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Reading with Vision is previously unpublished, but now downloadable in full here.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

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