Ross Douthat Is Wrong and Right

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 articulation (of applicability as manifold as there are minds to imagine them) than the instrument of a streamlining, oligarchic or unitary intelligence. The trade-off in art is between fact and value, roughly: the cited intelligence has to decide which bits of irreducible reality to cast off or underplay in shaping an efficient vector of delivery to scarce attention. Accordingly as it has a dogma it wants to push — and Douthat I venture is adumbrating that Simon does — it will shift emphasis between the value-informed, hierarchic sorting of reality and the value-determined, aesthetic shaping of the results: that is, a dogmatic writer will not pay to elisions of fact his critical due, being glad of his settled outlook, and where the less dogmatic writer prunes conscientiously he will present arrestingly the facts he got going with. Douthat’s criticism falters on this ground. Where he claims to want, so to speak, rather landscape than portrait footage, he shows his dissatisfaction with the sector of the landscape Simon chose to magnify as a representative one. But in his turn Simon believed this story that ‘really happened’ was a representative story — for one thing, I’d guess, for the resonance of its detail with the theme of lies and their prestige. In gesturing to the false exit of a realism that is not art, Douthat betrays the art of his own commentary, which has been to shape an inadequate aesthetics into a determining frame. Simon’s priorities in season 5 of The Wire may well be clear, but in criticising the work in formal terms the critic must say how he believes an alternatively trimmed reality that he should specify would have represented better the less trimmed reality we can sometimes force ourselves to see; in so doing, it is true, he will have fumbled the way to a thicket where it becomes apparent that the variability of ‘priorities’ from person to person is a stiffer problem that it had seemed in the commentator’s repose: nevertheless these are the terms that he set for himself. The exercise would certainly not be futile. It might in fact constitute what Geoffrey Hill has called, in different context, an ‘exemplary failure’. For by that fumbling Douthat could, would have to, submit his ‘conservative’ premises to the same new reconnaissance and testing against fact to which Simon had to submit his, of whatever variant of liberalism, when he showed with such ruthless clarity — this clarity enmeshed of course with a sentimentality that compensates for and fuels it — the death of a thing he loved.


Dielectric material

Hier levitiert
der Schwerste.

Poetry is the intellects fun, wrote Scaliger. People often say that it is difficult. This is true: some poems are difficult, as are some novels and some experiences. With this I have no problem. But when people suggest that a poem’s difficulty is like an elaborate cloak hung to conceal a simple frame, I am disconcerted. Daniel Mallory in his review* of Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Critical Writings quotes a film historian: ‘Perhaps [Bob Dylan’s] genius is to take simple ideas and make them impenetrable’, and one of his suggestions is that perhaps this is, in the critical writings at least, Geoffrey Hill’s. Robert Webb in The Sunday Times is less ready to conclude: ‘At A-level, we studied Geoffrey Hill, who nearly put me off poetry altogether. I found him totally and utterly impenetrable. I’m sure he’s doing something wonderful, but I still can’t see it or be bothered to expend the effort to find out what it is.’ We need to hear the ‘I’m sure’ to be sure it is a scoff. Nevertheless the admission of bother withheld and effort unexpended is to be praised. Note too his word is the same. The title of Mallory’s piece is ‘Geoffrey Hill: Impenetrable Critic’. So the man is difficult of penetration, to the point where many quit.

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

Caveated frontispiece
with the thunderlane
lit beforehand four ways:

journeyman with the compound eye: hey:
study the trails. The raindense shambles
sing funereal the offices of parenthood.

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.

(7) AI
Intelligence – at the end of the graph –
Fooms unfriendly : like Voyager its line
Carrying Bach
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,
find belief
after belief: revise the search terms.

(9) Gallerte

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.


Pluto & Bluto present …

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 does this mean?

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.


Celan a note

(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
witness breathes:
‘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.

* ‘Number Me Among the Almonds’, Poetry, vol. 189, February 2007, p. 392.


Homage in Irish Rhyme

Stars turning up all the time in poetry.
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.