Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The power of the misquote

The Black Mountains are long, long ridges; one can walk along them for hours, and see for miles in good weather.  Herefordshire in the sun, seen from above: AE Housman’s lines from A Shropshire Lad kept going and going through my head –

And see the coloured counties,
  Hung out against the sky.

I quoted this to my companions, too.  Just now I was emailing a friend and wanted to use the quote, so I checked it for the exact wording.  I got a shock.  AEH wrote, in ‘Bredon Hill’:

Here of a Sunday morning
  My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
  And hear the larks so high
  About us in the sky. 

I still can’t believe that he didn’t write the version that’s still in my head.  (If he did, someone please tell me where.)  ‘Hung out’ is accurate, from a height, in these border parts.  The phrase describes the phenomenon of a low landscape appearing to have an unnaturally high horizon.  This happens with the sea too, sometimes – it can reach halfway up the sky, like a stage backdrop climbing up its wall.  The phrase also makes one think of washing on a line, so apt for the field-pattern of distorted rectangles.  

Sound may have played a part in my misremembering.  ‘Hung out against’ sounds like ‘About us in’.  And for many years I’ve had a recording of Robert Tear singing, with the CBSO, Vaughan Williams’ song-cycle On Wenlock Edge.  (The other side – this is vinyl – has Thomas Allen singing Songs of Travel, another VW song-cycle.)  I taped this record when I lived in Greece, and used to play it when driving, enjoying the incongruity and nostalgia of such English music in the midst of Greekness.  I’ve got a memory of playing it on Crete, while travelling through the mountains and across the hidden Lassithi Plateau with its derelict windmills…  sometimes contrasts can work powerfully together. 

Looking north from the Skirrid, Black Mountains on left
There was no lark song on the Black Mountains, though I remember them everywhere a couple of years ago, in June, plus a few golden plovers nesting in the remotest parts, barely visible in long grass but recognisable from their haunting call.  A lark’s life must be hard work, so much struggling high while singing; maybe they have a rest in August.  Last week there were buzzards, and ravens, and kites, sometimes sweeping below us.  This week I’ve missed waking up at 1,200 feet, far above everyone and everything except the birds, a few sheep and wild ponies, and the mountain: heather, bracken, earth and rock.

Above and below the cloud line

Monday, 13 August 2012

What, in poetry, is an image?

Writing a poetry review last week, I found myself using the word ‘image’.  Then came a moment of doubt: what does it mean? 

I got out the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, again. (See last post.  I’m not going to do this every week.) 

‘Image’ and ‘imagery’ are among the most widely used and poorly understood terms in poetic theory, occurring in so many different contexts that it may well be impossible to provide any rational, systematic account of their usage.  A poetic image is, variously,
-      a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech;
- a concrete verbal reference [presumably this means a straight description];
-      a recurrent motif;
-      a psychological event in the reader’s mind; 
- the vehicle or second term of a metaphor [the second term is, for example, the beach in ‘life’s a beach’];
-      a symbol or symbolic pattern;
-      the global impression of a poem as a unified structure.

In the review, I was using ‘image’ to cover the first two items on the list, but without having thought about it much.  I think this will be clear from the context, to a general reader.  An expert might say it was anything but clear.  And of course those first two are very different – the Encyclopedia again:

The image is… a term which designates both metaphor and description, both a purely linguistic relation between words and a referential relation to a nonlinguistic reality, both a rhetorical device and a psychological event. 

The word has inspired much polemic, including a call for it to be banned for vagueness.  This very vagueness makes it useful, though: we need a word that covers the mental landscape a poem takes us through, whether this is conveyed by plain description, metaphor, a thicket of symbols or all the above.  The downside is lazy analysis of what’s going on inside the reader, the writer, the poem. 

The Encyclopedia has several closely-printed columns on the image in poetry (and pages on imagery, which I’m not covering).  The list above isn’t really a list, it’s text separated by semi-colons; but I find that breaking it up helps comprehension.  Here’s the conclusion, similarly split.

The concept of the poetic image in all its ambivalence holds part of the central ground of poetics, serving as
-  both the mechanism of reference to and deferral of an external, imitated or projected reality;
- the projection of authorial intention (but also of unauthorised “unconscious” meaning);
the linguistic ligature that composes figures of speech and thought and decomposes them into a general condition of language and consciousness;
-  the realm of polysemic freedom and dangerous uncertainty in reader response.  [for this one see also Pound’s vortex, below.]

Ezra Pound gets the last word, for two descriptions of image as psychological event.  From Poetry, March 1913:

An intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.

And an even more dynamic description from Fortnightly Review, September 1, 1914:

A radiant node or cluster… a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which ideas are constantly rushing.

That’s what it feels like, as reader or writer, when the images (however defined) and the poem are really working. 


This blog’s going on holiday, as hinted at in the example of a metaphor’s second term.  But the forecast for Wales (and everywhere) is wet and windy, and the holiday, more hills than beaches, may take place above the cloud line. 

One thing I’ve just done is write in my diary, for when I get back, a reminder to go, again, to the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition.  It was so absorbing that I only got round half of it the first time.  There are many recordings to listen to, from Plath and Hughes, to the Beatles (plus a text of the original, more specific, better lyrics for ‘In my Life’), to Stella Gibbons talking about Cold Comfort Farm.  There are less-known authors – especially women including Mary Collier, the peasant poet; less-known sub-genres, such as Welsh mining novels.  The exhibition finishes on 25 September.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Looking for a contemporary definition of lyric poetry. The Olympic Stables. Free Pussy Riot!!!

An oversized alien space ship has landed on Greenwich park, and put out excrescences that attract and subsequently repel humans in vast numbers.  Every now and then there is a massive cheer.  Coming back the long way round from a swim on Monday, I could have stopped and spent hours watching through the park railings one horse after another scramble up a steep slope, at 3-minute intervals – a tiny, tiny segment of the games, turned into video-loop performance art. 

My favourite event so far, unexpectedly, was the women’s road cycle race, for the psychology, complex tactics, and language: peloton = ball of wool.  Sometimes the peloton seemed more like a yo-yo, as it pulled escaping riders back. 

Yesterday afternoon there was a sewage tanker round the corner from here, pumping.  Olympic overload?  There’s no cleaning up the metaphorical Augean stables of Olympic sponsorship etc…  I hope they do better with the literal version.  Later on the tanker was replaced by a different one, huge, in Olympic pink.  On its side, in white: Lanes for Drains.


Why bother with defining lyric poetry?  Out of curiosity.  I realise that it may not seem interesting, or relevant.  Here is a through-the-ages definition, from the Poetry Foundation’s online glossary:

Lyric.  Originally a composition meant for musical accompaniment. The term refers to a short poem in which the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker expresses personal feelings. See Robert Herrick’s ‘To Anthea, who May Command Him Anything’, John Clare’s ‘I Hid My Love', Louise Bogan’s ‘Song for the Last Act’, or Louise Gl├╝ck’s ‘Vita Nova’.

If one wants a narrow definition, that one might do.  All those poems are in the first person.  ‘Vita Nova’ starts:

You saved me.  You should remember me. 

The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats.
Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.

When I woke up, I realised I was capable of the same feeling.

Here are some extracts from the much broader definition in Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem.  Again, for all time.  

It precedes prose in all languages, all civilisations, and it will last as long as human beings take pleasure in playing with words, in combining the sounds of words in unexpected and illuminating ways, in using words to convey deep feeling and perhaps something even deeper than feeling.  The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. 

It exists in the region between speech and song… But writing offers a different space for poetry.  It inscribes it in print and thus allows it to be read, lingered over, reread.  Writing fixes the evanescence of sound and holds it against death.  It also gives the poem a fixed visual as well as an auditory life.  … A highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers. 

Don Paterson, in the notes on his versions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

Lyric unites words primarily (though not wholly) through the repetition of their sounds; if you believe words to be indivisibly part-sound and part-sense, then lyric must also unite sense… Lyric presents an additional strategy besides syntax to bind our words together.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has 3 closely-packed columns on origin and definitions of the lyric poem, though a lot of the defining is done by saying what lyric poetry is not.  It starts off with the old lyric / epic / narrative distinction, and the role of music in all three. 

In the case of lyric.. the musical element is intrinsic to the work intellectually as well as aesthetically: it becomes the focal point for the poet’s perceptions as they are given a verbalised form to convey emotional and rational values. 

Again, that refers to all periods.  If you want to read about lyric poetry from Sumerian lovesongs to the Lyrical Ballads and beyond, in 13 pages, you can do so here.  The definition of lyric poetry has changed throughout the ages.  The argument in this article can be hard to follow, and quoting out of context is tricky. 

In its modern meaning, a lyric is a type of poetry which is mechanically representational of a musical architecture and which is thematically representational of the poet’s sensibility as evidenced in a fusion of conception and image. 

The encyclopedia points out that definitions tend to fail if they ascribe a particular attribute (such as brevity, subjectivity, metre) to lyric poetry - it’s easy to think of lyric poems that lack the attribute.  More general definitions include this one by RP Blackmur (mid-20th century American critic):

Words build into poetic meaning by building into sound. 

And here’s a deconstructionist interpretation, questioning the personal nature of the lyric poem, from later 20th century Belgian-American theorist Paul de Man:

The principle of intelligibility, in lyric poetry, depends on the phenomenalisation of the poetic voice [which is] the aesthetic presence that determines the hermeneutics of the lyric.

The encyclopedia glosses this nicely:

The speaker is a device for making the invisible visible. 

…which goes with saying the unsayable, outwitting your inner police, writing what you don’t know, raiding the inarticulate, etc.  At least, I think that is how it’s meant. 

If one accepts the broadness of most of these definitions, how valid, now, is ‘lyric’ as a category within poetry?  (Or am I missing something?)  What contemporary poetry wouldn’t meet the criteria, at least in part – prose poems, book-length poems, political poetry, dramatic monologues, narrative, experimental poems put together using a random method?    I’m not sure whether everyone would agree.  Is there a confusion here between ‘lyric’ and ‘lyrical’?  The adjective in particular is sometimes used, disparagingly, to suggest that a poem or poet is traditional rather than modernist.  But this attitude seems outdated – as if its proponents are still with an old antithesis.  Poetry that’s modernist, dissonant, and/or experimental has its own music.  

As for the Olympics… Cameron and Putin at the judo together, today.  Massacres in Syria, again.  Pussy Riot: yet more evidence that dictators (and conservative church leaders) can’t stand being made fun of.  

FREE PUSSY RIOT!!!  Punk political performers / protestors, anti-Putin, anti-patriarchy, anti-Patriarchate.  Read their song lyrics here.  On the video they  perform the first of those songs, in the cathedral – this is what got them imprisoned without bail, facing 7 years in jail, and deprived of food and sleep during the trial that’s taking place now.

 You can watch the second song, in Red Square, here. 
Revolt in Russia – the charisma of protest
Revolt in Russia – Putin got scared
Revolt in Russia – We Exist!
Revolt in Russia – Riot! Riot!