Monday, 5 December 2011

Reading with Vision, part 4

& here is the fourth, final part of my 2007 commentary on Vernon Watkins' poetry.

A Pioneer’s Log

‘The Bloodhound’, which is probably Watkins’s major extended poetic statement on the subject of visionary hermeneutics, identifies a slow resolution of readerly understanding with a process of self-abnegatory pilgrimage – a walk of penitence. The sacred cognitive hunt is necessarily impeded:

Delay may reward me, even evasion
Bring me at last to truth, to the martyr’s posture,
By many paths to a tree transfixed by nails,
Or on to a field of remorse, to a fallen bough,
To footprints under the bridge, and a folded vesture. [391]

The interpreter’s disparate paths of faith are marked by an abdication of self-righteousness; their flighty, mad relentlessness matched by divine relief.

Unresting I follow the trail, a lugubrious attorney
To joy’s keeper, the sleepless giver of rest,
Great judge of the unforgiving. To find his word
An exuberant calm lends meaning to every journey. [392]

‘The Bloodhound’ hints that so long as a record is made, even the most indirect interpretative process can remain guided by a sort of investigative magnetism, or turn out ‘true to [divine] judgment’:

However devious the path through inconstant water,
I keep the log: my account of the trail I render,
Bringing to light what ferns or the scrub had hidden,
Had I gone the direct way. But, as filings quiver,
I turn, as needle to star, with insistent feet. [391]

Watkins’s poetic likening of visionary hermeneutics to the collation of a log-book of quivering filings – shifting sands that nonetheless are providentially ordered – is borne out by some statements of Dora Polk’s in the introduction to her Vernon Watkins and the Spring of Vision. Polk points out that, though published eventually in 1977, her academic study was written between 1967 and 1970, when Watkins studies was (already) no industry. This was why ‘I had to win access to Watkins’s work by the fumbling methods of the explorer who lacks maps or accounts to help him, and must rely principally on his own ingenuity and the tools he carries on his back. And, to continue the metaphor, my findings are recorded rather in the manner of a pioneer’s log – a tentative account of the personal process of discovery of Watkins’s vision’. Polk’s work on Watkins was a vocation, if one long delayed by her need to earn a living. It was a genuine personal spiritual exploration: she writes of becoming ‘the beneficiary of Watkins’s vision, which, after all, is what the study of poetry is all about’. A reader’s visionary hermeneutic is thus, Polk lets us see, part of an ongoing, developing process of spiritual re-birth; her log-book anti-method is in keeping with the shifting ‘flux of debate’ surrounding the poetry, and ‘the cumulative nature of literary criticism’. A reader’s visionary log-book also perpetuates what Norvig calls the poet’s own ‘dynamic concept of the imagination’.

Such magical transformations can emerge out of the social marginality of visionary poetry, for instance out of its resistance to the self-promotional procedures of academic career-building. Watkins studies, for instance, is no career option within today’s entirely secularized English departments. But the spiritual aptitudes, ‘the tools’, required for genuinely vocational study, can often be more fine, quiet, deep-grained and personal, than those required for developing a successful CV.

Notebook method: the method of the ‘failed’/private/underground (upper-)middle-class repressed/suppressed outsider. Benjamin (Arcades), Kierkegaard, Kafka-diaries, Weil. Compare Stephanie Strickland on the way Weil’s family constricted her - & hence the relevance of her work to the women’s, and men’s, issues of ‘hunger, violence, exclusion, betrayal of the body, inability to be heard, and self-hate’. Unpublished remains. ‘Unpublishable’: Kierkegaard, ‘backstage practice’. Exiled from life: ‘can’t find a way in’, a way of expressing one’s gifts in the real world (versus MES: working-class popstar). Cf too Newton, in Tristram Hunt’s film: research as sacred, private knowledges.

The reason why others my age aren’t wanting to write (eg diary/documentary essay form) like their adolescent literary heroes (for me, Kafka’s diaries, & D H Lawrence impulse-reproduction; for IS, massive influence of Beats on his London journalistic writing mode), is that younger literary academics simply weren’t formed by literature – they didn’t read it as teenagers (one ex-colleague only reading NME, another reading nothing even as a student). Hence why should they rebel against the subsumption of literature by (cultural theoretical) concepts? And today’s ‘novelists’/ ’poets’ never read fiction or poetry as kids either. At least I was reading DHL, Ginsberg, Blake – as well as being groomed for professional specialization in academic lit. crit. by Leavisite/ pre-Oxbridge school essay lit. crit. Never forming a personal relationship with the writing in this way – explains the widespread incomprehension of IS’s work amongst literary critics now (cf Alex M.: ‘field of contemporary literary studies has found the task of analyzing Sinclair’s writing problematic’, in City Visions). [Traherne: ‘It acts not from a centre to/ Its object as remote,/ But present is when it doth view,/ Being with the being it doth note.’] Post-Brass Prynne is popular (!), more approachable (!) and written about precisely because his sheer modernist textual games prevent attachment, there is little recognizable human presence there to feel implicated with: or the residual sense of a spectral personality behind the writing is effectively ironized out of existence by its submersion within his surrounding range of depersonalizing modernist (textual/poetic) strategies [Ian Hunt, praising JHP’s lacuna mode to Catling in Parataxis, takes this as a virtue]. This so even with the ‘uh Pandora’ comic-erotic interfusions in Triodes.

Sean Bonney on hearing of my notes on Radon Daughters: ‘You should just publish the notebook.’

My private moon voyages [Lud] into Kafka’s diaries, age c.15 – a bid for the sacred which had been pushed – by my entirely secular daily routine – into 3AM nightspace. (Alongside hearing the pirate radio broadcasts). And which then disqualified me, since exhausted, from participating effectively in the worldly educational community the next day. Alienation, and misery – estranged as John Lydon in the King’s Road [on The Filth and the Fury], provoked by the absence of a sacred element to view everyday capitalist life as just a rat-race – stumbling bleary-eyed across Blackfriars Bridge. Fighting against the commuter crowd, like Karen Armstrong c.17 on ‘release’ from her convent, & like me still (yesterday at Moorgate station). Urban Panic Attack. And, from then on in, study as a refuge from the secular world. Immersion. Which, of course, the university didn’t actually turn out to be. [Bond, Workshy journal]            

Insofar as the anti-methodical processes of visionary hermeneutics generate the form of a pioneer’s log-book, which records the pilgrim-path of insight as it passes through shifting cognitive sands – ‘and then it is footpad, footpad, nose to the ground,/ Ear and eye to the trail’ – they also recall the essay form as described (and promoted) by Theodor Adorno. Both types of writing rely on self-abdication and faith: Watkins’s log-keeping bloodhound is ‘trusting the scent to discover my destination’ [391], whilst for Adorno ‘the word Versuch, attempt or essay’ recalls ‘an intention groping its way’. But a loss of self-righteousness and subsumptive processing does not rule out intelligence or self-consciousness: ‘the slight elasticity of the essayist’s train of thought forces him to greater intensity than discursive thought, because the essay does not proceed blindly and automatically, as the latter does, but must reflect on itself at every moment.’

The trail’s elasticity is only ‘slight’, because of the unresolved tension between stasis and dynamism – for example, between fixed and unfixed cognition, or between a neat commensurability of concepts to the object and the lack of such – which characterizes the essay form. Adorno wrote of the essay’s privileging of the incommensurate, of how it is ‘concerned with what is blind in its objects. It wants to use concepts to pry open the aspect of its objects that cannot be accommodated by concepts, the aspect that reveals, through the contradictions in which concepts become entangled, that the net of their objectivity is a merely subjective arrangement. It wants to polarize the opaque element and release the latent forces in it.’ Sinclair’s ‘Before I Left the Rue Grimoire’ ironically comments on our fear of this ambition.

light darts from out there not so very far
strikes the inner sea we hope
precise equivalent soundless & scaled down

This sort of reception of light – of truth, of the meaning of an object – represents the contrary of how a visionary hermeneutic aims to receive light. In a way, visionary hermeneutics hopes to read an illuminated poem imprecisely, so as to liberate its incommensurability – its miraculous, formless and transforming, shifty aspects – and release, not some ‘soundless & scaled down’ echo, but one (to return to ‘Beckton Alp’) ‘raw and absolute and unappeased’.

Sinclair’s thinking about pedagogy, and about visionary experience – when that thinking is filtered through the diary form of his 1971 book The Kodak Mantra Diaries – again suggests an emphasis on the release of incommensurability. These diaries relay a dialogue between Paul Goodman and Sinclair in which Goodman accuses Ginsberg, his poetry, of a lack of ‘religious depth’:

He has no theological feeling at all. He doesn’t know what real faith is. He understands on the other hand that religion is the crucial thing. He knows this in some deep way and so he picks up some eclectic eastern stuff which he understands in an external pedantic way – but with no feeling of faith, miracle, communion, sacrament, all the things which make for religious life in a way that I would conceive it. He cops-out into notions of union, ecstasy etc etc – which are all sentiments. They’re very nice sentiments but they are merely aesthetic and have nothing to do with the springs, in terms of which heaven and hell are determined, or in terms of which the Messiah will come.

Goodman’s view of Christianity, vaunting ‘the springs’ – deep structures, whether practical (such as Communion), or conceptual (such as the terms in terms of which heaven and hell are determined) – over mystical emotional effects, recalls Watkins’s poetics: much of Watkins’s poetry is reducing itself to a thematic demonstration of Christian conceptual structures, for instance, such as the generation of resurrection from suffering or a pain/life dialectic. Sinclair, however, responds to the accusation of a lack of formal Christian ‘religious depth’ with the question: ‘Is that a bad thing?’. Sinclair seems to be hinting here at an interest in how miracle or sacrament can be an incommensurable, everyday, more superficial phenomenon, one not reliant on being determined by deep structures – whether practical structures of organized religion such as the liturgy, or pre-set, rigid conceptual structures. In ‘The Return of Spring’ Watkins wrote of how ‘what first I feared as a rite I love as a sacrament.’ [117] Rather as Adorno saw the essay seeking to release ‘what is blind’ in its material, in The Kodak Mantra Diaries we can see Sinclair seeking out the opaque element in our religious experience, and in pedagogy:

Can’t you throw out the old pupil / teacher relationship anyway, and approach any subject mutually, both looking for insights, get rid of the formal structure?

We could think towards a religious-exploratory experience which is more free-form – one which is fluid, provisional, shifting, as if transformed by kick-starts of cognitive shocks. Moments of incommensurability, crystallized by visionary perception, re-organize the trail itself, as we pass through them.

Arrested Glory

In this wild eve’s thunder-rain, at the batement of it, the night-shades now much more come on: when’s the cool, even, after-light. [David Jones]

Perhaps writing itself is not only kick-started by perception, but is also enabled precisely by its collapse, when it is going too fast: when a translation has occurred. In ‘The Childhood of Hölderlin’, Watkins identified the intensity of Hölderlin’s poetry to be grounded in the extreme reciprocity between his visionary perception and the natural vision herself: when the poet has become her medium.

[…] The courses of rivers
Remained a compelling mystery; yet when he wrote
Of these, he no longer watched, he became the river.
So swift his thought, so close to the life he saw,
He knew the rose as the rose is known to herself,
Fell with the cataract’s fall, or became that eagle
Of piercing sight, or learnt the time of the fig-tree,
Not by time, but by breast-feather and leaf. [309]

‘The Cave-Drawing’ reveals Watkins’s view that the artist’s visionary understanding, learning, hermeneutic can be not only as speedy as its object, but also as fugitive and fortuitous. A ‘luck’ enables a singing of the light; so that precisely an arrested ‘mine/ Of mineral wonder’, a frozen crystallization, re-energizes art.

For us he made light sing in the dark of his line,
Arrested motion, all animals pierced and crystalline:
He, he alone had found it, his look trained down
By luck their lightning emergence. This was his mine
Of mineral wonder, making the skilled hand run,
A hunter, spearlike, outspeeding all ages begun,
At which we marvel. [149]

The arrest or training-down performed by visionary hermeneutics involves an act of celebration and compression, which is also an act of eternalization, as the resulting obscure crystal is rescued from time. In ‘Taliesin in Gower’:

Rhinoceros, bear and reindeer haunt the crawling glaciers of age
Beheld in the eye of the rock, where a javelin’d arm held stiff,
Withdrawn from the vision of flying colours, reveals, like script on a page,
The unpassing moment’s arrested glory, a life locked fast in the cliff. [185]

‘A life locked fast’: there is the emphasis on the crystallization of an organic unity, as in Jerusalem when Blake remarks that ‘he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole/ Must see it in its Minute Particulars; Organized’. Sinclair has spoken of the ‘brief glyph-notes’ from which the prose sections of his Lud Heat evolved; to Acker he commented: ‘for a long time you must train yourself to write in ways that are fast and accurate. You test yourself to see if you can make mental notes that mean something, represent something.’ The goal of crystallizing definition is really simplicity: ‘none so intellectual/ As the simplest truth of all.’ [401] Smith told Middles: ‘My problem’s knowing when to shut up on a song. I can’t put that bleeding pen down, so I hone it, try to get it as simple as possible. That is something I have learned over the years. I know how to edit.’ Academic practice – the administrative-bureaucratic method of cognition – can instead necessitate purposeless complexification, in line with a melancholy Puritan work ethic. Jerusalem foretold the reign of false activity:

And in their stead. intricate wheels invented. wheel without wheel:
To perplex youth in their outgoings, & to bind to labours in Albion
Of day & night the myriads of eternity that they may grind
And polish brass & iron hour after hour laborious task!
Kept ignorant of its use, that they might spend the days of wisdom
In sorrowful drudgery, to obtain a scanty pittance of bread:
In ignorance to view a small portion & think that All,
And call it Demonstration: blind to all the simple rules of life.

‘The Childhood of Hölderlin’ proposes, ‘What might the gift not bring to their holy light/ Who ask love only?’ [309]. Similarly, Kierkegaard’s distrust of his day’s professional and quasi-professional hermeneutics – ‘Christendom has got itself stuck in cleverness’ – made him see how ‘someone more than its match in cleverness’ could continue to work for wisdom: with an aim to ‘restore simplicity’. ‘The world has become just far too clever. The person who is to work effectively for the religious must get behind them – else he won’t be of much use.’

Nine years before, in 1839, Kierkegaard’s notes had drawn attention to the celebratory, even redemptive function of a backstage practice of crystallizing simplification. ‘All poetry is life’s glorification [Forklarelse] (i.e. transfiguration) through its clarification [Forklarelse] (through being clarified, illuminated, “unfolded”, etc.). It is really remarkable that language has this ambiguity.’ The perception held by Kierkegaard’s ‘poetry’ aims at the visionary register of Watkins’s ‘arrested glory’, or the radically strange, post-real ‘transfiguring after-clarity’ of The Anathemata, when life ‘looms up curiously exact and clear, more real by half than in the busy light as noses everywhere at stare-faced noon – more real…but more of Faëry by a long chalk’. This moonlit visionary perception or hermeneutic recalls the radically passive, detached attention proposed and practiced by Weil, which Finch likened to ‘”description”’, ‘when this word has lost all of its overtones of complete logical mapping. We are looking not for exactness but for description so detached, so penetrating, so obvious that it has the character of revelation.’ This ‘kind of seeing in which the ordinary becomes translucent’, is suggestive of the revelatory ‘holy light’ of ‘The Childhood of Hölderlin’.

What might the gift not bring to their holy light
Who ask love only? Sacrifice willed by the heavenly ones
Raises our god-pierced eyes. Our selves are nothing;
That which we seek is all. [309]

The lights over the ‘world-flats’ hover uncertainly, by fits & starts, ‘Wills-of-wisp’ so to say, anyway, thats the idea, - uncertainly & only now and again. Is that O.K.? [Jones to Watkins, 26 June 1960]   


Parenthetical numbering in this exposé relates to The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 2000). Other, source, texts:

Acker, Kathy, ‘Writing as Magic in London in Its Summer’ (1997)

Adams, Sam and Gwilym Rees Hughes, eds, Triskel Two: Essays on Welsh and Anglo-Welsh Literature (Llandybie: Davies, 1973)

Adorno, Theodor W., Notes to Literature: Volume One, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991)

Allen, Diogenes, Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006)

Blake, William, Complete Writings, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford: OUP, 1972)
______.Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, ed. by Morton D. Paley (London: Tate Gallery, 1998)

Bond, Robert, ‘More than Museums: No Traveller Returns, by Vahni Capildeo’, Jacket, 26 (October 2004), here
______. Iain Sinclair (Cambridge: Salt, 2005)

Boulton, James T., ed., The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence (Cambridge: CUP, 1997)

Buber, Martin, Ecstatic Confessions: The Heart of Mysticism, ed. by Paul Mendes-Flohr (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985)

Finch, Henry Leroy, Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace, ed. by Martin Andic (New York: Continuum, 1999)

Ford, Simon, Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith and The Fall (London: Quartet, 2003)

Jones, David, The Anathemata: Fragments of an Attempted Writing (London: Faber and Faber, 1952)
______. Letters to Vernon Watkins, ed. by Ruth Pryor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1976)

Kierkegaard, Søren, Papers and Journals: A Selection, trans. by Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 1996)

McLellan, David, Simone Weil: Utopian Pessimist (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989)

Middles, Mick & Mark E. Smith, The Fall (London: Omnibus, 2003)

Norris, Leslie, ed., Vernon Watkins: 1906-1967 (London: Faber and Faber, 1970)

Norvig, Gerda S., Dark Figures in the Desired Country: Blake’s Illustrations to The Pilgrim’s Progress (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993)

Polk, Dora, Vernon Watkins and the Spring of Vision (Swansea: Davies, 1977)
Scholem, Gershom, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: New York Review Books, 2003)

Sinclair, Iain, Lud Heat/ Suicide Bridge (London: Vintage, 1995)
______. Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (London: Granta Books, 1997)
______. Landor’s Tower: or The Imaginary Conversations (London: Granta Books, 2001)
______. and Emma Matthews, White Goods (Uppingham: Goldmark, 2002)
______. The Firewall: Selected Poems 1979-2006 (Buckfastleigh: Etruscan Books, 2006)
______. The Kodak Mantra Diaries: October 1966 to June 1971, Beat Scene special issue, December 2006 [orig. publ. London: Albion Village Press, 1971]

Thomas, Dylan, Collected Poems: 1934-1953, ed. by Walford Davies and Ralph Maud (London: Phoenix, 2000)

Traherne, Thomas, Selected Writings, ed. by Dick Davis (Manchester: Carcanet, 1988)

Weil, Simone, Gravity and Grace, trans. by Emma Craufurd (London: Routledge, 1997)

Williams, Rowan, ‘Swansea’s Other Poet: Vernon Watkins and the Threshold between Worlds’, Welsh Writing in English, 8 (2003), 107-20


The Fall, Psykick Dance Hall (Eagle Records, 2000)
______. The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004 (Sanctuary Records, 2005) 
______. Reformation Post TLC (Slogan Records, 2007)

Next post: Karl Jaspers

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