How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

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With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?

It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).

Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .

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For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.

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Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.

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Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.

 

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Ken Smith

 

A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies  for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.

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A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”

 

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Yves Bonnefoy

 

Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?

This Must Be All: Robert Frost’s ‘Two Look at Two’

I have recently posted about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’ as well as on one of his lesser known poems, ‘A Soldier’. The latter is one of the poems I’ll be teaching this coming academic year as set by the Cambridge International Exam Board: see page 47. Student essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes). Another of the set poems is discussed in what follows: ‘Two Look at Two’. I read the poem here:

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In The Dyer’s Hand (1963), Auden’s essay on Frost opens by observing that, if asked who said ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’, most people would reply ‘John Keats’. Auden differs, arguing the famous phrase is really something Keats makes the Grecian urn say so the author maintains some dramatic distance between himself and the poem’s questionable statement. This is also a very Frostian device – though not one that Auden probes in his subsequent discussion of the poems. Whenever we read Frost, it’s important to be alert to such ironic distancing from the (simply understood) lyric voice or ‘I’. In fact, ‘Two Look at Two’ is a poem which does not obviously lend itself to this ‘dramatic’ sort of interpretation as its narrative voice seems more reliably omniscient, or at least impersonal. And yet the obvious meaning of the poem is not characteristic of a poet whose work can be dark and pessimistic, indeed labelled “terrifying” by Lionel Trilling in 1959. In the poem, a couple of lovers, walking up a mountain, encounter a corresponding pair of deer – a doe and buck. At the end of the brief, uneventful encounter the narrator reports that the human couple sense a “wave” of reciprocated love emanating from the “earth”. At the conclusion of this discussion, I’ll look again at whether the narrator’s confident assertion of this should be taken at face value.

The first and last words in the poem are the same: “love”. The opening 3 lines are full of qualifying equivocations with the choice of verb form “might” and the vague but limiting phrases about how far up the mountain side the couple will go: “A little further up” and “not much further up”. It is the twin forces of “love and forgetting” which have the potential to drive them higher up the mountain. The two are probably linked in that, absorbed in their mutual love, they may become forgetful, neglectful of the potential dangers in the landscape. The risk of self-absorption (even in the cause of romantic love) is raised here by Frost, a risk encountered by other narrators in poems like ‘An Encounter’, ‘The Wood-Pile’ and most clearly in ‘Stopping by Woods…’ In the latter, the allure of the snowy woods is strongly felt by the narrator (“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”) but his work and social responsibilities probably prevent him from abandoning the road and risking/welcoming death by exposure.

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In many cases, the chief risk is a neglect of the boundaries that in Frost’s world it seems wiser to acknowledge and adhere to. In ‘Two Look at Two’ this is clear in the forceful verbs used in the following few lines (“They must have halted” and “they must not go”) and it may explain the optimistic nature of this poem that we see the lovers in fact do adhere to the limits set. Lines 5/6 suggest they have thoughts not of over-reaching or dizzying aspiration but rather of the dangers present to them: “With thoughts of the path back, how rough it was / With rock and washout, and unsafe in darkness”. Frost’s music here is suitably rough and threatening with its harsh consonants and internal rhyme (path/back), the growling ‘r’ sounds followed by a swilling of sibilance (washout /unsafe /darkness) suggestive of the water-eroded path on the hillside. When they encounter the actual physical barrier of a wall, Frost bulks it up (despite its ruined state) in the reader’s ear with heavy plosive ‘b’ sounds: “they were halted by a tumbled wall / With barbed-wire binding”.

This is not a barrier to be passed easily – and the lovers do not even try. They possess a sort of Frostian piety or reverence most clearly seen also in ‘Mending Wall with its repeated maxim: “Good fences make good neighbours”. ‘Two Look at Two’ does allow its lovers a residual “onward impulse” which they spend, or expend, simply by gazing up along the path “they must not” now follow. The dangers that lie there are again described with a telling adjective (it is a “failing path”) and a haunting moment of hypothetical personification: “if a stone / Or earthslide moved at night, it moved itself”. It is at this point that we hear some words spoken by the lovers. Their words are brief and (effectively) firmly monosyllabic – “This is all [. . . ] Good-night to woods”. But they are accompanied by a sighing of regret that the walk has reached its limit. Frost here is accepting the reality of human desire – that “limitless trait of ‘There Are Roughly Zones’ –but he and the lovers see the risks of its limitless pursuit.

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The lovers’ clipped statements are answered in kind by the narrative voice: “But not so; there was more.” The clipped, heavily punctuated nature of lines 13/14 make them a clear, early turning point in the poem, a moment of stasis and some tension. The unpunctuated and enjambed line 15 then sets the narrative flowing again as it records the sudden presence of the doe, staring back across the wall at the lovers. The mirroring effect is most important and presented through the plain language of lines 16/7: the doe is looking at them “Across the wall, as near the wall as they. / She saw them in their field, they her in hers”.  In each line the caesura acts as the wall, dividing and join the two halves of the lines. The repetitions of ‘wall’, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘her’ slow and focus the reader on what the title suggests is the mutual regard occurring on either side of the wall.

Frost’s narrative slides seamlessly into the doe’s perspective, imagining her difficulty in seeing the couple. Though watched carefully, their alien appearance is conveyed in a simile: they are “like some up-ended boulder split in two”. But the couple perceive no “fear” in the creature and Frost’s formulation – “they saw no fear there” – also suggests they feel no fear on their part either. In fact, lines 21-24 rather suggest the couple, “though strange”, do not possess much interest for the doe:

She could not trouble her mind with [them] too long,

She sighed and passed unscared along the wall.

Notably, she also shares the ‘sigh’ with the couple and in this way the shared mutuality of the encounter is emphasised, preparing us for the final affirmative moments of the poem.

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The couple’s speech (line 25) suggests – through italicisation, short phrases and the rhetorical question – that they are breathlessly impressed. They think this is “all” but there is more to come. Frost’s poem ‘The Most of It’ comes to mind, recording as it does the appearance of another creature (“As a great buck”), its advent perhaps a response to a man’s demand for “counter-love, original response”. There, the creature seems brutish, indifferent, unaware, alien and incomprehensible as it stumbles off into the underbrush. ‘The Most of It’ (bafflingly not a poem included in CIE’s set poem list) is a key poem to contrast with ‘Two Look at Two’. In the latter, a buck also appears and, despite its more challenging even arrogant tone, it is never as frighteningly remote as the creature in ‘The Most of It’.

The buck of ‘Two Look at Two’ announces itself with a “snort” and is a more stereotypically masculine presence with its antlers, “lusty nostril”, its jerking head and its (imagined) arrogantly dismissive questioning of the couple. But his difference from the doe is minor as we recognise a whole line repeated: the buck also stands looking at the couple, “Across the wall, as near the wall as they”. It’s perhaps not clear who is interpreting the shaking of the buck’s head as questions. It’s either the narrative voice itself or that voice reporting (omnisciently) on the thoughts of the couple. His questions verge on the belligerent:

Why don’t you make some motion?

Or give some sign of life? Because you can’t.

I doubt if you’re as living as you look.

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If we are going to find disharmony in this seemingly mutual encounter, this is where it might lie. The buck’s questions portray the couple as standing respectfully, perhaps in awe, certainly in silence. The impact of the (imagined) questions is to make the human couple “almost” feel “dared / to stretch a proffering hand – and a spell-breaking one”. So the buck’s obstreperous attitude strikes the couple as a dare to reach out across the divide. Such an action would be to proffer, “to hold out or put forward (something) to someone for its acceptance”, hence a gesture of friendship. But Frost also makes it clear such a reaching across the divide would break the spell of mutual regard which has been the subject of the whole poem. In fact, the moment of choice – a topic of so many other Frost poems, most famously ‘The Road Not Taken’ – is passed over as the buck, just like the doe, moves away, “unscared along the wall”.

The final 5 lines deal with the impact on the lovers. Again, they briefly speak: “This must be all”. And on this occasion, the narrative voice agrees: “It was all”. The final phrase in ‘The Most of It’ is “and that was all”. Is this the cry or half-question of the disappointed man asking, ‘Is there no more than this’? Or is it a rapt, stunned whispering in the face of a vision of a unitary world declaring, ‘So this is all and all’s connected’? You could ask the same questions about the end of ‘Two Look at Two’ though the couple’s italicised emphasis in line 39 and the fact they continue to stand, as if rapt and wrapped still in the experience they have just had, surely does not suggest disappointment. Frost uses the metaphor of the “wave” sweeping over them, suggesting an irresistible inundation, a largeness of feeling derived from this minor incident. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”.

But the “As if” that opens line 41 cannot be ignored. This is how it felt – for the lovers. I don’t think Frost wants to deny them their experience. But perhaps they are still too absorbed in their own “Love and forgetting”. This is where the sense of the poem as a dramatic performance perhaps is relevant, in this case the incident rosily-coloured by the perceptions of the lovers. We ought to hesitate before we conclude that Frost himself sees the earth as in fact mutually responding with love. This would be exactly the “counter-love, original response” that so signally does not occur in ‘The Most of It’. The optimism of ‘Two Look at Two’ cannot be dismissed – but nor can it be taken in any simple way as the real and final ‘message’ of its author.

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Ocean Vuong

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) – reviewed here

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

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Saigon 1975

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

 

 

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

 

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

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Vuong with his mother and aunt -refugee camp Philippines, c.1989.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

 

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

 

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

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Ernest Hemingway and his son (plus guns)

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

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What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

 

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Archaic Torso of Apollo

 

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

 

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

 

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

 

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

 

 

The Cleansing Tang of Otherness: C. S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’

By 1956, C.S. Lewis was famous as a Christian apologist, literary historian, critic, BBC broadcaster and a writer of science fiction and children’s books (the Narnia books appeared almost yearly from 1950 to 1956). He had long been a confirmed bachelor, living with a housekeeper and his brother in Headington, just outside Oxford, since 1930. For most of his life he’d been a don at Magdalen College, Oxford. Just the year before, in 1955, he had accepted a new professorship at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but remained living in Headington. An establishment, if eccentric, figure whose views on so many things are scarred by the era in which he grew up, nevertheless he is a writer capable of remarkable insight.

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He first met Joy Gresham in September 1952 and the two grew closer over the ensuing four years. Gresham was an American whose marriage was collapsing. By 1956, she wanted to remain in the UK with her two children, but the Home Office refused to renew her visa. To secure her residence, Lewis offered to marry her in a civil ceremony in a registry office. He seems to have suggested that he already loved her in all ways but one – the erotic – and he would continue to do so. In fact, they had just four years of marital happiness (and a love that seems to have included the erotic) before Gresham died of cancer in July 1960. Lewis jotted thoughts down after the event, referring to it as a record, “a defence against total collapse, a safety valve”. What he wrote was published in 1961 (under a pseudonym) as A Grief Observed. A version of these events is played out in the film Shadowlands (1993).

A Grief Observed does what it says on the tin. Lewis observes the progress of his own grief after the death of Joy Gresham – she’s referred to in the text as Helen. For example, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” A little later: “I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts – real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.” It’s these thoughts about a closely observed mental process that particularly interested me.

 

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Lewis with Joy Gresham

 

Way back in 1926, in a now mostly unread long poem of ‘scientifiction’ (as he called the sci fi genre) called Dymer, an individual who for years has been refined, clipped, moulded and adorned by an oppressive regime suddenly acts freely: “Then came the moment that undid the whole – / The ripple of rude life without warning”. On that occasion, the rebellion of real/rude life takes the form of an almost inadvertent violent action. But this pattern of the mental/social construct being breached by an undeniable and more authentic reality seems for Lewis to have been one of those magnetic norths that serve to guide any reflective individual’s thinking. In Lewis’ religious thinking, the authentic was, of course, the presence of God. Epistemologically, he never doubted a real presence behind all perceived phenomena. And this is the point he makes in relation to his recall of his wife.

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The accumulating false image of Helen would, of course, be founded on fact, nothing fictitious as such, but the composition of the image would become more and more his own. He compares the process to the settling of snowflakes: “little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end”. Eventually, if the process continues uninterrupted, the image “will do whatever you want. It will smile or frown, be tender, gay, ribald, or argumentative just as your mood demands. It is a puppet of which you hold the strings”.

Lewis wonders if this is the real meaning of all those ballads and folk tales in which the dead return to the living to inform us that our mourning somehow does them wrong. Counter-intuitively, he argues it is our passionate grief that actually cuts us off from the dead. In such moments, because of the power of our emotion, all is “foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by [our] miseries”. The real presence of the lost one is swamped and submerged beneath a passionate egotism. Lewis observed something resembling this just a week after Joy’s death. An American, Nathan Starr, who he’d not met up with for years, visited him in Oxford and, in his notes, Lewis wrote: “don’t we often make this mistake as regards people who are still alive – who are with us in the same room? Talking and acting not to the man himself but to the picture – almost the précis – we’ve made of him in our own minds? And he has to depart from it pretty widely before we even notice”.

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This matters less when the real person is on hand to breach and explode the fictional composition we make of them – though Lewis is right to note how tenaciously we hang on to our précis before accepting its divergence from the real. But in the case of the dead? “The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me”. In some of his most moving lines, this ageing don and once-confirmed bachelor argues: “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real”. One of Lewis’ great gifts was his ability to communicate. He often declared his belief in the vernacular, even (or rather especially) when it came to religion, arguing the vernacular was the real test – if beliefs could not be turned into it, then either you didn’t fully understand them or you didn’t truly believe them. In A Grief Observed, he describes what he misses of his wife’s real presence, “the rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness”. In contrast to the puppet-like, “insipid dependence” of the image or précis created by the person left behind, the lost one’s real presence was “obstinate, resistant, often intractable”.

 

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Lewis’ house in Headington, Oxford

 

Moving from this particular to the general, it’s here that Lewis memorably declares “all reality is iconoclastic”. Our true acquaintance with reality or real presence is the only way to cleanse and scour our egotistical preconceptions whether of the dead or the living: “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour”. In William Griffin’s hyper-episodic biography of Lewis, he reports a 1944 BBC broadcast given by Lewis in which he refers to Christians as “new men”, a new step in evolution. This is because they have abandoned their own personalities and allowed God to inhabit them. In looking for your self, Lewis argued, you find only hatred, loneliness, despair and rage. In turning away from the self we find “Him, and with Him everything else thrown in”. This is interesting as it’s a later (though ironically more traditional) version of Keats’ Godless explanation of the importance of negative capability (which I have discussed at length elsewhere).

Whether in Keats’ or Lewis’ view, what the individual – whether we think of ourselves as artists or not – must always bring to the table is our attentiveness. The etymology of the word attend shows its roots lie in the Latin verb tendo – to stretch, to stretch out. The effort implied is the energy and precision with which we must perceive and this energy breaches the accumulated shell, the snow-cover of our preconceptions. At the close of A Grief Observed Lewis says “Attention is an act of will. Intelligence in action is will par excellence”. The willing poet, of course, must apply attentiveness in 3 directions – to the outer world (including the living and the dead), to my inner conditions, to my language.

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Too Short an Arc: Robert Frost’s ‘A Soldier’

I recently posted a discussion about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’. In this post I’m looking at one of the poems I’ll be teaching next year from the Cambridge International Exam Board’s list of set texts. See page 47 of the Specification. Essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a student’s wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes).

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Robert Frost’s seldom discussed sonnet, ‘A Soldier’, was first published in West-Running Brook (1928). The choice of the indefinite article in the title contrasts immediately with a war poem like Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in which some effort is made to capture an individual voice, a specific occasion for grief. In Frost’s poem, the soldier’s death is rather an opportunity for the poet’s characteristic reflections on life’s limits and freedoms, on boundaries, on the relationship between our place on earth and our aspiration to something else.

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked

And tripped the body, shot the spirit on

Further than target ever showed or shone.

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On the page, Frost does not divide the structural elements of this broadly Petrarchan sonnet, but it is useful to think of them for the sake of analysis and I refer to quatrains, octet, sestet and volta where relevant. Here’s me reading the poem with the text differently chunked into units of sense.

Line 1 immediately treats the dead soldier to a metaphorical (more strictly metonymic) transformation – he becomes his own weapon. But the kind of dehumanisation suggested by the ‘man=lance’ image does not lead to more obvious themes about loss of individuality in war time. Also why Frost chooses such an archaic weapon as a lance is not clear – perhaps he was thinking of a painting, perhaps he wanted to distance the death from more contemporary images of war (the poem first appeared 14 years after the end of WW1), perhaps he felt it would give him more freedom to explore the symbolism of the death without personal, (distracting?) human entanglements. The opening 3 lines of quatrain 1 (Q1) are as follows:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

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The repetition of the verb “lies” is striking and emphasises the soldier’s passivity in death and the subsequent stillness of the lance. The adjective “fallen” confirms this idea. The end of line 1 seems to mean something like ‘the lance lies just as/in the way it was hurled’. So the throw was a failure, an ineffective effort, as also suggested in line 3 where we are told it has merely “plowed the dust”. The lance’s metaphorical ploughing of the earth further suggests an ineffective, unfertile, unproductive act. Line 2 reinforces these images of passivity, inaction, ineffectuality, as the lance “lies unlifted” over a length of time (duration suggested by the hesitations of the heavier punctuation in line 2) likely to give rise to both “dew” and “rust”. So this is not an image of death and failure in the heat of the battle; it may indeed be long after. Frost seems more than happy to draw the reader’s mind away from what might be the actual condition of the flesh and blood soldier himself by this stage. His dewy, rusty lance, plugged point first into the earth, stands in for him. This is not a poem of personal grief or lament for a warrior’s lost life. That it ought to have a bit more concern for that theme (to be a bit less exploitative) is one of the reasons why we may find reading the poem an uneasy experience.

Line 4 introduces the plural pronoun and – crossing the unmarked boundary between Q1 and Q2 – we are off into more generalised realms of philosophical speculation.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

The image of ‘sighting’ along the lance perhaps re-instates more modern methods of warfare (rifles with sights?) but whether ancient or modern, Frost suggests, in looking for a suitable target or “mark”, we fail, we see “nothing worthy”. This is more hyperbolic than factual perhaps, given that we are sighting along the lance and apparently gazing “round the world”. It’s this latter phrase – its easy familiarity enabling Frost to smuggle it past the reader’s guard against inappropriate pretention – that initiates the poem’s elevation from battle-field incident to generalised speculative discussion about human aspiration and limitation.

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The simile in line 6, comparing the observing “we” to “men” has been noted and criticised by H. A. Maxson (On the Sonnets of Robert Frost (1997)). He objects that the observing “we” are surely “men” (in the sense of human) and so the simile barrenly compares like with like. Maxson suggests Frost intended something like ‘isn’t it just like men’, a sort of frustrated, critical aside (self not excluded) that human beings have very limited powers of observation. Another way of reading the moment may be to emphasis the gender specificity of the reference: is this limit to our sight a specifically male problem?

Of course, it’s not mere shortness of optical sight that is the issue, but a “Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere, / Our missiles always make too short an arc”. The phrase “as fitted to the sphere” works in the same way as “round the world” did earlier. Frost is urging us to forget the battlefield where the poem began; the discussion now is about our place in the world/sphere and how we perceive it or not. Though the use of the word “missiles” does suggest a return to the militaristic, it works as a more generalised allusions to human tools, all carefully “fitted to the sphere” but because of that they/we are unable to contemplate what may lie beyond it. For this reasons our tools, missiles, thought and perceptions all fall short, they “make too short an arc”.

 

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Robert Frost

 

The arc image reminds us of the interim statement in Frost’s ‘Birches’ that the narrator would “like to get away from the earth awhile”. In ‘A Soldier’ the desire for a similar escape is expressed more indirectly in the constriction and thudding physicality beyond the volta, at the opening of the sestet, descriptive of all lances’ fate when limited by human “sight”:

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

The short phrases, heavy punctuation and repeated 3rd person pronoun as well as the violence of words like “rip”, “striking” and “break” convey Frost’s sense of the tragic, destructive quality of such limited aspiration and vision. There is a double wounding implied as the lances intersect and puncture the earth itself and in doing so “break their own” (curve, I take it).

Frost’s use of the word “cringe” in line 10 is interesting. The root of the word is relevantly related to Old English cringan, crincan to ‘bend, yield or fall in battle’. Its modern meaning is to bend one’s head and body in fear or apprehension or in a servile manner or to experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust. So our human failure to see or aspire beyond the earth – represented here by the lance’s metal point striking stone – becomes a defeat of sorts, an act of weakness or servility, at least of embarrassment or disgust at our own inadequacy. It is as if the birch swinger in Frost’s other poem has no other option but to remain in his despondent state, “weary of considerations”:

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

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It’s at this point the birch swinger expresses the wish to “get away” from earth by climbing the tree and swinging on it. But this is no simple, one-way,  transcendent wishfulness. In ‘Birches’ the narrator always intends to come back to earth and “begin over” because – in two of Frost’s most moving lines – “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

‘A Soldier’ lacks the uplift (for reader) and complicating paradoxes of ‘Birches’. The sonnet dwells long and hard on our limitations, our poor aim and aimlessness, the burns, tickles and cobwebs. But the sestet ends in a declarative mode, not typical of Frost who works more usually via hints and guesses.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked And tripped the body, shot the spirit on Further than target ever showed or shone.

The “obstacle” here is the earth, plugging the lance, tripping the soldier himself, a pratfall in the obstinate materiality of the world. But Frost’s plainly concluding tone is now undermined by a more characteristic paradox in what has tripped the soldier’s body is precisely what also shoots his “spirit” beyond the merely everyday. The sonnet’s final line suggests the apparently unworthy “mark” of line 5 (now referred to as a “target”) has indeed been transcended towards something “Further”. Frost’s final phrase, overly pushy and hyperbolic, overly alliterative, the rhyming couplet also raising the poetic stakes a bit too high, strikes me as vacuous, its faux shimmer and shine propelled more by wishful thinking than precision of thought. Of course, what Frost intends to say – something about the generative tensions that exist between matter and spirit – may well be inexpressible but in poems like ‘Birches’, ‘Mowing’ and ‘After Apple-Picking’ he gets closer to it than he does in the confines of this sonnet.

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The Meaning of Robert Frost’s ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’

Written in 1939, Robert Frost’s essay is combative, ironic, cryptic, delightful, damning of scholars and, for aspiring poets, encouraging of both a formal awareness and a cavalier attitude. The Figure a Poem Makes talks of the experience of writing rather than reading and the resulting poem is first described negatively (what it is not) then more positively in the famous phrases that it is a “momentary stay against confusion”, that it begins “in delight and ends in wisdom”. Along the way, Frost images the poet as giant, lover and grasshopper. Like most of his comments on poetry, the essay does not develop in a scholarly way, but there is an underlying coherence and in what follows I hope to track it down. You can read Frost’s full text here. I have also posted a discussion of Frost’s poem ‘A Soldier’.

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Paragraphs 1-3

Frost opens in the middle of a battle against what he calls “abstraction”, long accepted as part of philosophic method but now – in the first half of the 20th century – “a new toy” in the hands of poets. This idea occupies the opening 3 paragraphs of the essay. It is the temptation to separate out the constituent elements of a poem and to elevate or prioritise one over all others. Frost’s faux-infantile tone here suggests he will not be offering any approval of this method (“Why can’t we have any one quality of poetry we choose by itself? . . . Our lives for it.”). He floats the idea of focusing only on the sound a poem makes – “sound is the gold in the ore”. He’s thinking of the experiments in sound of a Mallarme, a Tennyson, or a Swinburne, the lush aestheticism of a few years before. It may also be relevant that, in the UK, Dylan Thomas’ early work had appeared in the mid-1930s.

 

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“sound is the gold in the ore”

 

But Frost’s doubts about such approaches to poetic composition take a surprising form. From the premise that “the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other” he argues that a reliance solely on linguistic and formal elements (“that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, metre”) is never going to be enough to achieve this aim. If we abstract for use only the sonic and formal elements of poetry, “[a]ll that can be done with words is soon told”. Frost is known for his interest in form (as against other Modernists’ scepticism about it) so it’s with some surprise that we hear him say: “So also with metres – particularly in our language where there are virtually but two, strict iambic and loose iambic. The ancients with many [more varieties of metre] were still poor if they depended on metres for all tune. It is painful to watch our sprung-rhythmists straining at the point of omitting one short from a foot for relief from monotony”.

With this Frostian chuckle, it’s clear that only monotony results from this approach and also that the poet can only gain relief from it with “the help of context-meaning-subject matter”. This clumsy, composite term is quickly honed down to the single word “meaning” (later in this essay he uses “theme” and “subject” to refer to the same thing). This is Frost’s argument against the lure of abstraction. The poet – even merely to achieve poems which sound as different as possible from each other – must have something to say, must mean something. The limits of pure sound/form can be breached once meaning is played across the sonic/formal qualities of language. For me this gives rise to images of a jazz soloist improvising across the rhythms of a band. For Frost: “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited metre are endless. And we are back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say”.

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The third paragraph opens: “Then there is this wildness whereof it is spoken”. The quasi-Biblical turn of phrase here suggests irony is again at work and it is a second form of abstraction that Frost is mocking. The “wildness” of a poem is the way its component parts are related – or not – to each other. He mocks the kind of “Poem” – note the ironic upper-case – that results from those who seek “to be wild with nothing to be wild about”. Though the sudden switches of focus, the jump-cuts of strong emotion, the leaps and gulfs of epiphanic moments are certainly (Frost implies) part of great poetry, the Modern(ist) abstractionist will want the leaps and jumps “pure”. Frost is again concerned about the lack of “context-meaning-subject matter” in this kind of poetry. He is taking aim at Surrealism with its reliance on irrational leaps, its dislocation of the senses, the shock value of the illogical. For Frost such practices lead only “to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”. To create poetry that has something to say, Frost suggests for the second time that “Theme alone can steady us down [. . .] a subject that shall be fulfilled”.

 

Paragraphs 4–6

The essay now moves away from the constituents of a poem to the process of its writing, a process Frost sees as organic, instinctive, unpredictable, exploratory, holistic, and – like love – an experience and source of pleasure. This is where he uses the title phrase and the figure of a poem turns out to be ‘the course run’ by the poem, its track or trail or locus. The elliptical sequencing of the next few paragraphs doesn’t help the reader but Frost considers 5 areas: the poem’s origins, its development, its impact on writer and reader, the importance of the poet’s freedom.

 

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The delight with which a poem begins is “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew”. I don’t think this need be a literal recalling (on this Frost is not Wordsworth) but an insight or sensing of a connection between things which has a familiarity and feels like a remembrance. (The way in which metaphor is at the root of poetry and, perhaps, all knowledge is a point Frost developed in ‘Education by Poetry’ (1931)). The substance of this initial insight is what constitutes at least the beginnings of the “context-meaning-subject matter” so essential to any successful poem. All poets will recognise such a moment as Frost describes: “I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows.” But from such momentary delight and recognition (which will be accompanied by powerful emotions, even tears), Frost makes it clear the process, the figure, of the poem’s making, still lies ahead and is one of surprise and discovery.

As the poem struggles to exist, the poet must remain alert and watchful to what may help build it as “it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events”. It is a fundamentally metaphorical process of making connections, often quite unforeseen ones: “The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time”. In a striking image, Frost suggests we are like giants, drawing on elements of previous experience and hurling them ahead of us as a way of paving a pathway into our own future. We make sense of what we encounter by reference to what we have experienced in the past. It’s in this way that a poem is able to result in “a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as [religious] sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Our pathway ahead is illuminated, even if only briefly, by the ordering and landscaping the poem creates towards future experience by reference to what we already know.

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This is why Frost teasingly argues the logic of a good poem is “backward, in retrospect”. What it must not be (and he has his earlier abstractionist targets in mind again) is pre-conceived or imposed before the fact (even if what we pre-impose is the illogical kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another). Such willed pre-conception can never yield anything other than a “trick poem”. It is not a prophecy, but rather something “felt”, a feeling figure, an emotional response involving both past and future and it must be “a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.” The crucial role of emotion is perhaps easily missed. And to allow the role of the passions, Frost insists on the greatest freedom of the poetic materials to move about, to be moved about, to establish relations regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affective affinity. This is Frost’s answer to one of the writer’s constant quandaries: how true to the original experience must I be? For Frost, truth to the emotional response at the inception of the poem (not necessarily the original incident’s emotional charge) is key and that demands artistic independence and freedom. Some distance is required.

 

Paragraph 7

The essay comes to concentrate finally on the necessary freedoms of the poet. The artist’s freedom is the freedom to raid his own experiences: “All I would keep for myself is the freedom of my material – the condition of body and mind now and then to summons aptly from the vast chaos of all I have lived through.” It’s in this freedom that Frost contrasts scholars/academics and artists. Scholars work from knowledge. But so do artists – this is the point of the early paragraphs of the essay. But the two groups come by their knowledge in quite different ways. Scholars get theirs via a conscientious and thorough-going linearity of purpose. Poets, on the other hand, acquire theirs cavalierly and just as it happens, whether in or out of books. Poets ought to “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields”. Poets do not learn by assignment, Frost says, not even by self-assignment.

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In the course of the figure a new poem may be making, the poet must assert his liberty to work in a dramatically metaphorical way, to be possessed of both “originality” and “initiative” in order to be able to snatch “a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic”.

Frost concludes with another vivid image of the poem making its figure in the course of composition. “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” The aptness of the image lies partly in the ice’s gradual vanishing (what a poem can offer is only ever “momentary”) and the frictionless quality reflects Frost’s insistence that a poem cannot be “worried into being” through pre-conceived effortfulness. The ice’s movement is generated and facilitated by its own process of melting and the poem too must propel itself (not be propelled by the artist). The resulting figure follows an unpredictable and fresh course, the links it draws from both past and present towards the future offering temporary clarifications of all three for the poet and (something Frost does not explore here) perhaps finally broadcast, available and effective for its readers too.

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On the Importance of Considering Nothing #1

I have not blogged regularly since April 2017  as, having managed to get both my parents settled into a Care Home in Wiltshire, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and died – fairly quickly and peacefully – on May 24th. Not wholly coincidentally, the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London published an essay I had written which starts and ends with some thoughts on my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. In the next two blogs, I re-produce this essay unchanged in the hope that it still says something of value about types of ‘confusion’ and in memory of a man who would have had little time for such (in his view morbid and abstruse) reflections. Thanks to Tim Dooley who commissioned the essay for Poetry London and published it under the original title: A Straining Eye Catches no Glimpse.

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Part 1

An old king leans over his daughter’s body seeking signs of life, yet he finds “Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing”. Given that I teach literature and this is one of Shakespeare’s more famous lines with its repetition and trochaic revision of the iambic pentameter, I’m not proud of mis-remembering this moment in King Lear (the repeated word is, of course, ‘Never’). Yet I know why I mistake it, this year, in these fretful months. Seeing Anthony Sher play the role recently – haranguing a foot-stool, giving toasted cheese to a non-existent mouse – put me in mind of my father, though he’s not quite so far gone. These days he has trouble recognising the house he’s lived in for 60 years; he will refer to his wife as a woman from the village who has come to look after him; he seeks news of his mother (she died in the 1970s). What can this feel like? Years of memories gone; a whirling fantasmagoria that evidently frightens him; a something becoming nothing he makes too little sense of.

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So it’s not just that the idea of nothing is prominent from the very start of Shakespeare’s play. Cordelia fails to reply flatteringly to Lear’s question about which of his daughters loves him most. The gist of her brutal answer is “Nothing, my lord”. Lear warns her: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again”. But she sticks to what she sees as her truth (as against her elder sisters’ oleaginous falsehoods) and pays the consequences. But so does the King. Reduced eventually to a wholly unexpected state of wretched nothingness in the storm scenes and beyond, he learns much from this nothing in pointed contradiction of his earlier warning. It doesn’t stop there; once reunited with Cordelia and faced with the prospect of prison, possible execution, what is remarkable is the King’s acceptance of his fate. Confronting this further reductio, he declares he’ll go and finds a reason to be cheerful: “we will take upon’s the mystery of things”. I’ve always been struck by Shakespeare’s phrasing here. The mystery of things is imaged not as some modernly pedagogic check-list, tabulated and absorbed like a set of principles, rather it’s something to be folded about us – a garment, an investiture, a way of seeing, feeling, not quite of self, not quite other either – and Shakespeare’s point is that Lear’s encounter with nothingness in various guises is what has prepared him for such a re-vision of his place in the world.

I’m interested in the idea that such a nothing can be worth something. Of course, it’s not exactly nothing, a void, that Cordelia’s father encounters. It is a bewildering set of experiences of which he can make nothing. Lear – I don’t know how far this is like my father – suffers because his previous paradigms are failing: he is shocked into his encounter with the mystery of things or what Anne Carson calls the “dementia of the real”. When my father talks, he yearns for the ordinary reassuring certainties of his old life, as if they would close round him with the feel of a comfortable coat. Carson has explored this reliance we all have on the familiar in her 2013 Poetry Society lecture concerned with ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’.[i]  She explores moments when language ceases to perform what we consider its primary function and we are confronted with nothingness in the form of silence. In the fifth book of The Odyssey when Hermes gives Odysseus the herb “MVLU”, Homer intends the name of the plant to be untranslatable since this sort of arcane knowledge belongs only to the gods. In a second example, under interrogation at her trial, Joan of Arc refuses to employ any of the conventional tropes, images or narratives to explain the source of her inspiration. Carson wants to praise Joan’s genius as a “rage against cliché”, the latter defined as our resort to something pre-resolved, pre-shaped, because, in the face of something so unfamiliar that it may seem more like nothing, “it’s easier than trying to make up something new”.

 

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Anne Carson

 

Carson associates this rage to ‘out’ the real with Lily Briscoe’s problems as an artist in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. She struggles to complete her painting, aware that the issue is to “get hold of something that evaded her”.[ii] She dimly senses “Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything”. Unlike Homer and Joan of Arc, the knowledge Lily seeks (undistracted by the divine) is not so much prohibited as, in a profound sense, beyond conception (it is a nothing before it has been made something). For Carson, we each dwell behind the “screens” of cliché for most of our lives, so when the artist pulls them aside the impact of the revelation may well have the force of violence. She suggests artistic freedom and practice lie in such a “gesture of rage”, the smashing of the pre-conceived to find the truth beyond it, her goal remaining the articulation of the nothing she insists is actually the “wide-open pointless meaningless directionless dementia of the real”.

This is the nothing I am interested in: it is no void or vacancy but, paradoxically, a wealth of experience, a “flux of phenomena” about which we cannot think in conventional ways. We cannot name the parts of it, so for convenience, maybe a bit defensively, we prefer to designate it nothing. The artist seeks to articulate such an “experience of what goes beyond words: call it the fleeting perception [. . . ] a state of indifferentiation”. [iii] This is one of the many formulations of the issue by the late Yves Bonnefoy who unrelentingly explored the limits of conceptual thinking in terms similar to Carson’s distrust of cliché: “It is not that I incriminate the concept – which is merely a tool we use to give form to a place where we can dwell. I am merely pointing out a bad tendency [ . . . ] of its discourse to close discussion down, to reduce to the schematic and to produce an ideology existing in negation of our full relation to what is and to whom we are”. He concludes it is a “temptation to stifle dissenting voices” – the kind of voices who see something in nothing. [iv]

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The always evangelical Bonnefoy terms the mystery encountered in a “state of indifferentiation” as “Presence”. In 1991, Bonnefoy’s temporary residence in the snowy landscapes of Massachusetts gave him a new way of evoking these ideas. In The Beginning and the End of the Snow (1991) he reads a book only to find “Page after page, / Nothing but indecipherable signs, / [. . .] And beneath them the white of an abyss”[v]. Later, the abyss is more explicitly, if paradoxically, identified: “May the great snow be the whole, the nothingness”.[vi] These occasional moments when the screens of cliche and conceptual thought fall are moments of vision as sketched by Auden in his discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnets – they are given, not willed; are persuasively real, yet numinous; they demand a self-extinguishing attentiveness.[vii] The inadequate, provisional, always suspect nature of language to record such moments is clear in these lines from Bonnefoy’s poem ‘The Torches’:

 

. . . in spite of so much fever in speech,

And so much nostalgia in memory,

May our words no longer seek other words, but neighbour them,

Draw beside them, simply,

And if one has brushed another, if they unite,

This will still be only your light,

Our brevity scattering,

Our writing dissipating, its task finished.[viii]

 

Rather than the forced disjunctions and the quasi-dementia of Carson’s recommended methods, Bonnefoy is reluctant to abandon the lyric voice, though he still intends to acknowledge the provisional nature of language in relation to Presence. The “fever” and “nostalgia” we suffer is the retrogressive lure of conceptual simplification. Bonnefoy’s imagery suggests a more delicate, tentative relationship between words, a neighbouring, a brushing up against each other (like snowflakes), though even then, if they “unite” or manage to cast “light” on what is, this can only be brief, always subject to dissipation.

(to be continued)

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Footnotes

[i] Poetry Review, Vol. 103, No. 4 (Winter 2013).

[ii] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; Penguin Modern Classics, 1992), p. 209.

[iii] Yves Bonnefoy, In the Shadow’s Light, tr. Naughton (Chicago Press, 1991), interview with John Naughton, p. 162.

[iv] Yves Bonnefoy, ‘The Place of Grasses’ (2008), in The Arriere-pays, tr. Stephen Romer (Seagull Books, 2012), pp. 176/7.

[v] Yves Bonnefoy, ‘Hopkins Forest’, tr. Naughton in Yves Bonnefoy: New and Selected Poems, eds. Naughton and Rudolf (Carcanet, 1996), p. 181.

[vi] Yves Bonnefoy, ‘The Whole, the Nothingness’, tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 187.

[vii] W. H. Auden, ‘Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ (1964; reprinted in William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and Narrative Poems, ed. William Burto (Everyman, 1992)).

[viii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 177.