John Armstrong on making friends with the poem.

Last month I was at a David Jones conference in Oxford making a plea for less context, less academification, fewer bits of flummery and more concentration on the poems as poems. I was speaking without notes but I do seem to recall claiming that, when in full flow, I felt I was in a relationship with both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata and suggested that 'we' should perhaps give more consideration to what these readerly relationships may be about. I now realise that I'm not at all sure that I knew what I was talking about. This then is an attempt to work this notion out in the hope that others might identify in some way with what I'm trying to articulate.

As an ex residential social work type, I like to think that I 'know' about relationships and how they might function but I struggle to put language on how this feeling that I am in a relationship with an inanimate object actually 'works'. I also know that there is a difference between how I feel about a particular poem and how I feel about the poet who made it. I'm also aware that my relationships contain both an intellectual and an emotional element and, as with animate objects, it is quite difficult to look at these in isolation from the other.

Let's start with expectations, I want to like the poem I want to be attracted by and interested in what it has to say and that this attraction 'works' in a number of different ways but I don't think it works in the same way as my relationship with people.

I'm sure this has been done before but I am now going to provide some examples of how these friendships are for me.:

R S Thomas' Welsh Landscape.

This one is easy, my first love, the first time that I saw the 'point' of poetry and what it might be able to do. This occurred in an instant, the line was "Vibrant with sped arrows". It's not one of those poems that I read and re-read but it is the one that I depend upon the most because it provides the fundamental insight that still informs all of my readerly attention to this day. So, a relationship of enormous influence in both reading and writing - it took me years to see that most of my poetry was a pale imitation of his - but also one of trust, unlike most other work, I continue to trust it to do what poetry does best. I've just picked it up again for the first time in months and am reminded that it ticks all boxes (the clever line[s], the strong image, compression, honesty, precision) that I continue to apply / read with today. It's not complete admiration, there are bits that are superfluous, and bits that don't work but here's an example of genius at work from the middle part of the poem:

    Of strife in the strung woods,
    Vibrant with sped arrows.
    You cannot live in the present,
    At least not in Wales.


This still has resonance and speaks to my backrgound as a child and young man living in a town that could only exist on memories of earlier industrial glory and found the grim realities of the present too difficult to countenance.

I may have made this relationship seem too referential, too one-sided but I like to think that poems might be aspiring towards relationships rather than readings.

J H Prynne's Streak ~ Willing ~ Entourage ~ Artesian.

Even writing the header makes me smile, whilst thinking about this project I ordered some publications from Barque Press and Streak was one. From the first flick-through I was captivated, entranced and amused. A few years later and the relationship has altered in unexpected ways. It's turned out that this sequence takes my brain for a walk like nothing else but, in order to do this, the sequence requires readerly commitment as well as concentrated attention. By this I think I mean this apparently dour and austere creature only becomes attractive and involving if I give it some time. I experience this as a mutual relaxation or reduction in tension, initially every bit seems resistant and deliberately obdurate, as if I'm confronted by a tall brick wall but then I find my mind on this walk with this different cognitive set and things seem much more fluid and involving.

The main relational problem I have is that this stuff can become addictive, it can take over hours and days for what seems like little reward. For that reason I limit myself to contact when I don't have much else to do. So, one of those relationships that's very enticing and rewarding but that's also dangerously distracting, like the friend who takes you out to the pub at lunch time and you're still there at midnight. I've written quite a lot about Streak and related matters on my bebrowed blog but I thought I might try a different approach with this:

    Struck know it. Uncial ledge flip transfer. Edit rise
    still to misery same lintel paint invidious rate, partner
    hazy tune risen, what he saw beast was their on placid
    turning point. Band finger reply by to brought but

    Little hurt who saw less inside, her throat. Edge put
    avail to enter concede them fan him own laid down more
    by sorrow taken funded, Grow enflame onboard famish
    later fizz rock carrying convincement. Notable alight

This is where the fascination kicks in, typing this out I'm now finding it hard not to start with the middle sentence of the first line before going on to lintel ( a key Prynne word but defined differently by the OED) and then thinking about the other possibilities for 'beast' other than the commonly used noun and verb. Given that the recent civil war in Ulster in general and the Maze Hunger Strike in particular seem to be at least part of the subject matter I'd look at the negotiations around the laying down of arms by the paramilitaries and whether or not Lord Mountbatten is (enflame onboard) the 'Notable alight'. I'd then think about the possible ambiguities before trying to put the whole thing togather. The thing that mostly turns my brain around and leaves it in a different place is the way that syntax is used to create effects and to make points.

In short, this is a fluid and ongoing relationship that I try to ration myself to. For some reason none of Prynne's other poetry has anything like this effect even though I fully appreciate the brilliance of all his work since 1970.

T S Eliot's The Four Quartets and Robert Lowell's Skunk Hour.

On a different tack, these are two that I feel let down by, poems that I once greatly admired but now feel that both are dishonest and empty.

I'd been enthralled by Lowell and his work since my mid-teens, in particular by his apparent ability to say 'big' things in quite personal and direct ways. Then I went through a few periods of severe depression which entailed hospital care and my attitude changed. I no longer found it appropriate to parade your experience of the bipolars, especially when this is used to justify poor behaviour. The "My mind's not right", "I hear / my ill-spirit sob" and "I myself am hell" lines once struck me as painfully authentic, I now see them as hollow, as done for effect, as classic examples of what Michael Drayton referred to in about 1605 as 'ah, me' poetry. I readily accept that this may not be a general view but it is nevertheless a fact that I feel quite badly let down.

With regard to the Eliot, initially I thought this was brilliant in both the use of language and in expressing more than a little profundity. I held this view for about five years and then read Helen Gardiner's The Making of the Four Quartets and was immediately disappointed. Reading my way through, it quickly became apparent that this was an example of the emperor's clothes in that the apparent profundity suddenly appeared to me to be a cover for Not Saying Very Much at all. Since then this kind of dishonesty has become one of the aspects of poetry that I'm most 'against'. I think I need to say that I still think that Eliot's work up until and including The Worst Land is astoundingly good.

Keston Sutherland's The Odes to TL61P

This is a relationship of undiluted admiration for Keston's account of his personal experiences of sex as a chld and of the oppressive nature of secrets and the adult expectation that children should comply with this. I know from my working life that this is a very difficult issue for adults to begin to think about and it requires a lot of patience and skill to discuss this with children and younger adolescents who are engaged in sexual activity with their peers. Even though I've worked with these multi-faceted quandries, I still find The Odes to be personally disturbing and a remarkably effective challenge to the stereotypes of childhood that we cling to. This is not by any means a justification of the devastating effects perpetrated by adult abusers but children's sexual feelings do need to be acknowledged and thought about.

I also feel personally guilty about The Odes because I think that I should have written much more about them since Enitharmon published them last year. I don't know why this is although I did try an experimental style of writing that didn't 'work' but that usually means that I try a different approach. The other thing that I probably need to untangle is the fact that Keston and I have a fitful correspondence going on and I've been reading drafts of this work and writing about it since 2010 but this doesn't seem an adequate excuse either.

As those familiar with Keston's work might expect, this personal material is interspersed with much politics with perhaps a less strident Marxian tone than in previous material but with a greater degree of astute analysis and much less polemic. I think I've ignored the relationship between those two threads and need to look at them again.

The other aspect of the relationship with this particular sequence is one of concern, some bits work best when 'run' at full speed and my readerly anxiety is that one or two of these might tip over into gabbling chaos. I don't so far think that this occurs but it does mean that I approach some passages with a degree of wariness - because I don't want them to crash.

So, having written this and realised my guilt, I now resolve to give this particular friend the attention that it deserves as one of the most important works of the last forty years.

Edmunds Spenser's The Faerie Queene

It's very unlikely that I would have read FQ had I not read Camilla Paglia's enthusiastic account in Sexual Personae - she wrote it with such verve that I felt compelled to have a look. Immediately absorbed by the account of the first fight with the the monster in the woods and the subsequent meeting with Archimago, I was drawn into what is a very long poem indeed and have kept on re-reading it ever since. As a lifelong wannabe poetist, I continue to be dazzled by the the technical brilliance, the genius that is the Spenserian stanza and the delight that the poem takes in language. So, I remain won over, star struck and all the things a fan should be.

FQ is many (many) things but most of all it's a celebration that toys with the reader as it does with the language. There are villains, there are monsters, flawed heroes and perfect heroines. There are innumerable fights, romantic yet occasionally doomed affairs, lots of all kinds of sex and the whole thing comes across in the manner of early Tarrantino on bad acid. After several years of disillusionment, this wonderful thing restored my enjoyment of and faith in the Poem as something exhilarating and worthwhile.

So, there's admiration, gratitude and a desire to protect. This last instinct stems from the last decade of Spenser bashing that has gone on in academic circles because of Spenser's extreme / genocidal views on the Irish Question. Whilst I'm not prepared in any way to defend or justify the various prejudices shown by any of these colonial chancers on the make, I don't see that there's that much to be gained from obsessing over this and other tangenital issues at the expense of paying attention to the poem qua poem.

I think one of the reasons for my fondness is that it isn't anywhere near perfect. Virginia Woolf was right when she complained about the excessive number of good knight / bad knight fight scenes and the grass turning red does get played to death (unintended pun, sorry). Spenser's use of the extended allegory, his "dark conceit", isn't sustained and some of his male protagonists become more annoyingly stupid than heroic. However, this is the second greatest poem in English and I view it as a very human, enfoibled but loyal friend. I'm not in awe of it as I am of Paradise Lost but I do appreciate its greatness, importance, genius and ability to make me smile a lot. I don't think 'love' would be too strong a word here.

I've been racking my brains to select a couple of examples as ilustration and have settled on a couple that I really like and enjoy. This is stanza 9 from Canto iv, Book III and describes the heroine's emotional turmoil as she searches for Artegall, the love of her life:

    For els my feeble vessel crazd, and crackt
         Through thy strong buffets and outrageous blows
         Cannot endure, but needes it must be wrackt
         On the rough rocks, or on the sandy shallowes
         The whiles that loue it steeres, and fortune rowes;
         Loue my lewd Pilott hath a restless minde
         And fortune Boteswane no assurance knowes
         But saile withouten starres, gainst tide and winde:
    How can the other doe, sith bothe are bold and blinde?

And this is stanza 20 from Canto v, Book V where the fierce and warlike Artegall is made to wear a frock:

    Then tooke the Amazon this noble knight,
          Left to her will by his owne wilfull blame
          And caused him to be disarmed quight,
          Of all the ornaments of knightly name,
          Which whylome he gotten had great fame:
          In stead whereof she made him to be dight
          In womans weedes, that is to manhood shame,
          And put before his lap a napron white,
    In stead of Curiets and bases fit for fight.

Paul Celan's Go Blind

This is the poem that has stayed inside my head for the last forty years. After first working out what poetry might be about (heightened language, compression and some degree of profundity) and encountering Becket's residua, I came across Celan who seemed to be doing all of those things with intelligence and skill. Looking back, it's difficult to recall that (a working class adolescent in north-east England) I had no idea of Celan's international reputation nor even the impact that Todesfugue had had on post-war German culture. Instead I saw it as the logical next step for poetry to take - greater austerity and more enigma - especially the work between 1960 and 70, the last decade of Celan's life.

This particular poem has remained at my side because it is beautiful, mysterious and very short. I make no claim to have much of an idea as to what it might be about but it is exquisitely crafted and expresses v Big themes indeed. I now realise that I prefer Go Blind to other poems that I have a clearer understanding of so maybe the mystery is part of the attraction. I've relied on the original Michael Hamburger translation and was a little discomfited by the discovery that Pierre Joris' translation is different in terms of vocabulary and sentiment and is probably a more accurate rendering of the original. I am nevertheless staying with the translation that first drew me in. Both versions are reproduced elsewhere on arduity, I'll leave indivdual site users to compare and contrast.

The other feeling connected with this poem is that of embarrassed shame because it has only been in the last 6 months or so that I have learned that the last line is in fact a verbatim quote from one of Osip Mandelstam's poems. I don't feel bad about this but I do wish that I'd known about it earlier.

To concluse, I think I've tried to be as clear as I can about this occluded aspect of reading poetry and how I subjectively experience it. There are many other poems that are equally important to me and perhaps I'll address those in the next few months.