Here's Franklin Foer, in discussing the reports of Scott Thomas Beauchamp:
I hadn't worked with Stephen Glass, who made up stories out of whole cloth, but I knew the lessons derived from that scandal. Fabulists are often nabbed by the little lies, the asides they assume that no one will check.
Here's Wikipedia, quoting Glass's 1998 article 'Hack Heaven' — the one which it says 'triggered his downfall':
Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, is throwing a tantrum. "I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Man comic number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy, and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!"...
Across the table, executives from a California software firm called Jukt Micronics are listening – and trying ever so delicately to oblige. "Excuse me, sir," one of the suits says, tentatively, to the pimply teenager. "Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting you, sir. We can arrange more money for you ..."
The little lies? This is bad fiction. You don't, or shouldn't, have to be a hotshot critic to see that.
And here's an excerpt from Beauchamp's first 'Diarist' piece:
[...] a short but unusually healthy-looking Iraqi kid approached out of my periphery wearing an Adidas hat and snowboarding t-shirt, his lower torso swallowed by one of Little Venice's excrement canals.
We are to believe, then, that the Iraqi child has become so debased by the conditions of war that he is willing to wade up to his stomach, or chest, in shit
"Mistah Mistah, give me $50," he demanded, somewhat politely compared with other children. But I was still taken aback by the sum
to obtain money. I don't know if I believe it. 'lower torso' could be the slip of a bad writer, an artefact of bad editing, or one of those 'little lies'.
Or it could be true:
His first piece, a Diarist titled 'War Bonds' published in our February 5 issue, described the woes of an Iraqi boy named Ali who adopted the moniker 'James Bond.' Soon after James Bond chit-chats with American soldiers, Beauchamp learns that thugs—most likely insurgents—cut out his tongue. This first piece didn't receive much attention, but the attention it did receive was positive. Hawks, in particular, liked that it sympathetically described the plight of sensitive young soldiers on the front line.
That it was received positively implies its readers thought it true. That it was received positively, and thought true, implies its readers accepted that a young Iraqi was desperate enough for money, or so used to the indignity, he would walk navel-deep through shit for it. What does this say?
from: Oxford Poetry
date: Oct 7, 2007 6:57 PM
We are committed admirers of yours
here at OP. If there is one thing
which bugs us about the state of English
literary culture, it is that poetry of the quality
you write goes relatively unacclaimed.
We understand you must receive many such
wearying requests, but still we are determined
to ask if you would like to contribute (in any form:
we do not affect to leash our writers to particular
modes) to our 2008 issue. It is most
important to us that the poetry in our journal
avoid the pitfalls many successful poets
wander into it seems guilelessly. If we were able
to include something of yours, it would invigorate
and encourage both us and our student contributors
in the task. With sincere thanks,
Ben Mullen & JCH Potts
from: J.H. Prynne
to: Oxford Poetry
date: 07 Oct 2007 23:22:51 +0100
subject: Re: OP08
Hmmmmm. I don't think I have anything I could send you right now, thought this might change. Let's see if passing time turns out to make a difference.
from: Oxford Poetry
to: "J.H. Prynne"
date: Nov 9, 2007 5:27 PM
subject: Re: OP08
Thank you for your kind reply; and for your extralong 'Hmm', which we cherish as a measure of how much our offer meant to you, and how much thinking it took to say no.
Your contribution still and always welcome.
Super Songs. Keston Sutherland, Timothy Thornton, Ron Paste — I’m persuaded by people who’re persuaded by Prynne. Owing to their commendations I have his brick of Poems and I paid £14 in money for Sub Songs.
I have his Poems and I have not read it. I read Sub Songs the day it arrived.
The characteristic conservative response to novelty is the scoff. Conservatives’ scoffing — their bluster and bluffness — reacquaints us gently with our certitudes, as if it wasn’t these that were unaccountable. To hazard an answer must be the worst way to defuse live questions like those asked by novel poetry, so the flummoxed conservative must avoid this without giving off any guilty air of evasion. Dr Johnson missed the point but not the stone. Kingsley Amis just hoicked the pale postmodernism of Money at the opposite wall.
Reading Sub Songs it occurred to me that the book was — in a far from unimpeachable way — a challenge: perhaps a test. It seemed to covet the role of foil to my philistine — the philistine it needed me to play, hoicking arm primed for its dismissal. But the book’s provocation wasn’t directed at philistine taste as a target so much as it sought, in the service of the solace and self-regard of those who do endorse the Prynnian style, to conscript the philistine to stand in bogus contrast to its correct method.
Practitioners in the humanities are often smart. Scholars or poets, they are both encouraged in and inclined to a certain intellectual pride. But it’s impossible for them not to sense, on the scene of their success, their culture’s unstudied commitment to their neglect. The society that voted for New Labour in three elections before trading them in for the Clameron chimera denies its avant-garde not only status in reputation but meaning in recognition. For poets who want to respect themselves, then, in a culture that shows its estimate of their value (and to an extent of that of poetry) by an impenetrable obliviousness, it is therapeutic to promote and imitate an art whose signature is its difficulty but whose raison is a retaliatory exclusion; under its sway, the more these poets praise what most won’t contemplate without philistine complaint, the more they can feel themselves companions of an elite. It’s the fact of this process that justifies Archambeau’s intervention in the matter of Prynne and school’s claiming for their work validity as a means of protest. That the poetry is unviable as such — and no more viable as a means of resistance — should be self-evident, and I do mean to be patronising when I say it’s a shame if smart people ever had convictions to the contrary. That the poetry, with its decadent esotericism of diction, is as a medium hostile to those it roots for, but unstinting in its passion in this cause, implies an insanity that precludes political significance. Before politics is even a prospect, though, the extent to which the style’s practitioners can devote themselves to a sense of its radical potential becomes a qualification — like a tenet of a cult, the more admired the more ardently it is held. Who better than nobody to serve and defend in a book that nobody reads? ◦ 2011
Kafka, of a woman (I don't know where): how short must be life, if something so fragile can last a lifetime. But sentimental! Kafka’s words betray a watcher’s remoteness, for women’s bones are strong; women of beauty are still flesh, as you are when you stub your toe, or knock your head on a shelf. You would not want to touch a thing that would shatter or dissolve in your hand. I see there’s romance in what’s ethereal — fairies and such. That women are girlish and frail and we ought to protect them (or that we must). Under their burkhas and chastely enticing veils these women aren’t pixies — airy features strung with beads of light together — and I’m not the awed rustic, on the streets of Oxford seeing the travel of light in covers; these are people, part-animal, bent like men to make superior versions of themselves (ones better at making more and more versions), in that way perhaps machinelike, but on the human scale of no graver fragility than lean and short men. Yes the word angel is beautiful but I have always hated its use in simile because how do they write or sing? Like Shakespeare and, what, a choir? Not priests, not enraptured, nobody knows: they’re imagined beings, unconcrete, without flesh. Women aren’t fleshlessly angels, they have solid nerve and muscle, it’s why they live out meagre allotments. Kafka’s is male sentimentality, a kind of refuge, to see in those desired for their cleavages, their symmetrical faces the angelic; if angels are immortal the angelically dreamlike, no substance — impression all.
Very often my beliefs have been best expressed by others, and this is not an admission but an acknowledgement, since only a humble man will plagiarise. The less of myself, the better! The whole thing is, the difficult matter, to shrink back to this: We are small, and cannot bear much improvement. Did not even St. Paul the Apostle name himself “Little Thing”? Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk — so little to the stock?
Consider Alan Smithee. To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences is no crime, but service. Among so many borrowed things, be glad to steal one, disguising and altering it, to do such business in the massy entrails of the Earth, that no man may accuse or judge you, and that no page will stand up against you, saying, “You are a thief.”
We are all debtors, imitators, copyists writ large. This is my Last Will and Testament. The devil you
The difference between verse and prose is self-evident, but it is a sheer waste of time to look for a definition of the difference between poetry and prose.
When Prose Is Poetic
Prose is seldom poetic. When prose is poetic, this isn’t of itself a good thing. More often it is bad. Indeed, a healthy maxim might be: Good prose is never poetic. But this would miss the point—which is that when prose is called ‘poetic’, it’s usually not so. Misunderstanding and belittlement, both of prose and of the ‘poetic’, issue from this abuse.
To call poetry ‘prosaic’—as eg Jeremy Noel-Tod of Swithering—is derogation; to call prose ‘poetic’—as innumerable puffquotes and hacks—is encomium.
Does this suggest a tacit hierarchy, in which writing poetry’s a ‘higher’ art than writing prose?
No. What it suggests is laziness. To say prose is ‘poetic’ is to repeat a cliché of praise.
To say prose is ‘poetic’ is to say the square is round.
I concede that many have said the square is round, that many have said this of shapes which both look quite curvy, and have corners. But! Prose is an art its own. Beautiful prose is rare as beautiful poetry. Only the genius gets near. To call such prose ‘poetic’ because it’s beautiful is careless diminishment, is evidence of absence of thought.
Why might we call prose ‘poetic’? For content, style, or both? Content can’t make anything ‘poetic’, because poetry is magnanimous. Poetry may treat of love; it may treat of iceberg lettuce; it may treat of global warming. To define it by content is to make a mistake.
So style. Poetry tends to have aural or acoustic texture, which consists of assonance and alliteration (perhaps analysable as rhyme, perhaps not), and rhythm (perhaps analysable as metre, perhaps not). These together we could term poetry’s ‘music’. Poetry also tends to think in metaphors, but needn’t necessarily. Poetry tends to appear in lines that do not tend to reach the right margin; this is not, though, sine qua non. Writing in broken lines, that rhymes, and has metre, is poetry.
(I don’t know where poetry may be said to end and prose begin. The best policy in doubtful cases is to take what the writer thought she was writing, if that’s determinable, as what she was writing. Song lyrics, incidentally, are not poetry.)
Is it these qualities which make prose ‘poetic’? No. It is these qualities, as well as misguided ideas of which matter belongs in the domain of poetry and which in prose, that cause people to call prose ‘poetic’.
When Prose Is Prosaical
Why ‘prosaical’? Only because the newer sense of ‘prosaic’ is now so alien to the original one, it’s possible to call prose ‘prosaic’ without tautology.
Prose manifests its own beauties; we do not need poetry, or a concept of the ‘poetic’ in prose, to make sense of them. Of course there is commonality: it is that both media exploit the potential of language to sound music; that is, all writers, all speakers—consciously or not—orchestrate harmonies of vowels and consonants in rhythms which stress or play on those harmonies. But this is obvious to the point of banality. Everyone knows most proverbs, most clichés, most (shall we say?) successful phrases, turn on consonance. I won’t print a list. (Try www.westegg.com/cliche/random.cgi). But consider ‘swan off’. Whoever came up with that had a poet’s ear. Or do we all?
(Consider also ‘navel-gazing’. Who ever gazed at his navel? It doesn’t happen. The phrase has succeeded because it rhymes, not because it is a pungent or accurate description of life.)
Attention to aural texture is legitimately a feature of prose as well as of poetry. Such attention does not mark prose as especially poetic any more than does use of metaphor or anaphora. An anecdote: in conversation my old tutor Matthew Reynolds has claimed that, aesthetically speaking, he prefers disharmony to harmony. I believe him. Still, there’s irony in the way he liked to adduce Tennyson’s ‘Music that gentlier on the spirit lies, / Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes’ as epitomic poetry. Just listen to those vowels chime like a one-note bell choir.
From Giacomo Joyce (which Ellmann blurbily calls ‘a love poem’):
She raises her arms in an effort to hook at the nape of her neck a gown of black veiling. She cannot: no, she cannot. She moves backwards towards me mutely. I raise my arms to help her: her arms fall. I hold the websoft edges of her gown and drawing them out to hook them I see through the opening of the black veil her lithe body sheathed in an orange shift. It slips its ribbons of moorings at her shoulders and falls slowly: a lithe smooth naked body shimmering with silvery scales. It slips slowly over the slender buttocks of smooth polished silver and over their furrow, a tarnished silver shadow . . . . Fingers, cold and calm and moving . . . . A touch, a touch.
He sank two lumps of sugar deftly longwise through the whipped cream. Buck Mulligan slit a steaming scone in two and plastered butter over its smoking pith. He bit off a soft piece hungrily.
The outskirt of the garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells—weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made blood-red stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare, still unobserved of him.
Abed, he touched Sono’s eyelids experimentally, as she lay smiling. Those strange, complex, soft, pale lids would keep the imprint of a touch for quite a while. To tell the truth, I never had it so good, he wrote. But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy. That was hardly a joke. When a man's breast feels like a cage from which all the dark birds have flown—he is free, he is light. And he longs to have his vultures back again. He wants his customary struggles, his nameless, empty works, his anger, his afflictions and his sins. (Herzog)
The light held long after , and the ground was covered with clover, more than a mile of green between
Then Timofey’s torso was bared, and to it Belochkin [the pediatrician] pressed the icy nudity of his ear and the sandpapery side of his head. Like the flat sole of some monopode, the ear ambulated all over Timofey’s back and chest, gluing itself to this or that patch of skin and stomping on to the next.
One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by injection of phenol to the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, an undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood. […]
Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.
The mosquitos were getting bothersome. Time for tea. Time for a game of chess with Chateau. That strange spasm was over, one could
Again, each Sunday afternoon we had a walk still dressed in our best and we could draw in the sweet county air, this island’s attar of roses, coming from the sea overland to where we meandered, the woods all about us, rooks up in the sky, cattle in the fields. Every lane so it now seems was sunken, tufts of grass and wild flowers overhung our walks and sometimes, coming over the hill, we had that view over all the country where it lay beneath in light haze like a king’s pleasure preserved for idle hours. (Pack my Bag)
Such, for arbitrary example, is prosaical prose. There is nothing that should limit the beauty of prose as form compared with poetry as form, though prose (in English) has as yet no Shakespeare—except insofar as Shakespeare wrote prose (‘what is this quintessence of dust?’). Musical artistry is not exclusively characteristic of poetry; it’s there in beautiful words of all provenance. What most usefully defines poetry is concern with the unit of the line. Prose broken into lines is likely to make bad poetry, defined so because the writer thinks herself a poet. (Though they’ve swiftly mutated away from the original sense ‘of prose’, pejorative use of the terms ‘prosaic’ and ‘prosy’ offends me. Critics are not ideally stringent when they reprove poetry for being ‘prosaic’—what features of the verse are so deplorably like prose?) To chance a generalisation: prose pays scant heed to the unit of the line; it is rather concerned with the units of sentence, paragraph and chapter.
Which brings us to Giacomo Joyce. As beautiful a stretch of prose as Joyce ever wrote, this heavily biographical short story uses devices that may occur in either prose or poetry, are probably more common in poetry, but ‘prosaises’ them so far, makes them work in and for the prose in ways that are so specific to the medium, that to call them ‘poetic’ only makes a nonsense of the word. Joyce here writes—though does not inaugurate (think of Swift’s ‘He had been Eight Years upon a Project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers, which were to be put into Vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the Air in raw inclement Summers’)—a ‘prosaical’ prose.
To rephrase: whereas the art of poetry tends to consist in how a poet organises her harmonies of sound over, around and across a structure derived from (i) the unit of the line and (ii) the metrical foot, Joyce’s artistry shapes these harmonies according to the units of sentence and paragraph. The units of line and metre are irrelevant, and though rhythm creeps in occasionally, it’s never systematic or schematic. (Prosaical rhythm is precludingly difficult to analyse.) Joyce’s prose in this sense differs fundamentally from poetry; his assonance, alliteration, rhythm, etc. (I hesitate to use the word ‘cadence’, as I don’t know what it means), are prosaical, not poetic.
Take the passage beginning, ‘She raises her arms’. Four of these sentences have prosaical caesurae. They gather themselves powerfully up to a break, introduced by a colon or comma, after which they fall off gracefully, making symmetrical patterns. Sound is miming sense in ‘I raise my arms to help her: her arms fall.’ Joyce tends to repeat words or phrases to pin his paragraphs together, so here we have ‘arms’, ‘black veil’, ‘gown’, ‘body’, ‘slips’, ‘silver’ and finally ‘move’ and ‘touch’, harmonies that move between sentences as ‘She cannot: no, she cannot’ moves within one. It’d be pedantic to catalogue all the correspondences of sound, but I should point up ‘websoft edges’, ‘lithe smooth’, the bs in ‘black’, ‘body’ and ‘buttocks’, the ls everywhere, and crucially, the array of s, z and sh sounds that falls around she. The short ih vowel occurs omnipresently from ‘sheathed in an orange shift. It slips its ribbons of moorings’ (seven or eight times) to ‘tarnished silver’ and ‘Fingers … moving’. The correspondences emphasise what they have not embraced: ‘naked’, ‘buttocks’, ‘furrow’ and ‘touch’ stand out thanks to their hard consonants and dark vowels. The build-up and flow of this prose is importantly dissimilar to poetry, which relies heavier on the counter-influence of metre and stanza working against harmonies of sound to create meaning independently of the poem’s content—and Giacomo is replete with writing of like density. Who knows why these esses, ls and ihs were for Joyce associated with erotic feeling? We could say they are elusively feminine, but of course the context has prejudiced us: though it accesses all, the prosaical style of Joyce is unknowable.
The figure that imagines the girl as silver-scaled and piscine could have worked as ravishingly in poetry.
Her classmate, retwisting her twisted body, purrs in boneless Viennese Italian: Che coltura! The long eyelids beat and lift: a burning needleprick stings and quivers in the velvet iris.
Grey twilight moulds softly the slim and shapely haunches, the meek supple tendonous neck, the fine-boned skull.
I rush out of the tobacco-shop and call her name. She turns and halts to hear my jumbled words of lessons, hours, lessons, hours: and slowly her pale cheeks are flushed with a kindling opal light.
The sellers offer on their altars the first fruits: green-flecked lemons, jewelled cherries, shameful peaches with torn leaves.
She walks before me along the corridor and as she walks a dark coil of her hair slowly uncoils and falls.
Calling prose ‘poetic’ explains nothing. The practice amounts to critical solecism, and evinces languor of mind. Prose has no need of poetry to justify or to account for its manifold beauties. To imply it’s beautiful or good because it is ‘poetic’ (likewise, but less sinfully, ‘lyrical’ or ‘elegiac’) is to deprecate a great artform by invocation of counterfeit dependency on one equally great.
(Film critics such as David Thomson and Geoff Andrew have described films or scenes of films as ‘poetic’, or directors as ‘poets’ of cinema, but their meaning is lost to me. To take a guess: they use the words in pontifical synonymy with ‘allegorical’ or, simpler, ‘pretty’, where these are lineaments of art in general, not only its manifestation in poetry.)
I do not know what ‘poetic’ prose would look or sound like. Probably it would use a rhyme scheme, a form of metre, a broken layout; a combination of the three. But why would this not be (prosaic) poetry? Truly a quandary.
Would it not be easier to suppose that prose cannot be ‘poetic’? That whenever prose is deemed ‘poetic’, it is really prosaical, or poetry? The idea of round squares is neither useful nor intelligible to mathematicians. ‘Poetic’ prose approaches such redundancy, and I think matches such inanity.
Adam Piette is a brilliant scholar of prosaical prose. He just doesn’t know it.
Not quite heat- or rain-scrim, this heavy
blankness, thinning now, presides with mauve-
tinted wipe-around grey. , yet no distance
to any horizon. The Malverns gone in haze.
I would not, formerly,
have so described bereavement. Land
of Unlikeness a similitude, certitude
moves to dissolution. Still, an answer:
misprised, misplaced love,
our routine, is not tragedy;
misadventure at worst. And my self-styled
lament must cover for us both.
Something here to know the time by, in all
conscience. In all conscience we
shall lie down together. Dear one, be told
you chose impenetrable absence; I become
life-sentenced ghost. Allow
our one tolerable scena its two minds.
Abruptly the sun’s out, striking a new
cleave; skidding the ridge-grass, down steep hangers;
buddleia in dark bloom; a wayward covey
of cabbage-whites this instant | balanced
and prinking, the light itself aromatic.
(It’s poem LXV from Geoffrey Hill’s Orchards of Syon.) Ignore the aural spectacle and watch the lines break. See how the unit of the line is made to cut across, to interfere with the unit of the sentence so as to engender more and different meaning than they could unbroken? This interplay, more than consonance or metre, is the volatile essence of poetry—and it can’t happen in prose without making poetry of the prose.
‘Poetic prose’ is a figment we’d do well to forget. To call prose ‘poetic’ is invidiously to declare you do not understand what poetry and prose are; it is explicitly to admit your blindness to the nature of literature’s first dichotomy after that of meaning and style. Elide it from your vocabulary, or risk disrespect.
PS. A brilliant and brief discussion (by Jeremy Noel-Tod) of what may be prosaic in poetry is here.
my second, if you can't use that, is:
prowar blogger Oliver Kamm has written: 'Poetry is a medium, not an instrument, of ideas. If your interest in poetry is the cogency of the ideas, then you might as well be reading prose.' what I've read of Oxford students' 'poetry' has been mostly prose, and at that uncogent.*
my third, if you can't use that, is:
the writing of good poems is difficult, and few succeed. the best we should expect of undergraduates — unless rara avises like Auden — are okayish failures. not enough of the poems (if they are that) I read by students at Oxford are okayish, because they seem illusioned or unambitious in their senses of what poems are. in language and metaphor, where I would welcome eventfulness, there is enervation; for plot there is anecdote (a women gazes at her delicate hands, forgetting to feed birds. We forget her); in technique there is a worn intimacy with prose, its distinction from which poetry should boast and exploit; for thought there is wool, a jitney Larkinism which conjures consolation out of sunlight. yes, without sunlight the earth would be more matter in a universe neither callous nor loving but dead. on top of that it looks pretty when it floods low through clouds. we only need poets to say this if they can say it so the beauty of saying is like the beauty of seeing, or takes us there. but poems need also to say that sunlight gives you cancer, and in time will destroy the everything it gave us. Geoffrey Hill at a reading last week condemned later generations' poetry in cruder terms than you could hope. for him it was 'condescending crap'. he is a genius so we allow him this; I am not, and I don't want to recommend the same blanket derision. our Oxford poets are capable of the arresting line or two, I accept ('We do not know the grief of what we do / We giddy things. Briefly. In our storm's eye / Of selfishness. In our absolute calm.'). of whole poems I have read nothing except by friends I could call a success. my advice is to write as if you would be broken if you wrote a single false-bottomed line. practise and trash all the duds, the halfways, with less clemency than a sniper. and — most important — read Geoffrey Hill.
*I do not exclude myself from this charge.
(1) Clive James is holding a volume of Catullus in the Latin, and mentions in passing he's about to go on a beach holiday. He leaves and Martin Amis says, 'Poor Clive, he'll spend all his time on the beach worrying about when it looks plausible to turn the page.'
(2) Clive James, at a dinner party, discourses on the literature of Russia, making much of the fact he can read it without translation. Amis, knowing that Craig Raine's family speak Russian at home, asks Craig to say to Clive a simple phrase. He does, and it sounds a little like 'daddy'. 'Oh yes — well then — that will have something to do with a father', says James. It doesn't. It means, 'Where is your house?'
That Shakespeare is one of the best poets in history is taken for granted by enough people for me to suppose it true as any value-judgement can be. That he is, for this, a significantly greater poet than any of his English-language predecessors and successors is not often stressed. He is outclassed in epic poetry, because he did not consider it worth his money-making time; but in dramatic and lyric poetry he excels Milton, Chaucer, Keats, Eliot and Hill. Except I do not wish to make this generic distinction: in the fabric of the poetry, the craft or 'beauty' of it — whether blank verse or sonnet — he shows himself a body above the rest, an elite of one. Shakespeare is the most successful writer in the world, and among all artists the best qualified, most likely, to rank in an imagined top 5. His work is embassy of our kind, its achievement of human potential an exemplar; of our best means of trapping death, the rush of days, he is our truest genius.
‘to which I pay tribute’
Blackpool Winter Gardens.
Blackwater. Honeyed porridge;
heroworship; that is of strangers
or characters in plasma. I am burnt
coffee only makes me happy.
It’s the air of smug entitlement:
no, I couldn’t consider voting Tory.
Who has the best focusgroup or polling data
wins; if every party is populist
there is room for difference
only in errors of interpretation; knowing what is wanted.
We want parties who do not pander to us
and between whom we can tell.
Stop clapping in the crowd people
ruining his flow. A government that actually believes in Britain
is a government I believe in.
The cameramen insist,
like Wimbledon’s, on showing us the pretty women
in the audience, except being Tory they aren’t pretty.
And underneath a phrase repeated,
scrolled, what English can do — beautiful —
Blackpool Winter Gardens.
How could one describe her?
Poetry deficient — no, it’s up to it.
Naval prowess; island nation
never insular; restless. What Britain stands for
The people of Burma
The torment of Darfur
The tragic people of Zimbabwe
(shit: sanctions against torment).
||||||||||||||||||||||||My dog bounces on the lawn.
A peachy dome gets sheen in hangar light.
This man — for his accent — he’s the only I’d elect.
The opposition are always bolder,
flaunting clarity impossible in power.
In power they will disappoint.
We should remember
not to hope so much of scholars we anoint
governers, that they are actors
courting favour. Career jesters.
Mr Brown if you were committed
to Iraq at the start why are you now withdrawing?
You think of the Tories as callous.
That is mistaken —
poetry as well as a meal,
the people were fantastic —
helping Rwanda, they’re still middle-class.
(Newsreaders now are all hot
I know therefore I am not supposed to listen.)
Britney, she lost the kids. Story
rackin the beltway. Rocking.
Still she is a kid, veeing photographers.
Now she is famous just for being
Thanks to the BBC we get
reactionshots. A suited man
narrates a torture out of Nashe:
roasting over fire; stabbing; saltwater tub.
A woman’s tears. BURMA UNREST.
The impotence of the United Nations.
||||||And Zoya Phan
like a prodigious child, moving,
held up shackles
guards used to sear through skin and fat and muscle,
by electrification, to bone.
Such places are funhouses
for thugs, prison states
with prisoners in power — innocence
their unearthly drink and food.
The impotence of the United Nations
If you wanted it this is my reaction.
||||||I am Cogan,
||||||Hull. From Blackpool,
||||||or the livingroom sofa,
On the other hand, Pynchon launches himself into numerous lectures on great-power politics of the day, lectures that would suffocate an audience at a hundred paces. Let a character say, “But you’re itching to be filled in, I can see that,” and the author scurries to the library table to pot some history (he’s suspected of relying on the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for his facts, but his reading is far richer and more mutinous). The more he writes, the more stiff-necked the movements of armies and politicians; though these are Astaire waltzes compared to the global wars in mathematics:
“And that’s what has kept driving Cantor back into the Nervenklinik,” added Humfried, “and he was only worrying about line-segments. But out here in the four-dimensional space-and-time of Dr. Minkowski, inside the tiniest ‘interval,’ as small as you care to make it, within each tiny hypervolume of Kontinuum—there likewise must be always hidden an infinite number of other points—and if we define a ‘world’ as a very large and finite set of points, then there must be worlds. Universes!”
If this sort of thing gives you goose bumps, there are more than enough passages in Against the Day about zeta functions and the Riemann hypothesis to gratify you, as well as any of your relatives who happen by (like a gas, the math expands to fill the space available). Pynchon is perhaps the only novelist who could have written that “all mathematics . . . leads to some kind of human suffering.” After the publication of V., he was supposedly turned down for graduate work in math at Berkeley. He avenges that humiliation here.
18) From my window I can see across the street. Into a girl’s bedroom. Perhaps 19, red hair and undressing - - her bra doesn’t match her panties - - a thumb hooked gauchely in a hairband, she towels her hair mirrorwise. If I was a gentleman I’d turn away. One never does.
19) It was not curiosity that killed the cat, but the car. Let’s be accurate. [...]
21) I am writing part of my thesis in verse
Elegant variation shades into ironical euphemism, which shades into dandaical detachment. Flaubert, in despair at the Franco- Prussian war, and trying to maintain the primacy of art, commented that in the long run, perhaps the only function of such carnage was to provide writers with a few fine scenes. So here, the function of the octogenarian Breton woman who hangs herself, or the 75-year-old man who dies of a stroke on the bowling lawn (‘While his ball was still rolling he was no more’), or the 70-year-old who drops dead of sunstroke (‘Quickly his dog Fido ate his head’) is to provide a sophisticated Parisian with a witty paragraph. [...] [A] bomb became a ‘delightful kettle’ and the manner in which it killed six people showed ‘intimate charm’ (we are not far from Stockhausen’s quickly retracted description of the World Trade Center attacks as ‘the greatest artwork ever made’).
Well, no. This is image politics. Some BBC chuffer let go a lovely example: there are aides to Gordon Brown, he said, who are urging an early poll because they're scared his honeymoon lease has all too short a date. Act now, seize mandate, change Britain and fuck the other side (the toff, and his mate the toff) over the cliff.
Now I like to see a Tory shafted as much as the next champagne lefty. I couldn't however help the semi-drunk sense of disorientation I got whenever I contemplated this remark. If Gordon isn't sure the vows will stick beyond the first fortnight's bedevilled loving (tickle me with pledges for a fairer NHS! suck my have-a-go hero!), then he either believes his will make a poor government (ie, political weather will deteriorate so gravely that his crack team will emerge looking bad however they respond), or assumes that our perception of him as voters has little or no relation to what success in office he’s determined to realise. For why call a poll, Mr Brown, if you are not confident the country, after the two or so years you’re electorally authorised to lead it, would be in as robust a state as you'd promise on campaign, say, tomorrow?
I would like to note in passing that ‘have-a-go hero’ is a clumsy phrase for what it defines; clearly in its popularity consists its poetry. The words alliterate and rhyme.
Brown is not the path of this excursion. (I am a political ignoramus.) My inspiration has rather been Oliver Kamm, a fellow blogger whose website is devoid of comments not because it has no visitors, like this one, but because he doesn’t invite them — that I presume would make for the anarchy of Cif, or Wikipedia, which on many occasions he has branded ‘anti-intellectual’.* Kamm is a clever man, for his independence persuasive in argument, enviably well-read, and a stylist of mandarin brutality. (He has a weakness for namecalling: I don’t see that it follows from Mark Steel’s membership of the Socialist Workers’ Party that he is a supporter of the Islamist war effort. If you asked him he would say he was not. Many Labour backbenchers, even Ministers, disagree with policies their party espouses.) I know little of his biography, but a reference in passing to Julian Glover suggested he had read PPE, which made his banking career and historical erudition testament of polymathy. His most important opinion is his backing, as soi-disant leftwinger, of the Iraq War. It is this opinion over which I want to cast an eye.
My own opinion of Iraq is not important, because I have never been there, have no relationship with any Iraqi and have read exactly one relevant book. It’s enough to say I’m emotionally against it and rationally unconcluded (for at a guess twenty more years). Mr Kamm’s matters because it is one of the few to remain on the pro-war side that is attentively reasoned as it is vigorously expressed. I even sent fanmail a couple days ago to tell him something similar, so you’ll imagine I was pleased when it was announced he would be debating Iraq at the Labour Conference, for a ‘fringe debate’ organised by Newsnight. I duly tuned in.
Kamm was the weakest debater on the panel, both in presentation and content. In what little the editors left of his remarks he spoke with an air of scrupulosity, a nervousness, that impugned his arguments before he’d finished them — if Paxman let him. On TV bravado appears as relaxed confidence and careful humility a cowed kind of diffidence. But fault of presentation is easily forgiven if the speaker’s words are thoughtful: Mr Kamm’s, in this case, offended me. It is the foible of pro-war commentators (labelled ‘neoconservatives’, with passable accuracy) to portray themselves as unillusioned, as realist with the self-possession or courage to admit to themselves the full gravity of Islamist jihad. We know that many Americans were not realistic, or had illusions, about the situation on the ground in the country they were to invade. We know that many commentators argued and are still arguing for an illusory Iraq War, one which was not prosecuted by those men who had illusions about the situation on the ground, who were in the circumstances always going to show the venality and make the mistakes and commit the blunders they did; in this regard they are naïve. We, or I, did not know before that it was possible to invoke an illusion, thinking oneself unillusioned, to justify this war. Mr Kamm in his concluding words resorted exactly to that. I paraphrase of necessity, but his point was: If we hadn’t invaded x would have happened, so the invasion was right. This fairly disgusts me, since one of my life’s principles is that as the future is unknowable, so is the counterfactual past. Absolutely. To seek morally to account for the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent people and thousands of troops by a jerrybuilt utilitarian calculus of suffering whose complement** exists only in the mind of the calculator is itself corrupt, and morally wrong.
I end this post angrier than I started. I suppose it’s upsetting that a writer whose intelligence, in his recent hiatus, I missed more than I’d suspected, could so abase himself in defence of a position to which he has committed his reputation and almost his dignity. After anger, to Geoffrey Hill I’ll give consoling final say.
Offertorium: December 2002
For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:
for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known,
with restitution if things come to that.
—*Yes, Mr Kamm, but if you want expert contributors you have either to pay them, or remain small-fry as Citizendium: the only way to build an internet encyclopedia as popular and as comprehensive as this is to open contribution at first to everyone. The prose is dire, but Nature has shown that it is accurate; why are not ‘anti-intellectual’ costs — and if these are real you have to assume Wikipedia’s ethos will become the world’s default ethos of knowledge, if it wasn’t before — underwritten by educative and other benefits, and why is not its success evidence of its usefulness doing duties for which the scholarly encyclopedias were neither intended nor designed? I take the cost-benefit method of reckoning value from your own reflections on morality; you seem to judge whether an act is good by your calculation of how it has affected the world’s balance of suffering.
**I don’t know the noun. This is my best guess.
On Reading A Treatise of Civil Power
Actually you don’t have a shitting clue,
Old timer. Geoffrey, heckling busybody,
What do you know about the Internet?
Or Macro Economics? Or pop music?
Reality has moved fast, and you haven’t.
Come off it! What did you expect? Who cares
About the semi-masticated wordplays
Of a pensioner in a University bubble?
Civil power is about money. MONEY.
Who were you kidding? Everyone else KNOWS,
Fucksake, except your suck-up coterie
Of scholars. Get a job, Geoffrey! Jog on – –
FABER & FABER
Our FABER, who art in London, hallowed
Be thy trademark. Thy profits come, thy contracts
Be honoured, in New York as well as Moscow.
Give us this day our daily press release,
Forgive us our novels, as we forgive
Those who novel against us. Lead us not
Into Crime, but deliver us from Romance.
For thine is the distribution, the adverts,
And all royalties. Forever and ever. Amen.
also re initial speech of 12th Night ('notwithstanding thy capacity') - do you follow the Folio punct or Rowe's emendation? editors I think are wrong in preferring Rowe.
As for 12 N: the difference is clear, isn't it. The Folio punctuation means that the next sentence, 'Naught enters there' etc, is explanatory, and in appostion to the preceding, rather gnomic statement :- 'notwithstanding Love's vast capacity, it receives like the sea. That is, everything is devalued by it'. Whereas in Rowe's punctuation the logic is shifted to a long concessive clause 'although love's as capacious as the sea, [yet] it degrades everything'. I guess editors refer to Juliet's 'My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite'. But that is expressing a much simpler and more innocent idea, in comparison to the jaded 12 N's take on high-fantastical love.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity,
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity, and pitch so e'er,
But falls into abatement, and low price
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy,
That it alone, is high fantastical.
Receiveth as the sea, nought...
making notwith-sea one clause, where the folio's comma has suggested (they think misleadingly) that 'receiveth' refers back to the spirit of love rather than to the spirit of love's 'capacity'. My problem with this is What's quick and fresh about having everything which enters you fall into abatement & low price, and why 'notwithstanding' if love's capacity is just, essentially, big? Where's the point of notwithstanding between having large capacity and having everything of whatever value which enters you fall to abatement etc.? Why would love's 'capacity', if sealike, be thought usually to mitigate against the falling to abatement of things which enter it (& in this case, because of 'notwithstanding', to have failed)? The
That, notwithstanding thy capacity,
Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there ...
a future earth, finding abundant trace of civilisation, a huge,
still functioning computer network, and no people. It transpires
that we downloaded ourselves into computers because
we preferred living as virtual selves, but exhibited such violent
behaviour there the computers, which had become sentient,
decided for the good of the planet and their own protection
they would lock us in. All of us. Now the question I think
is posed here, but which Ballard does not realise is posed, is
Are the computers here behaving amorally or morally?
That nothing’s random. (Hear the laughter in man-
slaughter!) That I’m a reluctant Liberal.
That the best things in life are unrewarded.
That Bad Taste is tolerable, if it’s joking
At YOUR expense. That I’ve never yet
Lusted after sex and conversation
With the same person. That I’ve masturbated
Like a billion times, with no regrets,
But had sex with three women only — and —
Regret two-thirds of them. That death is long.
That, equally, I usually regret speech,
But never silence. That a growing pain
Is like a packed suitcase in the attic.
That dust gathers where you least expect it.
That I’ve lost, already, more than I can gain.
A clue to his thinking behind the book comes when I ask him how he rates his poetry. “I rate it very highly, actually,” says James, who reserves his self-deprecation for the things that don’t matter to him. “And it’s gratifying that as the years go by, the rating gets higher. As a showbusiness name, I was crossed off the list of the serious. But that problem is going away and now I’m getting estimated somewhere near my true worth, which I think is fairly high up the second rank.”
His ambition to be the serious poet
seriously marred by missing talent,
he turns to light verse. He is a hit.
Turning back to seriousness, he forgets what is missing,
...........and writes seriously lightly.
the red rose roils its rampant reds
and blue's the blouse where blossom blows;
where a greengage gobbet, half-gobbled, goes,
yellowing the blue, which yoghurty bled.
god, isn't alliteration shit?
A flower grew
in its garden;
the one flower
in its garden
with hazel eyes.
variation on the theme by Ron Paste
and its companion, similar
are both of them items of cutlery
or in truth uncommandeered
violent, lawless, causing much trouble.
psychos dubbed serial killers by police
their pretty bit to make tawdry the name
wonderful instrument; as has been
unforgivably that wondrous instrument by which
On Reading Selected Poems
Hill isn’t difficult as Donne
is difficult. (He is of course obscure;
that’s a given.) What he ís
is opaque as black plastic, or
Marmite in the delved parallels
enlisted to make enduring
utterance of a tortured exaction –
|||||||||but so disjunct,
so clipped, drily hemmed, so taut
his pages are ourselves
gazing, reflected as we read.
On a Bluefly Buzzing at a Television
I sit bored in my parents’ house, vegetating
Between university terms, addicted
To the sofa, watching a bluefly buzz.
Life is little and sex sells. Innocence
Is normal. When the fly buzzes, it says:
Sic transit Gloria. Rage and so on
Against the dying of the light or something.
I am Buzz Lightyear, Destroyer of Worlds!
Hey, I don’t know. Nothing is better than this.
The TV blares adverts for Life Insurance
As the bluefly bumps against it. Poor devil.
You make me want to be a better man.
There’s nobody to forgive me, I fear,
And I can’t be arsed to read anymore.
Casual sexism. Sure. Just sleep with her,
Pretend you love her, cheat on her. Sure.
I don’t know. Have faith in what you have
Forgotten. Remember. Resistance hurts.
Take the tube home at 2AM. Don’t shave.
Don’t shower. Worry about STDs.
I seem to spend my life at Waterloo Station
Watching Arrivals and Departures, flowing
As I glide, bat-like, down the escalator
In a black suit. I’m smug, promiscuous,
I hate myself. I’m nobody. Like a vampire
Crawling back into the sewers — malcontent,
Blood-hungry, tanless — to escape the sun.
fellowship of balance unrest the stars
moody-hung & spread like towns –
that galaxy of lead
planets, clouds of granite, upon
a buckling clavicle
oppressed my arm.
Half-drownd beltway flood the cork
-strewn delta with oil with salt: flood
the tenpin alleys full of metal, wrecked
rollcages, springs & seat-foam hailclouds;
yr holed frames & popped boots
sadly gappy, hanging wrong. Cross estates
slime parks pollute every wood! Arch yr elegant
bridging flute of light & noise
over land ónce pleasant. Repent not,
gorgeous road. A–B you take us. Soft brush
day & night of subtle tyres on silken tar –
it’s the sound I want to wake up to
wherever steering column or fuel-fire
or knifing shard decide to take
us when they strike.
when they strike. Which I know
is never now, is adverted
constantly but which I have
avoided without lapse for seven
years & fucking counting. Ha!
Ghouls’ make-up on telly,
tall boxy cameras, dayglo
men with lasers won’t
perturb the grace of speed, the sense
with yr foot in the floor
that you’re approaching flight
it’s unrobbable, inviolable. Fuck
the pigs, their useless rules: I just
passed their monkeys’ test, so why
not lend a little freedom? Why not
license a flight or two? I’m safe –
safe as bricks, safe as highways
rainless at four o’clock at night.
Or so I say. Your choice
whether to believe my patter.
I won’t intervene; I have
a story to tell. Been driving
since I’s sixteen, when dad
let me change gear, flip the lights
before roundabouts, taught
the basics in a local carpark
& at seventeen got a banger
third-hand out the classifieds
for under a hundred quid. No
licence, no tax, insurance – whatever;
just road & cheap wheels, the liberty
of petrol, internal combustion,
its risk & reward. Luck or bad luck.
I was never caught.
Course in the end I caved in
& went for lessons – three in fact
before I tried the test. Instructor
did not know how to drive; not
naturally obsessed by mirrors
he was, attention, priorities –
none of which’ll ever get
anyone to work on time. (Should
say however he did a funny
sideshow commentary on female
passersby.) So: I decided
to go straight for a test, &
was that confident I’d make it
I brought two bottles of fizzy
wine along in the car. Five minors
the result. Had to fork out
shitloads to get the seats cleaned.
People, I live off tarmac, the stuffy
car interior, radio blazing; no pink
dice to decorate the mirror – pure
whimsy that is.