Category Archives: Weekend Gloss

Weekend Gloss: Oh Graving Faces

This poem responds to Geoffrey Hill’s injunction, given during one of his recent lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, to the young poet to produce something farouche and surprising: “give us a black swan“. It doesn’t fulfil, or claim to fulfil, that rubric, but rather attempts to sidestep it – rather than “stir up the agon” with Hill, getting tied up in the paradoxes of attempting to fulfil an order to behave unpredictably, it focuses on a very normal thing, “a white / swan on black water / drifting”, and makes it the central figure of a perceived change in, or shift in the sense of, the surrounding natural world.

Black Swan is the title of a fun but ultimately silly film about ballet and sex, and of a book of Nassim Taleb’s I never got all the way through. The latter’s sense of a “black swan” as a surprising event of uncomputable probability is more what I, and I assume Hill, had in mind, although I wouldn’t put it past him to have been thinking of Natalie Portman at the same time.

The “black swan” is an event characterised by its inability to be grasped by what Taleb calls the “degenerate metaprobability” of orthodox accounts of the character of financial risk. Black swans show up from time to time in the normal run of things, but appear as unthinkable exceptions from the point of view of a theory of probability that takes risk to be structurally manageable. Hill’s choice of metaphor appeals to us to see the culture industry, including what is recognised and promoted as poetry within it, as based on a similarly defective, because risk-averse and managerialist, theory of literary profit and loss, and constitutionally unprepared for the black swan that a good poem can sometimes be.

The gambit taken by this poem is to treat a white swan, an ordinary inhabitant of nature, as an “evental site”, a being on the edge of the void. It’s also quite simply the recounting of an anecdote. Many years ago I was out walking along the riverside in Tupsley, Hereford, with my girlfriend at the time who was visiting. Evening had fallen, and we saw a swan drifting in the middle of the river. Chloe, who was studying Classics, felt the presence of the Goddess in the situation, and argued quite sincerely that we should turn back and not continue walking through the fields. Something had changed, and we were no longer welcome: it would have been crass and imprudent to go on disturbing the place with our youthful and somewhat quarrelsome presence. Electing to take ourselves seriously about this, we turned about headed briskly back home, full of spooky thrills and a strange relief at having recognised what was required of us.

The title is from Werships, a piece by the Australian death metal group Portal, which ends with the repeated lyric “Bow! Oh Graving Faces!” – this seemed appropriate to the manifestation of a supernatural visitor.

Weekend Gloss: “Understand Less”

After Slumber is an unfinished sequence about the history of civil disorder in the UK between 1979 and 2009 – “thirty years of hurt”, as another of the poems in the sequence has it. I had a notion of writing one poem for each stanza of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, but came to a halt after just 17, leaving all kinds of things hanging – amongst them “anarchy the skeleton” as a heavy-metal mascot in a chariot race, where the “chariot of Pluto” had careened off-course and was descending into Hades like the good ship Event Horizon. I may take it up again at some point.

Each poem in the sequence began with a “seed phrase”, written in ALLCAPS, with other significant words or phrases appearing ALLCAPSed from time to time. “UNDERSTAND LESS” is a paraphrase of then-British-Prime Minister John Major’s assertion that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less” in an interview given three days after the discovery of the body of the toddler Jamie Bulger, who had been murdered by two primary school children. The quotation also appears, paraphrased as “we should condemn more and understand less”, as an epigraph to Irvine Welsh’s The Marabou Stork Nightmares, a strange, surprisingly ambitious book about the linked cycles of colonial and sexual violence.

Once you have the Bulger murder in mind, I think any obscurities in the poem should quickly resolve themselves. Like Welsh’s book, it’s about violence, fantasy, vengefulness and senseless “oppugnancy” as “the truth of power” (note how “voicing the truth of power” modifies “speaking the truth to power”; it’s significant that “anarchist”, throughout the sequence, is freely applied to both Tory free-market ideologues and the window-smashers of the black bloc – the latter with more sympathy than the former, naturally).  “Some are left / as ghosts in their own lives” refers most obviously to Bulger’s killers, but also to the loved-ones of the victims of such violence, who from time to time are called upon to appear on television demanding vengeance. It’s always seemed to me indecent to incite grieving people in this way. The claim that both “understanding” and “condemnation” are impostures with respect to the tragedy and horror of the Bulger case is being made quite straightforwardly.

Non-readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series may need telling that “CRUCIATUS” is a spell which inflicts agonising pain on an opponent, although Rowling doesn’t actually have her teenage heroes filling their enemies’ bowels with boiling lead. “My appetites are strange / even to me”…

Weekend Gloss: “For amusement, re-run the delectable nude scene”

The Spirit Zone was a sequence of 14-line poems that were not sonnets, which I wrote in the run up to the Millennium celebrations and the opening of what was then known as the Millennium Dome. (The Dome itself is now called the O2 Arena, and is within walking distance of where I currently live). The Dome’s original exhibition was divided into different “zones”, of which the “spirit zone” was one. I never visited it, but I was interested in running the different senses of the word “spirit” through a poem sequence and seeing how they did and didn’t link up.

This poem is constructed around something one of my cousins told me when we were both around 11 or 12, which was that there was a moment in the 1984 film The Woman In Red when Kelly LeBrock sprang naked out of bed, and if you paused it and whacked up the brightness and contrast you could – in spite of the director’s best efforts at tasteful concealment – see her bush. It’s funny what stays with you.

(He wasn’t the only one, apparently, who found this detail of the film particularly arresting:

Review of The Woman In Red, from Rotten Tomatoes
Review from Rotten Tomatoes

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it – or them – myself, although Kelly LeBrock was good fun in Weird Science).

“Troubles march in long lines” is indeed the epigraph to Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography, where I think it’s credited as a Russian proverb. The last few lines of the poem wonder a little about Dworkin’s systematising overview of the ubiquitous phenomena of male sexual violence and predation. Things that look like accidents – like road accidents, of which there are staggeringly many every year – start to fall into line when you take the perspective of an emancipatory global-historical movement. We’re a long way, still, from the realisation of that projected emancipation, which I ended up imagining here as a kind of cataclysmic moment of historical self-awareness, “a trailing shriek of feedback”. Once again, turning up the brightness and contrast until things blur and saturate, and the hidden is abruptly brought to light.

(Why “farcically”, by the way? Because farce comes from forcemeat, stuffing meat – forcing, stuffing, overfilling having here an obviously sexual sense. I owe a lecture of Valentine Cunningham’s, circa 1994, for this bit of etymological insight.)

I’m not sure now that the implicit charge of messianism can be made to stick. Dworkin’s public oratory certainly had a fire-and-brimstone resonance to it (Susan Brownmiller nicknamed her “Rolling thunder”), but I don’t think she thought women’s liberation depended on an apocalyptic moment of all-out sex war. (Well, sometimes she sort of did: “harden your hearts, and learn how to kill” was her advice to young feminists at one point. But then someone like Elliot Rodger or Marc Lépine crawls out of the woodwork, and you’re reminded of what it’s like to feel that way). Dworkin wanted things to happen in the here-and-now; some of them seemingly-impossible things, like “a 24-hour truce in which there is no rape” (who would declare such a truce, on whose behalf? Who would enforce it?). The claim in this poem that “oppression is contingent” is nevertheless too easy an evasion, I think, of the moral force of that demand. Everything’s contingent, including veritable systems of oppression; that’s why it’s possible for them to end.

Weekend Gloss: “Notes like rain outpouring”

“Notes like rain outpouring” is one of the 50 50-word poems collected in Half Cocks. Like a number of other other poems in that series it’s a tribute to a deceased person, in this case the guitarist Shawn Lane.

Lane played fast – ear-bendingly fast. There’s a common saying that praising a guitarist for how fast they can play is like praising a writer for how fast they can type. This is bollocks. Lane used speed in much the same way as John Mclaughlin uses speed, to do something musically that cannot be done by playing the same phrases at a slower tempo. At a certain speed things start to become a blur. You hear the shape of phrases, their outlines, rather than taking them in entire. If the phrases are dull – straight scale runs, or repeated 4-note semiquaver or 6-note semiquaver-triplet note groupings for instance – then this doesn’t add much. I spent a lot of time in my teens going “diddle-dee diddle-dee diddle-dee diddle-dee” over and over again on an electric guitar, trying to build up speed playing common blues and metal licks. Lane’s fast playing, mercifully, doesn’t sound at all like that. He’s playing odd-numbered groupings, moving things around, chucking in all kinds of outside notes, and generally creating patterns in the flurry. What you hear is the patterns.

Here he is explaining how this works:

Towards the end he mentions that he drew inspiration for his own use of syncopation in fast playing from Charlie Parker and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Jazz musicians understand that there can be musicality in speed, that tempo is a significant aspect of how music is performed and experienced. It’s kind of weird that people think that guitarists playing fast are just showing off, although I suppose if you’d had to sit through two hours of straight of me-aged-15 going “diddle-dee diddle-dee diddle-dee diddle-dee” you might feel the same way.

So the opening phrase of the poem, “notes like rain outpouring from overwhelmed / guttering during a deluge” is meant to capture some of the rhythmic qualities of Lane’s playing: “NOTES like RAIN outPOURing from OVerwhelmed” is two trochees followed by two dactyls, and creates an immediate effect of speeding-up, moving from two-syllable to three-syllable metric feet. “GUTtering DURing a DELuge” is then two more dactyls followed by a trochee, with the “-ing” sound moving from the end of the first dactyl to the middle of the second, so that there’s a kind of permutative effect thrown in there as well. (Obviously this wasn’t by design, as such, but that phrasing pleased me and seemed apt – here I’m just explaining why that might have been). If you want to hear what notes like rain outpouring from overwhelmed guttering during a deluge might sound like, try the first minute of this:

I’ve explained what’s meant by “‘transcendental technique’ / now taught in magazines” in a previous post; all I’d add here is that this “transcendental” is also down-to-earth, a kind of earthing of energy. I’m imagining Lane here as bringing fire from the gods, and the writers of columns in “Guitar Techniques” magazine explaining how he did it as keepers and transmitters of the flame.

One anecdote about Lane (in the Requiem for a Master interview with Jonas Hellborg and Barry Bays) has him piling up books about butterflies for private study – he was an omnivorous learner. My impression is that his brain must have been quite unusual, possibly in the kinds of ways that nowadays get you diagnosed with ADHD. The second stanza’s just about that, really, with a reference to the film Papillon thrown in for good measure. I like the pun about “the mind’s uncageable Papillon / fluttering through the fingers”, which plays on the common image of a butterfly slipping between the fingers of someone trying to catch it, but then identifies the butterfly’s motion with the incredibly rapid movement of Lane’s own fingers, expressing the restless agility of his own mind.

The final stanza draws again on the “Requiem for a master” interview – “some kind of spirit” is a direct quotation from Barry Bays: “there was some kind of spirit coming from him that you could feel all around you”. I imagine this as “convected warmth”, like being in a warm room, warmed by air currents convecting heat from some glowing source; but then switch metaphors to link up again with the “rain outpouring” metaphor at the start of the poem. “As torrents remotely / seeded” is a reference both to the bittorrent protocol, which enables rapid transmission of data across the internet, and a section from Longfellow’s “The Musician’s Tale”, which I know from a setting by Edward Elgar that I used to sing at school:

As torrents in summer,
Half dried in their channels,
Suddenly rise, though the
Sky is still cloudless,
For rain has been falling
Far off at their fountains;

So hearts that are fainting
Grow full to o’erflowing,
And they that behold it
Marvel, and know not
That God at their fountains
Far off has been raining!

“Propagating to the last breath” refers both to the fact that “spirit” is literally pneuma, or breath-of-God, and to the fact that Lane died young, of respiratory failure. His spirit propagated widely, prodigiously, seeming to (over-)flow through him as if it came from somewhere else; but his own breath and time as a human being was limited. What I wanted to say was that he seemed to have lived that time absolutely, relentlessly to the full.

Weekend Gloss: Homage to Douglas Clark

The late Douglas Clark was a poet who lived in Bath. Of himself he said “my health, both mental and physical, has never been good and my life has been troubled”. In the best of his poetry, the terrors of acute mental breakdown are described without sensationalism, along with the sadness, inertia and disorientation of life in its aftermath. Lyric poetry typically projects an ego under stress, reinforcing itself through the willed exacerbation of its circumstances. If I can magnify the forces that assail me, then in some sense I can also command them. Douglas Clark’s is not a poetry of command in this sense. His voice can sometimes seem very small, unassuming; his verse flat in affect, matter-of-fact in subject matter. “The antiquated engines of love trundle out,” he writes, “I have forgotten how to write poetry”. In spite of this his poems about cats and kittens were widely enjoyed, which might have bemused this poet whose early models included Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting.

As far as this “homage” is concerned, all of the necessary context can be found by browsing the poems collected on Clark’s still-extant homepage. It may seem odd to dedicate a “homage” of all things to such a “minor” figure, but I admire him for his fifty years (by his own reckoning) of living “a peculiar life, like Spinoza but without his intellect”, for his frankness about the causes and courses of his own failure to thrive, and for the gentleness and openness of his attention to other living creatures.

Weekend Gloss: Arthuriana

Of the two parts of this, the second is I think the better. The poem’s quite old now, and I made a single change to it in posting it here: replacing “ichor” with “blood” (Geoffrey Hill uses “ichor” in a similar context in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, and it seemed too direct a borrowing – although given that the whole thing’s a Geoffrey Hill Tribute Act number, I’m not sure whether this wasn’t a misplaced scruple).

The first part comes in equivocally: “the mythos is as you find it” could read any number of ways. One way of approaching the Arthurian mythos is to find it all a bit silly, as Monty Python and the Holy Grail certainly does. But there’s also the sense that the mythos is in some sense there, waiting to be found or rediscovered, and that its perennial availability for rediscovery is precisely its way of being there. It “is” “as you find it”, for each and every “you” that might come across it. Of course this notion is built into the mythos itself, with Arthur and his knights asleep in Avalon awaiting the moment of need when they must re-awaken. This is a bit of a late addition to the story (attributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth), a kind of self-mythologising appendix; but it feeds into all kinds of things from That Hideous Strength (which recalls Merlin from the grave to combat a particularly nasty rebel-Oyarsa infestation) to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. And of course it’s directly implied in the title (itself taken from Malory) of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a tremendous and, by the end, wrenchingly-sad meditation on war, power and governance. (I owe White, amongst other things, the observation that his Lancelot was “probably sadistic, or he would not have taken such frightful care to be gentle”).

For my children’s generation, their Arthur is probably the boneheaded crypto-homophobic jock portrayed in the BBC’s Merlin – an excellent series, but one which like so many contemporary “re-imaginings” plays subversively with material with which its intended audience cannot be presumed to be familiar (cf Sherlock). My Arthur, I think, is this one:

Re-watching it now, I’m very struck by how the tone of its closing minutes coincides with what I was envisaging and aiming for in the second part of Arthuriana: that late-70s BBC eerieness must have struck deep (although I would have been only 5 when this first aired – it must surely have been an early-80s repeat?). The shift across the two parts of the poem from bathos (“spurs snagging in damp bracken”) to pathos (“the barge drifts / with its burden”, an unconscious borrowing from Eliot’s The Waste Land – “The barges drift / With the turning tide”) accords with how I feel about the myth, I think: the Pythons made great fun of its chauvinistic brutality and face-saving nationalism, but even Monty Python And The Holy Grail can’t entirely withhold dignity from its subject.