Tag Archives: Wordsworth’s philosophic song

George Herbert, Simon Jarvis and the Poetic Blurt.

I’d like to start with this-

Here ‘truth’ may be, not what is arrived at when all error shall have been
deleted, but what gets blurted out when the usual defences are down.

and this-

What that blurting-out might
mean in poetry could be, for example, a moment at which a loss of
control over a language which it is precisely the poet’s art to master, to
turn into an instrument, appears to testify to some specific emotional or
intellectual (and necessarily and quite trivially material, historical and
particular) pressure which makes that instrumentalism break down.

These are both from the introduction to Jarvis’ “Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song” which is the only part that I’ve actually bothered to read so I may be about to do him a terrible wrong but this ‘blurting’ notion has stuck in my brain for a while and has just come to the fore when dealing with the blurts of George Herbert.

Some poets seem to follow me around. I read Prynne’s recent work on ‘Love III’ because it was Prynne rather because it was about Herbert. I then shelved Herbert away in my brain and got on with other stuff. Some time later I started to be impressed by Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and this caused me to thin about sorrowful gods and kenosis and the early church fathers. Whilst getting annoyed by the book about the late Tudor Sonneteers I came across ‘The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England’ by Gary Kuchar which is very good and quite absorbing for me because it deals with Kenosis in the early 17th century and the way in which Herbert and others dealt with the issues around the crucifixion. This then made me read more of Herbert and then became so intrigued that bought his English Poems edited by Helen Wilcox (this is the one that Prynne uses).

IBefore going any further I think I need to make clear that I’m of the view that the evidence for the existence of God is very weak indeed but I am also impatient with Richard Dawkins’ fervent brand of positivist and strident atheism. So I like to think of myself as a reasonable atheist. This does not stop me being drawn to religious poetry, indeed I’m of the view that God poems are some of the most successful in the language because poetry seems really effective at expressing struggles with faith.

So I begin to pay attention to Herbert and come across what I would describe as a number of ‘blurts’ i.e. points where the poet forgets about making poetic sense and blurts out something felt as well as thought. I then re-read the Jarvis introduction and found that he uses this example from Wordsworth to illustrate what he’s talking about:

Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
The Godhead’s most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face:
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds;
And Fragrance in thy footing treads
Thou dost preserve the Stars from wrong;
And the most ancient Heavens through Thee are fresh and strong.

Which is apparently from ‘Poems in Two Volumes’ published in 1807. Jarvis points out that similar sentiments had been expressed by Kant and can therefore be thought of as philosophical. Some may consider this to be debatable but he is correct when identifying the last two lines as a blurt par excellence. For a start there’s the sheer oddness of the idea of the stars doing wrong and the heavens being ‘fresh and strong.’ At the time of publication these two lines came in for heavy criticism as being inept and Jarvis points out the metrical damage done by the lenght of the last line. Keston Sutherland has also written about Wordsworth and ‘wrong’ poetry using two lines from ‘The Thorn as an example.’ I think it is reasonable to suggest that Jarvis’ example could also be seen as ‘wrong’.

George Herbert is different on several points, the most obvious being that he is ‘doing’ theology and his relationship with God rather than philosophy. It can be argued that theology isn’t about absolute or empirical truth in the way that philosophy but this ignores the fact that in the 17th century the existence of God was a universally accepted truth and that religious truth was the subject of very public and rigorous debate.

Herbert did ambiguity and paradox really well and for the most part his poems are consistent in form and theme. I’d like to quote from ‘The Thanksgiving’ because I think it’s where two blurts occur:

Shall I be scourged, flouted, boxed, sold?
Tis but to tell the tale is told.
My God, my God, why dost thou part from me?
Was such a grief as cannot be.

This is how the poem ends:

Thy art of love, which I’le turn back on thee,
O my deare Saviour, Victorie!
Then for thy passion–I will do for that–
Alas my God, I know not what.

Neither of these blurts are philosophical truths but they can (should) be thought of as expressions of both personal inadequacy and theological truth. Wilcox glosses the first example as “Implies both the impossibility of such extreme grief and the absolute impossibility of imitating it.” which is entirely reasonable but I’d also like to add the ‘truth’ that some things relating to Christ are impossible for us to comprehend but are nevertheless understood by God. This failure to comprehend or respond is also expressed as a blurt in the final line. Last lines are important because they linger in the memory and serve to underline the ‘point’ of the poem but this line is saying nothing other than that some things cannot even be thought about. So, is this blurt signify a loss of control over language because of some emotional or intellectual pressure as Jarvis suggests? They are both responses to pressure but the statement that they both make about some godly things being beyond our comprehension and expression constitutes a degree of intent that is perhaps missing in Wordsworth.
Incidentally, Wlicox commits the sin of glossing things that I don’t need explaining and glides effortlessly over those that I do. This is annoying as Herbert is one of our finest poets.

Poetry and the Scope of Philosophy

“to write in ignorance and without regard for the philosophical horizon, a horizon punctuated, gathered together or dispersed by the words that delimit it, is necessarily to write with facile complacency (the literature of elegance and good taste). Hölderlin, Mallarmé, so many others, do not allow us this.”

This is a continuation of the ‘scope of poetry’ piece that was posted a couple of weeks ago. The above is a quote from Maurice Blanchot in “The Writing of the Disaster” translated by the wonderful Ann Smock. Regular readers will know that I’ve been having a battle entirely in my own head with Simon Jarvis’ view on poetry and philosophy. In the broadest terms, Jarvis is of the view that poetry is good at ‘doing’ philosophy and that constraints of metre and rhyme can be beneficial in this regard. In the recent past I’ve taken the view that poetry shouldn’t attempt to do philosophy and that the two should be kept separate. I have held to this because I think the Jarvis position tries to make poetry grander and more powerful than it actually is.

Blanchot is a staggeringly brilliant writer and ‘The Writing of the Disaster’ is his most staggering work and I’ve been carrying it around all this year more because of the political implications of how he expands on Levinas and our responsibility for the other rather than his literary endeavours. The notion of writing with ‘regard for the philosophical horizon’ seems to me much more reasonable than the idea of poetry producing philosophy. I’m not entirely clear that to write without regard for philosophy will inevitably lead to ‘facile complacency’ but I am happy to concede that important poetry is made in part as a response to aspects of the philosophical horizon. Both Prynne and Celan have more than a little regard towards Martin Heidegger and Prynne’s long standing admiration for the work of Merleau Ponty can be seen as an integral component of his practice. I would argue that both are more about responding and actualising philosophical thought rather than creating it.
In one of my glibber moments I expressed the view that poetry is better at doing theology than philosophy. I now need to modify this because I’m no longer clear where the difference lies. 20th century Jewish philosophers like Buber and Levinas have both managed to ride both ‘horses’ at once and in doing so have incorporated theology into philosophy and vice versa. This matters to poetry because Celan referred to Buber as his ‘master’ whilst also being an avid and attentive reader of Heidegger.
I now want to return to the Jarvis argument in a little more detail. I’ll begin with a confession- I haven’t read ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ except for the introduction. My excuses are as follows:

  • I don’t like Wordsworth;
  • Life is too short;
  • I have read and continue to read Jarvis’ own philosophic songs with some degree of attention;
  • The arguments with regard to metre seem too complex for my small brain;
  • There are many other books competing for my attention.

Really rather feeble I know but I reconcile my self with having listened to last year’s lecture and the fact that I’ve read the introduction more than once. In that introduction Jarvis quotes approvingly from a letter written by Wordsworth on the process of doing philosophy by means of poetry:

When in his character of Philosophical Poet, having thought of Morality as implying in its essence voluntary obedience, and producing the effect of order, he transfers, in the transport of imagination, the law of Moral to physical Natures and, having contemplated, through the medium of that order, all modes of existence as subservient to one spirit, concludes his address to the power of Duty in the following words . . .

Jarvis is right to emphasise “in the transport of imagination” as the key element here in describing how one of our greatest poets thought that this should be done and is also correct in saying that the above provides a recipe that allows poets to go where philosophers can’t. My fundamental question is whether this transference produces philosophic poetry or whether it results in an odd hybrid which fails to do either poetry or philosophy very well.

I’ve recently written about ‘F subscript zero’ and intend to do so again in the near future. In that piece I was critical of Jarvis’ polemic against Derrida. I don’t intend to repeat myself here but I do feel the need to quote the rest of the passage as an example of neither being done very well. The first two lines begin with a tick but the html for such an entity is too complex for my non-technical head:

not know left from right
hung for a sheep as lamb = immanent critique
since every break must bridge
in this One atheology what is
in truth as different as life from death

I obviously don’t know enough about Adorno to wax lyrical on the significance of “immanent critique” in this particular context except to say that I don’t think it works as poetry. I’ve already said what I think about the philosophic ‘argument’ and I think this section tries to ride both horses but fails. I still think however that the poem is important and one that we should all pay a little more attention to.

I’d like to turn again to the Blanchot quote and reiterate his point about ‘having regard’ to philosophy which I think poetry does and the best poetry operates with the philosophic horizon in mind but Blanchot is not suggesting that poetry should attempt to become philosophical in the way that Jarvis and Wordsworth suggest. The use of scope in my title is intended to echo the scope of poetry, just as we stand within the scope of verse so poetry stands in the scope of philosophy but it also stands in the scope of love and desire and many other phenomena which stand outside philosophy’s versions truth and fundamental knowledge.

I’d like to finish with a quote from Celan’s notes which for me, as a reader and practitioner, provides a much more accurate picture of what poetry has the potential to be about:

that’s why the poem, in its being and not through its subject matter first – it is a school of true humanity: it teaches to understand the other as the other, i.e. in its otherness, it demands brotherliness with respect before this other, in turning towards this other, even where the other appears as the hook-nosed and misshapen – in no way almond-eyed- accused by the “staight-nosed”…

The poem as a school of humanity which teaches understanding of the other in its otherness, I may have read too much Levinas of late but this strikes me as a much more accurate and relevant notion of what good poetry can and should be about.

Incidentally, Gillian Rose and Pierre Bourdieu have provided much wittier and more telling critiques of Derrida. In prose.

Getting distracted by Simon Jarvis

‘The Unconditional’ should come with a number of warnings. Barque should tell prospective purchasers that the experience of reading this poem will leave them fundamentally disconcerted and that the effort of sustaining concentration will probably prevent all but the most determined getting to the last page. There should also be a separate warning for those with a tendency to mania which states that this will only feed the hunger for distraction.

I’ve had five attempts at ‘The Unconditional’ to date and have never got past page 40 (did I mention that it’s very, very long?), the reason for this is that on each occasion I become scared that I’ve missed something and have returned eagerly to the beginning. On about attempt three I decided that I shouldn’t get bogged down in the use of brackets because that may become apparent further into the poem. I then re-read all of the critical responses to the poem and found (again) that these didn’t really match the inherent weirdness of what I was reading. I also downloaded ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ from the now defunct aaaarg site and skimmed though a few pages.

Others have waxed at length on the theoretical and technical aspects of the work so I won’t do that. I want instead to concentrate on the use of language and on the use of rhyme. ‘The Unconditional’ is a song in that it uses regular metre and rhyme to say complex and difficult things. 9 times out of 10 this works and it works reasonably well although I’m not at all sure why the rhyming lines stop and start. The use of language is reasonably straightforward, there are characters and things happen- “as =x first climbed the stairs and then climbed down / backwards from Eden with no smile or frown / breaking the clench of composited teeth / incompetent to choose help or relief…” as can be seen, events move slowly but in interesting ways. With regard to big words, there’s currently one word per page that I’m having to look up which  isn’t to great a hardship but it does disrupt the flow.

Further distraction came along with the arrival of ‘Prosody as cognition’ on my hard drive which turns out to be a spirited defence of the central place of prosody in the face of many attempts to pronounce it redundant. The poem ends with a note which starts “This poem is metrical” and then goes on to give an indication of how the main protagonist’s name (=x) may be pronounced. Re-reading the first bit of  ‘Philosophic Song’ I came across this-

“It might mean, not that philosophy gets fitted into a song – where all the thinking is done by philosophy It might mean, not that philosophy gets fitted into a song – where all the thinking is done by philosophy and only the handiwork by verse – but that the song itself, as song, is philosophic. It might mean that a different kind of thinking happens in verse – that instead of being a sort of thoughtless ornament or reliquary for thinking, verse is itself a kind of cognition, with its own resistances and difficulties…… it would be philosophic song precisely in so far as driven – by the felt need to give utterance to non-replicable singular experiences in the collectively and historically cognitive form of verse – to obstruct, displace or otherwise change the syntax and the lexicons currently available for the articulation of such experience”.

I quote this at length because I think it sets out the rationale for ‘The Unconditional’ as philosophic song and because it makes some key points, I particularly like the “felt need to give utterance to non-replicable singular experiences” because I think it encapsulates what poetry is about. I’m not sure that ‘The Unconditional” succeeds in its ambition but I shall start it again with a renewed interest and a determination to get past page 40. Did I mention that it’s 239 pages long?