Archive for the ‘Parameters’ Category

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.

Berg and Schoenberg:

berg_schoenberg (1)

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.

Alban Berg:


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.

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.


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



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.’

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.