Tag Archives: the maximus poems

Poetry and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA’:

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
hay
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes
out

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.

Kazoo Dreamboats- why bother?

I like to think that I’m pretty good at not bothering with some poems/poets, I like to think that I recognise quite early on when it’s time to walk away (Rilke, Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Samson Agonistes, Paterson and many more) but I’ve been dithering with the above for a couple of weeks. Of course, ‘bothering’ with anything by Prynne requires a degree of commitment both in terms of time and applied concentration- I’ve been bothering with ‘Streak~~~Willing’ and ‘To Pollen’ for over two years and still have some way to go. I’m not of the view that anything by Prynne must be good – I’ve decided that I don’t like and can’t be bothered with ‘Sub Songs’ but ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ (KD) is presenting additional problems because it is a significant departure from what’s gone before.

I set out below what I see are the two sides of this particular dither.

Reasons for not bothering.

  • it’s by J H Prynne who has a reputation for both elitism and obscurity and who may be a charlatan;
  • at the back are twenty two ‘reference cues’ which consist of a wide array of texts ranging from Ancient Greek Philosophy to the finer points of quantum mechanics, this should be enough to deter most right-minded people;
  • the first fourteen pages seem to descend into increasing levels of incoherence, on page 14 there is ‘they did to have not break’, ‘is so joint to yet not did’ and ‘don’t flew foregone alterior nail up’
  • KD is 22 pages long and is written in prose paragraphs, this is a lot of material to keep in the head at once;
  • the first half of KD does contain at least one coherent phrase- “you get triple points if you guess the connection” which might be an echo of ‘To Pollen’s’ “or does that tell you enough, resilient brotherhood”- if this is the case then members of said brotherhood might be offended;
  • there seems to be a higher than usual emphasis on scientific theory which will take many hours to decode
  • the references are not limited to the cues and some of these are reasonably obscure and not identified as references, Gillian Rose, John Skelton, Mandy Rice Davies, and T S Eliot are alluded to and there may well be many others;
  • there may be a problem with pretentiousness, ‘Empty truth s a medicine without a sickness, no time like the present tense of absolute ionic discharge’ is one of several sentences that might be trying too hard to say not very much;
  • Some of the sentences are incredibly complex and require huge amounts of concentration with little reward.

Reasons to bother

The first and most obvious point to be made is that this is a significant departure made by our most important poet. The second point is that it isn’t too difficult to ‘reach’, the subtitle is ‘On What There Is’ and much of it appears to be a working through of existing and not existing. There are a number of repeated words and motifs running through the text together with the expected polemic against the financial elite.

It is true that there’s a lot to get immersed in and that some bits might be quite annoying. In terms of complexity, this gives a flavour and is also one of the clearest parts of KD:

Yet for not tell is possible as cannot be in a world by zero
frequency across bounded separation its fringe charge return con-
tour, biplane rotation never breviate over its own pitch, or
'there is no place void of being, for the void id nothing; but
that which is nothing could not exist; so then being is not moved;
it is impossible for it to go anywhere, if there is no void.' And
by the line of correction if the void is nothing, is nothing what
by self-likeness the void is and so by necessity to have this field;
of being; and is it full or empty or changing through time and if
hardly can be spoken of this as what also is, must that also set
limit to thought itself and is the limit finite or would be. If
the void does not exist it must be full of non-existence, out to
the brim which must exist in its location since not all is void,
thus it is the void is not nameless but at its natural frequency
else generic within limitless non-existence it could not be named,
into its proper non-being. The song of birds that do not sing,
because there are none where else would they sing, not from distance
nor migrancy, the not-song is from not-being and not merely not
there nor not-possible not silentness failing rapt upon attentive
deaf ears.

The paragraph then proceeds with a scientific quote about electromagnetic fields and ‘vacuum devoid of matter’. The quote included above is from Melissos of Samos whose ‘On Nature’ is listed in the reference cues. I’m sure that most will agree that this is remarkably clear and direct when placed against the rest of Prynne’s recent work. It’s also very clear when compared with the rest of KD. There is a debate to be had as to whether ‘straight’ philosophy can be done by means of poetry and I remain to be convinced. I think poetry can be philosophical or have a philosophical aspect or dimension but I have yet to encounter a successful poem that is exclusively focused on a philosophical issue or thesis.

I readily acknowledge that Oslon’s ‘Maximus Poems’ has Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ at its core but the argument is never forced and is only occasionally directly addressed. Prynne seems to be aware of the dangers inherent inherent in the philosophical poem by his use of the very poetic birdsong as example. The move from the 5th century BC to the present on the same theme is indicative of this intriguing philosophy/science mix throughout. The most recent philosopher in the reference cues is Boethius from 6th century Rome although Hegel’s negation of the negation gets a mention in the text.

Of course, most of the rest is incredibly dense and resistant to most modes of reading – “My sunshine parlance would be donative adoring laterally, raise spirits in water egg cancelled, the tense ever deceptive never topaz febrile shift.” This doesn’t need to be off-putting, it is more amenable (pliable?) than some of the more austere recent work and the use of quotes does at least give some direction to work around. It would appear that Prynne is using the quotes to develop and amplify his own train of thought and the voyeur in me always enjoys watching someone else think.

Other reasons to bother would include: the oddness of the enterprise; the fact that nobody else is doing this in this way; to reject the meaningless charges of elitism and pretentiousness and to celebrate what seems to be a new variation on the collision with the unwitty circus….

Jerimee Bloemeke and the effective poetic list

After writing about David Jones and list-making yesterday I came across ‘L&M 1: The Gemstone Ruby System’ by the above and was impressed by its obsessive and unpoetic cleverness and this got me to thinking about why I like the list poem and what makes such a poem work.

Then, in response to the Jones piece, Vance Maverick drew my attention to ‘America, a history in verse’ by Edward Sanders and I looked at the first few pages of volume 6 which contains one of the worst poetic lists that I have ever read.

Before we go any further I need to throw in a kind of disclaimer because I’m going to (amongst other things) write about my own poetry making. I’m going to do this because I understand the rationale for the list poems that I make and because I feel that they ‘do’ what I want them to. I’m not writing about them in order to draw attention to my practice, I put them on this blog because I like them and because I can. I’m also going to write about a list poem that has me as its subject, this was written by my daughter and I use this because it’s a good poem and because it shows that list poems can be quite lyrical and tender. I need to stress that I’m not comparing either of these with any of the others that are included primarily because different lists are about different things.

So, this will look at lists by John Matthias, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Goldsmith, Jerimee Bloemeke with a glance at the fiction of John Updike and Roberto Bolano.

This was going to be called ‘the tragedy of the list’ but that seemed too lit crit, however I want to start with a couple of lines from the current master of the list, John Matthias:

............They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all colaterals and cogs,
Codes and Codices for Mdme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestos which proclaim their faith in algorythms of an
Unknown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow.
They're coeternal and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no story of their lives, their little trumpets blow.

This is the second time I’ve quoted these closing lines from ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestos’ and I do this because they show great technical skill and because the point that is made is an important one. We all use lists to impose some order on our lives and the environment in which we exist, the business of science is essentially about creating sophisticated lists from raw data (simple lists). The sadness / tragedy of the list is that it will never be adequate to its task and thus contains within it an elegy to itself. I think my personal interest in or obsession with lists is that the Rortian relativist in me views them as essentially and fascinatingly fictive. as increasingly obsessive attempts to paper over the cracks of our collective neuroses.

Because Matthias understands lists and (this is important) is a very accomplished poet, he can do brilliant poetic lists. This stanza is from the ‘Autumn’ section of ‘Four Seasons of Vladimir Dukelsky’:

Diaghilev soon died and Gershwin soon after. Dukelsky grabbed at
Balanchine, the movies. Emigre composers headed for LA as
Wall Street crashed and Sunset Boulevard survived. Prokofiev heckled him
From Moscow about maids who become prostitutes to feed their mums.
His mother ate. He wrote his songs: April in Paris on a tuneless upright
In the back of West Side Tony's bistro; Words Without Music for
The Ziegfield Follies 1936. Duke would dig Dukelsky from the rubble
Of Depression. Dancers kicked their can-cans on the silver screen.

This may not feel like a list but it is structured around a succession of proper names (ie a list) and these names are all connected to Dukelsky (aka Vernon Duke) and are built into an evocative chronology of a specific cultural event- the arrival of European musical talent in Hollywood. There’s also the ‘d’ alliteration of the last two lines. Because Matthias is both telling a story and making a point the reader tends to miss just how listful this is and the fact that the succession of names gives added impetus to the story.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’ is one of the major works of the last century and is in part based on the historical records of Gloucester, the fishing town that is the subject of the sequence. ‘Maximus’ contains many lists but this is one of the most striking:

14 MEN STAGE HEAD WINTER 1624/5

they required

7 hundredweight biscuit bread £ 5. 5. 0.
@15/ per hundred
7 hhds of beer or sider 53/4 the tun 20. 0. 0.
2/3 hhd beef 3. 7. 2.
6 whole sides of bacon 3. 3. 0.
6 bush. pease 1.10. 0.
2/3 firkin butter 1. 0. 0.
2/3 cwt. cheese 2. 0.
1 pecke mustard seed 6. 0.
1 barrel vinegar 10. 0.
15 lbs candles 1. 0. 0.
3 pecks oatmeal 9. 0.
2/3 hhd/ aqua vitae 3. 0. 0.
2 copper kettles 3. 0. 0.
1 brasse crock 1. 0. 0.

The list contains many more costed items and the total expenditure is then used to compare the different costs of a ‘mere’ station and a plantation.

In the poem Oslon is clear to clarify that the list is ‘calculated’ from the original but it is also clear that it is a straightforward piece of appropriation with little or no embellishment.

I’ll ignore the various points that ‘Maximus’ makes about the doing of history and instead look at the effect on the reader. Olson believed that if you wanted to know something about a subject then you should immerse yourself completely in it- something he achieved to good effect when writing his brilliant study of ‘Moby Dick’ – and this, together with the other chronologies and genealogies is his attempt to thoroughly involve the reader in Gloucester’s story. There’s also something about placing the past undiluted and complete into the present which is an echo of Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ thesis which underpins the sequence as a whole.

Ferlinghetti’s ‘Big Fat Hairy Vision of Evil’ is a lengthy multiple definition, these lines are taken from section 1:

Evil is death warmed over
Evil is live spelled backward
Evil is lamb burning bright
Evil is love fried upon a spit
and turned in on itself
Evil is sty in eye of universe
hung upon a coughing horse
that follows me at night
wearing blinders
Evil is green gloves inside out
next to a double martini
on a cocktail table

This is at the opposite end of the listful spectrum, it is lyrical, poetic and goes on to develop something about the poet’s relationship with evil. I first read Ferlinghetti when I was fourteen and remain of the view that he’s the most skilled of the Beats- although I don’t think there’s a lot of technique in the above which is more about having an idea and seeing it through.

We now come to Kenneth Golsmith’s ‘Traffic’ which is a transcript of unadulterated and sequential traffic reports every ten minutes from a New York radio station. It’s a poem because Goldsmith says it’s a poem and it’s classed as conceptual because the idea is supposed to be more important (worthy) than the material. I’m in a minority here because I’m fascinated by the text and less impressed by the idea because the text is about how short bursts of language can be used to communicate useful knowledge about a complex and changing environment.

It can be argued that my interest in this comes from an interest in urban space rather than poetry but isn’t this compression of knowledge into short bits of language an element of what poetry does best?

We now come to the intensely personal, My daughter (Kayt) made this a few years ago and I use it here to demonstrate that list affinity may be genetic and how this device/conceit can be used to produce something intensely personal and affectionate.

Then there is the list in fiction (as opposed to the fictional list. I need here to confess that I can’t see the point of John Updike and part of this disdain comes from the first Rabbit novel where a list of objects in a shop window is used to evoke both mood and place but is done so heavy handedly that the reader just notices the device and can’t get to the desired effect. Bolano’s ‘2066’ has a mesmerising description of murder upon murder committed against women in Northern Mexico which is both unbearable and compelling because it is presented factually with nouns and verbs rather than the usual surfeit of describing words.

As for me, I’ve got a strong interest in the poem as data and am also of the view that poetry is currently far too poetic for its own good. In the last six months I’ve made poems consisting of the stats for this blog, of the labels and captions used for maps and plans at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and images of 25 or so set lists from the recent Gillian Welch tour in chronological order. All of these are lists, all of these are appropriated from elsewhere and they all ‘do’ what I want them to which is to throw up questions about data, evidence, veracity and the authentic and the place of these in our cultural landscape. It is really important to me that these shouldn’t contain any of the usual poetic conceits (the enjambment in the label poem is taken from the labels themselves) and that they should primarily be lists.

What’s really good about the Bloemeke list is the repetition of ‘purchase’, the flat level of detail without digression and the absolute absence of adornment. It is archival, documentary, hypnotic a poem that is entirely of itself and an entirely fitting (heartbreaking) elegy for these dismal times.

Poetry and truth, a further response to Tom Dunn

Tom,

I’ll probably need to take my time with this because it strikes me that simply making a few assertions isn’t going to be helpful. I also want to avoid thinking about truth at the expense of poetry because that seems equally self-defeating. So, I need to start with the personal- I like poetry and I especially like poetry that I find to be useful. This usefulness (which is different from utility) may be simply that a poem can help me think more productively about something or it may challenge the way that I currently think or feel or it may show me something else that language or heightened language can do.

In adolescence I formed the view that the function of poetry was to describe the essence of things and it didn’t matter if these descriptions were terse and/or obdurate, they were useful if they were honest. I can still make a case for the ‘poetry is about what really matters’ faction but I now think that what ‘really’ matters is more about the relationship between things than some essential quality of the things themselves. It is true that I find some poems profound and moving but I think that those poems are more about the struggle for truth rather than its discovery or prediction.

I think poetry (as well as being far too poetic) can take itself far too seriously and I don’t think this is confined to the Cambridge School or other politically minded groupings. I think that this stems from two principle causes. The first of these is the fact that the making of poetry is an intensely personal and intimate act in that we are trying to express what we think and what we feel with an intensity that doesn’t occur in fiction. Because of this we tend to expect a serious and considered response which is usually the case because most readers are also poets. The other issue relates to the weight of history, poetry has built up around itself a body of knowledge which is expressed in sombre and considered tones, woe betide the critic who attempts a humorous tone even when such a response is required. In short, poetry’s image is conducive to a readerly expectation of essential truths.

This might be disappointing but I’m only going to use one example of poetic expression of secular/philosophical truth and two examples of the expression of religious truth.

Charles Olson and the Truth.

I’m going to start with Charles Olson’s use of Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ in ‘The Maximus Poems’. I’m using this because it’s a philosophical position that I’m vaguely sympathetic to and because Olson expresses it really well with an enormous amount of skill.

Here’s a confession, I haven’t yet managed to get through ‘Process and Reality’ and am therefore dependent on what others have said. Broadly, Whitehead puts more emphasis on the relationship between things, suggest new ways of thinking about time and challenges the view that knowledge should be based on things that are fixed. ‘Maximus’ has many other conerns but it does Whitehead really well.

This poem is entitled ‘OCEANIA’ and dates from June 1966 and is about Olson walking around the New England town of Gloucester in the early hours of the morning. The poem is written in the present tense and is seemingly straightforward until we get to-

And now I look onto the marsh
away from the boulevard
lights-& there is the
whole back of the river's
mouth flooded as I had
5 yrs ago called it Oceania!

As a stiff and colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the processes
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you

for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and Jeremy Prynne

I’d forgotten about the Prynne reference but the above is my favourite example of poetry expressing a truth really well. This occurs in the middle of the poem, Olson continues on his walk but now the reader is involved in and taking part in the ‘processes of Earth and man”. This is what poetry is good at but it does require enormous skill to get it right.

Geoffrey Hill and Godly truth.

‘The Triumph of Love’ is one of Hill’s most successful sequences and focuses on the terrible events of the last century but this is presented through the prism of his faith. Poem CXXV contains a longish debate about faith and philosophy and a number of deliberately provocative statements:

....................The intellectual
beauty of Bradwardine's thesis rests
in what it springs from: the Creator's Grace
praecedentem tempore et natura ['Strewth!!!
'already present in time as in nature'?-ED]
and in what it returns to-our arrival
at a necessary salvation. So much
for the good news. The bad news is its correlate-
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.

The poems then has a bit of a rant at those who choose to try and dilute the severity of this ‘news’ and ends with-

I have been working up to this. The Scholastics
mean more to me than the New Science. All
things are eternally present in time and nature.

Bradwardine’s chief claim to fame is that he wrote a tract defending the established Catholic church and its doctrines against a group of medieval reformers who were known as the ‘New Pelagians’. Hill’s faith leads him to side with the more conservative view but also has to accept what this means and there is some unease about this although the last line expresses a religious truth. The workings of grace and the nature of salvation play a big role in Hill’s work and he has spoken recently of his view that all his work is informed by his anxiety as to the fate of his soul. We may not share Hill’s faith but I think that we must recognise his ability to express difficult aspects of it with great skill.

Simon Jarvis and the nature of Grace.

I do intend to write something about ‘Dionysus Crucified’ in the near future in part as a response to two of the responses Simon give to the interview questions. Here I just want to give an example of how very innovative poets deal with religious truth. What follows is a couple of lines that are very long and unbroken in the original, the first line is spoken by Pentheus and the second is Dionysus’ response-

Here against undeserved instruments I with my year of worked seasonal graces apply to the ceaseless sodality made by the party of inextinct saints.
Apply to head office: grace lightens wherever it will, and your workings convert it to sacrifice so that its ghost may become the free gift you deplore.

How grace might function has been and remains the source of enormous strife and controversy, here Jarvis appears to be espousing a traditional view which is further elaborated in his references to the teachings of the early church. ‘Dionysus is an incredibly complex and ambitious work but I think that this brief extract demonstrates Simon’s ongoing concern with truth, both religious and secular.