Pendragon Lectures XIV



 It seems that, in poetry terms, being PC means being Politically Correct, & that means liking excessively intellectualised poetry & felling superior about it.

 David Sneddon

So, this is gonna be my last lecture for a while: I did intend doing two years worth, then reduced that to just 18 posts, & now I’m gonna close things up at 14 – at least for a while. We’ve had a good run; I hoped to have introduced two new poetic forms into the English medium – that is the Tamil Kural & my new adaption of the Chaunt Royale; I have unearthed some of the greatest Romantic poetry in a dusty corner of Sir Walter Scott’s long forgotten ouevre; & I have shown how poets have somehow lost their way from the true Parnassian path, replacing meaningful didacticism with a cliquey, post-graduate pomposity that has alienated the common man from the art, as reflected in its ever-dwindling book-sales.

Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon

A clear example can be found in an elegy by Irish poet, Paul Muldoon (b.1951, Armargh), called Incantata.

I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow
colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera,
as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca
glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink
spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,
when you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy,
and held the print of what looked like a cankered potato
at arm’s length—your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh’s.

Even Lugh of the Long (sometimes the Silver) Arm
would have wanted some distance between himself and the army-worms
that so clouded the sky over St Cloud you’d have to seal
the doors and windows and steel
yourself against their nightmarish déjeuner sur l’herbe:
try as you might to run a foil
across their tracks, it was to no avail;
the army-worms shinnied down the stove-pipe on an army-worm rope.

It goes on  – & on – & on – like that for ages & ages & ages. A confusing morass of mimesis that I bet Mr Muldoon doesn’t understand himself. Maybe I’m just to dumb to get it, but poetry should really about the people it speaks to, & especially the language in which the communication takes place – for me, the driving force behind poetry is the living entity that is the language in which it is communicated. If no-one understands it, then what is the point. I must admit, at times in the creation of my epic voice for Axis & Allies, I too have been guilty of over-intellectualisation – but the epic is a different beast than an elegy, & how can we mourn somebody we do not know if we are prevented from making an emotional connection to their spirit through sound & clear imagery.



The next poem is also by an Irish writer of the same era, Paul Duncan (b.1944, Dublin). I’m going to give in full;

I am hiding from my father
On the roof of Joyce’s Tower
In Sandycove.
He is downstairs in the gloom
Of the Joyce Musuem
Exchanging euphemisms with the curator,
The poet Michael Hartnett,
Meteorological euphemisms
Wet & cold for June.

I am standing at the battlements.
I am eighteen years old.
The battle is whether or not
He will buy a copy of Ulysses.
It is a battle about money
But it is a battle alos about morality
Or ‘morals’ as it is called.
It began this morning at the breakfast tabnle
When I asked him for twenty-one shillings
To buy a copy of Ulysses.
He refused on the grounds that on top
Of it being an outrageous sum of money
Which a poorly paid judge could ill afford
It was a notoriously immoral book.
Even the most liberal-minded Jesuits
Had condemned Ulysses
As being blasphemous as well as pornographic.

My mother jumped around form the kitchen sink:
‘Give him the money for the wretched book
And let the pair of you stop this nonsense
For pity’s sake.
Will we ever see peace & sense in this house?’
My father stomred out of the kitchen,
The Irish Independent under his arm:
‘I’ll not be party to subsidising that blackgaurd
Bringing works of blasphemy into this house.
In the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred & sicty-three
I will not be an accessory to blasphemy.’

I caught the 46A bus out to Joyce’s Tower
Newly opened as a museum.
The curator offered to share with me
A carafe of vodka left over
From a literary soiree of the night before.
It was the day after Bloomsday.
Monday, 17 June 1963.
We sat in a compatible silence,
Contemplatively, affably,
Until upheaval of gravel
Eradicated reverie.
I rushed to the door & glimpsed
My father at the foot of the iron steps.
I climbed up to the roof, hoping to hide
From him up there in the marine fog,
Foghorns bleating in the bay.

I hear footsteps behind me, I know it is he.
He declares: ‘I suppose we will have to but that book.
What did you say the name of it is?’
I tell him that the name of it is Ulysses.
I follow him down the staircase & he submits:
Mr Hartness, I understand
You stock copies of a book entitled Ulysses.
I would like to purchase one copy of same.’
‘Certainly, Your Lordship, certainly,’
Replies the ever-courteous, Chinese-eyed curator.
When from his wingbacked chair behind his desk
He takes from a drawer
A copy of the jade-jacketed Ulysses,
The Bodley Head edition,
My father asks him if he would have brown paper
With which to wrap the green, satanic novel,
Make a parcel out of it.
The curator peers into a wastepaper basket
‘Made by the Blind’,
As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.
Formally, he hands it over to my father,
As if delivering to some abstract & intractable potentate
A peace gift of a pair of old shoes.
My father pronounces: ‘Thank you, Mr Hartnett.’
The curator, at his most extravangantly unctuous, replies:
‘Very glad to be able to oblige you, Your Lordship.’

My father departed Joyce’s Tower with the book.
The next day when I asked my mother if she’d seen it
She said it was in their bedroom beside my father;’ sbed.
Her bed was beside the window & his bed
Was between her bed & the wall.
There it was, on his bedside table
With a bookmarker in it – a fruitgum wrapper –
At the close of the opening episode.
When a few weeks later
I got to reading Ulysses myself
I found it as strange to my father
And as discordant.
It was not until four years later
When a musical friend
Gave me my lessons
That Ulysses began to sing for me
And I began to sing for my father:
Daddy, Daddy
My little man, I adore you.

There’s no accounting for taste, but for me that is one hell of a beautiful poem. There’s even a wee-spot of overintellectualisation going on, as in the big-worded;

As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.

But it doesn’t matter, as the rest of the poem has a beautiful eerie sublimity, that quality so perfectly understood by the first century AD writer Longinus. Here are a few extracts from his great work, ‘On the Sublime,’  as important as any other classical  text on the poetic art.

 Sublimity is an echo of a noble mind… a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse. It is the source of distinction of the very greatests poets & prose writers & the means by which they have given eternal life to their own fame. For grandeur produces ecstasy rather than persuasion in the hearer; & the combination of wonder & astonishment alweqays proves superior rto the merely persuasive & pleasant. This is becasue persuasion is on the whole something we can control, whereas amazement & wonder exert invincible power & force & get the better of heevery hearer… 

All such lapse in dignity arise in literature through a single cause: that desire for novelty of thought which is all the rage today… nothing is so damaging to a sublime effect as effeminate & agitated rhythm, phyrrics , trochees & dichorei: they turn into a regular jig. All the rhythmical elements immediately appear artificial & cheap. Being constantly repeated in monotonious fashion without the slightest motional effect. 

Phrases too closely knit are also devoid of grandeur, as are those which are chopped into short elements consisting of short syllables, bolted together, as it were, & rough at the joins

Zacharias Pearce's Longinus
Zacharias Pearce’s Longinus

Excessively cramped expression also does damage to sublimity. It cripples grandeur to compress it into too short a space. I do not mean proper compression, but cutting up into tiny pieces. Cramping mutilates sense; brevity gives directness. Conversly with fully rextended expressions; anything developed at unseasonable length falls dead

To these scathing comments against poetry  of the unsublime, we can see how the infectiousness of overintellectualisation has spread thoughout the poetical aether in Shelley’s;

There must be a resemblance, which does not depend on their own will between all the writers of any particular age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live; although each is in a degree the author of the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded. (from the Preface to the Revolt of Islam)

All Im trying to say is that a poet should be striving for sublimity – to say what they have to say with a simplicity & beauty not found in high-minded, cleverly rampant wordplay where no-one has a clue whats going on. So with that, I shall close my lectures (for now) – for I have some composition to do in the far north of Scotland.

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