In Defence of Pound’s Propertius – Mark Wilson

Although Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius was written in 1917 it would not appear in print until the publication of his Quia Pauper Amavi in 1919 where it elicited, in the main, negative reviews and controversy. Classical scholars scornfully critiqued Pound’s loose “translation” methods (something which still happens today) and the bold eroticism of the poem undoubtedly made the genteel Georgian literary clique wince with embarrassment. Eliot, with his usual far-too-circumspect detachment, left the sequence out of Pound’s Selected Poems in 1928 as if he too couldn’t cope with the heat that the poem had generated. Thomas Hardy was a far more perceptive reader when he gauged that Propertius had more to do with EP’s equivocal position as poet-artist in relation to the imbecility of the British Empire in 1917 and that certainly correlates with Pound’s own understanding of what he was trying to do by playing ventriloquist to Propertius in such a liberal fashion. Once more Pound was donning the mask or the persona in order to record his own emotional and aesthetic odyssey in early 20th Century Europe which was something he had successfully done with his earlier archaic, Pre-Raphaelite and Provencal troubadour efforts a few years previously. With the decorative confectionary stripped away though the effect with his books from Lustra (1915) onwards was more stark, strident and ultimately offensive to many.

Pound's Quia Pauper AmaviControversy still stalks Homage to Sextus Propertius, even in 2014. Despite the fact that the poem has been fully rehabilitated into the EP corpus and recognised as the key Pound poem-sequence, along with Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, to pre-date The Cantos. Mauberley, however, still appears to be the preferred poem amongst most readers and critics (especially in England), but there have been exceptions to this rule of course. One thinks of how Thom Gunn in the Faber Poet-to-Poet Ezra Pound volume (published in 2000) bravely chose selections from Propertius as opposed to anything from out of Mauberley suggesting more than just a millennial sea-change in fortune. Perhaps Gunn was the first to recognise that Propertius, more than even Mauberley, was Pound’s construction of a lexical matrix that configured a distinct paradigm and vision for The Cantos itself which is embedded sporadically with ‘creative’ translations throughout. For “creative translation”, as practised by Pound and others since, certainly possesses an artistic vitality that is essential if contemporary poetry (of any period) is to be reinvigorated heedless of, and despite, the many shrill voices of dissent that have railed against it for the past century since Propertius was published. However, it needs a poet of high calibre who is both skilfully inventive and fully attentive to techne, such as Pound was, to pull the feat off.

Pound’s whole approach to ‘translation’ had been foreshadowed by precursors such as Arthur Golding and Christopher Marlowe who, working in the Elizabethan era, had not only translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Amores so that English readers could enjoy this great Latin poet’s finest two works, but had also with these “translations” created powerful contemporary English poems full of the new syntax and semantic cunning of the age. Later in the 19th Century Dante Gabriel Rossetti had done a similar thing with Dante’s La Vita Nuova and Pound wrote of Swinburne’s Villon translations: “Swinburne’s Villon is not Villon very exactly, but it is perhaps the best Swinburne we have”. Of course, Chaucer, “le grand translateur”, pre-dates all these writers and is perhaps the ultimate poet-translator-exemplar that Pound was hoping to emulate most with his many “versions” and “personae”. All these historical and literary precedents would suggest that the hue-and-cry caused by Propertius or any of Pound’s translation-projects seems to be extremely strange, otiose and ill-judged. Perhaps the real problem is poets who, since Pound, have tried to be ‘translators’ in the Poundian tradition, but who lack his inherent poetic acumen and precise employment of techne to achieve success. Usually the result of these poets’ labours is a production-line of sub-standard travesties of the original authors as well as being impotent failures as contemporary poems. Of these more later.

Back to Propertius and what makes it such a great poem-sequence. Pound was usually intent on bringing out the melopoeic (musical or sonic) qualities of the intonation in his verse-craft, but with Propertius we have the sense that he was lengthening out and trying far more for logopoeic “effects” as well. The “dance of the intellect” is indeed something which resonates in the nexus of Propertius‘s phrasing. In fact, its effect is virtually noticeable in the interplay between lines which perpetually blend ultra-modern vocabulary with words that are deliberately archaic. In addition, Pound is consciously breathing out a new configuration for his cadence rather than stuffing his words into an existing and, by implication, dead “form”:

Nor are my caverns stuffed stiff with a Marcian vintage,
                       (My cellar does not date from Numa Pompilius,
Nor bristle with wine jars)
Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent;
Yet the companions of the Muses
                               will keep their collective noses in my books,
And weary with historical data, they will turn to my dance tune.

Internal rhymes, alliteration and assonance certainly create melopoeic richness, but the main thrust is definitely the logopoeic “dance” between Propertius’s 1st Century BC Rome and Pound’s 20th Century AD London. “Frigidaire patent”, “Marcian vintage” and “historical data” are as contemporaneous as most of the phrases in the English poems that were being written around 1917. They also create electrical and multi-layered tensions with the more archaic nouns: “caverns, “cellar”, “dance tune”, “companions” and “Muses”. This scintillating dance between historical epochs would be something Pound would develop more radically in The Cantos but here we have its early lexical stirrings. Despite the fact Pound is employing vers libre here there is no sense that he is “padding out” or using any unnecessary words; rather the reverse. The verbal exactitude is extremely compelling and also creates an authoritative, memorable pitch. If the translation of Propertius’ original was undeniably “free” and “libre” (undoubtedly improvised from a Latin gloss with varying degrees of accuracy) there was no doubt that Pound’s writing in English wasn’t.

One of the controversial elements of Propertius when it was published was its unabashed eroticism. Pound wrote of the mysteries of Eros throughout his career and has arguably penned some of the most beautiful poems about sexual love in the English language. The appeal of the Latin love-elegists (Catullus, Ovid, Propertius) was, therefore, a natural one for Pound. What was shocking to readers in 1919, still recovering from a repressive Victorian value-system, is obviously fairly tame to late 20th/early 21st century readers/viewers visually glutted on watershed cinema and TV, colour-gloss magazines and images freely-downloadable on the internet. Pound’s approach was far more subtle though:

How easy the moving fingers; if hair is mussed on her forehead,
If she goes in a gleam of Cos, in a slither of dyed stuff,
There is a volume in the matter; if her eyelids sink into sleep,
There are new jobs for the author;
And if she plays with me with her shirt off,
           We shall construct many Iliads.

Sextus Propertius drawingHere Pound skilfully creates the erotic medium through sheer suggestion as opposed to a blatantly coarse and gratuitous presentation. The sibilance of “a slither of dyed stuff” creates sexual tension from its provocative, and intimately whispering, noun “slither” which implies “scantily dressed” and, by a further implication, purposefully so. Meanwhile “gleam of Cos” utilises a metonym to suggest the pleasure of partially-undressed foreplay with “Cos” being, perhaps, the 1st century Latin equivalent of what “Dior”, “Armani” or “Chanel” are to 20th Century fashion-speak. However, Pound’s legerdemain with language here is subtle and exquisite, which avoids making his presentation heavy-handed or cliche-ridden. Nevertheless, the jewel in the crown of this particular cluster is: “And if she plays with me with her shirt off, / We shall construct many Iliads”. The play-off between the personal/private and the public (which is Propertius’ ongoing poetic dilemma) set-up by the allusion to Homer’s Iliad revels in the irony that the extremely public Trojan War was fought for an extremely private indiscretion by one man involving another man’s wife literally “with her shirt off”. Pound’s seemingly odd choice of “shirt” here seems to work better than the more feminine “blouse” because it suggests the active, almost “masculine”, side of Cynthia in the heated agon of her intimacy with Propertius (confirmed later in the poem with: “Struggles when the lights were taken away; / Now with bared breasts she wrestled against me”). All in all, Pound seems an extremely knowing observer of sexual mores and his masterful presentation of the acts and pheromones caused by Eros is significantly better than most poets who seek to engage in this type of verse-craft. After the stifling hypocrisy of Victorian (and, by extension, Georgian) morality Pound’s poem seems a liberating cry of honest passion forty years ahead of the sexual revolutions of the 50s/60s and the films, literature, art and other cultural phenomenon that accompanied this personal-public reawakening. It also signals the more hermetic and ritualistic “mysteries of love” and natural-regeneration passages that occur frequently in Pound’s Cantos. If Mauberley was a “farewell to London”, the English cultural scene and Pound’s previous incarnation as a poet then Propertius surely heralds a new beginning for him that would eventually crystallize into the sublime macaronic and ideogrammic tesserae of The Cantos.

In terms of Propertius as a “loose” translation or even a mistranslation this, of course, was always Pound’s intention and overriding vision for the sequence. As a poet he was far too intent in capturing something essentially living, vital and dynamic in the original, qualities that are quite beyond the usual grasp of the metronomic taxidermy of more conventional, or literal, translators. Pound’s aim with Propertius was to write a contemporary, but startlingly new, English-language poem that would transcend its time by remaining “news” and thus allow it to eventually attain “classic” status. This involved inventions of new forms, linguistic kennings and structural configurations in the English “versions” which are exploits a more conventional translator of classical poetry would not even consider let alone entertain. Propertius is definitely looser than Pound’s other translations such as his Cavalcanti, Arnaut Daniel, the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer and his versions of Rihaku/Li Po in Cathay. In fact, Pound’s use of the words “Homage to…” in the title of Propertius should have signalled to readers that a ‘close’ and accurate translation was never his prime aim or intention. “Homage to…” suggests a way of grasping something much deeper about a poet-precursor rather than just technically reduplicating their poems in the English language. Pound wasn’t even trying to palm Propertius off as accurate translation (the fact that the sequence isn’t included in Pound’s 1953 Translations is conclusive proof of this) rather he was sincerely and consciously following Chaucer, Marlowe, Golding, Rossetti and Swinburne in a creative act of pure linguistic “invention” that would produce an enduring and remarkable poem-sequence. This is proved when reading the far more accurate translations of Propertius’ poems (Constance Carrier and W.G. Shepherd’s are the translations I am most acquainted with) which seem formal and dry “plaster-casts” in comparison to Pound’s living-breathing Propertius. The original Sextus Propertius certainly wrote with more decorum in the original Latinate and elegiac constraints than the American-English verbal and vers-libre swagger employed by Pound in Homage; but Pound has certainly unlocked the inner Propertius, the man of passion, by breaking-up the line, by playing more loose with the syntax and returning to more ‘natural’ speech-patterns. If Sextus Propertius had lived in London in 1917 this is certainly a credible capturing of his idiolect:

If she confer such nights upon me,
                                                       long is my life, long in years,
If she give me many,
            God am I for the time.


And yet again, and newly rumour strikes on my ear.

Rumours of you throughout the city,
                                             and no good rumour among them.


All things are forgiven for one night of your games…
Though you walk in the Via Sacra, with a peacock’s tail for a fan.

Always Pound’s desire is to “pitch” a naturally inflected and organic “voice” which constantly surprises the reader in timely, urgent fashion whilst also being “timeless” poetry. This memorable turn of phrase is what makes Propertius such a compelling and pleasurable work which can be read many times over without exhaustion: surely the indubitable sign of a true classic. And it would also herald the way for Pound’s “free” translations of Homer, Ovid, Sappho and many others that would eventually be enshrined in the gleaming marble veins of The Cantos.

Pound's Propertius VIII

Pound’s handwritten quotation from ‘…Propertius’ 1970

Unfortunately, most of those who have tried to emulate Pound in attempting “free” or “creative” translation have failed possibly because they have lacked Pound’s linguistic acumen and vision to create something new in the English language. Robert Lowell, for example, goes for a sort of half-way house in his Imitations (1962) and the result is awkwardly unsure of itself either as accurate “translation” or inspired “invention”. Since then it seems to be quite faddish for contemporary poets, who have absolutely no knowledge of original languages, to stick a “free” translation into their collections and the result is usually an uninspiring melange that employs colloquial expressionisms far too often for “effect” but which jars tonally with the rest of the poem’s vocabulary. Christopher Logue is a supreme exception to this rule with his five-volume War Music (an unfinished “account” of Homer’s Iliad) which is a magnificent work of endless literary fascination as well as genuine semantic invention which remains true to the Homeric spirit. Another successful exception to the rule is Geoffrey Hill’s 2006 version of Eugenio Montale’s The Storm where radical invention, close attention to techne and verbal precision is unsurpassed. Pound was, of course, conversant with most of the languages he “translated” from: Latin, Italian, French, Provencal and Spanish. Critics seem to forget that, for a time, he was a university Professor of Romance languages and wrote The Spirit of Romance. He could have made ‘close’ translations if he had wanted to, but in some cases chose to translate more “freely” and “creatively” in order to create great English-language poetry.

To make conclusion then: it seems to me that there is ample literary room for both types of translation in contemporary poetry. We certainly do need accurate and “close” translations in English of poets writing in other languages in order to gauge a fair representation and true assessment of that particular writer and their work. Having said that, there is still plenty of space for poets to attempt “creative” or “free” translations so long as this is clearly stated as part of the title or in some form of appended annotation. It is also clear that only a few poets have actually possessed the poetic acumen, or commanded the necessary techne, to pull-off a “creative translation” that resulted in great literature. One of these, Homage to Sextus Propertius, is Pound’s finest work outside of The Cantos as it did, indeed, create the microcosmic paradigm and poetic conditions needed for that most colossal and vital work of Modernism to come into being in the first place.


Mark Wilson, April 2014

Mark Wilson has published three poetry collections: ‘Quartet For the End of Time’ (Editions du Zaporogue, 2011), ‘Passio’ (Editions du Zaporogue, 2013) and ‘The Angel of History’ (Leaky Boot Press, 2013). His poems and articles have appeared in ‘The Black Herald’, ‘The Shop’, ‘3:AM Magazine’, ‘The Fiend’ and ‘Le Zaporogue’.

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The Coming Trauma of Materialism – Owen Barfield

The Fiend is making available a pdf version of Barfield’s essay
The Coming Trauma of Materialism with the permission of The Literary Estate of Owen Barfield. It was first published in The Denver Quarterly in 1976, and collected the following year in his astonishing book of essays The Rediscovery of Meaning.

Born in London in 1898, poet, philosopher, author and critic, Owen Barfield studied at Highgate School, and then at Oxford’s Wadham College.

monks7.JPGowen barfieldHe first began publishing with the novel The Silver Trumpet (an influence on the early writing of both J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis) in 1925. Two books; History in English Words (1926) and Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928) followed, focussing on subjects that would become a life-long obsession; language usage in the arts and the evolution of consciousness, as well as the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner (whom Barfield later went on to translate). Throughout this period he established himself as a key member of the well-known literary group; The Inklings, centred on the Oxford pub The Eagle and Child, and then in other locations around that town.

There followed a long period where Barfield worked for his father’s law firm Barfield and Barfield, beginning in 1929, and through WWII. After the war his literary creativity seems to swell once more, with many works, including Unancestral Voice, History, Guilt, and Habit, Romanticism Comes of Age, What Coleridge Thought, The Rediscovery of Meaning, Speaker’s Meaning, Worlds Apart and Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry as well as many novels and poetry. Many of his works of criticism allowed him lecturing opportunities, particularly in the U.S, where his work is perhaps more well known than in the U.K. The last surviving Inkling, he died in 1997.

His many books have, in the last few years, been reprinted by Barfield Press, headed by his grandson Owen Barfield Jr. All things Barfieldian (including a full bibliography) can be found at the website for his literary estate.

Some video introductions can be found on the internet, also. The later documentary Man and Meaning is an excellent overview, while the Cambridge poet Malcolm Guite‘s youtube presentation on Barfield (part of a series on The Inklings) is also well worth watching.

Thanks go to Owen Barfield Jr. for granting permission on this piece.

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from St. Mawr – D. H Lawrence

[this section of the story describes the aftermath of the character Rico's riding accident (Rico is Lawrence's fall guy for the 'bad artist' type) and the thoughts of the main character, Lou Carrington, immediately following. - Ed.]

There lay Rico, crumpled and rather sideways, staring at the heavens from a yellow, dead-looking face. Lewis, glancing round in a sort of horror, looked in dread at St. Mawr again. Flora had been hovering.–She now rushed screeching to the prostrate Rico:

“Harry! Harry! you’re not dead! Oh, Harry! Harry! Harry!”

Lou had dismounted.–She didn’t know when. She stood a little way off, as if spellbound, while Flora cried: Harry! Harry! Harry!

Suddenly Rico sat up.

“Where is the horse?” he said.

At the same time an added whiteness came on his face, and he bit his lip with pain, and he fell prostrate again in a faint. Flora rushed to put her arm round him.

Where was the horse? He had backed slowly away, in an agony of suspicion, while Lewis murmured to him in vain. His head was raised again, the eyes still starting from their sockets, and a terrible guilty, ghost-like look on his face. When Lewis drew a little nearer he twitched and shrank like a shaken steel spring, away–not to be touched. He seemed to be seeing legions of ghosts, down the dark avenues of all the centuries that have lapsed since the horse became subject to man.

And the other young man? He was still standing, at a little distance, with his face in his hands, motionless, the blood falling on his white shirt, and his wife at his side, pleading, distracted.

Mrs. Witt, too, was there, as if cast in steel, watching. She made no sound and did not move, only from a fixed, impassive face, watched each thing.

“Do tell me what you think is the matter,” Lou pleaded, distracted, to Flora, who was supporting Rico and weeping torrents of unknown tears.

Then Mrs. Witt came forward and began in a very practical manner to unclose the shirt-neck and feel the young man’s heart. Rico opened his eyes again, said “Really!” and closed his eyes once more.

“It’s fainting!” said Mrs. Witt. “We have no brandy.” Lou, too weary to be able to feel anything, said:

“I’ll go and get some.”

She went to her alarmed horse, who stood among the others with her head down, in suspense. Almost unconsciously Lou mounted, set her face ahead, and was riding away.

Then Poppy shied too, with a sudden start, and Lou pulled up. “Why?” she said to her horse. “Why did you do that?”

She looked round, and saw in the heather a glimpse of yellow and black.

“A snake!” she said wonderingly.

And she looked closer.

It was a dead adder that had been drinking at a reedy pool in a little depression just off the road, and had been killed with stones. There it lay, also crumpled, its head crushed, its gold-and-yellow back still glittering dully, and a bit of pale-blue showing, killed that morning.

Lou rode on, her face set towards the farm. An unspeakable weariness had overcome her. She .could not even suffer. Weariness of spirit left her in a sort of apathy.

And she had a vision, a vision of evil. Or not strictly a vision. She became aware of evil, evil, evil, rolling in great waves over the earth. Always she had thought there was-no such thing–only a mere negation of good. Now, like an ocean to whose surface she had risen, she saw the dark-grey waves of evil rearing in a great tide.

And it had swept mankind away without mankind’s knowing. It had caught up the nations as the rising ocean might lift the fishes, and was sweeping them on in a great tide of evil. They did not know. The people did not know. They did not even wish it. They wanted to be good and to have everything joyful and enjoyable. Everything joyful and enjoyable: for everybody. This was what they wanted, if you asked them.

But at the same time, they had fallen under the spell of evil. It was a soft, subtle thing, soft as water, and its motion was soft and imperceptible, as the running of a tide is invisible to one who is out on the ocean. And they were all out on the ocean, being borne along in the current of the mysterious evil, creatures of the evil principle, as fishes are creatures of the sea.

There was no relief. The whole world was enveloped in one great flood. All the nations, the white, the brown, the black, the yellow, all were immersed, in the strange tide of evil that was subtly, irresistibly rising. No one, perhaps, deliberately wished it. Nearly every individual wanted peace and a good time all round: everybody to have a good time.

But some strange thing had happened, and the vast mysterious force of positive evil was let loose. She felt that from the core of Asia the evil welled up, as from some strange pole, and slowly was drowning earth.

It was something horrifying, something you could not escape from. It had come to her as in a vision, when she saw the pale gold belly of the stallion upturned, the hoofs working wildly, the wicked curved hams of the horse, and then the evil straining of that arched, fish-like neck, with the dilated eyes of the head. Thrown backwards, and working its hoofs in the air. Reversed, and purely evil.

She saw the same in people. They were thrown backwards, and writhing with evil. And the rider, crushed, was still reining them down.

What did it mean? Evil, evil, and a rapid return to the sordid chaos. Which was wrong, the horse or the rider? Or both?

She thought with horror of St. Mawr, and of the look on his face. But she thought with horror, a colder horror, of Rico’s face as he snarled Fool! His fear, his impotence as a master, as a rider, his presumption. And she thought with horror of those other people, so glib, so glibly evil.

What did they want to do, those Manby girls? Undermine, undermine, undermine. They wanted to undermine Rico, just as that fair young man would have liked to undermine her. Believe in nothing, care about nothing: but keep the surface easy, and have a good time. Let us undermine one another. There is nothing to believe in, so let us undermine everything. But look out! No scenes, no spoiling the game. Stick to the rules of the game. Be sporting, and don’t do anything that would make a commotion. Keep the game going smooth and jolly, and bear your bit like a sport. Never, by any chance, injure your fellow-man openly. But always injure him secretly. Make a fool of him, and undermine his nature. Break him up by undermining him, if you can. It’s good sport.

The evil! The mysterious potency of evil. She could see it all the time, in individuals, in society, in the press. There it was in socialism and bolshevism: the same evil. But bolshevism made a mess of the outside of life, so turn it down. Try fascism. Fascism would keep the surface of life intact, and carry on the undermining business all the better. All the better sport. Never draw blood. Keep the hemorrhage internal, invisible.

And as soon as fascism makes a break–which it is bound to, because all evil works up to a break–then turn it down. With gusto, turn it down.

Mankind, like a horse, ridden by a stranger, smooth-faced, evil rider. Evil himself, smooth-faced and pseudo-handsome, riding mankind past the dead snake, to the last break.

Mankind no longer its own master. Ridden by this pseudo-handsome ghoul of outward loyalty, inward treachery, in a game of betrayal, betrayal, betrayal. The last of the gods of our era, Judas supreme!

People performing outward acts of loyalty, piety, self-sacrifice. But inwardly bent on undermining, betraying. Directing all their subtle evil will against any positive living thing. Masquerading as the ideal, in order to poison the real.

Creation destroys as it goes, throws down one tree for the rise of another. But ideal mankind would abolish death, multiply itself million upon million, rear up city upon city, save every parasite alive, until the accumulation of mere existence is swollen to a horror. But go on saving life, the ghastly salvation army of ideal mankind. At the same time secretly, viciously, potently undermine the natural creation, betray it with kiss after kiss, destroy it from the inside, till you have the swollen rottenness of our teeming existences.–But keep the game going. Nobody’s going to make another bad break, such as Germany and Russia made.

Two bad breaks the secret evil has made: in Germany and in Russia. Watch it! Let evil keep a policeman’s eye on evil! The surface of life must remain unruptured. Production must be heaped upon production. And the natural creation must be betrayed by many more kisses, yet. Judas is the last God, and, by heaven, the most potent.

But even Judas made a break: hanged himself, and his bowels gushed out. Not long after his triumph.

Man must destroy as he goes, as trees fall for trees to rise. The accumulation of life and things means rottenness. Life must destroy life, in the unfolding of creation. We save up life at the expense of the unfolding, till all is full of rottenness. Then at last we make a break.

What’s to be done? Generally speaking, nothing. The dead will have to bury their dead, while the earth stinks of corpses. The individual can but depart from the mass, and try to cleanse himself. Try to hold fast to the living thing, which destroys as it goes, but remains sweet. And in his soul fight, fight, fight to preserve that which is life in him from the ghastly kisses and poison-bites of the myriad evil ones. Retreat to the desert, and fight. But in his soul adhere to that which is life itself, creatively destroying as it goes: destroying the stiff old thing to let the new bud come through. The one passionate principle of creative being, which recognises the natural good, and has a sword for the swarms of evil. Fights, fights, fights to protect itself. But with itself, is strong and at peace.


220px-StMawr‘St. Mawr’ is a short novel or novella written by D.H Lawrence. It was first published in 1925.

The heroine of the story, Lou Witt, abandons her sterile marriage and a brittle, cynical post WWI England. Her sense of alienation is associated with her encounter with a high-spirited stallion, the St Mawr whose name provides the title for this tale. She eventually settles in a remote ranch set high in the mountains of New Mexico, near Taos.

Lawrence wrote most of this brief novel whilst spending five months of the summer of 1924 at what is now known as the D.H Lawrence Ranch, a property which he and wife, Frieda, acquired from Mabel Dodge Luhan earlier that year.

‘St Mawr’ first appeared in ‘St Mawr and Other Stories’ which, in addition to the novella, consists of two short stories ‘The Overtone’ and ‘The Princess’, and two unfinished stories ‘The Wilful Woman’ and ‘The Flying Fish’. All these works were written during Lawrence’s stay in America between 1922 and 1925.

[book background courtesy of wikipedia. 'St Mawr' is in the public domain.]

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John Olson – Two Prose Poems

Whereby the World Smacks of Mackinaw

I assume my existence is a republic of blood and bone and that we walk through ourselves to places of beauty in a revealing intuition of consciousness as a form of headlight. It is in this sense that a book exists as distinct from its author, moss amid moss in the milieu of its solitude, lady bells and a garden in Montmartre. A bottle of wine travels through itself. It is in itself only nothingness, a shine in the blood whispering eventual sleep.
            Paris glimmers in the evening. I am only my perceptions. Death is a theater in which I will one day play a role. Meanwhile one can give being to a transcendent nothingness and go on one’s way, cast oneself into the flux of existence, diversions and chocolate and long walks in the rain.
            Being is everywhere. A Picasso trembles with the sugar of appearance. Exasperation heats a language detached from its destiny. One can conceive of a creation as a calliope of smells, an admonition of pins designed to stimulate beatitudes of ardor and hammer. An amber emotion softens the touch of day. My cuts are healing. Perception is a creative event, and there is redemption in this paradigm. Images run to agree with it. Subtlety grows wings. The dirt smells richly of pain and labor. The railroad unrolls in the distance. Truly, my shoes are literal shelters for my feet. I am like an emotion flapping in the wind. I could be employed as a ribbon on a box of spiders or the slow drool of honey from a spoon.
            One can see where this theory is leading. The puddle hugs the sky in its reflection and the skin at the elbow has long been a fascination for my fingers when the spirit of idleness has presented itself and the problems of others tossed in my mind like a green salad with anchovies and cheddar. Food for thought, as the saying goes.
            What can the relativity of being mean if the being finds its being in something other than itself? The slow white groan of raw sienna.A jar of candy.A tonic in F minor.A sentence boiling with windows and cerulean dossiers of hypnopompic shampoo.A basket of laundry barking at a pair of freshly creased pants.
            Language is the shadow of reality. It can do and say what it wants and yet reality will go on shaking and percolating as if nothing had happened. Things give themselves to us as appearances and we convert them to sermons. The greenhouse mimics the heat of the tropics and bromeliads dazzle us with shape and color. I feel a little sweat trickle down my back. Waves of intoxicating fragrance remind us that a little moisture can tingle on the skin like a thesis of undulation. And so we widen our lens and see that the world is with us in some way, not against us, but mingling itself with our desires in such manner that no pleasure is exempt from pain but is a blend of pleasure and pain and our dreams are sewn with the thread of sleep.
            Being is what it is. A skull whose two holes were eyes.The feel of a feather on the skin.



How Far Can I Go?

How far can I go without arriving anywhere? Consciousness moves toward the meaning of being and finds a dynasty of sense in a gumbo of words. Being is opaque to itself because it is filled with itself and this filling is the emptiness of a street swirling with snow.
The pulse of a peacock is soft as punctuation. Consciousness, which is the punctuation of being, is an abstraction in which carbohydrates wear the fog of time and sensations corresponding to the tenderness of mushrooms and beans give us the mystery of one another. An ocean climbs into speculation and extrudes prophesies of salt. The ocean recedes leaving a wet slick sand addressed to a shadow, a comet’s tail tasting of ice and metal.
            Thus, the ocean is a great power, and should be nailed to the wall, where it may be viewed at our pleasure, that is to say its image rendered in watercolor, for the guests of the motel. The cars repose in the night. They are parked at angles. A pop machine hums. Palm trees whisper to the moon,and the adult in 3C stirs with childhood memories, making the bedsprings squeak.
            What is this planet we call home? What is it? It is more than a rock. More than a ball of water. More than its clouds and mountains.
            What is it?
            It glitters in its rhythms. It rolls through space marbled with clouds, blackbirds and orchards, catwalks and broth. Creatures emerge from the water and begin to speak. Their words glare of abstraction.
            What is this light? How does it serve the meaning of the dark?
            Due to the requirements of language, everything is infrared. Space and light are married in emulsion. A patch of trembling flowers are spirits that strain to speak.
            A kitchen knife shares the air with a glass of grape juice. But my God, what happened to the butter? It has melted into the shape of a sparrow. And the bread is a page in the chapter of an invocation.
            All consciousness is consciousness of something. Even a spoon accommodates the rising sun by providing a palette for its heat and light. A smooth silver curvature with a handle whose tip depicts a tangle of vegetation.
            What more can I say?
            Let our blood warm the leather of our inquiry. As for Nothingness, it, too, has a truth to tell. The non-being of being topples into the sentence like a load of whipped cream and puzzles the will to express some authority over it. But nothingness is, after all, nothing, and there is nothing to say to nothing but whatever rolls from the mouth, and that may be an apple, or the representation of an apple, which implies the absence of an apple at the same time it presents the appleness of an apple.
            The rest is silence.
            And bananas and cherries and jujubes and dates.




John Olson is the author of eight books of poetry, his most recent being ‘Larynx Galaxy’ from Black Widow Press. He is also the author of three novels, including ‘The Seeing Machine’, about French painter Georges Braque, ‘The Nothing That Is’, an autobiographical novel presented from the 2nd person point of view, and ‘Souls of Wind’, in which French poet Arthur Rimbaud visits the United States in the 1880s and meets Billy the Kid while on a paleontological dig in New Mexico, which was shortlisted for a Believer book of the year award in 2008. He is the recipient of ‘The Stranger’s Annual Genius Award’ for literature in 2004 and was one of eight finalists for the ’2012 Arts Innovator Award’.

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Andrei Bely – Three Poems


In fields hopeless and dumb
Droops the pale-bladed grain;
It is dozing and numb
Amid dreams that are vain….
With a high sudden hum
The field tosses its mane:
“Unto us Christ is come!”
The wild news shakes the plain.
Like a wind-beaten drum
Shouts the quivering grain.

The bells ring soft and slow,
There is clamor and pain
In the church, and a low
Voice is lifted again
That reiterates: “Woe!”
To the poor folk and plain
Are brought candles aglow:
“Christ is coming again!”
But with voices of woe
They file doorward, in pain.



The shining and ponderous goblet
I empty: the earth drops below me,
All things sink away, —I am treading
Cold space—the vast void—the dim ether.
But distant, in ancient space looming,
My glimmering goblet: the Sun.

I look—far below me are lying
The rivers, the forests, the valleys,
Estranged in the vanishing distance.
A cloud, blowing fog on my eyelids,
Trails gossamer gold in its going.

The flickering landscape is burning
Its last: mid-day stars newly-kindled
Look into my soul, sparkling: “Welcome,”
With radiance silently streaming:
“The end of long wanderings, brother,
Lies here, in your motherland, welcome!”

Slow hour upon hour in procession,
Slow centuries, smiling, pass onward.
In ancient space proudly I lift it,
My glimmering goblet: the Sun.


(Opening poem of the “Funeral Mass” cycle)

“You sit on the bed there
In the sunset’s full crimson,
Pillows crumpled,
Looking distracted, —what
Troubles you?”

                                  “Oh, swept by
                                  Gold cataracts,
                                  The fir-tree tops
                                  Loom athwart the sky’s blue.”

“Orphaned, alone, I shall
Through summery
Twilights and Winter nights.
There are new flights, but
Try them I dare not.
Oh, do not die!”

                                  “Oh, above the pines
                                  I float off into æther seas.
                                  Who, there, what, there,
                                  Swathes the sky with whitenesses,
                                  As with vestments of silver?”



Andrei_Bely_(1910s)Reared in a professorial atmosphere, in which science was the major element, Boris Bugayev, better known under his pseudonym of Andrey Bely, has lived a double life of artist and analyst. The artist was engrossed in problems of form. He created an interesting, experimental genre which he called “symphony,” with cadenced prose, verbal instrumentation and musical development of themes. The analyst, on his part, used mathematical formulæ on the poet’s fine frenzy, inaugurating a science of rhythmics, at least for the Russians. Yet Bely is no æsthete, but a mystic, who gropes toward the light of Christ, “the timeless taper,” and who lives by the uncertain hope of the ineffable coming. The  metaphysical conflict is constantly invading the field of his poetic endeavor, until his lyrics become the battle-cries of his spiritual journeys. He is responsible for more theorizing about symbolism than any one else, ‘Weltanschauung’ and almost intto an ethics.

His poetry is rarefied and difficult. Its delicate imagery is but an overtone of a resonant spiritual note. His poems have an esoteric quality which is also evidenced in his two famous novels, “The Silver Dove” and “Petersburg.”Through both moves a curious counterpoint of the apocalyptic and the homely, muffled by theosophic speculation.

The proletarian revolution elicited from Bely a cycle of poems, suggestively entitled “Christ is Risen!” Herein he envisions Russia, of which he once despaired, as the new Nazareth. Quite Recently he completed the first part of a monumental epic planned for ten volumes.

[from the original introduction to the poetry of Andrey Bely in Modern Russian Poetry; An Anthology translated by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky (Bodley Head, 1923). Bely went on to produce numerous works of critical prose, memoir and fiction. He died in Moscow in 1934.]

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Selections – J. Karl Bogartte


They might wallow in the arcs, licking down the precious curve, eyes pinned for lepidoptera, whispering eccentricities, a very silent gasp. You fulfill the desert spaces, inflowering arc. The languid fruit of torches. A conspiracy of starry nights left unattended… Unexplained…


Darkness is a tribal chant. An affair of agitation. Unthinkable germination.


Memory is that clock ticking in the dark, flooding the room with pearls, setting fires in a way that enables a sense of pathos with long painfully soft envelopes addressed to “the way she moves.” A poisonous flower crushed between your legs. A melancholy gesture, between shadows.


The future belongs to the assassin and to the bride in transition indistinguishable from a literal translation. Her portrait is a window dragged out of darkness and wiped with blood. She is the knife splitting tongues to facilitate silence with barely detectable movements, sliding into desperation. Twin solutions of the bird of prey. Forked. Improper negotiations can be fatal without an impenetrable shield. Daylight is no longer logical.


Always your movement implies a forgery of the double-cross, to increase light, moving to conspire appropriately. A mothering device hidden among fractures, synaptic decisions, “the way her index finger barely insinuates a decisive affliction” and “Oh, but she has not been here for many years…”Pouring gold into unavoidable cracks.


The distance between you and your emulation is exceeded only by the claw marks on the door to your last identity, to the cluster of lasting impressions, ambiguous remarks, embedded codes, punctuated sighs, the rattle of evening horns and the guards, drugged and dreaming. You have no plans to return. There is no silence more luxurious than this. No meanings sufficient enough… Shadows penetrate words.“But, you will return… inevitably figured, deciphered, with other words, a deeper hunger, your body transparent as light…”


Grace is the art of luring ravenous dogs into a state of springtime.


The word arouse deliberates in unseemly fashion, stalks the flight of stairs just ever so slightly above the phrase: “There is nothing to question, only the light hovers in its cage”,andlife in the garden is rancid with constant trembling, a garden in a frenzy on the other side of the street, another world undreaming itself.


No one wanders the perimeters without slouching, or without lunar diversions tending to throw the scent like a voice across a lake, allowing for invisible passage. Rubbing females together produces a sound unlike any other, and always causes a sudden change of weather, like a hurried change of clothing, in the dark, in the middle of a recurring dream.


Writing in the dark is swallowing light, a face of Alexandrian spindles in fierce combat with rapidly stroking lynx, your image smeared. Fatal to the touch, throwing capillaries. She is tantamount to a fire-glance, transmitting seeds that sting and flare up, warming the roots, a friction of the foreground. A pathology of arousal in clairvoyance, glistening stains. Listening with rain.



Animating the solitude of helmets intimidating night-hungry theatre. An illusionary pandemic of darkness, lamping, lymphing, crawling along the edges, converging, that ridiculous light from your body clears away whatever debris resists it. Slipping into an unspoken “touché.” The dead man’s bluff. A sequence of events not ordered by insanity of reason…


The sun inside, on the other body of the moon, spitting out the pearls of dawn… “no, swallowing them…” The leper’s kiss, a hive of bright planets under your dress. The deer legs, the fire skimming across the water, interrupted by speaking, throwing words, conspiring to contaminate, spilling a flesh-like fog. Resistance is a derisive luminosity. a desert council on the prowl…


Threading each selection for acute proximities against aggressive numbers, shadowy and seductive numbers, those in the ambush and the clustering. To repeat “the shadow” and “the reflection” as often as necessary to affect an unreasonable glow. Where variance is the opposite window, opening the double-cross, throwing magnets to destabilize the arrival of appearances. Where they are visible only in the dark…


The solace of the hunt, scent of the sense that seeing takes your eyes through the forest, and through the city walls, fire of the kill, virtues of a higher order of gravity…


Aspects of prediction, reasonably troubled, perturbing the edges in a quandary of caresses to outline the inner constellations, fragments of silence to raise sirens, a species of phantom to contain your body, intact and bewildering and albino. The torn layers of a ghostly body, the necessity of an encoded species that forms the nervous system of all that swims and then dives, jarring the bell, somewhere… “your identities are revolving in the archives.”


What is lucid in your presence, however tentative, is the attitude of transparency, in its active state, which is a furious refusal – not simply to mystify, but to remove all doubts. The sense of nakedness violated with pleasure, and disfigured with a passion to exchange places, when the landscape intervenes. To visualize fire, engender it, yet remain nebulous and orphaned by chance, and choice, firing through the ashes… The virus of a window.


They pinnacle in the garden and fabricate spirits, grappling with tokens wrapped up in the radiant slime of merging, and hiving, in dark corners. Sistered and daughtered… Licking up your breath, splatters, subliminal attitudes of a fresh kill, sipping blood from parted lips.


Your shadow thrown, pinnacles into mistaken identity, extracting a sunken awareness of regal disproportion.A lunar pelvis breaking silence into the hemophilia of a nightly charade. Hypnos is a shattering device. A tincture of warring presence.


Theatre of mutation, following the caress. Movement of the body following the hands, stillness of your shadow, eating her way out of abundance and annotation, a babel, jabbering in Arabic. Priming the seizure, spawning against the current. La Mandrágora…


The distance between presence and pleasure is the speed of light, the revolving effigy reduced to the intrigue of desolate angles. On a pedestal fed with womanly delight, the broken vessels release the devastation of your whispers. The cinema opens on a street of suspicion, where your gestures outline the sense of emitting slender crystals, your sign, passport into the forest, where mummies are wrapped and numbered 1 thru 21 and spun into gold. You feed provocation its bright and ignoble splendor.


“There’s an idiot savant wrapped in the wings. The lamp is a curtain call of surprise endings, a fortune-teller’s demise and the howling of chance. Your blood is the taste of a winning number and a mercenary sense of living without the gravity of targets. I am your precious barricade, and your singular urge. I am your instinct, teeth sinking into all that shimmers in your heavy warmth…”



J. Karl Bogartte

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Selected Artworks of Martin Cibik

(mixed media)


Ganesh (painting)


Koala (drawing)


Square in the Field (photograph)



Martin Cibik was born on the 12th March 1980 in Slovakia. He writes; “I finished my secondary school where I studied Textile Design (Trencin, Slovakia) achieving a General Certificate of Education as Fashion Designer. After a short time I decided to change my career and pursue different kind of jobs. I have achieved success in a number of art competitions and won some prizes with my photography and drawings too. In 2006 I spent six months on the Greek islands, which was a great inspiration for me. In 2008 my steps were directed toward the UK. After studying two levels of English Language at City College I finished with a Certificate at Cambridge University. Since then I have settled down a little bit and have finally had some more time for my art. In 2013 I joined PAOS and held my first exhibition in the UK. My this year exhibition will be at the Art in the Heart gallery in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, UK. My life is connected with creating since I remember. My art is based on the experience, emotions, energies and whole range of consciousness-states such as waking, dreaming, transcendentalism and world of illusions. I am interested in Shamanism, Meditation, Lucid dreaming, OOBE and development of consciousness. I am trying to show with my art something which is paradoxically without a physical form. (Even though I am using some kinds of form such as animals etc.) You don’t need to understand it with your everyday mind, but when the piece is good it will fit into your subconscious part like a key. For example: if I can connect myself to the healing energy, I open up and let the energy flow to the paper or canvas. The energy, with my little help and guidance, will create some physical pattern of itself. So open your minds and let the experience begin.”

He has a website and can be contacted at:

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from Body Electric – Robin McLachlen

a pdf excerpt from a section of McLachlen’s long poem; Body Electric, entitled Manipur, can be downloaded here:

Manipur – Robin McLachlen

Robin McLachlen is the author of Turn ( 2009). He rarely updates his blog.

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Poems and Drafts – W. B Yeats

Love and Death

Behold the flashing waters,
A cloven, dancing jet,
That from the milk-white marble
For ever foam and fret;
Far off in drowsy valleys
Where the meadow-saffrons blow,
The feet of summer dabble
In their coiling calm and slow.
The banks are worn for ever
By a people sadly gay:
A Titan, with loud laughter,
Made them of fire and clay.
Go ask the springing flowers,
And the flowing air above,
What are the twin-born waters,
And they’ll answer Death and Love.

With wreaths of withered flowers
Two lonely spirits wait,
With wreaths of withered flowers,
‘Fore paradise’s gate.
They may not pass the portal,
Poor earth-enkindled pair,
Though sad is many a spirit
To pass and leave them there
Still staring at their flowers,
That dull and faded are.
If one should rise beside thee,
The other is not far.
Go ask the youngest angel,
She will say with bated breath,
By the door of Mary’s garden
Are the spirits Love and Death.


Love Song
(From the Gaelic)

My love, we will go, we will go, I and you,
And away in the woods we will scatter the dew;
And the salmon behold, and the ousel too,
My love, we will hear, I and you, we will hear,
The calling afar of the doe and the deer.
And the bird in the branches will cry for us clear,
And the cuckoo unseen in his festival mood;
And death, oh my fair one, will never come near
In the bosom afar of the fragrant wood.


The Danaan Quicken Tree

It is said that an enchanted tree grew once on the little lake-island of Innisfree, and that its berries were, according to one legend, poisonous to mortals, and according to another, able to endow them with more than mortal powers. Both legends say that the berries were the food of the ‘Tuatha de Danaan’, or faeries. Quicken is the old Irish name for the mountain ash. The Dark Joan mentioned in the last verse is a famous faery who often goes about the roads disguised as a clutch of chickens. Niam is the famous and beautiful faery who carried Oisin into Faeryland. ‘Aslauga Shee’ means faery host.

Beloved, hear my bitter tale! —
Now making busy with the oar,
Now flinging loose the slanting sail,
I hurried from the woody shore,
And plucked small fruits on Innisfree.
(Ah, mournful Danaan quicken tree!)

A murmuring faery multitude,
When flying to the heart of light
From playing hurley in the wood
With creatures of our heavy night,
A berry threw for me—or thee.
(Ah, mournful Danaan quicken tree!)

And thereon grew a tender root,
And thereon grew a tender stem,
And thereon grew the ruddy fruit
That are a poison to all men
And meat to the Aslauga Shee.
(Ah, mournful Danaan quicken tree!)

If when the battle is half won,
I fling away my sword, blood dim,
Or leave some service all undone,
Beloved, blame the Danaan whim,
And blame the snare they set for me.
(Ah, mournful Danaan quicken tree!)

Cast out all hope, cast out all fear,
And taste with me the faeries’ meat,
For while I blamed them I could hear
Dark Joan call the berries sweet,
Where Niam heads the revelry.
(Ah, mournful Danaan quicken tree!)


Against Witchcraft

May this fire have driven out
The Shape-Changers that can put
Ruin on a great king’s house
Until all be ruinous.
Names whereby a man has known
The threshold and the hearthstone,
Gather on the wind and drive
The women none can kiss and thrive,
For they are but a whirling wind,
Out of a memory and mind.
They would make a prince decay
With light images of clay
Planted in the running wave;
Or, for many shapes they have,
They would change them into hounds
Until he had died of his wounds,
Though the change were but a whim;
Or they’d hurl a spell at him,
That he follow with desire
Bodies that can never tire
Or grow kind, for they anoint
All their bodies, joint by joint,
With a miracle-working juice
That is made of out of the grease
Of the ungoverned unicorn.
But the man is thrice forlorn,
Emptied, ruined, wracked, and lost,
That they follow, for at most
They will give him kiss for kiss
While they murmur, ‘After this
Hatred may be sweet to the taste.’
Those wild hands that have embraced
All his body can but shove
At the burning wheel of love
Till the side of hate comes up.
Therefore in this ancient cup
May the sword-blades drink their fill
Of the home-brew there, until
They will have for masters none
But the threshold and hearthstone.



Some nineteen German planes, they say,
You had brought down before you died.
We called it a good death. Today
Can ghost or man be satisfied?
Although your last exciting year
Outweighed all other years, you said,
Though battle joy may be so dear
A memory, even to the dead,
It chases other thought away,
Yet rise from your Italian tomb,
Flit to Kiltartan cross and stay
Till certain second thoughts have come
Upon the cause you served that we
Imagined such a fine affair:
Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery
Are murdering your tenants there.
Men that revere your father yet
Are shot at on the open plain.
Where may new-married women sit
And suckle children now? Armed men
May murder them in passing by
Nor law nor parliament take heed.
Then close your ears with dust and lie
Among the other cheated dead.



Yeats Variorum EditionThis selection comes from ‘The Variorum of W.B Yeats’ (1940, the latest reprint in 1977) with all these versions being uncollected at Yeats’s death, and (to this editor’s knowledge) uncollected in all newer editions of his poems. ‘Love and Death’ was printed in ‘The Dublin University Review’, May 1885. ‘Love Song’ is one variant from ‘The Irish Fireside’, September 1887. ‘The Danaan Quicken Tree’ was printed in ‘The Bookman’, May 1893. The note, after the title, is Yeats’s own. Readers of Yeats’s plays may recognize the next piece; which was originally published under this title; ‘Against Witchcraft’, in ‘The Shanachie’ in Spring 1906, but is more well known as a slightly emended section from the play ‘On Baille’s Strand’ (text printed, London 1907). ‘Reprisals’ is perhaps the most obviously recognisable to modern readers, being a draft of the poem  ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, and printed in ‘Rann / An Ulster Quarterly of Poetry’, in Autumn, 1948, and again in ‘Icarus’ (Trinity College Dublin), May 1956.

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Two More Prose Pieces – George Barker

Poem in an Orange Wig

Schoenberg-Arnold-10[1936]‘Personally I feel as though I was drowning in a sea of boiling water.’ This is the sentence uttered by Schoenberg when he was invited to describe his life as a composer. He went on: ‘One is swimming, one is struggling toward something, but one does not know what. One is tired, and wants to stop. But how can you stop in the middle of a sea?’ Schoenberg, now, has reached his destination: he is dead. But he was wrong. That superb rhetoric, ‘How can you stop in the middle of a sea?’ is a question that several contemporary poets could answer without hesitation. I know one who has stopped off at a charming Victorian residence in the north of England and another who dragged himself out onto the clashing rocks of the British Council.

My point is this: It is not such men who are to blame. They would indeed be deficient in the elementary impulse of self-preservation if they had not accepted the salvation offered to them by Providence. No, it is destiny who elects those she intends to favour with her sanctuaries or her boiling seas. I do not for one moment believe that if Schoenberg had come upon a straw in his boiling  sea he would have deliberately declined to grasp it. For, if he had been capable of refusing any such assistance or amelioration, then demonstrably his boiling sea was not very hot water. The truth is that destiny, and by that I mean the character of the man, comes up and presents to the individual the things he wants in the disguise of the things he deserves. It is the psychosomatics of biography. If Schoenberg had really wanted a luxury liner to appear on the horizon of his spiritual loneliness, it would have done so. It did, in fact, when he was invited to write the musical score for a film called The Good Earth. But, of course, he did not believe in the liner; he thought that it must be a mirage. He asked for an enormous sum of money, such as only a luxury liner could afford to pay. ‘If I’m going to commit suicide,’ he said, ‘I might as well live in luxury afterwards.’ The liner disappeared. For this particular man it was an hallucination.

The subject I essay to discuss is a matter of some importance to the poet in our present society. It is not a question of the honesty of the artist, or the integrity of the artist, or the dedication of the artist. All these follow upon the initiatory mystery. This is the character being made by the man into an instrument that attracts to itself only those things that, in spite of all the laws of self-destruction, ultimately must preserve it. I should not call this integrity, because it is in no sense moral. I would call it Providential, because it takes its origin outside the man himself. This is why we say that poets are born and not made.

poem in an orange wigThe reason the poet has become the enemy of society (seen in terms of the over-all scheme of things) is because only the enemy within the gates can report anything like the truth. It is to his advantage to do so, or he will very soon become converted to his own misrepresentations; and this is a definition of society. For the poet, society is an institution dedicated to the pursuit of its own lies. It is the moral duty of the poet to speak about these lies; it is what makes him a poet, and it is also what makes him an enemy of society. And by the lies of society I do not mean such expediential variations on the truth as the figures of casualties in the Battle of Britain or who first really discovered America. I mean the lies that society promulgates about its own motives and intentions, its real as distinct from its apparent purposes, its elevation of hypocrisy into a heretical religion of classical cynicism. In a society such as ours is now, only the police and the politician can find a congenial place—the police because they do not have to justify themselves at all, the politician because it is universally assumed that he lies. In this paradoxical sense only the policemen and the politician are honest. Everyone else subscribes to the preservation of an order in which he is desperately uncomfortable and necessarily dishonest. And I am not speaking ideologically or politically; I am speaking in terms of human dignity. Against the underground and concealed, as well as the open and demonstrable, dissimulations of such a society only the poet can really speak without reservations. Because he has at least become an almost total outcast from these institutions. The truth of this remark was not conclusively attested by an article I came across some time ago entitled ‘Are Poets Necessary?’ But this article was an indication. By a society in such a state of demoralized confusion the poet must be rendered unnecessary because he might otherwise prove to be fatal.

Atom Bomb ImageThe fact that all this might seem to be exaggerated poppycock could give us an idea of how our postulates may already have been undermined and vitiated. For all I seek to assert is the spiritual irresponsibility of a world that pays millions of dollars for a bomb and forty shillings for a poem. Nor is this assertion as fatuous or as naïve as it sounds, for we have become quite inured to the disparity between the price of bombs and the price of everything else. So inured, indeed, that it is salutary that we should remind ourselves, every now and then, that this is by no means a natural state of affairs, ordained by the heavenly engines. It is not. There is, in fact, only one thing in common between poems and atomic bombs: this is the law of unpredictability.

I feel, more and more, that I really know nothing about society except that I don’t like it, and nothing much about poetry except that I do like it. And the affection I have for the art of poetry seems to increase in proportion to my disaffection from society. This is, of course, a simple admission of escapism. But I suggest that it is human and natural and even sensible to try to escape from a condition one finds unpleasant and unprofitable. Only the British War Office would blame a man who wanted to escape from the presence of TNT. It is a perfectly natural impulse. And only those people who are thoroughly and painfully caught up in it really experience a desire to escape from the vicious treadmill of contemporary society. I do not believe that the highest function of the poet is to perform a sort of social service for the soul. The action and influence of poetry upon the spirit of a nation—if poetry has any influence upon this spirit at all—is infinitely less direct. The Muse, like all clever women, works her will upon things in a much more roundabout way.

This issue, the social responsibility of poetry, is one with which poets have always been very puzzled and concerned. And they have never been more concerned about it than during the last twenty years. It is less so at the immediate present. In the Thirties a handful of serious poets did their best to persuade society not to commit suicide. But now the poets have nothing much to do except to preside at the funeral ceremonies, to drink, to remember, to honour, to elegize. This is not an unprecedented state of affairs. Other poets in other places have been called upon by history to compose the obituaries of a civilization.

Ezra-Pound-006It is never very necessary to tell contemporary society what, if anything, is good and right about it, for the reason that its highest value for us is the simple fact that it is contemporary. As regards any other merits it might have, these things are subject to distortion in the eye of the observer. I believe that Ezra Pound is the best poet alive, but this is a conviction I could not really defend, in spite of the assistance offered by Mr. Peter Russell. I see Pound’s poetry through pink spectacles. But whether the spectacles are on my nose or the nose of the poems I do not know. What I know about his poems is that they are alive and kicking and compete with a cinema and psycho-analysis and love affairs and all the paraphernalia of twentieth century life. But this can be said about the poems of all serious modern poets.

To me the most remarkable thing about contemporary poetry is that it is not in fact very remarkable. I mean simply that in the colourful strutting of the various arts and sciences up and down the avenue, it is, nowadays, much easier to remark other arts, or any one of several sensationalistic sciences. The wallflower is the poetry. She, however, is really, all the better for looking less like a streetwalker than, say, contemporary painting. The reason is that poetry, when a trifle too much attention is paid to her, tends to exaggerate her inborn flirtatiousness. She becomes a bitch. Bitches are females who indulge in their femininity with a too melodramatic self-congratulation. They are women or poems who neither desire nor are desired as much as it seems. I think it fortunate that the art of poetry is not, at this particular time, particularly fashionable. It is in less danger now than it was ten years ago of walking around wearing a ridiculous hat just because it knows that people are looking at it. There was that time when the Muse found it expedient to disguise herself as a workman, a proletarian boy, a psychoanalyst, and a Hyde Park anarchist, all within the space of a year. This versatility—the poem as soap-box, the poem as axe-grinder, the poem as confessional, etc., —although all this is in the long run salutary for the constitution of the art because it makes for a toughening up of the thing, has, at the same time, one immensely dangerous consequence. It persuades the poet that his poems might reasonably do all sorts of things that poems constitutionally cannot do. I do not believe that poems can by a direct operation discourage the immoralist or improve the growth of barley or cure the stammer. At best they can speak the truth as they see it about men and events. But from this operation all kinds of mysterious consequences follow.

I have spent a lot of time looking for an image that might convey to others what I saw, rightly or wrongly, the poetry of things to be in its nature. I was very young when I saw the oyster  as the symbol of the poet, covering his personal and impersonal sensibilities and wounds with the nacreous excreta of the poems. This was a modest and—within limits—a fairly felicitous image. (I have since discovered that this symbol like so many of the most dramatic symbols in latter-day literary criticism, is the original property of Robert Graves). But it happened to leave out much more than it accounted for. We all know the consolations that the writer finds in his doodling and the drunk in being sick. Then, later, committed to the conviction that you cannot find an equation for poetry other than the various individual poems that go to make up all poetry, I saw the symbol of poetry as the recurrent seven of mathematics. It was a sort of formalized aperture in the human intellect through which reality entered or escaped. And through this aperture the vision of the poet gazed down from the altitude of the imagination. It gazed down and made comments. The comments are the poetry. I can illustrate, perhaps a little obscurely, what I mean if I put a line of Dante’s against a remark of Voltaire’s. Doctor Pangloss knew that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Dante said:

In his will is our Peace

The difference is simple. Voltaire is angry and resentful at the disgusting conditions of human existence. He has got some reality stuck in his gullet. Dante is contemplating human existence from a rarer atmosphere—he has digested reality and observed with an act of imaginative vision. When Blake wrote:

If the Sun and Moon should doubt
They’d immediately go out

it was an imaginative affirmation which Voltaire, that professional question mark, would, I suppose, have found mere gibberish.

I want to revert for a moment to a former subject of these remarks: the likelihood that poets are about to be starved out of existence. This eventuality may appear, to a nation in the throes of impending bankruptcy, as an inconvenience of very minor proportions. In a world where everything else is expendable, why on earth not poets? But this is not an exact statement of the facts. The truth is that a new conception of the expandable has arisen in our society. We know only too well that the  necessities of life are not what they once were; but certain things are still necessary, if only a dotted line and some characters to inscribe upon it. But the exact interpretation as to what the necessities of life in truth may be, this is the first social responsibility of the poet. Those ideals from which we draw our notion of what is and what is not necessary to our existence are ideals interpreted to us not by politicians or policemen but by poets. They are established by saints and interpreted by poets. These ideals can never be very clearly discerned by the world at large, because it is going about its more immediate business all the while. This is why the world at large finds it hard to believe either in the existence of such ideals in the first place, or that such ideals have anything to do with writing poems. That there is a relationship of blood between the death of Captain Scott and the heroic ideal of John Milton is not so far-fetched a speculation as all that. Our conceptions of moral grandeur are not derived from an accidental picking and choosing among precedents; they are put upon us by the electors of moral categories, and these are poets. The saint is inceptor.

The English heroic ideal got itself perfectly enunciated in Paradise Lost. It is an ideal of Justice. The hero is a man prepared to take the consequences. This ideal is no less perfectly dramatized in the death of Captain Scott. I am not saying that Scott died because Milton wrote an epic. I am saying that Scott died a death  for whose moral grandeur Milton could be held in part responsible. The spiritual indigence of the world as it is now cannot entirely be divorced from the frivolity of those poets of the First World War who gave us harrowing snapshots of trench warfare instead of a new conception of moral grandeur. We inherited from the Georgian poets a handful of dirt containing a single primrose and the badge of the Artists’ Rifles. Only one of them dared to speak about war without hysteria and with an impersonal pity, and his work alone survives. It is Wilfred Owen, and to him alone, that the young poet of our time can turn in the expectation of finding affinities. The only sentence that has come down to us from these remote and clay-footed oracles is the sentence: ‘The poetry is in the Pity,’ This pronouncement constitutes the sum total of their serious speculation on the nature of poetry. Apart from this statement of Owen’s we have nothing much except the haberdasher whimsy of Housman’s disclosure that poetry is what makes the beard bristle. From the death of Tennyson to the publication of ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’ is the era of the vegetable allotment; and in consequence we have inherited the ethical conceptions of under-gardeners and floriculturists.

SaturdayRev-1960oct22I conclude with a fable about a poem in an orange wig. This poem, with its wig slightly askew, was strolling up and  down Piccadilly, but obviously not for good. A gentleman with a notebook approached the poem and said in a cold voice: ‘It is time all good poems were home in bed.’ But the poem took no notice. It strolled on humming and winking and making a spectacle of itself. At this the gentleman with the notebook shouted out loudly after it: ‘You must be a very bad poem because you are not at all like my wife.’ Still the poem in the notebook, who was an American critic, called out, ‘All poems in orange wigs are immoral.’ At this the poem halted and turned around. ‘Dear Doctor,’ she said, ‘I must tell you one thing. You know I’m dumb. But, fortunately, I am also deaf.’ And went on down the street, but not for good.


[Subsequently published in Saturday Review, October 1960]

Poet as Pariah

There is a perfectly serious prospect of a decline in the experimental writing of young poets for the simple reason that they can no longer write as they wish to write and eat at the same time. Nor is this because of any fault of manual dexterity on their part. It is already impossible for them to drink and write as they wish: the beer is no longer singing beer. Now this brings about a state of affairs in which the classical tenets of English poetry are threatened. The poet needs three things in order to go on being a poet: Milton described these as simplicity, sensuousness and passion. I put it as a dictionary, alcohol and love. It is still possible to buy a tolerable dictionary for a few shillings; and, once you have bought it, you are hardly tempted to pawn it. But the price of alcohol and love, in a world full of Americans and hate, has risen in precise proportion with the cost of living. And the cost of living is no longer reducible to a matter of what I will term, for the sake of the phrase, mere economics. The expense of spirit in a waste of shame has also to be calculated. Not all poets are Robert Graves, who can write a profitable novel with one hand and an exquisite lyric with the other.

I have heard that some poets now get jobs, on the British Council, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the British Railways. But I cannot forget the way in which Rainer Maria Rilke felt about this matter; he said that for him a job was like death without the dignity of death. Nor has enough been made of the simple argument that writing serious English poetry is a full-time occupation. A certain amount of reading has to be done, a certain amount of writing has to be done, a certain amount of living has to be done. Even a certain amount of loving has to be done, if you can come upon anything worth it. Being a poet is about as full time a job as being a Virgin with a Lamp. The poet will no more be forgiven if he is found, when the angel calls, collating material for $_35the British Council instead of cultivating his hysteria and his garden, than any other purveyor of an empty lamp. This is not to say, categorically, that a man cannot write poetry and hold a job at the same time: for this enviable ambidexterity has in fact been performed by one or two poets. I believe that Mr. T.S Eliot once worked in a bank, and Gerard Manley Hopkins for the Society of Jesus. But between these two men and their everyday work a curious affinity must have existed. The proprieties of Eliot’s critical writings: apparently well behaved and respectable, each conceals a ruthlessness and a hardheadedness that I cannot think the author of ‘After Strange Gods’ would have found uncongenial. I write as a Roman Catholic when I say that, for me, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry and ideology owe as much to the Church as they do to the Muse. So that I cannot believe he was much more miscast in the Society of Jesus than a man with toothache is in a dentist’s chair.

And so it is that some poets come to find a category in the system of society where they need feel little dissatisfaction. For, in spite of everything adduced to disprove it, poets are also human beings. I believe it would have been perfectly possible to take Baudelaire’s pulse; but it would be much more hazardous to think of a job in which he could have been moderately contented. I can see him as a spiritual spiv, a sort of Raffles of Heaven, but never as an executive of a French Council or a secretary to an institute for contemporary art. For the prototypical poet is probably a spy and his name Christopher Marlowe. But the difference between the poet as professional spy and anyone else as a professional spy is simply this: Marlowe, like a good poet, spied for  both sides. The life, ignominy, and death of Francis Thompson; the life, ignominy, and death of Christopher Smart; the life, ignominy and death of Edgar Allan Poe—and of so many others—come much nearer to the common destiny of the poet than the elevation of Tennyson to the peerage or the promotion of X, Y, or Z to the Poetry Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain.

This is not a matter, though, for the law of averages of the arithmetic of the insurance broker: it is a question of the relationship between the poet and society. I believe this is a state of irreconcilable enmity. And in this irreconcilable enmity the poet has more often been worsted, to all appearances, than society has been. The poet is an enemy of society: I take this to be axiomatic. Why, therefore, should the poet expect anything from society but discouragement? It is the old Platonic chestnut, and the answer to it is infinitely simpler than the apparent paradox implies. Just as society encourages the scientist to set about the business of destroying everything, in the disguise of intellectual curiosity, so society should, properly speaking, be prepared to encourage the poet in his business of showing society why it is not fit to survive, or alternatively, why it is. But society does not really want to hear the truth about itself; and demonstrably prefers the flattery of the film director to the few home truths of the poet. It is absolutely hopeless to talk about whether poetry is wanted by society. Poetry is one of a number of things that happen to people whether they like it or not: it resembles boils in adolescence or flirtation between the sexes. It is here, like the far side of the moon, to stay, even though, in disappointment and indignation, it has turned its face away.

The enmity between the poet and society will never subside, in spite of some poets being conciliated or converted by gifts such as title, appointments, rich wives, popularity, or medals from the King. It will never subside, because the day that the poet capitulates to society he ceases to be a poet. This fact Plato knew perfectly well, and so did Arthur Rimbaud, and so did William Wordsworth. But no matter how desperate the effort made by any single poet to conform, he will remain, in so far as he remains a poet, remain a pariah, a scapegoat, an unacknowledged criminal at large. It is not an accident that so many poets have come to violent or horrifying ends: the reason is that, overcome, perhaps unconsciously, by their sense of guilt at being the opponents of the established order, such poets resort to all kinds of narcotics, whether liquor, sex, drugs, or anything else, eventually destroy the poet because he wants them to. I believe that Ezra Pound is the greatest poet alive now, and where is he? He is locked up in a lunatic asylum for having held much the same kind of political convictions as a thousand other Americans. And he was not locked up for being a great and famous poet who had gone wrong—he may be a great poet but I very much doubt if one American in a hundred has ever heard of him—he was locked up for being a poet who said what he thought. If the entire German nation can be subjected to a process called denazification, I can see no reason why Ezra Pound should not be given a warm bath, deprived of his green and black shirts, and liberated. He is not treated in this fashion, because he is a poet. America could do no more bring herself to release Pound from his asylum than a queen bee allows the drone that had fertilized her to survive.*

Ezra_Pound_1945_May_26_mug_shot-208x300Society ascribes heavy responsibilities to its poets—that is what Shelley was referring to in the bit about the ‘unacknowledged legislators of mankind’ —and for this reason fears them. They may, at any moment, spill the gaff. So society can deal with them in only two ways. They can be bribed, or they can be nobbled. Wordsworth was bribed, Pound has been nobbled. Yeats could no more have been either bribed or nobbled than the big stone of Blarney Castle. The only gift he had was the gift of the gab. No, someone should inform established society that it can impose no punishment upon its poets more thorough and more condign than to leave them to the anguish of being themselves. For where the human being stews in his own juice the poet boils in his own poison.


*Pound’s later release from St Elizabeth Hospital does not, I think, confute these speculations. I suggest that he was released in the end because he was believed to have been rendered harmless.

george barker essaysGeorge Barker (26 February 1913 – 27 October 1991) was an English poet and author, born in Loughton, near Epping Forest in Essex, England, and a contemporary of the poets Dylan Thomas, W.S Graham and David Gascoyne. Go to the full author bio at The Fiend’s ‘Two Prose Pieces’ for more information.

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