Saturday, July 2, 2016

Sir Geoffrey Hill 1932-2016

An Order of Service
(By Geoffrey Hill)

He was the surveyor of his own ice-world,
meticulous at the chosen extreme,
Though what he surveyed may have been nothing.

Let a man sacrifice himself, concede
His mortality and have done with it;
There is no end to that sublime appeal.

In such a light dismiss the unappealing
Blank of his gaze, hopelessly vigilant,
Dazzled by renunciation’s glare.

Sad news. Sir Geoffrey Hill is dead. 

When I was an undergraduate, in the late 1970s, I read an article that jokingly suggested that only people whose surname began with an H had a chance as poet in the British Isles. It listed, as evidence, Hughes, Heaney, Harrison and Hill.

I dutifully tracked them down. Harrison was immediately impressive, Heaney’s twinkly eyed rural Irishman was ethnically familiar. Hughes I didn’t like. I'd suffered him at High School and at the time he was often twinned with Thom Gunn. I preferred Gunn, besides his name started with a G, and then there was Geoffrey Hill. The Library had a copy of Mercian Hymns, and I could make nothing of it. I knew the history, I knew the landscape, but the ‘poems’ turned their back on me.

Years later, having escaped the assumptions of A level English, and thinking to have another go at it, I bought the small Penguin Collected (1985).  I was distracted by War Music. The content at least was familiar: I knew the three names at the head of the sequence, so I started there, and by the time I had got to that 5th and last sonnet which begins….

Not as we are but as we must appear
Contractual ghosts of pity…

I realized I was holding my breath.

After that I bought every book he wrote as they appeared, something I haven't done with any other living poet, until Clavics, at which point I waited for the promised Collected which would contain the Daybooks. I suspect I will be nagging away at those last poems for many years.

He wasn’t always brilliant. There’s that jaw dropping run from Canaan to the Orchards of Zion and then after that I suspect he was uneven, belatedly learning how to turn out Geoffrey Hill Poems with great facility.

But the body of poems will invite critical attention and when the funeral commonplaces are over, the journalists and their simplifications have gone home and the reaction sets in, the poems will take on the critics and, as Yeats’ did, will emerge better known and better understood. Perhaps never as loved as Yeats' poetry, but obdurate and resilient.  

More than the poems, which after all are one version of poetry and not to everyone’s taste, or perhaps because of the poems, he was able to stand for an attitude to poetry that is unfashionable. It is a serious art. It is hard work.  It requires ‘sharp study and long toil’ in Bunting’s phrase.  A good poem or a great poet deserved, required and demanded intense scrutiny.  In short, he took it seriously at a time when it’s more common to find people arguing that everyone can and should write poems without any kind of knowledge or understanding.   The argument, for want of a better word, with Carol Anne-Duffy’s comments about the similarities between texting and poetry was the easily graspable version. 

For me he stood for the idea that a desire for excellence is not elitism: emphatically not elitism. It is the most democratic of impulses because it makes everything available to anyone who wants to make the effort. The desire to understand excellence and celebrate it is a recognition that in the long history of English poetry very few poets have achieved any lasting excellence and for me Hill epitomized the belief that there is a value in studying the why and how of that. Because something is not immediately accessible, or requires effort, because not everyone can understand why or how it works, does not mean it isn’t worthy of attention.

His criticism was not ‘easy to read’ but an education lurks in his Collected Prose. The Hill Essay tends to start somewhere and head off in a direction you didn’t expect. The best way to enjoy the journey is to stop worrying about what you thought was the destination. That carried over into the  structure of the Oxford lectures. His style does not work towards the sound grab or the easy one sentence summary, and at times you can be forgiven for thinking that he’s turned the words inside out.  But if ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, then we’d better be bloody sure we know what the words we’re using mean. I learnt so much from his essays, even when what I learnt was not what I had started reading the essay to learn about.

His recent stint as Professor of Poetry at Oxford was a brilliant performance, in which G Hill played 'Sir Geoffrey Hill Rancorous Old Sod' to the hilt with an arresting gusto, revealing as he did so a sense of humor that might have taken some of his readers and detractors by surprise.  As one early commentator said, undergraduates were given the chance to hear someone taking poetry seriously.  It wasn't just Undergraduates either.  We should be thankful for the mess that led to his election and if OUP would please get their act together and publish the lectures, it would be a very great service to us all.

Like Graves, who seemed to become increasingly important to him as those lectures progressed, Hill’s relationship to the field of cultural production that is poetry was awkward. Hailed as the Greatest Living Poet by some,  by others he was denigrated as an old fashioned conservative who was meaninglessly complicated and obscure.  Perhaps he was the last of the Modernists? But if ‘He was the surveyor of his own ice-world’, he was always ‘meticulous at the chosen extreme’.

Like Graves, that awkwardness is never anything but salutary. You don't have to agree with someone, or like their poetry to find value in either their stance or their poems.  There is often far more to be gained by intelligent, informed disagreement. The practice of internet commentary, where "I like this" or "I agree" passes as intelligent comment, is embarrassingly inadequate as a model of intelligent discourse. Reject what he believed in by all means, but confront your own assumptions when you do. There's a lot to learn in that confrontation. 

Whatever he was like as a person, as a poet and critic there was something marvelous, obdurate and valuable in his unwillingness to short change his own vision. 

Safe travelling.

From Funeral Music #5

Not as we are but as we must appear
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we
Desire life but as they would have us live,
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without
Consequences when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us-or anyone,
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished..

Friday, July 1, 2016

Tom Pickard's 'Winter Migrants'.

Stopped, completely, at or by:

I do not want to die 
without writing the unwritten

pleasure of water.

The last three lines of Lark & Merlin from 'Winter Migrants' carcanet 2016.
More on this book later.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Macbeth 2015

Macbeth 2015
Warning. From time to time one is guilty of opinionating in public. This is one of them. It’s long and bad tempered because I’m so tired of paying for films that are adaptations of ‘premodern’ texts which take my money and then insult my intelligence.

Another film adaptation of a Shakespearian play. The play Macbeth has been around for 400 years. There’s a library about it, and there have been numerous attempts to put that play on stage or on film and some have been creative, some have been misguided and some have been downright weird. 

There are versions: there is no ‘right’ version.  But why do so many modern adaptations require the audience to leave its brain at the door? Why are so many versions of early modern or pre-modern texts so often reductive to the point where you’d be forgiven for wondering if the filmmakers had ever bothered to think about the original. Why are they so unimaginative? There are exceptions. Brilliant exceptions, but they are so rare.

There’s probably two ways at looking at Macbeth (2015).

Does it live on its own, free of the original? Yes it does. As a film it looks beautiful, the acting is good, the story rocks along and it’s an entertaining ride. If you knew nothing about Macbeth, or ‘Macbeth’ this is an entertaining film as long as you leave your brain at the door.  They could have called it Macca the Slasher and no one would have cared: Macca goes Ape.

As an adaptation it’s a reading of the source, so it’s possible to ask what it does with the original, or what is suggests as a reading of the original? Answer: it’s awful.  It’s yet another mediocre piece dressed up with the usual marketing bullshit and cinema trickery which seems to miss the fact that 400 years ago Shakespeare didn’t insult the intelligence of his audience.

Think of that initial audience. They didn’t know the heart circulated the blood. Your average high school student who has being paying attention knows more astronomy and geography than they did. To find out what was wrong with you the doctor was just as liable to taste your urine or cast your horoscope.  America was a vague rumour to the west and Australia hadn’t been invented. Newton and his physics were over a century in the future.

But that original audience wasn’t stupid. In Macbeth Shakespeare made something that was a spectacle: even the stage version has weird sisters and sword fights and apparitions,  but the story works at whatever level you want to take it.  It works as spectacle and profound meditation. You can't exceed it or sum it up neatly. Whatever meaning or theme you find is always opening outwards into new possibilities. He also created a linguistic space where it was possible to think through and in language.  It’s not that Shakespeare wrote some memorable lines. His characters think through the language they use. Macbeth’s tortured syntax in the lead up to the murder, the way images cluster and echo each other, the way characters use their own particular sets of symbolism.  You can hear these things in a production. Duncan’s ornate syntax, the rhythm of the witches which sets them apart, Lady Madcbeth’s habitual use of the first person plural etc.etc.etc. So claiming that they respected the dialogue, without paying attention to how that dialogue works, is indicative of the problem.

Yes, it’s a play about an ambitious Scottish couple and the consequences of their ambition, but ambition is just the specific example: every one in that audience, at some stage of their life would stand where Macbeth did, in act one scene seven, knowing that the thing he or she most wanted was the one thing all sane reasoning and social conditioning said was wrong.  

The tragedy lies in the way he has to face the consequences of his decision, and the unraveling of the Macbeths’ relationship; they start joined at the hip and they both die alone regretting their actions. As Marjorie Garber pointed out, in the kind of easily available discussion in her book Shakespeare After All which should be the starting point for anyone thinking about twiddling with one of the plays: this is not about doing an act, but being done by it.

In the ‘making of the film’ on my Blue ray version the director says two things that are indicative of what’s wrong. The first is that he was more interested in the 11th century Macbeth than in Shakespeare’s. It’s a great idea. Though why you’d still use Will’s words is a good question.

At which point the person behind the camera should have stopped him and said, and what did you do with that information? Did you make a film about someone called Macbeth set in the 11th century?

A quick review of the History, which was not known to Shakespeare and is still very patchy:

Eleventh century Scotland was not a united kingdom but a number of smaller, competing ones. 9 of the ten ‘kings’ who ruled before Macbeth were murdered or killed in battle by the people who took over from them. Hereditary Kingship was not a feature of the time.

Duncan was not regarded as a Good King. He was seen as weak and his attempts at gaining military glory were disastrous. Macbeth’s claim to the throne was as good as Duncan’s and he could also claim that his wife was the granddaughter of a King.

Macbeth and the Scottish “earls”, including Banquo, rose against Duncan after his disastrous campaign in England. There is no sense that what Macbeth did was wrong or unusual. At the time of the Killing, Malcolm was nine years old. By law a King had to be at least 17. He and his mother and brother didn’t leave Scotland for two years.

Lady Macbeth was called Gruach. Her first husband was called Gillecomgain, a son of Duncan. Gillcomegain and Duncan’s Grandfather had killed Macbeth’s father. Lady Macbeth and Gillecomgain had a child, called Lulach. Gillecomgain was burnt to death in his fortress, possibly by Macbeth.  Macbeth married Gruach, who was also his cousin. He was twenty-eight when they married.
Macbeth ruled a united Scotland for 17 years. He was so secure of his position that he went on a pilgrimage to Rome

The first attempt by Siward to defeat him was unsuccessful. He was defeated in battle by Malcolm and Siward in July 1054.  Malcolm became King after the victory, but Macbeth continued to rule the northern part of Scotland until his death in battle against Malcolm in 1057.

Shakespeare did not know much, if any, of this.  

Think about what a leap of the imagination it would take to try and get inside that story. How strange and alien it must be to a modern audience. How thought provoking. And then imagine a couple with that kind of family history. How did they negotiate their relationship?  Or what it might be like to live in that world:  imagine what it might be like to ‘love’ someone knowing their chances of dying in their sleep were almost non existent, that there is no point in the day or night when you could simply relax and not fear an assassin. Where every time they left there was a fifty-fifty chance they might not make it back.

But part of the problem with so many film adaptations is a basic failure to imagine.

At the level of ‘History’ this film is botched.

At times they seemed to have played with the idea of it being about that 11th century King.  Macbeth’s ‘castle’ where he kills Duncan is nothing but a large barn, which is probably about right, although it’s a barn with no wall or fence around it.  But then, abruptly heaving into the distance, there’s a much later medieval castle with cathedral like interiors. It’s a bit like a film about Drake leading the English Navy against the Spanish Armada in 1588 with RAF Spitfires appearing  to strafe the Spanish galleys.

Battles are ridiculously stylized and silly. They seem to happen in fog or with drifting smoke. There’s knowledge, readily available, about how 11th century battles were fought and the weapons used in them. But here we have a Scottish 11th Century Army in which everyone can afford a sword but not one shield or helmet is in evidence, even amongst the Norwegians.  

This does at least lead to one amusing moment when Macbeth says, ‘Before my body/ I throw my warlike shield’.  He doesn’t have one and neither does anyone else.

The idea of a teenage boy being out of place in an 11th century army is just daft.  The idea of Macbeth being upset by this is even dafter.  Siward’s reaction to his son’s death at the end of the play should signal this.  When the ‘last reserves’ arrive, there’s not a farm implement amongst them.  

In one of the stranger moments of the film there’s a blink and you’ll miss it execution of the first Thane of Cawdor, by archers. But there are no archers in the battles.  The battles are random melees.  The English/Northumbrian army under Siward looks suspiciously like a group of monks on horseback. They should look like the English army in the Bayeux tapestry.  They should fight like the armies did less than ten years later at Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge and Senlac.  If you want to ‘do’ the 11th century do it.

Being pedantic again? No. Why do I have to leave my brain at the door?  So much time and technological know how went into this why couldn’t they get these things right?

The second thing I heard on the 'making of' was that Macbeth has PTSD. I’m not quoting directly. Because at that point my brain stalled …..

Why bother calling this film Macbeth?  

Shakespeare’s working method was to multiply or remove the motivations and causes he found in his sources.  This opens up his plays. It allows the audience room to move and it does not dictate meaning. You’re an adult it says: you make up your own mind. It’s rare to find modern films that do this.

The film begins with the Macbeths at the funeral of a child. So that ‘explains’ Mrs Macbeth. She’s lost a child. That’s why she does what she does. Simple.

As for Macbeth, well, apparently he has PTSD. And that explains everything too, so it’s all good and neat.  And you don’t have to think or feel, just watch the pretty film.

Ignore the dodgy practice of analyzing people who have been dead for ten centuries using modern categories that probably don’t make sense when applied to the past.  The distinction between soldier and civilian in the 11th century was meaningless. Ignore the desire to ‘explain’. Freud was guilty of this, he wanted to “solve the problem of Hamlet” and the dead child explanation for Lady M’s actions  turns up in a 1916 essay of his.

Instead ask why didn’t someone stop and consider what happens when you make a reductive  interpretation of the play that isn’t in the play and impose it on the material.

 Macbeth has PTSD. Therefore he does what he does.  The story now takes place ‘over there’ at several removes from the audience.  Not only are we not about to be drafted into an 11th century battle, most of us don’t have PTSD.  We might sympathise with those that do, but the universal claims of the original, the sense of choices and their consequences that everyone has to face, the limitations of morality, the way wishful thinking can misinterpret or misread (something both Duncan and Macbeth are guilty of), all this has been vaporized and replaced by what?

MacBeth is on the battlefield killing, Afterwards doing stuff with dead and wounded bodies you’d expect other people to be doing.  Then he’s screwing his wife on what seems to be an altar in a chapel, then he’s butchering Duncan in a pointless frenzy and then he’s going weird in a room. People die. Lady Macbeth rides across the countryside and cries. Then she dies. Then Macbeth dies.

There is no possibility of sympathy or horror.  He’s no longer a believable or interesting person; he’s a virtual character in yet another silly hack fest.  It’s a terrible waste of the actors and the director
There’s no initial nobility, there’s no choice made consciously leading to horrific personal and social consequences.  There’s no distinction between the Macbeths in their reactions to what they’ve done. It seems that Lady M is distraught because Macca’s gone nuts. There’s no sense of her terrible slow realization of her guilt.

Another thing Polanski did well in comparison was to show the way Macbeth rots Scotland out from the centre. There’s no noble Duncan: Duncan has basically disappeared. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking has gone, the Hubble bubble scene has gone. The banquet scene is botched and the death of Lady Macduff and her family changed from the menace and horror of the original (which even Polanski got right, despite the fact it has one of Shakespeare’s most cringe worthy lines) to some twisted and unbelievable piece of brutal nonsense in which they are tied to stakes and burnt with lady Macbeth looking on.  

It says something about the film that perhaps the most memorable scene is the one where MacDuff is told his wife and children are dead.  The actors are given space to act, the lines work, they’ve  worked for four hundred years and it suddenly becomes believable. And then its back to nonsense:
Burnham Wood becomes burning wood.

So why then, to wrap up this overlong grumble, given all the brilliant technical skill available, given the fine actors and the budgets and the skill of the director can’t we have a pre modern story told with intelligence and imagination which credits an audience with imagination and encourages it to use it?


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Reinventing the Long Narrative Poem 2/3: the experiment

Writing Anhaga 

This is the second of three posts about the writing of Anhaga. The full report will appear on the website when all three have been posted.  

Reinventing the Long Narrative Poem.

Part two: 
Initial observations.

How does a poem differ from prose?  Forget metaphor, simile, and all the things English Teachers inadvertently imply are specific to poetry.  You’ll find them in prose.  Poetry and prose are not a binary pair, more like two points on a line with an almost infinite number of stages between the extremes and if you keep going far enough in either direction you'll find yourself back where you started. 

The short list of technical differences, leaving aside set rhythm, which a lot of my examples didn’t use, might be; rhyme, enjambment, caesura, and the stanza break.

Rhyme will make your poem memorable. I can still recite The Shooting of Dan McGrew…but you’re going to have to be very good to write a long story using rhyme and not bore your reader or sound like you’ve stepped out of the 19th century.  Several of the examples in my list are written in set rhyme schemes and they are not the ones I’d choose to copy. Besides, on its own it won’t really alter the story as story.

Stanza breaks however are intriguing.  Admittedly prose has chapters and paragraphs and sections with their own breaks. But as Kinney pointed out in her study of narrative poetry, stanzas create a tension between pause and forward movement. The stanza comes to an end, suggesting the reader should pause and consider the content, but the narrative moves on. Endstop your stanzas too heavily and movement between them becomes difficult for the reader.  Make them too fluid and the whole thing starts to blur. The problem is compounded in a sequence where the poems are of uneven length.

Then there’s what the comic books call the Gutter; the white space between the stanzas or poems the reader must move across. Hold on to that thought.

Finally, what we used to call ‘coreference’ could be exploited. Corefernce refers to aspects of a text which tie it together. In prose, we might think of pronoun usage and tenses, but there are different possibilities with poetry.  You could exploit sound and rhythm to suggest links between pieces of narrative information. Characters can be developed using syntax and frame of reference, which is something Joyce did so brilliantly, but also the poetic forms they use or are associated with.

The Experiment.

I’ve been wanting to do something with the Old English ‘The Wanderer’ for decades. A speaker seems to be in an open boat, alone, in winter.

I’ve always thought no one would be daft enough to venture out on the North Sea or the Atlantic in winter and therefore read the words as metaphor. This is what life is like…

But who ever produced the poem we have did a fine job of particularizing the image, so it reads like a first person account of a lived experience.

Metaphor or literal truth, or both?

It’s a familiar question when reading a single poem.  

Take that idea a step further.

In Anhaga Mr. Plod the Detective, is worn out by the case he can’t solve. One of his suspects, Carmilla, has begun visiting him every night and she is sucking him dry.

If this is a ‘realistic story’ this is a simple metaphor: he’s experiencing a sleepless night because of the case and thinking about it is draining his energy. He’s also noticed how attractive she is so the sexual overtones are deliberate.

But if this is a vampire story, then Carmilla is doing exactly what the words say she’s doing.

With an individual poem, this ambiguity would be quite normal and it would be something I'd want to try to control and limit. But what would happen if I started lining up poems where this is happening. Instead of readers stepping across the Gutter from one poem to another to have their initial decision about what is literal and what is a metaphor confirmed, what happens if you step across the Gutter and find another set of questions.

This would create a constant unresolved ‘undecidability’ between metaphor/symbol and narrative fact.  If it happens often enough would you get the illusion that there are several possible stories all working simultaneously?

In a story the generic markers tend to reassure us as to which reading is literal within the storyworld and which is metaphor.

As a simple example, if you’re watching a detective story, set in a version of the ‘real world’ that most of us live in; there are no vampires. In that context when someone says; ‘nobody believes in Vampires’, it’s a scornful dismissal of a silly idea. Anyone who disagrees is obviously delusional.
But if the detective is a character in a vampire film, then we all know the speaker is about to die.  Plot twists and genre benders aside, it’s usually clear how the line should be read at least on the second watching.

But if I multiply the generic possibilities, then something much more interesting seems to happen.
What constitutes ‘narrative information’ becomes ambiguous.

In fictional narratives we assume that the information we’re given usually has a purpose. We may not understand it until we get to the end of the story, but in a conventional prose narrative if the reader is told something, that information has some purpose in advancing the plot or establishing a character or setting a scene etc.

In life it’s not so clear. Significance is almost always retrospective. To look back you need a vantage point and the value of any event lies in the retrospective narrative thread we’re following.  Events of shattering significance in your personal life may have no importance to the narrative of your career. This doesn’t mean the narrative threads can’t get twisted together.

I was writing stories about a man who’d lost his memory, and was searching for his own coherent sense of self. After all, as Brooks pointed out, referring to Freud, we narrate ourselves into coherence, and when we can’t we’re in trouble.

If you’re ever met anyone who has lost his or her memory, or is suffering from dementia, you’ll know how tragic this is.

Rather than allow the reader to sit back and watch the narrator flounder, I wanted to put the reader in the same position. 
I wanted to destabilize the reader’s ability to define what is symbol and what is meant as fact. This is inherent in the detective story, where what constitutes evidence, where the significance of an utterance, is only revealed by the detective’s final summary.
But by multiplying the generic markers, the movement towards instability becomes exaggerated and removing the final summary beloved of all crime writers but epitomized by Agatha Christie’s Poirot takes out the final confirmation or revelation of significance.  
I wrote a back story for each of the different versions: A detective story, a vampire story, a strange fantasy of reincarnation and a psychological thriller about a man who has lost his memory.  I planned the sequence using an app I’d downloaded which allowed me to create nodes and trace different coloured lines between them.

It was very pretty. Part three to follow.