Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rain and Ruin: something recalcitrant

Jane Holland has posted her compressed version of the Exeter Book's The Wife's Lament. It is interesting how much 'resonance' with the language itself is achieved here. In an earlier post I talked of how the language seems to keep saying certain things over and over, and it's this that gives us the building blocks for the musical composition of poems; it gives us the notes to play on the instrument (the instrument that Ed Dorn speaks of when he says re Gunslinger "It's really just an attempt to meditate what there is left of the available instrument. It's not an epic, but it's going to work that kind of trip.") And it's the repetitions and refrains of the language that lend good poems that sort of 'alienated majesty' that Geoffrey Hill mentions (lifting the phrase from Emerson).

In Holland's 'The Wife's Lament' the rain/ruin conjunction appears in her rendering of the line "under stanhliþe / storme behrimed" (under stone slopes / by storms berimed"). Holland's line runs "in ruins under the rain" ... this brings 19th-century associations: Longfellow's "Upon the ground I saw a fallen nest / Ruined and full of rain", or Swinburne's "For winter's rains and ruins are over" or Wilde's "Time hath not spared his ruin,---wind and rain / Have broken down his stronghold", or Stevenson's lines ..

Bursting across the tangled math
A ruin that I called a path,
A Golgotha that, later on,
When rains had watered, and suns shone,

Going back in time, Pope has

So from each side increased the stony rain,
And the white ruin rises o'er the plain

That 'white ruin' also evokes Auden's lines:

Oh dear white children, casual as birds,
Playing amid the ruined languages.

And Pope's 'stony rain' brings into view the stone/storm conjunction present in the Exeter Book, and in Pound's Seafarer: "Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten". Coming forward in time, Rexroth, in his Letter to Auden, juxtaposes "The steel rain // Voices in the old ruin".

Geoffrey Hill, in his 'A Postscript on Modernist Poetics', writes "In the act of creation we alienate ourselves from that which we have created, or conversely, the genius of language alienates us from itself. We are no longer masters of a well-considered curriculum vitae in free verse, or blank-verse sonnets, or whatever; the anecdote is no longer the agency of our self-promotion; something recalcitrant has come between us and our expectant and expected satisfaction."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Details compiled and what the language keeps saying

"What is the language using us for?" asks W. S. Graham: the theme for the variations he composes at the start of Implements in their Places (1977). There are things the language keeps saying, or perhaps things that our so similar minds express with the blunt tool of the language. But when a poet repeats or echoes these universal tics is it resonance or cliché? In the opening poem of Pleats (1975), Andrew Crozier writes:

held in the direction of home
for the time being
while everything behind us dims

And it captures well something of the pathos and fragility of a homeward journey through failing light, and much depends on those words "everything" and "dims", in which Crozier echoes countless similar formulations: "till all is dim" (Wordsworth), "till all the paths were dim" (Tennyson), "the world grows dim" (Yeats), and so forth.

Crozier breaks free of the language's formulae with the addition of specific details:

a hedgehog in the gutter
a hearse goes by the other way

Crozier's poem reminds me of the fourth and final of Dannie Abse's 'Car journeys' poems from Funland and other poems (1973).

Driving home

Opposing carbeams wash my face.
Such flickerings hypnotise. To keep awake
I listen to the B.B.C. through cracklings
of static, fade-outs under bridges,
to a cool expert who, in lower case,
computes and graphs 'the ecological
disasters that confront the human race.'

Almost immediately (ironically?),
I see blue flashing lights ahead and brake
before a car accordioned, floodlit, men heaving
at a stretcher, an ambulance oddly angled, tame, in wait.
Afterwards, silent, I drive home cautiously
where, late, the eyes of my youngest child
flicker dreamily, and are full of television.

'He's waited up,' his mother says, 'to say goodnight.'
My son smiles briefly. Such emotion! I surprise
myself and him when I hug him tight.

Here Abse's accumulated details of observation serve his telling of a story in a succinct, vivid and emotive way. Everything is focussed on clearly conveying the narrative, distractions are minimized; the almost Martian compact visual image of the 'car accordioned' does not interrupt the fictional dream (to use John Gardner's term). Unfortunately, real life added an unpleasant resonance to this poem: in June 2005 Dannie and his wife of 54 years, Joan Abse, were driving home after a poetry reading when their car was involved in an accident; Joan died at the scene.

But details do not have to be compiled in such a focussed way. John Ashbery's collages of language, despite (or perhaps because of) their non-sequiturs and juxtapositions, the dream-like changes, manage to suggest multiple meanings. And his phrases do lodge in the memory ... "And in the garden, cries and colors" (from 'Last Month' in Rivers and Mountains (1962)).

Eliot - in typically magisterial and somewhat paradoxical mode - wrote: "The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all." Eliot describes here an approach which Christian Wiman has characterized as that of "poets of culmination", as opposed to "poets of observation". Ashbery is far down one end of that spectrum; he takes ordinary emotions, or more particularly the ordinary phrases and turns of phrase that flock and swarm in our ordinary lives, and 'works them up' into new things. In his latest (not counting the selected) A Worldly Country (2007) he piles the phrases up high. Here are some snippets from the poem 'So, Yes' ...

all the stepchildren
it took to get here


It was right to behave as we have done,
he asserts, sending the children on their way
to school, past the graveyard


we're lost in a swamp with coevals
who like us because we like to do things with them.


All this language operates within some sort of force-field, a presiding consciousness, or the perhaps the tutelary spirit of the language. What is the language using us for? So, yes, the language keeps saying the same things, and we ordinary people keep saying the same ordinary things, but the possibilities of combination are endless, and new meanings are always springing to life.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kleinzahler's new New and Selected

August Kleinzahler's latest - Sleeping It Off In Rapid City (2008) - is subtitled 'Poems, New and Selected', and is described on the front flap as the "first broad retrospective" - the Australian retrospective edition Like Cities, Like Storms (1992) now too old to qualify. The new book is a hefty enough tome - 234 pages - and very many of the early poems haven't made it through the cull. So many didn't make the grade: 'Indian Summer Night: The Haight', 'Love Poem', '16' , '1978, Montreal', ...

Kleinzahler had over time assembled a sequence of poems called 'Four Worthies' ... one poem, on Thomas Urquhart, appeared in A Calendar of Airs (1978). The sequence has been dismantled again and now of the worthies only Australian poet John Tranter remains in the poem 'Tranter in America'.

The new book is organized in five sections which seem to represent selections from earlier books as follows 1. New poems 2. Early poems (Storm Over Hackensack (1985), Earthquake Weather (1989)), 3. Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow (1995) 4. Green Sees Things In Waves (1998) and 5. The Strange Hours Travelers Keep (2003). However it is worth noting that the poem 'Vancouver' which appears in the first section is a much longer version of an old poem with the same title. Is this an earlier draft reworked, or have other poems or fragments been invisibly mended into the fabric?

In the previous collection - The Strange Hours Travelers Keep - a number of old poems - 'Hot Night on East 4th', 'The Gardenia', '86', and a significantly reworked second-half of 'Evening, in A minor' - were stitched together to make the poem 'Montreal'.

Kleinzahler keeps tinkering with his poems. 'The Last Big Snow' in Earthquake Weather, was divided into two numbered sections when re-collected in Live From the Hong Kong Nile Club (2000). 'The Lunatic of Lindley Meadow' appears in the new book, its major transformation having occurred twenty years ago between A Calendar of Airs, where it was called 'The Lunatic of Mt.Royal' and was built from four-line stanzas, and Earthquake Weather where the stanzas have three lines. '1978, Montreal' was called 'Radio' once ... after the lines 'Down the same shaft old TV westerns / in French', Kleinzahler inserted ''Allons, Monsieur Hopalong". Anyone one day working on a bibliography or critical edition will have their work cut out.

Kirsch v Collins

Adam Kirsch, in his book The Modern Element, takes the reasonable line that Billy Collins is a poet of wit, and proceeds to take issue with the dismissive way in which Collins employs his wit, whether for example in pointing out the silliness of the language in a lingerie catalogue, or - and this is where he seems rub Kirsch the wrong way - giving a superficial synopsis of 'Tintern Abbey'. The Alps stand no matter what remarks tourists may make, and we can enjoy a clever put-down, even while admitting that so doing doesn't display the noblest side of our nature. Kirsch comments: "Relentless joking can be a way of discouraging curiosity, ambition, and endeavour, without which there is no greatness in art" before - like a skillful prosecutor before a jury - backing away somewhat ... "This may be too grave a charge". Yet is there not room enough in poetry's wide terrain for entertaining pieces, short enough to be read in a minute or two, which offer up some bite-sized and easily digested 'take' on everyday experience or topics most likely to be discussed in the common rooms of English Faculties, not particularly exercising our intellects, or doing all the things great poetry can do, but diverting us nevertheless? Reading Billy Collins (admittedly in short bursts, more than ten pages at a sitting seems to cloy my mind somewhat) I smile more than frown.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Horses' Mouths

Reginald Shepherd reminds us of Allen Tate's essay where he discussed 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' and says that he is far from an expert on his own poems. Once I discovered by chance that one of my poems had been used in a Year 12 (VCE) examination paper (no one had informed the poet) .. when I got hold of the paper, which included at least one multiple choice question asking what the poet had intended, I found myself quite unsure of what the examiners thought would be the correct answer, as I recall two of the four options seemed plausible, but neither hit the mark.

A recent post by Jane Holland describes some rough notes she made on the composition of long poems. This prompted me to dig out my old copy of Helen Gardner's The Composition of Four Quartets, and it struck me how much useful and interesting is this sort of simple work record than the more common commentary and interpretation. Getting a glimpse of a poet's revisions, and explanations in correspondence of various phrases, lines, and passages, provides more insight than a shelf of criticism. Gardner's book shows how Eliot was - amongst other things - striving for clarity. And surely this is true even of many 'difficult' poets: Geoffrey Hill in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin wrote "I have no ambition to be famously - or notoriously - obscure. The difficulties of daily living get in the way and my poems, unavoidably it seems, collide with the densities of common existence"

Friday, April 11, 2008


In one of his recorded talks with Peter Porter, Clive James places the ability to make memorable phrases centre-stage: "On any given contemporary scene, but especially the one we have now, there are many, many, many poets who canít make phrases. They write poetry with a capital P but they don't do the essential thing that poets do - or I think it ís the essential thing that poets do but maybe I'm old fashioned."

Given the recent uproar in the letters section of Poetry (March 2008) issue there are plenty of Pound defenders who would agree with that label "old fashioned". But the lines that lodge in our brains are surely integral to the manner in which reading poetry transforms and enriches day to day experience - the lines pop into your head, and there's this whole expansive dimension at hand. Kris Hemensley writes - in a comment on an earlier post "For me it's as often lines or parts of poems as it is the complete poem or a poem or two as much as the poet's complete works that sustains me or maintains that particular poet in my mind."

I've been enjoying Don Share's collection Squandermania, not least because of his talent at making phrases. Often enough the good phrases are shows of wit, lifting the poem with humour ...

Patience comes
to those who wait -

or (echoing a Joni Mitchell lyric)

Paradise can't exist
till it's gone.

There are many observations, appealing in the same sort of way as Billy Collins can be, but the texture and language of the verse is quite different

Joke shops are always
in bad neighborhoods.

But Share's phrase-making can be turned to serious effect. In a poem which sets out with a reference to "ground zero" the final line starts with a phrase which has all the weight, balance and import of a line from the classics:

disaster marries us

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Spatial model of tradition

Alfred Corn writes about replacing the temporal model of tradition (modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism) with a spatial model; he describes a one-dimensional space, a spectrum, ranging from avant-garde to "regular speech-based modes". Corn mentions Hakan Sandell's 'retro-garde' movement.

There is a vague two-dimensional spatial metaphor behind Eliot's concept of tradition in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', although it is not at all clear what the axes of this space might correspond to. "The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them." The image conjured seems to be something like a sculpture park of the canonical. Eliot continues "The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations." A river through the sculpture park?

I have recently be reading some of the work of a UK poet Sean Elliott, which often employs a simple clear unvaried iambic pentameter line, at points reminding one of Larkin, or Dannie Abse. Abse's Funland collection has many such apparently 'old hat' lines - "And silence matched the silence under snow" sticks in the memory - but the poems aren't old hat at all: they work.

The whole territory is available, poets do not necessarily have to work at some frontier, except of course for the temporal frontier of the present. The relationships between the poems that already exist are highly subtle and complex - involving all manner of influence, allusion, formal concerns, subject matter, genre issues, and so forth - there is possibly some mathematical way to model this and derive some multi-dimensional or fractal-dimensional space to house all these poems. But maybe the disorganized bookshelf and the stray echoes and reflections in the reading mind is the best system of all.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Between words

Read poetry aloud ... that's the general cry. Because it's in the phonetics. So much doesn't properly live when the words stay on the page. Look at the gaps between words, and how the pace of a line can be slowed or its flow interrupted by the choice of consonants that bracket those white space characters. Listen to this line from Yeats:

In this blind bitter land

'blind' and 'bitter' slow us down; it is not so easy to end one word with 'nd' and start the next with 'b'. The mouth has to take it carefully; put 'bitter blind land' and the line is utterly changed.

Tennyson provides well known examples such as:

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Of course the alliteration of 'b's plays its part, and of course the monosyllables, but the broken flow caused by bald + street and then street + breaks and finally blank + day is a significant element of the technique. And again of course there's

Break, break, break

which echoes Milton's

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.

Of course there are other ways to slow a line down, putting long quantities on metrically unstressed syllables ("what dark days seen"), or using monosyllabic words:

Times past, what once I was, and what am now.

But the selection of consonants that end one word and commence the next is a more flexible instrument. Think of Bunting and his repetitions of the same consonant: 'sweet tenor' ... you have to pause if you are to say each word clearly and correctly. In the following excerpt each line contains one such pair of repeated sounds across a word-gap:

Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave's slot

'Painful lark', 'solemn mallet', & 'grave's slot' ... the repeated consonant serves as a mini caesura to help mark each line.

I can't finish without an example from one of the greatest technical show-offs, Alexander Pope; in one line he includes rs+r, f+v, s+sh, d+l, and k+th, almost now two consecutive words can be said smoothy:

The hoarse, rough verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Poetic Genres

William Matthews' 'Four Subjects of Poetry' has been getting a bit of attention lately, and I suppose with National Poetry Month in the USA, with many people aiming to write one poem a day, there will be plenty more birds hatched to slot into those pigeonholes.

I wonder if there are serious & statistical generic analyses of contemporary poetry out there somewhere? Something like the very useful and interesting 'index by genre' in The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509 - 1659 would be fascinating. The Renaissance's hierarchy of genres and sub-genres is an intricate matter; today's de facto equivalents are no doubt no less subtle & diverse.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sleeping it off

I notice that August Kleinzahler's new book Sleeping It Off in Rapid City is released today. It's a 'new and selected' and I'm looking forward to seeing it. The title reminds me of an old Origin Press publication: Clive Faust's Sleeping It Off (1992).

Tony Frazer interestingly notes on the Shearsman recommendations page that despite Faust living in Bendigo, none of his books have been published in Australia.

Sleeping It Off is a beautifully produced chapbook - quoting from the colophon: "bound into Ingres Antique Camel endsheets with letterpress printed Indian Wool covers".

Faust provides snatches of urban scenes caught vividly with emotion and a sense of humour which aren't a million miles from Kleinzahler ...

... The flags
on the flagpoles at the R.S.L.
stay floodlit
in white arches of the portico, each
month monday -
that'd be

but generally the texture of the verse is a sort of article-free pronoun-free string of newspaper headlines, which - like any formal device from heroic couplets to Berryman's contorted syntax - serves to constantly present the reader with the fact that this is conscious art. Here the prolonged and static description, blow by blow, is somewhat in the vein of Joyce:


bolts gate, lugs carcass off truck,
hangs slippery liver from a free
hand, closes to gate on black leopard pacing
the double mesh, tosses liver in, secures
gate on outer wire, opens inner
from angle to slip meat through; shuts lock bolts each
gate to respective fence.

I'm reminded of one of the clauses of Bunting's advice to young poets: "Cut out every word you dare" ... one advantage of stripping out the little words is that the others words take on more individual clarity, they stand out the more. What is the origin of this article-less style? Pound with 'May I for my own self song's truth reckon, / Journey's jargon' and 'Set keel to breakers', or Hopkins? Or what about:

Blind sight, dead life, poor mortal living ghost,
Woe's scene, world's shame, grave's due by life usurp'd,
Brief abstract and record of tedious days,
Rest thy unrest on England's lawful earth,

Shakespeare an introduced species

Laurie Duggan has posted a old photo of two boys (his father and a friend) dressed in Shakespearian garb amidst the landscape of country Victoria: the image has the discord and incongruity of collage, that surreal element that is intrinsic to colonization's culture transplant. Shakespeare is an introduced species.

Peter Porter's poem 'Reading MND in Form 4B' (from the 1962/63 section of his Collected Poems) captures something of the languid boredom of the pre-air-conditioning school classroom in the Australian heat, and the alien nature of the European set texts.

Philomel with melody - a refrain
Summoning the nightingale, the brown bird
Which bruits the Northern Hemisphere with bells -
It could not live a summer in this heat.