Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pound, Eliot and the untold true story of 1066

Ladies and gentlemen, the Highly Esteemed Goon show brings you:
(sound of wet kipper hitting custard…)
1066: the Untold but TRUE story…Starring Russel Maximus Hood as Hereward the Sleepy and any number of beautiful actresses
as his historically irrelevant love interest…

sound of heavy thump followed by body falling to the floor.

Announcer; Mr Eliot and Mr Pound, thank you for joining us on critics forum.

Eliot: well, unless they go on producing great authors, and especially great poets, their language will deteriorate, their culture will deteriorate and perhaps become absorbed in a stronger one.

Pound: I agree: If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays

Sounds of scuffle, chairs falling. Eliot saying: really! This is most undignified. Pound saying; get me a phone, I want to talk to the president…

Spike: clears his throat…yes, due to budget problems there has been a change of cast…Wallace my good man…

Announcer: It was a dark and windy night

Spike; the Naafi had been serving beans again…

Announcer; stop it with these naughty post war jokes. No one will understand. It was a dark and windy night somewhere in not so merrie England. William the secretly reviled was feeling philosophical.

Spike: I didn’t know he had an Irish lover?

Announcer: Our regular listener will recognise that William the horrible is actually Count Moriarity in disguise; And we’d just like to say, Jim, on behalf of us all, thank you for listening. The cheque is in the post..

William: Bloodnock, you English are so revolting. You were revolting last year and the year before. I am going to kill you, but before I do, I am going to let you into ze secret. You might think I conquered England because my army was stronger than an English host weakened by two long and bloody battles…

Bloodnock looks surprised but says nothing…which is very difficult to do on radio.

William: The truth however….Minstrel, play appropriate flash back music:

Announcer: Scene: the white cliffs of Dover (you have to take my word for it) water, gulls, traffic. A gale is blowing
King Harold Seagoon the first and soon to be the last, is despondent. The Normans are massing across the channel. His time is running out. Where it’s running to nobody knows…

Spike: enough of these terrible punes…

Bluebottle: My captain, I heard my capitane call. Makes grand entrance. Waits for applause. Not a sausage. Sulks.

Ned; Ah suitably dark age greetings my grubby little alliterative half line. How goes the great work?

Bluebottle; it is finished my Captain. I read it to that Dorrisberga and ..giggles…goes bright red, stands on one legs and tries to wink. Falls over.

Ned; you naughty little nerk. That bag of jelly babies is yours. Read it to me, so that our language might be rejuvenated and fortified against the evils of Norman French.

Bluebottle: strikes impressive Nelson on His Column pose. Puts hand on chest under shirt. (giggles) Stands on one leg again. Is blown over the cliff clutching piece of parchment.

Sounds of falling object followed by distant splash.

Bluebotle(far off): I’ve fallen in the water (audience cheer) shut up you swine!

Neddy; Eccles, quick, jump in and save the poem

Sound of footsteps going away, then coming back…sound of falling body and distant splash.

Neddy: Eccles you idiot, what are you doing?

Eccles: (far off) Drowning.

Neddy; Here, use this box of holy relics I got from William the obnoxious. Use it as a float until I get help. I’m off to find a kipper for this sketch

Blue bottle; Don’t you mean a skipper for the ketch my Captain?

Neddy; needle nardle noo. it’s started already. (mutters as he exits)

Announcer; and now our scene shifts to the other side of the channel.

(frantic sound of packing, grunts groans, door slams shut, car racing away. Screeches to halt. sound of frantic breathless rowing. waves, gulls, boat scrunching ashore. Feet on sand)

Spike; (gasping) there has to be a better way…

Announcer; Count Gryppe type thin, pretending to be Blondel, insinuates himself in a suitably furtive Gallic manner into the throne room of William the bastard. Who is watching a ballet and eating pain au chocolate.

WTB: Wearily: is it finished?

GP: it is my chocolate-coated munificence.

W: is it a work of the highest quality, which only a few of the current intelligentsia will appreciate?

GP: it is so difficult that it will baffle critics, who will study it at the university of opaque theoretical waffle in Paris nine hundred years from now.

W: will it immediately invigorate our language and make us victors over those alliterating long haired fops?

GP; My lord, I have used the pluperfect, the passe compose and the past historic

W: you vile evil charmer. Your misspent youth in the public urinals of Calais has finally paid off.

GP: (gasps) The doctor, he told you everyzing?

W; He told me nathing…but on with ze story I don’t want you to die horribly before you have finished….the passé compose is passé, zey will respond with the simple past, zey even have an answer to our subjunctive ze filthy rotten swines

GP: evil manic genius type laughter. My lord, not only have I insinuated a few examples of the future tense…formed without auxiliary verbs…

W: gasps…victory is ours…

GP: but …Pauses for fanfare….(sound of wet kipper hitting custard) I have managed to use …..dah dah dah dah: the future pluperfect

W; sapristy nuckoes. ze war is won. Let us celebrate with the suitable gallic extravagance: Have another pain au chocolate. Do you like my tutu? (fades)

Announcer: and so on that fateful day in 1066, Harold Seagoon the Last was fatally wounded by a verb in a tense he was unable to recognise. The thriving culture of Anglo-Saxon England ..(voice fades out in dreary lecture style..)

Fade up Sounds of waves, sea gulls.

Bluebottle: Eccles my good man, do you think we are forgotted?

Eccles; We have been in the water for a long time

Blue bottle; yes, I think that Irish coast guard was a filthy rotten nerk…where are your papers he says says he and then splosh back in the whale’s bath without so much as a keel to row.

Eccles; that was days ago. Hey Bluebottle: I see land. Ooh, look, dem peoples are in the nuddy. All their bits are showing

Bluebottle: er Eccles my good man, it appears I have lost my national health service specs, do you see girls…
Eccles; Yup. Yup.

Bluebottle: oooooh, dieded we dided and wented to heaven…

Announcer: Ladies and gentleman and representatives of all other categories ; that concludes this episode of the highly esteemed goon show.

William: Hey, wait ze minute. Why fore are you all not ze French speeeking?

Gun shot. Gallic groan. Body hits floor.

Spike: has he gone?

Neddy: yes.

Peter: fancy a pint

Eliot and Pound: please!

Gun shots. Bodies hitting floor.

Spike: (warily) have they gone?

Neddy: yes, but I fear we haven’t heard the last of those two….

(11.37 27th of October)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

bad pun of the day

there were two birds sitting on a perch. One asks: can you smell fish?

(Courtesy of Trevor the Banjo).

Billy Collins': The Guest. Puzzling over value

The poem is published in the current review of the London Review of Books. I don't know how much of it I can quote legally: the first verse reads:

I know the reason you placed nine white tulips
in a glass vase with water
here in the room a few days ago
was not in order to mark the passage of time
as a fish would if nailed by the tail
to the wall above the bed of a house guest.

There are another 8 lines.

So what do we know about our speaker and his or her situation. He or she is a guest: knowing he or she is welcome: “I know the reason wasn’t…” The flowers are a reminder that time is passing, but s/he hasn’t yet “made themselves at home”.

So let us assume that there is a relationship where one person feels as though he/she is not really at home and doesn’t really understand why not: she/he notices details, but these details don’t tell the reader anything specific about the relationship or about either the speaker or the person who is being addressed. We learn ‘you’ puts tulips in a vase full of water…hardly strange behaviour: a vase without water or full of beer might be worthy of notice; the host doesn’t nail a fish above the guest’s bed (how strange they don’t do that…) and owns a glass topped table that is by the window of the room. That’s all we know about “you.”

It could be argued that the fact that “I know the reason” which begins the poem and the “was not’ which qualifies it, is separated by four lines creating some kind of tension other than grammatical, perhaps performing the speaker’s doubt? ”I know you’d didn’t do it for this reason” suggests at least the thought that maybe he or she did. Later the same syntactic suspension occurs between “I did notice” and “my suitcase’? So the guest is not sure of his welcome, and he’s just realised he doesn’t feel at home enough to have unpacked the suitcase, but instead has it “by the door” ready for a quick exit?

Because it’s vague, I could come up with things that this is a metaphor for: early stages of a romantic relationship; a marriage, an aging poet addressing the reader, feeling that time is running out and the “suitcase’ (trans; word hoard) is still not totally unlocked……but we’re back with Teenage Cavemen. It’s almost a ready made metaphor you could use for any number of relationship situations without being specifically about anything. Ahaaa, I hear someone cry, this is so obviously a poem about……because white tulips are traditionally a symbol or …and Nine is a ….number and the fact that only two of them are dropping means….

It seems to me an example of a writer “being poetic” without actually offering anything to the reader than what must pass as a “poetic’ poem in some circles. The most arresting image in the whole thing, to which the only rhyme in the poem calls attention, the nailed fish, is not something that is really relevant; it’s something that is not.

Nagging at “content”, “meaning” and “trying to understand the situation” is obviously not the only way to read a poem. It’s usually a fairly limited one. But the writing here forces attention on content not only because it’s so vague (call it allusive if you want to be polite) but because nothing much is happening in terms of poetry. /I/ knows what’s going on. I don’t. And since I don’t care, what I’d like is something in the poem as a poem for me to enjoy.

In such a short piece I’d expect (Would you?) the writer to have chosen each word carefully. In such an old-fashioned first person lyric I’d expect syntax, diction and rhythm to be working together in ways they wouldn’t in prose. Heaney does informal syntax, but his poems at their best are held together with patterned sound and while the impression is a voice speaking to the reader the artifice itself is enjoyable.

But written out as prose The Guest doesn’t lose much.

Lines like “In a glass vase with water/here in this room a few days ago” are not interesting in themselves in terms of diction, syntax, rhythm or sound. Rhythmically the lack of any type of end stopping in the first verse paragraph keeps the eye moving, but it makes line endings redundant. How much difference is there between the printed version and this:

I know the reason why you placed
Nine white tulips
Here in this room a few days ago
Was not in order to mark the passage of time.

If poetry is about making words work then the diction here is consciously informal and uninteresting. The “grey light” of early morning, “the passage of time”, (both in the second stanza), if not clichés are too vague when placed beside “glass top table by the window” Why does it matter where the table is or that its top is made of glass? (On the other hand, the fact the suitcase in the last line of the poem is “by the door’ does seem relevant.)

Why “nine white tulips” (do we need to know there are nine and then two this important?) Or is “white” important. Why “even touching’ and not just ‘touching’? Why is the suitcase “only half unpacked“ and not just “unpacked”?

What does ‘as they lose their grip on themselves” mean in terms of flowers withering? What could it mean? Since the phrase is usually used about people, then are being invited to see the two wilting tulips as the guest and host but what could it mean that they are “losing their grip”? On what? Why?

Someone must have loved this poem; it’s published in the current edition of the London Review of Books. Which must be a prestige market. But for the life of me I can’t see the value of it. If this is "accessible poetry" (Collins sells well in the States. He's been American Poet Laureate.) ) when you push it the meaning isn't accessible at all: it evaporates, leaving nothing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Seamus Heaney's "Human Chain": coming home via three quotations

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(Eliot: Little Giddings)

not “to Know”, if to know means the “real truth” of something will be revealed to us, but to see the once familiar differently, to react in a new way based on new knowledge or experience. Or to discover that what we thought before we left has been confirmed.

So in the past year, as part of the new project, I have worked my way though the major sequences/long poems of the twentieth century. (There are a more of them than I thought) . It reminds me of traveling home on the Trans Siberian: large swathes of time and landscape I don’t remember, punctuated by intense moments: seeing Lake Baikal, the grey water steaming in the sub zero temperature, surf coming in to smack into snowdrifts, the Narnian beauty of sunsets, small villages all but buried under snow, like illustrations for European Fairy tales, the Chinese family who spoke neither Russian nor French or English but who managed to talk me into sharing their breakfast of boiled chicken feet and home made vodka…

But somewhere east of the beginning of Zukofsky’s “A’, about “A 9” perhaps, the images changed. I was back on the trans Kazak express, staring at an unchanging landscape, imagining trying to walk across the steppe, a tottering survivor of a massacre plodding onwards because he’d forgotten how to stop.

A long long way from Kerr’s Ass. Time to go home

And there was Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain waiting to be read.
But I had also been reading aggressive poetics:

Quote #2
…Establishment poetry is approaching the condition of journalism—"a form of writing as harmless as it is ephemeral": A generic "sensitive" lyric speaker contemplates a facet of his or her world and makes observations about it, compares present to past, divulges some hidden emotion, or comes to a new understanding of the situation. The language is usually concrete and colloquial, the ironies and metaphors multiple, the syntax straightforward, the rhythms muted and low-key. Generic and media boundaries are rigorously observed: no readymades or word sculptures here, no zaum explorations of etymologies, no Steinian syntactic permutations. As for Eliot's objective correlative, it emerges, in the mainstream poetry before us, as little more than a faint echo, an ironic tic.

Having read enough of this type of criticism I opened Human Chain and the first poem begins:

Had I not been awake I would have missed it

And I shut the book.

It took a while to see beyond the criticism of the quotation. Reciting Kerr’s Ass helps. Perloff may be a great critic, but it’s not the paradigm of the lyric speaker itself that is the problem but the way it is so easily abused. In the wrong hands it’s too easy, requires no great art or thought to churn out the formulaic “poem”. But open any journal or book and you’ll find poems ticking boxes that prove the writer is “having a poetic experience”. (The PE may be aggressively modernist, avant garde or lyric depending on which poetic the writer hangs his or her hat: Sooner or later everything becomes formulaic).

Heaney has never seemed a box ticker. It’s true that Human Chain has an air of familiarity about it; some of the poems feel as though they’ve been here before. The “Heaney topics” of rural boyhood, school, family and religion are ever present. At times his habit of using an unattributed pronoun as the subject of a poem becomes irritating. The poet knows who “he’ or ”she” is or was but the reader has no chance and the overworked pronoun collapses the poem into vagueness. One of the great defining characteristics of the man’s work, the sense that a voice is speaking directly to the reader, at times lapses into a syntax that produces lines and a stanza like ”flattened back/ against themselves/ a bit stand-offish’. Or the whole of “Canopy” with its opening stanza:

It was the month of may
Trees in Harvard yard
Were turning a young green
There was whispering everywhere.

Which never rises above a literate diary entry.

But having said that:
Quote 3#

The sight quenches, like water
After too much birthday cake.

(Thom Gunn: “Expression”)

In The Wanderer, wisdom is understood as intelligence looking back on experience in age. It’s not a popular ideal these days in cultures driven by the cult of eternal youth, so in one sense to say that these are an old man’s poems may not convey the intended compliment. And to stick 'wise' in front of old would only sound even more anachronistic.

At seventy, having survived a stroke, you shouldn’t be too surprised if the poet is in retrospective mode. The collection is ghosted by a sense of summing up and coming to terms. Each recent Heaney collection has contained at least one poem in memory of dead friends. Some of them are very good poems. Like the Old English poet, he can produce memorable poetry out of the specifics of a common sense of loss. He does elegy well. In this collection: ‘The door was open and the house was dark” with its lift towards its final memorable image is a fine example in this collection.

There is also that familiar ability of his to see things awry as in “Miracle’ with its arresting opening:
“Not the one who takes up his bed and walks/But the ones who have known him all along/And carry him in-“

After all the theory, after the poetics, the gabble of disaffected voices, the struck pose and the learnt strut, it feels good to come back to poems sturdy enough to walk in the day time, that celebrate rather than whine or denigrate or disappear into their own self serving ideological smugness.

Human Chain my be uneven. But that says something about the poetry. Its successes and failures aren’t hidden behind a hedge of conceptualized waffle. As verbal artifacts they succeed or fail. I suspect the success comes from the sense of recognition, of a shared experience spoken aloud.

Bunting said he had tried to make poems that would give pleasure but stand on their own without prop of theory or the support of party. He succeeded. So does Heaney. If nothing else there are poems in this collection that challenge the generalsied condemnation of Perloff's statement.