Category Archives: literature

Making poetry in these slurred times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the face of this poetry can become:

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

a record of the disaster and its effects;

a memorialisation of the dead;

a blueprint for the future;

an interrogation of the nature of science and expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Fucker has a Dashboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edmund Spenser and his stanza.

It has been some years since I last wrote about Spenser but I’m now re-reading the brilliant Faerie Queene and want to pay some attention to the Spenserian stanza which is a Thing of Wonder and Delight. For those not familiar with the work, the FQ is very long indeed and divided into 6 books, each dealing with a virtue. The books consist of 12 cantos which usually contain more than 40 9-line stanzas apiece.

As an aside, I owe a personal debt to this work, for about ten years from 35 to my mid forties I went through my first period of disenchantment with poetry, feeling that it was all a bit trivial and took itself far too seriously. Up until then, I’d only paid attention to work produced after 1921 and was surprised to find myself being into something Very Big from the end of the 16th century. What surprised and pleased me most was that the Spenserian stanza made poetry fun, in short I was hooked.

As the name implies, this particular stanza is of Spenser’s own devising and, in his hands, is remarkably effective in addin additional dimensions to his tales. As examples, I want to use this dialogue from Book 111 and then a fight scene between Arthur and Cymochles from Book 11. This is a conversation between Britomart (the personification and her nurse;

The Damsell pauzed, and then thus fearfully
      Ah Nurse, what needeth thee to eke my paine?
      Is not enough, that I alone doe dye, 
      But it must doubled bee with death of twaine?
      For nought for me, but death there doth remaine.
      O daughter deare (said she) despeire no whit,
      For never sore, but might a salve obtaine;
      That blinded God, that hath thee blindly smit,
Another arrow hath your lovers hart to hit.

But mine is not (quoth she) like others wound;
       For which no reason can find remedy.
      Was neuer such, but mote the like be found,
       (Said she) and though no reason may apply
      Salue to your sore, yet loue can higher stye,
     Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne.
     But neither God of loue, nor God of sky
     Can doe (said she) that, which cannot be donne.
Things oft impossible (quoth she) seeme, ere begonne.

Book three is ‘about’ Britomart and her quest to find Artegall, the object of her love. The above takes place after our heroine has fallen in love but before she and her nurse have set off on their mission. In order to appreciate the full effect, it’s really important to read this out loud and feel the strength of the rhymes and the pulse of each stanza. The content here is both sophisticated and refreshingly human, the second stanza sets out respective positions on love and how to respond to it but this is done in away that carries the attentive reader forward. This reader is struck by “Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne” which is very accomplished indeed, expressing something complex in a deceptively straightforward way.

One of the marks of a great poet is the ability to make the very difficult appear easy. Many poets over the last 420 years have tried to imitate this form but very, very few have come close to make the device ‘work’ as it should. Claims have been made for Shelley’s Adonais and Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes but neither of these equal the sustained quality of Spenser’s content.

The second example is one which demonstrates how the stanzas run/flow into each other, especially when reporting action scenes. Here, Prince Arthur is fighting Cymochles and Pyrrhochles;

For when Cymochles saw the fowle reproch,
  Which them appeached, prickt with guilty shame,
  And inward griefe, he fiercely gan approch,
  Resolu'd to put away that loathly blame,
  Or dye with honour and desert of fame;
  And on the haubergh stroke the Prince so sore,
  That quite disparted all the linked frame,
  And pierced to the skin, but bit no more,
Yet made him twise to reele, that neuer moou'd afore.

Whereat renfierst with wrath and sharpe regret,
  He stroke so hugely with his borrowd blade,
  That it empierst the Pagans burganet,
  And cleauing the hard steele, did deepe inuade
  Into his head, and cruell passage made
  Quite through his braine. He tombling downe on ground,
  Breathd out his ghost, which to th'infernall shade
  Fast flying, there eternall torment found,
For all the sinnes, wherewith his lewd life did abound.

Which when his german saw, the stony feare
  Ran to his hart, and all his sence dismayd,
  Ne thenceforth life ne courage did appeare,
  But as a man, whom hellish feends haue frayd,
  Long trembling still he stood: at last thus sayd;
  Traytour what hast thou doen? how euer may
  Thy cursed hand so cruelly haue swayd
  Against that knight: Harrow and well away,
After so wicked deed why liu'st thou lenger day?

Book II’s protagonist is Guyon and his quest is for temperance. Arthur (magnificence) comes to his aid in the struggle with these two brothers who represent the inability to exercise different aspects of self control. What attracts me to the above is the way in which Cymochles ‘guiltie shame’ goads him into attacking Arthur, particularly the reference to ‘inward griefe’. This shows a much more sophisticated and considered approach than we would expect from a ‘standard’ fight between good and bad.

Spenser’s fights contain a fair amount of gore and the ‘cruelle passage’ here is fairly typical. The end of this stanza again expresses the consequences of a sinful life in an elegant and precise way. The third stanza moves us rapidly to Pyrrhocles’ anger at his brother’s death. The pace of the action from fight to death to reaction is remarkably swift, especially when the various asides and sub-texts are taken into account. This rhythmic movement through the stanzas also gives a sense of emotional intensity and drama.

The other less noticed aspect of the Spesnerian stanza is that it creates something that is quite profoundly visual, almost filmic which enables the reader to feel more like an active onlooker rather than a passive consumer of text.

The final point I’d like to make is that it is Spenser’s exuberance that carries things forward with such sustained panache for over 3800 stanzas. It is clear that the poet knows that his stanza is successful as a form and takes delight in showing off what it can do. This sense of energetic pleasure is communicated to the reader who thus becomes another smiling enthusiast.

Incidentally, ‘haubergh’ is the Spenserian spelling of ‘hauberk’ or chain mail coat/jacket whilst a ‘burganet’ is a type of helmet.

I hope I’ve demonstrated at least some of the value of The Faerie Queene and encouraged one or two of you to pay it some attention.





J H Prynne’s Zinc Option

This is one of the poems from Prynne’s Or Scissel collection which was published by Shearsman in 2018. I’m probably running before I can walk but there’s a couple of things beings said here that appear to be unusually clear;

And despite twin to gem in such placement,
at the sun-drift, at the turn nearby run
across it with a near tremor galvanised even
high and brittle; splinter alteration all known
beyond range incessant as slower for removal,
perish in parallel, squared off. Indignant both
in stock over elevate without pause for dial
laser before due moment, perfunctory if by
measuring zinc option, beyond the gem-tilt
ice crevasse. Not reluctant by match willing
as would all be or variable; button furnace
steel chasing, defect for prospect indexical
home on the range in company expected abate-
ment accession roaming sense acknowledge,
make pack and fasten. Refract fully possible
to get close, alternate dispossession to
the upper frank reach, brow in mark not yet
or notable, in quake hot furnace in new-broken,
offended. Declare vertical in certain pitch
wants no more for hunger makes contortion on
every side, despite censure or because of 
its absence, to pay entirely on the nail ahead,
open. Weld inlay dangerous to carry forward,
deal unfound until by surprise uncovered,
on the floor keep up: necessary parclose. How
otherwise deal fair or first before, go there
extenuate by staunch prior permission, your feet
dangling.

I always feel some trepidation in writing about a Prynne piece that’s new to me, the opportunities to ‘go wrong’ are enormous yet I’m always tempted by even the most obdurate work when it hints that it might my attention. What follows is, as ever, provisional and tenuous and I reserve the right to change my mind at any time in the future.

As well as this proviso I must make clear that the town I grew up in, Middlesbrough, began as a centre for iron and steel making and throughout my adult life has been in a slow but steady state of decline.

I therefore want zinc option at least in part to address the increasingly farcical progress of that slow death. In support of this claim, I draw attention to the following;

across with a near tremor galvanised even
high and brittle; 

To galvanise, the OED tells me, is (incorrectly) referred to as the coating of iron with zinc even though “no galvanic process is involved” it’s also used to energise or give enthusiasm to either a group or an individual. Zinc is said to be brittle at temperatures below 100 – 150 celsius where it becomes malleable but is brittle again above 210 degrees.

The galvanic process involves passing a galvanic charge through something which may be what the small tremor refers to. It can also be argued that the British steel industry has been given small shocks of capital over the years which have resulted in small tremors of activity rather than a full recovery.

as would all be or variable; button furnace
steel chasing, defect for prospect indexical

I’m here taking ‘button’ as a noun meaning to close something and to be silent about something. I’m resisting the temptation to place too much importance on the OED’s “Of broccoli, cauliflower, etc.: to form a small, premature head” but reserve the right to keep it in mind. As an aside, one such premature head from my adolescence was the building of a new blast furnace which was heralded as putting Teesside in front of all other steel makers when the sad fact remained that the developing world could make the same product at a much cheaper price.

For the moment, it may be as well to take ‘furnace/steel’ at face value but to give additional attention to ‘chasing’ which throws up a number of possibilities. This has a subsidiary definition of setting something with gems as well as to emboss or to engrave. There’s also chasing as pursuing which could characterise the UK government’s forlorn attempts to lure foreign investors to the industry.

There are several ambiguities within ‘prospect’ – a view, something to do with the future and, as a verb, seeking out mineral resources. Sadly I have no idea as to what any of these might have to do with ‘indexical’

.................................... Refract fully possible
to get close, alternate dispossession to

Looking at the many possibilities of ‘refract’ highlights what is both intriguing and infuriating about Prynne’s work. I’m a fan of ambiguity in all forms of creative expression mainly because that’s how life in general seems to be. There are times, however, when there are too many possible / likely intentions that the exercise begins to cancel itself out. This particular instance may well be one of those.

Having very little scientific or technical knowledge, I decided to start here with refraction rather than the verb and this is the first entry in the OED;

Rhetoric. Use of the same word in opposing senses. Obsoleterare.


The one example given is from 1555;

1555   R. Sherry Treat. Figures Gram. & Rhetorike f. xxx   Refraction serueth to the like, when all one worde is repeted in a contrarye sense, as I know all this life to bee but bitternes, but I pray you geue me such bitternes.

I’ll proceed in a moment with the more standard definitions but there’s something here that what Prynne’s later work might be about. Here there’s the repeated use of ‘furnace’ but there’s also his interest in paradox and contradiction that seems to form part of the way in which we should read this material.

The ‘normal’ use of this verb applies to the deflection of light or sound waves when they enter another medium, water being the most obvious example. It can also mean to reflect or return, to break up or impair, to analyse nitre in order to calculate the extent of its impurities and to measure and then correct the refractive error of the human eye.

All of these would seem to ‘fit’ the sense of the poem in some way but there is also something called seismic refraction which, wikipedia tells me, is used in geological prospection because;

The methods depend on the fact that seismic waves have differing velocities in different types of soil (or rock): in addition, the waves are refracted when they cross the boundary between different types (or conditions) of soil or rock.

Without getting too lit crit, Prynne spends much time in Field Notes, his remarkable study of The Solitary Reaper, discussing how the sound of the human voice travels across the landscape. If we read refract as to break up or impair and close as to shut down then things may again appear to support my straw clutching. The 1980s saw the Thatcher government preside over many plant closures throughout the UK causing further poverty and hardship in the communities affected.

The final couple of lines that I’d like to call to my aid are;

deal unfound until by surprise uncovered,
on the floor keep up: necessary parclose. How

A deal unfound is a deal not found, the steel industry has sought many deals in the past in terms of both mergers and sales. All of these have failed to produce a viable concern with some plants having to stand idle for years waiting for the next rescue deal to come along. Reading ‘parclose’ as a partition and as a conclusion or end, I interpret a bitter irony deployed in ‘necassary’ which was usually the term faux regretful politicians would use to excuse further plant closures.

In conclusion, I may be entirely wrong but this seems to me a fair, if tenuous, stab at what might be going on here and I’ll return to Zinc Option in the next few weeks. With that in mind, any comments would be most helpful

David Jones, his notes as strata.

I’ve been re-reading Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Collison’s brilliant and essential edition of Jones’ The Grail Mass and Other Works. I was going to pick out a few of the notes and talk about Jones’ views on both the Roman Empire and All Things Welsh. Something in the editors’ introduction, however, caught my eye before I had the chance to dive in;

These notes are best understood not as didactic attempts to limit the meaning of the lines to which they refer, but rather in terms of Jones oft-used geological metaphors of ‘strata’ or ‘deposits’ to describe the way in which meaning builds up over time within a culture. He was particularly concerned with layers of meaning, and argued that to appreciate the textures on the surface one must know what lies beneath. A page of Jones’ poetry with footnotes running along the bottom and the verse printed above instantiates this understanding. The footnotes do not explain away the verse, they uncover a lower stratum of meaning upon which the poetry above is built. From this perspective, they endeavour not to draw the text down to a fixed meaning, but rather point upward, opening out possibilities of association that would have been otherwise inaccessible and which Jones hopes will subsequently inform the reader’s engagement with the verbal play of the poem itself. The visual impact of Jones’ footnoted poetry is one of the reasons the editors have confined commentary to extended endnotes.

As a self-opinionated Jones obsessive, this detailed explication provides a lot to think about. I’ve been of the view that the notes to The Anathemata don’t ‘work’ in that they often explain things that don’t always need an explanation glide over in silence the things that are Very Obscure Indeed. Self-annotation always seems to me to be fraught with hazard. Some poets manage it reasonably well but others seem much more concerned with self-justification rather than providing assistance. Of course, different readers require different kinds of help but Jones’ later work is so obdurate that I feel that we could all benefit from more consistent ‘cover’. The editors describe these notes as providing a ‘lower stratum of meaning’ that is somehow foundational to that particular part of the poem. If this is the case then I’m not sure that it’s something that I need, I’d much rather have some idea of context which provides broader information rather than these foundations. If this is the case then I don’t mind if more information is provided than I need as long as it gives me that cognitive breadth.

I’m nevertheless intrigued by this geological aspect and have now paid some attention as to where this might apply in the Grail Mass. I want to start with a couple of lines from The Third Celtic Insertion;

or circumambulate the world of
Mother Mona to wheat her furrows
for Camber's mess.........


Mother Mona gets this lengthy note;

Anglesey was known as Mon fam Cymru, ‘Mona the Mother of Wales’, on account, it is supposed, of the corn grown on the island. We have already noted the association of the sea god Manawyddan with the soil, The great fabulist, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in order to provide suitable founders for England, Scotland and Wales respectively names as the sons of Brute: Locrine, Ambarnact and Camber. Camber, no more than the other two, has any place in the earlier mythology. He is, I suppose, a literary invention of the Angevin age. Geoffrey was trying to provide an Aenid for Henry of Anjou’s empire. We can, however, at this date afford to utilise his inventions, for he himself has become part of our deposits. (Incidentally what a tragedy it was for Britain as a whole that the Angevin hegemony ever disintegrated. For had it continued the unity between these islands and French civilisation would have been assured).

The above would appear to be a bit at variance with our editors’ observation. It’s more of a justification for making use of an erroneous reference than ‘a deposit’ in itself. The two elements which may require explanation (‘Mother Mona’ and ‘Camber’) are dealt with first and this provides all the information that I need. As a reader, the observation about Geoffrey’s work having become ‘part of our deposits’ strikes me as extraneous to my engagement with the work. As Jones ackowledges, the last observation is also extraneous (and incorrect).

I also want to have a think about this;

Here in Kemais, igneous and adamant, 
and high - there in Penfro, the high trees
are low under Manannan's tide
where the Deisi foray who converse with incubi.

Does the tufted coverlet drape the shifting
or do we tread the paleozoic
certainties?
                Where, hard strata lean on leaning strata
harder yer, and with each greater hardness
the slow gradient falls, slowly falls to where
the basalts dark gull's side beyond the fretted
knuckles of Pebidiog
                 Where the brittle rim of the lithosphere
hangs and jutties between water-cloud
and water
                  where the last grey tokens are.

All the names, except ‘Mannanan’ from the fist stanza are directly defined in the notes and that omission is clarified by the explanation of the reference to the ‘high trees’ lying low under the tide.

The rest of this extract however has no notes at all so I’ve had to use the interweb to elucidate both ‘Pebidiog’ and ‘lithosphere’ and to look up ‘jutty’ as a verb. This is what I mean with regards to the notes not ‘working’ in any of the later poems but especially this and The Anathemata. It may be argued that The Grail Mass is an incomplete draft an and Jones may have been intending to do this at a later stage before publication. All the same, this seems unlikely given the similar gaps in The Anathemata. Jones’ introduction to that work has;

I have a last point that I wish to get clear. Although in the notes to the text and in this apology I refer to or cite various authorities and sources that does not mean that this book has any pretensions whatever of a didactic nature. I refer to those sources only to elucidate a background.

This seems to me to be reasonably clear, I think that Jones could have done more elucidating but feel that thinking of the notes as some kind of strata just serves to complicate things that are already complex.

Paul Celan, Timestead and suicide.

Celan’s work is the finest poetry of the 20th century. I know of no other poet who can match his ability to delve into the far reaches of the human soul, nor has any modern writer faced up to himself with such searing honesty. I accept that this is a subjective view and one that goes back to my adolescence but it’s one that I’m more than happy to stand by.

Timestead / Zeitgehoft was first published after Celan’s suicide and contains work from the last eighteen months of his life. I have a whole range of issues with posthumous publication because we will never be sure what the writer intententions were with the poems that were left behind and are thus uncertain as to whether the poems are actually complete.

Celan is perhaps best known as a Holocaust survivor who was also a follower of the writings of Martin Heidegger, a card carrying Nazi and anti-Semite. What tends to get overlooked is his recurring struggle with mental ill health and his abiding interest in Jewish mysticism. He was plagued by severe depression and bouts of paranoia which required electro shock treatment. He died in 1970 by throwing himself into the Seine.

For the last fifty years I’ve avoided thinking about Celan’s final act for a number of reasons. Initially, as a callow youth, I saw the suicide of talented artists as an almost natural manifestation of the tortured genius, later on I read Celan’s suicide as an equally rational response to the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish race. Much later, in middle age, I became severely depressed myself and, during three separate episodes, I made active plans to do away with myself and required both periods of incarceration and consequent shock treatment. These coincided, more or less with the start of this blog in the late noughties. I’ve been writing about Celan throughout the last 12 years but have never felt able to confront this specific aspect of his work.

In my experience, suicide wasn’t a cry for help. I knew that I was, once again, en route to a severe depression and felt completely unable to prevent this. The only way that I felt I could get some resolution was by killing myself, thus depriving the depression of its victory.

Now that I’ve been well for about 10 years, I’ve felt able to look at Timestead with a bit more dispassionate attention and have been taken aback by the brutal strength of some of the poems. This is The whisperhouse / Das Flusterhaus;

The whiseprhouse,
open on leapday,

handed on
on jute, surface-
deep

it naturalizes
the fricatives,

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

-does the
other snap in,
on time? -

this, yes this
glacierscreaming
of your hands,

the network of the dead
helps to carry the firnice,

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

at the resthaven, deathproud, the
start throng
takes the hurdle.



I recognise that there may well be a lot of over identification going on but the above does ‘speak’ to me at a very deep level. I’m taking it that the ‘you’ here is the poet himself and that it’s written in the certain knowledge that he will kill himself. This is a big claim but things do seem to build slowly towards that bitter conclusion. In earlier work glaciers and ice fields are places of death where life seems to be extinguished. The compound here suggests to me somebody in agony at that place as well as the noise of the ice moving slowly forwards.

I’m taking ‘firnice’ to be a compound of ‘firn ice’ whch Wikipedia describes as “ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice” which may or may not point towards the way in which death proceeds. I was initially puzzled by this ‘network of the dead’ but things became a bit clearer when I realised that the network is helping something else with moving this load along.

Celan wrote a lot about the death of his parents, both of whom perished in the camps and about meeting them in the after-life. This network could thus refer to those who have previously died helping the living through to the same state. From a personal perspective I know that this kind of psychosis is common among the severely depressed, as is the notion of death as a welcome relief. It may seem odd but a serious depressive episode is, as it progresses, exhausting. Your brain is working really hard to keep what you know to be dangerous thoughts and feelings in check whilst your emotions are clamouring for your attention. Even though I’m not in any way religious I can identify with viewing a place to get some respite from this incredibly taxing onslaught as akin to heaven.

I viewed my planned suicides as victories over the depression which was making me feel so distraught and vulnerable. I was also convinced that my illness was contagious and that I was infecting those that I loved simply by remaining alive. Planning my imminent death felt like I was at least doing something rather than allowing ‘it’ to pull me further down to the depths. In retrospect, this gave me a kind of pride which I think is what Celan might be referring to here, especially if we understand ‘takes the hurdle’ as crossing the line between life and death.

I realise that I’ve ignored the first half of the poem, this is mainly because it doesn’t speak to me with the same direct intensity that the last four stanzas do and because there isn’t space here for an extensive discussion of fricatives, jute and the whisper house although this may occur in the coming weeks.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve shown at least one possible way of responding to The Whisperhouse and have been able to demonstrate why it is so very important to me.

I’ve used Pierre Joris’ translation taken from his Breathturn into Timestead which was published in 2014 and is highly recommended

Geoffrey Hill, Hopkins and the working poem.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Common sense, practical intelligence, ‘gumption’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J H Prynne, Kazoo Dreamboats and the spirit.

On the last occasion that I wrote about Prynne, I paid some attention to the start of his KD paragraph on p 21 which specifies four rules. This time I want to think about the next few lines and the figure of ‘the spirit’ in particular.

None of this it must be said is the power of harmony even in change fluctuation or lifetimes except the desire integrate the variation of separate notice, that’s what spirit mostly does where she went bare in the forehead morning, only men write their socks off like this; better to be clear than dizzy or cynic, not to refuse joy in favour of rapture or contentment, the gradients are lateralised in additive counterflow. But rapture is also pretty nice. It was the deep power of contradiction in dipole scattering brilliance, tumid with negation, deep only by customary expletive, that made a blaze before the eyes, because you see only by knowing and doing what you know. Spirit ever sat upon her hands but then that’s also not true, the truth of strong and being strongly true is now weakened by extractive countermeasure, only by complacent denial.

Now, this all seems a lot more complicated and a little out of kilter with the rules that preceded it. There’s also more than usual gestures towards things philosophical: spirit; negation; contradiction and truth. I’m going to take the cowards way out with the references to dipoles and harmony because they would seem to relate to the KD reference tomes on Van der Waals forces and Condensed matter theory, both of which continue to defy this scientifically illiterate auto-didact. This is obviously annoying to me as an attentive reader, especially as Prynne says in his Paris Review interview that he had begun to take an interest in molecular forces in order to support an ‘instinct’ he has regarding “the structure of material things”.

I’ve ranted before about the almost willful obscurity of some poetry because it deters the interested reader from getting to grips with the material. I’ve now modified that position to an acceptance that poets must be free to write ‘about’ what interests them but should expect and accept that this kind of work will be largely ignored. Given that we are talking about molecular interaction, is the spirit here some kind of primal motive force in the material world or something more abstract or poetic?

The most obvious type of spirit is probably to be found in Hegel and his The Phenomenology of Spirit, mainly because it is concerned with knowledge and truth, amongst other things. I haven’t read Hegel and am unlikely to do so but this business of seeing by knowing intrigues me. It does seem reasonably self-evident that knowing something does require some form of sensory exposure which will always be prior to any kind of knowledge. For example, wee see the redness and feel the heat of a fire before these sensations (feelings) are passed on to the brain. We absorb information by first of all using our eyes to read or our ears to hear.

Moving on to this forehead morning, there’s a line in the Streak Willing sequences that uses ‘forelands’ which, after much brain scratching turned out to indicate the four provinces of Ireland. In this vein, four heads and mourning would appear to be what’s indicated here, although I’m not sure where this might lead us. Spirit is said to ‘integrate the variation of separate notice’ which doesn’t make any kind of sense in my relatively normal world. The putting together of separate things so that they become less separate could well be a gesture towards ‘the deep power of contradiction’ mentioned a few lines later.

It may also be worth noting that there is a missing ‘to’ between ‘desire’ and ‘integrate’ which, given Prynne’s penchant for accuracy, is unlikely to be an error. Some moments with the OED however reveals that the noun is also an adjective meaning; “Made up, as a whole, of separate (integrant) parts, composite; belonging to such a whole; complete, entire, perfect”. All of a sudden integrate desire becomes much more graspable and quite poetic, to this reader at least. This doesn’t account however for the apparently absent ‘of’ after desire although this kind of omission will be familiar to most Prynne readers.

The other apparent anomaly is “who where she went bare” which I’m really struggling with because I can’t make it coherent. The only possible, provisional and tenuous reading that I can come up with is that there may be a missing comma between the first two words which would create a clause within “who only men write….” but this isn’t particularly helpful either.

What is intriguing for me is this business about truth. In his PR interview Pryne says:

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. Why did I do that? Was it deliberate, reckless violence? No, there was some kind of principle involved, but I couldn’t for the life of me say what the principle was.

Also, he mentions Mao Zedong;

The narrative that Mao Zedong invented and devised to produce a native Chinese style of Marxism was and is still extremely interesting to me. That interest is written on the surface and in the crevices all over Kazoo Dreamboats.

One of the most influential essays by Mao is On Contradiction in which he insists on the presence of contradiction in absolutely everything and, amongst other things, shows how this can be utilised to effect positive change. It’s at this point that I normally decide that the effort isn’t worth it and throw the poem across the room. However, I find myself intrigued this violation of opinions and whether or not this might apply to Things Dialectical. For example does ‘tumid with negation’ ironically undermine this ‘deep power of contradiction’ or are we meant to take it seriously? With regard to these scattered dipoles, one of KD’s ‘reference points’ has;

Here, the electrons on each molecule create transient dipoles. They couple the directions of their dipoles to lower mutual energy. “Dispersion” recognizes that natural frequencies of resonance, necessary for the dipoles to dance in step, have the same physical cause as that of the absorption spectrum—the wavelength-dependent drag on light that underlies the dispersion of white light into the spectrum of a rainbow.

This might be helpful in that dipoles are opposites but beyond that I’m unable to venture.

The power of contradiction is said to be made deep solely by a ‘customary expletive’. Checking for other than the standard meaning of the noun, I come across this;

A word or phrase that fills out a sentence or metrical line without adding anything to the sense; a word or phrase serving as a grammatical place-filler.

Which would seem to indicate that the dimension of depth is superfluous when applied to contradiction. I don’t think that we can ignore the fact that ‘depth’ can refer to many different kinds of things in different ways. Before we get back to spirit, I need to take a guess at the relevance of ‘negation’, tumid or otherwise. Hegel remains notorious for his invention of the negation of the negation as a key part of the dialectic which, however you spin it, is an example of obfuscation in the extreme. The idea of a swollen negation sounds ironic and I gain some support from the interview;

The molecular view of the structure of matter seemed to me-I don’t suppose I would have thought of it like this, but this is one simplified way of putting it-an antidote to a certain kind of spiritism. It provides an argument against a whole slab of metaphysics in the German tradition, a whole slab of metaphysical idealism in the English Romantic tra­dition. I found myself resentful about this idealism, partly because it philo­sophically and theoretically no longer seemed to command my loyalties, and partly because it was a very expensive dodge that provokes a great deal of trouble in thinking clearly about the world situation.

I think we now come back to spirit and her role in this extended exploration. I’m taking it that she is the embodiment of this spiritism that has done so much damage over the last two centuries. She seems to participate in the working through of contradictions and yet tries to remain neutral, refuses to take sides/make a judgement. This assertion is then said to be untrue. The final statement is another dense ‘slab’ of language that seems to worry about authenticity and the failure of the dialectic to undermine it- a task that can only be achieved by the denial of the existence of the true and the truth.

Of course, all of the above is subjective and very tenuous, I really want Prynne to have rejected both the above tradition and to have arrived at a complacent relativism as espoused by Richard Rorty. This, of course, is very unlikely but I live in hope.

David Jones, In Parenthesis as Documentary..

What follows is a version of the brief paper I was going to give at the York University Jones conference in July 2016 The reason for putting it here is that heart surgery had prevented any long distance travel and various other normal activities a couple of months. I originally put this on my arduity site but it may well be of interest to readers here.

In Parenthesis is a heartbreakingly beautiful account of the days leading up to and including the first day of the Somme offensive on July 1st in 1916. According to our foremost military historian, Michael Howard, it is also one of the greatest ever accounts of warfare.

In 1938 IP won the then prestigious Hawthornden Prize, in his 1961 Note of Introduction T S Eliot describes it as a “work of genius” and places Jones in the same group as himself, Pound and Joyce.

Before beginning, I’d like to acknowledge Tom Dilworth’s account of the very close parallels between IP and David Jones’ personal experience of the war, a proximity I’ll return to more than once as we progress.

Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of the documentary poem but I’m suggesting that that this is more, that IP transcends this particular Poetry Mode and spills over into a thing both more specific and, at the same time, universal. I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make any kind of sense but (please) bear with me. As well as being a fan on the Poetry Mode, I’m also a devotee of the documentary film because great factual films bring with them a sense of immediacy and exactness that both moves and fascinates me.

In his Preface, Jones sets out his two main aims, the first being to memorialise his fallen comrades and the second to give an account of the period leading up to the mechanization of warfare that, as he saw it, coincided with the slaughter on the Somme:

This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt and was part of. The period covered begins early in December 1915 and ends early in July in 1916. The first date corresponds to my going to France. The latter roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the infantry on the West Front. From then on things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect. The wholesale slaughter of the later years, the conscripted levies filling the gaps in every file of four, knocked the bottom out of the intimate, continuing, domestic life of men, within whose structures Roland could find, and, for a reasonable while, enjoy, his Oliver. In the earlier months there was a certain attractive amateurishness, and elbow-room for idiosyncrasy that connected one with a less exacting past.

The are the opening lines of Jones’ preface and I’m suggesting that it might be useful to take him at his word. It’s a writing that a specific period of time, not a written record, nor a memoir, nor an elegaic account but a having to do with and it’s this aspect that I’d like to pay some attention to here.

This writing proceeds by way of narrative, by telling the story of its protagonist, private John Ball, as he makes his way from the English parade ground to the first day of the battle. The focus is almost entirely on the internal relationships within Ball’s company, the men’s responses to each other and the events going on around them. In this way Jones’ captures and conveys a specific and personal kind of reality. Now, I know very little about the Great War, only a little more than the consensus cultural view of a senseless slaughter that didn’t achieve anything for either side. I am therefore in no position whatsoever to assess the accuracy or otherwise of this story. What I have done is noted how it has affected me and my perspective on these events. The first thing to be said is that this tired old cynic continues to be emotionally stirred up and that his view of the quotidian existence of these men has changed dramatically.

Because of the reported conversations and behaviours, I feel as if I know all of these characters and yet throughout the story I know that many of them are going to die. During the first reading i attempted to maintain some kind of manly distance from the characters but still managed to be heartbroken and emotionally mangled for them, as living and breathing individuals, as they fell. In terms of my perspective, that’s changed on both the event and on the priorities I give to historical trends and the bigger perspective in general.

In terms of the event, I now understand that WWI wasn’t four years of continuous and relentless hell, that there were periods of respite and recuperation to be had whilst behind the trenches, that the main thing that kept men going was their camaraderie and resolve, even though they didn’t hold the officer class in any great regard. The second is the importance of personal experience in the scheme of things, as in it is of little use knowing and understanding the causes of and the general progress of things without an at least equal understanding of the effect of these on individual lives.

I’ve written before about the physical awkwardness and effort involved in getting to and living in the front lines but here I want to think about this in terms of documentary, of this ‘having to do with’. This brief extract is from Part 3, Starlight Order which deals with the Company moving at night towards the forward positions:

And sleepy-eyed see Jimmy Grove’s irregular bundle-figure, totter upward labouringly, immediately next in front, his dark silhouette sways a moment above you – he drops away into the night – and your feet follow where he seemed to be. Each in turn labours over whatever it is – this piled brokenness – dragged over and a scared hurrying on, the slobber was ankle-deep where you found the road again.

And this as the troops near their destination:

The night dilapidates over your head and scarlet lightning annihilates the nice adjustments of your vision, used now to, and cat-eyed for the shades. You stumble under this latest demonstration, white-hot nine-inch splinters hiss, water-tempered, or slice the cross-slats between his feet – you hurry in your panic, which hurrying gives you clumsy foothold, which falling angers you, and you are less afraid; you call them bastards – you laugh aloud.

Before we proceed, theere is a note to ‘Jimmy Grove’s’ but I don’t understand it (the notes don’t always ‘work’). Whatever this may refer to, I don’t think my ignorance in any way detracts from the jaw-dropping brilliance of the above. Incidentally ‘hedropsaway’ isn’t a typo, it’s how it appears in the 2010 Faber edition.

Reading part 4, I’m on this road with these men, I’m struggling with them, I’m aware of the immediacy of danger and equally scared by the annihilating lightning. I’m sucked in by the use of ‘you’ and carried along by the quicknesses of the rhythm and the exquisite use of language. All of these convey to me the most convincing ‘having to do with’ warfare that I have ever read. Of course, this is a subjective and personal view but I’m happy to argue for it against other contenders for the above reasons.

Jones’ is also keen to describe aspects of life behind the trenches and there is one passage concerning a local couple who run a bar serving the troops during their days of respite. This is from Part 5, Squat Garlands for White Knights:

   She bolted the door for the night
and when it was morning
Jacques said that the Englishman's guns had kept him awake.
   She said that it was a pleasant morning, and the first in June.
   He said it was time the English advanced, that they were a
stupid race, anyhow.
   She said they were not.
   He would like to remind her of the Pastoral,
for which she laughed a long time,
with: Vah, vah,
and her head wagging
with: La - la, la, and her finger pointed, with:
Tawny-tooth go watch the priest, and,
Bent-wit.
   She said that the war was lucrative, and chid him feed the
fowl, and smoothed her pinafore: sometimes the Siege Artil-
lery came in during the morning, If there wasn't a shoot on.

There are many conversations in IP but this is the only one between non-combatants and thus the only one that is likely to have be supposition rather than direct experience. The Preface addresses the issue of the authentic thus:

Each person and every event are free reflections of people and things remembered, or projected from intimately known possibilities.

I’d argue that this rationale and these components embody the very best documentary form in every genre from Lanzman’s Shoah to the accounts of Eamon Duffy and Vanessa Place. I’d also like to observe that, as a close and attentive Jones reader, I have yet to encounter any aspect of dishonesty, as in things done exclusively for effect, or artifice in his work.

To return to these two and their conversation, the perspective is new to me in that I haven’t read an account of those who lived in proximity to these horrors and went on as, best they could, with their ‘ordinary’ lives. What I find particularly efficacious here is the casual, almost incidental, discussion of what I would consider to be terrifying and murderously destructive events. Both the artillery barrage (described with vivid clarity by Jones elsewhere) and an ‘advance’ are given this everyday tone. Again, I don’t empirically know if this is accurate or not but it does seem to me to be as close a ‘projection’ of the real that we are going to get.

This is also achieved by the Pastoral joke, the stupidity argument and the general observation that the war was an economic opportunity for those who chose to stay near the fronts. People talk like this, conversation is generally good-humoured and the subject under discussion tends to jump around a bit.

There a couple of possible quibbles that spring to mind and the first of these relates to genre. It could be argued that IP is a memoir or a personal history rather than a documentary, that the events describe an aspect of Jones’ life or an account of that period immediately before the descent into mechanised ‘wholesale slaughter’. It might also be argued that poetry-wise that it’s an extended elegy for the first half of 1916. In response, I’ll quote again from the preface:

None of the characters in this writing are real persons, nor is any sequence of events historically accurate. There are, I expect minor anachronisms, e.g. the suggestion in Part 4 of a rather too fully developed gas-defence system for Christmas 1915. The mention of ‘toffee-apples’ (a type of trench-mortar bomb so shaped) at perhaps too early a date.

That appears to me to be a clear refutation of the history argument. There is the last part of the above where Jones indicates his awareness of two inaccuracies and provides these to show that he either is arguing for the history reading or he is indicating that this is not his primary task. Given the preceding disclaimer, I’d go for the second option. This extract follows on from the ‘intimately known possibilities’ quote provided above:

I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.

I’d like to think that this diminishes the memoir argument as especially by the careful ‘using as data the complex’ which would seem to enhance my case as this again is an essential part of the documentarist’s task.

The other supporting point is Jones’ sketch map of the relevant front lines that was included in the first Faber edition of 1937 but criminally excluded from the recent reprint. I only know about this object because I have a copy of John Matthias’ Selected Works of David Jones. I would reproduce it here but my scanning skills are less than brilliant and some of the names are faint and barely legible. However, there are two dates, ‘24.12.’15’ and ‘9.9.16’ , a scale (‘1.10000’) and no man’s land clearly marked out, together with the complex of trenches behind the front line.

I accept that these are by no means conclusive and that I may be making this argument because I want IP to be documentary. I’m less convinced by the argument that we shouldn’t take Jones’ Preface at face value. IP was 20 ye4ars in the making and our poet will have been fully aware of how an attentive of this frame would inform and perhaps direct readers’ approach- it certainly did for me.

In conclusion, I’m writing this on the morning of July 1st 2016, exactly a century since these men walked (walked) into that place of unnecessary slaughter. I’m not usually a fan of military commemoration for all sorts of reasons but I’d like to end with the fate of Mr. Jenkins, the 21 year old officer in charge of John Ball’s platoon:

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them - he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of 
Private Ball.
   He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inw3ard effort of spent me who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
                 swings like a pendulum
                 and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clamps unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
         and marked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering as a paltry strap - 
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
  Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
-where it rises to his wire- and Sergeant T.Quilter takes
over.

This remarkable work is available second hand from Amazon at a mere 7 quid which is laughably cheap. There is no excuse not to get it and place yourself in the presence of greatness.

Paul Celan: some wordwords from Timestead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

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

 The whisperhouse,
open on leapday,

handed on
on jute, surface-
deep,

it naturalizes 
the fricatives,

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

―does the 
other snap in,
on time?―

this, yes this
glacierscreaming
of your hands,

the network of the dead 
helps to carry the firnice,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four occasions when we whisper come to mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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