Peter Philpott, Telling the Beads (2020)
where is there to go?everything fullutterly greenlie on the lawnwatch the swiftsyip, yip, yip
I'm of course a fully-signed up fan... See e.g. this piece about Peter Philpott's previous collection Wound Scar Memories (2017): http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.com/2018/03/in-and-around-peter-philpotts-wound.html .
But my obsession with Telling the Beads (2020) didn't kick in at once. It is, at first sight, a complicated sort of book. Peter supplies an engaging introduction that guides us through the various ingredients and formal features. Obscure Dark Age history, Brecht, the seasons, modern Stortford, modern poetry... It was all a bit too much to take in, so what happened was, I tried to read a bit, developed some questions, went back to the introduction, sighed, read a bit more, had new questions. . .
But gradually these short dips became longer and happier, I didn't need to consult the introduction any more, I felt habituated. And then the real reading began, and the real questions, the things the introduction can't answer.
Telling the Beads is a calendrical structure, beginning and ending in summer. Its contents are variously seasonal, contemporary, lyrical, autobiographical, philosophical; but there's also an underlying Dark-Age story about Unwin and his war-party. The book has illustrations sourced from Victorian popular histories. It proposes a kind of undogmatic polytheism in place of both theism and atheism (e.g. with reference to the goddesses in some of Bede's month-names).
Unwin's story has an ending, like Colin Clout's story in The Shepheardes Calendar, but in each case the poem is more than the story, and for its readers the invitation is patent, to just keep going round and round. (cf. Carol Watts' 2011 book Occasionals , another summer-to-summer poem.) I reckon I've walked the whole course of Telling the Beads three or four times now, and I'm not done yet. I'd like to run it.
The book is organized by months, the traditional Anglo-Saxon months reported by Bede. (There are extra intercalary days at Yule and Lithe (=midsummer).) Another input is Bertolt Brecht's 1927 poetry collection Die Hauspostille , whence comes the idea of a manual of piety that's hostile to orthodox religion. Telling the Beads plays with the idea of being a devotional book, and it really is a devotional book. Its subtitle is A Spiritual Year Book for Our Times after Bede & Brecht. (In other respects I don't see much Brecht here, but others may.)
Each month begins with a strophic head poem, with a coda (an intriguing "oracular sentence", and a skittish open-field poem). Then come the holy days for the month, a mix of poems and prose. These holy days mostly turn out to be ordinary days, which are extraordinary days. They are titled, e.g. "A Day for a Pleasant Walk in Gentle Rain" or (its predecessor) "A Day to Think on the Oppressions Caused by Organised Religions".
But apparently this arrangement still wasn't quite intricate enough for Peter's purposes. So, for instance, the third holy day in each month references Tove Jansson's illustrations to The Hobbit, as seen on his calendar in the kitchen. The number of holy days increases each month until Yule (from 3 to 8), then decreases to midsummer (8 back to 3).
What Peter doesn't fully disclose is the fixed pattern of the holy day sections, which are suffixed a to h. At its full extent (in Before Yule (6) and After Yule (7)): a is verse, b is prose (sometimes with diagrams), c is prose (the Tove Jansson one), d is verse, e is prose-verse-prose, f is epigraph-prose-verse-prose, g is prose, and h is a twelve-point list.
Nor does he disclose that things start to change, especially in the second half of the book. The a poems stop following the strophic form of their own head poem and instead begin echoing the forms of earlier months, running backwards: i.e. 7a has the strophic form of 6, 8a has the strophic form of 5, etc. This carries on until 12a, which you would expect to match 1 but actually matches 2, the same as 11a did. (Meanwhile 8f fails to contain any inset verse; "Unwin did not make song on this theme", it tells us.)
Something else, too. In the poems of the first three months the stanzas (or strophes) are elaborately matched line for line, by morphed vocabulary and meaning, an aspect of Peter's poetry that I've previously termed "phrase transformation". It's half an echo, half a dialogue. As an example, here's the head poem for Holy Month (3):
look! another time to startthis year has nothing but, solook at what it gives ussummer again (all brief)and a chance to dig inharvesting slow to makedue sacrifice to all the powersmanifold & circumambientlast brightness in the airit starts with us all togetheryou can say we begin with nothingexcept what the world now gives usinsects again & all small lifethronging where we digharvesting in the middle of decaypreparing what is due to livemany folded around uslost in the brightness of the airLet's just hold it togetherbegin again with nothingopen to what the world giveslife innumerable & delicatebursting out where we digharvest triumphs over decaypreparing some brief escapeour lives are folded in this worldlost within its final brief air
This resonance is still discernible in months 4 to 7, but only just. Then it's gone until Aretha Month (9) when we suddenly catch its elusive presence between two poems. In 11a it's there but restricted to the last line of each stanza. Finally (head poem of 12) it returns in something like its full effect.
In short, there's literally no end to discovering features if you want to, but you don't have to. It's like the book of nature.
Reading this poetry means experiencing a paradox, or rather many paradoxes.
The poems are both silly and wise, both simple and complex, both committed and uncommitted, both casual and engaged, both mundane and grand, both throwaway and crafted, both reverent and irreverent.
When I wrote about Wound Scar Memories I talked about this as the expression of the poet's character, the "Peter of the poems". But in Telling the Beads what seems more prominent is that these paradoxes are a way of staying true to a particular vision of life, a vision purged of idealism and authority but humble, credible and warm-hearted.
You can imagine that the word "now" might feature largely in poems so linked to specific times of year, and so it proves. Along with "this" and "here", it chimes through the book. But the word is less prominent in midsummer and almost absent in winter. Does this prove anything? I suppose not. But I feel that it's attentive to our common experience; that "now" correlates with times of the year when we're keenly aware of change: the earlier nightfall in August, the approach of winter in November, proper spring in April. And it's less prominent at those times of year when our main sense is of each day being much like the next.
Occurrences of "now" in Telling the Beads (I've ignored the prose. hp = head poem)
All the diffuse & varying thingsthe somewhere & the arbitrary constraintswhat is the use?not subtlenot some controlling grammar, nojust the inheritance again from arbitrary powerthat won't outlast our deaths there-fore shouldn't outlast our liveseven though the weather breeds submissionthis life can be amendedcakesmade of flower, eggs, milk & fruitsmall knots of resurrected sunlightcrunching against our teethno oneneeds that dying worthlessnessthis month is short as the sun returns
|Mud Cake Month|
Billy Mills on Telling the Beads:
Billy's post gives a better sense than mine of the succession of different materials, and it persuaded me to listen out for the individual character of the poems, though I dare say that's not very apparent.
Peter Riley has a brief notice on Telling the Beads here:
Two other posts about Telling the Beads:
Shira Dentz: Beads / swarm then -- shingling,
The Penmanship of Trees
To take these lines, however flimsy,
hurl them at the white shrouded sky.
Animal musk absent
from the pelts of boughs
Nodules that line my throat
Enter the white
not honeycomb- or yolk-
a migration of pine needles
To cool the number of damp beads in this morning’s wind, smell the leaves and
woodstuff it edged around and bore into all night; no one saw. A stalk of tree branches
rocks behind the porch.
(Poem by Shira Dentz, from how do i net thee (Salmon Poetry, 2018). I'm hoping it's OK to quote it in full, since it's already available on Salmon Poetry's own site.)
"The Penmanship of Trees" isn't quite as peaceful as its title. There's a violence to "hurl" and "penetrate"; a moral trouble in a word like "amnesiac". It's a nature poem but not in a sense that excludes human concerns. The words "my" and "no one saw" are peopled. Of course it makes sense that the incessant overnight scribbling and scattering of the trees were unseen by any humans, it's a thought that can provoke a gentle meditative wonder. And yet the italics seem to say that this isn't just calm meditation, we want to ask: What 'no one'? -- as if we sense an unstated someone.
Shira Dentz is an author who willingly courts the term "hybrid". She began as a graphic designer working in the music industry, and you can see that background in the remarkable care given to the presentation of how do i net thee; its jacket, title page, the intricate typesetting and visual layouts. Some of her other books, such as door of thin skins (2013, about psychological abuse) and Sisyphusina (2020, about women's aging and beauty) intermix a lot of documentary and fictional prose. These books admit content in a way that much experimental poetry doesn't; in other words, the kind of content we're inclined to call "straightforward", though the books themselves show how "straightforward" isn't an adequate description.
"The Penmanship of Trees" is indisputably a poem, but even here you can see the careful hybridity; the switch to prose at the end, starting again from the same word "To", is a change of tempo and a change in the mode of thinking, but what strikes us is more the development of the poem's statement than its cancellation. A confidence that multiple modes is the only way to get to what she needs to say.
Considering it's just 11 years since her first published book, there's already a mass of online writing about Shira Dentz' work. I've only read a small fraction of it, but here's some things I found particularly interesting:
Hanna Andrews' Omniverse review of how do i net thee:
Pepper Luboff's interview with Shira Dentz, mostly about door of thin skins (2013). (PL was also the creator of the brilliant jacket of how do i net thee, shown above.)
Two reviews of door of thin skins on Galatea Resurrects:
1. by Sima Rabinowitz:
2. by Eileen Tabios:
Shira Dentz' new book Sisyphusina has just been published (April 2020). An extract was published as FLOUNDERS in 2016, and this is available online:
Koh Xin Tian's interview with Shira Dentz about the technicalities of producing FLOUNDERS:
My previous glance at how do i net thee:
[Image source: http://jstheater.blogspot.com/2018/04/poems-shira-dentz-robert-hayden.html .]
Its golden earth blows fresh breeze.
Tebriz is no more in peace,
Dare not to disturb Tebriz.
Təbriz üstü daşlıdı,Torpağı zər qaşlıdı.Dindirməyin Təbrizi,Gözləri qan yaşlıdı.
Gence is further than here,
Its lawns padded with flowers.
Love’s death is an act of god,
Parting from love is torture.
Burdan uzaq Gəncədir,Güllər pəncə-pəncədir.Ölüm tanrı işidir,Ayrılıq içkəncədir.
Now, Araz ‘was’ partitioned,
But allowed to be silted.
No way, I would part from you,
This bitter parting was forced.
Arazı ayırdılar,Qum ilə doyurdular.Mən səndən ayrılmazdım,Zülm ilə ayırdılar.
Yowl and howl echo outcries,
Twinkles of stars sound outcries.
A sole bud cheers the meadow,
Out of thirst, that too cries out.
Haraylar hay haraylar,Hər ulduzlar haraylar.Çiməndə bir gül bitib,Susuzundan haraylar.
The moon rose but sank in pools,
Your face looks like just a moon.
My youth days sank one by one,
Without you, my sky has no moon!
Ay doğdu düşdü çaya,Camalın bənzər aya.Cavan ömrüm cürüdü,Günləri saya-saya.
The moon rose, when the sun set,
At their gap, lovers were blessed.
My keepsake for my sweetheart,
Was shared there, at our closest.
Ay doğdu batan yerdə,Can-cana qatan yerdə.Dosta yadigar verdim,Yaxından ötən yerdə.
My love lives by, life goes on,
Sad or cheerful, time goes on.
Upon hearing of lone nights,
Tears appear in my love’s eyes.
Yar gələr yaşa dolar,Ya ağlar, ya şad olar.Hicran sözün eşitcək,Gözləri yaşa dolar.
Hope you favour me and me,
Fill the cup, also for me.
Life is spent, our days are gone,
Youth days lost for you and me.
Əzizinəm bir də mən,Doldur içim bir də mən.Ömür keçdi, gün keçdi,Cavan olmam bir də mən.
O my love, it is high times,
This moonrise is on high times.
I can swear to what you wish,
Your heart lifts my heart’s high times.
Əzizim qəlbiləndi,ay doğdu qəlbiləndi.Nəyə desən and içim,Bu qəlb o qəlbləndir.
O my love, let a rose bud,
Nightingales cheer by rose-buds.
I miss you with all my heart,
Gloom, no more, but buds and buds.
Əziziyəm, oyan gül,Oyan, bülbül! Oyan, gül!Könül fəqan eyləyir,Nə yatmısan oyan gül?
Tebriz: The capital of historic Azerbaijan and now the capital of South Azerbaijan (outside the Republic of Azerbaijan).
Gence: Second largest city in the Republic of Azerbaijan (North Azerbaijan).
Araz: A river that rises in Turkey and flows to the Caspian Sea, cutting through the heart of Azerbaijan (South and North).
Bayati #4: A lament for the fate of South Azerbaijan in modern times.
Bayatis are a form of Azerbaijani folk-poetry. Over 10,000 have been written down but most never are. A bayati has four lines, each of seven syllables. Rhyming is on lines 1,2 and 4. The first two lines set the scene and the next two deliver the message. Bayatis express desire, wishes, anxieties, longings and other fundamental human emotions. Both anonymous and named poet composers seek simplicity of expression as well as intricate word-play.
These translations are by Yashar Toghay, pen-name of the hydrological engineer Rahman Khatibi.
One word more
… about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality has completed its process of formation and attained its finished state. The teaching of the concept, which is also history’s inescapable lesson, is that it is only when actuality is mature that the ideal first appears over against the real and that the ideal grasps this same real world in its substance and builds it up for itself into the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the falling of dusk.
G. W. F. Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, translated by T. M. Knox, revised, edited, and introduced by Stephen Houlgate, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.16But surely you paint “on” not “in”? Perhaps: ‘When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a form of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey on grey … it cannot be revived but only understood.’
And surely it is night that falls, not dusk?
‘The owl of Minerva takes flight only as night falls.’
‘The owl of Minerva only takes flight at nightfall.’
‘The owl of Minerva takes flight only into the dusk.’
‘Only at twilight does the owl of Minerva begin its flight.’
So, according to Hegel, our task can never be to change the world, telling it what it should be. There are complicated arguments here: about how the ideal and the intellectual sphere are only possible at a certain – late – stage of development; about the temporal disjunction between the ideal and the real, between the thought of the world and the world. But the key point is, surely, that the world can never be bent to the will of the “should” because thought is always a step or two behind. Our intervention is always too late. The present moment has already gone.
And here it is difficult not to think of Gatsby – as tragic Hegelian hero. For his whole tragedy is to think that he can recreate a moment from the past and regain the love of Daisy. His problem is that she cannot hold to that singular moment in the past and recreate it again in the present. That Daisy, and her love for the young Gatsby, is lost in the flow of time. She only remembers.
Nick Carraway is the philosopher, a minor part of the action, mostly an observer. At several points he states his sense of being old before his time, outside of his world, looking back into it: ‘a form of life grown old.’ For him the present is always out of reach. But he has the role of philosopher and, despite his taste for nostalgia, at least can understand and give a truthful account of what happened. And so, The Great Gatsby concludes with Carraway’s Hegelian reflections on the tragedy of history that Gatsby embodies.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night…But what then is the foundation of Gatsby’s relentless dream? What is his intense commitment to that singular moment in the past?
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
I'd. The verb.
This essay consists of two blog posts, the first from summer 2017 and the second from about a year later.
Post 1. I'd.
This post isn't so much a post - at least not yet - as a construction site. It aims to collate, investigate, speculate, pontificate and posture about an observation that I made many years ago but first mentioned on the Britsh-poets forum a year or so back.
The observation, in very crude terms, is this:
"I'd" (and other related words such as "she'd", "we'd" and "they'd") are very popular words in modern mainstream poetry in English. Contrariwise, these words almost never appear in experimental/avant-garde/alternative poetry in English.
This appears to be the case even though few if any practitioners are aware of it. So I see this as to some extent a matter of sociolinguistics.
Response on the forum was muted or hostile, perhaps because few poets like to think their diction is unconsciously determined, or perhaps because of ideological resistance to the idea that there are different poetries, or because the word mainstream is deemed to be always pejorative.
[On this last point, I will only assert here that both these poetic camps have existed for over half a century and there is a formidable tradition of important poets in each camp (as well as plenty of poets that nobody has ever taken much notice of). The claim that one camp is as a whole better than the other camp is not easy to defend convincingly.]
Anyway, here's the middle part of Andrew McMillan's "Dancer", which was the Friday Poem on Radio 3 (in this case it was also aligned with Radio 3's Gay Britannia celebration). I'm not sure where McMillan's line breaks occur (the poem won't be published until next year) so I've simply cut the text into lengths.
Even after rehearsal when I invite him
back to the flat to shower before the night's performance
he moves through the rooms so carefully
as though deciding a way to best inhabit them
I'd imagined he would be too beautiful to be curious but
each shelf and photo receives his audience of wet hair
tight body where each part's connection to another part is visible
his battered feet leaving their notations on the false wood floor
(It isn't relevant to what I'm going to say about them, but I do like these lines very much.)
"I'd" is present here, and it reveals the mainstream tradition in which this poem functions; that is, the poem is more Mark Doty than John Riley (to name a couple of poets that have been reported as McMillan faves).
There are three elements to our collocation: Pronoun, contraction, and verb/tense.
The combination is more important than the individual elements. A pronoun, an idiomatic contraction, and even a past perfect might all crop up in experimental poetry, but the presence of all of them together tends to go with a stable narrative frame: a frame in which "I" ("She", He"...) has a certain definite identitiy, including a previous history (promoting such tenses as the past perfect "I had + PP" or past continuous "I had been + vb + ING" or past habitual "I would + INF", all of which can be contracted to "I'd".) Contrariwise the "I" ("She", "He"...) of experimental poetry often exists only in the now, as an experiencing entity; as often as not, we have no idea who I/she/he is.
"I'd", then, is a collocation that appears in anecdotes. But not just any sort of anecdote. A dramatic or extraordinary event may not need a carefully constructed backstory. Unliterary narrators, sticking to the strict sequence of events or speech-acts, would see it as a failure of art to have to slot in achronological information in the past perfect. The collocation comes into its own in those unsensational stories in which the significance resides more in an accumulation of psychology and individual experience than in the event itself; even more so when the narration deviates artfully from the timeline in a Conradian manner; more so still when the past is conceived as a realm of greater significance and interest than the now. [This is obviously not a factor in McMillan's poem, but it's very much a factor in the wider world of poetry, whose typical audiences (and practitioners) are nearly as elderly as church congregations.]
The act of contraction itself is a less important element. Nevertheless, it can be associated with a conversational, idiomatic, informal diction, such as is usual in mainstream poetry, which aspires to be taught in schools. (On my TEFL course we're encouraged always to teach our students to use the contracted forms -- though not when "had" is the simple past tense of "to have", as in the Heaney quote below.) The mainstream poetry scene is heavily imbued with the belief that regional accents go with good poetry and that it's good thing if a poetic text suggests the distinctive inflections of an individual voice. [Experimental poetry tends to be informal too, even aggressively so, but it's far less committed to seeking the most idiomatic and natural ways of saying something.]
These more or less relevant generalizations arise from the observation, but they don't fully explain it. To go further is to note the poetic diction that exists as much now as in the eighteenth century; both the mainstream poet and (perhaps more damagingly) the experimental poet have each an unconscious poetic diction, which is a selection of vocabulary and syntactic forms that comes to hand when making up the next line. The choice is not as free as it seems. This individual poetic diction is what the "source text" of Mac Low's diastic verse is intended to replace. In fact the poetic diction is a kind of source text already; that is, it is limited though ample, and it isn't, for the most part, unique to the individual who writes, but is shared with other poets who write the same kind of poetry.
"I'll have been working here for eight years, come the end of November..."
Poetry in English, no doubt, has always favoured a straitened selection of verb forms. Tenses such as the future perfect continuous (as in the sentence above) are part of the standard English toolkit but they are not particularly common in any form of discourse, and they deter poets in particular because they use so many syllables.
Nevertheless experimental poetry stands out for its excessively narrow range of verb forms. It avoids nearly all the standard tenses, except the simple present, in favour of floating forms (in particular, present participles). This is because of of its willed indefinition of agency and chronology.
Experimental poetry tends to be about the general state of things. From this perspective the verb tends to be a suspect device. It appears as an anthropomorphic piece of publicity about what someone thinks they are doing, or even worse, what they want other people to think they are doing. Experimental poetry believes that the social processes at work outrun this human language of verbs in much the same way that particle physics outruns the common language of time and identity.
SAMPLES OF "I'D"
William Wordsworth, "The World is Too Much With Us"
.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn ( I would)
Edward Thomas, "Up in the Wind"
But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it (I would)
Siegfried Sassoon, "Base Details"
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base (I would)
Philip Larkin, "Church Going"
Mounting the lectern I peruse a few
hectoring large-scale verses and pronounce
Here endeth much more loudly than I'd meant... (I had)
Dannie Abse, "Return to Cardiff"
No sooner than I'd arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
smoke in the memory, those but tinned resemblances,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on. (I had)
Derek Walcott, "The Fortunate Traveller"
I'd light the gas and see a tiger's tongue. (I would)
Derek Mahon, "Afterlives"
But the hills are still the same
Mark Doty, "Source"
I'd been traveling all day, driving north
—smaller and smaller roads, clapboard houses
startled awake by the new green around them— (I had)
I'd pulled over onto the grassy shoulder
of the highway— (I had)
Ted Hughes, "Epiphany" (from Birthday Letters)
I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him
Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)
What I'd been ignoring.
Not the bulge of a small animal
Buttoned into the top of his jacket
The way colliers used to wear their whippets –
But its actual face. (I had)
Peter Porter, "Afterburner"
I'd been raised an Anglican. 'In the Name of the Larder,
the Bun and the Mouldy Toast. (I had)
Moniza Alvi, "I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro"
I’d survey the beauty of the linescape (I would)
Seamus Heaney, "Two Lorries"
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother, (I had)
Christopher Reid, "Late"
Of course, I’d forgotten she’d died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress (I had)
Carol Ann Duffy, "Salome"
I'd done it before (and doubtless I'll do it again, sooner or later)
woke up with a head on the pillow beside me (I had)
Jo Shapcott, "Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood"
Now the real sea beats inside me, here, where I'd press fur and feathers if I could. (I would)
Kathleen Jamie, "Glamourie"
When I found I'd lost you -
not beside me, nor ahead, (I had)
Owen Sheers, "Late Spring"
one-handed, like a man milking,
two soaped beans into a delicate purse,
while gesturing with his other
for the tool, a pliers in reverse
which I’d pass to him then stand and stare
as he let his clenched fist open
to crown them. (I would)
Daljit Nagra, "In a White Town"
I'd bin the letters about Parents' Evenings,
why I'd police the noise of her holy songs (I would)
Simon Armitage, "Privet"
Because I'd done wrong I was sent to hell (I had)
Roderick Benziger "Piano lessons"
and all I'd hear was the stream's dance
no drip, drop; and I'd feel in league
with my five-year-old self, cocooned in bed,
a bar of light under the door,
Post 2. The verb.
|Spruce trees in Klövsjö, Jämtland|
[Image source: http://www.arkivcentrumnord.se/skogensarkiv/skogsbruk_text.html. Photo by Rolf Boström.]
This is the name of the popular poetry show on Friday nights on Radio 3, hosted by Ian McMillan.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, the verb was indeed feted in some poetry circles. Poets like Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney were admired for fierce and forceful verbs, a hint at the vigour of medieval alliterative poetry.
The sea was still breaking violently and night
It's often claimed (and not always by poets) that poetry is the deployment of language at its most strenuous and complex. But this is misleading. Poetry can be markedly complex in certain ways, but this play of forces can only be unleashed if there is, in other respects, an equally marked simplicity.
One valuable thing I learned from my TEFL course (I've qualified, by the way) was the grammar of English, for example its 12 standard verb tenses in a table (plus all the others that aren't in the table).
I realized that poetry is characterized, probably always has been, by a limited palette of verb forms.
In the modern poetry that I like best, the impoverishment of verb forms is particularly severe. Indeed the verb itself is an object of suspicion.
And yet verb tenses such as the past perfect continuous (e.g. "had been feeling unwell"), which are so rare in poetry, are everyday working forms of language. They're common in discursive prose, but also in vernacular speech; in fact anywhere there's narrative. With few exceptions there's nothing academic or high-falutin about these verb forms. They are, however, definitional. They place action in a certain relation, most commonly a time relation, to other events.
But the lesson poets have absorbed from such forms as the haiku is that the world comes through the poem in a less mediated way if, so far as possible, we eliminate extraneous matter. Naturally I've always understood about the resulting distaste for adjectives and adverbs: the instinct that if we write
we bring an experience to the reader's mind with a sort of integrity and directness, compared with when we write of "the dark, brooding stand of fir trees that dripped with rain..." , or "the corporal shrugged rapidly, hunching over the embers, ..."
What I had not understood (probably through mere ignorance) is that the same argument tells equally against the verb in poetry.
For verbs are nothing if not interpretive. A discursive text full of verbs provides, as it were, a running commentary on the actions performed by its agents, an interpretation of what happened by an observer (which may sometimes be the agent her/himself, but this makes the commentary no less suspect).
This is most apparent when our agents are non-human. Most verbs originate in human activity. When we say that a tree "stands", or that a deer "walks", we assert an interpretation that cannot be shared by the agents themselves. Isn't the rangy springy floaty movement of the deer's legs utterly traduced by such a misleading image as the movement of human legs? Isn't the tree's slow occupation entirely different from the stiffening pause that we experience as standing?
But the same argument applies, to a large degree, when our agents are human. When we report that a person gestures, or shrugs, defends, or agrees, hits out, strokes, and so on, we allege these things on the basis of a commentary from outside. Everyone knows how often such commentary is disclaimed by the parties involved. But when this is not so, what all consent to is rather a manner of speaking, that is, a communal cliche, a cliche of literature, than the real quality of the event itself. Yes, I am happy that my behaviour is categorized under the received idea of "gesturing": the accumulated bundle of stereotypic movement connoted by that word. The reality is that action, behaviour, movement, thought, have no boundaries, no species, and no borders: the world of action is entirely fluid and continuous. The verb, however, seizes (or even creates) a certain event from this continuum, and drops it into a little pre-defined pigeonhole, such as "gesture" .... or "break", "steam", "clutch", "yawn" ...
A poem consisting only of nouns (like the rather short poems above), makes no such allegation. The nouns and noun phrases float there, for the readers to make of them what they will.
Movement can be implied by verbal nouns and suspended tenses such as floating participles, but without specifying who or when: in other words, by dropping tenses. So widespread is this poetic diction that sometimes when we are reading a modern poem and we do run across a more definitional phrase it looks like an intrusion; it looks like a quotation. The assertion was asserted somewhere else, we suppose; but it isn't asserted in the poem we are reading.
In mainstream poetry, often anecdotal or narrative in nature, the verb and some of its leaner tenses have survived. That was the point of my earlier post (above), in which I proposed that the presence of the words I'd/He'd/She'd was characteristic of modern mainstream poetry, their absence equally characteristic of modern non-mainstream poetry.
This proposal was vulnerable to counter-examples sourced from non-mainstream poetry, and Jamie McKendrick wasn't long in discovering one. He pointed out that Denise Riley, a poet commonly agreed to be non-mainstream, used my indicator words quite a bit in her recent collection Say Something Back (Picador, 2016).
He was right. As early as the first poem, "A Part Song", she writes:
You'd rather not, yet you must go
Briskly around on beaming show.
And in a poem such as "The patient who had no insides", we read: "I'd slumped at home"... "I'd glimpsed the radiographer's dark film"... "How well you look, they'd said to me at work".
But I wasn't put out by this anomaly, it being apparent that Denise in this collection wrote in a great number of styles, some of them (such as "The patient who had no insides") unapologetically close to mainstream. In fact, Denise has always been strikingly individual in her poetic,and not easily assimilated to the common interests of the Cambridge School. She adopted almost none of the fashionable strategies and mannerisms of alternative poetry, and her own probing of the epistemology of personal sentiment and anecdotal poetry has often involved a kind of parodic immersion rather than a rebarbative resistance. Some of this work has communicated beyond the confines of theory; it's not a sheer accident that she was the only "alternative" poet to appear (albeit with one short poem only) in Paul Keegan's Penguin Anthology of English Verse.
Readers who are interested in this kind of stuff might also like this earlier piece:
Poems by Laurie Duggan
In and around Peter Philpott's Wound Scar Memories
From A Second Life (you can read the whole marvellous lot online):
Look we haven’t come through: the boat
took us back home, of course, how silly not
to realise these truths: only here, only now
this misty island marred first by glaciers then people
why didn’t we realise we’re free of gods but not trouble
no one left to save us but our selves, each soul
bargaining in vain not to be taken home, Ukanian Ingerlund
where the longest dead control the language & the mind
why didn’t we realise we’d be wading thru this brutish mud?
Last week, coincidentally, I had a work experience student alongside. Turned out that Jake hailed from Bishop's Stortford, and at the name something stirred in my mind, connected as I thought with early morning flights to Sweden, or visits to nearby backwoods in deep Hertfordshire.
What I didn't recall, until, at the end of the day, I picked up Wound Scar Memories, is Peter Philpott being a long-term Stortford resident. Wound Scar Memories ends with a hefty discursive dazzler about the Dark Ages; Stortford's history plays quite a big part in it, along with the Germanized Brythonic name Cerdic, later the basis of Scott's invented name Cedric in Ivanhoe. (I think Scott would have been delighted to learn of a British element in the Anglo-Saxon founder-patriarch, but that's by the by.)
The quotation I started with exemplifies a few things about PP's praxis. His poems are fast reads and probably quite rapidly written. There's usually a couple of things to consult the notes about, but the pace is important, the switching of the thought; because dynamics is part of the whole-body expression by which we come to know each other. And in this case we soon get acquainted. The Peter of the poems, though not perhaps quite all of the man himself, is a person we know. I feel I would rather talk of a person than an instrument. And yet the years of inhabiting this praxis have had cumulative value, like someone learning to play an instrument: his latest poems are usually his best.
Here's another extract from the same collection (poem 73):
Laughter, though, sustaining
all this miraculous disorderliness
nostalgia of the non-human
– it glitters! somehow slippery as
oh, bêche-de-mer – what allows this?
joy, skipping through our mongrel lives
to the horizon, that buffet of possibilities
Here it definitely helps to read up a little about "bêche-de-mer " (Sea Cucumbers).
Not just to learn that the food has a notably slippery texture, but to more fully appreciate the poem's probing away from all angles at anthropomorphism, at heroism, at ideal human shape: at Michaelangelo's David, you might say.
... said it did not matter if no one ever read the poem, nor even if the poet forgot the poem before it was written, or if the poet was not even aware of the poem, but dreamt it and then forgot the dream. The poem had existed, and had influence upon the world. A true reader would discover it, read it from its consequences in the world. Such readers, unfortunately, were rare; but, then, so too, were poems.
From: The fragments. A poem based on classical lyrical fragments, apparently.
Gareth Prior writing about The Ianthe Poems :
About Peter Philpott:
About A Second Life (and its predecessor Within These Latter Days)
(So far as I can make out, neither of the more recent books The Ianthe Poems and Wound Scar Memories constitutes the potential third part of this magnum opus.
Within These Latter Days
An extract from The Ianthe Poems hand-copied (under mild protest) from Blart 2 (https://issuu.com/apotheosis/docs/peter_philpot_-_dubbadea__short_). (I do think online poetry really deserves to be electronically copyable.)
oh the singing of those free children
their noses are disgusting
facing us and
their own visas to here
outside this tight circles
justice is people
as wooden clogs
bears are burnt
in these streets
great mulligatawny mops
strangled to live
moving into wobbles to
where it's busy
typed up forms
Something that doesn't come across in these extracts, but is a feature of all these recent poem sequences, is what I'll term "phrase transformation". (I'm sort of basing that on the analogy of "theme transformation" in Liszt's music.)
What this means is that while each poem stands on its own (if not quite so securely as the reader may wish), some of its words and phrases are usually transmutations of words and phrases in preceding poems. Likewise, its own phrases turn up, transmuted, in the poems that follow it. (To give a single example, "asparagus" turns into "Asperger's".)
Without going very deeply into this, there seems to be a clear connection with Peter's perception that identity is never really unitary, that origins are never origins (there's always something that comes before them), that impurity and mongrelism are the basis of life, that we all depend on each other and can't ultimately be prised apart.
Wound Scar Memories is, to a certain extent concerned with Petrarch, and it openly references those two recent Petrarchiasts Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, poets in whose work we perhaps breathe a comparable atmosphere, relish a comparable zip and humour as in PP's writings, though in other respects all three are doing very different things.
A Divagation on Gildas
When I was writing about St Martin of Tours recently, it occurred to me that these early saints exist, not quite but almost, entirely in the hyperrealis. We don't know much about the real person or their world. We don't know their character or personality. Most of the stories about them are not designed as biography in any modern sense but to convey pious messages. Management of the hyperreal, that sphere that feeds no-one but has an addictive effect on people's imaginations, --- this management was already being skilfully exercised by the medieval church. Though today we are swamped by the hyperreal (so that, for example, nearly all news and public debate is about mainly unreal topics) it's nothing new.
The saint can be pictured as a very small stick-figure (representing what is concretely known about the person) who is dwarfed by a loosely attached but very large, billowing nebula of hyperreality; that is, the saint's myths and legends, traditions, associations, iconography, feasts and customs, patronage and so forth.
This large hyperreal element, projecting far into the future, touches the lives of millions of people across the millennia. As the saint's hyperreal nebula grows, it absorbs more and more material, and this material derives not from the original saint but from the lives of others, so that in the end the hyperreal nebula is not only an influential control on larger communities, but is also itself a communal creation.
Shakespeare understood the mechanism of it well. With reference to today's feast:
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
[Quoted this morning on Radio 3, which I was listening to on the way to work. By the way, there was also mention of the prominence of St Crispin, as patron saint of cobblers, in Wagner's Die Meistersinger ..]
Peter Philpott, re Arthur (in Wound Scar Memories):
Probably, if he existed (ie a dude called something Artorial doing some important stuff against the "Anglo-Saxons"), a little earlier than Cerdic. Probably, too, also not a king, but a warband leader, a dux. OK -- so Gildas doesn't mention him: his On the Ruin of Britain (De Excidio Britanniae), written early or mid Sixth Century, is the only British/Welsh contemporary narrative of the post-colonial period dealing with the early "Welsh" kingdoms. It is a splenetic sermon, a rant addressed to those who know what he's talking about, in which actual leaders are transformed into political cartoon monsters. It is like trying to obtain historical information from the cartoons of Steve Bell or Martin Rowson.
("Not a Note on Some Matters with Britain", Wound Scar Memory p. 68).
PP's casual language is the perfect vehicle for engaging with and just about emerging from the stew of hyperrealism that passes for Dark-Age history. The language tacitly acknowledges, too, that any statement about a hyperrealized topic tends to become meta-statement, ie it is apt to be only about the hyperreal component that it feeds, while the core matter slips away. (That's why nearly all media stories are about media stories.) PP recognizes that we live in "circulating words". Cue for more seasonal verse.
1. wound scar memory
OK, then, it's dying down into winter now so
turn on the fairy lanterns to light our way
ignore this darkness, spike it all with glow
the day shrivels so we can transform our nights
that's it; that something may resist, survive
hold our lives awhile in something like delight
even if only in our most common struggle
holding off our end for what we choose as life
here, this is us as people, all of us to enjoy
circulating words, bodies & our food
that we have made together as we wish: night
with all its force awaits; we don't but
hesitant at first, then rushing, reach out & share
human solace over fate, all our delight in the air
(from the sequence "Action in the Play Zone", in Wound Scar Memory)
Let's have some sentences from Gildas, or at any rate the Englished version of Gildas.
"It is protected by the wide, and if I may so say, impassable circle of the sea on all sides, with the exception of the straits on the south coast where ships sail to Belgic Gaul."
Not so very well protected, if Gildas himself is to be believed. Here is Gildas's influential account of the Saxon incomers' rapacity and deceit.
"Then there breaks forth a brood of whelps from the lair of the savage lioness, in three cyulae (keels), as it is expressed in their language, but in ours, in ships of war under full sail, with omens and divinations. In these it was foretold, there being a prophecy firmly relied upon among them, that they should occupy the country to which the bows of their ships were turned, for three hundred years; for one hundred and fifty----that is for half the time----they should make frequent devastations. They sailed out, and at the directions of the unlucky tyrant, first fixed their dreadful talons in the eastern part of the island, as men intending to fight for the country, but more truly to assail it."
Happily, this rascally crew of foreigners were utterly routed at Mount Badon. But...
"The recollection of so hopeless a ruin of the island, and of the unlooked-for help, has been fixed in the memory of those who have survived as witnesses of both marvels. Owing to this (aid) kings, magistrates, private persons, priests, ecclesiastics, severally preserved their own rank. As they died away, when an age had succeeded ignorant of that storm, and having experience only of the present quiet, all the controlling influences of truth and justice were so shaken and overturned that, not to speak of traces, not even the remembrance of them is to be found among the ranks named above..."
Gildas' address to one of the five evil rulers, "Aurelius Caninus":
"Thou also, lion whelp, as the prophet says, what doest thou, Aurelius Caninus? Art thou not swallowed up in the same, if not more destructive, filth, as the man previously mentioned, the filth of murders, fornications, adulteries, like sea-waves rushing fatally upon thee? Hast thou not by thy hatred of thy country's peace, as if it were a deadly serpent, or by thy iniquitous thirst for civil wars and repeated spoils, closed the doors of heavenly peace and repose for thy soul? Left alone now, like a dry tree in the midst of a field, remember, I pray thee, the pride of thy fathers and brothers, with their early and untimely death. Wilt thou, because of pious deserts, an exception to almost all thy family, survive for a hundred years, or be of the years of Methuselah? No. But unless, as the Psalmist says, thou be very speedily converted to the Lord, that King will soon brandish his sword against thee; who says by the prophet: I will kill and I will make alive: I shall wound and I shall heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. Wherefore shake thyself from thy filthy dust, and turn unto Him with thy whole heart, unto Him who created thee, so that when His anger quickly kindles, thou mayest be blest, hoping in Him. But if not so, eternal pains await thee, who shalt be always tormented, without being consumed, in the dread jaws of hell."
Gildas' idealism, disappointed by the clergy of his time:
"But let us also see the following words: Ruling his own house well, having his children in subjection with all chastity. The chastity of the fathers is therefore imperfect, if that of the children is not added to it. But what shall be where neither father nor son (depraved by the example of a wicked parent) is found to be chaste? But if a man knoweth not how to rule his own house, how shall he show care of the church of God? Here are words that are proved by effects that admit of no doubt. Deacons in like manner must be chaste, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not following after filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. But let these first be proved, and thus let them serve if they are without reproach. With a shudder, indeed, at having to linger long at these things, I can with truth make one statement, that is, all these are changed into the contrary deeds, so that the clergy are (a confession I make not without sorrow of heart) unchaste, double-tongued, drunk, greedy of filthy lucre, having the faith, and, to speak with more truth, the want of faith, in an impure conscience, ministering not as men proved good in work, but as known beforehand in evil work, and, though with innumerable charges of crime, admitted to the sacred ministry."
|Pine needles and drinks can on a step|
There's some typically searching thoughts about Peter Philpott's Wound Scar Memories by Peter Riley in the course of a long essay in the Fortnightly Review from last July.
[This is rather a challenge to my attempt to move away from using anaphoric surnames. In this case I'll use PR for the reviewer, reserving Peter for the author.]
The essay as a whole is, I think, PR's most persuasive and elaborate attempt to articulate his longstanding rejection of the alternative/mainstream binary, and is full of detail and insight. But where I found myself most in demurral was on the topic of Wound Scar Memories, in which he finds a diehard Cantabrigian rejection of society, language and subject, which isn't the way I read it at all. His review makes the book sound impenetrable, which it isn't; and he's oddly impervious to the drift of the argument, apparently ignoring such straightforward help as appears e.g. on the back cover of the book. All poetry is difficult, no doubt; but here the difficulty lies far more in realizing the implications of what's being said than in the rebarbativeness of the saying.
I was, as you can see, already thinking about this poem:
13. what & who are we asking questions about here?
can we imagine this as spring now?
slow bubbling up of green &
the birds definitely pairing for their futures
what will it be like when we live different
can we be other than what we are
-- except we aren't, we're doing & changing
brisk, not yet decay
who'd believe we might win out against the rich
their armed thugs & their lawyers
tame poets, politicians, publicists
their planners & all their aspirants
-- not to is what is unbelievable & crushes
condemns to fantasy & bestial rage
not to believe in our future condemns
unravels the texts
of all our lives
we are what we're becoming aren't we?
-- or not
drowned & calcifying
in the deep blue green
the arid eye of pity
(Hedge of utterance, 13)
Hedge of utterance is the third sequence in the book, and by this stage we've moved quite a long way from the more regular sonnet-like appearance of the early poems in the first sequence Fragments of vulgar things. Nevertheless, a hint of sonnetry (that most clinging of perfumes) remains, even here.
PR quotes the four lines beginning "who'd believe we might win out" as one of his examples of "familiar.. outbursts of rage against the 'ruling elite'..." and comments:
Not that these passages might not be an entirely inaccurate account of what’s happening in this kingdom at present, but everything about the tone is “the same old stuff”, the same hyperbolic rhetoric, after 50 years of poetical rant to no effect.
But that pays no attention to what these lines are doing in a poem that, characteristically, switches direction several times. Beginning with spring, the meditation moves on to other transformations and to life as a process of becoming. The political wish is chiefly here for its sense of the odds being stacked against us; a political wish that has all the hallmarks of the unbelievable; preparing for the poet's paradoxical claim that "not to [sc. believe] is what is unbelievable". Hope, at this euphoric moment in the poem, is seen as intrinsic to our existence. But this euphoria switches suddenly to the contemplation of failure, recalling (from the book's opening sequence) the image of the dry Vaucluse well-head and its arid eye of pity. This rapid sequence of thought and emotion is much more a philosophical poem than a political poem; though of course the poet would rather live in a world that isn't commandeered by the unprincipled, as we all would. But actually I feel "philosophical poem" is wrong too, because it suggests a heaviness quite at odds with this realtime bubble in language.
As for the rich, their armed thugs, etc., there's generality here; because the point isn't the specific targets or situations but to evince -- precisely -- the familiar , that is, shared, rage and desire -- the same old stuff.
That calcified wellspring is a key element in the book, and it points two ways (or perhaps more). In the introduction to the first sequence, Peter tells us: "When we visited, at the conclusion of an unusually hot & dry summer for Provence, there was no lively watersource, but a rockbound turquoise pool marking the deep sump ... But the river ran merrily on out of the rocky drift through its gorge, regardless of its lack of a climactic wellspring ..."
I get the impression, though, that the quietness of the source is usual in winter and summer, contrasting with turbulence in autumn and spring.
No matter. For author and reader, the important thing is the mystery, the sense of contradiction. The wellspring looks inactive, a deathly dry image, yet somehow the river is still flowing. Ultimately there's a connection with the deep scepticism about origins in Peter's closing essay about Dark Age history. We may promote a myth of pure origin, but the process of becoming is continuous and mysterious.
The image lurks in all three of the book's sequences. In the poem I've quoted, it's half-hidden in the opening lines about spring -- or a spring in spring? Then it emerges more starkly at the end of the poem: as that "arid eye of pity", perhaps impotent, or mocking, or monastic...
|The source of the Sorgue at Vaucluse, at low level in summer|
[Image source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fontaine_de_Vaucluse#/media/File:Fontainedev.jpg . Photo by Philipp Hertzog. ]
PR continued to worry parenthetically at Wound Scar Memories in this later article about versioning classic authors, with particular reference to the Petrarchs of Hughes, Atkins and Sheppard: http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2018/03/translation-expanded/
A couple of other short pieces I found helpful:
Ian Brinton's review : https://tearsinthefence.com/2017/07/02/wound-scar-memories-by-peter-philpott-great-works-editions/
Billy Mills' review: https://ellipticalmovements.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/recent-reading-six-more-short-reviews/