Category Archives: literary criticism

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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

Paul Celan, notes on the encounter

The notion of encounter is a key part of the Meridian address and a major theme in Celan’s later work. It’s also quite complex so I’ll start with its use in the Meridian speech and then proceed to the notes.

This seems to be talking about an encounter between the poem and the other:

Perhaps, I have to tell myself now- perhaps an encounter of this “totally other” kind with a not all too distant, with a very close “other” is – I am using here a familiar auxillary verb- is thinkable- thinkable again and again.

This elaborates on how the poem proceeds:

The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author remains added to it.

But doesn’t the poem already at its inception stand in the encounter- in the mystery of the encounter?

The poem wants to head toward some other, it needs this other, it needs an opposite. It seeks it out, it bespeaks itself to it.

Each thing, each human is, for the poem heading towards this other, a figure of this.

The attention the poem tries to pay to everything it encounters, its sharper sense of detail, outline, sturcture, colour but also of the “tremors” and “hints,” all this is not, I believe, the acheivement of an eye competing with (or emulating) ever more precise instruments, but rather is a concentration that remains mindful off all our dates.

So, the poem is not an inert object, it goes out into the world and moves towards this encounter a meeting that have been brought into existence at the point when the poem was made/written. This is the kind of stuff that gives Celan his reputation for difficulty and has allowed his detractors more fuel than they deserve. I’ve always understood that the encounter occurs between the poem and the reader but the notes show that this is hopelssly simplistic.

The ‘Encounter’ section of the notes is made up of three parts:

  1. Encounter with the Poem;
  2. The Dialogical Poem;
  3. The Conversation with Things.

I’ll try to deal with each part in turn although there may be some overlaps along the way.

Encounter with the poem.

It’s important to recognise that the poem, for Celan, has agency- it is underway and it is attentive as it heads towards this other. This may seem odd but any writer produces work with a specific audience in mind even if this is a fairly broad group. Some of the more serious writers may have a specific aim in touching or influencing readers in a certain way and this points to a slightly more grounded rationale. I encounter books and poems and other texts all the time, some of these are first encounters and others are with old friends or aquaintances and I give them attention. Does Celan’s idea of the attention that the poem tries to pay allude to the elements placed by the poet to enable a reciprocal encounter to take place?

I’d like to report that the notes add weight to this incisive line of reasoning but instead we get:

The poem as poem is dark, it is dark because it is the poem. Under|with this congenital darkness I do not mean those Lichtenbergian clashes of books and readers’ heads, where the hollow sound does not always come from the book; to the contrary, the poem wants to be understood it is exactly because it is dark that it wants to be understood-: as poem, as ‘poem’s dark‘.Each poem thus demands understanding, will to understand, learning to understand (that is, but let this secondary phenomenon be mentioned here for the last time, a true understanding and in no way some “To enter into the co- or re-production, as fastidiously suggested these days on the federal and other levels. The poem, as I said, wants to be understood, it offers itself up to an interlinear version, even demands it; not that the poem is written in view of this or that interlienear version, rather the poem carries, as poem, the possibility of the interlinear version both real and virtual; in other words, the poem is in its own way occupiable. I want to insist on the fact that here I am using the term interlinear version as an auxilliary word; more specifically I do not mean the empty lines between verse and verse; I beg you to imagine those empty lines as spatial, as spatial – and – temporal. Thus temporal and spatial, and, for this too I beg you, always in relation to the poem.

There exists, I return to this here already, because nothing can be lost sight of, no co- no re-production, the poem is because it is the poem, unique, unrepeatable. (Unique too for the one who writes it and from you and I who are reading it may not expect anything other than this unique shared knowledge.) Unique and unrepeatable, irreversible on the other or on this side of any esotericism, hermeticism, etc – –

The arduity page on the darkness of the poem deals with the idea of primordial darkness (eqated with mortality) as where the poem comes from. We appear to have here this darkness as almost indistinguishable from the poem and that it is this darkness that leads to the poem’s desire to be understood. So, the encounter with the reader carries the potential for being understood but the poem in this encounter demands that the reader has the will (a very loaded noun) to understand and is prepared to learn how to understand.

The poem can also have this interlinear quality which is said to be both spatial and temporal and is differentiated from the ’empty lines between verse and verse’. This opens up a heap of possibilities:

  • Does this mean that we should pay attention to the significance of the placing of the line breaks?
  • Sould we be looking for each line break as indicating a shift in time and/or place?
  • Can we consider these qualities in the same way as the dark of the poem?
  • Does this interlinearity have the English sense of ‘reading between the lines’ – i.e. looking for the things that aren’t said or are occluded?
  • What exactly might have been meant by virtual in 1960, in this sense does it mean ‘nearly’ or ‘almost’ real?

The notes to ‘breathturn’ make use of Plotinus to make clear that ‘ Original and reproduction are the same / the yearning to become world-free’ which seems at odds with the apparent distinction made here although the second paragraph seems to insist that attention must be paid to those versions even though the poem, as poem, is unique

Celan denied the charge of hermeticism- something that was increasingly levelled at him during the last ten years of his life, he did however acknowledge that his work carried more than a degree of ambiguity. This denial seems to be undermined by the referal to the ‘other on this’ side of hermeticism.

These two paragraphs contain one of the most explicit statements of Celan’s poetics and it is again fascinating to see this insistence on the agency of the poem, as if it is a conscious and acting thing- it is the poem that ‘demands’ that ‘offers itself up’ that carries its darkness with it. The ‘giviing itself up’ can refer to surrender but also to scarifice for the sake of this interlinear version.

Christoph Lichtenberg was an eighteenth century scientist who apparently (according to the editors) asked the rehtorical question about the head and the book.

The other ‘significant’ extended passage is more explicit about the encounter:

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

Only from by this touch – that is not a “making contact” – comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium; it is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language (noesis does not suffice; it is the question of the angle of inclination under which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the here and Now. the place and the hour

(The text after ‘suffice’ is a later addition)

To get the obvious barriers out of the way first, the “Camarado” quote is from Walt Whitman’s “So Long”:

     Camerado, this is no book,
     Who touches this touches a man,
     (Is it night? are we here together alone?)
     It is I you hold and who holds you,
     I spring from the pages into your arms--decease calls me forth.

This might suggest an additional intimate and deeply personal element to the poem/reader encounter.

The OED defines aisthesis as ” The perception of the external world by the senses” and sensorium is ” The seat of sensation in the brain of man and other animals; the percipient centre to which sense-impressions are transmitted by the nerves”. .

Apparently ‘noesis’ is used in phenomenology to mean “a process or an act of perceiving or thinking, as opposed to an object of perception or thought; (also) the subjective aspect of an intentional experience”. All of this would seem to suggest that what we normally consider as our way of apprehending things will not suffice, that there needs to be a conversation and this needs to be under this enigmatic ‘angle of inclination’- an idea which is in the Meridian speech and which I’m still puzzling over:

This strange encounter with the stranger, in order to be real, needs to be focused on a conversation between the poet and the reader. This more than resonates with me because I’m only really keen on those poems and those bodies of work that give something in return for my readerly attention. As a very amateur and inept practitioner, I’m most pleased when a poem of mine develops in response to how audience members react. It’s when Celan goes beyond the ordinary workings of perception that I begin to struggle. The process works for me by explicable exchanges. I read a poem and then think about it. If I’m sufficiently intrigued and impressed by it then I will return to the text in the hope of finding things that weren’t initially apparent and which may give an entry point to what might be going on. I find this ongoing relationship to be both satisfying and involving.

Another brief note in this section appears to make my case for me;

The one writing and the one understanding poems remain complimentary to each other.

This is from the Meridian Address itself;</p.

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

I’ve puzzled over this particular angle of inclination for a Very Long Time and keep coming back to a kind of attentive leaning forwards as an expression of care for the Other but I may (again) be entirely wrong…. but I’d like it to infer that our existence (Being) is intertwined with this concern and concentrated attention. i recognise that I’m ignoring the Heideggerian usage of both ‘being’ and ‘creatureliness’ because this particular emphasis seems in Europe in 2019 to be less than helpful.

The Dialogical Poem.

Many of Celan’s poems are addressed to a ‘You’ and this part of the notes deals with this and also expands further on what the encounter between poem and reader might be about. I’ve thought of the ‘you’ in Celan’s work as being either God or his parents or the Jews who were murdered or a lover or himself and I can produce examples where this appears to be the case. What I hadn’t given too much thought to is the ways in which may be addressed to the reader and these brief notes have caused me to reconsider.

I’ll start with something reasonably explicit-

I speak, in that I as I write my poems, in my own and most own matter. With that I hope, and that seems to me to belong to the last, because oldest, and still to be defended hopes of the poem, to promise also in strange matters. In the strangest matter; in the You-distance. At the perihelion of poetry. -The poem has, I am afraid . entered the phase of total You-darkness: it speaks in the strangest matter!-.

I speak alternately in the first and second person; by naming at times the one at times the other, I mean the same.the possi In the You-Darkness the possibility of the selfencounter x/ remains.

I have to document this I quote (Buchner): “…”

This is followed by a shortish horizontal line and beneath that this has been added later “x/ mystical motive-“.

So, this ‘you’ could be both the particular addressee of the poem and, at the same time, the reader of the poem. I’ve already described what Celan has to say on the darkness of the poem so I won’t dwell on this here but the Poem-darkness is a primordial darkness that is congenital/inherent in the poem and moves with it as it is underway towards the encounter. The reference to a ‘phase of total You-darkness’ suggests that there may be other phases that may not be You-dark or may not be totally You-dark. What is more important to me at least is this reiteration of ambiguity as in ‘I mean the same’ which isn’t quite the same as ‘I mean both at the same time’ but it’s close enough for my small brain at the moment. The other intriguing element is this business of the poem as a way to encounter the self or there is the chance of encountering the self in the You-darkness phase of the poem. Both of these do help with my encounter with the work. This is ‘Soviel Gestirne’ form the ‘Die Niemandsrose’ collection in 1963- I’m using the Michael Hamburger translation-

      SO MANY CONSTELLATIONS that
      are held out to us. I was,
      when I looked at you- when? -
      outside by
      the other worlds

      O these ways, galactic,
      O this hour, that weighed
      nights for us over into
      the burden of our names. It is,
      I know, not true
      that we lived, there moved,
      blindly, no more than a breath between
      there and not-there, and at times
      our eyes whirred comet-like
      towards things extinguished, in chasms,
      and where they had burnt out,
      splendid with teats stood Time
      on which already grew up
      and down and away all that
      on which already grew up
      is or was or will be-,

      I know,
      I know and you know, we knew,
      we did not know, we
      were there, after all, and not there
      and at times when 
      only the void stood between us we got
      all the way to each other.

This can be read as being addressed to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the proximity to the ‘you’ may refer to Celan’s near-death experiences in the German work camps. This would ‘fit’ with “the burden of our names” as having a recognisably Jewish name invariably meant death. I’m not going to dwell too long on capitalised time being splendid with teats only to note that teats are sources of sustenance and that the capital t usually denotes Heideggerian notions of existence. What I think is important here is that darkness or blindness seems to be an essential part or precondition of the encounter. The play on knowing and not knowing and presence and absence can be read as the paradoxical nature of the encounter, that it occurs in the dark and at the edge(s) of experience. Elsewhere Celan seems to be talking about the poem as containing the potential for an encounter with a reader who is able to fully apprehend it.

We now come to ‘cathexability’:

In the poem something is said, but in effect so that the said remains unsaid as long as the one who reads it will not let it be said to him. In other words: the poem is not topical, but can be made topical. That too is, temporarily, the ‘cathexability’ of the poem: the You, to whom it is addressed, is given to it on the way to this You. The You is there, comma even before it has come. (That too is a sketch-for-being \Daseinsentwurf\.)

(The german word at the end has been inseterted by the translator, Pierre Joris, to indicate that there isn’t an appropriate equivalent for this in English).

‘Cathexability’ is given in the preceding note as ‘occupiability’ and it is here that Celan insists that the reader must allow the poem to say what it needs to say. In a previous note however we have this;

The addressee of the poem is no one. No one is there when the poem becomes poem. to take the fate of that no one upon oneself is what leads to the poem –

This is where things begin to get tricky in that I’m not sure whether ‘oneself’ here refers to the reader or the poet. It may be that the poem can only be made when the poet assumes the ‘fate’ or potential for encounter upon himself. It could also be that the encounter only occurs when the reader accepts the same thing. Incidentally there are more than a few of the poems where the addressee is quite clearly identifiable as a real person.

The Conversation with Things

I’d like to report that this part of the notes provides further clear and unambiguous insights into the work but they don’t. The name of Osip Mandelstam occurs more than any other poet and it’s clear that his work is a presence in Celan’s poetry. Now, there is a long and convoluted debate to be had about the nature of this influence but here we have Celan’s personal take:

A word about the poems: By nearly none of his As for only a few of his contemporaries, and with that not only those writing not only those writing in the Russian language, are meant? for Osip Mandelstam born in 1891 the word in the poem are sign and signified the poem is the place. where what can be reached through language by the individual seems gathered is gathered; to make the perceived in the word “thing-fast” enters into an indissoluble connection with the what his (the individual’s) speechlessness with WHERE it thingfast its (indecipherable word meets the question after the whereto and the wherefrom of the one who speaks, voiced \stimmbegabt\ and voiceless at the same time, meets the wish to gain world and the wish, the original wish of the poet, thus, in the poem, to become free of the world.

For the things in the poem have a relationship with are related to those things that one calls the last ones.

I think we have here this important point, all of the following are the same;

  • the poem and the thing it writes about;
  • the poet who is voiced and the poet who is voiceless;
  • the wish to ‘gain’ the world and the wish to be free of it.

These kind of paradoxes will be familiar to readers of Celan’s work but I wasn’t aware that. in this, he saw himself as walking in Mandelstam’s footsteps. I’m not going to go over the arguments about the relationship between language and things because others do it much better but I do want to note this relationship which Celan contrasts favourably with the use of metaphor:

The reification, the becoming-object dialogue of the poem: in the vocabulary too (as indeed it has to is everywhere a question of self incarnation). A naming, that is before it is something else, always still an invocation (there too where it is a silent gaze): hence, from this naming the poem according to its Being is anti-metaphorical; what is transferred to the objects is at best the I: it is, from the naming of the silent consonant of the name

Why not give an extreme formulation? The poem is the unique, the untransferable real the present \Gegenwartige\

Asthe objective \Gegenstandliche\ it can also have the object’s muteness and opacity; it only wakes up thro in the true encounter, which it has as its secret. Therefore every real encounter is also remembrance of the poem’s secret.

(The last two paragraphs were added at a later date).

I think I can now be forgiven for being more than a little confused. What (exactly) might the ‘silent consonant of the name’ be? Is the self who incarnates itself the poem, the reader, the poet or the subject of the poem or any combination of these. Is the capitalised ‘Being’ a reference here to the wilder shores of Heidegger’s mystic streak? Is this secrecy that belongs to the poem in any significant way different from the charge of obscurity that so many have levelled at the work?

I’m reasonably okay with naming as invocation but I can’t make the leap to the silent gaze especially as we go straight back to the authentic name according to its Being or essence as being in opposition to metaphor. A brief galnce at the possible meanings of ‘gegenstandliche’ (objective, representational, concrete, graphical) leads me to believe that this could be a combination of any of these?

So, this last part of the encounter notes throws up much more debate than it resolves but parts can also act as an important marker for further reading of the work.

Thinking about the encounter in a wider frame leads me to consider whether the same term or idea can be applied to work by other poets. I think of myself as being in a relationship with the work of four or five poets and a component of that is attending to particular poems. For example, I have a complex but rewarding relationship with the work of Edmund Spenser and can chart in my head how my reading of the Faerie Queene has evolved over the last 20 years. In my head I think an encounter is more of s single short event rather than an evolving and involving relationship.

My initial experience of Celan’s work was almost 50 years ago and has much more of an immediate impact in that the poems were terse, mysterious and very powerful and the development of that relationship has been more of a series of a working through of what that initial encounter may have been about.

John Matthias’ “Prynne and a Petoskey Stone”

Before we proceed, given the incestuous nature of the UK poetry ‘scene’ I need to make something clear. I’ve known John Matthias for about 10 years and am an unabashed fan. I have always found him to be exceptionally supportive of what I try to do. Without John’s insistence, it is very,very unlikely that I would have paid any attention to the work of David Jones.

We worked together on arduity’s Annotated Trigons Project, a process I found delightful and incredibly instructive. His work is exceptionally skilled and speaks with a wry humanity, as does the man himself. He also has that enviable skill of masking skillful technique with an almost conversational voice. I should also point out that I much prefer John’s longer sequences to his shortish poems.

A copy of John’s latest, Acoustic Shadows, has recently landed on my doorstep and it contains the above poem. Prynne and John were colleagues at Cambridge University for a number of years but I have no idea as to the extent or depth of their relationship.

To get the initial difficulty out of the way, the interweb tells me that Petotskey Stones are:

A Petoskey Stone is a fossil of a colonial coral (Hexagonaria percarinata) that lived in a shallow sea covering the Great Lakes area during Devonian time about 350 million years ago. 

When the corals died, some of them were covered with sediment and became part of a rock unit known as the Alpena Limestone. The Alpena Limestone outcrops along the coast of Little Traverse Bay near the city of Petoskey, Michigan – the town for which the stones have been named. 

The calcium carbonate exoskeleton of the coral colony is what became a Petoskey Stone. The fossil corals range in size from small specimens of a few animals that are an inch or two across to large colonies that can be several feet across and weigh over 1000 pounds. A photo of a modern colonial coral is shown in the accompanying photo. 

And J H Prynne is the UK’s finest living poet but also renowned for the difficulty of his work. There are many pieces on Prynne on this blog and on my arduity site.

This longish work is a sequence of seven linked poems of varying length each of which tells of John’s experience of stones from, as a youth, coming second in a melon seed spitting contest at the Ohio state fair through to pebbles from Aldeburgh beach and on to fragments of the Berlin Wall. Also intermingled is one poem in particular Prynne’s White Stones collection from 1969 and a typically self-deprecating episode at Cambridge probably when John taught there:

In fact, my awkwardness includes a dizzy head 
of syllables attending dance, a breathless
hunting for the line. Once, at his college, I wore
a borrowed gown and spilled my glass of wine
to high table merriment, but still I thought it
a fond libation. The old poet is over eighty
and undaunted. Even I am halfway through
my own eighth decade now. No so long, declares
the gay geologist of one's imagination. Gay
in Yeats' sense, not in the sense of our
contemporary speech. In America, I said,
we have but low tables, though often high style
in spite of that. May the college please forgive
its spillage and its mopping up...........

I’ve quoted this, from the third poem in the sequence, because it seems to exemplify some of John’s themes and the brilliance of his technique. Here we have a memory of an embarrassing incident whilst at the one of the notorious high table at a Cambridge College. The spillage follows a wry but precise observation on the poetry making malarkey. Those of use who try to cobble together verse from language know only too well this ‘breathless hunt’ for the right combination to say something close to what we’re after. This is pointed out, almost as an aside, in an easy and accessible manner but those syllables attending dance are dazzling and provocative in equal measure.

Those familiar with Prynne’s recent work will know that he remains undaunted in both form and content in spite of the ongoing scorn thrown in his direction by many who should know better. John is similarly resilient although he writes in a much more ‘acceptable’ manner. The oblique dig at the hidebound snobbery that continues to infect Most Things Oxbridge is well made. It is, of course, much more effective to do away with the impeding rituals of the high table. There’s something profound being said about aging and this gay geologist who I picture, with small hammer and trowel at hand, merrily scrabbling away at elements of the past so that they can be used in the present. The Yeats reference would appear to be a reference to his Lapis Lazuli especially to

 All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.

Being largely ignorant of Yeats’ work, I didn’t appreciate the connection until I spent a minute or so with the interweb that brought up the full text of this eloquent poem. Being ignorant in this regard, I don’t know whether this reference is obscure or not but it is possible to grasp the gist of what’s being said without that knowledge. It is reasonable to suppose that Yeats at the beginning of the 20th century would using the adjective to denote being light hearted and cheerful rather than homosexual.

I’d also like to point out a one of the technical aspects that make the above work as a poem. Some words in the above are extraneous to what’s being said but are used to maintain the cadence of the verse. I’d recommen reading the above out.loud as printed above and then with the words ‘own’ and ‘now’ from the eighth line. This has the effect of disrupting both the cadence and the flow of the poem has a whole.

The sequence concludes with a quote from Prynne and a look forwards to our geolical future;

Plantin type: You say I / think or not /
get on / get off / quiet / match the stone . I note,
like some Confucian sage, that melon seeds
bring melons, peach seeds peaches, cherry seeds
the cherry trees that blossom here; I'd pour
a quick libation, pocket pebbles from the Aldeburgh
beach if I were there. Here, I'll shine the corals
petrified by time and left behind by melting glaciers
still receding, which eventually will make this
shore and all the inland reaches of our low lying land
once again a warm and shallow sea.

The quote is from the last line and a half of Prynne’s A Stone Called Nothing which was published in The White Stones collection in 1969. Of perhaps more interest in this context are these lines from Prynne’s The Glacial Question, Unsolved:

      the ice smoothing the lumps off,
filling the hollows with sandy clay
as the litter of "surface". As the roads
run dripping across this, the rhythm
is the declension of history, the facts
in succession, they are  succession, and
the limits are not time but ridges
and thermal delays, plus or minus whatever
carbon dates we have.

Both of these, then,would appear to be concerned with the effects of the passage of time with Matthias putting his personal history into this much wider context. John’s final line is loaded because we know now that the self-inflicted and very premature return of “a warm and shallow sea” will spell the end of the human race on planet earth.

To conclude, I hope I have given some indication of the strength and value of Matthias’ work and encouragement to those approaching his work for the first time.

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.

Soldiering with David Jones, the Grail Mass and In Parenthseis.

One of the more prominent aspects of Jones’ work in things military, especially when applied to the Roman Army at the time of the crucifixion and to the British troops at the Somme. In Parenthesis, his first long work, is an account of the experiences of British troops from the parade ground in England to the Somme offensive and the trenches at Mametz Wood in 1916. The Grail Mass has to do in large part with the Passion and the views of rank and file Roman troops are brought into focus.

David Jones was one of the finest poets in any language of the 20th century and this is in part because of what I can only think of as his exceptional humanity. What I think I mean by this is his clear compassion and sense of solidarity for and with others. In Jones’ case this is given voice in vibrant lines of verse. Jones deals with very big themes and these passages where the voice of ordinary people (us) is heard are remarkable for their strength and impact. I don’t subscribe to either Jones’ views or his beliefs but I am awed by his ability to give a clear voice to humanity.

What follows is a strictly non-technical but readerly working through of a couple of examples primarily so I can begin to work out how this is achieved from specific examples. The extracts I’ve chosen are lengthy but it does seem that it is the accumulation of words and phrases rather than short but pithy bursts that leave the biggest impression.

This is from In Parenthesis in the period just before the Somme offensive begins;

Well you couldn’t go far afield because of the stand-by but blokes came across from ‘A’ and the other companies to see their friends and people talked a good bit about what the Show was going to be like and were all agog but no-one seemed to know anything much as to anything and you got the same served up again garnished with a different twist and emphasis maybe and some would say such and such and others would say the matter stood quite otherwise and there would be a division among them and lily-livered blokes looked awfully unhappy, people you would never expect it of and the same the other way the oddest types seemed itching for a set-to quite genuine it would appear but after all who can read or search out the secret places you get a real eye-opener now and then and any subsequent revealing seldom conforms and you misconstrue his apparent noble bearing and grope about in continued misapprehension or can it by any manner of means be that everyone is as interiorly in as great misery and unstably set as you are and is the essential unity of mankind chiefly monstrated in this faint-heartness and breeze-right-up aptitude.

This is a couple of days before the ‘Show’, the start of the Somme offensive which took many, many thousands of British lives, the first few days being particularly murderous. Because both my grandparents were injured in this wholesale butchery, I’ve read many accounts and this one is by far the most impressive. It captures the apprehensions and fears of those about to be sacrificed without over-dramatising their fate. In such circumstances it’s entirely normal to compare your mix of feelings with those around you and the tour-de-force for me is the contradictions in terms of expectations, especially with regard to the ‘oddest one’ and their apparent eagerness for conflict. This and the following paragraph are without punctuation and this Joycean ‘feel’ is used brilliantly to convey these differing reactions economically and with great affection. As a reader I feel that I’m with these men, I find myself thinking how I would feel and present myself in such a horrific plight. I wouldn’t want to appear scared even though I would be terrified and I would be observing comparing the others around me. The conclusion that is reached as to collective great misery and instability rather than fear and panic is especially real.

In his preface to In Parenthesis, Jones describes how this sense of togetherness and solidarity amongst the conscripts made the battlefield into “a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, book iv, chapter 15 -‘that landscape spoke with a grimly voice’.” The working through of this observation in the poem makes it one of the great achievements of the Modernist movement in any genre.

The Grail Mass, thanks to the exceptionally skillful philological work of Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Callison contains an extended section to do with soldiers on the walls of Jerusalem on the night of Christ’s arrest. This theme was published in fragments in 1974 as part of the The Sleeping Lord but is here presented in a much more complete and coherent form, even though one of Jones’ manuscript sheets is still missing.

This is from On the traverse of the Wall I (The wall) and Private Oenomaus is ruminating thus:

      Fourteen more years of nights to
watch with skinned eyes, rigid along the staked
mound, until you think it's him whatever
small thing shifts outside the wire. To watch
from this dressed wall, but this arse-ways, kicking
onager, torsioned at the ready, & aligned
on Christ knows what- unless they reckon
keeping of new moons at the transit of
the god, the barley cakes, the mingled
sop, the libations, the lamb's flesh given
and the recitation of the Praise, can turn, twixt dusk
and dusk, these fellaheen that weep for
their dead baals, or sing their fabulous
deliverances at the vernal turn, into
something to be reckoned with - as tough
a proposition as the Belgae, or those
flax-headed bastards at the West Wall.
Not on your life. But still - they're right
enough to take no chances - plumb right.
That's what the old hands used to say - back
at me first station - I can hear 'em yet
puttin it over on the rookies:
         "remember, the army never takes any chances
the active ad-ministration - we won't speak of
'Q' department - seldom underestimates the
requirements. The gen'ral always first considers
if he be able with 15 maniples, or as they
say now, five cohorts, to meet him who with
half that personnel but with unknown
fire potential, comes against him - always
remember that - the big heads aren't such
greenhorns as you'ld suppose - it's not
out of love of yer body remember - if a 
balls up was advantageous - well they'd
arrange a balls-up - but they're not stiffs
not by a long journey and they know the
job - always remember that and thank your
stars you're in the Roman Army">

I’ve chosen this section not just because of its quality but also its blend of the personal and the public perspective of the ordinary soldier. Oenomaus is six years in to his 20 year stint in the Roman army and the first part is his consideration of the Passover and the people that participate in it. Jones’ first note on this tells us that an ‘onager’ was a small military catapult used by the Romans although Wikipedia gives its first recorded use being in 353 CE. our private speculates on the elements of the various local spring rituals and whether these will transform the ‘fellaheen’ (a much later Ottoman term for villagers and farmworkers) into a force that the may present a threat to the Roman occupation. When read aloud, this passage acquires a particularly lyrical feel with the contrast between the rituals and the strength of any Roman response to trouble. I’m taking ‘arse-ways’ to indicate that the catapult is aimed towards the city inside the walls rather than outwards, at ‘Christ knows what’. Given that this is the night of Christ’s arrest, it may well be that the Romans expected some protests from his followers.

The tone given is of a man who is weary of his lot and especially tired of night duty with ‘skinned’ eyes keeping a look out for anything that moves in the dark. Most soldiers throughout the ages have found the monotony of guard duty, especially at night, one of their most arduous and disagreeable tasks. The opening lines here cleverly convey that sense or torpor and ennui. I’m therefore convinced by this created mood and drawn into the detail of what’s being said. Putting myself in Oenomaus’ place, I don’t think I would be overly concerned with which particular sects and cults used which rites but I would be aware that these and others were practiced when winter turns to spring.

As a reader, then, I have some sympathy for this foot-soldier and his plight and am happily led on to the old hand’s monologue which is a fascinating demonstration of imperial strategy and confidence.

At this time (about 30 CE), the empire was still expanding but already controlled all of the Mediterranean and what is now France. There were skirmishes on the borders but no other power strong enough to threaten Roman Hegemony. The old hand’s remarks are an indication of an absolute confidence that springs from centuries of military and political expansion. He gives a specific example of the way in which Roman commanders ensured success on the battlefield by trying to ensure that the enemy was always outnumbered in manpower and armaments. His monologue is ostensibly to instill confidence into new recruits but there’s also a barb within. If it serves the purpose of a wider strategy that some men will be sacrificed then the required ‘balls-up’ will be arranged because the army prioritises victory and strength over the welfare of its troops.

I’ll return to the ‘place’ of both Romes in The Grail Mass in the near future but here I wanted to lay down a framework for the role of soldiery in Jones work as a whole.

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.