Wednesday, August 31, 2011

dale farm, basildon

Is it right that people should be evicted from land they own

because there is no permission to live on it?

- after all, it was a car scrapyard.

Planning refused because it's a green belt. Excuse me? the preservation of pristine greenery? In Basildon? In a scrapyard?? Not to mention, next door to a legal site?

Planning is a tool to implement social control

i.e. a weapon against difference.

"Planning Law is the same for everyone", they say in justification, proposing an argument of equity: it's only fair, we all have to suffer the same restriction of liberty. But that's a meretricious argument. The self-righteous oppressors and their supporters do not want to live on pitches in scrapyards. This equitable law is a way of legitimizing some lifestyles while making others illegal.

That's why The Times (Leader, 14th Sept 2011) in claiming that "the best protection for ethnic minorities is the rule of law", then has no explanation for why, on the contrary, so many communities routinely set out to live invisibly to executors of the law of the land.

Tim Black argues that the focus should be on ridiculous planning law, not on victimization of traveller communities. I have sympathy for his view. To focus on the ruling itself being absurd and indefensible is (was?) the best chance of overturning it.

And to accuse the councillors themselves of being prejudiced against travellers is to move away from the overt wrong to an ungracious guess about the inferred motivation. Maybe.

But at the same time, prejudice against travellers is hardly irrelevant to this debate. As always, the Daily Telegraph provides a rallying ground, if you want to witness that prejudice in full cry.

Ones does not need to be personally prejudiced to be swayed by the existence of prejudice, not when it comes to decisions in which the public take an interest.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


to a couple of poems by Lee Lally that took me by surprise today.

Another link that I clicked on from Mark Scroggins' Culture Industry took me to the Library Edition of Ruskin's Works. Ah Time, time! But this being the modern world, I've read only one page, the first poem, Ruskin's lament for missing out on a Lake District trip in his 14th year.


I WEARY for the torrent leaping
From off the scar’s rough crest;
My muse is on the mountain sleeping,
My harp is sunk to rest.

I weary for the fountain foaming,
For shady holm and hill;
My mind is on the mountain roaming,
My spirit’s voice is still.

I weary for the woodland brook
That wanders through the vale;
I weary for the heights that look
Adown upon the dale.

The crags are lone on Coniston,
And Loweswater’s dell;
And dreary on the mighty one,
The cloud-enwreathed Scawfell.

I had not realized he was such a Lake District fan.

According to the editor, the second line of the last stanza was originally "And Glaramara's dell". Now that makes a lot of sense, referring to Combe Gill, the hanging valley which is indeed thick with lone crags. Besides, Glaramara is geographically very close to Scawfell and Coniston.

The reference to Loweswater, found in the 1850 edition but not in the MS, is harder to explain. By Lake District standards it is not a very craggy place. It also doesn't scan, though it's a metrical irregularity with quite a conventional tune and might perhaps have seemed attractively acceptable even in 1850.

Monday, August 22, 2011


lying down in the sun
beneath rubble
half-bricks, tarmac biscuits
purple butterflies at the armpits
deliquescent macaroni in the prostate
lungs amazed by the film forming
sand under the piles, creeks;
everything swallowed and turned outward.

Strewn along the ground in the sun
is the print of a cloud.
saucers, shards, tiles, grains of
burst glass,
steel-capped boot of a sunbather breathing dust.

it came over me that there is corruption
it came over me that there was corruption
pleased with fancy words
I talk of me not "us"
rhinestone jackets
an ash-wave flung into the sea and bobbing back
a wave in which suspends
baby shoes, stink jelly, wrinkled hose


Monday, August 15, 2011

lit ephem aug

[This surprisingly fertile gallimaufrey post eventually spawned three separate essays that all subsequently appeared on Intercapillary Space. I've moved two of them (because it's a pain to have to make corrections in two different places), but I'm keeping the first one here as well, because it seemed to be indissolubly part of this blog.]


[The master-copy of this piece has now moved to Intercapillary Space. It probably won't change all that much, and I'm leaving it here too.]

This is a piece that is partly about the Swedish poets Harry Martinson and Karin Boye. It's also partly about Trientalis europaea. I suppose I ought to call it "On Chickweed Wintergreen", but, more pickiness, I don't like titles that begin with "On".

Robin Fulton's new translation of Martinson is called: Chickweed Wintergreen: Selected Poems. (It's a bit unfortunate that though this essay owes so much to Fulton's book I'm not really going to be writing about it or even quoting it, but it's a pretty absorbing book, that is, if you feel interested in Swedish working-class sailor-poets who write about nature and space travel. Let's hope that, with Tranströmer being awarded the Nobel Prize, Fulton is posting some healthy figures elsewhere.)

Chickweed Wintergreen is one of those translation-titles, like Scott Moncrieff's Remembrance of Things Past, that proclaims a certain robust independence from its source-text. Yes, there is a poem in the book that is titled "Chickweed Wintergreen", and yes, this is a translation of a poem by Martinson that is titled "Duvkullorna", which is one of the Swedish names for the species of plant (Trientalis europaea) that in English is named "Chickweed Wintergreen". But flower-names, espcially within poetry, are about a lot more than denoting a species. Rarely are they merely a word, such as "tulip". The metaphors within them, usually, are far from buried. Most names are, or seem to be, wholly or somewhat descriptive. "Chickweed Wintergreen" being a case in point: great name for a book: zany, fresh and popping with images.

But this is an effect that owes little to Harry Martinson. The title strikes the imaginative reader precisely because, in Britain, the plant is not very well-known. The sad truth is, Trientalis europaea has always been too scarce to make much impression on UK culture. Quite why that is, isn't altogether clear. There seems to be plenty of the kind of thing that it likes (moss, moor, open pinewoods), yet it's always rare in England (the north, E. Suffolk), and only locally common even in Scotland.

Which explains the background to the English name "Chickweed Wintergreen", not exactly an academic name but clearly a plant-hunter's name rather than a traditional folk name (the oldest OED reference is 1760).

Imagine the scene: intrepid botanist wandering through an ancient Scottish pinewood, around midsummer; a place distinguished by members of the wintergreen family (Pyrola, generally rather local in Britain); botanist suddenly notices some leaves that seem a bit similar (i.e. oval-ish) but, behold, there's a flower on top that looks totally unlike Pyrola, but does look a bit like a chickweed (Stellaria). That, or something like it, must be how the name arose. I mean, taking into consideration that not only is the plant unrelated to either chickweeds or wintergreens, but it isn't eaten by chickens and it isn't green in winter!

Well, this is Martinson's little poem, which was published in the collection Passad (Trade Wind) in 1945.


Skogsstjärnorna frodas aldrig.
De bara reder sig
med karg nätthet i mossan.

De är spensliga,
men veta ingenting om den söta vekhet
    du vill tillskylla sommaren.
Det spensligas bestämdhet
är inte mindre än ekens.

              THE DOVEFLOWERS

              The Woodland Stars never luxuriate.
              They just manage
              with sparse elegance among the mosses.

              They are slight,
              but they know nothing about the tender softness
                   you associate with summer.
              The determination of the slight
              is not less than the oak's.

I am not one of those who believe that poems don't state things; I think it's more interesting to see poems as principally statements, though sometimes rather complicated ones. Accordingly, I'm going to begin with the plant. In Sweden, it's common everywhere except in the far south, though (as Martinson points out) not luxuriant. It's a matter of a single plant here and there, growing among other species on the forest floor. Here it is:

Photo copyright Kristian Svensson, but I don't know how to contact him for permission!

It's one of those plants that doesn't exactly shout to us (small white flowers usually don't), but once it's noticed it's quietly striking. Along with Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), it was a favourite of Linnaeus. In Flora Lapponica (1737) he wrote: "I don't know any other flower whose grace so fascinates the eye; the spectator becomes almost bewitched! Maybe this is due to symmetry, the mother of all beauty."

Maybe. There are certainly two features that attract attention: one is the curious whorl of differently-sized leaves: a sort of assymetric symmetry, I suppose. The other is the flower itself, partly because there's usually only one flower, and partly because although the number of petals varies the favoured number is seven, which is uncommon to say the least. (The Icelandic name Sjöstjarna and the Dutch name Zevenster both refer to this.)

Martinson doesn't say anything about these features: he relies on the reader to do most of the evoking. All he tells us by way of description is that the plant is "spenslig" (slight, or slender), and this stands in for all the rest. Of course there are a great many plants that could reasonably be called slight, at least in comparison to oak trees, but perhaps there is a particular appropriateness in applying it to this one, where it glances both at the parsimonious production of flowers and at the plant's tendency to appear as isolated individuals rather than profuse stands.

In fact, these plants are not really isolated individuals. They are connected, beneath the woodland surface, by long lateral growths that throw up superterranean extrusions at rather lengthy intervals. That is the main way that Trientalis europaea spreads (or should I specify, the DNA of T. europaea): it puts most of its energy into securing its presence in a good habitat, and not much of its energy into the chancy business of colonizing new sites; few flowers, and even fewer seeds. Hence it never turns up in new woodland, but is a reliable indicator of old woodland. "A good competitor, but a poor colonist," comments the BRC on-line atlas.

Martinson has the reputation of being a poet who grasped science, and I suppose this poem confirms that. When he says:

The determination of the slight / is not less than the oak's

he is not only right about the specific case of Trientalis europaea, though that's still worth emphasizing. Modest and isolated as the plant appears in a European context, it is certainly a successful species, with a circumpolar distribution through the boreal regions of the Old World, and also in Western North America (in the east, it is replaced by the related T. borealis). But the general case applies too. Perhaps he had heard of the Dane Wilhelm Johannsen's genotype-phenotype distinction (1911), which has proved such a fertile ground for later writers. Perhaps his conclusion also amounts to a recognition that determination is the preserve of the genotype, and the success of a genotype has nothing to do with whether its phenotype happens to be an impressively mighty oak or some unattended unicellular organism, a reflection that will be commonplace to readers of e.g. Richard Dawkins.

Nevertheless, the poem does not quite come to rest on this scientific meditation. After all, taken at that level of generality the human connotations of "spenslig" / "slight" lose their validity altogether. But the poem clings on to them: great determination there must be, but the slightness is not dispensed with. It becomes a defining quality of the particular determination with which the poem is concerned: it intends to praise slightness. It's time to think about the context of the poem.

Like many of Martinson's nature poems, it appears at first glance to contain no human context whatever: there are no figures in the landscape, it is alienated from human concerns. And that is intentionally a challenge; an assertion that nature cannot be known if framed or tamed by the quotidian and human. This is a game that Martinson played from the off. Coming to poetry after a youth on the oceans, he repeatedly brought his public up against the realization that he was no stay-at-home, that he had un-domestic experience that his readers didn't share with him: for example in the famous poem that begins "Have you seen a steam collier" (1929) - he means, after a storm at sea - and draws all its energy from the unmistakable implication: No you haven't, but you know that I have. "Home Village" (1931) had framed the "silent lie" of tranquil village life through the eyes of one returning from "the brothel alleys of Barcelona".

Yet a nature poem such as this one does, lightly, intrude an awareness of a domestic context. Though the plant in question is not exactly commonplace, we've seen that a tradition already existed, among reasonably sensitive observers, of appreciating its finer features ("I don't know any other flower whose grace so fascinates the eye..."). Domestic bliss, Swedish style, tends to involve not just the home but its extension into the trees and the borders of that everlasting wood, where one is always roaming about, if only to find a good spot to fling out the washing-up water.

There's a further clue to this context in the two Swedish names for Trientalis europaea that appear in the poem. I've translated them literally; unlike the English name "Chickweed Wintergreen", both were evidently folk-names rooted in long tradition. But the one that Martinson uses in the title (Duvkulla - "Doveflower") was evidently a local name; it is certainly not much used now, and the only Google reference that isn't talking about Martinson's poem comes from a 1923 article in the provincial newspaper Dalpilen. It was the other name (Skogsstjärna - "Woodland Star") that was, then and now, in general use; and doubtless it turns up in the poem's first line in order to ensure that the reader knows exactly what plant Martinson is talking about. The local name in the title amounts to a confession: it is the poet's own name for the plant because it's the name he grew up with, in a countrified provincial locality, long before he set off to sail the world.

The poem then, implies the limited rambles of a child close to home: domestic surroundings. The defiant praise of slightness, in this context, amounts to a sentimental, perhaps desperately sentimental, defence of the limited horizons and quotidian activity of an unassuming home. Martinson had no particular reason to be sentimental about his own childhood; at the same time he was a popular poet, both working with popular sentiment and inevitably yielding to it, at least in respect of its thought-forms.


Taking refuge in small things was a sentiment that lay deep in popular culture. I don't want to reduce Martinson's poem to its popular substratum, but at the same time it's important to understand the substratum.

I want to approach it by way of the hugely popular pan-Nordic standard "De nære ting" / "Små nära ting". The composers of the melody, Kurt Foss and Reidar Bøe, recorded the song in 1951, both in Norwegian (June) and Swedish (September).

There were numerous subsequent recordings and, as is the way with standards in Sweden, a host of drinking-song parodies. I'm taking most of my information from Enn Kokk's interesting blog.

The original Norwegian lyrics were composed by Arne Paasche Aasen (1901-1978), a strongly left-wing politician, activist, journalist and poet. As a populist poet his work graded into song lyrics: rousing labour movement songs such as "Vi bygger landet" (based on an earlier Russian anthem), but also sentimental songs like "De nære ting". Norwegian and Swedish are so closely related to each other that translating from one into the other is a doddle, and Ture Nerman's Swedish version is sometimes almost word for word. The main difference is the inclusion of the word "små" (small); the Swedish title means, literally, "small near things", but you can't put that into idiomatic English without becoming wordy: "the little things close by", or something of that sort.

D       F#6
Din längtan flyr vilse
så vida omkring.
Det är som du glömt
A4       A
alla nära ting.
D       F#6
Det är som du aldrig
G       B dim (or Gm)
fick lugn en minut
D       E7
till någonting annat -
A7       D
du jämt vill ut.

               Your yearning heart wanders
               so far and so wide -
               it seems you've forgotten
               the things by your side.
               It seems that you never
               one moment sit down.
               To some destination
               you're always bound.

Du tycker din dag är
så fattig och grå.
Vad är det du söker?
Vad väntar du på?
När aldrig du unnar
dig rast eller ro,
kan ingenting växa
och intet gro.

               You think that your days are
               so empty and grey.
               What is it you're seeking?
               What do you await?
               If you never have
               any fun or repose,
               then nothing develops,
               and nothing grows.

Gå in i din kammare,
liten och trång -
den gömmer vad hjärtat
höll kärast en gång.
På ropet i skogen
får ingen ett svar.
Finn vägen tillbaka
till det du har.

               Go into your parlour,
               so little and close -
               it hides what your heart
               used to care about once.
               The cry in the forest,
               it gets no response.
               So find your way homeward
               to what is yours.

Den lyckan du söker
bak fjället i brand,
den har kanske alltid
du haft i din hand.
Du skall inte jaga
så rolöst omkring…
D       E7
men lära dig älska
Gm   A   D
små nära ting!

               The treasure you looked for
               in far mountain lands,
               perhaps it was always
               right here in your hands.
               You don't have to struggle
               so hungry and high,
               just value those little
               things by your side!

Ture Nerman (1886-1969), like Arne Paasche Aasen, had begun as a communist and was later a social democrat. But the song-lyric is solidly conservative in intention, intrinsically dubious about ambition and idealism. It may not be relevant to point it out, but they were no longer young men.

"Små nära ting" is a classic consolation-lyric, like that other song from 1951 "Cold Cold Heart" (Hank Williams, Tony Bennett), and such countless predecessors as the Irish standard "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" (in fact composed by an American, Thomas Paine Westendorf, in 1876). "Små nära ting" is less obviously aligned to the heteronormal male subject / female object format than either of those songs; in fact the most-remembered recording is probably Monica Neilsen's, if it isn't Anna-Lena Löfgren's.

Nevertheless, it shares the in-built tensions of the consolation-lyric, e.g. that if the unconsolable could be consoled by whatever the consoler is saying, then s/he probably wouldn't need consoling in the first place. The consolation-lyric is both heroic and doomed: heroic because in performance the song boldly offers itself as the resolving turning-point in its own narrative; doomed because every time the song is re-performed it turns out that the consolation is still needed. The singer continues to brood "why can't I ease your troubled mind and melt your cold cold heart"; the singer reiterates the ever-unfulfilled promise "I'll take you to your home again"; and here, the singer urges, yet again, the sweet simple advice about the little things in life that the poor distracted "wandering wanderer" finds it impossible to be satisfied with. (That Misty in Roots classic is apposite, as is this more recent lament:

You've wandered so far
from the person you are.
Let go, brother, let go.

- which gains an extra frisson from its singer being not the reproving composer but, as we suppose, the very wanderer that Tim Rice-Oxley addresses. Battle is pretty much a big village.)


When Martinson built his poem towards that assertion about "the determination of the slight" he was, I believe, recalling another short poem published ten years earlier, by Karin Boye. Recalling it unconsciously, perhaps: he does not use the same words, but the shape of the clinching line surely betrays a kinship.


En stillhet vidgades mjuk som soliga vinterskogar.
Hur blev min vilja viss och min väg mig underdånig?
Jag bar i min hand en etsad skål av klingande glas.

Då blev min fot så varsam och kommer inte att snava.
Då blev min hand så aktsam och komma inte att darra.
Då blev jag överflödad och buren av styrkan ur sköra ting.


     A stillness spread, gentle as the sun-filled winter woods.
     How was it, my will grew certain and my path obedient to me?
     I bore in my hand an etched bowl of ringing glass.

     Then it was my steps became cautious and would not stumble.
     Then it was my hand became careful and would not shake.
     Then I was suffused and borne along by the strength of fragile things.

(From För trädets skull (For the Tree's Sake), 1935)

Elsewhere, Boye had reacted defiantly to the national vein of cosy, domestic quietism. Indeed her famous poem "I Rörelse" ("On the Move") is the classical rejoinder in Swedish:

Den mätta dagen, den är aldrig störst.
Den bästa dagen är en dag av törst.

              The day of satisfaction is not best.
              The better day, that is a day of thirst.

But (as is always the case) the defiance conceals an awareness of the contrary pull, i.e. towards domestic peace. What takes her by surprise in the poem about the glass bowl is, perhaps, exactly a feeling of momentarily being at peace with her surroundings. And, of course, they are domestic surroundings: passing between a main house and an outhouse, and taking care not to trip on the ubiquitous birch roots.

The observation, a brilliant one I think, is that the fragile object so long as it exists unbroken is indeed a show of strength; it takes all the object's strength not to fall apart. (No-one calls Boye a scientific poet, but she is just as scientific as Martinson, and her poem too deserves to be taken seriously as a statement.)

And this strength is what is communicated to the carrier who doesn't drop the bowl; her own tensed poise, being patently required of her, is accordingly manifested, and it reveals her capability to herself; not only her capability either, but the deep peace of having a nurturing role, and fitting it; the nurturer is dependent on her charge. A deep peace, for as long as it lasts.

Because for both poets these restfully optimistic poems constituted swimming against the tide. There is a cry of desperation in their restfulness. In April 1941 Karin Boye, anguished by personal distress as well as World War II, took a one-way walk into the wintry countryside; she was carrying only a bottle of sleeping-pills. Harry Martinson, product of a broken working-class home, his health ruined at sea in his youth, grew steadily gloomier through the later part of his poetic career. The last straw, perhaps, was winning the Nobel Prize in 1974; or more particularly, the barrage of adverse comment that greeted the announcement. The prize was shared between Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, another Swedish working-class writer; both of them were now members of the Nobel committee itself, so the award was certainly a bit naïve (contrary to what you might expect, the most biting criticisms came from within Sweden itself). In 1978 Martinson attempted to commit ritual suicide by disembowelment (seppuku) with a pair of scissors. He was horribly injured and died a few days later.


[Information about Trientalis europaea from Den virtuella floran.]


Here previously appeared the birth-pangs of an essay about the Diastic Process and Gale Nelson, now relocated to Intercapillary Space.


Here previously appeared the birth-pangs of a review of the 2011 UK poetry anthology Better Than Language, now relocated to Intercapillary Space.


I've been spending stray hours reading Jenny Allan's two blogs:

These exemplify the blog-as-complete-literary-text, and they are very complicated objects. I've printed them both out, because I can't read properly on the screen, but then which way up do you read them, back-to-front? (It also means I lose all the hyperlinks). Whichever way you tackle it, this is amazing writing.

In reaching bottom rock, where underside astounds, giving away any attempt at tempt. It is here that curios collect, with a stark rarity of reaction. Those moments in miniature that pool and band together for our own story’s sake, can climb out at any time and shake off excess sentiment.

(and, in fall May 2007)

a fine mist… fading at the mouth ahead of a mirror that holds our residue, we lean over, there we witness our multiplicity, lost in the turn of following deep down, down in search of earth to pile around our words and all of a sudden send up the appearance of nowadays

we perceive little else apparently, little else that others between us show signs of, they possibly appear everywhere, but we distrust their might and upset their looking for

and perhaps they don’t exist these stifled elementary images… pointing for so long at the same spot, at times we lose sight of its presence and doubt altogether the world, nothing that we know is untouched by living the unnoticeable

(from "extracts from tomorrow" Intermittent Voices April 2009)


talking of great blogs, Tom Clark is excelling himself in recent posts, and I just had to link to this:

"Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme. The President nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise."

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Monday, August 08, 2011

more flowers from Jämtland

.. but not from the mountains this time.

Cirsium heterophyllum (Brudborste - Melancholy Thistle)

From long rhizomes seventeen long rods
flare slowly in the warm, damp air; but not for us.

I saw them ―. pleading in colour like the mouths
of baby birds, or a mouth flushed for a kiss.

(F O T O 18)

Hypochaeris maculata (Slåtterfibbla - Spotted Cat's-ear). I included this photo because it was so miraculously in focus, enough to show the three tiny beetles living in the middle of the flower. But don't be deceived by the greenery beneath; that's a young rowan, not part of this plant.

Lilium martagon (Krollilja - Turk's-cap Lily). We were very excited when we happened on this plant on a roadside in the endless forest east of Östersund, several kilometers from any dwelling. However, it's a reasonably common introduction (native to Central Europe and Asia), and is hardy even in the far north of Sweden.

Cirsium arvense (Åkertistel - Creeping Thistle). A species that looks very different in Norrland from the way it looks in the south of England: the leaves are less stiff and wavy, the spines much less fierce (detail below). And hence (to me at least) the plant arouses none of its habitual connotations: neglected wasteland, scruffiness, overgrazed pasture, etc. Here it makes neat (though still extensive) stands where roadsides border fields.

Noon: the greygreen globes bristle with mauve;
the bees come, thousands browsing, on every roadside

the sugar of summer grows tautly, walls of it
shimmer across the valley where a seed strayed.

(F O T O 88)

But the plant that I supposed was hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), despite its small and rather greenish flowers, is really a different species, Heracleum sibiricum (Björnfloka). It's a nice plant, but to be honest it lacks some of the drama of H. sphondylium, partly because it lacks the large petals around the edge of the umbels. (Hogweed is the UK wild flower that most regularly amazes me.)

[The plant that my Swedish Flora calls H. sibiricum sounds like it might be identical with Stace's H. sphondylium ssp. sibiricum, which grows in NE Norfolk.]

Hypericum maculatum (Fyrkantig johannesört - Imperforate St John's-wort). Apparently subsp. maculatum, though I didn't know the details to check at the time. This is the "other" St John's-wort, differentiated from H. perforatum by black spots on the surface (not edges) of the petals, four (not two) stem-ridges, and usually no translucent dots on the leaves - features variously referred to by the names above. Also blunt sepals. It prefers damper (and non-calcareous) locations. (Also common in much of the UK, especially Wales, but more local than H. perforatum.)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

crippled by gentility

There is class war on the internet as everywhere else. And I'm as implicated as everyone else, and (thinking of myself as a player here, because I've now written so many literary pieces) I keep noticing common literary/journalistic expressions that I just would never use, because of personal snobbery and because I want people to see that I've got more class than to write crap like that (which really means that I'm not being told what to write by paymasters, because no-one gives a toss about what I write).


Pure Hustle is a gem of book ... (Jo Shapcott on Kate Potts' debut collection for Bloodaxe.) BTW, since we're taking potshots, the worthy but ancient Bloodaxe website desperately needs a facelift. Can you imagine, you can't even browse the books, there's no samplers? So the only things Kate Potts has got to promote her probably unique gifts are two worthless blurbs, Shapcott's heartwarming "gem of a book.. pure gold..." and Jen Hadfield's woolly stab at a more surreal style ("this assonance-jellied, beetle-drawer of a pamphlet..."). That's really not good enough. Contrast, of course, the Shearsman or Salt websites: you can really discover a whole lot about, say (pause...), Sascha Aurora Akhtar's The Grimoire of Grimalkin.. Hey, I like this book a lot; that wasn't in the script. I thought Salt had stopped publishing my kind of books. Anyway, you see what I mean? That's what a publishing website needs to be. It needs to publish, not just print.

[You can read about Kate Potts' book here, though:]


"This gem of a book" - most appropriately used of debut collections: attempting to suggest a cherished personal discovery that one has hugged to oneself for ages before coyly, earnestly, almost reluctantly, feeling impelled to speak of it among friends.

Of course we do not use expressions like this in the alt-poetry world.  (We pretend that we don't have any friends, while mainstreamers pretend that they don't live in an economy.)  Perhaps we view the gushingness of "this gem of a book" as further evidence that mainstreamers in general don't have any thoughts about poetry worth attending to, while they continue to believe that we don't  really care for poetry at all but just use it to promote our own personal agendas; both very true insights.

The more generalized expression used by both these blurbers: "This A of a B" now appears to survive only in the provincial world of books, long since discarded from more fashionable media spheres (who used to say "this colossus of a performance", "this determined beauty of an anti-single" etc).

More distantly, it makes me think of:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

Essentially all these expressions are about asserting (creating) value, i.e. they attempt to propose a heroic scena in which swords are magic and heroes can hold up stone bridges. Used in reviews, this transmutes into a heroic/commercial nexus, i.e. in which you can BUY THE ACTION: bucklers, bridges and all.



Yup. That's it. No, I mean, that's one of the things I would never, ever write: an article entitled "In Defence Of" something. But lots of people do. Try Googling "in defence of" ... well,  anything. Modernism, moral imperialism, moral absolutes, mothers, monarchy, moderate aesthetic formalism, model-based inference in phylogeography, Morgan Tsvangirai, and that's just the MOs.

Gillian Beer in defence of rhyme (Guardian, Jan 13th 2007): "Rhyme is often dismissed as conventional, old-fashioned and childish. Not so, argues Gillian Beer, who believes its potential to persuade and surprise should not be underestimated". That's the subEditor speaking, with his brisk "Not so". The article that follows is often intelligent, not at all original, and eventually sinks under the oppressive discomfort of trying to pretend to be a perky topical must-read: "One difficulty in discussing the effects of rhyme is that these are manifold and diverse," the author laments helplessly.

(Bit of a soft target, you're thinking? I know. The fact is that I've lost contact with the original article that inspired this particular snobbery; I can't even remember if it was about poetry or not.)

So why are people so fond of titling their articles "In Defence of X"? Because it vaguely reminds them of other articles they've read. They think it's a clever quote from something, was it Shelley? (No, it wasn't.) Even if it was a clever quote, I'd despise it because it wasn't a cleverer one. Think of all those other vague appropriations of forgotten quotations: I want to say that entitling your essay "Post-Structuralism and Its Discontents" (Globalization, Simulation, The Euro...), so far from differentiating you, in fact places you on just the same beery level as if you write "The Great British Barbecue" (Pudding, Christmas..).

But the real reason why cool people don't use "In Defence Of..." is this. Consider the scenario: you use it to stand up for something that is, in your opinion, under attack. In other words, you tell the world that you're going to come on a bit reactionary here. Obviously, you're saying it oh-so-knowingly so as to prove that you're not REALLY a reactionary. (Keston Sutherland could possibly get away with that, but absolutely no-one else can.) But it won't work. Your title proves exactly the opposite. It proves you have a taste for sitting among reactionary furniture, so probably you ARE a reactionary, it's just that you're so reactionary that you don't even realize how reactionary you are. Actions speak louder than words. (And it's a safe bet that though you're finding relief in giving vent to some of your reactionary views now, you're still holding back on all the worst ones.)

But, wait a minute, doesn't it make a difference WHAT you're defending? No, not really. Never defend. It's A. defensive behaviour B. A lost cause. C. Suggests the puzzled blinking of an owl in daylight. D. Proves you're in denial.

And by the way, the perhaps exemplary object that you've set out to defend is now, thanks to your own bungling, tainted by association with the reactionary attitudes encoded in the word "defence".

You think I'm joking. Well, take Michael Pollan's big-selling "In Defence of Food". Main assertion, that there's no point taking any nutritional supplements because you cannot reduce food, which is so chemically complex, to a small number of active principles. I can't help noticing that the same argument would seem to condemn all medicine or pharmaceutics; it asserts an obfuscatory integrity of nature and makes experiment or investigation as impious as to question the ways of God. Interesting argument, nonetheless. But hold on! Soon the author is complaining that people don't even sit down together to a family meal these days! And if you want to know what real food is, then it's whatever your grandmother would have recognized! .... The author together with his cherished damsel (defended object: "Food" in this instance) are equally betrayed from within by these mindless DailyMailisms.

There's a more important reason than any of that. Attack and Defence are like Good and Evil, they tend to reduce the complexity of nature to the ancient binary systems, always more or less inaccurate, that humans rightly fall back on in extreme emergencies when action of some sort is paramount and layers of complexity must be stripped from the vision. At all other times, binary is pointlessly wrong.



Now that's nasty, isn't it? Evidently, the word "oft" is a poeticism and has no idiomatic existence today, supposing it ever did. Nevertheless some people love to use it when they're writing. Well, I don't. Oh but surely this is just about personal taste? No, it's about class struggle. But it doesn't necessarily work the way you might assume. In this case, middlebrow huxters write things like "oft-denied" or "oft-imperilled" in order to demonstrate, as they suppose, that they have some culture about them, that they're at ease with public writing. Highbrow huxters would be ashamed to do the same, because their secret conviction is that their writing is sufficiently commended by its own essence to obviate the need for pathetic decoration with such faded blossoms as this.


"I'm reminded of"

People are very funny when writing about other people's poetry books. When it's the kind of poetry that I mostly follow, the uppermost experience is usually puzzlement, and this can be signalled in various ways. If a modern poet is lucky enough to get a review at all, it is usually just a ragbag of "I'm reminded of".

This phrase means that the critic is about to introduce something that, within the critic's personal imagination, has a vague connection with the book under review. At the same time, the phrase signals that the critic realizes that this association, this something, is in all probability purely personal to the critic, and is not at all likely to be known to the poet; and is probably an evanescent impression that oughtn't even to be mentioned, but hey. 

[Something similar to this is when the reviewer confides "I happened to be reading such-and-such last night and ..." ... followed by quotation from tangentially relevant book.]

There seems to be a consensual recognition that a review of a book is not a study of the author's work. It is sufficiently justified, so this consensus runs, by being written by a reader and by honestly recording how it strikes them. But does this mean that the reader's happenstancial experiences are all grist to the mill? Traditionally, I'd say no. In former days the reviewer aimed for typicality, or rather pretended to do so. Now that this is rightly discredited, the modern reviewer is encouraged to confide the random synchronicities of their readerly life, even when only flimsily connected to the book in hand. I think that's how it works.


"There is a sense of"

This timidly risks proffering an interpretation, while ready to snatch it away at the first hint of a frown . 

Perhaps it is meant to evoke the enormously long, calm middle-distance musing that I remember from university tutorials. I hate the way these manners still persist.


"only to"

Where Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ provides a mechanism by which the bereavement process can be structured around the writing process, 'Eurydice' suggests that it cannot. As in the Greek myth around which this sequence is loosely structured, Eurydice is resurrected only to fade away once again. .... it is tempting to conclude .... Chillingly, .... etc etc. (Stride review of James Womack by Thomas White.)

Is it fair of me to single out out "only to", surely that's unobjectionable?? 

Well, perhaps it is as regards the quotation I've taken up, but it strikes a disagreeable note in me nevertheless. It's something to do with being knowing, with consciously seeing all round a subject, and with abusing the short and easie way to seeing all round a subject, which is reductiveness. You fancy that in the hierarchy of knowingness, Thomas White sits somewhere above Christopher Reid who himself sits above Ovid who sits above poor naive old Orpheus. White, above all, knew where the story would end almost before it began. Yet to me (doubtless excessively reverential) this hierarchy is upside-down. The commentator should never sit above the subject, you can't see through your own butt.


"who should know better"

This chiding schoolmasterly phrase is inexplicably popular among critics who, I think, would want to reject its implications if they thought them over. Borrowing the enemy's weapons is good in war but bad in criticism, is the way I see it.

8. "serves to"

This is a cliché of literary criticism and scholarship that became ridiculously popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still seen today. I'm taking these examples from Anne Righter's Shakespeare and The Idea of The Play (1962), but any university library would yield tens of thousands of examples.

The comparison made between life and the theatre serves, in this instance, to define the depth and realism of the play world itself. (p. 60)
Like the valedictory remark of Subtle Shift, his comment serves to recognize the contrived, somewhat artificial nature of the action now terminated. (p. 68)
Used within the confines of a play, the metaphor served not only to dignify the theatre but also to bridge the space between the stage and the more permanent realm inhabited by the spectators. (p. 76)
Used within the 'reality' of the play itself, they also serve to remind the audience that elements of illusion are present in ordinary life, and that between the world and the stage there exists a complicated interplay of resemblance that is part of the perfection and nobility of the drama itself as a form. (p. 78)

Obviously part of my objection to this kind of commentary is that it's too knowing (as per 6); the scholar-critic takes it for granted that s/he knows why the author has done something. In Righter's case, this knowingness is probably unintended. She is apt to state that such-and-such a passage "serves to" support her thesis, when it might seem to serve to do other things that are a lot more obvious. (I mean just how many times do you need to remind an audience of the connection between play and world? Isn't it one of the amazing things about drama that it's one of the most obvious things there is, that "make-believe" is something that a young child "gets" without any help whatever?)

The other part of my objection, and I admit this is more speculative, is that this expression encodes a master-and-servant view of the world. I am all right with services as something provided by servers (computers) or by companies. But I'm uncomfortable with people serving and I'm uncomfortable with a view of the world or nature as something whose main function is to serve us. And I extend this to the materials of art. I don't believe that the artist's relationship to her/his materials is one of using them to serve her/him. I see the relationship as more human and more tentative. The artist, as I see it, participates with materials (such as language or vocabulary) that are already imbued with a certain life because of their context within interpretive communities.

9. "Itself".

We live of course in an era where art tends be self-conscious and self-reflexive and self-referring. Somehow this has been seen by many not as lamebrained mannerism but as a revolutionary brilliance that they have been keen to associate with and to mimic. (The truth is, it's nothing but a heat-sink for controlled dispersal of those instinctive revolutionary restlessnesses that one hesitates to employ to any purpose.)

Personally I was bored of it in 1976 and I haven't become much less bored of it since.

Most literary commentators are not Derridas. Their wielding of self-reflexive argument amounts to little more than arriving at the word "itself".

What the hell am I talking about?

...interweaves political intrigue, personal responsibilities and the ways in which the forces of history are played out in the struggles of individual human lives. But its true subject is perhaps the role of narration and the limits of storytelling itself.

(Jacket note to the Edinburgh Edition of Scott's Peveril of the Peak.)

Can you hear the triumphalism in that ending? The author believes that by arriving at the word "itself" they have achieved a climax beyond which no other is necessary or even possible. Like Anselm defining (or rather, manhandling) God into "that than which nothing more Godly can be conceived".

But why does this snake-swallowing-its-tail manoeuvre have (in the eyes of its authors) such incredible prestige? I believe it's to do with the disenfranchisement of the first-year Arts student who suddenly ceases to acquire any further information about the world, while her/his colleagues continue to dully mug up on economics, technology, genetics, chemistry, medicine, civil engineering and political history. Meanwhile the Arts student is left with her /his swift intelligence intact, but without any knowledge. (I know. I was one.) The outcome is that the Arts student becomes addicted to arguments of this form: "If that were true then it would also undercut your statement since this itself would by implicated by what you claim."  It's a form of argument that requires hardly any knowledge about the subject under discussion, and for that very reason (an inner consciousness of comparative ignorance) it seems to the author almost miraculously clever, the first couple of times you bring it off. A lot of people never get over the thrill of it.

10. "It is as if"

It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.

(Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates (2007))

Ah, fancy! "It is as if" introduces a thought with the concession that it has no basis in fact, substituting for this the rarely-kept promise of a brilliant dash of intellectual play. Obviously I have no sense of humour left. I note that Seneca did commit suicide, and that his slow bloodflow was due to being old, and almost certainly not to reading Plato. I also note that contrasting Rome disparagingly with Greece has a long literary tradition. Why is anyone bothering with this, in 2007? What is this, actually, but bookmaking, that is, very old wine in new bottles?

("Nicely summed up", according to the columnist who requoted it.)

11. "extraordinary"

This is more spoken than written. If you listen to or watch any arts program (I'm basing this mainly on BBC Radio 3), then you'll find that the interview is paved not only with plugs, awards, anniversaries and anecdotes of the famous but with the regular utterance of the word "extraordinary", used to self-complacently gratulate shared moments in the speaker's own life-experience. A generous reading of this interview-mannerism is that it honourably recognizes the distinction of others and encourages the listening art-lovers to see their own art-loving lives in terms of a series of "extraordinary" events shared with art-makers; though one must point out that even this generous reading boils down to an encouragement to spend more money. An ungenerous reading (heaven forbid) would interpret it as working hard to define oneself as within a hagiographised elite, and reporting a certain wonder at finding oneself there. So far from this sense of wonder being disabling, it is actually legitimizing, since it is well-known that members of the elite are A. humble B. born to it.

12. "not dissimilar to"

Another vague pretext for the imminent incorporation of dubiously relevant mental clutter, as per 4 and 10, above.

But really, I'm including this only as an excuse to quote Prynne, writing about the opening lines of Tintern Abbey.

The present visit is made 'again' after this double interval [sc. five summers/winters], part-clement and part-forbidding, and 'again' is a marker word which is itself repeated, so that these linked doublings establish a rhythm not dissimilar to the rhetorical patterns of the renaissance handbooks, or the looping journeys of a tour of visitations. 

 (from the essay "Tintern Abbey, Once Again" in Glossator (Fall, 2009))

The quotation is meant to be a refreshment (plus, don't you think clement and forbidding would be a good pair of concepts to characterize Prynne's poems?).

How much more suggestive is that word "visitations" than (what one more commonly achieves on a tour) "visits" !

Ah, poetry!

But still, "not dissimilar to" remains a burbling reminder of dubious relevance. How have the repetitions  within Wordsworth's text been amplified in Prynne's commentary! - a commentary that very much enjoys overflowing the bounds of its subject. Attentiveness is one thing - but amplification, that's something else, there's a fuzziness in it. In this case the amplification is done by raking in some bits and pieces that the poem doesn't hint at (those very unspecified renaissance handbooks, for example) and by doubling the doublings again and again, not omitting to apply the essential assurance of the word "itself"(9, above).

Well, it's no good getting too hung up over vocabulary. Prynne's essay - it was written in 2001, in fact - is exemplary, its sentences full of depth-charges (four examples: "variations of nature and nurture" in unripe apples, the latency, absence and promise in "murmur"; connection of orchard tufts to youth, and the contemplative threshold of "natural unhoused wandering and its mimicry by the traveller on tour"). Anyway, that's enough of praise for now.

[This pallid eviscerated UK poetics-related whine is a stub. You can help Mikipedia by expanding it.]


Wednesday, August 03, 2011

hot cherry plums

I added yesterday's photos to this earlier post:

Prunus cerasifera and spinosa

Date-sensitive posts aren't always the way to go. Sometimes it's nice to gather seasonal contrasts within a single post.

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