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Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice Xavier Kalck Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice  Xavier Kalck  Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

A close friend of mine used to herald the onset of winter each year with a re-reading of MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. There always seemed to me to be something apt, a string plucked with a tone of melancholy leisure, about the opening of that fine poem:

‘Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall…’

A little like the taste of an almond cake, lying beneath the burned parts, in the opening pages of Proust, MacNeice’s rhythms brought to mind those shadows ‘on the perfect lawn’ that were the ‘shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served’ some forty miles from London in Henry James’s most famous novel about how an archer’s aim had been brought low by a genius for upholstery. This is a world of muted strings and Xavier Kalck’s title for his book about MacNeice’s posthumous collection of poems, The Burning Perch, has been chosen with great care:

‘Muted Strings draws attention especially to the dynamic that exists in MacNeice’s poems from The Burning Perch between muting as a means to soften the tune of the song, and muting as a symptom of the deadening of the song.’

This delightful little introduction to the late poetry of Louis MacNeice clearly adheres to a formula and is aimed at students who are going to write essays and dissertations on the volume of poems published in September 1963, some ten days after the poet’s death. With a quietly unassuming sense of dignity Xavier Kalck, who lectures in American literature at the Sorbonne, tells me that the whole affair is rather standard although ‘I hope there was room enough for some small measure of originality’. There certainly is!

I had a good feeling about this book when a review copy arrived quite recently. This feeling was partly based upon my awareness of the careful attention Xavier Kalck had given to the poetry of Anthony Barnett, whose Shearsman Selected Poems he introduced ten years ago. In that introduction he had written

‘The origin of poetry, much like that of language itself, is a matter of the poet dealing with whatever origin he finds, finding out when and how it resists, letting the poem originate its own resistance, a language pared down to its first poetics.’

Given that focus it was no surprise when I opened up this little introduction to MacNeice to discover a quotation from Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938): ‘However much is known about the poet, the poem remains a thing distinct from him’. I was cheered by the knowledge that this book, however much it may adhere to a formula, would focus upon the poetry itself and therefore introduce readers to the ‘formal gymnastics’ of a poem ‘rather than psychological or biographical concerns’.

The opening poem in The Burning Perch is preoccupied with space and time. ‘Soap Suds’ presents a circular movement and Kalck quotes from Peter McDonald’s criticism of the poem before going on to suggest some subtle new approaches:

‘In terms of imagery, visual and otherwise, the poem resolves into an expanding (or contracting) series of circular figures: the soap, the ball, the globes, the gong, the hoops, and finally again the ball and the soap. The circular movement of the poem itself brings the reader back to the adult hands of the beginning.’ (MacDonald)

‘The pattern is unquestionably relevant. We are told the speaker visited the house with the lawn “when he was eight” (1), and mathematically, the return visit doubles that time into sixteen lines. However, the lines do not only pick up speed as they stretch within this highly circular poem. To put it tautologically, the linearity of the lines works against, as much as in accordance with, the overall cyclical pattern. The length of the lines conveys the distance that separates the childhood recollection from the speaker’s present.’ (Kalck)

Perhaps the real quality of this little book is that it takes one back, again and again, to the text itself and by looking with such care at Louis MacNeice’s last volume of poems one is compelled to recognize how good this poet is.

Ian Brinton 21st December 2015

Half-light by Yevgeny Baratynsky (translated by Peter France) Arc Publications

Half-light by Yevgeny Baratynsky (translated by Peter France) Arc Publications

Pointing to the similarities to be found between the poetry of Leopardi and that of Baratynsky the editor of this fine new translation of the early nineteenth century Russian poet suggests that these might include a ‘clear-sighted, bleak vision of man and society’ and an ‘awareness of human fragility and ephemerality’. The sequence ‘Half-Light’ was published in 1842, two years before the poet’s death, and it contained ‘a gathering of poems written since 1834 and presented as a unified whole’; the title is significant since by then the poets of the Golden Age, such as Pushkin, ‘had largely gone out of fashion’. At the same time, however, 1842 saw an imperial decree which seemed to promise a reform, or even an end, of serfdom: ‘timid and abortive though this was, it was greeted at first with enthusiasm’.

There is a haunting seriousness in this Russian poet’s gaze; his ‘sculptor’ sees Galatea buried in stone:

‘Plunging his gaze into the stone,
the artist sees the nymph within,
an ardent flame runs through his veins,
and his heart longs to touch her then.

His desire for her is infinite,
but the sculptor holds himself in check,
unhurrying, deliberate, quiet,
he strips off all the veils that hide
the goddess deep within the rock.’

And, in return for such careful homage, such unfaltering concentration and focus, the spirit within the rock recognises the ‘passion beneath the cool caress’ and responds by leading the artist (‘sage’) ‘to the triumph of voluptuousness’. In Henry James’s late novel, The Tragic Muse, about an aspiring painter who eschews politics for the quiet concentration of the artist, Nick Dormer turns from the lady who has been seeking his love/success and looks round his studio:

‘It was certainly singular, in the light of other matters, that on sitting down in his studio after she had left town Nick should not, as regards the effort to project plastically some beautiful form, have felt more chilled by the absence of a friend who was such an embodiment of beauty. She was away and he missed her and longed for her, and yet without her the place was more filled with what he wanted to find in it. He turned into it with confused feelings, the strongest of which was a sense of release and recreation. It looked blighted and lonely and dusty, and his old studies, as he rummaged them out, struck him even as less inspired than the last time he had ventured to face them. But amid this neglected litter, in the colourless and obstructed light of a high north window which needed washing, he came nearer tasting the possibility of positive happiness: it appeared to him that, as he had said to Julia, he was more in possession of his soul.’

Baratynsky’s artist spends ‘Hours and days and years’…‘in his delicious, dim travail’ as he works carefully to tear the final veil from the ‘guessed-at, wished-for shape’.
The solitude of the artist who works with quiet intensity at full engagement with the outside world is brought into focus in another of these contemplative poems, ‘The Goblet’.

‘Goblet of solitude! You never
give new credence to the cheap
impressions of everyday existence
like some common loving cup;
nobler, richer, you awaken
with a wonder-working might
heavenly dreams or revelations
of regions hidden from our sight.’

Baratynsky recognises the value in removal away from the ‘old sterile distractions, / common passions, social lies’ and heralds the ‘solitary intoxication’ which ‘clears the mist that clouds our eyes.’

The translations read so well. As Peter France puts it in his introduction, ‘I have tried to convey the details of Baratynsky’s meaning, the meaning his poems had for his contemporaries’ and he succeeds in what Yves Bonnefoy asserted when he pointed out that although you cannot translate a poem you can translate poetry.

Ian Brinton 20th September 2015.

Poems by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe, 2015) ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ Part II

Poems by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe, 2015) ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ Part II

With a mixture of playful good humour and mordantly intricate style Henry James came to terms with the failure of his venture into the world of the London stage. The hissing and booing that greeted the curtain call for Guy Domville in 1895 gave him, according to Frank Kermode, ‘one of his worst moments, and confirmed his scepticism as to the existence of any considerable literate public’, a public capable of that measure of cooperation an artist might reasonably look for.
Reflecting perhaps upon the difference between a quality of writing and ‘fame’ in the market-place James wrote two short stories in response to his ‘failure’. ‘The Next Time’, published in The Yellow Book, deals with a lady novelist whose potboilers have ensured her both fame and money yet who also, just for once, wishes to be taken more seriously, to reach the ‘heroic eminence’ of being regarded as ‘an exquisite failure’:

‘A failure now could make—oh with the aid of immense talent of course, for there were failures and failures—such a reputation!’

Her desire to be serious flies directly in the face of a literary world of ‘trash triumphant’.

When the first collection of Poems by J.H. Prynne appeared in 1982, splendidly published by Allardyce, Barnett, it attracted the notice of Peter Porter who observed that there was ‘more of the world most of us live in, where people meet and talk, read books and exchange opinions, than there is in the poetry of Hughes and Heaney’. He also noted the ‘ghosts of traditional rhyming poems’ lurking like a complex figure, a string that Vereker’s pearls are strung on! The appropriateness of James’s image is brought into focus when one looks at Prynne’s note appearing at the end of ‘The First Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University’, published ten years ago, in which he referred to the ‘pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times’.
When the first Bloodaxe Poems appeared in 1999 it was dedicated to Bernard Dubourg, the French translator of Chansons A La Journée-Lumière (1975), Séquentiel Diurne (1975) and Poèmes de Cuisine. The last of these was a collaborative effort between the English and French poet. The wording of the dedication made it clear that it was in memory of this French poet who had died in 1992 and when the second edition of Poems appeared in 2005 from Bloodaxe it was dedicated to Edward Dorn who had died in 1999, ‘his brilliant luminous shade’. This third edition which brings the reader right up to date with the inclusion of Refuse Collection (2004), To Pollen (2006), Streak—Willing—Entourage Artesian (2009), Sub Songs (2010), Kazoo Dreamboats; or, On What There Is (2011) and Al-Dente (2014) is simply given the epigraph ‘For the Future’. The new edition also contains ‘6 Uncollected Poems’. Whilst the whole volume looks both forwards and outwards it may not be too fanciful to suggest that the concluding poem in Al-Dente acts as a type of personal dedication to Tom Raworth, ‘fill to all loyal found’.

This is a note merely to alert readers to this important publication which is due to appear on the Bard’s birthday, 23rd April. A full-length review will certainly appear in the next issue of Tears.

Ian Brinton 30th March 2015

Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’

Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’

One of the finest fictions about the role of the literary reviewer must surely be Henry James’s 1896 story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. When the narrator of the short fiction is asked to write a review of the latest novel by Hugh Vereker it is, of course, for The Middle, a highbrow literary journal so-named ‘from the position in the week of its day of appearance’. The hint here is surely that not only can the critic expect to trot out some ‘middle’ perceptions but, after all, these will be all that his readership will expect to digest. When Vereker reads the little review his response, given at a social dinner, is in reaction to Miss Poyle’s comment asking for his reaction to the so-termed ‘panegyric’. The novelist’s response is given with great good humour:

‘Oh it’s all right—the usual twaddle!’

When Miss Poyle pursues her prey by asking ‘You mean he [the reviewer] doesn’t do you justice?’ Vereker laughs out loud and tosses out the comment ‘It’s a charming article’. When Miss Poyle accuses the novelist of being ‘deep’ he in turn suggests that the author often does not see what the reader might see:

‘Doesn’t see what?’
‘Doesn’t see anything.’
‘Dear me—how very stupid!’
‘Not a bit,’ Vereker laughed again. ‘Nobody does.’

As the narrator goes to bed that night he encounters the famous novelist who has gone upstairs to change and Vereker wishes to explain a little more about what he meant concerning literary critics. With a charming sense of self-effacement he refers to his own work in terms of the critics missing ‘my little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins.’ When pushed a little further about what exactly this ‘little point’, the central aspect of his work, might be the artist replies:

‘By my little point I mean—what shall I call it?—the particular thing I’ve written my books most for. Isn’t there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn’t write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely? Well, it’s that!’

Perhaps to search for a figure in the carpet is to search for a ‘hidden meaning’ in a work of art almost as if reading with intensity was merely a matter of extending the children’s comic game of ‘Where’s Wally’. When reading a serious poem or piece of prose we are treading upon the whole carpet into which there may be a figure woven that merges with the entire pattern and, if so, then ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.

Ian Brinton March 28th 2015

Three books from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press

Three books from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press

From the Japanese by Paul Rossiter

What the Sky Arranges by Andrew Fitzsimons

Arc Tangent by Eric Selland

These three books from Paul Rossiter’s recently founded ISOBAR Press are a delight to see, hold, read, re-read. These are publications of a very high quality indeed and they sit in the hand likes works of art. I am struck by a sense of cool distance, things seen from afar and I read Eric Selland

‘Everyone carries a room inside him. Yesterday I ran into C for the first time in many months. He had returned in September from a research trip overseas but was now despondent, insisting to me that he should have stayed. It was at this moment that I realized my experience of returning to this country after years living abroad had been much the same. And now I see that a part of me never truly returned. In effect, I have lived out much of my life as if I were not actually here. In a way, I was never wholly present. But on the other hand, perhaps one is never wholly present in the world. The very notion of turning back.’

When I read this I was immediately put in mind of an eerie Henry James tale from 1892, ‘The Private Life’, in which Lord Mellifont only seems to exist when someone places him as the centre of social conversation, a place he would expect to be. If you were looking for him (unknown to him) you would discover that ‘He was too absent, too utterly gone, as gone as a candle blown out…’. As the narrator suggests, there was a peculiarity about Mellifont ‘that there could be no conversation about him that didn’t instantly take the form of anecdote’. It is as if we are made up of the stories people tell about us; as if we are a gilded obelisk, the external and crystallised surface of a buried life!

Or, as Selland puts it elsewhere in this fascinating pair of prose-poem sequences ‘Like an object abides in the plasticity of an aspect. A setting that determines coordinates’.

What the Sky Arranges is a collection of wise, witty, compassionate and, occasionally, cranky ruminations on the business of living by the monk, Kenkō (c. 1283-c. 1350). It is wonderfully illustrated by the photographs of Sergio Maria Calatroni. There is a clear simplicity to these poems such as the carpe diem of ‘DATES’:

‘Don’t wait till dotage for your goodness to begin.
Look at the dates on those gravestones’

And, as if in response to Pascal, there is ‘WORLDS’:

‘Travel. Wherever you go
the world you bring with you
is washed by the world you see.’

In From the Japanese Paul Rossiter’s own poems range from a version of a prose poem by Basho (completed in 1969 before he went to Japan) to a letter from the city of Ishinomaki, severely damaged in the tsunami of 2011. There is an echo of Gary Snyder, whose poetry I rate very highly, in the merging of precision and spiritual possibility:

‘wave pattern in raked sand
very particular pine trees
we climb stone steps to the hall’

There is a quiet grace in these poems, a measured tracing of pictures in words which I know I shall return to time and again:

‘eyes down to search for tokens
loving this shell and this one and this one

the grace of these anonymous sarcophagi
each an emblem
of a life’s urgent spiralling to order
licked clean by the sea’s salt tongue
haunted by echoes, empty as light’

ISOBAR PRESS

14 Isokon Flats, Lawn Road, London NW3 2XD http://isobarpress.com

Ian Brinton 10th September 2014

Oli Hazzard’s Within Habit (Test Centre, 2014)

Oli Hazzard’s Within Habit (Test Centre, 2014)

 

follows up his critically acclaimed Between Two Windows (Carcanet Press, 2012), winner of the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. This new collection in a limited edition of 250 copies comes with an introductory note by John Ashbery and preface quotes from Archaeological Theory: An Introduction, which refers to the density of archaeological sites being so large that a line drawn through the British landscape would clip a number of sites, and Emily Dickinson’s ‘You there – I – here’ poem. Ashbery describes the work as a ‘stunning set of prose puzzles’ that ‘suggests a kit with only a few instructions supplied’ and ‘becomes exciting, necessary and new.’

 

Ashbery rightly alerts to the reader to the place where meaning may or may not arrive in these exciting poems. On first reading, Within Habit concerns what might be called a discursive cultural mapping of the spaces between lines (drawn, read | disputed) where origins may form or be appropriated. There is a beguiling repetition of figures such as Monmouth, Henry James, Paul Nash, also Latin and Greek, and intriguingly Christopher Newman, a character from The Americans, who prefers copies to originals, and Meliboeus, from Virgil’s Eclogues. Monmouth signifies both person and town with its foundation on a Roman settlement and Norman castle.

 

The twenty texts are presented in prose format with vertical lines marking divisions and connections between units creating relatively abrupt and startling juxtapositions. The texts consist of two sets of nine lines linked by a ‘hinge’ word or phrase from the end of the ninth line placed on the next line clear of both sets. This word or phrase is thus clearly referenced as between the two sets. The A3 sized book is beautifully designed with the poems positioned centrally on the page in large font, employing blue print with ample white space between them drawing attention to the visual aspects of the contents and obliquely, to representations and inscriptions of originals.

 

The poems appear to be concerned with divisions and demarcations, as in wood and trees, face and hand, mountain and valley, border and fence, original and copy, and the power around them. Like Emily Dickinson’s poem they are concerned with the construction of those divisions as the place between the lines where the self is located

 

In the space of a few lines | you may find yourself | in the space of a

few lines | roomy enough to dwell in | some cloudy morning – the

little adjustments | falling makes | in the receptacle | from which

the desire to receive | somatic perfume | of the pressure drops

halfway through | the sentence | make themselves felt as distinctions

from a state | of deep sleep | landscaping. Working as agents

induces an improper feeling of flatness | sex flowers strike | so light

it hardly registers as defeat | the tears or weak areas. To determine

the appropriate pressure | for

movement

 

to be deterred | partition calls back the candelabra-form espalier

 

 

These poems are extraordinary and leave the reader puzzled and amazed.

 

David Caddy 28th May 2014

 

 

 

 

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