PLATH IS THE MOTHER OF US ALL, IN SOME WAYS TODD SWIFT ON STRANGER, BABY BY EMILY BERRY (FABER, 2017) "ANXIETIES OF INFLUENCE, ...
TRUMP IS PART OF A HISTORY OF WHITE MALE RAGE Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or al...
Announcing the Shortlist for the 2016 Sexton Prize September 13, 2016 / By Kelly Davio Eyewear Publishing i...
I WILL VOTE FOR TRUMP, DAMMIT According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile ...
Jackself by Jacob Polley REVIEWED BY ROSANNA HILDYARD Jackself is a scarecrow made up of lean meat and fat, frost, daws, la...
TOM FORD FANS On a lighter note - Lord we need one - 2016 was a great year for cinema, popular, commercial, foreign and domestic, art-ho...
A TERRIBLE LOSS I have been leaving annual reports here since the first year of posts in 2005. I can't recall a stranger, more stron...
A TRUMP SUPPORTER AT THE BALL I will spare you, in this brief editorial post, too much gnashing of teeth, and too many dire predictions...
INTRODUCTION TO THE FORTHCOMING COLLECTED POEMS OF TERENCE TILLER FROM EYEWEAR - ON THE POET'S CENTENARYTERENCE TILLER’S LOVELY SHAPES OF RHETORIC : AN INTRODUCTION TO HIS COLLECTED POEMS Terence Tiller died in 1987, in December; 2...
THIS MAN WAS A PREMATURE BREXITEER Britain - long admired as the home of parliamentary democracy, has a history of great struggle with ...
Saturday, 31 May 2008
Friday, 30 May 2008
Almon has been a Hawthornden Fellow and a major prize winner in competitions like the TLS / Blackwell's Poetry contest, and the Cardiff International Poetry Competition.
He has taught at the University of Alberta since 1968, and twenty-four of his poetry students had published at least sixty books.
Readers who wish to read witty, stylish, and intelligent verse, should seek out Almon's poems.
The Muse In The Surgical Theatre
My muse watches with the transplant team
as they wait for the exuberant moment
when the first golden drop of urine
forms at the end of the cut ureter
of the newly-grafted kidney
Then she smiles behind her mask
remembering the day that Pegasus
dug his moon-shaped hoof
into the slope of Mount Helicon
and the first drops of water
formed in the Hippocrene Spring
My muse doesn’t flinch or turn away
as she contemplates a drop of urine
so absolutely pure
that it falls without harm
into the body cavity of the patient
Now the surgeon can finish the work
that looked so much like violence
poem by Bert Almon
Wednesday, 28 May 2008
Both sets are figures who exemplify, in their writing practices, interest in reviving and redefining what the lyric entails, for the 21st century. Indeed, it's a shame such an old-fashioned debate between high and low art has been inscribed by this exam, when the deeper concern is - what is poetry speaking through, and for, now? The very threshold of the lyric - is it communal, or individual, or both - welcomes discussion at this time. Hopefully Cambridge, the seat of so much vital innovation in poetics over the last 80 or so years, will have even more fascinating poetry questions next year. I've been reading Nerys Williams' new book on Language Writing and lyric poetry, which has occasioned these thoughts - it's one of the recommended books at the moment here.
Tuesday, 27 May 2008
I am a visiting writer at Kingston University, where he also teaches creative writing. I know he's inspired a few good writers there since he arrived. These comments - even taken lightly, in a spirit of '68ism - well, they do tend to damage the enterprise of creative writing teaching. His comments boil down to three points: 1) creative writing students are the rampaging killers of America; 2) creative writing is the new mental hospital for our time; and 3) one can't grade creative writing.
Firstly, mass killers in America and elsewhere are not always, or even usually, in recognised creative writing departments; the fact that crazy people leave messages and notes (more and often televisual or digital in nature) doesn't relate to the teaching of writing, so much as the instinctual urge within all persons to want to inscribe their fates into being; 2) the new mental hospitals of our time are more likely literary festivals and junkets for celebrity writers. Most creative writing students are serious, talented people. 3) Creative writing assignments are evaluated, just as all writing work submitted at university is. To suggest it is impossible to grade a creative writing paper is to equate all "creative writing" with some ineffable idea of "genius" - untouchable by consideration, and not requiring improvement. In fact, writing skills can be and are taught, and the workshop environment encourages editing and other skills that every writer can certainly find useful.
Several Kingston students I have taught have been very successful so far, and one, at least, has a half million dollar American book deal - which is not really mental hospital stuff. I suggest that "big name" writers, who don't believe that creative writing "works" should stop taking the money these positions offer - otherwise, they begin to look like Tartuffes.
Monday, 26 May 2008
Together, they have given the world much unreconstructed pleasure, and here, again, they revisited their key themes, of Americana, innocence, boys-into-men (and their fear of women and foreign entanglements) - and, of course, aliens wanting to return home. Most critics have noted that Ford looks and acts old - which is the case - and it is shocking, indeed, how grizzled, even (Ryder?) haggard, he does look - surely, that is the point. Rather than conceal the force of age from the fourth film, then, it seems a decision was made to foreground the idea of Time. Shakespearean as this is, it's apt, and adds a dimension to the film that, at first glance, is missing: namely, quality.
The movie feels half-baked. Then, on reflection, one reminds oneself that these are movies paying homage to the old cliffhangers of yore, and that this one, set in 1957, is a homage, even on top of that pastiche-fed floor, to B-movies, or worse. So, the grains of time, and time's losses and consequences, from atomic theory (and practice), to political shifts, to history itself (the struggle between West and East), is all put in a longer, deeper perspective - an ancient civilization, now merely relics, glows with future promise, if change can appear. Notably, the film is strangely menacing - the forces at the end are neither E.T. nor are they "Alien" - but something else - highly intelligent collectors, neutral, and ultimately above human concerns. On the subject of Blanchett's faux Ruskie babe in the ultra-cool uniform - well, you either "get" such things, or you don't. Watching this, I felt old - I felt a generation was turning a page.
I felt Indy's travels in my bones. Spielberg has made us excavate ourselves, all our own thoughts about all our American (read: Western capitalist) yesterdays - from greasers, to milkshakes, to the space race, to the McCarthy witch hunts - and recognize how these were built on force, on violence, on tragedy. At the end (the beginning begins out West, in a cheeky gopher mound echoing the mountain from Close Encounters) we get a comedic ending - a wedding - and are asked to bless this union. Problematic, tricky, and hard to do, given what's come before (Hiroshima and amour, indeed) - but that's the difficult American balancing act, or rather confidence trick - love our Elvis, forgive our Nam etc. - and Spielberg's been one of the masters of it, since Jaws.
Saturday, 24 May 2008
Who is this someone in the luxury apartment in the "great" city? Paul Muldoon? Auden? James Merrill? I don't know many poets, really, who live and write poems in luxury apartments. Would that be flats over £750,000? In Chelsea? Sure, context matters - but does the poetry this anthology explores, and shares with a wider audience, take a stand on the question of this new sub-genre: Luxury Apartment Poetry?
The avant-garde is sometimes awfully self-satisfied - as if they didn't, too, use and benefit from, the services and products of the late-capitalist moment. I am pretty sure Kinsella has lived in relative luxury - all British poets live better than the majority of people on Earth who subsist on less than a dollar a day.
Can poems, should poems, be evaluated by deciding whether or not where they were written was luxurious, or impoverished? Or isn't the poem, finally, not to be judged by its best intentions, but by its style? The qualities of language? Or is poetry, in some important ways, shaped by the location of its composition? Can, in fact, a rich poet be a good poet? What of Byron? What of Hart Crane? Wallace Stevens lived in a big house.
That being said, I'd recommend the anthology (co-edited by Rod Mengham), which argues for a renewal of the lyric, seen from new perspectives (ones less "empirical" and self-interested). It seems odd to have included Ashbery, Hejinian, and Howe, but not Silliman and Bernstein - but the introductions seem a little defiant on that issue, how this is not a "Language" or "postmodern" collection - when Ashbery is perhaps the postmodern poet of the last 33 or more years.
Friday, 23 May 2008
As Eyewear often mentions, in the UK, pop culture and poetry culture don't always mix, so his credentials were as much a hindrance as a help to a fair hearing - but the audience was won over, by his charm as a reader, and, more to the point, the seriousness and quality of the writing itself. Ironically, in an age of celebrity writers, this was a writer wanting to move past that, while having to go through it. As such, the work, often political, often trained on the camera eye, or the world it mediates, resonates into a wider sphere of concern.
Raised in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania and alumnus of Cinestudio/TrinityCollege, Hartford, Connecticut, Gyllenhaal is a film and television director – most notably of Waterland (based on Graham Swift's novel), A Dangerous Woman (with children Jake and Maggie in supporting roles), and Twin Peaks.
His poetry has been published in Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, and Apalachee Review, among other such places. He divides his time between Martha's Vineyard and Los Angeles. Claptrap: Notes from Hollywood (Cantarabooks 2006) is his first collection of poems.
Land of the Free
Can't disney this away,
can't prozac it back
into the warm sofa
of this once obedient chest.
The grand chandelier
that's turning like a satellite
demanding utter allegiance
and the closer attention
that should have been paid
to grammar, to the names
and statistics of all
has lost its grip
on the color pink
for the space between
the first and second
poem by Stephen Gyllenhaal, from Claptrap: Notes from Hollywood
Thursday, 22 May 2008
Joy Division was known to be influenced by Ballard, too. I sometimes think Ballard, and K. Dick are the two major novelists, post-Orwell, to shape contemporary culture. Anyway, if the first two Portishead albums were quasi-dystopian, and quasi-Bondian (Fleming is a third key writer for our times, cold war sex), this Third is more so. Critics who suggest it isn't like the other two are victims of a K. Dick memory wipe. It's like the first two like WW3 will be like WW1 and WW2, but more so: extreme. Much has been made of it being bleak, industrial, alienating, and experimental - as if that ever stopped anyone. Music's been made that way in England at least since 1976. Indeed, some of these songs sound like they're from Kurt Weill via Joy Division, via Monty Norman, which makes sense. German Expressionism and Marxism have shaped UK music more than most would care to admit. The Brits just add cool guitars and better vocals.
The four best tracks, spaced across the album, are "Silence", "We Carry On" (a real cool anthem), "Machine Gun" (with its rebarbitive sonic rat-a-tat), and the ominous, strange, "Threads" - which is most in the espionage vein, but as if designed by Stockhausen, or maybe the vaunted Delia Derbyshire. The ending is like a buoy in a mid-Lowell Atlantic gale, a cold far-flung lostness in it. Someone should do a PhD on artifice in British culture, from Derbyshire to Forrest-Thomson - between them those two women did more than anyone else to secure an alternative cultural product. Anyway, the end is uncanny, and Third ends on a deep scary primitive twang, or a ship off the coast of The Heart of Darkness booming its foghorn into the madness, as if some primitive tribe had a midi sampler and were willing to use it.
This is one of the most challenging, artfully conceived comebacks in modern pop music history - thrilling, difficult-listening, oddly-exciting, and is one of the three best albums of the first half of 2008, no doubt.
What I said was: "this blog is a text (indeed, intertextual) and full of shifting registers of discourse - not a transparent medium for the simple expression of an ego" - in order to counter the idea that blog-writing is simply a "lyric I" poem by another name. It isn't. "Eyewear" is a persona - a collection of gestures, attitudes, tics, styles, conventions - that shifts. It isn't meant to be "me" - whatever a me might mean - but nor is it "not Todd Swift", either. What I am not is James Bond, though.
Wheatley's position is foolish for any number of reasons. Students of the philosophy of identity will know that we are never the same twice. This flux is not alarming, because much of what we are appears to be the same over time - but no one who is intelligent denies anyone the right to age, or change their views, as they learn. As such, even critics alter their views on writers - as Leavis did with Eliot. Sometimes, as with Wittgenstein, there is a "later" period, as the change becomes very wide, between an early and later position.
In this way, Eyewear need not be unique in refusing to claim 100% consistency of tone or opinion, over time. That does not mean Eyewear avoids responsibility, however, for previously held views - which is why past posts are archived, and not deleted - except where revision has been deemed necessary. Auden, of course, edited his early poems, and sometimes ruined them. Sometimes, the earlier period does seem the better one.
On the question of a blog being, or having, a "persona" - well, of course they can, and often do. Using masks, as Wheatley knows, is part of the modern Irish tradition. Yeats's dialogues with aspects of his selves, and his historical counterparts, often was channeled through the mask - this much is common knowledge. It seems farcical, then, for a leading contemporary Irish poet-critic to mock me (he is after all a "Mocker") - for claiming to use a poetic device in my writing which allows for the presentation of different aspects of the self.
Further, "Eyewear", the blog, is not the work of one person - but many hands. Eyewear is a magazine, as much as a person. Does the TLS have but one critic, or one view? No. Yet, it has a house-style, and a tendency.
Eyewear's tendency (sometimes mocked, but never proven indefensible) is to search for areas of connection, rather than division, among poets, in poetics; to argue for the existence of an original creator for the universe (the entire set of sets); to encourage writers of poetry to publish; and to argue against closed-shop nationalism in poetries, and on behalf of a more global awareness. Eyewear is broadly suspicious of capitalism's tendency to reify, but is not Marxist. Eyewear does enjoy a good movie on the telly. Eyewear knows it has, inherent in its system, divisions. Eyewear has sympathies with Liberation Theology. Finally, Eyewear believes that, at the end of the day, men and women should seek to be kind to one another, and to place love above self-interest - and that goes for poets, too, who, sadly, in their struggle, often lose sight of that, and are sometimes the most selfish, and self-directed agents of all.
This last ethical perspective is sometimes deemed amusing, even impossible, to a certain kind of "lone wolf" poet - usually a middle-aged male - who valorises the rugged-individual-as-artist stereotype above all others - and likes Larkin's model of "get stewed". To them, writers are inherently flawed people - as if trying to be kind to each other was inherently anti-creative. Yes, some self-interest, some "ice in the heart", may be required of the editor, the critic, even the creative writer - yet many great authors and texts have been directly engaged with concern for others. Poetry is an isolated act, yet it need not be isolating.
The British model of things in the last 100 years has been to create "schools" of poetry, and schisms, and forge ahead as best one can. This has often lead to marginalisation of (many) writers who do not fit in. This Darwinian, ruthless, Alpha Male, approach, is outmoded, beastly, and not inherently related to art or poetry - but mirrors the savage and untenable social and patriarchal divisions that still damage Britain today. Britain, after all, has its power from commerce, industry, and former imperial trappings - and none of these is gained, or held, without force. This brutishness has seaped into the culture - for the culture of the UK tends, with its prizes, and its lists, and its clubs, and societies - to be endlessly based on exclusion and inclusion, who's up and down, in or out. It's all more than a little sad.
The pipsqueaks can use satire as they like (which is always flattering, to both the target and the satirist) to marvel at my locquacious tenacity and naive overflow of expression - but what they really don't like is a gadly in their inkwell who doesn't care about their coterie or the cut of their suit - who finally asks, ah, but what kind of person are you? Are you kind? For kindness, friends, is a decision to be good, and attentive, to another, to others - and never stales, is never out of fashion, and is beyond theory. It is the rock on which the very act of writing and reading is based - generosity. Unkind writers are, at heart, writers who loathe themselves.
Monday, 19 May 2008
Cecil Day-Lewis: A Life
by Peter Stanford
There are too few reviewers out there willing to admit to their own shortcomings, the gaps in their literary knowledge. I want to buck that particular trend by admitting to an almost total ignorance of Cecil Day-Lewis – both of his life and of his work – before embarking upon Peter Stanford’s new biography of the poet. I was aware that he had been Poet Laureate, though I could not have confidently placed him within a chronology, but beyond that, I knew little aside from the fact of his siring a certain celebrated actor and part-time cobbler.
Why should Day-Lewis have fallen so comprehensively off the literary radar, when the other poets of the ‘MacSpaunday’ gestalt – Auden, MacNeice, Spender – remain fixtures in the 20th century literary firmament? Ian Hamilton, in Against Oblivion, suggests that Day-Lewis’ day in the sun was chiefly a matter of moving among the right literary circles, and whilst this is true to a certain extent – Auden (more on Wystan later) looms large in ‘Red Cecil’s’ life, and Day-Lewis made friendships and associations with a number of leading lights of his day (which included having a passionate extra-marital affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann) – this theory tends to downplay the quality of Day-Lewis’s verse.
For if Day-Lewis is not quite the equal of Auden in matters of technical range and complexity – and let’s face it, who is? – his work is consistently heartfelt (too heartfelt, in some regards), where Auden’s poetry, at its most formally accomplished, tends towards an epigrammatic irony which all too easily slides into somewhat glib and detached formulations. Spender, meanwhile, is by no means the technical equal of Day-Lewis, and his reputation rests mostly on the prose works he published later on in life: the autobiography World Within World, and the fascinating Journals (fascinating as much as for what they tell us about other people as for what they teach us about Spender himself). All of which points to a single, undeniable fact: that, whatever his shortcomings, Day-Lewis has been unfairly neglected by the critical establishment, and by the general poetry readership, although the latter, already a chimera, has been dwindling steadily for some years now. Standford’s remit, then, is not simply to write a biography of Day-Lewis, but to rescue him from the ignominious oblivion that literary history seemed to have cast him into.
If nothing else, Day-Lewis’s life and work offer fascinating cautionary tales as to what can happen when a poet allows the wider forces of his historical situation to overtake his aesthetic considerations as a writer. Indeed, the most gripping segments of Stanford’s book concern Day-Lewis’s association with the Communist Party in the 1930s, and his often anguished efforts to match his output to some putative notion of ‘political’ poetry which might do some kind of good in the public arena. The watchword in this period is ‘synthesis’ – synthesis of modern and traditional components in poetry; synthesis of the political and the personal; synthesis of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ poetry elements into a unified whole that would address the issues of the day in new and innovative ways, but which would, nonetheless, also be written in such a way as to avoid alienating the common reader.
A tall order by anyone’s standards, and Day-Lewis’s work, more often than not, failed to live up to these high ideals, lapsing at its worst – as in his polemical modern mystery play Noah and the Waters (1936) – into a dogmatic reassertion of Comintern rhetoric, rather than adhering to the stricter standards of poetry. Stanford, in his consideration of Day-Lewis’s poetic output in this period, paints a compelling picture of a man struggling to come to terms with the essential contradiction between his political commitment on the one hand, and his commitment to his art on the other.
Struggling, too, with the figure of Auden, which brings me to one of the central flaws of the biography – a flaw which, I should point out, is by no means of Stanford’s own making. As I noted above, the book is at its most compelling in relation to the political and aesthetic debates of the 1930’s, a period in which Auden loomed large. All of the MacSpaunday poets struggled to escape from under his shadow, though it is Day-Lewis who has perhaps suffered most in this regard. The problem is that, without Auden, and the political and aesthetic debates which he embodies, much of the drama would be absent from Day-Lewis’s biography. Fascinating as his personal life is – a childhood dominated by figures of almost fairy-tale proportions (his mother died young, his father was over-bearing and unpredictable, his step-mother was loathed), a tempestuous domestic situation (tempestuous because of Cecil’s tendency to stray outside of marriage) – it is at those moments when the outside world, in the form of Communism, the Spanish Civil War, and the seriousness of World War Two, impinge upon the personal sphere that Stanford’s book is at its most gripping and vivid. A drawback is, of course, that many of these events, from Day-Lewis’s perspective, also revolve around his relationship with Auden. If Day-Lewis struggled to get out of the shadow of Auden, then this is a problem that the biographer of Day-Lewis must contend with too.
Another drawback is that Day-Lewis’s second career as a mystery writer, under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, is given relatively short shrift. Of course, the primary remit of Stanford’s biography is to rescue the reputation of Day-Lewis as a poet first and foremost, but there is a sense that a certain hierarchical thinking – high versus low literature – is creeping into proceedings. Perhaps a biography is not really a place for such considerations, but I would like to have seen the Nicholas Blake books considered as literature, pure and simple, to a greater extent than they were. Stanford notes that Day-Lewis saw his mystery novels as a means of reaching a greater readership than his poetry afforded, so it is a shame that he sidelines the novels in favour of the poetry, rather than considering the various ways in which their concerns and approaches might have intersected. As it stands, the mysteries are treated chiefly in terms of the autobiographical material which went into their production, and their commercial prospects. Stanford’s close critical reading is good in all cases, but it would have been interesting to see something more done with them.
These are, however, minor quibbles. This is an excellent biography, which succeeds in getting the balancing act between a consideration of the writer as a man and as an artist just about right. Moreover, it succeeds too in its underlying aim: to rescue Day-Lewis from obscurity, and to place his poetry back in the public and critical eye. Stanford’s primary achievement is to create a compelling narrative of aesthetic development, as Day-Lewis’s work runs from late-Georgian lyricism, through a politicised modernity in the shadow of Auden, and out into the plainer diction of his mature work. That this final triumphant stage in Day-Lewis’s career also represents, at least in part, a Bloomian overthrowing of Wystan, and an escape from his perceived influence on his own work, is no coincidence.
Simon Turner's first collection, You Are Here, was published by Heaventree in 2007. He co-edits the blogzine Gists and Piths. He lives in Warwickshire, and is currently at work on his second collection. His own blog is Difficult Second Album.
Friday, 16 May 2008
Extravagant is the right word: it implies the "least thrifty" expenditure of emotionality, rhetorical excess, verbal flourish, and syntactical exuberance that baroque modernists (often called neo-romantics) like Crane employed, and indeed, seem sometimes overwhelmed by. The Scottish critical tradition in the UK, in some senses determined by Adam Smith's lectures; and Wordsworth's puritanical desire for a language for all men, combined with Eliot's cautious avoidance of personality; and Leavis's and Orwell's qualms about the misuse of language - all the way down to the arguments for craft of today (Don Paterson has famously written off Dylan Thomas for his "florid operatics") establishes a zone of tolerance into which the work of extravagant poets like Crane may rarely sail.
And that is only the mainstream talking. There is even greater resistance to lyrical expression on the part of some British "late-modernists", for whom language, not the self, is the subject. This can sometimes maroon magnificent verbally excessive textuality such as Crane creates, on an isle of neglect. Hopefully, this new collection will woo more ecstatic lovers, than grim fighters. Language, can, does, and should, exceed rational limits.
If that sounds a little naive or brash, then so be it. Ever since the age of 14, I have loved the idea of poet-anthologist-editor-critics like Ezra Pound who go out there, size a scene or a time or a movement up, and then help nudge it along, all the while creating their own writing, too.
Paul Hoover is that sort of writer (without the radio treason, to be sure) - he has been engaged with poetry in a variety of necessary ways over the last several decades: as poet (author of collections such as Totem and Shadow: New and Selected Poems and Winter (Mirror) ); as editor (of The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry; and New American Writing, with Maxine Chernoff); as teacher (developing the Poetry Program at Columbia College); as critic (Fables of Representation) - this without even mentioning his prose (Saigon, Illinois) or film work (Viridian).
Hoover's writing and connected work is part of what it means to be a (North American) postmodern poet in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The way in which this immense field of North American poetry and poetics is somewhat (and the somewhat is key) neglected in the UK and Ireland is another story, one this blog explores from time to time.
It's good to have Paul Hoover here at Eyewear this Friday.
Famous snow falling,
covering a mountain famous for its snow.
Famous cedars lean in the wind.
The stone is famous at the bottom of the river.
But the river is normal enough.
It goes from here to there.
The famous dust is falling,
in nondescript corners and the famous corners, too,
where you stood or I stood
and someone will be standing
for the first time soon. Cup famous for some reason.
Bowl famous to its spoon.
Sunlight famous, most famous of all
as it climbs the garden wall.
Famous moon, coming through night
notorious for its darkness,
and Earth that is famous only on Earth,
with its sweet smell of history.
poem by Paul Hoover
Thursday, 15 May 2008
by Virginia Warbey (1968 – 2004)
Virginia Warbey was born near Rainham in Essex, 40 years ago. She was already writing poetry and prose before she read English at Liverpool University, or took her MA in Creative Writing at Chichester. Two novels (The Ropemaker's Daughter and The Carradine Diary) were published by Diva; her first poetry collection, A Legacy of Echoes, was published when she was 22. She was killed in a car crash at the age of 36 at a time when she was working on a new novel and planning a seond poetry collection.
She was a member of the Chandler's Ford Writers' Group, who helped to ensure the publication of Ratified, her second and posthumous collection. It is a sad and powerful witness to a poet in the process of change and development.
From the beginning, there is a sure grasp of rhythm, and of the power of the line-break. Her work is always characterised by a strong sensuality and sudden breaks of humour; also by delight in the unexpected, in wildlife and wild places.
Poems which are probably among the earlier ones tend to the mellifluous, full of liquid syllables and soft rhythms; there is a young voice, tending to drop back at times into the beautifications of adolescence.
"Diving for Pearls" is an adolescent romance full of yearning; "he rolls pale worlds like vowels upon his tongue" could also stand for the language of the poem itself. However, Virginia's young voice could also be direct, and emotionally honest; "Drunk" rolls out a world of fierce (and drunken) adolescent triumph.
Her humour is at times the salt that transforms a poem, as Virginia punctures her own apparent sentimentality. Sometimes this works very effectively, sometimes not. The homey voice of the poem "In Love with John Boy Walton" whips out to an astringent and unexpected ending, leading to a re-reading of the homey phrases in terms of irony. But if the whole of this poems is to be read in terms of irony, there is altogether too much of the homey voice for it to be rescued by the ending.
A similar subversion occurs in "Pheasant", and is carried through in a far more mature and successful manner (although the third stanza is over-long and falls back to "telling" the reader). "Pheasant" places the cliched phrases within a minefield that blows them one by one to pieces. The underlying subversive intentions of "John Boy Walton" are repeated – but with a development of cadence, form and imagery that contrasts the adult to the adolescent voice.
The maturity of voice varies from poem to poem, and within poems. "In a Nest of Bones" describes a child's remembered grieving over the bones of a pet budgerigar. This is delicately handled, but the shift to the mud-buried bones at Verdun is not carried by the conceit of imagined re-constitution. Perhaps the 'dark side' was not yet within Virginia's reach at this time.
Similarly, the subject of "A dream of falling" is sudden death and its re-experience in dream, but the language –as in "feeling his surprise" - does not convey the shock of the sudden end of a life - with great irony.
Inevitably, there are steps forward and back within poems. "The Wrong End of the Sparkler" moves in its middle two stanzas into a wryly reflective maturity:
Always looking frontways since, attending
to the job in hand,
while just behind me doors swing shut and circles close...
Nothing harsh, dramatic; the ache of
- but the last stanza sets up a reassuring scenario that 'bad' can magically be turned back into 'good'. Virginia's need to reassure - (herself? Her readers? ) – was a constant in much of her work: it begins to give way in poems such as "Soap Suds" and "Pheasant". Her tendency to strain for an ending that will tidy things up also belongs in this area: as in "Find Summore", which has no need of its last line.
What is fascinating in this collection is that in and out of these poems, Virginia gradually began to find her own voice and authority. Although there is no stated chronology to the collection, there are poems which begin to break away into a new voice. In "Blue Touch of Love", there is more showing and less telling, and in "Soap Suds" there is no rescue plan for the difficult ending:
Nothing looks the same behind
your eyes, and I'm just someone that they say you knew
"The Story Cheetahs" is one of the most seductively attractive of her poems. It gathers her talents together, and when the last stanza appears to collapse into sentimentality she subverts the reader's perceptions at the end by her dry humour, with "the quicksilver heels of delusion".
This collection is full of delightful surprises. It is also a conundrum, in that Virginia's voice of authority and maturity comes and goes – like quicksilver. It would be good to think that the humour which would take John Boy "up onto the mountain" to do what she "wanted to do;/ whipped off his glasses, his blue dungarees,/ [and] taught him a thing or two" would also have enabled her to confront and write more effecively about the 'dark side'. It is not that she avoided it, but that she did not yet have the language for it. It remains impossible to say what the eventual outcome would have been.
Valerie Lynch is a British poet.
"I do always read your blog, and have at times wondered if you are some kind of satirical fictional character. pompous, essentially dim, but in your imagination the James Bond of a poetry world that is simply too ungracious to recognise your genius. like most stupid people, you imagine that you are highly intelligent, because you cannot conceive of an awareness and perception that goes further than your own limitations.
Christian Bok, by the way, is an imbecile. he's almost as bad as you ..."
I'd leave this as "no comment required" - but these comments show the level of malevolence that is generated from the conflictual system at play in British poetry. Particularly striking is the dismissal of one of the very best experimental poets in North America today, Christian Bok. Eyewear, isn't, of course, James Bond - that honour currently goes to Daniel Craig - but it is true that Eyewear is a persona, and written as such. Bonney may have trouble with the idea of such a style being employed (he suggests I am "a kind of satirical fictional character").
For a sophisticated reader of experimental poetry and cultural theory, it seems odd for Bonney to miss out on the obvious - this blog is a text (indeed, intertextual) and full of shifting registers of discourse - not a transparent medium for the simple expression of an ego - even one as apparently enlarged as mine. This is signalled in any number of ways, from the ironic design style, to the linguistic play sometimes employed, to the polyphonic structure (other writers are also included, challenging the idea of the blog as an individualistic tool, and suggesting a communitarian role for its form). Eyewear is a blog that questions the blog genre, and does so with wit and brio. It fearlessly questions all forms of poetry, poets, poetics, and criticism. Well, that's overstating the case. It posts things a few times each week: okay? Those who seem infuriated by its postmodern style are advised not to read it.
Wednesday, 14 May 2008
According to Redell Olsen, in her thought-provoking, engaged chapter "Postmodern poetry in Britain" (from The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry), there has been, and remains, an "important and decisive split in post-war poetry in Britain".
This split, I believe, still festers, while in America, there are moves to think beyond 20th century quarrels and divisions. As Lisa Sewell writes, in her Introduction to American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, the poetry wars, in America, may be somewhat over, as: "the line between innovation and tradition, between experiment and expression, is no longer clear or easy to draw." She then goes on to observe that, "Innovative, materialistic practices have been absorbed by both the lyric mainstream and the multicultural poetries of identity politics: writers on either side of the ostenisble divide employ interruption, parataxis, fragmentation and disjunction."
Ostensible divide. This is a key issue, especially for "late modernist" British poets, to consider. Since at least the 1960s, the "British Poetry Revival" drew partial sustenance, and positive guidance, from American poets like Dorn and Olson, and from anthologies like Donald Allen's classic 1960 The New American Poetry. It is therefore intriguing, and even perplexing, to note that, while American poetics is beginning to accept that the demarcations between innovation and use of the lyric are ambiguous, even problematic, many of the late modernist writers currently at work in the UK seem to want to hold on to a simpler, more schematic model of poetic antagonism. In otherwords, how ostenible, for Olsen, is the divide?
At the heart of this divisive project is arguably a radical misinterpretation of what British postmodern poetry is, and who is a postmodern poet, in Britain. In America, "postmodern" poets might be those drawn from the Allen canon: Olson, O'Hara, Ginsberg - all hugely (and paradoxically) influential on the sort of poetics that Olsen valorises. Yet, instead, she chooses to typify "postmodern" as a label as safe and embedded in late capitalism and other conservative values: "the Movement poets of the 1950s are the postmodernists of twentieth-century poetry". Well, not quite. The "postmodern" linguistic turn might begin with Stevens, or Olson, or the Beats, or even the Objectivists. It seems unfair to brand postmodernism with Larkinesque qualities. It also, of course, draws a line between the American, and English, way of reading the 20th century and Modernist poetics.
One of the misreadings here is the one that simply equates "the Movement" with the "mainstream" (Olsen calls them "the Movement and its successors") - as if this monolith singlehandedly opposed innovation in poetry. As Olsen puts it: "the 1950s produced innovative hostilities to Modernism". This is true, to a degree, but what she fails to mention (by displacing the emphasis onto a decade, or a school of poetry, rather than individual poets and critics) is that, at least in Britain, there was always hostility to Modernism, even during the height of its success, and critics such as Leavis, and major journals such as Horizon, were always ambiguous, at best, with regards to how they read and evaluated the Modernist project (which was, of course, several projects, as Marjorie Perloff and Peter Nicholls have recently shown).
It is inaccurate to suggest that Larkin and his pals had all the fun knocking down Modernism in British poetry; indeed, Empson was a hero to the Movement, and Empson can hardly be said to have avoided avant-garde Modernist elements in his own poetry of the 30s (no other Modernist poet, arguably, is more difficult). Almost the entire critical apparatus (including that erected by Eliot and the New Critics) of the period contributed to opposing modernism's later stages.
Olsen's reading of postmodernism / late modernism is in danger of becoming just as culturally dismissive as the New Critics, who infamously ruled mass culture out of their realm. As Mark Jancovich writes in his recent essay, "The Southern New Critics", in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume VII: Modernism and the New Criticism, "the New Critics were attempting to establish the superiority of the pure gaze over other modes of cultural appropriation" and, a la Bourdieu, trying to claim that their definition of poetry was an essence, not a norm. For Bourdieu, as Jancovich points out, "the pure gaze is directly related to the economic situation of dominant social groups."
The serious definition of poetry (worth reading and writing) offered by Olsen as her alternative to the "monolinear" utterances of the so-called mainstream, is no less limited (perhaps mandarin) than that of the Fugitive New Critics of the 1930s and 40s - though of course different in kind. However, both she, and they, seem to be drawing an inside/outside for poetic texts of interest or significance, with those engaged with "postmodern" (or mass culture/pop cultural) texts being more out than in.
The main thing the argument disdains is mass, or popular culture, infected as it is with capitalist ideology (and I share this mistrust of capitalist entertainment product, but not the means of resistance). She quotes Drew Milne as bemoaning the "hot air balloon debates of postmodernism" in which "Madonna and Public Enemy fight it out for critical attention."
Milne seems to be expressing exasperation with how famous entertainment figures have received more critical attention, recently, from academics, interested in reading film, TV, and music product as "textuality", while seemingly marginalising, even ignoring, the rather austere "late modernist" poets of the UK and Ireland, like J.H. Prynne. This complaint is somewhat paradoxical, since Prynne, as Olsen openly indicates, represents a turn away from capitalist modes of artistic production (entertainment) in the first instance - so critics wishing to study popular culture (Madonna/Public Enemy) can hardly be blamed for selecting those "artists" who practice in such fields - i.e. pop stars.
However, something else is at issue here - a something of signal importance for how 21st century British poetry criticism will or will not falter - and the issue is not elitism, but cultural arrogance. Frankly, most people I know "enjoy" TV and radio, iPods and film. Public Enemy, for example, are extremely significant cultural figures in American music, for sociopolitical reasons that, to a degree, reflect concern with capitalism (even if they at times seem to validate as much as question it); and, Madonna, for all her many faults, is the supreme example of one sort of capitalist-feminist hybrid ("Material Girl") and can hardly be swatted away with a sneer. America, and American popular culture exists, to an extent dominates the landscape - and has done so, since 1945.
The category error is in thinking that a pure poetics of resistance is best or even possible - when, in fact, the American postmodern course was to adopt an impure gaze, that engaged with, and interogated this postmodern media minefield, often using rebarbative tactics. This impure move derives from William Carlos Williams, of course, who wanted to work with the American grain, with all its impure, unEnglish, non-canonical diction.
What is at stake is high. Olsen's essay implies that any poet who might lay claim to being postmodern now would be allied to "delusions of cultural capital and a culture industry which is intent on commodifying intellectual labour". It seems hard to know where to place Paul Hoover's Norton anthology of Postmodern poetry, in this landscape. As such, they would be generating a poetry that demands little of the reader but "passive acceptance". This is a misreading of even the most soporific forms of current mainstream entertainment, let alone lyric poetry.
Olsen's essay resists some of the more perplexing ambiguities circulating around current questions of entertainment, and digital media (including piracy), in the global arena: that is, people no longer interact with even capitalist-created cultural product passively. They mash-up and mix music - they alter it - engaged, as readers, with the text. Some of these activities (copyleft and further) can hardly be categorised as anything but anti-capitalist. It might be hard for a British linguistically innovative poet to say so, but elements of popular culture are fun, can be ironically and politically transformed by engagegement with their discourse(s) - and the use of shifting registers in innovative American poetics often relies on a knowledge of "Madonna and Public Enemy" as it were - or Spielberg and King.
In this way, a genuinely radical postmodern poetics can be located. But not easily, in the UK. For, even as a Cambridge school of austere poetics continues, one admirably, if narrowly, resistant to postmodern techno-cultural engagement (which would include a serious, intelligent response to the new digital multimedia platforms emerging, from YouTube to Google to Facebook and beyond), the so-called mainstream lyric poets of Britain, too, tend to shy away from all things popular. Peter Porter recently told me he despised all forms of pop culture, including most films and TV - and he was the head judge of this year's TS Eliot Prize! There is a near-total anxiety, in British poetry, about who owns the label "postmodern" - but worse, this complex, rich, and poetically-sustainable zone, with a deep poetic canon since the 40s (Ginsberg, O'Hara, Trinidad) - is barely engaged with now, in British poetry.
True, Armitage and Lumsden, for instance, dip their toes in. But American Postmodernism is radical, does interrogate, and offers resistance-as-fun - as with the Flarf group ("fun" perhaps in the radical, creative and stylistic sense that Welles means it in Citizen Kane). Fun (another form of play that rises in the 40s, related to often-American pop culture) for too-often serious readers of poetry in Britain, may be the last taboo. Bourdieu would, I suspect, have a field day considering how this says more about the bourgoise cultural needs of the critic, than the essential failure of fun as a category.
I would like to propose that a new attempt to engage with the tricky, ambiguous histories of British poetic modernisms be essayed, one that does not shy away from popular culture, clownishness, humour, the silly, and radical, sometimes rhetorical shifts in register (indeed tone, form, and genre too) - from high to low, from silly to serious, from sincere to artificial, from syntactically modern to lucid - indeed, that foregrounds debates about what is postmodern, in the period where, indeed, the question actually emerges: the fractured decades (sic) of 1940-1950 - with its "iron curtain" slash of 1945.
In this decade can be located a route to British postmodernism (early W.S. Graham, Lynette Roberts, Moore, George Barker) that was more or less neglected by all sides of the so-called "divide" that Olsen identifies. In fact, I would argue, it is not the 1950s that are postmodern, but the 1940s, in Britain. It isn't the period 1950-2000 only, that saw the poetry wars erupt in the UK. Indeed, it was during the war years, and just after, they came to a head.
Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Yet another prize has been concocted, out of the list of 41 Booker-winners, so far. The first was in 1969, so this isn't even the 40th anniversary (that's next year) - or is it? At any rate, a select tranche has been chosen, as if by random, by three people (how can three judges be enough for such a decision?). The final list features Mr. Rushdie. Margaret Atwood, and Ian McEwan, by the way, are off the list. Instead, the shortlist of all shortlists seems to be about "Empire" - a subject the British never tire of, even if the all the news is bad, or critical.
It feels like a world gone mad, or a hoax in some trumped up country where elections are routinely stolen. Literary London can sometimes seem like Floridaland. Literary reputations are, as all writers like to remind their friends and exhausted lovers, fickle. Bad or unknown writers hope the pendulum will swing their way, as it did for Poe. Famous writers, of course, hope it will not do to them what it did for, say, George Barker.
Around 1950, the greatest British novelists of the 20th century might have been, shortlisted: D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. It is hard to think that a similarly impressive list could be offered for the period 1950-2000 - and yet, if one is to be so offered to posterity, it is likely that Rushdie is now the canonised main figure of the period, with his admirable 1981 Midnight's Children squarely in the middle of it.
Lawrence, viewed by Leavis and others as one of the main writers of the 20th century, is relatively neglected as a poet, and his novels have not, recently, done well as films. The subject matter seems passe. Everyone wrestles nude now, everyone has affairs, no one represses their coal-black desires.
Nor do these Lawrentian novels, anymore, raise much controversy, or win prizes. After a time, the dust settles, and the prize-machines rust. Sad to see or hear the silence then. The silence of integrity, the indifference of a mainly reified age.
Monday, 12 May 2008
However, he remains, to my mind, unconvincing - because he has yet to establish how and why he finds a link between Modernist and experimental poetic forms, and the practice of a socialist, or even Marxist politics. As he should know, most of the poets of the modernist moment were right-wing, or fascist; and, on the other hand, poets who were actively, even radically, left-wing, such as Auden, or later, Ginsberg, often wrote poems in either stylish, traditional forms, or rather lucid, discursive ways that were, indeed, often a transparent recording (supposedly) of the interior self (much of Ginsberg's poetry, when not surrealist, emerges from this Williams style, which can be quite empirical, and hardly fragmentary).
Indeed, it is precisely the failure of (some) poet-critics in the UK, to acknowledge the ambiguous, even indeterminate, relationship between poetics and politics (or ideologies), that complicates the ostensible divide that Olsen identifies in her essay. Of course, there is an apprehended divide (Don Paterson and Rod Mengham have very different ideas about poetics); yet, across this divide is a curious bridge: neither "side" resists the idea of the seriousness of poetry. It is simply, they each ground their seriousness in different aspects of the Modernist/ New Critical tradition, and how they select to reread, and often oppose, that (Eliotic/Leavisite) tradition.
On Bonney's point about cocktails - anti-capitalism takes many forms - some Stalinist, others agrarian (and arguably racist), some fascist or aristocratic: Yeats and Pound despised low culture and capitalism as much or more than Bonney, or Prynne ever would. I am sure Peter Porter finds Madonna as trivial and anti-poetic as Drew Milne.
I think there's an interesting aporia here - or at least a knot in the texture of thinking about contemporary British poetics - that can't simply be swept under a carpet of mutual animosity. The question remains: how is it that (most) contemporary British poetry refuses to directly engage with the entertainment products of late capitalism? It is possible, as American postmodern poetry shows (as Ashbery shows) to speak through and of such (frivolous?) discourses, and moments - and not always entirely dismissively. Some Hollywood films - A Night At The Opera, for instance, or Touch of Evil - are glorious, anarchic, and in many ways antecedents for the punk agenda, and late dadaist resurgences, that Bonney(I think rightly) thinks of interest.
In British writing on poetry, there is often a shorthand. One wants to say, for example, Peter Riley is as good or better a poet than Andrew Motion - and instead, broader schools and arguments are set in motion. Not all "mainstream" poetry, for example, is "monolinear" or assumes a transparent link between the speaking I and the poet; indeed, as Tate and Ransom and others infamously noted, the texture of much 20th century poetry is precisly divided due to the ironic and creative tension between its form, and content; and then again, many "traditional" poets employ persona, or the dramatic monologue, often rather brilliantly.
It is true, I think, that when Grigson observed that Heaney was hardly "postmodern" in any meaningful sense (as Olsen states in her essay), this does not then render his work simply uninteresting, or void of complex engagement with language. In fact, even Alvarez objected to Heaney's complex, ornate engagement with language; nor is Heaney's use of myth much less intense than an Ur-modernist such as James Joyce. There is an argument that would say the truer heirs of Modernism are, in fact, Heaney, Tony Harrison and Sean O'Brien (among others), who veer between the demotic and the mythic, much as Pound did.
This is not to "take sides" (I am researching 20th century British poetry, not presiding over a divorce case), but to argue for a constant problematisation of too-easy categorisations, despite underlying class and cultural conflicts that have (yes) gone on for too long, often been supressed by those in power, and which tend to "naturalise" critical positions that are, instead, usually merely lazy empiricism or provincialism (though to what extent the current British avant-garde is truly interested in internationalism or the global remains up for debate; despite the best efforts of Salt and a few other presses and little (often online) magazines to try and represent alternative poetries from "around the world": the British, post-Suez are often fixated on their own trajectories).
Most poetry written in the UK, today, resists easy consumption, by the reader, no matter how stylishly it is packaged. More poetic forms, or styles, I would argue, are resistant to commodification, than might be often assumed, in articles such as those by Olsen. However, finally, I very much appreciate the underlying tendency of Olsen's, and Bonney's comments, insofar as they would argue for a poetry that questions the canon, that is resistant to mere complacency, and that asks questions of language. But this poetry may not always be precisely in the ideological key of extreme anti-capitalism that Bonney seeks, nor may it necessarily be as removed from the world of media and multimedia as he might wish. It might still - or is this evaluative ideal now impossible - be "good" poetry. Or rather, poetry worth taking time to engage with.
I offer these comments in a collegial spirit. I happen to believe (it may be the Canadian in me) that dialogue even across zones of difference can be mutually interesting, and even lead to new work, and developments. I realise that the history of 20th century poetics and poetry has been embedded in a rhetoric of confrontation, violence, and aggression (on the avant-garde as well as "Movement" side of things), which, it may be, was grounded in patriarchal, militaristic, and even hierarchical perspectives that should now be outmoded. We need to locate more ethical forms of communication - even across poetic divides. I see this as an eco-poetic position - all poetic texts are part of the same wider environment, though there may be different eco-systems.
Saturday, 10 May 2008
Despite what Graves and Riding might have said, in their famous critique, anthologies helpfully situate poets, communities, and moments, especially for readers who cannot keep pace with the baffling shifts and turns of the poetry world in all its momentum.
The review also (I was glad to note) mentions the Oxfam Life Lines CDs. Oxfam did a limited poetry DVD for the first Life Lines CD, in 2006, but it only featured 12 or so poets; it was made available on YouTube, too. There is nothing all that "new" about the Bloodaxe book/DVD initiative. Rather, it seems a natural extension of what's been happening in multimedia poetry dissemination since 1999, at least.
And, before that, Bob Holman produced the brilliant, MTV-style The United States of Poetry, as book, and TV series, which combined poem and image in a truly uplifting way. The future is likely to be to not release the book, or DVD, at all, but have all the work online, on a platform that allows poetry videos to be downloaded, or viewed, there.
Still, it is a good sign. Recently, British poetry publishers have begun to openly, and bravely, explore the digital domain. I look forward to seeing (and hearing, and reading) this new anthology, and welcome it. If poetry means to stay alive for a contemporary audience, it will do more of this; though, as Davie observed, with regards to Hardy, and his anthology pieces (he wanted to place poems in The Golden Treasury, that time's version of canonicity) - the best poems are sometimes those not written for a reader, but, instead, irregardless of one.
In this lies the current tension in poetics - no longer between experiment and mainstream - but between those who think poetry can or should be reproduced and distributed, much like any other form of entertainment - and those who think it is, however various, ultimately an "art" - an art perhaps best left resistant to the systems put in place by capitalism to sell, use, even, yes, enjoy, culture and text. I myself am torn on this issue.
I long argued for a broad distribution of poetry (and Eyewear practises this effort in its modest ways); and yet, more and more, am aware of how poetry qua poetry is a subtle, complex form of linguistic expression, that can become miscommunicated if not handled with love and informed appreciation - even study.
Poetry asks of its reader a kind and quality of attention that only close reading (as opposed to close listening, or watching) usually affords. Perhaps this is two issues, related, but not directly impinging on the other: a need to get more poetry to more people, and yet, a need, also, to make sure that poetry itself, in the process, remains true to its traditions, and its elements.
Friday, 9 May 2008
He has published poems in print and online journals in North America and Great Britain, and in the chapbook Cabinet d'Amateur (Cologne: Darling Publications, 2005). His many translations from the German include books by Michael Krüger, Dieter M. Gräf, Ilma Rakusa, and Joachim Sartorius, as well as the correspondence of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. In addition, he received an NEA grant in 2004 to translate the poetry of Jacques Réda from the French.
Shields lives with his wife and three children in Basel, Switzerland, where he teaches English at the English Seminar of the University of Basel. He is also a songwriter who plays guitar and mandolin, and is currently in a trio called Human Shields.
Thomas Hardy Listens To Louis Armstrong
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
— "The Darkling Thrush"
Looking out across the winter lawn
at trees he knew were there but could not see
for mist, he listened to the gramophone
a younger friend had brought to play him shellacs
purchased on a trip to America.
His hearing was not what it once had been
when he fiddled with the bands and sang
in churches all around the county,
but still those strains came trilling to
his infirm ears, which he'd insisted
were unable and unready to hear, to hear,
this brazen song, full-hearted, taking up
caresome things and making them carefree.
Did he care for these ecstatic tunes?
Did he sense that this was more
than a ditty of its time? As if all time
were the trumpeter's, Gabriel's gift,
insistent calls beyond the calls of bells,
keeping him dreaming like an unseen tree.
He sat there, leaning on his cane like a picture
hung and covered in a hall, like an old man
in his darkening study at the end
of a day, the end of the song, the end
of another year, and tried to hear.
How the trumpet blew, drowned out
the winter wind as he dreamed on,
somnolent, unaware, to this song
with an under-echo of what he'd played
at fairs and weddings, for the dancers
and the dance, unnoting, unwitting, unwrit.
poem by Andrew Shields
This poem first appeated in Poetry International 9, 2005
by Paul Celan
translated by Pierre Joris
In his autobiographical work, Errata, An Examined Life, George Steiner talks about language and music:
Trapped within its measureless limitations, inside the fruitful immensity of its final failures—‘Word, word that I lack,’ cries out Schoenberg’s Moses in the face of the unspeakable—language posits negatively but overpoweringly the pressure, the ‘thereness’ of what lies beyond it. As mystics insist, as daily experience so often confirms, the falling short of language makes absence substantive.
Pierre Joris’s translation of Paul Celan’s late work, Breathturn (Atamwende) is probably the most attractively produced and welcoming introduction available to this complex poet of post-war Germany. Steiner referred to Celan’s late work as an attempt at reinventing a language which lies ‘north of the future’, taking his image from an early poem in Breathturn:
IN THE RIVERS north of the future
I cast the net, which you
with shadow stones
This late poetry published in 1967 moves away from the lush complexities of Celan’s earlier work and, as Joris puts it in his introduction, "the syntax grew tighter and more spiny, his trademark neologisms and telescoping of words increased, while the overall composition of the work became much more serial in nature, i.e. rather than insisting on individual, titled poems, he moved towards a method of composition by cycles and volumes."
The title of the sequence, "Breathturn (Atemwende)", first appears in the Meridian speech which Celan gave in 1960 having received the Georg Büchner prize in Darmatadt. The speech itself is probably the poet’s most extended statement on poetics and it includes the following suggestions, dominated by the questioning, ‘perhaps’:
Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction—is it perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa’s head shrivels and the automatons run down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?
Perhaps after this, the poem can be itself…can in this now artless, art-free manner go other ways, including the ways of art, time and again?
As if consciously turning his back upon the luxurious and crowded associations of language, its taint, Celan now writes
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
poem, the noem.
the path through the men-
the penitent’s snow, to
glacier-parlors and –tables.
in the timecrevasse,
waits a breathcrystal,
One section of Joris’s introduction deals with the question of translation and, understandably, raises the point about how is it possible to render Celan’s much vaunted linguistic and hermeneutic difficulties into another language. Answering his own question, Joris states something central to the world of any translator:
Questioning the possibility of translation means to question the very possibility of literature, of writing, of language, which is always already a translation, i.e. is both an act of translation and the result of such an act. In my years spent in the practice of poetry, both writing and translating it, a sense has gropingly emerged suggesting that a poem is not only the one version printed in a book or magazine, but is also all its other (possible) printed versions, plus all the possible oral and/or visual performances as well as the totality of translations it allows. The printed poem thus functions only as a score for all subsequent readings (private or public) and performative transformations, be they through music, dance, painting or linguistic translation. Such a view is bound to destabilize a concept of the poem as fixed, absolute artefact, readable (understandable, interpretable) once and for all.
Or, as Celan himself said in his Meridian speech, "The absolute poem—no, it certainly does not, cannot exist."
An example of the interesting challenge to the translator comes with the poem "Harnischstriemen" where the German reads as follows:
An beiden Polen
der Kluftrose, lesbar:
dein geächtetes Wort.
Joris translates this as
On both poles
of the cleftrose, legible:
your outlawed word.
Here the opening words used by Celan are geological terms with the first referring to striations on rock surfaces that are visible where monolithic blocks have been scraped against each other during large-scale volcanic upheavals. Joris replaces this term, ‘Harnischstriemen’ with a corresponding geological term, ‘Slickensides’ which has a definition of fine parallel scratches or grooves on a fault surface that have been produced by the movement of the rocks on either side of the fault. This is a poetry to negate the ‘I’; it is a poetry that has associations with the movement of the world: "some other thing is also set free"?
In 1971, a year after Paul Celan drowned himself in the Seine, Jeremy Prynne published a poem dedicated to him, "Es Lebe Der König", in the Ferry Press volume, Brass. Its bitterly ironic title (‘The King Lives’) not only recalls that Meridian speech in which Celan addressed the question of art in the work of Georg Büchner, defining Lucile’s final exclamation ‘Long live the King’ as an act of freedom, but also directs the reader towards the prevailing darkness of our contemporary linguistic scene:
It is not possible to
drink this again, the beloved enters the small house.
The house becomes technical, the pool has
Copper sides, evaporating by the grassy slopes.
In a fine essay on Prynne’s work in Sagetrieb, volume 10, number 3, 1991, Andrés Rodríguez notes the matter of suggestiveness of language here ‘that the technical house, in a poem for Paul Celan, reminds us of the Nazi terror at Auschwitz’. Prynne’s bitter irony is compounded by our inability to do more than ‘stand/just long enough to see you’
we hear your
fearful groan and choose not to think of it.
In a reference Celan used at that Meridian speech, Buchner goes further than the statement of ‘Long live the king’, he goes to a world of terrifying silence which ‘takes his—and our—breath and words away’. These Breathturns, rendered so poignantly and mysteriously by Pierre Joris set us close to a song that ‘leads us home to where we have not yet been’ (Steiner).
Ian Brinton is a critic and schoolteacher based at Dulwich College. His latest book, Contemporary Poetry: Poets and Poetry since 1990: (Cambridge Contexts in Literature) is out autumn 2008. He is Chair of the English Association's secondary schools committee in the UK and the Editor of The Use of English for The English Association.