Wednesday, 23 January 2013
Getting Close: Peter Hughes' 6 Petrarch Sonnets from Tears in the Fence #56
The new Tears in the Fence has just arrived, the usual mix of ecleticism and a whopper of 176 pages, showing signs, I hope, of increasing stability and the quality of the magazine's reputation. Some engaging ecopoetics from the off, but reading through in page order so far, it's Peter Hughes' poems that arrested me first.
Hughes' '6 Petrarch Sonnets' first struck me for that awkward phrasing - why not 'Petrarchan', how I learned it in skool? The brevified (allow it, dear Reader) title points to some kind of mutation, potentially straddling that much vivified-by-zeitgeist word 'plagiarism', or 'the model', which was taken for granted back in the days of Wyatt et al. There's very little here I can relate to what I remember of Petrarch hisself, except that the lover addressed by the sonnets, Laura, is absent here too, or maybe substituted by Hughes for something like a concept.
The second strike to note, though one that's not so helpful in this context, is that the first poem in Tears in the Fence is numbered '24'. So we're in media res on a sequence whose backdrop isn't available to me. I'll be reading them for what I've got, but the 6 sonnets present are 24, 25, 26, 27, 32 and 35.
What does the Petrarchan sonnet say? It's a masculine courting ritual, in which the poet prances about to show how in love he is, without allowing the subject of that feeling to be touched, reached, given real presence in the poem. And this is there in the first line: "It's not all that clear why you're asking me". Not all that clear to "me" offering a voice-driven poem spoken by someone that puts themselves first and likes to be a little bit condescending, while the undescribed "you" is present immediately as a problem for this speaker.
Not so much the unrequited love interest, more a nag, a shrew, who is being rebutted? But if this "you" isn't really a love interest, then what's the speaker really in love with? The start of the stanzas gives a clue, the "It's" followed by "I've" then "you'd" ending with an imperative "go" in the final tercet. This is passive aggressive turning into "go shove it" aggression by the end, and that final line's expletive: the "fucking gastropub in Putney". Wonderful satire, great pitch of the punchline, but we're not being lulled into any sense of comfort with this speaker's 'love' for the London poetry soiree, or the pretention that the addressee takes for success - being in the "in-crowd" where people "think / bardic is a bleach for cleaning toilets". Sharp. This is a lover's tiff, amounting to, 'Don't tell me how to be a poet' and 'You think that's poetry? Sod off'. Or something.
The speaker is really in love with their own opinions, an exaggeration of what contemporary critics (so I recall from undergraduate lectures) find wrong in Petrarch. The poet, through their persona, can't allow the subject of their poems to find voice, presence, give opinion; they're too busy strutting their stuff, showing off how brilliant they are with language, with thought, with love.
Hence the underlying irony in the tradition: here's a lover who doesn't know how to love. The second piece in the selection kicks off with that 'me me me' again: "me & love are like this (fingers crossed) / late night paralytics treading the decks / of a stone-floored room" which turns out - at least to me - to be reminiscent of an all night drinking session in a room that hasn't passed a health and safety check since legislation was introduced. So "me & love" (not "love and I", or anything quite so formal) are a drunken posture in a nightclub, swaying slightly in front of people who probably aren't "me's" best friends and probably want him to go away before he throws up. Bottom line here is that you wouldn't trust this guy to write a poem about romantic love, at least not at this stage in the sequence.
I almost read that word "paralytics" as "panegyrics" and there's a similar echo of other phrases and words elsewhere in this unit ("buck and roll" for "rock and roll" nicely marking that point in the evening when you wish you hadn't had that last double vodka, as the music sounds like it's kicking you in the stomach) and the crude and wonderful phrasing of the simile at the end of that first stanza: "like a tramp steamer in a tsunami". Googling that innocuous phrase, "tramp steamer" I realised I didn't actually know the official meaning, though it's kind of self-evident. (Apologies to sensitive readers for quoting wikipedia, look away now.) This is a ship engaged in tramp trade, which means having no "fixed schedule or ports of call", hence not a steamer full of tramps, but one that mimics the lack of direction of a vagrant. So both a kind of nautical flaneur, rolling about lost and observationally, able to see the familiar with fresh, vagrant eyes (as Ann Marie Mikkelsen has said of the Whitmanian tramp), but also somewhat disorganised, unattached, looking for love in the wrong places, perhaps and, as Mikkelsen writes, attempting a social critique from their apparently detached social position.
There's a lovely twist from this steamer simile, the so-called weaker cousin of the muscle-bound metaphor, as the next three stanzas (quatrain-tercet-tercet, keep up, dear Reader) turn the shadow of the ship into a literal ship: "now you're up on the deck where bitter winds / whip away your words before they're spoken". Don't say Hughes doesn't do beautiful music: it's here with the idiomatic English, the mixed registers of modernism alongside a finely crafted short-lyrical pattern.
What's emerging by the end of the second piece, for me, is that Hughes is playing the fool. Literally, a fool who doesn't follow "know thyself" even though he pretends to, so much as Shakespeare's mutation, "to thine own self be true". There's something of the speaker's being able to point to the naked Emperor, while also not knowing he himself's wearing a burlap sack with cock, balls and a pair of tits drawn on it. So even as we don't trust he knows what he's talking about when he talks about the London poetry "garden party", there's a veracity in the description of the club or pub's claustrophobia, then being outside in the "evacuated air", expressed in the control of the language, the musical patterning giving authenticity to an otherwise unreliable voice.
Did I say control of language? Yes, but where are the rhymes? It's a sonnet, so I want me rhymes, Hughes! Well, dear Reader, they're mostly internal from what I can tell. Witness poem 3 in the selection: "milk-float" with "riots" and "depot". Stretched, perhaps, by some tastes, but the poems are rife with internal rhyme, and the few moments that seem like end rhymes seem only accidental, part of the general musicality of the language.
I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand, the ease with which a non-rhymed fourteen-liner can be dashed off, compared to the strictures of attempting a smoothly constructed (English) sonnet does bear some consideration. The form's origins, on the other hand, in a language with more opportunity for rhyme than English, demands careful weighing. Just as the Japanese haiku's formal constraints lead to an odd redundancy in what has become the 17-syllable pithery of conventional English haiku, something is lost in the colonial translation where these issues of form have their roots.
Is it even possible to define "discussion of love" as one of the formal constraints of the sonnet, as I have done? And doesn't the quantitative definition of the sonnet - in terms of techniques of syllable, rhyme, line count, octet vs. sestet (in the Petrarchan case) and volte - kind of speak to an anal, rote-system understanding of poetry? And doesn't the Reality Street Book of Sonnets indicate a need for contemporising tradition? And why am I using so many questions as a rhetorical trope right now?
You've guessed my bias already, dear--(no, I won't it's another trope to keep you on thread). Form, these days, is understood in a post-Oulipian sense, which asks questions of the potential for the shape of a poem to express a certain kind of thought with beautiful thinking. (Though see also my recent ruminations on form.) The short, carved shape to the piece, the sense of imbalance between the octet and sestet (or greater imbalance in the run towards a closing couplet) gives a sense of expostulation or sanction, and claustrophobia, the poet trapping their voice in a confined space, or on a confined subject, to try and resolve their thinking. Love is important, of course, as to all poetry - if only as the act of writing creatively always demands a sense of generosity towards the reader, expressed through the word choice, the sound craft, the attempt to contain complexity in fourteen lines, to paraphrase E.St.V-M - but here the lack of space doesn't lend itself to verbosity (unlike the blog-form, you're thinking to yourself, but that's ungenerous of you), only to the brief argument of a well- and pre-considered essay.
To clarify by example: the sonnet's enclosed space takes literal shape in the theme of the poems, through reference to the pubs, clubs, drinking dens they're set in. But this is a reference to the shape of the poem, a way of encoding the metatextual discussion in literal visuals. Very clever, Hughes, have a cookie. You can't though, encode the thematic discussion of love into the sonnet, without making a metaphysical leap: the writing of sonnets is always about love, in some way, hence the form signifies that subject to readers through their awareness of tradition, not through the inherent structural design, which indicates a mini-essay, potentially on any subject.
So, back to the poems. What to make of the trundling milk-float at the start of the third selection? Not your usual poetry vehicle of choice. And the reference to riots, also a nod to contemporary events, to the now of Hughes' response to Petrarch. The possibility that these are sight translations occurs, that the incidence of these details arises from a hidden process, or perhaps biographical veracity. Mere speculation.
What stands is the speaker claiming to be more relieved than the 'you', who got home safely after driving a milk-float in a riot, so the ongoing arrogance of this speaker carries through, with mere hints of a niceness underneath the 'aren't I good for being worried for you?'.
And then the poem veers in the sestet towards a discussion of language. The "shackles of convention" shrugged off in slightly too familiar terms, maybe, being "rinsed clean" of expectations by others, all a little easy and not quite earning the assertion of coming back "to language like a stranger", though the final tercet earns a little more authenticity of feeling. "meteors & apples" (I never quite got that use of the ampersand in place of the and, except as an affectation) carries again a sense of pun, for "metaphors and ..." Well, I could say "and couplets", at a stretch, though maybe I've missed a trick there. But there's also the oblique dating, to last summer's riots and the Perseid meteor shower, an annual event peaking in August, so the poem feels more consciously positioned in biographical data.
The following poem picks up this thread, with the theme of bars and drinking now blending with the social politics: "again the unemployed are trained to fight / for the freedom of the wealthy". This is telling it like the speaker sees it - the fool pointing to the barbarity of protest that seems to descend into reinforcing a social status quo that isn't being fundamentally challenged by the free swag claimed from high street stores in the name of the class struggle.
The self-critique is less audible here and the selection has moved into a more familiar political pose, although the speaker's safety is acknowledged, waiting in the bar "until the flags & marching bands have gone", not a protestor, not an activist, not attempting to change the status quo. The cynical ending to this piece, remarking the hypocrisy of protests whose "vast majority / are bulldozed into pits without music", denotes also the futility felt by the speaker, who has chosen to do nothing, to believe in nothing. There's no "you" in this piece, no sense of the romantic relationship.
And so forth into the next piece, where "we are steeped in futility's juices". The opening "I" of the futility is transposed into the collective. This is fast becoming one of those conversations with a drunk in a pub that you're desperate to find a way out of. Not "we" who "wallows in oceans of emotion", but the mode of the sonnet form, of course. That's the new voicing Hughes attempts here at work against those earlier referenced "shackles of convention". He needs a way out of this pattern (and I need a way out of the pace I've set myself, hence I'm barrelling towards the final poem).
And there it is, in the final selection, poem 35 of who knows how many? Like a Peter Riley poet-tramp, this lost-at-sea social dis-/de-fector, is walking "that lonesome road", maybe too familiar from pithily complacent narratives about whistleblowing, or the "against-all-odds" stereotype of Hollywood formats. The passion this speaker carries "below the pallid surface of my skin", is reflected in "what the sky does" and the "haunted heaths" and so on - a list of natural, though displaced natural imagery that follows in the penultimate tercet.
I'm leaning now into my research into the use of natural imagery, landscape, as a foil to social conventions. It's a trope, through and through, but a worthy one. We're told by social centres of power what the land means - quantities of resource, spiritual escape, ecosystems service provision. And then we get to the land and it's sublime, it overwhelms us - it is imbued with the passion we feel when we see something we can't fully understand through the parameters we've been given to understand it with. "No yardstick", as Robert Graves said of poetry, equally true for being in the world and seeing something mankind has only shaped, not made, something that has survived our species' manufacturing of it. Hence "haunted" and "eerie", strange to the viewer, and hence that closing line to this selection: "I never find myself distant from love".
The echo with Peter Riley again - Alstonefield: a poem reduced to fourteen lines. Love, here, means something entirely different to Petrarch's lustful anthropocentrising; not the mortal and immortal forms humans aspire to, but the insufficient social norm against the individual will to change society for the better. This is indeed "God-forsaken" not only for the post-religious society we're in, but because we've made a hell of society, of class; and the land, when scaped, offers a reminder of why we believe so much in wanting a better world. The poet, here, in persona, tries to express something of the passion inspired in them by the world as it is, older than us, a reminder that this way of things didn't always exist and doesn't have to.
Experience recollected through futility for social constructs, but then back to the idea of the object of the poem as an experience in itself, one that can be as beautiful and inspiring as those themes and things represented by words. So the landscape provides a reminder of hope, a reminder that we're never quite "distant from love" when this reminder is there.
The music does more for me, as a conveyor of that experience, than the thoughts that bog it down. I personally now much prefer those brief constructions of Janet Sutherland when she gets rid of herself, or Lorine Niedecker in her later work, or HD's imaginisms. But I see the usefulness of the sonnet form for laying out the arguments in favour of that kind of work that simply inhabits the beauty of experience in language. Dare I say it's a particularly masculine ego that allies itself to the shape, to the need to argue? There, I said it. And it does, especially over the length of the sonnet sequence, restrict some of the originality of approach available in more dynamic, open modes of writing. That's the nature of compromising with a traditional form.
Hughes' selection here is a reminder, for me, of other work I've read and loved, and the many small gems accumulated in the minutiae of its progress are a sign of great craft, in turn a sign of love being poured into the work of writing. The traditional sonnet does bend a fair way in the short space of the whole that's reproduced in Tears in the Fence, but ultimately, with just one ego at work, I find the poem can too easily leave out the innovations in a more communally constructed process of expression. Riley's approach asserts the shared process behind Alstonefield that contributes to a destabilised 'I', and I imagine there's something in the covert processes doing just that here also, in how Hughes enters into dialogue with Petrarch's process, though I can't speculate much further.
I can say, in gushing and unequivocal praise, that this is the kind of exemplar challenge Tears in the Fence presents to its readers in most of its pages. And I'm especially pleased by the eco-logic at play in the first thirty pages of the magazine. (And David Caddy's editorial is marvellously considered, grounding the old 'poetry is losing sight of its audience' statement in liberal and social educational model, which might piss a few of the London garden party-goers off.)
Editor's Note: Peter Hughes has kindly pointed me to a link to the Petrarch poems in publication. See also his award winning publishing house, Oystercatcher Press.