Fewer Jellyfish: Jack Underwood on Poetry and Uncertainty

The French Alps, a Scottish island, a breezy, autumnal lake in the USA . . . These all came back to mind* as I read Jack Underwood’s just-published essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ (Poetry Review, Winter 2017). To be clear, I am sympathetic to the general drift of his argument, his interest in language and epistemology and his enthusiasm for poetry as contributing a necessary part of our understanding of the world. But Underwood is too disparaging about language (it’s most of what we’ve got) and this leads to his own imprecision with it (because words don’t yield the whole truth doesn’t mean we should use them carelessly). I wish he’d given better examples of what he is urging poets to pursue (so I’ve included one below) and I’m horrified that he recommends vague, woolly raptures (fog and smudge) to poets rather than genuine provisionality and uncertainty reflected in language that is sceptically self-aware.

 

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Starting from a remembered childhood scene, Underwood argues, as his title suggests, that poetry is an area of discourse which both highlights and thrives on epistemological uncertainty. Such uncertainties arise firstly from “the innate inaccuracy of language as a system that cannot catch or hold onto anything securely”. In a postmodern world, this hardly makes headlines, but the hyperbolic expression is too much, given that language gets me through most of my days reasonably well; it has to be grasping something. A second uncertainty arises from the poet’s raw material – particularly the “gunk of unconscious activity” – all of which is subjective and unstable because any meaning/knowledge is actually a concept only associated with human perception and not something corresponding to a universe existent apart from human perception. Hence, in the end, Underwood argues, “all of meaning and knowledge is apprehended, expressed and configured unstably [. . .] a shoal of jellyfish”.

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Except that mostly it is not. Surprisingly for a poet, Underwood doesn’t take the potency of language seriously enough, in particular the way the words we use have the habit of becoming idolatrous (in the sense used by Owen Barfield); they can determine how we see, think and feel. Here’s a pretty, remembered scene of my own: in the French Alps above the Trois Vallees, the woven steel cables of chair lifts hang quite still during the night and the cold air seals them in icy sheaths. Come morning, when the engines whir into action at either end of the lifts, the cables suddenly tense and jump, brought to life, and in doing so they shuck off their icy jackets. The frozen moisture cracks, fragments and detaches from the cables. Down it falls into the snow to print a strange hieroglyphic language in a neat line up the mountainside, looking something like this:

/

=

\

|

/

>

..

_-

^:

__

\

..-

|

\-

– `

I bet the locals have a word for this modern phenomenon. But from above, it looks like a language in which nothing is cursive (and life tends to the cursive, is always diverging from the linear). This icy steel cable language is – I’d suggest and Underwood would agree – like much of our everyday language use, mostly false. Yet it does possess a certain utilitarian precision, enough to perform its functions within broad criteria. But if our wish is to be more precise, to say something difficult to grasp, a more unusual observation, something more emotionally cursive, then we have to choose our words more carefully, put them together in a different sort of way: we have to unsettle them, bend them, occasionally find new ones, revive old ones in new contexts.

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Surprisingly, Underwood’s response to this difficulty is to recommend poets use language which is “foggier” than we might ordinarily use, or language that has been calculatedly blurred or aspires to a kind of “smudging”. This simply doesn’t square with most people’s feelings about poetry which is that it tends to clarify experience rather than ‘smudge’ it. The truth is that we need to respond to language’s limits by working harder with language not neglecting it. Underwood would do well to read Robert Macfarlane’s book, Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), which passionately argues against the loss of regional, place-specific language, a loss which means we are progressively perceiving natural landscapes in fewer dimensions, slipping into an ever more abstract, narrow, linear understanding of experience. Macfarlane argues that “Language deficit leads to attention deficit” and perhaps Underwood would agree but Macfarlane grasps that we do not liberate ourselves from the tyranny of language by using it vaguely, but ever more precisely. In Landmarks, he is concerned that the Oxford Junior Dictionary of 2007 deletes heron, ivy, kingfisher, pasture and willow among many other words considered irrelevant in reflecting the “consensus experience of modern-day childhood”. The word blackberry has been replaced by Blackberry.

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And this is no narrow Cambridge academic’s concern. Macfarlane also tells the story of the proposed building of a vast wind farm on Brindled Moor on the Isle of Lewis in 2004: 234 wind turbines, each 140 metres high, 5 million cubic metres of rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat excavated and displaced. The debate centred around “the perceived nature and worth of the moor”. Proponents discussed it as a “wasteland”, a “wilderness”, a “vast, dead place”. Opponents – including 80% of the island’s inhabitants – argued for the fecund particularity of the moor. Tellingly, part of the defence was lexical in the shape of a Gaelic ‘Peat Glossary’ – hundreds of words describing the subtle features and moods of what is clearly no “dead place” at all. Macfarlane links this “Counter-Desecration Handbook” to poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig but it also reminds me of Blake’s insight: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way”.

Underwood and I would agree that the man who sees only a “green thing” is suffering a lack of poetry – a limitation or failure of perception which is also a failure of linguistic precision. I think of it as an example of that icy steel cable language in the French Alps which falls (or more dangerously is handed down – this is where politics enters the debate) from on high, from some remote, cold place, handed down into our lives and so it begins to determine how we see the world. I share Underwood’s sense of urgency and importance that it is for those who concern ourselves with language and try to scrutinize our relations to the other, to others, to ourselves, to re-double our efforts to make further brief, individual Counter-Desecration Handbooks, to tell what we see as the truths of our lives as accurately as possible. Whatever form they may take, let’s call the resulting texts ‘poems’ and take inspiration finally from a marvellous one by the American poet, David Ferry.

 

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Jack Underwood

Here, Ferry’s poem can also act as an illustration of several of Underwood’s comments about poetry. He suggests poems convey meanings beyond the “sharper constraints” of everyday language. By “sharper” he surely means narrower and more meanly delimited and Ferry’s poem illustrates that a quite different sharpness (a vividness from the cleansing of the doors of perception) is something poetry does well and yields pleasure for the reader. The poem doesn’t contradict Underwood’s suggestion that we know when we are reading poetry because of its formal qualities, its frequent use of metaphor, its preference for connotation as opposed to denotation. Our acquaintance with the poem certainly sets us “wondering” (Underwood’s rather foggy word) about what we are reading and it suggests and explicitly discusses “a resistance to finality in language”. I don’t think Underwood’s own examples help illustrate his point; I think Ferry’s poem does, confirming how poetry can be the “prime medium for the articulation of our knowledge of the unknown” (Underwood).

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Ferry’s original poetry has long flourished in the shadow of his translation work but his collection, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012) won the National Book Award. In the UK, his selected poems are published as On This Side of the River (Waywiser Press, 2012). In fluidly, cursively, yet precise language, ‘Lake Water’ brilliantly conveys Ferry’s attentiveness to the world’s presence without losing a sense of the provisional nature of both self and other, the root inscrutabilities of experience (one of Underwood’s main points). There is a pressure exerted in favour of clarity and truth to both inner and outer worlds.

Ferry kicks off with specificity: “a summer afternoon in October”, the narrator gazing at a lake. The opening 20 lines, even as they evoke the light, the shimmer of water, the trees, engage in continual re-interpretations via similes (“As if it were a shimmering of heat”; “as if the air / Had entirely given itself over to summer”) and revisions (“Or rather”; “Or from”) until, in the final lines of this opening passage, paradox seems the only way to encapsulate the experience: “The light / Is moving and not moving upon the water”.

The second section of ‘Lake Water’ reaffirms this process, the perception of the lake “compelling with sweet oblivious / Authority alterations in light and shadow”. Earlier the water had evoked “something infantile [. . .] a baby at the breast” but now – in a progress from innocence to experience – the slapping of the water is “decidedly sexual”. The lake water, at one with the whole process of perceiving it, has become “an origination of life”. The lake surface is “like a page” or “like an idea for a poem not yet written”, or equivocally the “surface of the page is like lake water” before a mark has been made on it. What seeks to be written down is elusive partly as the result of the ambivalent gifts of time: “all my language about the lake [. . . ] erased with the changing of the breeze”.

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Ferry saves a poignant twist for the final 6 lines which record a death-bed scene; he watches his wife – distinguished literary scholar, Anne Ferry – who died in 2006. After the moment of her passing, her face is “as untelling” as the lake, “unreadable”, though Ferry clings to and at once denies a last hope: “Her mouth was open as if she had something to say; / But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech”. For all their elegance and plain-speaking, Ferry’s best poems are marvellously unstable, bravely eschewing the linear, poignantly facing up to the limits of the faulty equipment we are given to grasp the world. Elsewhere, Ferry gently devastates with the idea that “death lives in the intention of things / To have a meaning”. Other poets might advocate fogs and smudge, or be reduced to silence, or rip language to shreds, or resort to an icy words, the dead counters of the pre-conceived at this, but Ferry’s provisional songs instruct, console and are to be much admired.

Listen to David Ferry reading ‘Lake Water’ here.

Lake Water

It is a summer afternoon in October.

I am sitting on a wooden bench, looking out

At the lake through a tall screen of evergreens,

Or rather, looking out across the plane of the lake,

Seeing the light shaking upon the water

As if it were a shimmering of heat.

Yesterday, when I sat here, it was the same,

The same displaced out-of-season effect.

Seen twice it seemed a truth was being told.

Some of the trees I can see across the lake

Have begun to change, but it is as if the air

Had entirely given itself over to summer,

With the intention of denying its own proper nature.

There is a breeze perfectly steady and persistent

Blowing in toward shore from the other side

Or from the world beyond the other side.

The mild sound of the little tapping waves

The breeze has caused—there’s something infantile

About it, a baby at the breast. The light

Is moving and not moving upon the water.

 

The breeze picks up slightly but still steadily,

The increase in the breeze becomes the mild

Dominant event, compelling with sweet oblivious

Authority alterations in light and shadow,

Alterations in the light of the sun on the water,

Which becomes at once denser and more quietly

Excited, like a concentration of emotions

That had been dispersed and scattered and now were not.

Then there’s the mitigation of the shadow of a cloud,

And the light subsides a little, into itself.

Although this is a lake it is as if

A tide were running mildly into shore.

The sound of the water so softly battering

Against the shore is decidedly sexual,

In its liquidity, its regularity,

Its persistence, its infantile obliviousness.

It is as if it had come back to being

A beginning, an origination of life.

 

The plane of the water is like a page on which

Phrases and even sentences are written,

But because of the breeze, and the turning of the year,

And the sense that this lake water, as it is being

Experienced on a particular day, comes from

Some source somewhere, beneath, within, itself,

Or from somewhere else, nearby, a spring, a brook,

Its pure origination somewhere else,

It is like an idea for a poem not yet written

And maybe never to be completed, because

The surface of the page is like lake water,

That takes back what is written on its surface,

And all my language about the lake and its

Emotions or its sweet obliviousness,

Or even its being like an origination,

Is all erased with the changing of the breeze

Or because of the heedless passing of a cloud.

When, moments after she died, I looked into

Her face, it was as untelling as something natural,

A lake, say, the surface of it unreadable,

Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore.

Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;

But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech.

 

*Several of the ideas and illustrations that I’ve used here first appeared in my Guest Blog Post for Anthony Wilson’s blog in January 2016.

 

 

 

 

On the Importance of Considering Nothing #2

Last week I blogged the first part of a longer essay first published in the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London. What follows is the second half of it. The whole piece starts and ends with thoughts prompted by my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. Dad has since suffered a series of heart attacks and died on May 24th. I am re-producing the 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 morbid 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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In Part 1, I linked my father’s forgetfulness and confusion with recurrent references to “nothing” in King Lear and to Anne Carson’s concept of “the dementia of the real”. I suggested this was also a correlative of Yves Bonnefoy’s interest in the “state of indifferentiation” he often refers to as “Presence”. For Bonnefoy, Presence contrasts the conceptual/linguistic world through which we most often move and we take to be real.

Part 2

Yves Bonnefoy’s poem ‘Wind and Smoke’ (from The Wandering Life (1993)) has the abduction of Helen as its nominal subject. But he allows the poem to be taken over by dissenting voices, irritably seeking to “explain, to justify, ten years of war”. Such an expense of men, ships and spirit (argues one such “commentator”) must have been for the sake of something more permanent than the merely human figure of Helen. The poem entertains the suggestion that she herself was never abducted, “only an image: a statue”, something of great beauty to be displayed on the terraces of Troy, a fixed image of Helen, blessed with permanence, “always [. . .] this smile”. The poem is concerned then with the limitedness of the conceptual view which finds worth only in things of assured, definable permanence. In contrast, Part One of the poem ends with a proliferation of images of “spilling”, lovers as “clouds” or “lightning” on an “earthly bed”, so fully involved with time that their pleasures in the moment are “already empty, still full”. [i]

 

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Helen of Troy (Red Figure Vase)

 

There’s that paradox again and Bonnefoy’s versions of it articulate the impossibility of capturing Presence because it encompasses and exists in time (and language wishes to stop time):

 

Every time that a poem,

A statue, even a painted image,

Prefers itself as form, breaks away

From the cloud’s sudden jolts of sparkling light,

Helen vanishes [. . . ][ii]

 

The “jolts” here are akin to Lily Briscoe’s “jar on the nerves” as our paradigms and preconceptions are challenged. The figure of Helen has become that visionary experience – for Bonnefoy usually of beauty, for Carson more often a violent disturbance – that we intuit exists just beyond the range of our usual instruments. Helen, the poem argues, “was only / That intuition which led Homer to bend / Over sounds that come from lower than his strings / In the clumsy lyre of earthly words”.

Part Two of ‘Wind and Smoke’ concludes with a child, an image of the poet, the last person to see the figure of Helen as Troy burns:

 

singing,

He had taken in his hands a little water,

The fire came to drink there, but the water

Leaked out from the imperfect cup, just as time

Ruins dreams and yet redeems them.[iii]

 

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Traditional image of Laozi

 

This same image of water slipping from our human grasp is recurrent in the Ancient Chinese writings that make up Laozi’s 4th/5th century BCE text, the Daodejing. Since they were published earlier this year, I have been reading my versions of these texts up and down the country and the one thing audiences want to say about them is they contain “wisdom”.[iv] It’s an old-fashioned word but it’s also bound up with the nothing that is really a fuller something we seldom manage to grasp. The Daodejing texts use water as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies behind all things. They employ water metaphors in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined. So Chapter 1 deploys water imagery but is clear about the short-comings of all language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through further metaphors: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomenal world can only be gestured towards through figures such as “mould”, “source”, “mystery”. Even then it’s “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains beyond our grasp. Chapter 14 puts it this way:

 

because a straining eye catches no glimpse

it is called elusive

 

as the ear attends but latches onto nothing

it is called rarefied

 

since a hand reaches but clasps only thin air

it is called infinitesimal

 

and these are resistant to further analysis

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The difficulty of grasping this something that seems nothing is revisited in Chapter 4. There, the tenor of the metaphor is reduced to “it”, the context indicating this refers to the Dao itself, the One, that state of wholeness and plenitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource as “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. But the image is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry”, yet this follows four other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects: “fretted edges are smoothed within it / knots untangled all dazzle eased / all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared”. The poem calmly declares its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin or beginning is not adequate to convey the nature of the Dao. But the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – comes close.

That there is wisdom to be gained from such visionary encounters with the mystery of nothing is clear in Chapter 66. It’s no coincidence that these lines can serve as a commentary on Lear, his suffering bringing him low till he realises he has paid too little attention to the “looped and ragged” nature of his own nation:

 

—how do rivers and seas secure mastery

over the hundreds of lesser streams

through lying lower than they do

 

so to govern or teach you must stand

and acknowledge you are beneath the people

to guide them put yourself at the rear

 

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But as Auden suggested and Chinese tradition affirms, such visionary insight cannot be actively sought or taught. This is one of the points of the traditional narrative trope in Chinese poetry of ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’. Don Paterson turned this into a good joke in a poem called ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’.[v] The reader’s eye descends from this lengthy title only to look in vain – it’s a blank page. Perhaps Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu.[vi]  The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. But such poems were never just an excuse for descriptive nature poetry but related to the frequent ‘spirit-journeys’ that Li Po was fond of writing. We are all like that student in Li Po’s poem, seeking out certainties and facts, a something to depend on when true wisdom gently (or violently) deflects us away from shelter towards a world where we glimpse a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with what really is.

 

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Iain McGilchrist

 

I have really been talking about two attitudes to knowledge or to put it more carefully, two contrasting “ways of being”.  This is how Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary (Yale, 2009) expresses it.[vii] McGilchrist argues parts of the human brain deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left brain perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”.[viii] This is the attitude to knowledge and education the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses as well as the place where most of us live amongst Carson’s clichés and Bonnefoy’s conceptual language. In contrast, McGilchrist associates the right brain with the perception of “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”[ix] yet one at risk of being perceived or judged as a mere confusion, a seeming nothing.

This is the view of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the as-yet-uncarved block of wood, who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage, dependent as it is on conceptual thought, is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. Li Po’s teacher is surely hiding somewhere beyond the cherry blossom – and this is part of the student’s lesson. Don Paterson’s blank page represents a rather glib, post-modern joke, a scepticism about language in danger of throwing out the interconnected but bewildering “dementia” of the real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth”[x]. Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battles with the early stirrings of French post-modernism, declared: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us.”[xi] The right brain knows this and it’s from there we want to write poems; the left brain serves to fragment it, utilise it, get it under control, disappear it. And yet . . . there’s no much here suitable for a chat with a forgetful father. His visions are more frightening and may get worse; here, for a while, his son has been imagining ways of seeing that need not be so.

Elevation of Tomb of Theodoric, Ravenna

Notes

[i] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, pp. 197-203.

[ii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 201.

[iii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 203.

[iv] Laozi, Daodejing, versions by Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon, 2016). All quotations are from this version.

[v] Don Paterson, God’s Gift to Women (Faber, 1997).

[vi] Li Po and Tu Fu, selected and translated by Arthur Cooper (Penguin Classics, 1973).

[vii] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (Yale UP, 2009), p. 25.

[viii] McGilchrist, p. 31.

[ix] McGilchrist, p. 31.

[x] McGilchrist, p. 6.

[xi] Yves Bonnefoy, The Tombs of Ravenna, tr. John Naughton (1953; PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015), p. 62).

Two-Headed Calf: Review of Jacob Polley’s ‘Jackself’

Of those people I spoke to, many poetry readers were surprised and delighted that Jacob Polley’s Jackself recently won the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize against competition from the likes of Capildeo, Duhig, Oswald and Riley among others. Caught between a desire that prizes go only to the very best work and a wish that poetry’s few rewards be more equitably distributed, I was also delighted as this is a book which is bold and inventive, against the grain and successfully ambitious. (Apologies for some loss of formatting of any quotes that follow).

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The book’s novelistic aspects have been noted in reviews – they are easier to discuss than its poetic achievements. Jackself is a boy growing up in the rural north of England, befriended by Jeremy Wren who, within a few years, commits suicide, leaving Jackself to deal with the grief. As ‘novel’ material, both the opening and close of the book refuse to provide what a reader might be looking for but as poetry it delivers what Heaney characterised as the “superfluity of language’s own resources. It’s a kind of overdoing it. Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry” (Giving Their Word, 2002). Polley’s language is charged, improvisatory and colloquial. It is fluid and rhythmic (more modern, less ballad-like than some reviews have suggested). It has a crusted, superfluous quality to it that reminds me of Shakespeare, or what Hughes has described of Shakespeare’s excess, and Jackself is not thinned out by constant ironising, rather it’s thickened by a weight of language, history and imaginative hard work. It’s very impressive – but needs a few reads before it gives itself up.

It’s best to begin with Jackself’s birth poem, ‘Every Creeping Thing’, the second in the collection (I’ll return to the first, ‘The House that Jack Built’ later). The natural world is important to the boy and this book and his arrival “at the door / of the door of the door” is also a journey “by water mite / by the snail on its slick of light”. There’s a Hughesian feel to some of the poems (Crow’s ‘Examination at the Womb-door’ here?) but Jackself enters a childhood freshly and vividly caught in its exploration by mouth and “curatorial spit”, cat-watching, one-piece suits and sleep that ends by “mak[ing] / the world over again” (‘Jack Sprat’). All seems good and safe though by the sixth birthday party with its “six / goody candles” there is a noting of absence: “no wishing it wouldn’t be / or wasn’t or would better be / no wondering how so hard it hurts” (‘The Goodies’). This seems proleptic of darker questions to come and is also a good example of Polley’s vigorously colloquial style, full of dynamic sound patterning.

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It’s never easy to determine Jackself’s age in the book (occasionally I felt he was older than his responses suggested). I think Rimbaud suggests the detachment of self-consciousness kicks in around 7 years old so it’s perhaps at that age that Jackself is “afraid like snow he’ll wane or drift / before he can hold /  the road out front” (‘Jackself’s Quality’). He also explores “the lovely lofts / of Lamanby” – his house – showing a reflective, curiosity which is notably not catered for at school. ‘Lessons’ is great poem about the failures of education (I write as a teacher) with Jackself taken away to a corner, impelled to worship, to eat shit school dinners, to be humiliated before his parents. The thumbnail sketch of the Headmaster, Mr Workbench is worthy of Dickens as he “solemnly inclines / his one-thought- / at-a-time head”. Polley captures Jackself’s alternative headspace beautifully:

 

his mind a corner

of beehives

his fingers a box of matches

his nose the afternoon rain

[. . . ]

his tongue an earwig

before it hatches

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Where Jackself is at home is in the natural world. ‘Applejack’ has strong echoes of Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ with its instinctual, open-minded, pre-language, exploratory movement:

 

by hedgehog path

and badger path, Jackself

happens with the clouds

into sunlight

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The book lights up differently with the appearance of Jeremy Wren, a more wise-cracking, cynical, entrepreneurial and ultimately more troubled young man than Jackself. The pair strike up a double act – they both respond powerfully to the natural world and their dialogues are both funny and poignant. In ‘Les Symbolistes’, getting drunk on “white cider and Malibu”, Jackself let’s slip for the first time an interest in poetry: “A POEM! Wren roars / you’re creepy as a two-headed calf”. This is also one of the early moments when we see Wren’s troubled side – his father beats him. The jigsaw pieces of the boy’s troubles are carefully placed by Polley. He and Jackself meet in a goose shed, as if both on the run from something; ‘It’ asks “tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren”; in ‘Snow Dad’ Wren insists they make a replacement father snow-man but also recalls when he climbed into a chest freezer. He hangs himself in ‘Pact’. He “hangs thinking fuck I’ve left / no note until he’s fucking dead”. Maitreyabandhu has written of not dissimilar events in his sequence ‘Stephen’ in The Crumb Road (Bloodaxe, 2013).

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Jackself now becomes a study in teenage grief. ‘The Hole’ has Jackself contemplating Wren’s grave (this is one of the poems where the language seems less comfortably matched with the likely age of the boy). One way he tries to deal with the loss is by writing. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ is a deconstructed – or as they say of websites, still in construction – ballad with Jackself trying, then rejecting, lines in a fashion that is both humorous and touching (“no           again . . .  no          again”).

Polley’s achievement is to find a form and voice which can encompass all this . . . stuff. Long and short lines are scattered across the pages, poems often start in media res, often lack an explicit subject, dialogue is unmarked and the reader must sort things out. But this all adds urgency to the telling and a fluidity to the narrative perspectives. Polley’s Jackself often reminded me of David Jones’ protagonist, Private John Ball, from In Parenthesis (1937). The two share a mythic quality, representative but individualised. In ‘The Misery’ Jackself becomes/sees himself as a heroic dragon-slayer and the dragon he wishes to kill is his grief at the death of Wren. The disturbed psychological perspective implied by this is a result of his depression over the suicide of his friend – but the poem manages a marvellous mock-heroic tone:

 

from his weapon chest,

the sheath knife, Eglantine                      from his wardrobe,

his denim jacket, torch, tool belt, tin camping cup,

rucksack, horned hat and Gore-Tex breastplate

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What he kills in the end is just a rabbit but the ritualistic/symbolic nature of his action has an effect. It takes a while, during which he continues his (often hilarious) dialogues with the dead Wren and finds solace in the natural world but ‘Tithe’ indicates through its page lay-out, its vast white spaces, that Wren vanishes eventually, Jackself moves on.

Hard to end such a book and I confess I didn’t find the ballad-like ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ very satisfying, but perhaps I’m falling foul of the novel reader’s desire for narrative closure (though I thought we’d all grown out of that). This is in contrast to the opening poem of the book, ‘The House that Jack Built’, which I found powerful in its own right as a historical survey of the region in which Jackself’s brief story takes place. Polley writes of the trees being felled and used, re-growing through history, interactions with burgeoning human society, the Industrial Revolution, canal building, eventually to the construction of Lamanby itself. Critics will want to debate its relevance to the sequence of personal biography that follows it and concludes with no explicit ‘picking up’ of the opening poem’s themes. It is a problem; but the depth of history this opening poem implies, its focus on the natural world, its foregrounding of (for want of a better word) folk culture surely gains Polley permission for the way in which he tells Jackself’s tale, for it as a poem. Like Jones’ use of mythic, folkloric and Shakespearean materials in In Parenthesis, Polley raises the small-scale biographical to a type without losing anything of the minute particulars which enable its readers to read Jack as themselves.

What Love Is: Hilary Davies’ ‘Exile and the Kingdom’

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I met poet, translator and critic, Hilary Davies, back in the early 1980s and our paths have kept crossing since. She was one of the first intake of women undergraduates at Wadham College, Oxford, where she read French and German. She won an Eric Gregory award in 1983, has been a Hawthornden Fellow and chair of the Poetry Society (1992–3). With David Constantine, she co-founded and edited the poetry magazine Argo and has three previous collections of poetry (published by Enitharmon): The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (1991); In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1997); Imperium (2005). She was head of languages at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London, for 19 years and was married to the poet, Sebastian Barker, who died in 2014.

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Davies’ new collection, Exile and the Kingdom (Enitharmon, 2016), is framed by two very powerful sequences. It opens with ‘Across Country’, a series of seven poems which add up to an autobiographical ‘growth of the poet’s mind’. The book concludes with ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ itself, a further eight poems which are nothing less than a meditation on the poet’s raw grief and re-discovery, or reassertion, of her religious faith. Both sequences contain weddings.

‘Across Country’ opens with an evocation of a child’s first moments, “what gets forgotten”, in a state of inarticulacy, no ability to exert our own will, with no will even, language-less and effectively silent, being “carried by gods”.  Passive in the hands of mother and father, the journey variously begins in “The reindeer saddle and the motor car, / the sighing desert and the plateau wind”. Davies seems to suggest these first human experiences fall onto a tabula rasa as they “Etch the first surfaces of particularity / And settle in our souls”. The particular development traced here is Davies’ own, of course, and crucially this involves a later period of travel in France. Happily alluding to Wordsworth’s own tracing of his youthful days and Revolutionary enthusiasm in France (“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive /But to be young was very heaven” – The Prelude, Book 11), Davies praises “the glory of the cornfield and belltower, / Granite, limestone, vineyard and cloister”. As with Wordsworth, France offers an experience of human love, but Davies is also drawn to intellectual pursuits, the thrilling confusion of “many minds passing”, arguments of “polity and governance” and to the “meretricious fruit / Of the ideology tree”. We are being told this in order for such concerns to be ultimately dismissed:

 

The lords of existence

Are neither economist nor philosopher

The Lord of existence

Shows himself not in systems

 

The fourth poem in ‘Across Country’ seems to record the young woman’s first realisation that religion was to be the answer to many of the questions she was asking: “I crossed into church after church that summer, / Thinking of erudition, but beside me trod Love”. The capitalisation and conventional personification makes it clear that Davies is deliberate and happy to place herself in a long tradition of poetry dealing with religious experience; there is no radical re-making of poetic form or language. Davies does not use masks. Discursive passages are in unrhymed, fairly irregular paragraphs which are punctuated every so often with more lyrical rhyming passages, song-like.

Poem five of ‘Across Country’ is just such a lyrical piece, portraying a wedding, but not one that lasts:

 

Hate has eaten my bridegroom’s heart

And remorse is become my fury

Now I must go the road of affliction

Searching for mercy.

 

That search, Davies argues, is more a matter of “Waiting, not willing”. It is the traditional negative road in the sense of the centrality of “self-surrender”, imaged in the seventh poem as the sensation of being on a boat on a threatening ocean: “No measure but the dark blue breathing of the opening deep, / Where personhood dissolves beyond mere terror”. I don’t share Davies’ faith but I share her belief that, in terms of our daily acts and choices, we are to be judged in the long run: “Only perdurance delivers”. And in terms of the nature of those acts and choices, whatever set-backs are faced, we need to be accompanied by that same figure who walked beside her into the churches in France: “what love is, and does”. Read as the record of the poet’s experiences, it’s likely that this opening sequence concludes with Davies meeting with Sebastian Barker, the beginning of new happiness (“I knew instantly I had to go the hard way with you / To learn how to love better”).

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Sebastian Barker

 

The central sections of this collection are made up of poems more directly engaged with the contemporary world of north London, Stamford Hill, Walthamstow, the valley of the River Lee, Abney Park in Stoke Newington (I blogged one of these poem’s a few weeks ago). There are also poems more explicitly concerned with the relationship with Barker with titles like ‘Night’s Cloak’, ‘Aubade’, ‘Love Song’. I’ve always thought it a premature admission of defeat to declare ‘happiness writes white’ but some of these poems slip too easily into a mode in which this reader feels more like eavesdropping than sharing the experience of years of happy marriage; technically there is a flowering of lyricism and some softening of the vocabulary. On the other hand nobody is going to read these poems and not be thinking of Hardy’s tributes to Emma Gifford – it seems whether the marriage was mutually loving or not, the sense of loss remains overwhelming.

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River Lee and Valley Park

This is where the concluding sequence picks up though there is no need to narrow Davies’ focus wholly to the autobiographical. As I’ve said, these poems are in the tradition of religious verse and there are passages here that stand comparison with the Eliot of the Four Quartets. The opening poem – a little sequence in itself – paints a state of despair, initially social and political, latterly more personal:

 

Then there’s the heartache

At the core of things: attachment, the blank certainty

Of letting go, the arbitrary wing of accident,

Wrong gene or partner, a lifetime bled into the dusty ground

Of non-fulfilment, the waste [. . . ]”

 

The temptation is to try to counter this by accepting “ourselves as measure”, to focus simply on career, material gain, simply being busy, keeping warm. That this is never enough in itself is suggested when Davies recalls a favourite uncle who, having apparently a comfortable and successful life kills himself. For the young Davies what this taught was clear: “the impossibility of loving begets despair, / And despair kills”. The third poem of ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ seems to mark the beginning of the end of exile and returns to one of the many French churches mentioned in the earlier sequence.

 

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Church of St-Gervais-et-St-Protais, Paris

 

Out of the bustling Parisian streets, the narrator turns aside and understands, “Even if I have all gifts without love I am nothing”. As in Four Quartets, Davies mixes philosophical discursiveness with personal reminiscence and poem four recalls a Christmas morning in a country church. The priest, apparently ill, still takes the service, his gasping for breath making his faith even more memorable, a Wordsworthian spot of time worthy of recall in darker moments in the struggle to “retain that sudden downrush / Of the numinous that was supposed to change us”.  Poem seven expresses the sense of hard-won joy through another lyrical presentation of a second wedding. On this occasion, no clouds foreshadow failure but as the bride stands at the door, a wind blows her veil up like a candle flame or flower:

 

The guests are gathered in the church at Salle

The light falls on the floor;

For all eternity the rose

Stands at heaven’s door.

 

But the sequence and whole book ends in the altogether wilder landscape of St David’s, Wales. The final poem suggests such rose and flame moments are but parts of the coherence of a life where experience must inevitably consist of “Innocence and loss, hope, wisdom, regret and thanksgiving”. Exile and the Kingdom intends to convey this in full. Although propelled most often by loss of a loved one, the burden of the book remains love not grief. It matters little whether we share Davies’ particular form of faith, since what comes strongly from these pages is her concern for the way we treat each other, our overloaded preoccupation with ourselves, how our acts and choices are affected. Poems like these themselves form spots of time for the reader and I’m not going to forget their human concern for what love is and does.

Workshopping With Will Shakespeare

Last weekend – what with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death just gone by and seeing an advertisement on Facebook I think it was – I signed up to be a participant in a Shakespeare and writing poetry workshop. Being an English teacher, love of Shakespeare rather comes with the territory but I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who enjoys being a participant in classes. So much of my time is spent initiating, organising, timing carefully and concluding that it’s a wonderful holiday-feeling to be initiated, organised, timed carefully and concluded by somebody else. (In what follows I am able to quote the work of nobody else but myself – for which apologies).

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The workshop was part of a series organised through the South Bank Poetry magazine, co-edited by Peter Ebsworth (its founder) and Katherine Lockton. They were both present for the workshop – upstairs, above the Poetry Society’s Cafe in Betterton Street, Covent Garden – but it was Katherine who ran the session. We gathered about 10.45 for 11am, most of us arriving clutching the mandatory take-out coffee from the cafe or elsewhere on our walks from the Tube. A big table, a plate of biscuits, greetings, sign in (whose name do I know here?). Upstairs at the PS is a strange mix of store room, kitchen, second hand bookshop, classroom. I thought it could do with a tidy-up myself – then tried to curb my flicker of nerves, that need for control. Actually, I’ve not taken part in a public workshop like this for ages. We were probably all feeling the same: what if I write total crap and Katherine asks me to read it out. Maybe a biscuit . . .

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We started with free writing for 5 minutes or so – “to loosen up”. Katherine wanted us to set off from “My Shakespeare is . . .” What sprang vividly to mind was an occasion teaching not Shakespeare, in fact, but Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. A student read the “face that launched a thousand ships” speech so very badly that it achieved a weird sort of beauty in her inarticulacy. A bit like those ruins of classical statues (not far from where we were, in the British Museum) that seem to have acquired an added poignancy in not remaining whole. I rather like free writing (it’s how most of my own poems begin, a sudden splurge of material that then gets worked on) and as I wrote I ended up (from that halting reading of Marlowe) to love in a life or its opportunity missed:

 

Those encounters where you don’t have the words

Just stops pauses some musical sense

Of the word order but no –not the words themselves

And she turns away dips her head

Laughs at something somebody across the room has just said

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Katherine then dished out the text of Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” On the Tube in I had been wondering how I’d tackle Shakespeare in such a setting and I thought I’d not go for the more familiar moments. Katherine did and I have to say she was probably right. I’d have ended up explaining too much perhaps (too teacherly) when the point was to respond creatively to the poems. So most of us were familiar enough with this poem in which the narrator does compare his love to a summer’s day and the summer’s day turns out to be liable to be windy, over too soon, too hot, over too soon . . . The lover apparently suffers from none of these things not even death itself – because the poet has preserved her in “this” poem: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”. We wondered, among others things, at the manly arrogance of this.

We picked a phrase or even just a word to respond to from the poem and set off for 30 minutes or so. On this first occasion, many of us seemed to get sucked into the vortex of the sonnet form and rhyme especially. But the quality of the group that day was extraordinary. Several produced sonnets which worked well (in 30 minutes!) and all the pieces eventually read out were interesting responses. I chose the phrase “By chance, or nature” and was exploring (again) the chance or fate of meetings with the one’s you love. I was imagining the alternative worlds we jettison or turn our back on with every choice we make:

 

So that in one of those plural worlds

We might have met before, or later, even not

At all – through pram and playground, into school

To college, old flames, chance turn, random plot.

 

You can see what I mean about getting locked into a formal mode. It may be that most of us realised this as when Katherine then tried us with Sonnet 130, more of the group struck out – away from formality, probably into something more like our natural mode. This was also probably encouraged by the fact that Katherine was showing us contemporary responses to these poems as we went. Several of these were quite encouraging in that they were pretty poor as poems – there are a number of anthologies where contemporary poets respond to Shakespeare (especially this year) but so many of the poets try too hard to up-date originals into some hip idiom; embarrassing like Dad-dancing). I guess that at least gave us permission to try something more adventurous of our own.

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I found myself interested in the way the Sonnet 130 tries to define the lover through a kind of via negativa, what she is not. It’s a kind of anti-poetic in that the poet dismisses the ability of comparison (one of the poet’s main tools) to capture her in truth. This was reminding me of repeated occasions in the Daodejing poems I have been working on for 3/4 years (just published now – so fully on my mind last weekend) in which the text also argues the elusiveness of the One. The latter is often given female characteristics so it was an easy step to my scribble:

 

She lives in the live darkness between

The opening and shutting of my eye-lids

 

Between ascender and descender

Of this pen this white expanse

 

This Microsoft space not knowing what to do

With itself not being busy

 

In the moment when instructions cease

And what opens is that snow-field

 

Beneath the first or second chair-lift not yet

Inscribed [. . . ]

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The third piece Katherine gave us were extracts from Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene, the “what’s in a name” speech” and Juliet’s “O serpent heart”). We discussed these and annotated them to pick out certain patterns and concerns. We then compiled a small list of words of our own and set off with the aim of writing in the voice of a character from Shakespeare. I’ve always had a soft spot for Horatio and especially Hamlet’s gentle, though firm, put-down: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. I had Horatio realising the truth of this, a bit Prufrock-like realising that he was not meant to play the Prince, but be an observer, something of a by-stander at the big events:

 

O but it’s enviousness I breed

Here listening to you roar

And glitter you go on to the very point

Or way off kilter

And patronise me yet even this you do

With such grace with warmth making me love you.

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The rhythm of this particular workshop was a lot of time for individual writing. We shared all we wrote (no one objected – and absolutely none of it was “crap”), and Katherine introduced the extracts quite briskly while still allowing plenty of time for people’s reactions to them. The time was now about 4pm. The final piece was stimulated with small bits of cloth from Katherine’s Mum’s sewing box but also with a story she told (no details – it’s her story) which we could incorporate if we wanted to.  My final piece was the strangest I’d produced so far. My cloth was a rich red – a bit sexy – and the encounter was on a staircase, I was coming down to meet someone. Perhaps by this time I was more Juliet than myself, or I’d carved myself into two:

 

Everything possessed

Of that clarity

And the weight

Of heraldry—

 

So the long dress

I wear is gules

Its blood-red

Slit to the thigh

 

Its plunging neck

A sunlight wedge

At the foot

Of the shallow stair

 

I lift my chin

As if called for [. . . ]

 

I don’t know if the 4 pieces I produced will come to anything further but I can honestly say they would not have been written otherwise. In running my own workshops, I always say the simple thing they achieve is to take your writing to places you’d not have got to alone. That certainly happened the other day and I’m grateful to South Bank Poetry for the chance to participate: now back to the front of the class.

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DR FAUSTUS  – Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton

Teaching Dannie Abse’s ‘Two For Joy’ (2010)

I first became aware of Dannie Abse’s work in 1986 when he and his wife, Joan, were editing Voices in the Gallery,  a sumptuous anthology of poems about paintings for the Tate Gallery. To my astonished delight, they accepted ‘At The National Gallery’, an early poem of mine about Gerrit van Honthorst’s ‘Christ Before the High Priest’ which later appeared in Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). Our paths continued to cross around the London poetry scene, especially at (usually fraught) Poetry Society Council meetings in the 1990s. A couple of years ago he visited the College where I work and happily discussed his poems with students. His death in September 2014 was such a sad loss.

With the New Year we are again teaching Dannie Abse’s collection Two for Joy (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0091931177/karelsoftw-21). But with the changes to A Levels being hurried in from September 2015, this will be the last time we work on this book (for AS Level Coursework) though it has proved a joy to teach. This is perhaps a surprise given its subject matter.

The book is a compilation of work from several years focused on Abse’s relationship with Joan, his wife (herself a writer, editor and acclaimed art historian). It was published a couple of years after The Presence (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0099531860/karelsoftw-21), a memoir completed in response to Joan’s tragic death in a car accident in 2005. ‘Two for Joy’, of course, alludes to the old country saying, cited on seeing magpies: one for sorrow, two for joy. The poems in the collection evoke both sides of this cryptic saw, from the early joys of young love to the sorrowing widower more than 50 years later.

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In terms of teaching and coursework the book’s focus is so intense, powerful and yet varied that the material always goes down very well with students and enables them to write confidently about ‘the collection’ (one of the Assessment Objectives). We might start with the simplicity of ‘Condensation on a Windowpane’ where the aging narrator inscribes his and his lover’s names on the wet windowpane because he wants to write “something simple as pure water”. Yet even water, further considered, is complicated, “like steam, like ice, like clouds”. This plainness of address and nakedness of emotion is immediately engaging but Abse is really flagging up the collection’s main themes of love and time as, eventually, the words fade, dribbling down the glass: “They weep as they vanish”.

Or what better way (I mean appalling way) to gain students’ attention than this opening quatrain of ‘Lachrymae’:

I crawled from the noise of the upturned car

And the silence in the dark began to grow.

I called out her name again and again

To where neither words nor love could go.

This little sequence of poems like tear drops is set after Joan’s death and delicately re-visits a few scenes from married life, only to end with the narrator walking in solitude beside the Hampstead ponds, “where a lone swan sings / without a sound”.

An earlier poem ‘A Night Out’ records a visit the couple made to the Academy cinema in Oxford Street in the 1950s. As a Welsh Jew in London, courting and marrying a gentile, there are plenty of moments in these poems where the unconventional couple have to confront the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the 1950s and early 1960s: anti-Semitism in ‘A Marriage’; general moral strictures in ‘Two for Joy’. On the occasion of the cinema visit, Abse’s cultural background is significant as they watch a fictionalised account of the Holocaust: “images of Auschwitz, almost authentic, the human obscenity in close-up” so much that “we forgot the barbed wire / was but a prop [. . . ] those striped victims merely actors”. Afterwards, the couple are stunned by what they have seen, sitting in a “bored espresso bar”. Gathering themselves at last, they return home to a German au pair girl, their own children safely asleep upstairs:

Reassured, together we climbed the stairs,

undressed together, and naked together,

in the dark, in the marital bed, made love.

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Abse’s technical skill with plain language is on full show in such lines and the class might have debates about how far individual love is shown to counter, compensate, or merely distract from world horrors. In a 1980 essay called ‘Rhyme’ (collected in Dannie Abse: a Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1854115073/karelsoftw-21) Abse has commented on this poem and presenting students with his observations has often proved to be a moment when sceptics about the deliberateness of a writer’s choices can be converted. He compares ‘A Night Out’ with ‘In Llandough Hospital’ arguing that the charge of emotion from the film was so powerful that he “did not want to make any pretty artifice out of it. I did not want to be lyrical about such a theme. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, to avoid all kinds of artificiality, to say what I felt and to say it plainly. I wanted the verisimilitude of prose”.

The period of the Cold War is briefly evoked at the end of ‘A Scene from Married Life’ in contrast to the “few and brief” cold wars of the couple’s marital rows. Set in Abse’s beloved Ogmore-by-the-Sea in South Glamorgan, after a petty squabble, the narrator metamorphoses into a monster of self-pity and suicidal thoughts. The poem cleverly balances the two perspectives of the over-dramatising, younger self with a more ironic, mature judgment. It’s only at the end with the appearance of Joan on the cliff top (surely an echo Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Voice, with Emma in her ‘sky blue gown’) that the faux-suicide relents:

On the high cliff my wife dressed in blue and all

The best of the world true and desirable.

With surrendering waves I crawled back to the shore.

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Such humour, often in self-mockery is never far from Abse’s work. The darker side of grief is evoked in the image of blood-stained petals falling in ‘Magnolia’ (“bridal branches slowly violated”) but most powerfully in ‘The Revisit’ which again works the rich seam of two periods of life knotted together. A beautiful lake scene enjoyed together is re-vised by the lonely widower into an apocalyptic vision, with the sun-set now evocative of “Angel wars. Such April bloodshed!” Though there are more consolatory poems in the book, where time the healer is seen to begin its work, ‘The Revisit’ shocks in its blunt confrontation with grief and on this occasion Abse’s use of poetical devices, the abundant skill of the artist, only serves to emphasise the helplessness of the man:

The gradual distance between two stars is night.

Ago, love, we made love till dark was bright.

Now without you dark is darker still and infinite

It would be a shame indeed if, in the mean-spirited, ever-narrowing criteria of the new A Level specifications, a collection such as this one could not continue to find a place. Dannie Abse’s website is at: http://www.dannieabse.com/.

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