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30 May 2009

John Ashbery

An article by Nick Laird in today's Guardian Review begins with Raymond Chandler and ends with John Ashbery. My kind of article, then. It's a bit unfocussed and wandering but examines the role of metaphor in poetry. The pullquote caught my eye:
A reader faced with a difficult poem often tries to solve it, to frisk it for meaning.

which is fine, but I think the difficulty of poetry can go beyond the use of obscure metaphors. The article quotes a study on consciousness, which suggests that pattern-recognition is not just innate, but that we (and other animals) can recognise patterns in a platonic way, amd may prefer a pattern that is closer to some ideal. (He doesn't make the reference to Plato, though, and I may be misreading him.) So, in his view, poetry goes straight to some inherent understanding (he refers to Yeats' idea of spiritus mundi, and Jung's collective unconscious). He finishes with the question
Does that explain the pleasure I get from reading John Ashbery, even though I couldn't paraphrase half of it?

I've had an intermittent relationship with Ashbery's Selected Poems for some time. My copy was published by Paladin in 1987. I think I bought it because I read that Celine and Julie Go Boating was one of his favourite films. Well, that fits. And if Nick Laird really can paraphrase half of Ashbery's work, he's doing very well.
Time for a short example, chosen almost at random for its shortness. This is called "A Love Poem"
And they have to get it right. We just need
A little happiness, and when the clever things
Are taken up (O has the mouth shaped that letter?
What do we have bearing down on it?) as the last thin curve
("Positively the last," they say) before the dark:
(The sky is pure and faint, the pavement still wet) and

The dripping is in the walls, within sleep
Itself. I mean there is no escape
From me, from it. The night is itself sleep
And what goes on in it, the naming of the wind,
Our notes to each other, always repeated, always the same.

To paraphrase this, one thing you'd need to know is who "they" are, and there's not a clue. I suspect that some of this would become clear from the wider content of Ashbery's work. But probably the answer is that it doesn't matter. Similarly, the idea of the "dripping in the walls" clearly refers to something unspoken. (And for me, there's an unfortunate second meaning for dripping.) Semiotically, then, what's going on here? Words have an unknown denotation; only the connotation remains. So we've moved on from traditional poetry, in which the language describes (denotes) a recognisable object, but the way it does so connotes something more. Here, we just have the something more. At its best - and I don't know if this is such a piece - it's as direct and indescribable as music.

16 May 2009

Pessoa and Co

I'll need to brush up my Portuguese, as it seems that Fernando Pessoa embodies many of the things that are interesting me in literature at the moment. The wikipedia entry is really rather poor (and the Portuguese entry is no better) but it gives enough of the facts to realise how interesting his life and work are.

On the question of authorship, for example, Pessoa - perhaps inspired by his own name - created several heteronyms: imaginary poets, each with his own life-story and character, who therefore wrote individually. I'm not sure anyone else has done that in quite that way. Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine and Iain (M) Banks use different names for different types of books; I don't think they intend to create a different author. In Pessoa's case, the work creates the author.

Then translation. Pessoa was fluent in English, and wrote two books of English poetry. I'm reading The Book of Disquiet. One of my first thoughts was how much of an influence it's had on Saramago. Or is the fact that it's the same translator at work (the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa)? Also, the book does nothing to hide that it's a translation. It has a translator's preface, and footnotes. Here's one: the Rotunda was the name given by lisboetas (natives of Lisbon) to the Praça Marqès de Pombal.

That footnote alone could be the basis for my dissertation. First of all, we don't know if there was a footnote in the original. Probably not. Why lisboetas? That actually seems to be adding something.

And finally, there's the question of comparative literature. Portugal has an imperial history similar to Britain's: an essentially peripheral European state got lucky overseas. Portugal's decline preceded Britain's. Its literature is undervalued internationally, I think, but there seems to be a pretty clear line of development, and some great names: Camoes, Queiroz for two. Not to mention Brazilian and other lusophone literatures.

But at present my Portuguese is not quite up to it, particularly not for the critical literature. So that's my immediate aim: to be able to read fluently from Camoes to Saramago. Off to Grant & Cutler this afternoon, then.

30/5/09 Edit (as comments aren't working for some reason): Good old Evri threw up this link. Briefly, Pessoa was a friend of Aleister Crowley, to the extent of helping him fake his death. "He even earnestly explained how he had seen Crowley's ghost the next day."