Tag Archives: paradise lost

Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.

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.