Tag Archives: Some Fables

Reitha Pattison and the superbly obscure

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but I’ve been thinking about instead, which is usually, for me, a mistake. Really dedicated readers of this blog will know that Michael Peverell responded to an earlier post on Pattison’s ‘Some Fables’ by pointing out that the last line of Fable XIV is a “misquote of Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum (or rather, a sixteenth-century translation presumably)” and that he knows this “from Google referring me to Pattison’s own leisurely ramble around Prynne’s “Corn burned by Syrius”.”

For the eternally curious (and the Prynne completists) the ramble is in the ‘Prynne’ issue of Glossator but Michael prodded me into thinking about the nature of what we refer to as ‘obscure’ and the effect of its use or deployment in poetry.

I know that I’m treading over some well-worn ground but I want to try and redeem myself by recounting my own change in view on the obscure. Many moons ago I had come to the view that the use of obscure references had the effect of intimidating or otherwise deterring the reader and smacked of laziness, as if the poet couldn’t be bothered to use his own words to express himself.

I’m still of the view that this is a sensible and defensible position to hold and that it has the benefit of appearing to be more ‘inclusive’ and democratic. As well as reading poems containing obscurities, I’ve had two significant encounters (in the Paul Celan sense) with critics that have caused me to further develop the above view. The first is George Steiner’s discussion of Celan’s use of “metastasen” and his speculation that it might also refer to Metastasio, the 18th century librettist and poet.

The second was with Stanley Fish’ examination of ‘Lycidas’ and his view that we will never know what the ‘two-handed engine at the door’ refers to and that over 400 years of critical debate on this matter has been a complete waste of time.

When I started this blog in 2009 one of the first pieces was an attempt to distinguish between the ‘difficult’ and the ‘wilfully obscure’ and to condemn the latter. This is the only piece that I have since removed. I think I did this because it was a view that I no longer held and that it might give first-time readers the wrong idea about what Bebrowed is ‘about’. This isn’t the same as wanting to preserve some consistency, I don’t have a problem with changing my mind and writing from fluctuating perspectives but this post was so at odds with the other 200 or so that I felt that it had to go.

I’m not suggesting that I’m an avid fan of the superbly obscure but that its presence doesn’t seem as significant. The reason for this is bound up with my changed relationship with meaning and authorial intention and my much more relaxed view about elitism.

Dealing with elitism first, it has been very, very tempting from time to time to throw out the over-educated, bourgeois, southern and therefore effete as describing words at the sight of a German or Greek phrase/or a reference to Hegel, Adorno or ‘contradiction’. I have succumbed to this temptation when these occur but also with other obscurities that seem to cross over into the deliberate in-crowd snobbery. Having this kind of rant makes me feel morally cleansed but it’s an easy gibe and one that doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. For example, in this post I have qualified the use of the word ‘encounter’ to indicate that I intend it to have the same meaning that Paul Celan gave it in the ‘Meridian Address’. I am, of course, aware that many people haven’t heard of Paul Celan and those that have may be unaware of what he intended by ‘encounter’. I recognise also that this kind of reference without any further qualification can be seen as both obscure and elitist. My defence is:

  • that I didn’t want to spend time of eleborating on a point that is incidental to what I’m trying to say;
  • that it is a mark of these dark and difficult times that the populace at large is neither aware nor concerned about what Celan meant by ‘encounter’ and that this lack of knowledge really isn’t my problem;
  • what I’m saying makes sense without the qualification, it’s just that the reference makes it more precise;
  • typing “Celan encounter” into Google will provide the required context and may perhaps point readers to the whole text (and the notes).

Obscurity occurs in two ways- the obvious way is when a word, name or phrase is used that is obviously obscure and the second way is when the reference is not flagged up as a reference or as a quotation, Prynne is particularly guilty of this.

Being largely self-taught and not having access to decent libraries, my ability to track down references would be very limited were it not for the world wide web so before about 2000 the charge that obscurity acts as a barrier to those of us who live in rural areas would have had some weight but this is no longer the case. Geoffrey Hill usually flags up his obscurities and sometimes clarifies them for us so he’s forgiven for Bradwardine, Gabriel Marcel and most of the rest. Neil Pattison and I had an exchange a while ago about his allusion to a Steven Malkmus lyric which I thought was too obscure and which he defended as ‘private’. This again was redeemed because the reader is told that the reference relates to a Malkmus song.

Here’s a quiz- who knows that ‘Consilience’ is the name of a book by E O Wilson? Who knows that it says that there is a commonality running through all science that is on its way to revealing the secrets of everything? Hill’s poem 26 in the ‘Clavics’ collection begins with “Unity of knowledge – consilience –” and goes on to gently demolish the Dawkins/Wilson position but you wouldn’t know this if you didn’t know the book. ‘Consilience’ is one of the three or four science books I’ve read in the last twenty years but I’m betting that very very few of Hill’s readers would have grasped the main thrust of his argument. It is true that the poem works (and works well) without this knowledge but it is so much more effective with it.

Prynne does unattributed obscurity too often to be counted and I’m intrigued by the inclusion of the Reference Cues at the end of ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ even if some of these are no use at all to those of us who don’t have the science, although I demand some points for making progress with ‘pore geometry’. I’m guessing that Prynne’s answer to the charge of deliberate and excluding obscurity is that he doesn’t feel that achieving complete understanding is essential to a successful reading of his work. I waver on this one because obscurities that aren’t flagged (‘rap her to bank’, poem 7 in the ‘Pearls that Were’ sequence etc.) are on the way to becoming open poems, a charge that Prynne denies.

To attempt a summary- Reitha Pattison’s obscurity isn’t problematic because the use of quotation marks indicates very clearly that she’s quoting and that the source is easily identified whereas Geoffrey Hill’s use of italics for the first line of Poem 26 is helpful but not helpful enough- most readers will be left with the misleading OED definition.

J H Prynne is guilty of the charge of wilful obscurity but in his case it doesn’t seem to matter because we’re not looking for conventional meaning or understanding. Unless of course he now wants us to become familiar with pore geometry, quantum physics, and the nature of monumental space in the Neolithic…

Incidentally, Reitha’s fifteenth fable contains a not very clearly flagged reference to the Georgian national epic but you might not know that, the only reason I did is because my son works in Tbilisi and he’d bought me a copy.

What short poems do

When I was 15ish, I was of the view that poetry was about compression, that it’s primary purpose was to condense and intensify life as it is lived. I hadn’t arrived at this conclusion from any deep knowledge or understanding but I did know that Paul Celan had written the most obviously important poetry that I had come across and that the more austere later works were staggeringly good. This view was solidified by Samuel Beckett’s ‘Lessness’ which seemd intent on paring things down in a similar way.

Over the last forty years I’ve weaned myself off this early certainty and discovered the many joys of the longer poem and the pleasure to be gained in losing myself for page after page. The problem with having Celan for a template has meant that very few poems have met my early standards and those that do tend to be part of a sequence rather than a ‘stand alone’ poem. I was thinking about this the other day when writing about Andrew Marvell’s ‘Garden’ sequence and found myself trying to work out what I look for in short poems.

The first and most obvious quality is brevity but the kind of brevity that says a lot without appearing to try whilst the second is about depth or perhaps profundity but a depth that is worn lightly and thus avoids ramming the ‘point’ down my throat. The third is about a good start but a better finish in that the opening should attract my attention and hold my interest whilst the end should be both sharp and accomplished.

I want to use four short poems to try and demonstrate what I mean, I’ve chosen these because I think that they are successful in their own right (although three do belong to a sequence) and because they all manage to kick off a series of related thoughts which may or may not have been part of the original intention.

Reitha Pattison’s Fable I

I’ve written about this recently but I want to use to show just how much a few lines can hold:

A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.

The first element relates to fables and various other forms of the same kind of thing. Emblem books during the 16th and 17th centuries made great use of these stories so I’ve been led back to Whitney and the popularity of the emblem form and the conscious use that Spenser and others made of emblems. The illustration in Whitney’s great collection of the dog and his reflection is remarkable in its directness.

I’ve also been reading Alistair Fowler on the impact of the epigram on what is referred to as the English Renaissance and beyond and Pattison’s Fables do share many epigrammatic features which has brought me to think again about the use of such forms as life lessons and their equivalents in the popular culture of today.

The mix of Providence and an agrarian work ethic is startling because the two are not obviously related and it’s taken me a while to think this through. Providence is defined by Alexandra Walsham as a the “sovereignty of God and His unceasing supervision of and intervention in the earthly realm” whereas ‘work ethic’ is a term used by Weber to ‘explain’ the relative economic success of Protestant northern Europe when compared with the Catholic south. The story of the ant and the grasshopper tells of a grasshopper who does little during the warm summer months and an ant who puts stores food for the winter. Of course, the grasshopper has no food and starves having been rebuked by the ant for his idleness. The original point is reasonably straightforward but Pattison plays with it to bring other dimensions to bear.

Geoffrey Hill’s poem LI from ‘The Triumph of Love’

I am aware that the above sequence really needs to be read in its entirety in order to be fully appreciated but this particular poem meets all of the above criteria and succeeds in its own right. It also provides what is perhaps the central point of the work as a whole:

Whatever may be meant by moral landscape
is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in crass section: igneous, sedimentary,
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,
individual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.

This is particularly satisfying because it’s a quite statement in the middle of some quite dramatic flourishes which attempt to encapsulate some of the worst aspects of the 20th century and provides the key as to why we have come through those appalling experiences. So it’s a kind of riposte to those who see only brutality and mindless slaughter but it’s also a self-contained statement of faith in a ‘particular grace’ and the finer qualities that each of us possess and which run across and outweigh our many and various ‘faults’. It is a remarkable statement and one that continues to provoke a number of questions- as a more or less committed atheist, the notion of grace means little to me but I would argue that the other three qualities do play a huge part in getting us through although I’m not entirely sure that the geological analogy works for me it is still remarkably accomplished, keenly felt and a brilliant statement of quite a complex and nuanced position.

Andrew Marvell’s Poem VI from ‘The Garden’

I’ve written recently about another poem in this sequence so I don’t intend to repeat myself here. This particular poem stands out from the others both for its tone and for the things that it appears to be saying which ‘work’ on a number of different levels:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I’m firmly of the view that Marvell has never been given his due and I think the above is an example of both masterful control and an ability to say complex things in startling ways. Nigel Smith’s commentary tells me that the above continues to give critics fertile ground for controversy and debate but I just think that it’s very, very well put together and contains a satisfyingly high level of ambiguity. ‘Green’ had a number of connotations apart from those relating to the environment in the 17th century, as did ‘shade’ and the contrast of these thoughts with the more psychological description is at odds with the rest of the sequence but also indicates just how different this period was from our own- something we tend to overlook especially when thinking about the English Civil War. I’m currently pursuing the role of green in the period and it is fascinating.

Paul Celan’s ‘I know you’

I want to finish with this because I started with Celan and he is the best and what follows demonstrates this. We often think of Celan primarily as Jew and in relation to the Holocaust but the four lines below were written to/for his wife, Giselle. By the early sixties the marriage had become strained primarily because of Celan’s ‘difficult’ behaviour which was due to his mental health problems. As someone who has similar problems, I read it as an exposition of the kind of tensions and pain that such issues can cause:

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both.
You - all, all real. I - all delusion.)

This has also generated swathes of critical attention and debate but for me it’s heartbreakingly accurate, the use of ‘transpierced’ speaks to me at a very deep and personal level and the third line encapsulates so much of the desperation that many of us go through. It is also fitting that the entire poem should exist in a bracket.

There are very few poems (of any length) that manage to speak to me in this way and I remain awed by Celan’s incredible ability to make difficult things very solid. I’ve been thinking about the Meridian notes a lot recently and this for me embodies what Celan says about the poem as creating an opportunity for the encounter with the reader that is almost tactile. This does that for me.

Reitha Pattison’s ‘Some Fables’ as performance.

A few days ago I was speculating out loud as to what poetry might do and whether this may be a more productive question than those relating to meaning and form. I also suggested that maybe thinking more about poetry as performance could be productive in these difficult times.

I’d like to start by getting to a more precise indication of what I think I mean by performance and to make it clear that I don’t mean the poetry reading as performance nor do I mean slam poetry or any variations therein. I do mean the performative effect of the words on the page as words on the page.

This effect can take many different forms and can be achieved in many different ways. Some poets appear to understand this aspect of the poem better than others, (Spenser, Milton, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Muldoon) and now I want to look at Reitha Pattison’s sequence with this perspective in mind.

‘Some Fables’ consists of twenty nine-line, single-stanza poems divided equally into two ‘books’. Each of the poems is based on a classical fable and then does things to it in startling and subversive ways. Both the sequence and the two books and the individual poems can be experienced as performances.

There are several definitions of ‘performance’ that we might need to take with us:

  • (OED 4a)The action of performing a play, piece of music, ceremony, etc.; execution, interpretation;
  • (OED 4c) An instance of performing a play, piece of music, etc., in front of an audience; an occasion on which such a work is presented; a public appearance by a performing artist or artists of any kind. Also: an individual performer’s or group’s rendering or interpretation of a work, part, role, etc. In extended use: a pretence, a sham;
  • (OED 1g) Linguistics. N. Chomsky’s name for: a person’s actual use of a language, as opposed to his or her knowledge of it.;
  • (OED 1e) Psychol. The observable or measurable behaviour of a person or animal in a particular, usually experimental, situation. Also as a count noun: an observable or measurable action;
  • (OED 1f) Business. The extent to which an investment is profitable, esp. in relation to other commodities; an instance of this.

I want to be greedy and use all of the above to look at this remarkable work. I am not suggesting that ‘Some Fables’ is especially suited to this frame, I can think of many others (‘The Triumph of Love’, the proverb swapping scene between Arthur and Una in ‘The Faerie Queen’, ‘Triodes’, ‘Dionysus Crucified’ etc.) that might be better suited but I’ve been particularly impressed by the sequence and it has been in my thinking this week.

Let’s start with definition 4a, the title indicates a very old literary form and suggests some variation on this theme. The term ‘fable’ leads us to think of Aesop and the stories we were told as children or other attempts at performance like ‘Animal Farm’so it is reasonable to assume that these will be in some way interpreted, as would a Beethoven symphony or a tragedy by Shakespeare.

Of course there are many differences between an orchestral or theatrical performance and the reading of a poem but if we think of language and the history/tradition of poetry as the script/score and what the poet does with this as the performance then I think we might be getting closer to what poetry does.

So, Pattison has decided to perform some fables and the title puts the audience/reader into a certain cast of mind with regard to the ‘original’ form but also with later variations (emblems, epigrams etc) somewhere on the horizon.

This is the first poem in the sequence:

A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.

It should be reasonably obvious on a first reading that this isn’t a straightforward variation on a theme and that the performance is much more nuanced than we may have expected. Of course, the advantage of the performance on the printed page is that the audience (a lone reader) can stop the performance at any time in order to absorb and reflect.

The first judgement that I make about a performance of any kind is whether or not it holds my interest. This can relate to the skill of the performer (Elizabeth Bishop), the subject of the performance (Maximus) or to the method of delivery (The Unconditional) with Poetry as the script/score/screenplay. In this instance factors one and two more than get my attention. There is the obviously skilled use of language and the tantalising hints of a number of subjects.

The poem does invite a fair deal of interpretation but before we get on to that, I’d like to point out elements of language use that are performative in the sense of the last three definitions as quoted above. The opening announcement is ostensibly plain and unambiguous- a reflection is ‘plain’ language word for a plain language thing and then we are given the nature of the reflection which points at one particular fable. This is followed by a series of plain language statements that aren’t by any means clear and the poem ends with a brilliantly phrased but very enigmatic moral. The skill in this performance lies in both word choice and the way that key words are put to use= ‘meat and evil’, ‘markers of repast’ ‘stern cosmetic aches’ ‘some still starved’ and all of the last line.

Staying with the performance theme, what this first poem does is make a series of introductions about what follows (there will be recognisable fables, there will be morals, some attentive thought will be required) but also establish a distinctive voice or the means by which the performance will take place and it is this voice that I now want to think about.

I need to be honest here and confess to not knowing exactly what it is that I mean by ‘voice’ even though I see this as crucial to the performance perspective. In terms of effect, the voice of a poem gives us some idea of the character of the poet, some hint about personality and more of a hint about the way in which the poets lives (is) in the world. Of course this may be due to my working background in the business of making judgements about character from pieces of behaviour but the fact remains that each poet that exists in my head has a distinctive mode of expression that is more than just a collection of poetic conceits. This applies to all the poets that I carry around regardless of whether or not I like their work.


This voice, I would argue is one that aims to unsettle but also to be clear about unsettling, a voice that is comfortable and relaxed about its intelligence and that wants to maintain a respectful distance. I was going to use ‘cool’ as the nearest reasonable adjective but that misses out on the intention to unsettle, ‘subversively cool’ doesn’t fit the bill either but it is fascinating to see how this voice develops over the sequence. I’m currently marking off the variations between Books 1 and 2.

Whilst thoroughly enjoying these elements of the performance, these two fables in particular have undergone many variations and improvisations over the centuries and there are allusions here which bring me to the emblem books and the arguments about Providentialism in the 16th century, if we’re thinking about meaning, the sequence can be read as a series of very accomplished riffs on the ways in which askesis may or may not work. Incidentally, things haven’t changed that much since Hesiod, the Muppet Show has ‘done’ the Ant and the Grasshopper.

To get back to performance, the announcement of originality and quality is made here in ways that aren’t that apparent on an initial or drive-by reading and the reader does have to pay attention to absorb the best bits. The use of ‘tight’ in this context is exceptional as is the move through dog-meat-evil and both of these whet the appetite for the rest of the sequence.

‘Some Fables’ is available from Grasp Press for £6.00 inc p&p. Buy it

Reitha Pattison’s Some Fables

The above is available from Grasp Press for a mere six of your finest English pounds (including p and p). I know it may seem that I am gradually making my way through the entire Grasp catalogue but that is primarily because it contains the best of this year’s stuff (thus far). ‘Some Fables’ contains twenty fables each of which manages to be quietly unsettling and delightful at the same time.

The (by now) entirely predictable digression.

In my head fables occupy two distinct places, the first relates to Aesop and using animals and other ‘natural’ phenomena to make some kind of moral point. This is the standard or default place and is these days thought primarily as material for children. The second place is a bit more esoteric and relates to emblem books which flourished in Renaissance Europe and used images alongside text to make a moral point – this is a gross simplification but the point that I want to make is that, for me, the visual component is an important part of a fable.

The next point contains personal taste. Whilst considering my own reaction to ‘Some Fables’ it occurred to me that my taste for the odd or unusual may not be universally shared and that this particular collection may only appeal to those who share my delight in the out of the ordinary. I then threw this anxiety around in more abstract terms and decided that any attempt to reconstruct this incredibly ancient form has to be of wider interest because of what it says about fables and their often occluded place in contemporary culture.

Fables, politics and askesis.

Let’s start with the hare and the tortoise, one of Aesop’s better known tales in which the stolid and persistent tortoise triumphs over the flashy and arrogant hare. This simple tale may seem a million miles removed from modern politics but for thirty years a socially democratic Europe was able to represent itself as the more reliable and stable counterpart to it’s unfettered American cousin. It can be argued that in the last thirty years that we have all been sold on the flashy and unpredictable model because there is no viable alternative- the tortoise is seen as slow and inefficient rather than depndable.

The tortoise and the hare can also be applied to the process of moulding ourselves as individuals. As a manic depressive I am painfully aware of the pitfalls of the flashy brilliance involved in periods of mania and need at all times to try and instill some tortoise-like persistence and dependability.

Some Fables for Our Times?

Given all the above preconceptions, I think I had a bit of an idea what contemporary fables should set out to do, they should be angry self-righteous denunciations of what passes for the current economic and political consensus, they should attack in an Orwellian fashion the current disregard for notions of equity and justice and they should also poke a thumb in the eye of poetic complacency wherever it occurs.

Some Fables is more subtle and accomplished that the above, in fact I’m now a little bit ashamed of my own rather crass assumptions. Pattison has produced a series of twenty deeply intelligent and entirely relevant fables for our times and I want to set out why we should give them close attention.

Fable IV

Mistaken for fame, notoriety clings
tourniqueted in the height of guise.
Tis tumble in armour from the talons
of greed or want is highly instructive.
Some caress away the indelible mark
written broadside on the itching pelt.
In alien furs words reveal the pitcher
empty. Deceit in a dust bath there
on the lane often floors the moralist,
tricks the carrion’s rapt onlooker.

There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in these 10 lines but I’ll try and pick out what seems to me to be important. First of all there’s this notoriety which is subject to a tourniquet (although we’re not told whether this is from clinical necessity or due to intravenous drug use) and is hanging on (to what isn’t entirely clear) in some extreme disguise. To most of us, notoriety is a sub-type of fame in that the word implies that a person is well known for having done a bad thing. It is therefore not easy to see the nature of the notorious/famous mistake. The next two lines also sound as if they are going to be pithy but end up describing the tumble as ‘quite instructive’ without giving any further detail unless the fall from greed or want is in itself an educational experience and there fore a good thing per se. The rest of Fable IV is a series of statements/observations ending with the defeat of the moralist (who I’m taking to be the maker of these fables) and the deception of a lover of carrion. Crows feature in several of the fables and I’m trying not to make the Hughes connection. This fable manages to be both direct and mysterious at the same time, I like the fact that this is achieved using reasonably plain language and yet manages to say a number of complex things about the power of appearances and our readiness to be fooled. I’m still working on the ‘itching pelt’ and ‘alien furs’ but I’ll enjoy getting there.

Fable XV

Inevitably, there is an apple tree
and a pomegranate: read falling
and rising both; but the bramble’s
interjection of vanity, that incision
cuts another way. Thorns truly
prick a tragic boast of a carpel
which is not one’s own, a coronet
of spite, and foment is its capitulation.
Like Knights in panther skins, mineral
Queens are lauded to pieces epically.

As part of the Bebrowed Reader Service, carpel is defined as “One of the divisions or cells of a compound pistil or fruit; or the single cell of which a simple pistil or fruit consists.” and foment as a noun is equivalent to fomentation- “The application to the surface of the body either of flannels, etc. soaked in hot water, whether simple or medicated, or of any other warm, soft, medicinal substance.” I have no idea what Fable XV amounts to, nor is it readily apparent where this ‘fits’ with the rest of the sequence but I love the way the whole thing is paced and I would draw your attention to:

  • the bramble’s / interjection of vanity;
  • a tragic boast;
  • a coronet / of spite;
  • mineral / Queens are lauded to pieces epically.

All of these are startling, sense-defying and utterly glorious. It shows an incredible amount of talent to have all of these carefully placed within a mere ten lines. What I particularly admire about the sequence as a whole is the way in which Pattison has managed to maintain a considered and wry ‘voice’ throughout without sliding into parody.

I’ll be writing about this sequence again but I think I need to reiterate that ‘Some Fables’ is unique and one step removed from all the various labels that we apply to contemporary verse. Read it.