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Finishing off and starting out

I am about to retire from teaching so I thought I would give myself something to do by starting a poetry blog. I write poetry and I enjoy reading poetry but reading poetry properly is hard work. I have always found that to engage fully with a poet’s work I have needed to write about it.  I enjoy writing and I want to keep my brain in working order so I will be posting reviews of poetry I have enjoyed and reflections on poetry of the present and past. I don’t anticipate doing much until I have actually retired at the end of the summer, but getting to grips with the mechanics of blogging is a necessary start. If you should stumble across this site, apologies for the amateurish nature of it and the likely blunders.

ballycastle

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets 4

Little Gidding

I remember being electrified in my O-level year at school when I first read ‘The Hollow Men’. From then on, Eliot’s work became one of the most important presences in my experience of poetry. A few years later, at university, I recognised that this hero had feet of clay and that his political views, particularly as expounded in his critical and cultural writings, were miles apart from mine.

Nevertheless, his work remains a significant element in my mental landscape and I hear his lines in my head, as I hear lines from Shakespeare or from the Bible. (They often are lines from Shakespeare or the Bible, or at least from somewhere else.) I think this is because I recognise his struggle through poetry to deal with modernity and to find ‘right action’, and I think that the poetry still works in the 21st century and for post-modernity because it matches the emotions and confusions we are still experiencing. For example, the passage from Section V of The Dry Salvages with its reference to ‘sortilege’ and ‘tea-leaves’ seems as relevant to the disoriented muddle we are living through after the Brexit vote as effectively as it did the trials of World War II.

 

It is this feeling that Eliot still matters that sent me back to The Four Quartets, not in a spirit of adulation but in an attempt to engage with a work I had read many times but never really got to grips with. Reading it now, I am struck by Eliot’s wrestling with himself and with language and form, and by his compulsion to bring structure, resolution and conformity to a set of poems developed from Burnt Norton, which was originally intended as a single independent long poem. This struggle with form and the wilful drive towards resolution is very evident in Little Gidding and the strain is often apparent, particularly where beautiful, quasi-mystical imagery is employed to paper over the cracks. I find the serenity of tone in the last section beguiling but unconvincing as it asserts a conclusion not actually achieved:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

The predominance of ‘and’, rather than stronger, more syntactically definite conjunctions, reinforces the tone of inevitability and relaxation into acceptance. Moreover, the identity of the fire and the rose, for me, now, is too neat and formulaic

little gidding

However, the beginning of the quartet is more interesting. It has its basis in beautifully observed physical detail of winter: ‘the brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches’, ‘the hedgerow/Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom/Of snow’. The exactitude of the images allows the poet to move towards traditional conceits and paradoxes of ice and fire, darkness and light and to explore once again ideas about time. The metaphor of snow as ‘blossom’ introduces the possibility of two kinds of time, that related to earth and the seasons and metaphorical or spiritual time which is ‘not in time’s covenant’ and which has its ultimate target as ‘the unimaginable/Zero summer.’ Different readers offer different interpretations for this striking phrase; perhaps it is intended to suggest a perfection which is not achievable in earthly life. The ‘unimaginable/Zero’ carries with it connotations of absolute zero which bring us back to the contrasts of heat and cold.

 

The poet pursues ‘the intersection of the timeless moment’ , situating it in Little Gidding, the place where Nicholas Farrar founded a religious community in 1625 and where Charles 1, the ‘broken king’, is said to have prayed after his defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. In the second two paragraphs of Section I, he addresses ‘you’, presumably the reader, but also himself. The tone is instructional, even severe:

You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

The purpose is not intellectual, but devotional; the reward will be communication from the dead whose messages are redeemed through prayer. Eliot refers to the dead being ‘tongued with fire’ a reference to Pentecost, but Pentecostal fire in this quartet is fused with the Purgatorial fire which purifies the soul.

 

Section II opens, as in the other quartets, with a formal poem in three stanzas. This one seems to be an apocalyptic annihilation of all four elements preceding a Dantesque vision set in the London of the Blitz where Eliot was a fire warden. Once again, this passage gains its power from its foundation in the actual. Eliot writes of the ‘dark dove with the flickering tongue’, a terrifying depiction of a bomber plane, which gains extra force through the ironic negative image of a symbol usually used to represent the Holy Ghost, particularly when conferring the Pentecostal gift of tongues. On patrol amidst the fires of the bombed city, the poet, mimicking the figure of Dante, speaks in the first person to a figure he encounters, ‘a familiar compound ghost’; originally, this was to have been Brunetto Latini, Dante’s dead teacher whom he met in the Inferno, but Eliot revised the poem to make it a much more general representation of the voices of the dead. Also, it may make more sense to place this passage in Purgatory as the poet is concerned with purgatorial fire as the path to redemption. Although there is dialogue between ‘I and ‘you’ and most of the passage is in the voice of the poet’s interlocutor, Eliot recognises the fictional nature of this device when he writes:

So I assumed a double part, and cried

And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! Are you here?’

Although we were not. I was still the same,

Knowing myself yet being someone other –

And he a face still forming;

 

Thus the dead do communicate, but only through the voice of the attentive living. The division of the poetic self into two voices reflects Eliot’s predilection for drama or ventriloquism, so noticeable in The Waste Land, but also a force here. It is a device which energises the verse and pays tribute to Dante, but it is also a way of escaping the personal, of donning a mask or masks. The spirit visitant delivers an unpalatable message in a tone of savage irony:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age

To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.

In addition to physical decay as ‘body and soul begin to fall asunder, and the painful sense of powerlessness to affect events, the listener is told to expect the ‘rending pain of re-enactment/Of all that you have done and been’. The displacement of this threat to the voice of the ‘familiar compound ghost’ cannot disguise the emotion of guilt which emanates from these lines.

 

There is one point in Section 2 where the ghost’s address moves from second person into the plural first person, when he identifies a shared purpose:

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us

To purify the dialect of the tribe

It is the ghost who includes the poet in the tradition of the creators and preservers of language and connects this custody over language with the tasks of ‘aftersight and foresight’. This returns the poet to his theme of time as well suggesting a prophetic function to his work. However, the ghost moves fairly quickly away from the consideration of ‘the tribe’ to the future facing the poet, or ‘the exasperated spirit’ which can only be ‘ by that refining fire’. The soul must suffer the fires of purgatory, but must at the same time ‘move in measure, like a dancer’. This image may refer us back to the dancers in East Coker , whose movements, apparently unwittingly reflect divine order; it may be a suggestion that the tortured suffering of the soul in purgatory is beautiful because it leads to redemption and because it is part of the Divine Plan. I cannot help being reminded, when I read this quartet, of the fantasy children’s novel, The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, which employs the images of fire and roses to purify and cleanse animals and humans. MacDonald was a Scottish Victorian clergyman whose stories were enormously popular and influential.

white dead nettle  purpureum02-17-2015 stinging-nettle-pic-1024x768

Section III opens with a botanical image which is very difficult to construe: ‘indifference’ is said to be ‘between two lives –unflowering, between/The live and the dead nettle.’ Richard Mabey, whose Flora Britannica is a comprehensive and definitive guide to British plants, notes in his entry on the stinging nettle, that it ‘marks the sites of many deserted villages, Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire for instance…’. This seems like a sly nod to Eliot but may indicate again that the poet’s imagery stems from observed detail in a specific setting. Stinging nettles do flower, but not so obviously as the dead-nettle which, whether red or white, has a similar leaf. It is unclear whether Eliot is distinguishing these benign plants from the stinging nettle or whether he is making a distinction between different stages in growth of the stinging nettle. The poet is saying something very complicated in this passage but the simile or analogy does not quite work, perhaps because it is not quite sure if it is poetry (simile) or philosophical exposition (analogy). As so often, Eliot reverts to paradox: ‘History may be servitude,/History may be freedom.’ This assertion is followed by an instruction, ‘See’, as if Eliot seeks almost to drag the reader with him into a moment of vision:

See, now they vanish,

The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Reflections on history and the dead are followed by a reiteration of the words of Julian of Norwich which indicate the conclusion towards which the poem is moving:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

By the purification of the motive

In the ground of our beseeching.

 

The ‘ground of our beseeching’ is how Christ described himself to Julian.

julian of norwich

Section IV is made up of two formally condensed and strictly patterned stanzas which bring together Pentecostal and Purgatorial fire and identify pain and terror with Love. The theology is clear but the lines are too neat. Eliot insists on the path to God through suffering, offering us the fires of Hell or the fires of Purgatory

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

Some readers may reject the ‘we’ of these final two lines. The poet is pushing the work to a conclusion, trying to tie up all the ends in the ‘knot’ of the last two lines of Section V.

 

A lot of this final section is a recapitulation of the earlier quartets and begins again with what seems like, but is not, an excursus on the composition of poetry.

 

(where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new.

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Although the prescription sounds slightly prissy, this pursuit of the moving pattern of dance in language reflects Eliot’s apprehension of the divine order as dance and measure, a dance the poet can partake of through language. The dominant pronoun of the last section is ‘we’ and while the reader may not always go along with this inclusiveness, we recognise that the conclusion of the poem posits communion and commonality.

In this series of posts, I have attempted to engage with Eliot’s poem as a lay person, neither academic nor theologian. I recognise that many of the complexities of the poet’s thought have escaped me as have a multiplicity of allusions in a work which is dense with echoes from ‘familiar compound ghosts’.  Nevertheless, I have been rewarded by working towards my own reading of The Four Quartets, which I continue to treasure even as I reject much of what it says.

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets 3

The Dry Salvages

the dry salvages

The Dry Salvages is the quartet devoted to water. The first section is dominated by two aquatic entities: the river and the sea. The river is surely the Mississippi, the river which dominated Eliot’s childhood in St Louis, while the sea is the Atlantic where it meets the coast of Massachusetts:

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite

Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses

Its hints of earlier and other creation:

The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;

This is the most American of the four quartets and has a continental scale and range which is found again in poets as diverse as Charles Olson and Jorie Graham.   While time is a central theme for the entire work, here the emphasis is on historical and geological time:

The tolling bell

Measures time, not our time, rung by the unhurried

Ground swell…

 

The sea-time described here may not be our time, but it is nevertheless time ‘from the beginning’ , not before the beginning; there is no ‘eternal note’, as in the looser language of Matthew Arnold.

 

The ‘I’ which is the first word of the poem confirms the autobiographical context as does the reference to the ‘nursery bedroom’. However, as the poem moves to the relationship between human time and evolutionary time, the poet switches to the plural first person speaking of ‘us’ and ‘our’. ‘The river is within us, the sea is all about us’ suggests that we are both part of nature and apart from nature; the reference to ‘our time’, human time allows him to identify with the ‘anxious worried women’ waiting for morning and the return of their men. The sea, on the other hand, with its ‘different voices’ becomes the sound of that other time, which swallows up and rolls past individual human times and histories. The view of history Eliot presents is extremely bleak. The quasi-sestina which begins section 2 imitates, with its repeated rhyme pattern and stanza form, the repetition of disasters and bad news. The poet asks ‘Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage’, signalling not only that there is no end but also that there is no purpose

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless

Or of an ocean not littered with wastage

Or of a future that is not liable

Like the past, to have no destination.

The ‘we’ indicates the universality of the experience, while the personal detestation of aging is slipped in without any pronouns in the third stanza: ‘failing powers… in a drifting boat with a slow leakage’. There is probably a term for the poetic device of evoking something by declaring its absence, a technique Eliot uses repeatedly: ‘wailing’ is ‘soundless’ and yet we hear it; flowers ‘drop their petals’ but remain ‘motionless’, yet we see the flowers as they wither. Eliot creates a powerful sense of the Atlantic and of the experience of those who go to sea, but at the same time we realise that this is all metaphorical, all a way of thinking: ‘We cannot think…’, ‘We have to think…’ In the fifth stanza, this thinking becomes an effort of will, an attempt to interpret some kind of meaningfulness and certainty which quickly collapses as what we have to think gives way to what we cannot help thinking: the fishermen are ‘making a trip that will be unpayable/ For a haul that will not bear examination.’ Three out of the six stanzas end on the word ‘annunciation’. Only the last of these is capitalised to refer obviously to the Christian concept. Even then it is proffered as the hardly credible, scarcely imaginable hope that can be an answer to death: ‘Only the hardly, barely prayable/Prayer of the one Annunciation.’

 

As the poem proceeds, the gloomy and non-progressive view of history becomes even clearer. Having acknowledged evolution in section 1, here he dismisses it as being in any way connected to progress: ‘development [is] a partial fallacy/Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution’. In Burnt Norton we were told that ‘human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.’ Here it seems that reality is agony, repeated and permanent, the agony the poet recognises in others: ‘We experience this better/In the agony of others, nearly experienced,/ Involving ourselves, than in our own.’ As so often, the plural ‘we’ seems to hide the rawness of personal experience while at the same time aspiring to reach the audience through shared experience. ‘People change, and smile: but the agony abides’. ‘Time is no healer’, we are told in Section III. Rather time preserves or memorialises what it has destroyed and, at this point, without God or faith, nothing is redeemed:

Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows, and chicken coops,

The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.

And the ragged rock in the restless waters,

Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;

On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,

In navigable weather it is always a seamark

To lay a course by: but in the sombre season

Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

 

Despite the prevailing gloom, we cannot help but be carried along by the energy and zest of Eliot’s language, propelled by a strongly marked rhythm underpinned by repeated alliteration. To set against the misery, Eliot offers ‘moments of happiness…’sudden illumination’. These moments are to be seen as qualitatively different from ordinary forms of contentment: ‘the sense of well-being/Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,/Or even a very good dinner’; however, as soon as the poet analyses these moments, whose meaning he implies he missed at the time, he recognises that they have nothing to do with happiness. The suggestion is that they are visionary, intimations of the divine, little annunciations. It is interesting, however, how many of the discarded examples of happiness seem themselves to partake of the divine, or to be connected to our ideas of the divine. ‘Affection, security and a ‘very good dinner’ all suggest love and communion, while ‘fruition’ and ‘fulfilment’ suggest a form of grace where in some way perfection is achieved. [1]

Sadly, we never feel that Eliot is totally convinced by his moments of vision, be they ‘shafts of sunlight’ or ‘bird voices’ or whatever. All the way through his work, I have the impression that he has chosen Christian faith as the least worst option and that he has the greatest of difficulty in believing it. A happy-clappy Evangelical he is not; his faith is effortful, a matter of will and he doggedly pursues his Christian duty through his dramatic works and the struggle with himself in these poems. Thus, when he refers to Krishna, at the beginning of Section III and again towards the end, where he quotes and adapts the words of the Bhagavad-Gita

“on whatever sphere of being

The mind of a man may be intent

At the time of death” – that is the one action

(And the time of death is every moment)

Which shall fructify in the lives of others:

he is asserting the importance of right action, regardless of consequence. The statement that ‘the time of death is every moment’ does not only remind us that we cannot foresee the hour of our deaths and therefore we should live every moment as if it were our last, but also returns to Eliot’s insistence throughout the quartets that time past and time future do not exist, that we have only the present moment. This message is reinforced by the long passage reflecting the words of Heraclitus and his philosophy of change, although Eliot substitutes a train journey for the river of Heraclitus:

You are not the same people who left that station

Or who will arrive at any terminus

After the opening apparently casual allusion to Krishna which is in first person, the whole of this section seems to be addressed to the audience, to you, the other: “You shall not think’ , ‘ You are not those who saw the harbour/ Receding, or those who will disembark’, ’You can receive this’. However, we recognise that in fact these injunctions are not the words of the poet but are in the voice of the sea (or God or time) – ‘a voice descanting (though not to the ear,/The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language’. Indeed, lines 149 -165 are inside quotation marks. Once more, Eliot manages to have his cake and eat it. This voice is displaced from him and he becomes as much part of the listening and instructed audience as we do -‘Fare forward, travellers!’, but at the same time we are told that this is not a real voice, or at least it is not heard and it is not in any language, so it must be a voice which is inner to the persona of the poem. So we seem again to be witnessing the poet’s dialogue with himself.

 

Section IV is very short and, rather unexpectedly, is a petition to the Virgin Mary. The shrine standing ‘on the promontory’ is apparently the Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles, an imposing church with the figure of the Virgin on top presumably looking out to sea. I wonder if Eliot also had in mind the Our Lady of Good Voyage Church built by the Portuguese fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As a boy, Eliot spent his summer holidays in Gloucester where he was a keen sailor. The figure of the Virgin in that Church is shown cradling a fishing trawler instead of the infant Jesus and figures significantly in The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. It is a startling coincidence that this fairly minor city should figure so importantly in the lives of two major but extraordinarily different American poets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Notre Dame de La Garde, Marseilles

lady of good voyage  Our Lady of Good Voyage, Gloucester, Mass.

 

Section V, however, brings us back to London in wartime with an opening passage which satirises but also reflects the deep uncertainties and anxieties of the time. He chooses words from the semantic field of forecasting the future such as ‘haruspicate’, ‘scry’, ‘sortilege’ and refers to various means of foretelling the future in language which is often Latinate or unfamiliar, giving an impression which comes close to contempt: ‘all these are usual/Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press’. However, the air of superiority collapses in the second part of the section when the poet places himself not with the saints, much though he might to aspire to their access to ‘The point of intersection of the timeless/ With time’ but with ‘most of us’ for whom ‘there is only the unattended/ Moment, the moment in and out of time’. Exemplifying these moments, he returns to some old favourites, the ‘shaft of sunlight’ , the ‘wild thyme’ and introduces some new ones including the experience of listening to music: ‘music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts.’ These moments hint at, or are instances of, Incarnation. ‘The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.’ Eliot certainly had a theological understanding of the idea of the concept of incarnation, but that is not what he means; he is speaking of the possibility of an apprehension of Incarnation which is not simply rational, but emotional and spiritual. For someone who, like me, stands to one side of Christianity, it is difficult to see why these moments are not a sufficient joy in themselves; apart from the music, they are all drawn from nature and in that sense they are all incarnate, all material, but all inspire joy and wonder as they are perceived. The example of music is different because it is a human creation with which the writer has found himself totally in sympathy or communion and by the use of ‘you’ –‘you are the music’ has indicated that we, ‘most of us’ will also have had this experience, suggesting the possibility of communication or indeed full communion between humans. For Eliot, though, these moments must do more than transcend the individual, they must give access to the divine, and, specifically, to the Christian Revelation.

 

Eliot gives himself a hard time; he imposes a life of ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.’ However, this hair shirt view of life seems to have answered a psychological need. Yet as he works through his argument he returns to the idea of ‘right action’, the right action to be aimed for in every moment. He concludes in language mostly very simple, very far from the wordiness of the beginning. “Most of us’ …

…are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying;

We, content at the last

If our temporal reversion nourish

(Not too far from the yew-tree)

The life of significant soil.

This commitment to perseverance, particularly in the wartime context, is in itself noble. The identification with a wider society, ‘we’, ‘most of us’ and the recognition of the place of the human in the natural cycle as well as the specific mention of the yew tree[2] with its connotations of the graveyard but also as an indigenous English tree creates an earthly and human resolution to this quartet, perhaps in spite of the writer’s intentions.

[1] Dinah Livingstone discusses the meaning of grace in its theological context and as a human attribute in her forthcoming article, ‘Grace’ which will appear in Sofia 104 (Christmas 2018)She quotes Thomas Aquinas: ‘grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.’

[2] Nevertheless, the yew tree has associations with Christianity from its earliest days in Britain and aside from its longevity and ability to regenerate which gave it symbolic Christian values, it was even associated with the Cross in some folk belief, This verse from a ballad in the oral tradition is quoted by Tim Partridge:

And they went down into yonder town

and sat in the Gallery,

And there they saw sweet Jesus Christ

Hanging from a big Yew tree.

“Yew Trees and their Inter-relationship with Man” – a BSc dissertation in Rural Resources Development (1993) By Tim Partridge, https://www.ancient-yew.org/mi.php/trees-in-mythology/79

 

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets 2

East Coker

 

About five years passed between the publication of Burnt Norton and the second Quartet, East Coker. We can see Eliot using the shape of the first poem as the framework for the second. Like the first, it starts with a statement, this time with a repeated use of the first person: ‘In my beginning is my end’ which is apparently an reversed echo of the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots: ‘En ma fin est mon commencement’. The use of allusion, as well as the placing of the sentence at the beginning of the poem, like the text of a homily, masks the personal nature of this opening. However, the first part of the first section is firmly located in the personal and the particular, in the earth which is the key element of this quartet. Eliot has visited East Coker, a Somerset village and the home of his ancestors. His opening line might convey a belief in determinism, but, in fact, in his life he willed this line to be true, in that he chose to have his ashes buried in this ancestral village. Immediate physical reality is conveyed in lines 14 -23 where the poet describes the ‘open field’ and

the deep lane

Shuttered, with branches, dark in the afternoon,

Where you lean against a bank while a van passes

but the lived experience of this moment is muffled by the introduction of the second person pronoun as a substitute for ‘I’.

east coker lane

However, the section retreats into the literary in its second part, with an evocation of villagers of the past who are presented rather like fairies or little people. These ghostlike figures are condescended to with their ‘weak pipe’ and ‘little drum’ as well as their ‘heavy feet in clumsy shoes’. They are not the ancestors Eliot is looking for and finds instead in Sir Thomas Elyot[1] who is quoted, or paraphrased:

The association of man and woman

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie…[2]

These dancers seem to be enacting a form of pagan fertility rite which the poet presents as part of the natural cycle, the pattern or dance of the seasons and life and death which was introduced in Burnt Norton. However, there is an uncomfortable disjunction between the idea of dance as a metaphor for the order of the universe and the very earthy lumpen quality of these rural bumpkins. In addition, the repeated echoes of Ecclesiastes remind us that life and time are shaped by the cycles of the seasons, by birth and death –‘Dung and death’. Perhaps this is why the last four lines move back to air and water and some kind of retreat from definition:

Out at sea the dawn wind

Wrinkles and slides. I am here

Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.

 

 

The poet has owned the first person but negated it by refusing any fixity, reducing the reader to a confusion that carries forward into the lines at the beginning of the second section.

 

This part of section 2 is chaos confined by rhyme and a tetrameter line; pattern and dance have disappeared as the seasons are disordered and the sidereal harmony of Burnt Norton is replaced with war in the heavens and a threatened apocalypse of fire and ice. Probably, this part of the poem reflects the context of its writing, during the Blitz. It might be better to describe the style as oracular rather than lyrical; as in the other quartets, the second section begins with a passage which is formally poetic, foregrounding the techniques and diction of verse. However, in East Coker, the most startling aspect of Section II is the rapidity with which the writer disowns the opening passage:

That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory:

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

The language here is prosaic and the introduction of the impersonal pronoun ‘one’ in place of ‘me’, ‘us’ or even ‘you’ is notably awkward. If the poetry ‘does not matter’ what or who is all this for? Once again, we get the sense of internal debate, as if Eliot is talking to himself, even as ‘one’ modulates into a generalised ‘we’ and ‘us’. This may be an attempt to include the audience, to suggest that the poet is speaking on behalf of others at a similar age and stage of life –‘mon hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère’ [3] as he had it in The Waste Land. This sense of an even partly external audience breaks down with the phrase ‘it seems to us’ in line 81, where ‘us’ is fairly obviously an evasion of ‘me’.

 

In 1940, Eliot would have been 52, hardly an old man, yet these lines are a meditation on old age. Someone has said that Eliot was born old and certainly, he seems to have been preoccupied with the notion of age from early in his life. ‘Gerontion’, his dramatic monologue in the voice of an old man, was written in 1920. Here Eliot seems to be debating two points of view which he has found attractive but which are to some extent contradictory. The first is the yearning for a conservative, classical, organically ordered society sometimes placed in the pre-Reformation past and given the name of Christendom. In this reading, the ‘quiet-voiced elders’[4] may be a reference to Sir Thomas Elyot and his ilk. Elyot’s views were certainly conservative and classical. T.S. Eliot quickly rejects this ‘serenity’ as ‘hebetude’ and, with a relish in assonance which belies the depressing content, accuses these forebears of ‘Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit’. In his essay, Traditional and the Individual Talent (1919), Eliot wrote:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

In this poem, in 1940, the ‘serenity’ of a tradition constantly renewing itself by the addition of the new has transformed into a radical uncertainty:

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been.

The poem returns to the theme prefigured in the previous quartet, the descent into darkness, but here the abstract negations are replaced by terrifying gothic images, blending Dante and Sherlock Holmes:

But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,

On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,

And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,

Risking enchantment.

The scholar or theologian will pick up on the allusions in the attempt to follow the writer’s argument and spiritual struggle but the imaginative reader will respond to the lexicon of childhood, folktale and nightmare: ‘monsters’, ‘fancy[5] lights’, ‘enchantment’ and feel the terror. Eliot dismisses the idea of wisdom in old age:

Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or others, or to God.

As he advocates humility as the only path to wisdom, the poet reverts to ‘we’ but this terror of self-surrender must be very personal. The section ends with the disappearance of all the evocations of the past: ‘The houses are all gone under the sea.//The dancers are all gone under the hill.’ The last line, like other parts of this poem, remind me of Puck Of Pook’s Hill (1906). Eliot would have been too old for this as a child, and although he went on to edit a collection of Kipling’s poetry in 1957, I have no idea whether he had read the Puck stories. Nevertheless, in his pursuit of Englishness he had something in common with the earlier writer. Both, in different ways, were the children of Empire and colonization.

 

Section III seems finally to confront death, though the nearest the poet comes to mentioning this idea is in the repetition of ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’ and the image of the ‘silent funeral’:

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,

Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

The reader experiences some kind of sleight of pen at this point as the fear of death, apparently too terrifying even to be said, turns into a vision of annihilation, of total nothingness which seems to be the consequence of this fear and the absence of hope, hope perhaps predicated on the existence of, or the belief in, God. “Without faith in a divine providence, isn’t hope for the future just whistling in the dark?’ asks Richard Norman in a recent article, a question which he goes on to answer positively.[6] Here, Eliot seems certainly to be in the dark, not even prepared to whistle. Suddenly, the first person appears but it is a first person whose immediacy is weakened by the sense that the poet is quoting: ‘I said to my soul be still, and let the dark come on you’ which echoes the Lutheran hymn ‘Be still my soul’ and, ultimately the Psalms. Again, Eliot seems to be seeking the dark way towards God. The line is like a reverse of the experience of the shepherds at the Nativity in the Gospel of St. Luke: ‘And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them’(Luke,2, ix) or even like a yearning for some kind of dark annunciation. The key point is the subduing of the will and suggestion that ‘faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting’, gifts to be conferred by God, not achieved through any act of will. However, Eliot explores his idea of an extreme negativity through three analogies from contemporary life which he expects ‘we’ will recognise and share; in all three situations, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ are increasingly passive and powerless, threatened with darkness, first as theatre audience, then as passengers on the underground and finally as patients in the operating theatre. It is difficult not to see this abnegation of the will and the self as also an abdication of or flight from responsibility. The poem then signals the possibility of redemption, not only of the self but also of history as we return to the imagery of Burnt Norton: ‘The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy/Not lost’. However, the poet may be showing us here that his theme has developed because it seems that this redemption can only occur through ‘the agony/Of death and rebirth’ which revalues the ‘dung and death’ of Section II and points to the necessity of the Incarnation. This moment of insight is shortlived as the last verse paragraph of this section declines into prosaic verbosity. ‘You say I am repeating/Something I have said’ before. I shall say it again?/Shall I say it again? This is followed by a decline into a further series of paradoxes admonishing ‘you’ in a rather irritating schoolteacher tone only tolerable if we recognise that Eliot is again addressing himself. Or, if we acknowledge that this passage paraphrases the words of St John of the Cross[7], then we could say that the poet is being instructed by the saint. However, the effect is of second-hand mysticism reduced in power.

 

Section IV is generally recognised to be a Christian allegory. Although he uses a regular form, five rhymed stanzas of five lines, each composed of four tetrameters with a final hexameter, Eliot sticks with the first person, albeit mostly first person plural. The dominant image of the passage is the hospital and we might reflect on how much of his life, Eliot himself was undergoing some kind of medical treatment, whether it was for his teeth or his mental health. Personally, I find this section rather horrible, lurid in the same way as the statues of Christ with electrically lit bleeding hearts found in some Catholic houses. Perhaps the lines have this effect because Eliot, who always seems the most cerebral of writers and who had a known distaste for physicality, is trying here to grapple with the realities of flesh and blood, which have to be accepted if you accept the idea of Christ’s incarnation and passion.

The dripping blood our only drink,

The bloody flesh our only food:

In spite of which we like to think

That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –

Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

I have read that this quartet was first published on Good Friday; I’m not sure if this is apocryphal, but again we see the poet entering into temporality, the here and now of wartime London in 1941.

 

Part V, opens with a first person who is clearly Eliot, despite the odour of Dante which persists throughout the work: ‘So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years – / Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres –‘. It is unclear here whether the tone here is of despair or a sort of arch false modesty. As in Burnt Norton and Little Gidding , the poet uses the final section to address the problems of writing.

And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Striking in this passage are the military semantic field – ‘raid’, ‘shabby equipment’ , ‘undisciplined squads’ and the horror of emotion. Philosophically, this can be attributed to Eliot’s commitment to classicism, which prioritised reason over emotion; personally, it seems to reflect the introverted and repressed nature of the man. The imagery of battle which continues with ‘conquer’, ‘strength and submission’ and ‘fight’ reminds us that this poem was written in time of war, which the poet refers to with prodigious understatement as ‘conditions/That seem unpropitious’. I am not sure what he means when he talks about the ‘fight to recover what has been lost/ And found and lost again and again”. He may mean the desire to redeem the past and the belief that this can only be only possible through faith. The last verse paragraph from line 190 onwards seem to be more mellow, even more optimistic and when he speaks of a ‘lifetime burning in every moment’ he seems more intent on how life is lived on earth than the pursuit of ‘isolated’ moments of vision. The view of old men is also more positive: they may not have ‘wisdom’ but they ‘ought to be explorers’. The poem ends with a reversal of the opening, obviously a reference to death and the life to come, but also a self referential segue to the next quartet where the key element will be ‘water’:

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

            Through the dark cold and empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

[1] A different though not necessarily contradictory reading can be found in A Gloss on `Daunsinge’: Sir Thomas Elyot and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets by Linda Bradley Salamon

ELH, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter, 1973), pp. 584-605. Accessed 16.10.2018 at http://www.academia.edu/642611/A_Gloss_on_Daunsinge_Sir_Thomas_Elyot_and_TS_Eliots_Four_Quartets

[2] See Chapter 22, The Book of the Governor, Sir Thomas Elyot, 1531

[3] The quotation from Baudelaire seems to me to suggest what poets are looking for in a reader: someone who will be completely in tune with them, understanding and appreciating everything they are trying to say. Thus, even for the most extrovert of writers, their first and best audience is themselves.

[4] This suggestion is taken from Salamon, op. cit.

[5] ‘fancy lights’ here means not something really pricy from John Lewis, but lights which are fanciful, or unreal, will-o’-the-wisps, as in Blake’s illustration to ‘The Little Boy Lost’ in Songs of Innocence.

[6] Relevant to this argument is the recent discussion between Richard Norman and Tony Carroll about the possibility of hope, published in the magazine Sofia, no.129, September 2018.

[7] See Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S. Eliot, Chapter 7, p. 168(Faber Paperback, 1949; 1968 this edition)

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets

1. Burnt Norton

Recently, at a poetry reading, someone asked me who poets wrote for and why. This question chimed with my rereading of T.S.Eliot’s The Four Quartets. The questions which arose in my mind, were to do with audience and purpose. Who was Eliot writing the poems for and why did he write them at all? Unlike The Waste Land, where there is a variety of voices and the poet appears absent or occluded by them, in The Four Quartets there is a controlling first person presence, who sometimes seems to be a rather magisterial donnish or public figure, sometimes an agonized private consciousness riven by guilt and doubt. T.S. Eliot is said to have come to Christianity through a long and, in his own view, consistent process of intellectual exploration: In his introduction to Pascal’s Pensées (1931), he wrote

[The Christian thinker] finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory: among religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world and especially for the moral world within; and thus, by what Newman calls ‘powerful and concurrent’ reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation.[1]

Eliot’s conversion seems to have been willed, a choice rather than a Damascus moment, and it seems that following his intellectual commitment he struggled to subdue his emotions and sentiments to the commitment he had made. Nevertheless, it seems also that he was attracted by the discipline of Anglo-Catholic practice, by the Sacrament of penance and by the various mortifications expected of the devout adherent, from the period of fasting before Holy Communion, the insistence on eating fish on Friday all the way to the vow of celibacy he apparently took in 1928 at the time when he was separating from his wife. He claimed that nothing could be ‘too ascetic’. He believed that the exercise of his faith should involve not only the rigorous observation of outward forms but also the persistent spiritual and intellectual battle to sustain faith against the scepticism and doubt which were always with him:

 

For him, religious belief was in constant tension with scepticism: ‘it takes application, and a kind of genius, to believe anything, and to believe anything …will probably become more and more difficult as times goes on… There is always doubt.’[2]

 

Thus we may see The Four Quartets, at least in part, as a spiritual exercise or even a penance; a prolonged effort by the poet to order his ideas and his emotions in order to approach the spiritual freedom and certainty he yearned for. Nevertheless, the voice of the poems is also infused with Eliot’s sense of himself as a public figure, a social critic, almost an elder of the tribe; this is increasingly true in the three last quartets, published in wartime, in 1940, 1941 and 1942. I should like to consider these questions of voice, tone and audience by looking more closely at the way in which the poems address the reader at different points, specifically through the way in which the poet makes use of personal pronouns. This post will be concerned with Burnt Norton and I intend to discuss the three subsequent quartets in three further posts.

 

Burnt Norton was originally a stand-alone piece and completed considerably earlier than the others, in 1936. The poem opens with a fairly bald statement of the theme or argument and only introduces a personal pronoun in line 12, ‘the passage which we did not take’. This ‘we’ may be inclusive, allowing readers to recall their own missed opportunities, although it could also be as A.N. Wilson suggested in his recent television documentary, Return to T.S.Eliotland[3], a reference to his relationship with Emily Hale, to whom he had been close since a young man and who was with him when he visited Burnt Norton while walking in the Cotswolds. The subsequent lines

‘My words echo/ Thus, in your mind.’ would then seem personal, with the ‘your’ addressing a specific other, rather than a generalised public. This reading also sharpens the regret and feeling of futility in revisiting the past, so that the first use of the first person singular ‘I’ sounds vulnerable rather than vatic:

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

However, Eliot’s immense reserve and his doctrine of impersonality tend to deter us from looking for such specific references or readings, while his very conscious evocation and acknowledgement of cultural and theological reference propel us towards a public or universal explication. Roses and gardens, especially secret or lost gardens, have resonances far beyond a particular manor house in Gloucestershire which may serve to enrich the poem through the symbolism attached to them[4]. This huge cultural burden on the poems works to mask or hide the poet, as Eliot might have hoped, but the intellectual trawl through references and sources may dissipate the emotional power and impact of the poetry. Thus, the subsequent vision of ghostly visions from the past may seem to be a shared moment of enlightenment: ‘They were as our guests’, ‘we moved, and they, in a formal pattern’ ,‘And they were behind us’ but this apparent intimacy is lost in the closing lines when authorship is given to the bird ‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality’ and the poem reverts to the pedagogic pronouncements of the opening. The lyric passage which follows has an aureate style which repels emotion and demands an analytical, decoding response. The ’we’ in line 58 ’We move above the moving tree’ , which is magisterial, the voice from the podium, disappears in the final three line resolution of this section:

Below, the boarhound and the boar

Pursue their pattern as before

But reconciled among the stars

 

The poem moves back to a more philosophical tone and longer line with a series of negative paradoxes attempting to define the ‘still point’ which refers us back to the idea of axis or axle in the previous passage but also connects to the Aristotelian idea of the Prime Mover who does not move, a way of speaking about God. Apart from a rather tetchy imperative ‘And do not call it fixity’ there is no sense of a personal poetic voice in these lines which build to the assertion ‘Except for the point, the still point/ There would be no dance, and there is only the dance’. However, immediately following this, the ‘I’ reappears, yearning for the visionary but indefinable moment which may have been shared ‘there we have been’ or which the poet may be asserting to be an experience which many will recognise. After some further fairly abstract discussion, the poet gives specific examples of these out of time moments of vision or full consciousness: ‘the moment in the rose garden/The moment in the arbour where the rain beat/The moment in the draughty church at smokefall’. The appeal of these examples is that they are both sufficiently specific and general for readers to feel that they do recognise them. Thus we are unsure whether Eliot is here in an internal dialogue with himself, or addressing readers in general or thinking of one specific interlocutor.

 

In Section III of Burnt Norton, there are no personal pronouns at all. The disembodied, disimpersoned voice presents a gloomy vision of modern life , located in ‘the gloomy hills of London’, a phrase which a friend of mine finds hugely irritating as she remembers the London of William Blake.[5] However, this is a very subjective view of London, which perhaps the Blake who wrote ‘London’ in The Songs of Experience might have recognised. Compare Blake’s ‘And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe’ with Eliot’s ‘strained, time-ridden faces’. Section III seems to be a repeat of the description of the ‘Unreal City’ in The Waste Land where the London crowds are shown as inhabitants of Limbo. Here too the citizens are in Limbo, or even Hell: ’Tumid apathy with no concentration, Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind’. Although the poet never uses the pronoun ‘they’, the figures described are criticised as prisoners of the material ‘twittering world’ ( a horribly prescient phrase) who have not discovered ‘the ‘true darkness’. At the same time, the passage only gains its power because we recognise that the ‘unhealthy souls’ here presented are not really ‘they’ but ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘I’, the poetic voice. So in the second part of Section III, when the poet again resorts to the imperative ‘Descend lower, descend only/Into the world of perpetual solitude’ we understand that he is exhorting himself, and that this ‘via negativa’ is not only theological, the approach to God by saying what God is not, but also an attempt to escape the material world, not by rising above it but through a process of mortification which is indicated through the nouns Eliot uses: ‘deprivation’, ‘destitution’, ‘dessication’, ‘evacuation’, ‘inoperancy’, most of which begin with negative prefixes. This takes us back to the biography of the poet and his declaration on conversion that nothing could be ‘too ascetic’. After this denunciation of the world, with its ‘metalled ways/Of time past and time future’, the extraordinarily sensual and natural imagery of Section IV comes as a surprise. Perhaps this is another ‘other’ way; not the path down and away from the senses but the path through them. There is an extraordinary ambivalence in these lines: yearning for the sunflower of the clematis to ‘turn to us’, ‘us’ here being either Eliot and his companion in the Burnt Norton gardens or ‘us’ humankind but also fear and almost repulsion in the verbs which follow ‘clutch and cling’. This is followed by ‘Chill/Fingers of yew’ reminding us of our mortality but somehow in their vegetal nature reminding us of renewal. The passage reaches its climax in the allusion to the ‘kingfisher’, which in its startlingly beautiful and fleeting appearances has traditionally been associated with visionary and idyllic moments.

 

This very short passage is followed by a recapitulation of the key themes and images. Again this section abounds in abstract and paradoxical language which attempts but, at least for me, does not succeed in capturing the mystical or theological ideas about time with which the poet is concerned. Although we may know that the poet is referring to St John of the Cross, for example, and the language may reflect theological and mystical belief, they do not always carry poetic conviction, especially to the untutored reader. We can recognise the following lines as a description of God, but they are poetically unconvincing, providing as they do, a dry-as-dust definition of Love:

Love is itself unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless and undesiring

Except in the aspect of time

Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

In two places emotion breaks through and the writing moves from versified philosophy into poetry. The first is the cry of frustration at the inadequacy of language:

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

The second is in the final lines, where a sense of hurt, having been shut out, excluded from a community, of being oneself the disregarded other, transcends ideas about different periods of time co-existing, or childhood as a type of Edenic innocence. Somehow, for Eliot, it seems always too late; the children will always hide from him and thus he is perpetually condemned to ‘the waste sad time/Stretching before and after.’[6] Thus, although the first person is nowhere used in this section, the poignant ending reflects a poem which is concerned with the personal and spiritual travails of the writer and whose primary audience may have been himself –or God.

[1] Quoted by Benjamin G Lockerd in the Introduction to T.S. Eliot and Christian Tradition 2014, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

[2] Barry Spurr, ‘T.S. Eliot and Christianity’ in The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot, edited by Jason Harding (2017) Cambridge University Press

[3] BBC 4, 9th October 2018

[4] See Annotations to T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets, by Herman Servotte/Ethel Grene, iUniverse, 2010

[5] Conversation with Dinah Livingstone: Jerusalem, ‘To the Jews’ by William blake

The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Her little ones ran on the fields,

The Lamb of God among them seen

And fair Jerusalem his bride,

Among the little meadows green.

Pancras & Kentish Town repose

Among her golden pillars high,

Among her golden arches which

Shine upon the starry sky.

 

[6] Peter Ackroyd (T.S.Eliot by Peter Ackroyd, 1984)suggests this imagery may be based on hearing the voices of schoolgirls in the next-door schoolyard of the Mary Institute. While this may be too reductive, this earlier example of the hortus conclusus is an appealing prefiguring of the gardens at Burnt Norton

What is a ‘prunt? Reflections on Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear.

prunt

If you choose to be a poet, working for the O.E.D. may not be the best day job. Although lexicography and poetry are both preoccupied with language, the sometimes bizarrely esoteric knowledge of the lexicographer may obstruct the aims of the poet. In the work of some dictionary poets, the fascination with etymology and cognates may seem like a parade of cleverness, a way of distancing the reader or even a shield against emotion or feeling. I occasionally felt this kind of irritation when reading Capildeo, generally when the poem seemed more than usually baffling. However, elsewhere I was convinced by the validity of her project and by the way she tied emotion and feeling to thing and place. Take the poem ‘Through and Through’, which is in the section ‘Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis’. Not only does it contain the word ‘prunted’ but also the Italian term ‘incalmo’, as well as a pun on ‘Lattimo’ and ‘l’attimo’: all of these terms are related to the production of glassware and reveal themselves as a coherent extended metaphor in the final lines of the poem:

incalmo joins bubbles blown
separately –two, while hot,
made one – each listed item
here desires liquid, lips;
lights prunted below looped eyes.

This poem comes from the section ‘Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis’, which leads me to consider, first of all, the notion of ekphrastic writing and then to enquire more generally about the practice of poetry.

‘Shameless’ implies an expectation of shame. Why should ekphrasis, the practice of writing a poem prompted by a work of art, be considered shameful? Is it because it is a form of borrowing or piggybacking, exploiting the achievement of another’s creation to give substance to one’s own? This is hardly a valid criticism since all art borrows, or to put it another way, places itself in some sort of cultural context. Perhaps the most famous modern example of ekphrasis is Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts; another which comes to my mind is Robert Duncan’s ‘The Fire –Passages 13’. Poets have always written in response to other works of art; Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ may have been based on a specific work, never identified, or a generalisation derived from the recently arrived Elgin marbles and other Greek sculptures and artefacts., some of which he drew.
220px-Keats_urn

However, we might also remember Keats’ assertion that poetry should ‘come naturally’; at present, ekphrasis is in vogue, and there is a danger of it declining into a workshop prompt, a method of forcing poems that do not need to be written. For me, the test of an ekphrastic poem, is whether it stands on its own. Yet even here, there is a difficulty: the poet may be writing from a different or wider cultural framework than that of the reader. Is she therefore obliged to elucidate all the references in her poem? Obviously, this would be very restrictive; moreover, it begs the question of for whom or why the poem was written. I shall come back to the issue of why these poems have been written but first I would like to consider the idea of audience. The poet’s ideal reader might be a clone of herself, someone who would get all the references, make all the links and appreciate the intention. This reader would also be very bored as much of the pleasure of a poem comes from constructing our own reading of it, independently of the writer and the writer’s purpose. However, the reader may be frustrated when the poem is just too strange, when there doesn’t seem to be enough common ground between reader and writer for the reader to construct their reading. For example, I found the title poem of this collection totally baffling because I was unfamiliar with the Bjork lyric ‘Venus as a Boy’. Admittedly, knowing this did not take me much further forward as I still don’t understand where the bear comes from. Nevertheless, the poem locates itself at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich and appears to be exploring the plight of the cabin boys, who are here presented as victims, an exploited underclass ‘at-risk youth, the trafficked, the fanatics, then known as cabin boys.’ There are hints that the boys, whose voices are ‘treble, breaking, broken’ are at risk from sexual predators “I don’t care to probe the why or wherefore of Lord Nelson’s last words, “Kiss me, Hardy”’ The difference in status between the cabin boy and Lord Nelson is made clear: ‘He wipes his nose on cambric; I wipe mine on my sleeve.’ The cabin boys who are given a voice in this poem are presented as deluded in the same way as Blake’s Chimney Sweeper boys in Songs of Innocence. Both have been given illusory promises of salvation, in this case, reinforced by doses of rum, the sense of duty and a misidentification with the Lord Nelson and the Lord God. Why ‘Venus as a bear’ should represent salvation, I don’t know, but there is a sense of gender blurring or even species blurring in the climactic repetition of the last few lines: “For they believed in beauty; yes, in Venus as a bear; wanted a manifestation; wanted Venus to give salvation; yes, Venus as a bear.’ For what it’s worth, Venus in these lines is in apposition to duty and both are seen as a route (mistakenly?) to salvation. This poem also appears in ‘Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis’ so I am assuming that the artwork is the statues mentioned in the poem, although there could also be a reference to some of the paintings in the Old Royal Naval College. I have found enough in this poem to give me a sense of understanding; besides which, I find its language pleasing, especially the verbal patterning and the collocation of words that fit together through connotation and association, for example, the chapel ‘full of marble caramel, salted with statues’. ‘Salted’ works brilliantly because it connects to caramel and at the same time suggests the sea and that the statues of these boys are a minor ingredient but provide flavour. Again the phrase ‘treble, breaking, broken’ is dynamic with the present participle ‘breaking’, indicating that the boys are passing through puberty but also that they are being forced to endure until the word mutates to the past participle ‘broken’ which suggests that they have been broken, or that they are now ‘broken in’ or that they are now adults whose innocence has been lost.

Other poems totally elude me. ‘Fossil Trade, for Maya’ is one such. It appears as one of a group of poems, all ‘for Maya’ and consists of a block of words in 12 lines of four columns. I do not know whether to read the poem horizontally or vertically, and I can only guess at meanings. The word ‘trade’ occurs 21 times, once as the last word in the first and third columns, nine times in the second column and ten times in the final column. I begin to guess that there is some connection to the slave trade as I spot the words ‘bead’ and ‘trick’ which remind me, perhaps inappropriately, of the Grace Nichols poem, ‘Taint’. I spot other pairs of words: ‘mote/beam’, water/fire’, ‘mother/father’, ‘bread/breast’, ‘trade wind’. I am not sure what to make of ‘fossil’ except that, again probably randomly, I am reminded of Mary Anning, the 19c. fossil collector of Lyme Regis, and the burgeoning trade in fossils arising from the growing interest in palaeontology. Perhaps all the poem is doing is showing us that anything anywhere can be traded, through foul means or fair, by anyone, and that trade is universal. There is private reference in the poem, and I feel that even its block shape is resisting me. I experience this sense of exclusion in other poems and this disturbs me, as I am impressed by the strength and seriousness of Capildeo’s writing. I am forced to ask myself if I am too old, too straight (not just in terms of sexuality), too white or too ignorant to be able to access this poetry fully.

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that reading poetry, just as much as writing it, is hard work and can require considerable commitment from the audience; also, that some poems will always resist some readers and that we may have to accept our own lack of understanding. This is probably what is meant by the blurb which states that the poems ‘require ardent, open forms of reading, in the spirit of their composition.’

The blurb for her previous collection, Measures of Expatriation, quotes Capildeo’s words: ‘Language is my home, I say; not one particular language.’ This is a claim for which she is better qualified than most with her background in linguistic studies and Old Norse as well as her work for the OED. It is an understandable statement from a poet whose own heritage and experience is so diverse in relation to a book which pursues the issue of identity. It is as if language becomes the commonwealth available to all. However, access to this world of language is more equal for some than for others; Capildeo uses the resources of language to construct her own constantly developing idiolect, and thus, in a sense, her self. Measures of Expatriation is a weightier, more painful volume than Venus as a Bear, perhaps because the personal seems less detached.

There may seem to be a danger when a poet commits herself so wholly to the world of language that the physical world and the actual will be left behind. This does not happen in Venus as a Bear which opens gently with a series of animal poems to which most readers can relate and which includes a number of pieces where relationships with friends are embodied in a recognisable manner so that we come to trust her approach to language as sometimes playful but always exploratory. In the sequence ‘Riddles’ the poems are often allowed to develop through sound echoes and associations in order to find their shape and their reference.

I. Chairs. Ruthless cornfield
Counters. Writless canefield.
Lotus. Lotusless CCTV.
Children. Fingers. Children.
Voices. Children. Dodges.
Self-rearranging furniture.
Polytheist plastic. Christmas.
Treble-clef rug.
I don’t know the answer to this riddle, but that is not really the point. The pleasure is in trying to make the links and work it out, rather like the tortuous process of ratiocination on Radio 4’s Brain of Britain quiz programme. I note the phonic transition from ‘Ruthless cornfield’ to ‘Writless canefield’. The first makes me think of Ruth in the ‘alien corn’, therefore of migration, while the second with its ‘canefields’ takes me back to the Caribbean. I have no idea what the Lotus signifies although Google informs me that there is an Indian company, Lotus CCTV –whether or not that is simply coincidence, I don’t know. We are told it is Christmas and there seem to be both a lot of children and a lot of activity –‘Dodges’ and ‘self-rearranging furniture’ but diversity returns in the shape of ‘polytheistic plastic’.

I don’t know exactly what is going on in any of these poems but each takes its place as a locus in the field in which Capildeo works. Again in the blurb, we are told that Venus as a Bear ‘collects poems’ on various topics, but this is to suggest less coherence than there actually is. The poems are firmly located in the world, a fact stressed by the appendix where the poet names the places which are associated with many of the poems. Some poems are not listed and some appear more than once. This device reinforces the impression that the poet is using her poetry to map her being in the world, and who she is might be described as the line of best fit through loci or, alternatively, a constantly evolving dot-to-dot outline.

So if I conclude that Vahni Capildeo’s purpose in writing is both self discovery and self creation, I have to ask again why we might choose to read this poetry. It will not suit those who are looking for ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well-expressed’ since it is poetry which forces us to think in new directions and often to guess at meaning. It will not suit those who are looking for ‘the language really used by men(or women)’ because the language in these poems is often esoteric and academic. It is poetry which destabilises patriarchy as well as the persisting colonial heritage and is designed to make us think in ways which may be uncomfortable but will allow us better to understand the diverse nature of the world in which we live.

Diversity from Oxford

The TS Eliot prize drew criticism for the lack of diversity in its short list, although it was won by the only poet of colour included, Ocean Vuong, who also happened to be gay. However, at the level of the smaller presses, diversity thrives and younger poets from a range of ethnicities and sexual orientations are producing exciting and innovative collections. Two recent publications from poets with Oxford links exemplifying this trend are a hurry of english by Mary Jean Chan, published by ignition press, which is part of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, and Five Storms (smith/doorstop) by Theophilus Kwek, who is a former president of the Oxford Poetry Society and, like Chan, a co-editor of Oxford Poetry.

The blurb to Mary Jean Chan’s book describes her as making a ‘significant contribution to poetry and queer writing in the UK’. Certainly, as a young, Hong Kong Chinese, queer woman, she seems to tick all the boxes. However, there is a danger that her PC rating may obscure the power and strength of her poetry. This is a very strong debut collection which explores and exploits some compelling autobiographical detail. In some ways, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which also mines the process of coming-of-age. As Heaney’s book had the presiding figure of the father, so this one is dominated by the presence of the mother, addressed directly in the opening poem, ‘Always’: ‘You are always where I begin’…
Always the lips kissing
they could kiss those mouths
you would approve of.
Throughout the book, the poem addresses the mother’s life as well as her own. Although Chan was brought up in Hong Kong, her mother seems to have lived in mainland China and experienced the tyranny of the Red Guards. The intellectual oppression is presented in the second poem ‘what my mother (a poet) might say’ where she represents her mother’s ideas and feelings in lines which are cancelled, so that the only line which stands is the repeated and italicised ‘that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy’. The respect for her mother is shown through the tentative ‘might’ of the title. Aside from the typographical innovation of using the strike-through function, this poem is formally beautifully arranged in a series of couplets where the first line is devoted to the mother’s thoughts about her own life, the second to her thoughts about her daughter. In contrast to the glib facility of the refrain, these lines are uncomfortable, acknowledging the complexity of the mother’s character and of the relationship she has with her daughter:
that she dreams about seeing her father’s heart in the doctor’s fist
that I must only write about flowers
Another formally innovative poem is ‘At the Castro’ with the dedication ‘for Orlando’ which I choose to read as an allusion to the bisexual, gender-shifting eponymous protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel. Whatever it may be, the poem itself is set out in two columns which may be a visual representation of two lovers, the space down the centre of the page showing the difficulty of same-sex relationships in a hostile society. The poem celebrates the freedom of self-realisation and ‘coming-out’ possible in a gay club:

the first time you stepped into a gay bar
was the first time you danced

The ‘you’ addressed shifts into third person:
the girl who thought she had to sit down
for the rest of her life broke all the rules
became the wind

and then back into second:

you drank
till you became sober enough not to be
ashamed the boy you never were
smiled kissed
another girl

These changes make it unclear whose experience is being addressed in the poem, whether it is the poet, her lover, or both or whether the figures are generic. Celebration changes to horror as ‘a hand pulls a trigger’, destroying the relationship or relationships. Whether this violence is real or metaphorical, it suggests the risks and fears of being gay but nevertheless finishes with a defiant assertion of the importance of love:
skin is never an apology
but always an act of faith

The collection is woven around the relationship with the mother, with the lover and with the desire to reconcile the mother and the lover. Whereas the title phrase for the book is taken from a prose poem where the mother’s influence is felt as oppressive and English is seen as an escape, ‘My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze’, in //, short-listed for the 2017 Forward Prize, a poem which is perhaps the centrepiece of the book, Chan attempts to construct this reconciliation. The title represents chopsticks: ‘To the Chinese,// you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.’ The poem’s starts with an awkward dinner where the non-Chinese lover is entertained by the hostile family, but moves towards a determination not to be defeated by parental or societal pressure:
Tonight, I am dreaming again
of tomorrow: another chance to eat at the feast of the living

The poem ends by rejecting secrecy and suicide:
I have stopped believing that secrets are a beautiful way

to die. You came home with me for three hundred days –
to show my family that dinner together won’t kill us all.

This idea is reprised in “Love for the Living’ near the end of the book, a celebration of society’s recognition and acceptance of same sex love, which is echoed in the changed attitude of the mother, felt as ‘the ache of pleasure when/your mother mentions your lover’s name.’

The final poem, like the first, centres on the poet’s mother, but the balance of power has shifted. Whilst the first poem is addressed directly to the mother, in an agonised plea for approval and acceptance, in this one the mother is spoken of in third person, as if the poet had succeeded in distancing herself and attaining independent adulthood. She speaks here in the first person, as she recognises her mother’s needs and that she must accept the fact that she cannot solve them or make them her burden.
I can only
invite her to the table: Look,

mother, your hands are beautiful.
Look, mother our tea is ready.

Appropriately, the use of pronouns in this last poem is unambiguous and subtle. The “I” of the daughter ‘speaks confidently to the ‘you’ of the mother, bringing them together in the ‘our’ of the closing line.

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Theophilus Kwek is both startlingly precocious and astonishingly accomplished. He seems to have published his first book at the age of 17 and this ‘New Poet’s Prize’ Smith/Doorstop pamphlet has appeared when he is still only 24. Kwek is prolific and has the ability to respond to the moment with poems far removed from the agonized moans or enraged rants so often produced after major calamities. At the same time, his style is distinctly reticent or even elliptical and tends to incorporate allusions which may require research. Admittedly, that is not so difficult in the age of Google, but it does impede the first reading, as in ‘The Passenger’ where the references to Izanami and Izanagi enrich the poem if the reader understands them. Incidentally, either Kwek or Wikipedia has got the names of these Japanese gods the wrong way round.

He is particularly skilled at presenting natural and physical detail. The first poem in the collection is written in more-or-less rhymed couplets with some powerful internal sound effects as in the second stanza:
Light sown
As haw, thawed streams like cracks in the bone.
The internal rhyme of ‘haw’ with ‘thawed’ contrasts sharply with the onomatopoeic ‘like cracks’ and is followed by the final shocking long rhyming vowel sound in ‘bone’ which emphasizes the whiteness of the snow. However, I am puzzled by ‘haw’, which should be the red of the hawthorn berry, but seems here to mean something more like the ‘hoar’ of a hoar frost. Nor am I quite sure why the thrush is ‘hurtling’. The mysterious quality of the poem is also apparent in the ambiguity of its setting. It begins as a view ‘From a window’ and this idea is reinforced at the end, ‘That through a window comes’ but we cannot be sure if this is a window which is merely that of an observer, or whether it may be a train window, in which case, the poem’s speaker is also involved in the action. A ‘cabin’ is stirred ‘to praise, or something like praise’ and we are left uncertain of the location of the cabin; is it outside the train, part of the train or a synonym for ‘heart’ in the next line? The many hints that this is more than a nature poem about snow culminate in the portentous last half line ‘The right and the wronged’ –perhaps a little too portentous after the subtle ambiguities of the rest of the poem. Another piece that becomes suddenly and heavily significant at the conclusion is ‘What Follows Deer cull, Wytham Woods, 7th February 2015’.
Again, the observation of natural detail is beautiful and convincing: ‘bounding across seed-rows they are gone,/the cracked frost making an ashen path/to a gap in the horse-wire thorn’. However, the last stanza, which uses multisyllabic and royal rhyme, also becomes suddenly abstract: ‘struck on the flint of that eternity/more alive than in the burnished wood.’ Something very odd is happening: ‘struck on the flint’ has connotations both of shooting and of making light or fire, while the adjective ‘burnished’ transforms the wood from nature into a work of art. The poet is writing about the creation of an image, the image that he missed with his camera, but which has been captured by the eye, memory and the poem.

There is a wide range of subject matter here, with poems based on anything from biblical themes to newspaper stories. Perhaps it is easiest to engage with the poems which give us more to go on or where there seems to be some kind of personal involvement. For example, in ‘Requiem’/ Grandfather, 1936-2015, although we may not understand exactly what is happening in the funeral ritual, nevertheless we grasp that a family has been brought together in mourning, and recognise the poet’s hope that he can maintain his love for his surviving relatives:
Teach me now to love, at their frayed ends
the left-behind, their washed and ashen fingers.

The language of the previous two lines suggests that these relationships have not always been easy, ‘our sifted, falling silences, the plunge//of numbed hands under frigid water.’

The final group of sonnets, for which the collection is named, ‘The First Five Storms’, appears to be a sequence of love poems, but the reticence mentioned earlier, make this a very different kind of poetry from that of Mary Jean Chan.
It may be instructive to explore the use of pronouns in these poems. The first person plural is dominant. ‘We’ is used in every poem except iv, ‘Desmond’, where it splits into ‘you’ and ‘I’, a split heralded in iii, ‘Clodagh’, ‘I had come here/ to make resolutions, taste the grey/Christmas skies you loved’. In the first two poems, the ‘we’ is unproblematic; it may be the speaker and his friends or his lover, more likely a lover, given the imagery in the first sonnet, ‘the rest of our days reach in to join fingers/ with the season’s slow dusk’. ‘We’ provides a sense of assurance, a platform, ‘safety in numbers’. In ii, ‘Barney’, the ‘we’ becomes exclusive, almost smug, as it celebrates itself and its own escape from the ravages of the storm, with the ‘dog outside’ perhaps symbolising social exclusion.
We stood, then went in our cars to church,
And scraped our shoes, and left the dog outside.
Clodagh describes experiencing the storm on a sea-crossing to Ireland. ‘You’ sleeps through ‘the thick/of it’, leaving the ‘I’ in the sestet, on his own to make new and unexpected discoveries, perhaps about love: ‘but found instead/fine rain, and land underfoot; gold and myrrh’. ‘Desmond’, the fourth sonnet, is a beautiful poem which seems to refer back to ‘The Weaver’ at the beginning of the book. There the bird’s nest-building seems to represent the enduring love of a parent; here, it seems to be a lesson learned by the speaker, again as the beloved sleeps –‘you had gone up to bed’ – about the power of love to endure, through adversity, a lesson which he shares by directly addressing the beloved:
I cannot explain, love, but I knew
how different they seemed, and how they sang
all the louder in the rain, and flew.

Lesson learned, the poet returns confidently to ‘we’ in the last poem ‘Eva’, which, like the first poem in the book, is set in snow. Poet and beloved ‘set out early’ and come upon ‘the scent of January’s mowing/fresh on fallen grass’ which I take to be snow or perhaps frost. It is further significantly described as ‘a season’s dowry’. The melting of the frost is seen as the first stage in the renewal of fertility which ‘ would put dry earth to grass, and then in time/turn road to wood, and sky, and bark, and moss.’ This poem , like the whole sequence, is in many ways very conventional, with its use of the sonnet and natural imagery to celebrate love. Kwek demonstrates his mastery of the poetic tradition while at the same time displaying linguistic invention and an ability to innovate by pushing the forms to their limits so that the apparently naturalistic poem resonates with subtle and often ambiguous meaning.