Category Archives: Poetry

Homeo-Pharmacopeia’s Adagia: Geoffrey Hill’s Pindarics

Pindar, an Ancient Greek lyric poet from Thebes, wrote a series of epinikia, odes to commemorate athletic victories in the Olympic, Nemean, Pythian and Isthmian games.  His poems are notoriously difficult to translate and understand because they are highly allusive, switch abruptly between topics, and contain compound adjectives that he makes up.  It is no wonder that Geoffrey Hill, whose poetry is also highly allusive and difficult to read, uses the lyric poet as a model for his series of poems entitled Pindarics.   The traditional Ancient Greek ode has a triadic structure with each triad composed of a strophe, antistrophe and epode.  Hill adopts this triad structure to fit his own purposes by composing a series of 34 poems, each with three stanzas; the first and second stanzas of each poem have nine lines and the final stanzas each have five lines.

Simon Collings, in the PN Review Issue 240 has written a wonderful essay about the themes of love and sex in Hill’s Pindarics.  But even as far as specific allusions to people, personal or otherwise, it is a guessing game when it comes to unpacking and dissecting Hills poetry. In the past two weeks I have especially lingered over Pindarics 7 and 13 in which he discusses one of his favorite topics, poets and poetry.  In Pindaric 7 he begins with:

Rub two distichs together, wise not to
bet against fire. A view to fail,
repump a washed-up beach ball, palp a god,
cross vows with a convenience metaphor.
All is invention; I am spoiled for choice.
Assign me Pindar’s job-lot born to sing
modernities traduced or what you will;
homeo-pharmacopeia’s adagia
spilled upon none that reads. Your votes Ile dig—

“All is invention; I am spoiled for choice” are especially striking here. Hill has centuries of poetic forms from which to borrow, and his use of lyric triads could be his attempt to “repump a washed-up beach ball.”  And the last part of the stanza specifically mentions Hill’s view of himself as a modern Pindar but instead of singing about athletic victories his topics are “modernities traduced or what you will.” The last two lines are also a more subtle nod to Pindar as Hill makes his own compound word: “homeo-pharmacopeia,” a special homeopathic book with remedies that serve as a type of “adagia,” The adagia is a book of proverbs compiled by Erasmus. But Hill’s wisdom via this adagia is,  in typical self-deprecating fashion, “spilled upon none that reads,” ie. only those who read—really read and understand his arcane verses.

Pindaric 13 is also filled with allusions to poets and poetry.  In the first stanza he writes:

How reconciled, then, Ovid, by such time
as in Voronezh he was no man’s fool?

Hill’s specific subject here is the exiled Roman poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea town of Tomis in 8 A.D. . This was done personally by the Emperor Augustus himself.  We are given very few details about what Ovid did and he only tells us it was due to a carmen (a poem) and an error (a mistake). He is absolutely wretched in exile and writes two works about it: Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto. He dies in 17 or 18 A.D. while still in exile.

But, as is typical with Hill, there is another subtle reference to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who also suffered exile at the hands of the Soviet government and Stalin in particular. Tristia, literally meaning “sad things, sorrows, lamentations” is also the title for Mandelstam’s collection which he wrote in self-imposed exile while in the Crimea in the early 1920’s. The dire and desperate personal consequences of war and revolution drove him to this region of Russia which was more isolated from civil war. His time away from the north inspired him to produce these poems that are filled with images of separation, loss, darkness and exile. It is chilling that the poems also serve as a glimpse into the poet’s future which will include arrest, torture, and forced exiles to the Urals and Voronezh. He must have known, deep down in his soul, that his first, temporary, voluntary exile was a harbinger of tribulations to come in later years.

Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebook, to which Hill specifically refers, is a collection of eighty nine verses that the Russian poet wrote while he was exiled to the city of Voronezh. During the early 1930’s Mandelstam wrote and published poetry that mocked and criticized Stalin and so it is no surprise that he was arrested and sent into exile. During part of his exile he was allowed to live in Voronezh which was a bit more civilized as far as Russian exiles were concerned. He lives is a crowded boarding house that he describes as a “coffin” in the first poem. He and his wife have no privacy and they hear every movement and sound of their neighbors. In the third poem of the first Notebook he begs Voronezh to have mercy on him and “restore” him but throughout these poems we get the sense that he feels hemmed in, claustrophobic and hopeless.

Hill’s second stanza in Pindaric 13 becomes more bleak:

What Ces describes—duration of real pain
spikes with its radicals the roots of thought.
Hebrew mates word and thing, the acting word,
the basic punning language though not all
punsters are poets nor would wish to be.
The absolute’s absolution is itself
Presence of the intrinsic saved for death
politic power was one uncivil term.
How strange you have to be to stay faithful.

The “Ces” in the first line is Cesare Pavese to whom the Pindarics are addressed.  Pavese, an Italian poet who was also subjected to self-imposed exile during the Fascist regime in Italy, committed suicide at the age of 42 after another failed love affair.  Ces is also mentioned in Pindaric 1 and in the same stanza Hill refers to himself as an “exile among books.” Ovid, Pavese and Mandelstam had to all navigate the vicissitudes of tyranny and choose to stay faithful to their poetry and their art or to risk the ire of  “politic power.”

So what does this all mean for Hill himself? He has a self-imposed exile of sorts when, after his first marriage falls apart, he moves to the United States.  But I think this is too literal an interpretation for his poetry.  I suspect that Hill felt himself to be an outsider of sorts, someone who lingered on the fringes of mainstream poetry and he, like his fellow poets, had no intention of changing himself to fit a preconceived idea of what a writer or artist ought to be.  A line from Pindar  Pythian IV.247-8 comes to mind (trans. my own):  “It is too long of a path for me to follow the usual road; I only have a brief amount of time, and I know a shorter path . In poetic technique, I am a guide for many other poets.”

 

 

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A Shelter for Bells: Select Writings of Hans Jürgen von der Wense

Hans Jürgen von der Wense (1894-1966) was a German composer, poet, aphorist, encyclopedist, avid walker and naturalist. When he died, he left behind in his small apartment in Göttingen over 300 folders containing about 30,000 pages of his letters, poems, photographs and diaries. Wense had intended to write an All-Book which that would be an encyclopedia, arranged alphabetically by keyword, of his aphorisms, translations and interpretations of more than 100 cultures and languages.  He was also working on his Wanderbuch, which would include the lengthy observations and surveys of the landscapes he explored on his impressive daily walks.

A Shelter for Bells is the first time that Wense’s writings have been published in English. The selection offered here by Epidote Press (which is a limited printing of 500 copies), and translated by Kristofor Minta and Herbert Pföstl, is divided into six chapters with broad themes: On Weather and Wandering, On Landscape and Place, On the Celestial, On the Hidden Properties of Things, On Knowing and Being, and On Writing and Language.  But even within each chapter specific ideas forming the themes that were occupying Wense’s mind come forward.  In the chapter On Weather and Wandering,for instance, it is clear that Wense views his daily walks as prayer or meditations; he is keenly affected  by everything he observes in nature around him. The editors alternate between longer passages that appear to be from Wense’s diary and shorter observations, poems or aphorisms that could be from diaries or letters or snippets of poems.   None of the translations are dated or identified so these are my guesses:

Spring: seventeen degrees Celsius. In the cirrus, a burning ring extended around the sun. Crystal, Crystal! I lingered in my bay and beheld it. I went to the heath. A mighty wilderness. Birch and oak. Larks reveled above the moors. Small, black-dappled channels interrupted by naughty frogs. Wide clearings with the lost scent of anemones. Behind it always, the all-silencing sea. I cam to a noisy meadow with shrubs, and each one swayed a white, dew-spittled web, and in each web sat a sleeping spider.

And in the shorter entries, usually just two or three on a page,  Wense is equally as philosophical about his interactions with nature:

I would like best to thrown all books to the side and go out into the wind and there find it all again, the enharmonic changes and tonal cadences of light, the entire landscape a shepherd’s song: Madrigal

I want to walk tomorrow. Wandering is praying. I want to become a human being pure as starlight.

Only that will remain which has the sky as its measure.

Wense’s obsession with walking, however, causes him pain and illness.  He also spends a lot of time in solitude and both the physical ailments and loneliness are oftentimes mentioned throughout the six chapters.

My favorite selections are those included in On Knowing and Being and On Writing and Language.   A page in one of these sections contains only one, powerful sentence:  “The ultimate message is silence,” which struck me in a very personal way.   These chapters are full of equally brief, poignant, thought-provoking aphorisms.  His ideas on poetry are a particular standout:

True Poems have meaning, but not results, for poetry is modulation, and nothing is more poetic than mistaking.

Poems are spells, impenetrable like every core. Poems are prophecies, overheard voices.

Poems are the clouds above language.

The book can be read easily in one sitting, as I did yesterday as soon as it arrived in the post. Or it can be a nice coffee table or bedside book that one dips into every once in a while. This wonderful collection has given me enough of a taste for Wense’s writing to want more.  I am especially hoping that his letters and poems will be translated into English.  Or my daughter is starting high school in the fall and is going to learn German…

One of the photos included in the book. This is a picture of one of Wense’s notebooks.

 

 

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Filed under German Literature, Letters, Poetry

Poem as…:The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill intended the Book of Baruch to be published posthumously and he worked on this collection of poems right up until his death in 2016.  The book contains a sequence of 270 numbered poems with no titles.  It is the most erudite, difficult and engrossing volume of poetry I have ever read, which statement I do not make lightly.  Even though it is a fairly slim volume it has taken me about two weeks to read and absorb Hill’s thoughts, reflections, aphorisms and cultural references.   I have spent hours chasing down references to various politicians, poets, artists, and even rappers that Hill writes about.  These were all of the things occupying his mind as he nears the end of his life.

In the poem numbered 190 he describes this collection which evolves and grows every day as his own time gets shorter: “This, it is becoming clear, is more a daybook than ever The Daybooks were: il mestiere di vivere that secures its own private consistory and guards the door, admitting neither rich nor poor to the designs and details of poetry which are the very devil to portray without favour or fear.”  This short verse is typical of Hill’s reference to other poets or works of art.  The Job or Work of Living is the title of Italian author Cesare Pavese’s Diary in which the author recorded notes about his thoughts and feelings on a variety of subject between 1935-1950. Hill forces his reader to think deeply about the various connections he is making between different forms of poetry.

Hill composes poems involving a dizzying number of poets from Milton to Hopkins to Celan to Desnos and many others he admires: “Some deep poets are like divers with the bends.”  He also has no patience for false poets, those he calls poetasters: “Those who poetaste are not like novices at the piste, learning how to coordinate brain, knee, writs.  To me, they present themselves as a despised caste, breeding on, off, their own waste; ignorant as to why wreaths of myrlte and laurel invest Milton’s bust.”

Many of Hill’s best verses, especially toward the end of the collection, are his “Poem as…” thoughts.  Some are short yet so profound it feels like a punch in the gut (or the knee):

The poem begins as a small tight maelstrom somewhat at knee-height, not quite touching your shins.

Poem as posthumous running sore.

Poem as equity release—whatever that is.

Poem as no less an authority on history than whom.

Poem as Samson dozing post coitus with coiffure of unshorn hair.

Poem as neuro-linguistic programme with close attachments to the absurd.

And one of my favorites:

Poem to restart pumping system for self-esteem sewage and rage of heart.

And Hill’s expertise and talent with metaphor especially come through on his longer verses about poetry.  Once gain he forces the reader to look at objects and concepts and poems in a completely novel way:

Poem as scimitar-curve, shear along sheer, a ‘Tribal’ class destroyer, veteran of the North Cape run, bearing down on a submarine that has struck and already gone from the scene, leaving sea-rubble wretchedly a-swim, thickslicked in oil.

And:

In poetry, ignorance can sometimes work things to the good, as a form of muse-inducing narcolepsy in which, entranced, you retain evidence of the tombs among which you have danced: mots, etes-vous des mythes et pareils aux myrtes des morts?

Finally, I have to say a word about Hill’s sense of humor which, as far as I can tell, has not been discussed very much.  He is especially adept at turning his biting sarcasm at current affairs:

Foghorn Leghorn and Roadrunner are a particular kind of winner. While their winning is not gaining anything, neither can happy idiocy every fail. All is back on track ready for the next reel, for you ‘bit of a laugh’ philosophe.

Rid us—somebody—God—of callous ignorant administrators, lords of public want, sinecurists of their own failures, bearers of no brunt, inimical to dissent.

And poets, and poetasters, are not above his ridicule either:

Most poets are less capable than those who at airports x-ray our tits and our boots and happily leave us to scrabble.

A dear, kind friend has sent me Hill’s Broken Hierarchies as well as some of his essays and other writings.  I will be occupied (or obsessed) will Hill for a long time to come.

 

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Pone Subit Coniunx: Robert Hass and Vergil’s Aeneid

Robert Hass has been another American poet that I’ve discovered from literary Twitter.  My favorite poem in his collection Time and Materials is entitled “The World as Will and Representation.” In this longer poem, which is typical of the longer ones in the book,  Hass tells a very personal story.  He is thinking back to when he was a ten-year-old boy and his family’s morning routine during which time his father would give his mother a drug called antabuse which was supposed to prevent her from drinking.  “It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,/A Social world, in which the men got up/And went to work, leaving the women with the children.”  The boy’s father would ground the medication very fine into a powder and put it in his mother’s glass of water was so that she couldn’t spit the pills out.   The poet lingers on the vivid details of crushing the pills, handing her the glass and watching her drink.

The ending is incredibly powerful. The boy’s father leaves for work and the child is left alone with his mother:

“Keep and eye on Mama, pardner.”
You know the passage in the Aeneid? The man
Who leaves the burning city with his father
On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand,
Means to do well among the flaming arras
And the falling columns while the blind prophet,
Arms upraised, howls from the inner chamber,
Great Troy is fallen. Great Troy is no more.
Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world—about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.

The passage to which Robert Hass is referring occurs in Vergil’s Aeneid Book II when Aeneas is telling the story of how he escaped Troy with his father and son.  Aeneas’s father, Anchises, is paralyzed so he must carry him on his shoulders and hold his young son, Iulus, by the hand.  But, but, Aeneas also has a wife, Creusa (2.705-710 translation is my own):

I will carry you on my shoulders, your weight will not burden me.
As things happend around us, we will either be in danger together
or we will both reach safety. And let little Iulus walk beside me
and my wife follow behind.

After Aeneas successfully convinces his father to escape Troy, he tells the rest of the family servants to meet him outside the city at a Temple to Ceres. Aeneas also hands his household gods to his father for safekeeping. Aeneas then sums up their escape (II.721-725, translation is my own):

Having spoken these things, I covered my broad shoulders
with the pelt of a golden lion and lowered my neck
for the impending burden. Little Iulus took hold of my
right hand and followed his father by taking large steps;
my wife walks behind.

That last line in the Latin is striking: pone subit coniunx (the wife walks behind). Aeneas, busy with his father and son, loses Creusa as Troy is burning and he never sees her again. She is one of the characters in the Aeneid that is sacrificed because of Aeneas’s future in Italy where he is destined to marry another woman in a political alliance. Creusa, I think, also foreshadows Dido’s tragic fate.

In his poem, Ross describes the details of Aeneas, the Father, taking care of his father and young son, but he doesn’t specifically mention the detail of the hero’s wife. Creusa does linger in the background of Hass’s poem in the figure of the boy’s mother, “penitent and biddable.” Creusa, like the poet’s mother, is also a victim of “justice and power” and “the order of things.” Hass’s poem brings up so many questions: why was the boy’s mother drinking in the first place? What were the other circumstances of the family? And, most importantly, did this woman also, pone subit, walk behind?

 

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Filed under American Literature, Classics, Poetry, Vergil

We all know how to talk, we just don’t know when: Language and Poetry

Last night I was reading Robert Kelly’s lovely new poem, Reasons to Resist, which he describes in the subtitle as “a motet.”  From the Latin word movere, “to move” a motet is a beautiful, unique style, I thought, for a longer poem which fittingly captures his ideas of music as well as language.  The one line I keep repeatedly coming back to is: We all know how to talk/ we just don’t know when.

I’ve been chasing this thread of language, words, and ways of communicating throughout the vast amounts of poetry I have been absorbing lately.

Jan Zwicky, in her incredible collection entitle Wittgenstein’s Elegies, imagines language as an ancient city, difficult to navigate, that demands effort:

Our language is an ancient city, maze of interlocking
streets and squares. To know it we must
walk it, crawl through sewers, feel our way
by night along the walls. Most answers squat
before us, humble questions. Where they tower,
not the single-minded cleavage of broad-avenued
baroque, but subtler mysteries
reach heavenward, anonymous: the master-builders.

And Alex Caldiero, whose poetry I’ve been obsessed with lately thanks to a blog post from Scott Abbott, reminds us that silence is also telling form of communication.  Silence is as powerful and extreme as shouting. From his collection Poetry is Wanted Here:

How we sound together
tells
more about who we are
than all the dialogs
of our lives
but
we settle for the uneasy
silence humans
mistakenly think
they have in common
w/ the beasts.

And from Caldiero’s collection Various Atmospheres:

We could try
to teach each other
our private wordings,
but with what words?

Or we could seek
a common denominator
in the number of our bones
or in the stances we take.

And then again
we could keep
the ancient solemn vow
of silence.

Italian poet Eugenio Montale contemplates words that betray our true feelings but agrees that silence reveals a deeper truth (tr. J. Galassi). From his collection Cuttlefish Bones:

You, my words, betray in vain the secret
sting, the gale in the heart that howls.
The deeper truth is that of a man who is silent
The song that sobs is a song of peace.

And German poet Helmut Heissenbüttel reminds us, in his poem Subjunctive about the complex grammatical structures that complicate language and communication (tr. Michael Hamburger):

up to the middle of the half
less than too little
least of all
as though as though
probably probably
took upon himself did not take upon
himself
undecided provisionally provisional

And, finally, a poem from Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, whose collection entitled the great enigma is extraordinary. His poem is about words on paper, written communication. Which can also turn into a form of silence. This poem, Lament, is translated by Robin Fulton:

He said aside his pen.
It rests still on the table.
It rests still in the empty room.
He laid aside his pen.

Too much that can neither be written nor keep silent!
He is paralyzed b something happening far away
although the wonderful traveling bag throbs like a heart.

Outside it is early summer.
Whistlings from the greenery—men or birds?
And cheery trees in bloom embrace the trucks that have come home.

Weeks go by.
Night comes slowly.
The moths settle on the windowpane:
small pale telegrams from the world.

 

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Filed under American Literature, German Literature, Poetry