Other Observations


From the Carcanet blog:

'But then we realise something. Celan's words are limpid, but appear so only if we adjust our expectations, allow his words to adjust our expectations: only if we are prepared to listen. Celan’s exactness clashes with what we think of as exact: the everyday is not exact, it is a cliché; realism requires vertiginous originality. But how can one be exact about what is truly unspeakable? One can only write knowing that one approaches and approximates, and that language fails you the while; you run after exactness, but the world gets away and your words fail. Beckett taught us about this failure because he knew failure and writing were synonymous. 
Language, of course, in Celan’s case, was absolutely implicated in the violence he was writing about and writing after. ‘Reachable, near and not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language.’ But German? After everything? Writing in that language was always already a brave defiance, a foolhardy act. It needed so much work not to allow worn words, decaying, imprecise words, weasel words, to distort and mislead. Celan’s poetry is sui generis, because it had to be.’

John Ashbery reading from his new Rimbaud translation (via Poetry magazine)

From The Independent

Thief, teenage master-poet, gun-runner in Africa, attempted murderer: the short life and sensational achievements of Arthur Rimbaud fascinate us. When I finished re-reading Carcanet’s parallel-text edition of his cycle of visionary poems in prose, in its new translation by John Ashbery, my head was full of words by those whom Rimbaud so palpably influenced, from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” to John Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus”. It struck me that there was no real distance between Dylan, Lennon and Rimbaud.’

Other Observations says: yes, there is real distance. 


The Gravity of Pure Forces 

'At the beginning of Martin Heidegger’s lecture “Time and Being,” presented to the University of Freiburg in 1962, he cautions against, it would seem, the requirement that philosophy make sense, or be necessarily responsible (Stambaugh, 1972). At that time Heidegger's project focused on thinking as thinking and in order to elucidate his ideas he drew comparisons between his project and two paintings by Paul Klee as well with a poem by Georg Trakl. In front of Klee's Saints from the Window and Death of Fire—though we wouldn’t absolutely understand what we were seeing—he writes, “we should want to stand…a long while.” In a similar manner, of Trakl’s poem “Septet of Death”—although it is likely we are unsure in what we hear—Heidegger states that, “we should want to hear…[it] often.”’

On the understanding that the cuts are the wrong answer, I now want to point out the sterile duality between ‘the cuts’ and ‘the status quo in poetry’. I will be using examples of what I think are flawed defenses of poetry. I won’t be naming names, and in any case these are examples of verstand - corrupt common-sense - that I am vulnerable to myself.

'You can't put a value on art', or, ‘You can’t quantify the value of art.’ To say this is merely to admit to those who already think so that art is worthless - if one cannot put a maximum price on something one cannot put a minimum price on it either. In fact you can apply quantities to poetry, and we should be trying to do precisely this, though not on the disingenuous terms suggested by the Coalition.       

'Poetry has social benefits.' Reading and writing poetry may have accidental positive effects on how well groups of people get on with each other, but this is no more a defense of poetry than it is a defense of sport, comedy, or communal dining.  

'Poetry has benefits for the individual.' Then is it a candidate for public funds - is it even a candidate for public interest? If we say poetry exists for the benefit of our personal health, we reduce it to a mere hobby. And again, this is no more a defense of poetry than it is a defense of exercise, laughter, or a healthy diet.

What all these have in common is the assumption that poetry is something different to communication, something like a vestigial limb in a marine organism: they dissociate the two terms and inevitably invest all utility and strength in that which is not poetry. In fact, we should take Pound’s view: poetry as the highest form of communication, the perfection and cultivation of communication which is a natural faculty.

We might recall St Augustine on language: in his theory, our first use of language is simple, animal: language used to dominate others and satisfy our desires: yet through the abstraction of language, collecting things under names, we come to measure and discern true value. To this I would add that it is also possible to regress. Communication is in constant danger of decay. And when we consider that, in the days of our lives, we can never not communicate - even our private thoughts come from outside, are structured by external rules – to abandon this constant struggle to perfect communication is not to escape into silence but to sink back into a flatline of animal stupidity: to become like those in Dante’s Hell who have lost el ben del intelletto, the good of the intellect.         

We should be loyal to this Idea of perfect communication, and support whatever manifestations of it we find in our situation. The controversy around the cuts is one such opportunity.  

Recently, the ACE - Arts Council England, a body that distributes money to further the arts – has announced which organisations will continue to receive public money and which will not. One cut that stands out is the decision to take away 100% of the funding for the Poetry Book Society. As the Guardian reports:

More than 100 poets have signed a letter protesting about Arts Council England's decision to axe funding for The Poetry Book Society in its new literature portfolio.

Elaine FeinsteinLavinia GreenlawRuth PadelRoger McGough, andDon Paterson are among those who have added their names to a letter calling on ACE chairwoman Dame Liz Forgan to reconsider the cut to “a widely respected and internationally unique organisation.” The PoetryBook Society says it will have to close down if funding is withdrawn in April 2012 as planned. Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has said the cut is “disgraceful”.

I want to pick up on some specific details that might get lost otherwise. The money received by the PBS was less than 0.75% of the grant received by the Royal Opera House. As George Szirtes says in one of his articles: '(The PBS) is, furthermore, a small organisation with one full time director and three, very hard stretched, excellent, part time staff, none of whom are at all well paid …’

The arts are a part of public life particularly vulnerable to the (premeditated and opportunist) austerity agenda: among the arts, poetry is perhaps the most vulnerable (compared to music and film, compared even to novel-writing). It is vulnerable because it is easily assumed to be either an unnatural luxury - and thus undeserving of the regular taxpayer’s money - or on the other hand such a natural thing that it is hard to think of as something that needs to be maintained, programmed, and perfected.     

You cannot have high quality works of art if you leave the arts in the invisible hand of the free market. In a competition context, you naturally try to undercut your opponent (by making products as cheaply as possible and ignoring quality). You only take time to produce things which appeal to the most basal desires of the most average consumer - or, you appeal to micro-communities of taste (an audience with a niche interest a particular genre), both of which lead to different kinds of stagnation.

The funding cuts are the wrong answer: they save a pathetically small amount of money which will hardly help us to reduce the Deficit – and the idea that Deficit must be reduced is a convenient myth, based on the flawed economic theory of Hayek and Milton Friedman.       

David Wheatley on David Jones

'If posterity has consigned the poet-painter David Jones (1895-1974) to obscurity, it is an obscurity of a strangely enviable kind. Most writers in need of a revival have suffered critical neglect or have fallen out of print, but that has not been Jones's fate. T S Eliot, Hugh MacDiarmid, Basil Bunting and W H Auden all garlanded him with superlatives; academic attention has remained steady; and his two book-length long poems, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, have just been reissued. Yet Jones is an undeniably marginal figure, British poetry’s very own Easter Island statue, combining cultic mystery with apparent obsolescence.In Parenthesis is one of the masterpieces of modern war poetry, but much discussion of war poetry simply bypasses him …’

We can expect John Ashbery translating Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and Jane Draycott translating ‘Pearl’. As well as this, an addition to the New Poetries series of anthologies - the previous number introduced me to one of my favourite present-day writers, Emma Jones, whose poems I hope to write about here soon. Carcanet’s website.    


Inked: Open floor poetry night in Chester

Welcome to the second installment of inked: the creative-writing open floor event in Chester! Following the first successful evening last month, you are cordially invited to read, drink, listen, mingle, and enjoy another evening in the company of fellow literature/poetry fans. Bring friends, your own work, or work from an author you admire, and soak up the friendly and informal atmosphere complimented by a wide selection of drinks available at The Commercial. We look forward to seeing your there!’ 

Stirred: for women who write (Manchester)

'Aiming to provide a platform for the female voice to be heard, in its many guises, Stirred is a new poetry performance night taking place at Sandbar. Taking place the first Monday of every month, only £1 entry, Stirred is woman themed in its approach.'