Friday, 29 August 2014

From the Hurst 4

Not a good night with reduced sleep. Early to rise, shower, wash hair in order to bring myself slowly into being, then to read some of the poems given to me by students the previous night.

It was my turn to take the group on the theme of the multiple voiced self. There were two particularly interesting quotations used by Kathryn in her session yesterday. There was Blake Morrison's:

All poetry is autobiographical, even when the voice is detached and impersonal. You don't have to say "I" but it helps

And four lines from Zbigniew Herbert's Ars Poetica that go:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

Multiplicity of self. Distances of voicings and forms of address. Voiced presences at various distances from the fine integument of the text surface. Pronouns as distance: as intimacy or authority.

In T S Eliot's Preludes we are faced with a number of potential presences in the form of pronouns. Those withered leaves are about 'your feet' in part I. Then there is that more detached 'one', who thinks of hands and dingy shades in II. There is the other 'you' who tosses a blanket from the bed and lies on it in III. And finally we are presented with an assembly of selves in IV that include the implied 'he' whose soul is stretched tight across the skies that fade behind a city block, the 'I' who is moved by fancies that are curled, and that third 'you' who is told to wipe his hands across his mouth and laugh.

Why the multiplication? What is the distance of the voice from the experience it appears to inhabit? Why the evasion (if it is evasion)? Whose experience is being inhabited? How much knwledge do we bring to our hearing? What is the balance between the Morrison view and the Herbert view in this?

We spend a productive but long time on this, wondering what constitutes a self as a coherent believable dramatic being and how far back behind the surface of the poem might we locate the Eliot persona. He appears to be both 'impersonal' as he himself put it, yet vulnerable, almost neurasthenic. The quality of voice that characterises him is mediated by rhyme, metre and accumulation of detail.

We breeze through one of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon Valley poems, the one about Dillard Sissman, which is a dramatic monologue for a dead man. Here, at least, we understand what is going on. It is a performance in costume that avoids being a pastiche because what the costumed figure says is understood to be said by a voice that belongs to Masters in some sense, a voice that interprets Sissman as Masters chooses to do. That much is clear. Largely, anyway.

Life becomes far more complicated when we read Sam Riviere's ice-cream sunsets, a tiny collage-poem full of proper names and talk that is clearly characeristic of persons who are not the poet even though the poem speaks as a distinct I - not an I that is someone else, but an I that is not a fully developed being, more a piece of commercial prose, a cliché walking about by itself, or rather a series of successive similar clichés set in an environment where clichés can prosper. At the very end the poem cuts out and remarks on itself, or rather on the act of the poet who has chosen to keep the poem.

This I is a derivative multiple and yet the voice has coherence. It has an aesthetic unity that, at some level, is the distant echo of a state of mind with which we can connect. Someone - a real person - has gathered the material for the collage. Someone has juxtaposed the material and taken up a position we can't quite gauge, beyond the received environment. That someone is responding to a perceived environment by shaping it. It does, thank God, actually feel something that is not entirely recondite. Yes, we say, perhaps the world is a little like this too.

Then it is a case of we versus they in Hugo Williams's poem, Last Things, in which the two pronoun terms assume the full opposition they - and we - presuppose. They is rarely good. We are threatened by them. But who precisely the we is, and how many of us (us equalling each plus each plus each) are happy to be lost in its vast but rather dominating embrace, is a moot question. Groucho Marx did not wish to belong to any club that would have him. We too have our occasional doubts.

So back to you. Here is William Empson's Let it Go. 'You don't want madhouse,' he tells us and no, you wouldn't, but why are we speaking of madhouses? What are the contradictions that cover such a range in the poem? How far is the you a figure for the Empson voice, behind which a real man called Empson is negotiating an experience that begins outside the poem but only finds itself through the poem. Is this a kind of desolation? Is it anxiety? Is it apprehension of apocalypse? Does the period of the poem contribute something to its web of meanings?

We also read Freda Downie's poem You, where the you figure whistles to the moon and rattles small change in his or her pockets. Do women keep small change in their pockets? Is you man or woman,  we wonder - and that question did, of course, arise in Eliot's Preludes too, for what man, after all, would use curling papers in his hair in post WW1 London? In Downie the female poet may be seeing a man whistling, but she is inventing him and it is her state of mind and relationship with the moon with which the poem is more concerned. Could that you perhaps be someone close, a lover or husband perhaps? Might it be David Turner, Freda Downie's real husband who, as we personally knew, could be pictured whistling at the moon.

But this is not a guessing game about what poets do in their private lives or who exactly they mean  when they invent their personae - the real question is how we, meaning a hypothetical reader furnished with our own level knowledge and sensibility, whoever we are, might apprehend them.

How complicated it all is. Finally we consider the proper name in James Dickey's The Performance a poem that concerns the actions and death of one Donald Armstrong, an executed prisoner-of-war in the Philippines. What is the significance of the full name? What changes when we are given a name in full?

This post is getting far too long but it might give an indication of the possibilities of selfhood in lyric poetry. None of it is altogether simple. Not even Shelley's cry at the height of the Romantic period: 'I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!'

Something bleeds, that much is certain; someone who has entered our Zbigniew Herbert house- without-keys and has occupied it (with us? instead of us? as us?) for the period of the poem. His or her hands might not be poking through the wall as did the hands in Polanski's film Repulsion did, but there are hands there, and eyes, and their presence is known to us whether we acknowledge it or not. That presence's full name might be Autobiography, but don't we mostly make that stuff up?

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