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John Peck's 'M' and poetic beauty.

I've been re-reading the above and have decided in this instance to attend to all ten parts rather than one by one. This is because I want to think about aesthetic value using M as an example of how some serious poems manage to carry the beautiful along with depth. In the quite recent past I've held to the view that the best facet of The Poem is that it can do many, many things in very few words and that it can do this with a precision that is far more acute than prose. This, of course, is a personal view that was seeded by my adolescent readings of the later Celan and Beckett's residua.

Peck and a couple of other Americans, especially John Matthias and Allen Ginsberg, have modified this view by demonstrating that it is possible to make something beautiful within serious work. What follows refuses to provide a definition of either of these qualities because that would take me into territory that is already overcrowded. What I'm trying to do here is offer examples from this stunning sequence to demonstrate my point and to invite readers to compare their reaction to mine.

Regular readers know that I'm of the view that poetry demands to be read aloud and that how 'well' it sounds is a baseline indicator of quality. One of the arduity factors in poetic wellness is cadence, something that you can't pick up easily from the printed page. The absence of cadence may not prevent the line(s) from working but it does render it very difficult to read aloud to others without falling flat. Down the centuries cadence has been achieved by meter and rhyme but I would argue that free verse needs to possess this quality by the deployment of phrasing, pace and language use- failure in this regard results in chopped up prose.

Turning to M,, we have this from the first poem in the sequence:


Much as the stone wall across a high meadow seems
a necklace, felt everywhere if touched in one place,
but also matter's huge lattice, netting neither grasses
nor the bellows breath of the herd as they pass, turn, pass,
so the surface of that burning jelled and dispersed.
After these swirling of the vast clock had risen,
after sight had sunk into the tug of its field,
a blood-rose disc condensed upward, and pinning it
in place a dot of platinum, endlessly burnt open.

I think most would agree that this carries enormous technical ability together with a bravura display of poetry working at its best. My question here is whether the above is beautiful, does it create that kind of value. What we appear to have here is the sun rising above a field bordered by a stone wall. For me it is a concise but entirely accurate collation of imagery, the stone wall as necklace, cow's breathing as the action of bellows, the heat of the sun becomes both congealed, clarified, broken up and / or given out. Also of note are the lowering / shading of the eyes being tugged (in most of its different senses) into the meadow which is also the field of sight. The last two lines may be slightly less remarkable but if read aloud these nine lines could heard as a complete poem full of intelligence and wonder.

The arduity default position is to try not to use hyperbole and to avoid using nouns that Tend Not To Mean Very Much. I therefore feel the need to expand briefly upon the deployment of the 'w' noun in the preceding sentence. The word as a noun in everyday parlance denotes something awe-inspiring, something with the power (strength) to render the viewer / reader /listener speechless with delight. The 'w' word as a verb denotes both responding to the above object but also to ponder on something puzzling or yet to be decided- wondering whether it's going to rain tomorrow, what to wear, if the bus will be late etc. So, in defence of this apparent excess, I'm claiming both the noun and the verb, mostly because I'm rendered speechless by the above and I don't know how Peck achieves this 'effect'.

Moving on, I'm going to think about this longer extract from the ninth poem:


Across the square I entered the roughly cut jewel 
of the cathedral. Banners with faded colors
from Joan's victories draped chapels near the apse.
Under that glass without its irrevocable queens,
misty luminosity, though not from the muffled sun.
Then they came, processing from behind the flags,
a file of men, the final one shrouded in gray
with a faint ring of blood over his sheeted head
where a crown would have fitted, which in fact 
he carried in front of him, his arms through slits in the fabric.
Before him walked a guard of three, the focal one
lifting high a Hindu dagger. I recognized
the pattern, ritually designated for the murder
of the precious moi, Sir President, Sir Chairman,
sinuous snakings up the hilt above brass glintings.
And then I recognized the sleeves of the shrouded man
as those of my own shirt. hIs knobbly knuckles were mine.
All went down the left aisle and down to the square
before I found it possible to move, following them
Once into the long place once more quite empty.
Ceiling bulbs in the café, the pair of gruff workers
miniaturized but reconfirmed thing: this was actual.

So, a dream / vision poem centred on a visit to Reims Cathedral which, < href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reims_Cathedral" title="wikipedia on Reims Cathedral">according to wikipedia, was liberated by Joan of Arc in 1429. Then we have a procession with a man whose face is hidden from view but appears to have been bleeding from his brow. To me, this a paradigm of what the serious poem can do in the telling of a scene and/or an event with both precision and lyrical intensity. We'll get to that last bit in a moment but first I want to think about precision. My first glimmers of understanding what the Poem is about is this sense of unerring accuracy expressed very few words. This revelation came to me suddenly from two lines and has informed the attention I've given to poetry ever since. One of the quite a few arduity standards for precision is visualisation as in whether or not we can see in our heads what is been depicted. Peck surpasses this particular aspect with apparent ease, I don't spend much time in cathedrals and I've never been to Reims but I can see the banners silent and still in the misty luminosity just as I have a very clear picture in my head of this mysterious, almost spectral group proceeding down the left side of this vast space and out into the 'normal' city.

In terms of the Other Bit, I tentatively and provisionally set out below what I read as the main ingredients that provide this passage with a concentrated lyricism:

The standard arduity position on lyricism is that we aren't fond of things adjectival that have been flogged to death, neither do we accept the need for Very Many Adjectives At All. In fact, we are of the view that the use of adjectives in The Poem is one of the causes of poetry's current doldrums. However, there are exceptions to most rules and the above is a shining example of how the describing word can be used to good effect in creating a setting and an event that are mysterious and have more than a dab of the sublime in the sense of being of the highest quality and possessing poetic strength. The above pairings illustrate how much effect can be spun out of a few words, how the unusual use of language can achieve something that leaves us with a combination of awe and wonder.

I would argue that all of these are unerringly precise and together create both a visual image together with a strong sense of context and mystery. I just want to highlight three of the above pairings to demonstrate how successful Peck is. The first is the queens who are irrevocable. In France no queens can be brought back because the country is a republic but here this probably refers to the stained glass images of these women that may have been, Wikipedia informs me, destroyed by German shelling in the first few weeks of World War I. The next is the misty luminosity which carries a number of connotations, mysty in the sense of being shrouded in mist, of being blurred, of eyes- welling up due to emotion or recollection, of being obscure and difficult to understand and of being spiritually mysterious. Luminosity refers to light, usually bright light but is also related to the figure of the luminary. Here we have an extremely skillful choice of words embodying a deep contradiction and ambiguity in just two words. I think it's also worth mentioning that this poem sets the scene as a cold morning in January, the mist / laced with convalescence, yet also the toughness of maintenance and harvest in the Champagne which is obviously brilliant. The gruff workers were passed on the way into the cathedral which is very big so I'm guessing that they appear smaller because the dimensions of the cathedral have altered or shifted the protagonist's sense of perspectival space. They also serve as a reconfirmation of the 'real' leading to the closing adjective in many of its various sentences.

In conclusion, I hope that I've provided enough for readers to at least mull over the above and perhaps to arrive at a different but informed judgement of their own.