The Poems of T.S. Eliot, 2 vols (London: Faber & Faber, 2015)
Denise Riley, Say Something Back (London: Picador, 2016).
Charlotte Newman, Trammel (London: Penned in the Margins, 2016)
For the Future: Poems and Essays in Honour of J.H. Prynne on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday, edited by Ian Brinton (Bristol: Shearsman, 2016)
Faber’s great new edition of T.S. Eliot’s poems edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue is a very real and lasting contribution to poetry. The notes resemble the notes to an Arden Shakespeare, product of hundreds of years of patient source and intertext hunting by a crowd of Malones and Johnsons and Orgels and Bevingtons : a superb achievement. The edition prompts a reconsideration of The Waste Land as a ‘structureless’ work (Eliot’s own teasing appraisal, to Donald Hall in 1956, of the effect of Pound’s obstetric excisions: ‘it was just as structureless, only in a more futile way, in the longer version’, qu. Ricks & McCue, vol 1, 581). The sense of the poem’s structurelessness is based on the difficulty anyone still has joining up the different voices, sections, parts and notes into anything approaching unity; also, in a contemporary theory-trained reading community, on an aversion, in any case, to any such unity at all. Still, Pound, marketing the poem, described it as the most important ‘poem sequence of that length in American, with Whitman’s Lilacs as a possible peer’ (12 March 1922 letter to Alice Corbin Henderson, quoted, Ricks & McCue, p. 558). In the ‘Bel Esprit’ appeal leaflet designed to raise funds to pay Eliot enough to enable him to quit Lloyds, Pound and John Rodker praised the poem as ‘a series of poems, possibly the finest that the modern movement in English has produced’ (quoted 558). The consensus of those who read The Waste Land at this early stage was that it was a sequence and series of poems, not one gigantic modernist monolith. This sense of the work as series and sequence was compounded by the publication history: both Pound and Eliot thought the five-part poem would be too short to be published on its own now that Pound had effectively halved its length with his editorial controlling hand. So interlude poems were added to its mix; Ricks and McCue speculate that the order of play would have run as follows:
I The Burial of the Dead
II A Game of Chess
III The Fire Sermon
IV Death by Water
“I am the Resurrection and the Life”
V What the Thunder Said (557)
The intercalated poems were then placed after the poem as we know it, then cut, and the notes became the replacement filler. Without the interlude texts, Boni & Liveright found it difficult, still, to publish The Waste Land as a long poem, since as manuscript it stretched to no more than 19 pages. As Ricks & McCue state:
in order to extend the book (which finally made 64 pages), it had to be widely line-spaced and set across a very narrow measure, so that 164 of the 433 lines were turned (compared to eight in [the 1963 Collected Poems]). TSE to John Hayward, 24 Aug 1940: ‘I dislike poetry books so narrow that long lines have to be folded over – very bad for the sense and metre’ (560)
The perplexity about the poem once stripped of interludes, and of much of the links in the chain due to the severe editing (which Pound was to feel guilty about after the war), plays to some of the gaminess that Eliot’s compositional (sub)consciousness had wanted with the poem. The unsettling game had something to do with a desire to worry the reader with the constant question, whose voice is this – and surmise about that question leads to a more puzzling, intimate attention to the lines, breeding queries about the provenance of the language. If the notes that substituted for the interludes did anything, it was to point readers to the thick allusive network the poem draws upon and distorts; even though one of Eliot’s motives (so he argued) was to forestall accusations of plagiarism due to the high quotation quotient. The Tiresias persona that the notes offered up as compositional intelligence was dramatic and double-sexed, a figure for that unsettlingly quirky multivocal Tradition at work in the text. The Tiresias voice’s female identities, and the fragmentary style of the poem more generally, draw into consideration female modernists’ daring with their play of voices and their experiments with dramatic sequencing and seriality of form – Mina Loy’s 1917 Songs for Joannes, Hope Mirrlees’s 1919 Paris: A Poem, H.D.’s 1921 Hymen.
Pound was to argue, in 1924, that the poem did have a togetherness of concept: ‘the poem seems to me an emotional unit […] perhaps intensity or poignancy of expression is as valuable as any of the other more complicated structural functionings’ (‘Communication’, in 1924: A Magazine of the Arts, Sept/Nov 1924, quoted Ricks & McCue, 570). Tiresias as a split subject enacts the playwright/actor/character fusion that enables Eliot to empty the art-work of authorial personality at the same time as dramatize, comedically, neurotically, campily, the author function as emotional drive. That dramatization stages Tiresias doing the personae in different voices, as Eliot imagined Seneca to have done with his plays. In his 1927 essay, ‘Seneca in Elizabethan Translation’, Eliot argues that Seneca’s plays ‘were written to be declaimed, probably by a single speaker […] the characters […] behave more like members of a minstrel troupe sitting in a semicircle, rising in turn each to do his “number”’ (Essays on Elizabethan Drama [New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1932], 3-55, pp. 6, 8) The effect is to generate a deliberate chaotic composition; the plays are, Eliot insists, ‘models of formlessness’ (8). It’s clear that, writing The Waste Land after the breakdown of Europe and after the breakdown of his marriage and mental health, Eliot sought to enact broken formlessness in the dramatization of a crazily fragmented sequence of vocal turns and numbers. That dramatization points both to the logically clear sequential form being abandoned (just as the free verse drifts in and out of acoustic recollection of pentameter) at the same time as staging being energized by the destructive polyvocality released by the emptied split subject (caught in acts of semi-improvisational or pointedly mechanical performance). That Eliot may have meant each of the poems’ parts to be itself a broken sequence is registerable from the fact he asked Pound whether the Phlebas the Phoenician ‘Death by Water’ section ought not to be cut after Pound’s excisions had reduced it to interlude-length. The suggestion raised by all the notes and allusive play which the Ricks/McCue edition uncovers and gathers together, so wonderfully, is that The Waste Land was written as a sequence of sequences so broken as to approach the atonality of Schoenberg's 1912 Pierrot Lunaire (which also has a single speaker surrounded by an ensemble of instrumental voices) or the proto-serial disjunctiveness of Songs of Joannes. The broken sections present the sequence as not quite recuperable as emotional unit; only as a series of sets of emotionally fractured lines that switch between agents and bodies and textual habitations as if imitating Senecan models of formlessness; also summoning ghosts of roles, ghosts of poet-personae (variously bardic, epic, lyrical, shell-shocked, music-hall comedian, supernatural, prophetic), as forms of life being abandoned by modern time. What Eliot achieved was to turn the Victorian dramatic monologue and the pseudo-epic of the long poem after The Prelude into a quasi-serial broken sequence of lines/pages. Each section trains a spotlight on an objective correlative to this process: the ‘heap of broken images’ of ‘The Burial of the Dead’; the ‘withered stumps of time’ of ‘A Game of Chess; the ‘bones cast in a little low dry garret’ in ‘The Fire Sermon’; Phlebas’s bones picked ‘in whispers’ by the current in ‘Death by Water’; the ‘fragments’ shored ‘against my ruins’ of ‘What the Thunder Said’. The Ricks/McCue edition of the poem, in detailing the sequence prehistory, and in the extraordinary notes – that match Ricks’s Tennyson in their imaginative scholarship, febrile retrospect and learning, and which suggest, prove and detail the thick allusive web haunting each line – give clear evidence of a double strategy of composition that courts multivocal proto-serial formlessness (a voicing of tradition as a chorus of the dead, unruly host of conflicting voices, turns, numbers) at the same time as signalling the forms and sequential logic that modernity is rendering obsolete.
The sequence within the modernist long poem, whether broken or not, will raise genre questions that turn on (the grounds of the possibility of) interrelations between epic and lyric. Eliot denied The Prelude was an epic, which is odd since Wordsworth’s gambit was so clearly to run his epic as a series of lyrics or lyrical encounters within sentimental history, as though in a Hegelian dialectic of the heart. The mind fuses with nature only belatedly, within a complex temporal texture, only by way of recollection and recognition; so the retrospective sublime of the long poem is constructed out of lyrical spots of time, and is always situated in a double perspective: an epic of affects now that feeds on the dead lyrics of the past; or, the past lyrical self and its experience reviving and acting again within the lines we now read. This is a flimsy base on which to found a modern epic, and so it proved to the post-Romantics. But the failure was partly the thing, and an essential part of the poignancy of it all. The mountings and trances of remembering consciousness as the lyrical moment is recalled generate sublime energies across space and time as a function of loss; so much depends on the death, and accompanying potential for resurrection, of the original experiencing consciousness and its complex of feeling within the lapsed and lost spot of time. The dialectic of loss and gain in Wordsworth redefines the Romantic epic as a series or sequence of dead lyrics recuperated from history by strong feeling. The Prelude defends its espousal of the imagination as lyric epic writing as openly and confessedly dependent upon superstitious belief in the potential for survival of past others, past selves, past obstinate questionings of the experienced world. Wordsworth shapes modernism’s late post-Romantic revision of lyric epic hybrids: The Waste Land dwells on its shattered fragments as lyric shards within a broken history of the self in postwar Europe. The obstinate question that is unresolved turns on the perplexity of the burial of the dead: how can we honour the dead if the collective community has broken down, and women find themselves divided from men, self from itself, the individual moment from past times. The lyric epic is broken too: the sequence of recalled moments that Wordsworth believed could activate the epic sublime is emptied of either individual or collective spirit, and we are left with the broken bones of the dead, and their verbal analogue, the heap of broken quotations no longer even inviting, let alone activating, a sublime mounting of the heart. The death of so many has fractured the fragile dependence of lyric epic form on old allegiances to the dead. There is irony in The Waste Land’s cold-blooded exercise of its demonstrations of this, however: the beauty and power of the lines activate feeling as if against the poem’s own grain, an unconscious or secondary lyric effect. And it is in the spectral auditory after-effects of the reading experience that the poem begins its real work, the voices emerging as real ghosts from the wreckage, in strange counter-harmony, bringing into being difficult elegy too for those once close.
It is in this twisted tradition of the post-Romantic lyric, as broken, as in quotation marks, as lost to the voices of the lost, and yet generating affect as if at two or three removes, that we can approach Denise Riley’s elegy for her son, A Part-Song, published in the Say Something Back collection (London: Picador, 2016). The collection as a whole ponders loss of all kinds, and returns again and again in separate lyrics to the son’s cruel death, and streams these elegies within a texture of works on the secrecies of the body, on the labour of abandonment by lover, kin, time itself: a collection that redefines the lyric as probing, subtle music of the mind. The title of the sequence that concerns me here, ‘A Part Song’, equivocates between the musical sense (choral music setting songs written in parts, as with Vaughan Williams’ setting of ‘Full Fathom Five’), a technical self-reflexive sense (the sequence is only partly successful as lyric), and a psychoanalytic sense (as in part-object, the lyric presented as an arena for splitting, projection and introjection as though the language were material object, partly). ‘Part’ as role, the role of mourner, of wailing banshee, or Persephone-mother from the elegiac tradition, is also alluded to; as is, of course, the sense of the sequence as parts making up a whole. But it is as a chance mistake that the dominant meaning emerges, as acoustic echo: ‘A Part-Song’ is an apart song, a song about separation, and the loss that the radical apartness of death imposes. These various meanings do not coalesce as in a tricksy pun; but work on us as the poem is absorbed, recalled when we read along our way through the separate twenty parts of the sequence: ‘might there still be some part for me / To play upon this lovely earth?’; ‘your voice is echoey, / / Maybe tuned out by the noise / Rolling through me’; ‘the pale / Blaze of living on alone’. The parts point to a whole which is itself a part-object, a construct of parts that rolls through the poem as a thing of shreds and patches, incomplete, addressed to a blank unresponsive dearly departed other, imparted but torn apart by the injunctions of elegy, by the demands of the affects, by the role-playing poetry assumes. The scandal of elegy is the need to communicate to the dead in public so as to be overheard and over-read by the uncomprehending living. It is also a test of character in the strict sense that the poet must render herself abject and unworthy precisely because of the desperate need. She figures herself at the funeral monument and mound imagined in the fifth song as a ’denatured thing’ and ‘fat-lot-of-good mother’ whose one eye ‘rummages / Into the mound’, whilst the other ‘swivelled straight up’, parodying the elegist-mother as exiled between earth and sky, seeking the body and soul of the dead, in such crazy comedic carnivalesque that seeks both to do penance for survival through public self-loathing, and importantly to communicate through comedy not tragedy, to reach beyond the flat plangencies to entertain the memory and dead presence of her son. Maybe the shame and comic embarrassment of poetry as public display is the price to pay for the effort to cross the line. Hyper-awareness of the Oedipal bond and psychoanalytic knowledge does not help: Klein’s good mother bad mother is replaced by the ‘fat-lot-of-good mother’, as though offering herself up as pointless and hopeless could resurrect with raillery the good mother the part-object and part-song is so knowingly understood to have sacrificed. Elegiac lyric is ridiculed in the first song as foolishly theatrical (‘Perking up under any spasmodic light / To trot out your shadowed warblings’), as meretricious and trashy (‘Flap thinly, sheet of beaten tin’), as unread by an indifferent public. And yet the songs are written, and that ‘and’ is pure supplement, without content, as we read in the second song, which acknowledges the uselessness and inadequacy of a poetry that hopes to protect us from the reality of death, or even a poetry that would recuperate something through satirizing that desire: ‘Neither my note nor my critique of it / Will save us one iota. I know it. And.’ That floating ‘and’, though end-stopped and killed by the full stop, and haunted by the possibility of scorn (as in ‘And so?’), dangles before us (in the white space beyond the stanza) ‘and yet’ – and yet…
The sequence moves in and out of line with the apart song cluster of expectations, and most movingly dares to resurrect sequential narrative shape as a hope beyond hope, against the drive of its knowledge of the acrid bitter skepticism about art and death. The sequence ends with a nod to The Waste Land as broken elegy about discarded roles in modernity’s glare and as self-parodying anti-sequence: ‘She do the bereaved in different voices’. The dark turn on the self as mother mourner continues with a bitter and super-theatricalized confession that the whole exercise has been to ‘prod / And shepherd you back within range / Of my strained ears’. The confession allows for the self-mockery to hold within its inverted commas the loving desperation that would merely hope that poetry, as the art of the sound of words on paper (so an art of spooky survival as text beyond body and soul, as W.S. Graham might argue), might provide a posthumous spacetime where echoes of the spooky sounds may be taken to be responses from beyond the grave. The last song, the twentieth part, in italics, is in his voice, singing as from full fathom five, in notes and words that touch because they play the same self-cancelling yet still plangent music of the mother in loving echo. ‘O let me be, my mother / In no unquiet grave’. The two lines play their contradictions out in a quiet music of double cancellation (as in ‘no unquiet’) which offers up the play of meanings and sounds as fragile continuance of dialogue, even though enclosed in the weird non-time of elegy and mourning and dead elegiac gestures. The ‘O’ of apostrophe to the dead is turned into its echo, as the supplication so desired from the ‘[s]trangely unresponsive son’. He desires both to be left alone, and to be allowed to be; and then again the mother is given a true task as the line dissolves into the next: let the son’s being be in the grave; ensure that the resting-place of his afterlife is not disturbed, can reach peace, a peace sayable as a summoning of bond (‘my mother’), as a summoning of the lyrical beauty of composition and quiet decomposition beyond poetry as currently understood – the poetry that can dare to write these lines imaging her son’s remains: ‘I drift as lightest ashes / Under a southern sea’. The lines redeem Phlebas the Phoenician, take one back to ‘Full Fathom Five’ , resurrect a lost elegiac making. The different voices discover the delicacy and tact of loving voicing even and importantly as impersonation of the dead: bond-restoring, hearted, lyrical, the lines ask us as strangely unresponsive onlookers to feel again what the dead might say, at the edge of our hearing, through the thickening shades of our times. Let these extraordinary part songs be / in no unloving hearts.
The elegiac sequence, one might surmise from reading Denise Riley, is not alive and kicking, merely lively and dead. ‘A Part Song’ reads not as formally broken, as The Waste Land is; but as broken by grief despite and in resistance to the shamefully neat shaping and patterning of poetic form inevitable in any sequenced elegy, especially an elegy which hopes its parts will conjure up a living speaking whole from beyond. And yet. What if the shade were to say something back. What if the elegiac sequence with all its ‘[m]awkish modes of reedy piping’ were to cohere, fitfully, unbelievably, as bereaved voice. Unlikely, you say. And.
Charlotte Newman’s first collection, Trammel, holds as dark a view of the world now, and turns to political saeva indignatio as a manner of proceeding. Three sections in this extraordinary debut, Disobedience, Disarmament and Dissent, move against the enemy with a host of techniques and martial arts, correlatives to the three mesh systems of the dragnet trammel designed to entrap prey. It is wit of the Swiftian kind that is the enmeshing agent of the work, seeking to trick and entrammel the purveyors and merchants of suffering. One short sequence in the collection, ‘Amuse as a Martyr’, is a shocking display of the enemy’s voices and aesthetics of secret violence; the enemy here the torturers of the world. The three sections are made up of ten three-beat couplets, visually recalling Swift’s tetrametre couplets, whilst in action sounding the notes of densely compacted, wit-larded, dictionary-bred music within a Creeley-like form. The sequence explores its theme (torture of martyrs as entertainment) with grim medico-military sang-froid, doing the torturers in different voices:
Turn insides real after the fact.
Ignorant swab missed absence
Harkened screams ill fit
for purpose, speed on a winding
shale. The mouth is
an ulcered medium; altered
states let gynos preen with
The clinical gaze is enacted as doctored language, merging locutions (the first line fusing bits and pieces from ‘turn inside out’, ‘turn aside’, ‘accessory after the fact’, ‘real facts’), filtering the experiences of the torture chamber through crossword clue obliquities of register and diction. The target shifts as does the slippery censoring procedures of the representations. Through the white noise emerge the doctors who attend to the torture victims; the Guantanamo reports; the secret state papers; the men of violence glimpsed in occluded shards of information. The poem’s three sections drag a trammel net of satire across the language of state-sponsored violence, capturing the modus operandi of the experts of political pain. This is very impressive political writing indeed, and finds steely-eyed purposes for a poetry that targets the aesthetic driving through violent injustices across the globe. The form reflects, too, on its own processes, and seeks to understand, with full consciousness, its own aesthetics and its tradition. If The Waste Land stages broken sequence as the space where tradition erupts in the insides of the individual talent, so Charlotte Newman’s lines explore the origins of the exquisite intricacy of state biopower:
wrack their mistress
neat and kind, swell histopathology
tells you, father, tacit
with learning, adverse
where you lean your leucocytes,
how hard it is to hit
the hand Baroque built
The medical complicity in secret violence, and the science of the study of the victims and their insides, these lines suggest, draw their tradition from baroque-era science; but as sinister, also from the patriarchal traditions of sado-masochistic representation of female and feminized victims in the tradition of baroque’s excessive elaboration of Petrarchan conventions. How hard, indeed, to hit the hand Baroque built – this poem achieves it with the sinuous intelligence of its deployments and the contained anger of its satire.
J.H. Prynne would not relish playing double act to Eliot’s modernist post-traumatic charade as edited by Ricks and McCue; yet his many disciples are beginning to pore over his texts with the care and exactitude lavished on Eliot. This has a certain logic to it, since Prynne’s 135-page notes to Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’ (Field Notes: 'The Solitary Reaper' and Others [Privately printed, 2007]) or his 86-page notes to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 (‘They That Haue Powre to Hurt: A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speare’s Sonnets, 94 [Privately printed, 2001]), took the Empsonian close reading of lines to another level, cross-cutting social, political and cultural information with finicky, meticulous and extremely wide-ranging forms of close attention to detail, luminously erudite and penetrating weighing of meanings and counter-meanings according to a bewildering set of discursive fields. As an example, Matthew Sperling and Thomas Roebuck have read ‘The Glacial Question, Unresolved’ as though impersonating Prynne: theirs is proffered as a ‘specimen commentary’, so explicitly mimicking the sonnet 94 hyper-analysis (just as Prynne mimicked Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s close reading of sonnet 94, which mimicked Empson’s). Each of their notes tracks Prynne’s reading in 19th century geology and other disciplines, argues for and against equivocations with post-Empsonian panache and theorized scholarship. A comparable act of homage is performed by Michael Tencer on Prynne’s 1971 poem on the death of Celan, ‘Es Lebe der König’, published in Shearsman’s excellent 80th birthday celebration volume of essays and poems edited by Ian Brinton, For the Future (with contributions by, among others, John Wilkinson, Peter Gizzi, Peter Riley, Iain Sinclair, Rod Mengham, John James and many others). The editorial work does fine work following the allusive trail to the Old Testament, to Celan’s poetry, to Prynne’s corpus, to possible intertexts such as Geoffrey Hill’s Tenebrae, Büchner, Holocaust trauma studies. The notes split the poem up into parts, in a sense sequencing the lines as nodes of potential language-making and knowledge. Tencer reflects on his own work and distinguishes it from the editing one might associate it with:
The following materials […] should not be regarded as annotations, ‘decrypting’ the poem via a meticulous and reductive literalism. They consist, instead, of a small portion of the historical, etymological and literary context relating to the poem’s vocabulary. They are also considered alongside apposite suggestions or speculations made by the poet, his critics, and critics of Celan.
A certain nervousness can be registered here in the awkwardness of the humble gesture – can one portion out context? And are the notes really only concerned with vocabulary? I cannot really see why honest editorial toil to uncover true sources and intellectual contexts, as well as acknowledging the current state of Prynne scholarship, need be hedged about with so many knives. These are annotations, and good ones, valuable in providing a lens through which to read back to the difficult contexts of the 1970s, and explore the impact of the death of Celan on the poetry of these islands.
[Adam Piette is author of Imagination at War, Remembering and the Sound of Words, and The Literary Cold War. He is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, and co-editor of Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen.]
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