Thursday, September 29, 2016

New Poem in this Month's Rotary Dial

October Rotary Dial

Click on the link above  to read the October Issue of The Rotary Dial.

I wrote this as a joke and a performance piece. If you wanted to take it seriously I was making a comment about a certain type of traditional folk song which always makes me feel uncomfortable. 

In a 'Broken Token Song' a generic young Billy is about to go away to the wars, or off to sea to make his fortune, and before leaving his lovely Nancy-o they break a token; a ring, a coin or something similar so that when Jimmy returns so worn out as to be unrecognisable, he presents his half of the token, it matches Nancy's and they live happily ever after.
There's a subset of these which start with the fair young maid walking in her garden or down by the river, when she meets a stranger who tries to seduce her. She tells the stranger about her long lost love and he keeps trying until she flatly refuses him, at which point the stranger,  now convinced of her fidelity,  produces the token, reveals he is indeed the long lost lover she is pining for, and they live happily ever after.
I suppose as a trope it dates back to the Odyssey but that doesn't make it likeable.

Anyway, the first time I performed this poem one man in the audience was so disgusted he came up to me afterwards and made his displeasure very clear. It's a weird world. 

But if you read it and find the man at the door's attitude and vocabulary appalling: you're supposed to. That's the point.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Basil Bunting 'The Poems of Basil Bunting' edited by Don Share

I have been putting off posting this because I know it sounds churlish. But being but a churl (OED sense one, two and five). There are three previous posts about annotation that are background to what follows. 


Reviews of a book like this usually start with a general statement about Bunting and his poetry.  It gives the reviewer the opportunity to strut his or her stuff and show how much he or she  knows. Discussing a poet who was painfully meticulous in his use of words, the reviewer scatters empty terms like ‘legend’, and ’modernist’ and refers to Ezra Pound and Yeats, or Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.  He or she would make the usual silly claims that get trotted out every time there’s a ‘re -appraisal’; something critically vacuous like ‘central to the tradition of poetry in the twentieth century’. Last year it was Louis MacNeice, this year it's Bunting.

But a review of this book that discussed Bunting’s poems would miss the point.

The poems are currently available elsewhere and if they are not well known this book isn’t about to change that. At the time of writing,  the Bloodaxe Collected is selling on the Book Depository for 18 Aus dollars and some cents. The excellent Bloodaxe standalone edition of Briggflatts, which contains not only the poem, but a CD of Bunting reading it and a DVD of Peter Bell’s short film about Bunting is also available, currently priced at 16 Aus dollars and some change.

Towards the end of his life Bunting claimed:  What I have tried to do is to make something that can stand by itself and last a little while without having to be propped by metaphysics or ideology or anything from outside itself, something that might give people pleasure without nagging them to pay their dues to the party or say their prayers, without implying the stifling deference so many people in this country still show to a Cambridge degree or a Kensington accent.

If you read the poems, or listen to recordings of Bunting reading them, you might be inclined to agree with him. They work without being ‘propped up’.  

Jonathon Culler, in his recent Theory of the Lyric (2015), perhaps ironically, makes a related claim. Interpretation is not the only game in town. For centuries poets got by without academic critics. They had critical users. People liked their work or didn’t. At times Culler drifts close to suggesting that the minority status of poetry is linked to the overwhelming weight of critical interpretation and its assumption that the purpose of poetry is to provide critics with a launch pad for shows of erudition.

Faber’s much awaited, much anticipated hardback The Poems of Basil Bunting is an enormous book and is currently on offer for 44 Aus dollars. The Bloodaxe collected has 244 numbered pages.  The new Faber consists of 571 numbered pages, preceded by 40 pages of front matter numbered using Latin numerals.  The poems themselves only take up pages 5-271. 

The first thing to note is that the poems are buried under the editorial apparatus.  This is Don Share’s book. Poets need partisans and propagandists and publicists and Bunting has one in Share.

There is some new material, but it’s is hardly likely to make Bunting readers think they have been missing out on a previously undiscovered masterpiece. His translations of the Shahnameh were finally published in 2013 in ‘Bunting’s Persia’ and are included here. Eliot may have been right in rejecting them. There is a section of ‘False Starts and Fragments’, three unexceptional limericks, a facsimile of drafts of ‘the fifth sonata’ which became The Spoils, and some alternative versions.
For anyone who has read the existing Collected, none of this new material is going to alter their perception of Bunting as a poet.   

So would I recommend it to someone who doesn’t know Bunting’s poems? No.  It’s off putting, expensive and perpetuates the myth that Bunting is ‘difficult’. The poems become assimilated into gossip and speculation and are swamped. A book like this reshapes the act of reading and the effect that has on the poems might be worth considering.   
However, if you want everything in one place, then not only do you get All the poems but Share has pulled together information from books that are difficult to obtain and often out of print or very expensive. So if you were interested in Bunting, rather than his poems, and didn’t want to go the expense of tracking down the critical work about him, you’ll find a lot of it in here.

Share admits that he has ‘relied heavily-and with great gratitude-upon the work of Makin, Forde, Lesch and Burton among others, for this material. While doing so is not an original contribution to scholarship I am sure that my bringing together and organising this material from disparate sources as it bears upon individual poems is useful and unprecedented’.

Relying on other people’s scholarship is inevitable and nothing to apologize about. But if bringing together information about Bunting’s poems is unprecedented, the question is how useful is that information. I suspect it will be lost in admiration for the effort involved.

Would I recommend it as a scholarly edition? 

Cards on the table, I spend a lot of time using heavily annotated texts. It’s one of the joys of being interested in Medieval and Early Modern poetry. Based on that experience I would offer a simple criteria for judging an annotation: a) does it explain an unusual or foreign word, or note an unusual usage b) does it explain who names refer to c) does it identify sources, or meaningful literary allusions which might enhance the understanding/enjoyment of the text  and d) is it sufficient to itself.

D might need explaining.  I’m not suggesting that annotations can ever be all in all sufficient, and what one person feels needs annotation might be painfully obvious to another. But if you’re writing footnotes/endnotes/annotations then using them to point the reader to an unavailable book to check a statement when the editor could have done so is bad practice.

On those four criteria, the annotations here are inconsistent, often baffling, not always useful, and sometimes plainly irrelevant. It’s true that there is a vast amount of information in the critical framework but the editorial method is reminiscent of Nennius’s.  

I think critics, biographers and editors should be held to the same levels of scrutiny that poets are. Would I recommend it as a scholarly, critical edition? No. My reasons……

An Example

‘Villon’ provides an interesting test case.

It begins the collection.  It’s a fine, uneven, underestimated poem which should be far better known than it is.  It would stand comparison with The Waste Land  if the last (3rd) section didn’t feel awkward.  There are recordings of Bunting reading it that reveal just how beautiful it is when read aloud.

However, unlike most of Bunting’s subsequent poems, it is a very self-consciously erudite poem and therefore because of its subject matter and its numerous references, notes could be helpful to a third or tenth reading.     

The poems runs from page 5 to page 9.
Starting on page 275 the notes run to page 284.  This kind of imbalance is inevitable and not in itself a bad thing.

A general introduction to the poem precedes the publication history. This general introduction is full of literary gossip. It’s entertaining background, but the first thing to note is that nowhere does the editor say who or what Villon was.

There is a long note explaining who Clement Marot was, and a quote from Burton’s biography explaining the various puns in ‘hatching marrow’ (line five). But the model reader of this book is obviously meant to be familiar with who Villon was and why he might seem a sympathetic or attractive character.  

The first note to the poem refers readers to Villon’s Le Grand Testament, which is logical, although nowhere does the editor say which edition of Villon he’s referring to. This might sound like a pedantic observation, but Villon’s poetry differs from edition to edition; as with any early modern author there are arguments over who wrote what and the titles slide around.

Did Bunting read Villon in French or English? What were his sources? If this is a critical scholarly edition, then one obvious critical question is how well did Bunting know Villon’s poetry. You won’t find the answer here.  While noting that Bunting owned this that and the other books related to Villon, Share omits the key information as to whether he owned them when he was writing the poem.

Bunting obviously had a copy of the poems because he was reading them when he met Pound in 1924, as the general introduction to the poem notes. However, in 1924, he couldn’t have owned the copy of Oeuvres completes de Francois Villon which Share listed amongst books he owned because the publication date given here is 1929.

In this general introduction, before the gossip, there is what turns out to be a characteristically unhelpful piece of information:

‘Guedella B11 suggests that parts of the poem contain ‘borrowings from Hamlet, The Vulgate Bible and Chapman’s Translation of Homer’s Odyssey’

Guedella B11 is a strange reference as the only bibliographic reference it seems to point to is ‘Basil Bunting ; a bibliography of works and criticism’. So it’s not even clear who is making the claim.  If this is a critical edition, then surely the notes should identify these borrowings?  The use of ‘suggests’ leaves the editor free to make the point without substantiating the claim. This gives the notes an erratic quality because at times Share does identify borrowings and translations and give the relevant lines from the source.  

Either there are borrowings, and they should be identified, or there aren’t, in which case the claim is irrelevant?  There is no reference to Hamlet in any of the subsequent foot notes. Nor is there any reference to Chapman.

This turns out to be a characteristic of the annotations. Later the notes will tell us that ‘according to Forde ‘the mouldy bread’ and dry crusts’ allude to lines in ‘Ballade pour laquelle Villon crye merci a chascun’, and the vanished dancers and somersaulters recall lines in the ‘Epistre, en forme de ballade, a ces amis’ (Forde 154)

Although there is a page reference to Forde’s book there is no line references or supporting quotes from Villon’s poems.

What matters if someone else said or suggests or claims? Checking the reference in Forde’s book, one finds that Forde herself does not give line references to the poems in question either, and so the act of substantiating the claim involves at least two further steps. At the end of the trail one confronts the pointlessness of the activity. Did Bunting know these two poems, which are not part of the Grand Testament, and even if he did, what difference does it make? Prison was ‘dry bread and water’, if the bread wasn’t mouldy, or the crust wasn’t dry, it might be worthy of note but having a prisoner eat dry crusts and mouldy bread is not unique to either Bunting or Villon.
Reading the poem you encounter the line:

 And I too shall have CY GIST written over me.

Not knowing what Cy Gist means you turn to the appropriate page of annotations (p.279) and find:
Cy Gist. From the first line of Villon’s ‘Epitaphe’, ‘Cy Gist et dort en ce solier…’

which leaves the baffled reader none the wiser. What does it mean? Later in the poem Homer? Adeste? Etc  is translated.

The poem launches into that sequence of quatrains which Hugh Kenner so admired in The Sinking Island, and which Rosenthal and Gall, in their study The Modern Poetic Sequence, claimed would have been 'his major claim to attention' if he hadn't written Briggflatts. 

Remember imbeciles and wits
Sots and ascetics…

And you didn’t grow up when and where I did, where sot was still an insult easily blurring into the more offensive sod or you did, and you remember that both sot and drunken sot were insults, so you wonder if it matters which meaning Bunting might have meant here.

Either way you look up sot and the annotations provide this explanation:

'Sot. A common word in British poetry, including six appearances in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras and several in the works of George Crabbe…'

At which point I stopped reading.

Why does six uses of the word in a poem that few people read anymore warrant a note…George Crabbe? 
Is this a parody of an academic footnote? Does our editor have a subversive sense of humour?
but read on and one encounters Share’s strange use of Cp. I thought Cp. meant ‘compare’….

'Cp. Notably Dryden ‘To Sir Godfrey Kneller’, 160, “good Heaven! that sots and knaves could be so vain’, and ‘Palamon and Arcite,’ L.432-3 ‘like drunken sots about the street we roam/well knows the sot he has a certain home’; also ‘Pope, an essay on Man’ IV.215; ‘What can enoble sots, or slaves, or cowards/Alas not all the Blood of all the HOWARDS’, and ‘An Essay on Criticism’, 271:’Concluding all were desp’rate sots and fools’.

There is no explanation of what the word means and whether or not the word is ‘common in British poetry’ hardly seems a point worth making. So are ‘wits’ and ‘Remember’.  Sot was a word in common usage, not a ‘poetic word’ at all.

The note surely isn’t suggesting that Bunting is using the word sot to allude to these other poets? Or that if you go and read Hudibras your understanding of this section of Villon will be enhanced?  Why are we being told to compare Bunting’s use with Dryden and Pope’s?  There is no definition of Intertextuality which I know of which will validate this information. 

If you cared about such things you’d find the OED gives two meanings, 1) A foolish or stupid person, a blockhead a fool (obs). 2) One who drinks to excess or stupefies himself with drinking.   The question would be which was Bunting’s usage.  I remember the word being used loosely in both senses. If 1) then it duplicates Imbecile in the preceding line and Bunting of all people is padding his line, if the second then he isn’t.

But this habit of linking a word or a phrase to other poems using the abbreviation cp. is often bizarre:
1) ‘Fat and scant of breath’ Cp. Siegfried Sassoon, Base Details, I, ‘if I were fierce and bald and short of breath’.
2) Shipless, Cp. Byron, Ode to Venice, 1ii ‘That drives the sailor shipless to his home’.
3) ‘Blacked by the sun, washed by the rain,/hither and tither scurrying as the wind varies’, from Villon, ‘Freres humains quie apres nous vivez’, which describes corpses hanging from a gallows. Cp. Tennyson, ‘St Simeon Stylites’, 75, ‘Blacked with thy branding thunder’.

In (1) the link is so vague as to be pointless. Comparing the phrases which aren't that similar leads nowhere. In (2) shipless isn’t exactly an unusual word, and the link to Byron is baffling. What drives Byron’s men shipless home is not really relevant here. 3) is a good example of how inconsistent the notes are. The first part identifies the source and does so simply and without fobbing the identification off onto to someone else. But what purpose could the Tennyson reference serve? And how is it relevant. It links bodies hanging on a gallows blackened by the sun with a saint up a stick blackened by thunder?   

In the quatrains there is a run of names. If you don’t know who they all are, it doesn’t matter; the point is everybody dies. But the list includes Henry the Fowler, Charlemagne, Genee, Lopokova, General Grant and General Lee, Patti and Florence Nightingale.  All are identified in separate notes, except for Patti who might have been several people and this is acknowledged in the note on her. 

However, when you reach Tyro and Antiope and have no idea who they were, the note informs you:
'Cp. Homer, Odyssey, Book XI. During Odysseus’ descent to the other world, the ghosts of these legendary women (amongst others) appear'.

Which is not informative. Who are these ‘legendary women’, what were they legendary for? Either it doesn’t matter, in which case annotations are unnecessary, or they do, and there is a purpose to Bunting’s choosing of these names and not other women from ‘amongst others’. Later Circe will be explained.  

And so it goes.

An editor once returned an article I’d written. I'd travelled all the way to Samarkand, been arrested and told to leave. After telling me how well-written my article was, she added: 'We all have disappointments, but we don’t publish them.’

I have a feeling that’s what I’m doing here.

Does a poet’s reputation rest on the quality of the poems he or she produces, or on the willingness of someone to turn those poems into the springboard for an academic performance?

Has Bunting finally ‘Arrived’ and can now be comfortably assimilated and quietly forgotten. The book is a fine resource for the kind of literary criticism that produces Phd’s no one reads. Should you be interested in the absence or otherwise of commas in some of the poems this is your book.   

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Foot note poets: Richard Aldington 3/4

Joseph Campbell’s output, if the tiny collected is anything to go on, was small.  Not all the poems work as well as ‘Night and I passing’.  When Austin Clark collected his poems he included nothing from the first collection.  And Campbell had other things to do.

However, Footnote poets aren’t always unjustly relegated to the footnotes.  Quite often, reading them is a good way of approaching literary value from a different direction. Richard Aldington (1892-1962) is more than just a footnote. If you accept the standard narrative, then Imagism (with or without the final e) was the precursor of literary modernism and one version of the narrative is that Pound coined the term to describe H.D’s work and then used it to promote H.D and Aldington.

Aldington’s biographical information is easily found on line and he turns up in most histories of Modernism or biographies of other famous poets. But if Campbell is a salutary warning about the dangers of the lyric (see previous posts), Aldington demonstrates much of what can go wrong with ‘free verse’.

He might have been an influential figure in literary circles in his time, but reading his Collected Poems it becomes obvious something was missing. At a time when a mountain of awful poetry was being published, he was good enough to be still readable. His erotic poems can be more direct than you might expect for the period, the war poems are an honest, literate response to horror, but as poetry, as something other than a literate response to erotic feeling or terror, they don’t convince.

A Ruined House

Those who lived here are gone
Or dead or desolate with grief;
Of all their life here nothing remains
Except their trampled, dirtied clothes
Amongst the dusty bricks
Their marriage bed, rusty and bent
Thrown aside as useless;
And a broken toy left by a child…

 It’s not a bad poem, nor is it a great one. So it will do to consider what’s wrong with Aldington’s poems.

Perhaps we’ve seen too many pictures of ruined houses since the 1920s. It’s hard to imagine what this must have done to a reader who had not seen the damage caused by the First World War before the Second World War conditioned every one to scenes of urban destruction. But Aldington is working too hard. He’s not trusting the reader, or confident enough to let the image do its work.  

The second and third lines are clumsy:

Or dead or desolate with grief,
Of all their life here nothing remains

They push the reader towards the poet’s preferred reading: ‘this is sad. This is the terrible effect of the war on civilian populations’.  But the second line invites too much disagreement. They are gone or dead? It’s obvious ‘they’ are gone, but it’s obvious the poet doesn’t know them personally, nor does the poet know what’s happened to them and ‘dead or desolate with grief’ are obviously not the only possibilities. ‘Desolate with grief’ is unnecessarily literary. ‘Nothing remains’ is qualified by ‘except’…and while ‘nothing remains’ may be an attempt to evoke Ozymandias the except seems to list a lot more than nothing.
The  'things that remain' are selected for their impact, but why ‘marriage bed’? Is a marriage bed different to the bed a couple slept in every night since they were married? There were obviously children so it’s not like they had their wedding night here in the house, on this bed, and then it was destroyed.  

The final image of the discarded child’s toy might have been original, but it’s buried in the poet’s attempts to bully his reader into accepting his interpretation of the ruin. Imagine someone like Bunting or Pound taking their pencil to it and producing this:

A Ruined House

Trampled, dirtied clothes
amongst the dusty bricks
A bed, rusty and bent
And a broken toy..

Aldington is not a bad poet, but the great line never arrives.  The memorable image is always one draft away. The thought is fussing about the edges trying to work out which clothes to put on. Compare Aldington’s war poems to Gurney or any of the other big name war poets and as poems they pale in comparison. Compare the later Aldington in long works like , ‘A Fool I’ the Forest’, ‘A  Dream in the Luxembourg’ , ‘Life Quest’ and ‘The Crystal World’  to Eliot and there’s no contest.

We could pretend the world is full of egalitarian sentiments and pretend it’s not a contest, but poets vie for attention, and Aldington wrote his share of criticism. Art is a world where equal to, better than, less than are critical commonplaces and a fair question. 

Whatever is going on in ‘A fool I’ the Forest’ goes on for too long.  The fact that the poem is prefaced with a note explaining its own symbolism is another version of the first two lines of A Ruined House. Aldington uses untranslated snippets, in the style of Pound or Eliot, but like the former’s use of Chinese symbols they don’t do anything for a reader who can’t read them.

‘A Dream in the Luxembourg’ is a love story. Or a fantasy about a love affair. It’s easy to read, and enjoyable in its own way. So it can stand as an example of what’s wrong.

Firstly it’s difficult to see why he didn’t write it as a prose short story.

Now I am so much moved as I write this
That my hand shakes with excitement
And there is so much to say
I scarcely know where and how to begin
So hard is it to be truly reasonable
When you are a little crazy with romantic love.

Pound, who sometimes regretted his role in the popularization of ‘free verse’, wrote that the writer should not resort to poetry to avoid the difficulties of writing good prose. Is this good prose?

Now I am so much moved as I write this that my hand shakes with excitement and there is so much to say I scarcely know where and how to begin, so hard is it to be truly reasonable when you are a little crazy with romantic love.

Truly seems redundant, and ‘a little crazy with romantic love’ might be an ironic understatement given what follows, but ‘a little crazy’ is a sloppy description of the writer’s state of mind. (He’s about to tell the story of how he dropped everything he was doing in England and drove to France to meet the woman he loves after receiving an enigmatic telegram.)

There’s a steady rhythm to the extract, but it moves easily and it moves against the meaning of the lines. Sincerity is a complicated concept in writing: whether or not the writer is sincere is irrelevant, it’s whether he or she sounds sincere that matters. This doesn’t sound sincere. The poet is not talking directly to someone across the café table.  These are words arranged on the page for a purpose and the danger in trying to mimic a speaking voice is evident here: And there is so much to say/I scarcely know where and how to begin sounds like something someone might say, but on the page it raises the question couldn’t you do better? You did begin. You did find a starting point. And the conversational tone is immediately disrupted in the next verse section when Aldington drags in Catullus, Euripides and Pierre Vidal.
Next up, Tomas Carew and one of the strangest erotic poems in English.