Archive for November, 2011

Seathan, the Son of the King of Ireland is a Scottish Gaelic waulking song. It has been called the Queen of Songs.

Many elements in the song may seem strange to us now, but the piece holds together through its many variations of line, theme, rhythm and structure. Professor Derrick Thomson notes of the song, that it is ‘…unique in its building of detail…(and) skilful use of incantation. The incremental repetition is used as a passionate incantation…’ (Introduction to Gaelic Poetry)

There was a tradition amongst earlier Scots Gaelic writers for adapting structures from one area of writing or composing, to another. The unlettered poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre composed his long and wonderful poem Praise of Ben Dorain entirely by memory (it was transcribed later); the poem utilises the structure of the cael mor (big music) of the Scottish bagpipe repertoire of laments, the pibroch.

Gaelic poetry is a syllabic poetry, and based on sound structures ‘to make them easier to remember, with rhyme not as important as repetition, alliteration and rhythm’.

Seathan… has a very complex structure, and a harrowing theme that explores the pent-up emotional landscape of grief and loss and love. It takes the personal experience and puts it into legendary, almost mythical context, that in no way belittles the personal, but helps kick-start the mechanism of coping.


A waulking song is a work song, specific to the home-based cloth industry, one of the ‘central institutions of a female subculture in Gaelic society’. As an activity waulking is heavily rhythm-based, and comes late on in the cloth making process, where the cloth has already been hand-woven into skeins. These could be up to seventy yards in length. Their ends were sewn together to form a loop. It was then soaked in a solution of stale urine and water (my sources do not tell from where the former was obtained). The purpose of this was to ‘neutralise the oils of melted livers of dog fish… used to dress the wool.’

What strikes one most strongly here about these practices amongst the outlying crofts and island communities is their sheer ingenuity. Faced with the intractable problem of preparing the harsh, wiry, lanolin-heavy wool of native sheep these crofting, sea-dependent people experimented with chemistry; a basic kind perhaps, their resources being very scarce…. And it was a matter of trial and error: the loss and hardship following on from failure to find the right compounds could have been severe.

Each community must have developed its own variation on a basic practice. Economic forces would have regularised methods over time. In this we can read the struggle of local communities to retain identity whilst procedures were standardised around them. By the time Harris Tweed became industry-sized local practices would have already been lost to a streamlined, though more economically stable, method.

The ownership of the source of materials for dressing wool in Renaissance Florence, the alum mines, was a major bargaining tool; it facilitated Medici connections with the Papacy.

The cloth being waulked was worked by the women of the community. There are cases where men were allowed into the process, but only as on-lookers, or singers. Waulking consisted of two groups of women facing each other across a table, with the cloth between them. Generally, they would pick up the cloth and bang it down, then slide it along. Other methods worked at a section of cloth before moving it on, until the whole was considered done.

‘Done’ was measured by the middle finger of the chief singer: ‘A cloth that was about eight finger lengths broad would be three inches narrower when it was ready.’ ‘Done’ was a cloth made softer, thicker, more tightly woven.

The waulking breaks down the prepared fibres so that they split lengthwise, retaining their columnar structure. The result is similar to felting, but not so extreme; it produces a heat-retaining, relatively water-resistant cloth material.

And so we have a highly rhythmic and regular activity, centred on all-women groups. Their songs became not just accompaniments, but expressive: ‘frank, intensely vivid… statements of women’s experiences.’ Thomas Tennant recorded: ‘… they (the women) grow very earnest in their labours, the fury of the song rises; at length it arrives to such a pitch, that… you would imagine a troop of female demoniacs to have assembled.’ That is, the whoops and calls of the women accompanied their work as they waulked harder and harder. Also note that the work and thereby the song, builds in intensity as it progresses.


The ‘Queen of Songs’, Seathanruns at close on two hundred lines in its written form. It has been estimated it would take over an hour to perform, complete with chorus parts. As waulking sessions lasted for about three hours, the rest of the time accompanied by lighter songs, we can imagine the intense bonding of a waulking, and the huge emotions that came into play whenever this song was performed.

There have been a number of present day singers: Capercailie, the Scots Gaelic musicians have recorded an excerpt. The singer Flora MacNeal has recorded a version that was passed down orally from her mother’s cousin. This version takes the form of a lament.

The first written version of the song is contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (originally published 1899); this also has two much shorter variants, which he had also collected orally.

Seathan would undoubtedly be the product of many singers, and added topical improvisations. Professor Thomson writes: ‘Its style and language… argues for a sixteenth century to seventeenth century origin, and if that were so it would suggest that the metrical pattern is a still older one, for here we have an assured and mellow use made of the patterns…’. He asserts, ‘…the song has a highly distinctive drive which unifies it… we see in it the unity imposed by an artist’s imagination.’

The song is sung by a leader amongst the women, the others come in on the chorus vocables, which mostly consist of a meaningless ‘breathing’.

In translation we miss the distinctive rhythm and word music of the original. What is conveyed to us though is the impression of a mature and controlled work. Taken away from its active, communal role we can only speculate on the sheer visceral power of the song, performed in the cramped conditions of a waulking, and accompanied by the physically exhausting, odoriferous, and emotionally draining activities that surround the waulking session.

Professor Thomson comments that the form of the song is that of, ‘… the rhyming paragraph technique… used also in the finest of Irish keens (The Lament of Art O’Leary) dating from 1773.’

Firstly, rhyming paragraphs are unlimited runs on one end rhyme around a central theme. It is another example of a borrowing from another field, in this case using earlier written poems from the classical period. Also, the close connection between the classical poets and practices of Ireland and Gaelic Scotland has a long history.

Secondly, the Lament of Art O’Leary represents one of the last examples of ‘orrain mor’ (in Scots, ‘big music’), as against the lighter ‘airs’ of dance and celebratory songs. The Lamentis based on a specific historical event that represents the state of Ireland at that time: the hegemony of the English Planter families.

It has been suggested that the Lament can be read as constructed in five parts, ‘… each one referring to a particular phase of the wake and funeral ceremonial… a possible latent discourse at the crucial stages of the obsequies.’ (see the divisions given in The Celtic Miscellany, Penguin Books. Also, we have to take into consideration, as the notes point out, that the arrangement of stanzas in all extant written records vary greatly at times). This is apposite to what Professor Thomson says of Seathan: ‘On a psychological level we see the song being used as therapy, and clearly this is a highly important aspect…’

What unites both works are similar cultural and religious backgrounds: the Gaelic culture of Scotland came directly from Ireland, and kept strong links even though the languages changed. As late as the 1770’s Alexander MacDonald, could write his magnificent Birlinn of Clan Ranald (influenced by Homer’s Odyssey) about the building, equipping and sailing of a boat to Ireland. It is, in effect, a poem of farewell to Scotland after the old clan system suffered its last, devastating defeat at Culloden.

The Roman Catholic sensibility informs both works. They are both based on the keening at the wake of dead kinfolk. In the case of Seathan it can be read as a lament for the whole Gaelic culture, in its inclusiveness of reference, as well as clan sensibility. Its appeal is both to the personal experience of loss in love; the experience of early widowhood, utilising the laments from earlier inter-clan wars; and the loss of first love. It turns into humankind’s experience of love and loss, without stinting or avoiding the intensity of the emotions roused, or the harrowing sense of loss that is the lot of those who are left behind.

In waulking songs the rhythm must fall at exactly even intervals. Scottish Gaelic is metrically a syllabic language. It has certain similarities and implied practices with classical Latin; in Gaelic the stress is nearly always on the first syllable, and so is suggestive of trochaic structures, similar to the one popularized by Prudentius, contemporary of St Ambrose.

It can be seen from the translation that there is a wide and sophisticated use of classical rhetorical figures, with anaphora dominant as the emotional charge builds, and, as we have seen, the waulking rhythm speeds up, intensifies. Metonymy in particular is very skilfully employed, the term ‘calf of my love’ as well as being a biblical image (The Song of Songs) also refers, to as we see in stanza 18, to its economic importance and thereby as a metonymy of status. The term also occurs in the Lament

Nor must it be underestimated as a term of endearment; as such it is very informing to see the way it is used. Affection is only divorced from the articles of daily life, that is, as an emotional force in itself, in the overlying appeal of the whole song. Love is always predicated. In this way the whole song can be seen as an exploration of the emotional landscape, as much as the details explore the Gaelic cultural landscape.

Historically it was this point in the life of Scottish Gaeldom that it became difficult to separate the culture from the emotions. Earlier practices show how a person can be divorced from a particular culture yet be accepted by a related one: exile from Ireland need not mean outlawdom perpetua. There are many instances of Irish exiles thriving under Scottish protection. Yet what is happening at the time of the composition of the song, is a defensive identification.

The use of epithets, ‘son of the king of Ireland’, and ‘daughter of a king’, of the wanderings of the hero and heroine, of their wide cultural claim: silken clothes, red-gold pillows, both raise the personal experience of love, and the pain of loss of love, into a larger context through a recognition of personal experience, and thereby personal worth – the acceptance of the self and self-worth  – into the arms of a larger community/perspective. The subjective experience is made large in an environment of overwhelming physical forces: death by sea, death by war.

The primacy of subjective experience in a cultural sphere can be seen in the unwillingness to give up the body of the loved one even to the Church and Christ himself, whose claims and promises are seen as by no means beyond question.

I would suggest that the performance of the song, along with its concomitant physical activities, enacts a whole physical and emotional catharsis, for a culture, and at the climax of the economic survival of the community, by the traditional holders of that culture’s ethos: its women.


The Pearl Poem is be found in a mid fourteenth century manuscript, that contains Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cleanness and Patience; all four poems written down in a Midlands dialect of Middle English.

All except Sir Gawain are explicitly Christian in theme, But, Sir Gawain: a knight all in green, green skin, hair, and a challenge to die at midwinter – what, we think, could be more pagan!

Jane Draycott has currently published a version of the poem; it is a modern, contemporary rendering rather than a direct translation. That writers of this quality are now exploring the poem is very encouraging.

The Pearl Poem is unique in its technical expertise, rhyming ababababbcbc, and consisting of a hundred and one stanzas, divided into twenty sections. The tone is courtly, as opposed to everyday, the language discursive and, at times, impassioned; all is refined so that all the focus of the poem is on the subject matter. Latest academic assessments suggests the author of at least, this and Sir Gawain to have been a priest based in Stockport, near Manchester in the North West of England. This is based on use of local words, as well as, in Sir Gawain, possible local sites (the Green Chapel based on Lud’s Cave, on the edge of the White Peak part of the Peak District).

Addendum: 2/7/12

– Commentators on the authenticity of the writer’s background very convincingly point out that the writer, although using the dialect of the region, would most likely have been a member of the court, or some family attached to the court of the time. This makes sense: what ‘boggled’ me about the writer’s location was the quality of the work added to the isolated location. When a boggling like that occurs, I am now aware enough to see it as an indication of inconsistency. –

Back to the body: Middle English is an impossible read for many people, but the poem becomes more accessible if we acknowledge its Midlands dialect. The ‘jeweller’ narrating the poem has lost a pearl of great value, in the grass:

Sythen in that spote hit fro me sprange/ Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele/

That wont watz whyle devoyde my wrange/ And heven my happe and al my hele. /

That dotz but thrych my hert thrange/….


Since in that spot it from me sprang/ often have I waited, wishing (all was) well/

That want was to while dispel my wrong/ And heaven my hope and my

 well-being./ That does but hurt my heart sore….

That ‘thrych’ is pure Midlands, as is the interchangeability of a and o sounds. The passage quoted, especially that third line, would need a page of explication to unwrap all its meanings.

There is much use of rhetorical forms and figures: all grasses are spices (’spysez’), that is, aromatic, varied, and the description of the dream landscape is a jeweller’s paradise. The access of writer and readers of this period, before the opening up of the world in the age of discovery, to a knowledge of the range and types of jewels is intriguing. The description of the dream vision of the heavenly city, built up of tiers of precious jewels (jasper, sapphire, emerald, ruby etc) is all based on the descriptions in the St John Gospel.

We think of all this as extreme artificiality, rhetoric-gone-mad; but for the time this was the accepted structure of the world, from base to noble metals; from iron to gold; from earth to heaven and the transcendent qualities. It is the ideology and semiotics behind the magnificence of stained glass windows.

The child who died, the jeweller’s two year old daughter, is transformed into a pearl, perfect and ‘matchles’; that is, there is found no match for her on earth. This is achieved by the writer’s insight into the passionate loss of a father. Already there is a play of imagery: pearl and young girl; jeweller and father, that draws us in, entangles us in a developing gestalt. Our imaginations are engaged, and our empathetic responses directly addressed. The precision of the language is invigorating.

The father/ jeweller has lost his perfect young daughter/ pearl. In his utter grief he finds himself in a jewelled dreamscape, and spies her across a stream. She seems older and even more serenely beautiful. They discourse; she instructs him, in a reversal of a parent to a child, in God’s teaching. He has to accept, but cannot lose her again. In trying to cross over to her he violates God’s law and loses the vision. His lesson, though, is learned. And ours with it.

We read the poem now as a courtly piece, whose rhyme scheme constrains expression. And yet there is an argument that the very artificiality of the form was intended, was a part of the expressive intent. Not only does the form aid the poet’s ability to handle the grief of the loss, but the courtly and intricate, almost dance form, brings dignity, gravitas and, ultimately, joyous praise to the handling of the theological content.

It is very much a show, not tell: we learn with him through following the question and answer of the religious discourse, that we have to suffer, whether it is the loss of a loved one or whatever our burden is to be. We learn also, that grief can bring a vision of the order of things.

This is where Sir Gawain fits in. It is through the reader witnessing Sir Gawain’s learning of self-sacrifice, humility, and self-constraint that mankind’s weakness is revealed to itself; and that it is through repentance and suffering that mankind is redeemable.

In our emphatically non-religious culture the religious experience may be coming to seem increasingly alien to our sense of the world. That may be so; but the bases of the poem remain: we all experience grief, loss; we all have concepts of goodness, right, honesty.

Our experiences are always going to challenge our ideals. It is the ways in which we make sense of this, our ways of coping, which are the main stories of all times.

There is a freshness about this poem: the father’s grief is authentic; its overpowering emotions force him into direct confrontation with his beliefs. The jewelled landscape can still charm and surprise us.

The stanzas of religious discourse can be trying but if we approach them as an example of technique, skill, in using form and content whilst juggling sense, mood, atmosphere, it is surprising how really consummate was the poet.

Ps Readers of this post will also probably be interested in my THE DREAM OF THE ROOD Parts 1 and 2, on this site

Some say the New Music began with Debussy.

It is the opening flute piece of his Prelude a L’apres midi d’un faune of 1894: “It gently shakes loose from roots in diatonic (major-minor) tonality.” (Paul Griffiths).

One of the main contributions to this loosening is the deliberate avoidance of key signatures: “the first two bars of the flute melody… fill in the space between C sharp and G…The third bar indicates an arrival in the key of B major. But diatonic harmony is now only one possibility among many…” (ibid).

This must be set against the contemporary background of Romantic music, particularly Wagner’s epic cycles. Many looked on these as a new flowering of Romantic music; but it may be Debussy better caught the tone of the times: Wagner was “… a beautiful sunset which was taken for a dawn.” (ibid).

Alban Berg was born in 1885, in Vienna. He initially made his living as a bookkeeper. He also took part time classes in composition from the age of twenty, with Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg at this time was a leader of the current avant-garde. In 1909 Schoenberg produced his Three Pieces for Piano, which was the first wholly atonal music.

Atonal music dispenses with tonal keys and signatures, traditional harmonies and, instead, assigns an equal importance to all notes in the chromatic scale: there are no major or minor keys, and therefore no traditional melody.

Chromatic awareness slowly developed throughout the previous century: “you only need to try humming along to Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue to realize that chromaticism had come a long way since Mozart.” (Joe Staines and Duncan Clark).

In some ways it was Wagner himself who brought this about, by taking tonality to breaking point “with music in which there are so many and such extreme modulations” (ibid).

One characteristic of atonal music was the belief that the music must flow directly from the unconscious.

Schoenberg, Berg and Webern became known as chief amongst the Second Viennese School (the First being Beethoven, Haydn etc.). The setting is important: Vienna, home of Freudian psychoanalysis, and the concept of the unconscious.

Berg’s tutelage finished when he was twenty-five, the year of his first fully achieved piece, the String Quartet Opus 3. The audience reception was bemusement. Schoenberg, however, was enthusiastic.

Berg was now to live solely by music. Coupled with this though, was the problem of finding players capable and willing to take on the new music.

Berg stands out in the development of the new music, because of his janus-like stance: constantly referring to tonality but also developing atonality further and further. This is what gives him his richness, accessibility. Mahler’s 6th and 9th Symphonies become as much reference points as Schoenberg’s experiments with 12-tone structure.

This was part of a lingering Romanticism, and fertile ground for development of belief in the idea of the Freudian unconscious. The wonderful sonority of the Quartet Berg owes to a shared aesthetic with post-Romantic harmonics, and his appreciation of classical harmonics.

The Lyric Suite of 1925, Berg’s next major piece, followed the development of atonal music through into serialism. The development was in the concentration on “small groups of notes which are rearranged and transposed in a multitude of ways… elaborate new arrangements and extensive cross-referencing between… movements.” (Griffiths); in this instance around a poem by Baudelaire. The main expressive impulse was unfulfilled desire: deep in the structure is a musical acrostic of a love affair: “The pitches… are often arranged so that the letters of their notes refer to the names A-lban B-erg (B flat) and H-annah (B) F-uchs and going on to obtain independent status.”

Griffiths notes, “The system governing the duration of the various chords consists of a numerical series binding for the whole passage: 5-4-3-2-1, 1-2-3-4-5. “ This row is submitted to a process of intensification where two tones each are “exchanged in all 12 tones… as well as the intervals in the chromatic scale.”(ibid).

Berg’s exasperated wife responded: ‘he can only work once he has completely complicated matters’.

Does serialism point up the failure of reliance on the unconscious, of the previous works? Perhaps the complication was in order to throw the reason into disarray, to distract it by embroiling it in detail, allowing the unconscious expression.

As serialism flowered into its hay-day in the 1950s in America, it became notorious for a certain aridity of emotional content.

Parallel with the development of atonal music and serialism, were Stravinsky’s innovations in rhythmical organisation. His later work Agon proved a bridge between the two, thought to be, antithetical styles of composition.

As for Berg, with two operas behind him, Wozzeck, and Lulu (unfinished), his never very strong constitution gave way, and he succumbed to blood poisoning at the age of 50.

His legacy is a wonderful richness; and an emotive centre, expressed with a cool, careful and rigorous tenacity.
















Darkness Spoken: the Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann    Zephyr Press      2006


Born in 1926 in southern Austria, Bachmann died, after a rollercoaster ride of fame and withdrawal, in somewhat mysterious circumstances, in 1973 at her Rome apartment.

Mysterious? Well, it is still undecided if she died through an unattended cigarette, smoking in bed; or was it a suicide attempt?

Why should we still read her? Obvious answer is: because she was one of the best of her time. So, is she time-specific? You are the judge. But allow me to say that Charles Simic, American laureate, values and continues to value her poetry; enough to write a generous Foreword to this book: What is it that makes certain poems memorable? Obviously, it could be the sheer mastery of form and originality of the imagination… Tastes change, newness wears out… (however) I have here in mind that elusive property known as the poet’s voice… it is her voice that one always remembers.

I would go as far to suggest she inhabits that place between modern and contemporary; like Alban Berg in music she looks back to earlier sensibilities, and forward to new ones.

Her tragedy was the in-between bit, the War, and the horrors of the War.

Some commentators have found in her the War-amnesia of many German writers of the period. She herself writes:

The unspeakable passes, barely spoken, over the land:

 already it is noon.

Early Noon

And noon, of course, casts no shadows.

A necessary amnesia, maybe: no single person can possibly hope to find in oneself the capacity to take on, never mind overcome, all that. Consequently she is a haunted writer: restless, uneasy, unsettled.

Her rise could not have been more auspicious: introduced to the Gruppe 47 (Boll, Grass etc) meetings by no less than Paul Celan; her two poetry books of 1953 and 1956 helped her win the George Buchner Prize, The Berlin Critics Prize, the Bremen Award. And yet after these two books there were no more.

Already proficient in short stories, plays, libretti, radio drama, and ballet libretto, she later accepted the Frankfurt Poetry Chair. In 1953 she first made Rome her residential centre.

Her later published writing consisted entirely of prose and drama pieces. Her most famous book was Malina, part of the large ‘Todesarten’ cycle. In 1968 she was awarded the Austrian State Prize for literature.

She had a long and productive liaison with Henze Werner Henze, writing libretto for several of his pieces: Der Prinz von Homberg etc, some of which is included in this collection. Her later breakup with Swiss writer Max Frisch was long and painful.


But were there no more poems? Here collected are the two best selling books as well as poems written throughout the rest of her life, in five time-sections: 1945 to 56; 1957 to 61; 1962 to 63; 1963 to 64, and 1964 to 67. As you can see some of these sections are fuller than others. As you can also see the last five to six years of her life are not covered. The translator Peter Filkins points out, that although the quality of this unpublished work maybe does not hit the high mark of the earlier pieces; it can still own its right as poetry.


Starting out she had to find a language of expression within her native German, As Christa Wolf notes, Ingeborg Bachmann knows that “literature cannot be composed outside the historical situation.” (The Writer’s Dimension). The ‘historical situation’ here implies both contemporaneous, as well as past time.

One of her main influences was Wittgenstein, of the Tractatus period: that end comment: What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence must have chimed deeply with her. Wolf also comments, The historical situation is such that all literature must have at its heart the question of man’s possible moral existence. (ibid).

Yet, how to express whilst under the enormous pressure of a past that was all around her? The pressures of history have the tendency to reduce the individual to a statistic, a number in a listing somewhere.

The images of her first book Borrowed Time are of movement away, onward, from:

Smoke rises from the land.

Remember the tiny fishing huts,

because the sun will sink

before you’ve set ten miles behind you.



from  Journeying Out


Harder days are coming.

The loan of borrowed time

will be due on the horizon


from Borrowed Time


It would be so easy to read the smoke rising from the land as referencing a broken Europe; to go is to perhaps go towards: there are always horrors waiting for us, unpaid dues, worse things. These poems were published within the immediate post-War period of German restructuring and hope. Their great impact was due perhaps to their tapping into the doubt and darkness behind the confidence.

She can also hit a fuller tone:


Wherever we turn in the storm of roses,

the night is lit up by thorns, and the thunder

of leaves, once so quiet within the bushes,

rumbling at our heels.


In the Storm of Roses

Roses have as illustrious a symbolism as poppies, maybe more so. The lurid brightness of their colour here (can you feel Giorgione’s ‘Tempest’?) maybe borrowing, or reflecting forward to, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’ (as her later poetry forward-echoes some of the tone of the ‘confessional’ poetry of Ginsberg, Sexton etc). It is the unease of this piece, how not even the standard pastoral held any escape, that is memorable.

The theme of leaving, moving away from, a past she was inevitably embroiled in, that coloured, toned and muddied every thing around her: to leave, then; but can one possibly leave it behind? Compare the above piece with:

Under an alien sky

shadows roses


between roses and shadows

in alien waters

my shadow

Shadows Roses Shadow, from Invocation of the Great Bear


The self jostles for place amongst the shadows, and almost succeeds. It is that ‘almost’ she is most adept at expressing.

She has a Symbolist tone at times in those earlier poems:


As sorrow warms him, the glassblower steps towards us




…. He boils the lead in the kettle of tears,

making for you a glass – meaning a toast to what’s lost –

for me a shard of smoke…………………..


from: Twilight

: the brittle delicacy of emotional states on the nerves; and the dull lumpeness of grief.


Her Great Landscape Near Vienna is, it has been suggested, in part influenced by Carol Reed’s iconic scenes of the shattered (Hapsburg) empire, and moral ambiguity, in his iconic film, The Third Man:


… two thousand years gone, and nothing of us will remain


only in the square, in midday light, chained to

the column’s base………..

the nave is empty, the stone is blind,

no one is saved, many are stricken,

the oil will not burn, we have all

drunk from it………….


Her second book Invocation of the Great Bear has a more confident tone, allowing her to go more deeply into the unease, as well as her natural wish to rise, to allow the spirit’s movement. Where earlier she had suggested immanence, now she can weigh spirit and flesh, or earth: the Shadows Roses Shadow above, in its complete lack of punctuation, displays a greater confidence in form and tone. But also we have:



Into your hands it’s falling,

a rickety house of cards.


The cards are backed with pictures

displaying all the world.




From: Stay


The poem can be read as self-referential, as well as addressed to her peers. The image of the journey now turns its dis-ease inward onto the self, and language. What is the relationship between a word and its meaning? Do nouns claim a world for us; and with verbs do we manipulate that world, make it active? Wittgenstein’s idea of picture-language may read to us now as anachronistic, maybe a little clumsy, but we must remember in 1956 it still held its fascination and appeal. So how does this piece end, what has she to say?


And how profound the playing

that once again begins!

Stay, the card you’re drawing

is the only world you’ll win



The only way out – action linked to the real processes of society – seems barred by a hopelessness which feeds non-stop off the alienation she feels when she observes real events. (Christa Wolf, ibid).

This is very much an existential impasse.

It is also an impasse created by language; the concept of the ‘language game’ of the later Wittgenstein is echoed in the above extract. We need to ask, Where does the ‘I’ stand in relation to our language, to what we express?

What is the point of writing… for whom to express one’s thoughts, and what is there to say to people? (Christa Wolf, ibid). Another commentator has noted: The fuse that runs through these powerful poems is the powerlessness of language, its continual failure to measure up: “Between a word and a thing / you only encounter yourself, / lying between each as if next to someone ill, / never able to get to either.”

In her poetry… she reveals a person who… is willing and able to endure the conflicts of our own time.” Christa Wolf had noted earlier. That ‘able’ worries me; it should worry us all. It is like a gong, sounding out presumption, over-confidence.

And so, in order to continue at all, the language use must change; the need to express continues, but the form is felt to be no longer adequate:


The oar dips at the sound of a gong, the black waltz starts,

with thick dull stitches, shadows string guitars.


Beneath the threshold, in a mirror, my dark house floats,

the flaring points of light now softly radiate out.



always the surface shifts towards another destination.



The Black Waltz

The search for a language: she approaches Surrealism, its sudden clinching and clanging of images that reveal meaning, as it were, by accident:



a flywheel starts spinning, the derricks pump

spring from the fields, erected forests macerate

the degraded torso of greenness, and an iris of oil

watches over the wells of the land………


The Ferris wheel drags the coat that covered our love.

from: Great Landscape near Vienna


The second book makes great use of Grimm’s stories: Snow White and Rose Red, The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff etc


the seven stones turned into seven loaves;

he plunged into the meadows; fragrant air

scattering crumbs for the lost in forest groves


from: Of a Land, A River and Lakes


As such, these excerpts are all of techniques of narrative. That last named poem has ten sections of strict rhyming quatrains, on domestic rural scenes. The quotidian: all that we can be sure of. The piece is unflinching perhaps in its depictions of slaughter days, and how closely they run to War’s sanctioned excesses. Nevertheless these are landscapes closely guarded by form and metre.

She often uses the first person singular as a way of exploring, through identifying basic traits, a universal.

Each poem is the uncovering of a host of images that cluster around a central concern, often obliquely approached. In Advertisement she blends the bland hopes of advertisers with the syntax of lives full of very real broken hopes:


But where are we going

carefree be carefree



but what happens

best of all

when dead silence


sets in


This attention to syntax prepares us for the concern with pure language systems that we saw in Stay, the language-game, where truth is textural.



What happened next was the meeting of emotional break-up and existential impasse; what happened next was hospitalisation: depression; slow recovery.

The Gloriastrasse poems convey something of that time:

The blessing of morphine, but not the blessing of a letter


In a bed

in which many have died

odourlessly, fitted out

in a white smock



Lost in a haze of morphine


Confessional in mood, shut-off and half-aware at times, these poems are painful reading. Perhaps the hospital poems of Elizabeth Jennings in English poetry come the closest.


With recovery, even if only partial, came the success of the novels; a success based in part on their innovative techniques.

For a writer there is only language: intent, expression, ability, vocabulary, wide reading, and accident. And the contexts, and the meta-narratives that language-use brings with it.

These translations are not always at their best, fighting to retain the metre and rhyme schemes of the original German in lines padded out with redundant terms, phrases, to make up the metre. Overall, however, the standard is high. This is a big book, a dual-language volume. If one compares these translations with others available on the net one sees how generally successful this book is.

It is always best to let the writer have the last word.


Nach dieser Sintflut

[After this deluge]


After this deluge

 I wish to see the dove


 nothing but the dove.







To view a Howard Hodgkin painting is like being in on some event, but with the sound turned off. Everything is happening at once, but there’s this gap.

His paintings are visual ‘events’; you feel the churn of intensities.

It works by being so tightly contained. Most of his paintings are comparatively small: 37×38 cm (Still Life), 26x30cm (Venice Sunset). It’s only in later works he takes on size: 196x269cm (When Did We Go To Morocco?); but these are the exception.

The fierce overpainting objectifies emotional responses. The technically assured range of brushstrokes persuades us into seeing the harmonics of the piece.

So what soundtrack would we put here, then?

Harrison Birtwistle (Sir), for his layered textures and sense of theatre? Because Hodgkin is dramatic, his “emotional responses” (ie his paintings) lift and shape, throw into relief, subjective experience onto an objective plane.

But also for both their idiosyncratic Englishness. Unmistakable. Hodgkin’s focus is mostly domestic, the interior: we, the public, look either into frames into the picture, or out of an interior. Our sense of perspective is jeapordised to such an extent whichever way we look, that Hodgkin’s intensity becomes ours.

The unmistakable overpainting of the frame, and the painted frame within the painting (see Snapshot) is to “protect from the world” the at times fleeting emotion of the painting.

His paintings are deeply figurative; witness the quantity of portraits. At their heart (the canvas level, or, as he uses mostly board, the wood level) is generally a figurative leitmotif, before arpeggios of response, a polyphony of tonal qualities, describe their way out.

Ok, joke over, but you get the idea.

Painting for Hodgkin is about creating “illusionistic spaces” through the use of a specific vocabulary: colour is to create depth, the richly textured surfaces that allow underpainting to show through create counterpoint; patternings and obliquities help suggest space, while other techniques defeat space, keeping our eyes on the surface of the painting.

He has learned, surprisingly, from Sickert: “one way to make a painting exciting is the intimation of a human drama through psychological and sexual innuendo”. He does this through his tightly controlled focus, an almost keyhole perspective. Hodgkin himself writes: “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations”, that is, not emotions themselves. He also writes: “Pictures result from the accretion of many decisions, some are worked on for years, to find the exact thickness of a feeling.” (to Susan Sontag).

But is the Sickert so surprising? Hodgkin studied at Camberwell School of Art 1949 to 1954. Camberwell at that time was very influenced by the Euston Road School, in reaction to avant-garde’s pure abstractionism, and Surrealism. The Euston Road School (William Coldstream, Graham Bell, Victor Pasmore) was all about disciplined realism, observation, everyday life. And deeply influenced by Sickert and the Camden Town Group.

You also need to consider early Vuillard for the mood and interior scenes. Later, of course Hodgkin’s peers, Matisse, Derain, and who were to become fellow travellers: the neo expressionists.

His focus has always been intimacy, the understated; his figuration cubist, similar to de Kooning. Hodgkin’s observation is very much a consideration of remembered moments, his disciplined realism the veracity of the self.

Of It Can’t Be True (1987-90) Michael Auping writes, it is “echo-like in its composition. It is composed of tilting frames jostling each other for position within the whole.” So, a constant tension set up by structural elements: the bright yellow frame in the centre is stopped short by a series of abrupt brush strokes that “violate its containment”.

And the title: what can’t be true? I question the need to know. The painting stands, for us; it emerges out of the personal life of the painter. As with all creative works there are always the unknowable elements: the subjective self’s containment is challenged, maybe compromised, but never wholly claimed. The titles are at times oblique because they are commentaries, jokes even, on the self, the legislated life, the legislators of life.

Auping comments, on Snapshot (1984-93), “We are given an inside view…  how the artist allows the marks to show through other marks, how he half buries and obliterates, leaving only what is necessary to re-engage his memory of the subject, though that memory and its relation to the title remains mysterious.”

As with all things, we have to learn to read paintings, their vocabularies, their aesthetics. Those who praise Old Masters for their perspicacity only see, in fact, a fraction of what they look at.

And so we begin to hear the soundtrack to these paintings (and it is not Birtwistle) in the dramatic tensions of the canvases, the emotional sweeps and uncoverings of colour, the personal chiaroscuro.

What has not yet been addressed is Hodgkin’s purpose in using the technique of the overpainted frames. It is a constant feature in his work, this bleeding out from the canvas onto walls, into the room’s light, but most importantly, into the viewer’s own existence.

There is something Derridean in this, how Derrida interrogates Kant and his logic of the parergon: “those things attached to the work of art but not part of its intrinsic form or meaning” eg the frame of the painting, the colonnades of a palace, drapery of statues…. The strict demarcation between one thing and another.

Derrida’s ‘indeterminacy’ informs Hodgkins’ sense of self; sexual orientation, and a sense of community are all implied here; hence a democracy of being, of being in the world. Hence, also, the personal quality, the familiarity, of some of his titles, implying a relationship with the viewer. Like all relationships it has to be worked at, constantly renewed, updated, changed.







In my piece on Henrik Nordbrandt I mentioned the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelof as one reference point. Pia Tafdrup has also spoken out in favour of Ekelof’s work. She comes in from a completely different direction. Much of her poetic sensibility is based on the feminist critiques and theories of Kristeva and Cixous; her body-centred explorations of the here and now utilise the rhythms and languages of desire.

For Pia Tafdrup writing the body is very much that of the ‘Écriture feminine’ of Cixous, and of Showalter who writes, “… the inscription of the feminine body and female difference in language and text.”. Écriture feminine places “experience before language, and privileges non-linear, cyclic writing that evades the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system.”

The book Spring Tide, translated by Ann Born, Tafdrup describes as just one aspect of her writing: ”Spring Tide and White Fever constitute two parts, while The Bridge of Sounds became a third quantity, which could not have been thought of without the preceding ones. Seen like this the three works are related to one another as thesis-antitheses-synthesis… A continuous, dynamic praxis.’ (Walking Over the Water. 1991).

It has been noted by some that Tafdrup set out from the beginning to be one of the top Danish writers; something like Auden’s career plan in English. And yet she has not been so beholden to the Danish canon. Her earlier works have been controversial, foregrounding the body, sensual experience, women’s perspectives. Her travelling companion in this was Marianne Larsen, whose writing, “analyse(s) sexual repression, class struggles and imperialism…”. Tafdrup’s  previous book, The Innermost Zone, 1983 “sets out to explore unknown regions of the body and mind…” that is, unknown in literature. Tafdrup’s assault on the canon has always been from a radical perspective. Her concerns echo Rosemarie Tong’s comment on Cixous: “Cixous urged women to… the unthinkable/unthought… in words”.

Tafdrup’s two major volumes are Spring Tide (1985) and Queen’s Gate (2001). There is detectable a move from “short lines… mounting impatient rhythm… ‘(Horace Engdahl) to “a many-voiced, multi-layered…” (Bloodaxe) style. In between we have the Arkpoem (1994); a very different experiment in form, it opens:

I was writing this long and labyrinthine poem in which I opened up

 and at the same time stepped into that openness, stillness, with a white voice

 as word after word drank from its stream, and the further the poem extended

 the more difficult it became, its syntax gradually transforming underway…

Her structure here is the cyclic exploration of self and the world as outlined by Elaine Showalter in her writings on feminist theory.

In 1991 she published Walking Over the Water. Outline of a Poetics. (part-translated by David MacDuff), a long series of meditations examining and elaborating upon her working methods. A key part of her strategy for major recognition. At every point it can seen her intent has been to situate the feminist perspective within the Danish canon.

The great appeal of Spring Tide lies in its sensuous, breathless lines: “…to write the syntax of desire…to a great degree demonstrate it…” (The Syntax of Desire, author’s foreword). The book is based around the first recognition, enjoyment, waning, and loss of desire “in all its manifestations…”:

Spring Tide

                 I lie down

                 bare myself

                I’ll be your animal

                  for a moment

                 with senses stretched out

                 between neck and heel

spring tide


Spring Tide is a book honed on public performance. The incantatory effect, the feel of transgression, the building rhythmic force of these lines all must have been electrifying.

In the structure of this poem, its paralleling of clauses, we have something of kin with perhaps, a rhapsodic, biblical style.

It is not all pleasure and sunshine, however. As Engdahl comments: “Her poetry has a shadow side… the prevailing season… is actually winter, the harsh, windy Danish winter with its endless wet snow.” And it is. The reader does not notice at first, but predominantly it is very much desire in warm places.

This darker side makes itself more known in the later book of aphoristic four-liners The Thousandborn:

                            Don’t look for poetry’s black box,

                            it hasn’t recorded any answers,


 It is perhaps she is indeed “demonstrating …all its manifestations..”, even the desire for the dark, the cold, that is a part of all our make-ups.

Queens Gate (translated by David MacDuff) at times achieves a great elegance of line and phrase:

                             Clear is the water, blue as in a flame,

                            like a sky that floats,


from The Shining River)


                            Here an undercurrent gathers,

                            here is a well with water


                            and the creatures still cry.

from The Acacia Valley

There is the kind of almost classical reticence here, and a tone that the Scottish Gaelic writers often achieved.

As can be seen, the two poems are water-based in their imagery; the whole book with its nine sections gestates a mythology of origins:

From water you have come.

                                                          The Shining River

The “white voice” of the ‘Ark’ poem echoes the ‘white ink’ of Écriture feminine.