Sunday, July 27, 2014
When I remember that line from the Alexander Bathgate review in the Literary World, “if the author had been blessed with a spark of humour, the verses would have gone straight into the fire,” I realise that I don't know where the reviewer laughed.
Why should I know where the reviewer laughed; why should that be open to me – because it's a review, I say.
The contempt is clear but the details indeterminate. I can see the general sentiment but I can't agree or argue with the specific thought; and I suspect this lacuna is irritating me simply because it is a lacuna, and not because I sincerely want to know the details of the reviewer's contemplation, mild frottage of the brain, and why feel it in the first place I ask, when there is the problem of vanishing electrons that I could be studying instead: what a waste of a human mind, what a dilettante, when I could be more like the mathematician I met on Thursday, who was working his way through quantum physics to find an equation that would put his schizophrenic visions into logical perspective – set theory, he said, and a woman who was eavesdropping interrupted us, saying, Well we've all been to college.
From my perspective (as she came sideways into the corner of my vision) she was acting out what Jacques Ranciere calls “the intoxication of art,” which is, “mining the act of appearing, instead of miming the appearance of characters to whom something happens, or who feel something,” (Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, translated by Zakir Paul) though from her perspective I can believe that she was coming at Ranciere from the opposite direction and that she was miming a character to whom something had happened, and who felt something.
"If they had been blessed with a spark of humour," she thought, " -- and by that I mean proportion -- this conversation would go straight into the fire."
In the rest of the review I see that Bathgate's reviewer is irritated by the footnotes (“they are a necessary evil, and should be reduced to the smallest compass”), that he is bored by the characters, and that he admires “excellent bits of landscape” in some of the poems. Iredale might be “singularly fatuous” but “a few lines” in the book “are both wise and true,” though he doesn't tell you what the lines are and here again is the lacuna (“Then kill it,” says Irma), for nothing in the other poems seems any smarter to me than Iredale, a long piece of blank verse which argues that we should reject sexual attraction in favour of platonic love between men and women because “higher love” can last forever, extending even into heaven, but “Passion lasts a fleeting day” -- the poet presenting his idea in a binary moral narrative about a man who stumbles into “passionate love” and has to be rescued posthumously from a supernatural giant named Lust, by the devotion of two pure women: “both are clear from stain.”
I snickered at an ungainly rhyme on page two, “Fair Alice Bain: Anon he knew the pain,” and that was as close as I came to an instinctive understanding of the reviewer's point about Bathgate's sense of humour.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
When Richard Tuttle was a young man he heard that the famous artists of his time were making their art large because they wanted to represent the universe, which encouraged him to make his art small so that he could approach the same desire from a different angle. Is that a story of dissatisfaction or not, I wonder. The reviewer who wrote about Alexander Bathgate's Far South Fancies for the Literary World was more direct when he said, “if the author had been blessed with a spark of humour, the verses would have gone straight into the fire” -- criticising the writer for his lack of dissatisfaction; and saying that Bathgate was not talented at the essential skill of discontent which is also discernment: “the most zealous and earnest, therefore the most discontented,” as Ruskin refers to some “leading masters” of his day when he reviews Charles Eastlake's Materials for a History of Oil-Painting (1847).
As though these two critics believe that the artist has summoned a demon that deserves pain as a sacrificial recompense for its appearance, Ruskin even using that word, “pain,” in The Cestus of Aglaia.
I say triumphal home, for, indeed, triumphal arches which you pass under, are but foolish things, and may be nailed together any day, out of pasteboard and filched laurel; but triumphal doors, which you can enter in at, with living laurel crowning the Lares, are not so easy of access: and outside of them waits always this sad portress, Patience; that is to say, the submission to the eternal laws of Pain and Time, and acceptance of them as inevitable, smiling at the grief. So much pains you shall take—so much time you shall wait: that is the Law. Understand it, honor it; with peace of heart accept the pain, and attend the hours; and as the husbandman in his waiting, you shall see, first the blade, and then the ear, and then the laughing of the valleys. But refuse the Law, and seek to do your work in your own time, or by any serpentine way to evade the pain, and you shall have no harvest—nothing but apples of Sodom: dust shall be your meat, and dust in your throat—there is no singing in such harvest time.
When the Literary World reviewer writes “the verses” he is referring to Eric Iredale, the “most ambitious” poem in the book but “singularly fatuous,” he decides very confidently; though that confidence does not impose itself on the world firmly enough to stop The New Place: The Poetry of Settlement in New Zealand, 1852-1914 (1993, ed. Harvey McQueen) from associating Iredale with the word “fascinating.” It is “a fascinating blend of Victorian values and concerns worked into a recasting of the Ranolf and Amohia legend.” From that angle it can be fascinating and I have heard someone explain the urban fantasy book he was reading by saying that it had “an interesting concept.“ These two pieces of language go together.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
In many of his poems, essays and lectures, Geoffrey Hill has let his readers or listeners know that he is haunted by the likelihood of “appearing a fool.” “To undertake any assessment of the meaning of value is to risk appearing a fool. To pronounce upon human values may expose one as an ethical charlatan,” he says in the second paragraph of his Rhetorics of Value. Aware of perfection, he feels himself falling short. He is obliged to let people know about it too – why – when he could have said nothing – he could have gone on with the essay and left those sentences out? Why obligation? Coetzee is dissatisfied when he senses a blank gap between the other arguments about Richardson's Clarissa but he is writing at the expense of strangers.
Richardson himself saw that the nine volumes of Clarissa had failed because people didn't comprehend every aspect of his mind, though he was praised and enriched, “and contemporary readers traveled to the Upper Flask, the tavern Clarissa and Lovelace stopped at in Hampstead” and the other author who had satirised him, Henry Fielding (who wrote his first novel because he was unhappy with Pamela), was rapturing in a letter, “Let the Overflowings of a Heart which you have filled brimfull speak for me” (October 15, 1748), still he was going to write his postscript to answer his failure.
The more pains have been taken to obviate the objections arising from the notion of Poetical Justice, as the doctrine built upon it had obtained general credit among us; and as it must be confessed to have the appearance of humanity and good-nature for its supports. And yet the writer of the History of Clarissa is humbly of opinion, that he might have been excused referring to them for the vindication of his Catastrophe, even by those who are advocates for the contrary opinion; since the notion of Poetical Justice, founded on the modern rules, has hardly ever been more strictly observed in works of this nature, than in the present performance.
Dissatisfaction is a fuelling force, so Ruskin believes when he tells his students in The Elements of Drawing to start by shading a tiny strip of paper; they should need nothing more than this to show them how bad they are. “By getting a piece of gray shaded ribbon, and comparing it with your drawing, you may arrive, in early stages of your work, at a wholesome dissatisfaction with it.”
Widen your band little by little as you get more skillful, so as to give the gradation more lateral space, and accustom yourself at the same time to look for gradated spaces in Nature. The sky is the largest and the most beautiful; watch it at twilight, after the sun is down, and try to consider each pane of glass in the window you look through as a piece of paper colored blue, or gray, or purple, as it happens to be, and observe how quietly and continuously the gradation extends over the space in the window, of one or two feet square. Observe the shades on the outside and inside of a common white cup or bowl, which make it look round and hollow; and then on folds of white drapery; and thus gradually you will be led to observe the more subtle transitions of the light as it increases or declines on flat surfaces. At last, when your eye gets keen and true, you will see gradation on everything in Nature.
By this formula, dissatisfaction is not a key to knowledge, it is the key to the state of humility that will keep you calm and quiet so that knowledge can come in, but what if the dissatisfaction doesn't stop, I wonder. It is not a car, it is not a bus, it doesn't have a route on a timetable with a start and stop point; and what if it burns on and burns on like a coal seam – then Ruskin is – deciding that the fuel will burn anyway, so cook something while you're there.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Bathgate wants to be understood as well, but he is not like them – in what way? he expects comprehension as well as wanting it -- he is not like the artist that Ruskin describes when he writes about Lord Lindsay's Christian Art in 1847: “we are critically aware of all our deficiencies, too cognizant of of all that is greatest to pass willingly and humbly through the stages that rise to it, and oppressed in every honest effort by the bitter sense of inferiority.” Hill, after quoting Shakespeare at the podium in 2012 or 2013, stops and wishes, out loud, that he had a modicum of talent. On another afternoon he imagines dead writers judging him whenever he gets sloppy. “We are now aroused suddenly in the light of an intolerable day,” says Ruskin, “our limbs fall under the sunstroke – we are walled in by the great buildings of elder times, and their fierce reverberations fall upon us without pause.”
Bathgate feels the dead benevolently in The Clematis, he accepts the poetic language that they have passed to him, “garlands ye have,” “methinks thou dost,” “thee to show thy;” and he believes in the concord that concludes so many poems and books (until the history of writing in the English language could be described as a row of open clasps being spied and fastened – or the struggle for an ultimate representation of Leopardi's translated word, appropriate), the passage of summing-up and unity that Samuel Richardson's books will carry on for pages and pages, the dramatic climax of Pamela occurring just over half way through the story, the rest of the book dedicated to the rapprochement of the characters and the establishment of rules, followed by more issue in which lessons from the narrative are explained efficiently, so that the reader knows what they were expected to have deduced; everything has been concluded now, even their deductions, a state that Hill's later poems avoid, the last line of The Triumph of Love suggesting that nothing has changed except the vital and tiny presence of a solitary comma, which could be understood in different ways.
Richardson's own books have been understood in different ways, in spite of him, with the critics ignoring his notes whenever they feel like it and trekking implacably to their own conclusions. “Clarissa is read as a novel about violability and violation, about the rights of the self to self-determination. I will be approaching Clarissa from a different angle ...” (J.M. Coetzee, Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, from Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986 – 1999, referring to a specific area of critical consensus that was current during the 1980s ...)
Sunday, July 13, 2014
I was going to write something about Bertram Stevens and singing next but Miguel of St Orberose brings up a point in the comments – I reword it into a question like this -- Is it wrong-headed to compare old poets, who are adhering to the aesthetics of their times, to new poets? I was wondering similarly while I was writing the last post but the word I used when I was talking to myself was fair. Was it fair? Strange fairness when one party had died and the other one would never know; this was fairness being acted out for the living and the present people, who would maybe feel it transmitted into themselves through the medium of correct and balanced feelings or emotional sniffer dogs implanted early and reinforced.
Incoherence, though; I was approaching Bathgate through the word incoherence, which had come into my head when I was re-reading that old interview with Geoffrey Hill.
Incoherence (I considered) is eternally available to everyone and the year 1889, which was the publication of The Clematis* would not have forbidden incoherence, the 1800s being so hectic in the Anglosphere and Ruskin breaking down, even at the end of Praeterita when he is pointing out the quiet and peacefulness; still he is not quiet and peaceful but must worry back over what he has written: “… totally above men of the 'world' in general understanding, courtesy, and moral sense. Men of the outer world, I mean, of course ...” -- joking a little but still craving in general to be understood both at the atomic level of a single word and in the overarching meaning, which he complained nobody got, and instead they pulled quotes out of his books and showed them around, saying they were beautiful. I do not want to be beautiful, he wrote. I want to be meaningful. But Oscar Wilde defended him after his death by writing
Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s gallery ...
The dirt world would not understand him either and his ditch did not work.
This is Hill's habit too, in lectures and poems, this way of picking back over a word he has used, this restless irritation, stung by words as if they are insects he has sat on, he goes, he has to scratch, but he has to sit down in the grass again too, he sits, he gets bitten, he quotes the OED, he sits down again and has to get up again. He will never be able to settle comfortably on a word and rest there like a man on a soft cushion. The dead are misunderstood as well, he worries. They are ignored. Very much like words in that respect. People assume their compliance without asking.
Somebody should make a list of writers whose clarifying nitpicks are also a style, eg
* I've just ("just" is at ten forty-five, the morning after I made this post) read a review of Bathgate's Clematis book, Far South Fancies, in an edition of The Literary World (July 19, 1890). The reviewer's opinion in a nutshell: "So far as the human element in them [the poems] is concerned, they are of little value [...] But Mr Bathgate has an eye for scenery."
Thursday, July 10, 2014
The first line of Hill's first published book (unless I've got this wrong) was, “Against the burly air I strode,” Genesis (1959), going on into more combat: “tough pig-headed salmon,” “triggered claw,” “fierce and unregenerate clay” “to ravage and redeem the world,” an atmosphere of struggle that almost does not exist in this Anthology of Australian Verse edited by Bertram Stevens, where the tone is usually the one in Michael's Personality, the authors easily acquiescing to their own ideas and language easily acquiescing to the authors.
Fair crown of stars of purest ray,
Hung aloft on Mapau tree,
What floral beauties ye display,
Stars of snowy purity.
(from The Clematis, by Alexander Bathgate)
Bathgate was a New Zealander. Stevens has decided to include poets from New Zealand for reasons that he doesn't explain. Proximity and small population seems to have connected them in his mind. “Australia was first settled by the British a little more than a century ago, so that we are still a young community. The present population, including that of New Zealand, is a little under five millions.” The Clematis exists in opposition to the spirit of Hill, who says, “I do feel that everything that I write is a kind of battle won—or lost—against silence and incoherence. And I think there is something naturally incoherent in me, just as I think there is probably something, at some level, anarchic, because the kind of obsessive concern I have with order in the early work is one that somebody has who feels all the time how endangered order is, and what a potential threat to order he is” (from an interview with the Paris Review.)
But Bathgate feels close to his opinion of the clematis flower, not incoherent or battling, he uses words for beauty, “fair,” “purest,” “snowy purity,” “stars,” without contradicting himself; the only opposition in the poem comes from the darkness of the mapau tree versus the brightness of the petals, “'mid sombre leaves.” Then he tells you that the deep colour of the tree is an asset for the little flower because it describes strength.
His strength, thy beauty, both unite
And form a picture to delight.
Next Bathgate reveals that he has been thinking of another union all along, and the perceptible union of the flower and the tree was a visible sign indicating the existence of other compatibilities, ones that can only be intuited; the minor troubles the clematis has faced (“weak stem“) were all temporary and solvable; each indicator of disunity was a false flag.
Fair flower, methinks thou dost afford
Emblem of a perfect wife,
Whose work is hidden from the world,
Till, perchance, her husband's life
Is by her influence beautified,
And this by others is descried.
What Bathgate sees is ultimately coherence and the poem moves into that coherence, it is coherent in its language, it does not contradict its own author, there is not “something naturally incoherent in me,” and order is not endangered – order exists in nature. It is there in the trees. “'It is not nature's way to be distraught.” (Hill, Expostulations on the Volcano (2012)) On the other hand “Words | Render us callous the fuller they ring” (ditto). Bathgate assumes that his words are full.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Michael agrees with Butler. “To choose what I must be is mine.” In other words, he will decide to maintain himself post-corpse by performing correctly “the deeds which we have done in the body.” He suggests obstacles to the easy achievement of those deeds, citing “this feeble frame, | For ever racked with ailments fresh” but in the next stanza he reveals that those problems have been introduced so that they can be argued into smaller importance. “This is not I.” (“I” at some points in the poem is neither the physical body nor the personality – since the personality can be estranged from it – but I think this is the fault of semantics rather than metaphysics.)
Geoffrey Hill, in his Tanner lectures, has another point of view, different but likewise rooted in a Christianised culture: “the nature that is most intimately mine” (which I believe corresponds to Michael's notion of “personality”) is necessarily penetrated and corrupt; it is not so free of its physical existence.
My language is in me and is me; even as I, inescapably, am a minuscule part of the general semantics of the nation; and as the nature of the State has involved itself in the nature that is most intimately mine.
If it is “intimately mine” then the simple solution that Michael proposes in his poem – when you discard the body in death you are discarding everything that isn't you – is being questioned. But it depends. How intimate is Hill's intimately? How intimate do you want it to be? To get rid of that question you could say, “Not as intimate as that.”
If Michael, static in the afterlife, has discovered that he was right, then is he reading Hill's oeuvre -- which has been in a condition of struggle from the first line of the first poem in his first published book -- and muttering, “Geoff, Geoff, what a waste of time”?