#WADOD – Day 9: March 9th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.
SPEEDING

Saturday 9.03.2019

‘such great lungfuls of men and women’

 

such great lungfuls of men and women bellowing

at the disputed steering wheel

 

or shrieking at restaurant tables

threadbare speeches to another inattentive class

to myself alone

whether I consider it to the point or not

 

bright days devoured in the work of composition

and adjustment

then devoured in composition

 

the intensity of the empathetic efforts made

whatever metric we use

the needle stuttering into the black and red zones

whether I care whether it is successful or not

 

whether it appears misdirected or not

whether it is for all time or not

it’s not nor can it ever be for all time and I know it—

 

all the bridges down

 

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Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and [uz]’

Last week I posted on Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’. The following discussion of another extraordinary Tony Harrison poem originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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‘Them and [uz]’ – listen to Harrison read this poem here.

for Professors Richard Hoggart & Leon Cortez

I

αίαι, ay, ay! … stutterer Demosthenes

gob full of pebbles outshouting seas –

 

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,

you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.

‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

 

I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.

 

‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!

All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see

‘s been dubbed by [Λs] into RP,

Received Pronunciation, please believe [Λs]

your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

 

‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.

I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘flat cap’)

my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great

lumps to hawk up and spit out… E-nun-ci-ate!

 

II

So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy

your lousy leasehold Poetry.

 

I chewed up Littererchewer and spat the bones

into the lap of dozing Daniel Jones,

dropped the initials I’d been harried as

and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz],

ended sentences with by, with, from,

and spoke the language that I spoke at home.

RIP, RP, RIP T.W.

I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!

 

You can tell the Receivers where to go

(and not aspirate it) once you know

Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,

[uz] can be loving as well as funny.

 

My first mention in the Times

automatically made Tony Anthony!

Read about the drafting of this poem – in the Tony Harrison Archive at Leeds University.

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Though it was Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ Harrison ‘mispronounced’ at school, it is actually Wordsworth who is more important to him because both share a belief in poetry as the voice of a man speaking to men. This conception of poetry as speech is a powerful constituent in Harrison’s work and perhaps one not clearly understood. John Lucas, for example, has attacked what he sees as loose metrics in the poem ‘V’ but, to reverse Harrison’s comment that all his writing (theatrical or otherwise) is poetry, all his poetry needs to be read as essentially dramatic and deserves to be tested in the spoken voice as much as in the study. Harrison’s interest in the curious idea that the true poet is born without a mouth implies the difficult battling for a voice or voices which can be found everywhere in his work and it is in this clamour that I find its dramatic quality. In a public poem like ‘A Cold Coming’, Harrison makes use of the contrasting and conflicting voices by playing them off against a regular form. This is almost always the case, but in what follows I prefer to concentrate less on metrical effects than on the way voices interweave.

The very title of the pair of sonnets, ‘Them & [uz]’, seems to promise conflict, at best dialogue, and it opens with what could be taken as the howl of inarticulacy. In fact each pair of these opening syllables gestures towards crucial worlds in Harrison’s universe. The ‘αίαιof classical dramatic lament is echoed by the “ay, ay!” of the musical hall comedian cheekily working up an audience. Immediately, the reader is plunged into the unresolved drama of two differing voices, instantly implying the two cultures of the sonnets’ title. The line and a half which follows, sketching Demosthenes practicing eloquence on the beach, is intriguing in that its locus as speech is hard to pin down. It is perhaps intended at this stage (apart from introducing the poems’ central issue) to hover in an Olympian fashion above the ruck of dialogue that follows, implying the heroic stance which will be taken up in the second sonnet.

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Line 3 opens again into a dramatic situation with the voice of the narrator (the adult Harrison), repeating his own interrupted recital of Keats in the classroom, while the master’s scornful comments appear fresh, unreported, as if still raw and present, in speech marks. The narratorial comment on this – “He was nicely spoken” – confirms this poem’s tendency to switch voices for its effects, this time its brief sarcasm barely obscuring the unironic comment likely to be made by an aspiring Loiner, or by an ambitious parent. The example of nice speaking given (again in direct quotes in the following line) is the master’s claim to possession, to authority in matters of language and culture and the separated-off reply of the narrator – “I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth – with its full rhyme and sudden regular iambic pentameter, implies both a causal link between the two lines, painting Harrison as dispossessed specifically by the master’s attitudes, as well as conveying the tone of resignation in the young schoolboy.

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Much of the tension and success of the poem has already arisen from the dramatic interchange of voices and the master’s voice asserts itself again in line 7 ironically claiming a kind of monolithic, aristocratic purity to poetry which this poem has already attempted to subvert:

 

Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!”

 

The following lines contain a curious wavering in the clear interplay of dramatic voices, only part of which is resolved as the poem proceeds. Evidently, the intrusive, even hectoring, parenthesis (at line 9) is the narrator’s questioning of what appears to be the master’s voice’s continuing argument that “All poetry” belongs to Received Pronunciation. Yet the aggression of this attack, with its harsh alliteration and sarcastic question mark, is out of key with the other narratorial comments in part I, though the tone is re-established in part II. In addition, I have some difficulty in accepting the master’s words as appropriate to the situation which – with no break – continues the speech made to the young Harrison. For example, the word “dubbed”, with its implication of the deliberate laying of a second voice over an ‘original’, already hands victory in the argument to Harrison’s claim for the authenticity of ‘dialect’ and, as such, would not be used by the believer in “the speech of kings”. Equally, the apparent plea, “please believe [ s] / your speech is in the hands of the Receivers”, does not accord with the voice that summarily dismissed the pupil as a “barbarian” 7 lines earlier. In this case, Harrison’s desire for the dramatic has foundered momentarily on that old dramatist’s rock, the necessity for exposition which compromises the integrity of the speaking voice.

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The true note of the master returns – interestingly, following one of Harrison’s movable stanza breaks, as if confirming a shift in voice though the speech actually continues across the break – with “We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!” The tone of the responding voice, after the suggestion of a more spirited response in the Keats comment, has returned to the resignation of the brow-beaten pupil. This is reinforced by the more distant comparison of the boy to the ancient Greek of the opening lines, heroically “outshouting seas”, while the young Harrison’s mouth is “all stuffed with glottals, great / lumps to hawk up and spit out”. This first sonnet draws to a close with this tone of frustrated defeat for the boy, yet the drama has one final twist, as the voice of the master, sneering, precise and italicised, has the last word – “E-nun-ci-ate!“. There can be little doubt that the boy must have felt as his father is reported to have done in another sonnet from The School of Eloquence, “like some dull oaf”.

The second part of ‘Them & [uz]’ contrasts dramatically with the first, though the seeds of it lie in the image of heroic Demosthenes and the accusatory tone of the reference to Keats which seemed a little out of place in part I. This second sonnet’s opening expletive aggression strikes a new tone of voice altogether. “So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy / your lousy leasehold Poetry”. The poem’s premise is that it will redress the defeat suffered in part I in an assertive, unopposed manner. Not the master, nor any spokesman for RP is allowed a direct voice, yet the interchange of speech and implied situation can still be found to ensure a dramatic quality to the verse.

The passionate and confrontational situation of the opening challenge is clear enough, yet it’s striking how it has taken the autobiographical incident in part I and multiplied it (“yer buggers . . . We’ll occupy”) to present the wider political and cultural context as a future battlefield. Even so, there is no let up in the clamour of voices raised in the poem. Immediately, the narratorial voice shifts to a more reflective, past tense (at line 3) as the rebel reports actions already taken – and with some success, judging from the tone of pride and defiance: “[I] used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz]”. Even within this one line, the final three stressed syllables are spat out in a vivid reenactment of Harrison’s defiant spoken self-assertion. It is this slippery elision of voice and situation which creates the undoubted excitement of these and many of Harrison’s poems as they try to draw the rapidity and short-hand nature of real speech, its miniature dramas and dramatisations into lyric poetry. A further shift can be found in lines 9 and 10, in that the voice now turns to address a different subject. The addressee is not immediately obvious as the staccato initials in the line are blurted out in what looks like a return to the situation and voice with which this sonnet opened. Only at the end of line 10 does it become clear that the addressee is the poet’s younger self, or the self created as the “dull oaf” by the kind of cultural repression practised by the schoolmaster. The reader is further drawn into the drama of the situation by this momentary uncertainty: RIP RP, RIP T.W. / “I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!”.

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The remaining 6 lines are, as a speech act, more difficult to locate. There is an initial ambiguity in that they may continue to address “T.W.”, though the stanza break suggests a change and, anyway, this makes little sense as T.W. is now dead (“RIP T.W.”). In fact, these lines use the second person pronoun in the impersonal sense of ‘one’, addressing non-RP speakers in general, and it is the generalised nature of these lines which disarms the effectiveness of the passage. This is particularly important in line 14, “[uz] can be loving as well as funny”, the tone of which, commentators like John Haffenden have questioned. The difficulty here is that if Harrison is addressing those who might use [uz] anyway, though there may well be many amongst them for whom the fact that “Wordsworth’s matter / water are full rhymes” is useful ammunition and reassurance, the same cannot be said of the “loving as well as funny” line which might variously be construed as patronising, sentimental or just plain unnecessary. Nevertheless, the poem regains a more sure touch in the final lines in its use of the reported ‘voice’ of The Times in renaming the poet “Anthony“. The effect here is both humorous (this, after all the poet’s passionate efforts!) and yet ominous in that the bastions of cultural and linguistic power are recognised as stubborn, conservative forces, still intent on re-defining the poet according to their own agenda, imposing their own hegemonic voice where there might be many.

Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 1

What follows is taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing. References to the tradition 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions.

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It’s said the keeper of the western gate, whose name was perhaps Yin Xi, realised the old librarian from the royal archives of the state of Zhou did not intend to return. He knew the old man as a quiet, wise character, never someone at the heart of activities, never excluded by others, an observer, seldom observed, always ready to offer advice, not eager to thrust himself forward, often ignored, never wisely. The gatekeeper called, ‘Old Master, Laozi! If you intend not to return, if you mean to renounce the world, then leave a record of your thoughts. Write me a book to remember you by.’ The old man climbed down from his humble oxcart, borrowed pen and ink. A few hours later, he handed Yin Xi a script of some 5000 characters and then continued westwards, never to be seen again.

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So the poems of the Daodejing are a gift, freely given at a point of change, a gateway to new experience. They are also a turning away from the world (Laozi is said to have despaired of its venality and corruption), yet a transmission intended to aid, an inspired out-pouring of poetry as much as a moral and political handbook. Perhaps above all we should think of them as a response to a personal request. Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 poem, ‘Legend of the origin of the book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tzu’s road into exile’, seeks to praise the “customs man” who “deserves his bit. / It was he who called for it” (tr. John Willett). Modern scholarship, of course, has long since stripped away such eloquent myths. Most likely, the current 5000 characters of the Daodejing were far fewer to begin with, a series of orally transmitted seed verses compiled by many hands, an aide memoire, certainly an aid to teaching from as far back as the 7th century BCE. Passed on orally, then transcribed, with the usual levels of error, displacement, ‘correction’ and happenstance, the text has also been subject to the Chinese tradition of written commentaries and these intercalated texts have themselves become vanishingly absorbed into the original. Such an uncertain state of the text legitimates considerable levels of ‘correction’ for most would-be translators; in this case, I have excised material only from ‘Dangers of prominence’ (Chapter 13) and ‘The great clamour’ (Chapter 23), silently removing a few lines of (what I thought of as) redundant repetition.

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Yet the poems are still vivid, astonishingly fresh, irresistible. They are also still subject to continuing textual debate and archaeological inquiry. The standard text has long been the one associated with the scholar Wang Bi (226-49CE) which divides the Daodejing into 81 Chapters and those into two sections. On the importance and insights of Wang Bi, see Wagner, Rudolf G., The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi (SUNY Press, 2000). The Dao or Way is made up of the first 37 Chapters; the De or Power occupies Chapters 38 to 81. But an archaeological dig as recently as 1973 at Mawangdui revealed two new versions of the text, dating from around 200BCE. Surprisingly, both Mawangdui texts reverse this order and some recent versions into English have adopted this change. Most notably, see Robert G. Hendricks who produced a re-shaped Lao-tzu Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts (Ballantine Books, 1989). Also see D. C. Lau’s second translation of the texts published as Lao-Tzu Tao Te Ching (Everyman Books, 1982). I have not done so. The traditional division between the Way and the Power of the Dao is by no means watertight or proven but I feel it makes more sense to explore the nature of the Way before considering its more specific manifestations. Also, as a sequence of poems, ‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1), summing up as it does so much of what is to follow, surely has to come first.

Though probably the work of many hands over many years, it’s still hard not to hear (with Wang Bi) a distinctive voice, a coherent poetic style – alluringly laconic, clipped, coolly enigmatic; it flaunts its paradoxes, is boldly metaphorical, juxtapositional, repetitive to the point of liturgical, urgent, unashamedly epigrammatic. In short, we seem to hear Laozi writing a kind of poetry which enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet. Of course, language is imperfect but it’s what we must use and I have given titles to each of the Chapters to encourage contemporary readers to approach them in large part as language, I mean as poetry.

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For a text so geographically, culturally and temporally remote, some consideration of key images and ideas is necessary. The Dao is not an individual entity, still less anything divine, it is more a mode of being that is all encompassing, a phenomenal, an existential primacy – perhaps akin to the western idea of original chaos. It can usefully be seen from epistemological, temporal, perceptual, political or environmental perspectives, though none of these exhaust its real nature. It is not subject to time yet contains it. It is never fixed. It is the ever-here, both omnipresent and unchanging. We might be tempted to say the Dao is the substratum of all things, the ground base – but language’s introduction of levels and hierarchical ideas is not helpful to our already feeble grasp of it. Certainly, it is the whole, the one that precedes the many.

So these poems explore how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with. They suggest the Dao initially gives rise to two things, heaven and earth (‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1)) and the poems subsequently make use of the formulation ‘the ten thousand things’ to suggest the Dao’s proliferation or subdivision into all there is. It is in this way that the Dao is the mother of all things (‘Of all things’ (Chapter 25)); it is like water, a pool from which all things draw life (‘Something greater’ (Chapter 4); it is the uncarved block of wood that has inherent within it all things that have been, are, will be (‘Uncarved wood’ (Chapter 15). Most importantly, the Dao is beyond conception and so beyond any conventional use of language, the limits of which constitute a recurring motif in the Daodejing: ‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1); ‘Awareness (Chapter 56); ‘Store (Chapter 81). Of course, our quotidian lives must pass in this ‘fallen’ state, full of a misplaced confidence in the reality of the ten thousand things, including our own discrete selves, so Laozi emphasises – in recurrent images of reprise or re-visiting – that only if we can return to a more clear awareness of the presence and reality of the Dao, can our behaviour and experience of life be more true, fulfilled, harmonious. Tennyson’s otherwise unremarkable poem, ‘The Ancient Sage’ (1885), describes approaching the “mortal limit of the Self” and passing “into the Nameless [. . .] and thro’ loss of Self / The gain of such large life as match’d with ours / Were sun to spark – unshadowable in words”.

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 Part 2 of this Introduction to the Daodejing will be posted next week (and is now available by clicking here).

 

 

Kei Miller’s ‘Cartographer’ and Friel’s ‘Translations’

Kei Miller’s third collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet), recently carried off the Forward Prize for poetry and it struck me that it shares concerns about language, colonialism and map-making with Brian Friel’s play, Translations (1980) which has become something of a staple teaching text in recent years for several exam boards.

Miller’s poems explore knowledge of place. To begin with there are two opposing views. The cartographer of the title is schooled in “Babylon science” and seeks objective, timeless, abstracted knowledge of Jamaica, knowledge of worth (to his mind) because rid of all contingent distraction. The rastaman knows his island more subjectively, historically, full of local detail, more politically. For the rastaman the island is “unsettled . . . unsugared . . . unmapped”. It “fidget[s]” and slips from “your grip”, is full of what the objective gaze can “never see”. The cartographer arrives with the colonial mission to “untangle the tangled, / to unworry the concerned”, to set a nation and its people back on the right path from which they “may have wrongly turned”.

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The 27 sections of the title sequence then proceed to track the dialectic between these two viewpoints. But the book itself is less Ordnance Survey, more a full colour, illustrated map stuffed with half-sketched houses, trail signs, characters, places. This wonderful effect is achieved by Miller’s scattering, along the trail of the dialogue, poems that explore the etymology of place names as well as others that praise various aspects of Jamaica (especially its creatures). So the outcome of the dialogue – proceeding as it does as a pretty civilized skirmish – is loaded in the rastaman’s favour. It’s true that he is said to dismiss “too easily the cartographic view”, though even here the particular poem ends with an acknowledgement that the Eurocentric Mercator projections of the world (1569) misrepresent the size of Africa and have long “gripped like girdles / to make his people smaller than they were”. Rather, it is the position of the cartographer that shifts significantly. Though initially he too “dismisses too easily the rastaman’s view”, he soon begins to “lose himself” among the “I-drens & I-formants . . . smoking a chillum”. Eventually a question rises in his mind, “between his learning / and awakening: how does one map a place / that is not quite a place? How does one draw / towards the heart?”

It’s on this basis, in his more illumined state, that the cartographer begins to try to “map a way to Zion”. Of course, he needs the rastaman to point out that Zion is less a “where” than a “what” and that it cannot be plotted towards but rather must be waited for. Nevertheless, the book’s conclusion is comedic; the whole begins and ends with a “heartbless”. The brutal facts and bloody history of colonialism are conveyed more in the place name poems, many of which record displacement, floggings, shootings, “suspicion . . . centuries deep”. The brevity of most of the poems, the switching between standard voice and forms of Jamaican patois, the details of landscape and people, all combine to make a very enjoyable read, rewarded with a convincing up-lift at the end.

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Remarkably similar territory is explored in Brian Friel’s modern classic drama Translations, about the re-mapping of Ireland by British colonial forces around 1833. But Friel writes a tragedy, recording (with historical hindsight) the almost complete stamping out of Gaelic culture and language in the 19th century. The British sappers (like Miller’s cartographer) claim they are there to benefit the Irish people, to rationalize and clarify what they perceive/assume is a backward country in need of modernization. But Friel (like Miller) portrays the native culture as sophisticated, if different, so that with the British process of improvement comes inevitable loss. The hedge-school teacher, Hugh, closes the play, failing to recall lines from Virgil and Friel is implying, with dramatic economy, with the stage lights fading, the loss of knowledge, of language, of personal and national identity. In contrast, Miller’s book ends in peaceable benediction:

In leaving

The rastaman bids you

Mannaz and respeck

Izes and protecshun

Upfullness

He bids you

Guidance and healt

Inity and Strenth

Bids you, Trod Holy

To I-ly I-ly I-ly

Mount Zion-I

Trod Holy.

W. H. Auden, West and Wannabes

In The Dyer’s Hand (1962), W H Auden throws off one of his critical Interludes on the subject of Nathanael West’s fiction from the 1930s. With the passage of time and the continuing prominence of Simon Cowell, his observations only become more relevant. I currently have classes in process of preparing OCR A2 Coursework on West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and T S Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and I’m finding that Auden’s piece, while difficult, provides a framework of terms and ideas which relate all three texts.

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Auden denies West’s status as a novelist first, then as a satirist. The first point is because of West’s lack of interest in the accurate representation of either the “social scene” or “subjective life”. Auden’s definition, I guess, demands forms of realism, while West delivers forms of caricature. As for satire, Auden also holds a conventional position on it, demanding not merely a critique of American society and its behaviours but also positive elements, a way out, a solution however faintly sketched. West does not provide the latter (though I disagree that this disbars him as a satirical writer) and I wonder if later work might have developed a more positive message. West’s death, at the age of 37 in a car accident in Southern California in 1940, was one of the greatest losses suffered by US literature in the 20th century.

Auden argues West fictions are “Cautionary Tales” from an infernal land ruled by the “King of Wishes”. All his main characters suffer from what Auden christens “West’s Disease” in which the sufferer is incapable of converting wishes into desires. A wish here is a fantasy, a refusal of reality, particularly self-directed so that it proclaims “I refuse to be what I am”. Momentary, innocent, frivolous wishing is a form of play; if allowed to predominate in one’s psychic life, a wish becomes a form of self-hatred, leading to guilt and despair. In contrast, a desire (Auden is less clear on this) is an ambition, an intention which acknowledges the conditional nature of reality and the self, accepts the present state of both but seeks a pragmatic course to pursue the desire. Wishes begin as whimsy and grow poisonous; desire is the fuel that drives us out into the world.

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West’s characters know only wishes. They are doomed because they cannot truly desire anything since wishers deny themselves; they can believe nothing because wishers are always drawn to the next novelty. Faye Greener (from Locust) amuses herself by running through fantasies, stories she plays in her head, like “a pack of cards”. She loves to slip into a dream, she says, because “any dream was better than none”. But Faye is young and her wishes have some vitality. She may be convincing herself that they may sometime become desires. The strange case of Homer Simpson (yes, West got there long before Matt Groening) is of an older man who has ceased to entertain wishes at all. His is a passive sort of despair: “It took him a long time to get all his clothing on. He stopped to rest after each garment with a desperation far out of proportion to the effort involved”.

Both characters demonstrate the utter self-centred nature of wishers. Auden argues that, for such people, others exist only as images of what s/he is or is not, all feelings are mere projections of what is felt about the self. As perceived from the outside, all behavior therefore appears fraudulent, erratic, incoherent. Born of frustration and anger, the final stages of West’s Disease is a craving for violence, symbolically reflected in Locust in the stomach-churningly sanguinary cock fight of Chapter 21 and then literally in the film premiere riot of the final pages.

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In 1962, Auden speculated that the promises of democracy and modern living only served to exacerbate this Disease, encouraging hopes of personal achievement beyond the bounds of reality and supplying apparent means of satisfying wishes through technological advances: “In societies with fewer opportunities for amusement, it was easier to tell a mere wish from a real desire”. We have probably only progressed in precisely the wrong direction on these issues. The instantaneous satisfaction of our wants blurs the wish/desire distinction Auden wants to make and we now have a slangy, slurred word for Faye Greener. Wannabe is a noun formed from a complex verb combination and is defined as someone who wishes for something but fails to have the drive, ambition or talent to make the journey in reality; a poser, a follower, a charlatan of sorts whose grip on reality is tenuous even when Simon Cowell tells them they are talentless.

More troublingly, it strikes me West’s Disease is an essential component of extremist, fundamentalist views – both political and religious – which achieve their existence and persistence only through the wisher’s denial of the indubitably various nature of reality. Faye Greener’s innocent deck of Hollywood dreams disturbingly travels, via West’s scenes of riot and sexual abuse, into the mouths of fanatics, to the deserts of Syria where real crimes are being committed because other human beings have become no more than mere projections of what is felt about the self.

Louise Gluck’s ‘Education of the Poet’

As Keats once said, several things dove-tailed together. One of these was being asked by Poetry London to review Louise Gluck’s new collection, the PBS Recommendation, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet, 2014). The other – yesterday – was discussing with students the opening quatrain of Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ with its marvelous evocation of the happy days he spent with Robert Frost in the Gloucestershire countryside in 1914. The opening lines employ an ABAB rhyme scheme, enjambement, judiciously placed caesuras and simple colloquial choices of verb and adverb to create its effects. As often, students asked whether what we were discussing was ‘thought about’ by the poet. My usual answer is that a writer is far more conscious of his craft that they might expect, but also that he considers options and exercises a veto. Like evolution, what fails goes to the wall; what remains becomes more and more coherent and effective. This is an idea I first saw expressed in Gluck’s essay, ‘Education of the Poet’ (originally a lecture delivered in 1989, reprinted in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Carcanet, 1999).

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Gluck’s over-riding point is that her characteristic mode of thought defines itself “in opposition”. This gives rise to her image of the poet as fundamentally in a state of helplessness much of the time, absorbing whatever is regarded as ‘oppositional’ and looking for opportunities to speak back. She makes it clear that such an idea “does not mean to distinguish writing from being alive”. What it means in practice is that the life of the poet is a life of “yearning, not [one] made serene by sensations of achievement”. The image of the writer effectively, confidently, repeatedly decanting her self, her being onto a sheet of paper is a false one. There are periods of silence, preoccupied with the desire to make art, a restlessness that may be agony. When at last “some sound, some tone” precipitates, what follows is a period of concentrated work: “so called because as long as one is working the thing itself is wrong or unfinished: a failure”. Yet when the poem, the utterance, is finished – Gluck argues – the poet is no more, reverting “simply [to] someone who wishes to be one”.

This pattern of a powerful force, a cacophony being replied to by the artistic voice  can also manifest in the way a poet engages with language. Gluck rejects the idea that poets are people who can’t get enough of individual words like ‘incarnadine’, in favour of language deployed in larger swathes to create contexts in which the “simplest vocabulary” is liberated from custom. It is custom that is thus replied to through using the gestural aspects of language – setting, timing, pacing – releasing words into novel relationships with truth. The poet generates material, improvises, plays with language and replies to what is produced through the process of veto. Like evolution, what fails goes to the wall; what remains becomes more and more coherent and effective.

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So it’s no surprise that Gluck’s taste in poets favours those whose mode of poetic speech is more like a spoken confidence, a reply, a conversation: “I read to feel addressed”. Accordingly, her personal preference is not for poets – like Wallace Stevens – whose work is a more solitary musing, like “intercepted meditation”, not concerned to be listened to. I find myself in agreement with much of what Gluck says and – re-reading the essay now – I remember that she also uncovers this pattern in the teaching process. She warmly recalls being taught by Stanley Kunitz, his application to the novice writer of a steady “scrutiny”, the oppositional force “from outside, from the world, from another human being”. It’s a scrutiny and compulsion she herself continues to provide for her own students; the teacher’s presence is to stir, to provoke the reply, to kick start the process of definition.

It seems even one’s own work can be seen in this light. Considering her early collections, Gluck regards each new book as a fresh reply to what went before. This is a good answer to my students’ inquiries about how conscious an artist can be. Gluck tells us – and we should more than half believe it – that here she sought latinate suspended sentences, there how to end a poem without sealing it shut; elsewhere she looked to learn a longer breath, to make better use of the present tense; later still to write something less heroic, devoid of mythic reference. The artist is conscious, manipulative, alert. The artist waits, responds, manoeuvres. The both.

Teaching Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’

We teach the OCR exam board’s AS module F661, opting for Edward Thomas as the poet for close analysis. Oddly, the board do not include ‘Adlestrop’ in their selection of poems. So in the opening sessions, here’s a way of gentling students in to the processes of closely analysing a poem while also showing them Thomas’ most well-know piece.

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Discuss with the class the idea of syllable counting in a verse line. Get them to try it by asking students to write an 8 or 10 syllable line beginning “Yes. I remember . . .”. Perhaps one of each.

For the exercise that follows (for those who want more restrictions) suggest keeping to an 8 or 10 syllable per line. Others (possibly the less able) may prefer more freedom . . .

Now . . . tell them to imagine they are travelling – some form of transport, walking, bike, train, bus. Ask around to reveal what they are imagining. Try pushing it a bit further, for more details, the car, the time of day, the scenery . . .

Now write 4 lines – a quatrain – in which you describe travelling and arrival at a particular location, at a particular time of year. They stop there. Maybe suggest they might open with “Yes. I remember . . .”. again – but not compulsory  . . .

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

Next, write 4 lines in which you have stopped at this place – you hear a variety of noises – describe them . . .

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

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Next write 4 lines in which you give a description of what you see – first 2 lines things close by – second 2 lines things further off . . .

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

Finally write 4 lines in which your attention continues to drift away into the distance, ever more remote from where you stopped; suggest it is wholly up to them where they stop with this one – attention may be drifting for miles, even for years . . .

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Very optional 4 lines depending on how well they are going – in which they may conclude the piece in any way they wish. Interestingly, Thomas does not make use of this option, does not conclude in any neat fashion; a point for discussion later perhaps. . .

Finally, show Thomas’ own poem. Give out copies. By this stage, students will be likely to have opinions and/or questions about the way the original piece deals with the same material they have just written about.

Homework: to type out the lines created during the lesson – taking any opportunity to alter or just tidy them up to be presented next lesson.

Next lesson – Take the poems they have typed up. Copy them and re-distribute them, one to each student (not their own poem though). Ask them to identify and annotate SIX items from the poem in front of them where they perceive the writer has made use of technical devices.

Ask each student to present and illustrate orally TWO of these devices to the rest of the class. These will range from the simple (a moment of alliteration perhaps) to the more complex (the way the writer develops over quatrain 2 and 3 a lexical field associated with illness)

The teacher might ‘mark’ the original creative piece; certainly a ‘mark’ might be derived from a student’s annotation of another student’s poem.