in their deathtime

Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts - Deaths of the Poets

What - for the poet, whose work is validated by the vital intricacies of meaning - should be the exemplary death, where one is, as it were, end-stopped by the terminal silence?  Must it be regarded as a summary gloss on all the words that came before?  The poet’s art is shadowed by the immanence of death, the whiteness of the page - all negation, all that is non-human - briefly accommodates human presence, which is utterance, which is breath and soul.  Placidly reconciled to our end, few of us will be.  And poets have been transacting uneasily between their limited mortal selves and personal extinction - in one way or another - from the moment they laid down their first chiasmus.
The precision-engineered balance and Palladian four-square of the heroic couplet, in Pope’s hands, was superstitiously a warding spell against Chaos and Old Night: he mastered the nightmare of dissolution in The Dunciad by imposing on it the elaborate minuet of form.  Or Emily Dickinson can almost bring Death into the bienséance of the New England drawing-room by imagining him as a Bostonian gentleman with his equipage (‘Because I could not stop for Death..’).  Hag-ridden by death, Philip Larkin made one last try at the end of his fallow years to give it its due but still to deny, deny, deny its grim implacability: his last published poem ‘Aubade’ is as rawly unaverted in its gaze, as irredentist in its clamour for life as anything John Donne might have written.  The inner movement of the poem leads him to a wan recognition that the daily round resumes again; but the sheer rhetorical heave of the preceding stanzas is what we remember of the peculiar flavour of the poem - the emotional terrorism.  (Seldom noted is the poem Larkin wrote a month or two after ‘Aubade’, which concludes with a touch more equanimity, more prophylactically, ‘The Winter Palace’:

Then there will be nothing I know.
My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.

If the poet is supposed to have a stronger instinctive taproot into the blood and mire of the human predicament than the rest of us, what more can she teach us of the attitude we should best adopt in the face of our end?  Is it her role to compile an ars moriendi for our peace of mind?
Poetry is always taken to be an affirmation, whatever its ostensible subject matter: that we are here in the middest, apprehending the world more or less acutely, capable of perception and cognition; that, even in pain or despair, expression in and of itself - the seizing hold of meaning - can be morally decisive.  The more elusive the emotion, the more transient the experience, the more aptly can the fixitive of poetic language preserve it for us.  It holds out the promise that we can meaningfully engage with the cosmos.  We are all of us, in our modest way, Promethean.  The blot of the ‘scutcheon, however, is that for all its seemingly limitless plasticity, human utterance does have its bounds, beyond which it cannot go.  Beckett grasped this, and his career was an excruciating diminuendo into near-senile wordlessness.  Because the lyric impulse stood revealed as a conjuror’s trick, prettified verbal ornament that falsified whatever it touched.  Because literary realism betrayed itself as merely conventional as classical epic.  “A poem coherently expresses the presence of a human creature,” so Glyn Maxwell.  It’s a token of encounter, of mind parlaying with mind - and death evacuates all such possibility; the transactional nature of reading and writing poetry reaches its terminus; form collapses, meaning expires.
David Ferry - in his nineties, about to publish his translation of The Aeneid - has written in his latest collection Bewilderment with lucidity and formal spruceness of living in the vespertine hours.  Poetry-as-viaticum wouldn’t be quite right: no one's asking that you be absolute for death.  The achieved calm that could be claimed with age, the barkskinned stoicism, is nowhere detectable in this late work.  It’s an agitated poetry, bewildered, yes, but braced by technical assurance - as if command of the formal properties of verse could serve a redemptive end, even as the deliverances of meaning were threatened.  Until:

Where did you go, when you went away?
It is as if you step by step were going
Someplace elsewhere into some other range
Of speaking, that I had no gift for speaking,
Knowing nothing of the language of that place
To which you went with naked foot at night
Into the wilderness there elsewhere on the bed,
Elsewhere somewhere in the house beyond my seeking.
I have been so dislanguaged by what happened
I cannot speak the words that somewhere you
Maybe were speaking to others where you went.
Maybe they talk together where they are,
Restlessly wandering, along the shore,
Waiting for a way to cross the river.

‘That Now are Wild And Do Not Remember’

The poem’s title (and the ‘naked foot’) may well be a passing retrospect of Wyatt’s ‘They fle from me that sometyme did me seke’ - an erotic wisp, quickly extinguished - but the poem finally docks with Virgil’s Aeneid VI, settling on the allusion after a dismayed spoken fluster, the touching clumsiness of 'Someplace elsewhere..elsewhere somewhere' and 'range/of speaking..no gift for speaking'.  This is a sonnet stricken of rhyme, as though the technical reflex still sought to bring it under the jurisdiction of the form, but the emotion - the astringent of grief - stripped it of verbal enamelling.  The poet may have conceived of a sonnet - the shaping instinct was still there, the quantities and due proportions - but so powerful was the emotion that it emerged malformed.  But what was undone in terms of technique, is amply recompensed by the poem's truth-to-feeling.  Ferry articulates an oft-documented anxiety: as Rilke has it, “Of Death he knew what we know generally:/Death takes us and it thrusts us into silence.” The poet - an optimalist in his conviction that even the most delicate apperceptions can be caught and held in the force-field of language, that naming is the primal human act - finds himself discomfited by the loss of common modes of exchange, the loss of signal reception.  A lifetime of intimacy, of shared history, in-jokes, private verbal by-play is firmly devolved on the past.  It ought to continue, in some fashion, but experience would have it otherwise.  Eurydice remains mute.  Yet once we have the insight, as Ferry observes with a terrible bluntness in another poem, its corrosions can’t be contained with the posthumous status of a relationship:

Unable to know is a condition I’ve lived in
All my life, a poverty of imagination
About the life of another human being.
This is, I think, the case with everyone.
Is it because there is a silence that we
Are all of us forbidden to cross, not only
The silence that divides the dead from the living,
But, antecdent to that, is it the silence
There is between the living and the living,
Unable to reach across that silence through
The baffling light there always is between us?
Among the living the body can do so sometimes,
But the mind, constricted, inhibited by its ancestral
Knowledge of final separation, holds back,
Unable to complete what it wanted to say.


The dismayed candour of this is striking, but its steady professorial exposition - as of the philosopher at the lectern - compounds the effect.  The temper of the times has it that we must be natural empaths, quick to sense and feel the inwardness of others, the better to act justly and with compassion towards them.  Ferry’s view is decidedly contra mundum.  (We are, finally, ‘windowless monads’, and can do more than make shift in our dealings with other people.  It’s a position, I imagine, for which there’d be few takers.)  
Denise Riley - who has taken the lyric as vessel of a singular voice and turned it inside out, ironised and purged - is brought up hard against a similar breach in the natural order, the loved one dying and proving unresponsive to the desperate entreaties of those who remain.  Her collection Say Something Back contains a sequence addressed to her son:

She do the bereaved in different voices
For the point of this address is to prod
And shepherd you back within range
Of my strained ears; extort your reply
By finding any device to hack through
The thickening shades to you, you now
Strangely unresponsive son, who were
Such reliably kind and easy company,
Won’t you be summoned up once more
By my prancing and writhing in a dozen
Mawkish modes of reedy piping to you
- Still no?  Then let me rest, my dear.

‘A Part Song’, ix

‘Mawkish modes of reedy piping’ are the poet’s duelling case of technique and traditions to be drawn upon - here variously ineffectual.  Syntax loosens and unbinds in Riley’s elegies - they are often without punctuation, although the gestalt of the printed form maintains itself - and the effect is of spontaneous utterance, strangely skewed.  Again, as with Ferry, the sense that the dead are out of range, subsisting at frequencies beyond our detection; and Riley glances, as does Ferry, at the classical underworld, as an anonymous concourse thronged with spirits shelled of their former selves, like spectral automata.  Nothing so needful for the recently bereaved - and nothing finally so bootless - as faith in the call-and-response between the living and the dead.  Never quite failing into glossolalia - pitch and meaning inhere yet - these poems, poignant with pain, admit to themselves that they may as well be simply vocalise, that their burden is in the voicing for its own sake.

Deaths of the Poets, cowritten by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, prompts curiosity as to the motives for its writing, which, as set out in the book itself, have a vagueness about them, as if a skimpy editorial commission had to be worked up, laboured at, spun into a saleable piece of book-making.  Its predecessor Edgelands had the virtue of novelty, with our doughty narrators as academic supertramps, venturing into the unexplored penetralia of a forgotten Britain, without benefit of satnav.  This work has them once again faring forward into the world, with on this occasion a specific itinerary: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on The Trip, but funded by the Society of Authors.  Their avowed intent, taking Johnson’s Lives of the Poets as a point of departure, is to investigate the thesis of the poète maudit, asking “Is it true that great poems come at a heavy - ultimately fatal - price?”.  The tilt of the book is more anecdotal-biographical than lit-crit, with something of the uneasy forced curiosity of a Sunday supplement arts profile: Farley and Symmons Roberts visit the final homes of their poets, as though, perhaps after fifty years, the Key West condo where Elizabeth Bishop spent the end of her life held some vestigial magic - but their encounter with Michael the Building Manager is chillingly bathetic:

He tells us that Bishop was one of the first to buy into the new
dock conversions.  She had vision, he says.  She could see the
potential here.  When she bought it, her apartment would have
cost around $55,000, now it’s worth upwards of a million and
a half.  She was one of his favourite residents, a friendly presence
around the place.  She used to wear jeans and roll them up like
Capri pants, always with a button-down white shirt and sneakers.

Something undignified about this kind of shallow inquisitiveness, something needy - it’d have been a safe bet that they would have returned from this trip empty-handed, that Bishop’s last home decades later would have told them very little about its former resident.  (The superstition that animated Edgelands - and made it so interesting in a gonzo sociology way - seems here to have led them to go in search of something, presumably at some expense, they knew they’d never find: that places can be abiding backgrounds of affect, bear the imprint of intense feeling long after you’ve gone: “In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time.  That is what space is for.” - Bachelard.)  The urge to leave one’s study, to be seen to be doing the legwork, all in service of the Story, is more of a piece with feature writing as practised in high-end newspapers than with critical essay writing; and one can’t help thinking that - were they Mail on Sunday journalists rather than poets - John Berryman’s widow mightn’t have been so welcoming:

The tea is finished.  Kate has been generous and open.  The stillness
here and the darkness under the great trees makes it feel like a trap.
We are on edge, in spite of Kate’s hospitality.  John Berryman in later life
had a conversion experience, from a scholastic belief in the divine to
faith in a personal ‘God of rescue’, a God who could intervene in the
details of individual lives.  Was he hoping for such a rescue?
Did he wait for it here?  And what about us?  Are we here to meet a ghost?

By any measure, this is pretty glaikit stuff.  Dickens, in The Uncommercial Traveller, tells us that he ‘travelled for the great house of the Human Interest Brothers’; and what is now familiarly recognised as the ‘human interest story’ avails itself of rhetorical vapour-fits like that here quoted.  It demeans as it flatters, one narrowed eye always on what will make for marketable copy; the confected earnestness, the breathlessness…  Might Rosemary Tonks, a poet who deliberately and in earnest sought to sever ties with her old life, to effect the wholesale abolition of her former self and remake herself as an anchoress, have happily received the attentions of our duo, as the estate agent who sold her Bournemouth bungalow shows them pictures of its interior taken shortly after her death?

There were bathroom suites in spearmint green and bubblegum pink,
frilly flora lampshades, but the big shock is the dust.  The house was
not just dusty, it lay like indoor snow on the carpets, so the photographs
show desire paths through it, habitually used to get from room to room.
It hangs in swags from the ceiling like Spanish moss.  It is hard not to
conjure Miss Havisham, living among the wreckage of the past.

“The spectre of madness looms over both [Emily] Dickinson’s and Tonks’s vanishings..” one of our necronauts writes (as the text is set in an undeterminable first person plural, attribution for any given passage is tricky) in the kind of bantered cliché they can always reliably lay hands on; again, the spectre of the tabloid copyeditor looms over the book, ensuring any of the observations it proposes are never so taxing for the intended reader.
Tricked out in the pious awe of pilgrimage, each poet kitted out with their staff and scrip, these treks nonetheless have the embarrassed air of a contractual obligation.  Louis MacNeice, the contemporary of Auden and, perhaps, a poet of Auden’s stature - albeit MacNeice is more comfortably a worldling, more alive to the social atmosphere of his day - died of pneumonia after a trip to record wildtrack for a radio play in a Yorkshire cavern complex.  His death stirred Auden to his great elegy ‘The Cave of Making’; it here compels the authors to search for the very cave: “Did Louis simply die of cold or was there something down in the dark that took to him?”  Which cave poses a problem, as there’s no documentary clue in MacNeice’s written leavings.  Not a whit abashed, however, our duo take a guess and make the descent, bristling - as poets must - to the heavy symbolic lading of such a venture.  Yet this episode illustrates the strange redundancy of the whole enterprise.  MacNeice’s death was as arbitrary, as unheralded, as the death of anyone else; tragically abridging a gifted man’s life, but, for all that, no more or less significant than any other.  MacNeice’s being a poet is neither here nor there, yet to suggest this death, in this place, in these circumstances was somehow a fatum flowing inevitably from his profession - was moreover eerily prefigured in his last work - seems faintly absurd.  The outward impedimenta of a death - the Bleaneyesque boarding-house room, the retirement home, the river bank; whether conducted serenely or in paroxysms of fear - can tell us only so much and no more.  (Some are so susceptible to mythologising, it’s nigh-on impossible to credit their veracity.)
T.S. Eliot floated the distinction between the mind that suffers and the mind that creates, ruefully pointing up the fact of radical self-division, the poet living amid a siege of contraries that are a tax on his time and attention.  But we could just as well observe that the mind that creates is For even the poet must accept his assujetissement to the unpoetic demands of everyday life.  The Yeatsian gambit - “Even when the poet seems most himself.. he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.” - mystifies our sense of who the poet is and what she does, even as it tries to ennoble it.  It fails to give due weight to the ‘vulgate of experience’, as Wallace Stevens had it.  The authors seize on a rumour of Stevens’s death-bed conversion to Catholicism - Stevens, who strove in his poetry to replace a truant Christian godhead with a high sacrament of art.  The story goes that Stevens bid a local priest to join him for theological discussion in the watches of the night, that he was afraid, and that over the course of several visits assented to church doctrine - was ‘baptised absolutely’, according to Father Arthur Hanley.  Stevens, in poetry and prose, ranged the high sierras of metaphysics, a secularist and hymnodist in a godless universe - it was Art that filled the God-shaped hole, Art that remedied our spiritual impoverishment.  Innuendo to the effect that Stevens threw over a lifetime’s work and thought at the very end traduces the mission of the work and arguably diminishes the man.  And again, there’s the freeze-frame/record-scratch moment, the rise, the roll, the carol, the deflation, as our authors remind us that even poetry’s Grand Panjandrum was subject to the same physical laws as the rest of us:

Before we leave, we knock on the door again.  Can one of us use the
toilet?  We have a long drive ahead of us.  The house is, as she warned
us, stacked high with boxes.  The toilet seems to be the only box-free
room in the house.  ‘Would the bathroom be unchanged since
Wallace Stevens used it?’  Yes, she thought it probably would.

The roster of the illustrious dead is the familiar one, all the biographers’ darlings; and the amateur thanatologist won’t find anything that hasn’t been turned over before.  The striking inclusion of John Riley, murdered in 1978, a poet largely forgotten now but still with his devotees, rather makes me wish the book had granted more space to fewer subjects; Farley and Symmons Roberts cover ground at a fair old clip - the structure of the book doesn’t give pointers to the duration of their travels and research - but such perambulatory cultural histories - with their lesser cousinship to the geomantic stravaigings of Iain Sinclair - are as locked in the constraints of time and place as they are given licence for premissing themselves on them.  On learning that the public lavatory where Riley’s body was found is to be demolished our authors are out of the traps, with all the undignified scrabble of a trainee hack sprinting to a local crime scene: “..it has suddenly become a race against time to view the site, before all trace of it has been wiped from the face of the earth.”  A race against time…  The imaginative conceit, interestingly deployed in Edgelands, that place is inscribed with meaning which defies time and decay, and can be read as a text is read in all its valencies, tumbles here into self-parody.  We’re offered scratch notes on Riley’s poetry - “There are plenty of love lyrics, wind, rain, the trees in the parks and gardens, a witness to seasonal and diurnal forces, the plainsong of quiet praise, night thoughts, and the moon.  Lots of moons.” - but nothing that might persuade you to seek out his work.  Indeed, Deaths of the Poets so underutilises quotation and commentary that one wonders if this were not by publisher’s edict.  (Is criticism still associated in the mind of the reading public with Leavisian censoriousness and neo-puritan charmlessness, with elitism and canonical ukase?  Name one book of lit-crit in recent years that could be said to have had a readership beyond the academy, since James Wood has gone off the boil.)
To take poetry out of the study, to impart to the reading of it a kind of plein air venturesomeness and down-and-dirty grittiness, to draw literary criticism into the purview of the documentary film maker: some of this in the rationale for Deaths of the Poets.  A certain anxiety about relevance, about the preparedness of poetry for coping with the perversity and ugliness of the world.  (In point of fact, Michael Symmons Roberts’s work disciplines itself into shapened form while essaying containment strategies for the violence of the world - it patrols the interface between matter and spirit.  It attests to the possibility of risk-taking, that needn’t involve faintly uneasy forays into amateur journalism.)  The generic hybrid is fashionable this weather: the loose thematic assembly of material, the digressive aside; the Sebaldian composite of fact and vision, history public and personal, a mongrel form like the Renaissance anatomy; as the reader traverses virtual landscapes in a kind of spiritualised field work.  Such writing valorises the immediacy of the fait divers, urges on us its engagement with the here-and-now, rather than mere abstraction, mere bookishness.  It flatters the reader that, should she choose, she could roam free.  Something more could have been written about poets’ deathtimes - as when a poet like David Ferry or Denise Riley exhibit the power of facing, a willed turning-of-their-gaze to the null space of death, clutching the golden bough of language.  As a counter-example: Glyn Maxwell’s eerily unclassifiable Drinks with Dead Poets touches on certain similar themes, but its poet-revenants speak in defiance of extinction ipsissima verba, they materialise, remade, stepping into the current of the text - buoyed by cadence, in a festal symposium with the living - in a literary exercise which at once honours the poetry and makes good the Audenesque claim that the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living.


clowdis of dyrk poecy

Seamus Heaney - Aeneid Book VI

And now to continue, as enjoined to often,
‘In my own words’.

Not so much ‘Englishing’ Virgil’s Aeneid as casting it in a quartzy Scots vernacular, the makar Gavin Douglas engrafted onto his verse its own self-justification:

Quhy suld I than, with dull forehede and vane,
With ruide engine and barrand emptive brane,
With bad harsk speche and lewit barbour tong,
Presume to write quhar the sueit bell is rong,
Or contirfait sa precious wourdis deir?
Na, na, nocht sua, bot knele quhen I thame heir.
For quhat compair betuix midday and nycht,
Or quhat compare betuix myrknes and lycht,
Or quhat compare is betuix blak and quhyte,
Far gretar diference betuix my blunt endyte
And thi scharp sugarat sang Virgiliane,
Sa wyslie wrocht with nevir ane word in vane;
My waverand wit, my cunnying feble at all,
My mynd mysty, thir ma nocht myss ane fall.

Virgil is noontide sunlight, warmth, clarity of line; Douglas fends off scholarly carping by his admission that his own language must be a brangling charivari by comparison.  Latinity gives place to a thorny demotic, and the poetry is none the worse for that.  A familiar narrative of the periphery claiming cultural energy from the centre, at a historical moment - the early modern period - when the classical patrimony was up for grabs.  Here Douglas the northman is making his own bid for ownership of the European tradition, against its ‘sudron’ confiscation.  His address is thrawn and argumentative, his Prologues are exercises in flyting - he gleefully scourges William Caxton’s translation of the epic - and the whole is an extraordinary, Dr Moreau-style melding of text and commentary, which felicitously enacts its own mongrel hybridity.  (Dryden’s rendering stands alongside it as appropriately decorous: Augustan neo-classicism at its zenith, a model of bienséance.)  The Bishop of Dunkeld was the consummate zoon politikon, and the appeal to him of a translation of a poem explicitly concerned with the forging of nations, with political destiny and the travails and triumphs of the hero, seems obvious.  Caxton - for all his inadequacies as a translator -

..schrynkis nocht siclyke thingis to tell
As nocht war fabill bot the passage to hell,
Bot trastis weill, quha that ilke saxt buke knew,
Virgill tharin ane hie philosophour hym schew,
And under the clowdis of dyrk poecy
Hyd lyis that mony notabill history..

That ‘ilke saxt buke’ is the matter of Seamus Heaney’s last published work, who - as Douglas’s Aeneas, ‘..in vision thydder went/By art magike, socery or enchantment’, down among the shades, given sanction by its “mythopoeic visions, the twilit fetch of its language, the pathos of the many encounters it allows the living Aeneas with his familiar dead.”  The density of the Book VI, image and incident imbricated tightly, its living impacted poetry, all lend it the colour and vividness of a Book of Hours; and Heaney’s control, his ‘command’ - in the word he used of Lowell’s poetic authority - compound the mournful beauty of the episode.  Heaney had mined the text at intervals through his career, finding in its mythic orchestrations a tool-kit of imagery and rhetorical postures.  In Station Island he converses both familiarly and awkwardly with his dead, in a pendant to Dante’s descent into Hell which, in turn, had its imaginative seed in Book VI.  A number of poems in Heaney’s last collection Human Chain are marginal glosses on Virgil’s descensus averno, eyed asquint through personal reminiscence: ‘The Riverbank Field’ and, most notably, ‘Route 110’ make tactful borrowings from the source text, not allusions - they are insertions, flagged as such - and it’s in the interface between myth and memory that the poems take fire.  The topoi and imagery of Heaney’s gleanings serve to make explicit how the closed ultimacies of a known, inhabited text put a spin on experience: it’s really a kind of augmented reality.  ‘Translation’ is to be taken as a ‘carrying over’ in a literal sense, from one reach of solid ground, across a floodtide of uncertainty, to another.  ‘No doubting..’:

..the solid ground
Of the riverbank field, twilit and a-hover
With midge-drifts, as if we had commingled

Among shades and shadows stirring on the brink
And stood there waiting, watching,
Needy and ever needier for translation.

(‘Route 110’, XI)

This section reels off from the exchange between Aeneas and his father Anchises, where the son expresses his dismay that the souls of the dead should wish to invest themselves again with mortal flesh and willingly return to the upper air.  Anchises thus describes how the spirit is barnacled with sin and decay, the ‘deep-dyed taint’, and only by means of a series of purificatory passes, a transmigratory cycle, will it finally earn its right to remain in the Elysian Fields.  Heaney has been greatly preoccupied with symbolic rites of purgation; with an ethical notion of ‘redress’ and  with poetry as a restorative to a world awry: “… the creative spirit remains positively recalcitrant in face of the negative evidence, reminding the indicative mood of history that it has been written in by force and written in over the good optative mood of human potential.”  In Book VI of the Aeneid, the annalist in Virgil - tasked with recording imperial history, of setting forth an official founding narrative - gives way to the memorialist and metaphysician, to the optative mood of souls bereft and questing, lost lovers, comrades-in-arms and fathers.

No difficulty for anyone to wishes to plumb the underworld; the doors are wide.  But the Sibyl adds the famous rider: “..facilis descensus Averno;/noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;/sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,/hoc opus, hic labor est.”  (In Heaney’s plain rendering: “That is the task, that is the undertaking.” - subtly different in another version which stands as the portal to his collection Seeing Things, slackens the cadence into the rangier hexameter of “..This is the real task and the real undertaking..”; closer to spoken utterance.  What the new translation gains in lapidary auctoritas, it loses in naturalness.)  The necronaut must find and lay hands on the golden bough as a votive offering to Proserpina, who will thus vouchsafe his safe return to the overworld.  When Heaney placed ‘The Golden Bough’ as the frontispiece to his 1991 collection, he made a gambit of this moment of heady risk, the payoff to which would be access to visions, newly in tune with his eagerness to ‘credit marvels’.

Imaginatively conferring on the dead a new field of motion and articulation, permitting us to view them on a plane of regard not previously given to us: both Dante and Virgil before him scale down ancestor worship to the small, unemphatic moments of exchange.  Virgil notices the delight of Aeneas’s comrades when they see him again: “..they want/His company, the joy of keeping in step, talking,/Learning why he has come.”  Old friendships are resumed, briefly, in the gloaming of the afterlife.  When Aeneas comes across Dido’s ‘dimly wavering form’ - “He was like one who sees or imagines he has seen/A new moon rising up among the clouds/On the first day of the month..” [my italics] - we are caught by the fetch of a yearning dream.  Aeneas speaks feelingly, but Dido doesn’t acknowledge even so much as his presence, showing “..no sign of having heard, no more/Than if her features had been carved in flint/Or Parian marble.”  (Something of Paul Muldoon in that phrasal structure, there?)  Heaney, in ‘Route 110’, gently retrieves the disposatio of that instant, converting it to a scene of parting from his own past, but recording guilt and shame as Virgil does not: Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido was at the unignorable bidding of the gods, Heaney’s of the woman at the dormer window somehow less exalted, more humanly culpable.  But it is a private memory, pointed by the Virgilian reference, the circumstance something only to be conjectured at.  The poem itself - a fugitive engram, unstable and asklent - is the moon fading into daylight, as it pools inkily into another memory of pre-Troubles RUC patrols, obscurity breached by the punctum of light-marks - her face, the brakelights of Heaney’s car, swinging lanterns - and then to the gnomic cinch (a trademark of Heaney’s): “After dances, after our holdings on/And holdings-back, the necking/And nay-saying age of impurity.”

The Joycean ‘mythic method’ so similarly employed by Michael Longley in his latest work - Homer, in his case, being the touchstone - steads Heaney in an imaginative homeostasis, as in the midst of worldly catastrophe, the soul can cling to the deliverances of poetry.  Allusion to the classics has its nostalgic element, to be sure.  They are articulate shadowings, and they speak to a universality of human experience.  When the Sibyl asks Musaeus the whereabouts of Aeneas’s father, he replies: “..None of us has one definite homeplace./We haunt the shadowy woods, bed down on riverbanks,/On meadowland in earshot of running streams.”  This ‘placeless heaven’, beyond townland and locality, where the dead consort in extraterritorial bliss, may have its political undertone.  On the banks of the Lethe, “..a hovering multitude, innumerable/Nations and gathered clans” assemble in readiness to return to the world of the living, their memories wiped.  The possibility of communal redemption is held out here, but at the cost of radical loss of identity - that a tribe or polity can go on, yet transfigured.

In the first of his T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures given at the University of Kent in 1986, ‘The Government of the Tongue’, Heaney says: “Poetry is more a threshold than a path, one constantly approached and one constantly departed from, at which reader and writer undergo in their different ways the experience of being at the same time summoned and released.”  A riverbank field, again: at once Lethe and Moyola and the fording-place between workaday reality and the diamond absolutes.


song of lights

Clive James – The Divine Comedy

W.H. Auden, in New York Letter (1940), appointed Dante the first of his cultural judiciary:

                                              So, when my name is called, I face,
                                              Presiding coldly on my case,
                                              That lean hard-bitten pioneer
                                              Who spoiled a temporal career
                                              And to the supernatural brought
                                              His passion, senses, will and thought,
                                              By Amor Rationalis led
                                              Through the three kingdoms of the dead,
                                              In concrete details saw the whole
                                              Environment that keeps the soul,
                                              And grasped in its complexity
                                              The Catholic ecology,
                                              Described the savage fauna he
                                              In Malebolge's fissure found,
                                              And fringe of blessed flora round
                                              A juster nucleus than Rome,
                                              Where love had its creative home.

Gravity and grace are the chief properties any translator would dearly wish to bring to the business of 'Englishing' Dante's great theological orrery of a poem. For while The Divine Comedy spans the dark backward and abysm of revealed time it possesses such resources of lyric intensity it can persuade us still that it is an account of a living act of (literal and moral) witness. Auden, intellectual gadfly as he was, much endorsed the theory of Christian redemption, finding consolation and intellectual subtlety in High Church ritualism, and the virtual cathedral of Thomist thought. Auden was a man in search of the Great Good Place – the City of God by any other name – so this shouldn't comes as any great surprise. The architecture of the Comedy might be forbidding to today's reader (the dead letter of doctrinal dispute hangs heavily over the work); but the predicament of the soul adrift – the drama of the lost - still can touch us. And how could it not? We're urgently pressed, too much of the time, to little effect, into negotiating the world and its cruelty. Dante, then, as spiritual navigator, his poem a throttling skyhook carrying him from the Pit to the starry heights.

In 'Conversation about Dante' the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam has given us an extraordinary critical tango with Dante, probably unsurpassed, certainly unorthodox:

If the halls of the Hermitage were suddenly to go mad, if the paintings of all the schools and great masters were suddenly to break loose from their nails, and merge with one another, intermingle and fill the air of the rooms with a Futurist roar and an agitated frenzy of color, we would then have something resembling Dante's Commedia.

T.S. Eliot claimed – hedging, somewhat - that a profound response to the poetry could just about precede any interest in the theology – the heavy stuff could come later. (The scholarly Dantean might still argue the merit of acquainting yourself with the background matter.) And Clive James would make much the same insistence: the language itself is the clew to the labyrinth, the poetry the existential dividend – the saving grace. Dante's Italian – even to the non-specialist – clearly gains from an extraordinary fluidity, and many of its special effects depend on qualities inherent in the language; and so out of reach of even the most ingenious translator. Fulsomely endowed in rhyme, the Italian vernacular permits a hummingbird-wing meshing and unmeshing of sound and meaning: even a glance at a line of the verse will tip off the alert reader that the most adroit translation necessarily, unwillingly subjects itself to a self-denying ordinance. So a decision faces the translator of the Comedy from the outset. Terza rima contributes to the velocity of the poetry but, with the odd distinguished exception, isn't much served by the genius of the English language, say. It manages to attain a forward thrust while casting an eye backwards. Each tercet holds within itself the stem-cell of the lead-rhyme in the next, generating the feeling that the verse-movement is also ascension. (Dorothy L Sayer's version fairly mangles the English while trying to preserve the formal physique of the Italian.) Narrative – one thing after another, a step at a time – fuses with exaltation – the soul's slow rise.

Clive James opts for something different, a technical choice that alters the tonalities and movement of the verse altogether. He plumps for rhyming quatrains, and what he loses in swift unencumbered elegance he gains in a kind of moral heft, a stateliness; James's is a Comedy meant to be taken as a reminder of the poem's cultural durability, that its currency and vitality are constants yet.

The Divine Comedy is the precursor of the whole of modern history,” James writes, “and I hope this translation conveys enough of its model to show that [Dante] forecast the whole story in a single song: a song of lights.” The blood-boltered troughs of Hell are visionary glimpses of Treblinka and Kolyma, of the killing fields. The luminous geometry of the Paradiso, however, is a shot at pure aesthesis, the bodily self discarded in a perfection of music and light: trasumanar, indeed. Most recent translations of Dante have stuck to the Inferno, perhaps for its slaughterhouse melodrama, its raw physicality, its grounding in the world of political violence – more straightforwardly relevant to our modern sensibility. (Rolling news that stays news.) James's bid to muster his energies in rendering the three cantiche as a whole is a bold one, a worthy one, honouring Dante's intent. Eliot observed in writing of Dante: “The experience of a poem is the experience both of a moment and of a lifetime. It is very much like our intenser experiences of other human beings.”


critic, interrupted

James Wood – The Fun Stuff

Ex cathedra pronouncements on the state of literature are gratingly at odds with the democratic spirit of modern Western culture. An Arnold or a Leavis would find themselves on the back foot, in a climate in which the Canon has been disparaged and dismantled by the academic soixante-huitards, and to contend for the intrinsic elitism of art is to confess to one's political bias. A fuzzy left-liberal consensus has made the expression of value-judgements somehow, at best, suspect; a matter of reactionary tendencies and ill-concealed disdain for the popular accessibility of the arts, creeping unbidden into neutral debate. As if to argue that some works will inevitably be better than others amounts to a self-betrayal, letting slip clues to a High Toryism of the spirit. (No coincidence that this wholesale enfranchisement of literary culture has portended the non-appearance of another Lionel Trilling, say.)

James Wood emerged as precisely the kind of heir-presumptive to F.R. Leavis at precisely the moment when the distrust of the critic-as-aesthete had become so rooted in cultural discourse, that he seemed almost wilfully retrograde. Marxisant scholars like Raymond Williams and politically engaged savants of the sort best exemplified by Edward Said had among them contrived to make any discussion of culture that wasn't au fond political appear faintly absurd. Criticism was to be a perilous negotiation with power structures, a demarche in the extra-literary sphere. Whereas 'traditional' criticism - hidebound, reactionary - was reduced to a mazurka of mendacities. Said, for one, could elucidate the rhetorical and narratological strategies of Conrad as deftly as Lionel Trilling; but this was in the service of a broader political vision. A critical reading uninflected by some form of political emergency was fluff. Moralism of the Leavisian stripe - involved in an examination of what constituted a good life well-lived - yielded to a more expansive theory of literature, founded on principles drawn from the radicalism of the sixties, progressive, disaggregrative, angry.

A refusal of this fundamental orientation seemed perverse, ideologically unsound. But James Wood wrote out of the rejected mode. The Broken Estate, his first collection of essays, was written under the sign not of political activism, but was theological in its complexion. Its seriousness gestured not towards a horizon of revolutionary violence - or even Comtean social melioration - but towards an idea of literary fiction as the disjecta membra of a universe from which God had been summarily evicted.

That fiction at its highest pitch could reinstate the meaningfulness and purposiveness of the human enterprise - when such an earnest had been forsaken with the death of God - was the ground-bass to Wood's critical arias. His concept of Realism was given point by a curiously secular faith: there was something 'miraculous' in the capacity of a writer to convey intelligibly the hazards of experience, in the artful contrivance of recognitions. The novel could plausibly tack between antinomies - and gently teased the reader into a state of 'belief' that rehearsed or shadowed the belief of the religious adherent. Its manoeuvres were those that drew on the same psychic attitudes adopted by the believer. Fiction - because it doesn't commit us to the doctrinaire, can say 'Yes, but..', can aid us in spanning contrary experiences of life (meaning modulated with meaninglessness) - is the preeminent art-form: a complex fugue of granite and rainbow. Wood read, in The Broken Estate, through the mesh of a reluctant agnosticism - like a phantom limb, the religious impulse is still obscurely preserved in us; we still turn heliotropically to a vanished source of light. There could be no doubt that Wood wished to be taken au serieux - these essays are gristly with earnestness. They invited us into the cathedral hush, the contemplative stillness that serious art requires of us. In The Broken Estate much of Wood's energies are given over to illustrating, as with Virginia Woolf, that the "novel acts religiously but performs sceptically." (This from the Introduction to the collection: possibly a post hoc rationalisation - as, arguably, the succeeding essays don't quite fulfil it.)

Contra the po-mo theorists and practitioners, for Wood it remains an article of faith that the novel can lead us back to reality. We've grown so accustomed to the conventions of the novel - plot and character chief among them - that we need to be reminded that something essentially uncanny is at work when we offer ourselves to the virtual staging-ground of the novel. The attentive reader moves silently through a tenement of occupied rooms, a spectral guest, in a kind of espionage; the novelist having brokered this delicate relation between the woman reading and those peopling the work. 'Ensouling shadows', Hilary Mantel called it somewhere. And when fiction too obviously displays its pneumatics - as in the immaculately crafted but sterile work of Ian McEwan - James Wood will flag up the failure of the effect. The novelist, 'that free servant of life', must steal a march on the hardening of literary form into convention, as Wood reminds us in How Fiction Works, must be latitudinarian in her use of the familiar toys of the craft, and always be primed to swerve away into 'lifeness'.

Wood's militancy - a severity that occasionally calls to mind Leavis - has drawn fire from various quarters. His negative manifesto 'Hysterical Realism' strafed the literary practice of a group of writers for whom energy and a hurtling headlong Tiggerishness was the prize; and Wood found this all so much indiscipline, self-indulgence, a scouting of the responsibilities of the art. Rather, patience and considered judgement must invest the novelist's endeavours, a steady authoritative attending to the sometimes near-illegible signatures of motive and action. Wood was coming to seem Master of the Rolls, inhabiting the pages of the tonier literary magazines: as Salman Rushdie sniped from his memoir Joseph Anton, Wood was a Procrustes, mutilating the novels he criticised the better for them to fit his preconceptions of what the form should be.

Both The Broken Estate and its successor The Irresponsible Self were assemblies of book reviews published elsewhere. Few reviewers carry sufficient heft - in terms of the unity of their concerns or stylistically - to justify such consecration: most are vaguely in hock to publishers' PR machinery, and the copy itself is a spumante of critical cliches. One hopes that Wood has a book-length critical study in him; but his collections are distinguished by a binding coherence and common interpretative emphases, marbling these pieces with what we might gingerly term a metaphysical patina. Characterisation in the novel bears a decided share in this, for Wood. Those moments in fiction when a character suddenly slithers from under the net of authorial control, when the representation of self to the self locks into brilliant focus; agency depicted as richly and fluidly as we ourselves experience it; and an Emma Woodhouse emerges as a self-reflective being, in all her contrariety - those moments are the dividend of cleaving to literary realism. Wood identifies Shakespeare as the great innovator here, casting aside the stiff brocade of stage-rhetoric and permitting his personae the full dignity of self-awareness; such that we meet them as autonomous selves, by turns opaque and translucent, clean-edged and blurred, governed by discernible motives and bafflingly motiveless. The realist novel took instruction from Shakespeare, grasping that within its scope should come the portrayal of persons as ragged hives of impulses. The 'irresponsibility' that Wood talks about - prompted by his reading of Coleridge's reading of Shakespeare - announces itself in the 'drift' of a literary character into her own kind of self-appropriation: not as the mannequin of the novelist, nor as a cipher of the novel's overt concerns; but as an entity imbued with something close to awareness - crucially, though, to which the reader is privy. Technically, the most effective device for this eavesdropping is free indirect style, in which the character's perceptions and the stipple of thought are rendered, so lightly as not to mar the image. It permits a moment of unflawed communion with the character, possibly one whose strangeness might be rebarbative. Here the ethical implications of Wood's critical stance are at their most emphatic. In the literary parlour game of briefly "inhabiting the wilderness of another's soul", we're tutored in the often taxing business of empathy. We must give the otherness of others its due, however it may unsettle our own self-regard.

Other readers of his new collection The Fun Stuff have detected a slackening or lowering of pressure. But the title of the book - which may have given rise to this supposition - is more a wistful acknowledgement of Wood's own limitations; more about what he cannot do, and where he cannot go, than programme notes for the book at large. "For me, this playing [Keith Moon's exuberant drumming] is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong." To be less buttoned-up, less diffident, and to attempt something riskier, creatively: but the musician in his ecstasy of self-forgetting remains for Wood the figure from a daydream. The critical beadle is back on duty in these essays, not quite so unforgiving, but with his accustomed sharpness of eye and the glinting panache of his prose. Odd that Wood should write of lacking confidence, when he can collar Cormac McCarthy for a tricksy dalliance with theodicy that never quite comes off, never convinces. Or can mildly chide Alan Hollinghurst for slipping into the register of a cheap novelette. Indeed, the essay on Keith Moon that opens the book – where you might take it as a keynote to the rest – seems not, in fact, to orient the reader toward the themes of the remainder at all.

in their deathtime

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