Tag Archives: trigons

Annotation, Collaboration and the New Poem

This is an exercise in distraction, I’m supposed to be proof-reading the Annotated Trigons and revamping the currently chaotic navigation for the rest of arduity. Regular readers of both bebrowed and arduity will know that I’m really bad at proofing and I’m daunted by the navigation task because it needs to be much more intuitive than is currently the case. With this in mind I will instead spend time today reflecting on the completed project (apart from the proofing, obvs) especially in terms of what John has said in his updated introduction:

I do want to record that I’ve had a similar pleasure in our own dialogue and the resulting new version of Trigons. Because it is a new version. “The Poem” is different from “The Poem-With-Notes,” as it should be. There are now two texts, two ways of reading the work. I would hope that readers would want to own the printed version of Trigons, available from Shearsman Books, and after that access the annotations available here. I should note that sales of the Shearsman Trigons increased after the annotation project began.

Whilst working on the project I decided to focus on the work rather than thinking too deeply about the wider implications/aspects of what we were doing but now it’s probably time to think a bit more broadly.

When we set out I asked on the blog whether or not the notes become part of the poem and I still haven’t got to the bottom of this. In my head, as a reasonably attentive reader, I think I can make a case for EK’s notes to the Shepheard’s Calendar but that may be because I’m convinced that EK is a thin cover for Edmeund Spenser and the whole device is an attempt to launch himself into the Elizabethan literay ‘scene’. David Jones’ notes to both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata because they say what the poet wanted to say in terms of giving them a broader context.

So, in these instances, the poet’s annotation, or at least the poet’s involvement does suggest an additional part of the text which is a little more than an appendix or supplement. I’d like to illustrate this from my own recent experience. One of the things I need to do today is to check with John whether he’s happy with an early
note I made about the dubious role played by the British SOE in supporting the Cretan resistance during the German occupation. I’d developed the notion that one of John’s themes for the Islands, Inlands section of the work was the tragedy of Greek history during the twentieth century. I rapidly discovered that this wasn’t the case and amended the note. Reading it again yesterday I’ve come to the conclusion that it says much more about my interests than it should and that it spoils that particular poem. This is the note:

General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the German troops on Crete was captured on April 26th 1944 by a group of Cretan resistance fighters led by Patrick Leigh Fermor and W Stanley Moss of the British Special Operations Executive. The group moved South across the mountains of Crete and were picked up by a British motor launch on May 14th 1944 and taken to Egypt.

The majority view today is that this was a heroic act carried out by heroes who would risk everything to strike at the occupiers. Moss wrote his account as Ill met by moonlight which was made into a film in 1956. Both Fermor and Moss were decorated for this act and remain revered figures on Crete. However, some members of the Greek left point to the murky role of the SOE in withdrawing support from the main resistance group (EAM) and forming a group with more right wing tendencies because of its leftist affiliations. Some hold the view that the kidnap was of limited value and an attempt to bring reprisals on those villages controlled by the EAM. Whilst this is unlikely, what can be said is that the role of the British in Greece from 1943 through to the end of the especially brutal Greek civil war served British and American interests primarily at the cost of many Greek lives.

Youtube has a remrakable (dubbed) Greek documentary on the kidnap with interviews with both Kreipe and Leigh Fermor. The patrickleighfermor blog is building a formidable archive of material including photographs of the kidnapper’s journey across the island with Kreipe. The blog is an excellent example of how the web can enhance and contextualize biography.

I now see that the middle paragraph, which was amended after discussion with John, is completely irrelevant to the poem because it has nothing to do with John’s intention and still puts a misleading gloss on things. My only excuse is that Trigons as a whole does have a doppelganger theme and that both Leigh
Fermor and Moss may have been playing a double game. I’m not sure either that the last sentence is approriate either, it says what I feel about the interweb but nothing more.

The point that I’m trying to make is that these kind of flaws detract from the work as well as the notes and when they are useful for the reader they enhance both too.

This neatly leads on to ‘new version’ and what that might imply. I need to say that the content has been amended only once and that was in terms of accuracy. This version is adorned with links to external and internal pages and to notes that appear alongside most of the links. So, we have links to film, photographs, music and text in an attempt to make things easier for the reader. I’ll try and give an example. In Aruski Rehab 4 you have “and a sunblast on your retinas transmutes the cycles into cyclotron. The last word is coloured blue to indicate that it’s a link. Hovering over the word produces a short note which defines the word and provides a further link to a short film which explains in greater detail. In the bad old days before the interweb a note would be placed at the bottom of the page or at the end of the work which would define and possibly cite a reference to a more detailed explanation. We’ve added hundreds of these kinds of devices throughout the work and have thus created a version that changes the readerly experience. I’m hoping that, as the web gets broader, there will be a second edition to take advantage of both the additional available material and the techical innovations that will enable us to further refines the way the notes can be accessed and used.

There is also the possibility of other new versions in that what we’ve done could be amended and further developed by others so that there are many annotated Trigons rather than just the one

So, in conclusion it would appear that the notes are a part of the poem in that they can make it richer or they can detract from it. With the reference to the Greek video above, this note manages to do both. It’s also apparent that this isn’t a new poem but an augmented version of the same poem. I hope this makes some kind of sense. Now, back to the proofing. Sigh.

The Annotated Trigons: a mid-term report.

Now that we’re more than halfway through with the above, I’ve decided that it may be useful to review progress thus far. The original aim was to create a form for the sequence that could be updated (the links used in the printed edition had died) and to see what the current advantages are to using the interweb as a platform for annotation. A further reason was the sad fact that Trigons is not included in the three volumes of John’s Collected and this was a way of compensating for that omission.

We set ourselves a couple of parameters, the first was to avoid overwhelming the text with too many notes and/or providing extraneous information that has no relevance to the poem. I think that early on we decided that we’d rather inform than explain. preferring to encourage the reader to work out ‘meaning’ whilst providing a degree of context to the characters and events that are mentioned in the work.

With regard to overwhelming, John suggested William Emspon as model to follow: ““There is no longer a reasonably small field which may be taken as general knowledge. It is impertinent to suggest that the reader ought to possess already any odd bit of information one may have picked up in a field where one is oneself ignorant; such a point may be explained in a note without trouble to anybody; and it does not require much fortitude to endure seeing what you already know in a note”. I’m not suggesting that we’ve got everything right in the amount of material that we’ve provided but I think that everything thus far that needs a note has got one.

This brings me some of the more abstract ramifications for this kind of project. At first glance, things seem reasonably clear, you put the sequence into a series of web pages and use a mixture of notes and links to external pages to provide Empson’s odd bits of information. However, links are changed, web pages are modified and updated, other more detailed / objective / better material may be postedso that a significant part of what is provided is very mobile and provisional indeed. It seems to my small brain that this has profound implications for all of us and it took me a couple of months on this project to realise that this is the case. I must stress that isn’t the concern that most of us had about the reliability of information on the interweb, this is about the fundamental nature of that information. I know that this is the case but I haven’t yet been able to fathom the direction that this is taking us.

We now come to reliability and emphasis. The good news is that Wikipedia is becoming increasingly accurate and objective and (as a result) it is much easier to spot the hopelessly biased articles. We decided early on however not to rely on it but to use it as a pointer to other sources of information. The other good news is that more and more ‘established’ resources are putting all of the content on the interweb for free. The even better news is that the google machine has become even more efficient at delivering the pages that you’ve searched for. All of this means that even the most obscure characters, books and events now have a wealth of context and explication almost at the click of a mouse.

The less good news is that some reputable/established sources aren’t always as balanced as perhaps they should be. Some Dictionary of National Biography articles clearly have a very one-sided axe to grind which should either have been more rigorously edited or rejected. This isn’t an argument for he anodyne, just the old-fashioned idea that, with something that purports to be definitive, both sides of an argument need to be presented.

I now have to admit to falling into the ‘explanation’ trap on a couple of occasions. I think I’ve written about the first where, in the notes to Islands, Inlands I was very tempted indeed to present things in a way that pointed to the tragic nature of Greek politics in the 20th century as a major theme. In Hess/Hess I nearly wrote at great length about the rumour that the man imprisoned in Spandau was an impostor and the sightings of Marshall Ney in the United States many years after his death.

In terms of presentation, a friend from Southampton University provided us with the same pop-up gizmo that Wikipedia use. This avoids users having to click to the bottom of the page for each note, the note appears as you roll the cursor over the link. We’ve followed the basic rules of usability and accessibility in that the navigation is ‘clean’ and consistent, there are no tables and each page can be read by screen readers as well as browsers- clicking on the link still displays the note at the bottom of the page. Having just written that sentence I’ve now realised that I need to add many (many) ‘title’ tags to the anchored links. In true bebrowed fashion I designed a navigation scheme at the outset that managed to become cumbersome and confusing before the mid-point and thus had to spend a few days devising a new one which I’ll try not to change.

One of the challenges that we should have recognised at the outset is how often and under what circumstances is it best to rely only on a link to an external page rather than via a note. I can’t pretend that we now have a consistent and rational to this but a kind of pattern is beginning to take shape. In the most recent poem there is this line: “in the days John Denver sang Let us Begin and Russian healers”. We could have explained who John Denver was in a note and then linked to the YouTube clip where Denver explains the background to the song before it is played. The rationale is (probably) that the reader soesn’t need to know who John Denver was but may benefit from knowing something about the song and the clip does that better than a note could.

On a personal note, I’m now of the view that everybody should do this with poems that they like because the exercise gives you so much more pleasure and insight (even when it’s wrong) when you’re preparing something that others might find useful. I’m very fortunate and privileged to have John’s input and sage advice and I’d like to place on record my deep gratitude for both his generosity of spirit and commitment to getting this as right as we can. As a poet John is an exceptionally skilled technician who writes from the soul as well as from the mind and there have been times when my jaw has dropped when these two qualities have come together in an extraordinary and startling way.

The original print version of Trigons is available from Shearsman, at 9 quid there really is no excuse. John and I would like to express our thanks to Tony Frazer at Shearsman for his ongoing support.

David Jones, John Matthias and what poetry might be for

This could be quite tricky, I want to put my finger on some elements of the poetic that I’v probably avoided. My usual response to questions about what poetry might be able to do is that to analyse such things is to spoil them and it’s therefore better to Leave Well Alone. Today however I have found myself writing “this is what you come to poetry for” with regard to a small part of Jones’ “The Anathemata” and thinking about whether to include my own keenly felt observations in the ‘Trgons’ annotation project. With regard to the latter I’ve decided to exclude them but to try and work out here why they mean so much to me.

Both the ‘experiments in reading’ and the ‘Trigons’ annotation project involve paying a different kind of readerly attention. With the former it’s about:

  • finding passages that strike a particular chord and
  • writing about whatever it is that does this and exploring how this striking ‘works’.

Annotating ‘Trigons’ requires a different kind of attention in that we need to identify those lines or phrases that may benefit from some additional information in terms of context and then working out the best way to provide this given the vast resources of the interweb. This has required me to invent an ideal reader who is intelligent and literate but may need some help with some of the characters and references.

As an example we’ve just finished the Hess / Hess poem and I’m still not sure that we’ve given enough information about Myra Hess and Clara Schumann and whether I’ve chosen the most appropriate links for the neuroscience terms. The work is immensely rewarding for the insights about technique and how long poems work but also for providing me with another thing that poems can do.

In the past I’ve written about how poems are particularly good at both portraying and becoming part of our cultural landscape. I think I now want to amend that, I’m discovering that poems can also bring to mind things that we already know but are no longer ‘present’ to us and I’m finding the effect of these ‘prompts’ to be fascinating. I think that I need to make a distinction here from the more straightforward ‘jogging’ of memory and what might be going on here. This seems to add an emotional dimension to remembering because there are two instances where I can recall how I felt about what I knew. In my current adult way of thinking I would not of said that either of these facts were in any way significant but two of John’s images have changed that view.

The first concerns the German invasion of Crete during WWII. As quite a serious child in the sixties I watched a ty programme called ‘All Our Yesterdays’ which spent half an hour each week recounting events that had occurred 25 years before. So, sometime in 1966 I learned that the invasion of Crete was undertaken exclusively by paratroopers and that this was the first time that this had occurred. Accompanying this fact there was footage of white parachutes opening in a clear blue sky- it transpires that I still have this image in my head which has caused me to think what that might be about. I was eleven and about to leave primary school, I was interested in technology and progress and therefore impressed by ‘firsts’ but my mother’s family had been decimated by two world wars and we were (generally) ‘against’ any kind of armed conflict even though we knew the Germans were horrid because of the Holocaust.

So, I’m impressed by the audacity of this invasion even though I’m a bit of a pacifist. I do have this very specific associated image that wasn’t particularly dramatic or impressive yet clearly formed part of who I was becoming- someone with a strong interest in history and how wars are made / done. It is very unlikely that any of this, including my (current) grudging admiration for shiny killing machines without paying close attention to ‘Trigons’.

The other ‘jog’ concerns the figure of Rudolf Hess in Spandau. It turns out that somewhere in my brain there is this fuzzy image of a wraith-like shape in a military wandering through the grounds of the prison. Unlike Crete, I have no idea where this came from but I do recall (now) having a slightly morbid interest into this odd German with his even odder story and the circumstances of his incarceration. I think this interest ran alongside the fact of Hess’ high rank in all things Nazi and his consequent involvement in the worst kind of evil. I knew about Nuremberg, I also knew the rumours about high-ranking Nazis hiding out in South America and I knew that Speer was also incarcerated but I don’t have an image of him as I do of Hess. I’m quite disturbed about this, it’s like carrying around a ghost that you didn’t know was there.

So, as well as reminding us of our cultural past, it would seem that some poetry can bring to life personal memories about that landscape that we didn’t know that we had. I may be wrong but novels (even very good ones) don’t do this for me, neither does painting.

I’ve written recently about beauty in poetry and some time ago about how some lines address me directly. This isn’t because they imitate or match my response but it is (I think) that they prompt a re-evaluation and a re-framing of the way that I think and feel. A recent example that has led to a clearer understanding of what might be going on comes from David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ and is written in reference to the ‘Willendorf Venus’:


                 But he's already at it
the form-making proto-maker
busy at the fecund image of her.

That’s it, three lines. What it has done is prod me into thinking differently about how I ‘do’ creativity. The brilliant “already at” and “busy at” give this sense of enthusiastic and eager urgency that I know that I still feel but I seem to have buried under concerns about technique and form and about the end result rather than the doing which should be the absolute joy that it was when I was 14. Of course, Jones is making a much wider point about the role of the form-maker but what he also does is encapsulate in a very simple way a spontaneity that most of us overlook and/or bury as the contingencies of adulthood kick in. Incidentally, I don’t think I would have been as affected by this if I hadn’t had to type it out.

Beautiful poetry: Jarvis, Jones and Matthias

We’ll start with a couple of qualifiers. I used to know what Kant said about what made something aesthetically pleasing but I’ve since forgotten it. I hadn’t thought until very recently about the relationship between the beautiful and the poem so most of what follows has probably been said before. I have however noticed something that might be useful to share.

Regular readers may know that I’m in violent agreement with K Sutherland on the need to pay attention to serious work. In my experience as a reader, reading attentively is far more rewarding than reading the work as if it were a novel. Of course, I have to be interested enough in the first place in order to start being attentive but fortunately I find that I am interested in many (perhaps too many) different kind of poem. Material that challenges me with either it’s subject matter or its deployment of language usually gets some interest but beauty has never struck me as interesting enough to gain my attention.

With the annotated Trigons project with John Matthias and the ongoing experiments in reading I’ve been paying sustained attention over a number of weeks to The Anathemata, The Odes to TL61p, Night Office and Trigons. Oddly (at least to me) its seems like bits of beautiful poetry have crept up on me and caught me unawares. This was the first:

   Within the railed tumulus
       he sings high and he sings low.

    In a low voice
         as one who speaks
where a few are, gathered in high-room
    and one, gone out.

This refers to the Last Supper and is part of the announcement of Jones’ main theme. Before I started writing about it I thought it was one of the many pieces of sustained brilliance that run through the book but then I noticed within me a reluctant recognition that this was primarily a beautiful piece of poetry in itself. By this I think I mean that it isn’t describing anything that I might find attractive to the eye but that the combination of words (poems as poem) move me more than something I find visually inspiring. I’ve thought about analysing the above but the only guess that I’m prepared to venture relates to brevity and simplicity. Of course, the above does crop up in the most accomplished long poem of the 20th century so the poetic context may make a contribution.

However, I’m going with an unmediated almost physical response which I also get from this from the first poem in the Trigons sequence:


for such is fate Senor and yet
the alphabet was left us when alas ambrosia
turned to vin ordinaire and Icor
just poor plain red & human blood spilled & spilling
in the deserts mountains seas

and islands too, fit for Eucharist in world conflagration

(the first five lines are the last lines from section five, the last line is the beginning of section 6.

I’ve written before about over-reading the theme of this poem, of seeing in it a complex portrayal of the tragic nature of 20th century Greek politics. I’ve also written about John’s ability to make the very difficult look easy. The above is remarkably complex and works on a number of different levels but what makes it beautiful for me is the strength and clarity of the fourth line, especially “red & human” and “spilled & spilling” which seem to hold the whole thing together. I recognise that there is a religious element to this but it is only one of many threads that are interwoven in these few lines. So, brevity and simplicity, as with Jones, but also superb technique in terms of word choice and pacing being utilised to maximum effect. Perhaps even more than Jones, these lines stand by themselves, with or without context as a beautiful thing. It could be argued that ‘conflagration’ is too big a word to end with and that it isn’t sufficiently lyrical but the point is that it both punctuates and contrasts what has gone before.

The last of these is from Jarvis’ Night Office:

just in the corner of my eye the vast cathedral,
too large for its believers, and just now
dwarfing small clumps of them in polyhedral
splendours and gestures. Its bright sharpened bow
went sailing through the night, to put down evil
wherever it might surface, so that how 
this back of it disgorged the faithful, few
at this cold, minor, festival, and who

they were, could not be seen, but, from its gaps
immensities of music, and their wide
curves, flights and logics, rivets, knots and straps
let the machine preposterously ride
out into air, let open all its taps,

I’ve quoted this at length because most of it isn’t particularly beautiful and because there are bits that are Very Awkward Indeed but that does not prevent some inherent beauty leaking out. I’m not entirely sure but I think it’s the list and the splendours and gestures that transform this reasonably straightforward description into something quite wonderful. I readily acknowledge that I’m a sucker for lists, that there’s something about nouns next to each other that I find deeply satisfying. This is a particularly good list mainly because it has logic as an item. I know that there’s more than a little religion in this but I’m not religious and I can only speak as I find.

I think I need to contrast these examples with the apparent beauty and lyrical dexterity of some bits of The Four Quartets. I was captivated in my late teens by these until I worked out that almost all were cynical attempts to appear profound. These three, on the other hand, are not trying too hard, are not desperate to impress but do have more than a degree of honest depth and skill.

Annotation, JavaScript and Ruby

We currently have a house guest, Chris Gutteridge, who is a web programmer at Southampton University. He’s tken an interest in the Trigons annotation project and has provided us with an additional feature / device that provides further fuel for thought. This particular device displays a box of text once the mouse or pointer is hovered over an anchored link. This has the obvious advntage of not having to click back to the poem after you’ve looked at the note at the bottom of the page. I’ve run this on sections one and two and it seems to work reasonably well.

There are however a number of issues to consider. The first of these is the amount of text that these boxes should contain. The second is whether, in order to be consistently effective, all the links in the body of the poem should be anchored rather than a ‘mix’ of external and anchored links. The third is whether users re more or less likely to click through to other pages from the box or from the bottom of the page.

In order to get my v small brain around any of this I’ve gone back to my own reading of glossed, printed texts. It seems that these fall into three broad types-

  1. those with notes at the bottom of the relevant page;
  2. those with notes at the end of a particular poem;
  3. those with notes at the bottom of the page and definitions in parentheses at the end of the relevant line.

None of these are brilliant and the last is particularly annoying. They all provide a degree of disruption to the reading process. In my limited experience, very few glozers append any indication that there is a note for a particular line- David Jones being an honourable exception. It would seem that for most the reader is expected to read with one eye and monitor the notes at the bottom of the page with the other. When the notes are placed at the back of the book / poem then the reader must keep flicking backwards and forwards or read the poem in full and then read the notes hoping that you can remember what exactly they refer to.

What this device/feature/accessory provides is an opportunity to reduce the flicking backwards and forwards and (without the visual annoyance of superscript) indicate where a note occurs.

I need to point out that this isn’t stunningly original, Wikipedia uses it for numerical superscript links that also occur at the bottom of the page whereas ‘normal’ links are used to access other pages. At the moment, we’re using it for those anchored links that are indicated as ordinary links in the body of the poem. This is primarily because I made the page before I had access to the technology rather than any kind of incisive rationale.

I like to think that this is an improvement because the box is accessed and disappears with only the movement of the cursor, the poem remains in view. Of course, now that I have this additional feature, I’m beginning to see a more uniform approach to this linking rigmarole. In Section One of “Islands, Inlands”, for example, I can see that it may be more appropriate to have “caique” defined in a box and at the bottom of the page rather than by means of a link to the relevant Wikipedia entry. In the same way, It may be less clunky (technical term) to have the initial explanation of “Zero letter” in a box which contains a brief explanation but with a link to more detailed context.

Thinking about this and looking again at the page has led me to query whether there needs to be a brief note on the pornographer that would contain a link to our ‘main’ Henry Miller page and whether I should do the same with the Durrell quote. The only problems thus far are Chris’ choice of background colour (supposedly to match the post-it hue) and that at least one box (but probably two) in section two contain too many words. This is fixable but will require additional pages. Any views of other ways to use this innovation would be very welcome. Others are free to use the script provided Chris and the university are acknowledged.

We now move on to ruby which is defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as “short runs of text alongside the base text, typically used in East Asian documents to indicate pronunciation or to provide a short annotation”. The possibilities with this are intriguing in terms of placing a definition in smaller text above the word in the poem. Currently, however, some browsers require a plug-in to display ruby and the alternative (definition in parenthesis after the word) isn’t feasible here. In an attempt to demonstrate what I mean, here’s an example which identifies the pornographer succinctly but really messes about with consistent line height. There’s also the issue of browser compatibility. I’m given to understand that this example would be rendered reasonably consistently if we all used the latest browser version – but we don’t. I would be prepared to work out the various CSS and ‘pre’ tag variations to try and solve the line height problem if I thought the browser problem was about to be resolved but I don’t and so I won’t. This is an enormous pity because the ruby spec has been around since 2001 and it seems incredible that only the chrome browser has made an attempt to render it reasonably well whilst firefox doesn’t recognize it at all.

If anyone has any suggestions for other uses of the JavaScript device then we’d be very pleased to hear from them.

Annotation, illustration and the movies

(We’ve now completed the notes to Section 4 of “Islands, Inlands”)

One of the main reasons for producing an online full text version of Trigons is the problem of the dead link. The Trigons sequence contains urls pointing to pages that expand on what’s in the text. There’s a link to a youtube clip of Myra Hess playing the Appassionata and there’s another to a page which explains how the signals in the brain can be ‘made’ into music. Both the links that appear in the Shearsman print edition are now dead so we thought that producing an online version would mean that the links could be updated as and when they passed away.

This is not something that’s an optional add on, the poem is quite insistent on the Hess clip:

but reach for something distant in confusion take a look
yourself at youtube.com/watch?v=UNlyxn2Y4 E
before you read
another word..................

In addition to these two, there are others which expand on the text and need to be maintained / updated. Having now completed the first four sections of the first Trigons poem, another element becomes apparent. One of the central events of “Islands Inlands” is the kidnap of General Kriepe on Crete by a band of Cretan partisans led by Patrick Leigh Fermor which I’ve written about before re the dangers of imposing my reading on top of John’s intention. In researching this a bit more I’ve come across a Greek television documentary where the kidnappers and their captive are reunited and Kriepe and Leigh Fermor are interviewed about this adventure. Fortunately there is a version on youtube that’s been dubbed into English so I’ve been able to link to that. I’m also in two minds about linking to “Ill met by Moonlight”, the film version based on W Stanley Moss’ book about the kidnap. At the moment I’m deciding against inclusion because it doesn’t seem to add much to “Trigons”.

I’ve found that, once you start thinking in terms of “material” rather than what’s in print you become immersed in a completely new set of possibilities, from the use of images and how they can relate to the notes and to the poem, the use of audio files for the music that’s written about in the text through to whether to flag up sources that are skewed by bias but nevertheless give a decent account of the event that the work alludes to. Another dimension that I haven’t got my brain around yet is how best to reference place names that might be obscure- I’ve linked Mt. Ida on Crete to the Google map but I can also provide images s well as geographical and geological data. I’m also very fortunate to be working with the maker of this poem and therefore I have this amalgamation of what he wants as the poet and what I want as the reader.

Whilst writing this, Zachary Bos forwarded me a quote from one G Hill on difficulty which seems pertinent to the glozing business:

I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

This is all very well but I do think there’s a difference between simplification and providing context. I’m also a little suspicious of Hill’s justifications because they change so often (“life’s difficult” “wouldn’t want to insult the intelligence of my readers”) and none of them manage to justify some of his more extreme obscurities (Bradwardine). If I thought that either John or I were trying to provide a “Trigons Lite” then I wouldn’t have started but John’s work is usually packed with real people and real places which provides plenty of scope for providing a ‘neutral’ context.

In his response to an earlier post, John quoted William Empson:

There is no longer a reasonably small field which may be taken as general knowledge. It is impertinent to suggest that the reader ought to possess already any odd bit of information one may have picked up in a field where one is oneself ignorant; such a point may be explained in a note without trouble to anybody; and it does not require much fortitude to endure seeing what you already know in a note.

One of the advantages of the interweb is that you can present information at a number of levels that enable readers to “drill down” as far as they want. Of course we choose when the bottom is reached, the current debate is about to revolve “Mr S Thalassinos” which John feels requires a short note but I’ve now found a quote which ties this fictive character to Giorgos Katsimbalis who is already mentioned in the notes which is useful to me as a reader but may be too much for the poem in terms of providing a disproportionate amount of detail.

I’ve also been trying out a number of “experiments in reading” and it now strikes me that perhaps I should make more use of links in these too. This seems especially important in the case of David Jones’ “The Anathemata” for which Jones provided his own notes as well as a number of images to accompany the text. As I’ve said before, Jones omits to gloss some of the trickier bits and some of the notes require notes of their own. I was continuing with this particular experiment earlier this week and, in order to preserve the sense of immediacy, simply referred to looking on the “interweb” to find more about some of the proper nouns. Half of me thinks that this is okay, that it’s not intended to be a gloss and that people (who want to) should be able to find the same information quite quickly whilst the other half thinks that a link expanding further on the “it’s Ossa on Pellion now” line might be useful.

As John Dillon remarked in a recent response, illustrations and comments alongside poems in manuscript form were reasonably common during the medieval period- as I’m writing I’m resisting the temptation to link to Bodleian MS Douce 104 which carries illustration to the ‘c’ text of “The VisionPiers the Plowman” – and many poets have used photography to accompany their work- Paul Muldoon’s “Plan B” springs to mind. This isn’t to say that poetry on the web should be reduced to a comic book but that it might help, for example to include in the notes an image of the kidnapped general as he is escorted across the island. It might also help to make use of google maps for Smyrna and Leros as well as Ida. I’m sure that there’s a balance to be reached in these things but I don’t think just relying on text is going to be sufficient in the very near future. For example, Trigons has many musical and musicological references which can be augmented with the relevant audio files, the issue for the glozer is whether or not these should be embedded in the page or accessed via a link in the text. I’m of the view that the latter should suffice provided that the “title” tag makes it very clear on rollover what the link leads to.

The other issue that keeps cropping up is the reliability of external sites. We’ve decided not to rely on Wikipedia articles unless we can verify the content but there are some wonderful resources now on some of the more esoteric subjects, there’s a Leigh Fermor blog that is obviously a labour of love but contains invaluable info and resources that we’ve made use of, there’s also an English language site devoted to Karaghiosis, a form of puppet theatre that we’ve obtained a pertinent quote from even though I haven’t been able to verify it.

Annotated Trigons update and further experiments in reading

For those that aren’t regulars, I’m currently collaborating with John Matthias on producing an on-line and annotated full text version of Trigons, his magnificent sequence which was published in 2010. Progress continues to be made, we now have the third section of “Islands, Inlands” (the first poem in the sequence) in a usable state together with notes to John’s headnote for the sequence as a whole. I like to think that I’m a bit clearer on the amount of information to provide and to try and rely on what I’m thinking of as primary sources (diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews etc) to expand on a theme because secondary sources dealing with Greece since 1945, for example, all seem to have a very sharp ideological axe to grind. There’s also issues of self control, I’m now of the view that the whole world should know more about Michael Ayrton and his “The Testament of Daedalus”. I could therefore write a few thousand enthusiastic words on this remarkable man but I’ve recognised that this would be serving my needs rather than those of the reader. So, Ayrton gets about the same as Miller, Seferis and Durrell.

I think I also need to say what a privilege it is to work with someone as generous and thoughtful as John on this marvellous piece of work.

Given the attention tht this project seems to be getting, I’ve had several long thoughts about arduity and have decided to cull a few of the sections (those relating to theory and lit crit etc etc) and to concentrate on poems and poets whilst retaining pages on ambiguity, meaning and allusion. The site is also in desperate need of a Big Polish in that it currently has two page formats based on completely different style sheets and I need to tweak some of my prose. In the mood for spring cleaning, I’ve now added disqus comment boxes at the bottom of the Matthias pages and will now carry this across the rest of the site. I’ve avoided the comments issue on arduity primarily because it’s technically beyond me and I’m too stubborn to use a wysiwyg editor but now I think it would be a Good Thing to have feedback at the foot of each page.

I’ve also recognised that arduity gets more traffic than this blog (4022 user sessions v 822 so far this month) and this means that the material that I think might have some value to others might be best “parked” on arduity. There are probably a number of reasons for this imbalance- people use blogs in different ways to sites with more visible navigation, the wordpress metatags aren’t very good even and this means arduity invariably beats berowed in search engine results.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m going to write about poems and poets on arduity and use this to think out loud about poetry in a less specific way. The first development will be extended “experiments in reading” being placed on arduity so that they are more visible to google and the rest. Which brings me to a thought following on from John Dillon a fortnight ago about the relationship between the gloss and the text and in what way can a gloss be said to be part of the poem. I think I’m beginning to sort out an answer to that but the interweb gives us another dimension in that we now have comments on the gloss that the reader can chose to integrate into his or her reading.
I’ll try and give an example, the experiements in reading are an attempt to inject a greater sense of immediacy into my readings with a view to encouraging a wider readership and to get some feedback/help with regard to the tricky stuff.

By way of illustration, a week ago I posted an experiment re the first few pages of “The Anathemata” which drew this comment:

I just have a quick point about the opening prayer. The prayer is the Quam Oblationem. According to some theologians, it is an epiklesis whereby the celebrant prays that God will send down the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the body and blood. One of the theologians who ascribed to that reading and who sees it as the actual beginning of the Consecration is Maurice de la Taille. In that sense, then, The Ana’s opening prayer acts as DJ’s invocation of the muse ( and quite a number of other things).

I’m of the view that this belongs in the body of my text as well at the bottom of the page because it enhances understanding and provides context that I don’t have. So, I will be asking permission to do incorporate this into the text in a way that acknowledges the source but is nevertheless part of the work.

This isn’t a clarion call for the “open” gloss whereby everybody can contribute what ever they want but it certainly does give another dimension that we should think about. The other dimesnion is where the speculation about meaning becomes part of the gloss. I’ve now written 2 x 1,000 word experiments on Keston Sutherland’s “The Odes” and there’s been a couple of enhanced speculations with regard to the depilated Janine:

Since we’re speculating … a (carefully circumscribed) internet search brought up adult film actress Janine Lindemulder. I’ll leave it to someone else to confirm her depilation, but the reference seems to fit with a recurring theme/trope of the poem; it also obviously adds another semantic valence to much of the quoted passage. Couldn’t decide if your ‘nagging’ doubt was about this line of inquiry, so I’ll tastelessly broach it for you.

I responded by suggesting that Alasdair Gray’s “Janine 1982” was more likely. Here’s the response:

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Damn, I like yours better, and have another book to read to boot. How can something be “hereafter congenital” for said textual/sexual Janine, assuming all her kidding is prophylactically voided? I’m tempted to go ‘full Prynne’ and trace congenital back to its conquest of of ‘congenial.’ Now that’s what over-reading would look like.

I’m of the view that this exchange should occur just after I first mention the prospect of “tackling” Janine. Then yesterday something else was thrown into the mix:

You’ve got me thinking about ‘congenitally depilated’. The word ‘congenitally’ contains the word ‘genitally’, so this could partially resolve to ‘genitally depilated’. Genitals and the word and the word do crop up elsewhere in the poem. This would certainly fit with the porn star reading. That still leaves ‘congenitally’. In line with the poem’s larger (troubling? important? brave?) preoccupation with childhood sexuality, I read ‘congenitally’ as collapsing the state of nature at birth into the infantilising and fashionable aversion to pubic hair among adults (not just porn stars), but here the aversion is inverted and to depilation and it’s that that’s defective. This is somewhat troubling, or at least challenging. I would justify the apparent awkwardness/senselessness of ‘hearafter’ as picking up on this temporal confusion. It also strikes me that if ‘congenitally’ can become ‘con genitally’, maybe ‘hereafter’ can be taken as ‘here after’, but I don’t know how much that helps. If it’s congenital it’s congenital from birth but in a different, artificial way, “always already” congenital in adulthood?

I think reading both of the above, it is important that when people have put some thought into things and expressed those thoughts with such clarity that they should be given a more prominent/noticeable place in the gloss.

There’s also a more precise reading:

‘aboriginal mucus’ thought of as an original inhabitant; impeccable darkness as opposed to the mere absence of light.

My unscrewed head is like a bulb in the palm of my hand. Certain kinds of ‘truths burn out and fly away’ for as long as it’s not connected to a Ground⏚

Ground is where the ‘stack of basements’ are
elevated; inundated in impeccable darkness.

My freezer has a freezer light. It’s behind a ‘grainy
blank’. Blank is another word for a cover or a plate.
I wonder what it would be like if all the world were like the contents of my freezer and only ever seen under that light. A ‘prophylactic void…’?

The etymology of Janine is the same as it is for John, John, but to take the etymological truth of Janine as gospel would be like removing the hair at birth. Are burnt out truths like hairs pulled out of your head one at a time?

I think you are onto something John. Probably something to do with the intersection between carrying secrets and burning out.

Which I need to find a place for. Of course, this wholesale lifting needs to be agreed with the writer before I move it but I do think that it’s a dimension that’s woth pursuing.

The annotated Trigons: an update.

Given the interest in this project, I thought I’d provide a weekly (ish) summary of progress made. The first section of “Islands, inlands” has now been completed and we’ve agreed a working template for the navigation which might prove to last at least another few weeks.

I think we’re still exploring what can be done with the interweb and the possibilities beyond print. I think we both started with a concern not to either ‘explain’ nor to provide too much context. This has been ameliorated by realising the obvious – users don’t have to follow links if they don’t want to and therefore can control the extent of the context that they may need. I wouldn’t need to know about Miller or Durrell, for example, but would need some background on Seferis.

Of course, as well as writers, there’s the foreign names and words, the first section has “Karaghiosis” who is the main character of Greek shadow puppet theatre. I’ve provided a brief explanation, one relevant quote and am about to link to the most relevant and comprehensive site that I can find but I need JM to point me towards the relevant passage about raising the dead in “Prospero’s Cell”.

This also throws up the question of whose poem this is. I haven’t yet worked this out but I’ve come across material that seems to be a direct source but isn’t. There’s an interview with Seferis where he describes meeting Durrell and Miller and then goes on to recount Miller’s generosity in giving him his diary- the first draft of what was to be published as “The Colossus of Massouri” which is one of the poem’s main source text. This anecdote has no bearing on “Islands, inlands” and readers don’t need it to gain full understanding of the poem. I’m however of the view that it’s a lovely story and indiciative of the spirit of bohemian solidarity in thirties Europe that Seferis describes. So, the quote about the diary goes in on account of loveliness and the solidarity remark will only be gleaned by those that can be bothered to follow the link and read the interview in full. I think this underlines the ownership issue in a collaboration- I’ve put this in and John has approved its inclusion but it wasn’t in his head when he wrote the poem. I’ve also quoted Seferis on 20th century Hellenism because I think I’d like readers to draw the line that John alludes to when he says that:

The Old War in question is, of course, WW II, though it is not accidental that the first poem in the sequence deals with a Greek setting in that conflict:

I’ve decided that it would be inappropriate to overtly ‘develop’ that remark but am attempting to do this by stealth- as with the Kreipe kidnap problem discussed last week- providing quotes re Miller and Greece as a “continuous process” and linking to Seferis on the Colonels’ Junta:

Everyone has been taught and knows by now that in the case of dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy, but tragedy awaits, inevitably, in the end. The drama of this ending torments us, consciously or unconsciously — as in the immemorial choruses of Aeschylus. The longer the anomaly remains, the more the evil grows.

In terms of the interweb, the possibilities for adding breadth and depth are enormous especially as the quality of content is improving. Of course there are still the recurring anxieties about bias but I’ve been struck by the absence of balance in some of the well-established bastions: the Wikipedia article on Durrell seems much more judicious than the almost hagiographic DNB entry.

We now come to the link colour problem. Many, many years ago when I started building content pages on welfare benefits, there was an accepted way to ‘do’ links that everybody followed. This is no longer the case and I hve gone through a number of phases in either going with the flow towards greater variation or in maintaining blind adherence to the original on the grounds that It Still Works. The current arduity style sheet, for example is the product of extensive dithering undertaken last year on another project and is obviously in need of further dither. I may be wrong but I’d like not to disrupt the ‘flow’ of the line with too great a contrast in colour from black to blue to red and I’m thinking of getting rid of the roll-over, colour swap device that seemed cool when the Guardian did it but clearly isn’t. I did think of just using the underline to indicate a link and thus retain the consistency in colour but this would then confuse those parts of the text that are underlined in print with the links. So, before we go any further I think I need to have an extended play with the light blues and reds.

Then there’s the even thornier issue of link density, the first section is 16 lines and there are 9 links which is probably excessive but I’d rather put more rather than less in at this stage. I haven’t linked “the pornographer” but have relied on JM’s note which links to a fuller profile of Miller. I’ve done it this way because I reckon most readers will connect Miller to Paris and pornography (I did) and have been more direct on the Smyrna Consul because I originally thought that this may refer to Durrell. I thought about explaining that “The Tempest” refers to the play but instead hoped that most readers would gather this for themselves, I’ve used the Durrell profile to attribute this suggestion to him.

As a reader, I know I’ll interrupt my reading to check out words and names that aren’t familiar and this nealy always entails the interweb which can be both distracting and (sometimes) wrong. I’m therefore trying to provide anchored links to brief definitions at the bottom of the page which then link to more relevnt detail.

In terms of navigation, we now have a Trigons home page which gives a brief introduction and overview but I think I’m now of the view that we might need a separate home page for each of the poems- these could be built around John’s original notes. This might take to some time to agree- I’m finding that information architecture is quite difficult to do when the other person isn’t in the same room and there’s the fact that there are other components in the sequence.

On a personal note, John keeps on gently pushing me towards writers that I would otherwise ignore. This process started three years ago with David Jones and has now moved on to Seferis and Michael Ayrton whose “The Testament of Daedalus” I have now acquired and is awaiting some attention- the Collected Seferis is on it’s way. There’s also a bit of a debate under way as to how much detail we should give on Erik Lindegren…

John Matthias, annotation and collaboration

First of all, the three volumes of John Matthias’ Collected Poems have now been published by Shearsman and must be read by all those of us who value intelligent and exhilarating verse. What isn’t in these three volumes is the remarkable ‘Trigons‘ which John nevertheless regards as part of his collected work.

I’ve been writing about John’s work here and on arduity for the last three years primarily because he makes the technically difficult look effortless and because he provokes thoughts in quite a startling way. The great Guy Davenport said that John is “one of the best poets in the USA” and nobody with any sense could disagree with that.

John and I have corresponded over the last three years and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude both for his support and for introducing me to the magnificent work of David Jones.

We’ve been talking about ‘Trigons’ for the last year or so and about the complex business of annotation. John has provided a set of notes on Trigons for a poetics seminar earlier this year and we’ve now agreed to collaborate on expanding these into an annotated on-line edition of the poem.

The purpose of this blog is to think aloud about what annotation/glozing might be about. I’m reasonably particular about what I feel that I need in that I’d rather references were over rather than under explained but I don’t need notes that state the bleeding obvious and ignore some of the obscurities that I need help with. I’m also aware that increased familiarity with the text leads to a proportionally increasing impatience with the notes. Having acknowledged this I then assumed that this particular poem would be relatively straightforward given the plethora of real people and events and that the only real difficulties would be the use of musicology and neuroscience.

I now have to report that I was wrong. I’ve only started on the first section of the first poem in the sequence and have hit a number of complications. The first relates to familiarity. The first part of Trigons I relates to Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller on Crete and Patrick Leigh Fermor on Corfu. Now, I assumed that most readers would be reasonably familiar with Miller and Durrell but might need some help with Leigh Fermor. My focus group tells me that this may not be the case: Miller gets confused with Arthur; Durrell gets confused with Gerald and nobody has even heard of Leigh Fermor. I’m prepared to accept that this particular focus group isn’t packed with poetry fans but they all read fiction, are intelligent yet only one can name works by Miller and Durrell- both of whom are best known as novelists.

What I didn’t know until I read John’s notes was that Durrell had written ‘Prospero’s’ Cell’, an account of his time on Corfu, and that Miller wrote ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, an account of his time as a guest of Durrell’s. Delving a bit deeper I’ve come across a Paris Review interview with Miller where he says he considers ‘The Colossus’ to be his finest work because “the Colossus was written from some other level of my being. What I like about it is that it’s a joyous book, it expresses joy, it gives joy”. Needless to say I’ve now started to read this and have placed a pdf of it on arduity for download. In ‘Prospero’s Cell’ Durrell suggests that Corfu may have been the setting for ‘The Tempest’ – I can’t find a copy of this on the web but the advantage of working with the poet is that I can always ask him for the exact reference if we think it’s needed.

I’ve also acknowledged to myself that I don’t like Durrell as either a writer or as a man and that I need to keep this prejudice out of the note whilst tempering my enthusiasm for all things Miller.

The next problem is a little more difficult to resolve. In 1943 Leigh Fermor led a group of English and Cretan resistance fighters to kidnap the German General Kriepe, an event that John refers to in some detail. Now there are three views about this adventure:

  1. that it was a heroic act in the brave campaign against the German occupiers;
  2. that it was a foolish act that achieved nothing except the death of civilian victims of the ensuing German reprisals;
  3. that it had nothing to do with the Germans but was a less than subtle attempt to ensure that the reprisals were inflicted on villages controlled by the communists.

Although I wasn’t aware of the Kriepe kidnapping, I did know about the murky role of the British in both the Greek resistance and the postwar Greek civil war. I also knew that the Greek left have been particularly vituperative about this ever since. The poem goes on to make mention of the Colonel’s coup (1967-74) and the torture of dissidents that took place on an epic scale during those years. I therefore made the assumption that some reference was being made to the essentially tragic nature of Greek politics since 1945. This isn’t actually the case – which leads to this dilemma- how much of the above do you provide and how much do you leave out? The temptation is not to comment on anything other than the facts and link to a more detailed account but each of these accounts unsurprisingly takes one of the above lines and trashes the other two. I think we’ve agreed that I’m going to provide a factual note that mentions the three main theories but only observes that the SOE decided to ditch the communist resistance in the months prior to the kidnap. I think we’re both happy to leave any over-reading (resistance – civil war – coup -Euro fiasco – rise of the extreme right (again)) to the attentive reader.

With regard to collaboration, our current modus operandi seems to work because we’re both enjoying the process and I think it helps that we’re both exploring what can and can’t be done with the internet re glozing. I’m also incredibly grateful that I have the poet to keep my wilder fantasies in check.

This is the incomplete first part of our efforts, it’s very much in draft form but I’d be immensely grateful for feedback as things progress.

Pennsound’s Matthias page has the man himself reading from Trigons and other works.

Poetry as History

The title is a deliberate inversion of the Geoffrey Hill poem published in ‘King Log’ in 1968. In that collection there is a sequence entitled ‘Funeral Music’ and at the back of the collection Hill has placed a short ‘essay’ on the sequence and the Wars of the Roses. There’s also a similar note at the end of ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy which gives a clear account of Peguy’s life and death.

I’ll get on to what Hill says shortly but the purpose of this is to consider the doing of history as a function of poetry. There are two or three ways to think about this:

  • poems that are about or are set in the historical past;
  • poems that comment on or are about contemporary public rather than personal issues which then serve as part of the historical ‘record’;
  • poems that consciously bear witness and/or memorialise those who have died.

About now I need to declare an interest, in that I am keen on history and enjoy reading serious history which is written by grown up historians. In the UK at the moment we have a number of exceptionally gifted historians who are a joy to read and this is what I do when I’m not reading poetry. I say this to make it clear that I have a bias but I hope what follows will that many of our more accomplished poets do the historical past in a way that adds to the record rather than simply embellish it.

The brilliant David Jones wrote about his personal past in the Battle of the Somme in ‘In Parenthesis’ and provided accounts of different periods in ‘The Anathemata’. In his preface to ‘The Anathemata’, Jones provides a succinct reading of the relationship between poetry and history:

I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product.

I think this is entirely sensible in that language itself is caught up and mired in the clutter and detritus of the past and it can be argued that this is why language can never be neutral and is always compromised. With this in mind, I’m going to look at how modernist poets have explored their relationship with the past.

Charles Olson and ‘Maximus’

Olson’s relationship with the past works on several levels. To start with ‘Maximus’ has the town of Glocester at its centre and Olson tells the story of the town from when it was first settled to the second half of the twentieth century. In order to tell this story, Olson makes extensive use of archival records and some of these are reproduced verbatim. He also interweaves myth and mythical figures into the sequence whilst having running argument about the best way to do history, taking the side of Herodotus instead of the less fanciful Thucydides. Olson was greatly influenced by A N Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ which (amongst many other things) questions our current thinking about the relationship between the present and the past, an interrogation undertaken with great skill in ‘Maximus’.

I want to give two examples, the first is the second half of ‘Letter 23’:

What we have here - and literally in my own front yard, as I said to Merk,
asking what delving, into "fisherman's field" recent historians......
not telling him it was a poem I was interested in, aware I'd scare him
off, muthologos has lost much ground since Pindar

The oldish man sd: "Poesy
steals away men's judgement
by her muthoi"(taking this crack
as Homer's sweet-versing)

"and a blind heart
is most men's portions." Plato

allowed this divisive
thought to stand, agreeing

that muthos
is false. Logos
isn't - was facts. Thus
Thucydides.

I would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking
for oneself for the evidence of
what is said: Altham says
Winslow
Was at Cape Ann in April,
1624

What we have in these fields in these scraps among these fishermen,
and the Plymouth men, is more than the fight of one colony with
another, it is the whole engagement against (1) mercantilism
(cf. the Westcountrymen and Sir Edward Coke against the crown,
in Commons, these same years - against Gorges); and (2) against
nascent capitalism except as it says the individual adventurer
and the worker on share - against all sliding statism, ownership
getting in to, the community as, Chamber of Commerce, or theocracy;
or City Manager

I think this shows how focused Olson was on ‘doing’ what we think of as the historical path in a new and challenging way. I am of the view that ‘Maximus’ is one of the towering acheivements of the twentieth century for all kinds of reasons but mostly because it manages to do justice to enormously complex subjects in a deceptively straightforward manner so that the reader does not appreciate at the time just how much is going on. Here we’ve got the suitablity/reliability of poetry as a means of doing history, the reasons why the doing of history might have taken a particular course and Olson’s preference for ‘the evidence of / what is said” before a detailed example of how this might be applied to Gloucester together with the working out of one aspect of the Whitehead thesis.

Before we get on to the next Olson example, it may be worthwhile to consider what poets hope to achieve by giving voice to their relationship with the past. Is the making of such a poem akin to the creation of a monument? Is it a signature or a trace amongst many of the same thing? Are we meant to be educated or informed, is there a didactic purpose behind the new configuration of the past? Or might it simply be the need to tell a story and to have that story be heard as story? I think what I’m trying to identify is what poetry adds to the past and now I’ll have a look at the role of the archive in Maximus. This is from one of the later poems in the sequence from July 1968:

Only
one such possible person so named at sd date wld
be her son Henry's mother - and therefore
Margaret Cannock herself. John Josselyn's
Sister-in law & hostess Black Point 1671
[just before the Indian attack, 1676, after which
no further record* of Henry, or of Margaret his
wife until

*not true. He died, Pemaquid, 1683.

this strange message out either
Upper Cheery or of Gee Avenue itself, that

The references to and quotes from the local archive recur throughout the sequence which was written over twenty years and indicates that Olson was prepared to demonstrate and put into practice his view about how history should be done. As someone who has spent many happy hours with the archive, I am fascinated by Olson’s use/appropriation of primary sources and his confidence in spelling out his practice throughout Maximus.

I’m sure that many people would argue that Olson was an anachronism and that his archival verse hasn’t actually led anywhere. This may be so but there are other important poets who have done the past as a way of ‘informing’ the present.

John Matthias

I could write for a very long time about Matthias because he is one of the five most accomplished poets currently at work with the English language. He does several things very, very well but I ammost attracted to his work that focuses on aspects of the past because he manages to modify and intensify our historical consciousness. I’ll try and explain this a bit further- we all have some notion of various periods in the past and for the English terms like ‘Elizabethan’ or ‘Enlightenment’ conjure up a specific group of images and thoughts about what things might have been like during the time that those phrases refer to.

I’ve written before about ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestos’, ‘Kedging in Time’ and the ‘Trigons’ sequence but now I’d like to use them try and demonstrate the ways in which my sense of certain terms have gained greater depth. I like to think of ‘Laundry Lists’ as an extended riff on the sadness of the list throughout history. This is the third poem in the sequence;

We have the record of the stranger's deeds, his wily ways,
His journey home when washed and dressed and
celebrated at the court of Alcinous. We have the history of
Abram's offspring after Babel. But Shem and Ham and Japheth,
Gomer, Jadai, Gavan, Tuval, Meshech, Tiras, Riphath,
Togarmah and many others on the J & P lists might as well be
Coat and tie and shirt and trousers on the one Nausicaa left at home
That floats up on a foreign shore right now.
Of Nausicaa little else is known (though more has been
surmised.) She went on with her wash.
Zeus and Yahweh went on to become Suprematists
(The empty squares of cities not, as Kasimir Malevich
Was to say, mere empty squares.)

Here we have Homer, the Old Testament and post revolutionary Russia lightly woven together so have cause to think again about these three reference points. The poem does many things but in particular but it takes a number of these points and ‘re-works’ them in surprising ways to the point where my way of thinking about them has changed which is odd because my thoughts about and notions of the past are fairly fixed.

The same effect is achieved with ‘Kedging’ which is presented as a tribute to Matthias’ mother-in-law but is also a very astute take on what could be called our national consciousness in the early part of the last century. Briefly the terms that I’ve had to modify are ‘Casement’, ‘Scapa Flow’, ‘music hall’ ‘Hitchcock’ and ‘John Buchan’ as well as ‘code breaking’ (which is one of the most durable myths that we like to tell ourselves.) All of these are presented with great skill and intelligence with a refreshingly different scrutiny. It’s also a poem that seems to be burying itself deeper into my head.

‘Trigons’ is a longer and perhaps more ambitious sequence about cognition and perception but featuring specific times and places during the last century, Corfu in the late thirties and during WWII, London during the Blitz, Berlin, Moscow, Paris in 68, California all of which offer us a mostly musical / literary take on the century but also use aspects of each location to say something deeper about place and the passing of time.

Incidentally, here’s a chapter from the ‘Salt Companion to John Matthias’ which is a very perceptive analysis of the role of music in the work. It’s good to see that Matthias is beginning to get the attention that his work deserves.

Geoffrey Hill

Hill does history oddly, the most obvious candidates for poems as history would be ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’. The first of these is written in the voice of Offa and is partly set in early medieval Mercia but also flits in and out of the present. It is brilliant, one of the most important poems since 1945 but I’m not entirely sure that Hill is doing history here, it seems more likely that he’s doing key aspects of the nation and the inherently violent structuring of power.

‘Charles Peguy’ is described as “my homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat'” and this is much more directly historical but only in the sense of providing context. This is the opening of the ninth poem in the sequence:

There is an ancient landscape of green branches-
true temperament de droite, you have your wish-
crosshatching twigs and light, goldfinches
among the peppery lilac, the small fish

pencilled into the stream. Ah, such a land
the Ile de France once was. Virelai and horn
wind through the meadows, the dawn masses sound
fresh triumphs for our Saviour crowned with scorn.

Hill would argue that he isn’t attempting to do history but he is still a historical poet by which I think I mean that particular elements of the past are almost soaked into all of the poetry. Hill’s academic expertise lies in 16th and 17th century England and there are recurring personalities and events referred to in almost every publication- the first and second world wars, the fate of the Jews during WWII, religious martyrs (especially Robert Southwell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). There is a didactic feel to some of this but the history that Hill does is about providing context to what he has to say rather than adjusting our view of the past. ‘The Triumph of Love’ which is as brilliant as the Offa sequence is about our moral and spiritual recovery after the two world wars (hence the title) but it is much more about the nature of our moral landscape than about those terrible events.

I’m not sure that I’ve got very far with this other than to demonstrate the nature of some of the attachments that poets have to the “mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product”. In the near future I’ll give some thought to the role of poet as a maker of the historical record with specific reference to Jones, Spenser, Milton and Marvell.