Thursday, October 14, 2021

The man who tilts

Thierry Metz
I am starting once more to read — slowly — Thierry Metz’s L’homme qui penche (The Man Who Tilts), which comprises 90 numbered short sections: prose fragments written ab extremis, from the ward of a psychiatric hospital where he made two brief stays before his final suicide. 

Here is the first section:

Centre hospitalier de Cadillac en Gironde, pavillon Charcot. October 1996

C’est l’alcool. Je suis là pour me sevrer, redevenir un homme d’eau et de thé. J’envisage les jours qui viennent avec tranquillité, de loin, mais attentif. Je dois tuer quelqu’un en moi, même si je ne sais pas trop comment m’y prendre. Toute la question ici est de ne pas perdre le fil. De le lier à ce que l’on est, à ce que je suis, écrivant. 
Cadillac Psychiatric Hospital, Gironde, France. Charcot Pavilion. October 1996.

It’s the alcohol. I am here to wean myself off it, to become once more a man of water and tea. I contemplate the coming days with a distant but attentive tranquillity. I must kill someone inside of me, even though I do not really know how to do it. The whole point here is not to lose the thread: to tie it to what one is, to what I am, writing.
Coming so soon after the word “tuer” — to kill — which itself protudes so suddenly, after the balanced calm of “tranquillité, de loin, mais attentif,” I cannot help hearing behind the choice of words “perdre le fil” the alternative “perdre le fils.”  The overriding destructive event in Metz’s life was the terrible accident, eight years earlier, in which his eight-year-old son was killed on the main road in front of their house. The whole point being not to lose the thread, has standing behind it the shadow of the whole point being not to lose the son. It’s the alcohol: it’s not just the alcohol.

The double alignment of small fragments of prose together with the setting of a psychiatric ward brings Robert Walser’s Microscripts to mind. After essentially failing to establish his place as a writer in the world, Walser — having begun to suffer from hallucinations — retreated to an asylum for the final two and a half decades of his life. Mounting difficulties in writing led him to invent an approach whereby using a pencil (impermanent, tentative, effaceable, the writing instrument of small children) instead of a pen (permanent, definite, calligraphic), and writing in the most minute and unobtrusive manner possible, writing only on small scraps of paper (e.g. the back of a business card), he was able to navigate a way through the sort of block or cramp that was besetting him. This too was writing in extremis. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Thierry Metz (1956 - 1997)

The poet Thierry Metz was born in Paris on 10 June 1956. He was self-taught, getting what books he could from a charity for the homeless. At the age of 21, he moved to Saint-Romaine-le-Noble in 1977. He worked in a range of manual labour jobs, in abbatoirs, factories, and largely on construction sites.  He was a father of three. During periods of unemployment he wrote. In 1988 tragedy struck: his second son Vincent was, at the age of eight, mowed down by a car on the main road in front of their house, and on the same day Metz was awarded the Prix Voronca for his collection Sur la Table inventée.

In 1996 he moved to Bordeaux and in October and November of that year he admitted himself voluntarily to a psychiatric ward to help in his struggles with alcohol and depression. And a month later in January 1997 he returned to the same hospital for a second stay, but took his own life on 16 April 1997.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Facing the facts

Donald Hall, in an interview in 1963, remarked: “Poetry is becoming impoverished by facts.” But what did he mean? That a poem should not be considered journalistic reportage? That the facts might get in the way? 

Ian Sansom in his recent (2019) book ‘on’ Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’ (‘on’ is no doubt not really the right word here, as the book self-admittedly meanders through a landscape of thoughts the author had had over the course of 25 years spent trying to write about book about Auden) relates the story of how Tennyson stuck with 600 in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ because it was metrically better than the more accurate 700, and remarks “Poets are not historians, or statisticians.”

And of course we would not want Tennyson to have maimed his poem with an awkward scansion. Peter Porter did ‘correct’ the last line of his relatively early poem ‘Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum’ which orginally read:

It is Australian innocence to love
The naturally excessive and be proud
Of a thoroughbred bay gelding who ran fast.

Which I greatly prefer to the later corrected version:

It is Australian innocence to love
The naturally excessive and be proud
Of a big-boned chestnut gelding who ran fast.

So what are we to think? I do prefer the original line, it is predominantly a phonetic and rhythmic preference I think: the balance of word-lengths, the assonance of ‘bred’ and ‘geld’ as well as the doubling of the ‘b’ sound work very well to give both a memorable line and a sense of closure. The factually more accurate line ‘big-boned chestnut’ is to me more awkward: the juxtaposition of the ‘g’ and ‘b’ sounds in ‘big-boned’ slows the line right down — the sort of encumbering effect you find Shakespeare using to slow down the end of a declamatory line, as in “And when I ope my lips let no dog bark!” from The Merchant of Venice, or Dylan Thomas uses perhaps somewhat excessively in the line “one big bird gulp” in Under Milkwood, and of course is especially useful when the phonetic effect is used to somehow enact the meaning presented in the words, such as happens with a pairing such as ‘lag behind’ or in Shakespeare’s line ‘Drag back our expedition’ — Porter’s ‘big-boned’ gives a clumsy feeling to the phrasing which ‘chestnut’ only amplifies. The echoing of ‘chest’ and ‘geld’ is not as effective as the ‘bred’/‘geld’ pairing, in part because that ’s’ sound gets in the way, and partly in the lumpy rhythm with ‘chest’ carrying a full stress, whereas the subsidiary and subtle stress on ‘bred’ in ‘thoroughbred’ leading into the almost-spondee of ‘bay gelding’ is far superior. Perhaps this is all personal and subjective, having myself come-of-age as it were partly under the spell of Pound’s rhythms and having a fondness for spondees, near-spondees, the hints of triple rhythm — never let to run away like an Assyrian coming down like a wolf on the fold — all the technical apparatus deployed to “break the pentameter” (which of course ended up with effects not all that different from what emerges from pentameters written along the lines of Bridges’ sensitive reading of Milton’s prosody). This is however a topic for an entirely different post.

I have digressed, but suffice to say that I prefer the two near-spondees of ‘bay gelding’ and ‘ran fast’ to the trochaic clutter of ‘big-boned chestnut gelding,’ and would agree with Hall that facts have effected some impoverishment.

But I also suspect that both Hall and Sansom are in danger of being somewhat partial in relation to various genres of poetry. I have quoted elsewhere A.D.Hope’s remark from 1965: “One after another the great forms disappear; the remaining forms proliferate and hypertrophy.” There has seemingly been a reduction in the variety of commonly used genres, but is this just a false impression caused by the vast preponderance of a certain few types just swamping and hiding from view a greater diversity?  

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Holub: Five minutes after the air raid

A poem by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, who was born in Plzeň (Pilsen) and was 15 years old when the city became a border city when the boundary of the Third Reich was moved right up to its outskirts following the annexation of the Sudetenland.

Pět minut po náletu

V Plzni,
v Nádražní třídě 26
vystoupila do třetího poschodí
po schodech, které jediné zbyly
z celého domu,
otevřela dveře
vedoucí do nebe,
strnula nad propastí.

Neboť tady
končil svět.

dobře zamkla,
aby snad někdo nevzal
nebo Aldebarana
z jejich kuchyně,
sestoupila se schodů
a usedla dole
až znovu
naroste dům
a z popela vrátí se muž
a z nožiček slepí se děti.

Ráno ji našli
A vrabci jí zobali z dlaní
Miroslav Holub

My translation  ...

Five minutes after the air raid

In Plzeň
at Station Avenue 26
she went upstairs to the third floor
only the stairs were left
of the whole house,
she opened the door
direct to the sky,
froze paralysed above the precipice.

Because here
the world ended.

she locked up well,
lest someone steal
or Aldebaran
from their kitchen,
descended the stairs
and sat down,
for again
the house to grow
and her husband to return from the ashes
and the children's little legs to be glued back.

They found her in the morning
And the sparrows pecking her hands.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Foreign contexts

Back in P. N. Review 175 James Sutherland-Smith in his Letter from Belgrade described well the attraction of living immersed a foreign language:  “… the advantage to a poet of not understanding. For poets whose gift is to write poems where their language is distilled to the highest proof, a babble around them, or at best only a surface understanding of the others languages spoken around them, creates no interference with the language within them. It permits an enormous concentration. For poets, whose gift is to clarify meaning, attention to the babble around them is useful training for the poetic processes of making meaning precise and lucid.”

I am not sure which of these varieties of poet Sutherland-Smith considers himself ... back in an even earlier Letter from Belgrade (PNR 169) he wrote: “When I write a poem I have the desire to make something potentially useful for the English language. ‘Potentially’ is the whole of it, either to indicate a direction the language can take or to conserve a way of saying something that is in danger of being confined to the notes in the OED. ... There is also a measure of self-assertion when I write a poem. I am establishing and making public my own idiolect.”

Of course not everyone takes that approach — I cannot imagine Berryman’s idiolect, no matter how much he drank, ever getting close to the syntax of his poems.

But Sutherland-Smith is right about the effects of being in foreign parts. When you have to express yourself in a language you have only a weak grasp of, or say something unambiguously to someone who has rudimentary English, it focuses the mind on how meaning is conveyed and on how it can be undermined, for instance by the use of idiomatic turns of phrase.

As one ventures into reading poetry in another language and attempting to translate it, one quickly appreciates the impossibilities, and how the deep contextual associations at the level of each single word are utilized to establish meaning, tone, effect.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Former skills

 “Are we to believe that a mutation has occurred in the required or essential nature of verse? That — for instance — flat, linear, untextured arrangement has properly taken over, that former skills and manipulation, rhythmical, measured, musical, sensuous, visual, have by necessity been superseded? Is all previous poetry now useless? Not unless man has mutated into a new species.” 

—Geoffrey Grigson, The Private Art (1982), p.17

“For centuries, poets have had an implicit contract with the reader that poems mean something or some things, that they aren’t exercises in endless deferral of meaning.” 

—Craig Raine, My Grandmother’s Glass Eye: A Look at Poetry (2016), p.6

To some extent meaning per se might be seen as an inhibiting limitation: we have to lean Raine's thought up against Robert Frost's often misquoted statement. 

“I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.”

— Robert Frost, Conversations on the Craft of Poetry (1959)

Donald Hall — the early Donald Hall in an early interview — talks of how the real energy of a poem will come from its images and should not need the support of the crutches of the old methods of construction.” To which the interviewers (one of whom was Ian Hamilton, whose voice I fancy I hear here) responded “This new poetry will open the floodgates to a lot of crap, surely?” adding “it’s very difficult to work out ways in which you begin to discriminate between kinds of nonsense.”

Are we to think of the “old methods of construction” as Hall puts it, or the “former skills” as Grigson says, as “crutches” that should be cast aside, or as vital supports without which we are breaking Raine's “implicit contract”? 

In another very early interview Hall himself might have the answer: “Freedom is the expression of the will and art is not free because the will is a servant of the Muse.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Devoted to the Impossible

Henry Moore

In the book Life Work Donald Hall recounts the last conversation he had with the sculptor Henry Moore. Hall asks “Now that you’re eighty, you must know the secret of life. What is the secret of life?”

With anyone else the answer would have begun with an ironic laugh, but Henry Moore answered me straight: “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is – it must be something you cannot possibly do.”

T. S. Eliot – who was ten years older than Moore – captures something of the mechanism which makes the sort of creative life that Moore describes a good life. 

“That excitement, that joyful loss of self in the workmanship of art, that intense and transitory relief which comes at the moment of completion and is the chief reward of creative work.” T. S. Eliot in ‘Matthew Arnold’ from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, p.108.

But of course the mathematician and the scientist are equally creative and can be absorbed in their task every bit as joyfully as the painter or the writer. In his 1956 book Science and Human Values, Jacob Bronowski writes:

The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations – more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art.


Science, like art, is not a copy of nature but a re-creation of her. We re-make nature by the act of discovery, in the poem or in the theorem. And the great poem and the deep theorem are new to every reader, and yet are his own experiences, because he himself recreates them. They are the marks of unity in variety; and in the instant when the mind seizes this for itself, in art or in science, the heart misses a beat.