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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Naphtha, Acedia, Red-Eye Gravy

Attritional chafe,
chafe, bridle
and chafe, and periodically
a grin and tears.
Her good will

expressed itself
in a strange persistence
of affection that he
not unreasonably supposed
would last forever.

(It wasn’t to do with him,
was it?)
When it stopped,
he didn’t believe it.
He didn’t know what to do.

From ‘End of the Pier Show’, one of seven new poems in Michael Hofmann’s Selected Poems, which makes just under one a year since Approximately Nowhere in 1999. It’s a shame. It wasn’t just the mitteleuropäisch macaronia and fearsome reviewing that placed him a cut above the rest of the New Generation photo-op set back in the mid-90s. Acedia raised to an art form, parricide as family reunion, the bizarre yet forgivable enthusiasms (Tom Paulin! Hugo Williams!), the ‘I sometimes wonder if there are any poets who “like” [poetry], and whether I would like them’ confession in Poetry. I’ve always thought the best way to express a dislike of poetry is by writing the stuff, but maybe that’s just me. ‘It’s naphtha now you’re gone’, he begins ‘Motet’, another of the new poems. That one must get the Stateside audiences wondering what it is about the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement Hofmann misses so much. ‘Some sort of folly and exhilaration. /A caffeinated feeling of being all heart.’ If not quite the DTs, the shakes at least. ‘Refill, refill, and a spot of red-eye gravy.’ Yours for £12.99.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


The diacritics on
Žižek’s signature hover over his name like vagrant seagulls in the copy of On Violence I picked up in London the other day.

I’ve mentioned the book before, so won’t do it again after this, but I liked the Communist joke he quotes on the wife or mistress question. Which would you prefer, Marx, Engels and Lenin are asked. ‘A wife’, replies the uxorious Marx. ‘A mistress’, says the loucher Engels. ‘Both’, says Lenin. And why? ‘So I can tell my wife I’m going to see my mistress and my mistress I’m going to see my wife and be on my own to study, study, study for the revolution.’

I also like the Sufi prayer he quotes, which goes something like ‘Lord, if I pray to you that I may go to heaven, deny me heaven, if I pray to you out of fear of hell, send me to hell.’

Still on Lenin, there is another joke about him not mentioned here (though God knows, Žižek knows how to repeat himself) about an erotic painting called ‘Lenin in Warsaw’. It shows Natalia Krupskaya in bed with a young Komsomol. But where is Lenin?, the viewer will ask. He is in Warsaw.

Monday, January 28, 2008

George Oppen

A lengthy and now-deleted diatribe by Todd Swift about the London publishing scene, and a link on Silliman (you see, he has his uses) have put me in mind of George Oppen, whose centenary year it is. The Silliman link is to a James Longenbach review in The Nation of his Selected Prose, just out. What I love, or one of the things I love, about Oppen is the absolute rightness of his attitude towards being a writer. Discrete Series appeared in 1934, when he was 26. Thereafter he abandoned poetry until The Materials in 1962, spending the intervening years organizing a farmers’ union strike, earning a purple heart in the second world war, and working as a carpenter in Mexico to avoid a call-up to the House Un-American Activities Committee. To the business side of being a writer, the question of publishers, prizes (even if he did end up with a Pulitzer), going around impersonating himself in public (as Larkin would say), he displayed the only possible praiseworthy attitude, namely total disregard. As a political activist with a strong distaste for agitprop he found actions more important than words, and so, entirely logically, devoted himself to actual politics rather than the dubious honour of being a political poet. To his own question, ‘Is it more important to produce art or to take political action?’, he replies:

Of course I cannot pretend to answer such a question. I could point this out, however, that art and political action are in precise opposition in this regard: that it can always be quite easily shown that political action is going to be valuable; it is difficult to ever prove that political action has been valuable. Whereas art is precisely the opposite case; it seems always impossible to prove that it is going to be valuable, and yet it is always quite clear that the art of the past has been of value to humanity. I offer it only as a suggestion that art lacks in political action, not action. One does what he is most moved to do.

The writer does what he is most moved to do. He or she is concerned with bringing a small adventure in thought and feeling to term. Write about politics, if you want, but if you fancy doing some actual good join a charity and come back when youve finished. And as for the whole clamjamfrie of how others might see us, how we are to sell our wares to someone who doesn’t want to know, from those who read poetry for its politics, to the despised but somehow all-important London publisher, to the overawed reader steered by the publishers imprint on the spine (sorry, this list of miscreants is inspired by the aforementioned deleted diatribe; apologies for not being able to link to it for context)... to anyone but the unknown and anonymous reader, whose reasons for reading we may never know, the writer should cultivate an absolute and unwavering indifference. It’s simply none of his or her business. Who wants that other kind of reader anyway? No one. Write on the presumption that even your friends won’t read you. In fact, positively discourage them from reading the stuff. This is something I feel Oppen taught me, and rubbed in properly, and I’ve felt the benefits ever since. Here is ‘The Gesture’, the first of Oppen’s ‘Five Poems About Poetry’:

The question is: how does one hold an apple
Who likes apples

And how does one handle
Filth? The question is

How does one hold something
In the mind which he intends

To grasp and how does the salesman
Hold a bauble he intends

To sell? The question is
When will there not be a hundred

Poets who mistake that gesture
For a style.

Windhoek, Namibia

The romance of Irish Africa. Christian brother copybooks, which I can remember all too well, had a map of the world on the back with a circle round Ireland and arrows pointing to its various spiritual colonies, principally in Africa. St Martin de Porres, it still strikes me, must have been the only black person with whom I could claim to have had a personal relationship, back then.

Namibia, third-least densely populated country in the world. German Namibia. It made the news when Simon Wiesenthal died, an event marked by a gloating neo-Nazi ad in a national paper there. There was also the case a few years ago when a visiting German minister was greeted by swastikas flags and bunting in a backwoods German settlement. Which reminds me of a book I read once, author now forgotten, about lost white tribes, like Bernhard Foerster (Nietzche’s brother-in-law)’s doomed Nueva Germania cult in Paraguay (still there, counting their Aryan blessings on their sixth fingers and notching up hilarious links with Dick Cheney).

I remember mentioning its feral horse population here once. Its origins are unknown. Were they bred for an eccentric German baron’s cavalry? Were they washed ashore in a shipwreck?

Anyway, Windhoek. There’s a fine poem of that name in Harry Clifton’s Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004 (Wake Forest), on the fortunes of Irish settlers:

You who deal in crystals, self-reflection,
Do well here. Who think in aeons,
Asteroid fallout, shattered mammoth bones,

Of your own Kalahari, passing through,
Panhandling, huge perspectives
In your eyes, and the ghost towns you outgrew.

{Quotation ends}

Any takers for my Nua Hibernia colony in the Namib desert? We can survive on horse milk and nettle whiskey, with a sideline in no-questions-asked asylum for wanted Christian Brothers.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Walter Benjamin, Poet

Walter Benjamin, poet. From Walter Benjamin’s Archive, new from Verso. The word ‘eternal’ in the second-last line is crossed out, but blogger won’t let me do strikethrough, or if it will I’m too stupid to work out how. Or how to indent the last line. Someone help me out here.

When I begin a song
It sticks
And if I become aware of you
It is an illusion

And thus love wanted you
Humble and small
So that I win you
With being alone

Therefore you slipped from me
Until I learnt
Only flawless petitions

Betray nature
And only enraptured steps
The eternal trace

Suicide Plant

This large and previously undiscovered plant in Madagascar is apparently addicted to committing suicide.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Trocular Bleugh

Trocular: to be jocular in a truculent manner. I came up with the word after seeing that episode of the League of Gentlemen where the two teenagers go to see Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue in their local cinema in the mistaken belief that it will be a ‘bluey’: ‘trocular bleugh’.

Anyway, I rewatched the film last night and wondered if I am only the person in the world whose ability to take Juliette Binoche’s seriousness seriously is torpedoed by the sheer dreadfulness of the film’s score. ‘Classical’ music as a signifier of high-brow earnestness and/or mental disturbance (remember Shine?) is a weary enough trope, but watching JB and her male friend’s protracted tug-of-war over finishing the great magnum opus was undercut, somewhat, for me by the fact that it still ended up sounding like a GSCE student’s course work in neo-classical pastiche. At one point the music started doing a series of descending scale figures, and I thought we were going to get one for every member of the EU (the piece has been commissioned to celebrate the ‘Unity of Europe’): ‘And now, over to Luxembourg for the G major scale!’ Any nastily chromatic passages could I presume be hived off to Belarus or Serbia, if only there were any, which they weren’t.

Initially, and not just initially, the heavily signalled ethical nature of JB’s character can only be expressed by renunciation. She gives up her house, the music she (it seems) and not her husband composed, love, everything. The fact that she is rich and can afford to do so without material suffering makes her renunciation just unreal enough to require an eventual renunciation of renunciation. But when she does re-engage, she still does so in the form of a refusal of and indifference to the self, as when she gives her husband’s pregnant mistress her country house. The film’s final montage of all the people whose lives she has touched, even when she has treated them with apparent dismissal (her mother, the boy who brings her the necklace from her husband and daughter’s crash scene), reinforces her radical selflessness. Is she liberated into this condition by the discovery of her husband’s affair, or has she hardened into it as a carapace for her grief and alienation? In fact, the stereotype of the solitary and misunderstood artist is inverted here, as all the selflessness I’ve just described is balanced by the sheer plodding, overblown awfulness of the music we are offered at the end of the film, which ‘reaches out’ to us, expressing itself directly and emotionally in ways Julie cannot in real life, and which stands in total contradiction of the uncompromising apartness she has displayed up to now.

Whatever the film is about, then, it isn’t liberation through art, but rather the opposite. If we do not truly renounce our lives the ignoble self will always find a way of reasserting itself and finding us out. In Julie’s case she is found out by giving in to the temptation to begin composing again, when the only ethical thing to do would be to trust her first instinct, destroy the score and not write anymore, if for no better reason than that she isn’t a very good composer. She is not, as her husband seems to have thought, a kind of saint (an all too handy reason, perhaps, for his infidelity). As she proves in her apparent moment of triumph, she is simply a regular to mediocre artist, like any other, whose mystique has been manufactured and hyped by the valueless world on which she claims to turn her back. Her problems and miseries are not so unique after all, and by embracing her compromised triumph as a great composer she secretly makes her peace with being a regular human being and failure, like you, me, or anyone else. And coming to terms with this will be her renunciation, not what went before.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Enjoyment Outbreak

I really like Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade's album Navega. This track 'Lua' is on the album, but here's a slightly different version.

The Great Molossus Disaster

Tom Paulin has a hard ear, a heavy ear. Trying his hand at scansion in The Secret Life of Poems he almost always over-stresses. He hears Donne’s ‘yeares midnight’ and Coleridge’s ‘thin blue light’ as examples of the molossus, the rarely-used combination of three stressed syllables.

And then there’s this line from Edward Thomas: ‘Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved.’ Read it. Scan it. Did you read ‘Downhill’ and ‘not starved’ as spondees, giving the line a total of seven stresses? Because that’s how Paulin hears it.

Had Sylvia Plath got in on the over-stressing act she could have called her first collection, not The Colossus but The Molossus.

The great molossus disaster is not, of course, to be confused with the great molasses disaster of 1919, in which 21 peopled in a tidal wave of the sticky brown stuff.

Truly tragic.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Knives Out

Celan and Adorno, as described in Lorenz Jäger’s Adorno: A Political Biography. In 1959 Celan speaks of having hoped to meet (but in the event missing) Adorno in the Nietzschean locale of Sils Maria, ‘Herr Prof. Adorno’, as he calls him, ‘who I thought was a Jew.’ This prompted apparently by his suspicion of Adorno’s motives in dropping the paternal Wiesengrund from his name (though he himself had of course changed his name, anagrammatically, from Ancel).

And then there is Adorno’s ‘to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’ ukase, which didn’t go at all well with the poet of Todesfuge. ‘What sort of idea of a “poem” is being implied here? The arrogance of the man who hypothetically and speculatively has the audacity to observe or report on Auschwitz from the perspective of nightingales and song thrushes.’

Celan’s paranoia-fuelled woes in later life. Michael Hamburger describes an anonymous TLS reviewer construing Celan’s German coinage ichten as a positive counterpart to vernichten (to annihilate), when it was in fact intended as an inflection on ich, ‘ied’. No amount of denials from Hamburger when the pair met would persuade Celan that he was not the reviewer.

Much worse was the Iwan Goll fiasco, and Celan’s hounding over plagiarism accusations by Goll’s widow, which drove him to violence and despair. He came to associate Adorno with his persecutors, and codes a reference to him into the lines ‘nicht / ab-, nein wiesen- /gründig, /schreiben sie, die /Aber-Maligen, dich /vor /die /Messer’ (‘Not cryptically, no as Wiesengrund, they, the revenants, write you before the knives.’)

Adorno called him ‘the most important contemporary representative of German hermetic poetry’. ‘Ganz und gar nicht hermetisch’ (‘absolutely not hermetic’), Celan wrote in an inscription for Michael Hamburger.

Bobby Fischer

Lifelong conspiracy theories vindicated as shadowy figure behind world Judaic religious movement kills Bobby Fischer.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cask of Fancy

Beckett fact (hors série).

André Bosquet may have been what the French call a pisseur de copie, between his seventeen novels and 1500 pages of poetry, but his 1988 New Directions selected, No Matter No Fact is a slim affair, its gravitas bulked out somewhat by the inclusion of photographs of Bosquet with Saint-John Perse, Carl Sandburg, Man Ray and Dorothea Tanning… Why the idea of prefacing books with portraits of their authors in the company of famous people has never caught on I don’t know. Beckett translated six of Bosquet’s poems, perhaps as a favour in return for not having to be in one of these terrible photos. Only one appears in Poems 1930-1989, Fresh Sighs for Sale, but there are some fine things in the other five too. Here’s one I particularly like, Now that he has drained:

Now that he has drained
the cask of fancy dry
reality has him plagued
like a bubo-stricken rat.
No oak but turns
to coffin at his touch,
no waters scanned
but summon to their bed.
All he has left is the absolute
or the odd fly at evening
to tear from its wings.

I know the words ‘fish’, ‘shoot’ and ‘barrel’ spring a bit too easily to mind where the Calder edition of Poems 1930-1989 is concerned, but looking it up again I notice that by the time its title has reached the notes at the back of the book ‘Fresh Sighs for Sale’ has become ‘No Sighs for Sale’. Ochone, in that Irish word Beckett used in ‘Antipepsis’, ochone ochone o.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Bang Bang Billy

Photo found here.

Bang Bang Billy

There was always a powerful lot of men in the village on Sunday after church or mass outside Cullen’s waiting to see Mr Holt. He was the big man and you’d see crowds of them waiting in the yard to be paid, still in their suits or what have you. He’d hand over the money and ask, Will you have a drink while you’re here? – and they’d buy him a drink out of the money he’d given them, and if they didn’t they knew full well he mightn’t be so generous with the work the next week. My father had some business with him one day and walked down to the village, and left me outside on the low wall. Oftentimes you’d get the travelling people down from Calary too, about a horse or some scrap, and to see them ride in you’d think you were in the Wild West, but there was never any trouble, not in them days. Anyhow that’s when I seen Billy, that’d be Billy King had been in Ypres and come back with a bit of a want in him. You’d see him around the main street, chasing after the young ones. There was a knot of men on the wall, corner boys, was pushing at Billy the way he didn’t know what way to turn, and jeering at him and asking where was he in Easter Week. Billy was down on his hunkers with his hands on his head while they stood round him, terrible it was, there was no call for that kind of thing towards a poor simpleton. I went over, all innocent, and pushed through the circle of men so as to hunker down beside him, telling them to stop and to leave him alone. I could see under his hands where there was tears on his face. Then he took his hands away and stared at me and all of a sudden let a big yelp out of him: ‘Bang bang you’re dead.’ He pushed at me when he said it so I fell over, and a big grin on his face. I ran off and the men started back at him after that, and I wasn’t too bothered if he got a kicking off them or not. I ran into the yard where my father was and he told me not to be messing and to run up and tell my mother when he’d be back for his dinner. I never spoke to Billy after that, though I was sorry when he died after. There was a terrible stink in the house when they found him, my father said. My mother would often say Billy was coming to get me when she was after giving me a slap for something I’d done, but that was back in the 20s, God rest him, and sure no one remembers him now!

Wicklow, 1970s

Teach Yourself Czech

Confronted by the Czech language, as one is from time to time, it’s comforting for an Irishman to learn that its word for yes is ‘ano’. Because that’s an Irishman’s word for yes too, as Dara O Briain explains:

‘Would you like another drink?’
(Jabs finger in direction of bar, furious expression) ‘Ah no, ah no.’

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lab Rat

Happiness is 'a chemical imbalance in the / brain triggered by these tranquillity pills, tested / to destruction on laboratory rats, whose happiness / is quite depressing', according to Sam Gardiner, more on whom here.

And if a sentence towards the end of the review doesn't seem to make sense, it's because a passage just before it has been cut. It should read:

'Il faut cultiver notre jardin', said Voltaire's Dr Pangloss, but we should cultivate our Gardiner too. 'The best are the lost', he writes in 'The Best', and if Gardiner is not to succumb to his own harsh blueprint for excellence...' etc.

Friday, January 11, 2008


According to Technorati, and in case you were ever wondering, this blog is about the following:

bullshit aardvark trying to hoover the fluff out of its bum and a llama on the front lawn too clean up your room communion wafer fascism gangrenous scumhole gimme shelter goose-stepping rooster kill yourself now mbau memiadluk went back alone nausea rafa is the bosphorous situationism taking the biscuit the tongue’s atrocious ease the tongue’s atrocities this blog brought to you by the letter g what exactly are hiccups

I realize this is just a list of the tags I occasionally use but still, I thought they had a certain ring to them when concatenated like that, car-crash style.

Also, since I'm speaking on the meta level here: to the reader in Saudi Arabia who found this site with the search words 'asshole fever movie', I hope your rear end has improved. Asshole fever can be all too painful if not caught and treated early, and no amount of public information movies on this topic can ever be enough, in the war we all wage, daily, on this debilitating condition.

Basta, please

Basta, please! And now with a Silliman-approved (see the comment to my post on Petr Borkovec) diacritic: Bašta! No, not enough – more. Bašta is a Czech beer, pictured above, and any other connoisseurs out there should find this excellent beer blog a tasty read.

Mise en Abyme

Reviewing Slavoj Žižek’s new book, On Violence, in today’s Independent, Simon Critchley tells the flowerpot joke. It goes like this. Two men are watching a play and one needs to pee. He can’t wait for the interval so he gets up and sets off in search of the gents’. But he can’t finds the gents’ anywhere and wanders down a long corridor, where he finds a potted plant, which he urinates into. He stumbles back to his seat where his friend tells him, ‘You missed the best bit! Some bloke wandered on stage and took a piss in that plant!’

Thursday, January 10, 2008


‘Slowness is beauty’, wrote Pound, who, God knows, must have spent enough time standing in post office queues, submissions to small mags in hand, and getting something uplifting out of the experience that’s always escaped me. I thought of his apophthegm while wading through the lacustrine flux and reflux of John McGahern’s That They Might Face the Rising Sun lately. I think of that Paul Klee drawing, Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank, the arcanely formalised ways of eating a sandwich or exchanging greetings in the church porch in McGahernland. It can test the patience though, sometimes, if it’s a world you know and have had reason to want to shake off. So I found myself coming out in a rash of Quintonians. Reader, Quintonians is a parlour game apparently invented by Iris Murdoch in which you invent the things people are least likely to say. Some McGahern character Quintonian soundbites then. I do think it’s a great book, I should add, first.

‘Hello? Yes? You want to what? Come in for a cup of tea? Because what? You’re my neighbour? Christ, you’d think the Poles or whatever would have bought your lot out by now.’

‘Ah God rest your father, he was a grand man. He was a depraved sadist too of course, and a bit of a kiddy-fiddler to go with it, but sure the dogs in the street know that.’

‘Those ham sandwiches would feed an army of marching men, Kate. But if you don’t mind I’ll have a sundried tomato ciabatta please. And did I mention the cappuccino machine they’ve got in Mrs Mullarkey’s café in town? It’s beats the hell out of this tea slop you serve up, and that’s for sure.’

‘No Jamesie, it’s my round, I insist. What? The Ukrainian wheat beer this time? You devil you. There was a time when the only wheat beers you could get in here were German, Belgian and Czech, but times are changing and who am I to stand in their way.’

‘You know very well I can’t bale your hay for you on Friday, Johnny. I’m awful sorry but Friday is my internet pornography day and I get terrible restless when I miss it’ (with apologies to Peter Griffin).

‘That was a powerful evening of chat and whiskey, Jimmy, but I was thinking the other day, pondering to myself like. You see, you are a toothless simpleton, I’ve been having the same conversation with you every day for the last thirty years, and if you ever, ever, address another word to me I will take this pitchfork and stick it so far up your slurry chute I’ll still be able to bale the hay once the spikes have come out your eyes. Do I make myself understood?’

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sarajevo Street, Meudon

That’s not Prague, it’s Meudon in France, as photographed by André Kertész. True, but something in this image always summons up a particular fleeting Prague landscape for me: Sarajevo Street (resonant name), midwinter, its sheer-walled apartment blocks and flyover at the end of the street, and attendant passport to anywhere you’re having yourself. But Sarajevo Street is destination enough, for me. I mention Prague since Valéry has been in the air, hereabouts, of late, and I am reminded of the superb translation of Valéry in Justin Quinn’s Waves and Trees. ‘Boating’, in JQ’s English:

I’m carried by deep water under bridges,
vaults full of wind, of murmurs and of night.
Their heavy adzes cut the flowing light,
their portals not as firm as their proud edges.

Their night last long. Soul’s labour and its leisure,
the soul itself bows down before this zone.
And when I’m moved beneath its roof of stone
I’ve only scorn for all that idle azure.

I’m also reminded of JQ’s translations by the arrival in the post today of Six Czech Poets, for which he has Englished Petr Borkovec. From ‘Natural Causes’:

And in the sand you see all that’s beyond you.
And in the air, what your words won’t transform.
From flap to flap beneath the circus tent
the taut rope goes from yesterday’s performance.

And no, the sleeping acrobat resembles you
in nothing. The caravan dreams in kohl.
Letter and steppe dream of their blackness.
Angrily, like a dog, fatigue dreams of its bowl.

Noticing that Ron Silliman had mentioned Borkovec on his blog, JQ suggested to me that Silliman had obviously decided that a Czech poet could only be post-avant because of all those diacritics (honk honk). If onlý it wěrě that símplě!

Monday, January 07, 2008

George Steiner in Love

It’s been too long since the world’s last instalment of Steinerisms, but it’s a pleasure and a relief to learn from a Sunday Times review of his latest, My Unwritten Books, that (to adapt the philosophico-ethical recensions of the Sartro-Camusian homme dans le boulevard) he is still the total fuckwit we know and love:

Ch. “when nearing climax . . . would cry out, though in a muted register, the name ‘Sankt Nepomuk the Lesser.’ ” Another used the euphemism “taking the streetcar to Grinzing” to signify “a gentle, somewhat respectful anal access”.

In bed, in Angers, a French conquest used the rare subjunctive pluperfect, as perfected by Proust, “which arrested me, in, as it were, mid-flow” – something worth remembering if trapped in a lift with the professor. Another rebuked him for taking an unspeakable liberty: “ ‘How dare you address me as tu?’ panted V even as I parted her comely legs.”

He recalls “a glorious ebony partner” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an intriguingly “unmentionable caress” called “our flowering cactus”, and another’s “lobelias gently watered with saliva”. A woman whose initial he cannot remember, a one-off in a hotel bedroom, observed as they undressed, “Am I myself? Are you you?” “The question,” Steiner muses, “seemed to stem directly out of Fichte’s meditations on the cancellation of the self.” Well, maybe. Or maybe she was just drunk.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Eminent Setacean

Reading the ever-excellent John Latta on Julien Gracq (dead, and still, by me, unread) on Valéry sorry, Latta on Gracq on Valéry reminded me of Cioran’s imbroglio over the eminent Setacean, the book preface commissioned from him then rejected, only to wash up in Aveux et anathèmes. Cioran’s disdain for the Valéryseque cult of lucidity, his mania for method, his aversion to negative capability, and peremptory way with mysteries, doubts and uncertainties:

He erected into a theory and proposed as a model his very incapacity to be a poet naturally; he bound himself to a technique in order to conceal his congenital lacunae; he set – an inexpiable offence! poetics above poetry. We can legitimately suppose that all his theses would be quite different had be been capable of producing a less elaborated oeuvre. He promoted the Difficult out of impotence: all his requirements are those of an artist and not of a poet.

Cioran sniffs a rat in Valéry’s infatuation with mathematics. Valéry once confessed to a friend that he had failed to become a navel cadet because of an ‘absolute incomprehension of the mathematical sciences. I didn’t understand one iota!’ ‘Rigour of form, and not of substance’, huffs Cioran. ‘Who knows if Molière has not cost us a Shakespeare, in casting such ridicule upon les précieux?’ worries Valéry (think of Stendhal and the nineteenth-century Racine v. Shakespeare debate); ‘the galley slave of Nuance’, Cioran snaps back. Remind me, the poem must resist the intelligence how successfully? Cioran: ‘Now, language must resist; if it yields, it capitulates utterly to the whims of a prestidigitator, resolves into a series of pirouettes and trouvailles in which it constantly triumphs over and divides against itself, to the point of annihilation.’ ‘One would lose courage if one were not sustained by false ideas’, said Fontanelle, but Valéry’s courage is never in doubt. Notorious early riser that he was, his thoughts fairly moo to their attendant to come milk them each morning: getting there at dawn may already be too late. How different the Cahiers, that life-long love letter to his own mind, would be if he could just have been a late riser instead, an after-midday riser even. ‘His entire poetics, what is it but the apotheosis of consciousness? (…) The effort to define oneself, to bear down upon one’s own mental operations, Valéry took for true knowledge. But to know oneself is not to know, or rather is only a variety of knowing.’ (Consider Lawrence on Blake as one of the ‘ghastly knowers.’) Valéry always confused knowledge and clear-sightedness.’

Benjamin on Valéry in 1931: However human Monsieur Teste feels himself to be, he has taken to heart Valéry’s aperçu that the most important ideas are those that contradict our feelings.’ Again with the overcoming. Consider Valéry on prosody, and contra Cioran a nod to the necessarily resistant artistic matériel: ‘The strict requirements of prosody are the artistic device which confers on natural speech the qualities of a resistant material that is alien to our soul and remains deaf to our desires.’ But, Cioran might say, it gives in soon enough, and as Benjamin notes too, in an unspeakably vulgar lowering of the Testian tone, the intélligence pure that Valéry hails is ‘after all, identical with the intelligence under whose aegis the European bourgeoisie embarked on its voyages of conquest in the Age of Discovery.’ Valéry’s is, more than any other modern poet, the intelligence of the conqueror. And since I mentioned Derek Mahon in my last post, here’s the last stanza of his Englishing of ‘Le cimètiere marin’. I notice ‘Il faut tenter de vivre’ has become something quite other here, but perhaps the French line proved a little too… resistant to a direct equivalent:

The wind rises; it’s time to start. A vast breeze
opens and shuts the notebook on my knees.
Uproarious waves explode among the rocks
flashing; fly off, then, my sun-dazzled pages
and break, waves, break up with ecstatic surges
this shifting surface where the spinnaker flocks!


Abnormal service hereby somewhat resumed. Three brushes with the non-human, literally so in the first case, clipped from my reading over the festival of Spendgasm.

Clipping a black mare’s mane in Miriam Gamble’s This Man’s Town:

I too am afraid
of what is under there,
of the sharp, extreme breath of winter
that has come here
with the clipper blades,
that has turned
the mountains into sky kings,
and cut my skin
into rivulets.
Tomorrow we will dope her,
fix shackles
to her flailing legs.

Elective brainlessness in Sam Gardiner’s ‘Believe It’, from The Night Ships:

Trees are simply green things without thoughts
that stand in our way. Only by
becoming brainless ourselves can we understand them.
Same goes for olives, quasars, genes, love,
you name it. Don’t you wish that
worry wasn’t the highest form of imagination?
What matters is that nothing matters, except
that you keep your instruments keen, in
working order, ticking over and alert, ready
for when it happens. And it will.

Derek Mahon contemplates a fly, from Somewhere the Wave:

Once more the window and a furious fly
shifting position, niftier on the pane
than the slow liner or the tiny plane.
Dazzled by the sun, dazed by the rain,
today this frantic speck against the sky,
so desperate to get out in the open air
and cruise among the roses, starts to know
not all transparency is come and go.

Image by Bernadette Kiely, who illustrates Somewhere the Wave.