Category Archives: philosophy

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.

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.

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.

Paul Celan: some wordwords from Timestead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

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

 The whisperhouse,
open on leapday,

handed on
on jute, surface-
deep,

it naturalizes 
the fricatives,

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

―does the 
other snap in,
on time?―

this, yes this
glacierscreaming
of your hands,

the network of the dead 
helps to carry the firnice,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four occasions when we whisper come to mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video

J H Prynne, Kazoo Dreamboats and the rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attending to Pierre Joris on Celan’s Threadsuns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and;

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joris takes a different tack;

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

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

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

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

This ‘light-tone’ is annotated by Joris;

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

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

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

Testifying with Paul Celan. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one
bears witness for the
witness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this perhaps adds some context to the geological themes;

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

As the stone, as the other, the inorganic will

    resemble

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

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

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

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

Geoffrey Hill, mysticism and Gabriel Marcel

I’m currently paying attention to Expostulations on the Volcano, a new sequence which makes its first appearance in Hill’s Collected and it appears to contain a more direct exploration of the spiritual and mystical Hill.

Mysticism covers a great multitude of beliefs and activites, previously Hill has wondered out loud about the nature of Spirit and less about the workings of Grace. Expostulations sees him becoming increasingly involved in a particular aspect of the Kabbalah tradition, the Qiphloth. This is Poem 13:

What am I hymning that is not absurd?
I have reworked the least of me twelve times
For Cabbalistic humours, for the dead,
Buoyed by the storm music from Peter Grimes;

Fancying myself as a storm-petrel 
With excellent reflexes and at ease
In the burly element I patrol;
Tempted by instinct's sinew to be wise.

There would be scandal. Let me off my hook
Of retrospection; say I was not caught
By what I feared: one mere untimely look;
It is not nature's way to be distraught.

The Secrets of Creative Elements
Are not creation; nor do they vault forth
Loved-clown-like, but, to exorbitant wants,
Protract and retract themselves, mould Qliphoth.

As to these pots, frost-broken, white, exposed
Roots, tendrils, pebbles. In a mouldered cake,
Some would still argue: have the mass composted
For as long as deconstruction may take.

I’ve chosen the above because it seems to be at least a partial summary of the current state / condition of Hillian thinking and belief. Before I proceed, I need to point out that my only knowledge of things mystical is due to reading Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism some years ago and forgetting most of it, apart from Plotinus, shortly thereafter. My woes are further compounded by there being a whole range of spellings and definitions for Qliphoth on the interweb so I’m only able to offer my very wobbly grasp on things. In this particular tradition there is a Tree of Life which is a good thing made up of other good things. Qliphtoth is figured by some to be the bark of the tree and by others to be the shell of the nut produced by the tree and is a Very Bad Thing Indeed (evil). Some people apparently think that the Qlippoth is evil because it has been given an over-abundance of good/holiness.

Rather than undertake the usual bebrowed dissection, I think I want to consider the poem in total. What seems to be going on is the fretting over this retrospective hook and the drawing of a couple of conclusions, which may or may not be provisional.

The open. The next aspect is the numbers ‘game’ once we’ve got over the for/four pun, the four being: blood, phlegm, choler, and so-called melancholy or black bile which are in turn associated with hotness, dryness, coldness and moistness all of which were. for about two thousand years, thought to be the most reliable / unly indicators of health. Twelve is more of a problem, according to my brief skim through Major Trends the Tree has only ten components. I like the idea that, prior to the publication of the Day books there were twelve published books of verse. Of course, I want it to refer to the work because that kind of ties in with the end of the poem which is probably trying to say too many thing at once. The ‘reworking the least of me is nearly as good as ‘a sad and angry consolation’, Hill’s definition proffered at the end of The Triumph of Love and will now be used my me to describe my own meanderings. Or it could refer to the months of the years, the signs of the zodiac, the amount of pennies in a shilling and many other things besides.

Being me, I like the ‘exorbitant wants’ partly because it’s the kind of conjuring that his detractors hate but also because it shows the strength in depth that Hill still retains in re-working the language that we hold in common. I talked about clowns and clowning last time and was going to skim over it here but he might be saying something (in retrospect) about the light-comedy entertainer that Hill has, on occasion, aspired to be. A whole range of clown-related cliches come to mind but I do want to get on to the role of evil here and these broken pots and detritus.

Time for another confession, I first cam across Gabriel Marcel in A Precis or Memorandum of Civil Power in the A Treatise of Civil Power which was published in 2007. I found out from the interweb that he was a Christian existentialist and I left it at that. This was a mistake because, with the assistance of the increasingly impressive Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I’ve found a few things that slip almost neatly into what appears to be Hill’s current world view:

  • the world is broken and it may always have been broken but it is made more broken by historical events;
  • this brokenness is best characterised in the contemporary world in the refusal, or inability, to reflect or to imagine and the denial of the transcendent;
  • this is largely because we have prioritised and technology and this leads us to despair because it has no answer to the ‘bigger’ questions about the philosophical truths:
  • we still have a need for transcendence because we feel a degree of dissatisfaction which stems from this functional way of living;
  • with regard to transendence itself, Marcel has: “There is an order where the subject finds himself in the presence of something entirely beyond his grasp. I would add that if the word “transcendent” has any meaning it is here—it designates the absolute, unbridgeable chasm yawning between the subject and being, insofar as being evades every attempt to pin it down”;
  • Marcel makes a distinction between problem and mystery in that problems can be resolved by technique whereas a mystery is a “problem that encroaches on its own data” such as the relationship between body and soul, the nature of evil, freedom and love.

I’ll readily confess to tearing all of this out of context to suit my own purposes but, as a means of justification, I’d like to use the first few lines from part I of A Precis:

Could so have managed not to be flinging
down this challenge.
True way is homeless but the better gods
go with the house. Cogito a bare
threshold as G Marcel sagely declares,
of what's valid.
Come round to the idea, even so
belated and knock. Echo the answer
in spare strophes that yield almost nothing
to the knowledge
outside them raw with late wisdom.

Now, might this be a precis of the above lines of thought? Might this reveal a late acceptance of said line? Are the Day Books in part a working through of this acceptance? I, of course want to answer all of these in the affirmative because Hill’s disdain for the functional in this broken world does seem in the later work to march in step with an exploration of the transcendent.

Of cause this is tentative, subjective and provisional. I know I read something recently about Hill’s view of the relationship between the political and the mystical, once I’ve dug it out I may well change my mind. I am however particularly fond of these spare strophes that are said to be raw with late wisdom. Wonderful.

The Allegory by the Pool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prynne week: Biting the Air.

I’ve now decided to have a series of ‘weeks’ in the way that Radio Three has a composer of the week and some arthouse cinemas have a director’s season. I think I’m doing this because it gives me an opportunity to stay with one poet’s work over a number of posts rather than flitting from one to the other. This isn’t going to be easy because I am a lifelong flitter.

J H Prynne does however present a wide enough range of stuff to keep this tendency at bay and Biting the Air appears to be a good example of this. I will proceed with caution because Prynne’s work is generally tricky (technical term) but repays careful attention. Given the level of trickiness what follows is more than usually tentative, provisional and subject to radical change.

Biting the Air was published in 2003 and appears as the penultimate poem in the second edition and appears, in part at least, to have Big Pharma in its sights. I do know a little about the global pharmaceutical problem, I spent between 2004-10 writing about the inadequacies of the system of drug research, testing and marketing and remain of the view that producing misleading/false information that leads to death or premature death should be a criminal offence. Because I’m bipolar I’ll be taking drugs for the rest of my life so I also have an interest in how things are done.

This is a sequence of 12 poems, 11 of which have five four-line stanzas with the other one having a bit of variation in the middle. The epigraph is from Ockham- “Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything. This is the start of the first poem:

Pacify rag hands attachment in for muted
counter-march or locked up going to drainage
offer some, give, none ravine platter, tied up
to kin you would desire that. Even hand

bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. even
flatline signal glitz perfection, slide under be-
fore matter planning your treat advance infirm
in legal glowing stunt. Enough out of one hand

And this is the final three stanzas of the sixth poem:

told to you, root and branch slope management
at onrush unpaired and less compact, generic death
as possession on nil return. Which way the novice
points trail off, they say the same on the block

new level rib, spit your lips. Be quick, be
long to pump anger revivalism, percolate thick 
forest scarps dug yet deeper. Get a vaccine on
shipment perish thread your face why yours

if told more, stable on a tilted capital feed 
suspected more often. Give out a version amplified
with strings to obligate a boundary check, felt 
damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption.

There’s gloriously complex things that appear to be going on here. Starting with the obvious ‘medical’ words: pharmaceutical, flatline, infirm, generic, rib, lips, vaccine and life exemption- I’m taking this to indicate that the poem is making direct comment on the issues that beset modern medicine rather than using this particular malaise to talk about something else. Of course, he may be doing both but I’m going to stick with medicine as medicine for the moment.

I’m now going to be very brave and launch into some kind of close reading of the above few lines in order to see if bits can be extracted and refined. The reason for choosing two separate passages is to test out what Prynne says in his Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems essay published in the CLR in 2010:

But in certain types of “difficult” poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.

This and the rest of the essay strike me as invaluable aids in dealing with this kind of material but then there’s a doubt for me about how many readers will be bothered to read the essays and the critical work on Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Herbert which demonstrate how this particular poet ‘does’ poetry. I’ve read these because I was already intrigued by the material and wanted to know more, as has also been the case with Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis. Is this what the charge of elitism is about? Should readers need just the words on the page to get the full picture? I don’t think this is necessarily exclusionary, a fan of Liverpool football club may read players’ autobiographies in order to get some context from what they pay to see. I don’t think that I’m unique in wanting to know more about what my favourite writers think about writing and I don’t feel that this is an elitist pursuit.

So, is there a “corridor of sense” running through the above? I think that there might be but it might be best to take things reasonably slowly.

Even hand bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. At first stare, ‘front’ is problematic because it’s difficult to see how it can be described as pharmaceutical. It took me a little while but it may be that ‘front’ may refer to a cover or disguise for something else- usually a criminal activity. In New York, the Mafia has used garbage collection to disguise its main lines of business. The OED reminds me that ‘pharmaceutical’ is a noun as well as an adjective and that this has been used since 1829 to indicate a “pharmaceutical preparation; a medicinal drug”. No, one of the many problems with the drug industry are the intertwined problems of neutrality and objectivity. Time after time the biggest drug companies have been fined for presenting skewed and partial information when selling there products. They’ve marketed anti-psychotics as a beneficial treatment for dementia without disclosing the very much increased risk of stroke and the average shortening of life by about five years. This is bolstered by the publication of clinical trial results that are hopelessly compromised by the fact that they are funded by the company producing the drug.

So ‘even hand’ might be read as ‘even handed’, fair, balanced, impartial and these qualities are used by drug companies as a front to disguise the complex and often contradictory realities of new therapies.

Even flatline glitz perfection. The OED fives glitz as “an extravagant but superficial display” which characterizes the way drug companies flog their wares. A flatline on a heart monitor would indicate that the heart has stopped beating but on other graphs and displays it indicates a stable or unchanging state with no variation. The Prynne ‘even’ always presents me with difficulties but on this occasion it may be the verb as in to make level or equal or to describe something that has these qualities. With regard to flatlining, drug companies are particularly good at selling products that don’t make a blind bit of difference. There is currently a bit of a furore in the UK because it has been noticed that £300 million was spent on tamiflu even though the evidence for its efficacy doesn’t exist.

Slope management. One of the very many joys of paying attention to Prynne and Hill is the amount of time that you get to spend with the OED. Looking at the ‘slope’ variations I’ve just come across its use as an adverb, deployed by Milton in PL as That bright beam, whose point now raisd Bore him slope downward to the Sun which is wonderful and is obviously in need of revivial. However, I don’t think that there’s any need to get too esoteric in this instance. I’m taking ‘slope’ as being the opposite of the flat line in the first poem and ‘management’ as a euphemism for manipulation. This works in both ways- drug companies produce results that emphasise the benefits whilst minimising the likely risks. Incidentally, I’m not of the view that Big Pharma is the incarnation of evil but I am concerned that our political masters simply fail to understand the issues involved from the nature of objective knowledge and the intertwined relationships between academic and commercial research and health providers. I’ll also admit to be morbidly fascinated by these folding and re-folding processes.

I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong here, especially as I can’t get to grips with “at onrush unpaired and less compact” but I don’t have any better points of reference at the moment.

Felt damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption. This might take a little while. I’m going to take ‘manupilate’ to have its common definition and worry instead about exemption. This particular noun refers to setting an individual or entity outside a particular rule or code. The most obvious example that springs into this small brain is the exemption of diplomats from parking tickets. So, a life exemption may be an exemption from something that lasts for life or an exemption from the rules that normally pertain to being alive. It seems, for example, that we are living much longer than any previous generation and that this may be credited to advances in medical practice and treatments. The other exemption from life that can be exercised is the ability of the individual to choose to curtail his or her existence. I’m not going to amplify the minefield signalled here by ‘ethic’ but wish to point out that medical ‘progress’ (loaded term) has prolonged life but in some cases has simply extended an already unbearable existence.

I hope the above points to how a ‘corridor of sense’ may be obtained. I know that this particular take may be very wide of the mark but at least it does begin to tease out some of those boundaries of relevance that Prynne refers to. In the rest of this week’s posts I hope to put more of his description to the test.