Tag Archives: religious poetry

Why Sir Geoffrey Hill is Right about the Poem.

Hopefully, regular readers will accept that I am Very Opinionated Indeed about many things poetry. I don’t have a problem with this but it has recently been pointed out by a friend that these are my opinions and not absolute truths. This has given the bebrowed control panel some pause for thought. I usually qualify my reading of a particular poem by stressing the tenuous and provisional nature therein plus claiming the right to Change my Mind. I do have strong views about the Poem in General which are probably full of bias and prejudice but for which I like to think I can make a case. Geoffrey Hill is another example of someone with a passion for the Poem and equally trenchant views, most of which I happen to agree with and intend now to expand on several subjects where this odd congruence occurs.

What the Poem might be for.
Hill’s views here are slightly more specific than mine but he has this from his essay Language, Suffering and Silence:

“I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise to be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial types; (b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, as much as, or even more than, expressions ‘of solidarity with the poor and oppressed’.”

I’m a diluted atheist and thus don’t share the application of ‘grace’ and I worry about any kind of theology but I do share this emphasis on the semantic and co-existent ethical shock which, for me at least, gets to the essence of what the Poem is for. I read this as a radical use of language that undermines the conventions of language in order to effect the opportunity for a reconsideration of our values. The inherent action of grace or of anything else doesn’t seem to be an essential component of how these two components might work together.

Hill’s work throughout contains much memorializing most of which springs from his admiration of martyrs. I’m equivocal on this because I don’t share this enthusiasm to anything like the same extent. What I do share is the ethical duty that we have to bear witness to both lives and events. The best work of the 20th century does this, Celan on the Holocaust, Prynne on Abu Ghraib, Charles Olson on Gloucester, David Jones on the first 6 months of 1915, this could be a very long list. My point, is that our best poets, working in whatever tendency, recognise that the Poem performs this act very well indeed, perhaps better than any other means of expression. It’s not for nothing that poems are read at funerals.

I’m now a little bit troubled by the use of ‘duty’ in the above, mostly because it’s heavy with notions of debt and obligation that I’d rather avoid. I think my intention here is to indicate that makers of the serious poem are to some extent throwing their talent away (see below) if the disregard this function.

We now come to these shocks. The value of this aspect of the Poem seems to be shared by J H Prynne who says this:

“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 phrases which break the rules for 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.”

I like to think, mostly because I share both perspectives, that these two are saying more or less the same thing although Hill develops this as leading to ethics whereas Prynne talks about the effects of this device on the reader. Prynne is writing here about ‘difficult’ late modern work but I’m assuming that both are making this claim for the Poem in general.

The Teaching of Something Called Creative Writing.
Both Sir Geoffrey and I are at one with this. We’re against it, in fact we’re very against it. The reason for this is both structural and ideological. The structural argument is:

“the academy in itself, by its nature does damage to aspiring poets;
the individuals teaching this particular skill aren’t, in the main any good as teachers and worse as poets;
aspiring poets are thus led by mediocrities to produce increasingly mediocre, unadventurous work;
this is a process that feeds into itself producing the current Poetry Malaise that we all know so well;”
The ideological reason is more an attitude than an analysis. It goes- poetry is a specific skill that needs to be understood and developed by each individual in his or her own way. The key components of this process are reading, re-reading and reflection. The other component is writing material and trying it out in the world. Neither of these have much to do with attending classes and the taking of the note.

One of the reasons I started arduity is my concern as to the way in which the Poem is becoming increasingly colonised by these academic structures who seem to encourage conversations poetry-wise in increasingly abstruse terms. I’m thus less than pleased about the above process even though Sir Geoffrey’s syntax and the occasionally vague nature of his ‘point’ is guilty of this particular sin.

The Religious Poem.
Hill’s critical writing and his poetry have led me to realise the centrality of this element in Western culture. As a devotee of the work of Paul Celan and R S Thomas, I was aware thet worth relating to faith is important but it was Hill who, together with David Jones, crystallized this into a much deeper appreciation. For a Very Long Time humanity has been concerned with the afterlife and a number of Christian devices have been developed to indicate how This Might Work. Primary amongst these is the action (a hopelessly inadequate noun but it probably serves my purpose) of grace. An argument about this ripped apart Europe for most of the 16th century and has been a defining element of our ideas of self for the last two thousand years.

So, grace is in our mental and emotional dna, whether we like it or not. It therefore follows that the Poem must, if even by stealth, must attend to it.

Modernizing Old Stuff.
We both seem to be in agreement that, as a rule of thumb, the updating of a text inevitably does damage to that text. Of course, there are those of us who want to read Beowulf but don’t have the time to gain some familiarity with Old English and others who want to read Gawain but don’t want to delve into the glories of Middle English.

There’s also the problem of motive with some editions especially the desire to produce the work in a way more accessible to the students and readers of the 21st century. Hill has penned a less than sympathetic essay on the Yale edition of the Tyndale bible which worries about both of these issues in a typically curmudgeonly manner. Here are a couple of extracts:

“When the concessions to common sense have been made (for example, the amount of editorial discretion in the old ‘verbatim’ editions which even purists are willing to accept; the current availability of exact photographic reproductions of black-letter texts), it here that one’s case rests against this modern-spelling edition of Tyndale finally rests. A tractable ‘English’ project (‘accessible Tyndale’) has insinuated itself into Tyndale’s intractable purpose (to make the New and Old testaments accessible, in English to the ‘laye’ people’). This is not so much transmission as a kind of contamination.£

and

To make Tyndale’s New Testament of 1534 ‘accessible’ to ‘today’s reader’ is not to discover it as the modern book it once was. The modern book it once was remains in the sufficiency and jeopardy of ‘its difficult early- sixteenth-century spelling’;….

I think the general point here is the bogus claims of the modernisers. The distant past is a remarkably strange and unfamiliar place, the readers of the 16th century had completely different expectations and practices from those of today. Tyndale made his bible for them and not for readers of the 21st century of whom he had no knowledge whatsoever. I’d have a lot more time for the Yale edition if it was made clear that this was prepared with students in mind to give a general impression rather than to make it into something with universal application.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that modernized texts are a Wholly Bad Thing, just as translations are essential to my monoglot reading. It does nevertheless insist on a recognition that these transpositions might reflect more of the transposer than she or he would acknowledge. I’m aware that there may well be a charge of elitism here but I’m less and less bothered by this because it seems reasonable to question some of the more fatuous claims made by the modernisers.

On a personal level, I accept that every translation and modernizing produces a new poem but I am outraged that some of these do irreparable damage to the original. David R Slavitt’s verse translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is an example of a new Very Bad Poem that manages to obliterate this important poem under the guise of accessibility.

A final note on this particular prejudice: I’m trying to teach myself Middle English (for all kind of reasons) and am currently paying attention to the marvel that is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I started with J A Burrow’s 1972 edition primarily because of his expertise in All Things ME. Before getting very far, I moved on to Andrew and Waldron’s The Poems of The Pearl Manuscript. The main noticeable difference is that the latter retains the original spelling whereas the Burrow’s blurb has “The aim of this addition has been to remove unnecessary impediments while retaining the integrity of the original”. This justification is lazy in the extreme, especially given Burrow’s prominence and scholarship. Using ‘was’ instead of ‘watz’ is a kind of contamination in that it destroys the way the word sounds for the sake of modernizing something that is already clear enough. I don’t understand the use of ‘integrity’ in this context because that’s the very thing that is lost from the beginning.

The curmudgeonly view of the OED
The second edition of the above, especially in online form, is essential for most readers and writers of serious work. It is the standard point of reference for the English language and I never cease to be amazed how this project has been put together and maintained over the years. There are however gaps and inaccuracies as with any large work of reference and Hill has gone to some length, as has Prynne, to point some of these out.

These trenchant observations are from Hill’s essay Common Weal, Common Woe:

“In the entry on dexterity (‘2. Mental adroitness or skill….cleverness, address, ready tact’) the reader is appraised that sense 2 occurs ‘sometimes in abad sense: cleverness in taking an advantage, sharpness’. The citation from Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (‘The dexterity that is universally practised in those parts’) is ambivalently placed and, in its brief citation, elusive in tone. Read in context (towards the end of Book Eight) the phrase still holds a good deal in reserve. Clarendon is alluding to the manners and morale of Antrim’s Irish and Montrose’s Scottish highlanders, from whose ranks it was planned to raise an army ‘that was not to depend on any supplies of money, or arms, or victual, but what they could easily supply for themselves, by the dexterity that is universally practised in those parts’. “

“How far, if at all, does Clarendon’s sense of his word confirm to the editorial definition? This is not a case to be explained by ‘sometimes in a bad sense’. Whatever is happening to the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ connotations is happening within the space of eighteen words, where what is ‘good’ is determined by the necessities of the ‘good’ cause and what is ‘bad’ by the unexplored hinterland of ‘what they could easily provide for themselves’.”

and this on Hopkin’s use of ‘disremember’:

“On the other hand they make a public exhibition of the contributors’, or editors’, inability, over half a century, to recognize the one usage which significantly changes the pitch of the word (‘qØite ! Disremembering, disrembering all now’) The Second Edition heads its entry ‘v. Chiefly dial. dísmémbering ấll now’) The Second Edition heads its entry ‘v chiefly dial. [f. DIS 6 + REMEMBER v.] To fail to remember; to forget. (trans and absol.)’. If this may be thought sufficient for the nine other citations, it patently fails to register the metamorphic power of Hopkin’s context. ‘Disremebering’ in ‘Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves’, is not, as the Dictionary presumes, ‘failing to remember, ‘forgetting’ it is ‘dismembering the memory’.”

Now, it can be argued that both of these are mere quibbles and of no greater importance than one individual’s nit-picking. This would be entirely reasonable were it not for the fact that Hill knew a Very Great Deal about both the 17th century and the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins and therefore his observations would seem to be worthy of serious attention.

I’m an Eng. Lang. obsessive and am firmly of the view that it’s important to get this stuff as ‘right’ as possbile. I make extensive use of the OED as do many others to make sure that a) we get a better understanding of what we read and b} we ensure we make appropriate use of the words that we write. I’ve encountered entries over the years where the definitions seem to be partial or insufficiently nuanced. Obviously I don’t have Sir Geoffrey’s learning and am thus unable to qualify the doubts that I have but it is a worry that our sole point of reference would appear to contain quite a few flaws.

In conclusion, it may seem that all of the above fits with Hill’s reputation as an angry purist but I like to think that it’s more about being passionately involved with the Poem and having keenly held views about what it does and the various things that get in the way. I’m also of the view that there is nothing at all wrong with being opinionated provided the position expressed, as with Hill, can be supported by facts.

Night Office – an experiment in reading

Simon Jarvis’ remarkable new poem is now published and for sale at Enitharmon. I’m about to try something which may benefit from an explanation. I’m of the view that this is a work which deserves the widest possible readership and I am concerned that some readers will be deterred by the length of the poem and by the density of its subject matter. I therefore thought about writing one of those old-fashioned book things with the view of encouraging readers to engage with this and a few other equally complex works (The Odes, Slow Light, Kazoo Dreamboats, Casebook sprang immediately to mind). It could be argued that this is, in part, what this blog is ‘about’ but I wanted a greater sense of immediacy and a more realistic sketch of my readerly experience. I’ve therefore made a start with a few poems and what follows is the very early stages of my involvement with ‘Night Office’. As usual this is a provisional, subjective but hopefully honest account of paying attention to the first few pages of the poem:

You open it, it’s over 200 pages of rhyming 8-line stanzas. You put it down. You consider yourself to be a Jarvis completist and congratulate yourself (frequently) that you’ve read all of his even longer ‘The Unconditional’. Twice. This wasn’t an easy experience but you persevered through the endless digressions because you recognised that something important was going on and you liked what it did to your head.

The prospect of a few months of obsessive reading and re-reading isn’t that appealing, you know that your concentration will be tested and that much coffee will be drunk, you worry that you’ve stopped smoking since ‘The Unconditional’ and that staying mentally alert enough may be more of a problem. It’s not a complete leap in the dark, you’ve read the extract published in Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ and you’re therefore aware of the initial premise and the fact that there’s a level of lyrical beauty that’s quite spellbinding. You pick it up again and flick through the pages and are pleased to find that this tone seems to be sustained. You begin to read:


Every last person in this book is dead,-
including me. I'm talking to you, yes,
thanks to my poet: he, thanks to me; my head
shakes and reverberates, while, less and less,
the waves of sound diminish, and instead,
a lasting silence fills me and I rest.

You smile because there appears to be some satisfying complexity going on that’s reasonably audacious and doesn’t involve digression. The direct address to the reader is normally a device that you find heavy handed and contrived but this is done with an aggression that’s quite startling, the sort of thing that’s said prior to fight in the local pub. In the first three lines it is established that we are among the dead and it is these beings that will be brought to ‘life’ by the interaction between this speaker and his poet. All of this you find intriguing and now look forward to see how this is maintained over two hundred pages. This is also where you start to have harder thoughts concerning this reciprocity between a writer and his subject, You consider the accuracy of the view that characters take on a life of their own. You’ve had a few half-hearted attempts to write novels and some of your characters do seem to acquire some kind of separate existence in your head and there’s characters in ‘The Faerie Queene’ that seem to be especially real (Britomart, Arthur, Artegall). You wonder whether ‘my poet’ is going to be referred to again. Of course the effect of this address is to remind you that what follows is a fabrication. that you’re not expected to immerse yourself in the world of the poem but to remain a bit removed from it even though you may have to accept the premise that the dead may speak to us.

Most of the above is reasonably clear but then you notice the semi-colon problem. Things would be much easier if there was a full stop after ‘thanks to me’ but there isn’t and you’re left wondering how the shaking of the head is connected to the relationship that’s just been alluded to / described. You then decide that you’re probably thinking too hard and read on.

It’s snowing, it transpires that our dead talker is in a block of empty flats and it is snowing outside. This event is described with such care that you think that it may well allude to something else, that the action of the snow may have something to do with our mortality:


Then, just as surely, these determined blacks
are filled by flake and flake, until the light
unthinking action of the snow conceals
every last record and the gazer lacks
all means to know their having been. The night
welcomes and hides them: what each thinks or feels

is as obliterated as a name
drawn in the soft sand when repeated waves
delete at one stroke its uncertain fame,
leaving these empty flats. The corner where one shaves
is still invisible. The mirror in its frame
glimmers more darkly, where its pool just saves 
the snow’s dim lights into its silver, and 
they fall more slowly over by the stand.

So, the snow is obliterating the ground, the surface of the earth and the initial flakes create a pattern of white and black patches. These ‘blacks’ are said to be ‘determined’ which may or may not be referring to baseline theology on whether or not we have complete freedom of action our our fate is predetermined by God. The snow covers everything up and in doing so obliterates all trace/memory of their existence. In the ‘ordinary’ world things don’t happen like this, traces are left, things and people are remembered so this snow must be especially destructive because it can effortlessly wipe out this fame or memory. What is being described however is not a blizzard but something that falls ‘flake by flake’ which doesn’t have those notions of hazard and destruction.

‘Mirrors’ and ‘darkly’ immediately produce the quote from Corinthians 1 in your head even if you’ve never fully understood it: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I also am known.” Of course, it’s even less certain that this possible ‘connection’ is the right one but it’s something that can be tested and revised as you go through the poem.

Then you think some more about snow, as in real snow, and you realise that a thin layer of snow does not obliterate all trace of what’s underneath- a flat surface like this black ground might change colour and texture but it will still be recognisably flat just as a slope will still be discernible. The other significant property of snow is that it eventually melts revealing what lies beneath. You read this again and notice that what is obliterated is not the blacks themselves but what they think or feel. This really doesn’t help, neither does the odd observation that the ‘snow’s dim lights’ appear to change the rate of fall depending on where they are.

Of course, there’s the possibility that you are already over-reading, that you’re trying to find things that aren’t actually there, that you should accept the fact that there’s this dead person inside this empty block of flats and that it’s gently snowing outside.

You then realise that the use of rhyme appears to be ‘working’ in that it isn’t getting in the way of your reading and does appear to add an injection of ‘flow’ to each stanza. This is odd because you normally get annoyed by the rhyme constraint as it invariably feels both contrived and (technical term) clunky. You remind yourself to read the Jarvis ‘Why Rhymes Pleases’ essay because you remember arguing with it at the time. You also admonish yourself for deriding the Jarvis view that formal constraint can enhance Big Thought Poetry.

You proceed slowly, you know from his previous work that Jarvis rewards attention to every aspect of what is going on. You enjoy this level of concentration, reading and re-reading a few lines at a time until things become apparent but this use of rhyme does, surprisingly, seem to make things more evocative and more beautiful. You think about this for a while and realise that beauty is a rare event in your reading of poetry, you can only recall brief moments of beauty in Celan, Hill and David Jones and none of these are bound by any kind of formal constraint. You then start to think about poems that describe beautiful things and those that deal with love and this isn’t the kind of beauty that you’re thinking of, it is a group of words or lines that are beautiful in themselves regardless of subject matter. You’re beginning to think / hope that ‘Night Office’ might be beautiful.

From the snow and its effects, things move onto the dead and three stanzas that seem to set out the ‘frame’ of what is to follow:



“Dead, every one, and gone beneath the snow.
I search the past for them, but miss their faces.
They are where all the happy dead must go.
Only, in this dark room, I cannot know
their quietness, their sleep; my head replaces
each one precisely in his life, and so 
they walk again from lungs to teeth,
escaping painfully from sweet relief.

Each bears his rhythm like an inner star:
each is walked through by some one line of stress
not chosen or invented, though they are
not accidental either, since they test,
for each imprinted pattern, where the bar
is lightly crossed, or halted at. My chest
rises and falls beneath my shirt, as each
treads slowly through me his peculiar speech,

sending me soft dumbnesses, impressions
left in the surface of my slow tongue, which
shifts shape a little each time. Dreams, depressions,
pass through my face from inside. In this rich,
yet monochrome, design, these curls, recessions,
vaults and returns speak, soundlessly, dip, pitch
their friendly spirit voices through my sight
and out into the European Night,

So things start to get a bit odder, the dead person who is still talking to us is the mouthpiece of these friendly spirits who are already where the ‘happy dead must go’. You’re not keen on this turn of events, your failure to believe in a god also entails rejecting any notion of the after- life. You also view the ide that the dead use living people to speak on their behalf one of the most cruel forms of quackery. Of course, this may not be what Jarvis means but you cn’t immediately think of another reading of “as each / treads slowly through me his peculiar speech”. Whether this is the case or not there are a few questions that need to be answered:

  • Does searching the past simply mean ‘trying to remember’ or does it mean that the past is a physical thing, like an archive, that can be searched?
  • Do all the happy dead go to heaven or is this referring to some other state / place?
  • Are the happy dead happy because they’re in heaven or were they happy before they got there?
  • Why is being dead described as ‘sweet relief’?
  • Is the ‘not chosen, invented nor accidental’ conundrum a riff on theological understandings of free will and determinism or is some other kind of paradox been alluded to?
  • Why are impressions left in the tongue rather than on the tongue?
  • How, exactly, are these spirit voices pitched through his sight?
  • Why is the night specifically European?

You hope that some of these will be resolved as you move through the rest of the poem but there is niggling doubt that some of this might be clever for the sake of being clever. It may be that ‘my slow tongue’ refers to language or speech rather than the physical object and that ‘in’ would make a little more sense, but not much.

The other worry is whether or not the chosen / invented rigmarole is overly contrived leading to a degree of clunkiness. If it does refer to God’s foreknowledge then why not be a little less oblique? If it refers to something else then it simply sounds portentous without meaning very much- this is one of the most common poetic mistakes but it’s not one that Jarvis usually makes.

Then you decide to look at ‘curls, recessions, / vaults, and returns’ that ‘speak soundlessly’. The first thing that strikes you is church architecture with regard to the first three and a kind of roundedness that can be applied to vaults and curls and then you get hung up on the discovery that a recession is also a feature of the church service “the withdrawing procession of the clergy and choir to the vestry at the close of the service” together with ‘return’ as a noun can also mean ‘paroussia’ which apparently is the Second Coming or ‘an event comparable to the Second Coming; a Messianic of apocalyptic appearance’. At this point your brain starts to hurt because the primary ‘sense’ is the dead, these “friendly spirits” are going to speak through our narrator – who is also dead. Things become complex when you start to think about things withdrawing or turning in on themselves or being covered by round arches or by returning as part of the End of Time. You don’t think for one second that any such return at any time is at all possible and that this cynicism may be preventing a clearer understanding.

You’re also struck by things that “pass through my face from the inside” and you decide to think about this some more. Is this inside the contents of the skull or is it the fleshy structure of the face itself? You are going for the former because this is where dreams and depressions lurk. This passing through implies that these ‘states’ are on there way to somewhere else or is this just a clever way of saying that these things leave their mark or trace on their way out into the world?

As ever, any kind of feedback- especially with regard to the way things are said – would be very much appreciated.