CONTEXT: Tom Paulin, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’, London Review of Books 7.6, 4 April 1985, 13–4, repr. ‘A Visionary Nationalist: Geoffrey Hill’, Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, London: Faber and Faber, 1992, 276–84:
276: G H tends to appeal almost exclusively to an academic audience.
“: H’s title [KL] is reactionary in its implications
277: Although H’s conservative imagination endorses the cleric’s [Townsend’s] simple-minded concept of national loyalty, it is possible to read much of his verse as a protest against what Hugh Haughton terms ‘the indignity of King Log’.
“: Haughton’s fellow contributors all believe in the magical transcendence of art, and the cover of the volume expresses that archaic humanist cop-out. […] The [dustjacket] painting is clumsy but it does express how seriously H takes himself and the stupefied awe his critics feel for him.
278: the ‘Pprrpffrrpfff’ of a Leopold Bloom?
“: a collection of dull, dim essays straining to articulate they know not what. […] it is simply the product of a small group of academics who have lost all touch with an audience and society. […] There is something cosy and desperate in their yawping enterprise.
“: Assonating from one loose sentence to the next, Ricks’s mannered style preens itself in a fussily rebarbative manner – […]. There is no glimmer of a critical intelligence in this type of infantile paronomasia: […] Similarity is difference, difference is similarity – anything is like anything else, Ricks’s non-argument suggests.
279: Like most of H’s critics, Ricks takes the poet at his enormous self-estimation. […] Ricks’s arid, nimbling critical manner pretends to discover mystic complexity in pure platitude and bathos.
“: This deadly bit of trivia [‘jam-jar’] is meant to offer a final bucolic epiphany,
“: His trapped critical outlook prevents him from confronting the essentially Blut-und-Boden nature of H’s imagination –
“: This [Pearson] is Jamesian camp […]. Art is daunting, mysterious, difficult of access – the critic must manner himself into it with a great deal of oohing and ahing, and with much affected reverence for the superior mage
280–1: Różewicz has developed an austere, transparent anti-style in order to approach the subject of absolute evil and horror. H relies on a plushy series of mannered pentameters, and the result is a grisly  historical voyeurism which – despite Hooker’s insistence to the contrary – sounds both insular and complacent.
281: H is a parasite upon Eliot’s imagination, and any account of his work must face this frankly in order to argue the ultimate authenticity of the style.
“: H’s title [‘Idylls of the King’] is straightforwardly Tennysonian, and so is the poem’s dank, mossy texture, its stagnant vowel-music.
282: At times his evocation of the past’s ‘weightless magnificence’ wobbles slightly as H’s less-than-perfect ear skews the rhythm of the lines. Thus the rhyme ‘flight/twilight’ wrenches the natural vernacular spondee, ‘twilight’, into a fast, freakish iamb, ‘twilight’ […]. The pentameters are too monotonously definite to allow any rhythmic leeway, and the result is a false, flat note. Even so, these lines retain a certain gravid power, though in saying this I’m aware that the buried Anglican in me has a soft spot for this type of visionary mustiness.
282: Although H is endorsing the natural threat posed to collectivist society by the ‘warheads of mushrooms’, the image carries a contradictory suggestion of missile silos, of England as a nuclear province of the United States. Here it would be tempting to detect a Powellite strain in H’s conservatism,
283: [Robinson] baulks at drawing any conclusions from this conjunction of Black Country powers.
“: Does Edwards never switch on Channel 4? Clearly not, or he would realize that British society is not just composed of those neo-Christians Empson so despised.
“: Although Haughton appears not to have entirely lost his faith in the work, he lacks that reverential gullibility which so mars the other essays, […] he describes [… the poems’] disabling evocations of a contradictory ‘lost kingdom’. […] H’s sense of tradition is revealed as bogus because his poetic language originates with the Victorians and ‘can be said to be less their inheritance than their legacy’.
284: It seems to me that this critical enterprise aims to prop up a shabby and reactionary hegemony, and that Haughton – he is clearly radical and egalitarian – ought to have refused to participate in it. Still, he […] is clearly troubled by the authoritarian imagination H’s admirers celebrate.
‘Acknowledgements’, 295: in the case of my discussion of G H I have retained the error which provoked a lengthy correspondence in the [LRB].
Craig Raine, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 2 May 1985, 4.
Martin Dodsworth and E. E. Duncan-Jones, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letters), LRB, 23 May 1985, 4.
Tom Paulin, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 6 June 1985, 4.
Craig Raine, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 20 June 1985, 4.
Martin Dodsworth, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 18 July 1985, 4.
Tom Paulin, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 1 August 1985, 4.
Martin Dodsworth, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 5 September 1985, 4.
John Lucas, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 3 October 1985, 4.
Eric Griffiths and Martin Dodsworth, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letters), LRB, 7 November 1985, 4.
John Lucas, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 5 December 1985, 4–5.
Eric Griffiths, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’ (letter), LRB, 6 February 1986, 4.
BONUS CONTEXT 1: David Norbrook, ‘Shaggy Fellows’, London Review of Books 9.13, 9 July 1987, 22–3:
22: In the opposing camp, Tom Paulin provoked an indignant response in this journal in 1985 when he indicted H for his reactionary and derivative ‘kitsch feudalism’. H’s admirers responded with extreme defensiveness, representing Paulin’s intrusion of politics into the realm of culture as outrageous vandalism, and arguing that, since he speaks with an Irish accent, he has no right to pronounce upon English poetry. But can a better case be made for H?
“: His poetry is concerned with authority of all kinds, but perhaps above all with the authority of the author.
“: in many earlier poems, he aims rather mechanically for an optimal ambiguity count –
“: And yet he adopts a more critical and ironic view of traditional culture than Paulin implies.
“: [CP] could be said to illustrate the collusion of civilisation with barbarism.
“: Such a vision of universal corruption is politically ambiguous:
“: Paradoxically, H’s obsession with the moral responsibilities of writing threatens to trivialize the issues: […]. An obsession with ethics can be a way of excluding politics, and heaping guilt on poetry’s head may have its own complacency: if poets can be condemned for not being Jesus Christ, one must assume that they are pretty important people.
“: a demystificatory, iconoclastic vein in H’s work.
“: [Hart’s] method is not conducive to forceful overall argument, or to a recognition of weaknesses as well as strengths: the tone tends to be reverential. […] There are too many banalities:
“: [Bloom’s] emphasis is on H’s toughness as a counter to the wimpish utopianism of ‘Marxists and assorted contemporary shamans’.
“: H’s vein of black, satirical comedy at the expense of past masters. His frequent descriptions of this comedy as ‘hilarious’ may arouse misleading expectations, but H’s wit has been underplayed by critics and  is a constant counter to the temptations of pomposity.
23: Some readers have condemned the Keatsian or Tennysonian lushness of these sonnets, but H has reworked that idiom in the light of a very different historical and political consciousness, so that the registers jar with each other.
“: H’s poetry would be blander if the acknowledgment of barbarism were not accompanied by powerful celebrations of the monuments of culture.
“: But something is going wrong when H ends up sounding like Shirley Williams: if he has spoken of poems as presenting both terms in an antiphonal ‘drama of reason’, this implies a process, rather than a final product with a detachable political moral.
“: Moreover, it can be questioned whether H really does give opposing voices equal weight. Ambiguity gains its air of even-handedness by first making a set of binary oppositions that are bound to prejudge the issue.
“: But his characteristic strategy is to raise such doubts and then pass on without having fully assimilated them.
“: H’s historical imagination in the end responds more keenly to agrarian rhythms and Tory myths of unity than to the dissenting currents in British history. He is more at home in subverting Tennyson than in accommodating Clough.
“: Again, one can speak of a political ambivalence which is limited in range.
“: A charitable view of the over-literary clumsiness to which Paulin objects, a clumsiness which occurs quite often in the Péguy poem – ‘Landscape is like revelation’ – would be that H is registering resistance to the easy naturalisation of metaphor.
“: The structure of Péguy oscillates, without final stable resolution, between poles of affirmation and satire. Hart draws attention to H’s difficulty in ending the Péguy poem: his iconoclastic vein resists traditional closures. In this sense, his poem deconstructs its own organicism.
“: H retains, for all his iconoclasm, a fastidious distaste for modernity. To the extent that the iconoclast is defined by the images he tries to break, H’s poetry remains a symptom of the problem it so intensely seeks to diagnose.
BONUS CONTEXT 2: John Lucas, ‘Accidents of Language’, London Review of Books 5.20, 3 November 1983, 16, repr. Starting to Explain, Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2003, 276–82.
276: [‘Our Word’] so closely argued that it’s almost impossible to tease out individual threads without running the risk of damaging the entire fabric.
“: [the world] has its own claims, almost its own aggressions,
277: The play of this syntax has about it an untiring self-consciousness that is positively Jamesian. The ‘one’ who speaks does so on behalf of the generality of poets, is any poet.
“: The almost inexhaustible tact of this sentence is typical of the entire essay and might, I suppose, be a mere matter of tactics:
“: it is anti-Arnoldian.
278: History is not merely understood through language, history is language.
“: distinctively post-modern attitude to the world
280: in this new poem it often feels as though he is out for blood. In view of the material he confronts, his rejection of a melioristic, liberal reading of history is proper enough: less proper is what occasionally feels most like a glowering, unlovely egotism, a pedagogy that lacks, say, Yeats’s generous understanding of the motley history forces all of us wear [sic].
“: the poem’s presiding tone is more frequently mandarin, abrasive or – well, schoolmasterly.
281: There is a heavy prosaicism about these lines which occurs elsewhere in the poem, which its rhythms reinforce, and which I dislike because of the way it advertises its seriousness. It too clearly has designs on the reader, as do the obtrusive half-echoes of Tate and Eliot. It is demanding to be taken as important, but ends up seeming merely self-important.
“: I have to say that as far as I am concerned the game seems solipsistic, arbitrary and tiresome. Besides, I cannot note how sweetness devours sorrow in English, because it doesn’t.
“: deliberately contains stylistic graces within a poem that strives for what he presumably regards as more important, more graceless effects.
282: At all events, the strategy of H’s poem seems to be deliberately pyrrhic.
From Saturday’s Guardian I learnt that frivolity and seriousness were ‘the same thing’.
The same thing.
It was repeated like that. And it occurred to me: Adam Thirlwell can only say this with the expectation it will interest us because the two things are what they are, and not each other; or because we assume so. But if he is right — if he persuades us — the statement should become tautologous, and boring. We should no longer be able to note frivolity in seriousness or seriousness in frivolity because, after all, they are one.
At least, should his publishers call for a second edition of his book, I advised Peter McDonald so. In light of the arguments of Saturday’s Guardian, I thought, he may want to retool the whole sale.
Except: there are questions. Is one seriousness, for example, the same as another? If frivolity and seriousness are the same thing, what is that thing?
The article does not entertain them, though, because to the writer they are unimportant. They make the mistake of treating Thirlwell’s refrain as literally true: a mistake because as soon as which point is arrived at, the refrain ceases to mean Thirlwell’s meaning. Its meaning, and function, is really to indicate in metaphor the writer’s cast of mind, under which seriousness is frivolous, and frivolity serious. But the article only says what it says intelligibly because we do not share this cast of mind: because the writer is literally wrong.
I am guardian
I am, guardian.
That wealth or comfortable living of necessity
means remoteness from
the lusts, the mess, the truth of life.
That you cannot,
from science, make art. That light is describable,
or Shakespeare; or prose
prosaic. That there was a fresh
tenderness to the fucking. (Which isn’t fallacious I agree
but then to define is subjugation, if as well
to question; moreover to define
is to give synonyms, so to diffuse precision
with false equivalence corrupting the commensurate.)
are the reason I cannot sleep, or it is not difficult to say
that which is difficult. What could be called
the labelling of still truth is art
or an art, for the perspective in the phrase is wrong:
truth is the pondskater, labels
the rocks thrown — still except you pitch them. What art there is
is to make the truth look still
by the beauty of your label, of its arc, which
in the moment it misses close, has the skater
appear still, because the label in the moment of eclipse
takes your attention completely. Then that figuring
is not disfigurement. That he hasn’t striven to say clearly
his thoughts, whose difficulty seems in the work (prose, poem)
constructed element of its communication, rather
than the element communicated on account of construction
which it ingenuously is.
That this will take effect.
That it will affect you, or hold your eye.
That to think is to insist.
will make a novel; that she wasn’t
careless to fall.
(Those men are dead. Nothing to return them.)
To start —
What noise does the heart make?
Lubdup lubdup lubdup lubdup. Its fate
dumbly to incant.
I slept and slept.
That life is long. That life is brief.
That the scale of the earth
is graspable. Or to follow,
that space is. That livid pre-empting anger,
ever helps. That it was not your fault.
That in space everything is not dark
but floodlit; in deep space, the nearest star
a fading bulb,
ships would look like cities from the redeye.
The rant is lapidary.
That to bequeath is charity. That that
which we want there to be something more than
is not enough.
That sex is the orgasm, or church
for worship. That the blastocyst is alive
or dead, human or inhuman, sacred or a splat.
That Look after the pennies
and the pounds look after themselves
(other way round). That anyone
but you remembers your embarrassments.
That there is no noun
for the emotion gone through on seeing a sweet child
or animal: the feeling is love, but incipient
and instantly conjured, if not
instantly lost. (Is the wish to savour
innocence sinful?) That originality warrants
praise. Or that helicopters
may defeat locals in their own country.
That fantasies of parenthood are confined
to women. The notion of genius clings
is not fallacy, and well put. That the way is tried.
That coffee is not soluble ire.
That the lies we tell ourselves
I tell myself
are unnecessary. That you are listening or that I pray.
That the scary thing
is the puppetmaster, the devil overhead, not the millions
or thousands of us
jerking as he yanks. That I contradict myself
sustainably. That shtick doesn’t mar
most artists, or is not the commonest
reason for art’s failure. That suddenly
it goes cold. For thinking about the dead
is a way of thinking about death, and about
dying. That angels are commonly
apt synonymy (she sang like an angel)
if you have never seen one (well?) –
it’s merely that the word’s
beautiful. Like orchard.
Like sloe. Or you, aptly deployed.
That demons and vampires
and werewolves are not
people imagining other people.
is ever true. That the internet is full of porn
whose deliberate focus
(barely legal, schoolgirls, cheerleaders, teens)
on age is the calculated intervention of cigarsmoking
rottentoothed bad guys
in ivoried wheelchairs behind sequoiawood desks,
rather than blank betrayal of the substantial
market there is for pictures of naked lookalikes of your daughters’
and that paedophile hysteria isn’t one expression
of men’s guilt
for uncontrollable lust to force experience
on innocence and for hard revelry in the act of defilement
of innocence that wanted it.
That the Iraq War could’ve gone right
given the men who were in command and their reasons
for waging it. That ends are more
significant than middles; that Hollywood scripts
are more than devious or not so devious
exercises in excusemaking for spectacle: that this is a bad thing.
That sentimentality is popular because it is false.
That love is not knifesharp. That it can
silently be willed away.
Just to begin, that historians
are scholars of lost news.
That interpretation of art is not emotional response.
That any pear overseen to ripeness
when bitten will be ripe. That many films
are loved for much more than the beauty of their actors.
is not insult, nor ugliness pain.
If we are responsible for meaning and not for life
unless in conception,
that life has meaning, or that death
is the second mode of life, the off-switch, rather than the
condition of there being no choice and no switch.
Life is sensing things (over all oneself), and through this
knowing. The end of life is the state
of having lost all that. That poetry explains love.
That skill saves us, and
that ignorance is perturbable rather
than just malleable. That destruction is at all
contingent. That love and obsession are different, or labels
dissoluble from things they mark.
Here is an odd, half-year-old post on the great The Wire from the New York Times’ youngest op-ed man. Although Douthat shares with David Simon his evident sad anger at the fall of America’s (or Baltimore’s) printed journalism, it seems he doesn’t approve of how season 5 addresses it. Douthat would rather Simon had retreated in both emotional and narrative terms from the experience on which we know he drew in making the episodes. He wants the whole equation or a wholer one.
(Now there is a perplexity in that I cannot really tell from the post whether Douthat would prefer that such a retreat be in the service of jeremiad or of elegy. Does he want Simon gaily to talk up the branching fracture as if it were a matter of accident and quick setting, or to make broader an already sincere analysis, hairline crack at a time? This I will overlook.)
My rejoinder is simple. I don’t think realism works like that. Providing The Wire is realist and -istic art, to wish it would give a dissertation-strength retelling of the papers’ fall is to assume a theoretician’s role, as against that of the practising maker of television. Is it not obvious that representation has to compress? These are ancient trade-offs: the programme will gain in pungency what it loses in comprehensiveness; the chosen detail will stand for many but necessarily not most; the narrative will falsify, and falsify more at the margins, as it works the diffusion of life into a coherence that compels; and ethics, vitally a matter of case after individual case, of nuance and texture, as brought to bear upon a scenario prepared already and to other ends will seem less a set of principles behind
I agree that if you think there is a simple idea that difficult poets have wanted to express in difficult poetry, you’ll come away feeling thwarted. I agree that a sense of impenetrability is one major effect of Hill’s writing. Where I disagree is on the difficulty of gauging the value of the work and of its utterance. Only if we hold to a model of poetry as idea-bringing vehicle can we dismiss the impenetrability as a pseud’s disguise. (In the penetralia of the poem, there is some such idea as ‘Culture seeks to do away with classes’ lurking—or as ‘Poetry is the intellect’s fun’—and all one need do to grasp it in its simplicity is make a linear paraphrase of the statements of the poem: when this is not possible, the poem is empty, and bad.) The same is true of criticism: I feel that critic Mallory has lost the game, not having known that so vocally to withdraw was rather a concession than a neutral act. For of course Hill’s criticism is not criticism, it is critical writing — maximally charged with scholarship to do what scholarship doesn’t do. It is poetic. Its challenge is its operation on the reader, and its operation on the reader is to open up the way he reads the writers discussed, and any literature. Its impenetrability is its work.
But Mallory comes to the issue decided. His confidence in the possibility of knowing is great. ‘Criticism ought to be clear.’ Neither ambiguity nor poetry have places in it. I agree! Where a writer writes, though, in a genre offset, neither criticism nor poetry but ambiguously between, I cannot. I am glad that this critic was clear about what he thought he was dealing with. Coming to it bristling the defences of category and clarity, he misses what readier participation would have shown to be an utterance for which doubt and self-doubt are organs in a complex body of response. Assuming there can be complex ideas about literature, and that for such ideas to stay intact in utterance their faults and disjunctions should not be garbled into transitory completion but represented as they are, if Hill wants to be exact in doubt and in complexity he must accommodate as well the broken links as the lengths of chain: I argue that if one opens oneself to such possibilities, one finds the work of construing less the imposition of obscurantist bravado than a better way to learn, just as one finds the writing not to contain cellophaned a thesis that we accept or reject but to constitute an attempt at knowledge that we make as we interpret. The object of this impenetrability is not to be penetrated but to show what can be shown by the failure of that. It would be Mallory’s point, I suppose, that such is not a valid or worthwhile way to write. He could have argued this had he responded to the writing as though it were perplexed in good faith, not a cryptogram his failure to decipher which is evidence of ungenerous difficulty, where it was only evidence of his mistake: if you read a poem as though it were a crossword clue, you may well feel cheated, and especially if it is good.
Philistinism is always stubborn, said Geulincx. And I have distracted myself. I had meant to touch on value and its judgement. Hill’s poetry is sort of supposed to make you hate it. Hear the frustration in Webb’s remarks! Impenetrability is not a happy thing: perhaps you will return to the object of perplexity with a refuelled sureness, perhaps you will discard it with a plain man’s indifference or disgust. To say the perplexity is not genuine, though, one has to discount the effects it has even as unworked-at. The poetry has literary force beyond that attributable to a rhetorician; the effect is less in Hill’s prose but it exists; even Mallory admits to instances of power there. I would press the point in relation to Celan, too. This is a poet whom one cannot paraphrase but who is evidently not chuffing out nonsense, ornate and void. Could nonsense affect us so and drive us so to reread? By way of persuasion I offer these, written under Celan’s spell (I use the word in acknowledgement of Paterson’s having recourse in his important ‘The Lyric Principle’ to its cousin, ‘magic’, to characterise that in poetry which we cannot make explicit). They are meaningless pretty much, and though the reader may experience them as impenetrable, he should not be agitated to the work of penetration: they will not win his love.**
The rampart hundredth
silence each proximate,
small selvage in the frost of a fog
with the thunderlane
lit beforehand four ways:
journeyman with the compound eye: hey:
study the trails. The raindense shambles
In the snowmelt lido
the multistorey yawns.
Breaststroke, on the lift wheelhouse
I catch kick.
The cowlick cheddarorange
of her nod,
at the time
the Punch-puppet, greeting-parting, stood awake.
FACEDOWN, on the mall escalator:
below and above patrol
preoccupied sentries – that one
with the empty businesscard pocket
stretches and burns
his toolbelt, stretches and burns
Offwhite, the ovation felt,
you retreat into bloom.
Then gratitude, inaudible
as you sang, audible as you bow.
Intelligence – at the end of the graph –
Fooms unfriendly : like Voyager its line
Further and further to nothing;
Voyager accelerating still to void
With all humanity relics under sand.
(8) For Putnam
YOU, IN the stockroom, in the January sales,
muster together what you failed at,
muster it to hand –
hidden – on the hard-drive partition:
should the little dog search it,
after belief: revise the search terms.
The architect of the supplyhouse
had as impetus the accumulation of bodyfat
the patients of plastic surgeons, attractive,
had paid to shed:
in surplusing heaps it sat,
till the architect’s fee could be raised;
and he celebrate over four courses,
over bonbons relax his belt.
* It turns out that Craig Raine, Areté editor, rewrote or cowrote the piece.
** Two addenda.
That irreverence is not reverence
judiciously given out.
That the sea is anything other
than a massive, annihilating, alien context.
That consciousness is a small accident
preventing bliss. That the fallacies
do not write themselves. That to be haunted by certainty
is not insane. That joking is not in dead earnest.
That you understand, even, your own failure.
That there is a system for judging value,
or ideology, that is not drunken error.
That being fat
is any fun; sense common.
That filing is archival, not the architecture
of needed forgetting; of shedding; dead skin.
That justice must bring rest.
What, readers, does this mean?
‘The nebels burn.’
Fogs are reported.
Work of getting there under way.
The lights are vague.
The other is kissed and cherished.
The bed evokes her softness,
so sleep is loneliness.
The fogs are vague.
Philosophy can take you through,
has many ways to lose.
The other is unnavigable –
as is this weather.
Others are weather!
Poetry thinks we cannot die.
Therefore we can versify
fog to fog a way.
But fog is in our eyes.
My love in fog is safe:
here is her trace.
The work of getting away
was inward work, was talk.
Fog is its report.
(I warn, this is the bloggiest piece of writing I’ve ever posted here. I didn’t have the energy to twist and pose it into writing written. It is influenced by Empson and Yglesias and Brad DeLong.)
Considering an application for the Harper-Wood studentship, I thought I might submit my intimations of Celan, promising to make a book of them, if I can learn the language. But the terms of the studentship demanded that I lie (not its fault): one doesn’t need to travel abroad, really, to teach oneself or to be taught German, and the only relevant trip I could think of would have been to the death camps, which felt obscene and made vivid to me the obscenity of so trivial and lucky a person versioning the work of this poet. But I want eventually to have a book of them, the intimations, because behind versioning if not ambition is love. Celan has been well served by his translators into English (I disagree with Coetzee: Fairley, Hamburger and Joris are the best), but only the Hill of Tenebrae has made English poems of him. To do so requires a departure from the sense of the German, which is why I wouldn’t touch, say, the immediate ‘Todesfuge’: something about the work from Sprachgitter on, though, is in its idiosyncrasy suitable for free translation. If the poems work through effects, if they make their meanings in readerly time, then one valid mode of translation is certainly to try to get the effects right rather than the words. This is all necessary because Paul Celan is one of the best lyric poets. Somebody wrote of his Mandelstam that it was an act of possession, and Celan, for this reader, has had possessing power. I might have said ‘the best modern poets’, except ‘modern’ is vague and I haven’t read all the moderns, and I don’t know German, don’t forget. Why I’m not squeamish about the last disqualification is, no poet in translation has ever affected me like Celan has (across nearly all his translators). You will notice none of them is anything close to so important a poet in their own right. So the argument must be that Celan is better in German; I don’t know if this argument is sound (what have I overlooked?); but I can construe him in parallel texts and see where the poetry is that the English has lost, and that he is one of the best lyric poets. People like Heaney and Walcott, our current best of course, are nothings and nobodies beside him. (Again I say this out of love, and this is a way in which the history of poetry really is a running-race: Heaney hasn’t made me love him and Celan has. Read this. Celan gets a lot of his power from this unassimilable thing that ‘became true’ in the forties of the twentieth century; he is poetry’s south pole. But the poetry is not in the matter. There is Schindler’s List, then there is Atemwende. I now have a sort of loyalty to him that is I suppose irrational and is incredulous of critics like Clive James*, who waves away the corpus apart from ‘Todesfuge’ with complaints of obscurity, difficulty, whatever falls short of the scientific clarity we find consistently in Shakespeare.) For the moment let’s agree that standard ambiguity is the same words meaning two true, maybe contradictory things. Celan’s ambiguity is different: he will tend to write two contradictory things that are true or false. In Fadensonnen he writes:
die kleine Gauklerpredigt der Stille.
Es ist, als könntest du hören,
als liebt ich dich noch.
(I was going to ‘do a reading’ of this poem but the idea reminded me of one of my own bad lines, ‘A shimmer I had tactics to pin down’. Mr James don’t you see how the avoidance of explicitness is here at work, is not the foggy refuge of a ruined man? Here I don’t want reportorial clarity on what’s ‘going on’.) To this end we may mistranslate the insistence to Hamburger which is wonderfully suggestive of an honest unawareness of how people would in practice read him: ‘ganz und gar nicht hermetisch’. Celan is hermetic wholly and not at all.
For Though We Fell
Eloquent of carnage and denial,
behind-beyond the Soul
‘Nowhere to fall from.’
I came across an etymology of ‘Seine’ that suggested it meant ‘the gentle one’ and I thought that quite Celanian, given his death. But Wikipedia says it doesn’t mean ‘gentle one’, it means ‘sacred river’—probably. This mistaking and uncertainty and the circle of it is all the more Celanian, I feel. I will quote with many before me Karl Kraus: ‘My language is the common prostitute that I turn into a virgin.’ This is often how writers—Dryden for example—think. Celan turned the whore of Endlösung into a purity his own, and deflowered it again.
The literality is all there somewhere.
One can’t just write, smack and go on.
She is a mess you make and she
Calls for versification.
Write theology of her but ignore the stars
Turning out all the time in poetry.
The literality is all here somewhere.
I couldn’t do a smack just at Empson.
I don’t usually post up poems I’m happy with and this is no different. The occasion seemed good though because I have a companion-piece in the form of some notes on Milton transcribed from a Paperblanks. The two bomblets might just make a blam.
i. m. John Milton
The magictrick we call the ‘full vole’, it enlists
the gluteal through the heart muscles to fold
disappearance and appearance tall in twists,
so you applaud yourself for managing to hold
in you the knowledge of what’s there; feel ashamed
for making it appear, and knowledge and magician disappear:
A magictrick they call the ‘full vole’, it persists
well into the year, or while a batch of cysts
millimetres each and Sundays old
disrupts results the radiologist sold:
‘Bad news and good.’ Persists; half in thanking named:
you for no difficult trick were taken volunteer.
(Not happy: I cannot get the ending right.)
You make a theodicy for comfort, on the assumption of discomfort. Theodicies by definition recognise that theodicies are impossible, and evil is unjustifiable.
Milton’s argument for God’s existence (in DDC) was that without him the world would be evil, therefore God exists! It’s only good if it was created with knowledge that all the evil that proves the creator’s existence would occur!
I want to say: ‘the problem of evil’ so theodicies take evil to disturb our faith. But we believe because of evil—to give it fatherly, orderly sanction, to bring it to the realms of law and logic, to reduce the cost of sadness; say of beareavement. The motion of belief is theodical, but theodicies are always theisms in disguise. (And always incomplete?) And the motion is finally circular: [are we looking for religion to assuage us or merely to justify itself, to reassert its self-consistency or to comfort? are they the same?] should a theodicy complete itself in a mind and justify evil as well as theism, and should evil then happen as it must, the justification is revealed as incomplete and must be rebuilt in a process that as much forgets evil as justifies it. [This is what Danielson would call ‘faculty psychology’. Not that we should trust Danielson.] (We may end up thanking the good God acquitted of evil for the fact the evil was not worse.) We need the process of theodicy because the perfect theodicy is impossible: theodicies only exist because they cannot exist. The irony of a making good of evil the determinant of whose manufacture (and relevance) is evil reflects that of a God created in part to explain and lenify evil, the terms of whose ‘presence’ inaugurate a need to justify evil, to explain and to lenify—as it were, stimulates theodical demand. Religion in the present in the world is never dogma (unless co-opted as the philosophy of an authority) but constitutes a dialectic between world and mind, chaos and reason, whereby faith waxes as the world is most conformable to mind, easiest for intuition to make sense of, and wanes when randomness irrupts, whence the mind retreats to itself to rerationalise and wait for emotions to pass and for things to mean-revert. Imagination watches itself vindicated and faith is sprucer for having survived, till the next test.
The trick, then, is the magic.
But I can’t say.
Caesar inspired Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, a poem told by five voices, and throughout it is marked by heterogeneity of discourse important (I speculate) to represent in small the rich breadth of historical experience. History’s people were of course as diverse as today’s, but dramatic portrayal tends to shrink them as allegorical walnut, leeching individuality for compression’s sake. Thus, in obviation, Shakespeare heterogenises his characters’ language by subtle inflecting of syntax and lexis. To say so is nothing new, but my argument, in trying to differentiate itself from previous, should modify slightly the sense of ‘heterogeneity’. Shakespeare’s ‘heterogeneity’ is not just ‘variety’, not just ‘dissimilarity’. Shakespeare forges difference by recognition of sameness; in each heterogeneous discourse are incorporated elements of parity with others, so as greater to realise the truth of heterogeneity, which is that things differ in the ways they are the same. You could colloquially say this is like ‘sleeping with the enemy’. Once you’ve understood that sameness must be the bass note of difference, as dramatist you’re well on the way to characters vitally, rather than irritably (or indeed mechanically), heterogeneous. And vitality lasts.
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way,
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.
Draw them to the Tiber banks, and weep your tears
Into the channel, till the lowest stream
Do kiss the most exalted shores of all.
They vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness.
These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch
Who else would soar above the view of men,
And keep us all in servile fearfulness.
These tribunes of the play’s first scene might be assumed twins in language, but such is Shakespeare’s historical sensitivity that he heterogenises even trivial roles, like a hendiadys. Their principal similarity is of political rhetoric—bombastic, grandstanding, rather theatrically redolent of apocalypse. But they differ here too. For where Flavius inflates his rhetoric with grandiose, fantastical imagery, Murellus is calmer measured, keeping to simpler, earthbound tropes; even when invoking god his language stays in realms of tangible consequence. We see the tribunes fall back on similar images of the river (Murellus’ Tiber trembles; Flavius’ floods) but, because they are not identical twins but friends, Shakespeare filters each image through a heterogeneous conception of mind: Flavius’ ‘exalted shores’ are kissed by streams, where Murellus’ ‘concave shores’ hear the replication of ‘an universal shout’. Flavius’ ‘tongue-tied’ quite histrionically, with rhetor’s hyperbole, ‘vanish’. ‘cull out’, a Murellian verb form, is wholly unhistrionic, like his soldierly ‘comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood’, describing Caesar, where Flavius swells, ‘Who else would soar above the views of men, / And keep us all in servile fearfulness.’ The most evocative word Murellus can think of to end on is ‘ingratitude’. I’d hazard ‘Let no images / Be hung with Caesar’s trophies’ is his philosophy—though spoken by Flavius, his heterogeneous counterpart. To end glibly myself, on a soundbite (as if there were better ways to end): Shakespeare’s heterogeneity of history is more mellow fruitfulness than season of mists.
If God is infinite where is evil but in God?
What is will if the choice is rigged?
Since before he’d created us he’d created us
he knew his creatures would freely choose to eat.
‘All-good’ by God’s standard of good?
He chose to set a test he knew we’d fail.
History to him is a static image:
results of a game whose rules you guess.
We should obey what our free will to determine
determines the scripture enjoins we obey.
You discuss God as though a person
by turns, by turns as impenetrable cloud;
by virtue, always, of election to interpret
a book where all is implicit.
You fatten on things you learn:
under trial of things you play in thoughts.
These actually originate in notes to Part V of Christopher Hill. The epigraph is Wallace, almost.
Prices are low because spirits are, to make them high again we have to raise spirits by raising prices.
The bankers lost all our money buying worthless things for trillions, so the economy's shrinking and we're all upset. To fix the problem we as a state have to borrow our future money (and print money) to give the banks (and to ourselves directly) so we don't lose all our money and so we exchange it with one another. We can afford to borrow our future money because in the future the economy will be growing, so we will have more money, because we will have exchanged with one another our future money, therefore will be happy.
When because we're feeling better we have money again, we will all feel better, perhaps as good as before, when we felt so good we lost our money, and became sad.
That I have time to walk
across the crop stair,
that I have time, into your sleep
to walk the sleepscree,
time to cut grass
low on the lands of the heart,
YOU WERE my life:
you I could let go of
when everything swam here
AT THE rained-on waymark
little silence soapbox-hoarse:
as if you’d remembered,
as if I knew that you had
I write with regard to William Logan’s letter of Vol. 193.3, and with no stake in the controversy, since I have never seriously read Hart Crane. In fact I found the letter accidentally—I was browsing the magazine shelves—and without the internet would not have seen the writings of which it argues in defence.
The letter, it seems to me, confirms Marjorie Perloff’s accusation that ‘Logan’s method consists of giving a few quotes […] and then declaring the poem in question a “dreadful mess.”’ I thought I should communicate my reasons for this judgement.
Logan takes fragments on Crane’s poetry and applies to them adjectives of disapproval: he does not make arguments for his descriptions’ validity. Here is an example, a random one from Adam Kirsch (The Modern Element, pp. 162–3), of argued evaluation. Kirsch quotes Anthony Hecht in ‘The Man Who Married Magdalene’:
I have been in this bar
For close to seven days.
The dark girl over there,
For a modest dollar, lays.
And you can get a blow-job
Where other men have pissed
In the little room that’s sacred
To the Evangelist.
While there is a moment of genuine scabrousness in these lines—the fleeting suggestion that the prostitute’s mouth is ‘where other men have pissed’—the poem’s other elements work against the potential shock. There is the odd use of the word ‘lays’, which is usually not transitive; there is the far-fetched joke about the Evangelist (the ‘John’). These things conspire to separate the author of the poem—ill at ease with slang, but familiar with the Bible—from its degraded speaker.
Note that Kirsch explains his description ‘odd’ by reference to grammar.
Logan refuses so to argue. Instead part of ‘Chaplinesque’ is ‘hapless and tone deaf’ and other parts are ‘schmaltz’. The Bridge’s ‘Proem’ is ‘stuffed with excesses of detail’: ‘inviolate’ is ‘religious’ (Logan dislikes it), ‘flailing’ is ‘empty rhetoric’ (if it is empty, is it ‘detail’ too?), ‘silver-paced’ is over-rich, ‘shrill’ and ‘cloud-flown’ are ‘melodrama’, ‘speechless’ falsely pious and ‘A jest falls from the speechless caravan’ ‘slightly nonsensical’; ‘scuttle’ and ‘white rings of tumult’ are overegged, ‘rip-tooth’ and ‘acetylene’ exaggerated and ‘bedlamite’ ‘wretched’.
In the following paragraph, Crane’s ‘Dirigible’ is an ‘ungainly symbol’, ‘ludicrously addressed’. The words of this description (‘Cetus-like’ etc.) are not ‘exactly’ ‘obscure’, but are ‘childish and extravagant’ ‘rhetoric’ and ‘romantic goofiness’. Logan finishes with the news that—where before he did ‘like’ ‘chained bay waters’—he is ‘not even keen’ on Crane’s symbol of the bridge. No justification for either feeling is attempted.
The objection is twofold. One, Logan never argues the case for an adjective’s relation to a phrase: he just puts them in apposition. The result is that we could swap them around without much damage to his sense. We could even apply them to his own writing. (What if I said that ‘stuffed’ is over-rich rhetoric, or that ‘wretched’ is a false exaggeration?) Two, Logan never argues why the fact an adjective is, say, religious, means it is excess, or why any of these overeggings and exaggerations (which redundantly-varied terms beg his question) are in excess. There is no argument for his ‘stuffed with […] excesses’ point, only, in proximity, assertion, quotation and namecalling. A single Kirsch-like explanation would have been worth the whole list; indeed, to humiliate me here, all that Logan needs to do is provide one.
Logan may be right that ‘Criticism is the exercise of taste under the guise of objectivity’ (his response to Crane is certainly that of a critic-poet, and betrays experience with a poet’s drafting-process in its inexplicitly reasoned, aestheticised elections and rejections). The performance of this letter shows that, in shucking off this guise, Logan has forgone the task of persuasion. Logan is thereby ‘solipsistic’ in the word’s weakened sense.
Two further points. Logan should know that when he states, ‘I could not find that two critics I admire, Christopher Ricks and Geoffrey Hill, had written much or anything about Crane’, this can prove nothing, as it would prove nothing for me to state that, although I am a fascinated reader of Hill, I do not understand his poem well enough to extract an opinion from it or to know that ‘you screwed us’ is not a speaker’s phrase. I could quote in turn another phrase, one that seems to say that Crane is a ‘prodigal who reclaimed us’, with as much justice.
Last, Logan’s moralising Wintersian subtext should not go without exposure. He says: ‘Crane was the architect of his own grand disaster. The disaster of the life didn’t ennoble the art—it was responsible for the failure of the art.’ The question is, could no ‘disaster of the life’ (as Logan, under or out of ‘the guise of objectivity’, defines it) have been ‘responsible for the’ success ‘of the art’ (as Logan, out of ‘the guise of objectivity’, defines it)? The answer is unknowable: ‘disaster’ could have been a condition of the art’s possibility; it could, success or failure, have fed it. To me, it’s evident that Logan is reasoning, whether or not he realises, from a general premise of something like this form: ‘Unvoracious sexual appetites, no self-indulgence, no alcoholism and no mental illness—plus maybe decongestants—are generally “responsible for” success “of the art”; that is success in art.’ It remains only to wonder, recognising duly and again that Logan is a poet and critic, whether this formula for success is that of Logan himself.
Ps. Two relevant links.