Friday, April 29, 2016

The footnote poets: Joseph Campbell 2b/4

Joseph Campbell 1879-1944

NB: This Joseph Campbell is not the prolific author of books on Mythology. In his youth this Campbell's poetry was published under the Irish form of his name, Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. He told Austin Clarke that he gave this up when he heard a young woman asking for the poems of Seo-Sam MacCatwail.

The Biography.

Born in 1879 in Belfast he seems to have spent his life on the margins. As a Catholic and Nationalist in Belfast, he was an outsider; later, as an Ulster Man in Literary Dublin, then as an Irishman in London and later New York,  or as a Nationalist who objected to partition; ‘an Irreconcilable’, he would face the same problems.

His father owned a road mending mending/building business. At 16 he became his father’s apprentice. There was an extended period of illness. Then, when his father died in 1900, Joseph and his brother John had to fulfill their father’s contract.  He spent the next two years with his laborers. He claimed; ’I gained, from intimate daily contact with them, experience that proved of more value to me than if I had spent time in libraries, or in aimless mooning about.’ Forty years later in a radio talk he described some of these laborers and concluded: ‘These ‘untouchables’ of the lowest caste, grubbers in clay and rock……I salute them as brave souls and as my masters, for they taught me a great deal of my craft-and particularly, its iron and integrity…’ 

He had written poems and prose pieces which had appeared in the papers, but his first major publication was in Songs of Uliad. He had been asked to write the words for a book of traditional airs his friend Herbert Hughes had collected from the North of Ireland.

Austin Clarke claimed Campbell was the first Irish poet to use free verse, a claim he repeated later with the qualification “effectively’ tagged on. But most of Campbell’s poetry, including that written in free verse, maintains the direct, compact lyric style of the ‘traditional’ folk song.

Having participated in various literary and dramatic activities in Belfast he moved to Dublin, where he was as much an outsider. He did have a play put on by the Abbey, but by ‘the second company’ and Yeats rejected his second play. Campbell went to London where he met Pound and Flint and the other ‘verse revolutionaries’.  Married, against the opposition of his wife’s parents, they returned to Ireland. After partition his nationalism landed him in Prison, which he describes in his Prison Journal, edited by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and published in 2001.

Out of prison, disgusted with Ireland, his faith in the church rattled, he went to New York where he set up a Centre for Irish Studies. This wasn’t a financial success but was taken over by Fordham University, where Campbell became an assistant lecturer. He had no formal academic qualifications and the director ‘regretfully let him go’ in mid 1938.  Although he tried to set up again on his own he lost money on the lectures and night classes he gave.

Campbell’s friends collected enough money for him to return home for a holiday.  Although he seems to have had every intention of returning to New York, he was once again unable to find a job and retreated to his cottage.  Although he continued to write and broadcast, he died alone in 1944.

Some Poems.

Night, and I Travelling 

Night, and I travelling.
An open door by the wayside,
Throwing out a shaft of warm yellow light.
A whiff of peat smoke;
A gleam of delf on the dresser within;
A woman's voice crooning, as if to a child.
I pass on into darkness.

When Rooks Fly Homeward

When rooks fly homeward
And shadows fall
When roses fold
On the Hay-yard wall,
When blind moths flutter
By door and tree
            Then comes the quiet
            Of Christ to me.

When stars look out
On the Children’s Path
And grey mists gather
On carn and rath
When night is one
With the brooding sea,
            Then comes the quiet
            Of Christ to me.


When he goes thin in leaky shoes
For lack of meat and marriage dues
Two moons will kindle in the sky
And drink the deep Atlantic dry

He built a chapel on the hill
And let the peasants foot the bill,
When Dagda cracks the Steeple down
The rooted oaks will come to town.

Walking the road between grey, litchened walls
To where the sick man or the sinner calls
You tread the path that Paul and Jerome trod
Dispenser of the mysteries of God.

The scholarship you know, the Latin, Greek
The books you write, the shining words you speak
Your silvered hair, your shaven face, your dress
Are but as shadows of your holiness.

I do not judge you, any more than I
Have judged another; but with Wisdom’s eye
I look, and count you worthy of high song
Who lift the fallen, bid the weak be strong.

Christ drank the wine of love feasts
Christ broke the leper’s bread
Christ let a fallen woman
Pour spikenard on his head

You put a mask on beauty
You bind the dancer’s feet
You bless the sad and bitter
And curse the gay and sweet.

The Road Mender

Life goes by, slowly by
Clouds, like sheep flocks in the sky
Tinkers, following for gain
The ancient craft of Tubal Cain
Red leaves whiled from autumn woods
Summer shadows, winter floods
Drovers, trampers, men in carts
From the two-and-thirty arts
Dawns that blossom, dusks that die
All go by, slowly by.

Only you, that mend the roads
Move not with the horses’ loads
Travel not with dusty feet
From mountain farm to city street.
Life goes by you and you feel
All the racket of the wheel;
Time flies past you, and you see
All its love and misery,
Stirring hardly from your place-
A needle point in boundless space.

Scattered inconclusive notes for the work bench:

The ‘problems’ with Campbell’s verse are not technical, certainly not by half way through the collected. So why is he a footnote? I think the answer comes down to the fact that he was parochial; the folk lyric is an attractive but dangerous model, and content and religion mitigate against the poems being popular.

One of the most obvious features of Campbell’s poems is that the frame of reference is Irish: not the acquired vague ‘Irishness’ of Yeats, but the natural Irishness of a man who is writing within a familiar framework of stories and ideas.

Patrick Kavanagh made the useful distinction between ‘provincial’ and ‘parochial’. For Kavanagh, parochial is not a term of denigration. The parochial poet knows his parish, and writes of it and to it. The provincial poet has his eye on what’s popular in the metropolis and cuts his cloth accordingly.
Campbell was parochial in the best sense. He knew what was going on in the literary world, he’d been a participant in the meetings of the ‘verse revolutionaries’ in London. According to his biographer he had taken an interest in Russian, French and German literature and had studied those languages. He’d become acquainted with the literary theories of the twentieth century. But while this might have lead him to use, occasionally, ‘Free verse’, he never took on the Modernist’s (dubious?) claim to internationalism. 

The subject matter of his poems is local, often localized. Clark claimed his collection 'Earth of Cualann’ was his greatest achievement and ‘…has been neglected because it pays no concession to popular taste or to that English Public whom some of poets always keep in mind.’

A collection like Irishry ‘a portfolio of portraits’ as one critic called them, from which the poems Road Menders and Priests are taken, presents verse portraits of the people around him. 
But reading the poems is like reading journalism about a place or period of history one has nothing invested in. I think Campbell suggests one answer to the question of ‘how important is content’….and the answer is, pace the arguments against… sometimes it’s crucial to the poem’s afterlife.

The folk lyric can be a seductive model; and it can teach some beneficial lessons, In Saunders’ words their influence was evident in ‘The note of restraint, of self-discipline in his later lyrics’.
But the danger is in missing how the words rely on the tune and their delivery. In the great songs the words march hand in hand with the tune and rhythm and the singer phrases them for effect. 

Word is to the kitchen gone
And word is to the hall
And word is up to Madam the Queen
And that’s the worst of all.


I am a King’s daughter
And I come from Cappoquin
I’m searching for Lord Gregory
 I pray that I find him.

Some great poems have been written using the model, but you can hear the difference between the lyrics above and the opening of Kavanagh’s Kerr’s Ass

We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s big ass
To go to Dundalk for butter
Brought him home the evening before the market
An exile that night in Mucker.

The difference lies in the way the poem substitutes sound for the melody and the rhythm of the words push you towards a way of reading. Stripped of their tunes and rhythm, a lot of folk lyrics die on the page. In the hands of a good poet you can have the simplicity of diction and syntax, mimicking a speaking voice, but it’s bound together by sound patterning and rhythm (which may be parts of the same thing).

Yeats and MacNeice were notable practitioners of this, as was Kavanagh on his good days and Heaney a lot of the time.  Graves was more hit and miss and reading his complete poems is an exercise in listening to which poems sing and which don’t.

Campbell’s poems rarely sing the way When Rooks Fly Homeward does. They feel like lyrics to which the tunes have been lost. 


His religion is present throughout, and this is another feature of the poems which separate him from the modernists. While poems like Priests are critical of the Church, it’s hard to imagine either Eliot or Pound writing the collection 'The Gilly of Christ' or a poem like When Rooks Fly Homeward.  Campbell had faith; Eliot had religion. While both are profoundly held, Eliot’s was intellectualised. In ‘The Gilly of Christ’ the poems explore religious folk lore, which is no less important for being folk lore.

There’s a conclusion lurking in here, but perhaps later.

Up Next as a Footnote, Richard Aldington, who I think deserves to be a footnote. But it’s taken me six months to get this far so it may be a while.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The foot note poets; What is the purpose of a poem?

Joseph Campbell is on his way, but take a step back.

What is the purpose of a poem?

The best answer, I think, and the simple answer, is the one given by A.C. Bradley in his first lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry back in 1901: to provide the pleasure that reading poetry provides. This is a unique pleasure. It may have similarities with other arts or other forms of reading, but it is unique and specific to poetry.

Eliot said much the same thing in ‘The Social Function of Poetry’  before wandering off into the usual self-inflating modernist waffle.

A more recent restatement of Bradley’s point claims that the poem creates a space where a reader is able to think through and in language: ‘through’ meaning both ’ ‘by means of’ and literally ‘moving through’. In a democratic country, adults are able to encounter the poem in the private space of their reading, without being told what to think or how to react or have their hands held in case the poem contains invidious ideological content someone else has decided is bad for them.

It is a private, unique encounter with language. Many people may never have experienced this pleasure but it exists.  Some people appear to enjoy fishing and others enjoy riding jet skis or watching football.  A shrinking group of people enjoys reading poetry.

Reading the critical discourse about poetry, especially a lot of modern discussions, one could be forgiven for thinking that the people who do the most writing and talking about poetry have never enjoyed reading poems. Or if they have, they have been watching over their shoulder in case someone tells them they shouldn’t be enjoying that poet or those poems. 

However, we still talk about Poetry as though all poems and poets were the same. But we don’t read Poetry: we read poems.  Poems can be spread on a continuum. At one end are those that seem to approach the character of a postcard chopped into short lines. You might smile or laugh or wince, but you don’t remember them the next day.

And at the other end of the continuum there is the deliberately, if not aggressively, rebarbative poem. Reading these is reminiscent of standing on the wrong side of a door overhearing snatches of the incoherent mumblings of a troubled sleeper.

It’s not an objective scale that can be calibrated. Each reader has the privilege of deciding where he or she would place each poem, and which type of poem he or she enjoys.  And that can change even on a daily basis.  There are times when reciting Robert Service gets me home, and others when only Geoffrey Hill will do.  What is incomprehensible for one reader is beautiful to another: what is too banal for one reader, can be cherished by another. In an ideal world people would accept this the way they do with music.

You can use poems for all kinds of things, from teaching grammar to protesting about inequality, but these uses are secondary and can be done better with other things. There is pleasure in talking about poetry, and arguing about it, and nagging at questions of quality and value, but these are secondary. There is a pleasure in reading about poets, their biographies, letters and statements, but these too are secondary. Unfortunately the secondary has become much louder and much more visible than that private pleasure of reading a poem.

So if you want a reaction, or an audience, don’t write a poem. Write an article about how poetry is dead, or no longer matters, or why you hate it. Write an article denigrating the kind of poetry you don’t like, or the poets you envy.  Write about how Poetry is this that or the other and can be used to cure cancer, social inequality and shine submarines. Guaranteed responses and no poems need be involved in the discussion.

One of the oddities of our present time is that despite the enthusiasm people have for opinionating about Poetry (guilty as charged yer honor), despite the conferences and workshops and the courses on offer at university and at writers groups, despite the interviews and opinion pieces, despite the fact more poetry books are being published than at any other time in history, none of this seems to be improving the quality of the poems that are being written. In fact it is possible to argue the opposite is happening.

We’re fast approaching the centennial of 1922.  But I’m not sure we’ve come a long way since then and rereading Pound’s assaults on the contemporary poetry scene in pre-First World War London, it all sounds horribly familiar.

One might argue that if poets spent less time writing articles or giving papers, and more time working on their own poems, paying more attention to the quality of their own poems and less to ‘issues in contemporary poetry’, readers like me would have better poems in return for the money we spend on poetry books. If all you're interested in is Poetry, than the quality of the individual poem is almost irrelevant. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Basil Bunting the Complete Poems, The Problems of Annotation 3/3

There’s an alternative tradition

I said there are two clusters of assumptions about annotations; Allusion and Intertextuality, which are in opposition to the third. 

The third is the hardest to discuss: the poem is a made thing sufficient unto itself.

It’s the hardest to discuss because it’s the most vulnerable, the least fashionable and seems to require a series of subsidiary clarifications which lead away from the simplicity of the point:  The meaning of the poem is the poem.   

If there were an historical character called Aneirin he has little to do with the Aneurin in Briggflatts. And if you knew nothing about him, other than what Briggflatts tells you, then you would know enough. Do you need to know that Dominico Scarlatti was so successful that he became so fat he had difficulty reaching his own keyboard? #

If you hang your hat on the idea of Allusion or Intertexuality, you don’t need to think. You can just state that both exist, quote your favorite theorist in support and then not worry about how or if they work in practice, unless your job is to annotate a poem.  Of course the poem is an artifact made of words, and words have connotations and histories. But that doesn’t mean you have to track them down every time you read a poem.

The problem  is that for most people, poetry is something they encounter in schools or, for a smaller group, at university. Poetry is something to be studied, analyzed and explained. You get good marks for showing how clever you are at the expense of the poem.  And that study, regardless of whether it’s critical or theoretical or any combination thereof, is based on an absolutely bizarre model of composition:
The poet has a prose idea, which he or she then wraps up in a poem and sends to the reader whose job it is to unravel the poem to get at the meaning.

Geoffrey Hill, in a lecture on the poetry of the First World War, compared this version of a poem to a tank. The reader’s job is to penetrate the hard outer rhetorical shell and drag out the meaning; the soft squidgy bit cowering inside.

Hill's point was that put like this, it sounds daft. 

Why would Bunting go to the lengths of writing Briggflatts when all he wanted to say was: “One holiday I was at Brigflatts. I stayed with a mason and slept with his daughter. After that things went downhill while I was trying to write poetry but fifty years later I’m ok”?

As Robert Graves pointed out in ‘A Survey of Modernist Poetry’ (1927) this ubiquitous way of reading is based on the assumption that the reader can and must get ‘behind the poem’, to the original prose idea which can somehow be reconstructed by the reader. More recent theoretical approaches assume it is possible not just to get behind the poem to the poet’s original idea but behind even that to the ideology or discourse that shaped the original idea in the first place.

And so people don’t read the poem as a poem, but as a coded postcard from the poet. Teachers ask “what do you think the poet was trying to say?’;‘what does the poem mean?’; ‘can you explain the simile in line five?’; ‘why did the poet use that metaphor?’ The correct answer to “what do you think the poet was trying to say’ is to read the poem back to the teacher. Instead, the poem becomes a puzzle to be solved. 

I think the idea of poem as made thing, sufficient unto itself, meaning itself, is something that has become swamped by the dominance of this academic/critical/scholarly approach.  And the institutionalizing of something called creative writing in the University has only exacerbated the process.  But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

If you want to know ‘what the poem means’, and you think this involves a translation into a prose summary that will ‘explain the poem’, then not only do you need the OED and several fine slang dictionaries but an encyclopedia and you need them all open while you’re reading the footnotes to the poem you’ve probably forgotten you were reading.

But your prose explanation won’t be the poem. And worse it will be reductive and pointless. This is not the famous ‘Heresy of Paraphrase’.  Try describing a song you like to someone who hasn’t heard it, without being able to sing, hum or whistle let alone play the song for them. This is what you're doing to the poem.

A.C. Bradley in his first lecture as Oxford Professor of poetry, back in 1901, trying to unravel the argument about form and content, went so far as to claim:

The subject is not the matter of the poem at all; and its opposite is not the form of the poem, but the whole poem. The subject is one thing; the poem’s matter and form alike, another thing.

So back to Aneirin. Outside the poem there are facts about someone called Aneirin, who may have been a historical character, and some of the verses in Y Gododdin may have been composed by him, though if there was a battle at Catterick or Cattereah it will come as a surprise to some expert medieval historians.  

Inside the poem there is a name, and a cluster of actions and descriptions. The idea that somehow knowing all about the historical character will illuminate the poem is simply wrong. It’s an idea that leads away from the poem down a fascinating rabbit hole but ultimately goes nowhere.

Beyond knowing Aneirin was a poet at a time when poets ‘numbered the dead’, sometime in the past given the reference to bows and battle, the rest is superfluous. The only necessary information is supplied by the poem itself.  Supporting evidence for his significance  is Bunting’s anachronistic ‘before the rules made poetry a pedant’s game’:  one of those 'then is now’ moments in the poem. 

Aneirin represents a role for the poet that wasn’t available to Bunting.

If Bloodaxe wasn’t King of Orkney, it doesn’t matter. It won’t damage Briggflatts. You don’t have to read the Shahnameh to understand section three. Curiosity should drive you to find Davis’ excellent translation and there is much pleasure to be had from reading that story. But I doubt it will add much to your initial reading of the poem.

And the point of all this?

Apart from the excitement of waiting for the new Complete Poems?

Philip Larkin attacked the Modernists for their approach to writing poetry: As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly created universe, and therefore have no belief in ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty. . . . To me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots, but dodges the writer’s duty to be original. (qtd. Paris Review Philip Larkin, The Art of Poetry no.30)

In an earlier interview (1967) he had been asked about the same quote and he replied:

What I do feel a bit rebellious about is that poetry seems to have got into the hands of a critical industry which is concerned with culture in the abstract, and this I rather do lay at the door of Pound and Eliot…I think a lot of this ‘myth-kitty’ business has grown out of that…because first of all you have to be terribly educated, you have to read everything to know these things, and secondly you’ve got somehow to work them in to show you are working them in.

Larkin was aware, at least in the Paris Review Interview, where he was pushed to defend his claim: I admit this argument could be pushed to absurd lengths, when a poet could not refer to anything that his readers might not have seen (such as snow, for instance), but he represents an idea which taken one way leads to the blandness of the worst of "Movement Poetry' and the modern poem which seems desperate to imitate a postcard chopped into short lines.  In the other direction it's not far  to the usual claims about elitism, complexity and snobbery and attendant political and ideological criticisms together with the strange rejection of excellence or the pursuit of excellence in art as somehow unacceptable and undemocratic. 

What I think Bunting demonstrates is that it is possible to write intelligent, beautiful poems which will reward repeated rereading, but which do not need scholarly exegesis or annotation.  The idea that his poem's are 'complex' and 'allusive' and the reader is in need of crutches not only creates a straw reader with very limited skills and knowledge, but  detracts from the fact that Briggflatts for all its use of names is ‘its own sole freshly created universe’, as so many of Bunting’s poems are.  And Pound's aren't.

It works, as Bunting said he intended, as a made thing that can stand on its own and provide the reader with the pleasure that comes from reading poetry.  He said what he meant and he meant what he said. 

# I have no idea if this story is true. I've never checked its authenticity but it should be.