Monday, December 22, 2008

Lucid Marvell

When teaching the Metaphysicals to first-year undergraduates, I've noticed that of the big three, Donne and Herbert are more popular, which suggests that they are more immediately appealing, than Marvell. That this should be so is slightly strange, in that Marvell's style is generally more lucid - none of Donne's tortuous syntax and rhythm and obscure sense, and none of Herbert's mystical elusiveness.

Maybe that's the very reason - Marvell's style is less obviously idiosyncratic. The metaphysical gymnastics are contained and controlled by an urbane technique which connects with more than it departs from the traditions it sits among. In particular the use of rhyming couplets, usually but not always tetrametric, rather misleadingly suggests the gliding wit of Pope rather than the passionate intelligence of Donne. (Most undergraduates in my experience can't bear Pope.)

Yet Marvell makes this basic technique do such an astonishing range of things. My old Complete Poems (edited by Elizabeth Story Donno) starts off with three pastoral dialogues in the Elizabethan manner (one of them, 'A Dialogue between Thyrsis and Dorinda', is really good), and then switches straight into the satirical swing of 'Flecknoe'. Later on there's all the metaphysical, love and more sophisticated pastoral poems, the political poems and so on. In one sense Marvell is more impressive technically than Pope because the same devices are made to serve more than one tonal master. Marvell's work shows in microcosm the transition from the Elizabethans and Metaphysicals to the age of satire; he even writes about it, in a characteristically lucid manner, in the following passage, which undergraduates might do well to read in order to understand the shift in poetic practice in the 17th/18th centuries:


Our times are much degenerate from those
Which your sweet muse, which your good fortune chose ;
And as complexions alter with the climes,
Our wits have drawn the infection of our times,
That candid Age no other way could tell
To be ingenious, but by speaking well.
Who best could praise had then the greatest praise ;
'Twas more esteemed to give than wear the bays.
Modest Ambition studied only then
To honour, not herself, but worthy men.
These virtues now are banished out of town,
Our civil wars have lost the civic crown.
He highest builds who with most art destroys,
And against others' fame his own employs.
I see the envious caterpillar sit
On the fair blossom of each growing wit.

('To His Noble Friend Mr Richard Lovelace, upon His Poems')

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sentence I particularly enjoyed by EJ Kenney

'In usurping Apollo's function Cupid has to know his metrical onions'
- Introduction to AD Melville's translation of Ovid The Love Poems

You might assume from the above that this book was written some time between 1910 and 1970, and the rest of Kenney's piece and Melville's Translator's Note would seem to support that. Melville spends much of the Note chuntering on about how Ovid in English has to rhyme, then ends by apologising for the whole book:

The entertainment is not always innocent and many readers will find it none the worse for that. But I prefer innocence; and when I had finished my translation of the Metamorphoses it was not my intention to tackle these poems. My defence (if defence were needed [quite!]) is that I was provoked by Green's recent translation, which is widely available and in my view wholly unsatisfactory, and my publishers urged me to provide an alternative. Much — perhaps all — should be forgiven to a poet who writes with such sparkling wit and unfailing elegance.

You have to wonder about the wisdom of someone embarking on a translation of a work they positively disapprove of, though at least he's generous enough to forgive Ovid's 'faults'.

Anyway. First published: 1990. Apparently in a pocket of space-time consisting mainly of Bakelite, slippers, pipes and fulmination. Astonishing. Still, that sentence... What I really enjoy about it is the collision of arch academicism (Cupid usurping Apollo's function) with studied colloquialism: whole lifetimes, milieux, quiet afternoons are wafted before us. It's laughable, poignant, seductive, pert, dusty.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Making blogs with remarks

The new-ish Magma website includes a piece discussing what prose poems are by Hannah Salt (thanks to Matt Merritt for the link.) Dunno, of course, is the safest answer. But I want to pick up on one point that Salt makes:

prose poems need to be short; if they run to any length, they risk becoming a short story or an essay.

Intuitively I'd go along with this, but that doesn't mean I don't think longer prose pieces belong in a book of poems. The most famous example is probably Robert Lowell's '91 Revere Street', a longish prose memoir that is an essential element of Life Studies. I wonder if the notion of a prose-poem is getting in the way here - we rather assume that a prose-poem should be a page or less and quirky, atmospheric and non-narrative in function. But as Robert Sheppard points out in his essay of Roy Fisher's prose (in The Thing About Roy Fisher), the idea of using prose to create a poem actually involves breaking generic conventions. He quotes Stephen Fredman:

To write in prose grants a poets 'the freedom to construct a poetic entity capable of including what poetry has been told to exclude'.

Clearly the genre of the prose-poem reins in that freedom. It appears that the possibilities of what a poem can do in and with prose is not exhausted by the genre, making any attempt to define that genre a little beside the point. To get an idea of what a poet can do with prose I can do no better than direct you to read the whole of Sheppard's essay, which explores Fisher's use of prose in entertaining and stimulating technical detail. It touches on things like syntax and lineation, tone and register, and considers how Fisher replaces the line as the unit of poetry with other units like remarks and Wittgensteinian propositions.It's all very interested to me at present because I'm mulling over a long-ish piece of work which may well end up being in prose, and may well end up being poetry, if it ends up being anything at all.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Maybe I need to get out more

I've always thought there was something faintly revolting about Clive Dunn's 'Grandad':

I always assumed it was the saccharine sentimentality of it, but listening repeatedly to it on my son's classic toddler songs CD I've realised it's more complicated than that. The sentimentality is there, but there's something more interesting, poignant and monstrous going on too. (I'm not saying it's intentional, but there you go.)

The verses are sung by Clive in the persona of an old man reminiscing, mainly listing memories of things from his youth. The more I listen to this the more it reminds me of nothing so much as W.G. Sebald. Here's a couple of pertinent extracts from 'Grandad':

Penny farthings on the street riding
Motorcars were funny things, frightening
Bow and hoops and spinning tops
Penny Dreadfuls, lollipops
Comic cuts, all different things

Aeroplanes tied up with string flying
Telephones and talking things sighing
A radio and phonograph,
Charlie Chaplin made us laugh
Silently falling about

The memory is partially enacted in a series of objects, a list - a device Sebald uses continually, for instance in Austerlitz:

the cut-glass bowls, ceramic vases and earthenware jugs, the tin advertising sign bearing the words Theresienstadter Wasser, the little box of seashells, the miniature barrel organ, the gloge-shaped paperweights with wonderful marine flowers swaying inside their glassy spheres, the model ship (some kind of corvette under full sail), the oak-leaf-embroidered jacket of light, pale summery linen, the stag-horn buttons, the outsize Russian officer's cap and the olive-green uniform tunic with gily epaulettes that went with it, the fishing rod, the hunter's bag, the Japanese fan, the endless landscape painted round a lampshade in fine brush-strokes, showing a river running quietly through perhaps Bohemia or perhaps Brazil?

It's true that Sebald's version of the device uses more complexity, tact and discernment. (Many of the objects allude more or less obliquely to the Second World War and the Holocaust - Theresienstadt was a concentration camp, there's a Russian military uniform and a Japanese fan, the lampshade dimly recalls the use of Holocaust victims' skin for that purpose - and fishing, hunting and the endless landscape all relate to the activity of trawling the past for memories.) But there's also something straightforward about his method, the slightly surprising and even impolite settling on the subject of history, memory and the individual's feelings (the minimal fictionalising he indulges in is a symptom of this directness), even if the treatment of it is highly oblique. This corresponds, in a way, to 'Grandad's simpler and less artful approach.

It's also true that the context alters the function of the list slightly. In the example quoted above, the narrator is reporting Austerlitz's memory of looking at those items in a shop window and wondering about them. It isn't that the objects unlock memory; they stand as imperfect substitutes for it. But in 'Grandad' too, the objects don't really express memory successfully (here their simplicity and lack of originality is a virtue): like Sebald's narrator's, Grandad can only gesture at the past by naming objects, information, events. He doesn't really make the past come alive for his listeners; as listeners we are much more struck by his isolation within memory. This is borne out by the contrast between the verses and the chorus, sung by the grandkids:

Grandad, grandad, lovely
That's what we all think of you
Grandad, grandad, lovely
That's what we all think of you
Grandad grandad

I'm always tempted to hear the line 'That's what we all think of you' as 'That's all we think of you'. What's most affecting about this song is the contrast between the old man's failed attempts to articulate his vivid memories and the way he is viewed reductively by those around him as 'lovely'; his past (and therefore his identity) doesn't matter to them, just his role as a benevolent and ineffectual old bloke. That's what's revolting about it, the dramatic tension between verse and chorus, and what makes it, perhaps despite itself, an uncomfortable and effective piece of art.