) Greek documentary on the kidnap with interviews with both Kreipe and Leigh Fermor. The patrickleighfermor blog is building a formidable archive of material including photographs of the kidnapper’s journey across the island with Kreipe. The blog is an excellent example of how the web can enhance and contextualize biography.

I now see that the middle paragraph, which was amended after discussion with John, is completely irrelevant to the poem because it has nothing to do with John’s intention and still puts a misleading gloss on things. My only excuse is that Trigons as a whole does have a doppelganger theme and that both Leigh
Fermor and Moss may have been playing a double game. I’m not sure either that the last sentence is approriate either, it says what I feel about the interweb but nothing more.

The point that I’m trying to make is that these kind of flaws detract from the work as well as the notes and when they are useful for the reader they enhance both too.

This neatly leads on to ‘new version’ and what that might imply. I need to say that the content has been amended only once and that was in terms of accuracy. This version is adorned with links to external and internal pages and to notes that appear alongside most of the links. So, we have links to film, photographs, music and text in an attempt to make things easier for the reader. I’ll try and give an example. In Aruski Rehab 4 you have “and a sunblast on your retinas transmutes the cycles into cyclotron. The last word is coloured blue to indicate that it’s a link. Hovering over the word produces a short note which defines the word and provides a further link to a short film which explains in greater detail. In the bad old days before the interweb a note would be placed at the bottom of the page or at the end of the work which would define and possibly cite a reference to a more detailed explanation. We’ve added hundreds of these kinds of devices throughout the work and have thus created a version that changes the readerly experience. I’m hoping that, as the web gets broader, there will be a second edition to take advantage of both the additional available material and the techical innovations that will enable us to further refines the way the notes can be accessed and used.

There is also the possibility of other new versions in that what we’ve done could be amended and further developed by others so that there are many annotated Trigons rather than just the one

So, in conclusion it would appear that the notes are a part of the poem in that they can make it richer or they can detract from it. With the reference to the Greek video above, this note manages to do both. It’s also apparent that this isn’t a new poem but an augmented version of the same poem. I hope this makes some kind of sense. Now, back to the proofing. Sigh.

Paxman, Popular Culture and The Poem

In the UK we have a number of national treasures and Jeremy Paxman is one of these. He fronts the BBC Newsnight programme which tries to delve a bit deeper into the stories that politicians spoon feed lazy journalists with. We love Paxo because his interviews of the powerful are a mixture of disbelief and contempt: the humbling of the mighty is always good to watch.

Paxo has become the news this week with the stunning and prescient observation that poetry has lost touch with the public, that it is as remote from popular culture as it is possible to be. This is the gist of his argument as reported in the Grauniad:

“I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn’t happen, because it’s the most delightful thing,” said Paxman. “It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.”

He is of course correct, it’s a view that I’ve been known to express over the last four years and have made arduity as an attempt to bridge at least one of the gaps.

Ten years ago I would have pointed at the material that is currently produced as the main problem with work too often being chronically self-indulgent or inaccessible or both. I’m no longer entirely of that view but the problem is real, the same article reports a drop in the value of UK poetry sales from £8.4 million in 2009 to £7.8 million in 2013 yet the response of those poets quoted is largely one of denial.

I’d like to start with some basics; poetry in the UK is enclosed, it has conversations with itself and argues about things that nobody outside of poetry either relates to or cares about; poetry covers a wide spectrum with a variety of styles, genres and subject matter but most of it isn’t very good; poetry’s relationship with academia is not helpful.

There are comparisons to be made, fiction and music do remarkably well and both of these range from the ‘popular’ to the (much) more esoteric. Poetry does the same but very few people care about the Poem compared with those that care about either music or fiction. Unlike these two competitors, there are many more people that write poetry than those who read it.

I’d like to pay some attention to Paxo’s charge of irrelevance because I don’t understand the ‘leap’ from being incestuous and self-obsessed to relevance. At the ‘radical’ end of the spectrum there is certainly material that is pertains to and engages with most aspects of public life. Of course, the ‘message’ emanating from this material may not readily fit into what appears to be the current consensus but it certainly challenges the status quo. So, the material is relevant but some of the most relevant is wrapped up in vocabularies and formats that most people find challenging. Without naming any names it must also be said that most of the mainstream poems and poets (ie those that attract the ‘quality’ press and get awarded prizes) are appallingly bad in terms of skill, subject matter and relevance. There is still too much of the confessional and the observational and little or nothing that gives me any indication at all of what it might be like to live and act in these dismal times.

Then there’s the issue of what we want the Poem to do, a question that is clouded by the Image Problem. A recent and entirely random poll conducted by this blog would suggest that poetry either:

  • expresses strong eomotions or;
  • describes lyrical scenes or;
  • is profound

I must stress that this poll was less than objective and only involved about ten individuals but most people felt that the Poem had lost its way with Eliot and what they see as the descent into obscurity and inaccessible elitism.

Also, in my small part of the world, the only venue for poetry has been an open mic event attended exclusively by poets who read their material. I attended for a couple of years and then decided to produce a few gigs last year that featured a mix of poetry, music, storytelling and elements of the visual arts. We attracted a mixed crowd and managed to change some people’s minds about the Poem. As regular readers might know, most of my output is experimental but I was gratified by the strength of response and by the subsequent interest that was shown, especially from music fans. What surprised me was how the best reaction was to the most experimental aspect of my work rather than material that I considered to be more accessible.

For me, the best result from this is that I’ve been able to broaden my range of collaborators and now work primarily with visual artists, musicians and writers of fiction. I’ve found that I get a much more objective reaction to my work. One evening earlier this week I was working on mixing some multiple vocal / jazz material with a composer and he made the (gentle) observation that my more recent contribution wasn’t as strong as some of the earlier versions. In the past I would probably dismissed this as the response of a non-poet who didn’t fully appreciate the poetic subtlety of what I’m trying to achieve. In this instance, because he wants to make this ‘work’ as much as I do, I reviewed my various versions and am now in the process of radical modification- I need to do this quickly because I’m working with a guitarist tomorrow evening.

So, performance alongside other means of creative expression and collaboration with practitioners in different fields may be a couple of ways of addressing the Paxo challenge in terms of engagement and relevance. It can’t do any harm. Can it?

The Allegory by the Pool.

John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.

Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.

So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.

I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.

As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.

Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.

This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.

On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.

Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.

In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;

I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate
And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Do work their owne perfection so by fate.

This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.

As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.

Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.

Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.

I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:

I will not say that I am a device.
The semicircle where my heavy lyre
gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice;
tall poplars to the right; one may admire
how in the distance that dome can entice
from its squat cupola to the entire
warehouse of print on which the state has fed
its house of authorships, its empty head.

Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.