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Hill, Jarvis, Muldoon and rhyme.

I’m about to announce a bit of a conversion but I need to give some background first.  In 2010 Geoffrey Hill produced “Oraclau |  Oracles”,  Simon Jarvis produced “Erlkonig” and “Dinner” whilst Paul Muldoon published “Maggott”.  Much to my surprise, “Oraclau” uses rhyme and does so in a perplexing way, the Jarvis poems rhyme (which is less surprising) whilst Muldoon is known, at least in my head, for flaunting his ability in this department.

At some stage during December, I came across an essay by Jarvis entitled “Why rhyme pleases” which some kind soul had uploaded to the AAAAARG site (which now contains an impressive collection of his criticism) and have now read it.

Since early adolescence I’ve been against rhyme for personal reasons and also because it seems to trivialise the materialise the material in bringing it too close to song.  Reading “Oraclau” has provoked a mixed response in me. The rhymes Hill uses are, for the most part, half rhymes functioning as a nod in the direction of ‘like sounds’ but not quite getting there. The overall theme is clear enough (Hill’s Welsh ancestry and most things Welsh) as is the structure (144 nine-line stanzas, some of which form longer (and titled) poems. The “voice” is clearly Hill’s and there is less God than usual but the rhymes don’t seem to work and in some cases operate against the sense of what’s being said (being Hill, this could be the point).

Jarvis uses rhyme in some parts of the defiantly metrical “The Unconditional” so it’s not surprising that the two subsequent and shorter poems should use it throughout. I’m less impressed with “Dinner” than I am with “Erlkonig” although they are meant to be related.  This may be due to insufficient attention on my part so I’ll read it a few more times before arriving at a view.

So, I decided that I needed to take rhyme a bit more seriously and then recalled a Muldoon Poem called “The Old Country” from ‘Horse Latitudes’ which I found impressive and read this again.  I wasn’t entirely clear why this particular poem should ‘work’ for me in a way that most rhyming verse doesn’t but the re-reading confirmed my initial reaction.

Simon Jarvis is a man on a mission, the UK’s major hardcore advocate of prosody in all its forms and someone who is clearly not afraid to reinforce his critical argument in his poetry. He also writes very well – even when he’s wrong. “Why rhyme pleases” operates on several levels, Jarvis starts with 18th century critics of rhyme – “Yet rhyme is also a toy, a bawble, a gewgaw, a trifle; it jingles, it tinkles, it rattles and babbles. In short, it is something of absolutely no importance whatever, which must therefore be destroyed without further delay, because it is so deeply evil”. The “deeply evil” aspect is attributed to the protestant view of rhyme as essentially papist. This is juxtaposed with an extended paraphrase of Viktor Zhirmunksy’s untranslated ‘Rhyme: its history and theory’ published in 1923 and described by Jarvis as the most important book on rhyme that has ever been written. Both Prynne and Zhirmunksy are cited as critics who view rhyme as something that either stimulates or cocoons- a view that Jarvis wishes to dispel. He sets out his stall by invoking Adorno in stating that

….technique is the way art thinks. The second is the argument that art thinks historically, and that what it knows, when it thinks well, is natural-historical experience. So called ‘form’ becomes in Adorno’s account a kind of inexplicit mimesis, a mimesis which is not of individual objects in the world, but of those features of natural-historical experience which are at once the most elusive and amongst the most important: of structural shifts in the texture of experience itself which are too painful, or too blissful, directly to be thematized. No art is about itself. So technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff.

I must confess that I have yet to read ‘Aesthetic Theory’ but my usual response to Adorno is one of unabiding scepticism. Nevertheless the idea that art uses its technique to ‘think’ is impressive- leaving aside the question of how something as abstract as art can be said to think at all and whether you really can have form as a ‘mimesis’ of ‘structural shifts in the texture of experience itself’.
Jarvis quotes Prynne’s ‘Ariestas, in Seven Years’ to make a point about the differing ways that rhyme might be identified. He then looks at the way rhymes by Wallace Stevens and Louis Aragon have been viewed by critics before looking at detail at a longish passage from Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ in which he equates Pope’s virtuosity with Barthes’ description of the seduction of the unknown reader.
For me rhyme only works when it doesn’t get in the way of the poem. I find that when I’m reading some poems that rhyme I tend to scan ahead looking for the rhyme words/sounds which is very distracting and reduces any pleasure I might get from the verse.
I’d now like to compare the use of rhyme in these three poets to indicate why rhyme is beginning to please me and also to point out my ongoing concerns about the Jarvis argument.
Here’s the first two stanzas from the ‘Hiraeth’ sequence in ‘Oraclau’:

119: Hiraeth (1)
I would do gratefully what others claim
They could not: relive my adolescence
If I were granted a special licence
To learn Welsh and love you. Great shame
I cannot speak or sing
This language of my late awakening
Nor ask you pardon, Beloved, nor bring
You, my bride into the feasting house
Of first desire, dazed by your wedding dress

120: Hiraeth (II)
Tell me, what is my sense of abiding.
Ah, love, are we to labour over these
Mechanic etymologies
Who encountered blank forbidding
Before we gave much thought
To language – touching was vivid sight
Our fingers talked, we were illiterate.
Abide does not hit home as does inure:
I who have swum in love words, shore to shore!

(In each stanza lines three and four should be indented by two characters and line five should be indented by six characters.)
I recognise that this requires a much fuller read than the one it’s about to get but I want to use it to demonstrate the problem that I have with rhyme. This centres around the last line of each stanza and whether or not ‘shore’ is an adequate rhyme for ‘inure’ and if allowing the ‘like’ sound to be a consonant is a case of having your cake and eating it. My first reaction to house/dress was that it didn’t rhyme and then (after reading Jarvis) I realised that the same consonant was being substituted quite frequently for the vowel so the last stanza in Hiraeth ends on whelped/scalped.
Because I tend to avoid rhyming verse, I don’t know if this is a long-standing technique with an illustrious pedigree or whether this is a Hill innovation. What I would like to point out is that the last line of the first stanza isn’t very good and the absence of a vowel rhyme makes it worse. Perhaps it’s just the unromantic part of me that thinks that being ‘dazed’ by a wedding dress isn’t very poetic and more than a little banal in this context. The absence of a vowel rhyme to my mind just brings more attention to the fact that the line lets down the rest of the stanza. I don’t think this is saved by the bride / desire rhyme half way along but perhaps others would disagree. Reading this aloud and trying different approaches seems to confirm the wrongness of the last line.
The second stanza is better in terms of what’s being expressed but in my head ‘shore’ is never going to rhyme with ‘inure’ even though the ‘re’ ending is identical. There’s also a midway rhyme going on with ‘home’ and ‘swum’ which almost works.
I do hope that regular readers will appreciate that I continue to hold Hill in high regard and the disappointment expressed here is due to a mixture of my own prejudices and some ongoing doubts about whether you can be too idiosyncratic for your own good. As ever with Hill, I’d far rather think about what is being said than the method of delivery.
We now come to Jarvis and ‘Dinner’ which rhymes throughout and is successful in carrying the reader along without drawing too much attention to the nature of the rhyme. Here’s two stanzas that exemplify this:

A disassembled personality:
a legal concept, whose recursive shape
will offer no intentionality
to be detected by lips or tape
but distributes its known reality
throughout its assets where they fold or gape:
a holding company, a nest of links.
Was this his inside? As he frowns, she thinks,

it hardly could be anyone’s, still less
that owner of the most persuasive grin
she had known twenty years ago, unless
instead of speaking, as she’d thought to win
no points but merely in a fine undress
the unforced force of wit’s adventures in
their very musculature, wit instead
ruled like an errant gene the vacant head?

This is both very clever and well put together and shows why we need to take Jarvis seriously as a poet and a critic. The points are being made in a complex and lateral way to add further layers to the portrait of a man consumed by scratchy disaffection whilst affecting to play the bourgeois game. The rhymes are precise, don’t feel forced and contribute to the strength of these two stanzas. I’m also beginning to see the point of using rhyme as an off-setting device as in ‘lips or tape’ and ‘fold or gape’. The only minor qualm is that if you’re using rhyme in the sense of similar vowel sounds then this intensifies the need for the rest of your word choice to fit and ‘musculature’ doesn’t – it draws attention to itself with the repeated vowel and the dearth of hard consonants but it isn’t strong enough as an image and simply indicates its own weakness when compared with the rest.
After four or five readings I still don’t like ‘Dinner’ but I find that I’m having productive arguments with it which is always a good thing.
I want to finish this rhyming trio with an excerpt from Muldoon’s ‘The Old Country’ which is successful because it manages to be technically accomplished and thematically astute without ramming either of these facts down the reader’s throat.
‘The Old Country’ consists of thirteen sections each or which runs into the next, the last line of a section forms the first line of the next. Each section has two four line and two three line stanzas and the rhyming scheme is uniform throughout. This is the seventh section:

Every cut was a cut to the quick
what with every feather a feather to ruffle.
Every whitrack was a whitterick.
Everyone was in a right kerfuffle

when from his hob some hobbledehoy
would venture the whitterick was a curlew.
Every wall was a wall of Troy
and every hunt a hunt in a purlieu

of a demesne so out of bounds
every hound might have been a hellhound.
At every lane end stood a milk churn

whose every dent was a sign of indenture
to some pig wormer or cattle drencher.
Every point was a point of no return.

This works on a number of levels, the ‘Old Country’ of the title refers to Ulster and this is a clear exposition of Muldoon’s view of a number of complex threads pertaining to the place of his birth. Instead of drawing these out I’d like to concentrate on the rhymes and repetitions and what they bring to the poem as a whole.
The rhymes are clear and direct with the very minor exception of ‘bounds’ and ‘hellhound’ and repetition occurs on the second line of the first and third stanzas- as well as the repetition of the last line mentioned above. Normally this level of structure would annoy me to death but I get immersed in it because these devices are an important element in underpinning the strength of the message. I have yet to work out why this might be the case but I do know that it’s a poem that I re-read on a regular basis because of the pleasure to be had in this degree of accomplishment.
I’m aware that there is a view that Muldoon is too clever for his own good and that he has somehow squandered his talent. I can see that this might be accurate and I continue to dither about whether his work as a whole is any good but nevertheless feel that this may be one example of why this jingling gegaw can ‘please’.

J H Prynne on ‘difficult’ poetry.

The third issue of the Cambridge Literary Review has published a ‘Keynote Speech’ given by Prynne in China in 2008 entitled “Difficulties in the translation of  ‘difficult’ poems” which turns out to be the best guide to Prynne’s practice that I have yet seen. What follows is a crude synopsis but I hope it gives more than a flavour of his analysis/argument.

He starts with a general description of modernism noting that:

“In difficult modernist poetry there can be obscure and complex aspects relating to thought and ideas, to imagery and structure, to condensed or broken linkages and to embedded references to other texts or works.”

I read this and realised that this wasn’t so much a general description of modernist poetry but a list of some of the main aspects of Prynne’s work, nobody else that I’m aware of combines all of these elements together. Prynne also talks about the difficulties that the reader/translator faces when trying to work out which of the many meanings of a word or phrase and which of the many pathways should be followed. This is very redolent of my own experience of reading Prynne’s work which is littered with moments of what he describes as ‘rich uncertainty’. He also makes the point that good difficult poetry is surprising and that this surprise sometimes takes our breath away. Geoffrey Hill makes a similar point in ‘Language, Suffering and Silence’ where he writes about ‘semantic shock’ being an important component of a successful poem.

I think the following usefully sums up the Prynne project:

” In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrase which break the rules of local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity, and the translator can recognise the challenge to translating skills even if good solutions are hard to find.”

These ‘semantic sparks’ seem to be increasingly frequent in Prynne’s more recent work, ‘Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian’ appears to be littered with them. Whilst being surprised and carrying this level of ambiguity is very rewarding, I find the longer poems require me to hold a lot of these uncertainties in my head at the same time which can be quite intimidating. For example ‘Streak, Willing’ appears to have the recent civil war in Ulster as a major theme yet the third section contains a reference to an economic recession which doesn’t appear to occur elsewhere. This may be because I haven’t picked up these references yet but (because of its length) I do find it difficult to get the whole poem into my head but this doesn’t prevent me from trying because I know that I will eventually be familiar with all the cryptic phrases and allusions.

Having read and absorbed what Prynne has to say, I think that for me the biggest ‘attraction’ in reading him is the multi-dimensional quality of the work in that he makes full use of the modernist bag of tricks but there is also the additional elements of word sounds and form that come from much older poetic traditions. So, as well as surprise and uncertainty, I think I read Prynne because of the cognitive challenges that his work presents and the enjoyment comes in trying to put all the elements together.

Prynne rightly distances difficult modernist work from  post-modernist “playfulness where meaning is allowed to skim across the surface in a deliberately arbitrary way, because the use of difficulty as a method of poetic thought is different both in intention and effect from difficulty as a playground or a funfair.” We could argue whether this is a fair description of all post-modern verse or whether its just a bit of a dig at the work of John Ashbery but I think the line is properly drawn against those who think that Prynne is inviting readers to make their own poem when reading his work.

We now come to the thorny issue of the dialectic, regular readers will know that I groan inwardly when mention is made of the dialectic in relation to poetry primarily because I feel that this complex term with very many competing definitions is used as a kind of lazy shorthand by poets and critics who want to display their ideological credentials. Here’s Prynne’s use of the term:

“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.”

I’m not disputing that difficult poetry can produce both contradiction and self  dispute but I would like to query whether we need to describe such elements as “a dialectic practice” because the dialectic is about much more than just contradiction.

As usual with Prynne, the footnotes are almost as revealing as the text itself. There are references to Eliot, Empson, Ivor Richards and Sergei Eisenstein amongst many others.

In conclusion, this is essential reading for anyone who is serious about getting to grips with Prynne and may also serve to cut a much needed path through the critical obfuscation that continues to be produced by others.

Doing politics with poetry

Robert Archambeau kicked off a debate in the first issue of the excellent Cambridge Review by attempting to analyse what he sees as the political strategy of Jeremy Prynne and his advocates. Predictably, the debate got quite rancorous quite quickly but it did get me to thinking about the relationship between politics and poetry.

I’ve been politically active since I was sixteen and have participated in all the activities that are traditionally thought of as radical practice. I’ve been on demos, written subversive leaflets, created havoc in supermarkets, stood on picket lines, had my phone tapped and a few unsolicited visits from Special Branch. I’ve also fed stories to the national media. I was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain for five until it disbanded itself.  I always thought that if I was doing enough to merit the covert attention  of the state then I was somehow ‘winning’.  I now see this as hopelessly naive.

However, because I’ve always understood politics in terms of the above activities, I tend to compartmentalise my efforts at poetry at some remove from my politics. Reading a number of French writers has convinced me that doing politics against an inherently violent state has to be a bit more subtle, so I have another blog sponsored by the state whose function is to explain what the state’s social policy actually means and the ideas behind it to our customers who tend to be elderly and have long-term health problems.

The blog is read by 200 people a day and every month I send out a digest to 35,000 customers. The response from these is overwhelmingly positive because they are in a language that people can readily understand rather than the elitist jargon of the state. I am able to do this because money generated by our e-commerce site is sufficient to fund it.

Turning to the Prynne tactic, I don’t think that it is at all elitist or Messianic nor am I bothered that the poems don’t reach many people. One of the problems, as Archambeau acknowledges, of putting stuff in the public domain is that it gets appropriated and used in inappropriate ways. The other issue is that you can’t really have a body of work that is about destroying the current dominant discourses and then enter that work into that arena. Publishing work via a small outfit like Barque Press does at least ensure that your readers will be those who are sufficiently interested to find you. Even this doesn’t guarantee against appropriation, the web contains several different interpretations of  ‘To Pollen’ for example. As for not giving interviews, how exactly do you explain the nature of the work in easy soundbites?

I was one of those who bought the 1st Bloodaxe edition and decided that it was too obscure for me- and I like ‘difficult’ poetry. I only returned to Prynne after I’d worked through the poetry of Geoffrey Hill and decided that Prynne might provide an equally enjoyable challenge.

The political Prynne I have taken issue with, describing his criticisms of money markets and fiscal policy as ‘quaint’. His more recent work on the role of American imperialism in the Middle East is ideologically laudable but aimed at another easy target.  Even my parents know that American Imperialism and the money markets are bad things, almost everyone is against torture so writing poems,  no matter how brilliant, runs the real danger of confirming existent middle class beliefs.

I am however much more impressed by Prynne’s work on Ulster precisely because it isn’t easy. The CPGB worked for years to develop a cogent analysis of  the Troubles and failed because the dimensions are many and varied and because the sight of members of the working class intent on killing each other was deeply troubling to class warriors. Reading “Streak, Willing…” has inspired (yes, inspired) me to return to a long-standing work on Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday based on witness statements to the Inquiry and material from the Cain archive. I read an early draft of one section at an open mic the other night and was gratified by the response in that it made people remember those events and perhaps encouraged them to think about them in a different way.

There’s also a difference between doing politics and doing ideology. Politics involves active and deliberate engagement with the world and usually involves the difficult art of compromise. Doing ideology is a much more passive and analytical activity, producing critiques and indicating possible ways forward. I would argue that Prynne does ideology far more than he does politics (with the exception of ‘Refuse Collection’) and is therefore not really interested in rousing his readers to the barricades.

With regard to appropriation, it’s always struck me as odd that both Foucault and Derrida complained long and loud about the many misinterpretations of their work, as if they felt that their own theories shouldn’t apply to them. Hill, in his own way, and Celan write political poetry and both have complained about being misinterpreted and misrepresented so the problem is not confined to Prynne and his response should be respected as a tactic rather than as an elitist or Messianic position.

The quietist strategy has a long and noble tradition and is based on two main strands. The first is that the world is an incredibly complex place and it is very difficult to ensure that your work will be disseminated in the way that you wish and the second is that by entering the public arena you become part of the thing that you are analysing. I call this one aspect of the ‘St Francis Position’ because its more often used by those with a strong faith. There’s nothing wrong with it so long as your expectations are fairly minimal.

There’s another line of thought that says that there are many different ways to do politics and many different ways to do poetry and we should celebrate the fact that this diversity exists rather than indulge in mutual mudslinging. Our political and creative lives should be spent improvising and trying out ways that work for us and we should respect each other for that. I hate with a vengeance most of what is produced by the mainstream and despair of the stuff that is churned out by creative writing courses but I respect those practitioners for at least trying to make a contribution. I don’t agree with Prynne’s politics and I find Hill’s hierarchical Toryism absurd but both get my respect for the contribution that they make to the discourse.