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Going Blind with Paul Celan

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Simon Jarvis and the good poet, bad man problem.

John Peck's Canitlena and Magnificence.

J H Prynne Interview in the Paris Review.

Poets

Conceptual and Anthological Difficulties

The c word often gets a bad press in the anglopoem world because it isn't poetry and consequently none of it is any good. I'll deal with the first of these in a moment but I would like to observe that a glance through the stuff that gets published indicates that the quality problem is by no means exclusive to the c poets. Stones and glass houses spring immediately to mind.

The 'not poetry' gibe is nonsense given that a poem is a poem if the maker thinks of it as a poem or if a single reader reads it as a poem. It's also deeply counter-productive in that the standardly poetic poem is the problem with The Poem today which is still enmeshed in and weighed down by whatever Bill and Sam were trying to do in 1805. We (consumers, vendors and producers) need as many forms and types of not poetry poems as we can get. Especially now.

The other problem that we have relates to definition. This slippery adjective is used to describe rule-based work, verbal games, documentary work and various forms of what I still think of as concrete poetry. There are many more sub-genres that are also lassoed and squeezed into the c box but these are the ones that spring immediately to mind. Part of this blanket approach is due to the shifting nature of the definition which seems to be modified by everyone who uses it. Being a simple soul, I'm hanging on to the notion that it is the idea behind the work that is more important than the words on the page. Kenneth Goldsmith (leading US practitioner and all round media star) opined once that it is work which is more interesting and rewarding to talk about than it is to read. Both of these qualities have come ready wrapped with a critique of a poetry that values individual inspiration, skill and originality and that quests after Truth.

I readily concede that I'm a sucker for The Clever but I excuse myself because I treat it with suspicion- wary of The Clever for the sake of cleverness and little else. It strikes me that some conceptualist work is more eager than most to flaunt its intelligence as a kind of compensation for Having Nothing very much To Say.

I have in front of me I'll drown my book which is subtitled as 'Conceptual Writing by Women' and was published in 2012. This collation caught my eye because two of its editors are Caroline Bergvall and Vanessa Place. For more than a few years I've wanted to be Caroline Bergvall almost as much as I want to be Steve van Zandt whilst Vanessa Place is the Future of The Poem and Quite Scary. In Bergvall's Foreword and Place's Afterword they each have a bit of a go at defining this wriggly beast. Here's Bergvall on p.21:

Firstly, there is the road of disengagement. A willingness to constantly, relentlessly examine the means of one's own intentionality, positioning, assumptions, expectations. Acker exclaiming "I sell copyright." Secondly, there is the route of engaged disengagement. A willingness to accept the laughable obsessiveness of one's intent in the face of the all-corrupting consumption machine (in economic, glutinous and medical terms). The skillful play, the trick of showing one's hand. It is dead serious playfulness, interdependence, networked provocation and conscious games. Games as source of perception and knowledge. as a shake up of one's expectations. bliss is the gaping shirt, writes Barthes.

And this is Place on p. 446:

I have previously identified many forms of conceptualism, ranging from the pure to the baroque. These are matters of form. I have come to consider conceptualism, qua conceptualism, that is, as writing that does not self-interpret, is not self-reflexive, at least not on the page. In other words, writing in which the content des not dictate the content: what appears on the page is pure textual materiality no more (and often much less) than what you see on the surface of the page. Conversely, in the way of positive and negative space, conceptualism is also writing in which the context is the primary locus of meaning-making. I have written elsewhere that all conceptualism is allegorical, that is to say, its textual surface (or content) is deployed against or within an extra-textual narrative (oe contextual content) that is the work's larger (and infinitely mutable) meaning. The white cube is only a white cube<, the thin spindly thing is a thin spindly thing./p>

As a fellow cobbler-together, I can only yell in agreement with both of these other than I'm with early Ashbery, ("it is this madness to explain") on meaning but that's my only quibble. I'd like to affirm 'deadly serious playfulness' and 'pure textuality' as having the only chance of saving poetry from its dismally solipsistic self.

This anthology, perhaps more so than others, is a mixed bag in terms of approach and quality. Some work is very good indeed and some is dire-the sort of stuff that presents a ready and easy target to the Mainstream Sneerers. However, I want to concentrate on two that reward quite thoughtful attention. As ever, what follows is tenuous and provisional and I reserve the right to change my mind at any moment in what we think of as the future.

The first is from Chus Pato's Hordes of Writing;


i

From the other side, where we're alone with
time and I is an innumerable that multiplies
and decentres itself

given that this narrator (of "Thermidor") - who
still has no name and whose contract the author
didn't renew as she's inadequate and inconsistent-
couldn't permit herself the history of not being
osmotic even though yes she wore a trench coat.

The account is autobiographical in that the words
that form it are biography

ferocity writes naturalizing poetics; its torpor
opiatic, geometric.

ii

Emotional tension runs high. She orders a shot of
J&B. She evaporates (we find her by the shine of
her boots, but her face blurs). Not even the most
infinitesimal part of the tiniest measure of distance
between her and her surroundings: guardians of
the ambiguous, conversations and above all the
fusion with the black vessel that is really a theatre.
Words, syntactic bits, reverberate in her eardrums,
right to her gut. If what - cinematographic - she's
now watching is the prosthesis of dream, what sort of 
technology is the poem?

iii

Because of him, Oedipus, his alabaster skin, his
Nile-green eyes, his body hunched in the bulwarks,
the sounds of her harmonica, she forgot her sworn
faith in reason, belief in progress. It wasn't then
that she learned the virtues of the dildo and the
equivalency of bodies.

iv

And you, who can never fit together names
and objects.

v

Since she doesn't remember, she takes notes. She
glosses coagulations (on the skin).

Altai, Yablonovy, Stanovoy (mountains)
Darfur, Kimberley, (plains)
Orinoco, Mekong (deltas)
Challenger (tomb)
Ob, Yenisey, Amur, Huang He (rivers)



And the delta, that tongue of earth, full of light,
advances.

These lines caught my eye because of the difference in tone from much of the rest and the amount of ingredients that surprised me and dragged me in. On further examination, it turns out that Pato is Galician and writes in that quietly disappearing language. It also turns out that her statement about her work refers to, amongst other things, the later work of Paul Celan. On the initial reading, the surprises were the trench coat, the boots, the coagulations and Challenger. A second reading reveals more than usual cleverness, even at this end of the Poetising Spectrum. I try hard, most of the time, to subdue my personal predilection for exceptionally intelligent work as this can often be unduly smug and/or an excuse to show off. With Pato however this is more subtle and camouflaged with the exception of "Thermidor" which sticks out like a bit of a sore thumb. I'm prepared to overlook this apparent travesty because for the last six months I've been reading, inexplicably and obsessively, about Russia in the thirties and it turns out that Trotsky and many hapless victims of Stalin's barbaric purges used the T word to describe Stalin's policy of post-Lenin consolidation and 'stabilisation'. It is very much more likely that our poet is here referring to the overthrow of Robespierre and his cohorts in 1794 but I'm allowing myself a little smugness here.

Part one of the above teeters on the brink of pretension and appears at first glance to be an attempt at doing that thing that poetry mustn't do (philosophy). Closer attention reveals that it is subverting itself, that it is a knowingly parodic riff on the kind of thing what Derrida (famous wearer of trench coats) wrote about Celan. At this point this becomes accomplished, astute and funny and impels this particular reader back to the offending essays. I readily confess that I may well be overreading and attributing an intention that may not actually be present but it's a stab in the dark made in good faith. This opening section also seems to deny Place's pure textual materiality and my understanding of what the c word might be about.

Part two seems a little less abstract and more the stuff of fantasy. We'll get on to this in a moment but there's a bit of a puzzle that we need to get out of the way first. Being impressed by this stuff, I've dashed to the Shearsman catalogue and bought the three Pato collections that have been published in English. Both the antholgised bits and the three collections are translated by Erin Moore yet the original has 'volatizes' instead of 'evaporates'. I didn't know the meaning of 'volatize' but the oed tells me that it's very similar to evaporate. This kind of amendment suggests an attention to detail that again seems a bit at odds with the definitions provided by both Bergvall and Place.

As noted above, I like the idea of presence being manifested in the surface of out protagonist's boots which are more appropriate for the trenchcoat than shoes could ever be. We seem to be in a fitful meditation on, or exploration of, what the poem might be. I'm again jumping to hopelessly personal conclusions but the black vessel does have more than an echo of what Celan has to say about the Poem starting in primordial darkness and being under way in search of an encounter. Either way, I'm especially fond of and identify with these poem-bits that reverberate in her gut. The idea that resonates the most with me is the Poem as dream prosthesis. A prosthesis is usually thought of a made object that replaces a part of the body that is no longer present- usually a limb or limbs. To me it's also a symbol of loss, an indicator of extreme damage. Space and inclination prevents me from giving too much consideration to the nature of our dreams other than to observe that they do contain elements of fantasy and whatever the subconscious might be. The idea of poems as stand-ins for dreams is intriguing, especially in the context of poetry as a kind of technology. These are big subjects for me and I'm still in the process of Mulling them Over. I can report that I've got as far as the poem performing the function of a dream rather than simply reporting its content and this being done in a way that acknowledges the damage referred to above. I'm refusing, for many contradictory reasons, to give thought to whatever the appalling Heidegger had to say about technology and instead attending to what David Jones had to say about the utile.

I'm going to seamlessly glide over most of the third part, claiming ignorance re Oedipus on the boat, this harmonica and the virtues of the dildo. The bits that I can recognise are the abandonment of faith in reason and belief in progress. Pato and I were born in the same year and the bright kids of 1955 were brought up on these two, that reason would bring about technological advances that would eradicate disease and hunger and do away with warfare. My forgetting began in 1974 and has continued ever since. The other (small) observation is that I mis-read the last sentence as "It wasn't until then that...." which makes more sense than this statement which manages to be cleverly redundant. Given my ignorance of what else might be going on, I find this annoying.

There are the usual gaggle of suspects for this 'you'- God, a lover, the dead, one of the dead, the reader, the poet. and we're not helped by the marrying up of words to things. If this is a reference to the fundamental rift and ensuing war brought about by Saussure, who pointed out that this 'fit' doesn't / can't exist, then it's trying too hard or not trying enough (I know what I mean). It's also not particularly conceptualist. I'm a little puzzled why this line is present, mainly because it seems to provide an explanation for the poem as a whole that isn't really needed. i'm therefore bracketing this off and trying to pretend that it isn't there. If that makes sense.

Part v is the most obviously conceptual but the list of geographical features is preceded by a gloss about glozing which is further qualified by an image that's more redolent, at least to this readerly ear, of the Late / High Modern. Blood coagulates when it forms scabs over wounds and these can then become scars. Those of us who write about poetry should recognise that doing so is, of itself, damaging the work in a fundamental way. Some work suffers this more than others but the wounds are always inflicted, perhaps especially when degrees of praise are involved. I'm now carrying in my head the idea of the flesh of the poem being gouged into which may take Some Time to dispel.

Being neither a geographer nor a geologist, albeit with a keen interest in Matters Spatial, I've no idea as to the rationale for the selection of the places in the list but I can hazard a guess that Challenger stands for / represents / is the end-point of this previously immutable faith in reason and consequent progress. The inclusion of this tomb, this carrier of failure writ large is startling and demanding.

We now come to deltas. Readers will be delighted to learn that, thanks to the joys of the interweb, I have looked at both of these from space and can report that they appear to be Quite Big but don't seem to this untutored eye to have much else in common. I then began to think about what deltas do and came to the half-baked conclusion that they split and divide a large flow of water, the river, into smaller bits (streams). Staying with this and not delving into silt and fertility, these streams and rivulets are different from each other yet contain the water of the same river. I then made the incisive leap, aka the stab in the dark, back to the previous reference to poetic ambiguity and thus motored through to Celan's acknowledged 'radical' use of this particular device.

This particular guess makes a kind of sense when read against the concluding part which I'm reading as The Poem, this primal thing, moving forward in its own lightfulness. Obviously, if this is the case, this isn't a view that I can share but the poem has kicked off a reconsideration of my entirely subjective position. This doesn't happen often.

Moving on to Susan Howe's extract from A Bibliography of The King's Book or, Eikon Basilike by Edward Almack. This is territory which manages to be both familiar and unfamiliar to me all at once. I've had a love/hate relationship with the English Civil War for many years and am wearily aware of the Book and its various contexts. I'm much less au fait with some aspects of the form in which Howe chooses to present her material. I'm less familiar with Almack's bibliography although I am aware of his reasons for his position. There are two camps on the Book, in the first are those who assert that it was written by Charles II during his internment on the Isle of Wight whilst in the second are those who assert with equal fervour that Eikon Basilike is a complete forgery put together by Royalists after Charles' execution as a cunning and successful (ish) piece of propaganda. For what it's worth, I'm currently bored to death with all the many and various scholarly and political factions that circle around the Civil War. I think of Charles I as a vain man who clearly didn't get the fact that times were changing and thus dug his own grave.

At this point I was going to have a bit of a moan about not being able to provide the extracts that I want because I'm not clever enough to represent the visual devices accurately in a web page. However, I've made use of the smart phone ruse and can now present completely amateur images of some of the things that I'd quite like to discuss.

The poem opens with the title page from the 1898 edition of Almack's book which looks like a straight reproduction of the original. This has been amended in a number of ways.

The next page is;


No further trace

of the printer


IN | HIS | SOLITUDE | To The

Reader the work


Prayers, &c. belonging

to no one without

Reasons

The following page is taken up with a quote attributed to The History of King Richard The Third (unfinished), Sir Thomas More.

And this is the fourth page;

The poem is then concluded with this;

There would therefore appear to be something going on about appropriation, authenticity and authorship as there has been for the last 370 years with EB. It's also important that Howe isn't appropriating EB but its bibliography by assuming Almack's identity and malappropriating his mark on / against the work. All of this is very clever but clever in an academic/critical sense rather than a poetry sense. We'll return to this shortly.

We now deed to have the brief but sighful rant as to this messing-about-with lines rigmarole. I know that there is now a long tradition of this kind of manipulation and that some readers appear to accept and like it. This particular reader has never been keen because it does appear to belie and absence in what's being said, as if the poet is attempting to disguise the paucity of thought/technique/skill by fucking about with how things look. It's a device that prevents me from paying attention- I can't be bothered.

I can't find very much about Almack on the interweb, he's not in the DNB, although he may have been at one time the Secretary at Kings College Hospital. I'm therefore assuming that he's one of those wonderful late Victorian glozing editors to whom we owe some much for their labours in preserving the past. The Bibliography turns out to be a lengthy summation of the various editions and a concerted attempt to establish Charles I as the author of EB;

It will generally be found that the person who readily declares an opinion adverse to the King, and in favour of Gauden, has not read the Eikon. A touching pathos and simple dignity pervade every chapter. In reading these meditations, the King's subjects readily recognised the stamp of the King's own character in every page.....

Whereas, are the concluding points from Howe's footnotes;

At this point we pause for breath.

I'm afraid that my initial and entirely subjective reaction is that this really doesn't work for me. Perhaps naively, I thought we'd sorted out (some time ago) issues of originality, absent middles and ghostly kings. I'm consequently bound to point out that this kind of justification, ironically knowing or not, is more than a little self-indulgent. With regard to the lines going in the wrong directions, I'm afraid that, because they go in the wrong directions, I've been unable to whip up sufficient enthusiasm to pay them sufficient attention. This may well be my problem but it does seem that, unlike Pato, the effort required to take note of what's been said far outweighs the reward of having done so.

The main disappointment is that there are many things of value that could have been done with Almack's book. We could have had something gesturing towards identity and the intertwined notions of evidence and justice, for example.

As a trainee documentarian, this is deeply disappointing mainly because it makes work that is to do with the documentary record seem trivial and inconsequential. I also need to ask what kind of reader it is that's prepared to grasp every part of the work and then accept the paucity of the punch line. By way of contrast, Vanessa Place's work is attractive and satisfying to me because the lines go in the right direction and I'm not told what to think about.

These two are thus at either end of the arduity taste meter. The Pato excerpt delighted and intrigued, refreshing these jaded ears whereas the Howe is a major disappointment, reinforcing my jaundiced view of the mainly poisonous effect of the academy on The Poem.

As the footnote to the Pato extract we have the first three parts of an 'alphabetic interview' done with Pato to coincide with the publication of Hordes of Writing. I'm not going to reproduce all of it but hopefully the following might give some insight into the basis of her work;

The model is not the factory, not the society of knowledge, not computerization or technique. The model is the lager. And the desire of Capital to convert the world into an infinite lager. Behind any of its constructions you'll find the extermination camp.

And;

If we are anything, it's body. You learn it when you age and are more conscious of death. And language is the shuddering of the body.

And this on the greatest poet of the 20th century;

It fits with Paul Celan. His muse was destroyed but there's a remnant from which he writes that testifies to destruction. This remnant is an implant of future. Is Celan an anti-poet? No, Celan is a non-poet. But a non-poet - and here the syllogism concludes - is whoever can be a poet, after Auschwitz.

As might be imagined, these observations (which I read after paying quite a lot of attention to the poem, are similar to my own views - which is always a pleasant surprise. Now isn't the place to mull over language as shudder but it is being given some thought for future use.

I'd like to close with a final thought. Conceptualist work is the only work that has the potential to address the times in which we live. I have no problem with delineating and transmitting its various strands. I do however worry about anthologies such as this spreading the 'net' too far and thereby blunting and sanitizing that potential.

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