Collage by David Hickman

John Armstrong

The View and the Point

I'd like to start with a fairly straightforward proposal, the currently parlous state of poetry is due to the sad fact that there is too much view and too little point. I intend to present a tentative exploration of this proposal by looking at poems from a wide body of work on a compare and contrast basis.

First, a definition, this is Ezra Pound in 1913:
"Don't be 'viewy' - leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays. Don't be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it."
I know that there are very many things that we can argue with Pound about but he knew more than most about the poet's task. I'm in total agreement that too much viewiness is a very bad thing, I think 'painter' can be substituted with 'historian', 'geographer', 'neuroscientist' 'social theorist' and a range of others with equal accuracy.

As well as viewiness, I'd like to think about the pointful which needs (in my definition) to be considered as being at the opposite end of 'pointless' as in futile, without relevance or without a discernible objective.

I hope that I'm not going to indulge in a rant over the absence of point and the surfeit of view because I think the problem is much more nuanced than that, nor am I suggesting that I'm in some way correct about what follows. It is however by intention to stimulate other readers to use these particular perspectives.

We'll start with the landscape poem and one of it's finest proponents, Sir Geoffrey Hill. Hill is a controversial figure who probably repels more than he attracts but most readers, of whichever camp, would agree that he can 'do' a good poem of rural place. This is Offertorium: Suffolk, July 2003 which was published in the Without Title collection in 2006:

Even in a sparse county there is dense settling
and an unsettling that surfaces here or here
via the low levels, the tide-spiked rivers,
lanesides overendowed by sovereign fern,
the crowned stalks I call hemlock, with poppie's
                                massed vagrancy,
rough forms of mallow, rose's battered shells.
A wood pigeon hauls into late take off,
self-snatched from truck wheels. Abundant hazards,
being and non-being every fleck through which
                                this time affords
unobliterate certainties hidden in light.
Now, if we apply the Pound test, it is possible to imagine a painter or (even) a photographer putting together the tide-spiked rivers, the plants and the ferns and the wood pigeon's narrow escape and to do these things in a way that is informed by both learning and experience. What painters/photographers would have difficulty with is the last sentence because this is both a view about what might be going on and an abstraction. We'll come to this in a moment but I want to think first about the language used to describe this sparse county because they seem picked to be visual and original. We have rivers that are said to be 'tide-spiked' which is both a striking turn of phrase and visually strong; it expresses / conveys something both dynamic and aggressive, potentially violent. I'm therefore preferring to think of it as a reference to this particular county's vulnerability to flooding from tidal surges.

Because I have the attention span of a juvenile gnat, I like poetry in part because it does compression well and (when it's good) it does this with honed precision that generally isn't found in other forms of expression. I can't think of a pictorial, visual way to express this vulnerability in so succinct a manner. This may well be because I have no experience of painting but it does seem to me that a picture of a flood, even in the abstract, would be mostly about the flood rather than the vulnerability. It then occurs to me that Pound might be wrong unless he's referring to landscape for landscape's sake, if there is such a beast.

However, before we move on to others, I'd like to pay some attention to wonder briefly about the vagrancy of these poppies. The term is generally taken to mean an act or state of wandering about, usually surviving by means of begging. This may or may not be an oblique allusion to the wandering of the poppy, as the key ingredient in heroin, from Afghanistan to Europe but I'm still having difficulty as to how such an image could be part of this picture. Do poppies move about? In my mind (which might be completely wrong) they tend to cluster together.

I'm also finding it hard to visualise this self-snatched pigeon, especially as it probably reflects the poet's ongoing interest in 'selving'. It's also a contradiction, things that are snatched require some other person, animal or thing to do the snatching. I do however know what he means, as a motorcyclist I've had the faceful of truck experience where rapid acceleration (snatching yourself away) is the only way of avoiding a collision.

We finish thinking about this poem with the view and the point. These would both appear to be contained in the final sentence and this is almost too abstract for anyone to grasp. Lines of this sort are what get Hill into trouble with some of his critics because they sound wilfully obscure and are not at all helped by the syntax that is used. We can begin to make some sense by looking at some of the nouns: being; nonbeing; time; certainty and light. One of Hill's main subjects is his Christian faith and all of these would 'fit' into a theological view. Bringing the title into this equation, I have to report that 'offetorium' was not a term that was familiar to me and that I needed the bounties of the interweb to discover that it is the latin word for 'offertory' or the time when the mass paraphernalia are put away and alms are collected from the congregation.

So is Hill committing two of Pound's cardinal sins viewiness and landscape or is there something else going on? The last sentence sounds profound and clever and 'deep' but this is where my cynicism kicks in, in poetry many (many) things sound better than they are and poets often use faux profundity to conceal the fact that they haven't got very much to say. Pound again:
"Use either no ornament or good ornament".
This particular sentence is ornamental, the question is whether it's any good. 'Unobliterate' isn't a word that has an entry in the OED and we are therefore left to surmise whether this is:
• an instruction to restore certainties that have been obliterated
• a description of certainties that have been restored in the past;
• a description of certainties that cannot be obliterated.
Knowing Hill as I do, my guess is on the last of these because it best fits with the mystical bent of 'hidden in light' which is another contradiction. It is not my intention to unpick this any further because I think we can already file it under 'viewily pointful' in that it expresses a mystico-theological view but it is also an exercise in compressing complex things into a few lines and is therefore more pointful than pointless.

Returning finally to the title,it may or may not be significant that Hill, in one of his essays enthusiastically quotes Hopkins as saying that one of the functions of the artist or poet is to 'give alms' as an expression of solidarity.

With regard to viewiness, I'm a non-Hitchins atheist and thus I can't agree or disagree with whatever point this is making because I know that religious belief is inherently absurd. I can congratulate myself on knowing the importance of alms giving but I'm also very comfortable with not knowing what Hopkins meant by it. However I can observe that this kind of viewy sentence is an example of the problem: it is obscure, smacks of elitism and says something that (probably) nobody cares very much about. It also confirms the civilian's view of the poetry business.

We now move swiftly on to the politically viewy and its point. To do this I'm going to give equal 'weight' to Keston Sutherland's Stress Position and the political view. SP is ostensibly a rant against the recent imperialist adventures in Iraq and the use of torture by the West and its allies. This obviously scores highly in generic viewiness but is oddly redeemed in other ways because of additional material and (mostly) verbal brilliance.

This is from the third and final part:

        What goes on in your head? Or up but won't come down? I
walk into that bathroom a man and come out a black pyramid,
         reeking of extorted black spunk. Cheney and Rumsfeld Inc.
trinken und trinken. Why put it any more discriminatingly than that?
A few words of explanation, earlier in SP our poet is gang raped by a group of American soldiers in the toilets in the Baghdad McDonald's and 'trinken und trinken' means 'drink and 'drink' and is used as a kind of coda in Paul Celan's Todesfugue which is thought by many to be the finest poem arising from the Holocaust. Cheney and Rumsfeld were two of the morons-in-chief during the G W Bush presidency and the 'Inc' is probably there to denote the amount of money spent on private thugs security personnel throughout those halcyon days.

The views here are many but most of them have at their root a fundamental antiAmerican critique of both its culture and what passes for its foreign policy. Todesfugue has been thought of as the most fitting response to Adorno's view that the Holocaust renders all art impossible. "Trinken und trinken" is used on four occasions, this is the last:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
So, the view might be more complex but it remains a view that most of us will be able to agree with:

1. American imperialism is a bad thing
2. Slavery and its consequent racism is a bad thing
3. Anti-Semitism is a bad thing

It is reasonable and worthy to suppose that Empire has to raid and occupy smaller countries in order to remain imperial just as it can be shown how slavery has been a central feature of some empires. What is more difficult is to tie this in with anti-Semitism which has persisted with various degrees of virulence for the last 2000 years. What's also quite tricky is the black spunk / black milk which borders on the offensive and doesn't actually work and fails to be redeemed by the 'discriminatory' quip.

I probably need to point out that I think Stress Position is one of the best poems of this century, but I'm of that view not only because of its verbal brilliance and dexterity but also because it has a passage of prose which accurately and from the inside describes an aspect of my experience of mental health, and because it gives a key role to Black Beauty, the horse from the eponymous story by Anna Sewell. It is however far too viewy because others can express those views with greater effect. SP is not in any way pointless because it moves the possibilities of English poetry in new and exciting directions.

The Pointful and Strategy.

The notion of the point is bound up with strategic direction. My goals are straightforward, I want a poetry that is relevant to public concerns, is read by a more diverse group of readers and within but against the tradition. Inward-looking poetry that is irrelevant to wider concerns and refuses to question the rut that it is in is never going to get anywhere in the world regardless of how much it admires itself - it is without point. This of course has nothing to do with technical merit which is often a characteristic of pointless work.

Critical Pointlessness.

Here I am tempted to identify some of the prominent journals, web platforms and critics who seem to specialise in the futile. I won't do this because I don't want to personalise what I have to say.

First of all, there is the blindingly obvious fact that any cultural grouping that mostly converses with itself isn't going to get very far, it is instead going to perpetuate and refine arguments (discourse) that most people find both mysterious and irrelevant. There are a number of ways that this sad state of affairs has come about but the prime one appears to me to be the collegeification of the subject. This isn't completely the fault of creative writing courses but also the way that criticism is taught and thus passed on to the next generation as the appropriate way to read.

This wouldn't be a problem if criticism was confident of itself instead of relying on other disciplines to produce the theoretical basis for its work. Instead what we get is second-rate parasites delighting in their ability to piggy back philosophy, theology, social sciences etc which then gets taught with complete disregard for the 'point' of the genre.

The primary feature of the poem is that it isn't prose, followed by the fact that it can do things that prose can't and the 'point' therefore is to do things in ways that refine and modify this feature in new and exciting ways as an extension of the past rather than a rejection of it. The current pervading futility is universally characterised by an almost wilful refusal to ask the 'point' of every poem in these terms and a delight is theorising about provenance and 'context'.

I'll give one brief example from my own readerly experience, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene is a magnificent epic written in a unique form and deploying what can only be described as a bonkers use of language. The story contains some references to Ireland which was at the time an English colony. Spenser also wrote a prose treatise on the Irish 'problem' which just fell short of advocating genocide. For the last twenty years critics have seized on this context and ignored what the poem does as a poem and how it does it. This is a small tragedy because it completely ignores every single aspect of the poet's intention and misleads the reader into a completely false perspective.

The Pointless Poem

We now come to the John Ashbery problem. This is comprised almost entirely in the absence of point. It is of course compounded by his popularity amongst the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic. I speak as a reader who continues to read what he publishes primarily because I can't work out how he's got away with it so long. I understand and appreciate the Rothko maxim that if you've found something that sells then you should stick with it, but Ashbery's status in the non poem world is a strategic disaster.

This isn't the place to re-hash the critical debate about Ashbery's merit, it is the place to point out that his work for the last twenty years (at least) has been utterly void of point. In a poet of lesser status this wouldn't matter as much but many people read the hagiography and assume that his work represents the peak of current poetic endeavour. Of course this isn't and has never been the case. His carefully wrought jouissance is pleasant enough and the inclusion of oddness can be entertaining but we can't ever ignore the utter futility of his work. Ashbery gets away with this in part because he's never been worried about meaning, in fact he is virulent in his opposition to meaning. As a reader, I'm okay with this but I do wish he'd pushed himself a little harder.

Of course, every generation has its straw work, the most notable being the later efforts of T S Eliot, especially the Four Quartets which are both dishonest and empty. On this side of the Atlantic it is arguable whether later Eliot did more long-term damage than the career of Philip Larkin, the troubador of vacuous dishonesty. The havoc wreaked by these exercises in the faux profound lingers with us to this day. The difference with Ashbery is his absence of pretence, he understands his absence of point and he doesn't care because, that is his point. To attempt to illustrate this I've chosen at random The Inchcape Rock which was published in the A Worldly Country collection in 2007:

Prop up the "meaning,
take the trash out, the dog for a walk,
give the old balls a scratch, apologize for three things
by Fridayo--quiet noumenon
of my soul, this is it, right?
You lost the key and the answer is inside
somewhere, and where are you going to breathe?
The box is shut that knew you
and all your friends,
voices that could have spoken in your behalf...

Why, what did you want me to do with them?
Half a document is sufficient to this
weather, wild time, excresence, more.
Rumours sift across a bald apologia.
The feet are here.
Now, this may or not be representative of what the Language poets were/are after but it isn't representative of what poetry is and can do and this mannered futility does the rest of us no favours whatsoever. One of the possible reason for the popularity of this material is that it is essentially safe, the intelligent, if manipulative, word use and the odd dash of the surreal challenges no one.

The Pointful Poem

Pointful poems are those that we readers can see the point of. Sometimes this relates to technique and form, in other cases it relates to the treatment of a subject. The really pointful poem does both. Vanessa Place's Tragodia sequence is brimming with point because of its form (prose reports written for court proceedings) and because of the point that it makes. Simon Jarvis' Night Office is pointful because of its formal constraints and its relationship with contemporary work.

The first part of Tragodia deals with the case of Mark Rathbun, a serial rapist known as the "Belmont Shore Rapist" who was arrested in 2002. Place was one of the lawyers working on the case. Statement of Facts starts with an account of each of the attacks. This is an extract from one of them:
"On May 13, 1998, Barbara B. was fifty-eight years old, living alone on Elliot Lane, in Long Beach. By about 10:30 p.m., Barbara B. had fallen asleep with the television and light on; she woke feeling a weight on the bed, then a hand over her mouth. A man said, "I don't want to hurt you." Barbara B. testified he spoke in a whispery voice she "probably wouldn't recognize again." (RT 913915)
The man had Barbara B. roll onto her stomach, she said she had a bad back, he had her roll onto her back, her nightgown pulled over her head. She could not see, "and didn't want to." Barbara B. felt the man against her; it felt as if he was naked. The man kept saying things like, "I don't want to hurt you; I just want to make love to you." Barbara B. thought she'd try to cry, but the man's voice got harsh, and he told her to stop it; she decided it was best to "get it over with as soon as possible." (RT 915917, 925, 1490)
The man fumbled, touching Barbara B.'s breasts with his hands and mouth, then put his penis in her vagina. She could not tell if he ejaculated or withdrew, but he put his penis in her vagina a second time; he also orally copulated her. Barbara B. did not feel a glove on the man's hand. Throughout, the man continued to tell Barbara B. he only wanted to make love to her and not to hurt her. After, the man told Barbara B. he was going to leave and she should count to fifty. She started counting to herself, he told her to count out loud. As Barbara B. heard the man leave, she asked him to close the door so her cats wouldn't get out; she heard him go through the kitchen and close the sliding glass door as he left. Barbara B. then called police. (RT 917920, 925)
These are then followed by an account of the offender's arrest and the ways in which genetic material was used to establish his guilt. The second and third parts of the sequence present verbatim arguments for appeal in a number of cases, including the Belmont Shore Rapist.

Now, Place would probably define herself as a conceptualist and there are some that hold the view that conceptualist work isn't 'real' poetry. I don't think this is particularly useful because it's the wrong argument - I find most of this kind of work to be reasonably pointless because the 'concepts' tend to be facile and trite in equal measure, doing nothing for the Poem in the wider world.

Tragodia is one of the few exceptions to the conceptual norm precisely because it refuses to have anything to do with the poetic and is completely without view. It is a poem because it questions poetic issues, especially those of bearing witness, memorialisation and the role of the archive. It does these things brilliantly and shows the rest of us at least a couple of ways out of the prevailing mediocrity.

Simon Jarvis' Night Office, on the other hand is defiantly poetic in its form (rhyming and metrical) and its scale (872 eight-line stanzas). The Jarvis project in longer poems (there are now two with another four in the making) is concerned with demonstrating that these kinds of formal constraints are the best way for the poem to make complex philosophical and theological arguments. As with Place this runs against the grain of most prevailing trends and presents a serious challenge to the current dismal consensus. As well as being wonderfully complex it's a very viewy piece of work:
Who could invent the office of the dead? It could not be made up, now each word bears its proprietor inside it, bled dry to that chatteldom in which each heard gesture or tongue-twist owns one sovereign head. Each knows its masters, each word is referred back to its patent, to those first possessors who stole it from the common of confessors.

So each must die; so each cold bit of language is alien capital, and just to trade it is zeal to found that total counter-language which rips each word off from that church which made it or severed tongue to fill the bloody sandwich who put it on a plate and then displayed it with the gone monument of vile suppressions rich disavowals and dim intercessions.
Regardless of the extensive viewiness, the Jarvis project is making an incisive strategic indicator of another way ahead, to undermine the current poetic by being more poetic, more focused and much more serious. It also undermines the prevailing view that complexity is best expressed in free verse, a view I'm still clinging to. I'm not entirely convinced by the extent and range of viewiness here but at least I'm prodded into thinking about it.

In conclusion, I'll be a happy man if I've encouraged others to put viewiness and point into their readerly endeavours. This is primarily because we need to be less impressed by the overly poetical and much more interested in the Poem that stands out from the crowd and moves things out of the prevailing smug introspection and inertia.


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