Archive for the ‘Parameters’ Category

There are many more types of poetic expression than the personal lyric. The lyric has become predominant at the present time because of political and ideological factors: we look to the self as the source and sole repository of values; we value personal experience as the only trustable source of knowledge of the world.

The idea and ideal of community has been tugged from beneath us; likewise the ideal of a sense of futurity, of progress, to be replaced by an all-encompassing political climate where our lives seem wholly regulated by bodies of authority. Lecturer Peter Middleton quotes Julia Kristeva to effect here: “… capitalism has isolated us, in ‘islands of discourse’.” (i.e. from John Donne’s “No man (one) is an island” to the Thatcherite statement that there is no such thing as society. We may hate it as it is, but we do have to deal with it).
And who knows how to deal with the Big Society notion, at one point broken – a toy? a piece of machinery? – at another, the country as a private business in need of saving (- from everyone else?).

Christensen mostly used the playful, highly mathematical writing experiments of the French experimental OuLiPo group.
Although not a signed-up member, it can be seen that she uses many of their techniques. The most decisive are the use of strict mathematical superstructures, and insistence upon quality of sound. OuLiPo was a movement originally based around the writer Raymond Queneau, and incorporated George Perec (Life: A User’s Manual, and A Void, a novel that, when written in French only used words that do not contain the letter ‘e’). Queneau was a mathematician, and so the group tended to use highly complex mathematical structures for their writing.

One of the many listed OuLiPo experiments is that of using multiple perspectives to explore a given situation. One published example of this is B S Johnson’s novel, House Mother Normal (1971), which offers a perspective per chapter from each of the members of a nursing home, in explaining (or not) the event of the story. You cannot but wonder about Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1860), where the members of a court case each give their evidence, full of conflicting events, asides, and all the riches of the personalities involved. OuLiPo does acknowledge predecessors, designating them “anticipatory plagiarists” (: Mind Performance Hacks). One OuLiPo virtue is a mischievous sense of humour.

Christensen’s Watersteps (2001) takes us through five Roman piazzas, each with a fountain, and the same red car. There are eight similar ‘classes’ each with five ‘sections’, one for each piazza; and each ‘class’ has five components. This is a rigorous math.

Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things sequence of four lots of twelve poems, each of twelve lines in length, also points to a possible OuLiPo construction. Why twelve? Is twelve an expression of completion? We have to ask these things, because they have an intended significance.
Most recently we now have poems created upon use of the mathematical concept of pi called Pilish – or “piems” – where the number of letters of successive words is determined by pi.

All these ‘experiments’ are only unofficially recognised aspects of rhetoric, an expanded, up-dated use of age-old techniques of persuasion (can we read that ‘persuasion’ as marketing, advertising?).

The Fibonacci mathematical system was ideal for OuLiPo purposes. The Fibonacci sequence runs: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. The implications of this system, first devised by a Cardinal soon to be Pope, are astounding, both for mathematics, and physics.

In Alphabet the repeated phrase of paragraph 1:
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
mirrors the first two numbers of Fibonacci – 1 and 1. The system begins with 1 repeated, and so here the phrase is similarly repeated. It is also a numerical device of implication; where 1 is a prime number; it is also the main focus of a network of negative and positive numerical sequences, of decimals and fractions: 1 is never 1, it is the consequence of its positioning, and it is that that is evoked here. The reiteration of the clause emphases 1’s position in the matrix of math. As in the Fibonacci sequence we do not begin with 1 but with 0, in effect on the blank page preceding.

We are also required to read here that apricot stones carry a poisonous pit. As we begin with the beginning: A, and a new myth of creation, we are also required to read here that within the first creation is the means of its end. Or maybe not so equivalent: maybe, just that a degree of toxicity is necessary for life. And also, that, like the mark of Cain, is a part of creation from the very beginning.

By combining number with alphabet, Christensen is taking us back to the earliest use of languages, Sumerian, Attic Greek, but with a more modern twist.

With paragraph 2 we have:
bracken exists; and blackberries,blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen.

Already on a linguistic level we have an incantatory pattern forming. On the chemical level we now have bromine and hydrogen. Bromine, like hydrogen, is potentially lethal. As, indeed, are the seeds of bracken. This new pastoral suggestion now allows us a reading that suggests an early, a volatile, Precambrian period in our scientific creation myth. We now have three levels of reading: of the text, of chemistry, and botany. If we accept the time scale, four levels: botany, chemistry, textual, and time.

As a reviewer notes: “The useless abundance of bracken, succulent berries — and corrosive bromide: the unbalanced mix all around us. Hydrogen seems, here, almost safe, but the “bomb” suffix is not long in coming.”
Alphabet was written during the 1970s, a period that lived under and reacted to, above all else, the possibility of immanent nuclear war, the atomic bomb.

With 3/C we get:
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum

The levels expand: arboriculture, botany, chemistry, entomology, physiology: from basic classifications, to subclassifications. We move from Platonic forms, through Aristotelian classification, to our modern forms of knowledge. And zeroing in from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the external world to the brain’s inner world, as source and site of knowledge, intelligence: self consciousness as the self’s consciousness.

Following the Fibonacci/alphabetical systems through the book we arrive at N, with six hundred and ten lines. Mathematically ‘n’ can be any number.

So far in the poem sequence, we have moved from basic forms to gradually emerge into a world of killing, the hydrogen bomb, pain. It must be remembered that mathematics is the vehicle of proof for the sciences. And the sciences, as amply illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance work on armaments, capable of application to many and varied fields of human activity both peaceful and not.

With 5-E (eight lines) we also get, delightfully (in the Danish the predominant consonant is E, which also ushers in a dominant alliterating pattern):

early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought;
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every detail exists; memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists; oaks, elms, junipers, soreness, loneliness
eider ducks; spiders, and vinegar
exist, and the future, the future.

With 13-M and 14-N we arrive at actual times, with dates:
morning June twentieth……..evening June
sixteenth….morning June twenty-sixth.

To get here we travel through excerpts from lives, suggestions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and:

in mid-November, a season
when all human dreams are the same,
a uniform, blotted out history
like that of a sun-dried stone

a couple of mute parents stand there,
a dog, and some children run around,
an arrival they try to imagine
as water that’s raised to my mouth

I lay sleeping inside my hotel room;
:from ‘12/L’

These are the stories we have inside ourselves we cannot always make sense of, but continue to pick over in our isolated moments.

‘13/M’ begins with:

metal, the ore in the mountains, exists
and then explores the hidden or covered things:
darkness in mine shafts, milk not let down
from mothers’ breasts, an ingrown dread where

whisperings exist, whisperings exist
the cells’ oldest, fondest collusion

consider this market, consider this import
and export of fathers, half bullies
half tortured soldiers, consider…..


layered light, as if behind
layers in a fresco the snow
on the mountains, its shapes……..

13 also replicates the Fibonacci numbering in stanza lengths. We have five, eight, then thirteen line stanzas, and then followed by new sets. The interweaving of themes and items from earlier sections tie-in here; we once again come across bromine, but applied differently, and apricot trees: their applications multiply and evoke moments from a life, from an ideal of living. The fabric grows wonderfully rich and rewarding, full of complex patternings.

Where the lyric concentrates images, their reverberations, networks of associations, within as small a compass as possible, Inger Christensen, especially in her earlier work It – of which Alphabet is in some ways an admitted response – schematises rather than concentrates. Structurally it is very strictly arranged into three sections whose line count is, in the original, very tightly controlled: each line of Prologos has sixty-six characters in the original; Prologos has eight sections.

The body of the book, Logos, consists of three sections: Stage, Action, Text each of which has eight sub-sections: symmetries/ transitivities/ continuities/ connectivities/ variabilities/ extensions/ integrities/ universalities.

These subsections “attempt to analyse and categorise the words that language’s use to show relationship… as applying to the network of relationships… writing builds up as it goes along “ ( Ann Carson, from Introduction). All this in no way lessens the effectiveness of expression, but allows the playout of implications to be fully explicit. The intent of It is to be a ‘philosophical and political exploration of the nature of language, perception, and reality.’

If there is a reference in this work to The Book of the It, a precursor to Freudian psychoanalytical explorations, by George Groddeck, I suspect it has been subsumed and overridden early on.

It must be noted that the Fibonacci system deals also with the proof of the Golden Mean.
Christensen exhibited a growing concern with ecological matters, as evident in her Butterfly Valley: Requiem. This sequence is a series of conventional sonnets, the last line acting as the opening line of the following sonnet in traditional style. The last sonnet of the sequence, sonnet fifteen, consists of all opening/closing lines. This sequence perhaps represents her approach to that Golden Mean.

Charles Lock and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, in their Guardian obituary notice, noted of Butterfly Valley: Requiem ‘the division of… 14 lines having been recognised in the Renaissance as akin to “the golden ratio“.

Can we read Christensen’s major works as working towards this great ideal, this universal; of the possibility of the concept of ultimate meaning in all the apparent randomness of the world?

Are the images Christensen uses purely random? And do we mean by that ‘mathematically random’? Is it random in the way that creation appears to be random? Is there such a thing as random? All these questions are implied by the system she uses. She requires a response from the reader: for her writing is part of a two-way process.

We may have lost all sense of security, safety; Inger Christensen here posits the possibility of a higher sense of stability, of a grand working towards/unravelling of, a nontheistic scheme of things of which we are all a part of; in effect, where we are perhaps the instruments of the process.

New Directions, the American publishers, are currently republishing her work. Her earlier three books were recently re-issued as one, and well-worth reading: Light, Grass, and Letter In April. See:

They are also to publish a collection of her essays, The Condition of Secrecy, in 2019.
New Direction also publish one of her novels, Azorno:

whilst The Painted Room, is published by the Harvill Press:

An earlier non-fiction book, The Meaning of Metafiction, is still available through Amazon:


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 Gunnar 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 Julia Kristeva and Helene 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 Helene Cixous, and of Elaine 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 W H 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…”. Pia Tafdrup’s  previous book, The Innermost Zone, 1983 “sets out to explore unknown regions of the body and mind…” that is, unknown in literature. Pia Tafdrup’s assault on the canon has always been from a radical perspective. Her concerns echo Rosemarie Tong’s comment on Helene Cixous: “(Helene – sic) Cixous urged women to… the unthinkable/unthought… in words”.

Pia 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 Horace 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.

from my KIndle book, Parameters:

Reposted from 2011

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, Modern Music: A Concise History).

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. Berg was present at Mahler’s funeral.


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.


This is a piece I wrote following the research



Alban Berg, his quiet words to Alma Mahler,
a soft Austrian German, private in funeral air;

and the voice used alone with his wife, the early years,
toned by the constant put-downs, rare successes:

the undercurrents to be read there. Did she read also
of his affair before he knew himself? Harmonics

discovering for themselves inner lives: ‘Alban
always needs frustrated ambitions.’ Her own voice twists.

The demands of a new language teasing known tones
to different possibilities.

from my Kindle book, Parameters:

Reposted from 2011

The Swedish novelist Kerstin Ekman, hit world status in 1994, with her European blockbuster Blackwater.

A writer of wide and wonderful facility; she is essentially a fabulist: stories, anecdotes, myths tumble from her in abundance.

Blackwater has all her best novelistic traits, and also her failings.

One detail from Blackwater – a local policeman, at the end of a long day’s stint talking to a senior school, tells a class the real story of a failed robbery. The robbers, two city types, made off with their swag in a stolen car, heading up north. Holed up in an empty house, they were found next day, frozen to death. The simple flaw in their plan: being city types they did not have the basic knowledge for living in the north: how to light the wood stove.

Taken as it is, it is just another, authentic-sounding, statistic. But the time was the early 1970s, the Cold War, and fears of nuclear attack, which seemed immanent. The children insisted the teacher made two school curricula: one standard, and one covering everything they could ever need to know to survive: how to bake bread: which grain to use, how plough to prepare it, how to harvest it, how to make sickles, plough-shares etc. The children were avid for more; then a parent found out, and the teacher, one of the book’s main characters, was sacked ‘for frightening the children’.

The writer ably picks up here on the aftermath of fear of that period as echoed in the recent Soviet Union nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; the cloud of radioactive dust swept across Sweden, Scandinavia, as indeed it did northern England.

All of her books are rich in a wide variety of technical expertise. To be fully paid-up responsible adults, these are things, the book suggests on one level, we must question and be able to respond to. To be responsible to our children, another of the book’s main themes; what it is to be a child, and how being a parent is a part of that: from the bottom up. Blackwater makes us question all those things we take for granted.

The irony, also, is an Ekman hallmark.

Kerstin Ekman was born in mid Sweden in 1933. Like many other writers of her generation she moved north: north means, beyond the Arctic Circle. This was their authentic experience of the real Sweden.KE3

This is the setting of one of her earlier books, Under the Snow, written in 1966, translated for the first into English in 1997. It is a thriller based in a tiny village in the Swedish arctic; settled by nomadic Sami, for whom Swedes helped set up a local school.

Thorsson, local policeman, receives a call about a death. It is subzero still, the last of the long winter. A wonderful vignette: the super-fit younger colleague, all the right clothes, turns an ankle in the first few yards. Also, in the summer, a language academic excitedly scribbles the ferryman’s curses.

Someone says ‘killed’, another ‘accident’; everything suggests suicide. In arctic communities it is a matter of honour that everyone looks out for each other. This is the clue: honour plumbs the meaning of the death. It is essentially a clash of cultures, Sami and Swedish. It is played out against a backdrop of the long endless night of the winter months, and the neverending days of summer, when the sun scarcely sets.

In the 1970s she put herself through a strict discipline. This was the tetrology of books Witches Rings, Spring, Angel House, City of Light, available from the Norvik Press.

KE1                                                                  KE2

They follow the growth of an end-of-the-tracks village where the railway ended, into a prosperous city; but followed through from inside, that is, through the lives of its women. A wholly successful enterprise; this gained her wide recognition.

Rich and full of authentic detail. At best the books tread a careful line between character-led organic development, and explorations of history. Angel House, set in WWII explores the cost of Sweden’s neutrality: local militia guard rail stops as retreating German troops pass through from Norway; and then the sealed train that stopped briefly in the out-of-the-way station. Some said ‘German collaborators’, but the truth was ‘the last of Norway’s Jews’. The sudden jolt of implication is ours, for historically those realities were not then known. The fallibility of our humanity is the main thrust of the book.
This ‘conscience’ .

This consciousness of the consequences of the Swedish neutrality in the War informs Swedish writing to the present day: we can see it in Mankel Henning’s Wallander series of books, where the books examine the role of the military in peacetime, in its role in international peace-keeping, and in the writer’s African concerns. It is also reflected in the Kerstin Ekman’s resigning from the Swedish Academy due to their refusal to condemn the fatwah on Salman Rushdie in 1989

After the success of Blackwater readers wanted another, similar book; what they got was The Book of Hours. Published before Blackwater in Sweden, translation and English publishing demands have skewed chronology.

The Book of Hours takes on the long sweep of Swedish history, again from the inside, but this time explored through the exploits of a strange, sinister character: long lived, non-human but passing as human; a troll. And the magic realism of the book disconcerted some readers.

Where Blackwater explored contemporary concerns about nuclear war, sexual relations, social structures, and the a wonderful section unravelling the mythologies around the hunter in a modern setting; The Book of Hours was full of the culture of forestry, medieval alchemy, the histories of religion, medicine, and commerce; of the Hundred Year’s War, and the Lutheran revolution.

I mentioned her failings as a writer; this centres on the problem that plotlines do not always come together. If, like me, however, you become so engrossed in the storytelling, then it ceases to be an issue but a wry quirk, a humourous signature.

Kerstin Ekman


Reblogged from 2011

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.
SNAPSHOT, 1984-93


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.


from my kindle book, Parameters:


A World Beyond Myself, Enitharmon, 1991

Memories of the Unknown, Harvill Press, 2001


Part 1: Beginnings

In 1996, New York’s Vintage Press brought out ‘The Vintage Book of World Poetry’; the book settled many reputations, but also introduced many more.

The Dutch writer Rutger Kopland woke up one morning to find himself a world-class poet. Ok, he was already a top-selling author in his own country. But that is the point, as Martinus Nijhoff lamented in 1936, it is a country whose literary appreciation is limited to a small range by its language.

We are very lucky to have the masterful translations of the late James Brockway. He preferred the description of ‘collaborations’, it reflected more the close work with the author to render as near a syllabic and tonal copy as possible.

“…what I am presenting,” he wrote, “…is a Dutch poem by a Dutch mind, but now in the English language”.

James Brockway was made ‘Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands’ in 1997, for his services to Dutch literature. He died in 2000.

‘Rutger Kopland’ is the pen name of Professor of Psychiatry (retired) Rudi H van den Hoofdakker. He was born in 1934, and has won many prestigious prizes, one of which is the Dutch highest award for literary achievement, the P C Hooft Prize.

Kopland’s first book, Among Cattle, appeared in 1966. The date is important in a number of ways.

In the nineteen fifties Dutch art and literature woke up to experiment; it was a time of cataclysmic experiment in all forms, only paralleled in Dutch poetry by the exuberance of the medieval Rederijker rhetorical guilds.

Of course, as with many such movements, they also carry and help generate the seeds of their successors. Out of the foment of imagistic, lexical experiment a strong realistic note was beginning to be detectable.

Kopland, along with Judith Herzberg are now readily identified as the best representatives of this tone: of a sane, nonrhetorical, everyday language and subject matter.

In this first book are to be found all the tonal keys of his later work. An instant favourite was the first poem of the book, now a much anthologised piece


                     The green pastures the still waters
on the wallpaper in my room –
                     as a frightened child I believed
in wall paper



The first thing to notice here is the almost total lack of punctuation. In the original there is only the final full stop, even the commas, lines 8 and 14 of the translatioon, do not appear.

We catch the tone of slow, almost ruminative, can we call it, ‘thinking aloud’? Are we overhearing a sotto voce between intimate friends? Husband and wife, perhaps, or is it between father and child, as maybe becomes apparent in the last stanza? I wonder, does it matter: the drama of a listening audience is of less importance, than the manner and intent of the narration.

Also notice the slow accumulation of details that reveal-but-not-reveal the narration: what was it he had, or had been, forgiven? The biblical references (note lowercase ‘god’) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) set a tone, particularly in the traditionally Calvinist/Lutheran Netherlands, for solitary meditative discourse, whose  heavy and responsible purpose: to converse with God, without intercessors, is offset by the witty, chatty aside: ‘as a … child I believed in wall paper…’.

Psalm 23 becomes a constant reference point in his writing.

The setting of the poem: the home, night, childhood, segue into the author’s own fatherhood; the meditative tone; the rural setting : an image of continuity, perhaps.

This may seem a little dated to those only familiar with the great urban sweep from Rotterdam, east and south; it is, however, deeply ingrained in the Dutch cultural model.

Kopland has lived all his working life in a village outside Groningen. This is where many still refer to as the real ‘rural’ Netherlands. These are the heartlands of the Dutch, the green ore that runs through the urban stonework.

What we read with Rutger Kopland, especially with these earlier books, are the books of the Dutch interior: the soul-lands. The irony is, Kopland is the least metaphysical of men; his insights are, I suspect, very much coloured by his profession as clinical neuroscientist.

Kopland was born in 1934; by the time of that terrible winter of German reprisals 1944/5, he would have 10 years old. 10, 1000 died that winter.

Consider the following poem in the book:



                                         I came home, it was about
                                         eight and remarkable
                                         close for the time of year,


                                         under the apple tree


                                         watching how my neighbour
                                         was still digging in his garden,


                                         then slowly it once again became
                                         too beautiful to be true, …………


                                         and later I heard the wings
                                         of wild geese in the sky
                                         heard how still and empty
it was becoming


                                         under the apple tree,
remarkably close

for our time of life.

Masterly; we scarcely even notice the ‘literaryness’: the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, the manipulation of mood-buttons. He earns our trust, and the trust of the ordinary reader by foisting no great ideas of redemption on us, by insinuating no Political awkwardness. We get the ‘feel’: the surburbanism of life lived by the ordinary person, with a job, family… in fact, do we recognise in ourselves: nostalgia for the past? This is a claim that plagued Kopland from these early books.

See how he builds the tension from stanza two: the juxtaposing of details of the neighbour (for which read, everyman/the identifier of self as ordinary: the classic Dutch sense of communalness), the change in light: the dark that identifies colours, blues…. Having keyed up the emotions at this point: the ‘…too beautiful to be true…’ (those last three qualifying words communicate so much, particularly in combination with preceding, ‘…once again…’), he immediately disengages and redirects; the emotional response is channelled via the toys in the grass to the house, the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but the mind is made open, the imagination engaged by this “mental event”, so that when the geese fly they are identified immediately as ‘wild’, the sky is emptied by their presence, a sense of immanence is apparent. Once again this keying-up of emotions is channelled to the ‘…precisely you…’. An anchoring, grounding in the here and now.

Kopland displays here a willingness to be honest about feelings, a willingness to be open about his experience of them, of their place in his life and world.

And yes, he is privileged: he has a satisfying though demanding job, he has happy children, he has a close relationship with his partner. Is it Kopland, here? Or is it the ‘ordinary person’? Is it the person glad to be alive, having survived that last terrible winter of the War; like his neighbour he goes through the daily affirmation of survival.


Following a sequence of poems on his father’s death, we have:

                             MISS A

                            On September 19, a misty

                            nineteenth, Miss A ………….



……………………………………………. God and the

                            DHSS seemed out of reach.

                            She disembarked.

An altogether different piece. We have here, I think, irony used as a stylistic device; there is no longer the personalizing, intimate nature of the experience, but a distancing. A tragic event; but almost, in this retailing, a news item; the details of particulars: date, boat name, area of mooring.

The domestic details are all laid out for us to see, like the effects of a dead person, to be collected by relatives (us: readers-as-community?), or the unknowns who will come later when our attention is caught by other news. Whichever way it is read we, the reader, or, shall I qualify that: we, the ones amongst the readers who actually care what happened to her – are involved: her fate impinges upon us. We may not be responsible, but we are made witnesses. To be able to remain open, to witness, and not close-off is maybe one of the things makes a workable community.

This poem appeared in print in 1968. This is significant: 1968, and The Netherlands were as much caught up in social upheaval as we were in England. It may be this poem can be read as a response to the student protests, the extreme political factions.

Another, more significant poem of his poems of the period was :

                           YOUNG LETTUCE                        

                           I can stand anything,
the shrivelling of beans


                            But young lettuce in September,
                            just planted, still tender,
in moist little beds, no.                                         

Literary friends would repeat this poem when latest news came through of some new social upheaval, or political upset. Why? It is the understatement; the masterly irony; it is also a poem of great benevolence. The weary retort to old problems presenting themselves in new clothes, of seemingly insurmountable social problems… and yet the response is of a wry gentleness.

Maybe this poem can be read as an attempt at affirming communal responsibilities.

The ironic yet engaged tone of the times, the response of an older generation.

Kopland’s sharper mode was prompted to some extent by what he saw as misreadings of his work. After the anecdotal style a greater dissatisfaction with accepted things became apparent. There emerged a ‘stern’ period of disillusionment.

 Reposted from 2012

from my kindle book, Parameters:


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.



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:

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’.


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.


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.


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:



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.


Posted: January 26, 2013 in Chat, Parameters

So, it goes like this:

for some mad, far-fetched reason I thought it would be a ‘good idea’ to collect all the PARAMETER stuff together, polish it up a bit, and Lulu it as a full book collection.

PARAMETERS was originally a book, a collection of magazine pieces, printed in book form in 2010. I just couldn’t crack the selling ‘thing’: how to sell it, other than nagging work colleagues (which I did, and they bought).

No, I needed a kind of shop-front approach. But first I needed to re-do it, and re-book it all again.

So, with recommendation I went for Lulu. And it was not as straight forward as I thought: there were still tags in pieces I thought I had ironed out, but didn’t show up in text form. To and fro – but now it’s here.

And so, from book to blog-bits to ebook – where next?

Ok, so it can be read as blogs – ah but, wouldn’t you rather have the whole lot together? Course you would! More browser-friendly for a start.

Rather like the goldy-look cover, too.

The ‘sell’ is:

‘From Argentina to USA, via medieval England, modern Europe, and contemporary Western Europe. Reviews and articles on the Arts and Literature. Idiosyncratic, but also always questioning and exploring.’

from my kindle book, Parameters:

The timeplace: early 1950’s America; New York area specifically. The atmosphere: smoky, grimy, isolationist: B-movie hell with its WW2 legacy.

Think McCarthy, film noir, Kinsey. Think, you just graduated from college, everything before you: comfortable background, expectations high, good education, talented, contacts secured, the exploding art world beckoning. And you’re gay. But you’re not gay, you’re ‘homosexual’, for which, read ‘psycho-sexual pervert’, some kind of shameful disease. Kiss of death to your ambitions, of course.

You have friends, lovers; you do not have some weird mental ‘thing’. But there is a normalcy denied you by contemporary mores. And you have the gift of the gab, you know, with care, you can wing it. The challenge is invigorating. The secret a kind of acquired indeterminacy: not to allow yourself to be pinned down; and the fun of the slight twist, the unseen subverting of the rigidity of the straight.

Things are not in your favour, however: from the other side of the world reality slams home. The Korean War. They’re recruiting, and now you are eligible. You despise the war, its politics, its consequences, and its impact on your world. The only way out is the social and career-suicide of declaring yourself publicly a ‘psycho-sexual pervert’. This is reality; it’s no longer a game. You do it. Everything stops for you, the hi’s on the phone, the invites with gilded edges. Go abroad, young man. So you skip out, to Paris and the ‘over there’ European art world.

Coming to terms with all this: squirming on the needle of your time, like a bug under a microscope… Not just finding a way out, but wondering: into what? Sham of your life, sham of post war society, sham of the polarized and narrow constructs of a cold-war world. Does any of it stand up to scrutiny? You are on the outside looking in, and what you see is… laughable really.

To negotiate your way through requires a careful weighing of connotation, denotation, of word and phrase, of the expectations set up, and the onrush of language.

To experiment: Litany from ‘As We Know’ (1981) has two mutually dependent columns to be read together, whilst retaining each’s distinct character. Designs on your consciousness: can you dissociate, can you become two (three) points of awareness at the same time, can you ease open your ‘you’ sufficiently to allow the other voices equal status?

Is it possible to democratize language to such an extent that all experience, all tones of voice, all voices, have equal status: homosexual, heterosexual, ‘other’?

John Shoptaw’s excellent On the Outside Looking Out, (Harvard U P 1994) makes an attempt to uncodify Ashbery’s language techniques:

“ … lyric markers formed from sonic, visual, associational misrepresentation

                     eg  “it all came/ gushing” (crashing) “down on me…”

                           “the pen’s screech” (scratch)

           ‘…dropped, added or substituted letters

                     eg   “signs of mental” (metal) “fatigue”

                       “screwed into palace” (place)

                       “Time stepped” (stopped)

                       “long piers” (periods) “of silence”


The fortuitous accident.

Once rumbled like this, Ashbery twists and twists again: indeterminacy as a way of life.

His writing of the 1970s perhaps has something of the quality of Ericksonian writing. Milton Erickson was the foremost exponent of hypno-therapy techniques. Grinder and Bandler developed Neuro Linguistic Programming from his bases. It is possible to present information within a seemingly nonsensical verbal exchange.

As we have seen with Litany Ashbery has had designs upon our awareness, as many an avant-garde: John Cage’s ‘silences’ were constructs for inveigling supposed Zen-like states (Emersonian ‘quietism’?) into what is thought different in Western consciousness. The fortuitous accident technique is quite at home here, amongst the mind explorers. It is, of course, a standard Freudian analysis technique as well. So what we have here in effect, and I would suggest intended so, is a subverting of Freud’s techniques.

We’ve had all the ‘subliminal suggestion’, the pseudo-psychological advertising techniques, and none of them are really much cop. The mind is too complex.

This is really Ashbery’s main subject: the mind’s experiencing of itself. The best description of his technique so far is that he writes thought, all thought, any thought, bizarre thought, mundane thought: our thought.

It may not amount to much in the long run, but then, do we? This is everybody’s gamble: the ultimate democracy.

Milton Erickson’s great hypno-therapy proficiency found the participant/client could provide from their own life-experience the solution to their particular problem. There need be no hierarchies; and no professionals and subjects. The appeals here to Ashbery’s democratic sensibilities are obvious.

A reading by Ashbery amazed me: there were phrases, or more correctly, variations on phrases that I had not found readable on the page before; he gave them tones of voice so they instantly made sense. American (New York?) phrasing and emphases can articulate American (ditto) mind-states, not seemingly accessible on the page, and to the non-speaker. All this is grist to the primacy of language over writing  advocates. And the ‘technique’ of indeterminancy could also prove a link with Derrida’s emergent works in the Tel Quel magazine and elsewhere in Paris at the same time as Ashbery’s sojourn there.

There is a book, The Writer’s Desk (Jill Krementz, Random House, 1997), of photographs of writers and their study’s. Ashbery’s photo shows an old Remmington manual typewriter: one cannot correct easily on a manual; it is a matter of re-typing the piece from scratch. You can guess here an origin of the fortuitous accident: the body-(fingers)-knowledge contending with what the mind intends. Freud, of course, worked this up into a major tenet of his psychoanalytical techniques: the ‘accident’ that is maybe not an accident but a ‘tell’ (think of Auden, and his ridiculous ‘liar’s quinsy’). Faced with such a force as this one can either go into it, or subvert it (both?). At any rate the end product is a coded missive from the liminal lands. Add to this the encoding of gay lived and ostracized experience – and you have quite a complex mix.

There is also a developing personal sense of aesthetic; we see in the opacities of the early Tennis Court Oath not only a referencing the French Revolution’s emerging Third Estate, of proletarian concerns becoming a political force, a democratic centredness, but also a willfull disregard of such referencing. This ambiguity of seeming to suggest great political and cultural concerns, yet denying the import of them in the writing, are all hallmarks of Ashbery’s work.

The sound of an Ashbery poem is also a unique facet of his work. There have been articulate commentators who have described his work en mass as ‘bland’. This is, I think, because all rhythms are smoothed into the euphonic flow of the thought/text; there are no sharp dissonances as such. This all helps us realise that what we take as the essence of expression is in fact technique, that language is, by definition, rhetoric: it is to persuade us that what it imparts is valid, if not truthful; worthwhile, if not essential.

If any of this does fit Ashbery’s profile then I would be very pleased. His greatest virtues are his all-consuming sense of wonder, humour, and personal charm.

from my kindle book, Parameters

Nigh-No-Place  – Jen Hadfield         Bloodaxe Press        2008

Winner of the 2008 T S Eliot Prize; Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

There are many things to like about this book, not least the cover picture of one sassy horse in an open landscape, that we can only take to be part of the Shetlands.

What else is to like? Cats and dogs. Jen Hadfield likes them too, they are everywhere, from Canis Minor to the sign-off poem In the Same Way. And it’s not only cats and dogs; we have sheep, cows, horses, not to mention huskies and a polar bear. We also have, predominantly, the weather.

Ok, we all have weather. Yes, but the weather she writes about is weather one has to be out in, like the animals, with the animals; because we have committed them to this with our adhoc husbandry methods. Grazing animals would normally seek out trees, bushes etc for shelter in bad weather. We have them penned in open fields.

What else is there to like? There is her confidence in her craft. Her use of rhythm combined with rhyme, in for instance Paternoster:

Wild asparagus, yellow flowers

of the flowering cactus

where the placing and choice of the rhyme words, displays a playful insouciance.

A Bad Day for Ice Fishing:

stroll this across the wasted lakefloor

while stealthy, the hole in the ice heals over.

She takes risks, larks about with form. There is the picture she presents us, of her herself in baggy longjohns: what is there not to like?

Reviewers write about the freshness of her writing, her vision. And it has that.

There are also redolences of other writers. ‘Redolence’ I now take to be a Seamus-Heaney word, this is apposite as we have echoes of early Heaney, in Bridge End, October:

I draw behind me a delicate rain –

hooves drumming lightly the steep, dry lane –

and Heaney’s Gifts of Rain:

………. steady downpour now


                                                        Still mammal,

straw-footed on the mud

In Hadfield’s Kodachrome

………a herd of astounded hills

can you hear Ted Hughes?

Older writers. And it is so good to see young writers reading and finding something that chimes for themselves, in older writers. There is definitely an echo of Auden’s magisterial tone, and the rhythm of Consider this and in our time, in Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is a Horse as Magritte May Paint Him:

Consider this percheron in the climate –

Paternoster,the prayer of a work horse, cannot help but remind us of M R Peacocke’s Goose Hymn (from Selves, 1995):

Paternoster. Paternoster.

Hallowed be dy mane.

dy kingdom come,

dy draughtwork be done



We lub us ogre

It like we    two legs

Two blue eye

It dict us born

from:  Goose Hymn (from ‘Selves’)

Hadfield’s Odysseus and the Sou’wester carries many of the tonal elements of Simon Armitage’s version of The Odyssey.

What I have been pointing to are just echoes of other writers. Hadfield has another order of relationship with older writing.

With Glid, we have very much the excitement of the found poem, but combined, I would argue, with the revelation of language, its sound and ability to catch the ‘colour’ of an experience of phenomena, that Christopher Murray Grieve found in dictionaries, and usage, of Lowland Scots speech: the language that formed Hugh MacDiarmid, and Lallans.

‘Redolent’: the word, is also latinate, ecclesiastical.

Like Heaney, Hadfield presents us with a vitalised vision of the world. Description is not revelation here however, with its sacramentalism of the secular, allowing bog queens to speak, wood and ditch spirits to roam; in Hadfield there is a rhapsodic use language. That is, a language whose reliance is on song as much as description. It is the patterning of sound, the rhythm and rhyme, the tonic value of language, which becomes the revelation in this book. The way she breaks a poem is in essence, musical:


James and Mira ran off into the wood. You’d told them

      heybear, heybear – and did they ever –

                      Hey bear!        

               Hey bear!

A godawful wriggly thing fell in Moira’s hair.

The phrasing, use and placing of rhyme, the rhyme sounds that modulate from ever to bear to emphatic bear, to hair, give a playfulness to the piece. Nor is she averse to simple tunes: the “row, row, row your boat”, in Glid for instance.

So much for the echoes; the main person behind the writing has to be Edwin Morgan. We see him everywhere, in the suggested layout of parts of Burra Moonwalk (compare with Strawberry Fields Forever), and in the structure and form of Love’s Dog:

What I love about love is its diagnosis

What I hate about love is its prognosis

What I love about……..

What I hate about…………

 compare with Morgan:

What I love about dormice is their size

What I hate about rain is its sneer

What I love about………..

What I hate about……….

from: A View of Things

The former by Hadfield also catches on the page the strict layout of the concrete poem, of which Morgan was an excellent ambassador.

Her Dogwalk II opens

Dervish lilac!



This is a take on Morgan’s expostulation-rich earlier poems, for instance, The Trio, with its Orphean sprig! Melting baby! Warm chihuahua!. This is an echo also of Adrian Henri’s practice, and the heritage of the Beat poets.

The formation of this particular opening also captures the fortuitous glimpses that sudden lightening allows of one’s surroundings.

Blashy-wadder also has echoes of the Liverpool poets; it can be heard in the way an image is manipulated:  a gritter… rolled a blinking ball of orange light/ ahead of, like a dung beetle/ that had stolen the sun.  It is in the use of dayglo colour, and the way the emphatically ordinary is suddenly transformed into a mythical image.

But where is Jen Hadfield herself, in all this? And what is the Nigh-No-Place? The whole landscape of Britain spells out emphatically that it is a landscape formed and conditioned by man; it has been stripped bare, organised, ‘farmed’ extensively. It is now possible for non-farm animals to starve in what we would consider rich farmland: their normal diet has been disrupted to such a large extent. Crows, the traditional ‘undertakers’ of nature, are now anathematised for attempting to feed, with the little that is left them of their traditional diet. The lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh capture it well: … if you seek for any wilderness/ You find, at best, a park. 

In one sense she is the book. Her divided background (Canadian-British) allows no resting place; she inhabits no place, or nigh-on no place; we have all the unhoused images of the book to bolster this, as well, of course, as the sectional, divided format. She has to be her own country. She inhabits the width and wealth of the language that is available to her.

In this way the extended, exploratory The Mandolin of May piece, as well as being one of the most successful pieces here, maybe allows her a way forward.