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Posts Tagged ‘nihilism’

Cronin Beckett

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

At the end of the last post there was a pointer to suggest that it would not be wise to adopt a simplistic approach to Beckett, the man. Cronin, his biographer, had met met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

There does seem a consensus, though, that his later writings at least are unremittingly bleak.

Beckett

The dark side of Beckett’s life was very much reflected in his work.

At the very beginning, when Beckett was transitioning from religion to writing, there was a soon to be eradicated tinge of transcendence (page 147):

[Of his book on Proust Cronin writes that] Although this opportunity to attribute a transcendental belief to Proust is passed up there is certainly a general impression of an attitude to art which partakes of a sort of religious fervour, or rather an attempt to make a sort of surrogate religion art. This attempt is not uncommon among hitherto religious young people who discover art at the same time as they are in the process of abandoning religion.

It didn’t take long before his inherent pessimism kicked this into touch (page 307):

In his vision at its starkest, nothing really changes. As one cause succeeds another, calling for meaningless loyalties and betrayals, we get deeper into the mire. ‘We belong to suffering,’ [says one of his characters].

This was made even more painful in what he saw (page 398) ‘as the artist’s special burden and torment, the categorical imperative to create when combined with the impossibility of creation.’ The effect of this take on creativity was not all bad though (page 374) in the sense that ‘in the work of no other author does hatred for the necessity of creating a fiction shine through so clearly or is the detestation of that necessity expressed with so mordant a wit.’

Kenneth Tynan expressed the opinion (page 448) that ‘for the author of Godot’ passing the time in the dark ‘is not only what drama is about but also what life is about.’

Perhaps the most important factor in shaping Beckett’s art was his insight, after his unpublished early work, that (page 359) ‘instead of writing about that exterior world he should have written about the inner world, with its darkness, its ignorance, its uncertainty.’

Beckett playsOthers, such as Proust, Joyce and Woolf, made the same choice, without ending up in the same place as Beckett did. His decision carried other complicating factors that impacted upon the pattern of his writing:

From this point on there would be an entire abandonment of pretence of any kind, including the ordinary fictive pretences of plot, a total renunciation of all certainties, including philosophic certainties of any kind; and there would instead be a reiteration of ignorance, a restitution to their rightful place in his work of the uncertainties and confusion of which life was made up.

This almost inevitably meant that ‘the mode for such a reiteration and restitution would be the only possible one: first person monologue.’

The bleak legacy of his vision of life did not stop there (page 364): ‘something else would now be banished besides plot and description – something that might be called the hope of salvation.’ And this banishment was unqualified (page 365 – my emphasis) for ‘in the novels and plays Beckett was to write there would be neither the hope nor the fear of any outcome.… Nobody would be found wanting because all Beckett’s characters have already been found wanting. There is no hope for them.’

Cronin has no problem with where this takes us (pages 378-79:

. . . reduced as his characters are to the extreme simplicities of need and satisfaction, indeed by virtue of the fact that they are so reduced, Beckett does succeed in laying bare much of the reality of human situation as well as the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions.

He seems to accept that life is as meaningless as Beckett felt it was. We’re in the realm of extreme existentialism here: life is meaningless even though we cannot help creating meanings to help us live.

He endorses Beckett’s vision as more authentic than most of the work that preceded him (page 383): ‘. . . one could argue that the Beckett man, in all his abysmal aspects, is ‘truer’ to humanity’s real lineaments than most of what has gone before.’ His conclusion is that (page 384):

For 3000 years the bias of literature had been tilted one way, towards the heroic and the lyrical-poetic. Now it has been tilted the other, a process which began with the appearance of the first modern anti-heroes and culminated in Beckett.

Even at this point, such a position runs into serious problems. For example, Cronin lauds Beckett for his honourable uncertainty. Such a degree of uncertainty would be incompatible with a belief that all is meaningless. We may not be able to reach a firm conclusion that there is a meaning and decide definitely what that meaning is, but we would similarly not be able to conclude there is no meaning at all. A secondary problem is that someone’s position of stoic nihilism dismisses the rest of us as deluded and contains more than a hint of arrogance. I am all in favour of Keats’ doctrine of ‘negative capability’ and the need to resist ‘irritably reaching after fact,’ but that is not the same thing as nihilism at all. I will be returning to an examination of this later in the sequence.

Beckett Novels

It is interesting that Rilke, one of my solitarios, confronted his inner emptiness and, according to Robert Hass in his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations of the poems (page xvi), sought ‘to find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency, of human longing into something else.’

Probably the simplest summing up comes towards the end of the book (page 451) When Cronin writes that, in a review, René Lalou lists those critics ‘who had been among the first to hail Waiting for Godot’and ‘proclaim the value of this tragedy of despair not even lit by a glimmer of consciousness.’ Lalou referred to Beckett’s ‘constant use of monologue as an artistic technique, his implacably pessimistic vision and his insistence on the degrading functions of the human body.’

A few additional points may again be worth making.

The first of these paves the way towards Proust (page 182)

. . . few things are more striking about Beckett than his willingness to abandon himself to the life of memory, both in young manhood and later on. Most of the events of life may have been ‘occasions of fiasco’ as they occurred; but the subsequent remembrance of them was nevertheless more tolerable than present existence could ever be.

The second simply amplifies on the dilemma residing in his persistent creativity in the face of his sceptical pessimism (page 375): ‘ The object of the fiction must be truth of some sort; but by definition it is necessarily a lie.’

The last idea points to where he is absolutely different from Proust (page 376):

He yearned for silence, the blank white page, the most perfect thing of all. . . [He felt] more intensely than others that the object of true, achieved and necessary utterance is silence…

The consequence of this being that (pages 376-77) ‘his works would after a certain point get shorter and shorter.’

Night at the MajesticProust

Proust’s relationship with his writing was perceived by his contemporaries as damaging (page 284) in that Dr Maurice Bize felt that ‘Proust was killing himself by overwork,’ and he is reported to have said to his servant, Céleste, (page 303) ‘only when I have finished my work, will I start looking after myself.’ This attitude extended to the minor aspects of self-care as well. Jaloux (page 304) spoke of Proust’s ‘miserable little under-furnished room that testified to his indifference to comfort.’ François Mauriac expressed it rather dramatically in saying (page 305) ‘We must reflect on the extraordinary fate of a creator who was devoured by his own creation…’

His aim was to focus almost exclusively on his writing after his mother’s death (page 83) when he:

sought (during the seventeen years of life that remained to him) to confine himself in a Noah’s Ark of his own devising. . . His life in the Ark helped to preserve the immediacy of his vision of people, objects and sensations.

He (page 91) ‘believed it was the only way he could discover the meaning beneath appearances: that is, to create great art.’

His most celebrated contribution to the novel are his madeleine moments, when a sensation such as taste can trigger a flood of memories (page 98):

These sudden intuitions of a moment are presented with pictorial vividness, and were intended to be as beautiful and suggestive as Old Master paintings… [They] were tantamount to a series of religious revelations, as Middleton Murray wrote in a tribute after Proust’s death, ‘this modern of the moderns . . . had a mystical strain in his composition.

In that sense he is inspiring the work of Joyce, Beckett and Woolf, fellow explorers of the recesses of consciousness.

LehrerJonah Lehrer, in his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, focuses his discussion of Proust particularly on this part of his legacy. He explains that Proust (page 77) believed that ‘only the artist was able to describe reality as it was actually experienced’ and that (page 78) ‘the nineteenth century novel, with its privileging of things over thoughts, had everything exactly backward.’ Proust had concluded that (page 81) ‘only by meticulously retracing the loom of our neural connections… can we understand ourselves, for we are our loom, adding that ‘Proust gleaned all of this wisdom from an afternoon tea.’

Proust was ahead of his time, Lehrer argues, in other ways as well. He believed that (page 82) ‘our recollections were phoney. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications. Take the madeleine. Proust realised that the moment we finished eating the cookie,… we begin working the memory of the cookie to fit our own personal narrative.’ Lehrer contends that (page 85) ‘Proust presciently anticipated the discovery of memory reconsolidation. For him, memories were like sentences: they were things you never stopped changing.’ Lehrer quotes the incontrovertible evidence that our memories are subject to constant editing and reediting.

Richard Davenport-Hines essentially concurs (page 128), quoting Proust when he wrote ‘the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths…’

There are other characteristics of Proust’s art that need adding into this mix. Davenport-Hines feels (page 103) that:

Temps Perdu is the work of an implacable and often anguished moralist who scorned the ways that people‘s conversation and behaviour were usually directed, regardless of their class, by neither the desire to be good nor to be truthful, but by the wish to affirm by their words the sort of people they wanted to be taken for.

He clinically dissects his contemporary world (page 104) ‘in scenes of social comedy and of moral tragedy.’ Proust exposed ‘the babbling, hypocritical, corrupt, decadent tendencies – the negative mass psychology – of his secularised age.’

Davenport-Hines sees Proust’s treatment of homosexuality as a trope (page 139) in that ‘Temps Perdu. . . placed homosexuality more centrally in human experience than any previous novel or treatise, and used it to demonstrate the degenerative squalor of human emotions,’ and used it as (page 183) ‘a secularised representation of humankind‘s fall from grace.’ It was a brave move to make at that point in history, and Proust was anxious about its impact on the acceptance of his novel and his own reputation after the publication of the fourth volume of his sequence. His choice would be viewed rather differently were he writing now.

His jaundiced view of humanity was not confined to sexuality though, it seems (page 216) given that, as Davenport-Hines argues ‘his interests focused on degenerative processes. His fiction is a prolonged study of class degeneration, of moral degeneration and of physical degeneration.’

This helicopter view of their lives and art leaves us with a number of serious questions. These will have to wait till next time. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete.

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How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. [I have now bought the book and my views are expressed in a short sequence starting in March.]  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

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As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)

My recent posts on poetry made it seem worthwhile republishing this pair of posts from 2011. This is the second and last.

Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.

Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.

He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.

I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:

. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.

I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.

[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

(Rain: page 6)

The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:

I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost

the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream

(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)

The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and  rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)

Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world  without imposing it on us.

It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.

That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.

You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities.  And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.

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As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)

My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry to see what else I’d written. This pair of posts from 2011 paves the way for my consideration of brick wall poetry next week. This is the second and last.

Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.

Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.

He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.

I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:

. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.

I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.

[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

(Rain: page 6)

The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:

I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost

the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream

(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)

The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and  rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)

Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world  without imposing it on us.

It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.

That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.

You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities.  And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.

So, someday perhaps I am going to consider, if I can, one or two poets where, for me, the puzzles all too often destroy the poems. But don’t hold you breath.

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As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)

Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.

Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.

He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.

I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:

. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.

I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.

[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

(Rain: page 6)

The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.

The Blinding of Gloucester

Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:

I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost

the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream

(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)

The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and  rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)

Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world  without imposing it on us.

It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.

That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.

You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities.  And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.

So, someday perhaps I am going to consider, if I can, one or two poets where, for me, the puzzles all too often destroy the poems. But don’t hold you breath.

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