Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Art of Reading. Involvement.


"A learned man is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particluar grain of truth upon which he has set his heart...A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset...to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading."


Virginia Woolf, Hours in a Library.

Desecration?

Yesterday, I returned to Reginald Shepherd's blog. I am not sure why. It wasn't an action stirred by thoughts of mortality, a sort of desire to return to some (electronic, virtual) gravestone. It was more to do with, I hope, a wish to know if the blog still existed, as a memorial to his intelligence and writing. Perhaps, it was something to do with reading Alberto Manguel on libraries: I wanted to walk down this particular corridor again to remember what was there...precisely. On returning, I was surprised to see that visitors had left comments. For whom? And which people exactly had left these invisible post-it notes, in the dark, on the pages of his thoughts? Some comments were surreal trolling...but one left me speechless. A poet (that noun is used loosely), in response to another poet (used even more loosely, here, to describe someone who decribes writing as a "release from spiritual baggage") had left a tag for Reginald Shepherd. It was a double shock. Which was the least sensitive, daring to tag a living poet of Reginald Shepherd's standing, without knowing his reputation, just a man who "loved books", or daring to tag a person who was never going to respond, being simply ignorant of the fact that the tagged person had died? Such senseless behaviour mocked all that his civil blog represented and itself represents the nonsense that characterises so much poetry on the world wide web: as inappropriate as a scream in a library, after dark, when the spirits of books are whispering.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Art of Reading. Cruising.


"Of course, reading is also a form of cruising, of looking for heady pleasure in the vapour arising from the words. It may be covertly done under a mask of solitude and scorn...to read, study, write, dream or scheme later; these activities give order to events, give cruising a temporality, for without them everyone would be reduced to a sordid mixture of physical desire, tedium and pain."

Jose Luis de Juan, This Breathing World.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Art of Reading. Magic.


". . .at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts become louder . . . time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep . . . the books become the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page".


Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Thoughts revisited: Milton's Birthday.


The Hermetical Poetics of Lycidas.

Number was significant in Renaissance poetry.
It was something that unified diametrically opposed views of the world.
Number mattered to Astrology, Alchemy, Occultism, Neo-Platonism, Christian Cabala, and through the Bible: Catholicism and Puritanism.
Pythagoras, Plato, Agrippa, Pico, Ficino, Spenser, Sidney, Dee, Chapman, Jonson, Donne, Herbert etc. all created a rich tapestry of symbolism on which Milton could draw. But especially the Bible in Lycidas.
Milton drew on the tradition of “silent numbers” whilst writing On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.The poem divides 1,2,3,4./8/9/10.
It begins with the tetractys, an expression of perfect law…the poem to follow will announce the new law of Christ.
8=Salvation…the theme relating to this is the preparation for the Nativity which will be the world’s salvation;
9=Angelic harmony…the theme within the poem is heavenly sound.
10=Law…the theme of the poem, here, is the new law that will expel the old (the Puritan law that will remove the idolatrous practices of Laud’s Catholicism).

He used numbers extensively and in a much more refined manner in Il Penseroso. For Milton, “silent number” composition worked alongside poetical composition and heard numbers.

This Hermetical art was part of the poet’s craft: has nothing to do with lunatic contemporary readings of Renaissance drama through Cabala or with secret metrical codes in Milton. Silent numbers were not dumb! They were intelligent, mysterious expressions of poetic themes. They were expressive like silences in music.

So what about Lycidas?

Lycidas was written in 1637 as a memorial to the death of Edward King, a Fellow at Christ’s at the same time as John Milton.
The poem is one of 36 entries.
Lycidas was the climactical poem.
Already number was at work.
36 is called the Great Quaternion.
The number was represented as a pyramid: 1 dot, 2 dots, 3 dots….8 dots.
The “star-ypointing pyramid”, as Milton acknowledged in his first published poem “On Shakespeare” was a memorial symbol for surviving time.
A fitting number therefore for King.
36 expresses the book’s intention. Justa Eduardo King naufrago will use musical words to build a monument for the deceased scholar.
With this in mind, one would expect Lycidas to pick up three themes: time, music, remembrance.
Milton’s structuring of Lycidas—captures the bigger picture in the smaller. Everything is there in his poem.

Lycidas has 11 sections.
11 in Greek is Alpha Iota=AI, which Milton refers to in Lycidas. It was the word, according to Ovid, which the Hyacinth bore after the death of Hyacinthus and so a deeply rooted in pastoral elegy: “that sanguine flower inscribed with woe”.

10 sections and a 1 section Coda.
10 sections are the elegy for King. 1 section refers to the poet/author.
Milton knew stellar numerology from Spenser.
He used it in Il Penseroso with the central image of Ursa Major.
Death and memorial stars were recognised by Spenser when he mourned the death of Sidney as Cygnus…the beautiful singing swan.
It has been suggested that the 10 major sections of Lycidas refer to the number of stars in the Lyra of Orpheus( as mentioned by Ptolemy in his Almagest (1515). The number 10 also refers, however, to the constellation of Delphinus. This double possibility is alluded to within Lycidas: Orpheus and Arion who rode the dolphin both occur as images. Arion survived a dangerous sea journey: King did not. Milton, as Orpheus, uses stellar numerology to place King among the stars.
But more would seem to be at work. So, is there something else?

The sections of Lycidas, using line numbers, appear like this:
14/10/12/13/14/21/18/29/33/21/8
There is nothing noticeable here…not immediately, until (as Fowler has identified) you look at the repeats: 14 and 21.
Milton has zoned the poem.

14/10/12/13/14
21/18/29/33/21
8

Something even brighter appears when the lines between the 14 and 21 signatures are added:
14/35/14
21/80/21
Now the silent numbers appear in the sky:
35 was the prime number of harmony for Pythagoras and the Renaissance:
80 was the number of man’s life according to Psalm 90, a key text for Renaissance thinkers because of its cry: “teach us to number our days”.
The central image is one of man’s harmonious days on earth cut short.
This relationship between numbers and time is picked up in another very personal feature running through the metrics of the poem:

King died on Thursday, 10.8.1637.
On that day, there were 14 hours of light and 10 hours of night.
Lycidas has 14 brief lines, 10 unrhymed lines, 24 couplets for the hours of the day.

But most important is the silent significance in the numbers that zone: they are divisible by 7 and refer to 10 weeks (2x7)+ (2x7)+(3x7)+(3x7) or 70 days, this follows Genesis 50:3 and the days of religious mourning, a number also related to the death of Moses. Through this number Milton is paying tribute to the deeply religious King and placing his death explicitly within pagan pastoral elegy and implictly within a Christian framework. Milton's hermetical method shows a perfect synchronism of Orphic and Christian elements... a universal elegy.

The silent symbol is a quiet echo of the images in Milton’s deeply felt elegy:

"So sinks the day star in the ocean bed…"
400 years since Milton's birth, the deep Renaissance elements of his work remain obscure and as such the complexity of Milton, the Puritan militant, is little more than sketched.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Foreigners, Caryl Phillips.





I waited with anticipation for the paperback version of Foreigners to appear. It did not do so, however, in Borders or Waterstones. Its absence in Borders didn’t’ surprise me. But Waterstones? Especially, when the staff kept saying it was due…especially when the stock computer eventually showed 30, “High Stock” level, but not a single copy was on the bookshelves. Finally, it turned out that the books were in stock, yet all had been shelved as non-fiction in the Biography section. That error (?) is a good place to begin a consideration of the book.

Foreigners comprises three novellas. Each deals with a real life. The first, “Doctor Johnson’s Watch”, reveals the life of Johnson’s Black manservant, Francis Barber. The second, “Made in Wales”, relates the main events in the life of the Black boxer, Randolph Turpin. And the final novella examines the case of David Oluwale, a Black immigrant worker persecuted by the police. The three works span from 1752 to 2006 and chart, with some irony, the extent to which a Black individual is always a foreigner within the diaspora. Their content is biographical, without a doubt, but Phillips is interested in something more than biography. His concern throughout the three novellas —or is this a novel?— is the narrative voice and the truths that it might tell.

Reviews of Foreigners, in the UK, have been enthusiastic. David Lammy, in The Guardian, has referred to how Phillips “masterfully illustrat[es]” the concept of the Other in society. This is true. But much of his review (as is often the way with book reviewers) makes the novel yield the political truths that he wishes. So, Foreigners is about “misfits” and how “talent goes unfulfilled”. The novel holds many pertinent messages about crime and disadvantaged youth. Lammy’s is a party-political reading of the novel; and only a partly successful one. In a similar social vein, Margaret Busby, reviewing for The Independent, viewed the novel through Orwell’s eyes, and his fascination with how “foreigners” and racism emerge with the concept of nation-state. As a Black foreigner who made it as a publisher, she found the novel a “disconsolate book” too much involved with the downward trajectory of Black lives. In each case, the reviewers mentioned make the book yield what they wish it to yield. The irony, here, is that is one of Phillips’ interests in Foreigners. How do we read Black lives? How do we read lives within novels? The readings of Lammy and Barber are somewhat simplistic for they impose upon Foreigners patterns of thought: Black lives are about not fitting in and about failing to make-the-grade.

At the close of her review, Busby faults the final novella for “not being easy to follow.” Writing in The New York Times, Adam Goodheart concurred, finding the writing loose and “marred by long, dreary and seemingly pointless digressions”. Looking in Busby’s direction, he also criticised Foreigners for being negative and not showing a positive side to Black Britain. (Mary Seacole prospered in it and Fredrick Douglass applauded it). As the director of the American Experience in Washington, Goodheart’s review adopted an arrogant historical attitude towards Phillips' novel. Such proves him to be a good White American in line with Black American thought. Yippee! It also proves him to be a disastrous reader of the contemporary (English) novel!

In 1967, one of the great experimentalists of the last century, William Golding, published a novel as three linked novellas. This was The Pyramid. In essence, Foreigners is a set of linked narratives. They spark off one another, rubbing like flints, opening flickering questions. In each, the narrative voice is key. Foreigners is a fine fictional experiment. (Something entirely lost upon reviewers like Goodheart, from across The Pond, who seem to lack direction when it comes to fictional experiences). The first novel is a finely crafted masterpiece. Written in the style of the C18 novel, the life of Francis Barber is told with clarity. Stylistically, the pitch is exact, presenting the arrogant and unified voice of its narrator through an English that never falls into pastiche.

“…there were soon few within the doctor’s circle, who found either sympathy or concern for the negro’s welfare. Within a few years of his arrival in Lichfield, the careless Barber, had also, much to the dismay of his few remaining supporters, managed to fully deplete the capital which had been set aside to provide him with an annuity.” (p.21).

Such measured prose could be belong to either Equiano or Fielding, yet what betrays its narrator continually as White is his emphasis on capital and the racist assumptions of the C18: Barber lacked the rational guidance of the White race. This section of Foreigners builds towards a sentimental gesture worthy of Sterne.

The first novella, in Foreigners, closing at it does with the severe illness of Frances Barber, brings the point of writing to around 1800. Historically, the reader is at a liminal point, as one century becomes another. The second novella recreates a similar borderline. It closes with a mention of a statue erected to the boxer Randolph Turpin, in 2001, and a 2006 interview with his daughters, Annette and Charmaine. The style in this second section is typical of C20 journalistic prose, rather detached, without character, but is transformed in the final pages as Turpin is seen through the eyes of his family and the daughters are allowed to speculate on the statue erected in his honour. One tantalising aspects of Golding’s novelist technique was the reversal of perspective at the last minute. And this thought would appear to be in Phillip’s mind in the first two novellas: narrator one is presented with a meeting that could have transformed his understanding, yet he falls back into the prejudiced beliefs of his time: it would have been better for Barber to become Quashey once more and have returned to Jamaica because England was unsuitable for the Black temperament; narrator two begins to see that his narrative of Turpin is a cliché and emotionally deeper than he has described. Written from the outside, the two novellas are the opposite of the form that Phillips has avoided: the emotional first-person slave narrative. They look upon two enslaved (though supposedly liberated) lives to investigate the consciousness of the narrator and the kind of fictions that different centuries favour.

In the final novella, there is a deliberate lack of unity. Unity of voice is what the narrators in the first two novellas achieve. A comparison between Kesper Aspden’s Nationality:Wog and “Northern Lights”, which deal with the same material, helps to illustrate the interests in the closing of Foreigners. Aspden’s factual work is written as a piece of crime investigating, a surveying of evidence, from which a portrait of David Oluwale emerges. The book is intelligently and sympathetically written. But more interests Phillips than the case of David Oluwale: his interest is in history and the dislocation that occurs when personal history collides with it. Just as the first two novellas were held together by a unity of voice, so the third novella becomes a collection of fragmented voices, all of which struggle to cohere as they mime the problem of identity and coherence within the diaspora. Reading the third novella is like reading vocal points in time—from scattered islands. The voices range from the emotional “I” of the opening character:

“I remember he always used to wear a big black coat…” (p.167).

To the distanced, sympathetic voice of a narrator:

“David, do you remember this girl?

This is a creative, narrative voice, liberated in a way that the voices in novellas one and two were not:

“Leaving home. Yoruba boy. With your dreams of being an engineer locked up in your heart.” (p.173)

The sea, which is a constant image throughout Foreigners (Barber is forced onto HMS Princess Royal, Turpin crosses to America on the Queen Mary), becomes an image of dramatic terror. At the most extreme, there are the voices from crime reports, journals and historical accounts. A welter of voices—even the voices in street graffiti—becomes a tide of questions. The de-centering of the final narrative is a piece of triumphant post-modernism, though that triumph is continually questioned as Phillips pursues questions about identity and the kind of identities that fiction might create.

What makes Foreigners a great work of fiction is the thoroughness of its research and how fact is liberated into fiction. Or more accurately, how Phillips studies how fact can be liberated into fiction such that new, living perspectives arise from old prejudices.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Marechera as Magus.


In 1987, The journal Zambezia (from the University of Zimbabwe) included an article by Marechera on the African writer and the European novel. Marechera was never modest about his reading: The Black Insider reads almost as a catalogue of the author’s readings. The eclectic inclusions within this journal, however, are interesting because they suggest some directions taken by Marechera’s mind amongst the labyrinth of fiction.

The article begins with an interesting question:

“If I am looking at something, and I am conscious of myself looking, does that affect what I see?”

Marechera does not answer the questions that he poses. The answer, however, is “Yes”. And it is this self-consciousness that characterises his fiction and the way that he looks. In some ways, Marechera is the voyeur more interested in how he watches than what he watched. For as he says, fiction is a matter of "optics". Given this view-point, it is surprising that Marechera does not mention the master of the nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet and the novel Le Voyeur (1955). Instead, Marechera refers to the main disciple of Robbe-Grillet in English, John Fowles. And to one novel in particular: The Magus. By the time that Marechera wrote and published The House of Hunger (1978), Fowles’ star was truly in the ascendant. In fact, all of his significant work had been published. It is noteworthy therefore that Marechera singles out one novel, The Magus, and why he does so should not be overlooked. Fowles’ novel is a descendant of The Satyricon (the bawdy element in literature) and of the “expansive” psychological trend in the modern novel. Following Bakhtin, Marechera adds Fowles to the “carnival” tradition of literature.

Like the central character in The Magus, Nicholas Urfe, Marechera was fascinated by the spectacle of violence and inquisition. What Fowles read into the magus metaphor (magus, magician, adept, deception, illusion, reality, interrogator and interpreter), Marechera unravelled and re-incarnated as the African shaman. And the writer, for Marechera, consequently became a voyeuristic vampire like creature, a being that consumes his/her art, his/her blood.

At the close of his reflections (from 1986), Marechera states that Ginsberg’s Howl rang in his ears as he wrote The House of Hunger. The outsider parallel is made through this reference, but more importantly Marechera is drawing upon The Magus image within Ginsberg, and his capacity as a poet to mix sex, terror, psychological disturbances and create a dark form of creativity…a disruptive creativity that came from the interrogation of the heart and the tricks of the mind.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reginald Shepherd...

The death of Reginald Shepherd on September 10th came with tragic weight. Given his candid account of his illness, time was not on his side: Death waited in the wings (though unable to catch the winged words that had already flown). The tributes to him have been fitting and moving, though I would wish to differ from the writer who said that Reginald Shepherd was best known as a blogger and from those bloggers who praised his genius whilst admitting that they had never read his poetry. To not have seen Reginald Shepherd as a poet first and foremost is an error…to believe that his identity might be divorced from his poetry is a fallacy. True, Reginald Shepherd happily walked a tightrope with Poetry in one hand and Criticism in the other, could balance the quill and scales with consummate ease, but his love (as revealed by his poetry) was always poetry…the act of making (as he phrased it) the original that would endure rather than the transient new—he valued gold from the crucible rather than bling modernism.

In Orpheus in the Bronx (2007), Reginald Shepherd published a timely essay: “One state of the Art.” Designed as an extended version of his introduction to The Iowa Anthology (2004), this essay outlines the crossroads of modern verse, or post-modern verse, or post-post modern verse ad infinitum. This essay engages with some of the nonsense that often outraged him: the need for poethoods; the discounting of lyricism; and the mythical “school of quietude”. The essay is modern in its vision and yet it derives from older versions of poetic theorizing. The opening claim that “poetry is passion” (70) is pure Milton.

Like Reginald Shepherd, I have no liking for the anti-“school of quietude” critics and poets. Viewed from across The Pond, this appears as American arrogance: it dispenses (in its ignorance) with the whole history of UK poetry, as if contemporary poetry must spring by parthogenseis from hydra-headed American modernism. There is something curiously English about Reginald Shepherd; and I mean that in the best sense. Like Christopher Middleton, he seeks vistas, poetic and critical, and his belief in the experience of poetry rhymes fully with Middleton’s belief in "prosetic space": that poetry is original, not second-hand, is a living first-hand experience, not a re-making of the real in a virtual sphere. Shepherd and Middleton share a world view of poetry and as such never accept the “pre-cooked, processed” nature of language, a language governed by isms— a revolution made from conformism.

At the close of “One state of the Art”, Reginald Shepherd welcomes the poets who approach the self “as an open question”. Presumably, by extension, that means a poetry with an open field (as Duncan would have said) in which the self can be constructed. The poem makes the self, not the self the poem. That view is key in understanding Reginald Shepherd’s dislike of identity poetics and a methodology that places the fixed self before the flux of creation. The final words of this important essay return to Milton. The open poets stand against the “poets for whom the self” is “cynosure” and “mystification” (78). The allusion is to Milton’s divine melancholic whose lyrical blackness cancels out the frivolous “cynosure” of L’Allegro (l.80). The “mystification” of the false poet is transmuted by Milton, in Il Penseroso, to a worship of the links between word and nature—into a truly hermetic poetic placing himself/herself amidst the cosmos. Il Penseroso seeks to revive a new Orpheus for a fallen age. The poetry of Reginald Shepherd does the same. Some have wandered off the track to lament (Romantically) what Reginald Shepherd’s poetry might have been…in years to come. They would be wiser to stay and consider the immense achievement of his poetry as it exists. The poetry of Reginald Shepherd has an hermetic density…like HD’s…which will endure because it was made with Hermes’ flame; and like HD he wrote against Death, bringing creation out of disorder.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Crrrritic!


Recently, Reginald Shepherd offered a series of views on the relationship between poetry and criticism or criticism and poetry (let’s not place one before the other and upset anyone). His comments, as balanced as ever, were a reply to Doug Powell’s dislike of “pitics” and “croets”, an evolutionary development about as much desired (by him) as genetically modified food. The three posts by Reginald Shepherd caused quite a response; and the level of response was more worrying than the starting point. Sarcasm, arrogance, put-downs, misunderstandings, all of it in away showing why criticism is important: had the respondents been better critics they might have listened to each other better. I was tempted to wade into the murky waters beyond a simple comment, but backed off since I sensed all the usual crocodile prejudices were lurking. I had to be content with silently observing that though Reginald Shepherd applauded the “explosion of online discussions about poetry” many of the so-called explosions on the internet, such as this one, frequently turn into damp squibs.

A number of aspects deeply concerned me in the debate and I think they are worth reflecting on.

1) I do agree with Reginald Shepherd that poetry and criticism stand side-by-side. And I would say unequivocally that they stand equally, sharing the same stature. (That is the bias that I bring to this debate). I am bemused, therefore, that anyone would want to separate the critical faculty from poetical. Of course, this is easily done when a person slips in the word “creativity”.

2) A few months ago I offered criticism to a young novelist. He asked for criticism. He received criticism. He replied with the accusation of “critic” which I realised fell just below the word motherfucker as an insult. This so-called young novelist then berated my criticism on the basis that I was an “academic” who had no knowledge of “creativity”. This is one of the most common responses I find on blogs towards any worthwhile comment bordering on “judgement” (Criticism, kritos, to judge). Creativity is the province of the artist: criticism exists beyond the perfect state in which the artist lives. Critics, consequently, are not creative, their thinking is not of the first-order.

3) This stance was well summed up by Joseph Huchinson (of The Perpetual Bird) in reply to Reginald Shepherd:

‘Criticism is a derivative activity—what I would call "second-order thinking." By that I mean that critics attach themselves to a text or texts like remoras to sharks.’

A metaphor creeps in. Criticism is a remora and poetry is a shark. That isn’t the best example of a poetic metaphor in defence of poetry, not exactly a fine example of “first-order” thinking, but that is probably because this respondent has had to sink to the level of subterranean criticism. The relationship between poetry and criticism is based upon commensalism (though I suspect Joseph Huchinson means parasitic behaviour): poetry feeds criticism, but criticism doesn’t harm poetry. I am not sure that such is true. Criticism can be harmful to poetry. Some of Eliot’s ignorant views on Seventeenth Century English Poetry ought to carry a Parnassus Health Warning. And that opens up another disturbing thread in relation to Reginald Shepherd’s argument. So much of the debate raged around Eliot as a poet and critic. Not very wise. As a poet criticising poets, Eliot was a very bad critic.

4) Michael Robbins, who teaches poetry at Columbia College, entered the debate on the side of Reginald Shepherd, but rather entered the field too vociferously, stating with almost Paterian delight that criticism is equal to poetry. He argued that reading some criticism was as rewarding as reading poetry, which to some was rather like saying that a meal at McDonalds could be as good as a meal at The Ivy. Heresy. Heresy. And heresy again. There is some truth, however, in what Michael Robbins says. There is a lot of bad poetry about (especially on the internet), though of course I shouldn’t say that because that betrays a value judgement. (Critic!) And there is a lot of good criticism. Like Michael Robbins, I would have to admit that I have gained as much pleasure in recent years from reading criticism as I have from reading poetry. This aversion to theory/criticism is an unhealthy state for any culture to be in. It not only restricts the reading experience but also prevents the flow of understanding between what different readers see.

5) Another element that was worth noting in the debate—and one that was largely avoided— related to derivation. Two distinct images of poet and critic were constantly presumed. The poet is the Romantic genius unsullied by secondary materials. Thoughts leap from within, original, as fresh as a mountain stream etc. The critic is the shadow, nothing more than Echo hiding among valleys, forever repeating what has already been said. In actual fact, poets today are anything but this. They live very much within the Imaginary Museum (Donald Davie). A poem can begin anywhere, often in a line from someone else’s poem or reflection on poetry (criticism, Apollo forbid!) A poet takes the poem from where it starts, said Robert Duncan, unashamedly acknowledging the multiple roots of modern poetry and its alchemical act of transmutation. And critics, especially artist-critics, are anything but mimics. Ronan McDonald, in his perceptive book The Death of the Critic acknowledges this beautifully. In the criticism of some critics there is a mastery of prose, image, structure, that equals the language of many modern poets and novelists. This isn’t to go as far as Wilde in The Critic as Artist where art improves on nature, but it is an important correction to the belief that criticism is uncreative, as he puts it, “the eunuch at the harem”.

6) Ronan McDonald’s book is a very useful reflection on the current place of criticism—not that anyone mentions it The Harriet debate. One of the ideas he dismantles is John Carey’s belief (in What Good are the Arts?) that the quality of art is relative. McDonald puts it nicely, arguing that this is a strange position for a critic of Carey’s standing to arrive at. More sharply it could be put like this. Only a critic who had lived among the Dreaming Spires of Oxford could afford to offer such an uninspired view of artistic value. John Carey’s book itself actually offers a perspective on this debate. Carey preserves a quasi-mystical view of poetry (the inspired poem preserving its creative ambiguity) whilst demolishing criticism and value, any whiff of Leavisite narrowness and a great tradition in literature (criticism cannot touch the sources of creativity).

7) Another work from which The Harriet debate might have benefitted would be Denis Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets, a superbly written book of criticism that faces the legacy of Structuralism and (negative) Existentialism. In it, Denis Donaghue demonstrates what happens when criticism strays from the power of the voice into silent hermeneutics. How odd that a whole field of criticism written under the guidance of Hermes should forget that the god of interpretation (criticism) was also the god of sound and words (creativity). There is no disjunction inside the mytheme between critic and creator: both are androgynously combined in the god of interpretation and revelation. There is no creative revelation without critical interpretation of events.

8) I admire the view-points of Reginald Shepherd. He is not afraid of theory (unlike too many poets who are uncritical in relation to both themselves and their art). But I would question his conclusion to the debate:

"In this way, it [criticism] is a very valuable tool. "

Or perhaps, re-direct the artisan image by pointing out that Hermes was a consummate user of tools and natural materials—hence the lyre of poetry.

Ronan McDonald concludes his survey of literary criticism by suggesting that criticism has been misplaced. It has become a matter of passing judgement beyond the process of creation. And as it has retired more and more from being evaluative, so it has lost a sense of its own value. It would make sense to connect literary criticism back to the process of creativity so as one interweaves with the other, as Reginald Shepherd claims, not to create an elitist poetry founded on credos and theories, but a deep poetry that as Doug Powell says you can “love”.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Obama, Marechera and the Apes.

A few weeks ago there was an outcry in the US as racist connections were made between Senator Obama and monkeys. The monkey t-shirts made obvious what has long existed in the communal mind. As Henry Louis Gates Jr puts it, Black is seen as simian-like. The monkey/ape (as an image) invariably carries a negative sense in modern culture, but this one-sided image is the product of a one-sided culture— a culture that has strayed from the doubleness of all imagery. It is by no means the whole story.

When Marechera submitted The House of Hunger to his publishers, in 1977, it received one single-minded reading by Esther Kantai:

“The same kind of negative views of human nature permeates through Marechera’s other stories. Take the story “Burning in the Rain”. The main character is a guy who is convinced that he is just like a gorilla…It is clear that the writer does not have a high opinion of the black man. (A Source Book, p182).”

Marechera’s ape=black man equation is, as Kantai correctly points out, very noticeable in the volume of short stories. It is a theme in “Black Skin What Mask,:

“And Christ! when it came to dancing he really made himself look a monkey.” (House of Hunger, p.103).

And runs through a key episode of The House of Hunger, when a Roman Catholic Priest delivers a scathing attack to the novella’s narrator:

“It’s the ape in you, young man, the heart of darkness.”

Repeating Conrad’s phrase, the Priest equates the ape with primitivism, as a symbol of what Africa was before Christ (and the White man) came to redeem it. Yes, it is true that Marechera explicitly links Blackness with Apeness. There is, however, something else implied in the response to the Priest. Insurrection breaks out in the classroom…serious monkeying around. The monkey, here, is a double image, stating the apelike darkness of ignorant youth, suggesting that monkey-mockery is a weapon of the free mind. This theme is heard pointedly in Marechera’s short story from 1981, “Oxford Black Oxford”. Dr Martins-Botha (a name which signifies Botha/apartheid and Dr-Martins/violent and trendy right-wing skinhead shoe wear) attempts a put-down:

“Were you supposed to see your Warden at nine o’ clock?”

To which comes the reply:

“First I’ve heard of it. You see I did not check my mail. Survival instinct, I suppose.”
But the lame joke fell flat on its face. Its monkey face.

(The Black Insider, p.161).

The “monkey face” here has two meanings: by giving a weak response, Dr Martins-Botha has his prejudicial thoughts about class structure and the African simian male affirmed; by failing to monkey around effectively, within language, the narrator falls flat on his own banana skin and does not use the double-sided nature of monkey language to his own advantage.

Outside the commonplace imagery of the Western tradition— a rationalist tradition of single-meanings— the monkey has a very different meaning.


In African tribal art, the monkey connects to the opposite of civilisation. For the Dogon, it represents the anti-rational, that energy which works against civilised values. For the Hemba, it is a marginal figure standing between death and life. The monkey mask guides the passing over into death and provides the humour that restores life. The Chokwe view the monkey as a symbol of wisdom, as a mirror of the human. The Baule carve gbekre or monkey statues which serve as liminal figures between the present and the future, between the world of the here-and-now and the world beyond. The monkey, as Henry Louis Gates Jr establishes in The Signifying Monkey, is a reversal of a “received racist image”; truly, a symbol of the artist “who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language….” (The Signifying Monkey, p.52). The monkey is a prime symbol of doubleness connected to Eshu(neutics) and hermeneutics.

In the hermeneutical tradition, the monkey is viewed as the interpreter. In De Naturae Simia (1624), Fludd cast the monkey in a teaching role, as the artistic intermediary between Anima/Spirit and Microcosm/Nature. This echoes his position in the supposed Hermetical Wisdom of Egypt where the ape accompanied Thoth, the ibis headed god of Wisdom. One of the interesting connections made by Marechera is between the monkey image and religion. They stand in opposition. Bataille adopted a similar position in Erotism, Death and Sensuality, seeing religion as that force which stands between man and the sexual potency of the ape (p.156). Religion is the humanizing element that depletes man of sexual power and leads towards slavery and away from the free and irrational.


The monkey image in “Burning in the Rain” is a complex one. The story opens with a figure and a mirror. The narrator, who likes to “mock” the ridiculous human body, is faced with “The Ape in the Mirror” (p.91). Progressively, the narrator falls under the spell of the ape. He becomes a Black man who experiences cultural blackouts (p.94). His Blackness merges into a psychological blackness. As a result of this, he finds himself covered in soot and in possession of a bag of obscene Christmas cards. The suggestion is that he has come down the chimney with Santa Claus and has become Zwarte Piet, a parody of himself as a Black male blacked-up. In Black Peter, there is also a pun on “peter” as an ancient word for penis. This intimates the nature of his taboo cards. As the possession develops, he next finds himself covered in “whitewash” with a “wig” (p.94). This follows the madness advised by the Priest in The House of Hunger: he has turned himself White and literally “wigged out”, become a frenzied African-European. Finally, he covers his room in excrement and goes ape-shit”(p.95). He covers his universe in excrement and has to biblically uncreate it. (Again, monkey and religion stand opposed). The ape becomes an ominous image, but there is a possible counter-point. At the head of the stream, where the narrator and Margaret are “fused into one” by living power, the unmoving “frost” of the mirror-mind is contrasted with an image of the mind in flux such that opposites meet as “A great breaking spray of it sparkened by rainbows.” (p.93). This image of water and light recalls a sunshower, the South African umshado wezinkawu, the “monkey wedding”.

The monkey/ape in Marechera is an image that encapsulates his writing style: one that refuses to settle and consequently crosses fictional genres like a trickster swinging on tropes.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

What is the What, Dave Eggers. The autobiographical novel?

Kakuma Camp.
Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng.

There was a time when I liked novels unequivocally. Or at least, I seem to think there was a time. I hesitate to say that novels from the past were better than those published today. Novels from the past come with a past history, with a rich context that introduces them. Modern novels come without any additional flavour. It is hard to enjoy and weigh up a modern work of fiction. Put another way: novels from the past come with reputations. A reader isn’t asked to start with the question “Is it any good?” Wuthering Heights is a great novel. Ulysses is a great novel. Tom Jones is a great novel. Middlemarch is a great novel. The aim is to enjoy them, leaving aside what “enjoy” means. But with modern works of fiction, those with real scope, such as Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, or Okri’s Starbook, or Eggers’ What is the What, I am never able to start with “Let me enjoy!”; reading always begins with “Is this any good?”

Dave Eggers’ What is the What is a novel with scope and depth. But it isn’t a novel I can like unequivocally. Recently, I caught the critic Mark Kermode discussing the latest Batman offering. He was delighted, yet disappointed. As he put it, “I wanted to love the film, lose myself in it, but I could only admire it.” “Could only admire it.”

Admire. To look at. To view a separate but related image.

That is very much my experience of reading What is the What. The novel tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng and his escape from Sudan’s genocide, to Pinyudo (Ethiopia), Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya), then life in the USA as one of the “Lost Boys”. Unlike Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, which presented boy soldiering as fact and subsequently became accused of fiction and error, Eggers presents the real story of Achak as fiction. This allows Eggers to frame the story in a way suitable to Eggers— experimental fiction— and to avoid accusations of factual mistakes. Fiction is fiction and all it can truly confess is its fictionality.

The problem with What is the What, then, is not related to memory and truth. The problem is related to how Eggars structures fictional truths. Undoubtedly, the story of Valentino Achek Deng is powerfully told. His is a story of incredible courage. The novel captures that admirably. Yet, there are framing devices which are not convincing. The novel is 533 pages long. Perhaps, it takes a novel of this length to show the educational odyssey of Achak. Perhaps, not. The novel opens in the USA as Achak is attacked and burgled. Achak begins to tell his story (in his head) to his namelss attackers. There is real poignancy as Achak contrasts the brutality of a civilised country to the horrors from which he has escaped. Less convincing, however, is the repeating of this method as Achak continues to tell his story to Julian at the hospital. Yes, the story-telling has an interesting effect…the reader becomes an interloper…but effects seem to matter more than the story at times. The strongest parts of the novel are when this device is forgotten and a reader is calmed into listening to the terrors of Achak’s story. When the novel becomes a brutal lullaby it has incredible impact. Jee Leong Koh has an interesting set of reflections on his blog at the moment that relate to the art and artlessness of the narrative voice. Eggers keeps the story within Achak's mind, his persepective, but doesn't always give that narrative voice a psychological perspective. Like Ford Madox Ford (see JLK above), Eggars does not impose chronology. His narrator goes backwards and forwards, telling the story as it would be in life, allowing the narrator to come alive like a real person: we do not get to know a real person from the egg, but from midway in life, then bits are added on from periods as they become relevant. And those new bits change how we feel about that person. But this method can become a rag-bag of tales...make the narrator more true to life, less fictional, but also less able to reveal the truths that the story needs to show. Readers don't go to fiction to learn what they could learn in real life. I suppose, as a reader, I wanted to know about the inner mind of Achak, yet the fiction did not allow me this extra insight.
Great novels from the past balanced narrative voice and events. Fielding was a master of structural story-telling. At times, What is the What, runs away with itself rather than with Achak. A paradox seems to operate. Eggars has made fact into fiction so as he can control fact, but he has not allowed fiction to impose fictional constraints and give structure to the story-telling. Fiction starts to resemble the mess of life and become uncontrolled.

What is the What is a very important modern novel. I ended up admiring it, though I wanted to like it more than that.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Her" by H.D. The modern novel in hermetic terms.


Hilda Doolitle belonged to the Pound Era. That familiar description does her a real injustice. The novel Her, written, in 1927, though not published until the 1980s, shows why. In 1927, Hilda Doolittle, by now known as the poet H.D. writes a wonderful analysis of the early Pound. He emerges not as biographies of Pound like to tell: the sun around which satellites, like H.D. revolved. He is subsumed into a different kind of modernism— H.D.’s version! And this is every bit as challenging as Pound’s.

The novel concerns a love triangle. George Lowndes (aesthete and poet Ezra Pound) is in love with Hermione Gart (Hilda Doolittle). Hermione is infatuated with George and Fayne Rabb (Hilda Doolittle’s female love, Frances Gregg). The biographical nature of the novel and its relevance to the Pound industry have promoted one reading of the novel. Critics such as Gubar, Du Plessis and Guest have done much to revise their H.D. along Feminist lines, but really this is a core hermetical work. (H.D. extended this cryptogram to become Hermetic Definition in her final volume of poetry).

The key passage in the novel is when Hermione feels the temperature rising (p.59).


“Degree…degree…degree…Hermione went up like the Mercury in the thermometer.”


Hermione/Her, as she begins to see through her perception, sees George as a ridiculous Harlequin. Harlequin, of course, in his multi-coloured garb is a lower form of Mercury, the trickster, the satirist, the mocker, Eshu, the shifter of perspectives. And Her, linking to Her(mes), god of speed must “Run, run, run…and stoop to fasten nothing…run, run.” (p.220). Hermes, God of communication, underpins the whole novel such that simple letters and telephone messages reverberate with crisis and extraordinary meaning to Hermione/Her Gart/Her.

Her is breathtaking modernism. Reading it again after many years only serves to remind how wooden recent novels are in comparison to the living heart-wood of H.D.’s work.

“Precinematographic conscience didn’t help Her. (The reader reads her, pronoun, then is thrust into the mind of a character/narrator/author who is intent on not being a pronoun with male language). Later conscience would have. She would later have seen form superimposed on thought and thought making its spirals in a manner not wholly related to matter but pertaining to it and the peony petals magnified out of proportion and the people in the room shrunk into tiny insects while the teacups again would have magnified into hemispheres.”

What strikes most in Her, as in the work of H.D. generally, is the extraordinary intellect and power of the narrative voice…the female narrative voice— it has a hard, analytical edge and a soft, synthetic surface at the same time. There are few male novelists who have come anywhere near creating this level of authenticity in their female characters, and not many female novelists either.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Was John Milton gay?



John Milton was born on December 9th, 1608. This December consequently becomes his 400th birthday, a date for Miltonists to celebrate and renew a declining reputation. Anna Beer’s recent biography, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, offers a modern Milton in a modern way. She renews flagging interest in him in tabloid style by finding a B list celebrity flaw: his gay relationship with Diodati. Reviewers of Anna Beer’s work have given a variety of responses. Peter Ackroyd, with the literary biographer’s eye has applauded her book, Andrew Motion, with a poet’s eye has responded with balanced clapping, whilst observing that her Diodati theory is written in wooden prose and gayness is a difficult issue to discuss. Only John Carey, as a critic and distinguished Miltonist has kept his hands still and stated that Anna Beer’s assumptions about Milton and Diodati are without facts— especially as her book neglects poetic readings and “Milton :Poet” is largely absent from her work. Certainly, Anna Beer’s book presents an almost unrecognisably shallow Milton: he liked Diodati because “he was fun” (p.108) and this sexual attraction caused him, she believes, much religious anxiety. There is no written evidence that Milton suffered any kind of gay crisis: Beer is simply transporting modern Christian gay antagonism back into the seventeenth century. Yes, Diodati played, according to Milton in Elegia Sexta, L’Allegro to his Il Penseroso, but to reduce this relationship to “fun” among best friends is hardly accurate biographical comment. Anna Beer’s book, unlike much Milton criticism, is lively and loosely written and its gains are also its losses. John, as she calls him, is revived in a modern way for a modern audience, but modernising can lead to falsifications.

So, was John Milton gay? An answer to this rests upon some biographical facts and one poem, Epitaphium Damonis (1639-40), in which Milton laments the death of Charles Diodati. Milton knew Diodati from St Paul’s School, 1617-20, and their friendship was formed during their early youth. (Diodati was a few months younger than Milton). Later, Diodati went to Oxford and Milton to Cambridge. Diodati left Oxford in 1628 and Milton departed from Cambridge in 1632. During 1630-31, Diodati was living in Geneva and Milton in London. Dates show that their friendship was not built upon daily “fun”. “The Lady” of Christ College did not frequent Ye Olde Heavene nightclub on a nightly basis and did not take Charles to the annual Eden Gay Ball. Their relationship was built over distance, out of boyhood, and rested on an intellectual intimacy. The Milton-Diodati correspondence stretches to four letters, two in Greek (from around 1625-26) and two in Latin (from 1637). Elegia Prima and Elegia Sexta speak of two further letters, now lost. John T Shawcross has noted some interesting depths in these letters. The second Greek letter, from Diodati, jokes about the homosexuality of Sardanapalus, urging Milton to avoid his excessive pleasures…the joke being that Milton was never likely to succumb. And Milton’s Latin letters to Diodati are infused with sexual puns. Milton writes how he knows that Diodati likes “to study and repeatedly take breaks in between”, allowing studendi and orebro interspires to suggest erotic study and taking gulping breaths whilst having intercourse. The conclusions drawn by John T Shawcross in John Milton: The Self and the World are tentative, but they include his beliefs that Milton was sexually repressed, that there was some “action” between Milton and Diodati, and their connection went beyond friendship and involved Milton playing a female role (psychosexually) to Diodati’s male role.

Gay is a problematical term even now. It suggests a lifestyle and a bias. Neither a lifestyle nor a bias really exists in what is known about Milton. Today’s usage of gay connotes a drive within a man towards other men— the plural is important. What does exist between Milton and Diodati, without a doubt, is a constellation of emotions created by their own particular attraction to one another. Milton does parallel his love of Beauty with his feelings for Diodati. There are overtones of Renaissance Neo-Platonism in their friendship. Milton shares his quest for Beauty with someone who is beautiful in spirit. Ficino’s heavenly love (inspired by The Symposium) echoes within Milton’s mental landscape. But Milton writing to Diodati is not Michelangelo addressing Cavalieri. Milton, to use a clumsy modern phrase, was not a gay man living on the downlow. What existed…and perhaps Epitaphium Damonis becomes the Platonic child…was an intense psychological connection based on Eros rather than eros…evidence of a relationship creating a powerful attraction as opposed to a powerful inclination being attracted to a sexual object.

Epitaphium Damonis presented Milton with a number of problems. Firstly, it had to do justice to what he felt for Diodati in life and it had to hold Milton’s intense feelings of loss within an aesthetic form. Then, it had to be different from yet as exalted as Lycidas: Milton’s elegy for Edward King was not based on a close friendship. And finally, as Milton’s friendship with Diodati spoke through a Classical and Christian language, Renaissance synchronism, the structure of Epitaphium Damonis would have to preserve this element.

Epitaphium Damonis, consequently, is written in Latin. Its thematic imagery is drawn from the world of Greek and Roman pastoral. The most noticeable structural device is a repeated refrain: “Ite domum impasti, domino iam non vacat, agni”/”Go home unfed, lambs, your shepherd has no time for you now.” A key structural device,then, is lifted from pastoral. Both Theocritus and Moschus used refrains in this manner. And the refrain consciously echoes Virgil’s Eclogue X. Milton’s line rephrases Virgil’s “Ite, domum saturae, venit Hespurus, ite capallae.” Evidently, Milton chose to place his elegy within the male-male love of pastoral. But more ought to be asked about this refrain? Why 17 times? Number, for Milton, always carried Christian value. And the answer would appear to be this. According to the tradition of “silent numbers”, 17 was the number of the Perfect Man. The precedent for this would be St. Augustine who in Chapter 17 of Letter 55 explained 17 as man refined (by the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit and the 10 Commandments of God) and thus able to find his place in Christ’s household. The 17-fold refrain, which reverses earthly pastoral, alludes to a Christian-Classical pastoral that will welcome Diodati as homo perfectus in Heaven. It is a structural statement of the conclusion: “Bacchic frenzy” (Paganism) “under…Zion” (Christ).

Taking 17, as a hint, also reveals something else about the structure of Epitaphium Damonis. In Lycidas, Milton used line length paragraphs to zone his poem. A similar method is used here. The poem opens with 17/1 where 17 lines make a pastoral prologue and 1 is the refrain. Lines 162-179 repeat this device. 17 lines renounce pastoral and make an epilogue in which the shepherd hangs up his musical pipe in favour of a new poetry. Pastoral dies with Damon/Diodati. This 17/1-17/1 circular structure in effect separates the pastoral elegy from its conclusion: a 40 line passage that resurrects Diodati into Heaven. The dark shades of Orcus controlled by Hermes’ virga/stick (l.23) do not await Diodati. He is taken to a world of light and a Hermetic Heaven ruled by the thyrso/branch (l.129) of God. By placing this apotheosis into a 40 line passage, Milton implicitly connects the transformation with control and waiting: 40 in the world of “silent numbers” connoted Christ’s days of reflection in the wilderness. The number 40 also alludes to what Milton celebrates in Diodati: a self-control that has produced chastity and “a youth without stain” (l.212-213).

This over-arching hermetical structure suggests the depth to which Milton identified with Diodati. Yes, he was a man of “virtue”, a “loyal comrade” and someone who offered “cultured wit”. He was most noticeably “a kindred spirit.” He was, moreover, Milton’s ideal companion. The final 40 lines of Epitaphium Damonis build two linked scenes. In the first, Milton/Thyrsis recalls presents that were intended for Diodati as a kind of hermetic baccalaureate…a laurel gift for an intellectual friend. Two books/cups were waiting to be shared. These were wrapped in an engraving that showed the Red Sea, Arabian balm, Aurora and the Phoenix, images of divine protection, healing, awakening and resurrection. The engraving also depicted Heavenly Amor shooting his burning arrows upwards towards the stars, an image of love’s divine power. In the second scene, Milton describes the epiphany of Diodati after death. Crowned with a ring of light, a beautiful Platonic-Christian image, Diodati is raised before the Chief Shepherd, Christ. Hermes-like, Milton puns on Charles Diodati’s name, identifying him as Damon/Spirit on earth, but “Gift of God” in Heaven: “Diodatus, quo te divino nomine….” (l.210). All of this depicts Diodati as rather more than what Beer calls Milton’s “Italian fantasy”.

Structurally, Epitaphium Damonis looks like this. From 17/1 to 17/1 (inclusive) there are 17 verse-paragraphs and 17 refrains.

17/1/7/1/8/1/8/1/5/1/6/1/4/1/5/1/5/1/6/1/5/1/5/1/18/1/11/1/14/1/21/1/17/1//40

The refrains act as a markers. These 17 episodes culminate in a Hermetic vision of the perfect man, whose number is 17, being elected to Heaven.

Whilst examining Epitaphium Damonis in Death in Milton’s Poetry (1994), Clay Daniel concludes that Milton’s second elegy is a reversal of Lycidas. Whereas the grief of Lycidas could be placed and solved within a Christian context, the personal grief caused by Diodati’s death shattered Milton’s belief in Christianity. Paganism triumphs over Christianity such that Damon “enjoys every sensual gratification in Heaven that he ever could hoped to have had on earth.” (p.156). This, though it might please those who would like to place the elegy’s homoerotic content outside Christianity, is a serious misreading of the poem. The structure of Epitaphium Damonis frames pagan pastoral despair with Christian hope. The elegy is a fitting devotion by a poet to his beloved. The virginal love between Milton and Diodati is fulfilled in the virginal hymeneal between Diodati and Christ, Bride and Bridegroom.

The intense structuring of this highly complex and personal elegy does not fall within the restrictive modern term gay. It rather opens the friendship between Diodati and Milton to something nameless…closed by death…but open to mystical possibilities. In Epitaphium Damonis, Milton has to expand his poetry to encompass his feelings for Diodati and this involves enlarging his Neo-Platonic Christian world view. In this sense, there is something very modern about Milton here: a poet has to invent language to explain an area of psychosexual experience.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Poetry and Cannibalism.


Thom Gunn’s Boss Cupid (2000) contains a disturbing sequence of poems about the serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Reviews at the time of publication acknowledged Gunn’s daring imagination in this sequence. This was a poetry of bravado (even machismo, yet another example of Gunn’s fearless, masculine worship of Eros and power). Reading the sequence eight years later, they seem nonetheless disturbing. Why? Firstly, they link poetry and its relationship to beauty with acts of incredible ugliness. Secondly, they use an ironical strategy that is awkward. The strategy is in bad taste— unpalatable— phrases that suggest exactly what the sequence is about. Not just Eros and power, but the taste of civilisation, its consumption of sex.

Gunn was no stranger to Pound. He did, of course, edit an introductory volume on Pound for Faber, and the title of Gunn’s cannibal sequence, "Troubadour", plays with the Poundian world view of poetry. As Pound said, hermetically, punning in “Visiting Card”: AMOR is the energy that drives ROMA and ROMA/civilisation is AMOR/love in reverse: its reflection. “Troubadour”, Songs for Jeffrey Dahmer, are offered as songs to be sung by Dahmer, as if Dahmer himself was a troubadour from the middle ages. And Dahmer sings, not as Daniel, not as Cavalcanti, but as a mad Pierre Vidal, a symbol of perverted life (Vidal=vital), a poet-lover whose erotic desires changed him (so it is said) into a wolf. E fo del plus fols homes que mai fossen. “He was one of the maddest men that ever lived”.

The opening line of “Hitch Hiker” stands somewhere between modern pop song and Elizabethan song. “Oh do not leave me now,” is a line that opens a taut lyric wherein Dahmer reflects on the body of 19 year old Stephen Hicks; except, in Gunn’s poem, there are no specifics and the speaker addresses a generalised you. In the second poem of the sequence, “Iron Man”, the ironic direction is pursued fully. Animal-like, “in the kennel of...inaction,” Dahmer returns to adolescent masturbation fantasies and men who were “good enough to eat.” Proleptically, his sexual consumerism (of male images) looks forward in time to a point when he will eat the bodies of men…literally. The third poem, stylistically, returns to the first and draws close to what fascinates Gunn. The crawl-space in which Dahmer concealed his victims becomes a metaphor for the poetic space in which the poet-lover seeks to draw close to the “hidden centre” of the beloved. The final poems in the sequence, “A Borrowed Man” and “Final Song”, are acts of remembrance, a putting together of members/limbs such that memory holds the hunger of sex. They draw close to Dahmer’s view of cannibalism. By eating his sexual partners “They made [him] feel like they were a permanent part of [him]”. Dahmer’s grim museum of body parts transcends memory, however, for they are actual records, fetishes of Eros. The whole sequence reads like a perverse, cannibalistic Symposium, a banquet of erotic horrors seen as beautiful truths.

Gunn’s "Troubadour" presents the world through Dahmer’s mouth. It leaves a sickening taste in the reader’s imagination (and stomach). The ironical strategies within the poem avoid what cannot be avoided. The real victims. And rather more disturbingly, the racist desires that drove Dahmer. As his pornographic desire for sex became a lust for a certain kind of body type, his victims became young African American men who were socially and emotionally vulnerable to his predatory, controlling instincts. Gunn says nothing about these themes, preferring to make Dahmer a type for gay, male love at the extremes. Dahmer simply takes Gunn’s gnawing of armpits to a darker, sexual level.

In Otherhood (2003), Reginald Shepherd also creates a poem around Dahmer and sexual desire. But in Shepherd’s “Hygiene” nothing is avoided. The two approaches are very interesting. Gunn is known for his directness and yet the ironical under-cutting of “Troubadour” makes for a poem that is indirect, circling around core areas. Shepherd’s poetic method is elliptical, renowned for its orbiting of a felt core, its heart. But what he produces in “Hygiene” is a poem that has more honesty and insight than Gunn’s. Its directness comes from an honesty of direction/intent. Shepherd’s methodology owes something to Duncan’s open field composition, a charged network of ides, yet the final energy is original, pure Shepherd. Working from an image of Athene Hygeia, the goddess of wisdom and sanitation, Shepherd progresses to a dark image of Pilate-like cleansing, “Everyone in this town is still washing his hands/ of Jeffrey Dahmer”. The sanitation of memory contains a lie: it avoids a racial crime. Like Gunn, Shepherd picks up the deadly pick-up instincts of Dahmer: “Couldn’t you just eat him there?” But in “Hygiene”, there is no attempt to romanticize Dahmer. He represents the White male who stalks the Black male, how one part of society hunts another. In the lines “Every white man on my bus home looks/like him, what I’d want to be destroyed/by, want to be”, the poem recapitulates the terrible dynamic that Fanon outlined in Black Skin, White Mask; and in the inter-locking syntax, Shepherd intelligently captures the twisted relationship between captivation and captive.

Gunn’s “Troubadour” was originally conceived before Boss Cupid, was set to music by Jay Lyon in 1998. Shepherd’s “Hygiene” was anthologized in Real Things (1999). Written so close together, the two poems appear as intimate reflections by two poets on society and Eros. If Gunn started with Pound, Shepherd started with the protégé of Pound, Cummings. The epigram to “Hygiene” comes from Cummings’ “Buffalo Bill”: “how do you like your blue-eyed boy/Mister Death”. The suggestion is that Dahmer, the preferred White American boy, is as much a product of the American psyche as Buffalo Bill. Of the two reflections on dark Eros, I have to say that I find Shepherd’s more incisive and less forced…more able to confront and visualize the relationship between the individual and social psyche.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ben Okri:Mental Fight.



As a writer, Okri is something of a paradox. Both his novels and poetry are concerned with vision, yet neither conform to expectations. In the novel, which lends itself to vision and abstraction, Okri is personal and intimate. In the poems, which a reader might expect, consequently, to be lyrical, intimate and concrete, Okri is often visionary and abstract. I remember many years ago asking Okri a question about where he would go after Astonishing the Gods, and he replied: “…back to my first love which is poetry.” Then, that seemed like a departure, but not really, more a turning inside out of the writer’s medium, for the poetic novel would become a novel poetry—one based on ideas, vision, and the mind thinking, not in lyric, but in a sustained sequence. Mental Fight (1999) positions itself quite consciously as a work for two cultures. By avoiding the self and the confessional, Okri places his long poem in relation to African tradition: politics and culture take precedence over the personal. And through the title, from Blake’s "Jerusalem", Okri also locates himself with Englishness and its visionary tradition.

How Okri returns to Blake is revealing. The epigram to the poem quotes the well-known lines from the preface to Blake’s Milton and reads:

I shall not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem…

And it implies a double-edged sword, for Blake was an eccentric visionary in a concentric world and his vision invariably accepted the heretic and denied the conformist. Okri’s Jerusalem, like Blake’s, is a spiritual and cultural homeland built upon mental rather than materialistic intentions. It is a place where the poet is prophet and legislator—outsider and insider— and a person who directs the people from the stale lessons of received wisdom. . (Unlike Blake, Okri’s poem does not have a specific root in English soil. Blake’s world vision rotates around Felpham’s vale. Okri’s vision is universal and without any national bias or geographical base). Almost reflecting on Mental Fight, in 2003, Okri stated

writers represent the unconscious vigour and fighting spirit of a land.
(The Guardian, January 30th, 2003).

Mental Fight has some echoes of Blake. There is the question of voice in Okri’s poem. What kind of person speaks this poem? Poet? Seer? Prophet? Philosopher? In part, the voice is Blakeian: the voice that speaks convincingly against death echoes Milton speaking to Satan in Blake’s prophetic poem:

Thy purpose…
Is to impress on men the fear of death…
Mine is to teach men to despise death, and to go
In fearless majesty annihilating self…
(Milton, II: 371-5)


To explore our potential to the fullest
And to lose our fear of death
(MF)

But the poetic method, if it counterpoints any other work seems to balance Eliot’s Four Quartets. And in a way this is appropriate. If any work sums up the conclusion of the twentieth century it has to be Four Quartets. As a work, it is exploratory, yet its exploration is ringed by Christian possibilities. Time circles all. And the centre of life is the “The point of intersection of the timeless /With time” (FQ IIIv ll 201-20), the Incarnation. Eliot, in the Four Quartets, re-works the Vaughan whom he loathed such that Vaughan’s regressive theology (beautiful to many, but not the prejudiced Eliot) is re-formed as a massive abstract and concrete philosophy of regression and progression:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And now the place for the first time.
(FQ, IVv, ll 239-242).

Okri’s Mental Fight looks beyond Eliot. The central moment for the poem is not the intersection desired by saints, but the Millennial Moment that the human mind creates as:

An illusion by which we can become
More real.
(MF, Ii, ll 1-2).

And this, for Okri, is a point from which the human spirit must look forward and only forward, envisage what might be, create a future transcending the past:

This mighty moment.
In timelessness.
(MF, Iii, ll 22-23).

Mental Fight, it seems, has become something of a favourite with the Christian brotherhood. This is probably inevitable given the fact that the closing of the second millennium of Christ gives the poem its focus. The poem, however, is not exactly encouraging towards Christianity, not framed by Christian possibilities. For Okri, Christianity has not given a dying humanity “Its best fruits” (MF, IIIii, l 9).

Poetically, the poetry of Okri in Mental Fight resembles Eliot inasmuch as any free verse is going to take something from an originator. (There are moments when Okri bears comparison with the spoken line of Whitman). Yet, Okri’s poetic lines have a different quality to Eliot’s for they grow out of poems such as “An African Elegy” or “Political Abiku”, behind which dances a long tradition of African oratory. If Okigbo distilled the Euro-American Eliot into an African idiom to create a cryptic poetry, Okri rather takes the essence of Eliot and mixes it with robustness such that an earthier, more energetic and accessible voice emerges. The voice of Mental Fight is one that serves, like a seer, an intermediary function, attesting to what Okri terms the “psychic health of a people” (The Guardian, January 30th, 2003).

Structurally, Mental Fight falls into 8 sections. The sections themselves contain an irregular number of parts: 6,7,2,2,1,2,3,6. Parts 1 and 2, “Time to be real” and “Signs from the old times” first appeared as a sequence in The Times. Yet, they do not stand on their own as a duet, are clearly part of the longer sequence. Thematically, Okri sees the millennium as a chance for humanity to grow. As a therapeutic poet, one whose job it is to stretch down into darkness and draw up the new for birth, Okri’s Mental Fight adopts a language of extension and extremes…a language that urges the reader to break with the immediate and break through the margins that edge what is. Such is a constant theme throughout the sequence. The human spirit should “live magnificently” and “to the fullest”. Existentially, people need to escape their “smallness” and their “humiliated consciousness”, to become “Magnificent and mysterious beings.” The moment is “monumental” and the break from the past into the future requires a Herculean clearing “out of the [Augean] stables”, the excrement of time and the evils of the past. The way forward is with “love’s might” and seeing “The greater perspective” and “universal justice”, pushing through the veil of perception, as the hermeticist did in previous centuries, to hear the harmony of the spheres, “the distant music of the future.” The millennium, traditionally, has been a dark time: a point where apocalyptic forces gather and destruction is feared and man is crushed by the weight of uncertainty. For Okri, the new millennium must be more than this: a time to cast aside darkness, to embrace light; to replace nightmares of despair with visionary hope; to allow the smallness felt within mankind to escape anomie, to allow the mind to expand such that the spirit measures and mankind’s stature is not inhibited by society and characterised by deviance.

Mental fight, for Okri, is necessary and this aggression depends upon a central, liberating idea that has to be put into action. Firstly, people “are like athletes who have not really extended themselves” (MF, V, ll 41-42). Extension begins when people accept “the power of solar systems” in the “minds” (MF, VIIii, l 25-26) and this rests upon an appreciation of Beauty:

“A beautiful dream, shaped
And realised by a beautiful mind
Is one of the greatest gifts
We can make to our fellow beings.”
(MF, VIIii, ll 37-38).

Segun Oguntola once stated that Okri was one of the modern bards Africa sent to the world to hauntingly wail her story. He has more recently reviewed this position to show that Okri’s concerns are worldwide and not confined to any one continent or nation. At a recent talk at the Royal Society, London, Okri was asked quite pointedly if Beauty in Nigeria/Africa was the same concept as Beauty in UK/Europe. More specifically, did the Keatsian “Truth”=”Beauty” hold universally. Okri’s response was the Beauty was not the same. He granted the questioner his moment of glory, having established that Nigerian and England has different viewpoints, then happily pulled the magical carpet from under his feet by claiming that Beauty was not cultural, but biological, and based upon an individual’s sense of wonder. Beauty is inseparable from wonderment. This view emerges in Mental Fight. The Millennial Moment is a “legendary moment/In its own wonderful right” and out of this wonder, the beautiful vision might emerge. During the lecture, Okri took up a position that was reminiscent of the philosopher, Susanne K Langer in her massive opus, Mind. Beauty is what makes “a work continue to grow”; what Langer termed “ambient form”. Beauty is that quality that allows an art work to endure and evolve from time period to time period. And most interestingly, according to Okri, Beauty is a shared quality, half in the text and “half in the encountering mind.” In effect, Beauty is a “dream” shaped by “a “mind” for another “mind” and the extreme involvement in that process is life. In light of this formulation, Mental Fight becomes a very different kind of Beatific Vision. The poem upholds a vision of human potential, as yet unrealised, which demands that humanity looks beyond worn our civilisations and faces the energy within the human, the individual, anyone who sees wonder and revelation. At the close of Mental Fight, Okri lists his sources of Beauty: The Gospels, Dante, 1001 Nights (a collection that crosses the millennium number!), Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Austen, Faulkner, Heidegger, Sartre, Shakepseare, Kafka, Eliot, Achebe, Marquez, Proust, Carpentier…and himself. Through time, argued Okri at The Royal Society lecture, even the work that is regarded as “ugly” by a culture can reveal itself as “beautiful”…The stony ground might harbour the beauty of the future. Mental Fight is an extraordinary work of vision, one that comes more into focus, as we realise that the world did not seize the Millennial Moment, but continued as before to prize war more than peace and narrow-minded politics to aesthetic vision. Our world cultures still prefer The Wasteland to Mental Fight.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Gents: Warwick Collins.


Gents, by Warwick Collins, is not a new novel. It was actually published 10 years ago, but it has had a mysterious revival in 2007 due to a paperback edition and vigorous displaying by Borders and Waterstones. The novel is dedicated to Scott Pack, once the head buyer for Waterstones, now the Commercial Director of The Friday Project Press, the book’s publisher. Reviewing Gents on his own blog, Scott Pack has this to say: "It is a lost classic. It is a masterpiece of modern literature. It is a telling parable of racial and sexual tolerance. It is a book that should be on every self-respecting shelf in the land." The novel would appear to have benefited from some energetic marketing (for which Scott Pack was famous) and reviewing! In a comment note, Scott Pack also adds that he has yet to find a reader who does not like the book. Well, there are quite a few on Amazon, and there is another one here.

The novel centres around three characters, the initiate to toilet cleansing, the evangelical Ezekiel Murphy, the pragmatical boss, Josiah Reynolds, and the idealistic Rastafarian, Jason. Together, these three black straight Caribbean men manage “the swamp”, a Gents near Charing Cross, London. Their daily problems are “the reptiles”, the mainly gay white men who meet in the toilet cubicles for anonymous sex. The scenario sounds seedy, but the novel is anything but: it is written using a light, lyrical prose, is free of modern lavatorial humour, and has wit and conviction. The climax of the novel comes in Chapter 18 when Jason disturbs a “tall, elegant black man in a leather jacket” “Kneelin’ down in front of Whitey”. After a number of provocative comments, Jason assaults the black gay man, whilst Ez briefly speculates whether Whitey made the black man gay or he chose his sexual orientation for himself.

The problem with Gents is that “racial and sexual tolerance” is simply a matter of being distanced and non-judgemental. There is no attempt in the novel to analyse or explore the events that take place. The author approaches events with a detachment as cold (and as undescribed) as the sexual encounters taking place in the cubicles. Consequently, the result is a novel with little substance that gains weight from its linguistic precision. It is a great pretence. At the close of the novel, to stay in work, Ez and Josiah do a u-bend turn: they reverse their policy of sexual cleansing (as advocated by the Council), buy the Gents for themselves and live off the revenue that “the reptiles” contribute. Sexual predators meet predatory entrepreneurs. A “telling parable”? Or a tale that some are too quick to see as well-endowed? I am biased towards the latter.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Muse today?

Song of a Reformed Head Hunter features an interesting article by Clive Wilmer on his blog. The article relates to Thom Gunn and his concept of “Muse”. And indirectly, this question: Is the Muse necessarily female/feminine?

It is unfortunate that the source of inspiration has become such an uninspiring idea in modern poetry. (Look here for an example. Not so much an agent of divine breath as a zombie bringing dead thoughts to life). The Muse has largely passed into the realms of dead metaphor, but why?

Clive Wilmer’s article points out one key relationship for Gunn: son-mother. Gunn went as far as to change his name by deed-poll to acknowledge that bond. This early photo of Gunn also captures that intense bond. Though, in a somewhat staged manner, Ander Gunn looks up in adoration, it is the older Thom who stands affirmatively at his mother’s right hand.


A poem from Passages of Joy (1982), “Expressions”, sees Gunn, the mature poet, reflecting on the “black irony” of his students. (They write with ease about suicide…Gunn would not write about his mother’s until near to his death). It is no accident that Gunn turns away from their “very poetic poetry” to a different inspiration: an Italian painting of Virgin and Child. The implied Muse, for Gunn, is the Mother-Son bond, the eternal Feminine, as Clive Wilmer recalls Gunn saying:

"I used to believe my muse was male: but I've come to realize that [Robert] Graves is right, that the muse has to be female. The Goddess is a mother, not a wife or a lover. The feminine principle is the source and I think it dominates in male artists whether homo- or heterosexual."

The Muse of Robert Graves is, of course, The White Goddess, known as Alphito to the Greeks, Cardea to the Romans and Arianrhod to the Celts. And answering her, as Graves phrases it, demands that the poet finds

“inner communion with The White Goddess, regarded as the source of truth…The White-Goddess is anti-domestic, she is the perpetual “other woman”, and her part is difficult indeed for a woman of sensibility to play for more than a few years, because the temptation to commit suicide in simple domesticity lurks in… every muse’s heart.”
Perhaps, those words informed Gunn’s acceptance of Graves’ poetic dogma: had a biographical ring-of-truth. If so, the Oedipal myth, so often blamed for “gayness”, the over-feminising of a male child by an over-bearing mother, is here recast as a positive psychological source.

Throughout his tour of poetic myth, which includes some fifteen detailed references to the origins of the Muse, Graves finds little to suggest that the Muse might be otherwise than history records. The Muse, for him, is clearly a lunar principle born alongside poetry in the matriarchal past.

But must it be so? After all, he is an archaeologist of myth finding what he desires to find.

Traditionally, the Poet-Muse relationship is a heterosexual conception. In alchemy, it is paralleled by the transference whereby the subconscious elements of one person transfer to another. Invariably, this is seen as a male-female/brother-female relationship in which the male is opened to the dark world of the Anima (the Moon-woman). There are no extensive accounts of “homosexual” alchemy, any awareness that this paradigm might be different. Male-to-male projections do occur, however, frighteningly so, yet the Jungian model does not shift its image base. The argument would seem to be that whether heterosexual or homosexual the male lover must respond to subconscious elements that invert his gender: so, the male lover’s subconscious (his Muse) always takes female form, is the Lunar, Feminine Principle to his Solar, Masculine Principle. Yet, this does not seem to fit with the root of the projection…which is an erotic drive. Yes, with the heterosexual male, Aphrodite is a likely image for the subconscious to assume. But with the gay male?

Writing a poem is a kind of “spiritual pregnancy”, as the Jungian therapist, Nor Hall puts it in The Moon and The Virgin (a truly wonderful book on identity, culture and poetic myth). The poem is born out of the male as much as the female. And the music that accompanies that birth, the musing on words, the museum of images, take a per(verse) form, do not simply replicate heterosexual culture and traditional forms of representation.

Graves felt that the Muse had died in modern poetry because poets wanted “her” to be a real person, a wife and lover to them, a power indistinguishable from the real person they married (or partnered). There is some truth in that statement. Hence, the prevalence of so much sickening love poetry that only achieves greeting card sentiments. It is equally true, however, that the Muse has died because too many poets continue to be unquestioning about their sources of inspiration.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Free Verse is not poetry.


Today’s The Observer carried this article: “Poetry Guardians Reject Modern Verse”. The Queen’s English Group, spear-headed by Michael George Gibson, has launched an attack on Modern Free Verse, quite simply stating that it isn’t poetry.


As a mission statement, the society has this to say: “The Society hopes to attract those who are interested in, and knowledgeable about, the English language.” According to its website, that is about 1000 in number. Not a massive following then. And judging from its latest AGM, it doesn’t seem to contain many worthies in the fields of English, linguistics and literature.

Michael George Gibson, however, clearly considers himself a worthy and his aim is clear: Andrew Motion as the Poet Laureate (a rather easy target) and Michael Schmidt (one of the Poetry Society Judges in 2007 and something of a moving target). Gibson does not consider the winner of The Poetry Society award to be a poet (obviously Michael Schmidt did…well, had to, bearing in mind he publishes her work under the imprint of Carcanet!). For Gibson, poetry is simple: it has rhythm and rhyme and all would be much better if the English language returned to medieval and earlier models. More alliteration. More music! More general silliness!

Gibson also seems disgruntled because The Poetry Society has been recalcitrant in the war of words and refused to give a definition of poetry. At least, one with which The Queen’s English Group would agree.

Unfortunately, The Observer does not publish a poem by Michael George Gibson. It sets up an argument between Donne’s “The Sun Rising” (liked by Gibson) and Schmidt’s “Pangur Ban” (disliked by Gibson, but hardly Schmidt at his best—something of a fixed fight, I’d say). In the interest of a fair fight, here is a poem by the bruiser of the English Guard:

The Fisher:

She is the sea; and he is the fisher
Who watches the surf sliding over the sand:
She is the sea; and he the fond wisher,
Who waits with his hook and coiled line on the strand.

The tide when right in will be foaming and fish-full -
Silvered with herring, blue-mackerel-teeming - :
She is the sea; and he stands there, wish-full,
Ready to cast, awaiting the gleaming
Of silver and blue in the surging-green-streaming.

Well, poets “in glass houses”… and is this English grammar-:?

In defence of free-verse poetry, Ruth Padel quotes Eliot. She ought to have cited Pound: “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job”. Old Ez should have added woman, but that aside, that’s moreorless the issue. Yes, there is rather a lot of free verse that trickles these days like treacle or urine, without much sense of technique or thought. But Pound was right. Modern English is not suited to rhyme in the way that Chaucer's French-English was. Modern English is not Old English and the days of The Seafarer crossed the whale-road of time a long time ago. (Incidentally, did Beowulf, that paradigm of English rhyme?) Gibson’s “The Fisher” is a throw-back to days long gone. And “surging green streaming” has to be one of the most ill-sounding and ill- imagined lines ever written. And was it too hard to write two four-line stanzas?

Schmidt compares Gibson’s baying to the “new formalism” in the US. He is too polite. He gives his opponent’s argument too much intellectual weight. The arguments of The Queen’s English Society ought to be allowed to fade way like an English mist upon a dark mire: The Observer should not have bothered to observe them and given them credibility.