Tony Harrison

Browsing through a copy of his Selected Poems at a bookstore the other evening, my attention was drawn to one of the poems in Tony Harrison‘s sequence The School Of Eloquence. The title caught my eye, the opening lines my ear. I started reading the poem under my breath and became so entranced I took pictures of the two pages that held “The Rhubarbarians.” Here’s how it begins:

Those glottals glugged like poured pop, each
rebarbative syllable, remembrancer, raise
‘mob’ rhubarb-rhubarb to a tribune’s speech
crossing the crackle as the hayricks blaze.

Unfortunately, the poem seems to be unavailable online, but these ones are:

“Long Distance II” is the only poem of his on the Academy Of American Poets (Harrison’s English, by the way, Leeds-born); he has none on the Poetry Foundation’s site, despite a rather lengthy biographical essay. It’s a surprisingly “clear” piece, as opposed to “The Rhubarbarians” and some of Harrison’s other poems.

His Poetry Archive page hosts four poems, including audio clips of Harrison reading them. He’s quite good, as are these poems themselves:

“Timer” deals with a dead mother, just like “Long Distance II,” but this one is a little more disturbing. It’s grim subject matter, but I strangely find it darkly comic somehow, and that adds to the effect of the poem on me. Also, the use of dialogue here, unlike the strictly monological speaker of “Long Distance II,” certainly adds layers.

“National Trust” pushes the darkness and the comedy further and adds a dose of social critique, at least on the surface, in the situation it presents of bottomless pits that are measured by lowering people into them. Harrison feels a scholar would do better than a prisoner in that regard! Something else going on here, however, adds to the poem’s depth (pun intended, unfortunately): several words in the poem refer to speaking (“hush-hush,” “dumb,” “holler,” “silenced,” “tongueless”) and there’s even a bit of Cornish (one of the dead Celtic languages, if I remember right). It certainly bears further scrutiny though I feel I must look up the references, even while the poem is enjoyable as it is.

“Initial Illumination” is the longest piece and it seems denser, even before taking its length into account. The image of the cormorant is a constant, though I’m not yet sure I fully understand the image. The poem  begins with two saints (monks?) I’m unfamiliar with: “Eadfrith the Saxon scribe/illuminator” and “Bilfrith the anchorite.” It ends in the present day, excoriating “the word of God much bandied by George Bush / whose word illuminated the midnight sky” with bombs, presumably. There’s a direct didacticism in the latter part of the poem that’s not so bad given the historical depth provided:

Now with the noonday headlights in Kuwait
and the burial of the blackened in Baghdad
let them remember, all those who celebrate,
that their good news is someone else’s bad

I was struck by something Michael Lista wrote in his review of Michael Robbins‘ Alien vs. Predator:

A typical Robbins poem (if there even is such a thing) borrows from Frederick Seidel the moral terror that formal rigour and rhyme can inspire. [emphasis mine]

It was an intriguing statement to make, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood what Lista was trying to say. That bit from “Initial Illumination” is helping clarify things though. There’s something almost simplistic about what those lines are trying to say, but the use of perfect rhyme to express it does lend it force. I don’t know if THAT’S an example of “moral terror,” but it certainly lends a certain type of “moral authority” to make that kind of statement.

“Book Ends” book-ends the Poetry Archive selection, dealing as it does with the same dead-mother situation as “Timer” (and “Long Distance II”), but focusing more on the lack of communication between the husband and the son left behind. Again, I’m not sure I fully get it, but I think there’s something being said here about class (education and socio-economic strata). “The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay,” the son-speaker tells his father, and it ends with

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.

There’s a nice little bit in the poem, referring I’m imagining to the father’s habit of staring in silence at what seems to be a coal-fuelled grate heater, and the kitchen implied in the oven that “appears” when the poem begins with “Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead”:

Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.

This PDF contains three Harrison poems, “Timer” being one of them. The last poem, “Punchline” has a son speaking to a dead father. It’s a pretty striking piece. The first verse sets the social situation of limited options for “the Northern working class”:

No! Revolution never crossed your mind!
For the kids who never made it through the schools
the Northern working class escaped the grind
as boxers or comedians, or won the pools.

The second verse reveals the father “not lucky, no physique, too shy to joke” and so buying instead a second-hand ukelele, in the hopes of “escaping the grind.”  Unfortunately, hopes were dashed, only two chords were ever learned, and the father’s dreams of escape became a secret emblematized as a plectrum hidden awayin a “secret condom drawer.” When the son-speaker sees another old man playing a ukelele badly in the street at the end of the poem, on the very day he missed his father’s cremation, he simply holds on to his pocket change and looks away. Ah, the bitterness!

The other poem in that poem is a longer piece called Them and [uz].” I like this one for the way it alludes to “cockney Keats” through my favorite Keats poem (“Ode To A Nightingale”):

gob full of pebbles outshouting seas —

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

Poor kid. He gets his chance for payback though, with, well, Occupy Poetry:

So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy
your lousy leasehold Poetry.

It’s hilarious, and apparently, I have more of his works to read. In The Harvill Book Of Twentieth-Century Poetry In English (reviewed here, with others), I have five Harrison poems. There’s “Timer” and “National Trust” but also an 8-part sequence called “Art And Extinction.” There are also two poems from “The School Of Eloquence”: one is called “On Not Being Milton,” which I should discuss with my adviser as he’s really into Milton, and a quatrain called “Heredity”:

How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry–
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.

In The Norton Anthology Of Modern And Contemporary Poetry, there’s are more poems from The School Of Eloquence: the complete “Book Ends” (it’s apparently a two-part poem like “The Rhubarbarians”), “Turns,” “Marked With D.,” “Self Justification,” “History Classes,” and once again, “Timer,” “Heredity,” and “On Not Being Milton.”

But the crux is a poetic sequence called v. that apparently generated a lot of controversy when a televised reading of the profanity-laden poem was aired twenty-five years ago. I haven’t started reading it, but apparently, the poem starts with the poet at the graveside of his parents and will involve the miners’ strikes during the Thatcher years, etc. Something to look forward to, indeed.

For now, though, an essay on Deleuze and Guattari explaining the rhizome through Harrison’s poem, and the rollicking “A Kumquat For John Keats.” WOW.

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Link Roundup: Weil, Wordplay, Dark Hopkins

After that mad rush of a previous entry, I’m going to take a breather before thinking my way through Jack Spicer’s “A Lecture On Practical Aesthetics.” For now, a link roundup showing some (other) recent preoccupations.

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SIMONE WEIL AND POETRY

First up is a blog entry that contains in its entirety James Lindroth’s 1987 essay “Simone Weil And Wallace Stevens: The Notion Of Decreation As Subtext In ‘An Ordinary Evening In New Haven’.”

I’ve yet to go through it fully since I severely lack context: I’ve never read Stevens’s essays from The Necessary Angel (an unforgivable insight, I know!), and my only encounter with Simone Weil is how she figures in Anne Carson’s Decreation (another review here).

Speaking of oversight, that’s the only Anne Carson book I’ve read. I’m somewhat interested in the way she uses Keats in The Beauty Of The Husband and her exploration of the theme of desire in Eros The Bittersweet, but I’ve yet to buy copies of those.

While looking through reviews of Decreation to use as a hyperlink, I found a critical review-essay on Carson’s book and Jorie Graham’s Overlord that also uses Weil’s notion of decreation through Stevens’s treatment of the idea: “Prayers To An Absent God: The Poetic Revealings Of Simone Weil.”

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PARONOMASIA, PUNS, AND WORDPLAY

Wordplay was not only how I rediscovered Stevens; it’s also a recurring device in the kind of poetry I’ve been writing for my MA, for better or for worse. (Someday, I’ll talk about how Northrop Frye’s “Charms And Riddles” works for the writing I do.)

Eleanor Cook has appeared here before, particularly for her work on, yes!, riddles, so it was a thrill to have discovered these essays yesterday, especially because of all the responses that followed:

  1. Cook, Eleanor. “From Etymology to Paronomasia: Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and Others”
  2. Hecht, Anthony. “In Reply to Eleanor Cook, ‘From Etymology to Paronomasia'”
  3. Vaught Brogan, Jacqueline. “From Paronomasia to Politics in the Poetry of Stevens and Bishop: A Response to Eleanor Cook”
  4. Rosu, Anca. “In the Line of Wit: A Response to Eleanor Cook”
  5. Bahti, Timothy. “Palm Reading (A Response to Eleanor Cook)”
  6. Hollander, John. “A Note on Eleanor Cook, ‘From Etymology to Paronomasia'”
  7. Cook, Eleanor. “Paronomasia Once More”

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HOPKINS: DARK, TERRIBLE, DESOLATE

Although I love to read “The Windhover” aloud like Kwame Dawes, I’m pretty much a Hopkins n00b. While reading “The Introduction Of Fancy Into Hopkins’ Poetry” (an essential resource for my thesis), I noticed a reference at the bottom of the page to his “dark sonnets.” A couple of search results later, I learned he wrote these “Dublin sonnets” from 1885-1886.

Since I’ve just read “Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves” for the first time, after I read about it in Cook’s article, and so was still reeling from the deliriously wonderful poem Hopkins once called “the longest sonnet in the English language,” I’m going to link to those sonnets Hopkins wrote during what seems, by all accounts, a dark night of the soul:

  1. “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”
  2. “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”
  3. “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief”
  4. “My own heart let me have more have pity on; let”
  5. “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;”
  6. “Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray”

Yes, those are their respective first lines, even if the next-to-last poem is already commonly referred to as “Carrion Comfort.” I’m going to read them later, ALOUD.

Jim Powell On Sound And Sense

I wish I could read the entire essay from which this came from:

It was Bunting who discovered in a German-Italian dictionary the translation Pound made into a slogan, “dichten = condensare” — ‘to compose poetry is to condense.’ This desiderates compression of sense, economy of means, the quest for le mot juste, for the one right word that supplants a half dozen blurry approximations, the fusion of phrase and perception that subverts habits of thought and speech to embody insight and survive, weathering the erosion of dailiness and the passing of fashionable ideas, rewarding repetition. But in poetry sound and sense are consubstantial, and compression of sense requires corporeal embodiment in the simultaneous melic condensation of verse. Memorability, durability in the mind, has always been recognized as one of the primal functions of poetic form (incantation, hypnosis, is another), and memory is a hedonist. She lives in the mind, which is a carnal thing, and wants corporeal nurture, wants in verse the carnality of a substantial music–impedance, weight, solidity, resistance: impedance like a burr to snag in recollection, resistance to outlast the corrosive blizzard of oblivion, solidity that like Yeats’ “stone in the midst of all” troubles the recourses of memory and reflection, a weight of phrase that sinks beyond the currents of ephemerality into the deeper reaches of our lives.

via Chicago Review 34:2 (Spring 1984)

Ann Lauterbach on John Ashbery’s “Litany”

 

I have come to believe, or think, or understand, that when someone dies, the most acute sense of loss is that of his or her voice. (For a while, one can “hear” a person’s voice in one’s inner ear, but slowly that fades.) This is odd, since sound is of course immaterial; one would think that the body would be the most felt absence. But sound is a distinctive marker of living presence more than any material object can possibly be; sound and lived time are indissoluble: they are, so to speak, part of the continuity of a landscape rather than the singularity of a portrait. Sound is embedded in spatial context.

via From Conjunctions:49, Ann Lauterbach on John Ashbery’s As We Know.