On Tuesday 26 June 2018, the day the ‘Symposium on Lyric’ took place at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, I woke early in a hotel on the campus at Warwick University with a long finals examination board meeting in prospect. It was for this reason (being an external examiner) that I was, unfortunately, unable to attend the gathering of practitioners who would discuss their experience of writing and reading lyric under the four headings I had previously composed for that very purpose. Over a cup of tea or two that morning, I put the finishing touches to the last proof of a new collection published in March 2019, called Ravishing Europa. Invited, nonetheless, to make a contribution to this special issue of Axon dedicated to the proceedings of the symposium, my plan is to illustrate what I could have said about all four topics, and to exemplify why I would have been, and am, engaged by all of them with illustrations from four poems written over the last few years and prompted, in part, by the turbulent political times through which we are living.
Topic 1. Present absences & absent presences
In his ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ Wordsworth suggested that poets were particularly susceptible to the presence of things absent, which might then entail their capacity for creative detachment and absence from present circumstances too. In this session we will explore such paradoxes at the heart of lyric poetry’s powers and predicaments.
After staying up, oh, far too late
for a televised debate
and sickened at the bickering,
I’m reminded of Europa
by some more mendacious bullshit –
then gone to bed, succumb
again to sorry memories …
They bring back lying with the victim
of a far-off rape, a
ravishing, like the ones depicted
in occidental summer twilight
on its sunset lands.
Still now you haver round our bedroom;
me, I’m undecided whether
it had been an act of love
or violence provided
the very idea, to try the patience
of Europa, send her home …
But oh, deciding for us
despite the Cretan myths, the liars,
here you are beside me –
and I can only hope
it’s like we’re in the arms of Europe
with Europe in my arms.
Wordsworth’s observation in the ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ is connected with memorial and elegy, as in the Lucy poems where, repeatedly, a person overlooked in life (a present absence) comes hauntingly back (an absent presence) when unexpectedly ceasing to be. The poem ‘Ravishing Europa’ is, in part, structured upon a debate about the roles in poems of the apostrophic (‘O’) and the exclamatory (‘oh’). Apostrophes have been said to be evocations of absent persons or things (‘O sea!’ in Tennyson), while exclamations are ejaculated utterances of feeling (‘And oh the difference to me!’ in Wordsworth). Yet it is possible to contest Jonathan Culler’s (1981) assertion that the target of an apostrophic address is always absent, for in ‘Break, break, break’ the sea is present at least to the poet’s inward eye, and in In Memoriam VII the addressed ‘Dark house’ is in front of the speaker: ‘by which once more I stand’. JH Prynne (1988) has also noted that, in the history of lyric poetry, the distinction between ‘O’ and ‘oh’ is not clear cut, and that they draw upon each other for their expressive reach. It is, for instance, possible to hear Wordsworth addressing his own emotional alteration in ‘oh the difference to me’.
I was married to an Italian national at that country’s embassy in Tokyo in 1995, and my wife’s given name happens to be ‘Ornella’—one with its own poetic origins: Gabrielle d’Annunzio invented it for a character in his tragedy La figlia di Jorio (1906). It was shortened, at the risk of being considered vulgarly intimate by Emma Woodhouse, in this poem’s dedication with the eventual intention of staging—though only by slow stages, as the poem’s working drafts would reveal—such ambiguities of ‘O’ to indicate a named individual, ‘O’ to address someone, and ‘oh’ to express feeling, debating the relations of absent presences and present absences in lyric. The memories of things presently absent in this poem are focused around a criminal act of sexual violence witnessed over forty years ago on the European mainland, in Northern Italy, but also paintings of The Rape of Europa by some of the continent’s most famous artists (Titian, for instance). TS Eliot considered ‘television’ a very ill-bred word, etymologically a mongrel, its Greek prefix for ‘remote’ or ‘distant’ grafted onto the Latin for ‘seeing’, so even the ‘televised debate’ in the first stanza of this poem could count as an instance of present-absence or absent-presence too.
The widely deployed metaphors evoked in ‘Ravishing Europa’ might be indicated not only by mentioning Daniel Hannan’s anti-EU polemic entitled A Doomed Marriage (2012) or ‘Brexit: A Love Story?’, Mark Mardell’s series about the history of Britain’s recent relations with Europe and the European Union on BBC Radio 4. The political aspirations of my poem, located in the lead-up to the 23 June 2016 Referendum, are not hard to detect, being strongly implied through the synecdoche of making my relations with Ornella symbolic of both a continent and—for this is the shorthand used in Britain—a political settlement. But the matter over which the poet is ‘undecided’ in the second verse, and where his wife’s decision acts as a private resolution (with, it was hoped, public implications), remains a question hanging over the poem’s lyric occasion. Events subsequent to the composition of ‘Ravishing Europa’ have also contributed to its meaning now, not least as regards the future legal status, and legal protections, for European citizens who are not British passport holders but who have long-standing reasons, whether romantic or economic, for being residents in the United Kingdom.
Topic 2. Keeping a secret by saying you’ve got one
Speculating about Shakespeare’s tactics in trying to make Hamlet work on stage, William Empson suggested that the thing was for the main character to keep a secret by saying he’s got one. Is this not exactly what modern and contemporary lyric poets have done to invite a sustained and returning attention to their work?
THE TRUTH IN NEW YORK
‘where truth lies on its deathbed’
Like joining the dots in still chilly March air,
see that faded ad on a high-rise wall
for Blank & Co Men’s Neckwear
gone out of business all those decades before;
just walking around, we’d pause and stare
at a beggar’s cardboard sign: ‘I feel invisible’ –
unlike St Francis by Bellini at the Frick
showing his projective stigmata, a donkey
tethered amongst those abstract rocks
piled about hillsides’ sun-caught citadels
like water-tank-crowded rooftops here;
and speaking of the truth, as you were,
the naked truth, according to Rembrandt
or trompe l’œil billets doux, the truth of
the senses in a New York Times billboard,
just walking around, it was everywhere,
the truth like something back in fashion
after a season at Exchange & Mart …
So tell me, why would all this buying and selling
need to be governed, as never before,
by the truth?
Oh that would be telling.
3 March 2017
Finding myself for the first time in Greenwich Village barely two months into the Donald Trump presidency, and taking a walk with my wife up Fifth Avenue as far as Central Park, I was struck by so many seemingly random things. But that afternoon, resting in our little hotel on the McDougal Street corner of Washington Square, before an event at New York University, a few drafts of the above poem came tumbling out onto some small notebook pages. I have more than once been much moved by the faded old adverts painted onto brick façades, and it was seeing the ad in line three that started the thought of a poem forming—forming around the idea of things being visible or not, and of things then being what they seem, or not. The beggar’s sign was visibly about invisibility and the painting of St Francis (whose name is shared with the Christian name of the poet whose poem, ‘In Memory of my Feelings’ provides the epigraph) is a representation of a spiritual manifestation, a miracle, as it were, of faith. You might even think of them as hysterical, or psychosomatic, symptoms of an obsessional Imitation of Christ. And it dawns on me now as I reread the poem that it must also be reaching towards an ambiguity in the concept of truth, much like the one in the verb ‘to act’ (to do something, and to pretend to do something), because ‘truth’ is taken to mean both things as they are—the ‘Ding an sich’, as it were—and also as inaccessible without representation, explicit when you are called upon to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ in a court of law. A longstanding problem for poetry is that its means of representation has been said to rule it out from being able to tell the truth, a conventionality of thought I am inclined to contest.
The poem continues with further instances picked up from the Frick Collection, where, in the gift shop I found a copy of Rembrandt’s Naked Truth: Drawing Nude Models in the Golden Age (Noorman & De Witt 2016), and that mysterious trompe l’œil billets doux (eye-deceiving love letters) was prompted by seeing Jean-Étienne Liotard’s Trompe l’Oeil (1771) on display in the billionaire collector’s house that day. The New York Times’ ongoing battle with the US president about the nature of investigative journalism had reached the streets in the form of its advert, an electronic one that kept changing its data and message. The world of post-truth, fake news, and alternative facts may be an unforeseen consequence of a movement and tendency in intellectual thought, beginning about a half a century ago, to downgrade the correspondence theory of truth, and to call those who clung to the values of such attempted truth-telling ‘victims of realism’. Bernard Williams’ criticism in Truth and Truthfulness (2002) of Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism would be one place to track that development and see how a different tradition of British liberal thought responded to its challenges. Neither of these philosophers would live to see such convenient scepticism adapted for their purposes by the alt-Right—though Rorty has been credited with foreseeing the rise of a Trump-like figure in Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998).
One thing to be said for Donald Trump’s presidency is that it has concentrated the minds of liberal and left-leaning intellectuals on the essential question of what is, and what constitutes, the truth. Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘In Memory of my Feelings’ was written in 1956, when the idea of truth lying on its deathbed might have been thought a radical possibility, because ‘truth’ could be, and does always tend to be, thought of as in the hands of ‘the establishment’ (hence the phoney radicalism of the most powerful man in the world calling the work of America’s most prominent newspaper ‘fake news’). I didn’t cite O’Hara’s poem in order to denigrate this poet’s importance (he is important for me), but to draw attention to such a problem about the idea that truth as being ‘owned’ by anyone. If it is the truth, it can’t be owned. And the joke, of sorts, about truth being in Exchange & Mart was an attempt at bringing back the marketplace—Blank and Co—from which visual prompt the poem had begun.
But the mere fact of talking my way through the occasioning of this poem in ‘just walking around’ New York at that moment in American and world history is enough to indicate, I hope, how part of the tradition of poetry inherited here is that poems have to compound their materials, while prose criticism and commentary must expound them. A lyric poem can then provide the opportunities for thought and feeling in the combination of hints and guesses, as it were, knowing that those opportunities will be disabled by spelling out what those possible thoughts and feelings (which mustn’t be definitively nailed down) might happen to be. After all, they are unique—if inter-subjectively explicable—to each reader. So the sense of a lyric poem is more or less compelled to be like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe’s story. It has to keep its secret by saying it’s got one. It has to be hiding in plain sight.
The last statement of the poem (‘That would be telling’) is plain in its utterance, and yet ambiguous in its implications: for it can be sensed to mean both ‘that would be giving away a secret’ and ‘that would make a decisive difference’. The types of ambiguity that I tend to prefer are ones in which the different senses can also be combined into larger complexes, as here: ‘I’m keeping a secret which would make a decisive difference’. So the last line of the poem attempts to sound decisively final, finishing off the poem, and the rhyme here would also be relevant, but simultaneously it is pointedly ambiguous, producing a kind of double-take; and the idea of the combination is to draw the reader into unexpected spaces of thought and feeling that must be completed in themselves. For what may be being suggested here in this combination of control and lack of it is that the degree of truthfulness in commercial exchanges is subject to many limiting factors, and that if commerce as currently practiced were to be governed by ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ it might grind to a painful halt. Yet it is also true that the consequences of falsified specifications for goods can be catastrophic, as they were with the debt packages that led to the credit crunch in 2008. This poem’s conclusion, then, you might find Holy Foolish, or wholly foolish: hence its outspoken reticence, its attempting to reveal something by hiding it, hiding it in plain sight, as if what is wrong were obvious—if, that is, like the beggar in the poem, we could only see.
Topic 3. Ambiguous, ambivalent, and open utterance
Though the last century of Anglophone poetry in all its varieties has, for the most part, not had to survive under the kinds of oppressive regime that would require a political verse written in code, it has nevertheless tended to be oblique in utterance and cryptically significant. In this session we will look at the how and why of such seemingly ubiquitous strategies, and at reasons for counter-trends to write ‘in clear’.
for Alastair & Ayako
As on an embassy out of the past,
ambassador, how you bring us
further distant memories
approaching along our front-lawn path,
between its specks of marguerites
and grass tufts bowing in the breeze.
Catching a breath between embassies,
with your lady wife, you bring
us news too of these present days,
ambassador, the cruel schedules,
missions, briefings, roles
that wrinkle brow and tire eyes.
How different from your current posting
is our florid scene
brimming with greenery, voices, homes
beside this dutiful Confucian river
where nobody trails or photographs you
as in bad Cold-War dreams!
How different too those tended gardens,
their singular house designs
or talking freely of our country’s
sorrows, Europe and her pains,
where past grey-stirring bamboo trees
run private railway lines!
For here there’s time to climb a mountain,
gaze out from its viewing platform
far as hazed Osaka Bay –
while risen over Kansai airport
a single outbound plane
takes its disappearing roar away;
ambassador, it had seemed an echo
from the intractable conflicts near,
their self- and other-harms
news flashed across the day you’d leave;
they’re disembodied in the shadow
of this respite, pines, and palms.
Ambassador, could I paint the scene
with coasters, other inward flights,
the PA for tsunami alarms …
it would catch a water’s edge
with couples, kids, life here at play,
reaching to that tensed horizon –
as when at Kobe’s Merikan Port
towards the Inland Sea
this same horizon line stretched taut
between two lighthouse piers
and straining from its rebuilt wharves,
ambassador, eyes fill with tears.
I’m going to reveal to you, as I might if reading this poem in public, that Alastair, the dedicatee and a friend of mine—we first met in Cambridge in the 1980s when he was an undergraduate—was, until very recently, the British Ambassador in North Korea, while, as her first name suggests, his wife is from Japan, Tokyo in fact, making her a subject of the power that occupied the whole peninsula between 1910 and 1945. This has placed her, perhaps unexpectedly from a western point of view, in an even more disliked category than that of the enemy powers allied during the Korean War. From 1 April to 31 July 2017 I visited Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, Japan, on a four-month research professorship. Alastair and Ayako came to see us for a couple of nights while he was enjoying some leave away from Pyongyang.
One of the seemingly stray details in the poem’s seventh stanza recalls the sight at Suma Beach, not far from Kobe, of loudspeakers on poles, the PA system, and whether intentionally or not, those initials (for Public Address) are emblematic of what’s going on here. Certainly the tension between public role and private person is being established by the reiterated role-naming vocative ‘ambassador’ and the ventriloquizing mode of naming Ayako (‘your lady wife’), as if we were attending some official function, even though the contextual details make it evidently a private visit. We like to think of ourselves as living in open democracies, and we certainly do enjoy degrees of freedom of speech that are put into perspective by comparison with the regime in North Korea, but even for us there are shifting codes of what should and shouldn’t be said. These senses of freedom and constraint are perhaps shadowing the sketch of our casual conversations about the political ramifications of leaving the European Union, or, for that matter, the architecture, natural beauty, and infrastructure contrasts between Pyongyang and Nigawa—the comfortable Japanese suburb where we were then living, one quite substantially rebuilt in the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
The adjective ‘diplomatic’ in the title is also mildly ambiguous in that it can mean ‘referring to diplomacy’ and also point to appropriately careful speech sensitive to circumstance and the views of others. One recurrent difficulty I have had with poems has involved this liminal space between public and private spheres, and in its relation with another space, the one which overlaps between the poem and its readers, one then similarly characterized, the poet’s working space being thought of as the private, and the area of publication, understandably enough, being thought of as public—though this rather mischaracterises the unique encounter of a single reader’s subjectivity with the published text, where the poles of the argument are suddenly reversed. This entire managed contrast, as I see it, can be dissolved by concentrating attention on the nature of language, which cannot, strictly speaking, be private at all, while the spaces of inter-subjectivity are too variously dispersed across culture simply to be named as public.
Of course this space is one of negotiation by linguistic behaviour, including presumption and deference, and identifiable in contemporary parlance with a current term like ‘over-sharing’ to indicate interpersonal verbal behaviour that fails to attend to the implicit boundary where my interest in your life is stretched to breaking point by your telling me too much. ‘Diplomatic Memo’ uses its intimate mode of address to tread the bounds of such complexities, partly by momentarily trespassing into that limit area—which is then negotiated, I hope, both by the discrete punning in the word ‘diplomatic’ and the slight staginess of this poem’s mode of address. I make a point of sending poems like this to their addressees before attempting to publish them. The ambassador mildly reproved the passage referring to his schedule furrowing brow and tiring eyes.
One of the issues raised by an attention to the contrast between oblique or ambiguous and clear language performance in poems is that artworks are necessarily composed with chiaroscuro effects. The meanings of a work of art can’t be all transparently obvious. They have to be drawn out of obscurity, as it were, so that what we are doing in making art is combining together darker and lighter passages, so that the clear can be offset by, and made to stand out against, the more mysterious areas. The other reasons for this, and it links in with ‘keeping a secret by saying you’ve got one’, is that a work of art has to be, as best it can, non-exhaustible. The shorter the work, the more has to be put into it, so that a reader will want to return to re-experience this projected inexhaustibility.
In this respect, I have tended to bear in mind Ezra Pound’s remark about art being ‘news that stays news’ (Pound 1934: 29). The contrast with journalism is explicit in his observation, and such a contrast might be made even more stark by poetry which contains elements that overlap with things that tend to appear on news flashes and newspapers—such as, in ‘Diplomatic Memo’, the launching of a missile from North Korea which would overfly Japanese airspace and plummet into the Pacific Ocean. Of course, including these elements risks the poem becoming nothing more or less than a historical document, a response to a moment that has passed, though I would have to say I’m not sure the American president’s recent meetings with the North Korean leader has done enough yet to take the world away from the tension and anxiety characterised in the last few stanzas of this poem.
Topic 4. Showing the Unsayable
‘Show don’t tell’, as they say in creative writing classes, but does that mean we should show what we would otherwise be able to tell, but think it’s a better poetic strategy not to do so, or are we to show, or try to show, what we can’t otherwise put into words? Such a question goes to the heart of issues concerning poetry’s contribution to a language and its cultures.
LA CONSIDÉRATION DU RETOUR
Beside the local station platform
down drop level-crossing gates
with flashing lights, loud gongs to tell
of trains from where the arrows point:
transparent pasts and futures come
under pantographs, power-lines, pines,
and over the whole geometric tangle
there’s even a daylight moon!
Now their river’s brimful with grasses
and the swish of water flowing,
a quiet where nearly silent cars
have drivers bowing at the wheel;
it’s a quiet like nothing’s happening,
though here a schoolgirl cycles by,
hair ruffled in a firm spring breeze
troubling those tangled pines.
A plane bank-turns below that moon
as on a walk back from the bakers
past stirred heads of yellow flowers,
you ask me am I disappointed
now a black crow wings across
mocking errors through the day –
and might ask where I got my title
‘La considération du retour’ …
It was there on a patisserie display!
The prompt for this final session comes from an anecdote relating to the final proposition in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (‘Whereof man cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’) in which the mathematician Frank Ramsay is recorded as having asked the philosopher, ‘Can you whistle it then?’ The puzzle expressed in the thematic invitation for this panel session comes, more simply, from teaching creative writing classes and hearing the ‘show, don’t tell’ slogan bandied around the room. Some reasons for not wanting to ‘tell’ things in a piece of imaginative writing have already been broached here, the most prominent perhaps being that telling of this kind may effectively disable the reader-work, which requires reader-freedom, necessary for the creation of a productive response. ‘Telling’ reduces the freedom for imaginative work, and is more likely to produce a ‘reaction’—which, by contrast, suggests defending yourself against the damaging feeling of having something done to you by the poem, as distinct from doing something with it.
My own response to this creative writing cliché about ‘showing, not telling’ (no less useful as strategic advice for being a cliché), is that the aim in writing a poem, and a lyric poem especially, may not be, primarily, to show or tell anything specific but, rather, to do something. The mixture of showing and telling in a poem might better be thought of, then, as a means to a different end, and I’ll try to illustrate this with the poem above set in the vicinity of the Japanese university where we were living—Nigawa being a local station halt on the Hankyu Railway. As already suggested when discussing the previous poem, it is a comfortable suburb on each side of a river flowing precipitously down to join a larger one that eventually enters Osaka Bay.
I had spent eighteen years in Japan between 1989 and 2007, most of them with Ornella and our two daughters. They had been, at times, trying years for all of us, and when we left a great deal of effort was put into resettling ourselves in England, effort that has inevitably had psychological effects on all four of us, not all of them positive. ‘This is unfair to her without a prose book’, William Empson writes in a deleted stanza from his Japan-located poem ‘Aubade’, adding that ‘A lyric from a fact is bound to cook’. These aphoristic lines are themselves illustrations of what they propose, and require a certain amount of interpretation. The implication seems to be that if you want to tell the full story, or to show it for that matter, you will need a large number of words, and may well have to compose them in prose form, while, if you are going to write poems that come out of actual personal or historical fact, then your lyric, like a little pressure cooker, is bound (as these lines’ rhymes suggest) to ‘cook the books’. Which brings us back to the idea that it is not possible to tell the truth in poetry, this time because there’s not enough space to do it, again, something I would be inclined to challenge.
Returning to Japan for a few months after an absence of a decade naturally prompted equivocal and ambivalent responses, ones that I admit and agree might be too complicated and contradictory to readily spell out or show in a short poem. But is the intent of such short poems to mislead? As with the last line in ‘The Truth in New York’, it might be possible to think that an entire poem can, as Robert Frost put it, be ‘a momentary stay against confusion’—where the confusion is the complexity of the situation, the paradoxes and contradictions, and the stay is the form of words which bring enough coherence to the area to provide an emotional handhold on it. In this respect the role of lyric poetry can overlap with that of a joke, in which the punch line provides a release, in the laughter, of tension around just such contradictions as will need to be endured by being turned into something that may be enjoyed.
Japanese school notebooks, tote bags, clothing, advertising, and wrapping (a major part of the culture) often include the emblematic borrowing of phrases, not always accurately used, from other languages (‘the perpetual pursuit of dainty’ was at one time the slogan for a coffee shop chain). My knowledge of French, good enough to have a sense of what ‘la considération du retour’ might be meant to mean, is not good enough to say for sure whether it is correct French, or something that French people would say to mean such a thing. Nevertheless, I did find it on some paper used to display cakes at a bakery counter, and it was one of those strange moments when, especially in a country where you are reminded of your alien status on a daily basis, it seems as if the world is talking to you, or echoing your thoughts.
This seems to be, at its heart, one thing lyric poetry in our time might be for: it discovers through fresh and surprising responses to the world around us that, contrary to obvious appearances and everyday experiences, there can be, intermittently at worst, a match between self and world, inner and outer, public and private, individual and society. It should be possible, then, to feel that even in the most unlikely places the sense of home can reassert itself, and we may report not only on being alive, but can exemplify that vivid state in our poems, and invite others to share in it. What the four themes explored in this symposium also indicate is that such simple aspirations and desires turn out to include a great many complex issues, though all of them coming down, I suspect, to the difficult business of being true to our responses to things in such a way that they can be useful to others—and, most importantly, we can do this in ways which will not (at the expense of definitely failing) intimidate them, but rather will share an access to thought-filled emotion as if it were nothing more than a quiet joke.
‘Ravishing Europa’ was first published in Shearsman Magazine (Spring 2017), and ‘La Considération du Retour’ in Tokyo Poetry Journal in July 2018. ‘The Truth in New York’ appeared in The London Magazine (February/March 2019), and ‘Diplomatic Memo’ is made available here for the first time.
Culler, Jonathan 1981 The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, Ithaca: Cornell University Press
Hannan, Daniel 2016 A Doomed Marriage: Why Britain Should Leave the EU, London: Notting Hill Editions
Noorman, Judith and David De Witt (eds) 2016 Rembrandt’s Naked Truth: Drawing Nude Models in the Golden Age, Amsterdam: Rembrandt House Museum
Pound, Ezra 1934 ABC of Reading, New York: New Directions
Prynne, JH 1988 ‘English poetry and emphatical language’, Proceedings of the British Academy 74: 135–69
Rorty, Richard 1998 Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge MA: Harvard Universit Press
Williams, Bernard 2002 Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy, New Jersey: Princeton University Press