Tag Archives: the cantos

Information Quality: The Gnarly Poem

Continuing with the Information Quality theme, I’ve, after some discussion with others, devised the above as a way to proceed.

The following definitions are (as usual) tentative and subject to change.

The Gnarly Poem.

What I like about this quality is that it covers some big ground in five letters. The OED defines the word initially as ‘gnarled’ which in turn is given as “Of a tree: Covered with protuberances; distorted, twisted; rugged, knotted.” and gives the earliest usage as in Measure for Measure in 1616 ” Thy sharpe and sulpherous bolt Splits the vn-wedgable and gnarled Oke.” Apparently it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the adjective was used to describe non-wooden objects. This was when the rural labourer began to acquire the description which also has (in my head) connotations of ruggedness. I need to thank John Bloomberg Rissman for pointing out that gnarly is also a US surfing term meaning dangerous or challenging.

So we have poems that are rugged, whose protuberances make them hard to hold and their various twists and distortions throw up other challenges. They are also obdurate, made rugged after centuries of exposure to storm and drought. The gnarly poem demands / requires an almost physical response because it is only that bodily /embodied sense of engagement that the gnarls and the twists can be managed. Gnarly poems aren’t always good poems, there are many of this kind that are very bad indeed.

Examples.

This is always tricky because I don’t read that much and hence tend to use the same material to try and think these things through. So, for a change, I’m going to include some John Skelton, Edmund Spenser, Ezra Pound and John Bloomberg-Rissman.

John Skelton’s Speke, Parrot

I wouldn’t have put this forward (the sort of obscurity that I often complain about) were it not for J H Prynne alluding to it in his Kazoo Dreamboat which gives me an excuse to write about this gnarliest of gnarly poems:


My lady maystres, deame Philolgyy,
  Gave me a gyfte in my nest whan I laye,
To lerne all language, and it to spake apetly
Now pandez mory, wax frantycke, some men saye,
   Phroneses for Freneses may not holde her way. 
An almon now for Parrot, dilycatly drest;
In Salve festa dies, toto theyr doth best.

Before we get any further some facts may serve to make my point. Skelton was one of the three most prominent poets between about 1495 and 1525. He was shameless in his self-promotion and vituperative in the extreme toward his critics and enemies- he wasn’t very pleasant. He enjoyed varying degrees of royal patronage and boasted of that in his work. It has been pointed out that Skelton’s work had no influence whatsoever on subsequent generations although Ben Jonson did steal some of his better lines.

The two main themes of Speke, Parrot are the promotion of the traditionalist side in the Grammarians’ War which started in 1519 and concerns the best way to teach Latin. The other is a fairly vicious attack on Cardinal Wolsey who was the most powerful man in England, after the king.

The first part of the poem (from which the above is taken) was derided by critics at the time as being far too obscure. It is thought that Speke Parrot was written in sections because Skelton defends this in charge in the lines of the poem..

The mix of many languages is one of the many gnarls, as is the device of the parrot and the obscurity of some of the subject matter and the way that this is expressed. The grammarian’s war was not a dry academic tussle but a battle fought in the most personal of terms, Skelton indicated that he would have to knock his opponent’s (William Lily) teeth in, Lily stated that Skelton was neither learned nor a poet- knowing that this would strike hard at Skelton’s personal vanity.

To make things more gnarly, Alexander Dyce (Skelton’s 19thc editor) observed that “The Latin portions of the MS are usually of ludicrous incorrectness” and points out that several sections of the poem are missing from the version that we have today.

The first part of the poem presents many challenges to the reader but perhaps the most difficult to wrestle with is the figure of the muti-lingual bird and the very oblique ways in which he makes his point. The poem as a whole scores highly in the gnarly stakes because it appears from nowhere in the English canon, defies categorisation and then dies a fairly rapid death.

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

I’m of the view that this is the second best poem in English primarily because of its verbal ambition and technical mastery. It’s also monstrously long (see below). The gnarls are about the oddnesses that seem to undermine the ‘sense’ of the work, the nature and functioning of the various allegories together with what I think of as the Faeire Lond problem.

FQ is ostensibly an exploration of the virtues set out in allegorical form (what Spenser’s describes as the “dark conceit”) and can be read as a series of fights involving the good guys against the bad guys with a few monsters and giants thrown in. The problem with the allegories is that they don’t actually do what they’re supposed to do. They spend much of each of the books describing human folly and stupidity rather than the positive qualities that they are supposed to represent. The other gnarl is the fact that this doesn’t become clear on the first reading, it only announced itself to me half way through the second because I had been completely blown away (technical term) by the vitality and excitement of the work.

This failure, and the weak attempts to rectify it prevents the attentive reader (me) from gaining a clear impression of what the work might be striving to do even though it is clear that it isn’t doing what Spenser say it does.

The next gnarl is geographical, the physical world of the poem doesn’t make sense, is hopelessly incoherent and inconsistent but this is only apparent when an attempt is made to ‘map’ Fairy Lond. The same problem is present in Piers the Plowman but Langland has the excuse of his being a dream poem. This absence of geographical sense is in direct contrast to the cosmological precision employed by Milton in Paradise Lost. Again this gnarl is only evident after reading the work and trying to take an overview but it still contributes to the general gnarliness.

For this reader the oddities concern torture, bestiality and cross dressing. For reasons of space I’m going to use the last to show how oddness can be a protuberance. This particular episode is contained in Canto V of the fifth book which is ‘about’ justice as embodied in Artegall and his robot Talus who acts as a killing machine on Artegall’s behalf. Book Five has been taken up by a number of critics fretting over the apparently genocidal sub-text and lumped it together with the prose A View of the Present State of Ireland which does advocate a form of genocide as a solution to the Irish Problem. I’ve had occasional rants about this before but it does overlook the treatment that Artegall from Radigund after he shows her mercy: she dresses him in “womans weeds” and sets him to work, along with her other knightly captives, “twisting linen twyne”, a situation that he accepts with a passivity that is completely out of character. Spenser appears to be using this to show what happens when you show mercy (you end up dressed as a girl doing girl’s work) and to express a remarkably vicious misogyny:

Such is the crueltie of womankynd,
   When they haue shaken off the shamefast band,
   With which wise Nature did them strongly bind,
   T'obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand,
   That then all rule and reason they withstand,
   To purchase a licentious libertie.
   But vertuous women wisely understand
   That they were borne to base humilitie,
Vnless the heavens them lift to lawfull soueraintie.

This piece of quite bonkers paranoia is unfortunately expressing the consensus in late Elizabethan England but it is made even more stupid by the exception made for Elizabeth I in the last line. The gnarliness is that this very clear unambiguous view is in direct contrast to the second stanza of Canto II in Book 3 which expresses precisely the opposite view. These are the last three lines:


   Yet sith they warlike armes have laide away,
   They have exceld in arts and policy,
That now we foolish men that prayse gin eke t'enuy.

FQ was first published as Books I-III in 1590 with IV-VI published six years later. The later books are considered to be ‘darker’ in tone than the first three but this particular gnarl stands out and I for one still can’t get my brain around such a direct contrast.

Ezra Pound’s The Cantos.

I’m not going to spend too long on this because of its obvious protuberances and knots. I do need to observe however that Pound knew about poetry and that his Don’ts from 1913 are still eminently relevant and applicable one hundred years later.

The Cantos have the following gnarly features:

  • the ideograms;
  • the anti-semitism;
  • the economic theorising, with examples;
  • massive inconsistencies in technique from the brilliant to the dire;
  • length.

All of these deter me from putting the effort required to read the work from beginning to end- not because of its obscurity and alleged difficulty but because it would take too long to deal with all these gnarls.

John Boomberg-Rissman’s In the House of the Hangman.

First of all I need to point out that John and I correspond most days and I may therefore be accused of some bias. I don’t think this is the case because, in this instance, his relentlessly ongoing work led me to identify this quality when I realised that I was entering into an almost physical struggle to give it the attention that it demands. The work is published daily on the Zeitgeist Spam and yesterday’s episode is no.1631. Each is made up from items that arrive via John’s RSS and these are credited in the notes at the bottom although it isn’t entirely clear which notes refer to which parts of the text even though they are listed in order.

One of the purposes is for ITH to act as a mirror for the world as it is in the (more or less) present and it’s done in a way that is reasonably chaotic and eternally relentless. For the attentive reader (me), the gnarls come in two different flavours. The first is that it isn’t always clear where one item / extract / thing /quote begins and ends and the second is the complete absence of context unless you follow the links in the notes and even (or especially) then you are still pretty much on your own. Nevertheless it demands engagement even though my ‘handle’ on it is never going to be anywhere near complete but the struggle, the process of the grapple is dangerously addicitve. I think this may demonstrate / emplify at least a couple of gnarls:

One luckless expatriate was picked up and thrown into a trash can. The Jewish-Japanese Sex & Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves. The guy who created the iPhone’s Earth image explains why he needed to fake it. Kangaroos have three vaginas. Grills, ‘Grillz’ and dental hygiene implications. When adding is subtracting. Hire a Drone With Bitcoin. PotCoin. Sweden is the largest exporter of pop music. Why Dark Pigeons Rule the Streets. Can You Sue A Robot For Defamation? His animals get their energy from the wind so they don’t have to eat.

Now, with this kind of material its very gnarliness is enough to deter most readers but each sentence in the above is a startling statement of What Might Be Going on just now, I think I might take some issue with the add / subtract statement but that’s part of the process- identifying some kind of logic and then fretting about the bits that seem especially gnarled and out of place. ITH can be read as a conceptual exercise that has taken one idea or way of working and stuck with it but it struggles against that because the concept takes an increasingly back seat as the episodes increase in number and more and more related material is accumulated.

Charles Olson and the Maximus Poems

Two months ago the only thing that I knew about Olson was that he had taught Cy Twombly at Black Mountain College in the early fifties and that Twombly had dedicated a painting to him. I then noticed that reference is made to the Maximus Poems on the back of the first Bloodaxe edition of Prynne’s poems. I read a bit more about Olson on the web and bought the Maximus volume edited by George F Butterick and published in 1985.

I have to say that the Maximus experience has been a complete revelation. This is a huge sprawling work centred on the town of Gloucester in Massachusetts and describes the town’s history and its geography in great detail. It has been variously described as ‘an essential poem in the postmodern canon’ and a weak example of  ‘sub-poundian’ verse. I don’t think it’s either of these (by definition you can’t have a postmodern canon  and it certainly isn’t weak) but I do think it’s an entirely honest attempt to write about space in a very original way.

This may not sound like much but space is fascinating and something we give far too little consideration to. Some of the finest writing over the last fifty years has been about what we do with and how we react to where we are (Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Ed Soja). Olson is one of the very few poets to give space its due. He traces the birth and growth of Gloucester both by means of its only industry (fishing) but also records the way that land and buildings were passed on from one generation to the next.

Olson lived in Gloucester and isn’t at all afraid to place himself in the poems. We see him on fishing boats, we see him wandering about the town and its environs, being struck by wonder at the strangeness and majesty of the sea. Someone else has observed that Olsen felt that the past was always present in the present and there are attempts to express this in the poem but what comes across most clearly to me is the celebration of place in all its contexts.

There are some longueurs, I could have done quite so many references to myth although some are quite effective, but the overall effect is a celebration of place. Nearly at the end of my second reading of this epic, I know what it is like to be in Gloucester both now and in the seventeenth century.

What I don’t understand is how this magnificent work has fallen from grace. Olson had his advocates in Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Jeremy Prynne yet ‘Maximus’ seems not to have inspired others to follow suit (with the exception of Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’) in writing spatially. Perhaps that’s because we’re still culturally obsessed with time (one of the things that postmodernism was meant to overcome) or because Olson has become ‘infected’ by the stain of Ezra Pound.

It’s no secret that Olson knew and admired Pound nor is it any secret that Pound was ferociously anti-semitic but the Cantos and the Maximus series (apart from both being long and ambitious) are as different as chalk and cheese both in terms of ‘voice’ and subject matter yet the stain still lingers. The other problem is that the culture we live in has no time for big poetry which takes more than five minutes to read and is layered with meaning – this is our loss as poetry should have space for the ambitious and the majestic.