March 24, 2017

Hell 4. Hiroshima - the 4th degree of separation

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָֽרֶץ (Genesis Ii)

Energy exploding from critical mass,
Stasis to kinesis, Noun into Verb,
What God never finished has come to pass.

A chain reaction until All is past
Into fissions whose Noun forever reverbs,
Energy exploding from critical mass.

Atomised, fission-fused corporate Mass, 
The core Fascist State, removed by its Verb: 
What God never finished has come to pass.

Antithesis, thesis, synthesis, gas.
The Sun of its nuclear parts disturbed, 
Energy exploding from critical mass.

Jericho’s heart ignites – mushrooms- shocks - blasts -
Fire-balls – consummates - Death-dusts - its suburbs:  
What God never finished has come to pass.

The End of Beginning, the First that Lasts,
In dust-settled walls scorching these Proverbs:
‘Energy exploding from critical mass;
What God never finished has come to pass.’

Modern 'A' level English students are trained to read in terms of 5 assessment objectives (reprinted at end of this post).  As a former examiner for A level English, grading hundreds and hundreds of papers every year, I got used to reading in this flexible way and it certainly prevents students from two common faults -

1. reading only for text (the I A Richards position - 'practical criticism' which was a necessary corrective when texts were studied as if they were merely versions of the writer's biography or a document of his/her society.  Practical criticism alone tends to undervalue texts which aren't 'art for art's sake' or  'modernist' and whose complexity comes from the way they engage with the worlds they were written for and read in, like Victorian poetry and 

2. reading only for context (a reading that can avoid the text isn't really literary at all, it's history or sociology or psychology or politics or whatever.)

My poem (from my 2016 volume "6 Degrees of Separation; 7 Degrees of Love") above would hardly communicate itself at all if only read for A02 (text) or A03 (context.) It also depends on the reader making connections (A04). 

Critical theory is right to insist that without a reader there is no literature anyway. But it sometimes seems to forget that without a text there's no reader either. Literary texts worthy of the name work at a level that the writer is not fully conscious of and, in Eliot's words, 'communicate before they are properly understood.' What I think I am saying in a text is not necessarily what 'it' is saying - to you or to other readers. (This is where notions of 'inspiration' and the Muse - or we might say the unconscious - come in.) 'Trust the tale not the teller' as Lawrence said. 

My text is a formal villanelle, a lyric poem from the early renaissance, closely connected to rural dance. (Or at any rate an idyllic court version of that peasant pastoral.) So literary context is immediately part of what is said - text and (literary) context combined. I have chosen to describe the ultimate postmodern deconstructive experience - an atom bomb falling on Hiroshima - in the form of an 'innocent' pastoral. The repetition is not the gambol of merry peasant feet but the relentlessness of destruction. The bright dawn of the West haunts its nightmare end. 

The poem is from a series of worsening hells - this one follows Auschwitz - which end in stone; the utter absence of consciousness, not just of others but of our own. The literary context here is Dante's Inferno, of which this is a modern take. Without Dante, the perspective of a deepening hell (and whether there will be a purgatory and heaven beyond) would be lost or at least much reduced. 

The prefix is Hebrew and is the first line of the Bible, which can be translated as 'When God began to create the heavens and the earth' rather than the finished act of the Authorized Version. This Biblical context is revisited throughout in one of the refrain lines. The identifying of the refrain lines as 'Proverbs' near the end repeats this Biblical context - we speak of 'Biblical' rain as a kind of return to an ancient sense of a world at the mercy of God (or for the Ancient Greeks, the gods) and the still reverberating shock of the atom bomb is a reminder of the planet as a place of potential apocalypse.

The poem would mean little without the context of nuclear science, whose language it borrows throughout, and nothing to a reader who did not know about the Hiroshima bomb and the Second World War. More urgently, what your relationship is with both these events is crucial - a Japanese reader might read the Churchillian echo 'The End of Beginning' very differently from the Allied soldier who has witnessed the living hell behind the gates of Auschwitz and seen what a Fascist State was capable of, or endured the atrocities of a Japanese prisoner of war camp - and who because of such horrors believes the bomb was a necessary evil to end the war.  "Atomised, fission-fused corporate Mass, The core Fascist State, removed by its Verb" is a description both of the science of the atomic/nuclear bomb and also of the dreadful warping of Nature required to eliminate the Fascist State. 'Jericho' places Hiroshima in a Biblical universe, a Western moral frame. The power of God destroyed Jericho, which claims God for one side. An Indian Anglophile I once spoke to in India assured me that America had incurred a dreadful karmic debt which Japan would repay them at some time in the future. This is a reminder that not everyone 'reads' history or the Second World War (or texts) in the same way.

I'm not a scientist (except if a degree that included a fair amount of linguistics counts as science) but I borrow the language of science throughout. It also borrows the formula of dialectical philosophy but the antithesis -  deconstruction - deviantly comes first, as this is in effect the 'thesis').  The scientific/formulaic language gives the poem a kind of (horrified) objectivity.

If you restrict your reading to text (even if that includes all the purely literary contexts) you will come away with a kind of incantatory poem, a ferocious celebration of the ("Biblical') power of that (atomic atrocity/ necessary evil - the reader's choice) without a moral position. It may even enter the world of the the bomber to the extent of sharing his violent act.  It is a rustic villanelle dance gone mad. A linguistic analysis of a world where what ought to be a noun becomes a verb which is frightening or thrilling, though ultimately only in the poetry laboratory.

If you read only for context, you will come away with a 'isn't war horrid' Munchian scream, a version of the teenage protest poem expressing hopeless horror that doesn't shock the reader into anything more than 'Yes, I knew that. War is bad. Killing people is wrong.' 

Together, something more dynamic hopefully occurs. You feel the power, you note the rationale for the act, you are shocked at feeling the mad power the bomber felt, the playing God.  And the implicit comparison (A04) with the innocent pastoral of the villanelle (albeit an idealised world) is vital, with the 'still quiet voice of humanity' sounding all too still and quiet, but sounding its protest all the more poignantly for that.

That's what the poem 'means' to me at least. Did 'I' the writer know I meant all that when I wrote it? No. But something in me did. I crafted it in a state of furious absorption until I knew it was right, carefully devising the incantations and arranging for the refrains to work semantically as well as musically. And fascinated by the scary science 'I' was 'sculpting' into poetry. 

I didn't record it until I knew it by heart and this also changed, informed and charged my own relationship with it: I understood and felt it more, as anyone who learns a poem by heart will. So the recording dramatises my own experience of it as a reader, another context.

  • AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression.
  • AO2: Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.
  • AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
  • AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.
  • AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.


Lynne said...

I listened first, Gareth, to your sound cloud reading of this powerful and at the same time enigmatic (to me!) poem. I was further fascinated to find and read your blog post here, which explained much and posed further unanswered questioned. Both poem and post deserve -and will have - further exploration. Thank you!

Gabriella Tal said...

Really good. I especially like the refrains. Devastating but it’s fine poetry and good research material for what we’re working on. Excellent reading.