Thursday, February 8, 2018

Gerald of Wales and Time Travel

A fortuitous find: two middle English Translations of Gerald of Wales' 'Conquest of Ireland. The book is a reproduction of an EETS text originally from 1896 but I love the typo on the cover. Apparenly those clever Dubliners were able to translate a book that hadn't been written about an event that hadn't happened in a language that didn't exist. Time travelling Renaissance scholar/magicians? An English ship lost in the pre Bemuda triangle...the possibilities are limitless

Friday, February 2, 2018

Nightfall, Pilgrimage and filming the middle ages

Filming the Middle Ages: Nightfall and Pilgrimage.

Warning, opinionating in progress yer honour

Both Nightfall and Pilgrimage are set roughly around about the same time. Both are set in historical contexts. Both revolve around a sacred relic. The difference lies not in ‘historical accuracy’ whatever that might mean, but in the attempt by Pilgrimage to capture a different way of thinking about the world, and the total failure of Nightfall to even make the attempt.

 What interests me about films or tv series set in 'the middle ages' or 'the dark ages' is their attempt, successful or other wise, to evoke a different world. You may not be interested in this aspect of films set in the past, and if not, its presence or absence should not affect your attitude towards them. 

Exactly what Nightfall is supposed to be is a problem in itself. Although from the history channel it’s obviously not ‘history’ in the sense of documentary history or reenactment. It’s fictional entertainment. But it’s pseudo historical entertainment, containing names that occur in the historical record.  And so, the question is why didn’t the writers create their own fantasy world, why did they hang their characters on real names, and place the action in real places, when they’re obviously not interested in how those characters would have acted. It’s possible they are simply shirt tailing the words Templar and grail, exploiting what people think they know about Templars or the grail in order to establish an intial audience base.

The rivet counters can complain about the fire bombs and the exploding ships and castles, the holy grail, the fact that some of the knights are called Gawain and Percival, and that there seems to be some confusion between Knights of the Temple and the Knights of the Round table. (It would take a far more subtle approach to pull this one off; the Templars were a religious order, the Knights of the Round Table were not.) A queen of France who wanders the streets of Paris alone and unattended? Mounted Knights who dismount to fight superior numbers?

I have no objections to any of this as entertainment: the minute the word Grail appears we’re in the land of fiction.

What put me off the story from the first episode is the idea of a ‘Master of the Temple’ having an affair with the Queen of France.

What most versions of the middle ages on film fail to take into account is how different these people were in the way they thought.  They were not you and me in fancy dress. The Bold and The Beautiful in medieval costume doesn’t work except as pastiche or parody.

We’ve become inured to sex as an essential part of narrative, especially as part of historical fiction.  Everyone it seems was dropping their clothes at the drop of a hat. But the morality of an American soap opera doesn’t translate into the European middle ages.

In the story world of Nightfall, our central character does not believe God exists. He Knows God exists. He has touched the relic of the Last supper.  For him Jesus is an historical character and he has seen the evidence. He wants to reclaim the Holy land for the Christian church and is willing to die fighting for it because of this faith. It motivates him powerfully.

This man has sworn to this God a vow of chastity and poverty when he joined the order.  He knows adultery is a sin. He also knows that adultery with the queen is treason. And his sensuality will undermine everything his order stands for, if it’s found out it will hand his enemies a weapon he cannot fight against.  He cannot play the games soap opera characters play; I’m sorry, it didn’t really mean anything, it was just sex, a bit of fun. I won’t do it again.

Nor is it a matter of whether or not they can get away with it. He cannot ‘get away with it’ because his God is watching everything he does.  And in the crowded world of Paris, it’s unlikely that someone isn’t going to notice him climbing a wall and wonder where he’s going.
So this man is a lying, adulterous treasonous hypocrite. And a fool. If he’s not caught he’s going straight to a hell that he believes in. Even if he believes he can find absolution for his sins, when he is caught his death is going to be horrific and will damage his order irrevocably.

It’s this failure to understand that sex is out of bounds, and  the queen is simply off the planet that suggests the writers have not bothered to consider their material. There’s no attempt to understand the difference between now and then, and that reduces this to farce.

It’s interesting to compare Nightfall to the film The Pilgrimage (2017). Again your average rivet counter could probably find fault with the monks’ habits, their belts, their tonsures. I’m fairly sure a weapons expert might have something to say about some of the weapons on show. And the graphic violence might be off putting to some.

But what the film does is catch at something alien: a profound belief in the reality of relics. As someone says, ‘it’s a rock some dead saint bled on’, but for the monks, it is manifest holiness, and terrible in the precise meaning of that term. For the Cistercian and his masters, it is a thing of power that will aid them in their plans. For the Normans in Ireland, it is a piece that can be used to secure their future by giving it to a King struggling with the Pope.

There is an immanent violence all through the film. It’s not glamourized or sexualized, there’s nothing heroic or sexy about it, but it is there and the casual brutality and indifference to suffering that explodes sometimes unpredictability add a menace to the story which is missing from Nightfall.  In Pilgrimage faith exists in the face of such ugliness. And there are different types of faith, shades of belief and devotion, and in the case of the Cistercian, it is an ugly and unattractive faith.

The characters: the Monks, the Cistercian, and the Norman, Raymond, all feel like they belong in a different time. Raymond is by far a better character than the central Templar in Nightfall as an imaginative attempt to answer ‘what would someone in that time and place be like’? He is proud, brutalized, seething with contempt, worried that this family’s position is jeopardized by John’s unpredictability but still not ready to get rid of an aging father. And his ferocity simmers beneath a barely controlled frustration with the world. The Norman invasion of Ireland was not pretty, and the Irish resistance was not a matter of knights meeting in the open field. It was an encounter that brutalized both sides.  Just as the crusades did.

When, searching for the relic, Raymond says ‘I will find another rock and pretend it is the relic’ or words to that effect, he is not expressing a modern skepticism about relics, but a profound disillusionment and consequent lack of faith that defines him as a character against the believers in the film.

He would not have sex with the queen. Even if Isabella of Angouleme was the stunning beauty she is rumored to have been.  But if he’d lived, you can imagine him a few years down the track, having run out of patience, joining the baronial revolt against John and meeting the cruelty of John’s mercenaries head on.

My reaction to these two films is probably clouded by the fact I’m currently working my way through translations of the Works of Gerald of Wales, who was still alive at the time of Pilgrimage, who described the Norman Invasion of Ireland and the English and French attempts to subdue Wales. I admit I’d rather read Gerald than watch either, but Pilgrimage seems to resonate with his writing. Nightfall doesn’t.
End of opinionating.

Monday, January 29, 2018

PnReview, Rebecca Watts and Ignorance

Pn Review and Rebecca Watts have expressed an opinion.

you can read Watts' article here.

I think she has a case, though I wish obviously intelligent people would stop making silly claims for poetry: apparently reading good poetry will save us from people like Trump and Farage. Really? How? If writers can't refrain from such obvious silliness they should at least be obliged to offer some evidence that poetry can do this. A dangling quote from the self-serving wishful thinking of Eliot, or Shelley, or Sydney, or Ezra Pound or Dana Gioia does not count as evidence.

For what it's worth I also think she states her case in a way that almost invites the kind of response she's received. The willingness of critics to make an unpopular case is one of the pleasures of reading Pn Review. But the tone here sounds like she's trying to keep the undesirables of her patch of finely manicured lawn.

I haven't read Plum and after Watts' article I admit I won't. I've been more interested in mainstream journalistic responses to Milk and Honey (which i have read) and its author.  It's been fascinating to watch journalists attempt to explain a publishing phenomena. The attempts have been almost universally woeful.

So here's a related thought:

Ignorance is the new Elitism.

This is about poetry in English.

 1) A potted cultural history of Ignorance:

There was a time when Ignorance was unavoidable.

Education was a lottery and access depended on your parents’ race, class, income, social standing, and geographic position. For most of history, for the majority, there was no chance of bun fights in the dorms, fagging, Latin classes, school songs and cold baths, and certainly no possibility of spending three years at a university behaving badly while complaining about how bored you were.

For those who belonged to that majority and wanted to participate in poetry, resentment was a logical outcome. It was almost impossible not to feel that there was an elitist edge, and culture was being exploited to keep the plebs out. So the temptation to assault the culture was understandable.

As the 19th century progressed and poetry became increasingly marginal, print opportunities increased and there was the beginnings of a strange inversion: anything popular could not be good, and anything good could not be popular.  The fact so few people read your poems was not due to your unreadable poems but due to a failure of the masses to appreciate your genius. As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, only those who do not rely on their art for their income can hold such an attitude. Ezra Pound opined that anyone with an audience over five hundred could not be a true artist.

For ignorance things improved with the advent of the public library and compulsory primary education. If you were determined and had access to a library, you could educate yourself. It was the way generations of the working class discovered reading. Even so, it’s hard to find time to read when you’re grinding a twelve-hour shift, six days a week. Or working as an Agricultural labourer. Ask the ghost of John Clare. 

Access to publication was controlled by an old boys’ club.  While women were not excluded, no matter how good they were at their art, social constraints limited their subject matter and its treatment. It’s easy to forget that female authors wrote some of the most popular poetry of the 19th century. They have been forgotten before their male contemporaries.  

2) The situation has changed.  

As far as poetry in English is concerned, those days have gone. True,  there’s an ugly strain in modern educational thinking that would like to see them back. In publishing the old Boys network now contains old Girls and an ability to parrot the fashionable ideologies and adopt the acceptable positions are the new equivalent of the secret hand shake.  

However, Today, NOW, if you have internet access, if you’re reading this, you have effortless access to the largest poetry library in history. Yes, there are still people who do not have access. But I’m thinking about the Instagram poets, the bloggers, those who post their poems to facebook or any other online platform.

Today, perhaps for the first time in history, for an English speaker with online access, ignorance of poetry in English is entirely optional. Anyone who can read this blog can, with a little patience and a bit of effort, read Chaucer. That means he or she has access to 7 centuries of poetry in English and it’s all online and can be accessed for free and you don’t even have to get out of bed to read it.

3)    I don't understand you when you say you’re ‘interested in poetry’ or you’re a ‘poet’ but you don’t read poetry.

I have never met a good guitar player who didn’t listen to other guitar players. 

How long would it take to read one poem a day? If you read one poem a day, written before you were born and if you did it for a year, and then went back and reread the 12 you remembered, or liked, you’d have encountered more poems than generations that preceded you ever did. You don’t need to read critics, just poems.

If you can’t be bothered, or you’re not interested, why do you think you ‘like poetry’? How can you call yourself 'a poet' when you have no idea or interest in the possibilities of your art? Unless you are so arrogant that you believe that whatever you produce cannot be improved? 

Not only do you have access to the poetry of the past, you have access to publication and you don’t need anyone’s approval or permission to post your poems. The days when the old boys club and the academic elites could turn you down because you were the wrong gender or race, or class, or you didn’t write in FSE or you wrote about things they didn’t want to know about, have effectively gone. Today, the opportunity is there for any poet to build an online following. And your online following, even if its only measured in hundreds,  is liable to be larger than the sales of most books published by the  'poetry establishment'. 

4) Therefore my question is: Why is ignorance not only so popular but seen as a positive attribute?

Ignorance of the art you claim to practice is not a mark of courage or a revolutionary flag to march behind. It’s not a move in the class or gender war. You're not sticking it to the man. It’s now a choice. And if you choose; it’s self-centred, arrogant, narcissistic laziness. Narcissus never lead a revolution. ignorance never lead to a rebirth of anything except the crass the brutal and the ugly. And there’s enough of those around without anyone needing to add to them. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christopher Cannon's: The Grounds of English Literature

This is an extraordinary book.

Its excellence operates on two levels: there is a general argument about literature, literary history, and the way texts are read and valued, which is of interest to anyone who wants to think about those things and detailed readings of a group of Early Middle English texts which illustrate and support that argument and which are original and thought provoking about those texts. Anything that tempts me to reread Ancrene Wisse has to be extraordinary.

The texts Cannon reads so well may be too obscure to attract many readers, but that’s a pity because the detailed readings support the general argument and the general argument shouldn’t be lost because you could probably fit all the people who’ve willingly reread Laȝamon’s Brut on a bus and take them to Arely Regis for the day.

Put into modern terms, and shifting from Cannon’s interest in ‘Literature’ to my interest in ‘Poetry’, ‘Poetry’ exists as an idea which is greater than the total sum of all the texts identified as ‘poems’. Texts gain in value by drawing on the excess meaning the term ‘Poetry’ has. The authority of ‘Poetry’ as an idea is not undermined or even dented by the fact that there is no satisfactory definition of ‘Poetry’, or that arguments about what Poetry does are rarely if ever supported by specific examples, or that no poem does all the things Poetry is supposed to be able to do.

The same is true of the term ‘poem’. Sir Phillip Sidney knew Poesy, what we’d call fictive literature, could be easily divided into Verse and Prose. The distinction was obvious. It wasn’t obvious in the centuries before Chaucer of which he probably knew very little. Today the baffling range of texts published as ‘poems’ means such a distinction is once again no longer tenable. A poem is simply any text recognised as a poem by those with the authority and power to do so.

But because there is an aggregate of ‘poemness’, something most people would recognise as ‘having the characteristics of a poem’ even if the liminal cases are problematic, calling something a poem draws on the excess of value the term has. A ‘poem’ is an indefinable but special type of text, with a long history and a great deal of residual cultural capital which relies on a vaguely misunderstood past, rather than any present reality.  In itself ‘poem’ is drawing on the greater bank which is ‘Poetry’. (whether Literature stands above Poetry or below it in this ‘economic’ model is an interesting question.)

I wake up. I open my eyes. The world is still there. You are not.

Fifteen common words carrying a commonplace thought. Chopped into lines:

I wake up.
I open my eyes.
The world is still there
You are not.

posted to Instagram and tagged as poetry, it claims the ‘status of poem’, and if enough people ‘like’ it, the writer can claim the title of ‘poet’. Poet is another word with excess value carrying a great deal of residual cultural capital that has nothing to do with the pragmatic role of writers of texts but which can be drawn on if you want to strut.  

These two points: Poetry is an idea which exceeds the sum total of all poems ever written, but which cannot be adequately defined and ‘Poem’ is the name given to a text as the result of a learnt reading practice which recognise a text as a poem and associates it with ‘Poetry’, have implications for both the way critics and readers approach the reception of texts and how writers go about producing them.

Most, I suspect, would rather ignore the implications because they cut the ground away from so many unexamined assumptions. Or at least can force a confrontation with those assumptions. It becomes difficult to operate as critics if we start to try and take each text on its own terms because that's not the way we became 'competent readers'. But unless we do that, claims to value original or unique texts ring hollow. What passes for ‘experimental’ in modern poetry is really the repetition of characteristics that are currently recognised by those in the know as 'experimental'.  

Claiming something is ‘ground breaking’ is an easy, thoughtless critical commonplace for blurbs: proving how or why something is groundbreaking is a very different matter.

As a modern example: Thomas Dilworth, in his work on David Jones, is emphatic that although written in prose In Parenthesis is poetry. (He makes this claim in Reading David Jones and then more recently in his biography of Jones.)

The question that goes begging in the claim is what is gained by shoe horning that remarkable text into any category? If you claim the text is poetry, then you’re also saying that the learnt reading practice you developed to read ‘poems’ can be applied here. But in saying A is like B, you’re inevitably distorting A, and while you can now focus on the things that are common and familiar, you’re tending to lose sight of what makes A not B.

What shoe horning the text does is reveal the way we read. We assimilate to the familiar and in doing so reduce the threat the genuinely strange provides to our comfortable assumptions.  And Cannon’s suggestion, if I’m not wrong, is that the solidifying of this process can be seen in the period between the Conquest and the development of ‘Romance’ as a recognisable category in the 13th Century.

In that strange period dubbed ‘Early Middle English’ it’s possible to argue these reading processes were not at work.  The text types are so different that there is no ‘aggregate’ that allows them to be lumped together as ‘Literature’ and draw on the added value that term could give them. You cannot read ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ with the same expectations you’d read Laȝamon’s Brut. The two texts are preserved in the same manuscript. One is written out in continual lines, the other  recognisable as ‘poetry’ in its lay out.  Today they are both called ‘poems’ but if they are both ‘poems’ they are so different that the term is already so stretched as to seem useless.

Cannon argues that this is not a failure of the texts, rather, each text has to be taken on its own terms, and in doing that readers and critics become aware of how we don’t usually read in this way and how claims that the original and the unique are valued are implicitly false. 

And so that’s the general point, probably slightly distorted.  Enthusiastic discussion of specific argument to follow.