Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Best poetry fertilizer

Zbyszek Herbert
Leopold Tyrmand’s diary describes his friend Zbigniew Herbert’s office work in the peat industry, one of a long series of underpaid low level jobs he held.

“Wieczorem Herbert i czytał nowe wiersze. Wydaje się, że praca w torfie wpływa nań użyźniająco. Do roboty nie ma tam nic, czytać gazet w godzinach urzędowych nie wypada, wobec tego Zbyszek siedzi przy biurku i pisze wiersze i bajki. Każdy myśli, jaki on przykładny i gorliwy, podczas gdy Zbyszek boryka się z obsesją zmarnowanego życia, co - jak wiadomo - stanowi najlepszy nawóz sztuczny poezji. W wierszach daje wyraz obawom i przygnębieniu, że nie zostawi śladu istnieniem. Przeraża go grząskość ludzkiego losu. Powiedziałem mu, że jest to uczucie naturalne wśród torfowisk. Musi zmienić pracę i poszukać czegoś w cemencie czy betonie .” (Dziennik 1954, s.168)

“February 5: Herbert in the evening ... read new poems. It seems that work in peat has a fertilizing effect. There is nothing to do there, you shouldn't read newspapers during office hours, so Zbyszek sits at his desk and writes poems and fables. Everybody thinks he’s an exemplary and zealous worker, while Zbyszek struggles with his obsession — that of a wasted life, which, as we know, is the best fertilizer for poetry. In his poems, he expresses his fear and depression that he will not leave a trace of existence. The mire of human fate scares him. I told him it was a natural feeling among the peat bogs. He has to change jobs and look for something in cement or concrete.”

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Hoping for lightning

John Berryman

Here’s the last paragraph of Adam Kirsch’s article on John Berryman ‘That thing on the front of your head’ from the Times Literary Supplement, Feb 6, 2015:
Randall Jarrell wrote that a poet was someone who stands outside in storms hoping to get struck by lightning. Berryman, who spent so many years waiting for genius to find him, eventually lured it by making the waiting around, with all its attendant boredom, guilt and vice, the very subject of his poetry. In 77 Dream Songs, he used every technique of artificiality — in diction, syntax, allusion, rhythm — to create a voice of shocking honesty and directness; and by achieving this paradox, he liberated himself from the impersonality (itself, perhaps, no more than ostensible) of high Modernism. If we have no poets like John Berryman today, it is not because we are less ingenious than he is, but because our poetry seems to have so much less at stake.
Randall Jarrell
Kirsch is referring to Jarrell's remarks at the very end of his essay 'Reflections on Wallace Stevens' from Poetry and the Age:
How necessary it is to think of the poet as somebody who has prepared himself to be visited by a dæmon, as a sort of accident-prone worker to whom poems happen — for otherwise we expect him to go on writing good poems, better poems, and this is the one thing you cannot expect even of good poets, much less of anybody else. Good painters in their sixties may produce good pictures as regularly as an orchard produces apples; but Planck is a great scientist because he made one discovery as a young man — and I can remember reading in a mathematician’s memoirs a sentence composedly recognizing the fact that, since the writer was now past forty, he was unlikely ever again to do any important creative work in mathematics. A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems, to be doing exercises in his own manner, or to have reverted to whatever commonplaces were popular when he was young. A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great. 
The mathematician referred to is the Cambridge mathematican G. H. Hardy who wrote in his 1940 book A Mathematician's Apology:
I do not know an instance of a major mathematical advance initiated by a man past fifty. If a man of mature age loses interest in and abandons mathematics, the loss is not likely to be very serious either for mathematics or for himself. 
The image of the poet standing in a thunderstorm also puts me in mind of another figure from Cambridge: Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose explanation to his sister of his choice to be a primary school teacher after not only beginning to gain a reputation as one of the world's foremost philosophers, having already published his Tracatus, but also having given away one of Europe's largest personal fortunes which he had inherited from his father. As Norman Malcolm explains in a London Review of Books article from 19 November 1981, “Hermine Wittgenstein tells of the bewilderment of the family over Ludwig’s determination, immediately upon his return home at the end of World War One, to rid himself unconditionally of his whole fortune; and of her own dismay at his decision to become a country schoolteacher. She protested to him that his teaching in an elementary school would be like ‘using a precision instrument to open crates’. She was silenced when he replied ...
You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet. 
The very young Ludwig Wittgenstein
On several occasions Hermine observed Ludwig’s teaching in the boys’ school. He encouraged his pupils to invent a steam-engine and to create other constructions, steering them to correct solutions by means of questions. Tremendous interest was aroused: the boys ‘literally crawled over each other in their desire to be chosen for answers or demonstrations’. But he was impatient with untalented or lazy pupils, and his inability or refusal to soothe unsympathetic parents eventually led to his resignation.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sad similitude

In the early poems of Lawrence Durrell we find lines with a rhythmic and syntactic similarity which almost amounts to a tic:

In all the sad seduction of your ways


When all the slow destruction of the mind

A short Teutonic word followed by a long Latinate word is a well-used tactic:  “sad seduction,” “slow destruction.”

There is nothing particularly good about these lines; in fact, they both suffer the minor flaw of having the word ‘of’ bear an albeit secondary iambic stress. This is a bit of awkward panel-beating in the line, denting the language a bit out of shape.

But behind these lines lurks the ghost of a line of a far greater craftsman: Alexander Pope.

In sad similitude of griefs to mine.

Here not only is ‘of’ not asked to bear an unnatural stress, but the fine balance of syllabic quantities across the line is expertly done. If we mark the caesura:

In sad similitude | of griefs to mine

We can see that in the first half of the line there are five short quantities and only one long: the -ude of ‘similitude.’ In the second half of the line there are three long quantities and only one short. If you crudely count a long quantity as twice a short, then each half line carries the exact same weight.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Who has the time?

Eliot at his desk at Faber & Faber
T.S. Eliot, from the age of 29 until he was 37, worked at Lloyd’s bank. This was from 1917 until 1925. His hours would have been 9:15 am to 5:30 pm Monday to Friday, plus one Saturday a month. There were two weeks of vacation a year. During this period, which starts around the publication of his first book Prufrock and Other Observations, he published the collection Poems 1920, influential essays such as ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, and in the year 1922 he published The Wasteland as well as founding the quarterly The Criterion which he edited for the next 17 years.

Recall Cyril Connolly’s observation that “we cannot think if we have no time to read.” Eliot in a letter of 29 April 1927 (in Vol 3 1926-1927) to editor of The Evening Standard writes how contributors to The Criterion are “supporting themselves and their families in the Civil Service, or in museums, or in universities, or in banks and commercial houses, and are thus able to think, and read, and write independently of a livelihood.” As Stephen Collini observes in his recent book Common Writing, “Several kinds of social and economic change thereafter combined to bring about a much sharper contrast between a university post and these other occupations; in the early twenty-first century we hardly think of a job in a bank or a commercial house, or even perhaps in the civil service, as allowing much leisure to ‘think, and read, and write’ about literary and intellectual matters.” Perhaps the absence of television or the internet might also partly explain how normal employment could leave time for literary pursuits, that and — amongst the middle classes — the universal use of servants, live in domestic staff and ‘dailies’ to tend to the business of running a household. The lighting of fires, the cleaning of the house, the laundry, the shopping, the preparation of meals: all this was done by domestic staff.

In her book The Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service, Alison Light states that “without all the domestic care and hard work which servants provided there would have been no art, no writing, no ‘Bloomsbury.’” Rosemary Hill, in her LRB Review of that book starkly describes Virginia Woolf’s last months:  “With the winter her state of mind deteriorated and as her final illness began she found comfort in cleaning, telling her doctor that she had ‘taken to scrubbing floors when she couldn’t write’. Leonard hoped the mechanical tasks might be therapeutic and encouraged her to help Louie Everest, their daily, who was somewhat surprised: ‘I had never known her want to do any housework with me before.’ Woolf, who had once found it humiliating to do her own shopping, spent the last morning of her life dusting with Louie, before she put the duster down and went to drown herself.”

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."