Thursday, November 24, 2016

Garden Time

W.S.Merwin's Garden Time reads as perhaps a notebook of sketches for poems, which makes me think of Adorno's notions of 'late style', or perhaps as a single large poem, much in the way that several of Geoffrey Hill's recent books read: a large number of small lyrics that amass into a unified grandeur.

There is a strong Proustian current running through the meditative reflections.

Sometimes in the dark I find myself
in a place that I seem to have known
in another time ... 

These lines strongly echo the opening of À la recherche du temps perdu, but in Merwin's poem the nostalgia for the things he remembers is transfigured by the thought not only of whether they are still in the same place, but also the question

would they know me and have they been
waiting for me all this time

The book is full of single clear observations:

The rain stopped
you never hear it stop

and thoughts of stopping, ending, visiting a place for the last time permeate the texture of the poems.

as I stand eating the black cherries
from the loaded branches above me
saying to myself Remember this

which brings it's heartbreaking echoes of Dido's lament from Purcell:

When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Memories surface and shift through the poems with the slight incoherence of dream. A poem which captures the memory of seeing dragonflies is infused with a childlike clarity of perception, but also brings this into a more adult observation of how the world we inhabit is changing irrevocably, using the dragonfly as an emblem:

now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing

What host of things are we not seeing?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The catch-cries of the clown

The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

W. B. Yeats (aged 54)

Friday, April 10, 2015


There is a memorable poem by Martin Kratz in most recent but one issue of The Rialto called 'Curriculum'. I say it is memorable because I remembered it, after skimming through the issue when it arrived, before mislaying it. Interestingly I had misremembered the title as being 'Testudo' which is a key word in the culminating final stanza of the poem.

The poem describes schoolchildren's growing enthusiasm for all things Roman, an early sign of which occurs when "a girl brings in cardboard scutum".  I like the inclusion of these talismanic Latin words, which are both accurate flecks of colour in the verbal texture, and centrally material to the narrative of the piece. This isn't early modernism's arch macaronics (a word which seems to come from the word for a type of pasta, macaroni, which is possible from the Byzantine Greek word μακαρία which refers to barley-broth).

We go to fetch them in, someone shouts: Testudo!
We can't fault them. Each plate overlaps the next
perfectly. Spears bristle out of darkness.
In silence, they wait for instruction. 

 I cannot put my finger on what is so resonant and right in these lines. It relieson what has been built up in preceding lines, and it captures something about the nature of childhood, about power in the setting of the schoolyard ... I had also misremembered that the word "cower" was in here somewhere .. it isn't.  The verb 'bristle' carries much in these lines.  Yes, the spears protruding from the tortoise of shields will look like a hedgehog or some spiny animal, but the verb bristle brings with it the idea of "showing fight" (see meaning 2b in the OED) or being an animal's sign of "anger or excitement" (meaning 2a).  But what the OED does not mention directly is the strong connotation of the threat that causes an animal to bristle.  So here in the image of small children enacting an ancient Roman military drill, some emblem of the threat of adult teachers and the cowering of the pupils.

Maybe this taps in to my reservations about some aspects of 'schooling'. Nietzsche describes the child as "ein aus sich rollendes Rad", a self-propelling wheel ... 'Unschuld ist das Kind und Vergessen, ein Neubeginnen, ein Spiel, ein aus sich rollendes Rad, eine erste Bewegung, ein heiliges Ja-sagen.'  ... 'The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first movement, a sacred "Yes."' But so much of the schooling process seems to eat away so early at this innate self-busying Will-To-Do of the child. I guess this is leading to what Paulo Freire in Pedagogía del oprimido characterised as "la educación como práctica de la dominación" ..  "education as a practice of domination."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Coffee stains

"A manuscript is not a manuscript without a coffee stain" – Joseph Brodsky.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Surface Faults

One of the neglected books published in that momentous year 1922 is Robert Graves' On English Poetry (William Heinemann). From the vantage point of 2014 its 61 short and chatty sections read very like blog posts.  Sadly much of this book and much of Graves' Poetic Unreason and other studies (1925, Cecil Palmer) are omitted — following Graves' own later abridgements — from the Collected Writings on Poetry in Carcanet's otherwise wonderful Robert Graves Programme of editions.

Geoffrey Hill in his Oxford Professor of Poetry lecture 'A Deep Dynastic Wound' (30 April 2013) mentions these two early books: "Two of Graves's early prose books ...[he gives the titles and dates] ... I would certainly recommend as required reading for auto-didactic self-apprenticed deeply eccentric young poets." (at 45 min 15 sec)

Hill names three pieces from these books dealing with the task of revision: "Putty" and "Surface Faults, An Illustration" and "Secondary Elaboration." Only the last of these has survived into the Carcanet edition, although somewhat self-referentially this piece both in its original 1925 form and its later much reduced form presented in the Carcanet edition does itself contain a revised and slightly expanded version of "Surface Faults".   In "Surface Faults" Graves presents a sequence of pre-publication drafts of a few lines from one of his poems. Here is the whole text as originally presented in the 1922 edition:

"The later drafts of some lines I wrote recently called CYNICS AND ROMANTICS, and contrasting the sophisticated and ingenuous ideas of Love, give a fairly good idea of the conscious process of getting a poem in order. I make no claim for achievement, the process is all that is intended to appear, and three or four lines are enough for illustration:

1st Draft:

In club or messroom let them sit,
Let them indulge salacious wit
On love's romance, but not with hearts
Accustomed to those healthier parts
Of grim self-mockery ...

2nd Draft: (Consideration:— It is too soon in the poem for the angry jerkiness of "Let them indulge." Also "Indulge salacious" is hard to say; at present, this is a case for being as smooth as possible.)

In club or messroom let them sit,
Indulging controversial wit
On love's romance, but not with hearts
Accustomed ...

3rd Draft.  (Consideration:— No, we have the first two lines beginning with "In." It worries the eye. And "sit, indulging" puts two short "i's" close together. "Controversial" is not the word. It sounds as if they were angry, but they are too blasé for that. And "love's romance" is cheap for the poet's own ideal.)

In club or messroom let them sit,
At skirmish of salacious wit
Laughing at love, yet not with hearts
Accustomed ...

4th Draft. (Consideration:— Bother the thing! "Skirmish" is good because it suggests their profession, but now we have three S's — "sit," "skirmish," "salacious." It makes them sound too much in earnest. The "salacious" idea can come in later in the poem. And at present we have two "at's" bumping into each other; one of them must go. "Yet" sounds better than "but" somehow.)

In club or messroom let them sit,
With skirmish of destructive wit
Laughing at love, yet not with hearts
Accustomed ...

5th Draft. (Consideration:—And now we have two "with's" which don't quite correspond. And we have the two short "i's" next to each other again. Well, put the first "at" back and change "laughing at" to "deriding." The long "i" is a pleasant variant; "laughing" and "hearts" have vowel-sounds too much alike.)

In club or messroom let them sit,
At skirmish of destructive wit
Deriding love, yet not with hearts
Accustomed ...

6th Draft. (Consideration:—Yes, that's a bit better. But now we have "destructive" and "deriding" too close together. "Ingenious" is more the word I want. It has a long vowel, and suggests that it was a really witty performance. The two "in's" are far enough separated. "Accorded" is better than "accustomed"; more accurate and sounds better. Now then:—)

In club or messroom let them sit,
At skirmish of ingenious wit
Deriding love, yet not with hearts
Accorded etc.

(Consideration:—It may be rotten, but I've done my best.)"

Monday, September 29, 2014

The play of satisfied expectation

Randall Jarrell, when characterising Pound's The Cantos as "less a 'poem containing history' than a heap containing poetry, history, recollection, free associations, obsessions," quotes Kenneth Burke's statement that "Form … is a satisfied expectation," and elsewhere, in writing an introduction to Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, he quotes Burke again and goes on to say that Stead's book also "has a good deal of the deliberate disappointment of an expectation that is also form."

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, in her wonderful little book Poetic Closure (1968) describes in detail how the continual play of expectation through a poem is what gives it form: "The perception of poetic structure is a dynamic process: structural principles produce a state of expectation continuously modified by successive events." The main focus of her book is how poems end ... "Closure allows the reader to be satisfied by the failure of continuation or, put another way, it creates in the reader the expectation of nothing."

Friday, September 5, 2014

Water where you can't quite touch bottom

Dannie Abse, when castaway on the Desert Island Discs of 27 August 1977, said of his poetry: "It's more conversational than lyric, especially in latter years, and I have said that I would like my poetry to be lucid, or apparently lucid, to be a deception in fact, to be as translucent as water, but when you got into the water you couldn't, as it were, quite touch bottom."