Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Durs Grünbein and The Vocation of Poetry – Part II

This post follows on from the last but one.  There was too much of Grünbein’s 60-page booklet to cover in a single piece.  The Vocation of Poetry is published by Upper West Side Philosophers, in a translation by Michael Eskin: I’m putting that information here, at the beginning, as I want to give Grünbein the last word.  See the final sentence for why. 

Buy this one...
Also, it’s worth saying something I didn’t know when I wrote the earlier piece. Having lost my Faber copy of Grünbein’s selected poems in English, Ashes for Breakfast, and finding it hard to replace, I ordered the US edition instead (publ Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, available from Foyles). I was delighted to find that this contains a parallel German/English text.  Unlike the Faber edition, which is staidly, meanly monoglot.  For anyone who reads even a little German, having access to the original poems is hugely preferable – especially as there is no equivalent German-only Selected containing the same poems. 

Now, over to Grünbein.  He moves, in his essay ‘Outline of a personal psycho-poetics’, from the gutter:

Language is one of the few non-exclusive artistic media…  The poet looking for raw material has to make do with a waste product that only few pay any particular attention to at all: no sooner used than already discarded…

to the stars –

What counts is the one, unattended second, the moment of inspiration that can never be forced and decides all.  It gives the beginning, it sets in motion the production of sense.  The poem is the literary form that most purely captures this moment of inception.  I might even go so far as to say that poetry is in large part born from the desire to start over as often as possible. 

That second passage seems to me about as perfect a statement on poetry as is possible. And the last sentence gave me a pleasurable shock of recognition.  It doesn’t necessarily only apply to poetry, of course – re-reading it, I think of walking along gallery walls, looking at one Howard Hodgkin painting after another, one after another starting-over.  If the impact of certain painters could be considered more akin than others to the impact of poetry, then Hodgkin would be one, for me.  Maybe it’s the semi-abstract nature of his paintings. Here’s the end of a poem of Grünbein’s, 'Monological Poem #2', translated by Micheal Hoffman, from Grauzone Morgens (1988):

  Gedichte                                  Poems

aufgeschrieben in diesen              written at those
seltsamen Augenblicken da          odd times when

irgendetwas noch Ungewisses      something still inchoate
ein Tagtraum eine einzelne          a daydream a single

Zeile von neuem anfängt und       line begins somewhere and

dich verführt.                              undoes you.

Grünbein also discusses in that same essay the effect on his poetic development of the end of the Warsaw Pact and German reunification: 

A sense of dislocation, of slipping into an unknown, ‘enormous room’… [a] new phenomenon: the unbounded, permeable ‘I’… I felt as though I had crawled out from under the debris of a mass collision of historical proportions, slightly scraped, yet a new man.

He claims that he found his voice then.  Having read a few of his earlier poems, I’m not convinced… maybe it just got stronger, and took on a great breadth of subject matter. 

...but not this one.
The title of the fourth essay, ‘On the Place Value of Words’, refers to the need for each word to find its proper place in a poetic line.  “Poets are people who have internalised the emergence of words at the right moment as the key task of their art.”  There are entertaining and acute paragraph-length pieces on different aspects of the art of poetry. The essay is full of aphorisms.  These range from the gnomic, “The future of poetry lies in the sentence”, to the more straightforward, “You don’t look for rhyme, you find it”. 

The final essay, ‘Parenthesis for Optimists’, contains a rousing defence of poetry in modern times - it could be prescribed reading for any disheartened writer of poetry, which must surely be all of them, at least sometimes. 

To those who take it seriously, who live by it, [poetry] is a method, a guide to thinking and feeling with precision.  It deals with the foundations of the imagination without which there would be no science… It can only maintain its integrity if it makes as few concessions to the communicative use of language as possible.  Its goal is to put language into a dream state.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

J H Prynne on poetic inspiration

J H Prynne gave a lecture at Sussex University last week.  I went along with friends who live in Lewes.  Two of us walked there over the South Downs, up a long ridge and down a spur.  We arrived at dusk with boots whitened by chalk mud.  Universities after dark are strange places.  60 or so people in a large, grimly fluorescent lecture theatre, somewhere on an emptied-out campus. 

We went out of curiosity, I suppose, and to be entertained... I’d rather have got JHP the poet, but the academic satisfied both motives.  One would have cast him for the part: tall, thin, black velvet jacket, energetic, deploying a fair amount of academic wit and charm.  One would have cast the audience, too, lots of intense young men (mostly) in an array of woolly jumpers.  The faculty didn’t seem to have turned out for the occasion, apart from Keston Sutherland who gave a rather sweetly adulatory introduction.  
The lecture was called 'The Poet's Imaginary'.  Prynne told us he was floating an idea that he hadn’t tested or researched.  His starting point was the imaginary friend that some small children have. Such friendships involve conversation, sometimes out loud, though they may start in the pre-language phase.  Could the adult poet’s inspiration come from a similar or successor relationship, an internal dialectic with an inwardly generated other?  This other, the imaginary, would come (or not) when the poet sharpens his/her pencils, clearing the mind to write.  The relationship would be like a real life one, sometimes friendly, sometimes more difficult, not necessarily life-long.  Indeed real life close literary collaborations (Wordsworth/Coleridge etc) might have a similar effect. 

That’s a rudimentary account.  It may be inaccurate.  (I made a few notes on the trains home, by which time I was full of good Lewes bitter, proof against the cold of various station platforms.)  Prynne had some fun with his idea; he also clothed it, at times, in the language of lit crit. There was a subtext on class and education.  There was politics outside too – somewhere on campus was the student occupation, supported by Prynne, in protest at a plan to privatise various university services and facilities. 

I liked the domestic nature of the imaginary.  It’s good to bring the muse down from the mountains and, as Prynne said, take the religion and mysticism out of poetic inspiration.  I’m not sure he used that latter term at all.  I also liked the tracing back to the solitariness of childhood; apparently, elder siblings and only children are more likely to have an imaginary friend.  (During questions, it emerged that one young man had had several.)

Beyond that, the imaginary didn’t resonate with me as an explanation for where poems come from.  I never had an imaginary friend, and the event of inspiration doesn’t feel like dialectic.  It’s more like an underground river surfacing.  The river’s usually so far down that I can hardly believe it exists, and occasionally near enough the surface for me to have one ear constantly listening for it. 

One questioner quoted W S Graham’s “What is the language using us for?”  That resonates. 

In the pub afterwards, the imaginary didn’t really work for anyone in an unrepresentative sample of four.  One person said it reminded him of a teddy bear relationship he’d had, though – maybe imaginary friends can take various shapes.  A couple of people in Prynne’s audience who asked questions about animals could have been thinking of Philip Pullman’s daemons. 

I wanted to know why Prynne had come up with this theory.  Did he have an imaginary friend himself when small?  Does inspiration feel like dialectic for him?  I did ask, in the Q&A session at the end, and Prynne gracefully declined my question (twice) and said something else interesting instead.  Fair enough.  Pocket-sized copies of Pearls That Were were on sale.  I asked him to sign mine and got a dedication in the most beautiful black-ink italic script: “This book is for Fiona, who knows how to ask a difficult question”.  I chose to take this as charming, rather than patronising.  The students were all too cool to ask for a signature; or, as one of my companions thought, too scared.

Anyway, next time I read JHP the poet, his imaginary will be there in the background. 

See here for more on the poetry, and some links.  This is from Pearls that Were:

So Orpheus tamed the wild beasts
   for long night comes down
moving naked, over the wound,
   the gem from the crown.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Durs Grünbein and The Vocation of Poetry – Part I

The Vocation of Poetry (no italics available for blog headings) is pocket-sized, a book of essays, the whole thing under 60 pages.  Ideal for journeys across London, or any city where the ritual of public transport is observed.  A few stops on the train, transfer to the tube, change tube line, maybe finish the journey by bus… and with the walking either end that’s conducive to thought.    

This small book contains the most illuminating reflections on a life of writing poetry.  It is exotic, if one is unused to this subject being addressed from a tradition that’s not English-speaking; the turns of thought and points of reference are different.  The translation plays a part too – it has retained a foreignness.  Another factor is that almost the first three decades of Grünbein’s life were spent in East Germany, a country that no longer exists. 

This we recognise straight away; in the second sentence of the book, we are already in Thuringia.  The title of the first essay, ‘The Puzzle Master’, refers to Grünbein’s grandfather, who was a crossword-setter for East German newspapers.  We get a page on his background (prisoner of war in the Soviet Union) and the politics of crosswords. “His words, too, were put behind bars; but at least you could watch them in isolation, like rare animals in a zoo.”  He involved his grandson in the work. 

Before I even knew it, my grandfather had ensnared me in a universal game of memory… one where you had to bring your own images and symbols to the game.  And there it was – that electrifying prickle, that appetite for words.  Whenever I experience it even today I feel like Adam about to name every living creature…   The individual ‘word-as-nerve-center’ in the great crossword of the unconscious – that’s what woke me up at a single stroke, making me receptive anew to the world and its myriad manifestations insofar as they were accessible through language.  It was the beginning of an unconscious excitation which, I believe, led me directly to poetry.
He had infected me with his passion for collecting something that lay on the streets, so to speak, and belonged to everyone and no one.

In the second essay, ‘Beyond the Avant-Gardes’, Grünbein discusses the state of poetry in the second half of the 20th century, after modernism.  He summarises a particular perspective in a couple of pages. The whole of this passage is in the past, and Grünbein does not answer the question, What now?  Whatever one’s opinion of the perspective, it’s worth hearing him in full flow.

Who would have now dared, in good conscience, to echo Baudelaire in calling poetry the antidote to the sin of banality?  In hindsight, one could speak of an impoverishment of expression.  At the time, however, this impoverishment was hailed as a democratic achievement… Poetry had broken into the world of current affairs and was suddenly open to any subject, a repository for all social ills.  It had become a daily fast-food item that helped to digest and metabolise banality into permanence…   The sway of poetry as ‘supreme fiction’ (in Wallace Stevens’ and Stefan George’s senses) was forever broken.

In the third essay, ‘Outline of a Personal Psycho-Poetics’, he talks about influences. It’s common enough to find poets writing in English, especially Americans, citing Baudelaire, Rimbaud etc as influences (on themselves or others), but how many go beyond the French symbolists, and maybe the occasional mention of Rilke or Hölderlin?  I was delighted to find that the young Grünbein tried to write like Hölderlin for a while.  (He then tried to write like Rilke.)  But I’d only heard of Johannes Bobrowski, described here as a 20th-century Hölderlin, from reading Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry.  Then there’s Novalis, Georg Trakl, Georg Heym, Annette Droste-Hülshoff, Jakob von Hoddis, Gottfried Benn, Rudolf Borchardt… etc…  Names (shamefully) only half-known, a few never heard before, a whole parallel world to be discovered.  Oh, and the French symbolists.  Paul Celan is named not as an influence, though surely he must have been, but as an outstanding 20th century figure.  He should be so named in every survey in English. 

‘Influence’ is too definitive a word, though:

Among artists who keep their eyes peeled influences play out mostly on the subconscious level… You take nothing directly from others.  The poetic trade is not an import-export business, you only take along what you consider valuable on your own journey. 

Grünbein writes about his development against the background of living in the GDR, stuck there, not knowing the world outside.  His teenage hinterland was an area of messy countryside near Dresden (of all places), used for military exercises.  One day a pigeon flew out right by him, so he could feel the wind of its wings on his face – this “set something in motion that hasn’t stopped working to this day and became a template for many a future (and much more consequential) moment of epiphany”.  Interesting that it was a flight – an escape – which “illuminated my entire being in a flash”.  

He says this, about that experience: “I suddenly felt the uncanny at the heart of my surroundings”. He quotes from a much later poem, ‘Trigeminal’:

Unthinkable for a child riding his new bike
Not to wave at the distant Kyrgyz in the watchtower,
The Siberian guard behind the wire fence, so close.
Everywhere, there were crime scenes, gray regions. A cold atlas
Grew along your scalp, across your neck and forehead,
Following every facial nerve stimulated by the rain,
Until you recognised the roaring from within: the East,
The leaden rivers, the flats, the permafrost,
All that was big and lost, sprawling to Vladivostok.
Every shot drew a line through the open space…

Of the pigeon, he says:  
The pigeon embodied a yearning that would soon turn into an obsessive dream of flight and, subsequently, into the fixed idea of being capable of overcoming not only national borders and concrete walls but even the constraints of space-time itself – an idea that poetry alone was powerful enough to make real.

This is a poet who will not stay hiding in the cornfield, but will break out and soar.  His ambition for poetry marks this book.  Which, although small on the outside, is so big inside that I can’t say, or (especially) quote, everything I want in one blog post.  I’ll write about it again.  See here for part II.

It’s also not very accessible, unless you want to read it as an ebook – see the price online.  It’s not in the London Poetry Library, at least not yet...  Why has no-one published it in the UK?  Are we still so insular?  Does the current interest in poetry in translation (Poetry Parnassus, MPT, Bloodaxe etc) not extend to poetics? 

There’s far more of Grünbein’s prose in English online than his poetry.  There’s one poem here.  Ashes for Breakfast, his selected poems in English, translated by Michael Hofmann, published by Faber, seems to be out of print though is variously available online, not only from tax-avoider Amazon.  My copy has disappeared – has anyone out there borrowed it, by any chance? 
The Vocation of Poetry is published by Upper West Side Philosophers, in a translation by Michael Eskin.  

Dresden, February 1945. Grünbein was born there in 1962. Photo UK national archive.