Tag Archives: repetition

Anne Boyer’s Common Heart

I started re-reading the above as a way of not reading ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, ‘Odi Barbare’ and ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ but then I got dragged in and now feel the need to enthuse in the manner of a stupid red setter. I first encountered Boyer by way of using an article in Lana Turner to refute a misplaced attribution which sounds much grander than it is. My initial view (subjective, provisional, on the way to something else) was that this might be tactically good as a part of the Occupy movement. I’ve now decided that some of it is very good indeed and stands on its own terms.

Here I think I need to explain what the difference between poetic quality and tactical quality. There are a whole range of criteria for the former, I currently going for a mix of Hill and Prynne- technically efficient, startling and beautiful- whereas the tactical poem looks outside poetry and is perhaps more or equally concerned with what poems can do. Some of the better conceptual work meets this criteria but so too does Simon Jarvis’ determined use of metre.

The thing that strikes me now is how some of this work is on the way to being conceptual whilst retaining at least a foot and an ankle in the late modern camp. I am aware that I’m ignorant and that there may be an entire North American ‘school’ writing in this manner but I still think that, whatever this is, Boyer does it very well.

I’d like to focus on bodies and bodies that crowd together. Boyer’s ‘Crowds’ is entirely in prose and contains a series of reasonably straightforward statements interspersed with some questions. What we have here is both startling and efficient. Each statement/question gives pause for thought but the succession of statements also carries forwards through the text. I didn’t want it to finish but that probably says more about me than Boyer.

I’d like to draw your attention to the really good/important/salient/valuable bits:

  • every kind of virtue is found in a crowd: that humans in a crowd create their own paths as if
    they are water that creates its own stream of water;
  • she has a crowd of carrots but carrots alone;
  • how in a disaster, humans in a crowd;
  • the building falls around him but the man carrying the man he does not know is not Hobbesian;
  • to make those deep dog woof cheers as they walk in the path the crowd has made like how water makes a stream;
  • oh what a piece of work is the crowd that we work so hard together to work against it;
  • to dream with the crowd is her cognitive surplus;
  • how the crowd so often starts with women together conspiring. How for this reason you are not allowed to see women together in the movies conspiring unless it is about clothing or a man;
  • at night I dream of a poetry for the crowd. I imagine the bodies pressed against each other until there is not one set of feet left on the ground.

I think the first thing that needs to be said is that it is really very easy to do this kind of thing badly. I know from personal experience that there is a temptation to become overly abstract which ends up being merely pretentious or to be really plain and simple which doesn’t say very much at all but does flaunt its own self-regard.

This remarkable piece of work points and teeters toward the portentous and abstract yet manages to stay the correct/appropriate side of the line. I became quite concerned with the appearance of the philosopher but this is kept nicely in proportion. The other thing to note is the degree of political engagement which becomes increasingly apparent as things progress. This isn’t full-on polemic but it is a scathing analysis of state power/paranoia coupled with a ‘wish’ for adequate verse.

I’ve confessed many time before that I’m easily impressed by the clever and need to be on my guard against the clever that is merely clever for it’s own sake. ‘The Crowd’ is bursting with intelligence but this is cleverness that is a means rather than an end, it needs to be clever in order to make its point succinctly and forcefully but the strength of the point overrides the intelligence and skill needed to get there.

What I also admire is that this feels like an easy read with the implication that it was easy to put together when in fact this level of quality is really difficult to achieve and requires much hard work and a great amount of skill. As with Olson and Matthias, the reader does not notice the machinery that’s churning away to achieve the effect.

Given this level of quality it’s perhaps no surprise that some other poems don’t work with the same kind of fluency and some don’t say very much. I’m a fan of list poems and have a strong interest in the various uses of repetition but Boyer’s use of both (apart from ‘The poet with the best body’) doesn’t seem adequately thought out.

‘Il pie fermo’ almost restores my faith in the utility of the political poem, I haven’t checked whether the initial paragraph is a quote or note and I don’t think it matters. The poem builds into bitter polemic but does so in an unusual and compelling way. The first ‘winter’ paragraph is an example of good use of repetition that catches both the obsessive and absurd sides of power whilst the second puts us in a much, much darker place. I’m taking it that the scratching of the captives is an echo of what happened in the gas chambers and this here is both startling and quite shocking.

The change into verse is fascinating to me primarily because I haven’t worked out what informs the decision to change and whether this is different for each poem. The effect here is again to place the poetic centre stage in a direct and unambiguous relationship with state power. I find this incredibly effective- it challenges my own practice ina fundamental way.

With regard to bodies (apart from bodies in crowds and bodies incarcerated or dead), I want simply to say that ‘The poet with the best body’ is a repetitious list poem that works as it should and makes me smile a lot, the kind of thing that you want to quote at strangers in the street.

Technical Prowess in ‘The Anathemata’

This is in response to Michael Peverell’s recent comment on the ‘Dead End’ post. Initially I was going to make some pithy observation in the thread but then I got to thinking that my idea of technical worth might require a bit of explanation.

I don’t think what Geoffrey Hill describes as technical efficiency should be confined to rhyme and meter but should also include a range of techniques, foibles and slights of hand. These can vary from word choice, phrasing, cadence, enjambment through to subject matter and ‘message’.

In the technical department extra marks are given for disguising the means by which effects are achieved and additional points are awarded when these effects carry important or profound material. Elizabeth Bishop is a good example of a great poet who put enormous effort in to achieving technical perfection so that the reader wouldn’t notice the devices used along the way. John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ has the same effect on me in that I know what effect the poem has but I don’t know how this effect is achieved.

David Jones is not as technically accomplished as Bishop but ‘The Anathemata’ is full of little flurries of technique that assist the reader in getting to grips with this incredibly ambitious work. Auden called it the best long poem of the 20th century and confessed that he had been reading it for ten years and still didn’t grasp all its levels of meaning so readers of this might understand when I say that after 18 months of paying attention I’m still on the nursery slopes in terms of understanding but I think I can recognise skilled verse even when I don’t fully understand it.

I find ‘The Lady of the Pool’ to be the most amenable section of the poem because I’m reasonably familiar with one of its themes (the history of London) and because it uses a number of established techniques to good effect. I make no apology whatsoever for the length of what follows because it really does illustrate why more people should pay this poem some attention;

              From the two sticks an' a' Apple to Bride o'
the Shandies' Well over the Fleet; from Hallows-on-Wall to
the keel-haws; from the ditch without the Vicinal Gate to
Lud's hill; within and extra the fending circuit both banks
the wide and demarking middle-brook that waters, from the
midst of the street of it, our twin-hilled Urbs. At Martin
miles in the Pomarary (where the Roman pippins grow) at
winged Marmor miles, gilt-lorica'd on his wheat hill stick-
ing the Laidly Worm as threats to coil us all.
At the Lady-at-Hill
above Romeland's wharf-lanes
at the Great Mother's newer chapelle
at New Heva's Old Crepel.
(Chthonic matres under the croft:
springan a Maye's Aves to clerestories.
Delphi in sub-crypt:
luce flowers to steeple.)
At Paul's
and faith under Paul
so Iuppiter me succour!
they do garland them with Roman roses and do have stitched
on their zoomorphic apparels and vest 'em gay for Artemis.
When is brought in her stag to be pierced,
when is bowed his meek head between the porch and the
altar, when is blowed his sweet death at the great door, on the
day before the calends o' Quintilis.
At the tunicled martyr's
from where prills the seeding under-stream. At Mary of the Birth
by her long bourn of sweet water.
In where she mothers
her painters an' limners.
In Pellipar's
where she's virgo inter virgines for the skinner's boys an budge-dressers.
In all the memorials
of her buxom will
(what brought us ransom, captain!)
as do renown our city.

Michael will be pleased to know that I have proof-read this with some care from the Faber 2010 edition (I don’t have access to the original) and that I have preserved the line breaks in the prose sections as they occur in that edition.

The other good news is that this is one of the most densely annotated passages in the poem but I’ve chosen it for the way that it throws the reader into a specific place (London) whilst moving across a number of different time-frames. I’d like to point out the use of repetition in a complex act of invocation, the rhetorical tropes involved in situating both the work and the person reading / participating in it. There’s also the supreme skill involved in making a list both poetic and the point of what is being listed. Those of us who love long poems know that even the best of these will occasionally resort to the list, Milton’s description of the fallen angels in hell is gloriously digressive but it is still a list, as is his initial description of Eden, Spenser’s chronology and rivers are both examples of lists getting in the way of the poem but here the poem is in part about what you do with this cultural clutter, this conglomeration of signs and symbols. I would argue for a very long time that the above is the one of the most accomplished examples of modernist technique which is deeply rooted in the classical tradition.

In his introduction Jones refers to the difficulties he encountered in gaining some control over his material but his success is demonstrated by the fact that on the page the struggle is transformed into something both elegant and effortlessly profound.

I’m of the view that Ezra Pound was technically brilliant well before 1920 and that ‘The Cantos’ are a fascinating and gloriously erratic use of that brilliance to extremely ambitious ends (‘the whole shooting match’) but he couldn’t thrust the reader into a place or a time as effectively as Jones although it is possible to read the development of a variety of techniques from Pound to Jones – the use of the demotic to say complex things being the most obvious.

So, Jones’ prowess lies not so much in meter or rhyme but in the ability to use repetition and a range of rhetorical devices to thrust the reader into the cultural detritus that we all carry with us. We can argue with the components of Jones’ clutter (Catholicism, Wales, London, the Roman Empire etc) but we do have to acknowledge the skill with which he brings these to our attention.