magical moments in literature
This essay is in build. It'll go on Intercapillary Space when it's finished.
OK, it's my mission to dash something off for Intercapillary Space, but what about? Let's check out what's in my backpack.
Edward Thomas, Werner Aspenström, William Shakespeare... hmm, it's not quite what I'm looking for.
Try another pocket. Tim Allen's Default Soul. Well that's more like it, but people are going to be fed up with me writing about Tim Allen. Anyhow, that's where we'll begin.
Default Soul (Red Ceilings Press, 2014) contains 44 poems that are all in the same format (three four-line stanzas). "Stanzas" is quite a misleading term here, but at least you'll understand what the poems look like.
The end-paper says that it's the first of a trilogy of such books, and I hope that turns out to be true, because of all the various Tim Allen books I've read I think this is the most imaginatively intense.
It's a small pamphlet and a very good thing to carry around in a pocket because you don't need to read much to get a hit off it. Each poem consists of 12 sort-of-jokes. They interact in a mainly subliminal way. If I claimed that I'd laughed out loud a few times, you'd think that I'm lying, but anyway I've definitely chuckled. I think one of the lines was
chilly on the terrace even in the cubby hole
When something's a limited edition of 35 copies it seems ridiculous to call it popular poetry, but it kind of is. If you can imagine one of those comic compilations of amusing or wacky newspaper headlines, then that's not too far away from what you've got here,
physicist's life is in ruins he insists
Or, "Tutankhamun's beard glued back on, say Egyptian museum conservators". Oh no, that one's real. But back to Tim's physicist. It starts as a joke, but it doesn't end there, because this is poetry. After the chuckle, the analysis: Why is this funny? Something about the unfettered emotionalism of "my life is in ruins" in absurd contrast to the way we expect a physicist to talk. And what does that expectation say about science, and about us?
Another thing that often comes to mind is the clues in a cryptic crossword. It's to do with the lack of articles and the replacement of names by categories.
young man blinks as old writer decomposesor
bird in highest tree is singing the lowest noteor
church porch quite possible without a church
Next time round he should supply the grid.
Then there are fragments.
the handrail is a Letraset bird of prey
That makes perfect sense if you assume that it's a fragment, and is missing the opening word "On". So why miss it out, then? I don't really know, but it isn't just to create a gratuitous difficulty. Compare this by Andrea Brady:
the sheep's skull must have cracked
when it plunged onto the strand from the pasture. (from "Table Talk")
That's a neat way of telling us that a sheep fell off a cliff but without mentioning the cliff. Again, not gratuitous difficulty. Somehow the process of working this out produces a kind of delight that isn't separable from the enhanced vividness that comes from perceiving something that you haven't simply been told.
This sort of delight is not what Brady's poems usually do. Highlighting it might be a false beginning.
Anyway, back to Allen. Put together these one-liners into quatrains and you end up with something a good deal more complicated:
audience of monsters and proud star gazers
judge retires to a convent to shave
cannibals in the attire of anyone called Rousseau
devastating poverty blights your first day
seabirds potter in their pyjamas
beach debris desert boy makes premier soaps
glyptic holy girl calculating grotto's dimensions
summer hols summary has a cold conviction
I can't resist laying this side to side with another teasing quatrain poem, J.H. Prynne's STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE ARTESIAN (Barque, 2009):
Cursive slow dropper forbear manipulated order to
save them allusive eat till suited, offering help
them single them fairly wit tackle. Into wicket
fainting team alloy white iron bait, aril did them
Claimant at first. Getting them out to margin few
to allow by pair iridescence gain the hold step,
strim loose panic back go slant copy as broken out
for them this counter waveform, less same fusion
I don't want to pre-empt what conclusions you might want to draw from this juxtaposition. But, in a general way, the difference strikes me this way. Allen's poetical challenge is the world-as-experienced; how to get it in to poetry, which is always resisting it. That's the challenge in itself, and it's challenge enough. But I conceive Prynne's poetry as more sceptical about the coherence of the world-as-experienced; he aspires to get beneath that illusion and to tinker with the workings. In that respect I see Prynne's enterprise as grandly romantic in a way that Allen's is not.
Robert Potts: "One yearns for a reading – academic or otherwise – that would start to explain Her Weasels Wild Returning(1994) or the impenetrable STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE~~~ARTESIAN (2009)".
Streak Willing is an easy text in some ways. Most people will agree that the six stanzas on each page represent a discrete poem, a supposition confirmed by each sixth stanza ending in a full stop, which none of the others do. And it's quite easy to identify themes within each poem, so we can give the twelve poems working titles, like this.
1. closed box
2. broken / fragment
3. water / margin
5. enamel / bitten
6. would / eye / wood cut
9. rapid / soon
11. At for was.
12. some / same /ours
Other minutiae to ponder: 1. Each stanza begins with a capital letter which, except for the first in each poem, is purely metrical. 2. The poems contain few articles, but each has at least one (in Poem 10, "the" arrives only in the last line; Poem 11 has only "a"s). 3. The lines get gradually longer, so poem 1 averages about 12 syllables a line, but poem 12 averages about 16. 4. The poems are lyrical. The most basic lyrical word of all - "oh" - appears in poems 1,2,3,6,8 and 11. The word "how" is also prominent and I think usually ejaculatory. Besides a surprising amount of emotive, even anguished, language. 5. "At" is a basic word in Prynne's poems and is prominent here. 6. But the key word here is "same", which appears multiple times in every poem, and with special emphasis in the last. It seems to be linked to both "some" and "shame", also to the first syllables of "summary", "summons", "summer" "salmon", "simulate", "simper" etc.) 7. Following on from that observation, it's clear that the sound of words, or the sound of bits of words, may be a decisive factor in the patterning. Consider the "-ic" suffix that shows up in Poem 1 as "civic.. Tantric.. Galvanic.." Poem 9 plays a game with "-ic" and "x": "relics", "pernix", "proximal", "exit", "phalanx", "ethic", "ferric", "synthetic", "Suffix", "metric", "traffic". The closer you read, the more of such games you'll see. 8. The word "graven" appears in Poems 3 and 4, "limit" in 7 and 9, "livid" in 1 and 5, "defect" in 4 and 11, "metric" in 5 and 9.
John Armstrong has written numerous posts on the sequence. His key contention is that it refers to The Troubles and more specifically the blanket protest and hunger strike at the Maze Prison in 1980-81. This contention mainly took shape in these two early posts.
As an idea I think it has quite a lot to be said for it. (I also think I've discerned other references to the hunger strike than those mentioned by John, though now I can't find them again.)
But ultimately my view is that associating Prynne's poem with a single historical locus isn't right. To put it crudely, the striking differentness of Prynne's approach (so demanding to write, and so demanding to read) couldn't really be excused if all that lies behind it is merely an engagement with a single piece of history. My belief is that Streak Willing is a polysemous poem; it isn't about Long Kesh and Bobby Sands in the same sort of way that Richard Hamilton's The citizen and Steve McQueen's Hunger are. Prynne's text can interconnect many things. For example, Poem 4, the "hunger" poem, uses the word "trucial", which in a single word directs us to the astonishing transformation of life in the southern Arabian peninsula that came with the discovery of oil; the auto-destruction of the Bedu way of life; the uncorrupt hungers and thirsts of the desert, as poignantly hymned by Wilfred Thesiger in Arabian Sands, inevitably replaced by the desalinated water and green villas of Abu Dhabi. But I wouldn't want to argue that this, either, is the true hidden theme of Prynne's poem. I believe the text is a honeycomb of larger ideas that permits a searching meditation on the basic roots of our capitalist civilization, and it partly does what it does by glancing at multiple loci. But it's only a working hypothesis, and there's a greater element of faith in it than I'd wish.
A years after Streak Willing was published, Andrea Brady said: " I have profound misgivings about the political methods of Prynne’s late poetry". I'm taking that out of its context, which certainly wasn't the right moment to expand on that remark. Still, it was an interesting one. "Political methods" - not political views, not poetical methods. Where is that going?
OK. Andrea Brady, Cut From The Rushes (Reality Street Editions,2013).
I need help with reading Brady. Fortunately there's some genuinely helpful stuff around on the internet.
The most searching piece is by Marianne Morris and was printed in Jacket in 2006. This deals with Embrace, which is the first half of the current volume but came out separately in 2005.