The Quintessence of Transcendental Knowledge in the ‘Bhagavad-Gītā’
1. Introductory premises
Bhagavad-Gītā presents a basis for this research that aims to hermeneutically analyze some of its ontological concepts and pivotal life questions. These concepts were and hopefully are still fundamental in the life of the individual. They offer answers of the perennial questions such as: what are the purposes and duties in life, where does the individual belong in the universe, what is the nature of his relationship towards the Godhead, and, ultimately, how can one acquire the needed knowledge for achieving transcendental consciousness.
The key reason for the existence of many diverse interpretations of one (literary) text lies mainly in the text’s nature and potential to offer and stimulate these differences in reading and it would be false to claim that there is a single, most authoritative, supreme and final reading of a text. A literary work, as Barthes suggested, is paradoxical in its essence because it not only presents a history, but also an opposition to that same history (Bart 1971, 145). Therefore, we will propose a reading of Bhagavad-Gītā which will analyze the quintessence of the transcendental knowledge, neglecting the fact that it requires a great deal of effort to explain, in seemingly Western terminology, a text which cannot be accurately presented in such manner.
2. The status of Vyāsa
Bhagavad-Gītā is consisted of eighteen chapters and it is located in Bhīsmaparvan (or Bhishma Parva), the sixth book of the Mahābhārata. It is structured of 700 verses, of which most are formulated in the metrical forms called śloka and tristubh, although there is evidence to show that some older manuscripts had 745 verses (Gambhīrānanda 2003, XVII). Literary critics, hermeneutists and other erudites who had the chance to write about the Bhagavad-Gītā, agree that it is almost impossible to accurately determine the exact date of its origin. According to Drashko Mitrikjeski, one of the Macedonian translators of the text, Bhagavad-Gītā was completed in its final form not later than 100 B.C. and its completion lasted for approximately two hundred years (Mitrikjeski 1998, 14). Its occurrence can be traced in the pre-Buddhist period in India. Others believe that the text was created in the V century B.C., or at least in the period from the V to the II century B.C.
We encounter a similar inconsistency in aspects of its authorship. The poet Vyāsa, Veda Vyāsa or Kṛṣna Dvaipayana was responsible for the authorship not only of the Bhagavad-Gītā, but of the Mahābhārata as a whole. (i) It is said that Vyāsa was an avatar of Viṣṇu and that he was one of the seven Chirajivins meaning ‘individual soul’, ‘embodied self’, ‘living entity’, from the verb root jīv=’to live’ and Chira, meaning ‘long life’ (Grimes 1996, 147). This term was reserved for the ‘deathless persons’ (Apte 1965, 900). He was the son of Satyava or Satyavatī and Parāśara, born before Satyavatī’s marriage with Śāntanu. Right after he was born, he retreated to the wilderness where he led a life of a hermit, practicing the most rigid austerities, until he was called by his mother to beget sons on the widows of her son Vichitravīrya. He was, thus, the father of Pāndu, Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Vidura.(ii) According to Dumézil, Vyāsa had the task of organizing not only the four Vedas, but also the fifth – the Mahābhārata (Dumèzil 1973, 58; Apte 1965, 900).
The etymology of the name of the text can be explained by deciphering the words Bhagāvan, which can mean a myriad of terms, such as: ‘Lord’, ‘God’, ‘revered person’, ‘venerable’, from the verb root bhag, which means ‘good fortune, wealth, splendor, power’ and van, which means ‘possessor, Master, having’ (Grimes 1996, 81) and Gīta, which means ‘song’. Bhagavan is ‘the ultimate in the Absolute Truth’ (Prabhupāda 1972, 75), the supreme purusa (Smith 1994, 101).
Bhagavad-Gītā is known as Gītopanisad, a term which underlines the essence of all infallible Vedic knowledge, which of Gītā make one of the most important Upanishads. The core of the Song is built on the essence of these teachings (Prabhupāda 1983, 2, 32).(iii) ‘Traditionally, the Gītā is identified with smṛiti [‘that which is remembered’], a category of sacred texts that are considered secondary to the Vedas, which are known as ṣrúti [‘that which is heard’]. However, the Upanishads are part of the Vedic canon and so the Gītā is often considered ṣrúti as well, giving it Vedic status. The Gītā’s traditional colophons, too, affirm its Upanishadic identity’ (Rosen 1955, XI).
One of the theories of the etymology of the word Upanishad is that it is derived from the part upa, which means “near” and sad, which means ‘sitting’. This illustrates the image of the disciple who sits down near a teacher or a sage during a session or séance (Griswold 1990, 43). It also captures an image of ‘subordinance’ of the disciple who sits below his teacher. In the introduction given in Devette temelni upanishadi i Bagavadgita, Jovanovski suggests that the core of the word Upanishad implies a sacred, esoteric doctrine (Jovanovski 1984, 9). According to Ling, the word itself means ‘secret teaching’, as the context of the Upanishads shows us (Ling 1990, 79). Griswold deciphers the name of the word in the sense of a ‘mystic import’, ‘secret name’, ‘hidden sense’ and ‘secret doctrine’ (Griswold 1990, 42). The word has another meaning – of ‘subsidiary’, ‘subject’ or ‘secondary’, – a reference either to the attitude of pupils sitting at the feet of a teacher or to literary works subsidiary and supplementary to other works, other meanings or secondary and allegorical as opposed to the primary and natural sense. The word was a standing term for the distinction between the theological and the sacrificial mysticism. The word can also mean a verse or section containing the doctrine of Brahman or a collection of such doctrines in the form of a dogmatic textbook belonging to a particular school or sect (Griswold 1990, 44, 45-6).
The name metaphorically implies ‘the destruction of ignorance by revealing the knowledge of the Supreme Spirit and outing off the bonds of worldly existence” (Apte 1965, 287). The root sad indicates demolition and destruction. This means that the purpose of the Upanishads is to aim towards destruction of passions and eradication of ignorance and, consequently, towards their conversion to knowledge and freedom. Here, the concept of freedom is deciphered as liberation from the cyclic births and deaths, i.e. the liberation from saṃsāra. The English translators of the Gītā note that this word, in the context of the text, refers to ‘life in the world’ or ‘worldly existence’ and that in Bengali, the word does not have negative connotation as it is usually believed (Giri 2001, 2).
3. The plot
Bhagavad-Gītā is structured in a dialogical discourse between Arjuna, one of the five Pāndava brothers, son of Pāndu and Kunti (‘that which calls the substance’), and Kṛṣna, the supreme Principle of Divine, param brahma, an avatar of Viṣṇu and Arjuna’s cousin. Gītā is actually based on the divine knowledge with which Kṛṣna tries to ‘educate’ Arjuna. In other words, Arjuna presents a chosen individual who is selected to come out of the dark, to free himself from the ignorance and to acknowledge the secret ways of how the cosmos itself functions and what is its purpose.
The plot begins at the battlefield of Kurukṣetra, where the army of the hundred Kauravas, the sons of king Dhṛtarāṣṭra, are faced with the army of the five Pandavas, the sons of Pāndu. In the Vedas, the battlefield of Kurukṣetra is treated as a sacred place where the necessary, religious rites were performed. This battlefield is referred to as ‘Dharmakṣetra’, meaning ‘the field of dharma’, i.e. of duty and righteousness (Rosen 1955, 22). (iv) It is an actual place that lies in the state of Hariyana in modern India (Bhawuk 2011, 99).
Dhṛtarāṣṭra (“Mind”) and Pāndu (“Without description and pure”, but also “Pale”) were brothers and sons of king Bharata, born in the Kuru dynasty and descendants from the lineage of the Maharaja Śạntānu (Giri 2001, 1). The throne and, consequently, the reign over the country, was to be inherited by the oldest son after his father’s death, but since Dhṛtarāṣṭra was born blind, it was Pāndu who had the honor. After Pāndu’s death, his five sons – Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva – were left to the mercy of their uncle, who succeeded the throne after the death of his brother. (v)
Although the main accent is on the dialogue between Arjuna and Kṛṣna, the text begins with the dialogue between Sañjaya, the king’s advisor and king Dhåtarāṣṭra himself. In the frames of this dialogue we get the basic information of the turmoil at Kurukṣetra and the dialogue afterwards transfers to Arjuna and Kṛṣna. Although the Pandavas and the Kauravas were related by blood, their treatment in the text show us how different they really are. ‘The Kauravas became devious; the Pandavas virtuous. As they grew older, the Kauravas used their military right for selfish reasons, while the Pandavas were greatly loved and spiritual minded political leaders. […] It was clear that the Pandavas were better suited to rule the kingdom’ (Rosen 1955, 23).
Wanting to avoid the necessary evil of the fight itself, the God Kṛṣna tried to negotiate with Duryodhana, the ‘political genius’, but to no avail. Duryodhana presents an embodiment of Kali, i.e. ‘an incarnation of iconic evil’ (Elijade 1991, 186; Hiltebeitel 1990, 94). He is ‘no authority of the questions of morality’ (Dumézil 1970, 32) and is, in fact, Kali Puruṣa, the demon Kali in human form (Rosen 1955, 22). He is a figure of the ‘bad’ king (Hiltebeitel 1990, 58) and a literary despot par excellence (Hiltebeitel 2001, 177). Some even translate his name as a combination between vanity and ‘the ability to fight in an evil way’ (Giri 2002, 7).
Despite the dynamic references to many different characters present on Kurukṣetra, we rarely see them in real action, unlike the ones mentioned above. These others are mentioned because of some attribute that separate them from the rest of the presented characters. For instance, Yuyudhāna, Virāta, Drupada and Dhṛṣtaketu are mentioned as great fighters (Prabhupāda 1983, 39); Bhīshma, Karṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, Vikarṇa and Bhūriśravā as always victorious in battle (Prabhupāda 1972, 42). The three sons of Pāndu – Yudhiṣṭhira, Nakula and Sahadeva – are mentioned as announcers of the battle (Prabhupāda 1972, 49); Śikhandī, Dṛṣtadyumna and Sātyaki are described as greatly armed (Prabhupāda, Ibid.); Draupadī is described as an incarnation of the goddess Śrī (‘the good fortune’), while Aṣvataman is one of the rare who manages to save his life from the battle only because the god Śiva claims his body (Elijade 1991, 186, 187; Dumézil 1973, 96). Pāndu and Yudhiṣṭhira (‘Law’ and ‘Order’) are incarnations, in terms of sovereignty, of two aspects: the first one of Varuna and the second one of Mitra. The first and the second from the Pāṇḍavas – Bhīma and Arjuna respectively – are presented through their brutal and ‘knightly’ force which is a replication of Indra. The last two, the twins Nakula and Sahadeva, are incarnations of some of the qualities of the divine twins: a willingness to serve, humility, as well as the skills of breeding herds and horses (Dumézil 1970, 5, 73; Dumézil 1983, 113).
Kṛṣna’s words are defined as apauruseya, meaning they are different from the words spoken by a person of the mundane world who is ‘infected with four defects’ (Prabhupāda 1983, 15). These four defects are: a mundaner, as Prabhupāda names him, is sure to commit mistakes, is invariably illusioned, has the tendency to cheat others and is limited by imperfect senses (1986, 15). There is also the concept of the five kleṣas or troubles that serve as great obstacles on the path of liberation: avidya or ignorance/ illusion, asmita or egoism, raag or passion, dvesh or hatred and abhinibesh or attachment, as well as the idea of karma (Giri 2001, 12).
I a parallel to these ‘defects’, Kṛṣna is treated as pūrnam or ‘absolutely perfect’ and therefore enjoys a privileged position in comparison to the other characters in the epic, mainly due to his independence from the laws of material nature. He is absolutely untouched by the qualities of sattva and the tendencies created by it. Among the many epithets and attributes assigned to him, one of the most important ones is the concept of advaita which means that ‘there is no distinction between his body and himself’ (Prabhupāda 1972, 159). This means that Kṛṣna is represented as ‘all-perfect’, as ‘Limitless’ (Koterel 1998, 135), compared to Arjuna as his less perfect parallel. This further illustrates his nature as a supreme and sovereign Brahman. But, despite the said, his nature is far more complex. His presence in the Gītā is just one of his many forms of existence. For instance, in the Bhāgavatam, Kṛṣna appears in front of his mother Devaki with the form of Narāyanā, the Prime Mover, the ‘over-god’, who has four arms (Gambhīrānanda 2003, 4; Dumézil 1973, 64). This name is derived by the combination of two words: nāra and ayana. The first one means ‘those that are associated with nara’ and the latter ‘their goal’. The part of the term refers to all the bodies, moving or non-moving, and the second one to individual souls, the reflections of the supreme consciousness that remain in association with those bodies. ‘Being the substratum of souls, their Ordainer and Inner Controller, the supreme Being or supreme Consciousness is called Nārāyana’ (Gambhīrānanda 2003, 2). The pair Arjuna-Kṛṣna are often represented in tandem through the concepts of Nara (Arjuna=Man) and Nārāyana (Kṛṣna=God) (Hiltebeitel 2001, 199). Kṛṣna also appears as King Rāma in the Rāmayana; he reveals in Bhagavad-Gītā the sight of his cosmic form, visvarupadarsana, which consists of thousands of faces. The theological expression in the Gītā’s revelation shows us that this deity is the totality of time and the essential force for the creation and the collapse of worlds (Hiltebeitel 2001, 166).
In its foundation the dialogue between Kṛṣna as a Sage or Teacher and Arjuna as a Follower or Disciple, has the concept of transcendental knowledge. This concept is one of the main driving forces with the ultimate result of acquiring knowledge and of attaining of self-awareness. In this process, the disciple learns how to achieve nirvana. Despite the modern interpretations, this concept means ‘completion of the process of material life’ and, consequently, a cessation of the activity of the saṃsāra. Koterel defines the concept as ‘un-birth’, as ‘final deliverance from karmic slavery’, as ‘enlightened stiffness’ (Koterel 1998, 101, 129); Campbell as ‘transcendence of the wings of passion’, as ‘disengagement in trance rapture’ or as the ‘wind of time’ (Campbell 1960, 469; Campbell 1964, 252; Campbell 1968, 33). The two concepts of the saṃsāra and the nirvana are reserved for jīvātmā (the ‘atomic soul’ or Atman) and not for Paramātmā (or the ‘Super-Soul’, i.e. Brahman, the transcendent and immanent, impersonal Absolute).
4. Concluding premises
The Bhagavad-Gītā actually describes the end of a world (pralaya) and a new birth under Yudhiṣṭhira’s and Parikṣira’s reign. In a sense, we can talk about a revaluation of the old mythical and ritualistic scenario of the New Year, but in this case we are not discussing the end of a year, but of a whole cosmic period (Elijade 1991, 188).
The duality between Atman (Arjuna) and Brahman (Kṛṣna) shows us the complexity of human nature and that man, ultimately, is derived from the Atman. ‘What part of him [man – K.D.] is identical with his source?’, asks Griswold. ‘What is the real man, the real self? It is not ‘the man made out of essence of food’ [annarasamaya], the physical man […] for this aspect of man’s nature may be stripped off like an outer husk. Nor is it the vital self-consisting of breath or life [pranamaya], for this too may be eliminated. So with the self-consisting of thought and will [manomaya], and the self-consisting of cognition and worship [vijnanamaya]. They do not represent the real self and so may be stripped off. Finally, the core of reality both in man and in nature is found in the self-consisting of bliss [Anandamaya], the inmost self of all’ (Griswold 1990, 50). The ‘universe is created out of two fundamental substances. One is consciousness-substance and the other is matter-substance. ParaBrahman is beyond this creation, tranquil and One’ (Giri 2001, 3). This eloquently describes the differences between the status Arjuna has as an Atman, because of the possibility of personal change, growth and evolution, just like all of us, and Kṛṣna as puruṣottama (Hiltebeitel 2001, 213), a supreme being who is ‘already completed’ and who has achieved the highest level of being.
Bhagavad-Gitā describes how to nurture and to train the psychological astral powers of Yudhiṣṭhira (‘calmness’), Bhima (‘life-force control’), Arjuna (‘non-attachment of self control’), Nakula (‘power of adherence to good rules’) and Sahadeva (‘power to resist evil’). On the other side, the Kaurava stand for one hundred sense inclinations in the form of formidable foes whose variations can be innumerable. The negative aspects are symbol of not only a hundred Kaurava’s, but also of innumerable Kaurava’s (Awari 2013, 3). Swami Sriyukteshvar Giri, for example, believes that the sons of Dhritarāshtra present ‘the clans of mind and ego’ and that Arjuna’s dilemma whether to fight his cousins or not, is in fact a result from the fear that if these clans are destroyed, then the individual (not only Arjuna, but ‘Everyman’) will lose all possibility of any pleasure (Giri 2001, 23). The destruction of these implicitly means destruction of oneself as well.
Man, his identity and even his acts of creation, are not based only on one centre. Man presents a ‘circle-like, spiral microcosm in which the center is a fictive point, constantly in motion and subjected to [individual] perceptions and, in this sense, it is dependent on this point, on the subject and the act of perception itself’ (Kulavkova 2009, 23).
These are the basic questions with which Gīta deals and even though the text provides us with answers of the position man has in the universe, it is possible that the Self cannot be fully acknowledged and that we are given only ‘different ways to speak of it’ (Bart 1971, 161). This conclusion affects mostly the ‘mundaner’, the Westerner, and not the yogi. If we start from the point that there is no sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, we will surely come to the notion that the Atman cannot be fixated in its meaning (it is empirically real, but transcendentally unreal), if the world we live in is just an effect of maya or delusion. However, ‘God is sought not beyond the starts, but in the depths of the human heart’ (Griswold 1990, 61). If we do agree that salvation is possible, then only when a man liberates himself from the five kleṣas or troubles, karma and its detrimental consequence – saṃsāra, and ambition, only then he can achieve the highest result of liberation from all chains that bind him.
i He bears the name of Kṛṣna Dvaipayana supposedly because of his dark complexion (‘Kṛṣna’ meaning ‘black’ or ‘dark’) and because he was brought by Satyavāti, his mother, on a Dvipa or island in the Yamunā (Apte 1965, 900) or Jumnā (Winternitz 1927, 322). He is ‘the island-born Dark one’ (Hiltebeitel 2001, 151). In Indian myths and Vaisesika philosophy, the attributes of blackness and odor to the earth qualities are shared by Kṛṣna–Draupadī and Vyasa’s mother Satyavāti or Kali (Hiltebeitel 1990, 68).
ii Vidura is mentioned as an incarnation of Dharma with his impure Śūdrā alter ego (Visuvalingam 1989, 119) because of his mother’s origin. He has ‘mixed blood’ (Dumézil 1973, 59). However, in another version of his story, he was born into the world as Atri’s son – Atri being a celestial Vedic Ŗṣi or one of the Seven Sages of the Big Dipper (Hiltebeitel 2001, 45). Comparable to his origin is Yudhiṣṭira’s, who is Dharma’s son and he incarnates his father through the invocation of enemy-destroying black magic on the battlefield. Dharma is mentioned as a synonymous to Yama, with ‘deep destructive designs’ (Hiltebeitel 2001, 188). The exclusive ownership of magic was a ‘genuine privilege possessed by the Brahmans and recognized by the Kṣatriya caste of nobles and kings’ (Mauss 2005, 33).
iii “One who is perfectly aware of the true meaning and significance of this śāstra – there is no śāstra unknown to that person” (Giri 2001, 9). The Mahābhārata is not only a work of poetic art, but it is, at the same time, a śāstra or manual of morality (Winternitz 1927, 321).
iv Winternitz translates the word dharma as personification of ‘law and custom’, as ‘morality’ (Winternitz 1927, 326, 397).
v Yudhiṣṭira was born from the relationship between Kunti and Yama, “the lord of righteousness”. Dumézil, however, mentiones him as the son of Dharma and as a rejuvenation of Miṭra (Dumézil 1970, 73). Karna, the solar hero hidden in Varunic obscurity, is fathered by Surya, the sun god, Bhīma by Pavandeva, the mighty wind god, the twin brothers by Ashwinikumar, the god of twins, and Arjuna by Indra (Giri 2001, 2; Visuvalingam 1989, 176). Dumézil designates the twin Nāsatya as the father of the twin brothers (Dumézil, ibid.).
SONGS THAT ARE SUNG IN THE NIGHT – THE POETRY OF MARC ALMOND
Although famous as a singer, songwriter and musician, Marc Almond is less known for his poetry, which features a kaleidoscope of scenarios and locations, together with a highly diverse cast of characters, from glamorous movie stars to burnt out strippers, somnambulists to drag queens, from Venus on a silver stage to the decadence and dreams of a lonely go-go dancer.
Lately I’ve been having dreams, (wrote the singer in 1991)
Strange kind of dreams,
In the deep night
That he has shared some of these dreams through music has enriched popular culture for over thirty years; that he has also done so through poetry strikes some as surprising. One reason is the comparative slimness of his literary output – he has published few collections, the first via a now nonexistent publishing house. Those familiar with the records may notice similarities – like Leonard Cohen, Marc Almond has incorporated some poems, such as several in his first collection The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge, and his 1999 compendium Beautiful Twisted Night, into song lyrics, and vice-versa. Influenced by his life experiences, and by poets such as Baudelaire and Verlaine, some of whose verse he has set to music and performed on record, his poems often have a musical and rhythmic quality, and enchant the reader like infectious songs, full as they are of a very human vulnerability, an acknowledgment of pain and loss, and the need for love:
And lonely faces
Looking for those soft embraces,
Needing just another moment’s understanding.
Marc Almond was born in Southport on the Lancashire coast, a place he remembers in his autobiography Tainted Life for its ragged tideline of bones and shells , the gaudy seafront and its rows of once-resplendent houses. It is a town, he writes, like Miss Havisham and her wedding dress, awash with a faded splendour that imbues it with a slightly seedy air of decayed decadence. He tells us how Southport remains within him, as the places that we come from always do, and anyone familiar with his work might easily appreciate the prevalence, however subtle, of this decadence and wistful beauty in his poetry and songs.
After an adolescence spent between Southport and West Yorkshire Almond, paying his way behind the bar of the Leeds Playhouse, moved to study Art at the Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Metropolitan University), where he was tutored by, among others, the artist, writer and cultural commentator Jeff Nuttall. Living not far from where Nuttall at times resided in the Calder Valley, I sometimes speak to those who knew him, and recently heard the raconteur described by a friend who taught with him in Leeds as “the last great Renaissance Man.”Given Nuttall’s counter-cultural status, it is not surprising that Marc Almond names him “the strongest influence on me,” at that point, and “a milestone in my learning.” Encouraging students to produce “extreme, shocking, visceral and disturbing” art, he must have been an enlivening influence on a young artist beginning to express himself, and it is no wonder that in those student days the future pop star would pen poetry about
A thousand pretty things
That’d make you sick,
Human ashtrays trying to turn a trick.
Arriving in the city, Almond lived in Chapeltown, once a leafy village that by the early 20th Century had become a major Jewish area. Coming from Leeds, and having through the years spent many stretches working at the library until earlier this year, I know the area well, and today it is a district blighted by problems such as burglary, heroin and inter-racial tensions – the scene of rioting at various points in the last thirty years. Originally a genteel suburb, its large houses were converted into rented dwellings in the early 20t Century and were popular with Jewish refugees; the area housed West Indian families in the 50’s and 60’s, who opened up their homes as unlicensed party venues, and was for the most part a fairly relaxed place, earning a reputation for licentiousness. When Almond lodged there, it still hosted a red-light area, and a grey and sooty place, always damp, as he recalled in 1996, brightened only by shops selling glittering saris, scarves and brightly coloured Indian sweets. The brightness was obscured when a particular darkness descended over Chapeltown in the winter of 1976. It was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, and a mood of insidious disquiet hung in the air…Two prostitutes had been murdered near Spencer Place, and now the remaining girls had fear on their faces as they walked the streets…at night Leeds turned into a ghost town. Against this fearful backdrop, then, his poetry of the period with its Businessman smell / Found in one-night hotels, its rent-boys and its Faceless figures / Trying to keep their pride assumes an air of pathos, of compassion, and of tragedy. As points out, the murderer might be anyone – someone known to us. All you ever talked about, or heard of, was the Ripper…Each night as I walked back from college I felt uneasy, nervous at the sound of footsteps behind me, and relieved when I reached the sanctuary of my basement flat. It was at this time that the poem Twilights and Lowlifes was composed, its addressee longing to Kneel down and shut your eyes / In the sanctuary, to be finally out of danger and out of sight.
A poem in Almond’s first collection – and appearing on an early solo album – recalls his flat, where he would sometimes hear prostitutes heading up and down the stairs. The following segment combines a stark realism with a nod to student bohemianism, before a hefty thud of Northern bathos:
All night the girls would clump
In heavy platform shoes
I painted all the walls flamenco orange,
One window in the doorframe
and the drains were always blocked.
The poetry of those days was for the most part rooted to the poet’s Northern origins, staging sub-cultural sensuality within a frame of “kitchen sink” simplicity:
My girlfriend’s pregnant Inside
Bashed a cop Robbed a bank
Wanted My girl
Get married Girl
Girlfriend I’m twenty-one
The sense of feeling trapped, the fear of boredom and conformity raged against in early songs like Frustration and Babes in Consumerland, coupled with a contradictory urge for security, is delivered in cold, hard slabs of almost nihilistic sadness:
Twilights and lowlifes
Hiding from the daylight,
Trying to find
The dream inside,
Trying to find
The peace of mind,
Trying to find a car
And a holiday.
Trying to find a lover,
Trying to find a mother,
Who, it doesn’t matter –
One or the other.
But the biography also reveals despite it all, I personally never felt happier than during the time I stayed there, and as the orange bedroom walls suggest, his general state of mind was more colourful than grim, especially as the heady days of art school saw him progress to one-man shows and films. Inspired by directors such as Tod Browning and Fellini, films like Cabaret and The Damned, the art of Jean Cocteau, and the novels of John Rechy, Marc fired his energies into many artistic genres, giving rise to such strangely beautiful poetry as Fuchshia Flamenco, written in 1979, and describing an amorous frenzy between a wide-eyed flamenco dancer and the tender fandango of two olive-skinned boys . The images merge in a dazzling blur of cobras, broken Spanish dolls, castanets and Broadway tap rhythms, swinging from the sinisterly surreal, as two fuchsia scorpions advance, retreat and advance again, circling, to bizarre personification, as flamenco guitar works up an orgasm and cries out as crescendo subsides. The poem paints mend-bending pictures, yet despite his early interest in hallucinogens, Almond’s poetry from that time on seems to me not so much psychedelic as experimental, partly the stuff of cabaret and the 1930’s avant-garde. By turns gritty, surreal and confessional, it treads a fine trapeze between the macabre: A befouled raven / That sweeps and weeps / its way / Through my daylight nightmares (Star), the ugly: And this town is a pot-pourri of disease: / You can smell the herpes / From the scum-fucking fucks / That hand around the same / Suckers each midnight (Catch a Fallen Star), and the beautiful: He is as rich as hashish / Exotic and brown, / Dark as the earth, / Damp as the soil / Erotic and sweet, / Opiate, healer (The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge)
By the time the debut book appeared, its author had enjoyed more than half a decade of musical success. A more market-oriented artist might have produced a safe or straightforward book, or at least have splashed it in the public eye by extensive promotion. But The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge is not a typical suite of poems, either by the standards of pop musicians or of mainstream poets. Published in March 1988 by the Gay Men’s Press (two months before the Thatcher government prevented local authorities publishing material “promoting” – homosexuality), the book presents provocative, sensual, at times humorous poetry. Its author tells us the poems were written between the years 1980-87. They are explorations and observations , they part document my ever changing attitudes. The opening poem, Lonely, Lonely, begins Send me blue dahlias, and goes on to enticingly suggest:
Drifter in dreamland
Naked in your sorrow,
There’s danger on lips
In deep velvet of night
One sequence appears to recall an incident when, as a child, Almond, who has written of how he is drawn to the plight of animals, witnessed, after climbing over a wall, a calf being shot in the head to be turned into meat. The image remained with him, and in this first book he writes:
From the womb
Wet and anointed,
Slippery as a calf, half-born,
Hanging from the quivering guts:
To the slaughterhouse.
There is a sense of foreboding, such as in My Fateful Love, which may well draw its anxiety from the threat of AIDS that, like the fear of the Ripper earlier in the decade, had by 1988 overshadowed much of the country – the world, in fact – and was exploited by homophobic hate-mongers from the spheres of religion, politics and the press:
Trouble waits on near horizons.
Eyes crackling like a storm,
Send me down a bolt of thunder
To keep me warm:
The fingers of some ghastly hand
To grab me at the gate,
To test me of my faith in love
My love of faith.
My fateful love.
Elsewhere, love its self is presented as something that cannot be trusted:
And this precious jewel
I could give to you
Colour me red
When I’m feeling blue.
The colour of a kiss
In a young girl’s dream
The mark of the guillotine.
Comparisons with Adam Johnson may seem lazy, but there are similarities, and the tender sadness with which Almond writes captures something of the 1980’s, when for all the brash materialism, another Britain of unemployment, homophobia and division was reflected by such poetry as:
Somewhere a battered radio
Croons a song of yesteryear,
Songs that only go to fuel
My bile-embittered heartaches.
(‘Grey Veil of September’)
The poem thus combines declinism with a sense of anger for the woes of former days, perhaps not yet expired, an idea enunciated even more firmly as:
Air eddies, like some undulating current
Wanting and wanting to pull me down
Pulsing full of memories that
Loiter round to meet me.
But later in the book, the decade is given lighter treatment; we see the thrills and spills of legendary nights out. Almond has recalled the 80’s as times of fun and “living for the day” (to quote an early title), and rising above the “dark cloud” of Thatcherism by clinging to the silver lining of the flamboyant New Romantic scene, and once he had moved to London, the cutting-edge, ecstasy-fuelled hedonism of its clubland. Syph Gun and Taxi Cabs is a wry, grinning poem laden with innuendo and club references, crackling with youthful excitement:
On floors of dust we
The hot euphoria,
And how we lived those times
while other pieces celebrate exotic foreign scenes, like the fruitful valleys of California. Saint Judy (which again appears elsewhere as a song) is laced with sad humour: And if I die before I wake up / I pray the Lord don’t smudge my make-up. Described by its writer as a hymn to destructive divas and drag queens, Saint Judy, which places its heroine a million miles from the magic of The Wizard of Oz, is truly empathetic, as behind the gloss and glamour of the movies, the tormented child-star is depicted in exploited pain and suffering:
Too many of my skeletons
In other people’s closets
Too many people taking
Without leaving deposits
Too many people bringing me down
The interplay around sexuality and language (“pun” seems too casual for writing so subtly clever) is impressive, and painful. How easy it would be to cast such a character in clumsy melodrama, to drench the writing in cliché. Yet this makes the reader think, and think again – Sometimes I feel like a moral-less child resonates like music on the brain, and is somehow deeply sad. The poem unites two factors in its author’s artistic motivations: glamour, and darkness. In the introduction to Beautiful Twisted Night, he tells of a twilight world of neon and secrets, of secret dreams and deals, of different morals and different codes. His skill as a writer enables him to peer into that world, to document some of its secrets, where the hustler is hero and the loser is saint, where the ugly is beautiful and the beautiful more beautiful, in the gutter where gold is found. His first collection is a glimpse into this world, and shines a torch on the lives that go on unnoticed, overlooked and under-loved, beyond the hype and heartlessness of the everyday mainstream:
Songs That Are Sung in the Night
Songs that are sung
in the night
are pitiful songs:
Themes for the lonely sleepless.
Woes to the blue of the heart
Songs that are sung
in the dark
Are haunted moans
For a hand in motion,
A mysterious song
For someone out there
in the dark.
My room turns on me,
Walls creep to eat me,
My bed sucks me,
Vented, and shallow,
Turns out to be made by me.
It would be more than ten years before The Angel of Death was followed, in the form of both poetry and prose, with a retrospective of lyrics thrown in. By now, having travelled the globe with albums bathed in international flavours, Almond was writing about New York, Barcelona and Paris as old friends (he would later record an album with lyrics translated from poems by Jean Genet, Eric Stenbok, Rimbaud, Gerard de Nerval, JeanCocteau and more), and brilliantly bringing Russia to life in his poem about St Petersburg from 1992. Galina Dances portrays a city struggling to survive, as after years of upheaval the country just about pulls through:
City of decaying dreams,
Where under a pink sky,
Gold spires gleam,
A dying fire,
Daring angels to fly higher,
Where the Czar
took a trip,
Hallucinogenic sinking ship
Of sad canals
And endless streets,
Where young lovers meet.
Still with an eye for the surreal, he conjuors up the Gaudi-esque:
Striking drain slime,
Sea rot and swollen sun;
fish ribbed, Gothic noon
The barriochino seethes
And celebrates tattoos:
Detailed scrolls of winding ink
Like tendrils round a tree,
A long-time fan of body-art, Almond has many tattoos, and in Pushin’ Ink, he weaves a glamorous web:
A curl around a nipple,
A spear through a shoulder blade,
Two pulsing hearts, a diving swallow,
Anchors, ace of spades.
Bravura crafted on the flesh,
A serpent in the crevices,
Writhing where its wet.
Paintings for his lifetime,
Decorations for parade,
A carpet for the Devil,
Coloured from the shades
Released in 2001, with a cd of the author reading his poems, The End Of New York sees Almond in nostalgic mood. His music had long contained elements of European (especially Spanish) sounds, along with the influence of American dance, and now, fresh from the success of two recent albums, and embarking on a direction which would further extend his already cosmopolitan sound to take in Russian songs and instruments, he delivered a collection anchored in the nightlife of New York, taking in visits to Puerto Rican clubs, the Gaiety Theatre, and The Eros on Eight Avenue- a beacon to lovers of male erotic dancing. Almond is reflective and matter-of-fact, non-judgmentally inviting us into a world of gangsters, hustlers and dealers, while all the while seeming to find the beauty among them:
Scintillating powdered crystal,
Each evening she rises
From a pile of star-spangled clutter…
Her night domain she rules
That Crimson Diva comes.
What a woman!
Alternating early songs with newly written poems, The End Of New York is a burst of joy and sorrow, as Almond regrets the new, corporate “Disneyland” the city has by that time, he feels, largely become – in much the same way he would write of the white-washing of London’s West End a decade or so later, when famous – and infamous – places were replaced by mass-market fast-food chains:
The end of New York came on a day
That was as grey as the hair
Of the mayor of New York.
He turned off the speakers,
Turned up the lights
And the corners shone white…
No more dancing,
No more drinking…
We feel both irritated by, and sorry for, the taxi driver who bores with droning stories about having driven Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and Judy Garland, and who in his own way also laments the passing of the old into the new – They don’t make ’ em like that, not no more. – and slip easily into the comfort of an oily black limousine, / the rain melting the windows. These poems are a world away from the wintry backstreets of Leeds, where we first found Almond nervously writing through his nights in student bed-sits. And yet, the same vein of vulnerability, of admiration for the lost, the lonely and the outsiders of life, shines through. The same idealistic clubber who, living for the moment, dances in a blur of broken neon among housewives, troubadours and a ruined superstar in the elegiac Suicide Saloon is not far removed from the wide-eyed youngster looking for those soft embraces among the back-to-backs and Nineteenth Century terraces of Chapeltown, or indeed the young boy dreaming of a life of glamour and excitement among the sandy hills and lonely seafronts of the Lancashire coast.
Prynne in Prospect
In his editorial opening to the winter 1960 issue of the Cambridge magazine Prospect Tony Ward comments upon writing in terms of climbing:
A writer is in the same relation to his material as a climber is to the cliff he is trying to scale. The cliff exists in its own right and is accessible only in a limited number of ways. Before the climber has taken the first decision and put his foot in a particular place he has had to search about, looking for the opportunities the cliff gives him. There are some places on the cliff which are not footholds. If the climber tries to use them to support himself on he will slip down and fail to climb the cliff. The climber must therefore respect the cliff. He cannot do anything else. If he really wants to get up the thing he must accept with gratitude the opportunities offered.
This image of the poet as a climber echoes that used by Gary Snyder in ‘Riprap’, published by Origin Press the year before the publication of that issue of Prospect. In Snyder’s terms words are linked to the careful path-making he was involved with in the Yosemite mountains:
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Cobble of milky way,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
and rocky sure-foot trails.
Ward’s editorial emphasises the sure-footed sense of exploration for the poet as ‘the footholds he builds his climb with are the words on the page as he puts them down.’ Paul Valéry’s observation is central in this context:
Everything which we can define distinguishes itself from the mind which produced it and goes into opposition. In the same moment it becomes, for the mind, the equivalent of a material on which the mind can operate, or an instrument by which it can operate.
(‘Cours Poétique’ in Variété V)
The editor’s conclusion is that the writers in this issue of the magazine share in common a concern ‘with the expression of the fine truth of their relation to the world outside them.’
That issue of Prospect closed with a review of Charles Tomlinson’s volume Seeing is Believing written by John Rathmell who was at the time engaged upon writing a thesis on John Ruskin. The volume being reviewed was published by Oxford University Press and was an enlarged version of the one published under the same title in the summer of 1958 by Macdowell, Obolensky, a recently established publishing firm in New York. Tomlinson had had his manuscript refused by a number of British publishers before it was taken up across the pond and Tomlinson was to record that in the late fifties the poems were ‘certainly unpublishable in England.’ The relationship between the self and the other which Tony Ward had referred to is taken up by Rathmell:
The scrupulous rendering of visual, tactile, and auditory effects is for him a process of self-discovery, an empirical enquiry into the exact nature of the outside world stripped of a priori assumptions.
Quoting from the poem ‘A Meditation on John Constable’, ‘for what he saw/Discovered what he was’, Rathmell connects Tomlinson’s apprehensions with those of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Similarly, Hopkins seeking inscape in natural phenomena strove to apprehend in them structures which were apart from himself, objectively there, and not narcissistic reflections of his own intelligence. Tomlinson is at one with his predecessors in attempting to present the explored beauty of nature immediately rather than descriptively, so that the reader may participate to some extent in the process of apprehension.
In a letter to Tomlinson in May 1961 Jeremy Prynne, a Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard who had graduated from Jesus College, Cambridge, took up this issue of ‘immediacy’ in relation to the work of Adrian Stokes:
Immediacy for Stokes is the simultaneous apprehension of a two-dimensional surface in space: this seems to me to be his primary concern. Elements of recession and protuberance, texture and contrast, are allowed to articulate our awareness, but not to violate its separateness and lucidity. Music and the dimension of succession generally is an arrière-pensée, draining the impact of this confrontation by insisting on the context of a linear dimension through time. Stokes manages in spite of this arbitrary self-impoverishment (he has lost, after all, effective use of two out of four dimensions), both to see with accuracy and to feel the full emotional relevance of what we see—the Cortile d’Onore at Urbino (seen almost completely through his eyes) was an extraordinary experience, and one in which I felt a full deployment of my entire capacities for response. According to generally held points of view about the experience of art, the most subtle and complex of these are of a moral nature, which commonly though loosely implies the experience of ethical differences inter-acting within a given duration—so that dimensions like hoping, fearing, loving, regretting, despairing and so on, with their attendant dramatic structures, can deploy themselves through time. Moral intensity can be achieved, from this point of view, only by means of moral crescendo, the enactment of developing conflict on all levels of experience.
Concluding Part II of The Quattro Cento Stokes comments on the surfaces of Quattro Cento marble relief as being ‘smooth, continuous, swelling: for they reveal a growth’:
Such reliefs attain the maximum of spatial objectivization in a primary form. But whereas sculptors of low relief express a directional force out of, or into the marble, the ensuing Quattro Cento architects and painters did not concern themselves with movement. Though contemplating the ebullient life that sculptors had lured to the surface of the stone, they desired to fix—not to perpetuate, since the word suggests a time-element—to fix that revelation as an outwardness, complete, unalterable. For the science of perspective had given a miraculous command over disposition in space, and thence at least two painters and one architect conceived the fantasy of a world of space alone in which, unlike among spiritual spheres, all relations were graduated, fixed, a world entirely immediate and revealed, a solid manifestation.
This ‘solid manifestation’ is an expression of personal faith and Stokes continues by referring to Francesco Laurana’s sculpture:
His busts, conceived geometrically, express an imprint of Quattro Cento finality put upon Quattro Cento emergence-effect. Measurement of bare geometric space, mathematical formulae, became supremely emblematic; and when used in the treatment of human forms, transmitters of full emotion. So objective a treatment, objective as science itself, could be possible only in an age whose aim, newly discovered, immensely inspired, was to turn subjective matter outwards, to concrete upon the surface of the stone an inner ferment.
Writing about the creation of Luciano Laurana’s courtyard at Urbino, that which had struck Prynne as ‘an extraordinary experience’ when he read it, Stokes draws the reader into a world of magical proportions:
But Luciano did not stucco his brick. He left it rough. In the second place his stone is white; pilasters are thin, plain, unfluted, immeasurably straight and smooth. Archivolts have a few deep lines. The stone, then, lies on the brick in low relief, yet stands out simple, distinct, a white magic, nitidezza. The unpassable space between window-frame and pilaster along the storey, or the exact framing of a window that lies back on the wall—for the colonnade beneath is broad—give so supreme an individuality to each stone shape (though every pilaster, for example, except for his place, is the same as the next), that one appears to witness a miraculous concurrence of masterpieces of sculpture, each designed to show the beauties of his neighbour as unique. There is no other traffic among them. Their positions are untraversable, and no hand shall dare to touch two stone forms at a time. They flower from the brick, a Whole made up of Ones each as single as the Whole. What could be more different from Brunellesque running lines, than this sublime fixture of the manifest?
To Adrian Stokes the highest achievements of visual art ‘not only absorb, but transform, time into terms of space’:
It is obvious both why the effect arouses emotion and why that emotion became so conscious as to be projected into the art of the even-lighted South. Objects perceived simply as related in space, encourage the ambition of every man for complete self-expression, for an existence completely externalized. Our love of space is our love of expression. When we complain of lack of light in England, beside the need for the sun’s rays we express a lack of spatial effect. Our spaces drift musical, composite. Even the brightest day has abundant ‘atmosphere-effects’. We console ourselves for the lapse of the immediacy image as for our own resulting lack of entire expression, with the various rhythm of music, literature and, alas, of the bastard products of the visual arts; since sense of space is well nigh lost, and small the art in which time is turned to space.
Prynne had written his own poem titled ‘Before Urbino’ which was published in the 1962 volume Force of Circumstance and Other Poems:
House next to house; tree next to tree; a wall
Tokens a winding road. The air across
The distant slope is palpable with light,
A clarid flood of silence. The heavy fruit
That weighs upon the olives can’t be seen
But must be there. There must be people too
Perhaps beneath the olives in the shade,
Calling to one inside the nearby house
And sending golden ripples through the air.
Such tokens are a ready currency:
And we are thus too liberal in their use
Who read a landscape so between the lines,
And take what is before us as a sign
Of what is mere conjecture. Still the light
Graces the house, and tree, and winding wall
With tranquil presence; lights upon the stone,
Shades the recumbent posture of the tree,
And leaves us silent in the singing air.
The opening line here echoes Tomlinson’s 1958 poem ‘Winter Encounters’:
House and hollow; village and valley-side:
The ceaseless pairings, the interchange
In which the properties are constant
Resumes its winter starkness.
In both poems there is a sense of Stokes’s ‘whole made up of ones’ and the inner ferment that becomes concreted upon surface. The monosyllabic first line of ‘Before Urbino’ lays out a stone-like riprap of ‘thereness’ and the sense of what lies beneath is given the reader as a ‘token’. That word itself is one which will became increasingly important as Prynne’s poetry develops and the definition of ‘a stamped piece of metal, issued as a medium of exchange by a private person or company, who engage to take it back at its nominal value, giving goods or legal currency for it’ (O.E.D.) links not only to what can or cannot be taken on trust but also to that shift from stone to metal referred to in the 1968 Ferry Press publication, Aristeas:
The early Bronze Age would, I suppose, locate the beginnings of Western alchemy, the theory of quality as essential. The emergence of metal technologies (smelting & beating, followed by knowledge of alloys) was clearly a new way with the magical forms through which property resided in substance. Until this stage, weight was the most specific carrier for the inherence of power, and weight was and is a mixed condition, related locally to exertion. The focus of this condition is typically stone; and though this seems most obviously to insist on the compact outer surface, in fact it provides the most important practical & cultic inside: the cave. The privilege of that ambiguity about surface gives the painted rock-shelter and the megalithic chamber-tomb the power of formal change, and in this way substance can be extended, by incorporation, to allow the magical and political/social presences their due place.
(A Note on Metal)
The palpable nature of the light in ‘Before Urbino’ combines a concreteness with the following image of liquidity in ‘flood of silence’. The presence of substantial value lying beyond the surface is taken on trust here as something that ‘must be there’ and the conversation of those whose lives are closely connected to each other in this landscape sends ‘golden ripples’ through this palpability. In Tomlinson’s ‘Winter Encounters’ he notes ‘a riding-forth, a voyage impending/In this ruffled air, where all moves/Towards encounter’:
Inanimate or human,
The distinction fails in these brisk exchanges—
Say, merely, that the roof greets the cloud,
Or by the wall, sheltering its knot of talkers,
Encounter enacts itself in the conversation
On customary subjects, where the mind
May lean at ease, weighing the prospect
Of another’s presence. Rain
And the probability of rain, tares
And their progress through a field of wheat—
These, though of moment in themselves,
Serve rather to articulate the sense
That having met, one meets with more
Than the words can witness. One feels behind
Into the intensity that bodies through them
Calmness within the wind, the warmth in cold.
Prynne’s awareness of the conversation, golden words, between the people has a more sceptical tone to it as he repeats the word ‘tokens’ and links it so explicitly with the movement of ‘currency’. The process of devaluation with its temptation to sentimentalize the lives of other people is brought home to us with that too great liberality with which we presume to know what is, after all, ‘mere conjecture’. What the poem leaves us with is a stone-like presence as the light is both ‘still’ in time and place.
In the winter of 1961 Prospect 5 appeared and it included poems by both Tomlinson and Prynne as well as the latter’s article ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ in which he contemplates the connections between subject and object:
All human action, Hartmann suggests, including physical movement and emotional activities such as expecting, hoping, desiring, valuing and so on, intend outward from the subject. They are directed towards some object or person, and this object or person conditions their exact nature. It is for Hartmann the resistance that these activities, radiating from the subject, encounter in the external world that is the chief source of our awareness of the world’s independent reality. The world becomes intelligible to us—that is to say, we can discriminate between different aspects of its existence—by virtue of the fact that it resists our activities in various ways. This is what Hartmann means by his phrase ‘the hardness of what is real’…
Tomlinson’s opening poem in Prospect 5 is ‘Return to Hinton’, initially written in August 1960 and revised in May 1961. The bracketed note beneath the poem’s title tells us that it was ‘Written on the author’s return to Hinton Blewett after six months in the United States’ and it deals with those ‘tokens of an order’ which are in the process of being devalued. For Tomlinson the seemingly unbroken continuity between people and their land is threatened and in June 1960 he wrote to William Carlos Williams about a motorway that was being planned for the Cotswolds:
One cannot drive an immense highway across these lovely intimacies of steep green hills and deep, recessed valleys.
The devaluing of a token is felt as
a surer death
creeps after me
out of that generous
rich and nervous land
where, buried by
the soft oppression of prosperity
locality’s mere grist
the even bed
of roads that will not rest
until they lead
into a common future
that we must speed
by means that are not either.
‘Over Here’, one of the two Prynne poems published in this issue of Prospect, is significantly different from Tomlinson’s and it looks forward to a different connection with the American scene:
And still that further
Light, not far out
But there, across
Our lost spaces.
Fare forth with
Sightings, then; set
Over what still remains,
Limits. Only now
Will light kindle
There, and no further:
Just beyond our
Here is where there
Is, this shaft
Of light, seen
Through open limits.
The connections between the perceiver and the perceived dominate this poem as the eye searches the ‘light’ that appears ‘across/Our lost spaces’. The opening line’s reference to ‘still’ suggests a link to ‘Before Urbino’ as stasis and time are held together and the gap between the self and the other is emphasised in terms of its nearness and its total separateness. Perhaps there is an echo here of Charles Olson’s 1959 poem ‘The Distances’ which contemplates the enormous gap between ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘now’ and ‘then’. In Olson’s poem ‘we cannot bide’, with its implication of remaining, and we cannot avoid the awareness of distance ‘by greedy life’. However great the desire for the unchanging may be it is powerless against the movement of dissolution. This urge to hold the ‘there’ with the ‘here’ leads in the poem to the grotesque but moving situation of the German inventor in Key West ‘who had a Cuban girl, and kept her after her death/in his bed’. Because love is so intense and alive in its feelings it ‘knows no distance, no place/is that far away’. That said the dissolution of the body changes everything and only words and feelings can
to this man
that the impossible distance
that young Augustus
and old Zeus
“I wake you,
stone. Love this man.”
It is worth comparing these poems with Thomas Hardy’s elegiac register of ‘lost spaces’ in the opening stanza of ‘The Going’ where he places Emma’s death as the closure of a term and the single word ‘gone’ on line five has a musical resonance of bell-like clarity. The ensuing image of the swallow, associated with migratory flights over great distances, emphasises the impossibility of bridging the distance between the ‘now’ and the ‘then’. In ‘The Voice’ Hardy’s attempt to realise the presence of his dead wife reaches its maximum point of closeness with the image of the ‘original air-blue gown’ where the colour of the dress worn by Emma when she and Hardy were courting is not quite definite enough to distinguish it from the emptiness of the sky. Interestingly in Victorian Studies 5 (1961-2) Prynne reviewed Samuel Hynes’s book, The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry and highlighted what he found the most satisfactory part of the study:
In the discussion of Hardy’s “assertively unmusical” style, this book is at its most satisfactory; the deliberate identification of “style” with “tone”, as a means of substantiating the poet’s self-effacement in favour of the particular world, is well pointed up. Though again the author insists on the primary dramatic structure without making as clear as one would like Hardy’s use of devices like meeting, quarrelling, and remembering the past as stereotypes to support a certain kind of meditation…
In Prynne’s ‘Over Here’ the second stanza opens with the journeying forth of expectation as the perceiver searches, like the lookout on a whaling ship, for ‘Sightings’ of an objective reality, only the ‘still remains’ of which can be brought to the here and now. It is the subject who brings to life the object as ‘now’ will ‘kindle’ light ‘There’ and the poem’s conclusion is
Here is where there
Is, this shaft
Of light, seen
Through open limits.
In November 1968 Prynne wrote a collection of notes for students ‘On the Outlook and Procedures of the Post-Romantic Mind’ in which he brought the mind to bear upon an extract from John Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita:
The flat cross-country between Chartres and Fontainbleau, with an oppressive sense of Paris to the north, fretted me wickedly; when we got to the Fountain of Fair Water I lay feverishly wakeful through the night, and was so heavy and ill in the morning that I could not safely travel, and fancied some bad sickness was coming on. However, towards twelve o’clock the inn people brought me a little basket of wild strawberries; and they refreshed me, and I put my sketch-book in pocket and tottered out, though still in an extremely languid and woe-begone condition; and getting into a cart-road among some young trees, where there was nothing to see but the blue sky through tin branches, lay down on the bank by the roadside to see if I could sleep. But I couldn’t, and the branches against the blue sky began to interest me, motionless as the branches of a tree of Jesse on a painted window.
Feeling gradually somewhat livelier, and that I wasn’t going to die this time, and be buried in the sand, though I couldn’t for the present walk any farther, I took out my book, and began to draw a little aspen tree, on the other side of the cart-road, carefully…
How I had managed to get into that utterly dull cart-road, when there were sandstone rocks to be sought for, the Fates, as I have so often to observe, only know…And to-day, I missed rocks, palace, and fountain all alike, and found myself lying on a bank of a cart-road in the sand, with no prospect whatever but that small aspen tree against the blue sky.
Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced,–without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they “composed” themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere…This was indeed an end to all former thoughts with me, an insight into a new silvan world.
Not silvan only. The woods, which I had only looked on as wilderness, fulfilled I then saw, in their beauty, the same laws which guided the clouds, divided the light, and balanced the wave. “He hath made everything beautiful, in his time” became for me thenceforward the interpretation of the bond between the human mind and all visible things; and I returned along the wood-road feeling that it had led me far,—Farther than ever fancy had reached, or theodolite measured.
The incident described by Ruskin took place in the summer of 1842 although it was not written about until June 1886. Prynne directs his readers to ‘an acutely intelligent discussion of Ruskin’s Fontainbleau experience’ in Adrian Stokes’s 1961 publication, ‘Three Essays on the Painting of Our Time’. Writing about the connexions and differences between ‘Visionary and Aesthetic Experience’ Stokes attempts ‘to indicate the gamut of object-relationship, that is, the distance between the relationship that entails an envelopment with the object and the relationship that preserves intact an independent and separated object.’ His essay suggests the central position held by Melanie Klein’s theories with their insistence upon our experience of objects, of palpable entities in space, having a primary importance in the full and healthy development of personality. The maternal breast as an object-image of satisfaction, nourishment received from tangible shape, furnishes an image of profound emotional value that is immediate and simultaneous. In that 1961 letter to Tomlinson Prynne had expanded on these thoughts by adding:
The heightened awareness of architecture and painting, as revealed in a finely articulated objectivity, is thus underpinned by such a theory of our earliest emotional life, and shown to be capable of a complex emotional relevance which can be controlled and subtilized by the formal resources of art. It is an oral theory in origin, which I am profoundly convinced was at the root of Ruskin’s urgent perceptiveness…The tensile equilibrium between the projection of our inner needs and the resistance to our awareness of the palpable external world (the recurring theme of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’) forms the context of a full range of appetencies and satisfactions which thus articulate the experience and render it luminous, without separating it from the perceptual immediacy that Stokes values so highly.
Prynne’s notes on the ‘Post-Romantic Mind’ go on to compare Ruskin’s experience with that of the painter Ford Madox Brown:
Brown, that morning in a disgusted and depressed state, is relieved by fine weather; and “one field of turnips against the afternoon sky did surprise us into exclamation”. When he later passes the charred ruins of a burnt-out house, the family dispossessed and only two chimneys left standing, he is reminded of having recently broken a tooth, and of the gap caused by this loss. His own loss of spirits having been relieved, a kind of ambiguous remorse leads him to internalise the sense of guilt at another’s loss. The turnips later form the shadowy but luminous foreground of a small landscape, which though ostensibly concerned with a harvest-scene is by 16th December still being called “the landscape of the turnip-field”. [The finished canvas now hangs in the Tate Gallery, with the title “Carrying Corn”.]
Prynne then proceeds to direct his readers to Wordsworth’s poem ‘Resolution and Independence’ where the primary experience, the ‘flash of mild surprise’, ‘presents itself with almost overwhelming authority.’
The last page of Prospect 5 closed on the note to subscribers that ‘The Editor for the next and future issues will be J.H. Prynne’ and that contributions should be sent to him in Cambridge. In fact the details of the production of Prospect 6 took considerably longer than might have been envisaged. A letter from Prynne dated 9th January 1964 to Andrew Crozier states that he was ‘now definitely in process of re-starting Prospect, since I can now afford it, and shall want to have things for it’. One of Crozier’s poems which was to be included in the new venture was ‘Drill Poem’, later to be included in the 1968 volume Train Rides. In February Prynne wrote again to say that ‘Prospect has gone off entire to my design expert, has come back three-quarters designed, and been returned with copious comment & counter-proposal.’ He added, in terms of promoting the publication of this magazine, that he was really not interested ‘in the casual reader & his hot little coin’—after all ‘This is a serious business’. The serious nature of this re-established magazine is immediately felt when one looks at the line-up of contributors to Prospect 6: Edward Dorn’s long poem ‘The Land Below’ and his ‘On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck’, Charles Olson’s ‘Going Right Out Of The Century’, a poem from 1961 which would be included in Maximus IV, V. VI, Robert Creeley’s story ‘The Grace’, work by Andrew Hoyem, Andrew Crozier, Donald Davie, the former editor Tony Ward and four of Prynne’s own poems, that were to remain uncollected, including ‘Salt Water, Fresh Water’:
At this time, where the tides
flow in silence into the past
the man of no great fortune
will also stand, on the shore.
To be known: the wash
and seething lift, the one certain
acrid presence. All that runs
out into the private width
scarfed for the known silent passing.
And thus the act of it, boldly to make
the affront, set
course by the slender stars
in jointure to the other shores.
With the wheatfields sounding freshly
in the ears, as of a light, resting
on the curvature of the earth.
All coastlines broach on the past
of the single mind; taking
to it the weight of shingle
and the lithe flowing to be withstood.
Here itself the fine recess
dissolving the deftness: ashes.
But the flame still seen, and re-lit
by trimming tightly towards it,
burning what’s most of value.
By insistence to come at it
in the held poise, the field of view.
Thus he draws it, out
from the mineral bearings below the tides
to the meadow, studded
at this one point:
The profile isolate but
matched in no private gesture.
His word against
the tide, and with it, also.
There is a detailed account of some aspects of this poem in Birgitta Johansson’s book, The Engineering of Being (Umeå University 1997) in which she sees the poem as an address to ‘the world from the position of the condition of being, represented by the mind, which perceives the ‘wash/and seething life’ of the sea’. Johansson relates this poem to Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ in that ‘its rhythms reflect the endless repetition of the waves in its stress pattern’ but also recognises that whereas Arnold discusses how the milieu reflects the mood of the speaker’s soul ‘Prynne addresses the dynamic structure of mind and of the landscape.’ More directly, perhaps, the poem addresses that distance between subject and object, the perceiver and the perceived, and places the Homeric figure of Elpenor communicating on these shores or strands as a figure from the dead. Pound’s rendering of the incident from Book 11 of The Odyssey stands at the fore of The Cantos as Elpenor asks for his inscription to be ‘A man of no fortune, and with a name to come’. In Prynne’s poem the second stanza opens with the words ‘To be known’, a desire for certainty, and it heralds the venture of the mind boldly making an affront on the outside, setting a ‘course by the slender stars’. The figure on the shore, held in the dissolution of ‘the fine recess’ which dissolves ‘the deftness’, still sees the flame in the distance which is ‘re-lit/by trimming tightly towards it’ like the lines in Ruskin’s drawing which insisted on being traced. Here ‘insistence’ brings ‘the held poise, the field of view.’
Prospect 6 appeared in the second half of 1964 and, as it turned out, it was the last issue. However, the following year saw the publication of the first issue of Wivenhoe Park Review edited by Andrew Crozier and Tom Clark from the Department of Literature in the University of Essex. Although the first issue was in Crozier’s words ‘a disaster, inadequately perfect bound because the cover didn’t include a spine and copies quickly disintegrated’ it contained an astonishing collection of work by both American and British poets ranging from Olson and Dorn, Spicer and Wieners, Eigner and Robin Blaser to Tom Raworth and Jeremy Prynne. Perhaps most interestingly the Prynne poems which appeared there in 1966 were to all re-appear in The White Stones: ‘Airport Poem: Ethics of Survival’, ‘A Figure of Mercy, of Speech’, ‘The Stranger, Instantly’, ‘Living in History’, ‘On the Anvil’, ‘The Holy City’, ‘How It’s Done’, ‘If There is a Stationmaster at Stamford S.D. Hardly So’, ‘Song in Sight of the World’. In a letter to Crozier from November 1965 Prynne contributed ‘another poem, which if you’ve room I would like to see in front of the others, i.e., the first in the group’ and the urgent importance of this request was highlighted in a further letter from December in which he emphasised ‘I do very much want Lashed to the Mast in with those other things, preferably to stand first in the order of them’. With the publication of Wivenhoe Park Review I in 1966 the new poems by Prynne, developed from those in Prospect but significantly different to them as well, appeared with ‘Lashed to the Mast’ standing firmly at their front. The enormous distance travelled between ‘Salt Water, Fresh Water’ and this new poetry is evident from the outset:
Lashed to the Mast
9th Nov 65:
Thus you have everything, at this
moment, that I could ever
command or (the quaint word)
dispose; rising now
in the east or wherever
damn well else
it’s yours but the old
weather must be (must still
be watched, thunder
is a natural phenomenon
the entire sequence
is holy, inviting no
sympathy; who should dare
let that out, towards
what there is
love the set, tight, the life
the land lie & fall, between
also the teeth, love the
forgetfulness of man which
is our prime notion of praise
the whole need is a due thing
a light, I say this in
danger aboard our dauncing boat
hope is a stern purpose &
no play save the final lightness
the needful things are a sacral
convergence, the grove on
a hill we know too much of—
this with no name & place
is us/you, I, the whole other
image of man
The poem’s opening seems to suggest that it derives from a letter, possibly to Charles Olson, but it now exists in its own world and isn’t even addressed to him. The Odyssey reappears in the reference to the voyage past the island of the Sirens (Book 12) where Odysseus commands his men to lash him by ropes to the mast so that he can hear their song without being destroyed by it. Indeed from this position he can dare to ‘let that out towards/what there is’. The reference to thunder and the sacred nature of the ‘entire sequence’ also brings into focus Hölderlin’s letter from the autumn of 1802 written to Casimir Ulrich Böhlendorff:
The contemplation of ancient statuary made an impression on me that brought me closer to an understanding not only of the Greeks, but of what is greatest in all art, which, even where movement is most intense, the conception most phenomenalized and the intention most serious, still preserves every detail intact and true to itself, so that assuredness, in this sense, is the supreme kind of representation.
After many shocks and disturbances of my mind it was necessary for me to settle down for a while, and for the time being I am living in my home town.
Nature in these parts moves me more powerfully, the more I study it. The thunderstorm, not only in its extreme manifestation, but precisely as a power and shape, among the other forms of the sky, light in its workings, nationally and as a principle that fashions a mode of fate, so that something is holy to us, its urgency in coming and going, what is characteristic in forests and the convergence in one region of different kinds of nature, so that all the holy places of the earth come together around one place, and the philosophic light around my window—these are now my joy; and may I bear in mind how I came here, as far as this place!
Any hope of bringing into focus an awareness of the self’s relation to the other will depend upon ‘a stern purpose’ which combines not only the seriousness of the attempt but the guiding hand on the rudder so that the perceiver may see in the words of Adrian Stokes ‘a Whole made up of Ones each as single as the Whole’.
Talk for the Friends of the University Library,
University of Cambridge, 19th February 2014
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My talk here today revolves around the very particular case of the acquisition of Archive material of the poet, translator and publisher John Riley and I hope to share with you a sense of the intricate pathways down which one might expect to proceed in pursuit of the past. I say in pursuit of the past quite deliberately because when one reads the correspondence of a group of friends who were up at Cambridge at roughly the same time in the early 1960s there is an intimacy of communication which seems to place flesh upon the dry bones of biographical history which is a little akin to the world of the French Historical school, Annales. When one reads such immediate accounts of thoughts and events put down on paper, in a pre-electronic age, to be sent between friends who had gone different professional ways after leaving university and who now lived in different parts of the country, it is as though the vividness of that past possesses a moment of risplende: it shines. In order to get the context in place it is necessary to say a few words of biographical detail concerning not only John Riley but also two of his particular friends, Tim Longville and Michael Grant.
John Riley was born in Leeds in 1937 and after doing A levels was called up for National Service, joining the Royal Air Force in 1956. It was during this period, some of which he spent in Germany, that he learned Russian. In 1958 he went to Pembroke College to read English, graduating in 1961. It was at Pembroke that he met Tim Longville who was also reading English and with whom he was to found the Grosseteste Press in 1966 and Grosseteste Review, the first issue of which appeared early in 1968. After leaving Cambridge John taught in primary schools in and around the Cambridge area before moving to Bicester, near Oxford. His first book of poems, Ancient and Modern, was published by Grosseteste in 1967. Some of these poems had already appeared in The English Intelligencer, the privately circulated poetry worksheet which ran over three series comprising nearly forty individual issues from January 1966 to April 1968 and which had been started by Andrew Crozier and J.H. Prynne. Crozier, a graduate from Christ’s College, had recently returned from SUNY where he had been studying under Charles Olson and was about to join the newly-founded English department at the University of Essex, at the invitation of Donald Davie. Prynne was, of course, a Fellow of Caius.
In 1967 Riley and Longville published a jointly translated version of some poems by Hölderlin under the title In the Arms of the Gods. These attempts at translating the German Romantic poet can be traced back some years because in 1963 Riley had clearly sent some of them to Michael Hamburger at the University of Reading to sound out his views. The reply from Hamburger can be found now in this new Archive but let me just give you a sentence of two: ‘I have marked a few passages in this and in ‘The Archipelago’. As for your arrangement of the lines in the latter I’m sorry to say that I’m completely against it. You mention natural pauses for breath; but surely if Hölderlin wrote in long lines (and knew his job) the length of those lines bears some relation to his natural breathing in that poem. The impression your version makes on me is one of extremely short breath—a kind of gasping in verse, and H. had the longest breath of any poet I know, so that he had to overflow not only lines, but stanzas and sections. I am also against this kind of arrangement because it is modish and finicky. I can see the point of it in Pound, who started all this, because he was applying an imagist technique in long poems, so that his object was to give full weight to the individual image and phrase.’ Hamburger also goes on to express some despair at the publishing world of the time: ‘I am trying to find a publisher for my own Hölderlin translations—the fourth and last attempt and have almost given up hope of finding one in England. I think that you too would do well to look to America.
In 1970 John Riley published What Reason Was, a collection of poems drawn from what he had been writing between 1967 and 1969 many of which had appeared in those magazines of the late Sixties which act as a type of record of an alternative scene to what some might regard as the mainstream: Resuscitator (edited by John James), Collection (edited by Peter Riley), The Park (edited from Essex and then Keele by Andrew Crozier) and Grosseteste Review itself. It was at about this time that he gave up school-teaching in order to devote himself more completely to his writing. He moved briefly to Cornwall and then returned to Leeds where he spent the rest of his life with the exception of a short but significant visit to Istanbul in 1973. John Riley was married to Carol in 1973 and in 1977 was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1973 his volume of poems Ways of Approaching was published and it contained the first three sections of ‘Czargrad’, two of which were republished from Grosseteste Review and I shall say a little more about that poem in a moment or two. Riley’s last volume of poems to be published in his lifetime was That is Today (Pig Press 1978) before he was murdered by two muggers outside a pub in the Chapel Allerton area of Leeds on 27th October of that year. Tim Longville organised the publication of a volume of tributes to Riley, published in 1979, and then the Collected Works which appeared in 1980,
some year and a half after Riley’s death, and it was here that the final version of ‘Czargrad’ appeared. As I mentioned, an earlier version of this central work had appeared as ‘Two Poems’ in the one-volume edition of Grosseteste Review 6 where it had attracted the attention of Jeremy Prynne who wrote to Longville thanking him for this latest issue of the magazine and expressing considerable interest in the manner in which this poem was progressing:
For what strikes me is how openly placed the poem is to receive whatever fruits are ripe. Mostly up to now the forms have been very tight, with theology to match and the life within purged from these two margins. And now he can hardly finish a sentence! I can’t help thinking of some sweet rain falling steadily over the fields, gracefully immune to human denial; and JR moved even more than moving others, the elegist turning to psalms. Of course it will look like maudlin theism to some, cathected into the lyric stream, and the dangers of this are part of the risk we are part of: “the very name of Love is a sign of distinction, for Love is not established by one but by two, by the lover and by that which he loves…These Minds, therefore, that have been accounted worthy for they leave behind them every name that is called and distinct and defining, and now become nameless above name, and speechless above speech.” And yet and yet; Our own desires will be our true death.
The development of this major poem which centres on an imagined Eastern Orthodox city, ‘shining a little with Byzantine gold, ambiguously holding out promise of true government, of true citizenship and held in mind-sight by tremulous energies of artistic creativity’ (Douglas Oliver, PN Review 20, July-August 1981) continued in Ways Of Approaching where a third section was added to the first two. This was work in progress and part of a fourth section was published in Grosseteste Review Volume 7 in the summer of 1974 before the completed section, in draft form, was sent to Grant for comment. The central place that this sequence held in John Riley’s mind is highlighted perhaps by the fact that when Andrew Crozier produced an anthology of ‘Ten English Poets’ for James Laughlin’s New Directions 32, published in 1976, Riley’s contribution was the first part of ‘Czargrad’ and the importance of the continuing development of the work was emphasised by Riley in an undated letter to Grant in which he suggested that ‘No, Czargrad has not progressed beyond part IV and is not liable to. My own small long dark night may have begun. It’s even impossible for me to imagine what it must be like to write a poem.’ However, in spite of that view, a letter to Grant from March 1978 opens with the comment ‘Czargrad seems to be sprouting a part five. Whether genuine extension or self-parody I know not, but since it does not seem to be available to me to write otherwise I’ll stick with it and see what develops.’ I am not aware that anything remains of these shoots unless they are the few lines which appear in the ‘Uncollected Poems’ section of Longville’s volume. The four sections that existed finally in The Collected Works present the reader with an intricate and pervasive exploration of the language of the spirit and they represent a remarkable achievement. It is worth noting here that the progress of the poem was followed by Iain Sinclair who wrote to Grant in November 1974 ‘Yes, I follow Czargrad with a keen eye. It is a work I greatly admire. Along with the Prynne opus. The way is the way on, putting muscle into the eye, taking courage in the breath. Fire is breathed into the straw by finding that these activities are not entirely solitary & crazy (for these times).’
In 1995 Carcanet published a Selected Poems of John Riley edited by Grant but since then, over the last nearly twenty years, there has been relative silence until part two of this brief talk.
In 2009 at a conference about the work of Charles Olson, held at the University of Kent, I met Michael Grant. He had recently retired from being senior lecturer in Film Studies at the university and was one of those involved in organising the conference. We quickly struck up a friendship which was doubtless fuelled by both being Caians, albeit with ten years between us, and both having been taught by Jeremy Prynne. We started to meet quite regularly and over the following months much conversation revolved around those early days of the 60s and Grant’s connections with Longville, Riley, Crozier and the novelist Tom Sharpe. Michael was trying to get his papers sorted out in preparation for a move of house and asked me to look after some boxes of what appeared, at first glance, to be a jumble of empty envelopes, letters, typescripts and other ephemera. Acting in the manner of a very basic secretary I started putting letters and envelopes together and sorting out the different correspondents and as I did so a picture started to appear. John Riley, Tim Longville and Michael Grant remained for many years in the habit of writing to each other about their own poetry as well as about what they were reading. In this wealth of correspondence I read about the setting up of the Grosseteste Press and the background to the publication of Grant’s own poetry, The Fair, which the press put out in 1967. Since I was myself engaged at this time with putting together the Andrew Crozier Reader for Carcanet and in looking through the enormous archive of correspondence which Crozier had meticulously kept the whole enterprise of a reconstruction of the past became increasingly fascinating. It also happened to coincide with the emergence of the University Library’s interest in setting up this new Poetry Archive. From mid-2011 things started moving pretty fast!
Michael Grant was very pleased for his papers to be donated to this new Archive and it was he who initially suggested to me that I ought to enquire concerning what might have happened to those of John Riley. Where better to start on this trail which would lead back to 1978 than Tim Longville of course and my springboard was not an altogether promising one: a card from ten years earlier which Longville had sent to Grant telling him: ‘…no I don’t write poems. Haven’t done for years. One day the swine just upped & left me. No forwarding address. Nothing to be done. Not a fate I’m alone in, at least….I write very little of anything any more & what I do is mostly (prepare to laugh) about plants & gardens.’ Now Tim Longville had been involved in the anthology of poems, A Various Art, along with Andrew Crozier so when Crozier’s papers concerning the editing of that volume arrived her at the library it seemed to both John Wells and myself that the correct way to proceed would be to advise Tim of this. I wrote to Tim’s gardening-books publisher in July 2012 and received the following reply: ‘Dear Ian, Frances Lincoln passed your email on to me. It was courteous to let me know about the project, in particular insofar as it relates to A Certain Art. I can’t think of any reason why I’d need more details than simply to know that it’s happening’. This did not sound very promising but I wrote again mentioning that Michael Grant had donated an important archive of correspondence between himself, Longville and John Riley much of which centred upon both the setting up of Grosseteste Press and the writing of ‘Czargrad’to suggest that Tim might have interesting materials himself which he had kept from those days and the reply came swift and clear: ‘Sorry – not my sort of thing. That sort of academicisation of poetry via the endless accumulation in university libraries of what are in effect no more than laundry lists sends chills down my spine and always did. Infinitely better to let the naked reader confront the naked poem’.
Over the following couple of months I started reading Tim Longville’s poetry with a greater sense of care and this led in turn to my writing a piece for PN Review on the early Grosseteste volumes of both him and Michael Grant. I intended this to be one of two pieces of writing, the second focussing on John Riley. When the article was published in March of last year it concluded with the comment that there was to be a companion piece relating to the work of John Riley and there was also the statement to the effect that Michael Grant’s archive of correspondence was soon to be added to the Cambridge Library’s Poetry Archive. I sent a copy to Tim and he wrote back: ‘Thanks for the copy of PN Review. The piece—and in this case the whole issue—does (still) seem very strange to me. Not my world, not (any longer, at least) me. It was generous of you to undertake it, though, even if I tend to think (don’t take this amiss) that attention given to your allotment would have been a more fruitful use of your time. I hope at least that Michael is pleased with how he figures in it: he should be. As for the John Riley piece: his widow is now in the last stages of M.S. and in sheltered accommodation, so may not even be able to read it (though friends may be able to read it to her) but I’m sure she’d like to see it. Perhaps you could send me a copy which I could pass on to her? Or if you’ll let me know when you have a publication date, I’ll let you have her present address if, as I assume, you don’t have it.’ Well, a few days further on Tim wrote again with the address: The Laureates, Shakespeare Road, Guiseley, Leeds and added ‘(She has always had a wry and dry sense of humour and was amused by the excessive appropriateness of that address for the widow of a poet’. I sent my article to Carol Riley and on May 1st last year received a letter from her: ‘Dear Ian, I apologise for my improbable address. The patron of my flat is Alfred Austin—arguably the worst laureate ever but a talented grower of impressive facial hair. John’s archive is packed in two large boxes. I’m afraid I cannot offer to bring them as I am a full-time wheelchair user…As John has no family as far as I aware, I would like to donate the copyright of both the archive and the work to the University Library. Can you tell me how to do this?’ Needless to say I contacted John Wells immediately and matters came speedily to a head. I spoke on the phone to Carol Riley and arranged to call on her in Guisely on May 13th, meeting John there. As we looked through the boxes it became increasingly clear that this was a find of considerable importance and I’m sure won’t mind if I quote his phrase to me ‘We’ve hit the jackpot!’ The boxes contained an extraordinary range of correspondence dealing with the setting up and early years of Grosseteste Press, the drafts of John Riley’s poems, his notebooks, unpublished translations of Mandelstam which was the last enterprise he was involved with thirty-five years ago. Carol Riley was delighted with the outcome and talking to her I quickly realised that this could all have gone so badly wrong: it is just possible that those boxes of papers and notebooks might have simply ended up being overlooked instead of being on display here today: a past brought back to now: risplende.
A Tribute To Robert Friend On His 100TH Birthday
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I knew these facts about my mother’s brother, Robert Friend: he was a poet, he lived in Israel and he was gay. As I later learned, he emigrated to Israel in 1950, the year of my birth. Being a curious child and having a lively interest in my mysterious uncle, ‘the poet,’ I spent many hours going through the airmail letters that Robert sent to my parents from Jerusalem. Later, as a would-be poet in my teenage years, I started to read the volumes of his published poetry that he proudly sent to my parents. I also noted that many of his letter contained new poems on scraps of paper.
As I became an adult, I started to correspond with Robert, sharing anecdotes, photos and poems. After reading his books, I commented on the poems that moved me, and so our correspondence went on through the years. I didn’t know a lot about Robert’s life as a gay man in Israel but I knew that he was honored as a writer of English language poetry and as a translator of Hebrew poetry, in addition to teaching English literature at Hebrew University. When I visited Robert in Israel in 1971, I still didn’t know enough about literature (and gay history) to ask the questions that would come to mind today.
When Robert died in 1998 (at the age of eighty-four), he left me the copyrights to his poems and poetry, the greatest gift he could give. On the eve of his 100th birthday–November 25, 2013–it is important to note that through his own English-language poetry, Robert was a pioneer of gay literature. However, because he spent many years in Israel, his work has yet to reach a critical mass of readers in the gay community in the United States.
Looking at early photos of Robert, one sees a sensitive and scholarly young man who began writing poetry in early adolescence. From what I’ve learned from my family, he knew he was gay early on, a fact he explained to my mother when she visited him in Puerto Rico (in 1941) and found Robert and his male friends dancing in the living room.
Friend’s first volume of verse, Shadow on the Sun, was published in 1941, when he was twenty-seven. His sexual orientation can be surmised in lines such as “All men are lonely gathering in the night/to keep each other warm” (Impossible Blue) and
This love is solitary that will die this death;
it weeps on your breast, gathers loneliness
of all men who at the self-same hour
lying behind dark shades in a rotting house
shut out the light of history, shut out that love
which giving of itself gives to itself,
creates new worlds. That is our meaning;
and when I’ll read it in the eyes of men,
sharing their lives with them, our purpose one,
I’ll read it clear in yours. (‘Meaning’)
Friend grew up in Depression-era Brownsville, in a poverty-stricken family consisting of his mother, five children and an absentee father. After graduation from Brooklyn College in 1937, he joined the Communist Party. According to the poet Edward Field in his Editor’s Preface to Friend’s Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998, “It was the Depression that sent him to Puerto Rico on a teaching assignment, which was his opportunity to discover his sexuality that had been stunted by his deprived bringing up, the antagonism of the Communist Party to homosexuality, and the unreal romantic landscape of poetry he wandered in. Not just sexuality, but a sensuality that his aestheticism had blinded him to—an appreciation of his body.”
When Friend emigrated to Jerusalem in 1950, he was (as Field states) “one step ahead of the American authorities” who were planning to revoke his passport, due to his brief membership in the Communist Party. He remained in Israel for the rest of his life.
Over the years, Friend became a respected poet, translator and mentor to many poets who attended his classes at Hebrew University. In addition, (according to Field), he developed an “understanding and appreciation of the Moslem world…sexuality was the bridge to understanding, for Palestinian lovers introduced him to life in the West Bank.”
In time, Robert’s adherence to formal styles of poetry lessened, and his free verse reflects a more openness (combined with a sharp wit) about his sexuality. According to Gabriel Levin in his Introduction to Dancing with a Tiger, “Undoubtedly his willingness to speak and write about his own homosexuality was connected, as well, to changes occurring around the world in gay communities, including Israel.”
The following poems are examples of how Friend’s sexuality is reflected in his work:
Boy on a Bicycle
From Selected Poems (The Seahorse Press, 1975)
He balances my dreams, that dewy acrobat
who balances upon those dazzling wheels,
riding no hands to the summer of her smiles;
balances and how precariously
my heart as his dizzying delight will weave
fickle constellations for his freckled love;
and in his mindless whirls so weaving me
that I must circle though invisible
the world astraddle on a flaming wheel.
From Somewhere Lower Down (The Menard Press, 1980)
Whatever grows here grows wild:
cactus and sudden nettles in the dunes,
boys in careless constellations
scattered, or shyly fugitive.
Passive to my look they lie
while dreamless fish leap long bows in the sun,
and lean birds stalk the seas
tempting their tongues of foam.
Out of the Closet
From After Catullus (The Beth-Shalom Press, 1997)
A closet-queen of words
who hid his meaning
in fashionable ironies
I now declare myself
in shameless clarities
all my tailored “she’s”
into naked “he’s”.
The Practical Poet
From After Catullus (The Beth-Shalom Press, 1997)
To assure his love poem’s
tenderly he tattooed it
On his lover’s ass.
The poems self-published by Friend in After Catullus show us a writer
who had grown to fully embrace his sexuality. When he died in 1998 of cancer, one of his last poems reflects a sense of peace:
From Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (Menard Press, 2003)
They tell me I am going to die.
Why don’t I seem to care?
My cup is full. Let is spill.
After Robert passed away in Jerusalem in 1998, I was surprised to learn that he had left me his copyrights. With the help of three of my uncle’s close friends—poet Edward Field, poet and translator Gabriel Levin, and the Publisher and Editor of Menard Press, Anthony Rudolf, we set about to get Robert’s work before a wider audience. His poems now appear in Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (published by Menard Press), while two books of translations of Hebrew poetry have been published by Toby Press (Found in Translation: Twenty Hebrew Poets and Ra’hel: Flowers of Perhaps). His most popular poem is undoubtedly ‘My Cup,’ which I see quite often on the Internet.
One of the joys of having a literary inheritance has been learning about my uncle’s life and work from family as well as friends of his who have now become my friends. From my mother I learned of Robert’s rivalry with the famous critic Alfred Kazin, with whom he grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn during the Depression. In his memoir A Walker in the City, Kazin turned my uncle into “Isrolik” (not a favorable portrait). When my mom met Mr. Kazin at a banquet shortly before he passed away, he brought my mother to the head table, where they enthusiastically discussed the old days. Kazin told her that he hadn’t been fond of Robert; “He didn’t like you either,” my mother replied.
I wish I could have asked Robert what it was like to be Robert Frost’s official escort when the famous poet visited Jerusalem. We could have discussed his co-writing the Brooklyn College official song with Sylvia Fine, the wife of Danny Kaye, in 1933. And I would have asked about his memories of artists and writers he met at Yaddo in 1947. While looking at the official portrait of that year’s guests, I discovered to my delight that Robert was sitting next to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was holding his Leica!
As it is, I have made many discoveries on my own while going through his archives at Brooklyn College, from which he graduated in 1937. I treasure my photocopies of letters Robert received from Marianne Moore, Iris Murdoch and Paul Bowles.
Ultimately, I would have loved to discuss with my uncle his thoughts about being gay (and being a gay poet) during the repressive 1950s and 60s. In the end, his work speaks for itself, and I hope that on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Friend will be increasingly recognized for his contributions to poetry, the art of translation, and gay literature.
Happy Birthday, Uncle Robert.
Essays and poems Copyright © Jean Shapiro Cantuemail@example.com
Photo courtesy of Jean Shapiro Cantu
Links about Robert Friend’s Life and Work
BRIDGE: Long Poems Of The Extraordinary: MATT BIALER
(Leaky Boot Press www.leakyboot.com ISBN 978-1-90984-904-4 softback 434pp)
These eleven long narrative poems imitate notes towards novels. Capsule fiction-fragments stripped down to suggestion, each operating through keywords that intimate imaginary paragraphs, or chapters. A giant humanoid skeleton discovered in Saudi Arabia sparks clues and speculations. ‘The Great Flying Saucer Flap’ of 1952 is seen through the eyes of a child whose Air Force pilot father went missing around the time of Johnny’s Ray hit record ‘Cry’. ‘Selkie’ mermaid sightings reflect on a girl born with webbed toes. Rhythms and repetitions establish patterns of codes and ciphers rich with hidden meanings. What Bialer terms ‘Coherent Thought Sequencing’ through which he invades the mindsets of strangeness in twisty and absurd ways. There are enigmatic alien autopsies and urban myths, Lemuria, Mayan Crystal Skulls and the Stuxnet virus. X-Filed Fortean Conspiracy Theorists, cryptozoology and UFO-logist George Adamski. The title-poem unspools in separate frames as a handheld ‘Mothman’ docu-movie would. Animals found with puncture-wounds. Glowing coal-red eyes, two luminous circles that light up nights of perpetual darkness and ugliness. Jeepers-Creepers. Matt Bialer has been around some time, with five previous collections, Radius (Les Editions du Zaporogue), Already Here, Ark, Black Powder and The Bloop (from Black Coffee Press), inhabiting anomalous literary zones, for his concerns are off-mainstream. His styling unique. This latest is a big chunky colourful paperback disguised as a blockbuster novel. There are plots and subplots within his poems. His ‘giants’ sequence is enmeshed with Biblical references, flashbacks to Irwin Allen’s TV ‘Land Of The Giants’, and recollections of his 7’6” grandfather. Is giantism genetic? His UFO poem bounces a collapsing relationship between the narrator’s journalistic need to debunk, and his shakily eroding scepticism. And Boriska, the Russian starchild prodigy who can name all the planets and their moons at age three, contrasts the protagonist’s sixteen-year-old Asperger’s son. Then there’s Coral Castle – America’s Stonehenge constructed by an eccentric Latvian who maybe utilises magnetic contra-gravity. And the Hollow Earth mysteries as seen through editions of ‘Amazing Stories’ magazine. They draw you in. You get involved, they’re plot-driven, as with fiction, albeit with poetic structures. Dialogue out loud. Internal dialogue too. Fast and pacey, swirling with mind-altering Sci-Fi weirdness. Yet reaching no conclusions. No neat closures. Bridge is as strange as anything you’ll read this year.
The Holocaust & Reconciliation:
POETRY MAY SALVE THE WOUNDS THAT HAVE REFUSED TO HEAL
An INTERVIEW with THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND
The wounds inflicted by the Holocaust are still refusing to heal – but they are not the only burden of human rights abuse inherited by the
21st century. DAVID CUSCÓ I ESCUDERO, editor of the Catalan cultural
magazine “El funàmbu”l (The Tightrope Walker) serving a country that
endured unspeakable atrocities during the Spanish Civil War, questions
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND, a Jewish-Hungarian poet, translator and foreign
correspondent, on his attempt to look beyond the Holocaust.
David: We are about to publish some of your Holocaust poetry in
Catalan translation. We are also very interested in your English
translations of outstanding Hungarian Holocaust poetry. Did you write
them because you thought that the Holocaust could be fathomed only
through literature since the basic facts of that crime were so huge
and its premises so horrible that they could be described
comprehensibly only in fiction? That would be just the opposite of
Theodor Adorno’s dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is
barbaric” – although he later qualified that, after reading Paul
Thomas: Adorno looked at Auschwitz and despaired. But humanity must
look to its future, and cannot afford to despair. I recently attended
a meeting of Holocaust survivors, old people who had looked evil in
the face as young adults, somehow survived and dedicated their lives
to warning the world against attempting such madness ever again. They
agitate, they write, they lecture, especially to the young.
But they see that the very occurrence of the Holocaust is vociferously
being denied by people who would like to repeat it. These aging
witnesses know that they will be silenced soon by illness and death.
They fear that, when they are gone, no-one will be left to defend the
world against such renewed barbarity.
I do not fear that. I believe that, as Odysseus will sail the seven
seas of imagination in Homer’s hexameters for the rest of history, so
the passionate warnings of the Holocaust survivors will resound
through the ages in the voices of the poets of our own time.
David: In your poem “Caution,” a child summons humanity from
Auschwitz. He reminds me of Hurbinek, that unforgettable child in
Primo Levi’s “The Truce” who mumbles instead of talking. Despite the
pain conveyed by your poem, I sense a spark of optimism here, in the
dignity of the child’s response to his own suffering… Is there, to
you, room for optimism after the Holocaust?
Thomas: Probably the most important thought in that poem is “hold up
your head… while you’ve got it.” It radiates optimism even beyond
death. I did not invent that. I found it in a surviving poetic
fragment from a slave-labour camp. I’ve just managed to identify its
author as Jaroslav Ježek (not the composer of that name), to whom the
poem is now dedicated.
Primo Levi and Paul Celan both committed suicide after the Holocaust,
perhaps because they saw no room left for decency, let alone optimism,
after Auschwitz. Both turned to poetry to shout out their astounded
grief and rage at their incomprehensible humiliation and abuse at the
hands of the Nazis, for which they had been totally unprepared. But
the subsequent generations are not unprepared. They are all survivors,
and their enduring capacity for love and decency originates from
David: Does your personal experience of the Holocaust justify such optimism?
Thomas: My own Holocaust culminated in the three-month Soviet siege of
Nazi-occupied Budapest, one of the bloodiest city sieges Europe has
ever endured. I was a Jewish child hiding from both the Nazis and the
Allied bombers. I had just turned six when the Nazis smashed my
idyllic childhood, the very age when a child must confront the wider
world, beyond the protective circle of parents and family, and learn
to manage it without assistance. That is the mother of all adventures.
The world as perceived by a child then is unpredictable and dangerous
even at the best of times. Challenges may appear from any direction
and the child must learn to dodge them.
To me, the shouting Nazis staging their brutal raids on civilian
shelters hunting for Jews in hiding, like me, appeared as dumb, cruel,
homicidal monsters pretty low on my scale of threats, after the
continuous aerial bombardment, the ubiquitous disease-carrying vermin
and the contaminated drinking-water supply that got me in the end. All
this has made me more optimistic than most people I know because I
have come to expect myself to survive a crisis, and happier too as I
still cannot believe my luck of being alive.
David: In your poem “The Name” you even speak in the name of
Eichmann’s son. It is a daring poem, very brave and impressive, which
seems to share the controversial concept of the “banality of evil”
that Hannah Arendt introduced after Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Was
this poem influenced by her?
Thomas: Eichmann had a surviving nephew in Austria, who chose to hold
on to that infamous surname. My poem enlarges on some of his attitudes
that do not directly address Arendt’s thesis. That had arisen from her
shocked realization during the 1961 Jerusalem trial, which she covered
for “The New Yorker” magazine, that ordinary, sane people can be
oblivious to their personal culpability for dreadful deeds if they
commit them under a higher authority. That is a very uncomfortable
notion. Some people even responded by calling Arendt a “Nazi whore”.
A decade later, by the time I covered for “The Nation” magazine of New
York the Düsseldorf trial of Franz Stangl, commander of the Trebnlinka
and Sobitor extermination camps, her proposition had become widely
accepted. Stangl even tried to defend his innocence by maintaining
that he had “merely” followed orders.
He earned a life sentence – and managed to do just one great service
to humanity that he had so enormously abused. In an exhaustive prison
interview with Gitta Sereney, an extraordinary Austrian/English
investigative reporter, Stangl admitted hours before his final, fatal
heart attack his personal responsibility and remorse for mass murder.
The principle that we are all individually responsible for our
actions, even in the face of unreasonable orders, even on the
battlefield, is now enshrined in international law and increasingly
also in the constantly evolving human conscience. That is the hope of
David: Imre Kertész, the Jewish-Hungarian Nobel Laureate, often
reminds his audiences that he has survived both the Nazi and the
Soviet dictatorships and that his experience has absolutely shaped his
work and vision of life. To what extent do you think that the same
events have shaped your poetry and life?
Thomas: All humanity has survived those two dictatorships, and a lot
more, irrevocably shaping all of us. There were Hitler and Stalin and
also Mao and Franco and even Idi Amin. The world is not the same that
it had been before Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
Technological advancement has now enabled the religious/political
elite of any state to attempt genocide, and some openly fantasize
about it. We are even destroying nature, of which we are part. My own
experience tells me that humanity’s one chance today lies in total
dedication to survival, untrammelled by the grief, the guilt, the
resentments of the past.
We must literally talk and cry them out of our system. Poetry is a
great vehicle of post-crisis reconciliation. Modern Germany has
managed that, to a great extent, and built a resilient and decent
society. That is why Kertész now lives in Berlin, of all places. Much
of formerly Soviet-dominated Europe has not even begun to do that.
Which is why I have returned to Budapest from the West, in the hope of
encouraging that process.
David: Do you prefer writing in English or your native Hungarian? Can
one write poetry in a second language?
Thomas: There are precedents of writers producing sound work in their
adopted languages. In poetry, every word should sound so fresh,
anyway, as though its author had only just used it for the first time.
I have lived by freelance writing (as well as a scholarship and
occasional casual labour in the early years) since the age of 16. I
stopped writing in Hungarian at 18 when I left the country after the
doomed 1956 revolution against Soviet rule, in which I had
participated. In the last 50 years, I have only written love letters
in Hungarian, and only because their recipient does not understand
David: Apart from your own writing, you have translated much poetry
into English. Why? Do you believe that the translator of poetry must
be a poet?
Thomas: I started translating poetry as a young man seeking to learn
from my betters. I saw myself as a fine-art student in a public
gallery copying the works of great painters in order to master their
techniques by re-creating their compositions. Eventually it gave me
huge pleasure to dig the literary remains of deceased friends out of
their premature graves and give them new life in English – a language
accessible to all the world.
Dead masters make good teachers. But on reflection I believe that
translators must be poets in their own right and preferably equal to
the authors of the poems that they translate.
David: Some of the Hungarian Holocaust poets whom you have introduced
to English literature have now been taught by British and American
universities in your translation for years. One of them, Miklós
Radnóti, has gained a robust international reputation (see
“Deathmarch,” the last edition, published by The Penniless Press and
Snakeskin, both in England, in 2009). What makes Radnóti so special?
Was he well known at home before the Holocaust?
Thomas: He was hardly known anywhere before his murder at the age of
34. His last poems describing his experiences in a slave-labour camp
and a “deathmarch” were found on his body in a mass grave after the
war. The poems recording the chaos and brutality of the Holocaust in
magnificent classical metre have made him a beloved national figure in
Hungary, despite the current upsurge of anti-Semitism prevailing in
that poor country.
David: Radnóti acknowledged his Jewish origins but rejected what he
termed his “race and blood and roots,” much like Franz Kafka. Why do
you think he did that? And did the Holocaust make Radnóti and others
like him more aware of their Jewishness?
Thomas: Hungary was among the first in the modern world to emancipate
its Jewish population in the 19th century. Many Jews responded in an
enthusiastic wave of assimilation. This was part of a Central
European trend that in previous generations embraced such
quintessentially Jewish pre-Holocaust masters as Kafka, an alienated
Jew, and Heine, a Christian convert.
Radnóti also converted to Catholicism. He was shot wearing a white
armband identifying him as a Jewish-born Christian. There is nothing
in his surviving poetry to suggest that his clearly anticipated fate
had shaken his sincere religious conviction.
But a retrospective view of the Holocaust has given the survivors food
for thought. Some have recovered and defended the land of Israel. Some
have re-built Budapest as a vibrant Jewish cultural capital. Some have
sought safety by burying their racial/cultural identity even deeper.
A foulmouthed, young, racist Hungarian politician has just learned
that he is a Jew – a fact hitherto kept from him by his loving family
of Holocaust survivors. He was of course booted out from his party. He
went to share his astonishment and grief with a leading Hungarian
Hasidic rabbi of the same age. The rebbe and the rabble riser had lots
in common. For the rabbi too had discovered his own, similarly
concealed Jewish identity only at the age of 12…
David: András Mezei, another poet you have introduced to the West (see
“Christmas in Auschwitz,” Smokestack Press, England, 2010), is still
unknown in my country. Please describe him.
Thomas: Mezei, who died aged 78 in 2008, is as important a poet as
Radnóti, but very different. I first met him in a post-war camp run by
a Socialist-Zionist movement then called Dror Habonim for Jewish
children recovering from the trauma of the Holocaust. We were also
being prepared for emigration to Israel on board rickety ships like
the famous “Exodus” running the British blockade.
Mezei went, but eventually returned to become one of the most
prominent poets and literary journalists of the country. He put his
faith into building a just society free of racial, religious and class
prejudice, under the Communist banner. We found ourselves in the
opposite camps of the 1956 revolution.
I met him again after the collapse of Communism when he became an
influential publisher. He commissioned me to translate his Holocaust
poetry, I joined the editorial board of his literary/political journal
and we became close friends. The poems are based on his personal
experiences and subsequent interviews as well as medical records and
post-war testimonies. They combine the startling immediacy of an
injury just inflicted with the controlled passion and attempted
detachment of the professional observer.
David: We have already heard about your next collection (“The
Survivors: Holocaust Poetry for Our Time,” to be published by
Smokestack in 2014). How will it be different from the thousands of
other books on this topic published everywhere as the world struggles
to look beyond the Holocaust?
Thomas: This book will be about life, not death. “Caution” will be
included in it and probably “The Name.” It will be an anthology
including György Faludy, my teacher most of my life and my close
friend towards the end of his, an outstanding 20th century poet equal
to his beloved Lorca, Mandelstam and Yeats. And there will be such
other masters as Emőd, Forrai, Gergely, Heltai, Karinthy, Láng,
Székely and Szép, who are yet to claim their rightful place in the
bookshops, lecture halls and libraries of the West.
Their poetry may perhaps help the post-Holocaust generations – the
descendents of the perpetrators, and of their victims, and of the
passive bystanders – to face our dreadful joint inheritance together
and learn to heal the wounds of the past.
Poems by Thomas Ország-Land discussed in this interview:
In memoriam Jaroslav Ježek
have sown new notions
of treating unwanted
child of Auschwitz,
you, and the future:
“You’ll lose all you own.
Even life is on loan.
Don’t cry. Be cautious.
Be canny. Be clever,
and never, but never,
but never forget it.
hold up your head
…while you’ve got it.”
Hunt down the killers and respect
the innocence of their offspring
– Randolph L. Braham
My name is Eichmann the son, I’m not the monster.
You may relax your face. I am your age
and you and I both share my father’s shame.
D’you think you’re innocent? I’m responsible
for my father’s deeds just as you are for yours.
I am condemned by my inheritance,
the trains and Auschwitz. So is all humanity.
I must embrace my place and role, and bear
my name for I can rearrange the past
no more than you can change your skeleton.
He looked like me, though younger. He was warm,
he loved his children, women, fun and flowers.
He obeyed in full the exterminating state
and thought in terms of tame processing quotas.
Perhaps he managed to avert his eyes
from the purpose of the national enterprise –
perhaps he was, like his entire nation,
hysterically drunk with fear and hatred –
or, like me, he thought he must fulfil his role –
He is condemned for lacking exceptional courage.
And did he love the stench of burning flesh?
He was a man of the stopwatch, not the gun,
an author only of railway timetables, an architect
of ovens only and chimneys, a planner translating
the people’s will to kill into detailed instruction,
a man of industry only doing his job.
He thus extended human experience by learning
to channel rage and passion into detachment
and patient dedication to a purpose
beyond a person’s modest comprehension.
Today we know we all need exceptional courage
and all of us must answer for our souls.
I am a German, an heir to Goethe’s poetry,
a European, heir to the dream of Erasmus,
a Christian, heir to the faith of Jesus the Jew.
I am condemned to keep alive the name
that must confront humanity with our fearful
capacity for suicidal detachment
as well as love. My role is to enhance
our common inclination to choose survival.
I have invited my friend, poet Paul Matthews, to share a conversation with me here. His books are favourites of mine and his teaching style is unique. I am glad of his voice in the world. Here we go …
Because we are doing this, Paul, I have returned (yet again) to your book Sing Me the Creation. It has been a constant companion since I bought it in the mid-1990s (you signed it in November 1996 when you first came up to run a workshop at Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead!). I have drawn on it over the years, using it in my own teaching work and also during round-the-table writing sessions with friends, as well as it being a rich resource for my own writing. In the Foreword, Dr. Robert Sardello writes that your work ‘provides an effective guide into the imagination of the word’ and that ‘the word’ is ‘a gateway into an imagination of the soul of the world’. To start then, what for you is the link between words and the life of the imagination, and how do these relate to ‘the world’?
This throws us right into the heart of the matter! Perhaps your reference to my book (with Blake’s picture of Adam Naming the Beasts on the cover) gives me a way in.
It is not for nothing that Adam stands listening under an Oak tree, letting the rustling of its leaves set his own tongue aquiver. That already is one image of a link between word and world. Another is that the beasts he is naming stream through his larynx as though uttering their true names through him, or that the gesture unique to each calls forth in Adam a corresponding articulation. It is a deep (perhaps foolish) longing of mine that words should not just refer to the world, stuck onto it, but be somehow of it, partaking of its substance. For a long time my question was: how close up to the world can we get with our words? More recently I begin to ask: how close up to us can the world get with its words? We live in a speaking world. Children know that, but we have forgotten it and stumble among wordless things. It is the conscious exercise of imagination and poetry which helps us unlearn what Thomas Traherne called the ‘dirty devices of this world’ and become as a little child again in our perceptions. Thank you for asking such a pertinent question!
I love that image on the book cover – it represents a deeply listening Adam and the animals seem to parade behind him in their variety – ‘ stream through his larynx’, as you say. Are the acorns pictured on the great oak significant, would you say? Probably, given that it is Blake. And the serpent that coils round Adam’s arm, head at his heart centre – how do you read that? These are also clues to your own work – perhaps? I say this because your teaching and writing seem involved in ‘growth’ (acorn to oak) and potential human wholeness (holiness?) without outlawing ‘the serpent’ aspects of life – would that be an accurate thing to say?
What did Blake write?: ‘Hear the voice of the Bard / Who present, past and future sees / Whose ears have heard the Holy Word / That walked among the ancient trees’. Later I discovered his other painting of Eve Naming the Birds, but she is already present in the Adam picture – even as he lifts his finger skywards she, in the guise of that snake, is spiralling out of the earth and into his heart… above and below reconciled in the act of naming. Another creative reconciliation of contraries is the way that Adam looks both outwards and inwards at the same time, with a listening gaze. This, for me, is basic imaginative practice, and a theme which keeps recurring in my poetry. In my recent Slippery Characters book I write: ‘and there without a word / the bluebells spread and I said / look at me you pure inquisitors’. And, more explicitly: ‘then I decided… I wouldn’t keep putting the world in its place with my busy eyesight. Thy will be done. I would let the mountain do the looking and have its way with me’.
In your introduction to Sing Me the Creation, you say: ‘the laws of grammar are an outward manifestation of the laws at work in the human soul, and that the same ‘Logos’ is involved in the shaping of the world around us’. This seems to link with your longing for words to be experienced as deeply participative. If everything has a kind of language/voice – if everything is uttering forth as part of the ‘speaking world’ – then is part of our human potential the learning (or re-learning) of how to hear – ‘how close up to us can the world get with its words?’ This needs the qualities of attention and receptivity. Are these qualities part of what the practice of the imagination and poetry grant us?
The ancient alchemy of the Four Elements can help us with this question of how the Logos manifests. Outwardly we meet them – earth, water, air, fire – as states of matter; but they are gestures also, utterances of nature, revealed, for instance, in the difference between oak’s sturdiness and weeping willow. Inwardly they are the temperaments or humours that Chaucer still knew about. And in the space between outer and inner worlds they appear as the four hallows of grammar – statement, question, exclamation, command – which provide the structure for my Sing Me the Creation book on the creative process. These elements then, standing at the ‘gateway’ (as Dr. Sardello calls it) between sense and soul, mark the beginning of a conscious path of imaginative participation.
I notice now that Adam’s curls take on the curves of the oak leaves above his head. This is occult doctrine – that the mind meets itself in the ‘Vegetable Glass of Nature’ (I’m quoting Blake again). I don’t know about the acorn, though. What do you think?
Well, I doubt the acorns represented by Blake are accidental and certainly they are suggestive of the power and maybe even direction inherent in ‘the seed’ – maybe? I very much like the way you evince a radical shift of awareness here in that you invite the world towards you rather than go after it and bend it to your will. I recognize the importance of this from my own experience, though it does run counter to the spirit of our times – though maybe the work of ‘reconciliation’ has always been the human journey, no matter what period -? As Blake (again!) says: ‘Without contraries is no progression’. To help save us from experiencing the world as separate-from-self, you often advocate learning how to play with words. As you said about your recent ‘Tiger’ poem: ‘It is strange how deep things emerge sometimes out of play’. I totally agree! What is the role of playfulness then in creativity, writing, life?
My Tigers poem? Here it is:
We English don’t have them.
Except in cages. But if Tigers
were gone we would have to
take on their shadowy habitats
and do their raging for them.
Don’t extinguish the Tiger.
would be dimmed still further,
grieving the loss of this best
articulation of his Wildness.
This playfulness emerges a-plenty in your poetry, for instance (another example) in one of your ‘letter’ poems ‘Dear Sir’ in Slippery Characters: ‘I have recently discovered an Angel lodged in my ear, and this (as you might imagine) has somewhat distracted me from my worldly business.//I have reason to believe that the one I am referring to has been secretly transferring savings from my account into some other currency …’
I very much like the balance you achieve in your poetry between shadow and light, movement and stillness, gravity and levity and so on.
Isn’t it a signature of British consciousness that Comedy and Tragedy are close sisters? – the gravediggers joking as they ready the stage for Hamlet and Laertes to be fighting over the body of the drowned Ophelia.
My first poetry was charged with Shelley’s grand notion of poet as ‘unacknowledged legislator of the world’; yet since someone told me that all my poems are totally hilarious my high-browed attempt to not be caught smiling in photographs has seemed a needless blocking of my energies. My faith in the high office of the Poet remains unshaken but is happy now to live alongside Poet as Clown, the lawless character who is forever twinkling his eyes in my writing and my teaching. The Zen master who teaches the profundities of one hand clapping would be a model for that. I think also of Schiller (very serious poet indeed) who said only when we play are we truly free. In his view the ‘play principle’ is the source of artistic beauty. It is unfashionable of me, but I take it as given that an intelligent, playful, beauty-making Creator stands behind whatever bosons are deemed nowadays to steer this mysterious universe. What gives me confidence in this? – my own experience of the gravely playful process of making poetry.
Ah yes, I recognise that ‘twinkling’ behind the act of C/creation and the ‘gravely-playful’ approach you mention.
I have, with my friend Vivian Gladwell of ‘Nose to Nose’, been offering a poetry and clowning workshop called ‘Of Silliness and Soulfulness’ – two words sprung from the same root. How could our souls find a voice if we are not willing to be fools and blush a little?
The balance between gravity and levity that you say I achieve might have something to do with the gymnastics that have accompanied my work in poetry. More likely it is rooted earlier in my biography. My mother (who read Kierkegard on the beach during our summer holidays and had Tolkien for her Anglo-Saxon tutor) poured the great fairytales and myths into my ears. Through my father, on the other hand, my childhood was steeped in the language of Winnie-the Pooh. And in the dark humour of Saki’s stories, so that now if ever my high poetic notions overreach themselves I hear ‘Bertha’s’ medal for obedience clinking against those for punctuality and good conduct to show the wolf where she is hiding – laughter and tears again uncomfortably mingled.
In ‘The Aleph’, one of your ‘poetics’ pieces in Slippery Characters, you speak of language as more akin to a ‘spell’ than a mere ‘information technology’ or a ‘domestic arrangement’ – can you say something about the tension that exists between ‘the magical and the rational’?
Well, Winnie-the-Pooh has an answer to that. In one of his hums composed in the Ashdown Forest (where, by the way, I happen to live) he says: ‘But whatever his weight in pounds, shillings and ounces, / He always seems bigger because of his bounces’. When Piglet objects to the shillings being there Pooh explains: ‘They wanted to come in after the pounds… so I let them. It is the best way to write poetry, letting things come’. ‘Oh, I didn’t know,’ said Piglet.
Piglet was too much of a literalist to know. But you as a poet must have experienced starting off with something sensible to tell the world, then finding that the ear takes over, tuning in to the balances and resonances of words, and how they start insisting on other, even contrary, meanings, arrived at out of the play of sound, sounder and wiser than anything we originally intended.
Yes – exactly! And the best poems are the ones of surprise, the ones that open new ground …
Or very old ground?
Oh yes – true! Very old ground, recovered, maybe – arrived at as if for the first time, to paraphrase Eliot.
Words come to us from thousands of years back, rife with puns and fibs and spells, echoes and origins that our rational minds know nothing about, but somehow our ears know it. Sometimes my ears wake me in the middle of the night to spin a rhyme or reason more fitting than the one I was so proud of when writing in the daylight. I call that magical.
I remember at one of your Emerson College ‘Poetry Otherwise’ events back in the 1990s, poet Peter Abbs taking about one of the poet’s tasks being ‘to shake the hidden pollen and seeds’ that lie within language ‘to allow for a new and quite unexpected fertilization. An endless linguistic resurrection! Not to work the deep geology of language is to fail the medium’ (Peter Abbs, ‘Towards a Convivial Poetics’, lecture for ‘Poetry Otherwise’).
I am convinced of the need to shift to the ear more and thank you for reminding me of Pooh. For me, too, Pooh has particular resonance. My dad read the Pooh stories to me as a child and I was his ‘Little Pooh’ all the way through (the ‘H’ is quite important in this!). I think even in late age, he called me this … Pooh-wisdom seems to be something to do with trust, play, song, enjoyment. Pooh reminds me of a ‘holy fool’ character, like the clown you’ve mentioned. Bringing out the clown or fool in ourselves is a great antidote to the controlling, mechanising, literalising impulses of ‘the ego’ – maybe? The Holy Fool or Clown is someone who inhabits the world as Mystery in all its ordinary ways, ‘admitting’ it -?
‘Rabbit has brains’, said Pooh. ‘That’s why he doesn’t understand anything’.
Don’t you see any role, then, for the ‘brains’ part, the analytic faculty, given that it seems to be part of the human ‘equipment’? In my academic teaching work, analysis is very much part of what students are taught to do and this can be very valuable. The intellect can cut through and penetrate deep into a text, an idea, a history and change/open minds about things. It doesn’t have to be reductive in a negative sense, does it?
I would not have survived one moment as a teacher in any orthodox academy! But I do admire how you (and Peter Abbs) have, while not compromising yourselves, employed that sharp instrument in your good work with students. Intellect has a role, most certainly. I appreciate that very immediately in the way your questions deeply penetrate my texts. They cut to the quick, waking me to things I had not noticed. Our present culture is defined by the achievement of this faculty. But it has two edges.
Yes, you are right. It is all about what purpose the ‘cutting’ and ‘penetrating’ instrument is put to, perhaps, and what it ultimately serves -? In Words in Place, you use the Joseph Wright of Derby painting An Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump where a ‘white cockatoo has been placed in a vacuum flask’. A group of assorted figures watch the ’experiment’, with various responses depicted, from purely abstract and detached observing (the male figures) to emotional flinching (the girl-children). The air is in the process of being pumped out and the bird is shown flopped, one wing stretched out, in the glass flask as, presumably, it dies. On this page, you mention that the children portrayed in this image ‘see meanings rather than things. The world they inhabit is sym-bolic (meaning ‘thrown together’)’. You contrast that with a more adult ‘dia-bolic’ (‘thrown-apart’) experience of world, and this so usefully – exactly – describes a kind of dualism which can have (does have!) potentially terrible implications. I have long been quietly grateful to you for opening out these two words!
I am glad we share this love of etymologies! To open up the metaphorical origins of seemingly abstract words is already a step towards redeeming our ‘thrown apart’ way of viewing the world. My great teacher in this is Owen Barfield who suggests that if we delve among the roots of words we discover a kind of fossil record of how human consciousness has evolved – a shift towards our modern observing mode from the participating mind that mothered us. The word ‘consider’ is my favourite example of this. Once upon a time, me-thinks, the stars (sidera) twinkled in our thinking; now it takes place inside our own private noodles.
Adam in the painting we have been exploring invites the stars into his considerations, though Blake was painfully aware that the act of naming was being usurped in his time by ‘Urizen’ (your reason/horizon) who names things dia-bolically. And now you are asking about this other painting which, for similar reasons, has concerned me – Joseph Wright’s Experiment with the Air Pump.
Are you able to say something about the other figure depicted in Joseph Wright’s image? He makes me think that the artist was not wholly behind experiments of this kind -? And what about the kind of scientific impulse you mention that can include ‘compassion and participation’ in its experiments?
Joseph Wright (of Derby – I used to live in Derby) clearly foresaw the ‘terrible implications’ of Urizen’s ‘mind-forged manacles’. Countless crucifixion scenes in the art galleries loom behind this group of men and women gathered around the vacuum flask. Yet the pondering figure that you are wondering about does not entirely reject it, but looks beyond the death of this white bird to some future resurrection. In my book, Words in Place, I quote Ralph Waldo Emerson who was waiting for a ‘faithful thinker’ to ‘kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections’. Are there any signs of that? These are huge things you are asking!
Much of my working life was at Emerson College where we actively pursued such questions. Goethe (scientist as well as poet), and Rudolf Steiner who developed his work, provide some clues here. Goethe’s observational method (based on a progress through the four elemental modes that I spoke of) is radically different from the one shown in the air pump picture, and has served as a link for me between truth and beauty. When Goethe says, ‘One should not seek anything behind the phenomena: they themselves are the theory’, how close he comes to the Imagist doctrine of ‘no ideas but in things’ that was so important for my own early poetry. But he takes it further – his holistic science of plant metamorphosis, for example, indicating a path of conscious imagination.
As adults, of course, we can also see the world ‘sym-bolically’ – but perhaps we first have to yield in order to see and experience in this way -? This makes me think of your poem ‘In Yielding’, where the word ‘yield’ ‘is a gift/with seeds in it/for future flowering’. Would you say that our journey from innocence to experience (and back again) is one of (potentially) integration, then? I always think of that process described in Zen: ‘First there was a mountain, then there was no mountain, then there was’ and also this by Dōgen:
To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened
by the ten thousand things.
I say this because you mention in Words in Place the urgent need for a change in consciousness – what might or can help this happen?
That Zen anecdote has been important for me, too. It is not my aim, though, to do away with self. It’s true that the ‘controlling, mechanising, literalising impulses of the ego’ bring disaster, yet the human ‘I’ which we have won so painfully has potential to turn compassionate, don’t you think? – free, and creative.
Yes, I fully agree.
The women watching the white bird dying are wise to that in their hearts, I think. The second mountain is different from the first one, surely.
You include Gerard de Nerval’s wonderful poem ‘Golden Lines’ in Words in Place translated by Robert Duncan. Can you say something about this poem and also (moving the discussion back onto your poetry) something about Robert Duncan – his influence, say – given that he writes the ‘Pre Preface for Paul Matthews’ in The Ground that Love Seeks?
Nerval’s poem? Yes, Nerval does acknowledge that through the dia-bolic way of seeing the world we have gained the possibility to be ‘free thinkers’, then qualifies that by saying: ‘In all your councils the Universe is absent’. He calls for a path towards a modern ‘sym-bolic’ thinking.
As for Robert Duncan, I met him first in Brighton in 1968 but was too shy to speak to him. Five years later, after he read at the London Polytechnic (an event organized by my Welsh poet friend, Paul Evans) I did pluck up courage to ask him: ‘Do you believe in a spiritual world?’ He graciously answered my naivety by writing the ‘Pre-Preface’ which I later included at the beginning of my book, telling me that even as we reach beyond ourselves so the world that I question his belief of is also reaching beyond itself – not a static world of platonic archetypes, but a dynamic to be engaged with, beyond belief. A further honour was that he invited me and my wife (who is Californian) to stay with him in San Francisco. As you can see, he was my hero!
Why was he so important to you?
As a young poet newly coming into my work I was so grateful to have such a person recognise and call upon a potential in me. He showed me that even in our literal age it is possible to be a Romantic poet, to hold confidence in the creative human spirit.
Romanticism isn’t exactly the flavour of the month, the year, the decade or the Millennium is it, though it has its advocates, certainly. It is critiqued for being subjective, indulgent, essentialist, escapist, and … well, I’m sure you are aware of the arguments. Can the Romantic vision really still serve us in the 21st century?
In many ways it’s a true critique. That’s why the Romantic spirit lost its way when faced with the No Man’s Land between the war time trenches. Vague feelings for ‘the truth of the imagination’ could not hold. But Owen Barfield speaks of Romanticism ‘coming of age’ …
yes, I like that
… insisting that imagination can be honed as a cognitive faculty and prove useful in science as well as poetry. More than that – the future depends on it. In my teaching of writing I try to work out the consequences of his insistence. Robert Duncan was another companion for me in this.
Some find it difficult – and this is reflected in modern scholarship – that Romanticism tended to elevate ‘the author’ (who was traditionally male!), as a kind of ‘heroic genius’ -?
Well, I won’t apologise for my youthful admiration. Hear the voice of the Bard! We all need someone to inspire us. Actually Duncan came to see himself more as a derivative poet than one striving for original genius. So in translating Nerval’s poetry he takes its spirit into his own, standing with him in that stream of living language which I referred to – the ‘truth and life of myth’ that is ever active in our evolving human story.
It was Robert Duncan who called me to the ‘office’ of being a Poet. A priestly office? Not quite. A deep tending to the life of words is what he meant by it. He was a man of intellect, yet in the act of writing he threw all his wisdoms into the fire and play of the moment and created his poetry out of not knowing.
Perhaps I had no need to be instructed in this. In my first poem ever, dedicated to the ‘feminine’, I wrote with more than a touch of adolescent arrogance:
Come Goddess, to me alone you sing your song
For these poor fools prefer to slumber on.
More recently, though, the contemplation of some end beckoning has tempered my words a little:
Beautiful Lady of Death, I’m numbered
among the fools you croon to.
Well, mention of death and, a bit earlier, the Joseph Wright painting as crucifixion scene and, earlier again, our talk of clowns and fools brings us nicely to the poem ‘Christ as Alphabet’ in your latest collection, Slippery Characters. I would sound a trumpet for this poem, loudly, only I’d make you blush. It comes in the ‘Word on Word’ opening part of the book, so can you say something about both this part of the book – its chief themes and concerns, say – and this poem itself? Also, is the last poem ‘Playing Judas’ a companion poem to this?
First just to confess, it was my Judas poem which elicited the comment about how ‘hilarious’ my writing is. As for ‘Christ as Alphabet’ – the worry it calls up in me probably means it has some truth to tell me. I hardly understand it, though; or it needs several pages of explanation! Are you asking for such a footnote? Why not (considering that I have a ‘friend’ who says he prefers my explanations to my poetry)?
Briefly, then … in that part of the book writing is what I write about, ‘Word on Word’, gathering momentum into this strangely titled poem, ‘Christ as Alphabet’. The Christ I write about is more Clown than preacher, forgiving his enemies, writing on the ground, the divine ‘I Am’ getting his hands dirty – ‘Three alphabets were crucified with him’. In the last lines I risk the writing of: ‘It’s only through such a death / that you can rise in our human breath’… I am getting out of my depth here! You are right to see my ‘Playing Judas’ poem as a companion to ‘Christ as Alphabet’; I wrote them (serious poems!) to be spoken at an Easter festival. Nonetheless, there is a hint that my poet’s slippery play with words and metaphors betrays some fear of standing fully in the truth of them.
Thank you for being prepared to go this deep, Paul! We are ‘turning with’ big things here and feeling our way – and isn’t that what con-vers-ations can do? It was you by the way who opened up that word for me also.
I think we’ve mentioned above that for something new to creatively come, something in us has to give – as in yield, as in open, as in rend -? Maybe to be able to forgive enemies needs this too.
That sounds good to me. You are picking up on my use of the double meaning of ‘yield’ – to give way in order to give away. But maybe you are adding to that – to rend in order to render. I like that.
In both The Ground that Love Seeks and Slippery Characters, there is in the language a preference, I have noticed, for Anglo-Saxon-derived words rather than a more abstract Latinate lexis. Was that a conscious choice? I have a strong feeling that this is why the poems speak so directly and feel so ‘earthed’ -? I would be very pleased to hear about your interest also in Meister Eckhart, whose voice is present in The Ground that Love Seeks , where ‘ground’, of course, is a repeated theme and where everything, even the stones, ‘have a love/a love that seeks the ground’.
Those Saxon words are the ground that my love of language seeks. I live in East Sussex, you know, not so far from where Harold, last of the Saxon kings got shot in the eye by the invading Normans. That was another story told by my father – how Taillefer, chanting the Song of Roland in Norman French, was the first of them to be killed at the battle of Hastings. I have always kind of regretted the Norman Conquest (just as you in Wales are perhaps to this day troubled by the incursion of English into your culture). Another thing is that my early outpourings ran up against the strictures of Ezra Pound who prescribed Saxon and Chinese poetry as antidote for the ‘emotional slither’ of decadent Romanticism. Yes, the Saxon syllable does stand closer up to a thing, and our names for ‘natural objects’ which Pound said are always the ‘adequate symbol’, often turn out to be of Saxon origin.
My most recent poems, however, yield more readily to the lure of Latin – ‘conflagration’, ‘coincidence’, ‘benediction’, ‘ominous’, ‘circumstance’, ‘habitat’ – because, in moderation, such words do render an inwardness and thoughtfulness and subtlety of feeling which the blunt Saxon words don’t always carry. And if the French had never shot Harold how could Eleanor of Aquitaine and her troubadours and others after them have softened up our consonants (the third necessary ingredient of Ezra Pound’s prescription) to make English singable?
The Ground that Love Seeks ends with a poem about St Eadfrith of Lindisfarne and Eadfrith returns early in Slippery Characters in ‘Word and World’, which lends a nice sense of connection and continuity to the two collections. The ‘illuminated’ nature of the oh-so-beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels seem echoed in both books, but perhaps especially in Slippery Characters , through both the poems and the very lovely illustrations, making the collection a very beautiful object.
The image here, for example, of the lugworm cast with its natural intricacy, seems to echo one of Eadfrith’s illuminations -?
So: two questions – can you speak about Nature’s role in all this, the natural world as fully eloquent? And secondly, the book as object of beauty. How important do you feel this is in our techno digital online mass-produced culture?
Glenn Storhaug who runs Five Seasons Pressin Hereford (on the Celtic Saxon marches) is a master maker of fine books. The first book of mine that he made, The Ground That Love Seeks, has an oak leaf on its cover. Everywhere in my poems you will find book as tree, tree as book, leaves trembling at the edge of speaking, wind turning the pages, leaves catching light being the true scriptures. How sad I would be if our technologies cut off the possibility of glimpsing, touching, sniffing, flicking through pages, lending books, stealing them, inscribing them, climbing ladders to reach the top shelves of libraries, but especially to remember that ‘Book’ and ‘Beech’ spring from the same root, the one wind blowing through them.
Ah yes, I invited Glenn to the Ucheldre Centre in 1998. His books are beautiful, without doubt, and he writes in his essay ‘On Printing Poetry Aloud’, doesn’t he, that sensitive and attentive printing and layout, with ‘only leaping words against enough white to cut out everything else’ helps to create a reading event. ‘The successful page’ he says ‘releases the text to meet the reader [so that] words stand like branches against the sky or images in stained glass: light shines through rather than onto the poem so each word is given a three-dimensional presence’. I so like that! Glenn also uses beautiful Five Seasons recycled paper and the all-in-all result is a Book Worth Having.
And worth chopping down trees for? That’s a theme I suffer in my poem, ‘Axe and Pen’ (in Slippery Characters).
That’s certainly important! I think many of us share your concern about the survival of the book in our digitised, technologised, ephemeral online world. I for one cannot envisage a world without books, even though I fully partake in the online world and see advantages there too (like us being able to do this). I hope it never needs to be either/or. It is the book, though, that can offer something to posterity, being physically passable to others, down the generations, by hand. Fascinating about that ‘Book’ and ‘Beech’ link, by the way!
Life circumstances arranged that the Lindisfarne Gospel manuscript should serve as my model of what a book might be. My second cousin once removed has a farm on the mainland just across from the island where Eadrith made it. You have made Eadfrith into a saint, I see, and I am glad of that (let Glenn Storhaug be another one!). Lindisfarne is another place where Saxon and Celtic meet – the Celtic lending Eadfrith’s pen a particular ungraspable magic.
The second book that Glenn made for me, Slippery Characters, has as you mention, a lugworm cast on its front cover, and you quote my scurrilous suggestion that the characters inscribed by Eadfrith in his manuscript were prefigured by that slippery character on the island beaches. It is my same theme over and over! In those Gospel characters, in the signs reflected back to us by Nature’s glass, word and world are wound together. ‘To the matter itself a spoken word is inbound’, says Nerval – everywhere an eloquence – but how to hear it? Having an angel lodged in your ear might help a bit!
I borrow Eadfrith’s bird-filled vowels to mark the sections of that book – A, E, I, O, U, and culminating in UM, which is a section all its own, its title being the only content. The other emblems interspersed are of objects and inscriptions dug up out of the ground. I, as you do, love to scrabble in dictionaries for lost origins. It seems I like archaeologies too, where stories bedded in sediment two thousand years are brought to light. Above my fireplace I have a plaster replica of the Phaistos Disc. No one has yet managed to decipher its spiral message though many have tried to – the secret of the universe, a forgery, an early attempt at a ‘Monopoly’ board; or it could be a shopping list.
I don’t know very much about Meister Eckhart. Let’s talk about snails instead. I know you are fond of snails. What do I need to know about them?
Well, what I notice about ‘The Night I Heard Something Knocking at My Window’, say, which begins
Is it you, little snail? –
dragging your spiral house
across the stars
is the way you have portrayed this small creature against ‘the empty roar’ of the night beyond the window. The snail, ‘such a lowly one’, reminds me, I suppose, of our ultimate fragility, yet there is something noble there too. I like that you describe the snail as living ‘so earnestly’ and again we are returned in the poem to the act of listening – you have the snail (despite the sense of great, vast night) close to and making ‘a sound so intimate’.
Then there’s that other snail poem of yours, ‘Paths of Silver’ in The Ground That Love Seeks, which I used some years ago, if you remember, to conclude a paper I wrote for Scintilla called ‘This Even Frailer Flesh’, which is mostly about snail poems – such a fan am I of this oh so slow, low little creature! So what is it about snails that mean they write their way into your poems?
In ‘Paths of Silver’, you mention Basho, the Zen haiku master. How important is ‘the image’ to your writing? And can you say something about what you call ‘poetic consciousness’ and tell us how it can be cultivated?
I do, indeed, remember your snail piece. We humans are so exposed. Snails too, I suppose … but they never leave their homes; they have a spiral staircase to the galaxy. Imagination is the stairway that we humans have – ‘poetic consciousness’- given in childhood, but then we lose it, and start gnashing our teeth in ‘outer darkness’. And then … it is what you are asking … how can the inner light again be quickened? Probably in this context you as a Quaker and something of a Buddhist (are you?) cultivate a meditative practice. I do so in my own haphazard way, partly to find quietness, but mostly (like Shelley’s poet ‘hidden in the light of thought’) to activate a source of knowing beyond the statistical research which nowadays is considered the only legitimate way of knowing anything.
Yes, both the Quaker tradition that I’m part of and the Buddhist tradition I am also something of use ‘inner light’ as a central symbol, understood through experience but impossible to pin down – quite rightly too! The ‘inner light’ is for Quakers another way of saying ‘that of God’. Buddhists talk about ‘enlightenment’ – which is another slippery word! But yes, I do find I need ways to ‘keep close to the ground’ which is to say ‘to the Ground’ which is to say ‘to the inner light’ which is to say … to be quickened by omni-arising L/life and to remain ‘tuned’ to it so that I, as a kind of ‘instrument’, can ‘sing true’. If that makes sense!?
Sense beyond sense – just moving the mind through that sentence might be the quickest way to pass through the Gateless Gate!
My experience has shown me that I need a daily practice of some kind to still me enough to be able to ‘hear’ and ‘retune’, as it were, just like an instrumentalist has to retune her/his musical instrument regularly because a stringed instrument, say, is always drifting out of tune due to environmental pressures and because its body is organic. But my practice is often haphazard, too, despite best intentions!
Some practices that serve me are: to give ear to things (we concur on that); to attend to the unique gesture of flower and tree and tiger as if they were body talk; to look sidelong into the space between – on the tide line between sea and sand, between sleep and awake. Yes, being attentive at that threshold where dreams arise. Such interludes, as I like to call them, brim with the images which also, as you observe, fill my poetry. Surely you with your work with ‘Rhwng: The Point Between’ carry this close to your heart. Soul speaks through pictures. Most satisfying for me is when in my writing groups a simple permission of language allows a shift into ‘some other currency’ of consciousness. In the play between you and me, out of deep attention to the other, the forgotten stairway of the fairy tales suddenly opens.
Poetic consciousness: sometimes the only way is to suffer it in the form of ‘madness’ (Nerval was probably one who did so). Or it comes as grace. For me rain brings it, especially at night, ‘oil and balm’, smoothing the too sharp edges of the things which bruise us. And after the rain the snails creep out to mind the gap between wet and dryness. One night, inwardly annihilated by how vast the cosmos is, I heard the small scraping noise of their shells across my window, and the thought of them inhabiting their tiny lives restored my boundaries. Just the other day I found one on the latch of my garden gate, and then two pretty ones on my father’s gravestone. Messages everywhere. It’s exhausting being a poet! If only the mountain would settle down as mountain for a while and be no more than that!
One feature of your writing is that you draw on particulars of your own life and transmute them into poetry – yes?
This actually troubles me; but what to do about it? Either we shy altogether from the use of ‘I’, or we plunge into it, hoping to glimpse the ‘Fable’ which (says Edwin Muir) dips down occasionally into the stream of what is merely happening. So if in writing about a family visit to the temple of Artemis I touch the Rhwng, the Interlude where Eternity and moment meet then the account of its particulars might be more than personal. And anyway, says Rudolf Steiner, the times have changed. The stars which spoke to us once lean down to hear what we have to tell about the snails and lugworms that we encounter. Why are we talking so much about animals, do you think?
Maybe because in the word ‘animal’ lives the word ‘anima’ or ‘soul’? And we all live as creatures, created beings-? I have always felt close to animals, loving them easily and abundantly, with a full heart. I nurse this question: ‘What would happen if we raised the status of the word ‘animal’ so that it was used as a compliment?’ We have separated humans (us) from animals (them) and use animal words as insults: she’s a pig, he’s a dirty dog, they’re behaving like animals. I have learnt through long experience though that we ‘animals’ (souls) are basically more alike than different. I learn so much from my animal encounters and companions – mostly about love.
Just occasionally we do use mouse and kitten in our love talk.
We do – true. I quite like to think of us all as part of a ‘kin-dom’ – that’s one way, anyway, of putting it. That’s not to collapse obvious differences into each other or simplify complexity, of course.
A difference we started with is that the animals don’t name themselves. It’s in the close up human word that nature becomes conscious of itself and (hopefully) cared for in the ways you speak of.
Your poetry is fully creatured, I’ve noted. We’ve touched on snails, but there are plenty of other animals cooing and buzzing and snuffling through your pages, including pigs, whose ‘tails/are curled as a question mark’ (‘The Pig (for Plato)’ in The Ground That Love Seeks).
One question I have for you is about how Rudolf Steiner has influenced your work.
If my question about the ‘spiritual world’ had been addressed to him he would have said most certainly. Not as a mystic, though. He recognized what a vacuum flask the brain can be yet, ‘spiritual scientist’ that he was, he kept faith in thinking, seeking ways to warm it up, make it ‘luminous, penetrating deeply into the phenomena of the world’. ‘Into’ is the potent word here. When scientists keep probing into things with their instruments I can’t help wondering whether the particles they come by are just smaller outwardnesses. For Steiner imagination was the instrument, his insights proving fruitful in the development of holistic methods of agriculture, medicine, education and the arts, and (may I say so) in the Biographical Counselling through which my wife and colleagues help people find an inside to their lives, to be the shaper of their story not the victim of it. This must be why in mapping the patterns of my own biography (including its significant seven year phases) my poems often include news of how old I am. Call it the myth I live by if you think this crazy.
Oh no – not crazy at all. ‘Much madness is divinest sense’ anyway, as Emily Dickinson famously said!
You have been rather caring of me throughout this dialogue, but I can imagine that others reading it would dismiss it right away as mystic mumblings!
Oh well – let’s continue our mumblings anyway! And, if you like, I can play the ‘dia-bolic’ hand here and say that many in our postmodern culture would be sceptical of your ‘universal’ explanations and ‘meta-narratives’, preferring to regard all truths as relative, provisional and fallible, with ‘realities’ being social or cultural ‘constructs’.
Chameleon poet that I am, I could easily turn that colour, except that I would call them ‘compositions’ not ‘constructs’. If all the world’s a stage then anything false or fixed in the narratives we play will necessarily be tested. Emerson College where I studied and then worked was a crucible for that.
Could you say something about your teaching there? I’m so glad I came down to Emerson for the ‘Poetry Otherwise’ weeks you ran for – how many years was it? I came at least twice or three times and always longed to come back. Those weeks proved truly memorable and formative in many ways – I have very fond memories of the Emerson experience.
Some generous destiny led me to this ‘community of works’ where imagination was viewed as vital for those preparing to be teachers, farmers, environmentalists, counsellors, sculptors, nurses, social workers, besides the poets and storytellers who would naturally expect it. This was the acorn from which my Sing Me the Creation grew – my students coaxed it out of me; and when teachers tell me now that their work with children has been enlivened by it I feel just maybe I have done something useful.
Yes. It is a wonderful ‘sourcebook’, as you call it, in all senses.
Those summer gatherings which you contributed to were also highlights of my time at the College. Devoted though they were to the crafting of poetry, the care given to language in the work place and in human relationships allowed a further something to arise – a sense of communion I would call it.
Yes – I agree.
In the full course of a year this often included the task of finding words whereby the many-cultured Emerson community could participate freely in the festivals that we celebrated. These are the things I am most grateful for. Emerson College in its heyday carried a vision of ‘Love, the Human Form Divine’ (Blake’s words) which allowed personal search and creativity to go hand in hand with professional training. My book, Words in Place, written as I was stepping back from my full time work, is an attempt to gather an essence of what I found there.
I’ve noticed that towards the end of Slippery Characters, in ‘What Poetry Serves’, you say that ‘poetry is one way of loving language’ and you also share what you discovered from your Japanese friends about the larynx being ‘shaped like the Buddha, and that Buddha-Throat is actually their name for it’. Amazing! I have long felt a kind of inner demand, urge or call to ‘Right Speech’, one of the Buddha’s advised practices, as part of the Noble Eightfold Path. So is this what poetry can also serve – are the two linked?
These last questions of yours are calling me back from play into my ‘legislator’s’ office! Somewhere I do remark that poetry is an obedience as well as a wild pleasure, and in the piece you refer to I enlarge on that. The Buddha tells us that whoever steps out on a ‘path of right speech’ is sure to meet four shadows: hurtful talk, trivia, slander and untruthfulness. Why four? This links me again to the human ideals and responsibilities that statement, question, exclamation and command declare to us, four powers of grammar which guard and guide the path I offer in my writing groups:
Whose word could be truthful enough
for the Stone to accept it?
Who could have beauty enough
to speak for the Rose?
Who could be innocent enough
to utter what’s at the heart
of a Wolf or a Goldfish?
Whose word could be grounded
in love enough to sound
what is most deeply Human?
Innocent as a wolf? It smiles to hear my holy medals clinking.
Well, this returns us, perhaps, to Sing Me The Creation – to naming, to imagination and to the poetic impulse which moves us to ‘give voice’. In that book, you tell the story of 7th century Caedmon, the first known English poet (Northumbrian) – and carer of animals – who was visited by an angel in a dream and asked to ‘sing something’. He didn’t feel he was able to sing anything. He felt without any gift of voice, song or word. He said ‘What shall I sing?’ and the angel said ‘Sing me the Creation’.
And you say:
‘It is a marvellous, two-fold commission, and central to the work of any poet –
to praise the glory of the created world
to care for the sources of creativity and Imagination’.
I am always moved and inspired when I return to this, Paul. When I remember it, I am ‘re-membered’.
I have one final question for you: is there a poem of yours we can post up here to sing the creation?
Here is another of my animal poems. You can post that if you want to:
It’s me. Minikin Mouse.
Can I help you, Lord?
I wonder sometimes
whether my squeak is heard
among your spiral galaxies.
If you have need, though,
for a whiskered thing
to nibble the nebulae
ask me; I’m ready.
Thank you so much, Paul – it’s been a real pleasure turning over this ground with you.
Often we don’t know what we know until we are asked. Thank you for asking.
With thanks to Fiona Owen and Paul Matthews for allowing publication here.
Fiona Owen’s website is http://www.rhwng.com
Paul Matthews website is http://paulmatthewspoetry.co.uk
QUARTZ IN A STONE
Nature and mystery in the life and writing of Geoffrey Grigson
Geoffrey Grigson (1905 – 1985) was a Cornish poet whose idiosyncratically contemplative style of writing, not to mention trenchant views of poetry, could be counted on to divide opinion. Working diversely as teacher, broadcaster, BBC radio editor and art critic, he was a respected authority on botany and produced several highly acclaimed books about the natural world, yet it is surely as a poet that Grigson, who dismissed his years at Oxford (which resulted in a third-class degree in English) as “a profitless sojourn,” is best remembered. His oeuvre might be taken as a kind of symphony of nature – a panoply in which Man is but one part. The worst of his poetry is ordinary and uninspiring, the best looks beyond the horizons of the every day and attempts to pierce the layers of perception and interpret the mysteries of the Universe in a way which combines our understanding of different places, different things, different lives. It is a poetry of unexpected unities, symbiotics and relationships: Two are together, I tell you / A slope of a vowel, are a corner; / Grass short as a garden, / Bracken / Uncoiling,/ Foxgloves, water/
Grigson’s many books of poetry, are regarded as among the finest in the history of English literature by his many admirers, yet have never quite achieved the all-encompassing, widespread and barrier-defying popularity heaped on those by more “accessible” poets of his generation such as Betjeman, Hughes or Heaney. One can hardly imagine Grigson, with his preference for visionary high-art, as a champion of poetry in education; his love of traditionalism would presumably preclude endorsement of the Martian poets or even the Revival, yet his own poetry can also be difficult and rooted in exclusive regional knowledge. Seamus Heaney’s brilliance lies in his ability to communicate the spirit of his own native history and landscapes with wider society; Grigson’s in his habit of looking deep into a riddle and uncovering another riddle. We might easily follow the gist of his descriptions, understand his writing in a linear, straightforward way, but instead of answers, we will be left with further questions. In Before A Fall, he presents us, like a story by Italo Calvino or a meditation from the mind of Kafka, with this irresistible, revealing, vintage gem: And what was the big room he walked in?/ The big room he walked in,/ Over the smooth floor, / Under the sky light, / Was his own brain.
At the heart of Grigson’s reputation lies paradox. As editor New Verse magazine in the late 1930’s, he steadfastly opposed the rising trends of ambiguity and imprecision beginning to colonize the world of poetry, yet also railed against the overly exclamatory and argued that his magazine ought not to become “an organ for left-wing politics.” Grigson infamously claimed the use of a metaphorical “billhook” which he would use to drag up examples of what he felt was poetry lacking in any way, shape or form, and humiliate its author with derisory reviews: “I attempt to be rude from a moral basis, a basis of differentiating between the fraudulent and inert and the active, genuine, and desirable.” His approach to modern English poetry, even in the first half of the Twentieth Century, was unfriendly: “a jelly of mythomania, or self-deception, careerism, dishonesty, and ineptitude.” And he extended his criticisms of poets to an overview of their apparently deficient moral fibre: “the scarcest quality among young English writers is integrity.” Unsurprisingly, his work for New Verse made him many enemies – turning down submissions from John Betjeman, he lit the fuse for an enmity that would only partially thaw by the end of his life. In 1944 the poet Roy Campbell, offended by Grigson’s scathing judgments of his poetry, dismissed in New Verse as “abysmal,” physically assaulted him in a London street. Yet for all the acrimony and even nastiness which seems to have gathered to the surface of his prickly reputation, there is at the heart of Grigson’s life a kind of provincial honesty largely lacking in the world of literature and intellectuals: On Desert Island Discs, asked if music played an important part in his life – and bear in mind this is a radio programme whose theme and format are entirely dominated by music – answered matter-of-factly, “No, I’m afraid it isn’t, not really. I am a musical ignoramus.”
Geoffrey Grigson made friends as well as enemies, and was as committed to exposing greatness as he was to denigrating the undeserving, as is evident in his enthusiasm for the artists he championed, from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extraordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate. But what, in the midst of all these difficult, contradictory, sometimes downright hostile relationships and circumstances, of Grigson’s own poetry?
Grigson’s is, by and large, a poetry of celebration – few could read his pastoral meditations and descriptions of the land and sea without detecting a Wordsworthian worship of the natural world – but also of defiance: it is the poetry of a man trying to make sense of an increasingly mechanised planet. But Grigson is no a victim of the technological age, but a stubborn survivor. Acknowledging animals and plants, and comparing them to works of major artists, he is less indulgent of the motorcar: this “creature of sexless metal” is “indifferent” to the touch of living things and “(fails) so very oddly to protrude a skull.” The car, then, is little but an empty shell – its metal exterior conceals no firmer, deeper structure. The car is neither animal, nor plant. In Grigson’s twinning of the natural with the artistic, the car has failed to earn its place. Its skull-lessness might be modernity’s failure – it is technology, not the poet, which fails to adapt, by standing sexlessly apart from the old, organic way of things. For Grigson, a natural historian, man-made things are awkward, and their defined structures nullified and dull. They are complications, unwelcome equations that he cannot solve.
In the natural world, there is no such confusion. We are not expected to understand owls. “Neither the boy nor hog needs sanction, you’ll agree.” In his substantial poem The Isles of Scilly, not one mention is made of anything metal, plastic or mechanical. The isles are defined by their “wind-shivering fern,” the “cobalt sea,” the “grey holly in the drift,” or else the “wild black rabbits running across the longings of a yesterday.” So skillfully, Grigson provides us not with “yesterday,” but a yesterday – endowing the animals with consciousness, and suggesting a psychology which differentiates between times and days, and feelings. The rabbits are remembering a yesterday, one assumes, before the onslaught of civilisation squashed their islands with buildings and development, narrowing their horizons and rendering their home “the islands of dead hope.” The closest Grigson comes to describing man-made structures is in the opening stanza, where “megaliths empty, on the headlands lie.” The landscape is created by the elements, the land “manured by “sea’s red bitter weed, by sorrow’s grey-skied, endless hours.” Historically, Man’s only incursion into the scenery, it appears, has been to grave the teeth of dolphins in the “scanty sand,” and the “wind-drunk tombstones” bordered by pine lilies. Here, as ever, Man’s influence is funereal; his dimension, death. Indeed, the tragedy of early death, young bodies beneath the tombs themselves, are looked on by the dry-eyed figurehead, not a Christian God in as many words, but an omniscient force, immobile but yearning for the helpless dead – like the poet torn between objective observation and this unending need to make sense. The “flattened, huge and butter-yellow moon,” in contrast, “rises above the green-black sea to face the islands of goodbye.” The moon “cannot care.” Likewise, it cannot be blamed. For Grigson, nature is the blameless force, which shapes the Universe. In Consider the Clean Morning, an early work key to appreciating his world-view, the poet employs a biblical tone, implying scriptural inevitability to the workings of the world. “The storm described in the paper on my knee / lifts up the delicate mane of the horse / standing still on the road.” The delicately maned horse is yards from “the torn bag,” which “tears along the dirty pavement,” and amid this clash of news and nature, horse and paper – in which all devised by people are “torn” or “dirty” while the blameless horse remains at peace – the three remaining bathroom walls begin to break, leaving where a fourth should be, the vision of a morning’s clarity distilled in the appearance of the sun. At last, the breaking walls are able to feel “we are alive,” holding a mirror to the prevailing, and ultimately purifying, forces of nature. Meanings are diffused by shared effect: the flag set up by roadmen “experiences all the day,” shop window smudges are “counted by the sun.” Like Sartre, his contemporary, Grigson chiefly recognises objects by virtue not of its design but of its use – roofs and buildings gradually become churches and shops. Life is breathed into an event, a scene, or merely collections of unnumbered bricks, when nature and design collide.
This is not to suggest that Grigson is attempting to define, or explain anything. The poet William Oxley remarked that “a poem is not really about anything,” but rather a “documentary of experience.” Grigson’s poetry fits this bill – but the experiences documented are not merely his own, or even those of other people. Owls, plants, even flags, are capable of feeling – such as when the poet sees the clarity of nature revealed within the storm described above. There is life beyond human comprehension, also – Grigson’s owls, for instance, may enjoy their “owl moment,” of mystery – and his choice of a singular rather than plural moment(s) suggests that he imagines for the natural world an unmappable unit of time, incomprehensible to the human mind. Owls, he tells us, would seem to realise the fragility of life, each one accepting “it might soon fall dead” – hence its “round cry” giving it a sound “as if old, or not well.” Yet even this uniform sound betrays distinctions: “hesitating to an uncertain thread,” the owl’s cry suggests “irreconcilable / policies of conscious / owls, a curtain between owls, propaganda / and prestige / of owls, sustained / unkindness of owls.” Grigson has written of birds as “cruel” and his owls are presented almost reminiscently of politicians or secretive gangsters, yet the point of the poem, bound up in its closing lines, is to reinforce their mystery – “if owls live / in an owl moment / alone, it is / (not) emptied of delight.” Typically, we are not to discover the source of this delight. We are given no clues, told only what the owls want us to find out. In Grigson’s poetry, nothing is ever over-analysed, or over-explained. It is enough to know that life breathes through the miscellany of existences we know as nature, and that non-human animals, also, experience delight.
But death and the macabre – for all his love of beauty – are everywhere in Grigson. Consider, his ambitous “Country Aplhabet,” the impressive compendium of rural terms and names, published in 1965, where he “aims to illustrate the things we come across in the countryside,” without attempting to steer clear of the unpleasant. Stocks, mauseoleums, workhouses and even goblins all rub shoulders with beavers and horse chestnuts. In its preface, he admits, “I cannot think of a word which covers (the attraction of) rainbows and gravestones and green men, dene-holes and mazes and mistletoe, or place-names and poets, or sham ruins and waterfalls and the zodiac.” He confesses, “We accept familiar sights with only half the answer about them,” and stresses that the book is “about the visible.” Yet Grigson’s poetry, however physical and concrete, is also a tool for exploring the less visible – the spiritual half-knowledge contained within the miraculous flaring of the sun, that great symbol of creation, of fertility, of power, frames the world in the focus of its own light. Its only message, its only affirmation, is the proof of life. It is this proof of life which runs through Grigson’s poetry. He could be confrontational, spiky and unlikeable. His poetry was as uncompromising as were his expressions of opinion, yet persevere with Grigson and he rewards you with a jewellery box of natural revelations, a mirror in which to view the oft-hidden life-affirming beauties of the world. You will encounter myth, magic, tradition, occasional linguistic innovation, and as he slowly unveils his own peculiar narration of the globe, take the time to recognize, and to embrace, the
Quartz in a stone.
‘Buxtehude in kedgeree’: on J.H. Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2001)
Emmanuel Levinas has written: ‘The rift between the rational order and events, the mutual impenetrability of minds as opaque as matter, the multiplication of logical systems each of which is absurd for the other, the impossibility of the I rejoining the you, and consequently the unfitness of understanding for what should be its function—these are things we run up against in the twilight of the world, things which reawaken the ancient obsession with an end of the world’ [Existence and Existents, trans. Alfonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978), p.21]. Expressions such as ‘a world in pieces’ or ‘a world turned upside down’, trite though they are, succeed nonetheless in expressing something of what poetry is, or has become, in a time when the ancient obsession with the end reawakens in a darkening world: poetry has its place on the outside, on the hither side, of whatever it is that orders and gives meaning to how things are. It sustains what Heidegger has called the rift between earth and world, where the earthly character of a work shows itself when the work in question foregrounds what it is made of, appearing opaque, and resistant to clarification, shattering every attempt to penetrate into it, and subverting all merely calculating importunity. Earth shrinks from the domination of mastery, inasmuch as it shrinks from disclosure, revealing itself only to the one who is attentive to the elsewhere of undisclosure.
Jeremy Prynne writes:
Why don’t you try a globe for ripeness, this one
where the ore rifles through veins all fossil eyes
ahead, try me my keeper at key at bay contracted,
fingering fair play for fixed pay, tone on blank.
This is not a poetry of ideas, or of words. Prynne’s lines evoke something not unlike the kind of precarious balance of which Maurice Blanchot was so accomplished an exponent: ‘[the poem] is the point from which words begin to become their appearance, and the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes’ [The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), p. 223]. For example, the play of repeated sounds in the first line, the ‘o’ of don’t and globe, the ‘y’ or ‘i’ of why, try and ripe, the echo of ess in is, establish patterns of auditory repetition, of similarity and contrast, that are extended as new elements are added—such as bay and play and pay, in lines three and four, where play becomes an element explicitly situated within the series it generates. The process exemplified here is a principle that informs the poetry as a whole. Local repetition is augmented to generate a double movement, whose going forward is also a folding back on itself, the enactment of which reveals or uncovers words in their palpability, in the fact of their existence as words, so that the reader is brought to experience them as external to, or other than, what they are as bearers of meaning. Language seems to take on a presence beyond itself: it stands, as it were, on this side, the hither side, of itself. In the passage quoted, the sense of movement or displacement of language beyond itself is reinforced by the allusion in the first line, via ripeness, globe and one, to ‘Ripeness is all’, ore and all in line two echoing and lending it their support. ‘Globe’ also supports the Shakespearian and theatrical reference, even as it connects ‘world’ to the implications of ‘all’ (‘All the world’s a stage’). However, the ‘all’ in question here is a totality the language of the poem is poised to split itself off from. The space the lines are trying to reach is not the space of another world, but a space which is the other of the world as such. They seek to open, not to what lies within the world or what is possible, but to the non-identical, the impossible, where the world is estranged from itself and ‘where the poem is exile, and the poet who belongs to it belongs to the dissatisfaction of exile’ [The Space of Literature, p. 237]. Prynne is employing one of the paradoxical tropes central to modernism, and making that fact evident as he does so.
Unanswering Rational Shore comprises a series of unnumbered pages composing a sequence of fourteen fourteen-line poems, each poem divided by a space into two stanzas or blocks of seven lines each [J.H. Prynne, Unanswering Rational Shore (Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2001)]. The book itself is divided into two groups of seven poems, with a blank page separating the groups. It is a patterning that, perhaps, the epigraph of the book—lo mismo//lo mismo—serves to prepare for. The text is notable also for the absence of the word ‘I’. This latter feature, together with the repetition of the same announced in the epigraph, as well as the general lay-out, intimates something of how the book offers itself to be read: insofar as it initiates anything as decisive as a movement from one point to another, the movement so initiated is a series of beginnings without sequence, or, as Blanchot would have it, beginnings whose only movement is a return that starts over again, a restless dissemination of beginnings or fragments. ‘Elastic bravery tell your friends, profile margins/dilate the soft annular parallax.’ Marked as standing outside the laws of identity and the logic of the same, Prynne’s text conforms to a conception of poetry as that which ‘revokes the true, eludes signification, designating that region where nothing subsists’. It is the site of ‘the exterior darkness where man withstands that which the true must negate in order to become possibility and progress’ [The Space of Literature, p. 237]. Whereas discourse expressive of truth typically takes the form of propositions, whose structure can be fixed in advance, this is writing that would have us see it as errant and excessive. It is a poetry of exile, of wandering, and ‘where the wanderer is, the conditions of a definitive here are lacking’. The wanderer’s country, the dwelling-place of the nomad, is not a place of truth, but the abandonment of place altogether: such a figure ‘remains outside, on the hither side, apart’ [The Space of Literature, p. 238]. While reading Prynne’s book, one is made aware of language as though one were this side of it, this side of the process of its being uttered. Rather than passing through it to what is said or meant, one is struck by the visibility and fleshliness of it, as the event of it occurs in the here and now, in the singularity of the one, unique, repeatable, and unrepeatable, moment of it.
All the fun of the pit gets well and then better,
sand spun off as yet to bind promise to tap up
one clock via another, either to both, sky-divers
like swallows gorging their young.
The effect of the sudden contrast between the sharp and focussed simile attached to the sky-divers and the surrounding displacements of meaning is to make the physical shape of the language emerge or arise as it were out of the possibilities of significance, and as this takes place one comes to experience in that same emergence the poetry in its solitariness. That is, words and utterances come to the fore as being freed from, or having failed to acquire, any context of significant use, so that the poetry never quite achieves sense or direction. The impression given is of a missed encounter with an endlessly deferred meaning that is always on the verge of departing, or is on the very edge of arriving, so that one is suspended as a reader in the curious interval between the two. What movement there is is not towards repose or conclusion or an achieved realisation. The manner of it is errant, nomadic, effecting a traversal of space, but a space that is surface, not volume. Paul Celan has spoken of art as ‘going beyond what is human, stepping into a realm which is turned toward the human, but uncanny—the realm where the monkey, the automatons and with them . . . oh, art, too, seem to be at home’ [Collected Prose, trans. Rosemary Waldrop (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), pp. 42-43]. The lines from the stanza quoted above continue:
In staple pairs
all so sudden with a tumult, written for nothing
to skip a beat, break open the shells; dexter risen
forward, new zonal application as leaf by shaded
leaf glows with wanting itself so. None other for
both or neither, before this after that, hall-way of
desire in fairest placement rising.
The poem endorses the freedom implicit in the refusal of death and negation, seeking escape from confinement within totality and the world and assigning no name to what there is in the ‘hall-way of/desire in fairest placement rising’. Eschewing the dialectic, based as it is on the name and the fatality of the name, it offers a letting-be or letting-go of beings, releasing them, not from the subject of desire, but the subject of mastery. The realm of such writing is the uncanny—disclosed in their separation from essence, identity or ground, and no longer subject to category and concept, beings are no longer negated, or denied their singularity. These lines conclude the poem, and the book:
As brood so on
donation true to tint momentous, all is too hardly
much to clear unaided: hot justice pleading for penalty
in a rigged-up camp of love, courtship plays requited
and branded so faintly at implicit final appeal.
The notion of ‘play’ in all its complexity is internal to the uncanny, thus understood. Words like requited and branded shift between past participle and noun depending on their relation to the line end, so that courtship plays and is played between them, just as the love that is requited or returned is also revenged, branded, and yet all is done so faintly it results only in an implicit final appeal, which is all the answer there is to the earlier pleas of hot justice for penalty (connotations of games and play run through the whole passage). Taken in this way, as the non-identical, an event of language irreducible to anything other than the specific emphases of syntax, alliteration and assonance that compose it, the poem ends without ending, ‘branded so faintly at implicit final appeal’, allowing the reader no sure foothold on the slopes of conventional interpretation. The writing here is working through a process of articulating a sense of itself, not so much as an expressive poetry of response, but as the responsibility of response—of courtship, and so of love—as between text and reader, reader and text. The difficulty in coming to terms with this is that it involves a sustained avoidance of whatever would reduce it to mediation or expression, a stance that leaves it withdrawn, outside the alternatives of subject and object, self and other, as though it were seeking to stand on its own, contained within the very self-divisions of which it is itself the origin.
Prynne’s work is sometimes seen in relation to that of Charles Olson, and his attempts to transform poetic language into language experienced or undergone as the ‘projective act’ of the instant and not thought about the instant, an act no prior concepts of coherence are imposed upon, or preconceived limits laid down for. By attending to the syllable and a pre-logical, paratactic syntax, Olson believed he could recover an archaic, pre-Socratic vitality in which the poet’s creativity would be nothing other than a fusion with the unceasing flow of creation itself, and the poem a natural event embodying and releasing the cosmic forces of which both it and the poet are a part:
If [the poet] is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing, through himself will give him secrets objects share . . . It is in this sense that . . . the artist’s act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man. For a man’s problem, the moment he takes up speech in all its fullness, is to . . . cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature. [Selected Writings of Charles Olson, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966), p. 25.]
Olson’s claim is that certain syntactic relationships, certain ways of attending to sound and syllable, are more authentic than modern sentence forms based, supposedly, on the subject/predicate structure. It is these more authentic relationships of internal patterning that he finds in the grammars of certain Native American languages, and in the spatio-temporal paradigms of Homeric narrative. However, objections have been raised to this proposal: ‘Like the Fenellosan Pound, Olson pursues a language of nature beneath the language of convention, tracking down the raw, uncooked real in the tradition of American poetry’s obsession with the hieroglyphic and its promise of an archaic, “picturesque” or emblematic, language’ [Andrew Ross, The Failure of Modernism: Symptoms of American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 100]. The problem is that some kind of identity must be presupposed between the form of the real and the form of the poem’s ‘language of nature’, if the poem is to be, as Olson puts it, ‘equal . . . to the real itself’. However, any propositions purporting to assert an identity between the logical form of language and the logical form of the external world may well be nonsensical. Certainly, any inclination to think that the logic or grammar informing our use of words to say what we mean to say is in some manner derived from, or justified by, an appeal to extra-linguistic reality is misconceived. But, putting these disquiets to one side, the fact is that Prynne’s writing in Unanswering Rational Shore gives no grounds for thinking that it is based on assumptions similar to Olson’s.
Olson’s method depends upon him defining and positioning objects and places, while Prynne undertakes no such thing. Indeed, the poem seems to parody definition:
Petrol in search of flame hardly a ham sand-
wich, where the draft pulls out neither fear nor
care less, any cap provokes lateral adventure call
it tip to tip brownfield rematch.
Rather than definition, what we get is that ‘cunning intertexture of identical and contrasting features’, which, as an effect of the selection and constellation of phonemes and their components, Roman Jakobson saw as integral to the poetic function. [Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 426. Prynne discusses Jakobson’s notions of the poetic and his critique of Saussure’s ideas on the arbitrary nature of the sign in Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words (London: Birkbeck College, 1993)]. The lines develop in ‘lateral adventure’ a variety of series (such as the one going from petrol to flame to draft, cap, call and rematch), which bring to the fore the process whereby words, selected on the basis of their similarity and contrast, engender the combinations, the lines or stanzas, in which they occur. The series articulate and enact the otherness or lack of the process that engenders them. This, for Jakobson, is what the poetic function amounts to. He defines it as follows: ‘The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination’. [Language in Literature, p. 71]. The poetic function, Jakobson argues, promotes the palpability of signs, and so deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects, an occurrence fundamental to the letting-be of beings. Seen against this background, Prynne’s writing may be said to actualise, not those discriminations of sameness and difference that Olson so exactingly attends to, but an irreducible process of projection, aiming at nothing other than a situating of itself in the here and now of the one who reads.
In their book on Prynne, N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge discuss the significance for his later work of his engagement with Chinese poetry. Drawing on his account of the ‘Palace Style Poetry’ of the Southern Dynasties, published as a postscript to Anne Birrell’s translation of the anthology New Songs from a Jade Terrace, they note the centrality to the poetry of absence and separation. The subjects and intended readers of the poems are women, kept apart, by convention, distance and the difficulties of travel, from their lovers. Lonely, isolated, gazing out from their windows for some sign of their absent lovers, they are confined within a world of cosmetic surfaces, and subjected to the strict control of highly ritualised forms of life.
Emotions whose real targets are absent are displaced onto precious and symbolic objects; Prynne comments in his critical study on what he calls the ‘window/mist/curtain/screen/mirror cycle, in which hidden feeling is variously projected metonymically upon the screens which hide it. [Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), p. 180. The quotation from Prynne is cited by Reeve and Kerridge from his postscript to New Songs from a Jade Terrace, trans. Anne Birrell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p. 374.]
The replacement of the lost object in this way is not the operation of disavowal constitutive of fetishism, but a metonymic displacement proper to the projective act integral to the poetic function —a conception of that act far from what Fenellosa and Pound (or Olson) were after in their dealings with Chinese writing. A closer approximation than theirs to Prynne’s understanding of it (and to his own poetic practice), may be found in Jakobson’s essay, ‘Grammatical Parallelism’, where he endorses J.R. Hightower’s view that in Chinese poetry there is ‘an underlying pattern or series of patterns’ onto which ‘more subtle forms of grammatical and phonic parallelism introduce their counterpoint, a series of stresses and strains’.[ Language in Literature, p. 171. The remarks in question are citations from an essay by James R. Hightower]. Jakobson notes elsewhere that ‘in the Chinese metrical tradition the level tones prove to be opposed to the deflected tones as long tonal peaks of syllables to short ones, so that verse is based on the opposition of length and shortness’ [Language in Literature, p. 74]. That is, adapting Prynne’s idiom, grammatical and metrical parallelisms can be said to establish the metonymic patterning of the poetry as itself the screen onto which hidden feeling is projected, while being, at one and the same time, the screen that hides it. It is perhaps not too much to say that Prynne’s texts in Unanswering Rational Shore are acts of a similar projective intent, whose double nature is illuminated by Blanchot’s comment, cited near the start of this essay: ‘[the poem] is the point from which words begin to become their appearance, and the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes’. The enclosed, interior world of the Chinese women whose condition Prynne considers in his postscript is a place no less of exile and otherness—a space of literature—than that prepared by Prynne himself for the reader of his book.
School of Arts, The University, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NX, U.K.
Mind the Gap’, mined the gap
This short paper makes no claim to give an account of all schools and all examination boards but is intended to highlight one of the difficulties which face many first-year undergraduates as they attempt to make sense of contemporary poetry when their diet of reading up until this time has been dictated by a relatively conservative and self-asserting form of the art. In addition to this the examination system itself, a modular approach to Years 12 and 13 with the multiple re-takes available, encourages a sense of division of tasks which is sometimes at odds with the notion of learning how to read. I also will look at the challenging article written by Andrew Crozier in 1983, ‘Thrills and Frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’ and his questioning of the notion promoted by the accepted figures of modern poetry which he terms the ‘intransigent fiction of the ordinary person’.
Let me begin by referring briefly to the syllabus offered by two examination boards as far as modern poetry is concerned and, let me emphasise, this is merely the syllabus not the assessment objectives which dominate the marking of the examinations. I do not intend to name these two boards since my aim is certainly not to suggest a sense of preference.
The first example outlines its purpose as follows: ‘The new English Literature A specification encourages students to develop interest in and enjoyment of English Literature, through reading widely, critically and independently, across centuries, genre and gender, and through experience of an extensive range of views about texts and how to read.’ Well this sounds promising but we might examine how extensive this is when it comes to modern poetry. Poetry for the AS level paper has a theme of ‘identity within the world of modernity’ and candidates are asked to choose one of the following three volumes of poetry: And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou (Virago), The World’s Wife* by Carol Ann Duffy (Picador) or Skirrid Hill* by Owen Sheers (Seren). The examination itself will take the form of a 2 hour paper consisting of two sections and candidates will answer one question in each section. Section B covers poetry and candidates may bring their set poetry text into the examination room. This text should be a clean text, that is, free from annotation. There will be a choice of two questions on each set poetry text and candidates answer one of them. One of the two questions will ‘foreground’ one particular poem and its relation to the whole text, the other will provide a view about the poems for candidates to discuss.
A general comment made by the board suggests that there will be an emphasis throughout both AS and A2 on the ‘development of the informed, independent reader of literary texts through a course of wide and close reading’. This again sounds very promising and we would do well to look at the range of texts offered. When it comes to A2 the board affirms that the skills of close reading and analysis, interpretation, comparison and the ability to evaluate the influence of various contextual factors will be assessed. In terms of modern poetry the following texts for wider reading are suggested: poetry by Simon Armitage*, W.H Auden, Gillian Clarke, Carol Ann Duffy *, Allan Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Jackie Kay*,Liz Lockhead*, Agnes Meadows, Grace Nichols*, Alice Oswald,
Adrienne Rich, Gertrude Stein, Alice Walker, Benjamin Zephaniah.
A second examination board promotes the following two anthologies for study at AS level: Poetry Here to Eternity, ed. Andrew Motion with poems on the themes of either ‘Home’ or ‘Land’ or ‘Work’, and The Rattle Bag, ed. Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes with poems selected on the same themes. For this second board the A2 syllabus for modern poetry is a choice between Emergency Kit, ed. Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney (see Appendix 6 for the selected poems) and Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy*.
I shall not bore you with a list of the assessment objectives which dictate what will be given an A* at A level but allow me to quote from a recently retired Head of English:
A bright student in my school had a bad time personally in her AS year and after a poor English result, she needed to re-sit a module. It emerged that she had said nothing about context, despite my warnings; hence, presumably, her D grade. I told her to re-read the poems and gave her a list of eight contextual points (with an explanatory paragraph on each) that she had to memorise and work in. Afterwards, she said that she had not re-read any of the poems but she promised me faithfully that all eight points were in her essay. Result: A grade.
A student from another school whom I tutored briefly showed me an AS answer that had been given top marks by the board and used as a model. This may have covered what was formally required but Browning’s poetry lay lifeless as a result. The discussion was formulaic and revealed no ear for tonal nuances at all, yet the candidate had delivered.
Before I move on from these comments about the current state of play let me just add that under the old A level scheme there were two years of sixth-form study which ended with an end-of-course examination. This meant that in some schools where the practice of reading was taken seriously much of the first year could be used for a wide range of different texts that allowed the teacher’s own interests to communicate themselves with enthusiasm. There was a possibility for pupils to become engaged with the intriguing, sometimes mystifying, challenging nature of reading different works without them becoming ‘examinable’. There were opportunities for teachers of real commitment to work with pupils in a way that was not circumscribed by the frenetic urgency of getting all the right boxes ticked. A fine example of how this might work was revealed in the current issue of PN Review where one of R. F. Langley’s former pupils paid tribute to that extraordinarily powerful figure:
I first met Roger Langley in 1985. I had just started my A level studies at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield, and Roger, then Head of English, was running after-school sessions for anyone who wanted to think seriously about literature outside the constraints of the curriculum. I went along, with a group of seven or eight others, and we started with this: ‘What does not change / is the will to change’. The first text I studied as a sixth-former was Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’. Langley took us through a vortex of the unfamiliar and (to us) new: the Aztecs, Mao, Pound, Heraclitus, Rimbaud, the problematic concept of civilization, composition by field. We continued into Olson’s prose, The Maximus Poems, Ed Dorn, and Robert Creeley. I started to get it. Here was someone who wasn’t disconnected from the substance of his teaching. It mattered, and it was obvious that it was of direct relevance to the way he thought about the world and his place within it.
Let me return for a moment to those words from one examination board quoted at the beginning of this paper: a general comment made by the board suggests that there will be an emphasis throughout both AS and A2 on the ‘development of the informed, independent reader of literary texts through a course of wide and close reading’. It is at this point that I wish to remind us of Andrew Crozier’s seminal essay ‘Thrills and Frills; poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’ which first appeared in 1983 in a collection titled Society and Literature 1945-1970, edited by Alan Sinfield, in a series devoted to the ‘Context of English Literature’. My reason for going back to this essay, and its sequel ‘Resting on Laurels’ first published in 2000 in another book edited by Sinfield, British Culture of the Postwar, is because the thrust of Crozier’s argument hinges upon what he refers to as a canon which has remained largely unchanged in half a century. His opening question in ‘Resting on Laurels’ hits to the heart of the subject:
Is there any reason to expect that an up-to-date account of British poetry since the war will differ in important ways, except perhaps in details of personnel, from an account of the poetry of the first twenty-five postwar years written twenty years ago? If not, then our poetic culture—represented by the poetry on view in the chain bookstores, or that taught in schools (little poetry is taught, or read, in universities nowadays)—has remained largely unchanged in half a century.
Crozier’s earlier essay examined the nature of the readily-accepted canon of British poetry during the fifties and beyond:
If we want to ask questions about the context of poetry, with the idea, perhaps, that the broader our frame of reference the better our knowledge, we should find ourselves at the same time having to ask the question: What poetry?’
For the purposes of study at A level is the only modern poetry ‘in evidence’ that which ‘is at hand’? Does the exam board’s noble statement about developing the independent reader become closely linked to the methods of publication and if so then does this present an implicit commitment to particular literary judgements.
Andrew Crozier’s earlier essay opened with the question ‘What is the canon?’ and he quoted Blake Morrison on Seamus Heaney:
Seamus Heaney is widely believed to be one of the finest poets now writing. To call him ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats’ has indeed become something of a cliché. In Britain he is as essential a part of the school and university syllabus as are his post-1945 predecessors Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes; in America scholarly articles reflect a growing interest in his work; on both sides of the Atlantic influential critics…have pressed large claims on his behalf.
Crozier suggests that we should attend in particular to the implicit strategies of this argument, which strip from the notion of a canon of excellence any suggestion that the criteria involved might not be universal. First of all, the argument is contained within an unspecified concept of quality, ‘the finest poets’. It accomplishes itself by means of ostensibly neutral chronological markers (‘since Yeats’, ‘post-1945’); yet, while 1945 is an important date in social history (the election of a Labour government, the end of the Second World War—although neither was directly an event in Irish history, surely), ‘Yeats’ is a function of literary history. The notion of an autonomous literary history is implied by the concept of succession, Yeats-Heaney, Larkin-Hughes-Heaney. As Crozier puts it:
such succession is not simply chronological but is concerned with authority and status and, it would seem, relations of descent; a version of tradition, in other words, though not that of Pound or Eliot. Something British perhaps? Whatever the case, the argument derives its force more from its air of unassuming conviction than from anything it says about the poets in question, and it functions rather like those systems of radio interference used to jam other signals. The message that is allowed to come through is the persuasive notion of major quality, quite unbiased, simply the best. It is a salesman’s message (seeking in fact to develop the market for a series of primers on ‘Contemporary Writers’), appealing to a variety of tastes, a variety of English-language cultures, but appealing above all to the taste for quality. (It should be remembered that the appeal of quality is always pitched towards the individual customer.)
Crozier goes on to give a short account of The Movement in terms of its historical status
and reminds us of Morrison’s account of its ideological characteristics: the Low Church and middle-class origins; the concern with classlessness and upward social mobility; the hostility to the ‘posh’ and the ‘phoney’, and the nostalgia for traditional order; the connection with provincial universities. Crozier’s views on this notion of a canon of poetry had been made clear in a review he wrote as a third-year undergraduate at Christ’s College Cambridge to be published in an issue of the magazine Granta in October 1963 where he looked closely at Robert Conquest’s recently published New Lines 2. In the review he suggested that the poets included in Conquest’s anthology ‘are our orthodoxy, not our rebels’ and noted that most of Robert Conquest’s poets showed a total separation of their form and their content:
Maybe by ignoring form (in fact just accepting iambics, rhyme and periodic stanza patterns) they think they can pay attention to their content; but, their content is trivial.
Crozier also claimed that the New Lines anthology ‘codified a successfully assertive group position based on exclusion and prejudice’:
The point is this: by the adherence to an iambic line, their use of rhyme, and their use of stanzaic patterns that impose an arbitrary pattern on the poem once the first stanza has been composed (even supposing that it has not been taken ready made from a source other than what the poet might have to say) the ‘New Lines’ poets have closed their poetry to most experience; they have little to say to us. What they give us in place of their experience is a dilute poeticism, so many words slotted into a pattern, a pursuit of metaphor and simile as interesting in themselves.
In these poems from New Lines 2, where objects were always defining something or other rather than being allowed to exist in their own right, Crozier saw ‘a disabling force which predisposes the poet to a thinness of presented experience, and a lack of humility in his approach (as poet) to the external world.’ Towards the end of his essay Crozier suggests that ‘It is surely worthy of consideration…that our three canonical poets, Larkin, Hughes and Heaney, share the same publisher, are apparently thought to possess similar market potential, and imply the same sort of readership’ and concludes
In the poetic tradition now dominant the authoritative self, discoursing in a world of banal, empirically derived objects and relations, depends on its employment of metaphor and simile for poetic vitality. These figures are conceptually subordinate to the empirical reality of self and objects, yet they constitute the nature of the poem. Poets are now praised above all else as inventors of figures—as rhetoricians, in fact—with a consequent narrowing of our range of appropriate response. Poetry has been turned into a reserve for small verbal thrills, a daring little frill around the hem of normal discourse; objects and relations in the natural and social worlds have an unresistant, token presence; at its most extreme, they serve as pretexts for bravura display. It does not wish to influence the reader’s perceptions and feelings in the lived world: its intersection with that world is attenuated and discourages reading back; transformation is confined within the surprises and routines of rhetoric.
In the second of the two Crozier essays, ‘Resting on laurels’, 2000 he then summarizes the ‘Thrills & Frills’ essay:
In a glibly titled essay…I suggested that a canon of contemporary poetry had developed in the 1950s and 1960s, and cited Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney as its foremost representatives, establishing each in turn a poetic succession from decade to decade. This was hardly contentious then, nor is it now. I proposed that despite polemic disagreements on the score of gentility, in which a poem by Hughes might be held up as significantly of the postwar world and serious, in a way that one by Larkin, by virtue of its nostalgia, was not, the canon thus constituted was homogenous. I further argued that this homogeneity consisted in those common features of canonical work—its discursive habits—that constituted it as poetry: the enunciation (as we have learned to say) of an empirical subject, and a textual insistence on figures of rhetoric as the discernible sign of the poetic. That is to say that these two features, which are related, were (and, I shall maintain, still are) generally understood to be the necessary conditions of a poem; that is to put it at its best. At the worst they were (and are) its sufficient conditions.
David Kennedy’s The New Poetry published in 1993 reached its tenth impression by 2005. In 1996 it was followed by a complementary volume of essays by Kennedy, New Relations, The Refashioning of British Poetry 1980-1994, complete with an Appendix ‘The New Poetry—A User’s Guide’ giving ‘pointers on using The New Poetry with GCSE and Advanced Level examination syllabuses for 1996 and 1997’.
According to the introduction
The new poetry emphasises accessibility, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness, and reaffirm’s the art’s significance as public utterance. The new poetry highlights the beginning of the end of British poetry’s tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness—its constituent “parts” talk to one another readily, eloquently, and freely while preserving their unique identities.
The alpha and omega of this anthology are Pauline Stainer and Simon Armitage. The persona of the world of Armitage’s poems is ‘an average citizen or common man. This is the poet who is like his readers to the extent that they don’t normally read poetry, and are pleasantly surprised that it deals with the routine stuff of everyday life: probation officers, football, drugs. Discursively, that is to say, Armitage’s poems are directed by an intransigent fiction of the ordinary person and the dreariness of this viewpoint can be registered by comparing some of his work with the originals whom he seems to be imitating. ‘Very Simply Topping Up The Break-Fluid’ is a re-working of ee cummings’s witty ‘she being brand new’ and ‘poem’ reduces Frank O’Hara’s ‘A Step Away from Them’ to banality.
If I can end by taking you back to that memory of Roger Langley as a teacher it is clear from the account given by a former pupil that his teaching was challenging:
Nearly every lesson opened a new area of pursuit, and gave new insight.
And with that thought in mind may I suggest that students reading English at university, coming to terms with contemporary poetry, would be better served by looking at the anthology Vanishing Points, edited in 2004 by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella where the opening remarks of Mengham’s introduction set forth the challenge for the easy-answers brigade:
The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.
If I could leave you with two comments which I think are useful for sixth-form pupils to bear in mind when preparing for university. Firstly JHP’s advice to first year students concerning Practical Criticism:
a method of teaching (and testing) skills and developing insights which would enhance deeper and more alert understanding of literary works through detailed analysis of short text passages…the aim is to sharpen perception and to develop more precise powers of description, diagnosis and critical judgement… In fact and in practice…close and broad reading skills reciprocally energise and complement each other. Regular exercises in close reading both sharpen and deepen accurate response to local texture and also feed into enhanced perception of larger-scale structure, to make us all-round better readers.
And secondly John Hall’s comment to Tim Allen in interview:
Poems happen between people or not at all and they have limited powers to keep at bay all the other things that happen between people.
Ian Brinton 2011
Bouncing Off Each Other : A Poetry Collaboration by Sheila Hamilton
Gill McEvoy and I are both poets. Gill lives in Chester, I live nearby, and we kept bumping into each other at poetry workshops and readings before deciding to actually meet for coffee and to share and critique each other’s poems. This proved so fruitful that we decided, in February 2010, to take our connection a stage further.
Gill has a copy of Sparks, a chapbook born out of a poetic collaboration between the poets Tom Pow and Diana Hendry. The chapbook consists of the poems that came out of that partnership. Reading those poems and Tom’s and Diana’s remarks, we caught some of their enthusiasm. Our own collaboration, we decided, would be entitled, Coffee Cup Challenges, for the simple reason that we almost always met up for coffee in the refectory of Chester Cathedral.
The first challenge, set by Gill, was “Write a poem about glass.” Now Gill loves glass and even has a small flock of glass-birds in her home while I know little about glass. Off we went. After about a month (we’re not rigid about this) we met up again. . .this time with glass poems to read and critique. I probably wouldn’t have written about glass without this prompt and this, we feel, has been one of the great benefits of the project : you are forced, albeit benignly, to take on other subjects. After looking at and critiquing the glass poems, it was my turn to set a challenge : “Write a poem in which you address another poet. The poet can be alive or dead.” We do feel, by the way, that it’s important to suggest these challenges in good faith. In other words, it’s not on to suggest “Write a poem in which you address another poet” knowing full well that you already have such a poem at home, beautifully honed and probably ready for publication !
We have also found, on more than a few occasions, that it is the person who suggested the challenge who has greater difficulty fulfilling it. For example, I thought it would be easy to write a poem about an unusual animal. I went home, and googled, and thought, and googled again. . .and struggled to find my poem! I did learn a lot, in the process, about Caucasian ibex, and mouflon, and squid, and nautilus, but none of these quite resolved into poems. Similarly, Gill had trouble with the challenge she set on the subject of silence.
We have written poems on (in no particular order) : obesity, orchards, the Green Man, birdsong, a place (in 14 lines, not necessarily a sonnet), a historical personage, a vivid dream (employing the second person singular and the future tense), a minor character in a fairy tale, burial/excavation, and also a poem under the intriguing heading “Women can’t have children they don’t know about.” Just to name a few. Some of these poems have been published. One of Gill’s glass poems won a prize, and my dream poem was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Some poems have been duds. And we’ve just had the experience of deciding to scrap a challenge altogether, as neither of us after several weeks had been able to produce anything from it. The thing is, not to trap yourself with rules. Follow your nose. See what works.
The poems we have written out of this collaboration have led (inevitably ?) to other poems, other subjects. The interest and close attention paid by another person, and that person’s ability to offer helpful and non-fawning criticism, has proved invaluable to both of us.
Poetry Masterclass, John Greening
John Greening’s practical handbook Poetry Masterclass is essentially a personal beginners guide to the teaching and writing of poetry. It begins with a glossary of technical terms and verse forms that is riddled with errors and incomplete definitions. An authority on the subject should have properly edited this. The second and third parts concern reading and teaching a poem. A limited structure of reading is provided that does not go beyond the basic and closes down on the rich hinterland of alternative experiences and readings that make poetry such a joy to teach. The tone is anti-intellectual, certain of its assumptions and limiting. There is no mention of practical criticism, language use, poetic effects or context. On the credit side there is an understanding of reading aloud, metre and that a poem consists of language, although this is unexplored. The approach is passive. The teacher should be grasping the poetic raw material. Words, their usage, philology, etymology and meaning, is never mentioned. I find this extraordinary and disheartening.
The handbook works well in terms of providing information with its lists of books on the art of poetry, recommended poetry books, poems on the art of poetry and suggestions for how to start writing a poem. The exercises are useful and supported by examples. However the underlying belief that students should begin their writing exercises by taking the methods of other poems is limiting and removes an avenue of creative possibility. This is in contrast to say Steve Kowitt’s The Palm Of Your Hand (1995) and Paul Matthews’ Sing The Creation (1998), both of which are cheery books with lots of practical exercises grounded in a fuller reading of how poetry functions and came into existence. Students are capable of finding poems from alternative sources and surely that helps bring excitement into the classroom. The central part of the book consists of an exploration of form, linked with diction, metre and syntax. The use of examples and references for possible reading and writing is good. Greening is on surer ground here and less idiosyncratic in approach. He is also to be commended for demonstrating form with examples of his poems.
On the other hand, the relative lack of attention to words is a serious absence and there is a narrow understanding of musicality throughout. Whole areas of contemporary poetry practice are ignored and there is no sustained criticism that includes both broad and close reading skills anywhere in the book. Regular exercises in close reading both sharpen and deepen accurate response to local texture and also feeds into enhanced perception of larger-scale structure and that produces better all-round readers. These omissions are noticeable in an otherwise thoughtful essay on the seven virtues of a good poem, which is exemplary in terms of citing examples but not on how to focus reading. It is not so much what is said, although it is limiting in perspective and ambition, that causes disquiet but what is omitted. A short essay on the history of poetry in English confines itself to superficial changes and lacks a linguistic context. Neither essay grasps or seeks to explain that poetic development occurs within language. This is crucial as it involves an appreciation that the self moves and functions within a multiplicity of language(s). Reading skills involve wide-ranging focus and perception that is based on asking questions of the text under review. Contextualisation as an object of study implicit in reading is given scant attention.
The sheer volume of new books that attempt to deal with the state of contemporary poetry as a practice and field of study testifies to a crisis in the teaching of poetry. The absences in this handbook reinforce the malaise. Part of the reason for this growing crisis is the way that poetry is taught and examined at secondary schools and beyond. There is enormous disparity in approaches and interpretation of requirements and our examining boards are partly failing able students by restricting the range of poetics on offer and by not sufficiently utilising the canon. The narrow range of poetry on the syllabus of all examining boards is not a matter of multiculturalism but rather of the more substantial issue of the width and depth of close reading requirements. The number of poems that offer simplistic and closed readings outweighing the number of more complex poems exasperates this and there is a related, secondary issue of student and teacher finding relevance in the poems under review. I support that those teachers that believe in the RING approach. That is to make the lesson and poem Relevant, Informative, Naughty and a Giggle. There are sufficient resources to allow both relevance and essential close reading. Seventeenth century poetry, for example, offers a rich seam of diverse material for a world where religious controversy, concerns about identity, sexuality, environmental and land issues are relevant. To resolve the crisis there should be a considerably greater range of poetry on offer that should be supported by study of context, approaches to the text and introduction to poetics through language. Jerome Rothenberg has produced some excellent anthologies, such as The Technicians of the Sacred (1968) and Poems For The Millennium (1998) of world poetry that illustrate the imaginative worlds that could be explored by secondary school students.
The widening gulf that exists within poetry teaching at all levels can be explained in terms of an educational background that views poetry as something that moves towards and through the complex and multiple experience of language, with all its attendant discourses and histories, and that which views poetry as seemingly transparent expression. Poetry Masterclass aptly illustrates the situation that I have outlined. The recommended reading list is narrow and partial. It omits diverse approaches to language and constantly refuses to engage with any language use that is complex or tricky and requires some thinking. It is the thinking that we need. This arises from the failure to read a text within a series of possible contexts. The problem for the student reader is how to find the most plausible context and interpretation. Several universities are now studying a much wider poetics and so this gap between poetry that is written through language as opposed to a narrow range of experience and language use will continue to disadvantage students that have not been introduced to more linguistically and socially challenging poetry at secondary level. Students need to be properly equipped to move beyond the narrow range of language and experience on offer here to where the sheer exuberance of possibility and multiplicity forces the reader into new worlds of thought, interpretation and critical judgement. It is this experience that is partially being denied and one that needs to be addressed. Reading poems requires an introduction to the concept of context and to all possible nuances and perceptions in practical criticism. A more grounded understanding of the requirements of teacher and student is to be found in parts of Ian Brinton’s Contemporary Poetry: Poets and Poetry since 1990 (Cambridge 2009), Ruth Padel’s The Poem and The Journey, (Vintage 2008) and Peter Robinson’s Talk About Poetry: Conversations on the Art (Shearsman 2006).