Tag Archives: The Garden

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.

In the Garden with Andrew Marvell

This was the year when I should have become a Marvell completist, I had planned to read the letters and the Nigel Smith biography and reacquaint myself with the finer points of the mission to Moscow and the second Dutch war. Instead I’ve written about ‘Appleton House’ but nothing else.

I have several excuses that I won’t bore you with but recently I’ve come across bits and pieces of criticism (whilst looking for other things) and most of these have focused on ‘The Garden’ which I’ve since re-read and am beginning to appreciate how exceptional and odd this poem is.

In previous readings I’ve taken it to be a poem about the value of retreating to the countryside away from the pressures of urban life but with a bit of bite, a kind of ironic take on this well-worn theme but now I think it’s a bit more than that. This thinking has incorporated the various and wildly divergent readings promulgated by the academy which has brought to mind Geoffrey Hill’s recent comment about the frequent folly of seeking out a single unified ‘meaning’. Having said that I must confess that these attempts to crystallize a variety of elements does cause me to reconsider my own take on things. For example, in her essay ‘Marvell’s Amazing Garden’, Mary Thomas Crane makes a strong case for ‘wonder’ as a central, unifying theme:

“The physiology of wonder takes a central role in Marvell’s “Garden,”
linking wonder and amazement to images of attempted escape, entrapment
and enclosure that recur throughout the poem and which
contribute to Marvell’s sense of wonder as a state of suspension. The
poem begins with the potentially surprising idea that ambitious men
“amaze” themselves in a vain quest for earthly recognition and reward.”

I don’t want to discourage this kind of stuff because it gives the rest of us more to think about and often to return to a poem with a fresh pair of eyes but this worry about theme, intention and meaning does tend to detract from the enjoyment of the poem as poem- in the way that Marvell augments and intensifies ordinary language to do complex things. As a reader it is what the poem does that gives me far more satisfaction than working out what it might mean. In this instance there’s many things being done in relatively few lines. The first thing to note is that the poem can be read as a sequence of numbered (they are numbered in the first published version in 1681 and in the Longman edition but not on the luminarium site) eight-line poems each of which stands in its own right in that it makes sense without reference to the poems that precede or follow it. I’m finding that thinking in this way and avoiding a ‘panoptic’ overview is the most effective way of getting down to the detail.

I also need to confess an interest in the garden and the idea of gardens in the 17th century which I find fascinating as to how this ‘place’ developed and underwent several transformations within the national psyche. So, i have a bias too but I hope it doesn’t prevent me from demonstrating that there doesn’t need to be a unifying meaning other than the title of the sequence.

This is the third poem:

Nor red nor white was ever seen
So am'rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees, their mistress' name
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! Wher'se'er your barks I wound,
No name but your own shall be found.

I need to say here that Nigel Smith’s commentary in the Longman edition of the poems is exemplary. I know that some have commented that the notes are too detailed but, because the 17th century is so utterly different from our own, I don’t think that you can have too much context. With regard to the above, which seems reasonably straightforward, I didn’t know about the “occult writings and nature mysticism” that holds that at the time of creation God placed the name of each created thing within that thing and that he placed in Adam all these ‘signatures’, hence the greater significance of the last two lines.

The other stuff that these lines kick off for me is the contrast between the lovers’ unheeding zeal and the cool detachment of the speaker together with his intent to do the right thing, i.e. only to place in the tree what was initially placed their by God. I think we then might want to consider what it is about love and lovers that causes them to inscribe things in this way. It might be an indication and expression of ‘cruel’ sexual passion but it’s also about memorialising the relationship by creating a mark or a trace that will last for a long time. There’s also the business of signing and the competition for a kind of ownership- as in ‘this is our tree because we placed out names in it as evidence/symbol/mark of our love for each other’ which might be contrasted with the eternal ownership marked by God’s initial writing of the name.

We then come to the thorny question of who is speaking here, Smith refers to this as Marvell’s persona but this particular voice seems different from the other authorial voices in the poem and we also need to ask why he should be signing the trees in this if they have already been signed by God- isn’t this more than a little presumptuous or an example of what Prynne would describe as ‘self-vaunting’?

Smith also points to the subversion of ‘traditional’ colour theory that occurs in the opening lines and others have commented on the wonderfully complex notions of green that held sway in the period, noting that the brilliant “Annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought in a green shade” occurs at the end of the sixth poem. I don’t intend to go any further with this here but to flag it up as a further example of just how much is going on in these eight lines.

So, this particular poem is one of the less complex in the sequence but is satisfying and successful in its own right in that it uses plain language in a way that manages to make us think again about things that we might take for granted. In just eight lines it has managed to broaden my understanding of the fitful and stuttering formation and growth of our cultural landscape. It’s also what Geoffrey Hill would describe as technically efficient, although it might not be beautiful.