Friday, June 4, 2010

Another talker nonpareil

The latest issue of ABR sports a bit of wordplay reminiscent of a tabloid headline - "Littoral Truth" - but it is wonderfully apt, and one feels sure the subject of the main article, the recently deceased Peter Porter, would have appreciated it. After all, a predecessor whose presence loomed large through Porter's thought and writing was W. H. Auden, who had said "Good poets have a weakness for bad puns."

Peter Steele's article on Porter is packed with choice quotes from Porter and others. He includes Porter's statements that "No poet can be great who is not memorable, unmistakeable and a virtuoso," and that "All the poetry I love is potential energy come to rest."

Another key figure for Porter was Robert Browning: "In his copious and generous output, Browning satisfies the unquenchable haranguer which is in each of us. We are born, we talk and we die. But chiefly we talk, and when we meet a good talker we listen. Browning is the talker non pareil."

There is much else worth quoting in the piece, so much that I'd surely infringe copyright if I put all the good bits in this blog. Fortunately ABR has made the article available online here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ashbery's exponential fancy

John Ashbery's linguistic playfulness can be seen as the natural extension of that oldest of poetic ploys: metaphor. Take for example, the poem 'A Kind of Chill' from the collection A Wordly Country (2007): it begins ...

He had a brother in Schenectady
but that was long, long ago. These days, crows
punch a time clock on a forgotten tract of land
not far from the Adirondacks. ...

The image of crows on a tract of upstate New York land is jammed together with the human blue-collar routine of punching a time clock. The lines operate in the standard manner of metaphor: as Pound pointed out in his notes on the 'ideogrammic method' it is where the images overlap that the second-order meaning emerges.

But Ashbery proceeds with a metaphor on a metaphor:

not far from the Adirondacks. They keep fit
and in the swim with lists of what to do tomorrow.

Now we have X is like Y is like Z ... the chain is indefinitely extendible and in the manner of the game Chinese Whispers - known as 'Telephone' in the US, I believe, and significantly the title of Ashbery's 2002 collection - this can lead meaning into remote regions.

Ashbery's raw materials are ready-made phrases from a wide range of contemporary usage - "keep fit", to be "in the swim", "long, long ago" - and he rearranges these elements in fresh ways. The development of the ideas and images is primarily through association, and is in this way musical. The approach fits with Coleridge's definition of Fancy ...

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phaenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

Ashbery piles fancy upon fancy, and rather than 'theme and variations' we get variations on variations on variations. His beginnings never know his ends.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Eurovision syntax, the persistence of hymns, and the ungooglable

After watching the Eurovision final, I awoke the following morning with an earworm, which I soon realized was a few bars of Romania's entry "Playing with Fire" ... in particular the line with the syntactic inversion: "Spend with me the night". And it seemed that it might be the slightly odd syntax that helped the line stick in the memory.

When I think back to the hymns we sang every morning as schoolboys, it is often the unusual phrases, the inversions, or the enjambments that my young brain never quite decoded, that seem to have lodged most securely.

A rhythmically definitive phrase such as Henry Francis Lyte's "To his feet thy tribute bring" has a sculptural permanence, and a small child doesn't notice the inversion, and similarly will sing William Chatterton Dix's phrase "As with gladness men of old" without realizing that it is part of a subordinate clause, whose relevance is only to be revealed four lines later.

And of course the sonorities of music can add greatly to emotive power. I always liked how John Greenleaf Whittier's "O brother man" resounded when sung to Hubert Parry's setting. (If anyone knows of a recording of this please let me know). I always sang the last verse with gusto:

Then shall all shackles fall: the stormy clangor
Of wild war music o'er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.

The enjambment of the second line is an important element of the effect, as is the line-slowing juxtaposition of "wild war" and its immediate echo in the elision of "o'er".

Language is pulled at, stretched, compressed to accommodate form. Berryman's Sonnets are an extreme example: take #21 which starts with:

Whom undone David upto the dire van sent
I'd see as far. I can't dislike that man,
Grievously and intensely like him even,
Envy nor jealousy admit, consent
Neither to the night of rustlers I frequent
Nor to this illness dreams them; but I can,
Only, that which we must: bright as a pan
Our love gleams, empty almost empty—lent.

Convoluted thought and the urgency of the form render the language unfamiliar, and 'difficult'. But Berryman can also hit an originality of word combination without syntactic contortion, as in the line from #13 "The spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas". This form of verbal originality, a determined and fierce avoidance of cliché, a quest for the ungooglable combination, leads in a sort of reductio to the work of J. H. Prynne where phrases appear stripped of immediate semantic support from a normal sentence structure, and rather the connotations of words and short combinations interact and interfere creating a sort of moiré effect, as in a verbal quantum double-slit experiment. Ashbery's poems at times operate in a similar fashion constructing content from accumulated connotations and resonances, but his material is longer phrases, and sometimes deliberately familiar formulations, so nothing ungooglable there, and his structures are coherent in the way much music coheres. Prynne is subatomic.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Twenty years

How thin and disengaged seem those words of Eliot from East Coker: "Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres" - not the least helped by the odd distancing caused by the switch to French - when set aside Manès Sperber's similarly simple phrase "those twenty years of the postwar period that were to change into a prewar period quickly enough."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Angry consolations

Geoffrey Hill's famous emphasis on art as "sad and angry consolation," the phrase taken from a translation of Leopardi, marks a vital intersection of ideas.

There's consolation, as in Dr Johnson's "only end" .. "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it" and Van Gogh's "I want to make an image such as a sailor at sea would dream of when he thinks of a woman ashore."

And then there's the anger, as in Adorno's "irascible gesture" in his piece on late style in Beethoven. Strindberg in encouraging Siri to become a writer counselled: "Anger is the most powerful emotion, so if you can recall something with anger or sadness the words will become more potent."

Adorno's thoughts on lateness, as well as those on difficulty, seem relevant to Hill, and not only the "Late Hill" - perhaps Hill has always been late. Adorno writes of Beethoven: "The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves." And again: "The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation."

And here lies the connection with Difficulty - works which do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. Hill has written "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."

Adorno's notes on the difficulty of composition in the 20th century are pertinent: "like writing, composition is also linked to objective difficulties the likes of which were scarcely known before; that these difficulties have to do essentially with the position of art in society; and that one cannot escape them by ignoring them."

Van Gogh, who was an Atlas under the difficulties of his own health and disposition, well knew that consolation was often needed for the sheer difficulty of living; he wrote with typical fervour to Gaugin "Ah! My dear friend, to achieve in painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has already done … an art that offers consolation for the broken-hearted!"

Monday, April 26, 2010

Vale Peter Porter

Saddened to hear of the recent death of Peter Porter. Our brief connection had been when he was writer-in-residence at Melbourne University back in the early 80s. I greatly benefited from his generosity and enjoyed his erudition. His death is a great loss, magnified by the knowledge that he was still writing wonderfully, and even had he lived to 300 one cannot imagine that stream of lively, witty and harmonious poetry would ever have run dry.