Tag Archives: milton

Poetry as cartography

A couple of days ago I downloaded from the AAAAARG site a book pointing out that a movie is a kind of map and that film directors can be seen as cartographers. I probably won’t read the book because the first few pages were a bit glib for my taste but the analogy stuck with me. I’ve also been having discussions with a number of people about the arduity project which is essentially an attempt to liberate ‘difficult’ poetry from the academy. During these conversations it has been pointed out to me that we may read poetry in order to understand ourselves. As an ex-social worker, this view seems a bit too therapeutic for me but it is one that is fairly commonly held.

Let’s start with the basics, we use maps to plan routes, to get from point A to point B. We also use maps to give us some context, whether this is the recent floods or (as the FT did this morning) the proposed route of the new train line from London to Birmingham. My son is planning to work in Tiblisi next year and I’ve looked at a few maps to try and work out what this might be like for him.

We need to be taught how to read a map, we need to be aware that there are different kinds of maps for different functions and that different cultures have had different ways of putting maps together. Maps have also been drawn up as an expression of power over the territory that they depict. A further thought, maps can be incredibly beautiful objects.

Cartographers make maps and poets make poems. Do poems tell us where we are are do they enable us to see ourselves more clearly? Or are poems simply mimetic? I’ll readily accept that the poems that mean the most to me have a geographic aspect, from the Faerie Queen and Paradise Lost through to Maximus, The Moose and Stress Position all have a special resonance for me because the poets concerned have taken the time to provide a spatial context for what they are trying to say.

I’ve also started to read Donald Davidson this week and he talks about how literature ‘works’. He uses the term ‘triangulation’ which (if I’ve got this right) consists of an object (whether this is a concept or a thing or a group of things) being viewed and/or experienced by both the writer and the reader and the writer has prepared a text and the reader is looking at the object and comparing it with the text.

Is this how it is? Keston Sutherland may not give me a map of downtown Baghdad but he certainly gives me an impression of the murderous effects of Western imperialism, I may not agree with him but there’s no doubting the brilliance of  his ‘map’.

I don’t share Geoffrey Hill’s faith but he does give me a clear idea of what it is to be a Christian and the struggle that this involves.

Poetry isn’t prose, a poem can and should do more than a story. To extend the analogy, perhaps a poem is a special kind of map using ‘radical economy and truthfulness’ (Prynne) to allow us to measure ourselves against both the thing described and the poet. The Moose can be read  as a straightforward description of a bus ride but Bishop writes with such clarity that most of human existence is on that bus and she gives us the map.

Jeremy Prynne’s mental ears

On Friday morning the essential AAAARG site sent me my daily missive which informed me that someone had uploaded several prose works by Prynne. One of the was “Mental Ears and Poetic Work” which was published last year by the Chicago Review and is a transcript (with notes) of a lecture given by Prynne last year.

Having downloaded and read this piece once, I have to announce that Prynne has now joined David Harvey in my pantheon of using the dialectic sensibly. To be fair, Prynne’s usage is not the core of the lecture but it does inform his reasoning in a remarkably clear way.

The core argument, which Prynne admits is tentative, concerns phonology which is the study of the ‘systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken language’ (Wikipedia) although Prynne defines it as ” the system of sound forms in a speech practice that is structural to the coherence of a language and its evolution through time”. Prynne argues cogently that poetic practice must take more note of phonology because it isn’t variable, unlike metre, syntax, phrasing etc. all of which are subject to change and are dependent on the way things are read and received. This is a crude précis of the argument which doesn’t do justice to the way Prynne arrives at his point but is the best I can do without quoting him word for word.

Prynne provides the examples where phonetics are crucial- Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Prelude’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. I’m not familiar with the first two- my only reading of Wordsworth has been ‘Solitary Reaper’ and what Prynne has to say about it. I am however very familiar with ‘Paradise Lost’ and the passage that Prynne uses- Eve’s description of being born into Eden. From the first poem, Prynne draws our attention to the line “Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” and then launches into a deep and complex analysis of the words ‘felt’, ‘blood’, ‘along’ and ‘heart’, noting that along has a nasal ending whilst the other three have plosive endings. So far, so good. We then come to a brief history of the word ‘blood’ which Prynne derives from ‘bleed’ because ” ‘living blood’ precedes bleeding but our observationally confirmed knowledge of blood has until recent times been consequent on bleeding events”. For me, this confirms that Prynne does not think like the rest of us, there’s nothing at all wrong with this argument but it is the way that it is formulated and expressed that belies someone with a deeply idiosyncratic  way of thinking about language and the things it does. This is equally evident in Prynne’s recent work on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which I now realise that I’ll have to read again with my mental ears firmly in place. This almost wilful determination to stand aside from any notion of mainstream lit crit is laudable especially when it produces such valuable insights and challenges, I just wish it was given a wider audience so Prynne’s criticism could more fully collide with the ‘witty circus’.

We now come to my problem with the Romantics and Wordsworth in particular. I’m more than happy to concede that Wordsworth is one of our finest poets and that some of his stuff contains really great lines but the ideology of Romanticism still offends the materialist in me, it’s not so much that I deny the power of nature to exalt the soul- I just don’t see that it matters very much. The cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries was a time of enormous upheaval and grinding poverty, what was needed was a poetry that engaged with these times in the manner of Godwin and Cobbett. What was not needed was a group of privileged young men going on about nature and their emotional response to it. I almost exclude Shelley from this but Wordsworth is firmly in the frame.

Prynne quotes another passage from ‘Tintern Abbey’ and examine the words ‘trust’, ‘gift’ and ‘blessed’. He points out that blessed can be traced back to blood which is linked by an early meaning of bless which is to “make sacred or holy by ritual shedding of blood”. There then follows an analysis of the word ‘sublime’ for which I am truly grateful. Prynne points out that ‘sub’ means “up to, as far as” and that ‘lime’ derives from ‘limen’ which is “the lintel or entrance portal to the spirit world of beatitude and love”. As an attentive reader of all things Prynne, I have frequently speculated and fretted over Prynne’s recurrent use of ‘lintel’  in his poetry. Now that the mists have cleared, I am able to return to the work with greater confidence although it isn’t yet clear that this definition will help. I also have to point out that it would have taken me years to get to this understanding without explicit help from the man himself.

In a paragraph which starts “See how this works”, Prynne lays out with great clarity the central ‘thrust’ of ‘Tintern Abbey’. Whilst I’m not sure that the end-stop in the word ‘heart’ signifies our mortality and feel that Prynne’s argument for phonology is still a little tenuous, the argument that the poem points to the potential of living souls to be transposed by nature even in the face of death is both cogent and forceful- it does not make me want to read any more of  Wordsworth however.

What does send me back to my worn out copy of Paradise Lost is Prynne’s analysis of Eve’s account of her birth- “That day I oft remember, when from sleep / I first awaked and found myself reposed / under a shade of flowers…”. As readers we are told at the very beginning of the poem that Eve is doomed and we read the description of the time in Eden with a sense of foreboding. Prynne points to the use of  hard end-stops (oft, sleep, awaked, found, reposed, shade) and speculates that these may point to the trap that Eve is already in. As an attentive reader of Milton, I find this wholly credible and realise that I’m going to have to pay attention to phonology the next time I read the work.

Prynne’s use of the dialectic is to be admired, he doesn’t over-elaborate nor does he drown his argument in cliché-ridden analysis. He does point out the contradiction involved in the root of ‘blessed’ being derived from blood sacrifice and he points out that ‘poetic form within the textual domain’ can disrupt apparent harmony and bring “discrepant aspects face to face”.

For those of us who are confirmed fans, the essay contains many delights. We get again the notion that language is compromised but also “clean hands do no useful work”. As an advocate of the (fairly) quietist approach to poetry, I’m probably going to give this more than a little thought. We also get “Language is itself an intrinsic fault system, and it is worse than a mistake not to understand this as best ever we can”. This is the final line and I wish to draw your attention to the contrast between ‘worse than a mistake’ and ‘as best ever we can”. The first phrase smacks of a rather aggressive piece of polemic whilst the second throws in a bit of humility, a case of Prynne wanting more than his cake?

I’ll finish with my favourite quote which is a kind of riposte to those critics (and there are many) who feel that Prynne has written himself into dark obscurity. He’s absolutely right both about his own stuff and that of others who are also considered to be difficult (Hill, Celan etc.).

“The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean?”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading”.
I know that I’ve gone on about this but I do see it as a bit of a landmark with many, many things for us practitioners to consider. I, for one, will try to apply my mental ears from now on.

Poetry and the academy

In my journey up Mount Prynne I’ve been looking at some of the academic work that sets out to elucidate the poems and place Prynne in a wider context. The Jacket site has been particularly useful in this regard but unfortunately most of the stuff on there is couched in dense and (to the lay reader) impenetrable terms which doesn’t actually elucidate the work but does serve to further mystify and complicate the business of climbing Mount Prynne. I cite as evidence Kevin Nolan who writes- “rather than a merely mechanical materialism or, even worse, a Heideggerian apophatics which would collapse the autonomy of the poem in the rush towards a negative theology of the unennhalte?” How many people, other than post-graduates, are going to be entirely familiar with the meaning of this?

There’s also the issue of value in poetry and the fact that an impossibly elitist and obscure discourse on poets and their work effectively destroys that value by means of exclusion. This is not to say that I am against theory nor am I against the various European brands of criticism per se. I do recall however watching with some dismay as deconstruction, post-structuralism and all things Foucault started to seep into the Anglo-Saxon world in the early eighties. This seepage has produced what is, at best, a bastardisation of the original ideas and, at worst, a complete travesty of what was meant.

I need also to say that there are some insights in Mr Nolan’s piece but the hapless reader does need to wade through the bullshit to get at them. Unlike David Harvey, I don’t think that Eng Lit has entirely lost it’s theoretical way  but I do feel that attempting to be more ‘difficult’ than difficult poets themselves are does nobody any good. Criticism, if its any good, should provide readers and students with the wider context and provide the tools for us to appreciate the poems finer points. Alastair Fowler’s gloss on Paradise Lost, for example, tells me about the way Milton makes use of astronomy and of the significance of numbers in the poem’s  construction.  I can then choose whether or not to marvel at the astronmical invention and puzzle over the numbers but Fowler also lets me know that these are not barriers to understanding. George Steiner writes with great warmth and enthusiasm about Paul Celan but he does this with far more clarity than many members of the academy.

So, this is a plea for Eng Lit to sort itself out and to remember that obscurity and quality do not always go hand in hand and that ‘difficult’ poets do should not be written about in difficult terms.