Archive for August, 2014

C3

1

They noted nineteen colours on his palette,
how meticulously he cleaned his brushes
so nothing could intrude, but must knock to enter.

The weeks he spent turning this over
to find a stable point, a starting point,
and this was it, the nineteen colours;
not more, nor less.

2

Could, say, Hockney have caught it
in nineteen photographs cut and placed;
a completeness in nineteen days of varied light
of haze, cloud cover, heat
then sealed with the gloss of a photograph
and in close-up the grit of the odd blip of sellotape,
a squeeze-out of glue?

3

To attune to a landscape all noun, solid,
and rendered as verb; the Provence light
like a humming top: stationary, dynamic –
the uplift of a baguette crust, torn for chewing;
smeared plates, saucers, stacked for washing –
fractured completeness, its perspective
fragmenting.

4

Perhaps only Cezanne would allow the canvas
to show through like this, the substrate of materials
speak to us. The scrape of brush hairs on cloth,
that makes the artefact authentic.

C2

Bachmann_222Darkness Spoken: the Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann    Zephyr Press      2006

1

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.

2

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.

The dark water, thousand-eyed,

opens its white-foamed lashes,

studying you, deep and long,

thirty days long

……………………….

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

shadow

on an alien earth

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:

Now the journey is ending,

the wind is losing heart.

Into your hands it’s falling,

a rickety house of cards.

 

The cards are backed with pictures

displaying all the world.

You’ve stacked up all the images

and shuffled them with words.

 

…………………………..

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

(ibid)

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.

3

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

 

and

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

 saved,

 nothing but the dove.

 

…………………………………………….

 

 Grabstätte_von_Ingeborg_Bachmann

 

 

1

George Szirtes in his StAnza Lecture Possessing the Line (2007), cites George Steiner’s essay, On Difficulty (1978). Here Steiner has formulated poetic difficulty into four main classes:

1 – The Epiphenomenal Difficulty. This is in the use of obscure words, phrases; and of ideas that relate to unusual or relatively unconnected areas of knowledge.

2 – The Tactical Difficulty. This is where something is deliberately withheld from the text. This was a major strategy of Eastern European writers, where a classical allusion was used as a comment on a contemporary situation, but the readers had to draw the linkages themselves.

3 – The Modal Difficulty. This is where the tone of the poem renders it unappealing. Think of Swift’s diatribe’s on women’s boudoirs. It need not be inimical to the reader, just at odds with the subject.

4 – The Ontological Difficulty. Contemporary poets question more than ever before the ways a writer communicates with the reader, the languages used, and the ways syntax can be manipulated to express more of the complexity of the contemporary world.

A writer’s medium is that of expression through language, and by extension, the voice in space and time; and the printed page, the message of the layout on the page, and the type of font used.

For J H Prynne these are all part of the overall consideration of a poem. Bring in also the officialdom and legitimacy of the choice of publisher, and we have a picture of the writer’s chosen stance towards his/her audience, self, peers, and also to the writing itself. Is the text part of an ongoing psycho-biographical framework; or can it be seen as independent of the author, and therefore open to complete lexical analysis?

Prynne has published most of his books through small, unknown presses; this is partly through necessity, where the larger presses have shown themselves unsure of his work, but also it has become a deliberate tactic.

John Kinsella and Rod Mengham have written widely in praise of Prynne’s work. We have in their introductions one of our best resources for approaching Prynne’s difficulties. And they are temporal as well as strategic: they relate how Prynne’s relationship with his work, with the reader, have altered over time.

diffi1

2

Kinsella’s commentary, in the Jacket Series, on Prynne’s ‘Rich in Vitamin C’, on a poem from the early nineteen seventies, is very deeply considered.

Copy of the poem available at: http://jacketmagazine.com/06/pryn-kins.html

What is ‘rich in vitamin C’, according to the advertisement? Rosehip Syrup. That this is indeed the reference can be seen in stanza two’s ‘Or as the syrup in the cup’, and the last stanza’s ‘Such shading of the rose to its stock…’.

Rosehip Syrup is very much a WWII memory, bringing in the ‘Dig for Victory’ initiative: food supplies were not getting through the Axis’ naval blockade, and so all recreational land and gardens were to be dug up and turned to growing vegetables, to become self-sufficient. Part of this initiative was the collecting, harvesting, of rose hips because they were ‘Rich in Vitamin C’.

RHSyrup

In turn this memory leads us into reading the poem as a very touching, indeed moving active elegy for an elderly person; it is also a commentary on the generation gap. The narrator has his own take on her life, how ‘the trusted’ of her time became in his the ‘idiocy’. Her ‘incomplete, the trusted’, that is the accepted status quo, the war time propaganda, becomes for the narrator tantamount to ushering in ‘what/motto we call peace talks.’ (in both senses of noun phrase, and verb phrase).

One strand of narrative behind the piece is of an elderly widow and her younger visitor; the widow has lost her husband to enemy action in the War, in the Baltic. Baltic in the poem is lower-case and hence taking on adjectival nuances. This ties-in later when we look at the way images are linked.

The garden the elderly widow looks out on (dug-up and replanted: the cycle of examination and re-examination that we call memory) could very much be a reference to the widow’s self-enclosed, memory-obsessed later life. A memory-garden is also by extension a graveside.

An archaic, or pseudo-archaic, note is heard in the ‘ shews’ and the arch; the water is like awareness/mental lucidity in the elderly widow; the image of ‘the purpose we really cut’ as a wind over its surface, a momentary disturbance, produces a brooding, almost Gothic, mood (there is also a metaphysical imagery at work here: the garden of the soul in medieval Christian writing, the Taoist imagery of wind on water. Is this also part of her ‘idiocy’ in the Auden-on-Yeats sense: ‘You were silly, like us…’? And is that ‘idiocy’ also that of the holy fool?). This Gothicness has a ring of falsity perhaps, of an ornate folly. Do we also sense here in the follow-up of the militaristic images of accidental/collateral damage, ‘the cross-fire’ et al, of the fall of the Brideshead generation in WW11?

The images follow on from each other in an associative manner; we have the point of view of the two people in the narrative, they intrude and weave between and comment obliquely on each other. We see the germane image of ‘darkly the stain skips as a livery/… like an apple pip’ connect with the dark Baltic region, with the darkness of depth and cold of the Baltic where her ‘loved one… sleeps’. This leads to the ‘shading/of the rose to its stock tips the bolt/ from the sky…’ Here we see the death in enemy action in the Baltic transform into the narrator’s present day fears where the Baltic, its cold, represents the threat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The ‘bolt/ from the sky…’ and ‘what we call peace talks…’ references nineteen seventies President Carter regime’s (the period of the poem) Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT 1 and 11). And also, quite appositely in the dark and cold, the ‘starry fingers’ and ‘bolt/ from the sky’ references, to space, and President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ web of a satellite early-warning system.

3

At first I was uncomfortable with this roping-in of WW11 and the Cold War together. There are obvious historical linkages, but by nature and character they were very different affairs. But then it occurred to me that this was indeed how a lot of the youth protest groups thought at that time, that naïve, half-understood restlessness, that throws out everything older generations did, thought or achieved.

The narrator’s pejorative of the widow’s ‘trusted’, that ‘idiocy’, is perfectly in tune with the youth-rebellion attitude.

What on first reading seems to be a continually shifting sand of half-meanings and implications, takes on a clearer perspective: to look back, to look forward: both are highly speculative acts, and both coloured by the observer’s contemporary concerns. The poem holds both views in the same space, and also we have the writer’s colourations: the kindness and generosity of his attitude towards the elderly widow apparent in the time he spends with her, ‘setting’ her in the poem.

And also the humour: vitamin C is considered an excellent remedy against colds; and was also believed to help one see in the dark.

This is simple word-play, but it also points-up Prynne’s ‘sounding’ of the connotive possibilities of words and language.

In stanza one the ‘snowy wing-case/ delivers truly…’ whereas the widow’s idea of honour is in the ‘incomplete, the trusted.’ What the eye sees (has she brown/ hazel eyes?) is what is there to be seen; what is remembered, ie the image held within the eye of what has been seen, is liable to ageing, changing tone and colour as one’s attitudes and beliefs change.

To really see, one must reflect upon and judge against what one knows. There is also the implication that what one truly believes is all there is of value for one. Can value be measured by what is seen, and what it is compared with? Or is it something objective?

The ‘syrup’ could well be a placebo, something sweet for our childish, or at any rate immature, minds to be soothed by: the ‘sweet shimmer of reason’ , a childish fascination with shiny, shimmery things.

The reference to health propaganda by health companies points up the insidiousness of language used against us: to believe the image and deny the thing it images.

It also points up that we as much as them, the characters in the poem, are just as vulnerable to the propaganda of our time: ‘this flush/ scattered over our slant of the/ day…’: the slant of sun at evening, and the slant of our take on our time.

We get the ghost-shiver of Socrates’ ‘the unexamined life…’ here, just as earlier we hear the ghost of Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’:  ‘Accurate scholarship can/ Unearth the whole offence/ From Luther until now/ That has driven a culture mad…’ in ‘an idea bred to idiocy by the clear/ sight-lines ahead.’.

There does not seem to be an occasion for the poem. It appears to occur at the point of happy coincidence of Prynne’s subjective concerns, reflections on his time, and memories, and the impulse to write in this manner at this time, on these themes.

4

It is surprising how this poem fulfills all of Steiner’s criteria for difficulty. There is no indication in Steiner’s writings that he was aware or appreciative of Prynne’s writing. And also I very much doubt that Prynne was paying Steiner any kind of homage in his writings.

Prynne’s poem in taking on the past, carries the suggestion from Geoffrey Hill’s work of a rehabilitation of history in poetry. Pound’s Cantos are read by many as a refutation, even cancellation, of the sense of history: Donald Davie states ‘…the poet’s vision of the centuries of recorded time has been invalidated by the Cantos…’.

In some ways the Cantos can be viewed as the last word of a generation’s sense of ‘the end of history’. This sense of the end was particularly strong amongst survivors of World War 1.

This period however also saw the beginning of a new validation of historical study. Here began the ground-breaking work of Marc Bloch and the French Annales School, and of course the developments in Marxist economic history.

If anything it was the end of the ‘history of great men’, of political, imperial history, history as narrative, of hierarchies. The new history, and this is relevant to the reading of Prynne’s poem, looked on the past as part of a matrix, its constituents linguistic, architectonic, relativistic: present and future are present in time past, as it were. Present concerns, coloured by past precedent, influence future decisions, the selection of material, their weighting, and interpretation.

J H Prynne:

prynne

 

One criticism levelled at both Prynne and Geoffrey Hill is that although both eschew any biographical approach to their work, their range of references and especially the nature of the references they use, are essentially personal, subjective.

As with all general comments this, as we have seen above it is not always the case. I feel this criticism applies more to the later Hill than the instance of this particular poem by Prynne. The poem is maybe idiosyncratic in its form but the intentions and motives appear mostly objective.

Reposted from 2012.

HOUSE

Posted: August 2, 2014 in Chat

 

house

 

He worries about his house:

the cracks along the North wall –

are they surface, or structural?

And the Western wing again

letting rain in; and there’s you thinking

a bit of plaster, and, to stop it sinking,

a stronger connecting wall.

Here comes the rain.

 

 

To worry about mould patches, noises;

the shiftings, are they settling, or subsidence?

Has he done right ignoring them? Should he

have kept an eye on the changes added,

stayed in accord with original character

 

or, as he has done, with accountant, actor:

the needs of room-mates, the trendy, the faddy?

Should he have kept up, not forgotten,

the broken latch on the garden gate? 

Has he left it too late?

 

When the neighbourhood went for a cheap deal

reroofing en bloc, and paying by credit,

some by remortgaging, there were groups stayed

with the old payment: cash-on-demand. In time

all fell when –  was it Hurricane SubPrime? –

blew in from the wet South West.

He worries about his house.

 

This is not unique to his neighbourhood,

and he is surprised

by Indian, Caribbean, Iranian, Rumanian, that is

by the fellowship that chat creates:

 

from horror stories, a community;

from wider perspective, the neutral ground

of worrying about our houses.