Tag Archives: times literary supplement

Paul Muldoon does Covid-19

The WordPress control gizmo tells me that I wrote about my Paul Muldoon Problem on here nearly 10 years ago when I was a blog newbie. The problem is what I read as an almost permanent tendency in the work to veer from the very good to the quite bad. This was quite infuriating at the time and remains so today.

I was reminded of this last week when the Times Literary Supplement published Plaguey Hill which is a fifteen part consideration of all things coronavirus. I’ve written recently about my attempts to make poems in these tricky times and confess to still being daunted by the challenge to produce appropriate and useful work. It is, to my mind least, crucial to produce work whilst the virus is still ravaging large parts of the world because viewing this thing from the inside at least captures what things might be like in the now. I’m trying to write something now as well as completing side two of the multi vocal audio piece and I’m having to try really hard to keep my many and various outrages at bay- every day there seems to be another thing to be appalled by and the political beast in me is tempted simply to list these so that we don’t forget just how criminally negligent our leaders have been. Then there is the ‘following the science’ problem which, given its various provisional and contradictory findings’ makes life more bewildering for all of us. I could go on.

As a hapless flounderer, it is of special interest to see what a very skilled practitioner makes of this and the aspects he chooses to mention.

Each of the 15 parts is a 14 line poem (4, 4, 3, 3) and seems, in part, more conversational than poetic. There are a few rhymes and a couple of gestures towards the sonnet form but not many flashes of dazzle that occur in some of his longer poems.

Before we get to content, Mudoon’s poetic voice appeals to this reader most when it adopts a kind of keenly felt wryness This is the beginning of The Humors of Hakone, a nine part poem from the Maggot collection which was published in 2010;

A corduroy road over a quag had kept me on the straight and narrow.

Now something was raising a stink.

A poem decomposing around what looked like an arrow

Her stomach contents ink.

Too late to cast about for clues

either at the purikura or ‘sticker photo-booth’ or back at the Pagoda.

Too late to establish by autolysis, not to speak of heat loss,

the precise time of death on the road to Edo.

I hope this demonstrates what I mean by the above adjectives, I read in this example formal skill and intelligence that is way above what passes for the mainstream. It was therefore to be hoped that Muldoon’s current offering maintained that kind of standard. I don’t think it does although I share much of his perspective. This is the second poem in the sequence;

It’s not so long ago the future
held out the promise of travel to another antique land
unknown as yet to Frommer or Fodor.
I spent yesterday ignorant of the fact the valiant

Adam Schlesinger has gone the way of all dust.
Together with Chris Collingwood, Adam made Fountains of Wayne
a band whose songs combined the height of literary taste
with low-blow hooks. Ai Fen, a doctor from Wuhan

who blew the whistle on the Chinese Politburo
seems to have been “disappeared” by those sons of bitches.
No motion hath she now? As for our homegrown kingpin,

he’s warning us against narcos on burros.
The Pentagon has ordered 100,000 “Human Remains Pouches.”
Once we subscribed to the idea of boxes made of pine.

In this we have a mix of the documentary, the personal, polemic and elegy which in fourteen lines is ambitious to say the least All of these are ‘about’ the impact of the virus. My initial reaction was that there are too many and none of them are given enough space. On a third and more attentive reading it appears to evoke the bewildering distraction that we’re experiencing at the hands of the infodemic that accompanies this calamity. I also felt that the whole sequence wasn’t sufficiently poetic until I realised the pandemic demands a degree of artlessness. In fact, thinking this through, Covid-19 may well prove to be yet another nail in the lid for the lyric poem Which is a good thing.

I had heard of the Fountains of Wayne but have never knowingly listened to their music but Wikipedia informs me that, in addition to this band, Adam Schlesinger was a prolific and successful writer and producer. Muldoon’s liking for elements of the music scene is well know and it would seem to be fitting that he should mention Scheslinger who died from Covid-19 complications at the age of 53. Another poem in the sequence bemoans the cancellation of an Elton John gig that our poet and his partner were planning to attend.

For those, like me, the quote is from Wordsworth and might refer to the power of nature as in;

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees

One of the many lessons that we may learn from this is the destructive power of the natural world and that our post-Enlightenment confidence in man’s ability to control this is a sham. Being a reluctant cynic I think we may learn the lesson but fail to apply it en route to planetary death. My only argument with theuse of this kind of quote is that it is unlikely to be familiar to those readers who aren’t fans of Wordsworth and is thus a Bit Obscure.

With regard to Ai Fen, Radio Free Asia tells me that, as of April 14th, she is ‘safe and well’ but has been muzzled by those sons of bitches. The description is unarguably typical of the Chinese state and its readiness to crush any kind of objective expression with ruthless violence,

I’m guessing that many of us, me included, have been let down by “the promise of travel to another antique land” which in my case was Iquitos in the Peruvian rainforest. I freely confess to being a little flummoxed by the Trump reference and need to ask the reason for it being placed here unless it’s to demonstrate that the kingpin’s mind is Truly Elsewhere.

The pine boxes riff continues on to the next poem with reference to their first use after the American Civil War. There are also references elsewhere to burial mounds and to the mass burial of Covid-19 victims on New York’s Hart Island.

I was going to reproduce another complete poem from the sequence but I’ve decided instead to focus on a few excerpts from different poems in an attempt to give a more comprehensive view of the whole.

One of the political observations seems a little off-point;

With the power of the European
Union seriously under threat, Hungarian “voters”

have given free rein
to President Viktor Orbán,
who knows only too well the people make perfect cannon fodder.

Orban is one of those ‘strongman’ populists that are beginning to dominate the world stage and he and his cronies throughout Europe have weakened the EU and will probably destroy it. It would appear that this refers to the ‘Enabling’ powers that Orban gave himself as a response to the Covid-19 crisis which are seen as setting him on the path to a Putin-style dictatorship. It would therefore seem sensible to read “voters” as Orban’s political supporters in Hungary’s National Assembly.

A few more political points are much closer to the calamity;

Continue to hold your hands for as long
as twenty seconds under the hot water faucet.

“The virus has but one ambition,”
says a sickle-bearing Doctor Fauci, “and that’s getting into our lungs.
To that end it’s working hand over fist.”

I’m not completely sure that Fauci deserves the sickle bearer quip. At the time of writing this, he’s been briefed against by what appears to be every member of the White House staff. This appears to be an attempt to distant the kingpin from his own disastrous decisions and insane posturings along the way. Consequently the good doctor is enjoying a very positive press in the UK media at the moment. Given that the USA has now had over 3.5 million cases and 139,000 deaths it would appear that Fauci’s sickle wasn’t prominent enough.

The kingpin himself comes in for some criticism;

Our kingpin is himself recognized as being not only tawdry but negligently tatrdy
in making preparations to treat the victims of coronavirus.

As I write, about three months later than this, Fauci is seen as the realist ‘expert’ is distancing himself from the kingpin’s pronouncements and being fervently briefed against by the White House staff.

Trump’s culpability is now further compounded by his encouragement of states to lift their lockdowns, his refusal to wear a mask and his bonkers pronouncements on possible cures, to name but a few. I use these as examples of how much things have changed in the past few months and how much they are likely to change in the immediate future.

Then there’s this;

A genuine topic of interest to the serious mind
is the firing of Captain Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt
for expressing concern for those under his command.

and;

The firing of Captain Crozier will be a defining moment of this episode
when the names of the bigwigs
in the West Wing are forgotten. Murrain, or rinderpest,

H’mm, in July of 2020, from this side of the pond, the outrageous treatment of this honourable man seems to have faded almost from view. I’m not in any way trying to either denigrate or minimise his actions but history is fickle and the ever lengthening list of bigwig outrages may overshadow Crozier’s noble deed, even by the serious minded.

The reference to murrain/to murrai/rinderpest is further developed because it’s a virus with similar symptoms that affects cattle. There also mentions of the effect of this on Muldoon’s adult children and this;

I’ve not made much of it, since I don’t want to be seen to garner
attention, but after two weeks of a dry cough
and general aches and pains, I now seem to have turned a corner.

I have to tactfully point out that having these particular published in a prestigious and widely read literary weekly is a fairly clear way of garnering attention and comment. I’ll leave my reaction there, for the moment.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least a flavour of Plaguey Hill and a reasonably coherent, if provisional and tenuous response to it. I’ll now be interested to see if Muldoon provides an update in the near future.

Simon Jarvis’ Night Office reviewed in the TLS. Sigh.

Oh dear. I’ve just caught up with last weeks British Book Comic and came across a review of ‘Night Office’. This is a rare event in that this prestigious rag rarely publishes anything on anybody (apart from Sir G Hill) that I read. I’ve been waiting for the mainstream to take some notice of this and of Keston Sutherland’s Odes because both are put out by Enitharmon, an established and respected publisher.

I think I’ve read all of Jarvis’ published work and some of his essays with a fair deal of attention. I remain of the view that he is unique and his work challenges the foundations of what passes for contemporary verse. This is not shared by William Wootten, the reviewer who starts with this:

When a devotee of the astringent “difficulty” of J.H. Prynne and de facto member of the Cambridge School publishes a 7,000 line Anglican in formal rhyming verse, it is safe that he has had something of a change of heart. Not total, perhaps. Simon Jarvis’s Night Office, the poem in question, alludes to Prynne and foregrounds the sort of Adorno-inspired theorizing Jarvis and others have used to justify Prynnian poetics. Even the way Jarvis writes as if no one had produced a rhyming pentameter since 1908 may be more a result of subscription to modernist orthodoxy than evidence of its renunciation. Still, there is no pretending Night Office is your standard Cambridge fare.

I’m going to leave aside the weak prose and worry about the sad fact that this appears to be an extended sneer. In a land that cherishes freedom of expression this is all very well provided that it is factually accurate. Starting at the beginning, the only occasion that I can recall Jarvis writing on Prynne was in the manner of complaint and impatience, complaint about having to read a poem as a crossword puzzle and not being that interested to do so. This is hardly the manifestation of a devotee- defined by the OED as “A person zealously devoted to a particular, cause, pursuit etc.”. This change of heart is also a bit of a mystery given the publication of the equally lengthy and formal The Unconditional in 2005 and the more recent religious themes in Dinner and Dionysus Crucified. We now come to the Adorno jibe, regular readers will know that I’m of the view that Adorno was mostly wrong (as in incorrect) but especially wrong about poetry. I readily concede that he looms large over some things Cambridge and over Jarvis’ academic work but I don’t think that Prynnian poetics can only justified in this way, I like to think that I’ve managed to locate an approach that has nothing whatsoever to do with Critical Theory.

I need to move on to what appears to be the main target dressed thinly as context, this strange beast known as the Cambridge School. If this name applies to the contributors to The English Intelligencer then this ceased circulation more than forty years ago. If we mean those poets who emulate Prynne, there aren’t any although some place Tony Lopez in that group. If we mean those of us who can see the point of Prynne and consider him to be Very Good indeed then I’m part of this School- which is ridiculous beyond words.

I haven’t got the space to pay the attention to ‘Anglican’ that it deserves other than to ask which particular brand of that broad church is the poem supposed to belong?

Now, how many readers of the poetry section of the TLS are going to be motivated to read the rest of the review? How many of these are going to approach what follows with an open mind? Is this kind of naked factionalism the main problem with the State of the Poem today? As I’ve said, polemic is fine but misrepresentation is not.

We now come to tactics, if you want to scare readers off you use the ‘P’ word as frequently as possible and throw in a German thinker that most won’t have read. You do not start by outlining the Jarvis thesis that verse constrained by rhyme and meter is the best way of making philosophical and theological work, you do not mention Alexander Pope but you do churn out the same 40 year old clichés because it’s easy.

For those who do persevere, Wootten makes some reasonably valid points, he acknowledges that the use of rhyme “seems well suited to Jarvis’s turn against poetic puritanism” but qualifies this by pointing out that some of the rhymes are ‘wince-inducing’. He also questions whether or not Night Office would be better in prose. These are both reasonable responses but the prose option completely misses the point. Perhaps I’m too familiar with the wince-inducing rhymes of Sir G Hill’s later work but I can’t recall being induced to wince.

The conclusion is condescending in the extreme:

Night Office may well be a transitional work from a writer at last discovering his true strengths. Since it is apparently the first of five such long poems, written or in prospect, there will be plenty of chance to find out.

The only response to this is that Jarvis’ strengths have been apparent to those of us who have read him since The Unconditional as have his weaknesses but this remarkable work is a progression that develops those strengths and I for one await the next with eager anticipation.

Poem 9 in J H Prynne’s ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’

It seems like ages since I last wrote about this particular sequence and I’ve been reading it again to try and get some balance or context with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’. Before getting to this particular poem, it might be as well to recap what I’ve been able to glean:

  • there are twelve poems in the sequence and each of these contain six quatrains, line length is roughly equal throughout;
  • none of the poems have titles, it is only feasible to assume that each page contains a single poem because of the full stop at the end of the sixth quatrain;
  • all of the poems are incredibly austere with this poem being more austere than most
  • one of the themes relates to the recent civil war in Ulster that we insist on referring to as ‘The Troubles’
  • another theme may be one of the last two or three financial ‘shocks’;
  • there may also be elements of self parody

I’m referring to this as Poem 9 because it’s a lot quicker than typing ‘the poem that is on page 9’ every time. This is it:

But relics intercept pernix go shifted snowfall, base
gimbal evermore he treats he shall forested. Rail time
and snicker by valid proximal, up slink bone you have
the same fill-track,fill even. Open gamble fine edge

Languish they to him, proof very rapid die-cast hair
cracking transverse mill end. Gone for tell this label
extract side to slide towards honey guided fit thirst
guarantor. Invent shack slim to heart mute doorway

Tepid or fumble exit better false by mime sacrosanct
hinge settled, spooned off for him next stop soon, next
heat to blink famous. Fitment to stagger pin owning
balance phalanx summit slay the day the way sump lit

He advises this too. It's for advent for shall or rested
occlusion pale object both sides, grill access delivery
ethic suck notice her ferric his to bind synthetic sip
alum entangled. Broadly infill bunker tremble ostive

Bit parcel same to find strong too. Odds to sublet cut
fancy triage up late give to win adventure, mild have
him taken. Suffix shall marry resection at principle
get stuck as metric hinder him, same slam. As grasp

Buy yet colouring traffic incidental locks but turning
say off awry, quick relent, store. How brain up patter
fond him to you sheer fathom, how. Entrain by per limit
resume and plan, fetch too, all incriminate allowed on.

Many of you will not be shocked, given the above, that Robert Potts (poetry editor at the TLS) has described ‘Streak’ as ‘impenetrable’. I hope to show that this isn’t the case but I also concede that these poems require careful readerly attention if they are going to yield anything at all.

I’ve found that there are several ways of approaching this stuff and the most profitable is usually to identify those phrases that do make ‘sense’ and try to expand out from there. It’s also as well to keep in mindwaht might be going on in other parts of the sequence. As I’ve said, Ulster seems to be a recurring theme as is repetition although it’s not entirely clear yet whether this is a subject or a device. The other method of entry is to identify and try to define what the odd or obscure words might be doing. The problem with this is that it can lead to too many choices so I’ll start with those phrases that seem to be reasonably clear.

When you read through looking for these, it is surprising how many there are, ‘you have the same fill-track’ is the first and might open some of what’s around it. In music a ‘fill’ is used to hold the listener’s attention during a break or gap in the phrases of the melody so I’m guessing that the ‘fill-track’ is the track or channel of the recording that contains the fill. Musical fills aren’t meant to be either spectacular or stunning but simply structured and reasonably short. Wikipedia tells me that musicians are “expected to be able to select and perform stylistically appropriate fills from a collection of stock fills and phrases” and that ” the tempo is not changed at all……….An important point to remember is that the flow of the music should not be sacrificed to the technicality of the fill”.

So this is something that isn’t part of the main event but is something ‘stock’ or off the peg that is used to keep things going. ‘Same’ is a word that recurs throughout the sequence but rarely specifies what it relates to which has led me to speculate in the past that for more than twenty years the various combatants deployed the same routines of murder and atrocity and dressed these up in the same tired rhetoric. It could be then that this same fill-track is the steady rhythm of violence between the paramilitaries and with the British Army. The ‘you’ in this sense could be the reader or the Great British Public who were initially outraged by attacks on the mainland but same became accustomed to the regular patterns referred to above or it could refer to both. Or neither.

I’m nominating ‘next stop soon’ as a phrase that also makes sense but is more difficult to relate to what surrounds it. The next stop would most obviously refer to either a bus or train journey but in the context of the civil way, stop could also refer to one of the many ceasefires discussed, promised and waited for especially during the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. Bus stops and train stations (two of each) were bombed between 2 and 3 pm on Bloody Friday when 9 people were killed and 130 were injured. The OED defines the verb spoon as “to lift or transfer by means of a spoon. Chiefly with preps. and advs., as into, off, out, up” but also gives “In sailing, to run before the wind or sea; to scud. Also with away” neither of which are much help until I can work out the identity of ‘him’. It is eminently possible to have buckets of fun with ‘next heat to blink famous’ but I’ll try to restrict myself to the more obvious possibilities. Heat may be the heat of an explosion or gunfire or it may be increased pressure from the security services or it may be about the various pressures to reach a settlement. To blink as a verb has its ‘ordinary meaning’ but others include- “To deceive”, “To start out of the way, so as to elude anything” and “To avoid, flinch from”. There’s also a coursing term which means to temporarily elude the dogs. Those who have got this far down the page will observe that ‘blink’ is also a noun. The OED gives us these definitions:

  • a trick, stratagem;
  • boughs thrown to turn aside deer from their course; also, feathers, etc. on a thread to scare birds;
  • a sudden or momentary gleam of light from the sun, a fire, etc.; a slight flash; a peep of light; a twinkling gleam, as of the stars; a gleam of sunshine between showers: also poet. ‘glimmer’;
  • a ‘glimmer’ or ‘spark’ of anything good;
  • a brief gleam of mental sunshine;
  • a glance (usually, a bright, cheerful glance); a glimpse;
  • the action or an act of blinking;
  • the time taken by a glance; an instant, the twinkling of an eye;
  • a fisherman’s name for the mackerel when about a year old.

There’s also an iceblink and a blink comparator but I think that we can rule these out. So this may be a brief ray or gleam of hope and it may be famous because it became recognised as a turning point in the conflict, or it may be a famous piece of deception or evasion, or it may be neither of these. I am taking ‘famous’ to have its usual meaning although it can also mean ‘notorious’. At this stage it’s hard to choose from the many alternatives and I probably need to think a bit more about the rest of the poem first.

The other reasonably tangible phrase is ‘He advises this too’ but I have yet to work out what ‘this refers to’ or who ‘he’ might be.The rest of the sentence isn’t yielding any possible answers at the moment

As for the unusual words, I’m taking ‘pernix’ to mean nimble or quick or as an adverb as in ‘intercept quickly’. I have absolutely no idea about ostive so any help or guidance would be much appreciated. Conversely ‘gimbal’ has several possibilities;

  • a finger-ring (rarely an ear-ring) so constructed as to admit of being divided into two (sometimes into three) rings;
  • joints, connecting links (in machinery);
  • a hinge;
  • a kind of pastry work that is hard, about the thickness of one’s little finger, form’d round, and made in the shape of a ring;
  • contrivance by means of which articles for use at sea (esp. the compass and the chronometer) are suspended so as to keep a horizontal position. It usually consists of a pair of rings moving on pivots in such a way as to have a free motion in two directions at right angles, so as to counteract the motion of the vessel.

For the moment, I’m going with ‘hinge’ but only because the word is used in verse 3 and I really can’t get my brain around applying the fourth definition (yet).

‘Snicker’ is a little more amenable, either to mean ‘snigger’ as noun or verb or a horse suffering from the glanders or a knife. However I can’t see what any of these might have to do with ‘rail time’ although I don’t know what that’s about either.

Finally (for now), the sequence does seem to focus on the Maze hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 at the end of which ten Republican prisoners had starved themselves to death. The OED definition of ‘sacrosanct’ is “Of persons and things, esp. obligations, laws, etc.: Secured by a religious sanction from violation, infringement, or encroachment; inviolable, sacred” and other poems seem to contain references to the support that some elements of the Catholic church gave to these men and promoted them as martyrs in their community. So it would seem likely that ‘mime sacrosanct’ might be a sarcastic reference to that support. Or (of course) it may refer to something else that I haven’t thought of.

I will return to this in the next week or so, primarily because I do still find this sequence compelling and enjoy trying to work my way through.

J H Prynne in the TLS

I was going to spend some time this morning writing about the way I feel about Geoffrey Hill (as opposed to think). This was going to be an entirely coherent and almost well-written follow-up to my debate on this blog with Tom Day. However, yesterday’s edition of the TLS contains an article/review on Prynne by Robert Potts.

I need to say at the outset that I’ve read this particular rag since I was 14 and it occupies an important part of my life.  I don’t read it for the poetry however as this is usually fairly drab although they did publish a John Kinsella poem the other week.

Potts’ article is quite lengthy and covers the Glossator Prynne issue, the Brinton book,  the Cambridge Literary review and ‘Sub Songs’.

Let’s start with the photograph, this is of Prynne riding a bike and is dated 2004. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t do him any favours but merely reinforces the ‘oddness’ image. There are much better pictures available and I have to question Potts’ choice (he is the TLS managing editor and therefore will have had a hand in this choice).

Potts starts badly but improves over the five columns. The first sentence is- “The poetry of J H Prynne is both obscure and difficult, qualities tolerated in canonical and foreign writers (Blake, Mallarmé, Celan, late Beckett), but treated with enormous resentment and suspicion in contemporary English poets”.  This requires a bit of sorting out, ‘late’ Celan (after about 1963) can be said to be difficult but the critical reception of the later works was not one of toleration and there are still those critics who view the later output as a story of progressive decline. When did ‘late’ Beckett begin and is it really considered both obscure and difficult?

There’s a long debate going on in my head about obscurity and Potts does redeem himself by quoting Prynne at length on this very subject in “Difficulties in the translation of ‘difficult’ poems” but to start with such a bland description will deter many readers from proceeding further.

Further into the article Keston Sutherland wins applause for his Glossator piece on ‘L’Exthase de M Poher’ and the ‘unwitty circus’ section is quoted at length and Justin Katko gets plaudits for his essay on ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcript’ (which I must get round to reading.

Interestingly Potts proceeds with “One yearns for a reading – academic or otherwise – that would start to explain Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994) or the impenetrable STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE~~~ARTESIAN (2009)”. I haven’t paid much attention to the first of these but I have read and written about the second. I really must take issue with the ‘impenetrable’ jibe because this isn’t the case. ‘Streak’ may be wonderfully and brilliantly austere but it isn’t beyond comprehension. I’m not suggesting that this is achieved immediately but it is possible to grasp the outline of at least one significant theme and to be thunderstruck by the poet’s ability to say complex things in a new and inspiring way- ‘Streak’ is the Prynne sequence that keeps drawing me back in. I’ve just spent a couple of days looking at the fourth poem and remain astounded at how much is packed in to such a small pace and how contradictions are exposed and played with.

With regard to ‘Sub Songs’, Potts refers to ‘As Mouth Blindness’ but only to explain the title rather than what the poem may be ‘about’ which again is unfortunate because I’d quite like to read what someone else makes of it.

Potts does not mention either ‘Mental Ears’ or ‘Poetic Work’ both of which provide a good insight into the nature of the Prynne project- both of these are now available on the web.

The last half of the final sentence reads “but as the “century of suspicion” ends, aptly and predictably, in a credit crisis, J H Prynne’s poetry may – like it or not – be most fully and restlessly the music of our times”. I have to ask: why on earth didn’t he start with that? I almost feel a letter coming on….