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Bearing in mind the key sentence from Dana Greene, I plan now to look for how effectively ‘a spiritual dimension is conveyed’ through the vehicle of her poetry. It’s important to emphasise, given how the word ‘spiritual’ has been deracinated and emptied of specific meaning in the West, as Carrette and King describe in their book Selling Spirituality, that Jennings uses the term in a strong and definite sense which is rooted in her Roman Catholic faith.

The First Sequence of Poems

Immediately, as I warned last time, there is a problem if I just take one poem out of its context. The poem at the top of this post is powerful, with its echoes of Tennyson’s anticipation of Darwin (In Memoriam – Canto 56) where humanity:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

Not that Tennyson, whom she read at school, seemed to resonate with her. However, the poem certainly is not a confident affirmation of a ‘spiritual dimension.’ It also suggests a degree of recoil from what can be other positive human experiences. In the world of this poem, moonlight is connected with predation, blood flowing and teeth gripping. The poem describes men as ‘in bed with love and fear,’ and in a context where ‘human creatures’ being ‘lip to lip’ follows directly on from the owl being dragged ‘upon its prey,’ and even kissing seems potentially dangerous. In fact, later in the poem, we are described as feeling ‘the blood throb to death’ after kissing ‘in trust’ and before conceiving a child. At the close of the poem, pain seems inescapable and love inseparable from fear.

A dark world in which light only seems to help the killers.

The thought began to dawn on me, as I read more, that, whatever Elizabeth Jennings might have wanted to achieve, glimpses of a spiritual dimension were going to be hard won, and perhaps only tantalising glimpses out of the corner of her eye, rather than unequivocal affirmations of her consciously chosen faith.

It seems a good idea to look at the poem that followed on from Song for a Birth or a Death, rather than cherry picking another from a different period of time.

Family Affairs, the next poem, remains in a fairly dark place. It appears to affirm that ‘Indifference lays a cold hand on the heart;/We need the violence to keep us warm.’ Not much progress here towards a sense of the transcendent, then.

A Game of Chess follows. The atmosphere is calmer: ‘Now peacefully/We sit above the intellectual game.’ She even begins to wonder if ‘feelings cool/Beneath the order of an abstract school?’ But I turn the page and find the answer: ‘Never entirely, since the whole thing brings/Me back to childhood when I was distressed.’

However, although this may seem disappointing, since the spiritual dimension remains elusive, at least up till now, it becomes clearer why I value her poetry so much. It is completely honest. It respects and conveys her experience simply and directly, but with enough ambiguity at the edges to allow me to feel I am sharing in her quest for meaning, rather than colluding in some didactic attempt to convey her clear conclusions. The last line of A Game of Chess reads: ‘My king is caught now in a world of trust.’ I’m still not quite sure what that means.

From there we move to the gem of a poem I found in my notebook and which triggered me to go back to her poetry and to find out more about her life.

The poem is poignant and honest. There is grief, I feel, though she explicitly denies it, mixed with the sense of guilt, some perhaps her grandmother’s, hinted at in lines like:

The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut,
The smell of absences where shadows come
That can’t be polished.

In this poem, I feel, she is not preaching at us to be compassionate: she is demonstrating her own strong capacity for compassion. She is setting us a moving example.

Then we come to a poem where you would expect to find what she claims she was seeking to convey: In Praise of Creation.

We are closer now to William Blake in her use of animals. We have a sky ‘full of birds,’ and find ‘the tiger trapped in the cage of his skin.’ Even so we have not escaped the link between birth and death of the first poem: ‘the tigress’ shadow casts//A darkness over’ the tiger, causing his blood to beat ‘beyond reason.’ The closest we can get to the spirit is to find at the end ‘Man with his mind ajar.’

I find that brilliant though, and not frustrating, or at least not more frustrating than real life. It is not frustrating to read because it reflects back a sense of my felt experience, I hear that captured in words in a way that clarifies, pins down, what I sometimes find too hard to catch before it fades away.

The last poem I will consider in this sequence is World I Have Not Made. Here she speaks of themes that resonate through a great deal of her work: ‘trying to love without reciprocity,’ coming ‘to terms with obvious suffering,’ and ‘how even great faith leaves room for abysses.’ In a sense that poem summarises the drift of her work as a whole, missing out only an explicit attempt to define what her poetry is for, though it demonstrates it clearly enough. She fights persistently to deal with love and loss, pain and trauma, faith and doubt, searching for meaning in this kind of ambiguous darkeness.

The Second Sequence of Poems

Which makes my next shift to another sequence written twenty years later intriguing for what it reveals of progress made in probing more deeply into the same ground, as well as extending her range further. Having moved forwards from a first poem in the 1961 sequence, I’ll be moving forwards to the last poem in the 1985 collection.

The end of the poem about her grandmother spoke of ‘the new dust falling through the air.’ The first poem I will look at now, Frail Bone, after pointing out that we are an ‘easily wounded . . . small being,’ refers to us as sand falling ‘through the hour glass of the planet,/Blown through the universe,/And yet that dust delivers/Defiant speech to the last,/Anomalous oratory.’ A paradox of our existence is dramatically flagged up for our attention: we are star-dust that speaks. For someone to find that anomalous is the beginning of a sense that we are not just matter.

The next poem Dust (nothing to do with Lyra by the way) makes this even more explicit: ‘We are people of dust/But dust with a living mind.’ In fact, as the next verse states ‘Dust with a spirit.’ This is directly addressing the spiritual nature of humanity.

For some, this might seem too direct. Poetry should create an experience, some might say, but not tell us what that experience means: this is theology, not poetry. As someone who is also guilty of writing poetry that touches on this issue, though perhaps in a more questioning way (see for example the end of Enlightenment), I am leaning towards feeling that the powerful directness of this phrase belongs in poetry not prose. I am not so sure about what follows, for example ‘grace/Goes to the end of the earth.’ This illustrates what I mentioned earlier, that even in the same short lyric the quality of her poetry fluctuates.

I think she picks herself up again when she writes:

We are dust from our birth
But in that dust is wrought

A place for visions.

The enjambement and stanza break flag up that there is a leap to be made here from dust to vision.  The word ‘wrought’ also makes clear how effortful that is. ‘Visions’ is, of course, a word that cuts both ways – does it refer to imagination or mysticism or both?

The closing lines of that lyric read:

Dust discovers our own
Proud, torn destinies,
Yes, we are dust to the bone.

The insistent and repeated thudding of the letter d adds to the power of the lines, not just with its sound but also with its possibly unwelcome reminder of death.

Which is where she explicitly moves to in the next poem, Water Music.

                                                    Sea music is
What quiets my spirit. I would like my death
To come as rivers turn, as sea commands.
Let my last journey be to sounds of water.

The hissing and buzzing of the repeated s creates a different effect, though, calmer, quieter, more accepting. The word spirit appears for the first time in my selections. Its exact meaning is unclear, which wouldn’t surprise Carrette and King (page 3): ‘There is no essence or definitive meaning to terms like spirituality.’ For Elizabeth Jennings, though, it almost certainly means something close to soul, possibly experienced through the heart. That she sees death as a journey confirms that her vision is essentially transcendent.

And this brings us to the final poem in her 1985 edition of Collected Poems: Precursors.

The mood of the poem is autumnal, echoes of Keats here perhaps, or Shelley, with their odes to autumn. Keats mattered to her (Greene – page 19): ‘She found [his] writing so immediate and fresh that she could not believe he was dead.’ Memories are triggered: ‘I watched as a child the slow/Leaves turning and taking the sun, and the autumn bonfires,/The whips of wind blowing a landscape away.’ Here we encounter a combination of features that tend to characterise her best poetry: longer lines which give more space for exploration and evocation, sensory details that evoke a mood but do not tell us what we should feel, and any relatively abstract words used carry genuine weight, such as landscape here.

Also references to the elusiveness of powerful subliminal experiences creep in: ‘Always it was the half-seen, the just-heard which enthralled.’ The long line here allows space for this idea to flow to its conclusion.

Perhaps the most crucial theme in the poem relates to her mortality, the ineffability of subtle experience and her work:

                                                 This is the world
Once ahead of me, now behind me, and yet
I am waiting still to record some of the themes
Of the music I heard before I understood it . . .

The line shift of ‘Once ahead of me’ reinforces its meaning, as does our wait for the ending of the three long lines and beyond. The verse enacts its meaning, one of the key powers of poetry and poetic prose.

And then she shares another sense of what poetry might possibly do: ‘So I have come/To believe that poetry is restoration/Or else an accompaniment to what is lost/But half-remembered.’ I can relate to this through my own poems about my father’s death and its aftermath. A poem, once written, serves as a vivid reminder of an experience that fades, and also, like a piece of music associated with a half-forgotten memory, it brings the past more clearly to mind.

Elizabeth Jennings also gives us an idea of what it’s like to sense a poem about to break through the surface of consciousness, and how enormous the task of transcribing it can feel: ‘a tune begins/To sing in my mind. It has no words as yet/And a life and a half would probably be too short/To set the music down with appropriate words . . .’

And the last word of the poem is death.

Coherence

I need to look albeit briefly at the extent to which each of the two sequences of poems I have examined are in any way coherent, by which I mean, ‘Do the poems in the sequence enrich one another?’

There is definitely progression in the first sequence, moving forwards from the first bleak poem, but it’s a bit disjointed. In Praise of Creation definitely refers back to the tooth and claw world of Song for a Birth or a Death while also opening the door to possible transcendence. However, while Family Affairs follows on, A Game of Chess seems to mark a complete break and when we move into the world of My Grandmother we’ve left the blood-drenched jungle far behind. I think it’s good that the animal darkness of the first poem is balanced by more humane elements, and I like the way the last poem I quote opens out to other themes, but I had no sense that this group of poems as a whole belonged together.

The second sequence is more satisfactory. The connecting link of dust and death pulls the first few poems together. Though the mood shifts with Water Music, the connection with death is not lost. At first sight we might think that Precursors has broken the mould again, but I don’t think so. Her darker poems of dust explicitly deal with our expressive gifts, and in Precursors she explores in plain sight how she, implicitly as dust, struggles to find ways of giving expression to half-understood intimations. So, the sequence has coherence as well as balance, and in my view indicates that she has moved a long way towards mastering, not only the single lyric, but the sequence as well, all of which vindicates for me the high regard some critics held her in, in spite of her prolixity.

Coda:

So, do I love her poems more for what they say rather than for the poetic skill with which they say it? I think that’s best for you to decide. My own opinion is that, in spite of her weaknesses at times, she does find the words to capture the elusive nature of experiences at the edge of consciousness, as well as grappling sensitively with the tests and trials that afflict us all.

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The Purpose of Poetry

At the end of the last post I asked, ‘What, for Jennings, was the purpose of poetry and to what extent did she achieve it?’

Dana Green’s biography contains a wealth of pointers in this direction. For a start, she argues that (page 250):

Writing verse helped her find unity in herself as she confronted the tumultuous world within and around her.

This is even more compelling an issue now than it was then. Divisions within us resonate with conflicts outside us in escalating spirals of destructiveness. My recent sequence of posts on the Bahá’í concept of unity deals with some of the possible remedies for this in more detail. It’s intriguing that I should perhaps be adding poetry to that list, something perhaps will need to explore in more details at some point.

What exactly this meant to her in practice was less easy to define. She expressed a concern (page 38):

that English poets had ‘lost their grip’ and ‘got too far away from life.’ What she felt was needed were thoughtful poems with big subjects . . .

What were the ‘big subjects’ she was referring to here?

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I resonated in particular to her desire (page 41) ‘to examine the relationship between appearance and the real meaning of things … Her hope was to discover the truths that underlie ordinary experience.’ She hoped to fill a gap in the oeuvre (page 42): ‘ She lamented that there were so many states of mind not yet dignified by poetry.’

Excavated by Greene from her notebooks, her vision is expressed in the following slightly different terms (page 141):

Like all art, poetry is not a means of escape from one’s own life or from a violent world; rather it is an escape into a greater reality. It civilizes and enobles and gives a sense of justice. Poetry is an onward drive forward towards truth and the mystery.

Also important for me is her idea of poetry helping to restore a much needed balance. She wrote in ‘Poetry To-Day’ in 1961 (page 45):

What the poem discovers – and this is its chief function – is order amid chaos, meaning in the middle of confusion, and affirmation at the heart of despair.

Her emphasis on effectively creating ‘unity in herself’ is mirrored in the Bahá’í Revelation. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78):

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

Bahá’u’lláh before him has made it abundantly clear how high the level of unity is that we must achieve both within us and between us. It’s a key spiritual task.

It is not surprising then that Jennings sees poetry as essentially religious. In her introduction Greene quotes Jennings (page xvi): ‘Poetry is an art/That’s close to all/Religion.’ Also as Greene comments (page 52): ‘For her, poetry and religion were inseparable.’

Greene explains Jennings’ most precise description of what this means in practice (page 68):

She defines poetry as the language of embodiment and enactment by which through rhythm, word order, and diction a spiritual dimension is conveyed.

She was under no illusion that it would be an easy task to create and subsequently sell such poems. She believed that (page 94) ‘in the materialistic and technological twentieth century, Christian poets confronted great difficulties, and the greater poet, the greater the conflict.’

In Considerations (Collected Poems  – page 101) she asserts:

But poetry must change and make
The world seem new in each design.
It asks much labour, much heartbreak,
Yet it can conquer in a line.

The Issue of Quality versus Quantity

Before we look at some examples of her poetry trying to determine how successful she was in this respect I need to mention in more detail the caveats expressed by many critics about what they felt was the dubious quality of her poetry at the same time as her popularity remained unquestioned.

As Greene puts it (page 50): ‘Her poetic output was prolific and her subject matter frequently repetitive, both of which were to become major criticisms of her work,’ and again (page 100) ‘a common criticism of Jennings . . . . was that she wrote too much and thereby muffled her good poems.’

This does not suggest, of course, that all her poems were bad. Some critics, though, had more wide-ranging doubts. For example (page 52) Larkin, also a popular poet, acknowledged that Jennings ‘is still an explainer rather than a describer.’

Her publisher, Michael Schmidt at Carcanet, was probably the best placed to testify to her popularity. Growing Points, which marked the beginning of their long publishing relationship (page 119) sold well, had sixteen editions, and was translated into three languages.’

He later explained her continuing popularity (page 186) asserting:

that Jennings was ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement, [and] attributing her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, which was generally written in strict form.’

What is completely uncontested is the depth of her commitment to poetry. Greene shares a typical exchange towards the end of her life (page 177):

She was insulted when people would ask ‘Are you writing still?’ and responded to this ‘hated question’ with the retort, ‘Are you breathing still?’

Now for the difficult bit – how to assess whether the quality of her poetry survived its quantity.

This is inevitably going to be a rather subjective exercise, and I’m aware that many professionals in the field of poetry will probably disagree with my assessment, plausibly explaining my enthusiasm away by flagging up how her themes and personality map onto some of my favourite preoccupations. I will try to root my comments into the firmest possible ground, but in the end de gustibus nil disputandum – there’s no arguing about taste.

I had decided to choose an early poem, one that in my view powerfully conveys the fear which underlay many of her frustrating patterns of behaviour, and a later one, focused more on memories and the challenges of creativity, to examine this in more detail. Bearing in mind the key sentence from Greene, I planned to look for how effectively ‘a spiritual dimension is conveyed’ through the vehicle of her poetry.

I had chosen those poems because the first one deals head on with darkness, through which it would be a challenge for anyone to catch a glimpse of a spiritual dimension’s light. The second one, though melancholy, has more light.

I did not chose any of her poems later than 1985, because the New Collected Poems of 2002 had not arrived in the local Waterstones in time for the end of this sequence.

I have now had time, however, to read the introduction, and it contains a sentence by Michael Schmidt that indicates why I was finding it so difficult to make a start using Song for a Birth or a Death (Collected Poems – page 48), first published 1961 as first poem in a collection of that name, or Precursors, the last poem in her collection of 1985.

He wrote (page xxiii):

Though she wrote discrete lyrics, she is a poet who, like another Catholic writer, David Jones, makes most sense in extenso: the predictable and pedestrian exist beside the epiphanic.

I feel there is unevenness within a single lyric at times, maybe quite often. So, I decided I needed to try and convey her impact by taking a sequence of poems, after only a few brief words about the poems I was intending to expand upon.

Contrary to my original plan, this will have to spill over into another post.

 

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My trigger for this sequence of posts was finding I had copied one of Elizabeth Jennings’ poems into my notebook. I had no memory of having read her, though my copy of her 1985 Collected Poems was riddled with my highlights and glowing comments.

I began re-reading her poems and ordered her recent biography by Dana Greene – Elizabeth Jennings: ‘the inward war’. My excitement carried over into the Death Café even before I had done more than just begun the biography.

The 1964 poem I read to them there was VII: For a Woman with a Fatal Illness out of Sequence in Hospital  (Collected Poems – page 80):

The verdict has been given quietly
Beyond hope, hate, revenge, even self-pity.

You accept gratefully the gifts – flowers, fruit –
Clumsily offered now that your visitors too

Know you must certainly die in a matter of months,
They are dumb now, reduced only to gestures,

Helpless before your news, perhaps hating
You because you are the cause of their unease.

I, too, watching from my temporary corner,
Feel impotent and wish for something violent –

Whether as sympathy only, I am not sure –
But something at least to break the terrible tension.

Death has no right to come so quietly.

Another member of the Death Café group immediately recognized the book I was reading from.

‘I’ve got that one,’ she said.

‘Do you like it?’ I asked, as possessing a book is no guarantee that you like it. I speak from experience.

‘Oh, yes,’ she said.

Why it matters that two people, out of the six attending that evening, both had copies of her Collected Poems and liked the poems in it, will become apparent later. Incidentally, the others seemed to appreciate it too.

As I read further into Greene’s book and revisited more of Jennings’ poems, I came to realize how closely her thinking about poetry mapped onto mine and differed from the critical consensus which seems to favour obscurity over accessibility.

I collided with this issue at the end of my sequence of posts on Machado. I will recap briefly here.

I acknowledged that coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights and that ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post, is a crucial function of poetry, with which Elizabeth Jennings would not disagree. But there is a problem.

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I was happy to go with them up to a point, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I now plan to explore at greater length. And I am not happy to blindly accept that popular poetry cannot, at least sometimes and perhaps more often than we think, take us beyond ‘our present state of awareness.’

The debate sparked by Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry frequently touches on this issue, albeit indirectly at times. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Nonetheless the book won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, which was generally written in strict form.’

I can’t join Hatcher and Hemmat again, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

This is also something this discussion of Elizabeth Jennings and her poetry will return to.

Poems too obscure or repellent to match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is. However, poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either, no matter how many people read them.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Elizabeth Jennings, as well as Machado, rises to this challenge in many of her poems.

And what follows will try to explain why. Stick with me. It might be worth it.

Some Basic Information

I need to start with a few basic facts about her life and poetic career before plunging into the issues I want to address.

Greene’s introduction confronts us with some fairly startling facts about her obsessive productivity (page xiv): in addition to what she published there are ‘30,000 unpublished poems and autobiographical writings.’

She was clumsy as a child, and kept falling over (page 11): ‘By the time she was ten she had had six severe blows to her head.’ She convinced herself she was therefore unlovable. Her relationship with her parents was not close, especially in terms of her father, which caused her problems with both people and God (page 16): ‘Fear of her father and God the Father dominated her psyche.’

Poetry, religion and relationships had both positive and negative effects on her state of mind (page 17):

There were three major turning points in Jennings’ life: her discovery of poetry, her sojourn to Rome, and a mental breakdown.

While, as we will see, poetry helped her in many ways, the intensity of her pursuit of it, fuelled by her need for money at times, led to dangerous levels of exhaustion. Religion constituted the same kind of double-edged sword: in the positive experience of Catholicism in Rome she found solace to compensate for and to some degree counteract her fear of God, but in the end (page 146) ‘[s[he confessed that she could only love God through people . . .’

Before we look at the main issues we need to explore in a bit more detail two other important aspects of her life: the effect on her of her attitude to sex, marriage and relationships, and the impact of suffering.

Neither are straightforward.

Sex, Marriage and Relationships

Sex was a paradox for her (page 23):

She convinced herself that sex was filthy and something to be feared, but at the same time she was intensely interested in it.

This was something that contributed to her reluctance to marry (page 33):

. . . she saw marriage as tedious drudgery… This, plus her lingering fears about sex, limited her interest in marriage.

But that was not the only thing holding her back from tying the knot. In To a Friend with a Religious Vocation, as Greene describes it (page 71):

Jennings directly explores her quandary over the vocation of artist. She writes that she has no desire to have children or to be a nun.

Her conflicted position extended beyond the sexual though (page 131):

The principal psychic issue Jennings wrestled with . . . was how to love. She considered the need for love a part of the human condition which demanded that one be in a relationship with another. But love raised the problem of possession, both being possessed and possessing.

Love was further complicated for her by her religious beliefs (page 132):

For Jennings, the issue was not merely how to love someone purely, but how to love both God and another human.

Which brings us back to the quote I used earlier (page 146): ‘She confessed that she could only love God through people . . .’

When we look at her experience of and ideas about suffering in the next post we will begin to see that all these conflicts served as fuel for her poetry. Popular it may have been, but trivial and superficial it was certainly not, at least at its best.

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No one truth can contradict another truth. Light is good in whatsoever lamp it is burning! A rose is beautiful in whatsoever garden it may bloom! A star has the same radiance if it shines from the East or from the West. Be free from prejudice, so will you love the Sun of Truth from whatsoever point in the horizon it may arise! You will realize that if the Divine light of truth shone in Jesus Christ it also shone in Moses and in Buddha. The earnest seeker will arrive at this truth.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Paris Talks – page 137)

Tu verdad? No, la Verdad,
y ven conmigo a buscarla.

[Your truth? No, the Truth,
and come with me to seek it.]

(Quoted in Xon de Ros – page 226)

In the previous three posts I’ve traversed a wide range of issues impacting on Machado’s poetry, including politics, life’s complexity, doubt, egotism, spirituality and dreams, to name but a few. Just to repeat, before I plunge right in, there are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Reality, Understanding & Language

I am going to move onto slightly different territory now. Truth is the first main focus. As we have begun to suspect, Machado’s characteristic stance is uncertainty. One Day’s Poem illustrates this as it meanders between humour and philosophy, taking its own sweet time. Just over half-way through we stumble over these lines:

Water from true springs
welling clear,
flowing on;
poetry, sprung from the heart.
Something to build on?
There is no solid ground
in the spirit or the wind.
Only oar and sail
drifting on,
down to the shoreless sea.

Trueblood unpacks what underlies this kind of thought (page 68):

. . . it is hard to conceive of his finding ultimate satisfaction within the limitations of a purely existential outlook. There would have remained the doubt of which he was writing…, not ‘doubt after the manner of philosophers… but poetic doubt, which is human doubt, that of a man solitary and uncertain of his path, among many paths. Among paths which lead nowhere . .’

The problem for Machado is that (Trueblood – page 39), ‘personal truths are not truths at all; one must seek the truth.’ He trusts experience but not necessarily his explanation of it (page 45): ‘One never doubts what one sees, only what one thinks.’

This reminds me of my encounter with William James. At the end of my three part sequence I concluded:

My best hope is fairly clear . . . I can always look to refine my imperfect understanding, bringing it ever closer to what I hope is the truth but never knowing whether I have got there yet or not.

Interestingly that completely coincides with what Lamberth reports as William James’s point of view, reinforcing further my feeling that he was indeed a kindred spirit and explaining satisfactorily why I got such a buzz out of finding this second book after reading these words in the first one I had read (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

So, exactly how does Machado think we can capture the closest possible representation of experience?

Reality is complex and fluid. That would make capturing it in words difficult enough. What makes it even more difficult is that our perceptions are not stable either. An understanding of this is not unique to Machado. Xon de Ros quotes Machado (page 5): ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ [‘The sea and the mountain and the eye that sees them change.’] Munch expresses  the related idea that mood alters perception (Prideaux – page 81-83): ‘Experience told him that each individual found his own landscape based on his inner feeling. . . One sees things at different moments with different eyes… The way in which one sees also depends on one’s mood . . .’

Poetry, though, could be the best means of overcoming these difficulties (Xon de Ros – page 4):  ‘. . . the notion of immobility in perpetual change that defines living reality can only be communicated by poetic language (Macrí).’ A further confounding element though is the presence of the past (page 5): ‘Machado’s concern had moved from the past as it is filtered into our consciousness, to the past that inhabits and shapes are reality.’

Given that reality is to a certain degree ineffable there are limits to how far it can be captured, even in poetry (page 116):

‘. . . the effort to make sense of the unpresentable by means of metaphorical substitution inevitably leaves (leads?) the subject to appeal to connections already intelligible within [his] specific cultural context.’ Quoted from Kirk Pillow Sublime Understanding 2000 – page 253.

So not just history but current culture comes into play. These challenges, constituting (page 115) a ‘crisis of representation,’ pave the way for the use of one possible remedy, which is expressed by Mautner (page 209): ‘a predilection for ambiguity of language because it reflects the ambiguity of the world.’

This is where aphorisms come into play at times (page 211): ‘ambiguity is a virtue of the modern aphorism . .’ (Mautner page 816): furthermore, as Vickers points out (page 209): ‘the true aphorist has a fragmented kaleidoscopic vision from which this genre is the perfect form.’

This catapults us back into links with Cubism (page 225 re Nuevas Canciónes):

the contraposition of fragments, jumping and cutting from philosophy to the commonplace, seriousness to humour, seems to preclude a sequential reading, suggesting the simultaneity of the Cubist work. . . . Paradox and uncertainty are prominent in the series.

Obscurity again

The question for me becomes, as I discussed in an earlier post of this sequence, whether there is complete capitulation to unintelligible complexity or not. My sense is that Machado generally stays well this side of gibberish. We need this to be so because (page 227) ‘the mind, nevertheless, seeks pattern, continuity, and coherence in the disjunctive.’

We’ve been here before in my sequence on van Gogh:

He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

‘I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.’

[He has a strong sense] sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

‘Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.’

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it (see Irreducible Mind), needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

However, coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights. Xon de Ros quotes Gifford as saying (page 15) that ‘every real poem starts from a given ground and carries the reader to an unforeseen vantage point, whence he views differently the landscape over which he has passed,’ adding ‘This remark is undoubtedly true of Machado’s best poems.

There was also something else that Frost valued (Matthew Hollis on Edward Thomas page 77), something akin to what Robert Hayden quoted as Auden’s version of it, that poetry is about ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that he never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden again (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I am happy to go with them this far, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I will come back to in a moment. I find it harder to buy into where their next contention takes us (page 17):

We are urged to possess the cleverness to discern how language employs poetic devices to reach out beyond itself, to point us to some larger idea. . . . [T]he poet . . . is attempting something beyond description. . . . Those who are over the course of time considered to be the ‘good’ poets or the ‘great’ poets, most often happen to be the poets who are not always easy to understand.

And the clinching issue is this (pages 17-18):

The good poet, the demanding poet, thus writes for a small audience, people who think it worth their time to go through the intense and sometimes agonising process of trying to figure out what the artful use of language is trying to tell us.

It smacks for me of intellectual snobbery.

It also reminds me of the debate that sparked around Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Some admirers of Geoffrey Hill would probably have thought the same as Lucas. Nonetheless it won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and  attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, this was generally written in strict form.’

I think, however, Hatcher and Hemmat do raise a valid point in saying (page 18):

. . . The artist may not always be concerned with what is the most effective way to communicate to others what insight he or she has achieved. Rather the artist is searching for the best sensual referent or concrete expression for what has been a thoroughly personal experience.

But I can’t join them, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

A YouTube comment from P. Teagan on the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 pins down the reason for my reluctance:

‘Schoenberg, to me, and I’m no music professor, but this perfectly sums up the anxiety I feel constantly through life in its various forms and energy levels. Each voice of the various instruments, the different motifs, and the vigor in which they are played embody the many forms and sources of our daily worry and fears. All the subtle things nagging at our subconscious. The constant fear of death, loneliness, and pain. The true chaos of the universe and our existence. The feeling of loss of order. The realization that everything we experience is just a product of a soft computer sitting in our heads. I definitely don’t feel too great after listening to this, but I absolutely have to respect it for its ability to invoke these strange thoughts and confusing emotions.’

This is exactly why I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. We have more than a soft computer in our heads. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

Their closing remark is unexceptionable speculation (page 19):

The artist may further presume that, having discovered this window on reality, we might somehow be better people for our efforts… the artist may take such delight in the existential act of creating that communication is the furthest thing from the artist’s mind.

My own feeling is that the question is more complex than they acknowledge. Perhaps poets are akin to psychotherapists, whose best pattern of action is to match their communication to where their client is coming from and encourage them to step onto different ground. Successful matching in this way facilitates a meeting of minds that means we are likely to be able to induce others to move from their current constricted position to a healthier place. In the process we learn as well.

Poems that do not match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is: by the time the future understands it, if it ever does, their message will either be too late or already understood without its help. Poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Machado rises to this challenge in many of his poems.

Alter Egos

Another complicating factor of particular interest to me is how the task of capturing experience in words is complicated by the problem of how we decide who we are. Don Paterson raises the basic point, when he says (page 55): ‘there are several Antonio Machados.’ Xon de Ros quotes Machado on Proust (page 185): ‘No conviene olvidar nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’ [It’s best not to forget that our soul contains elements for the construction of many personalities.’] At the very least this triggers (Page 211): ‘the poet’s inner dialogue in which the addressed ‘other’ does not imply a social relationship with the world, but with the poet’s own self.’

The issue is fundamental to an understanding of Machado, as much so possibly as is the case with Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms, though Machado distinguishes his position from Pessoa’s.  Xon de Ros unpacks its exact importance (page 244):

This conception of the self as an aggregate underlies Machado’s theory of the apocryphal, distinguishing this figure from those founded on an originary, unified consciousness: the double, the heteronym, and the pseudonym. Unlike these, the apocryphals are manifestations of what Machado refers to as the essential heterogeneity of the self. . . ‘No conviene olvidar tampoco que nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’

I absolutely accept that this is a not uncommon state of mind. My own sequence on my Parliament of Selves demonstrates that I’m not stranger to this myself. Machado is not wrong in that sense. I resonate strongly to his perspective. However, he is also not seeing it as a fragmentation that needs to be resolved if we are to change ourselves and the world for the better.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it completely clear ((Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78):

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

That He needs to state this at all implies that most of us don’t experience things that way.

Why might this be so important? After all, having a crowd of selves inside sounds quite exciting.

The Bahá’í concept of unity is key.

The unity necessary to discover truth through consultation in the true sense of that word, and then act effectively, depends upon detachment. Bahá’u’lláh writes in the Hidden Words, ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

Not only that. Being detached enough from our lower selves to be at one within ourselves and connected to our true self, the soul in common speech, gives us the best chance of uniting with others, and vice versa of course. That level of unity is what is required if we are going to be able to solve the global problems confronting humanity right now, including the two most challenging – global heating and gross inequality.

Nature

There is so much more I could explore but this last post has already gone for longer than I planned. So, I will deal with an important aspect of his approach to poetry very briefly. Nature mattered greatly to him. Xon de Ros interprets this in a way whose relevance is greater than ever (Page 6):

Machado’s attention to the particular detail – the turn of the river, the quality of its water, the trees along the banks, and the differences between actual rivers – suggests an ecopoetic concern, in which the poet’s relation to nature is re-imagined in such a way as to encourage environmental awareness and responsibility.

Moreover (page 247) ‘[his poems] more often . . .  display a relationship with nature in which the human is not dominant but an integral part of the natural world.’ This view is supported by Gerald Brenan (page 430):

It is . . . a poetry that thinks, and by its thought endeavours to reach down to some inner, deeply hidden core. . . in Machado this language of the soul is expressed through the mediation of natural objects. All through [Soledades] we find certain things in nature appearing and reappearing – rocks, poplars, ilex trees, streams, water. Above all, water. Whether in the form of rivers, rocks, springs, tarns or fountains, his verse plays with it and draws from it a symbolical nourishment.

He concludes (page 435): ‘This was his message – “Awake!“ The eye must be taught to see, not merely to look: the brain to think and the soul to contemplate the eternal, if uncertain, things.

I can’t think of a better place to stop than that.

As usual I am adding at the end a poem that I find particularly resonant. The first version is the original Spanish, the second Trueblood’s translation and finally my recent attempt to render what it means to me in a poem of my own.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una fontana fluía
dentro de mi corazón.
Dí: ¿por qué acequia escondida,
agua, vienes hasta mí,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y las doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las amarguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que un ardiente sol lucía
dentro de mi corazón.
Era ardiente porque daba
calores de rojo hogar,
y era sol porque alumbraba
y porque hacía llorar.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.

 

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
Within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hot sun shining
deep down in my heart.
The heat was in the scorching
as from a fiery hearth;
the sun in the light it shed
and that tears it brought to the eyes.

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

 

The Closest We Can Reach (after Machado)

Last night my dreams were blessed. A vision
came to me. Deep in my heart a spring
of fresh water gushed from some hidden

source. Though I asked the water flowing
past, how its revitalising powers
were formed, it could not say. I am growing.

Tonight my dreams are blessed. From flowers
within my mind, crowds of bees return
to their hive, changing the bitterness

of past loss to soft wax and golden
honey for my cells, lifting my heart
up to a different, higher plane.

Will tomorrow’s dreams, to heal my heart,
again be blessed, with radiant sunlight
this time, hotter than the warmest hearth?

If that should happen, there’ll be no doubt,
in my mind at least – my heart does hold
within it, at its deepest point, what
feels the closest we can reach to God.

‘The Sun’ by Edvard Munch (for the source of the picture see link)

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O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Bahá’u’lláh Arabic Hidden Words No. 67

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

(John Donne Satyre III lines 79-82)

Themes that Resonate

The previous two posts, after a brief look at his life, considered issues such as politics, linguistic obscurity, doubt and egotism in relation to his poetry. Now I’ll begin to look at the themes that resonate most for me. There will some slight overlap with the themes previously discussed. The main problem though will be knowing where to start and when to stop. There is so much I could say.

Just to say, before I plunge right in, there are two main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, and Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Spirituality

Perhaps the best place to start is with the explicitly spiritual aspect of Machado’s poetry, and it’s not just me, with my bias in that direction, finding a spiritual element. It’s there in Machado’s own words, as translated by Trueblood (Page 5): ‘I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.’ Xon de Ros quotes the original Spanish to support her sense of what Machado describes as his genuine voice – voz verdadera (page 186):

However, Paterson’s post-modern notion of a decentred identity is alien to Machado’s metaphysics where the individual consciousness (however problematic) lies behind both the Bergsonian ‘moi fondamental’ and the ‘tú esencial’ of his later poetry. Machado defines his ‘voz verdadera’ in rather abstract terms as ‘una honda palpitación del espíritu; lo que pone el alma, si es que algo pone, o lo que dice, si es que algo dice, con voz propria, en respuesta animada al contacto del mundo.’

I do not feel his doubts about the soul disqualify the use of the word ‘spirit,’ though exactly what he does mean by the term is hard to determine.

Trueblood raises the interesting possibility that his later style has traces of a mysticism which relate at least partly to the impossibility of expressing what he has experienced (Page 57):

The sureness of Machado’s mature touch is revealed in this mere hint of a state of consciousness which, like that of the mystic at the end of his journey, is inherently inexpressible – and, to the modern mind, unknowable.

I’ll be looking more closely at the issue of the inexpressible later. What will also come into the mix is Machado’s use of paradox to convey the ambivalent state of his reaction to experience (Xon de Ros – page 4): ‘paradox invites resolution, urging the mind to expand and move beyond both scepticism and belief.

Dreams & Spirit

Right now I want to look briefly at a poem that illustrates the interconnection in Machado’s writings between spirit, dreams and loss, all issues of concern to me, as readers of this blog will know.

Poem 10 in Trueblood’s selection pulls these three themes together. It opens with ‘Oh tell me, friendly night, so long beloved,/bringer of my puppet world of dreams,/bare barren stage that holds/only my phantom inside . . .’ before shifting later to a sense of loss in the night’s response, ‘I do not know your secret,/although I have seen that forlorn phantom/you speak of, roaming through your dream.’ Night also admits ignorance because ‘in the deep recesses of the soul,/whether weeping is voice or echo/I do not know.’ This intermixing of such themes runs through the whole of Machado’s poetry. The uncertainty here is also characteristic of Machado’s take on reality as I will explore later, explaining why this also appeals strongly to me.

The notes (page 281) shed light on the effect of writing such poems on Machado’s mind by quoting another poem of his: ‘If I speak, my own voice sounds like an echo and my song is so hollow that my pain is no longer frightening.’ I’ll also come back later to another note to this poem – this time one dealing with the issue of our having ‘many personalities.’

Trueblood quotes Machado to explain why dreams were so important to him (page 19): ‘one who does not remember his dreams does not even know himself. . . . I have always been a man very attentive to his own dreams, because they reveal to us our deepest disquietudes, those which do not always reach the surface of our waking consciousness.’ The influence of Freud is detectable here. Their effect, for Machado, is more profound though than Freud’s take on the matter (page 22): ‘Poem 18 . . . equates the inner space of a dream with the deep vault of the soul.’ Trueblood hypothesizes that they are linked perhaps in Machado’s mind with poetry itself, referring to an English Romantic poet (page 200): ‘Keats’s final poem ‘Sleep and Poetry’ establishes a correlation between the two as purveyors of visions and dreams conceived as a source of creativity.’

If anyone needs an explanation of why Machado’s engagement with dreams resonates with me at least as much as his sense of loss, they will find it in my discussion of my Hearth dream. At the end of my explanation I wrote: ‘I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is ‘the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness,’ as a friend of mine once put it in a workshop.’

At the head of the post I had quoted from Machado (Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood: page 90-91):

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
Within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.

Not surprisingly it triggered an arresting thought: ‘An intriguing question arose after I had re-read Machado recently.  Did I read him before I had this dream? Was there some subliminal influence from that encounter? The date I bought the book permits that possibility, but I can’t be absolutely sure.’ A Machado moment if ever there was one!

This poem is one I love to read and re-read. Partly because, as Trueblood explains in the notes (page 281), it is ‘expressive of aspiration to faith but not of its possession.’ The poem ends:

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was–
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

I will be exploring later my uncertainty principle and the idea that John Donne expressed of ‘doubting wisely,’ a turn of phrase to be found a few lines later in Satyre III which I quote at the top of this post. Absolute certainty is elusive and possibly illusory and not the same as the ‘Certitude’ Bahá’u’lláh explores in a book of that name (the Kitáb-i-Íqán). Not all the dreams we have of God are true.

His preoccupation with bees, a frequent trope in his poems, also holds my interest. Until I read Trueblood’s notes, though, I hadn’t realized that ‘bee imagery is not uncommon in manuals of devotion.’ However, there is a caveat here before we assume that this is exactly what Machado means: ‘Whereas the emphasis of the mystical writers cited is on the humility and the diligence of the bees, with Machado it is characteristically on the mysterious powers of creative transformation of their honey-making process, powers here seen at their most striking.’

The ending of the next poem in Trueblood’s selection flags up how far Machado is from the comfort of complete faith, and how close he is to the spirit that infuses R S Thomas’ poetry (page 93):

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming –
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of the vast silence.

That’s enough for now I think. More on resonant themes next time. For now I’ll close with another poem about bees. The first poem below is the Spanish version, followed by Trueblood’s translation, with my lame version trailing behind, though I have improved the ending over my first attempt.

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From Don Paterson’s The Eyes page 9 (The pink highlight, my regular defacement of books, couldn’t be removed.)

Following on from the previous overview of his life and of issues such as politics and accessibility impacting on Machado’s poetry, there are others at work as well, aspects of Modernism for instance.

There are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Aphorisms & Obscurity

Xon de Ros points towards the Poem that Paterson has translated. She concludes that (page 214) ‘Overall, the image suggests an interest in form and shape rather than content, a modernist privileging of aesthetic experience over didactic import.’ His use of aphorisms, a long tradition in Spain, that cancel each other out takes potential confusion further, as Xon de Ros quotes Stern to explain (page 222):

. . . the modern aphorism which has been defined as ‘a genre which more than any other aims at preserving in literary expression the discrete and contradictory nature of lived experience.’ (Stern: 1959)

Aphorisms (page 209) ‘also move in ways which problematize any notion of a single truth.’

And last of all we can’t avoid the impact of Cubism (page 223):

Whiston explains cubicación as the systematic scrutiny of received ideas from multiple perspectives in order to extricate ‘the living reality behind the expression.’ (‘The Cubing of Language in Antonio Machado’s Juan de Mareina:  1989 – page 151)

I am still struggling with how far it is legitimate for poetry, or art in general, to capitulate to the chaos of our current complexities so completely that a poem is completely obscure. I have elsewhere referred to this as brick-wall poetry and the conduct of a ‘quisling.’

My own sense so far, from my reading of Machado, is that he does not usually go that far. There is almost always a trace of music or a haunting image for me to hold onto amidst the fog. Perhaps that’s why Xon de Ros’s comment is more praise than criticism for me. She writes (page 246): ‘it is undeniable though that Machado’s poetry has a certain anachronistic feel to it. . .  [He’s] a modern poet, as it were, by default.’

Faith, Transience & Memory

Also Machado’s reaction to the world he paints is one to which I strongly resonate, as Trueblood indicates (page 35) when he writes  ‘. . . in Machado the poem is less a profession of faith than a doubting with faith.’ He’s following in John Donne’s footsteps here whose injunction to ‘doubt wisely’ I’ve referred to elsewhere. There’ll be more on that later I suspect.

An additional factor, that Xon de Ros picks up on, is the shifting nature of poetic language, something of which Machado was all too aware (page 3): ‘beneath the existential reflection on human transience, there is a preoccupation with the mutability of the poetic word.’

A particularly intriguing issue is the impact of memory on the making of a poem. Trueblood expands on the point (page 20):

Memory for him is less a well than a reservoir, constantly renewed by inflowing and outflowing waters. . . . . [H]owever deliberate the process of recall, time will have been at work on what is recalled. We are thus brought back to the characteristic Machadian emphasis on the transforming action of memory.

My diaries help me grasp this point only too well, as on innumerable occasions I have checked my memory of an incident against my diaries and found my memory significantly at fault. There is no reason why poets should be an exception. Maybe Wordsworth’s dictum, that the core of poetry is ‘emotion recollected in tranquility,’ is no guarantee of accuracy.

It may not even be the memory of the poet alone that works on a poem, as Xon de Ros indicates in Machado’s concept of palimpsest (page 178):

. . . stating that every poem is in a way a palimpsest raises the question of the ontological status of poems, and suggests the view of poetry as a collaborative art…, which involves a ‘comunión cordial’ with the reader.

Landscape & Inscape

Landscape is of immense importance to Machado, and, in a way that matches my own desire to find hints in the outside world to help me decode my inscape. Many of his poems, according to Trueblood (page 42), show ‘with particular clarity that the shifts from outer scene to inner landscape and back again are never absolute breaks in Machado.’ This is reminiscent of what I learned about Munch as well. Ulrich Bischoff in the Taschen book on Munch explains (page 38) that in his painting The Storm, ‘Munch has transfigured the seen world into a landscape of the soul,’ and (page 80) ‘for Munch, landscape always had to convey a message of human import: his visual idiom transformed the reproduction of landscape scenes into landscape of the soul.’ And finally, (page 82) ‘The details of Munch’s landscapes – trees, snow-covered hills, beaches or waves – were also symbols expressing a personal language of the soul.’

Egotism

Many people raise the question of whether art and life are so much at odds that only a self-absorbed narcissist can be an effective artist. For me the jury is still out on that one, even though I have concluded that some great artists are certainly not narcissists. Opinion seems divided about Machado, at least among the critics I have read so far. While Paterson expresses the clear opinion that Machado is not an egotist in his verse at least, when he asserts that (page 55) ‘I can think of no writer so obsessed with the suppression of his own ego . . .’  Xon de Ros seems not so sure (page 202): ‘While Machado’s early poetry shows a degree of ambivalence towards self assertion… the poet’s self-consciousness becomes more apparent in his second collection…’ This caveat has to be balanced against her depiction of the purpose of his poetry (page 207), ‘[The] notion of a depersonalized lyric becomes increasingly linked to an ideal of poetry as the expression of a communal experience beyond the poet’s subjectivism,’ and furthermore the relevance of T.S.Eliot’s tenet that ‘the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continuous extinction of personality’ and his doctrine of poetry as ‘an escape from personality’ and not just ‘the expression of personality.’

His Value as a Poet

In the end, perhaps the clearest summary of Machado’s value as a poet comes towards the end of Xon de Ros’s book (page 245):

. . . while Machado has been a constant presence in Spanish poetry since 1940s, his aesthetics came to the fore in the so-called ‘poetry of experience’ which since the 1980s has become the dominant trend in Spain’s poetic panorama. For the poets of experience the rapport with the reader is a central concern. Rejecting avant-garde poetics and intellectualism, this poetry seeks a rehumanization, focusing on the lived experience and everyday language, while also exploring alternative subject positions and adopting techniques of defamiliarization such as parataxis, dramatic monologue, poetic masks, irony, and metaphysical meditation, to establish a relation with the reader which is close to the ‘comunión cordial’ advocated by Machado.

She earlier attributes part of his recent acclaim to Bloom’s flagging up Trueblood’s translations (page 182):

[Trueblood’s] is the translation recommended by Harold Bloom in ‘The Western Canon,’ where Machado, at least according to Bloom, finally joins the ranks of the modern Immortals.

Interestingly, in my 1994 copy of The Western Canon there is not a single reference to Machado anywhere. Xon de Ros is referring to the 1995 edition, suggesting a rapid change of mind. I felt I had to check this out on the web and did in the end track down a list of Western authors generated by Bloom and published in the Appendix of his Adelaide edition, which includes Machado on the basis of the Selected Poems (see link).

I also do like Gerald Brenan’s verdict (page 435):

He wrote a strong, bare, sonorous verse which has some of the qualities of the best sixteenth-century prose and which is always alive because it is saturated in every part by its rhythm. It has less artifice than that of Yeats and not a trace of mannerism, and when it leaves the ground it takes off with a great spread of wings like, for example, Yeats’ two poems on Byzantium.

Next time more quotes from Machado as we look more closely at the themes that resonate for me. For now there is another poem below that resonates with me. As before the Spanish comes first and Trueblood’s English translation next, both from Alan S Trueblood’s book: my personal rendering comes last as is only appropriate.  Loss is the theme again.

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‘El poeta es un pescador …. de peces que puedan vivir después de pescados.’

[Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape  – page 185)

‘ The poet is a fisherman… of fish capable of staying alive after being hauled out.’

(Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems – Page 7)

The water is deep. Sometimes from far
down invisible messages arrive.
Often it seems it is far more than fish
that we seek; we wait for the
withheld answer to an insoluble
problem

(R. S. Thomas Collected Poems – page 327)

Scanned from Xon de Ros – The Poetry of Antonio Machado

In February last year I declared ‘I am currently going back and re-reading the poetry of Antonio Machado after being triggered by my encounter with The Forty Rules of Love.’ It has clearly taken me some time to get to the point where I feel able to put on record the result of my revisiting his poetry and related books.

Initially I wanted to write about Machado because aspects of his life and the themes he repeatedly returned to resonated for me. As I explored further, reading the views of others such as Xon de Ros, Alan S Trueblood and Don Paterson, I realized his poetry also related to issues of concern to me, but of a different kind. Perversely, it is those I will begin with in detail, after a helicopter biography, before then exploring the themes that attract me in the context of his life.

It might be worth mentioning now, before it gets forgotten, that, to my way of thinking, the UK poet closest to Machado in spirit if not in technique is the Welsh priest-poet R S Thomas, another of my favourites. For instance, they share a similar relationship with God. R S Thomas typically states (Collected Poems – page 361):

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.

Only to have been anticipated by Machado, who wrote (Trueblood – page 227) of ‘The God of distance and of absence.’

There are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotation is clear.

His Life

My sister’s dying four years before I was born triggered my parents’ consequent grief and clouded my childhood. Machado’s life was overshadowed by death in a similar way to mine, which accounts for part of my sense of affinity with him.

He married in 1909. His young wife died of consumption in August 1911. The moment she died is captured in a poem I quoted at the start of my sequence on Los Solitarios, where you’ll also find the original Spanish (the English is my literal translation):

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

He later wrote (Trueblood – page 3):

‘Five years in the Sofia country, now sacred to me – I married there and there I lost my wife, whom I adored – oriented my eyes and heart towards the quintessentially Castilian.’

Xon de Ros places this in context – Leonor was 15 when Machado married her (page 240):

The union, even by the standards of the time, was scandalous – he was heckled outside the church in what the poet would painfully recall years later as one of the worst days of his life.

She describes him as (page 242) ‘. . . one of the most haunted poets of modern Spain.’

Gerald Brennan conveys a vivid picture of the man in the eyes of his contemporaries (page 434):

. . .shabbily dressed, sunk in his own thoughts, almost always alone, the picture of a provincial school master run to seed till one looked at him attentively, both timid and proud at the same time – that is how it appeared to Rafael Alberti in the 1920s. His friends, other elderly provincials: his occupations, walking and reading: his severity, that of the inward-looking man who has had to suffer all the boredom of the classroom.…

Writing his biography, according to Xon de Ros, was an intimidating challenge (pages 240-41):

Gibson [his biographer] is at pains to record a life that looks formidably boring. . . So uneventful is it that the biographer finds himself grasping at [straws] . . . Machado’s life was the life of the mind, that of a contemplative poet.

Xon de Ros clarifies what this might mean in terms of his poetry (page 208): ‘[Wallace Stevens’s] meditative and philosophical poetry has much in common with Machado’s.’

Maybe, as she says (page 200), in his renderings of Machado called The Eyes, Paterson also got the point in his translation of La Noria (literally The Treadmill, in this case working a waterwheel):

In Paterson’s poem the poor old mule is transformed into ‘my wretched old pal’ in the second stanza, suggesting a kind of intimacy which is almost a self-recognition as the poet beholds himself in the mule.

The photograph at the top of the post, taken towards the end of his life, captures this sense of weariness.

His life ended tragically. His more famous much younger contemporary, Federico García Lorca, had been murdered by Fascists in Granada in August 1936: he was 38. In poor health already, Machado fled Franco’s Spain in 1938 trying to save himself, but died in France a few months later on 22 February 1939 at the age of 63.

Issues of Concern raised by his Art

Politics:

A problem that seems to vex a number of critics and literary historians is whether poetry should be political. While I would agree in terms of party politics, many themes that poets draw upon have political implications that are not sectarian and need not be experienced as divisive. As far as I can tell, though, as a result of his education, (Xon de Ros – page 3) ‘liberal principles became part and parcel of Machado’s lifelong ideological makeup, but his was (Trueblood – page 4) ‘. . . a profound conviction that poetry should remain apolitical and that the artist’s integrity required that he keep his distance from centres of power…’

Xon de Ros (page 210) claims that the words quoted from Gray’s Constructive Destruction describe qualities inherent in Machado’s approach: the ‘valorization of the unsystematic over the systematic and a concomitant suspicion of all systems.’ This echoes Sue Prideaux’s perception of Munch, whose true genius I only recently discovered, (her biography – page 326) as ‘an implacable opponent of all –isms . . .’

Early in his life, Machado’s views were mistakenly seen as allied to Franco’s. However, Xon de Ros clarifies that (page 182):

. . . the identification of his work with the Francoist ideology was soon questioned by critics whose vindication of the formalist qualities of his poetry implies his realignment with the poetics of political dissent. . Whereas Lorca’s status as a Republican martyr is based on his political sympathies, Machado’s exile, a trauma which contributed to his death, was the direct result of his political action in favour of the Republic. . .

Clarity

Accessibility is something that matters to me, as my sequence on what I call brick-wall poetry illustrates. Trueblood argues that he is reaching out to a wider audience than a poetic elite (page 5):

He seeks forms of reintegration through dialogue in communion with his fellow-man, his society, his age, and, more broadly, in speculations on a scheme of things from which God has withdrawn.

However, the degree of his accessibility may not be consistent. Xon de Ros flags up an interesting system for categorizing poems which I had not met before, probably because my ambivalence towards Ezra Pound kept me at a distance from his ideas (page 14):

The main strands of Machado’s poetics,… broadly correspond to the three ‘kinds of poetry’ . . . described by Ezra Pound in the late 1920s. . . While the first, ‘in which words are charged with some musical property’ can be associated with the symbolist emphasis of Soledades, Galerías, Otras Poemas, the second, involving ‘a casting of images upon the visual imagination,’ is more prevalent in Campos de Castilla. The third, characterised by Pound as ‘a dance of intellect among words,’ finds more extensive treatment in Nuevas Canciones.

My brick-wall problem may emerge when I’m dealing with Machado’s ‘dance of intellect among words’ – the label does not suggest an appetizing experience for me.

It is clear that obscurity creeps into some of Machado’s poetry. Trueblood pins down the source of the problem (page 32):

The enigmas and obscurities of all this poetry are neither obscurantist nor wilful. They result from the effort to confront fundamental and, often anguishing, perplexities, dilemmas of existence and of mortality.

I’ll be looking at further influences in this direction later. In the meantime this poem conveys both Machado’s sense of loss and his search for God. First is the original Spanish, and next Trueblood’s translation, both from his book. Last comes my rather melodramatic attempt to capture my sense of it in English.

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