Sunday, 29 April 2012
‘Belabouring in Vain’: Scattered Notes on Michael Haslam
Let’s start with the introduction Haslam pens to the volume around which these notes will flip and flap (‘A Cure for Woodness’, the concluding part of his ‘Music’ trilogy). There at first is posited an apparent desire to get away from that soundplay, that rhyming rhythmic jingle-jangle (which John Wilkinson would term a schizoid ‘clang association’ (viz. his analysis of John Wieners’ work)) in which H. has so often revelled, arcane etymological connections not as language’s historical sedimentation (viz. Adorno), but as sidetracks, the eccentric investigations, almost, of a Victorian leisured gentleman (tho’ rougher-shod, and informed by a life of labour): locality and quaintness, amateur histories (some of which spirit, now I think of it, does hover round certain of the ‘English Intelligencer’ prose that’s recently been put out by Mountain Press, particularly Peter Riley’s various investigations of Britain’s stone age past – though there things are more tempered by (a) academic temperament and (b) a sometimes crushingly Olsonian grand project to reclaim origin and to re-write history thru what I guess one might call ‘investigative verse’). In part, of course (and as the succeeding poems in actuality prove) H. actually wants to defend that laboured-leisured sense of non-academic play, often within Nature (we’ll let the generalized term stand, as place-holder, for now) as refreshment for melancholy or ‘woodness’, as a consolation not Romantic-regressive but necessary: “the birds and mammals, streams and flowers and trees, the web of all living life and the pleroma of physical forces, with humanity de-centred”; even without the “religious cause,” in which Nature, however ‘fallen’, still revealed something of God (to the monks on Skellig Michael, for instance, or to St Francis, exhibiting humility and openness in a non-anthropocentric universe), “there are probably good evolutionary reasons for our being enlivened by the beauty of our sustaining ecology” (but note a total lack of sentimental earth-mother piety in this (tho’ the earth as feminine fecundity trope does crop out with a fair frequency in the following verses): “It’s marvellous how consoling the cruelties of nature can be”) – in any case, (inter-)dependence rather than just Brute (Social) Darwinism, the fittest survival; the role of co-operation, yes? But still this worry that the language sound-play and often blatant use of rhyme into which H’s verse has moved functions as regression and narrative from his earlier ‘languescope’ of impersonal undirection and non-paraphrasability, in which the question of “whether the results divulged merely my own so-called ‘Unconscious’ or the truth of the world would be for the world to judge.” Yet the “grand abstract vision” (viz. Hart Crane’s Bridge as abstract synthesis in poetry of that which in life remains messily separate and clashing (as Atlantis, eternity, “one song” which “devoutly binds,” “in single chrysalsis the many twain”)) can’t be accomplished, even in verse: the fall instead is into plot and soundplay – not as (fortunate?) Fall but as “waves & cycles of personal emotional happenstance” – despondence, confidence, elation, tragedy, etc – which aren’t exactly specific in the narrative fixity they impose on the poem; rather, “personal, but common enough” – not as exact specific biography, the poem as confession, ‘authenticated’ by its status as document of inner struggle (and thus elevating the role of the author as one who feels ‘more’, or ‘better’, than us ordinary mortals, and whose documented feelings thus deserve more attention or respect more than those of non-artists). The aim is to avoid being falsely ‘universal’, un-historically/-socially specific in a disingenuous, metaphysical, escapist sense of unchanging essence, whilst simultaneously acknowledging and highlighting personal contingency, even a certain capriciousness. Such capriciousness is central to Haslam’s persona, and is what perhaps enables the free-flowing (though of course, exquisitely controlled and skilful) Delight of his poetry – drawing attention to a certain sonic materiality, sensuous sound-patterning and excited jibber-jabber prized over a previous investment in what H. describes as a certain modernist absence, a near-religious worship of the void (the 'languescope': “There was a time when I was strongly drawn to the lure of an idea of absence. How can Emptiness shine like a tin can? The siren idea I drew from a concept formed from what I might call post-Symbolist French poetry. I remember hearing and reading such stuff in the 1970s. So much whiteness, nothingness, void, and silence, absolute silence. There was something almost mystical in the absence of God: you could almost worship the blankness.”) Instead of such abstracted paring-down, we have here instead an associative play that is almost out of control, that takes one out of oneself, or that takes one outside a structuring sense of one’s self as a stable and rounded entity, instead focussing the sharp or blurred edges of moment-to-moment existence as experienced and lived in its non-schematic minutiae. It’s a little like watching a Stan Brakhage film, where Brakhage’s field of activity and wandering attention is on the play of light and movement, its forms of organization super-fast and contingent. (One could take any number of the painstakingly hand-painted and hand-scratched frames of those brief but highly, highly concentrated, flitteringly dense films from the latter part of his career, and present them as miniature paintings in themselves, but their cumulative power is very much meant to be, and indeed is, in their total effect, their combination into the moving ream: film as mitigating against the permanence (and thus the commercialization and elitist museum-bound segregation) of the art object, as a liberation of perception into temporal flux and flow). Similarly, any one of Haslam’s phrases might cause one to trip and pause on its delicious sonic effect (he could easily have made a fine sound poet), causing one to have to go back and re-read the line, and maybe the line before that, to get back into the ‘sense’ of it – it’s what makes reading Haslam such an exhausting pleasure, such a capacious joy: not because of difficulty of allusion, the kind of stringency demanded by certain forms of late modernist poetry, but because of sheer glorious density. Such density is, of course, a density of allusion and of multiplying potential meanings, cross-connections, associations, etc, as much as it is a density of sound, and the two are, I’d argue, closely connected: sound patternings spark sense connections that would not occur to the ‘rational’ mind, even if afterwards they are rationalized, placed in argumentative order, saying something rather than merely playing with nice vocalized jingle-jangles. (The process, in fact, is not that far off, in general methodology, if not in impact or real practical similarity, to the work J.H. Prynne was writing in the 90s and 2000s (‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ of course being a different proposition altogether, moving through tough and extended argument rather than the building up of thematic area by the build-up of quick-jump fragments and associative build-up)). The difference to Brakhage, of course, is that Haslam is working with language, packed full of signification and allusion, whereas Brakhage, particularly in those abstracted films, can move from visual signification to the creation of new forms that have no exact parallel in what we might see in the world itself (the closest analogy, and one he frequently made, being to ‘closed-eye vision’, that delicate patterning of light synapses when one closes one’s eyes (or, as D. Oliver puts it in ‘The Harmless Building’, “the ever-present background of combinational probability laws that were a more-modern hesistance of the swarm towards pattern, a swirling and sparkling”). Of course, H. could have moved into sound poetry proper, and that he did not suggests that his project is still very much invested in meaning – not the ‘liberated’ meaning of a grunt or growl (viz. Burroughs’ oft-cited statement that “words are an arbitrary communication system and any sound could do as well. An exquisite sonnet could be conveyed in bestial snarls and grunts.” Without overlooking the importance formed by language's non-verbal semantic elements – those qualities of voice (timbre, rhythm, pitch, etc) which are not so much formalized codes (though they contain recognizable features that allow them to be 'read') as individualized modes of conscious or unconscious expression – it would seem foolish to prioritize non-linguistic communication units as something 'better than language'; and, allowing for rhetorical overstatement, the valorization of a kind of 'primitive' animality (why "bestial snarls and grunts" rather than, say, the 'motherease' with which an infant is lulled? well, I guess Burroughs' misogyny would answer that question...) seems a little problematic. By this, of course, I don’t mean to suggest that poems should be all lulling sweetness and light…); OK, so not that ‘animal liberation’ thru sound, access to one’s inner spirit-man, one’s inner lion (a la McClure) (however parodically and delightfully ridiculous this is made to seem by Cobbing, his tongue firmly popping in his cheek), but a negotiation with the fact of mouthing words through tongue and teeth and spittle, a kind of muttering musical complex inside the head which one could become stuck inside, and which poetry’s delicate task is to pick its way through, using that near-schizoid sound to sound out new meanings, new association complexes, to combat language’s bureaucratized or war-mongering straitjacketing without falling into a lulling sonic cocoon of regressive rhyming chiming nonsense:
“The polymorphous parts / of sorry sores and soothing phoney story sorts” (‘A Bunch of Tales’).
Which seems to suggest that any chiming stories that are told are fakes, tho’ elsewhere, as we’ll see, the figure of wounds or bruises, blemish and waste and mess, stand more for a kind of down-to-earthness, a literal materialism that is multiple and, yes, poly-morphous (and poly-tonal, -phonic?), which H. wd most certainly endorse, and wish to participate within, in that self-description. And, let’s think about this: sound and stories have their linkage, in oral epic, the sounded refrain (refrain as both to sound again, and not to do so, to ‘refrain from’ – that dialectic in origin (as the original sensed of the word ‘rhythm’ clash between blockage and flow; as the Dogon word for ‘to open’ and ‘to lcose’ is the same): refrain, then, might be both affirmative action and negative inaction, refusal of action, excess and decorum.) And stories as sorting, arranging of multiple experience into one followed trajectory, one strand of narrative, akin (again I quote) to Hart Crane’s “one song devoutly bind[ing],” his “many twain[ing][…]in single chrysalis.” “Erosis” – giving over to eros (“woodness” as madness, including sexual elation, self-forgetting (madmens’ selves multiply, are forgot, become archetypical (Poor Tom, the generic crazed vagrant), also as erosion (of self? of land? of boundaries?) – the play in this section on ‘so’ sounds and on wounds, s’s and o’s, decay as painful wound (the "worm returning", penetrating in, as in Blake’s Sick Rose) and as ecstatic, tho’ “sickly bliss” – the holy fool, the blessed disease. A particularly striking conceit: clowns as nude weatherpeople (forecasters? rain dancers? the shamanic function sleeping right at the back of that most gleaming of regularized TV banality-bulletins, the weather report). And, ah, stars, as in Bunting’s ‘Briggflats’, that distance – “with starry gaps / of high renown.” A “cry” as birdsong, lyric O (not I) utterance, both the utterly personal and the inarticulate unperson’d, “sounding out of the depths of being” (Nietzsche), ‘O’ as folksong collective utterance at that moment of most personal pain (Prynne’s ‘English Poetry & Emphatical Language’), as danger/pain signal and as ‘music’ (birdsong – nature as decoration, no: “The cry might sound alarming. Clear enough. / It’s nothing personal. It could be couched / and may be decorated with birds.”)
“I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’” (Chuck D)
And with that on, now, to what I think’s the best poem in the book, ‘Belabouring in Vain’. Here there's play on lyric as mass/ folk / fairy (faerie?) pastoral, not as gossamer Edwardian kids at the end of the garden but as rough reverie (wood dwellers misconstrued as spirits might be outlaws, wild (green) men, Winstanley’s commune trying to eke out an arboured existence). So we have leaking, pissing, shitting, ‘wages’ recurring throughout – cash, consequences (wages of sin); we have art as (parodied) lyric (French?) delicacy –“pull faces / thinking phrases for the lyric graces, lilac cordial, vanilla curlew and so on. And hammer on / until the limb’s gone numb” – from easily-slipped dance or drink to lifted hammer, beating out the rhythm in repetitive strain – art literally become wanking about, as in – “They say it [Art] wanks / to wage thankless assault on taste, by means of / glorious plebeian ructions” – some coarser (Anglo-Saxon?) materiality. The eruption of that rough rusticity of a peasant-pastoralised lyric, not as distanced court dalliance, rural tourism (“a cheap holiday in other people’s [idealized] misery”) but from within the place itself, or from some vantage near enough in sympathy not to render its fantasies spun too wildly into regression and lie: the people, labour, material facts, material world – as against, again, the courtly nostalgized idealisation of yer common-or-garden non-political pastoral idyll (that non-politics of course implicitly and insidiously political in its conservative claim). “There are dozens of us delving in the mass / of gross behaviour” – a kind of free love orgy (“each labourer may love / his or her next or nearest neighbour[…]dreaming nakedness, I readdress thy face”) which is partly imagined as “reverie” and dream, perhaps akin to the gender reversals and temporary madnesses in Shakespeare’s ‘green worlds’ – As You Like It’s Forest of Arden, Cymbeline’s Welsh mountains, the Tempest’s Isle, Twelfth Night’s Illyria, and most particularly, A Midsummer Night Dream’s Athenian Forest. Here we might recall RF Langley’s poem ‘Cash Point’, in which AMND leaps into the present, with a cash point as the “hole in the wall” through which Pyramus and Thisbe communicate, that hole as a point of access between a world of reality and a world of dreams (occurring explicitly in a play within a play, a parodied love story, Romeo and Juliet played for laughs) – like Bottom, those that seek to escape, say, the urban world, the world of court intrigue or brow-beating end up being turned into donkeys, literally being made an ass of. Langley suggests that both Pyramus and Thisbe’s attempt to keep their love alive through the hole (the sexual punning obvious, that hole perhaps, even, as a glory hole, anonymising and rendering almost entirely individualistic what should be an ecstatic inter-personal closeness), and a modern attempt to “cash in dreams for reality, language for things” (in Jeremy Noel-Tod’s words), are efforts doomed to failure, fictions of consoling artifice: the quasi-magical exchange of a pin number for a piece of paper which will allow one to purchase material things is a kind of ‘cashing in’ on the dreams that, say, promises of endless credit encourage –“With your last twitch you can / point at the letters that make up / the spell” – ‘spell’ referring to words as well as to magic, to the act of naming a desire that, it is hoped, produces the material effects of that desire’s presence, but which ends up as just another deferral, another consoling fiction as are the fairies in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (a play which, for AD Nuttall (in ‘Shakespeare the Thinker’) is “not escapist; it is about escapism,” subjecting its subject to a “philosophic scrutiny of the status of love-experience” to be “maintained to the end of the comedy”). If Langley remains sceptical about the consoling power of either cash or nature (elsewhere, he draws together a territorial dispute between a beetle and a wasp and the suspicion which led to the execution and torture of numerous women during the era of witch trials – misrepresentation, the fantasy of fairies and witches, as both consoling and dangerous, leading (as does the fantasy of endless cash and credit) to immiseration and exploitation), Haslam is more like Mercutio, in whose Queen Mab speech – according to Nuttall’s account of it – “wild imagination” ends up “outrun[ning] intellect”; and, unlike Mercutio, he starts off by wishing to believe, if not in the literal existence of fairies, at least in some notion of a consoling nature, or, at least, a nature that is both curse and cure, both the cause of madness and the restoration to sanity: and this can happen in a poem, which can question its own premises, its own wildness of imaginative fancy and sound-play at the same time as revelling in precisely those qualities, constructing connections not possible in the real world, perhaps, bending time in and around on itself to create constellations of country labourers, lyric poets, poetic work and the work on the land, not ignoring the structures of oppression within either, nor valourising himself as a kind of modern-day John Clare (who’s later namechecked), but as partly-parodied “yokel local-focal,” wandering in eccentric bumbling bucolic melancholia.
‘Belabouring’s implied orgy, if it’s imagined as a kind of Green World dream, is also sex as concretion melding, as assertion of body into text rather than the virginal idealization of courtly love (L’Amour de Loin). The ‘gross’ of “gross behaviour” is an excess (viz. the talk of wages and work and counting up (archaic) coins) – ‘gros’ as Falstaffian fatness – ‘delving’ as digging into the earth (here a sexualized activity, no doubt) and as undoubtedly echoing John Ball’s famous notion of communal peasant closeness to land (“when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”), that non-hierarchical commons involving a free and shared sexuality as well as labour (hopefully not in the sense of customary tribal prostitution (polygamy for men) that Marx criticises with regard to notions of ‘free love’ in a non-Communist society (the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 is yer reference here)). The poem’s title implies that reverie itself is a kind of labour, whether this be labour as birth, ripeness (“a state of ripe undress”), but still at a remove, a recall, a recoil; yet ‘reverie’, in its modern sense, only tells half the story – from the OED, we find a Dionysian ‘madess, delirium, wildness, rage, revelry, wantonness (13th cent. in Old French), incoherent thinking, wandering of the mind, foolish idea, idiocy, absurdity’ – similar indeed to that earlier traced etymology of ‘woodness’: reverie as ‘ravery’ rather than the Debussyian introspection with which one would normally be inclined to read the term). That danger of idealization, fictionalization, telling stories in sound that sound sound but that in fact deceive, taking sound as sense to take leave of one’s senses, in the woods, a mad malady, and yes, this is anticipated and satirised, or fun is poked at it, even in the midst of the most jangling-dangling bits of sound-patterning, where one might think meaning had completely run away with the fairies: thus, the anticipatory rhyme and word-prefiguring of “the butchers dress/ the tripe with cress[…]the village lads and lases[…]in states of ripe undress.” Tripe and cress, daintiness and roughness (roughage), animal / meat and vegetable / plant, the shit or piss that comes out and the food that goes in (the “lyric graces” of “lilac cordial” and “vanilla curlew” (addition, entry) turn to “a loss, a slash, a pee, a piss”, a kind of jocular “aperture” between inner and outer, self and nature into which the waste goes, defecating outside: “that’s my own / at the aperture, open flies / at the back of the shed, / the industrial wate”; where flies become both zippers and insects, organic waste paradoxically industrial, this latter reminding us, perhaps, of the human workers who enabled the, say, inhuman machine-ations of the Industrial Revolution to sprout. Read yer E.P Thompson. ‘Work’, in the poetic and the more usual physical sense, as both making (in the sense of the poetic ‘makir’), crafting, and as sweat, labour, physicality: if art is “hard at work / against vulgarity”, it is really also vulgar because of the hardness of its work, its sweat and flesh and bone (even as, at the end, Haslam drifts from what might thus seem a too-simple celebration of the Victorian work ethic into a more dreamily reveried in- or e-vocation of pastoralized haystack romping – tho’ even there, “the village lads and lasses lay about themselves with mops” – there playing into the last few lines’ play on the clean and the dirty, lyric grace and lyric grit or dirt or mirth or girth, the afore-mentioned tripe and cress, “cleaners wip[ing up] the mess.” And in such messy play of word and worth (where value is, say, meaning, in that metaphor of artistic merit in monied terms we can’t avoid, it seems (seams of “the ore raw bouse”)), ‘mess’ transl(iter)ates into the penultimate line’s ‘mass’, wehre mess is am ass of amassed meaning, hard to master, the labour forcing the pun, the point, to his master’s consternation, to the consternation of the reader reading or delving for solving or solvent clues, for --- synthesis, Haslam here substituting the synthetic for the organic, the synaesthetic (as in ‘A Bunch of Tales’’ sensual mingling – “send out an ear to look”) for the single-minded, in multiplicity, simultaneity, super-imposition, in an ecstatic equivalent of sonic jangle that points to a lighter version of (again) Brakhage’s dissolutions of overlaid image: over-laid, be-laboured, a ‘lay’ as sex and as song, laying back and going for it, energy and repose, labour and reverie, making us work in pleasure, reconciled even, as in Marx’s unalienated dream that we might so be, in the full communism of the individual free to pursue whatever course at that moment is fancied – hunter, fisherman, critic, at different times of the day. That this happens, or even can happen, only in poetry or in necessarily speculative philosophical aside does not render it simply a pipe dream, a song that drugs and dulls to stupor, but as that refreshment that H. found, in his introduction, in the woods above his home, that we might find in a notion of complete personal and political liberation (or as near as could be complete in the necessarily shifting provisionality of any apparent completeness within a non-metaphysical, dialectical understanding of the world as continuous movement, dynamism, contradiction, growth (viz. Mao Zedong, y’all)) – that refreshment necessary to go on at all, to re-invigorate the struggle, whether for continuing poetic composition (‘continuale song’) or continuing fights for the removal of oppression, the ‘green world’ not as the containment structure it assumes as temporary ritual breakout within an inherently conservative framework, but as the possibility for a real radicalism to be (whether in imagination or reality) tried, tested, worked thru, poetry’s su/staining alternative. (But there’s so much of this, in this, that I can’t take too much at one time – so much rhyme, excess, express-train-wandering all over the track (tho’ in fact, as one reads on, one realizes that the range of referenced tropes is relatively slim in recurrence across the whole scope of the book). It would be too easy to overdose, to glaze things over, to just collapse – to fall flat on your back and let it all wash over you. Or you’d go mad, get that wild woodness Haslam harps on, fall head over heels into some realm that not so much heals but hauls one unstoppably in all conceivable directions, un-homing, crazed flight. In that sense, I guess, it’s precisely the opposite of the staid stillnesses in yr common garden pastoral idyll (even Larkin (Philip)’s urban scrubland blanknesses (‘Here’)) - the ‘city’ energy of modernism exploding into a Natural riot of song and voice, bird and birth and berth, in real multiplicity that opening outside: where be-laboured reverie becomes just as much a fantastic dance as hard labour, exploding vibrancies of wired contemplation.)
More (maybe) to follow.