Don Paterson’s 101 Sonnets is certainly a varied selection of the form (it strikes me it would be a good, coherent text for students to study). The editor is never short of an opinion, ranging from the good sense of “Academics, in particular, have talked an awful lot of rubbish on the subject of rhyme” to the much more questionable “the whole point of [a] poem – that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains”
That the novelist Ursula K Le Guin should be a fan and translator of Lao Tzu’s 81 ancient poems/chapters known as the Tao Te Ching is perhaps less surprising than the fact that her translation is one of the most enjoyable around (and I’ve been reading plenty of them in preparation for my version’s appearance next Spring).
Two chunky collecteds have been pre-occupying me in the last month or so. Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems is – by the nature of his aesthetic perhaps – uneven, but almost every page turns up new ways of writing and reading poetry: an invigorating pleasure.
I have blogged on Bertolt Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 before – in more recent weeks I have been tracking him out of Germany, to Denmark and hence to the USA. Extraordinary how contemporary most of these poems feel, though already 60 plus years old.
Updated August 2015
John Greening’s anthology of poems about music, Accompanied Voices (Boydell & Brewer), is a lovely thing, full of variety, full of poems to be re-acquainted with from Hill, Hughes, Longley and Porter and brand new contemporary work including Stainer, Allnutt, O’Donoghue, Reid, Rumens, Shuttle and Greening’s own little gem on John Field (being walked all over by Chopin).
I tweeted a couple of weeks ago that I found Carolyn Forche’s second collection, The Country Between Us (HarperPerennial, 1982) in a Highgate secondhand bookshop and having raced through the poems before going away I’m now keen to get back to them for a more reflective read.
Tim Liardet’s poem-sequence of self-portraits, The World before Snow (Carcanet) is actually motivated and (to some degree evokes) an illicit trans-Atlantic affair. The poems have the density and intensity of Liardet’s previous work with an even greater fertility and fluency of imagination.
On Narrowness, Claire Crowther’s third collection from Shearsman is a chewy, twisting, sometimes vertiginous read; that’s another way of saying I don’t know what’s going on half the time. But the poems are confident in themselves and leap boldly from one image to another.
Up-dated July 2015
I find Yves Bonnefoy’s writing unfailingly nutritious though sometimes wonder if his ideas are at least as exciting as the classically restrained lexis of his verse. Beverley Bie Brahic’s 2013 translation of The Present Hour (2011) has Bonnefoy in sonnet-shaped Wordsworthian mood recalling his childhood, writing enigmatic prose pieces and a thought-provoking (because not always easy to follow) essay, ‘In a Piece of Broken Mirror’, once again discussing image, dream, reality and language.
Perhaps is Alan Murray’s Acumen chapbook from 2013 and it quotes Nietzsche’s observation that the word ‘I’ is the point at which our ignorance begins and several poems do press at the boundaries and mysteries of the self. Murray is a philosopher as well as poet and his colloquial, skilfully turned verse sounds Larkinesque in its precision and equivocations. Great to read poems unafraid of complex ideas.
Sheenagh Pugh’s 12th book leaves Cardiff and Wales for the Shetland Islands. Wide skies, rough oceans, bright stars. But I share her obsession with the passage of time and there are some powerful poems here, though I find her historical delvings less enjoyable.
Collette Bryce’s ultra-brief outing (from 2014) into her childhood growing up in Derry during the Troubles is an object lesson in how to focus a collection (just 30 poems). She writes plain, rather withdrawn poems, but this seems right for the material which is therefore allowed to speak for itself.
Don Paterson’s 1997 book, God’s Gift to Women (Faber) includes a poem sporting the title ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’. The reader’s eye hops off the perch of this lengthy title only to flutter down, looking in vain for a foothold, for a line, even a word – it’s a completely blank page. In a collection that includes a poem called ‘Postmodern’ and another on ‘The Alexandrian Library’, the joke is obvious enough. Any search for ‘masterly’ advice in the Kyushu Mountains or closer to home in a post-modern, relativist world in which language hides as much as it might reveal, must draw a blank. I remember seeing the poem – probably heard Paterson ‘read’ it too – the long title building expectation, a too-long pause, the announcement of the next poem (cue laughter) – and something bothered me. I think now I know what it was.
I wondered if Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu(tr. Arthur Cooper, 1973). The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. Cooper’s note tells us that ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’ is actually a very common theme in Chinese poetry. Such a poem (we are told) is not just an excuse for a “nature poem” but relates to the frequent “spirit-journeys” that Li Po was fond of writing. Here is Cooper’s translation:
Where the dogs bark
by roaring waters,
whose spray darkens
the petals’ colours,
deep in the woods
deer at times are seen;
the valley noon:
one can hear no bell,
but wild bamboos
cut across bright clouds,
hang from jasper peaks;
no one here knows
which way you have gone:
two, now three pines
I have leant against!
I had come across this poem while compiling my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990). I liked it for reasons I didn’t then understand and, in a very simple form of translation, I wrote an up-dated version:
Looking for an Old Man
Where red dogs bark
on the sodium ring-road
and traffic noise
blackens adjacent houses,
I’ve come to seek you.
In each garden I pass,
pale heads of bindweed.
The night is undistinguished.
The savour of coalsmoke
flattens across the kerb.
No-one here knows
which way you have gone:
two, now three lampposts
I’ve leant against.
Li Po is the more Daoist of the two poets presented as a complementary pair in this Penguin book. Now, with a bit more understanding of this tradition, I’m sure that 26 years ago I was responding to something at the heart of the poem. The fact that the Daoist master cannot be found by the searching student is precisely the point since the Daoist teacher teaches “in the absence of words” (Chapter 43, ‘Best Teaching’) as I translated it in my version of the Daodejing(Enitharmon, 2016).
Interestingly, Li Po’s poem expresses this not with a blank page but (as Cooper says) through further encounters with “nature” (petals, woods, deer, valley, bamboo, clouds) or, in my version, the natural and urban world (ring-road, traffic, houses, garden, bindweed, coalsmoke, kerb). Whether we designate this a ‘spiritual’ journey or not, the point remains that the student’s search for knowledge in the form of a direct download from some master must be denied. The student’s anxious search for guidance is reflected in the number of pines/lampposts he leans against as well as the geographical over-specificity of the titles of such poems. The student’s dependency and naïve optimism is the satirical butt of the poem as he is directed back to the source of all knowledge (the world surrounding him) even as he wanders in search of his master. So Paterson’s 1997 version achieves three things: it misrepresents the spirit of the original, it’s more dramatic (comic), it’s more superficial.
When I first read Li Po’s poem I was coming off the back of doctoral work on the Romantics, especially Shelley whose ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821) argues that the “poetry in [our] systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes [. . .] we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know”. This is succinctly put in Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, defined as a passive openness to the fullest range of human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. The student in Li Po’s poem seeks just such certainties and facts and is gently deflected back into the world of observation where (I take it) he is encouraged to pursue a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with the 10,000 things which (in Daoism) constitute the One, ‘what is’.
The two attitudes to knowledge here are really two ‘ways of being’ as Iain McGilchrist’s fascinating book, The Master and his Emissary(Yale, 2009) phrases it. McGilchrist argues that right and left human brain hemispheres deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”. Shelley described this in 1821 and linked it to the processes of Reason and this is the attitude to knowledge and education that the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses. In contrast, what Shelley calls Poetry or the Imagination is what McGilchrist associates with the right brain. It tends to perceive “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”.
Without doubt, this is also the viewpoint of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the uncarved block, the One, and who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage is dependent on conceptual thought which is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. I imagine that Li Po’s master-teacher and sage is deliberately hiding somewhere beyond the bamboo canes – and this is part of the student’s lesson.
So Don Paterson’s blank page bothers me because – as McGilchrist expresses it – it represents a rather glib, post-modern position, a scepticism about language which is in danger of throwing out the interconnected 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” (McGilchrist, p. 6). I’m also reminded of Yves Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battle with the early stirrings of French post-modernism. He writes: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply withus. In what can be felt and sensed”. In The Tombs of Ravenna(1953), he names this underlying truth, not as existence, but as “presence”. The right brain knows this; the left brain sets about fragmenting it, making use of it, disappearing it.
In my last blog I was discussing Keats’ ideas about Negative Capability, provoked by a visit to Keats House and a discussion there about Negative Capability and psychoanalysis. The speakers were Dr Margot Waddell, a child psychotherapist from the Tavistock Clinic, and Dr Toni Griffiths, Trustee of the Keats Foundation. Waddell focused on the acknowledged influence of Keats’ idea on the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. In the aftermath of such major stimulation, the new issue of PN Review fell through the front door, containing John Naughton’s excellent new translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s 1953 essay, The Tombs of Ravenna. Keats and Bonnefoy melded in my mind and I was reading the latter in terms of the former as follows.
Bonnefoy observes that though many philosophers have discussed death, few have bothered to ponder the places where we traditionally lodge the dead: sepulchers and tombs. The explanation he offers introduces a key term for both his prose and poetry from 1953 to the present day: the concept. The concept, as in conceptual thinking, is a human creation, abstracted from the plentitude, the flood and flux of actual, particular human experience. It is “always a means of escape” into a more fixed abode. The concept denies time and is “a profound rejection of death”. It denies the fact of death as our inevitable fate and constructs an illusory “dwelling place of logic”, a more alluring place of “permanence and identity”. Also, and crucially, the concept is “made of words”. Language is a similar construct, also seeming to promise the same sort of escape into the timeless, the unchanging. All forms of conceptual thinking seem to promise an achievable resolution but, Bonnefoy argues, “what is pondered is no longer the real object”. Instead, we contemplate “a dubious knowledge” though it may soothe our “initial anguish and trivialises that most somber melody with words that mask the reality of death”.
So the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality” – which, of course, we can and readily do. One reason is that there are general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It “allows thinking” of a certain kind; it is linked with “the vast power of words”. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing “world of things”. Conceptual thinking is “systematized”, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its “flight” from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks “Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]”
In his letters, Keats calls this sort of non-particular thinking “preresolved” and he encountered it especially in his friend Charles Dilke: “a man who [. . . ] has made his Mind up about every thing” (303; page numbers in brackets are to John Keats: Selected Letters (Oxford World Classics, newly revised 2002)). Dilke is one of the “stubborn arguers” who never begin on any subject “they have not preresolved upon” (303). In contrast, Keats argues the only means of strengthening one’s intellect and identity “is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (303). Keats’ best formulation of this idea arises when several things “dovetailed” in his mind after a frustrating debate with Dilke. The quality that marks out the artist – Shakespeare especially, he says – is Negative Capability. He defines this as consisting of a passive openness to the full range of particular human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, preresolved ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (41/2). Bonnefoy’s insight is that rather than being an occasional tendency, this reaching after fact and reason (conceptual thinking rather than direct, particular, various experience) is our default status. We pass our days in a delusion of resolution and systematization because if we did not we might fry our brains with the overload. In his last ever letter, Keats laments “the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense)” as having become a great enemy to his “recovery” from his present state of illness. (369).
Yet the dully pragmatic ought not to be allowed to displace truth: Keats in better health argued this and Bonnefoy does the same in The Tombs of Ravenna. Bonnefoy’s essay for several paragraphs plays devil’s advocate, expecting to find “horror” in visiting the tombs of the dead, yet admitting that he felt “nothing but lightheartedness”. Initially, he locates this sense of up-lift in the ornamentation of the tombs, the “braids and interlacing [. . .] bows and foliage”. The essay playfully misleads its reader, suggesting that this effect of the ornamentation must be because it is comparable to the “concept” in denying the fact of death. Bonnefoy says he believed (note the past tense here) that ornamentation also abstracted towards the universal from the real, that the ornamentation presented “a closed world”, a world of “harmony”. Hence, just as the concept “seeks to establish truth without death [. . .] It seemed to me that ornamentation sought to build a dwelling place for us without death, and to have death no longer be here”. Visiting Ravenna, Bonnefoy felt lighthearted beside the tombs because its skilled and delicate ornamentation persuaded him of a world of permanence and consoling abstraction (beyond death, other than death).
But the essay now turns dramatically to deny the validity of such consoling sophistry. It’s invalid because Bonnefoy had failed to understand “the power of stone”. His insight is that it is not the ornamentation which is at the root of his lightheartedness but the very material out of which it has been carved. Stone is “unfathomable, and this abyss of plentitude, this night covered by an eternal light, is for [Bonnefoy] the exemplary form of the real”. What he means is that stone deflects the grasp of conceptual thought; conceptual thought distances itself from stone as it does from death. Stone is or represents “the difficult real” and it is or represents the “dawn of the sensory world”. Stone’s resistance, its very hardness, gestures towards the fullness and particularity of human experience (what Keats calls a “Life of Sensations”), towards “everything that has flesh, heartbeat, immanence”. The stone leads us towards the “truth tenaciously present beneath the truth of the concept”. And it is the latter ‘truth’ that Bonnefoy declares he must “tenaciously contest”.
The battle in Bonnefoy’s thought between the sensory world and the concept reflects Existentialism’s concern for existence rather than essence. His faith in a world resistant to and actually prior to the draining, withering forces of the intellect, his resistance to post-modernism, are reasons why he strikes many as such an inspiring figure. He says: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us. In what can be felt and sensed”. In The Tombs of Ravenna he names this underlying truth, not as existence, but “presence”. It is “what is perceived by the senses” and it was a dimly stirring awareness of this truth that constituted the “lightheartedness” he felt before the tombs of Ravenna. Through an encounter with the stone from which the tombs are constructed, the resistance of both life and death to the abstracting processes of conceptual thought was made clear and the pleasure induced arose from his closer approach to a fundamental truth.
Just as for Keats, such ideas have consequences for art and poetry. For Bonnefoy, poetry seeks to represent the real particular truths of human experience, to convey what it can of the “dawn of the sensory world”, as opposed to succumbing to the lure of conceptual thinking, even that conceptual thinking inherent in the very fabric of language itself. This specific paradox is not explored very far in The Tombs of Ravenna in which he confines himself to declaring that we require “another language than that of the concept” to articulate such truths. He concludes poetry’s only concern is “for that spot in the world I can sense” and because it must, as far as possible, resist the lure of conceptual truths (truth without death) it follows that “poetry and journey are of the same substance, the same blood”.
What such a poem might look like is suggested in those few moments when Bonnefoy himself resorts to “minute particulars”. On one such occasion, drawing from his own life, he tells us of “the cry of a bird I heard as a child, at the crest of a kind of cliff. I don’t know where that valley is anymore, or why or when I was there. The light is the light of dawn or of evening, it doesn’t matter. Through the brushwood runs the pungent smoke of a fire. The bird sang. Rather I should say, to be exact, it spoke, raucous on its misty height, for a moment of perfect solitude”.
Or as Keats put it in 1819, having listened to a nightingale singing on Hampstead Heath:
Recently I went with some teaching colleagues to Keats House, London, to hear a discussion about the poet’s idea of Negative Capability and psychoanalysis. The speakers were Dr Margot Waddell, a child psychotherapist from the Tavistock Clinic, and Dr Toni Griffiths, Trustee of the Keats Foundation. Both were fascinating, condensing whole areas of scholarly knowledge into accessible (if intense) 45 minute talks. Waddell focused on the acknowledged influence of Keats’ idea on the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.
I’m not sure I feel very qualified to comment on that intriguing area without a good deal further reading, but a memorable phrase arose from it: Waddell argued that Bion saw the way that preconception obstructs perception and how this must adversely affect the therapist/patient relationship. Toni Griffiths’ elegant and economical discussion of Keats’ work (not merely the Negative Capability idea) set off several days of thought for me and has produced what I think will be two blog posts. Firstly, and perhaps largely for myself, I wanted to clarify my own understanding of Keats’ idea which has long meant a great deal to me. In my next post, I want to explain how those thoughts have “dove-tailed” (Keats’ own brilliant phrase in the Negative Capability letter to his brothers George and Tom, December 1817) with a recent translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s 1953 essay The Tombs of Ravenna (in the most recent PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015, pp. 58-63).
This second blog is now available to be read here.
What follows below is my assemblage of observations from Keats’ letters, hopefully into a clear argument, indeed, into Keats’ coherent theory of poetic achievement and practice (though Negative Capability of course eschews all such systematizing). Page numbers in brackets are to John Keats: Selected Letters (Oxford World Classics, newly revised 2002).
In his 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats wishes for “a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” (36). Just a year later, in a letter to James Hessey, he clarifies this distinction, suggesting that poetry is not “matured by law & precept, but by sensation and watchfulness” (146). The language use Keats associates with law and precept is evidently a fixed, a “preresolved” (303) language. What he seeks inits place is rather a language sufficiently flexuous and responsive to “watchfulness”, to attentiveness and often, when Keats discusses this, there is a strong sense of passivity. Writing to Bailey, characteristically using the phrase that an idea had “pressed upon” him (35), he says it has “increased my Humility and capability of submission”. The idea he is referring to is that artists (“Men of Genius”) “have not any individuality, any determined character”, as opposed to “Men of Power” who are replete and resolved in “a proper self” (35).
Keats’ distrust of such self-confident preresolution famously emerges in the 1818 letter to John Reynolds, as his dislike and distrust of poetry that has a “palpable design” on us (58) and to Bailey he contrasts this with an alertness to the “holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination” (36/7). Preresolution pre-packages or pre-limits our emotional and spiritual life, whereas Keats is intent on welcoming “all”. This is what he means in the phrase “a Life of Sensations”, the latter word (rather misleadingly) encompassing both emotional and spiritual life as well as a full, open and alert response to the world about us. Such a full engagement with present experience is where we feel Imagination at work: Keats asks Bailey if he has not felt this in even such common experiences as listening to “an old Melody” and in the “elevation of the Moment” Keats declares we are “mounted on the Wings of Imagination” (37).
This ideal of a radical openness to present experience and its passive acceptance, was further clarified for Keats in his later dealings with his friend, Charles Dilke, who was becoming something of a political bore (spouting Godwinian philosophy and politics), a man who had resolved upon most issues. Keats again links this state to identity: Dilke is “a man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made his Mind up about every thing” (303). Dilke is one of the “stubborn arguers” who never begin upon any subject “they have not preresolved upon” (303). In contrast, Keats argues the only means of strengthening one’s intellect and identity “is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (303).
Keats’ best formulation of this idea arises when several things “dovetailed” in his mind after another frustrating debate with Dilke. The quality that marks out the artist – Shakespeare especially, he says – is Negative Capability. He defines this as consisting of a passive openness to the full range of human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, preresolved ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (41/2). Once again, the best way to understand this is through Keats’ word “watchfulness”, an attentiveness to the true nature of experiences. In yet another foray into these ideas, he experiments with the word “disinterestedness”. This again implies the absence of a forceful or dominating self, full of preconceived ideas, words, precepts. Writing to his brother George, he says “complete disinterestedness” is a difficult goal. He admits he is himself “far” from it though personally and in social terms he believes it “ought to be carried to its highest pitch” (213).
Such moments of disinterested perception occur in his observation of a sparrow picking about on the gravel (37). Approached with Negative Capability this mundane moment becomes something that “startles” and Keats says “I take part in its existince [sic]” (37). In this way, the poet is continually “filling some other body” (148). Such is the truth in a “Life of Sensations”, fuelled by Imagination, and one of the delights of a human life is that these happy moments will continue to be “repeated in a finer tone and so repeated”. The mind develops in this way through the repetition “of its own silent Working” (36). These refinements of the mind can occur only when experience is encountered openly, nakedly, even dangerously. To Reynolds, Keats wrote that to become fully “fit for this world”, with all its pains and hardship, a man would have to have “the fine point of his soul taken off” (39). But the poet or artist cannot afford to be so blunted by experiences but must remain radically open, even submissive to them. In the same letter to Reynolds, Keats quotes Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: “As the snail, whose tender horns being hit, / Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain”. Such a reaction of withdrawal must not be countenanced by the would be artist. To Richard Woodhouse, Keats wrote “What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [sic] Poet” (148). The work of the poet experiences “no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one” (148).
Keats recognizes and accepts the personal, experiential conclusion of such thoughts as he records his own sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me” (148). Yet this absence of a resolved self (pushing and barging over-confidently outwards) leaves room for such delicate encounters as that with the sparrow and on other occasions, catching a glimpse “of a stoat or fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (213). Keats regards such escape from or evasion of this confinement to self as a form of purification: “there is an ellectric [sic] fire in human nature tending to purify” (213). He names Socrates and Jesus as perfections of this state, though “it is to be lamented that the history of the latter was written and revised by men interested in the pious fraud of Religion” (214). Of course, poetry must also aspire to this state and (as David Constantine has argued in his Bloodaxe lectures, A Living Language 2004)) Keats’ “gymnastics” in trying to broaden his native language-use (with its preresolutions) through a variety of foreign poetic experiments suggests he knew this well enough.
By the spring of 1819, Keats was further developing his ideas about the role and nature of the self with the letter discussing life as a “vale of Soul-making”. He dismisses naïve ideas of the “perfectibility” (232) of mankind, even doubting the real progress made by any “seldom appearing Socrates”. He jokes that fish are as likely to “philosophise the ice away from the Rivers” as man is likely to arrive at a perfect state because “the nature of the world will not admit it” (232). However much happiness a man can experience, there will still be worldly elements that “prey upon his nature”. It is from this conviction that Keats proposes – in stark contrast to any Christian reading of man’s life –the idea that we are born as intelligences (“sparks of the divinity” or “atoms of perception” (232)). Then through a system of “Spirit-creation”, the intelligence develops into a Soul by refining an individuality or identity. This process is an educative one, fuelled by Negative Capability, in that the world is allowed to impact fully on the human heart which is led to “feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways” (233). Man can never achieve a state of perfection but as the world’s school of hard knocks is openly, vulnerably embraced so the process of individuation occurs via emotional experience. It follows that the human heart is “the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity” (233). As various as the lives of all individuals are, so “various become their souls” since individual emotional experiences are the “fortifiers or alterers” of our ever-developing nature (234).
So Keats’ ideal poet must possess Negative Capability to fully experience the world before him without preresolution. Armed with sufficient language skills to express the plenitude of these experiences, the poet’s role is then to re-present them to the reader in such a way that the poem itself contributes to the reader’s own developing emotional life. The work of art is therefore an important contribution to the reader’s own on-going process of Spirit creation or individuation (though this is only going to occur if the reader too is possessed of Negative Capability and is not someone who opens a book of poems with firmly preresolved expectations and ideas).
So here’s a poet well worth getting to know (if you don’t already). The new issue of Modern Poetry in Translation contains a new translation by Marilyn Hacker of the great contemporary French poet, Guy Goffette. Hacker has referred to Goffette as “one of the most unabashedly lyrical contemporary French poets, who claims Verlaine . . . as one of his literary godfathers”. He’s an admirer of Auden and his own work is not oppressively ‘literary’, not referential, not obscurely self-referential. He’s a poet somewhat to the ‘English’ taste (OK – you got me – to my taste), using quotidian words, everyday expressions, making them new, re-investing them with humour, connotation and emotion. Hacker has argued that “after a period in which much of French poetry eschewed the concrete, the narrative and the quotidian”, Goffette’s poems have recently found an enthusiastic readership. Yves Bonnefoy admires him as a writer who “has decided to remain faithful to his own personal life, in its humblest moments. He keeps things simple, he is marvellously able to capture the emotions and desires common to us all . . . without question one of the best poets of the present moment in France”.
The new poems in MPT – a sequence of 6 sonnet-like pieces published in 2009 – make up an ‘Elegy for a Friend’, the poet Paul de Roux. The form used is a thirteen-liner, made up of three usually unrhymed quatrains and a last line which sometimes, though not always, reaches the classic 12 syllables. Since the early 1990s, this has become “Goffette’s ‘signature’ strophe” (Hacker again), whether used as part of a sequence or standing on its own. I reviewed Goffette’s last recent major appearance in English, Charlestown Blues, for Poetry London in 2007. I reproduce the review here and add comments on the new poems at the end.
The longer term coherence and success of a poet’s work is not – ought not – to be something willed. Like the oyster with its grain of sand, there is surely always something fortuitous about it. Marilyn Hacker’s fine translations from the French of Guy Goffette’s work suggest that, in this instance, Rimbaud’s declaration that “You never leave (“On ne part pas”) has proved a spectacularly productive starting point. Rimbaud’s comment suggests restlessness and desire for the other, yet also the tragic recognition of human limits as well as the idea that imaginative travel is more real than any form of mere physical tourism. These are indeed the topics and tensions that weave through Charlestown Blues.
Hacker’s introduction characterises Goffette in contrast to the Anglo-American preconception of contemporary French poets and not only due to his interest in form. She suggests we see modern French poetry as “abstract, more concerned with concepts than with human experience . . . resolutely “difficult””. Goffette’s work, in contrast, is diffused with “humour, longing, tenderness, nostalgia and occasional cruelty” and, though Hacker over-states his likeness to James Wright and Seamus Heaney, the general thrust of her argument is right. Born in 1947, of the same generation as our Motion and Raine, Goffette grew up on the shifting French/Belgian border (travelling without moving?). He now lives in Paris but still tends to look to the provinces while the metropolis is more often “a place from which his speaker is perpetually ready to depart” (Hacker’s introduction).
The title sequence, using a decasyllabic dixain and written during a residence in Rimbaud’s Charleville, seems scatter-shot and observational but with a strong thread of erotic longing: “your drying / stockings and scanties of a nun at bay – / poisonous flowers for a lonely man” (‘Letter to the Unknown Woman across the Street, 1’). Sex is one form of ‘leaving’ and Goffette catches such longing vividly: “oh beautiful stranger, / that creature who’s so often on the move” ((‘Letter to the Unknown Woman across the Street, 2’). Goffette’s work certainly revels in such demotic pleasures and Rimbaud himself puts in an appearance shouting “Fuck off! to puttering poetry” (‘February ‘98’). Earlier he wrings “the neck of the azure, which always puts / too much honey on the tails of verse-worms” (‘Farewell, Chateaux’). In the context of French poetry, it is this combative stance that leads Goffette towards the more grounded – even sordid – presentations of life that Hacker argues make him attractive to readers of English and American poetry.
Goffette’s natural reach approximates to the sonnet and these are frequently arranged in sequences, such as in ‘Waiting’. Largely from the point of view of a woman addressing her lover, these pieces suggest that it is the ultimate ‘leaving’ of death as well as desire that fuels his poetry. Here, eroticism is more explicitly a stay against death and time – “the judgment of this absence crushing me // like an insect on the pane” – though the final poem ventures a kind of romantic nostalgia, suggesting that even sex must fall short of human longing. The woman is made to envisage an island “where the surprise / of being lasts . . . the heart is still / in place, captain of the old ship”. This paradisal view is left to stand in stark contrast to the lovers’ reality, as they undress each other “amidst time’s peelings”.
So Goffette’s themes are the classical ones of love, time and death and though his diction is familiar enough with the contemporary, much of his imagery has a timelessness in its reference to journeys, rivers, trees, rooms, seashore, roads, stars. ‘Boarding the Streetcar: Variations’ responds to a photograph of New York in 1900 in which a woman climbs onto a streetcar watched intently by a male passenger and a (male) conductor. In a miracle of economy, the passenger’s viewpoint is sketched in and within six lines the moment of voyeuristic pleasure has come to represent “everything”:
the swift brightness of minnows
in a current, the taste of the first
fruit swiped from a market-stall, and how
the hazel switch whistled in the air
when it was about to strike a child’s
Yet when the passenger tries to articulate this moment he can manage “nothing” or the best he achieves are “words // like paper littering the grass after a fair / when shadows as they lengthen chill our hearts”. In contrast, the conductor’s view of the incident suggests its mix of beauty and danger, its very ordinariness, provides him with some memory which makes “the blood of things beat lengthily like a heart / in the shadow of dead rooms”.
Hacker’s selection covers ten years from 1991 and concludes with a longer sequence published in 2001. ‘The Raising of Icarus’ is based on the same Breughel painting that inspired Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’. Constructed from sonnet-like pieces once more, Goffette does not dwell long on the painting itself and instead seems to be observing people in the Paris metro, “running // against each other, same face same / night, and each one was night for every other” (‘In the Depths of the Labyrinth’). Rimbaud’s phrase is again apposite; these commuters travel without arriving anywhere and yet “To embark and not return is what they wanted” (‘In the Depths of the Labyrinth’). Later, they turn on the Shepherd in the painting who – they enviously feel – leads an idyllic pastoral life, while they must be “winning gold . . . cheers . . . bread” (‘The Shepherd Reproached’). It may be that the Shepherd is an artist figure but his response is that his life is no different to the crowd, though the one thing he does know is that death and the final dissolution of things is what serves to “raise every object up from darkness” (‘The Shepherd Answers’).
Death is, of course, the subject of the more recent sequence, ‘Elegy for a Friend’. It opens with memories of two friends in their youth, “When life was strong”, once again drawing on Rimbaud’s sense of restlessness, the youthful ease of travel, transformation, the passage of time unnoticed, yet (ominously) “it was already dancing there”, the shadow that “burns all shadows”. In the second section, temporal words become sand grains, become silence that eventually “takes up all the space and screams”. Yet, as the Shepherd figure in ‘The Raising of Icarus’ suggested, it is the presence of death that leads the poet to his creative “double question” about identity and time. If there is any regret, it is that this wisdom was not learned soon enough and, like stricken teenagers, the youthful poets sat too long in their “afflicted bedrooms”, or bickered unsympathetically, ignorant for too long of the real “desert of life”. Goffette’s elegy maintains a classical distance and relative impersonality with the sixth section using the first personal plural pronoun to sound more universal than intimate: “One day we must depart”. It’s a bleak ending full of thorns, scorched earth, what remains is “paltry”. There do remain the words on paper, “read and reread”, but their author is ambiguously described as a “blind man dancing in the fire”. Do we stress the blindness, our ultimate ignorance? Or the all-consuming fire? Or should it be the struggle to make art, the act of dancing?
This is challenging and wonderful contemporary poetry and – though the parallel text faces each page in Charlestown Blues – I seldom found myself checking the original which suggests that Hacker is doing a magnificent and valuable job of bringing Goffette’s work into English.
Something on early morning Radio Four this week sent me hurrying to the files of autobiographical notes I’ve been writing sporadically over the last few years. It was a discussion of an experience I have never heard spoken of, but felt often enough. It has a name these days: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30412358. I’ll put down my memories as I recall them but also with some of the surrounding context too as that may be relevant to the phenomenon itself:
In the 1960s, in my second year at Parochial Junior School (I’m about 9 years old), we crocodile out the front door and occasionally turn right along Church Street towards St James’ Parish Church, Trowbridge (George Crabbe’s last posting). We cross the road for religious services like Easter, Harvest Festival and Christmas. We wheel and snake into the churchyard and follow the tilting, worn flagstone path, passing Thomas Helliker’s casket tomb to the church porch.
But more usually we turn left along Church Street, passing Shanley’s the barbers and a low butcher’s window where our regimented pairings are disturbed by squeals and extraneous movement, by our fascination with red and pink slabs and cuts of meat, with creamy fat like curds laid out on plastic white trays. Most fascinating and least attractive are the lolling ox tongues, cut at the root, purple, stilled, obscene.
Then we turn left into Duke Street and left again through an almost hidden door that, even then, I would associate with those obscured entrances and exits in children’s stories. Through this door, we traipse down a passage into what we call Emmanuel, a kind of annex with a couple of extra classrooms. I don’t remember any separate play area. It’s in these classrooms that I remember adjusting to new spectacles from Carter and Harding after I had been diagnosed with short sight. I was straining to read the teacher’s scrawl on the blackboard.
Here too I remember the first incidents (though surely these could not have been the first) of a very peculiar sensation. It’s a prickling that runs up my back and shoulders, a sort of shiver moving upwards across my neck into my scalp when a teacher (not my usual one) writes on the blackboard. It’s a ripple of pleasure out of unfamiliarity (or the familiar defamiliarised), a kind of low level erotic shiver I still occasionally feel now when the college cleaner comes into my room – moving books, touching the table and chairs, my familiar items touched by another’s hand. I’ve never heard this described before . . .
Later, back in the main school building, moving to other rooms downstairs aware of girls talking, manoeuvring to walk alongside me, giggles, but I have no recognition of what this means, certainly no idea that it might be exploited. In fact, I don’t recall much sense of my own position in this little closed society at all. It is as if I moved through a mist of my own creating, barely self-aware. But I imagine myself proceeding quietly, studiously mostly, probably a pleasure to teach, though reports are already lamenting how deeply I live in myself. Already teachers are reaching for the old metaphor of the shell, the frustrating creature living within.
Wikipedia describes ASMR as a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial, with strong anecdotal evidence to support the phenomenon but little or no scientific explanation or verified data. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_sensory_meridian_response
It has become a recent internet phenomenon. Online discussion groups such as the Society of Sensationalists formed in 2008 on Yahoo! and The Unnamed Feeling blog created in 2010 by Andrew MacMuiris aim to provide a community for learning more about the sensation by sharing ideas and personal experiences. Some earlier names for ASMR in these discussion groups included attention induced head orgasm, attention induced euphoria, and attention induced observant euphoria.
Inevitably my own thoughts about it revolve around poetry and its effects: the familiar defamiliarised, the frisson of the uncanny, Emily Dickinson talking about poems taking the top of your head off. ASMR seems linked to a particular quality of attention-giving which yields a rippling of pleasure, close to the erotic, but not the same as that. It is powerful yet undramatic; it is most common in quiet moments of observation. It is also in a neutral sense ‘bestial’, an animal shiver, like hackles rising, but not out of anger. It’s surely something reaching far back into our ancient past, linking body and mind, yielding pleasure, rooted in a mode of being predating language and conceptualisation. That interests me. Poetry is language deployed to circumvent the limits of language; these days I take that as a given. Yves Bonnefoy says: “poetry was not made to mean but to restore words to their full intensity, their integral capacity to designate fundamental things in our relationships with ourselves and others, here and now, amid those chances that one should never, as Mallarmé did, dream of abolishing” (2012 PN Review interview with Chris Miller: http://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=8484). Even if just considered as metaphor, perhaps ASMR is what poetry taps into, invokes, rehearses, re-discovers.