Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

The Demaundes Joyous
The lightness of these, when measured against the Old English Riddles, makes them seem mere bagatelles. Quite a lot of those Old English Riddles are light and jokey also; it is just the labour of translation makes them seem less. But for ease of reading, and sheer fun, we  have these.
Did I mention translation? Yes, well, these are also translations – but not from the heavy?, stodgy? Anglo-Saxon – no, they are from the Romance of northern French.

The Demaundes Joyous

1 Who was Adam’s moder?

2 What space is from the hyest space of the se to the depest?

3 How many calves tayles behoveth to reche from the erthe to the skye?

4 Which parte of a sergeaunte love ye best toward you?

5 Which is the moost profitable beest, and that men eteth leest of?

6 Which is the broadest water and leest jeopardye to passe over?

7 What beest is it that hath her tayle between her eyen?

8 Wherefore set they upon churche steples more a cocke than a henne?

9  Why doth an ox or a cowe lye?

10 Which was first, the henne or the egge?

11 Which tyme in the yere bereth a gose moost feders?

 

– It is always best to have a ‘flavour’ of the kind of answer expected. So, here is the answer to Question 3:
No more but one if it be long ynough.

If you want to try and answer these… then let’s say you must do so in the curious English of their period.

The source of these Demaundes Joyous is Wynkyn de Worde, 1511.
The collection contains about fifty such riddles – I have skipped the more church-orientated, and so maybe a little obscure now eg Why come dogges so often to the churche? etc.
My source says the collection here is based partly on an early sixteenth-century French collection, Demandes joyeuses en maniere de quolibets.

There are some old crocks here: Which came first, egg or hen? But there is no Why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe that is in the other forty, not included.
Some are a little… indelicate? Some just crazy. All have the flavour of their period.

Enjoy.

Happy Festive Season!

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I was just flipping through excerpts from Homer’s Iliad – as we all do in those idle moments, of which we are inundated – and I noticed just how effective the imagery was. And also, apologies, just how unintentionally and grimly funny some of it was.

Maybe, I thought, it is the translation/translator’s unconscious input to ‘image the English’ this way. And so I tried several translations. You will have guessed by now I have not even a little Latin, and certainly less than no Greek, to quote Robert Greene on Shakespeare.

Take, for instance, one of the later dreadful moments before the gates of Troy. Hector is outside, all the other Trojans having just been chased in by the Greeks. King Priam sees Achilles racing across to challenge his son, Hector, who is below.

Robert Fagles gives us:

And old King Priam was the first to see him coming,
surging over the plain, blazing like the star
that rears at harvest, flaming up in its brilliance –
……………………………………
that star called Orion’s Dog – brightest of all
………………………………………
So the bronze flared on his chest as on he raced –

Robert Fitzgerald’s version:

And ageing Priam was the first to see him
sparkling on that plain, bright as that star
in autumn rising, whose unclouded rays
shine out ………………………..
the one they call Orion’s dog, most brilliant
……………………………………..
……………….. So pure and bright
the bronze gear blazed upon him as he ran.

And we see it.

The immediacy is in the imagery, its tactile and visual appeals; Priam’s shock and dread provides a platform for what is being visualised so clearly. There are literary tropes and elements in profusion, of course, as we know from Hesiod, but the translators here both resort to the same cognitive palate. Was this ‘Homer’s’ cognitive palate, too?

There is something about this imagery I recognised from exercises in visualisation, in art, and especially in ‘drawing from the right side of the brain’. The imagery here in the above passages is focused on the subject, and yet relaxed sufficiently for extraneous detail to be noted. Visualisation techniques, in their early stages, foreground their subject, and relegate all other detail to background. The effect is of creating, say, a huge central figure/image. Much as Achilles is presented in the whole passage.

I have seen similar effects in sleep experiments, where REM dreaming creates a further distorting effect. And more importantly, we have all done it – not just every night we go to sleep, but as kids in staring games: the fixed eyes exaggerate their focus, the other’s face distorts, a well-known face becomes unrecognisable.
I have watched this in action as Alzheimers affected cognitive function: ‘That is not your face.

Ok, that is somewhat different – the point I am making here is that the cognitive appeals in the above passages denote an internal visualisation of the scene, that is then held in the mind’s eye, whilst it is described/written down.
No easy task.

On another scale there is how Gaelic poets composed – by lying, in subdued light, quiet – isolated – with a stone/small rock held against the stomach.
I can appreciate the need for this: the stone/rock centres the attention, provides tactile input, becomes the prompt to the act of composition. Why was this method noteworthy? It helped in their manipulation of strict forms, of intertexuality; of a hundred and one rules, appeals, concerns, to be addressed. It was the calm, timeless quality of the setting, of the quality of enduring stone/rock, that provided the context for the frame of mind, of being, that the poetic composition demanded. The rock connected one to one’s time, to the world, to earth; it provided a point of contact between inner visualising/mentation, and outside demand/input. It grounded the imagery.

Grim humour?

Well, I couldn’t help but notice, later on in this passage…

(Priam pleading with Hector to come indoors)
 ……………….. Ah for a young man
all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war
…………………………………………………
……………………………………………………
…………………….When an old man’s killed
… the dogs go at the grey head and the grey beard
and mutilate the genitals -………….

Or, as Robert Fitzgerald has it:

………………………….Everything done
to a young man killed in war becomes his glory
…………………………………………………
………………………………………………..
………………. But when an old man falls ,
the dogs disfigure his grey head and cheek
and genitals…………………

And if that wasn’t enough:

And his mother wailed now…………
………………………loosing her robes with one hand
and holding out her bare breast with the other……………
…………………………………………………………………..

……………………………. – have some respect for this! (sic)

 

 

The writer Ted Hughes had a long engagement with Shakespeare.
Story goes, in the early 1950s, just as he was to go up to Cambridge – working-class boy makes good – he was called-up, as all were in those days, to do his National Service. He said he spent those two years in various look-out posts, reading all of Shakespeare’s works. It went on from there.

The culmination of this long engagement came first in his 1971 book, A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, published by Faber and Faber. His argument there was – ever the controversialist –  that we can appreciate Shakespeare’s poetic art as well in excerpts from the plays, as in sticking solely with the published poems.
His argument is more than borne out by the samples he gives. This is indeed an excellent book.

The part relevant to my argument here, is the postscript. This is a long essay on what Ted Hughes saw as the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, and forms the heart of what became his next big attempt on Shakespeare: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. He came to blame the writing of this as a betrayal of his/the muse, and resulting in his last illness.

In these works he came up with what he called ‘the tragic equation ’ of Shakespeare’s writing. This was all to do with the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, its psychic properties, and engagement with history.

For this blog I am just looking at a detail of that postscript, beguilingly called ‘Note,’ in A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse.

In the ‘Note’ he discusses how Shakespeare’s craft and art underwent a ‘quantum leap.’ It was a ‘quantum’ leap because it worked on the level of a new weighting of language and language use rather than big themes. He writes of how Shakespeare’s mature style used a ‘high’ word ie a usage from a lexicon outside the normal language of the audience, that was paired with a ‘low’ word, to qualify a third. He writes ‘… the new, unfamiliar, word from the ‘high’ language is balanced, interpreted and translated by an old word (or words, or image made up of old words) from then ‘low.’ In practice, this becomes usually a combination of one word of classical derivation with another of native… derivation.

He goes on to call this a ‘masterful democritisation’ of language, for ‘welding the audience into a single thing.’ He dates this change in resource of language from All’s Well That Ends Well onwards.

Here he brings in another conceptual avenue: ‘If other evidence is valid and he used a Brunoesque mnemonic system…’ Ted Hughes was hedging his bets with that  ‘If’, but it is evident he has been reading A study of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1936), Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966) by Frances Yates. All, but certainly one or two of the above.

What is it about this causes Ted Hughes to make this claim? How, he seems to ask, could Shakespeare have memorised all these new words? His answer, by using a memory system, a mnemonic. And then tying this in with the newly available books by Frances Yates on The School of Night, Giordano Bruno et al. He ties this to Shakespeares’ quoted use of tables: ‘set it down in ‘…‘tables’, or notebook…’. (p187, 1991 edition). There are a number of such references to ‘tables’ used in this way.

He gives the example from All’s Well That End Well of a line from a speech:
On the catastrophe and heel of pastime
He reads the use of catastrophe as one of Shakespeare’s new words; how is it used with the term heel, then? By reading catastrophe as  down-turn… heel then becomes, of the foot, but more, it becomes in context the image of Achilles’ heel.
Ted Hughes writes:
‘By regarding the line as a slightly modified ‘New Word’ entry in his ‘tables’, where the word to be mastered is matched with its translation and ‘fixed’ with its mnemonic image….
(page 186/7).

What do you think?

There is, of course, another explanation for that word ‘tables’, other than implying a mnemonic system of tables.

Roger Chartier, in Inscription and Erasure, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), writes of how between 1577 and 1628 a certain London bookbinders sold what were called Tables. Many examples survive, complete with bookbinder’s name and London address.
A direct reference to these can be found in Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5, lines 107-11.
They are notebooks with the added ability of being able to be wiped clean.
In effect they were the wax tablets as used in medieval times. As we see from Roger Chartier, they were still in use in Shakespeare’s time. He describes them as part of the materiality of the text.
They were small: hand-sized, and rectangular: wooden trays, usually in pairs, strapped together with leather, so they could be closed face to face to save what had been imprinted from smudging. These trays were filled with bees wax, to be marked on, written on, with a metal stylus. They could be erased with a wet cloth, allowed to dry, and used again.
Roger Chartier writes how an eleventh-century priest-poet, Baudri de Bourgueil, wrote in detail about his tablets/tables. The wax in time would become old, blackened, full of grit.
Being wax, they would also be vulnerable to temperature: cold, draughty cloisters and scriptoria  probably held ideal conditions.

By Shakespeare’s time, we read, the medium had been changed from wax to a mixture of plaster, glue and varnish (page 23, Inscription and Erasure). The ‘tables’ of this period also included in their package printed almanacs, tables, weights and measures, calendars… much like our own notebooks.

So what, then, of memory systems? You need to go back to the Hamlet reference, above. Just before that speech, comes the phrase, table of my memory.
We read in Roger Chartier, how many such Tables could be collected, and stored. Their contents were not erased, but kept for transcription onto parchment, vellum in the future. They were, in effect, stored writings: libraries.

Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium was one of the main sources for describing a memory system (though many found the descriptions confusing, incomplete). By Chaucer’s time Geoffrey de Vinsauf had dispensed with this as far too outlandish.
By Shakespeare’s time the Tables would be used for storing quotations, improving phrases, then jottings, recipes, tittle-tattle. They became known as ‘writing tables,’ or ‘table books.’
And memory systems, as part of what might be considered ‘occult’, were very much forced underground after the fall from favour of Dr John Dee, and especially in Jacobean times.

We have here, though,  the act of writing as an act of memorising. Any student will know this: the physical act of writing notes on paper aids to remembering in revision.
And yes, I did keep a straight face when I wrote that – though only just.

Behind this memory–writing equation is maybe an episode from Plato’s Phaedrus. Here, Theuth (Thoth), the Egyptian god, had invented the art of writing: using visual, drawn, images, to convey spoken words. He presented his invention to the king of all Egypt, Thamus. He refused the gift, on the grounds that it would make people lazy, not having to remember everything.

I do not know the book by Plato, and cannot tell what was made of this anecdote by Socrates. It certainly would not be left to stand alone, that is for certain.
Topic for another day.

Roger Chartier is one of the chief writers of the histoire des mentalities school of cultural history.
He writes in French, but many of his books are available in translation.
Inscription and Erasure is a book full of riches. I would recommend it very highly.

 

 

THE EVENINGS, by Gerard Reve, 1947.
Published by the excellent Pushkin Press, in its first English translation, by Sam Garrett, 2016

Avonden_eerstedruk

I am currently reading The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (Gerard Kornelius van het Reve, 1923 to 2006).

This is an early, outsider-novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’  (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written….’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem.
The novel is set in 1946, presumably in Amsterdam. There is no TV, no record player or records; there is  a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
Of course no internet, iphones….
And everyone is bored out their heads.

Note that, ye critics of today’s youth.

And so the chief character, 26 year old Frits van Egters, entertains himself by needling everybody. This ‘entertainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I had the distinct impressions of Billy Liar, by Alan Sillitoe, but no.

And so I am struggling with it; struggling to keep up the interest.
Because…. ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’.
Exactly.
The date, see: 1946.
The best minds of the generation before were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, the transports. The best engineers, mechanics, workers, had been trucked off for the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, physically malnourished, spiritually dead.

And Frit’s generation were beginning to stir, wake, shake themselves, look around. And what did they see?
‘He looked at her’ (his mother), ‘:  the thin face, the grey hair, the slight growth of hair around the mouth and chin, the arms that never stopped moving. “Help us,” he thought.

 – Is it me, or is it always the woman is the easy target? That she must maintain a static, constant, role, appearance, demeanor, for the narrator/character.
Woman as a distant, uncomprehended being; woman as an inhabitant of the same world, also – but surely she cannot feel what we chaps feel, how we feel. She goes on doing that house stuff as though nothing else mattered, or had happened.
Only, Frits wakes one night, to sounds in his parent’s room. He entered, to find his mother shaking and sobbing. His father, isolated in his own wrecked existence, excuses it as one her nervous attacks.
There is an unwritten novel in that, certainly. In her side of the story.

Frits looked around his world, and saw people holding onto the known and trusted traditions, but they now seemed little more than threadbare habits:
‘”Who’d like a pickled herring?…”, “”No, please, no.” But he does.
‘“… there’s a real Middenweg wind blowing…” , “…Please don’t use terms unfamiliar to the uninitiated.”

The book starts off well, with a sly, dry, ironic humour as Frits woke early one Sunday morning. Early: good, despite the bad dreams, but time to make something of the day. Then we see him every few minutes clock-checking, and the opportunities flounder, die, as the day wears on.

The story is set in late December. Even the Winter was a disappointment: the ice on the canal melted early; there was no real snow; plenty of drizzle, yes, but nothing with any energy or excitement to it.
The intention was there, but it is as though the life had been drained out of people, the world, even; the spark to ignite a creative fire, dampened.

‘“Tom ta tom tom, tom ta tom,” Frits sang to himself, “nothing ‘s good, but everything’s fine.”
– There’s definitely a modernist technique at work here. There is certainly an echo of Doblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in the use of vernacular, in the internal monologues, thesinging.

*

The novel is structured on ten evenings, of increasing frustration with a fruitless life, and world. Each chapter charts the route taken by the tacking and manouvering of a clumsy, mostly empty, boat.

No, the novel is a not a ‘Ulysses’; it may share some of the self-absorption of Joyce’s classic, but the scale and scaffolding are pointedly small-scale.
After the previous period’s vacuous claims to new world orders, new worlds, great futures, this is a pointedly and purposely humdrum conception of humanity.
When you build, you must build from proper materials: people as they are – and not cloud cities, a reich, built from vacuous guff shored up with people’s real blood, guts, lives.

We see Frits attend the school re-union; his peers were trying to adopt the old role of getting on, making something of themselves. Frits, perversely, does not.  It is not as definite as that, or as a much a stance. His life has no heroic gestures, statements, no focussed disavowal of old values. No, he rumbles on in a diffuse scepticism.

And it is here where the book’s strength lies.
It does not succumb to cliche, or stereotype. Frits is disagreeable, but not hateful. The story charts  the hinterland that is his life: he does not veer far from the main path, and certainly not off into the dubious byways, side roads, the district beyond the tracks.

The immediately pre-War writers grouped under the banner of Forum, were preoccupied with the relationship of man to society. The War changed all that; the War brought the Nazi regime’s Kultuurkamer and its prescription of everything other than National Socialist writing.
Reve’s book was the first one of impact to be published in that aftermath.

Reinder P Meijer, in his’ Literature of the Low Countries’ (Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd, 1978) writes, ‘The dreariness of the subject matter recalls the work of the nineteenth-century naturalists, of whom Van de Reve may be regarded as a descendant.’
The directness of Gerard Reve’s depiction, though, is the main factor: ‘Van het Reve offers no explanations, no comments, no psychological key.’ (: Reinder P Meijer).
Gerard Reve also employs ornate speech – the interactions between Frits and older brother Joop, and associates, reads – as his response to the use of vernacular, above, shows – as an arch, ornate, edging-towards-parody of earlier high-flown literary styles.

It is not Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the book shares kinship with, but perhaps Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’. They both explore the ennui. Sartre’s book has the definite stance, raison, backstory even, in the opus of Being and Nothingness. Reve eschews those grand gestures, definitions, concepts, in favour of the individual vision.
Where Sartre argues for the individualistic response, Reve gives it.

*

Gerard Reve hit the headlines again with his 1970’s quartet of books ‘Dear Boys,’ ‘Sweet Life,’ ‘I Loved Him,’ and ‘A Circus Boy,’ where he explores gay sex, with a brutal edge. It is the style, also, that grabbed attention. The books are written with a blend of fact and fiction, in the form of written letters, and fantasy, but not the standard epistolary format.  Reinders P Meije again: the books stand out because of their ‘firm structure and … skillful way(s) of preserving a precarious balance between reality and the fairy-tale elements… introduced in his later novels…’.

But I’m still stuck.

2016-09-06-13-39-15

Negative Energy, by Richard Livermore.
24 Essays and Blogs. Elefantasia Press, 2016

ISBN: 976-1911357-17-9                  Price £.7.99 (Postage free in the UK)

The book can be purchased from:
Richard Livermore, 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh, EH3 6HN, Scotland, UK.
livermore.chanticleer.richard@gmail.com

 

Richard Livermore should be better known.
He founded and edited Chantecleer Magazine, and its later online form Ol Chanty:

http://www.chanticleer-press.com/

He has been active in the literary and poetry worlds for many years. He is a seasoned campaigner for wider dissemination, deeper understanding, for the neglected and the deserving of better readership.
But he never shies away from the difficult questions, the tricky areas.

Aficionados of literature, poetry, film, philosophy, culture will feel very at home in the world of this book.Why? Because

This Is The Book For You!

 

2016 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
I mention this in this context because my favourite essay so far in this collection contains a wham-bang essay on Shakespeare. He opens by questioning Why he was never given a place in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

What he gives us in response is SHAKESPEARE AND THE QUESTION OF LEGITIMATE POWER.
In this mere eight pages he takes us through the pungency of Shakespeare’s response to power as he found it in London under Elizabeth 1, and earlier claimants. He shows how Shakespeare ran the gamut of realisations from Timon of Athens, to the big three of Hamlet, MacBeth and King Lear. This he argues persuasively was a zeroing-in on the subject of the nature of power itself. Timon, he writes was about money as power; no, the real kick came when Shakespeare found a way around censorship via history, other cultures, to look at, pull apart, expose the gaining, use and abuse of political power.
This is why Shakespeare was difficult to domesticate. He had to be ‘bowdlerised’ as one term has it; he had also to be rendered benign through academic study modules.
That is why it takes an essay like this, outside of the academy, to reveal just how much Shakespeare pushed perceptions; how he threw it out into the open, to the populace, to people outside privilege and court circles.

I wrote above that essay was my favourite ‘so far’. Admit it, our likes, our desires, change. They grow develop. Or do they? Is the pack just reshuffled after a time? Time, yes. Time is the problem. What happens to us over time?
Some have attempted road maps (of the soul) for us. Whether they are religions, philosophies, politics or ethical systems, the intent is similar: how do we navigate our combined lives through time, in our shared space?
These essays and blogs take us through these invented landscapes searching all the time for that thing that makes our lives. He has his own particular criteria.

A close second on the Shakespeare essay/blog is EPIC PERSPECTIVES.
Being challenged can be one of our greatest pleasures, as well as spurs to learning, to knowing. In this piece Richard Livermore brings us to that body of writing I have long wanted to dive into and swim, The Mahabharata. In this instance it is Carole Satyamurti’s version. His love for the work is obvious on every page, and it illuminates the text.
The Mahabharata is, of course, another way of navigating time and space. This time it does not follow on the Greek/Classical rationalism method, but uses an older means, that of story. It is an unfolding story, series of stories, though, and this is important: it is not a static, rendered-into-text, finished product. The stories went out into the villages, were added onto, changed, re-valued. What we have here is one-off screen-shot of The Mahabharata’s vast complex of stories.

Think Game of Thrones has twists and turns, and conniving and general skullduggery? Try The Mahabharata. The difference is that The Mahabharata has Dharma, it has a through-line of purpose, intent, that is responsive to current and contemporary situations. G R R Martin certainly knows his predecessors.

On the topic of time, duration, and identity, Richard Livermore takes us through the book  Difference and Repetition, by Giles Deleuze, in his essay DELEUZENARY STATES
It is necessary for any thought-traveller to have some grounding in Deleuze (and Gatari), and this essay is an excellent place to begin. We encounter Kant as a major contributor. Kant occurs throughout the essays and blogs: his contribution to modern thought is given due recognition.

What do you think of democracy? That sacred cow of the enlightened Western world: Do not touch; do not question; just accept it as the best we have to offer.
Well, is it?
Richard Livermore writes: ‘Personally, I would  extend the notion of democracy and limit it at the same time.’ You see, it is possible to think further, think round corners, look at democracy from other sides, angles, and not just the big sell part. In our small worlds of personal interactions, equality and diversity etc, it has proved invaluable. On the big stage it can take on an appearance as lumbering, out-dated.  ‘A means to an end, and not an end in itself.’ he writes. Once an idea, a political ideal, becomes realised it is limited by its success, its existence, even. We sit back: the work is done. It is never done, though, is it. Democracy is just a station on your way, to quote Leonard Cohen.

So what does he mean by Negative Energy? It is part of an equation with positivity. Positivity denotes creating, building up, aspiration and achievement of promise. Negative Energy is not its opposite – that way of thinking, of universals, logical oppositions, contradictories etc is not helpful. Negative Energy is the energy released from the break-down, break-up, of ossified structures and systems. Sound familiar? Sound like someplace you know? The energy can be just as creative, just as vitalizing. The best of our works, our books, plays, symphonies we value as such because they give us the struggle of the breaking out and rebuilding.
It is quite a whoosh when you realise that!

The book is in no ‘particular order – chronological or otherwise’ Richard Livermore writes in his Preface. I see that as a strength, it gives the book a jewel box quality, full of surprises and sparkles, some dark, some glittering, some challenging our icons, some valuing them.
That is not to say there are no through-threads, themes, obsessions, even. There certainly are, and it provides us with a pleasure to find topics occurring in unexpected places.

We glimpse a very human heart and mind at work here behind the essays and blogs on film, opera, novels, plays, poetry, philosophy, science.
Here are our cultural nodes and political moods, explored and unraveled for us. For us to carry on the work.

 

Whoo-hoo!

Now available on Kindle!

Cover

Kindle book ready and waiting!
Roll up! Roll up!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01IRPODPW

 

HOW MANY HAVE YOU READ?

Posted: July 3, 2016 in Chat
Tags: , ,

Books

from my kindle book, Parameters:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Parameters-Michael-Murray-ebook/dp/B07893LB8Z/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1513428648&sr=1-1&keywords=parameters

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diffi1

2

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

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

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

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

RHSyrup

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

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

J H Prynne:

prynne

 

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

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

Reposted from 2012.

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

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

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

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

Addendum: 2/7/12

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

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

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

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

That dotz but thrych my hert thrange/….

Literally:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unspeakable passes, barely spoken, over the land:

 already it is noon.

Early Noon

And noon, of course, casts no shadows.

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

 

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

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

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

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

Smoke rises from the land.

Remember the tiny fishing huts,

because the sun will sink

before you’ve set ten miles behind you.

 

……………………….

from  Journeying Out

 

Harder days are coming.

The loan of borrowed time

will be due on the horizon

…………………………

from Borrowed Time

 

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

She can also hit a fuller tone:

 

Wherever we turn in the storm of roses,

the night is lit up by thorns, and the thunder

of leaves, once so quiet within the bushes,

rumbling at our heels.

 

In the Storm of Roses

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

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

Under an alien sky

shadows roses

………………………………………………

between roses and shadows

in alien waters

my shadow

Shadows Roses Shadow, from Invocation of the Great Bear

 

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

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

 

As sorrow warms him, the glassblower steps towards us

…………………………………………………………..

……………………………………………………………

              

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

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

for me a shard of smoke…………………..

 

from: Twilight

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

 

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

 

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

……………………………………..

only in the square, in midday light, chained to

the column’s base………..

the nave is empty, the stone is blind,

no one is saved, many are stricken,

the oil will not burn, we have all

drunk from it………….

 

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

 

……………………………………………

Into your hands it’s falling,

a rickety house of cards.

 

The cards are backed with pictures

displaying all the world.

………………………………………….

 

…………………………..

From: Stay

 

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

 

And how profound the playing

that once again begins!

Stay, the card you’re drawing

is the only world you’ll win

(ibid)

 

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

This is very much an existential impasse.

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

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

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

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

 

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

with thick dull stitches, shadows string guitars.

 

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

the flaring points of light now softly radiate out.

 

…………………………………………………

always the surface shifts towards another destination.

                  

………………………………………………………..

The Black Waltz

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

 

……………………………………………………..

a flywheel starts spinning, the derricks pump

spring from the fields, erected forests macerate

the degraded torso of greenness, and an iris of oil

watches over the wells of the land………

…………………………………………….

The Ferris wheel drags the coat that covered our love.

from: Great Landscape near Vienna

 

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

……………………………………………….

the seven stones turned into seven loaves;

he plunged into the meadows; fragrant air

scattering crumbs for the lost in forest groves

……………………………………….

from: Of a Land, A River and Lakes

 

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

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

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

 

But where are we going

carefree be carefree

…………………..

…………………..

but what happens

best of all

when dead silence

 

sets in

 

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

 

3

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

The Gloriastrasse poems convey something of that time:

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

 and

In a bed

in which many have died

odourlessly, fitted out

in a white smock

…………………..

…………………….

Lost in a haze of morphine

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Nach dieser Sintflut

[After this deluge]

 

After this deluge

 I wish to see the dove

 saved,

 nothing but the dove.

 

……………………………………………………..