Tag Archives: neil pattison

Reading J H Prynne, an open letter to Neil Pattison

Dear Neil,

I’ve spent some time reading your remarkable response to John Stevens with regard to approaching ‘The Oval Window’ and I feel the need to respond here rather than in the thread, mainly because it is more likely to be read by innocent passers-by. When I’d overcome all the initial scepticisms and suspicions and had begun to pay attention to Prynne (as opposed to looking at the words) I wrote a short blog entitled ‘How to read Jeremy Prynne’ which was one of my glib lists which makes the mistake of glossing over the big stumbling block by encouraging interested parties to ‘think laterally’ which is probably the least helpful thing that I could have written. I’ve been thinking a lot about your landscape image/analogy and I want to take it a bit further but first of all I’d like to introduce you to ‘Rawhide Harangue of Aching Indices as Told by Light’ by Jessica Stockholder.

You now need to bear with me for a while. Stockholder is a Canadian artist who rearranges our fundamental ideas about space and what space does and can do. ‘Rearranges’ is a polite term for ‘dismantles’ and/or ‘destroys’ and this is achieved with incredibly banal and ordinary materials. The initial effect of a Stockholder installation is one of disorientation and bafflement because of the assault on our many taken-for-granted notions about three dimensional space and about aesthetic judgement/value.

It would be utterly crass to suggest that reading Prynne is like confronting a Stockholder installation but I would like to suggest is that Prynne’s work has this same ‘dimensional’ aspect in that we are encouraged to allow the poems to take us into areas where we need to consider length, breadth and depth at once and take into account the different materials from which these things are made.

As with Stockholder, it is also important to think about isolated aspects quite hard but also to try and relate these to the work as a whole. This is a wider shot from the same installation-

In the first image, I would suggest, our focus is on the neon tubes on the floor primarily because they shouldn’t be there, in the second image our attention shifts to how a range of different elements might relate to each other and the light tubes seem less important (but still part of the piece).

When I’m reading Prynne, I’m conscious that I’m persuading my brain to do things that it doesn’t normally do. This is where it gets difficult for me to make general statements about reading this stuff because I only have my own subjective experience to rely on but the first thing that my brain needs to do is to grab and retain as much as possible of the poem, as in ‘As mouth blindness’, or the sequence as in ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ and then to think about potential ‘connections’ across this rugged terrain. Going a bit further with your ‘lights’ analogy, I’d want to add that some of these connections produce only an intermittent light, others produce a flickering but constant light and very few produce a steady beam and that the ‘important’ element may be in the means by which these connections are made and unmade rather than in the lights that are produced.

I think I’d also like to add that my brain really enjoys these different tasks and perspectives and there have been times when I’ve become a bit addicted and have had to wean myself off from the Prynne Habit because there are other things in life that I need to attend to. If managed correctly, engaging with Prynne is immensely pleasurable and amusing, there are many things about the work that make me smile and the experience informs my reading of other material which is always a good thing.

The other aspect that I’d like to emphasise is that I do get the feeling that I’m in the presence of serious poetry when I’m looking at this stuff. By ‘serious’ I think I mean work that doesn’t compromise and is completely focused on what it does. There’s a degree of absolute concentration that I only experience / am aware of with Prynne and Celan. This extreme refusal to make concessions and to focus exclusively on the making of poetry (which is common to both) is, for me, the marker of lasting value / worth. Reading the poems chronologically, it’s reasonably clear to me that Prynne’s encounter with poetry has become increasingly focused and intense and one of the interesting aspects of the later sequences has been the insistence on the use of traditional verse forms so that the poems look like they belong within the scope of poetry although they operate at its very edge. All of this is a Very Good Thing.

I think I’d also like to say a bit more about the ‘understanding’ issue which was certainly enough to deter me for a number of years. I think that it’s really important to recognise that it is eminently feasible to take serious pleasure from a poem even if we ‘understand’ very little of it. There’s also the vexed question of what it is that we’re trying to understand, is it the ‘message’ of the poem or the poet’s intention in writing it? So, I think I still maintain that it’s okay to be baffled and that working with bafflement is one of the many pleasures of doing Prynne.

You are absolutely correct in placing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between work that we are drawn to and that which repels us, I think this applies to most stuff and not just Prynne. I’m also conscious that there is some of Prynne’s stuff that (at the moment) I can’t be bothered with because it would take too long for me to work out whether I ‘liked’ it.

The other thing that I think might be helpful is to look at the Shakespeare/Wordsworth/Herbert commentaries because they give a reasonably clear account of how Prynne responds to and thinks about poetry. It’s also worthwhile to look at ‘Mental Ears’, ‘Poetic Thought’ and the essay on translating difficult poetry because they do give a fairly clear context for Prynne’s practice. I read and paid attention to some of the poems first however and this gave me more of a starting point.

The last thing I want to say here is that these poems deal with grown-up subject matter and that issues are addressed in a way that gives an account of the complexities involved. Even in the most outraged polemic (Refuse Collection) there is, as well as condemnation, an attempt to depict the various perspectives and contradictions involved.

This is an extended way of thanking you for you insightful and provocative contribution which has brought me back to the work with a fresh pair of eyes. These are currently being applied to ‘To Pollen’ with surprising results…..



(Sorry, couldn't resist)

Difficult syntax in Hill, Prynne, Jarvis and Neil Pattison.

I’ve been goaded into this by Lachlan Mackinnon’s disparaging reference to Hill’s ‘tortured’ syntax in ‘Clavicles’ and by reading Jack Baker’s useful paper on “The Burden of Authentic Expression in the Later Poetry of Geoffrey Hill”. Thinking about how best to get this particular gripe off my chest, I have come to the conclusion that a comparative survey of those that take syntactical innovation to extremes might be more productive than simply having yet another rant about Mackinnon.

Mucking around with syntax is commonly justified by the normal poetic bleat that the language is not adequate to give voice to the poet’s finer feelings and deeper thoughts. Such manipulation is often used to disguise the fact that the poet has nothing to say- whilst acknowledging these pitfalls I want to try and show why and how really accomplished poets to produce stunning work.

I want to start with a rough and ready definition of syntax- the way in which phrases and sentences are put together.

I also want to propose that good poems are a site of many different kinds of struggle and one of the most telling is the one that engages with the standard English phrase and/or sentence.

Sometimes this engagement can lead the reader to new heights of bafflement. My current favourites are ” To the / chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach / luminous” (Neil Pattison) and “At for to.” (J H Prynne). Baker makes the following comparison -“But, whereas many of Hill’s peers, from John Ashbery to J.H. Prynne, revel in linguistic indeterminacy, the poet-figure in Hill’s recent work emerges as one who strives to resurrect language, to preserve its capacity for “eloquence and apprehension” against the destructive tendencies of the age.” I think this is absolutely correct about Hill and I can see that Ashbery’s output is about 85% revel but I think he’s wrong about Prynne.

I do however think there is a key difference between Hill and Prynne in that Hill loves language and Prynne doesn’t. Hill’s best work is characterised by an increasingly vivid tussle to get language to do what it is capable of, to realise its full potential at the hands of the poet. Prynne, on the other hand sees language as perpetually tainted and that the structure of language reflects and underpins the worst aspects of our culture. Jarvis and Neil Pattison both seem to fit somewhere in between but nevertheless produce work that bears evidence of different types of conflict.

Here’s Prynne in his ‘quick riposte’ to Peter Handke in Quid 6-

Of course it is rather easy to ‘see what he means’; and the history of Europe in this century is full of those terrible events supposed to have traduced or contaminated language, along with those sorrowful bystanders, perched upon some peak of purity, who can bewail the loss of a model of rational, passionate and poetic discourse that would somehow resist the ruptures of historical process. But, how silly. Warfare between nations is most often waged across language-frontiers, as a fiercely linguistic event, even if often for reasons not fully conscious or not admitted into full public view; but the mounting up of a war programme, in advance of the hostilities and to justify their methods, is a concatenation of intensely linguistic processes, in which the whole identity and propensity of individual language-histories are worked into the deepest complicity. By the time that war ‘breaks out’, that is, is declared by one nation or tribal cohort confident of subjugating another, the cascade of positional alterations to language use has been largely completed.

I don’t think that Prynne is saying that language is inherently evil or morally flawed but that it is often a kind of willing partner in Very Bad Things.

Then we have this longer passage from ‘George Herbert, Love III’-

Well, language is imperfect and is damaged by sin, not least in relation to man’s conception of his own self, inner and outer, puffed up with tendency to vainglory and selfishness even in moments of the most vehemently powerful moments of exchange with the divine. The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front-loaded selfhood. What the reader has in this poem is what is discoverable in its fallible language and we are to reconstruct what may be its near-full spiritual significance, by linguistic acts, by scrutiny of searching and minute kind. This is sacred philology and hermeneutics, ancient practices which are root-based.

But in the human encounter with belief-moments the reader is not pursuing the practice of assimilation to the world of language and experience outside the self, as situated in a distinct historical or cultural era, or not this merely. The reader is also intimately drawn into this focus of experience as given form and purpose by belief or the question of it: and this self-interior focus is also in large part linguistic.

Needless to say, there isn’t much here that I agree with and some of it seems to be obviously incorrect but it does give us a clear pointer as to what Prynne might be about. It’s also striking that this notion of a language damaged by sin and its structure performing some of the less desirable features of our national character should be expressed with such clarity and vehemence.

In the interests of balance, I want to weigh this against what Hill says at the start of the ‘Weight of the World’ essay-

Questions of accessibility turn upon matters of context. In both sacred and secular writings we may receive, at any instance, a sense of things inaccessible suddenly made accessible, where grammar and desire are miraculously at one. The effect may appear to be studied (as in Milton or Hopkins) or spontaneous (as in the Wesleys or Wordsworth); what delights and silences us is the sustained moment of communion between the two kinds of eloquence and apprehension.

So, for Prynne, the structure of language is to be attacked and our blithe assumptions about it (neutrality, innocence) are to be confronted and undermined on the way to declaring ‘how things are’. The price for this is the charge of obscurity and elitism.

Whereas Hill is in a struggle, wrestling and moulding language in the hope of reaching that point where the creative impulse and language structure are ‘miraculously unified’

Now I need some examples to indicate what I’m trying to say. With Prynne I think it can be shown that the broad arc of the last thirty years has been a more and more uncompromising attack culminating in the magnificently austere ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ of 2009.

Thirty years (ish) takes us back to ‘Oval Windows’ from 1983. The second poem in the sequence shows some sign of an early attack:

Formerly in a proper tonic, the rain
would pelt and cure by the foam inlet.
Smartly clad they could only panic
through the medium itself, rabbit by proxy.
On both sides smart guidance ex-stock
makes for home like a cup cake over.
Don't stare:
Police aware:
it is a defect coma and it shows;
try it on, see if they'd want to care.

I don’t want to undertake any kind of analysis of meaning or intention but I do want to point out where the syntax is being attacked. To start with most of the ‘rules’ are honoured, sentences make a kind of sense and are self-contained but some commas are missing and we are not at all clear what/who ‘it’ and ‘they’ refer to in the last two lines.

There is a project to be undertaken mapping the ‘syntax arc’ which I might do for Arduity but here I want to magically leap into 2009:

As to for a mint action bare sender add mantric, bare
cradle invention socket burden to saturate. To ramble his
for glimpse for insert her his pinnate to foramen custom
topic indecision failer for. At for was para fusing flim

This is the first quatrain of the eleventh poem in the sequence and is representative of the kind of attack that goes on throughout. I chose this because the first three words are echoed in the sentence ‘At for to.’ in the fifth quatrain.

The attack is of such force that phrases that do ‘follow the rules’ stand out in stark relief (pun intended). This poem has ‘Skim the lines’ and ‘Did they wear better’ but the rest is very much in the same state as the lines above.

Now we come to Geoffrey Hill. This inevitably involves some discussion of where the dividing line in his trajectory occurs. Jack Baker seems to place one line prior to ‘Canaan’ in 1996 and to another between ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ in 2000 whilst others identify ‘Triumph of Love’ as the turning point. I’m going to play safe and use ‘The Pentecost Castle’ sequence from ‘Tenebrae’ which was published in 1978 and this year’s ‘Clavicles’. This contrast enables me to make my point without getting mired in the before/after debate and is also appropriate because of the two
epigraphs. The first is from W B Yeats:

It is terrible to desire and not
possess and terrible to possess
and not desire.

and the second is from Simone Weil:

What we love in other human
beings is the hoped for satisfaction
of our desire. We do not love their
desire. If what we loved in them
was their desire, then we should
love them as ourself.

I don’t often get all soppy about poetry but ‘The Pentecostal Castle’ sequence is heartbreakingly beautiful. Re-reading it today I’ve become more aware of both its humanity and lyrical strength. It’s also a supreme example of personal and intellectual honesty. This is the eighth poem:

And you my spent heart's treasure
my yet unspent desire
measurer past all measure
cold paradox of fire

as seeker so forsaken
consentingly denied
your solitude a token
the sentries at your side

fulfilment to my sorrow
indulgence of your prey
the sparrowhawk the sparrow
the nothing that you say.

Again, I’m not going to worry about meaning but look at the nature of the struggle with language. The first thing to note is the absence of punctuation and this can be read as a list of twelve semi-autonomous phrases or three self contained sentences. The phrases make sense and are constructed in accordance with ‘normal’ English. The sequence as a whole can be thought of as a wonderful meditation on the many dimensions of desire but there is not yet any real sign of overt struggle.

I’ve chosen poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence because I think that it is likely to have been in Mackinnon’s mind when he described Hill’s syntax as ‘tortured’. This is the first part of the poem before we get to the ‘wings’:

Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.
Name-acclaim once-
Reclaimed ransom
Truth from figment.
Picks its fragment
Somewhere such a kingdom
Roughed assonance.
Judith of Bethulia's well wrested
Calm. How controverted we have become,
Questor quested;
Outside the frame
You can't draw from
Old dense pin-stabbed Bible
Somewhere is sacramental belonging.
Here we find but banking with God's grammar
Strung unstringing
Grace from chance, worked like a novice stammer.

I would argue that this exemplifies Hill’s battle with language rather than his torture of it. The phrases make sense, there are properly formed sentences and with a bit of work we can see what he’s trying to get at. If heightened language is what marks poetry out from prose, isn’t this a good example of how this can be done?

So far we have struggle and attack as ways of confronting language and must now move on to the subversive practices of Simon Jarvis.

I think that it is reasonable to assume that Jarvis has a problem with contemporary poetry of all shades in that he doesn’t even try to do what he wants it to. He has therefore launched a two-pronged attack on the form and the way we think about the form. This is achieved by using poetry to attack poetry. The two prongs are at the opposite ends of the poetic spectrum, at one end is the defiantly metrical 250+ pages of ‘The Unconditional’ which looks like poetry and behaves like poetry but uses digression to defy the reader’s stamina and ability to keep up. A very much lighter version of this is ‘Bacarole’ on the Claudius App which looks like a poem but uses very extended sentences and clauses to disrupt any readerly attempt at conventional understanding. At the other end of the spectrum there is ‘Dionysus Crucified’- I’ve written about some of its more outlandish strategies before and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but it is difficult to imagine anything more radically ‘free’ that doesn’t descend into nonsense.

What I think I’m trying to say is that the Jarvis project involves the skilled use and manipulation of language to take aim at current poetic discourse and practice and is a much more effective strategy than most of those attempted in the last fifty years. In terms of syntax mangling, even on the very experimental ‘cross’ page the only clear example is ‘He needs stabbed in a throat’.

Now we come to Neal Pattison who has been known to add helpful comments to this blog and who is also a very accomplished poet. I want to use an extract from the prose poem ‘Curve, Indifference’ which was published in ‘Preferences in 2006 because it deploys a very different approach to syntax that produces a quite complex effect:

This we in the litchen attest. This afternoon is. By
stone reaches. Sunlight warms to a limit room, its
loving parallel : there are in stones her junctures
attested, and the low reaches bed cool with talk's 
mantle. Locators in pliancy instruct with cherubic
levity. The lips of earth, the breast and eyes attest
we mean extraction : these accidental of discre-
tionary will by chalk banked drop embed these 
only reaches accidental lip. You are awake. To the 
chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach,

I’ve written about the Preferences collection before and probably need to write a longer piece to do it full justice but I’d now like to use the above to try and show how Neil uses syntax to heighten and intensify what is being said and also to display and withdraw at the same time. The repetition of attest and the subject/verb inversion when this is used, the deliberate placing of the colons between the words rather than immediately after the preceding word, the temporal progress from afternoon to night, the use of emphasis in the most conventional sentence are all used with great skill both to heighten and intensify what is being said. The greater subtlety lies in the things that are left unsaid, that ‘sense’ is being pointed towards but not actually displayed.

So, poets can do complex things with syntax and some of us find this one of its greatest attractions. In fact, with a few honourable exceptions, poets that don’t do things with syntax tend to be quite dull and banal. The primary exception is, of course, Elizabeth Bishop.

The Unconditional, Streak~~Willing and Preferences are available from Barque Press, Dionysus Crucified is available from Grasp Press, Clavics and the Collected Prynne (for Oval Windows) are both generally available.

The Cambridge problem

Whilst this current session of the bipolars was pretty bad, I spent some less than useful time ruminating about what I was doing with this blog and with arduity. As well as the usual depressive stuff (feelings of foolishness, of self-castigating ineptitude and inadequacy etc etc) I had some cause to think about the notions of capture and compromise which aren’t so easy to dismiss now that I’m on the road to recovery. I’m thinking of this as ‘the Cambridge problem’ because it pertains to those poets who have published in the Cambridge Literary Review rather than whatever the ‘Cambridge School’ may refer to.
‘Capture’ is a term used in the business of regulation whereby the regulators become so immersed in the businesses that they regulate that they lose more than a degree of objectivity. I’ve spent many a happy hour pointing out to team members that they may have been compromised in this way- the reaction is always one of righteous indignation and at least two weeks worth of sulking.
This blog started as a way of writing down what I was thinking about and as a place to put my own poetry. I then realised that other people were reading this stuff and (to my delight) some of them wanted to argue with me. Initially I was mostly writing about Geoffrey Hill and found that the process of having to write something vaguely coherent helped with my understanding of the work and enhanced the pleasure that I got from it. I then moved on to Prynne, having dismissed him in the first blog post as being willfully obscure. I think I did this because reading Hill had given me a taste for ‘difficult’ stuff.
Writing running reports on my progress or otherwise with Prynne was useful for me and seems popular with others which remain s gratifying but still isn’t the main point of doing this.
During last year I was contacted by John Matthias and Keston Sutherland which was gratifying but also quite odd in that I hadn’t expected poets to take any kind of interest in what I was writing about their stuff. Both John and Keston have since both been incredibly generous with their time and I’m particularly grateful to John for pointing me towards the brilliance of David Jones. I’ve also written about Neil Pattison who has responded very constructively to a number of posts over the past eighteen months. I’ve also been in correspondence with Timothy Thornton since the beginning of this year and have recently been contacted by Simon Jarvis with regard to the publication of ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and the recent reading at the Sussex festival.
All of the above (except for Neil) have had work published in the CLR. Neil’s ‘Preferences’ was published by Barque Press which is run by Keston and Andrea Brady and also publishes Prynne’s work and Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’.
When I was first contacted by Keston, there was a bit of an exchange about the ‘capture’ issue and I somewhat arrogantly decided that I wouldn’t be compromised and that I wouldn’t hesitate to be critical of stuff that I didn’t like.
Now, all of the above have since published stuff that’s really very good indeed, I don’t have any kind of a problem with this but there is something nagging deep within about the forementioned capture problem. I’m currently reconciling myself with the fact that I bring a non-Cambridge perspective (whatever that might be) and that there are aspects of this stuff that I actively dislike. I’m also of the view that, with very few exceptions, the so-called mainstream is awash with the dismally mediocre. I also have a policy of not writing about members of this coterie that I don’t like (there are several of these) because I don’t enjoy writing negative stuff. I have written one dismissive piece on Sean Bonney that only served to fuel my prejudices.
Writing this, I also become aware of the danger of taking myself far too seriously. I am someone who enjoys writing about things that I like and I shouldn’t really be too bothered about any of these extraneous issues that may only be self-generated. There is, on the other hand, part of me that takes some pleasure in pointing out the pomposity inherent in some of this work.
I also reconcile myself with the fact that I also write about Hill and Jones and Celan and Marvell and should perhaps spend more time in the 17th century (where I probably belong). This would be much easier if these Cambridge types would stop producing such startlingly (a Prynne word) good stuff….

Reading poetry and writing about it

This blog started at the end of March last year primarily as a means to think out loud and because I enjoy writing. I wasn’t that bothered about other people reading it but felt that it would do me good to air my thoughts in a more presentable way than jotting them down in a notebook. I’ve decided that it might be useful (for me) to put together the results of this process particularly with regard to how my thinking has changed over this period.
The first thing to note is that I enjoy writing about poetry and that my encounters with poets that were new to me have been especially rewarding. Before starting this blog I was entrenched in Spenser, Milton, Marvell, Celan and Geoffrey Hill and was reasonably content to spend the rest of my life delving further into their work. I had a view that poetry was somehow important but didn’t want to work out why- I was content with the pleasure that it gave me.
I then decided to pick up my Bloodaxe edition of J H Prynne and try to re-evaluate what he’s trying to do. Early in the blog I’d written about the difference between difficulty and what I described as ‘wilful obscurity’- placing Prynne firmly in the latter camp.
Having read a couple of the poems I decided that I might need some help and was appalled to discover that most of the critical stuff on Prynne was more obscure than the work with the one exception of Keston Sutherland. I also discovered that Prynne is a great admirer of Charles Olson.
Looking back, I can now see that I wouldn’t have pursued this any further were it not for the fact that there was enough in Prynne’s work to keep me interested- his left wing stance, his commitment to collide head on with the unwitty circus, his ability to subvert convention in a consistent manner were sufficient to encourage further exploration.
I bought ‘The Maximus Letters’ and was immediately impressed, I read it twice straight through but couldn’t see any obvious influence on Prynne.
During this time I was reading and re-reading a couple of Prynne poems and became interested in what they were doing to my thought processes, the shifts in time, the use of ordinary speech, the various commands all combined to challenge the way that I thought about poetry. I also spent a lot of time with the OED.
One feature of the poetry scene that I found difficult is the factional in-fighting that goes on between the numerous camps. I didn’t consider this to be productive and decided not to write about those poets that I don’t like.
I then wrote something about an essay on Hill by Tom Day that drew a lengthy response from Day who wasn’t pleased. The exchange became more productive but I did become aware of my tendency to write gratuitous one-liners and resolved to try and be a bit more considered in the blog.
At about this time I was alternating between brief bouts of severe depression and feeling okay (rapid cycling) which I found to be very disturbing and frightening. I found that by reading complex verse I could get some distance from the helter skelter ride that was going on in my head. I’m not saying that I found solace or comfort in reading poetry but that it did enable me to focus more on other things and reduce the level of fear.
I’d had a fairly long-held view that all forms of creative expression should by useful and interesting. This hasn’t changed but I’ve now thrown ‘challenging’ into the mix. I’ve found that I’m not that interested in stuff that simply confirms my view of things and am increasingly drawn to work that presents a different perspective. In short, I find I really enjoy arguing with poetry. I’ve also come to be more aware of technical skill.
I also write poetry and read poems with one eye on what I can make use of. There are some poets whose ideas and methods I can probably play around with but there others whose level of skill is simply beyond my reach – I want to write like Charles Olson and John Matthias but any attempt would be a very poor imitation.
Last December I purchased the most recent Prynne poems and most of Keston Sutherland’s output. I then threw myself into ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ with some gusto and that process continues to this day. What I like about this sequence is its austerity and the fact that it deals with complex issues. I’ve also found the reading process to be quite exhausting so I’m now limiting myself to a few hours per week which is still like having your brain turned inside out.
At the same time I started with Sutherland and was immediately drawn to ‘Stress Position’ which I’ve written about at length. It’s certainly the most inventive work that I’ve read in years and has made/forced me to re-consider my view about political poetry. Until reading Sutherland I was of the view that politics isn’t a fit subject for poetry, that it comes across as preaching and that poets make poor ideologues. I think ‘Stress Position’ has demonstrated that political poetry doesn’t have to be agit-prop and it can be interesting. Whether it makes a blind bit of difference is another question.
I also looked at ‘Preferences’ by Neil Pattison and this is a collection that has stayed by my side along with ‘Streak Willing’ and ‘Stress Position’. As with Prynne I’m still trying to construct the threads but I find Pattison’s voice both unique and compelling.
Early in the year I ‘discovered’ the work of John Matthias and was immediately attracted to his skill and inventiveness. He has a very broad range and has produced a formidable body of excellent work over the past forty years. I wrote about one of his poems and he responded- prodding me gently in the direction of David Jones who has been a complete revelation. Matthias has been very supportive of the Arduity project for which I’m grateful.
In April I sold the business that I was involved in and found myself with more time on my hands. I decided to start Arduity because I felt that there needed to be some non-academic point of access to difficult work and because I hoped to encourage other readers to make their own contributions. I applied for an Arts Council grant which has recently been turned down (on the grounds of financial viability) but that hasn’t stopped me adding more content and trying to build up more of a web presence. The project has also enabled me to think more clearly about how best to share my enthusiasm for difficult material.
I must also mention the work of Kenneth Goldsmith who has almost made me change my mind about conceptualist verse. I recall the astonishment when I opened ‘Traffic’ and it (and his other stuff) continues to make me think although not in the way that he probably intended.
I’ve read a few critics in the last twelve months and have been pleased to discover that some write very well. Sutherland is very good on Prynne, as is Derrida on Celan. Prynne’s ‘Field Notes’ is a remarkable document and I’m still absorbing his recent work on poetry. I’m beginning to get my brain around Hugh Kenner, Maurice Blanchot and having another attempt at Heidegger on poetry.
I’m also a bit conscious of becoming an elitist reader. Most of my poetry reading friends view this tussle with difficulty as overly intellectual and a bit snobbish, as if I’ve entered some esoteric coterie. I try to balance this charge in my head by continuing to read less difficult stuff (Bishop, Stevenson, Muldoon etc.) but it still lingers.
So, I no longer think that Prynne is wilfully obscure, I’m more tolerant of political poetry, I continue to despair about the state of poetry and its perception in the wider world, I’m more appreciative of technical skill and of the power of poetry to change people’s lives. I’m also very grateful to those who’ve made a valuable contribution to this blog.
The other aspect of writing this blog is that I feel a kind of responsibility to the work that I describe. It would be easy to do the undiluted enthusiasm thing but that would be dishonest. However, by expressing reservations (as with ‘Stress Position’ and ‘Preferences’) do I put readers off looking at what I consider to be important work?

Secret poems, obscure poems

Some months ago I wrote about Neil Pattison’s “Preferences” collection and commented on his reference to Steven Malkmus in ‘Spoils’. Neil and I then had some correspondence and Neil indicated that he thought this reference was secretive rather than obscure. I now know what the ‘secret’ is and it’s safe to say that no amount of digging around in Pavement lyric sheets is going to reveal it but this exchange did set off a train of thought that I haven’t been able to get rid of.

Most good poetry gets charged with the sin of obscurity and this usually means the use of allusion or direct references to out-of-the way bits of information and this is supposed to be a Bad Thing. Hill is frequently accused of this and his response is that he doesn’t want to insult the intelligence of his readers. References to Bradwardine and Gabriel Marcel may not be part of mainstream liberal knowledge but they are clearly signposted and any reader is able to follow these through. The reference to the ‘grinning cake’ in Comus is not signposted in any way and is therefore secret to Hill even though Tom Day has made a brave stab at interpretation.

Then there’s extreme obscurity which is where the knowledge exists in the public domain but readers are not given a clue where to begin. John Wilkinson has recently pointed out in Glossator that Prynne’s use of “rap her to bank” in ‘Word Order’ is a quote from a coal miners’s song yet this isn’t indicated as an allusion or reference in the poem. The relevant section reads-

Would you take a chance on it
or take a cut, in the cavity
rap her to bank:nothing

This is certainly obscure but is it secretive? It could be argued that the phrase is distinctive enough to be read as a quote and that readers with a knowledge of miner’s songs would recognise it. on the other hand, for the rest of us, the meaning will remain hidden.

Then there’s wilful obscurity. Ezra Pound prompted Eliot to change the epigraph from Conrad’s “The horror!” quote in ‘Heart of Darkness” to a quote from ‘The Satyricon’ (In Latin and Greek) on the grounds that “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation” even though Eliot found it to be “elucidative”.

Now we come to secrecy which may occur in a number of ways. I’m defining secrecy as something that the poet writes but does not intend to be ‘discovered’. I read something recently about Celan that said that a particular poem only makes sense if you know what Celan did on a visit to a city and what he saw there. Celan has also famously described his poems as ‘a message in a bottle’ which can only be fully grasped by those who ‘find’ them.

In Pattison’s case, I’m in a privileged position because I’m now ‘in’ on the nature of the secret but I still have to ask why it was inserted in the first place in a poem that was published. I like to think of myself as being an attentive reader and would probably worked my way through Pavement lyrics till I found the reference, looked at it in context and ended up none the wiser or have extrapolated ‘meaning’ that wasn’t actually there. It could be argued of course that the secret is an integral part of the poem and that it ‘fits’ with one or more of the themes but in order to make a judgement on that you need to know that it’s a secret.

So, the poet flags up an image or a piece of information and then (by not elaborating) withdraws it from sight. It could be argued that Prynne does this too- the above reference isn’t signalled by quotation marks nor is it long enough for the rest of us (if we know that it’s a quote) to follow through. Perhaps I should have found the Pavement quote and extrapolated from there thus making a meaning that wasn’t intended, perhaps that’s what secrecy/withdrawal is about.

Neil Pattison’s ‘Preferences’

I need to start this with a number of caveats. Neil Pattison has made a number of valuable contributions to this blog and I think we’ve agreed to disagree on a number of points. I came across ‘Preferences’ (one of those small Barque productions) before I made the connection between the ‘Neil’ who was telling me that academic language is okay really and that I should read Wordsworth and the poet. The Barque blurb caught my eye because it contained an excerpt that seemed both intriguing and quite startling.

The second caveat concerns difficulty. I’m spending a lot of time thinking and reading about difficulty in the arts and think I can tell the difference between ‘valid’ difficulty and wilful obscurity. On opening ‘Preferences’ I realised that this was difficult stuff, what I didn’t foresee was how much the poems would get under my skin.

I’m compiling a scale of difficulty in contemporary poetry, at the top comes Jeremy Prynne closely followed by Dan Beachy-Quick followed by Neil Pattison who is a long way in front of both Keston Sutherland and Geoffrey Hill. The other recent addition is Simon Jarvis who is very difficult but in a completely different (and original) way. Needless to say, all of these perpetrate valid difficulties (I tend to follow George Steiner on this) unlike some of our trendier charlatans who aren’t really worth the effort.

So, I made the mistake of trying to read Pattison at the same time as Jarvis and Matthias. I thought this would be like alternating between Prynne and Sutherland which I found to be fairly straightforward. These three demand a different kind of attention and I have found the need to concentrate on each at a time.

Now we come to the name dropping problem. There are five poems in ‘Preferences’ and in the second (‘Spoils’) reference is made to Stephen Malkmus. As far as I am aware, this can only refer to the lead guitarist of an American band called Pavement who put out three albums in the nineties. I know this because I was a bit of a fan at the time and even attended a gig to promote the third album. I was a fan because the lyrics were reasonably esoteric and the music was quite unlike the rest of what was around.  So, I’m familiar with Malkmus but I still don’t understand what ‘Stephen Malkmus / skates in the traffic’ is doing in the second part of  ‘Spoils’ although my research thus far has failed to find skating in the traffic as a line/image in the second Pavement album (my children, I discover, have stolen the other two).

The other name to be dropped is ‘Gyorgy’ as in ‘Gyorgy, / bow the steel’ which occurs in ‘How do we look’ and I’m taking this to be a reference to Ligeti because he’s the only musician I know of with this forename. Again, I’m a fan of Ligeti and know a lot about his life and work but I still don’t have a clue as to what he’s doing in this poem.

On a first read through ‘Preference’ looks like Prynne and sounds like Prynne. There’s the same oblique phrasing, the surprising word choice and the refusal to  make it in any way ‘easy’ for the reader. On subsequent readings it becomes clear that there’s a lot more going on and the Prynne influence seems to lose its prominence. Some of the phrasing, for example, seems to echo Hill when he’s making a point and some of the terse statements (and the way these are used) are fairly unique.

The first piece, ‘Curve, Indifference’, consists of eight prose paragraphs – here’s the sixth:

“The file is of clement as its frontier shaded. Reasonably dry make rising grey interrupt is then tamer and again vocational, attempts being these armed in crease of clemency, skinned to the belt’s noose. Strung calypso post, assurance baked orange. His teeth.”

This provides us devotees of difficulty with a wide range of avenues to follow. How can a file be clement (unless the file is a queue rather than a dossier)? Should there really be a gap between ‘in’ and ‘crease’? What should we do with the ambiguity in ‘Strung calypso post’? Whose teeth and why?

This kind of stuff has kept me busy for the last few weeks and the process is just as involving (and less baffling) as making sense of Prynne. To be fair, this is the most obdurate of the paragraphs in ‘Curve, Indifference’ but the rest in’t that much more straightforward.

I’d like to finish this with an example from ‘Spoils’ which I think demonstrates both the eccentricity and the quality of Pattison’s work: ‘Inane flecks in the jargon. Permeated, / operational text regalia / maunders through the scart. Bright redundancy /  blocs commit the route, touting bricolage / to the commonable haul of auction.”

Flecks in the jargon, text regalia, maundering, bricolage that’s touted, wonderful.

‘Preferences’ is available from Barque’s website.