Category Archives: literature

Geoffrey Hill, William Cobbett and Jeremy Corbyn

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

The first startlement comes with Poem 186;

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hill’s comment is telling;

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

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

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

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

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

J H Prynne on Wordsworth and Delight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paragraph continues with;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My final worry is this;

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

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

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

Paul Celan’s poetic voice.

I start this with some trepidation, I enjoyed making the previous piece on Jones and Hill because it clarified a few things for me that had been lurking at the back of my head. Applying a similar filter to Celan seems fraught with a higher level of difficulty because of his subject matters and the sparse ways in which these are addressed.

In his comment on the Hill and Jones meandering, Confiteor observes;

It would seem likely that Celan’s extreme paranoia made empathy and compassion for others difficult for him. If it is present in the work, it goes without saying that it’s not ‘clearly and unambiguously expressed’. How then do we assess voice — raw, human, and personal — in Celan?

It apears to me that there are elements of this humanness in some of the work and I’ll try and attend to some of the ambiguities in these below. As ever, these observations are both tenuous and provisional.

The poems that immediately spring to mind are those addressed to Gisele, his estranged wife, and those that are to do with the victims of the Holocaust.

This, Joris’ notes tell me, was written a week after seeing Gisele for the first time in a year;

WHY THIS SUDDEN AT HOMENESS, all-out, all in?
I can, look, sink myself into you, glacierlike,
you yourself slay your brothers:
earlier than they
I was with you, Snowed One.

Throw your tropes in with the rest:
Someone wants to know,
why with God I
was no different than with you,

someone
wants to drown in that,
two books instead of lungs,

someone who stabbed himself into
you, bebreathes the cut,

someone, he was the one closest to you,
gets lost to himself,

someone adorns your sex
with your and his betrayal,

maybe
I was both

The notes also tell me that Celan had made an attempt on his life by stabbing himself in his chest but had only succeeded in injuring his lung.

As someone who has spent more time than most planning to do away with myself, the above makes me feel a bit queasy. I’m of the view that suicide is such an intensely raw and personal thing that it should be dealt with creatively with extreme care and discretion.

I experience this as very raw indeed because of how it intertwines these mental agonies with lust and mutual transgression. For late Celan, it’s also quite direct.

In terms of ‘voice’ I think the repetition of ‘someone/einer’ contrasted with the ‘I’ at the beginning and end of the poem gives it quite an angrily sarcastic effect which feels more than a little self-indulgent. It may also be the trope that Celan refers to as belonging to Gisele.

It’s important not to ignore the adornment and betrayal couplet which hints at mutual infidelities yet this ‘adorning’ is set in the present tense, The poem was written in response the couple’s first meeting in a year. The notes helpfully point out that ‘sex’ here can mean both the sexual organ and progeny/family/lineage.

I’m not denying the essential honesty of what’s been expressed, it’s just that I detect some cruelty that isn’t particularly pleasant.

Turning to something much more public, this demonstrates a heartfelt concern for the victims of the Holocaust;

THE INDUSTRIOUS
mineral resources, homey,

the heated syncope,

The not-to-be deciphered
jubilee,

The completely glassed-in
spider-altars in the all-
overtowering low-building,

the intermediate sounds
(even yet?),
the shadowpalavers,

the anxieties, icetrue,
flightclear,

the baroquely cloaked,
language-swallowing showerroom
semantically floodlit,

the uninscribed wall
of a standing-cell;

here

live yourself
straightthrough, without clock.

Here we appear to have have another unusually clear and direct poem, on this occasion addressing the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. The notes tell me that Celan had retained a newspaper clipping that stated “In the standing-cells of Bloc 11 at Auschwitz, many detainees starved to death”.

I’m not going to do a line by line reading, instead I want to concentrate on the poem’s underlying humanity in its understanding of and compassion for millions of victims of Nazi savagery. The last three lines would seem to indicate that, in the present/now of 1967, it is still possible to live a life provided that it is removed from time. By ‘straightthrough’ I’m taking it that Celan intends something like directly and without encumbrance. This is reinforced by the fact that we are still, as in ‘even yet?’ held in by these ‘shadowpalavers’ which might relate to the kind of post- war special pleading done by ‘ordinary’ Germans regarding their culpability for the Holocaust.

As with much of Celan, the phrasing is both startling and accurate. The fact of the industrialised gassing of 6 million people does obliterate and trivialise language, does call into question all the achievements of Western culture and may still be fatal to all kinds of artistic expression within that tradition.

The instruction to ‘live yourself’ is telling, especially as it comes from a man who was making attempts to do away with himself and who succeeded three and a half years later. The compassion here, I think is about Celan’s ongoing sense of involvement with the dead and with his absolute need to do something positive in response to their destruction. This might not be the kind of humanness that many of my generation can readily relate to but we need to recognise it as one of the nobler/honourable kinds of response.

Of course, I don’t have any direct experience of genocide, nor of occupation by a foreign power so I don’t know how these things might feel with any kind of accuracy. What I can say is that, throughout my adult life, I have relied on the work of Celan to provide a framework for knowing how to feel about this especially terrible event and thinking about what it signify for living humans in the present.

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

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

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

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

The Teacherly Voice.

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

As an example, there is this from In Parenthesis;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

The Raw Voice

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

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

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

These two are again from In Parenthesis;

And white faces lie,

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

And this;

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

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

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

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

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

The Human Voice.

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

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

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

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

The Personal Voice

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

The Triumph of Love gives us examples of both;

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

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

The Triumph of Love also has this;

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

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

The posthumous Book of Baruch has this;

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

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

Baruch also has;

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encountering the Other with Celan and Levinas

Looking back through these pages I see that seven years ago I wrote something about these two and, in particular, Levinas’ essay Being and the Other: on Paul Celan. I’ve just re-read my meandering and have decided that it needs updating and extending, mainly because it’s not very attentive and it needs to be.

First of all we need a note. Emanuel Levinas was an important 20th century French philosopher who many have seen as the successor and main proponent of the work of Martin Buber and his concern with our responsibility towards the Other. Celan was a keen admirer of Buber’s work and this idea is incorporated, if that’s the right word into his poetry.

Regular readers will be delighted to know that I’m not going to trundle out again the Heidegger v Buber argument in terms of their relative influence on the work. Instead I want to look at one of the late poems in terms of the encounter and the other.

As there’s a ‘you’ in the poem that follows, it may be as well to quote this from Celan’s preparatory notes for his Meridian Address:

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, temporally 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 even before it has come. (That too is a sketch-for-being.)

The poem is Gillyflowers from the Snowpart collection which was published posthumously in 1971;

GILLYFLOWERS, cat-enfranchised.
With wife
on your right, this lawn.

Rod- and moonsickle-stalemate.

You shouldn't, thus, like you, behind bars, back then,
the
Maltese Jew, big-
lipped-him
the bone jumped, abrupter
than I, the bone
that someone already from tomorrow threw-,
you
should not
look up to heaven, you left
him then, as he you,
stranded
side-lit

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sister chestnut, multifoliate,
with our blank overthither.

This is Pierre Joris’ translation and his notes explain ‘cat-franchised’ as being given ‘the freedom to express oneself’.

Here we have a your. a series of yous and a couple of hims. If we take all five of the yous to refer to a reader and an encounter with a reader then the poem becomes a bit too concerned with itself. As with most of Celan’s later work, we are given very few footholds but it would seem that there may be two addressees in this, as in You shouldn’t, thus, like you…… One addressee would appear to being warned off imitating the behaviour/actions of another. It’s tempting to assume that both of these are the poet simultaneously in the present and after an encounter has taken is the one who has read in the future. This mostly because I’ve just read Levinas’ take on the other and the nature of the encounter:

As if in going toward the other, I were reunited with myself and implanted myself in a soil that would, henceforth, be native; as if the distancing of the I drew me closer to myself, discharged of the full weight of my identity – a movement of which poetry would be the possibility itself, and a native land which owes nothing to rootedness, nothing to “prior occupation”: a native land that has no need to be a birthplace. Native land or promised land?

The ‘you shouldn’t’ instruction may relate to the constraints (bars) that were in place before the encounter occurred. Given Celan’s fondness for multiple ambiguities, it may also be about the experience of the Jews in the ghettos throughout European history and the death camps during the second world war. I’d risk a guess that this meeting is also felt as a setting free from the horrors of the past, the sense of being haunted by Nazi extermination permeates the later work.

I have to admit that I’ve never read any Christopher Marlowe but I’m happy to concur with the reliable Joris that ‘the / Maltese Jew’ is Barabas in Marlowe’s The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, a play for many years seen as exclusively anti-semitic.

The bone is incredibly tricky, 30 minutes with the interweb reveals that the Jewish tradition has it that, at the Resurrection the dead will have either their merits or their faults written on their bones and will be judged accordingly. there is also the Luz bone which is the small bone at the top of the spine which is said to be indestructible;

……this is the bone from which the body will be rebuilt at the time of resurrection, and share the idea (with the Egyptian and Greek cultures) that this bone does not decay….

The book of Ezekiel also has the valley of dry bones, standing for the Jewish people in exile, encounters God.

Here we need a brief digression, I’ve been reading and consequently staggered by Celan’s poetry since 1970 and have been aware that many (many) thinkers of the past fifty years have seized, there is no other verb, on one or two of his many ‘threads’ in order to take the work to an ideological/theoretical point where it really doesn’t belong. As an agnostic in such matters, I have to point out that the ‘point’ of Celan’s many ambiguities is that he tells us and/or points to what it might mean to be a human on this planet. He does this with self lacerating honesty and incredible courage but this act is so packed with contrasting stuff that it must not be put into a single ‘box’. I digress thus because I’ve realised that, by attending to Levinas, I’m in danger of committing the same error.

One of the less remarked upon facts about Celan was that he was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable botanist. The poem in its original German begins with ‘LEVKOJEN’ in which Joris hears ‘Lev’ as the “Russian version of Celan’s father’s name, Leo, corresponding in Hebrew to the word “heart”. However, what Pierre doesn’t mention and I didn’t know is that, according to the exotic flowers blog, the gillyflower “remains historically as one of the original “romantic” plants for lovers” and:

The gillyflower can also stand for accepting and enjoying the life you have been given, endless beauty, purity, adoration, a religious connection and even as a sign for the zodiac, Taurus.  In general, this flower represents a long lived life, luck and immense happiness so it’s a wonderful choice for weddings, births and special anniversaries.  

If we take at least some of this as being pertinent then it contrasts with the closing many-leaved chestnut tree if, as I would, suggest it is echoing Orwell’s use of the Chestnut Tree nursery rhyme in 1984:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

In the novel this is Winston’s betrayal of Julia, his lover, as a result of being tortured and is thus brought back under the control of the totalitarian state. This is bitterly ironic as the chestnut traditionally symbolises justice, honesty and chastity.

The inclusion of Barnabas throws up a number of possibilities. As with Buber and Levinas, Celan’s other is a universal figure and Barnabas would seem to epitomise many others at once, he is a Jew, he murders and betrays with impunity, he kills his own daughter he dies by a means of his own devising. The last of these is apparently a feature in a few Old Testament stories. My point is that even Barnabas is able to encounter and receive the gift of the poem.

I’m taking it that an encounter occurs with this grotesque invention and then ends (you left him), leaving both of these alone again. The lighting from the side may be about, a gesture towards, a face in profile. Marlowe’s play apparently makes frequents references to the bigness of Barabas’ nose.

The suggestion that the you should not look up to heaven may simply infer that we have to deal with life as it is for humans than look to any kind of spiritual reality. I’m never sure as to the nature of Celan’s mysticism although I do accept that it’s a major element in his work. On this occasion, I’m with Michael Hamburger in discerning a negative theology with an absent God who may or may not have abandoned us. To my mind, Levinas falls into the trap of over identification as in:

The act of the poem speaking to its neighbor precedes all evocation; but it is in poetic speaking outstretched toward the other that, as if by magic, things
assemble their qualities as things. The for-other precedes the perception of evidence. The poem thus leaves to the real the alterity which pure imagination erases.

The obvious response is “no it doesn’t” and the giveaway way is ‘as if by magic”. For me this is very disappointing because my admiration for Levinas’ work has grown over the last decade and it saddens me that he should appear to invest the brilliance of the poetry with his own predilections. As i indicated earlier, he’s by no means alone in this, Derrida captures the work for language, Steiner for Heidegger and Gadamer for both Heidegger and mysticism.

Over the years I don’t think I’ve written about staggeredness which is the Bebrowed technical term for the feeling you get when paying attention to Celan’s work, a sense of been knocked off your cognitive feet and returned to a different kind of world. To demonstrate this I’d simply point to the last line of the above poem and leave readers to give some consideration to the many connotations and dimensions that ‘blank overthither’ might provide.

Addendum

DW, who is becoming a regular commentator tried unsuccessfully to post these useful insights with regard to Gillyflowers:


‘The You is there even before it has come.’

‘… the bone / that someone already from tomorrow threw-‘

Is this bone, with its religious connotations (religion so pervasive yet ambivalent in Celan), the “You”? The Luz bone is where the tefillin-knot rests. Luz in Hebrew means “almond” – ‘Render me bitter, / Number me among the almonds.’

‘… mit dienen blanken / Hierdrüben’ – literally, ‘with your blank / Here-over-there’. Blank passport, exilic wanderings-writings, empty book.

‘… you left / him then, as he you, / stranded …’ – Conflicting stories about the night Celan’s parents were taken. Who left whom? Did Celan storm out of the house after arguing with his father? Was Celan stranded somewhere that night, unable to return home? Did Celan clutch in vain through barbed wire for his father’s hand (‘like you, behind bars, back then’)? 

Then there is the first stanza, which would seem to be obviously about Gisèle – Celan’s tragic Other, his (always-and-never) ‘approachable you’. The Gillyflowers are free to express the unspeakable, what is unsaid in the wedding bouquet full of promise, bearing witness to the ‘Rod- and moonsickle-stalemate’ of a shattered yet never renounced marriage.

I’m sure that others will also find this useful, I’ll endeavour to respond to this and the Blanchot comment once I’ve worked out which WP gremlin is messing around with the comments gizmo.

Still haven’t worked the comments gizmo problem out, will try again later As for DW’s insights, I think that he’s right with regard to Gisele although i would add that Joris’ notes concede that he has missed the word mund (to give speech’ from his cat-enfranchised translation of ‘katsenbemunidgt’.

With regard to Celan’s father, John Felstiner (a not-entirely-reliable scholar) tells us that Celan always blamed himself for failing to persuade his parents to leave their home before the Nazis came to arrest them. Celan’s time spent in a labour camp is less well recorded, the idea of the clutching through the wire is attractive. However, I’d like to add the above reference to the You in order to render things oriented towards the Buberian other as well.

I’m reluctant to hang an explanation on to the last line except to suggest the ‘blank’ can also stand for nothing and consequently nothingness- a recurring condition in the later work.

Paul Muldoon does Covid-19

The WordPress control gizmo tells me that I wrote about my Paul Muldoon Problem on here nearly 10 years ago when I was a blog newbie. The problem is what I read as an almost permanent tendency in the work to veer from the very good to the quite bad. This was quite infuriating at the time and remains so today.

I was reminded of this last week when the Times Literary Supplement published Plaguey Hill which is a fifteen part consideration of all things coronavirus. I’ve written recently about my attempts to make poems in these tricky times and confess to still being daunted by the challenge to produce appropriate and useful work. It is, to my mind least, crucial to produce work whilst the virus is still ravaging large parts of the world because viewing this thing from the inside at least captures what things might be like in the now. I’m trying to write something now as well as completing side two of the multi vocal audio piece and I’m having to try really hard to keep my many and various outrages at bay- every day there seems to be another thing to be appalled by and the political beast in me is tempted simply to list these so that we don’t forget just how criminally negligent our leaders have been. Then there is the ‘following the science’ problem which, given its various provisional and contradictory findings’ makes life more bewildering for all of us. I could go on.

As a hapless flounderer, it is of special interest to see what a very skilled practitioner makes of this and the aspects he chooses to mention.

Each of the 15 parts is a 14 line poem (4, 4, 3, 3) and seems, in part, more conversational than poetic. There are a few rhymes and a couple of gestures towards the sonnet form but not many flashes of dazzle that occur in some of his longer poems.

Before we get to content, Mudoon’s poetic voice appeals to this reader most when it adopts a kind of keenly felt wryness This is the beginning of The Humors of Hakone, a nine part poem from the Maggot collection which was published in 2010;

A corduroy road over a quag had kept me on the straight and narrow.

Now something was raising a stink.

A poem decomposing around what looked like an arrow

Her stomach contents ink.

Too late to cast about for clues

either at the purikura or ‘sticker photo-booth’ or back at the Pagoda.

Too late to establish by autolysis, not to speak of heat loss,

the precise time of death on the road to Edo.

I hope this demonstrates what I mean by the above adjectives, I read in this example formal skill and intelligence that is way above what passes for the mainstream. It was therefore to be hoped that Muldoon’s current offering maintained that kind of standard. I don’t think it does although I share much of his perspective. This is the second poem in the sequence;

It’s not so long ago the future
held out the promise of travel to another antique land
unknown as yet to Frommer or Fodor.
I spent yesterday ignorant of the fact the valiant

Adam Schlesinger has gone the way of all dust.
Together with Chris Collingwood, Adam made Fountains of Wayne
a band whose songs combined the height of literary taste
with low-blow hooks. Ai Fen, a doctor from Wuhan

who blew the whistle on the Chinese Politburo
seems to have been “disappeared” by those sons of bitches.
No motion hath she now? As for our homegrown kingpin,

he’s warning us against narcos on burros.
The Pentagon has ordered 100,000 “Human Remains Pouches.”
Once we subscribed to the idea of boxes made of pine.

In this we have a mix of the documentary, the personal, polemic and elegy which in fourteen lines is ambitious to say the least All of these are ‘about’ the impact of the virus. My initial reaction was that there are too many and none of them are given enough space. On a third and more attentive reading it appears to evoke the bewildering distraction that we’re experiencing at the hands of the infodemic that accompanies this calamity. I also felt that the whole sequence wasn’t sufficiently poetic until I realised the pandemic demands a degree of artlessness. In fact, thinking this through, Covid-19 may well prove to be yet another nail in the lid for the lyric poem Which is a good thing.

I had heard of the Fountains of Wayne but have never knowingly listened to their music but Wikipedia informs me that, in addition to this band, Adam Schlesinger was a prolific and successful writer and producer. Muldoon’s liking for elements of the music scene is well know and it would seem to be fitting that he should mention Scheslinger who died from Covid-19 complications at the age of 53. Another poem in the sequence bemoans the cancellation of an Elton John gig that our poet and his partner were planning to attend.

For those, like me, the quote is from Wordsworth and might refer to the power of nature as in;

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees

One of the many lessons that we may learn from this is the destructive power of the natural world and that our post-Enlightenment confidence in man’s ability to control this is a sham. Being a reluctant cynic I think we may learn the lesson but fail to apply it en route to planetary death. My only argument with theuse of this kind of quote is that it is unlikely to be familiar to those readers who aren’t fans of Wordsworth and is thus a Bit Obscure.

With regard to Ai Fen, Radio Free Asia tells me that, as of April 14th, she is ‘safe and well’ but has been muzzled by those sons of bitches. The description is unarguably typical of the Chinese state and its readiness to crush any kind of objective expression with ruthless violence,

I’m guessing that many of us, me included, have been let down by “the promise of travel to another antique land” which in my case was Iquitos in the Peruvian rainforest. I freely confess to being a little flummoxed by the Trump reference and need to ask the reason for it being placed here unless it’s to demonstrate that the kingpin’s mind is Truly Elsewhere.

The pine boxes riff continues on to the next poem with reference to their first use after the American Civil War. There are also references elsewhere to burial mounds and to the mass burial of Covid-19 victims on New York’s Hart Island.

I was going to reproduce another complete poem from the sequence but I’ve decided instead to focus on a few excerpts from different poems in an attempt to give a more comprehensive view of the whole.

One of the political observations seems a little off-point;

With the power of the European
Union seriously under threat, Hungarian “voters”

have given free rein
to President Viktor Orbán,
who knows only too well the people make perfect cannon fodder.

Orban is one of those ‘strongman’ populists that are beginning to dominate the world stage and he and his cronies throughout Europe have weakened the EU and will probably destroy it. It would appear that this refers to the ‘Enabling’ powers that Orban gave himself as a response to the Covid-19 crisis which are seen as setting him on the path to a Putin-style dictatorship. It would therefore seem sensible to read “voters” as Orban’s political supporters in Hungary’s National Assembly.

A few more political points are much closer to the calamity;

Continue to hold your hands for as long
as twenty seconds under the hot water faucet.

“The virus has but one ambition,”
says a sickle-bearing Doctor Fauci, “and that’s getting into our lungs.
To that end it’s working hand over fist.”

I’m not completely sure that Fauci deserves the sickle bearer quip. At the time of writing this, he’s been briefed against by what appears to be every member of the White House staff. This appears to be an attempt to distant the kingpin from his own disastrous decisions and insane posturings along the way. Consequently the good doctor is enjoying a very positive press in the UK media at the moment. Given that the USA has now had over 3.5 million cases and 139,000 deaths it would appear that Fauci’s sickle wasn’t prominent enough.

The kingpin himself comes in for some criticism;

Our kingpin is himself recognized as being not only tawdry but negligently tatrdy
in making preparations to treat the victims of coronavirus.

As I write, about three months later than this, Fauci is seen as the realist ‘expert’ is distancing himself from the kingpin’s pronouncements and being fervently briefed against by the White House staff.

Trump’s culpability is now further compounded by his encouragement of states to lift their lockdowns, his refusal to wear a mask and his bonkers pronouncements on possible cures, to name but a few. I use these as examples of how much things have changed in the past few months and how much they are likely to change in the immediate future.

Then there’s this;

A genuine topic of interest to the serious mind
is the firing of Captain Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt
for expressing concern for those under his command.

and;

The firing of Captain Crozier will be a defining moment of this episode
when the names of the bigwigs
in the West Wing are forgotten. Murrain, or rinderpest,

H’mm, in July of 2020, from this side of the pond, the outrageous treatment of this honourable man seems to have faded almost from view. I’m not in any way trying to either denigrate or minimise his actions but history is fickle and the ever lengthening list of bigwig outrages may overshadow Crozier’s noble deed, even by the serious minded.

The reference to murrain/to murrai/rinderpest is further developed because it’s a virus with similar symptoms that affects cattle. There also mentions of the effect of this on Muldoon’s adult children and this;

I’ve not made much of it, since I don’t want to be seen to garner
attention, but after two weeks of a dry cough
and general aches and pains, I now seem to have turned a corner.

I have to tactfully point out that having these particular published in a prestigious and widely read literary weekly is a fairly clear way of garnering attention and comment. I’ll leave my reaction there, for the moment.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least a flavour of Plaguey Hill and a reasonably coherent, if provisional and tenuous response to it. I’ll now be interested to see if Muldoon provides an update in the near future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A History of European Versification at a breathtaking £212.50

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Jones and art for art’s sake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and;

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

finally;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making poetry in these slurred times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the face of this poetry can become:

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

a record of the disaster and its effects;

a memorialisation of the dead;

a blueprint for the future;

an interrogation of the nature of science and expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Fucker has a Dashboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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