What difficult poems are about
The old cliche is that the world and/or life is difficult and that difficult poetry is a reflection of that fact. It is however possible to pick out certain aspects of this difficult world that get written about more than others. There are many more difficult poems about ideology and politics than there are about shopping, for example. Set out below is an entirely subjective list of difficult subjects to gether with some examples.
Difficult poets come with a wide range of political beliefs from all shades of the political spectrum. Ezra Pound was a fervent supporter of the Italian fascist regime and his later work can be read as an anti-semitic polemic. T S Eliot's support of Action Francaise marks him out as being on the far right, his work also displays a degree of anti-semitism. Geoffrey Hill has referred to himself as a "hierarchical Tory" which puts him in a unique corner of the political field. At the other end we have Hugh MacDiarmid who was a committed supporter of the Stalin regime. Jeremy Prynne and Keston Sutherland are both committed leftists who continue to write damning indictments of capitalism and western imperialism.
The reasons for this ideological slant lie in the fact that difficult poets tend to think deeply and and are genuinely concerned about the issues that they see around them. The logic of Pound's anti-semitism may be found in his horror at the devastation wreaked during World War 1 which he blamed on the machinations of international financiers who were Jewish. He had a strong interest in doing away with usury and advocated various schemes to replace this.
This is from Ezra Pound's Canto XLVI-
Hath benefit of interest on all the moneys
whIch It, the bank, creates out of nothIng
SaId Mr Rothschild, hell knows whIch Roth-schild
1861, '64 or there sometIme, "Very few people
"will understand this Those who do WIll be occupIed
"gettIng profits The general public Will probably not
"see it's agaInst theIr interest"
Seventeen years on the case, here
Gents, is/are the confession
"Can we take this into court;'
"WIll any Jury convict on this evidence?)
1694 anna domini, on through the ages of usury
On, right on, into hair-cloth, right on into rotten building,
RIght on Into London houses, ground rents, foetld brIck work,
Will any Jury convict 'um?: The FoundatIon of Reglus Professors
Was made to spread lIes and teach Whiggery, Will any
JURY convict 'urn)
This kind of rehtoric doesn't reflect the whole of 'The Cantos' but I do think it shows that the political is one of the central threads. Incidentally, the underlined quip about banks creating money out of nothing still has resonance now after the collapse of the banking system in 2008.
From the Marxian end of the spectrum, Jeremy Prynne has recently published a poem, 'As Mouth Blindness', which appears to address the political and social fall-out after 2008, this extract is typically oblique but also deeply political-
Time in the news to be not silent indoors, mouth in thought
shut up chew it the choice separates its like or is lame for
wounding in what is due would tell you suffused. For both
market done and stunned in face of, great lack breeds lank less and less claimant for right. Flatter by great expectancy,
for so resemble by just match, no less than fitting the race
to birthright and natal place, our lingo.
This can also be read as a critique of the financial markets and the fact that it is the poorest in society that suffer most when things go wrong, it also carries a call to action.
In these examples both Pound and Prynne are using poetry to express their deepest concerns as most poets do and both are affronted by the problems caused by the way that the world is run. Neither can however be classed as purely 'political' poets. Pound was primaily concerned with poetry and the poetic tradition whilst Prynne continues to mine the depths of the English language.
Writing well about God is fraught with technical and thematic problems. The first of these is writing verse that has new things to say and says them in ways that are not an imitation of what has gone before. The second is to identify themes that are both an honest reflection of what is felt yet avoid sounding like a sermon. Since 1945 only Geoffrey Hill and Paul Celan have managed to overcome these obstacles and (even to these agnostic ears) produce work that is both heartfelt and original.
Whilst very few of us share Hill's partrician/High Anglican perspective, no-one can doubt his sincerity. Hill's faith isn't straightforward- it's something that has to be struggled with and fought for and many of his poems reflect the nature of that struggle. His religious poetry is an inspiring blend of the confessional and the speculative often couched in some of the most beautiful poetry that we have. The following poem is taken from 'Without Title' which was published by Penguin in 2006.
Offertorium: December 2002.
For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:
for late distortions lodged by first mistakes; for all departing, as our selves, from time; for random justice held with things half-known,
with restitution if things come to that.
This is an example of what Hill does best, interweaving features of the English countryside with issues of faith, we start with a fairly straightforward description that gradually glides into something more profound before ending with the hint of self-deprecation in the final line.Some of the words may be difficult and the poem doesn't offer any easy answers but 'random justice held with things half-known' is very powerful.
Paul Celan and religion is a much more complex issue. As a Holocaust survivor and a non-practising Jew, it may be reasonable to assume that Celan had rejected religion altogether but this isn't the case. We know that he took a strong interest in Jewish Mysticism and admired prominent Jewish thinkers (especially Buber and Scholem). His work often addresses a 'you' which on occasion is God. Michael Hamburger (one of Celan's first translators who knew him well) described Celan's faith as a negative theology - God is real but He has gone away but it is more likely that Celan continued to try and reach some sense of a God that was present to him.
The following short poem from the 'Atemwende' collection illustrate this complex and conflicted relationship-
I did hear him,
he did wash the world
One and unending,
Light was. Salvation.
As is usual with Celan, this throws up more questions than answers. Who is the 'him'? What does it mean to wash the world? Does 'light was' mean that there is no longer light? How can something be both unending and annihilated? What does 'I'ed mean or refer to? If 'him' refers to God then other lines would appear to signify divine attributes and activities and salvation is obviously a religious term. Needless to say I'ed (ichten in the original) has divided critics and translators ever since but I think that this shows that Celan tried to engage with faith on a number of different levels and shared that engagment with his readers.
God-related difficulties in the 17th century.
For most of the 17th century religion was the only issue that really mattered and poets of every persuasion entered into the endlessly complicated debates of the day. John Milton, the greatest poet in the language, wrote poems as an expression of his faith but also as a further means of intervention into the theological and political arguments that raged through the middle of the century.
The Paradise Lost problem.
One of the 'key' difficulties of 'Paradise Lost' is the problematic portrayal of God who is described as both grumpy and unforgiving in direct contrast with Satan whose actions and motives are desribed in a more understanding and, according to some, sympathetic manner.
This is God on Satan's initial 'treason':
Against the high supremacy of heaven,
Affecting Godhead, and so losing all.
To expiate his treason hath nought left,
But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posterity must die,
Die he or justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Man's mortal crime, and just the unjust to save,
Dwells in all heaven charity so dear?
I'm going to neatly sidestep the very many erudite debates about passages such as the above but do wish to point out two difficulties that non-academic readers may wish to think about:
- the logic doesn't actually work, if a death other than Satan's needs to be 'paid' then it doen't follow that the death of one of those that did not rebel will suffice;
- there isn't any clear logic either in why the volunteer must become mortal in order to perform the remptive act.
George Herbert and the Arminian problem.
Jeremy Prynne has recently published a detailed reading of Herbert's 'Love III' and rightly devotes a lot of space to the influence of Arminius on the Church of England during the first half of the sixteenth century. George Herbert was a parish priest witha privileged and well connected background who wrote 'The Temple'- a collection of poems describing the poet's faith and his complex relationship with God.
This is the full text of 'Love III'
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guiltie of dust and sinne, But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweelty questioning, If I lacked any thing
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here Love said, you shall be he. I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hande, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them:let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame? My deare, then I will serve. You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: So did sit and eat.
One of the key controversies of post-Reformation Europe was the nature and workings of Grace and this is a brilliant illustration of one aspect of that debate which is further enriched by using the communion ('taste my meat') as the scene for where this process takes place.
Again I'm going to sidestep the very many critical debates that continue to circle around the above and focus instead on motivation. It is possible to read this collection in three different ways:
- as an honest description of one man's personal struggle with faith;
- as a form of religious instruction;
- as an attempt to achieve literary fame.
Initially I was convinced by the first and then I read parts of 'A Priest to the Temple' which is a prose guide on how to be a parish priest. In this Herbert describes how a sudden exclamation can be very effective in moving and inspiring the congregation. Sudden exclamations or interjections are a reccurring device throughout the poems and this may suggest a more manipulative motive rather than an honest expression of personal experience. I'm not persuaded by the third possibility because choosing the relatively obscure life of a country priest seems like an almost deliberate step in the opposite direction to fame.
I'm happy to accept that all three of these may be present to a greater or lesser extent but what concerns me is the possibility that Herbert might be faking elements o his own faith in order to recruit others to his position.
The poetry of place has always been a key component of poetry ever since Homer. The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost and The Canterbury tales all have a carefully worked out spatial aspect. Some more recent difficult poets have carried this strand forward in radically different ways.
Charles Olson's 'Maximus Poems' ostensibly deals with the history of the town of Goucester in Massechusetts but is also a much wider exploration of the nature of time and space. David Jones' 'In Parenthesis' is an account of trench warfare but is also a careful evocation of place. John Matthias' 'The Rivers' is an intelligent account of the history and geography of East Anglia. All of these seek to remind us of the crucial importance of place and the power that it has over us, both to constrain and inspire.
The following is from Volume 3 of 'The Maximus Poems'-
JUST AS MORNING TWILIGHT AND THE GULLS, GLOUCESTER. MAY 1966 THE FULL FLOWER MOON
Just as morning twilight and the gulls start talking the cinnamon moon
goes down over Stage Fort Park one night short of full as I too
almost full also leave those whom I have thought were
equally moving equally at least as much a part of this world and
its character as these rounds of planets - the sun, within
thirty-one further minutes will have started lighting up the East across
East Gloucester arm and if I add this house or its place on the
Earth, three solid powers of being pass in property and
principle acausal in this empirical world as I,
and as I still cannot believe my friends aren't too, no matter
-that this moon in itself is cinnamon and bore
an image in my life as it now going on to china will
flow to the effect of its presence here 12 other
hours - I do not speak of solar proton ion force
effect on both their and my - these two friends, a man & woman
I have reason to say were my only brother- sister, never having
but one, a brother who died at birth a year before myself was born-
That they or I were not effected too in birth and or conception or
in both by either ions stored in earth or thrown at her by
the sun at equinox, like-fluctuation to the moon's twy-
tidal effect. Go down, moon and teach me too to
swallow what by analogy and continuity I now, at 55 know is
as much condition as the purchase of my soul by love as they
Dated May 3rd 1966
This poem comes towards the end of the Maximus Poems, having read the previous 500 pages the reader would be familiar with Stage Fort and Olson's interest in the passage of time marked by the sun and moon. Here, very personal concerns about mortality are carefully placed in the same framework with grat sensitivity and skill.
David Jones was an artist and modernist poet and 'In Parenthesis' concerns his experiences in the trenches. This is done in a mixture of prose and verse that provides a clear sense of the physical/spatial aspects of warfare. Although the reader knows that the account will end badly, Jones seems determined to focus on the battlefield as a physical space as well as a scene of terrible carnage. The first edition of 'In Parenthesis' containe a sketch map of the part of the front line that Jones was writing about.
The following extract if from just after the troops have gone over the top, the wood formed part of the German front line-
There between the thinning uprights
at the margin
straggle tangled oak and flayed sheeny beech-bole, and fragile
birch whose siler queenery is draggled and ungraced
and June shoots lopt
and fresh stalks bled
runs the jerry trench.
And cork-screw stapled trip wire
to snare among the briars
and iron warp with bramble weft
with meadow-sweet and lady-smock
for a fair camouflage.
This kind of lyrical intensity stands in direct contrast to the carnage all around but it does serve to remind us that even the most terrible things occur in a place and that this place, just like any other, has specific physical characteristics.
John Matthias is exceptionally skilled in writing about place. The level of difficlty arises from the amount of proper nouns that litter most of his poetry and the fact that, like Olson, he has mastered the art of saying complex things in an almost conversational manner. In 1991 M atthias published "A Gathering of Ways" whch contains three long poems about place. The following iis an extract from the 'Rivers' section of 'An East Anglian Dyptich'-
...But that the salt sea of say AD500
should be drained from Deben Marshes
that the land be sweet for corn and cattle...
That the river rising beyond Sutton, beyond
Woodbridge wait out flood and tide
for Norman Engineers and then the Dutch,
for every local Fodike, every local Waller,
who might learn the warping
and the inning, reclaim with bank and seawall
or with the sluice & gutter marshes then defended
by the reeves of Walton and
the men of Melton who might write: lately salt,
now fresh...That would take some time.
Some time, too, before the signals flash from
castle cresset, lucomb, lighthouse
or Martello tower up and down the coast
from Goseford to the Alde. No
early warning's here where everything's surprise
South to north, they leaned into the journey,
rounded Landguard Point and
passed by Walton Castle, sailing with the tide
across the sand bar, steersman hugging
his athwartship tiller, small rain
in the oarsman's eyes, wind across the stern.
As with Pound and Jones, Matthias recognises the importance of our cultural history but also wants to situate practices and goods firmly in a geographic space, hence the abundance of place names above. Matthias does provide a reading list for the background to each of the three poems but what the reader really needs is a map.
Memorialisation of the dead is a major theme for some difficult poets. Geoffrey Hill has declared it to be a central element of his practice and said in his 2000 interview with the Paris Review-
My interest in the Elizabethan Jesuits, and in particular Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, is that they seem to me to be transcendently fine human beings whom one would have loved to have known. The knowledge that they could so sublimate or transcend their ordinary mortal feelings as to willingly undertake the course they took, knowing what the almost inevitable end would be, moves me to reverence for them as human beings and to a kind of absolute astonishment. The very fact that they lived ennobles the human race, which is so often ignoble. I also have to admit that I contemplate them to in some way exorcize my own terror of terminal agony. I can go with them to the point where my own emotional endurance can go no further.
There appears to be two main forms of memorialisation:
- a description of a person's life and acheivements;
- a description of the manner in which someone died.
Some of Hill's work falls into the first group (Gillian Rose, Offa, EDrnst Balach) and others into the second (Robert Southwell,Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and all of these embody some of his finest work. I'm not at all sure that I'm as motivated by any 'terror of terminal agony' but I can identify with the desire to write about those who we admire and whose lives can be a source of inspiration to others. I recognise that this excessive interest in martyrdom is a key feature of Hill's work but it does appear to be either endearingly quirky or slightly bonkers- even allowing for the rest of Hill's idiosyncracies.
Most of Paul Celan's work can be read as a testimony to those who died in the Holocaust, especially his parents. There's something about bearing witness or testifying in Celan's later work which has a greater 'density' than Hill's work. The remarkable 'Aschenglorie' is both complex and ambiguous but it ends with a statement that feels like a cry from the depths:
Ashglory behind your shaken-knotted hands at the threeway.
Pontic erstwhile: here, a drop, on the drowned rudder blade, deep in the petrified oath, it roars up.
(On the vertical breathrope, in those days, higher than above, between two pain knots, while the glossy Tatarmoon climbed up to us, I dug myself into you and into you.)
Ash- glory behind you threeway hands.
The cast-in-front-of-you, from the East, terrible.
Nobody bears witness for the witness.
I've chosen this to illustrate the complexities in writing about death. Celan's parents were victims of the Nazi genocide and said that he had spent the war 'digging holes' in German labour camps. The brilliant first word manages to encapsulate many of the things we feel about those that perished during the Holocaust and the final statement seems to highlight the absolute isolation of those that bear witness. This is another of those poems that has been subject to huge amounts of critical attention but I simply want to observe that it encapsulates many of the threads involved when writing about the dead.