Elizabeth Jennings and the poetic vocation

Elizabeth Jennings and the poetic vocation

At the moment, there seems to be a lot of poetry about. Online magazines and small presses proliferate; even the small print magazines seem to be keeping their heads above water.  Some of this may be due to corona virus; people have time to write and even read poetry.  However, as I pick my way through Zoom poetry events, I find myself wondering how it is possible to read with discrimination, or even enjoyment, under this onslaught of words.  I am not complaining about an excess of bad poetry; on the contrary, much of what is available is, thanks to poetry workshops and courses, pretty good.  What is difficult is to discover and recognise the very good, the authentically new, the lastingly valuable.  With an ever-growing pile of magazines, pamphlets and first collections on my desk, I have been tempted to flee, to look backwards and to reconsider some of the older names in the poetry world.

Thus it was that I started reading, or rereading Elizabeth Jennings.  Why? For a start, she once lived at the bottom of my road. Secondly, she is a woman poet who has dropped out of fashion but who had known considerable success, was moderately famous, but never, sadly, rich.  In my mind, she was the sort of poet whose work turned up in GCSE and A-level anthologies. I remembered her poems as thematically unthreatening but with plenty of technical features to be identified in the pursuit of good marks.

Engaging now with the full range of her poetry, I find her more interesting but strange, in the sense of alien. She suffers by being out of tune with her time and even more so with ours. What concerned her has been pushed to the very margin of our concerns today. On a line drawn between Christina Rossetti and Sylvia Plath, she would come much closer to Rossetti, not simply because she was a single woman and deeply religious, but also because she clings to some outmoded nineteenth century poeticisms. She is a little too fond of the exclamatory ‘O’. In ‘In This Time’[1], lamenting the loss of myth and legend which she seems to attribute to excessive introspection and self-absorption, she includes a somewhat startling and metrically unnecessary inversion: ‘Hardly we hear the children shout outside’ as well as an equally unnecessary undirected apostrophe three lines further down, ‘O let the wind outside blow in again’. She is confident with form and her earlier poems were mostly written in carefully organised and rhymed stanzas, made more subtle by half and near rhymes. Even so, sometimes the form pushes her towards conclusions which are too pat, or a rhyme can seem forced, or a line is padded. In ‘Poem in Winter’, the pronoun ‘it’ is awkward in the first stanza as it buckles under the demands of end rhyme:

Today the children begin to hope for snow

And look in the sky for auguries of it.

In the first three lines of the second stanza, there is another awkward ‘it’ forced into prominence by the iambic pattern, while ‘And’ and ‘still’ seem to be there to preserve the metre and ‘indeed’ does more for the rhyme scheme than the meaning.

            And even if the snow comes down indeed

            We still shall stand behind a pane of glass

            Untouched by it,

The last stanza, as rather often in Jennings’ poems, takes on a didactic function, which more contemporary poets would perhaps avoid. Nevertheless, her work is underpinned and strengthened by her vision and sense of vocation, by her ideas of what it was to be a poet. In her case, the poetic vocation was bound in with her Catholic faith although the relationship between her religion and her poetry was not as smooth as she would sometimes have had it appear. Like T.S. Eliot, whom she much admired, she yearned for the mystic’s union with God, and she explored the relationship between mysticism and poetry in Every Changing Shape[2] which, although written relatively early in her career, provides a key to understanding her own poetic vision. She seeks to show, through a study of writers from St Augustine to Wallace Stevens:

Not only …the usefulness of poetry as a vehicle for mystical experience but also …some kind of demonstration, however, tentative, that both mysticism (contemplation) and poetry (making) spring from the same creative source.[3]

She goes on to argue, and here she is close to David Jones, also a poet whose Catholicism is central to his art, that poetry:

…is itself a kind of contact with God. And it can be a contact with God because all art is a participation in the eternal act of creation.[4]

Jennings is careful to maintain the distinction between poetry and mysticism, but values poetry for its power to use the imagination (and imagery) to convey experiences otherwise beyond language.  However, although she holds this exalted view of what poetry can do, only a minority of her own poems are directly concerned with religion. Her themes are childhood, relationships with parents, friends, lovers, nature, loneliness and death. Her poetry is always written out of her own experience and although she abhorred ‘confessional’ poetry, it is difficult to read her work as anything other than autobiographical.  Indeed, because she disapproved so strongly of letting it all hang out and washing the family dirty laundry in public, it is often quite difficult to know what she is talking about in her poems, if, for instance, she is addressing Christ, a friend or a lover in “Transformation’:

            Always I trip myself up when I try

            To plan exactly what I’ll say to you.

            …

            Who could not guess such misery would start

            And stop so quickly, change the afternoon

            And, far more than that, transfigure me.

            Trusting myself, I enter night, stars, moon.[5]

I am inclined to think that this poem is actually addressed to a friend or one of her quasi lovers, as so much of her work seems prompted by actual incidents, even though, as here, it borrows the language of religious or transcendental experience.  The only poem I have found where Jennings does seem to be writing about a personal mystical experience is ‘A World of Light’. The title acknowledges the mystic poetry of Henry Vaughan and in it she describes the sort of encounter which she explores in the work of many of the mystics and poets she considers:

            Then senses ceased and thoughts were driven quite

            Away (no act of mine). I could relax

            And feel a fire no earnest prayer can kindle;

            Old parts of peace dissolved into a whole

            And like a bright thing proud in its new plumage

            My mind was keen as an attentive bird.[6]

However, unlike Vaughan she becomes self-conscious and the final stanza suggests that she feels that her language and her imagery are second-hand and inadequate:

            Yes, fire, light, air birds, wax, the sun’s own height

            I draw from now, but every image breaks.

            Only a child’s simplicity can handle

            Such moments when the hottest fire feels cool.

            And every breath is like a sudden homage

            To peace that penetrates and is not feared.

Incidentally, Jennings skill is demonstrated by the way she has used the same end sounds in all five stanzas of this poem. Despite this virtuosity with form, the imagery is less convincing.  The ‘hottest fire’ that ‘feels cool’ recall simultaneously the cleansing fires of purgatory and the oxymoronic language of courtly love. We might wonder why in the last line ‘peace’ should be ‘feared’ and question whether she is talking not about a peace but a penetration that need not be feared.  Jennings was known to have a fear of sex and it is doubtful if any of her various love relationships were ever physically consummated. Rather conveniently, she transfers the responsibility to one of her loves, apparently a Catholic priest:

            Only in our imaginations

            The act is done, for you have spoken

            Vows that can never now be broken. 

            I keep them too – with reservations;

            Yet acts not done can still be taken

            Away, like all completed passions.[7]

I don’t really know what the last lines of this stanza mean and the final stanza of the poem also strikes me as a fudge:

            A touching, then a glancing off.

            It is your vows that stretch between 

            Us like an instrument of love

            Where only echoes intervene.

            Yet these exchanges are enough

            Since strings touched only are most keen.

There is a feeling that she has successfully worked through the metaphoric vehicle, but that the actual experience, the underlying tenor remains stubbornly unchanged.

 Of course, she was completely aware that sexual imagery is often used as a way of conveying mystical experience, something that she acknowledges in her discussion of St John of the Cross.[8] I am wary of tipping over into prurience when discussing Jennings but the tone and content of her love poetry, which often seems to have an adolescent intensity, would be easier to understand if more was known about her life.  The only biography, The Inward War by Dana Greene, while it supplies possible names and dates, does very little, despite its title, to illuminate the poet’s inner conflicts. Perhaps biography shouldn’t matter, and the best poems can be appreciated without it. Nevertheless, so much of her work clearly springs from the day to day events in her life that a better knowledge of what was actually going on would be beneficial, partly because the less successful work does not detach itself fully from the context.  Jennings’ poetry invariably strikes us as searingly emotionally honest, but she keeps a great deal from us. Some of her most compelling poems draw on her experience of mental illness in hospital. In ‘The Visitors’, Section V of ‘Sequence in Hospital[9] she describes the difficulties of dealing with visitors, whose ‘kindness makes [her] want/ To cry’ but whose visit leaves her feeling ‘limp and faint’. However, the poem ends with an address to an unnamed you:

            Your absence has been stronger than all pain

            And I am glad to find that when most weak

            Always my mind returned to you again.

            Through all the noisy nights when, harsh awake,

                        I longed for day and light to break – 

            In that sick desert, you were life, were rain.

In this case, the imagery of light, life and rain incline me to think she means Christ, but there is an almost coy awareness of the traditional overlap of language in the treatment of sacred and profane love.

The themes which emerge most strongly from Jennings’ work are a yearning for the innocence of early childhood which is linked to a prelapsarian view of Nature and a pervasive fear which is never made specific but overshadows her entire oeuvre. These ideas come together in an early poem, ‘Reminiscence’,[10] where she speaks of childhood as ‘cloudless and gentle’, as life experienced through the senses before the life of the mind introduced ‘something’ which ‘made [her]numb with fear’. This disabling fear may be related to the growth of consciousness, it may be related to her difficult relationship with her father, it may be a fear of sex or of God derived from her early and unhappy perception of the Catholicism she was born into, or it may be simply an existential dread.

On the other hand, ‘The Fear’ hints at something more specific:

            When still within I carry an old fear

            A child could never speak about, disgrace

            That no confession could assuage or clear.[11]

It is known that as a young person she found her religion oppressive, and this was something she only overcame when she went to Rome and discovered a joyful way of living with her faith. Nevertheless, the memories of childhood unhappiness were enduring as shown in ‘First Confession’, a poem from the 1990’s.

                                    My spirit had been light

            And happy for six years.  I lost my trust

            And learnt a little of the spirit’s night.[12]

Despite her apparently unquestioning acceptance of her religion – she protests, she struggles, but never denies it – it does not seem to have brought her happiness even though she used it to underpin her poetic vision. It seems to me that her first loyalty is to poetry even though she longs for the mystical experience which would reward her faith.  Her vocation is poetic, not religious. In ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’[13]she considers the differences:

            Your vows enfold you.  I must make my own;

            Now this, now that, each one empirical.

            My poems move from feelings not yet known,

            And when the poem is written I can feel

                        A flash, a moment’s peace.

She makes comparisons elsewhere between the experience of vision of transcendence which the mystic may seek language for and the momentary achievement of vision which the poet feels, having written successful poem.  The poem’s final stanza suggests that the darkness which for the religious is the absence of God is for her the silence when the words for the poems do not come.

            Yet with the same convictions that you have

            (It is but your vocation that I lack),

            I must, like you, believe in perfect love.

            It is the dark, the dark that draws me back

                        Into a chaos where

            Vocations, visions fail, the will grows slack

            And I am stunned by silence everywhere.

Silence is identified with chaos, whereas the poem is a device for creating order. I think this is why Jennings was so prolific, writing compulsively, up to three poems a day, even when most ill or unhappy : ‘Coins, counters, Towers of Babel/ Mad words spoken in sickness too – / All are considered, refined, transformed / …And stored and given back – and true.’[14] In another poem she says ‘poetry must change and make/ The world seem new in each design’. The stress is on design, form, number and imagery, the power of the imagination to create pattern and order, however fleeting. This ‘flash’ is the poet’s participation in divine creativity. Rebecca Watts argues that Jennings did not write in order to heal her wounded psyche, but because ‘she felt that writing poetry was “ the one thing I can do”’.  I think this was a way of overcoming the fear, the darkness and the silence, or at least holding it at bay.

We can see that Jennings had an elevated view of the poet’s calling and that her ‘vision’ was coherent throughout her career.  Childhood is Edenic and associated with the joy in the natural world; it is destroyed by fear and guilt and Jennings accuses adults of creating this sense of fear in children much too early. She values friendship, love as agape, but suffers from unfulfilled desire, fear, guilt and loneliness. She yearns for the solace of her religion but only rarely can she reconcile the demands of her ‘hard creed’ and her impulse to poetry:

            Always that dark cross throws its shadow on me

            And I am often in the garden where

            Christ came so often to the brink of despair.

            It is, I think, in my own poetry

            I meet my God.  He’s a familiar there.[15]

Alice Oswald argued, in her inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, that great poets had a unified vision, whereas minor poets did not.  This is a debatable distinction and I would suggest that while Elizabeth Jennings did have a unified vision, she is only occasionally great. Often her language and her form do not hold up under the strain she puts on them; sometimes she drops back into banality.  Nevertheless, she had a lifelong commitment to poetry and there are many ‘flashes’, whether whole poems, stanzas or memorable lines or images.

This brings me back to my feelings of uneasiness when contemplating the current poetry scene. What is required to be a poet? What is poetry for? These are silly questions, because they are so wide-ranging. Poetry has been used for everything from trying to seduce a lover (though it is unlikely that many seduction poems were written primarily for this purpose) to entertainment, to recording and celebrating a shared history to praising God. The training to be a Bard in ancient Ireland was long and rigorous and involved a huge amount of memorising as well as learning complicated traditional rhyme schemes, metaphors and similes.  A sixteenth century Elizabethan gentleman would have been expected to be able to compose verses as well as wield a sword.  John Donne, whose verses were circulated among friends, could be described as an amateur poet: Shakespeare was obviously a professional. No matter what the background, any decent poet will have learned from their predecessors.  Even John Clare, isolated in rural Helpston, was desperate for books and found his early inspiration in The Seasons by James Thomson.  Whether the poet starts young or comes to poetry later in life, they will develop as they assimilate the work of the past and of their contemporaries.  Some writers will become central to them, touchstones they regularly return to, as, for example, Alice Oswald does to the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Poets also learn by sharing their work with their contemporaries and accepting constructive criticism. This is a process which has become almost industrialised through Creative Writing Degrees, poetry workshops and institutions such as the Arvon Foundation and The Poetry School. The fact that these organisations seem to flourish reflects the level of demand.  There is also a multitude of small presses, print and online little magazines and local poetry nexuses, many of them surviving on minimum funds through the energy and hard work of dedicated enthusiasts. The Alchemy Spoon[16] is a new print magazine, a courageous venture at a time when our entire lives seem to be going online.  Its inaugural edition includes some impressive poems from writers well-known and not so familiar.  The introductory editorial by Vanessa Lampert is also interesting.  She explains the magazine’s commitment to ‘welcoming older unpublished and new phase writers to our pages’. The phrase ‘new phase’ apparently refers primarily to those who have come to poetry later in life, although Lampert also suggests that the ‘new’ of ‘new phase’ refers to poets who have ‘remained alert to the athleticism of poetics and the potential of poetry to branch out and articulate the ethereal and changeable feeling states of our lives.’  This seems admirable, but I am more concerned by her earlier suggestion:

The art of poetry offers writers the opportunity to abandon the conformity embedded in the way we learn to use language, to reach out and seek invention.  Additionally, poems can free us from the tiresome constraint of always being required to tell the truth.

In the world of Trump and Johnson, where the tiresome constraint of telling the truth seems to have been rendered null and void, it would seem preferable to suggest that poetry is indeed a way of telling the truth, albeit through such lying devices as metaphor and imagery. The emphasis on playfulness also worried me, although I recognise that poetry and all art does have a ludic function. The quality of the poetry in this magazine, the level of engagement of the interviews and essays belie these suggestions of hobby writing, or poetry as something to do when you have retired.  I doubt if Elizabeth Jennings would have welcomed a description of her work as either untruthful or playful and, as someone who had devoted her entire life to her art, she might have been lukewarm about the notion of ‘new phase.


[1] New Selected Poems, ed. Rebecca Watts, Carcanet, 2019, p.17

[2] First published by Andre Deutsch, 1961; paperback edition, Carcanet, 1996

[3] p.18, paperback edition

[4] p.30 ibid.

[5] Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1986, p.107

[6] New Selected Poems, p.60

[7] ‘The Instrument’, New Selected Poems, p.74

[8] ‘The Innocent Audacity -An Approach to St John of the Cross’ in Every Changing Shape

[9] From Recoveries, New Selected Poems, p.78

[10] New Selected Poems, p.3

[11] New Selected Poems, p.42

[12] New Selected Poems, p.166

[13] Ibid. p.68

[14] “Any Poet’s Epitaph’, ibid.p.107

[15] ‘A way to a creed’, ibid.p.147

[16] The Alchemy Spoon, Issue 1, Summer 2020. Edited by Roger Bloor, Vanessa Lampert, Mary Mulholland.

NO FAR SHORE by Anne-Marie Fyfe

Anne-Marie Fyfe

A whole year without seeing the sea. Last year, I was lucky: I went to St David’s in Wales, to the coastal path of Cornwall and to the Island of Elba, off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean. Not to Ireland, not last year – too complicated and too expensive.  Now I’m sitting at my computer, browsing ferry prices, contemplating running the gauntlet of Covid and the weather, in a last-minute effort to get to Ballycastle beach. Inland, in Oxford, as far as it is possible to be from the sea in England, I have been surfing the Internet, browsing poets and making unexpected links.  So it was, by a process of one thing leading to another, that I came across Anne-Marie Fyfe and her 2019 book, No Far Shore.[1] I have known of Fyfe for many years, but I have not read her poetry; nor did I know until now that she grew up in Cushendall. It was this fact as well as her enthusiasm for the work of Elizabeth Bishop which drew me in. I have only just discovered Bishop’s poetry, in the sense of ‘getting’ it, although I had in the past read a number of her poems with nothing more than polite admiration.

No Far Shore is a mix of memoir, poetry and travel writing. It touches on what is familiar to me, the Antrim coast and the Achill Islands, writers like Bishop and Melville and MacNeice but also introduces places and writers I don’t know or have never visited, like Martha’s Vineyard, Nova Scotia and the work of Robinson Jeffers, whose writing I barely remember from my Faber anthology of American Literature at university. Usually, I don’t like mixtures of poetry and prose, because I find that I need to change gear when moving from one to the other, which I find uncomfortable and often leads to paying less attention to the poems than they deserve. However, I enjoyed this book, partly because of the combination of the familiar with the unknown, and partly because of what the poet had to say about the sea, which, if you have grown up close to it, exerts a magnetic influence all through life. Although I grew up in Belfast, Ballycastle, on the other side of Fair Head from Cushendall, was almost a second home for me, in childhood, adolescence and even into my twenties.

Fair Head, seen from Ballycastle beach

Fyfe pays attention to coasts as liminal places, the border between water and land, but also acknowledges the pull of the horizon, that sense of boundlessness that the sea offers and which we fear and yearn after. She explores this in the title poem, which is taken from an earlier collection, Late Crossing:

            NO FAR SHORE

            It will be winter when I untie

            The boat for the last time:

            when I double-lock the back door

            on an empty house,

            go barefoot through bramble

            & briar, measure each 

            stone step to the slipway.

            It will be night-time when I row

            to the horizon,

            steady in the North-Star light

            the darkened house at my back.

            It will be winter when I draw

            each oar from the water,

            shiver,

            & bite the cold from my lip.

Another interesting poem, which accompanies Fyfe’s exploration of the idea of North, is ‘NORTH HOUSE’.  Although Fyfe’s take on North is very different from that of Seamus Heaney, this poem reminds me of Heaney’s ‘Storm on the Island’, which, despite its place on the GCSE syllabus, has always struck me as portentously heavy-footed.  Like Heaney’s poem, Fyfe’s appears to be allegorical and is one of the few places where she addresses the political context as she refers to ‘A mansard dwelling that guards its northernness’ and ‘Our north-wing corridors are the iciest in history.’  She does also write about her grandparents’ mixed marriage in relation to the building of the Titanic.  Her grandfather was a Protestant and therefore able to work in the shipyards where Catholics were not welcome. 

This is not a review and I have not worked out in my own mind how I feel about the poems in this book. However, I have been encouraged to look further at Anne-Marie Fyfe’s work and inspired with a longing to return to the sea, best evoked for me by lines from Seamus Heaney, which although they do not refer to the Antrim coast, catch the magic of light on water and of the opening up of vistas.

            And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,…

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

                                                            ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level


[1] Seren,2019.

Thinking with feelings: a reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ compared with the prose of ‘The Country Mouse’.

Elizabeth Bishop described writing poetry as ‘thinking with feelings’[1]; in the conventional division between logic and emotion, this phrase seems to be an oxymoron; from a different point of view, it is a representation of the ‘unified sensibility’ which Eliot identified in the metaphysical poets. Many readers have recognised the elusive nature of Bishop’s work, even when it seems most straightforward.[2] This arises partly from the accuracy of her descriptions which often seem to have the objectivity of science combined with her use of these observations as part of the process of thinking through what she is feeling so that what she describes always resonates with what lies under the surface. Her poems are notable for how they travel, for their ‘journeys’, even when they are cast in forms as static and restrictive as the villanelle (‘One Art’) and the sestina (‘A Miracle for Breakfast’).[3] Despite her skill and fluency in using fixed forms, many of her poems, particularly the later ones, are in free verse. Most of them are based on personal experience, events or periods which she may also have recorded in memoir or autobiographical fiction, in prose which, like her verse, conveys an observer’s cool objectivity even when what they recount is deeply subjective. 

‘In the Waiting Room’ which appeared in Geography III, (1976), revisits some of the same material as found in the autobiographical memoir, The Country Mouse (1961). Both pieces describe a visit to the dentist with an aunt which triggers a traumatic recognition of selfhood. ‘In the Waiting Room’ is written in free verse and is quite long, nearly three pages of verse; the incident described in prose takes half a page, and uses just over half as many words. Here is the paragraph:

After New Year’s, Aunt Jenny had to go to the dentist, and asked me to go with her. She left me in the waiting room, and gave me a copy of the National Geographic to look at.  It was still getting dark early, and the room had grown very dark.  There was a big yellow lamp in one corner, a table with magazines, and an overhead chandelier of sorts.  There were others waiting, two men and a plump middle-aged lady, all bundled up.  I looked at the magazine cover – I could read most of the words – shiny, glazed, yellow and white. The black letters said: FEBRUARY 1918.  A feeling of absolute and utter desolation came over me.  I felt…myself.  In a few days it would be my seventh birthday.  I felt I, I ,I, and looked at the three strangers in panic.  I was one of them too, inside my scabby body and wheezing lungs. “You’re in for it now,” something said.  How had I got tricked into such a false position?  I would be like that woman opposite who smiled at me so falsely once in a while.  The awful sensation passed, then it came back again.  “You are you,” something said.  “How strange you are, inside looking out.  You are not Beppo, or the chestnut tree, or Emma, you are you and you are going to be youforever.”  It was like coasting downhill, this thought, only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree. Why was I a human being?

The prose, which uses very simple language and syntax in a way which suggests a child’s language or a spoken anecdote, conforms to Labov’s framework for oral narrative,[4] both in structure and linguistic features. It opens with an abstract, telling us what the story will be about – the visit to the dentist. It continues with orientation, with lots of descriptive detail building up time and place ‘the waiting room’, the ‘big yellow lamp’, the ‘overhead chandelier’. Past progressive tenses are used to set the scene: ‘It was still getting dark early’, ‘There were others were waiting’. These are succeeded by simple past verbs indicating that the complicating action of the story has begun; ‘I looked at the magazine cover’, ‘I felt I, I, I, and looked at the three strangers in panic’. The actions are interspersed with evaluation, the writer’s comments on her own story. These feature modal verbs and comparisons with unrealised events: ‘I would be like that woman opposite’, ‘It was like coasting downhill’ as well as intensifying evaluative adjectives such as ‘absolute and utter’ and ‘awful’. The resolution or final action of the story ‘it quickly smashed into a tree’ reveals the writerly nature of this story because the subject of the simile in the ‘unrealized comparison’ ‘it was like coasting downhill”  becomes the actor in the final action, transposing the whole story from literal to metaphor. The message or meaning of the story is carried in the coda: ‘Why was I a human being?’ The writer has simultaneously recognised her own selfhood and that she is a member of a species.  She is both ‘you forever’ and ‘one of them’.

Bishop’s story or anecdote differs from the account of the same incident as presented in the poem, but neither of them are factual accounts of what actually happened. [5] Although both are very carefully located in time and space, they describe a subjective experience or memory which is unverifiable.  Despite shared features, which make it clear that they are different explorations of the same event, we can see that in each, Bishop thinks with feelings which take her and her readers to different places and that these differences are realised through differences in content, structure and form.

In the prose paragraph, Bishop focuses on her self, on the discovery of her selfhood, ‘I felt… myself’ and thinks through what it is to have that feeling. The ellipsis and the italics emphasize the shock of recognition as does the second use of italics and repetition, ‘I, I, I’ as she struggles to understand the significance of the first person pronouns. Italics are used again for ‘you’ and ‘one’, as she tours around the idea of self.  There is a peculiar dialectic at work as she moves between the feeling of individuation, separate from the world, ‘not Beppo[6], or the chestnut tree, or Emma’, and recognition of herself as part of the species, ‘I was one of them’. Part of this unwelcome realisation is a strong awareness of the restriction of physicality. Just as the middle-aged woman opposite her is ‘all bundled up’ so she is confined ‘inside her scabby body and wheezing lungs.’[7] The sense of revulsion she feels against the others in the waiting room becomes self-disgust. As well as the restrictions of the flesh, and of clothes, she also anticipates being bound into the social code, of smiling ‘falsely’ as she accuses the middle-aged woman of doing. 

This is a dramatic story, presented, as we have seen, in narrative form; even though the events are thoughts not deeds and entirely subjective, they are given a setting and then recounted in a succession of past simple verbs: ‘I looked’, ‘the black letters said’, ‘ a feeling…came over me’, ‘I felt’, ‘the awful sensation passed…came back’, ‘it quickly smashed’.  As in oral narrative, the author evaluates or comments events as she recounts them.  In the poem, however, the sequence of events, while still present, takes second place to the thinking through and expanding on the feelings experienced.

The poem opens with the same setting as the prose, in a dentist’s waiting room on a winter afternoon. The language at the beginning of the poem is paratactic, using short sentences and clauses connected by ‘and’:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early.

This could create the effect of a child’s perceptions, but it also suggests that the writer is tiptoeing around the experience before she begins to explore the feelings it evoked.  Notably, the poem is firmly placed in Massachusetts, home of Bishop’s family on her father’s side whom she lived with after her early years in Nova Scotia with her mother’s parents. She never felt as comfortable in this second placement so the emphasis on location may prepare us for the sense of alienation later in the poem. Although at this point the poem is following the narrative structure of the prose, already evaluation is coming to the fore as the writer examines the significance of her story for her, rather than simply telling it. The modal verb in the parenthesis, ‘(I could read)’, may suggest the adult looking back at the child’s experience, perhaps with a sense of pride, but possibly also reassuring herself about the moment or stage in her own development.  When she notes that she ‘carefully’ studied the photographs, we are again detached from the child’s experience and shown the adult looking back, rather as if the camera had pulled back from a shot of the magazine to show the whole scene: a precocious child sitting on a chair with a magazine which is not appropriate for her surrounded by adults she doesn’t know. 

A major difference from the prose version is the importance of this National Geographic magazine. In the prose, we never get past the cover but here we dive straight into the content of what is implied to be the February 1918 issue. Apparently Bishop checked the magazine in 1967, when she was near to completing the poem, confirming ‘a photo essay on  “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” that “has been haunting me all my life, apparently”’.[8] The pictures in this essay, which was about Alaska ,have been conflated with many other images from elsewhere. For instance, Osa and Martin Johnson, an American couple who were explorers, were in the Pacific in 2017 and the story of their adventures was made into a feature film but I can find no trace of them in the contents of the National Geographic in February 2018 or any of the issues for the previous year. I can remember from my school library, or possibly also from dentist or doctor waiting rooms, those yellow bordered and often dog-eared National Geographics, which were supposedly educational but provided insights into the truths about adult human bodies, so decorously clothed in everyday life. I also remember pictures of African women with their necks impossibly extended by an accumulation of neck rings.  After the protracted, almost fearful orientation stage of the poem, she plunges from a colon into a collage of photographs which opens with a terrifying, hell-like description of a volcano:

the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.

This is one of several dizzying and disorienting moments in the poem. Suddenly, it is as if we are no longer in the waiting room but inside the volcano made more terrifying by the active verbs which convey movement despite being based on a still photograph, quite probably in black and white. It functions as a transition and is paralleled by the transition at the end when the protagonist emerges from her altered state back into the here and now of the waiting room:

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth 
of February, 1918.

The way she presents the return to everyday consciousness in the poem is very different from the metaphor of smashing into a tree in the prose. It is an inward-looking attempt to describe a loss of control or even of consciousness and creates a sense of vertigo and nausea through the blackness of the wave which complements the blackness of the volcano, two elemental and overwhelming images of fire and water.

The volcano is succeeded by a succession of pictures, which could represent the way the little girl turns the pages,[9] focusing mainly on the photographs, despite her reading skills. The impact of these images is to make her recognise her nature as a human, specifically as a human animal and a gendered human animal at that.

Rather strangely, the first image Bishop notes is of Osa and Martin Johnson, ‘dressed in riding breeches,/laced boots, and pith helmets.’  It may be that she is trying to diminish or dismiss gender difference: she names Osa first, and presents the pair in unisex clothing. However, the following pages or images, which show people undressed, defeat this attempt: ‘black, naked women’ with ‘horrifying’ breasts.  It is striking that so many of the images she details are connected to mutilation: ‘A dead man slung on a pole’, ‘Babies with pointed heads/wound round and round with string’, ‘women with necks/ wound round and round by wire’. The impression of humanity which the child is forming is one of ugliness and vulnerability. The theme of pain and mutilation is transferred from the magazine to the dentist’s surgery through the verbal equivalent of a sleight of hand:

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain

It is not immediately clear whether the pain has come from inside the magazine or inside the surgery, so that ‘Aunt Consuelo’ is put on a level with the ‘black, naked women’. The choice of name for her may also contribute to this, whether deliberately or not. The change from ‘Jenny’ in the prose, comfortably white Anglo-Saxon, suggests Latino, and a lower, oppressed class, an ‘other’ type of humanity. The ‘othering’ of Aunt Consuelo is intensified when Bishop describes her as ‘a foolish, timid woman’. Being foolish and timid, like having ‘awful hanging breasts’, may be part of the condition of being a woman from which Bishop seeks to detach herself. Almost immediately, the perception of the other is overwhelmed by the perception of sameness:

What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt

Again, as boundaries blur and disappear in a fusion of first person plural and singular, there is the sense of vertigo: ‘I- we – were falling, falling’.  In the following stanza, Bishop explores further this new confusion over ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘them’.  She splits herself into ‘I’ and ‘you’ in order to conduct an internal dialogue: ‘I said to myself’; this is a process of ratiocination, used to stave off the existential nausea she is experiencing:

I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.

Although she is thinking, she is thinking with feelings: 

But I felt:[10] you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.

Bishop succeeds brilliantly in showing not only the child coming to an awareness but also the terrifying instability of that self. Recognition of self demands the recognition of, and implies the perpetual struggle to maintain separateness from the other. The result is a confusion which resists language:

How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here

‘Unlikely’ resonates first because of its inadequacy and understatement and then because of its root which is the theme of the poem, ‘likeness’ and ‘unlikeness’, together with the second meaning of ‘unliking’, not enjoying or not being pleased by something, an emotion which is much stronger here than in the prose. The poem ends as it began, with an orientation. However, in this case, the protagonist is orienting herself, establishing the ‘here and now’ which she has so dizzyingly been removed from.


[1] Quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[2] In the Bloodaxe collection of essays, Elizabeth Bishop – Poet of the Periphery, ed. Linda Anderson &Jo Shapcott, 2002, Linda Anderson says that ‘her value seems to elude definition’ while Deryn Rees-Jones admits the ‘mixture of love and resistance’ which has made it hard for her to write about Bishop’s work.

[3] Bishop’s effective use of the sestina and the villanelle have almost won me over to these forms, to which I have previously expressed my antipathy.

[4] Labov’s narrative model
Table and exercise adapted from Sample Unit, Simpson, Paul. Stylistics. London: Routledge, 2005 http://www.routledge.com/textbooks/0415281059/  https://webpages.uncc.edu/~bdavis/LabovHymes.pdf

[5] Bishop’s aunt was not called Jenny or Consuelo.

[6] A dog

[7] Bishop suffered from asthma and eczema.

[8] Letter to Robert Lowell, quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[9] Even though the images included may come from a variety of times and sources. The photograph below from Megan Marshall’s biography was taken by Bishop in her exploration of the interior of Brazil in 1958. ‘Pointy-headed babies’ is probably also an image from the South America. The Olmec people of Mexico apparently bound their babies’ heads to produce a shape like an ear of corn. (Neil MacGregor, History of the World in 100 Objects, Radio 4, repeated 27.08.2020)

[10] My underlining

W.B. Yeats: quarrelling with himself

‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’[1]

Yeats

This famous statement by W.B. Yeats reflects the appeal of his most powerful poems. The poems which I go back to or am rediscovering often possess this quality of emerging from the writer’s internal struggle, which not only elicits an emotional empathy but also creates a dynamic which carries the poem forward. It is this sense of struggle that I responded to as I reread Eliot’s Four Quartets and which I recognise again in Yeats.

 

I was brought up on Yeats, particularly the early poetry and the drama, so, in one sense, his work feels as if it were part of my DNA.  On the other hand, I find many of his ideas antipathetic, offensive or just plain daft, and I have no wish to immerse myself in them.  I have read many demolitions of his romantic ideas about big houses and the role of the aristocracy as well as articles challenging his status as an Irish writer, given his Protestant Ascendancy background, and these have flavoured my attitude over the years. Rereading him now, I recognise that he belongs indisputably, wilfully and complicatedly, to Irish history and culture; I recognise also the heights of sheer brilliance he reaches in language; finally, I recognise and respond to the element of struggle which runs through so much of his poetry but which is perhaps most apparent in his later work.

 

At a philosophical level, this struggle has been described as dialectic, a process which Yeats inherited from the Romantics, most particularly William Blake, who remained one of his heroes and whose work he championed: ‘Without contraries, there is no progression’. At the emotional level, we might think of Keats and his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where the conflict between the desire for the ageless immortality of art is set against the warm but fragile flesh: ‘breathing human passion’ versus ‘Cold pastoral”. Keats’ poem seems very much a fore-runner of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

 

Given the breadth, depth, range and sometimes passionately controversial nature of writing on Yeats, I feel reluctant to offer any analysis of his work beyond an attempt to explore this idea of personal struggle or felt conflict in a few poems. ‘The Stolen Child’ is a very early poem which I have a vague memory of reciting in choral speaking lessons at school and the chorus remains in my head:

Come away, O human child!

            To the waters and the wild

            With a faery, hand in hand,

            For the world’s more full of weeping than you

 can understand.

Aside from its wisps of Celtic Twilight, the poem presents the conflicting attractions of the purity and primacy of Nature with the comforts and sociability of human society. The Nature which is shown is that of Ancient pre-Christian Ireland, rich in wildlife and fruit.  As in Keats’ faery world in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, nothing here is cooked; only in the last stanza, which describes the world the child is leaving, is there mention of human crafts and artefacts: ‘the kettle on the hob’ and the oatmeal-chest’.  The ancient but persisting natural world is offered as an escape from the trials of human life which the child has not yet experienced. Yet all the attractions of the outdoor faery world which stretches from lake to hill to ocean and which is mapped in Irish place names, ‘Sleuth Wood’, ‘the Rosses’, ‘Glencar’ are matched by the security and warmth of the limited homestead evoked with yearning in the final stanza:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

The poem opposes the longing for freedom, space and unity with Nature or what is beyond to the physical and joys and pains of being human.

 

In ‘When You are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep’, Yeats’ version of a sonnet by Ronsard, Love (or the rejected poet) ‘fled/ And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars’. Although the opening of the poem follows Ronsard quite closely, in these final lines Yeats moves away from the French which has a carpe diem theme:

Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

 

Yeats, on the other hand, shows both lover and beloved left wanting. The beloved woman is left with nothing but dreams of the past as she nods by the fireside, while the lover/poet has retreated to what is lofty and beautiful, the mountains, stars and grandeur of nature but has lost the possibility of physical human love and companionship.

 

The dialogue or debate poem has a long history in the context of Christianity, where, as Marvell put it, the ‘resolved soul’ is in conflict with ‘created pleasure’.  This struggle between the soul’s heavenward aspirations and the physical joys of materiality reappears, minus the Christianity, in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, in 1933, when Yeats was already in his sixties.  The conflict between Self and Soul in this poem has variously been described as between intellect and lust, mind and body, life and death.  Part 1 of the poem is self-consciously embellished with Yeatsian tropes such as Sato’s sword, ‘emblematical of love and war’ or ‘the tower/Emblematical of the night.’ Most of this part of the poem could be described in Yeats’ own terms as ‘rhetoric’.  The argument is balanced and the language and pace stately rather than passionate. There are vague expressions such as ‘the basin of the mind’ and reference to philosophical abstractions such ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ which signal but do not evoke. In places, the passion and the poetry break through and in doing so, reveal the poet’s profound ambivalence.  “The winding ancient stair’ is a symbol Yeats chose to make real in his purchase of the tower at Ballylee. The paired adjectives ‘winding, ancient’, ‘broken, crumbling, ‘breathless, starlit’ accentuate the difficulty of this ascent.  ‘Breathless’ seems ominous, foreshadowing death, while the darkness ‘where all thought is done’ and is finally indistinguishable from the soul signifies the annihilation of the individual self.  The soul seeks its own extinction, something the self recoils from. Indeed, such is the self’s rejection of the soul that it is banished from the second part of the poem, where the passion of the ‘living man’ shines through. Yeats seems to be considering the possibility of some form of reincarnation where the unredeemed or unenlightened self would have to repeat his life. The first stanza of Part II is a rending recapitulation of childhood and growing up which through its devastating frankness becomes recognisable beyond that individual self and time:

 

 

What matter if I live it all once more?

Endure that toil of growing up;

The ignominy of boyhood; the distress

Of boyhood changing into man;

The unfinished man and his pain

Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

 

Here is the sense of struggle and of pain which makes us cherish the poem; in the third stanza, he continues to switch between relish and disgust: ‘I am content to live it all again… to pitch into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch.’ This is the very antithesis of ‘starlit air’ or ‘beautiful, lofty things’, but there is pleasure and even profit in it as revealed by the surprising adjective ‘fecund’: ‘that most fecund ditch of all,/The folly that man does/Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.’  Isn’t this another way of saying that poetry comes out of personal conflict?

 

At the end of the poem, in the view of Carol Rumens, ‘the poet finds resolution by discarding remorse in favour of self-forgiveness’. She applauds the conclusion`:

The final, gloriously childlike “We must laugh and we must sing” rings out after all the turbulence like the Ode to Joy at the end of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.[2]

However, I am less convinced by the ending; it is not so easy to banish remorse and the language which is a reprise of Blake’s  ‘For everything that lives is holy’ sounds forced:

We are blest by everything,                                                                                                 Everything we look upon is blest.

‘Forgiv[ing yourself] the lot’ can only be a very temporary sweetness and is only convincing in the presence of its contrary.

In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from the earlier collection, The Tower (1928), the overt opposition is between the mortal, subject to age and decay, and the supposed ‘artifice of eternity’. The poet seeks to escape the natural world and the aging process by moving to Byzantium where he will be transformed into a singing golden bird.  This resolution is obviously faulty since the equation of artifice with eternity is false. In the story of The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson, the artificial singing bird breaks, and we know that works of art are subject to decay, even if the process is slower than in nature. Behind this desire to be transformed into a work of art, we hear the demands of Soul to survive the body it is shackled to: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing…unless/Soul clap its hands and sing’. However, the real quarrel the poet has with himself in this poem is revealed in the phrase where he describes his heart as ‘sick with desire’.  The sickness of desire is produced from the powerful conflict between desiring and desiring not to desire. Despite conjuring the sages to ‘consume [his] heart away’, the strength of desire and the poet’s longing to be able to fulfil his desires are displayed in the gorgeous lines of the first stanza:

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

Compared to the abundant list of living things, the monuments of intellect seem stony and unappealing even when, as if for reassurance, they are referred to again in the next stanza. Yet, as the poem proceeds, it enacts itself as a ‘monument of magnificence’. From his quarrel with his own mortality and the effects of age, Yeats creates a splendid fiction. We do not need to believe in Byzantium, the golden bird, or the poet’s elaborately constructed philosophical system; the bird of ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ is the metaphor for what the poem becomes.

 

‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is a difficult poem on whose interpretation no two critics seem to agree[3]. Although it reflects feelings of disappointment, anger and horror in its “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ (the original title), it may be regarded as rhetorical in that the poet’s quarrel here is more with the times than with himself. It is significant that the dominant personal pronoun is ‘we’ as he places himself alongside his peers who, in the days before World War 1, before the Eastern Rising, before the Civil War, hoped and planned for a better world, ‘but now/ That winds of winter blow/ Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed’. Set against these regrets is Yeats’ belief in historical repetition which he expresses elsewhere in his theory of the gyres and alludes to here with his reference to ‘the Platonic year’ which ‘Whirls out new right and wrong,/Whirls in the old instead’.  This poem has much in common with ‘The Second Coming’ with which it shares the expectation of the end of an era and the advent of a new barbarism, but it would be wrong to call either apocalyptic since they do not anticipate the end of time but its continuation, albeit in unwelcome ways.

 

The first person singular ‘I’ only appears in the third section of the poem; the poet declares his satisfaction with the comparison of the solitary soul to a swan, describing the image he would choose:

The wings half spread for flight,

The breast thrust out in pride

Whether to play, or to ride

Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

This is an odd image for the soul, in that it seems both egotistical and supremely physical. The reader cannot but be reminded of ‘Leda and the Swan’ which appears in the same volume. This is perhaps where the quarrels with himself re-emerge, in the conflict between the spiritual and intellectual search to divest selfhood and the temporal in the journey towards death: ‘if our works could/But vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death’, an idea which seems at variance with the assertive image of the swan. The poet switches from the quietist idea of ‘ghostly solitude’ to an annihilating rage ‘to end all things’. In the same way, we feel the pull between public and private: this poem is a public statement, a verdict on the times, made by someone who has been involved in public life; at the same time, it is private, even esoteric.  The end of the poem is prophetic and rhetorical but filled with references to Yeats’ own elaborate and almost hermetic system of symbols. The last five lines seem to undermine their threat by the obscure reference to Robert Artisson and Lady Kyteler[4], so that the poem is simultaneously public and private. The final line, with its suggestion of perverted sexuality and black magic, evokes a brutal return of barbarism and irrationality, but through symbols of male beauty. Is this another way of saying the noble will be sacrificed to the rogues and rascals, that ‘ingenious and lovely things’ will be lost? If so, it is revelatory of the cast of Yeats’ mind rather than the conclusion to his argument.

Helen Vendler says that where ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is philosophical, ‘Among School Children’ is autobiographic. Certainly, it is a poem where Yeats looks back over his life, although the autobiographical elements have been scripted for dramatic effect. I find Vendler’s reading of the poem convincing, so I will hold back from extended comment. In the first stanza Yeats seems self-conscious and ill at ease in his skin as he presents himself from the outside, ‘A sixty-year-old smiling public man’. The ‘comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ which the world sees is at odds with the poet’s passionate and self-tormenting memories and reflections. The increasing sense of the futility of all human endeavour and activity is arrested in the final stanza where in Vendler’s words there is

a massive re-conceiving of life. Hitherto, life has been indexed by its two determining points- its promising inception and its betrayed close. Now, with a mighty effort, Yeats begins to think of life in two new ways.[5]

The two images he turns to in celebration of creativity and the life force are the chestnut tree and the dancer.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Although these lines are famous as an affirmation of life, they are almost disjunct from the rest of the poem and the fact that they are framed as questions suggests that they represent a hope or an aspiration rather than a certainty. The struggle and disillusion, the bruised body, the beauty born out of despair, the blear-eyed wisdom, all survive into the last stanza.

 

There is a recording on You Tube[6] of Yeats reading his own poetry where he refuses to read his work as if it were prose, because it took him ‘a devil of a lot of trouble’ to get it into verse.  I don’t think he was just talking about versification. What I value in Yeats is the sense that a resolution like that in ‘Among School Children’ has been hard fought for in a battle to shape his disparate and messy realities into an art which is the product of life, not distinct from it.

 

 

[1] ‘Anima Hominis’ in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 1918.

[2] Poem of the Week, The Guardian, Monday, 11th February, 2008

[3] See, for example, Eamonn Dunne in J.Hillis Miller and the Possibilities of Reading: Literature after Deconstruction,(Bloomsbury ,USA, 2010) and Foshay, Toby A., and Toby A. Forshay. “Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: Chronology, Chronography and Chronic Misreading.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 13, no. 2, 1983, pp. 100–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30225063. Accessed 13 July 2020.

 

[4] Yeats did provide an explanatory note when the collection first appeared, but the last lines remain vague in their menace, although they seem eerily prescient in the present trepidatious times:

There lurches past, his great eyes without thought

Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,

That insolent fiend…’

[5] Helen Vendler, ‘The Later Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats edited by Marjorie Howes and John Kelly, C.U.P., 2006.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2FT4_UUa4I

Changing my mind about Fothermather

 

In the most recent edition of the poetry magazine, Acumen, Patricia Oxley comments in her editorial on the nature of the submissions she had been receiving since the outbreak of Covid-19. She contrasts “‘clever-clever’ poems which needed the cryptic brain of The Times crossword solver” and “poems of warmth and contact”.  Although this is a very blunt distinction, we know instinctively what she means, and we can shuffle much of contemporary poetry into one pack or the other. Reducing the categorisation to an even more basic level, we could describe this as the difference between poets who prioritise form and those who prioritise content.  At this point, the distinction reveals itself as false, since, in Robert Creeley’s adage, ‘form is never more than an extension of content.’ Creeley modified this statement in a radio interview in 2003:

What I meant, whatever that means, is that what’s coming to be said — it’s like William Carlos Williams’ wonderful insistence, “How to get said what must be said…” — that need, that impulse, that demand, is what I would call the content’s finding a form for its own realization, recognition, substantiation.[1]

 

For some contemporary writers, form or language have themselves become content because they have recognised that neither language nor the form in which it is organised can be transparent windows on content.  However, sometimes the preoccupation with language will have an alienating effect if the reader is unable to perceive a shared experience. A number of very successful contemporary poets have pursued their interest to language to a point where, although neither their intelligence nor their skills are in doubt, their audiences may lose patience, feeling they are being asked merely to solve riddles rather than engage with a perception of the world.

 

This long preamble is an attempt to express my own contradictory feelings about the poetry I read and how I feel poetry should be written.  I have been drawn to experimental and avant-garde writing and endorse the exploration of new ways of saying. However, sometimes it seems that poems become so concerned with the mechanisms of language as to become almost totally self-reflexive and therefore impenetrable. The concepts may be interesting but often the poems are not. Nevertheless, I find this kind of formalism more interesting than another contemporary trend which is the production of poems in traditional European, more exotic or even invented forms where success is often measured in obedience to strict rules.  The first time I read a specular poem, which was Julia Copus’ ‘Miss Jenkins’,[2] I thought it ingenious and intriguing.  Now, I simply find these poems irritating. And why, I ask myself, except as an exercise, would anyone want to write a sestina? The very best of these contemporary efforts disguise their form or offer variations of it, as Paul Muldoon has, over a poetic lifetime, offered variations on the sonnet.

 

While I may be frustrated by my failure to grasp or appreciate some of the more linguistically experimental poets, the poems of  warmth and contact’ are often worthy but dull, exploring relationships with humans and often with nature but in language which is unironically clichéd. The best, or at least the most interesting, poets continue to push formal and linguistic boundaries but at the same time they do have something to say.

 

Perhaps you need to have time on your hands to give difficult poetry the attention it deserves. Since I retired, I have revisited the work of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, reading them with much more enjoyment and appreciation. Muldoon’s poetry, in particular, has been a revelation as I have gone from considering him an irritating clever-clogs to a deeply serious poet who uses his huge range of reference and idiosyncratic sense of humour to present poems which are (often, not always) intellectually and emotionally profound.

 

I was intrigued, therefore, when I read a brief notice of Fothermather, a pamphlet-length poem, by Gail McConnell.(Ink Sweat and Tears, 2019)  It seemed that this was a poet who, like Muldoon and McGuckian, had something to say but who was choosing new ways of saying it.  When I read the blurb on the back of the book, I became slightly apprehensive. There was the endorsement from Vahni Capildeo, currently the darling of the poetry establishment and herself highly experimental[3]. There were the references to concrete forms and erasure which warned that this was not going to be straightforward to read.

My first reaction to the work was disappointment. It seemed too elitist, too self-indulgent, too based on the writer’s own range of reference devoid of explication. However, when I picked up the book again, I felt I had been wrong. Certainly, there is much in it which eludes me; at the same time, I became aware of strength of feeling and a refusal to compromise on the difficult, either emotionally or intellectually.

 

McConnell experiments with form in the struggle to discover or create her identity in relation to her son of whom she is neither the biological father or mother through a series of reflections on his gestation and birth. At times she resorts to traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, both of which she executes with great skill. Here, the difficulty of the formal task is matched by the difficulty of what is trying to be said, so that the poems go far beyond mere technical fireworks. Her sonnet “Shell Notes’ derives from a poem by Francis Ponge, a recurrent presence in the sequence, but the poem is self-sufficient and does not require knowledge of the French poet.[4] In it, McConnell explores ideas about form and substance in the context of her own efforts to reimagine forms and create names for new relationships. She takes the image of a skull ‘at sea’ which recalls Shakespeare’s ‘Full fathom five’ and another idea of the father; the skull adapts to become a shell, or shelter for a ‘not-too-social mollusk’, thus becoming a mother rather than a father. Shell as womb occurs in other poems.  The fluidity of form signalled in the octave gives rise to ‘uneasiness’, so the sestet proceeds to demonstrate how all form is taken or adapted from somewhere else: ‘Adjustment is true/genius. Less man from ape, than boy from body.’ The final line is an image of physical childbirth, but it is also a linguistic parturition which may reflect the poet’s ambition to establish a non-biological way of parenting her son which grows out of language and through this sequence of poems.

The Freud erasure poem is also extremely successful, partly because it is so very much a willed and authored piece.  Some erasure poems employ randomising rules for how the rubber is used, but in this one McConnell is clearly challenging a statement by Freud that she finds troubling and problematic: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’ The poem appears in two versions on facing pages; in the first, erasure is employed to explore a relationship with a missing father, and it is relevant to know that McConnell’s own father was murdered in front of her when she was three years old.  The erasures are skilfully chosen to create a moving sense of loss which manages to subvert itself:

 

I                       a                                                                                  father

need

 

da

da

 

 

Sigmund Freud

 

The double meaning of dada is unlikely to be coincidental.[5] The poem continues, on the second page, to offer an entirely different version of gender, based on the curious example of the male seahorse who gestates his partner’s eggs.  The seahorse, which is the image on the front cover, is an emblem of range in gender roles and in parenting. This section of the poem begins and ends with a series of bubbles or non-verbal ‘o’s in upper and lower case which are visually extremely effective.

 

The aim of McConnell’s sequence is to celebrate the arrival of her son, ‘Finn, the brilliantist’ and to discover or establish a way of being towards that son which adapts, reshapes and challenges received ideas about parenthood. It is not, however, a propaganda poem for same sex parents, but the deeply felt quest of an individual to work out her relationship with the child of whom she is neither father nor mother in any traditional sense, yet with whom she clearly feels a very strong bond, to an extent where I felt slightly sorry for the partner and biological mother who is barely addressed and almost excluded. The poet creates linguistic links based on poems, on etymological explorations of words, including the child’s name, ‘Finn’, which imitate the absent DNA inheritance.

 

The poem convinces because it is not propaganda and because it deals with the difficult and in so dealing it pushes the limits of traditional and more avant-garde poetic conventions. The poet wants to bring into words something that has not yet been said and my own initial reaction was most probably a defensive one. McConnell has made me confront ideas that I find difficult and unsettling and along the way she has forced me to find out more about a lot of things, from Ponge to the sex life of cuttlefish. (I already knew Captain Calamari!)

 

[1] https://jacket2.org/commentary/robert-creeley-conversation-leonard-schwartz

[2] The World’s Two Smallest Humans, Julia Copus, Faber, 2012

[3] Capildeo is also a poet who definitely has things to say, but whose work may have encouraged a shoal of poetasters who do not.

[4] Incidentally, Ponge also appears in Still Life, the valedictory collection by Ciaran Carson, a more senior Belfast poet and colleague of McConnell. Still Life is a wonderful book, which I recommend without qualification.

[5] The lineation is difficult to reproduce accurately.

Does it matter if you don’t understand Medbh McGuckian?

Unknown

Who knew? Marine Cloud Brightening, the title of Medbh McGuckian’s most recent collection is actually a thing, the name for an experimental programme that would seek to make clouds brighter by reflecting some of the sunlight they absorb back into space and so reducing global warming, or at least that is my lay person’s understanding of it. The discovery that this phrase has such a clear reference clashes with the cover of the collection which presents a painting of cloud, sky and land in a seascape which looks both generically Irish and tonally emotive but vague.

 

I have been trying once again to get on terms with this poet, both through her new Selected Poems, The Unfixed Horizon, (Wake Forest University Press, 2015) and Marine Cloud Brightening, (Gallery Press, 2019). McGuckian’s work resists interpretation but her poems have a weight and a rightness which refute hostile assertions that they are beautiful nonsense, apolitical, too political, plagiarising, restrictively female and hermetically private. Nevertheless, I think it is impossible to seek for a singular valid reading for any of her poems and the attempt to achieve this is misguided though always tempting in the way that we are always tempted to construct meaning for a Rorschach blot.

 

Like McGuckian, I grew up in Belfast although she is slightly younger than me. For me, as for her, the special place has always been Ballycastle. Our experiences have been totally different, not least because I am a Protestant and she is a Catholic and because she stayed in Northern Ireland and I have lived most of my adult life in England. Nevertheless, there is that uncanny and symbolic awareness of two titles to the same place which means that sometimes her words crawl around the inside of my skin. In the title poem of her collection, Marconi’s Cottage, I recognise lines and phrases from my own memories of many visits to Marconi’s cottage, the place where the coast road stops on the way to Fairhead. When she describes it as ‘Small and watchful as a lighthouse’ and as ‘Bitten and fostered by the sea/and by the British spring’ she is speaking my memories and my conflicts. I do not know whether she is writing about a house or a person or even a plant; in the last stanza the object of address has acquired leaves. Nevertheless, I read this as a love poem which refracts my own love for the same place.

 

Herein lies the danger or the opportunity of poetry so wilfully obscure. Readers are forced either into a process of pedantic search for sources or to impose their own reading of the texts in front of them. Some critics have gone down the route of an exhaustive exploration of sources. Others have defied the writer by hunting for a definitive singular reading. An interesting exploration of both these strategies was adopted by Kenneth Keating in his article: ‘Medbh McGuckian’s source texts and the challenge to authorial identity in “The Good Wife Taught her Daughter”’[1]. Keating turns to Jacques Derrida for his underpinning rationale:

According to Derrida’s différance, as a signifier no word has an ideal             relationship to the signified, all words, through their positioning within a chain    of signifiers which find meaning in opposition to one another, inherently       represent an absence of that which is signified. All terms, as Derrida declares,           are dependent upon one another for their meaning, reliant on the chain in its entirety to gain understanding, and yet this chain is infinite and in constant           flux, therefore a complete understanding is impossible. External to the chain,             outside of this process of differentiation, the signifier is meaningless. As a        result of this, there is no single pure meaning of a word, and it is this             impossibility to find such a meaning which thus applies to all linguistic acts,         of which McGuckian’s poetry is one. Différance refers, therefore, to the        difference which is held within a single term and the multiplicity of meaning            which composes all linguistic acts. McGuckian’s uniquely opaque and          challenging poetry encapsulates this différance as it continuously interrupts            itself and prevents a reductive, singular coherent interpretation. Multiple        interpretations are to be found within a single text just as within that text multiple meanings of a single word or phrase are to be found. As Derrida’s   deconstruction works within Western metaphysics in order to undermine it            and render a single transcendental truth possible, McGuckian works within   poetic language and symbolism to undermine it and render a single absolute          interpretation impossible.[2]

 

Although McGuckian’s own comments on her work are almost as impenetrable as the poems, she might seem to be signaling an acceptance of this approach through gestures like the title of her most recent Selected Poems, The Unfixed Horizon.

 

Keating goes on to provide two readings of ‘The Goodwife Taught Her Daughter’ which, on the face of it, is a relatively unpuzzling poem:

 

The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter

 

Lordship is the same activity

Whether performed by lord or lady.

Or a lord who happens to be a lady,

All the source and all the faults.

 

A woman steadfast in looking is a callot,

And any woman in the wrong place

Or outside of her proper location

Is, by definition, a foolish woman.

 

The harlot is talkative and wandering

By the way, not bearing to be quiet,

Not able to abide still at home,

Now abroad, now in the streets,

 

Now lying in wait near the corners,

Her hair straying out of its wimple.

The collar of her shift and robe

Pressed one upon the other.

 

She goes to the green to see to her geese,

And trips to wrestling matches and taverns.

The said Margery left her home

In the parish of Bishopshill,

 

And went to a house, the which

The witness does not remember,

And stayed there from noon

Of that day until the darkness of night.

 

But a whip made of raw hippopotamus

Hide, trimmed like a corkscrew,

And anon the creature was stabled

In her wits as well as ever she was biforn,

 

And prayed her husband as so soon

As he came to her that she might have

The keys to her buttery

To take her meat and drink.

 

He should never have my good will

For to make my sister for to sell

Candle and mustard in Framlyngham,

Or fill her shopping list with crossbows,

 

Almonds, sugar and cloth.

The captainess, the vowess,

Must use herself to work readily

As other gentilwomen doon,

 

In the innermost part of her house,

In a great chamber far from the road.

So love your windows as little as you can,

For we be, either of us, weary of other.[3]

 

McGuckian clearly signals her use of other source texts by her retention of middle or early modern English usages, so the charge of plagiarism does not arise. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of how far the extracts from the source texts have directed the poem and how far authorial choice has been exercised in selecting and collaging them in the new work.

 

In Keating’s first interpretation of the poem, he embarks on an erotic reading which, in my view, stretches the text to breaking point, as when he suggests that the word ‘talkative’ implies open lips, therefore vagina and that ‘be quiet’ is an allusion to the female orgasm. In the second reading, he provides an interesting number of sources, but in neither reading does he offer any sort of certainty. This is totally in keeping with the thesis of his article that McGuckian’s poetry resists determined or singular readings. Keating provides a convincing argument against dismissive and reductive approaches to the poet’s work, but his own readings are so personal, so tentative and so hedged with qualifiers like ‘somewhat’ and ‘almost’ as to undermine the validity of his effort, even though that , to some extent, is the point.

 

Much has been written about McGuckian’s use of intertextuality, as well as her reading and working practices. I have read that she notes down phrases from her reading and crosses them off as she employs them in her poems. I don’t know if this is true and, in any case, I doubt if she is systematic in her selection of sources. I suspect, like many poets, she absorbs what is to hand during the process of gestating a particular poem, in a process like that described by T.S.Eliot in his essay on the metaphysical poets:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly                    amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is                   chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and      these two experiences   have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of              the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences              are always forming new wholes.[4]

 

Eliot’s description is perhaps too mechanical and objective in that it plays down the process of interaction and change by suggesting that the poet’s mind is a vessel within which these activities take place with the outcome of ‘wholes’ which are discrete in the world. It might be better to think of the poet’s mind as an organ interacting with the external world so that both it and externality are changed through poems which are never fully detached. This is not to say McGuckian’s poems are unfinished; on the contrary, her endings, although often unfathomable, are nearly always totally convincing. It is more that every poem is a process which may end in a very different place from where it started. One example is the poem quoted above. Another, more recent, is ‘A Handstitched Balloon’ , which concludes with two mystifying but intuitively right lines:

 

as a stove can be disguised as a statue of love

and, in place of her breasts, two flowers.[5]

 

Although the quest for a theoretical underpinning to justify or explain McGuckian’s project can be helpful or even reassuring, for me it is more interesting to explore what is happening in the poems themselves, to use the procedures of close reading, not to offer an interpretation which proposes a single meaning, but to clarify the procedures by which the poems come into being and link those to what they may mean or say to the reader and also, perhaps to explore what is being withheld.

 

The idea of hand-stitching a balloon is counter-intuitive but suggests love and intimacy; perhaps a gift for the dedicatee: ‘for Michael, in Ward One South’. As the poem appeared in a tribute volume to Michael Longley published in 2009 (Love Poet, Carpenter: Michael Longley at Seventy edited by Robert Robinson) we may assume that the poem is written for Michael Longley. The connection of the title to the body of the poem is unclear, but it may be picked up in the image of the moon which opens the poem: ‘Arils of peace-engorged late moon freezing/on the water,’. An aril is a biological term referring to an extra seed casing as with a pomegranate, a lychee or a yew seed. Arils tend to be red and this together with the adjective ‘engorged’ suggests that the moon is red, thus perhaps like a balloon. (Something which is red and engorged clearly has sexual connotations but I can’t do anything with this, so I have chosen to park it.) Moons are seen as red during a lunar eclipse, a relatively common occurrence; ‘peace-engorged’ could also be one of McGuckian’s oblique political references to a Northern Ireland post Good Friday agreement. The sense of late time is reinforced by the repetition of ‘late’ in the first two lines, ‘late moon’, ‘late dawn’. Of course, ‘late’ also connotes death. The opening of the poem also traces the passage from night into day which may make us think of a bedside vigil or may lead us to the idea of star-watching or astronomy which is associated with the ‘he’ who we take to be the focus of the poem.

 

At this point, I was seized by anxiety and the need to connect Michael Longley with astronomy and/or trees; the urge to discover sources and find external points of reference is, I think, mistaken. My reading of the poem needs to be made from where I am, not based on an attempt to worm myself inside the poet’s head. We know that McGuckian’s work responds to and interacts with other Irish poets, especially those from the North. Keating demonstrates convincingly that ‘The Goodwife Taught her Daughter’ is, in part, a response to Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Field of Vision’. Different readers with different degrees of proximity to the poet and her personal world will be able to take different things from the poems. Nevertheless, I have to trust the poems and myself, rather than engaging in constant research for fear of being told I am ‘wrong’. So I resolutely decided to stop worrying about the identity of ‘he’ or even whether it was the same ‘he’ throughout the poem. I also have to consider who ‘we’ are and whether this too is consistent as well as to explore the relationship between the ‘he’ and ‘we’ which only comes into play in the second part of the poem.

 

The first stanza creates a sense of tranquillity and age which is only slightly undermined by the jarring notes of ‘peace-engorged’ and ‘freezing’. I have a notion that this stanza might be connected to Longley, one of the ‘the veteran old trees’ with an ‘orchard practice’ and recognised as a ‘high, honest capturer’. If so, there are reservations, only hinted at in ‘the closed canopy/they made out of larch trees.’ The second stanza blows away any feeling of peace , with the arrival of a big wind which changes everything; the ‘north-south zigzag’, takes on a political dimension, the moon shifts and the earth changes shape like a balloon, or ‘like a lemon. There is menace in the ‘heavier’ sounds of the taller trees and ‘The cider trees in the lee/of the hill show a thin branch of appleness/over the lane…’ It is impossible to tell whether we should be pleased or anxious about the presence of ‘appleness’. I wondered if the apples were green and if they could be related to the ‘snake of orange motion’ in ‘Smoke’, one of McGuckian’s earliest poems. If so, this would increase the political impact of the poem, but there is not enough there to confirm this suggestion.This second stanza ends with an ellipsis while the third moves from present to past tense: ‘Countless journeys have made that path’. We may choose to identify ‘that path’ with ‘the lane’ of the previous stanza although the use of ‘that’ distances it. The alliteration ‘flow and flutter of limbs on a flowered/floor covering’ seems to intensify the lightness of passage which nevertheless has been sufficient to create a lane; we may think that the floor covering, which is terminology more fitting to indoors, is created by the fall of apple blossom. The humanity, almost the domesticity of the first three lines, is set against the reference to the wind and the sea at the end of the stanza which is described as ‘begrudging/in its beauty’. At one level, this works perfectly as an evocation of place; at another, it juxtaposes the human and the power of nature, or possibly even the femininity of ‘flowered’ and ‘flutter’ with the masculinity of the sea and the wind which has already disrupted the orchard world of the first part of the poem. In that case, reading retrospectively, the ‘thin branch of appleness’ would also be under threat, its vulnerability emphasised by ‘thin’. Against this reading is the fact that for McGuckian the sea is often a female presence. Perhaps the stanza is proposing two possibly antagonistic forms of femininity.

 

The fourth stanza moves further back into the past perfect tense and introduce a ‘he’ whose actions must be viewed ambivalently: ‘He had wanted to cut down all the trees’. His motives are ambitious and wide-ranging as he wanted to ‘collect stars from all over space’. When we are told that ‘he’ wants to be attuned to ‘the dark crater thirty miles wide/on Venus’ we have to infer a sexual meaning, particularly in the light of McGuckian’s earlier book and eponymous poem, Venus and the Rain. ‘He’ is dominant and overreaching; his attempts at charting the stars go wrong and the strategy of trying to control the whole of the night sky from three adjoining houses is apparently unsuccessful. It would be possible to impose a rather clunky political, post-colonial reading on these lines but I am hesitant to take such a route. The stanza ends in a colon which opens out into two similes or analogies, which are very hard to understand but which return to the imagery of the opening, to the pronoun ‘we’ and to the present tense:

as each grave seems to have its companion tree,

when we consider a field,

as a stove can be disguised as a statue of love

and, in place of her breasts, two flowers.

 

 

In the first stanza, the ‘companion trees’ were paired with ‘worker trees’; here, they are found with graves and the orchard seems to have become a field which is a graveyard. Both of these are enclosed places, possibly symbols of the female, but in the first instance the space is fruitful, in the second, it harbours death. So, finally, we come to the last two lines. How can a stove be disguised as a statue of love? My first thought was of the Willendorf Venus, a dumpy figure which, if enlarged, might bear a passing resemblance to a wood-burning stove. This may be excessively unlikely, but we need to examine the idea of a disguised stove. A stove is something which has fire inside it and which burns; in that sense it could be a statue or representation of love, but it is also an image of consumption and destruction. Why, though, are flowers substituted for the statue’s breasts? The Willendorf Venus is very well-endowed with breasts and to substitute flowers would be to prettify the image but to deprive it of its power. I have travelled a long way through my reading of this poem and have ended up somewhere quite different from my starting place. The more I reflect on it, the more words and images reverberate with different connotations, often conflicting. ‘Arils’ sounds like and can relate to apples, which also encase seeds, as, I suppose, do testicles. The ‘loose bellying’ of the wind which ‘rends and peels back the air’ could be an image of parturition rather than partition. The poem may say something about or to the Michael of the dedication, who may or may not be Michael Longley. It may comment on Irish politics and British colonialism, it may reflect conflicts over gender and sexuality, but it is not prepared to tell me explicitly about any of these things because it is written in code.

stove          Willendorf Venus

By code, I don’t mean that there is somewhere a cypher which we could discover and use to interpret the work. It is rather that she chooses to withhold from us as much as she reveals.  There are political and personal reasons for this practice. McGuckian lives in the province of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, a motto which has become the only sustainable way of engaging in a society so divided. To announce your political views in such a context can not only be awkward but actually dangerous. At the personal level, McGuckian is writing about the most personal traumas of gender and sexuality, parenthood, family and friendship. Moreover, she is not just writing, she is exploring, trying to make sense of experience, a process which can never be final. I think it would be literally impossible for her to say what she wants except through the medium of slippery words and shifting symbols. There is a path through each poem which she has taken although as I suggested earlier the course of the poem is probably influenced by the components included in it. We cannot be privy to the decisions over direction which she has taken and we must refrain from readings which reduce the poems to torn vulvas and orgasms. The words and images she selects, so often natural or domestic, are also the poem and the poem’s meaning.

So, while McGuckian may have had a meaning or thought process on which a poem is threaded, the meaning we receive is the whole of the poem as it is put into the world. It is difficult to accept that our grasp or understanding of that poem may always be limited, just as, perhaps our grasp or understanding of any other person will be limited no matter how much we care for them.

 

I am baffled and excited by McGuckian’s poetry. Some of the poems in the second section of her book which is dedicated to the memory of Seamus Heaney, I find almost unbearably moving without really knowing why. However, I have reservations about this hermetic approach to writing as I have always felt that the poet’s job is to communicate and reveal through language rather than to conceal. I feel that the poet uses their own experience, no matter how indirectly, to produce poems readers will recognise as having meaning for them. I don’t think this is always true for McGuckian, although I believe her poems have meaning, however unfixed that meaning may be. Her poetry is unique and I think it should remain so. The danger of a poetry so private is that it invites self-indulgence on a massive scale. The power and the pain in McGuckian’s poetry show us that this is not a trap she has fallen into but she would be a very dangerous act to follow.

 

 

 

[1] Irish Studies Review, Vol. 23, Issue 3, 2015

[2] Keating, op.cit.

[3] The Currach Requires No Harbours, Gallery Press, 2006

[4] T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

[5] Marine Cloud Brightening, pp. 27-28.

 

Alice Oswald’s first Oxford lecture and her recent collection, Nobody

alice oswald

I did not manage to attend Alice Oswald’s first lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry but I have just listened to the podcast: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/art-erosion . The title of the lecture was ‘The Art of Erosion’ and in it Oswald made a distinction between poetry which builds up and that which erodes, the latter being what she is more interested in. Erosion as a metaphor captures the forces of nature and time central to her poetry. She argues that the poetry of erosion is not a construct but the uncovering or discovering of what is already there. Poets (and critics) are fond of dividing poetry into categories; this one reminds me of Charles Olson’s dictum that the poet could either make something up or be ‘equal to the real, itself’. This, in turn, reminds me of Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy, and, more significantly for Oswald, of Keats’ discussion of the egotistical sublime and the chameleon poet.

 

In her lecture, Oswald chose to quote poetic extracts concerned with nature and time, from Wyatt through Herrick to Wordsworth and back to Homer. She blithely dismissed five out of six stanzas of the Wyatt poem as being ‘love poetry’ while she analysed and treasured the first few lines which capture the process of erosion:

Processe of tyme worketh suche wounder,

That water which is of kynd so sot

Doth perse the marbell stone a sonder,

By little droppes faling from aloft.

 

I am not sure how well Oswald’s distinction works as a critical theory and she lost me when she appeared to contrast the way Wordsworth wrote about Nature with Herrick’s writing. I feel her theory is more of an enabling myth which underpins her own approach to writing poetry and which particularly works in relation to her sea poem, Nobody. This book-length work was commissioned to accompany watercolours by William Tillyer and was originally published with the watercolours as an art book. However, it has been edited and republished as a successful stand-alone poem.   We recognise many elements from Oswald’s other work. Like Memorial with which this might be paired, the one as Oswald’s take on the Iliad, this as her version of the Odyssey, the poem reflects her enduring interest in the classics. It is also, like Dart and A Sleepwalk on the Severn, an ecological poem, a poem about landscape or waterscapes and people, about Nature and culture. In her writing, the individual “I” does not disappear, but becomes the recording eye, the listening ear open and receptive to everything in the location. This is Keats’ ‘negative capability’ which leads to the view of himself as a ‘chameleon poet’, who

has no identity – he is continually in for, and filling, some other body- the             sun, the moon, the sea, and men and women who are creatures of impulse                   are           poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet          has none;              no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.

Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818

keats

The central figure in Nobody is similarly ‘nobody’ – a poet, the nameless poet exiled by Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, or even our poet, Alice Oswald, taking on different shapes like the sea god Proteus in order to convey the shifting shapes and times of the sea and the myths and histories with which it is imbued.

NOBODY

One would probably require a greater knowledge of Greek mythology, Homer and the classics than I have to pick up all the allusions in the poem. Helpfully, most of the relevant names are printed in grey uppercase at the end of the book and it does not take too much effort to look them up and revise their stories. However, the stories and figures all belong to the island-spattered Mediterranean and Aegean seas, so that the poem has a specific location.

 

In her lecture, Oswald was excited by poetry which captured the passage of time and the changes of the seasons, in particular, by poems which seemed to capture the effect of a natural force through time, which actually recorded the process of erosion, rather like those nature films where the budding and flowering of a plant are speeded up so that we can see them happening. In Nobody the writing seeks to be open to the fluctuation of the sea, so that the voice is constantly changing its identity, sometimes perhaps the poet ‘I know a snorkeller found a bronze warrior once/ with the oddest verdigris expression’, perhaps Odysseus:

a blue came over us a blue cloud

whose brown shadow goose-fleshed the sea

the ship after a little rush stopped moving

the wind with a swivelling sound began to rise

and here I am still divided in my decision

whether to heave-to or keep going under half-sail

but the water is in my thinking now

We may notice the exactitude and incidental brilliance of Oswald’s writing – ‘verdigris’ the grey-green coating of brass exposed to damp, ‘goose-fleshed’, an emotive but precise description of a change in the sea’s surface, while at the same time recognising that as the water is in the thinking of Odysseus so it is also in the thinking of the poem.

Oswald is much preoccupied with simile, particularly Homeric simile, a device she used structurally in Memorial; the similes in this poem are also remarkable, often pulling the stories and myths of the past into the present: the stranded poet paces ‘dry as an ashtray’; later a swimmer floats ‘like a wedge of polystyrene’; seals ‘bob about like footballs’. Such similes contribute to our feeling that past and present coexist in the constant change and movement of sea water.

 

This book-length poem makes excellent use of the printed page and white space. However, Oswald is a poet who writes for the voice and the ear. I have never heard her read her own work, but in the lecture it was notable how she read each of her quotations at least twice, allowing her voice to caress the words and phrases. The way this poem is set out allows us to guess at how it should sound, where the voice should linger, where it should gather pace and momentum.

 

In her lecture, Oswald remarked that Herrick was a minor poet, whereas Homer was a major one. She suggested that the difference lay in the fact that Homer (if he actually existed) had a single or unified vision while Herrick did not. Whether or not this distinction holds, we could recognise that Oswald writes from a single vision; she is a poet of ecology. There are many things she does not write about and her determined openness to landscape and waterscape, her commitment to her way of poetry have a rigour which may sometimes seem almost dispassionate or inhuman. I think this is because she displays the quality of ‘negative capability’ and the subordination of personal identity to such an extraordinary extent. Although, of course, she is the shaping force or maker of this poem, she manages to make it seem as if she were merely a conduit for the voices and forces of the sea. Thus it is fittingly titled Nobody.

 

 

Geoffrey Hill 2

geoffrey hill

In this post[1], I shall be considering poems from Tenebrae and Canaan. I have omitted Mercian Hymns because I have discussed it in a previous post and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy because it is too long and because it is in some respects relatively straightforward.

 

When I first read ‘The Pentecost Castle’ which is the opening sequence in Tenebrae I had three thoughts: one was that the poem was beautiful; the second was that it sounded like devotional love poetry, akin to St John of the Cross or, further back, the Song of Solomon; the third was that the language was extraordinarily old.

 

It is comparatively easy to work out how the poem works its effect of loveliness. Hill uses beautiful images, many drawn from nature or from the traditional nature images of poetry: flower, briar rose, trees, aspen, river, wind, high rocks, goldfinch, hawk, heron, sparrow, sparrowhawk . There are images of heraldry and romance: gold, ermine, lily, candles, sword, citadel. The diction is poetic: slain, ,forlorn, passion, distress; the form reminiscent of ballad and folk poetry with four line stanzas and a plethora of patterning devices.

 

Hill acknowledges his debt to Spanish poetry in the notes, in particular, to the Penguin Book of Spanish Verse edited by J.M. Cohen and a number of poems are almost straight translations. This may account for the old-fashioned effect of the language so much at odds with, for instance, the language of Mercian Hymns. Tom Paulin notoriously refers to this style as ‘visionary mustiness’. For me, this is an apt description of a number of poems in Tenebrae which seem to combine the atmosphere of The Four Quartets with the nostalgia of various Agatha Christie movies. Having said that, Hill recognises and engages with the inauthenticity of nationalist nostalgia in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy where the dangerously attractive myths of the ‘terre charnelle’ are both celebrated and debunked:

This is no old Beauce manoir that you keep

But the rue de la Sorbonne, the cramped shop

Hill is always more complex and complicated than I am suggesting but the language in many of the poems in Tenebrae is alienating because of its stylistic archaism. Using the analysis of syntax as a way in, I will explore one poem,‘A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook’. Hill has said that it was written quite early, in the sixties or seventies, and it may be flavoured by a young man’s desire to shock. I am not sure how to explain the title, whether it is intended to come from the notebook of a Pre-Raphaelite artist or whether it is from a notebook which is concerned with Pre-Raphaelite painting. I am unaware of any specific work of art with which the poem might be associated. Here is the poem:

 

A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook

 

Primroses; salutations; the miry skull

of a half-eaten ram; viscous wounds in earth

opening. What seraphs are afoot.

 

Gold seraph to gold worm in the pierced slime:

greetings. Advent of power-in-grace. The power

of flies distracts the working of our souls.

 

Earth’s abundance. The God-ejected Word

resorts to flesh, procures carrion, satisfies

its white hunger. Salvation’s travesty

 

a deathless metaphor: the stale head

sauced in original blood; the little feast

foaming with cries of rapture and despair.

 

The poem opens with a sequence of words and phrases separated by semi-colons, suggesting some kind of equivalence between each. However, the items are very different. “Primroses’ might indeed suggest some sort of Pre-Raphaelite outdoor painting, celebrating spring, but it is followed immediately by ‘salutations’ which floats free of syntax and explanation. To whom, from whom and on what occasion are there salutations? Why is there such a formal choice of lexis? What has this to do with the ‘miry skull/ of a half-eaten ram and why are there are ‘viscous wounds in earth’? Syntax and line endings work against other to create greater ambiguity. Perhaps the viscous wounds are in the ram’s skull and the skull itself has found an ‘opening’ in the earth. ‘Viscous’ reaps the additional benefit of looking and sounding like ‘vicious’ which introduces an idea of evil to set against the ‘seraphs’. The placing of ‘opening’ on its own at the beginning of the line extends the range of its meanings, possibly allowing for the issue of seraphs into the poem in the next sentence which takes up half a line and ends in an understated full stop, rather than affording us the clarity of a question mark or an exclamation mark which would tell us if ‘what’ was acting as an interrogative or as an intensifier. The poeticisms of ‘seraph’ and ‘afoot’ become heavily ironic when we realize what he is actually talking about. The next stanza maintains the highly poetic register with the repetition of ‘gold’, ‘seraph’ and the introduction of ‘pierced’ with its connotations of the Crucifixion. The inclusion of the ‘worm’ might stir unease. This may be another acknowledgement of the problems of dualism, body and spirit, or to put it another way, of Incarnation. A colon is followed by ‘greetings’, perhaps picking up from the ‘salutations’ in the first stanza. The next fragment sentence with its compound theological noun ‘power-in-grace’ suddenly hints that this may be a form of annunciation. Be that as it may, it is interrupted by the first unambiguously declarative sentence in the poem, which apparently comes from Pascal. This is the pivotal point of the poem from where realization grows that we are looking at blowflies and maggots.

 

The third stanza opens with another sentence fragment, like a caption or an exclamation: ‘Earth’s abundance.’ We can see in these two words Hill’s ambivalent attitude to the world of matter and flesh, where for him beauty so often seems to be accompanied by disgust. The version of Incarnation which follows is replete with sleazy nuance. ‘God-ejected’ simultaneously suggests ‘rejected’ and ejaculated’ while the triplet of verbs, ‘resorts’, ‘procures’, ‘satisfies’ seem better suited to prostitution than religion.

 

I take the ‘white hunger’ to be the maggots busy in the ram’s head. There is an echo of the image of the Samson’s riddle of the lion and the bees alluded to in an earlier poem.[2] This emergence of life from the body of the dead ram is taken to be ‘Salvation’s travesty’ and, in a bitter pun, ‘a deathless metaphor’. The poem reverts to ambiguous enjambment and fragment sentences, in parallel to the opening stanza. The final lines are both disgusted and disgusting, a disgust which seems to include sexual disgust, where the phrase ‘the little feast’ could suggest ‘the last supper and the communion feast’ or echo ‘the little death’ (le petit mort). ‘Foaming’ is a further visual reminder of the activity of the maggots but in conjunction with the ‘cries of rapture and despair’ could again be taken as sexual. The tenor of this poem recalls the bitter realization in ‘Genesis’, the first poem in For the Unfallen, that the flesh cannot be renounced:

So, the fifth day, I turned again

To flesh and blood and the blood’s pain.

Canaan was published in 1996; the poet’s New and Collected Poems were published in America in 1994. In the decade since his last published collection, many things had changed. Hill’s first marriage was dissolved and he then remarried; he moved to America. Nevertheless, the poems which open Canaan share the concerns of earlier work, although arguably they are less lyrical and more academic. For the most part, the poet has abandoned rhyme, in contrast to the careful and sustained rhyme scheme in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. However, the poems are as cryptic as ever, in part because of the range of learned allusion, in part because of the ambiguous syntax. The second poem in the collection seems to explore the role of the writer:

 

That Man as a Rational Animal Desires The Knowledge Which Is His Perfection

 

Abiding provenance I would have said

the question stands

even in adoration

clause upon clause

with or without assent

reason and desire on the same loop —

I imagine singing I imagine

 

getting it right — the knowledge

of sensuous intelligence

entering into the work —

spontaneous happiness as it was once

given our sleeping nature to awake by

and know

innocence of first inscription

In a careless first reading, it is easy to read ‘provenance’ as the much more predictable ‘providence’, which would give the opening words of the poem a churchy or religious resonance. However, having realized that the word is provenance we are left with a number of questions, not the least of which is what is the question referred to in the second line and who is ‘abiding’? Grammatically, this is a detached participle which could qualify ‘I’ or, if we take “I would have said’ as parenthetic, we can attach ‘abiding’ to ‘the question’. ‘The question’ may or may not be the title of the poem, even though this is presented as a proposition rather than as an interrogative. In fact, the provenance of the concept of the ‘rational animal’ is quite hard to pin down. Some trace it back to Aristotle, while others argue that the words ‘political’ or ‘social’ come closer to Aristotle’s meaning than ‘rational’. It appears in the writings of the neo-Platonist, Porphyry and becomes a staple of scholastic philosophy. We can see it in the dualism of medieval belief systems where rationality raised the human towards God while emotion and desire dragged him back down towards the animal.

 

One of the factors making this poem particularly difficult to interpret is the way so many of the lines float free of syntax so that it is almost impossible to work out how they relate to each other. Nevertheless, the third and fourth lines ‘even in adoration/clause upon clause’ could be interpreted as a defence of the place of reason in religion, as a support to rather than an opponent of faith. This seems to be an extremely theological poem, where much of the ambiguity proceeds from the use of specialised theological terms which also have a more ordinary, everyday use; for example, ‘reason’, ‘desire’, ‘sensuous intelligence’ , ‘happiness’, knowledge’, ‘nature’. A dense theological argument is further disguised by colloquial phrases, ‘on the same loop’ and suppressed syntax. Thus ‘desire’ could be human desire, including sexual desire, or it could be the Aristotelian desire for happiness which in Thomist philosophy equates to the Christian desire for God. ‘Sensuous intelligence’ could be some idealised mode of apprehension as put forward in Eliot’s theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ or it could be a much drier epistemological summary of the idea that we experience the world through our bodily senses and then use our intelligence or power of reason to generalise and understand, to acquire ‘knowledge’.

For Thomas Aquinas, this knowledge acquired through the experience of the body and the application of reason can lead to God, but must be distinguished from the knowledge of God which comes through divine revelation. Thus, the ‘rational animal’ in desiring happiness is desiring the knowledge of God but that can only be achieved through revelation. Moreover, the desire for knowledge is brought into question by the story of the Fall. The ‘spontaneous happiness’ Hill seems to yearn for was lost when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It may be that the last lines of the poem look back to the Garden of Eden when humans were happy in their knowledge of God and where Adam, in ‘the innocence of first inscription’ named all the creatures.   On the other hand, the phrase ‘our sleeping nature’ seems profoundly ambiguous. Does Hill simply mean that humans once awoke to the happiness of knowing God; or does the awakening of our sleeping nature, suggest the Fall and suggest that it is, in fact, a fulfilment of our nature. ‘Sleeping nature’ somehow suggests the half-truth of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

The poet is literally at the centre of this poem, straddling the ‘turn’ in a distorted sonnet., in which a tortured sensibility struggles with his role and his own ambivalences.

I continue to find much of Hill’s work rebarbative, when it is not simply incomprehensible because of the huge range of reference and learning. Nevertheless, I find myself becoming more sympathetic to the convoluted workings of his poetic imagination as he battles with the problem of evil, survivor’s guilt and his disaffection with the contemporary world in which he found himself. However, I need to come up for air, so I am taking a break from Hill to look at other poets before, I hope, returning to his later works.

 

[1] Thanks to colleagues from Giles Goodland’s course on Poetry and Syntax (OUDCE)who have contributed to my discussion of these two poems

[2] See discussion of ‘Two Formal Elegies’ in my previous post.

Trying again with Geoffrey Hill: 1

On my bookshelves, I have a row of books by Geoffrey Hill, half-read and less than half understood. Every five years or so, I read the reviews and buy another, thinking I will have another go, but every time I fail again. I first encountered Geoffrey Hill at a poetry reading in the late sixties when I was a student. I was struck by the ‘passionate intensity’ with which he read, I think mainly from King Log, when he gave the impression that he was ready and expectant himself to be carried off to martyrdom. Ever since then I have believed that he was a serious poet, albeit one I could not get on terms with. My failures have felt the more shaming because of the almost universal praise he received, even as his work became (for me) ever more obscure and inaccessible. The most recent blow was reading two reviews of The Book of Baruch in the current issue of PN Review.[1] I have held back from rushing out to buy this admittedly incomplete work, which I know I will find incomprehensible. Instead, I have resolved to make another attempt to read the poet’s work. My starting point will be the Selected Poems of 2006. I will post my efforts in chunks, as I can see this project may take a long time.

 

Now, having read the selections from the first two books, For the Unfallen and King Log[2], and surveyed a number of exegetical commentaries, I continue to be frustrated. Those who write about Hill tend to be apologists for his work and their arguments are often as convoluted as the poems they discuss. Also, they exercise the critic’s privilege of only explicating the bits of poems they think they understand. To my mind, much of the writing in For the Unfallen, although accomplished, is overblown and burdened by the influence of predecessors and contemporaries against whom the young (ish) poet was trying to establish himself. In King Log the voice is still assertive, still cross-grained but the dense texture of the language is becoming less orotund and more individual. From the outset, Hill’s work has been difficult; in fact, he espouses difficulty as the appropriate way to respond to a difficult world. However, his constant use of irony, his frequent shifts in register and tone, his many puns and his adoption of a variety of often inimical personas leave the reader at a loss while exonerating him from the responsibility of having actually said anything.

 

The poems in For the Unfallen and King Log explore history and morality in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, the period of Hill’s youth and young manhood. I want to consider in detail the texts of three very well-known poems from these two volumes where Hill treats the fate of the Jews in Europe: ‘Two Formal Elegies’ from For the Unfallen and ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ and ‘September Song’ from King Log. Although I have read interpretations of these poems, I shall attempt to go back to the text in order to arrive at my own response.

 

The two formal elegies are written as sonnets and from the outset, alternative or even multiple readings are in conflict. The title and epigraph immediately make the reader uneasy. The elegies are ‘formal’ in that they are both sonnets, an observation of dignified tradition that might indicate respect; on the other hand, they may be merely exercises in form, ‘formal’ in the sense of unreal, or insincere. We wonder at the arrogance of the writer in supposing that two fourteen line poems could be adequate as elegies ‘for the Jews of Europe’; we wonder also how this writer , non-Jewish, non-combatant, can take it upon himself to write elegies ‘for the Jews (all of them, undifferentiated) of Europe’.

The first line of the first sonnet starts with a strangely confident present participle:

Knowing the dead, and how some are disposed:

The reader will assume, without indications to the contrary, that this ‘knowing’ is first person and attached to the ‘we’ in line 5. It is only later that we suspect that Hill has created a first person persona or avatar whom the poem will turn on in contempt, allowing the poet to evade criticism. At this point we merely question how the speaker can ‘know the dead’ and what is meant by ‘some are disposed’; it could mean that he knows where the bodies are and this is what the next two lines suggest; however, some have suggested that ‘disposed’ refers to attitudes and may imply the ambivalent attitudes towards Jews still held by many, even after the Holocaust. The next three lines also open with an ambiguous participle:

Subdued under rubble, water, in sand graves,

In clenched cinders not yielding their abused

Bodies and bonds to those whom war’s chance saves

Without the law:

The different burial places mentioned here could refer to all the war dead; only the ‘clenched cinders’ have immediate connotations of the slaughter of Jews. “Subdued’ stands in apposition to ‘disposed’ and half rhymes with the later ‘abused’. Is ‘subdued’ a way of saying ‘controlled’ by being killed and buried or does it suggest that all these bodies are out of sight and therefore out of our minds? It is unclear whether it is the dead or the ‘clenched cinders’ who do not yield their ‘abused bodies and bonds’ . The adjective ‘clenched’ produces a horrific onomatopoeic echo of ‘crunched’ but it also suggests ‘held on to’ or ‘withheld’. The phrase ‘bodies and bonds’ creates a sonorous alliteration but is so elliptic that it dodges interpretation. I do not understand what is meant by ‘abused bonds’ whilst ‘abused bodies’’ seems to operate at a much more obvious level. ‘Those whom war’s chance saves’ are presumably survivors, but we are not told what ‘law’ they are ‘outside’; it could be the law of Moses, so that the reference is to non-Jews, or it could be Nazi rule, in which case he might be referring to those who did not live in occupied territories or in the period of Fascism. The ponderous and inflected final three monosyllabic stresses in line four create a gnomic gravity which topples without explanation into line five.

 

Finally, half-way through this line, we come to the main clause:

 

we grasp, roughly, the song.

‘We’ should be the subject of the first five lines, with this half line as the conclusion of an elaborate periodic sentence. This reading is unsettled by the placing of a colon where we might expect a comma. ‘We’ might seem to declare an affinity between the voice of the poem and its audience, but as ‘we’ comes under attack, the perspective of the poet seems to disappear, hidden by the smokescreen of an apparent first-person statement. The reader has been cozened into identifying with the ‘we’ who may or may not be ‘those whom war’s chance saves’ but who seems increasingly unworthy of admiration. Nearly all the words in this line are ambiguous: ‘grasp’ can mean ‘seize’ or ‘take hold of’, or it can simply mean ‘understand’; ‘roughly’ is in parenthetical commas which leaves the reader dithering between the notion that ‘we’ only ‘roughly’ or ‘approximately’ understand the song or that ‘we’ with great insensitivity have seized hold of the song.

 

The sentence, which moves over the next three lines, is a further example of the evasion of meaning and responsibility:

Arrogant acceptance from which song derives

Is bedded with their blood, makes flourish young

Roots in ashes.

 

‘Song’, which may be a synonym for poetry, or even these poems, depends on ‘arrogant acceptance’, presumably acceptance of what has happened. After all, you cannot write an elegy without death. ‘Arrogant’ suggests the appropriation of something to which one is not entitled. The verb ‘is bedded’ seems to be an agricultural metaphor as it develops through ‘flourish’ and ‘young roots’. Blood and ash are both known fertilizers. However, ‘is bedded’ has sexual connotations and the grammatical analysis of the sentence suggests that it is the coupling of ‘arrogant acceptance’ with ‘blood’ which gives rise to poetry. The tone is baffling; we cannot make out if the writer is blaming those who dare to write poetry after the Holocaust or whether this is savage self-criticism. The way in which sex, death and blood sacrifice hover over the poem, and indeed the entire collection, is discomfiting for the queasy reader.

 

Lines eight and nine, straddling the volta, and double-spaced indicate that there is a turn:

The wilderness revives,

 

Deceives with sweetness harshness.

I feel this must be a reference to Samson’s riddle in Judges 14,xiv: ‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness’. Samson refers to a lion which he slew and in whose carcase honeybees made their nest. Not only is this a metaphor for poetry arising out of war and slaughter, the context of the riddle is the bloody conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines. In the first poem of For the Unfallen , Hill announces his commitment to blood:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,

To ravage and redeem the world:

‘Genesis’

 

Differently phrased, this may be the message of the sestet:

 

Still beneath

Live skin stone breathes, about which fires but play

Fierce heart that is the iced brain’s to command

To judgement –studied reflex, contained breath-

Their best of worlds since, on the ordained day,

The world came spinning from Jehovah’s hand.

 

We can pick up the references to hot and cold-blooded behaviour –‘fires’ and ‘fierce heart’ opposed to ‘stone’ and ‘iced brain’. The suggestion seems to be that the ‘iced brain’ is ruthlessly in control in lines which could as much be about poetic composition –‘studied reflex, contained breath’ as any historical event. The phrase ‘best of worlds’ should be ironic but in conjunction with Jehovah and ‘ordained day’, it is not clear that this is so; even less clear is who ‘their’ refers to. It could be the Jews, or it could be all of us as the poet abandons any pretence at first person involvement. There is a possible interpretation of this poem where the Holocaust is seen as necessary, the harshness from which sweetness can grow. Through the ambiguity of his language, Hill prevents us from discarding this reading. The final line of the poem is highly rhetorical but still mysterious; it calls to mind the early Robert Lowell and the final line of ‘A Graveyard in Nantucket’, ‘The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.’ What Lowell meant was fairly obvious; Hill’s line is more oblique. There is a suggestion of loss of control on the part of Jehovah together with a disconcerting undertone of the language of cricket.. The command to judgement may allude to the Day of Judgement but it is far from clear who is going to do the judging.

 

The second sonnet is more transparent (slightly). It seems to deal with the aftermath to the War and the process of judgement, earthly this time.

For all that must be gone through, their long death

Documented and safe, we have enough

Witnesses (our world being witness-proof).

This seems to be a reference to the Nuremberg trials; again the dead are absent, ‘subdued’, this time being ‘documented and safe’. The notion of witnesses is used ironically as the poem goes on to recall what was ‘witnessed and not seen’ (l.10). ‘We’ is used almost impersonally here, in opposition to ‘they’ the guilty ones. Hill goes on to describe these ordinary people, in tones of dislike bordering on disgust. They are ‘pushing midlanders’, ‘men,brawny with life, /Women who expect life’; they have ‘thickening bodies’ they ‘relieve’ themselves on ‘scraped sand’. People are reduced to their physical needs and appetites. At the same time, there is an extended metaphor to do with sea and fire running through the octave which is not present in the sestet: ‘The sea flickers, roars, in its wide hearth.’ “Flicker’ and ‘roar ‘ seem to be opposites but may refer to different or successive aspects. ‘Hearth’ is surprising but introduces us to the idea that this may be a sea of fire, at which ‘yearly, the pushing midlanders stand/To warm themselves’. It could be that these midlanders, a word suggesting average citizens, are being confronted annually with the hell fires of the Holocaust which they succeeded in ignoring. On the other hand, ‘warming oneself’ is a pleasant experience. Could Hill be suggesting some sort of schadenfreude, where the survivors actually take pleasure in being reminded of what has happened? In the sestet, he appears to question the practice of confronting people with their past:

Is it good to remind them, on a brief screen,

Of what they have witnessed and not seen?

In the last three lines the poem drops the division of us and them as it discusses the process of formal memorialisation:

To put up stones ensures some sacrifice.

Sufficient men confer, carry their weight.

(At whose door does the sacrifice does the sacrifice stand or start?)

Erecting a memorial will cost something and will involve an appropriate number of people who will endure some sort of discomfort or inconvenience in the process. This is one reading; however, the ambiguity of the words in line 11 makes it very uncertain: ‘sufficient’ may mean enough men, or men of adequate quality to ‘carry their weight’, which might mean strong enough to carry the stones or might again be referring to the quality of the men and their fitness to be the creators of the memorial. The breakdown of certainty in the last line is shown by its question form, the brackets and the final, struggling half-rhyme as the distinction between ‘we’, including the poet, and ‘they’, the silent midlanders,[3] dissolves into ‘whose’.

 

Hill’s second book, King Log was published in 1968 although many of the poems date from much earlier. It opens with ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, a disconcerting poem even after you accept that it is written in the persona of Ovid in an imaginary scenario where he is transplanted to Hitler’s Germany. The voice is that of one of those who ‘have not seen’ and here the not-seeing is presented as a deliberate choice:

I have learned one thing: not to look down

This line is typical of the way Hill exploits the tension between poetic line and the sentence. Here, the opening lines of the second stanza continue thus:

So much upon the damned

allowing the poet to capitalise on the two meanings of ‘look down’. At first, he seems to be sustaining his life of comfort and complaisance by deliberately failing to see what is going on around him in a kind of mental high-wire act; as the stanza continues we realise that he is postulating the necessity of evil, and of evil-doers as part of the divine scheme of things. ‘They, in their sphere,/Harmonize strangely with the Divine/Love’. No wonder ‘God/ Is distant, difficult.’ In the first stanza ordinary human love is presented as a lower-case verb: ‘I love my work and my children.’ This contrasts with the abstract noun Divine Love with its dramatic capitalisation. The speaker, Ovid, seems to suggest that he is playing his part in creating the harmonies of the divine plan by ‘celebrating the love-choir’ in his own ‘sphere’, implicitly that of the saved. Such a mealy-mouthed excuse is a response to the half-confessed awareness of guilt in the first stanza:

Too near the ancient troughs of blood

Innocence is no earthly weapon.

Even leaving aside the inverted syntax, these lines are puzzling, particularly because of the choice of adjectives. Why are the troughs ‘ancient’ when the crimes of the Third Reich are contemporary? Perhaps this suggests that there are always ‘troughs of blood’ and that this kind of violence is inevitable. Why ‘earthly’? Are we supposed to think that ‘innocence’ can be a heavenly weapon even though the very idea of innocence has been compromised by the epigraph which opens the poem and which suggests that guilt only comes into play if the sinner is discovered or admits to his guilt? Perhaps the suggestion is that the persona is ‘too near’ the ‘troughs of blood’ to be able to deny guilt, despite the helpless impotence of the second line: ‘Things happen.’ Hill leaves us to struggle with the moral ambivalence of this poem, while removing himself from the scene. If we choose to condemn ‘Ovid’ for focusing on his own concerns, his family and his poetry, then we seem to be condemning any production of poetry during or after the Third Reich which does not confront that evil, which is not directly and suicidally political, and Hill seems to be condemning his own project. If, on the other hand, we go along with ‘Ovid’s rationalisation which accepts the existence of the ‘sphere of the damned’ and his own ‘love-choir’ as part of the Divine harmony we find ourselves condoning a view which may or may not be that of the poet but which is very hard to swallow. Certainly, Hill’s presentation of Divine Love is never less than uncomfortable.

 

‘September Song’ is probably Hill’s best-known Holocaust poem. Like the others, it is a relatively tiny piece that relies for its effect on its own inadequacy, indicated in the last of fourteen short lines where the writer seems to rebuke himself for straying into the area of the unspeakable:

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

 

This poem differs from those discussed previously in that Hill places himself at its centre in the awkward parenthetical admission of the third stanza:

(I have made

an elegy for myself it

is true)

Much has been made of the fact that Hill’s own birth was only a couple of days different from that of the unnamed Jewish child but I think it would be shallow to interpret these lines as empathetic identification with the victim. Surely Hill is rather saying that the poet always writes out of his own needs and for his own gratification, no matter how much he may seem to refer to what is beyond himself.[4] The poem is one of contained horror but also of a frighteningly implicit determinism. The child is not ‘passed over’, a grim even offensive allusion to the Jewish Passover, because it is ‘the proper time’, ‘Things marched,/Sufficient to that end.” The ‘things’ here may remind us of the ‘things’ which ‘happened’ in ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’; there may also be an echo of Matthew VI, 34: ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’. In any case, the sorrow in the poem is marked by acceptance rather than protest and the penultimate, very beautiful, stanza reflects a survivor’s guilt but no sense that the events could have been or could be other.

September fattens on vines. Roses

flake from the wall. The smoke

of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.[5]

 

In what I have written so far, it will be clear that I do not particularly like or enjoy Hill’s poetry or his perspective but that I am intrigued and challenged by his work. As I move on to later volumes as represented in the Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006), I hope my understanding of his work will deepen though I doubt I will come to share his point of view.

[1] Articles by Jeffrey Wainwright and Jon Glover in PN Review 249

[2] Very helpful for these early volumes: English Association Bookmarks Number 75

The Early Work of Geoffrey Hill Part 1: For the Unfallen by
J.D. Hughes , https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/publications/bookmarks/75Hill.pdf

 

[3] As Hill was born in the Midlands, this word could be self-referential.

[4] I use the masculine pronoun, because I am discussing a male poet.

[5] It is interesting that the greater directness and less traditional shape of this poem is accompanied by a decision not to capitalise line beginnings unless they also begin a sentence.

 

A Comparison of ‘Why Brownlee Left’ by Paul Muldoon and “Lavandare’ by Giovanni Pascoli

Coincidentally, I was rereading the work of Paul Muldoon (see previous post) when I was introduced to the work of Giovanni Pascoli by Danielle Hope, who has just published a selection of his poems.[1] Of course, Muldoon and Pascoli are very different poets. Pascoli, 1855-1912, was a contemporary of d’Annunzio though less well-known outside Italy whilst Paul Muldoon, born 1951, is younger than me and one of the great post-modern poets. Nevertheless, both poets hailed originally from a rural background and I was struck by the similarity in imagery between these two poems.

 

IV Lavandare

 

Nel campo mezzo grigio e mezzo nero

resta un aratro senza buoi che pare

dimenticato, tra il vapor leggero.

 

E cadenzato dalla gora viene

lo sciabordare delle lavandare

con tonfi spessi e lunghe cantilene:

 

Il vento soffia e nevica la frasca,

e tu non torni ancora al tuo paese!

quando partisti, come son rimasta!

come l’aratro in mezzo alla maggese.

Giovanni Pascoli

Pascoli

 

IV Washerwomen

 

In the half-grey, half-black field

a plough without an ox waits

forgotten in the mists.

 

Beside the millstream women intone

to the rhythmic squish and pummel

of soapy clothes on washboard panels:

 

The wind blows and leaves fall

like snow. You do not come home.

Since you left I remained alone

like the plough, amidst fallow soil.

Translation by Danielle Hope

 

 

 

Why Brownlee left

 

Why Brownlee left, and where he went,

Is a mystery even now.

For if a man should have been content

It was him; two acres of barley,

One of potatoes, four bullocks,

A milker, a slated farmhouse.

He was last seen going out to plough

On a March morning, bright and early.

 

By noon Brownlee was famous;

They had found all abandoned, with

The last rig unbroken, his pair of black

Horses, like man and wife,

Shifting their weight from foot to

Foot, and gazing into the future.

Paul Muldoon

 

 

‘Why Brownlee Left’ by Paul Muldoon and ‘Lavandare’ by the Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) are both poems with rural, even agricultural settings which are presentations of absence. In both cases, the main character has gone and the poem goes on to describe what they have left behind. Both poems feature a deserted plough, although in ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the team are still hitched up whereas in ‘Lavandare’ the plough lies ‘senza buoi’ and seemingly forgotten. What the two poems share is a sense of mystery as in neither case is the absence explained. In Pascoli’s poem there is a suggestion of a failed love affair, but this is no more than implicit.

 

The positioning of the writer is different in each poem. In ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the speaker reports an event in which he is not directly involved using third person: ‘He was last seen’, ‘They had found all abandoned’. The event is described like a local legend. In ‘Lavandare’, however, the speaker is involved in the poem although this only becomes evident in the last stanza: ‘quando partisti, come son rimasta’. This line reveals the speaker to be female, (rimasta) suggesting that she has been deserted by a lover. Although the dramatic conflict between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is missing from Muldoon’s poem, the feeling of abandonment is equally strong.

 

Both poems are written from the perspective of the status quo and both present the experience of having been left behind. In ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the members of a small traditional society cannot understand why anyone should choose to leave a situation when, in their terms, he has all he could want:

two acres of barley,

One of potatoes, four bullocks

A milker, a slated farmhouse.

The detail has the effect of a primitive painting surrounded by a tight border that no-one is expected to transgress. The fact that Brownlee has left is met with complete bewilderment but as the poem closes the point of view of the community is replaced by the comment of the poet as he describes the

Horses, like man and wife,

Shifting their weight from foot to

Foot, and gazing into the future.

Brownlee leaves in March, early spring, an intimation that he has a future but that it has to be elsewhere.

 

Pascoli, like Muldoon, explores the transition from the known and traditional rural society of the past to the unknown future beyond the bounds of paese or parish. In ‘Lavandare’ traditional practices are shown through mention of oxen used to drive the plough and the age-old washing of laundry in the millstream. The tone is immediately melancholic, from the opening lines with their monochrome colours ‘mezzo grigio’ and ‘mezzo nero’ and ‘vapor leggero’ through the dirge-like ‘cantilene’ of the washerwomen to the lament of the deserted woman in the final stanza who feels herself as useless as the abandoned plough. However, the final word of the poem ‘maggese’ – fallow land or fallow soil – , while it suggests emptiness also points towards the future. Land is only left fallow temporarily in order to recover condition which will improve future cultivation. Thus, though, in contrast to the season in ‘Why Brownlee Left’, this is an autumnal or even wintry period -‘nevica la frasca’, especially for the woman speaker, the concept of the future is still implicit, whether or not she will be involved in it. The speaker herself, in the last line of the poem, identifies with the plough, although behind this image it is easy to equate the abandoned plough with the man’s abandonment of his responsibilities towards the woman and the woman herself with the unploughed fallow land.

 

Both poets have used scenarios or tableaux of leaving the native place in which the one who leaves is already absent but is nevertheless the protagonist, the one who has taken action. ‘Why Brownlee Left’ is a sonnet while ‘Lavandare’ exploits the tropes of pastoral. In both poems traditional forms and conventions are used to reflect the transition from a traditional way of life to modernity.

[1] The Last Walk of Giovanni Pascoli translated and with an introduction by Danielle Hope. It can be bought direct from the publisher

https://rockinghampress.co.uk/

Or from their distributor Inpress..

https://inpressbooks.co.uk/collections/rockingham-press-1/products/the-last-walk-of-giovanni-pascoli