The trigger for this particular missive was this article in the New York Times — http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&8bu&emc=bu — about the book of poems A TREATISE OF CIVIL POWER, by Geoffrey Hill. [this blog entry is excerpted/edited from a letter written on the same day that I started this blog — Jan 23, 2008] The review made me think about art, and changed some of my attitudes toward poetry — and also changed the way I read it. Here’s a bit from the beginning of the article (written by a poet as well, I discover at the end of the review)
Living With Ghosts
By WILLIAM LOGAN
Published: January 20, 2008
Gloomy poets are rarely very good, and good poets rarely very gloomy. There was Edgar Allan Poe, of course, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, denizens of that funereal, willow-shadowed decade of the 1840s, a decade half in love with Keats and half in love with easeful death. Thomas Hardy had his black moods, but also his moments of sour levity. For more than 50 years, however, Geoffrey Hill has written a pinch-mouthed, grave-digger’s poetry so rich and allusive his books are normally greeted by gouts of praise from critics and the bewilderment of readers who might have been happier with a tract on the mating rituals of the earwig.
Hill has made brutally plain that the common reader is of no interest to him. Indeed, he believes that sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse; with a withering pride he has refused, time and again, to stoop to such betrayals. This has made him a poet more despised than admired, and more admired than loved. His poetry has been composed of harsh musics, the alarums of battle and the death struggles under the reading lamp — it takes to contemplation the way some men take to religion (Hill’s relation to Christianity has been famously cryptic).
Evidently Hill’s poetry is dense with allusion, and all but requires a library and an internet connection to begin to tease the meaning apart. Generally, I have a great disdain for art that disdains the untutored consumer. Art, I think, is a means to communicate — if it is opaque and requiring of special training, then it fails, somehow. But this article gives me a different perspective (although, not, perhaps, exactly what the reviewer intended). If Hill’s poetry is a deliberate tangle of allusion, but one that can be detangled, then perhaps that is part of the fun, part of the contract. Rather than an unwarranted and arrogant assumption by the author, it could be an assumption of research. Judging from the review, this may not be the case — it may be that these poems are just a form of intellectual strutting, only intended for the informed. But that doesn’t mean that some poems could be approached this way. Near the end of the review (which is worth reading), comes this poem.
There are passages of stunning beauty, however, like views through the lens of a Leica, for which a reader will forgive many a sin.
I see Inigo Jones’s great arches
in my mind’s eye, his water-inky clouds,
the paraphernalia of a royal masque;
dung and detritus in the crazy streets,
the big coaches bellying in their skirts
pothole to pothole, and the men of fire,
the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind.
Pasted from <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&8bu&emc=bu>
So, I take the opportunity of reading this poem to read about Inigo Jones (I can’t help but think of another Inigo — of The Princess Bride — “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…” — hopefully everyone in the world will have the chance to see that movie!). In any case, Inigo Jones, although Spanish in forename, is firmly English in surname and turns out to be “the first significant English architect.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inigo_Jones
He also designed sets for the theatre — “credited with introducing movable scenery and the proscenium arch to English theatre. ” Then I get to read about the proscenium arch — a lot I didn’t know here. This leads me (right now, as I write this), in a digression, to the alley theater — one with the audience on two sides. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Theater
I hadn’t known that this was a type of theater — I grew up in Houston where I saw Huck Finn at the Alley Theatre — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Theatre — although I can’t tell if this theater is actually an “alley theater,” I do remember that the audience at least partially surrounded Huck Finn when our school went there on an excursion. (My most vivid memory is of my soda — a rare treat growing up with a “health food” mom — with the can stretched out of shape from having spent the night in the freezer.)
I also get to look up link-boy — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Link-boy — they seem to be a kind of human flashlight, carrying torches through the streets of London for pedestrians and those riding on litters. Funny that — writing this e-mail is likely preventing me from finishing that so-Victorian novel Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, wherein one old pernicious character is borne about on a litter, or carried by on or another character. (This book wins the prize for having been on my “list to read” the longest — probably 20 years ago that I first started it, and I think I’ve started it 7 or 10 more times since then. It’s good that I like the first chapter…)
Anyway, you can see what I mean — rather than seeing this as a impenetrable mass, I suck it dry as an index to interesting lore. I can’t say that I really like the poem that much, even now that I understand it. But it has, at least for the moment, meant that I read even poems that are accessible (and I still think an artists job is to communicate through his or her medium of choice)… I see even these poems with a difference. So, when The Writer’s Almanac arrives (This week I’ve started a system so I won’t miss listening to it.), when it arrives with a Poe poem that is so much Poe as to be recognizable without need for the author to be listed, and that poem has this stanza:
Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tuned law;
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
I don’t skip over the word Porphyrogene as a toddlers do, in their intelligent way — ignoring what they don’t understand, rather than puzzling over things that are likely beyond them. No frustration for them — they just move on. And so do I, I realize, trusting to the future to reinforce the tiny bits of meaning that accrue to words through long familiarity. But now I am grown, and perhaps it is worth focusing on those remaining places where I am ignorant. My vocabulary has stalled, and I will not likely run into Porphyrogene again before the traces of this encounter have been erased by the paths of so many other words streaming through my brain. And, besides, it turns out to be interesting to read about Porphyrogenita — “born in the purple” — a true child of a reigning Byzantine Emperor.
Porphyrogenita is a medieval Greek word which was used in the Byzantine Empire, meaning “born in the purple”.
The female form is Porphyrogeniti (Πορφυρογέννητη) and Latinized to Porphyrogenita. The male form is Porphyrogenitos.
Being born in the purple means that one was born as the child of a reigning Byzantine Emperor. Being Porphyrogenita added much status to a person. For males it meant they were the legitimate successors of the last emperor, and had a real claim to the throne against rebellious generals. For females it meant they had higher status as a princess and had more value if they were used in diplomatic marriages.
Examples of Porphyrogenita:
Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyrogenita>
So there, a new accretion of knowledge, knowledge without apparent purpose, my favorite kind. And from there I can slip into reading, should I wish, about Byzantine Emperors, the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire, although I don’t, since it is late.