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Monthly Archives: January 2018

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

A new critical account of the poems of George Oppen is invariably a delight; the arrival of such an intelligent and closely argued text as Xavier Kalck’s has turned out to be is something more.
In his introduction Kalck points to Oppen’s poems “as remarkably readable compositions, which are only elusive if one chooses not to listen to their specific formal characteristics”. He then outlines one of his major concerns:

“The first objective of this book is therefore the exemplification of a new methodology, based on new readings of Oppen’s poems. Bearing in mind that dysfunction often really shows function, I plead for a critical shift toward prosody as interpretive pragmatics.”

We are presented time and again with close critical analysis that reminds one of what it means to read with an engaged concern for what the poet is presenting. As a result we can both see and hear how Oppen builds a song from the common – though shattered – resources of language. The blurb on the back of this new book recognises an aspect of what Kalck has achieved:

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace offers the first survey of the critical consensus which has now built up around the poetry of George Oppen, after over two decades of substantial interest in his work. It proposes a comprehensive perspective on Oppen and the criticism devoted to Oppen, from the Objectivist strain in American poetry to the thinkers, such as Heidegger, Levinas, Marx and Adorno, which critics have brought to bear on Oppen’s poetry, to pave the way for the consideration and exemplification of a new methodology which sheds a critical light on the ideas and practices in contemporary poetics, through well-researched close readings.”

And there we have it! What makes this book so important is not only the wide range of its focus and its placing of Oppen’s work within a background of substantial twentieth-century thought but also the fact that it takes one back time and again to the words on the page: we are offered an approach to POETRY .
When Michael Davidson edited the New Collected Poems for New Directions in 2002 he had referred to Oppen’s method of working, whittling and refining his poems “into tough, recalcitrant lyrics that would endure the test of time.” After the publication of Discrete Series, a short volume from the Objectivist Press in 1934, Oppen did not produce a second book of poems until 1962 when The Materials was published by New Directions and the San Francisco Review. Some of the poems in that volume had appeared in 1960 in Massachusetts Review and Poetry making the gap between Oppen’s published poems just over twenty-five years. During that quarter-century he saw active duty in the Battle of the Bulge, being gravely wounded in April 1945, became a custom carpenter in California, fell under the watchful glance of the FBI, went into exile in Mexico in 1950 and only returned to New York in January 1960. The epigraph to The Materials was a quotation from Maritain: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things’ and it was those lines that Charles Tomlinson underlined in the copy which Oppen signed for him after they had become close friends. Tomlinson also wrote a brief but firmly-held statement just before George and Mary visited him in Gloucestershire in which he recognised that Oppen never wrote poems “where the powers of disquisition begin worrying to death the initial experience before it has been permitted to declare its own terms.”
In a letter from 1959 Oppen had written to Julian Zimet about what it was that so fascinated him about “Things and mechanisms” he said that “I like the things that people have wrested out of the idiot stone…All the poems are about the same thing. The shorter poems are shorter fragments of what I want to say, the longer poems are longer fragments.” In a cancelled opening paragraph to his introduction to the selection of Oppen’s poems edited for Cloudforms No. 4, Tomlinson had referred to making audible Oppen’s “characteristic voice, so distinct from the personality cults of Berryman, Lowell and Plath”. That voice is precisely what comes to the ear and eye in Xavier Kalck’s masterly account of the late poem “Song, The Winds of Downhill” and this book is worth getting hold of if only for those pages of “an architectural representation of the poem’s rhetorical framework”.
In conclusion Kalck refers to another letter sent by Oppen to a British poet. In this case the receiver of that letter was Anthony Barnett and the story behind the correspondence which lasted some thirteen years is told in SNOW lit rev 2. The letter in Kalck’s chapter earns its presence by epitomizing best the several threads which run through this book of criticism. I know that Peter Lang books are expensive but please do put some pressure on your Library to acquire a copy; you will not be disappointed.

Ian Brinton, 31st January 2018

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Ring of Bone by Lew Welch (Grey Fox Press, 1973)

Ring of Bone by Lew Welch (Grey Fox Press, 1973)

The title of Lew Welch’s Collected Poems 1950-1971 is taken from one of his earlier Hermit poems which had appeared in 1965 from Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco as Writing 8. Published in an edition of 1000 copies it was reproduced from the author’s handwriting.

‘I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it’

The image of sight and sound occurs of course some eighty-five years earlier in the sonnet Hopkins wrote about movement and every aspect of Nature dealing out ‘that being indoors each one dwells’:

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring…’

The effect of a stone’s splash into water is to produce a number of rings which move outwards from the moment of impact; the movement lessens as it gets further from the source. The echoing sense of experience moving outwards from the initial moment is caught by Hopkins in his wonderfully contradictory image of bells: the sonorous ’roundy wells’, the depth and darkness, give out a clarity of ringing which stretches through air.
In the Preface to his Collected Poems Lew Welch suggested that ‘Ring of Bone might be called a spiritual autobiography arranged in more or less chronological sequence.’ He goes on to say that the mind grows in a ‘flickering kind of way’ and that sometimes ‘an insight comes too early to be fully understood.’ Book II of this Collected Poems reproduces the 1965 Hermit poems and includes the drawing Welch did for his hundred foot circle:

‘Step out onto the Planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody’s ever really seen.’

An earlier poem by Welch offered a picture of Chicago and Samuel Charters wrote about it that it was almost as if the poet ‘were standing on a street corner with his arms folded, trying to tell somebody what he thinks about Chicago’. The language is casual, immediate, direct and ‘he’s only concerned with telling you what’s on his mind, half listening to whatever anybody else is saying’.
Perhaps nowadays one might have to turn to the Notebooks of R.F. Langley to unearth the quietly resounding sense of what is in Lew Welch’s ‘ring of bone’:

‘As I came back up the garden, I sat down on the bench, and stayed there a couple of hours. Barbara was in the attic with the computer, the roof window by her open, the electric light in there strengthening during those hours, from invisible, to a suggestion, to gold in a cave. There was continuous cloud crossing, with blue gaps paling between. Metal grey. Lead silver. With darker whiffs. At first there were touches of citrine, not brown, not yellow, not orange…which chilled and disappeared. There was a small star, which I thought was a satellite because it was moving, but this movement was transferred from the clouds, as I realised when the star reappeared in the same place later. No swifts. No sparrows. No starlings. The raucous bird life has moved away from the garden, to Africa or into the fields and marshes. House martins still, high, in a group, like swifts but slower, gentler, quieter. Thirty or so of them. They vanish as darkness comes.’

The final poem in Lew Welch’s Hermit Poems takes us back to that circle of engagement and observation, of openness to the world:

‘and vowed
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a
bell does’

Ian Brinton 21st January 2018

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane, Cinepoems and Others, ed. Leonard Schwartz, bilingual, trans. various hands (New York Review Books, 2016)
Benjamin Fondane, Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays, ed. & trans. Bruce Baugh (New York Review Books, 2016)

I am confused. I have two books to review, a volume of poetry and a collection of philosophical essays. They are by the same person, Benjamin Fondane. This is unusual. Philosophers do not usually write passable poetry, nor poets philosophy. I am reminded of a Tommy Cooper sketch. He finds an old violin and an oil painting in the attic, which he takes to an expert who says: “What you’ve got there is a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. Unfortunately, Stradivarius [sic] was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made rotten violins.” With that the much-loved comedian thrusts the violin through the painting demolishing both. I think Fondane would have appreciated this and laughed his head off. He retains such a sense of humour in the face of the most atrocious circumstances to which he fell victim, though in 1943, the year before his death in Auschwitz, he is quoted, “I publish more prose than poetry; one of my activities harms the other.”
I did not know anything about Fondane until now, which is the point of publishing these two books at the same time. Almost no one, at least in the English-speaking world, has known about him and, it seems, only recently has he truly entered into the post-war literary consciousness of France, whose language he ended up writing in. Fondane was a Romanian Jew, born in 1898. He contributed hundreds of articles and poems to Romanian periodicals, immersed himself in French literature, and in 1922 published a study of Mallarmé, Gide and Proust: “I have not come to know French literature as I might know German literature: I have lived it.” The following year he moved to Paris. His friends there included fellow countrymen Tristan Tzara and Constantine Brancusi. He was photographed by Man Ray around 1925. One double-portrait appears on the cover of Existential Monday and another double, with elongated distortions, as the frontispiece to Cinepoems and Others. He fell under the spell of André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto and then the two fell out in fisticuffs in 1930 at the Maldoror, a Montparnasse bar.
I can see, saleswise, why the title of the poetry selection highlights Cinepoems but that really is misleading. Fondane’s Trois scenarios: cinépoèmes was a 1928 exercise in soon-to-be-abandoned surrealism, consisting of numbered single line sentences: “let’s kick off the era of unfilmable scripts” he wrote in the preface. Fondane was a movie buff. He was employed for a time as a script editor at Paramount Pictures in Paris. He worked on the film Rapt aka The Kidnapping. He twice visited Argentina at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo, editor of Sur, first to present screenings, then to make a film of his own, which by all accounts does not survive. Ultimately, “cinepoems” are funny, mildly interesting, and, of course, quite experimentally filmable if you want, but unimportant and nothing to do with his subsequent formidable work.
The Others of the poems are lengthy extracts from Ulysses, Titanic, Exodus, lines from which are displayed at Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, In the Time of the Poem, and The Sorrow of Ghosts complete. Fondane is very much a formalist, often in rhymed triplets aba, but there is nothing old-fashioned about him. There is a distrust and subversion of language in densely packed images: “The gods prayed to with the same hieroglyphics / no longer kiss us with the kisses of their mouth; / our cries used up like old nails / no longer penetrate the Eternal. / / It’s been a long time since words lost their meaning / / such a long time— / and there they are, for heaven’s sake, ripening / / on the threshold of time to come— / of great events now past.—“X-Rays” from Titanic.
Unsurprisingly, with translations by eight different hands, the English versions range from slightly suspect to excellent. End rhyme has been eschewed, probably wisely, although there are often good internal compensations: “. . . As hunger plays a pretty song: / when no one’s listening, it tunes up / intestines for a fiddle-string,”—The Sorrow of Ghosts. It is no special wish of mine to play translation detective here but it is intolerable to translate cèpe as mushroom—In the Time of the Poem. Are we to suppose that English-language readers are expected to be too ignorant to know, or to discover, what a cep (or, if you like, a penny-bun, a porcini) is? Or have we learnt something about the translator? Surely, in The Sorrow of Ghosts, “Quel Dieu ordonne” should be “What God ordains”, not “requires”. And why, in the same sequence is “—Prier? mais OÙ?” translated “—Where can we pray?” and not “—Pray? but WHERE?” That sort of thing.
What I really do not like is the inclusion of a 1985 conversation between Leonard Schwartz and E. M. Cioran. Romanian Paris-resident Cioran may have been Fondane’s dear friend but in the 1930s he described himself as a Hitlerist and was an apologist for the Romanian extremist Iron Guard, whatever later renunciations of all that he may have sought to make. Much of what Cioran says leaves a bad taste in the mouth; he is right to discredit Edouard Roditi’s wholly deplorable utterances about Paul Celan—in full in “Paul Celan and the Cult of Personality”, World Literature Today, vol. 66, no. 1 (Winter 1992)—but he is prone to deplorables himself: “We were friends. He [Celan] translated one of my books. But we ceased to be friends when he moved to the 16th. That is for me another world—the haute bourgeoisie, and so on, live there: Celan too, since his wife was a marquise. It was finished. In Paris, friendships are a question of neighbourhood.” As far as I am aware, from my knowing Gisèle Celan-Lestrange and Edmond Jabès, that was no bar to the friendship between Celan and Jabès. And about Fondane: “Yes, but all the same he’s not a French poet. He’s not considered a French poet by the French, and he isn’t one.” Oh, what, another rootless cosmopolitan? I don’t think so.
Turning now to Existential Monday, which includes a thorough introduction, copious notes, and a bibliography, I find myself more than a little out of my depth. I am no student of philosophy though I like to think I am a philosophical poet, to the ribbing of a French philosophy teacher who tells me I am not. I once wrote about George Oppen: “I think—I am often thinking—Oppen was a philosopher without philosophy. That doesn’t matter because a poet’s philosophy will never amount to much more than a partial attempt to justify or explain that particular poetry. Only the poem can be held to account as exemplary or rotten, or somewhere in-between, not its sources, those that are objective—the language, shall we say, which appears as a ready-made above one’s head, at the ready to be remade—and those that are subjective—I shall say only, if evasively, that we know all about that.”
I am told that Fondane’s philosophy, closely allied to that of his mentor Leon Shestov, is naïve. So be it. “In the one case, it is the outer bark of reality that is at stake; in the other, it is the condition of man in reality.” It is certainly readable. The selection is small. It consists of a mere four essays from his immense output. We must take it on trust that this is a truly representative selection: “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History”—Kafka provides the title, “Preface for the Present Moment”, “Man Before History, or, The Sound and the Fury”, “Boredom”, which is an essay about Baudelaire. In fact, Fondane’s first philosophical work was a study of Rimbaud. So you see there is no escaping the cross-fertilization—or “harm” as he put it—of poetry and philosophy in Fondane’s work. I need to take the easy way out here and ask that you simply—for these things are either complex or simple—read what Fondane has to say about existentialism and historical philosophers, and the then state of the world. Fondane’s fate was dreadful yet at the same time noble. He wrote to the end. He could have escaped France. There was some temporary respite following a first arrest and then release because his wife was not Jewish. But he refused to abandon his sister, with whom he was rearrested, and they perished. God alone knows what he would make of our current socio-politico-philosophical mess and evident refusal to learn from history.

This review was written at the invitation of Jewish Quarterly, where it appeared in 2017 with heavy cuts, ostensibly for space reasons. This is the full review.

Anthony Barnett 15th January 2018

Composition in White by S.J. Litherland (Smokestack Books)

Composition in White by S.J. Litherland (Smokestack Books)

According to some recent Facebook comments a review written by Martin Stannard is shortly to appear on Alan Baker’s excellent Litter site (leafepress.com/litter). The review contains the following paragraph:

“I have what can best be described as an ambivalent relationship with innovative poetry and poetics (I’m getting fed up of that phrase) which boils down pretty much to my approach to reading any kind of poetry: is it an enjoyable and maybe even an unforgettable experience, or the opposite of that, whatever it might be. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not put off by not getting it, or not understanding it – but I am put off by reading experiences that fall short of the pleasurable – bearing in mind that pleasure can come in any number of guises. I’m definitely put off when I don’t feel welcome.”

When reading this paragraph I was put in mind of the comment made by J.H. Prynne in his Keynote Speech given ten years ago at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China at Shijiazhuang when he focused upon the difference between obscurity and difficulty in poetry:

“When poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of reader’s knowledge. The missing information may be specific (a personal name, say, or some tacit allusion), or general (an aspect of religious belief, say); and finding out this information may dispel much of the obscurity. When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader’s powers of recognition. In such cases, extra information may not give much help.”

Prynne suggests that Pope’s The Dunciad is now obscure but not especially difficult whereas Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is difficult “but mostly not obscure”. I would add William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ to the list of difficult poems which are not obscure.
Jackie Litherland’s ‘Springtime of the Nations’ was commended in the 2011 National Poetry Competition and as I read this opening poem in last year’s publication of her seventh collection I was struck by the way its power in no way relied upon any awareness of the 1848 revolutionary world or of Hungary: its power is in the way it brings sound and place to experience that is not historically dependent.

“The lilacs were in flower, heavy, drowsy,
boulevards suddenly pleasant. And
I suspect the sun was out. You must
understand there was nothing we could
do. In the square hung the conspirators,
dangling effigies – the partying over –
how they caroused our masters,
the hubbub was like the explosions
of military battle to deafened soldiers,
we the defeated drank deeply while
the victors were clinking glasses.”

A reader of poetry may well find that the reference T.S. Eliot makes to “lilacs” in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ crosses the mind unbidden and, indeed, may well recall Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln in which “lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” as he mourns an individual murder “and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”. But this cross-referencing is not necessary for us to share the sense of peace haunting Litherland’s square in which the hanging bodies are “dangling effigies”. That peace is held with the words “heavy” and “drowsy” and a social sense of life’s continuance is caught with the geographical fixture of “boulevards” and the word “pleasant”. A feeling of helplessness in the face of horror is evoked with the matter-of-fact assertion that we must understand that “there was nothing we could / do”. The celebration associated with carousing, cheers that explode making the square into a battle-field, is present to us with the sharp “clinking” of glasses and “All

we could hear was the chink, chink,
like raindrops in gutters, of their toasts”

The poet (in the epigraph “A sympathiser advises a friend”) remains with a heavy and ominous silence recognising that for them the haunting memory will ensure that “glasses / will never chime” and that “All through the night

they were pushing the boat out, the oars
of a thousand hurrahs dipped into water,
chink, chink, chink, chink, chink,
came the replies of the tiny waves.”

There is a determined tone of resolution in the final lines which are Brechtian in their simplicity:

“…The twelve hung in the sun.
You must understand there was nothing
we could do but shun the moment,
to turn our backs on all that merriment.”

This is a poem which resonates off the page addressing the reader with clarity and leaving echoes of historical reconstruction which can be felt in our NOW.
As Jo Colley states on the back cover of this fine collection of poems Litherland’s poet’s eye is “as diamond sharp and unsentimental as ever”.

Ian Brinton 10th January 2018.

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