Wednesday, 30 November 2011

'Static Poltergeist Fury'

I have uploaded my article '"Servant to the Stars": Non-Form in Iain Sinclair's Essay Form' to Scribd, where it can be read here. Originally a paper delivered and distributed at the City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair conference at the University of Greenwich in 2004, it is previously unpublished. 

Sinclair, early Lukács, Siegfried Kracauer. A Marxist account of the vulnerability of the risk-taking creative individual. These days I'd be more eager to try to use an existentialist concept, of the unconditioned, to wonder about the subject's autonomy.

I am looking forward to reading Iain’s Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime, set to be published tomorrow.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Reading with Vision, part 3

Here's the third section from my essay on the poetry of Vernon Watkins.

Beyond Knowledge in the Vermilion Chambers

The Infant Joy is beautiful, but its anatomy
Horrible ghast & deadly! nought shalt thou find in it
But dark despair & everlasting brooding melancholy!

Looking back on his work in the preface to The Firewall, Iain Sinclair identified the forms of spiritual life, the spirit-lives, to which he has most aspired: ‘they were the double lives I wanted most, film and poetry.’ His description of the ‘film’ side of the equation in terms of ‘unanchored imagery’, suggests his understanding of spiritual activity as work with images – visions – without referents; work with views that are not necessarily interpretable in connection with a material grounding. ‘Cinema and its bastard off-spring, television, is the addiction, always: unanchored imagery, analgesic colours.’ Sinclair’s poem ‘Friendly Fire’ (included in The Firewall) indeed speaks of ‘light beyond interpretation’. In Watkins this contrast, between light or visions and all our wordy intellection, is particularly prominent in ‘Sea-Music for My Sister Travelling’.

Come down, I say,
Deluge of light, and drown the words’ inflection,
Rush through the luminous, coiled, vermilion chambers,
Shatter the labyrinths white,
And ruin all the mind remembers;
Come down, great Resurrection [78]

Watkins values the inside of the shell: the involution, the spiritual calm ‘too far away/ For thought to find the track’ [181]. But its flooding by light does not correspond to cognitive wipe-out. When shattering light, ‘unconscious glory’, disintegrates language it prepares for expansive renewal through the release of new potentialities.

What thought a thoughtless moment will express;
The unconscious glory brings its undertone.
Or how can thought be magnified, unless
The unknown god begets upon the known? [421]

In ‘The Replica’, a waterfall shows how the fragmentation of language can return us to the ‘thoughtless moment’ with its rhythm of a ‘perpetual music’, and its capacity to enrich insight beyond secular rationality.

The dissipation of unnumbered drops
Vanishing in a dark that finds itself
In a perpetual music, and gives light
In fading always from the measuring mind:
Such is the waterfall [263]

‘Prime Colours’ memorably imagines the operation of the secular interpretative ‘measuring mind’ belonging to ‘cramped, figured scribes, distorted by possession’:

One man may count, with imitative hooves,
The huge, high landscape that another loves,
Empound the apocalypse, till truth is pent
To satisfy the turnstiles of a tent.

But the following stanza foresees the subversion of such positivistic, accumulative research by dissipation, a humble dust-shedding – shedding of over-materialistic, empirical fragments – which releases new spiritual creation within the supernatural realm of the sky.

Vast libraries vault their dead, but I can trust
White dust to resurrect the moving dust,
White dust of donkeys shedding dusty loads
Where swallows’ wings paint Zechariah’s words. [6]

If it is indeed possible to trace a twentieth-century visionary poetic lineage – say (to list only a few markers) from David Jones or David Gascoyne, through Celan and Watkins, Raine/Temenos and on to Sinclair – then one notable instance of the contrary measuring mind, as noticed by Sinclair in his Lights Out for the Territory, would be the very Cambridge, literary-critical secular reason which fostered my own doctoral research on him. Observing the questioning Cambridge response to his publicizing of the visionary at the 1991 Shamanism of Intent event in Uppingham – ‘the younger, immodestly articulate element seethed with discontent’, and felt that ‘the whole approach to the numinous was suspect’ – Sinclair saw that the young academics were charging shamanism, particularly in its Sixties inflection, with ‘woolly thinking’. In Sinclair’s view, some sort of positivistic measuring mind was still demanding ‘genuine and visible scholarship’ from a ‘”shamanic” text’. In my slightly later experience of it, the covertly antimaterialist Cambridge philosophy of Simon Jarvis in fact instead encouraged my own inchoate suspicion of positivist method, and also directed me to the potency of language’s sacred capacities – amongst many other things, not least The Fall and its transcendental capacities. But there was nonetheless obviously a Cambridge resistance being made to the absolutism of London visionary proclamation: in supervisions I was a truculent student, a troubled post-cockney too full of Blakean moralisms. The academic resistance in Cambridge more generally was, I would now suggest, essentially to Sinclair’s claim to an accessible visionary experience – to what he himself calls (in Lights Out) his ‘rhetoric, the hyperbole’ – and also to his personal investment in the visionary as a repository of truth and value. Faith, against the facts. Prynne’s relation to shamanism, by contrast, Sinclair argued, offers a ‘measured risk’: the visionary poetic of ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’, supported by a bibliography, has not – to quote Blake, in Milton – ‘cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration’.

The whole point is to understand and move on…not hold seminars or open fucking web pages. [Smith]

In ‘The Room of Pity’, Watkins wrote of how ‘God’s heart beat seconds where there was no clock’ [13]; our experience of the sacred cannot be grasped by a perception which would divide it up and classify it into so many ‘rotten rags of Memory’. In a way bibliographies, websites and sacred texts themselves – when read as classificatory accumulations of spiritual knowledges – are only so many cognitive clocks. Supports of our fake human claim to omniscience, they become measuring tools for the faithless, weapons in the academic battle for mundane status. A ninth-century Indian mystic cited by Buber, Bayezid Bistami, prayed: ‘My God, it is not asceticism that I need, not knowledge of the Koran by heart, and not science; but give me a share in your mysteries.’ In 1848 Kierkegaard similarly expressed his dislike of the unnecessarily quasi-clerical character of mass Bible-reading – ‘a scholarly and legalistic type of religiousness, sheer diversion. A sort of “learning” in that direction has gradually found its way down to the commonest class and no human being reads the Bible humanly any more.’ The crux of the problem was ‘always this sham that one must have the learning in shape before one can begin living – which means one never gets around to the latter’. Kierkegaard, Diogenes Allen wrote, ‘claims academia has forgotten what it is to be an actual existing human being searching for truth’.

The ‘truths revealed by Scripture’, Allen goes on to argue, ‘must be considered by the mind of a person, and in particular the mind of a person who recognizes his or her incomprehensible nature, his or her insufficiency, his or her plight’. Buber called his anthology ‘[a presentation of] personal confessio’. Smith advised Middles, writing his book, to ‘just do the bits that are natural, that are of real interest to you, not the best bits, just the bits that mean something to you’. It is indeed difficult to imagine a visionary less scholarly or legalistic – or more committed to the personalized performance of lyric scriptures – than Smith. The Fall can be situated, in a way, in the Existentialist tradition of Kierkegaard and Allen – the band’s name is, after all, lifted from the Camus novel La Chute, published in English in 1957 as The Fall. Kierkegaard’s attack on the professionalizing ‘sham that one must have the learning in shape before one can begin living – which means one never gets around to the latter’, was echoed by Smith’s comments at a music and politics summit at the offices of New Manchester Review, in 1977. ‘People, especially working-class kids, are inhibited from trying to play because of the expertise of music-college groups like the Pink Floyd. But punk rock has shown that they can do it.’ Something like a Protestant nurturing of personal spiritualities, spiritual expressivities – Blakean ‘infinite talents’ – is a core goal of the ‘working class intellectualism’ propounded by The Fall.     

As is rapidly becoming the case in the United Kingdom, the US is composed of fine unique people with infinite talents ruled and bullied by indecisive publicity seeking political incompetents who are allied with the hopeless and un-intelligent media, bullshit academics, and a Martian-like led civil service. [Smith, Cleveland travelogue]

Deep Conflict is the Forge

What is then to be done? A one-time academic reader, all I can suggest is that we learn – somehow – to read visionary language with more generous vision. But this virtue involves struggle, just as did the creation of that language. For Weil, ‘that action is good which we are able to accomplish while keeping our attention and intention totally directed towards pure and impossible goodness, without veiling from ourselves by any falsehood either the attraction or the impossibility of pure goodness.’ This is one point where Weil’s ethics converges with her aesthetics, since she concurs with Buber that whilst ‘the ecstatic cannot say the unsayable’, the visionary nonetheless ‘speaks, he must speak, because the Word burns in him’. ‘The beautiful poem’, Weil goes on to write, ‘is the one which is composed while the attention is kept directed towards inexpressible inspiration, in so far as it is inexpressible.’ It was just this sort of stressed direction of attention which Watkins, in ‘The Death Bell’, saw lying behind visionary understanding or perception:

Deep conflict is the forge
From which their faiths emerge
Who give to humankind
Mind that is more than mind. [213]

In a 1949 letter to Michael Hamburger, Watkins contrasted the conflicted soul to the secular poet, whose work derives from a rationalist contemplative attitude.

What I look for first in a poet is intensity, and you have this. A poem must, for me, contain intensity in a unique form, impossible to paraphrase without loss. It is found in Hölderlin constantly. But large tracts of contemporary verse derive from a speculation situation allied to lucidity of thought; and there is everything there except the soul.
Watkins’s conception of the deep spiritual conflict from which visionary understanding can emerge is analogous to Buber’s conception of the burning ‘Word’.

For the Word burns in him. Ecstasy is dead, stabbed in the back by Time, which will not be mocked; but, dying, it has flung the Word into him, and the Word burns in him. And he speaks, speaks, he cannot be silent, the flame in the Word drives him, he knows that he cannot say it, yet he tries over and over again until his soul is exhausted to death and the Word leaves him. This is the exaltatio of the one who has returned into the commotion and cannot resign himself to it; this is his insurrection, the insurrection of a speaker: related to the insurrection of the poet, slighter in possession, mightier in existence, than his. This is the bending of the bow for the saying of the unsayable, an impossible task, a labour in the dark.   

The burning Word, through or conveying which the post-ecstatic seeks to pass towards expression of mystical experience, finds a further instance in Hildegard von Bingen’s comparison of visionary words to ‘a vibrating flame’ (quoted in Buber’s collection).

For in this vision I am not taught to write as the philosophers write. And the words in this vision are not like the words that sound from the mouths of human beings, but like a vibrating flame and like a cloud moving in pure air.

In ‘Yeats’ Tower’, Watkins wrote likewise of ‘this fire which never formed a school’ – in the hearing of which a ‘seed’ of salvific visionary perception is nurtured.

Surely the seed that stirs beneath this touch
Hears in its ear the wand within the wind,
The miraculous fire from which all years have waned.
This, if it moves, must heal the martyr’s wound:
O under grass, O under grass, the secret. [13]

In ‘Demands of the Muse’ Watkins lets the Muse articulate the conviction that it is precisely uncategorizable visionary passion, our struggling, self-conflicted fire which never formed a school, which lends poetic language its meaning:

Yet, though a school invoke me, it is he [the poet]
I choose, for opposition gives those words
Their strength; and there is none more near to him
In thought. It is by conflict that he knows me
And serves me in my way and not another.

Burning words are humble and submissive words in that the poet’s integrity is shaped by necessary difficulty: ‘The bit is tempered to restrain his words/ And make laborious all that’s dear to him./ So he remains himself and not another.’ [282] Yet burning words, Watkins feels, can be precise words too. ‘Dawn fires kindle perfection like a sword.’

To have held through hail, stormwinds, and black frost in darkness
Through the long months, gives meaning to the bud when it opens.
Song loses nothing of moments that are past.

So my labour is still: it is still determination
To resolve itself slowly in the weathers of knowledge. [392]

Weil shared Watkins’s sense that visionary understanding is indirect, even unending, and involves laborious struggle, yet can be supported by linguistic precision achieved through a slow resolution. ‘Intelligence can never penetrate the mystery, but it, and it alone, can judge of the suitability of the words which express it. For this task it needs to be keener, more discerning, more precise, more exact and more exacting than for any other.’ 

Final part to be posted next week.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Margaret Whitford, 1947-2011

Kathleen Lennon has published an interesting obituary of the feminist philosopher Margaret Whitford in the current issue of Radical Philosophy (170, Nov/Dec 2011). You can read it here.

I think a lot of these ideas are particularly pertinent to Susan Howe's project of creative scholarship: My Emily Dickinson....

Monday, 21 November 2011

Reading with Vision, part 2

Here's the second part of my long essay on Vernon Watkins from 2007.

Downcast Lids

Henry Leroy Finch’s beautiful and clear-sighted study, Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace, underlines the convergence of Weil’s thought with the visionary hermeneutics which I am attempting to develop from Watkins’s poetry here. In Waiting on God Weil suggested that our attention – visionary understanding – could be radically passive, radically female: ‘our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it’. Likewise, Weil’s own ‘messages’, Finch writes, ‘are messages of grace, received by those who wait and not by those who grasp’. Finch notes how post-Marxist Weil – like Watkins in ‘Rebirth’ – valued sacred human understanding over progressivist will and effort:

Simone Weil is the opposite of a secularist, because for her a true human culture comes from beyond the merely human. Science, art, poetry, music, philosophy, to the extent that they come unannounced to human attention waiting in patience, she calls forms of the implicit love of God; they are sacred deliverances. This is not romanticism or sentiment because it is not egotism. True making, like true doing, is not ours.

The understanding of knowledges, such as Watkins’s lyric visionary knowledges, as ‘sacred deliverances’, opens up – Finch sees – an emphasis on the common ‘vulnerability and dependence of each of us on others, which is our initial situation in the world’. Finch takes from Weil a Blakean critique of ‘masculine authority’, or of ‘the discipline of the powerful God of authority’; the sort of hierarchical, utilitarian, jobsworth discipline which, often in pseudo-feminist garb, controls today’s academic study of literature. ‘Simone Weil’s God of grace is a God divorced from power and necessity, which are after all nothing to admire and worship.’ The supernatural influence of the divine in human affairs, for Weil, is ‘decisive but subtle’ and ‘entirely beyond human control’. ‘The human principle, like Plato’s Good, has an inexorability about it too, but it is a providential one beyond natural causality. Higher dimensions show themselves only at scarcely recognizable points. This is how love makes itself felt.’

Ah dumb Piétà, fixed beneath closed eyelids,
Strong vision pledged to seek the unchanging light
Of angels, true above a changing world! [166]

Watkins’s ‘The Age-Changers’ relates a scarcely recognizable, fragmentary descent of grace, for instance through cultural artefacts, to the necessary exhaustion of youthful enquiry’s bid for visionary perception. ‘Light through downcast lids/ Is rising, where one drop of light decides.’ Watkins senses that an awareness of the sacred, light, can be launched by the adoration undertaken by the more elderly, more blind. ‘Mute wonder through the sweet, blind eyes looks out,/ Starts the sun’s memories life forgot.’ [18] In ‘The Song of the Good Samaritan’, Watkins lays out ‘a choice/ Between those visions acclaimed by pride overthrown,/ And the downcast, intimate eyes, the source of the voice.’ [148] The idea is that only baffled eyes, at sea in love, can see through lower dimensions: ‘But that disguise,/ Look up now, softly: break it with your eyes.’ [10] Another early poem notes, ‘Youth is itself infirm/ Until those sightless eyes/ Rarify youth and breath’. [21] Then the memories of illumination can begin to emerge, themselves reminiscent of the ‘transfiguring after-clarity’ of David Jones’s The Anathemata. ‘Doom’s serial writing sprang upon the wall/ Blind with a rush of light.’ [6]

Spiritual Involution

The flash we saw in the distance now becomes for us a shell,
Spun from the loom of waters to its own
Stillness, and inward music: mark it, where it fell. [350]

The springing out of ‘higher dimensions’ is twinned, in Watkins as in Blake, with a hermeneutic pursuit of grace inwards. In Jerusalem Blake recommended ‘O search & see: turn your eyes inward: open O thou World/ Of Love & Harmony in Man: expand thy ever lovely Gates.’ Where Blake projected the gates on to the city streets – ‘I write in South Molton Street, what I both see and hear/ In regions of Humanity, in Londons opening streets’ – Watkins identified them in coastal shells. Internal and external cities, still. ‘The Interval’:

It is that dark source which makes all things new
Scoops out, with changing lights, those fragile shells
Whose voice would perish, did I not pursue
Their inmost labyrinth still, to give the god his due. [277]

The continuation of the sacred voice is aided by the poet’s and the reader’s linguistic process of spiritual involution, a process which, Watkins emphasizes in ‘Swedenborg’s Skull’, leaves intact the ‘vessel of uninterrupted calm’ – just as the visionary’s grave-robbers ‘could not shake or destroy that interior psalm/ Intended for God alone, for his sole Creator.’ Hermeneutic involution becomes a developing, a complexification of the object’s calm.

So I see it today, the inscrutable mask of conception
Arrested in death. Hard, slender and grey, it transcends
The enquiring senses, even as a shell toiling inward,
Caught up from the waters of change by a traveller who bends
His piercing scrutiny, yields but a surface deception,
Still guarding the peace it defends. [247] 

When ‘the spiral dark’ is to be ‘kept, unseen’, ‘one is mute,/ Fearing far more the heresies of speech/ Than watchful waiting.’ [249, 252]

I have discerned a secret
Hid from the arc of day,
Locked in the heart of silence,
Stronger than death, and pure. [354]

The practice of hermeneutic involution distances the muted from politico-academic rhetoric.

Stop, then, and quail beneath their tyrannous eloquence,
All you, save one whose tongue is tense,
Transfigured by God with a message that has no words. [127]

Deeper than Language

‘The London writer is incapable of expressing his meaning, or escaping from it.’ Watkins’s poetic world too is dotted with those transfigured by their supernatural messages in no words. In ‘The Sinner’, ‘she had found Him, sleepless, redeeming time there,/ O deeper than language, in a circle where all was hushed’ [141]. Erinna similarly, in ‘Erinna and the Waters’, ‘sighed to recapture the music no sea could sing’ [249]. In Watkins the visionary’s expression relates to grace and fluidity, circularity: reciprocity. It relates to the senses, just as in Sinclair’s ‘A Few Hundred Yards from the Dwelling of Mr Prynne’, ‘I dip my left hand/ into Cambridge river’:

Now, if I speak, my words can belong to no book
For my fingers mingle the language of water and dove,
Ending, here at the source, the journey they took. [148]
Watkins’s sensual visionary words, which are no words because they ‘can belong to no book’, yet which follow a pilgrim’s ‘journey’ towards language, recall the new philosophy of language produced on the brink of modernism in pre-1914 central Europe. Bourgeois positivist rationalism was undercut then and there by a potent combination of what Paul Mendes-Flohr – in his editor’s introduction to the English translation of Martin Buber’s 1909 anthology of mystical writing, Ecstatic Confessions – calls ‘epistemological skepticism’ and ‘spiritual quest’. The mysticism of Expressionist poetry such as Trakl’s was matched by the mysticism of Fritz Mauthner’s pioneering critique of language. (Like so much of pre-Holocaust central European culture, Mauthner is perhaps now known, if at all, only through the canonical protocols of Benjamin reception: he is mentioned twice in Scholem’s Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. Though Mauthner could be known to Wittgensteinians too). Happily, Mendes-Flohr cites some lines from Gustav Landauer’s précis, in his 1903 Skepsis und Mystik, of Mauthner’s thinking – Landauer had edited Mauthner’s three-volume Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache [Contribution to a Critique of Language (1901-02)]. ‘Language, the intellect, cannot serve to bring the world closer to us, to transform the world in us. As a speechless part of nature, however, man transforms himself into everything, because he is contiguous with everything [“my fingers mingle the language of water and dove”]. Here begins mysticism.’

We can see how such ideas of the insufficiency of our language (which – with Watkins’s poetics – argue both that we are insufficient for language, and that language is insufficient for us), and of language’s supersession by vision inflect Buber’s introduction to Ecstatic Confessions, which holds that language ‘will never enter the realm of ecstasy, which is the realm of unity’.

The voice returned to itself round the sevenfold world
And perched on mystery. [233]

The effort has destroyed a part of the false sense of fullness within us. The divine emptiness, fuller than fullness, has come to inhabit us. [Weil]

In ‘The Death Bell’, Watkins found in Laocoön a personification of the supernatural expressive capacity of those of us who have been exhausted into uncomplaining silence by the insufficiency of our language. This capacity is one to project visionary ecstasy, ‘sublime unrest’ – as a human potentiality – if not to reach its realm through language.

He who, his strength being spent,
Still remained reticent,
Darts his sublime unrest
Into the marvelling breast
Because he did not speak.
Even thus far went the Greek. [212]

Watkins’s lyrics ask us to respect their own ‘reticent forces of rhyme’ [335].

Verse is a part of silence. I have known
Always that declamation is impure. [161]

Light Must Learn a Dying Trade

‘Fisherman’ finds in nature the sublime unrest of visionary fragments:

There are silver fish that flash before day, in the fragile moment of dawn.
I have seen them shiver before my eyes, then vanish before light shone.

These are redemptive fragments of spiritual insight, which interpretation can only gain by grace: ‘O little weights of the mind,/ O little floats to carry me up in a moment none can foretell’. As in ‘Fingernail Sunrise’, spirit-floats are liable to return to the dark; to the involution from which they emerged:

The flash we saw in the distance now becomes for us a shell,
Spun from the loom of waters to its own
Stillness, and inward music: mark it, where it fell. [350]
‘The Salmon’ hence traces visionary knowledge as ‘lost and living’. ‘A moment taken out of time, a flash along a weir,/ The light all men are chasing is lost and living here.’ [427] This poem holds a parable, which suggests that because light is in unpredictable motion, so must interpretation be similarly fugitive. As Sinclair puts it in ‘Walking up Walls’, ‘ATAQUE GRAVE. AS A MUGGER YOU ARE NEVER SAFE. It doesn’t matter who you are, who you think you are, the trick is: never, ever, stay still.’

And waiting for the salmon-flash, to steal immortal life,
An old man crouched beside the pool with net and sharpened knife
Till all his life had ebbed away. He slept and woke in tears,
Knowing he’d missed the little splash that might renew the years. [428]

The argument is that you can be still, but not when static, with sharpened knife. A reader’s harmless stillness enabling the reception of vision, that matches the reticence or silence from which the poet projects sublime unrest, is the grace surrounding a hermeneutic process – what ‘The Turning of the Stars’ calls ‘the love that guards this book’ [161]. In ‘Beckton Alp’ Sinclair wrote of a ‘breathing space’; of how ‘the point of a good view is that it should capture, and give relief from, the journey that led up to it. There are no good views in isolation. No empty frames. Unwalked, uncycled. Unearned. View is always an accident, a breathing space.’ Watkins’s ‘The Debt’ touches on this notion of rewarded process, or relieved struggle; here Watkins proposes a spiritual economy of exhaustion ‘where sacrifices race/ And leave a fuller mind.’

Vision bequeaths a sum
Increased by spending it.
Poor if I first become,
My gain is infinite.

But when did I divine
That what was fugitive,
Like water in a mine,
Alone could make it live? [413]

As ‘Logos’ has it, ‘light must learn a dying trade’ [427].

More next week.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Reading with Vision: On Vernon Watkins

I’ve decided to launch this blog by posting – in four parts – my exegesis of the work of the great Welsh visionary poet and vulnerable adult Vernon Watkins, which I completed back in July 2007. This writing reflected my struggles to come to terms with my unexpected removal from academic employment in 2004, and can now be seen as representing an early statement of my transcendental concerns, and regarding communication and truth (before my discovery of Jaspers and Badiou).

Reading with Vision is previously unpublished, but now downloadable in full here.

Reading with Vision

I think it would be better instead, by frequent note-taking, to let the thoughts emerge with the umbilical cord of the original mood intact and forget as far as possible any concern for their possible use (which I would never realize anyway by looking up my journals) but more as though unburdening myself in a letter to an intimate friend, so gaining on the one hand the possibility of self-knowledge at a later moment, and on the other fluency, the same articulateness in written expression which I have to some extent in speaking, knowledge of many little traits to which I have given no more than a passing glance, and finally, an advantage, […] in that there are ideas which one gets only once in one’s life. Such backstage practice is certainly necessary for anyone not so gifted that his development is in some way a public phenomenon.

Because, you see, what intimation of immortality have we, save our spontaneous wishes? […] Suddenly, God moves afresh in me, a new motion. It is a new desire. So a plant unfolds leaf after leaf, and then buds, till it blossoms. So do we, under the unknown impulse of desires, which arrive in us from the unknown.
-D. H. Lawrence to Catherine Carswell

The word Versuch, attempt or essay, in which thought’s utopian vision of hitting the bullseye is united with the consciousness of its own fallibility and provisional character, indicates, as do most historically surviving terminologies, something about the form, something to be taken all the more seriously in that it takes place not systematically but rather as a characteristic of an intention groping its way.

Visionary Hermeneutics

Everyone provideth objects but few prepare senses whereby, and light wherein, to see them.

Those who have had occasion to move about in Forward Areas recall that it is possible, if disconcerting, to do so in bright full moonlight, provided that the moon is high in the sky.
-David Jones

In his 2002 lecture on Vernon Watkins, ‘Swansea’s Other Poet’, Rowan Williams referred to ‘the phenomenal difficulty of much of the important poetry’. Interpretation – distinct types of readerly attention – hence become unavoidable issues. For Kathleen Raine, Watkins’s poetry escapes what she calls ‘the range of ordinary attention’. Watkins, Raine suggested, falls through today’s literary critical net on account of his work’s abstraction, its metaphysical concerns and qualities. ‘Like white light or distilled water his invisibility to the common kind and degree of attention is an attribute of this poetic purity.’ The special moonlight of Watkins’s poetic means that a ‘transition of attention’ becomes necessary. A reading with rather than a theory-led reading over. Raine wrote of a ‘miraculous shift of focus’ when ‘the attention is caught up and, committing ourselves to the swift yet gentle current, we flow with the verse’. But we must ‘await the miracle’, just as Watkins himself awaits the poetic manifestation:     

I celebrate you, marvellous forms. But first I must cut the wood,
Exactly measure the strings, to make manifest what shall be.
All Earth being weighed by an ear of corn, all heaven by a drop of blood.
How shall I loosen this music to the listening, eavesdropping sea? [185]

Watkins’s writing encourages a sensitive hermeneutic extraction of visionary potential from out of the poetic artefact: ‘Steal, steal from rhyme:/ Take from the glass that shone/ The vintage that remains.’ [360] Such a mode of attention is not mere vision-theft, but a hermeneutic that dynamically – with ‘wit’ – perpetuates vision, or ‘tenacious secrets’ of spiritual knowledges.

So thunders break man; great undertakings fail
In a flash, and broken lie; then only wit
And a rope held, will harness what here was spilt:
Through rock facets tenacious secrets prevail. [379]

When caught up by this aspirational, striving form of attention, the light which shone through the words shines on: ‘I have a net whose cords/ Gather the fallen day’ [380]. Such a netting indeed recalls the reciprocal process of ‘visionary hermeneutics’ which Gerda Norvig, discussing Blake’s illustrational response to Bunyan in her Dark Figures in the Desired Country, argued to occupy a ‘cornerstone position in the structure of Blake’s larger artistic programme’. Blake saw something akin to his own hermeneutic mode being practiced by Bunyan himself, Norvig understood; ‘I hoped to show how Blake’s dynamic concept of the imagination […] allowed him to perceive a cognate vision operating in Bunyan’s Progress’. Seeing her own reading itself developing the visionary mirror-work, a serial harnessing of personal secrets, she found herself ‘explaining Blake’s focus on Bunyan’s fable as an expression of how consciousness transforms itself from within by vision, producing its own signifiers and images of transformation to mark the way’. Seizing the opportunity to perpetuate a path of vision in this way – and rather than reading Blake’s interpretative mode ‘through the veil of a basically monotheistic [Jungian] depth psychology’ – Norvig’s study consciously ‘tried to practice a form of visionary Blakean hermeneutic, and open my own criticism to the imaginative process of “striving with systems to deliver individuals [and their works] from systems”’.

Norvig invokes the famous anti-system Blake so as to advance the visionary hermeneutic with which she seeks to free herself from the standard, oppressively subsumptive – ‘read things through’ – methodologies of today’s academic literary criticism. In his book on The Fall, Mick Middles invoked the equally famous, personal system Blake when describing Blake’s re-birth of a visionary imagination – ‘religious awakening’ – so as to align it with that sought, in music, by Mark E. Smith, with The Fall. ‘What is particularly interesting here is that Blake deliberately side-stepped the aesthetic trappings of any distinctive organized faith, be it Catholic or Anglican, and pursued a religious awakening all of his own. His famous words, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s” certainly resonate through the centuries. As Mark told Melody Maker: “He [Blake] was a real workhorse for his time. I thought he was great, especially what he did and how he managed to do it for that period of history.”’

Hideous Noise Group Write ‘St’ Pope Biog. Ohio, Sweden: A group has written a character portrayal of a Pope J.P. One – rumoured to become a ‘SAINT’ which will be presented at the ‘Riverside Studios’ near some river where ‘Rule Britannia’ was written. The Vatican commented “We have been waiting for a sign for 7 years”. “It’s nonsense” claimed their manager from a St John’s Wood face lift surgery. [Fall, programme for Hey! Luciani, 1986]

Williams suggests that ‘in assessing Watkins’s intellectual and imaginative legacy, it is perhaps proper to relate what matters most in his thematic and rhetorical repertoire to the pervasiveness of the Christian myth in his work’. For ‘both the myth or doctrine itself and the practice of poetry may be illuminated surprisingly by being drawn into conversation in this way’. Gwen Watkins stated that her husband’s ‘Christianity was the centre of his life, and he wrote only to praise and affirm that belief’. This poetic stance entailed the poet’s subjection to the status of medium of vision.

I would be flute to that sweet air:
How blasphemous it were
To print her music otherwise
Than in her own true skies. [429]

A visionary reciprocity is built up: the poet’s, or reader’s, response to vision emerges out of the vision herself, and is developmental. This is the case with The Fall too, as Smith pointed out: ‘I know what The Fall is and I don’t think there is much you can do to explain it, which is why a lot that is written about us is just crap. Because there’s nothing you can actually say about it really, without it being there […] It just goes on and on.’ Nelson Bentley’s poetic narrative ‘In Memory of Vernon Watkins’ stressed the developmental effect of Watkins’s own acts of visionary hermeneutics on those who respond: ‘You read your “Yeats in Dublin” with such vision/ The students looked like the angelic host.’ Less angelic, but similarly translated by vision, are the Fall students recounted by Smith. ‘The kind of people who read Sounds, generally speaking, were more your ordinary, everyday people who were also a bit odd. Like those guys from Wakefield jail…from all over. I knew that if The Fall could connect with them they would be there for life. It would mean something a bit more special, rather than some passing fancy for Parsons and Fucking Burchill.’ Middles ascribes the visionary ‘uniqueness’ of Fall-activity not just to Smith himself, but also to the translation of vision that occurs as ‘the maverick spirit fans out through those on the fringe of band membership, onwards and outwards, through the ungainly blend of Fall fans’. This is a description of the capacity of visionary work to instigate spiritual renovation, a sort of re-birthing translation like that posited by Watkins in ‘The Many-Peopled Night’. ‘So packed a score must be undone/ To make the morning sky.’ Here the hermeneutic lyric sound of an ‘athletic body’ translates, mediumizes, an obscure sacred language of nature and nocturnal sexuality; the Gower coast as Psykick Dance Hall.

Its fingered notes translate the word
The many-peopled night has known,
Low on the breathing waters heard
And locked in every stone. [430]

Iain Sinclair recalled his visit to Watkins’s home on the Gower coast in his 2001 novel Landor’s Tower. In a prose piece from 2006, ‘Coming to the Crossroads’, Sinclair speculatively pinpointed ‘the myth of the founding of the city’ of London: ‘a head, its eyes eternally open, watching the river’. This image of a perpetual vision of nature, breathing waters, then suggests the process of visionary reciprocity: two heads, two forms of perception, two spiritual intelligences. A reminiscence of Blake’s sketched heads of visionary heroes, or of the Brontës caught pacing around the Haworth parlour table. ‘The preacher, the man in black, has a board hung from his neck: a portrait. My face stolen from the tube and transmitted, a grinning skull. This story – our city – is all about heads. The man walks, a penitent, round and round the room, and my face, shifting, rolling, walks with him. […] His mad eyes shine.’ Sinclair goes on to see the reciprocity recapitulated in Swedenborg’s relation, as a ‘talkative skull’, to his ‘spirits’. ‘He saw what they saw; he saw through their eyes.’

Perhaps the brightest commentary on Sinclair’s practice, in my opinion, is Kathy Acker’s confessional essay, ‘Writing as Magic in London in Its Summer’ – a report on an extended discussion with Sinclair. Acker writes: ‘This is the usual announcement of the visionary. To dream is to see. To see is to make, to bring into being. I can write only by reading and listening, says the visionary, for one makes only when one is made. Thus the angels Blake saw.’ It was in surrender to the process of visionary reciprocity that he made the angels. In Jerusalem Blake wrote of ‘Time & Space/ Which vary, according as the Organs of Perception vary’. And the complementary knowledge that one makes, and sees only when one is made, when one is translated, is also available in Watkins’s poem ‘The Pulse and the Shade’, which mocks – oh so gently – at those harsh academic ‘inscriptions cut with files/ That have no meaning for translated eyes.’ Democratically, the accent is on the perceiver’s own personal perception, which though watery is spirit’s hermeneutic ground. ‘The Shade himself, since he must act as host,/ Rewrites those words that use him like a ghost.’ [432] Sinclair too suggests that enthralled translation, translation in thrall, can never fully grasp the word, though such visionary hermeneutics is the surest route to language that we have. ‘The episode that is and was Emanuel Swedenborg will never be concluded, not here, not until the word, whose ghost he is, has been spoken. Now and forever. The London writer is incapable of expressing his meaning, or escaping from it.’

Re-enact for Cherubim

In the poem ‘Rebirth’, Watkins identified understanding, hermeneutics – ‘perception’ – to be grounded in a ‘remaking’: a re-energizing of the remnants of the visionary imagination.

Just as the will to power
From youth exhausted spins
To earth, it sees a flower
Rooted in ruins.
From that remaking hour
Perception begins. [365]

For Watkins, as Leslie Norris noted, ‘true poetic knowledge […] is equivalent to the soul’s rebirth. This is what inspiration means.’ Norvig too, reading Blake, seeks ‘an appreciation of how the psychopoetics operating in his oeuvre teaches the language required to perceive, understand, honour, and indeed resurrect that which he figures as “the eternal body” of imagination lying dormant within reader and text, spectator and image’. In ‘A Vision of The Last Judgment’, Blake wrote:

The Nature of Visionary Fancy or Imagination is very little Known & the Eternal nature & permanence of its ever Existent Images is considered as less permanent than the things of Vegetative & Generative Nature yet the Oak dies as well as the Lettuce but its Eternal Image & Individuality never dies. but renews by its seed. just so the Imaginative Image returns by the seed of Contemplative Thought.

Blake’s ‘eternal body’ is the ‘living truth’ to which Watkins refers in ‘I, Centurion’:

I, centurion out of time,
Re-enact for Cherubim
The living truth which makes them wise
Forever present to my eyes.

Yet of course the visionary human’s ‘will to power’ is easily ‘exhausted’, and truth for us is not eternal – not always immediate – like the angels’ truth. ‘Their wisdom is direct, but ours/ Emerges from a stress of powers.’ [264] There is the element of passivity, noticed within Acker’s crucial definition of visionary hermeneutics: ‘one makes only when one is made’. Raine, we remember, noted in connection with Watkins’s writing the receptive, attentive stance necessary for the moment of readerly visionary arrest. ‘Reading his work I no longer seek to apply the relatively crude instruments of Practical Criticism or Seven Types of Ambiguity, but await the miracle.’ Anyone’s genuinely visionary hermeneutic works in opposition to the violence within literary-critical rationality. Visionary hermeneutics works contrary to both the grasping seizure of language by the career-building academic ego, and the subsumptive processing of language through pre-set methodologies. A good illustration of both mistakes is my reading of Vahni Capildeo’s first book – an essay online in Jacket 26 [here]. Whereas, immersive-devotional, religious and responsive rather than secular and exploitative, a visionary hermeneut’s stormy ‘stress of powers’ has the goal of failure and exhaustion; because it has the goal of valuing, celebrating and releasing precisely the spiritual life within language which is to remain obscure. In Watkins’s ‘Buried Light’:

What are the light and wind to me?
The lamp I love is gone to ground.
Come, buried light, and honour time
With your dear gift, your constancy,
That the known world be made sublime
Through visions that closed eyelids see.

Come, breath, instruct this angry wind
To listen here where men have prayed,
That the bold landscape of the mind
Fly nobler from its wrist of shade. [260]

More next week.