Monday, 23 August 2010

Tóibín on Heaney

Colm Tóibín reviewed Seamus Heaney’s new volume of poetry, Human Chain, in The Guardian, Saturday 21 August 2010.

Here’s an extract:

...the poems themselves have been more hushed in the presence of mortality, more open to the idea of loss as something pure. His poems have offered consolation or transformation only because they contain tones and phrases that are perfectly tuned; they are true to memory and loss, and thus somehow, at times miraculously, they offer a vision of what is beyond them or above them.

I want to take this sort of writing seriously. I believe Tóibín is a good reader of poetry and has antennae that pick up subtle and deep things that are really there in it. But I can never rid myself of scepticism.

Take the first sentence:

‘...the poems themselves have been more hushed in the presence of mortality’: I can see what that means and can imagine what it refers to and that it no doubt reflects an awareness with a firm basis in a comparison between these and earlier poems.

But, ‘more open to the idea of loss as something pure’: what does that mean, what would it mean for an idea of loss to be more or less ‘pure’; and how would you begin to demonstrate it?

Then: ‘they [the ‘tones and phrases’ in the poems] are true to memory and loss, and thus somehow, at times miraculously, they offer a vision of what is beyond them or above them’.

Grant that there’s a real sense in which tones and phrases can be true or less true to experience (they could for instance bluster or sentimentalise), what’s the force of that ‘thus’? What’s the logic in the claim that therefore the tones and phrases ‘offer a vision of what is beyond them or above them’? and what might that something be? does the final phrase have any meaning at all?

I'm reluctant to dismiss it. I think this is a reference to a real experience of Tóibín’s, and potentially perhaps of me if I were a better reader. But there seems no way in which, if you’re not already having such an experience, this sort of writing can help you get it. Perhaps to get it you have to learn to filter and shape your experience in a certain (obscure and esoteric?) way, to add a certain colouring and significance to what you read. But of course we’re never not ‘adding’ to what we read, so why not be deliberate or trained in the business?

And I acknowledge that for me, too, poetry can do things that perhaps aren’t that different in kind from what Tóibín experiences and that it’s hard or impossible to write about such effects without seeming mystical.

But at the same time I want to challenge people like Tóibín on lines like this: ‘Are you seriously claiming that there is something “beyond and above”? If so, that seems rather important, like claiming the existence of God. If it’s right, shouldn’t we be teaching it in schools alongside science? But if you don’t seriously maintain that there’s ‘something there’ and that you just value the experience of that non-existent something, is it really right that we should indulge ourselves in such illusions? And if it’s that sort of experience, that spurious knowledge, that’s the point of poetry, is it justifiable to attach such importance to it in education?’

Encountering this sort of writing confirms the sense I often get that whatever is to be had from art is to be had only by almost joining a cult and learning a way of seeing that has no necessity about it, that isn’t dictated by the works themselves, except in that their producers were members too and spoke the same language, as is clearly the case with much contemporary visual art. Buying into the cult may indeed produce not just the satisfactions of membership but access to things in the works that only a trained perception can provide.

But I resist the idea that you have to ‘join up’ in order to get what poetry and art have to offer. For one thing, it’s so daunting. How much time and study will it require for me, now, at nearly 70, to acquire the ‘insight’ that my whole life as an expensively educated and artistically interested person has in all these years failed to bring me? and we’re talking about an initiation into all the arts I’d like to have a fuller appreciation of, namely music, art and architecture as well as literature?

Moreover, is it right that there’s so little that can be objective (awkward word, I know) in literary education? Does English have to be so radically different from the other key disciplines that revolve around knowledge and reason, like physics and history? Is it really, of necessity, so seemingly irrational? or, more precisely perhaps, does it need to be an activity to which rationality and what we normal think of as study and thinking are so irrelevant?

I'm in a muddle and had better stop.

Other bits I at first thought I’d comment on but enough is enough for a blog:

He uses a poetic line which sometimes seems complete and whole in its rhythm, and at others is stopped short, held, left hanging. It is as though to allow the rhythm its full completion would be untrue to the shape of the experience that gave rise to the poem, untrue to the terms of the struggle between the pure possibility that language itself can offer and a knowledge of the sad fixtures which the grim business of loss can provide.


Sometimes, it seems, it is enough for Heaney that he remembers. Throughout his career there have been poems of simple evocation and description. His refusal to sum up or offer meaning is part of his tact, but his skill at playing with rhythm, pushing phrases and images as hard as they will go, offers the poems an undertone, a gravity, a space between the words that allows them to soar or shiver.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Are novels poetry?

(There seems to be an unwritten etiquette about keeping blog postings quite short. Well, in this I'm violating it, but don’t know where else to put it. Apologies if it’s too much to read on a screen.)

Somewhere recently I read a mention of a comment by Leavis (FR Leavis, critic, fl. 1930s-50s) that a particular novel by, I think, Dickens, was truly or genuinely poetic. I should look at Leavis to see what he meant by ‘poetic’, though probably he wouldn’t have spelled it out, being dead set against definition and theory.

But I wonder if what he meant is anything like what occurred to me a few weeks ago in reading, finally, the last three novels in Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve, A Dance to the Music of Time. More importantly, irrespective of Leavis, are novels a sort of poetry, or like poetry, or something quite different? (And thus, I suppose, is ‘literature’ essentially one sort of thing or several?)

Novels create and present (two verbs but one process) their own ‘world’, an interlinked set of characters, situations, times, places, relationships and so on. That’s perhaps the most obvious thing you might say about fiction, and not the first thing you’d say about poetry where you’d be more likely to point to the prominence of patterned form -- rhyme, metre, prosody, structure, patterns of images etc -- and perhaps the expression or activation of feeling.

But in this bout of novel-reading what struck me more than once was a quite different awareness, to do with the sort of speech act a novel was. Yes, a world was being created by the narration but I found myself noticing rather what the author was doing rather than saying, which was, as if were, miming narration, and speculation, reflection, comment, interpretation, evaluation and so on.

Let me try to explain. Here’s a typical passage:

BAGSHAW WAS AT ONCE ATTENTIVE to the idea of an American biographer of X. Trapnel seeking an interview with himself. In fact he pressed for a meeting to hear a fuller account of Gwinnett's needs. Television had made him more prolix than ever on the line. One was also increasingly aware that he was no longer Books-do-furnish-a-room Bagshaw of ancient days, but Lindsay Bagshaw, the Television 'personality', no towering magnate of that order, but, if only a minor scion, fully conscious of inspired status. He suggested a visit to his own house, something never before put forward. In the past, a pub would always have been proposed. Bagshaw himself was a little sheepish about the change. Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed. He attempted explanation.
'I like to get back as early as possible after work. May prefers that. There's always a lot to do at home.'
The idea of Bagshaw deferring, in this manner, to domesticity, owning, even renting, a house was an altogether unfamiliar one. In early life, married or single, his quarters had been kept secret. They were in a sense his only secret, everyone always knowing about his love affairs, political standpoint, prospects of changing his job, ups and downs of health. Where he lived was another matter. That was not revealed.

Now what would normally impress me about such a piece of writing, in so far as I surfaced at all from my immersion in the ‘world’, was how real, convincing, detailed and plausibly interconnected that world was, despite being nothing but imagination. (And in the case of a world sustained over twelve volumes and some seventy fictional years the achievement is the more incredible.)

The passage is the start of a chapter (chapter 4 of Temporary Kings); the end of the previous one was about an unconnected incident in a bus station. Yet I immediately latch onto the references: Bagshaw, his television career, his marriage to May and his bohemian past; Trapnel; Gwinnett, the American biographer: I know so much about this world that even casual references can be picked up. Yet the whole thing’s made up; nothing in it is true, though we compulsively read on for what we can’t help taking as further information, receiving it as knowledge of the truth despite our all the time knowing perfectly well that’s it’s fiction.

In so far as I pause to wonder, that’s what I normally wonder at, the achievement of that vast coherent invented world. On this reading though, in the perspective I'd for some reason fallen into, albeit intermittently, the striking thing was not the density and extent of the world or its purely invented nature but the fakeness of the operation being conducted, its character as charade or shadow play. The author is performing an elaborate mime of informing, devoid of any actual referent or substance, yielding nothing in the way of knowledge, generating not a jot of informedness in the reader. If he was really narrating I could go and check on his report but in this case it’s all fake. There’s nothing real to check on apart from other parts of the narration.

So the possibility strikes me that it’s exactly that that we should be experiencing in a novel, attending, with at least part of our consciousness, precisely to the pretend nature of its moves; and that it’s in affording that sort of experience that a novel can be poetry.

If that’s right, it seems there are two levels at which one might read in that way. One registers what the speaker or utterer is doing, the other what the language is doing.

The appropriate responses in the first mode would be something like, ‘Look, he’s pretending to tell us about something that happened,’ or ‘Now he’s doing an imitation of reporting someone’s speech’ or ‘This is like someone taking something someone’s reported to have done and commenting on what it might have meant’ -- all wonderfully realistic even though nothing’s behind it. It’s a telling-like procedure as a demonstration of telling, and it never -- no matter how many volumes it fills -- turns into the real thing. It goes through the motions but the machine isn’t connected. (Wittgenstein’s ‘language idling’ like a motor, or ‘playing’?)

And these are often speech acts depending on speech acts, references referring to previous references referring to previous ones etc. etc., and not one of them anchored to anything actual in the real world (except entities like biographers and television and marriages) but only to virtual entities that are artefacts of thought and language rather than direct reports from reality.

But what the text might also be presenting -- the second mode -- is language doing its stuff.

The representation that we might be being invited to wonder at and enjoy might be language’s formal operations: the prolixity, catholicity and flexibility of its summonings and combinings, in syntax and prosody, across discursive domains -- every evocation of some sense or meaning the obverse of some formal balletic move. ‘There’s that simple declarative clause telling us something very specific that happened, but now look, here comes a clause in a different mood containing the more typical way things went, and next there’s an evocation of X by means of .... etc.’

Thus, for example:

Bagshaw’s attentiveness to the idea of an interview and his pressing for a meeting suggests but doesn’t confirm his talking to the narrator. But where and how is inserted only with ‘prolix on the line’, that casually added adverbial, specifying ’telephone’, in a sentence that’s about something quite different, the fact that television’s made him so -- and that has no bearing on the rest of the episode, except in being connected thematically to the next bit, his television personality, which again has nothing to do with the surprise of the proposal to meet at his house, and is presumably being ‘laid down’ as a marker that can, perhaps much later, be referred to.

Back to the simple past tense for a speech: ‘he suggested’... Verb, that could equally have been done with a noun.
a visit’...: Noun, that could equally have been done with a verb.

‘something never before put forward’ -- passive, somewhat strangely as it could mean never in the history of the world. Combination of the formal concision of that passive clause linked to the main by apposition (at least that’s what it was called at school) and not by a ‘which was’ or similar with a teacher’s-‘bad-English’ vagueness of reference: is the something the suggestion or the visit?

In the past, a pub would always have been proposed’: ‘in the past’ belongs to a temporal thread that has already occurred three times and maintains it in consciousness: working backwards, never before -- ancient days -- than ever -- had made.

That passive again.

Proposed = suggested? elegant variation? No, because he’s now less assertive -- indeed sheepish and cowed.

Now, this bit I like very much:
Bagshaw himself was a little sheepish about the change. Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed. He attempted explanation.

Not sure why himself: to reintroduce him as a human agent after those passives suggesting the bringing about of actions as if by impersonal forces? Now an ordinary feeble and vulnerable man?

a little, a trifle
sheep, cow.

Simple statements in one-clause sentences, three of them. Direct, though softened by those two down-playing adverbials; but still not simple and direct as in informal speech: there’s the formality (if that’s the term -- as if elevating these minor goings on in the private sphere to the status of history, making authoritative summation appropriate) of complacent, again that appositional construction instead of something wordier.

Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed: co- co-; 3 syllables, 1.

Those two sentences, as if expressing care to get the precise terms -- and diffident about claiming too much. Then, bang! the finality of that 3-word statement, with, again, the formality, this time of noun-for-verbal-construction: He attempted explanation.

I'll leave it there. Is something like that what it means for a novel to be ‘poetic’?

I don’t know -- am I saying anything more than that novels (some at least) repay attention to style? meaning the choices of syntax, lexis, sentence length, sound, prosody? Well, I wanted to say something more by that idea of awareness of ‘language doing its stuff’, but I don’t feel I’ve caught what I was after in that illustration.

My exegsis, I realise, would make the poeticness of a novel a matter largely of what goes on at the level of page, paragraph, sentence, clause, word -- whereas surely it has to be partly about what goes on at a larger scale. But I think I'm right that poetry directs attention with particular intensity onto language; that it can indeed be seen as being about language. Some poetry, anyway.

May come back to it.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

W.B. Gallie

Hands up who’s heard of him -- Scottish (in origin) philosopher, 1912-1998. A friend mentioned that he’s rereading an old 1952 Pelican by Gallie, Peirce and Pragmatism, about the 19th century American philosopher C.S. Peirce who devised a semiotics that I find, in so far as I understand it, much more useful that Saussure’s. So I got it too (as usual, second-hand, free via Amazon apart from exorbitant postage) and it’s terrific: the best-written, most intelligent and most helpful account of Peirce I've read (Peirce himself is way too hard for me).

On the Pelican’s back cover it said he’d written a book about his own schooling at Sedburgh School, a public school in north Yorkshire. So I got that too and was immediately delighted with the dust jacket. It’s 1949.

As I’d expected it’s intelligent and well-written (in a literary and not just philosophical way -- good descriptions of scenes, people and situations), but also sensitive and sensible about education, teachers, games, Christian teachers and friendship. A great find.

Incidentally, for those who are into that sort of thing, Peirce according to Gallie was an inferentialist over a century ago, though I don’t recall Brandom mentioning him (see the label Inferentialism on the menu down the side).

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Gable ends

Yesterday evening -- lovely light -- view from the back window, to the left, from my armchair where I'm reading W.B. Gillie on his education -- about which I may do a blog.

I think the yellow house, which I take to be early or mid-Victorian, is lovely. The yellow is fine, though the brick underneath probably would have been too. The slight curve on the window lintels, which I suppose may have structural value, is welcome as the one of only two curved features (just enough) among all the straight lines. The drainpipes don’t bother me.

The two windows are in roughly the same proportions but the different sizes both add interest visually and express the different status of the first and attic storeys.

The edges of the gable end are satisfyingly indented in white by the stepped ashlar blocks and by the exposed rafters under the roof overhang, itself a nice feature that’s enhanced by the shadow it creates on the western side.

Finally, the wooden barge-boarding is of a thickness that’s in proportion and properly substantial for its role in terminating the fine long surface of slate and closing the upward view of the wall; and note the elegant way its lower end is handled, with the other curve.

Now -- this is what struck me -- contrast that modern block behind it and to the left, of which only the gable and some roof are visible. I don’t much like that colour brick or those tiles, but that’s not a judgment that I can justify objectively. I think I can argue, though, that the white wooden strip that edges the roof (I don’t know the modern term for the equivalent of the Victorian bargeboard) is pusillanimous -- neither thin enough to be a minimalist line nor thick enough to play any role in the proportional balance of the building. Or is it that the white paint makes the feature unjustifiably prominent? (When I grew up exterior paint was all dark colours and for many building elements I still prefer that -- though the white looks good on the Victorian building.)

I guess I'm affected too by the fact that it looks cheap. It’s no doubt perfectly good housing but it spoils my view.