Wednesday, 30 June 2010

On the beard of George Bernard Shaw

The lovely cognitive dissonance by which the adjective derived from the name of this unusually hairy-faced man is Shavian ...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Riverside poem

There are no hawks.
There are neither hulks nor icebergs.
Nothing drops violently

down from the white sky.
The river flows between its banks
as the wind does between

Earth and sky.
Suds on the water's surface
are clouds, clouds, clouds,

erratic and baggy or
tight as bolted cloth.
The sun sets and there is no sun.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Poetry and Science

Miroslav Holub’s essay ‘Poetry and Science’ (in 1991’s The Dimension of the Present Moment) challenges artists who ‘content themselves on the one hand with a subnormal understanding of the present sciences in particular and with a pretended general understanding of “Science” on the other, albeit they mix up science, technology and the application of both—which is rather the consequence of the given social structure than the responsibility of scientists.’ Holub wants to assert the community of poets and scientists on the grounds on ‘a common silence’ and a shared ‘realization of inner freedom, of the freedom of choice, of one of the very few moments of existential freedom.’ This is puzzling, as if Holub’s main point of contradistinction between the two fields: ‘the scientific theme implies as much light as possible, the poetic one as many shadows as possible.’ I’d say the opposite is true: that the 21st century is revealing the great object of scientific enquiry to be, precisely, dark matter; where poetry puts the hairs up at the back of the neck precisely by articulating, in various ways, the impossibility of existential freedom.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

On TV endings

The rubbishness of the endings of so many contemporary TV serials: BSG, Lost, Life on Mars. The essence of the TV serial is a kind of non-evolving, un-narrative continuous present. Hence the eternal fixture of the ages of the Simpsons, say—Homer is always in his late 30s, Bart is always 10, and as the series goes on these fixed facts bend historical time around them (so that in1990 Homer remembers being young in 1970, and now he remembers being young in the late 1980s). Endings do a violence to this weird existential stasis by implying it can pass away. The success of Life on Mars depended upon a larger version of this—not only that the 1970s were ‘better’ than modern life, with better music and cooler clothes, a time when men could be like Gene Hunt, but more importantly that somehow 1970s had never ended. The ending broke that illusion simply by virtue of the fact that it was an ending. Deadwood avoided that problem by playing the ending precisely in terms of an implied build-up to a climax that was then elegantly knight’s-moved away from. It went with the grain of anticlimax, and so it defused it.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Identification with the Plight of the Wretched

When Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace describes the divine incarnation as ‘that fugitive from the camp of the conquerors’ she is pinpointing something beyond simple contingency about the event. When she talks of ‘Christ’s paradoxical identification with the plight of the wretched’ she presumably means ‘paradoxical’ in the sense that Christ, as God, is something like the opposite of ‘wretched’. But I wonder about this. The particularities of the incarnation, whilst fit the circumstances of a marginalised and persecuted people in a geographical backwater, surely present a problem to believers when it becomes the cultural logic of a overwhelmingly populous (two and a half billion of the world’s six billion people are Christians; vastly more than any other religion) and powerful. When Christians are the most powerful people in the world, how do they make of Christ’s message to the disempowered? When Christianity is culturally central, how can it apprehend Christ’s message of marginality? It’s an old question, of course. Perhaps the answer is that Christians, consciously or otherwise, imbibe a kind of psychological marginality—they take Christ’s address to actual disempowerment, poverty and oppression to be statements about ‘metaphorical’ disempowerment, poverty and oppression. But that’s a pretty lame way of taking it, surely? Wouldn’t it make more sense to assume that a Christian life requires the genuine attempt to live all that is marginalised by contemporary existence—to live, for instance, and paradoxically, as an isolated individual rather than a member of a supportive congregation, to live as an atheist rather than a believer? That’s less paradoxical than it might appear, I think.

To put this another way: Christ as a Jew came to redeem not mainstream Jewry, but a small obscure brand-new Jewish sect existing on the margins of Jewry. But now, in the same way that Christian thinkers assert that the phrase 'Christian tragedy' is a contradiction in terms, because the fullness of divine Grace now fills what was previously an empty world (death can hardly be a tragedy if death leads to eternal bliss) -- in such a circumstance where are the wretched to be found, if not on the outskirts of that revelation, amongst the unbelievers and atheists? And precisely not, of course, in order to convert them, but to engage with them precisely on these terms of unbelief?

Friday, 25 June 2010

Cleanness again

Cleanness occupies this weird space between sterility and fertility: between death and nurturing hygiene. Although the ground of cleanness is nihilistic, yet it’s not necessarily an obliterating nihilo. It might be like the forest fire that clears the ground of senile wood and fertilises it with ash ready for new growth.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Per noctem in nihilo velu

These famous lines of Catullus:
Soles occidere et redire possunt
Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
Nox est perpetua una dormienda.
An article on the poet from the May 15th 1913 TLS (nearly a century ago!) discusses various translations:
Here is Mr Stuttaford's version:
Suns can set and rise again, but to our brief light, when once it sets, there comes a never ending night that must be passed in neverending sleep.
And here is Mr Cornish's:
Suns may set and rise again. For us, when the short light had once set, remains to be slept the sleep of one unbroken night.
We may find some amusement in comparing Mr Stuttaford with Mr Cornish, in giving Mr Stuttaford a good mark for ease and rhythm, and a doubtful one for the repetition of "never ending", so unlike the monumental brevity of the original, or in detecting the flaw in Mr Cornish's English, the Latinistic "remains to be slept", the hoof-mark of the construing lingo beloved of schoolboys, abhorred of men and gods. But if we wanted to give an English reader, innocent of Latin, some idea of Catullus's lines, we should take him neither to Mr Cornish nor to Mr Stuttaford, but to Herrick:
Our life is short; and our days run
As fast away as does the sun:...
I quite like "remains to be slept", mind you (though not so much as I like the idiom 'the hoof-mark'...). But I'm moved to try a different sort of translation, one that preserves more of the shape of the signifier than the signified. Too long has 'content' ruled the logic of translation ...:
Soles occidere et redire possunt
Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
Nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Suns axe lessens the day, and re-day perhaps
Know this: come senility's axe, and our brief look's
noxious perpetually in a dormant ending.

God. That's terrible.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Dishwasher tablets

Fever Ray's 'Seven'.
I've got a friend who I've known since I was seven.
We used to talk on the phone if we have time
If it's the right time

Accompany me by the kitchen sink.
We talk about love, we talk about dishwasher tablets
And we dream about heaven.
It's a nice trick (calling it a 'trick' is maybe cruel), this close juxtaposition of the mundane and the metaphysical. It works, in part because Karin Dreijer Andersson's vocals have the right pitch of slightly strangulated intensity to carry it off. To talk about love and dream of heaven on the one hand, and to talk about dishwasher tablets on the other, and you might think you were talking about radically different things. But the effect (and affect) of this piece is that you're not; either because the mundane is actually a plenum of spiritual intensity, or else (I prefer this one, I think, although it's less consoling) because heaven operates only on the inconsequential, trivial level.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

I cough like Horace

In the Epistle to Arbuthnot, Clough says of himself: 'There are, who to my Person pay their court/I cough, like Horace, and, tho' lean, am short.' Kenneth Haynes (in his excellent 2003 study of English Literature and Ancient Languages) has this to say about the couplet:
Pope presumes the reader's acceptance of three facts about Horace: that he was fat; and short; and coughed. That he was fat and short he himself admits (Epistles I.20.24; Epistles I.4.15); the cough is puzzling. In a note to the Twickenham edition, John Butt writes that Horace refers to his cough in Satires I.9.32. Untrue; in that passage, Horace recalls a prophecy made when he was a boy that he could not be done in by poison, the sword, pleurisy, cough or the gout, but destroyed by a prattler. [p.97]
Haynes thinks Pope has 'conjured an asthmatic Horace in order to be able to share another trait with him.' But this doesn't make much sense.

I've another theory. When Pope writes 'I cough like Horace', he means (and intends us to realise that he means) that his -- Pope's -- cough sounds, onomatopeically, like the name 'Horace'. A heavily aspirated initial wheeze, followed by the sibilant release of the cough itself. It's a word-game, a gag, and leads on to the two facts about the poet.

Monday, 21 June 2010


Time is a question
of what is going, and
what is to go.

Sand and sea's mutual
love, each
wearing away at the other:

this beach an hour from glass:
the sea glassy,
each becoming each.

Sunday, 20 June 2010


We need talent; but we also need the talent to utilize our talent. It's not as simple as it looks.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

One-handed Aeschylus

Landor seems to have thought Aeschylus only had one hand. In the posthumously published verse dialogue ‘The Trial of Æschylos’ (in Heroic Idyls: with Additional Poems [1863]). Landor’s Æschylos is accused in court of profaning the mysteries of Eleusis by writing them into his plays. His defence is that he fought the Persians at Salamis, and as the judge notes that the punishment for this crime is death, Æschylos’s brother Amyntos ‘rushes forward and bares his brother’s scars’:
What have these merited? These wounds he won
From Persia, nothing else. Let others show
The purple vestures, stript from satraps slains,
He slew them, and left those for weaker hands
To gather up, and to adorn their wives.

Amyntos is my brother, so are ye,
But why display my ragged white-faced scar?
Why show the place where one arm was, if one
Keeps yet its own? This left can wield the sword.

Fling not thy cloak about thee, nor turn round,
Nay, brother, thou shalt not conceal the scars
With that one hand yet left thee. [57]
Landor gets this from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics [Book 3, 1111a8-10], and from Aelian. But Aelian is clear that it is Aeschylus’s brother (whom Aelian calls ‘Ameinias’) who lost a hand at Salamis. Why Landor amputates the more famous brother’s hand is not clear.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The gleam

The cutthroat razor held
like a Greek capital gamma

a boomeranging flash
of sharply reflected light
over the ceiling,

into the coign
down the wall to the poster
a strip of brylcreem

over the ink and paper, then
upward to coign

over the dog-leg, along
and back along the ceiling.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Bersani Mirabilis

Leo Bersani likes to speak 'gosh!' truths of the 'there is a big secret about sex: most people just don't like it' variety. But sometimes he doesn't take the logic of his shocking truthfulness to its logical conclusion. So:
Psychoanalytically speaking, monogamy is cognitively inconceivable and morally indefensible.
Of course, Bersani is speaking psychoanalytically, not actually. He's saying something forecful about the need for imaginative freedom in the mind's erotic life, of course, that's hard to gainsay. But he underestimates, I think, precisely the erotic appeal of the fantasy of monogamy. We fantasise about having sex with others precisely in order to reinscribe, imaginatively speaking, the erotic power of having sex with our longterm partner.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

John Fuller

I recently bought the Complete Poems of John Fuller. I've been reading them. I discover to my astonishment that my own poems are deeply derivative of Fuller's. This astonishes me because, before buying this volume of complete poems, I had never knowingly read any of Fuller's verse. It's of no real consequence, of course, in the sense than my own poetry is of no consequence, or no more consequences than five hundred thousand other dilletante blogging poets. Except for this one little way in which it is a little remarkable ... it shows, I suppose, that Fuller must have influenced a great many poets who have, in turn, influenced me. I ought to have known about him.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

'Doing' philosophy

A great danger in 'doing' philosophy is precisely in the doing. What I mean is: sitting in a coffee-shop, the sunlight coming through the floor-to-roof glass, the buzz of the caffeine in my bloodstream, Adorno's Negative Dialectics open before me, a narrow-nib pen in my hand as I scribble marginalia ... there's something too self-satisfying in this. Not that there's anything wrong in self-satisfaction, within bounds, of course: but that this vignette is not the ground out of which I 'do' philosophy -- it is, on the contrary, the philosophy that enables this little moment. I'm not doing philosophy, I'm doing a species of vainglory. The philosophy is there, in the first instance at least, to flatter my amour-propre than I am clever enough to do philosophy. This actually makes a sort of quasi-Deleuzian machinic loop; but all that's required of the philosophy in this system is that it be difficult. Not that it be wise, or fertile, or dialectical, or illuminating, or of historical interest. Just that it be difficult.

I haven't the data to diagnose a general problem here, although I may suspect the problem is more general than just me. But I note it because it certainly, and lamentably, describes me.

Monday, 14 June 2010


Entropy tells us how heat must be lost
And closed systems always run down;
As passion's muck sweat will turn into frost
The beating heart will turn around.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois

How many mediocre, petty-minded, convention-bound writers have consoled themselves with Flaubert's famous words to to Gertrude Tennant (December 25, 1876): 'Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d'être violent et original dans vos œuvres.' Of course the second portion of this sentiment does not flow inevitably, or even naturally, from the first. Of course in 90% of writers, being regular and orderly in their life like a bourgeois does nothing more than enable them to produce regular, orderly and bourgeois art. Moreover, there's the question of habit: as with any drug, prolonged exposure to regularity and order in life alters the brain chemistry, until regularity and orderliness become the whole horizon of art. Let's say you wish to be violent and original in your work. Fair enough. Then be violent and original in your work, by (as Malcolm X might say) any means necessary. You'll need to discover the means for yourself, you know.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Flying Carpet

This is an installation by Iranian artist Zakaria Farhad Moshiri, titled 'Flying Carpet,' at Christie's in Dubai (April 25, 2010). You can see what he's done, there. The cleverness is not in itself deep; the carpet aping the shape of an actual flying device. But there's friction too, for we ride on magic carpets (in story, at least) where we ride in planes. What lives 'in' carpets? Only mites, lice and dirt. Is this artwork implying the mite-iness of pilots? If so it might almost approach satire.

Friday, 11 June 2010

In the Garden of Eden

God, to Eve and Adam: 'You losers! Beget a life!'

Thursday, 10 June 2010


I watched the shadow of the yew tree on the grass. Though it shimmered, as with life, I was more solid than it. It was a layer over the hard green of grass. It was not even a layer.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Hawk poem

The brown sparrow is scooped
out of air
like Gloster's eye from its socket.

Bliss-blind, the hawk ascends
the invisible stair
to where light and wind are one whiteness.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

In a nutshell

SF's relationship to reality is not mimetic, but ironic. The tricky bit is in persuading people the reverse is also true: that all ironic literature is, basically, SF.

Monday, 7 June 2010


From a library sale I picked up 50p copy of The Age of Reform 1815-1870 (originally written 1938; though mine is the 2nd ed from 1962) by Sir Llewellyn 'crikey what a name' Woodward. History of another era from another era:
Irish immigration increased the number of Roman Catholics, but most of these immigrants were very poor people whose troubles were economic rather than political. [502]
There's a meaningful distinction! Economics, poverty and politics completely different things!

Sunday, 6 June 2010


Virile: the manliness element here (the Latin vir) is surely overwritten by other non-etymological chimes of sense and sound, expressive of a contemporary suspicion of macho testosterone maleness: virulent; vitriolic; vicious.

Saturday, 5 June 2010


Verne’s Begum’s Millions; I wonder if the novel was inspired (in starting premise) by the story of Begum Sombre? The woman ‘who ruled the tiny but wealthy state of Sardhana, perched between the declining Mughal and burgeoning British empires. Begum Sombre had entered the household of Walter Reinhardt, a Catholic mercenary, as a teenage concubine, perhaps even as a slave. Reinhardt gained a fortune by selling his military prowess to Indian rulers who were fighting the British. Part of that wealth was the principality of Sardhana’ [Jad Adams]. Begum Sombre inherited the territory and ruled it for six decades. (Begum Sombre seized the baby Dyce Sombre, great grandson of Walter Reinhardt (and no relation of hers) when he was a few days old in 1808 and brought him up as her own. ... In 1836 Dyce Sombre came to London, married a Viscount’s daughter, became an MP by in effect ‘buying’ the seat of Sudbury, in Suffolk, with ‘£3000 in untraceable gold coins’, but went mad.’

Friday, 4 June 2010


There’s something in this. Patrick McGuinness:
French poets can sound hollow to British ears—their idioms too abstract or grandiloquent, their poems hermetic dramas of unsayability, full of words like ‘vide’ ‘plénitude’, ‘présence’. As Valéry wrote about Hugo: ‘he took huge words but handled them without effort, so lightly they sounded empty ... and they were empty; “Farouche”—“Infini”—“Immensité...”’
This isn’t a bad thing, though. It’s this lightness that corresponds to a British notion of freedom, sunshine, the ‘Midi’ in poetic-imagistic form. Conversely, McGuinness suggests, ‘for the French reader, British poets are caught in a descriptive-realist dead end, whilst their propensity for irony and self-distancing makes them write as if they believed more in language itself than in any thing they specifically had to say in it.’ Which I think is fair enough (I mean: the attitude of French readers described here is fair enough), although as a writer (and as, you know, a human being) pretty thoroughly committed to ‘irony and self-distancing’ I might say: but this is to fall into the trap of thinking that having something specifically to say is reducible to the semantic content of one’s writing. Which is to say, irony and self-distance is ‘something to say’, and something big and important too.

Thursday, 3 June 2010


I want to want to vanish. Not there yet, though.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


Lindsay Duguid reviewing [TLS May 28 2010, p.9] reviews Philip Davies’ Lost London 1870-1945 and its ‘collection of photographs from the English Heritage archives spanning seventy five years from 1870 ... the solemn static images of the city and its inner suburbs taken from an unshowy vantage point with the aim of recording streets and buildings on the point of demolition’, puts it nicely:
The solemnity of these photographs with their deep chiaroscuro and pale skies are full of a melancholy pleasure, a conflicted nostalgia for something we never knew.
My first thought, here, is: but we did and do know ‘London’, in that our ‘knowing’ depends upon a sense of the city’s buried and demolished past spectrally superposed over its vital present. But then I thought: isn’t this closer to a definition of ‘nostalgia’ tout court? We feel more nostalgic for things lost that we never knew than for things we did, partly because the latter are never truly lost, and partly precisely because nostalgia is an iteration of loss, and never having had something is an intenser version of loss than having and letting go.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Slave and Aristocrat Poem

The dead slave, left unmolested in the salt mine
That claimed his life,
Becomes encrusted all over with saline diamonds,
Imperishably blinged.

The dead aristocrat, in the corridor of his mansion,
Untouched by his overcautious slaves,
Rots, decays to contaminating slops, his
Thighbone stolen and gnawed.