Friday, September 11, 2020

Merion Jordan's 'Regeneration White Book/Red Book

 Merion Jordan 'Regeneration White book/Red Book’ Seren 2012

This is the second book I’ve been reading recently which retells stories from the Mabinogion in poems. If Mathew Francis’ ‘The Mabinogi’ (see previous post) raises the question of how to retell the stories, Merion Jordan’s ‘Regeneration’ poses the questions of what C.S. Lewis, in his discussion of Obscurity in Poetry, in his introduction to another writer’s revision of Arthurian matter, called ‘Privatism’ and ‘Unshared background’.

Warning…confusion in Progress.

Jordan’s book is a very ambitious take on the stories in the Mabinogion and the Arthurian story, split into two discrete sections.  

If you are reading Regeneration/Red book, you arrive at page 68 to be confronted on the facing page by upside down text and page number 84. Turning the book over, and starting at what was the back, you can now read the White Book from page one to page 84.  Two front pages, two lots of ‘front matter’. This is cute.

Whether it was worth the publisher’s effort to print a book like this, is a different matter. It’s hard to see what would have been lost by presenting it as a single volume split into two discrete parts.

It also seems indicative of the overall problem the book has: it’s been over thought. Concept has been privileged over execution and the result is intriguingly uneven.

Regeneration Red book has short poems responding to the stories in the Mabinogion. These short poems are split into four ‘books’. They are lyrical responses to the characters and incidents, aslant and non-narrative. The writing is lyrical, taut and impressive. 

Because these poems are responses to the story rather than retellings of the story, they raise the inevitable question of what C.S.Lewis called ‘unshared back ground’. If you don’t know who Goewin was, the poem on page 32 isn’t going to tell you, and whether the poem ‘makes sense’ without that knowledge is a moot point. Whether it will reshape your reading of her story if you know it, is another.    

In his preface to Regeneration Red Book Jordan writes: 

The tales’ ‘…reading, I think, depends upon an involvement not only with the space and shape of the stories but upon a landscape that is half real, half imaginary, a kind of Britain that is centuries out of reach-so interspersed with these characters and wonders I have attempted to map some of the insular localities they sought to define, the discarded components of a Britain that never was, except in the minds of the British’.  

The four ‘Insula’ sections which alternate with the four ‘books’ contain some of the best poems in a book of fine poems. 

In terms of concept and achievement the Red Book is superb. I would have raved about it at length if I had come across it as a single collection.

However, I’m not so sure about Regeneration White book.

For a start its link to the White Book of Rhydderch seems very tenuous. Perhaps too tenuous to justify the split upside down halves.

It’s a sequence of poems each what might loosely be described as monologues, spoken by a range of Arthurian characters. Although Malory is being leant on heavily, the familiar Englished names have been Welshed and the characters drift in and out of versions of the legend. This works as a reminder of the fluidity and variety of Arthurian stories.  There are after all, only versions.

But I find it difficult to hear a difference in the voices or to care about them or their perspectives. Given a life long obsession with Malory, this is surprising. The condensed lyricism of the Red Book has given way to something much more diffuse and while there are localised moments of linguistic interest, they get lost. 

To complicate matters further, Jordan writes in his preface:

‘Where I have found some point of contact between the inevitable shape of Arthur’s story and the shape of my own memories, I have tried to bring them together through annotation.’ 

These annotations, presented as foot notes, link the figure of Arthur to Jordan’s memories of his family, and especially his grandfather. 

‘I suspect that too much precision would risk obscuring the reader’s relation to Arthur in favour of my own. Fitting my own notes to the main text, in short, was my attempt to identify Arthur and bring a grief deeply felt but tenuously experienced to light: I have tried to leave room for the reader to do the same’.

It’s a very ambitious aim, and ambition is no bad thing. But it doesn’t work in execution. The footnotes, which are Jordan’s family memories, intrude, interrupt, distract. 

My copies of Malory are scrawled with maginalia. If you annotate your own books, the annotations are your personal response to the text. If Jordan’s footnotes are his equivalent, then in making such annotations public he’s claiming they are of interest to a third party, without making an effort to make them interesting or coherrent.  It’s a strange way of muddying a public act of self-revelation. 

In rewriting the story Jordan has already privileged his relation to the Arthur story. It is the writer’s privilege to do so; to offer his or her version for the reader’s consideration. It would have been enough to do that and leave it there. 

The footnotes seem far too arbitrary. Too personal. They are examples of what Lewis called ‘Privatism’, the links are not often obvious to a third party and leave the writer and reader stuck between two stools. 

For example, Poem 12, Le Chevalier Mal Fet, begins:

He coughs up blood
She sleeps alone
Dreams of the fire
The love that melts bone
  To the blackened bone.

There is footnote on the first of the two ‘bones’. It begins…’You see it’s sometimes hard to reconcile my memories of my grandfather with the man he clearly was….’ There’s nothing in the rest of that footnote that links Grandfather, Jordan’s inability to imagine him as a school boy, and what’s happening here in the poem. 

Regeneration White book is an ambitious approach to the Arthurian story, but its conceptual underpinning seems ill conceived. It’s possible that I haven’t reread it enough times or I’m missing something. But I think it’s more likely that on one level the sequence is too private to work for a reader, and on the other the various voices aren’t differentiated enough to hold the reader’s interest.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Matthew Francis 'The Mabinogi'

 Warning, Enthusing in progress….sometimes books deserve their reputations....

Mathew Francis. The Mabinogi, Faber 2017

This is an excellent performance. I read praise of it that claimed it ‘Does for the Mabinogion what Heaney did for Beowulf’. This is unfair to Francis for several reasons: if you need a comparison it might be more accurate to compare it to what Logue did for Homer. And as far as narrative poetry, retelling an older source, that’s about as good as it gets in term of praise. 

In the version of ‘The Mabinogion’ that you buy as the standard prose translation, there are 11 stories. The collection is not coherent, and splits itself into three groups. There are three ‘Romances’ which read like Welsh versions of stories by Chrétien de Troyes. There is a cluster of ‘native tales’ which range from the elliptically odd to the sprawling magnificence of Culhwch and Olwen. And there are the ‘Four Branches’, the ‘Mabinogi’ which stand at the head of most translations and are rightly regarded as the jewels in the crown.

They are four uniquely strange and beautiful tales. 

Francis retells the four stories, shifting poetry to prose. He admits he can’t read the originals and that perhaps frees him from their syntax and means this in not a translation but a version. If you don’t know the Four Branches you are not at a disadvantage. If you do, the act of selection and emphasis implicit in any retelling will provide readers with much to think about. 

His basic unit is a fourteen line stanza organised syllabically.  To help the reader follow the story marginal ‘signposts’ are included. 

As poetry, the collection shows an unobtrusive verbal inventiveness which muscles along in service to the story. It rewards frequent rereading, from the small details:

The trunks of birches are like ‘Nobbly moonbeams’ (p.54) Efynysien is ‘unhorsing a king/one cut at a time’ (p.28). 

To larger descriptions of setting and character: In the first branch, Pwyll, disguised as Arawn, enters the latter’s bedroom: 

The room is many rooms, coming and going
At the whim of its flames. The red fire 
Utters yellow, and magics

A bed out of dark,
A cave hewn from curtain where they lie
In the candle’s buttered light

Or the description of Branwen, seen through her half brother’s eyes:

And his swan of a sister, who seems to walk
Without moving her feet, nudged at times 
To right and left by currents 

Only she can feel…

But the world of the stories is also richly sensuous with the presence of the physical world; woods, rivers, coast lines, hills, contrast with halls and rooms. It’s one of the ways the story world differs from the contemporary one. These characters are very much at home and part of their landscapes. Francis allows this into his writing, and keeps it in view, so that the book begins:

Here at the turn off the leaf a horseman is riding
Through the space between one world and another,
Warm in his company of noises. (p.3)

The third line being particularly good.

Throughout we are reminded of landscape and its natural inhabitants.  Later, in the third branch, when Dyfed is under enchantment

The land managed without them. Woodpeckers ratcheted,
A beetle cantilevered from a soft log,
Spangled flies twitched between slants of sun
That tip toed across the ground
Marking the non-hours.

Retelling these stories presents a modern writer with a host of problems, and Francis acknowledges some of these in his introduction. ‘Stories’ unavoidably evokes modern prose fiction. But if you approach the four branches looking for character development, plot coherence, thematic unities, you might be disappointed if not confused. Pryderi may be the one character who appears in all four branches but there’s no noticeable ‘development’ of his character from one to another.  

Attempts to make them into modern stories run the risk of killing off what makes them special. (This point deserves its own discussion.)

While Francis does streamline the stories, the effects of his cutting and rearranging are positive. 

He moves his narrative swiftly, which in the case of the third branch’s repetitions is something readers should be grateful for. In the fourth the speed doesn’t give anyone much time to stop and wonder at Lleu’s stupidity. (He not only tells his flower wife the unique (utterly improbable) way in which he can be killed, but willingly demonstrates how it can be brought about. Inevitably he’s speared during his demonstration).

There has been much discussion about the relationships between the four branches. And these versions bring some of the links alive. Changes made to the first story affect the third. Cutting the ‘badger in the bag’ incident isn’t a great loss to the first, but it does mean we don’t get to see how smart Rhiannon is, and by removing the incident Francis removes the motivation for the malicious enchantment in the third tale. Modern coherence demands Francis alter the reason behind the revenge since the original motive has been removed; medieval narrative would have ignored the problem. 

The major changes seem to be to the fourth story. But the changes pay off. The story is in some ways the most famous:  it’s the one where Gwydion the magician magics a wife out of flowers for his nephew, but while that gets quoted and remembered so much more happens and the beginning of the story is tangled. 

Long before we reach the the flower wife, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, two men at the court of Math the King, plan the rape of Goewin. However,  to get to her the two men have to get Math away from the court. Gwydion uses his powerful magic to steal Pryderi’s pigs (yes) and start a war. This leads to Pryderi’s death and their punishment. It’s only after this that the tale of the flower wife begins, and she is only the last of Gwydion’s attempts to side step the last of the three curses placed on LLeu by his mother.  

Francis cuts the rape of Goewin, the planning that goes into it, and Math’s uniquely appropriate and repetitious punishment of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy.  Scrapping Goewin’s story frees him to shift the death of Pryderi to the end of the book. Since the first tale includes his birth, his death now brings the stories to a close. 

His other major change is to make Gwydion into a storyteller who is entertaining his hosts. Instead of a 3rd person tale about him, the fourth branch becomes a first person tale told by him. This alters a tale about magic into a story told by a great storyteller who claims to be a magician in the story he’s telling.   

Francis hints that all the stories in the four branches are told by Gwydion. The link between the magician who can make a ship out of sea weed or dogs out of mushrooms and a poet who constantly presents one thing as another seems a fair one. But the idea seems to appear in the final branch rather than be a consistent motif all the way through. 

Rereading this book over several weeks, I haven’t found anything to dislike. There’s so much to admire.

I want to use it to consider the retelling of Medieval stories in general, but I want to separate a selfish use of the book from a description of its excellence.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Poetry Voice Podcast is 150!

Add caption


150 episodes means I've recorded readings of 150 poems. From Ancient Egypt, by way of Rome andGreece, though Old English to the present day.  Versions of English, including readings in Old and Middle English, and many poems in translation. The link below takes you to the full index.

The podcast began as a way of 'listening' to poems, mine and others, an enjoyable way of learning about poetry while enjoying it. A way of building an audio anthology of poems that interested me for one reason or another. Denied a classroom to read aloud in, the podcast became a surrogate. 

To my surprise, it's racking up listeners. 

Despite dogs, traffic, police helicopters, incessent building works and the ubiquitous, increasingly popular parrot,  there's complete readings of long poems like The Wasteland and The Ancient Mariner, as well as much shorter pieces.  

To celebrate the 150th episode a reading of one of the most popular poems in English.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Why are Oxford's ( OUP ) books so stupidly expensive?

Ranting in progress.

I would love to read this:

Divine Cartographies : God, History, and Poiesis in W. B. Yeats, David Jones, and T. S. Eliot

But it's one hundred and thirty six Australian dollars for 258 pages....

Has no one told OUP this is the twenty first century?  With print on demand technology they could easily produce a cheaper version which could be sold to people who wanted to read their books but can't possibly afford them? 

Don't they want people to buy their books? 

Monday, July 20, 2020

'Ruins', the story of Vortigern, is published in Long Poem Magazine spring 2020

'Ruins' is a long poem, 7 pages long, which tells versions of the story of Vortigern.

 In the 6th century, the remnants of a broken army, fleeing for the Welsh hills, find shelter in a ruined villa. To get through the night they tell the story of Vortigern and the Fall of Britain. But they have also found an old man hiding in the ruins, and he is adamant that he was a participant in the story they are telling. His version of events does not agree with theirs.

For someone interested in stories and storytelling there was so much to play with.

Although written to stand alone, 'Ruins' is the overture to a full length story of Vortigern, which will follow on from 'A Presentment of Englishry' (Shearman 2019).

You can hear a reading of an earlier attempt at this here: The poetry voice Podcast

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Strangeness and Power: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill

Strangeness and Power: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill
Edited by Andrew Michael Roberts. 

The common response to the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, acknowledged by the contributors and editor of this volume, is that Hill’s poetry is ‘Difficult’. Most readers, encountering his poems for the first time, would admit to their ‘strangeness’, though many might question their ‘power’. 

The blurb  claims that Hill was ‘by common consent one of the finest poets in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century and early years of the 21st’. ‘Common Consent’ erases his many critics and detractors but flags the writers’ assumption in this volume that whatever they write that might suggest the opposite, Hill was a great and important poet.  

What characterizes this volume of essays is this odd paradox: the authors acknowledge the problems readers face. Several of them lay out a detailed explanation of why readers might not be impressed or convinced by aspects of the poetry. At the same time, this does nothing to shake their faith that he was a great or an important poet. In presenting the ‘case against’, they do such a good job that the assumption of his greatness seems ever more fragile.   

In any general collection of essays on a single author there should be a core of essays of interest to any reader of Hill’s poetry, and then a few for those with more specialised interests. This book meets that criteria successfully.

In the first Category,  Martin Dodsworth takes on Hill’s difficulty; Alex Pestell discusses Hill’s  engagement with Philosophy; Mathew Sperling chronicles Hill’s relationship with his publisher and Stephen James writes on Hill’s later poetry.

Of the more specialised studies, the aptly named Tom Jones takes on Hill and the eighteenth century  while Steven Mathews explores the relationship to Eliot and Jones.  

There are other ‘specialised essays’ on Hill’s relationship to Denise Riiey and J.H. Prynne, his affinities with ‘Radical landscape Poetry’ and studies by Natalie Pollard and Samira Nadkarni of ‘Materiality and design’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ respectively.   

It’s a fine spread of essays.

Before I read this collection, I would have counted myself amongst the admirers of Hill’s work. That admiration is qualified by my inability to see the value of the Day Books, but up to the publication of Clavics, he was the only living poet whose publications I bought as they appeared. The essays I read left me far less certain about Hill’s achievement.  

For example, Martin Dodsworth tackles the problem of Hill’s difficulty. This is an honest attempt to confront the problem most readers face. With the (probably unknown) ghost of C. S. Lewis looking over his shoulder[1]  he identifies three aspects of Hill’s difficulty for the reader: allusiveness, indefiniteness of relation, and ambiguity, pointing out there are others. 
Choosing a poem to anchor his discussion of allusion he does a masterly unravelling of allusion, but demonstrates convincingly that even when the allusions are explored and explained, the poem doesn’t become any more clear than it was two pages earlier when it was quoted. 

As Dodsworth’s essay unfolds, his scholarly explanations seem increasingly at odds with a different response. Compare the first two sentences of this summing up of the first part of the essay with the third sentence. The first two sound like a Professor performing a poetry reading. 
‘The reader follows the poet in searching for meaning within the language of the poem and within the world to which language is a mode of access. In this search, bafflement signifies failure, but also a kind of success, that of a sustained attempt at truthful utterance. Some readers however, may with reason, find this success difficult to accept.’ P185

The status of these unidentified readers, and their justifiable reluctance to accept the value of the poems, is acknowledged but brushed aside.

What is perhaps disturbing about this essay, which runs from p174-202,  is that having presented such a convincing ‘case against’ the value of the ‘difficulty’ he discusses,   Dodsworth does not balance the argument. Instead he writes:

At one or two points, this essay had suggested a resistant response to one aspect or another or the poems, and sometimes to a poet whose sense of the poetic invitation is often absent and (implicitly) to a nascent expository tradition that has too much of the inert about it. But it would be wrong to conclude without acknowledging that Geoffrey Hill has a place amongst the greatest of our poets……I should like to conclude with a list of some of the poems and volumes for which I am most grateful…….These are justification for Hill’s difficulties.[2]

If ‘At one or two points’ is understatement, then in terms of an essay collapsing into itself, this ending is a positively stellar implosion. After all the careful exposition, the justification of the difficulty, promised at the end of the first paragraph of the essay, is a list of the writer’s favourite poems.  

The best essay in some ways is Mathew Sperling’s short discussion of Hill’s relationships with his publisher. It doesn’t do him any favours either, he obviously had a very high opinion of himself from the start, but it does open an interesting window on Hill’s attitudes to his own work and reputation.

I bought this book specifically for Steven Mathew’s Essay ‘Felt Unities’, on Hill, Eliot and Jones.  Jones has 1 entry in the index to Hill’s collected critical writings, in which Hill lists Rosenberg, Gurney and Jones as ‘three of the finest poets of that war’. While Rosenberg and Gurney get a full essay each in the CCWs, there is nothing else about Jones.  I was intrigued by this. 

I’m not in any position to critique Professor Mathew’s argument, and I’m sure I’ll be reading this essay for some time, but it did send me back to reread Mercian Hymns. Having recently been stuck in quarantine rereading ‘The Anathemata’, the result of rereading Mercian Hymns was surprisingly unpleasant. Beside Jones, Hill suddenly seemed lightweight and self-regarding.

I was startled the first time I wrote those last two sentences because they were so unexpected. 

For all the ponderous seriousness of Mercian Hymns: ‘Then is now’, but so what? Against Jones’ intent, scope, and subtlety, reading Hill’s work is increasingly an exercise in over hearing someone talking to himself, and my presence as reader becomes increasingly redundant, except to applaud another performance.

This was not what I had expected.

It made me think of several of his critical essays, where I have the feeling that G. Hill is wrestling with the problems of communication while working out his thoughts on the topic. Which is what a first draft can often be. I wish, perhaps naively,  that he’d finished the wrestling match and discovered what he’d been trying to say in the draft, and then written a final copy which was as close to what he wanted to say as he could get. Too often it’s like listening to a medieval historian writing about the difficulty of accessing a manuscript and the difficulty of reading it, without ever getting to the point of saying what she learnt from the manuscript she had been struggling to find.

What also hangs over this collection is the vexed problem of the Author Function. Would these critics give so much time to an anonymous poet if he or she produced poems which can be so easily and thoroughly criticised on so many counts? The answer is obviously no. The evidence goes one way, but the conclusion, which was also the starting point, remains unaltered: Hill is a great/important/ fine poet. But no one takes on the task of explaining what was so great/important/fine about his work.

If a good book of critical essays should send you back to the subject of the collection and see him or her or it in a new light, this one is highly successful. 

It also raises some fascinating general issues, not least the whole problem of obscurity, intentional or otherwise.  Which would lead back to C. S. Lewis. 

[1] In his Conclusions (chapter vi) to ‘Williams and the Arthuriad’ in ‘Arthurian Torso’ (1948), a piece known to David Jones. Lewis’s ‘Conclusions’ is fine example of a critic trying to explain why he thinks a poet is good while mapping out different types of ‘obscurity in modern poetry’.    
[2] The body of the essay is followed by two dated post scripts, postscript 2017 and post postscript 2019 respectively. One wonders what professor Dodsworth would think of a student who treated essay writing as live performance and didn’t simply rewrite the first draft to bring it in to balance and focus. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

An Introduction to David Jones.

A Dominican talks about his interest in David Jones. It's a neat, short introduction which I think benefits from the Catholic perspective. And i finally know how to pronounce The Anathemata.